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Latest Stories | Our Daily Planet

Latest Stories

4 Million Gallons Of Sewage Spill Into Puget Sound

Photo: King 5 News

Authorities in King County (Seattle), Washington are investigating why two large sewage treatment plants failed late last week, causing the release of approximately 4 million gallons of untreated sewage into Puget Sound and forcing the closure of the Sound for swimming and fishing at several popular beaches over the weekend.  The discharges occurred when the plants temporarily lost power and their back up power supplies did not work either.  Most of the beaches will re-open for swimming today.

Why This Matters:  Sewage overflows into lakes, rivers and coastal waters are happening all too often now – thousands of them across the U.S according to a recent report.  Strong storms and flash flooding are overwhelming many water treatment systems — we have seen that happen in the midwestern floods this spring, in Washington, D.C, and now Seattle, among others.  This kind of pollutions is serious.  Coming into contact with untreated sewage can cause serious illnesses including gastroenteritis, skin rashes, and upper respiratory infections, and children and the elderly may be especially vulnerable to such waterborne illnesses.  Violations for spills like this one, particularly when they are part of a pattern, must be enforced — industry must not think spills like this one are just part of the cost of doing business.  

History of Sewage Violations

Storms Also Cause Overflows

  • In Seattle, the number of beach closures this year has been higher than in recent years — one park was closed to swimming and fishing for five days after a sewage overflow in June.
  • “Heavy rains may have contributed to that … Often times, there might be a sewer overflow whenever there’s rain. That will sometimes cause a beach closure,” Camille St. Onge, spokeswoman for the Washington Department of Ecology, told the Seattle Times. “The heavy rains wash a lot of the stormwater, which can carry fecal bacteria, down to the shoreline … and then that raises bacteria levels.”

Can America Regain the Ability to Think Big?

Astronaut Buzz Aldrin during the Apollo 11 moon landing. Image: NASA

By Miro Korenha, founder and publisher of Our Daily Planet

In 1961 President Kennedy announced before a joint session of Congress the audacious goal of putting a man on the moon before the end of the decade. He stated,

“These are extraordinary times and we face an extraordinary challenge. Our strength as well as our convictions have imposed upon this nation the role of leader in freedom’s cause. No role in history could be more difficult or more important.”

And indeed, they were extraordinary times. Just as the Soviet Union was accelerating its space program, the United States wanted the achievement of sending the first human to the moon to embody the core tenets of our national identity: the ability to think big, push the bounds of what’s possible and to use the ingenuity of our citizens to get us there. On July 20th, 1969, exactly 50 years ago today, astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins achieved President Kennedy’s extraordinary vision and captivated the entire world with America’s historic achievement.

The era of the Space Race left young Americans feeling hopeful about what their government could achieve. Just as their parents’ and grandparents’ generation experienced during the New Deal, these young people trusted their government to act boldly in solving seemingly insurmountable problems. President Kennedy didn’t say that America would try to put a man on the moon, he said that we would do it and even after his assassination the triumph of the Apollo 11 mission was a defining moment of a generation.

I wasn’t born until nearly two decades after the moon landing so my sense of awe and pride has only been cultivated in school and through the anecdotes of those who sat by their TVs to witness the landing firsthand. My generation has been alive at a time of rapidly declining trust in the government and my entire life I’ve only experienced lawmakers and presidential administrations who just can’t seem to do big things. Sure, important accomplishments have been enacted in my 32 years on this Earth, but the messages of “caution” and “incrementalism” and “you can’t do it all at once” have defined the tone of these three decades.

I often wonder if my generation will have our own equivalent of the space race. When my children ask me “what was it like?” as I recently asked my own mom of the moon landing, I want to reply “it changed our world” as I detail how my peers and I helped enact the Green New Deal and reshaped the trajectory of our planet away from climate catastrophe. The transition away from fossil fuels to a more just, clean energy world is the legacy I want all Millennials to be able to share with their kids and grandkids.

I understand that the Green New Deal has a lot of detractors, including the likes of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi who labeled it “the green dream.” But what’s puzzling to me is that the people who today are celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, are the same ones who think the best plan we have to curb climate change and ensure a habitable planet is somehow too expensive and unrealistic.

Here’s a history lesson: at the end of the Apollo missions in 1972, the U.S. had spent about $25 billion on the program, which is the equivalent of about $150 billion in today’s dollars.  And mind you, this was money spent on something that we didn’t need but rather something that wanted to accomplish.

During the Space Race, there was a staggering number of accidents, jet crashes, equipment failures, and explosions that cost hundreds of millions of dollars—failure was an expected part of getting to where we needed to go. In today’s world lawmakers are so afraid that if their idea crashes on the first try or doesn’t go exactly as planned that it’s a failure overall and that the political fallout will be too great to try anything similar in the future. Just look at what happened with solar energy company Solyndra after it defaulted on its loan which was backed by President Obama’s Department of Energy. Even though the loan program that funded the company made taxpayers billions of dollars through its portfolio, the “scandal” was used as an example by the political right to vilify the Energy Department and that made the government reluctant to invest in renewable energy after that.

If we’re going to stop climate change—one of the greatest threats humanity has ever faced—then we have to try things that are risky. Some ideas will fail while others will flourish to create incredible outcomes that will fundamentally change how we do things. I can’t tell you what happened to the generation that’s in power right now, most of them witnessed the moon landing and the other groundbreaking moments of the 60s and 70s and despite it all, managed to lose the ability to believe that America can achieve the impossible.

I want more for my generation because these are extraordinary times and we’re certainly facing an extraordinary challenge. Even if our parents have lost the ability to think big I want us to listen to their memories of the moon landing—a moment so beautiful that it stopped the entire world at the same time—and imagine how we might harness that forgotten spirit to alter the fate of the planet being handed down to us. A planet that Apollo 11 astronaut Mike Collins described as “so fragile out there” upon seeing it for the first time from space.

(If you have a moment, watch what the Apollo 11 flight looked like from mission control. Especially at about 7:16:00 where the astronauts see the Earth)


The Power of Forests to Fight Climate Change

by Alexandra Patel

A new study published in the journal Science reveals that restoration of forested land on a global scale could help capture atmospheric carbon and mitigate climate change at an unprecedented rate.

Why This Matters: Trees and forests play a crucial role in maintaining balance within our environment and atmosphere, as they absorb released carbon dioxide and the heat-trapping greenhouse gases that humans emit. Analyses reveal that the effort to increase forest cover could capture around 205 metric gigatons of carbon in just a century. Restored tropical tree cover alone could contribute 23% to the total global mitigation needed to reach the Paris Climate Agreement goals. To get serious about stopping climate change, we need to focus not only on developing new technologies, but also recognize that the best tools to fight the climate crisis have been with us all along. 

The Power of Forests: Planting .09 billion hectares of trees could result in trapping two-thirds of all the carbon released since the beginning of the industrial age. Science News  reported that there’s plenty of available land for these reforestation efforts, adding that “without knocking down cities or taking over farms or natural grasslands, reforested pieces could add up to new tree cover totaling just about the area of the United States.”

A History of Destruction: Today’s forests span across just 30% of the world’s land area and have lost significant coverage over the last two decades. From 1990 to 2016, about 1.3 million square miles of forest were cut down and destroyed. According to a study in the journal Nature, 46% of all forests have been felled, and 17% of the Amazonian rainforest has been eradicated over the last half-century.

Hero of the Week: Judy Sullivan

Image result for Judy Sullivan NASA

Image: NASA

While it’s astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Mike Collins who are the celebrated heroes of the Apollo 11 moon landing, their mission may have not been possible without a brilliant NASA engineer named Judy Sullivan. As Good Morning American explained, after earning top grades as a biology major Sullivan became a biomedical engineer at NASA in 1969, and one of her most memorable experiences was working with Neil Armstrong in preparation for the historic Apollo 11 mission as lead engineer for the biomedical system. She studied the Apollo astronaut’s breathing rates and depths through sensors that were placed on their sides. When Armstrong was being taken away for his flight to the moon he thanked all the engineers but only Judy by name. 

Now 76, Sullivan feels “blessed” to be part of history and is also passionate about encouraging young women today to pursue careers in the math and science industries. “Be adventurous, don’t let anyone convince you, you can’t make your goals,” she said. “Talk to your guidance counselors and get to know your science teachers because they’re gonna make you believe in yourself.

Most of U.S. Feeing the Heat; Dangerously Hot Days Are Increasing

The National Weather Service (NWS) warned that a “widespread and dangerous heat wave is building in the central and eastern U.S. this weekend – with more than a hundred fifty million people under heat watches and warnings, as the actual air temperature is forecast to reach at least 95 degrees for more than half the population of the continental U.S. And the Union of Concerned Scientists issued a report this week (right on cue) that concludes that “[b]y mid-21st century (2036–2065) under both emissions scenarios, the annual numbers of days with heat indices exceeding 37.8 °C (100 °F) and 40.6 °C (105 °F) are projected to double and triple, respectively, compared to a 1971–2000 baseline.”

Why This Matters:  Heat can be deadly – just as deadly or more so than other weather hazards.  This heatwave and the conclusions of the new report are not surprising given what we already know about climate change trends and what we see happening around the U.S. like wildfires and extreme storms.  But because hot temperatures impact things like increased demand for heat-related health impacts, increased electricity demand for air conditioning and the need for limits on outdoor working due to local conditions. Policymakers should be thinking ahead about how to deal with these impacts in order to fully protect the public.

Hot Hot Hot This Weekend

The Weather Service’s Advisory on Thursday forecast the following:

  • “High temperatures in the 100s for the Southern and Central High Plains, with 90s widespread farther east.”
  • “Overnight low temperatures will not provide much relief.”
  • “Dozens of high minimum temperature records are forecast to be set, with a few record high maximum temperatures possible as well.”

And this heat danger (particularly at night) is compounded by the “heat island” effect — built-up areas are hotter than nearby rural areas do so that a city with 1 million people or more can be 1.8–5.4°F warmer than the surrounding areas. And every degree matters.

Union of Concerned Scientists Not Mincing Its Words on Heat Danger

The report’s title should give people pause — it’s called “Killer Heat in the United States: Climate Choices and the Future of Dangerously Hot Days.”  But the conclusions are even more chilling (bad pun), such as:

  • The average number of days per year with a heat index above 100°F will more than double, while the number of days per year above 105°F will quadruple.
  • More than one-third of the area of the United States will experience heat conditions once per year, on average, that are so extreme they exceed the current NWS heat index range—that is, they are literally off the charts.
  • Nearly one-third of the nation’s 481 urban areas with a population of 50,000 people or more will experience an average of 30 or more days per year with a heat index above 105°F, a rise from just three cities historically (El Centro and Indio, California, and Yuma, Arizona).

Bottom Line: “in many places, extreme heat will lead to an increase in deaths or illnesses, disrupt long-standing ways of life, force people to stay indoors to keep cool, and perhaps even drive large numbers of people away from areas that become too unpleasant or impractical to live.”

One Cool Thing: Going to the Moons

You don’t have to be an astronaut to go to the moon!  National Geographic has created a really cool interactive Atlas of the Moons — ALL of the moons in our solar system.  Earth is the only planet in our solar system with just one moon — and you can learn much more about it in the Atlas, including seeing where the historic landing happened 50 years ago. But don’t stop there!  There are almost 200 moons in our solar system and they have mysteries and wonders to explore!  So without even leaving your laptop, you too can be a space explorer!  As we celebrate the anniversary of the first landing on the moon, we hope that it inspires a whole new generation of Americans to cherish the Earth and to dream big and believe that there is nothing we cannot do if we put our minds to it.   

The Women Who Will Walk on the Moon Face Hurdles of Earthly Gender Bias

Image: NASA

NASA’s recently announced Artemis mission will seek to bring astronauts back to the moon by 2024 including the first woman to walk on the moon. But for the women of NASA–especially its recent class that had the most women ever–what will that mean when spaceflight has been designed almost entirely to cater to men? We saw just this year that the first planned all-female spacewalk was derailed because NASA didn’t have enough small suits to fit female astronauts. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg in how gender bias has affected female astronauts.

From the Beginning: When NASA first created its space program and was assessing astronaut candidates for the Mercury mission, 19 women were tested. As Mary Robinette Kowal wrote for the New York Times, female candidates fared better in their assessments and probably would have made better astronauts because they were smaller, which would reduce the weight of payloads. They had better cardiovascular health and lower oxygen consumption and they tolerated higher G-forces and outperformed men on isolation and stress tests. But sadly, NASA didn’t allow female astronauts until the late 1970s.

Going Forward: Neither NASA, nor the privately operated SpaceX have stated that they will design rockets and gear to accommodate female astronauts. Everything from space suits to the cooling mechanisms used to regulate the body temperatures of astronauts are still from designs developed in the 1950s and 60s–this means that women are often very cold in space because their metabolic rates have been vastly overstated. Additionally, as the New York Times explained,

“Without conscious thought, the design of the ship and the lunar platform for the Artemis missions is likely to reproduce design choices made in the Apollo era when astronauts were all men. Ladder rungs are set at the optimum distance for the average man. The pistol-grip tool, or cordless drill, is sized for a man’s hand. The distance from the seats to the control panels in SpaceX’s Dragon Crew capsule is being tested and optimized for an all-male crew.”

Why This Matters: The era of the Space Race was a very different time for women yet if we don’t want women to be overlooked and undervalued in future space missions we must examine gender bias in the space program and commercial space travel and design tools made with women in mind. Diversity leads to better science and we want as many women and people of color to become astronauts as possible so that we can make better discoveries and learn more about our solar system and beyond.

Go Deeper: Read our interview with the amazing Kathy Sullivan, the first woman to walk in space!

Go Even Deeper: Read, How NASA Women Made Their Mark on the Space Program. 

Interview of the Week: Dr. Enric Sala, Explorer In Residence, National Geographic Society

Photo: Rebecca Hale, National Geographic

Dr. Sala leads the Society’s efforts to save the last wild places on the planet for future generations to enjoy.

ODP: You have said that it is now more important than ever for people to live in balance with nature. Why?

ES: The loss of ecosystems that we have seen in certain regions is happening now at a global scale. Our planet is rapidly becoming much less wild, and we are totally out of balance with nature. Unless we get that balance back, we are jeopardizing the future of our civilization. Today, 96% of the mammals on the planet are human and domesticated animals, only 4% are wild such as elephants, tigers and panda bears. In the ocean, 90% of the large fish have been extracted by fishing in the last century alone. And yet, only 7% of the ocean has been designated or proposed as protected and only 2% of the ocean is fully protected from fishing and other extraction. On the land, only 15 percent is protected in parks or nature reserves.

ODP: Can you give us an example of how this imbalance is hurting us?

ES: The Amazon is one of the richest and most productive ecosystems on the planet but it is experiencing destruction at the fastest rate ever – we lose 2 football fields of Amazon forest a minute. Scientists believe that if we continue at this rate and cut down more than 20% of the current forests, the Amazon of today will turn into a savannah, and that will have the impact of reducing rainfall both in the Amazon and also in other parts of the planet.

ODP: Why is getting the balance right so important, particularly for our economy?

ES: There is a clear moral argument against this kind of devastation. But forget that for a minute – the ecosystems and the species that live in them are our life support system. They produce the oxygen we breathe, they pollinate our crops, they filter the clean water that we drink, they protect us from devastating floods. Without intact wild places, we will not be able to achieve the Paris Climate agreement goals – our forests, wetlands, and grasslands and ocean habitats absorb half of the excess carbon dioxide we expel into the atmosphere every year. And yet we are systematically destroying these ecosystems. We are draining our natural capital too fast – economists estimate that our overuse of natural resources globally is costing us an estimated $6 trillion dollars a year.

ODP:   What should we do? How much of the planet do we need to protect to get the balance back?

ES: The good news is that protecting ecosystems can provide us much more value than destroying them. I know because I have seen it. In 1999 a small place in Mexico called Cabo Pulmo was an underwater desert with no fish. The fishermen were so distraught that they created a no-take marine reserve. Ten years later it was teaming with life. And the fishermen have better fishing and tourism businesses than ever before. In the U.S. every dollar invested in our national parks creates $10 dollars in revenue to the local economies. The problem is that we do not have enough protected areas. The bottom line is that if we want to avoid the extinction of 1 million species, prevent the collapse of our global life support systems, and keep the temperature rise under 2 degrees Celsius, we need to use 50% of the planet more sustainably and we need to protect as wild the other 50%.

ODP: What areas are making progress? Who is leading?

ES: Protection generates more value over the long run than destruction. Just look at New York City. They decided to spend $2 billion dollars to protect the Catskill Mountains north of the city instead of spending $10 billion on a wastewater treatment plant to provide clean water for the city. That investment in protecting water resources at their source means high-quality water in New York City for generations to come.   Next year, China is hosting a historic conference on biodiversity – that is the place and the time where the world can come together to decide to protect 30% of the planet – land and sea – by 2030 as a milestone. Everybody can help – businesses and individuals too. We can rise to the occasion.

ODP:  We are celebrating this week the 50th anniversary of the  Apollo 11 moon landing.  We spend more on exploring space than we do on exploring the wonders of the ocean yet we are a blue planet.  Do you believe we need more ocean exploration in the 21st century?
ES:  Yes — there is a pitiful amount of funding for ocean exploration — particularly as compared to the amount of exploitation of ocean resources.  That must change.

Thanks so much, Enric.  We will continue to bring our readers stories about the importance of conserving 30% of the planet by 2030 for the benefit of biodiversity.

One Cool Thing: Free Beer for Life

If you’re a fan of Busch beer then this one’s for you: As Fast and Company reported, this Saturday Busch Beer will sponsor a secret pop-up shop (the “Busch Pop Up Schop”) that will last for one day—in a national forest somewhere in America. Attendees will receive free merchandise, with one winner getting free Busch for life. People can follow along on Twitter to decipher clues to that spot ahead of time. But that’s not all: through work with the National Forest Foundation, Busch has pledged to plant 100 trees for each person who reaches its party spot. Cheers to that! 

Air Pollution In China Is So Bad That Solar Panels Aren’t Working

Image: Kim Kyung-Hoon/Reuters

by Miro Korenha and Alexandra Patel

In China, air pollution is so bad that it’s preventing the sun’s rays from reaching solar panels–depriving the country of a much-needed source of emissions-free energy. In Beijing, concentrations of deadly fine particulates in the air were six times higher than the World Health Organization air-quality guidelines. According to a Greenpeace study in 2017, coal accounted for more than 60 percent of the country’s energy consumption and as a result, is shrouding Chinese cities in a blanket of toxic smog.

China Bets on Solar: To offset the pollution caused by the burning of fossil fuels, China has made great strides in utilizing solar energy over the past few years. China has now become home to some of the world’s largest solar farms – such as the huge 850-megawatt Longyangxia Dam facility on the Tibetan Plateau – and has more solar energy capacity than any other country in the world.

  • For comparison: China’s cumulative solar capacity is 174.63 gigawatts, whereas the United States has 67 gigawatts of total installed solar capacity.

But But But: Despite the country’s impressive drive towards solar energy, generation of solar power in China has fallen 11-15%, as intense air pollution blocks much of the sun’s rays from reaching the solar arrays. While campaigns to clean the air have resulted in substantial improvements in air quality, there is still a long way to go before air pollution isn’t a public health threat as well as an impediment to solar power.

Human Costs: China has some of the worst air pollution in the entire world, as clouds of smoke shroud many of country’s numerous cities. For the Chinese economy, the constant smog is causing an estimated 267 billion yuan (US$38 billion) in health costs and lost food production. According to a recent study published by the Environmental Research Letters, air pollution has been linked 1.1 million premature mortalities and 20,035 gigagrams lost in crop production. However, by cutting ozone pollution now, China could save 330,000 lives by 2050.

Why This Matters: While China leads the world in solar energy capacity, the amount of actual solar power that is generated is seriously lacking. If the world wants to be serious in deploying solar generation on a meaningful scale, then countries must also commit to reducing fossil fuels in equal measure to clean the air. If China can bring its air quality back to 1960s levels, it could generate up to 12-13% more solar electricity, while creating economic benefits of $4.6 billion to $6.7 billion by 2030. Bloomberg’s New Energy Outlook 2017 estimates that by 2040, 38% of U.S. electricity will be derived from solar, but to realize the full benefits of this transition, we must take a lesson from China and work actively to reduce our own dangerous air pollution.