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.

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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.

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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?

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.

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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.

Pictures, Numbers, and Our Imagination

A previous post on How We See The Environment touched on the idea that if carbon emissions were visible to the naked eye, people would feel much more compelled to reduce the ugly sight of billows of black smoke that they are creating. As the post says, calculating one’s own carbon footprint is tedious and not likely to be very effective in convincing one to change his or her habits for the better. Perhaps some companies have noticed this; General Electric has a Data Visualization blog dedicated to giving its viewers a better sense of their how much energy they use.

For those interested in the number of Watts used or the toll their appliances have on their wallet, this page, as shown in Figure 1, gives an estimate of watts, gallons of gas, and cost in dollars to power common household appliances. A smart facet of this page is that each appliance listed applies to most American households and the energy used by each appliance can be compared to others. So even though it is not easy to visualize a Watt, using 100 Watts is certainly easier to put into perspective when you know what using 10 Watts is like.

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For the more carbon-conscious folks, this page, also shown in Figure 2, compares the carbon footprint of more than just appliances, but also that of objects like paper and food. Like the previously mentioned blog page, these numbers are estimates and generalizations, but it helps remind viewers that everything we enjoy had emitted quite a bit of carbon to be created and distributed. Buying local, anyone?

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In my opinion, these pages are a great way to make people more conscious of the consequences of their actions, but as How We See the Environment blog post mentions, a mere number does not create the same sense of urgency as the sight of smog would. Perhaps, it helps one visualize such a sight, but it’s not like General Electric intended its viewers to consult their blog every time they do something like drive a car or buy a carton of milk. A great addition to their blog however, would be pictures of black smoke next to a phone left overnight to charge.

So How Do We Convince Them?

Solar panels, wind farms, diesel-fueled cars, compact fluorescent light bulbs; the list of innovations to save energy goes on and on and on. Yet the people of the US still waste $40 billion every year on expended energy that does not contribute to their livelihood. This includes habits like leaving air conditioners or lights on in empty rooms. And who is to blame for that waste? Obviously, it’s the obstinate inhabitants who do not feel the urge to change their behavior. Now, we can continue to come up with cool new inventions to cut down on energy, but it won’t make the glaring $40 billion problem disappear. So how do we get thy pig-headed neighbor to shut off his air conditioner every now and then? Alex Laskey may tell say something along the lines of, “Well everyone on your street is doing so Sir. Why don’t you do the same?”

Alex Laskey gives a talk about the power of social pressure and how we can utilize it to save energy. People won’t respond at all to slogans like, “Be a good citizen!”, or “Save the planet!”, or “It saves you money!”, but they do respond to “Your neighbors are doing better than you.” Laskey goes on to explain the success story of OPower: a company he and his friend founded that is based on that piece of information. OPower provides personalized reports of a home’s energy use compared to that of their neighbors. From apps to thermostats, OPower provides suggestions and goals to help lower energy use that people actually follow! Energy wasters worldwide are pressured to at least be on par with the efficiency of that of their neighbors, and Figure 1 shows that with every passing year, OPower has been saving more energy with each passing year. In 2013, they saved 2 TeraWatt hours of energy worldwide. For to those eager to know what good that saving can do for the environment, 2 Terawatt hours equates to saving 3 billion pounds of carbon dioxide. All that power saved… due to behavioral science.

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Chances are if you’re reading this, you’re not part of a international corporation bent of saving energy. So how do we as individual citizens put this nugget of advice to use? Well, maybe we could start by telling our neighbor or dorm mates who has a refrigerator of an empty house/room that you and everyone else is using their AC sparingly. And maybe, we could make OPower’s 2 TWh become 2.1 TWh next year.



Upgrade Not Yet Available

In this day and age, a lot of our electronic devices are wirelessly connected. I need many of these gadgets around me to get through my day, like my laptop or phone to check my schedule and email, the printer to do my homework, or my Playstation to enjoy myself, and these things probably aren’t uncommon in other households. But what these electronics around us have in common is a network connectivity that carries out their function. And that perpetual connection is a problem for energy costs.

In 2013, approximately $80 billion was wasted on power for online devices. But wait, what’s so special about online devices? Why aren’t our desk-lamps or calculators part of the problem? Well, devices that use a wireless connection are in “standby mode” when we are not using them, and the wording of “standby mode” does seem to imply that the device is completely inactive and using minimal power. But even though they may not be in use, they still maintain network connection in standby mode and continue to draw power to do so. As of 2013, 600 Terawatts (1 Kilowatt=103 watts; 1 Terawatt=1012 watts) were drawn from online devices. And to produce what? Nothing. What a waste.

Unfortunately, the problem seems likely to exacerbate. Figure 1 shows the past and projected growth of global Internet traffic and clearly, more people seem to become increasingly dependent on the Internet. Additionally, figure 2 shows the projected sales of networked devices. It isn’t hard to see that the energy demand will skyrocket in order to power those networked devices. Are we going to have to go through the trouble of satisfying their standby mode hunger too?

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Figure 2

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The International Energy Agency is addressing policy makers, software designers, or service providers to cut this 600 TWt waste, but the issue nagged me as I read an article about a plausible futuristic fantasy called the “Internet of Things”. Imagine everything, and I mean everything including trees, lampposts and other everyday entities, being wirelessly connected. Agricultural conditions can be perpetually tracked, traffic better regulated, and communication more immediate than ever; the ideas are endless! But of course, there’s a catch: the energy to back that connectivity is colossal. How can we expect to be energy efficient and advance ourselves in network connectivity when our current connectivity is having energy issues? All I could think at the end of the Internet of Things article was, “We might have to wait a little bit longer.”

If Not For the Earth, Then For the Poor

Energy is what fuels every entity, living or mechanical, in this world. It’s unarguably a necessity that keeps our living standards comfortable, advances technology, and feeds our people. And it’s pretty common knowledge that there are numerous movements around the world to decrease our energy use due to the heavy toll it takes on our finite fossil fuels. However, if you were to consider countries where most people lack electricity, in retrospect my words: “comfortable livings standards, advances technology,” makes energy inefficiency seem much more a first world problem.

The idea isn’t a difficult concept to grasp. First world countries have higher living standards and thus use more energy, and poorer countries have numerous people without access to electricity. Sub-Saharan African, for example, is only able to generate 30 gigawatts of electricity, whereas the US generates 3000 gigawatts. Poverty is a global issue that is frequently addressed, but we only are able to generate so much energy. How do we provide electricity for so many when we have such a finite amount of fossil fuels and not-yet there clean energy? Figure 1 is a graph that shows how much energy per capita different countries strive for by 2035 and the red bar is the present world average. I think it shows how frivolously energy can be wasted and what different people deem “necessary”. But I also think it shows another reason why energy efficiency is such a big issue.

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So what do we do? Do we lower our standards? In Bill McKibben’s opinion (founder of 350.org), yes. According to him, climate change is a “greed problem” and rather than switching to cleaner forms of energy, we become a low-energy society. Now I am not on board with the latter part, but I do agree with the former. I think energy can be more evenly distributed. But again, fossil fuels are finite, and even the US has problems with dependence on foreign oil. Perhaps if we address poverty in the world, we can tackle the energy problem much better. A world with more equity in energy access is better equipped to tackle decarbonization.

So to answer the ubiquitous and extremely annoying question, “Why does energy efficiency matter?” Well, if poverty is a more heart-wrenching problem to you, saving energy is like donating extra food to the hungry. And by pulling third-world countries out of destitution, we may be moving ourselves into a world of clean energy. The two issues ought to go hand-in-hand.

Stop Hogging the Nitrogen!

Like many other nutrients, nitrogen is crucial for life on earth; nitrogen is needed for the production of nucleic acids and amino acids, which make up proteins, which in turn builds the very physical beings of organisms. Producers depend on soil bacteria to fix nitrogen gas into the form of ammonium or nitrate in order to use it. But what if one species of a producer consumed all the available nitrogen in the soil like a vacuum cleaner cleaning up dust? That species would grow as if it had its own personal fertilizer. Needless to say, that particular species would flourish, and other plant populations, on the other hand, would dwindle.

Mahtaab Bagherzadeh, an undergraduate at Virginia Tech, participated in a study of how rhododendrons (more commonly known as azaleas) disrupt the nitrogen cycle with their greediness for nitrogen. In recent years, there has been a trend in areas losing various plant species when they are densely populated with rhododendrons. Declining plant species include chestnut and hemlock. Figure 1 is an example of dying hemlock leaves. Figure 2 is an example of a healthy bough of hemlock.

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Figure 2

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How does this nitrogen feud work? Well, microbes need nitrogen to sustain themselves as well. The relationship between microbes and plants is not one of commensalism; it’s not as if microbes exist for the sake of the life above ground. So they take whatever nitrogen they need and leave what’s left over for the plants. Rhododendrons release complex proteins that are difficult for microbes to break down. These proteins lock the nitrogen in organic compounds to create a hoard of nitrogen accessible to only rhododendrons. And without nitrogen, non-rhododendrons can’t survive.

Bagherzadeh and his advisor, Jeb Barrett, continue to study nitrogen and soil communities to address this issue with rhododendrons, but the take-away I am getting from this report is actually a reinforcement of the idea that these cycles and food-chains are more interactive with each other than a textbook would emphasize. Yes, nitrogen cycles through the atmosphere and the earth and so do carbon compounds. And yes, consumers eat producers before being decomposed into the ground by bacteria. But those cycles weave through one another, and if a species like the rhododendron disrupts a cycle, multiple issues pertaining to trophic interactions and nutrient cycles will ensue, not just ones respective to that one cycle.