As a visiting author to schools, I often told students that research is not a bad word. Research means reading books and articles and watching videos about a subject that fascinates you; it means exploring the web for more and more insight and information; it may include interviewing interesting people; it may invite you to try something new, to explore a museum or historic site, or even to travel to another city or country.
Since my books are often used by teachers, I research meticulously. I over-research. You would know how much if you could see my office. Ultimately, my research leads to hands-on adventures – or even hands-on-bugs adventures (for Busy with Bugs). To write The Incredible Coral Reef, I drew on a lifetime of snorkeling off the coasts of Florida and Hawaii and throughout the Caribbean.
To prepare a new edition of The Incredible Coral Reef, I wanted to get my eyes on a healthy reef. Sadly, in the last few years, I was shocked by a dead reef off the island of Grenada and a diminished reef off the coast of Panama. Last week, I snorkeled at Cozumel, Mexico, for a refresher – and refreshing – course.
If you’ve never seen a coral reef, I’ll try to describe the experience, but it’s like describing a dream. I’ll try.
First, the color of the water is swimming-pool aqua, neon blue, brilliant turquoise. It sparkles with light and foams with waves. When you enter the water, there is no sense of transition, because the temperature is exactly right for human comfort. The water is almost as transparent as air; you can easily see into the underwater distance. As you look around, you are amazed at the activity of swaying sea fans and soft corals, schools of fish, and crawling creatures. It’s like an underwater city built on complex structures of living coral animals resting upon the skeletons of their ancestors. It’s like a colorful garden of intricate texture and design. It’s like a dreamscape filled with strange unworldly creatures, each exquisitely patterned and recklessly painted. It’s like nothing on earth. It’s the Other, the Strange and Wonderful.
I didn’t really go to Mexico for the research. I went for the reef.
Twenty years ago, I wrote and published a book called The Incredible Coral Reef, a companion book to The Remarkable Rainforest. Both ecosystems were already alarmingly threatened and both are homes to the richest, most diverse wildlife on our planet.
The Remarkable Rainforest continues to be used by teachers and home schoolers across the country as a complete curriculum about rainforests , but interest in teaching about coral reefs seemed to wane and we let The Incredible Coral Reef go out of print.
With coral bleaching episodes occurring around the world, there is a new urgency to protect reefs and a new interest in their fate. In the last 30 years, we have lost 50% of the world’s corals. Most of the heat (93%) trapped by greenhouse gases is transferred into the oceans, and the delicate corals can’t tolerate the rising temperatures – especially in conjunction with other threats, such as overfishing, pollution, and the pressure of tourism.
We may think we can accept the loss of an individual species, but what about seeing the collapse of an entire ecosystem? When corals die, it’s exactly like cutting trees in the rainforest. All of the complex and perfectly balanced relationships of animals and plants break down. Without trees, a forest is reduced to brush. Without corals, a reef becomes a rocky mass of coral skeletons. The unnumbered, even unnamed, life forms that depended on a tree-structure or a reef-structure are lost.
What can we do? For me, the answer always begins with education. I find that children love nature and want to learn about our natural world. I find them to be eco-smart too, unjaded and undiscouraged, willing to tackle the most difficult environmental challenges. If we give them facts to work with and encourage creative problem solving, we can trust them to take better care of our Earth than we have (because they must!).
I love working on The Incredible Coral Reef. The first edition won a Teacher’s Choice Award and a Parent’s Choice Approval, so I have a good foundation for the new edition. I’ll blog as I work, so that readers can follow the making of a book. I hope you find the process interesting.
Smart people use smart light
This week, guest blogger Karen Johnson enlightens us about making a smart choice for efficient, cost effective, environmentally friendly lighting. Karen gives weekly tips for sustainable living in her newsletter, Earth For All Ages.
For us humans, light helps us see and influences our health and wellbeing. Different aspects of our internal chemistry are triggered by light and darkness. It’s not accidental that we wake and become alert when the sun comes up, and settle down as the sun sets. Lowering light levels in the winter send many people into the winter blues while spring sunshine makes many people feel happy and contented. Even a few minutes in the sun can lift our mood.
How about the lights we use in schools? Experiments to evaluate the impact of light on learning show that some levels of brightness and color are good for general lessons, while cooler colors support increased concentration during tests and warmer colors can help calm down hyperactive children. Imagine schools in the future where lights can be modulated throughout the day to support a calm, focused learning environment. That may not be too far off!
Since we humans can’t create our own light, we have to put light into our environment. And that starts with a light bulb. Kind of like the single light in a firefly.
However ... producing light bulbs is a complicated technological feat. Unlike the little firefly that is born with a light, when we create a light bulb, we mine metals, create glass, build factories for production, and enlist all kinds of transportation to deliver parts and materials from around the world. The energy used to actually light the bulb involves burning fossil fuels (until we come up with something better) in giant facilities, which produce emissions that go back out into the atmosphere. We then must dispose of the used bulbs. That adds up to tons of wasted material, some of which is toxic and seeps from landfills into our rivers, streams, and oceans, where it enters the food chain and potentially lands back on our kitchen table!
So it matters what we choose at the individual level, because it will add up at the global level.
What is the average person to do? Get some information and make a simple, wise choice.
When buying a new bulb or switching out an old one, choose an LED bulb. These are the newest generation light bulbs, and are different in many ways from the older incandescent bulbs (the glass ones with the little filament inside) or more recent CFL’s (Compact Florescent bulbs, the curly white ones.)
Why change to LEDs?
1. You can save MONEY. Yes, they cost a little more at first, but they last so much longer. Each LED bulb is rated to last over 100,000 hours. That means if you left it on all day, 24 hours a day, it would last for 24 years. You save money by not paying for new bulbs or the cost of having someone install them. The older incandescent bulbs only last about a year before they need replacement.
2. LED bulbs are very efficient, requiring considerably less energy to operate. That means you save on your monthly electric bill.
3. LED lights are better for the environment. Why? Because when electrical energy is produced and consumed, carbon dioxide is released into the environment. Less energy needed equals less CO2 produced and released into the atmosphere. Fluorescent lights release small amounts of mercury into the environment while in use and CFLs have mercury in the bulb itself. This is a problem if the bulb breaks in your home, and if it breaks in a landfill, the mercury seeps into the soil and leaches into the global water supply. LED lighting, however, does not contain mercury.
4. LEDs provide better light. All light is not created equal. Some lights are considered “warmer,” some “cooler,” and some more like natural light. Different types of light affect color perception, our moods, and even our ability to concentrate or relax. LED lights are available in warm and cool tones.
5. LED’s improve safety and decrease liability. Well-lit areas reduce the risks of both injury and crime. Because LED light bulbs last so much longer, there is less risk of bulbs burning out, leaving an area in the dark.
This week, guest blogger Karen Johnson talks to children about animal-light (bioluminescence). Next week she’ll write for adults about people-light (LEDs). Karen gives weekly tips for sustainable living in her newsletter, Earth For All Ages.
Isn’t it nice that we can turn lights on in our houses? With a flip of a switch, we can have light coming from our TV, computer, and even our car, so we can see at night as well as during the day. But what about the other creatures? They must live by natural daylight, moonlight, or – their own light, which is called bioluminescence.
Bioluminescence is the ability of an organism to create its own light. It is one of nature’s most amazing accomplishments – like something straight out of a science fiction movie.
On land, fireflies and some fungi can make their own light, but bioluminescence is actually more common in the deep sea. Bacteria, jellyfish, starfish, clams, worms, crustaceans, squid, fish, and sharks are some of the groups of marine animals that have bioluminescent family members.
Bioluminescence (nature’s way of bringing your own light) may help creatures find food or a mate, or it might help with self-defense.
Check out this TED-Ed video for kids.
Fireflies on a summer night
On a summer night, tiny lights blink on and off in the grass and the woods. They are either fairies carrying lanterns or fireflies creating their own light through bioluminescence – depending on your state of mind. They are equally magical.
Kids love to catch fireflies, but they’re fun to watch, too. Notice the location of the lights blinking around you. The male firefly is the one in the air, flashing his green or yellow light to attract a female. When the female firefly (perched on a blade of grass or a shrub) finds a male that she takes a shine to, she flashes back.
Notice the rhythm of the blinking. Different species of fireflies have different signals. Each species has its own pattern of flashes and pauses. A female predator firefly called Photuris can mimic the flash of other firefly species. When a male blinks, she blinks right back in the same pattern, but when he comes to her, she eats him!
See if you can attract a firefly with a small flashlight or penlight. Watch a firefly carefully. Two seconds after it flashes, give a quick flash with your penlight. Keep responding to the firefly to catch its interest.
Fireflies can’t be kept as pets, but you can catch them, put them in a jar with a wet paper towel for moisture, enjoy watching them, and then release them. You can also look for firefly eggs or larvae. They both glow too! The larvae, which look something like meal worms, are called glowworms. Look for glowworms in moist places under leaf litter or decaying bark.
Riddle: How do fireflies start a race?
Answer: Ready, set, glow!
Next week, guest blogger Karen Johnson will explain the science of bioluminescence for us.
Toni Albert, M.Ed., is an award-winning author of more than 40 books. Her lifelong love for nature, children, and books inspired her to commit her publishing business, Trickle Creek Books, to “teaching kids to care for the Earth.”