Stories tagged Interdependence of Life

Apr
22
2011

Meat: Is it your good friend, or old enemy? Tell us.
Meat: Is it your good friend, or old enemy? Tell us.Courtesy Another Pint Please...
Ok, Buzzketeers, buckle up for some meaty issues, juicy discussion, and humorless punnery. But first:

Do you eat meat?

Let me say off the bat that this isn’t a judgment thing. Yeah, I am judging you, but only on your grammar, clothing, height, gait, pets, personal odor, and birthday.

But not on your diet. So there will be no bloodthirsty carnivore or milquetoast vegetarian talk here. Y’all can have that out on your own time.

This is more of what I like to call an entirely unscientific poll about meat, the future, and your deepest secrets. (Depending on what you consider secret.)

When you get to the end, you can see what everyone else voted.

Tell us, do you eat meat? (click here for the poll)

Or jump right to the results.

Or go ahead and discuss this stuff.

Apr
11
2011

Take a break and listen to the sounds around you. What do you notice? Is there anything surprising that you've been tuning out? How do the sounds change over time, and do they improve or degrade your well-being?
Do you hear what I hear?: Way up in the floor, Omnitheater...
Do you hear what I hear?: Way up in the floor, Omnitheater...Courtesy David Benbennick

It's easy to think of sound as a side-effect of important behaviors like communication, transportation, building stuff, etc. But could sound be important all on its own, worthy of our attention? We all live within environments of sound, and so do animals. In fact, there's a emerging field called soundscape ecology, which aims to study sound and its relationship with ecosystem health.

Traditionally, studies focus on the sound of one animal to understand its communication. For example, one scientist recently decoded prairie dog-ese.

But soundscape ecologists don't look at individual animal sounds so much as the bigger picture--they want to know which animals are loud or quiet, which ones have higher or lower pitches, which animals follow the sounds of other animals, and then they try to put it all together to understand the soundscape as a system that shows how animals interact with each other through sound. They also want to understand how human sounds impact these soundscapes.

Researchers compared bird life around noisy equipment that compresses natural gas with similar — but quiet — habitat. In Alberta, they found that birds had fewer offspring at the noisy sites. Similar results came from the Southwestern U.S.

Eee: my bat-dar doesn't work in loud environments!
Eee: my bat-dar doesn't work in loud environments!Courtesy Stahlkocher

Species that use echolocation, such as bats and (potentially extinct) Yangtze river dolphins, have trouble locating prey and moving safely through their habitat when unexpected sounds disrupt their echos.
Tamarin: My cage is alive with the sound of muuuusic!
Tamarin: My cage is alive with the sound of muuuusic!Courtesy Helenabella

Musician David Teie has even shown that he can create music that impacts the moods of tamarins.

And then there are the impacts of human sound on humans. Garret Keizer writes in his book, The Unwanted Sound of Everything We Want, that he "chose to write a book about noise because it is so easily dismissed as a small issue. And because in that dismissal I believe we can find a key for understanding many of the big issues."

I'm loud: how often do you see me flying low over nice neighborhoods?
I'm loud: how often do you see me flying low over nice neighborhoods?Courtesy John Pozniak
Keizer distinguishes between sound and noise, which is unwanted sound. He discusses how soundscapes are divided up according to wealth and sociopolitical power--that there are people who make noise and people who listen. Airports or loud factories might be built near less affluent neighborhoods, for example. Keizer asks us to recognize that the sounds we make can have impacts beyond us:

A person who says “My noise is my right” basically means “Your ear is my hole.”

So sound can be an indicator of larger social issues or ecological disruptions. As you read this, do you notice anything about the sounds around you that make you think of a bigger issue or problem?

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
25
2011

Bird killer?: Not so fast...
Bird killer?: Not so fast...Courtesy Aeolus88

So there's this rumor running around that wind turbines kill birds, and it's true--they do. But are turbines the greatest threat birds face?

Death by window: Some birds are injured or die when they smash into windows. This is a print left by a bird doing just that.
Death by window: Some birds are injured or die when they smash into windows. This is a print left by a bird doing just that.Courtesy Lionel Allorge

A number of things kill birds in the wild--predators (including cats and other birds), pollution, cars, windows, tall buildings, airplanes, and habitat loss are some examples. In suburban areas, cats may be the single greatest bird predator. A recent study in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. showed that cats were responsible for nearly 37% of gray catbird deaths--the number one cause of bird death.

Double take: This cat got a pigeon.
Double take: This cat got a pigeon.Courtesy Yug

Nationally, cats kill about 500 million birds per year, according to the American Bird Conservancy. By comparison, the US Fish and Wildlife Service states that wind turbines kill 440,000 birds per year--that's less than 1% of the number killed by cats. As wind farms sprout up across the US, expects turbines to kill over 1 million birds per year by 2030. Even so, that's a paltry sum compared to cats. So why all the hubbub about wind farms?

One reason may be that wind turbines are unnatural--people are fine with predators doing their thing, even if that thing is killing birds in the wild. By comparison, when human-made turbines kill birds, it makes us uncomfortable because it makes us responsible. But housecats and their feral cousins are certainly a human-related killer, too. They're not even native to North America.

I'm in ur birdhouse: Eatin' ur birdeez
I'm in ur birdhouse: Eatin' ur birdeezCourtesy Karelj

Another potential reason is the NIMBY factor. NIMBY stands for "not in my back yard." It refers to situations where people reject a project, even if it's beneficial, because they don't want the negative consequences near their homes. NIMBY rears its head when people vote down a bus depot in their neighborhood, or when a group campaigns against a power plant near their homes.

Many such projects projects end up getting built in neighborhoods that don't complain--often in low-income neighborhoods, where people feel disengaged from the political process or don't have the time or money to spend fighting a project. Sometimes that's a good thing, if it's an important project and brings good things to the neighborhood. Other times it can lead to a concentration of polluting or otherwise nasty projects being built all in one place.

Which would you rather look at?: Ok, I know modern turbines aren't so quaint, but still...
Which would you rather look at?: Ok, I know modern turbines aren't so quaint, but still...Courtesy Friedrich Tellberg

With wind turbines, many cite the birdie death toll, noise, and even appearance as reasons to cancel wind farm projects. But as technology improves, the turbines kill fewer birds and become quieter. New planning approaches site wind farms outside migratory paths so that birds are less likely to come into contact with them. They also place wind farms out to sea, or use designs that sit closer to the ground. There are really a ton of ideas blooming right now for wind power.

And as for the view, well, would you rather look at smog? Or cooling towers? I mean, power has to come from somewhere, and chances are it will involve building something.

I want pair-uh-keetz: Of course, what you do in your own house is up to you.
I want pair-uh-keetz: Of course, what you do in your own house is up to you.Courtesy Ttrimm

But the cats, well…there isn't much you can do to improve them. (I know, I've tried teaching my cat to do the dishes, but she refuses to get her paws wet.) If you really want to help the birdies, perhaps the most effective method is to keep your kitties inside. I got mine a fake bird and she doesn't even know what she's missing.

Mar
18
2011
It's Friday, so it's time for a new Science Friday video. Science Friday
Science FridayCourtesy Science Friday
Today,
"Of the orchid genus catasetum, Charles Darwin wrote: "I never was more interested in any subject in all my life than in this of Orchids." The male flowers in this genus evolved an unusual pollination program. They propel a package of pollen onto the backs of visiting bees. The bees endure the blow (which would be like a 150-pound person getting hit with a few bowling balls) in exchange for orchid aromas that the bees use to attract mates.
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?

Jan
18
2011

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…

Jan
13
2011

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?