Sunday, March 29, 2009

When the Earth Speaks

Around 6:00 p.m. this evening, angry dark green clouds roiled into our neighborhood. Last time I had seen that color cloud was 1980 in North Carolina, when a tornado passed over the summer camp where I worked.

Well, the skies opened, and an impossible amount of hail mixed with buckets of rain poured over my neighborhood—a river of whitewater rolled down the street and swirled down the storm drain. Mixed with in were half-inch sized hailstones that covered lawns like snow.

It was easily the strangest storm I have ever witnessed—never so much water is so short a time; never hail like this. Our family gathered on the porch to watch in awe.

Oddly, I was just between reading two intriguing pieces in the NY Times, one Thomas Friedman column about needing an ecological Dow to monitor the earth’s health, the other the magazine’s cover story on global warming naysayer Freeman Dyson.

It’s been said here and everywhere before that one weather event is not proof of global warming, but a storm of that violence—indicating large amount so energy—in March is uncommonly rare.

And this storm followed a day of summerish temperatures in the high 70s.

My gut was also right: this same storm had triggered tornados in Lancaster County an hour earlier. The photo above is from the web site of WHTM in Lancaster of a mobile home-- of course-- upended. Those green clouds were, in fact, tornado-makers. In March. Unheard of.

We continue setting records for strange weather—but that’s OK, the weather’s not broken.

Truth is, the Dyson article is extremely important—global warming is the signature discussion of this time, and there should be vigorous debate in the court of public opinion weighing the science. Our knees should not all jerk in the same direction.

But we better talk fast, because when the earth speaks like it did today, we better listen.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

New Study: Fish & Pharmaceuticals

“Don’t drink the water and don’t breathe the air,” sang Tom Lehrer in his classic 1960s send-up, “Pollution.” All these years later, with our waterways breathtakingly cleaner, he still may be onto something.

One year ago at this time, an Associated Press investigation showed that “a vast array of pharmaceuticals—including antibiotics, anti-convulsants, mood stabilizers and sex hormones—were found (albeit in minute quantities) in the drinking water of at least 46 million Americans,” in 24 metropolitan areas, including Detroit, Louisville, southern California and Northern New Jersey.

Today, Baylor University professors, in a study funded by the EPA, revealed that fish caught near wastewater treatment plants serving five major U.S. cities—including my Philadelphia—had residues of pharmaceuticals in their tissues, including medicines used to treat high cholesterol, allergies, high blood pressure, bipolar disorder and depression.

The report says the concentrations of these pharmaceuticals are “tiny,” in fact, you’d have to eat “hundreds of thousands of fish” to receive one dose of the drug. But it also points out that “the presence of so many prescription drugs—and over-the-counter medicines like acetaminophen and ibuprofen—in so much of our drinking water is heightening worries among scientists of long-term consequences to human health.” Those consequences could include reproductive irregularities, the early onset of puberty, and increasing resistance to antibiotics.

These chemicals enter waterways in two ways. First, we excrete them, and they successfully pass through wastewater treatment plants. (And there as yet no standards for drugs in wastewater.) Then, some are flushed down the toilet directly when we dispose of old prescriptions. But most surprisingly enter through the first method…

The Baylor team studied tissues in rural New Mexican rivers, but these fish did NOT have these drugs in their bodies.

In addition to human impacts, scientists are searching for clues to riddles of animal abnormalities: apparently increasing numbers of creatures born with physical and sexual deformities. These chemicals may be one piece of the puzzle, especially if these drugs mimic hormones.

Findings from this first nationwide study of human drugs in fish tissue have prompted EPA to significantly expand similar ongoing research to more than 150 different locations.

Just what do we eat? And should the EPA create standards. Watch: it's coming.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The Real March Madness

I get grumpy this time of year: wildflowers have started popping outdoors, birds are singing lustily, woodpeckers are drumming for mates, migrants are returning, insects waking up…

...And we’re all glued to our TV sets and office pools studying “bracketology,” arguing who the Final Four will be, wondering which Cinderella might make it to the ball this year, debating which teams should have been seeded higher or differently.

Yes, it’s March Madness, that time of year when mature adults go gaga for Gonzaga, pray for a Number 16 finally going all the way (it’s never happened!), passionately discuss matchups like Xavier versus Portland State, Illinois versus West Kentucky. I mean, really. Can’t you just let the kids play the game and see what happens?

Meanwhile, the REAL March madness is unfolding outside. The world is bursting forth, shedding winter’s doldrums, cloaking itself in spring finery. The goldfinches at my feeders are turning bright canary yellow; the white-throated sparrows are definitely sporting sharper white throats. A Question Mark butterfly zipped by today, the first butterfly of the year. Hallelujah! Daffodils have taken the baton from crocuses.

And we’re debating whether the Cal State Northridge Matadors can get past the Chattanooga Mocs.
Sometimes I’m not sure we deserve a world as beautiful as the one we have been given…

End the madness: get outside!