EarthTalk: What are these “ocean deserts”
I’ve been hearing about? Also, didn’t I read
that there was a huge mass of plastic bottles floating around
somewhere on the ocean surface?
-- Wally Mattson, Eugene, OR
"ocean deserts" or "dead zones"
are oxygen-starved areas of the ocean, often caused
by nitrogen from fertilizers, sewage effluent and
other pollution released into the ocean by agricultural
and industrial sources.
© We are CS, courtesy Flickr
“ocean deserts” or “dead zones”
are oxygen-starved (or “hypoxic”) areas of the
ocean. They can occur naturally, or be caused by an excess
of nitrogen from agricultural fertilizers, sewage effluent
and/or emissions from factories, trucks and automobiles.
The nitrogen acts as a nutrient that, in turn, triggers
an explosion of algae or plankton, which in turn deplete
the water’s oxygen.
According to the Ocean Conservancy, a dead zone in the Gulf
of Mexico—where the Mississippi River dumps untold
gallons of polluted water every second—has expanded
to over 18,000 square kilometers in the last decade. Many
other such dead zones have also undergone rapid expansion
in recent years.
recent study by German oceanographer Lothar Stramma and
a team of prominent international researchers confirms this
phenomenon and also points the finger at global warming.
Their data show that oxygen levels hundreds of feet below
the ocean surface have declined over the past 50 years around
the world, most likely a result of human activity. And as
ocean waters warm due to climate change, they retain less
oxygen. Furthermore, warmer upper layers of water stifle
the process that brings nutrients up from colder, deeper
parts of the ocean to feed a wide range of surface-dwelling
expansion of these dead zones is bad news for most marine
inhabitants and the ecosystems they thrive in. Thousands
of different species already stressed from over fishing
and other threats, now must contend with expanding hypoxic
areas throughout regions that once constituted healthy habitat.
accumulation of plastic debris and other trash in the ocean
is not necessarily related to hypoxic zones, but is yet
another major problem facing the world’s fragile marine
ecosystems. California-based sea captain and ocean researcher
Charles Moore discovered what is now known as the Eastern
Garbage Patch—an aggregation of plastic and other
marine debris occupying some 700,000 square kilometers in
the North Pacific Ocean—during a crossing of the North
Pacific in 1997. In a 2003 article in Natural History Magazine,
Moore reported being astounded that he couldn’t be
further from land anywhere on Earth yet he could see plastic
bags and other debris coating the ocean’s surface
as far as the eye could see.
can help the oceans and their inhabitants by making smart
daily choices that can have collective, positive impact.
Lowering your carbon footprint—driving less, biking
more, donning a sweater instead of turning up the heat—is
one way to help stem the spread of hypoxic zones, which
is directly related to industrial activity and the amount
of greenhouse gases we spew into the atmosphere.
limiting plastic and plastic bag use is the best way to
prevent such litter from ending up swirling around mid-ocean.
Some countries, such as China, and many large cities—San
Francisco, for example—have banned plastic grocery
bags. If your city hasn’t yet taken this step, pressure
them to do so—and in the meantime bring your own reusable
bags to the market and avoid plastic wherever else you can.
EarthTalk: I’ve followed the trends in
“eco-homes” now for many years. Are there equally
encouraging things happening in the world of condos?
-- Charlie Anderson, Seattle, WA
The Riverhouse in New York City's Battery Park district
is a LEED-certified, 320-unit building with geothermal
heating and cooling, twice-filtered air, non-toxic
paint and landscaped roof gardens.
© Phillip Ritz, courtesy Flickr
Believe it or
not, condominiums may be some of the most environmentally
responsible housing out there today, especially since more
and more developers are paying attention to sustainability
from the get-go.
By their very
nature, many condo complexes adhere to some of the most
basic tenets of green housing: density, to maximize surrounding
open space and minimize buildings’ physical and operational
footprints; proximity to mass transit, given their typical
location in urban areas; and reduced resource use per unit,
thanks to shared systems, walls and common spaces. Builders
can elect to layer on other green elements, such as high-efficiency
appliances and HVAC systems, green roofs and organic landscaping.
are embracing green [to] be more responsive to what the
buying public is looking for,” says Gail Vittori,
chairperson of the U.S. Green Building Council, which produced
and manages the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design
(LEED) design and building standards. “They also want
to have the built environment become much more in line with
environmental and health considerations.”
One example is
Florence Lofts, a new development of 12 townhouses and a
4,200 square foot commercial building in downtown Sebastopol,
California. The LEED-certified project features a photovoltaic
solar system on the roof for hot water and other electrical
needs, a commercial scale “gray water” system
to divert sink and shower water for irrigation purposes,
and a tank that collects storm water from roofs to prevent
is The Riverhouse overlooking the Hudson River in New York
City’s Battery Park district. The LEED-certified,
320-unit building—the new home of actor/environmentalist
Leo DiCaprio—has geothermal heating and cooling, twice-filtered
air, non-toxic paint, and landscaped roof gardens.
But not all developers
need to break the bank to go green on their condo and apartment
projects. Two-thirds of the units in Harlem’s much-publicized
1400 Fifth Avenue building—touted as New York’s
first green condominium, are considered affordable, priced
at $50,000 to $104,000 and restricted to families of moderate
income. Also in the New York metropolitan area, Habitat
for Humanity recently announced it has assembled a green
design team to build “real affordable condos”
in New Rochelle and other parts of Westchester County.
doing a moderately green building, the premium to build
is typically in the 1.5 to two percent range. It’s
very small,” says Leanne Tobias of Malachite LLC,
a Maryland-based green real estate consulting firm. Additionally,
the carrying costs for green units are lower, since such
buildings operate on less energy and water and generate
less waste than conventional high-rises. “All of those
will be savings every month for the homeowners or residents
of those buildings,” Vittori adds. “That’s
a big plus.”
Building Council; Habitat
for Humanity; Malachite
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