Air quality regulation and climate change: cartoonish prop or environmental reality?

Cherry blossoms in Washington DC (Photo credit:  Ashley Criswell)

Cherry blossoms in Washington DC (Photo credit: Ashley Criswell)

Cherry trees were in full bloom when I traveled to Washington DC yesterday (Tuesday April 8) with a group of my York College students.  Pink cherry blossoms—the springtime soul of our nation—graced the entire perimeter of the tidal basin.  Dogwoods and other flowering trees lining the Capitol Mall and side streets served as a pleasing visual indicator that we have finally emerged from the lingering brutal winter.  The fragrant scent of spring was in the air.

The purpose of our DC trip was to connect classroom discussion about the scientific basis of climate change with contemporary political discourse.  What we observed was a spectacle of contentious political discord…Whew!

Verbal fireworks during a confirmation hearing within the Dirksen Senate Office Building contrasted sharply with the mellow mood outside. My students and I slipped into the Environment and Public Works Committee (EPW) meeting where senators were conducting hearings for three environmental agency nominees:

Senator Barbara Boxer (D, CA) serves as EPW Chair.  The political divide on climate change and regulation of air and water quality was on stark display.  Senators to Boxer’s right (politically and seated) pointedly and repeatedly challenged nominee McCabe about her acceptance of IPCC “science”, frequently quoting references that refuted this “politicized” group.  By contrast, Senators to Boxer’s left (politically and seated) praised the nominees for their expertise and qualifications, pledging to “follow the science” and seek clean energy solutions.

The Republican side focused on affordable energy, criticizing regulation, and challenging the science.  The Democratic side accepted the science and placed greater concern on adverse environmental impacts.  There did not appear to be a common ground between the polarized parties.

A testy sparring match between liberal, pro-environment Boxer versus far-right, pro-fossil fuel Ranking Minority Leader Senator Vitter (R, LA) became quite heated.  You can check out the verbal spat here (click on time at approximately 1:33 and view for 5 minutes).

Boxer attacked the political right for its, “direct assault on the Clean Air Act putting forth efforts to cut the clean air act…by the grace of God we have been able to stop repeal of [all these acts].”  She emphasized, “climate change is happening, you just need to read the science.”

Boxer displayed a photo of a woman in Habin, China wearing a mask to filter the dense, smog-polluted air which had soared to 40 times the internationally accepted safety standard on October 21, 2013.

Senator Boxer shows AP picture of woman wearing a mask to filter dense smog in China. (Photo is screen capture of EPW hearing)

Senator Boxer shows AP picture of woman wearing a mask to filter dense smog in China. (Photo is screen capture of EPW hearing)

Vitter called Boxer’s prop “cartoonish…[and]…laughable”.

All 196 Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) are united in principle but divided in details.  This includes the U.S. since the EPA holds regulatory power over the greenhouse gas CO2 as a toxic emission and this regulatory power has been upheld by the Federal Court.  All UNFCCC Parties accept the known the science, but they just can’t get by national self-interest in the details.

By contrast, our U.S. legislators are deeply divided both in principle and details.  The EPW meeting clearly showed that Republicans will not accept what the science is saying—greenhouse gas emissions are rising, this is dramatically changing our climate, and humans are responsible.  As long as our politicians wear ideological blinders, we will never find common ground on the details.

Senator Boxer spoke directly to my York College students near the end of the hearing (click on time at approximately 1:57 and view for 3 minutes).  “To you young people here.  I hope you will look into this more.  And, I hope it will motivate you.  If you feel that we need action on climate change, I hope you will push forward on that.  Do something.  Exercise your right to make sure that you breathe clean air and drink clean water.”

All of us need to press our policy makers to read and objectively assess the science.  Once we and our legislators unite in principle—we all breathe the same air and drink the same water—we can confront the daunting political issues.  There is hope and opportunity.  But, we must get past our entrenched ideological divide.

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Polar bear lecture: we know. the time to act is now

Steve Amstrup captured the attention of his audience last night at York College.  He spoke to a filled theater of college and high school students, faculty, and community members.  His awe-inspiring polar bear pictures were both endearing and frightening.  These are formidable beasts living in a barren, forbidding moon-scape.  His message was clear, “Preventing polar bear extinction is largely a matter of stopping the rise in greenhouse gas emissions…[and]… that doing so will benefit the rest of life on earth.”

Amstrup with polar bear cubs (photo credit Daniel J. Cox)

Amstrup with polar bear cubs (photo credit Daniel J. Cox)

Both in the lecture and in our private conversations throughout the day, Steve emphasized the importance of education in addressing this issue.

Steven Amstrup

Steven Amstrup

“We already know the science.”  While scientific studies will continue and more robust climate models will be developed, there isn’t a need for more refined scientific understanding to certify our need for action now.  “Now!” means today.  This is not a distant problem with a distant solution.  Our actions today will directly determine the world our children inherit.

Climate change observed in the Arctic is twice as great as the rest of the planet.  But, what happens in the Arctic will impact the entire planet.  Climate disruption is happening.  We know it from the scientific studies.  Fundamental principles of chemistry and physics inform us that greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide absorb infrared light and keep our planet warm.  Fundamental principles of chemistry and physics inform us that excess greenhouse gases lead to global warming beyond the historical norm.      We are already experiencing climate disruption due to global warming in our lives, even here in York County.  We will likely be a bit more resilient to the adverse impacts of climate disruption due to our location and wealth.  The most vulnerable are the poor who live in coastal regions and low-lying islands.

Our resistance as society to addressing the climate change issue is based on entrenched ideologies, fear, and lack of understanding.  Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803 – 1882) observed, “Fear always springs from ignorance.” And, Sir Francis Bacon (1561 – 1626)—Father of the Scientific Method—counseled, “Knowledge itself is power.”

What can you do?  Educate!  Educate yourself first, and then respectfully share your understanding with others.  Then, vote for legislators who are willing to develop policy based on known science, not on ideological ignorance.

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Polar bears and climate change: certainties, uncertainties, and hope.

Back in February 2006, I traveled to Churchill, Canada to join an expedition focused on Climate Change at the Arctic’s Edge.  “Arctic” is the Greek word for “Bear” and fittingly our project site was Churchill—the “Polar Bear Capital of the World.”  Polar bears (Ursus maritimus) are distributed throughout the circumpolar Arctic.  Churchill—located on the western edge of the Hudson Bay—is the southern limit where the polar bear can live year round.

We at York College have the privilege of hosting Dr. Steven Amstrup who will be explaining how polar bears are at risk due to climate change on April 3 at 7:00 pm in the Waldner Performing Arts Center.

polar bear cubs web

Polar bears and climate change:  certainties, uncertainties, and hope.

Dr. Steven C. Amstrup

York College of Pennsylvania

Waldner Performing Arts Center

7:00 pm, Thursday, April 3

(meet-and-greet 6:00-6:45 pm)

polar bear male

Dr. Steven C. Amstrup led a US Geological Survey research team in production of 9 reports that were instrumental in convincing the US Secretary of Interior that polar bears should be declared threatened.  In 2007, his research team projected that by mid-century we could lose 2/3 of the world’s polar bears.  They also projected that there was a reasonable chance polar bears would be extinct by the end of the century if we continued to follow business as usual greenhouse gas emissions. More recently, Dr. Amstrup and his colleagues showed that preventing polar bear extinction is largely a matter of stopping greenhouse gas rise.

Dr. Amstrup will introduce the audience to polar bear ecology and life history and show that because polar bears depend on habitat that literally melts when temperatures rise, they are at the forefront of our climate change challenge.  He will explain the transient uncertainties and distinguish them from the ultimate certainties that allow us to confidently project a distant future for polar bears.  His closing message will be there still is time for us to save polar bears, and that doing so will benefit the rest of life on earth.

Dr. Amstrup is currently Chief Scientist for Polar Bears International.   Prior to joining PBI, he led polar bear ecology research in Alaska for 30 years.  He has authored or coauthored over 100 peer-reviewed articles on movements, distribution and population dynamics of large mammals.  He is the senior editor of a recent text on population estimation methods.  In 2012, Dr. Amstrup was selected as recipient of the prestigious Indianapolis Prize and a Bambi Award for his efforts in animal conservation.

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20th Anniversary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change Entry in to Force

Birthdays are a time of reflection…where we have been, who we are today, and what the future holds in store for us.  Today marks the 20th anniversary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) entry into force.

The UNFCCC was created at the 1992 “Earth Summit” in Rio de Janeiro, with the ultimate aim of “preventing dangerous human interference with the climate system.”  It entered in to force on March 21, 1994.  An annual Conference of Parties (COP) serves as the “supreme body” of the Convention with the “highest decision-making authority.”  You can review a brief historical perspective of the UNFCCC COP’s here.

Nineteen previous UNFCCC COP’s have gathered world leaders and policymakers in an effort to create international legally binding treaties to limit greenhouse gas emissions.  Most notable among these is the 1997 COP 3 in Kyoto, Japan where the Kyoto Protocol was signed.

I have participated in the five most recent COP’s (2009 COP 15 Copenhagen, Denmark; 2010 COP 16 Cancun, Mexico; 2011 COP 17 Durban, South Africa; 2012 COP 18 Doha, Qatar; 2013 COP 19 Warsaw Poland).  My participation in these COP’s is an educator and a professional engaged in promoting climate science literacy under sponsorship of the American Chemical Society.

There has been some progress, but in its two-decade history, our world community has failed to agree on meaningful action to protect our planet, its people, and its complex ecological web of life.  All of the 196 Parties are united in purpose, but divide in details – a true real-world example of the “Tragedy of the Commons.”

The upcoming 2014 COP 20 will be held in Lima, Peru in December.  Machu Picchu is an iconic symbol of Peru, sculpted by the Inca’s high in the Andes Mountains.

Machu Picchu (photo credit David Fyfe)

Machu Picchu (photo credit David Fyfe)

The Incan civilization collapsed, as have other civilizations around the globe.  In most cases, the collapse of a civilization—in broad terms—is the outcome of its inability to sustain itself.

COP 20 is little more than a stopover point on the road to COP 21 in Paris where nations are to place their commitments on the table.  Will we, as a global society be able to overcome our self-interest divisions and avoid a global Tragedy of the Commons?

With your help, the answer can be “Yes.”  The best action anyone in York County can take is to contact our Rep. Scott Perry.  Respectfully ask that he put politics aside and assess the known science of climate change.  As a scientifically informed legislator, he would surely recognize his responsibility to address this civilization challenging issue for the benefit of his own children, children around the globe, and future generations.

The first informed conservative legislator to embrace the known science and step forward to promote legislation that will address climate change will immediately become a national figure.  If the United States arrives in Paris with meaningful commitments, the rest of the world will follow.

Posted in COP 18, COP 19, COP 20, COP16, COP17, environment, international relations, Lima, Peru, science, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

A Sweet Story from Montezuma: Molasses part 2

Just returning from a ten-day study tour in Costa Rica with a group of York College students in my Chemistry and Society course, I will share a series of stories about our learning experiences and encounters in this and following blog posts. We visited three distinct ecological zones: Rain forest, cloud forest, and dry coastal forest.  I will begin with a follow-up of an article I wrote back in January about molasses-coated roadways.

Montezuma—a seaside village tucked away in a dry coastal zone—is the last stop of our study tour.  It is a very dusty place at this time of year, near the end of the dry season, which lasts from November through April.  Rainfall is rare.

Back in January, my acquaintance, Dennis Church, spread molasses along his 500 feet of road frontage.  During the recent March trip we stopped to inspect it along the way to our hiking tour of a forest reserve further down the road.  I can report that the sticky temporary road-cover has held up quite well during the ensuing 2-month period.  It still smelled like molasses and made a “squick-squeek” as my running shoes kissed the still adhesive surface.

More importantly than the sweet aroma, it works! The picture below (left) shows an auto stirring up a dust-cloud as it approaches the molasses coated surface.  The same auto traverses the molasses roadway with no visible earthen mist. These pictures capture an area of less than 5 meters of traveled space.

molasses part 2

It took five 100-gallon barrels of molasses costing Dennis $500 to cover his 500-feet of road frontage.  It saves him 2 hours each morning watering the road to hold down the dust.

But, this sweet story runs much deeper than that of encapsulating fine, dry dirt beneath a gooey shell.

Removing the molasses is the last step in the sugar refining process.  It all begins with the sugar cane growing in patches large and small throughout the country.

Sugar cane stalks (credit student Deanna Goach)

Sugar cane stalks (photo credit: student Deanna Goach)

Several days earlier, we stopped at the road-side home of a sugar grower along a rumbling road leading up to the Monteverde cloud forest.  He invited us to a covered area behind his house where a large stash of cane lie ready for the extraction process.  Feeding several canes of the freshly hewn sugar into an American made contraption from the 19th Century, he extracted the juice from the fibrous, jointed stalk.  An astounding amount of liquid poured into a collection bucket, enough to fill a pitcher with more liquid than we thought it was possible the canes could hold.

Sugar cane nectar (photo credit: student Megan Murphy)

Sugar cane nectar (photo credit: student Megan Murphy)

We sampled the light green liquid, a sweet nectar with a greenish taste, much like its color.  The flavor improved with an added splash from a lemon wedge.  Locals use the unrefined nectar to sweeten drinks.

We gained further insight to the sugar story when we later visited a family-run sustainable coffee, sugar, and edible crop plantation in Monteverde.  Here, two large metal kettles filled with boiling nectar concentrated the sugar as water evaporated; from which the family patriarch ladled globs of viscous sugar onto a long wooden table.  In pairs, we each stirred the brownish goo until it turned into a near solid, caramel-colored toffee.  In this form, the sugar is preserved for use in multiple culinary processes.  Of course, a commercial process refines the sugar into the sterile, finished, white crystalline grains we all know.

At this same plantation, we each sampled a shot of clear liquid which had been distilled from a yeast-fermented product of the sugar.  It was 190-proof fire-water—near pure ethanol.  Commercially produced liquor produced from cane sugar is known as Guaro.

Ethanol produced from cane sugar also serves as a renewable biofuel in Costa Rica.  In some countries, notably Brazil, ethanol refined from sugar cane and blended with gasoline (gasohol) is the primary fuel for automobiles.  In the US, we add up to 10% ethanol to our gasoline; however, our ethanol biofuel is derived primarily for corn sugar.

Sugar is a multipurpose renewable resource.  It is a drink, a culinary sweetener, a biofuel, a road cover, and more.

The story of sugar is indeed sweet.

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Global Warming: Natural Drivers, Ice Ages, Humans, and Science

In his February 15, 2014 editorial titled “Global Warming in the deep freeze,” Keith Dasher states, “The Earth has gone through at least nine ice ages and warming cycles since day one.  Do you really think man can stop it or be responsible?”  His editorial attacks climate scientists as “alarmists” and “liars” who “have a huge political agenda.”

Mr. Dasher is in-part correct, and in-part confused.  I will begin with the part where he is correct.

Natural Climate Change Drivers and Ice Ages

There are two primary natural drivers of climate change that are not the result of human activity.  These drivers are solar variation and volcanic eruptions.

Solar radiation is the main power source for our climate system.  It is well documented that variations in Earth’s orbit have driven the ice age cycles.  Earth’s orbit is not round; our path around the Sun is actually elliptical, and the shape of that ellipse changes with time.  Earth also tilts on its axis as it rotates, and it wobbles like a top.  Throughout geological time periods, complex variations in Earth’s orbit, tilt, and wobble have converged in cycles that altered the balance and distribution of solar radiation on the surface of our planet.  These cycles (called Milankovitch Cycles) can be calculated with precision, and there is strong scientific evidence to link the cycles with periodic glaciations beginning with the ice ages.  These calculations show that we will not enter another ice age for 30,000 years.

Now, I will address some areas of confusion in Mr. Dasher’s article as well as provide some background information.

Solar variation also affects our climate on the short-term.  The Sun’s solar output is not constant.  It varies between a maximum and minimum over an 11 year cycle by about 0.1%.  The contribution of this short-term varying solar irradiance as a natural driver is relatively small.

Volcanic eruptions can cause our planet to cool by spewing ash and gases into the atmosphere.  Ash settles out in about 3 to 4 months.  Gases blown into the stratosphere are converted into aerosols and begin to settle from the atmosphere in about twelve to fourteen months.  The ash and aerosols from volcanic eruptions can cause measurable planetary cooling for up to 2 years.

Human Impacts

Solar variation and volcanic eruptions alone cannot explain the observed global warming of recent decades.  Human activity has clearly emerged as the primary driver of recent warming, especially since the 1960’s.  When I was a 10-year-old boy, a young scientist named Dave Keeling obtained the first high accuracy, high precision measurement of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere at 313 ppm (parts per million).  We will pass the 400 ppm mark in April or May of this year.  (Note:  Media outlets prematurely reported that we passed the 400 ppm park last year based on preliminary data.)

During 10,000 years of human history, the carbon dioxide (CO2) concentration in our atmosphere was relatively constant.  Since the beginning of the industrial era, atmospheric CO2 has been rising rapidly.  Since I was a 10-year-old boy, it has increased by more than 27%.

It is the trace amount of CO2 in our atmosphere that creates a natural greenhouse effect and keeps our planet warm.  In the absence of CO2, Earth would be a cold, lifeless third-rock-from-the-Sun.  The rapid short-term increase of CO2 in our atmosphere is creating an enhanced greenhouse effect causing our planet to warm.

Sophisticated scientific models clearly show that humans are responsible for contributing this excess CO2 which results in the enhanced greenhouse effect (dubbed “global warming”).  Yes Mr. Dasher, “Man…[is]…responsible.”

On Science and Politics

In our approach to understanding how nature works, we as scientists employ a methodology often referred to as the scientific method.  To begin, scientists make observations.  This is the foundation of scientific thinking.

But, scientists also want to know why nature works the way it does.  The scientist will set forth a proposal called a hypothesis which is a testable explanation for an observable phenomenon.   A hypothesis must be falsifiable.  This means that scientists must be able to test the hypothesis.  If it can’t be tested, it isn’t a scientific hypothesis—this is what distinguishes science from speculation or belief.

A hypothesis that has been tested and supported by experiments over and over again may result in a scientific theory.  A theory is a concept that unifies a broad range of observations within the natural world.  The theory explaining the warming of our planet is robust and strongly supported by independently collected and analyzed data from around the globe.

Scientists are not “alarmists”.  The very nature of scientific inquiry requires a conservative approach.  Politics, ideologies, and belief systems on the other hand cannot be falsified—they just need to be convincing.

There is no grand global conspiracy of scientists to promote a “belief” in global warming and a “political agenda”.  Scientists observe, collect data, hypothesize (it must be a falsifiable), test, and correct.

Nearly all current peer-reviewed scientific articles converge on the same conclusion; humans are responsible for the current warming we are observing.  Media and others have coined this “consensus.”  It is not a vote.  It is scientists independently arriving at the same conclusion.


Posted in climate change, politics, science | 1 Comment

The World’s Leading Climate Scientists Have Spoken Again

The IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) Working Group I, the world’s leading climate scientists, released its final report on January 30, 2014 “Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis”.  There are no surprises here – the earth is warming at an alarming rate due in large part to humans burning fossil fuels.  Let’s take a quick look at the highlights – the following are the Headline Statements from the Summary for Policymakers (;

·         “Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, and since the 1950s, many of the observed changes are unprecedented over decades to millennia. The atmosphere and ocean have warmed, the amounts of snow and ice have diminished, sea level has risen, and the concentrations of greenhouse gases have increased.

·         Total radiative forcing is positive, and has led to an uptake of energy by the climate system. The largest contribution to total radiative forcing is caused by the increase in the atmospheric concentration of CO2 since 1750.

·         Human influence on the climate system is clear. This is evident from the increasing greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere, positive radiative forcing, observed warming, and understanding of the climate system.

·         Continued emissions of greenhouse gases will cause further warming and changes in all components of the climate system. Limiting climate change will require substantial and sustained reductions of greenhouse gas emissions.”


You can find these summary statements, along with the full report from the IPCC at


The world needs to respond and the United States should be taking the lead.  The science is clear, there is no more time for debate.


Posted in climate change, COP 19, environment, ethics, international relations, IPCC, science, sustainability | 4 Comments

A Sweet Story from Montezuma: Molasses in January

Whew…what a January this has been! Those of us in Southeastern Pennsylvania are quite familiar with the expression, “as slow as molasses in January”.  But, molasses left outdoors this January (during our recurring, sustained Arctic Vortexes) would turn into a “glass”.  A glass is just a super cooled liquid—it still flows, but very, very slowly.  A glass becomes so viscous that it appears to be a solid, even though it is a non-crystalline, amorphous liquid.  But, let’s get to the story of molasses in January in Montezuma, Costa Rica.

I just returned from Montezuma.  I was in the tropics doing some research and exploring.  Currently, it’s the dry season making Montezuma a very dusty place.  The dry season lasts from November through April.  SUV’s, ATV’s, taxis, and vans shuttling back and forth along the unpaved, rutted, dirt road that connect Montezuma to the southern tip of the peninsula create earth-clouds that coat everything along their path.

Dust swirls cloud behind van.

Dust cloud swirls behind van.

I run along this road every morning when I am staying in Montezuma.  At road’s end lies Cabo Blanco Nature Reserve—the first protected land in Costa Rica, established in 1963.  Costa Rica now has 25.6% of its land in protected and private reserves.

During my morning runs, I typically encounter Dennis Church (a gringo ex-pat) out watering the road in front of his house.  From about 6:00 – 8:00 am, Dennis stands with watering-hose in one hand and coffee mug in the other sweeping back and forth as he works his way down the 500 ft of dirt road fronting his property.

We’ve gotten to know each other quite well over the years because I stop to chat for about 10 minutes or so.  Last week while I was still in Costa Rica, our conversation drifted toward the use of molasses.  Dennis told me that he had five barrels waiting to be spread.  He planned to spread it that weekend.  “It’s expensive, so you don’t spread it when there is a full moon.  You wait until 3 days after.”

My response, “Hmm, that’s interesting(?).”

It sounds a little goofy, but, in fact, the probability of rain is higher in the period 3 days before to 3 days after the full moon.  This is just real-world empirical evidence for that area.  If you put down the molasses and it rains, there goes your road cover, right out to sea.

I asked, “Doesn’t it attract a lot of insects, like ants?”

His reply, “No it doesn’t.  Although, the first year I put it down the cattle broke down the fence and licked the road.”

Hmmm…(again), not exactly the answer I expected.

Dennis further informed me that he would have put the molasses down earlier and saved himself a lot of hours watering the roadway, but it was hard to get this year.  Too much was diverted to making rum.  There wasn’t enough left over for the roads.

I’ve encountered molasses covered roads in Costa Rica before.  Not so bad to drive over them, but a gooey, sticky, gummy mess on your sandals if you walk through a fresh coating.

Nevertheless, the molasses works.  If you can afford it, a molasses coated roadway saves a lot of hours watering down the dusty surface.  I plan to check back in with Dennis in the beginning of March when I return to Costa Rica with my student group from York College.  I’ll let you know how it held up.

Molasses coated dirt roads…now that’s a sweet story!

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Montezuma Olive Ridley Turtles (episode #2): hatchlings emerge naturally

This morning I rose early and set out from the village of Montezuma for some morning exercise.  Just as I started my hike along the beach I noticed two individuals hunched over something of interest directly in front of the ASVO Hatchery.

Alejandro Verastegui (Tico staff assistant) and Paoline Picard (Belgian volunteer) investigate Olive Ridley Turtle hatchlings.

Alejandro Verastegui (Tico staff assistant) and Paoline Picard (Belgian volunteer) investigate Olive Ridley Turtle hatchlings.

ASVO (Association of Volunteers for Service in Protected Areas) turtle hatchery.

ASVO (Association of Volunteers for Service in Protected Areas) turtle hatchery.

I strolled over to investigate the investigators’ find.  It was a naturally emerging crop of Olive Ridley Turtles.  Six of them had excavated their way to the surface during the nighttime hours.

Six Olive Ridley Turtle hatchlings emerge naturally.

Six Olive Ridley Turtle hatchlings emerge naturally.

The investigators, Alejandro Verastegui—a Tico staff assistant—and Paoline Picard—a volunteer from Belgium—were sweeping sand aside as the last of the little ones struggled to bring its entire body to the surface.  Alejandro instructed volunteer Paoline to put on sterile gloves and record individual statistics—length, weight, time of day, location, etc.

Alejandro told me, “You are very lucky” [to be observing these hatchlings].  And, he was right.  First, the prime nesting season is past.  Second, this was a natural emergence of hatchlings.  Nearly all eggs are gathered and transferred to the hatchery immediately after the female leaves the nest.  Third, this natural process occurred just several yards in front of the hatchery.  Unknown to the staff and volunteers, a female came ashore under the cover of night some 45 (+ or -) days ago and deposited her eggs here, right under the watchful eyes of the staff and volunteers.  She then effectively camouflaged the nest and covertly slipped back out to sea before sunrise.  Only this morning did the staff realize the nest was there.

I checked back several hours later to get an update.  Lars Gerken, a full-year volunteer from Germany who serves as ASVO Assistant Project Director, told me that all six of these hatchlings successfully made it to sea.  Unfortunately, another late emerging hatchling was discovered and gobbled up by a dog.

As I stated in my blog post yesterday, only one 1 in 1,000 of the hatchlings survives to adulthood.  But, even as adults the turtles are not safe.

Several days ago, I trekked out to Playa Grande—the remote expansive beach which is a 35 minute hike from town.  I was taken back to see 5 vultures crowded around a dead adult Olive Ridley Turtle, gorging on its fetid carcass.  This turtle likely fell victim to a fisherman’s hook and line, or perhaps was drowned when trapped in a trawling net and cast back to sea by the fishermen.  We can’t know for sure the reason for its demise.  Fidel Vargas, Manager of the adjacent Romelia Refuge, told me that they would need a permit to perform an autopsy on the turtle.

Two vulture heads were buried so deeply beneath the shell pecking at internal morsels that the retched odor must have created a truly orgasmic culinary delight.  Later in the day, a second adult Ridley had washed ashore, approximately 50 meters from the first.  At this point, a dozen vultures circulated between the two buffets.

At a survival rate of 1 adult per 1000 hatchlings, the two carcasses visually represented what remained of 2,000 hatchlings from years past.  It’s a tough life for an Olive Ridley Turtle.  We can thank the conservationists and volunteers at Montezuma’s two projects for making life just a bit easier for some of the turtles.

I asked two volunteers at the Romelia Refuge what they gained out of their volunteer experiences.  Here were some of their responses (bullet point list just as I had scribbled it down on my notepad):

Jennifer Adams is nearing the end of her second year at Romelia as the Field Coordinator.  She graduated from the University of Colorado with a major in anthropology and a sustainability focus.

  • Developed a passion for conservation.
  • Increased desire to pursue service at a higher-level; community and policy level.
  • Gained practical skills in grant writing, managing, and coordination & planning.
  • Gained social networking and communication outreach skills.

Phoebe Wallace has spent the last five months here as a Research Assistant.  She recently graduated from Boise State University with a degree in Biology and Environmental Science.

  • Learned a lot about working for a non-profit.
  • Rewarding, but also frustrating at times (due to lack of funding).
  • Great experience!

Great experience for me as well!  Thanks Jennifer, Phoebe, Alejandro, Paoline, and all of you other volunteers from around the globe for your serve.

Posted in environment, science, sustainability, turtles | 1 Comment

Montezuma Tales: Volunteering to save solitary nesting Olive Ridley Sea Turtles

I have taken up residence in Costa Rica for a few weeks to do some exploring, research, and writing as well as prepare for my upcoming spring semester at York College.  Montezuma is a pretty cool but rather unconventional village where you will find eco-tourists, day tourists from nearby resorts, and beach buffs mingling among dreadlocked street vendors.  Any intent on exploring the surrounding region requires a four-wheel drive vehicle to negotiate its rugged, rutted, dusty, unpaved roads.

My interest the past few days has been the Olive Ridley Turtle.  More than a decade ago when I first started coming to Montezuma—a frequent destination for personal visits as well as my York College student trips—I didn’t even know that sea turtles nested here.  But, in January 2009, I noticed for the first time a small turtle hatchery on the far end of an expansive beach called “Playa Grande” which is a good 35 minute hike from town over rugged volcanic outcroppings, across two streams, and through forest paths.  Back then, I searched out the manager of the turtle project, Lenin Flores (Lenny), who was living along with a half-dozen international volunteers nearby in the Romelia Refuge.

Lenny explained, “I had been camping here In Montezuma for 32 years, but I didn’t even know that the turtles nested here.  Last year [early 2008], I came to supervise a project in the elementary school.  People told me about the turtles.  So, I contacted officials who were already looking for people to help.”  He subsequently took over responsibility for the turtle project on Playa Grande, hence the new hatchery.

As well, the volunteers patrolled against poachers.  Lenny explained, “Tico’s gather the eggs for food.  Men think the eggs increase sexual virility.  Although it is illegal, some are still sold on the black-market in San Jose.”

Adult Olive Ridley Turtles weigh about 100 pounds and measure anywhere from 22 to 31 inches in length.  The tiny hatchlings by contrast weigh less than an ounce and are about 1.5 inches long shell.  Only about 1 in 1,000 hatchlings will survive to adulthood.

Last week, I witnessed first-hand their low survival rate on the Osa Peninsula in southern Costa Rica near the border with Panama.  The Osa is a primordial Eden of primary rainforest, rich in biodiversity from roots to treetop canopy.  It is estimated that 2.5% of the world’s biodiversity can be found on the Osa.  In the pre-dawn hours, we were hiking along a beach on route to a sunrise kayaking outing in a brackish lagoon when our guide suddenly stopped.  He followed a sculpted path landward.  Here we found six Olive Ridley Turtle hatchlings that had just clawed their way to the surface after having spent 45five days in their subterranean incubator.


Six Olive Ridley Turtle hatchlings wait for morning warmth before beginning life’s journey. Photo by Joseph Alfano

Six Olive Ridley Turtle hatchlings wait for morning warmth before beginning life’s journey.
Photo by Joseph Alfano

This delayed our outing as the hatchlings waited for morning warmth before beginning their risky struggle across the open beach to begin their life at sea.  A hawk standing nearby on the beach was annoyed by our presence since the hatchlings were its intended breakfast.


Hawk on the Osa Peninsula beach waiting to feast on turtle hatchlings. Photo by Joseph Alfano

Hawk on the Osa Peninsula beach waiting to feast on turtle hatchlings.
Photo by Joseph Alfano


Our guide carried the hatchlings a portion of the way, but then had to release them so that they “could set their internal GPS for their return to this beach.”  We waited and watched.  It was such a long, arduous journey.  Eventually, two morning walkers came along and agreed to take up posts as turtle-sentries.  As we were departed, a crab snatched one of the little ones, dragging it into its hole.  Looking back, we observed a hawk snatch another one in spite of the sentries.  At max, only 4 of the 6 made it to sea.

Hatchling Olive Ridley Turtle (less than one ounce) headed for the ocean. Photo by Joseph Alfano

Hatchling Olive Ridley Turtle (less than one ounce) headed for the ocean.
Photo by Joseph Alfano

Olive-shelled turtles are distributed in tropical regions around the globe.  Female Ridleys nest once or twice a season every year.  They often come ashore to nest in what is called an “arribada” meaning, they rest off-shore and then typically arrive in vast numbers all at once.

Here in Montezuma, the numbers are not as large.  Jennifer Adams—the current Romelia Refuge Field Coordinator—explained that the turtles here do “solitary nesting”.  During primary nesting season– June/July to October/November—there will be a maximum of 7 or 8 turtles per night.  Each turtle lays about 80-100 eggs ping pong ball-sized eggs.

Jennifer explained, “Romelia is a privately funded and privately managed mixed wildlife refuge.”  She said that they host anywhere from 1-10 volunteers at a time.  It is an intimate affair between the solitary nesting turtles and the volunteers patrol the beach at night, gather the eggs, transfer them to the beach hatchery, and wait for the hatchlings to arrive.

In 2011, the turtle project and volunteer housing moved in-town and the hatchery was set up on the contiguous Montezuma Beach.  A maximum of 3 or 4 turtles arrive during primary nesting season on this beach.  This fledgling project subsequently became affiliated with Costa Rica’s Association of Volunteers for Service in Protected Areas (ASVO) which is a self-managed NGO.  In addition to the turtle projects, ASVO volunteers also work with the local community in recycling, cleaning the beaches, and environmental education.

Since it was logistically challenging to monitor turtle nesting on both beaches, a turtle project was reopened on the more remote Playa Grande in 2012.  Hence, Olive Ridley Turtles here are under the conservation eyes of two different organizations.

If you are looking for an excuse to escape the frigid York County winter temperatures, a Montezuma conservation/education project could be your destination.  Please check out the applications for ASVO here or Romelia Refuge here.

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