GoGreenNation News

Learn more about the issues presented in our films
Show Filters

Toxic pollutants can build up inside our homes. Here are 8 ways to reduce the risks

Levels of trace metals inside can be higher than the sources of contamination outside. It underscores the need for households to take care to prevent those contaminants being brought indoors.

ShutterstockWe know everything in our homes gathers dust. What you probably don’t know is whether there are toxic contaminants in your house dust, and where these might come from. Our newly published research found most of the dust inside homes came from outside and contains potentially toxic trace metals such as lead, arsenic and chromium. Worryingly, we found some contaminants can accumulate at higher concentrations inside homes than outside. This happened in homes with certain characteristics: older properties, metal construction materials enriched in zinc, recent renovations and deteriorating paint. Fortunately, you take some simple steps to reduce your exposure, which we explain later. Read more: What is dust? And where does it all come from? What’s in house dust? Our study explored the connected sources, pathways and potentially harmful exposures to trace metals at homes across Sydney. We collected and analysed 383 samples from nearby road dust (51 samples) and garden soil (166), as well as indoor dust (166). We found the dust in homes comes from a range of sources including outdoor environments and soil, skin, cleaning products, pet hair and cooking particles. Nearly 60% of dust particles inside the homes originated from their immediate outdoor environment – it was dirt from outside! Wind, your shoes or your pets can carry in soil and dust-related contaminants. Read more: Wearing shoes in the house is just plain gross. The verdict from scientists who study indoor contaminants Wind, your shoes or your pets can all carry contaminants into your home. Shutterstock The remaining 40% of home dust came from indoor sources. These included fibres from clothes, carpets and furnishings, cleaning products, skin and hair. Some dust sources can carry a cocktail of potentially harmful contaminants including: microplastics persistent organic pollutants perfluorinated chemicals (PFAS) trace metals bacterial communities antimicrobial resistance genes. The nature of the risk is related to how much of the contaminant you’re exposed to and for how long. The risks are greatest in children under the age of five. This is because they are small, closer to the floor and have frequent hand-mouth contact, which increases ingestion of contaminants. Young children’s size and behaviour leave them more at risk of exposure to indoor contaminants. Shutterstock Read more: Microplastics are common in homes across 29 countries. New research shows who's most at risk How do contaminants build up in homes? Industrial activity has left a marked legacy of contaminants in many city neighbourhoods. We analysed road dust, garden soil and vacuum dust samples from 166 homes in Sydney to see how this risk translated to inside homes. We used high-magnification microscopy and lead isotopic ratios to understand trace metal composition in the samples. On average, concentrations of trace metals arsenic, chromium, copper, manganese, lead and zinc were all higher inside homes than outside. This means homes are not only “accumulators” of trace metal contaminants but also important sources of a significant proportion of harmful contaminants that we can be exposed to. The lead isotopic ratios, or the lead “fingerprints”, of each home and its garden soil matched. This confirms the soil is the main source of lead inside homes. Most of this lead is the result of the pre-1970s use of high concentrations of lead in paints and petrol, which contaminated many garden soils. Even low levels of lead exposure can be harmful. Lead levels in some Sydney backyards pose a risk for urban veggie growers and backyard chickens and their eggs. Read more: Backyard hens' eggs contain 40 times more lead on average than shop eggs, research finds High-magnification images of house dust showed mineral particles that have been blown in or tracked in on shoes. The rest of the dust was elongated fibres and hair from indoor sources. In this high-magnification image of indoor dust, the long particles are fibres and the angular particles are of mineralogical origin from outdoors. Author provided Which homes are most at risk? We also collected information about each house, relevant activities and renovations at the property. We found house age, proximity to the city centre and renovations had the greatest influence on levels of lead and other trace metals in the home. All homes more than 50 years old had higher concentrations of arsenic, copper, lead and zinc in their garden soil and house dust. They are typically located closer to city centres, where early industrial activity has contaminated soils. As older homes in former industrial areas are renovated, trace metal loads in these homes and gardens can increase. Walls and ceilings contain decades of dust. Old paint buried under more recent layers can also be released, causing lead exposure risks. It is critical that home renovators take appropriate remediation steps or employ a qualified paint professional so lead dust isn’t spread across the area. Old lead-based paint is a major source of contamination, especially if it’s deteriorating or proper precautions aren’t taken when removing it. Shutterstock 8 ways to reduce your risk We spend about 70% of our time at home, which the pandemic has increased. Understanding the environmental conditions and contaminants we encounter and their effects on our health is more important than ever. Armed with this knowledge, though, you can take some simple steps to reduce your exposure to contaminants in your home and garden: regularly vacuum carpeted areas with a good vacuum cleaner fitted with a HEPA filter wet mop and wet dust hard surfaces mulch areas of exposed soil in your garden use a quality doormat and wash it regularly, which can roughly halve the amount of lead in your home within three months leave your shoes at the door as they can bring all sorts of nasties into the home wash your hands and your veggies thoroughly close windows on windy days when renovating, use dust-mitigation strategies and personal protective equipment (PPE). You can dig a little deeper into what’s in your own home environment by sending your soil to VegeSafe Australia or EPA Victoria’s GardenSafe for analysis. If you live in the United States, Canada, United Kingdom or Australia you can also send your vacuum dust to DustSafe for testing. You will receive a report outlining what was in your sample, with links and advice on what to do next where necessary. Read more: House dust from 35 countries reveals our global toxic contaminant exposure and health risk Mark Patrick Taylor received funding via an Australian Government Citizen Science Grant (2017-2020), CSG55984 ‘Citizen insights to the composition and risks of household dust’ (the DustSafe project). The VegeSafe and DustSafe programs are supported by publication donations to Macquarie University. He is a full-time employee of EPA Victoria, appointed to the statutory role of Chief Environmental Scientist.Carlos Ibañez del Rivero receives funding from Macquarie University and National Council on Science and Technology, Mexico (CONACYT) support number 739570 in the form of graduate stipends for his PhD program and partial funding for his tuition costs.Kara Fry is a Senior Research and Development Officer at EPA Victoria. Previously, Kara was a research assistant for VegeSafe and DustSafe, supported by public donations to Macquarie University and an Australian Government Citizen Science Grant (2017-2020), CSG55984 ‘Citizen insights to the composition and risks of household dust’.

It’s hot, and your local river looks enticing. But is too germy for swimming?

Ensuring a swimming site is safe is key to getting people using it. That means giving people timely information about water quality.

Dan Himbrechts/AAPSwimming in rivers, creeks and lakes can be a fun way to cool off in summer. But contamination in natural waterways can pose a risk to human health. Waterborne pathogens can cause acute gastrointestinal illnesses such as diarrhea and vomiting. Other common illnesses include skin rashes, respiratory problems, and eye and ear infections. Unfortunately, it can be hard to find out if a waterway in Australia is safe for recreation. By contrast, a comprehensive system in Aotearoa-New Zealand, called Can I Swim Here?, provides timely water quality information for 800 beach, river and lake sites. We have investigated the benefits and barriers associated with opening up waterways for recreation. Unsurprisingly, ensuring a local swimming site is safe is key to getting people using it. That includes giving people access to accurate information about water quality. It can be hard to find out if a waterway in Australia is safe for swimming. Dan Himbrechts/AAP Can swimming really make you sick? Contaminated water can exist in swimming pools and spas, as well as oceans, lakes, and rivers, exposing humans to a range of pathogens. According to official advice in New South Wales, common waterborne pathogens include: enteric bacteria such as Escherichia coli (E.coli) or Enterococci, that live in the intestinal tracts of all warm-blooded animals and can enter water as faecal matter (or poo). They can cause gastroenteritis, skin and ear infections and dysentery viruses such as noroviruses and hepatitis. They can cause diarrhoea, vomiting, hepatitis and respiratory disease protozoa such as giardia which, once ingested, can live as parasites in humans and animals and cause diarrhoea. Australian research has documented a link between gastroeneritis and people swimming in public pools and freshwater sites such as rivers, lakes and dams. Other water quality hazards for swimming include toxic blue-green algae and exposure to chemical pollutants. Recent floods in Australia have led to an elevated risk of water contamination. As others have noted, flood waters can be highly polluted with disease-causing organisms, including from sewerage overflows. So how do swimming locations get contaminated? Pollution can come from untreated sewage, or runoff containing animal poo or fertilisers. The source could be chemicals from nearby industrial activities, or the water users themselves. Thankfully, most disease outbreaks from swimming are not fatal. An exception is the amoeba Naegleria fowleri. It lives in warmer waters and can cause amoebic meningitis, a potentially fatal brain disease. Read more: The stunning recovery of a heavily polluted river in the heart of the Blue Mountains World Heritage area Rain and flooding can cause pollutants to run into waterways. James Ross/AAP How safe is your local swimming hole? In Australia, guidance on recreational water quality tends to focus on ocean beaches. For example, NSW’s Beachwatch program cover more than 200 NSW coastal (and some estuary) beaches. The advice is based on likelihood of rain combined with testing swimming sites for faecal bacteria. The Victorian government also provides coastal swimming guidance for 36 beaches in Port Phillip Bay. But away from the coast, information on the water quality of our local rivers, creeks and lakes, is sparse. In NSW, advice exists for swimming and boating at four sites on the Nepean River in Western Sydney. Information is provided for a recently reopened swimming site at Lake Parramatta and for swimming at some Blue Mountains sites. In Victoria, the Yarra Watch program monitors four swimming sites in freshwater stretches of the Yarra River, upstream of Melbourne. And authorities in Canberra provide regular water quality monitoring and swimming advice for lakes and rivers. But in contrast to Australia, New Zealand provides far more detailed and broad guidance. Authorities in Canberra provide regular water quality monitoring and swimming advice. Lukas Coch/AAP How New Zealand does it New Zealand’s world-leading national program Can I swim here? enables people to find the best places to swim across 800 beach, river and lake sites across the country. The advice is provided by LAWA (Land, Air, Water Aotearoa), a collaboration between regional councils, the New Zealand government, scientific experts and academics, and a philanthropist organisation. The data available includes both the latest weekly water quality test results, and results dating back five years. The guidance also includes an interactive map (see below) where users can zoom to swimming sites in their region. The ‘Can I swim here?’ site features an interactive map. https://www.lawa.org.nz More work is needed Everyone loves to be around, on and in the water, especially during summer. As well as providing a way to cool down, local swimming holes are great places for people to socialise, exercise and engage with nature – especially for those not near a beach. Governments are recognising the real opportunity to open up underused waterways for recreation across Australia. But for the sake of our communities, more work is needed on improving water quality and sharing information. Australia has a lot to learn from New Zealand and other countries on how to manage our waterways for recreational use. And ongoing research, partnering with government and industry, is clearly needed. Read more: Travelling around Australia this summer? Here's how to know if the water is safe to drink Ian A Wright has received funding from industry, as well as Commonwealth, NSW and local governments. He formerly worked for Sydney Water Corporation.Nicky Morrison has received funding from industry, as well as NSW and local governments.

Labs Are Scooping Up Animals Killed by Wind Turbines

Dead birds and bats could help scientists make green energy safer.

This article was originally published by Undark Magazine.“This is one of the least smelly carcasses,” says Todd Katzner, peering over his lab manager’s shoulder as she slices a bit of flesh from a dead pigeon lying on a steel lab table. Many of the specimens that arrive at this facility in Boise, Idaho, are long dead, and the bodies smell, he says, like “nothing that you can easily describe, other than yuck.”A wildlife biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, a government agency dedicated to environmental science, Katzner watches as his lab manager roots around for the pigeon’s liver and then places a glossy maroon piece of it in a small plastic bag labeled with a biohazard symbol. The pigeon is a demonstration specimen, but samples, including flesh and liver, are ordinarily frozen, cataloged, and stored in freezers. The feathers get tucked in paper envelopes and organized in filing boxes; the rest of the carcass is discarded. When needed for research, the stored samples can be processed and sent to other labs that test for toxicants or conduct genetic analysis.Most of the bird carcasses that arrive at the Boise lab have been shipped from renewable-energy facilities, where hundreds of thousands of winged creatures die each year in collisions with turbine blades and other equipment. Clean-energy projects are essential for confronting climate change, Mark Davis, a conservation biologist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, says. But he also emphasizes the importance of mitigating their effects on wildlife. “I’m supportive of renewable-energy developments. I’m also supportive of doing our best to conserve biodiversity,” Davis says. “And I think the two things can very much coexist.”To this end, Katzner, Davis, and other biologists are working with the renewable-energy industry to create a nationwide repository of dead birds and bats killed at wind and solar facilities. The bodies hold clues about how the animals lived and died, and could help scientists and project operators understand how to reduce the environmental impact of clean-energy installations, Davis says.The repository needs sustained funding and support from industry partners to supply the specimens. But the collection’s wider potential is huge, Davis adds. He, Katzner, and the other biologists hope the carcasses will offer an array of wildlife researchers access to the animal samples they need for their work, and perhaps even provide insights into future scientific questions that researchers haven’t thought yet to ask.In 1980, California laid the groundwork for one of the world’s first large-scale wind projects when it designated more than 30,000 acres east of San Francisco for wind development, on a stretch of land called the Altamont Pass. Within two decades, companies had installed thousands of wind turbines there. But there was a downside: Although the sea breeze made Altamont ideal for wind energy, the area was also used by nesting birds. Research suggested they were colliding with the turbines’ rotating blades, leading to hundreds of deaths among red-tailed hawks, kestrels, and golden eagles.“It’s a great place for a wind farm, but it’s also a really bad place for a wind farm,” says Albert Lopez, the planning director for Alameda County, where many of the projects are located.A 2004 report prepared for the state estimated the number of deaths and offered recommendations that the authors said could add up to mortality reductions of anywhere from 20 to 50 percent. The most effective solution, the authors argued, involved replacing Altamont’s many small turbines with fewer, larger turbines. But, the authors wrote, many measures to reduce deaths would be experimental, “due to the degree of uncertainty in their likely effectiveness.” More than a decade of research, tensions, and litigation followed, focused on how to reduce fatalities while still producing clean electricity to help California meet its more and more ambitious climate goals.While all this was happening, Katzner was earning his Ph.D. by studying eagles and other birds—and beginning to amass a feather collection halfway around the world. In Kazakhstan, where he has returned nearly every summer since 1997 to conduct field research, Katzner noticed piles of feathers underneath the birds’ nests. Carrying information about a bird’s age, sex, diet, and more, they were too valuable a resource to just leave behind, he thought, so he collected them. It was the start of what he describes as a compulsion to store and archive potentially useful scientific material.Katzner went on to co-publish a paper in 2007 in which the researchers conducted a genetic analysis of naturally shed feathers, a technique that could allow scientists to match feather samples with the correct bird species when visual identifications are difficult. He later towed deer carcasses across the East Coast to lure and trap golden eagles in order to track their migration patterns. Today, part of his research involves testing carcasses for lead and other chemicals to understand whether birds are coming in contact with toxicants.For the past decade, Katzner has also researched how birds interact with energy installations such as wind and solar projects. During this time, studies have estimated that hundreds of thousands of birds die each year at such facilities in the United States. That’s still a small fraction of the millions of birds that at least one paper estimated are killed annually because of habitat destruction, downstream climate change, and other impacts of fossil-fuel and nuclear-power plants. But renewable energy is growing rapidly, and researchers are trying to determine how that continued growth might affect wildlife.[Read: The quiet disappearance of birds in North America]Bats seem attracted to wind turbines and are occasionally struck by the blades while attempting to roost in the towers. Birds sometimes swoop down and crash into photovoltaic solar panels—possibly thinking the glass is water that is safe for landing. A separate, less common solar technology that uses mirrors to concentrate the sun’s rays into heat energy is known to singe birds that fly too close—a factor that has drawn opposition to such facilities from bird activists. But scientists still don’t fully understand these many interactions or their impacts on bird and bat populations, which makes it harder to prevent them.In 2015, by then on staff at the USGS, Katzner and a team of other scientists secured $1 million from the California Energy Commission to study the impacts of renewable energy on wildlife—using hundreds of carcasses from the Altamont Pass. NextEra Energy, one of the largest project owners there, chipped in a donation of approximately 1,200 carcasses collected from their facilities in Altamont.The team analyzed 411 birds collected over a decade at Altamont and another 515 picked up during a four-year period at California solar projects. They found that many of the birds originated from across the U.S., suggesting that renewable facilities could affect faraway bird populations during their migrations. In early 2021, Katzner and a team of other scientists published a paper examining specimens collected at wind facilities in Southern California. Their results suggested that replacing old turbines with fewer, newer models did not necessarily reduce wildlife mortality. Where a project is sited and the amount of energy it produces are likely stronger determinants of fatality rates, the authors said.In Altamont, scientists are still working to understand impacts for birds and bats, and a technical committee has been created to oversee the work. Ongoing efforts to replace old turbines with newer ones are meant to reduce the number of birds killed there, but whether it’s working remains an open question, Lopez says. The installation of fewer turbines that produce more energy per unit than earlier models was expected to provide fewer collision points for birds and more space for habitat. And when new turbines are put in, scientists can recommend spots within a project site where birds may be less likely to run into them. But other variables influence mortality aside from turbine size and spacing, according to the 2021 paper written by Katzner and other scientists, such as season, weather, and bird behavior in the area.On a small road in Altamont, a white sign marks an entrance to NextEra’s Golden Hills wind project, where the company recently replaced decades-old turbines with new, larger models. Not far away, another wind-project sits dormant—a relic from another time. Its old turbines stand motionless, stocky, and gray next to their graceful, modern successors on the horizon. The hills are quiet except for the static buzz of power cables.Some conservationists are still concerned about the area. In 2021, the National Audubon Society, which says it strongly supports renewable energy, sued over the approval of a new wind project in Altamont, asserting that the county didn’t do enough environmental review or mitigation for bird fatalities.Katzner attributes his work in California with the beginnings of the repository, which he’s dubbed the Renewables-Wildlife Solutions Initiative. Amy Fesnock, a Bureau of Land Management wildlife biologist who collaborates with Katzner, simply calls it the “dead-body file.”In Idaho, Katzner has already amassed more than 80,000 samples—many drawn from the feather collection he’s kept for decades, and thousands more recently shipped in by renewable-energy companies and their partners. Ultimately, Katzner would like to see a group of repository locations, all connected by a database. This would allow other scientists to access the bird and bat samples and use them in a variety of ways, extracting their DNA, for example, or running toxicology tests.“Every time we get an animal carcass, it has value to research,” Katzner says. “If I think about it from a scientific perspective, if you leave that carcass out there in the field, you’re wasting data.”Those data are important to people like Amanda Hale, a biologist who helped build the repository while at Texas Christian University. She is now a senior research biologist at Western EcoSystems Technology, a consulting company that, along with providing other services, surveys for dead wildlife at renewable-energy sites. Part of her new role involves liaising with clean-energy companies and the government agencies that regulate them, ensuring decision makers have the most current science to inform projects. Better data could assist clients in putting together more accurate conservation plans and help agencies know what to look for, she says, simplifying regulation.“Once we can understand patterns of mortality, I think you can be better in designing and implementing mitigation strategies,” Hale says.The initiative is not without its skeptics, though. John Anderson, the executive director of the Energy and Wildlife Action Coalition, a clean-energy membership group, sees merit in the effort but worries that the program could be “used to characterize renewable-energy impacts in a very unfavorable light” without recognizing its benefits. The wind industry has long been sensitive to suggestions that it’s killing birds.Several renewable-energy companies that Undark contacted for this story did not respond to inquiries about wildlife monitoring at their sites or stopped responding to interview requests. Other industry groups, including the American Clean Power Association and the Renewable Energy Wildlife Institute, declined interview requests. But many companies appear to be participating—in Idaho, Katzner has received birds from 42 states.William Voelker, a member of the Comanche Nation who has led a bird-and-feather repository called Sia for decades, says he’s frustrated at the lack of consideration for tribes from these types of U.S. government initiatives. Indigenous people, he says, have first right to “species of Indigenous concern.” His repository catalogs and sends bird carcasses and feathers to Indigenous people for ceremonial and religious purposes, and Voelker also cares for eagles.“At this point we just don’t have any voice in the ring, and it’s unfortunate,” Voelker says.Katzner, for his part, says he wants the project to be collaborative. The Renewables-Wildlife Solutions Initiative has sent some samples to a repository in Arizona that provides feathers for religious and ceremonial purposes, he says, and the RWSI archive could ship out other materials that it does not archive, but it has not yet contacted other locations to do so.“It’s a shame if those parts of birds are not being used,” he says. “I’d like to see them get used for science or cultural purposes.”Many U.S. wind farms already monitor and collect downed wildlife. At a California wind facility a little over an hour north of Altamont, the Sacramento Municipal Utility District tries to clear out its freezers at least once a year—before the bodies start to smell, Ammon Rice, a supervisor in the government-owned utility’s environmental-services department, says. Many of the specimens that companies accumulate are kept until they’re thrown out. Until recently, samples had been available to government and academic researchers on only a piecemeal basis.There are many reasons why a clean-energy company might employ people to pick up dead animals at its facility: Some areas require companies to survey sites during certain stages of their development and keep track of how many birds and bats are found dead. Removing the carcasses can also deter scavengers, such as coyotes, foxes, and vultures. And the federal government has set voluntary conservation guidelines for wind projects; for some companies, complying with the recommendations is part of maintaining good political relationships.Most of the time, human searchers canvas a project, walking transects under turbines or through solar fields. It’s “enormously labor-intensive,” says Trevor Peterson, a senior biologist at Stantec, one of the consulting firms often hired to conduct those surveys. On some sites, trained dogs sniff out the dead bodies.[Read: Are wind turbines a danger to wildlife? Ask dogs.]For years, conservation biologists have wanted to find a use for the creatures languishing in freezers at clean-energy sites around the country. To get a nationwide project off the ground, Katzner started working with two other researchers: Davis, the conservation biologist at University of Illinois, and Amanda Hale, then a biology professor at TCU. They were part of a small community of people “who pick up dead stuff,” Katzner says. The three started meeting, joined by scientists at the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, who helped connect the initiative with additional industry partners willing to send carcasses.Building on Katzner’s existing samples, the repository has grown from an idea to a small program. In the past two years, Katzner said in an email, it received about $650,000 from the Bureau of Land Management. It also earned a mention in the agency’s recent report to Congress about its progress toward renewable-energy growth.Davis had already been accepting samples from wind facilities when he started working on the repository. Typically the bodies are mailed to his laboratory, but he prefers to organize hand-to-hand deliveries when possible, after one ill-fated incident in which a colleague received a shipped box of “bat soup.” To receive deliveries in person, Davis often winds up loitering in the university parking lot, waiting for the other party to arrive so they can offload the cargo.“It sounds a lot like an illicit drug deal,” Davis says. “It looks a lot like an illicit drug deal—I assure you it is not.”Recently, Ricky Gieser, a field technician who works with Davis, drove a few hours from Illinois to central Indiana to meet an Ohio wildlife official in the parking lot of a Cracker Barrel. Davis arranged for Undark to witness the exchange through Zoom. With latex-gloved hands, Gieser transferred bags of more than 300 frozen birds and bats—lifting them from state-owned coolers and then gingerly placing them into coolers owned by his university. The entire transaction was over in less than 15 minutes, but coordinating it took weeks.Davis studies bats and other “organisms that people don’t like,” with a focus on genetics. He grew up in Iowa chasing spiders and snakes and now stores a jar of pickled rattlesnakes—a souvenir from his doctoral research—on a shelf behind his desk. Protecting these creatures, he says, is of extreme importance. Bats provide significant economic benefit, eating up bugs that harm crops. And their populations are declining at an alarming rate: A disease called “white-nose syndrome” has wiped out more than 90 percent of the population of three North American bat species in the last decade. In late November of 2022, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed Davis’s favorite species, the northern long-eared bat, as endangered.For certain species, deaths at wind facilities are another stressor on populations. Scientists expect climate change to make the situation worse for bats and overall biodiversity. “Because of this confluence of factors, it’s just really tough for bats right now,” Davis says. “We need to work a lot harder than we are to make life better for them.”Like other wildlife researchers, Davis has sometimes struggled to get his hands on the specimens he needs to track species and understand their behaviors. Many spend time in the field, but that’s costly. Depending on the target species, acquiring enough animals can take years, Davis says. He used museum collections for his doctoral dissertation, and still views them as an “untapped font of research potential.” But many museums focus on keeping samples intact for preservation and future research, so they may not work for every project.That leaves salvage. Frozen bird and bat carcasses are “invaluable” to scientists, said Fesnock, the Bureau of Land Management wildlife biologist. So far, samples collected as part of the Renewables-Wildlife Solutions Initiative have led to about 10 scientific papers, according to Katzner. Davis says the collection could reduce research costs for some scientists by making a large number of samples available, particularly for species that are hard to collect. Catching migratory bats that fly high in the air with nets is difficult for scientists, which makes it challenging to estimate population levels. Bat biologists say there’s much we still don’t know about their behaviors, range, and number.As scientists work to compile better data, a few companies are experimenting with mechanization as a possible way to reduce fatalities at their facilities. At a wind farm in Wyoming, the utility Duke Energy has installed a rotating camera that resembles R2-D2 on stilts. The technology, called IdentiFlight, is designed to use artificial intelligence to identify birds and shut turbines down in seconds to avoid collisions.Prior to IdentiFlight, technicians used to set up lawn chairs amid the 17,000-acre site and look skyward, sometimes eight hours a day, to track eagles. It was an inefficient system prone to human error, says Tim Hayes, who recently retired as the utility’s environmental-development director. IdentiFlight has reduced eagle fatalities there by 80 percent, he adds. “It can see 360 degrees, where humans can’t, and it never gets tired, never blinks, and never has to go to the bathroom.”Biologists say there are still unknowns around the efficacy of these types of technologies, in part because of incomplete data on the population size and spread of winged wildlife.Katzner and his colleagues want the repository to help change this, but first they will need long-term funding to help recruit more partners and staff. Davis estimates he needs between $1 million and $2 million to build a sustainable repository at his university alone. Ideally, the USGS portion of the project in Boise would have its own building. For now, Katzner stores feathers in a space that doubles as a USGS conference room. Next door, in a room punctuated with a dull hum, the walls are lined with freezers. Some carry samples already cataloged. Others hold black trash bags filled with bird and bat bodies just waiting to be processed.

How to learn to love winter

Getty Images Winter doesn’t have to be the absolute worst time of year. Depending on where you live and your personal disposition, winter fills you with either delight (Skiing! Warm beverages! Cozy sweaters!) or dread (dry skin, early sunsets, painful wind chills). Every season comes with its unique trappings, but for regions that experience freezing temps, winter tends to draw the most contention. It’s true that cold has less-than-desirable effects on the body. Many people report feeling hungrier in the winter; long, dark nights contribute to increased tiredness as well as feelings of winter malaise, known as seasonal affective disorder; low humidity and the heat in homes contribute to dry, itchy skin. Despite all the havoc winter unleashes on the mind and body, there are ways to care for yourself to blunt the impact of cold and darkness. Regardless of the time of year, understanding how you react to icy temperatures and shorter days — physically and mentally — can help you prepare defenses and have a more pleasant and comfortable winter (even if the season is already half over). How winter affects the body and mind The body has both physical and behavioral reactions to frosty conditions, says Clare Eglin, a principal lecturer in human and applied physiology at the University of Portsmouth. When the external world gets cold, your warm skin loses heat to the environment, Eglin explains, and this is how you perceive the concept of being cold. Hands and face are the biggest contributors to sensing a chill: If the hands and face are exposed to wintry elements, you’ll feel colder, says Eglin, who studies how the body reacts to frigid temperatures. “As we start to lose heat to the environment, then our body reacts to try and prevent that heat loss and so the blood vessels in the skin narrow and that prevents the blood flow going there,” she says. “That reduces the skin temperature further, which is great because it stops us losing so much heat to the environment, but then our skin temperature feels colder and so we feel colder.” As a result, the brain shifts the blood flow from the extremities to the core and you start to shiver and your teeth clatter in an effort to get warm. The behavioral reaction to cold is to hunch over to conserve heat, Eglin says. Remaining tense, with shoulders shrugged, for an extended period can cause moderate pain and stiffness. Shivering and moving around to get warm requires energy, Eglin says, which you get from food. As the body breaks down food, the process releases heat, and you’ll actually feel warmer. This may explain increased hunger during the winter, Eglin says, to compensate for the energy required to warm you up. These effects may be negligible: Studies show cold environments only account for 100 to 200 calories burned. However, contextual influences may contribute to increased hunger in the winter. The holiday season, early sunset, and boredom could cause you to think about and surround yourself with more food. One small study found that participants increased their consumption of meat and dairy products in the winter. “There’s a lot of variability,” Eglin says. “Some people show a marked increase in the amount they eat, and other people don’t.” Lack of daylight is to blame for sluggishness and depression. In the morning, daylight is the body’s cue to wake up and get to work; once the sun sets and light dissipates, the body produces melatonin and gets sleepy. Belated sunrise and early sunset during the winter is a recipe for tiredness all season long. Lack of light causes all the body’s internal clocks (the mechanisms that regulate body temperature, hunger, and stress response) to fall out of sync, says Bonnie Spring, a professor of preventive medicine, psychology, and psychiatry at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine. “If it’s dark in the morning, and you feel like sleeping in and you do sleep in, then … you will be eating your breakfast later and not at a time when your insulin is sensitive enough to metabolize those calories efficiently,” she says. “You just get a spiral of things that goes off track.” Being off-cycle contributes to seasonal affective disorder, a type of depression that typically lasts during winter. SAD manifests in a depression beginning around late fall, Spring says, along with sleeping too much or too little; an increase in the consumption of carbohydrates, starches, and sweets; and weight gain. Because SAD is a genuine mental health disorder and considered a type of depression, more intensive treatments like therapy and antidepressants might be necessary. If you dread winter, try to change your mindset Despite all the biological and environmental hurdles winter throws our way, there are plenty of people who thrive during colder months. While she was organizing a research project on SAD in Norway, health psychologist Kari Leibowitz learned from a local collaborator how there weren’t any marked differences in mental health between winter and summer. In a country that is dark for most of the winter, Leibowitz was curious why these people flourished when so many others anguished during the season. Among her findings, which she chronicles in the forthcoming book How to Winter: Harnessing Mindset to Embrace All Seasons of Life, was a profound contrast in mindset toward winter among Norwegians. Largely, people in Nordic countries aren’t limited by cold and darkness; they continue to enjoy the outdoors and embrace coziness during the winter. (Of course, a year of paid parental leave and universal health care probably don’t hurt mental health, either.) By contrast, Americans, although hardly monolithic in experience, generally have a negative attitude about winter. “I think a lot of people, especially the people who aren’t in the coldest part of the US,” Leibowitz says, “tend to really struggle with the winter and focus a lot on the negatives and see it as a really limiting time of year ... when you can’t do the things that you enjoy doing.” Instead of viewing winter as a season of constraints, create opportunities that make it distinctive. If you enjoy beach trips or hiking in the summer, what are your winter alternatives? Lean into the coziness of the season and eat dinner by candlelight or experiment with warm recipes like soups and stews. Focus on the things you actually enjoy about the winter and activities you can only partake in when it’s cold and dark, like weekend ski trips and movie marathons. Something as small as reveling in the warmth of your home after a cold errand run can help improve mindset, Leibowitz says. “For a lot of people who really like the winter, they see it as a time to slow down, maybe have more intimate social gatherings, maybe read more, or make art or read poetry or practice music,” she says. Ritualizing certain aspects of winter entertainment — like a weekly TV night or daily cup of tea — makes an average part of life an event worth looking forward to. (Anticipating events in the future is also beneficial to mental health.) Get some daylight and fresh air, even when it’s cold outside In order to overcome the sluggish effects of minimal daylight in winter, light exposure is essential. Soaking in the daylight during a one-hour morning walk has been found to reduce the effects of SAD, according to research. Getting light in the morning also helps you fall asleep at night. Being in nature comes with a wealth of cognitive and emotional benefits, too. Layer up (more on that later) and take the dog for a walk or go for a quick hike. “If you are cooped up all winter long, if you’re not going on walks, if you’re not being active, if you’re not getting fresh air and whatever light you have access to in your part of the world,” Leibowitz says, “then it’s a recipe for feeling a little bit miserable during the winter.” Alternatives to natural light are lightboxes and sunrise alarm clocks. Designed to replicate the experience of soaking in natural light, these devices help treat SAD and are meant to be used for 20 to 30 minutes first thing in the morning. Similarly, sunrise alarm clocks play double duty: They serve morning light and also provide a wake-up call. Wear appropriate winter clothing Much of the disdain toward winter stems from a general dislike for being cold. “Every day I went to high school in my jeans and my sneakers and I put a coat on, but I wondered why I was shivering and miserable all winter,” says Leibowitz, whose New Jersey winters soured her view of the season. On a practical level, enjoying winter rests on your wardrobe. In Norway, where Leibowitz researches winter lifestyle, residents wear woolen leggings, undershirts, sweaters, and socks. Grocery stores are stocked with merino wool leggings and undershirts. By no means do you need to acquire these items if you don’t already have them (thrift stores and clothing swaps are good options for collecting warm-weather gear), but the sentiment remains: Layering is the key to staying warm in winter. Leibowitz’s Arctic-inspired winter wardrobe includes leggings under jeans and long-sleeved undergarments beneath a sweater. Waterproof jackets and boots keep snow and rain from soaking the clothes underneath. Your layering is contingent on your activity; you’ll want to wear more clothing for a casual walk outside or a lazy day on the couch than you will for a rigorous run or housework. As far as fabrics go, wool is ideal because it wicks moisture away from the body. Cotton, on the other hand, holds on to moisture, so if you sweat at all during a winter hike or bike ride, that perspiration won’t dry and will make you chillier. Soft and loose fabrics are comforting against dry, itchy skin. Remember to keep your hands and feet warm if you’re going outside, Eglin says, since blood flows away from the extremities when it’s cold. Good socks and gloves are essential. Navigating around ice and snow doesn’t have to be treacherous Ice and snowfall can prove especially difficult for folks with mobility issues. According to the Americans with Disabilities Act, snow and ice must be cleared from entrances to public buildings. Most states have specific snow removal laws for residential properties, so double-check whether you’re responsible for shoveling the sidewalk outside of your house and clarify with your landlord on who’s responsible for clearing snow and ice at your building. Some towns and cities offer snow clearing exemptions for people with disabilities or seniors. To help fill in the gaps where local municipalities fall short with snow removal policies, be a good community member and make sure you’re keeping the sidewalks around your home clear of snow and ice, and, if you can, offer to shovel or offer rides to neighbors in need. Look in on who may need help getting groceries or prescriptions during a winter storm. If you’re unable to clear snow around your home, check to see if a local volunteer organization offers snow removal services. Spring recommends using community Facebook groups or apps like Nextdoor to volunteer to help out a neighbor or to ask for assistance. Winter doesn’t need to be a time of inconvenience. A shift in mindset and a practical approach to the season can empower you (and those around you) to feel comfy and cozy even through frigid conditions. Even Better is here to offer deeply sourced, actionable advice for helping you live a better life. Do you have a question on money and work; friends, family, and community; or personal growth and health? Send us your question by filling out this form. We might turn it into a story.

No Results today.

Our news is updated constantly with the latest environmental stories from around the world. Reset or change your filters to find the most active current topics.

Join us to forge
a sustainable future

Our team is always growing.
Become a partner, volunteer, sponsor, or intern today.
Let us know how you would like to get involved!


sign up for our mailing list to stay informed on the latest films and environmental headlines.

Subscribers receive a free day pass for streaming Cinema Verde.
Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.