Sea Otters: Global Warming Warriors

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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.

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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.

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.

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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.

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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.

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A Graphene Revolution?

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As our supply of non-renewable energy sources becomes increasingly scarce, it is becoming more and more apparent that the survival of our planet is dependent almost solely on our ability to implement both efficient and conservational practices in our daily energy usage. Researchers at Manchester University in the United Kingdom have made a very progressive step towards this goal with the discovery of graphene––a newfound substance with the same atomic structure as the graphite found in a pencil. Figure 1 shows a graphene sample scaled next to the tip of a graphite pencil.

CNN’s Tomorrow Transformed column calls graphene “the most revolutionary advance in battery technology yet.” The substance earned this praise for its energy-efficient properties with regard to electrical power, such as its ability to conduct electricity even better than copper. In its simplest form, graphene is only one atom thick and more than 1 million times thinner than a human hair. Despite the fact that it is extremely thin and almost weightless (in fact it is the first two dimensional crystal known to science), graphene is harder than a diamond and 200 times stronger than steel, making it extremely durable and long-lasting. Manchester University’s Graham Templeton states, “No known material can approach this combination of abilities.” This makes graphene far superior to other substances (such as copper and steel), which are vital components of the electronic appliances that we use everyday such as smartphones, laptops, television sets, etc. This is because it lasts very long, does not need to be replenished frequently, and conducts electricity with minimal risk of wasted energy. Figure 2 displays the atomic makeup of graphene in its simplest form.

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Arguably the most groundbreaking discovery that Manchester University’s researchers made was a graphene membrane’s ability to literally harvest hydrogen from the atmosphere. The researchers claim that this harvesting “could be combined with fuel cells to create a mobile electric generator fueled simply by hydrogen present in air.” This method of hydrogen generation is far superior to our current method, in which hydrogen is obtained almost entirely from fossil fuels such as coal, oil, and natural gas.

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The Mt. Abram Ski Lodge and its Progressive Strides Towards Energy Efficiency

In this age of environmental panic, it is always refreshing to read about organizations that are actually making a proactive effort to rely less on non-renewable energy sources such as fossil fuels, which cannot be reused and take billions of years to form, and rely more on renewable energy sources such as solar energy, which replenishes rapidly and is readily available because it comes from sunlight. Mt. Abram, a ski area in Maine, is not only the world’s largest snow-making site, but is also the second largest solar ski area in the country and gets 70% of its energy from the sun. (

Solar panels rely on the photoelectric effect, or the ability of matter to emit electrons in response to light, to convert sunlight into electricity. In order to fully understand how the photoelectric effect works, one must first understand photons, electrons, solar cells, and kinetic energy. Kinetic energy is the energy that a substance carries by virtue of its movement and location. A rock falling from a cliff has more kinetic energy than a rock sitting still. Photons are the tiny particles that make up sunlight and they carry kinetic energy because they move at the speed of light. Solar cells are what make up solar panels and they consist of two different types of silicon; n-type, which has spare electrons, and p-type, which is missing electrons. When a photon reaches the semi-conductive silicon surface of a solar cell, it transfers its potential energy to loose electrons and knocks them off the silicon atoms. The loose electrons then diffuse to the p-type silicon where electrons are missing and create a negative charge on that side of the solar cell (electrons are negatively charged), while the n-type silicon becomes positively charged. This imbalance creates an electric current across the solar cell. The silicon maintains this electricity by acting as an insulator (remember silicon is semi-conductive). The electricity stored in these solar cells can be used to power cars, satellites, calculators, houses, ski areas, and everything in between.

Figure 1: Diagram of a solar cell (


Mt. Abram also uses the energy generated from burning wood pellets to heat its lodge. While it is not as renewable as solar energy, wood can be a relatively sustainable energy source if trees are replanted frequently enough. Attracting over 40,000 skiers each winter, the Mt. Abram ski lodge is a pioneer in the fight to sever our dependance on nonrenewable energy sources and shows that it is possible to run a successful business that relies on renewable energy.


Strides Towards an Energy Efficient World

Energy efficiency is, at its roots, the concept of using and wasting less energy. Many of the most pressing threats to our everyday lives are the results of our (meaning humans) failure to achieve energy efficiency. Of these threats are global warming, diminishing resources, economic turmoil, illness-causing air pollution, reliance on fossil fuel, etc. Examples of energy efficient energy sources include solar energy, wind, and water. Harry Verhaar, head of global and public affairs at Philips Lighting and chairman of the European Alliance to Save Energy, gives a very refreshing and inspiring take on energy efficiency that we should all try to adopt. “Its logical,” he says, “because we simply waste too much. Some people call energy efficiency low-hanging fruit. I would even say energy efficiency is fruit lying on the ground. We only need to bend over and pick it up.” The successful implementation of energy efficiency would ultimately benefit the global community in practically every way possible. Climate change would ease up, our huge rates of pollution would decrease, and our reliance on unsustainable resources such oil, coal, and fossil fuels would be reduced. From an economic aspect, scads of jobs would become readily available in fields such as building upgrades, energy-efficient vehicle manufacturing, and the engineering of energy efficient everyday appliances such as lightbulbs, stoves, houses, etc. Not to mention, the massive weight of an impending economic collapse due to diminishing resources would be lifted from our shoulders. As can be seen in Figure 1 below, we are only decades away from reaching our absolute maximum rate of unsustainable energy usage until we are bound by the law of limitation to cut back.

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Despite the simplicity of Mr. Verhaar’s fruit analogy, there are many difficult complications that arise from making strides towards energy efficiency. Cultural inertia is a term used to describe the concept that humans are so incredibly adapted to their reliance on coal, oil, and fossil fuel that the sudden transition to using only energy efficient resources would cost unfathomable amounts of money and would bring some of the most influential companies in the world crashing to the ground. Other complications are public skepticism and financial constraints. Quite simply, nobody is sure enough that the transition to energy efficient resources will be worth the massive funding that it requires. Overcoming these hindrances will be far from easy but, whether, gradually or suddenly, we must eventually sever our reliance on unsustainable resources if we want our planet to survive.


Ask Not What Plants Can Do for You but what You Can Do For Plants


It has been long-established that the accumulation of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is a driving force behind the change in Earth’s temperature that has been observed in the past few centuries. A feasible solution to rising global temperatures, however, has not been established, but scientists are getting close.

Researchers at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee recently conducted a study in which they found that plants may absorb more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere than previously thought. In fact, they claim that many widely-accepted climate models for future generations are not entirely accurate because of their underestimation of how much atmospheric carbon dioxide is soaked up by Earth’s plant life. The reason behind these miscalculations is the fact that most climate models do not account for the way carbon dioxide diffuses inside the mesophyll tissue of a plant’s leaf. This has caused models to misjudge the total intake of carbon dioxide by plants by as much as 16%.

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Figure 1 shows the anatomy of a plant leaf, which is an essential component in the process of photosynthesis. The palisade mesophyll towards the epidermis of the leaf contains many chloroplasts that are tall and closely packed to absorb maximum light. The spongy mesophyll towards the center of the leaf also captures light, but mainly serves to produce glucose and oxygen. The cells in the spongy mesophyll are relatively spread out, which allows for the diffusion of more carbon dioxide within plants.

Environmental scientists are currently trying to determine whether this 16% discrepancy is enough to slow down climate change and give humans enough time to curb their greenhouse gas emissions. While most news coverage and commentary has optimistically suggested that it might, many prominent scientists brush the newfound study off as meaningless from a big-picture perspective. Of these scientists is Oak Ridge Laboratory’s own Lianhong Gu, who asserts that, “…it (the 16% discrepancy) would not reduce the urgency of reducing (carbon dioxide) emissions. The climate change associated with fossil fuel use is much bigger than the response of plants to carbon dioxide.” Gu supports this claim by citing that the extra carbon dioxide stored in plants will follow the carbon cycle and eventually return to the atmosphere when the extra biomass dies. Martin Heimann, director of biogeochemical systems research at Germany’s Max Planck Biogeochemistry Institute makes a similar criticism by stating that, “…for the atmospheric carbon dioxide, only the net (land and ocean) uptake matters. If the land uptake is increased by a certain fraction, the land carbon release through respiration (the decay of dead biomass) will also increase.” Earth would need to at least double its land vegetation to keep up with carbon dioxide emissions, researchers say.

“Regardless of how much CO2 they soak up,” Gu says, “wild plants are a key ally in our quest to make civilization sustainable.” Scientists should concentrate their efforts on protecting plants rather than relying on them to protect the Earth. While it might not save the planet from global warming, Earth’s plant life will certainly soften the blow of climate change and provides many other ecosystem-related services beyond absorbing carbon dioxide. These services include the release of atmosphere cooling aerosols, the removal of toxic fumes from the air, and the production of life-saving medicines.

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Humans and their Atypical Reproductive Patterns

By Jack Hartigan

In 1859, Charles Darwin illuminated the people of the world with the truth behind the behavioral and reproductive tendencies of organisms. On the Origen of Species delves into how organisms tend to react to improved circumstances, whether it is a disappearance of a predator, an abundance of food, a change in season, etc., by producing more offspring and expanding their population. This is done because organisms are naturally wired to do whatever is in their power to prevent the extinction of their species, and what better way to accomplish this than to reproduce as much as possible. While this trend is arguably the most biologically pragmatic truth established by scientists, it is not a completely universal truth. Homo sapiens, the genus that includes all humans, react to improved circumstances by curtailing reproductive rate rather than raising it.wolfersimage012

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This behavioral pattern of humans is shown in Figure 1, where the inversely proportional relationship between reproductive rate (TFR) and occupational income is displayed by year, with lower TFRs in high-income families and higher TFRs in low-income families. This trend is essentially the reason behind the shape of the demographic transition, in which humans are shown to lower their reproductive rates as their respective country becomes more and more developed. Dr. Anna Goodman of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine offers an explanation to this phenomenon by categorizing the reproductive tendencies of humans into two categories; r-selection and K-selection. R-selection applies to humans who produce many offspring but do not invest themselves fully in each child. This is used in conditions that cause high infant mortality rates. The other strategy, K-selection, applies to humans who produce very few offspring, but dedicate themselves fully to their nurturing and well-rounded development. This is used in conditions where contraceptives, medical attention, and food is handily available.

The demographic transition essentially shows that, as a country advances through the chronological stages of the transition, the reproductive rates of people in the country begin to spiral. This is because as countries advance through the stages of the demographic transition, they become more developed and the economical situation of the countries improves.