Forget Climate, are we Prepared for the Weather?

The debate rages on over climate change and what needs to be done to address it, if anything.  Regardless of your position on that matter, there’s no escaping the certitude of the weather.  The weather!  With all the baked lawns, charred forest, buckling pavement, derechos, unusual tornado patterns, etc., maybe we should consider that we aren’t even prepared for the weather!!

We aren’t prepared to withstand substantial drought.  We aren’t prepared for scorching wildfires.   We aren’t prepared for flash flooding in our cities.   We aren’t prepared for  EF-5 tornadoes.    We aren’t prepared for straight-line winds that tear our tethers to the grid.

What can we do to be prepared?  Well, for one, carry an umbrella.  But what else is there?  Some weather events are so sudden and violent that preparation is almost impossible.  Other events (like the drought) last so long that we are unprepared for their lingering consequences.  But there are things we could do…things that not only protect us, but also provide ecological, economic, and social benefits.

Drought 2012

The drought in the United States this year has been brutal.  July was the warmest month on record for the contiguous United States.  Drought has encroached on over 63% of the lower 48 states.  Severe drought is classified as a natural disaster by the U.S. EPA.Drought-stricken Lawn

The drought has been particularly devastating to agriculture that relies on rain and irrigation from reliable water sources. Well, rain is gold these days and water sources are severely depleted.  Constant use and inefficient watering techniques have already depleted major groundwater resources, like the Ogallala aquifer that underlies much of the plains.  As opposed to some seasons when farmers are PAID TO PLOW CROPS UNDER (to maintain lucrative crop prices), prices this year are being forced higher for low supplies (like Corn).

There are several ways to deal with the drought.  Drought requires efficient watering of gardens and landscaping, if it’s not already banned (see watering tips by Joe Lamp’l, host of PBS “Growing a Greener World”).  Some farmers are watering parts of their land while sacrificing others.

But more importantly, how could we be better prepared for drought in the future?  Well, we shouldn’t be wasting our resources on extracting, filtering, and purifying drinking water just to flush it down the toilet and wash the car. Water conservation is a primary concern today, but it should be habit on a daily basis.  It should be as simple as using greywater or collected rainwater for flushing toilets, watering the lawn, and washing cars.  The plants we add to our landscapes should be native, drought tolerant, and/or deep-rooted.  Irrigation to gardens and ag fields should be extremely efficient.  Drip irrigation and low-level, properly-timed sprayers can effectively provide moisture to the plants while minimizing loss by evaporation, salt-accumulation, and soil erosion.

Drought reduces moisture levels in the soil and leaves dry tinder for rampant wildfires.  Part of the reason for the terrible fires is from intense fire suppression by foresters.  Several years ago, we thought fire was bad in all circumstances.  We are now finding that fire is a natural part most ecosystems.  When fires are allowed to occur naturally and regularly, the understory kindling doesn’t usually build up so much as to scorch everything.  That is why controlled-burns and thinning of vegetation have become accepted practice in forests and prairies all over the world.  Burning reduces wildfire fuel, destroys intolerant invasive plants, and brings back native and natural growth.


On the other end of the scale, flooding and especially flash flooding are dangerous occurrences that inundate homes and threaten lives.

What can you do for this?  Well, first, DO NOT build on a flood plain!  Just because you haven’t seen floodwaters reach far beyond its channel in your lifetime doesn’t mean it has happened before or will happen again.  The flat area along water bodies are naturally inundated during 1-in-10, 1-in-100, and 1-in-1000 year rain events.

Next, flooding tends to be exacerbated in urban areas where concrete, asphalt, and compacted soils prevent rainwater from infiltrating into the ground.  Instead, the water becomes surface runoff.  Most urban areas have sewer systems to carry away stormwater, but sometimes those systems reach capacity.  In cases where stormwater systems have been combined with sewer systems, Combined Sewer Overflows (CSOs) can spew a mixture of stormwater and untreated sewage into waterways.

Look at all that liquid gold going down the drain!

To fight flooding in urban areas, stormwater should be minimized or at least slowed down.  That can be done with pervious pavements, larger areas of urban parks and forests, retention ponds, and detention ponds.  We can store it in cisterns or rain barrels for later use.  We can also incorporate green infrastructure including grass swales; constructed, restored, or expanded wetlands; rain gardens, green roofs, green walls (an introduction), and pervious pavement.  These options generally add vegetation that can help store and evapotranspire the water and increasing the area of permanent and temporary water storage.  On top of minimizing stormwater runoff, many of these green technologies provide temperature benefits, air quality improvement, shade, soothing green space, opportunities for using native plants, and habitat for local wildlife.

Native Green Roof at Shaw Nature Reserve

Whitmire Wildflower Garden

Tornado Alley

You’d think everyone in the center of the country would have proper tornado protection plans.  Best places to be during harsh storms include a reinforced shelter, in a basement, or in a small interior room.  But because of geology, hydrology, and cost, many homes just don’t have protection.  Approximately 82 percent of the homes didn’t have basements in Joplin, Missouri, where the EF-5 Tornado struck last year (my college hometown).  In Oklahoma, it is very difficult and costly to construct a basement (See why).

So what can we do?  Well, we can build stronger homes and remove or secure obstacles outside that could become projectiles.  Also, we can incorporate safe rooms made from recycled plastic materials.  Recent research shows they work very well.  During the rebuilding of Joplin, many are choosing to install safe rooms.  EFJoplin (Originally Project JOMO) offers some of these safe rooms constructed from recycled materials.  This can divert great volumes of plastic from landfills, which are becoming fuller and fewer across the U.S.

On a related note, tornadoes, hurricanes and even violent straight-line winds can damage homes and leave many without power.  Most homes and businesses simply cannot function without electricity.  Some people cannot live without electric-powered medical devices, air conditioning, and heat.  What can we do about this?

Well, aside from building homes stronger and utilizing passive lighting and temperature moderation (skylights, large windows, etc. for natural light and air circulation), we could provide our own power and be semi-independent from the utilities.  Photovoltaic solar panels and wind turbines, combined with still-improving backup systems, can provide emergency power without fossil-fuel generators.

To be completely independent of the grid, these technologies must be employed with other innovations in sustainable building design.  Earthships (see a previous entry), for example, are completely off-the-grid homes with numerous innovations to make comfortable but efficient living possible.

I could go on and on.  To me, the principles of sustainability appear to align with improving the human need for food, water, and shelter.  If all of these are improved, we may be able to better weather what we receive from Mother Nature.


Living Wall Prezi

I recently experimented with the innovative presentation tool called Prezi.  This is an amazing way to visualize presentations, get the bigger picture, and allow for a less linear look.  This is a presentation I made last week outlining the basics about living walls

“Introduction to Living Walls”

Let me know what you think.  If the embed code didn’t work…view it on Prezi.

The Yard: Golf Course or Natural Resource?

(This post was inspired by my experience in last week’s St. Louis Sustainable Backyard Tour.)

It’s a summer Saturday morning.  You’ve slept in as late as you possibly could.  Light now infiltrates your window blinds and morning sounds prevent any more snoozing.  You listen to cicadas, melodic birds, a passing breeze in the trees–and suddenly the overbearing roar of a neighbor’s lawn mower cancels out all the pleasant sounds as well as your chances for nodding back off.  You begin stirring around your home and preparing to do yard work of your own.  The dissonant sound coming from the neighbor’s yard has now shifted from droning lawn mower to growling leaf blower.

The neighbor’s yard is a glowing-green, pesticide- and fertilizer-ridden, ecologically nonfunctional, and environmentally negligent golf course.  That lawn is mowed twice a week to an unnaturally short height, irrigated daily with potable drinking water, and manicured tediously to look more like painted pavement than a patch of grass.  There isn’t a dandelion in sight since a trigger-happy pesticide lover sprays anything that isn’t a blade of grass (no beneficial insects survive, no wildflowers pop up).  That said, it probably isn’t safe walking through their yard barefoot!

You visit your front yard to see what needs tending.  The front yard entails a full landscape of native plants, with a pleasant mini-trail leading to the mail box.  You’ve learned that native plants aren’t weeds, don’t require much maintenance, reduce the need to mow, and provide micro-habitats and travel-stops for insects, birds, and whatever else.  You prune a few things and manually pull a few weeds and then head for the water faucet.  No, municipal drinking water isn’t being fed to the flora.  Instead, you reach for the spigot on your rain barrel and water the newer plants (to promote proper root establishment).   The rest of the front yard gets a dash of water and you’re done.

You make your way to the backyard, which follows a slope separated by a couple of rows of retaining walls.  The small terraces make up your backyard edible garden.  This is your fresh produce-producing backyard.  Another rain barrel feeds your crops and fresh compost nourishes them.  Your compost bin takes in your food scraps, leaves (not bagged up like the neighbor with the leaf blower).  Food fills your garden; even the retaining walls are in production.  You’ve used Living Retaining Wall blocks to grow fresh strawberries.  The grass patches surrounding your garden are mowed with a reel lawn mower to a height that encourages healthy growth and better competition with weeds.  Your fences are not bland wood or boring chain-link.  They are ivy-planted privacy screens that complete this backyard garden.

After you’ve tended your garden and picked the day’s basket of food, you turn towards the house.  The neighbor’s emission-spewing roars have stopped, but you can catch a whiff of oil and gasoline…the smell of soon-to-be-obsolete yard care.  They’ll learn.  After putting a basket of fresh produce on their porch, they’ll learn.


Threshold of Consequence

To some, it seems incomprehensible that 7 billion people can have lasting influence on our planet, inducing harmful changes to our environment.  Climate change cannot exist, say some folks.  

Humans have an impact on the environment.  I think most would agree.  But the argument that extends from this concept is the line, the threshold at which our species can impact parts or all of our world.  What is the threshold of our influence? How far does the impact of humankind extend?  At what level do we stop having an influence?  And what are the consequences of our evident influence?

One person can affect one tree by topping it, inviting disease and early death. The pathogen spreads to nearby trees, plaguing the neighborhood. One person generates 4.4 lb of trash per day, which goes into a landfill.  If one person dumps old batteries, old cleaners, plastics, construction material, it quickly fills and pollutes the landfill.  While the intent is to entomb the used goods for good, landfills inevitably leak concentrated, harmful, and radioactive materials into our air, soil, and waters.  One person has an influence.

A handful of people can harvest a forest through clear-cutting.  The immediate impact is on the forest, of course.  As decaying stumps now fill the landscape, the loosened soil, once held fast by living root systems, invites erosion.  The rains erode precious soil and decrease the chances of repopulation and natural succession.  The streams that now lie unshaded, devoid of forest canopy, become opaque and inhospitable for aquatic life.  Back in the stump-filled field, with the native plants in peril, invasive exotic weeds claim the upper hand.  Before natives get the chance to establish, they are crowded out and shaded out by invasive species (Honeysuckle, Tree of Heaven, Russian Olive, Autumn Olive, Kudzu, Wintercreeper, etc.).  Unless tree harvesters replant the forest, or more selectively and sustainably harvest it in the first place, it is doomed to inadequate or impossible ecological revival.  A handful of people have influence.

Thousands of people have the capacity to move mountains and burn a train-car of coal in minutes.  Thousands mine, transport, and burn coal.  They break apart entire mountains for bituminous bounty and toss the tailings into adjacent valleys.  If you fundamentally understand hydrology, or just gravity, it’s obvious that the valleys tend to carry surface waters.  Once geologically locked in the mountain, the inert, toxic, acidic, and contaminating materials now contaminate the valley and its waters.  Downstream is riddled with fish kills, dead zones, undrinkable waters, and unswimmable waters.  Then of course, there’s the impact of transporting coal, incinerating it, and ‘disposing’ of its byproducts. Thousands of people have influence.

A metropolitan area, facilitating millions of people, is wrought with real environmental problems.  Urban areas are warmer than their surrounding rural areas (UHIE) because of automobiles, industry, heating/cooling systems, and man-made impervious surfaces (asphalt, concrete, brick, etc.), which absorb and re-radiate large quantities of solar radiation instead of reflecting it.  Walking down a city street in mid-summer, pavement is everywhere and relatively few trees and plants are available to provide evapotranspirative cooling and shade.  Pavement also prevents stormwater from penetrating the soil and recharging groundwater.  We try to pipe away stormwater in sewers (sometimes combined wastewater/stormwater sewers).  Yet relentless, careless urbanization practices result in more runoff, flash flooding, the first flush phenomenon, combined sewer overflows, contaminated downstream waters, inedible fish, and a moisture deficit between rains.

Smoke, smog, city, landfill.

Cities thrive on progress, an economic measure of power and wealth.  Suburbanization widens the city’s grasp and creates the need for strip malls, highways, gas stations, leveled forests, channelized streams, and homeowners associations that find line-dried clothes ‘unsightly’ instead of ‘environmentally friendly.’  Indeed, oak-hickory forests become Oak-Hickory Estates, filled with boring bradford pears and boxwoods.  A river floodplain becomes waterview mall, a vast ocean of concrete that covers fertile land (and inevitably will be inundated during a 100-year-flood).  Millions of people have an influence.

Billions, with a B, certainly have an influence.

Why is it so difficult to widen the scope of environmental influence from individual (local) to millions (regional) to billions (worldwide)? 

Sure, the Earth is big.  Most of it is covered by water, and plants like CO2.  But what about our collective impacts, the synergism of diverse contamination and innumerable smoke stacks, the millions of automobiles on the road, the boats transporting our ‘cheap’ goods across OCEANS (circumnavigating state-sized garbage patches)?  Is it so unfathomable that, in the relentless pursuit of progress worldwide, we are causing worldwide problems?

See the increases in cancer, respiratory illness, and general unhappiness as we wipe entire forests for toilet paper, burn anything and everything we find, throwaway reusable and recyclable things that never fully decompose, and import bottled water when locally-sourced (usually) tap water is available?

Do we continue down ruts until they run so deep that we cannot steer away when we see a cliff?  Do we invest in heavily subsidized, outdated, continually short-sighted technologies or consider developing technologies that become increasingly efficient, sustainable, and cheap in the long-term?

Who are we kidding?  Let’s not kid our kids or our kids’ kids; let’s invest in our future and their future responsibly, sustainably, as stewards for God’s masterful work.

Honeysuckle of Doom!

We certainly love quick fixes.  We like things that take care of themselves.  Unfortunately, in the landscaping and agricultural world that can include  introducing non-native species into the environment without restraint or consideration of the consequences.  Luckily, many species cannot survive without human care.  But a few species can thrive without our care, and without natural predators; they become exotic, invasive, destructive species out of their ecological context.

I give you the Bush Honeysuckle (Lonicera maackii).  Bush Honeysuckle is ALL OVER urban St. Louis, often as a planted privacy screen, or for erosion control.  I suppose people like the smell of their flowers, though I’m fairly certain I’m allergic to invasives.  Unfortunately, Honeysuckle profusely produces berries that propagate everywhere (the forest, your yard, your neighbors yard).  They can even tolerant enough to shade out native trees and plants in forest understories.  They are allelopathic, too, meaning they produce chemicals that inhibit growth of other plants in their vicinity.

White/yellow flowers fill the understory.

The red berries they produce can feed birds.  Unfortunately, the berries are not as nutritious as that of many native berry producers.  In the end, birds get junky bird food and Honeysuckle seeds get a free ride.


Many people battle honeysuckle, but removal can be difficult.  You must generally remove the entire plant and root system or cut the plant back to the stump, immediately paint it with glyphosate, and pray it doesn’t resprout.  I’ve found the removal of Honeysuckle to be very gratifying.  Something is therapeutic about stopping these evildoers with shovels, saws, and a little stump killer.  If it’s in your yard, just remember to replace it with something native to increase biodiversity, bird food, habitat, AND to help keep honeysuckle from returning.

Grow Native!

A Green Retaining Wall

During my studies at SIUE, I was introduced to innovative technologies that are designed to address urban environmental problems.  Green roofs, blue roofs, green walls, rain gardens, bioswales, etc. can help mitigate stormwater runoff and/or the Urban Heat Island Effect (UHIE).  I conducted  my thesis project on a specific kind of green wall, a green retaining wall.  A green retaining wall (or some variant of living landscape wall or green landscaping wall) is designed to stabilize a slope and create space for development just like a conventional retaining wall.  The difference is that these retaining walls are plantable.

Remember the eyesore of a towering retaining wall at the edge of a parking lot?  How about the monotonous wall in a hilly yard?  Well, plantable retaining walls give us the opportunity to beautify urban space without compromising function.  In addition, they can provide environmental benefits like stormwater management, temperature moderation, noise reduction, and biodiversity improvements.  These retaining walls have been employed all over the country, including the St. Louis area.  Although, not all of the walls have been planted.

While the blocks themselves offer great texture compared to a traditional retaining wall,  not seeing them for the greenery is ideal.

Hmm….if anyone happens to see these walls left unplanted, consider some guerrilla gardening. Just kidding…maybe.  And maybe learn about living retaining walls through a new St. Louis-based company, The Living Wall Company.

Have you seen something like this before?

The Nature of an Urban Jungle

Urban Centers Now

There is nothing natural about an urban setting. Seas of pavement. Forests of street lamps, street signs, and leafless telephone poles. Savannas of symmetrical parks, manicured lawns and perfect -unnaturally perfect- ornamental trees. Rivers of highway back-logged with cars and freighters. Mountains of

brick, concrete, wood, and glass built to shield us from the o’-so-harsh elements.

Where there is economic development, there is usually environmental degradation.  One is sacrificed for the other in the name of “Progress.”  Progress includes stripping mountains of their mountaintops, relieving forests of their leafy blankets, replacing verdant prairie with crop monocultures, replacing cropland with shiny-10-mpg-SUV-ridden suburbia, encapsulating municipal ‘trash’ in tombs that rival the ancient Pyramids of Giza, choking once pristine waterways with effluent, trash, and sediment eroded from denuded stream banks, browning and blackening the air, poisoning and exploiting our worldly neighbors. Progress seems to include urbanizing, shutting out, ignoring, destroying, breaking, burning. (I recall the Ent’s rant from Lord of the Rings.)

Urban Centers Re-Visualized

Instead, try to visualize a metropolitan area that aggressively strives to be verdant, sustainable and self-sufficient.

A walk down main street is a pleasure, not a chore.  Old buildings have been restored according to LEED standards, and are teeming with activity.  Building facades are checkered with superinsulated solar windows and trellis-twining vine green walls.  Looking up, roofs are home to plants (green roofs), solar panels, and helical wind turbines. The sidewalk underfoot appears unusual; it’s porous pavement, which reduces stormwater runoff and flooding, and also brings moisture to abundant street trees.

You come to the edge of an intersection and find not a wedge of concrete or a patch of sterile grass but an urban garden.  Some backpacks lay at the edge of the garden.  Some children are tending to their crops.  They seem excited about the plants they’ve learned to care for, the seeds they’ve planted, the plants they’ve watched grow, and the food they get to bring home.  As they scamper home with a few ripe vegetables, you turn back to the intersection.  Instead of a complicated and fuel-wasting 4-way stop, a traffic circle greets oncoming motorists.  As traffic rolls smoothly about this round about, you look closely to the center circle.  Instead of a cement-curbed impervious surface, a rain garden adorns this traffic circle.  The native grasses, forbs, and shrubs, wait patiently for the next rain.  They  gladly accept stormwater runoff that would otherwise drain into the sewer and end up -untreated- in local waterways.

You follow the street to the bus stop, which is adorned by solar panels to generate electricity and provide shelter as you sit at the bench.  A few minutes pass and the bus quietly pulls up.  Fueled by an alternative energy, it doesn’t spew exhaust in your face when it stops.  The doors open.  Going up the steps you see roof reinforcements in the bus.  An infographic shows you pictures of this bus’s extensive green roof.  Drought-tolerant stonecrops (Sedum) wait patiently on the bus roof for the next rain while providing mobile greenery for residents looking out from their restored multi-story buildings.  The roof reinforcements ensure structural integrity, even under the full load of saturated growing media and plants during rains.

You look out the window as the green roof bus enters the highway.  You are not in a claustrophobic corridor of asphalt lanes and concrete barrier walls.  Where possible, the pavement has been painted with electricity-generating nano-solar cells.  The sound barriers that attempt to block displeasing sounds and sights for nearby residences are made more effective with coverings of ivy facades and living walls of other plants.  As the bus rounds the side of a hill, even the retaining walls facilitate vegetation, rendering the living retaining wall itself almost invisible.

Finally you arrive home after walking a couple blocks from your bus stop.  It is dusk and as you approach your yard, the solar-powered LED street lights blink on.  You stop and admire your short-grass prairie lawn.  The buffalo grass might need to be mowed once or twice this year, so no rush.  Your flower garden along your home is vibrant with drought-tolerant, climate-adjusted native plants – bees, butterflies, and birds love them!  You might water the  garden tomorrow, but only with water from your rain barrel at the foot of your gutter.  Your roof also supports an extensive green roof system.  Succulents and grasses thrive up there.  The system retains stormwater, or at least slows it down during larger storms.  The stormwater the roof cannot hold goes down the gutters into the rain barrel or towards your backyard rain garden.  Any excess stormwater from the rain garden passes through a grass swale before finally trickling into the storm sewer.  You are eager to disconnect your stormwater flows from the sewer whenever possible.  The risk of the stormwater inundating combined stormwater/sanitary sewers would mean messy combined sewer overflows and basement backups.  Otherwise, you might not want to eat that fish you caught at your favorite spot.

The greenery throughout your city provides stormwater benefits, thermal benefits for the buildings and the microclimate, efficiency boosts for photovoltaics (See Green Roofs and Solar Panel Efficiency), aesthetically pleasing views, noise reduction, to name a few.  Besides, you can save rain for a dry day.

Green roofs, green walls, rain gardens, public gardens, etc. provide sanctuary to otherwise nature-deficient city dwellers.  Reusing and revitalizing abandoned areas is important. Incorporating safe, useful public transit is important. Educating children that the outdoors are to be explored is important; to learn to dismiss the overbearing fears of a wild nature, the risk of playing outdoors, the intangible but strong grasp of liability (sue-happy society)…is IMPORTANT. (See Nature Deficit Disorder.)  We must mitigate suburban and exurban sprawl and revitalize what we already have. Reduce. Reuse. Recycle. Three words more powerful than faint arrows on a pop bottle.

There is nothing natural about an urban setting. That said, 7 billion people need to live SOMEWHERE. Perhaps we will realize the necessity of following the principles of sustainability and that we should be stewards of God’s Creation, not robbers of its bounty.