Warming Trends: How Urban Parks Make Every Day Feel Like Christmas, Plus Fire-Proof Ceramic Homes and a Thriller Set in Fracking Country

A column highlighting climate-related studies, innovations, books, cultural events and other developments from the global warming frontier.

A couple walk along a trail wearing masks as people get out of their home and walk, jog, cycle or ride horses in Griffith Park in Los Angeles on Saturday, May 9, 2020. Credit: Keith Birmingham/MediaNews Group/Pasadena Star-News via Getty Images

A couple walk along a trail wearing masks as people get out of their home and walk, jog, cycle or ride horses in Griffith Park in Los Angeles on Saturday, May 9, 2020. Credit: Keith Birmingham/MediaNews Group/Pasadena Star-News via Getty Images

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CULTURE

Happy Tweets From Urban Parks

Urban parks can be oases of biodiversity in the depths of concrete jungles, not only benefiting plants and animals but also humans, a fact underlined during the Covid-19 lockdowns, when stir-crazy urbanites sought green spaces to get in touch with nature. 

Now a new study shows that the happiness people experience inside urban parks is comparable to the happiness people experience on holidays like New Year’s Day and Christmas. 

The study was conducted by researchers at the University of Vermont using a timeline of average societal happiness, based on a tool built and maintained by the university that uses Twitter posts to measure the proportion of positive words to negative words. For example, on Christmas 2021, words like “merry,” “happy” and “family” littered the platform, driving up the day’s average happiness score. On Feb. 24, when Russia invaded Ukraine, words like “war,” “invasion” and “attack” dominated, driving the happiness score down.

The authors of the study, published Wednesday in the journal PLOS One, used the happiness data from tweets posted by people in urban parks, in the 25 most populous cities in the United States. They found that a greater percentage of happier words were included in tweets posted inside parks compared to those posted outside of parks. The effect was greater in larger parks exceeding 100 acres. 

“The sorts of words that that we see them using, like ‘beautiful’ and ‘fun,’ ‘amazing,’ ‘enjoying,’ these are words that suggest that they’ve sort of set aside the aspects of their life that are mundane and unlikable,” said study co-author Chris Danforth, a mathematics professor at the University of Vermont.

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Indianapolis, Austin and Los Angeles were the top three cities for happy words tweeted inside city parks. The results did not appear to correlate with city spending on parks; in fact, Indianapolis was the city with the lowest municipal investment in parks among the 25 cities analyzed. 

Although the segment of the population that posts on Twitter is not necessarily representative of Americans as a whole, Danforth said that data collected from the platform does provide a good indicator of society-wide sentiments and holds up when compared to scientific polls. 

“One of the exciting things about the study is that it demonstrates that these spaces are really important to helping people manage their life,” Danforth said. “Just being able to spend time outside and in an environment where they can feel feelings of fascination and beauty. These are good things for us.”

SOLUTIONS

The Latest in Geodesic Domes

A startup company wants to reduce its carbon footprint and the high expense of homes by constructing houses in a unique shape with a novel material. 

Geoship, based in Nevada City, California, recently built a prototype of its geodesic design—a dome-shaped home constructed with triangular blocks of ceramic composite, a new kind of home building material that is cast similarly to concrete, yet has a crystalline structure like ceramic and can form glue-like bonds with other materials. As far as he knows, said Geoship co-founder and CEO, Morgan Bierschenk, the prototype is the first structure on Earth built solely of ceramic composite materials.

“There’s no wood, there’s no metal, there’s no concrete and there is [sic] no plastics and petrochemicals,” Bierschenk said. “The frame, the exterior, the interior and the insulation are all ceramic composites.”

A geodesic home prototype. Photo Courtesy of Geoship
A geodesic home prototype. Photo Courtesy of Geoship

He estimates that the geodesic homes have a carbon footprint that is 10 times smaller than a conventional, wood-structured home, because the production of ceramic material releases less carbon dioxide and the ceramic homes operate more efficiently. The homes also are resilient in the face of climate change and resistant to wildfires, according to Geoship. The ceramic material is fireproof, the company says, and the dome shape of the houses allows hurricane-force winds to pass over without tearing a home off its foundation. 

Bierschenk estimates that a 1,000-square-foot geodesic home would cost around $130,000 to $180,000, but costs would likely come down as Geoship’s operations scale up. But mass production is still a few years away, he said.  

“I think in 20 to 30 years, there could be at least as much of a market for round living, dome-type structures as there is for rectangle, rectilinear structures,” Bierschenk said. “So, I think there’s the potential for it to become like the bread and butter of 21st century homebuilding.”

CULTURE

A Fracking Thriller 

After 40 years as an environmental lawyer, Joel Burcat had to bring his practice to an end following a disease he was diagnosed with in 2018 that left him legally blind. Now he uses voice-to-text apps and a three-foot-wide large-text computer monitor to write legal thrillers, the latest of which debuted earlier this year. 

In the book, “Strange Fire,” a community in the middle of fracking country in Pennsylvania contends with water contaminated by a greedy drilling company. People in the community are dying and disappearing, and a young lawyer named Mike Jacobs tries to bring them justice, indulging in a bit of romance along the way. 

Joel Burcat is the author of the new book "Strange Fire." Photo Courtesy of Joel Burcat
Joel Burcat is the author of the new book “Strange Fire.” Photo Courtesy of Joel Burcat

Inside Climate News recently discussed the book with Burcat. This conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity. 

Your book is chock full of information about fracking. How do you balance what the reader needs to know about a really complex topic with the need to tell an entertaining story?

One of the things I try to do in my stories is, along with entertaining my readers, I try to educate my readers. And in this story, there’s an awful lot of misinformation out there. And there’s an awful lot of fiction out there about fracking. And what I wanted to do was, I wanted to educate people. So as you go through my story, you’re learning a lot about fracking.

Is Mike Jacobs in any way based on yourself? Or are any of his cases similar to cases you tried during your career as a lawyer?

The case is ripped from the headlines. So I was very careful not to base this on cases in which I was involved. There certainly are plenty of stories, whether it’s in Inside Climate News, or in the newspapers or in Law360, or just reading cases. There are many, many cases out there that would make pretty good stories.

You tell this story from all sides of the fracking story: the industry, the government, the community, the anti-fracking activists and the lawyers on all sides litigating the fallout of fracking pollution. How did you balance all these perspectives?

I don’t want people to read my book, and say, ‘This is propaganda, I’m not going to read this book.’ I want them to read my book, I want them to learn. And I feel that readers are smart people. And they’re going to figure out for themselves what’s right. And if I present them with all the information, they’ll come to their own conclusions. 

But the other thing, too, and this I think is really important, I want them to read the story, and hear the other sides. Unfortunately, I think today, people are so polarized. They watch MSNBC, or they watch Fox News, and they don’t want to hear anything at all about what the other side has to say. They don’t really at all want to spend any time knowing about what the other side thinks. 

SCIENCE

Bird Eggs and Climate Change 

A collection of century-old bird eggs helped researchers discover that some birds are laying eggs weeks earlier as the climate has changed.

The study, led by the Chicago Field Museum of Natural History, looked at a collection of eggs dating back to the late 1800s and early 1900s with data on when the eggs were laid. Researchers compared the timing of egg laying of the historical eggs to data about egg laying in modern times. They focused on birds that reside in or migrate to the Midwest, such as killdeer and red winged blackbirds and lay their eggs in the spring. The researchers found that for 24 of the 72 species examined, the average egg laying date came about 25 days earlier than in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The changes correlated with increased atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations, which were used as a proxy for temperature. 

“That’s consistent with responding to climate change,” said study lead author John Bates, curator of birds at the Field Museum.

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Birds can benefit from laying eggs earlier by beating the competition for scarce resources, but they also can suffer if they begin breeding too early in the spring and are struck with a late winter deep freeze or snowstorm, Bates said. 

The data revealed a significant change in only about a third of the species examined, which he said means more research needs to be done to understand why some birds are affected more than others. 

Scientists estimate that North America has seen its bird population decline by 29 percent since 1970, a loss of 3 billion birds. 

“These kinds of data suggest that we ought to be worried about what’s going on out there,” Bates said. “We need to understand the basic biology of the birds to try to understand what’s leading to these declines, where they’re happening.”