Making a Difference: Get Involved with the Environment

trail construction

Southwest Conservation Corps crew members help to build a mountain bike trail in Salida, Colorado.

You can only learn so much environmental science indoors. Sometimes, you just have to go out and get mud on your boots. Luckily many nonprofit environmental groups offer programs in which you can do just that—and make a difference while doing it.
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Society and the Environment: Water Challenges

Safe water is a basic human necessity for cleaning, cooking, and drinking. At least one in eight people worldwide do not have access to a safe and reliable water supply.

In the United States and other developed countries it is easy to get clean water. These countries have systems to deliver water to distant places. They also have effective laws and management to preserve the water supply and have good waste collection and treatment systems. In much of the world, this is not the case. Access to clean water is one of the world’s biggest health challenges. For example, in many African countries, there is not enough water. In places where there is plenty of water, it often is contaminated with human wastes or pollutants. Thousands of people die every day from diarrhea caused by drinking unsafe water.

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Points of View: How Should Nuclear Waste Be Stored?

Yucca Mountain was selected by Congress to be the location for the first U.S. permanent storage site for waste produced by nuclear power plants. Following protests by Nevada residents and environmental activists, these plans were dropped in 2010.

Nuclear fuel is used to generate electricity at power plants. When nuclear fuel rods can no longer serve this function, they are classified as high level radioactive waste. High-level radioactive waste includes solids, liquids, and gases containing a high concentration of radioactive isotopes that take approximately 100,000 years to decay. While nuclear energy is clean energy that can easily provide power for large cities without producing any air pollution, nuclear waste poses a major disposal problem.

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Society and the Environment: Solar Living

solar decathlon

The solar panels on each house use energy from the sun to produce electricity that is used to power appliances, lights, mechanical systems, and electronics.

What is it like to live in a house powered entirely by the sun’s energy? You might expect the house to lack some modern comforts—perhaps it would be cramped, unattractive, too cold during the winter, too hot during the summer, or dimly lit at night. And it’s sure to be expensive, right? These things are not always true, and none of these issues are the case if the house is a successful entry in the Solar Decathlon.

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Points of View: Pipelines and Oil Sands

oil sands

Oil sands are mixtures of oil, clay, sand, and water. Many large deposits of oil sands are located in Canada.

The world needs oil. Oil is best known for its use as a fuel, but it also is used to make plastics, lubricants, and many chemicals. For decades, oil has been inexpensive and has been treated as an almost inexhaustible resource.

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Society and the Environment: Gold from Ghana

Geologists and miners inspect core samples at an underground gold mine in Obuasi, Ghana.The world market price of gold rose from $260 to $1,730 per ounce between 2001 and 2012. Most people don’t think about it, but the environmental and social consequences of this price increase have been substantial. This is especially true in countries where many people live in poverty. The situation in Ghana illustrates the complex interplay of societal and environmental processes that can lead to local crises or, alternatively, show cause for …hope.

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Points of View: Genetically Modified Foods


A scientist examines experimental samples ofgenetically modified fruit trees.

Genetically modified (GM) foods have been on sale in the world’s supermarkets since 1994. We do not recognize them because the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not require that GM foods be labeled as such.
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Making a Difference: Restoring the Range

David Bamberger

David Bamberger (center), founder of the Bamberger Ranch Preserve.

When Ohioan J. David Bamberger first moved to San Antonio, Texas as a vacuum cleaner sales representative, he was charmed by the dry, grass covered rangeland of the Texas Hill Country. But much of the land was degraded. It had been overgrazed by cattle and was left with thin soil and dried-up creeks.

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Making a Difference: Climate Scientist

Dr. Susan Solomon

The ozone hole can be seen in this satellite image. The hole is the pale blue and black region immediately above Solomon’s shoulder

Susan Solomon will not soon forget crawling across the roof of an Antarctic field station in windchill temperatures of –62°C (–80°F), moving heavy equipment, and adjusting mirrors while the winds howled and whipped about her. Sounds like an adventure, right? It sure was! But it is just part of what Solomon has done to establish herself as one of the world’s leading authorities on ozone destruction.

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Society and the Environment: Killer Smog

killer smog

This historical photo captures the town of Donora, Pennsylvania, as it is enveloped in smog at noon on Saturday, October 28, 1948.

For the residents of the small Monongahela Valley town of Donora, Pennsylvania, living with the smoke that billowed from the local zinc smelter was an everyday occurrence— until October 26, 1948. On that night, a temperature inversion and an absence of wind began to trap a deadly mixture of sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, and metal dust that would hang in the valley air for five days. Over that period of time, 20 residents lost their lives and 7,000 other residents—about half of the town’s population—suffered some form of respiratory problems.

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