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Weather Almanac for April 2010
EARTH DAY AT 40
On 22 April 2010, we celebrate Earth Day for the fortieth time. I am pleased to recall that I was there for the first one, lecturing to high school students on air pollution and urban climates, and also perturbed at myself for letting so many observances in between slip away without fanfare.
Actually, at the University of Michigan, where I was a graduate student in meteorology/oceanography, we held our teach-ins on the environment a month earlier (11-14 March) because 22 April fell within the final exam weeks. Formally known as the “Teach-In on the Environment” or ENACT, the conference keynote event featured US Senators Edmund Muskie and Gaylord Nelson, and Dr. Barry Commoner. Ralph Nader, just beginning his fame as an activist, gave a lecture, and I heard Gordon Lightfoot and Odetta live for the first time. The workshops covered topics ranging from overpopulation, to water pollution on the Great Lakes, and the effects of war on the environment (Vietnam was still raging).
The organization of activities to observe Earth Day across the US had begun at many universities, colleges and high schools. My brother Tim was one of the organizers for his high school (Fremd High School in Palatine, Illinois) and he asked if I would take part. I agreed to make the trip back (my exams were over) and I contacted my alma mater Palatine Township High School, offering to speak there on the preceding day. Armed with some hand-drawn overheads, I gave two days of lectures on air pollution meteorology and urban climatology and its relation to air pollution problems.
When I think back to those days, what I find interesting is that some of the topics we were concerned about then — sulphur dioxide and particulate matter as an urban air pollution problem; lead in gasoline; phosphates in the Great Lakes; burning rivers (the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland); and oil spills off the California Coast (Santa Barbara) — have more or less faded from the spotlight. Unfortunately, through the years, as each of these problems was mitigated, another leak sprung in the environmental dam. One solution for the sulphur dioxide emissions as a by-product of burning sulphur-bearing coal and oils — high smoke stacks — morphed the problem from a local one to a regional one: acid rain. Photochemical smog — you had to say “photochemical” to distinguish it from “London” smog — was only a real problem in Los Angeles, and desertification was just beginning to be mentioned in relation to West African drought and famine. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring had been a best seller not that long before but as DDT use diminished, we found other chemicals released into the environment had equally severe consequences.
At the time of these events, I was just beginning my graduate studies and working in air-sea interactions and micrometeorology. But soon, I would take courses in air pollution meteorology, air chemistry, and marine chemistry, and my research work shifted to air pollution under the direction of Professor Don Portman as we looked into the expansion of the Enrico Fermi Nuclear Generating Station in southeast Michigan. The whole concept of ecology seeded my brain to the impacts of the environment on life, and thus I decided to pursue my doctorate in agricultural meteorology at the University of Guelph.
[I note the passing this past weekend of Stewart Udall, the last surviving member of the Kennedy cabinet, former US Secretary of Interior. Udall wrote a small book The Quiet Crisis that showed me a greater scope to the environmental problems than local emission.]
The change in my career path was profound, in large part altered by the ENACT and Earth Day events. I had entered Michigan considering thunderstorms as my main interest and eventually when I left Guelph, I began working for the Ontario Ministry of the Environment’s Air Pollution Branch. This began my career in air pollution meteorology, which in the early ‘70s became air quality meteorology.
While I no longer have the original lecture notes from Earth Day #1, this article Three Environmental Ages, which I wrote for a conference in 1993, still has relevance today and sums up the transitional period we were going through in the 1970s.
While the environmental debates continue across the globe, the degradation also marches on. Those of us born before 1960 will leave a much different world to our grandchildren. I sincerely hope that Earth Day observances continue forever, for we need at least one day each year to stop and reflect on the planet we call home. It has its problems, many due to our species, but it also is a place of great beauty and wonder that should be celebrated daily. I often find myself hearing that great song by Louis Armstrong, “What A Wonderful World” in my head and reply: YES!
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