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Madison has some rather lovely trees.

After the move from Madison back to my home state (Georgia), I realized how much I already missed Wisconsin. Its trees, lakes, green space, prairies, wetlands and wildlife have left a permanent mark on me. It’s strange how a place can create such an appreciation of life.

While up there, I took quite a few photos, but here are some of my favorites.

A day of strawberry picking.

Devil’s Lake in its fall peacefulness.

Enjoying an evening on Lake Mendota.

Walking toward town near Lake Monona — it’s completely frozen and covered in snow on the right.

How could I forget Picnic Point?

Georgia’s outdoor space is also breathtaking, but I have to drive a bit farther to get to it. After the move, we took a trip to the north Georgia mountains for some downtime.

Anna Ruby Falls in a mild Georgia winter.

For 2012: Here’s to a continued appreciation of the world, even amid transitions.

Photos copyright M. English, 2011-2012

Although whooping cranes are still endangered, the International Crane Foundation in Baraboo, Wis., has worked to help the species bounce back.

Below is a video I produced on the foundation. Enjoy!

Being relatively new to Wisconsin means I can still act like a tourist when I visit places for the first time. Case in point: The Cave of the Mounds in Blue Mounds, Wis.

Of course, I decided to take my handy camera. I initially thought shooting with little light would be difficult, but the cave had lighting that seemed to facilitate photo opportunities (for tourism purposes, I’m sure). Most of these shots were taken without flash. Some did turn out blurry, though, which serves as a reminder that I need to take more next time.

The rocks that form the cavern of the cave date back to 400 million years ago. Scientists say the cave itself may have formed roughly 1 million years ago.

Good ole’ Ebenezer Brigham, Wisconsin’s first white settler, discovered the cave while removing limestone from the area in the late 1930s.

Did I mention that part of the cave trails beneath the local highway? What a strange feeling to imagine cars flying by overhead when you’re down there.

Rock structures called stalactites and stalagmites formed by dripping water that entered through a crack in the ceiling. Over time, the droplets deposit minerals where they drip from and where the droplets land, creating these rock structures.

Then I headed over to Mt. Horeb, Wis., to revisit some troll buddies I saw this summer with a friend. The town’s reputation as the troll capital of the world comes from settlers’ Scandinavian roots and one store’s tradition of placing trolls outside to attract visitors. Soon after, other businesses began putting trolls outside to draw attention to their places, especially after a competing highway threatened to remove steady traffic into the town.

There’s nothing like enjoying a sunset with a troll statue and fried cheese curds.

Photos copyright Marianne English, 2011.

A break from writing, at last.

In late September, I joined a large group of Madisonians to learn about history on a rainy Sunday. We met while attending an archaeology tour of Madison’s Picnic Point, a historical peninsula that juts into Lake Mendota. I took loads of photos, audio and ambient sounds. The point was really beautiful that day, especially with droplets of rain clinging to the fall foliage. I enjoyed the tour, which was led by the Wisconsin Historical Society’s Amy Rosebrough. I also had a nice time getting to know people in the group.

Today, Madison.com published the project for a wider audience to see. Below are a few shots that didn’t make it into the show.

This lonesome feather was begging to be photographed.

This amphibian hopped across the path between bouts of intense sun and rain that day.

Plans are finally under way to create a more park-like area at the tip of the peninsula. Other plans to create an amphitheater-style atmosphere near Picnic Point’s first fire pit drew controversy early on. I’m not sure where that plan stands. I’m also uncertain how people feel about the new park area currently under construction.

People care about Picnic Point because of its deep history. Wisconsin’s native people groups stayed there and even used the land to create sacred burial mounds (some remain roped off today). Settlers in the 1860s used the space as a “modest recreation area,” where boaters and campers relished in good company. The peninsula served as a farmstead and private land as well, at least until the university purchased it in 1939.

Personally, I think Edward Young, a previous owner of the land, says it best: “God made the land there for people to enjoy.”

(Photos copyright Marianne English, 2011)


Chickens are feared targets of avian flu, especially because of their popularity on the dinner table. Photo: big_chocolate_monster/Flickr.com

In line with my upcoming piece exploring the role of the USGS National Wildlife Health Center in addressing and monitoring wildlife disease, more news suggests animals’ roles as sentinels for diseases affecting both animals and humans. In this case, the article highlights avian influenza.

Avian influenza occasionally maneuvers its way into the public sphere but has become less of a threat in the minds of most Americans in recent years (especially in light of other outbreaks such as swine flu).

In 2006, government agencies began regularly monitoring birds in the United States. Larger migratory birds and domestic birds are more likely to carry the virus — not backyard song birds.

Like other diseases of significant health interest, avian influenza is characterized as a zoonotic disease, or one that can potentially be transmitted among wild animals, domestic animals and humans.

Beginning in 2005, surveillance programs abroad have found the virus in bar-headed geese in China and linked the geese to outbreaks in Chinese poultry farms.

A map of avian influenza’s spread. Photo: Dean_ss/Wikimedia Commons

Although the United States has not experienced nearly as many cases as other areas of the world, scientists have identified strains of avian flu in at least five states in the past decade (these are not cases of the high pathogenicity strain H5N1 in humans, as smartly point out by my colleague Amy Karon, but rather different low pathogenicity strains found among U.S. poultry and the occasional human).

The mortality rate remains at 60 percent among people infected with H5N1, the strain of avian flu with high pathogenicity (to clarify, no H5N1 cases have been found in the United States but have been recorded elsewhere in the world). Researchers are working on developing vaccines for the virus, but its variability each year makes planning ahead difficult.

As our world continues to become increasingly connected, I believe the importance of surveillance programs, especially those with specialties in wildlife disease, will grow.

But amid large federal budget cuts, it’s hard to say whether monitoring programs will be around in full force.

Here is a video from 2004 (sorry, it won’t allow embedding), detailing responses to H5N1 in Thailand.

Only time will tell if monitoring sentinels of this disease will be enough.

Nuclear power plant in Cattenom, France. Photo: Stefan Kühn/Wikimedia Commons

Though the coverage of Japan’s crisis rages on, the question of whether the United States should rethink nuclear energy has resurfaced. Just as the nuclear industry was “settling back into the public conscience” as a safe form of energy, one of my professors noted.

This made me wonder: Am I aware of nuclear plants surrounding me?

Mother Jones has a nifty article listing cities closest to nuclear power plants. I’m unsure of people’s familiarity with nearby power plants, but I’d dare to say many already know, especially if the construction of the plant was contested or highly publicized.

The closest plants to Madison are outside of Manitowac, Wis. — a city 130 miles northeast of here on Lake Michigan.

Kewaunee plant, one of two nuclear plants located outside of Manitowac. Photo: U.S. NRC/Wikimedia Commons

Manitowoc lies within 13 miles of two nuclear power facilities and is approximately 80 miles north of Milwaukee. These plants generate 20 percent of the state’s total power, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Other sources of energy include coal, natural gas, petroleum and hydroelectricity.

My home state of Georgia currently has four nuclear plants within 30 miles of two cities, according to Mother Jones’ nice graphic (which draws from NRC data).

But we’re not in the same position as other cities, where nuclear plants are viewed by some as being too close for comfort. For instance, New York’s governor has advocated shutting down the Indian Point nuclear plant roughly 40 miles from New York City, according to the Wall Street Journal. Currently, the plant provides the city with a quarter of its power.

But shutting down this plant would violate federal standards stating that power sources should not be minimized in such a way to make a grid vulnerable to a significant blackout once every 10 years. Experts say getting rid of the plant would increase the vulnerability of blackouts to once every three years.

In addition, people are concerned about the Governmental Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s decision to keep evacuation standards at 10 miles from nuclear incidents, even though Japan has evacuated everyone within 19 miles and the U.S. government has encouraged Americans within 50 miles of Fukushima to evacuate, according to the article.

If the United States were to adopt a 50-mile evacuation radius — as Kate Sheppard of Mother Jones smartly points out — NYC would have to come up with a plan to evacuate some 21 million people living in the city.

Below is a map of America’s nuclear presence (through 2008).

Photo: Energy Information Administration

But the question of whether America should reduce reliance on nuclear energy isn’t an easy one. After all, we’re the highest consumers of energy, using 11,040 kilowatt-hours per household per year, when compared to 3,500 kilowatt-hours in Europe, as suggested by Europe’s Energy Portal. We’re also one of the few countries that has smacked a partisan label on climate change, where collectively reducing emissions is viewed as a gimmick for some — sadly.

So what makes us think we — industry and domestic consumers — can settle for less energy? I don’t know enough about the intricacies of nuclear plants to weigh the pros and cons. But I suspect we’re still far away from getting everyone on the same page.

Do you think Americans would be ready to nip nuclear power? Do they know the effects it would have on their energy use, or would they even be willing to comply with energy restrictions if need be?

Opinions welcome.

More background: My colleagues Eric and Erin have blogged about the basics of power planthood and what went down in Fukushima. Also my geologist-turned-science-writer colleague, Tim, compares the quake in Japan with his experiences covering tectonic activity in Seattle. And for reference, Bloomberg has a quick rundown of how radiation works and travels for anyone interested.

Photo: U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

In light of deficits, budget cuts are always in the works.

Aside from the social upheaval in Wisconsin, others feel budget cuts are taking dramatic blows at wildlife conservation efforts and their progress in recent years.

Take the gray wolf, for example. Long seen as a nuisance by ranchers and farmers who lose livestock, wolves have been fiercely protected by some and adamantly defended by others.

A recent bill, intended to “make appropriations” for government agencies such as the Department of Defense and the Department of Interior, previously included article 1704, which would strip gray wolves of their endangered species status in a handful of states in the Northwest, including parts of Idaho, Montana, Utah, Oregon and Washington. Since earlier this week, section 1713 has been removed (I suspect because of lawsuits in those states). Here’s what I could find, though.

The bottom line: not many people foresaw the gray wolf’s appearance in the bill.

If passed, the Department of the Interior will maintain only 300 gray wolves in these areas, granting authorities to cull the rest, which may result in an 82 percent reduction in the current population of 1,700 wolves in these areas, says Natural Resources Defense Council Director Andrew Wetzler. He also thinks this number is well below what’s needed to maintain a healthy population in the long-run. Mind you, wolves have remained on the endangered species list all other states except Alaska, Minnesota and Hawaii (independent of some “experimental” populations).

What’s concerning to me are the motives for this change — who’s benefiting here? Elk herders who lose many individuals to wolves have much to gain, and I agree that they have the right to protect their livelihoods as well. But will this measure eventually free up hunting on these “experimental/non-essential” wolf populations?

It’s hard to tell at this point. But it’s more than apparent that the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Cooperative Endangered Species Conservation Plan will take quite the blow if this version of the budget is passed. This year alone, these programs are losing some $88 million to protect endangered species (see section 1708). The budget proposes instead maintaining nearly $2.5 million for this purpose.

The issue also came up in 2010 as a federal court ruled against delisting the gray wolf because the state of Wyoming didn’t have an adequate conservation program in place to manage populations like Idaho and Montana did. The judge’s ruling maintained that wolves needed to be viewed as a population rather than individuals. Here’s the gray wolf’s range over time.

Does this budget balancing counter that attitude?

In my opinion, it does because wolf populations do not understand or adhere to state lines. They don’t know when they’re entering Montana versus Idaho or Wyoming — or vice versa. Ironically, the reason why gray wolves were not taken off the endangered species in these states this summer was because Wyoming would not restrict hunting practices. Now the situation seems to have reversed, as wolves that remain protected under the Endangered Species Act in Wyoming are offered little protection if they cross state lines north or westward into Montana and Idaho.

Researching the gray wolf issue also emphasizes the point that small portions of legislation — highly contentious ones at that — are often reduced remarkably in the legislative process. I acknowledge the need for maintaining the conciseness and brevity of the bill, but I still feel this decision hasn’t been discussed extensively by all parties involved.

Wildlife advocates and government lawyers have already decided to square off over the issue in Missoula, Mont. It looks like both sides will meet in court again on March 24. I certainly hope the issue will be resolved using the best science and expert opinion. And the fact remains that other conservation programs are destined to suffer from these cuts as well. I’m unsure how they will be able to stay above water with a several million budget cut looming over their heads.

Oiled Brown Pelican upon intake May 20, 2010 at Fort Jackson, Louisiana Oiled Wildlife Center (source: International Bird Research Rescue Center).

It’s been nearly seven months since the Deepwater Horizon exploded in the Gulf of Mexico. Although coverage of the resulting oil spill has waned, discussion and finger-pointing remain.

This week, the University of Georgia (Go Dawgs!) held an Oil Spill Symposium, where some of the nation’s leaders — working for government agencies, academia and the media — shared their thoughts on how the oil spill was handled and what lies ahead.

From the comfort of my Madison apartment, I watched the symposium streamed live online. Naturally, the session on how the media covered the spill piqued my interest. From the panels of journalists, including correspondents from CNN, NPR and The New York Times, one theme stood out: How can media professionals streamline information to the public when agencies and researchers may not have the most up-to-date or correct information?

During national crises, there’s no time for peer-reviewed science. In the case of the oil spill, researchers estimated the impacts of the spill as best they could at the time. It’s no wonder that sources of information were brutally attacked.

But let’s remember — as J-School professor and Knight Chair Patricia Thomas points out — that the media isn’t a monolith. Sure, there’s a spectrum of coverage — good, mediocre and bad. But blaming “the media” for negative public perceptions is inexcusable. We should know this by now.

Among the exceptional (in my opinion) journalists covering the spill, NPR’s Richard Harris detailed his experience while working on a story that challenged government and BP estimates of leaking oil each day. Harris consulted three scientific experts, who independently gave him estimates significantly higher than what was being reported. After airing a series of stories on the issue, the government formed a task group that would measure the rate of oil being released. (See, journalism is still powerful!)

Another participant, Justin Gillis from the Times, emphasized the need for a ready-to-go scientific response plan in which the government can tap into experts as quickly as possible. He found it baffling that the people most familiar with the ecology of the Gulf were on the outside of the conversation trying to correct misinformation disseminated by the government.

I found this an intriguing point as well. But I also thought about the experts who don’t want to be “tapped into” — the ones unwilling to comment on the event. Often, industry ties or fear of being criticized by the scientific community were to blame.

Which brings me to the point: If more scientists would communicate with journalists and the public, there’s no doubt coverage of science and the environment would benefit. Yet, my definition of preparedness requires more than collaboration between scientists and government agencies. Ultimately, it will demand less censored relationships between scientists and journalists, which take time and practice.

For now, we’ll have to settle on hoping nothing of this magnitude happens again anytime soon.

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About Me

Marianne is a science communicator working in Madison, Wis.

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