Its Hard Not To Care When There Is So Much Smog In The Air

Living in New England, we have all encountered several blizzard warnings in which we are advised not to leave our homes. But can you imagine not being able to leave your home due poor air quality. For many of us this is unimaginable. How could the air quality within a whole country be so poor that one could not leave their home? For me, I actually lived through a smog epidemic during the summer of 2013 (Figure 1). This epidemic was so bad that the government made it illegal for individuals to leave their homes for about 3 days. Smog and excess air pollution is a chronic problem in Asian countries. This week I decided to dive in deeper and truly understand how smog build up occurs and why we see it so often in Asia.

Figure 1

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Smog by definition is the combination of smoke and fog. Smog is a black haze comprised of a mixture of pollutants (Figure 2). But how exactly is smog created? As previously mentioned, smog is essentially a combination of pollutants in the air. When these pollutants are burnt the fumes are then released into the air.  These fumes come directly from things such as heavy traffic, high temperatures, sunshine and calm winds.The smog we see today is called photochemical smog. Photochemical smog is when sunlight reacts with nitrogen oxides and at least one volatile organic compound (VOC) in the atmosphere. Examples of nitrogen oxides include car exhaust, coal power plants, and factory emissions. Examples of VOCs are include gasoline, paints, and many cleaning solvents. When the sunlight hits these particles it sparks the creation of fumes thus creating smog. Asian countries tend to have high populations thus resulting in an increase in the number of automobiles and heavy traffic. In addition, Asia being located near the equator makes for high temperatures and plenty of sunshine. These factors double the effects of smog and amplifies the effect. 

Figure 2

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Smog can be extremely detrimental to ones health and in some cases it can be fatal. Smog gives off an immediate effect and theres no gradual build up. Smog can cause minor health issues such as a cold and pneumonia. Although this is the case, smog can also be responsible for major health issues such as lung cancer. Smog is most commonly known for causing irritation  in the eyes and increasing the difficulty to breathe (figure 3). Smog also deteriorates plant life. With several pollutants in the air, this makes it difficult for plant life to prosper and continue to grow. More often than not plant life can completely die as a result of smog. 

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So what can you do to help? There several small actions one can do to reduce the amount of smog emitted in urban areas. First and for most, avoid driving if it is not necessarily. Try walking, carpooling, and or using bikes if everyone tries to do this smog emissions will slowly begin to decrease. In addition, fill your automobile with gasoline during the cooler hours of the day; this prevents gas fumes from heating up and producing ozone. Finally, if one cuts down on gas powered appliances and uses electrically powered appliances in stead this will also reduce the amount of smog.

The smog epidemic personally effected me and I am fearful that the problem will increase if we dont do anything about it. This problem can be reduced as long as we are aware and try and put forth our best effort to reduce the number of gas powered appliances we use!!! What will you do to reduce the effects of smog on our community?

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If We Could See Our Carbon Emissions, Would It Affect the Way We Spend Energy?

The debate over whether global warming is real continues to rage on between scientists, the media, and the masses of wildly under-informed citizens of the world. Whether the sides ever come to an agreement is irrelevant: carbon emissions, the culprit behind global warming, are a reality and they have very real effects. Many of the effects, however, are completely invisible: increased acidity of ocean water, a depleted ozone layer, climate change, air pollution, and a list of others.

Carbon emissions are produced by so many activities we have deemed necessary for our everyday lives, yet they are completely invisible. When you turn on the lights in your room or turn up the heat, you do not suddenly see a column of smoke reminiscent of some particularly grisly trucks on the highway.

carbon

Visible carbon emissions show the flow and concentration of carbon emissions.

The ocean absorbs a major part of the carbon in the environment, but the climbing CO2 emissions have caused the ocean to become more acidic. This damages coral reefs and food webs. Ozone depletion leads to more UVB rays leaking through to the Earth’s surface, instigating climate change and raising the risk of skin cancer. Air pollution can seriously affect health and agriculture. The impacts of climate change range from human health effects to an increase in pests as well as more frequent hurricanes in some places, yet decreased water availability in others. All of these are ramifications of carbon emissions. None of them are immediately visible to the human eye, yet over the span of a few decades, they will wreak major havoc on the environment.

This videosmokestack truck shows what Earth would look like from space if carbon emissions were visible to the human eye. If we could see carbon emissions in our daily lives, like the smokestack coming off a truck coming out of a wall socket when we leave our computer plugged in all night even after it is fully charged, would we use less energy and produce less carbon emissions? When the effects as well as the emissions themselves are invisible, it can be hard to save energy or even realize how much carbon you are emitting. Accurately calculating your carbon footprint can be a time consuming and confusing endeavor, especially because many of the activities that relate to your carbon footprint, such as how local the food you eat is and whether you eat a meat- or plant-based diet, do not seem to have obvious carbon ramifications. So if our carbon emissions were as obvious as the smoke coming off a truck, would there be such a struggle to move towards lowering carbon emissions? Whether such a change would make us realize the benefits to lowering our emissions ourselves or if a sense of public embarrassment– the idea that others can see just how much you are damaging the environment– would catalyze a change, there would likely be a great deal more accountability for our actions.

What’s happening with the Carbon Cycle

How the Carbon Cycle should be

The carbon cycle tells us how carbon, one of the most essential elements needed for life, travels from the surface of the earth to the atmosphere. A producer uses carbon dioxide in order to conduct photosynthesis. Then a primary consumer will eat the consumer and the carbon will also be transferred from the producer to the consumer.Then when another consumer eats that consumer or it dies the carbon dioxide will be released into the atmosphere and the cycle will restart. Carbon can also be stored for longer periods of time during the carbon cycle. Forests are a good carbon sink because trees can hold carbon for multiple years. Trees also provide the atmosphere with oxygen using carbon dioxide during photosynthesis. Recently, scientists have been observing that the majority of carbon sinks are located in the southern hemisphere but not in “big forests, but in dry places, even deserts, places where the only green things are shrubs or tall grass.” This had scientists wondering what was happening because this was not coherent with the carbon cycle, so they did research and learned that rain played apart in this occurrence. The year before this happened the precipitation in the southern hemisphere was more than usual and it caused the carbon dioxide to move to these dry environments. Scientists reported that “plants become more efficient with their water use under elevated CO2 in the atmosphere.” The plants in these areas then flourish with the rain and carbon dioxide because both water and CO2 are necessary for photosynthesis to occur. Ecologists were concerned about this change in the carbon cycle because they fear that it is not sustainable. Ecologist Daniel Metcalfe at the University of Lund in Sweden explained that having carbon stored in small plants is a short term solution because these plants usually live for a couple of years. He stressed that trees were the ideal place to store carbon for “tens or hundreds or sometimes even thousands of years.” The carbon cycle is one of the most important cycles that we must monitor because of its relevance to life on earth. With the recent increase in combustion of carbon due to human reliance on coal, oil, and natural gases the amount of carbon in the atmosphere is not healthy because the ratio of carbon in the atmosphere to carbon in the earth’s surface is supposed to be close. With the combustion of fossil fuels and the cutting down of trees in forests the ratio of carbon in the atmosphere to carbon on earth’s surface is becoming unstable. The carbon cycle is important to monitor in order to ensure the sustainability of life on our earth! Listen to the NPR on this it’s very interesting! Link is in the bibliography.

Bibliography

http://www.npr.org/2014/05/22/314761225/scientists-discover-carbon-cycle-is-out-of-whack

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

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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%.

Figure 1 (http://www.bbc.co.uk/bitesize/standard/biology/world_of_plants/making_food/revision/3/)3b74df700f6b37803298234ddb3deff0d24aa41e

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.

Sources consulted:

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/10/17/plants-climate-change_n_6004656.html?utm_hp_ref=climate-change

http://www.bbc.co.uk/bitesize/standard/biology/world_of_plants/making_food/revision/4/

http://www.mnn.com/earth-matters/climate-weather/blogs/how-much-are-plants-helping-us-fight-climate-change

Historical Global Carbon Cycle Needs A Reexamination

Carbon is an important element in all organisms. 20% of living organisms’ bodies are made up of carbon. Carbon is also the essential element that makes up the organic molecules. Carbon cycle is the process by which carbon is cycled through different parts of the Earth. Since carbon dioxide has a great effect on global warming, scientists pay close attention to the historical global carbon cycle in order to learn how the climate has changed throughout history.

Scientists often use the measurement of carbon isotopes in the fossils from a specific time to predict the carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere at that time. Isotopes are atoms with the same chemical behavior but different masses. The two common isotopes of carbon are carbon-12 and carbon-13. CO2 produced by burning plants are different than the CO2 that existed in the atmosphere as plants have a preference with the lighter isotope, carbon-12. Therefore, plants have a lower carbon-13/carbon-12 ratio than the atmosphere does. Once the CO2 produced by the burning of plants enter the atmosphere, it will lower the ratio in the atmosphere. Since the fossils are derived from ancient plants, they have the same ratio of carbon isotopes. Scientists compare fuels from different times to observe the change of carbon-13/carbon-12 ratio, which indicates the change of carbon dioxide concentration in atmosphere.

Recently the University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science researchers measured the amount of carbon isotopes in both organic matter and carbonic sediment in a marine sediment core found in the Great Bahama bank. Their analyses showed that several periods of sub-aerial exposure during the Pleistocene ice ages, which took place over the past two million years, lowered the amount of carbon-13 in this sediment. Amanda Oehlert, the lead author of the study, stated that their research showed the importance of understanding the geological context of carbon isotope records.  

 

Sediment

Picture: the sub-aerial exposure surface found in the sediment

This study showed that the amount of carbon isotopes in sediment were not the accurate records of changes in the global carbon cycle since post-depositional changes could cause the shift of carbonate values in sediments. Therefore, the predication that scientists made about the change of CO2 in atmosphere through history based on this measurement could not be accurate at all. The study of global carbon cycle is important today as scientists are trying to find the patterns of climate change on the earth in the history. This study is essential to find a solution to the issues of climate change. It is urgent for the scientists to find a more reliable source to make predications about the global carbon cycle. The fact that UM researchers proved the traditional way of studying global wrong makes me wonder if there is any other scientific method that could be wrong.

Sources:

“How Do We Know That Recent CO2 Increases Are Due to Human Activities?” RealClimate. N.p., n.d. Web. 17 Oct. 2014. <http://www.realclimate.org/index.php/archives/2004/12/how-do-we-know-that-recent-cosub2sub-increases-are-due-to-human-activities-updated/&gt;.

“New Study on Global Carbon Cycle May Require Reappraisal of Climate-Related Events in Earth’ History.” RedOrbit. N.p., 18 Sept. 2014. Web. 17 Oct. 2014. <http://www.redorbit.com/news/science/1113237311/global-carbon-cycle-history-091814/&gt;.

UM Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science. This subaerial exposure surface is observed at 33.782 meters below the mudpit. Science 2.0. N.p., n.d. Web. 17 Oct. 2014. <http://www.science20.com/news_articles/historical_global_carbon_cycle_needs_a_rethink-144995&gt;.

Disrupting the Carbon Cycle is not the only thing Deforestation is Responsible for…

Africa supports approximately 30% of the forests in the world, with a large amount of these forests located in Upper Guinea and Lower Guinea (Congo). Yet, these forests have been subject to an immense amount of deforestation. Although deforestation provides people with goods and resources, it is terrible for the balance of the Carbon Cycle and our atmospheric layers. Trees have large amounts of Carbon in their wood, and therefore when they are cut or burned, CO2 is released into the atmosphere. Unless there are enough trees planted or grown to recapture the lost carbon, the exchange between trees and the atmosphere of CO2 is put out of balance, which is a cause of global warming.

Although global warming is a very popular and conversational topic, there is one topic that is stealing everyone’s attention. You guessed it, Ebola. Ebola is one of the most dangerous viruses in the world today, causing many symptoms, one being internal bleeding, and is most likely by followed death. Now, you may be asking, “What does Ebola have to do with deforestation in Guinea?” Well, this latest Ebola epidemic is believed to have started in one of the small towns in Guinea, and has now spread all over West Africa (See Figure 1.).

Map of Africa depicting Ebola Cases

Figure 1: This map of Africa Depicts what areas Ebola cases have been confirmed or suspected. The highlighted areas in red show where confirmed and probable cases of Ebola have been found. The tan highlighted areas show where suspected cases of Ebola are. As shown in the map, a lot of these highlighted areas are in the Guinea region, where the Ebola epidemic is believed to have started.

People in West Africa commonly eat Fruit Bats in stew, yet bats are known to be carriers of the Ebola Virus. Due to deforestation, many animals’ habitats are being destroyed, including bats. With bat’s habitats destroyed and human’s have moved into prior forest areas, the interactions between bats and people in West Africa has increased greatly. This increased interaction between humans and bats has also greatly increased the chance that one of the fruit bats that are eaten contained the virus Ebola, and sadly this event did occur. Yet, it did not just effect a few people in Guinea, it has spread all over West Africa, taking thousands of people’s lives, and is now spreading into other continents, such as the United States. While the CDC and other organizations are attempting to contain and control this outbreak, it has not had much effect, and the virus continues to spread rapidly.

Ebola, according to the World Health Organization, has already claimed AT LEAST 4,493 lives, and the number is increasing. Yet, what played a major role in this epidemic? It was human’s impact on the environment. Deforestation has claimed not only a vast amount of the forest biomes in West Africa since 1955, it has also claimed thousands of people’s lives. (displayed in Figure 2.),

West Africa Deforestation from 1955 to 1988

Figure 2. Shows West Africa in 1955 in the top picture and West Africa in 1988 in the bottom picture. The green represents where “closed forest cover,” or full forest, is, the dark yellow represents ‘Fragmented forest,” and the light yellow represents where deforestation has taken place. These two photos show how drastic deforestation has struck West Africa and therefore gives you an idea of how many animal habitats were destroyed and taken over by humans. The full picture of Africa on the bottom right also shows this by using the red areas to depict where deforestation has taken place. This also refers back to Figure 1. and shows how greatly West Africa and specifically Guinea was affected by deforestation.

While global warming did become a large controversy, hopefully this deadly outbreak of the Ebola virus that has ignited immense fear and panic can express to the public what serious effects humans have on the environment, and how what we do to the environment, can strike back on us.