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.

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The Future: Not Salty Salt Water

When you were little you were always told to never pee in the pool, right? Well some people don’t think that rule applies to the ocean, and to those people I say this: The ocean may be our new source of fresh water, so quit peeing in it! The process of desalinization may be the solution to end the Californian drought, and other droughts all around the world (as long as those places have the access to the technology). The basic idea of the process is that sunlight is focused onto a cylinder of water using mirrors; the water then evaporates and spins a turbine as it rises and later collects as clean water. Desalination takes impure runoff water, or ocean water, and uses solar energy to evaporate the water off, using it for farming, drinking water, or other purposes.

In California the WaterFX solar thermal desalinization plant is working to turn contaminated run off water into pure water for the community. This one plant so far is capable of producing 14,000 gallons of clean water a day. That’s the same amount of gallons if you collected all the milk from 1,750 cows in one day. The average American uses between 80-100 gallons of water a day through just daily use. The hope for this plant is to expand their operation and produce 2 million gallons a day. Aaron Mandell, co-founder of WaterFX, sells the water to farmers in the community and sees the company multiplying ten times in the next five years. Using desalinization is a really good way to help the drought in California, but doesn’t it mess up the natural water cycle?

Solar desalinization sounds pretty cool initially, it produces clean water and power with no fuel, just sunlight, but I had many initial concerns with the process when I first heard of it. The water cycle is basically the base of life on earth, and if it is tampered with then who knows the extent of the damage that could be done. How much water would be taken out of the ocean? What would happen to microorganisms in the water that play a crucial role in the oceans food chain? What happens to the left over gunk that made the water impure to begin with? After thinking about these questions I came to the conclusion that no source of energy is perfect and that on the scale of natural cycles that we already mess with in order to get power, solar desalinization seems to be on the smaller end of the spectrum.  It essentially has no negative environmental impacts directly due to the fact that it has no emissions, and no chemicals are used in the process. Its negative impact is based purely upon what people who run the plant choose to do with the “gunk” that’s left over after the water evaporates.

The Scorching Effects of Firewood

Low impact forestry is the practice of maintaining a healthy wild forest while at the same time harvesting quality wood from it for energy use. Firewood is becoming a more popular source of energy all throughout the world, and unfortunately with that comes deforestation in devastating quantities. Foresters take into consideration the health of a forest when choosing which trees to fell and which trees to leave on the lot.

National Geographic says that according to data taken in 2009, which is the most recent data, around twelve percent of US homes use wood as a source of heating, twenty two percent of rural homes use wood, twenty percent of New England homes,  and eight percent of urban homes. In the Nat Geo article, the author states that a family saves around three thousand dollars a year by going from depending purely on oil to using wood pellets as a secondary heat source. Not only is it cheaper to use firewood as a source of heating for a household, it is also incredibly safe for the environment depending on the wood used. Wood in certain conditions has cleaner emissions than others. The Energy Information Association stated that according to the Residential Energy Consumption Survey wood consumption is almost as high as oil consumption as a source of heating in US homes.

As the consumption of wood spreads worldwide, the forests are in increasing danger. Since 1600 roughly 90% of the United States indigenous forests have been destroyed. The World Resources Institute estimates that approximately twenty two percent of the world’s natural forests remains. The World Wildlife Funds estimates that around half of the logging that is done around the world is done illegally and most of it is in fact used for firewood. Deforestation is usually thought of as one of the largest contributing factors to global climate change. Trees use carbon dioxide and produce oxygen through photosynthesis, and they also help control the water cycle by releasing water vapor into the air, Deforestation effects the habitats of species, potentially endangering them, carbon dioxide emissions, erosion, the water cycle, and the overall quality of life.

So why is low impact forestry important? Low impact forestry essentially helps people who want to use wood to heat their homes do so in an environmentally friendly and sustainable way. As the demand for fire wood increases in the nation and worldwide we must work to spread the idea of low impact forestry so that companies won’t bulldoze over acres of forest a day. Wood can be considered a renewable resource if the forests we are harvesting from are managed in a sustainable way. In Maine, low impact forestry is spreading due to the fact that the people there do in fact need heat, and there are a lot of trees, so it is only logical that the

state uses its natural local resource, and that they should protect it. Like I said before, wood burning can be an incredibly clean way to heat one’s home. Ultimately right now it is in the consumers’ hands to try and purchase wood that has been harvested in a sustainable way. If we the consumer demand for the wood to be harvested a certain way wouldn’t the producer have to meet those demands in order to stay in business?

Sources:

http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/energy/2012/10/121022-wood-for-heating/

http://www.livescience.com/27692-deforestation.html

http://www.forestecologynetwork.org/lif.htm

http://www.mofga.org/Portals/2/Education/lif%20guidelines.PDF

Supply and Demand – India

India as a nation takes up 2.4% of the world’s land and 16% of its population, and all those people use energy. With all those people, India is experiencing dramatic environmental degradation due to the large amount of pressure placed on the land and resources. There have been some efforts made to try and aid India out of its rapidly declining state of sustainability.

The countries services are barely able to keep up with the rising demands for various types of energy service. Electricity usage increased sixteen times between 1951 and 1980, and since then has almost quadrupled. While the main source of energy in India is still coal, the country also uses hydro, solar, wind, and nuclear energy in an attempt to meet its growing demand for energy. Most of the electricity is generated by coal plants, and the rest is from hydroelectric plants. There have even been a few nuclear plants installed in India to supply a tiny bit of electricity to the country.

There have been frequent power outages during peak demand hours because the local services get overpowered. More than half of all the electricity is used for industrial purposes. The next major electricity consumer in India is the agricultural business, and closely following, growing quickly, are rural villages, which are now tied into varying distribution grids.

While coal is a prominent resource that India mines and exports what little it can spare, there are in fact other resources that the country has.India has experience deforestation, contamination, and soil depletion to name just the major strains that have been placed upon the land and environment.

One of the places in India that was experiencing the worst environmental issues is Rajasthan. The people there were experiencing agricultural productivity problems as well as a shortage of reliable water to drink. Through non-governmental organizations though, rain water tanks have been built so that the people there may better rely upon their land and natural resources for life.

Streets are filled with trash in New Delhi

New Delhi is another place in India that is experiencing a lot of issues with limited resources. The Ganges River was a sacred and reliable source of water but the increase in population and urbanization has left it almost worthless. Garbage lies in heaps on the streets because no one cleans it up. India of course feels extremely guilty for its pollution and inability to meet its nations energy needs and so has made steps towards cleaning itself up like moving towards more renewable energy sources and away from energy sources such as nuclear and coal. Is it possible that countries that are more able to transition to renewable energy sources could do so and in turn give their fossil fuels to countries like India? What if there were a more fair distribution of energy throughout the world? In the US we use 20% of the worlds total energy, why do we need that much? If we helped fix India’s energy problem, would all of the other environmental issues slowly fix themselves?

Work Out Efficiently

When I erg I measure my speed in watts, which essentially tells me how many watts of energy I am generating while I am working out. I decided to try and figure out a way to harness this energy in the hope that I could use it to power a radio that would be used in every high school or college team’s erg room. I started doing some research by looking at electrical bikes and how gyms across the globe have started to use gym equipment as an energy source.

If you walk into a gym you will see rows and rows of machines. There are treadmills, ellipticals, stair climbers, stationary bikes, and various other pieces of electrical equipment. The saddest part of all of this is that not only is all of this equipment plugged in, they come with TV’s. Your typical treadmill uses around 600-700 watts, and by adding a television to that isn’t helping the gym’s carbon footprint. By walking at a steady pace on a treadmill for two and a half hours a week, which is the government’s recommended amount of exercise for the average adult, one generates 110 pounds of carbon dioxide minimum.  I think that it is absolutely ridiculous that our goal in working out is to burn our own bodies’ energy, but we also burn extra insane amounts of energy through using gym equipment. There are such things as manual bikes and treadmills that do not plug in, but on a list of the top ten treadmills, only two are manual. That isn’t making much of an impact. Gyms began to realize that this was not efficient or cost productive, and so many have begun to put their equipment to good use.

The idea of a spin class is really unappealing to a lot of people but there actually is a lot of effort put into it, and so a lot of energy being generated. The Cadbury House in Great Britain has started to place this little black box at the base of each spin bike to collect the energy from all the sweaty people burning all their valuable energy, and putting that energy back into the grid. The Cadbury House in Congresbury, near Bristol will each feed around 100w per hour back into the building’s power supply. Their new treadmills also use around 30% less energy, even with TVs mounted in front of them. More locally, there is a gym in New York City and one in Oregon that has hooked up all their stationary bikes to generator boxes that feed the energy generated by the spinners back into the grid.

HEP

I saw the work that was being done to use all the energy generated and decided to try and do some more research to try and figure out how to build my own little machine to capture the energy generated by my ergometer. On a rowing blog I found people who had built bicycle generators and instead of putting them onto stationary bikes put them onto their ergs. I proceeded to look up how to build a bicycle generator and found that It was relatively simple to do so, but not very efficient to power anything greater than a light bulb because there wasn’t a way to store the energy. I then found another source that allowed me to hook up something like a car battery to the contraption so that I could store my energy.

What good would building a generator actually do for our school? Well, assuming whenever we do an erg workout we are going as hard as possible, there is definitely a way we could power a radio for the erg or weight room, and maybe even the entire room’s lighting. It takes around 50 watts to power a radio, and just a little bit more than that to power a generic light bulb, so keep that in mind.  Also keep in mind that an ergometer is only 45% efficient which isn’t that great. A rowers pace obviously varies depending on the duration of the workout, but say my team was doing two 20 minute workouts. We would generate a total of around 4500-5500 watts per person, this is already 45% of the total watts produced, assuming we were going our hardest the entire time. Even if we weren’t going our hardest the entire time, that’s still a lot of watts. If we could power our radios with our sweat then that would be entirely amazing, and not as expensive as one might think.

Changing Ecosystems

What determines an ecosystem? The plants and animals, right? Not quite, yes those are what help to define one type of ecosystem from another, but there are other factors that cause ecosystems to develop the way they do.  Ecosystems develop in specific places based upon their geology, climate, and altitude. Over the past century the average temperature of the earth has risen 1.3°F. There are places in the world where the temperature has risen double that, and still others where is has barely risen at all. In both circumstances however, we can see it affecting the ecosystem.

The effect of the warming earth is more dramatic in northern parts of the world. An article in the Huffington Post addressed one area in particular where it is hard to tell whether or not the changing ecosystem is a bad or good thing.

fig1

 In Alaska there has been a population explosion of bark beetles, which have existed in Alaska for centuries, but lately their population has not been kept in check by the cold temperatures. This is an example of how the climate, a non-living thing, is effecting the life of an ecosystem, showing that everything plays a role in defining what an ecosystem is, not just the flora and fauna. Due to the warming weather the bark beetles were able to infect more and more trees, and within the past 20 years wiped out enough white spruces to cover the entire state of Connecticut. The effect of the bark beetle take over affected every living organism in Alaska. Fewer spruces caused for there to be less shade on the forest floors, allowing grasses to grow. This benefited herbivores such as moose and elk, and also changed the temperature of the soil allowing other forms of vegetation to move in. This essentially completely changed the makeup of the Alaskan forest.

While making the soil more friendly to other types of vegetation may sound like a good thing, the wipe out of most of the white spruces hurt many other organisms such as predatory birds. Voles, a small rodent, were both a key piece in spreading beneficial fungi throughout the forests and were prey for a number of predators. This has caused for several of the residing species to move out as the forest changes. Since we have looked at both the beneficial impacts and negative impacts of changing ecosystems how do we decide if it is overall a good thing or a bad thing for our ecosystems to be changing?

I personally believe that the changing of any ecosystem great or small is not a good thing. I experienced the changing of ecosystems first hand in Maine where the migration of lobsters and green crabs was hurting the economy of the Maine coast. Since the temperature of the water has been getting warmer and warmer up the eastern coast, lobsters have been migrating up toward the cold waters. Green crabs on the other hand have been following the warm water into the Maine Coast.

Green crabs eat the same foods as lobsters and other shellfish. The Maine coast relies upon the farming of lobster and scallops for a decent amount of their economy, and so in this case in particular the changing ecosystem is a bad thing. If in some areas the changing ecosystem benefits the people living in that area, then it can be classified as a good change. But is it really good? What if the change wipes out the last of a certain species? Do the pros of an ecosystem changing outweigh the cons?

Sources:

Images: http://www.plixer.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2011/02/lobster.jpg

Article:

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/michael-lemonick/ecosystems-around-the-world_b_1723561.html

Swimming in Plastic?

The worlds population has been growing at an exponential rate. This rapid growth is not only affecting life here on land, it affects our oceans which in turn circle back to affect our lives. In general our environment is suffering from the population growth with the issue of supply and demand for natural resources, but another pressing matter is: what do we do with all our trash? The ocean covers 71% of the earth’s surface and it is, unfortunately, filled with trash.

Trash Generated vs. Trash Recycled

Trash Generated vs. Trash Recycled


This issue has mainly arisen to the public eye because of the Malaysian plane crashes. While we were searching for debris from the plane, satellites saw images that they thought were pieces of floating debris, but instead were trash islands, or refrigerators. Scientists found that around 2,309 pieces of litter are found in every kilometer of coastline, so why can’t we see it? I went to a presentation by a Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute representative who spoke about plastics in our ocean. Plastic is a very durable substance, which is great for our everyday purposes, but not so great when it lands in our oceans and doesn’t biodegrade. Instead, it becomes tiny pieces of plastic commonly referred to as “micro plastics”

It may seem crazy that tiny beads of plastic called micro plastics end up in our ocean, but if you look at your daily body wash that may contain exfoliating beads; some of them are polyethylene plastics. Polyethylene is also the plastic commonly used for plastic bags and bottles. Even our fleece jackets emit plastic particles into the ocean when we wash them in our washers because, yes, they are made with plastic threads. These plastics, when in the Open Ocean, are exposed to the sun and crashing waves. This breaks them down into micro plastics that prove very difficult to clean up. With the rise in supply and demand, due to the rise in the population, of these common, sometimes every day, products, the amount of plastic in the ocean also increases.

How small are micro plastics? Small.

How small are micro plastics? Small.


Why are micro plastics an issue? Micro plastics are quite possibly and most realistically the most abundant items of plastic debris in our ocean. They are quite easily ingested by fish and other marine life, and is threatening starvation to many marine birds, mammals, and animals that depend upon the organism plankton, which is small like the micro plastics, for food. Some recent research has produced data that shows the ratio of plastic to plankton in the ocean is as great as 46:1. With this devastating fact we must also look at the facts that demand for fish has been predicted to rise dramatically over the next 100 years. How will we be able to meet that demand if there aren’t any fish to catch and fisheries are closing left and right?

I am a firm believer that by recycling and paying attention to the products we use, every individual can make an impact upon the issue of micro plastics in the ocean. There is not much we can do about the rising population affecting the rising supply and demand of plastic products, but we can promote the usage of recycled material. We can however, turn the rising population into a population that recycles and reduces the usage of plastic wasteful material! In terms of cleaning up the mess that is already there, scientists are trying to figure a way to collect the micro plastics without impeding the life of marine animals. It’s not as easy as just dragging a really fine net through the ocean because that would also remove some microorganisms that are key factors in the marine food chain. Another issue that has arisen with the removal of micro plastics is that since they have been there for so long without us noticing them, microbes have been found living in colonies of chunks of the floating beads. The micro plastics are acting as faux reefs for these microscopic organisms. It brings into question what their impact will be upon the other inhabitants of the oceans? So what do we do? My opinion is that we minimize the amount of plastic that has the potential to me emitted into the ocean, and remove the micro plastics currently floating around slowly so that the ecosystems may return to how they functioned before we polluted them.

Image Sources:

http://center.sustainability.duke.edu/resources/green-facts-consumers/how-much-do-we-waste-daily

Information Sources :
http://www.biologicaldiversity.org/programs/population_and_sustainability/oceans/
http://www.whoi.edu/science/B/people/kamaral/plasticsarticle.html
http://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/microplastic-waste-this-massive-tiny-threat-to-sea-life-is-now-in-every-ocean-9602430.html
http://planetsave.com/2013/06/30/thriving-colonies-of-microbes-in-the-oceans-plastisphere-plastic-pollution-in-the-ocean-is-altering-environmental-conditions-by-transporting-microbes/