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Warming's Effect on Hurricanes

Wednesday, July 30, 2008 by Kyle Scribner

Damage caused by Hurricane Dolly in South Padre Island, Texas
UPDATE 8/5/08: COLORADO STATE'S TEAM HAS UPPED ITS FORECAST TO 9 HURRICANES. http://hurricane.atmos.colostate.edu/Forecasts/

Two months into the Atlantic hurricane season, we’ve seen two storms, Bertha and Dolly, reach hurricane status. Only the Category 2 Dolly has made landfall in the U.S.

According to Colorado State University’s hurricane forecast, we’re due for six more hurricanes before the season comes to a close Nov. 30. The CSU report also says there is a 69% chance a major (Category 3-4-5) hurricane will hit somewhere along the U.S. coastline this season, well above the 52% average for the last century.

With hurricane frequency and intensity seemingly on the rise, many are looking into a link between global warming and hurricanes. However, CSU’s Dr. Philip J. Klotzbach says despite the recent uptick (mostly the 2004-2005 seasons) in Atlantic hurricane activity, the storms have not increased worldwide. He and hurricane-report partner Dr. William M. Gray say there is “no valid physical theory as to why hurricane frequency or intensity would necessarily be altered significantly by small amounts (< ±1oC) of global mean temperature change,” and that the recent rise in Atlantic hurricanes is “well within natural bounds of hurricane variation.” You’d think a rise in ocean temperature would lead to more hurricanes. But there are other factors to consider, such as wind shear. Vertical wind shear – shifts in upper-level-atmosphere and lower-level-atmosphere winds – increases along with ocean temps in global warming. This wind shear hinders the growth of storms, possibly enough to counterbalance any growth caused by the ocean temperature rise, a University of Miami study found. But other studies come to different conclusions.

Kerry A. Emanuel, Professor of atmospheric science at MIT, offers a comprehensive Q&A that sums up the difficulty in pinpointing global warming’s effect on hurricanes.

Since Dr. Emanuel is recognized as an authority on the subject, I wanted to speak with him, so first gave the Q&A a look. In my request for an interview, I threw in my reading on his Q&A and Dr. Emanuel kindly informed me that I may have misread it – pretty embarrassing, but also a clue of the complexity of the issue. Here’s what he said:

“I certainly did not mean to imply in the write-up you cite that there is no evidence that global warming is affecting hurricanes. The essay is nuanced, as is reality, and I urge you to read it carefully. There is indeed no evidence that GLOBAL hurricane frequency is changing, but frequency of Atlantic hurricanes (12% of the global total, by the way) is strongly tied to sea surface temperature and there is a great deal of evidence that it has been affected by global warming. Moreover, the intensity of storms almost everywhere appears to be increasing in response to global warming, as theory and models predict.”

So there you have it. Anthropogenic warming does appear to be affecting hurricanes, but there are many questions still to answer.

On the flip side, if you’d like to gain insight into the opposite of how the environment is affecting hurricanes, check out the USGS Center for Coastal & Watershed Studies’ site on how hurricanes affect the environment.

It has info before a storm even arrives in the U.S. on how it will affect the projected landfall area, photos of damage from past storms, and information on topographic changes to coastal areas.

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Chlorine in Swimming Pools

Wednesday, July 23, 2008 by Kyle Scribner

a swimmer dives into a pool
We’re now deep into summer, which means the lucky among us are deep into their swimming pools on a regular basis. Hitting the backyard to cool down and relax in the calming waters of your own pool is indeed a luxury, but with all the chemicals needed to keep the water clean, can it also be a hazard?

Chlorine, the cleaning agent of choice for the vast majority of pool owners, is, after all, a dangerous element. In certain uses, chlorine can pose a major environmental hazard, such as in the production of PVC.

But does the form of chlorine in pools, and the relatively low levels used, present a real risk? The World Health Organization gives a qualified “no.”

WHO explains it’s not chlorine itself that’s a health risk but the chemicals produced when chlorine interacts with other substances in pool water. WHO acknowledges these risks, but concludes, “the risks from exposure to chlorination by-products in reasonably well managed swimming pools would be considered to be small and must be set against the benefits of aerobic exercise and the risks of infectious disease in the absence of disinfection.”

The key phrase there would be “reasonably well managed.” There are some health horror stories as a result of mismanaged pools, but what about when you’re doing everything right with your pool upkeep?

Pool industry group The Association of Pool & Spa Professionals recommends daily testing to ensure a minimum level of 1 ppm of free chlorine – the specific form that acts as the cleanser – in your pool, up to the EPA-mandated maximum of 4 ppm. So optimally you should shoot for around 2 ppm.

However, there are studies indicating even these levels may be hazardous. Research published in 2003 in Occupational and Environmental Medicine shows a link between regular use of indoor pools and asthma, and a 2004 study in the American College of Sports Medicine shows a link between respiratory problems in trained swimmers and chlorine, even at levels as low as 1 ppm.

So how does the EPA reach its 4 ppm recommendation? Remember, it’s not the free chlorine itself, but the chlorine’s interaction with other stuff in a pool – anything from tree litter to splashed-off makeup to urine – that creates the dangerous chemicals. So the APSP sticks by its numbers, and stresses the importance of overall pool procedures, including maintaining proper pH balance, keeping pools clear of debris, properly venting indoor pools, staying out of the water when sick, taking frequent bathroom breaks, showering before swimming, and, of course, not swallowing pool water (good luck with that last one).

But beyond the possible health risks, some people simply don’t like the feel of chlorine in their hair and on their skin, not to mention the smell. There are options:

Ozone generators – These machines release ozone into the water to kill microorganisms, and requires you to use much smaller doses of chlorine. But ozone has its own problems, according to the EPA.

Ion generators – Copper and silver are used to clean out the bad stuff.

Organic cleansing – Probably the most extreme alternative, this system pumps water through rocks and plants to clean your “natural swimming pool.”

So, pool-owners, let us know: How much of a stickler are you on keeping your pool clean?

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Going Green in the Office

Wednesday, July 16, 2008 by CapNetGreen

Adobe Systems HQ in San Jose, one of the greenest office buildings in the U.S.
You spend as much time there as anywhere else (at least that what your spouse sneers when he/she needs your help and you’re not around), so why not help your workplace become more environmentally friendly? It’s the one spot outside your home you can really help shape and take pride in.

And there’s plenty of room for conservation. The federal government’s latest Commercial Buildings Energy Consumption Survey, which covers everything from offices to prisons (but not malls, for some reason), says U.S. buildings spent more than $69 billion on electricity and consumed 890 billion kWh in 2003 (the newest, 2007 survey is due soon). That’s the equivalent of powering a 100-watt light bulb for more than a billion years. We can shave a million or two years off that, can’t we?

There are a ton of places on the Web that can help teach you how to green your workday. Here’s a broad list of the best steps to take to go green at work, each linked to a definitive source.

Green-office overview – From Grist. A good place to start your environmental campaign.

Reduce lighting demands – From U.S. Dept. of Energy. The importance of turning off lights, using automatic dimmers and maximizing daylighting (green-ese for “open your shades!”).

Turn off your computer and other electronics when not needed – From Colorado State University. I admit, I only recently started powering down to conserve energy; I used to always just “log off.”

Moderate the temperature – From the EPA’s Energy Star section. HVAC stats in all their engrossing glory!

Reduce paper use – From the National Resources Defense Council. Don’t print e-mail unless absolutely necessary, use the other side of already-printed-on paper for faxes, etc.

Recycle – From Eartheasy, a good collection of general recycling info. Also see the EPA’s steps for setting up business recycling programs for everything from paper to electronics.

Use recycled goods – Also from the EPA. This tool helps you find places to buy all sorts of office goods made from recycled content.

Use earth-friendly office furniture – From The Green Office. Furniture that meets the industry’s BIFMA standards, namely, that which is manufactured with “materials and natural resource utilization, energy, renewable energy, greenhouse gas impacts, human and eco-system health, material toxicity, and social responsibility” in mind.

Carpool – From ERideshare.com. You can figure out the carpooling thing on your own, as long as you have a buddy headed in the same direction. But if you don’t, this site will hook you up.

Use mass transit – From the American Public Transportation Association, which says mass transit reduces the nation’s carbon emissions by 37 million metric tons annually.

Surround yourself with plants – From the National Gardening Association. Studies show you’re happier and healthier when you work among flora. Bring me a shrubbery!

Also check out my previous post on companies’ efforts to green their office.

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Where to Fill Up With Alternative Fuel

Wednesday, July 9, 2008 by Kyle Scribner

An ethanol gas pump in Granite Falls, Minn.
AAA’s 12-month chart of the average price of a gallon of regular unleaded looks like a treadmill display from hell: The line just goes up and up and up.

With gas prices on the rise, so too is interest in alternative-fuel vehicles. Ethanol and other biodiesel cars and trucks have gained a foothold already, and a mass market of plug-in hybrids and hydrogen vehicles is seemingly right around the corner.

But before any of this stuff can really go mainstream, there has to be an abundance of stations where consumers can fill up. The Department of Energy has a new Web tool that shows exactly where to find these alternative-fuel stations.

The Alternative Fuels and Advanced Vehicles Data Center shows, as of 7/8/08, 5,701 stations in the U.S. that offer alternative fuel for vehicles. The AFDC counts more than a dozen such alternative fuels, including the seven commercially available: biodiesel, electricity, ethanol, hydrogen, methanol, natural gas and propane.

Looking over the map of stations, one thing is clear: We’re far from critical mass. In many areas, you’re hard pressed to find any alternative-fuel stations. To wit:

-- Four E85 stations in all of New England
-- One E85 station within 90 miles of Boston
-- Eight hydrogen stations in all of the Eastern U.S.
-- Nearly all -- 370 of 436 -- electric stations are in Calif.; 36 states have zero electric stations

California is by far the king, home to 15% of the nation’s alternative-fuel stations. It’s also the only state where Honda’s FCX Clarity hydrogen-powered fuel cell vehicles will be available for the foreseeable future.

GM’s Project Driveway shares the wealth a bit, though, by offering fuel-cell vehicles not only in Calif., but in NYC and D.C. too. BMW is another auto company developing fuel-cell vehicles.

So the future looks promising, but for now, the choices are limited. Here’s a list of the Captivate markets with stations within 10 miles that offer electric, ethanol, biodiesel, or hydrogen fuel (totals in parentheses):

-- Atlanta (9)
-- Austin (25)
-- Boston (10)
-- Chicago (11)
-- Columbia (15)
-- Dallas (4)
-- Denver (12)
-- Hartford (4)
-- Houston (4)
-- Los Angeles (63)
-- Memphis (1)
-- Miami (2)
-- Minneapolis (26)
-- New York City (4)
-- Philadelphia (2)
-- Phoenix (14)
-- San Diego (11)
-- San Francisco (23)
-- San Jose (8)
-- Seattle (14)
-- Washington, D.C. (13)

Let us know what you think of the choices for alternative-fuel vehicles. Any Captivate viewers already driving around in one?

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Director of Sustainability

Wednesday, July 2, 2008 by Kyle Scribner

It may sound like one of those joke titles, like “director of fun” or “VP of common sense,” but the director of sustainability is a very real, and – as many colleges, municipalities and companies appear to be saying – very important position.

This Dallas Morning News article sums up just what the job responsibilities of these “chief green officers” are; their duties basically cover the environmental-tenant troika of reduce, reuse, recycle.

Colleges and universities were some of the first entities to employ environmental sustainability officers, and schools now more than ever are adding earth-friendly faculty, with campuses from UCLA to City University of New York looking to fill positions.

Some of the major companies now employing green execs, or looking to do so:


General Motors


HLW, the international design firm behind such icons as NYC’s New York Times Building

And Captivate cities, as always, are on the cutting edge. The Mayors Climate Protection Agreement, borne out of a 2005 mayors meeting, is backed by nearly all the cities where Captivate plays (Houston and Memphis, get on board already!). Some specific sustainability action going on in Captivate markets:

New York City – A year or so ago launched a plan to try to limit the footprint of the city’s ballooning population.

Philadelphia – Recently hired Mark Allan Hughes, a fellow at the University of Pennsylvania, as director of sustainability.

Atlanta – Hotlanta becoming "Greenlanta”?

San Francisco – Been kickin’ it sustainability style probably longer than any other.

Dallas – Focusing on air quality.

What do you think? Anybody out there tempted to move into the sustainability field? Let us know by posting a comment below.

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Kyle Scribner is a born-again nature freak who also happens to be an editor at Captivate Network.

You know that exhilarated feeling you got as a kid when you would go down to the pond to catch frogs? It never really goes away; it’s just dormant. So I'm here to slap a mix of facts and borderline balanced opinion on you, to poke a stick at the nature freak slumbering in us all and maybe get him to once again come out and play.

And we might even learn a few things about the environment as we go.


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About Green Among Gray

How do you commune with nature or become part of the solution to the environmental crisis when you're trapped in a cement-and-glass, gas-guzzling, power-sucking, emissions-spewing metropolis 8 hours (or more) a day? How do you go 'green' in a world of gray?

Actually, there are plenty of ways, and Green Among Gray aims to show high-rise inhabitants how they can help ease the load on the environment and on their minds by exploring natural oases, conservation tips, and other ways to stay green while working in the concrete-built world of the big city.

Look for short updates on the latest environmental news along with periodic longer features on specific places and events that allow big-city workers to get close to nature.