Sea Otters: Global Warming Warriors

Figure 1 from www.otterproject.org

sea_otter_raft

What do sea otters have to do with global warming? The furry, aquatic mammals help to counteract global warming through their position in the kelp forest food web.

Figure 2 from http://kelpforestwebsite.weebly.com/food-chain.html

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Figure 2 shows the kelp forest food web. In the kelp forest food web, which consists of a vast range of organisms such as fish, crabs, urchins, sea otters, and plankton, sea otters are a keystone species. This means that a great number of other species in the food web (even the ecosystem itself) depend on the existence of sea otters for their survival and would not be able to live in the ecosystem were it not for sea otters. As can be seen in the food web, sea otters feed primary on sea urchins, which feed primarily on the kelp that grows in kelp forests. This means that kelp populations depend largely on sea otter populations. When sea otter populations are high, kelp forests are allowed to flourish because the sea otters are eating the sea urchins which feed on the kelp forests. Because all the species in this ecosystem depend on kelp for their survival, sea otters are a keystone species because they consume the predators that destroy kelp forests.

Kelp forests have other benefits besides providing food and residence to aquatic organisms. Kelp photosynthesizes, which means it absorbs carbon dioxide and produces oxygen, meaning that kelp reduces carbon dioxide concentrations. Because of the vibrations of its molecular structure, carbon dioxide retains heat from solar energy within the Earth’s atmosphere, thus causing temperatures within the Earth’s atmosphere to rise and global warming to occur. From this, we can conclude that kelp reduces global warming because it absorbs carbon dioxide from the air or water, which means that less heat is retained within the Earth’s atmosphere.

Knowing that kelp reduces global warming, we also know that sea otters fight global warming. Sea otters are essentially protectors of the kelp forest; keeping the populations of sea urchins, which eat the kelp in the kelp forests, stabilized and low.

Your Order of Fish & Chips is Going Extinct

Open nearly any diner or local restaurant menu in New England and you’ll see fish and chips as a popular option. The fish in fish and chips is North Atlantic cod. So many people in New England and around the country enjoy fish and chips, but few people know the impact global warming and overfishing are having on New England’s cod population.

Global warming, as we know, is caused by an excess of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. A “side effect” of global warming that’s often referenced is rising ocean levels; however, it might not be clear that the rising ocean levels stem from the ocean becoming warmer. The ocean is naturally resistant to temperature changes because the hydrogen bonds in water form very stable bonds, so a large amount of heat energy is required to break them apart. This means that water can absorb a large amount of heat energy before its temperature rises. The rising temperature of the ocean illustrates how drastic global warming has become.

codfish

Since the ocean’s temperature is normally very stable, aquatic species are largely accustomed to a specific temperature within their habitat and do not respond well to change. Specifically, the North Atlantic cod has been shown to have difficulty adapting to the warmer water. Cod generally migrate late in the spring and early in the fall; however, with warmer water, that migration pattern could shift to much earlier in the spring and much later in the fall to avoid the warm waters. Cod could also move permanently farther north, or even stop migrating if there is no sea ice left at all. Some populations, particularly those farther south such as in North Carolina and off the coast of southern New England, would become entirely extinct by 2100 if the ocean temperature projections for that time are true.

Not only do New Englanders love to eat cod, but cod fishing is also a massive industry across New England and the North Atlantic. In the mid-1990s, there was a massive drop off in cod population due to overfishing. Since the population was so endangered that the New England Fishery Management Council said they were headed “seemingly inexorably, to oblivion.” In January of 2013, Congress passed regulations on cod quotas in the Northeast: cuts as much as 80% for the next three years off the coast of Maine. While this will hopefully help to raise the population of cod in the North Atlantic, it hurts the local economy. Fishery is a massive industry in New England, and such a drastic cut to an already declining population and struggling industry means that life will become even more difficult to fishermen relying on the next catch. Also, the warming waters might mean that cod populations will not increase to their former abundance even with highly managed fishing quotas.

cod

Scientists know that the declining population of cod in the North Atlantic is due to both overfishing and climate change. However, they are not yet sure what the best course is to fix it. Although fishing quotas have been imposed, those also injure the local economy and make it difficult to justify continued cuts on quotas. Additionally, cod is only an indicator for other fisheries across the globe. If all species need to move farther north to avoid warmer waters, what will live in the southern waters? Northern waters do not provide the coral reefs that southern waters do, so a multitude of fish populations that rely on coral reefs could become extinct. All of these issues are just as important as the impacts of global warming on land. The ocean takes up so much of our Earth’s surface, and we depend so deeply on the ocean, from water supply, food, transportation, recreation, and industry. I think we need to pay a lot more attention to what’s happening everywhere in the ocean, from the sea caps to the coral reefs, and including the smaller indicators, like cod, that show us what’s happening in a wider scale.

Politics and Global Warming in America

We all look to our political figures and government to help solve the many problems that consume the United States. We look to our government in times of war, we look to our government to help keep peaceful relations with other countries, we even turn to our government to make decisions on gay marriage. Yet, many of our political figures are in denial about one of the biggest problems not only the United States faces, but that the world faces as well. This problem is global warming.

Global warming has become a serious threat to the health and way of living for many people in the world. According to Nasa, Earth’s global temperature has increased by 1.4 degrees Fahrenheit since 1880.  That number does not seem that significant, but in reality it is. Many animals have become extinct or will become extinct in the next couple of decades due to Earth becoming uninhabitable for many organisms. For example, the polar bears in Antarctica are going to have a hard time finding a place to live because all the ice that they currently live on is melting away. If they are unable to find a new home or adapt to the changes, they could become extinct. Global warming is a phenomenon that is caused by many factors, but mainly the increase in GreenHouse Gases, especially CO2. According to Nasa CO2 has increased by 400.06 parts per million. With trends  like these coupled with  extreme weather, both of which are clear indicators that global warming is occurring. Why are so many politicians still in denial?

 In the video below, Senator James Inhofe, a republican from Oklahoma brings a snowball to a Senator convention. He proceeds to talk about how 2014 was the warmest weather the United States has ever had. Yet, he says global warming cannot exist because of snow. In his talk he claims that 67 places in the United States have experienced record lows. Unfortunately, he does not understand that global warming is linked to extreme weather.  Senator James is not the only political figure who doesn’t understand how global warming works. An astounding 56 percent of all Congressional Republicans do not believe in global warming. Some believe that global warming is not a major concern and some believe that global warming is a natural phenomenon that does not occur due to human activity. In the article below there are many quotes by Senators and Representatives who do not believe in global warming.

 Global warming is a major issue in the world. Almost 97 percent of the science behind global warming says that it is natural but is occurring at a faster rate due to human activity.  Yet, the people that virtually run our country are in denial. How can we expect people’s habits to change if those who we turn to for answers are in denial about the issue? Can we make change and hopefully influence our government to change? I believe that if we have enough people and enough power behind the movement, anything can happen, just look at the push for gay marriage. It may have taken a long time, but here we are now as a nation, arguing for the right for people to marry whomever they please, and that is why I believe that we can change people’s views on global warming and begin to make a difference.

http://www.motherjones.com/blue-marble/2015/02/inhofe-snowball-climate-change(click on link and scroll to video)

http://climate.nasa.gov/

http://billmoyers.com/2015/02/03/congress-climate-deniers/

Ice Cores – A view into our past and future

Ice Core

An ice core is a cylindrical tube of solid ice that has been drilled out of an ice sheet or glacier. Most ice cores come from Greenland or Antarctica, the longest ice core is approximately three kilometers long. Ice cores provide researchers with a view into the temperatures and atmospheres of the past. If you were to slice a little disk out of an ice core you would see a bunch of little bubbles indicating gases that have been trapped in the ice for up to 800,000 years.

Ice Slice

So what do ice cores tells us? Why are they important? Ice cores relay important information about earth’s history every year involving temperature, atmosphere gas concentrations, volcanic eruptions, nuclear bombing, isotope ratios of water, and dust concentrations. In fact, when measuring how many years an ice core can date back to, researchers look to the well-known dates called “dating horizons”. A dating horizon is something like seasonal dust storms that can be used to mark periods of time, or a well-known volcanic eruption.

Sulfur Graph

Sulfur concentrations are the best way to tell when a volcanic eruption may have taken place. In the image above are the graphs of sulfate concentrations in ice cores from both Greenland and Antarctic. 73,880 years ago the Toba volcano in Indonesia erupted and sent historic amounts of ash and sulfur up into the stratosphere, effecting the whole planet years later in the form of acid rain.

With the information taken from ice cores, scientists are able to make predictions for earth’s climate in the future based on the past. By looking at the patterns of temperature and greenhouse gas levels post natural disasters like a volcanic eruption, scientists can make accurate predictions for our future.

One of the other things that scientists have been looking at in the ice cores is greenhouse gas levels. CO2 concentrations in the Antarctic ice cores show that over the past millennium they remained pretty constant in levels until the early 19th century and the industrial revolution. CO2 concentrations have been exponentially on the rise ever since then due to fossil fuel emissions and deforestation. According to the British Antarctic Survey, CO2 concentrations are at least 40% higher than they were before the industrial revolution. That doesn’t seem all that bad when you compare it to the CH4 (methane) concentrations over the past two centuries which has increased more than 200%.

Ice cores_science briefing_FINAL.indd

Looking at the ice cores it is easy to see that the highest levels of carbon dioxide are during the warmest years and the lowest during the coldest. This simply supports the statement that there is a link to rising temperatures and greenhouse gas emissions. Taking this information into consideration, the earth is only seeing an increase in greenhouse gas emissions even though we know that the increase doesn’t bode well for earth’s well-being. Taking into account earth’s history, we as the ones who inhabit earth should be doing everything we can to try and change the predicted future and potentially save ourselves from unforeseeable fates. Scientists have never seen greenhouse gas levels as high as they are now, so there is no predicting what will happen accurately, they can only guess.

A New Culprit?

The earthquake that hit Nepal is hardly news anymore. The 7.8 magnitude quake on April 25 caused enormous damage and even killed 19 on Mount Everest. If that wasn’t enough, the 6.3 magnitude aftershock the following day just rubs salt on the wound. Does anyone recall how earthquakes happen? The earth underground is made up of tectonic plates, which are like chunks of rock pressed and held together. When rocks slip past each other violently, break, or somehow make a jerky movement, the earth aboveground feels the tremors of those plates suddenly setting into a new place.

Featured image

Seems like everything underground is out of our control, doesn’t it? The most we do to the earth is drill it and no one seems to think those can cause an earthquake. Maybe not drilling, but Dr. Vivek Kumar Srivastava claims that global warming can cause an earthquake and undoubtedly has caused the one in Nepal. But how does heat in the atmosphere affect the earth beneath us? Well, it’s a chain reaction in this case. With the global temperature rising, ice and permafrost in the Arctic melts and raises sea levels. And perhaps a few centimeters of extra water wouldn’t be too bad, but sea levels have been on the rise for a while and are projected to rise by another 1 or 2 meters by 2100. Of course, coastal cities will be hit hardest, but this also means that there will be an extra 1 or 2 meters of water weight sitting all over the globe, adding much extra weight on the earth’s crust. Higher pressure on the earth’s crust causes the greater stress between the tectonic plates beneath us and therefore jerks much more violently into place.

Featured image

The connection seems plausible, and of course no one is pointing fingers. But will we be in the near future? It’s been repeated over and over again that humans are the greatest cause of global warming and that we would come to regret our inaction gravely in the future. But could this be that future? Collapsing food chains, heat waves, rising seas, we’re observing and hearing about them all. But some people in the world might be paying for the fury of global warming right now. I’m aware that, I’m using the word “might”. Are we still going to take that chance?

A Tiny Contributor to a Major Problem

We used to believe melting ice was but an effect of rising temperatures caused by global warming. But, it seems that melting ice has unearthed another contributor further snowballing this problem.

   Phytoplankton are small, single celled organisms that use photosynthesis to create energy. Yet, though they are small, their impact is becoming quite large.

Fig. 1 An image of Phytoplankton

As the arctic ice continues to melt each year, more ocean space becomes open and available for these plankton. Increased light, nutrients, and ocean temperature only stimulate their growth. As they grow in population, their heat grows as well, causing an already warming planet to warm even faster. This problem is complementary to what researchers call the “ice-albedo effect”. As more white, reflective ice melts, more dark, absorbing ocean is unveiled.

Fig. 2 “A comparison of March (left) and September (right) sea ice extent between 1979 (white plus blue) and 2014 (white).”

While light surfaces like ice have a high albedo, and reflect short wave radiation back up to space, cooling the earth, dark surfaces like the ocean have a low albedo, and absorb these short waves of radiation. In turn, the radiation is released in the long wave form of heat, which gets trapped by greenhouse gases accumulating in the troposphere layer of the atmosphere, and sent back down to earth.

Fig. 3 The Greenhouse Effect

Fig. 4 The Albedo Effect

The plankton, (filling) the top layer of the ocean, only further absorb heat and amplify this problem. Greater ocean area, combined with the growing plankton population, could amplify global warming by about 20%.

This new problem, adding to the current trouble of Global warming, make me worry. If a small creature like a phytoplankton can have such a big effect, what other small plants or animals are influencing global warming, and speeding up the affair? There is always talk about humanity’s exponentially expanding amount of carbon emissions. But what if there are even more natural processes that also should be taken into account? And what if they can be stopped, or impeded? If humans cannot be easily stopped, it it our task to find what can be, before greenhouse gases become out of control.

Carbon Dioxide is the second most common greenhouse gas in the atmosphere after water vapor, and in terms of manmade greenhouse gases, it is number 1. Reducing humans carbon dioxide pollution is the simplest and most effective way to slow down the effects of manmade climate change. Despite their reputation, greenhouse gases are necessary for life on earth. They work by trapping energy emitted by the sun in the earth’s atmosphere, allowing for warm atmospheric temperature. The problem arises when the natural balance of greenhouse gases is disrupted. For hundreds of thousands of years before the advent of modern technology, greenhouse gas emissions stayed roughly equal, moving up and down slightly but never jumping or dropping hugely. The introduction of the combustion engine and burning coal and fossil fuels to generate energy upset this balance, introducing more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

smokestack

Smokestacks

Many possible solutions to the problem of carbon emissions have been, and some have been put into place. Carbon Dioxide scrubber technology is one of the most logical and practical, and in some instances has already been implemented. Smokestack scrubbers, which can help to clean the smoke emitted by power plant, are already in use in some places, and the technology is growing fast. The idea behind using the scrubbers on smokestacks is to limit the further damage to the environment by reducing the pollution at the source, significantly limiting the amount of CO2 and other pollutants released by the plants it is used on. This same technology could theoretically be applied to vehicles, although it would have to be scaled down significantly in both size and price to work. The more ambitious application of this technology involves physically removing CO2 that is already in the atmosphere.

Conceptual design of an atmospheric carbon scrubber

Conceptual design of an atmospheric carbon scrubber

This proposition is far more difficult than removing CO2 from smokestacks, because the percentage of CO2 in the air is only 0.04%, meaning that to remove significant amounts, you would need a much larger scale operation to be effective. This technology is far more revolutionary, as it actually allows us to reverse the effects of global warming and lower the greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere. Almost all other proposed solutions to the problem involve slowing down or stopping our emissions, but actually removing CO2 allows us to reverse the effects of climate change.

http://www.bostonglobe.com/business/2015/02/02/mit-researchers-developing-better-way-scrub-smokestack-pollution/FDvpDH4TszfMy7Rsicp1FK/story.html

http://www.physicalgeography.net/fundamentals/7a.html

http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2011/feb/04/man-made-greenhouse-gases

http://www.epa.gov/climatechange/science/indicators/ghg/ghg-concentrations.html

http://www.power-eng.com/articles/2013/03/us-coal-fired-power-plants-invested-more-than-30bn-on-scrubbers-.html

http://phys.org/news141915261.html

Harnessing the Power of a Cow’s Bum

Methane (CH4) is the second most prevalent greenhouse gas emitted in the UnitedGlobally, over 60% of total CH4 emissions come from human activities. Human activities that produce methane are things like natural gas leakages or raising livestock. Many animals such as cows, sheep, or camels produce methane on a large scale due to the amount of animals in the world. The methane emissions that are directly from livestock are considered human activities because we are raising them for food. Methane, among other gases are considered to be greenhouse gases because when present in the atmosphere they absorb heat which heats the earth similarly to how a green house keeps its plants warm. Pound for pound, the comparative impact of CH4 on climate change is 25 times greater than CO2 over a 100-year period. This large difference is due to the fact that the bonds in the methane molecule are better at absorbing the long wave radiation that is bouncing off of the earth than the bonds in the CO2 molecules.  

The radiation absorbed in the bonds of the greenhouse gas molecules heats the earth and may even upset the balance of energy that is coming from the sun that is absorbed by the earth and that which reflects off of the earth due to the albedo effect. If more energy is coming in from the sun than what is being reflected off into space then the earth will begin to get too hot; this can cause climate change.

With the amount of methane coming from the butts of the simple cow researchers are investigating the action of modifying cows so they burp and fart less and there for produce less methane. This may not be the best idea because the methane produced by cattle can be harnessed and turned into energy! A farmer named Jerry Jennisson has created a way to partially power his farm, and to put power back into the grid through capturing the methane coming from his cows and using it to power a generator. The methane powers a specially rebuilt Chevy 350 engine. The engine turns a 37 kilowatt generator. Half the electricity created actually goes back into the process of making methane. What if instead of genetically modifying our cows to produce less methane farmers harnessed the power that comes from the cows bottom.

Fishes in the Boston Common?

fish Boston is a beautiful city. It is rich with 400 years’ worth of history and culture. Toward the end this century, this historic city will be underwater. However, what is the cause? You guessed it, global warming. It is predicted that within a few decades, globally, oceans will increase somewhere between two and six feet. [*] For coastal cities like Boston, this means big trouble, or in other words: fishes swimming in the Boston Common. The photos below show how as little as 5ft and as much as 25 feet of water can affect the look of the Boston area. [*] Based on the past trends of consistent sea level rise in the Boston area, it is very possible that Boston will be under water sooner than we think. [*]

This picture shows what Harvard's Campus would look like with 5 feet in sea level rise.

This picture shows what Harvard’s Campus would look like with 5 feet in sea level rise. *

This picture shows what Harvard's Campus would look like with 25 feet in sea level rise.
This picture shows what Harvard’s Campus would look like with 25 feet in sea level rise.*
This picture shows the increasing trend of sea level rise in the Boston area.

This picture shows the increasing trend of sea level rise in the Boston area.*

Where’s the Evidence? (That it’s actually global warming) Global warming is the phenomenon in which the temperature of the earth is increasing. Global warming is caused by many factors, but primarily it is the increase of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere and deterioration of important atmospheric layers. It is back by strong evidence that human activities has contributed greatly to many of the factors that cause global warming.  Some human activities that contribute to the global warming crisis are pollution and the burning of fossil fuels.

This diagram shows how global warming works.

This diagram shows how global warming works.*

Having the temperature of the earth change has serious impacts on environment. This rapid change in climate temperature causes drastic weather conditions such extremely hot summers, heavy rainfall, and fridge winters. [*]  Additionally, an increase in global temperature causes the ice from the north and south poles to melt. When there is more ice melting, this leads to rises in sea levels because there is more water being released into the oceans. Rising sea levels means that in near future, cities like Boston will be partially underwater. Solutions Due to the serious threat of dramatic sea level rises, Boston has started to rethink ways to build infrastructure or modify existing structures. As of recently, the city has made it mandatory that departments consider sea level rise during planning decisions. [*]  Nonprofits like the Urban Land Institute want to turn Boston into the Amsterdam or Venice of North America by replacing streets with canals so water can flow through. [*]

This is a picture of what the new layout of Boston would like with canals in place. This a solution to the rising sea level problem.

This is a picture of what the new layout of Boston would like with canals in place. This is  a solution to the rising sea level problem. *

However, I think there is an easier and simpler solution; let’s stop global warming. Maybe instead of trying to build dams or canals, we should change our habits so that the world’s temperature does not continue to rise.  Tackling global warming as our main issue will save us money and heartache down the line. The only way that we can keep fishes out of the Boston Common is to change the way we interact with our world. The first step is to use less or more efficient forms of energy.

The Melting Ice Caps and How They Affect Us

There is plenty of evidence to confirm that the polar ice caps are indeed melting and that global warming is to blame. The most noticeable evidence is the fact that the ice caps have decreased drastically in size over the past 100 years or so. Figure 1 displays this visually.

Figure 1 from enviromatters.wikispaces.com

polar-ice-caps-melting

This poses an incredibly dangerous threat to polar bears and other inhabitants of arctic regions, as well as to the ecosystems of the biome. However, the ecosystem disruption in the ice caps is only one of many drastic repercussions of the melting ice caps.  An article published by the National Academy of Sciences’ Research Council lists two other majorly destructive consequences of this crisis.

Growing scientific research heavily suggests that changes in the arctic regions are leading to changes in the weather of the mid-latitudes. The increasingly warmer air in the arctic regions is leading to a greater persistence in abnormal weather conditions such as intense snow, intense heat, intense cold, intense rain, essentially any other extreme types of weather, including dangerous storms. “The basic idea is that a warmer Arctic plays games with the jet stream, the stream of air high above us in the stratosphere that carries our weather and that is driven by temperature contrasts between the mid and high latitudes,” writes Chris Mooney of the Washington Post. “If the Arctic warms faster than the mid latitudes do, then the jet stream could slow down, goes the theory. It could develop a more elongated and loopier path, leading to a persistence of particular weather conditions.” Figure 2 shows the elongated, loopy jet stream patterns.

Figure 2 from http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/energy-environment/wp/2015/04/16/the-arctic-is-unraveling-due-to-global-warming-and-the-consequences-will-be-global/

imrs.php

Another destructive side-effect of the meltdown of the ice caps is that it releases greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere, thus increasing global warming. The ice and permafrost (frozen ground) in arctic regions contains massive stores of frozen carbon, “some 1,330 and 1,580 gigatons worth, and that may be a low end estimate,” says The Washington Post. How did carbon get inside the ice caps? The National Research Council explains that dead plants, which are essentially made of carbon, freeze and lock their carbon in place if the climate is cold, but decompose and release their carbon into the atmosphere in warmer climates. Should the ice caps melt and lose their freezing climate, “the volume of carbon emissions could be enough to set back worldwide efforts to reduce emissions from fossil fuel burning by adding an entire new source of greenhouse gases beyond the usual suspects, like fossil fuels and deforestation,” says the Washington Post.

Sources consulted:

http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/energy-environment/wp/2015/04/16/the-arctic-is-unraveling-due-to-global-warming-and-the-consequences-will-be-global/

http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/Features/PolarIce/polar_ice2.php

enviromatters.wikispaces.com