Chasing Ice: Visualizing a Changing Climate

A few weeks ago, a paper was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that seemed to show a way to reduce climate change skepticism among political conservatives.

Framing messages around “past comparisons”—that is, comparing the damaged environment of today with a more verdant, pure past—increased conservatives’ pro-environmental feelings more than dire warnings about future scenarios.

Could this be the One Weird Trick to finally convince climate deniers to get on board?

Could a new study provide a way to turn climate deniers into believers?

I have to admit, I’m skeptical. For one thing, results in a lab are decidedly not the same as taking action in the real world—there are no consequences or compromises. Also, it’s not particularly surprising to me that past-focused materials, showing actual evidence of something happening, are more persuasive than theoretical predictions of what could possibly take place in the future.

But, that’s not to say the idea doesn’t have merit! Indeed, sometimes seeing evidence of change with your very own eyes is absolutely critical, especially when it revolves around something as hard to envision as climate change.

Capturing Change on Film

Over the holidays, while decompressing from family overload with a nightly Netflix binge, I stumbled upon a documentary that, in my opinion, is most moving, most beautiful visualization of climate change I’ve ever seen.

Chasing Ice is a 2012 film that follows National Geographic photographer James Balog as he embarks upon a personal quest to chronicle the planet’s shrinking glaciers. Traveling with a team of young adventurers across some of the world’s most brutal terrain, Balog deploys an array of time-lapse cameras trained on glaciers in Alaska, Montana, Greenland, and Iceland.

The cameras were designed to withstand extreme conditions—think sub-zero temperatures and 150 mph winds—and to snap about 8,000 frames per year. Balog and his team periodically returned to the cameras to retrieve the footage, and after several years, compiled the hundreds of thousands of images into short “films” that literally show glaciers receding in real time, right before your eyes.

The Sólheimajökull Glacier near the southern tip of Iceland as it appeared in April 2006 (top). The same view in February 2009 (bottom), shows the glacier much diminished. Photographs: James Balog / Extreme Ice Survey.

Sometimes the melting was so rapid that the ice retreated right out of the camera’s view. (See some of the footage here.)

The results are incredibly beautiful and undeniably troubling. Years are compressed into seconds as ancient mountains of ice shrink, collapse, and disappear. Chunks of glacier larger than lower Manhattan break apart, crash into the sea, and float away.

It’s truly haunting, and very compelling, which is exactly what Balog was going for. “I want them [viewers] to be fascinated,” he said, “and to viscerally understand that climate change is real, and this is what it looks like.”

The calving edge of the Rink Glacier on the west coast of Greenland, observed by EIS camera GLA2 on July 22, 2011. Photo credit: James Balog / Extreme Ice Survey

I admit that it’s hard to come away from this film feeling particularly optimistic (especially in our current political climate). But, it’s not hard to come away feeling energized and inspired to take some kind of action. And this may actually be where the film falters a little bit—it fails to provide any kind of next step for viewers.

It’s a small criticism for a big film, and one that’s absolutely recommended, for all the climate change activists—and deniers—in your life. You can find Chasing Ice on Netflix or Amazon.

What to Do With Your Christmas Tree

Now that the big day is over, your poor Christmas tree is likely languishing away in the corner, getting dryer and more flammable by the minute. Are you even bothering to turn the lights on anymore?

I know there are those of you out there who hang on to your Christmas tree until New Year’s Day (or beyond), but for those of you who are ready to reclaim your living room, here are a variety of options for returning your hardworking evergreen to the earth.

  1. Curbside pickup: The easiest, cheapest, and most popular way to send your tree packing. DSNY will collect trees for recycling from January 3 to January 14. All lights, ornaments, stands, plastic bags, and other items must be removed; trees will be chipped, mixed with leaves, and recycled into rich compost for NYC’s parks, institutions, and community gardens.Trees left on the curb on any other dates will be collected as garbage.
  2. Mulchfest: A more glorious goodbye for your tree—watch it being chipped in person (best it smells fantastic!), and take home your very own free bag of mulch. On January 7 and 8, from 10am to 2pm, simply bring your naked tree to one of many designated sites in all five boroughs—or leave it at a drop-off location. The city will use these wood chips to nourish trees and plants on streets and gardens citywide.Last year, more than 30,000 trees were recycled at Mulchfest!
  3. Pickup Service: Have no time? Hire a tree disposal expert to take care of this chore for you. NYC Trees will send a “dedicated removal team” to pick up your tree and bring it directly to a local NYC Parks mulching center to be processed. This service ranges from $50 to $200 depending on tree size.

One important note: please do not chop up your tree and burn it! Dried-out evergreens burn like tinder, creating fast burning sparks that can set your room or roof on fire. The pitch in the wood can also create toxic smoke and and fast-moving flames.

Gift Guide: Simple Shifts

The holidays have a reputation for being a particularly wasteful time of year, but they don’t have to be. This year, I plan to give small but thoughtful gifts that gently encourage or enable more sustainable habits.

During times like these, when the challenges facing us as a nation seem overwhelming at best, it’s important to remember that change can, and must, begin at home. The world still turns, we all still eat, do laundry, wash dishes, and putter in the yard—why not do those things with attention and care for the planet that sustains us?

And so I offer you this simple, sustainable gift guide*. (Where possible we’ve included links to both Amazon and smaller retailers.) There are items here that I use and appreciate every single day. There are also items that are on my own Christmas list, places where I could use a little nudge myself.

Hint, hint, Santa.

Gift Guide: Simple Shifts

Clockwise from left: wool dryer balls, stainless steel straws, beeswax candles, reusable beverage container, cloth napkins.
Clockwise from left: wool dryer balls, stainless steel straws, beeswax candles, reusable beverage container, cloth napkins.

Wool dryer balls: Ditch the fabric softener and reduce your electricity costs! These woolen balls separate clothing to help warm air circulate better and dry your load faster. The felted wool fibers also help soften your clothes. Amazon | Etsy

Stainless steel straws: A cheap way to make every drink feel fabulous and nix the plastic. Pop one in your purse for use on the go. Amazon | Food52

Beeswax candles: Nothing says cozy like a candlelit room in winter. Beeswax candles are clean-burning, smell delicious, and help support honeybee farmers. AmazonKaufmann Mercantile

Reusable beverage container: No more paper cups, plastic lids, and cardboard sleeve protectors. There are a million reusable mugs out there; I like this one because it can double as a water bottle. This is one of the easiest ways to reduce your waste. Amazon

Cloth napkins: An easy and elegant way to make every meal feel special, while reducing your reliance on scummy old paper towels. I’m partial to linen because it gets softer and more rumpled with every use. Etsy | Everyday Napkin Co.

Clockwise from left: linen bowl covers, reusable produce/bulk bags, Silpat liner, beeswax wrap.
Clockwise from left: linen bowl covers, reusable produce/bulk bags, Silpat liner, beeswax wrap.

Bowl covers: Who needs plastic wrap or aluminum foil when you can have these reusable bowl covers? Use silicone for things that need to be kept airtight, linen for foods that need to breathe.  Amazon (silicone) | Quitokeeto (linen)

Produce/bulk bags: Buying in bulk is a great way to save money and cut down on packaging. Unfortunately, it requires the use of yet another plastic bag…until now! Silk or nylon bags are reusable and washable, and weigh the same as plastic. Stock up! Amazon | Etsy

Silpat: A must-have for any baker in your life. This tray liner can replace parchment paper, which must be thrown away after use, and makes any surface non-stick without toxic Teflon. Amazon

Beeswax wrap: Made from organic muslin infused with beeswax, jojoba oil, and tree resin, these plastic wrap-alternatives are airtight, waterproof, and flexible. Wrap up the other half of your avocado or make a pouch to store your sandwich, and say goodbye to plastic wrap. Bee’s Wrap | Abeego

Clockwise from left: insect hotel, herb planter, window bird feeder.

Insect hotel: Invite a few friends over…of the insect variety! These striking structures are designed to provide food, shelter, and nesting space to all manner of beneficial Brooklyn bugs: think honey bees, butterflies, beetles, and ladybugs. Install one in your backyard and watch your garden benefit. Amazon | Etsy

Herb garden: No more single-serve, plastic packs of herbs! This spring, grow your own! All you need is a little space with sunlight—a balcony, a fire-escape (technically not legal in NYC, just FYI), or a window sill will do. Tuck your rosemary and basil into a nice little planter and let them do their thing. Amazon | Gardener’s Supply Co.

Window bird feeder: New York City is a favorite stop on the migration path for many fascinating species of birds. Try setting up a little feeding station on your balcony to see who could use a snack! The Cornell Lab actually recommends suction cup feeders that can be set right on the glass, noting that “you dramatically reduce the likelihood of local birds colliding with glass when the feeders are on the glass or set up within just 3 feet of the window.”  Amazon | Wild About Birds



*The Amazon links used within this post are affiliates. This means that NYER may earn a small commission on items that have been purchased through those links. Please know that we only suggest products that we use or feel strongly about. Your support keeps NYER afloat. Thank you!

Real or Fake: Which Christmas Tree is Best for the Environment?

It’s difficult to walk down the city sidewalks this time of year without feeling the urge to deck the halls. ‘Tis the season for pop-up Christmas tree lots on nearly every busy corner, and if walking through those pine-scented wonderlands doesn’t squash your inner-Scrooge just a little bit, well…here’s a hug.

Even in our house, where we celebrate two different winter holidays, it’s starting to feel a bit like Christmas. We’re actually thinking of getting our very first tree this year, inspired mostly our 10-month-old daughter, who will almost certainly lose her mind over the twinkle lights.

But, like any good citizen, my first thought after making this momentous decision was an age old question that many of you have also probably asked: which kind of tree—real or artificial—is better for the environment?

Deck the Halls…with Pine or Plastic?

As it turns out, the answer is both straight-forward and complicated.

If you’re only here for the quick answer, then here it is: it’s more environmentally friendly to buy a real tree. Go for it!

If you’re here for the details, then onward.

Real Trees

There are more than 15,000 Christmas tree farms in the United States.

Last year, Americans purchased 26.9 million live Christmas trees, nearly all of which were grown on tree plantations located in all 50 states. According to the National Christmas Tree Association, there are more than 350,000 acres devoted to growing these trees on more than 15,000 farms.

So, buying a real tree is just like buying any other agricultural product! It supports farmers, keeps money in the local economy, and ensures that land stays productive (and undeveloped).

Like other agricultural products, a locally-grown (organic, if you can find it!) tree is usually the best choice for the environment. Local trees have a smaller carbon footprint (because they don’t travel as far) and reduce the likelihood that you end up with a non-native, invasive species cruising around your living room.

Also, fast-growing pine trees absorb quite a bit of carbon from our atmosphere, something we could definitely use more of these days.

Finally, at the end of the holiday season, there are even eco-friendly ways to dispose of your fir-ry friend. Stay tuned for a separate post about how to do that if you live in New York City.

Artificial Trees

Many of the artificial trees sold in the U.S. are manufactured in China.

First, let’s just get this out there: if you already have an artificial tree—and there are plenty of valid reasons to go this route—then keep it! Research suggests that using a fake tree at least 10 times makes the carbon footprint even out to using a real tree. So take good care of that sucker.

However, if you’re still on the fence, then consider the following. Many (if not most) of the artificial trees sold in the U.S. are shipped here from China. Most of China’s electricity comes from burning coal, and once the fake trees are made, they still must be shipped across the ocean, creating more emissions.

Artificial trees are also generally made from non-biodegradable plastics like PVC, and some have been found to be contaminated with lead.

And, plastic trees also can’t be recycled when it’s time to upgrade.

Other Ways to Deck Your Halls

Of course, it’s possible that a real Christmas tree just isn’t your thing. Maybe you hate the smell of pine, have an allergy, or don’t want to deal with lugging the darn thing up (and eventually down) multiple flights of stairs. Not to mention, cut trees, especially in New York City, can be quite pricey!

Luckily there are other ways to deck your halls.

  • Try a live tree or other plant from your local nursery. Rosemary or Norfolk pine are great choices, but get creative!
  • Skip the tree altogether. Ask your local tree stand if you can snag some trimmings for free or cheap, then hang them throughout your apartment. Twinkle lights optional.
  • Go modern. Try this 6-footer made from good old, biodegradable cardboard. Bonus points: it’s made in the USA.

Have other suggestions? Let us know in the comments section.