Posted by: ahowland | 22nd Apr, 2011

Final One

I can’t believe that I am already writing my final blog for this class. It seems like just a few weeks ago I just started writing them. I have learned an incredible amount in this class and refamiliarized myself with a substantial amount too. I truly enjoyed this class and highly recommend it to future students. I definitely wish more classes like this one were taught at Mary Washington when I was an underclassmen and not graduating in two weeks. I really wish I had time to do the sustainability minor, but I am very happy Mary Wash added it for future students to do. I think it will hopefully spread awareness about the many global environmental problems that we learned in this class to students who aren’t even an environmental science major. And yes, while this class was pretty depressing and overwhelming at times, I think it was good to show that there are so many ways to help out the environment since there are so many problems. And we just didn’t talk about the problems over and over but we also discussed ways to solve these problems too, which is an important aspect to focus on-solving them! I really enjoyed this class and am very happy I was able to take before graduating. Thanks for a great class!

Happy Earth Day!!

Posted by: ahowland | 14th Apr, 2011


This week we have focused a lot on biodiversity all over the world. We have talked about Costa Rica’s and the Amazon Rainforest’s tremendous biodiversity, which offer some of the most diverse areas in the world. Costa Rica, whose land area is only 0.03% of the entire planet’s surface, contains some 500,000 species which represent nearly 4% of the total species estimated worldwide. The Amazon Rainforest contains millions of animals, and has about 2.5 million species of insects alone.


Learning about other place’s diversity of plants and animals, we never actually talk about the biodiversity right on our backyard. While Virginia or even the United States cannot compete with the biodiversity in the rainforest, Virginia does contain its fair share of plants and animals. According to LandScope, Virginia contains 2,546 species of plants and 737 species of vertebrates that are native to the state. There is also an estimated 30,000 terrestrial and aquatic invertebrates species living in Virginia as well, although there is no accurate count. Compared to the rest of the United States and the world for overall native species diversity, Virginia ranks 10th for vertebrates and 13th for vascular plants in the US. Virginia also ranks 8th in the US for globally rare animals and 14th for globally rare plants. Another interesting fact is that Virginia also contains a few endemic species, or species that are only found in Virginia. These include nine vertebrate species and five vascular plant species, and a more numerous invertebrate species list. This all is great and shows that we have a pretty diverse state right here in Virginia. This is due to Virginia’s rich range of habitats in it- from the coastal areas to the mountains, and everything in between, the state offers a wide range of different habitats to support a very diverse group of plants and animals.

Posted by: ahowland | 7th Apr, 2011

Pirate Fishing

         Today in class we briefly touched on the subject of pirate fishing, but I think it is something that deserves further spotlight on because it is so bad and not a lot of people know much about it or that it is even occurring. First, pirate fishing is the illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing of the oceans from shallow waters to the deep ocean. Illegal fishing is fishing that occurs in violation of national laws or international obligation, and/or without permission of that State to fish there. Unreported fishing refers to fishing activities that haven’t been reported or are misreported to the State that the fishing occurred in, and unregulated fishing refers to fishing on a boat without a nationality- no flag- or in an area that there is no applicable conservation. These definitions are found on Greenpeace’s website.

Illegal ‘pirate’ fishing from Environmental Justice Foundation on Vimeo.

        Pirate fishing is the scourge of the oceans. It leaves communities without much needed food and income and the marine environment destroyed and empty. For example, the United Nations estimates that Somalia loses roughly $300 million a year to pirate fishing, which is the nation that is hit the hardest by pirate fishing. Globally, more than $4 billion is lost each year to it. This seems like a lot, because there are a lot of illegal fishing vessels: in 2001, Greenpeace estimated there were at least 1,300 industrial scale pirate fishing ships at sea. These 1,300 vessels are capturing thousands of fish, disrupting the fragile sea life and ecosystem. Since pirate fishing occurs “off the radar” pirate fishermen can do pretty much whatever they want, and what they want results in destroying ocean life. “Tuna stocks around Tanzania, Somalia, Papua New Guinea and Tuvalu are targeted each year with giant nets that scoop up entire shoals, including the young fish vital for breeding and future stock growth. Those that won’t make money on the market, but could still provide food and income for others, are thrown back dead” (Greenpeace). They also use longlining, and shrimp trawling. “For every kilo of shrimp landed, over 3 kilos of tropical marine life is caught and dies. Shrimp fishing accounts for between 3 and 4 percent of the world fishing industry, but is responsible for over 27 percent of the unnecessary destruction of marine life” (Greenpeace).
        The people responsible for this: mostly Chinese, European and Latin American companies. This situation is particularly bad in African waters where the developing country can’t afford to police their waters. It is estimated that pirate fishing occurring off the coast of Africa takes nearly 30% of the fish local fishermen could catch. Rich, developed countries can police their waters, but it is very expensive and a lot of times the pirate fishermen try to escape if stumbled upon. For example, in 2003, the Australian navy chased an illegal trawler for 21 days across the Southern ocean when it eventually caught it and found its illegal catch of Patagonian toothfish amounting to over $1 million.
        This illegal fishing isn’t helping anyone. While it may put temporary profit into some people’s pocket, it if continues, pretty soon there won’t be any good fish to catch in the ocean. Already, up to 75% of the world’s fish stocks are fully exploited, which is ridiculously high. But fortunately, pirate fishing is something that can be stopped. Governments can outlaw flags of convenience and police all waters. Pirate fishing is something that needs to be stopped, and there are plenty of organizations such as the Environmental Justice Foundation to help.

Posted by: ahowland | 16th Mar, 2011

Food and Agriculture

Academy Award Nominee for Best Documentary Feature, Food Inc. was an enlightening film showing the behind the scenes of our nation’s food industry, exposing the highly mechanized corporations that have been hidden from the American consumer. It was a very education film that hit a wide range of topics from organic food, the “dollar menu,” diabetes and obesity, genetic engineering, Kevin’s Law, politics, and so much more. Watching the film greatly impacts you, and for me I was not able to eat meat all day after I watched it and I am still struggling with what to eat.  It was very disturbing to watch what exactly they do to the livestock, how they treat and raise them, and the conditions in the slaughterhouse. I was absolutely disgusted. And how the slaughterhouses treat their employees, such as Smithfield Foods, was horrendous. I am shocked that a lot of these places get away with everything they do. Luckily, there are movies such as Food Inc. to inform the average American what really goes on. The film’s website is also a great summary of the movie itself, providing many valuable websites about all the issues the movie touched upon. It provides a comprehensive reading list if you want to read books other people have published about the topic and tells you how you can personally take action and help the cause, such as buying organic or sustainable food with little or no pesticides and eat at home instead of ordering take out or fast food. It really is a great, very informational website.

Another thing I thought was interesting is that this week is National Agricultural Week to celebrate National Agricultural Day- March 15, 2011. National Agricultural Week is about learning about the impact agriculture in America has on our lives and what it gives us each and everyday-from the food we eat to the clothes we wear. The event is hosted in Washington DC, but all over the country it is being celebrated.

Posted by: ahowland | 10th Mar, 2011

Is Ignorance Really Bliss?

In class today we learned about Australia, but before we started talking about the country, Dr. Szulczewski asked us students to make a list of the top five things that come to mind when someone mentions the word “Australia.” Many students said kangaroos, koalas, eucalyptus trees, Steve Irwin, Great Barrier Reefs, the Outback and the like; all rosy, positive things about Australia. But that is not just the case with the country. Australia is suffering from a lot of problems such as invasive species, land clearings, a very long drought, and salinization of the soil, just to name a few. As Dr. Szulczewski mentioned, many Americans (and people around the world) have a very rosy, western outlook about Australia. When people think of Australia, they tend to ignore the problems and just focus on good things there, like the beaches, the coral reefs, and animal life.

A perfect example of this is when Australia is typed into Google, the only pages brought up about the place is tourism, traveling there, and many facts about the place. Nowhere in Google is there anything suggesting the problems Australia is facing if you just type in “Australia”. When you Google Image Australia, the same thing happens, there are pages after pages of pictures of the beaches on Australia, the cities, maps of the place, etc. It isn’t until page three (after 34 pictures) and not again until page 5 (last picture) is there a real photograph about a problem facing Australia: drought. I think then there are only one or two more pictures in 14 pages of images of an environmental problem occurring there (that’s roughly only 4-5 photos of a problem in Australia out of 420 positive pictures). You have to really search if you want to find an image like the ones below.

This is exactly what is wrong with the world today. People have these picturesque mindsets about places all over the world that make it seem like everything is alright, but its not. People hide in their ignorance. It is so easy to ignore the environmental problems of places around the world. But we all live in this planet together, and if one country is struggling and going through environmental degradation problems, there will be a chain reaction and eventually it is going to affect us all. How many other countries are out there struggling with the same or even more complex environmental problems and we Americans simply don’t even know about it because we tend to paint rosy pictures about those places, when that is not the case. It isn’t okay to hide in ignorant bliss when the planet is rapidly degrading. It is time to look past our picturesque outlook about certain countries in the world such as Australia and recognize that there are many problems facing every part of the world today.

Posted by: ahowland | 24th Feb, 2011

Life Goes On

In this class we have talked a lot about the destruction and degradation of the environment by humans all over the world. From deforestation, wetland destruction, sea level rise, temperature change, more extreme storms, and so much more, its hard not to get depressed and wonder is there anything good occurring in the environment anymore?? But then a new video comes online from places such as that show two polar bear cubs who have left their den for the first time since being born and take their first steps out into the Arctic ice. Most adorable thing ever. It really shows that life, no matter what, goes on. Even with the sea ice melting and it being harder than ever for polar bears to find food, videos like this show that they survive. (If you want to watch the video again, click here).

Polar bear mother and cub

New offspring are being born all the time and BBC Earth’s website has created a great webpage based on their theme for this month: New. They show their theme through clips and pictures about new offspring and new life. Unfortunately, I cannot attach the main video that summarizes this, but you should definitely check it out on the website at:, and click Get Stared once it loads. It shows another adorable video about new offspring all over the world, and you click the sides to explore and see more animals. It’s for these exact videos that show us what’s out there in nature that we need to hold on to. With so much bad and destruction of the environment going on, there is still so much life and good out in nature. It’s this exact reason why humans shouldn’t give up hope. Yes it is true that we have already drastically increased greenhouse gas emissions and speed up climate change, and some things are going to occur as a result of human actions that we can’t stop since they have already been put in motion such as rising temperatures and sea levels, but it doesn’t mean we should stop trying. There are still a lot of things humans can do to prevent further climate change, more greenhouse gas emissions, and more bad effects. And with videos and pictures such as those on the website above, it inspires us to keep fighting for saving the environment and ensuring that life goes on.

Posted by: ahowland | 17th Feb, 2011

Co-curricular Activity: Get the Dirt Out

            On February 9, 2011, the Friends of the Rappahannock gave a presentation talking about construction sites. Construction sites can potentially be very damaging to the environment. They move the soil all around and without proper practices, the soil runs off into the environment through stormwater runoff. Stormwater runoff pollutes the environment, increasing the amount of sediment in waterways and is quickly becoming a leading environmental problem in Virginia. From the construction sites, stormwater runoff can also produce erosion, sheet erosion, rill erosion, gully erosion, and a less stable ground. However, in Virginia, there are two programs to control construction site erosion. They are the ETS program, which gives construction managers detailed steps to follow with a minimum of 19 standards to follow and lists Best Management Practices (BMP) to limit pollution. The other program is the State General Program. This program also gives detailed steps to follow, lists BMPs to limit pollution, standards to follow, and for them to certify SWPPP.

            The Friends of the Rappahannock also included 9 general Best Management Practices for construction sites to follow in their presentation. The BMPs are first Construction Entrances and they say that huge stones should be present at the entrance of the site with a stone pad under it laid with a filter cloth and for them to clean mud off the tires so the dirt doesn’t get onto the streets. Second is Disturbed Area Stabilization which protects erosion from occurring from rain by planting grasses or laying down mulch. The third BMP is Perimeter Controls which slows down sheet flows and prevents sediment from leaving the construction site through things such as silt fences. Fourth is Inlet Protection which prevents sediment-laden water from entering drain systems through laying down curb inlets and screens. Fifth is Outlet Protection which is like the fourth BMP but for drains. The sixth and seventh BMPs are Sediment Basins and Sediment Traps, both of which is a temporary pond area to trap polluted sediment filled water and let it settle down to the bottom of the pond. The eighth BMP is Diversion Dikes to intercept water flow and lastly the ninth BMP is Sediment Stockpiles which holds soil so it can be reused.

            The presentation ended with them saying how important it is to make sure construction sites are following the BMPs and that anyone can evaluate a site if they know what to look for. They said that “With limited resources and time, we must focus regulatory attention on violators who are impacting the environment the most.” While some construction sites are bigger violators than others, it is still important to pay attention to very site, and ordinary people can help do that. Every single person can get involved and help restore Virginia’s waterways.

            I thought that this was an excellent presentation. It was very informative, and with the provided pictures in the slideshow and in the brochure, everyone who attended the presentation knows exactly what to look for at construction sites. It is easy to tell what is a good management practice and what is a bad one. And I think that the website they gave us where you can send pictures in of poor construction sites and the date is a great idea. It allows ordinary citizens who care about protecting our environment to get involved and help out without feeling like they are getting in over their head. As the presenter said, I can’t help but now look at all construction sites I pass and look at their practices. The entire time I was listening to him, I kept thinking about our own construction site on campus where the new building is being built next to Jepson. Every time I walk by that place, I look at it taking in all the management practices enforced to prevent erosion. Through this very interesting and educational talk I am now aware of potential erosion dangers at construction sites, which is something I’ve never thought about before. I believe more talks such as this one need to be done and in more locations because how can we protect our environment if no one knows how to do it. I greatly enjoyed this presentation and was very glad I attended it.

If you are interested in this topic but weren’t able to attend the presentation, here’s the website for the program Get the Dirt Out:

Posted by: ahowland | 15th Feb, 2011

Living on Wetlands

Wetlands are a fundamental part of the environment. They provide many essential services and benefits to both humans and the environment. For instance, wetlands actually clean water that comes through it and they are used in many locations alongside wastewater treatment plants. They also act like a buffer against raging waters since they can absorb a lot of incoming water that hits them and prevent flooding; they also can store excess water for long periods of time, provide many recreational uses, and are home to 1/3 of endangered species. Wetlands are an integral part of the environment and humans are destroying them by draining them and/or converting them to other uses. In the 1600s, over 220 million acres of wetlands existed in the contiguous US. Since then, the US has got rid of over half of all of its wetlands. In 1954-1974 the US lost roughly 458,000 acres of wetlands, the worst in its history. A lot of places have been built on converted wetlands, removing their important benefits from that area (storm surge protection decreases, groundwater decreases, shoreline erosion, and increased flooding and erosion are all effects of wetland loss) and the disaster of Katrina in Louisiana definitely shows how much wetland loss effects us. Places like that all over the world are losing wetlands to keep up with the growing population. In fact, part my own neighborhood in Richmond, Virginia was built on a small wetland. Off to the side of my neighborhood, part of the wetland remains intact where it was too swampy to build on. But my own house is on top of the wetland, and you can definitely tell it’s a wetland because when it rains, it stays wet forever in my backyard. Learning everything that I have about wetlands and the environment in college has shocked me to realize that I actually live on one. Like everything else, humans have taken advantage of the environment and destroyed millions of acres and ecosystems for their own profit. But I am very happy to say that we have at least learned better than to keep draining wetlands. Not only has the US stopped draining wetlands but we have actually restored some of them and are now at a rate of gaining wetlands instead of losing them. Videos such as this help inform people about wetland’s useful effects and show that wetland restoration is a success. This just shows that we can indeed learn from our mistakes in the past and fix things, restoring them to their former potential.

Posted by: ahowland | 3rd Feb, 2011

The Tragic Tale of the Aral Sea

The Shrinking of the Aral Sea

This week in class, we have learned a lot of ways humans have degraded the environment and really, just plain completely messed it up. Take for instance the Aral Sea. The Aral Sea used to be the 4th largest sea in the entire world. Now it is completely dwarfed by the Caspian Sea and has lost 80% of its water. Why might you ask? The answer is simple: Humans. In the early 1960s when the Soviet Union owned the entire area, including the Aral Sea, the Soviet government decided to divert the two rivers that feed the Aral Sea, the Amu Darya in the south and the Syr Darya in the northeast. The diverted rivers were feed into the desert to irrigate it so the area could grow cash crops, particularly cotton (“white gold”) and rice. And it worked; today Uzbekistan is one of the world’s largest exporters of cotton. However, the price for the crops was steep. By the late 1960s, the Aral Sea began to shrink. In 1964, the sea received 50 km3 of water each year with 60,000 people working in fisheries and canning industries supported by the large fish population in the sea; by 1897, there was 0 flow into the sea and by 2000, there was 0 fish and 0 people making a living off the sea. It decimated people jobs and lives.

Another factor that resulted from the shrinking sea is that the sea receded, it exposed the dried lake bed underneath with sediment that contained chemicals such as fertilizers and pesticides. As the wind swept through the area, it picked up these chemicals and spread them throughout the entire area and also the globe. Chemicals from the Aral Sea’s dried up sea bed has been traced as far as Antarctica in penguin’s blood. Antarctica! Which is utterly shocking. We are harming poor penguin’s lives and not to mention countless other species.

A lot of Americans scoff this off, thinking it’s not going to affect us at all since we live in a powerful, developed country. But they should be worried because it is happening right here in America too. The Great Salt Lake in Utah as already shrunk some as well as Lake Mead in California. Water is going to become a very serious problem in the future, and its time we start fixing these problems and prepare for the future.
(Picture from:

Posted by: ahowland | 27th Jan, 2011

Easter’s Parallel

Throughout the first couple weeks of the new semester, we have been reading the book Collapse, but Jared Diamond. It is a very interesting book that fascinatingly talks about the collapse of previous civilizations throughout the world. All of the civilizations have collapsed basically as a result of environmental degradation such as the overexploitation of resources (i.e. deforestation). Once the environment collapses, the entire civilization soon collapses as well, turning on each other and their leaders. This eventually leads to cannibalism and then decimation of the entire civilization. Reading about this is very tragic, and really makes you think about our current world. One of the main themes of Collapse that has really stuck with me is the fact that every failed civilization Diamond writes about, he parallels it to our modern life and world. For instance, take Easter Island. In their prime, Easter Island was a thriving civilization that carved huge statues to worship their gods. However, after centuries of being on the island, the people started straining the natural resources, and eventually they had completely deforested the entire island, and killed the huge bird and fish population. Without many resources to live on, the islander’s world collapsed, and being on an extremely remote island, they had no where to run to, and eventually all died (but a few). Diamond relates Easter’s civilization to us on Earth by saying through globalization and the Internet, etc., the entire world is connected to each other on the large earth, just as Easter’s clans were connected to each other by being on the same small island. When the islanders got in trouble, they had nowhere to turn or no one to turn to, just as we modern “Earthlings” have no place to escape either. Once we completely destroy Earth by overexploitation, deforestation, and pollution, we have no where to turn to for aid, which in my opinion is pretty scary and true.


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