USC Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts & Sciences > Blog

April 26, 2012

A Tale of Two Ports

Filed under: Uncategorized — admin @ 6:25 pm

As part of our 495 experience we were able to see the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach on way to Catalina Island. Despite a lack of natural beauty, the sheer size of the ports, from the cranes to giant tankers and racks on racks on racks, can be awe-inspiring. Los Angeles would not exist in its current form if the LA River had not been supplemented with “sweet water” from the Owens Valley. Arguably, the port has had a similar effect on the development of Los Angeles, which was accounted for by early city planners. However, at what cost has this economic development affected the residents and environment surrounding the ports?

Ports can have large effects on air and marine ecosystem quality due to heavy industrial use in the area. Both boats and trucks travel to and from the ports regularly and have emissions, which are much less regulated than personal vehicles in California.

(Mueller et al, 2011)

These types of emissions, especially the ultra-fine particulates, are known to cause various illnesses related to cardiac and respiratory systems (Dominici et al., 2006). The gaseous emissions are well known and contribute to the amount of ground-level ozone, acid rain and the greenhouse effect. Unfortunately, it is difficult to contain air pollution within the confines of the port and has effects on residents in San Pedro, Wilmington and West Long Beach (Waldie, 2012), residents that live along highways with increased traffic due to port trade and the workers of the port.

Ports also contribute a whole range of contaminants into the marine environment. Ships often introduce contaminants by using anti-fouling chemicals, spilling oil/gas/diesel into the water during refueling and operation or as paint breaks down to name a few. Many of these pollutants affect the health of marine organism and humans’ enjoyment of the resource (people recommend against going swimming at the beach near downtown Long Beach). A breakwater is an important structure near ports and harbors, as they reduce wave action allowing for easier docking and unloading of ships (E.B., 2012). Unfortunately these structures intensify issues regarding marine pollution by reducing water exchange between port and ocean, which has been demonstrated to concentrate marine pollution. “ This factor [limited water exchange], combined with sewage runoff from the coast and intensification of activity in the commercial port, accounts for significant water eutrophication and accumulation of pollutants in bottom sediments” (Selifonova, 2009).

Another significant source of port pollution, although not as common in the United States as developing nations, is the business of ship building/repair/recycling. However, I felt it particularly relevant as the last time I returned from Catalina the smell of burning steel was wafting Miss Christi’s way from Al Larson’s Boat Shop. Pollution from this activity is well documented (Chang et al., 2010; Coffin, 2003) and measures are taken to reduce its effects where the activity is practiced. For example, the boats at Al Larson’s were dry-docked and their ramps were surrounded with floating booms, although somewhat haphazardly. However, were there to be a rain event most of the wastes would be washed into the water and the boom would limit pollution that floats but does little for heavy metals, one of the most common pollutant from boat repair, many of which are more likely to be deposited as sediment or become aqueous than remain on the surface (Maata & Singh, 2008).

These factors are related to the volume of traffic that the port receives. Both the Port of Los Angeles and the Port of Long Beach have historically been some of the highest volume  ports in the United States.

While the economy has certainly been stimulated by this activity, Los Angeles and Long Beach have endangered the health of their and surrounding communities, reduced recreational opportunities and altered the ecology and coastal morphology of the region.

In an attempt to mitigate the environmental impacts associated with ports, the Ports of San Pedro have developed plans focusing on reducing pollution. The Port of Long Beach adopted a Green Port Policy in January 2005 while the Port of Los Angeles initiated an Environmental Management System in 2003. These environmental management policies aim to engage the community, the port staff, and the customers, all while promoting sustainability, employing the best available technology and practices, monitoring performance, and complying with all environmental regulations. Some of the specific goals of the Green Port Policy are protecting wildlife, reducing harmful emissions, improving the quality of the water, and removing and treating the soils and sediments in the harbor.

One of the biggest accomplishments achieved under these environmental management plans is the Clean Air Action Plan. This plan focuses on reducing emissions from all five main port sources; trucks, vessels, cargo handling equipment, harbor craft, and rail. Highlighted in these plans are two long-term goals:

  1. By 2014, reduce port-related emissions by 22 percent for Nitrogen Oxides, 93 percent for Sulfur Oxides, and 72 percent for Diesel Particulate Matter.
  2. By 2023, reduce port-related emissions by 59 percent for Nitrogen Oxides, 92 percent for Sulfur Oxides and 77 percent for Diesel Particulate Matter.

The four main programs initiated under the Clean Air Action Plan are the Technology Advancement Program, the Alternative Maritime Power program, the Green Flag Program, and the Clean Trucks Program.  Under the Technology Advancement Program, technology that has a high probability of reducing pollutants are researched and tested for commercial success. One of these new technologies is the hybrid tug boat system, which pulls larger vessels and container ships into docks in order to prevent them from running their larger, and higher polluting engines. Additionally, through the use of Alternative Maritime Power, container ships can use shoreside power at the terminal to unload cargo rather than continually running their energy intensive diesel engines.

Hybrid Tug Boat System

The Clean Trucks Program is attempting to improve air quality in the community and for the greater Los Angeles area through easing into a ban of older, dirtier trucks. All trucks manufactured before 2007 are not permitted to operate within the ports. Both Ports expect that the use of newer and more efficient trucks will eliminate a large percentage of air pollution. The last Clean Air Action program is the Green Flag Program, which focuses on vessels coming into the Port of Los Angeles and the Port of San Pedro. Basically, this program ensures that emissions are reduced within a 40 mile limit from the ports by restricting ships from traveling faster than 12 knots. A speed reduction means a reduction in energy used by the ships and ultimately reduces fuel and therefore pollutant emissions as well.

Since the adoption of the Clean Air Action Plan in 2006, both Ports have compiled an Emissions Inventory to calculate emission levels by year from 2005 to 2010, all of the main air pollutants from port sources were reduced. At the Port of Long Beach, in addition to a 72% decline in diesel particulates from 2005 to 2010, sulfur oxides fell by 73%, smog-forming nitrogen oxides lessened by 46% and greenhouse gases dropped by 18%. At the Port of Los Angeles, diesel particulates declined by 39% from 2009, NOx emissions were down by 25% and SOx emissions fell by 45%.

These numbers reflect not only a significant change in port impacts, but an overall change in goals and progress for the future. In previous decades the surrounding communities have had to suffer and bear the burden of port pollution. This community found it difficult to challenge the San Pedro Bay Ports due to their importance to the regional and national economy. Now and looking into the future, the San Pedro Ports have promised to work together with the community to clean up their acts and encourage cleaner proposals and development.

 Authored by Dan Kasang, ’12 who is graduating with a BS in Environmental Studies, and Patrick Talbott, ‘12 who is graduating this spring with a BS in Environmental Studies and is pursuing a Progressive Master’s in Environmental Studies and a certificate in Sustainable Cities.

Works Cited

Chang, Y-C. et al. 2010. Ship Recycling and Marine Pollution. In Marine Pollution Bulletin. 60: 9. Pages 1390-1396.
Coffin, B. 2003. Ghost Fleet Underscores Ship Recycling Hazards. In Risk Management. New York. 50: 12. Page 10.
Dominici, F. et al., 2006. Fine Particulate Air Pollution and Hospital Admission for Cardiovascular and Respiratory Diseases. In Journal of the American Medical Association. 295: 10. Pages 1127-1134.
breakwater. 2012. In Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved from
Maata, M. & Singh, S. 2008. Heavy Metal Pollution in Suva Harbor Sediments, Fiji. In Environmental Chemistry Letters. 6: 2. Pages 113-118.
Mueller, D. et al. 2011. Ships, ports and particulate air pollution – an analysis of recent studies. In Journal of Occupational Medicine and Toxicology. 6: 31.
Selifonova, J. P. 2009. The ecosystem of the Black Seaport of Novorossiysk under conditions of heavy anthropogenic pollution. In Russian Journal of Ecology. 40: 7. Pages 510-515.
Waldie, D. J. 2012. Competition and Environmental Risks in Ports’ Future. In KCET’s SoCal Focus Blog. Web.
2010 UPDATE SAN PEDRO BAY PORTS CLEAN AIR ACTION PLAN. Publication. San Pedro      Bay Ports. Web. 5 Mar. 2011.
Braathen, Nils Axel. Environmental Impacts of International Shipping: The Role of Ports. Paris: OECD, 2011. Print.
“The Port of Los Angeles | Maritime.” The Port of Los Angeles: America’s Port. City of Los Angeles, 2012. Web. Feb.-Mar. 2012.
“San Pedro Bay Ports Clean Air Action Plan – Emissions Inventories.” San Pedro Bay         PortsClean Air Action Plan. Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, 2012. Web. Mar.         2012.



Public Transportation Transformation in Southern California and the Environmental and Health Problems it has Caused

Filed under: Energy,Los Angeles Politics,Pollution — admin @ 6:15 pm

Los Angeles once had a thriving public transportation system, mainly of electric streetcars owned and operated by the Pacific Electric Company. Pacific Electric’s trains branched out from the heart of Los Angeles for a radius of 75 miles to San Fernando, San Bernardino, and Santa Ana making (at the time) the world’s largest interurban electric railway system (see Pacific Electric Railway picture for details). Snell argues Pacific Electric is responsible for the manner in which Los Angeles is geographically sprawled today. The electric railways were first constructed in 1911, and it “established traditions of suburban living long before the automobile arrived” (Snell).

In 1940, General Motors (GM) purchased $100 million worth of portions of the Pacific Electric system under the auspices of Pacific City Lines (a bus company made up of GM and Standard Oil of California). In 1944, GM and Standard Oil gave American City Lines (also an affiliate of GM) to motorize Los Angeles, whereby American City Lines purchased Los Angeles Railway (the local electric streetcar system), scrapped the electric transit cars, tore down power transmission lines, took out tracks, and established a system of buses. These buses were specifically built by GM and ran on Standard Oil (Snell).

GM had the ability to do this because of its serious influence throughout the United States. At the time, there were the “Big Three” car companies: GM, Chrysler, and Ford. GM, however, had by far the most power of them all. Snell argues Chrysler and Ford depended greatly on GM for supply of various parts that were crucial to their automobiles. GM, Ford, and Chrysler at the time annually contributed around $14 million to lobbyists for promotion of automotive transportation; their leading rivals could only afford about $1 million to lobby for rail transit. The magnitude of sales, the number of American employees, government revenue from corporate taxes, and the almost monopoly the Big Three had, enabled them to levy serious political influence. The Big Three saw public transportation as standing in their way of selling cars – each public transportation vehicle held up to 50 spots per trip that could otherwise have purchased automobiles (Snell). It makes sense then for the Big Three to levy their power to move the United States to personal automobiles.

GM also had built a solid grasp on city bus production. Seeing as both their cars and the buses ran on diesel fuel, it was an easy transition for them. In the 1920s, when the automobile market was saturated, GM expanded into other types of transportation, mainly city buses. Snell states “Beginning in 1932, [GM] undertook the direct operation and conversion of interurban electric railway and local electric streetcar and trolley bus systems into city bus operations.” GM formed an agreement with Greyhound Bus Corporation, putting many GM executives onto Greyhounds Board of Directors, and aiding the Greyhound Bus Corporation financially; until 1948, GM was the single largest shareholder in the Greyhound Corporation (Snell). In 1928, Greyhound announced its intention to convert commuter rail operations to intercity bus services. In 1936, GM together with Greyhound, Standard Oil, Firestone Tire, and a parts supplier come together to make National City Lines (intercity bus transportation). By 1939, GM and Greyhound had been successful in converting electric streetcar lines to National City Bus Lines in Pennsylvania, New York, St. Louis, among others (Snell).

Interestingly enough, GM realizes in the 1950s they make more money by selling cars than buses; 10 times more to be exact (Snell). Buses also have higher operating costs due to the fact that “diesel buses have 28 percent shorter economic lives, 40 percent higher operating costs, and 9 percent lower productivity than electric buses” (Snell). Thus, GM actually had an incentive to decrease bus ridership. Buses, however, are noisy, produce diesel smoke, and slower than electric rail cars. Thus, Snell argues, the move to diesel buses may have actually created a long-term effect of selling more GM cars; the public transportation was no longer a desirable option, so people purchased personal automobiles.

Slater, however, contradicts Snell’s argument. Slater claims buses would have replaced streetcars, regardless of GM’s intervention. He argues by 1944 bus lines were already carrying as many passengers as electric streetcars (58). In addition, he states, Pacific Electric also had a bus operations for public transit as well. However, he misses the point that the urban sprawl of Los Angeles was created by the electric railway system, thus it was perfectly suited to be dependent on it.

Regardless of which side one takes in the controversy, in 20/20 hindsight, it is clear public electric streetcar transportation would have most likely been the healthier option for the residents of Los Angeles. Traffic congestion and the number of cars on Los Angeles freeways and streets causes a serious amount of pollution that is damaging to human and environmental health.

Los Angeles is one of the largest cities in the nation in terms of population, all of who need transportation. Transportation, however, encourages further development and settlement of people, as we saw with the direct correlation between urban sprawl and the extension of the Pacific Electric railway system. This extension can have positive influences on the economy due to the growth of business and transportation of goods, but comes with a cost.  Freeways have a direct impact on the human and their environment ranging from human health concerns to the disruption of ecological communities.

The construction of freeways can displace residents and small business owners. Local communities fight against freeways near their homes because it can bring down property values from the noise, air pollution and overall loss of a certain quality of life. Freeways can drastically alter the native landscape and ecological community.  The loss of habitat land for wildlife can have a direct impact on the ecosystem and alter the genetic make up of a species due to the separation.  This can result in a loss of biodiversity, susceptibility to disease and extinction.  The construction of many freeways has resulted in a loss of wetlands and/or the contamination of waterways essential to a community’s water supply; ultimately contributing to the decline in water quality in our oceans through surface water run off.  Freeways have a direct impact on air quality and mobile air pollution contributing to climate change, smog and the overall air quality of that region.  All these factors play a role in why stakeholders vehemently fight for there rights to bee heard in the transportation planning process.

An example of stakeholder involvement in transportation planning, specifically in regards to a freeways environmental impact on the surrounding region, is the I-710 highway that connects the two largest ports in the world, Long Beach and Los Angeles, to the rest of Southern California.  The ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles import 40% of all U.S. goods.  Due to mass movement of goods and an increasing amount of traffic due to the high volume, environmental and health challenges facing the area are high. In 2005 the I-710 Corridor Project Study was commissioned to look at the challenges and ways to improve traffic congestion and enhance the quality of life for residents and communities of the surrounding area.  The findings of this report were staggering. Los Angeles has attempted to improve and reduce the environmental and health risks demonstrated in the findings.

The I-710 passes through 15 communities with 1 million residents; 70% of these residents are minority, low-income communities.  These communities persistently exceed national air quality standards, which is due to the mass transit from the ports to the rest of the state and country. One small example is diesel emissions, the report stated, caused 2,000 premature deaths.

In 2009, the American Lung Association identified Los Angeles as the most polluted city in the nation from ozone and particulate levels.  Besides improving traffic congestion through the possible widening of lanes, building tunnels, elevated ramps and other infrastructural development the city must all take into consideration the needs of the already damaged health of the communities.  As mentioned earlier there are a number of stakeholders within this type of project and for the past 3 years the city has been trying to work with the communities and local organizations to identify pollution problems and resources to solve these problems. This is an ongoing concern and while currently the focus is on the I-710, these problems are related to all highways.

This post was written by Jasmine Davis, ’12 who is graduating this spring with a BA in Environmental Studies, and Elise Fabro who is graduating this spring with a double major in Environmental Studies & Political Science, and she is pursuing a progressive Master’s in Environmental Studies.

Works Cited

Environmental Justice: Los Angeles Area Environmental Enforcement Collaborative | Pacific Southwest, Region 9 | US EPA.” US Environmental Protection Agency. N.p., n.d. Web. 25 Apr. 2012.
Goffman, Ethan. “Highways and Environmental Impact Issues.” CSA. N.p., n.d. Web. 25 Apr. 2012.
Slater, Cliff. “General Motors and the Demise of Streetcars.” Transportation Quarterly51.3 (1997): 45-66. Print.
Snell, Bradford C. “A Market Structure as the Determinant of Industry Conduct and Performance.” American Ground Transport. CarBusters, Mar. 2001. Web. 25 Apr. 2012.

April 20, 2012

A New Perspective on Clean Energy

Filed under: Energy — admin @ 9:07 pm

We want to propose a new perspective on “clean energy.” As environmental studies majors, we have seen the impacts of fossil fuels and are often the first to advocate clean energy policies. But what are the true ramifications of what we advocate? Alex Epstein is the Founder and Director for the Center for Industrial Progress. He specializes in the energy debate and takes a fundamentally opposite view of the general “environmentalist” perspective. In his article “Four Dirty Secrets about Clean Energy,” Epstein seeks to expose supposed truths about so-called “clean energy” and clean energy policy. While it is not necessarily new information, his points provoke some thoughts about the ultimate consequences that come with clean energy policies.

Epstein’s first Dirty Secret is “If “clean energy” were actually cheaper than fossil fuels, it wouldn’t need a policy.” Epstein quotes various clean energy proponents like Al-Gore who make the claims that renewable energy sources are ultimately cheaper than fossil fuels. They say that while the initial implementation would be expensive, in the long run they would provide infinite amounts of energy. For instance, he provides the often quoted fact that enough sunlight falls on the face of the earth every forty minutes to satisfy our energy needs for a full year. If we could harness such energy, it would be “free forever.” These same proponents make the argument that as fossil fuels quickly deplete in supply, their prices will drive higher and higher, becoming more expensive. Epstein argues that these things aren’t true. He says that harnessing all the sunlight that landed on the Earth is nowhere close to feasible and would need to be implemented on such a massive scale but could never be achieved. He also says that if supplies of fossil fuels were diminishing as rapidly as claimed, then people in the energy market would make fortunes in the futures markets. The clean energy proponents say that fossil-fuel companies are short sited and don’t realize the eminent shortage we will face soon. Epstein argues that this is false, that these companies spend billions of dollars on research to ensure the viability of their companies and industries.

There are many misconceptions within the environmental industry. One of the primary flaws of clean energy that is often overlooked is the financial feasibility of such sources. Analyzing from an economist’s view, if renewable energies were so profitable then the markets would reflect this and more investment and development would go into these areas. However, the alternatives of renewable are far more attractive to investors because of the greater chances of profit. We are often confronted with the fact that fossil fuels are rapidly depleting and people only care about short-term profits. However, if these claims were true, then individuals would then make huge profits in the futures market. This does not appear to be happening.

If renewable energy sources were truly cheaper than fossil fuels despite their initial costs, history has shown that they would win out as investors seek to place capital in the most profitable area. An example to prove this is the relationship between crude oil and natural gas. Previously oil was the most profitable form of energy however in recent years, due to a many number of reasons, including scarcity, natural gas is now more financially profitable and as such future investment is being made in this field. Therefore if renewable were more profitable history would suggest that they would already be invested heavily in. One could therefore infer that renewable energy still is not competitive because it is more expensive and therefore need to become more efficient before their initial costs compensate for their long pay back time and there are competitive in a free market.


The price of natural gas begins to fall under crude oil, which historically has been a cheaper source of energy.

The second Dirty Secret is “Clean energy advocates want to force us to use solar, wind, and biofuels, even though there is no evidence these can power modern civilization.” Epstein sites the fact that only 1% of the world’s energy needs are satisfied by various renewable energy sources. He says that the reason renewable sources can’t compete with fossil fuels is because of energy density. While there is a lot of energy in sola and wind, it is so dispersed that to harness them to any effective degree requires far more land, labor, and equipment than fossil fuels. Epstein argues that such requirements will always keep renewable energies far more expensive than fossil fuels. He also says that these sources of energy are unreliable. Sun depends on the weather and wind can be intermittent. Therefore, the energy production of these sources isn’t consistent and often require backup energy sources, which are often fossil fuel sources. Epstein refutes the often quoted “conspiracy” theory that renewable energy isn’t implemented because big fossil-fuel loving companies aren’t allowing their adoption. Epstein argues it is the fundamental nature of this energy source that keeps it from being adopted. These sources can’t satisfy human needs in an efficient way.

There are fundamental differences between the quality and density of energy provided by fossil fuels and those of sustainable sources. The energy of the wind and sun is far more dispersed than that of oil, coal or even nuclear energy. This means that larger plants are required to harness the energy, thus creating a larger impact on the environment. The idea that there is ample energy out there to be harnessed is correct however the resources and land required to enable us to harvest this energy is substantial. Furthermore, because of intermittency in production there is a need for excess plants to be built and geographically dispersed in order to compensate for the fluctuations in supply.

Epstein’s Dirty Secret #3 is “There are promising carbon-free energy sources–hydroelectric and nuclear–but “clean energy” policies oppose them as not “green” enough.” He makes the argument that environmentalist and those concerned with reducing carbon emissions even reject zero carbon emission energy sources that actually have the potential to meet human energy needs. Epstein says these individuals attacked the nuclear power industry in its infancy with “lies and propaganda” to make its growth and expansion nearly impossible. He says these tactics are still being used today when people site the situation in tsunami-stricken Japan and the issues that are happening with those nuclear reactors; they use it as another reasons for the dangers of nuclear power. He claims that anti-nuclear proponents usually say their main concern with nuclear power is safety both with regards to the nuclear reactor plant and the radioactive wastes the process produces.

He says these proponents site the radioactive element of nuclear power as a danger for people living in an area surrounding a nuclear plant. He counters this concern with the fact that even solar energy is considered radioactivity. He makes the point that simply because the energy source is radioactive, it does not mean that alone makes it dangerous. He says a person receives more radiation exposure walking during the day then living next to a nuclear plant. He then addresses the popular image of a failing reactor exploding or being bombed by terrorists, causing a “Hiroshima” type scenario. He says this is a hyperbolic concern for the main reason that the uranium in nuclear reactors are not explosive and such an event would not cause an explosion that people are often concerned about. Epstein says that if these attackers’ main concern was truly safety, they would see that nuclear power is one of the safest forms of energy currently available. He says the best indicator of a technology’s safety is “how many deaths it has caused per unit of energy produced and that  “In the capitalist world, nuclear power in its entire history has not led to a single death from meltdowns radiation, or any of the allegedly intolerable dangers cited by nuclear critics.”

Epstein then addresses the concern people have with the waste that is produced through the process of making nuclear power. He argues that the concern is not nearly as threatening as anti-nuclear proponents make it out to be. He says “the amount of waste is thousands of times smaller than for any other practical source of energy, that it can be safely stored, and that there are many technologies for utilizing the waste to generate even more energy.” He labels these concerns as simple hysteria that attacks nuclear power simply because it is “unnatural” and therefore must be bad. He attacks anti-nuclear proponents for advocating so much government regulation of nuclear power that they effectively halted the growth of such a promising industry. He says the required safety regulations that have been imposed only work to hike up the price of this power source and make building a new power plant nearly impossible. He says that today anti-nuclear proponents site the dying nuclear power industry as a result of natural market forces that make it unable to compete with other sources of power. Epstein argues that this isn’t the case at all. He says that nuclear power was highly competitive when it first appeared as a viable energy source. Epstein claims it had massive potential to provide large quantities of cheap, zero-emission energy until all the regulation effectively killed the industry.

Epstein says that nuclear power is not alone. These same advocators of zero-emissions energy have spent just as much work trying to dismantle hydroelectric dams. He says these dams have enormous quantities of energy to provide at zero-emissions cost. He argues that the attackers are not concerned simply with carbon emissions, but having any impact on nature at all.

Epstein makes a few interesting points with his third dirty secret. Obviously by this point in his article we see that Epstein is concerned more with human progress than with the state of the natural world. So while he is not as concerned about finding zero-emission energy sources, he claims that even when people who are finally find a clean energy source that can actually meet human power needs, they still reject it. Well this is a valid point, I think Epstein is guilty of down playing the dangers of nuclear power just as much as the people he sites as hyping it. While he is right that unit of power produced per death caused is extremely low with regards to nuclear power, he makes the false statement that nuclear power has resulted in no deaths. If I had the chance, I’d like to ask how he can make such a claim when there are glaring examples of just that, the main of which being Chernobyl. We of course know that Chernobyl was a particular case because of the poorly built infrastructure and the lack of expertise, but that does not change the fact that people died because of it. The initial responders to the explosion didn’t wear protective gear and were exposed to high levels of radiation, dying within the next few weeks. While again deaths per unit of energy produced make these particular deaths statistically insignificant, it does not make it zero as Epstein boldly claimed. Epstein also seems to misunderstand people’s perception with radiation. The radiation from the sun and the radiation produced by nuclear power are drastically different. Both have the potential to cause physical damage, but it is all about degree of exposure. It takes far more solar radiation to cause the type of damage that the same amount of nuclear radiation would cause. This is not to neglect the fact that we are exposed to far more solar radiation, but the concern with anti-nuclear proponents is those disastrous instances when fantastic amounts of radiation is released and people are exposed. Again, siting the Chernobyl event, billows of radiation were released into the atmosphere and spread throughout Europe.


The spread of radiation through the atmosphere across Russia.

Epstein also says that we can store nuclear waste safely. Again, I wish he had gone into detail in his article about how exactly defines safely and how we believes nuclear waste is stored. From my studies at least, I believe nuclear waste is usually stored on site of nuclear plants in pretty basic structures. While it is true I do not know this for sure, I have studied such proposed storage plans like Yucca Mountain and even that is unable to provide housing. Epstein does make a valid point overall that nuclear power is a practical energy source and emits zero-emissions. He does, however, seem to downplay its dangers just as much as others overplay them.

Epstein’s final “Dirty Secret” is “The environmentalists behind clean energy policy are anti-energy.” Epstein makes that argument that ultimately, environmentalists are not concerned with pollution, but with human progress and development. He says that the “minimal impact” approach that is advocated is fundamentally “anti-energy.” He says that even if energy policy outlawed all forms of fossil fuels and only allowed renewable forms of energy like solar, wind, and geothermal, environmentalists would be against it. He says that because of how inefficient these renewable sources, they would have to be implemented on massive scales. Huge stretches of land would be covered in solar panels and wind farms. Geothermal requires thousands of feet of drilling into the Earth. Just implementing these technologies would require fossil fuel consumption to create them. They would fundamentally alter the environments they are placed. Epstein the total impact on the environment would be greater than fossil fuels because of energy concentration. Fossil fuels are so energy dense that the energy can be harnessed in a much smaller space with fewer resources. Renewable forms of energy require altering entire landscapes. He says environmentalists would never get behind such an impact. He claims that ultimately, environmentalists want human development and progress to stop and diminish. He says when pushed, environmentalists ultimately say that the only solution is conservation, population control, and the cessation of development. He quotes a few figures known for their “clean energy” stances that say people ultimately need to live more modestly. He argues that the only way for that to happen is with more government regulation in every aspect of our lives to make sure we are living modestly. He says the end result of this movement is “pure destruction.” Epstein argues that with industrial development, humans can respond and adapt to our environment. He sites the catastrophes that environmentalists warn will inevitably come if something isn’t changed. Epstein argues that humans are not simply going to be subjected to these catastrophes with no defense. Instead, he says industrial energy and development make “catastrophes non-catastrophic.” He sites such situations like a drought in Africa that kills thousands every year. While that is the case there, in the U.S. industrial development has led to irrigation that makes deserts some of the most productive and desirable places to live. Epstein says what the world needs is industrial development which betters the human condition. He says the only way to achieve this is to completely halt the pursuit of “green” policies that are fundamentally anti-development and progress.

Epstein’s final point is remarkable. The inefficiencies of renewable energy are no secret to anyone. What would happen if we actually did heavily pursue them and try to replace fossil fuels with them completely? They would require implementation on a massive scale to meet human energy needs. Such implementation would undoubtedly have a huge impact on the environment. Is that what environmentalists really want? Seeing as the biggest problem environmentalists have with dams is their alteration of the environment, I will assume implementation of solar and wind on the scale needed would face just as much opposition as dams. So then what needs to be done? Humans have to stop development and live modestly. But how would that be enforced? What does that mean would have to happen in our daily lives? How many luxuries that we enjoy and take for granted would we have to give up and how would that be enforced? Would we simply be monitored every moment of our lives to ensure that we are living modestly enough? What would be the punishment for non-compliance? And this is only concerning already developed countries. What about developing countries? Do we have to stop them from developing too? Or do we allow them to reach a modest level and stop them? Is it right or fair to impose such restrictions on other countries? These questions have to be answered if we really want to pursue renewable energy. Their inefficiencies only mean two outcomes: massive scale implementation that has a huge environmental impact, or halting development and enforcing everyone to live modestly, however that is defined. As humans we respond to our environment and alter it to suit our needs. This makes us fundamentally different from all other organisms on the planet. Development is altering our environment to make it more suitable for our needs. Should we change our nature? As environmental studies majors we should really consider the ultimate consequences of even our actions, which on the surface sound very good. But what will be the real cost if we get what we advocate for? How will it be enforced and what will that mean for our individual liberties? How much are we willing to give up and how do we feel morally about forcing our policies on others? We owe it to ourselves to really search all perspectives to finally make what we can truly say is the right approach to the problems we face today.


Corey Bustamante is a junior double majoring in Environmental Studies and Economics.

Richard Charlesworth is a senior majoring in Environmental Studies and minoring in Architecture.

A comparison between Catalina and Santa Cruz Islands

Filed under: Catalina Island,Santa Cruz Island — admin @ 9:01 pm

One characteristic shared by the two islands is how susceptible their ecosystems are to disturbance, as exhibited by the crashes of their island fox population.  Although different in cause, each demonstrated that a small island ecosystem, evolving under sheltered protection from mainland disturbances can create unique and fragile ecosystems that do not handle major disturbances well.  This is largely due to their relatively small gene pool of the population and small geographic range.


Island Fox

In other more traditional geographic regions, a disturbance in an ecosystem that leads to a population crash can often be followed by an easier recovery.  Either there is a large enough, well-adapted surviving population that can repopulate, or organisms from another region can gradually be reintroduced into the area.  However on an island, often neither is possible. If the species experiencing the crash is endemic, then it is possible that the crash will result in the species extinction as no other existing members of the species exist in the world.  Even if some individuals survive the initial disturbance, with the population, small to begin with, may leave so few survivors that the gene pool does not carry enough diversity for a proper recovery and the species may die out.  As such, a disturbance in an island ecosystem is much more likely to lead to species extinction.
On Catalina Island, the collapse of the fox population was primarily due to the introduction of the canine distemper virus.  In 1999 an outbreak occurred causing the population to drop from 1300 to only 100 animals.  The outbreak swept across the west side of the island but fortunately did not reach the eastern island, which was separated by a narrow isthmus.  In 2000 the Catalina Island Conservancy and the Institute for Wildlife Studies instituted the Catalina Island Fox Recovery Plan, which consisted of monitoring, captive breeding, vaccination, and relocation of the foxes.  The program was a success and by 2004, the population had climbed up to 300.  Although it is not entirely known how the virus was introduced into the population, one theory is that it was brought to the island by an infected domesticated dog or a stow-away raccoon.

Feral Pig

On Santa Cruz Island, a collapse also occurred, but for different reasons.  Over-predation by the golden eagle, an exotic species, was discovered to be the primary cause.  However indirect blame could be placed on the human introduction of pigs to the island.  A study by Roemer et. al. indicated that the colonization of Golden Eagles onto the island could only be sustained by the existence of a feral pig population.  However, even though the foxes alone could not sustain the eagle population, they were much more affected by eagle predation than the pigs.  The foxes were ill adapted to evade eagle predation and as such faced possible extinction.


Golden Eagle

Like the island fox’s unfortunate fate at the hands or claws of introduced species and viruses, many native and endemic plant species on both Catalina and Santa Cruz islands have suffered from human introduced grazers. While both islands have gone under some form of plant restoration from the damages done by past-introduced grazers, Catalina currently still has resident populations of non-native grazers while Santa Cruz Island does not. This provides an interesting contrast between the islands because there are many similar native plant species that exists on both islands but in different quantities and manifestations. Through this comparison one can clearly see the tremendous impact that grazers have on the plant communities of the Channel Islands.


Catalina Island Bison

Catalina currently has a small population of 150-200 bison that roam the island. The bison population is controlled both by a birth control that limits the number of calves a female bison can have a year and by shipping the bison back to the mainland to supplement mainland herds on tribal lands. The birth control method was introduced in 2009 and was greeted by animal rights activists who opposed the Catalina Conservancy’s earlier eradiation of feral goats and pigs with high power rifles from helicopters. The Los Angeles Times reported that the birth control option for controlling the bison herds was suggested by an animal activist Avalon shop owner named, Debbie Avellana. Other non-native grazers that continue to roam the island are mule deer that are kept under control by recreational hunting as well as the Conservancy, and a very small population of black buck antelope. Historically Catalina was used for grazing goats, pigs, sheep and cattle but have since been irradiated.
Catalina’s current native plant population has suffered as a result of the current non-native grazers on the island. The effect of the grazers can be seen all too clearly in the example of the native Giant Coreopsis (Coreopsis gigantea). On Catalina this “Dr Seuss plant” is only found with in the confines of the Ackerman Nursery where grazers are kept out. There are also reports of some wild species on the sea bluffs or steep gullies of the island where grazers can’t get to them. On a whole plants on Catalina tend to be bush-like where they otherwise would be more like trees. The only “trees” you will find on Catalina are either non-native or are the native toyon, lemonade berry, sugar bush or Catalina Cherry trees because they are so resilient. Some native plants have changed their pollination season to try and outcompete not only the grazers but also invasive plants.
Restoration on Catalina is difficult because there is a permanent human population there and the island attracts around a million tourists a year. This constant stream of visitors means the potential for foreign species introduction is more likely. Fennel is still a problem on the island being an aggressive invasive species, but a management strategy including weeding around campsites and populated areas outward seems to be working in its early stages. Another invasive species is the eucalyptus, which was brought to the island on purpose to beautify areas like Avalon and was a favorite of the Wrigleys. Santa Cruz Island also struggles with both eucalyptus and fennel.

Tourists in Avalon

Santa Cruz Island does not have any non-native grazers currently living on the island. Historically Santa Cruz Island was a ranch raising some of the most well known beef and sheep products on the west coast. Since then it has been brought under the control of National Park Services and the Nature Conservancy. The only human presence is that of campers and eco-tourists, and researchers. There are a few people that live there to maintain the research and historic ranch facilities. These conditions have allowed a recovery of many native plants and allows for these plants to grow large and where on Catalina you may have a sparse bush, on Santa Cruz Island you will have a large bush as tall as a man. On Santa Cruz Island, Giant Coreopsis and Bedstraw are significantly more common than on Catalina as are buckwheats (including one species of buckwheat that is endemic to Santa Cruz Island), Manzanita (also including a endemic species), and Sunflower bush. Santa Cruz Island has around 600 native plant species.

Santa Cruz Island Landscape

These cases, exhibit how island ecosystems are incredibly susceptible to disturbances, which can often be brought upon by the interference of humans.  In the case of Catalina Island Fox, the introduction of a virus, possibly by a colonizer’s pet dog, is to blame for the collapse of a species.  Santa Cruz’s population collapse was brought upon by the human introduction of pigs to the island, which facilitated the entry of yet another harmful invasive species.  It is believed that in both instances, had humans not brought in these disturbances that such a collapse would not have occurred.  Just as these collapses wouldn’t have occurred without human interference one can use Santa Cruz Island to “see” how different a landscape Catalina would have if it didn’t have the human introduced grazers still shaping plant communities on the island. As such these cases serve as a reminder that humans should exercise extreme caution when interacting with such isolated ecosystems, as they can be as fragile as they are unique and beautiful.

This post was written by Mariah Gill ’12 and Jefferey Nakashioya ’12 both seniors in Environmental Studies.

Carlos de la Rosa, Personal Communication/ Lecture

April 16, 2012

Climate change and the hydrological cycle

Filed under: climate,Water — admin @ 9:21 pm

A severe change in the hydrological cycle is expected, and it is expected to hit snow- or ice-dominated areas most severely. This change is expected because of an increase in greenhouse gases. This change at first was expected to increase the amount of potable water but now the dynamics of the changes have been analyzed more closely. We have found out that as temperatures increase less precipitation will fall as snow and snowmelt will occur sooner in early spring and not in the summer or autumn when the water is needed most. The snowmelt and rain will cause an overflow in rivers and causing loss of potable water to the oceans when there are not sufficient reservoirs.

And it is not necessarily changes in precipitation that causes all this because the amount of precipitation generally remains the same. It is the change in temperature that changes the seasonal runoff patterns in these snowmelt-dominated areas because less water falls as snow and more falls as rain, preventing the normal release of water as snowmelt and the quick flowing of rainwater.

The Colorado River of the western United States was determined to be one of the four snowmelt-dominated rivers that also do not have sufficient reservoir capacity to prevent overflow and loss to the ocean. To determine these, first the snowmelt-dominated areas were determined by the ratio of accumulated annual snowfall to annual rainfall and those with R greater than 0.5 were considered snowmelt-dominated. Next, to determine reservoir capacity, the runoff was compared to the reservoir capacity. These determined areas underestimate the area and population affected because populations downstream and other farther areas also depend on the water that comes from snowmelt-dominated areas.

The aspect of the most importance is water supply. In the Western United States, the Colorado River is the most important contributor of water supply. There are no predicted changes in precipitation, only a change in seasonal snowpack and snowmelt, as discussed earlier. The winter snow is expected to decrease and the melting is expected to occur a whole month earlier. On top of that, there is currently not enough reservoir capacity to prevent water loss to the ocean.

The Colorado River, along with the Rio Grande and San Joaquin, supply water to Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, California, Utah, Texas, and parts of Mexico. These rivers, especially the Colorado River, were determined by the Interior Department in 2011 to deplete by 8 to 14 percent over the next 40 years. But in a more optimistic short-term study done in 2009 at the University of Colorado at Boulder, the risk of the Colorado River depleting its reservoirs remains below 10 percent at least through 2026. It was also said as a result of this study that even if the worst drought scenario were to occur, we wouldn’t feel the effects immediately because we have a great storage capacity along the Colorado River, storing almost four times the annual flow of the river. But in between 2026 and 2057, the risk of reservoir depletion increases seven times.

These studies on the Colorado River can comfort us because we know we are relatively safe until 2026, but 2026 is approaching fast and we cannot get comfortable. Large scale changes such as shift in seasonal snowmelt and decreasing amounts of snowfall took decades to develop and will take decades to reverse, if it is even at all possible. The most plausible solution for now is that we must find ways to direct and store this precipitation so we do not lose it to the ocean.


This post was authored by Alejandra Rocha ’12, a senior majoring in Environmental Studies.

Heat Waves and the Growing Threat Posed by Extreme Heat Events

Filed under: climate — admin @ 9:00 pm

The potential for climate change to drastically alter the weather is by no means a new topic. We often hear of the potential for the formation of more severe hurricanes, widespread drought in some areas and widespread flooding in others. However, one type of event which often serves as a footnote to this discussion is the potential for climate change to drastically increase the incidence and severity of extreme heat events (EVEs), more commonly known as heat waves. Already, heat waves account for more deaths in the United States than any other weather phenomena. In fact, heat waves account for more deaths annually than hurricanes, tornadoes, floods and earthquakes combined (CDC). Despite this fact, heat waves are commonly overlooked as a major threat to a population – they kill silently and leave little or no physical destruction in their wake, leaving few lasting reminders of the danger that exist (Luper et al, 2008). Aside from the impact in human lives, extreme heat events put severe stress on healthcare services and energy supply and distribution networks, which can, in severe cases, result in major social and economic problems. With experts predicting more intense and frequent heat waves in the future, increased awareness and preparation will be crucial to mitigating the dangers associated with these extreme heat events.

While the nature of conditions which characterize a heat waves differs between organizations, the World Meteorological Organization recommends as a definition a situation where the daily maximum temperature of more than five consecutive days exceeds the average temperature by 5oC (9oF). Of particular note in this definition is the reference to five consecutive days of high temperature. This temporal element is what separates a heat wave from a situation when you may have one or two days of extremely hot weather – and this extended period of heat exposure is also what makes heat waves so dangerous.

Temperature map showing mean temperature and degrees above average during the 2003 European heat wave, which killed over 70,000 people.

Although local conditions (i.e. warm winds like the Santa Ana winds) can cause localized heat events and even regional heat waves, large scale heat waves like the one which struck Europe in 2003, killing over 70,000 people (wiki), are caused by a specific situation. The majority of heat waves occur when a high pressure air mass remains over a region for several days or even months. This high pressure sinks, warming as it does so, and also acts essentially as a ‘cap’ – trapping heat and stagnant air close to the ground and preventing warm air from rising (National Weather Service). The high pressure zone also limits convection, preventing convective clouds from forming and minimizing the chances for rainfall. This effect is particularly noticeable in cities, which are often significantly warmer than the surrounding area due to the urban heat island effect (largely caused by widespread use of heat-retaining materials). The extra heat generated by cities exacerbates the build-up of heat due to the atmospheric conditions, and can result in extremely high sustained temperatures and significant risk to the population (Luber et al. 2008).

From a physiological standpoint, heat waves and related sustained heat exposure can have a variety of effects, ranging in severity. Heat cramps, fainting, dizziness and heat exhaustion are common in heat wave scenarios and if steps are not taken to mitigate these effects, they can progress to nausea, cardiovascular problems and ultimately hyperthermia, also known as heat stroke (Luber et al. 2008). Heat stroke is an extremely dangerous condition which occurs when core body temperature reaches or exceeds 40.6oC (105oF). In this condition, the body looses the ability to regulate its temperature and severe central nervous system problems such as delirium, convulsions and coma may occur, and if steps are not made to immediately cool the victim, death will result. Naturally, individuals who have compromised ability to regulate body temperature due to old age, chronic diseases, or use of certain medications as well as individuals with cardiovascular problems are at extreme risk during these extreme heat events (Luber et al. 2008).

CDC diagram showing trends towards a warmer, but more variable climate in the future, with higher risk of severe heat events.

While heat waves themselves and the aforementioned risks are not new phenomena, there is a consensus in the scientific community that the temperature shift caused by climate change will result in much more frequent extreme temperature events, and also much more intense events (CDC, Luber et al. 2008, Huang et al. 2011). Using Los Angeles as an example, Hayhoe et al. (2004) predicts that heat waves and other extreme events will occur with a frequency four times greater than the current level (roughly 12 days annually) by 2100 using the more conservative B1 emissions scenario, and with a frequency up to 8 times greater than the current level using the more pessimistic A1fi emissions scenario. These predictions are consistent with predictions of increase extreme heat events and related mortality in other regions of the United States and the world. For example, Huang et al. (2011) predicts an increase of heat-related fatalities to increase from the current rate of roughly 700 people annually by 70-100% by the middle of the century, while Takahashi eta l. predicts that globally, deaths due to heat exposure may increase anywhere from 100-1000% of the current rate by the end of this century. Clearly, warmer, more frequent heat waves will have significant impact on human lives and society in this century and beyond.


One very important sector that will be impacted by more extreme heat events is the healthcare sector. The serious health effects of heat exposure are discussed above, and dramatic events like the 2003 European heat wave serve as testament to the dangers posed by the events, yet the fact remains that many cities, including those in the U.S. are simply not prepared to deal with the health impacts of a prolonged heat wave (Luber et al.). While the number of fatalities for severe events may be significant, the fact is that the total amount of people requiring medical attention due to heat exposure may be enormous. Public health and emergency services would likely be overwhelmed, which could result in further fatalities and problems. Climate change makes this scenario more likely to occur, while at the same time, demographic shifts in the developing world towards an aging population increases the percentage of the population at significant risk. Ultimately, steps must be taken by public health and emergency response officials to revise current response plans and develop new methods of dealing with, and making the public more aware of the dangers associated with future intense heat wave events.


In addition to the direct on health and health services that can result from extreme heat, there are heat related illnesses and deaths that will increase with the rising temperatures.  Climate change will cause human health problems related to dirtier air and water, more flood-related accidents and injuries, threats to food supplies, stress on native and domesticated ecosystems that either purify our air and water or provide food.

There may be an increase in infectious diseases due to less availability of clean water and sanitary conditions for medicine and standard living.  This is much more of a concern in parts of the world other than the United States where public health systems are not as structured and available.  Even in the US, there will be a stress on public health facilities in areas that are particularly vulnerable to extreme heat conditions.  In areas of the southern United States there are high levels of humidity coupled with extreme temperatures that put these people at risk.  Also, in areas prone to flooding will be increased indirect health problems that will be exacerbated by the increased temperatures and more erratic weather patterns.  These indirect health risks can be mitigated by preventative measures against climate warming, which will surely be less costly than trying to fix the problems after they’ve happened.

Agriculture is another sector of society that will be greatly affected by climate warming and weather extremes.  Farming productivity depends on steady climate with steady characteristics such as temperature, rainfall, levels of carbon dioxide, and ground level ozone.  These levels have already been changed by human activity and with increased climate and more erratic weather; they will continue to become more intense and potentially harmful.  In addition to the heat affecting the farmers, the climate will affect water supply and soil moisture, which in certain areas can have a ripple effect on wastewater run-off and sewage treatment—both of which can become significant health risks.

In developed countries such as the US, the most common method for coping with extreme heat comes in the form of electric Air Conditioning.  This is not a technology wide spread in less developed countries, so is generally limited to developed countries as a widespread method for dealing with heat related health risks.  The increase of climate variability and more extreme heat waves will come with an increase of the use of air conditioning, which will put some stress on the energy sector.  With rising energy costs, there will be some incentive to avoid the preventative measure.  Just like when rising gas prices force drivers off the street, some people may choose not to use air conditioning if it becomes more costly.  This could put people at risk especially in particularly vulnerable areas.

While there is definitely a continuing pattern of increased temperature and more erratic weather patterns, there is also a decreasing vulnerability to heat and heat related risks.  These risks are certainly more of an issue in poorer countries, but will become more of an issue in the US as the climate intensifies.  There will be a balance between energy conservation and other preventative measures to prevent further man-induced climate change with how we choose to deal with the risks that are already present and will worsen with climate change.

This post was written by Daniel Sugar ’12 who is majoring in Environmental Studies and Nick Horsburgh ’12 a double major in Environmental Studies and Psychology.


Takahashi K, Honda Y, Emori S. Assessing mortality risk from heat stress due to global warming. J Risk Res. 2007;10(3):339–354.

Luber G., McGeehin M. (2008)Climate Change and Extreme Heat Events. American Journal of Preventive Medicine – November 2008 (Vol. 35, Issue 5, Pages 429-435, DOI: 10.1016/j.amepre.2008.08.021)

Huang C., Gerard Barnett A., Wang X., Vaneckova P., FitzGerald G., Tong S. (2011) Projecting Future Heat-Related Mortality under Climate Change Scenarios: A Systematic Review. Environmental Health Perspective. December 119(12): pg 1681-1690.

Heat waves, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.



Climate Change and the Importance of Biodiversity

Filed under: climate — admin @ 8:54 pm

As humans burn more fossil fuels, we emit more greenhouse gases, and bring ourselves closer and closer to the impending doom of global warming. It may seem dramatic and over-played when portrayed in the media, but the consequences are real. Climate can affect global water supplies, increasing our need to conserve water and find more reliable sources especially in desert and temperate environments where water is already scarce. Continuous population growth only aggravates the problem. The problem, however, is not only a matter of water resources for our consumption; water allows for all forms of life on earth. With ever changing water and precipitation patterns in the midst of climate change, fauna and flora globally too will have to reestablish themselves or make other adaptations to be able to survive such a tumultuous time.

Changes in climate will also affect plants worldwide, thereby influencing the distribution of most other forms of life. As plants are at the first trophic level, they convert sunlight into chemical bonds of energy that are made available for next trophic level to use. If climate change stresses water supplies of plants, these effects will easily carry on to all the species that rely on those plants for survival. The natural ecosystems and biomes, or those that remain, will be hard-hit with this accelerating climate change. Plants are adapted to the regions they live in right now, but climate variations can disturb these native plants as well as crops. In this way, climate change has potential to make long lasting and calamitous effects on wildlife all over the world. As humans, we naturally first think of our own food needs, largely coming from agricultural crop and livestock production. Climate change has the potential to cause havoc not just for natural systems but for our industrial farming systems as well. As industrialized as our farming has become, humans still rely on the weather to stay stable and within a temperate range so that their crops can grow. Monoculture planting found in agricultural landscape are especially susceptible to failure under extreme conditions. A few of the possible effects of these climate changes are shown in the graphic below.

These are just some of the effects of global climate change on agriculture. Full effects are hard to predict with the earth’s complex feedback systems.

Scientific models have attempted to predict how the locations of the earth’s biomes, including agricultural lands, would change. At the rate that carbon dioxide is being released into the atmosphere, plants have little time to be able to evolve to better fit their new habitats. Instead of evolving, the dispersed seeds of flora will now germinate in places where they previously have not been able to because conditions were not compatible with their needs. Plants, biomes, and whole ecosystems will move towards the poles where conditions are more favorable for their growth and they have better access to water, while places closer to the equator will be become hotter and drier. Times like these prove the importance of biodiversity and species richness. The more diverse a certain species, the greater the chance that they will be able to survive a set of extreme conditions that climate change brings. Increased diversity means more alleles, and rare alleles can increase fitness of a species. The benefits of this are only often realized during disturbances. Consider the following graphics that demonstrate such a trend of drifting ecosystems and biomes.


Above show the “measured global vegetation biomes.” Below are the “future global vegetation biomes” showing biome locations if carbon dioxide levels doubled their present levels. Vegetation moves closer to the poles where conditions for growth will be more favorable. Places previously covered in ice will allow for lush forests, as deserts continue to get hotter and drier.

When species find it necessary to migrate, we discover the usefulness and practicality of diverse patches of natural areas even among the most developed urban areas. Connected patches and networks will allow for animals and, more passively, plants to find their way to more suitable environments. This movement also gives species opportunities to mate with other populations thereby increasing their gene diversity and chances to share rare alleles. Biodiversity and allele diversity within species makes those plant or animal populations more stable and resilient following a time of disturbance, like extreme temperatures and precipitation that climate change brings.

Scientists have tried their best with the latest technology to try to incorporate each of the variables and feedback systems to predict specific consequences on various species. For instance, it may be that plants prosper with the excess of carbon dioxide, maximizing plant growth potential and mitigating climate changes. Or, on the other hand, it may turn out that the extirpation of animal species around the world may release 15-20% as much carbon as that coming from anthropogenic causes. Two possible effects are shown below. It is difficult to incorporate the complexities and diverse state of the natural world into a computer model, as well as include slow vegetation responses and species and population interactions. Specific effects of climate change are questionable, but we need to ask ourselves if we are really willing to risk our current systems (agricultural and otherwise) that have been working so well for us.


Specific consequences of climate change on our agricultural supplies are unknown. Shown here are two different possibilities.

Of course, this is all assuming that global climate change is inevitable. Scientists are predicting what would happen if we continue to emit at current rates. It is not inevitable; we can help change the projections. We all need to realize the gravity of our choices and actions, especially in regards to energy sources. In the process of preparing for such a series of events, we need to allow for a diverse amount of species to flourish so that disastrous events will not lead to extirpation, or even extinction, of a species. Although indicator species and species that have a narrow range of tolerance will be the first hit, some plants and animals will be able to migrate as a means of adapting to the new set of environmental conditions. Before such dramatic possibilities are considered though, we should first reevaluate our lifestyles and reflect on the long term impacts of our actions on people and life in general all over the world. This way we might be more willing to make necessary adjustments to our lives in order to ensure food and water availability and presence of natural spaces for future generations to enjoy.

This post was authored by Marisa Spinella ’12, who is majoring in Environmental Studies (BS) with a minor in Architecture.

Works referenced

Adams, Richard M., Brian H. Hurd, Stephanie Lenhart, and Neil Leary. “Effects of Global Climate Change on Agriculture: An Interpretive Review.” Climate Research 11 (1998): 19-30. Inter-Research Science Center. 17 Dec. 1998. Web. 9 Apr. 2012. <>.

Forman, R.T.T. Land Mosaics: The Ecology of Landscapes and Regions. New York:

Cambridge University Press, 1995

April 10, 2012

A new vision for the LA River

Filed under: Los Angeles Politics,Los Angeles River,Water — admin @ 10:04 pm

Since Los Angeles’ founding in the late 1700s, the Los Angeles River has been highly controversial.  Used originally as Los Angeles’ main source of water, the Los Angeles River provided enough water for both the city’s agricultural need and its domestic needs.  However, as the city’s population grew, the river failed to provide enough water to meet Los Angeles’ increased water needs.  In the late 1800s, city officials realized that the once life-giving river served the city more as a sewage and trash dump than a viable source of potable water.  As the city continued to grow, railroad and industrial development on the river’s bank continued to exacerbate the amount of waste discharged into the river.  The unsightly river encouraged citizen to submit cleanup and beautification proposals to the city.  Similarly, today, a new proposal—The Los Angeles Revitalization Plan—aims to improve the image of the river.

New legal interpretations of the Clean Water Act helped increase federal protection for the Los Angeles River.  The 2006 Supreme Court case Rapanos v. United States challenged the traditional criteria for navigable waterways under the Clean Water Act.  Traditionally, the Army Corps of Engineers regulates the development of flood control, navigation and reaction along waterways.  Rapanos v. United States attempted to reduce ambiguity regarding the terms “waters of the United States” and “ significant nexus.”  The case set precedence for what water bodies were accurately classified as a “water of the United States”.  Thus, the ruling essentially clarified the criteria for waterways to be federally protected.

In 2008, the EPA declared the Los Angeles River a special Case to the Clean Water Act.  In July 2008, a group of environmental activist kayaked the 51-mile Los Angeles River in order to prove the river was a navigable waterway.  Known as the L.A. River Expedition, the demonstration drew attention to the river as a navigable waterway, rather than a “storm drain”.  Previously, the Army Corps of Engineers classified only 5 miles of the river as a navigable waterway.  However, the demonstration proved that the entire 51-mile length of the river was in fact navigable.  On August 17, 2008, EPA’s Assistant Administrator for Water designated the Los Angeles River as a “Special Case’ as defined by the EPA-Corps 1989 Memorandum. The declaration transferred the river from the jurisdiction of the Army Corps to the EPA.

In 2010, the EPA announced that it would ensure more protection for the river under the Clean Water Act.  This announcement strengthened future environmental protection for the 51-mile river and its tributary streams and wetlands.  By being under the jurisdiction of the Clean Water Act, the EPA is able to more effectively protect the river from potential pollution and destruction.  These new regulations are important for protecting water quality, wildlife, recreation and public health.

In 2007, the city developed the Los Angeles River Revitalization Plan.  By improving parts of the 51-mile river, city planners hope to improve water quality, increase wildlife abundance and health, and ultimately increase the economic value of adjacent neighborhoods.  The plan attempts to return the splendor and natural beauty of the forgotten LA River back to the people of Los Angeles, while simultaneously maintaining necessary flood control systems. The plan consists of 239 projects along 32-miles of the river, from Canoga Park to downtown LA.  Although not projected to be finished for another 25 to 50 years, the plan is envisioned as a greenway of interconnected parks and amenities acting to connect communities along the river.

The river’s master plan has many new areas for development.  The plan aims to widen the channel in order to preserve its flood control capacity. Also, it hopes to expand the riparian habitat, thus increasing the watershed ecosystem. In addition to adding parks along the river’s banks, the revitalization efforts will also increase the number of walking paths, bicycle trails, gathering spaces, public art, community markers, restaurants, and mixed use areas.  These recreational developments will make the river a feature destination.

Prominent city officials, such as Councilman Ed Reyes and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, have advocated for the preservation of the river.  These individuals reference significant areas, such as the Glendale narrows, where its soil river bottom encourages natural vegetation growth and wildlife inhabitation. Areas like the Glendale narrows encourage citizens to imagine what the river could be if it were properly restored.

While the proposal has gained significant public support, persistent economic conditions have delayed revitalization efforts. Although some areas of progress already exist along the LA River, such as bike paths and equestrian trails, the goal of creating an “emerald necklace” of parks is still far in the future.  However, if completed it would offer Angelinos a fresh perception of their city: a long forgotten natural treasure.

LA River Revitalization Proposal

Before and After

Pictures from:


And watch a video explaining the revitalization plans:

This post was authored by Scott Gross ’12 and Michaela McLoughlin ’12, both Environmental Studies majors.





April 5, 2012

Los Angeles Water: Past, Present, and Future

Filed under: Los Angeles Politics,Los Angeles River,Water — admin @ 9:48 pm

Southern California residents have had a contentious relationship with water supply, since the founding of Los Angeles in 1781. After California became part of the United States in 1850, development and migration to Los Angeles from across the country and the world became prevalent; largely due to human perceptions of the environment that the Los Angeles River had supported. The proliferation of this trend resulted in an enduring growth in population and with it a greater need to supply water. Over the years of Los Angeles development, city officials were forced to look to outside of the city for sources water that would prove to have negative implications on the environment and for the future of Los Angeles water supply.

Prior to the extensive urbanization of Los Angeles, the L.A. River was one of the only water sources that would flow year round. Due to the distinct geology of the region, the river’s pattern constantly changed from one rainy season to the next and much of the rivers water supply came from underground sources, which made capturing and distribution of water burdensome for city officials. In the early 1900s, in response to the need for more water and to prevent underground water supplies from becoming contaminated, Los Angeles city officials took extreme actions to ensure that the city would continue to have a reliable water source, despite the increasing population. City officials were able to supply millions of additional gallons of water to residents by installing new infiltration galleries, drilling several wells into the river, and creating a 1,178-foot tunnel that was driven into bedrock and served as a reservoir to collect percolated water from the wells. However, this only provided temporary relief to the mounting water crisis in Los Angeles.

The Los Angeles River, its many tributaries, and underground supply was the city’s sole source of water until 1913. After which time the river could no longer sustain the needs of the city’s growing population. Today, Los Angeles gets its water delivered across 444-miles and over some 2-000 feet of elevation from the State Water Project; the 1,400-mile long Colorado River; a share of California’s collective 30% groundwater usage; and from aqueducts that collect water from: Owens River, Mono Lake Basin, and reservoirs on the east slopes of the southern Sierra Mountains, all traveling over some 223-miles. The distance at which Los Angeles has, literally, gone to secure water for this city is astounding. Especially when considering the huge amounts of energy that providing and using water consumes. Energy is a costly and environmentally intensive resource to produce, and when coupling that with the costs of the water supply-use-disposal chain (figure 1) and we have simply compounded these costs.

According to a report by the Natural Resources Defense Council, one source that provides Water to Los Angeles, The State Water Project (SWP), is the single largest user of energy in California, accounting for 2 to 3 percent of all electricity consumed in the State. Supplying water through energy intensive projects like the SWP, ultimately leads to climate change, creating a water-energy-climate change feedback loop. According to this same report, power plants emit approximately 40-percent of all U.S. carbon dioxide pollution, the primary cause of climate change.

Today concerns about water trouble most regions of California and conservation efforts remain too minimal to counter the damage. Overshadowing these concerns, however, is an even greater threat—global climate change. Current carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere are approximately 394 parts per million (ppm), per data from the Mauna Loa Observatory. Scientists believe that unless emissions are reduced to below 350 ppm, average temperatures in the United States could increase by five to ten degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century, with implications for greatly affecting water supply and water management. As more and more emerging studies continue to project rising temperatures across the world, California and LA in particular must resolve its water crisis, or soon face a crippling scarcity that could very well spell its ruin. 

Climate change presents a variety of obstacles to LA’s future as a globally powerful and influential metropolis, but none are as critical as the implications this has on the region’s water supply. As previously stated, the Sierra Nevada mountain range currently provides about one third of the nearly 200 billion gallons of water each year used by customers of the Department of Water and Power. Decreased precipitation, a highly likely consequence of climate change in southern California, will reduce Sierra snowpack accumulation, which sustains much of the city’s water supply in dry months. Higher temperatures are already troubling, with snow melt occurring slightly sooner each year. This water from the mountains is one of LA’s most vital sources of high quality water, though decreased flow volume and pattern could someday change that.

Moreover, many climate models showing rainfall changes forecast an overall shift to drier climatic conditions in many of the regions that supply Los Angeles. Even minor increases in temperature have been linked to altered flow patterns, with higher rates in winter and lower rates in summer when demand is at its highest. Droughts are expected to increase in frequency across the southwest, posing a threat to southern California’s continued diversion of the Colorado River as well as increasing the concentration of pollutants in shrinking bodies of water.

There is ample evidence to support the frightening scenarios for LA’s future that are increasingly a topic of serious concern among residents. The notion of water scarcity in this region is not new and some have attempted to combat it, however nothing has proven effective. Significant advances in adaptation and mitigation measures are imperative to southern California’s future, especially if population continues to grow.

Water conservation is a complex subject, one that LA residents must understand more completely before successful strategies can emerge. It is vital to identify factors and behaviors that contribute to water supply stress so that they may be targeted and resolved. One rather evident factor is that Los Angeles has been significantly slower than other large cities in the US in assessing the future of its environment, resources, and consumption. In recent years, more and more action plans, legal measures and shareholder committees have taken form, but few encouraging reports of progress are heard. Regulations or changes to land permit terms spend years in the courts and cases for conservation are often lost. Furthermore, there are frequent instances where seemingly good policies end up hurting the situation more than they helping it. Perhaps the most relevant example of this in regards to balancing growing demand and dwindling supply is the DWP’s tiered pricing structure for water use. Besides setting the price ceiling for water far lower than a free market system would indicate, the structure favors large property owners, who pay less per gallon to irrigate each acre than owners of modest parcels and low consumption. Keeping rates for use unnaturally low hides the truth of scarcity and provides residents a false sense of security that could soon give out.

The culture of Los Angeles water use is a direct result of the flaws in the water pricing system, and has created one of the cornerstones of this culture by encouraging wasteful water use practices. Runoff from overwatered lawns, hosing down of concrete sidewalks, ornamental plants, and countless other factors serve as evidence of a lack of concern over the possible consequences of everyday things. There is no incentive to not waste water, and since the effects of widespread withdrawals have yet to truly be felt, it doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Furthermore, it is not uncommon for government subsidies for use of newer, efficient home products to actually exacerbate consumption. When price per use falls, use often rises because the true cost that is being paid is obscured by the imposed price break.

With these things in mind, developing and enacting more effective policies and behaviors seems less formidable. Perhaps if everyone understands the implications of water scarcity, a fair and equal pricing system can be constructed. Even if everyone in LA decides they’ll keep their large yards and pay the price, the DWP would generate revenue that could be channeled into improved technology and engineering practices. For instance, treatment of the gray-water from sinks, showers, and appliances has existed for quite some time, with some facilities able to restore some wastewater into potable water. However, such facilities rarely gained approval as a result of spreading misinformation that challenged the water’s cleanliness. Even if a city’s populace refuses to drink the water, it is rarely suggested that the water be recycled for agricultural or industrial purposes despite the availability of fully adequate facilities. Treatment and reuse of some wastewater could greatly alleviate current pressure on supply, yet no one seems interested. On a better note, plans to clean up the wells beneath the San Fernando Valley floor are making progress and reflect an encouraging shift in attitudes among policymakers seeking to improve reliability of local resources.

Finally, minor individual undertakings can add up to mean a lot in a city as large as LA. Besides replacing inefficient appliances and other goods, more people are adopting the practice of xeriscaping, which involves planting of landscape vegetation that is suited to the climatic conditions. One study’s calculations found that substituting plants that are suited for LA’s arid weather for a typical lawn could save roughly 50 thousand gallons of water per year. Xeriscaping is a not only a practical step in conserving water, it can be as vibrant as any other garden so city dwellers can retain the aesthetic value that they have come to prize so greatly. 

The history of extreme measures taken by the city would forever change the hydrology of southern California, the sources in which the city received her water, and continue to promote poor water usage habits by residents that persist throughout today. This has left Los Angeles vulnerable to changing climate conditions and placed and the burden on today’s generation to create solutions to address these issues. Because the consequences of overuse have rarely been directly felt, lax attitudes toward water wastefulness have become ingrained in the culture and poor policy decisions and enforcement have only made matters worse. As more studies project a dismal future for Los Angeles water supply and with climate change and development continuing to grow, city dwellers are faced with the need to change their habits before it’s too late. By isolating the key contributing factors of this water crisis, and adopting long term strategies for adaptation and mitigation, the city might find a way out of the mess that began so long ago when the first settlers arrived on the pristine banks of the LA River.

This post was written by Christina Robles ’12 and Gabrielle Ripert ’12 who are both pursuing a B.A. in Environmental Studies.


Climatopolis by Matthew Kahn

Los Angeles Department of Water and Power website

Natural Resources Defense Counsel

Water Education Foundation


River or stream, creek or brook: All are precious in my book!

Filed under: Los Angeles Politics,Los Angeles River,Water — admin @ 9:27 pm

In many respects, it’s unsurprising to learn that the passive disdain with which most modern Angelinos regard the Los Angeles River was not an overnight development. The contemptuous nature of our relationship with the river dates back more than a century, and no matter what we would like to believe today, “[the river] was never the center of local life as some modern-day environmentalists have supposed” (Gumprecht 123). For instance, what little does appear about the L.A. River in the historical record generally takes the form of complaints about the various ways in which the river aggrieved local residents, namely by overflowing its banks. Infinitely more common than mentions of the river itself, however, are descriptions of the Southern California region’s bountiful croplands and high standard of living, both of which the L.A. River directly enabled.

Examining the reasons behind Los Angeles’ longstanding neglect of its eponymous river brings to light some concerning trends as to how we interact with the natural world. Interestingly, the L.A. River did play a fundamental role in establishing the city in its present location, but not in the usual way that a river fosters municipal expansion. Los Angeles began as a railroad town, more or less, precisely because the river devalued the surround area: Because the river was so prone to flooding, land on either side of the banks was deemed low-grade, and unfit for residential or other commercial purposes. Judged unsuitable for most other uses, the land lining the river became railroad. Particularly near the station, the newly lain railway incited the development of some of the city’s first industrial buildings, where “[w]arehouses, lumber yards, blacksmith shops, foundries, and wagon factories began to displace the vineyards and orchards” (Gumprecht 125).

Obviously, by initiating the city’s transition away from agriculture, instead positioning it as a center of industry, the L.A. River had a vital role in shaping present day Los Angeles. But one possible explanation for the chronic disregard shown by Angelinos toward the L.A. River could be that it doesn’t offer the utilities conventionally supplied by a river: Its flow was too meager and too inconsistent to ever make the waterborne transport of goods a viable consideration; by the time industry had become sufficiently widespread so as to make hydroelectric power necessary, too much of the surface water had been drained to make turning a turbine practical; and the feeble trickle of water in the channel was — thankfully — judged inadequate to dilute sewage, let alone wash effluents downstream (Gumprecht 125). For settlers relocating from other parts of the country, accustomed as they were to different, more robust varieties of rivers, the L.A. River scarcely constituted a proper river at all.

Given its meager surface flow and accordingly limited conventional uses, it makes sense why the L.A. River would be afforded less respect — reverence, even — than a river like the Colorado, that carved the Grand Canyon, or the “Mighty Mississippi,” which is so much a part of the local identity as to take on an almost mythic quality. But the L.A. River is no less important to the watershed it drains than the Colorado or Mississippi are to theirs. Just because it might be less superficially imposing does not diminish the absolutely crucial ecosystem services it provides.

In many respects, early Angelinos’ neglect of the L.A. River parallels certain actions of contemporary environmental non-governmental organizations. When designing campaigns to mobilize action against deforestation, overfishing, climate change and other environmental ills that lead to species loss and extinction, NGOs like the World Wildlife Fund have been criticized for disproportionately emphasizing the plights of so-called “charismatic megafauna” —whales and polar bears, for instance — while overlooking keystone species that may be more important but less photogenic. Such organizations rightly acknowledge that “if that’s what interests people then that’s how we start the conversation about conservation” (Tesar), but when discussing water resources, that rationale doesn’t hold water quite as well (pun initially unintended, but later gleefully embraced).

Time after time, Americans have demonstrated a characteristic inability to value things that might not appear valuable. Our history of neglect and abuse of the L.A. River unfortunately fits this trend to a T, but with increased education about its less-than-obvious importance, the river will hopefully gain the respect it deserves from the region it serves.

The Los Angeles River near present-day downtown, ca. 1900. Seaver Center for Western History Research, Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.

The LA River, view from 6th Street Bridge (illustrating the use of land on either side of the banks being in their historic use for railway). Photo courtesy of Mark Behr. 30 December 2011.

This post was authored by Louis Lucero II ’12 who is majoring in Environmental Studies with a double minor in English and Screenwriting.



Gumprecht, Blake. “Who Killed the Los Angeles River?” Land of Sunshine: An Environmental History of Metropolitan Los Angeles. Eds. William Deverell and Greg Hise. University of Pittsburgh Press, 2006. 115-134.

Tesar, Clive. “Tracking megafauna in Iceland.” Thin Ice blog. WWF, 27 June 2011. Web. <>.

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