strange behaviors

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  • Richard Conniff writes about behavior, in humans and other animals, on two, four, six, and eight legs, plus the occasional slither.

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Posts Tagged ‘pollution’

In Beijing and Washington, A Breath of Foul Air

Posted by Richard Conniff on January 21, 2017

Airport ad for a way to breathe in Beijing. (Photo: Richard Conniff)

Airport ad for a way to breathe in Beijing. (Photo: Richard Conniff)

by Richard Conniff/The New York Times

When friends cautioned me about Beijing’s notorious air pollution recently, ahead of my first visit there, I brushed it off. It was an old story, and having grown up in northern New Jersey in the era of unregulated industrial air pollution and open garbage burning on the Meadowlands, I figured I could handle it. But I began to have second thoughts on the flight in from the north, when we crossed a mountain ridge and the clear air turned instantly to dense smog. It was still 20 minutes to touchdown.

After a day or two in the city, I felt as if I had taken up cigarettes. Same burned-out feeling at the back of the throat, with bits of airborne grit catching on the epiglottis. Same clearing of the throat by soft coughing. It got worse over the weekend, when regulations limiting cars on the road don’t apply. Coming back into the city on a Sunday afternoon was like a slow apocalypse. The air was a filthy brownish gray, and pedestrians, many of them wearing white face masks, walked hunched over as if through a rainstorm. Buildings emerged ghostlike from the haze a half-mile ahead and vanished again behind.

But I was a novice. It turned out that this was a relatively normal winter day for Beijing, with the air quality index at just 269. That’s rated “very unhealthy” by the World Health Organization, and many times worse than the maximum safe exposure level, but nowhere near those headline-making, sky-darkening days when the Beijing index has topped 700.

Back in New Jersey, the air quality index was generally under 50, and it reminded me how lucky we are to have relatively strong laws and regulations to protect our air. These are the same protections that President Donald J. Trump loudly promised during his campaign to undo on his first day in office. Indeed, the new Republican-dominated House of Representatives this month passed a Regulatory Accountability Act, which will give the new president power to roll back an array of governmental regulations, including 50 years of environmental protections — with as little public notice as possible. It could undermine even the Clean Air Act of 1972 and for the first time oblige regulators to put corporate profits ahead of public health.

The disingenuous logic of this attack

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Posted in Environmental Issues | Tagged: , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Still Time to Save the Persian Gulf’s Dying Coral Reefs?

Posted by Richard Conniff on October 23, 2015

"Luxury" in place of coral reefs: Dubai's Palm Jumeirah. (Photo: Matthias Seifer/Reuters)

“Luxury” in place of coral reefs: Dubai’s Palm Jumeirah. (Photo: Matthias Seifer/Reuters)

My latest for Takepart:

If you wanted to see the rapid and disastrous effects of ignoring environmental science, it would be hard to find a more discouraging example than the Persian Gulf. It’s a small, shallow, salty body of water, bottled up at its southern end by the 29-mile-wide Straits of Hormuz, and researchers have been warning for more than 30 years about the inevitable consequences of careless development.

Those warnings have gone almost entirely unheeded, as the eight oil-rich nations bordering the Gulf have rushed to create global megacities in place of former trading and fishing villages. Salt marshes, salt flats, sea grass beds, mangrove swamps, and rich coral reefs have rapidly vanished, along with the fisheries they supported. An estimated 70 percent of the coral reefs, which once flourished across an area of almost 1500 square miles, are already dead, with another 15 percent in critical condition. The few reefs that remain relatively healthy tend to be around diving clubs, and in areas “worth visiting for recreational purposes,” according to an article appearing this week in Marine Pollution Bulletin. And even those are commonly “covered with fish traps and lobster pots.”

The major cause of this devastation doesn’t come from Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Conservation and Extinction, Environmental Issues | Tagged: , , , , | 1 Comment »

Thank the Conquistadors for South America’s First Big Mining Pollution

Posted by Richard Conniff on February 11, 2015

Pizarro: Massey Energy Co. role model?

Pizzaro: Massey Energy Co. role model?

A few years ago in Suriname, I was struck by how the most remote and undeveloped areas are now polluted with mercury, from gold mining.  Now it turns out that the large-scale poisoning of South America got started by the Conquistadors. And you thought Pizarro and Cortés were only responsible for torture, religious persecution, genocide, and other such crimes.

Here’s the press release:

In the 16th century, during its conquest of South America, the Spanish Empire forced countless Incas to work extracting silver from the mountaintop mines of Potosí, in what is now Bolivia — then the largest source of silver in the world. The Inca already knew how to refine silver, but in 1572 the Spanish introduced a new technology that boosted production many times over and sent thick clouds of lead dust rising over the Andes for the first time in history.

Winds carried some of that pollution 500 miles northwest into Peru, where tiny remnants of it settled on the Quelccaya Ice Cap.

There it stayed — buried under hundreds of years of snow and ice — until researchers from The Ohio State University found it in 2003.

In the early online edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, they report discovery of a layer within a Quelccaya ice core that dates to the Spanish conquest of the Inca, contains bits of lead and bears the chemical signature of the silver mines of Potosí.

The core provides the first detailed record of widespread human-produced

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Posted in Environmental Issues | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »

A Lesson for London from Milwaukee

Posted by Richard Conniff on October 2, 2011

London’s Mayor Boris Johnson says his city is lapsing back to the Great Stink of 1858. The city’s sewerage system, built for a city of 2.5 million people, cannot handle the present population of 8 million, and every time the skies add in just two millimeters–less than a tenth of an inch–of rain, the”Bazalgette Interceptors” break open and raw sewage pours into the river.  Johnson writes:

In one of the crimes for which we are truly all guilty, society is now discharging an awful 50 million tons of raw sewage into the river in London alone, and unless we are bold in our plans, that figure will rise to 70 million tons in 10 years…

When Bazalgette designed his interceptors, in response to the Great Stink of 1858, he assumed that they would only kick into action in emergencies – truly torrential downpours of a kind that happen once or twice a year.

Now it happens 50 times a year, basically once a week.  Johnson says the answer is massive infrastructure improvements, conceived and built with “neo-Victorian boldness”:

That is why it is time to recognise that we can no longer rely on Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Conservation and Extinction, Cool Tools | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »