Stories tagged global climate change

Oct
07
2010

What if I told you University of Minnesota geology and geophysics professor, Martin Saar, says geothermal energy can be made even greener through carbon sequestration?!

You’d probably say, “Huh?? Hold on, what is geothermal energy anyway, and how does it work?”

Geothermal is heat from deep inside the earth. Because heat is a form of energy, it can be captured and used to heat buildings or make electricity. There are three basic ways geothermal power plants work:

  1. Dry steam plants: Uses high-pressured hot steam to turn generator turbines. Think “steam to turbines.”
  2. Flash steam plants: Uses high-pressure hot water to create steam to turn generator turbines. Think “water to steam to turbines.”
  3. Binary cycle power plants: Uses high-pressure hot water to heat another liquid, which then turns to steam and turns the generator turbines. Think “water to other liquid to steam to turbines.”

(Click here for great diagrams of each of these geothermal energy production methods.)

“And what about carbon sequestration too? What’s that and how does it work?”
Carbon Sequestration: This nifty diagram illustrates both terrestrial and geologic carbon sequestration pathways.  Bonus!
Carbon Sequestration: This nifty diagram illustrates both terrestrial and geologic carbon sequestration pathways. Bonus!Courtesy Department of Energy

Carbon sequestration includes carbon (usually in the form of carbon dioxide, CO2) capture, separation, transportation, and storage or reuse. Plants, which “breathe” CO2, naturally sequester carbon, but people have found ways to do it artificially too. When fossil fuels are burned to power your car or heat your home, they emit CO2, a greenhouse gas partially responsible for global climate change. It is possible to capture those emissions, separate the bad CO2, and transport it somewhere for storage or beneficial reuse. CO2 can be stored in under the Earth’s surface or, according to Martin Saar’s research, used in geothermal energy production.

Alright. We’re back to Professor Saar’s research. Ready to know just how he plans to sequester carbon in geothermal energy production?

It’s a simple idea, really, now that you know about geothermal energy and carbon sequestration. Prof. Saar says geothermal energy can be made even greener by replacing water with CO2 as the medium carrying heat from deep within the earth to the surface for electricity generation. In this way, waste CO2 can be sequestered and put to beneficial use! As a bonus, CO2 is even more efficient than water at transferring heat.

But don’t take my word for it. Come hear Professor Martin Saar’s lecture, CO2 – Use It Or Lose It!, yourself during the Institute on the Environment’s Frontiers on the Environment lecture series, Wednesday, October 27, 2010 from noon-1pm.

Frontiers in the Environment is free and open to the public with no registration required! The lectures are held in the Institute on the Environment’s Seminar Room (Rm. 380) of the Vocational-Technical Education Building on the St. Paul campus (map).

Jul
27
2010

The Smartypants Grid

The smart grid is actually a futuristic collection of technologies that manage electricity distribution. Ultimately, they are "smarter" (more efficient) at generating, distributing, and using electricity than the current industry standards.

The Einstien Meter: Smart meters are a component of the smart grid infrastructure.  They provide the two-way communication between electricity consumers and providers with the goal of enabling consumers to manage their electricity usage and spending.  The utility providers also benefit by experiencing fewer demand spikes.
The Einstien Meter: Smart meters are a component of the smart grid infrastructure. They provide the two-way communication between electricity consumers and providers with the goal of enabling consumers to manage their electricity usage and spending. The utility providers also benefit by experiencing fewer demand spikes.Courtesy Duke Energy

Some people are getting excited about smart grids because cutting back on electricity usage is cutting back on fossil fuel consumption which is cutting back on human-driven causes of global climate change. (Are you still with me or did I lose you there?) Other people are looking forward to smart grids because they should decrease the number of brown- and blackouts experienced in the country, which improves the region's health and economy. Still more people are pumped for the smart grid because it could mean lower electricity bills for their homes.

When will the smart grid reach your hometown? That depends. Some cities already have smart grid technology, but regional adoption is set to take place on a rolling basis during the next five years and is largely dependent on whether the American people get on board.

Scientific American: How Will the Smart Grid Handle Heat Waves?

"Pretty well, once the technology to automatically respond to peak demand and store renewable energy matures."

Smart grid test cites in Harrisburg, PA, Richland, WA, and Boulder, CO have their work cut out for them this week as people across the nation crank down the A/C to battle the heat wave covering most of the continental United States. According to the Scientific American article, a regional smart grid should have the potential to excel under stressful heat wave conditions. In the meantime, utility companies and academics are working toward developing a method to better store electricity when supply exceeds demand thus creating a stockpile of electricity for times of scarcity.

Explore More:

Check out SmartGrid.gov for all things smart and grid-y. Or, if you're looking for something more technical, the Department of Energy's other smart grid website.

If you're looking for a more interactive learning experience, check out General Electric's smart grid webpage complete with narrated animations.

Of course, if you're looking to hear from academics or industry experts themselves, the Initiative for Renewable Energy and the Environment in conjunction with the University of Minnesota's Institute on the Environment and St. Anthony Falls Laboratory, are hosting Midwest's Premier Energy, Economic, and Environmental Conference, E3 2010, at the St. Paul River Center (right across Kellogg Blvd from the Science Museum) Tuesday, November 30.

May
14
2010

Some of you may have said to yourselves over the years, “Yeah, yeah. Climate change. Hug a tree. Save the polar bears and manatees. Whatever. I’m just SO over the sexy megafauna, appeal-to-emotion approach.” Well, have I got a story for you!

In April, the University of Wisconsin, Madison’s Jonathan Patz, who holds a medical doctorate and a masters degree in public health, gave a riveting lecture at the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment on how climate change affects public health. And pretty much everybody wants to live long and prosper, so I’m guessing you care about your health just as much as I do and want to know more…

Well, basically, there is increasing scientific evidence that climate change is hazardous to your health.

The end.

Just kidding!

The logic is that basic changes in the Earth’s physical environment affect public health. Take one example, as warmer climates trigger species migration, vector-borne diseases like malaria and Lyme disease will leave traditional zones to infest new land areas. That’s good news for some people, but bad news for others.

Yuck!: Polar bears might make better poster-children for climate change afterall
Yuck!: Polar bears might make better poster-children for climate change afterallCourtesy Scott Bauer, USDA

Let’s break that idea down: global climate change suggests that some regions will experience warmer annual temperatures. Mosquitoes (that carry malaria) and ticks (bringers of Lyme disease) are cold-blooded, which means they don’t make their own heat and have to “steal” heat from their surroundings. Regions with warmer annual temperatures are attractive real estate for cold-blooded critters. As climate change increases annual temperatures, tick and mosquito habitat ranges will shift. Like many people, mosquitoes and ticks will move into warmer, better neighborhoods. Unfortunately for their new neighbors, the baggage of these insects causes fever, vomiting, and diarrhea (malaria) or rash, joint pain, and numbness (Lyme disease). Yikes!

Other symptoms of climate change (i.e. extreme weather and rising sea levels) have the potential to increase the severity of diseases like heat stress, respiratory diseases like asthma, cholera, malnutrition, diarrhea, toxic red tides, and mental illness (due to forced migration and overcrowding).

Not to be a downer, Patz pointed out that tackling global climate change might be the greatest public health improvement opportunity of our time in terms of number of lives saved, hospital admissions avoided, and ultimately health care cost decreases (which everyone needs!).

Is there any other good news?? Uh, besides less frostbite? No, seriously: on the bright side, warmer weather should increase the amount of physical activity of the average person (not many of us like to run in the dead of winter, you know), and, as Russia’s Vladimir Putin put it, "…an increase of two or three degrees wouldn't be so bad for a northern country like Russia. We could spend less on fur coats, and the grain harvest would go up.” So, yeah, there is some good news, but the real question is: does it outweigh the bad stuff?

Feb
25
2010

An Instant Classic: Hey, Aesop, what if I told you Mr. Hare won the race?
An Instant Classic: Hey, Aesop, what if I told you Mr. Hare won the race?Courtesy Milo Winter

You’re probably familiar with Aesop’s classic fable The Tortoise and the Hare: Mr. Hare challenges Mr. Tortoise to a foot race. Mr. Tortoise accepts. Mr. Hare dashes from the start line, but stops just before the finish line to take a nap. In the meantime, Mr. Tortoise plods along to win the race!! The moral of the story? University of Minnesota professor and Institute on the Environment resident fellow, Dr. Peter Reich’s award-winning take on the fable may surprise you.

Dr. Peter Reich: This guy studies leaves for a living.
Dr. Peter Reich: This guy studies leaves for a living.Courtesy Regents of the University of Minnesota

Dr. Reich studies leaves. In particular, Dr. Reich has discovered three characteristics of leaves that allow researchers to identify where and how plants live: longevity, productivity, and nitrogen content. Longevity measures how old a leaf lives. Did you know leaves in the tropics live only 5-6 weeks whereas Canadian spruce leaves can live up to 18 years old? Productivity measures how much sugar the leaf makes (yes, leaves make sugar called “glucose,” which nearly every animal uses to fuel their body – that’s why your momma tells you to eat your vegetables!). Finally, nitrogen is like a vitamin for plants: they need it to grow big and strong. How much nitrogen a leaf has is important because it determines how much energy a plant can make.

Canadian Spruce: If these leaves were human, they could be legal adults!
Canadian Spruce: If these leaves were human, they could be legal adults!Courtesy Steven J. Baskauf

Tropical Leaves: These guys may look BIG, but they are not going to be around for long.
Tropical Leaves: These guys may look BIG, but they are not going to be around for long.Courtesy Flickr

What about the moral of The Tortoise and the Hare? Dr. Reich’s research says there are basically two types of leaves: ones that are like Mr. Tortoise and ones like Mr. Hare. Tortoise-like leaves work slowly, but steadily. They’re the marathon runners of the leaf world. Hare-like leaves work really fast! But they can’t keep it up for long. They’re sprinters. Could you run a marathon at your top sprinting speed? Probably not, and neither can leaves be both ultra-fast and long-lasting at the same time. Instead, leaves “tradeoff” speed for endurance. Like human runners, leaves don’t have to be all fast and short-lived or all slow and long-lived; they can fall somewhere inbetween and be medium speed and medium-lived.

So who cares about marathon and sprinting leaves anyway? Lots of people! Dr. Reich just won the BBVA Frontiers of Knowledge Award in recognition of this important research. Being able to group the thousands of plants out in the world into a handful of groups is allowing scientists to do incredible research that can be used around the world.

For example, Dr. Reich’s newest research is looking at the different responses of tortoise-leaves versus hare-leaves to changing environments, such as higher levels of carbon dioxide in the air caused by climate change. As each generation of leaves reproduces, new genetic combinations are created. New genetic traits that are helpful to the plant’s survival are passed on to the next generation. The more genetic combinations created, the better chance a species has of “finding” the right traits in a changing environment. This is where Dr. Reich’s interpretation of the moral of The Tortoise and the Hare may surprise you: because hare-leaves have fast, short lives, they reproduce more genetic combinations and are better able to deal with change. Tortoise-leaves will struggle more to adapt. That is, for leaves, slow and steady does not always win the race!

Want to know more?? Dr. Reich recently gave a lecture as part of the Institute on the Environment’s Frontiers on the Environment series. You can hear it here.

Jul
15
2008

Getting stoned: Here's an array of shapes and sizes of kidney stones. Researchers say global warming will lead to an increase in the production of the little buggers in our bodies.
Getting stoned: Here's an array of shapes and sizes of kidney stones. Researchers say global warming will lead to an increase in the production of the little buggers in our bodies.Courtesy Trevor Blake
It’s going after polar bears and ice sheets. It’s threatening glaciers and coastal cities. Now, global warming has is setting it’s evil intentions against your kidneys.

That’s the conclusion a group of scientists announced yesterday. Increases in global temperatures could lead to an increase in kidney stones.

Having had more than my share of bouts with those pesky stones, that alone is scaring me straight to reduce my carbon footprint and do my part to reduce global climate change.

A kidney stone forms from salts that crystallize inside the kidney. That process speeds up when bodies become dehydrated. As the stones grow and move through the urinary tract, they can cause enormous (and I mean enormous) pain until it passes out through urination. The bigger the stone gets, the greater the discomfort. About 12 percent of men and seven percent of women in the U.S. will experience a bout of kidney stones in their life.

What the scientists announced this week is that warm states in the southeastern U.S. have a 50 percent higher rate of kidney stone cases than in the northeast.

Warm weather and dehydration are two factors that can accelerate kidney stone production, the researchers said. They’re seeing an unusually high rate of kidney stones among soldiers serving in the heat of Iraq.

On the flip side, drinking lots of water and staying cool can help reduce kidney stone risks, the scientists added. Kidney stone rates have been on the rise in the U.S. since 1976

So what do you think? Is there a connection between hot weather and kidney stones? Do you have a great kidney stone story to share? Ever see the Seinfeld episode where Kramer passes a kidney stone at the circus? Share your thoughts about kidney stones and/or global warming here with other Buzzers.

Apr
29
2008

Tusk, tusk: A pair of narwhals surface in the Arctic waters. A new study says that the sea creatures are the most at risk to changes from global warming
Tusk, tusk: A pair of narwhals surface in the Arctic waters. A new study says that the sea creatures are the most at risk to changes from global warmingCourtesy Glenn Williams
Is there a more overlooked creature of the animal kingdom than the narwhal? Granted, it lives in the frosty waters of the Arctic Ocean and has a twisted, mean-looking tusk, but why don’t we give the narwhal more love?

Global climate change researchers are taking note of the odd sea beast. They’ve categorized the narwhal as being the sea creature most at risk from global warming changes. The pronouncement was made following in-depth analysis of how potential environmental problems that could affect the 11 marine animals that live year-round in the Artic region.

Polar bears, which have been generally considered the most “at-risk” animals from global warming, came in second place in the rankings.

Right now there are actually a lot more narwhals in the Arctic region (50,000 to 80,000) than polar bears (20,000). But researchers feel the overall impacts of global warming could have a quicker, more devastating impact on narwhals.

What’s the difference? Adaptability. Polar bears are able to gather food either by swimming or roaming land. As ice sheets diminish, they can forage for food on land.

Narwhals, on the other hand, are highly specialized creatures. A main feeding practice is diving to depths of 6,000 feet to feed on halibut. They live in areas with 99-percent ice cover. If that ice area diminishes, predators like orcas and polar bears will have easier access to getting to narwhals. And warming waters could send the narwhal’s favorite food of halibut to non-icy areas as well.

Following narwhals and polar bears as the most at-risk Arctic animals were the hooded seal, bowhead whale and walrus. Least at-risk are ringed seals and bearded seals according to the study.

Aerial view: A group of narwhals can be seen swimming together from an aerial view.
Aerial view: A group of narwhals can be seen swimming together from an aerial view.Courtesy narwhal.info
BTW: Here’s a little more general information about narwhals:

• They don’t use their tusks for hunting. Males do have “duels” with each other using the tusks to establish dominance. Male tusks can grow up to be 10 feet long. Females grow a much smaller tusk. The tusks are also twisted in a corkscrew fashion.

• An adult narwhal can measure to around 25 feet in length. Males can weigh up to 3,500 pounds while females are about 2,200 pounds.

• The animals also exclusively hunt under thick ice sheets.

• Inuit legends has it that the narwhal was created when a woman holding onto a harpoon had been pulled into the ocean and twisted around the harpoon. The submerged woman was wrapped around a beluga whale on the other end of the harpoon, and that is how the narwhal was created.

Apr
01
2008

A matter of immense gravity: After receiving his Nobel Peace Prize this past December, Al Gore has turned his attention to raising awareness about the global gravity loss problem.
A matter of immense gravity: After receiving his Nobel Peace Prize this past December, Al Gore has turned his attention to raising awareness about the global gravity loss problem.Courtesy Kjetil Bjørnsrud
I think this got lost in all the hoopla about the NCAA basketball tournament, but Al Gore was on 60 Minutes last Sunday to unveil his latest crusade, one that could be more devastating to life on Earth than the global climate change crisis he’s been raising awareness of in recent years.

The former vice president used the highly-rated TV show to be the inaugural event of his effort to raise public awareness of the growing gravity crisis on the planet. Three independent studies conducted in the U.S., Great Britain and South Africa have confirmed a strange but deep side effect to global warming. Increased temperatures on Earth are diminishing its gravitational fields. Projections foresee that at the current pace, Earth could have 25 percent less gravity in the next 10 years.

Click here for the full report.

The new studies confirm that increases in carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere are causing chemical reaction with heavy metals in the top layer of Earth’s crust that are shielding gravity’s pull from deeper in Earth’s core. And the real scary fact is that these chemical reactions are progressing at a geometric rate. While they’re still negligible today, each year they increase by a factor of 10.

If the current pace continues over the next 50 years, researchers calculate that gravity will become extinct, just like many forms of animal and plant life of the past. Along with his continued efforts to reduce the growing carbon dioxide emissions that are contributing to global warming, Gore is offering some other gravity loss solutions.

“If everyone digs five or six 12-foot deep holes in their backyard, we might be able to create easier paths for gravity to get back to Earth’s surface and counteract the impacts of these devastating chemical reactions,” he said.

Click here to learn other things you can do to stop global gravity loss.

“Stop and really think about the gravity of this situation for a second,” Gore implored viewers on 60 Minutes. “Even with just 25 percent less gravity on our planet, our everyday lifestyles will be hugely impacted. We predict that all small animals under 10 pounds will be drifting through the air with little control. Mothers will have to tie down their infants in their cribs at night to keep them from floating around the house.”

Other significant problems that could arise if global gravity loss is not reversed, Gore added. They include prolonged autumns due to a slower release of leaves from trees, decreased income for the sky-diving and bungee-jumping businesses and a rapid increase in world records for sporting events involving jumping, leaping or throwing.

Current Vice President Dick Cheney, contacted by 60 Minutes for the administration’s reaction to global gravity loss, was much more optimistic. “Right off the top of my head, I can see a couple upsides to gravity loss,” Cheney said. “First off, less gravity will make everything weigh less. That should take care of the U.S. obesity problem. Second, this should be welcome news for the ailing airline industry, as it will be able to save a lot of money on fuel costs as planes will be able to take off a lot easier.”

Commenting at the end of the 60 Minutes episode, columnist Andy Rooney was all laughs on the topic. “Don’t you just hate it when you’ve made it this far through a blog entry and haven’t realized it is an April Fool’s Day trick?” he asked. “But here are some great links about the history of April Fool’s Day, 100 of the greatest April Fool’s pranks ever pulled off and some of the worst ever conceived.”

Mar
25
2008

Ice capade: Aerial views of the ice sheet breaking at the Wilkins Ice Sheet in Antarctica show the massive amount of ice that's come free in the past month.
Ice capade: Aerial views of the ice sheet breaking at the Wilkins Ice Sheet in Antarctica show the massive amount of ice that's come free in the past month.Courtesy National Snow and Ice Data Center/NASA
So we’ve been grumbling the past few days about the latest round of snow and ice that’s descended upon us in the early days of spring. At least we’re a long way from Antarctica.

The National Snow and Ice Center today reported, and released photos, of a huge ice sheet collapse from the cold continent. About 160-square miles of ice have broken free from the Wilkins ice sheet since Feb. 28 in some major league size pieces. While the Wilkins ice sheet is about the size of Connecticut, one large portion of broken ice sheet is seven times larger than the Manhattan district of New York City.

While that’s a big chuck of ice to break free, larger ice collapses have happened two other times since scientists have been monitoring the site: in 1995 and 2002. Yet, the experts are saying that this latest ice break is another sign of global climate change.

Other portions of the ice shelf are hanging on by thin margins and one expert predicts that the entire shelf could be gone in 15 years. Cracks in the thin ice fill with water, which accelerates the melting, and leads to more major ice breaks.

Here's a link to some great video of the fragile ice sheet area from National Geographic.