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My heart aches for the people of West, Texas, the tiny town where a fertilizer plant recently blew up. Many of the folks who perished in the blast were heroic volunteer firefighters who ran into danger instead of away from it.
With 15 dead and 160 injured, and a nearby nursing home, school and apartment complex either badly damaged or destroyed, West’s brave citizens have hard work ahead.
As a nation, we must prevent a disaster like this from happening again. For starters, we can make fertilizer plants safer and locate them away from schools and nursing homes from now on.
This tragedy is even more painful because the factory was making a product—nitrogen fertilizer—that perhaps should not be used at all.
Here’s a big question we should all be asking: Why do Americans use so much nitrogen fertilizer in the first place?
Scientists discovered two centuries ago that plants need nitrogen, a building block of protein, to grow.
Whether you fertilize your soil with manure or with the fertilizer manufactured in the plant that just blew up, you’re adding nitrogen to your soil. Too much nitrogen kills your plants. But without nitrogen, plants can’t grow.
That seems simple. But there’s more to it. Another element, carbon, is inextricably linked to nitrogen. Microbes in the soil need both carbon and nitrogen to survive, and they need them in the right ratios. Add too much nitrogen, and the microbes end up depleting the carbon in the soil as a result.
Of course, plants take in carbon dioxide from the air and convert it to sugars via photosynthesis. So why does it matter if there’s no carbon left in the soil?
Well, the carbon located in the soil allows the ground to retain air and water. Plants need that carbon because they need air and water. Without carbon, the soil becomes compressed and hard. Water can’t penetrate it easily, and instead of seeping deep into the ground, it evaporates. This leaves farmland—and crops—more vulnerable to both drought and floods.
Strangely enough, even though nitrogen-based fertilizer allows plants to grow lush and green, it also weakens their defense mechanisms. This makes farmland, lawns and gardens more attractive to pests.
Plants evolved in the absence of modern fertilizer and pesticides. Believe it or not, they are far more in control than we imagine them to be. I see them as conductors of a vast, microscopic orchestra.
The roots of every plant emit chemicals called exudates that draw microbes to the zone immediately around the roots. The microbes—bacteria and fungi—stay there, feeding off the exudates. In exchange, the microbes provide the plant with nutrients, including nitrogen.
The microbes feed the plant, prey on or compete with harmful organisms and improve the structure of the soil. These microbes are the key to every great natural landscape in the world—and to successful organic farming.
We can maximize crop productivity by putting these microbes to work for us. Instead, “conventional” farmers routinely kill them by using nitrogen fertilizer (ammonium nitrate) that depletes their soil.
Critics of nitrogen fertilizer often compare it to a drug. The first hit feels really good, and your crops grow big and beautiful. But as the microbes in your soil die and your carbon is depleted, you need more and more fertilizer just to get the same yields.
Meanwhile, fertilizer runs off, polluting nearby waterways. And because fertilizer is made with natural gas—often obtained these days via the extreme drilling process known as fracking—it devastates the environment when it’s manufactured as well as when it’s used.
J Henry Fair
Just like junkies suffer painful withdrawal when they stop taking drugs, a farm addicted to nitrogen fertilizer will experience a drop in yields for a few years once they stop using it. But after five “drug-free" years, a properly managed organic farm can meet or exceed the yields it would have achieved using chemicals.
Compared to the lifetime of grieving ahead for the people of West, Texas, a few years of reduced crop yields is a small price to pay for converting from "conventional" to organic farming.
Let’s end our national addiction to fertilizer.
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A powerful volcano on Monday rocked an uninhabited island frequented by tourists about 30 miles off New Zealand's coast. Authorities have confirmed that five people died. They expect that number to rise as some are missing and police officials issued a statement that flights around the islands revealed "no signs of life had been seen at any point,", as The Guardian reported.
"Based on the information we have, we do not believe there are any survivors on the island," the police said in their official statement. "Police is working urgently to confirm the exact number of those who have died, further to the five confirmed deceased already."
The eruption happened on New Zealand's Whakaari/White Island, an islet jutting out of the Bay of Plenty, off the country's North Island. The island is privately owned and is typically visited for day-trips by thousands of tourists every year, according to The New York Times.
My god, White Island volcano in New Zealand erupted today for first time since 2001. My family and I had gotten off it 20 minutes before, were waiting at our boat about to leave when we saw it. Boat ride home tending to people our boat rescued was indescribable. #whiteisland pic.twitter.com/QJwWi12Tvt— Michael Schade (@sch) December 9, 2019
Michael Schade / Twitter
At the time of the eruption on Monday, about 50 passengers from the Ovation of Seas were on the island, including more than 30 who were part of a Royal Caribbean cruise trip, according to CNN. Twenty-three people, including the five dead, were evacuated from the island.
The eruption occurred at 2:11 pm local time on Monday, as footage from a crater camera owned and operated by GeoNet, New Zealand's geological hazards agency, shows. The camera also shows dozens of people walking near the rim as white smoke billows just before the eruption, according to Reuters.
Police were unable to reach the island because searing white ash posed imminent danger to rescue workers, said John Tims, New Zealand's deputy police commissioner, as he stood next to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in a press conference, as The New York Times reported. Tims said rescue workers would assess the safety of approaching the island on Tuesday morning. "We know the urgency to go back to the island," he told reporters.
"The physical environment is unsafe for us to return to the island," Tims added, as CNN reported. "It's important that we consider the health and safety of rescuers, so we're taking advice from experts going forward."
Authorities have had no communication with anyone on the island. They are frantically working to identify how many people remain and who they are, according to CNN.
Geologists said the eruption is not unexpected and some questioned why the island is open to tourism.
"The volcano has been restless for a few weeks, resulting in the raising of the alert level, so that this eruption is not really a surprise," said Bill McGuire, emeritus professor of geophysical and climate hazards at University College London, as The Guardian reported.
"White Island has been a disaster waiting to happen for many years," said Raymond Cas, emeritus professor at Monash University's school of earth, atmosphere and environment, as The Guardian reported. "Having visited it twice, I have always felt that it was too dangerous to allow the daily tour groups that visit the uninhabited island volcano by boat and helicopter."
The prime minister arrived Monday night in Whakatane, the town closest to the eruption, where day boats visiting the island are docked. Whakatane has a large Maori population.
Ardern met with local council leaders on Monday. She is scheduled to meet with search and rescue teams and will speak to the media at 7 a.m. local time (1 p.m. EST), after drones survey the island, as CNN reported.
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