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Fracking Truth: O National Academy of Sciences, Where Art Thou?

November 21, 2012

In June of this year, the National Academy of Sciences released a report examining the likelihood of earthquakes being induced by underground energy technologies in which there is a net deposit or withdrawal of fluids—on other words, hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”), CO2 sequestration, and geothermal energy extraction.  The study concluded that all of these technologies “have at least the potential to induce earthquakes that could be felt by people” and recommended these impacts be mitigated by using techniques which “maintain a balance between the amounts of fluid being injected and withdrawn.” In other words, the National Academy of Sciences did not call for an end to fracking because of the likelihood that it would lead to an increase in earthquakes; they instead suggested a solution based on sound science.

Potentially much more significant than “earthquakes that could be felt by people” (but may cause little or no actual injury or damage) is the scenario where critical groundwater resources are contaminated by fracking and other underground energy technologies.  The gas industry says fracking is absolutely safe.  Environmental groups and concerned citizens say it is not.  The true answer will only be found through sound, unbiased science.  But where is this science?

A few studies have looked at the likelihood that fracking can cause groundwater contamination, such as a recent study by Duke University and California State Polytechnic University at Pomona that examined shallow aquifers in Pennsylvania (PNAS, 09 July 2012).  The results have been inconclusive, and thus easily framed by either side of the debate thanks to their confirmation bias.

It’s time for the Department of Energy to call on National Academy of Sciences to examine all of the scientific evidence and deliver an impartial, peer-reviewed consensus report on the subject.  This is what they do.  The true believers on either side may choose to ignore those parts of the report that conflict with their mental models, but those of us who base our decision making on rational science can move forward in a way that balances both economic and environmental concerns.

Botswana’s Bold Move: A Ban on Trophy Hunting by 2014

November 14, 2012

By Matt Artz

Botswana is an interesting case study in what a country can do right in Africa.  When Botswana first gained independence from the British in 1966, it had a GDP per capita of just $70.  A paltry 22 citizens out of a population of 2 million had graduated from college, and only about 100 were high school graduates.  The physical infrastructure was practically non-existent: in the entire country, there was less than 10 miles of paved roadway.

Soon after independence, diamonds were discovered in Botswana.  The country is now one of the world’s largest producers of diamonds, but has for the most part avoided the “resource curse”—the trap often seen where countries more heavily reliant on mineral exports experience more slowly growing economies.  This “curse” is actually a practical result of poor wealth management in the face of a windfall.  A poor country that suddenly finds itself sitting on one of the world’s largest diamond deposits is like a poor person struggling to pay their rent who suddenly wins $50 million in the lottery.  While it sounds like an amazing stroke of luck, rarely do these situations work out as well as envisioned for the country—or for the lottery winner.

But Botswana is one of those rare examples that bucks the trend.  It’s an amazing success story.  Careful management of its mineral wealth has transformed the country from one of the 25 poorest in the world to a thriving upper-middle income economy over the course of just a few decades.  By 2012, literacy had increased to near 80%, and GDP per capita had risen from $70 to an astounding $16,200.  Today, Botswana is one of the fastest growing—and least corrupt—countries in Africa.

One of the ways that Botswana managed to avoid the “resource curse” was to become less dependent on the revenues from the mining sector.  The country did this by pursuing a strategy of economic diversification.  And one of the keys to this strategy was to leverage its rich wildlife resources and abundant natural beauty for tourism.  In fact, tourism is now an important component of the economy, and its importance in growing every year.

In his State of the Nation address on November 5th, 2012, Botswana’s President, Lt. Gen. Ian Khama, doubled down on this strategy by declaring that by the end of next year Botswana will implement a complete ban on commercial hunting of wildlife on public lands:

Of additional concern is the rise in cross border and domestic poaching incidents and trafficking of live predators, which are the subject of our new and evolving National Anti-Poaching Strategy. At the same time we have reached the decision to stop the commercial hunting of wildlife in public areas from 2014 as the shooting of wild game purely for sport and trophies is no longer compatible with our commitment to preserve local fauna as a national treasure, which should be treated as such.”

It’s a bold move, but not unprecedented in Africa.  In 1976, Kenya instituted a similar ban.

While conservationists and photographic ecotourism operators have applauded Botswana’s move, it is not without controversy.  Some argue that a complete ban on trophy hunting is a recipe for disaster in terms of poaching, and point to Kenya’s ban as a case in point.  Prior to the ban, hunting concessions were granted for specific areas, and operators were responsible for managing their territories and controlling poaching.  With the ban on trophy hunting in 1976, the protection offered by the operators evaporated, and some observers say that poaching increased drastically thereafter.

In some areas of Botswana, such as the Tuli Wilderness in southeastern corner of the country, management of elephant populations has been so wildly successful that the animals are overrunning the area and beginning to damage the natural ecosystem.  Culling of wild animals is always a contentious proposition, but it’s a management technique that’s often necessary when humans significantly alter an ecosystem and need to stage interventions to regain a semblance of naturalness.  Some point out that commercial hunting of animals which will be killed by culling anyway is a win-win—it achieves the desired goal of reducing wild populations to a sustainable level while still contributing to the economy.

Will President Khama’s initiative have the desired result and “preserve local fauna as a national treasure”?  Will it damage the tourism industry as hunters choose vacations in other countries where hunting is still allowed?  Will it lead to an increase in poaching?  Only time will tell, but on a continent plagued by mismanagement, poverty, corruption, and resource problems, Botswana’s transition from away big game hunting to purely photographic ecotourism is yet another courageous move by a country with a remarkable track record.

Humans and Nature in the Age of Design

October 5, 2012

By Matt Artz

The relationship between humans and nature is defined by change.

We evolved as did other animals—just one small piece of a very complex ecosystem.  This changed radically when we began to leverage technology in an ill-guided attempt to subjugate that complex ecosystem and exploit its resources, with little or no consideration for anything beyond ourselves.  This was the age of exploitation.

When we began to understand the devastating effects of mass exploitation on the earth, we reacted with conservation.  For all the successes, the age of conservation is not without its problems; we were conserving and preserving dramatic, representative, and remnant pieces of ecosystems, but in the process we were still losing whole ecosystems.

So what’s the next logical step in the evolution of our relationship with nature?

It’s the age of design.

It’s about actively creating an environment ideal for both humans and nature.

And it’s driven by technology.

Technology is the New Natural

Humans are incredibly smart, and have an amazing array of technologies available to extend their abilities.  We may not be able to fully restore the complete ecosystems we have damaged or destroyed, but we now have the scientific and technical ability to design them—and to do it in such a way that we can meet both our need for resources and our desire for conservation.

In the age of exploitation, we asked: “Is this good for me?”

In the age of conservation, we asked: “Is this good for the environment?”

In the age of design, we ask “Is it good for me AND good for the planet?”

It’s a much more complex question that requires a much more reasoned response—a response informed by science and enabled by technology.  Aided by new technology, we are at the dawn of a new era in man’s relationship with the environment: the age of designing.  As we move from exploiting nature, through conserving nature, to the new paradigm of proactively designing nature, we are redefining what it means to be masters of our environment.

Rethinking Infrastructure

October 5, 2012

By Matt Artz

Roads and highways, gas and electricity and water distribution systems, wastewater collection and treatment systems, railroads, airports, cable television, the Internet … all are important components of our infrastructure, upon which we rely every day.  Together they form a sort of man-made ecosystem.

If we can think of our human-built environment as a man-made ecosystem, can’t we also think of the natural environment as a form of infrastructure?

As we move from a practice of stove piping knowledge and towards a new philosophy of systems thinking and consilience, the inter-relatedness of everything becomes apparent, and we begin to realize something very important: in this new world we find ourselves in—a world of our own design—there is really just one infrastructure.


A convergence is upon us: the convergence of infrastructures.  The lines we have drawn in the past are already beginning to blur, and in a decade or two those lines will be completely gone.  Man-made infrastructure and natural ecosystems will be recognized as the same thing, and they will be managed and designed using the same tried and true tools and techniques.

We already see instances where the line between infrastructure and nature is blurred.  When a flood control project alters the course of a polluted urban stream, and part of the environmental mitigation is to restore the riverine habitat to make it usable again by native flora and fauna, it becomes more than just an engineering project. We’re not just designing a flood control project: we’re designing nature.

Our problems are many, our problems are complex, and our problems are hopelessly intertwined and inter-related.  So why do we still insist on dissecting and parsing everything?  Solving these problems requires an integrated, unified approach.

Stove pipe solutions in isolation from one another is the way of the past.  Such solutions may be seen as successfully fixing the problem in a microcosm, out of the larger context, but at the systems level—especially at the earth systems level—they are doomed to failure.  Or even worse: they may do more harm than good, throwing the entire system out of balance and wreaking havoc.

This convergence of ecosystems and infrastructures is ultimately made possible because many of the same tools, techniques, and technologies beneficial to natural ecosystems can also benefit man-made ecosystems, and vice versa.

We are finally approaching an era where we will be able to see both natural and man-made ecosystems as what they really are: a single, integrated system; a vast human-dominated landscape to be analyzed, modeled, exploited, preserved, enjoyed, designed, built, and managed as a single infrastructure.  All watched over by machines of living grace

Life, Death, and the Outdoors

September 8, 2012

By Matt Artz

“Without the possibility of death,
adventure is not possible.”

—Reinhold Messner, Mountaineer

Quotes like this one from Reinhold Messner feed the stereotype that extreme outdoor adventurers have some sort of sick death wish.  And while not a direct quote, I can paraphrase what I’ve heard a lot of rock climbers, mountaineers, and other outdoor adventurers say by the following statement:

The closer you get to death without dying, the more you feel alive. 

In my own experience, nothing could be further from the truth.  Sure, mountaineering, rock climbing, mountain biking, or doing almost anything else in the outdoors truly can make you feel alive—and you can also die in the pursuit of such “extreme” activities.  But look at the statistics.  You’re much more likely to die doing something mundane.  Like driving.  Or walking.


While researching Eastern Sierra paddling spots on the Internet, I ran across a sobering story about Klondike Lake.

Klondike Lake is nondescript little body of water right off the side of Highway 395 in California.  It’s kind of hard to see from the highway, even though the landscape is flat and barren, with vegetation no more than waist high throughout. You would probably never notice it was there unless somebody told you about it.

In January 2006, a 30-year-old kayaker named Gilbert Freewald was found dead on the southern shore of Klondike Lake.  Apparently he had exited his vehicle and slipped on the ice on the shore, falling head first into the lake, knocking him unconscious.  He drowned, by himself, before he even had a chance to remove the kayak strapped to the roof of his car.


The last time I saw my friend and co-worker Phil alive was when he, Tom, and I went rock climbing on some easy to moderate face and crack climbs up at Deep Creek Narrows.

Phil was crazy.  We would climb to the top of the rock, and when it came time to belay us down, Phil would let us drop almost in a free-fall, and then just a few feet before hitting the ground he would quickly “catch” us with the rope.  Tom and I were a little shaken up by this, but Phil just laughed.  He knew exactly what he was doing.  His expert command of the ropes came from his many years of both rock climbing and working with the search-and-rescue crew.

A few years later, two teenagers drugged up on Jimson weed were reported missing in Joshua Tree National Park.  On the drive out there early one morning to help in the search for the young men, Phil died in a tragic traffic accident—a head-on collision caused by a drunk driver.


Remember the mountain biker who died in Southern California in a mountain lion attack back in 2004?  It was all over the news.  A grand total of 6 people have died of mountain lion attacks in California since 1890.   Meanwhile, an estimated 30,000 to 40,000 people die of influenza in the United States each year, but you don’t hear a whole lot about that epidemic.  And nearly 100 people are killed in motor vehicle accidents in the United States each day, but there is little interest in this tragedy. What you do hear about is the small handful of people who die as a result of outdoor activities.

When someone you knows dies of a heart attack attributable to a poor diet, 20 years later do you re-tell that story to every person you see eating a cheeseburger and fries?  No.  Then why is it that if someone hears about someone dying in some sort of spectacular outdoor accident, it dominates our interest?  It seems that we give all of our attention to what is rare and spectacular, while what is constant and widespread becomes mundane and thus completely ignored.

I’m not trying to say that there is not a high level of risk associated with some outdoor activities.  What I’m trying to say is that as a society, the amount of attention we expend on each of these is totally out of proportion with reality.


In my life, I’ve know a lot of people, and I’ve known a fair number who have died.  Most have died in the most mundane, commonplace ways, while very few have died while pursuing what they loved most.  And each death is a tragedy in itself, no matter what the cause.

The outdoor lifestyle is not a death wish.  It’s a love affair with life.

By Matt Artz

Researchers Combine Remote Sensing Technologies for Highly Detailed Look at Coastal Change

August 10, 2012

Shifting sands and tides make it difficult to measure accurately the amount of beach that’s available for recreation, development and conservation, but a team of University of Georgia researchers has combined several remote sensing technologies with historical data to create coastal maps with an unsurpassed level of accuracy.

In a study published in the August issue of the journal Tourism Management, they apply their technique to Georgia’s Jekyll Island and unveil a new website that allows developers, conservationists and tourists access to maps and data on beach availability, tidal ranges and erosion.

“Policymakers, coastal managers and conservationists can use this information to help make more informed decisions about managing coastal resources,” said lead author Byungyun Yang, a recent graduate of the geography doctoral program and current research associate at the UGA Center for Remote Sensing and Mapping Science, part of the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences. “Tourists can easily access the same data with their computers or smartphones to help plan their trip to the beach.”

Beach area is typically measured using the same costly and time-consuming land-based survey techniques that are used to plan roads, subdivisions and other projects. The UGA researchers’ technique, on the other hand, combines LiDAR (light detection and ranging) data with high-resolution satellite imagery to provide an exceptional level of detail and accuracy. By shooting hundreds of thousands of pulses of light at a surface and then measuring the time it takes for the reflected light to be detected by a sensor, LiDAR provides three-dimensional elevation data with a level of accuracy that is six inches in diameter, or about the size of a grapefruit. High-resolution satellite images similar to those available through Google Earth provide two-dimensional images with a pixel size of approximately three feet by three feet, allowing the researchers to discern coastal features such as sand dunes.

By combining the sources of remote sensing data with historical shoreline maps dating to 1857, the scientists created detailed maps that precisely delineate the boundary between the ocean and the land. Historical tidal data were used to create models of how Jekyll Island would fare under various calculations of sea-level rise and under tropical storm and hurricane storm surge conditions.

“With this high-resolution data, we can model which areas are going to flood with much greater accuracy,” said study co-author Tommy Jordan, associate director of CRMS. “We can see things like small indentations and the spaces between the dunes and simulate where the water would go.”

The researchers note that the island has changed significantly over the past 155 years. In a pattern common in barrier islands, its northern portions have eroded while its beach area in the southern region has increased.

CRMS director, study co-author and geography professor Marguerite Madden noted that balancing the interests of tourism, conservation and development can be challenging, but said that access to high-quality data can help ensure that stakeholders make well-informed decisions.

“Now all of the interested parties—developers, land managers, the Jekyll Island Authority, the state and the people who enjoy and live on the island—have access to the same maps, images and other data,” Madden said.

To access the Jekyll Island beach availability website, see

[Source: University of Georgia press release]

The Economic Cost of Increased Temperatures

August 10, 2012

MIT Study: Warming Episodes Hurt Poor Countries and limit Long-term Growth

Even temporary rises in local temperatures significantly damage long-term economic growth in the world’s developing nations, according to a new study co-authored by an MIT economist.

Looking at weather data over the last half-century, the study finds that every 1-degree-Celsius increase in a poor country, over the course of a given year, reduces its economic growth by about 1.3 percentage points. However, this only applies to the world’s developing nations; wealthier countries do not appear to be affected by the variations in temperature.

“Higher temperatures lead to substantially lower economic growth in poor countries,” says Ben Olken, a professor of economics at MIT, who helped conduct the research. And while it’s relatively straightforward to see how droughts and hot weather might hurt agriculture, the study indicates that hot spells have much wider economic effects.

“What we’re suggesting is that it’s much broader than [agriculture],” Olken adds. “It affects investment, political stability and industrial output.”

Varied effects on economies

The paper, “Temperature Shocks and Economic Growth: Evidence from the Last Half Century,” was published this summer in the American Economic Journal: Macroeconomics. Along with Olken, the authors are Melissa Dell PhD ’12, of Harvard University, who was a PhD candidate in MIT’s Department of Economics when the paper was produced, and Ben Jones PhD ’03, an economist at Northwestern University.

The study first gained public attention as a working paper in 2008. It collects temperature and economic-output data for each country in the world, in every year from 1950 through 2003, and analyzes the relationship between them. “We couldn’t believe no one had done it before, but we weren’t really sure we’d find anything at all,” Olken says.

By looking at economic data by type of activity, not just aggregate output, the researchers concluded there are a variety of “channels” through which weather shocks hurt economic production — by slowing down workers, commerce, and perhaps even capital investment.

“If you think about people working in factories on a 105-degree day with no air conditioning, you can see how it makes a difference,” Olken says.

One consequence of this, borne out in the data, is that the higher temperatures in a given year affect not only a country’s economic activity at the time, but its growth prospects far into the future; by the numbers, growth lagged following hot years.

To see why, Olken suggests, first think of a dry year for vegetables in your backyard garden: The bad weather would hurt the plants, but if the weather is reasonable the following year, the backyard crop would return to its normal level. Now contrast that with problems that affect, say, industrial and technological development, and capital investment; temperature shocks limiting those activities can compound over time.

“If you think about economic growth, you build on where you were last year,” Olken explains. For longer-term industrial or technological projects, he adds, “If it’s that kind of activity that’s lost, then it affects the country’s long-run growth rate, [and it’s] not a one-off hit.”

Political change in the weather

Olken, Dell and Jones also integrated data about forms of government into the study, and found that temperature shocks are associated with an increase in political instability. A 1-degree-Celsius rise in a given year, they found, raises the probability of “irregular leader transitions,” such as coups, by 3.1 percentage points in poor countries. In turn, the authors write, “poor economic performance and political instability are likely mutually reinforcing.”

Olivier Deschenes, an economist at the University of California at Santa Barbara, calls the study “an important finding because most of the prior research on the economic impacts of climate change have focused on a few sectors of the economy, predominantly the agricultural sector.” By contrast, he notes, the broader finding of the current paper matters “because the growth rate is a key measure of the economic success of a nation and the standard of living of its population.”

Deschenes, who also conducts research on the economic and health effects of temperature changes, suggests that the “next step” for scholars “is to identify adaptation strategies that can moderate the negative impacts of global climate change in the coming decades.”

As Olken observes, the study does not try to account for all the possible problems that could be generated by long-term climate change, such as rising oceans, floods or increased storms. Still, he adds, the paper does suggest some general points about the economic impact of a warming atmosphere. It is vital, he says, to “think about the heterogeneity of the impact between the poor and rich countries” when leaders and policymakers map out the problems the world may confront in the future.

“The impacts of these things are going to be worse for the countries that have the least ability to adapt to it,” he adds. “[We] want to think that through for the implications for future inequality. It’s a double whammy.”

[Source: Peter Dizikes, MIT News Office]