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Road Salt + Hubris = Flint’s Tainted Drinking Water

Thousands of people in Flint, Michigan, have been drinking water polluted with lead for the past couple of years. This whole nightmare scenario could have been prevented if people had simply done their jobs and followed the laws designed specifically to safeguard Flint’s public water supply. Lead is a known neurotoxin, and yet multiple inquiries into the safety of the city’s water were repeatedly dismissed by the very state officials entrusted to uphold federal water quality standards.



In April, 2014, the governor-appointed emergency manager of Flint decided the city was paying too much for its water. For more than 50 years the city of Detroit supplied Flint with copious potable water from Lake Huron. Flint decided it could save money by drawing its water from the Flint River instead. This was to be a temporary solution until Flint finished building its own pipeline from Lake Huron in 2016.

The Flint River water contains eight times more chloride than Detroit’s water from Lake Huron. Chloride corrodes metal pipes. Many older houses in Flint (as elsewhere around the country) have metal pipes, some of which are lead. When lead pipes corrode, particles of lead are flushed out into tap water that people use for drinking, cooking, and bathing. Everyone in the household ingests a dangerous level of lead, because there is no acceptable level of lead to ingest. NOTE: The Flint River itself does not contain lead.

Chevrolet Ave. crossing the Flint River in Flint, Michigan. Source:

Chevrolet Ave. crossing the Flint River in Flint, Michigan. Source:

The Flint River most likely attained its high chloride level from a couple of sources. First, the river was quite polluted to begin with. Flint residents had endured a boil advisory because of elevated levels of E. coli in the water. So officials added more chlorine, which killed the E. coli but resulted in dangerous levels of total trihalomethanes (TTHM), which may cause cancer.

Another cause of the high chloride level is most likely from road salt used to melt snow and ice in the winter. Road salt eventually washes into lakes, streams, and rivers, and seeps into groundwater. In the winter of 2013-2014, Michigan used about 653,500 tons of salt on its roads—among the most in the country. Nationally, the country uses about 22 million tons of salt each year, which breaks down to about 137 pounds of salt for every person in the country. This results in some very real environmental problems.


According to Joseph Stromberg of the Smithsonian, “an estimated 40 percent of the country’s urban streams have chloride levels that exceed safe guidelines for aquatic life, largely because of road salt. . . . [Road salt] can also interfere with a body of water’s natural chemistry, reducing the overall nutrient load. On a smaller scale, highly concentrated road salt can dehydrate and kill trees and plants growing next to roadways, creating desert conditions because the plants have so much more difficulty absorbing water. In some cases, dried salt crystals can attract deer and moose to busy roads, increasing their chance of becoming roadkill.”

Stromberg doesn’t mention the corrosiveness of chloride on plumbing pipes, but water quality engineers are well versed in the topic and its solution, which is known as corrosion control treatment (CCT).

Corroded pipes in Flint. Source:, Min Tang and Kelsey Pieper.

Corroded pipes in Flint. Source:, Min Tang and Kelsey Pieper.

Chloride corrosion can be prevented by adding orthophosphate (such as phosphoric acid) to the water at the water treatment plant. This is a cheap, easy, and standard CCT; it would have cost the city of Flint about $100 a day. The phosphoric acid would have served as a coating for the pipes as the water moved through them, effectively inhibiting corrosion.  The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) specifically and repeatedly told Flint officials and the EPA that CCT was not necessary until they completed two six-month studies of the water. The head of the Michigan DEQ has since resigned .

The Safe Drinking Water Act, administered by the EPA, includes something known as the Lead and Copper Rule. This federal regulation limits the concentration of lead and copper that comes out of a consumer’s tap. It also limits the acceptable amount of pipe corrosion caused by water. The rule was added to the Safe Drinking Water Act in 1991 and applies to every public water system in the country that serves more than 50,000 people. This includes Flint. Evidence suggests that the EPA knew that the Michigan DEQ was violating the Lead and Copper Rule, but did not warn the public.  By the time they had sought counsel on the issue and changed their minds, in November 2015, a class action lawsuit had already brought the topic of the tainted water to the attention of the national media. In the meantime, state EPA director has resigned.

Two individuals deserve recognition for fighting to bring the Flint water crisis to public attention: Flint pediatrician Dr. Hanna-Attisha, who conducted her own investigation into child blood-lead levels, which showed that Flint children had undergone a statistically significant increase in blood-lead levels since the city’s water source changed in 2014. Virginia Tech professor Marc Edwards conducted his own study of the water, which directly contradicted the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality’s claims that its studies showed the water was safe. He came to Flint armed with a grant from the National Science Foundation and ended up becoming the public face of a grass roots campaign to raise the alarm about the public health disaster in the making. Both of these individuals were guided by a sense of moral duty that was so lacking in state officials.

The good guys: Dr. Marc Edwards and Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha. Source:

The good guys: Dr. Marc Edwards and Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha. Source:

Flint switched back to Detroit water in December, 2015, but by then the damage was done. The pipes are already corroded; the only fail-safe solution is a mind-bogglingly expensive infrastructure upgrade in a destitute town. Of course, even this won’t help the tens of thousands of impoverished citizens who lack the resources to upgrade the ancient pipes in their homes, or landlords who simply refuse to invest that kind of money on houses that are nearly worthless to begin with.

The rest of the story you probably know: the Michigan National Guard passing out bottled water, the inquiry into Flint’s recent uptick of deaths from Legionnaire’s disease, and appeals to FEMA for disaster assistance. The political blame game is just beginning.

While Flint’s water crisis may have many causes, the road salt issue has largely eluded the media’s attention. For environmentalists, however, it is quite noteworthy. Optimistically, many states recognize the danger of road salt and have begun to explore alternatives, such as molasses, beet juice and cheese brine, which work in temperatures much lower than salt does. Not only might these solutions be better for the environment, they will also result in less wear and tear on your car and the roads. Perhaps it should come as no surprise that the liberal use of road salt in Michigan has not only led to the Flint water crisis, but also is a major factor in the poor quality of Michigan roads. 


Beet juice and cheese brine being tested by the Pennsylvania DOT. GENE J. PUSKAR / THE ASSOCIATED PRESS




Posted on: February 1, 2016, 10:59 am Category: Admin

50 Simple Things We Did that Saved the Earth

Remember that late 1980s gem of a bestseller, 50 Simple Things You Can Do to Save the Earth? I was feeling nostalgic the other day, so I cracked open the slightly yellowed pages of my copy and fell into a time warp. Written by a collective of environmental activists calling itself the Earthworks Group, the book became a true “power to the people” manual that didn’t require you to chain yourself to a tree or chase down whaling ships off the coast of Antarctica in order to become an environmentalist. Never would you need to rappel down a smokestack to unfurl a banner emblazoned with a skull and crossbones—you could quietly change the way you shopped or did things in your own home.



More than 25 years since the book suggested we turn the water off while we brush our teeth, much of the book’s advice seems positively quaint. That’s because good environmental habits have become a part of daily life for so many of us, due in no small part to this book.

Let’s consider 1989, when the book was published: Climate change was a new-fangled topic that Sen. Al Gore had just begun giving talks about with the aid of an old-fashioned flip chart. His famed PowerPoint slide show didn’t get off the ground until the following year, when PowerPoint was actually invented.



In fact, while climate change was just starting to be discussed in scientific circles, the more popular issues of the day were those of the hole in the ozone layer and Carl Sagan’s warnings about a global nuclear winter:


Following the first Earth Day in 1970, we learned to stop littering and to be wary of industrial and governmental interests that brought us the disasters of Love Canal and Three Mile Island. DDT had already been banned thanks to Rachel Carson, and the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act, enforced by the nascent Environmental Protection Agency, were doing great work. Environmentalism seemed poised to become a defining issue of the 1990s.

As the United States celebrated its victory in the Cold War and the last panels of the Berlin Wall were carted away to museums around the world, we turned our attention to the damage we had done to Mother Earth during the economic boom years of the 1980s, thanks to rampant consumerism, economic growth, cheap oil, and lax regulations.

Tech disruption, circa 1980s.

Tech disruption, circa 1980s.

The time was right for a handbook for concerned citizens who knew they had little power over the military industrial complex but still wanted to make good choices. Enter 50 Simple Things You Can Do to Save the Earth. Thanks to it’s news-bitey format and Americans’ increasingly short attention spans, many of us made its suggested small changes to our ways of living that have snowballed into major cultural changes.

Here’s a list of some of the habits that have become mainstream thanks to the book:


recycling_iStock_000019128774XSmall (2)

Recycling: The year this book was published, no one had curbside recycling. We also didn’t reduce and reuse. Those days seem positively primitive! When I was in college I hauled all my family’s waste paper, cardboard, glass bottles, empty cans, and plastic containers to a recycling center several miles away. This, by far, is one of the things for which we can pat ourselves on the back. Community recycling programs and participation rates are one of the biggest changes we’ve all made in the past generation, next to dolefully taking off our shoes at the airport security checkpoint. Living proof that a society can change for the better without recall elections, mass protests, and politicized controversy.



Snip six-pack rings so marine birds and animals don’t get plastic wrapped around their beaks or shells and starve to death. Millions of us now make a habit of this, but even better is the fact that six-pack rings simple are not as common as they once were. All it took was a few pictures like this one, and we never tossed our unsnipped plastic six-pack rings away again.



Use laundry detergents without phosphates that can cause algal blooms in lakes and oceans. Phosphates cause marine plants and algae to reproduce exponentially, which chokes out the oxygen marine life needs to survive. Once we started reading labels, manufacturers responded by catering to our desires. Now most detergents for laundry and dishwashers are phosphate-free. Many states have passed legislation demanding that they are. Algal blooms are still a huge problem, however, especially at the mouth of the Mississippi River, but that’s largely because of Big Agriculture.



Use latex paint instead of oil-based paint and dispose of paint properly. You only need to use oil-based paint when painting wood, and maybe not even then. In fact, oil-based paint has been taken off the market in many states. Latex works great, dries faster, and doesn’t smell like oil-based paint. As for disposing of unused paint properly, we would never pour it down a storm drain like our fathers did in the old days. We wait until our county sponsors its annual Household Hazardous Waste day and drop it off then. Or, we let it harden first and throw it out with the regular trash.




Use unleaded gasoline and allow the plastic vapor recovery hoods to do their job to prevent ozone-causing vapors to escape into the atmosphere. Done and done!


Rechargeable Battery


Recharge your batteries. Instead of using disposable batteries, which leach heavy metals into soil and groundwater if disposed of improperly (which they nearly always are), use rechargeable batteries. This was helpful as we all slogged through the Sony Discman days and the era of the digital point-and-shoot camera. But now we have smartphones so it’s not as much of an issue anymore.



Bag the plastic bag. Some of you insist on accepting those infernal plastic bags when you are out and about in Consumerland. I get it—you need it for when you walk the dog—but honestly. Take your reusable shopping bags to Trader Joe’s, people. All the cool kids have been doing it since 2003. California has passed a law banning plastic bags for certain uses. So has Washington, D.C., and North Carolina’s Outer Banks. It’s the wave of the future.


Lawn Be Gone Pic


Let your lawn go dormant during the heat of the summer. Or better yet, if you live in a drought-prone state (I’m looking at you, California), your lawn should not be a lawn, it should be a xeriscape, like this. Sprinkler systems haven’t exactly gone out of style, but more and more people are taking the easy and cheap way out by easing off the irrigation in July and August.

The list goes on: Install low flow shower heads and toilets, use compact fluorescent light bulbs. Both of these have been enshrined in national laws, because energy efficiency is close to an American religion.



Don’t release helium balloons into the atmosphere. Plant a tree. Use natural pest control. Compost. Drive less. Eat low on the food chain. In 1989 each of these ideas would be met with a quizzical looks, but now they are mainstream.

Let’s celebrate how far we’ve come and realize that most of these changes were pretty close to painless. Next up: Transitioning our oil-based economy to a renewable-energy economy. As an optimistic member of Generation X, I dutifully hand the reins over to you, Millennials. Make us proud.

Posted on: January 14, 2016, 12:14 pm Category: Admin

Back to the Future: Solar Genius Frank Shuman

Every age has its Leonardo, Benjamin Franklin, Nikola Tesla, or Elon Musk. Every age also has inventors lost to history, who were either ahead of their time or simply overshadowed by those with a gift for self promotion. Frank Shuman (1862-1918) was one of these. Brilliant, but lacking the brashness of the Wizard of Menlo Park.


“One thing I feel sure of . . . is that the human race must finally utilize direct sun power or revert to barbarism,” Shuman wrote in a 1914 Scientific American article.

The Sunengine

Shuman was a Brooklyn-born Philadelphia transplant who, like other inventors of the day, tinkered in his garage. He started out conventionally enough by inventing wire safety glass that was used in Victorian-era skylights. Twenty years later he disrupted that technology by creating safety glass sans wire. Additionally, he created mechanized danger signals for railroad crossings, pioneered the use of liquid oxygen to propel submarines, and figured out how to electroplate the mammoth statue of William Penn on top of Philadelphia’s City Hall.

Shuman accrued patents at a feverish pace on par with Thomas Edison. But then, recounts blogger Christopher R. Doughtery, “on the expansive lawn between an ivy-covered house and workshop at Disston and Ditman Streets, Shuman integrated his deep knowledge of glass, optics, and convection heating to create a powerful array capable of doing actual work.” He tinkered with insulated boxes, swiveling convex reflectors that tracked and concentrated the sun’s rays, and created a vacuum chamber that lowered water’s boiling point and attached it to a low-pressure steam engine. He called his invention the sunengine. The sunengine was a steam engine that used free solar energy as its fuel instead of dirty coal.

Shuman’s 1907 brochure to promote solar power. Love the graphic, but I don’t think it’d fly today. Source:

Shuman’s first sunengine rattled away each sunny day for over two years outside his house in Philly’s tony Tacony neighborhood. Sure, it wasn’t the Niagara Falls power plant, but it was proof-of-concept. Switching to solar power was in the best interests of “the eternal welfare of the human race,” Shuman declared. The press took notice; the sunengine was featured in Engineering News, Nature, and other leading journals of the day.

Shuman formed the Sun Power Company and raised money to scale up his invention for mass production. He and his workers created collector boxes that focused solar rays with mirrors, allowing heated water (instead of steam) to power a modified, lower-pressure steam engine. Scientific American featured him as a 20th-century tinkerer.

Here’s the sunengine in 1907 featured in Technical World magazine:

The true essence of steampunk.

The true essence of steampunk.

Bringing Solar Energy to Egypt

Word of the sunengine made its way across the Atlantic Ocean; the Brits loved the idea because they were tired of paying for coal. In 1912 they invited Shuman to build a giant sunengine in Maadi, Egypt, a southern suburb of Cairo. Maadi was designed by the British to be upscale and Western, with wide boulevards, large houses, spacious yards, and luscious gardens. Sun there was plentiful; coal was not.

Shuman’s sunengine was comprised of 5 parabolic solar collectors, each about 200 feet long and 10 feet wide. Water was piped through the boilers that run along the center of each collector, where it heated up and turned to steam to power a 70 horsepower engine that pumped 6,000 gallons of water per minute from the Nile River to irrigate crops. It was expensive to build but cheap to operate.

The sunengine performed its duties admirably until Archduke Franz Ferdinand was killed and World War I broke out. The British swiftly dismantled Shuman’s power plant so the metal could be used for weapons. Shuman died before the war ended and his invention appeared to die with him.

The Maadi sunengine under construction.

The Maadi sunengine under construction.

A hundred years later in 2014, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson restored Shuman’s reputation in his reboot of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey. In the episode titled “The World Set Free,” Tyson discusses climate change and features Shuman and fellow inventor Augustin Mouchot, a French inventor a generation before Shuman whose work with solar energy was inspired by his prescient belief that some day we might run out of fossil fuels. Both Shuman and Mouchot appear in animated form in the episode, looking virile and having epiphanies.

Animated Frank Shuman, looking a lot like Teddy Roosevelt. Source: Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey.

Animated Frank Shuman, looking a lot like Teddy Roosevelt. Source: Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey.

Shuman and Mouchot had the same thoughts, Tyson explains. Shuman did the math and figured the solution was a giant solar array in the Sahara Desert, about 20,000 square miles, or roughly the size of West Virginia, would be big enough to free the world from the scourge of coal.

Tyson’s point is that solar power isn’t a new idea; the technology is old and we’ve lost precious time in the fight against climate change through our ignorance of history. To ignore what science is plainly telling us about our warming planet is to risk the Earth’s atmosphere turning into a soup of sulfuric acid and carbon dioxide, like Venus’s. Nobody wants to live on Venus.

Shuman might have been lost to the dustbin of history were it not for the Historical Society of Tacony, which lovingly preserved many of the inventor’s papers from oblivion. As today’s tinkerers and makers channel their ingenuity toward solving our energy problems, they don’t have to recreate the wheel. As Doughtery says, “Shuman should be an inspiration for our civic creativity.” Let’s put some historical perspective into today’s STEM programs.


Posted on: December 2, 2015, 10:26 am Category: Admin

Environmental Disasters You’ve Never Heard Of: The Kirtland Air Force Base Jet Leak

Pop quiz: What’s the largest land-based oil spill in U.S. history?

Answer: The Kirtland Air Force Base jet fuel leak.

Pull up a chair and let me tell you a story about governmental negligence, willful denial, and toxic contaminants in a crucial underground aquifer.



Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque, New Mexico, began life as a private airfield in 1928. By World War II, it had been taken over by the U.S. Army and was a relay point for people and goods destined for the Manhattan Project, less than 100 miles down the road. Today, Kirtland is the world’s largest storage facility for nuclear weapons and its runways are shared between the Air Force and the Albuquerque International Sunport,  making it a joint military–civilian operation.

By 1950 the Army had ceded the base to the Air Force, which was by then heavily into R&D and nuclear testing. A new bulk fuel system to accommodate the base’s swelling air fleet was installed. This system was a sophisticated, modern network of high-tech, underground pipelines that were required to be inspected every five years. The powers that be managed to obtain waivers to prevent that testing from ever taking place. It was a triumph of bureaucracy! When the EPA came calling, the Air Force ignored them. The military industrial complex had taken over the desert.

"Nothing to see here."

“Nothing to see here.”

Turns out the pipeline was faulty. This would have been discovered if it had ever been inspected, but it wasn’t. Thus, the pipeline leaked jet fuel into the soil for 49 years, until 1999. By then, the mysterious underground plume of oil could no longer be denied. The   New Mexico Environmental Department insisted that the Air Force discover its source.

The Air Force conducted a pressure test to check the pipelines. Not only did the test prove that the pipelines were leaking, the pressure blew massive holes in them! Still—the “missing oil,” maybe 100,000 gallons over the course of the 49 years—according to the Kirtland project manager—was simply an accounting error. No one bought that explanation. It was impossible to deny the sad state of the equipment and the fact that a spill of some sort had occurred. But it was anyone’s guess as to its extent.

The scope of the spill became evident only in 2007, when someone dug a well on the base. Eighteen inches of fuel floated over the water table, some 500 feet underground. Initial estimates optimistically guessed the spill was between 1 and 2 million gallons. But further study pushed that number much higher, to somewhere between 6 and 24 million gallons. This puts it in the neighborhood of the Exxon Valdez oil spill, one of U.S.’s saddest environmental nightmares. However, the Kirtland spill, without the tragic mascot of oil-covered waterfowl, unfolded without media coverage.

Map showing the proximity of the faulty fuel facility and the Veterans Administration Hospital. Source:

Map showing the proximity of the faulty fuel facility and the Veterans Administration Hospital. Source:

The toxic liquid, containing fuel, benzene, toluene, and ethylene dibromide as an anti-knock additive, seeped throughout the aquifer, coated the water table, and threatened the 500,000 inhabitants of Albuquerque in a plume that was over a mile long and 1,600 feet wide and situated less than a mile from the municipal well.

Ethylene dibromide (EDB) is highly toxic. The EPA’s maximum contaminant level according to the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974 for the substance is zero. Apart from its toxicity, the problem with EDB is that it’s water soluble, meaning it dissolves in water rather than floating on top of it, where it can easily be captured, and it is stable, meaning it persists in the environment long-term without degrading into less toxic compounds. Here’s a pertinent report from 2014: Health Consultation: Evaluation of Potential Exposures: Bulk Fuels Facility Groundwater Plume.

For many years the Air Force remained glib about the massive spill. An Air Force spokesman, Colonel Jeff Lanning, once told reporters that the size of the spill didn’t matter: “When my kid spills Kool-Aid on the carpet, I’m less concerned about how much he spilled than I am about how to get it cleaned up.” Furthermore, according to journalist Dave Correia, “decades after the spill, the Air Force has yet to model the hydraulic properties of the aquifer.” Thus, the publicly distributed maps showing the spill are “overconfidently representing a reality we can’t know [and are] more reassuring fiction than sound hydrological science.”

New fueling facility being installed at Kirtland, replacing Ol’ Leaky. Source: CREDIT: AP PHOTO/TIM KORTE.

New fueling facility being installed at Kirtland, replacing Ol’ Leaky. Source: CREDIT: AP PHOTO/TIM KORTE.

Fortunately, transparency about the disaster has improved in recent years. A website updates civilians on clean up efforts, which include digging wells and pumping the offending liquids out of the ground. It still isn’t happening on schedule, but at least the state Hazardous Waste Bureau is overseeing the process now instead of the Air Force itself. Additionally, the old pipeline system has been torn out and replaced with an above-ground system that is monitored by computer and that makes leaks evident.

Apparently, Albuquerque’s water supply has not been directly affected yet, which is a saving grace, although the plume continues to shift underground and most of it is no longer within the boundaries of the base. According to blogger David Correia, “The Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority operates a series of wells in the Ridgecrest area that pump so much water for the city that they produce a cone of depression that acts like a straw, sucking the plume ever closer.”

smart-water-metersClean up efforts are expected to continue until at least 2025 and cost over $100 million of taxpayers’ money. Parties involved include the U.S. Air Force Civil Engineering Center, civilian contractor CB&I, as well as numerous state and local health agencies. As of October, 2015, the latest cleanup report from the New Mexico Environment Department states that four more groundwater monitoring wells have been completed that have helped define the plume and limit its size. Two wells have detected no EDB and a third well has detected EDB at a concentration of 0.08 micrograms per liter. However, Citizen Action New Mexico states that EDB is “less than 3/4 mile from Albuquerque’s supply wells. EDB plume [is] estimated to be 2 years away from contaminating the Veterans Administration Hospital supply well.”

The moral of the story, kids, is that just because the mainstream media isn’t covering it, doesn’t mean it’s not an environmental disaster. We are fortunate to have Google at our disposal, which means that knowledge truly is in our hands these days and our awareness of environmental issues—or any issue—is a personal responsibility.

Clean up of the aquifer spill is taking place throughout Albuquerque as the plume has drifted beyond the borders of the Air Force base. Source:

Clean up of the aquifer spill is taking place throughout Albuquerque as the plume has drifted beyond the borders of the Air Force base. Source:

Posted on: December 2, 2015, 10:25 am Category: Admin

Citizen Science for the Holidays: Join the Christmas Bird Count



Get some fresh air this holiday season by helping out the Audubon Society. You’ll get to do science, gain valuable nature karma, and bask in afterglow of an experience that can’t be bought. Such are the advantages of the National Audubon Society’s annual Christmas Bird Count, which takes place throughout the Western Hemisphere each year between December 14 and January 5. This year marks the 115th count, providing the esteemed nonprofit with crucial data on the variety of bird species and their populations over hundreds of thousands of miles. Ornithologists use this data to determine the health of each species and to guide conservation efforts in many countries.

No experience necessary, so lace up your walking shoes (or boots) and grab your binoculars.


The tradition dates back to 1900, when American Museum of Natural History ornithologist Frank Chapman promoted his newfangled idea in Bird-Lore magazine. Noting the American Christmas day tradition in which men—lacking a football game to watch—grabbed their shotguns, traipsed through fields and woods, and shot anything with wings, he said, “Hey, maybe instead of killing all these birds, we just count them?” Twenty-seven people thought that was a mighty fine idea and a tradition was born. What Chapman didn’t realize that day was that he also invented the concept of citizen science.

Uncle Frank wants YOU to count the birds!

Uncle Frank wants YOU to count the birds!

Last year, about 70,000 people participated in the Christmas Bird Count. A vast majority of those hail from North America, although everyone between Nunavut and Cape Horn is welcome to lend a hand. To facilitate its annual mission the National Audubon Society has joined forces with other organizations, including the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, the Alexander von Humboldt Institute in Colombia, the National Network of Bird Observers, the Gulf Coast Bird Observatory, and Bird Studies Canada.

Bird counting is an inexact science, but it’s better than no science at all. The more eyes and ears trained on the sky, the more accurate the results are likely to be. But more important than an accurate count is an accurate depiction of whether the population of a given species is trending up or down, how much, and in what location.

"Could you guys hold still for a moment?"

“Could you guys hold still for a moment?”

A count circle comprised of experienced, avid birders can serve as an early warning sign of declining bird populations that may warrant further study. The National Audubon Society uses its count data to produce its Common Birds in Decline report. For example, in 2007 the report stated at the Northern Bobwhite population had declined 82 percent in recent years from 31 million to 5.5 million due to a loss of habitat.

The Northern Bobwhite, suffering housing crisis in the country's high-rent districts.

The Northern Bobwhite, suffering housing crisis in the country’s high-rent districts.

Sounds Fun. What Do I Have to Do?

Go here to sign up for a count near you. Alternately, many chapters of the National Audubon Society operate independently, so check your state website. Volunteers are organized into count circles of at least 10 people, with one person assuming the role of head compiler. Each count circle canvases an area with a diameter of 15 miles; routes are pre-determined. Everyone counts each bird he or she sees or hears; birds aren’t counted when you back track through an area you’ve already covered. If your home falls within the count circle, you may get to watch your bird feeder. For science! When the count day is over, circle members meet for a “tally rally” to calculate their results. Here’s a FAQ with more details.

Do not count these birds.

Do not count these birds.

In recent years roughly 2,400 species have been observed, totaling 65 to 70 million winged creatures counted by 2,408 circles. Volunteers are increasing in countries such as Belize and Costa Rica. As long as you stick to the Western Hemisphere, you can participate in a count circle on your holiday ecotour! Chances are you’ll get to see the colorful rainforest birds that you aren’t likely to spot outside a zoo in North America.

Here’s a graphic with local count circles in the D.C. area. Note that some overlap, and some are smack dab in urban areas (get ready to count pigeons).

Bird Circles


Now let’s take a higher-level look: The birds of North America have lots of watchers.

Count circles2

If your holiday travels take you beyond the Western Hemisphere, never fear. You can join the annual Great Backyard Bird Count over President’s Day weekend, a much newer tradition that began in 1998. The idea is much the same, minus the 15-mile diameter. Its organized by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and it requires participants to tally the numbers and species of birds in their backyard over a span of at least 15 minutes any time during the four-day weekend. Don’t tell me you can’t fit it into your schedule.

The Rise of Citizen Science

The Audubon Christmas Bird Count is almost without doubt the oldest and largest citizen science project in the world. This is the process whereby everyday people voluntarily contribute to scientific endeavors, allowing researchers to gather much more data than they could on their own, even with a hefty grant and a room full of graduate students. SETI@home, a distributed computing effort in which millions of people run background programs to analyze radio telescope data in search of extraterrestrial intelligence, is one of the first citizen and most well-known science projects of the digital era.

Citizen Science

Birding is a natural for citizen science. Thousands of birders don their windbreakers and binoculars and take to the great outdoors each day, marking their sightings in notebooks, bird guides, and checklists. These individuals are scientific by nature, and many are happy to play an active role in conservation through their sometimes solitary pursuit. Birding and citizen science are also fantastic ways to foster curiosity and a respect for the scientific process in children, who can use all the extracurricular STEM help they can get.

But let’s say birds aren’t your cup of tea. Maybe you had a bad experience with a Blue Jay in your youth, or maybe you’re just more interested in astronomy, meteorology, or flowers. There is a citizen science project for you! Put down that game controller and check out Zooniverse, where you can do science by combing through historical weather data or counting wild animals in Mozambique via a remote trail monitor. Now that Mythbusters is going off the air, we need to exercise the critical thinking skills Adam and Jamie have drummed into us and be a little more pro-active in our scientific musings.

Not really. But the goggles ARE sweet.


Posted on: December 2, 2015, 10:25 am Category: Admin