Alex Palmer's Natural History Notes and Thoughts

Thoughts and reflections on various social and environmental issues, as well as naturalist observations from the great outdoors.

Monthly Archives: February 2012

So that’s why people are here

Sometimes I just can’t figure out why people would want to live around the Hampton Roads area of Virginia (Portsmouth, Chesapeake, Suffolk, Norfolk, Hampton, Newport News, and Virginia Beach).  The region has a high unemployment rate, lots of crime, and is severely overdeveloped.  There really aren’t many areas with quality nightlife, music , or food, and there is a lot of noise and excess light coming from the dozens of military, navy, and airforce bases located within the region.

The reason why people are here though, and why they keep coming, is quickly revealed by the broad, sandy beaches along the Atlantic Coast and the Chesapeake Bay. We all use and abuse natural resources in different ways, but the idea is still the same:  We are here  because of the natural resources that surround us.

View of the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay as seen from the beach at First Landing State Park in Virginia Beach, VA. February 2012.


Using Google Earth To Estimate Shoreline Trash

About once a week, I do a routine trash pick-up along my parent’s shoreline, which is along a tidal basin of the Chesapeake Bay.  On average, I pick up one full 13 gallon trash bag’s worth of garbage.  I then wondered how much garbage was along the  shores of my neighborhood on any one day per week.  Knowing this information would provide me with a scope of how much trash needs to pick up along the shore in the urbanized, low-income section of town I am in.

I figured the best way to do this would be to measure the length of the shoreline of where i do my routine trash  pick-up, and then assuming that distance would equal one 13-gallon trash bag’s worth of trash.

Clearly, though, I would first need to measure the length of my routine trash-pickup route, and then I would need to find the total length of shoreline on the respective tidal basin.  How the heck am I going to do that?

Well, I could start by getting a looong tape measure, pickle myself on thorny vines, and trespass on people’s lawns.  Once I had that measurement, I could look at a street map of my neighborhood and try to match that distance I measured with the scale and projection on that map.

Or I could just use Google Earth.

Google Earth is a virtual globe software that can give details information about the surface of the Earth, including features (attributes) such as distance, land cover type, tourist locations, roads, etc.  Unlike a manual globe, Google Earth can zoom down to nearly any point on our planet…including my parents’ shoreline, and features can be measured (such as the length of my parent’s shoreline) or analyzed in some other fashion (e.g. proximity to grocery stores, national parks, etc.).  Best of all this program is available free of charge to anyone who has a desktop computer.  Figure 1 Shows a screenshot of the Google Earth globe as it would appear if you opened the program on your home or work computer.

Figure 1: The Google Earth software as it should appear on a person's home or work computer.

How to use this program and everything it can do is beyond the scope of this blog post, so for now let me show you how I am going to use this software to estimate how much trash is along the shoreline of my parent’s tidal basin so that I can know how much work needs to be done to clean things up!

First, let me zoom in to where the shoreline is:

Figure 2: Google Earth imagery of my parent's tidal basin, with the town home complex's shoreline outlined in red.

The truth is, I am only regularly picking up trash along a small segment of that red line shown in Figure 2, so I therefore plan to only measure the area of shoreline outlined in blue in Figure 3:

Figure 3: The blue line better represents the area of shoreline where I do my routine trash pick-up.

So how long is this line, then?  Using Google Earth, I can measure the true length (distance) of any location on the earth’s surface by using the “ruler” button on the toolbar above the satellite image.  I can also choose any measurement units I want.  In this case, I’ll choose feet.  Here we go:

Figure 4: I used the "ruler" tool (circled in red) to measure the distance of my parent's shoreline (outlined in yellow), which resulted in a length of about 584 feet.

The total length of the shoreline that I do a routine trash-pickup on is about 384 feet, as shown in Figure 4.

Now let’s measure the total length of the shoreline of the tidal basin.

Figure 5: The total length of the shoreline of the tidal basin that parent's live along is about 5,296 feet, as measured using the "ruler" tool in Google Earth.

The result is that the total length of the tidal basin that my parents live along is about 5,296 feet.

Since I’m assuming that 584 feet of shoreline accumulates 1 thirteen-gallon trash bag’s worth of garbage, then I can assume that the shoreline along the tidal basin outlined in Figure 5 produces about 9 bags of garbage per week:

5,296 feet/584 feet ~ 9 thirteen-gallon trash bags per week

Yikes!  There’s work to be done!  I can thank Google Earth for providing me a quick and ready tool to plan what work needs to be done, where, and how much.

See you along the shore!

Oh waaaay up there: The northern breeding range of the Brown Pelican

People generally know Brown Pelicans (Pelecanus occidentalis) as large shore birds distinctive of the humid subtropical Gulf of Mexico Coast or of palm-lined California beaches.  In fact, however, there are active nesting colonies as far north as Virginia, and pelicans have been found breeding now close to the Maryland-Delaware border.  These large fish-eating birds can be seen skimming the shoreline for fish and prominently displaying their  incredible 8 foot wingspan.  The photo below is of two Brown Pelicans flying low along the Oceanview Beach in Norfolk, Virginia on a sunny and unusually warm January afternoon.

House-hold cleaners: My not-as-authoritative-as-you-would-think recommendations

When I tell friends and family members that I work in the environmental field, they sometimes start asking me questions about solar panels, or what is the latest fuel-efficient car, or which bath products are the best.  While I do know a lot about these subjects, I am by no means an expert in this department.  Yes, I consider myself an environmentalist, but my interests fall in line much more with natural history and ecology than green consumerism and energy.

That being said, I’d like to offer my recommendations for one area of day-to-day living:  household cleaning.

You may hear about or notice yuppies and overly liberal college students brag about buying expensive organic soap from the co-op, or by well-intentioned shoppers buying the latest Wal-Mart brand “green” dish detergent made with “natural, plant-based” products.  Perhaps you’ve seen the laundry isle in the grocery store packed with new “ecofriendly” soaps in a fancy new bottle that use”15% less plastic,” or whatever new product seems to come at you with dazzling colors and sentimental statements.

While these new and innovative products are well…new and innovative, I would rather you just stick with the good old-fashioned American household cleaning products.  The following list is of cleaning products that are tried and true, and most of them are even biodegradable:

  • Dawn dishwashing liquid.  Free of phosphates (which can harm aquatic ecosystems), this is by far the best dishwashing liquid out there.  Be sure to only use a small drop or two.  A little goes a long way, and you also don’t want to waste anything!
  • Dr. Bronner’s Soap.  Made with mostly organic and fair trade ingredients,  this highly versatile castile soap can be used as a shampoo, body wash, dishwashing liquid (a good eco-friendly alternative to Dawn), laundry detergent, and hand soap.  It is also gentle on the skin and has a universally agreeable fragrance of either peppermint oil or lavender oil.  Again, only use a small drop or two, as this product is VERY concentrated.  It also has a very nice lather, despite the fact that it appears thin and watery when pouring it out of the bottle.  Dr. Bronner’s soap is also great for taking on camping trips, as it is fully biodegradable within a year.
  • Windex.  You should not need any other cleaning solution for your windows.  End of story.  Store brands are an acceptable alternative.
  • Vinegar.  It might sound better in salad dressing and smell better mixed with Italian herbs, but pure distilled vinegar is perhaps one of the best household cleaning solutions out there…and it is of course one of the most ecofriendly.  If you have polished wood floors or other sensitive surfaces, use vinegar to clean them.
  • Tide laundry detergent.  It works the best, but use it sparingly!  This product contains a lot of chemicals.  There is, however, a “clear and free” variety out now that works just as well but forgoes many of the harsh dyes and fragrances that can harm people’s skin and pollute the environment.
  • Murphy’s Oil Soap.  A classic for cleaning floors, this product is mostly plant-based (rather than petroleum-based), and is even biodegradable within a few short years.

This really, from an environmental perspective, is all the average American needs to clean their house.  That being said, the next time you go to Walgreens or wherever else you are going to see a plethora of soaps, detergents, and other household cleaning solutions.  Avoid buying them altogether…and hold on to your wallet before you buy $20 organic laundry detergent that works almost as well as water from the creek behind your house.  The options I have provided are low-cost and if used carefully, will not damage the environment on any meaningful scale.

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