The Incredible Shrinking Nation–Climate Change May Sink Tuvalu

“The Incredible Shrinking Man” was a 1957 American science fiction movie. Unfortunately, some shrinking going on today is fact rather than fiction. This time what is shrinking is not a human being but an entire country in which some 11,000 human beings live. Yes, due to climate change, rising seas may cause the small South Pacific nation of Tuvalu to disappear entirely.

Haven’t heard of Tuvalu? That’s not surprising. It is the fourth smallest country in the world and getting smaller as the days pass. In terms of land, Tuvalu is tiny with only 26 square kilometers comprising the entire nation. Due to its remote location mid-way between Hawaii and Australia, it is one of the least visited countries in the world. Having only one airport and not accepting any credit cards doesn’t help tourism either. But should Tuvalu sink beneath the ocean, it will become even less visited.

Before considering Tuvalu’s shrinking and sinking problem, let’s learn a bit more about this possibly soon to be extinct country. Tuvalu is a volcanic archipelago stretching for 420 miles on the outer western edge of Polynesian. The island chain, located west of the International Date Line just below the equator, consists of three reef islands and six atolls. The country is one of only four atoll nations in the world.

All of the Tuvaluan land is low-lying and narrow; most of the islands are barely three meters above sea level with the highest elevation only about 15 feet. No natural rivers or streams exist in Tuvalu. Residents are entirely reliant on collected rainwater for drinking water and agricultural purposes. Tuvaluans would happily sing “Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head” under these circumstances.

But while Tuvalu lacks fresh water, salt water is everywhere–literally. Not only is the country surrounded on all sides by the sea, but saltwater has begun intruding into its soil, impeding agricultural production and contaminating underground water supplies. And saltwater is intruding more and more as the seas rise. In 2018, sea levels at the nation’s only port, Funafuti, were rising twice as fast as global averages. As a result, two of the country’s islands are on the verge of being swallowed by the rising sea and coastal erosion. Scientists predict Tuvalu could be uninhabitable in the next 50 to 100 years.

Because the land is so low-lying, any rise in the sea level means that parts of some Tuvaluan islands will be washed away and other parts will become uninhabitable. Even now parts of the runway at the country’s only airport are sometimes under water during storms. Maybe Tuvalu needs to be investing in some sea planes the way things are going.

Sea levels in the country have been rising 0.2 inches per year eroding shorelines, contaminating water supplies, and harming essential subsistence food crops like coconuts, taro, and pulaka. If you haven’t heard of Tuvalu, you likely haven’t heard of pulaka a/k/a swamp taro, a staple in that country, either. [NOTE: Pulaka might taste good, but the name doesn’t sound very enticing.] The salt intruding into the soil has made the ground almost useless for planting as it destroys staple crops and decreasing crop yield. Accordingly, Tuvalu is almost entirely dependent on imports for food.

Scientists have identified the following impacts of climate change in Tuvalu: more intense and frequent storm surges; decreasing rainfall/more frequent droughts; inundation of low-lying coast areas; coral bleaching; acidification of sea water; and ciguatera poisoning. No! Not ciguatera poisoning! Which is…what? Ciguatera poisoning affects reef fish who ingest micro-algae expelled by bleached coral. And when did this poisoning begin to climb? It coincided with when the weather started to go crazy due to climate change.

With all these negative things occurring in Tuvalu due to climate change, the recent Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, Scotland was eagerly anticipated by that country. It wanted to show the rest of the world what was happening to it and spur fellow countries to take action against further manmade actions negatively affecting the environment. Tuvaluan Foreign Minister filmed a picture is worth a thousand words message for the climate conference; he stood in a suit and tie knee-deep in sea water where there was once solid Tuvaluan ground to illustrate the immediate and dire threat to his nation. (Check out this video at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9EkSrtlapZQ.) Kofe’s “wet suit” is a real eye-opener.

Sadly, Minister Kofe and citizens of Tuvalu cannot afford to sit back and wait for others to take action. They are already considering what future action may be required if climate change cannot be controlled. Their last resort is to evacuate the islands these people have called home for untold generations and years. Such action would be a real life example of the new phrase “climate mobility,” meaning a movement of people forced out of their homes or livelihood because of the effects of global warming.

Minister Kofe’s video debunks any thought that Tuvaluans are being Chicken Littles claiming the sky is falling. While the sky isn’t falling, for them the sea is rising and Tuvalu is sinking. Doesn’t it give you a sinking feeling to know what man has done to the planet we call home? Let’s hope the real life drama of the incredible sinking nation has a happy ending.

WONDER-ing Woman:

Did you follow the events at the Climate Change Conference in Scotland? Should the loss to the sea of a small and insignificant country be of concern to Americans? Why or why not? How would you feel about traveling to a remote place with only one airport and no use of credit cards? Is that a dream or a nightmare?

How Low Can They Go? Extreme Drought Reduces Western Lake Levels To Historic Lows

Finally, a shortage of something we can’t blame on the pandemic. What don’t we have enough of now? WATER. While we may be able to survive, although perhaps not comfortably or healthily, without toilet paper and Lysol wipes, humans simply must have water to live. Extreme drought conditions in the western United States are concerning as they have reduced levels of water bodies to historic lows. What’s going on and how bad is it really?

The fact that a drought is occurring does not in and of itself spell doom. Droughts are recurring climate events in most parts of the world. In fact, droughts are among the earliest documented weather events in human history. For example, the story of Joseph in the Bible is tied to agricultural shortages due to drought. Unfortunately, droughts are becoming more unpredictable and more extreme due to climate change.

Some folks may not be able to spell drought (HINT: Don’t rely on phonetics) much less be able to define it. So what exactly is a drought? A drought occurs when there is a prolonged period of abnormally low precipitation, either rain or snow. Effects of a drought include crop damage, water shortage, diminished water flow, and reduced soil moisture. Whether you look to water for drinking, growing crops, or a recreational venue, a drought spells bad news. (At least “bad news” is easier to spell than “drought.”)

The length of time a drought may last is one of its unpredictable characteristics. First of all, it is hard to tell when a drought commences because its effects don’t appear until after a prolonged period of low precipitation. Once underway, it can last for months or even (GASP!) years.

When asked to identify a devastating weather event, people are likely to say a hurricane or tornado. Nevertheless, according to the National Geographic Society, droughts are the second most costly weather event after hurricanes. A big part of that cost is agricultural losses. Why? Because water is needed to grow crops. While “agricultural losses” may not seem a daunting phrase, read that effect as meaning food production takes a hit. There will be less food to put on the table, and the food that is available will be more expensive.

Over 150 million acres of crops in the western U.S. are touched by at least a moderate drought right now. What specific agricultural losses could result? This year’s spring wheat harvest is 41% below the 2020 level. Producing almost half as much of this grain as the previous year’s output is a steep drop. Add oats to the drought’s hit list as well. According to Bloomberg.com, this year’s U.S. oat crop is expected to be the smallest since 1866. Yes, that’s 1866, over a century and a half ago. Yikes!

OK, but that’s just grain. But wait; there’s more! One hundred percent of the State of California is experiencing drought conditions at the present time. The Golden State produces 1/3 of the country’s vegetables and 2/3 of its fruits and nuts. Without sufficient water for the state’s crops, the entire country will suffer from the greatly reduced bounty from the land.

According to scientists, climate change intensifies drought conditions. What the western U.S. is now undergoing has been referred to as a “megadrought.” This time last year only about 20% of the West was experiencing “severe drought.” That number is up to 80% this year, and the area affected comprises nearly half of the continental United States and affects over 70 million people.

Utah is especially hard hit with more than 99% of that state classified as in extreme to exceptional drought, the two most severe levels on the U.S. Drought Monitor. Utah’s Great Salt Lake, the largest natural natural lake west of the Mississippi River, has seen water levels plummet to a historic low, breaking a record set over 50 years ago in 1963. Even scarier? It’s not even the point of the year when that water body typically hits its lowest levels. Thus, water levels are likely to continue dropping. How low will they go? We probably don’t want to know.

The Great Salt Lake is not the only water body getting slammed by the drought. Water levels at Lake Powell, the second largest reservoir in the country, have also reached a record low. As of Sunday, the lake had fallen to 33% capacity. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation said last week it expects the lake’s elevation to drop another two feet by the end of this month. This declining water level threatens the Glen Canyon Dam’s capacity to produce hydropower for a number of states including Arizona, Colorado, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming. Uh, oh! Less water, less food, and now less power.

Back in June, the nation’s largest reservoir, Lake Mead which is located near Las Vegas, hit a record-low water level as well. I’m betting that’s not a good omen for Western residents. Both Lake Mead and Lake Powell are fed by the Colorado River and provide a critical supply of drinking water as well as water for irrigation for farms, ranches, and Native American communities. The two reservoirs are part of a river system supplying over 40 million people over seven states and Mexico. The handwriting on the wall is that people are going to have no choice but to institute water conservation measures.

These drought conditions should be a splash of cold water in our faces. We must realize our existence is tied to our environment. We have to recognize that water is a valuable resource and grasp just how dependent we are upon its availability. We need to give some thought to the future, both near and distant, and how we might better utilize and conserve what water is available. Turning a blind eye to droughts won’t solve the problem, and if you think it will, you’re all wet.

Just WONDER-ing:

Do you take the availability of water for drinking and other uses for granted? Did you realize the drought in the West was so severe? Do the current extreme drought conditions affect your thinking about the impact of climate change in any way? If so, how?

The Whole World’s Your Oyster Unless You’re In Apalachicola

The end of 2020 approaches. Hallelujah! How about celebrating the demise of this dreadful year with a decadent treat? You could slurp down oysters on the half shell or, if you are more refined, dine on oysters Rockefeller. Whatever your pleasure, you won’t be eating any oysters from the oyster capital of the world because harvesting of wild oysters from Apalachicola Bay has been shut down through 2025. Add yet another black mark to the list of what has transpired in 2020.

So oysters cannot be harvested from one particular location. What’s the big deal? Well, it is a big deal. In the first place, Apalachicola (familiarly “Apalach” to locals) has historically produced 90% of Florida’s oysters and 10% of the nation’s supply. The annual harvest dropped from 3 million pounds in 2009, worth around $9 million, to less than 21,000 pounds in 2019. The supply of oysters in Apalachicola Bay is dwindling. Bye, bye bivalves! Needless to say the economy of Apalachicola, a small town with a population around 2,300, has taken a huge hit and the lives of many of the residents dependent on that industry have been devastated.

But it isn’t just people who have been impacted. The lack of oysters is a troubling sign for the environment. The loss of Apalachicola Bay as an oyster source is evidence that the capacity to produce oysters naturally is waning. The oysters harvested from this area are from some of the last commercially worked wild oyster beds in the country. Almost all the other oysters produced are farmed. Wild, naturally produced oysters are more appealing to me that ones that are artificially farmed. Of course, those of you who are grossed out by the yuk factor of oysters (they look slimy but taste delicious) could care less how they come to be on your plate.

Even worse, oysters are what is called an indicator species which tells about the overall health of an estuary. A drastic reduction in the oyster population does not bode well for the environment in which they grow. In 2013 the federal government declared Apalachicola Bay a disaster area. The environmental situation is so dire that the State of Florida is utilizing a $20 million grant to help restore the bay. That’s right. We need money to mend the mollusk milieu.

The mollusk milieu, Apalachicola Bay, is an estuary in north Florida where freshwater rivers meet the Gulf of Mexico. One of those rivers is the Apalachicola River which is named for the indigenous people who used to live along it; this water body is Florida’s largest river by volume. The resulting water combination when the river meets the Gulf is a brackish, or slightly salty, mix ideal for growing plump, salty oysters. Mmm, mmm.

A number of factors have contributed to the decline of the health of Apalachicola Bay. These factors include the BP oil disaster, droughts, Hurricane Michael, and the lack of freshwater from upstream. Droughts have left the bay lethally salty for the oysters who thrive in brackish water. An increase in salt in the water also increases the presence of oyster predators, which include fish and birds. Apparently humans are not the only ones who enjoy slurping down the mollusks.

On top of years of drought which have devastated the wild oyster beds, Apalachicola Bay has been receiving less freshwater from upstream. Blame the northerners! In this case, the northerners are the residents of the Atlanta metropolitan area.

Hotlanta uses water upstream as a water supply for several million people and has been drawing more and more water. Less freshwater means increased salinity in Apalachicola Bay, a threat to its oysters beds’ vitality. A three decades-long water war in the courts has been waged between the states of Georgia and Florida regarding the upstream water use. As the states slugged it out in the courtroom, back at the bay the oysters were dying off.

COVID-19 may be killing off humans, but by their actions humans are killing their environment and the oysters naturally produced in Apalachicola Bay. The moratorium on harvesting wild oysters in the Bay offers an opportunity to turn the situation around. The five year closure imposed by Florida’s Fish and Wildlife Conservation Committee this month gives wild oyster reefs time to regenerate. The ban could be lifted prior to the elapse of five years if the oyster populations rebound.

Failure of the oyster population to make a come back would be a sad historical event. Humans have enjoyed oysters, which are packed with nutrients, for thousands of years. These saltwater bivalve mollusks which typically range in size from 3″ to 14,” (14 inches? Egad!) even rated a mention in Shakespeare’s “The Merry Wives of Windsor.” The bard’s play contains the line “the world’s mine oyster.”

Although most of us don’t go around quoting Shakespeare, we’ve probably all heard someone say in conversation, “The world’s your (or my) oyster,” meaning there is the opportunity to achieve great success. Unfortunately, the world literally is the human race’s oyster. Far from achieving success, it appears that we have driven our habitat to the brink of environmental disaster with the wild oyster beds in Apalachicola Bay on the frontline of casualties. With no oysters available, understanding lines from Shakespeare is going to be even more difficult.

Just WONDER-ing:

Do you eat oysters? If so, what’s your favorite way to eat them? How alarming is it to you that the ability to produce wild oysters is dwindling? Were you aware that the phrase “the world’s my oyster” has it origin in a Shakespeare play?

Egregious Environmental Emergency — Marine Life Matters!

People aren’t the only ones having a rough go during 2020. Marine life is also taking a big hit with an egregious environmental emergency in Mauritius. A massive oil spill occurred off this Indian Ocean island leading to deaths of dolphins and whales and a threat to the world’s third largest coral reef. Haven’t heard about this disaster? Exactly! Marine life apparently doesn’t matter to the U.S. media.

Part of the reason you may not have heard this news story is because the events didn’t take place in the United States. In fact, you may not even be able to find the location on a map. Ground zero for this coastal catastrophe is the Republic of Mauritius, an island nation in the Indian Ocean off of the southeast coast of Africa. For geography whizzes, Mauritius is due east of Madagascar. For the rest of us, we first need to find Madagascar to start the hunt for Mauritius. 

Mauritius, a former British colony, is comprised of four islands–Mauritius, St. Brandon, Rodrigues, and Agalega–which comprise part of the Mascarene Islands. With a tropical climate, it is (or at least was pre-COVID-19) a major tourist destination. Mauritius is also home to some of the world’s rarest plants and animals. The previously unknown species of bird, the dodo (only dodos haven’t heard of the dodo), was found when Mauritius was initially discovered. The island provided the only known home for the dodo, but that bird became extinct in 1681. 

Aside from varied flora and fauna, this island paradise is also home to approximately 1.3 million residents. And these residents are currently hot under the collar about a shipping accident and their government’s response to it. 

On July 25th a Panama flagged, Japanese owned ship, the M/V Wakashio, was tootling along the coast of Mauritius. (An “M/V” is a merchant vessel transporting cargo for hire for those, which would include me, who are nautically challenged.) The ship, on its way from China to Brazil, was carrying a cargo of oil. Its crew was a merry lot celebrating the birthday of a crew member. To add to the merriment, the captain decided to go off course a few miles and get closer to the coast so his subordinates could get a mobile phone signal to call their families. But the contact made was the bulk carrier striking a coral reef located a mile off shore and running aground. Oops!

The surf pounded the stranded ship which ultimately cracked, spilling approximately 1,000 TONS of heavy oil into fragile marine areas. Pretty much all of the Mauritian coast is a fragile marine area since the island is surrounded by the world’s third largest coral reef. The fuel leaked into the (now formerly) pristine and turquoise waters of the Mahebourg Lagoon, and  threatened two environmentally protected marine ecosystems and the Blue Bay Marine Park Reserve. The Reserve was set up to protect “the area’s rich underwater forest of rare corals.”  So much for that aim. The leaking oil also wreaked havoc on a small island that served as a bird and wildlife sanctuary.

Mass damage to the marine ecosystem was feared, and Mauritian Prime Minister Pravind Jugnauth declared a state of environmental emergency. No worries, right? The government was in charge. On second thought….

In response to the declared emergency, the Mauritian government took several steps. First, the captain of the ship and the first officer were arrested and charged with “endangering safe navigation.” What? Wasn’t it marine life and wildlife that were endangered? Sure their ship had lodged on a coral reef, but no ships are supposed to be navigating there so who’s navigation was endangered?

Secondly, the decision was made to deliberately sink the stricken ship. This plan required pumping out the fuel in the ship’s two remaining intact large oil tanks. What could possibly go wrong with that plan?? This decision was, understandably, met with anger by the island’s residents who rely on pristine waters and beaches for fishing and tourism, mainstays of the country’s economy. Things were bad enough with the hit taken by the country’s tourism due to COVID-19 and the ban on international travel.

Adding to the discontent, the Mauritian government spent a hefty sum to hire some international consultants to advise them. Really big bucks were paid from the country’s coffers to hire foreigners when local experts were readily available and presumably already familiar with the area and the issues. Hey! Another oxymoron. Alongside military intelligence we can put the phrase “government intelligence.”  

Within days of the Wakashio’s sinking, approximately 50 dead whales and dolphins washed up on the Mauritian shores. According to experts, water-soluble chemicals in the fuel may have caused these deaths. Unfortunately, the fuel being transported by the ship was a new low-sulfur fuel oil being introduced to reduce air pollution; therefore, the long-term effects of the spill are uncertain. But the outlook isn’t positive. As a WHO spokesman pointed out: “Oil contains hydrocarbons…, sulfur, and even heavy metals, all of which are acutely and chronically toxic to marine and terrestrial wildlife, as well as humans.” 

Mauritians reacted similarly to Americans who are upset about an event. They organized protests to express their frustration with the government’s perceived slow response and the deep secrecy surrounding it. Nevertheless, unlike Americans recently, the Mauritians are capable of having peaceful protests. The first protest was held on August 29th and saw 100,000+ people in attendance. The second protest, on September 12th, had around 50,000 participants. Strikingly, these figures represent between 5% and 10% of the island’s population. That’s an incredible turnout! 

These protests, held in Mahebourg, an area affected by the spill, were quite creative. Many individuals carried and waved inflatable dolphins. They also waved clever signs lambasting the government such as “I’ve seen better cabinets in IKEA.” Well, at least the beleaguered Mauritians haven’t lost their sense of humor. The protesters also called for some specific reforms such as revising their constitution to call for greater rights for nature.

Whatever punitive action is taken against the Japanese shipping company and the ship’s commanding officers, the fact remains marine life has been unalterably damaged. A 100,000 year old barrier coral reef has been soiled and marine life has been threatened. Even revising the Mauritian constitution to give rights to nature won’t help the dead dolphins and whales. Perhaps humans need to take the concept more seriously about lives mattering. It’s not just human ones who are under siege in this world. If we don’t wake up and smell the coffee, some marine life may go the way of the dodo.

Just WONDER-ing:

Before reading this post, had you heard about this environmental emergency? What’s the appropriate action to be taken against businesses responsible for such incidents occurring? Should life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness be extended to marine life in constitutions? Were you aware that the dodo, when in existence, was found only in Mauritius?

 

 

Burn, Baby, Burn — Rain Forest Inferno

The Amazon is hot right now, and I’m not talking about popularity. The world’s largest rain forest is literally hot as an unbelievable amount of fires are raging there. Burn, baby, burn. It’s a rain forest inferno! So vast are these blazes that NASA was able to capture images of Amazonian forest fire plumes from space. What’s going on and how does it affect you? The answers are surprising and very scary.

First of all, why are fires burning in a rain forest? Isn’t that a rather wet place where a fire would be unlikely to start? Fires are indeed rare in the Amazon most of the year because moisture keeps them down. July and August bring the dry season, and fires consequently increase during this time.

Fires this summer, though, are off the charts. Approximately 73.000 fires have been detected by Brazil’s space research center, INPE. The resulting smoke has drifted about 1,700 miles away and darkened the skies in Sao Paulo, Brazil’s largest city, during daylight hours. NASA has pictures of a resulting smoke layer from the fires more than 3.2 million square kilometers.  Holy smoke! The Brazilian state of Amazonas has even declared an emergency because of the fires.

It must be an extremely dry year for all these fires to be burning, right? Nope. The weather is normal this year, so Mother Nature isn’t the culprit for starting all these blazes. Who is? HUMANS. And these are not accidental fires, they are deliberately set. Humans are causing these fires by utilizing slash and burn tactics to clear land for farming and pasture.

Satellite images show an increase in deforestation in the Amazon during May, June, and July. Trees are being pulled down and then later burned after they have dried. Scientists have confirmed that the fires are linked to deforestation because the areas ablaze line up with areas of prior land clearing. The fact that such big columns of smoke are being produced, indicates enormous piles of wood are being burned. Scientists have basically concluded that where there’s lots of smoke there’s big fires as a result of deforestation.

And big fires are the result of BIG deforestation. The latest reported figures show deforestation increased in the Amazon area by 88% in June compared to the same period last year. By some estimates, more than a soccer field’s worth of the Amazon rain forest is being felled every MINUTE. Ain’t that a kick in the environment’s face?

Why such enormous land clearing? Blame the cows! Cattle ranching is the biggest reason behind deforestation in every Amazon country, accounting for 80% of current deforestation. Where’s the beef? Well about 200 million head of cattle are in the Amazon area of Brazil. Brazil is the largest cattle exporter in the world; it supplies 1/4 of the global market. And those cattle have to go somewhere. They can’t climb trees, so the rain forest trees are being cut down to accommodate cattle. Hmm! Maybe if we ate more chicken like the Chick-Fil-A cow urges, less deforestation would occur…

But cattle can’t take all the blame. Old MacDonald is guilty as well. Thousands of acres of Amazonian rain forest are being cleared at a time to benefit large-scale agriculture. Brazil also exports large amounts of soybeans. Given the current trade war between China and the U.S., China is turning to Brazil as an alternate source of soybeans.

And is Brazil’s government simply allowing all this deforestation to occur? Pretty much. The country’s far-right president, Jair Bolsonaro, who took office January 1, 2019, is known for his anti-environmental rhetoric. He has indicated he does not intend to go after farmers, loggers, and miners who take and clear forests.

Not only is Bolsonaro looking the other way when it comes to deforestation, he is actually encouraging it to bolster Brazil’s economy. The Brazilian president has been accused of harming the Amazon’s environment to benefit the loggers, farmers, and miners who helped get him elected. When the head of Brazil’s IPNE agency reported the 88% increase in deforestation from the past year, he was promptly fired. Bolsonaro stated that these deforestation figures were “lies.”

The Amazon rain forest fires have caused an international outcry and were a hot topic at the recent G7 Summit in France. French president Emmanuel Macron described these fires as an international crisis and squarely put the blame on the Brazilian president. He characterized the situation as an emergency which should be addressed at the G7 Summit because the Amazon rain forest, known as the plane’ts lungs, produces 20% of the world’s oxygen.

Macron’s comments brought the Amazon fires to the attention of many in the world who were not aware they were occurring. Due to the resulting international pressure that more action be taken, Brazil deployed its army to tackle the fires.

While the loss of rain forest land due to fire is regrettable, why is it a crisis and why should we be concerned? One of the main tenets of global climate policy is to curb deforestation.Such action is seen as vital to slowing global warming. Specifically, carbon stores in the rain forest serve to slow global warming.

As a result of the ongoing fires, millions of tons of carbon dioxide is being spewed into the air daily. The Amazon is a key part of Earth’s climate system because it absorbs about 5% of the carbon dioxide emitted. Less rain forest means more carbon dioxide in our atmosphere.

Damage to the Amazon isn’t cool because it could reduce the forest’s cooling effects. Tropical rain forests are like giant air conditioners for the local area and the world. Water evaporating from tree leaves removes heat from the atmosphere reducing the temperature..

A rain forest is also a rain factory. It generates rain to help crops grow. If land is cleared, you may be able to grow more crops, but will there be a successful harvest if there’s not enough rain to grow the crops?

The long-term outlook is extremely concerning. The Amazon has already been deforested by 15% of its original state. Scientists worry that a tipping point will be reached when the deforestation hits 25%. What happens when the tipping point is hit? There will not be enough trees recycling water, and the Amazon will degrade into dry grassland.

A rain forest is a magical place because it is lush, green, and wet. It produces oxygen for us to breath, absorbs carbon dioxide, generates rain to grow crops, and produces cooling effects. But it we abuse the forest by clearing too many trees, the magic will be lost. Brazil, and in fact all inhabitants of planet Earth, need to be nice to Mother Nature, and ultimately to ourselves, by ensuring rain forests are protected. If there has to be an inferno, let it be a disco inferno. Burn, baby, burn!

JUST WONDER-ing:

Is it nice to fool with Mother Nature by allowing rampant deforestation? Have you considered how the environmental policies of other countries may ultimately impact you by affecting the world as a whole? Is a government being responsible if deforestation is allowed to occur unchecked? Is is short-sighted?

 

The Last Straw

 

Little things such as the tongue can cause big problems. Another one of those little things that causes trouble is something you have placed your tongue on numerous times. That little thing is a plastic straw. If some activists have their way, the next plastic straw you put your tongue on will be the last (plastic) straw. Those who care about our environment are chanting, “DOWN WITH PLASTIC STRAWS!”

I confess, I’ve never given much thought to plastic straws–at least until this past weekend. As I was eating in a restaurant,  I felt a strange texture in my mouth. The straw in my glass of ice tea felt weird on my tongue. Why was that? Well, it wasn’t a plastic straw; it was a paper straw. Other than the fact that the straw had a different feel on my tongue than I was used to, it was no big deal to be using a paper straw. But my encounter with the paper straw started me thinking about plastic straws and why they are being vilified by environmentalists.

What possible harm could an innocuous tube that helps us slurp sodas and suck up shakes do? Well, just one straw isn’t much of a problem. But when 500 million or so are used by Americans alone each day (per the National Park Service) and then tossed, the extent of the resulting harm may shake you up.

Plastic straws are manufactured as a single use product, i.e., it’s one use and done. The life use of a plastic straw is a matter of minutes–however long it takes you to get to the bottom of the drink it’s helping you get into your mouth. While it’s useful life is fleeting, the plastic straw sticks around as garbage for a long, long time. A discarded plastic straw will still be here WAY after you and I are gone.

Recycling plastic straws is not a viable option because their thin design makes them too small for most recycling machinery. So straws are left to decompose, but plastic has difficulty doing so. When plastic does start to break down, it releases toxic chemicals such as BPA. I’m no chemist, but I’m concerned because two of the three letters in BPA almost spell “bad.” GASP!

And where do plastic straws go to decompose–or at least attempt to decompose? Sadly, many of them end up polluting our oceans. According to the Wildlife Preservation Society, plastic straws are routinely among the top ten items most collected in beach cleanup programs. They, along with cigarette butts, must be too heavy for the average beachgoer to deliver to a waste receptacle just a few feet away.

Those plastic straws not thrown in the trash by responsible beachgoers or cleaned up during beach cleanup events, are floating in the ocean. So, what’s a few straws floating among the waves?  Well, according to the World Economic Forum Report, at the current rate of accumulation, the amount of plastic in the oceans will outweigh all the fish there by 2050. Holy mackerel!

And these straws do not harmlessly float in the sea. They pose hazards to marine life who ingest them or become entangled with them. A video of a sea turtle having a straw removed from its nose went viral on the Internet. I dare you to watch the graphic video (found at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4wH878t78bw) and still feel compelled to use a plastic straw. The poor sea creature was in obvious pain because we humans simply must have a plastic tube to be able to drink our beverage of choice. Heaven forbid we simply lift a cup to our lips and drink directly from it.

So why are we using plastic straws anyway? A history lesson will explain it. The original patent for a drinking straw was filed in 1888 by Marvin Chester Stone. He was mass producing paper straws by 1890. A large scale plastic production infrastructure was in place during World War II, but once the war ended, manufacturers needed a new market for plastic. Post-war, it was actually cheaper to produce plastic straws than paper ones; the plastic straws were also more durable than paper, i.e., they wouldn’t tear when put into a to go lid. Therefore, manufacturers transitioned from arming the country for war to arming the country to drink beverages.

Now that Americans are aware of the harm to our environment caused by plastic straws, why are we still using them? Money not only makes the world go round, but it determines the type of straws we are offered. According to paper straw manufacturer Aardvark Straws, a paper straw costs a penny more than a plastic straw to produce. A penny may seem like a paltry amount, but for large corporations who use huge quantities of plastic straws, this cost adds up to hundreds of millions of dollars. The almighty dollar is more important to them than the Earth’s environment.

Fortunately, some businesses get the damage caused by plastic straws and are doing something about the problem. Starbucks, Marriott, and American Airlines are all phasing out plastic straws. Starbucks plans to have plastic straws phased out by 2020.

Governmental entities are also getting on the ban the plastic straw bandwagon. In 2018 California became the first state to enact a statewide ban on plastic straws in sit down restaurants. Customers can request a plastic straw, but they get a paper one otherwise. On January 1, 2019, a ban on the use of plastic straws in restaurants and other service businesses began in Washington, D.C.  The cities of Seattle, Miami Beach, and San Francisco have plastic straw bans in place.

Don’t like the idea of a paper straw? Paper straws do have some drawbacks. Paper can dissolve, it can tear, it can be bitten through, and it may not afford the flexibility, strength, and safety that disabled users need. There are other alternatives to plastic straws such as bamboo and wood straws. Some straws are made for multiple uses, but you’d have to remember to take it with you. That may not be an option for you if you regularly misplace your car keys.

Some lifestyle changes require a drastic change in behavior. Switching to a straw of a material other than plastic is not one of them. Care about Earth? Don’t want to harm marine life? If you must choose between paper and plastic, choose PAPER. This choice may be a life or death one for sea creatures. Come on! Suck it up and ditch plastic straws!

Just WONDER-ing: Have you ever used a paper straw? Would you be willing to try one if you haven’t? Would it be that difficult for you to switch to a non-plastic straw or even drink a beverage without one?