Courtesy Hans-Petter FjeldBuckle up, Buzzketeers, because school is in session.
Did I just mix metaphors? No! You wear seatbelts in my school, because they help prevent you from exploding.
But you will probably explode anyway, because you are going to get taught. By JGordon. About the future.
Here’s your background reading: a GMO is a genetically modified organism—a living thing whose genetic material has been altered through genetic engineering. Humans have been genetically modifying plants and animals for thousands of years (by selectively breeding them for desired characteristics), but it’s only been in the last few decades that we’ve gotten really fancy and fast about it.
While in the past, or what I like to call “the boring old days,” it took generations to breed crops that produced high yields, grew faster, or needed less water, we can now do that sort of thing in an afternoon. (Well, not really an afternoon, but these aren’t the boring old days, so we should feel free to use hyperbolic language.) We can insert genes from one plant into another, bestowing resistance to pests or poisons, or increasing the nutrition of a food crop.
Pretty cool, right? Maybe. GMOs tend to make people uncomfortable. Emotionally. They get freaked out at the thought of eating something that they imagine was created like the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Most people prefer to eat stuff that was created the old fashion way: through SEX.
Once they’re in your tummy, GMOs are probably pretty much the same as any other food, really. However, there may be other reasons to approach them cautiously. Most organisms make a place for themselves in their environment, and their environment makes a place around them, and things tend to work pretty well together. But GMOs are brand new organisms, and it can be very difficult to tell how they’ll fit into the rest of the natural world. Will they out-compete “natural” organisms, and cause them to go extinct? Will they interbreed with them, and introduce new weaknesses to previously strong species? The repercussions of such events could be… well, very bad.
On the other hand, GMOs could provide food—better, more nutritious, easier to grow food—for people and places that really need it. And with global population expected to increase by a few billion people before it stabilizes, we’re going to need a lot of food.
Just like everything else, this stuff is complicated. Really complicated. But the issue isn’t waiting for us to get comfortable with it before it pushes ahead. Hence, our main event: GMO salmon.
You might not have devoted much mental space as of yet to mutant ninja salmon, but you will. See, transgenic salmon (i.e., salmon with genes from other animals) may be the first GMO animal on your dinner plate. Or whatever plate you use for whenever you eat salmon. If you even use a plate, you animal.
What’s the point of the GMO salmon? In the right conditions, they grow much faster than their normal counterparts, and they require about 10% less food to reach the same weight as normal salmon. The company responsible for them, AquaBounty, has been working on the project for more than 20 years. Inserted into a commonly farmed species, the Atlantic salmon, the final, successful combination of genes comes from Chinook salmon (a closely related, but much larger species) and the ocean pout (a slightly eel-like fish that can tolerate very cold water). While Atlantic salmon typically only grow during the summer, the new variation produces growth hormones year round, so they can grow to marketable size in about 60% of the time it would normally take, assuming they’re kept in water that’s at the right temperature, and given plenty of food year round.
While some people object to GMO foods on the grounds that the long-term effects from eating them are unknown, probably the more salient argument is the effect they might have on the natural world. A larger, faster growing species could put tremendous pressure on already stressed, wild Atlantic salmon. AquaBounty counters that in normal ocean temperatures, the GMO salmon would grow no faster than wild salmon. Also, all of the GMO salmon are female, and 95 to 99% of them are sterile (they can’t reproduce). And none of that should matter, because the salmon will be raised in tanks, away from the ocean.
Even if they are successfully isolated from wild salmon, opponents point out, that doesn’t mean they are isolated from the environment. See, salmon eat other fish, and it takes about 2 pounds of other fish to make one pound of salmon (according to this article on the GMO salmon). Large amounts of the kinds of fish people don’t eat are caught and processed to feed farm-raised salmon. If cheaper, fast-growing salmon cause the demand for salmon to rise, more food stock fish will have to be caught to supply the farms, putting pressure on these other species.
Courtesy Dark jedi requiemThen again, if the GMO salmon can be raised successfully and profitably in inland tanks, it could remove other negative environmental impacts. Aquaculture fish farms are typically in larger bodies of water, with the fish contained inside a ring of nets. The high concentration of fish in one area leads to more diseases and parasites, which can spread to nearby wild fish. Salmon farms also produce lots of waste, and it’s all concentrated in one spot. Supposedly, a farm of 200,000 salmon produces more fecal waste than a city of 60,000 people. (That’s what they say—it sounds like a load of crap to me, though.)
It’s a tricky subject, and anyone who says otherwise is being tricky (ironically). Nonetheless, it seems likely that the Food and Drug Administration will soon declare this particular GMO as officially safe to eat, and GMO salmon fillets could make their way to the supermarket in the next couple years. Even if the FDA didn’t approve the fish, however, that would only mean that it couldn’t be sold in the US—the operation could continue to produce fish for international markets.
GMO salmon are just the tip of the GMO animal iceberg (if you’ll forgive the iceberg analogy—I don’t mean to imply that they are going to sink us.) The next GMO in line for FDA approval, probably, is the so-called “enviropig,” a GMO pig with a greater capability to digest phosphorus. This should reduce feed costs, and significantly lower the phosphorus content of the manure produced by the pigs. That’s important because phosphorus from manure often leaches into bodies of water, fertilizing microorganisms, which, in turn, reproduce in massive numbers and suffocate other aquatic life.
As the human population grows and needs more food, genetically engineered plants and animals are going to become increasingly common. They might make the process of feeding and clothing ourselves easier and more sustainable. Or they might royally screw things up. Or both. So start thinking about these things, and start thinking about them carefully.
Er… so what do you think about GMOs? Are they a good idea? Are they a good idea for certain applications? Are they a bad idea? Why? Scroll down to the comments section, and let’s have it!
In elementary school, I learned about "The 3 Rs" (Reduce, Reuse, Recycle), and my knack for thrift-shopping was handed down to me from my mother at an even younger age. But, until yesterday, I'd never heard of a "free store." Apparently, I've been missing out on a new phenomena of reusing! How embarassing. To save you the blush, here's the scoop:
A free store is like a thrift store or garage sale, but everything is always marked 100% off.
Here's a New York Times article about a Brooklyn free store, but I'm guessing you're more interested in something closer to home (assuming the Twin Cities are your home, of course). Lucky for you, the Southeast Como Improvement Organization is collecting usable stuff that students tend to leave on the street during move-in/ move-out and making it available for free at the University of Minnesota's ReUse Center from 10am to 4:30pm through this Saturday, Sept. 11th, 2010 (details here). Additionally, for small fees, the U of M's ReUse Center is open year round to the treasure-troving public Thursdays 8am to 8pm starting tomorrow, Sept. 9th, 2010 (details here). Apparently, there was once a catapult for sale... what's not to love about that??
So, go ahead! See what you can find. My trash might be your treasure, and it's environmentally friendly too.
Courtesy Paige Shoemaker
Next time you look at the clouds, shake your fist and yell at those jerks for making our lives difficult. You might look crazy, but somebody needs to tell those fools.
While it's relatively easy to model temperature changes over the last century thanks to detailed records, clouds are more tricky to understand because we don't have a similar history of cloud observations, and also because they are ornery. So in order to understand how clouds work, scientists are building a body of evidence to model cloud behavior and help show how clouds will impact our weather as well as our climate in the future. I believe they also plan to show those clouds who is the boss of them.
Like a child running loose in a toy store, hurricanes have always been difficult to predict because they can unexpectedly change direction. This confounds plans for evacuation, leading some people to leave areas that are never hit, leading others to stay put and potentially face nasty weather because they don't trust the meteorologist, and leading meteorologists to keep Advil in business. But since the 90s, our ability to predict where hurricanes will make landfall has become twice as accurate. This new prescience is due to the development and use of more accurate models of how clouds work, which is in turn due to better understanding of cloud dynamics and faster computers. How about that, punk clouds?
Intensity, however, remains elusive to model. (Shh, don't let them know we have a weakness!)
"While we pride ourselves that the track forecast is getting better and better, we remain humbled by the uncertainties of the science we don't yet understand," Schott said. "This is not an algebra question where there's only one right answer."
Despite being a "forecasting nightmare," Earl ended up hitting about where it was predicted to go. This means that the right people have been evacuated to avoid injury and fatality. That's right, stick your tail between your legs, Earl.
Connecting to climate
Short-term events such as hurricanes and other storms are difficult to predict, but climate change is a whole other world of uncertainty--again, thanks to those uncouth clouds. Climate scientists are developing new tools, such as satellite technologies that show how much light different cloud types reflect and models that demonstrate localized cloud processes. These approaches look specifically at certain groups of clouds and their patterns of change to add detail to older, larger models that look at climate over larger scales.
Courtesy Nic McPhee
The problem with the older models is that they have a low resolution that doesn't accurately represent clouds because the clouds are smaller than they can show. Think of it like Google maps--at the beginning, you're looking at the entire planet, or a whole continent--this is similar to older, low-res climate models. The new models are like zooming in on a city--you can see bus stops, restaurants, and highways. But you have to zoom out to see how these small pieces relate to the larger surroundings. In a similar way, the new high-res models are helping to inform older models--this type of work is called multiscale modeling.
Researchers at the Center for Multiscale Modeling of Atmospheric Processes (CMMAP) are developing this exact type of model. You can read about their advances here. This work is important because it brings insight into questions about whether clouds will reflect or trap more sunlight, which can have a big impact on the rate of global warming. It also helps us understand whether geoengineering projects that alter clouds will really have the intended effect. Plus it's just one more way we can pwn clouds.
Courtesy wvs (Sam Javanrouh)In a paper delivered at the 240th National Meeting of the American Chemical Society in Boston, a researcher envisioned a time in the not-too-distant future when houses and buildings outfitted with the proper equipment would be able gather electric energy stored in humidity in the atmosphere that could be used to fill a community’s electrical needs.
The concept isn’t new; electrical wunderkind Nikola Tesla had a similar idea more than a century ago.
Science has long sought the answer to how electricity builds up and discharges in the atmosphere, and whether the moisture in the atmosphere could even hold an electrical charge. But Fernando Galembeck, a professor at Brazil’s University of Campinas, claims he and his research team have successfully shown that it can, and by using special metal conduits to collect that electricity, it could allow homeowners and building managers to gather and store the electricity as an alternative energy source.
”Just as solar energy could free some households from paying electric bills, this promising new energy source could have a similar effect,” Galembeck said. He terms the new method “hygroelectricity” which means “humidity electricity”. Galembeck's research could also add to our understanding of how thunderstorms form.
In their laboratory experiments, Galembeck’s research team created a simulated atmosphere densely saturated with water (humidity), which they seeded with silica and aluminum phosphate, two chemical compounds commonly found in air. As water droplets formed around the tiny, airborne chemical substances, the researchers noticed the silica took on a negative charge while the aluminum phosphate droplets held a positive charge. The charged water vapor readily condenses upon contact with surfaces such as a cold can of soda or beer, and on the windows of air-conditioned buildings or vehicles. In the process, energy is transferred onto the contact surface.
“This was clear evidence that water in the atmosphere can accumulate electrical charges and transfer them to other materials it comes in contact with,” Galembeck said.
Just as solar panels convert energy from sunlight into a usable power source, the researchers think water vapor in the atmosphere could someday be harvested for its hygroelectric energy. The rooftops of buildings in regions of high humidity and thunderstorm activity could someday be fitted with special hygroelectric panels that would absorb the charges built up in the humid atmosphere and funnel the energy to where it can be utilized, and at the same time reduce the risk of lightning forming and discharging. The technology would be best suited to regions of high humidity, such as the tropics or the eastern and southeastern U.S.
Thunderstorm over Lake Harriet in Minneapolis; Could this be a new source of energy for the Upper Midwest?
Courtesy Lori GeigWell, no, I won’t literally shout it into your brain. First of all, I’m writing this in the near past, and it’s difficult to shout in this medium anyhow. Also, even if we were right next to each other at the same time, I’d really be shouting into one of your ears, or possibly into your face. To shout into your brain, I’d need some sort of saw, or a hammer, and I’d definitely need your cooperation. (I’m just that kind of guy.) So the shouting thing is out.
But it’s really important that you understand the difference between weather and climate, or folks are going to take advantage of your confusion. They’ll do it with op-eds and obnoxious little bumper stickers instead of with a hammer, but it will still be unpleasant in the end.
So here’s the thing: weather and climate are not the same.
See, you may say to yourself, “I know the difference between weather and climate. I’m smrt!” And you may very well be smert, but there’s a decent chance that you still let weather fool you into thinking it’s climate. As this article in the NY Times points out, plenty of samart people still confuse the two concepts, or at least use one (weather) to make points about the other (climate).
Let’s be different. Let’s be truly smaret people, and get this cleared up once and for all. Weather is not the same thing as climate.
Weather is day-to-day, climate is year-to-year, or decade-to-decade, or century-to-century. Weather is immediate, and we feel it acutely, so it weighs on our minds. But it isn’t climate, which is so long-term that even very smar people tend to miss the point.
The East Coast had a frigid snowy winter, so global warming must be myth, right? But the Midwest and Russia have been having a hot hot summer, so we must be in the burning grip of global warming, right? No. If either is the case, a cold winter or a hot summer isn’t the evidence for it.
Back in the year 1991, there was a blizzard on Halloween. If was off the hooook! I was a jawa, or something, and I trick-or-treated my way through about two and a half feet of snow. Crazy, right? But does that crazy Halloween blizzard mean that October is a very snowy month in Minnesota? Of course not! Who would even think that?
What if we (Minnesotans) got a couple solid weeks of rain right now, at the tail end of summer? That would be a damp way to spend the Labor Day weekend. But would it mean that Minnesota is on its way to becoming a rainforest. No, no it wouldn’t. A rainy couple weeks, or even a whole rainy summer, is weather. Climate is weather (temperature, wind, humidity, atmospheric pressure, precipitation, etc) averaged out over years and years. I’m sorry if your birthday was ruined by a freak firestorm, but that doesn’t have a thing to do with climate, so stop making that demonstration sign with a picture of your cake melting.
Maybe it seems obvious, but we still tend to use weather as a substitute for climate even when we think we understand it. Consider the concept of “Global Warming’s Six Americas.” A report from Yale University has found that people can be placed into six groups regarding their feelings on climate change: alarmed, concerned, cautious, disengaged, doubtful, or dismissive.
People who fall into the extreme categories, the freaking-out “alarmed” and the denying “dismissive,” typically aren’t swayed by day-to-day weather—they might use it to further their own arguments, but they (rightly) don’t let it affect their perceptions of long-term climate behavior.
Everyone else, the various shades of undecided, however, is influenced by the local weather, often subconsciously.
Say what?! Clever people that we are, we still allow the wrong evidence to influence our opinions on huge, important issues?! We have to be smaearter than that! So whenever your jerky aunt or your shrill uncle are trying to tell you that the Christmas heat wave or the frosty July mornings are evidence for or against global warming, run the information through your own brain, and when your brain tells you that you need to consider years and years worth of information before you can make that call, you can tell them to shove it.
Of course climate is made up of weather—lots and lots and lots of weather—but, as an author of a report on the subject puts it, making generalizations about climate based on weather “is like asserting how the economy is doing by looking at the change in your pocket. It’s relevant, but not that relevant.”
I like to think of it another way, too. Like, in Home Alone, just because Kevin Mcallister’s family called him “such a disease,” and left him home alone that one time, it didn’t mean that they didn’t really love him. To actually switch to a climate of non-love, the Mcallisters would have to call Kevin a disease every day for years and years, and maybe even stop feeding him.
To say the climate is changing, or not changing, you have to look at the weather data over many years. So do that, instead of forming opinions on whatever is bugging you on a particular day. Don’t be a chump. Be smart.
Courtesy Mark RyanLast week, Lake Superior, which is bordered by Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Ontario, Canada, recorded its highest average surface temperature ever, a balmy 68.3°F. People seeking relief from a very hot summer have been flocking to the shores and beaches and actually swimming in the lake! That is so unlike the Lake Superior I remember growing up in Duluth. Sure, we liked to spend a day on the sand beaches of Park Point or lounging on the rocky outcrops along the North Shore but swimming was usually not an option. On average, Lake Superior’s overall temperature is barely above freezing (39 °F), and back then it seemed you couldn’t even wade in ankle-deep without having your breath sucked out of your lungs and thinking your feet had fallen off. Standing knee-deep in the water for even a short time was unbearable and a true test of endurance. And for guys, going any further was just plain crazy, unless you wanted verifiable (and excruciating) proof of Costanza’sTheory of Shrinkage.
Those hell-bent among us would sometimes make a mad suicide dash across the burning sands and actually dive into the frigid waters only to set off the mammalian diving reflex and cause their vital organs to start to shut down. Their only hope was if the lifeguards were watching and were properly certified in CPR.
Temperature ranges on Superior have been recorded for more than three decades. In recent years, the normal average surface temperature for Lake Superior during the month of August has been only 55°, so this dramatic rise in the average is unusual. As expected, many people are quick to point a finger at global warming as the cause for the rise. That’s not a bad guess considering the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) just proclaimed the year 2010 as the hottest on record, globally.
But physicist Jay Austin at the University of Minnesota-Duluth’s Large Lake Observatory has been closely tracking the lake’s surface temperatures, and predicted the record high back in July. He says the warm water this summer is at least partially due to a recent El Niño event that had an unusual effect on the lake this past winter.
“2009 was a very strong El Niño year,” Austin said. “And that El Niño year led to a year at least on Superior where there was very little ice.”
That lack of ice led to a quicker and earlier warm up of Lake Superior’s surface waters. The other Great Lakes showed similar increases in their average warm temperatures as well. Although ice usually forms on the lake surface during the winter months, Lake Superior rarely freezes over completely. The last time was in 1979.
The following video illustrates the contrast between last winter and the one prior to that. Each day on their Coast Watch website, NOAA posts 3 or 4 photographs taken by a satellite in geosynchronous orbit above Lake Superior. Early in 2009 I began collecting the images regularly thinking they could come in handy for a future Buzz story such as this. From March 2009 to May 2010 I collected something like 1100 satellite photos. Edited together, they make for an interesting time-lapse video that illustrates the weather patterns over the big lake from one winter to the next. At the start of the video (March 2009) ice-cover is apparent over much of the lake and can be seen building then melting away as the spring thaw brings warmer temperatures. But later in the video, as summer passes into fall and fall into winter, no ice appears at all over the expanse of the lake’s surface. Other than that I don’t know how informative the time-lapse ended up being but it’s certainly interesting to watch, particularly the wind and cloud patterns seen flowing off the lake starting in late January 2010.
"This year is just tremendously anomalous," Austin said. "This year ranks up there with the warmest water we have ever seen, and the warming trend appears to be going on in all of the Great Lakes."
The big question is what effect these warmer temperatures have on the lake’s ecology? Austin admits it’s hard to say.
"Fish have a specific range of temperatures in which they like to spawn," he said. "It may be that for some fish this very warm year is going to be great for them, but for others, like trout which are a very cold-adapted fish, it's not going to be great."
One problem for the trout could be that scourge of the Great Lakes, the jawless sea lamprey. Lampreys are invasive parasites and attach themselves to lake trout and live off their blood. It’s unknown what changes, if any, the warmer waters will have on their life-cycle. They may lay eggs faster and in larger quantities, increasing their populations, and their impact on the trout species.
Lake Superior has probably passed through its peak time for temperature this summer so more than likely the 68.3°F record will stand for the rest of the year. If you want to keep track you can go to the Michigan Sea Grant website where you can follow all the Great Lakes’ daily surface temperatures. But who knows? This summer may not be the height of the 30-year warming trend. Let’s see what next year has in store.
Personally, I’m concerned these warm water temperatures will spoil us. Being able to endure extremely cold temperatures is a Minnesota tradition, and helps build character. It makes you tough and able to withstand all sorts of adversity as well as the harshest of elements. Which brings to mind the time when my wife (then girlfriend) and I were in Glacier National Park and decided to go for a swim in St. Mary’s Lake. There were only a few other people goofy enough to be swimming in the glacial lake at the same time. It didn’t surprise us to learn they were all from Minnesota.
We were so proud of ourselves.
We have heard about the many fires in Russia. NASA satellites have detected over 600 600 hotspots from wildfires within Russian territory in one day!
Fires produce a heat signature that is detectable by satellites even when the fires represent a small fraction of the pixel. Fires produce a stronger signal in the mid-wave IR bands (around 4 microns) than they do in the long wave IR bands (such as 11 microns). That differential response forms the basis for most algorithms that detect the presences of a fire, the size of the fire, the instantaneous fire temperature.
The unusually hot and dry mid-August conditions beneath a strong ridge of high pressure across British Columbia led to a major outbreak of wildfires across that western Canadian province. The satellite image shows the location of those fires as red squares. The smoke plumes are also seen on the satellite imagery.
Here's an image from a NASA instrument: The red squares are fire locations and the smoke from the fires is evident.
The aerosols released by fires and the degraded air quality caused by them represent tremendous costs to society, so reliable information on fire locations and characteristics is important to a wide variety of users. For this reason, NOAA tracks these plumes and makes them publically available from NOAA at:
Courtesy FundyAlong with wind and solar, harvesting power from tidal forces comes up a lot in discussions of alternative energy sources.
Was that a horrible sentence? I think it was. What I meant to say is this: we can generate electricity from tides, and lots of it. "Tidal power" is often brought up alongside solar power and wind power, but while I can easily picture windmills and solar panels, I'm not always sure what sort of device we'd use to harness the power in the tides.
This sort of device! For those of you too afraid to click on a strange link (who knows... I could be linking to an image like this!), the article depicts something that looks sort of like a thick, stubby windmill, with blades on its front and back. It's a tidal turbine, and at 74 feet tall and 130 tons it's the world's largest. It should be able to supply electricity to about 1,000 households. Pretty impressive.
Tidal turbines, apparently, are so productive because water is so much denser than water, and so it takes a lot more energy to move it. An ocean current moving at 5 knots (that's a little shy of 6 miles per hour, for the landlubbers) has more kinetic energy, for example, than wind moving at over 217 miles per hour.
At least according to that article, the United States and Great Britain each have enough tidal resources (areas where this kind of generator could be installed) to supply about 15% of their energy needs.
More info on the tidal turbine, which I am calling "the Kraken," because it's big, underwater, and will occupy your mind for only a very short time.
Since the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded on April 20th of this year, approximately 4.9 million barrels of oil have flowed into the waters of the Gulf of Mexico. In the intervening months, BP added 1.8 million gallons of petroleum-containing chemical dispersant to the oily waters. It is not yet clear what the effects of such a mix will be.
When oil is spilling into water, as it did for 114 days from BP’s blown out Macondo well, there are three options available for clearing it: skimming, burning, and dispersing. Skimming the oil is the safest and least environmentally-damaging option, but the skimmer equipment is expensive and slow to deploy. Burning can effectively remove oil from the water, but the process pollutes the air and sends a lot of heavy residue to the sea floor. For this spill, BP decided to rely substantially upon the use of chemical dispersants.
Chemical dispersants do not themselves remove oil from water, but bacteria that naturally live within the Gulf of Mexico do. The trouble is that the highly cohesive properties of oil mean that large slicks like this one in the Gulf present very little molecular surface area upon which the microbes can work. Thus, the dispersants, which work a bit like dish detergent, are used to break up the oil into smaller droplets and make it easier for bacteria to degrade.
In an attempt to keep oil off of Florida beaches and out of deltaic wetlands (and, some would say, out of the public eye), dispersants were applied in vast quantities and in unprecedented ways during the Gulf Coast cleanup effort. Not only was it sprayed from planes onto the surface of oil slicks, as is the traditional application, it was pumped 1.5 km below the ocean surface into the oil plume flowing from the broken wellhead. More than four million liters of dispersants were applied to surface waters offshore and 2.5 million at the site of the leak.
The long-term implications of this unprecedented use of dispersants are not known. The oil is now spread more widely than it would have been without the use of dispersants and the smaller particles are located throughout the water column. The worry is that the small, diffuse particles will be more easily taken up by marine organisms. "By breaking up oil slicks, you might reduce the number of acutely oiled pelicans and sea turtles," Doug Rader, chief ocean scientist for Environmental Defense Fund told Rolling Stone Magazine. But, adds Melanie Driscoll, a bird-conservation director with the National Audubon Society, “Are these birds better off in the long run than the heavily oiled birds? We don't know. We don't know yet about their survival rate weeks or months from now, or about their reproductive capacity in the future. Frankly, there are just a huge number of unknowns here – and that's what concerns me."
Courtesy US Fish & Wildlife Service
There is also concern that bacterial degradation of the dispersed oil is leaving behind large swaths of de-oxygenated water that is inhospitable to marine life. Larry McKinney, executive director of the Harte Research Institute of Gulf of Mexico Studies at Texas A & M University told Discovery News that the spill may have increased the size of the so-called “dead zone” of oxygen-starved water in the Gulf. The zone, which is caused by agricultural runoff flowing through the Mississippi River, is the largest it has been in twenty-five years. McKinney believes that increased microbial oil metabolism is the culprit.
The dispersants that were used on the Macondo BP oil spill were developed by Exxon in the 1970s and are sold under the name Corexit. By volume, Corexit 9500 is largely composed of petroleum distillates, solvents known to be animal carcinogens. But, as marine biologist Jane Lubchenco, director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, expressed at a press conference on May 12, the use of these dispersants was viewed as “a trade-off decision to lessen the overall environmental impact.”
What exactly that trade-off will be is unclear. In the wake of its widespread use, questions developed about the toxicity of Corexit and other dispersants in combination with oil. Last week, the EPA released a study on the acute toxicity of dispersants alone, oil alone, and dispersants in combination with oil. The results of the study suggest that the toxicity of the dispersant-oil mixture is similar to that of oil alone and is more toxic than dispersant alone; the long-term health effects of the dispersant breakdown products however are entirely unknown.
A hard yank of the rusty metal door of the Acme Commercial Processing Facility outside of Port Angeles, Washington leads visitors down a white and green linoleum corridor to dark room dripping with condensation. Inside is a bank of twenty refrigerator-like machines whirring in unison day and night to preserve over 120 bushels of cones—Douglas-fir, grand fir, western red cedar, and western hemlock—for their eventual time the sun.
Courtesy National Park ServiceThe cones, together with seeds and cuttings of more than 80 plant species native to Olympic National Park, have been collected over the course of several years as part of a plan to re-vegetate 268 square miles of land currently sitting beneath nearly sixteen billion gallons of water and 18 million cubic yards of sediment.
The land is located at the bottom of the Mills and Aldwell reservoirs, impoundments on the Elwha River that developed in the wake of the erection the Elwha and Glines Canyon Dams in the early 1900s. In a little less than one year, the process of removing the dams, and revealing land long drowned underneath billions of gallons of water, will begin.
The Elwha and Glines Canyon Dams were built nearly 100 years ago when entrepreneur Thomas Aldwell saw the potential for power within the steep hills surrounding the Elwha River. Interested in harnessing that power, Aldwell formed the Olympic Power and Development Company and drew up plans to build the105-foot Elwha hydroelectric dam. Construction on the dam began in 1910 and by 1913 it was supplying energy to pulp mills in Port Angeles. By 1927,with the need for energy within Port Angeles continuing to increase, Aldwell’s company erected the 210-foot Glines Canyon dam eight miles upstream.
Courtesy National Park ServiceThe Elwha is a rocky river that originates 4500 ft above sea level in the snowfields of the Olympic Mountains and cascades north through temperate forests to discharge its waters five miles west of Port Angeles into the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Before construction of the dams, the river’s 45-mile main channel and over 100 miles of tributaries had been host to runs of ten native anadromous salmon and trout.
Courtesy National Park Service
Today, changes to the river that developed in the wake of dam construction have conspired to reduce salmon populations by more than 100-fold. Since erection of the dams, migrating salmon have been confined to the lowermost 4.9 miles of river. Sediment that travels down river from the watershed’s mountains has been trapped behind the dams and available spawning habitat has decreased as a result. Diseases, parasites and fish mortality have increased concomitantly with river temperatures. In sum, native salmon populations have declined from approximately 400,000 to fewer than 3,000 individuals today. The diminished stocks are currently maintained primarily through hatchery production.
In the late 1960’s and early 1970’s the Elwha and Glines Canyon Dams were subject to licensing procedures by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). During the review, questions arose about the legal and philosophical conflicts involved in operating dams within a national park. Opposition to the dams mounted during the 70’s and 80’s and, in response to pressure from the Lower Elwha S’Klallam Tribe and sixteen area conservation groups, Congress considered the case of the Elwha River. In 1992 the Elwha River Ecosystem and Fisheries Restoration Act was passed.
The act mandated full restoration of the Elwha River ecosystem and its native anadromous fish, but did not specify the actions necessary to achieve “full restoration”. Instead, the Department of Interior was directed to study and evaluate alternative restoration scenarios, including the removal of one or both dams. By 1994, the National Park Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and the Lower Elwha S’Klallam Tribe released a joint study concluding that the best action for river and fish restoration would be removal of both dams.
Removing the dams from their place within the river involves more than simply eliminating the tons of concrete, enormous steel tubes, and spillway gates that comprise the dams’ structures. More than 80 years of restricted water and sediment flow in the river has resulted in the build-up of approximately 18 million cubic yards of sediment behind the dams. As easy as it might be to simply blast the dams out, releasing all the sediment in one pulse would devastate downstream and coastal habitats. Geomorphologists working on the project needed to find a way to control the downstream movement of sediment during and after dam removal.
Thirteen of the eighteen million cubic yards of sediment within the river lie behind the 210-foot Glines Canyon Dam. To study sediment movement in the wake of dam removal, researchers from the National Center for Earth-surface Dynamics constructed a physical model of the dam and surrounding watershed to test alternative removal scenarios.
Above are a series of stills from the sediment transport experiments conducted at NCED by Chris Bromely.
The agreed upon strategy, developed through analysis of the physical model studies in conjunction with mathematical models, involves gradually drawing-down the Mills reservoir using an outlet pipe to move water downstream. As the water level drops, demolition crews will cut and remove 7.5-foot sections of the dam starting from the top. Once the level of the dam has reached the level of the sediment layer sitting behind the dam, demolition crews will use controlled blasting to clear the remainder of the dam (see the really neat demolition illustration video from the National Park Service and Interactive Earth).
Removal of Elwha and Glines Canyon dams will be the largest dam removal project in U.S. history, one that is considered an unprecedented learning opportunity be scientists who study rivers and their associated ecosystems. Tim Randle, manager of the sedimentation and river-hydraulics group of the Bureau of Reclamation’s technical-service center in Denver, organized a recent trip to the site for engineers, fisheries scientists, biologists, geomorphologists, and a botanist to consider what can be learned from this extraordinary project. "It's the first time anyone has done a staged, step-by-step dam removal of this scale," Randle told the Seattle Times. “It's the largest controlled release of sediment ever in North America.”
The scientists plan to study what actually happens to all the mobile sediment once the dams are removed. They will investigate how salmon re-colonize the river once fish are again able to reach spawning grounds above the dams. They will research the re-vegetation of the hundreds of acres of exposed river banks and reservoir bottoms that will emerge as the Aldwell and Mills reservoirs drain, but they have nothing quite like this scenario upon which to base their expectations. Joshua Chenoweth, a botanist with Olympic National Park, likens the re-vegetation to that which occurred in the wake of the Mount St. Helens eruption of 1980. “At least there were buried roots at Mount St. Helens,” he told the Times, “We have nothing. This is the first time anyone has tried anything like this. The scale is unprecedented.”
The possibilities for renewal though, seem almost as vast as the wilderness itself. Bushel after bushel of those fir, cedar and hemlock cones still sit quiescent within the dark of cold storage at the Acme Commercial Processing Facility. In a matter of years the sun will shine upon the cones and on land long lost underneath billions of gallons of water. Native salmon and trout may be industriously swimming past.