Stories tagged Scientific Enterprise

May
18
2011

Boom!
Boom!Courtesy sfllaw
Word on the street is that the world may be ending on Saturday. Unfortunately, I’m not sure exactly when—I’m not keyed into the ins and outs of religious fear mongering enough to make an exact calculation—so I can’t tell you if you should cancel your lunch date, or if you’ve got until midnight to continue doing whatever it is you do. Jigsaw puzzles? Hard drugs? Far be it from me to judge.

And, you know, normally I’d dismiss this as an organization’s or individual’s effort to gain attention through a frightening claim that has no basis in reality, but … watermelons are freaking exploding in China!

Whatever holy scripture this May 21st thing was extrapolated from, I guarantee there’s a passage in there along the lines of, “And in the east, melons shall burst on the vine. Their shells will rupture, and tiny seeds shall fly forth. Juice will be everywhere.” I mean, it would fit, right? This is the sort of thing that always happens before the end of the world! How am I going to explain this to my cat?!

Now, some folks—I’ll call them unbelievers—insist that the exploding melons actually aren’t bursting from anxiety over the imminent end of everything they care about. Instead, they say that they’re bursting because of a lazy farming technique, where a chemical called forchlorfenuron has been over applied. Forchlorfer… whatever, causes increased cell division in fruit, and is sprayed on watermelons and their ilk to get bigger, faster growing fruit. The resulting watermelons can be oddly shaped, and don’t taste all that great, but they’re supposed to be harmless to humans. And, apparently, they can explode.

Now, generally we keep an open mind regarding fertilizers and high-yield farming techniques around here, but this is a good example of the hazards of wily-nily application of chemicals to farms. (Assuming, for the sake of argument, that this isn’t a symptom of the apocalypse.) If there’s no significant nutritional gain, it seems kind of crazy. And if this chemical is causing explosion in the crop it’s supposed to help, it makes one wonder what its effect will be when it’s absorbed in the soil or washed off the fields (and into other vegetation). And there’s the question of whether farmers should be allowed to do this. And what the market conditions are that make them want to/need to use chemicals like forchlorfenuron. And if there’s a benefit to using it in any situations.

But that’s all probably very complicated, and should only be considered by people who don’t believe that the world is on its way out. Me? I’m not even going to brush my teeth before Saturday.

May
13
2011

Actually, no.: Possibly not, anyway,
Actually, no.: Possibly not, anyway,Courtesy Garthhh
Don’t you hate it when someone tells you something, and you can’t tell them they’re wrong (just so you feel smarter than them, of course) because you don’t currently have any facts backing up your argument that they’re dumb, and maybe not a good person?

I hate that. I mean, I don’t even want to come up with an alternative argument in those situations—I just want the other person to know that they’re wrong. Again.

Example: You’re running your mouth around the fossil-fuels-aren’t-sustainable track, when someone says, “No, you’re right. They aren’t.” That, naturally, is a good start for a response, but then they go on to say, “And that’s why we have to get on the nuclear energy train, and we have to get on it hard. Done correctly, nuclear energy can provide lots and lots of clean energy, without the carbon emissions you hate. And we will no longer have to rely on foreign sources of oil. And blah blah blah. Check. Mate.”

And you just stand there, flapping your mouth open and shut, but no words are coming out, because you’re all out of words. Maybe you don’t even have anything against nuclear power—you just need to prove that person wrong. Who does he think he is?!

If a similar situation were to happen, except with, say, horse racing as the subject, you’d be back in your home town, Sit Creek, even though you hated it there so much, and you split as soon as you finished high school. Too bad for you. I can’t tell you anything contradictory about horse racing.

But if a similar situation were to come up, and the topic was nuclear energy, well, you’d be in luck. See a professor from the University of Adelaide just published a paper laying out exactly why nuclear power is not the solution to our future energy woes. Lucky, lucky you.

It’s not nuclear energy in general that the prof has a problem with, it’s that nuclear energy can’t be scaled up to replace fossil fuels (which will indeed need to be replaced eventually.) Doing so would be too expensive, require too many resources, and involve too much danger.

Today, we’re using about 15 terawatts of power around the world each year. That’s not just for electricity, it’s also for heat and transportation fuels and all that. But, at some point, we may be using electricity for those things as well.

Of those 15 terawatts, we generate about 375 gigawatts in nuclear plants—that’s just 2.5% of our global energy consumption. (Wikipedia puts the figure at 6%, but maybe that’s delivered energy, or something. Let’s leave it be for now.)

By this scientist’s estimates, we’d need 15,000 nuclear reactors going at once to produce 15 terawatts of power (and this is assuming that our power consumption doesn’t go up. Which it for sure will.). Given a nuclear power station’s lifetime of about 50 years, to maintain 15,000 working power stations, we’d need to commission a new plant and decommission an old one every day. And, currently, it tales 6-12 years to build a plant, and 20 or so years to decommission one. This would be very difficult and expensive to coordinate.

And it would take a lot of land—all those plants in the process of being built, run, and decommissioned would need about 8 square miles of land. That land would have to be near a large body of water, but also away from large population centers. Tricky.

And, says professor, at the rate we’re currently consuming uranium (our favorite nuclear fuel), it will only last for 80 years. Scaled up to 15 terawatts production, it would last for 5 years. We could potentially start extracting uranium from seawater, a source that could last for thousands of years, but that would be an expensive and energy intensive process itself.

And what of the spent fuel? We still don’t know what to do with it, and all that additional nuclear material (both fuel and waste) would almost certainly increase the proliferation of nuclear weapons around the world.

At any rate, the list goes on, long enough to allow you to shove the argument back into the hot, reeking mouth of whoever was sassing you in the first place. They might bring up technological advances (which the researcher sort of accounts for) or how people are always saying that energy sources, be they nuclear or renewable, aren’t globally scalable, or that presuming that we would use a single sort of energy production for everybody in the world, everywhere in the world, is probably silly … but they’ll probably be feeling so nonplussed in their oafishness that you will have plenty of time to make your escape and set yourself up in another conversation with a much easier opponent, like a child, or a table.

Good luck.

Apr
15
2011

What’s in a super hero?
Superhero schmuperhero
Superhero schmuperheroCourtesy karla_k

Growing up, my dad had the classic Marvel comic heroes like Spiderman and Captain America whereas my brother and I watched and played Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Power Rangers. These days I ask a little more from my heroes. I want them to increase energy efficiency, vanquish upper respiratory diseases like asthma, stop world hunger, and -- Wait! What?? Who’s this?! Gaba-gaba and Plumpy’nut to the rescue! -- Strangely named heroes they may be, but these are among the super foods fighting global malnutrition.

Food insecurity and hunger is a big deal. It affects about 200,000 households in Minnesota, about 13 million households in the United States, and 925 million people (more than the population of the U.S., Canada, and European Union combined!) worldwide. You are more likely to be among these effected populations if you live in a developing country, are female, and/or are a child. With a global population racing towards 9 billion (that’s 9,000,000,000) people, worldwide food insecurity and hunger is increasing rather than decreasing. As we say here in Minnesoooota, “Uff-da! Dat’s a big problem dere.”

Gaba-gaba and Plumpy’nut are being deployed around the world to fill bellies.
(Like) Gaba-gaba: These are probably your everyday, run-of-the mill sweet potatoes.  Super food sweet potatoes usually wear capes.
(Like) Gaba-gaba: These are probably your everyday, run-of-the mill sweet potatoes. Super food sweet potatoes usually wear capes.Courtesy Wally Hartshorn

Essentially, gaba-gaba is a naturally bred (read: not genetically engineered) variety of sweet potato containing an insane amount of essential vitamins and minerals like vitamins A, C, and E, calcium, iron, and folic acid (needed for healthy red blood cells). These nutrients build immunity, improve digestion, strengthen the heart, hydrate the body, improve eyes, and provide energy. But wait! There’s more!! Not only does it do all that, but gaba-gaba is fast growing as well as drought and disease resistant making it ideal for tough climates in places like Mozambique, Africa. Mega-extra bonus: I’ve heard gaba-gaba can be eaten raw or cooked and can even be squeezed for juice or ground into flour! Talk about a versatile veggie.

According to the International Potato Center -- Pause. Did you even know there is an International Potato Center? It’s totally legit. Bono went there with some of his U2 band members! Play. -- As I was saying, the IPC reports that Bono has eaten gaba-gaba to get in shape. “Gabba Gabba Hey!” is also a lyric to “Pinhead” by the Ramones. Clearly, this means that gaba-gaba is pop star endorsed. Coolness.

Meanwhile, Plumpy’nut is a “ready-to-use therapeutic food,” which, to my notion, looks like the kind of food astronauts eat in outer space. Also cool, right?

I imagine the Plumpy’nut recipe card to read something like, “ Step 1: Gather your peanuts, sugar, vegetable fat, milk powder, vitamins, and minerals. Step 2: Pulverize into a smooth paste. Step 3: Enjoy!” Ridiculously simple for a paste that can provide 500,000 calories per 92 gram (about 3.25 ounces) serving, and can be used at home, making it possible to treat severe acute malnutrition without hospitalization. Nutriset, the makers of Plumpy’nut, thought of everything! They even made sure the nutritious paste can last up to two years without refrigeration. Neat, huh?

It’s pretty amazing what science and technology can do to make the world a better place to live. We’ve written about food security, rising global population, and hunger before on the Buzz. I wrote this post a little over a year ago on the subject. It highlights the role of the Institute on the Environment’s Global Landscapes Initiative’s efforts to stretch our agriculture resources and feed a growing population.

I’ll be keeping my eyes out for more super foods and modern day heroes. If you know of any, share them in the comment box below!

Apr
13
2011

The new solar thermal array: And, yes, this was the largest photo I could find on short notice.
The new solar thermal array: And, yes, this was the largest photo I could find on short notice.Courtesy US Department of Energy
A couple of months ago, I noticed something happening on the roof of the RiverCentre, the big building across the street from the Science Museum. After noticing, however, I didn’t give it any more thought. This was for two reasons: because a couple of months ago it was approximately one billion degrees below zero here, and I didn’t want to stand outside looking at roofs any longer than I had to; and because I’m a firm believer that you shouldn’t stare too long at anything you aren’t certain about. Don’t believe me? Examples: the sun (it’ll burn your eyes), chimpanzees (they will literally tear you to pieces), and roadkill (it’s gross).

At any rate, it turned out that the goings-on on the RiverCentre roof would have been largely harmless to watch, and that they were a part of a big, interesting project that I hadn’t heard about—they were installing a large array of solar thermal panels.

Solar thermal panels, just as a reminder, aren’t exactly like the photovoltaic solar panels you might be thinking of. Unlike panels that use sunlight to produce electricity, solar thermal panels absorb the heat in sunlight (or solar radiation, if the distinction bugs you), and uses it to heat water.

So … the new solar array on the RiverCentre is a joint project between the RiverCentre itself, and St. Paul District Energy, another neighbor of the Science Museum, which supplies hot and cold water to buildings downtown for efficient heating and cooling. The array has 144 solar panels, altogether taking up about the area of half a football field, and they should be able to produce about 1 megawatt of power.

Now, compared to a 1,000-megawatt coal or nuclear power station, 1 measly megawatt probably doesn’t seem like much, but it’s nothing to sneeze at. A single megawatt is still approximately enough to power 1,000 homes. Sort of.

It depends on the average consumption of the homes in the area, which varies from region to region, but 1 megawatt is usually touted as the power consumed by 1000 homes. And, in any case, this is a little different, because it’s not feeding an electrical power grid, but a grid of heat energy for downtown—any extra heat that’s not used by the RiverCentre facilities will be fed back to District Energy, which will redistribute it around the city.

The new array is the largest of its kind in the Midwest, and, in addition to creating a local energy source (as opposed to buy coal or natural gas from somewhere else), it should reduce St. Paul’s carbon dioxide emissions by about 900,000 pounds annually—more or less the amount created by 90 vehicles in a year.

Again, 90 cars’ worth of CO2 may not seem like much, but it’s a start, and it’s kind of cool that that’s just from the panels on one building. And, with the help of a million and a half dollar stimulus from the Minnesota Office of Energy Security, a mix of solar thermal and photovoltaic solar panels are going to be installed on 10 more buildings along the Central Corridor. In addition to the new light rail line from St. Paul to Minneapolis, the Central Corridor is meant to be a showcase for a bunch of energy innovation projects. (Click that last link for a list of projects—there are a whole bunch.)

Pretty slick. (More info and links here.)

Apr
13
2011

Earth, our place in space
Earth, our place in spaceCourtesy NASA
Life scientists study…well, life. They want to know everything about living things on planet Earth. One of the first things biologists want to know is who’s here. What kinds of plants and animals live in a forest? --or in a field? –or in the ocean?

If you’re an oceanographer who studies marine mammals, perhaps you’d go to sea on a ship with a good pair of binoculars and hunt for whales. As you focused your binoculars you’d be able to see different kinds of whale species. As you looked closer, for example at Humpback Whales, you'd see that each individual whale has a different black-white pattern on its tail. You might even take a biopsy, a small sample of whale flesh, and do a more detailed study of genetic differences among individual Humpbacks.

But what if you’re a microbial oceanographer? You sure can't use binocs to hunt for microbes! How can you study individual differences among tiny creatures that are only one-one-hundredth the width of a human hair? How do you hunt and capture single-celled bacteria, like Prochlorococcus, the most common bacterial species in the world’s ocean?

Invent something!

laser-based micro-fluidic system
laser-based micro-fluidic systemCourtesy C-MORE
Young scientists, Sebastien Rodrigue and Rex Malmstrom, at the Center for Microbial Oceanography: Research and Education (C-MORE) were doing research in Dr. Sallie Chisholm’s C-MORE lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology when they adapted a “laser-based micro-fluidic system” used commonly by medical researchers, for the study of marine bacteria. With this method they could put each individual tiny Prochlorococcus cell into its own little pool of seawater.

And then the excitement began.

Prochlorococcus
ProchlorococcusCourtesy Dr. Anne Thompson, MIT
Even in scanning microscope photographs, each Prochlorococcus looks like just another teeny, tiny balloon; we can't see any individual differences. However, Sebastien and Rex used fast and inexpensive genetic methods and discovered an extraordinary variety of individual differences among Prochlorococcus. Of course the variety among these microbes doesn't have to do with tail patterns, like whales. Prochlorococcus vary in their method of getting nutrients, like iron, out of seawater.

So what? Why do we care?

We care A LOT because microbes like Prochlorococcus are operating at the nitty gritty level of cycling not only iron, but also other elements in the ocean. Like carbon. That's right, as in carbon dioxide accumulating in our atmosphere -- and ocean -- causing climate change and associated problems. The more we understand about individual differences among oceanic microbes, the more we'll understand how they influence and respond to changes in Earth's climate.

Apr
05
2011

Whooping cranes: Can't live with 'em, can't live without 'em.
Whooping cranes: Can't live with 'em, can't live without 'em.Courtesy US Fish and Wildlife
Word on the street is that Xcel Energy has canceled its $400 million, 150-megawatt wind farm project in North Dakota. (North Dakota, if I remember my geography right, is the Dakota directly … above South Dakota. I think.)

The reason Xcel is giving for the cancellation is the same one I give for never going out in the yard without a rake: birds.

The wind turbines, it seems, could pose a potential hazard to two endangered birds: the whooping crane (known to be a silent, thoughtful bird), and the piping plover (known for perching on bathroom windowsills to watch people bathe). The whooping crane is the tallest bird in North America (save that for humiliating your fiancé on trivia night), and its population has been reduced to only about 400 birds, largely due to habitat loss. The piping plover, also a victim of habitat loss, is a shore bird with a global population of just over 6,000 individuals.

Faced with a federal mandate to mitigate the threat to the birds, Xcel, like an unenthusiastic kid who just found out he’d have to bike to a lame birthday party, decided that that the wind farm scene just wasn’t worth the hassle.

It’s too bad, really. Shana explored this issue a couple weeks ago, but the long and the short of it is that it’s a doozy. On one hand, no one wants to see a five-foot-tall crane run into a windmill (if you laugh, you go to Denny’s when you die), but on the other, you have to balance that threat against the chronic environmental effects of fossil fuel use. If both species are vulnerable to habitat loss, climate change probably isn’t going to be a great thing for them. And at least in the case of the cranes, fossil fuel has an even more direct effect on them—the cranes’ only winter habitat, Aransas, Texas, is a regular spot for oil and gas drilling operations. So … they’re able to work that out, but not the North Dakota wind farm?

It kind of feels like that kid was really looking for an excuse not to go to the birthday party. But I suppose we can’t really blame it all on the kid—we should have made sure it was a better party. And, yeah, I can see how having a bunch of birds around would make for a creepy party, but if it was done right it could also be an awesome party with all those birds!

Oh, god, I don’t know what’s metaphor and what’s reality anymore.

Anyway, no more big wind turbine field in North Dakota. What do y’all think about that?

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
14
2011

The Fukushima plant: Before the earthquake.
The Fukushima plant: Before the earthquake.Courtesy KEI
Ok, well, there isn’t really such a thing as a nuclear earthquake. “Nuclear Earthquake” just sounds impressive. And I suppose “impressive” is one way to describe what’s happening in Japan right now.

I suppose you’re all aware of the 8.9 (or possibly 9.0) rated earthquake that hit Japan last week (if you aren’t, check out this post), and that the Fukushima nuclear power station there has been severely damaged.

While the country is still trying to put itself together, officials are still trying to get the power plant under control. So what happened, what’s happening, and what’s (probably) going to happen?

Well, a nuclear plant like Fukushima basically operates by using radioactive uranium to boil water. The uranium is always decaying—the number of protons and neutrons it has isn’t stable, so neutrons fly off, causing heat. If the neutrons hit other neutrons in the uranium, they fly off too, causing even more heat. If there’s too much of this neutron-on-neutron action, the uranium will get too hot, melt everything around it, and it’s a disaster. This is what happened at Chernobyl.

To prevent the neutron reaction from getting out of control, and to make sure the uranium produces just the right amount of heat, “control rods” are inserted in with the uranium fuel. The control rods absorb some of the neutrons to keep the reaction under control. When the right amount of heat is being produced, the water around the fuel boils, turns to steam, and spins electric generators. It works out pretty well.

At Fukushima, the control rods were inserted into the uranium as soon as the earthquake started, and they did work—the uranium reaction was shut down. But the decaying uranium had already produced other elements, elements with a lot of heat of their own. So there was a lot of residual heat in the power station.

Normally, water would keep circulating around the hot core, carrying away the residual heat (and turning it into electricity). But between the earthquake and the ensuing tsunami, the power to the water pumps was shut off and the backup generators were disabled. The pumps had backup batteries, but eventually those ran out. That means there was still a lot of heat in the core, but no fresh water to carry it away. The water that was there would continue to heat up until the steam was vented or the vessel containing it simply burst.

Unfortunately, both of those things sort of happened. While purposely venting some of the steam, an explosion happened in the building surrounding one of the cores. According to this site, this is probably because some of the vented water vapor had separated into hydrogen and oxygen, which built up in the building and ignited. This whole situation (the venting and the steam) was radioactive, but not that bad as those things go—the radioactive elements decayed and became stable in a very short time.

The next problem was that with all the venting, the water level around the cores was slowly falling. Without water to take away their heat, the cores could overheat, and eventually melt down. This started to happen, and some more dangerous radioactive products of the uranium started to mix with the remaining water and steam, so officials decided to start pumping seawater into the core. Seawater can get more radioactive than clean water, but it would keep the core cool and under control. And it did.

Today, there was a second explosion at the plant, however. I’m not totally sure what caused this, but it looks like it was again from the accumulation of hydrogen in one of the buildings.

With the uranium reaction under control and the cores under water, the residual heat should eventually dissipate. But the explosions have further damaged the cooling systems, and keeping the multiple cores at the station submerged in seawater has been a challenge. The longer the cores are exposed, the harder it is to control radioactive material already produced by the cores, and the greater the chance of a meltdown occurring at the plant.

Approximately 200,000 people living in the region of the nuclear plant have been evacuated, and it’s still unclear what will happen there. Nothing good certainly, but a meltdown isn’t a sure thing at this point, and even if a meltdown were to occur (again, a meltdown happens when there’s too much heat in the core, and everything around the radioactive fuel melts), the Fukushima plant was built to much higher safety standards than Chernobyl was, and it should contain the damage much more effectively. At Chernobyl, explosions sent radioactive material into the atmosphere and over the surrounding area. At Fukushima, as I understand it, the radioactive products of a meltdown would be contained inside extremely thick, tough containers, which, so far, have not been damaged by the earthquake or the explosions.

There’s more to be said about what will happen, and how this might affect the world’s attitude toward nuclear power, and whether that’s a good thing or not … but that will have to wait for another post.

Update: A Third Explosion at Fukushima
A there's been another explosion at the Fukushima nuclear plant. Now three of the four reactors at Fukushima have experienced an explosion. The previous two explosions were probably caused by a buildup of hydrogen, but it isn't certain whether that was the cause of this explosion as well.

The vents that emergency workers had hoped to use to flood the reactor chamber with seawater were malfunctioning, meaning that the core was dry (and un-cooled) for several hours. The vents finally started working in the early morning, but the chamber wasn't filling with water the way they had hoped, perhaps because of a leak.

A meltdown is still possible, but while radiation levels in the area are considered "elevated," they are low enough that it's very unlikely that the vessels that contain the reactor cores have been breached.

3/15/11 Update: Fire at 4th reactor
Shortly after the explosion at reactor 2 (the third explosion), a fire started at reactor 4. Between the fire and the explosion, radiation levels at the site briefly spiked to about 167 times the average annual dose. Reactor 4 actually wasn't producing power when the tsunami hit, but it did contain a cooling pool for spent fuel assemblies.

Nuclear fuel that has decayed to the point where it's not useful for sustaining a nuclear reaction still produces a lot of heat, and so it's stored in a pool of water for years to deal with the heat and radiation. Reactor 4 at Fukishima has one of these pools, and—just like with the active reactors—it looks like the cooling system was malfunctioning, which allowed the water in the pool to boil away, exposing the spent fuel. The spent fuel likely heated up until it ignited, or caused a fire in the building.

Authorities are now warning people living as far as 20 miles away from the plant to stay inside to avoid any radioactive fallout. As for the emergency workers at Fukushima, CNN's expert says, "Their situation is not great. It's pretty clear that they will be getting very high doses of radiation. There's certainly the potential for lethal doses of radiation. They know it, and I think you have to call these people heroes."

Update: 2 Reactor containment vessels probably cracked
Japanese officials think that the spike of radiation around the Fukushima plant last night might have been associated with a cracked containment vessel in one of the reactors. Today, they think a second container might be cracked as well, and leaking radioactive steam.

Mar
03
2011

Just a few of your billions of hungry friends
Just a few of your billions of hungry friendsCourtesy SchuminWeb
Buckle up, because this is a long post. But it’s about your second favorite thing: food. If you’re the impatient type, skip to the end for the bullet points.

(The number one thing is Hollywood gossip, duh. Go on and act like it’s not.)

So … imagine you and six of your friends standing in a room together. I know some of you don’t have six friends (Facebook doesn’t count), but for the sake of science pretend that you do. And I don’t know why you all are just standing around in a room. Trying to prove a point, I guess.

Imagine you and six of your friends are standing in a room together. Now, imagine one hundred times that number of people. Now imagine one hundred times that number. And one hundred times that number. And a thousand times that number.

That’s seven billion people, all just sort of standing around a room, and that’s about the number of people we have on the planet today.

And the thing is, all seven billion of y’all eat like Garfield. (Garfield, for all of you foreign Buzzketeers, was the 20th president of the United States, and he loved lasagna.) Seven billion people, eating, eating, eating. That’s you.

Obviously y’all have to eat, so we put a lot of effort into producing food. Right now, humans have used up about 40% of the planet’s land surface, and the vast majority of that is dedicated to agriculture (i.e., food production). In fact, if you were to take all the crop-growing land in the world and lump it together, it would be the size of South America. And if you were to take all of the pastureland (land for raising animals) in the world and lump it together, it would be the size Africa!
The land we use: Green areas are used for growing crops, brown areas are used for raising animals.
The land we use: Green areas are used for growing crops, brown areas are used for raising animals.Courtesy IonE

That is obviously a lot of land. The transformation of that land from its natural state into agricultural land may be responsible for about a third of all the carbon dioxide mankind has released into the atmosphere. And each year agriculture is responsible for more than 20% of all the new greenhouse gas emissions. And the whole process takes 3,500 cubic kilometers of water, and hundreds of millions of tons of non-renewable fertilizers, and lots of people don’t have enough food …

But we’re pretty much doing it. It’s not pretty, but we’re feeding the planet.

Here’s the punch: there’s a lot more people coming soon, and not much more food. By 2050, there will very probably be about 9 billion people on the planet. How are we going to feed 2 billion more people than are alive today? While there is a lot unused land out there, very little of it is arable. That means that we’ve already used up almost all of the land that’s good for growing food.

Oh, shoot.

What we need to do is produce more food with just the land we’re already using. Fortunately, scientists are working on ways to do this.

I’m going to get the first one out of the way right now, because you aren’t going to like it …

Eat less meat. Eat a lot less meat.
A handy meat conversion chart!: Keep one in your wallet, or tattooed on your forearm.
A handy meat conversion chart!: Keep one in your wallet, or tattooed on your forearm.Courtesy IonE

Don’t get me wrong—I agree with you that meat is delicious and manly (or womanly), but we eat a lot of meat, and raising meat animals is a really inefficient way to get food. To get lots of meat, and to get the animals to grow quickly, we feed them grains that we farm. But to get just one pound of beef (not one pound of cow; one pound of beef) we have to feed a cow about 30 pounds of grain. Say what you will about meat being calorically more dense, it doesn’t have 30 times the nutritional value of grain.
How much of what we grow gets eaten?: Crops grown in the blue areas are mostly eaten by people. But in the yellow and red areas, the crops are mostly used as animal feed. Say what?
How much of what we grow gets eaten?: Crops grown in the blue areas are mostly eaten by people. But in the yellow and red areas, the crops are mostly used as animal feed. Say what?Courtesy IonE

If you look at the maps that compare the volume of crops we grow to the volume of crops we actually eat, you find that places like North America and Europe actually use most of their crops for something besides directly eating—mostly because we’re feeding them to animals (and using them for biofuel feedstock).

Leaving alone the amount of water animals need, and the pollution they can cause, eating meat doesn’t make a lot of sense.

So there you go. I told you that you wouldn’t like it. If it makes you feel any better, you’re not the only one causing the problem—the rest of the world, as it gets wealthier, wants to eat as much meat as you, and so unsustainable meat production is on the rise for just about anyone who can afford it.

Ok, here’s the next idea:

Cut it all down, and turn the planet into one big ol’ farm.
You can barely hear the chainsaws: ...over the sound of the baby animals crying. Seriously, though, as awesome as that would be, it's probably an awful idea.
You can barely hear the chainsaws: ...over the sound of the baby animals crying. Seriously, though, as awesome as that would be, it's probably an awful idea.Courtesy Jami Dwyer

We aren’t going to be growing crops in the arctic any time soon, but there are areas we could take advantage of still. Like the tropical forests. We could bulldoze those suckers down, and use the land for crops.

This, of course, is a horrible solution, and I snuck it in here just to bother you. Even if you don’t prioritize the biodiversity of the world’s tropical forests, or the ways of life of the people who live in them, tropical forests play a huge role in keeping the planet a livable place. So we should table that one for a while, unless you really, really want to bulldoze the rainforests.

And then there’s this idea:

Grow more food on the land we’re already using.

Of course! Why didn’t we think of this before?!

Well, we did think of this before, about 60 years ago. Back in the middle of the 20th century, populations in developing countries were exploding, much faster than food production was increasing. Trouble was on the horizon.

And then … Norman Borlaug came along. Of course, lots and lots of people helped deal with the food crisis, but Borlaug was at the center of what became known as the Green Revolution. He worked to build up irrigation infrastructure (to water crops), distribute synthetic fertilizers (mostly nitrogen chemically extracted from the atmosphere), and develop high-yield crop varieties that would produce much more food than traditional crops, when given enough fertilizer and water.
The man they call Borlaug: On the left. The other guy is just some hanger-on, I guess.
The man they call Borlaug: On the left. The other guy is just some hanger-on, I guess.Courtesy University of Minnesota

Now, some folks point out that the Green Revolution had plenty of environmental and social drawbacks, but the fact remains that it also kept millions upon millions of people from starving. And Borlaug himself said that while it was “a change in the right direction, it has not transformed the world into a Utopia.”

The change in the right direction part is what scientists are working on now.

Researchers at organizations like the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment (IonE) are figuring out implement the sorts of things Borlaug worked on more fully, and more efficiently.

By combining satellite data with what can be observed on the ground, IonE is determining exactly where crops are growing, how much each place is growing.
This is how much corn we grow right now
This is how much corn we grow right nowCourtesy IonE
This is how much corn we could grow: If we grew corn everywhere.
This is how much corn we could grow: If we grew corn everywhere.Courtesy IonE
This is how much more corn we could grow: If we focus on the areas where we already grow corn. The green areas are growing almost as much as possible, but the yellow areas could grow a lot more. Eastern Europe, West Africa, and Central America could grow a lot more food with the right resources.
This is how much more corn we could grow: If we focus on the areas where we already grow corn. The green areas are growing almost as much as possible, but the yellow areas could grow a lot more. Eastern Europe, West Africa, and Central America could grow a lot more food with the right resources.Courtesy IonE

They can then compare this information with estimates of how much each place could grow, given the right conditions. The difference is called a “yield gap.” What it will take to close the yield gap, and get area place growing as much as possible, differs from place to place. But IonE is trying to figure that out too—some places need more water, and some need more nitrogen, phosphorus, or potassium fertilizers.

Knowing how much of a particular resource a place needs, and what the food payoff will be when it receives those resources is a big step in working up to feeding nine billion people. It’s not the last step, not by a long shot, but it provides an excellent map of where future efforts would be best invested.

Aaaaannnnd … the bullet point version for you osos perezosos out there:

  • In a few decades, there will be about 9 billion people on the planet.
  • There’s not enough food for 9 billion people.
  • There’s not really enough land available to grow enough food for 9 billion people.
  • We can get more food out of the land we’re already using.
  • Scientists are trying to figure out which areas have the potential to grow more food, and what it will take to get them to do it.
  • Doing this will be difficult, but probably not impossible.
Feb
15
2011

May I have your attention, please?

(…Will the real Slim Shady please stand up?)

Very funny. But seriously, I’ve got breaking news!

The Institute on the Environment’s Dialogue Earth program is bursting into the online community. With their first press release, Twitter account, Facebook page, YouTube channel, and blog, they’re drawing attention, and new supporters, every day. They've even been featured on The Line, SUNfiltered, The Daily Crowdsource, and Crowdsourcing.org.

Big things, folks. I’m telling ya: big things.

(Um, excuse me, KelsiDayle, but what is Dialogue Earth?)

Oh, gosh. I’m always getting ahead of myself. I’ll allow Dialogue Earth to explain for themselves:

“The Dialogue Earth™ team is working to increase public understanding on timely issues related to the environment by delivering engaging, trustworthy multimedia content to large, diverse audiences.”

Consider these three main ways people gather information about the environment:

  1. Personal experiences,
  2. Conversations with other people, and
  3. Media coverage.

Dialogue Earth is developing ways to monitor the ‘chatter’ from each information source.

For example, weather and gas price data sets allow Dialogue Earth to monitor these environmentally-relevant personal experiences.

Twitter provides the Dialogue Earth team with an intriguing sample of peoples’ conversations that have some connection to the environment. Dialogue Earth has developed a method of analyzing Tweets for sentiment through crowdsourcing.

Emerging or social medias, like blogs, are changing our understanding of what’s news, but there are still ways to understand the content, frames, sentiment, and assertions of stories. Dialogue Earth is working on developing a responsive and scalable method for so doing.

Eventually, Dialogue Earth hopes to help people process through the hot topics of the day, but for now Dialogue Earth is focusing on understanding what the big issues are and how people are communicating about them. Knowing these things first should help Dialogue Earth develop additional effective communication tools in the coming months. In fact, Dialogue Earth has already conducted their first experiment in crowdsourcing creative content via Tongal. Check out the winning science video on the topic of ocean acidification below:

Pretty great stuff, huh?