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.

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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

India’s Worst Air Pollution is Inside Its Homes

airpollutionindiaAir pollution in India is mainly comprised of Particulate Matter (PM) 2.5, PM 10, ozone, and CO__; outdoor air pollution, that is. India also struggles with indoor air pollution, an issue that does not necessarily produce the massive clouds of smog that are so iconic of outdoor air pollution. Yet indoor air pollution is actually an even larger problem than India’s outdoor air pollution. For perspective, Delhi, India is now the most polluted city in the world, tied only with Beijing. India’s outdoor Air Quality Index (AQI) measures at 153, well into the Unhealthy range that is highly dangerous to inhabitants’ health. For indoor air pollution to be even worse means that Indians are being exposed to extremely dangerous air pollution at all times every day.

Indoor air pollution can come from appliances such as toasters, refrigerators, and air conditioners; substances like asbestos, formaldehyde, and lead; and smoke from tobacco and cooking, among other sources. In most countries, indoor air pollution is regulated, appliances are required to be within certain standards, and clear guidelines are given for what levels of indoor air pollution are healthy and unhealthy. India, however, has none of these, which leads to the monstrous indoor air pollution plaguing the country. The chronic air pollution that Indians are subject to can lead to respiratory issues and even cancer.

In a recent study, outdoor air pollution is the fifth largest killer in India, while indoor air pollution was the second, behind only high blood pressure. In 2010, 1.3 million Indians died of indoor air pollution. Globally, indoor air pollution killed 4.3 million people. The issue is especially poignant in India, as there is very little public concern for the issue while it obviously continues to be a major health risk. In India, 27.5% of all infant deaths can be attributed to indoor air pollution. The WHO norm for indoor air pollution is 20 unit grams per cubic meter of air. India’s indoor air pollution is at 375 unit grams per cubic meter of air, almost 19 times the standard. indoorairpollution

India’s government has made no move to combat the serious problem of indoor air pollution. Most Indian women and children spend the majority of their time indoors, leading to these massive health risks. Like China with the Under the Dome documentary, India needs something to spark public attention and make a move towards change. India is still developing, so it has the opportunity to be the first country to develop in an environmentally friendly way.

Secondhand Smog

If you were to check the tag on your t-shirt or the manufacturing label on something on your desk, chances are it would say “Made in China”. Nowadays, people are at least cognizant of the poor conditions of Chinese sweatshops or the famous smog largely resulting from manufacturing emissions and choose to stray away from certain clothing brands. But their manufacturing pollution isn’t contained under a Chinese dome, or even a Southeast Asia one. California is affected by Chinese smog.

Ian Faloona, an associate professor at UC-Davis, led a three-year study of California’s atmospheric pollution by studying the composition and origin of the particles collected from the air. The particles inspected were shown to have Asian dust mixed with heavy metal particles and fossil fuel combustion, showing that a large amount of ozone is blown over from Asia rather than natural sources.

10% of Californian air pollution is sourced from Asia, but they are not solely to blame. About 20% of China’s air pollution comes from the manufacturing of goods that are meant to for exportation, and the US is one of their top trading partners. The export sector contributes to approximately 25% of all Chinese emissions including sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, and black carbon. Figure 1 illustrates how much Chinese exports contribute to US sulfate pollution, especially in the west coast. And now we know that those emissions are not going to dawdle in China; like karma, what goes around comes around, whether it’s black carbon or a pair of sneakers.

Figure 1.

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Now we have evidence that we can’t just expect another country to fix up their issues, it’s everyone’s responsibility to help them. We are pretty used to hearing pollution reports related to our own country or even our own state. The Real-Time Air Quality Index Map can even give indexes as specific as a minor district. But the earth lives under one ozone layer; the air I breathe is also the air respired by an infant, dignitary, or tree miles and miles away. Alternatively, the smog Asia produces is the same smog people in other countries far away will breathe. A clean environment is not a local responsibility; it’s a global one.