Saturday, March 03, 2007

Sky awareness alert:

Total lunar eclipse viewable from all continents this weekend.
  • First penumbral contact 20:18 GMT (not visible in the Americas)
  • Interior umbral contact 22:44 GMT (viewable in Eastern South America, Europe Africa & Asia)
  • Greatest Eclipse 23:21 GMT (viewable at moonrise in Eastern North America)
  • ...
  • Last penumbral contact 02:24 GMT (not viewable in Eastern Asia & Australia)
Bonus points:
What is moving - the Earth, its shadow, the Moon, or all three?

Extra bonus points:
How many of the following would you need to know to figure out how far it is to the sun by timing this eclipse?
  • Mass of the Earth
  • Mass of the Moon
  • Mass of the Sun
  • Diameter of the Earth
  • Diameter of the Moon
  • Diameter of the Sun
  • Distance to the Moon
  • Need more info


 Friday, March 02, 2007


A set of questions sent to me by a group of sixth grade students preparing an exhibit at one of the St. Clements' Schools in Edmonton, Canada:

To whom it may concern

Hello. We are grade six students and our names are []. Our central idea is today’s actions influence tomorrows events. We are working on deforestation in exhibition. We wanted to ask you a few questions on deforestation. It would be great if you could email us back, phone us or even come into our school (if you’re close enough). We would be really pleased if you could answer the following questions [] on deforestation and help us reach our goal. We are writing this letter because we need someone to help take action in deforestation. If you don’t know what the exhibition is, it is a project that we are all doing in groups. And it is not just our class that is doing this project. Exhibition is supposed to be about different topics that groups research and take action on. Thank you for time and remember to contact us by computer, phone or call the school if possible. Please contact us as soon as possible.

1. What is deforestation?
Although there are some very technical definitions of this, the easiest one is simply to consider the removal, reduction, or change of naturally occurring vegetation as 'deforestation.'

2. Why does deforestation happen?
Deforestation can occur for many reasons, some of them natural, some of them man-made. Natural deforestation can occur when for example a natural climate change occurs, a water source is cut off (by landslide, by earthquake changing underwater flow etc.), or by shorter events like fires, or disease (e.g. bark beetles). Man-made events are things like clearing forests for cropland, acid rain, excessive use of groundwater, building of dams, and climate change caused by man's industrial activities.

3. How does deforestation affect animal life?
While you are probably most familiar with the negative effects (loss of habitat), you should also know that for other species it is actually positive. For example, for species that thrive at the edges of forests, having more edges is better, so they tend to do better. It's a very complicated question, and does not have a clear-cut answer, since it depends on what you want the final outcome to be. One interesting effect is that deforestation inland can cause large changes out at sea, because a lot of soil is released into rivers, which is then dumped in the ocean. The ocean around Haiti has been completely changed by the deforestation of the island for firewood, which has completely changed the quality of seawater in the coastal areas.

4. Does deforestation connect to pollution?
Sometimes yes, sometimes no. For instance, not all pollution will cause deforestation - the effects of increased CO2 are very complex, and it looks like some plants will do better than others (e.g. climbing vines, poison ivy will do very well). However, pollution from things like NOx and SO definitely change the landscape (the area around Sarnia, Ontario is a prime example of this). There is very little that will grow in the area besides hardy lichens, where there used to be mature stands of maple, beech and alder. One direct connection is that deforestation is often for specific purposes that directly lead to pollution - you cut down wood to burn it, releasing pollutants.

5. What are the short term effects of deforestation on communities and the world?
Again, good and bad. Remember, we have to get food from somewhere, and usually that means clearing forest (deforesting) to get farmland for crops. We also need energy for cooking, and to keep warm, and that is why so many areas have cut down their forests simply to eat and stay warm. But to do that you pay a price - you slowly have to walk farther and farther to find wood, and you also usually find that the water quality from wells starts to decline. In Canada and the USA, this happened a very long time ago, during the first wave of European settlements.

7. Are people trying to help deforestation by planting more trees?
Yes. But they are finding that this is a very difficult thing, since we really only know how to efficiently plant trees of a few types. Rebuilding a truly diverse forest (like they are trying to do on Brazil's Sao Paulo state coast), is a very, very difficult thing to do. It costs a lot more money than people are willing to pay. But there are many governments talking about the problem and trying to agree on how to do it, and how to pay for it.

8. What are the responses to deforestation?
I assume you mean people's responses, and not nature's. In general, most people are not aware of it, or believe there is so much forest that there is no need to worry. Unfortunately, there are so many people now needing to be fed that it is no longer safe to ignore deforestation.

9. Which countries have less deforestation?
Interesting question, and I am not sure of the exact answer. But my guess would be that Russia is probably among the least deforested simply because they have such vast areas of forest that have relatively few people.

10. How do we know deforestation is going to get better?
We don't, and it probably won't. We have to solve the population/food/energy problem first.

11. Since about 50 years ago, have people been trying to help deforestation or making it worse?
There are definitely more people today trying to help with the problem. However, there are even more people today that need food and energy, and they completely overwhelm the first group. So, on balance, today the problem is worse.

12. Can other materials be used rather than wood?
Only in very limited circumstances. The population would need access to the alternative, and they very likely would need money to pay for it, or a government programme to subsidize it.

13. How do we know whether deforestation is going to get better?
We don't. The very best guesses these days tell us that it is going to get worse.

14. What are the long term effects of deforestation on communities and the world?
The biggest one is simply that deforestation often degrades the underlying soils. Soils take thousands, or even tens of thousands of years to develop, so deforestation is like mining soil. It changes the water quality, and it also changes the look of our living environment - imagine BC without pine forests! One big issue a lot of people talk about is the influence of forests on the various natural cycles: water, carbon, and oxygen. We have no idea how many of these cycles will operate with reduced forest areas - and we have no idea if a world with few forests is even hospitable for humans.

15. Do you think deforestation will get better or worse in the future? and 16. What’s your point of view on this problem?
I don't see any way it will get better overall in the next century. Perhaps there will be local attempts and successes, but on a global scale, I am a pessimist - there is too much invested in the current model of businesses and society to take serious action. We will not do anything serious until one of the fundamental cycles collapses. And by then, it might be too late. Imagine trying to tell everyone in the world, a single country, or even a single city that they have to go on a really strict energy diet. It's very very hard to do, and people get very mad. That's why politicians have a very hard time with this, and why activities like the one you are involved in are absolutely critical.

17. What are the causes of deforestation?
Nature and people's needs. See above.

18. How does deforestation work?
Either the forest is physically altered by people, or the environment in which the forest is changed into a regime that the forest species can no longer tolerate.

19. Why does the government let deforestation happen?
To feed their people, basically. Most countries are faced with a very, very difficult choice: feed people and expand their economies, or decline. In Canada and the USA, we were very lucky that our leaders decided to create the National Parks and Parks Canada systems early on enough to be able to set aside these areas for us to enjoy. It was a close call (for the USA certainly), because there was a lot of pressure for this land not to be set aside, but to leave it open for settlers. As our own populations and energy needs increase, you will see many examples of pressures to release these lands for uses that might involve some form of deforestation.

A post-script to this all:

Dear respectful sir,

Thankyou for taking your very valluable time to answer our questions on deforestation. Your answers have been a great help for our group and we are very sure that we will influence a lot of people and also we will knowledge them about deforestation. At school, we went around to different classes and suveyed the students on how many people recycled and how many did not.And our group was very happy with the results, about 300 people recycled and there were only about 75 people who did not. So now, we are trying to encourage those 75 people to recycle.

Well, glad to know I contributed to something today.

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 Thursday, March 01, 2007


Tracking a package that was being shipped to us, I was absolutely stunned to see the following information from FedEx:

This package was shipped from Shanghai, China yesterday, and is on a delivery truck today in our neighbourhood. I wonder when it was actually manufactured - the day before that? The product is probably still cooling down!

This type of service really spoils us, and makes me wonder about the cost in carbon for this type of delivery speed. I haven't even accounted for this type of carbon cost in my tallying of 17+ tons per year for my lifestyle (the average American produces about 7 tons of carbon per year). Most of my carbon comes from my jet travel, on long overnight flights. ...I have to make up for driving a Toyota Prius somehow, you know, to be able to keep up with the Al Gore's of this world, who apparently don't practice exactly what they preach. And buying carbon offsets doesn't get you off the hook either - yes, it helps, but it doesn't make that type of lifestyle justifiable.

Conversely, I have a package coming from Cusco, Peru, and that was shipped about ten days ago. No sign of it yet. No tracking either, so I can't tell if was torn apart by drug sniffing coon hounds in Miami, or if it is still on a donkey's back bouncing down the trail to the port of Callao before being loaded on a guano boat.

You know, the way things used to be done. Slowly and patiently. And that included waiting for things to show up in the regular mail.

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