Thursday, October 31, 2013

Green Fades to Blue: Would You Rather Sustain or be Restored?

Mention restoration and most minds go to some historical building project. I subscribe to a much broader definition that encompasses the ability of a building to generate a positive effect. Beyond green design, which at best seeks neutrality, and at worst comes with practically a whole religion’s worth of moral baggage, restorative design, including “blue” principles, seeks to replenish us in body, mind and spirit. William McDonough has written about the power of architecture to be restorative and at the 2008 Sustainable Brands International Conference, Bob Isherwood introduced the term Blue design, to reflect the need for strategic and innovative solutions that give something back. In other words, it’s not enough to have the cache of being sustainable. To really impact people’s lives, we have to show them what’s in it for them- we need to provide restoration.

Think about the buildings in which we live, work and play: How do these environments contribute to the stress in our lives? How do they cost us too much money to maintain while giving us largely inadequate shelter and support to live our lives? How often might they actually be harmful to our well being through contaminants in the air or water, noise or light pollution? 
Blue as an Expansive Approach

 Many early adopters of the term Blue Design or the phrase “green to blue” focus on the power of design to give something back to the community by having a net positive effect on air quality and energy (in the meantime, we have been hard pressed to even design net-zero, or energy neutral buildings). This narrow definition of blue loses sight of a much larger goal that we should be striving for in our built environment, the ability to be restorative, even therapeutic. While contaminants in that environment can contribute to a lack of focus and well being, cultural impacts are far greater. We inhabit a world of sensory overload. We lead isolated and independent lives in the processed, overproduced stage set of life. Depleting days feature streaming information in the form of constant interruptions and demands on our attention. The resulting level of stress that we experience impacts our ability to focus our attention, creating a state of persistent mental fatigue that impairs our quality of life. The antidote: a restorative environment.

Building for the Senses

It’s unlikely that life in the information age is going to change anytime soon, or that its cultural impacts are necessarily negative. They just feel that way because there is such disconnect between our lifestyles and the spaces in which we live. The industrial age city and post-industrial sprawl has created both interior and exterior spaces that exacerbate our state of depletion. Our built world needs an overhaul.
Architecture, landscape and urban design elements can recharge our direct attention capabilities and restore balance and wellness in our lives if our designs reconnect users with nature and other living things through biophilic design strategies. Work towards solutions that encourage interaction and that provide relief from unwanted or irrelevant stimuli. While specific design strategies will arise from specific design problems, you should approach every project with the goal of restoration in mind. Some characteristics of restorative environmental design as defined by Stephen Kellert in his book Linkages: Understanding and Designing Connections between the Natural and Human Built Environments include:
Human Built Environments include:
  1. Prospect- the vista
  2. Refuge- the safe place
  3. Water-actual water or design elements that provide glimmer, movement or symbolic images representing water
  4. Biodiversity- a rich palette of natural materials supplied through both interactive spaces (gardens, planters) and views.
  5. Sensory Variability- response to the changing times of day and seasons
  6. Biomimicry-natural materials, natural forms and structures
  7. Sense of playfulness-things that delight, surprise and amuse
  8. Enticement-complexity that encourages exploration
When was the last time a building brought you joy? What if every building could?

Monday, October 28, 2013

Unregulated, Agricultural Ammonia Threatens U.S. National Parks' Ecology

Foggy Tremont River, Great Smoky Mountains National Park. In Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the deposition of nitrogen compounds from pollution far exceeds a critical threshold for ecological damage.
(Credit: © Dave Allen / Fotolia)

Thirty-eight U.S. national parks are experiencing "accidental fertilization" at or above a critical threshold for ecological damage, according to a study published in the journal Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics and led by Harvard University researchers. Unless significant controls on ammonia emissions are introduced at a national level, they say, little improvement is likely between now and 2050.
The environmental scientists, experts in air quality, atmospheric chemistry, and ecology, have been studying the fate of nitrogen-based compounds that are blown into natural areas from power plants, automobile exhaust, and -- increasingly -- industrial agriculture. Nitrogen that finds its way into natural ecosystems can disrupt the cycling of nutrients in soil, promote algal overgrowth and lower the pH of water in aquatic environments, and ultimately decrease the number of species that can survive.

"The vast majority, 85 percent, of nitrogen deposition originates with human activities," explains principal investigator Daniel J. Jacob, Vasco McCoy Family Professor of Atmospheric Chemistry and Environmental Engineering at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS). "It is fully within our power as a nation to reduce our impact."

Existing air quality regulations and trends in clean energy technology are expected to reduce the amount of harmful nitrogen oxides (NOx) emitted by coal plants and cars over time. However, no government regulations currently limit the amount of ammonia (NH3) that enters the atmosphere through agricultural fertilization or manure from animal husbandry, which are now responsible for one-third of the anthropogenic nitrogen carried on air currents and deposited on land.

"Ammonia's pretty volatile," says Jacob. "When we apply fertilizer in the United States, only about 10 percent of the nitrogen makes it into the food. All the rest escapes, and most of it escapes through the atmosphere." The team of scientists -- comprising researchers from Harvard SEAS, the National Park Service, the USDA Forest Service, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the University of California, Irvine -- presents evidence that unchecked increases in nitrogen deposition are already threatening the ecology of federally protected natural areas.

In many previous studies, environmental scientists have identified the nitrogen levels that would be ecologically harmful in various settings. The new Harvard-led study uses a high-resolution atmospheric model called GEOS-Chem to calculate nitrogen deposition rates across the contiguous United States, and compares those rates to the critical loads.

The findings suggest that many parks may already be suffering. In Eastern temperate forests, like those in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the most sensitive elements of the ecosystem are the hardwood trees, which start to suffer when nitrogen deposition reaches approximately 3 to 8 kilograms per hectare, per year. According to the new study, the actual rate of deposition -- 13.6 kg/ha/yr -- far exceeds that threshold. In the forests of Mount Rainier National Park, it's the lichens that suffer first; their critical load is between 2.5 and 7.1 kg/ha/yr, and the deposition rate there is at a troubling 6.7 kg/ha/yr.

"The lichens might not be noticed or particularly valued by someone walking around a national park, but they're integral for everything else that's dependent on them," explains lead author Raluca A. Ellis, who conducted the research as a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard SEAS. She now directs the Climate and Urban Systems Partnership at the Franklin Institute.

Jacob, Ellis, and their collaborators predict that NOx emissions from the United States will decrease significantly by 2050 (globally, those decreases may be offset to some extent by increases in industrialization overseas). But for ammonia, the story is different. The team predicts significant increases in the amount and density of agricultural land in the Midwest and the West -- to feed a growing population and to meet an anticipated demand for biofuels -- requiring more and more fertilizer.

"Even if anthropogenic NOx emissions were globally zero, avoiding [critical load] exceedance at all national parks would require a 55% reduction of anthropogenic NH3 emissions," their report states. How such a reduction would be achieved is a matter for further study. "Air quality regulations in the United States have always focused on public health, because air pollution leads to premature deaths, and that's something you can quantify very well. When you try to write regulations to protect ecosystems, however, the damage is much harder to quantify," says Jacob. "At least in the national parks you can say, 'There's a legal obligation here.'"

The project was funded by the NASA Applied Sciences Program through the Air Quality Applied Sciences Team, which is led by Jacob at Harvard and includes 23 researchers from numerous institutions. The National Park Service has been studying nitrogen deposition for some time now, typically in focused studies such as those at Rocky Mountain National Park and Grand Teton National Park. The new collaboration has enabled many different research teams to unify their efforts and benefit from shared resources like the GEOS-Chem model, which was first developed at Harvard and has become an international standard for modeling atmospheric chemistry over time. Actual levels of future nitrogen deposition will depend on a complex interplay of economic, legal, and environmental factors.

"The point is, in the decades ahead, the problem in our national parks is not going to be solved by the reduction of NOx emissions alone," explains Ellis. "It will require a targeted effort to control ammonia."

"It's a national issue, and I think that's why having the national perspective was so important," Jacob adds. "We've shown that most of the nitrogen deposition to parks in the United States is coming from domestic sources. It's not coming from China; it's not coming from Canada -- it's something we can deal with, but we need to deal with it at the national level."

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Unified Architectural Theory

The Farnsworth House, by Mies van der Rohe, has influenced generations of architects — but is it really the best paragon for architecture?. Image © Greg Robbins

Architecture is a human act that invades and displaces the natural ecosystem. Biological order is destroyed every time we clear native plant growth and erect buildings and infrastructure. The goal of architecture is to create structures to house humans and their activities. Humans are parts of the earth’s ecosystem, even though we tend to forget that.

Logically, architecture has to have a theoretical basis that begins with the natural ecosystem. The act of building orders materials in very specific ways, and humans generate an artificial ordering out of materials they have extracted from nature and transformed to various degrees. Some of today’s most widely-used materials, such as plate glass and steel, require energy-intensive processes, and thus contain high embodied energy costs. Those cannot be the basis for any sustainable solution, despite all the industry hype.

Resource depletion and a looming ecological catastrophe are consequences of detachment from nature, and a blind faith in technology to solve the problems it creates.

Architectural theory, in the sense understood in this course, is a framework that studies architectural phenomena using scientific logic and methods of experimentation. Many experiments have been done by others, and we are going to apply them to architecture. Theory provides a model that explains investigations and observations about form and structure.

A successful theory will help us interpret what an architect does, even though each architect will likely have his/her own motivation and explanation. Nevertheless, the theory will allow us to compare among different types of buildings, and to evaluate how well those connect to users and with nature. We can understand how a building came about, and how it connects and interacts with its surroundings.

It will also be good if common people, not just architects, can understand architectural theory, and thus it should be formulated with that goal in mind. The advantages are that it is ordinary people who are going to inhabit those buildings, whereas architects can choose to live and work wherever they like. Another crucial point is that the majority of building activity is, and has always been, the erection of self-built informal settlements. People, not architects, build these structures.

Christopher Alexander has pioneered a theory of human-made order. It is based directly upon natural order, so there is neither contradiction nor confusion between the two types.
Alexander made five key assumptions that permitted him to pursue his work.

(1) Natural and artificial order rely upon the same mechanisms for their working.

(2) Natural order is self-organizing and self-correcting. What we observe is there because it works.

(3) Artificial order is not necessarily self-correcting, or maybe it is on a generational timescale so individuals are not going to notice it. As a result, human beings can do things to the natural environment and build buildings and structures that damage the world. It is not easy to diagnose what is good and distinguish it from what is bad.

(4) It is possible to use science to create diagnostic tools for what is good and bad in human creations — in how they affect the natural environment, including us humans.

(5) We can use the human body as a sensing instrument for what is good and bad in architecture. Basic assumption: human feeling is universal, and people share 90% of their responses, even if individuals come from different cultures or backgrounds.

To make good buildings, we need a worldview, a conception of the world that is healthy and that enables us to understand things deeply. A healthy worldview is based upon connectivity to the world: direct connection to the order of the universe and to natural processes as they are continuously occurring.

Transformations of the PIazza San Marco in Venice that preserve structural wholeness over about 200 years, part of a larger series over 1,000 years as shown by Christopher Alexander in his book, “The Nature of Order”. Image Courtesy of
The opposite — detachment — leads to a dangerous condition where people analyze a situation as a mechanism isolated from the world. This is the model of a building or a city as a machine. Modern science is guilty of contributing to this disconnection from nature, since scientific models are necessarily self-contained and limited in scope — otherwise they would be useless.

Science gives us an excellent model of how something works as a mechanical system. Nevertheless, this is not a complete description even of the cases we do understand well. And there are a vast number of instances where we ignore any mechanical description at all of an observed phenomenon. What is completely missing from a strictly mechanistic worldview is human consciousness, our personal and emotional connection to the universe. This might not matter when investigating some technical problems, but it’s all-important for things that affect us, like architecture. Another significant consequence is the lack of value in a mechanistic worldview. A human connected to the universe knows the distinction between good and bad, true and false, beautiful and ugly. These qualities are not relative, and are not matters of opinion. A consumer disconnected from natural values, by contrast, can be fed toxic products and be made to believe they are good.

The way out of the present, highly restricted view of the universe is to develop an immensely more connected state between humans and their environment. Attention is given to what affects us reciprocally with the world, when we are tightly connected.

Following this reasoning, people have a shared basis for judgment, and can intuitively judge whether something has order or life, and expect their gut reaction to be 90% shared across cultures and distances. In this new worldview, ornament plays a critical role to connect humans with the order of the world. Ornament is thus intimately related to function in the non-mechanistic sense.

We wish to consider architecture and the production of human artifacts also as essential components of natural ecosystems. Order and life are related. Natural things have an intrinsic order, and life as we usually know it and understand it is simply an extension of that order. For this reason, human constructions should not damage or contradict natural order.

The earth’s ecosystems (many of which are connected to each other) contain, and are contained by other components that neither metabolize, nor replicate. But every layer of the system is interdependent. This property of life in inanimate objects and situations arises out of their degree of natural order, and the human body has evolved mechanisms to sense that order. Thus, it is not surprising to feel that something is “alive”, because of its geometrical properties, even though that object is not biological.

Biological organisms have the additional features of metabolism and replication. A very simple consequence of thinking of a building as a “living” entity is that it requires repair and restoration. This analogy with metabolism takes us away from a central tenet of 20th Century industrial architecture: the quest for absolutely permanent and weather-resisting materials. This search has become very expensive. But worse of all, it denies living qualities. Materials that do weather in fact produce buildings that are more in keeping with biological organisms. For example, the Ise Shrine Complex in Japan is re-built every 20 years.

The Ise Shrine: Deconstruction. Sketch by Miller Yee Fong, Architect. Image Courtesy of The Huffington Post

Buildings also engage in replication: if a form language is adopted by other builders, then the original prototype building is replicated in more copies, not exactly the same, but containing the same “genetic” information.

Since the perception of something as being “alive” is due to a very strong connection with our mind and body, there is a reciprocal effect: that object, place, or configuration makes us feel more alive. It is possible to find myriads of artifacts, buildings, urban spaces that feel “alive” and that in turn make us feel “alive”. They invariably come from vernacular traditions and hardly ever from design. The perceived living quality comes from specific geometrical configurations, and it is possible to discover the rules that generate a living quality. Even in non-traditional 20th-century examples of objects and places having perceived “life”, the life comes from their geometry. It is not based on concepts, or images, or fashions. By connecting to the thing, we feel that we are connecting directly with its maker, who therefore doesn’t hide behind any notions or ideas that contaminate its genuine character.

To get at a genuine understanding of architecture, it is useful to use the approach that scientists employ to discover nature’s secrets.

Edward Wilson outlines what science achieves:
(1) Systematic gathering of knowledge about the world, which is organized and condensed into basic principles as far as possible.
(2) Results must pass the test of independent and repeated verification.
(3) It helps to quantify information, for then, principles can use mathematical models.
(4) Condensation of information via systematization and classification helps in storage.
(5) A safeguard for truth comes from consilience: the horizontal links across diverse disciplines.
Consilience acts as a test for the soundness of a theory. Within itself, a theory might look good even when it contains fundamental flaws. Internal consistency can be misleading, since it could relate several false assumptions, but in a very convincing manner. We normally should be able to transition from one sound theory into another one that acts on a distinct domain. If there is a contradiction, then something is wrong. It could be that there is no barrier but a large gap, in which case that needs to be filled in.

Architectural theory can be formulated and verified by employing two mechanisms: internal hypotheses that are repeatedly verified, and external consilient links to other disciplines that have a verifiable basis. These include the hard sciences.

Good architecture is less of a reductionist discipline and must necessarily be a synthetic discipline. If it is applied in a reductionist manner, then it probably contains serious errors that damage the environment. To be adaptive means to synthesize many distinct responses to human needs and natural order.

Most important is for architecture to be directly linked to human evolution, the physical needs of the organism, and to use information according to evolved culture. Neglecting the biological origins of human needs and behavior detaches architecture from the world and from humanity. The architect should design a building that makes common people feel comfortable, and not to be liked just by architects. It should also adapt to its locality, not designed for somewhere else, or for no place in particular.

 The fractal pattern of self-organizing urbanism. Image Courtesy of Nikos Salingaros

Further Reading:

Christopher Alexander, The Phenomenon of Life, Prologue & Chapter 1, “The Phenomenon of Life” (Center for Environmental Structure, Berkeley, 2001).

Nikos Salingaros, “Architectural Theory”, extracts from Anti-Architecture and Deconstruction (Umbau-Verlag, Solingen, 2008).

Edward O. Wilson, “Integrated Science and the Coming Century of the Environment”, Science, Volume 279, No. 5359 (March 27, 1998), pages 2048-2049.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Up to Two-Fifths of Fruit and Veg Crop is Wasted Because it is 'Ugly'

Produce that does not meet retailer standards in UK is fed to animals or ploughed back into ground, according to study.

The report also found the average household threw away more than 5kg of food a week. Photograph: Chris Radburn/PA

Up to two-fifths of a crop of fruit or vegetables can be wasted because it is "ugly", a report on food waste has shown. Produce grown in the UK that does not meet retailer standards on size or shape or is blemished is often used for animal feed or simply ploughed back into the ground even though it is edible, with as much as 40% of a crop rejected.

The report, commissioned by the UK's global food security program, also showed that the average household throws away more than 5kg (11lbs) of food a week, and nearly two-thirds of that waste is avoidable. The waste costs £480 a year per household on average, and £680 per family.

Households throw away a fifth of the food they buy, wasting it for reasons ranging from cooking and preparing too much food to not using it in time before it goes off, the study showed. Consumption and initial production are the areas where the majority of food is wasted in the UK, the study said. Retailers respond to demands by consumers for high-quality food by imposing standards that can lead to much of the crop being wasted, but some progress is being made with supermarkets marketing "odd shapes and sizes" for fruit and vegetables.

There is also growing evidence that more UK consumers are prepared to accept "ugly" fruit and vegetables, amid concerns over sustainability and increasing food prices, the research said. In developing countries, much of the loss of food occurs during post-harvesting storage, processing and packaging.

Tackling waste globally is a major part of the action needed to provide enough food to feed a growing world population sustainably and tackle hunger, which affects one in eight people worldwide, the report said.

Around a third of food produced globally is lost or wasted. Prof Tim Benton, an expert on Food Security at the University of Leeds, said: "Over 5 million people in the UK live in deep poverty, where basic food provision is a daily challenge.

"Nearly 400,000 people needed support from food banks last year, according to the Trussell Trust. "At the same time, 15m tons of food is wasted annually, with nearly half discarded within UK households. Reducing the scale of losses and waste throughout the entire food system is a crucial step towards improving global food security."

The report highlights priorities for research to help reduce food waste, including improving harvesting and packaging technologies, good seasonal weather prediction and new ways to reduce food waste within the home.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

What Happened to the Environmental Movement?

Nicholas Lemann, The New Yorker

On September 20, 1969, Gaylord Nelson, a Democratic senator from Wisconsin, gave a lightly publicized speech in Seattle in which he remarked, “I am convinced that the same concern the youth of this nation took in changing this nation’s priorities on the war in Vietnam and on civil rights can be shown for the problem of the environment. That is why I plan to see to it that a national teach-in is held.” Nelson had been pushing environmental issues for some years, initially worried that water pollution was hurting fishing, canoeing, and other forms of outdoor recreation in his state. In 1963, as a freshman senator, he persuaded President John F. Kennedy to stage a national “conservation tour” to talk about the issue. Kennedy visited eleven states in five days, just two months before his assassination, but the trip was a bust: anemic crowds, little attention, and not much obvious passion from Kennedy himself.

But Nelson’s idea of a national teach-in took off, to an extent that surprised even him. On April 22, 1970, only seven months after his speech in Seattle, the teach-in, dubbed Earth Day, generated more than twelve thousand events across the country, many of them in high schools and colleges, with more than thirty-five thousand speakers. “Today” devoted ten hours of airtime to it. Congress took the day off, and two-thirds of its members spoke at Earth Day events. In all, millions of people participated. This activity was largely uncoordinated. Earth Day had a tiny national staff—a handful of young activists—and there were no big environmental groups around to get behind it. The staff imposed minimal central direction over the local activity, and chose not to put on a main event, like a march on Washington.

Adam Rome’s genial new book, “The Genius of Earth Day: How a 1970 Teach-in Unexpectedly Made the First Green Generation” (Hill & Wang), brings to life another era. We’re as distant from Earth Day as the Battle of Gettysburg was from James Monroe’s reelection, and Rome evokes a United States that feels, politically, like a foreign country. There were a number of liberal Republicans. Most active members of environmental groups were hunters and fishermen. The Sierra Club was an actual club that required new members to be proposed by old ones. The Environmental Defense Fund was two years old. Things like bottle recycling and organic food were exotic.

Earth Day’s success was partly a matter of timing: it took place at the moment when years of slowly building environmental awareness were coming to a head, and when the energy of the sixties was ready to be directed somewhere besides the Vietnam War and the civil-rights movement. A coterie of celebrated environmental prophets—Rachel Carson, David Brower, Barry Commoner, Paul Ehrlich—had already established themselves, and Rome reminds us of the larger context: a suburbanizing, middle-class nation was increasingly aware of the outdoors and prepared to define liberalism in more than purely economic terms.

Earth Day had consequences: it led to the Clean Air Act of 1970, the Clean Water Act of 1972, and the Endangered Species Act of 1973, and to the creation, just eight months after the event, of the Environmental Protection Agency. Throughout the nineteen-seventies, mostly during the Republican Administrations of Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, Congress passed one environmental bill after another, establishing national controls on air and water pollution. And most of the familiar big green groups are, in their current form, offspring of Earth Day. Dozens of colleges and universities instituted environmental-studies programs, and even many small newspapers created full-time environmental beats.

Then, forty years after Earth Day, in the summer of 2010, the environmental movement suffered a humiliating defeat as unexpected as the success of Earth Day had been. The Senate Majority Leader, Harry Reid, announced that he would not bring to a vote a bill meant to address the greatest environmental problem of our time—global warming. The movement had poured years of effort into the bill, which involved a complicated system for limiting carbon emissions. Now it was dead, and there has been no significant environmental legislation since. Indeed, one could argue that there has been no major environmental legislation since 1990, when President George H. W. Bush signed a bill aimed at reducing acid rain. Today’s environmental movement is vastly bigger, richer, and better connected than it was in 1970. It’s also vastly less successful. What went wrong?

In Rome’s view, the original Earth Day remains a model of effective political organizing. He believes that Gaylord Nelson’s idea of a “teach-in” was more than just sixties jargon. It defined Earth Day as educational, school-based, widely distributed, locally controlled, and mass-participatory. He draws a contrast with Earth Day 1990, a far better planned, better funded, more elaborately orchestrated anniversary event, which turned out more than a million people in Central Park and two hundred thousand on the Mall in Washington but had far fewer lasting effects. That was because Earth Day 1990 was, Rome says, “more top-down and more directive” than Earth Day 1970, and more attuned to advertising and marketing than to organizing. Earth Day 1990 kept its message simple, because its organizers “sought to ‘enlist’ people in a well-defined movement, not to enable them to work out their own vision of how they might make a difference.”

I was involved in commissioning two reports, published online earlier this year by an organization called the Scholars Strategy Network, on why the big effort to pass carbon-limiting legislation failed in 2010. Both reports confirm the basic picture that Rome describes. Even as the environmental movement has become an established presence in Washington, it has become less able to win legislative victories. It has concentrated on the inside game, at the expense of efforts at broad-based organizing.

The story of the Environmental Defense Fund is illustrative. Rome presents the infant E.D.F. as a raggedy group of amateur activists on Long Island, whose motto was “Sue the bastards!” It helped to get DDT banned in New York and elsewhere, and successfully pushed for water-safety standards nationwide. By the mid-eighties, though, it had become moribund, and a new president, Fred Krupp, then thirty years old, advocated an accommodations direction for the movement, focused on deal-making with big business and with Republicans. In the summer of 2006, Krupp and a few allies began assembling a coalition that met regularly at the offices of a professional mediation firm in Washington. He persuaded a number of major corporations with heavy carbon footprints, like Duke Energy, BP, and General Electric, to join. The coalition became an official organization called the U.S. Climate Action Partnership, funded primarily by a handful of major philanthropists and foundations. Shortly before President Obama’s Inauguration, USCAP released the fruit of its labors: a draft of the ill-fated carbon-emissions bill.

Back in the Earth Day era, the federal government would deal with such emissions simply by ordering limits on them. Since then, market solutions to big social problems have triumphed. For years, “cap-and-trade,” a system of tradable permits for carbon emissions, had been the solution preferred by many of the established environmental groups, because that seemed to be the best way to bring business on board. (For the same reason, Democrats came to favor a market mechanism—private health exchanges—to achieve their long-cherished dream of universal health care.) But in previous years even cap-and-trade bills had repeatedly been defeated by Republican opponents. Petra Bartosiewicz and Marissa Miley, the authors of one of the reports on the failure of the legislation, observe that, as a result, the major environmental groups felt that they had to strike enough deals with big business in advance to guarantee at least some Republican support.

In the summer of 2009, Democrats in the House of Representatives, joined by a handful of Republicans, passed a bill based on the USCAP framework. It was fourteen hundred pages long. Almost immediately, corporate members dropped out of the coalition; as the grand alliance unraveled, the bill languished in the Senate. After Harry Reid, then in a tight reelection campaign against a Tea Party candidate, dropped it, Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief of staff, blasted the environmentalists’ political ineptitude at a private meeting. (Bartosiewicz and Miley obtained a tape recording.) The big environmental groups had promised the White House that they could deliver a few key Republican votes in the Senate. Instead, Emanuel said, “They didn’t have shit. And folks, they were dicking around for two years. And I had those meetings in my office so it was not that I wasn’t listening to them. This is a real big game, and you’ve got to wear your big-boy pants.”

The environmental movement had certainly believed that it was playing the big game. Bartosiewicz and Miley estimate that the groups behind the climate-action partnership spent hundreds of millions of dollars in the effort to pass their bill. The organizers of Earth Day never would have been able to get a substantial group of corporate chief executives to sit down with them and negotiate, even if they had wanted to. Today’s big environmental groups recruit through direct mail and the media, filling their rosters with millions of people who are happy to click “Like” on clean air. What the groups lack, however, is the Earth Day organizers’ ability to generate thousands of events that people actually attend—the kind of activity that creates pressure on legislators.

Once you get past the cheering that President Obama aroused by mentioning climate change in his Inaugural Address (as he scarcely did during his reelection campaign), it becomes clear that his approach to climate change, in his second term, is to move still further in the same direction. That means entrusting the mission to regulators, and abandoning efforts to mobilize the public and its representatives. “I will direct my Cabinet to come up with executive actions we can take” to limit carbon emissions, he announced in his recent State of the Union address. Here was a President who had won reelection so decisively that there was talk about whether the Republican Party was doomed, and he was starting his second Administration by implicitly acknowledging that Congress would never pass any bill that would address the most serious and obvious environmental problem of our time.

The failure of environmental legislation isn’t just a matter of faulty strategy. Part of Earth Day’s success, Rome makes clear, was that it promised short-term, tangible, personal benefits in a way that climate-change legislation cannot. Back in 1970, suburban mothers (who, along with college students, made up the core of the new environmental movement) wanted to protect their children from contaminated air, water, and food; hunters and fishermen wanted their habitats back. The danger of global warming, at least until recently, has been less local and less obvious. Since the original Earth Day, conservatives have grown increasingly hostile to environmentalism. After the rise of the Tea Party in the hinterland and an anti-environmental lobbying apparatus in Washington—and many years of Rush Limbaugh and his imitators mocking “environmentalist wackos”—even the few Republicans in Congress who had been concerned about climate change, like John McCain, were frightened away. Still, Obama’s strategy is a short-term one. Republican members of Congress are lying in wait, poised to try to undo environmental regulations that they find excessive. For people who are serious about trying to restrict carbon emissions and slow the onset of climate change, the question is how to restore the environmental movement to the public realm.

Perhaps part of the problem is some fundamental mistake in the way we understand our environmental responsibilities. Aaron Sachs, a historian at Cornell, suggests as much in a long, ambitious new book called “Arcadian America: The Death and Life of an Environmental Tradition” (Yale). He rejects the ideal of protecting nature from human civilization. Instead, he thinks, we should revive an earlier, more integrated American tradition: “Our forebears were obsessed with the possibilities of Arcadia—that ancient society of solid rural values, of pastoralists who wandered free over a broad countryside of mountain meadows and forest glens, yet who also, somehow, established the kinds of stable civil institutions that ennobled Aristotle’s Athens.” To understand this tradition and then to bring it back to life, he believes, “could be precisely what’s needed in the age of global warming.”

“Arcadian America” is part of a series that Yale University Press has launched, called New Directions in Narrative History, which promises to publish books that “offer significant scholarly contributions while also embracing stylistic innovations as well as the classic techniques of storytelling.” In Sachs’s case, a historical essay has been interwoven with a personal memoir, mainly concerned with his rather unremarkable interactions with nature and with death. I could have done without the memoir. The historical sections of the book are executed at a higher level.

In Sachs’s account, the Arcadian ideal prevailed in the first half of the nineteenth century. It envisaged humans and nature as intertwined: landscapes artfully shaped for people’s needs, people adapting their lives to natural contours, especially to the inevitability of death. Mount Auburn Cemetery, outside Boston, which opened in 1831, and its imitators (like Green-Wood Cemetery, in Brooklyn) are for him the exemplars of Arcadian America, with their rolling, parklike design and constant use by the living as well as by their belowground permanent residents.

Arcadia was a casualty of the Civil War—not just because the war was so profoundly unpastoral but also because, afterward, the country set itself, with renewed vigor, on a path of industrialism, deforestation, and Western expansion that was the opposite of the gentle equipoise with the land which defined the Arcadian ideal. Civil War cemeteries didn’t have meandering layouts. They were grids, and so were cities and the large-scale farms that pioneers established west of the Mississippi River. In opposition to those excesses, the idea arose of wilderness preservation, which led to the establishment of the National Park Service. Sachs mistrusts that approach, because it’s based on the idea of humans and nature occupying separate realms.

Sachs’s ruminative, associative style makes for interesting takes on dozens of writers, artists, and landscape architects, but it isn’t well suited to forcing a main argument out into the open. It’s refreshing to encounter a version of American history before the environmental movement that isn’t just a procession of despoilers of nature, but Sachs has a fundamentally nonpolitical mind. When he recounts how Gilded Age writers whom he regards as potentially Arcadian, like Ignatius Donnelly, turned instead to socialism and other economic remedies, he is palpably disappointed. Here’s where he winds up:

My hope, for all future generations, is that they will have (in addition to sunshine, fresh air, clean water, and fertile soil) a somewhat slower pace of life, with plenty of time to pause, in quiet places … haunted places—everyday, accessible places, open to the public—places that are not too radically transformed over time—places susceptible of cultivation, where people can express their caring, and nature can respond—places with tough, gnarled roots and tangled stalks, with digging mammals and noisy birds—places of common remembrance and hopeful guidance—places of unexpected encounters—places that breed solidarity across difference—places where children can walk in the footsteps of those who have gone before—places that are perpetually up for adoption—places that have been humanized but not conquered or commodified—places that foster a kind of connectedness both mournful and celebratory.

Theda Skocpol, a political-science professor at Harvard and the author of the second report on the failure of the cap-and-trade bill in 2010, represents an academic sensibility that’s the complete opposite of Aaron Sachs’s. A proud daughter of blue-collar Macomb County, Michigan, Skocpol is hardheaded, plainspoken, specific, practical-minded, and opinionated. For years, she has been studying the successes and failures of political movements, and her clear preference is for local organizing. Her master example is the pension system for Civil War veterans, which, thanks to the effective efforts of the veterans themselves, became so extensive and generous (at its peak, it accounted for more than forty per cent of the federal budget) that in the eighteen-eighties one of the largest government office buildings in Washington, now the National Building Museum, was built to administer it.

Skocpol dismisses the notion that climate-change legislation failed because Obama and Harry Reid were not sufficiently committed to it. They were initially no more committed to health-care reform, she asserts; a large pro-reform campaign that invested heavily in a fifty-state organizing effort, called Health Care for America Now, helped propel the legislation. By contrast, the forces behind the climate-change bill directed their money chiefly to the inside game in Washington, and secondarily to “messaging,” rather than to organizing. (They ginned up an organization called Clean Energy Works, which was supposed to build public opinion in support of its bill. Bartosiewicz and Miley report that, after extensive polling, it came up with the slogan “More Jobs. Less Pollution. Greater Security”—not even mentioning global warming.) Skocpol scorns the tactic of trying to mobilize broad support exclusively through the media: “ ‘The public’ is seen as a kind of background chorus that, hopefully, will sing on key,” as the insiders try to manipulate people with focus-grouped phrases. Instead, she argues, “reformers will have to build organizational networks across the country, and they will need to orchestrate sustained political efforts that stretch far beyond friendly Congressional offices, comfy board rooms, and posh retreats.”

That doesn’t mean that environmentalists should simply hand the movement over to the grassroots, demonstration-staging left. Reformers “cannot simply turn away from national politics,” Skocpol writes. She has argued for years that liberal victories are more likely to be secured by “federated structures”: groups that form state organizations and local chapters, which meet regularly to develop their larger political goals. The groups’ national headquarters allow the local chapters to function according to their “local variety.”

Democratizing the environmental movement may have policy implications, too. Skocpol advocates an alternative to cap-and-trade called cap-and-dividend, because it would put the fees levied on carbon emissions into the hands of individual voters, not companies. Cap-and-trade involves deals made among corporations. With cap-and-dividend, consumers who bought goods made by low-carbon manufacturers would get payments. This approach could give millions of Americans a direct stake in the system.

In the decades since Earth Day, Americans have become attuned to forms of social justice of which we used to be oblivious—the latest example is gay marriage, and the enlargement of the circle of concern that it stands for. Yet the cultural and economic distance between the top of American society and the broad middle has grown enormously. Political distances have grown, too. Gaylord Nelson’s state is now a battleground, represented in the U.S. Senate by a Republican who is associated with the Tea Party and a Democrat who is the body’s only gay member.
Meanwhile, liberals have come to take as a core creed the urgent need to reckon with global warming, and limit carbon emissions. To turn concern into action requires politics. The science of carbon emissions is there. The politics is not.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Microbes vs. Genetic Modification

Photograph by Martin Oeggerli, National Geographic

Adapting microbes that dramatically increase crop yields while reducing demand for fertilizers and pesticides through selective breeding or genetic engineering could be cheaper and more flexible than genetically modifying plants themselves, says an author of a report.

Microbes, such as beneficial bacteria, fungi and viruses, could be produced locally for smallholder farmers to significantly improve food security and incomes in developing regions, believes Ann Reid, director of the American Academy of Microbiology and co-author of a report published by the organization last month (27 August).

"Genetic modification of crop plants, which has seen a huge investment, is closed to all but the biggest agricultural companies," she tells SciDev.Net. "Optimisation of microbes could be done at the level of the local community college and is much more obtainable for a smallholder farmer."

Her comments echo the findings of the report — the product of an expert meeting in 2012 — which underscored the significant impact microbes could have on food production by increasing crops' absorption of nutrients, resistance to disease and environmental stresses, and even improving flavor. As well as to accentuate naturally occurring traits such as the secretion of pest-killing toxins or nitrogen-fixation, the modification of microbes is often needed to allow them to be grown in large numbers out of their natural environment.

For example, researchers in Colombia could only produce large quantities of a fungus that improves the nutrient absorption of cassava once they bred a strain of that fungus that was capable of growing on carrot roots. Recent technological developments in rapid DNA sequencing, imaging and computer modeling can help provide further solutions, as well as building a greater understanding of the complex environment that microbes themselves need to flourish, the report says.

These advances raise the possibility that, within two decades, microbes could increase food production by a fifth and reduce fertilizer demands by the same proportion, it finds. But to achieve this ambitious goal, the research community must engage in curiosity-driven basic research, develop even cheaper sequencing techniques, and establish a process to move discoveries from the lab to the field, it says. Reid adds that, unlike genetic modification, which requires farmers to regularly buy improved seeds, microbes may be able to stay in the soil indefinitely.

But larger universities are still needed to drive more-complex areas of investigation, which inevitably requires funding, she says. "We wanted to get the word out that this could be a big-bang-for-your- buck area for funding agencies."

Monday, October 14, 2013

Old Concrete Can Have Second Life Protecting Nature

Usually we think of demolished concrete walls and floors as environmental contaminants, but in fact this material may turn out to be a valuable resource in nature protection work. This is the conclusion from researchers from University of Southern Denmark after studying the ability of crushed concrete to bind phosphorus.

"We have shown that crushed concrete can bind up to 90 per cent of phosphorus, "says PhD student and environmental engineer, Melanie Sønderup, Department of Biology at the University of Southern Denmark. Since March 2013 researchers have tested the technique in a full-scale experiment, which will run until March 2014. But already now they find that the technique is very effective.

Large amounts of phosphorus can be washed out into lakes and streams when it rains. Rainwater that runs off from catchments, especially those fertilized with phosphorus, carries the phosphor with it. This phosphorus rich rainwater is then often collected in rainwater ponds, which discharges into lakes and streams. "The water in these rainwater ponds can be very rich in phosphorus, and if it is discharged into a lake, it can lead to an increase in algae growth. This can lead to oxygen depletion and a reduction in the number of species that can live in the water," explains Melanie Sønderup and continues:

"By letting the pond water pass through a filter of crushed concrete, we can remove up to 90 per cent of the phosphorus". Phosphorus binds so well to the concrete because it contains cement. Cement is rich in calcium and also contains aluminum and iron. All three can bind phosphorus. Preliminary results show that the size of concrete grains is of importance. The smaller the grains the better they bind phosphorous. Fine concrete powder is thus more effective than millimeter sized concrete bits.

"It is also important that we do not use concrete that has been exposed to wind and rain for a long time, as this washes out the cement, which holds the essential calcium," explains Melanie Sønderup. As the experiments have only run for six months, the scientists do not yet know the durability of crushed concrete, but they believe that a filter of crushed concrete can last for a long time, probably several years. "Only when the concrete cannot bind more phosphorous, it will be time to switch to a new layer of crushed concrete - and then the disposed layer can be recycled as road fill", says Melanie Sønderup.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Condition of Vegetative Roofs Years After They're Exposed to the Real World.

In KieranTimberlake's extensive survey of roof gardens, it identified species that were planned, had thrived, or were rogue (l to r, respectively): prairie dropseed (Sporobulis heterolepsis); two-row stonecrop (Sedum spurium fuldaglut); moss pink, pink phlox (Phlox subulata) Credit: Bruce Peterson
It’s one thing to Photoshop a green roof into a rendering; it’s another thing to plant and sustain one. And it’s all but unheard of to go back and analyze the state of these living roofs years after their completion, as Philadelphia-based Kieran Timberlake did for its groundbreaking Green Roof Vegetation Study. The study responds to “a lack of long-term data on real buildings with diverse and dynamic plant communities,” according to the firm. Instead of concentrating on one engineering or horticultural aspect of green roofs, the firm looked at “how green roofs function as ecosystems and how they change over time.”

The jury highlighted two innovative aspects of the study: its comparative method and its ecological thesis. In 2011 and 2012, Kieran Timberlake surveyed six of its completed green roofs, ranging in area from 1,744 to 10,000 square feet, and designed between 2003 and 2011. Using the Relevé vegetation survey method and the Braun-Blanquet abundance scale to quantify its findings, Kieran Timberlake assessed the roofs’ vegetative cover, species richness, and species diversity in 2-meter-square sections. The researchers also interviewed facilities and grounds maintenance personnel at each site. Juror Bill Zahner praised the study’s “way of collecting the data needed rather than saying, ‘Well, let’s just put seeds down and keep our fingers crossed.’ ” Juror Jing Liu agreed: “What they’re doing is different. The research is to study the long-term dynamics of green roofs.”

The resulting report confirms that roof ecologies are indeed dynamic and that changes will occur spatially and over time from the original planting design. More importantly, it details the nature of those changes, and raises questions about what the changes might indicate for long-term resiliency. In many of the case studies, the prevalent species observed on the roofs in 2012 that were part of the initial planting design were accompanied by dozens of new or “emergent” species. Artemisia (commonly known as mugwort) at the Yale Sculpture Building and Melilotus (or sweet clover) at Cornell University’s Alice H. Cook House independently found their way to roof tops, took root, and eventually made themselves at home in the roofscape design. Roof biodiversity often increased, although the report cautions that the results of any single survey could be deceptive: “What appears to be major shifts in species composition may in fact be short-term fluctuations or cycles caused by unpredictable changes in experienced climate and environmental conditions.”

While the report rigorously maps the distance between design intent and material outcomes, it also sets the stage for even more radical research to be conducted on the interplay between landscape and architecture. Kieran Timberlake envisions deploying sensors on the roof to measure thermal and moisture conditions in relation to the building’s internal climate and energy consumption. The report also suggests that architecture “is responsible for the … vegetative dynamics and ultimate performance of the roof.” On the roof of a dining hall at Middlebury College, for example, the otherwise feeble grasses and forbs become lush and verdant around the skylight cones, whose shade presumably helps the soil retain moisture. “Architectural design creates microclimates across a roof, determining availability of sunlight, water, and nutrients,” the report states.

Kieran Timberlake is already putting its newfound knowledge to use on the forthcoming Penn State Center for Building Energy Education and Innovation at the Philadelphia Navy Yard, which itself will serve as an ongoing laboratory and teaching center for scientists, students, and professionals interested in eco-effective architecture. The firm has developed a proposal to create a green roof test bed on this building; currently, it is in the process of raising funds.

But documenting the consequences of a designed green roof subjected to unforeseeable or uncontrollable environmental forces has wider implications for architecture in general, juror Jing Liu said. “If you think of the green roof as an ecological system, you can have architecture as an ecological system,” she said.

In the messiness of the real world, architecture depends on dynamic variables. Buildings are never really complete. Rather, they are subject to the vicissitudes of client maintenance regimes, the inconsistencies of occupant behavior, and the unpredictability of weather. That is why post-occupancy studies—of both indoor and outdoor environments—must be as meticulous as they are fearless.

Project Credits 
 Green Roof Vegetation Study 
Design Firm KieranTimberlake, Philadelphia 
Project Team Roderick Bates, Stephanie Carlisle, Billie Faircloth, AIA, Stephen Kieran, FAIA, Taylor Medlin, Assoc. AIA, Max Piana, James Timberlake, FAIA, Ryan Welch

 In 2005, when Kieran Timberlake planned the green roof of Cornell University’s Carl L. Becker House, in Ithaca, N.Y., the rigorous planting plan comprised three types of succulents (two-row stonecrop, tasteless stonecrop, and houseleeks), combined with strips of prairie dropseed. When Kieran Timberlake surveyed the roof in 2012, the vegetation was healthy and full, but there were a few surprises—54 of them, in fact. That is the number of new plant species that had taken root over the years.
An aerial view of Cornell campus dormitories shows Kieran Timberlake's green roofs outlined in white; the Carl L. Becker House is at the right side of this image. Credit: Kieran Timberlake

According to KieranTimberlake's study, the most biodiversity was found in the Becker House's southernmost bay, where shading along the adjacent building edge minimized the effects of record droughts.

Various poplar species were found on the Becker House roof, despite not appearing in the original roof planting plan.
Credit: Kieran Timberlake

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Sand Rush: Fracking Boom Spurs Rush on Wisconsin Silica

A single fracked well can require 10,000 tons of industrial silica sand.

Western Wisconsin's sand, high in quartz and compressive strength, lies close to the surfaceperfectly suited to the oil and natural gas industry's fracking needs. The sand rush is on at quarries like this one south of Portage.
Photograph by Sally Younger

by Sally Younger in Portage, Wisconsin

They look like pyramids in a cornfield, or sea dunes mottled by the summer rain.
But these stockpiles hold one of the secrets to America's energy revolution. The heaps of dozer-hauled, diesel-crushed grains are pure silica sand, and the future of fracking depends on stripping hundreds of millions of tons of it.

Every day since the rush began about two years ago, thousands of laden train cars rumble out of the world's unlikeliest sand castle—Wisconsin—headed for oil and gas wells from North Dakota to Pennsylvania. (See related story: "Natural Gas Nation: EIA Sees a U.S. Future Shaped by Fracking.")

Strong and ancient, the grains shimmer like gems in the warm sunlight. Branded "Northern White," this pedigree of sand boasts 99 percent quartz and a compressive strength between 6,000 and 14,000 pounds per square inch. This makes the grains ideally round and durable to prop open underground shale formations fissured by horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. (See related interactive: "Breaking Fuel From Rock.") The unique region of quartz-rich sandstone extends into southeastern Minnesota, which also has seen a surge of mining activity; but Wisconsin, in part because it has nearby rail capacity for shipping, has been the epicenter of the boom.

In the fracking process, sand is suspended in a chemical slurry and pumped thousands of feet underground. The high-pressure fluid cracks open the shale rock. Sand flows into these fractures and "props" them open like trillions of tiny marbles, allowing dislodged crude oil or natural gas to seep out.

Consumed by the bargeful, "proppant" sand is cheap, heavy, and essential. One fracked well in the Marcellus shale region, for example, can slurp several million pounds of it. A single fracked well can require 10,000 tons of industrial silica sand, according to Minnesota's Department of Natural Resources.

Ceramic beads and other man-made alternatives exist, but they cost more to make and transport. So an estimated 30-40 million metric tons of frack sand will be mined this year. That's a double-digit increase from last year and the year before that. Although Texas and Illinois top the list of U.S. industrial sand producers, thanks to their large processing operations, most of the sand for fracking will come from the Midwest, primarily the red-hot mines of Wisconsin and Minnesota. "I've never seen anything like this, but I'm getting kind of used to it," said Thomas Dolley, a mineral commodity specialist for the U.S. Geological Survey.

Building on Sand

According to USGS, sales of frack sand increased by 77 percent between 2010 and 2011. The industry is valued at more than a billion dollars in the United States alone. A frack sand company, U.S. Silica, went public on the NYSE for the first time last year. "Some people tell me this is going to blow over," said Dolley. "But for the foreseeable future I don't see production tapering off."

"It came so quickly," said Thomas Quinn, a former dairy farmer in Downing, Wisconsin. A new 400-acre frack sand facility has been proposed near his rural home. While many in his village have voiced opposition, neighboring Glenwood City could "balloon annex" the land needed to build the site. "I fell in love with this area because of the hills," said Quinn. "If this thing is approved I'll live 500 yards away from a sand stockpile."

In Wisconsinwhich produces no oil or natural gas—companies like Preferred Sands LLC, which has two locations near Eau Claire, tout a six-track rail network and sand reserves of up to 30 million tons. Other states mine sand, but the bluffs and ridges in Wisconsin are uniquely accessible - denuded by time, and uplifted by an arching landmass. The sandstone outcrops of prime frack interest lie in what geologists call the "driftless area": a unique bubble in Wisconsin that was spared from glaciation during the last ice age. In other words, these outcrops were never smashed and buried under glacial debris, as was the bedrock in much of the rest of the state. So they are easy to find and excavate.

"The sand is so valuable because Mother Nature has done the work for us," said Dolley of the USGS. In two years a hundred new or proposed mines have cropped up in the state, mostly in the central-west. Almost overnight, rolling counties like Chippewa and Trempealeau sprouted conveyor belts, processing plants, and multi-million dollar investors. By some estimates, that could mean 9,000 truckloads of frack sand leaving the state every day. "The industry knew the value of this resource," said Quinn. "But it's been a scramble for the rest of us."

Northwest Territory's Mineral Riches

The modern-day sand rush has taken many Wisconsinites by surprise, but the extent of the resource here was reckoned 170 years ago by a prodigy in a birch bark canoe. A decaying map sealed in state archives holds the key. Armed with ink, horse, and "half-breed" guides, David Dale Owen was a 40-year-old mineral agent assigned by the U.S. Treasury Department to chart a "geological reconnaissance" into Chippewa country33,000 square miles in the heart of the "very large and unsettled" northwest territory.

By late summer 1847, the year before Wisconsin became a state, the territory's wealth of ore and bedrock was yielding to Owen's young science. He gushed his findings in an official report to Washington. Copper and zinc deposits dazzled. The lead overflowed. Iron promised riches, he claimed, even if "amphitheatres of sand" vexed much of the landscape and harbored rattlesnakes. Owen was a Scot-born doctor, artist, Utopian Socialist, and geologist. He headed a party of more than a hundred assistants. What they found would explain the multimillion-dollar sand rush into Wisconsin farm country 16 decades later: The formations here are like almost nowhere else on earth. Deposits of limestone, gneiss, and other strata fill Owen's map, marked by pink, orange, and blue watercolor brushstrokes.

But it's the slash of yellow paint that cuts most boldly across the paper. The hand-drawn key in the corner mistakenly labels the swath as "protozic sandstone." Geologists now know that northern white sandstone is about 500 million years old, from the Cambrian and Ordovician periods. A crescent of such bedrock undergirds much of western Wisconsin, and Owen realized it.

This sandstone is not primordial like the billion-year-old quartzite north of Madison, nor as young as the ice age rubble blanketing much of the state. But its formations tell a unique tale of storm-whipped inland seas and odysseys of erosion. The world that wrought today's frack sand looked far different than the world of today. North America languished in the tropics atop its tectonic plate, carrying Wisconsin 10 degrees south of the equator and tilted on its side.

The continent was flat and crusty, and grit swept across the Precambrian plains. No leaves or roots strained against the vicious winds. Plants hadn't yet evolved on land. But seas submerged and receded from the region for the next hundred million years. The Jordan, Wonewoc, and St. Peter deposits that today yield frack sand are the inheritance of those rhythms. Some of the millions of tons of sand projected to leave Wisconsin this year will be mined underground from tunnels driven beneath rock layers. Otherwise, the choicest outcrops can be spotted from the highway.

This accessibility is key. Extraction doesn't have to mean explosives here. Sometimes blasting caps are required to dislodge tightly cemented sand, but often excavators simply ladle it from hillsides. Following extraction, the freshly carved or blasted sand is washed with water and chemicals, and surge-piled until it's ready to be shipped. This processing can only take place from spring to fall, when the ground is warm enough to absorb the runoff.  (See related story: "Water Demand for Energy to Double by 2035.")

Water usage is intensive. The process drinks swimming pools of groundwater for cleaning, sorting, and dust control. The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resource notes that for five planned sand mines in the northwest part of the state, expected average water use ranges from 420,500 gallons to 2 million gallons per day. The agency says it takes potential impacts on local water supplies into account in its permitting process. (See also "Health Questions Key to New York Fracking Decision, But Answers Scarce.")

After washing, the sand is dried in a rotary drum, and the choice particles are sorted. Most sand doesn't make the grade. Much ancient stone is too fine-grained. Younger glacial and beach sand is too angular and flecked with impurities. The "just right"' sand can bag about $200 a ton after shipping to feed frack sites across the nation.

Lines Drawn in the Sand

Just as communities have been divided over fracking, the sand boom has drawn battle lines all its own. "Industrial sand mining has been a solid job creator and economic contributor to Wisconsin for more than a century," said Rich Budinger, president of the Wisconsin Industrial Sand Association. "We owe our long and successful history here to a deep respect for the land, our neighbors, and our communities."

Budinger cites thousands of new jobs and investments across the state. "We can operate safely and protect the environment while generating significant and very real positive economic impact," he said. The sand boom has resurrected dying rail lines. Where sand is hauled by truck, local governments have insisted companies contribute to local infrastructure so citizens aren't left with the bill for ravaged roads. But in rural and unzoned areas, oversight may be a mirage. Regulations envisioned for backyard quarries are being stretched to accommodate thousand-acre frack sand facilities.

Perhaps most controversially, permits for ambient silica dust lack guidelines for the public. Residents like Quinn fear the invisible, glass-like shards that can drift from processing yards and uncovered train cars. Some experts agree.

"Our short-term measurements ... of the 'fine' particulates associated with cardiovascular disease, lung disease, and lung cancer around frack sand mines and processing plants are higher than the background regional values reported" by the government, said Crispin Pierce of the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.

Pierce said he is concerned the government does not require monitoring of fine particulates or silica "at the rapidly proliferating sand mines, truck and train transport routes, or processing plants" created by the frack sand boom. The tug of priorities is leading to controversy. Small towns and villages like Downing, Wisconsin, are facing big decisions, and neighbors are arguing. "This community is divided in ways I've never seen," said Quinn.

Fresh investment and fresher salaries are winning the hearts of some locals, while others decry the out-of-town license plates and gobbling machinery. Many landowners have been grateful for the opportunity to unload unproductive acreage. Others, fearful of the dust that's being kicked up, shutter the kitchen windows when winds change. Gatherings held in school gyms debate the potential impacts on both property taxes and small-town tranquility. (See also: "Bakken Shale Oil Boom Transforms North Dakota.")

"In the end, I hope we have the core strength and core values to manage the pressure and money coming from outsiders," said Quinn. In 1847, David Dale Owen, ogling the ores in "one of the richest mineral regions yet known in the world," could not have foreseen the gold blowing beneath his feet.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Daylighting Takes Off as Cities Expose Long-Buried Rivers

There's likely an underground stream in your city, but it may soon be seeing the light.

Uncovering buried streams has had huge impacts in places as diverse as Seattle, Washington, Kalamazoo, Michigan, and even Seoul, Korea—improving local water quality, providing habitat for fish and birds, and turning neglected parking lots and roads into public parks that boost neighbors' property values and can revitalize entire cities. And city planners everywhere are starting to take note.

In Yonkers, the fourth largest city in New York State, officials are a third done with a "daylighting" project—a term for the opening up of underground streams (see "11 Rivers Forced Underground"). In addition to exposing a waterway that had long been covered, the effort has already sparked plans for a new minor-league ballpark and new housing.

"I credit the city and the people who ... figured that having a nice river in a downtown was something that was, economically, really good," said Ann-Marie Mitroff, director of river programs for Groundwork Hudson Valley, an environmental justice nonprofit.

But why are all these streams covered at all? Flash back more than a hundred years. In many urban areas around the world, small streams were just getting in the way. You couldn't build on top of them, and the rapidly growing populations in many cities were throwing all their sewage into open water.

Often, engineers found that the simplest solution was to bury the streams, routing the water into pipes and paving over the top. In Yonkers, "the Army Corps of Engineers put a parking lot on top of it, which everybody thought was progress," Mitroff said. [Editor's note: A spokesperson for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers says there are no records of the agency covering streams in Yonkers, and said the Corps would not have had jurisdiction to do so. They pointed to local authorities as most likely responsible; National Geographic has been unable to confirm that.]

In some cities, more than 70 percent of streams have been paved over. In many cases, city residents don't even know that there are buried waterways under their feet.

Now, new research and a desire to revitalize urban cores is leading to a host of daylighting projects. Uncovering buried streams has been proposed in San Francisco, Baltimore, and Detroit, as well as in smaller urban areas nationwide.

Uncovering streams can help reduce flooding. When it rains in a "natural" watershed, soil and plants absorb the water. When it rains onto a parking lot that drains into an underground pipe, the potential for flooding is much larger.

According to a new report from advocacy nonprofit American Rivers, released July 17, urbanization increases the likelihood of floods getting worse. One study found that paving over 25 percent of a watershed could turn a formerly rare severe flood into a twice-a-decade event. When more than 65 percent of a watershed is paved over, those so-called "hundred-year-floods" could hit every year.

Watch the Money Flow

Early daylighting projects, like Arcadia Creek in Kalamazoo, focused on the economic benefits of bringing streams back to the surface. Turning a parking lot into a 3/4-mile-long (1.2-kilometer-long) strip of Arcadia Creek in downtown Kalamazoo created a park that hosts five annual festivals and generates $12 million in annual tourism dollars.

But Arcadia Creek isn't really a creek. According to a report from the Virginia Tech Water Resources Research Center, the Arcadia Creek project and similar ones do "not resemble streams per se, but rather canals with surrounding parkland ... [the streams] are very controlled water channels [with] concrete-lined basins."

In Seoul, a $384 million project daylighted three miles (five kilometers) of stream that has most of its water pumped in from a river seven miles (11 kilometers) away. Both parks have been successful in boosting the economic value of the surrounding land and bringing locals a little closer to nature.

Digging up a stream isn't cheap. In Hutchinson, a town in rural Kansas, daylighting just three city blocks of Cow Creek cost more than $4 million, including relocating four buildings out of the new floodplain. But compared to the cost of unearthing, replacing, and reburying the city's aging pipes, building a new downtown park was an easy choice.

Not all daylighting projects need to be the centerpiece of an urban revitalization project. In Washington, D.C., the District Department of the Environment (DDOE) is undertaking small daylighting projects of a few hundred feet (around a hundred meters) in upper Northwest D.C., which is more suburban than urban, despite its location within the nation's capital.

Each project will create a small amenity for immediate neighbors, but they are mostly intended to mitigate local flooding and improve water quality. "Water in a pipe is not exposed to biological processes that break down pollution," said Steve Saari, watershed protection specialist with DDOE.

A recent EPA study found that streams exposed to sunlight are up to 23 times more efficient at processing nitrogen, which left unprocessed can cause dead zones where fish cannot survive.

Return of a "Living Stream"

In Yonkers, the uncovered stream is "a living stream," Mitroff says. The first reopened part of the stream (which opened in 2012) is already filled with fish and "fairly good-size" American eels, up to 18 inches (46 centimeters) long. "It's remarkable," Mitroff said.

In D.C., only months after daylighting a tributary to Rock Creek, "we've seen a lot more birds, and a lot more unusual birds," said Saari. And, he added, "we had frogs. It was incredible."