From the Editors of E/The Environmental Magazine
Dear EarthTalk: What are these “ocean deserts” I’ve been hearing about? Also, didn’t I read that there was a huge mass of plastic bottles floating around somewhere on the ocean surface?
— Wally Mattson, Eugene, OR
So-called “ocean deserts” or “dead zones” are oxygen-starved (or “hypoxic”) areas of the ocean. They can occur naturally, or be caused by an excess of nitrogen from agricultural fertilizers, sewage effluent and/or emissions from factories, trucks and automobiles. The nitrogen acts as a nutrient that, in turn, triggers an explosion of algae or plankton, which in turn deplete the water’s oxygen.
According to the Ocean Conservancy, a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico—where the Mississippi River dumps untold gallons of polluted water every second—has expanded to over 18,000 square kilometers in the last decade. Many other such dead zones have also undergone rapid expansion in recent years.
A recent study by German oceanographer Lothar Stramma and a team of prominent international researchers confirms this phenomenon and also points the finger at global warming. Their data show that oxygen levels hundreds of feet below the ocean surface have declined over the past 50 years around the world, most likely a result of human activity. And as ocean waters warm due to climate change, they retain less oxygen. Furthermore, warmer upper layers of water stifle the process that brings nutrients up from colder, deeper parts of the ocean to feed a wide range of surface-dwelling marine wildlife.
The expansion of these dead zones is bad news for most marine inhabitants and the ecosystems they thrive in. Thousands of different species already stressed from over fishing and other threats, now must contend with expanding hypoxic areas throughout regions that once constituted healthy habitat.
The accumulation of plastic debris and other trash in the ocean is not necessarily related to hypoxic zones, but is yet another major problem facing the world’s fragile marine ecosystems. California-based sea captain and ocean researcher Charles Moore discovered what is now known as the Eastern Garbage Patch—an aggregation of plastic and other marine debris occupying some 700,000 square kilometers in the North Pacific Ocean—during a crossing of the North Pacific in 1997. In a 2003 article in Natural History Magazine, Moore reported being astounded that he couldn’t be further from land anywhere on Earth yet he could see plastic bags and other debris coating the ocean’s surface as far as the eye could see.
Individuals can help the oceans and their inhabitants by making smart daily choices that can have collective, positive impact. Lowering your carbon footprint—driving less, biking more, donning a sweater instead of turning up the heat—is one way to help stem the spread of hypoxic zones, which is directly related to industrial activity and the amount of greenhouse gases we spew into the atmosphere.
And limiting plastic and plastic bag use is the best way to prevent such litter from ending up swirling around mid-ocean. Some countries, such as China, and many large cities—San Francisco, for example—have banned plastic grocery bags. If your city hasn’t yet taken this step, pressure them to do so—and in the meantime bring your own reusable bags to the market and avoid plastic wherever else you can.
Dear EarthTalk: I’ve followed the trends in “eco-homes” now for many years. Are there equally encouraging things happening in the world of condos? — Charlie Anderson, Seattle, WA
Believe it or not, condominiums may be some of the most environmentally responsible housing out there today, especially since more and more developers are paying attention to sustainability from the get-go.
By their very nature, many condo complexes adhere to some of the most basic tenets of green housing: density, to maximize surrounding open space and minimize buildings’ physical and operational footprints; proximity to mass transit, given their typical location in urban areas; and reduced resource use per unit, thanks to shared systems, walls and common spaces. Builders can elect to layer on other green elements, such as high-efficiency appliances and HVAC systems, green roofs and organic landscaping.
“Projects are embracing green [to] be more responsive to what the buying public is looking for,” says Gail Vittori, chairperson of the U.S. Green Building Council, which produced and manages the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) design and building standards. “They also want to have the built environment become much more in line with environmental and health considerations.”
One example is Florence Lofts, a new development of 12 townhouses and a 4,200 square foot commercial building in downtown Sebastopol, California. The LEED-certified project features a photovoltaic solar system on the roof for hot water and other electrical needs, a commercial scale “gray water” system to divert sink and shower water for irrigation purposes, and a tank that collects storm water from roofs to prevent excessive run-off.
Another example is The Riverhouse overlooking the Hudson River in New York City’s Battery Park district. The LEED-certified, 320-unit building—the new home of actor/environmentalist Leo DiCaprio—has geothermal heating and cooling, twice-filtered air, non-toxic paint, and landscaped roof gardens.
But not all developers need to break the bank to go green on their condo and apartment projects. Two-thirds of the units in Harlem’s much-publicized 1400 Fifth Avenue building—touted as New York’s first green condominium, are considered affordable, priced at $50,000 to $104,000 and restricted to families of moderate income. Also in the New York metropolitan area, Habitat for Humanity recently announced it has assembled a green design team to build “real affordable condos” in New Rochelle and other parts of Westchester County.
“If you’re doing a moderately green building, the premium to build is typically in the 1.5 to two percent range. It’s very small,” says Leanne Tobias of Malachite LLC, a Maryland-based green real estate consulting firm. Additionally, the carrying costs for green units are lower, since such buildings operate on less energy and water and generate less waste than conventional high-rises. “All of those will be savings every month for the homeowners or residents of those buildings,” Vittori adds. “That’s a big plus.”
GOT AN ENVIRONMENTAL QUESTION? Send it to: EarthTalk, c/o E/The Environmental Magazine, P.O. Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881; submit it at: www.emagazine.com/earthtalk/thisweek/, or e-mail: earthtalk [at] emagazine.com. Read past columns at: www.emagazine.com/earthtalk/archives.php.