Stories tagged The Water Cycle, Weather and Climate


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?


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.


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.


Leigh and I are gearing up for another trip to the ice. We are scheduled to leave the states on January 29, arrive in New Zealand on January 31, and head further south on February 2. We’ll only be on the ice a short time for this second deployment of the field season, with the primary goal to recover the GPS units we set out in November. We will also be challenged with finding a suitable landing site higher on the glacier, in the catchment basin, above two subglacial lakes. Leigh, Gordon, and Peter tried to place those monitoring sites back in November along with the rest of our units but were unable to find a safe place to land.

We’ll be meeting up with Gordon, Peter, and Mike, along with another graduate student, Nora, who will already be waiting for us in McMurdo.

We’re looking forward to another great trip! In the meantime, make sure you check our YouTube page and photos from the November trip.


If you're a total Buzz nerd like JGordon, you may have noticed a number of posts with the tag "Future Earth" over the last couple of years. They started when the folks here at the Science Museum of Minnesota began researching a new permanent exhibit called Future Earth, opening Fall 2011 at SMM. This exhibit will ask, "How do we survive and thrive on a human-dominated planet?"

EarthBuzz: This new branch of the Buzz focuses on Future Earth topics.
EarthBuzz: This new branch of the Buzz focuses on Future Earth topics.Courtesy SMM

This is a different question than we're used to asking, but it's a vital one. Understanding the answer means studying more than just global warming, rising sea levels, and population growth--we also have to think about energy production, agriculture, retreating glaciers, transportation, hunger, poverty, development, and the list goes on. It turns out that because all of these issues are interrelated, we can't study or address any one of them in total isolation.

This new way of understanding is what inspired the Future Earth exhibit. Future Earth will look at environmental issues with a fresh perspective, explore the ways we study and understand our impacts on the environment, and shed light on projects that offer innovative solutions to complex problems, such as this one we hope to implement at Science Museum of Minnesota. The goal is to foster understanding, hope, and action.

Future Earth is part of a larger effort taking place at SMM, the University of Minnesota's Institute on the Environment, and a team of other institutions called the Future Earth Initiative. Funded by the National Science Foundation, FEI aims to raise awareness and offer workable solutions for life in a human-dominated environment. Given adequate time and resources, these solutions could help reduce our negative impacts on the environment while providing us all with the energy we need to live. Think of it as saving two birds with one…thing that you save birds with…


Fried insect pupae: You have to admit, they look a little bit delicious, right?
Fried insect pupae: You have to admit, they look a little bit delicious, right?Courtesy Steven G. Johnson
If you're as big a fan of Science Buzz as I am, you might remember us saying that eating bugs can be a bad idea.

(I doubt you are as big Science Buzz fans as I am, though. Do you have a large, Party of Five-style poster of Liza, bryan kennedy, Artifactor, mdr, Thor, and Gene hanging in your room? Didn't think so.)

Anyway, despite what we might have said, it turns out that eating bugs may in fact be a good idea. But it's a good idea that's never gonna happen. (When I say "never," I mean "not in my lifetime, so as far as I'm concerned, 'never.'")

See, there are lots of folks who eat bugs (it's called entomophagy). And it's not all Fear Factor-style disgustingness—the insects are often cooked and flavored, and, you know, I'm sure they're fine. Like Corn Nuts.

But there are a lots more people who get their protein from eating larger animals, like cows and pigs and chickens and turkeys and stuff. And for a long time some people ate cows and pigs, and some people ate insects, and the world spun along just fine.

Then, not too long ago, people started to realize something: raising enough cows and pigs and things to feed billions of people has a tremendous negative impact on the environment. You have to feed each animal many times its weight in plants before it grows to full size, and all the while its pooping, peeing, and farting. And before you start complaining about how you're too young to read "pooping, peeing, and farting," let me say two things. 1) The alternative was to write "defecating, urinating, and flatulating," and you are too young to read that; and 2) animal poop, pee, and farts have a huge environmental impact.

When animal waste leaks into water sources, it can make them unhealthy to drink, and toxic to live in (if you're the sort of organism that lives in the water. And the various gases (like methane, nitrous oxide, and carbon dioxide) emitted by animals and their waste are a major source of global warming.

So there. It turns out that those of us who eat meat are straining the environment quite a bit.

But what about all those edible bugs? How do they fit in?

Well, a group of scientists from the Netherlands just published a report on that very thing. They compared the emissions of common meat animals to those of a variety of insects, and found that the world would probably be better off if we raised and ate bugs instead of cows and pigs.

See, insects are able to turn the food they eat into protein much more efficiently than cows and pigs, because insects' metabolisms don't constantly burn fuel to maintain a regular body temperature (like the metabolisms of cows, pigs and people do). In the end, for the amount of mass they build, insects produce less greenhouse gases than pigs, and way less than cows. The insects' production of ammonia (a source of water pollution) was also much less than cows and pigs. The long and the short of the research is that if we were to have farms raising delicious mealworms, house crickets, and locusts, we could reduce our greenhouse gas emissions significantly.

But I don't have high hopes for any of that; it's hard to imagine seeing insect-based food items on the shelves any time soon. Here's hoping though, right?


You know what I think makes humans unique? Our ability to solve problems. Ingenuity. Our can-do attitude. Throughout history, if we found a problem, we sought a solution. Too cold at night? Fire. Killing a mammoth with your hands too deadly? A team of spearman. Flash forward thousands of years and our problems became more sophisticated. Horse and buggy too slow? Automobiles. Candlelight not bright enough? Light bulbs. Washing laundry and dishes too tedious? Washing machines and dishwashers. Typewriters cramping your style? Computers. Computers cramping your style? Android phones. (Have you caught my drift? Good.) Now, some of our solutions are becoming new problems. Cars and electricity emit pollutants and greenhouse gases. Washing machines and dishwashers are using too much water. Computers and cell phones require the mining and eventual disposal of toxic metals. Once again, it’s time for some good ol’ human problem solving.

A Literal Eco-Footprint: Somehow, I don't think this is exactly what Sarah Hobbes and team had in mind.
A Literal Eco-Footprint: Somehow, I don't think this is exactly what Sarah Hobbes and team had in mind.Courtesy urje's photostream (Flickr)

Sarah Hobbes and her collaborators identified a problem: we aren’t doing enough to reduce our household ecologic footprints, especially regarding carbon. Now, they’re working on a solution by researching what influences families to change their living habits and minimize their footprint. This past Sunday’s edition of the Star Tribune covered Sarah’s research story (the Buzz’s own Liza was even quoted!). Sarah Hobbes is an ecologist at the University of Minnesota and a resident fellow at the Institute on the Environment. Her research project doesn’t take place in a lab, but rather in peoples’ home – including the St. Paul house Sarah shares with her husband (also a University of Minnesota ecologist) and two children. The research team uses a 23-page survey to understand what kind of ecological footprint Ramsey and Anoka county homes are leaving. (Btw, kudos to those of you who already completed the lengthy survey! Science really appreciates people like you.)

Some of the initial results aren’t surprising: While most of us really do care about the environment,

“For most families, cost and convenience are more important than concern about the environment. People in the suburbs tend to use more fertilizer than those in the urban core. People with bigger houses and bigger families had a bigger carbon footprint, as did people who drove farther to work.” (Star Tribune article)

But what’s most interesting is that competition really gets us going. That is, respondents were motivated to reduce their ecological footprint after they compared their own rank to their neighbors’. Larry Baker, a project collaborator, stated,

“We expect that attitudes will drive 10 or 20 percent of the carbon emissions… If we could reduce energy use by 20 percent, that would be a huge benefit.” (Start Tribune article)

No kidding! That would be fantastic!! The full survey report hasn’t been published yet, but I’m sure looking forward to the recommended solution.

Want to know your ecological footprint? Try out this online Ecological Footprint Quiz.


What what?
What what?Courtesy Public Domain
For those of you who want to choose the most environmentally friendly shaving solution, Slate's Green Lantern just did a column about the carbon footprints of different shaving options. Disposable or electric? Which is "greener"?

As with everything else in the future (where we live), even this little question is complicated. But the author seems to do a pretty good job unpacking it—you have to consider energy used in the process, whether for hot water or to run a small electric motor, as well as manufacturing costs and each product's useful lifetime.

The long and the short of it, depending on your shaving habits, is that electric razors are ultimately more energy efficient than plastic disposables. But just barely. According to the Green Lantern's calculations, you save about 15 pounds of carbon dioxide by using an electric shaver. And, as the author puts it, you would have to shave with a disposable razor for more than 350 years to equal the amount of greenhouse gases produced by one cow in a single year. (I don't think a cow produces 5200 pounds of greenhouse gas a year by itself. That figure might be taking in to consideration the gases produced by growing feed and processing the animal as well, or it might account for the greater potency of methane—which cows produce—as a greenhouse gas over carbon dioxide.)

In any case, this assumes that you shave your face at all. You might wear a beard, or you might be what I like to call "a female." Or you might take advantage of one of the many other shaving options: some men use old-fashion safety razors and straight razors; Crocodile Dundee finishes his shaves with a bowie knife; I cover my face in high-proof grain alcohol and set it ablaze (it's invigorating, but I can't maintain eyelashes well this way); I have friends who let cats lick away their stubble.

So this isn't the be-all-end-all. But it's like David Schwimmer says.


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.


As the cold wind blows
As the cold wind blowsCourtesy Erik Ogan
If you're in the upper midwest or in the Minnesota neck of the woods your hair probably looks awesome today. We're experiencing an epic storm system due to a record low pressure system sitting over the northern part of the state.

Unsurprisingly, MPR's updraft blog has some good material on the amazing Land Hurricane of 2010.

The record low pressure map there is pretty cool.

I saw several downed big tree limbs on my way into work this morning. I wonder how city public works departments respond to mega wind storms like this. I'm reading a great book all about various parts of urban infrastructure, and it leads me to think that there are lots of guys in cherry picker trucks driving around the city dealing with downed power lines today.