Stories tagged Earth Buzz

MinuteEarth digs into the tricky balance of trying to manage invasive species.

Feb
26
2014

Is it possible to deflate hurricanes by wind energy?: Huge wind turbines off the coast of Denmark show a small-scale version of an off-shore wind farm that could sap the energy of hurricanes and tropical storms.
Is it possible to deflate hurricanes by wind energy?: Huge wind turbines off the coast of Denmark show a small-scale version of an off-shore wind farm that could sap the energy of hurricanes and tropical storms.Courtesy Leonard G.
A new study claims that positioning large, off-shore wind farms in the path of oncoming tropical storms and hurricanes can reduce the damage those storms inflict. The extra electricity they produce is just an added bonus.

The study's findings contend that "tens of thousands of turbines can lower a hurricane's wind speed up to 92 mph and reduce its storm surge up to 79%."

But is it realistic to think that such a big wind operation could actually be built? Currently there are no operating water-based wind farms in the United States. The largest off-shore wind turbine sites being considered for construction have about 200 turbines planned. Those facilities are being planned off the coasts of Texas and New England. There are small-sized off-shore wind plants in Europe and China.

But if a huge wind operation was feasible, the study estimated that such a plant would have saved a lot of damage in the 2005 Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. Somef 78,000 wind turbines — each 50 feet tall — could have slowed Katrina's wind speeds up to 78 mph and cut its storm surge up to 79%, the report from Stanford University said.

What do you think? Is this an idea ahead of its time? Is it pie – make that blowing pie – in the sky? Share your thoughts here with other Science Buzz readers.

Jan
02
2014

Bright news: Due to a variety of new technological advances, electrical use in the U.S. has declined for the third straight year.
Bright news: Due to a variety of new technological advances, electrical use in the U.S. has declined for the third straight year.Courtesy Ramjar
So often, the headlines are filled with gloom and doom when reporting on energy usage, climate change and such matters. But here's some bright news.

U.S. electrical consumption has dropped down to the lowest levels since 2001. And that comes as we're using more electrical devices than ever. Here are the full details. It's the third-straight year U.S. electrical consumption has gone down.

Quickly summarizing, there are several factors for this significant drop in power use. Many major appliances have been re-engineered to be more efficient and use less electricity. Homes and buildings are better insulated and designed to keep air conditioning inside in the summer and cold out in the winter. More people are using compact fluorescent bulbs and LED lighting that consume much less electricity than incandescent bulbs.

And the trend looks to continue this year with another 1 percent drop in electrical juice consumption.

Compost for you: Moving from right to left, you can see how microbes deconstruct organic garbage into compost.
Compost for you: Moving from right to left, you can see how microbes deconstruct organic garbage into compost.Courtesy Thor
That's right. There is something rotten, smelly, nasty happening right in the lobby of the Science Museum of Minnesota. We've got compost on display. You can see the three phases of compost from fresh organic garbage to midway decomposed waste to finished compost. And you can learn all about the science that makes it possible to turn trash into ground-enriching treasure. Here's the link to the web content that accompanies this exhibit. Oh, and don't worry about the smell. The case the compost is presented in has special filters to keep any nastiness from getting out!

Do you like hot weather? Do you like playing with graphs? Combine those two interests in at this interactive website that charts the fluxuation in global temperature over your own personal lifetime.

It's been happening the past few summers, but researchers say it's getting bigger each season. It is a lake covering the North Pole during these summer months caused by ice melting in the summer sun. This year's lake formedn on July 13 and is about a foot deep. And since water absorbs more solar radiation than ice, researchers expect this lake to keep growing each season ass the ice underneath gets thinner.

Using his head: On his recent trip to Africa, Presudent Obama tried out the new SOCCKET soccer ball.
Using his head: On his recent trip to Africa, Presudent Obama tried out the new SOCCKET soccer ball.Courtesy AP
Kids' soccer games in Third World nations can help provide needed power to electricity-lacking villages through this new invention of two college student. The SOCCKET puts a gyroscope inside a soccer ball, capturing kinetic energy generated by the ball's motion. That energy is stored in a battery in the ball. A cap can be popped off the ball at night exposing a socket to the battery. Thirty minutes of kids' soccer action can power a LED light for three hours. Here's we're you can learn more and see the ball in action.

http://unchartedplay.com/soccket/

Apr
22
2013

Tall order: Scientists are cloning giant redwood trees from California in an effort to reforest lost trees and combat climate change.
Tall order: Scientists are cloning giant redwood trees from California in an effort to reforest lost trees and combat climate change.Courtesy Victorgrigas
Start talking about giant cloning projects, and the conversation is going to quickly turn to Jurassic Park, the film that "what iffed" the cloning of dinosaurs. It was all for fun, if beyond hypothetical.

But giants of another kind, trees, are being cloned in an effort to help turn the balance of deteriorating conditions here on Earth. California's iconic, and incredibly tall, redwood trees are getting the cloning treatment. You can read the full details about the project here. And today, Earth Day 2013, the project is going global as clones of these redwoods are being planted in Australia, New Zealand, Great Britain, Ireland, Canada, Germany and the U.S.

Why clone just behemoth trees? The guys running the project surmise where better to find the strongest, hardiest genetic codes to withstand the coming climate pressures than in these huge redwoods, many which have lived for over 4,000 years.

The current crop of plantings come from the DNA of giant trees cut down about a century ago. Even though the bulk of the trees are just stumps today, those stumps are very much alive. They have live shoots emerging from the stumps, which the researchers can extract DNA from to serve as the basis for their cloning work.

The new plantings have a long way to go. They're only about 18 inches tall right now. The big challenge, the researchers say, is to find people and resources to nurture this little trees into viable, independent growers.

Redwoods are considered best suited to absorb massive volumes of carbon dioxide, the greenhouse gas primarily responsible for climate change.

What do you think? Is this a good application for cloning? Can these huge trees make a difference with climate change over the long haul? Should we be tinkering around with this kind of science?

Apr
12
2013

How much of terrestrial plant and animal life can humanity safely consume without seriously damaging the live-support systems of our planet? It has been challenging to answer that question because of the difficulty of measuring how much biomass is produced annually on land and how much of this yearly production humans co-opt.

Huge regional variability exists in terrestrial productivity from year to year because of heat, cold, floods and droughts but what is striking from recent reviews of more than 30 years of satellite imagery is how little global variability there is annually. Each year, terrestrial plants fix about 53.6 petagrams of biomass – a gigantic quantity but what matters is not so much the size of annual biomass production but rather that it seems to vary by only about two percent per year.

Recent estimates from satellite imagery indicate that humans now appropriate 38 percent of all terrestrial biomass generated annually. That would seem to leave 62 percent on the table for expanded human consumption but the vast majority of this biomass appears to be not harvestable because it includes root growth below ground and biomass production on lands in parks or wilderness areas that are either protected or inaccessible.

It appears likely that the upper limit for how much of terrestrial biomass that humans can co-opt annually is only about ten percent more for a total of 48 percent. Current land use patterns and projections that the global human population may reach nine billion by 2050 suggest that this 48 percent of all available terrestrial biomass may be reached within the next few decades.
Earth's primary photosnythetic productivity: The darkest green  shading in the Amazon and Southeast Asia are regions of the world where photosynthetic activity is by far the most active on an annual basis
Earth's primary photosnythetic productivity: The darkest green shading in the Amazon and Southeast Asia are regions of the world where photosynthetic activity is by far the most active on an annual basisCourtesy NASA

Mar
21
2013

Gulf of Mexico Dead Zone: Nitrates washed off of cropland and delivered to the ocean by the Mississippi River feed big algae blooms, seen as red in this false-color satellite image.  Bacterial decomposition of the dying algae consumes all oxygen in the water, producing a large area uninhabitable by fish and other sea creatures.
Gulf of Mexico Dead Zone: Nitrates washed off of cropland and delivered to the ocean by the Mississippi River feed big algae blooms, seen as red in this false-color satellite image. Bacterial decomposition of the dying algae consumes all oxygen in the water, producing a large area uninhabitable by fish and other sea creatures.Courtesy NOAA
Nitrogen is an essential nutrient for plants. So how can nitrogen limit plant growth, given that nitrogen comprises 79 percent of the atmosphere? But atmospheric nitrogen is composed of molecules consisting of two atoms of nitrogen and this form of nitrogen cannot be used by plants.

Farmers have for centuries spread animal manure on fields or plowed under leguminous crops (such as alfalfa which has microbial communities living on its roots that fix nitrogen) to add useful, reactive forms of nitrogen to soils. German ingenuity in the early 20th century invented an industrial process that made it possible for the first time to manufacture plant-usable forms of nitrogen, which made possible the artificial fertilizing of crops.

Manmade production of ammonia and nitrate fertilizers has exploded in recent decades and now vastly exceeds the amount of atmospheric nitrogen converted into reactive nitrogen by microbial organisms around the world. At the same time, the burning of ever-increasing quantities of coal, oil and natural gas converts some atmospheric nitrogen into oxides of nitrogen (NOx). NOx emissions can both increase crop growth and diminish it because NOx gases help catalyze the formation of ground-level ozone and this gas is toxic to plant life.

The huge increases of human-produced forms of nitrogen that are applied to croplands and that are released into the atmosphere and eventually settle out have many unintended consequences. In particular, excess nitrogen washes off of agricultural and urban landscapes and is accelerating the destructive growth of algae in lakes, rivers and coastal estuaries around the world.

The connections between manmade carbon dioxide emissions and climate change are quite worrying and receive much scientific and media attention. Nitrogen pollution receives much less notice but is a dramatic example of how human activities now dominate many of the chemical, physical and biological processes that make this plant so amenable to human life.