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Insider Insights: Articles

Five ways we saved the world (or at least a corner of it)

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By Daniel Martins
Digital Reporter
Friday, April 21, 2017, 8:09 PM

Saturday, April 22, is Earth Day, kicking off the latest effort to raise public awareness about the state of our planet.

People can pitch in by pledging to do one or two things to reduce their impact on our planet, but others can just as well ask: What difference can I make?

So we've put together a list of five instances where people solved huge environmental problems. And by huge, we mean....

Cleveland's river used to catch fire sometimes

You read that right: Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River used to be so choked with the chemicals and pollution of more than a century of industrial activity that it actually caught on fire in June 1969. The flames caused $100,000 in damage to two railway bridges.

We can’t imagine what it would be like to actually WORK on the banks of such a polluted channel of waste, but the guy in the video below does a pretty good job of painting a picture.

And it wasn’t even remotely the worst fire on the river. From 1868, the river caught fire 13 times. One blaze in 1952 caused $1.3 million in damage. Another one killed five people in 1912 - People actually died because of how polluted this river was.

The 1969 fire wasn’t the largest, costliest, or deadliest, but it came at a time when the United States was becoming more pollution-conscious. It galvanized activists and lawmakers into action that was already a long time coming by then. The U.S. Environmental Protection Act was passed the next year, along with the Clean Water Act in 1972.

Since then, something like $3.5 billion has been poured into restoring the river, through purification efforts and better sewage and wastewater management.

It’s mostly worked. There hasn’t been another fire since 1969, and the Cuyahoga River is now home to around 60 fish species.

Still, a century of unrestrained pollution has a tendency to linger. As late as 2014, there was a minor spat over a plan to deposit material dredged to keep the river navigable into Lake Erie. Proponents of the plan had to back down over concerns the soil is still too contaminated with carcinogenic materials.

So catastrophic environmental disasters absolutely CAN be reversed. It just takes a very long time.

Los Angeles used to be choked in poisonous fog

Looking at the picture below, you might be forgiven for thinking it’s a slightly dreamy shot of downtown London back in the day, draped with the city’s famously atmospheric fog.

Image: UCLA library

Image: UCLA library

[Image license]

The people actually IN the shot would have preferred that for sure. It’s actually a picture of Los Angeles in the 1950s, and that miasma isn’t fog. It’s enough pollution to reduce visibility down to three blocks.

People complain about the air quality in Los Angeles, but older folks know it used to be WAY worse.

Despite its seaside location, Los Angeles sits in a depression, without much in the way of winds, so if there’s pollution, it tends to build up. And the first time that crazy smog turned up, one not-so-fine June day in 1943, people were choking on it. Many thought the Japanese were attacking them with chemical weapons.

It wasn’t even the first time. One episode in 1903 was bad enough to be mistaken for a solar eclipse. What the 1943 occurrence did was galvanize city leaders to action, to at least set out to find out the cause.

Image: UCLA Library

Image: UCLA Library

[Image license]

It took a long time to put their collective finger on it, but it turned out … well, it was pretty much everything from increasing industrial activity, to open-air trash fires, to the increasing numbers of cars on the roads of this, one of the U.S.’ fastest growing cities.

By the 1960s, the city was seeing 200 days a year of dangerous smog levels … but although it took a long time, authorities conquered the miasma, through the mighty power of … increased air quality regulations, better rapid transit, tailpipe emission standards, the works.

Doesn’t sound too drastic, and it took decades, but it worked. By 1995, ozone levels were a third of what they were in 1955, and as recently as the past few years, ozone levels are still being kept at bay.

As heartwarming as that is, let's temper it with a look at how the city itself could be an enemy, just by being thirsty.

Los Angeles almost drinks a major lake dry

It took a 16-year court battle, but activists managed to partially reverse the immense ecological damage to California’s Mono Lake, a highly unique ecosystem.

The high lake is characterized by funky “Tufa” towers, calcium deposits that formed underwater but have become more and more visible as the lake levels dropped.

Image: Brocken Inaglory

Image: Brocken Inaglory

And it was quite the drop. The trouble started when the city of Los Angeles diverted some of the streams that fed the lake back in 1941, to feed the ballooning population of what would soon become the United States’ second largest metropolis.

By 1995, lake levels had fallen by 12 m, and the water doubled in salinity. The lower water table devastated the surrounding ecosystem, which served as a haven for birds feeding on brine shrimp and alkali flies, their own numbers threatened due to increased salty water.

In 1978, activists and conservationists started the fight to force Los Angeles to cut down the amount of water it took from the lake’s feeder streams. It paid off in 1994, when authorities ordered a partial halt to the diversions to allow lake levels to rise 5 m.

Image: NASA

Image: NASA

That’s won’t be nearly enough to reverse the damage, but by 2008, several species of bird had already made a recovery. Given how thorough the lake’s devastation must have seemed, we’ll call that a win.

Singapore drops its trash in an offshore landfill, and the result isn't a disaster

The island city-state of Singapore has a bit of a problem. And that is: Space. 

It’s at a premium on the small nation, and among the many challenges the country’s tiny land area poses, one of them is garbage, as in, where are you going to put it?

Answer: A pristine offshore island. 

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Sounds scandalous, but due to planning and scrupulous attention to environmental safety, Singapore managed to pull it off, in the form of the Semakau landfill, created by enclosing two islands in a 7 km rock-chain lined with clay and other impermeable materials.

Trash is incinerated in Singapore-proper, then sent by boat every night to Semakau. The site’s design means waste can’t leak out into the surrounding ecosystem, and mangrove thickets have been planted on specially prepared mud flats – they’re sensitive trees that can serve as early indicators of any toxic content in the system.

It works…such that the island itself is now a thriving eco-park, great for walks, school trips, stargazing, even wedding photos – helped by the fact the trash stored on the island is rendered inert, inorganic and relatively odorless by the incineration process.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Image: Wikimedia Commons

The island is a haven for bird and marine life, and it’s been such a success for waste management, it’s been Singapore’s only landfill since 1999, and is expected to be viable until 2045.

China plants enough trees to stop the desert - but with a price

Here’s one project that is unbelievably staggering in its sheer scale: The plan to halt northern China’s desertification by planting a ridiculous amount of trees from one end of the country to the other.

Deserts make up more than a quarter of the country’s total landmass, and it’s not just the hinterlands. The capital Beijing is on the doorstep of the Gobi desert, so the enormous city occasionally gets full-on dust storms.

This was a problem even back in 1978, when the country first embarked on its huge reforestation program, with a goal of increasing the tree cover from five to 15 per cent of the north’s landmass by 2050.

We’re a ways from there yet but, they’ve made a lot of progress. In some areas, tree growth has been in the 20 per cent range, and by 2013, official sources claimed that desertification in some districts was being reversed by 1,500 sq km every year.

It also provides tens of thousands of jobs, and in theory is supposed to raise the living standard in areas where the desert has been stopped in its tracks. Also, with more trees being planted in China than the rest of the world combined, it’s a massive carbon sink, in a country whose carbon emissions are famously high.

We say “in theory,” because this whole “Great Green Wall” plan has some serious, counterproductive drawbacks.

For one thing, some places are prone to desertification due to low annual rainfall. Trees that are planted, and survive, actually soak up enough soil moisture to cause the water table to drop too low for agriculture. The area gets abandoned, and the desert claims it anyway.

As well, researchers complain the green zone’s biodiversity is too low to be sustainable, with common diseases able to wipe out almost all forest in an area because planters put down too many of the same tree.

And the burgeoning Chinese economy has a huge demand for wood, such that overlogging can wipe out any gains.

All this goes to show how seriously people should take desertification. Prevention is hard. Reversal is way harder, and a two-edged sword besides.

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