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.
Courtesy C-MOREDr. Dan Repeta from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) is C-MORE’s Chief Scientist on the BiG RAPA expedition, which is conducting research off the coast of Chile. Dr. Repeta and his team of scientists are sampling the underwater microbial environment using a variety of instruments, including a water collector called a CTD (see educational resource below). Two interesting results have turned up in the CTD data:
Courtesy Eric Grabowski, C-MORE"Sea It Live" in some BiG RAPA videos. Join Dr. Angel White from Oregon State University as she demonstrates the CTD rosette. Then join Dr. Repeta for his Chief Scientist Station 1 Update .
*Educational resource = C-MORE Science Kit Ocean Conveyor Belt's Powerpoint, "Lesson 3: Using Data to Explore Ocean Processes "
Courtesy IneuwWe love whale poop around here. Love it love it love it. Can’t get enough. It’s fortunate for us that whales poop so much—if you were to get the planet’s daily supply of whale poop in one place, and if you were also in that place, you would suffocate. It’d be awful.
The reason we love whale poop so much is because of its role in what Elton John and I like to call “the circle of life.”
We’ve already discussed how sperm whales have a net negative contribution to atmospheric CO2, because of all the iron in their poop. (The iron rich waste feeds tiny sea creatures, which, in turn, suck up CO2.)
It turns out that whales and their poop are also vital for the nitrogen cycle. Nitrogen is a vital nutrient for ocean life. While some parts of the ocean have too much nitrogen—extra nitrogen from fertilizers washes out through rivers, causing algae to grow out of control and create a dead zone—other areas contain a very small amount nitrogen, and local ecosystem productivity is limited by nitrogen availability.
So what brings more nitrogen to these nitrogen-poor areas? Microorganisms and fish bring it from other parts of the ocean, and release it by dying or going to the bathroom. But, also… whales bring it. Whales bring it by the crapload.
Whales, it turns out, probably play a very heavy role in the nitrogen cycle. And because the nitrogen feeds tiny ocean creatures, and those tiny ocean creatures feed larger ocean creatures, and on and on until we get to fish, more whales (and whale poop) means more fish. And we (humans) love fish.
Commercial whaling over the last several hundred years reduced global whale population to a small fraction of what it once was, but even at their current numbers whales contribute significantly to nitrogen levels in some areas. More whales, the authors of a recent whale poop study say, could help offset the damage humans have done to the oceans and ocean fisheries, while relaxing restrictions on whaling could have much further reaching ramifications than we might expect.
See? Whale poop is the best! (Whales too, I guess.)
Courtesy AleksOh, happy day! It was getting dry out there, Buzzketeers. I’m referring, of course, to the dearth of hilarious science news items; everything is extinction this, cancer that, radioactive this, greenish discharge that. If you wanted to write a clever and humorous article about scientific research, you’d have to lower yourself to making fun of oil-covered seabirds, or the stupid things babies do when they’re learning. Ugh.
But not any more, thanks to researchers at the University of Connecticut. By exploring the potential of industrial hemp to be a bio-fuel feedstock, they have opened up a plentiful new source of raw material for puns.
We could spend hours discussing how “green” the research is! Ha ha ha! Or, like, the high expectations scientists have for technology that can convert up to 97% of the oil from hemp seeds (a commonly discarded byproduct in hemp farming) into biodiesel. Ho ho ho ha!
Or what about this: there’s been a lot of… buzz surrounding biofuel production, because it could potentially remove food crops and high quality land from our food production system. But because hemp—which is typically grown for its fibers—can grow on relatively poor-quality land, it shouldn’t affect our production of munchies! Ha ha hahahahaaa!
It turns out that industrial hemp has a lot of applications, but it can’t be used as a drug! Ha ha… Oh, wait, I guess that wasn’t really a pun.
In any case, it’s illegal to grow industrial hemp in 41 states, so this one is probably just for other countries.
PS—Drug abuse isn’t any funnier than drug-related puns. Don’t yell at me.
Courtesy bredgurAccording to a report in the journal Mineralium Deposita, there’s really no need for people to fight over mineral resources, because there are lots and lots of them left.
The report comes hot on the heals of a political snafu, in which a Chinese fisherman ran afoul of the Japanese coastguard, and China cut off shipments of rare earth metals to Japan, after the fisherman was arrested. Rare earth metals are vital for building electronics and hybrid electric cars, and China pretty much has most of the rare earth metals in town, so China was all, “You want your cars? Give us our fisherman.” Then Japan was like, “Oh, well, actually we can make hybrid cars without your stupid rare earth metals, so whatever.”
And everybody else started smacking their lunch trays on the tables and shouting, “Fight! Fight! Fight!”
But then Japan was like, “Fine. Just take your stupid fisherman. He’s a jerk anyway.” And China was like, “Fine, then!” And everything went back to normal. But it left the world thinking, are we going to have to tussle over stuff like this eventually? Everyone wants minerals, and we might be running out…
Not so, says Lawrence Cathles of Cornell University. We have lots of minerals, more than we could use in thousands of years, even with the whole world living at Western European material standards.
Aw, man. What can we fight about now? I suppose there’s always country and rock ‘n roll. Or we could all split up into Sharks and Jets. We could maybe start randomly accusing each other of cheating at Monopoly, regardless of whether or not we’ve been playing Monopoly.
But… I just can’t get worked up over that stuff. If I can’t throw down over a chunk of copper, or a pocketful of palladium, I don’t know that I even want to fight. Oh well. I might as well just finish reading that article…
So let’s see. The minerals Cathles is talking about come from the ocean floor. At points where the Earth’s crust is pulling apart, molten rock meets ocean water, infusing it with minerals and heating it. The hot seawater rises through the crust, and deposits precipitating minerals on the ocean floor. Lots and lots of copper, uranium, lithium, phosphate, potash, and on and on… all waiting for us in deposits on the ocean floor. A small percentage of the minerals that should be hiding out down there could keep humanity going for “50 centuries or more.”
Sweet! But… wait a second. Didn’t it just say that the minerals are sitting on the bottom of the oceans? Where the tectonic plates are pulling apart from each other, areas one might refer to as “ocean spreading centers.” Sooooo… the minerals are under the middle of the oceans.
Yes! We’re going to have something to fight over after all!
See, I think y’all remember what can happen when you’re trying to get at something on the bottom of the ocean… this sort of thing. And the depths of mid-ocean ridges are nothing to sneeze at. But deep sea oil drilling operations might be a good junior-league analogy for mid-ocean mining—it’s expensive and potentially extremely dangerous, but once we want that resource enough, we’re going to give it a shot. And once we do, that (fortunately!!!) won’t be the end of conflict over the resource. Drilling or mining areas will be disputed, as will environmental liabilities.
I mean, what do I know about it. But when has having enough of something for everybody ever kept people from being upset about it?
I find this to be a very hopeful report. Someday—maybe not soon, but someday—we’ll engage in high-tech, high risk, deepwater mining in international waters. And there will be fighting! Lots of fighting!
You’d probably say, “Huh?? Hold on, what is geothermal energy anyway, and how does it work?”
Geothermal is heat from deep inside the earth. Because heat is a form of energy, it can be captured and used to heat buildings or make electricity. There are three basic ways geothermal power plants work:
(Click here for great diagrams of each of these geothermal energy production methods.)
“And what about carbon sequestration too? What’s that and how does it work?”
Courtesy Department of Energy
Carbon sequestration includes carbon (usually in the form of carbon dioxide, CO2) capture, separation, transportation, and storage or reuse. Plants, which “breathe” CO2, naturally sequester carbon, but people have found ways to do it artificially too. When fossil fuels are burned to power your car or heat your home, they emit CO2, a greenhouse gas partially responsible for global climate change. It is possible to capture those emissions, separate the bad CO2, and transport it somewhere for storage or beneficial reuse. CO2 can be stored in under the Earth’s surface or, according to Martin Saar’s research, used in geothermal energy production.
Alright. We’re back to Professor Saar’s research. Ready to know just how he plans to sequester carbon in geothermal energy production?
It’s a simple idea, really, now that you know about geothermal energy and carbon sequestration. Prof. Saar says geothermal energy can be made even greener by replacing water with CO2 as the medium carrying heat from deep within the earth to the surface for electricity generation. In this way, waste CO2 can be sequestered and put to beneficial use! As a bonus, CO2 is even more efficient than water at transferring heat.
But don’t take my word for it. Come hear Professor Martin Saar’s lecture, CO2 – Use It Or Lose It!, yourself during the Institute on the Environment’s Frontiers on the Environment lecture series, Wednesday, October 27, 2010 from noon-1pm.
Frontiers in the Environment is free and open to the public with no registration required! The lectures are held in the Institute on the Environment’s Seminar Room (Rm. 380) of the Vocational-Technical Education Building on the St. Paul campus (map).
Courtesy Mark RyanA new study appearing in the Journal of Palliative Medicine reports how several terminally ill patients all showed identical surges in their brain activity just before they died. At first the doctors at George Washington University Medical Faculty Associates who did the study thought the surge was being caused by interference from life-support machines or other electronic gear in the room.
“But then we started removing things, turning off cell phones and machines, and we saw it was still happening,” said lead author Lakhmir Chawla.
Speculation of what causes the neurological hyperactivity at the moment of death is that neurons in the brain, suddenly deprived of blood pressure and oxygen, shut down in rapid succession resulting in a final burst of neural activity - an electrical death rattle if you will. But the idea doesn’t seem to be a very new one. Kevin Nelson, a researcher studying near-death experiences at the University of Kentucky claims it’s well known that the brain experiences a sudden discharge of electrical energy when blood flow to it is cut off.
So, I’m not sure I see what the big surprise is here. If this is so well-known then why wouldn’t the doctors at George Washington University Medical Associates already know this?
But there’s another part of this that’s interesting. The surge may also be responsible for the "white light" reported by some patients who have had near-death episodes. The lore surrounding this phenomenon is about patients seeing an intense bright light when they're dying. But, according to Chawla, the majority of people involved in such incidents report having no such “white light” occurrence, but merely a vivid memory that may have been burned into their brain by the “final” electrical discharge.
And what about the so-called "out of body experience" patients sometimes report after slipping from the grasp of the Grim Reaper? Well, that, too, could come from the brain's electrical shutdown. A study that appeared in the journal Nature in 2006 reported patients sensing "shadow figures" laying nearby, or hovering above while certain areas of their brains were being stimulated with electrical currents. The charges interfered with the sensory information being received by the brain, and the hallucinations were just the brain's way of making senses of everythingl. The New York Times ran a story about it you can read here.
Bottom line, it looks like all those reported supernatural near-death experiences are just all in your head.
You might be aware of phosphorus, P, as a key ingredient in your lawn fertilizer. Or, perhaps you’ve seen “Does not contain phosphates” labels on your household detergents. If you haven’t seen these labels yet, chances are high you’ll see them soon. Why??
Phosphorus is Useful as Fertilizer and Detergent...
Courtesy Malawi MV project work
Phosphorus is a life-supporting mineral, which is why so many fertilizers contain it. Phosphates, the naturally occurring form of phosphorus, help soften water, form soap suds, and suspend particles making them choice detergents. Supporting life and keeping clean would normally be good things, but phosphorus has a dark side too.
... But, Phosphorus Causes Smelly, Dead Eutrophication
Because phosphorus is so good at growing stuff, it is actually harmful to the environment when it becomes dissolved and concentrated in bodies of water. Phosphorus-rich lakes cause algae blooms – huge increases of algae in a short period of time (kind of like the post-World War II Baby Boom, but for algae). Besides being smelly and turning water green, algae “breathe” the oxygen right out of the lake! Stealing dissolved oxygen even in death, algae create hypoxia – low oxygen, which prevents most other living things from surviving in the surrounding area. This whole process, from phosphorus-loading to algae bloom to hypoxia, is called eutrophication. There are other environmental and health risks to phosphorus, but eutrophication is what politicians are talking about around the water cooler these days.
Courtesy Felix Andrews
Seventeen States Banned Phosphorus in Automatic Dishwashing Detergents
Deciding that euthrophication was yucky, in July, 17 states, including the entire Great Lakes Commission of which Minnesota is a member, passed laws banning phosphates from automatic dishwasher detergent. That might not seem like a big deal, but automatic dishwasher detergent is said to comprise between 7-12% of all the phosphorus making it into our sewage system (source). Previous legislation has limited or banned phosphorus in lawn fertilizers and laundry detergents.
Consumers Asked to Cope
According to a recent New York Times article, some consumers are getting their feathers ruffled as detergent manufacturers re-do their formulas to comply with state laws. The primary complaint is that the phosphate-free detergents don’t clean as well as traditional formulas. Consumer Reports concurred: of 24 low- or no-phosphate detergents tested, none matched the cleaning capabilities of detergents with phosphates. It may be uncomfortable at first, but learning to cope in a low-phosphorus world is already having environmental and human health benefits.
Courtesy Becoming Green
Rest assured, industry officials still want your business and are continually improving their formulations. Indeed, the same Consumer Reports article mentioned above rated seven low- or no-phosphate detergents as “very good.” For the curious, there is a multitude of other websites reviewing phosphate-free detergents online. Pre-rinsing and/or post-rinsing have also been cited as ways to deal with phosphate-free dishwashing detergents.
Peak Phosphorus: Another Consideration
If you still aren’t convinced of the switch, consider this: we’re running out of phosphorus like we’re running out of oil. Phosphorus is a mineral, mined from naturally occurring phosphates, and we’re mining it faster than geologic cycles can replenish it. One Scientific American article cites the depletion of U.S. supplies in a few decades (world supplies may last for roughly another 100 years) given current consumption rates. Without phosphorus, world food production will plummet and with a global population soaring towards 9 billion people, that would be a very sorry state of affairs. If we succeed in limiting our phosphorus consumption, say, through eliminating it from household detergents, we may be able to continue using it in fertilizers and thus keep the human population fed well into the future.
What do you think? Is the phosphate-ban worth it?
Last night, bkennedy, a couple other SMM staff members, and I attended the Bell Museum's Cafe Scientifique at Bryant-Lake Bowl in Minneapolis. Robert Twilley, a principal investigator with the National Center for Earth-Surface Dynamics, came to speak about the endangered environment of the Mississippi Delta and the BP Deep Horizon Oil Spill. I didn't expect to get a history lesson, but it's just this kind of broad-ranging perspective that will help us understand what is happening to our environment.
It was frustrating to hear Dr. Twilley recount how, as a result of the 1928 Flood Control Act, civil engineers literally remade the Mississippi River and its delta in response to severe flooding events. While this had the temporary effect of protecting area residents from flooding, the plan neglected an important quality of all coastlines: they're dynamic. As sea level has risen over the last century, diverted sediments no longer replenish key areas of the delta and vast stretches of wetland are drowning--the same stretches of wetland that would protect people in the event of a strong hurricane. As a result of the levees, regular floods no longer wash sediments into the area. To complicate matters, projects such as dams farther upstream have cut the overall sediment supply to the Mississippi by about 50 percent in the last couple centuries.
Twilley emphasized that it wasn't as if people didn't know the problems these strategies would cause; engineers who opposed flood control tried to call attention to the associated risks. But in the wake of disastrous floods, the public demanded visible public works projects and politicians wanted to please them. Engineers who supported flood control saw it as a noble enterprise to control nature and protect people. And so today we have a tricky situation in the delta area. Disasters increase in intensity, and with them, peoples' insistence on solutions grow. But Twilley cautioned that it is imprudent to act on impulse, especially due to a widespread lack of understanding about how coastal systems work, and to our tendency to favor human safety without consideration for the environment that supports our safety. In short, we undermine ourselves.
"Since 1932, the basin has lost approximately 70% of its total land area."
When Hurricane Katrina hit, the same channel intended to give port access to ships funneled the storm surge farther inland. Twilley described how this perfect storm of civil engineering amplified the devastation brought by the Category 3 hurricane. The response to this devastation, rather than stepping back to reevaluate the situation and consider new ways to accommodate both the delta's needs and humans' needs, was to build a surge barrier that does nothing to restore the natural systems that once built and sustained that landscape over centuries. Contrary to engineers' intentions, Twilley asserted that these strategies will only exacerbate rising sea level and storm surge in the future as the wetlands drown further and the coastline moves inland.
Twilley also explained how, more recently, a lack of recognition of the complex systems in the river delta and along the Gulf Coast exacerbated BP's Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill. BP's front end study on the potential impacts of a spill found no cause for concern that the oil would reach the shore. And yet, in spite of booms placed along the coast, the oil did reach the shore, infiltrating wetlands already threatened by rising sea levels and weakened by lack of sedimentation. Thanks to the use of dispersants, the oil is difficult to find and we may not know the full impact of the spill for some time.
This paints a pretty grim picture of the future, but Twilley left us with cause for hope. In one of the areas to which a significant portion of sediment was diverted, the wetlands are actually growing (Atchafalaya). Twilley and his colleagues hope that this and other examples will demonstrate the importance of these natural wetland-building systems and garner support for their plain to mitigate the wetland loss. They want to add river outlets in strategically important places throughout the delta to rebuild the wetlands and help stabilize the landscape. These outlets would only operate during flooding episodes--an approach called controlled flooding (as opposed to the current strategy of flood control), siphoning off extra water and sediment to starved wetlands AND preventing flooding into human settlements. Currently, they're also involved in a project to pipe sediment to areas that need it.
Of course, the new outlet plan won't be without some compromise on the part of humans--some may have to relocate. But given projections of the area for 2100, relocation isn't far off anyway. And the long-term protective benefits of restoring the wetlands might just be worth it.
Courtesy NRELYou’re worried about the future again, aren’t you? You’re afraid that everything will taste like cardboard, and that most people will be robots, and that the robots will be too cool to hang with you, and that our trips to the bathroom with be confusing and abrasive, and something about bats, and that you will be hot all the time, even in your own homes.
And I wish I could tell you otherwise. But I can’t. I just don’t know enough about the future. Except on that last point—it looks like air conditioning may yet be an option in a necessarily energy efficient future.
Air conditioning can use up a lot of energy. An air conditioning unit typically cools air by blowing it over a coiled metal tube full of a cold refrigerant chemical. The refrigerant absorbs heat from the air in your house, and then it passes through a compressor, which squishes the refrigerant down, making it hot so that it releases heat outside your house. And then the refrigerant expands, and cycles back into the cool tube. (Here’s the explanation with some illustrations.)
Other cooling systems rely on evaporation. So called “swamp coolers” pull hot, dry air from outside, and blow it over water (or through wet fabric pads). The water evaporates to pull heat out of the air, so what is blown into your house is cool, humid air. Swamp coolers are more efficient, but they only work in very dry environments.
And then there’s another way to control your indoor climate: desiccant cooling. A lot of what makes warm air uncomfortable is the amount of moisture it can contain. Normal AC units remove moisture from the air, but they use a lot of energy in doing it. Another way is to use chemicals called desiccants. Desiccants suck up water. The little packs of “silica gel” crystals you might find in a new pair of shoes are full of desiccants. Blowing humid air over desiccants will result in the chemicals sucking the moisture out of the air, making it more comfortable.
Figuring out how to use the desiccants has been a challenge, however; desiccant chemicals can be corrosive to building materials, so they, and any dripping water, need to be contained. With this in mind, US government researchers at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory have developed a membrane for desiccant cooling systems that allows the water vapor in humid air to pass through it one way, but does not allow the liquid water removed from the air to pass back.
The researchers claim that this air conditioning process is up to 90% more energy efficient than standard AC. Every so often, the desiccant chemicals need to be “recharged” by heating them up so they release the trapped water (outside), a job that can be done by electric heating elements, or with a solar thermal collector. The University of Minnesota used a desiccant cooling system for their entry into the Solar Decathlon competition. Their system didn’t rely on a membrane—rather, humid air was pumped up through a drum of liquid desiccant—but they did recharge the desiccant using heat from solar thermal panels (which are basically big, flat, black boxes that collect heat from sunlight).
It’s reassuring to know that in the future, even as we’re covered in flesh eating bacteria, and spam advertisements for Spam are being beamed directly into our brains, we’ll at least be able to relax in pleasantly dry, cool air, without worrying too much about the energy we’re using to do it.