This Clever Gel Works Like a Vaccine for Wildfires

Spray the flame-retardant goo on vegetation, and it’ll protect the plants from igniting for months.

grass burning around a pole
A utility pole was treated with viscoelastic fire retardant fluids and subjected to control burns. The treatments protected pole from fire damage.PHOTOGRAPH: JESSE D. ACOSTA

Stanford materials scientist Eric Appel didn’t set out to help save people from wildfire, but from disease. Usually he works on developing gels that can ferry drugs into the human body. So if you want to bestow a patient with, say, antibodies to fight off HIV infection, you’d inject them with a gel loaded with the stuff, where it might persist in the patient for perhaps a year. If used widely across an at-risk population, theoretically you can better face down an epidemic.

It wasn’t until Appel’s brother in law—Jesse Acosta, formerly a fire prevention forester for the state of Hawaii, now at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo—said hey, what about loading these gels with fire retardants and applying them to the body that is Mother Nature? That would be the same red stuff you see planes dropping on wildfires, which is effective but fleeting: The material will blow away in the wind or wash away in a rainstorm, meaning you can’t proactively treat an area long-term to be more resistant to fire.

But armed with a newfangled (and environmentally safe) gel, Appel and his colleagues have done just that. Writing today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, they detail how their goo can act as a delivery medium to coat vegetation with flame retardant, and keep it there for the whole fire season. If adopted widely (Appel has founded a startup to commercialize it) the gel could become a sort of vaccine against wildfires, applied around the roads and utility infrastructure where 84 percent of California’s 300,000 fires in the last decade have ignited.

“The funny thing is that the engineering requirements for delivering a drug in a body for a very long period of time are pretty darn similar to the engineering requirements for maintaining a fire retardant on target vegetation for months,” says Appel. “It needs to be safe, it needs to be totally non-toxic, it needs to not harm the function of the thing you’re encapsulating.”

The gel’s main components are cellulose polymers (derived from plant material) and colloidal silica particles, which are chemically identical to sand. “What happens is the polymers cross-link between the particles—I often refer to it as sort of a molecular velcro,” says Appel. The polymers build bridges between the particles, creating a gelatinous structure.

A typical fire retardant dropped from a plane, like the inorganic salt ammonium polyphosphate, or APP, works by sticking to the surface of vegetation and binding to carbon, creating a char layer that is resistant to burning. When APP burns, it produces water, which helps quench the flames. The problem, though, is that APP won’t stick to vegetation for long, so it’s only used to fight fires, not as a widely sprayed prophylactic to prevent them in the first place.

But by mixing APP with this new gel, the researchers could get 50 percent more of the fire retardant to stick to vegetation. Not only that, they found that the concoction continued to work even when exposed to half an inch of rain. And in field tests supervised by CalFire, grass treated with the gel simply refused to ignite.

“Just watching the tests firsthand, it created a fuel bed that would not burn,” says Alan Peters, a CalFire division chief in San Luis Obispo. “So creating a non-combustible area of material would obviously have applicability in a variety of uses around homes or along roadsides.” In particular, CalFire sees a good amount of fires on steep inclines, where tractor trailers and other heavy vehicles struggle, overheat, pull over, and set the brush on fire with their undercarriage. And because the researchers designed the gel to be sprayable from standard equipment like hydroseeders, which are usually used to spew a slurry of fertilizer and seeds onto renovated roadsides to bring back vegetation, application would be a low lift.

The lifespan of the gel fits in perfectly with California’s unique brand of fire problem. The state’s biggest fires tend to rage in the fall before the first rains, when seasonal winds tear through the state, pushing blazes with incredible speed through dry brush. Once the rains come, the threat subsides. The idea with the fire-retardant gel would be to spray before the summer and forget about it. Only a good rain will wash it away, and as soon as that happens you don’t need the gel anymore because the vegetation is now well hydrated.

Naturally, you might be worried about toxicity, but this stuff is benign in the environment, Appel says. The silica component is essentially sand, and the cellulose is from plant material, which you might also find in personal lubricants and cosmetics for added viscosity. The researchers went further with toxicity tests with bacteria. It’s particularly important that the stuff doesn’t degrade aerobically—that is, bacteria feeding on it and consuming oxygen. If a bunch of the material washes into a river, you don’t want an outbreak of bacteria that in turn suck all the oxygen out of the water and kill the organisms in there. While the gel checks out in the lab, we’ll probably want more safety testing before wide-scale deployment. MORE

After oil and gas: Meet Alberta workers making the switch to solar

Alberta’s oil and gas workers can be underrepresented — or even maligned — in conversations about an energy transition in Canada. The Narwhal met with three former oil and gas workers to learn more about their lives and personal reasons for transitioning to solar

Brandon Sandmaier solar Generate Energy

The oil and gas industry has long been a mainstay for young people — especially men — looking for work in Alberta, and Dustin Taylor was one of them.

Taylor was born in Nova Scotia, where his dad worked on an offshore oil rig. He moved to Alberta as a kid, and found himself in yet another province heavily reliant on the oil and gas industry.

“I left school before I graduated and pretty much started working right off the hop,” he said. “And, like most people in Alberta, I ended up working in the energy industry — working in oil and gas, making decent money.”

He started working in oil and gas when he was 16, without finishing high school.

At his first job, he made $60,000 a year. In the years that followed, he made a lot of money. He partied. He didn’t vote. He didn’t care much about politics.

Something started to change for Taylor as the years went on in the oil patch. He remembers the 2010 BP oil spill as a pivotal moment in his thinking.

“It was plastered all over the news for days, and I watched this giant catastrophe just unfold in front of our eyes for days on end,” he said.

It was, he remembers, “a heartbreaking moment.”

Fast-forward several years, and Taylor is one of thousands of solar workers in Alberta — and one of many who has transitioned out of the fossil fuel sector into renewable energy.

Taylor is one of the workers The Narwhal came across when we started asking questions about the fledgling idea of an energy transition in Alberta. We wanted to know how switching careers, and industries, has impacted workers’ lives.

Switching careers comes with challenges, such as reduced pay, learning new skills or possible relocation. Labour advocates are adamant that governments need to be planning for an energy transition — and the implications it holds for thousands of workers in the province.

“We need to ensure that the pace of our sustainable energy development is on track to meet climate targets and help ensure the world can reach net zero by 2050,” Lliam Hildebrand of Iron & Earth, an oilsands-worker led group pushing for retraining in renewables, told The Narwhal. “We’re not on track for that right now.”

“If we were, there would be a lot more jobs.” MORE

As it happened: Federal leaders face off in French-language debate

Questions about abortion, airplanes and climate change marked the first French-language leaders’ debate between Justin Trudeau, Andrew Scheer, Yves-François Blanchet and Jagmeet Singh.

Clockwise, from top left: Justin Trudeau (Liberals), Andrew Scheer (Conservatives), Yves-François Blanchet (Bloc) and Jagmeet Singh (NDP). FRANK GUNN / REUTERS / NATHAN DENETTE / CANADIAN PRESS

The leaders were given a minute each at the end to make one last pitch to voters.


The NDP leader started by referring to Trudeau, suggesting he “has surfed on his privilege all his life.”

Singh said his upbringing was different, referring to himself as “a fighter, a progressive, I’m for the right to abortion.”

He said he’s very different from Scheer and said Blanchet is too focused on Quebec-Ottawa squabbles

“I’m proud of Quebec, I believe in asymmetric, respectful federalism.” He said the NDP “will fight for the environment, for health care, for workers.”


The Conservative leader said Canadians “are tired of Trudeau and his out-of-control spending and endless deficits… tired of him embarrassing you on the international scene.”

Scheer noted that the Bloc can’t replace Trudeau (since it has no chance of forming the government)

He said the only choice is to elect a Conservative government that will put more money in Canadians’ pocket by lowering taxes.


The Bloc leader said by voting for the other three parties, Quebecers would be putting in Ottawa a government “without surveillance and without a voice for Quebec interests.”

Blanchet said the Bloc is the only one that will put Quebec’s demands front and centre in the House of Commons.

He urged voters to vote for Bloc candidates because they “resemble you, they hold your values, they share your convictions.” He said he will work “only for the interests of Quebecers.”


The Liberal leader said the Liberals are the best party to help young families and seniors and protect the equality of women and men.

He said the Conservatives “don’t share our values” and the Bloc will always be an opposition party.

“We need Quebecers in government to fight climate change,” Trudeau said.


Sparks fly in French-language election debate

Where and how to watch the TVA debate in English

This week in climate inaccuracy: Climate strike poses

A crowd of hundreds of thousands at the Montreal climate strike on Sept. 27, 2019. Photo by Josie Desmarais

Over the course of an election campaign, you expect to see more than a few slick elisions of truth ⁠— the details of a platform shaded or facts of the case bent to make one party’s stance look more desirable than another.

And because climate change is especially complex and addresses such a wide range of data, scientific research, policy minutiae and future-tense assumption, it is especially susceptible to such inaccuracies, willful or otherwise.

I expect to use this space to point out these calculated, often half-hidden falsifications from here to Election Day.

Other times, though ⁠— well, other times, the leader of the Conservative Party of Canada shows up in Vancouver on the morning of a historic climate march to announce that widening roads will cut greenhouse gas emissions.

Scheer violates a ‘fundamental law’

Now, the shading and bending of fact in this case is not so much akin to careful massage as to what the Kool-Aid Man did to kitchen walls after the kids yelled “Hey, Kool-Aid!”

But the truth-smashing in this case is so egregious that I couldn’t possibly cycle past it without comment on the way to the march.

Andrew Scheer flew cross-country last Friday to land in suburban Vancouver and promise to prioritize funding for a handful of large-scale urban infrastructure projects designed to reduce commuter times.

As examples, he cited subway expansion in Toronto and a new bridge or tunnel in Quebec City, as well as expanding a notoriously bottlenecked tunnel under the Fraser River in suburban Vancouver.

Asked what this might have to do with climate change, Scheer answered, “when you have a tunnel that does not have the capacity to handle the number of motorists who use it, that means there’s huge backlogs, and lots of time spent idling or moving very slowly ⁠— that leads to higher emissions.”

Even on its face, the argument that, by making it easier to commute in vehicles that burn gasoline, emissions can be cut, scans as likely false.

Though Scheer is correct that any individual vehicle will create more emissions if it’s forced to idle in gridlock en route, he could only be correct on the larger point if Vancouver had a finite number of cars traveling through the tunnel in question each day, so that new lanes would allow just those cars and no other vehicles to travel smoothly from home to workplace.

In reality, though, expanding the capacity of a roadway inevitably leads to more overall vehicle traffic ⁠— this through a well-proven phenomenon called “induced demand,” a concept as well understood in urban planning circles as “pandering to the base” is to politicians.

At its most succinct, induced demand can be boiled down to what has been called the “fundamental law of road congestion,” and it goes like this: “On urban commuter expressways, peak-hour traffic congestion rises to meet maximum capacity.”

Expand the road (or tunnel) and it makes commuting faster and easier, which invites more people to commute by private vehicle.

The law itself is half a century old, and piles of research since have confirmed its bedrock truth in cities around the world. In a 2009 study of traffic patterns across North America from 1980 to 2000 ⁠— one of the most widely cited ⁠— researchers discovered a “perfect one-to-one relationship” between increasing road capacity and increased driving.

That means that a city that expanded road capacity by 10 per cent saw a 10 per cent increase in traffic.

It’s possible that Andrew Scheer’s Conservatives are sitting on an approach to tunnel expansion that stands the whole field of urban planning on its head.

More likely, though, is that four more lanes of traffic between Delta and Richmond will lead to four more lanes’ worth of commuters, emitting more greenhouse gases than ever.

NDP, Greens don’t tell the whole story

Scheer, of course, wasn’t the only leader to take advantage of last Friday’s climate strike to tout some climate bonafides.

Justin Trudeau and Elizabeth May marched in Montreal with student strike leader Greta Thunberg, and Jagmeet Singh took to the streets in Vancouver.

Both the NDP and the Greens used the occasion to attack the government’s record on climate action as nowhere near as ambitious as their own ⁠— both employing sharp, protest-sign-worthy slogans on social media to summarize their criticisms.

And both guilty not so much of inaccuracy as not quite telling the whole story.

The NDP’s main line of attack on the Liberals, as phrased in a pointedly brief press release last week and repeated on strike day, is: “You. Bought. A. Pipeline.”

This. Is. Certainly. True. The federal government bought the Trans Mountain pipeline and is fully backing its expansion.

But if the NDP wants to score points on its pipeline opposition, it should be noted that its leader has been unclear where exactly he stands on pipeline projects in general, while his plan promises both to curtail reliance on oil imports and “prioritize domestic upgrading and refining.”

Details in the party’s plan are thin, but this would clearly oblige new domestic upgrading and refining infrastructure, and the upgraded and refined oil would have to reach import-free gas stations coast to coast somehow.

There surely will be pipelines involved. Just not that one, I guess.

The Greens, meanwhile, came at the Liberals’ Paris emissions reduction goals, which they have repeatedly noted feature “Harper’s targets.”

Again: unassailably true. The federal government committed in Paris to cut emissions to 30 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030, and this is the same target announced by the Conservative environment minister in May 2015.

The implication, though, is that little has changed on the action front. But when the Conservatives left office later that year, Canada was projected to overshoot its greenhouse gas reduction target by 300 megatonnes.

Today, Canada will still miss its target, but by a much smaller 79 megatonnes ⁠— maybe not enough, as the Greens like to point out, but not nothing, either.

Justin Trudeau, for his part, said last week his government was “on track” to hit its Paris goal. Since 79 megatonnes is also not nothing, that isn’t true, either.

And with three weeks to go in a campaign where the long-promised focus on climate seems to be finally emerging, it’s sure to be far from the last inaccuracy we hear. Stay tuned. SOURCE

Journalism group launches anti-fake news campaign ahead of election

CBC news anchor Peter Mansbridge poses for a photo at the CBC’s Toronto studios on Wednesday, May 22, 2013. File photo by The Canadian Press/Chris Young

A Canadian media non-profit is launching a campaign against fake news after recent polling found Canadians are regularly exposed to misinformation but don’t always have the knowledge to combat it.

The Canadian Journalism Foundation’s “Doubt It?” campaign aims to be an engaging collection of online quizzes and public service announcements from Canadian media personalities such as retired CBC host Peter Mansbridge.

Recent polling by Ipsos, Earnscliffe Strategy Group and MIT researchers suggests nearly all Canadians have come across misinformation online, yet only 40 per cent feel they know how to differentiate between fake news and the real thing.

The polls also found 90 per cent of Canadians admitted to falling for fake news in the past, and only a third of them regularly check to see if the stories they’re consuming are legitimate.

CJF president Natalie Turvey said the campaign aims to use humour to engage news consumers and get people talking.

“We’re looking at the simplest, most straightforward and small actions that Canadians can incorporate to have changes in how they’re consuming news and information,” Turvey said in a phone interview.

“All of these techniques take 10 to 30 seconds to verify if a claim is real.”

Some of the techniques she cited include checking dates, googling to see if other outlets are covering the story, and being skeptical of items that provoke a particularly strong emotional reaction.

Turvey said they’ve tried to make the campaign humorous and fun so that it’s engaging. To do that, they’ve commissioned public service announcements from Canadian YouTube stars from a channel called AsapSCIENCE, which has over eight million subscribers.

Google News, which supported the campaign to the tune of $1 million in funding, said promoting media literacy and fighting misinformation were among the company’s top concerns.

Will Andrew Scheer ruin Canada?

Conservative Party Leader Andrew Scheer appears in a drawing by Victor Juhasz for National Observer. Victor Juhasz illustration

Standing in a forest of ash and birch trees about a 45-minute drive southwest of downtown Calgary, the Azuridge Estate Hotel is a luxury resort replete with fountains, waterfalls, gray stone façades and exposed wooden beams. It’s a popular wedding destination.

In a conference room at this verdant retreat on April 11, Conservative Party Leader Andrew Scheer and his campaign manager, Hamish Marshall, were huddling with a group of oil company CEOs along with Tim McMillan, president of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP), Big Oil’s most powerful lobby group. All of the CEOs present, in fact, are members of CAPP’s board of governors.

One purpose of this meeting? To strategize on how to defeat Justin Trudeau’s government in the federal election this month. The agenda also included discussions about how to silence environmental critics of pipeline projects and the tar sands, including suing them in court.

Conservative Party Leader Andrew Scheer reacts to the Liberal carbon pricing announcement in Ottawa on Oct. 23, 2018. Photo by Alex Tétreault 

Scheer provided the keynote address, while Marshall spoke about “rallying the base” by using friendly interest groups.
To some, this meeting at the Azuridge “gave evidence that, guess what, things haven’t really changed a whole lot,” says Nathan Lemphers, an Ottawa-based campaigner with Oil Change International, an advocacy organization that fights the fossil fuel sector.


“(The Conservatives) are still very cozy with oil industry interests and oil money. We’ve seen what that’s done to Alberta politics and it was no different with federal politics under the Harper government.”

CAPP disputes that the event itself was related to the election. But the fact that Andrew Scheer and his inner circle were scheming with oil industry executives to oust Trudeau comes as no surprise. After all, Scheer is widely acknowledged to be a creature of the house that Stephen Harper built — a party designed to serve the energy sector’s interests at every turn. MORE

Imagine Jair Bolsonaro Standing Trial for Ecocide at The Hague

A group of activists already has.

A scene from the Amazonas, a state in Brazil, on Sept. 15.
CreditCreditBruno Kelly/Reuters

Since August, as vast stretches of the Amazon rainforest were being reduced to ashes and outrage and calls for action intensified, a group of lawyers and activists who have been advancing a radical idea have seen a silver lining in the unfolding tragedy: One day, a few years from now, they imagined Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, being hauled to The Hague to stand trial for ecocide, a term broadly understood to mean the willful and widespread destruction of the environment, and one that, they hope, will eventually be on par with other crimes against humanity.

There is no international crime today that can be used to neatly hold world leaders or corporate chief executives criminally responsible in peacetime for ecological catastrophes that result in the type of mass displacements and population wipeouts more commonly associated with war crimes. But environmentalists say the world should treat ecocide as a crime against humanity — like genocide — now that the imminent and long-term threats posed by a warming planet are coming into sharper focus.

In Mr. Bolsonaro they have come to see something of an ideal villain tailor-made for a legal test case.

“He has become a poster boy for the need for a crime of ecocide,” said Jojo Mehta, the co-founder of Stop Ecocide, a group that is seeking to give the International Criminal Court in The Hague the jurisdiction to prosecute leaders and businesses that knowingly cause widespread environmental damage. “It’s awful, but at the same time it’s timely.”

President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil at an Independence Day parade in Brasilia on Sept. 7.
CreditAdriano Machado/Reuters 

The first prominent call to outlaw ecocide was made in 1972 by Prime Minister Olof Palme of Sweden, who hosted the United Nations’ first major summit on the environment.

In his keynote address at the conference, Mr. Palme argued that the world urgently needed a unified approach to safeguard the environment. “The air we breathe is not the property of any one nation, we share it,” he said. “The big oceans are not divided by national frontiers; they are our common property.” That idea got little traction at the time and Mr. Palme died in 1986 having made little headway in the quest to establish binding principles to protect the environment.

During the 1980s and 1990s, diplomats considered including ecocide as a grave crime as they debated the authorities of the International Criminal Court, which was primarily established to prosecute war crimes. But when the court’s founding document, known as the Rome Statute, went into force in 2002, language that would have criminalized large-scale environmental destruction had been stripped out at the insistence of major oil producing nations.

In 2016, the court’s top prosecutor signaled an interest in prioritizing cases within its jurisdiction that featured the “destruction of the environment, the illegal exploitation of natural resources or the illegal dispossession of land.”

That move came as activists seeking to criminalize ecocide had been laying the groundwork for a landmark change to the court’s remit. Their plan is to get a state that is party to the Rome Statute — or a coalition of them — to propose an amendment to its charter establishing ecocide as a crime against peace. At least two-thirds of the countries that are signatories to the Rome Statute would have to back the initiative to outlaw ecocide for the court to get an expanded mandate, and even then it would only apply to countries that accept the amendment. Still, it could change the way the world thinks about environmental destruction.
Richard Rogers, a lawyer who specializes in international criminal law and human rights, said that if ecocide campaigners and countries suffering the effects of climate change put forward a narrow definition of the crime, it could quickly garner widespread support. “We’ve seen in the past few years a huge shift in public opinion, and we’re entering a phase where there is going to be huge pressure on governments to do more,” said Mr. Rogers, a partner at Global Diligence, a firm that advises companies and governments on risk mitigation. MORE