Earth Matters Columns are written by John Frederick and featured in the Altoona Mirror.

A Strange Winter

Written by I.R.C.. Posted in Earth Matters Columns

My interest in the natural world converged many years ago with a scientific curiosity to understand how it all worked. Further fascinated by how man and the natural world impact each other, I came to study Geography in college.

Geography is often called the most interdisciplinary of all the natural sciences and encompasses many diverse academic subjects. Two of them are meteorology, the science of the weather and its influences, and climatology, the study of long-term weather patterns and tendencies.
Climatology has always been of particular interest to me and when unusual weather happens, I am fascinated to find out why. This winter has been one of those unusual times.

One of the best places to learn more about the climatological state of affairs, especially here in Pennsylvania, is Weather World. The quarter hour program on public television each weekday evening is produced by Penn State’s Department of Meteorology and helps make the sometimes complicated science a bit more understandable for the amateur meteorologist.

Earlier this week they discussed the unusually warm winter that we have experienced, not just here in Pennsylvania, but throughout most of the United States. It actually started in November, as eleven days surpassed sixty degrees on my own home thermometer. Both New England and the Ohio River Valley were more than five degrees above normal for the month.
December was even more extreme. A region centered in Illinois averaged more than six degrees warmer than usual and the Upper Midwest was eight degrees above average.

January was warmer than average across the entire country, except for two slender strips on the Pacific Coast. The Upper Midwest and Northern Plains again were more than eight degrees above the long-term norm.

Here in Blair County, those brutally cold spells that can bring weeks of below freezing temperatures and correspondingly frigid nights have been conspicuous by their absence. We have had only three single digit nights all winter and no sub-zero nights.
While some big snows could still fall, the clock is running out for those extreme cold spells. As the sun inches higher into the February sky, single digit days or sub-zero nights are very unlikely. In these parts, they are almost unheard of after mid-February. This may be one of those winters that we do not tally a single below zero night.

So why has this winter been so unusual? As many readers (especially those that watch Weather World or Joe Murgo) know, it is the upper winds that drive our weather. When the upper winds and weather systems come from the Arctic or high latitudes of Canada, we would logically expect cold weather. When flow is from the south, air masses are warmer.

So far this winter, the upper winds have blown more frequently from west to east or southwest to northeast. They have come much less frequently from the north or northwest. The coldest temperatures in North America (sometimes called the Meteorological North Pole) have stayed locked up in the northern latitudes.

How long will this unusual warmth last? Though we are getting better at taking educated guesses about long term trends, answering a question like that is still a difficult task.

Weather World (weatherworld.psu.edu) and WTAJ TV’s (wearecentralpa.com/weather) websites are excellent local resources for more on understanding what makes the weather what it is.

John Frederick’s column appears in the Mirror every other Saturday. Contact him at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

Rights of Others

Written by I.R.C.. Posted in Earth Matters Columns

“Consider the rights of others before your own feelings, and the feelings of others before your own rights.”

This quote from the legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden was one of the tidbits I saved from his inspirational daily calendar as I closed out the 2011 edition a few weeks ago. Coach Wooden died in 2010, just a few months before his one hundredth birthday, but these and other words of wisdom live on.
Wooden might have gotten his paycheck from the athletic department at UCLA and his fame from winning national championships, but he spoke frequently to business people, philanthropic groups and others far removed from the basketball court.

For anyone that heard him speak, it was easy to understand why he was a champion in every sense of the word. During my basketball coaching days (in a previous life), I had the privilege to hear him three times and speak to him individually on another. Though he usually talked to coaches about basketball, he also liked to share his philosophy on life.

Though Wooden was not a vocal environmentalist, these words of wisdom and his approach to life in general still teach us valuable lessons.
As individuals, as a local community and as a society, it is likely that we could avoid a whole host of problems (environmental and otherwise) if we considered others rights and feelings a bit more frequently. Instead, our civil discourse becomes less civil. The divisiveness is so pronounced that it has become very difficult for politicians on opposite sides of the aisle to even have a discussion about potentially catastrophic global warming.

Our greed helps us rationalize the apparently irrational. Especially as we look back at environmental nightmares of the past, we see bad decisions based on unbridled greed with complete disregard for environmental protection or, as Wooden said, “…the rights of others.”

We knew asbestos killed miners and factory workers in the early in the last century but it wasn’t outlawed in the United States until 1989. It is still allowed in a handful of products.

Though clear that coal miners got Black Lung Disease from coal dust as far back as the 1940s, the West Virginia legislature refused to take action on a bill to compensate miners with the disease thirty years later. Some argue that miners are still not protected as well as they could be in 2011.
Banned in 1972 after the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, the Hazardous Substances Data Bank reported that the toxic, persistent and carcinogenic pesticide DDT was still being manufactured for export by two American companies in the late eighties. It remains legal to use in several countries even today.
Logging and agriculture has been responsible for the removal of two million acres of ancient redwoods from northern California over the last century. Yet the California transportation agency has proposed taking down 54 more trees to widen Highway 101 for commercial truck traffic through the redwood-filled park.
Another American philosopher, George Santayana, is often quoted that “Those that do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” We would be well served to heed both Santayana’s and Wooden’s wise advice.

John Frederick writes on environmental issues every other week in the Mirror. You can contact him at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

Planning to Save a City

Written by I.R.C.. Posted in Earth Matters Columns

Cities all through the Rust Belt, the old industrial Northeast and Midwest, have struggled over much of the last forty or fifty years. Altoona is no exception.
To add salt to the wound, middle-sized cities like Altoona that depended on one industry for many decades find themselves in bigger trouble. Mid-sized cities often lack the economic diversity that large metropolitan areas usually enjoy.

Pennsylvania’s fragmented local government system (only Illinois has more local government units) and dependence on property tax add yet another obstacle to cities like ours.

When things are tough, we sometimes forget that many cities are far worse off than Altoona. Greater Altoona has a crime rate among the lowest fifteen percent of all cities in the United States, experience an unemployment rate below the state and national averages and is blessed with incredibly beautiful natural surroundings.

Yet it’s far from a perfect place and many community leaders recognize the need to identify and deal with these challenges. Both the City of Altoona and Logan Township have embarked upon planning efforts intended to help us address those shortcomings while building upon our assets and strengths.
The City of Altoona is asking residents and others with an interest in the city’s future to help them in the next step of their planning process. The City will be hosting two meetings today at 10:00 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. that are intended to gather input on specific areas of concern and interest to participants.
Issues and topics that were identified last summer will be explored in more detail at today’s meetings. Though more topics may arise during the introduction to the meeting, the short list includes neighborhood revitalization, community connectivity, infrastructure, memorable places within the community, and our civic resources.

Logan Township hosted similar meetings last summer and fall with the hopes of identifying their residents’ concerns and aspirations for the future as well. Though the township and city differ on some fronts, as part of the same community, many common threads were apparent.
Land use issues, protection and preservation of residential neighborhoods, well-planned commercial development, and continued efforts to control crime seemed to be on the lists of people in both municipalities.

Concerns over aesthetic and scenic protection went beyond development and land use issues. Litter and accumulation of trash and junk, property blight, and preservation of our mountain ridges, parks and other open space were all high priorities.
Transportation was on the lists as well. Beyond concerns over traffic congestion and speeding, expansion of recently constructed bike ways and improved pedestrian access were also mentioned by a notable number of people.

Even when the township residents raised a concern that was unique to their less urban setting (open burning and resource extraction like timber, natural gas and minerals) it was still environmentally related matters that were on people’s minds.

Altoona Planning Director Lee Slusser attended one of Logan’s public meetings and was struck by the similarities in the input from residents of the two municipalities. Whether city dweller or suburbanite, it seems clear that environmental protection and the enhanced quality of life it brings is of great importance to the community.

John Frederick writes on environmental issues every other Saturday and can be contacted at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. . For more on today’s meetings at the City Council Chambers on Washington Avenue, visit www.ircenvironemnt.org.

Packaging Recycling

Written by I.R.C.. Posted in Earth Matters Columns

The Christmas season can be a difficult time for folks trying to live lightly on the planet. The success of the holiday season is too often measured exclusively in profits. The happiness of the children is gauged by how much stuff they got.

Besides consuming many resources during our gift fest, we make a great deal of trash, too. The biggest garbage week of the year is the week after Christmas. Even those less concerned about environmental issues can be annoyed by the sheer volume of stuff we generate. Hardcore environmentalists can be overwhelmed with guilt over their waste generating indiscretions.

Yet the gift giving is a wonderful tradition and a thoughtful gift can be heartwarming and joyful for both the giver and receiver. A particularly touching gift can bring some to tears.

It is the virgin resources we use and the trash we make in the process, not the gift-giving, that can be troublesome. The good environmentalist doesn’t have to stop celebrating the holidays or giving gifts, he or she simply must figure out how to do it with less impact on the planet. A growing number of websites (including www.ircenvironment.org) offer hints for a greener Christmas and holiday season.

Most years, we provide another tool to your environmental stewardship toolbox. One or two days the week after Christmas, several local partners sponsor a holiday packaging recycling drop-off event at the Logan Valley Mall.

The Intermunicipal Relations Committee Council of Governments recycling office and the Logan Valley Mall will accept all sorts of packaging and wrapping for recycling at event. It will include all paper wrapping, boxes and plastic bags and film packaging.

Simply pack your wrapping paper in a bag, the plastic film and bags in another and flatten the cardboard and paperboard boxes and place in one of your largest boxes. 

Load them in your car and drop them off when you’re near the mall or returning that sweater from Aunt Madeline that was a tad too big. Enter at the entrance near Sears and look for the sign and trailer near Goods Lane and Plank Road.

If you have regular curbside recycling in other communities, you can still recycle your wrapping paper and Christmas cards as part of your regular paper recycling collection. Just don’t forget that regular curbside collections cannot take foil or palstic wrapping material, foam packaging or plastic wrappings or bags. Those plastic bags can only be recycled at the special mall drop-off or with your plastic shopping bags at the market.

The joy of holiday giving with much less impact on the environment, that’s something that should be on everyone’s Christmas list.

John Frederick writes on environmental issues every other Saturday. You can communicate with him at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. . Visit www.ircenvironment.org for more on the holiday packaging and Christmas tree recycling programs.

Mercury

Written by I.R.C.. Posted in Earth Matters Columns

Even though it is likely that we have been aware of Mercury’s toxic characteristics for many centuries, hundreds of thousands of people are still sickened by the chemical even now in 2011.

Occupational exposure to mercury has caused serious health problems going back to the earliest mining of the mineral cinnabar from which it is extracted. Yet all these centuries later, we still are spewing it into the air and water with little regard for what it might be doing to us or our children. (For more scientific background, visit www.zeromercury.org/fact_sheet/)

Mercury has been most visible in things like thermometers and thermostats but has also been used less noticeably in products like fluorescent light bulbs. Its use is being phased out in instruments to measure temperature but its use is actually growing in light bulbs. Fortunately, all mercury-containing products can now be recycled.
Yet many fluorescent bulbs, both tubes and compacts, go in the trash and the mercury can be scattered about. I’ve seen broken bulbs scattered on school parking lots just a few dozen feet from the playground. Last month I came upon two compact fluorescents broken on the street in Newburg and just this week discovered one in a ditch just off Walnut Avenue.

Though they can be recycled for free or a very small fee (at Home Depot, Lowes and the county’s hazardous waste collection), we remain very careless with them. Care should be exercised when they are accidentally broken, too. Ventilate the room in which the bulb was broken and clean up the residue with wet paper towels or rags that are disposed of at a hazardous waste event with the broken bulb in a sealed bag or container.

The other ways we add to the mercury in our environment are much harder to see. Over half of the North American emissions of mercury comes from coal burning power plants and its one of several reasons that many are striving to reduce our reliance on coal for electrical generation. We’ll look more at that issue in a future column.
Burning of waste of all kinds has also been a significant source of mercury pollution for many years. Both Municipal Waste and Medical Waste incinerators had been significant contributors to mercury emissions in the United States, but both have been drastically reduced over the last decade.

Unfortunately, it’s impossible to use expensive smoke stack pollution control technologies on backyard burn barrels. So the open burning of trash emits notable amounts of mercury (in addition to toxic dioxin and heavy metals).

Beyond the strides to reduce emissions from incinerators, several other laws now forbid the use of mercury in dry cell batteries, thermostats, light switches in automobiles, oil-based paint and lights in kid’s sneakers.

A handful of products sold today still contain mercury. A number left over from the time before they were illegal can be found in basements, workshops and storage cabinets. (Visit www.epa.gov/hg/consumer.htm for a comprehensive list.)

It is important to handle them with care, take them to our hazardous waste collection if they’re not being used and avoid the purchase of mercury-containing products when other options are available.

John Frederick writes about environmental issues every other Saturday in the Mirror. He can be contacted at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

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