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January 28, 2011

How to see the Milky Way

This looks exactly like the place where I regularly put in my kayak.  It's a still winter night, the mouth of the river is off to the right leading into a larger body of water.  The glow of a nearby town only slightly illuminating the horizon behind the evergreens.  No other lights around which creates a night free of light pollution.  And the Milky Way looms above like a massive space creature. 

The winter sky is filled with bright stars.  In fact, seven of the twelve brightest stars visible from Earth (not counting the Sun) shine in winter.  It is one of the best times to star-gaze. 

This band on the sky is the profile of our spiral galaxy seen edge-on from inside it. 

It's a picture by Dan Stodola, and it could be a picture of where I live.  But, sadly, it's not.  I have never seen the Milky Way from my home.  There is just too much light pollution. 

Perhaps two-thirds of the world's population can no longer look upward at night and see this amazing sight.

The Milky Way is dimming as a result of light pollution: the inadvertent illumination of the atmosphere from street lights, outdoor advertising, homes, schools, airports and other sources.  Every night billions of bulbs send their energy skyward where microscopic bits of matter - air molecules, airborne dust, and water vapor droplets - reflect much of the wasted light back to Earth.  Currently, the only way to view the Milky Way with the naked eye is to be about 100 miles from the nearest metropolitan area, or to be around low light pollution. 

Comparison showing the effects of light pollution on viewing the sky at night. The southern sky featring Sagittarius and Scorpius. Top image shows the sky from Leamington, Utah (population 217). Bottom image shows Orem, Utah (a metropolitan area with a population of around 400,000).

There are three types of light pollution:
  1. Sky Glow - The orange glow seen over towns caused by upwardly directed or reflected light. 
  2. Light Trespass - Any light shining where it is not needed.
  3. Dazzle - Excessively bright and misdirected light.
All three can be eradicated using capped lights that do not shine upwards into the sky.  We need lighting to guide us after dark and for safety, but we do not need light that shines upwards into night skies. 

In recent years engineers have developed more efficient bulbs with "sky friendly" fixtures that can preserve dark skies and decrease energy costs.  Here's an example of "good" vs "bad":

GOOD - Post-top ornamental fixtures can minimize light pollution via a lamp reflector located above the bulb. 

BAD - Non-cutoff fixtures like this "acorn" ornamental lamp causes light pollution.

GOOD - Flat-lens cobra head fixtures provide excellent roadway lighting with greatly reduced glare and no uplight. 

BAD - The ubiquitious drop-lens cobra head luminaire produces a level of glare and uplight that is both unacceptable and unnecessary. 

I can still see Orion from home because it's one of the brightest constellations.  But even brilliant Orion will eventually fade if poorly-designed lights proliferate. 

It's a big loss, too.  Young sky watchers (like myself years ago) grow up to be scientists, explorers, poets, philosophers, and school teachers.  But kids aren't likely to watch or be inspired by... a blank sky. 

The point of raising awareness of light pollution is that it touches many areas of people's lives, from simply not being able to see the natural heritage of a starry night sky to affecting the habits of animals, energy consumption, economic resources, and astronomical research. 

This image of Earth's city lights was created with data from the Defense Meteorological Satellite Program (DMSP) Operationsl Linescan System (OLS).  Originally designed to view clouds by moonlight, the OLS is also used to map the locations of permanent lights on the Earth's surface.  If you're like me, you can easily pin-point where you live and notice that it's surrounded by bright lights.

The Milky Way's visibility, or lack of it, is the easiest measure of your sky's light pollution - the glow from all the poorly designed and improperly aimed outdoor light fixtures for dozens of miles around.  If they illuminated only the ground as their installers intended, rather than wasting some of their light uselessly sideways and upward, we could not only save many megawatts of electricity, but the world's view of the starry universe would be vastly improved.

The best way to avoid light pollution is to turn off exterior lights.  However, there are times at which you'll need some lighting outside at night.  Turning on the flood lights when you leave for a night out so you'll be able to see your way to the door when you come home is not only a waste of energy, but doing so can be an annoyance to your neighbors as your lights fill the night sky and their lawn with unwanted bright light. 

Motion Detector Lights

Avoid this problem by insatlling motion detector lights on the exterior of your home.  You can still turn on the ligts when you leave for the evening, but they will only come on when the motion detector picks up movement in the driveway or around the house.  When your car pulls into the driveway, for example, the lights will come on long enough for you to get inside.  In additon, these lights are a good security measure to deter intruders.  Just make sure you get the ones that face downward and not out. 

Landscape Lighting

Landscape lighting is subtle and adds to the beauty of the walkways around your home.  These inexpensive lights are also likely to be energy efficient.  Many of these types are solar powered, storing energy from the day's sunlight to power them. 

Dome-covered Lights

If your home's exterior must have several lights that stay on for extended periods in the evening, investing in domed fixtures to cut down on the light pollution is a good idea.  Since light rays go out in every direction from the source, blocking their path with a dome on top of the bulbs will prevent much of the light from shining into the sky.  The domes may actually intensify these lights (especially if they are mirrored inside) and cause ground lighting to be brighter (which allows you to use a lower wattage bulb, therefore less energy used), but the sky will be much darker having them in place. 

If we could all be responsible with our use of exterior lights - from our homes and businesses to the street lights from the Department of Transportation - anyone in the world be able to just step outside at night and be greeted with the glorious vision of our Milky Way.

The fact that it also saves energy is a win/win situation. 

January 13, 2011

Price of One Hamburger Revisited

I have recently been under fire about a popular post that I wrote titled "The True Price of One Hamburger."  Particularly the part where I mention: "It takes 2500 gallons of water to produce one pound of hamburger."  Some people apparently do not believe this.  As a matter of fact, I was told to "check my math" because that amount of water would obviously be for tons of beef!

So, I checked my math. 

But I didn't do it alone.  I backed up my research with several other environmental professionals:
John Robbins - founder of EarthSave.
David Pimentel - Professor of Ecology and Agricultural Science at Cornell University.
Laura Westra - Professor of Environmental Studies at Sarah Lawrence College.
Reed Noss - President of the Society for Conservation Biology.

And we all agreed that I was wrong!  It does not take 2500 gallons of water to produce one pound of hamburger....

It takes 12,009 GALLONS to produce one pound of beef!  Here's the breakdown:

Potatoes  60 gallons/pound
Wheat  108 gallons/pound
Corn  168 gallons/pound
Rice  229 gallons/pound
Soybeans  240 gallons/pound
Beef  12,009 gallons/pound

Please note that the figures for producing a pound of beef represent water used over a 2+ year period, as food cattle are generally slaughtered before they are 2-years-old.  Dairy cattle may live 4 years before being turned into burgers, and range cattle live to 5 or 6. 

As is clearly illustrated by these figures, it takes roughly 200 times the water to grow a pound of beef than to grow a pound of potatoes. 

Professor Pimentel explained it best, "The data we had indicated that a beef animal consumed 100kg of hay and 4kg of grain per 1kg of beef produced.  Using the basic rule that it takes about 1000 liters of water to produce 1kg of hay and grain, thus about 100,000 liters were required to produce the 1 kg of beef." 

According to the USDA, one pound of ground lean beef has 1197.5 calories and one pound of potatoes contains 288 calories.  To get roughly the same number of calories from potatoes as you do from a pound of beef, you would need 4.15 pound of potatoes.  So that's 249 gallons of water for 4.15 pounds of potatoes versus 12,009 gallons of water for the pound of beef - in order to produce the same number of calories.  In short, it takes nearly 50 times more waer to produce a calorie from beef than it does from potatoes. 

So, now that I have "checked my math"...

Is raising cattle for beef an efficient and fair way to feed the world?

January 9, 2011

An Annual Phenomenon - The Winter Shed

Caribou and moose shed their antlers every year.  Among the fastest growing organs in the animal kingdom, the antlers can reach a span of six feet (1.8 meters) in roughly three months.  They regrow their antlers each spring after dropping them in winter to conserve energy. 

January 6, 2011

How to get hugged by a polar bear.

I just recently saw this Nissan commercial.  I love it!  Check it out.  And if you've already seen it... watch it again!

And to put a smile on your face for the rest of your day - here is another cute must see video.  (I couldn't leave it out.)

January 5, 2011


My daughter sent me this pic of the 2011 Quadrantids.  I missed them. :(  She and I have had a tradition of standing outside in the early morning hours, freezing, and staring upwards for hours.  We dress warm and hold onto each other.  And, when we see one we jump up and down with excitement.  It keeps us warm and happy.  Sharing the joys of our natural world is an amazing way to spend quality time with the ones you love.

Frozen Sea

This video of the frozen Baltic Sea was shot around Rzucewo, Poland last January.  I don't know what depth it was frozen... just that it felt solid.  The ice was cracked and re-frozen in a number of places and there was a small layer of snow on top, 15 centimeters or less.  There was evidence that someone had ridden at least one ATV vehicle on the ice in the last few weeks.  The temperature in thes video is around -15C and, with windchill, felt like about -22C.  Because the Baltic's salinity levels are quite low it is easier for it to freeze than other seas or oceans but still takes colder and more sustained cold temperatures fo it to freeze than bodies of fresh water. 
camera man: Murray Henson.
Thanks for sharing Murray.


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