Every year, as we approach Earth Day, it's good to remember, and good to consider, this magical aggregate of dust upon which we all survive:
- This Woman Paddled 730 miles up the Green River - to save our water systems.
I’m paddling the length of the river, to try and understand that risk, my own and other people’s, and to see, from river level, what we could stand to lose if we don’t change how we use and allocate water. “Throughout the whole last century, if you needed more water it always worked out somehow, but it doesn’t work when you get to the point where you’re storing every last drop,” Doug Kenney, Director of the Western Water Policy program at the University of Colorado, tells me before I set out on the river. “You have to talk people through it, and explain that for every new reservoir you try and fill you’re putting more stress on the other parts of the system. Things are changing and we should behave in a way that limits our risk.”
- Letter From a Drowned Canyon
On a map, Glen Canyon before its submersion looks like a centipede: a 200-mile-long central canyon bending and twisting with a host of little canyons like legs on either side. Those side canyons were sometimes hundreds of feet deep; some were so cramped you could touch both walls with your outstretched hands; some had year-round running water in them or potholes that explorers had to swim across. Sometimes in the cool shade of side-canyon ledges and crevices, ferns and other moisture-loving plants made hanging gardens. Even the names of these places are beautiful: Forbidding Canyon, Face Canyon, Dove Canyon, Red Canyon, Twilight Canyon, Balanced Rock Canyon, Ribbon Canyon. Like Dungeon Canyon, they are now mostly underwater.
When the Sierra Club pronounced Glen Canyon dead in 1963, the organization’s leaders expected it to stay dead under Lake Powell. But this old world is re-emerging, and its fate is being debated again. The future we foresee is often not the one we get, and Lake Powell is shriveling, thanks to more water consumption and less water supply than anyone anticipated. Beneath it lies not just canyons but spires, crests, labyrinths of sandstone, Anasazi ruins, petroglyphs, and burial sites, an intricate complexity hidden by water, depth lost in surface. The uninvited guest, the unanticipated disaster, reducing rainfall and snowmelt and increasing drought and evaporation in the Southwest, is climate change.
- How the Flint River got so toxic
Why did Flint’s river pose so many problems? Before processing, the water itself is polluted from four sources: natural biological waste; treated industrial and human waste; untreated waste intentionally or accidentally dumped into the river; and contaminants washed into the river by rain or snow. The river is also warmer than Lake Huron, and its flow is less constant, particularly in the summer. All of this raises levels of bacteria and organic matter and introduces a wide range of other potential contaminants, whether natural or human-made.
In fact, while the Flint River had been improving thanks to the new regulations, the departure of heavy industry, and local cleanup efforts, it had long been known as an exceptionally polluted river. Until very recently, it had been repeatedly ruled out as a primary source for the city’s drinking water. It is hard to imagine why anyone familiar with the river’s history would ever decide to use it even as a temporary water source. But they did.
- Looking Again at the Chernobyl Disaster
A neglected step caused the reactor’s power to plunge, and frantic attempts to revive it created an unexpected power surge. Poorly trained operators panicked. An explosion of hydrogen and oxygen sent Elena into the air “like a flipped coin” and destroyed the reactor. Operators vainly tried to stop a meltdown by planning to shove control rods in by hand. Escaping radiation shot a pillar of blue-white phosphorescent light into the air.
The explosion occurs less than 100 pages into this 366-page book (plus more than 100 pages of notes, glossary, cast of characters and explanation of radiation units). But what follows is equally gripping. Radio-controlled repair bulldozers became stuck in the rubble. Exposure to radiation made voices grow high and squeaky. A dying man whispered to his nurse to step back because he was too radioactive. A workman’s radioactive shoe was the first sign in Sweden of a nuclear accident 1,000 miles upwind. Soviet bigwigs entered the area with high-tech dosimeters they didn’t know how to turn on. Investigations blamed the accident on six tweakers, portrayed them as “hooligans” and convicted them.