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Fhyre Phoenix awoke in the middle of the night, brain ablaze. He had an idea for saving the world! Again. But this time, he thought, the solution was one that ordinary citizens could enact with ease. There was just one minor, niggling obstacle. So let's hark back to where it all began: in the letters to the editor section of the Jan. 9 Arcata Eye.

"I woke in the middle of the night with the concept of creating `Urban Icebergs' to replace the ones melting at the North and South Poles," wrote Phoenix, an Arcatan activist of the busiest proportions. "Urban Icebergs are made by painting rooftops and blacktop (parking lots, driveways, city streets and even highways) white so that these surfaces would reflect light and heat back into space and perhaps slow global warming." It was something "that every homeowner, painting contractor, town, city, county, state and country could take part in." Only problem: He didn't know how to achieve the whiteness. Paint? Stain? And thus he ended his letter: "Any ideas? Anyone?"

Ah, a challenge. Shunting aside, for now, past Phoenix light bulbs that flickered then went dark - including a proposed topper over Highway 101 through Arcata upon which an "urban eco-village" could sprout with trees, bike paths, plazas and affordable domiciles - we fondled the notion of white pavement. Could it be? Would it be ... possible? Gathering nerve, we contacted Peter Lehman, an environmental resource engineering professor at HSU and director of the Schatz Energy Resource Center.

Sounding slightly incensed, but patiently accommodating, Lehman responded first with a suggestion: Fhyre Phoenix "should take a course in science."

"First of all, you're not going to paint the streets white - it wouldn't stick," Lehman said. "Painting the buildings' roofs white, that's not a bad idea. It would keep the buildings cooler."

Indeed, the notion of urban "heat islands," where the local climate heats up from all the pavement and concrete, isn't new. To combat it, some cities even have green-roof laws that require new retail buildings - including a Wal-Mart in Chicago - to be roofed with a cover of vegetation.

Still, white rooftops would have little planet-wide impact, Lehman said. Sure, how reflective the earth is has a lot to say about what the temperature of the earth is. "One of the issues in global warming is the reflectivity of the earth -- the albedo," he said. "That's the refraction of light hitting the earth and reflected back into space. And the large factor is how much of the earth is covered in ice. The real effect comes from clouds and ice. The more clouds, the shinier the earth is. And the more ice, the shinier. Because ice is real shiny, light gets reflected back." But, as the earth warms, and the arctic ice caps melt and shrink, "more of the earth is brown and it absorbs heat which makes it hotter. It gets hotter faster.

"But can we, by painting things white, affect the albedo effect? No. It would have little effect. Do you think we're going to paint the forests? Do you think we're going to paint the ocean? It'd take a lot of white paint to cover the earth."

We'd be better off, said Lehman, spending our waking hours coming up with sound ideas for reducing carbon dioxide emissions. "I'm glad people are thinking," he said, exasperated. "But I wish our scientific literacy were higher than that."

Phoenix, meanwhile, is still pondering the whitewash. Maybe paint's not the answer, he agrees - too slippery when wet. And you'd have to mind the glare, for sure. But a stain, perhaps. "I don't think there's only one solution" to global warming, he allowed, in a phone conversation last week. "But there's hundreds of millions of rooftops." It'd help. Of course, he added, "the elephant in the living room is population reduction. I'm not talking about taking someone out and shooting them. But we're at six-and-a-half billion people. The rivers are polluted, the rate of animal extinction is higher than ever before. I mean a negative birth rate. Over four to five generations, I'd like to see the population cut in half - all through voluntary means." Any ideas? Anyone?

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Heidi Walters

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Heidi Walters has been a staff writer with the North Coast Journal since 2005.

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