Sputnik to James Webb Space Telescope

65 years of space exploration

I’ve been an astronomy geek most of my life, always intrigued by what’s going on in the night sky and eating up every bit of information I can find about the latest research. Like many, I was blown away by the first images NASA released from the James Webb Space Telescope on July 12, 2022, and what they revealed. The telescope is truly a triumph for NASA and humanity generally. As someone who has witnessed space exploration from its earliest days, I am impressed how far we have come in the last 65 years.

Illustration of the deployed James Web Space Telescope, with its gold-plated mirror and multi-layered sun shield. Credit: NASA, STScI & NorthropGrumman

Sputnik
I was 11-years-old in October of 1957 when the Soviet Union (USSR) launched Sputnik, the first artificial satellite to orbit the Earth. It was a small metal sphere (58 cm [23 in.] in diameter) with four wire-like antennas. It was launched into what is now called “low-Earth orbit,” where it made several orbits of the Earth before falling back into the atmosphere and burning up in January of 1958. In those few weeks, Sputnik changed the world.

When the television and radio news media began broadcasting Sputnik’s radio signal—a steady series of “beeps” that transmitted nothing more than the satellite’s existence, my older brother, a ham radio operator, went to work to find the signal. I remember him triumphantly calling the rest of the family into his bedroom, packed with radio equipment, to listen to the incessant beeping until the satellite left our side of the Earth. I also remember a 45-RPM vinyl record of Sputnik’s signal being bought and played in the house. That was all that was on both sides of the record: the steady beep…beep…beep. But that was enough to make it a family keepsake.

Man on the Moon
Things happened quickly after Sputnik’s launch, as the USA and the USSR raced to see who would be first to put a man in space (USSR) and eventually land a man on the Moon (USA). The latter was accomplished in 1969, just 12 years after Sputnik’s launch. None of these projects were cheap and all were risky. NASA always had to be marketing the space program to the public to keep funding coming from the US Congress. But once President John Kennedy’s promise to put a man on the Moon by the end of the 1960s was accomplished, the public fervor for the program dampened down. When the Apollo 13 mission almost ended in disaster, the US Congress cut back funding and NASA concentrated on missions closer to home, such as space stations, shuttles and unmanned explorations of the planets in our solar system.

The Hubble Space Telescope in orbit on the occasion of its billionth second in space (31.7 years). Credit: NASA & STScI

Hubble Space Telescope
Astronomers have used ground-based optical telescopes to explore the stars for over 400 years. They revealed a lot about our solar system and the stars closest to us but were limited by the atmosphere and weather. That’s why many observatories were placed on high mountains to get above as much of the atmosphere as possible, and near deserts (as in Chile) where there is a better chance of clear skies. Nevertheless, the atmosphere still filters out certain low-frequency wave-lengths of light that limit what can be observed. It was a long-held dream of astronomers, even before the space program, to have a telescope in space, unencumbered by the vagaries of the atmosphere.

Named after astronomer Edwin Hubble, the Hubble Space Telescope was not the first space telescope, but it was the largest when it was launched in 1990. It has a 2.4 m (7.9 ft.) diameter mirror and five instruments to observe a wide range of the electromagnetic spectrum, from ultra-violet through visible to near-infrared. It circles the Earth in a low-Earth orbit and is the only telescope designed to be regularly serviced by astronauts. Astronomers from around the world book time on Hubble through the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) that selects the telescope’s targets. Being outside the Earth’s atmosphere, Hubble produces spectacular high-resolution images that have greatly increased our knowledge of the universe and its origin.

The Carina Nebula as seen by the Hubble Space Telescope. Credit: NASA & STScI

James Webb Space Telescope
That said, Hubble cannot detect certain infrared bands of the electromagnetic spectrum because its mirror is too warm, itself emitting infrared energy. The infrared bands are important because their radiation comes from objects in space that are very far away and are moving away from us as the universe expands (light from rapidly receding objects morphs from the visible range to the lower frequency infrared range via the Doppler effect). What was needed was a telescope that had a large enough mirror to gather sufficient faint infrared light and was capable of staying cool enough so as not to distort the infrared images.

 A portion of the Carina Nebula as seen by the James Webb Space Telescope. Credit: NASA & STScI

Thus the “Next Generation Space Telescope” was conceived and the initial design process began in 1996. The complexity of the project led to cost overruns, many delays and design overhauls. A major redesign in 2005 led the way to the final configuration. At the time, it was renamed the James Webb Space Telescope, after the NASA administrator in the 1960s who oversaw much of the race to the Moon. The construction of the telescope was completed in 2016 at a cost of US$10 billion. The project was led by NASA in partnership with the Canadian and European space agencies.

The Webb’s mirror is 6.5 m (21 ft.) in diameter, providing 25 square meters of light-gathering surface, about six times that of Hubble. The mirror is made of 18 hexagonal, gold-plated segments, the gold providing good infrared reflection.

Along with the mirror and various instruments, there is a large sun shield designed to keep the telescope cool by shielding it from solar radiation and reflected sunlight from the Earth and Moon. All of these components are large, making the Webb a very large space telescope indeed. The challenge was designing it so that it could be compactly placed on a rocket, and once in space, be assembled without astronaut assistance. A tall order.

When the Webb was finally launched on December 25, 2021, all who had worked on its development and construction were on pins-and-needles, hoping that all the complicated tasks the telescope had to do would line up as planned and be completed. There was a lot that could go wrong and the possibility of a catastrophic error was large. But work it did. The launch from French Guiana was flawless, and on January 24 it arrived at its final location, being placed in a halo orbit around the Sun-Earth Second Lagrange Point, fully deployed and ready to go to work.

Second Lagrange Point
In order to keep the Webb mirror as cold as possible to detect very faint infrared radiation from afar, it had to be placed in an orbit where its temperature could remain below 50 K (-223 ºC, -370 ºF). Such an orbit is found at the Second Lagrange Point or L2, a “celestial mechanical location,” where the Webb would be equally affected by the gravitational pull of the Sun and Earth.

Illustration of the Five Lagrange Points where the Earth and the Sun are equal in gravity. Also shown is the halo orbit  of the Webb Telescope around L2, 1.5 million km from Earth (not to scale). Credit: NASA & STScI

L2 is about 1.5 million km (~1 million mi.) from Earth (about four-times further than the Moon). At that location, Webb orbits the Sun but in lockstep with the Earth. To ensure the telescope can see in all directions while blocking light from the Sun, Earth and Moon, it makes a “halo orbit” around L2 that allows it to view in all directions, over a six-month period. As with Hubble, astronomers book time on Webb through the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI).

The First Images
Perhaps the most interesting of the Webb images released in July by NASA was that of a portion of the Carina Nebula—a large region of dust and gas in the constellation Carina, visible on Earth only from the southern hemisphere. It is about 8,000 light years from Earth. Astronomers had earlier used Hubble to investigate this large nebula to look at the regions where stars are created. The images produced were spectacular. However, because Webb can detect more bands of infrared, it was able to peer through the dust to reveal individual stars actually in the process of being formed—further sharpening the lens on creation itself.

Webb’s 1st deep field view of galaxy cluster SMACS 0723. Credit: NASA & STScI

All that said, however, perhaps the most intriguing image released—at least for an amateur astronomy geek like me—is of a cluster of galaxies (SMACS 0723) that are not visible here on Earth. NASA pointed Webb into a piece of the sky that the agency described as about the size of “a grain of sand held at arm’s length” from someone standing on Earth. The Webb revealed that piece of seemingly black sky to be actually teeming with galaxies, many as they were when the universe was less than a billion years old. In other words, those never-before-seen galaxies are about 13 billion light years away. Not a bad find for the first trial images of the telescope. But hang-on. Web is capable of so much more than that. It is designed to see back as far as 180 million years after the Big Bang or the creation of the universe. It is thought that the very first stars were formed about 100-180 million years after the Big Bang. So, there’s a lot more to be discovered and a lot more questions to be asked.

Also intriguing about the incredibly complex SMACS 0723 image is the light of galaxies arcing and bending around other galaxies. This is caused by the gravitational pull of the forward galaxies bending the light coming from galaxies behind them, as predicted by Einstein.

Webb is not just about looking at the beginning of time. It can also look at planets in our solar system as well as exoplanets—outside our solar system. For example, by analyzing the light passing through the atmospheres of those planets, it can determine the chemical composition of those atmospheres and perhaps conditions suitable for life as we know it here on Earth. In one of its initial trials, it looked at exoplanet WASP-96 (1,150 light years away) and found evidence of water in its atmosphere.

Webb was designed to last 10 years, but NASA has indicated that because of the efficiency of its launch and deployment it has enough fuel to last maybe 20 years. That’s a lot of time to look at the many mysteries of our universe. As well, any astronomer from around the world may apply to use it for their research, and all data collected will be put in the public domain for anyone to  use. In these days of upheaval and uncertainty over climate change, pandemics, war and divisions, the success of the James Webb Space Telescope demonstrates what can be done when people come together and work for a common goal. It is truly a human triumph and I can’t wait to see what Webb is going to show us next.

Text: Copyright © 2022 Don H. Meredith, All Rights Reserved

Photos courtesy of NASA.

Comments are always welcome (below).

Visit me on my website where you’ll find more stories and pics:
www.donmeredith.ca

Interested in reading an award-winning outdoor adventure novel? Check out The Search for Grizzly One and Dog Runner.

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Surviving in the Outdoors—A Book Review

In these last two years of pandemic, more and more people have been wanting to get outdoors. The lockdowns, restricted travel and fear of infection have played on our psyches and pushed us out the door into open spaces where research has shown being outdoors is beneficial for both our physical and mental health. Being in green spaces, breathing fresh air, and seeing wild plants and animals is good for the body and soul. However, as Duane Radford stated in his new book, Canadian Outdoor Survival Guide (Lone Pine), the outdoors can also be a dangerous place to be if one is not prepared.

Indeed, it seems every weekend we hear news reports about people being lost, injured or rescued while on outdoor trips. In many cases they were ill prepared for what they were getting into, and sadly in some cases didn’t survive. Poor clothing and footwear, not being aware of possible weather changes, not packing essential gear to survive a night in the bush, and being generally unprepared for the unexpected all contributed to the tragedies we’ve been hearing about. As I related back in 2012 in my Alberta Outdoorsmen column and blog post, Woodcraft, much of the bushcraft and survival skills that used to be a part of an outdoor person’s learning experiences from a young age have not been passed on to later generations.

Radford’s book attempts to allay that issue. It is not an ordinary outdoor survival book, discussing only survival basics, such as building fires and shelters from scratch. He also discusses in detail the basics of living in the outdoors generally, including: trip planning, clothing and footwear, tents, first aid, outdoor tools, navigation, technology, wildlife, plants, etc. In other words, how to ensure a stay in the outdoors is as safe, comfortable and enjoyable as possible. This is also a Canadian outdoor survival book, not focussed on outdoor conditions in the United States or other more temperate regions, but on conditions people are likely to encounter on their visits to the Canadian wilderness.

To say the book is comprehensive would be an understatement. It could and should be used as a textbook for outdoor courses. It is packed full of information, backed by illustrations and full-color photographs. It is also a weighty tome (1 lb. [450 g]), designed to withstand rough use in outdoor settings. The weight perhaps precludes taking it on a backpacking trip, where weight is always an issue. But if one is going on such a trip, the information in this book should be learned beforehand, such as packing the right gear and what to do in a crisis. It is an excellent book to use on a traditional camping trip where one can practice the skills one might have to use on an extended wilderness trip.

Knowing what tools to carry and how to maintain them are important considerations when planning an outdoor trip.

Central to the book is its Section 2, Survival Skills, where the basics of survival are discussed in detail, from what to do when lost, through building a shelter and fire, to basic first aid. You quickly understand why it’s necessary to not only know these skills but have some basic materials with you, such as pocket survival and first-aid kits. Travelling in wild places is risky, practically by definition. So, what might seem an extra burden to carry on a bright, sun-shiny day, might mean the difference between life and death a few hours later on the trail.

The book is a good read, generally. Radford laces stories and personal experiences throughout the book, illustrating how things can go awry quickly in the Canadian wilderness. Both novice and experienced wilderness travellers will benefit from reading it. Even if you are an experienced outdoors person, you will find useful information here, especially if you are tutoring a novice in outdoor skills.

The Canadian Outdoor Survival Guide is available through the usual online places, as well as book and sporting goods stores. It’s a must-have for your outdoor bookshelf.

(Note—full disclosure: Duane Radford is a friend and colleague of mine, whom I’ve known for many years. He and I have shared many hunting and fishing adventures over those years. He has written many books and magazine articles on the outdoors and received many awards for his work.)

Copyright © 2022 Don H. Meredith, All Rights Reserved

Comments are always welcome (below).

Visit me on my website where you’ll find more stories and pics:
www.donmeredith.ca

Interested in reading an award-winning outdoor adventure novel? Check out The Search for Grizzly One and Dog Runner.

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Living with MAD

It’s perhaps the most ironic acronym ever created: MAD, or Mutually Assured Destruction. It is a military strategy, still in effect, that is designed to prevent nations from using their nuclear arms. The acronym was first coined in 1962, at the height of the Cold War when the United States and the Soviet Union were loudly rattling their sabres, including their supply of nuclear weapons. Recently, that nuclear-option sabre was rattled once again by a Russian strong man, who believes he can bully the rest of the world.

I was born in Los Angeles shortly after the end of WWII, when the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were being realized in the minds of most of the world. As an elementary school student, it wasn’t long before I learned about the threat the United States was under of nuclear attack from the Soviet Union. This was driven home by monthly air raid drills we had in school, as if crawling under our desks would help keep us alive in such an attack. Indeed, one family in our neighborhood actually dug up their backyard to build an underground fallout shelter.

For over 75 years humanity has been under the threat of a nuclear holocaust, the prevention of which is dependent on the good will of leaders in conflict.

Of course, the U.S. was also threatening the Soviets with nuclear attack. That was what MAD was all about: if you attack us, we will attack you. MAD was supposed to assure populations that no attack would happen because the cost would be too high; that is, the end of civilization as we know it.

But that did not end the fear. As a high-school student, I remember attending a youth conference in which some parents held a panel discussion about what kind of future my generation was going to have. One of the panel members commented that our generation (yes, later called Baby Boomer) would be the first to live their entire lives under the constant threat of nuclear annihilation—that the existence of tomorrow was based on the good will of leaders around the world.

That might seem to be an extreme statement to make to a bunch of teenagers trying to figure out what they were going to do with their lives. But we were all aware that at that time the U.S. had at least one nuclear-armed B52 bomber in the air over the Arctic, 24-hours-a-day 365-days-a-year, ready to fly into the Soviet Union and deliver its payload. The Soviets also had their nuclear-armed bombers in the air over their Arctic, likewise ready to enter North American airspace. And indeed, there were often incursions into each other’s air spaces, where fighter jets escorted the offending bomber back to its home territory. So, the threats were real. (The movie Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb [1964] is a brilliant satire about that time.)

Both countries had also developed inter-continental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) that could be launched from bases around the world to deliver their nuclear payload anywhere else in the world. The U.S. had set up most of those bases in cooperating countries, some quite close to the Soviet Union. When the Soviets tried to set up an ICBM base in Cuba in 1962, the U.S. blockaded the ships carrying the missiles and demanded that the Soviets remove the bases. For 13 days, the world held its breath while President Kennedy and Premier Khrushchev exchanged threats. I remember sitting with my family, glued to the TV, wondering what we’d do if the proverbial button was pushed.

Finally, the two world leaders worked out an agreement: the Soviets would remove their missile bases from Cuba; the U.S. would not invade Cuba and would remove its missiles from Turkey. The whole world took a breath and a sigh of relief. MAD had worked. No one wanted to be responsible for Armageddon.

In the years since the Cuban Missile Crisis, fear of the use of a nuclear attack has largely been pushed aside for more immediate concerns, with the possible exception of the sabre rattling of North Korea. But North Korea highlights the one major flaw in MAD. That is, the strategy relies on the good will of the leaders involved in a conflict. North Korea or any other despotic regime that has acquired nuclear weapons does not necessarily have good will on their minds or the safety valves in place to prevent an unprovoked attack.

And now, we have an insecure Russian President, Vladimir Putin, invading his democratic neighbor, Ukraine, and threatening to use Russia’s nuclear weapons if NATO countries should interfere in his miscalculated incursion. Suddenly, the nuclear threat has come out of the back pocket and placed on the table once again, and old anxieties are rekindled.

How should the other nuclear powers, led by the U.S., respond? Match threat with threat in true MAD style? Stand down and negotiate the end of democracy in Ukraine? Wait Putin out and see if he actually uses nuclear weapons, whether they be tactical (battlefield), where the fallout would be local; or strategic, where distant targets, such as cities, would be destroyed? Difficult questions with equally difficult answers.

The world has tried to reduce nuclear arms through treaties, etc. but the major powers don’t like giving them up, and smaller regimes want to acquire them for their own perceived protection. Although my generation was the first to live under the constant threat of nuclear war, we were not the last. I fear as our human population grows and climate change puts more stress on resources and supply chains, Putin will not be the last to play the nuclear card. For now, I hope cooler heads prevail and convince Putin the folly of his actions and provide Russia an exit strategy that will bring peace to the region. Only time will tell.

In the meantime, I’m glad to see the Ukraine putting up a steadfast defence against a superior force that I’m guessing doesn’t really want to be there. Once people have tasted democracy, they don’t want to give it up.

#UkraineStrong #SupportUkraine

Copyright © 2022 Don H. Meredith, All Rights Reserved

Comments are always welcome (below).

Visit me on my website where you’ll find more stories and pics:
www.donmeredith.ca

Interested in reading an award-winning outdoor adventure novel? Check out The Search for Grizzly One and Dog Runner.

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Our Fragile Dependencies

Copyright © 2022 Don H. Meredith, All Rights Reserved

2021 was quite a year here in British Columbia. We had a record-breaking heat dome followed by massive wildfires, torrential rain, floods and mudslides—not to mention the ongoing pandemic. Despite what some would have us believe, these are not one-off events. Phrases like “one-in-100-year event” no longer apply. These catastrophes are coming more often and we have to start preparing for them to occur more frequently.

What was new was how the catastrophes occurred in a cascade, one after the other. And that was no coincidence. The heat dome dried out the landscape, strengthening the wildfires. The wildfires in turn destroyed whole ecosystems and weakened soils. The torrential rains saturated the weakened soils and increased the severity of the floods and mudslides. However, besides the utter devastation and lives lost and altered, what stood out to me was just how fragile our energy infrastructure is in the face of climate change.

TMP

What brought that vulnerability home to me was the shutdown of the Trans Mountain Pipeline as a result of the flooding and landslides that occurred during the November 14-15 “atmospheric river” storm (that was described as the volume of the Amazon River being dumped on southern BC in less than 48 hours). The pipeline runs from Edmonton Alberta to Burnaby BC. (It is the pipeline we citizens of Canada own.) Well, it turns out most of the fuel used in the lower mainland of BC comes from that pipeline. The floods throughout much of the pipeline’s length necessitated the shutdown and inspection of the pipe to ensure there were no leaks or unsupported pipe exposed to the elements. Those inspections indeed found damage either to the pipe itself or the ground supporting it.

An example of a pipeline exposed as a result of flooding, this one at Willow Creek in Alberta after the 2013 floods. Photo courtesy of Duane Radford

Many types of petroleum flow through the TMP at various times, from gasoline and aviation fuel to diesel and crude oil (including diluted bitumen). Much of the crude oil is loaded on tankers and sent overseas to Asia. But some is refined in Burnaby into various petroleum products that are used locally, and some is sent to Washington State. When the TMP shut down, people got nervous.

The Malahat

Here on Vancouver Island during the November 14-15 storm, we had flooding but nothing like what occurred in the lower mainland and the southern interior. However, there was one critical washout that happened on a portion of the Trans-Canada Highway #1 between Victoria and the rest of the island, the portion known as Malahat Drive that traverses highland along the east coast. The highway was shut down for a couple of days while repairs were made.

What I didn’t realize was that Victoria gets all its fuel from a terminal not too far from where I live. There are five such terminals on the island, all north of the Malahat. The various fuels are sent to the island via barges from Vancouver or sometimes Washington State.

A barge pumping fuel up to a terminal on Vancouver Island

I regularly walk by the terminal near us and often observe a barge pumping fuel up to the depot, where it’s stored in large tanks. Every day, fuel-tanker trucks of various sizes are lined up at the pumps to load fuel and haul it to Victoria and surrounding area. When the washout happened, Victoria and the Saanich Peninsula were suddenly without a fuel supply. Nearly 45% of Vancouver Island’s population of 850,000 people live south of the Malahat.

Tanker trucks lining up for fuel at an island terminal

Needless to say, work began right away to repair the damage. It wasn’t long before a single lane of traffic was opened, alternating between north and south travel. Long lineups of vehicles occurred waiting their turn. On November 18, the RCMP escorted 15 fuel tanker trucks through the construction to Victoria and area gasoline stations, many of which had run out of fuel. Without fuel, people can’t get to work, trucks can’t deliver goods and supplies, as well as gravel, concrete or steel to repair the roads and other infrastructure damage by the floods and landslides.

Work Arounds

Of course, when the very foundation of a society’s economy is threatened, people get busy to make things right. It took three weeks to repair the damage to the Trans Mountain Pipeline. So, fuel had to be brought in from Washington State and fuel rationing ensued. Likewise, the Coquihalla Highway from Hope to Kamloops—a major transportation link between Vancouver and the rest of Canada (TV’s “Highway Thru Hell”)—was washed out in at least 20 places. While it was thought it would take months for this highway to be repaired, it was opened to limited commercial traffic on December 20th, an amazing engineering feat. It will not be opened to nonessential travel for several months as the temporary repairs are replaced by more substantial structures.

Eventually, the highways and other infrastructure will be repaired. But will they be any more resilient to catastrophes than they were before November 14th? Looking at the damage, where rivers changed courses and took out significant stretches of land, it’s hard to understand how you would make highways, bridges, railroads and pipelines more secure from such forces.

Climatologists warned us about these catastrophes, decades ago. However, they predicted them for much further into the future. But the catastrophes are here now, around the world. Of course, the main culprit is fossil fuels but governments and energy companies have been reluctant to make the necessary changes that would have prevented a lot of what we’re seeing now. It’s hard to break away from a cheap energy source that provides so much prosperity and technology that improves the quality of our lives, at least we here in the First World. Indeed, our governments and the petroleum industry are joined at the hip in terms of providing each other benefits (why else would we citizens own an oil pipeline?).

Solutions?

So, how do we prevent future climate catastrophes? Well, we’re too late to prevent the ones that will be coming in the next 30 years or so. Those are baked into our future now because we have done very little to curb greenhouse gases in the past. In fact, with our population growth and voracious consumption of resources, we increased our emissions. But what we can do is reduce the worst of what is coming after that. First of all, there needs to be an open and transparent discussion among governments, the public and the energy industry about just how we’re going to transfer to a cleaner energy future, not in 30 years but now. The public needs to see that governments and industry are serious about making the necessary changes, including a realistic timeline.

It won’t be easy. Fossil-fuel energy and other petroleum products are infused throughout our lives. Transportation is the big one. Just look at all the products you use every day that were shipped to you from afar on ships, planes and transport trucks—all using fossil fuels. On top of that, look at all the products you use that were made from petroleum, from cell phones and computers to the clothes you wear and the vehicles you drive.

No ‘Clean’ Energy

Yes, electric vehicles are part of the solution, but they only go so far. They are most effective in provinces that use low-emission hydroelectricity as their major source, such as Quebec and British Columbia. Here in BC, 90% of our electric power is produced by hydroelectricity, so buying an electric vehicle here makes sense in terms of zero emissions. Other provinces are heavily dependent on fossil fuels for their electricity production. So, EVs are still emitting greenhouse gases if remotely. However, even in BC there are still environmental costs for driving EVs. First, there is the cost that occurred building the dams providing the power. The dams inundated lands that were productive ecosystems, not to mention the people displaced and lives altered. Second, such vehicles have substantial lithium-ion batteries that require minerals from large polluting mines from around the world.

In Ontario, 60% of electric power is produced by nuclear reactors. Like hydroelectric power, nuclear energy in itself doesn’t emit greenhouse gases. However, the mining of uranium ore and the storage of spent nuclear fuel are significant environmental costs to the use of the technology.

Solar and wind energies are touted as replacements for the use of fossil fuels to generate electricity. And they make sense to a point. But the wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine all the time, and that means excess power must be stored in batteries. However, the biggest problem with them is that you cannot create enough such facilities to totally supply the power requirements of transportation generally. And like all technologies these days, fossil fuels are used in their construction.

So, there are no magic bullets to reduce carbon emissions either from transportation or heating our homes or indeed maintaining our current lifestyles. All have their costs to our environment. As energy journalist Andrew Nikiforuk puts it, “no such thing as ‘clean energy’ exists” (Tech Won’t Save Us). Yet, technologists tell us all these problems are solvable. Indeed, many people are working on solutions (ref: How to Avoid a Climate Disaster, 2021 Bill Gates) and breakthroughs are happening. However, they aren’t happening fast enough to keep pace with the growing resource consumption of our ever-increasing human population.

Leadership

What we require now is leadership. But what we saw at the COP 26 conference (2021) in Glasgow, Scotland, was anything but leadership. The petroleum industry representatives ensured compromises were made to slow the pace of the changes needed. Climate scientists tell us we must hold global heating to 1.5º C above the pre-industrial level to maintain any hope of our societies surviving into the future. We are already at 1.1º above that level and suffering many disasters worldwide. At 1.5º they will get worse in ways we haven’t experienced yet. But the COP 26 agreement will only ensure we hold the temperature rise to 2.4º by 2050. That will ensure a climate disaster of unimaginable scale. Given the track record of countries complying with previous COP agreements, keeping the temperature rise to 2.4º is most likely a pipe dream.

Canadian political leadership is likewise lacking. Prime ministers or premieres might pay lip service to doing something about climate change, but don’t know how to untangle our economy from the fossil fuel energy web.

Population and Economic Growth

As Andrew Nikiforuk stated in his 2021 Southam Lecture at the University of Victoria, perhaps the focus of fighting climate change should not be on the emissions themselves but on what is driving those emissions—population and economic growth. Our economic system requires continuous growth and that growth is spurred by a continually growing human population, both of which are unsustainable. But as I related in my 2020 blog post (Freedom and Climate Change: A Numbers Game) our world human population has long since passed the capacity of this planet to carry that many people. We are now in the process of stripping the planet of the last vestiges of its natural ecosystems that provide vital services to all life. No matter what we do to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, any gains are negated by the ever-increasing resource demands of an ever-increasing human population.

What Do We Do?

It’s hard to find hope with such information, and I debated writing this piece because I knew it was going to be a downer. But ignoring the reality doesn’t help either. As Nikiforuk pointed out in his lecture, to have hope for a sustainable future for ourselves and our children, we must concentrate on what we as individuals can do locally to reduce our own emissions and prepare ourselves for the climate events that are coming.

As I’ve tried to point out in this piece, a lot of the infrastructure we depend upon to sustain our lives as we’ve known them is vulnerable to forces over which we have no control. We have to plan on how we’ll react when the power goes out or we run out of fuel, or indeed, we’re threatened by wildfire and flooding. Sustainability begins at home and expands to the local community. Local independent energy systems have a lot better chance at sustainability than the large energy grids spanning regions, rivers and jurisdictions. And local communities can make decisions a lot easier and faster than bogged down governments.

Hope increases, and indeed becomes contagious, when you are doing positive things for your family and community.

Comments are always welcome (below).

Visit me on my website where you’ll find more stories and pics:
www.donmeredith.ca

Interested in reading an award-winning outdoor adventure novel? Check out The Search for Grizzly One and Dog Runner.

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Wabamun Lake Fishery—2021

Copyright © 2021 Don H. Meredith, All Rights Reserved

[Note: Wabamun Lake is located about 60 km west of Edmonton, Alberta Canada. It is one of the most popular lakes in the province, being close to a large metropolitan area. This post is an update to the series of articles I’ve posted here over the years about the lake fishery. The last one was in 2017]

Well, it finally happened! After 13 years of exclusive catch-and-release (C&R) fishing, Alberta Environment and Parks (AEP) is allowing a limited harvest of fish on Wabamun Lake. Specifically in 2021 1) you can catch and keep a daily limit of five lake whitefish and two burbot, and 2) an Alberta resident with a Class-C walleye special harvest licence can harvest a season limit of two walleye that are 43 cm (17 in.) or less in length. Zero catch-and-keep limits remain for northern pike and perch. Go to the Alberta Regulations site for more information.

Located near Edmonton, Wabamun Lake is one of the most popular recreational lakes in Alberta.

So why is some catch-and-keep fishing being allowed in 2021? Or looked at another way, why has it been catch-and-release-only fishing for the last 13 years? To answer those questions, a little history needs to be reviewed. But first…

A Disclaimer: Up until the train derailment and oil spill in 2005, my family and I had fished Wabamun Lake regularly for over 30 years. We lived close to the lake and it was a great place to fish for lake whitefish and northern pike. It was where we took our young daughter to learn how to fish, starting with yellow perch and graduating to pike and whitefish. As well, I have served on the Wabamun Watershed Management Council since its inception in 2006. So, I do have biases about the lake and its fishery. It also should be understood that any opinions I share here are my own and not that of the WWMC or any other organization.

A Very Brief History

As I’ve related here before, not only was Wabamun a favorite sport fishing lake, it also supported a viable commercial fishery for well over a century. The Alberta government closed that fishery in 2004 because of declining whitefish stock. Then the train derailment and oil spill occurred in 2005 and only C&R fishing was allowed. In a few years anglers began catching and releasing many large trophy-size northern pike, similar to what is usually caught only on northern fly-in lakes. Alberta Environment began considering the idea of making Wabamun a Trophy Northern Pike Lake.

At one time, Wabamun Lake was touted as a possible Trophy Pike Lake. (photo courtesy of Duane Radford)

Walleye Introduction
Then the government decided to introduce walleye to the lake. This had been tried many times before but all attempts had failed because of the environmental conditions created by a 1950s-built power plant using the lake as a cooling pond. That plant closed in 2010 and the government once again introduced walleye to the lake. From 2011 to 2014, over a thousand mature fish (transplanted from Lac Ste Anne) and several million hatchery-raised fry were released. At the time, Alberta Environment predicted that a harvestable population of walleye would be available in three to five years.

Catch-and-release-only fishing continued to protect the introduced walleye, a declining whitefish population and the trophy-producing northern pike population. That was an easy sell to anglers. Why not wait a few years for a harvestable walleye population that would add a very tasty fish to what could be harvested from the lake, as well as develop a trophy pike lake within an hour’s drive of Edmonton?

Indeed, after the walleye introductions, anglers continued to catch and release big pike. However, as the years passed, those successes declined. Many anglers complained that not only were they not catching as many big northern pike as before but many of the smaller pike being caught were skinny as if starving.

As well, many people who lived around the lake reported seeing less forage fish (small minnows and young game fish) in the shallows. All these observations were passed along to AEP, who responded by saying these were normal fluctuations in the populations of the lake ecosystem as the result of introducing a new predator to the system. Once the system adapted to the new circumstances, all populations would come into “balance.”

Walleye are very aggressive predators, putting up a good fight on a rod and reel. That combined with their excellent table-fare qualities makes them a very popular game fish in Alberta. (photo courtesy of Duane Radford)

But would they? Not only was a new predator added to the system, one had been removed in the form of people harvesting fish to eat. People are part of the balance equation too, from fish harvesting to habitat loss, and yes, climate change. So, what is really happening with Wabamun? Is it just the new predator or are other issues involved?

Alberta Environment and Parks assesses fish populations using the controversial Fall Index Netting (FIN) process, where nets are set at various locations around a lake and left for several hours overnight. When the nets are pulled, the fish caught are counted and information is collected about gender, age, length and weight—all important information to know about a population. But it is done at a cost—several hundred kilograms of fish are killed (edible fish from some lakes are donated to indigenous and subsistence peoples).

After the 2015 FIN study revealed the walleye population was at Very High Risk of being unsustainable and that of northern pike was High Risk, C&R-only fishing was continued. As well, the next FIN study was delayed until 2020. No other studies were conducted between 2015 and 2020 despite reports from anglers and others that the walleye population might be causing serious issues with other fish populations and the ecosystem generally.

2020 FIN

In September of 2020, AEP conducted its scheduled FIN sampling on Wabamun Lake. The results confirmed much of what anglers and others were reporting: there were many walleye and few pike in the lake. The five gill nets set at various locations around the lake captured 127 walleye, 69 lake whitefish, 10 white suckers, 7 yellow perch and 4 northern pike. Those numbers don’t mean a lot by themselves, other than the comparative abundances of species. However, from these figures and the length of time the nets were left in the water, biologists develop a catch rate (fish caught/net night) for each population and from that determine a “fish-sustainability-index” for that species in the lake. In other words, determine the risk of the population not being able to survive.

[Note: The information presented here is my interpretation of the data available from AEP and analysed by the Volunteer Biologists Group, an ad hoc group of retired Alberta Government fisheries biologists.]

Walleye
The catch-rate for walleye was 25.4 fish per net night. Such a rate classifies walleye in Wabamun as “low risk” and perhaps able to sustain a moderate harvest. Table 1 shows the progression of walleye catch rates from 2013 (the first FIN since walleye introductions began).

Table 1. Wabamun Lake Walleye FIN Catch Rates

FIN YearCatch Rate
20131.8
201524.9
202025.4

However, the catch rate doesn’t tell the whole story. What is also important are the ages, lengths and relative health of the fish. Table 2 shows the age distributions of walleye during the three FINs that occurred since walleye were introduced. The blue-highlighted numbers follow a particular generation through all three FIN samples. As you can see, it dominated the other cohorts. It is likely made up of fry released in 2012 and some of the spawning that was reported to be occurring at about that time. What’s disturbing is the lower numbers of the other age classes, including those spawned since the last introduction.

Table 2. Wabamun Lake Walleye Number
Caught at Each Age (in years)

AGE201320152020
182253
21321
301922
40151
5000
6106
7003
802109
9001
10000
11011
12020
13100
14200
15110
16040
17140

Also of concern is the slow growth of the walleye. Age 1 walleye in 2013 measured an average of 27.8 cm in total length. At age 8 in 2020 they measured an average of 39.3 cm. In those seven years they only grew an average of 11.5 cm or 1.6 cm per year—a slow growth rate. This backs up what many anglers were saying about the walleye they were catching, i.e., they don’t look healthy. As you can see in Figure 1, the vast majority of the fish are less than 43 cm in total length.



Figure 1. Total Length Distribution Categories for Walleye Sample from Wabamun Lake, 2013, 2015 and 2020. Categories: <43 cm, 43 to 50 cm, >50 cm

It appears that few new walleye are being recruited to the population that has only one dominant mature age class. This may suggest that either spawning has not been successful or that the small walleye are being heavily preyed upon by the abundant walleye and the declining pike.

One member of the Volunteer Biologists Group, who conducted an independent analysis of the FIN walleye data for Wabamun Lake, said “It is very obvious that the walleye sampled in 2020 reflect the same distribution pattern as that for years 2013 and 2015. Recruitment into the larger size classes is not taking place so additional growth does not seem possible.” He further stated that it is fairly clear that 1) the current population of walleye is the result of the 2012 fry planting, 2) the 2014 fry planting did not appear to contribute to adult recruitment, and 3) the size of the fish suggests poor growth. He concluded that the 2020 Wabamun fish population survey indicates the province is not meeting its fisheries management objective with regard to walleye.

Northern Pike
Since the walleye introductions, the northern pike population has been on a decline (see Table 3). In the 2020 FIN, only four fish were caught, a catch rate of 0.8. That places the northern pike into the Very High Risk category of sustainability. That’s quite a setback from the goal of Wabamun becoming a trophy-pike lake.

Lake Whitefish
One of the main reasons I enjoyed fishing Wabamun was for the lake whitefish that took some skill and patience to catch while providing a nice reward for the table. In the past, there were daily limits of up to 10 fish. Unfortunately, despite 13 years of C&R-only fishing, the number of whitefish caught in FIN nets has declined steadily (Table 3). In the 2020 FIN, only 69 fish were caught (a catch rate or sustainability index was not provided). What’s a mystery to me is why AEP is allowing anglers to take five whitefish per day, when it appears the population continues to decline? I have asked this question of AEP, but so far, no response.

Table 3. Comparison of Wabamun Lake FIN Catches
for Walleye, Northern Pike and Lake Whitefish
since Walleye Introduction

Number Fish Caught (Catch Rate)

FIN YearWalleyePikeWhitefish*
2013109 (1.8)130 (2.1)151
2015251 (24.9)70 (6.5)82
2020127 (25.4)4 (0.8)69
*Catch rate not provided

Burbot
Like lake whitefish, AEP has given no reasons why they’ve suddenly opened a season on burbot. There is no information available on the population status of this species. The previous daily catch limit was 10.

Yellow Perch
This fish has never been in large numbers but it is part of the Wabamun Lake ecosystem and does provide some fishing experiences, especially for young people. In the past, the daily catch limit was 15. Like pike, today it remains C&R only.

Discussion

Given the information above, it’s not hard to understand why anglers are being provided the opportunity to harvest a couple of walleye under 43 cm in length. Fish close to that length might indeed be responsible for the relative lack of recruitment to the other age classes of walleye, and perhaps the decline of other fish species including the crucial forage fish they all depend upon. Walleye are aggressive predators and when introduced into an ecosystem unfamiliar with them, it’s possible they could soon dominate. Maybe the human predator should have been restored to this lake earlier by allowing a limited harvest over the last five or so years…?

But is a Class C Special Licence harvest the best way to proceed? Most walleye anglers are interested in Class A or B licences, where they can harvest larger fish. Class C licences are often second choices, available only if the angler is not drawn for Class A or B (not available at Wabamun). In other words, Wabamun is not a likely target for most walleye anglers. As it is, Class C Special Licences are seldom oversubscribed, and indeed this spring all those who applied in the draw for one of the 3,275 Class C licences allotted for Wabamun Lake were successful (provided they weren’t drawn for A or B licences). The remaining licences can now be purchased, first-come-first-served. Will enough anglers purchase and use such licences to significantly reduce the walleye population?

Perhaps a better tactic would be to set a 10-to-14-day season in the summer and/or winter, in which any angler with a general licence could harvest two to five walleye. This would possibly attract enough anglers to lower the walleye population to a more ecosystem-friendly size.

While the introduced walleye seems to be the immediate problem, loss of habitat and climate change could also be playing roles. Without sufficient habitat for spawning, escape from predators and finding food, fish cannot survive, including young walleye and other game fish. Like other recreation lakes, Wabamun has lost much fish habitat to lakeside developments, such as homes, cottages and industry. Climate change is also playing a role as temperatures warm and weather changes. However, we know very little about how it’s affecting lakes like Wabamun.

The Wabamun fishery has gone through a lot in the last 20 years: oil spill, catch-and-release-only fishing, walleye introduction, whitefish and northern pike population crashes, and habitat loss. As well, anglers were effectively taken out of the ecosystem balance equation. But now, anglers have a chance to help make things right.

If you are an Alberta angler and want to help Wabamun Lake get back to balanced fish populations:

Buy a walleye licence! Catch a walleye and Eat It!

Comments are always welcome (below).

Visit me on my website where you’ll find more stories and pics:
www.donmeredith.ca

Interested in reading an award-winning outdoor adventure novel? Check out The Search for Grizzly One and Dog Runner.

Posted in Alberta, Climate Change, Conservation, Environment, Fishing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 14 Comments

Moving in a Pandemic-2

[An Informative Yet Cautionary Tale]

Part 2: Moving

Copyright © 2021 Don H. Meredith, All Rights Reserved

[In Part 1 I discussed how we came to the decision to move from one province to another in the middle of a pandemic and then how we went about selling our old home and buying a new one. In this part, I describe the process we followed to pack our possessions and move to our new home.]

Seeing the SOLD sign on our property forced us to face the reality that we were indeed moving.

When we finally had selling and buying agreements in hand, the reality of our moving faced us head-on. With about six weeks to pack up our possessions in Alberta and move them across the mountains to Vancouver Island, we had our work cut out for us.

First, we had to decide how we were going to move 50 years of accumulated possessions. We could do the move ourselves, renting a van or truck, or we could hire a company of professionals that could pack and haul most of it for us. Given the quantity of stuff and the time constraints, the latter option seemed the most efficient for us. But whom to hire?

Moving Companies

Like hiring a realtor, hiring a moving company was new to us. When you go online, you see a wide range of companies, some local, some national and some international. Since we had to get our possessions hauled 1200 km over mountains and onto an island via a ferry, we needed a reliable company.

One way to research companies is to look them up online through a search engine like Google. Google does provide a rating service, where customers rate their experiences with the companies. But you have to be careful here, as some of the ratings could be provided by the companies themselves, perhaps through robots. After much searching and evaluating we settled on three companies that had a reasonable track record and good ratings from a large number of people who were obviously not robots.

Because of the pandemic, one company wanted us to first use their online form, where their web program asked questions about the number of rooms in the house and what they contained, etc. The program would then estimate the cost of the move, based on the estimated weight of the total load and where it was going. That exercise was interesting and helped us decide what we should pack and what we should leave for the movers to pack.

One moving company had us fill-out an online form to provide an estimate of our move.

The next two companies insisted on sending representatives out to inspect the house and contents first hand. They used the pandemic protocols (masks and distancing) and we learned a lot about how loads are estimated and how to pack things. The more packing into boxes we do, the less cost is charged.

Within a couple of days, we had three estimates to evaluate. But how do you evaluate estimates from three companies who itemize their charges differently? One company might have the cheapest total estimated price but another might have estimated more accurately and so actually has the best deal. So, how do you compare companies?

When it comes to writing up your bill for the move, all companies base it on the total weight of your load (they weigh the loaded van and subtract the weight of the empty van) and the amount of time it took to pack and load the truck. When estimating what that bill might be, they come up with a price/unit of weight and calculate the estimated total cost from that. We told each company the same about what we wanted to pack ourselves and what we wanted the professionals to pack (e.g., furniture, glassware, artwork). So, to my mind the best way to compare them was to divide each company’s estimated total price by their estimated total weight to provide a price/pound for each company.

That resulted in a range of prices. However, price per pound is not the only criteria one should use. What if a company cut its price because it cuts corners when loading or unloading your stuff, or they add extra charges upon arriving at your new home? That’s where the customer reviews come into play. Reading the reviews on a neutral site, such as Google, gives you a general idea of how most people felt about their moves. There will always be people who are not happy but how does that number compare with those who are?

It turned out the company with the lowest price per pound also had 1) the highest number of obvious non-robotic reviews, and 2) the best rating average of all their reviews (4.5 points out of 5). So, we went with that company and booked dates with them for pickup and delivery. Now all we had to do was downsize our load and pack.

Downsizing

Over the years we had accumulated a lot of stuff, some of which we no longer used or needed. Much of it was stored in boxes in our basement and garage and included a lot of memorabilia, either our own or handed down from relatives who had passed on. It all had to be reviewed and decisions made as to their fates: what should go with us, what should be sold, and what should be trashed.

First, we sold to the new owners some yard equipment and tools that more or less went with the Alberta house and property. Then we started sorting out stuff that could be sold at a garage/yard sale: old kitchenware, tents, clothing, hunting and fishing gear, gardening tools, etc.

Garage Sale
At the beginning of the pandemic, garage sales and similar gatherings were prohibited or discouraged. However, we were now on the downside of the first wave, so those restrictions had been relaxed. Betty and I were not big garage sale fans. We had been to very few. But we knew it was a good way to unload items that were no longer of use to us but could be to someone else. Joanne came over the mountains to help us organize such a sale, using her professional event-planning and social-media skills.

Initially, we decided to have a multi-day sale over a weekend and extend it if necessary. Joanne mapped out a display setup that allowed customers to view items, inside and outside the garage, using pandemic protocols. She made a sign explaining how to tour the sale and we setup a table with ample pump bottles of hand sanitizer. We setup other tables in the garage in a horseshoe pattern that facilitated ease of viewing items and physical-distanced moving. Several items were displayed outside to better display their qualities, such as pitched tents and yard equipment.

Many outdoor articles didn’t sell until we posted them on the right social media sites.

Promotion: A sale won’t be successful unless people know it’s happening. In the past that would have involved newspaper advertising, numerous signs on the roads leading to your house and word-of-mouth. Of course, that was before the internet and social media. Fewer people read newspapers these days and especially classified ads. Instead, as we learned from our daughter, most prospective customers follow social media, either Facebook, Instagram, Twitter or all of them. Signs on roads and streets also help. As we soon learned, a lot of people, many who don’t use social media, cruise highways in search of garage sales, especially on weekends. Word of mouth also works, but that is facilitated these days by email and yes, social media.

Many older websites such as bulletin boards and forums (precursors to social media) also used to be good places to sell stuff. I use and at one time helped manage a popular online forum for Alberta hunters and anglers. It had been a good site to sell outdoor gear. So, I announced the garage sale on its buy-and-sell pages, including listing specific outdoor items. I received no productive responses, whatsoever. When we advertised the same items on the various social media sites (e.g., Facebook’s local Marketplace pages), we got instant responses; and people came from near and far to buy many quality items.

Sale: We started the sale on a Friday and continued it through the weekend. It was everyone on deck for those three days with help from some of Joanne’s friends. We advertised the sale would be from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. but we often stayed open past dinner as people kept arriving, and we weren’t going to turn them away. As well, we usually started setting up each morning at 8:30 or 9:00 and people would show up then to get a jump on things. We didn’t turn them away either. You never know who might buy that item others have passed.

Most sales were in cash, and we made sure we had enough on hand to make change, etc. One person was given responsibility for keeping the cash purse for the day. Some sales of more expensive items were made using e-transfer, which was easy and fast on our mobile phones. As things sold or prices were lowered, Joanne would update the marketplace websites on her phone.

We sold a good amount of goods over the weekend but we still had a lot to go (and were finding more as we packed). So, we extended the sale into the following week. Traffic during the week wasn’t as much as on the weekend but it was constant. While we packed, one person kept an eye on the sale.

The people who came to the sale were from a wide variety of backgrounds. Most were looking for bargains and we tried to supply just that. Haggling was expected. Although we had prices taped to the items, they often were the starting points for negotiation. Other people just paid what we asked. Some people offered way below what we were asking and we asked them, in a polite way, to come back with a serious offer. Our purpose was to move items rather than make a lot of money. But we also wanted fair compensation for the value of what we were offering. As a result, there were some interesting negotiations.

One immigrant family showed up on the first weekend and bought a lot of household stuff, from kitchenware to pillows and blankets. They had just moved from Quebec for the father to take an engineering job in Edmonton. They were living in an apartment without furnishings. When we helped them load their purchases in their older model SUV, it was already packed with items purchased at other garage sales. They were good bargainers, especially the mother.

However, the most endearing part of the family was their daughter who took a liking to Joanne’s teddy bear collection in a large, clear plastic bag. We had been keeping the bears for Joanne long after she stopped collecting them, but she knew she had no space for them all in our new home. She reluctantly put them in the sale, but set the bag back from the main tables. The little girl twigged to them instantly and wanted to get to the largest one, a pure white polar bear that was bigger than she was. Joanne saw her interest and helped her pull the bear out of the bag. Within minutes, the girl was dragging it to her daddy, pleading to please buy it for her. He winked at us and told her he would have to wait and see what the girl’s mother was buying before deciding to buy the bears. (He was also bargaining with me over an old, still functioning, stereo system.)

The little girl went back to the teddy bear bag and pulled out another large bear and two smaller polar bears. When the family finally had what they wanted in a big pile (Betty had been tallying each of the items), they of course wanted a bargain price for the whole lot. That is when the daughter appeared with the four bears: the poppa, momma and two baby bears. She argued that she needed all four bears because they were a family and shouldn’t be broken up. I looked at Joanne, whom I knew had a big attachment to those bears, and I could tell she was pleased with the girl’s passion for them, similar to hers when she was the girl’s age. When the father asked “How much for the bears?”, Joanne offered a price that was well below what they were worth. The father accepted and the little girl was jubilant, hugging her father and then Joanne. It was a special moment for everyone and hard to hold back a tear.

Packing

Let’s face it, packing is not fun. But it’s a job that must be done. We generally worked all day, every day, organizing, sorting and putting things into boxes.

Tips
There are a lot of resources available to help you pack. Often your moving company (if you’re using one) will have such things as boxes and tape available for sale. But there are often better deals elsewhere.

There’s a variety of packing boxes available.

For example, your local U-Haul franchise should have a variety of packing boxes for sale. Their boxes are very good, in various sizes and have a unique way of keeping the box flaps out of the way until you need to seal the box. Their packing tape is the best on the market. Buy several rolls, as you will use a lot. You can return any unused boxes for a refund.

As well, Home Depot has a wide selection of packing boxes and items for sale at slightly lower prices than U-Haul, but quality varies.

Don’t pack boxes for hauling smaller than 12 x 12 x 12 inches. If you’ve stored things in shoeboxes, put the shoeboxes into a larger box. Movers like to reduce the number of trips they have to make from the house to the moving truck.

Rule of thumb: the heavier the object, the smaller the box it should fit. In other words, don’t fill a large packing box with books or other heavy objects. Use smaller boxes to reduce the weight per box. Save the larger boxes for lighter objects that can be packed together. Overweight boxes are hard for movers to handle and might not survive the trip. If movers encounter an overweight box, they just might spend time repacking into smaller boxes, increasing your cost. Here are some examples of how to pack boxes:

  • Small boxes: books, contents of filing cabinets, unframed photo collections, heavy tools (e.g., circular saws, power drills, routers, compressors)
  • Medium boxes: stereo/sound equipment, computers, televisions, kitchenware
  • Large boxes: artwork, posters, framed photos, contents of desks, miscellaneous nick-nacks you just can’t live without

If you have large equipment (e.g., fitness equipment, table saw) that would require several people to move, disassemble it into more easily moved pieces if that is possible. This will make moving easier. If you don’t disassemble it, the movers might.

Furniture might also require disassembly. But often it’s difficult to determine what can be disassembled and what cannot. We decided to leave that to the movers who have such experience.

Moving Day

We packed right up to the day the movers arrived. They were to arrive around 8:30 a.m. I was up early and outside, getting things ready to go like bicycles and yard equipment. The movers started showing up around 8:00 in private vehicles. They were contractors hired by the company for the day to help with loading the trucks. All were young guys and very affable, asking where we were going and how they could help me get things ready.

Soon two moving vans showed up with the company’s crew, who didn’t waste any time. They backed each truck to our doors, one to the front and one to the back. They brought two smaller vans because the larger (53 foot) van that would make the trip over the mountains could not negotiate or S-curve driveway. The larger van would be loaded in Edmonton.

The moving vans pulled up to both sides of the house.

I took the crew leaders on a tour of the house, garage and sheds, so they could plan the loading and see what needed to be packed. They appreciated we had a lot of stuff already boxed and ready to go.

The crew was very professional and efficient. As soon as the trucks parked by the house, ramps appeared so that stuff could be loaded directly from the door to the van without having to go down the stairs. Some of the crew started immediately moving the boxes we had packed and sealed, while others started disassembling furniture and packing the glassware in our kitchen.

It was interesting to watch the movers work. Instead of carrying boxes in their hands ahead of their bellies, they took a stack of the same size boxes on their hands behind their backs. When I asked why, they said it was easier on the back because the boxes were closer to the centre of gravity (as modern backpacks are designed). They also used belts and straps to haul larger, heavier loads. None-the-less, it was definitely a job for a younger person than me.

While the movers worked, I loaded our utility trailer with many of the heavier tools, such as chainsaw, compressor, axes, mauls and other tools we might need at the new house before the movers arrive. One item I didn’t know what to do with was the old hand-made sled from our dog sledding years back in the late 1970s and ‘80s. It wasn’t in the best condition but I thought a committed dog driver could recondition it and suggested we sell it in the garage sale. Joanne said no way. She had too many memories attached to that sled (as did I) and said we were hauling it to the new home where she would figure how to make it into some form of artwork that would remind of us of those dog-sledding days. So, we tied the sled to the top of the load on the trailer.

Our loaded utility trailer, topped by our dog sled

Before we knew it, the movers had everything loaded by noon. The boss took Betty and me on a tour of the house, garage and sheds to ensure all was loaded that needed to be loaded. Once we confirmed that was true, everyone said goodbye and the two vans and movers left, the boss saying he would see us on the island.

Betty, Joanne and I stood outside the now empty house, watching the vans drive away. We looked at each other and realized we no longer had a place to live. There were no beds or furniture we could use, and the fridge was empty. Fortunately, our good friend and neighbor, Helen, said we could stay at her place for the night. She treated us to a good dinner and breakfast, after which we said goodbye, returned to our sold house for a final inspection and clean-up, and left in three vehicles for our new home.

We really had no plan other than to drive to Harrison Hot Springs by the following day to stay with our friends there before moving on to the island. It was a beautiful day and we just kept driving, getting to Harrison in 12 hours.

We took possession of our new home on Vancouver Island a few days later. It was the first time Betty and I had seen the place in reality, and it did not disappoint.

The movers came a few days after that with their 53-foot van. Our possessions only took up ½ of the load. They also moved a family from Edmonton to Vancouver in the same load. As with the loading, the movers hired some local contractors to help with the unloading and moving into the house. We had labeled each box with the room in which it should be placed, which speeded the efficiency of the process. One or two of us stood outside and guided unlabeled items to their respective places.

Once the movers left, it was time to unpack.

They unloaded all our possessions and moved them inside our house in just a few hours. At the end, the boss took me on a tour of the empty van to confirm all had been unloaded. I agreed, and we all bid the movers goodbye. We were moved in. Now all we had to do was unpack.

Bitter/Sweet

For Betty and I, the move was indeed bitter/sweet. We had spent 50 years in Alberta, 42 in the log home we built in Parkland County. We have many good friends and many great memories in Alberta, from building our own home to all the gardening, hiking, hunting, fishing and exploring we did in the variety of landscapes that is Alberta. It was hard to leave all that behind. But we realized that taking care of a country home with a large woodlot and garden was becoming more and more difficult for us. It was inevitable we would have to move sooner or later.

On the other hand, we always enjoyed our trips to British Columbia, its many mountain ranges, rivers, lakes, parks and great fishing. So, it was easy to look forward to our new adventure, while using the time afforded by the pandemic to make a positive difference in our lives.

Our new home with a view

We are enjoying our new home where we can share experiences, triumphs and trials with Joanne and Ian. Of course, such a move is not for everyone. Ours was planned and executed on the special circumstances we faced as an extended family. Besides the hard work and frustrations, we also had a bit of luck along the way, as we made our move between what turned out to be the first and second waves of the pandemic. The help and advice of friends and professionals also were key to our success. I wrote this piece in the hope it might help others make decisions about where they want to go beyond the pandemic.

Good luck to all and Stay Safe!

Comments are always welcome (below).

Visit me on my website where you’ll find more stories and pics:
www.donmeredith.ca

Interested in reading an award-winning outdoor adventure novel? Check out The Search for Grizzly One and Dog Runner.

Posted in Alberta, British Columbia, Vancouver Island | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

Moving in a Pandemic-1

Part 1: Selling and Buying

[An Informative yet Cautionary Tale]

Copyright © 2021 Don H. Meredith, All Rights Reserved

It was a decision we really didn’t want to make. After all, we were content where we were and really had no plans to live anywhere else. Then the pandemic hit.

There’s no doubt 2020 will go down as one of most disruptive years in modern history. You have to go back to World War II to find a more disruptive one. Even so, nothing has affected the world as a whole in such a short period of time than has Covid-19. Indeed, even the Spanish Flu of 1918-19 took a lot longer to get around the globe than did today’s pandemic. As a result, there’s hardly a human on the planet that has not been affected by the disease in one way or another.

Our log home, west of Edmonton, Alberta

To our knowledge, my wife Betty and I have not contracted the disease (you can be infected but not be symptomatic). However, the self-isolation and lockdowns that began in March of 2020 have had a demoralizing effect on us, as I’m sure they have on many. We lived on an acreage about a 45-minute drive west of Edmonton, Alberta. We had been there over 40 years, had built a log house ourselves, raised a daughter and a host of dogs and other animals, and were generally happy with our rural lifestyle. That included going for a day or two without seeing anyone else. But neighbours and friends would drop by from time-to-time or we to them to get that face-to-face human contact we all require for our mental well-being. With the lockdown, all that changed. Betty and I are in an age-class vulnerable to the infection because our immune systems have aged, losing some of their potency. Provincial authorities made that point very clear and as a result people stopped coming to see us, and we to them, except on rare occasions where we wore masks and met outside with social distancing. Of course, we still made contact with people through telephone, email and the various online meeting apps.

Our problem was our “bubble” was small indeed. Our only other immediate family was our daughter Joanne and her partner Ian, who were a province away on Vancouver Island. They had moved there two years ago and were quite happy with their jobs, environment and lifestyle. They were renting an apartment while looking for their first house that suited their needs and budget.

Pre-pandemic, we would visit them a couple of times a year, but that wasn’t possible now. Zoom meetings helped but the big worry for all of us was what would happen if one of us got infected? The others would not be able to provide much support. Also, Betty and I knew time was taking its toll on us and we were not able to take care of our place the way we used to. We knew we would have to move to a smaller place sooner or later. So, our long-distance conversations turned to perhaps all of us moving together under one roof. Besides the obvious buying power of both couples, the shared responsibilities of house maintenance would allow us to downsize our overall house but not the things about our lifestyle we enjoyed like having a yard with a garden.

We enjoyed working in our large garden that was very productive.

At first it was just speculation, maybe making the move in the fall or the following spring. But it wasn’t long before we contacted real estate agents to see where we stood with regard to selling and buying power. And that’s when things took off and got really interesting.

Real Estate

It had been over 40 years since we’d dealt with real estate agents, and that was to buy the property where we built our log house and lived for those many years; and it was not during a pandemic. So, we had a lot to learn. Of course, when you’re selling and buying your principal residence you want to get the best price you can for the house you’re selling and the lowest price you can for the house that satisfies what you want in a new home.

Agents
It was recommended we interview at least three separate real estate agencies with experience in selling country homes in our area. By this time (May 2020), some of the Covid restrictions had relaxed and realtors were able to go to homes, using the pandemic protocols. Still the business had changed. You could no longer call up an agent and ask him or her to take you on a tour of properties. Prospective customers are strongly encouraged to go online to the agency’s website and look at properties there or through the Multiple Listing Service (MLS) site, www.realtor.ca. Those websites now include “virtual tours” of properties for sale, where you can see most of the features of a house you might be interested in. Once you’ve done that, you tell the agent the ones you want to see in person. As one agent told us, this process discourages most looky-loos, those who have no interest in buying but just want to look at houses and see how other people live.

Another concern of ours was how the pandemic was affecting house prices. Was it a buyers’ or sellers’ market? I knew how much the county tax assessors annually valued our property, but those were figures gleaned from the previous year’s average sales and didn’t reflect the current situation.

The first two agents who toured our house and property in Alberta said they liked it but this was a difficult time to sell, and recommended a price well below our expectation but not too far above what the county had assessed.

Our third agent had been recommended by a friend. He gave our property a good tour and was impressed. After a few days, he returned and we sat down at our table (socially distanced and masked) and he laid out exactly how he had thoroughly researched the value of our property. This company had some expertise in evaluating log houses (they’d sold a few in our area). He told us the rural housing market was on the rise because of the pandemic. People in the city wanted to move to the country where they presumed it was easier to ride-out a pandemic. He gave us a range of prices he would support us selling and the strategies and expectations we should have for each. Those prices were considerably higher than those recommended by the first two agents. So, it was a no-brainer as to whom we would pick to sell our house.

In the meantime, Joanne and Ian contacted an agent a friend had recommended with experience buying and selling rural properties on southern Vancouver Island. The agent took them out to see several properties that appeared (online) to satisfy our requirements for a two-family home. Betty and I followed their tours online. Within a few days, they found a house that looked like it would check many of the boxes we wanted in a home. Joanne and Ian suggested we come over the mountains to see it and other places that might work. By this time, restrictions about travel had relaxed a little. So, in early June, we drove from our home in Alberta to our daughter’s apartment on Vancouver Island.

Realtor.ca is the place to go if you’re looking for a home or a realtor in your area.

No Conditions
Long-story-short, we toured the house in a nice neighbourhood (using pandemic protocols), and it looked like it would serve our purpose with a few alterations. We also toured some other possibilities and had discussions about what we all wanted in a house that could house two couples separately. We put in a bid for the house. After much back and forth through our agent, we learned that although our bid had been higher, the seller accepted a lower offer because the buyer placed no conditions on the offer. In other words, the sale would not be held up by inspections or financial concerns—a risky play by the buyer, but it quickly closed the sale (a strategy often used by speculators).

Of course, we were disappointed. However, our realtor told us we shouldn’t be disheartened. It was his experience that when one deal falls through, often a better one shows up down the line.

So, Betty and I bid goodbye to Ian and Joanne and returned to Alberta, where we had other real estate issues to address. However, our trip to the island was not a total loss. We had learned from each other what we wanted in a two-family home, and we trusted Joanne’s and Ian’s judgement.

Buy and Sell
On returning to Alberta, we learned our realtor was ready to go with selling our house. We set about cleaning and decluttering the house so that it would be most appealing to buyers. The agent scheduled a date with his videographer to video record the property and produce a very good virtual tour. Our property was soon on the realtor’s website. Within hours, several people had signed up for tours. Soon, we were periodically leaving the house so realtors could show it to their clients.

In the meantime, Joanne and Ian were touring several houses the Vancouver Island realtor had found for them. In the course of events, they found another nice house that might fit our needs. We gave it a good look online and we collectively decided to put in a bid. This time the bid was accepted! That acceptance was based on the conditions we had requested in the bid (as directed by our realtor), including an inspection of the property by experts who would provide us with information about what would need to be done to bring the house up to acceptable conditions (older houses will inevitably have issues, from minor repairs and adjustments to aging components that require upgrading; most won’t affect the price but others could).

Skulduggery
Back in Alberta during one of our house evacuations to allow agents and their clients to tour our house, Betty and I received a phone call from Joanne who informed us that the house inspector had found issues with the island house having to do with drainage. The issue either could be easily resolved or it might require some major repairs to the drainage system and possibly the foundation. The inspector said a structural engineer should survey the issue to determine which it was. The purchase agreement, signed by all parties, allowed us to hire such a service if necessary (a standard part of such a contract). However, the owner now said such an expert would not be allowed on the property. If that wasn’t enough of a red flag, the seller offered us a lower purchase price that was topped-off with an ultimatum: take it as it is, or not at all!

What?

There we sat on the side of the road having phone conversations with Joanne and our island realtor, who was fit to be tied. He had never seen this before in his many years in the business, where a sale contract had so quickly been violated by the seller. What was the seller hiding? Reluctantly, we decided to abandon the deal because of the breach of contract. Despite how good the house and property appeared, the deal now reeked of the duplicity of the owner. It wasn’t worth the risk to buy a house only to learn it would cost thousands of dollars to make safe.

One of the selling features of our Alberta home was its proximity to Wabamun Lake.

Deal or No Deal
But the roller coaster of emotions was just beginning. Disappointed, we returned to our Alberta house after the real estate tours had finished only to learn that an offer for that house was on the table. Our realtor explained that others were interested but when they heard an offer had been made, they backed away. The offer was slightly above the asking price and had the usual list of conditions, including home inspection and approval of financing. After absorbing the information for a day and discussing with the realtor, we decided to accept the offer.

Now we had a house about to sell but no new one to go to. We started gearing up for the home inspection and more serious packing. Then our realtor phoned a few days later to say the buyer was withdrawing his offer because his financing had fallen through. The realtor had a waiting list of prospective buyers and he quickly lined up more house tours.

Price War?
Within a very few days we had several offers on the table from different real estate firms. Some were above the asking price. Our realtor would normally have been the one to explain the individual offers to us, but one of them was from a customer of his (where he wouldn’t have to split his commission with another realtor). Such a conflict of interest meant a neutral realtor (one with no skin in the game) would have to present the offers to us.

Now, there is a bit of a myth that having several offers means you can create a “price war”, where you bait one offer against another—like an auction. You know, taking the highest offer and telling the other bidders that this is the one you’re going to take unless they come up with something better; and if a higher offer comes in, send that back to the other and see if they will better it. That doesn’t happen in real estate (at least in Alberta and BC, and I’m assuming elsewhere)! All offers are confidential. A bidder may know other bids have been made but doesn’t know where his or her offer stands until one of them is accepted. And if any offer is the highest and greater than the asking price, the seller needs a good reason not to accept it. A lot goes into that decision besides price, including a reasonable time to arrange financing, an agreeable closing date for both parties, allowing the buyer to have reasonable access to the property for inspections, etc.

Sold
We had our meeting with the neutral realtor over the phone, who laid out the offers and rated them with regard to the above criteria. Overall, the offer with the highest price had the best deal: we could reasonably meet all conditions with minimal adjustments. After some negotiation, we accepted that offer. We had sold our home!

Although we now knew the date when we’d have to be out of our house for the new owners to take possession, we still didn’t have another home to go to. It was a strange feeling after having had a secure place to live for over 40 years.

Well, we needn’t have worried. Within a few days of our closing the deal on the Alberta house, our island realtor found a nice place that ticked ALL the boxes the four of us wanted and more. The market on the island was heating up, and we got word that there was an offer from another party being made on the property. As a result of scheduling, Joanne had to view the property on her own with the agent. Our previous dealing had made us all wary, but it appeared this property was a place we would have little to do to make ready for occupation by two families.

As well, having our Alberta house sale in hand gave us more buying power. So, realizing there were other bids being considered, we could offer a little higher than asking. Sure enough, we won the bid! Only this time, all was legit; we had our inspection that found no serious issues and we soon signed a deal completing the sale! We were the proud owners of a new home!

Now, all we had to do was move.

Next: Part 2, Moving

Comments are always welcome (below).

Visit me on my website where you’ll find more stories and pics:
www.donmeredith.ca

Interested in reading an award-winning outdoor adventure novel? Check out The Search for Grizzly One and Dog Runner.

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A Dangerous Man with a Dangerous Concept—Cumulative Effects

Guest Blog: The following essay by guest blogger Lorne Fitch describes how one person has attempted to come to grips with our future by measuring the cumulative effects of all we do on the land. The piece was first published in the Fall 2020 Nature Alberta Magazine. Lorne’s previous essays posted here can be found by putting “Lorne Fitch” in the search box at the top of this page.

A Dangerous Man with a Dangerous Concept—Cumulative Effects
by Lorne Fitch
Copyright © 2020

Once, in a far-off land, in another time, a ruler had a vision of an impending famine. To prepare for this contingency he bought up all the grain in the surrounding area to feed his city. The famine comes to pass, his subjects have enough to eat but he discovers, too late, the grain is contaminated and those who eat it will go mad. The ruler summons his most loyal subject and gives him all the uncontaminated grain that exists. He admonishes him to only eat that grain. The loyal subject queries his ruler— “Why me?” The ruler considers the question and answers, “because you are young and we will need someone sane, when we are all mad, to tell us what we are.”

In present times, many have adopted the myth of constant growth, inevitable progress and inexorable economic advancement to the point they have gone similarly mad. To inject some sanity in a growth-focused world, “to tell us what we are,” is a dangerous, yet necessary undertaking.

Over time there have been some notably dangerous men and women who have confronted the status quo, toppled conventional thinking, debunked ideologies, and pried off our blinders. Copernicus and Darwin come to mind as do contemporary examples, such as Rachel Carson, David Suzuki, and David Schindler.

Dr. Brad Stelfox is another who, in the parlance of the 1960s, questions authority. He does it in an uncharacteristically subversive way, using data from industry, government and academia. The tool he uses is cumulative effects assessment, or CEA. Using years of data, Brad developed ALCES—A Land Cumulative Effects Simulator—to objectively measure and track land-use activities and their accumulating footprint.

Our world isn’t limitless and our growth trajectory isn’t endless. Yet each new subdivision, road or cutblock adds up to transform the landscape.

We all talk about the future, maybe even believe there is one, but universally tend to think and act in the here and now. That’s why it is always a surprise when we run short on water, land, space and wildlife. It’s hard to add up the incremental, additive changes and losses, do the math over time and project that trend line into the future. When the future catches up with our present, we are deeply shocked, mortified even, with the limitations of our world. This assumes, of course, that we are able and willing to see how our past and present actions preclude options for the future.

That’s the mirror Stelfox holds up, showing our world isn’t limitless and our growth trajectory isn’t endless. We tend to see the world in snap shots— one well site, another subdivision, a new road or a cutblock appearing. We lack the skill to do the additive math of all these features transforming the landscape. Our memories are also imperfect about when all of these features snuck up on us, because we rarely look backward in time to see where we came from.

All effects, all land uses, are cumulative simply because everything accumulates and lingers both through time and over space. In a “tyranny of small decisions” a series of seemingly individual insignificant changes can accumulate to result in a significant effect overall.  The cumulative effect of stressors in the environment from our land-use decisions may, in some cases, be more than the simple sum of individual stressors. The synergistic effects may be devastating to ecosystems and ecosystem function.

It becomes seductively easy to believe the way things are is the way they were meant to be. Such hubris leads to blindness. Unless we claw the security blanket of growth from our eyes it will prevent us from recognizing the truth of our situation— that we are walking a tightrope without a safety net. We remain fundamentally, inexorably dependent on intact natural systems with a high degree of integrity for our survival.

While we live in the present, we are affected by the past and inevitably head into the future. It would be of considerable comfort to know what the future brings. Rather than wait for it, to invoke choice rather than chance, we can direct the future with the decisions of today. CEA is one, of very few tools, that gives us the capability to understand today’s actions and the implications for tomorrow. If we wish to move forward intelligently, this can inform the pathway to tomorrow.

We all yearn to divine the future, to understand what it has in store for us. For most things that is a dream, caught up with fortune tellers, or fortune cookies. But our brains have a unique structure that allows us to mentally transport ourselves into tomorrow and then to reflect on what we find there. It’s called imagination. If nature has given us a greater gift, no one has named it. Our ability to simulate future selves and future circumstances isn’t perfect however. It’s a fragile and imperfect talent that leaves us squinting and straining to see what it could be like to have this, or go there, or do that.

But as Stelfox shows, the past can be a window on the future if we organize, systematically analyze and strategically use existing information. By using the information from the past, assembling it as a trajectory or as a trend, CEA can help us predict the future if we continue on one path, or another. The actions and decisions of today are extended forward, so we can see where the path leads.

We cannot plan well for something we cannot see, especially the future. CEA becomes a useful, pragmatic tool to provide factual knowledge allowing an informed choice to be made about future options. As a pathway to a sustainable future, this allows today’s decisions to be measured against tomorrow’s realities.

The process of modelling cumulative effects neither defends nor demonizes the status quo, often termed the “business as usual” case. As Stelfox says, “While there may be no inherent right or wrong in our decisions, there inevitably will be consequences”. What it does is allow us to see where the decisions of today will lead us. The opportunity afforded us is that of a different, perhaps better trajectory to be set for balancing ecological, social and economic goals.

All effects, all land uses, are cumulative simply because everything accumulates and lingers both through time and over space.

Even though we build it everyday, the future eludes us. The greatest discovery in each generation is that we can alter the future by changing what we do today. The ability to simulate future circumstances, based on trends established, isn’t perfect but it beats guessing and it provides form to imagination. We need tools like this to make appropriate choices, rather than taking a chance on future circumstances.

Cumulative effects models can deal with skepticism, but not denial. There can be a tendency to dismiss the model when the results don’t correspond with an alternate view of the future. We all have different starting points from which our opinions about the future are formed. We may also have reasonable fears that manifest themselves in a variety of ways, especially if our view of the future is diametrically opposed to the results of a modeling exercise.

Sometimes messages about the future are unpopular because the listener perceives they will be affected in a negative way. Understanding what the future may bring introduces an aspect of change, from the familiar and expected to the new and uncertain. Those who want to do nothing and make no change can find enough uncertainty to avoid doing anything. The point of CEA is to inform change, while change is still possible, to exercise flexibility, alternatives and choice.

Brad is the first to acknowledge the science of CEA cannot give us all the answers. In fact, the most difficult questions, the most persistent problems and often the greatest challenges are not matters of science. They are related to values. It would seem the primary impediments to sustainable resource management are not a lack of evolutionary or ecological understandings—they are more related to social, political and economic ones. The problem is not that we do not know enough, but that we do not allow what we know to constrain our behavior.

CEA can tell us what is happening, or what will happen, but it cannot make us do anything about it. However, as Gordon Lightfoot intones, “If you plan to face tomorrow, do it soon.” The utility of CEA lies in seeking agreement on what future is desired, not through guesswork, but through the tools of science which include thought, planning and foresight.

East Slopes

Despite decades of progress, watershed planning for the East Slopes of Alberta is still in its infancy. This is a busy landscape that continues to get busier with a growing population demanding more from resource extraction, recreation and water supplies. Meshing these demands with a landscape which forms an essential water source for downstream water users, unique biodiversity attributes, wild space and stunning scenery is a task requiring more than maintaining the status quo.

What Albertans draw from the East Slopes is substantial—economically, ecologically, socially and personally. Yet, the rate of reinvestment isn’t proportional to the take and the signals of overuse are evident. Native trout declines are a message hard to ignore. Their plight is a signal that many of the values Albertans hold for the East Slopes are at risk. In some cases, like flooding, our land-use decisions pose a risk to downstream communities.

The East Slopes do not represent an inexhaustible supply of benefits for Albertans. We need to set ecologically-relevant limits and thresholds; without them we continue to spiral towards overuse. Investments need to be considered for restoration, especially where limits have been exceeded. Research needs, like better measurements of water quantity and quality, biodiversity and the effects of climate change require adequate resources. At the center is understanding and untangling the additive effects of every want and desire for the East Slopes.

First, we have to understand where we are, compare that to where we were (the historical benchmark) and assess whether our land-use trajectory will take us to a desirable future. Implicit in this is the sense we do not want to sacrifice attributes of the East Slopes in our present decisions that will have future, perhaps irreversible consequences.

Across Alberta, communities of interests are forging plans for the landscapes of the future. Fortunately, the Oldman and Bow watersheds have one of those initiatives, fostered by people who realize if you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you and the final destination may be a surprise. The Alberta Chapter of The Wildlife Society and several funding partners commissioned Cumulative Effects of Land Uses and Conservation Priorities in Alberta’s Southern East Slopes to assist in an important dialogue on land-use planning for the Southern East Slopes of Alberta.

The results indicate cumulative effects present substantial risk to Bull Trout and Westslope Cutthroat Trout in the Southern East Slopes, now and into the future.  As native trout species are a surrogate, or indicator of watershed integrity this indicates issues with the combined level of past and present land use activity, and points to concerns with other species, like grizzly bears.

 As a science-based assessment this provides an opportunity to better understand different management scenarios and clearly show expected outcomes. Preventing harmful future development, reclaiming temporary footprints, and managing access has the potential to improve trout performance in these watersheds. With different management trajectories, there is an opportunity to make a real change in terms of conservation.

Past cumulative effects exercises show the status quo approach (continuing to maintain land use pressures) is not favorable for future circumstances. Like a road, the future isn’t just a place we’re headed; it can be a place we get to create. Recognizing that, then a set of alternatives need to be posed and tested.

That is the essence of this exercise in the east slopes—a test of our ability to be good stewards of an essential Alberta landscape.

Douglas Chadwick observed about these tools that, “All are part of the challenge of learning as a modern society how to live the good life on earth without abusing the generosity of our hostess.” The work that Stelfox undertook to develop a method for measuring and tracking cumulative effects helps us with that challenge.

Lorne Fitch is a Professional Biologist, a retired Fish and Wildlife Biologist and a former Adjunct Professor with the University of Calgary.

Comments are welcome (below); but you may also contact Lorne directly at lafitch@shaw.ca

Posted in Alberta, Climate Change, Conservation, Environment, Lorne Fitch, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Waiting for the Miracle

or

Thoughts on Viruses, Vaccines and Hope

The sands of time were falling
From your fingers and your thumb
And you were waiting
For the miracle, for the miracle to come

-Leonard Cohen, Waiting for the Miracle

You will note that I have not posted to this blog in a long time. Like most of you, I’ve been trying to sort out just what we’re facing with this pandemic and how to cope. Whenever I sat down to write a piece, other issues intervened. As well, it became obvious to our immediate family that being distantly isolated from one another at this time of great uncertainty was not helpful. So, we’ve moved ourselves and resources under one roof, where we can look after each other and share expenses. That’s a lot easier said than done. Once the house sale and purchase were completed, we had our work cut out for us. More on that in a later post.

Right now, I’d like to discuss the hope we all have that a vaccine will be found and we will be out from under this pandemic soon and return to something akin to what we considered “normal” before March 2020. In a sense, we are “waiting for the miracle” in Leonard Cohen’s song. It’s good to have hope, we all need it to maintain our mental health; but it’s also important to understand the reality of the issue we face, and why waiting might take longer than we hope.

Viruses fall from the sky, every day.

Viruses

As a biologist, I find viruses to be quite interesting. For an extremely small entity (about 1/1000 the width of a human hair), they have an immense impact on our ecosystems and health. Essentially, they are just packets of genetic material (RNA) that require a living cell to get their energy and reproduce. It turns out viruses are everywhere: in soil, water, air and on surfaces. They fall from the sky every day, and if you’ve been outside, they’ve fallen on you and are in the air you breathe.

Don’t be alarmed! The vast majority are harmless to humans, and our immune systems readily handle them. The ones the jet stream distributes around the world are soil or marine viruses that need to infect bacteria and other small organisms to reproduce. Indeed, most provide valuable ecosystem services, such as keeping bacterial populations balanced.

Other viruses cause diseases in plants and animals. Again, most are harmless to humans; but the few that infect us can be quite debilitating and lethal. The common cold and influenza (flu) are the most common maladies we suffer from viruses. But as demonstrated by the necessity to take a flu vaccine every year, viruses are constantly evolving and seeking new hosts.

Pandemics, Epidemics and Vaccines

Until Covid-19 came along, most people alive today had not experienced a pandemic, where the entire world is affected (SARS, bird and swine flu were epidemics, affecting only certain regions of the world). The last one we had was the 1918 Spanish Flu that infected 500 million people (~30% of the total human population of 1.7 billion) and killed 50 million (~3%). My parents were small children during that time but they remembered the concern of their parents. Of course, in those days, there was no internet, social media or TV, and commercial radio was still a couple of years away. So, people depended on newspapers for their news. Antibiotics, vaccines and painkillers were few. Because my parents lived in rural areas, the chance of infection was reduced and they were not directly affected, but the threat remained.

When I arrived at the end of World War II, my parents were very concerned with my health because they had had a rough ride with my older brother, who had survived some medical issues because of our parents’ perseverance in getting him the help he needed. So, when I came along, they ensured I had every opportunity to keep my health.

The badge of a generation: Smallpox vaccine scar after seven decades.

Smallpox

The first vaccination I had was for smallpox (variola virus), a vaccine first created in the 19th century. Smallpox was a highly infectious and lethal disease that had plagued humanity for millennia. I don’t remember receiving the vaccination because I was about two-years old at the time, but I was told I screamed a lot. Unlike a simple injection under the skin or into muscle, the smallpox vaccine was injected by repeated stabbings into the skin at the same site. To this day, I have a thick round scar on my upper left arm from that first injection—sort of an identification badge for my generation.

A booster vaccination for smallpox was also required. I don’t remember much about that injection either, being 5 or 6 years old, but I imagine it wasn’t pleasant as it still required multiple stabbings into the lower levels of the skin, although the technique had been refined (a multiple needle device). The booster was delivered to my upper right arm and left a much smaller scar that is not visible today.

As a result of world-wide vaccinations, smallpox was eradicated around the world in 1977. The virus doesn’t exist outside samples stored at research labs. Eradication is the goal of any vaccination program but it has only occurred with smallpox, as the result of a concerted effort by health organizations throughout the world.

Polio

Another disease that concerned my parents was Poliomyelitis, or polio for short. It’s a debilitating disease that primarily strikes children but also adults. Death rates in children could be as high as 5% but in adults as high as 30%. It is also caused by a virus (poliovirus). The virus attacks muscles, often in the legs, causing them to weaken and the victim not being able to walk or walk awkwardly. It may also strike other muscles including the diaphragm, making it difficult to breathe and often resulting in death. Many people survived the disease with no long-lasting ill effects, but others were not so lucky and had permanent disabilities.

As a boy, I remember attending our church’s Sunday school with a kid in a wheelchair who had survived polio but it left him disabled, unable to move his legs. Some others who survived had to spend the remainder of their lives in an iron lung that breathed for them. So, it’s not hard to understand why parents were concerned.

By the 1950s there had been several polio epidemics in North America, starting in the late 19th century, and affecting particular cities or regions. Because not a lot was known about how the disease spread, local governments where infections occurred closed down theatres, swimming pools and banned social gatherings. Parents kept their children at home. Sound familiar?

It was later determined that the virus spread through food or water contaminated with fecal matter. So, any infected person with poor hygiene habits could spread it. Like Covid-19, you could have polio and not show symptoms.

There were several attempts at developing a vaccine for polio since the 1930s but most were ineffective or indeed dangerous. Then in 1954 Dr. Jonas Salk at the University of Pittsburgh developed an effective vaccine using inactive polio virus. It was a major breakthrough but problems occurred during commercial production when some companies failed to completely inactivate the virus, among other issues, and some people caught the disease from the vaccine. The process was refined and finally by 1955 enough effectual vaccine was developed to immunize grade school students.

I remember my mother marching me down to the high school I would attend a few years later to stand in line with other mothers and their children, waiting to get the Salk vaccine. I believe having the vaccination was a requirement to attend a public school. The result was polio infections quickly dropped off and the fear among parents abated. Then in 1958 the number of cases increased significantly among those who had not taken the vaccine, and fear rose again.

In 1961 an oral vaccine was developed by Albert Sabin and it was recommended that all children take the new vaccine as a booster. I remember receiving the vaccine on a sugar cube at the school I attended at the time. No needle pricks or stabbings, and as a result many more people, especially children, took the vaccine. By 1979, the disease was largely eradicated from North America but it is still extant in some third-world countries.

Post-polio Syndrome. Many people who had recovered from polio started experiencing polio symptoms again 30 or 40 years later, including muscle weakness, general fatigue, muscle atrophy and breathing and swallowing problems. It turns out these symptoms are not a return of the virus (as happens with the chicken pox/shingles virus) but a result of the damage the virus did those many years ago.

Herd Immunity

The biggest requirement involved with eradicating a virus is achieving so called “herd immunity”, where 60 to 80% of the population has sufficient antibodies against the virus to prevent infection (or reinfection) and further spread of the virus. In other words, enough people are immune that the virus has difficulty finding a suitable host, to the point that it eventually dies out.

Herd immunity is accomplished in two ways: 1) a sufficient number of people are exposed to the virus, survive the infection and develop antibodies as a result, preventing further infection, 2) a vaccine is developed and administered to a sufficient number of people and produces the necessary antibodies in those people to resist infection. Or a combination of the two. To prevent as many deaths as possible from Covid-19, developing a vaccine is the obvious answer to increasing herd immunity. And indeed, that’s what laboratories around the world are working on. As I write, some vaccines are in clinical trials. This is good news, and demonstrates what can happen when the collective will and energy of the world is mobilized to solve a crisis. (I know, I know: think what could happen if such will and energy were mobilized for the climate crisis? But I digress.)

However, this process does take time. Successful vaccines in the past have taken four to five years (if not decades) to research, develop and get on the market. This time around, the research and development have been streamlined, but there is a danger that shortcuts will be made. As the early polio virus trials showed, when a vaccine is rushed, mistakes are made. Clinic trials are where errors can be found without risking the health of vulnerable portions of the population.

Of course, the Cockwomble down south doesn’t think this pandemic is a problem and believes that most people should live their lives as they did before it struck. And when you contract the disease, just fight the infection and become immune as a result. Of course, such advice ignores the realities of the death and disability that this disease causes. It’s NOT just another flu, as confirmed by the high death toll our southern neighbour is experiencing.

Also, it’s very possible that some vaccines might not provide sufficient long-lasting protection, or only protect a portion of the population. In other words, it might take a while to achieve herd immunity if it’s ever achieved at all.

Pandemic Fatigue

What is becoming obvious is this virus is going to be with us for a long time, and we’re going to have to cope with it. That means life as we knew it prior to 2020 will not return. That said, some sense of normality is necessary just to cope. As I write this, it’s been nine months since the coronavirus first appeared. During that time, we’ve had to self-isolate and only converse at a distance or over the internet with our neighbours, friends and relatives. Many businesses had to close for a time, some never to reopen.

Economies cannot be shutdown indefinitely. People need food, services and employment. So, it’s inevitable that once most people understood what was required to prevent spread of the disease, restrictions would be relaxed to allow commerce to resume, conditionally. This worked for most people but there are always those who don’t like being told what to do even if it’s for the good of all. They complain about their freedom being restricted, etc. and choose to ignore the science. These people are the reason we are having a second and possibly third wave of infection.

All that said, coping with the pandemic does get tiring. I used to enjoy taking a break and going to town to do some shopping and maybe meet with friends or colleagues for coffee or lunch. Now, that’s become a chore because we must physically distance and wear masks if we wish to comply with the pandemic protocols. It is indeed nice to see other people but the masks are uncomfortable and form barriers that block more than just the virus.

However, if we want to stay healthy, we must comply with the public health protocols, not only for our own safety but for that of the vulnerable portions of the population, such as seniors and those with additional health issues. The bottom line is we will get through this. But we must do it together so we all can have hope and hasten “the miracle to come.”

Comments are always welcome (below).

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www.donmeredith.ca

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Is Science Important Only During Pandemics?

Guest Blog: Biologist Lorne Fitch has once again provided an essay for my blog. It is an opinion piece that was first published in the May 14, 2020 Lethbridge Herald. Lorne’s previous essays posted here can be found by putting “Lorne Fitch” in the search box at the top of this page.

Is Science Important Only During Pandemics?
by Lorne Fitch
Copyright © 2020

Do you know of any effective incantations, spells or potions to help us in this time of crisis and uncertainty? No? If there is a silver lining in the coronavirus disease pandemic, it might be to reassert in people’s minds the role, importance and prominence of science in our lives. Science provided the answer to what the virus was, is the basis for vaccine development and is the mechanism for direction on how to cope. Hands down, science trumps magic, effectively deals with ignorance and calms hysteria.

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Science seeks to find the truth about what we see in nature.

The coronavirus will not be beaten by necklaces of garlic, snake-oil salesmen with fake curesor the limp pronouncements by partisan politicians. What will head it off will be the patient research and testing of anti-viral treatments and antibodies coupled with the calm determination of our provincial and federal medical health officers.

But we can’t turn science on or off depending on our whims, biases and our tribal affiliations on social media. Of course, you are entitled to your opinions, but you are not entitled to your own facts. Science is the ultimate arbiter of knowledge.

“The good thing about science”, says Neil deGrasse Tyson, the astrophysicist and science spokesman, “is that it’s true, whether or not you believe it.”

In science, a theory is an established body of knowledge about a subject, supported by observable facts, repeatable experiments and logical reasoning. It is a formal explanation of some aspect of the natural world, tested and verified with evidence. Science can be described as observation, hypothesis, experimentation, repetition and finally conclusion. By contrast, much of what we are deluged with is a conclusion based on unsubstantiated, untested anecdote, the weakest, worst and most biased kind of information for decision-making. Examples include:

  • Climate change deniers who base their conclusions on exceptions in the research instead of looking at the overwhelming body of evidence. More than 97% of experts in climate science have concluded that climate change is occurring and it is human-caused.
  • Because it suits their narrative, many in the off-highway vehicle community refuse to accept the research results indicating their activity impacts watershed integrity, water quality, fish and wildlife populations and other recreational users. This perceptual blindness works its way into partisan politics, despite the unequivocal nature of the science.
  • Most of us, including politicians, industry and recreationalists cheerfully ignore the science of cumulative effects, the additive impact of doing too much, too often, on an already busy landscape. We have often exceeded critical ecological thresholds and the outcomes are enhanced risk, reduced system resilience, diminished opportunity and costly restoration.

Science seems ever under attack, by those who do not like the message, feel it impairs their freedom, limits their business and doesn’t match their ideology. History provides us a rich treasure trove of examples of groups, corporations, business and, sadly, politicians, who have predictably damned the messenger.

Then, there is the corrosive effect on science, occurring primarily in social media, to create an alternative reality where facts are, if not irrelevant, at least optional. It is the place of substitution of unfounded opinion for evidence. There is faith in that for which there is no factual support; disbelief and denial about occurrences and events for which there is. The numbing thing about the tribalism inherent in social media is your group routinely provides the conditions that spare you the need to think and so you get out of the habit.

The complex mechanisms of the modern world depend on the certainty of science, just as the medieval world was governed by religious dogma, ritual and faith. Reliance on fears, irrational explanations and faith gave way to deductive reasoning, multiple observations and objective, evidence-based analysis divorced from preconceived notions and outcomes.

To step backwards, relying on opinion and unsubstantiated intuition, rather than evidence is a retrogressive step in today’s age.

It’s not that science compels us to take a course of action; science can tell us what’s happening (or is likely to happen) but it can’t make the decisions on what to do. In any decision we have to weigh the benefits, the costs and the consequences. Science ensures an honest accounting that can’t be swept under a rug of bureaucratic euphemisms.

When we ignore, trivialize or subvert science it leaves many people unprepared and unable to discuss or understand the damage exerted on the atmosphere, the landscape, habitat for wildlife or on our individual health.

So, does science matter? When we come out of this pandemic, we might reflect that science matters because it can guide us, point us to the truth and, our lives will continue to depend on it.

Lorne Fitch is a Professional Biologist, a retired Fish and Wildlife Biologist and a former Adjunct Professor with the University of Calgary.

Comments are welcome (below); but you may also contact Lorne directly at lafitch@shaw.ca

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