May 2017 - PLANET EARTH
Take a Deep Breath!
Be Informed, Take Action for a Livable Future
By Skip Holmes
How do we view the future of our outdoor environment that so many of us participate in and often take for granted?
We live in upstate New York with many beautiful lakes to paddle on and swim in. We hike in the Catskill and Adirondack mountains in all seasons. We downhill and cross-country ski on the mountains or in many of our nearby state and local parks. We run and ride our bikes on the many quiet and scenic backroads that offer an opportunity to get away from the hustle of urban and suburban life.
We engage in these activities and more without giving serious consideration to the water or air quality, the microclimates that exist in the fragile mountain peaks, the amount of snow cover, natural or manufactured, the ability to access the park systems, and the amount of traffic we might encounter on those roadways.
For many years, in fact for most of my life, the natural environment has been in a state of improvement. Since the 1970s, federal, state and local governments have worked to improve air and water quality as well as develop new parks and open spaces for us to enjoy an amazing natural experience. The progress had been slow and steady but moving forward due to a common voice that these outdoor spaces and environments were important for the common good.
Recently at the federal level there has been a dramatic change of focus in regard to air and water quality, a turning away from the global consensus that our climate is changing, and that our special places of natural beauty are less important. In New York State as well as several other states including California there has been a resistance to this suggestion that we should turn away from what many in our society truly care about.
Much of what we do as outdoor enthusiasts requires that we inhale significant quantities of air in order to perform at above average levels of aerobic fitness. For those of us who have had to bicycle behind a diesel truck it becomes readily apparent that we are inhaling significant quantities of pollutants. Many runners also suffer from the high volume of automobile exhaust on some busy roadways. If we recall what it used to be like many years ago when vehicle pollution controls were minimal, it was significantly worse. The improvement in vehicle mileage standards has also significantly reduced the level of roadway pollutants that we have to breathe. We have greatly reduced the emissions from the auto and truck sector, yet there is now a federal initiative to delay the latest fuel economy standards that were approved by Congress. If you look forward to a future of more drivers, more vehicles, more trucks delivering all the goods and services we consume, how will the level of air quality change? Certainly becoming less healthy would be a reasonable assumption.
What should we do? Well, for many of us who enjoy inhaling significant quantities of clean air we might already be mindful of about how far we drive, we might car pool to an event; we may drive a more fuel efficient vehicle, or even an electric vehicle. But is that sufficient to mitigate what happens on the national scale? If in the long-term air quality emissions are allowed to increase we will certainly see a decline in air quality. There are also the repercussions from poor air quality such as the significant increase in asthma cases nationwide. The percentage of the US population with asthma in 1980 was 3.1 percent. In 2010 it has risen to 8.4 percent of the population according The Center for Disease Control. The data for 2015 shows 18.4 million people had asthma. The number of children and women who are experiencing asthma attacks is also on the rise according to CDC data.
The transportation sector is not the only source of air pollutants however. Today we use an ever increasing number of electronic devices that require electricity. Think about the laptops, GPS units, televisions, air conditioning, air purifiers, treadmills, that we all use. So where does this electricity come from? Well it’s magic, it just comes out of an outlet in the wall! Not really, but some of you may have solar panels on your roof providing a renewable source of electricity. The rest of us are plugged into an electric grid that connects us to generating stations that are hundreds of miles away. In New York State we have a variety of electric generating sources including, photovoltaic, hydroelectric, wind and nuclear. We also burn fossil fuels such as natural gas, coal and fuel oil to generate electricity. These fossil fuel systems are only about 35 percent efficient. So for every kilowatt of energy we use it requires approximately three kilowatts of equivalent energy to be consumed. Not very efficient you say! Unless you can insure that you are exclusively using only renewable energy sources you are indirectly contributing to the outdoor air quality problems that we breathe. We need to rethink what we use, when we use it, and if we really need it.
A regression of air quality standards should have us outdoor enthusiasts considering the other impacts that are forthcoming. For those who live in the great Northeast and enjoy the selection of winter sports available to us, consider what the potential changing climate may bring. The changes to snowfall amounts and snowfall cover have already impacted the downhill ski resorts. They now have to make more snow to provide trail cover. Snowmaking requires significant use of electricity to run the water pumps and air compressors. Whiteface Mountain uses 15 million kilowatt hours of electricity to make snow each winter. They have recently committed to using 100% renewable energy for their facility and are also installing a 2.6 megawatt solar farm. This is all part of the NYS plan to drastically reduce our reliance on non renewable electric energy sources. Initiatives like this are helping to reduce the carbon impact in the Adirondacks.
Just down the road at the Mount Van Hoevenberg cross-country ski center they have been challenged with a lack of snow for the past several years. This has led to rescheduling or cancelling the well known Lake Placid Loppet race more often. Traditionally Nordic skiing has relied on natural snow. They now have a snowmaking machine to provide artificial snow for their skiers. It is great for us skiers, but it comes at a cost for all the electric energy required to make snow.
These changes to the climate in upstate New York are expected to continue. There are climate projections that now suggest that the climate in upstate New York by 2050 could be similar to that of North Carolina. Now all you summer-only recreation folks may cheer, but there are many other implications for such a change to our climate here.
If this comes as a surprise to you, then I suggest you become more informed as to what is occurring not only here, but all over this planet. On April 29, there were many People’s Climate Marches and demonstrations all over the planet to emphasis the concerns in regard to the changing climatic conditions. Become more informed, talk to others, understand the real facts, the science is documented, and there are actions large and small that we all must take to ensure a more livable future.
There are numerous organizations that provide factual information – US Environmental Protection Agency (epa.gov), Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (ipcc.ch), NYS Department of Environmental Conservation (dec.ny.gov), Environmental Defense Fund (edf.org), Sierra Club (sierraclub.org) and others. Some of the federal climate information has recently been deleted from the EPA website, so you may have to search recently established archives to obtain this information.
Become informed and make your opinions known to those who represent us at all levels of government.
Skip (Oliver) Holmes of Delmar is a professional engineer, a Leadership in Energy and Environment Design (LEED) professional, and teaches Sustainable Design courses at the RPI School of Architecture. He is an outdoor enthusiast who also is a cyclist, Nordic skier, paddler, and hiker. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.