Stories tagged EarthBuzz


Hot spot: This solar farm in the Mojave Desert in California is igniting birds in flight at an alarming rate. Mirrors on the ground reflect super-hot light to the towers to be converted into electricity.
Hot spot: This solar farm in the Mojave Desert in California is igniting birds in flight at an alarming rate. Mirrors on the ground reflect super-hot light to the towers to be converted into electricity.Courtesy Craig Dietrich - Flickr
A huge solar energy farm in the Mojave Desert seems to be having one serious side effect: passing birds in flight are bursting into flames.

What's going on is that 300,000 mirrors on the ground are directing sunlight to huge towers that convert that energy into electricity. Bugs are attracted to the bright light from the mirrors drawing hungry birds to get into the path of the reflected light. And that concentrated light energy is causing the birds to catch fire, sometimes at a rate of one every two minutes. The flaming birds have been noticed since the plant powered up in February and its estimated that the total bird kill this year could top out at 28,000. Researchers estimated that one bird they found dead had been roasted by light beams that were nearly 1,000 degrees F.

Plans for building a second plant are on hold while investigators study the situation at the current site. What do you think? Is the potential of killing many birds a worthwhile cost for increased clean, "green" electricity?


Yesterday, I had the pleasure of attending Environmental Initiative's 2012 Legislative Preview, part of their Policy Forum series.

Basically, a bipartisan group of legislators discussed their environmental priorities with a diverse audience of public, private and nonprofit representatives for the purpose of providing

"a valuable first look at the most pressing environmental issues facing the state in anticipation of the upcoming legislative session."

MN Most Wanted: Asian carp, aquatic invasive species
MN Most Wanted: Asian carp, aquatic invasive speciesCourtesy State of Michigan

The biggest surprise to yours truly was the prevalence of carp among the discussion. Asian carp, AIS (aquatic invasive species), etc., etc.. Everyone appeared in agreement regarding the threat posed by carp, so the real question is what do we do about their impending invasion?

One repeated suggestion was to fund more research, specifically at the University of Minnesota. This is probably an important step towards defending our state waterways, and I think this story helps illustrate why:

"As yet, no technology can stop these downstream migrations; neither grates nor dangerous, expensive electrical barriers do the job.

But a wall of cheap, harmless bubbles just might—at least well enough to have a significant benefit."

Researchers at the U of MN have discovered that bubble barriers may deter 70-80% of carp migration. It's not the visual affect of the bubbles that prevents all but the most daring carp from penetrating the barrier, rather the noise -- equivalent to what you or I would experience standing about three feet from a jackhammer.

The bubble barrier has currently only been tested on common carp, but researchers involved in the experiment want to test the technology on Asian carp next.

In addition to the bubble barrier, U of M researchers are investigating whether Asian carp pheromones can be used to lure them into traps.


Back in November, UC-Berkeley physicist Richard Muller surprised a number of people when he stated at a congressional briefing that “global warming is real.”

Muller had previously been called a climate skeptic for drawing attention to what he called numerous errors in the film “An Inconvenient Truth,” but his own extensive research showed none of his concerns about climate change science to be legitimate.

In fact, according to the Huffington Post, “Muller explained how his team reached the conclusion that in the last half-century the earth's temperature has risen roughly 1 degree Celsius, a number that exceeds the conservative 0.64 degree estimate put forth by the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.” His study was partially funded by the Koch brothers, oil-industry billionaires who have, on more than one occasion, funded studies by climate change deniers. The Koch brothers have since questioned Muller’s findings.

In a December Wall Street journal editorial, Bjorn Lomborg, author of the “Skeptical Environmentalist” conceded that global warming is a real threat and will hit developing countries hardest, but states that cutting carbon emissions won’t make much change in temperature over the next 30 years. He claims that rather than continuing to work on getting nations to lower emissions, we should just set up infrastructures to deal with the resulting problems from climate change. Bjorn, whose numbers and conclusions have often been questioned by scientists, seems to be saying we should just throw in the towel and stand back while economics determines our world’s future.

A few days later, the New York Times printed an article on the warming Artic permafrost, which contains twice as much carbon as the entire atmosphere. Scientists believe that both global warming, resulting from human activity, and wildfires may be catalyzing the thawing of permafrost, which releases methane gas into the atmosphere as the ancient plants and animals that make up the frozen tundra decompose. Although it doesn’t stay in the atmosphere as long as carbon dioxide, methane gas is even better at trapping heat and will potentially make earth’s atmosphere warm at an even faster rate, thawing more permafrost, in a vicious cycle.

In the article, the experts said that “if humanity began getting its own emissions under control soon, the greenhouse gases emerging from permafrost could be kept to a much lower level.”

Skeptics are looking at the evidence and becoming believers. Science tells us that climate change is real, and is already well underway, but that we can still slow global warming by reducing carbon emissions. In other words, we shouldn’t throw in the towel.

Here are links to the three articles to which I referred:


Ten abandoned mining pits in Minnesota's Iron Range could have new life as pumped-storage hydroelectricity plants, according to a University of Minnesota,* Great River Energy, and Minnesota Power study.

[Hey, now: did you click on the hyperlink above? I don't put hyperlinks in posts for my own amusement, you know. They're for your viewing pleasure and learning enjoyment! Seriously though, click on them for great explanations, photos, diagrams, graphs, and more. You won't be disappointed.]

Match made in Minnesota: Wind and water "play nice" in pumped-storage hydroelectric technology.
Match made in Minnesota: Wind and water "play nice" in pumped-storage hydroelectric technology.Courtesy Steve Fareham

Pumped-storage hydroelectric technology sounds like something from a science fiction movie, but it's really just a neat combination of water and wind energy technology. What makes pumped-storage hydroelectric projects sexy is that they make it possible to store excess energy generated by wind turbines on windy days. This stored energy can then be used during the inevitable calm days -- addressing one of the biggest issues for today's wind energy industry!

How does it work?

It's basic physics, my friends: building potential energy and releasing kinetic energy. Specifically, excess energy generated by wind turbines "is used to pump water from a low-lying reservoir to a higher elevation pool" within the mine pit. This builds the potential energy of the water. Then, when that energy is demanded, "water from the upper pool is released generating hydroelectricity and refilling the lower pool." This releases kinetic energy, which can be turned into electricity.

How effective is it?

Researchers estimated that a pumped-storage hydroelectric facility built in Virginia, MN could output the same electricity as a "modest-sized" generator burning natural gas. However, at a cost of $120 million, the pumped-hydro facility would be more expensive than a comparable natural gas generator.

There are 40 U.S. locations currently employing pumped-storage hydroelectricity technology, but there are no definite plans for any such projects in Minnesota -- yet.

Read the Star Tribune's coverage of this story here.

*Including scientists from UMD's Natural Resources Research Institute, St. Anthony Falls Laboratory, and Humphrey School of Public Affairs; and funded largely by the Initiative for Renewable Energy and the Environment.


Thailand Flooding from Space
Thailand Flooding from SpaceCourtesy NASA/GSFC/METI/ERSDAC/JAROS, and U.S./Japan ASTER Science Team
From the NASA Image of the Day on October 28:

Since July 2011, heavy monsoon rains in southeast Asia have resulted in catastrophic flooding. In Thailand, about one third of all provinces are affected. On Oct. 23, 2011, when this image from ASTER, the Advanced Spaceborne Thermal Emission and Reflection Radiometer instrument on NASA's Terra spacecraft was acquired, flood waters were approaching the capital city of Bangkok as the Ayutthaya River overflowed its banks. In this image, vegetation is displayed in red, and flooded areas are black and dark blue. Brighter blue shows sediment-laden water, and gray areas are houses, buildings and roads. The image covers an area of 35.2 by 66.3 miles (56.7 by 106.9 kilometers) and is located at 14.5 degrees north latitude, 100.5 degrees east longitude.

With its 14 spectral bands from the visible to the thermal infrared wavelength region and its high spatial resolution of 15 to 90 meters (about 50 to 300 feet), ASTER images Earth to map and monitor the changing surface of our planet. ASTER is one of five Earth-observing instruments launched Dec. 18, 1999, on Terra. The instrument was built by Japan's Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry. A joint U.S./Japan science team is responsible for validation and calibration of the instrument and data products. The broad spectral coverage and high spectral resolution of ASTER provides scientists in numerous disciplines with critical information for surface mapping and monitoring of dynamic conditions and temporal change.


Servicio Nacional de Geología y Minería (SERNAGEOMIN) raised the alert status for the Cerro Hudson volcano in southern Chile recently. The Chilean government reported that before this morning nearly 900 volcanic earthquakes were noticed, most of which were not felt by residents living in the area. 119 people are currently evacuated from the Lake Caro area, and authorities are trying to evacuate another 13 individuals.

There are now three steam vents on the volcano, one of which is also emitting ash. Some photos taken from a recent flyby of the volcano can be seen here.

The ice-filled caldera (10-km-wide, or ~ 6.2 miles) of the Cerro Hudson volcano was not recognized until its first 20th-century eruption in 1971. Cerro Hudson is the southernmost volcano in the Chilean Andes related to subduction of the Nazca plate beneath the South American plate, and is 280 km (~ 174 miles) east of the Nazca-Antarctic-South American triple junction. An eruption about 6700 years ago was one of the largest known in the southern Andes during the Holocene, and a 1991 eruption was Chile’s second largest of the 20th century.

News report: Hudson Volcano forces evacuations in Southern Chile
Eruptions blogpost: Alert Status Raised to Red at Chile’s Hudson

See video


With the exception of the Family Christmas Flu of 2002, I haven’t stopped to appreciate the toilet much in my life. However, Dr. Richard Alley’s presentation at the Science Museum of Minnesota on October 6th really made me think about toilets – and the waste we flush – like I never had before.
Authentic chamber pot: Nothing pretty about it
Authentic chamber pot: Nothing pretty about itCourtesy Evelyn Simak

Today, we can’t imagine living without toilets or indoor plumbing, especially in populated areas for extended periods of time. Gone are the days of the chamber pot, the daily hurling of human waste from your window into the street below, and the pervasive stench that resulted.

It’s really incredible to think about how society went from chamber pots to toilets. I mean, there is a HUGE amount of technology development, public policy, and civil engineering involved in the invention, installation, and maintenance of plumbing infrastructure. (You never thought about it either, did you?) You have to invent the plumbing fixtures, convince the government and the public that it’s a necessity, perfect the manufacturing process, install miles of underground pipes, build collection and treatment plants, and continually upkeep the entire system.

The daunting obstacles must have made indoor plumbing seem virtually impossible back in the day, but we did it anyway, which raises two really great questions: How and why?

How we made the switch from chamber pots to toilets is less important than why we made the switch because we probably wouldn’t have bothered to figured out how if we didn’t have a dang good reason why to put in all the effort. Like grandma says, “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.”
Authentic toilet: Something pretty about it.
Authentic toilet: Something pretty about it.Courtesy 13th Street Studio

We put in the effort to move towards toilets because we realized we couldn’t keep living with chamber pots. Chamber pots were unsightly, smelly, and really bad for public health. After we became convinced of the necessity of toilets, we figured out how to do it and we even put up with the disruption their adoption created. A few generations later and we can’t imagine living any other way.

Dr. Alley says we’re now on the cusp of our own epic Chamber-Pot-to-Toilet story.

Today, we can’t imagine living without fossil fuels as an energy source, but our grandchildren might not be able to imagine what it’s like living without renewable energy. Chamber pots and excrement are like fossil fuels and pollution: unsightly, smelly, and bad for public health. Hopefully, like with toilets, we’ll eventually realize we can’t keep living in our own filth and we’ll find a way to widely adopt renewable energy to replace fossil fuels.

According to Dr. Alley’s presentation, we already have the technology to capture enough renewable energy to cover the world’s current energy usage (15.7 terawatts) with some to spare, and the amount of renewable energy available for capture in the future is simply staggering. That means we should also be able to serve populations that do not currently have energy access and provide energy for our future's growing global population – all sustainably! Sure the technology development, public policy, and civil engineering involved in switching to a new energy system is daunting, but it can't be much longer until we realize it's a necessity worth the effort.

You can watch segments of Earth: The Operator’s Manual online (including Dr. Alley's 30 second introduction of himself, check out 1:23-1:53) and even read the annotated script. Segment 9 of Chapter 3 (beginning at page 98 of the annotated script), Towards a Sustainable Future, covers the details of which renewable energy sources we could use to create a global sustainable energy portfolio.

Due to weather conditions including strong winds, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area fire is now consuming 60,000 acres of land. That's about 94 square miles -- or more than one and a half times the area of Minneapolis!

The large smoke plume from the fire is visible from space as captured in these photos posted by the Cooperative Institute for Meteorological Satellite Studies (CIMSS).

Mostly I think the photos are pretty, but if you like to geek-out about satellite imagery, you should note that these images use 250-meter resolution MODIS true color and false color imagery.

If you're interested in reading more about the BWCA fire, check out the Strib's latest.

I love movies, and since I don't have cable, I probably watch at least a movie a week. That's a lot of movies in a year, so occasionally I like to watch a special kind of movie that makes me feel less guilty -- and a little smarter.
Coming soon to a theater near you!: A Neighborhood for Raingardens
Coming soon to a theater near you!: A Neighborhood for RaingardensCourtesy Steve Rhodes

Enter the documentary.

Wait! Don't click away from the page yet.

This misunderstood film genre entertains as well as educates! Seriously, today's documentaries are not the lame-o film reels your parents watched in high school. Some documentaries are pretty fantastic (Planet Earth, anyone??).

You too can entertain and educate yourself (and treat a friend!) to the Minneapolis premiere of A Neighborhood for Raingardens this Friday, September 9th at 7pm at our very own St. Anthony Main Theater.

The 60-minute film, sponsored by the Institute on the Environment and and The Film Society of Minneapolis/Saint Paul, is about

"an inspirational initiative to clean up Powderhorn Lake one yard at a time. Guided and encouraged by Metro Blooms, hundreds of Powderhorn residents got together over the course of four months to install more than 100 raingardens."

Tickets are only $8.50 general, $6 students and seniors. If you'd like more information or to purchase advance tickets, check out this website.


Let's play "Alphabet Soup"! What do you think the acronym PGC stands for?

Plumber's Green Coat.
Public Greeting Ceremony?
Periwinkle Glam Cupcakes??
...Pennsylvania Game Commission?!

It could stand for all of those, I suppose, but today the correct answer is... Polar Geospatial Center.
Old-timey aerial photograph of Antarctica's snowy surface: Photographed in 1947 under Operation Windmill, a U.S. Navy expedition to test equipment, train personnel, and reaffirm American interests in Antarctica.
Old-timey aerial photograph of Antarctica's snowy surface: Photographed in 1947 under Operation Windmill, a U.S. Navy expedition to test equipment, train personnel, and reaffirm American interests in Antarctica.Courtesy Smithsonian Institution

Funded by the National Science Foundation, the University of Minnesota's PGC has supplied maps, logistical support and training to US researchers in Antarctica for over five years. Recently, they’ve had the opportunity to expand their resources to cover the Arctic as well.

*** Beep! Beep! We've interrupted to bring you a not-so-important-at-all notice: ***

Maps are awesome! They're useful for getting from Point A to Point B and many are beautiful enough to frame and hang on your wall. Handy and pretty. What's more to love?? Maps are so great that the author of this post took an entire college course in maps (there was some aerial photography too, to be fair). It rocked her socks.

*** We will now return to your previously scheduled program.***
New-fangled satellite image of Antarctic Peninsula
New-fangled satellite image of Antarctic PeninsulaCourtesy Google and NASA

Some of the maps used by the PGC are originals: newly created for a specific team’s research goals. For example, they’ve used high-resolution satellite imagery to count emperor penguin and Weddell seal populations. By tracking the changes of animal populations, arctic landscapes, and seascapes, the PGC is building a record of the effects of climate change.

Bonus: You don’t have to be a researcher yourself to enjoy the PGC’s map work because they partner with Google to keep Google Maps and Google Earth up-to-date on the Arctic and Antarctic. (Note: You have to download a plugin for Google Earth.)

Happy mapping!