"It’s Only Natural: Geology, Environment, Wildlife & More" Archives

Feb 09 2013

Brick—The Roadway Less Traveled By (But It Could Make All the Difference)

Cyclists paved the way for cars. Literally. Long before the masses embraced internal combustion and took to the highways and byways on four wheels, cyclists were lobbying for paved roads. If you often ride on gravel or dirt you’ll know why. When you’re going somewhere on your bike—as opposed to simply killing time on singletrack between airings of the X Games—you soon learn to value a smooth, hard, stable surface. But the freedom of the paved road isn’t free. Asphalt and concrete slab surfaces are, for all practical purposes, impermeable. And when heavy rain falls on a well-engineered, impervious roadway (or shopping mall parking lot), the water does what comes naturally: It runs off immediately, swelling local streams to flood stage and overwhelming urban sewer systems.

From the narrow perspective of a highway engineer, this is a very good thing. You don’t want your roads turning into rivers, after all. But environmental geologists look at things differently. If you prevent rainwater from soaking into the ground, you impoverish local aquifers. And when you then hustle that water into the nearest river or stream as fast as possible, you increase the damage done by shoreline erosion, as well as raising the probability of catastrophic flooding farther downstream. In the past—and all too often, even today—highway engineers have seen this as somebody else’s problem. Their job was to keep the roads open to travel. Preventing floods and shoreline erosion wasn’t part of their job description.

But things are changing. Extreme weather is becoming commonplace everywhere. Torrential rains now follow hard on the heels of prolonged droughts, and impervious paved surfaces make both extremes worse. As we pave more and more of the earth’s surface, less and less water is returned to the underground reservoirs that feed our wells and reservoirs, leaving us more vulnerable to drought. And as we build more and more paved roads, we direct ever larger amounts of runoff into neighboring streams and rivers. This increases the likelihood of destructive urban flooding. It’s a lose-lose scenario.

Of course, even highway engineers like to see water coming out when they turn the tap. (Some of them own shoreline property, too.) So they’ve started to consider alternatives to impervious asphalt and concrete slab paving, and this has led them to take a second look at one of mankind’s oldest building materials: the common brick.

Needless to say, some folks are more receptive to new ideas than others. While I don’t see much pressure for constructive innovation in my own backyard—”We like it the way it is” has been the local motto for as long as I can remember—that’s certainly not true everywhere. Marcos Netto, TNO‘s Southern Hemisphere Correspondent, lives in southern Brazil, and when I first saw his son’s photo of Paralympian João Correa and his “guardian angels” …

Team Itati-Stem-Rotary by Joao Arthur Netto

I couldn’t help but notice that the pavement under João’s wheels looked like brick. And Marcos—he’s the tall “angel” in the center of the picture—quickly confirmed that my eyes hadn’t deceived me. Here’s what he had to say:

Those are cement bricks. They are manufactured using conventional cement and are available in various shapes. The most common ones are either rectangles, hexagons, or an almost S-like shape, achieved with the use of one rectangle and two squares.

The bricks are all laid by hand by companies which specialize in it. The price is based on the square meter, and it's as much as 30 percent cheaper than asphalt. After laying, and assuming no heavy traffic rolls over the bricks, the paved area will remain in place for decades. If the area has fertile soil below the bricks, grass might grow between them, making it a lot more interesting to look at.

Bricks are used mostly for parking lots and areas where there is no heavyweight vehicle traffic, but for a long time I've seen them on some streets where they've suffered no significant damage. The only real problem is when there's a need for underground work to repair some gas, phone, or sewage lines. The bricks must be removed before excavation, and even with careful work they will never be replaced the same way, which is visible on the street or parking lot.

There is another version of brick paving for high-impact traffic areas. This involves intensive preparation of the base where the bricks will be laid, making the underlying ground weight-resistant.

You are right about the advantages regarding water on brick paving. Bricks make evaporation and ground absorption faster, thus making it less expensive to install drains in the area.


Now here are some more examples of brick paving:

Marcos Netto Examples of Brick Paving

Marcos Netto Examples of Brick Paving

Marcos Netto Examples of Brick Paving

Marcos Netto Examples of Brick Paving

Marcos Netto Examples of Brick Paving

Marcos Netto Examples of Brick Paving

Marcos Netto Examples of Brick Paving


OK. What’s not to like? Brick paving combines beauty with utility and economy, which makes it a very attractive option for parking lots, town squares, and low-traffic residential streets. Of course, it won’t offer cyclists as smooth a ride as new asphalt, but I’d be more than happy with the trade-off if it meant that the water kept flowing from my tap and fewer homes (and businesses) were lost to floods. What about you?

Marcos Netto on the Tiles

Further Reading

  • Brick,” a Wikipedia primer on this ancient building material, plus …
  • Block Paving,” another Wikipedia article, short but informative, and finally, …
  • Permeable Paving,” Wikipedia‘s take on the big picture. It seems that brick isn’t the only option.


Questions? Comments? Just click here!

Jul 07 2012

Move Over, Niagara!
Our Southern Hemisphere Correspondent Reports From Brazil’s “Big Water” Falls

There’s nothing special about waterfalls, is there? Almost any stream large enough to appear on a quad has one or two tucked away somewhere. But these are everyday waterfalls. They’re well worth a visit, to be sure, but they’re not likely to take your breath away. The Cataratas do Iguaçu (Iguaçu Falls), on the other hand, are WATERFALLS. Located in the Iguaçu River, on the border between the Brazilian state of Paraná and the Argentine province of Misiones, this U-shaped complex of 300 islands and 200-plus-foot drops dwarfs North America’s Niagara Falls. (“Poor Niagara!” Eleanor Roosevelt is said to have exclaimed on first seeing Iguaçu.)

Despite this, I might have gone to my grave ignorant of the falls’ existence, but for the efforts the indefatigable Marcos Netto, our Southern Hemisphere Correspondent, who recently visited the Parque Nacional das Cataratas do Iguaçu—a World Heritage Site—and sent along some truly spectacular photos to jog me out of my mid-summer torpor.

He certainly succeeded. His first photo was taken well back from the falls proper. It’s what the film trade calls an “establishing shot.” But even at this great distance, Marcos reports that the earth under his feet trembled from the shock of falling water. That’s no surprise. Iguaçu comes from the Guarani words for “big water.” So both the river and the falls are well-named. See for yourself:

Netto Iguassu Falls

Now let’s move closer:

Netto Iguassu Falls

You can get some idea of the scale from the large riverboats along both shores in the photo above. (Right-click on any image to embiggen it.) There’s another riverboat on the far right in the following shot, too:

Netto Iguassu Falls

And here’s a shot that gives an even better idea of the extent of the waterfall complex:

Netto Iguassu Falls

These aren’t bad for photos taken with a cell phone—a Nokia N8 smartphone, to be exact—are they? But when I said something to this effect, Marcos lost no time in reminding me that it’s the “little piece of hardware behind the shutter” that makes a shot work. And so it is.

Visitors to the national park don’t have to board a riverboat to get a close look at the falls, by the way. Piers let them walk right up to the brink:

Netto Iguassu Falls

It’s wet work, though, so you’d better have a good rain jacket. On the other hand, if the light is right you’ll see a spectacular rainbow:

Netto Iguassu Falls

And we humans aren’t the only visitors:

Netto Iguassu Falls

This is a quati, or ring-tailed coati, a close relative of the North American raccoon.

Of course, even the best still photos can’t really do justice to moving water. So Marcos put his Nokia to work again to capture this short video:



What a place! And thanks to Marcos Netto, you (and I) now know exactly how much catching up little Niagara has to do!

Netto by Netto

Questions? Comments? Just click here!

Jun 12 2012

Tales of a Turtle Taxi: This Lady’s Not for Turning

With the onset of warm weather, turtles are out and about on the roads. Most are females, who leave their home waters to search for sandy soil in which to deposit their eggs. I met this formidable lady on a town road. While not the largest snapper I’ve encountered, she was pretty good-sized—perhaps half again as big as my helmet. And she had a disposition to match her appearance:

This Lady Is Not for Turning

She’d just begun to cross the road when I first saw her, and I decided to offer her a lift. But as soon as I got close she swiveled around to face me. She moved with lightning speed, too. Try as I might I couldn’t get behind her. (For what I hope will be obvious reasons—the name is a clue—it’s important to approach snappers from the rear. See this page for details.) Things were not going according to script. So I opted for Plan B: gentle persuasion. A windfall limb would serve as my shepherd’s crook. I figured I’d stay with the lady, nudging her away from any danger, until she was off the road and out of harm’s way.

But Plan B was no more successful than the direct approach. When my improvised shepherd’s crook got too near her, the lady simply snapped off the end. Her feelings in the matter were manifestly clear. I didn’t need a second demonstration. Which left me with only one remaining alternative: watchful waiting. So I placed what remained of the deadfall limb in the road to alert oncoming cars and retreated a good 30 yards, hoping that, once I was out of sight, my reluctant fare would decide it was safe to cross.

Success at last! No cars appeared—I was prepared to wave them off if they had—and the lady completed her journey without incident. Soon she was paddling happily in a stream.

On the March

After removing the remains of my truncated shepherd’s crook from the road, I continued on my way, glad that this little drama had ended happily. My fare might have spurned my proffered lift, but she reached her destination alive, making the trek on her own terms. As the remains of less fortunate creatures constantly remind me—I found another snapper further down the road, smashed to pieces by a passing car—even quiet country roads are killing grounds. I can do nothing about that, of course. All life is cheap in the Republic of Happy Motoring. But every now and then I can offer some assistance to a fellow traveler. It’s a good feeling.


Further Reading


Questions? Comments? Just click here!

Feb 05 2011

A Good News Story: Florida Turtles Get a Helping Hand

There aren’t any turtles making the rounds in the Adirondack foothills on these winter days, but they are plenty who are already out and about in warmer climes. Of course, whatever the season, a turtle’s life is never easy. Their survival strategies, evolved over hundreds of millions of years, didn’t take speeding automobiles into account. It’s an unequal contest, with the turtles always coming off second-best. A case in point: the portion of US Highway 27 in northern Florida that cuts across an arm of Lake Jackson, creating an isolated impoundment known, logically enough, as Little Lake Jackson. These lakes lie at the center of a rich wetland, and they’re home to a great diversity of wildlife species, many of which cross back and forth between the two bodies of water—running the gauntlet of the busy roadway every time they do. Not surprisingly, then, this stretch of highway has a well-earned reputation as a killing zone for turtles, with over 2,000 being struck every year by speeding cars.

The terrible toll hasn’t gone unnoticed. Some big-hearted folks got together and founded the Lake Jackson Ecopassage Alliance. Their aim? Creating a protected corridor for wildlife needing to cross between Lake Jackson and its smaller sibling. A big job? Sure. But there’s some good news: Florida cyclist Chris Balding reports that the Alliance’s efforts have paid off. The ecopassage is now complete. It’s an ingenious solution to a seemingly intractable problem, incorporating both a barrier-cum-deflector and a series of transit culverts under the Highway 27 roadbed. Chris checked it out a couple of weeks back, and he was impressed by what he saw. He wrote, “It looks as if it has been there forever, which, in an ironic way, I guess it has been.” In effect, the Alliance has restored an ancient wildlife right-of-way.

A small victory? Perhaps. But at a time when most news about wildlife is bad news, even small victories loom large. And a little good will goes a mighty long way. It has to. Few people take notice of the comings and goings of wild creatures. Chris is an exception. He’s been a friend to turtles since way back:

I have picked up turtles on many occasions. There is one little fella that makes a daily round trip from his home in the flowerbed to a small drainage creek behind our apartment building. One time his big brother tried to get crazy and venture across the parking lot on a broiling hot summer day. I knew he was headed for the pond out back (there’s a creek there, too), so I carried him to the grass so he wouldn’t fry his feet. In addition to the heat, the parking lot around our building has concrete curbs which are like prison walls for turtles. On my way to work or way home I sometimes have to stop the car and help one over the curb.

I can see how it could freak people out lifting a turtle the first few times. When I carried the “big brother,” he was none too happy about it and he let me know with a few hisses and a lot of flailing. Those little nails are sharp. But you just have to keep your cool and realize that they are just scared.

Chris has a sharp eye as well as a good heart. It took close observation to realize that the parking-lot curb was a death trap for turtles. Luckily, though, Chris has the patience to stop and offer help when help is needed. What about you? Would you like to know how to lift turtles to safety while staying safe yourself? If so, you can learn the right moves from an expert. Read “Turtle Taxi.” Then print out our “Quick Guide for Turtle Taxis” and put a copy in your car’s glove box (and your bike’s ‘bar bag, too). That way you’ll always have a handy reference. Better yet, print out a couple of dozen copies and give one to anyone else you know who has the good interests of wildlife at heart. Don’t let 215 million years of evolution go to waste. Turtles need all the help we can give them.

Want to know more about the Lake Jackson Ecopassage? You’ll find the whole story—and plenty of pictures—at the Alliance’s website.

Tom Michell Snapper Lift

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