Category: The Environment
A thin skim of ice formed on the Bras d’Or Lake this weekend, and the forecast week of bitter cold and light winds promises to deepen and strengthen its wintery cover. Forty years ago, this was an all-but-annual occurrence. In the middle decades of the 20th Century, Victoria County’s legendary physician C. Lamont MacMillan routinely crossed the lake in a homemade half-track to reach ill patients in the depths of winter. But as our climate has changed, the frozen lake has become a rarity.
Consider this a placeholder for a compilation, coming soon, of the outraged comments that flooded in from defenders of the “wind chill” notion, in response to Contrarian’s (and Scientific American’s) repudiation of the concept.
(I will just note in passing that it is an absence of significant wind, as much as extreme cold, that allows the Bras d’Or freeze over. Quelle ironie!)
The three Parks Canada bureaucrats who tag-teamed an illustrated talk at tonight’s ninth annual Sable Island Update faced a skeptical, though not overtly hostile, audience.
The first time Canadians heard about plans to turn Sable Island into a National Park, Jim Prentice, environment minister at the time, launched into an addle-pated discourse on how great a park would be for private businesses that could could ferry boatloads of tourists out to Sable and put them up for the night in hotels.
You want to hope this was a spontaneous outburst by a know-nothing minister, but with Harper’s crew, who can be sure? Parks Canada bureaucrats have struggled ever since to convince Sable’s large, passionate constituency that they are not the advance guard for a mob of gun-toting Reform Party vandals bent on paving Sable and putting up Ferris wheels.
In the process, they appear to have persuaded the naturalist and longtime Sable champion Zoe Lucas. (Disclosure: Zoe and I have been friends for years.)
In her talk last night, Zoe, who is principal organizer of the meeting, gave her usual fascinating and witty précis of events on Sable over the last 18 months—a spell-binding catalog of weather highlights, scientific discoveries, critter strandings, beach debris, and whatnot. She followed this with a useful history of tourism to the island, gently driving home the point that people have always visited Sable (albeit in small numbers) and properly managed, such visits cause little damage while helping build the passionate constituency for conservation that is Sable’s best protection from Cretins like Prentice.
Zoe and I have not spoken about this, but it appeared to me that she and the Parks Canada officials charged with setting up the new park have established a productive and mutually respectful relationship. This has not always been the case. Zoe is a woman of strong views and a willingness to express them. She has not always enjoyed a blissful rapport with Sable’s federal overseers.
In their presentation, the Parks Canada officials made the obligatory gestures you would expect toward Zoe’s revered role as unofficial steward of the island, including the invaluable scientific work she has carried out over nearly four decades. Beyond that, they peppered their inventory of preparations for park status with signals they have been listening, and thinking about imaginative ways to fulfill Parks Canada’s mandate to provide visitor opportunities without wrecking the place.
Two small examples: They hope to get Google to carry out Street View mapping of the island, so Sable buffs can treat themselves to virtual tours from the comfort of their living rooms. When challenged about regulations that ban petroleum drilling on the island, but permit seismic testing, they agreed with a marine geologist in the audience that sufficient seismic testing has already been carried out, and it’s unlikely future tests would be permitted.
I don’t want to go overboard here. The trio of officials did sometimes lapse into practiced talking points whose purpose was to mollify, rather than inform. They professed not to remember what the park’s annual budget was, but when pressed (by me) they agreed to give Zoe this information for publication on her Green Horse Society website (specifically, the park’s 2013-2014 annual budget, and the annual operating budget they expect once startup costs are behind them).
I’m no @Tim_Bousquet, but I did my best to live-tweet the event. With occasional help from seat-mate Alan Ruffman, I think I did capture the gist of most, if not all, the questions. You can find these tweets by searching for my Twitter handle (@kempthead) or the hashtag #Sable. Those outside the Twitter realm can view the live-tweets in bullet form after the jump. If you are unfamiliar with Twitter, reading from the bottom up will give you my account in chronological order. Errors and omissions are mine.
If you are near Halifax Tuesday night, you can get the latest information about Sable Island’s transformation into a National Park at what promises to be a fascinating meeting.
The 9th annual Sable Island Update, latest in a series of meetings oganized by naturalist and longtime Sable resident Zoe Lucas, will see illustrated talks about scientific and organizational developments on the island. This year’s session will also feature an an extended opportunity to question Parks Canada officials about their new role as federal stewards of the island.
Lucas began the updates a decade ago, when Environment Canada announced plans to abandon the island as a cost-cutting measure, putting its fragile environment, and the valuable but little known scientific work that takes place there, at risk. The annual updates usually take place in the spring, but since April 1 marked the island’s handoff to Parks Canada, Lucas and Mark Butler, Policy Director for the Ecology Action Centre, decided to delay this year’s session in hopes of getting “solid and detailed info from Parks Canada—nuts & bolts, management policy, programs, staffing, etc.”
The Parks takeover got off to a bad start before it began when Environment Minister Jim Prentice speculated about opening the island to private boat tours and hotel accommodations, sparking an angry public backlash from supporters of Sable, including Contrarian. Lucas supports the Parks Canada takeover, and believes a zero-tourism policy is unrealistic. Her talk will include a review of the history of tourism on the island.
No one has done more than Lucas to preserve Sable’s ecological integrity, and no one is better qualified to make recommendations about it’s future. Still, I continue to worry that any significant increase in tourist visitors to the Island will de detrimental to the qualities that make it unique. Tourism floodgates are easy to open, and will be all but impossible to close, so this policy demands extreme caution.
Lucas has four decades’ experience monitoring and studying Sable Island horses, birds, invertebrates, grasses, lichens, mosses, fungi, and fresh water ponds. She conducts regular surveys of beach litter and cetacean strandings. Her talk will include a brief update on recent goings-on on the island.
Saint Mary’s biology professor Tim Frasier, a specialist in marine mammals, has a research interest in the use of genetics to better understand, and assist the conservation of, small wild animal populations. His talk will focus on the application of this work to Sable Island horses.
The 9th Annual Sable Island Update takes place 7 p.m., Tuesday, at the McNally Building, Saint Mary’s University, 923 Robie St., Halifax. There is much more information at Lucas’s Green Horse Society website.
Sponsors of the meeting include the Friends of the Green Horse Society, the Ecology Action Centre, Saint Mary’s University, the World Wildlife Fund, the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, and the Nova Scotian Institute of Science. The photo above was copied from the poster for the event, and I presume it was taken by Zoe Lucas.
On Monday, Contrarian voiced skepticism about a Digby couple’s claim that wind turbines had decimated their their emu flock.
Andy MacCallum, vice president of developments for Natural Forces Technologies Inc., a company that helps develop small wind projects in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and British Columbia, responds:
I worked on a wind farm in Western Australia a few years ago called Emu Downs Wind Farm. An emu farmer was the major landowner for the project. The emus loved the turbines, and would gather at the turbine bases as they provided shelter from the wind.
This is, of course, merely an anecdote, just as the failure of the Ocean Breeze Emu Farm is merely an anecdote. By themselves, neither proves anything. But the Emu Downs story presents stronger evidence against the turbines-harm-emus hypothesis, than the Ocean Breeze story presents in its favor.
- If turbines kill emus, then gathering around the Emu Downs turbines should have hurt the Aussie birds, but apparently it did not. The site remains a tourist attraction.
- A thousand factors could have caused the Ocean Breeze emus’ failure to thrive. Owners Debi and David Van Tassell simply picked the explanation they preferred, with no supporting evidence.
Without considering possible alternatives, the CBC swallowed the Van Tassell’s sad story, whole. Not to be outdone, the Halifax Chronicle-Herald committed the same journalistic malpractice a day later.
The impulse to accept at face value any argument against any development, no matter how far fetched or specious, simply because those advancing it are deemed, “sincere,” is a recipe for basing decisions on ignorance, prejudice, and magical beliefs.
Where are the editors?
[Photo: Workers construct the base of a wind turbine going up at Hillside Boularderie, about 30 km from Contrarian's Kempt Head base station. Courtesy of Natural Forces.]
I see by the CBC that Nova Scotia Power wind turbines have laid waste to a Digby Neck emu farm, decimating a family’s livelihood in the process.
Twenty of Debi and Davey VanTassel’s 27 emus succumbed to the lethal noise produced by NS Power’s murderous machines in the three years since they began slicing the salt air over Digby.
Or maybe it was 30 of their 38 birds—the CBC story gives both sets of figures. In any case, the emus were as hapless as they were flightless, no match for the death-dealing, green-power monsters.
How do we know this?
Because Debi Van Tassel, voice choked with emotion, told the CBC so.
Why, when the birds that provided their livelihood began dropping like cluster flies on a warm window sill, the Van Tassels didn’t even call a veterinarian to examine the corpses. Why bother? They already knew the cause of death.
So certain were Debi and Davey of the emu-killing power of renewable energy, they had protested construction of the wind farm before it even started up.
A vet might not have been much help anyway, given the inconvenient lack of a single peer-reviewed study showing turbine-induced health effects on animals.
Public health researchers in Australia tabulated every known public complaint of human health problems related to wind farms, and found no correlation with the size of a wind farm or complainants’ proximity to them. Well over half of the country’s 41 wind farms generated no complaints; those that did were mostly in areas where protesters promoted health fears before construction began.
The Van Tassel’s putative plight reads like a classic fable. On the one hand, a grieving farm couple, raising charismatic birds from a distant hemisphere, seeking only to wrest a humble livelihood from the windswept Fundy shore. On the other, a corporation so reviled the press exempts it from ordinary standards of fairness and balance, replacing conventional news coverage with one-sided, crowd-pleasing screeds.
“With a vital portion of their income gone,” came the CBC’s maudlin conclusion, “the Van Tassels said they don’t know what’s next for them.”
Absence of evidence and rampant implausibility could not be allowed to interfere with such a stirring yarn. Score one for bunkum over news.
[Disclosure: I count many good friends among NS Power management and staff, and from time to time, I have done work for the company, mainly writing and editing.]
A trio of Nova Scotia environmental organizations — the Nova Scotia Fracking Resource and Action Coalition, the Council of Canadians, and Sierra Club Atlantic — scored a public relations coup yesterday when local news organizations reported that “Nova Scotians overwhelmingly support a continued ban on fracking” in a poll commissioned by the group.
A news release said the poll, conducted by Abacus Data, a respected Ottawa-based polling firm:
…found strikingly solid support for a continued ban in all areas of the province –from a high of 72% in Cape Breton, to 70% in HRM and Annapolis Valley/South Shore, and 61% in the northern part of the province.
The overwhelming support crossed the political spectrum – 71% percent of those committed to vote Liberal, 72% NDP and PC and 82% Green either strongly supported or supported a continued halt to fracking. Support was equally strong among men and women, and held steady across all age groups.
There was only one problem. The single-question in the survey was asked in a manner so flagrantly biased as to render the results meaningless. Here’s how it read:
Fracturing or hydraulic fracturing, is a relatively new process for extracting shale gas. Concerns have been raised about water contamination, harm to human health, and negative effects on communities and the climate. The Nova Scotia government has a moratorium on fracking while an independent review is underway. Do you support keeping the ban on fracking in place, unless the independent review finds there is no risk to drinking water, human health, the climate or communities?
This is a classic “push poll,” a pseudo survey in which the tendentious questioner slips a thumb onto the scale so as to get the results she wants. In the guise of background, the question supplies respondents with arguments on one side of the issue, but not the other, and then seeks a response. In essence, this one warned that fracking contaminates water, harms human health, and hurts the environment and the climate, then added, it’s banned here now; should the government allow it?
None of the news stories I read quoted the question, or called foul on its blatantly contaminated methodology. They just regurgitated the fracking opponents’s analysis of the results, as if it were based on meaningful data. Shame on them, and shame on Abacus, whose website promises “objectivity” and cites “integrity” as a core value, for participating in this propaganda exercise. (I have asked the CEO of Abacus for a response.)
There are lots of reasons to be wary of fracking, and public opinion is one factor Cape Breton University President David Wheeler will have to weigh as he reviews the pros and cons of continuing the fracking moratorium. I can’t imagine Wheeler, a respected academic, giving this survey any credence.
I wonder if an honest poll wouldn’t have revealed lopsided opposition to fracking. We’ll never know, until someone conducts one.
[Editor's Note: In a scrum with reporters late in his fourth, scandal-plagued term as Premier of Nova Scotia, John Buchanan famously defended one Cherry Ferguson, a favoured civil servant who'd been discovered to be holding down three senior provincial government jobs. His exact words are lost to history, but they ran along these lines: "She doesn't have three jobs. She's Deputy Clerk of the House, Chief Electoral Officer, and a lawyer for the Workers' Compensation Board. That's not three jobs." To honour this great moment in political communication, Contrarian from time to time presents the Cherry Ferguson Award to an official who can stare an obvious but unpleasant truth in the face, in broad daylight, where all the world can see it, and declare it not to be there.]
Today’s award goes to Melissa Blake, Mayor of the Wood Buffalo Regional Municipality, who voiced pique at singer Neil Young’s declaration that Fort McMurray is “a wasteland” that “looks like Hiroshima.”
When people say it’s a wasteland, it really and truly isn’t. When it comes to the community of Fort McMurray, you’re overwhelmed, frankly, by the beauty of it. You’ve got an incredible boreal environment that’s all around you. You proceed further north into the oil sands and inevitably, there’s mining operations that will draw your attention because they take up large chunks of land.
Fort Mac is part of Mayor Blake’s Wood Buffalo municipality. Feast yours eyes on the beauty of its surroundings.
And finally, the trailer for Petropolis, a Greenpeace advocacy doc on the Tar Sands:
On Sunday, I posted a short iPhone video of an osprey nest next to an 800 kw wind turbine at River John, Nova Scotia, to make the tongue-in-cheek point that someone forgot to tell the osprey about the perils of infrasound and shadow flicker. The point was tongue-in-cheek in the sense that I have no way of knowing whether young birds successfully fledged from the nest, but serious in the sense that I think health arguments against wind turbines are largely spurious.
Bruce Wark, former reporter, CBC radio producer, and King’s journalism professor, thinks I overlooked the most obvious threat wind farms pose for Osprey and other birds:
Here’s an excerpt from a scientific abstract based on a study by K. Shawn Smallwood in the peer-reviewed publication Wildlife Society Bulletin: “I estimated 888,000 bat and 573,000 bird fatalities/year (including 83,000 raptor fatalities) at 51,630 megawatt (MW) of installed wind-energy capacity in the United States in 2012. As wind energy continues to expand, there is urgent need to improve fatality monitoring methods, especially in the implementation of detection trials, which should be more realistically incorporated into routine monitoring.”
These numbers sound shocking. Indeed, I think they are presented in a contextless way* that insures they will shock. But they are actually surprisingly low, especially for birds. He estimates 573,000 bird fatalities for year based on an installed capacity of 51,630 megawatt (MW) If we assume 1 MW/turbine, the average turbine kills about 10 birds a year.
Whenever you hear numbers like this, it’s always useful to ask, “compared to what?”
Compared to what energy sources? The large array of windows on the south side of my passive solar house kills more than 10 birds a year. More to the point, the coal-fired power plants in Nova Scotia that could be displaced by wind power destroy bird habitat, cause deleterious climate change, and release pollutants that must impact mortality among birds with their supercharged respiratory systems. Gas does the same, only less so (or possibly less so, depending on methane leakage during production and transmission). Hydro dams destroy wildlife (including bird) habitat.
Compared to what other causes of human-assisted bird mortality? In a paper published in the journal Nature,** Peter Marra of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Washington, D.C., estimates that domestic and feral cats kill between 1.4 billion and 3.7 billion birds per year, along with 6.9 billion to 20.7 billion wild mammals per year in the US alone.
Taking the median of Marra’s ranges, we can say that US cats, feral and domestic, kill about 2.4 billion birds and 12.4 billion birds per year. Marra estimates the US cat population at 114 million, so each cat kills an average 21 birds per year—making a cat twice as lethal as a wind turbine (without even counting the 101 mammals an average
bird cat kills per year).
Wark was kind enough to respond to these points:
In my Coast cover piece on wind, I stayed away from birds and bats because, as you point out, the relative numbers are low especially compared to cats. I concede that point. However, the reason I responded to you is that you were trying to use the osprey nest video to make a questionable point, i.e. that noise and flicker must not be as big a problem as wind turbine opponents claim because an osprey had built its nest near one of them. A more telling point from the opponents’ perspective is that the osprey risks flying into the turning blades as it navigates around the turbines near the nest.
I think where you and I would agree is that we consume too much electricity and that there is no environmentally costless way of producing large amounts of it. People pin their hopes on wind and hydro because they’re supposedly “clean and green” and so, the reasoning goes, if we could only kick our dirty coal habit and use wind and water instead, we’d be able to “save” the planet without having to cut our consumption too much. It’s the same reasoning environmentalists use when they contribute to various “save the planet funds” to offset their addiction to air travel. As I see it, the problems involved in cutting consumption are compounded by the fact that our economy depends on it so we’re caught on a treadmill where household spending fuels growth, jobs and all the other hallmarks of “prosperity.”
I do agree with Wark that there is no costless way of producing large amounts of energy, but the environmental cost of producing it with coal dwarfs the cost of doing so with wind, hydro, solar, nuclear, and probably outstrips that of doing it with gas. If it is true that we face planetary disaster owing to human induced climate change, then it is irresponsible to dwell of what are really NIMBY objections in disguise.
* This comment applies only to the abstract of Smallwood’s paper. Unfortunately, the Wildlife Society Bulletin follows the increasingly common and lamentable practice of putting the full text of its studies behind a paywall. It’s possible that, in the full text, Smallwood contextualizes the numbers that seem so sensational in the abstract.
** The full text of Marra’s paper is likewise behind a paywall.
Our friend the curmudgeon has been quiet for a while, but the spectre of Detroit’s decayed grandeur propelled him to the keyboard:
Move along, Nova Scotians. There’s nothing for you to see in the grotesque collapse of the city of Detroit. Keep your focus on rural development.
Don’t worry about Halifax. It’s wealthy beyond imagination. There’s nothing wrong with its downtown that arresting a few panhandlers won’t fix. Avoid tall buildings; spread out instead. Never mind that only seven of 16 HRM electoral districts are genuinely urban. You can count on the other nine councillors to keep the urban centre healthy and attractive to outsiders from around the world.
It’s far better to resist the global migration to cities, with their greater opportunity and environmental sustainability. Every effort should be made to help country folk maintain their invaluable lifestyles. God forbid their children should leave home to seek their fortunes, knowing they’ll be welcomed back only if they can be judged as failures.
For the genteel squire, let not the scourge of renewable energy destroy their sight-lines, and nay, let not the gypsum for their summer houses come from local mines. Let them fertilize their hobby fields of elephant garlic with wholesome raw animal feces. May they stand firm against the loathsome tide of treated excrement from city dwellers.
Oh, and beware come-from-aways trying to turn derelict buildings into businesses. They know nothing about local ways.
Address your comments to comment[at]contrarian.ca.