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Archive for the ‘Environment’ Category

The Wisconsin water-fight reminds me of all those treaties we made with Indians “as long as grass shall grow and water run” and then broke

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When the going gets tough, the tough ignore what they had agreed to. Monica Davey has a very interesting report in the NY Times of an opening salvo in the war for fresh water.

Written by LeisureGuy

25 August 2015 at 3:34 pm

How DuPont slipped past the EPA

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Sharon Lerner continues the series on DuPont and C8, a toxic substance that is used to make Teflon and is now found in the bloodstream of 99.7 percent of Americans and in the environment. The current installment in the series explores the reasons the EPA failed to take action against the pollutant.

Written by LeisureGuy

20 August 2015 at 3:54 pm

An interesting way to make better use of our electricity grid

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Samantha Page reports at ThinkProgress:

In the basement garage of a high-end apartment building in the middle of New York City, a few electricians are quietly installing a century-old product that is now poised to revolutionize an industry — and maybe lead the United States into a carbon-neutral future.

Taking up about two parking spaces is a wall of boxes. They are simple lead-acid batteries, similar to what keeps the lights on in your car. But these batteries are linked together, connected to the building’s electricity system, and monitored in real time by a Washington-state based company, Demand Energy. Demand’s installation at the Paramount Building in midtown Manhattan is going to lower the building electricity bills and reduce its carbon footprint, even while it doesn’t reduce a single watt of use.

Every night, the batteries charge up. Every day, they run down, providing a small portion of the building’s energy and reducing the amount of power it takes off the grid. This cycle of charging during low-use times and discharging during high use times helps level out the Paramount’s electricity use.

It’s important to note that not all electricity is created equally. Renewable sources, such as wind and solar, don’t emit any greenhouse gases during power generation. Coal-burning and other fossil-fuel plants do, but even those plants emit different amounts of carbon dioxide depending on how they are used. Just like going 55 mph in a car is more efficient than going 100 mph, the more consistently we all use electricity, the less emissions we produce.

“The electricity grid as it’s designed today is a perfect just-in-time energy system,” Doug Staker, president of Demand Energy, told ThinkProgress. This means that for every computer turned on in the morning, the grid has to supply that amount of power. But it also creates opportunities. “At night, when all the demand goes away, there is a potential to have oversupply,” Staker said. That oversupply goes into batteries. It all comes back to flattening the demand curve — driving demand down during the day and up at night.

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

14 August 2015 at 11:07 am

Study Finds ‘Detectable Effect’ Of Climate Change In Texas’ Devastating May Floods

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Wonder whether Texans are still stubbornly denying global warming? Joe Romm reports at ThinkProgress:

A new study directly links human-caused global warming to the catastrophic flooding in Texas and Oklahoma this spring.

In May, more than 35 trillion gallons of water fell on Texas — enough to cover the entire state in eight inches of water. More than two dozen people were killed, and it was thewettest single month on record in both Texas and Oklahoma.

A new peer-reviewed study from Utah State and Taiwanese researchers concluded, “There was a detectable effect of anthropogenic [manmade] global warming in the physical processes that caused the persistent precipitation in May of 2015″ over the southern Great Plains.”

We’ve known for a long time that global warming puts more moisture in the atmosphere, which in turn makes deluges more intense. And the 2014 U.S. National Climate Assessment found that Texas and Oklahoma — and indeed most parts of the country — have already seen an measurable increase in the most intense rain storms.

But the Geophysical Research Letters study found a much deeper link between human-caused climate change and the Texas floods. I asked the study’s lead author, Simon Wang of the Utah Climate Center, to explain the findings:

Basically, we linked the weather conditions that caused the consecutive and high amounts of rainfall to two main climate sources: (1) El Niño and its enhanced teleconnection owing to the warming Pacific temperature and (2) middle latitude circulation that is becoming increasingly “wavy,” causing the trough (or any ridge for that regard) to stick around for a long time.

The second conclusion — that climate change is causing weather patterns to stall — joins agrowing body of research tying the recent jump in extreme weather to a warming-driven weakening of the jet stream and “more frequent high-amplitude (wavy) jet-stream configurations that favor persistent weather patterns,” as a January 2015 study put it.

The study explains some of the science underlying the first point about the link between global warming, sea surface temperatures (SSTs) and the El Niño Southern Oscillation(ENSO) in more detail: . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

13 August 2015 at 3:18 pm

How Life and Luck Changed Earth’s Minerals

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Very interesting article in Quanta by Roberta Kwok:

Is evolution predictable, or was it heavily shaped by random events? Biologists have argued over this question for decades. Some have suggested that if we replayed the history of life on our planet, the resulting species would be different. Opponents counter that life is largely deterministic.

Recently, researchers have begun to ask the same questions about rocks. About 5,000 minerals — crystalline substances such as quartz, zircon and diamond — have been found on Earth. But minerals didn’t just appear all at once when the Earth formed. They materialized over time, each crystal arising in response to the conditions of the particular epoch in which it formed. Minerals evolved — in some cases, in response to life. And so geologists are left to ask: Are today’s minerals a predictable consequence of the planet’s chemical makeup? Or are they the result of chance events? What if we were to look out at the cosmos and spot another Earth-like planet — would we expect its gemstones to match ours, or would they shine with a luster never seen before?

Robert Hazen, a mineral physicist at the Carnegie Institution of Washington’s Geophysical Laboratory, and his colleagues are publishing a series of four papers this year that reveal broad insights into whether geology is a matter of fate. Minerals on Earth may indeed have been guided by some deterministic rules that could apply to other worlds as well, they found. But our planet is rife with extremely rare minerals, which suggests that chance occurrences also play a significant part.

In addition, if we found an Earth-like twin elsewhere in the universe, many common minerals would likely be the same — but that planet would probably also hold many minerals unlike any that exist here.

The findings aren’t just a matter of curiosity. Some minerals may have helped early organisms emerge. And understanding which minerals could have formed on Earth-like planets may help scientists better predict which worlds are likeliest to harbor life. Conversely, some minerals arise only in the presence of organisms. So finding patterns in Earth’s mineral distribution could help scientists identify a mineralogical signature for life, which they could then search for on other planets.

Time and Chance

Traditionally, mineralogy has been dominated by analyzing the structures and formation of individual minerals. But in a 2008 study in American Mineralogist, Hazen and his colleagues took a more historical view. The researchers assessed Earth’s known minerals and tried to figure out when the conditions were right for their formation. The team concluded that about two-thirds of Earth’s minerals would not have emerged until life was present.

For example, early microorganisms seeded the atmosphere with oxygen, which interacted with existing minerals to yield new ones. The so-called Great Oxygenation Event “was a huge game changer,” said Hazen. “You open the door to literally thousands of new minerals.”

Hazen and collaborators then set out to investigate the role that chance played in mineral formation. First, the researchers studied the relationship between mineral diversity and the abundance of individual elements in Earth’s crust. They found that the more abundant the element, the more minerals it formed, a relationship that was published last month in The Canadian Mineralogist. They then performed the same exercise with minerals from the moon. A similar relationship held, even though the number of known minerals there is much smaller. This common trend suggested an element of determinism: Given starting chemical conditions, one could predict, to a certain extent, which minerals would form.

The team did find outliers, however. For instance, . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

11 August 2015 at 6:19 pm

A Massive Oil Pipeline Under the Great Lakes Is Way Past Its Expiration Date

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This situation is a perfect set-up for “no one could have known” statements once the damage is done. It’s odd that action to protect our environment is so difficult to achieve. Motherboard reports:

The Straits of Mackinac connect Lake Huron and Lake Michigan, and divide Michigan’s lower peninsula from its upper peninsula. But the gorgeous blue expanse of this part of the Great Lakes region is threatened by a danger lurking just beneath its surface: two degrading oil pipelines.

Motherboard correspondent Spencer Chumbley went to Michigan to investigate the situation, and the research is alarming. If just one of the pipelines ruptured, it would result in a spill of 1.5 million gallons of oil—and that’s if Enbridge, the company that owns them, is able to fix the pipeline immediately. UMich research scientist Dave Schwab says, “I can’t imagine another place in the Great Lakes where it’d be more devastating to have an oil spill.”

Enbridge, the company that runs the pipelines, insists they are safe. But Enbridge does not have a particularly inspiring record, with more than 800 spills between 1999 and 2010, totalling 6.8 million gallons of spilled oil. In 2010, its pipeline 6B ruptured in the Kalamazoo River. The nation’s focus was pulled by Deepwater Horizon at the time, but the Kalamazoo River spill became the nation’s biggest inland oil spill.

The Mackinac pipelines were built in 1953, and have not been replaced since then. Chumbley managed to track down and interview retired engineer Bruce Trudgen, who is probably one of the last living people to work on the pipelines. At the time of construction, the pipelines were supposed to last fifty years. But now, “Enbridge has decided it’s good way past 50 years,” Trudgen says. The pipelines are now 62 years old.

In 2013, environmental advocates with the National Wildlife Federation were fed up with not getting enough information about the pipelines’ condition from Enbridge or the government. So they decided to dive down themselves to check it out. They found broken structural braces and sections of completely unsupported pipeline. Enbridge public affairs specialist Jason Manshum says these reports are misleading. “The notion that a company like Enbridge would not maintain a line is just atrocious,” he said. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

11 August 2015 at 10:22 am

Evolution eventually will exploit every niche of the physical world.

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Kevin Hartnett reports in Quanta:

It used to be that to find new forms of life, all you had to do was take a walk in the woods. Now it’s not so simple. The most conspicuous organisms have long since been cataloged and fixed on the tree of life, and the ones that remain undiscovered don’t give themselves up easily. You could spend all day by the same watering hole with the best scientific instruments and come up with nothing.

Maybe it’s not surprising, then, that when discoveries do occur, they sometimes come in torrents. Find a different way of looking, and novel forms of life appear everywhere.

A team of microbiologists based at the University of California, Berkeley, recently figured out one such new way of detecting life. At a stroke, their work expanded the number of known types — or phyla — of bacteria by nearly 50 percent, a dramatic change that indicates just how many forms of life on earth have escaped our notice so far.

“Some of the branches in the tree of life had been noted before,” said Chris Brown, a student in the lab of Jill Banfield and lead author of the paper. “With this study we were able to fill in many gaps.”

Life’s Finest Net

As an organizational tool, the tree of life has been around for a long time. Lamarck had his version. Darwin had another. The basic structure of the current tree goes back 40 years to the microbiologist Carl Woese, who divided life into three domains: eukaryotes, which include all plants and animals; bacteria; and archaea, single-celled microorganisms with their own distinct features. After a point, discovery came to hinge on finding new ways of searching.

“We used to think there were just plants and animals,” said Edward Rubin, director of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Joint Genome Institute. “Then we got microscopes, and got microbes. Then we got small levels of DNA sequencing.”

DNA sequencing is at the heart of this current study, though the researchers’ success also owes a debt to more basic technology. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

28 July 2015 at 4:07 pm

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