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Ask Umbra: How much is my firewood polluting the air?

feet fire

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Q. How do I measure wood smoke from firewood?  We want to do a comparison of different firewoods and find the one that has the least smoke emissions, provides the most heat, and burns the longest. We would like to really measure the smoke. Any ideas?

Patricia S.
Scotts Valley, Calif.

A. Dearest Patricia,

If you listen carefully this time of year, you can almost hear it: the crackling of thousands of wood stoves firing up for a season of home heating. Unfortunately, the cozy glowing of all those stoves has a serious downside: a smoky, sooty smudge on local air quality.

Wood smoke emits all kinds of nasties [PDF], including benzene and formaldehyde, but the primary culprit is particulate matter (PM2.5), a mix of tiny particles that can penetrate deep into the lungs when inhaled and wreak all kinds of havoc. The stuff is linked to respiratory illness, chronic lung problems, cancer, and premature death -- so your desire to find the cleanest-burning logs possible is a vote for both air quality and personal health for you and your neighbors.

I admire the citizen-scientist pluck behind your wish to analyze and compare different types of wood smoke yourself, Patricia. Unfortunately, this is currently pretty tough to do unless you A) are an atmospheric scientist with access to sophisticated sampling tools, or B) have an extra $10,000 to $50,000 lying around to spend on said tools. I checked with Matthew Harper, air monitoring lead for the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency. He said you could use a handheld particle counter, the cheapest of which will run you a mere $300 to $500, but these devices probably aren’t accurate enough to distinguish the nuances between, say, hickory versus oak smoke.

But don’t hang up your lab coat just yet: There are still a few worthwhile experiments to be done.

Read more: Climate & Energy, Living


Why climate skeptics and evolution deniers joined forces

Are religion and end times thinking now wrapped up with the denial of global warming?

All across the country — most recently, in the state of Texas — local battles over the teaching of evolution are taking on a new complexion. More and more, it isn't just evolution under attack, it's also the teaching of climate science. The National Center for Science Education, the leading group defending the teaching of evolution across the country, has even broadened its portfolio: Now, it protects climate education too.

How did these issues get wrapped up together? On its face, there isn't a clear reason — other than a marriage of convenience — why attacks on evolution and attacks on climate change ought to travel side by side. After all, we know why people deny evolution: Religion, especially the fundamentalist kind. And we know why people deny global warming: Free market ideology and libertarianism. These are not, last I checked, the same thing. (If anything, libertarians may be the most religiously skeptical group on the political right.)

And yet clearly there's a relationship between the two issue stances. If you're in doubt, watch this Climate Desk video of a number of members of Congress citing religion in the context of questioning global warming:


In the FDA’s actions on trans fats, are there lessons for GMO labeling?

trans fat french fries

On Nov. 8, the Food and Drug Administration announced that dietary trans fats would no longer be “generally regarded as safe,” a decisive step that will lead to banning trans fats from foods altogether. Excluding trans fats from the food supply will result in an estimated 20,000 fewer heart attacks and 7,000 fewer deaths each year. Trans fats have been part of the American diet for over 100 years and regarded as unsafe for two decades. The announcement led one thoughtful observer to see the development as reflecting how long the process of eliminating unhealthy foods from our diets can take. …

Read more: Food


Climate change: No longer electoral Kryptonite!


How did things go so wrong for a conservative Republican in the coal-rich state of Virginia? Earlier this month, voters in that closely watched battleground state rejected Ken Cuccinelli’s extreme, right-wing bid for governor and dealt a serious blow to the deep-pocketed oil companies that backed his candidacy.

Of course, now is when the number-crunchers confer behind closed doors, in hushed tones, about what it all really means -- for the midterms in 2014 and the primaries in 2016, for soccer moms and NASCAR dads, for women’s bodies and marriage equality, and for climate change.

I am here to tell you: A new political dynamic is emerging. Climate change is a winner, not a loser.


Earthquakes shake Texas town on Thanksgiving, and fracking might be to blame

earthquake crack

Residents of a rural northern Texas area were awoken early on Thanksgiving by not one but two earthquakes. Such quakes have become alarmingly normal during the past month, and fracking practices could be to blame.

From CBS Dallas / Fort Worth:

North Texas has been feeling a string of earthquakes — more than a dozen — over the past few weeks. Most have been centered around Azle, with the most recent [previous] one being on Tuesday morning. All of those quakes have registered between 2.0 and 3.6 in magnitude. Those who live in the small town have grown concerned.

Azle leaders have called on state officials to have geologists investigate the cause of these quakes. “The citizens are concerned,” said Azle Assistant City Manager Lawrence Bryant at a city council meeting. “They should be.”

“If it’s a man-made cause, it would be nice to know,” Bryant added.

Read more: Climate & Energy


Of monarchs and milkweeds: How one species’ pest is another’s repast


The monarch butterfly is a prime example of charismatic minifauna. Charismatic megafauna -- bears, sharks, wolves -- evoke feelings of awe, but there’s a subtle contradiction in sheltering species that sometime eat us. With charismatic minifauna, however, that contradiction disappears. It may be harder to empathize with insects, but nurturing them comes a bit more naturally.

People like Debbie Jackson, a conservation specialist with Monarch Watch, have been nurturing the insects for decades.

“I started this as a little girl the cornfields of the Midwest, just enjoying them,” she said. “Feeding the caterpillars on milkweed and watching them grow.”

Now monarchs are in trouble -- in part because there’s not much milkweed left in the cornfields of the Midwest.

“The numbers are astronomically horrible,” Jackson said. The monarch overwintering spot in the mountains of Mexico once hosted a billion butterflies. But just 3 million have shown up so far this year, she said.

Read more: Climate & Energy, Food


Thanks, giving: Reflections on generosity, hunger, and the power of a shared meal

xmas dinner
Jeff Berman

There is one Thanksgiving that I will never forget. It took place at my Mother’s apartment on New York’s Upper Westside. It was the last Thanksgiving dinner that she hosted, and I was her only guest.

By then, permanently bedridden and unable to cook, mom ordered sliced turkey with all the fixings from a gourmet market. The catered meal was tasty, but lacked the home-cooked character of past feasts. What made this Thanksgiving memorable was not the food, but what happened after dinner.

During the elevator ride back down to the lobby, it suddenly occurred to me that there were people in the city who wouldn’t be celebrating Thanksgiving that night. I was gripped by a strange (for me) impulse to feed somebody like that -- a quixotic desire for a lifelong bachelor who is barely capable of feeding himself.

You can imagine my amazement when I was met at the door of my mother’s upscale condo by a disheveled woman and her young daughter. “Give us a chicken dinner,” she demanded, as if sent there by divine central casting. In a state of mild shock, I shepherded the two of them to the nearest Kentucky Fried Chicken and ordered the fast-food version of a Thanksgiving feast. What surprised me was not their joy at this modest meal, so much as my own in providing it.

Read more: Cities, Food, Living


Ask Umbra: What do I do with my worn-out sponges?


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Q. I wash dishes all the time, and those yellow and green sponges will only last a few weeks at most. I don't know what they're made of, so I don't know in which bin to throw them or how to reuse them. Can I make a recycled mattress or couch with a thousand used sponges? Is there any charity or artist that collects old sponges? Is there a good, affordable, practical, and eco-friendly alternative?

Arne P.
Calgary, Alberta

A. Dearest Arne,

Sponges truly are the multitaskers of the cleaning crew. Not only are they scrubbing our dishes, they’re also busy wiping counters, washing cars, applying makeup, brightening windows, and exfoliating our skin in the shower – and this week, likely pulling overtime sudsing the stuffing off your company platters. It doesn’t seem right to reward such service with a one-way ticket to the trash, but unfortunately, that’s exactly where many sponges are bound.

Your typical grocery-store kitchen sponge is made from polyurethane, a petroleum-based material that can’t be recycled or composted. Even worse, some sponges billing themselves as antibacterial are soaked with triclosan, that ever-plaguing chemical linked with liver and thyroid issues and toxic to aquatic life.

Luckily, there are easy alternatives.

Read more: Living


Al Gore is a vegan now — and we think we know why

World Economic Forum

Republican caricatures of Al Gore notwithstanding, the former vice president was never a stereotypical woolly environmentalist. A practicing Southern Baptist, Gore attended divinity school and, though he opposed the Vietnam War, he enlisted in the military rather than protesting it. Gore rose in the 1980s as a moderate “New Democrat,” who was friendly to business, hawkish on foreign policy and, yes, excited about the possibilities of technological innovation. As vice president, he set about the earnest work of “reinventing government” to make it more efficient.

Gore’s attraction to environmentalism, much like that of New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s, is that of a serious wonk, not a dirty hippie who finds water conservation a convenient excuse not to bathe.

And so it is actually quite remarkable that, as Forbes reported in this week’s issue and The Washington Post confirmed with a source close to Gore on Monday, he has gone vegan. Forbes merely tossed in a throwaway line referring to Gore as “newly vegan,” in a story about investors looking at ways of replacing eggs with plant-based formulas. The Post was unable to get any further details beyond confirmation from an unnamed Gore associate.

Perhaps, as the Post’s Juliet Eilperin suggests, Gore was worried about his health. Former President Bill Clinton, who was famously fond of McDonald’s, became a vegan in 2011. (He had a quadruple bypass in 2004.) Gore, as conservatives never tire of pointing out, put on a few pounds after leaving office.

But it seems likely that concerns about the environment, especially his top cause of climate change, played a role in Gore’s thinking.

Read more: Climate & Energy, Food


Huge pipeline accidents cause spills, kill dozens in China

Aaron Choi
This is what Qingdao normally looks like.

Pipeline accidents in China during the past week have killed more than 50 people, led to the arrests of nine officials, caused two large oil spills, and triggered evacuations. Both of the ruptured pipelines were owned by China's largest oil refiner, China Petroleum, also known as Sinopec. Here are the basics:

Read more: Climate & Energy