Stories tagged The Water Cycle, Weather and Climate

May
12
2011

Mississippi River Levee in Baton Rouge, LA, taken May 11th 2011.: Panorama of the Mississippi River levee in Baton Rouge, LA near Louisiana State University, taken May 11th 2011.
Mississippi River Levee in Baton Rouge, LA, taken May 11th 2011.: Panorama of the Mississippi River levee in Baton Rouge, LA near Louisiana State University, taken May 11th 2011.Courtesy Azure Bevington
You might have heard about the terrible flooding that is occurring all along the Mighty Mississippi. As I write this I am sitting in Baton Rouge, Louisiana hoping the levees will hold. Normally the river in Baton Rouge is far below the tops of the levees. Flood stage, which is the water level at which the river would begin to flood surrounding areas without the levees acting as barriers, is 35 ft. Right now the water level is 42.8 ft and has risen 8 ft in just the last week. It is projected to crest at 47.5 ft and remain at that level for 8 to 10 days; this is higher than the previous record set in May 1927 of 47.28 ft. The tops of the levees that protect Baton Rouge are between 47 and 50 ft, they are currently sandbagging in areas less than 48 ft. Besides the possibility of overtopping there are also other problems that we need to look out for. When the river level remains high for an extended period of time the water can seep in and begin to saturate the soil, this can possibly weaken the levee structure. There is also the possibility of water going under the levee; this can result in sand boils, where the water bubbles up through the soil. It is very unlikely that this will happen, as the levees are strong and well constructed, but we need to be on the lookout for any problems.

Here in Baton Rouge we are much better off than many who live in communities within the Atchafalaya Basin, where the expected opening of the Morganza spillway could cause flooding of over 3 million acres (Click here to see a map of projected flooding in the basin) Many of these folks have already begun to sandbag their homes and to prepare to leave the area. The Morganza spillway is a large controlled gated structure that will divert water from the Mississippi River into the Atchafalaya Basin. The Atchafalaya Basin is a low lying cypress swamp that normally receives 30% of the flow of the Mississippi River through the Old River Control structure through the Atchafalaya River that winds its way through the swamp. This flood is projected to be larger than the 1973 flood and possibly even larger than the 1927 flood that devastated communities along the river, and brought about the passage of Flood Control Act of 1928. The magnitude of this year’s flood has already resulted in the opening of the Bonnet Carré spillway which diverts water into Lake Pontchartrain, this reduces the water levels as the River flows past New Orleans.

Stay tuned for updates on the flooding in Louisiana.

Have any of you been affected by the flood waters?

Apr
08
2011

In the public media, the impacts of global warming have been less important than questioning its causes. And at any rate, reports on the impacts have alternately a catastrophic immediacy or an ambiguous, amorphous quality--the latter likely born out of caution due to the former's inaccuracy and tendency to undermine action. But there's room for a third approach--one of reasonability and inquiry.

And in fact, scientists' explorations go beyond the intangible models of earth covered in gradations of 5 colors, which represent average temperature change over the last century. Their work tests changes in the real world with real organisms. This field work generates data that can be used to test and improve the accuracy of the earth systems models we use to predict future change.
Wheat: I do what I want.
Wheat: I do what I want.Courtesy 3268zauber

One such project is literally heating up wheat fields and spraying CO2 over them. The researchers want to find out how global warming and increasing concentrations of CO2 will impact crops. It turns out that plants will react to these changes differently in different latitudes and climes.

For example, plants in warmer climates might grow better earlier in the year only to take a dive once summer temperatures pass a certain range. Plants in cooler climates might thrive with warmer temperatures and increased CO2, whereas tropical plants might suffer from too much heat.

"There is a narrow latitudinal band that could make rising heat beneficial to growers, Kimball concluded. But farther south, especially in Mexico, the implications of the warming mean serious reductions in crop yields."

Climate model: I get better when you validate me.
Climate model: I get better when you validate me.Courtesy Robert A. Rohde

The information gleaned in these plant studies is helping validate and improve existing models of vegetation so that the tools we need to make decisions about climate change are more accurate. One of the researchers in the article implies that we need a lot more of this validation than we do predictions right now. Even so, changes in reporting on climate change's impacts are often due less to increased uncertainty and more to increased information.

So it seems that rather than the impacts of climate change being universally good or bad, they're a little of both in different parts of the world. What can we do to improve communication in the media on this front?

And to take this a step further, given the varying environmental responses to global warming, it is ethical for one country to make decisions about climate change without consulting other countries?

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
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!

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.

Feb
23
2011

We've written about freaky frogs on the Buzz Blog before, but some recent news may shed new light on our abnormal amphibians. Until recently, researchers thought that atrazine, an agricultural pesticide, was the sole cause of sexual deformities in frogs. Unfortunately, it's not so simple.
UT OH: What lurks in me waters?
UT OH: What lurks in me waters?Courtesy Mike Ostrowski

An ecologist at Yale University, David Skelly, sought to test assumptions about atrazine by studying the frequencies of frog deformity in different land types--agricultural, suburban, urban, and forested. Skelly expected to find the highest rates of deformities in agricultural areas, which would be consistent with atrazine being the main cause. Curiously, he found the highest rates of deformity in urban and suburban areas--places we wouldn't expect to find much atrazine. So what's going on?

It turns out that what makes atrazine so dangerous is that it mimics estrogen and binds to estrogen receptors in frog cells. Because estrogen impacts sexual development and function, so too does atrazine. But atrazine isn't the only estrogen-mimicking compound out there--there's a whole class of chemicals that mimic estrogens, including those found in birth control pills and plastics (BPA). And these chemicals are found in droves in cities and surburban areas--they're flushed into the sewage, but aren't filtered out during water treatment.
Birth control pills: Estradiol, a synthetic estrogen, helps prevent pregnancy in women. But much of it is excreted in urine and eventually makes its way into various water sources.
Birth control pills: Estradiol, a synthetic estrogen, helps prevent pregnancy in women. But much of it is excreted in urine and eventually makes its way into various water sources.Courtesy Ceridwen

So why do we care? Besides the fact that frogs are just awesome little creatures and important parts of their food webs, they have something in common with humans--estrogen receptors. The same chemicals that impact frogs can impact us. So how do we humans keep our sexual development and functioning intact?
BPA-free: This Sigg bottle is made from enameled aluminum, and it's an example of a BPA-free bottle.
BPA-free: This Sigg bottle is made from enameled aluminum, and it's an example of a BPA-free bottle.Courtesy Bucklesman

Skelly had a great idea to filter this stuff out of the water at the treatment plant, so that it won't get into our bodies from drinking water. He also suggested that regulatory changes would help so that when new chemicals are developed, they're scrutinized for unintended side effects. And of course, we can make choices that reduce our exposure, such as by buying BPA-free plastics, or using stainless steel and glass containers. And of course, increased awareness is always a good idea.

Do you take extra steps to avoid things like BPA? What are they?

Feb
14
2011

We've probably been debating the virtues of urban areas since humans gathered in the first cities thousands of years ago. But one question we probably haven't explored much is how we can prepare our cities for climate change.

Climate and sea level have changed slowly throughout humanity's history, and we've been able to adapt. Until quite recently, humans either didn't build settlements in risky areas, or the ones they built (say on floodplains or near a sea shore) were temporary and easily moved or abandoned.

Now that we face accelerating and more extreme changes in the next 100 years, we also have some very permanent structures (and infrastructures) in the riskiest of places. Over 100 million people live in areas likely to be underwater by 2100. And even landlubbers face the challenges of more frequent extreme weather events--heavier rainfalls, droughts, etc.

St. Paul, MN: I bet there are thousands of ideas brewing in these buildings every day (especially the one on the lower left side).
St. Paul, MN: I bet there are thousands of ideas brewing in these buildings every day (especially the one on the lower left side).Courtesy John Polo

Luckily, engineers are already beginning to plan for these changes as they retrofit and build new buildings and infrastructure. Often, these engineers are ahead of city building codes and have trouble persuading property owners to invest in addressing threats that lie in the future. But isn't it better safe than sorry? Maybe we could build cities so strong that climate change barely bothers us.

And even luckier perhaps is that cities are hotbeds of innovation and creativity. We could see the efforts of these engineers as just another example of urban virtues. More people mean more ideas and more resources devoted to the cause. And in our rapidly changing world, we need that teamwork more than ever.

Feb
10
2011

Chop it off and send it in!
Chop it off and send it in!Courtesy miss pupik
A couple weeks ago I posted a link to a project in which Dr. Patrick Wheatley was soliciting donations of hair for geochemical research. Intrigued, I contacted Patrick to ask him more about the hair project.

Me: What do you look for as you test the hair?

Patrick: I'm looking for changes in the ratios of isotopes in various elements. I hope to tie the changes in isotopic ratios to differences in geography, either through differences in the isotope ratios of local water supplies or fundamental deferences in the geology of the region where the hair was grown.

Me: How do those isotopes get in our hair in the first place?

Patrick: They are incorporated through our drinking water or diet.

Me: What will your findings help scientists do or understand? Is there a practical application for this research?

Patrick: This research is driven by a possible forensic application, knowing the past whereabouts of victims of crimes (perhaps dead and unable to talk about where they were or perhaps held in a secret location) or suspects of crimes (maybe unwilling to talk about where they have spent time recently). There are also possible medical applications.

You can still send hair in for the project. More information can be found at the project's website.