Nearby Nature Project: 2023 July

The last edition of Nearby Nature Project described how wildfire smoke is curtailing our out and about time. Canada’s record-breaking wildfire season continues. Why so bad this year? Past forestry management practices resulted in a build-up of fuel. Rising temperatures dry out vegetation, allow pests like pine beetles to spread and leave standing dead trees, and seem to encourage stronger winds. Throw in human carelessness with cigarette buts/campfires and daily thunderstorm cycles and it’s a recipe for the worst wildfire season on record.

Monitoring Air Quality

Environment And Natural Resources Canada provides Air Quality Health Index ratings for more than 20 locations in Alberta. AQHI considers ground level ozone, fine particulates (PM 2.5) and nitrogen dioxide (from vehicle exhaust). Wildfire smoke contributes to fine particulates.

I dislike the AQHI for three main reasons:

  1. It’s not available everywhere. For example, the nearest location to Canmore and Banff is Calgary, more than 100 km away. Thanks to prevailing wind patterns and depending on wildfire locations, air quality can be quite different between Canmore and Calgary.
  2. The health message associated with the AQHI is only short-term oriented. “The Air Quality Health Index presents the immediate health risk of the combined effects of air pollution (smog) mixture… It does not attempt to consider any issues other than the day to day health impact of air pollution.”

    Yet the United Nations Environment Programme website states “fine particle pollution is an important factor in deaths from type 2 diabetes, tracheal, bronchus and lung cancer and neonatal disorders. It is also a contributing factor on chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, stroke, ischemic heart disease and lower respiratory infections.” It’s a cumulative thing, not a point in time thing.
  3. I’m don’t necessarily trust the AQHI messaging. For example, as I write this, the AQHI for Calgary is 3, or “low risk.” The health message for low risk ratings of 1 through 3 is that the air quality is ideal for outdoor activities. Even “at risk” individuals can/should enjoy their usual outdoor activities. “At risk” individuals include seniors, pregnant people, infants/children, people who work outside or who exercise strenuously outdoors, and people with underlying health conditions such as cancer, diabetes, mental illness, and lung or heart conditions.

    Yet while the AQHI for Calgary shows “low risk,” other resources I look to (IQAir and PurpleAir) show the air quality is “Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups”, with a PM 2.5 concentration 8x the WHO annual air quality guideline value. IQAir and PurpleAir basically aggregate information collected from sensors purchased and installed by individuals, businesses and community groups. IQAir updates hourly and PurpleAir updates every 10 minutes.

    Part of the difference may be that IQAir and PurpleAir also measure sulphur dioxide and carbon monoxide. But both services specifically report PM 2.5 concentrations. So I’m not sure that explains why our federal government department would deem it low risk for everyone spending time outside, while the other services categorize it as unhealthy for sensitive groups. If you can help explain the differences, please share your expertise by leaving a comment!

Regardless, all this smoke is affecting my state-of-mind and seriously curtailing our outdoor activities. I’ve pretty much resigned myself to accepting the potential long-term health consequences of spending time outside when PM 2.5 concentrations are “moderate.” We’ll continue to be more selective. For example, we’ll walk and kayak more, hike and bike less. Not only because walking and kayaking generally don’t result in heavy/deep breathing. But also because who wants to put in the time and effort to hike to the top of a mountain when views are obscured by smoke?

I also wonder how those who earn their living working outside are coping with the extended wildfire smoke season. If it’s only one season, maybe the potential long-term health consequences are offset by being active, outdoors. But it’s not just one season. I have a note that forest fire smoke affected the Banff/Calgary area 4 of the last 10 years (2014-2023). Hmmm…

News Feed

Despite the failure of G20 nations to agree on emissions reductions targets at the Chennai meeting, and against a backdrop of record-breaking temperatures across many parts of the globe, there was a bright spot in July…

EU’s Nature Restoration Law

Earlier this month, the EU narrowly passed a nature restoration law that will imposte recovery measures on 20% of the EU’s land and sea by 2030, rising to cover all degraded ecosystems by 2050. Described as a “law law on behalf of nature…not…a law against any person whatsoever,” the aim is to reverse biodiversity loss driven by climate change, pollution and the way humanity exploits the land and sea.

I particularly appreciate that restoring nature will require all of us working together, across all industries and activities, to change things for the better. At last – an acknowledgement that shutting down fossil fuels is not a silver bullet. Things are much more complicated and and require a comprehensive transformation on many fronts.

Cultivating My Nature Connection

I’m taking part in the National Lake Blitz this year. A citizen science project that relies on volunteers, National Lake Blitz, this is the third year for the project. Run by Living Lakes Canada, the goal of the National Lake Blitz is to encourage the widespread monitoring of lakes across Canada using simple tools so participants can easily understand the impacts affecting lake health while improving their water literacy.

Step one is to choose the lake you’re going to monitor and then register as a volunteer. Then, from May through September, visit “your” lake twice per month (the schedule is published ahead of time, with monitoring dates on weekends) to take temperature readings: ambient, surface water, water at approx. 1 meter deep. There have been a few times I’ve been away on the weekend, so I take temperature readings the day before or after to try to stay “in sync” with the published schedule.

It takes about 15 minutes, so fits really well with the time it takes to get our kayak set up to paddle on Vermilion Lake number two. This is a shallow lake, so I’m finding the surface temperature is often cooler than the temperature at depth, thanks to cool overnight temperatures (I usually take my readings fairly early in the morning).

So far, I consider it a fairly low effort way to contribute to citizen science. There’s a Level 2 monitoring option, which includes pH balance and other more complicate measurements. Since 2023 is the pilot year for Level 2 monitoring, I opted to wait and see how it goes.

There’s a kind of sister project to National Lake Blitz – a photo contest. Submissions are open to July 31 and then judging/voting takes place in August.

Nearby Nature Project

Birding Update

It’s been a great month for birding, particularly while kayaking at Vermilion Lakes in Banff National Park. Highlights include all the recently hatched babies. We discovered that baby grebes (grebettes) have zebra stripes on their heads, the better to camouflage in shoreline grasses.

Another highlight? Spotting a pied-billed grebe for the first time ever. We didn’t realize it at the time, and only discovered our good fortune back at home running some of our photos through Merlin ID and iNaturalist for help with bird identification.

Also at Vermilion Lakes, we witnessed Red-winged Blackbird parents telling off their fledglings for begging to be fed. It’s tough love…time for independent feeding! The pictures show dad chasing off junior. We observed mom ignoring begging behavior.

Gardening Update

I will do at least one more round of planting in the vegetable garden – more bok choy, Swiss chard and lettuce mix. Meanwhile, we are enjoying the results of our spring planting, including kale, Swiss chard, lettuce, bok choy, beets, onion tops, garlic scapes (good for a low FODMAP diet), and the first few carrots. Oh, and some raspberries and sour cherries.

Our carrots are not yet very big (see the two small ones in the photo with the salad greens). So I’ve happily swapped kale, beet greens, bok choy, Swiss chard and lettuce to my mother-in-law, receiving some of her much larger carrot crop and vine-ripened cherry tomatoes in returns. And since we still have quite a few packages of cherries in the freezer from last year’s crop, I’m swapping some of this year’s pickings for radishes and black currants from our neighbour’s yard. The whole comparing and swapping thing is a bonus aspect to growing your own food.

One other veggie garden note…for the past several years I’ve had issues with something eating away at my kale. This year, I companion planted cilantro with the kale (and the bok choy and broccoli) and it’s worked very well. I seem to have far fewer insect holes in my kale leaves. 🙂

Coming Up

Nature Conservancy Canada’s Big Backyard Bioblitz is coming up August 3-7. If you live in Canada or will be visiting Canada during that time, click here for more details. Observations can be uploaded to iNaturalist via the app or the website.

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