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This Day in History, Space Race Edition

On September 12, 1962, President John F. Kennedy gave one of his most famous speeches. Addressing a crowd at Rice University in Texas, he spoke powerfully about the meaning of science and exploration. His words helped propel America to lead the space race. If you have an interest in science and exploration but haven’t watched this speech before, take 15 minutes and do so.

Kennedy’s speech resonates today, but I think the most powerful lines are the lines that extol the values of exploration for the sake of exploration, looking optimistically toward an innocent future.

For space science, like nuclear science and all technology, has no conscience of its own. Whether it will become a force for good or ill depends on man, and only if the United States occupies a position of pre-eminence can we help decide whether this new ocean will be a sea of peace or a new terrifying theater of war. I do not say the we should or will go unprotected against the hostile misuse of space any more than we go unprotected against the hostile use of land or sea, but I do say that space can be explored and mastered without feeding the fires of war, without repeating the mistakes that man has made in extending his writ around this globe of ours.


There is no strife, no prejudice, no national conflict in outer space as yet. Its hazards are hostile to us all. Its conquest deserves the best of all mankind, and its opportunity for peaceful cooperation many never come again.

Seven years after he gave this speech, on July 20, 1969, Apollo 11 landed on the Moon and for the first time in Earth’s 4 billion year history a species walked on an alien world. Mankind would never be the same after that giant leap. Within three decades the world knew an opportunity for peaceful cooperation that Kennedy feared might never come again: we launched the International Space Station.

We choose to go to the moon in this decade, not because it is easy but because it is hard.

Plastic Diet: Taking the First Steps

Only a few weeks into my decision to reduce my plastic consumption, and I’ve already been called an extremist, and accused of trying to “shame” people. Neither of those things is true, but I can see why people would say those things. I do sometimes come off a bit strong. It’s a little extreme (even for me) to try to go fully plastic-free, but I make reductions wherever possible. Sometimes, like a diet, it’s uncomfortable, inconvenient, and downright tedious. Other times, I can feel the victories starting to accumulate and it adds steam to the fire.*

There’s always that awkward moment when you first try to explain to your friends and family what you’re up to. The one uncle who thinks you’re just having a laugh, the cousin thinks you’d really like plastic if you’d just give it a chance, the mom who sees this as just the latest in a succession of bizarre phases, each of which is due to be over any day now so you can go back to normal.

But at the end of the day they all mean well, and they’ll support you. Even better are the ones who try it along with you—even if they do think you’re a bit daft.

It’s hard for me to find the right balance between proselytizing and just discussing. I don’t form opinions rapidly, but when I do I do so with gusto. Because I spend so much time turning over every little bit of a thought in my mind I forget that newcomers to my psyche haven’t had the opportunity to consider these issues for months on end. Thus, I come off a bit strong. I tend to try to take the things I do as far as I can take them, but I don’t expect anybody else to. Like a well-balanced diet, every person has different needs and different desired outcomes and I don’t have the energy to judge anybody else on theirs!

When I take a little time to explain why it’s so important to me, I think it starts to click. Jacques Cousteau famously suggested that the best way to get people to protect something is to teach them to love it. Some of my friends have already begun to cut down their plastic use. Even my boss is getting in on the action! That one really surprised me, but he’s taken it to heart: he even posted flyers in the employee break rooms asking people to please be considerate of their plastic use!

Little actions like this can have a big impact, so don’t be afraid to take the first steps!

The Cool News Roundup, End of Summer Edition

Plenty of bad news to go around, but that’s all anybody talks about. We’ve made lots of progress in ocean conservation this summer, too, so let’s take a look at where we stand. Click on any of the links for full articles and more information.

The Trash Patch Tracker — Tons upon tons of the trash we use every day eventually finds its way into the oceans, swirling in one of many oceanic gyres. Basically big, trashy whirlpools of refuse. Studying the waste stream has revealed some surprising insights into how oceans work:

Researchers from the University of New South Wales (UNSW), in Sydney, Australia, have created a new model that could help determine who’s to blame for each garbage patch — a difficult task for a system as complex and massive as the ocean. The researchers describe the model in a paper published in the journal Chaos, from AIP Publishing.

“In some cases, you can have a country far away from a garbage patch that’s unexpectedly contributing directly to the patch,” said Gary Froyland, a mathematician at UNSW. For example, the ocean debris from Madagascar and Mozambique would most likely flow into the south Atlantic, even though the two countries’ coastlines border the Indian Ocean.

Protection for Bluefin — Most people picture a tiny can when they think of tuna, but the tuna is one of the mightiest fish in the sea. Bluefin tuna is a prized catch, and a combination of overfishing and poorly-managed bycatch have severely jeopardized them. On August 29, 2014, NOAA Fisheries issued a new rule limiting the use of surface longlines:

Surface longlines average 30 miles in length, use hundreds of baited hooks, and often remain in the water untended for up to 18 hours. This gear catches and kills bluefin along with many other species, including hammerhead sharks, blue marlin, and leatherback sea turtles.

Today’s final amendment restricts the use of surface longline fishing in certain areas of the Gulf of Mexico and off Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, while promoting highly selective gear such as greensticks for yellowfin tuna and buoy gear for swordfish. Ensuring that surface longlines are not used when and where bluefin gather in great numbers to spawn and feed will dramatically reduce the amount needlessly caught and killed.

Protection for Hammerheads — Oddly, despite all the many dangers facing sharks, they haven’t managed to find protection under the Endangered Species Act until this summer. Scalloped Hammerheads will become the first to receive such protection. Hammerheads and other sharks are seeing their kind protected in other vulnerable areas of the world, too, which is a great sign of global progress. But, says Bradnee Chambers of the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals, “Because silky and thresher and hammerhead sharks are highly migratory globetrotters, it is every nation’s responsibility to protect these ancient creatures.”

World’s Largest Artificial Reef — With natural coral reefs endangered everywhere in the world, it’s easy to forget that they aren’t just beautiful landmarks…err, sea-marks. They’re also delicate natural habitats that are home to up to 25% of all living species! There are many artificial reefs throughout the world, but the Kan-Kanán in Puerto Morelos, about 40km south of Cancún, Mexico, will be the world’s largest. I couldn’t find any information about its projected completion date, but it’s already on my list of sites to visit next year!

More Good News for Sharks — Many Pacific nations, whose total land area could literally be measured in fractions-of-a-Rhode-Island but whose territorial waters are invaluable, are turning to ecotourism and away from commercial fishing. Palau is a shining example. Having already established a shark sanctuary in 2001, the tiny country has committed to effectively prohibit almost all fishing within its territorial waters.

It is a small nation, nestled in the middle of the Pacific, with pristine ocean waters and bountiful wildlife.  The President of Palau, Tommy Renengesau, has announced that he intends to create a marine sanctuary where fishing is banned in 80% of his nation’s territorial waters.  In the remaining 20%, only local fishing will be allowed.

More Good News for Corals — While we’re on the subject of Palau, a new study has shown that traditional Palauan agriculture—including the production of taro, the main ingredient in the tasty poisupports the health of coral reefs by reducing runoff. Looks like  I’m putting Palau on my must-visit list! In other news, India is establishing its first coral garden. This is huge, because India is home to one of the world’s fastest-growing middle classes. It also has one of the worst Environmental Performance Index ratings of any nation*. So the Mithapur Coral Garden represents a great step forward in focusing on a sustainable future while attracting more of the eco-tourism dollars that by most estimations will continue to grow as more people learn to value the natural world.

In other coral news, check out this incredible underwater sculpture. An artificial reef in the making!

Catlin Seaview Survey — When Google Maps first announced their Street View program, no-one could have predicted that it would find its way underwater. The Catlin Seaview Survey has sent divers around the world to photograph sensitive and beautiful marine areas, bringing these beautiful landmarks—err, sea-marks—right to your monitor. If you’ve somehow managed to miss my incessant updates about the CSS, do yourself a favor and go take a look. I love swimming from view to view, soaking it all in. I could browse it for hours. Actually, don’t tell my boss, but sometimes I do.

The End of Plastic Bags — Not really the end, but a good step. California has become the first state to ban single-use, disposable plastic grocery bags. These bags make up a big portion of marine debris, and they are hugely wasteful. We all use them, because we don’t even think about it, or about what happens to them when we discard them. Sure, they can be put to other creative uses, but in the end the best solution is to just use fewer of them. Of course there’s the predictable industry backlash, but their main argument is that “it’s a cash grab by the grocery share holders.”

But California’s not alone. Many cities in the US have municipal bans or restrictions, and  some countries have had bans against certain types of plastic bags in place for years. Wikipedia has a good running count of legislation around the globe.

BP Faces Heavy Fines — The Gulf of Mexico is still reeling from the Deepwater Horizon spill, and federal courts have determined that British Petroleum acted in gross negligence, a euphemism for “pretty much single-handedly destroyed an entire ecosystem”. The Deepwater Horizon explosion was one of the biggest marine oil spills in history, and is considered to be the costliest environmental disaster in US history. They’ll have to pay $18 billion in damages, of which 80% will be used for cleanup measures and 20% will be used to establish a trust fund for future spills. As awful as the disaster is,

The ruling stands as a milestone in environmental law given that this was the biggest offshore oil spill in American history, legal experts said, and serves as a warning for the oil companies that continue to drill in the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico, where high pressures and temperatures in the wells test the most modern drilling technologies.

 The US Proposes Expanded Marine Sanctuaries — President Obama is looking to chip in to G.W. Bush’s record of marine protection by expanding one of the former President’s sanctuaries. Actually, they’re considered national monuments, but either way large-scale commercial fishing is off-limits. This is only a proposal, and it’s sure to face some opposition, but it represents what could be a great trend. If we establish a pan-partisan record of increasing marine protections wherever there is an opportunity, it will give us all something to stand together for.

Under the proposal, according to two independent analyses, the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument would be expanded from almost 87,000 square miles to nearly 782,000 square miles — all of it adjacent to seven islands and atolls controlled by the United States. The designation would include waters up to 200 nautical miles offshore from the territories.

That’s all for today’s roundup! Lots of good things happening this summer, but there’s a lot more work to be done. Get informed, get involved, and get excited! Oh, and keep an eye out for the People’s Climate March, happening in a couple weeks. Very exciting stuff!

If you hear more good news, let me know here in the comments or on Twitter, @LookEverywhere. See you next time!

Even cool summers can trick you!

It’s been a cold year here in eastern Pennsylvania. A brutal winter (and by brutal, I mean I was snowboarding just about every day—whaddya gonna do?) has been followed by an unusually cool summer. I’m no great fan of temperatures that melt the sunglasses off of your face, so I’ve enjoyed every breezy day of it. 

As blissfully mild as the summer has felt, though, the facts disagree. In reality, it only seems cool by comparison to recent, unbearable summers. Our Midatlantic summer was cooler this year than in recent years, but it still managed to be about as hot as an average summer—overall. The real difference is that we’re accustomed to lengthy strings of sweltering days punctuated by cooler days. This year, every day was average. We didn’t even have to suffer any heat waves.

After I read the article about it in my local newspaper, my instincts told me something was wrong; I just didn’t believe it. But both Weatherbase and Weather Underground seem to corroborate: 2014 has been average, but not especially cool. Even individual months barely strayed from average temperatures.

It should serve as a good reminder that perception can be grossly mistaken. Global warming deniers are all too happy to tell you that the Earth is actually cooling, not heating up, and point to years like this as evidence. The real story is that climate is intensely complicated, and no single chart—no matter what evidence it purports to illustrate—can tell the whole story. Each of us has such a limited pool of data available to our senses every day, but we can’t help making observations about the world around us. This summer, I “knew” it had been cooler than average in my region, but I was wrong. Scientists measure climate across the globe; meteorologists measure weather in one region. Conflicting reports from the two of them don’t cancel each other out.

That’s just how science works. Every researcher has a specific niche, and by working together, collaborating across borders, and building massive piles of data, scientists can paint a picture of how the world looks. That’s why science is a reliable process: no one entity has control over it. Ultimately, the data have the final word. And right now the final word is frightful.

And so this year, my fellow East Coasters will enjoy a pleasant summer while our brethren on the left coast face the most destructive drought on record. How’s that for a chilling thought?