Stories tagged Future Earth

Apr
05
2011

Whooping cranes: Can't live with 'em, can't live without 'em.
Whooping cranes: Can't live with 'em, can't live without 'em.Courtesy US Fish and Wildlife
Word on the street is that Xcel Energy has canceled its $400 million, 150-megawatt wind farm project in North Dakota. (North Dakota, if I remember my geography right, is the Dakota directly … above South Dakota. I think.)

The reason Xcel is giving for the cancellation is the same one I give for never going out in the yard without a rake: birds.

The wind turbines, it seems, could pose a potential hazard to two endangered birds: the whooping crane (known to be a silent, thoughtful bird), and the piping plover (known for perching on bathroom windowsills to watch people bathe). The whooping crane is the tallest bird in North America (save that for humiliating your fiancé on trivia night), and its population has been reduced to only about 400 birds, largely due to habitat loss. The piping plover, also a victim of habitat loss, is a shore bird with a global population of just over 6,000 individuals.

Faced with a federal mandate to mitigate the threat to the birds, Xcel, like an unenthusiastic kid who just found out he’d have to bike to a lame birthday party, decided that that the wind farm scene just wasn’t worth the hassle.

It’s too bad, really. Shana explored this issue a couple weeks ago, but the long and the short of it is that it’s a doozy. On one hand, no one wants to see a five-foot-tall crane run into a windmill (if you laugh, you go to Denny’s when you die), but on the other, you have to balance that threat against the chronic environmental effects of fossil fuel use. If both species are vulnerable to habitat loss, climate change probably isn’t going to be a great thing for them. And at least in the case of the cranes, fossil fuel has an even more direct effect on them—the cranes’ only winter habitat, Aransas, Texas, is a regular spot for oil and gas drilling operations. So … they’re able to work that out, but not the North Dakota wind farm?

It kind of feels like that kid was really looking for an excuse not to go to the birthday party. But I suppose we can’t really blame it all on the kid—we should have made sure it was a better party. And, yeah, I can see how having a bunch of birds around would make for a creepy party, but if it was done right it could also be an awesome party with all those birds!

Oh, god, I don’t know what’s metaphor and what’s reality anymore.

Anyway, no more big wind turbine field in North Dakota. What do y’all think about that?

Apr
04
2011

We often hear about gravity being different on other planets--the Moon is an oft-cited example of how weaker gravity makes you weigh less. But did you know that gravity actually varies on our own planet?

There's this thing called a geoid. It sounds like something out of a sci-fi story, but it's quite real. The geoid is a map of the Earth's gravitational field. And since gravity impacts things like sea level and currents, it's important to understand how it varies.
Welcome home: I think that's South America on the left there...
Welcome home: I think that's South America on the left there...Courtesy ESA/HPF/DLR

Luckily, those crafty Europeans came up with the GOCE (Gravity field and steady-state Ocean Circulation Explorer) satellite, which has painted the clearest picture yet of the geoid. With its variations exaggerated, it makes the Earth look like a giant potato. The variations come from unevenness in earth's mass and shape. Its wobbly surface represents what shape the oceans would take without current, wind, or tide to move them. The satellite also studies ocean circulation and the movement of ice.

This information is particularly important to understanding sea level rise. Scientists predict that, on average, sea level will rise 3 feet overall by 2100. But those three feet will be distributed differently throughout the world, and studying that distribution is pretty complicated. There's the impact of the geoid and of gravity from large ice sheets, but winds and water circulation, water temperature, salinity, meltwater from ice sheets, rainwater runoff, and land changes all leave their marks.
Home sweet tuber: Aww
Home sweet tuber: AwwCourtesy Lumbar

Some of these changes redistribute water (ex. geoid), others add to the volume of seawater (ex. temperature increases), and still others modify the land's height relative to the water (ex. land changes, such as sedimentation and oil extraction). Some changes leave a lasting impact (ex. meltwater from glaciers), while others can vary by the hour or the season (winds).

By developing this most-accurate-to-date geoid and ocean circulation model, researchers have created a picture of sea level at its natural state and modeled some of the processes that alter that state, so that we have a reference point for understanding many of the less-defined factors in sea level rise. And that, my friends, will help us better anticipate and plan for the changes ahead.

Plus it's just kinda cool to see how the Earth is really shaped, huh?

Mar
29
2011

By the way, when you read about the gigatons of carbon emissions that human activities emit each year, it's helpful to have some perspective:

Let's talk gigatons--one billion tons. Every year, human activity emits about 35 gigatons of [carbon dioxide] (the most important greenhouse gas). Of that, 85% comes from fossil fuel burning. To a lot of people, that doesn't mean much -- who goes to the store and buys a gigaton of carrots? For a sense of perspective, a gigaton is about twice the mass of all people on earth, so 35 gigatons is about 70 times the weight of humanity. Every year, humans put that in the atmosphere, and 85% of that is power. Large actions, across whole nations and whole economies, are required to move the needle.

By comparison, our atmosphere is small--99.99997% of our its mass sits below the Karman line, which is often used to define the border between Earth’s atmosphere and outer space. At 62 miles above Earth's surface, it’s about as high as the distance between St. Paul, MN, and Menomonie, WI.

The oceans also absorb some of that carbon dioxide, but not without consequence.

Of course, the great part about being responsible is having capability--if our inventions bring about such transformations in the air and oceans, then couldn't we be inventive enough to reduce their negative impacts?

Mar
29
2011

It's a world leader in clean energy investment and clean coal research and development. Last year, it manufactured a third of the world's solar panels and wind turbines, and it's luring companies from all over the world to build factories there. It has recently made huge investments in clean energy education. But it's not America.

The green tide: Is green the new red?
The green tide: Is green the new red?Courtesy Jude Freeman

The country I'm describing is China. That's right--the world's newly-dubbed largest net emitter of greenhouse gasses. It isn't bound by reduction requirements under the Kyoto protocol, and its use of fossil fuels is powering a growing and booming economy. And yet, the Chinese are courting US companies with financial incentives to build clean tech factories and research centers in China. They're working to corner clean tech markets in California and South Africa. In fact, over the last three years, China has gone from controlling 2% of California's solar market to a whopping 46%--ousting its American competitors. And that's not all--the country has become a proving ground for clean coal with the guidance of US companies and researchers.

Oh, the terror: handouts from the Sun.
Oh, the terror: handouts from the Sun.Courtesy BrokenSphere

These companies hope to learn from their experiences testing clean coal tech in China, and bring that knowledge back to the US to transform our own polluting coal plants into next-generation powerhouses. So what's in it for the Chinese? They're quickly gaining lead on the cutting edge in green technology, making room for growth in the energy sector without increasing pollution or relying on foreign imports, and reaping economic benefits--and they foresee substantial economic benefits in the future, when they could be the major supplier of green technology and research to the world.

Given the US's slowing progress on clean technologies, what do you think this will mean for our future? Should we be trying to get on top of green tech research and development? Or is it best left to others? Or are those even the right questions--will we have the best success when we pool resources with other countries?

Mar
25
2011

Bird killer?: Not so fast...
Bird killer?: Not so fast...Courtesy Aeolus88

So there's this rumor running around that wind turbines kill birds, and it's true--they do. But are turbines the greatest threat birds face?

Death by window: Some birds are injured or die when they smash into windows. This is a print left by a bird doing just that.
Death by window: Some birds are injured or die when they smash into windows. This is a print left by a bird doing just that.Courtesy Lionel Allorge

A number of things kill birds in the wild--predators (including cats and other birds), pollution, cars, windows, tall buildings, airplanes, and habitat loss are some examples. In suburban areas, cats may be the single greatest bird predator. A recent study in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. showed that cats were responsible for nearly 37% of gray catbird deaths--the number one cause of bird death.

Double take: This cat got a pigeon.
Double take: This cat got a pigeon.Courtesy Yug

Nationally, cats kill about 500 million birds per year, according to the American Bird Conservancy. By comparison, the US Fish and Wildlife Service states that wind turbines kill 440,000 birds per year--that's less than 1% of the number killed by cats. As wind farms sprout up across the US, expects turbines to kill over 1 million birds per year by 2030. Even so, that's a paltry sum compared to cats. So why all the hubbub about wind farms?

One reason may be that wind turbines are unnatural--people are fine with predators doing their thing, even if that thing is killing birds in the wild. By comparison, when human-made turbines kill birds, it makes us uncomfortable because it makes us responsible. But housecats and their feral cousins are certainly a human-related killer, too. They're not even native to North America.

I'm in ur birdhouse: Eatin' ur birdeez
I'm in ur birdhouse: Eatin' ur birdeezCourtesy Karelj

Another potential reason is the NIMBY factor. NIMBY stands for "not in my back yard." It refers to situations where people reject a project, even if it's beneficial, because they don't want the negative consequences near their homes. NIMBY rears its head when people vote down a bus depot in their neighborhood, or when a group campaigns against a power plant near their homes.

Many such projects projects end up getting built in neighborhoods that don't complain--often in low-income neighborhoods, where people feel disengaged from the political process or don't have the time or money to spend fighting a project. Sometimes that's a good thing, if it's an important project and brings good things to the neighborhood. Other times it can lead to a concentration of polluting or otherwise nasty projects being built all in one place.

Which would you rather look at?: Ok, I know modern turbines aren't so quaint, but still...
Which would you rather look at?: Ok, I know modern turbines aren't so quaint, but still...Courtesy Friedrich Tellberg

With wind turbines, many cite the birdie death toll, noise, and even appearance as reasons to cancel wind farm projects. But as technology improves, the turbines kill fewer birds and become quieter. New planning approaches site wind farms outside migratory paths so that birds are less likely to come into contact with them. They also place wind farms out to sea, or use designs that sit closer to the ground. There are really a ton of ideas blooming right now for wind power.

And as for the view, well, would you rather look at smog? Or cooling towers? I mean, power has to come from somewhere, and chances are it will involve building something.

I want pair-uh-keetz: Of course, what you do in your own house is up to you.
I want pair-uh-keetz: Of course, what you do in your own house is up to you.Courtesy Ttrimm

But the cats, well…there isn't much you can do to improve them. (I know, I've tried teaching my cat to do the dishes, but she refuses to get her paws wet.) If you really want to help the birdies, perhaps the most effective method is to keep your kitties inside. I got mine a fake bird and she doesn't even know what she's missing.

Mar
17
2011

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.

Mar
15
2011

Could it be?!: By Jonah's secret rash, the HMS Puddleduck has returned at long last!
Could it be?!: By Jonah's secret rash, the HMS Puddleduck has returned at long last!Courtesy Tecfan
By Poseidon's leather hammock! It is the goodship Puddleduck, gone all these years! I thought it lost, perhaps to the waves and rocks of the Horn, or to wild, orange skinned, and tattooed cannibals off the Jersey Shore! Why, were any of those sailors to have left a woman with child (or a man, through some Arnold-Schwarzenegger-in-Junior experiment) before their last voyage, that child would already be speaking fluent French, and learning to play the harpsichord, assuming it was born a genius. (But what other sort of child would a sailor of the Puddleduck produce?!)

Good seamen! I know you must be tired after your adventures, but, we beg of you, share with us but a glimpse of the glittering knowledge you have gained! Please, just the answer to a single question? By Hermes' chafing subligaculum, tell us!

Aaah, thank you!

LRuble asks:

My science class was learning about energy saving and we learned about water energy. I wrote down that it is a renewable source because we have a never ending supply of water. That could be true at times but then my teacher told me that we only have a little bit of water per person. How does it work so that we have a renewable source (never ending supply) but still have to worry about running out of water?

Ha ha! Good question, dear LRuble! You're fortunate, because deep in the hold of the Puddleduck we have your answer! [I'm the captain now. Deal with it.]

You see, both you and your cursed, blessed teacher are correct! This planet of ours is mostly covered in water—o, how the sailors of the Puddleduck know this to be true—and nothing humans do will change the amount of water the Earth's by any appreciable amount. (We can separate water into its component elements, hydrogen and oxygen, and we can produce it by burning hydrogen in an oxygen-rich environment, but that ain't no thing.) So, in this respect, you are correct—you! You, dear LRuble!

BUT, in another perhaps more important way, you are also incorrect, and it's your foul, fine teacher who is correct!

Have you ever heard the old adage, "Water, water, everywhere, and if you drink a drop, you're freaking dead!"? It's particularly relevant here. You see, while there are what scientists call "buttloads" of water on the planet, only a tiny fraction of a buttload is "fresh." We can't drink or water our fields with saltwater, and 97.25% of all the water on Earth is salty. Of the 2.75% that's fresh, most is frozen (and largely unavailable to us). The rest, about 0.7% of the water on the planet, is in lakes, rivers, and underground. Not very much, eh?

Indeed, some of the ground water we use is what we call "fossil water," water left underground by geological events thousands or millions of years ago. Fossil water is no more renewable than fossil fuels are, and yet we're still using it up for drinking and irrigation.

Lots of people rely on water from mountain glaciers, but as these glaciers shrink from climate change that will become less available.
The Aral Sea: Once one of the largest inland bodies of water, now a sight to chill a sailor's bones.
The Aral Sea: Once one of the largest inland bodies of water, now a sight to chill a sailor's bones.Courtesy NASA

And lest you think lakes and rivers are limitless sources of water, you need only look to the Aral Sea in Asia, which has dried to a tiny fraction of its former size because of withdrawals for irrigation, and the Colorado River, which often runs dry before it reaches the sea, for the very same reason.
This used to be a sea: Now it's a place for ships to be all rusted out and scary. Also, no one can really live here any more.
This used to be a sea: Now it's a place for ships to be all rusted out and scary. Also, no one can really live here any more.Courtesy Staecker

So there's always going to be lots of water on the planet, but we have already proven our ability to consume the relatively tiny amount of available fresh water at a far greater rate than it is replenished. It's renewable, I suppose, but not like the energy of the sun, and, as your terrible, wonderful teacher says, there's only so much to go around.

I only hope that can tide you over, until the next time we ladle out some sweet, precious answers!

NOAA tsunami model
NOAA tsunami modelCourtesy NOAA
Some interesting scientific angles on the recent Japanese earthquake and subsequent human disasters:

Japan Does Not Face Another Chernobyl

Japan earthquake shortened days on Earth

Fukushima Nuclear Accident – a simple and accurate explanation. This post is long, but does a great job of explaining exactly how a modern nuclear reactor works, and how engineers plan for natural disasters.

NOAA models help predict the tsunami path after earthquake

Mar
07
2011

You probably know that plants "inhale" carbon dioxide and "exhale" oxygen, but did you know that plants also release water into the air when they exhale? This process is called transpiration, and it plays an important part in our planet's water cycle. I mean, just think of all the billions of plants out there, all of them transpiring 24/7--that really adds up.

Unfortunately, increasing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has yet another impact on our ecosystems--it reduces transpiration. You see, plants have these tiny pores on the undersides of their leaves called stomata. The stomata open and close depending on the amount of carbon dioxide available in the air and how much they need of it.

It's kind of like your eye's iris--your eye needs an ideal amount of light to see, so when it's bright outside, the iris closes in. This shrinks the pupil so that it only takes in a small amount of light. In lower light, the iris opens, making the pupil larger so that it takes in more light. Like your iris, the stomata open and close to let in the right amount of carbon dioxide.

Stomata: These stomata are from an Arabidopsis plant. The top one is open, and the lower one is closed.
Stomata: These stomata are from an Arabidopsis plant. The top one is open, and the lower one is closed.Courtesy KuriPop

Unfortunately, a recent study showed that with carbon dioxide concentrations increasing quickly, plant stomata are closed longer than they were 150 years ago. There are also simply fewer stomata in leaves. While this controls the amount of carbon dioxide they're absorbing, it has the added outcome of limiting the amount of water released into the air from plants. Over time, this could add up to some significant change--but it's a little early to tell for sure what the impacts will be.

It's kind of amazing to see how changes in carbon dioxide emissions have such far-reaching impacts beyond the one we hear about every day--global warming. Luckily, we have plenty of ways to work on global warming and curtail carbon dioxide emissions, such as cement that absorbs carbon dioxide as it hardens, castles that scrub CO2 from the air, and solar power concentrators that generate 1500 times as much energy as regular solar cells, reducing our dependence on fossil fuels.

What's your favorite way to ditch carbon dioxide?

Mar
04
2011

This started as a reply to Bryan's comment on the Freaky Frogs post, but it quickly turned into its own blog entry...

Here's Bryan's comment:

I thought the whole BPA freakout was an interesting look at how we think about environmental and personal contaminants like this. People seemed to get all up in arms about BPA in water bottles and bought tons of new plastic or aluminium vessels to replace them. But that switch over raised some questions for me.

Where did all those old bottles go? In the trash?

How much energy does it take to make those aluminium bottles? Is it lots more than the plastic ones?

How many bottles can you own before it'd just be better to use disposable paper?

Bauxite: It takes a lot of energy to get the aluminum out of this rock to make a can.
Bauxite: It takes a lot of energy to get the aluminum out of this rock to make a can.Courtesy US Government

And my response...
It took some searching, but I did find one article discussing a life cycle analysis from Australia which showed that, in a comparison between aluminum, stainless steel, and plastic, plastic has the smallest carbon emissions footprint, uses the least water, and produces the least manufacturing waste. However, it was unclear whether this comparison included recycled metals in its evaluation. Steel and aluminum are 100% recyclable (vs. plastic, which loses quality every time it's recycled), so over time and on a large scale, their use would lead to less material waste.

Steel plant: This place is probably recycling steel RIGHT NOW.
Steel plant: This place is probably recycling steel RIGHT NOW.Courtesy Matthew Baugh

It's also interesting to note that recycling metals uses significantly less energy vs. what it would take to smelt "new" metal. To paraphrase this reference, recycling steel and aluminum saves 74% and 95%, respectively, of the energy used to make these metals from scratch. As it turns out, we recycle about half the steel we use in a year in the US, and so almost all the steel we use contains recycled content. In contrast, we recycle just 7 percent of the plastic we use.

And then there's glass--we have lots of options, really.

Bottled water: Probably the least efficient option all around.
Bottled water: Probably the least efficient option all around.Courtesy Ivy Main

I can't speak to how much material was wasted when people discarded all those bottles (I think I recycled mine?). Personally, I do think that making reusable bottles in general uses less energy than is needed to make all those disposable plastics and recycle them--at least in terms of lifetime footprints. Of course, when it comes to a strict comparison between reusable bottles, switching to a new bottle will always consume more energy than just sticking with your old one.

Unfortunately, it turns out that most plastics, even the ones labeled BPA-free, leach estrogen-mimicking chemicals. So if you're looking for a long term solution, it may be best to just avoid plastics altogether. This does seem to be one of those cases where we have to consider our own health vs. the environment and pick our battles wisely. If people want to switch once to avoid health problems, at least they're still sticking with reusable bottles. Readers, do you agree?

Ice cold water: Wait, what's in here?
Ice cold water: Wait, what's in here?Courtesy Clementina

Of course, it would be great if choosing a water bottle were the only drinking water issue we faced. The other day I read about a study by Environmental Working Group, which found that the carcinogen chromium-6 contaminates tap water throughout the US. Are we exposing ourselves to this toxic metal by drinking tap water instead of pre-bottled water? Or is chromium in the bottled water, too? What about other unregulated pollutants in our water?

I guess my point of going into all this is that it's complicated to make these decisions, and we'll probably never be able to avoid every single toxic substance. But does that mean we shouldn't try to make drinking water safer?

For now, I'm gonna stick with the steel and aluminum bottles that I already have and try to get the most out of them. Luckily, I live in the Twin Cities, which don't rate high on EWG's chromium map. Every day, I learn more about my health and the health of our environment, and hopefully by searching, I'll find a direction that hits on a fair compromise.