Guizhou (Only A Month Late)

I know I’m late but…

At the end of March I went back to China, only this time the Tufts group travelled to Guiyang, the capital of Guizhou province. And while I had been to Beijing and Shanghai a month earlier, somehow this was more ‘real’ China than before. I thought that because I had already been to China that culture shock would not be so bad, but it was still a slap in the face. One of the poorer regions of China, poverty is a lot more visible than Beijing.  

We were part of a tour group, with the Tufts students taking up 80% of the spots; I feel bad for the few other women who were stuck with the loud Americans. Our tour guide did not speak english, but for some reason we still had to pay her. I would’ve liked to have known what I was looking at as we drove through the countryside but most of the time I just ended up sleeping. The first day we drove 3 hours out to a government-sponsored minority village, which was uncomfortable at times. The first thing we saw was rows of older women dancing; or rather shuffling their feet to the dissonant, spine-tingling music being produced by some kind of devilish chinese violin. I honestly thought one of the women was going to cry, the look on her face was so upsetting. Luckily, we quickly moved on.

just casually hammering some dough

just casually hammering some dough

Next we saw a show, where chinese singers and musicians acted out, as far as I could tell, the story of a drunken feast. Well, turns out that is a common event here, as we were ushered into a local home (super cool) and promptly forced to drink some rice wine with our lunch. The women working (living?) there literally brought the cup up to your mouth and if you didn’t open up they probably would’ve poured it down your chin. My friend and I, trying to avoid these mandatory noontime shots, finished ours before they had worked down the table. Our hosts were undeterred however, and simply refilled our cups and made us drink anyway. Oh well.

Inside a local home

Inside a local home

We walked up to the top of this village to a pretty unbelievable view; the mountains in this region are surreal. On the way up we passed a elderly lady strolling down the hill with her arms behind her back. When we looked back, my friends and I swore she was holding a submachine gun behind her back. We were too far away to tell if it was real, but I wasn’t about to find out. Only in China.

Village

The Village From the Top

The Village

The Village

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

At night back at the hotel we went to the grocery store to grab some beers and stumbled upon these gems:

PBR World War II Veteran Edition Beer

PBR World War II Veteran Edition Beer

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Yes, those are PBR cans commemorating the American Veterans in WWII. Again, only in China. The next day we drove (only 2 hours this time) to walk through what I’m convinced was Jurassic Park. It was this awesome park with 365 steps (1 for each day of the year) across the water through spires of rock and giant ferns.

If I were a dinosaur, I'd live here

If I were a dinosaur, I’d live here

Next we visited Huangguoshu Waterfall, a 255-foot tall cascade with an awesome cave where you can basically walk underneath the thundering curtain of water. Again, surreal is about the only way I can describe it.

looking out from the cave

looking out from the cave

Huangguoshu Falls

Huangguoshu Falls

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A few other oddities during the trip:

– Immediately after exiting the airport, Vera wasted no time in telling us where we could buy some dog meat. I looked for dog jerky as a souvenir but no luck.

– Everyone smokes cigarettes, everywhere. In the elevator, at the restaurants, in the hotel lobby. Even at 7 am during breakfast people were smoking cigarettes. Yum!

– I received a fortune cookie said, “You will have further progress in your career.” Still waiting for that one to pan out…

– In general, bathrooms are a bit of an adventure, and half of the time you are standing or squatting in a puddle of well…something. A lot of the time I felt better not washing my hands (yes, that bad).

It was a short trip, but pretty eye-opening and based on the looks people were giving us, not many westerners get to this part of China. I consider myself privileged to see how ‘real’ China operates. Plus not so bad when the view outside the bus window consistently looked like this:

typical geography

typical geography

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Don’t know if I’ll ever be back to China, but I won’t forget it.

When My Education And Real Life Collide

Last semester I took a course called “Environmental Preservation and Improvement”, an upper-level seminar where every week students gave presentations on current environmental topics. It was an awesome class, and it excited me so much that I got a little over-ambitious and said that I would provide a brief recap of the presentations given every week. Unfortunately, real life interfered and I only managed to summarize the first presentation about geoengineering and then one of my own presentations on colony collapse disorder.

In the course of that research, I basically came to the conclusion that the culprit at the bottom of all these interacting factors is the use of systemic pesticides, specifically neonicotinoids, on the crops honeybees pollinate (refer to the older post for details).

That was back in October. Almost six months later and the New York Times recently came out with this article and corresponding video (below), which says, in so many words, that growing evidence is pointing to systemic pesticides as the primary cause in colony collapse disorder.

Was I the first person to make this connection? Of course not. Nor has it been determined what exactly is causing CCD. But it’s always rewarding and exciting to see work that I’ve done in class being discussed out in the real world, and it only gets me more psyched to continue learning.

Hong Kong

10 days ago I debarked a plane, bleary-eyed from spending 16 continuous hours trapped inside a metal tube that managed to be impressively large and sufficiently cramped at the same time. I had lost an entire day of my life, thanks to the mechanisms by which our earth rotates the sun. Yet that one lost day suddenly paled in comparison to the realization that I would spend the next 5 and a half months of my life in the place I had just arrived: Hong Kong.

Part of the reason it has taken me so long to sit down and write since I’ve arrived here is that for almost a year, the concept of studying abroad in HK was no more than a vague abstraction, a small speck on the horizon that I felt I would never actually get to. Perhaps that is why since moving into my dorm not a morning has gone by where I haven’t awoke with the sudden realization that this is indeed my current reality.

If I try really hard, sometimes I can convince myself I’m back in my room in Somerville, or even in a dorm room of a friend. But then I get out of bed and the view out my window (below) shatters any illusions that remain.

View from my WindowThis is not to say that I am unhappy. On the contrary, when I look out that window every morning, I cannot help but feel a smile creep onto my face as I shake my head in wonder. And I don’t think these feelings of awe will diminish any time in the near future.

Friends and family back home have asked me to describe Hong Kong. Well frankly, that is impossible. Even pictures, which I might even argue is my preferred medium of communicating the true nature of a place, cannot do HK justice. Sadly, this response does not please anyone, so I had to come up with something.

If you can imagine the tallest buildings in New York City, shoved them closer together on the side of a mountain that rises out of the ocean, and replaced the tidy grid of streets with raised highways and curving, circuitous roads filled with taxis, buses, mopeds, and 7 million people rushing around as fast as they can, you’re getting close. But you’re still missing the dull groan of traffic, the background ticking of the crosswalks that overlap each other to create syncopated city music, and the ever-present grinding of construction. Then there are are the medley of smells that will assault, if not overpower your nose. Many will make you stop and look around desperately for the source, trying to remember it for the next meal. Just as often you will cringe in horror as your eyes water and you swear you’ll never smell anything again.

Sometimes you turn a corner and there is a hill rising straight up into the sky with stairs so steep you don’t know why they even bothered. Random patches of overgrown vegetation and bamboo are common, and trees grow sideways between the buildings that threaten to block out the mountains. Mercedes, Ferraris, BMW’s and Porsches zoom around the minibuses. Old ladies walk tiny pomeranians and other floofy dogs down the crowded streets. On every corner someone is selling something they claim came from the ocean but you can’t figure out why anyone would want to put it anywhere near their mouth.

And even if you can imagine all that, you’re still not here.

There is much more for me to discuss, like elevator and escalator culture, the fact that people here might be more materialistic than in the U.S (at least some of them), struggling with chopsticks, and the memory-sucking blackhole that is LKF. Oh yeah and Hong Kong University, where I’m supposed to be studying for the semester…

Stay tuned.

GIS

This semester I was enrolled in the Intro to GIS class at Tufts, the first time it was offerred to the undergraduate population. What is GIS, you may ask? GIS stands for Geographical Information System, which allows one to question, interpret, analyze, and understand data and relationships in a visual or spatial manner. More simply, GIS allows one to create maps and analyze trends on a spatial scale. For example it can be as simple as mapping the peaks hiked in New Hampshire (figure 1 in gallery), or as complicated as determining the best location for a hydroelectric dam.

During the semester we were given multiple assignments that were designed to teach us different skills in ArcMap (a GIS program), including using vector and raster data, suitability analysis, interpolation, using census data, and much more. The semester culminated in a self-designed final project that really forced us to consider what problems needed to be solved, how to solve them, and how to work around the different obstacles that arose. While frustrating and sometimes extremely time-consuming, learning to use ArcMap is a skill I am very grateful to have developed.

I’ve included the maps from my assignments below, as well as my final project and poster (Designing a poster is way more difficult than one would think). Below is the introduction to my final project:

Recent developments in the availability of fossil fuels have led researchers and scientists to explore new methods of extracting natural gas from the earth. One of these new techniques is hydraulic fracturing (fracking), where large quantities of water, sand, and chemicals are pumped into horizontal wells to open up cracks in the earth and extract the gas. This technique now allows companies to access gas reserves that were previously inaccessible. Some of the richest resources for fracking exist in the Marcellus Shale formation, which covers most of western Pennsylvania. As of 2010, the Marcellus Shale portion of Pennsylvania had 71,000 active gas wells, with projections of over 60,000 wells being built in the next 30 years. The rapid expansion of fracking has faced strong opposition for multiple reasons, including the possibility of contaminating groundwater or surface water with methane and radioactive wastewater. My goal was to determine areas that would be particularly vulnerable to this type of contamination, specifically places of high human population. I focused on Allegheny County in Pennsylvania because of it’s location within the Marcellus Shale formation andbecause it is the second most populous county in the state.

With this in mind, my project involved a vulnerability analysis, which can also be thought of as a reverse suitability analysis. The objective was to determine areas where fracking sites were most likely to contaminate water sources close to large population centers. To do this, several factors were considered including population, water bodies (lakes and rivers), reservoirs, fracking wells, and public water sources such as groundwater withdrawal. Each variable was given a ranking or score and I used the buffer tool to create and find the areas of overlap between the variables. By calculating which areas had the highest total score based on the score of each variable, I was able to show the most at risk areas for water contamination given these constraints.

Geoengineering

What is geoengineering you might ask? Well depends who you’re asking. Some call it climate intervention, others remediation. The bottom line, however, is that geoengineering is deliberate human intervention on a global scale to mitigate the effects of climate change. There are multiple techniques of geoengineering, I will cover two here.

First is Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR), which is pretty much exactly what it sounds like. The strategy is to remove CO2 from the atmosphere and store it somewhere else. This is called sequestering. There are a couple options when it comes to CDR. The most logical and low-risk is to make a fundamental change in land use management. Trees naturally remove CO2 from the atmosphere, so if communities around the world gave preference to trees over development, we could take back some of the carbon dioxide we’ve released into the atmosphere. Sadly, it’s not that simple. First of all, trees take a long time to grow, and people are impatient. Additionally, in capitalistic societies (like the U.S) trees don’t make you rich, building more factories and developing real estate does.

The next type of CDR is air capture. This is the idea that we could build machines that extract CO2 from the atmosphere and then store it. Direct air capture has been proven to work effectively, taking in “dirty” air and pumping out “clean” air, but once again the story isn’t so simple. These machines would have to be huge. Like, ridiculously huge and unsightly (see below). Not to mention that they will use equally large amounts of energy, contributing to the related problem of energy usage.

There are many other suggested techniques of CDR, including biochar, and carbon capture storage, but I’m trying to keep this compact.

After CDR there is Ocean Iron Fertilization, an interesting idea first formed by John Martin that takes advantage of the natural system of the biological pump found in our oceans. The strategy is as follows: The ocean is filled with phytoplankton, which are tiny marine organisms that use photosynthesis to take in CO2 from the water (which is absorbed from the air) and break it down. The ability of phytoplankton to grow larger and break down CO2 is limited by iron, a mineral that arrives to the ocean as fine dust particles. Studies of arctic ice cores have shown that there is an inverse relationship between iron dust and CO2 in the atmosphere, leading scientists to believe that when there is more iron abundant in the oceans, phytoplankton bloom mightily and remove a fair amount of CO2 from the global atmosphere. So, scientists have gotten it in their head that if they dumped a whole bunch of iron in the oceans, they could trigger phytoplankton growth and subsequent CO2 removal. Seem to simple to be true? That’s cause it is. A few of these experiments have been carried out with very limited success. Plus there’s the issue that iron doesn’t just grow on trees, nor is it cheap to ship it to the middle of the ocean And thirdly, although the ocean is the largest sink of Carbon on our planet, it eventually releases it back into the atmosphere, making ocean fertilization a temporary fix.

There are other geoengineering techniques such as solar radiation management and stratospheric sulfate aerosols. All of these actions have their own benefits and each have serious drawbacks and potential consequences attached to them. I’ve mentioned some here, but this is a surface explanation, there are components which I have excluded for simplicity and brevity. In my opinion, these techniques should be approached with serious caution, because they are all reactionary, not preventative. If we allow the general public to believe that these technologies will solve the problems currently affecting Earth, it will be tragic. We need to continue to develop ideas to stop global warming in the first place, and maybe then geoengineering can be used as a complement. It is also important to note that these technologies would not spring up overnight – they require extensive planning, funds, and cooperation from many disciplines and governing bodies. Lastly, I just do not like the idea of man trying to tinker with global forces. When will we learn that the forces of nature are much stronger than us?

Environmental Preservation and Improvement

I’m currently taking a seminar class at Tufts called Environmental Preservation and Improvement taught by Professor George Ellmore. The class is unique in that we only meet once a week (albeit for 2.5 hours) and every week there are one or two student presentations on an environmental topic. As a student you present twice a semester, and when you’re not presenting you’re reading an article regarding that week’s presentation and engaging in discussion about the topic. So far I’m really enjoying the class because every week I come away with a plethora of knowledge about a new topic and the confidence to talk about it. For me, it’s a much more effective learning technique than sitting in a classroom trying to stay awake through a powerpoint lecture. To further my learning experience, I’m going to try to post a summary of as many of the topics as possible, so even if no one else reads it at least I’m able to reinforce what I’ve learned. So first up is the topic of geoengineering, which I’ll post shortly.