As we enter December, preparations for the holiday season are in full swing. For many, these preparations including finding and decorating the perfect Christmas tree. Whether you opt for a real tree or an artificial one, it is good to be mindful of ways you can reduce the environmental impacts of your Christmas tree.
For many families, going to a Christmas tree farm and picking out the perfect tree is a holiday tradition. Initially, it may seem as though cutting down Christmas trees is not an environmentally friendly option. However, Christmas trees are grown on farms for the purpose of being cut. This is similar to how other crops are grown for the purpose of being harvested. Therefore, the environmental impacts are not the same as clear-cutting trees from a forest. Additionally, real Christmas trees can turned into mulch after the holiday season. Recycling the trees allows them to be reused in a way that can positively impact the environment.
While some people prefer real trees for Christmas, others opt for artificial trees. Artificial trees are a convenient option which provide some benefits, such as being affordable and having less environmental impacts than real Christmas trees. While artificial trees may not seem very eco-friendly, they are reuseable and can last many years which minimizes their environmental impact. Many artificial trees come with pre-attached Christmas lights. For these types of trees, looking for trees with LED lights is the more energy efficient and environmentally friendly option. To learn more about other interesting climate-related stories and topics from around the world, be sure to click here!
You’ve probably heard terms like “greenhouse gas” and “greenhouse effect” before. The greenhouse effect and the atmospheric gases that create it are key components of Earth’s climate system. But what does all of this mean, in general and with regards to our changing climate? Let’s start from the bottom. Our atmosphere, the air we breathe every day, is a mix of different gases. Most of the air we breathe is nitrogen (78%), and oxygen (20%), with small amounts of other gases in the mix as well. Some of these gases, like carbon dioxide and methane, are called greenhouse gases and have an effect on Earth’s climate that is far larger than the small percentage of the atmosphere’s composition that they make up. A greenhouse gas is one that traps radiation and heat energy emitted by the Earth’s surface, preventing it from escaping back into space. These gases are so named because the effect they have on our planet is similar to that of a greenhouse that allows plants to be grown in the winter. Just like a greenhouse traps the sun’s energy, keeping the inside of the greenhouse warm enough for plants to grow, greenhouse gases trap the sun’s energy and keep the Earth warm enough for life to exist.
This is why we get the terms “greenhouse gas” and “greenhouse effect”. Without the natural greenhouse effect, Earth would be far too cold for plants, animals, and humans to live here. However, in recent years, we have been increasing the amount of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere and thus increasing the amount of heat that gets trapped on our planet. In the chart below from Climate Central, you can see that none of the ways humans emit greenhouse gases are natural.
By increasing the greenhouse effect far beyond what it would naturally be, humans are causing too much heat to be trapped on our planet, which has thrown the climate system out of balance. The two biggest sources of greenhouse gases are electricity and transportation. Check out options for renewable energy use in your area! Even if you can’t put solar panels on your house, you may be able to make arrangements with your power company to have your electricity come from renewable sources like wind, solar, or hydroelectric power!
DISCUSSION: Just as people across the United States were cleaning up from Thanksgiving 2018, Black Friday of 2018 brought with it the Fourth National Climate Assessment. There is no debate that there is a tremendous amount of information contained within this latest national climate assessment for both the United States and the globe. It is important to establish the fact that climate change affects the entire global and goes well beyond the scope of just the domestic impacts across the contiguous United States. Attached above is a solid summary of what was discussed across a good portion of the Fourth National Climate Assessment and there will most definitely been follow-up discussion on this very important national climate assessment which was most recently released to the general public.
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It is likely 2018 will go down as a year of many weather extremes. These weather extremes came in a variety of forms, from life-threatening wildfires to powerful hurricanes. Hurricane Michael, a Category 4 storm at its peak, unleashed several billion dollar’s worth of damage on the Florida Panhandle and southwest Georgia. Wildfires in the West have wiped entire towns off the map. While it is easy to blame the likelihood and magnitude of these events on the changing climate, it is also important to note how humans, via urbanization, have made these events and ones like them even more extreme.
The notion of urban sprawl affecting climate change was highlighted most recently in a study published in the journal Nature. The study, coined “Urbanization exacerbated the rainfall and flooding caused by Hurricane Harvey in Houston”, used models to recreate Houston without urbanization, and compared pre-urbanized Houston’s rainfall with modern-day Houston’s rainfall. According to the study, the flood risk in Houston was made 21 times more extreme by urbanization.
The researchers who conducted the study found that Houston’s newfound urban sprawl led to more sidewalks, paved roads, and developments, all of which limited the amount of floodwater that was absorbed into the ground. This issue is not unique to Houston, and is likely affecting other flood-prone cities along the Gulf Coast and the Eastern Seaboard. Increased flooding is induced by increased rainfall, which was found in the study to be exacerbated by Houston’s skyscrapers. Gabriele Villarini, a University of Iowa researcher who led the study, told ScienceDaily that friction was created by high winds “buffeting” tall buildings, which led to a “drag effect” that was key for carrying heat higher into the atmosphere. This further amplified rainfall, indicating a correlation between Houston’s urban landscape and the magnitude of hurricane rainfall. Since the study looked solely at Harvey’s effect on Houston, it is important not to attribute every city’s extreme rainfall to the aforementioned causes. Every extreme weather event, and every city, is different. However, this study provided thought-provoking insight into how human development is affecting climate change, and the adaptation and mitigation that needs to take place in the wake of events like Harvey.
The notions of mitigation and adaptation are extremely relevant now, especially as wildfires wreak havoc in California. The Camp Fire in Butte County, California was roughly 55% contained as of the morning of November 17th. According to Cal Fire, the fire has burned nearly 150,000 acres, just 150 miles northeast of the Bay Area. Cities like San Francisco and Oakland recently reported some of the worst air quality in the world, with Oakland, a city of over 400,000 residents, having an Air Quality Index (AQI) of 225 micrograms of particular matter (PM) on November 17th, which is considered “Very Unhealthy” by the EPA’s standards. Under this classification, the most sensitive groups of people (the elderly, the physically ill, and young children) should remain indoors and most others should avoid any physical outdoor activity.
In the case of California, pollution was already an issue. According to the American Lung Association, 7 of the country’s 10 most polluted cities in terms of particulate pollution are in California. The wildfires may just have made it worse, with much of the particles consisting of not just carbon molecules from trees but likely from other vegetation and the burning of infrastructure as well. Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, say that AQI’s of between 200 and 470, which is what has been reported recently in the Bay area, are the equivalent of smoking 10 cigarettes a day. The extreme weather that Houston and Oakland have experienced could be attributed to climate change. Continuous development of urban areas will only compound the issues. It is important to find a solution to these issues, and as quickly as possible. Some research points to the important role that trees play in regulating the environment, and how urban trees may be able to mitigate disaster. A mature tree can absorb upwards of 150kg of Carbon Dioxide per year. The proper placement of trees around buildings (land management) can also lead to more efficient energy usage by reducing the need for air conditioning and heat. While baby steps, if all cities can adopt at least some measures like these, climate-change related issues will be less amplified within cities in the decades to come.
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