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Helium on 34th Street

26 Nov

This Thursday, many of us will begin celebrating by watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. It’s a tradition for me… In the 1980’s, I stood in the crowd a few times, and my favorite part wasn’t the floats and musicians – it was, of course, the great big helium balloons. What I didn’t know then, is that the helium that makes them soar isn’t limitless and we count on this element for far more important reasons than holiday fanfare.

Helium is located underground in pockets frequently associated with natural gas. It’s abundant on a cosmic scale, but not for our regular use. And short of fission or the nuclear fusion of two hydrogen atoms, we can’t produce it artificially. Three years ago, the National Academies concluded that helium reserves are being tapped too quickly. Compounding matters, the price is artificially low so there’s little incentive to attempt to recover or recycle it.

If we maintain our current rate of consumption, the global supply of helium is expected to dwindle in about 40 years. That’s not all that far away. And unfortunately, this doesn’t just mean fewer party balloons. You see, helium has unique properties that we depend on for a variety of reasons. It’s light, but not combustible with a low boiling point and high thermal conductivity. For example, liquified helium is needed for the super conducting magnets in MRIs. It’s also crucial for aerospace engineering, cryogenics, and deep-sea exploration.

And here’s the important part: In many cases, there is no substitute.

Of course the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade is just a drop in the bucket in terms of global helium use. Still, it’s a visible reminder that we use this special element without much regard for the future – something to keep in mind as Buzz Lightyear soars to infinity and beyond.

That said, enjoy the parade and I hope readers have a wonderful holiday!

This post originally appeared at Scientific American’s ‘Plugged In’ on November 25, 2013.

Did Climate Change Intensify Supertyphoon Haiyan?

12 Nov

At the UN climate talks in Poland, Yeb Sano, the head of the Philippines delegation has announced he will refrain from eating until participants make “meaningful” progress. In his address, Sano linked the terrible devastation in the Philippines after Supertyphoon Haiyan to climate change.

“What my country is going through as a result of this extreme climate event is madness, the climate crisis is madness. We can stop this madness right here in Warsaw.”

The images trickling back from the Philippines in the media are heartbreaking, but do we know whether climate change caused or intensified this immense, record-breaking cyclone? It’s complicated. Climate scientists are very hesitant to blame a single event on global warming. That said, here’s my take: It’s fair to say that climate change likely made this deadly storm deadlier.

The Philippines is already in a precarious situation. It’s a low-lying archipelago sitting atop warm Pacific Ocean waters. Temperature is important to consider here, because warm waters make storms stronger. Haiyan would probably have been monstrously destructive regardless of climate change due to its location and the dense population. We also know that sea level rise has been occurring significantly faster in the Philippine Sea than elsewhere around the world, which worsens flooding and storm surges.

Supertyphoon Haiyan has been devastating and the region faces many additional challenges in its aftermath. International aid groups are working to bring relief to the survivors (here’s how you can help) as delegates continue negotiations at the U.N. summit on climate change. Meanwhile, note that Haiyan has brought something additional to those of us watching half a world away: A glimpse of the future.

For more on the relationship between climate change and storms, take a look at my co-author Chris Mooney’s book, Storm World.

This post originally appeared at Scientific American’s ‘Plugged In’ on November 11, 2013.

Scientists Report Human-Induced Climate Change Influences Extreme Weather Events. Now What?

17 Sep

Last week, a new analysis of climate change and extreme weather was released in the peer-reviewed Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society. The study, entitled, “Explaining Extreme Events of 2012 from a Climate Perspective,” brought together 18 different research teams from around the world to consider 12 extreme weather events–such as heat waves, storms, and droughts–on five continents during 2012:

Approximately half the analyses found some evidence that anthropogenically caused climate change was a contributing factor to the extreme event examined, though the effects of natural fluctuations of weather and climate on the evolution of many of the extreme events played key roles as well.

The report demonstrates when and where human-induced climate change (translation: the burning of fossil fuels that creates heat-trapping gases) has contributed to specific extreme weather events. For example, the team found that the impacts from Hurricane Sandy (left) were exacerbated by sea level rise. They also concluded that the high temperatures here in the U.S. are now likely to occur more frequently. And that’s just the beginning… I encourage readers to explore the full results in detail.

It’s good to have this kind of new data in order to make a stronger case that we ought to do something. But that said, how many more analyses are required? How long will we spend valuable time, energy, and resources documenting climate change?

The science community already knows this is happening. We recognize that Earth is getting hotter in some places, wetter elsewhere, drier in dry regions, and stormier as well–in very vulnerable areas. Excess carbon is changing the atmosphere and oceans. Further, even if all emissions stopped today, we will continue to see the impacts of excess carbon in the environment for centuries.

The American public will continue to debate what causes climate change, but over two-thirds of us do acknowledge it’s taking place. So sure, scientists will continue to predict and model the results–one report at a time. But I sincerely hope we shift our primary focus to mitigation and adaptation, because the world is changing and right now, we are largely unprepared.

This post originally appeared at Scientific American’s ‘Plugged In’ on September 9, 2013.

What YOU Need To Know About Iron Fertilization

20 Oct

You’ve likely seen the story already:

A California businessman chartered a fishing boat in July, loaded it with 100 tons of iron dust and cruised through Pacific waters off western Canada, spewing his cargo into the sea in an ecological experiment that has outraged scientists and government officials.

Just *scientists and government officials*? In reality, all of us should be outraged, including you. Over the years, I’ve written quite a bit about the prospect of iron fertilization–a geoengineering strategy that involves dumping large amounts of iron into the ocean. Back in 2008, I described how a for-profit company called “Planktos”canceled its field tests due to a lack of funds–blaming a “highly effective disinformation campaign.”

Now the 62 year old so-called “chief executive” of that company, Russ George, has taken it upon himself to experiment with planet Earth. That’s not okay. Further, it’s not legal. You can read about his egregious and irresponsible behavior at the NYTimes, but I’d like to provide a bit more background on iron fertilization for readers.

The idea is relatively simple: In certain regions of the ocean, a lack of iron limits the growth of phytoplankton.  When dust containing iron settles onto these regions, plankton blooms occur which take up CO2 from the atmosphere. When the algae die, the carbon sinks, and can be stored for varying amounts of time.

For-profit investors hope to earn carbon credits through this kind of carbon-offset scheme. But the truth is, iron fertilization cannot be viewed as a simple input and output equation and therefore it’s difficult to quantify what to expect.  The great deal of uncertainty makes policy governing these kind of large-scale geoengineering projects critical before any action is taken for profit.  This is because the implications of altering our climate and oceans have the potential to impact everyone.

Here’s what you need to know:

* Location, season, temperature, water chemistry, species composition, and so on – factors that are already independently in flux – may significantly impact the phytoplankton response.

* We do not know much about the ability to manipulate ecosystems.

* Effectiveness will depend on the the environmental consequences of the process and the final fate of carbon in the system.

* Results observed in studies so far may not apply to areas where future iron fertilization would take place.   In fact, some areas that have not been tested may be more promising for iron fertilization.

* In the short-term, iron fertilization typically leads to phytoplankton blooms, but the long-term effects are mostly unknown.

* Science has a great deal to learn about creating the right market to facilitate offset efforts.  The scientific community has yet to reach a consensus on biophysical and social impacts of the process.

Read more on Iron Fertilization here and here [pdf].

No Slate, Romney Did Not “School” The President On Science Policy

6 Sep

As a founding member of ScienceDebate, I must politely disagree with Laura Helmuth’s well-circulated Slate piece entitled, “Romney Out-Debates Obama: How the GOP candidate schooled the president on science policy.” That’s a strong declaration, and from a scientific standpoint – an unfair assessment.

It’s true that many of Romney’s answers to the 14 science questions were longer in length than Obama’s. But both sets of responses were too highly variable to claim that anyone “schooled” anyone. Highlighting question 2 specifically, it’s clear that the GOP candidate has a lot to learn about a very critical global challenge:

2. Climate Change. The Earth’s climate is changing and there is concern about the potentially adverse effects of these changes on life on the planet. What is your position on cap-and-trade, carbon taxes, and other policies proposed to address global climate change—and what steps can we take to improve our ability to tackle challenges like climate change that cross national boundaries?
Barack Obama: Climate change is the one of the biggest issues of this generation, and we have to meet this challenge by driving smart policies that lead to greater growth in clean energy generation and result in a range of economic and social benefits. Since taking office I have established historic standards limiting greenhouse gas emissions from our vehicles for the first time in history. My administration has made unprecedented investments in clean energy, proposed the first-ever carbon pollution limits for new fossil-fuel-fired power plants and reduced carbon emissions within the Federal Government. Since I took office, the U.S. is importing an average of 3 million fewer barrels of oil every day, and our dependence on foreign oil is at a 20-year low. We are also showing international leadership on climate change, reaching historic agreements to set emission limits in unison with all major developed and developing nations. There is still more to be done to address this global problem. I will continue efforts to reduce our dependence on oil and lower our greenhouse gas emissions while creating an economy built to last. Mitt Romney:I am not a scientist myself, but my best assessment of the data is that the world is getting warmer, that human activity contributes to that warming, and that policymakers should therefore consider the risk of negative consequences. However, there remains a lack of scientific consensus on the issue — on the extent of the warming, the extent of the human contribution, and the severity of the risk — and I believe we must support continued debate and investigation within the scientific community.Ultimately, the science is an input to the public policy decision; it does not dictate a particular policy response. President Obama has taken the view that if global warming is occurring, the American response must be to slash carbon dioxide emissions by imposing enormous costs on the U.S. economy. First he tried a massive cap-and-trade bill that would have devastated U.S. industry. When that approach was rejected by Congress, he declared his intention to pursue the same course on his own and proceeded through his EPA to impose rules that will bankrupt the coal industry.

Nowhere along the way has the President indicated what actual results his approach would achieve — and with good reason. The reality is that the problem is called Global Warming, not America Warming. China long ago passed America as the leading emitter of greenhouse gases. Developed world emissions have leveled off while developing world emissions continue to grow rapidly, and developing nations have no interest in accepting economic constraints to change that dynamic. In this context, the primary effect of unilateral action by the U.S. to impose costs on its own emissions will be to shift industrial activity overseas to nations whose industrial processes are more emissions-intensive and less environmentally friendly. That result may make environmentalists feel better, but it will not better the environment.

So I oppose steps like a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade system that would handicap the American economy and drive manufacturing jobs away, all without actually addressing the underlying problem. Economic growth and technological innovation, not economy-suppressing regulation, is the key to environmental protection in the long run. So I believe we should pursue what I call a “No Regrets” policy — steps that will lead to lower emissions, but that will benefit America regardless of whether the risks of global warming materialize and regardless of whether other nations take effective action.

For instance, I support robust government funding for research on efficient, low-emissions technologies that will maintain American leadership in emerging industries. And I believe the federal government must significantly streamline the regulatory framework for the deployment of new energy technologies, including a new wave of investment in nuclear power. These steps will strengthen American industry, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and produce the economically-attractive technologies that developing nations must have access to if they are to achieve the reductions in their own emissions that will be necessary to address what is a global issue.

Read all of their positions here

After Fukushima, Generations of Abnormal Butterflies In Japan

13 Aug

A sad, but fascinating scientific report in the journal Nature describes the physiological and genetic damage observed in generations of butterflies following the collapse of the Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Plant. While it’s been difficult to study the biological impacts of the accident on animals, scientists have concluded that the pale grass blue Zizeeria maha (a common lycaenid butterfly in Japan) suffered increasingly severe abnormalities over time due to radioactive materials released into the environment.

Representative abnormalities of individuals that ingested contaminated leaves. From the top left to the right bottom, the panels show right antenna malformation (Iitate montane region), right palpus abnormality (Fukushima), dented left compound eye (Iitate flatland), eclosion failure (Fukushima), bent wings (Fukushima), additional bent wings (Hirono), aberrant wing colour patterns (Fukushima), and an ectopic black spot beside the discal spot (Iitate flatland; enlargement in the inset). Arrowheads indicate abnormal parts, and arrows indicate deformed wing spots. Scale bars for the top four panels indicate 1.0 mm, and those for the bottom four panels indicate 5.0 mm.

Although epigenetic effects cannot be entirely excluded, it is most likely that the abnormal phenotypes observed are produced by random mutations caused by the exposure to radiation. This outbreak of abnormal phenotypes in the Fukushima area is very different from the outbreak of wing colour-pattern changes previously observed at the northern range margins of this species, i.e., the Fukaura area, which is located approximately 400 km northwest of the Fukushima Dai-ichi NPP. The Fukaura populations at the time of the outbreak were composed of temperature-shock types that exhibit distinct wing colour-pattern modifications but no other wing modifications or aberrations. Moreover, to the best of our knowledge, no malformations of appendages and other parts have been detected. In contrast, the outbreak in the Fukushima area includes various unexpected abnormal phenotypes. These abnormalities cannot be expressed within the range of phenotypic plasticity exhibited by normal populations. This information and the experimental data obtained in this study allow us to conclude that the present outbreak of abnormal individuals in the Fukushima area was caused by random genetic mutations in addition to physiological effects due to the artificial radionuclides from the Fukushima Dai-ich NPP.

For those interested in heritable genetic damage due to low-dose radioaction exposure, this article is a must-read.

Watch Epic Fishing In Alaska: Brown Bear and Salmon Cam

25 Jul

You are watching exclusive LIVE footage from Alaska’s Brooks River in Katmai National Park. Every year over a hundred Brown Bears descend on a mile long stretch of Brooks River to feast on the largest Sockeye Salmon run in the world.

via explore.org

Water Crisis Looms For A Thirsty Planet

1 May

Twelve years ago, I was an intern working with the American Museum of Natural History on marine protected areas. One afternoon, after reading mountains of articles that documented the declining state of fisheries and reefs, I naively proclaimed that ocean conservation must be the most depressing field in the world of science.

“Not at all,” countered my mentor. “It’s the freshwater scientists that have it the worst.” He was right.

At first this notion seems counterintuitive. Earth is covered in H2O, after all. Yet, in reality, only 2.5 percent of it is fresh and two-thirds of that happens to be frozen. So, sure, there’s water everywhere on this planet; but very little of it is actually available to use.

According to Jay Famiglietti, director of the University of California’s Center for Hydrologic Modeling, when it comes to the future of water, “we are, on many levels, completely and totally hosed.”

His is a very well informed opinion. Famiglietti has been tracking water availability around the world using NASA satellites for over 15 years. His team has not only documented changes in water on land, they’ve also discovered something deeply disturbing: the water cycle itself is changing.

As temperatures rise due to climate change, evaporation and precipitation have increased. This means that the atmosphere holds more water. Unfortunately, the condition is anticipated to lead to storms and floods of increased severity in some parts of the world, with prolonged and more intense droughts elsewhere.

“Extreme extremes,” says Famiglietti, which could lead togreater conflict over the scarce resource.

But is the looming water crisis “news?” Of course not. Long before satellites were tracking the problem, prior generations of scientists and policymakers realized water security was a big deal.

Over half-a-century ago, President John F. Kennedy challenged the United States to invest in desalination technology to “competitively—at a cheap rate—get fresh water from salt water.” He surmised that success would dwarf every other scientific accomplishment because it would bring men and women around the world out of poverty, while vastly improving human health.

That was 1961 and Kennedy’s plea for freshwater didn’t make the history books because we failed to follow through on it, unlike the seemingly outlandish challenge he made one month later. Most Americans do remember the call to put a man on the moon because it took less than a decade to make it happen. Water here on planet Earth never became a headlining priority.

That is one of many missed opportunities. Decades later, with more than 7 billion people milling about the planet, one-in-six do not have access to clean drinking water. According to theUnited Nations, this leads to over 1.5 million preventable deaths annually. Further, waterborne illnesses are associated with 80 percent of disease and mortality in the developing world. Many of the victims are children.

So, freshwater research can be depressing. The good news is that there is still much we can do about it.

Looking ahead, the most recent estimates project that Earth will host 10.1 billion people by 2100. This means more demand for a diminishing resource. So let’s get serious about finding ways to save more and waste less.

How? The solutions aren’t rocket science. What it will take is a dedicated effort across people and boundaries.

Considering that 70 percent of all freshwater used worldwide goes straight into agriculture, we should be focused on creating incentives for more efficient irrigation practices. That alone would have an enormous impact at home and worldwide. Concurrently, increased federal investment for research toward developing more drought tolerant plants has the potential to carry us even further. And, most importantly, we need policymakers to address the political and legal hurdles related to water regulation.

The benefits of better water conservation would ripple out. We’d not only save human lives globally, but less agricultural runoff means healthier oceans and coral reefs as well. In other words, marine biology would get a little less depressing too.

 This post originally appeared at NPR’s 13.7 Cosmos and Culture blog.

The Economics Of Overexploitation

19 Apr

Back in 2007, I explained what I call “The Montgomery Burns” perspective on ocean decline:

“Keeping economics in mind, there’s arguably reason to question whether we should fret over the oceans’ dwindling and altered stocks. Human tastes are malleable, so we adapt to what industry supplies. For example, lobster and skate – traditionally the ‘poor fisherman’s dinner’ – are now featured at NYC’s finest restaurants. Thus, a boom in lower trophic level species creates newly emerging markets! When traditionally harvested species decline, there is tremendous opportunity to cash in by exploiting the next readily available critter. From Orange Roughy to algae…Why not allow every commercially viable animal possible its 15 minutes of fame? Hey, when life deals you jellyfish, make a salad! Garnish it with a fancy name, add a hefty price tag… Excellent!”

And now folks, as expected, life is dealing us jellyfish.

An article in the latest issue of the journal Hydrobiologia reports jellyfish are increasing in the majority of the world’s coastal ecosystems.

Jellyfish directly interfere with many human activities — by stinging swimmers, clogging intakes of power plants, and interfering with fishing. Some species of jellyfish are now a food source in some parts of the world.

No, it’s not news-worthy, but fisheries are going to hell in a handbasket.

What’s U.S. Public Opinion On Energy?

18 Apr

Last week, I announced the release of the second wave of results from UT’s biannual Energy Poll. Now it’s possible to take a closer look at the findings (slides may take a moment to load)..

(You can read the details about methodology, FAQ, and more here).

The next release will be in October–and with all eyes on energy looking ahead to the upcoming presidential election–it should be a very interesting time to be talking about it.