Sunday, December 18, 2016

The Power Is Yours - Earth

In previous the "The Power Is Yours" posts, I've touched on things you can do at home to help with water and air pollution. For this post I'll examine some things you can do to help the land.

A variety of human activities degrade the landscape or damage the soil, and here's how you can start to fight back.

  1. The next time you take a walk around the neighborhood or go to the park, bring an extra bag and perhaps a pair of gloves to pick up any litter or trash which might be about.
  2. Reduce the amount of waste which ends up in a landfill by composting at home and recycling paper, glass, and plastic goods.
  3. Consider using reusable bags when shopping.
  4. Try to find ways to prevent the erosion of your yard's soil. There are a lot of things you can do here: make sure soil surfaces are planted, roots help hold soil in place, the deeper the better. Slow run-off by having rain barrels to reduce run-off, plant a rain garden, or just having a good variety of plants including trees and shrubs, planted in your yard.
  5. Plant with plants that naturally grow in your yard's soil type. Many plants can improve soil conditions on their own; prairie plants have extensive root systems which do things like correct soil compaction. Plants native to your area are also unlikely to deplete the soil of nutrients, and consider planting a mixture of plants (especially some legumes) to help put things like nitrogen back into the soil.
  6. Planting native trees is also a way combat deforestation. Many homeowners live in areas where there were once forests, woods, or savannas which were probably comprised of oaks, maples, or pines depending on where you live exactly. So why not work on getting your neighborhood back to its natural state?

These are just some ideas to get you started. Remember these ideas start at home with you and can spread to others like your neighborhood association or take the ideas to city hall. The power is yours.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

2016 in Review

I recognize the calendar year isn't over, but both children are currently asleep, so now is as good a time as I'm going to get to retrospect on the year.

Overall, the year went by really quickly. We added new plants including junipers, red osier dogwoods, ox eyes, and asters. We also had a number of first time visitors including: Common Red Polls and Northern Flickers. In total, we've counted 44 species of birds this year.

Here's what the table looks like over time (Note: I've taken bees out of pollinators because I'm really bad at identifying species, so I'm only counting butterflies from now on.)

YearMammalsButterfliesReptiles & Amph.Birds
2016713144
2015712147
2014710140
2013710140
2012510131

We also had sandhill cranes raise a colt in the neighborhood, and they made pretty frequent visits to our yard. In addition to the cranes we had American Robins and Eastern Bluebird successfully nest in the yard.

It was another good year of biodiversity in our yard, good enough to convince me to expand one of the front flower beds again next spring to add more Little Bluestem, New England Aster, and Ox Eyes.

Crane Parenting



Red Admiral



Mr. Bluebird checking out his new house.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

The Power is Yours - Air

Most of the time when people talk about climate change, the subject is really air pollution. Air pollution comes in various forms from things like particulate matter ending up in the air we breath to the emission of green houses gases, most notably carbon dioxide.

This biggest source of air pollution is burning stuff, particularly burning fossil fuels.

What are fossil fuels? Fossils fuels are energy substances which are essentially made up of long since decomposed living matter, i.e. it's essentially the fossils of swamps and forests of long ago. In other words, plants which sequestered a bunch of carbon decomposed beneath the earth, still containing their carbon, turning into things like coal, when we burn them we release this long sequestered carbon back into the atmosphere, along with other pollutants like ash.

There are a host of other concerns beyond climate change or global warming which can be discussed when we talk about air pollutions such as effects on human health like asthma or other environmental concerns like acid rain, but these all come back to one truth, we and all living things need clean air.

So what actions can we take as individuals who need clean air?

The key piece here is the burning of fossil fuels. These are primarily used to generate energy to do things like turn on the lights, heat your home, drive your car, or mow your lawn. The simplest solution is to reduce our use of these things. Here are some suggestions:

  • Make sure your home is properly insulated; this includes insulation itself as well as eliminating things like drafts around windows.
  • Adjust your thermostat a few degrees (cooler in the winter, warmer in the summer); appliances like the condenser for your air conditioner are power hogs. Additionally consider how many months of the year, you can go without using heating or cooling to control the temperature of your home.
  • Use Energy Star appliances, refrigerators, washers, hot water heaters, frankly most major appliances have become better about using less energy.
  • Reduce how much gas you use; this may mean driving less, driving more fuel efficient cars, using public transportation when available, replacing your lawn mower or trimmer with a manually powered or rechargeable.

The above list are fairly simple things that can be done, but large scale solutions like adding solar panels to your house or using a geo thermal pump for temperature control are also options.

Your carbon foot print can also be offset by making different choices about the food you eat. Take for example the carbon footprint of beef. Grain is seeded, tended to and harvested by machines burning diesel, then driven to a grain elevator or processing plant, energy is spent turning the grain into feed which is delivered (still burning fossils fuels) to the cows. The cows are eventually loaded onto trucks and driven to be slaughtered. The production of meat has a large carbon footprint. Fruits and vegetables which are transported long distances such as out of season strawberries which may be grown in distant places like Peru have a bigger carbon footprint than if you only purchase them in season and / or from local producers. If we consume less meat and fewer out of season produce items then we can reduce our own carbon footprints.

Lastly as mentioned earlier, the fossil fuels are largely comprised of decomposed plant matter which had (prior to being burned) sequestered carbon. This is a major function of plant life. Turf grass doesn't sequester much carbon. In order for your yard to help reduce your carbon footprint, you need to plant trees; they sequester the most carbon. Even native grasses which are taller and have deeper roots will sequester more carbon than turf grass but the real winners here are the trees.

To wrap this topic; here are some things you can do: be more efficient with energy usage at home, burn less gas, invest in clean energy technology for your home or car, be mindful of your food's carbon footprint, and offset your own by planting trees. Even if there isn't political will to encourage this things along the way, remember the "Power is yours"; it all starts at home.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

The Power Is Yours - Water

Let's start with water. Our country is facing a variety of challenges with keeping our water supply and water ways healthy. Here are few of the big challenges facing America's water.

  1. Algae Blooms in Lakes - WI DNR
  2. Gulf of Mexico Hypoxia (aka Dead Zone) - NOAA
  3. California Drought
  4. Contaminated Drinking Water - WI Watch
  5. Flooding - Weather.com

This list is a complete list of challenges facing America's water systems, but it's a decent sample of what we're dealing with.

These issues can be further broken down and understood based on various factors related to the problems. These factors include:

  1. Nutrients, chemicals, and bacteria entering the water system via human activity.
  2. Water consumption and overconsumption
  3. How rain enters the water system

The core piece here is really about how rain enters the system. It falls from the sky (that's a lot of potential energy to start with) and hits the Earth's surface then quickly begins moving to the lowest point, becoming runoff. It picks up the things (chemicals, bacteria, dirt, etc) which it encounters and eventually deposits its payload somewhere. Some of this water will seep into the ground, where various layers of earth and roots may act as filter to help purify the water; while other water will end up in ponds, lakes, and rivers.

Because this is how the system works, it's a good place to start. Rain water which strikes impermeable surfaces moves very quickly; such surfaces include: driveways, roofs, roads, and compacted soils. This water moves quickly, moving with it more debris.

Here are some things you can do to help:

  1. Rain barrels to catch and store water and prevents runoff.
  2. Permeable paving to reduce runoff
  3. Plant trees to reduce runoff
  4. Use native plants to help improve your yard's water infiltration
  5. Convert your roof from a traditional roof to a green roof.

Even if you've done things to help keep water onsite in your yard, some water will escape and carry things with it, but you have the power to help control what things are carried away. Leaves, yard waste, and pet waste can add additional nutrients to the system, just like chemical fertilizers. These are pretty simple to tackle:

  1. Don't fertilize your lawn.
  2. Compost your leaves and yard waste onsite in your yard or haul them yourself. Do not leave them piled up in the curb and gutter in the street.
  3. Pick up after your pet.

We can all also pay attention to our consumption. There are a variety of low flow water fixtures which you can use. There are other ways to limit your use as well such as limiting lawn watering or car washes.

Lastly get involved. Identify your local watershed. There are often volunteer or advocacy initiatives at a local level such as restoring wetlands (BTW highly beneficial), or advocating for local policies which encourage property owners to be water-frendly. As stated before, these are big problems, but they can be solved with actions of individuals even on a small scale. Remember, the power is yours.