Thom Smith: Some good and bad after 34 years


Some good and bad after 34 years

It becomes more difficult with each passing year to accept the speed with which the previous twelve months pass, each coming and going with the swiftness of a falcon in pursuit.

This past year was no exception, and here I find myself keying in the last Naturewatch of my 34th year and thinking about how we focused on problems of the day.

In the early days of this column, it was the Cold War, acid rain and the running out of oil that had us frightened. We had not yet begun to really worry about PCBs in our Housatonic River, and as I recall, were excited about our perceived improvements to the river; it no longer regularly ran different colors and was less the cesspool it was as we were growing up.

We were thrilled at the DDT ban a few years earlier (1972, actually). By 1983, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, among others, reported the build-up of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere will likely lead to global warming. (A subject continued to be debated, although a vast majority of scientists agree.) By 1985, scientists reported discovery of what they called a hole in the Earth's ozone layer, and levels of ozone were dropping.

The word "pollution" was on everyone's tongue as the Exxon Valdez tanker ran aground in Alaska (killing more than 250,000 birds).

I distinctly recall the disgust I felt watching plumes of smoke from oil well fires set by the retreating Iraqi army in Kuwait, along with the worst oil spill in history -- 1.25 million tons in 1991.

With ever increasing proof of global climate change, President George W. Bush announced we cannot afford to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and will not ratify the Kyto Protocol. In 2002 the European Union ratified the Kyto Protocol, bringing industrial nations closer to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, while in the same year, a large chunk of Antarctica's Larsen B ice shelf collapsed as regional temperatures warmed.

In 2003, scientists provided information that the Northern Hemisphere had been hotter since 1980 than any time during the past 2,000 years. The Environmental Protective Administration proposed the first mercury emissions on power plants.

And in the last 10 years, forest fires, tornados and hurricanes (The Gulf Coast, in 2005 received extensive damage from Katrina and Rita, torrential rains, flooding) cause me to wonder if the Earth is trying to tell us something.

In 2007, the Supreme Court ruled that carbon dioxide and greenhouse gasses can be regulated under the Clean Air Act. (It was a beginning.) In 2009 the EPA officially found greenhouse gasses produce major air pollution.

Snowy Owls continue to fascinate

A recent e-mail from Anne in Great Barrington suggests snowy owls are full of surprises. According to the writer, [A] Snowy owl was fishing for our 6 to 8" goldfish last night from our outdoor pond. She got at least one. We surprised her on a branch as we climbed into the tree house last night. Erving (age 7) saw that it was a large mostly white owl. She was back at 4:30 when she dropped into the pond and got a fish.


Local birder Chris Blagdon reports via the Hoffmann Bird Club's hotline that a total of 17 snowy owls were seen while he and a small group of enthusiasts explored the northeastern part of the state at Salisbury State Park and Parker River National Wildlife Refuge.


One question we may have been answering wrongly is what causes them to fly this far south? We always thought lack of food. According to Massachusetts Audubon, Norman Smith, sanctuary director of Blue Hills Trailside Museum and lead of Mass Audubon's Snowy Owl Project says "We actually see the most snowy owls in New England after an Arctic lemming population boom, not bust." High lemming populations improve breeding success, and irruptions typically consist mostly of hatch-year birds (ones born this year). Questions and comments for Thom Smith:Email


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