EarthwiseFrom green business and new environmental legislation to how nature impacts our environment in ways never before considered, Earth Wise offers a look at our changing environment every day through public radio.
From green business and new environmental legislation to how nature impacts our environment in ways never before considered, Earth Wise offers a look at our changing environment every day through public radio.
The Arctic is warming faster than any region on Earth and mostly we've been hearing about the rapid disappearance of Arctic sea ice. But the land in the Arctic is also undergoing major changes, especially to the permafrost that has been there for millennia. Permafrost occurs in areas where the temperature of the ground remains below freezing for two years or more. About a quarter of the Northern Hemisphere's landscape meets this criterion. Most of the world's permafrost is found in northern Russia, Canada, Alaska, Iceland, and Scandinavia. Permafrost regions previously carpeted in cranberries, blueberries, shrubs, sedges, and lichen are now being transformed into nothing but mud, silt, and peat. So-called regressive thaw slumps – essentially landslides – are creating large craters in the landscape. (The Batagaika Crater in the Yana River Basin of Siberia is a kilometer long and 100 meters deep). Apart from the violence being done to the Arctic landscape, the greatest concern is that the permafrost has locked in huge stores of greenhouse gases, including methane, carbon dioxide, and nitrous oxide. It is estimated that the permafrost contains twice as much carbon as is currently contained in the atmosphere. As the permafrost thaws, these gases will be released. With them will be pathogens from bygone millennia whose impact cannot be predicted. Climatologists estimate that 40% of the permafrost could be gone by the end of the century. As the permafrost thaws, the region's ecosystems are changing, making it increasingly difficult for subsistence indigenous people and Arctic animals to find food. Landslides are causing stream flows to change, lakes to suddenly drain, seashores to collapse, and water chemistry to be altered. The warming Arctic is about much more than disappearing sea ice. ********** Web Links How Thawing Permafrost Is Beginning to Transform the Arctic Photo, posted February 9, 2017, courtesy of the U.S. Geological Survey via Flickr. Earth Wise is a production of WAMC Northeast Public Radio.
Audio is no longer available
Jet Fuel From Acetone | Earth Wise
Acetone is a common organic solvent. It is used to make plastic, fibers, drugs, and other chemicals. It is commonly used by consumers as nail polish remover. Acetone is a manufactured chemical, but it is also found naturally in the environment in plants, among other places. There are now companies that produce acetone entirely by fermentation of plant feedstocks, such as corn. Researchers at Los Alamos National Laboratory have now developed a process by which acetone can be converted into a fuel additive that can improve the performance of petroleum-based jet fuel, providing both environmental and economic benefits. The process takes biomass-derived acetone and converts it to isophorone, which they produce by a process called photochemical cycloaddition that creates more complex hydrocarbons. They then use ultraviolet light to convert the isophorone into cyclobutane, which is a type of hydrocarbon with high energy density that is suitable for aviation fuel applications. Acetone itself is quite volatile and is unsuitable for fuel applications. It also cannot be added directly to any fuel supply since it can dissolve engine parts and o-rings. Cyclobutane, on the other hand, is a safer and more energy-dense fuel that can be a replacement for additives that require high-pressure hydrogen treatment in their synthesis. Currently, most hydrogen is produced by a process that generates carbon dioxide. The new conversion process does not result in carbon emissions. According to the Los Alamos researchers, their process can result in a domestically generated product that will provide environmental benefits, create domestic jobs, improve U.S. energy security, and further U.S. global leadership in bioenergy technologies. ********** Web Links Acetone plus light creates a green jet fuel additive Photo, posted December 18, 2007, courtesy of Flickr. Earth Wise is a production of WAMC Northeast Public Radio.
Audio is no longer available
The Blue Acceleration | Earth Wise
The oil and gas sector is the largest ocean industry. It's responsible for about one third of the value of the ocean economy. Sand and gravel, destined for the construction industry, are the most mined minerals in the ocean. And during the past 50 years, approximately 16,000 desalination plants have popped up around the world to help supply people with an increasingly scarce commodity: freshwater. As a result of these and other human pressures, the world's oceans have suffered a lot over time. But according to a comprehensive new analysis on the state of the ocean, human pressure on the world's oceans, driven by a combination of technological progress and declining land-based resources, sharply accelerated at the start of the 21st century. Scientists have dubbed this dramatic increase, which shows no signs of slowing down, the "Blue Acceleration." A research team from Stockholm University analyzed 50 years of data from aquaculture, bioprospecting, shipping, drilling, deep-sea mining, and more. Their findings were recently published in the journal One Earth. While claiming ocean resources and space is not new, lead author Jean-Baptiste Jouffray from the Stockholm Resilience Centre says "the extent, intensity, and diversity of today's aspirations are unprecedented." The researchers also highlight how not all human impacts on the ocean are negative. For example, offshore wind farm technology has reached commercial viability allowing the world to reduce reliance on fossil fuels. But how can the Blue Acceleration be slowed? Since only a handful of multinational companies dominate sectors like the seafood industry, oil and gas exploitation, and bioprospecting, one idea is to have banks and other investors adopt more stringent sustainability criteria for making ocean investments. ********** Web Links Human pressure on world's ocean shows no sign of slowing Photo, posted October 29, 2008, courtesy of Silke Baron via Flickr. Earth Wise is a production of WAMC Northeast Public Radio.
Tropical regions grapple with the spread of diseases – such as dengue, yellow fever, zika, chikungunya, and malaria – by mosquitoes. A fairly successful strategy has been the Sterile Insect Technique, which is essentially insect birth control. The process involves rearing large quantities of sterilized male mosquitoes in dedicated facilities, and then releasing them to mate with females in the wild. As they do not produce any offspring, the insect population declines over time. A problem with this approach is that while mosquitoes create health problems for people, they also play important roles in various ecosystems, such as providing food for bats and other animals. Eliminating mosquito populations on a large scale can trigger major changes in ecosystems. Recently, an international team of scientists has synthetically engineered mosquitoes that halt the transmission of the dengue virus. They genetically engineered mosquitoes with an antibody "cargo" that gets expressed in the female mosquitoes that spread the dengue virus. Once the female mosquito takes in blood, the antibody is activated which hinders the replication of the virus and prevents its dissemination throughout the mosquito, thereby preventing its transmission to humans. Essentially, what the researchers have done is transfer genes from the human immune system to confer immunity to mosquitoes. The researchers are testing methods to neutralize mosquitoes against other viruses they spread. This opens up a whole new approach to interrupt mosquito-borne human diseases. Mosquitoes are among the deadliest killers on the planet because they are the messengers that transmit deadly diseases. Until now, the only real solution has been to kill the messenger. The new approach may be a better way to deal with a serious problem. ********** Web Links Mosquitoes engineered to repel dengue virus Photo, posted June 20, 2014, courtesy of Flickr. Earth Wise is a production of WAMC Northeast Public Radio.
There is a growing body of research that shows that getting outdoors in nature can be good for people's health and well-being. There are so many studies supporting this idea that policymakers, employers, and healthcare providers are increasingly considering this need for nature in how they plan and operate. A new study of 20,000 people by researchers at the University of Exeter in the UK actually looked at how much exposure to nature was enough to make people say they feel healthy and have a sense of well-being. The answer turned out to be 2 hours a week. And the correlation was strong. People who didn't meet that threshold did not report the benefits. Studies have shown that time in nature – as long as people feel safe where they are – is an antidote for stress. It can lower blood pressure and stress hormone levels, reduce nervous system arousal, enhance immune system function, increase self-esteem, reduce anxiety, and improve mood. Most of these studies are correlational rather than causal, but the results tend to be robust. Given all this, cities are adding or enhancing parks, and schools and other institutions are being designed with large windows and access to trees and green space. The Scandinavian tradition of "forest schools" – where learning takes place in natural settings outdoors -.is finding a home in the US. Japanese researchers study the effects of "forest bathing", a poetic term for walking in the woods. With two-thirds of humanity projected to be living in cities by 2050, we are awakening to the idea that we need to be able to spend time in nature for our own wellbeing, even if it's just a walk in a park. ********** Web Links Ecopsychology: How Immersion in Nature Benefits Your Health Photo, posted November 6, 2011, courtesy of Flickr. Earth Wise is a production of WAMC Northeast Public Radio.
Capturing the carbon dioxide emitted from power plants and factories and safely storing it so it can't enter the atmosphere has long been an attractive and desirable goal. Even though the use of renewable energy sources has been expanding rapidly, it will still be a long time before fossil fuel plants go away entirely. The most widely considered method of carbon capture and storage is underground storage. The idea is to send the carbon dioxide through a pipeline to a place where underground rock formations can store it safely and permanently. Typically, it would be pumped deep underground – often more than half a mile down – and the site would be monitored to make sure the CO2 doesn't leak back up to the atmosphere or into the water table. A new study looked at how much carbon dioxide the suitable geological formations on Earth can store. The conclusion of the study is that drilling about 12,000 carbon storage wells globally could provide enough capacity to store 6 to 7 billion tons of CO2 a year by 2050. That is about 13% of global emissions. Drilling 12,000 wells is equivalent to the amount of oil and gas drilling that has taken place just in the Gulf of Mexico over the last 70 years. The study identified locations worldwide that could handle the pressures associated with storing injected carbon dioxide. So far, less than two dozen projects exist that capture and store carbon dioxide from fossil fuel plants. In total, these plants can capture about 36 million tons a year, which is far less than what is needed. But the new study at least shows that finding places to put captured carbon is not a problem. ********** Web Links Ample Geological Capacity Exists to Store Large Quantities of Captured CO2 Photo courtesy of Equinor. Earth Wise is a production of WAMC Northeast Public Radio.
The Value Of Abandoned Agricultural Lands | Earth Wise
It is perhaps surprising to learn that more land is now being abandoned by farming than converted to it. In fact, abandonment of rural lands has become one of the most dramatic planet-wide changes of the modern era, affecting millions of square miles of land. In part, it is due to rural flight driven by the economic, social, and educational appeal of cities. It is also a result of climate change and the globalization of the food supply chain. The global footprint of agriculture has been decreasing over the past twenty years but the global food supply isn't shrinking. The lost land has generally been marginal and farming elsewhere has become more productive. Many researchers see abandoned agricultural lands as a huge opportunity for ecological restoration and strengthening of biodiversity. Others see these lands as an opportunity for a massive program to plant trees to reduce carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. A recent study published in Science estimated that planting trees on abandoned agricultural lands could remove 25% of the carbon dioxide humans have added to the atmosphere. There are strong criticisms to all of these ideas. In most cases, the studies don't incorporate the social context of why these lands are in transition, the potential effects on local populations, whether the lands are publicly or privately owned, and whether lands now suitable for regeneration will remain so as climate change advances. Current government initiatives on degraded lands typically lack even rudimentary planning. There are real opportunities presented by the vast amounts of abandoned agricultural lands, but there are many caveats and many issues to confront. As a society, we have barely begun to even think about what to do. ********** Web Links Could Abandoned Agricultural Lands Help Save the Planet? Photo, posted May 9, 2010. courtesy of Flickr. Earth Wise is a production of WAMC Northeast Public Radio.
The Value Of Abandoned Agricultural Lands | Earth Wise
A data center is a building, dedicated space within a building, or a group of buildings used to house computer systems and associated components, such as telecommunications and data storage systems. Data centers are the backbone of internet services and cloud computing, which together are increasingly dominant elements of modern life. Energy use is a central issue for data centers. Power used by them ranges from a few kilowatts for a rack of servers in a closet at a local business to several tens of megawatts for large facilities. Some data centers have power densities more than 100 times that of a typical office building and use as much electricity as several thousand homes. For such facilities, electricity costs are a dominant operating expense and account for over 10% of the total cost of ownership of a data center. These centers, with their numerous racks of computer servers, consume 90 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity each year in the United States, as much as all of our residences use for lighting. A research group at Princeton University is developing a family of devices that can dramatically reduce power consumption at data centers. The team's technology focuses on the process by which the AC power from the grid is converted to the low-voltage direct current used by computer equipment. With existing technology, this power conversion takes place in each individual computer, which ends up wasting about 40% of the original energy. The new device aggregates power conversion into a single unit, which then distributes the power to the individual computers and storage units. As data centers get bigger and more numerous, the opportunity to save a lot of energy becomes increasingly important. ********** Web Links New technology boosts energy eﬃciency in data centers Photo, posted June 8, 2007, courtesy of Sean Ellis via Flickr. Earth Wise is a production of WAMC Northeast Public Radio.
Minerals And Metals For A Low-Carbon Future | Earth Wise
For the past century, economies and geopolitics have largely been driven by our insatiable appetite for oil and fossil fuels in general. As we gradually make the transition to a low-carbon energy future, the focus on oil will shift to sustainable supplies of essential minerals and elements. The use of solar panels, batteries, electric vehicle motors, wind turbines, and fuel cells is growing rapidly around the world. These technologies make use of cobalt, copper, lithium, cadmium, and various rare earth elements. The need for any one of these things may diminish if alternatives are found, but there will continue to be a growing reliance on multiple substances whose physical and chemical properties are essential to the function of modern devices and technologies. In some cases, global supplies of particular minerals and elements are dominated by a particular country, are facing social and environmental conflicts, or face other market issues. Shortages of any of them could create economic problems and derail progress much as the oil-related energy crises of the past have. The world faces challenges in managing the demand for low-carbon technology minerals as well as limiting the environmental and public health damage that might be associated with their extraction and processing. Expanded use of recycling and reuse of rare minerals will be essential. As the relatively easy sources of these materials become exhausted, other resources will become more attractive. These include various valuable ecosystems, oceanic deposits, and even space-based reserves. Ushering in the low-carbon future is not a simple matter and will require responsible actions by the world's governments and industries. In undoing the damage from the oil age, we must avoid new damage from the low-carbon age. ********** Web Links Sustainable supply of minerals and metals key to a low-carbon energy future Photo, posted March 13, 2015, courtesy of Joyce Cory via Flickr. Earth Wise is a production of WAMC Northeast Public Radio.
Minerals And Metals For A Low-Carbon Future | Earth Wise
Spending vacation time in a disaster zone seems like a crazy idea, but so-called volunteer tourism can actually be a big help to communities trying to recover from natural disasters. It can also be a unique and rewarding experience for the volunteers. Such volunteer tourism should not be confused with "disaster tourism", the unfortunate practice of rushing to the scene of a calamity to gawk. That is certainly no help to anyone. When disaster strikes a destination usually frequented by tourists, people naturally tend to stay away, leaving communities to deal with the loss of tourism income on top of the costs of repair and recovery. A study by UTS, a technology university in Sydney, Australia, looked at the effects of volunteer tourism in the wake of the April 2015 earthquake in Nepal. They found that when it is done in an ethical matter than takes into account local conditions and the affected community, volunteer tourism can aid recovery and resilience. In the months following the earthquake, most relief organizations asked international volunteers not to come unless they had specific expertise, such as medical skills, building skills, or emergency response experience. Eventually, Nepal relaxed conditions to include volunteers to help rebuild homes and schools, to intern in hospitals, and to support NGOs and to re-establish sustainable agriculture. According to the Nepal Association of Tour and Travel Agents, almost one third of the tours booked to Nepal in the two years after the earthquake comprised groups who combined tourism with volunteering or philanthropy. Volunteer tourism isn't for everyone and for every situation, but for places that rely on tourism for their economy, building volunteer tourism into the recovery process can be a good strategy. ********** Web Links Volunteer tourism can aid disaster recovery Photo, posted July 2, 2015, courtesy of the World Humanitarian Summit via Flickr. Earth Wise is a production of WAMC Northeast Public Radio.