Umbra Fisk

Ask Umbra®

Advice for Living Green

Yours is to wonder why, hers is to answer (or try). Send your green-living questions to Umbra.

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Umbra Fisk is Grist Research Associate II, Hardcover and Periodicals Unit, floors 2B-4B.

Umbra on organic cashews

Dear Umbra, I work in a grocery store. Recently a customer refused to purchase our cashews because they weren’t organic. Does it really matter if nuts are organic? Are they sprayed with chemicals during production? Did the customer have a point, or should she have sucked it up and bought our cashews? Brianna Farmington Hills, Mich. Dearest Brianna, I am shocked, shocked to find that the bland, chewy cashew is the most popular nut in the world. A cashew tree in Brazil. Photo: iStockphoto. Cashews are related to mangoes and poison oak. They grow on large mango-esque trees, which produce …

Umbra on herbicides and lawns

Dear Umbra, My husband just spread some very toxic weed-killer on our lawn, and I told him there must be a safer way to get rid of weeds. Our children and pets were not allowed on the lawn for 24 hours. We have a well and septic system, and I was wondering if that stuff would seep into our water supply. I also worried about the birds and other wildlife that visit our yard. Thanks for any help you can offer. Doreen York, Maine Dearest Doreen, I can’t tell you too much about the effects of the spraying without knowing …

Umbra on herbicides

Dear Umbra, How do herbicides (organic, if such exist, or non-organic) work? David Burch South Bend, Ind. Dearest David, Herbicides are considered a subcategory of pesticides, for all you confused by my last pesticide comments. Herbicides kill plants with a vast array of ingenious torture and maiming techniques. (Maiming a plant isn’t quite like maiming an animal: plants can grow back broken limbs, and it’s hard to deny a plant its food source unless you expend the effort to get the plant out of the ground entirely.) Effective herbicides work at a cellular level to disrupt the functioning of the …

Umbra on water vapor and climate change

Dear Umbra, Coming from a scientific background, I was under the assumption that water vapor was the worst — or you could say the best — at causing global warming. Do you believe this to be false, and if not, why is no one talking about it? Erik Nash Dearest Erik, I’ve decided to use your letter as a continuation of B’s from earlier this week. Spouting off on global warming. Photo: iStockphoto. Water vapor is a powerful greenhouse gas. It is the dominant greenhouse gas in the atmosphere by mass and volume, but scientists don’t seem to agree on …

Umbra on the greenhouse effect

Dear Umbra, Man-made greenhouse gases are blamed for recent global-warming trends. But man-made greenhouse gases account for only 5 percent of the greenhouse effect. Water vapor, over which civilization has virtually no control, accounts for some 95 percent of that greenhouse effect. Why has so much attention been focused on man-made gases when they comprise such a relatively small part of the problem? B. Hawley Ottawa, Ontario, Canada Dearest B., I’m going to pick apart your letter, and I truly do not mean to be snide. But the very language you use illustrates a common misunderstanding of our current situation, …

A climate-change compendium

Dear Umbra, I know you don’t make up questions, but in this instance I think it’s acceptable. Could you suggest a collection of resources on climate change? I think it might help us all get better educated on this vital topic. Even if they don’t spend an hour of their Earth Day sifting through the sites, it’ll be good for readers to have for later reference — you know, Clip-N-Save. (By the way, you’ve been awfully serious lately. Remember: “Gloom and doom with a sense of humor.” Get your act together.) Happy Earth Day (almost), Umbra Fisk Dearest Umbra, Great …

Umbra on climate-induced relocation

Dear Umbra, Given that there is a possibility/probability that sea levels will rise significantly [due to climate change], and that some parts of the world may become too hot while others could become too cold, where in the world will things be relatively “safe”? If I start thinking about moving my family to another country, in which direction should we be looking? Michael Laird Belgium (below sea level!) Dearest Michael, With the entire planet to choose from, specificity may be impossible, but we can look at general guidelines. Oh, honey, remember when we lived below sea level? Photo: iStockphoto. In …

Umbra on climate-change patterns

While I am in no doubt about the effect of human activity on climate change, I have a friend who is convinced that even if we weren’t destroying the earth, the earth’s own weather patterns would be in global-warming stage anyway. How do we know the current climate change isn’t just an inevitable part of millennia-long weather patterns? Will changing our behavior mean anything if we are all going to burn to a crisp anyway? Adeline Teoh Sydney, Australia Dearest Adeline, Sorry, no room today to be funny, or to answer the second question. I’ll do both later. For now, …

Umbra on global warming

Dear Umbra, The many articles on global warming conclude with something about the inherent complexity and uncertainty of the issue. So exactly what is the evidence for (and against) arguing that the current warming trend is inside the scope of normal fluctuations? What is the evidence for (and against) arguing that the trend is caused by human activities, and is not just part of a “natural cycle”? Is it true that the U.S. is just about the only country where scientists seriously debate the reality of global warming? Who are these people writing articles telling us we don’t have anything …

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