Science in the SCOTUS: hovercraft in Alaska

One guy moose hunting in Alaska decided to take out his hovercraft. Somehow, this one event becomes a case before the Supreme Court that could have huge impacts for the environment and the definition of sovereignty between states, the Federal government and its citizens. It’s hard to fathom how one moose hunter in Alaska could suddenly become important to those of us in Rochester, NY. But as it turns out, he is.

John Sturgeon is by all appearances a pretty ordinary Alaska resident. His soft-spoken and respectful words in the Court make him seem like a pretty likeable guy. He hunts moose in Alaska, which is not at all controversial or illegal. And like any hunter, he takes what advantage he can – when he can – to get within shooting distance of his quarry. His choice one day eight years ago was to ride a hovercraft, which has the advantage of being able to cross rivers as easily as flat land.

His hovercraft broke down while he was out and two men approached to see what was going on. According to reports, the three men interacted for about a half an hour before the two strangers identified themselves as rangers. It was then that they informed Mr. Sturgeon that the hovercraft was not permitted to be used on Federal lands.

In Rochester, what is public and what is private land is rarely all that much in dispute, save perhaps for a stretch here or there where a park backs up to a private residence. But out west, questions abound. Over hundreds of acres of lands. New York State is about 12% government protected land; in Alaska that number is 61%. And it is the question of whose authority – federal or state – governs the land on which Mr. Sturgeon was hunting that is the problem.

In excellent reporting at Alaska Public Radio, the issue Justices seem to be getting hung up on is the word “solely.” Specifically, that the stewardship of the land that Mr. Sturgeon was hunting on is a bit of a cypher. What seems to have started as a sharing plan between state and federal agencies has devolved into a regulatory quagmire. The question of whether or not a hovercraft is permitted on that land depends entirely on the subtle distinctions in the code.

But if issues of jurisprudence and sovereignty are what complicate the case, they are not the only issues at stake. The responsibility with which we’ve entrusted our Federal government is to maintain a healthy environment within the preserves they manage. That charge is not about the simple management of a park for our recreation: it is about maintaining a pristine wilderness that we squander at our peril. Mr. Sturgeon himself benefits from those efforts, as evidenced by the fact that he’s hunting there at all.

Protecting the land means having clear laws and regulations about what is and what is not allowed to be used within the preserves. But in this case, there isn’t even consensus on what the federal preserves are. In such a case where the land is not claimed by any private party, it’s in the interest of science and our environment to interpret those rules broadly. Better that regulations within those territories be over-broad than under-cautious.

On the opposite side of science’s interests in this case are the interests of the State of Alaska and it’s residents. Those residents and elected leaders of Alaska can rightly ask why their regulation should be or has to be inferior to those of the Federal government? It becomes increasingly clear to we in the East that the Bundys of Malheur fame represent an ugly, violent inflection on what is a common sentiment in the West. And this case represents a much softer tone, but it’s no less urgent.

It’s also hard to escape the seemingly-tricky behavior of the park rangers in this case. Here in Rochester, police wear uniforms. You can ask for their badge numbers. But in Alaska, park rangers just look like bros? Walking in the woods? It may not be central to the case, but the idea that a cop sidles up next to you and raps with you for half an hour, then whips out a badge seems like entrapment, somehow. Mr. Sturgeon wasn’t hitting up a hooker. He was hunting.

There’s no clear indication that the Court prefers one argument over the other. There’s no indication that they were about to get into a Clash of the Titans fight over the heart and soul of the Constitution, either. But an empty seat on the Supreme Court could mean a year or more of ambiguity, into which who knows what manner of protest might pour?

With only eight Justices, it’s still possible that the Court can come to an agreeable compromise and close the case. But if everyone plays by their appointment-ordained roles, this thing doesn’t go anywhere. In the interim, do hovercraft sales skyrocket in Alaska? Along with beef jerky?


Watered down: NYU finds “sustainable” fisheries not up to snuff

Everybody wants to feel good about the food they eat. We like to think we’re making intelligent choices, and for some of us, we like to think those choices are good for our environment as well as our bodies. The problem is that as demand for eco-friendly, sustainable food supplies increases, we run headlong into the very same over fishing problem that began the mess. Worse, it now appears that perhaps the bodies in charge of handing out “sustainable” certification may be bowing to the economic pressure. Or just getting greedy:

… the researchers found many of these fisheries—representing 35 percent of eco-labeled seafood—did not meet MSC standards.

For instance, the longline fishery for swordfish in Canada appears to violate the “low impacts on the ecosystem” principle. This fishery has high levels of bycatch—sea life accidentally caught in pursuit of other fish. The targeted catch of 20,000 swordfish per year results in bycatch of approximately 100,000 sharks as well as 1,200 endangered loggerhead and 170 critically endangered leatherback turtles.

The article goes on to note that some fisheries certified as “sustainable” are even in violation of US national fishing law, to say nothing of the certification standards.

Politics Science

Japan giving NOAA $5 million for tsunami debris cleanup

Japan’s tsunami is still making its presence felt long after it has gone away. The disaster that befell Japan in 2011 washed unknown quantities of debris away from Japan and that debris is starting to show up on America’s left coast. Items from soccer balls to entire floating docks have been found up and down the coastline. NOAA has even setup an email address expressly for the purposes of reporting floating Japanese debris.

Now the Japanese government has gifted $5 million to NOAA to help aid in the cleanup as it happens here:

We are extremely grateful to Japan for its generous support to the American people. The tragedy set in motion by the earthquake and tsunami continues to be tangible, but it brought our nations together. This gift is a powerful reminder of the goodwill, friendship and spirit of mutual support between our people. We appreciate this partnership and collaboration with Japan as we work to keep our ocean and coasts healthy.

NOAA has set up an entire subsite to dealing with debris from Japan, which is expected to continue washing ashore for a few years. Radiation experts say that there is no reason to avoid beaches, as debris is unlikely to be radioactive and in any event, will only wash ashore in small, unmassed quantities at any one time.

Rochester Technology

RIT grad students lend a sustainable hand in Haiti

Sitting anywhere on a college campus, you’ll hear a lot of students discussing what they can do to benefit themselves. “Which classes should I take next quarter?” or “What club or activity would look best on my resume?” Very rarely, it seems, do you hear someone say “What can I do to help others?”

In August, four RIT students asked that very question. As part of a class in the Kate Gleason College of Engineering, Sarah Brownell and Brian Thorn led a 10-day trip to Haiti. Along for the ride were graduate students Shwe Sin Win, Kim Hunt, Ricki Pavia and Darinee Narimarnkarm. In Haiti, the students worked on a project for Meds & Food for Kids.

Meds & Food for Kids was created in 2003 by Dr. Patricia Wolff:

Meds and Food for Kids’ approach is to use local labor and local resources to manufacture Medika Mamba, a treatment for malnutrition, which in turn develops the local economy.

The students worked with MFK to help find a better way to deal with a contaminant occasionally found in the peanuts used. By removing the contaminant, MFK would be able to use more of the locally grown peanuts, in turn helping Haiti’s economy and lowering the rate of malnutrition.

The students were able to see what it’s like to have the experience of developing and manufacturing a product in a developing country,” said Sarah Brownell, Engineering and Developing World teacher. “I think they wanted to see what constraints there are and how they can design better with them in mind.”

In a day and age where it seems that the typical human tends to think more about what can help than, as opposed to what can help others, it’s nice to see that there are still some college kids out there that want to truly make a difference.

On their trip, these four graduate students not only did what they could to help at that moment, they also planned for the future. The students met with organizations like Sustainable Organic Integrated Livelihoods and MFK to discuss projects for future RIT graduate students to complete.

For more information on what you can do to help Haiti, go to

Rochester Science

University of Rochester study shows gulf bacteria helping to cleaning up BP Gulf oil spill

Researchers at the University of Rochester (U of R) and Texas A&M have fused together to unveil their discovery how over 200,000 tons of spilled oil and gas has disappeared from the Gulf of Mexico. All of which was removed over the course of only five months. Believe it or not, the answer is – Bacteria. This is immense news for two reasons: (1) of course, the fact that nature is giving us a lending hand in cleaning up this epidemic disaster. This catastrophe has affected, not only, ocean wildlife but has also upset businesses that are dependent on seafood. (2) A university right here in Rochester is responsible for making such a great discovery. This is something that should make any native feel proud.

To date, the oil spill has killed well into the thousands of wildlife. And those of which are only the animals visible to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service – there is likely to be heaps more. This simple statement raised high alert for many businesses along the coast because they are dependent on the wildlife. Approximately 32 percent of the fishing comes from this coast, in fact. Therefore, this meant many layoffs took place and locals began to struggle. This also meant that the price of seafood skyrocketed, so no one made out positively on this deal.

There was no simple solution, unfortunately, and the government couldn’t put into perspective how long it would take to clean this up. The only sure fact was that it wasn’t going to be fixed any time soon.

That is, until now. With the determination of our local researchers, we have discovered the large positive effects the bacterium has to offer.

“A significant amount of the oil and gas that was released was retained within the ocean water more than one-half mile below the sea surface,” said co-author John Kessler, from the University of Rochester. “It appears that the hydrocarbon-eating bacteria did a good job of removing the majority of the material that was retained in these layers,”

With that said, we can now examine the bacteria further to find how much potential it really possesses. Who knows: there may be a way to utilize it for future oil spills. It’s apparent that this bacterium is not only effective but also extremely time-efficient. To reiterate, over 200,000 tons were gobbled up by this bacteria. So, it should be said with great ease that we need to look into this more and who better than our homegrown heroes at the U of R.

Rochester Technology

Can our computer junk be transformed into an electronic ecosystem? RIT boffins want to know.

If you’re like me, hearing the term “ecosystem” probably paints a mental picture of lush trees, sunshine, and wildlife – but computers?  Thanks to the kickoff of a 3-year study at RIT’s Golisano Institute of Sustainability, this new idea of “industrial ecology” may not be too far off.

Serving as the project’s principal investigator, assistant professor Callie Babbit and team of co-investigators have received a $300,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to adapt ecological models for the study of complex industrial and consumer product systems. The goal of the project, which found inspiration from the way living organisms cooperate and compete for natural resources, is to improve the environmental and economic performance of consumer electronics an average U.S.  household might own. According to Babbit,

“This project will be the first to draw parallels between the communities of organisms in nature and the communities of products that we manufacture and consume.”

Researchers spanning multiple disciplines at RIT will focus on all areas making up the life span of consumer electronics including the materials used during manufacturing, the energy consumed during use, and the waste generated as they become obsolete. The end mission is to determine improved design solutions that function better together; additionally, understanding the changes that take place over time will lead to more efficient recycling systems and components to “feed” the next generation.

At the study’s conclusion, members of Babbit’s team will present workshops to New York state industries on how industrial ecology methods can be integrated into green business operations.

The new era of ecosystems will soon be upon us. Lions, and tigers, and computers – oh my!

Rochester Science

Just how little rain fall have we had this summer? Is this a drought?

As much as people complain about the harsh winter weather (excluding of course, this past winter), we are truly spoiled by the summer months in Rochester. As fun as the festivals, celebrations, and concerts are, my favorite part of summertime has always been the thunder storms. There is just something about watching the sky grow darker, feeling the wind pick up around you, hearing the claps of thunder become louder, and seeing the faint glow of lightning in the distance turn into quick flashes and bolts.

This year, though, one main aspect of the summer thunderstorm has often been missing – the smell of rain. This lack of rain has done more than simply skimp out on thunderstorms; it’s also the culprit for the state’s 90-day ban on brush burning.

On average, Rochester typically receives 2.93 inches of rain during the month of July. Although we still have one week left in the month, 2012 totals are drastically lower, with our total rainfall for July 2012 currently only 0.35 inch, and only 3 days with rain so far this entire month.  Our situation this summer is not unique. According to meteorologist, Brad Rippey from MSNBC, this summer’s drought has hit more than half of the contiguous United States.

“This year’s high temperatures have certainly played into this drought. There’s a lot more evaporation and demands for water.”

So, what exactly is a drought? Well, by definition, it’s just what Mr. Rippey has described– a deficiency in water supply, whether above or underground, for an extended period of time.  This has affected Monroe County in several ways, from loss of crops (including pumpkin patches and Christmas tree farms, if you can imagine thinking that far ahead), to a drastic increase in wild fires due to the combination of high heat and severe dryness, and even something known as “dairy heat stress” as a result of overheated cows producing less milk.

This sounds pretty intense – and it is – but never fear! According to Bob Morrison, Director of Water for the City of Rochester, this is only a moderate drought and although conditions may not be ideal, we are doing okay thanks to our lakes – which all currently have sufficient water levels.

“There is a point we could reach [where we would enter into conservation mode] but we’re doing very well right now, so that is not a concern for us. Right now, residents can keep on doing what they’re doing.”

So what are we, as Rochester residents in a moderate drought, to do? Keep living summer the way we would otherwise. Run through sprinklers. Wash your car in your driveway. Just don’t run around striking matches in fields of dead grass, and you’ll be just fine.


Looking for a trade in? The facts about appliances in the Energy Star Rebate program.

On March 19 the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) kicked off a new program that offers rebates to residents who purchase energy-efficient appliances. This “Buy Green Save Green” program ends on April 30th of this year, or when the $3.5 million budget has run out – whichever comes first.

If you’re a New York State resident you can receive a cash rebate of $350 when you purchase a refrigerator, or $250 when your purchase a clothes washer. The appliance must be CEE High Efficiency Tier 2 or 3 in order to be eligible for the rebate program. A list of eligible appliances is at

Getting cash back is a plus but there are benefits to buying an energy-efficient appliance versus a non-energy-efficient one. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, a 16 cubic-foot refrigerator can use upwards of 725 kilowatts of energy each year. That’s two or even three times the energy used by refrigerators eligible for the Buy Green Save Green rebate. Even new refrigerators that are not CEE rated, or are CEE Tier 1 class (not qualified for the rebate) use somewhere between 550 and 700 kilowatts per year. Still much higher than those qualified for the rebate.

Keep in mind that appliances can lose efficiency over time as well. While it’s not easy to calculate exactly how many kilowatts you add over time, there are lots of things that can cause your appliances to work harder and lead to loss of efficiency while shortening the lifespan of the machine to boot.

The Department of Energy offers tips on reducing energy costs at home and help to avoid overworking the motors in appliances. Using more detergent than necessary for a load of laundry creates sud build up, resulting in the engine working harder than normal. Maintaining proper seals and adjusting latches to prevent air leaks on a refrigerator prevents the motor from needless running. Keeping a full freezer allows for easy temperature maintenance and works the air compressor less as well. More tips and information are offered at

Energy consumption is the main factor to qualify an appliance for Energy Star ratings, plus it keeps your wallet happiest by chopping your electric bill down. Using refrigerators as the example still– the energy use of a Buy Green Save Green eligible fridge is generally somewhere between 350 and 430 kilowatts. That is about half the energy used by non-energy-efficient appliances. As for costs, a non-efficient fridge costs $60 per year on average. Cut the energy use in half and it cuts your bill in half each year, saving hundreds of dollars over the lifespan of the appliance.

Energy use is not the sole criteria when the EPA hands out Energy Star ratings. A manufacturer must use top-of the line insulation, more efficient compressors, modern heat-transfer materials, and use precise temperature and defrosting mechanisms. Washing machines must be designed to use less water and use modern sensors to control water temperature.

So if you’re still chugging along with appliances from the 80’s and 90’s, consider taking advantage of the Buy Green Save Green program. You’re almost guaranteed to save money, not to mention significantly reduce your emission footprint  by replacing old appliances with the qualified ones of this program.

Politics Rochester Technology

Environmental impact of filling the Inner Loop: real or overblown?

I can think of lots of reasons to fill the Inner Loop, as the City of Rochester is planning to do between Broadway and Charlotte streets. Not the least of which is: its a big pain that provides nothing to the city. Or that its dangerous – the city cites 87 accidents in a three year period. I’m all in favour of acing the thing.

But the city’s proposal and talking points include a curious claim: that filling the Inner Loop would be good for the environment. I’m all for improving the environment, but what exactly are the benefits?

Reading over the proposal, the city claims that, because residents would not have to drive on or around the Inner Loop to get to other parts of the city, the SYCHRO traffic simulator estimates a drop in fuel consumption of about 0.3%. How much is that? Well….. its about 6 gallons of gas. Not for your car. Total. For the year.

Hardly worth getting too excited about, is it?

Let’s not let that be the reason to lose interest in what is easily the most practical and worth-while project in recent Rochester history. But it would be helpful if the city would not make such disappointing claims.

Politics Science

The trouble with scientists: climate change edition

A leopard, they say, never changes his spots. And scientists? Well, scientists tend to take their own research fairly seriously. Its a critical flaw in using scientists when you want to disprove reality.

So the Koch brothers discovered when they set about disproving global climate change by hiring a physicist who had questions about the research methodologies used in previous climate science research. Richard Muller, a physicist from UC Berkley, had questions about the ranges of data and calculations used by his fellow scientists. That’s not the same thing as a rabid, virulent hate of his fellow scientists or a vested interest in the continued use of fossil fuels in irresponsible fashion, but that’s an easy mistake to make, I suppose.

The Koch brothers paid for Muller’s research, in which he actually used one of the largest sets of data ever used to test the hypothesis of global climate change. Muller was even able to use data sets previously deemed unusable by previous studies. The man can be credited with a very positive addition to the field of study, for sure.

He just wasn’t able to come up with proof of a fraud. In fact:

Koch brothers accidentally fund study that proves global warming –

In the end, the team’s result shows that the earlier studies “were done carefully and that potential biases identified by climate-change skeptics did not seriously affect” the conclusions these studies reached, said Dr. Muller, who some climate activists have labeled a global-warming skeptic.

Of course, the inefficacy of prior research is not the only intellectual hidie-hole available to climate science skeptics. Not by a long shot. Already, the elite of deniers – those that clapped Dr. Muller on the back heartily in the past – are already retreating to their second firewall: that if global warming is happening, that doesn’t prove that humans have anything to do with it. Observe the carefully-crafted statement by one former Sen. James Inhofe aide:

Climate Change Deniers Abandon ‘Befuddled Warmist’ Physicist Who Came Around On Global Warming :

“[T]he climate debate has not centered on whether the Earth has warmed since the end of the Little Ice Age about 1850 or since the 1950s. The climate debate is about how much humans may or may not be contributing to the warming trend,” Morano wrote Friday, calling Muller a “befuddled warmist.”

Ah! So we’ve gone all the way back to 1850, have we? Effectively prior to the full-swing of the Industrial Revolution in the Americas, well done. But the study specifically measures the change in temperature since the 50’s, which has always been the benchmark.

But this is the trouble with mixing denial with science: sooner or later, science will ferret out the truth. And while no two experiments are exactly alike and not all methodologies are necessarily created equal, science does have a few bedrock principles that make all science relatable. And while one study does not automatically validate another, when studies that have been previously used to cross-check each other are found to be reliable, it makes ditching one “inconvenient truth” out of a handful much more difficult.

I would liken it to the Intelligent Design crowd and their insulting concepts. If you want to believe that the Bible (or Koran or Talmud or whatever) is the be-all of truth – that no truth exists but that which is confirmed in your religious handbook of choice – you are OK to do that. If you want to believe that science is the ultimate arbiter of truth – that no truth exists which cannot be measured and reproduced – you’re OK to do that as well. And if you believe, as I do, that faith tells its own truths and science its own – that these are different truths and different disciplines of thought that do not require either harmony or dissonance between them – I think you’re OK to believe that as well.

What is genuinely not OK in my book is the idea that you can take just *some* of the facts provided by science – air travel, your computer, penicillin spring to mind – while abandoning other facts that are derived from the very same Scientific Principle, but which are inconsistent with your world view, as simply “mysteries.” That is intellectually dishonest in the extreme.

Rochester Science

RIT scientist might be the savior of Durand beachgoers

View of Durand Park Beach, courtesy of mjernisse on

Seems like every year, at least once, the Durand-Eastman Park beach closes. This same pattern is echoed around the lake for a variety of reasons, but the biggest and most dangerous reason is the presence of an algae bloom. Algae blooms happen when, for one reason or another, large quantities of algae are produced in a local area. Algae can starve the water of oxygen and poison it for swimmers and wildlife, alike. Minor blooms such as those that close beaches might get you sick. An algae bloom run amok could spell the end of countless species within an ecosystem.

But Dr. Andre Hudson, a professor at RIT, may have found the beginnings of a solution to the problem. Dr. Hudson discovered a means by which the normal photosynthetic process in algae might be short-circuited, eliminating the algae while leaving other life in the same ecosystem intact.

The key to the discovery actually is a key of sorts, specifically the enzyme algae use to produce a protein called Lysine. An enzyme is a molecule produced by a living organism that facilitates and speeds up specific chemical reactions in the presence of another chemical, generically referred to as a “substrate.” Like a lock and key, the enzyme binds to the substrate and in this case, causes lysine to be produced.

Lysine molecule

The algae rely on lysine to continue to survive and reproduce. If a chemical were introduced into their habitat that bound to the enzyme as well or better than the algae’s normal substrate, but did not allow the same chemical reaction to occur, the algae’s ability to produce lysine would be severely inhibited. In short, no more algae.

But lysine is a basic building block of life everywhere on Earth: not just algae but *all* photosynthesizing organisms – plants, algae and some bacteria – produce it. Those of us not fortunate enough to be photoautotrophs rely on eating those primary producers to get it for ourselves. So, how do we not have a massive, pan-species death chemical on our hands, capable of destroying plant life directly and starving animals, casting the entire ecosystem into barren oblivion? That would suck.

The answer is, again, the enzyme: now that Dr. Hudson has identified the enzyme itself, other researchers can pick up the ball and analyze the enzyme as it appears in a variety of species. Enzymes being highly complex structures, chances are that two different species of algae – to say nothing of other plants – will have completely differently-organized enzymes that perform the same function. Every organism is likely to be highly-specialized.

So our anti-lysine chemical could be tailor-made to hit exactly the targets we wish to eliminate. No death for the innocent, in other words.

This specialized means of eliminating photosynthesizers means that the discovery that could end irritating beach closures could have far more widely-spread effects. Any kind of aquaria – from pools to aquariums to drinking water – could be purified in this fashion. Other non-algae plant life could also be targeted, even pathogens that might otherwise be treated by penicillin.

In fact, with the enzyme now identified, the future of anti-algae efforts may not even rely on a synthetic chemical at all: the only requirement is that the chemical be one which fits as well or better with the lysine enzyme, which we may find occurs in nature. It may be just these kinds of discoveries that enhance our ability to be the stewards of the Earth that our Earth requires.

Economy Politics

Come on, @DandC: Get a Fracking Clue

I flagged this Marist poll earlier this morning. Now it appears that the Rochester @dandc has opted to guilelessly report on the same poll, showing that New Yorkers are “split” on the issue of hydrofracking:

State is split over use of fracking, poll finds | Democrat and Chronicle |

The trouble is: how many people actually know what hydrofracking is and how many does this issue actually affect? My guess is that many of the respondents live somewhere that fracking will almost certainly never occur. How can we expect them to have an informed opinion on an issue that doesn’t affect them? Their opinions matter as a matter of politics, perhaps. But as a matter of substance? Not so much.

Both the original Marist poll and the above-linked article concede that in Upstate, where the fracking plans are most prevalent, fracking appears to be much less popular. Yet they both choose to lead with the less-illuminating title. Why?