Monday, May 30, 2011

The Musings of a Manual Mower

Today, Memorial Day, I mowed my yard with a power mower for the first time since we bought our house almost four years ago. The incessant rain of the last several weeks had turned my yard into a jungle and I just didn't have the extra hours this added thickness of grass would add to the work my Great States reel type mower and I have done routinely handled together over our tenure in this house.

My Great States reel-type mower. Other name plates are made by the same manufacturer.

So I borrowed my neighbor Joe's 22 inch mulching power mower. He assured me the Earth would forgive me. Joe's is not a fancy mower -- not self-propelled or bagging or any such fancy stuff, but it seems reliable and started easily on the first pull.

Cutting grass with such a mower for the first time in a few years allows for a fresh comparison. If you're thinking about getting that polluter out of your garage, here's my take on it.

How much of a polluter your lawn mower is depends on its vintage and how well it's running. Since 1995, regulations have reduced mower emissions substantially, and those regulations have been phased in over time. While mowers, of course, contribute far less emissions in total than do cars and trucks, an average mower (in 2008) pollutes 11 times as much per hour according to the EPA.

Today's mowing took a little less time, made a lot more noise, and sprayed grass clippings about in ways I'm not accustomed to. Given the height of the grass, it was also a lot less effort. And, I really, really appreciated the mower and Joe's generosity in lending it. But I hope I can go at least another four years before I feel the need to use a power mower again.

I still had to walk about the same distance, pushing a thingy around that had sharp spinning blades, move things in the yard out of the way (and back), and sweat a bunch. I couldn't listen to podcasts whilst I mowed as I've become accustomed to doing. There are grass clippings strewn about my driveway and up my picket fence (but I figure the incessant rain will take care of that before too long).

I burned up more gas (than the none that I typically burn), and burned off at least a few fewer calories than standard. And I didn't enjoy it nearly as much as my typical quiet little walk about the yard.

It also struck me as being only slightly easier than my typical mowing job, and I've got things slightly out of adjustment on my mower that cost less than $100 new several years ago. I actually inherited it from Dad and I'm not sure quite how old it is. (Click the link to see other reflections on what I inherited from Dad).

I need to work on fine tuning the space between the blades and the cutting bar and stop fantasizing about the new models of reel type mowers that are now available. (Note that the placement of that link doesn't represent an endorsement of the company selling the different models available -- it's only intended to point you to a source of information on what's available).

Looking at what's newly available shows some models that can be raised to a 4" cutting height. Maybe if I had one of those, I'd not have felt the need to use non-human power on the lawn today.

Bottom line: This wet weather let my lawn become more than me and my reel-type mower were willing to handle, but I hope and expect to go at least four more years before using a mower powered by anything but me again. If you're mowing with a walk-behind gasoline-powered mower, consider changing to human-powered mowing.

Don Duggan-Haas

Friday, May 20, 2011

Searching for a deeper understanding of the climate change debate.

Although the effects of climate change are becoming more evident, action and concern over climate change seem to be waning.  Just recently, a Gallup poll reported that only 53 percent of Americans think that global warming is a serious threat to themselves or their family, down from 63 percent in 2007.

Climate Shift, a new report released this spring by American University professor, Matthew Nisbet, aims to find out why climate change policy and understanding has stalled.  The report is part of a larger research effort by a network of social scientists, media analysts, and other scholars to tackle the complex issue from a broad point of view, looking at the climate change threat from an economic, social, and even philosophical perspective.

The report is huge in scope and Nisbet tries to tackle many dimensions of the climate change debate, focusing mainly on flaws within the environmental movement and ultimately calling for a shift in strategy. In the report, he reviewed the funding sources and expenditures for the major national environmental groups and compared them to conservative think tanks and their industry allies, the latter of which lobbied against the 2009 cap and trade climate change legislation.  He looked at patterns in media portrayals of climate change and the amount of attention this issue receives in the media.  He also examined factors that influence how both the general public and scientists/ environmentalists interpret and view climate change politics.

Overall, he argues that the reason science communication over climate change has failed is because it has been communicated in a political context, framed within specific policy solutions that are polarized across the liberal/ conservative spectrum.  He points that out that as the Democratically introduced cap and trade legislation became more politically viable in 2009-2010, there was a simultaneous increase in climate skepticism among Republicans.  Similarly, Nisbet contends that while Al Gore has been instrumental in bringing the climate change issue to the forefront, he has had a polarizing influence in the climate change debate by pairing the message of climate change with strong criticism of Republicans.

Nisbet calls for the need to present climate change as an issue, similar to public health and poverty, that requires addressing on many levels, not just in the context of single policy solutions.  He argues that rather than spending money and resources on countering claims of Republicans and conservatives, environmental groups should invest in a broader range of policies, smaller in scope, and across several levels of government, including towns and counties, to engage people directly.  He also proposes the climate change be framed as an opportunity for technological innovation in terms of moving away from an oil-based economy, rather than as a pollution issue.    

The report has garnered mixed reactions from the environmental community and the blogosphere.  Some find Nisbet's criticism of the environmental movement offensive and accuse him of blaming environmentalists for the death of cap and trade.  Others are praising the report for raising valid questions and proposing a fresh take on how to approach climate change communication.  Either way, the report has spawned much discussion and is bound to be influential in shaping the future of climate change policy.

Monday, May 9, 2011

The Agulhas system may play a key role in ocean circulation and climate change.

Off the coast of East Africa, the Agulhas current sweeps downward towards the continent's tip and, for the most part, swings back east into the Indian Ocean.  Some of it, however, "leaks" out around the cape and into the Atlantic ocean.  New research, published recently in Nature, suggests that this "Agulhas leakage" may have a huge impact on climate variability.
The Agulhas system.   Credit: Erik van Sebille, RSMAS

While is it not known exactly how much water is leaked into the Atlantic, the salty waters of the Agulhas form giant rings and eddies that ultimately join the Atlantic's main current system, the Atlantic Meridonal Overturning Circulation (AMOC), which includes the more familiar Gulf Stream current.  The AMOC carries warm water northwards, keeping parts of North America and Europe several degrees warmer than they otherwise would be.

Under the current climate change prediction models, ice melt from the Arctic and a weakening of the AMOC due to the buildup of greenhouse gases will result in cooling of the North Atlantic.  But authors of the Nature article say that the Agulhas leakage could compensate for these changes, helping to keep the North Atlantic warm, in contrast to these current prediction models .

In addition, geologic and modern data provide evidence that the Agulhas leakage increases under a warming climate, thus further suggesting that it could play a leading role in climate variability, as our climate continues to warm.

Researchers looked at the abundance of tropical plankton (Agulhas fauna) preserved in marine sediments corresponding to the late Pleistocene epoch, a period of repeated glaciations during the past 500,000 years.  They found less Agulhas fauna in sediments corresponding to glacial periods and more Agulhas fauna in sediments corresponding to periods of a warming climate, thus indicating that the leakage had increased during periods of warming.

Modern data, gathered from satellites, oceanographic instruments, and computer simulations show shifts in wind patterns, a southward expansion of Indian Ocean currents, and a warming of the waters in the Agulhas system that all favor an increase in the Agulhas leakage.

The authors of this study point out that more research into the role of the Agulhas leakage in climate change is sorely needed.  Questions such as whether the Agulhas leakage is a potential climate trigger or whether there is a feedback mechanism involved in its variability still remain to be answered.  Hopefully, research into the Agulhas will shed a new light on an often overlooked piece of the climate puzzle.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Catch these PBS programs on climate & energy

Today's post is primarily to draw your attention to other stuff -- two fine programs aired on PBS last month (and now available on the web) about climate and energy. Earth: The Operators' Manual aired April 10 on many PBS stations (but not on mine!). NOVA's Power Surge aired on April 20. You don't even need to go off to the program's pages -- they are available for viewing on this very page!

As a plus, unlike many programs about climate and energy, both of these programs are hopeful in their tone and conclusions.

You can watch Earth: The Operators' Manual by clicking below. This program features Penn State climatologist Richard Alley describing the science of climate change in a clear and easy to understand way. Energy use, on various scales, is compared to the number of 100 watt lightbulbs that energy would illuminate. We humans collectively use 15.7 terawatts of energy - 15,700,000,000,000 watts or 157 billion 100 watt bulbs.

The program also draws thoughtful attention to how and why the US military is reducing its use of fossil fuels, the military implications of climate change, and how China is working to reduce its dependency on fossil fuels. It also notes that the city of Houston, TX is the United States' largest municipal purchaser of green energy.

NOVA's Power Surge investigates the way we use energy, how that's changing, where energy comes from, how we can use less of it, and how we can use energy more cleanly. This quote from the opening is good food for thought as you settle in for the program:
Everyone wants it [energy development] somewhere other than their own backyard. Guess what? If you don't solve the problem, your backyard isn't going to look the same anyway.
Central to the program is the discussion of climate wedges -- Stephen Pacala's idea that we need to reduce emissions by7 billion tons of carbon and we can divide that 7 billion into wedges of 1 billion tons each. Wedges include efficiency and solar, for example. We might use multiple efficiency wedges to reach stabilization. A range of technologies and societal changes are explored.

Also included is an interesting way to visualize your carbon footprint -- using tons of compost as a visual aid.

The program raises many interesting points of consideration, one near it's closing, strikes me as especially important as we move ahead in making energy decisions:
One big nuclear plant is the same thing as 3000 big wind turbines and is the same as about 50 square miles of photovoltaics. 
The quote then goes onto end with the one cited above from the beginning of the program. All of these approaches have substantial environmental impacts. Determining which is the worst of the lot makes me like efficiency even more. (Not mentioned here, though, is the idea that those solar panels can go on existing roofs).

Watch the full episode. See more NOVA.

There's overlap between the programs. Both of them substantial attention to efficiency and note that efficiency initiatives are money savers as well as emissions reduction strategies. Both of programs also note that China leads the world in the production of solar panels and at least hint at what that movement means from a political perspective. But the programs have substantial difference as well. And the approaches are different enough that you'll benefit from watching both of them.