Stories tagged Earth Buzz

One (short!) year ago today, BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil drilling rig exploded 42 miles off the coast of Louisiana. Eleven families lost loved ones on that day, but the social, economic, and environmental damage had only begun.

Oil slick
Oil slickCourtesy U.S. Coast Gaurd

By April 22, 2010 the $560 million rig sunk, leaving oil spewing from the seabed into the Gulf of Mexico. On the 29th, the state of Louisiana declared a state of emergency due to the threat posed to natural resources, and U.S. President Barack Obama stated that BP was responsible for the cleanup.

Hopeful in those first days, remote underwater vehicles were sent to activate the blowout preventer, but the effort failed. In the following weeks that turned into months, controlled burns, booms, skimmers, and dispersants were used to cleanup oil as efforts to stop the oil flow were underway. The Justice Department launched a criminal and civil investigation, a moratorium on oil drilling was enacted and later rescinded, and the no-fishing zone grew to 37% of American Gulf waters. After 5 months, 8 days, and roughly 5 million barrels of spilled oil, a pressure test finally determined that a relief well had successfully stopped the oil flow. The spill was the world’s largest accidental release of oil into a marine environment.

The BBC wrote an article to commemorate the event and bring readers up to speed on the status of the Gulf today. National Geographic also has some neat zoomable maps.


What’s in a super hero?
Superhero schmuperhero
Superhero schmuperheroCourtesy karla_k

Growing up, my dad had the classic Marvel comic heroes like Spiderman and Captain America whereas my brother and I watched and played Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Power Rangers. These days I ask a little more from my heroes. I want them to increase energy efficiency, vanquish upper respiratory diseases like asthma, stop world hunger, and -- Wait! What?? Who’s this?! Gaba-gaba and Plumpy’nut to the rescue! -- Strangely named heroes they may be, but these are among the super foods fighting global malnutrition.

Food insecurity and hunger is a big deal. It affects about 200,000 households in Minnesota, about 13 million households in the United States, and 925 million people (more than the population of the U.S., Canada, and European Union combined!) worldwide. You are more likely to be among these effected populations if you live in a developing country, are female, and/or are a child. With a global population racing towards 9 billion (that’s 9,000,000,000) people, worldwide food insecurity and hunger is increasing rather than decreasing. As we say here in Minnesoooota, “Uff-da! Dat’s a big problem dere.”

Gaba-gaba and Plumpy’nut are being deployed around the world to fill bellies.
(Like) Gaba-gaba: These are probably your everyday, run-of-the mill sweet potatoes.  Super food sweet potatoes usually wear capes.
(Like) Gaba-gaba: These are probably your everyday, run-of-the mill sweet potatoes. Super food sweet potatoes usually wear capes.Courtesy Wally Hartshorn

Essentially, gaba-gaba is a naturally bred (read: not genetically engineered) variety of sweet potato containing an insane amount of essential vitamins and minerals like vitamins A, C, and E, calcium, iron, and folic acid (needed for healthy red blood cells). These nutrients build immunity, improve digestion, strengthen the heart, hydrate the body, improve eyes, and provide energy. But wait! There’s more!! Not only does it do all that, but gaba-gaba is fast growing as well as drought and disease resistant making it ideal for tough climates in places like Mozambique, Africa. Mega-extra bonus: I’ve heard gaba-gaba can be eaten raw or cooked and can even be squeezed for juice or ground into flour! Talk about a versatile veggie.

According to the International Potato Center -- Pause. Did you even know there is an International Potato Center? It’s totally legit. Bono went there with some of his U2 band members! Play. -- As I was saying, the IPC reports that Bono has eaten gaba-gaba to get in shape. “Gabba Gabba Hey!” is also a lyric to “Pinhead” by the Ramones. Clearly, this means that gaba-gaba is pop star endorsed. Coolness.

Meanwhile, Plumpy’nut is a “ready-to-use therapeutic food,” which, to my notion, looks like the kind of food astronauts eat in outer space. Also cool, right?

I imagine the Plumpy’nut recipe card to read something like, “ Step 1: Gather your peanuts, sugar, vegetable fat, milk powder, vitamins, and minerals. Step 2: Pulverize into a smooth paste. Step 3: Enjoy!” Ridiculously simple for a paste that can provide 500,000 calories per 92 gram (about 3.25 ounces) serving, and can be used at home, making it possible to treat severe acute malnutrition without hospitalization. Nutriset, the makers of Plumpy’nut, thought of everything! They even made sure the nutritious paste can last up to two years without refrigeration. Neat, huh?

It’s pretty amazing what science and technology can do to make the world a better place to live. We’ve written about food security, rising global population, and hunger before on the Buzz. I wrote this post a little over a year ago on the subject. It highlights the role of the Institute on the Environment’s Global Landscapes Initiative’s efforts to stretch our agriculture resources and feed a growing population.

I’ll be keeping my eyes out for more super foods and modern day heroes. If you know of any, share them in the comment box below!


Earth, our place in space
Earth, our place in spaceCourtesy NASA
Life scientists study…well, life. They want to know everything about living things on planet Earth. One of the first things biologists want to know is who’s here. What kinds of plants and animals live in a forest? --or in a field? –or in the ocean?

If you’re an oceanographer who studies marine mammals, perhaps you’d go to sea on a ship with a good pair of binoculars and hunt for whales. As you focused your binoculars you’d be able to see different kinds of whale species. As you looked closer, for example at Humpback Whales, you'd see that each individual whale has a different black-white pattern on its tail. You might even take a biopsy, a small sample of whale flesh, and do a more detailed study of genetic differences among individual Humpbacks.

But what if you’re a microbial oceanographer? You sure can't use binocs to hunt for microbes! How can you study individual differences among tiny creatures that are only one-one-hundredth the width of a human hair? How do you hunt and capture single-celled bacteria, like Prochlorococcus, the most common bacterial species in the world’s ocean?

Invent something!

laser-based micro-fluidic system
laser-based micro-fluidic systemCourtesy C-MORE
Young scientists, Sebastien Rodrigue and Rex Malmstrom, at the Center for Microbial Oceanography: Research and Education (C-MORE) were doing research in Dr. Sallie Chisholm’s C-MORE lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology when they adapted a “laser-based micro-fluidic system” used commonly by medical researchers, for the study of marine bacteria. With this method they could put each individual tiny Prochlorococcus cell into its own little pool of seawater.

And then the excitement began.

ProchlorococcusCourtesy Dr. Anne Thompson, MIT
Even in scanning microscope photographs, each Prochlorococcus looks like just another teeny, tiny balloon; we can't see any individual differences. However, Sebastien and Rex used fast and inexpensive genetic methods and discovered an extraordinary variety of individual differences among Prochlorococcus. Of course the variety among these microbes doesn't have to do with tail patterns, like whales. Prochlorococcus vary in their method of getting nutrients, like iron, out of seawater.

So what? Why do we care?

We care A LOT because microbes like Prochlorococcus are operating at the nitty gritty level of cycling not only iron, but also other elements in the ocean. Like carbon. That's right, as in carbon dioxide accumulating in our atmosphere -- and ocean -- causing climate change and associated problems. The more we understand about individual differences among oceanic microbes, the more we'll understand how they influence and respond to changes in Earth's climate.


Aren’t budgets all about money? Don’t they track how many $$$ come in and how many $$$ go out?

That’s right; so what’s a carbon budget? A carbon budget tracks how much carbon, C, goes in and out of a natural area.

Right now, we’re worried about too much C going into our planet’s atmosphere. This excess C is causing global warming, sea level rise, ocean acidification and other environmental problems. These are BIG problems! We can begin to fix these problems if we do a carbon budget and really know how much carbon is where.

Carbon Budget Study Area: How much carbon is in the shallow, coastal seawater?
Carbon Budget Study Area: How much carbon is in the shallow, coastal seawater?Courtesy Sergio Signorini, North American Carbon Program
Along with others, scientists at the Center for Microbial Oceanography: Research & Education (C-MORE), based at the University of Hawai`i, have begun to track C in the ocean off the eastern United States. The study area includes a LOT of water! -- all the seawater from high tide out to 500 meters deep, shown by the black line in the map, in the Gulf of Maine (GoM), the Mid-Atlantic Bight (MAB), and the South Atlantic Bight (SAB.)

Imagine your money budget. Let’s say we track your $$$ in and out of 4 categories. Money comes into your pocket from 2 categories, mowing the neighbor’s lawn and babysitting. Money goes out when you pay for movies and snacks.

In the same way, scientists want to track C as it moves between the coastal water “pocket” and 4 nearby areas: the coastal land, the atmosphere above, seafloor below, and the deeper ocean offshore. Where is C leaving the coastal water? Where is it entering?

But wait! Coastal zones are only small slivers of water, compared to the open ocean around the world. Why bother to track carbon in coastal waters?

Ah ha! Coastal waters are very important in C budgeting. Notice the red color in the map above. Red means there's a lot of chlorophyll. Chlorophyll is the green pigment important in photosynthesis, the process that plants use to take in C and fix it as sugar. The red in the map shows that coastal waters are richer in carbon than the open ocean.

Understanding the C budget of coastal waters is one small but important step in solving global warming and other environmental problems.

Reference: Ocean Carbon & Biogeochemistry Winter 2010 OCB Newsletter; Vol. 3, No. 1.


ocean micro-plastic: These samples were collected from the surface water of the North Pacific Ocean by the SUPER expedition in 2008.
ocean micro-plastic: These samples were collected from the surface water of the North Pacific Ocean by the SUPER expedition in 2008.Courtesy C-MORE
Who hasn’t heard that plastic in the ocean is trouble?

  • Plastic has been found clogging the stomachs of dead albatross and other ocean birds.
  • Plastic ropes and traps have entangled marine life, causing more death.
  • As a long-lasting chemical, plastic floating in the ocean provides long-distance rafts that may move aggressive alien marine life to new areas.
  • Plastic may provide a “sticky” surface where toxins can accumulate, becoming a concentrated source of poison for marine consumers.
  • A "Great Pacific Garbage Patch" has been reported to be an "island the size of Texas" floating in the North Pacific Ocean...but is this really true? Continue reading to find out!

Yep, plastic in the ocean is bad news; so let’s put scientific energy into studying and solving the problem.

manta trawl: The trawl is hoisted above the stern deck of the RV Kilo Moana.
manta trawl: The trawl is hoisted above the stern deck of the RV Kilo Moana.Courtesy C-MORE
In 2008 C-MORE, the Center for Microbial Oceanography: Research & Education headquartered at the University of Hawai`i, with assistance from the Algalita Marine Research Foundation, embarked on an oceanographic expedition aboard the RV Kilo Moana, which means "oceanographer" in Hawaiian. The goal of the expedition, dubbed SUPER (Survey of Underwater Plastic and Ecosystem Response Cruise), was to measure the amount of micro-plastic in the ocean. In addition, oceanographers took samples to study microbes and seawater chemistry associated with the ocean plastic. The Kilo Moana sailed right through the area known as the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch,” between Hawai`i and California.

Early results: there was no garbage patch/island. Once in a while something like a barnacle-covered plastic buoy would float past the ship, but mostly the ocean looked really clean and empty of any kind of marine debris.

manta trawl: The net is being pulled slowly through the ocean's surface water.
manta trawl: The net is being pulled slowly through the ocean's surface water.Courtesy C-MORE
But wait! Scientists looked closer and were amazed. Every single one of the more than a dozen manta trawls, filtering the surface seawater for an hour and a half each, brought up pieces of micro-plastic! Some were as small as 0.2 millimeter, mixed among zooplankton!

Other expeditions have reported similar results (for example, Scripps Institution of Oceanography's 2009 SEAPLEX expedition and Sea Education Association's North Atlantic Expedition 2010): no Texas-size garbage patches, but plenty of plastic marine debris to worry about. The data seem to show that most of the plastic is in the form of small pieces spread throughout upper levels of water at some locations around the world's ocean. In these areas, the ocean is like a dilute soup of plastic.

Dr. White: examining the results of a manta tow
Dr. White: examining the results of a manta towCourtesy C-MORE
C-MORE researcher Dr. Angelicque (Angel) White, assistant professor of oceanography at Oregon State University (OSU) was a scientist on board the SUPER expedition. In recent interviews, (for example: the Corvallis Gazette-Times and Dr. White cautions us to view the complex plastic marine debris problem accurately. Furthermore, new results will soon be published by C-MORE about microbial diversity and activity on plastic pieces.

In the meantime, as Dr. White says, “…let’s keep working on eliminating plastics from the ocean so one day we can say the worst it ever became was a dilute soup, not islands. “

Plastic in the ocean is trouble. How can you be part of the solution?


If you're a total Buzz nerd like JGordon, you may have noticed a number of posts with the tag "Future Earth" over the last couple of years. They started when the folks here at the Science Museum of Minnesota began researching a new permanent exhibit called Future Earth, opening Fall 2011 at SMM. This exhibit will ask, "How do we survive and thrive on a human-dominated planet?"

EarthBuzz: This new branch of the Buzz focuses on Future Earth topics.
EarthBuzz: This new branch of the Buzz focuses on Future Earth topics.Courtesy SMM

This is a different question than we're used to asking, but it's a vital one. Understanding the answer means studying more than just global warming, rising sea levels, and population growth--we also have to think about energy production, agriculture, retreating glaciers, transportation, hunger, poverty, development, and the list goes on. It turns out that because all of these issues are interrelated, we can't study or address any one of them in total isolation.

This new way of understanding is what inspired the Future Earth exhibit. Future Earth will look at environmental issues with a fresh perspective, explore the ways we study and understand our impacts on the environment, and shed light on projects that offer innovative solutions to complex problems, such as this one we hope to implement at Science Museum of Minnesota. The goal is to foster understanding, hope, and action.

Future Earth is part of a larger effort taking place at SMM, the University of Minnesota's Institute on the Environment, and a team of other institutions called the Future Earth Initiative. Funded by the National Science Foundation, FEI aims to raise awareness and offer workable solutions for life in a human-dominated environment. Given adequate time and resources, these solutions could help reduce our negative impacts on the environment while providing us all with the energy we need to live. Think of it as saving two birds with one…thing that you save birds with…

You know you want to know!

First, check out the Household Flux Calculator, and discover your flux score. With your curiosity piqued, keep going and find out how your household activities influence the cycles of carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorus.

Although households are known to influence the energy budgets of cities and countries, few studies have looked at their contribution to environmental pollution. The University's Twin Cities Household Ecosystem Project involves a survey of 3,100 urban and suburban households in Ramsey and Anoka counties and their household emissions. The study centers on a range of behaviors, including household energy use, food choices, vehicle use, air travel habits, pet ownership and lawn care practices. University scientists Lawrence Baker, Sarah Hobbie and Kristen Nelson will discuss the surprising results of this groundbreaking research.

And, yes, they'll answer the question, if you ask them nicely.

Households and Urban Pollution
Tuesday, January 18, 7 p.m. Doors open at 6 p.m.
Bryant-Lake Bowl, Minneapolis
Cost: $5-$12. Tickets available at the door and online at Bryant-Lake Bowl.
Call 612-825-8949 for reservations.


You know what I think makes humans unique? Our ability to solve problems. Ingenuity. Our can-do attitude. Throughout history, if we found a problem, we sought a solution. Too cold at night? Fire. Killing a mammoth with your hands too deadly? A team of spearman. Flash forward thousands of years and our problems became more sophisticated. Horse and buggy too slow? Automobiles. Candlelight not bright enough? Light bulbs. Washing laundry and dishes too tedious? Washing machines and dishwashers. Typewriters cramping your style? Computers. Computers cramping your style? Android phones. (Have you caught my drift? Good.) Now, some of our solutions are becoming new problems. Cars and electricity emit pollutants and greenhouse gases. Washing machines and dishwashers are using too much water. Computers and cell phones require the mining and eventual disposal of toxic metals. Once again, it’s time for some good ol’ human problem solving.

A Literal Eco-Footprint: Somehow, I don't think this is exactly what Sarah Hobbes and team had in mind.
A Literal Eco-Footprint: Somehow, I don't think this is exactly what Sarah Hobbes and team had in mind.Courtesy urje's photostream (Flickr)

Sarah Hobbes and her collaborators identified a problem: we aren’t doing enough to reduce our household ecologic footprints, especially regarding carbon. Now, they’re working on a solution by researching what influences families to change their living habits and minimize their footprint. This past Sunday’s edition of the Star Tribune covered Sarah’s research story (the Buzz’s own Liza was even quoted!). Sarah Hobbes is an ecologist at the University of Minnesota and a resident fellow at the Institute on the Environment. Her research project doesn’t take place in a lab, but rather in peoples’ home – including the St. Paul house Sarah shares with her husband (also a University of Minnesota ecologist) and two children. The research team uses a 23-page survey to understand what kind of ecological footprint Ramsey and Anoka county homes are leaving. (Btw, kudos to those of you who already completed the lengthy survey! Science really appreciates people like you.)

Some of the initial results aren’t surprising: While most of us really do care about the environment,

“For most families, cost and convenience are more important than concern about the environment. People in the suburbs tend to use more fertilizer than those in the urban core. People with bigger houses and bigger families had a bigger carbon footprint, as did people who drove farther to work.” (Star Tribune article)

But what’s most interesting is that competition really gets us going. That is, respondents were motivated to reduce their ecological footprint after they compared their own rank to their neighbors’. Larry Baker, a project collaborator, stated,

“We expect that attitudes will drive 10 or 20 percent of the carbon emissions… If we could reduce energy use by 20 percent, that would be a huge benefit.” (Start Tribune article)

No kidding! That would be fantastic!! The full survey report hasn’t been published yet, but I’m sure looking forward to the recommended solution.

Want to know your ecological footprint? Try out this online Ecological Footprint Quiz.


I was not even a thought in the 1970s, but I've heard it was a pretty good time to be a rock. People took you as their pets, and I'll bet Professor Lawrence Edwards had a couple Pet Rocks back in the day.

Family Portrait: From left to right: Momma Igneous, Baby Sedimentary, and Poppa Metamorphic.
Family Portrait: From left to right: Momma Igneous, Baby Sedimentary, and Poppa Metamorphic.Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

You see, Edwards is an isotope geochemist, which sounds just about as awesome as it is: he studies the teeny tiny radioactive elements in rocks. These elements help Edwards date rocks. No, that doesn't mean he wines and dines them. Quite the opposite! Edwards developed a sneaky way to figure out how old they are (and let me tell you, nobody wants to be reminded of their age when they're hundreds of thousands of years old).

Edwards' method is similar to carbon-14 dating, only way better. In certain kinds of rocks, Edwards can date rocks as old as 500,000 years compared to carbon-14's measly 50,000 years. That's a whole order of magnitude older! Here's how Edwards' method works: Scientists know that half of any quantity of uranium decays into thorium every 245,500 years. Edwards uses a mass spectrometer to measure the ratio of two radioactive elements -- uranium and thorium. Then, Edwards compares the present ratio of uranium to thorium to what scientists would expect from the half-life decay and bada-bing, bada-boom! Simply genius.

Why am I getting all hyped up over some old rocks? Because they're helping us learn more about ourselves and the tenuous place we hold in this world. For example, Edwards has used his super-special method to trace the strength of monsoon seasons in China. Turns out weak monsoon seasons correlate with the fall of several historical dynasties, and strong monsoons correlate with climatic warming in Europe. Edwards calls this work,

"the best-dated climate record covering this time period."


Surveying Microbes at Sea
Surveying Microbes at SeaCourtesy C-MORE
There are microbes…and then there are micro-microbes. Oceanographers on C-MORE’s BiG RAPA oceanographic expedition are finding bacteria the size of one-one-millionth of a meter in the oligotrophic (low nutrient), open-ocean of the Southeast Pacific, far from the productive waters off the coast of Chile. But that’s not all; some scientists are looking for the even smaller marine viruses in gallons of filtered seawater. Meet some of these micro-microbes in these video reports:
ProchlorococcusCourtesy Dr. Anne Thompson, MIT

  • Microbe Diversity, Part 1: Prochlorococcus, the most common bacterium in the world’s oceans; nitrogen-fixing bacteria that provide a usable form of nitrogen “fertilizer” for other photosynthesizers
  • Microbe Diversity, Part 2: picophytoeukaryotes with different colored pigments; viruses, which are parasites on other living things

Yes indeed, microbial oceanographers are taking home quite a collection from the South Pacific Ocean. In less than a week the good ship RV Melville will arrive at Rapa Nui (Easter Island), and scientists will step onto land for the first time in almost a month. They and their oceanographic samples will return to C-MORE laboratories around the U.S. The oceanographers are also returning with new hypotheses buzzing around in their heads. Now it’s time for them to take the next step in the Scientific Method: data analysis!