Sunday, August 18, 2019

Dirty Water

What is our problem in this country when it comes to water? We have the 20% of the world's freshwater supply, the world's longest coastline and only a tiny fraction of the world's population but we can't provide safe water for our people to drink or swim in. Once again in the middle of summer a number of the main beaches in Vancouver have been closed due to a high E. coli count but worst of all nobody seems to know why or where it came from.

Of course this pales in comparison with what's going on in the First Nations reserves where 400 of the 618 bands have been under a water advisory in the past 5 years. Unlike the rest of the country where drinking water is a Provincial responsibility, clean and safe drinking water for First Nations people is a Federal responsibility and one that has been shockingly ignored for more years than most people can remember. Plans and budgets appear and disappear and in the meantime these people have to endure something not a single person anywhere else in the country would ever have to put up with.

Even worse than boil water advisories is the actual poisoning of the water where for the past 50 years the people in Grassy Narrows have been trying to get some resolution to the mercury poisoning caused by a nearby pulp & paper mill. Another First Nations community in Attawapiskat this year had to declare a state of emergency when it discovered its drinking water contained high levels of chemical contamination caused by the chlorination process that was supposed to purify the water. This has been the 6th time a state of emergency has been declared in the past 10 years in this community because of water supply issues including in 2013 when the sewage system backed up and forced the evacuation of the schools and hospital.

This spring the perpetually leaky sewage lagoon of the North Caribou Lake First Nation burst and sent its contents towards the creek that feeds the water supply for the community but until the media got involved the government was not prepared to pay for any emergency repairs. But that's nothing compared to the 950,000 litres/day leaking from Iqaluit into Frobisher Bay, which in turn is nothing compared to the 82 million litres/day Victoria pumps into the ocean or the 205 billion litres of untreated sewage and untreated waste water the country as a whole pumps into the rivers and oceans each year. And given B.C.'s population, as compared to Nova Scotia, clearly we are the worst offenders.

If it wasn't for people like Mr. Floatie bringing awareness of the raw sewage issue in Victoria it's doubtful anything would ever have been done but thankfully now a $765 million dollar treatment plant is being built. The Federal government has committed 3 billion dollars to address the First Nations water issues and in Vancouver a major upgrade of the the storm sewer system is being fast tracked. How we ever got to such a sad state of denial is another question but at least we are starting to deal with our dirty water.

Thursday, July 4, 2019

Return To Sender

50 years after landing on the Moon there is once again a race to return. Why it has taken this long is open to debate but it would appear the stars have finally aligned with a combination of private industry know-how, government funding, and a renewed interest in space travel. As beautiful as our planet Earth is, it will ultimately die, and we need to develop the technology that will enable us to move on.

In the 1960's the program to get to the Moon was called Apollo but this time around it has been named Artemis. Artemis was the sister of Apollo in Greek mythology and was also the goddess of the Moon. While the project has now officially launched it will still take until 2024 before the first woman and next man land on the Moon following a 3 stage process.

Orion spacecraft

Orion Spacecraft

The first stage is an uncrewed flight to the Moon and back with the Lockheed Martin built Orion spacecraft and, as its testing continues to progress successfully, Artemis 1 is scheduled to take place starting July 2020. Once that has been completed the 2nd Artemis flight will take place with a full crew in 2022. After Artemis 2 the various components of the Lunar Orbiting Platform-Gateway will be put in place in preparation for Artemis 3 in 2024.

The key to the Artemis program is putting a Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway into position over the moon that will act as a base station similar to the International Space Station orbiting Earth and using many of the same components such as the docking system and the Canadarm. The LOP-Gateway will provide a place for astronauts to live and serve as a staging point for manned exploration of the Moon. Ultimately it will also act as a base for going to Mars.

Lunar Orbital Platform Gateway

Getting from the LOP-Gateway to the surface of the Moon and back will be using a lunar lander and ascent stage built by Blue Origin (owned by Jeff Bezos of Amazon fame). Future missions envision setting up a lunar outpost for various scientific experiments and doing on-site resource utilization and mining. Not only is this practical, if it can supply things like water, oxygen and rocket fuel, it could also be extremely profitable.

Lunar lander & ascent stage

The surface of the Moon has been discovered to be covered with a dust-like material called regolith which in turn contains water, oxygen, various heavy metals, and Helium-3. Helium-3 is a non-radioactive isotope of Helium and has the potential to be used as fuel in fusion reactors to produce vast amounts of energy without radiation. Helium-3 is estimated to be worth $5 billion a tonne and there are an estimated one million tonnes of it on the Moon. Only 500 tonnes of Helium-3 could supply all of Earth's energy for a year. Getting some of it back to Earth would be a nice return to the sender.

Artist rendering of a mining base on the Moon

Sunday, June 2, 2019

A Fed Bum Is A Dead Bum Don't Feed The Bums

There is a persistent urban menace in Vancouver and other cities that just won't go away and that of course is the drug addled, homeless, riff-raff that camp out on streets, commercial doorways, and in parks, openly drinking, taking drugs, and panhandling. Filthy, unashamed, and disturbing to most people passing by, they defy all social norms and any attempts to move them along. Without access to washrooms they urinate and defecate in public, they scatter their trash everywhere and, in their deranged state, they are usually yelling among themselves or intimidating pedestrians with their disturbing behavior.

Neither the Provincial or Municipal governments seem capable of enacting legislation to outlaw vagrancy, loitering, or panhandling never mind dealing with homelessness or addiction. Even though it is painfully obvious that most of these people need to be forcibly put in treatment centres for their own good, various human rights and advocacy groups seem to have more sway than the voices of residents who are forced to confront the problem on a daily basis. And every year the problem keeps getting worse.

Adding to the problem of course is the well-intentioned, but counter-productive, actions of sympathetic and gullible citizens who donate food and money to these people and leave out recyclable bottles for them to cash in. All this does is contribute to even more panhandling, dumpster diving, and begging as the word gets out that certain intersections or streets make for an easy mark. Rather than getting them to seek treatment, giving them money simply allows them to perpetuate their way of life.

These street people have become just like the habituated bears who live on the margins of suburbia near the forest line. Living on the margins of the city the street bums are a dangerous nuisance and the public needs to think of them the same way they think of bears and not leave anything out for them. Signs everywhere point to the fact a fed bear is a dead bear and, until our lawmakers come up with a proper solution, we should be thinking that a fed bum is ultimately a dead bum.

Sunday, May 5, 2019

I'm Burning For You

Cuvier's beaked whale in the Philippines
One of the most disturbing pictures/stories lately was the one about the dead Cuvier's beaked whale that washed up on a Philippines shoreline with more than 88 lbs. of plastic in its stomach. A few months earlier a sperm whale had washed up on an Indonesian beach with thousands of pieces of string and 12 lbs. of plastic in its stomach and then a month later a pregnant sperm whale washed up on an Italian beach with more than 48 lbs. of plastic in its stomach.

Sperm whale in Italy
Sperm whale in Indonesia
Every year more and more whales, dolphins, and other sea creatures are dying from ingesting plastic and other foreign substances that have made their way into the ocean. And, while the countries of Southeast Asia may be the world's worst plastic polluters in the ocean, North Americans can hardly claim to be squeaky clean. Our disposable, over packaged, lifestyle produces more than 25 billion styrofoam coffee cups alone each year, with Starbucks responsible for more than 4 billion of them. In Canada we also go through 3 billion plastic bags every year.

But it isn't Starbuck's fault we don't want to sit down and enjoy our coffee in a civilized fashion and drink out of a ceramic cup that can be washed, like we used to do in a restaurant or coffee shop, or at least have it served in a reusable travel mug if we have to be on the go. Starbucks offers both options but, for some twisted reason, we seem to prefer the one that adds to the landfill. And it's the municipal landfill that really exposes our hypocrisy and complete disregard for the environment.

Vancouver Landfill
Among OECD member countries, Canada ranks among the highest in municipal waste generated per capita at over 1,500 lbs. per person each year. Out of all that garbage less than 30% is recycled and we only recycle 10% of all the plastic we produce. Even the paper and plastic we did try to recycle by selling it to China has been halted with the ban on foreign trash China has implemented because recycled materials didn't meet the strict new regulations on contamination levels.

Plastic waiting to be delivered to China
Because China was taking in most of the world's garbage this ban has meant garbage is now piling up everywhere or being illegally diverted to other developing nations to deal with, neither of which is an effective long term strategy. The garbage is not just paper and plastics but also used electronic components and batteries (e-waste) which is toxic due to the lead, mercury, and cadmium it contains. Not only is e-waste a hazard to the people trying to salvage various components, it eventually seeps into the groundwater affecting both land and sea animals.

E-waste in Africa
But there's a solution to all this unwanted garbage and that's the EfW (Energy From Waste) technology that has been developed and used with spectacular results in a number of European countries, particularly Sweden.  Basically garbage is dumped into a high temperature furnace where it is burned to produce steam that is converted to electricity. The small amount of ash that remains can be recycled in road construction or put in the landfill, a fraction of what would have been dumped there otherwise.

Unlike a regular incinerator that spews ash and pollution into the atmosphere, this technology captures and filters all potential emissions so there is nothing harmful that enters the environment. In addition to producing energy the plant also recovers metals and aluminium that remain. And, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, for every ton of municipal solid waste processed at an EfW facility one ton of greenhouse gas emissions are avoided so, this is also helping solve the global warming issue.

It's a renewable energy solution that solves some of our biggest problems and is so effective that Sweden is now importing garbage from other countries to fuel its EfW plants, making it the world's leader in municipal waste recovery. But, while countries like Sweden lead the way with new approaches to municipal waste, we continue trying to sort garbage that nobody wants and then truck it all over the country trying to persuade small towns and First Nations communities to let us dump it in their lap. We actually have one of these EfW facilities in Burnaby but Vancouver won't use it saying it discourages recycling, but does that really matter?

Covanta's EfW Facility in Burnaby
Fortunately Burnaby, New Westminster, and the North Shore think differently and every year 285,000 tons of municipal waste is converted into 170,000 MWh of electricity (enough to power 16,000 homes) and 9,000 tons of recycled metal is also recovered. Still, this is only 25% of metro Vancouver's waste and, if we had more of these plants throughout the Province, we could make up for a significant amount of hydro electricity. It's time to stop throwing our plastic and other trash into landfills and burn it instead, it's a lot better for the environment and the whales.

Sunday, April 21, 2019

Coastal Mountain High

While the number one topic of conversation in Vancouver and the Lower Mainland varies between the weather and real estate, or more specifically rising housing costs and property values, it sometimes takes a gentle reminder to make us realize we live in paradise. Nestled on the edge of the ocean and surrounded by mountains the scenery is stunning, it's never too hot or too cold, there's no humidity, no bugs or poisonous creatures, and we have plenty of fresh water. Our only real problem is the rest of the world has now discovered us and the city has become too popular for its own good.

Transit expansion is proceeding at a snail's pace while meanwhile the roads and bridges are completely grid-locked from dawn to dusk. Unaffordable, high density buildings are replacing single family homes and nobody can afford to buy anything suitable for raising a family. Weekend getaways are almost impossible with massive ferry and border line-ups, the parks, beaches, and bike paths are over-crowded, as are the recreation facilities and other local attractions, and everything else has been booked up long in advance.

Lower mainland view from Mt. Seymour
Section of the Baden Powell trail

The only solution is to get off the regular weekday routine and take some time off during the week to head for the hills. They're open year round and, while everyone is grinding it out in the workplace, the mountains are practically empty. All you need is a good pair of boots and some waterproof clothing to go hiking or snowshoeing and best of all, it's free.

As much as I love to take advantage of living next to the ocean and going for my daily swim I have to admit that I'm also increasingly falling in love with the hundreds of miles of trails that exist within our local mountains. Within minutes anyone can be at the nearest trail head and enjoying the beauty and serenity of the forest not to mention getting some healthy exercise in the process. And the views of course are amazing, a coastal mountain high.

1st Peak on Mt. Seymour

View of Howe Sound from the Chief

Sunday, March 17, 2019

The Heat Is On

Resident Killer Whales
With the resident killer whales starving to death, and much lower than anticipated chinook and sockeye salmon runs this past summer, the finger pointing has begun, with commercial and recreational fishermen, along with some First Nations people, leading the call for a culling of seals and sea lions. Claiming these creatures have upset the ecological balance a group calling themselves the Pacific Balance Pinnipeds Society (PBPS) wants to start hunting seals and sea lions and sell their meat, blubber, and fur on the open market. The DFO (Department of Fisheries & Ocean) estimates there are 100,000 seals in B.C. waters and the PBPS group would like cut this number in half by starting to harvest at least 2,000 of them annually along with 100 sea lions to reduce the pressure on salmon stocks. If only it were that simple....

Stellar Sea Lions

For starters, according to the Marine Mammal Research Consortium, 80% of the Stellar sea lion population has disappeared since 1980 leaving only 50,000 individuals in the wild and causing the U.S. government to declare them an endangered species in the waters of Alaska. While there are a number of theories as to what has caused such a sharp decline the most widely accepted explanation is nutritional stress. The diet of Stellar sea lions was historically made up of 60% herring, which has a very high fat content, some salmon and 30% from the gadidae family of fish which includes cod, hake, and pollock. With the decline of herring due to over-fishing, herring now make up less than 20% of their diet with the balance made up mostly from the gadidae fish family. The gadidae fish have less than 10% of the oil content of herring and this low-fat low-calorie diet has resulted in malnutrition, juvenile mortality, and failed pregnancies in the sea lion population. The amount of salmon in their diet hasn't changed.

California Sea Lions

The other sea lion species common to the B.C. coastline is the slightly smaller California sea lion of which there are an estimated 350,000 individuals. They range from southeast Alaska to central Mexico and, while not considered endangered, it is still a protected species though permits in the U.S. have been granted to kill them when they get too close to certain salmon spawning areas in the Columbia River. The primary fish in their diet however is North Pacific hake/whiting, which they follow up and down the coastline, though they also eat other fish species and squid. The California sea lions in turn make up one of the most common food items for the transient killer whales and great white sharks.

Harbour Seals
Harbour seals are the most common pinniped in B.C. waters and they can live up to 20-30 years and weigh up to 300 lbs. Not surprisingly their diet is made up mostly of fish with herring being the main ingredient from December to March and North Pacific hake/whiting the rest of the year. Only 4% of their diet is salmon. Transient killer whales are their main predators.

Each year in late spring millions of juvenile Pacific salmon leave the fresh water as smolts to enter the ocean and being the process becoming adult salmon which can take 1 - 5 years depending on what species they are. It is at this time in their life cycle they are most vulnerable to a wide range of predators including seals and North Pacific hake/whiting.

North Pacific Hake/Whiting

The North Pacific hake/whiting grows up to 3 feet in length, lives up to 20 years and its diet includes plankton, shrimp, herring, and juvenile salmon. The species supports an important commercial fishery and its population is considered to be very healthy. It's obviously critical to the sea lion and seal populations who follow the fish as it makes its way up north in late spring/summer. Then while it returns via an offshore route to Mexico and California to spawn, the sea lions and seals turn their attention to the migrating herring.

However, since the 1960's collapse of the herring fishery the recovery has been very slow. The importance of the Pacific herring cannot be overstated. Without the herring the Stellar sea lions are dying of malnutrition as are the chinook salmon who depend on it for over 60% of their diet and the southern resident killer whales who, in turn, depend on chinook salmon for 80% of their diet.

Feeding and spawning grounds for B.C. herring
Without herring other fish and mammals have to find alternative things to eat though they don't all have the same adaptability. The Pacific hake/whitefish have no problem eating juvenile salmon but the resident killer whales can't seem to make the switch to other salmon species. Seals and sea lions will eat whatever is available and they seem to be doing quite fine but killing seals and sea lions who eat Pacific hake/whitefish will only aggravate the problem for the salmon and reduce the amount of prey available to the transient killer whales. The obvious solution to this mess is to ban any fishing of herring or Chinook salmon. Trying to solve the problem by selective killing will only create more imbalances.

MV Kaganovsky
In the meantime a group of scientists from Russia, Canada, the United States, Japan, and South Korea have set out on a test fishery in the Gulf of Alaska to try and figure out the secret lives of the 5 Pacific salmon species. Sailing on board the Russian ship Kaganovsky they will be analyzing catches of salmon and other species from Haida Gwaii to Alaska to try and gain a better understanding of what goes on when these fish leave coastal waters. It's the Year of the Salmon and the heat is on to try and get some answers.

Range of Pacific Salmon Species

Sunday, March 3, 2019

Walking On The Moon

In the midst of all our Earthly problems the government made the long hoped for announcement that it was going to be a partner in the Lunar Gateway project, a NASA space station orbiting the Moon. We were the first international partner to confirm participation in the program and it will give us the opportunity to not only expand our leadership in space based robotics but also see a Canadian astronaut on the Moon and possibly even Mars. The Canadian space program has an impressive track record of landmark achievements and and this was a very welcome development that will allow us to keep building on our success.

The first time Canada participated in a NASA project was September 29, 1962 when the Canadian built satellite named Alouette was launched into orbit around the Earth. Canada became the 3rd nation, after the U.S. and Russia to design and construct its own satellite. Its mission was to study the ionosphere from above using over 700 radio frequencies and it kept doing this for 10 years. The satellite is still in orbit and will remain so for 1,000 years.

On November 9, 1972 Canada launched the Anik satellites, the world's first national domestic satellites. These geostationary satellites gave Telesat Canada the ability to deliver television to the Canadian North for the first time. Subsequent Anik satellites would deliver radio, satellite TV, broadband Internet and pay TV services.

On November 13, 1981 the Canadarm was launched aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia and made its space test debut while orbiting the Earth. Starting from a Canadian designed robot that could load fuel into CANDU nuclear reactors, a robotic arm that could deploy and retrieve space hardware from the payload bay of the space shuttle was eventually developed. Like a human arm with rotating joints at the shoulder, elbow, and wrist but made from titanium, stainless steel and graphite, it's 15 metres in length, weighs less than 500 kilos but can lift up to 30,000 kilos. After 90 space shuttle flights, and many successful applications over a period of 30 years it was finally retired.

Back row, from left to right: Ken Money, Marc Garneau, Steve MacLean and Bjarni Tryggvason. Front row: Robert Thirsk and Roberta Bondar. 

On December 5, 1983 the first 6 Canadian astronauts were selected; Ken Money, Robert Thirsk, Mark Garneau, Steve MacLean, Roberta Bondar, and Bjarni Tryggvasson and, on October 4, 1984 Mark Garneau became the first Canadian in space on board the Challenger. On January 19, 1990 after a hiatus following the space shuttle Challenger disaster in 1986,  Roberta Bondar became the 1st Canadian woman in space on the space shuttle Discovery and, on October 22, 1992 Steve MacLean became the 3rd Canadian in space on board the Columbia.

 Back row, from left to right: Chris Hadfield, Dave Williams. Front row: Michael McKay, Julie Payette

On June 8, 1992 four more Canadian astronauts are selected to join the team, Mike Mckay, Dave Williams, Julie Payette, and Chris Hadfield. On November 12, 1995 Chris Hadfield became the 4th Canadian in space on the shuttle Atlantis and also the first Canadian to operate the Canadarm (linking Atlantis to the Russian space station MIR) and the first Canadian to visit the Russian space station. On May 19, 1996 Marc Garneau became the first Canadian to fly twice into space, this time on the shuttle Endeavour where he also operated the Canadarm. On July 20, 1996 Robert Thirsk became the 5th Canadian in space on the shuttle Columbia spending 17 days in space, the longest of any Canadian. On August 7, 1997 Bjarni Tryggvasson became the 6th Canadian in space on shuttle Discovery where he tests an anti-vibration system he invented and is now in use on the MIR space station. On April 17, 1998 Dave Williams became the 7th Canadian in space on the shuttle Columbia. On May 27, 1999 aboard shuttle Discovery, Julie Payette becomes the 8th Canadian in space and part of the first crew to dock the shuttle and deliver equipment to the new International Space Station becoming the first Canadian to visit the International Space Station, and the 3rd Canadian to operate the Canadarm. On November 30, 2000 Mark Garneau made his 3rd visit to space with a crew on the Endeavour to install the solar panels on the International Space Station.

Canada's First 8 Astronauts
Canada's eight astronauts, posing for a photo at the John H. Chapman Space Centre in St. Hubert, Que., in 2003: Back row, left to right, Marc Garneau, Steve MacLean, Julie Payette, Dave Williams; front row, left to right, Roberta Bondar, Chris Hadfield, Robert Thirsk and Bjarni Tryggvason. 

Following the success of the original Canadarm the next generation Canadarm2, or Space Station Remote Manipulator System as it's officially known, was developed as a permanent attachment for the new International Space Station. At 18 metres in length and weighing 1,800 kilos it is capable of handling payloads up to 116,000 kilos and is able to assist with docking the space shuttle itself. On April 19, 2001 Chris Hadfield was part of the crew on the shuttle Endeavour who delivered and installed Canadarm2 on the International Space Station and became the first Canadian to do a spacewalk.

On June 5, 2002 Canada's second contribution to the International Space Station the Mobile Base System is delivered by the shuttle Endeavor. A base platform for robotic arms to connect via 4 different power data grapple fixtures, it rests on top of the Mobile transporter rail car. The Mobile Base can glide along the main truss of the International Space Station and access any of 8 work-sites that feature power connections for the Base and its attachments. 

On September 9, 2006 Steve MacLean makes his 2nd space flight and visits the Space Station for the first time on board the shuttle Atlantis to resume assembly of the Space Station following the space shuttle Columbia disaster in 2003. He is the first Canadian to operate the Canadarm2 and Mobile Base System and the 2nd to do a spacewalk. 

On March 11, 2008 "Dextre" the Special Purpose Dexterous Manipulator, a smaller two-armed robot that can attach to Canadarm2 or the Mobile Base System was installed. Designed to handle delicate assembly tasks with smaller arms and power tools this was another Canadian contribution to the Space Station demonstrating our expertise with space robotics. On May 7, 2009 Robert Thirsk launched from Kazakhstan aboard the Russian Soyuz spacecraft and arrived at the International Space Station where he would stay for a record breaking 6 months as part of the first permanent Space Station residents. Then on July 17, 2009 Julie Payette arrived at the Space Station on board the shuttle Endeavour and was welcomed aboard by Robert Thirsk making another first for Canadians as they met in space. With the retirement of the American space shuttle program in 2011 Chris Hadfield on December 19, 2012 returned to space for the 3rd time via a Russian Soyuz spacecraft and became the first Canadian commander of the International Space Station where he stayed for 6 months.

Meanwhile our original Radarsat-1 program launched on November 4, 1995 and updated with Radarsat-2 on December 14, 2007 was the first commercial Earth observation satellite in service and has been providing marine surveillance, ice monitoring, disaster management, resource management, environmental monitoring and mapping services for Canada and around the world ever since as part of the collaboration with the Canadian Space Agency and MacDonald, Dettwiler & Associates, the same folks who brought us the Canadarm technology.

We've come a long way since Alouette and reaped many technological and monetary benefits as a result. Even now we are experimenting with our own version of a Mars Rover and contributing to all sorts of scientific testing on NASA missions to Mars. Mars of course being the ultimate destination in the foreseeable future for Earthlings but, before Canadians get there, we look forward to seeing them walking on the Moon. Which one of the four newest astronauts it will be has yet to be determined but, as of December 3, 2019, David Saint-Jacques has been up in the Space Station via a new Russian Soyuz launch, following the aborted Soyuz failure in October, for a 6 month tour, as Canada's 9th person to be in space.

David Saint-Jacques and Jeremy Hansen

Joshua Kutryk and Jennifer Sidey