Stories tagged environment

Jul
17
2012

I visited to Fort Collins to help celebrate the 50th anniversary of the CSU Department of Atmospheric Sciences. A great celebration and an opportunity to see colleagues I haven't seen in many years.

On Saturday I drove through a section of the Cache La Poudre River to see some of the burnt scares from the High Park fire. The fire started on June 9 by a lightning strike and burned across 87,284 acres by early July, taking 259 homes. One person has died in the fire. It is the second-largest fire in Colorado's history and has cost about $30 million to fightHigh Park Fire impact on the Cache La Poudre River: A view of the Cache La Poudre River on July 14, 2012
High Park Fire impact on the Cache La Poudre River: A view of the Cache La Poudre River on July 14, 2012Courtesy Steve Ackerman
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A recent rain washed the ash into the river, which now runs gun-powder black, as you can see in the photo. This is black color is consistent with the name Cache La Poudre. I have to wonder how this sediment will impact the fish in the water. This is an excellent river for trout.

Notice the burnt trees along the ridge line in the photo. Also notice the dead pine trees in the photo; a result of the pine beetle. The mountain pine beetles inhabit ponderosa, lodgepole, Scotch and limber pine trees and play an important role in the life of a forest. The black beetle attacks old or weakened trees which helps development of a younger forest. However, unusual hot, dry summers and mild winters have led to an epidemic. It would seem logical that these beetle damaged trees would increase fire risks as dead trees are flammable and likely to catch fire. But this might not be the case, indeed the dead trees may inhibit the spread of fires. The Yellowstone wildfire of 1988 provided forest ecologists with a method. Large crown fires can swept quickly through the forest spreading from tree tops. In the 1988 fire there were many trees killed and their needles burned off, but the standing dead tree trunks remained. New wildfires tend to slow and sometimes burn out when they reach standing dead forest. An interesting research topic!

Ohio Earthquakes: evidence links recent tremors to fracking.
Ohio Earthquakes: evidence links recent tremors to fracking.Courtesy USGS Earthquake Hazards Program
The dumping of waste-water used in the process known as fracking is suspected of causing recent earthquakes in Ohio. Two minor tremors (magnitude (2.7 and 4.2) were felt over the holidays in the Youngstown area which is about 50 miles east of Akron. Hydraulic fracturing (aka fracking) is the process of extracting natural gas from rock deposits by fracturing the rock with high-pressure liquid injections. Waste water from the fracking process gets disposed underground into deep wells. The discarded water seeps into strike-slip faults several kilometers beneath the surface where it builds up pressure and also acts as a lubricant. allowing the rock on both sides of the fault to move more easily past each other, resulting in an earthquake. Smaller quakes had been detected in the area during the past year so Ohio's DNR requested Columbia University's Lamont–Doherty Earth Observatory (LDEO) to set up portable seismographs in the area. Four of the sensitive instruments were installed on Novermber 30 within a half-mile of the injection site. The seismograph recordings showed that the two holiday quakes were centered within 100 meters of each other, implicating the disposal process as the catalyst. While scientists make further study of the problem, fracking has been discontinued at the injection site.

SOURCES
Scientific American story
New Scientist story

Here's a nifty new video just out from Environment Canada reminding us of the importance and challenges of preserving and properly maintaining the fragile ecosystem of the Great Lakes we share with our neighbor to the north.

Nov
04
2011

Teeth tell tales of travel: Ratio of oxygen isotopes in Camarasaurus teeth reveals that the sauropod migrated long distances to find food and water. Geological Museum, University of Wyoming, Laramie, WY
Teeth tell tales of travel: Ratio of oxygen isotopes in Camarasaurus teeth reveals that the sauropod migrated long distances to find food and water. Geological Museum, University of Wyoming, Laramie, WYCourtesy Mark Ryan
Ever wonder how something as big as a sauropod dinosaur was able to grow so large? Sauropods were those huge, long-necked quadrupeds estimated to have weighed anywhere from 50 to 120 tons, and with lengths of up to 200 feet. Just seeing the skeleton of any one of them – the Apatosaurus, Diplodocus, Brachiosaurus, Ultrasaurus or any their kind – you just know those Jurassic giants had to be on a constant eating binge to maintain their massive size. But just how much food could a single area supply? Doesn’t it make sense that these critters would have eaten up any food source within the reach of their extensive necks? Then what would they do?

A new study of sauropod teeth has produced some strong evidence that the giant herbivores migrated during times of drought or other environmental stresses, searching for new untapped food and water sources. Geochemist Henry Fricke of Colorado College in Colorado Springs along with student colleagues Justin Hencecroth and Marie E. Hoerner studied the teeth of various Camarasaurus specimens comparing the ratio of oxygen isotopes found in the enamel with the ratio found in the sedimentary rock deposits where the teeth were found. By sauropod standards, Camarasaurus was one of the smaller ones, but it's the most common sauropod found in the Morrison Formation deposits.

Camarasaurus skeleton
Camarasaurus skeletonCourtesy Public domain
During its lifetime 145 million years or so in the past, a Camarasaurus's teeth would absorb the isotopes ratio of its environment, that is the ratio of the oxygen isotopes found in the local water supply. So Fricke’s team sampled 32 camarasaur teeth, taking measurements of the younger enamel found near the base of each tooth with the older enamel near the crown. In some cases, the isotopes ratios in the enamel matched those of the sedimentary rocks from where the teeth were found. But some enamel didn’t match. This meant the dinosaur must have migrated at some time to higher ground, more than likely in search of a better food source.

"In a theoretical sense, it's not hugely surprising,” Fricke said. “They are huge — they would probably have eaten themselves out of house and home if they stayed in one place.”

So the camarasaurs did what any hungry animal would do: they headed out in search of more food, even if it meant a migration of 200 miles into the higher regions and back. Seasonal droughts were probably another factor. The highlands would have had more rainfall and therefore more vegetation and water. When the wet season returned to the basin so would the camarasaur herds. Fricke estimates the seasonal herbivore hikes took around five months to complete. He also thinks if one kind of sauropod migrated, other genera probably did the same, and an analysis of their teeth would probably show similar results.

SOURCES and LINKS
Abstract in Nature
Nature News
Paleoclimatology: the Oxygen Balance
Camarasaurus facts

Aug
17
2011

LOL
LOLCourtesy dan mogford
Can you believe it’s been almost two whole years since you had your last Science Buzz Extravaganza?!

What a bleak two years those were, eh? In that time you’ve probably been married and impregnated, and then birthed a really boring baby. What did you name it? “Dullton”? “Cloudface”? “Eeyore”? Or could you not even think of a name, because everything has just seemed so boring and pointless?

You know what? I’m sorry. I’m really sorry. I’ve just been so preoccupied in the last couple years, what with the economy being so bad and all. I’ve been trying to figure out how to keep my horseracing operation financially feasible. But I think I’ve finally figured it out—whenever one of my horses looses a race, I have to stop setting them free in the woods. Or, if I really need to get that loser out of my sight, I’ve got to at least sell it to a glue factory or restaurant. (Sure, get all self-righteous. You’ve clearly never eaten horsemeat, or stuck two pieces of paper together with horseglue. Unparalleled experiences.)

So the Extravaganza is back! At least as a limited edition. I was so excited to do it, I couldn’t even wait for the usual Friday post. And so a Wednesday Extravaganza it is! A Food Extravaganza! A Foodstravaganza!

You may be aware that the Science Museum will soon be opening an exhibit called Future Earth, which explores how the many billions of us humans will get by in the coming decades. You might also be aware that food is going to be a big deal in our future (there will be more of us, and we’ll be eating more stuff that takes more resources to produce), and so, as both a Future Earth worker bee and a consumer of food, a couple of stories caught my eye this week.

Story the first: humans of the 20th century weren’t the first to screw themselves over with agriculture.

Whoops! A little background information: agriculture isn’t screwing us over—it’s keeping us from starving. However, in our effort to keep ourselves from starving (a noble goal!) we’ve converted about 40% of the land surface of the Earth into cropland and pastureland, and not all of that is sustainable. I don’t mean that in the “cute animals have nowhere to live” way, I mean it in the “we weren’t always careful, and have caused tremendous environmental degradation” way. When farming practices allow topsoil to be stripped of nutrients, or erode too extensively, or contaminate water sources, it’s bad news. But at least we aren’t the first people to have done it. According to some recent archaeological work, ancient Peruvians were up to the same tricks. By looking at the ancient trash pits and the buried plant remains in the desolate-looking Ica region of Peru, archaeologists found that the area’s residents originally survived by gathering shellfish and the like from the coast, but eventually transitioned to an intensive agricultural lifestyle—that is, they cleared a lot of land, and grew a lot of food. They grew corn, beans, pumpkins, peanuts, and chillis for hundreds of years, and all was well. Until it wasn’t. It looks like they cleared too much of the natural plant life, and flooding, erosion, and nutrient depletion became problems (the natural trees and shrubs fixed nitrogen nutrients in the soil and held dirt and moisture in place in a way that the crops couldn’t.) The whole area went to pot, and the locals had to go back to eating snails, mussels and sea urchins again. Aw, nuts.

So what could they have done? For that matter, what can we do, if it looks like our conventional food sources can’t sustain a human population which will rapidly exceed 7 billion?

That brings me to my next story! Oh, good!

You know what everybody likes? Animal protein, also known as “meat.” The problem there is that animal protein requires animals to produce it, and not all animals make it very efficiently—a cow, for instance, eats about 30 pounds of cow feed to produce each pound of steak. There are more efficient creatures out there, but we don’t usually eat them: bugs.

Naturally, we’ve talked about bug eating on Science Buzz already. But that focused more on bug eating (or entomophagy) as a concept). An article I read this weekend examines bug eating in practice, and it’s pretty wild.

While the story does talk about some straight up bug recipes (e.g. “mealworm fried rice”), it also looks at a company in the Netherlands that’s already raising and processing insects just for their protein. The advantages of farm-raised bugs are that you get a pretty generic, healthy product (it sounds sort of like … hotdog filling, or something, but without all the fat) from animals that require less food and produce a tiny fraction of the greenhouse gases created by normal livestock. However, efficiently separating the bug meat from the rest of the bug parts is a challenge, as is processing it without having it turn funky. Apparently, in the mysterious world of bug meat, funkiness is very much a possibility. But, really, when are we ever totally free of the threat of funkiness?

In any case, I’d like it if your takeaway message of this extravaganza was this: You should eat bugs, and like them, or you will be forced to eat bugs (and you probably won’t like them). Amiright?

If you can’t handle a takeaway message with that much raw power, try digesting this one instead: producing food has some serious challenges, so it behooves us to be innovative and foresightful with regards to our food sources.

Rendered insect meat!

Jul
12
2011

The Route: We will be entering at entry point #16 Moose/Portage River and exiting at entry point #43 Bower Trout Lake.   The route was designed to expose us to a wide range of use areas within the BWCAW.
The Route: We will be entering at entry point #16 Moose/Portage River and exiting at entry point #43 Bower Trout Lake. The route was designed to expose us to a wide range of use areas within the BWCAW.Courtesy The Great Pack Out
In honor of National Public Lands Day (9/24/2011), my brother and I are going to spend two weeks paddling over 120 miles across the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW) documenting and collecting all the trash that we find. My brother and I have been paddling in the BWCAW for 23 years and over the last few years have noticed an increase in the amount of garbage we encounter on portages and at campsites. So we started wondering how much trash is actually out there. Is it isolated to the highly used areas near the edges or endemic to the entire BWCAW? In doing some research on the wilderness we discovered that the BWCAW comprises less then 1% of the U.S. National Wilderness Areas yet receives greater then 10% of the recreational activity. What effect does this recreational density have on the quality of the wilderness?

No one really knows. Studies have not been completed. That’s why my brother and I have decided to check it out. We are going to paddle the BWCAW from west to east documenting, collecting, and packing out all the trash we encounter along the way. We will inventory and catalog everything we find and create trash density maps to aid wilderness resource managers focus education and clean up efforts. Who knows, maybe we will inspire others to clean up the BWCAW next year on National Public Lands Day and every day.

Check out our blog for updates and we'll check in following the trip to report our findings.

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.

Dec
01
2010

The University of Minnesota's Institute on the Environment has made some great movies examining what they call "big questions."

Big question: Feast or famine?
IonE's first Big Question asks: How do we feed a growing world without destroying the planet?

Big question: Is Earth past the tipping point?
Have we pushed our planet past the tipping point? That's a critical issue the IonE explores in our second Big Question video.

Big question: What is nature worth?
Plants, animals, even entire ecosystems are disappearing. So what? "What is Nature Worth" offers a three-minute look at what we’re REALLY losing – and what we can do about it.

Interesting problems, right? If you're intrigued, and want to know more about the folks posing the questions and trying to find the solutions, jump over to Future Earth.

Oct
15
2010

Tasty fish & tomatoes
Tasty fish & tomatoesCourtesy Robert and Mihaela Vicol
Fish and tomatoes compete for resources.

Yep, they do, and that resource is water.

The authors of a new report out in this week's issue of the journal Science are reminding folks of that fact.

John Sabo, a biologist at Arizona State University and lead author of the report told NSF News that "Humans may need to make hard decisions about how to allocate water so that we grow the right food, but still leave enough in rivers to sustain fish populations."

His comments stem from the report's findings that human actions--agricultural irrigation, dam construction, and the collective activities that lead to climate change--alter the natural variability of river flows and in the process shorten river food chains, particularly eliminating top predators like many large-bodied fish.
A now dry Colorado River delta branches into the Baja/Sonoran Desert near the Sea of Cortez
A now dry Colorado River delta branches into the Baja/Sonoran Desert near the Sea of CortezCourtesy Pete McBride

"Floods and droughts shorten the food chain, but they do it in different ways," Sabo explained. "Floods simplify the food web by taking out some of the intermediate players so the big fish begin to eat lower on the chain," Sabo said. "With droughts, it's completely different: droughts eliminate the top predator altogether because many fish can't tolerate the low oxygen and high temperatures that result when a stream starts drying out."

Sabo and co-authors--Jacques Finlay, from the University of Minnesota, Theodore Kennedy from the U.S. Geological Survey Southwest Biological Science Center, and David Post from Yale University--suggest that the fate of large-bodied fishes should be more carefully factored into the management of water use, especially as growing human populations and climate change affect water availability.

According to Sabo, "The question becomes: can you have fish and tomatoes on the same table?"

The Role of Discharge Variation in Scaling of Drainage Area and Food Chain Length in Rivers
John L. Sabo, Jacques. C. Finlay, Theodore Kennedy, and David M. Post (14 October 2010)
Science [DOI: 10.1126/science.1196005]

[It's Blog Action Day 2010, and this year's theme is water.]

Oct
03
2010

Open fire cooking
Open fire cookingCourtesy Tallia Miller

Smoke in my eyes (and lungs)

Cooking food on an open fire may sound romantic but in reality breathing smoke and scrounging for fire wood make it not so pleasant. It is estimated that the smoke from cooking fires leads to nearly 2 million premature deaths each year.
A Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves has formed to

"save lives, improve livelihoods, empower women, and combat climate change by creating a thriving global market for clean and efficient household cooking solutions."

100 million new stoves by 2020

A better burning stove should not be rocket science but several factors should help the Alliance meet their goal of 100 million households converting to clean cookstoves and fuels by 2020.

  • Recent advances in clean cookstove design, testing, and monitoring
  • Compelling new research on the health and environmental benefits of clean cookstov
  • Recent commercial success and development of a number of business models in the field
  • The advent of national cookstove programs in India, Mexico, Peru and elsewhere
  • The increasing need for effective near- and long-term action to address climate change at the local and regional level; and
  • The potential for carbon finance to fund stove initiatives at greater scale

Learn more

BBC video
Clean Cookstoves/media