Saturday, November 13, 2010

thirst for water

Back on Nov. 2, Green Inc. blog posted an article describing the amount of sealevel rise that can be attributed to human use of groundwater.  The story summarizes some recent publications that suggest that 25% of the rise in sea level seen is due to pumping groundwater.  The idea is simple - we dig wells, pump out ground water, use that water for agriculture etc., and then it drains eventually into the ocean.  But the magnitude of this effect had not been estimated previously.  Many areas of the world grow food using ground water - and unfortunately we are discovering that this is an unsustainable process, because the groundwater is not being recharged as quickly as we are pumping it out.  Eventually the removal of all that water from the ground will run the tap dry - at least in some areas locally or regionally.  And if the water runs out, and there is no other source, and the food doesn't grow, and there is nothing to eat, .... well it ain't pretty.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Rare Earths Indeed

Today the New York Times has an article on Rare-Earths.  No, not planets - elements.  The group of elements known as Rare Earth Elements (REEs), otherwise known as the Lanthanides.  REEs are found way down near the bottom of the periodic table - in that strange extra couple of rows that are usually ignored by people who aren't into chemistry.  Below the REEs are the actinide elements - which include the two highly radioactive elements Uranium & Thorium.

But REEs are extremely useful elements, having many different commercial applications - computer memory chips, superconductors, fiber optics, lasers, and many others.  However, access to REEs has been extremely limited in the past year since China, which mines ~95% of the world's REEs, imposed a ban on exporting these valuable elements.  The article in today's NYTimes is on the discovery that certain nodules at the bottom of the ocean - called manganese nodules - many contain REEs, enough to make them profitable for mining.

Manganese nodules have been known about for decades - they occur as small little balls of rocky material at the ocean floor, roughly the size of a softball.  Access to them, however, is technologically difficult, and mining them for, guess what, manganese, has not been terribly successful financially.  The presence of REEs in these nodules, however, might push them over the top economically.

If these do become economically profitable, it would be a new source for these valuable elements.  However, mining the deep seafloor is costly, not only in dollars, but in potential environmental damage to marine life, and also in terms of international relations.  After all, who owns the seafloor?  Who has the rights to mine it?  These questions will continue to be driven by our thirst for goods.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Drilling for Past Climate in an Arctic Lake

Wired Science from a couple of days ago has a story on drilling in an arctic lake.  Here's my quick synopsis: the lake is at extremely high latitude, above the Arctic circle, and is extremely remote - the nearest town is about 55 miles away.  The lake was formed 3.6 million years ago by a meteorite impact - it is an old crater, now filled with water.  But the drilling in this lake has nothing to do with the meteorite, or some natural resource - the drilling is being done in order to learn more about how Earth's climate has changed in the past ~3 million years.  The lake sediments at the bottom record a near continuous record, giving scientists a fantastic window into understanding how the Earth has warmed and cooled in that time period.   The core collected from the lake sediments also contains at least 10 layers of volcanic ash, erupted over time by a nearby southerly volcano.  The core will be compared to other cores from different areas to understand what can be gleaned from it about Earth's climate.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

trouble again in Indonesia

The Christian Science Monitor has a decent summary article today of the twin natural hazards that have struck Indonesia within the last week.  Monday, a magnitude 7.7 earthquake struck the west coast, generating a tsunami.  On Tuesday, Mt. Merapi erupted.  The total who have perished so far is reported at 131.  The volcano seems poised to continue erupting as it is for a while.  Unfortunately, the recent earthquake is not believed by seismologists to have eased the stress that has been building along the fault line, and another, potentially 8.5 magnitude superquake, remains a possibility.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

GIANT pterosaurs could fly 10,000 miles

Ok, it's been a long break for us hear at E-l P, but let's jump back into the Earth science news.

A fascinating story today over at National Geographic, reporting on a recent scientific investigation that suggests that some Pterosaurs could have flown for 10,000 miles without stopping.  But only the largest of these great beasts would have been able to make those distances: Quetzalcoatlus is thought to have had a wingspan of ~35 feet, and when on the ground (the walked on all 4's), would have been as tall as a giraffe.  In the process of such a long flight, they would have  burned up about 160 lbs. of fat!  Pterosaurs are a group of reptiles that lived in the Mesozoic Period, during the time of the dinosaurs (but technically they themselves are not dinosaurs).    They have at times been better known as Pterodactyls or Pternodons in the public eye.  Reminds me of Swoop from back in 1985.

Thank you for flying AirPterosaur, we hope you enjoyed your non-stop flight half-way around the world.  Please place your seats in an upright position, and enjoy the rest of your day.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

tension between technology and environment

An excellent discussion piece last Monday at Yale360 on global scale ethical issues in mining & the environment.    Environmentally aware societies are the same ones that are highly technological, a combination that is inherently contradictory.  Newer, better, faster, and safer technology requires more elements to be harvested from Earth's bounty; yet it is those same societies that decry the necessary mining processes that lead to environmental damage.  The problem pointed out by the authors is that when we don't mine the metals we demand in our own backyards, they inevitably get mined somewhere else - in someone else's backyard, and more than likely in ways that are more damaging to the environment and less sensitive to negative impacts on local people.  It begs the question, what should we do?

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Rare Earth even rarer than thought

Earth is a unique place!  New findings from the study of extrasolar planets show that a high percentage of them have orbits that are the opposite of what we would expect.  In order for them to get that way, they probably have had very violent histories.  Those violent histories would very likely wipe out any smaller, rocky planets that might have resembled Earth.  It is usually assumed that most solar systems form like ours did - but if this assumption is not valid, it means that finding planets like Earth is going to be even more difficult than has been thought.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

"Divide and Diminish" - excellent piece in the NY Times today

In today's NY Times, there's an excellent piece on biodiversity & ecology by Olivia Judson.  Her thesis is that as humans continue to carve up ecosystems into smaller, disconnected pieces, that animals living in those ecosystems will become smaller in size, and in addition those ecosystems become less diverse, simpler, and in general less interesting places.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Supreme Court Ruling Limits Clean Water Act

Recently the SCOTUS made rulings on the clean water act that have strongly restricted the ability of the EPA to prosecute companies that pollute the nations waters, as reported in the NY Times.  The reason is that the law states that it is limited to  "the discharge of pollutants into the navigable waters".  The course has recently stated that this means that ephemeral streams (those that occasionally go dry) or lakes not connected to other bodies of water may not be "navigable waters".  There is even the idea that watersheds that are entirely within a single state may also be exempt from the federal law.  Adding to that, the EPA is limited in its ability to prosecute polluters due to difficulties of proving jurisdiction.  The article also reports that in the last 4-5 years, the number of violations has been on the rise, but that the EPA may be unable to prosecute as many as half of the nations largest polluters.

Opinion:  this ruling is absolutely dreadful and appalling.  It gives a free pass to many to dump toxic substances into water, which is certainly cheaper than paying for proper disposal.  But in the end, it will lead to a weak and polluted ecosystem that will eventually raise the level of cancer in ourselves. Despite whether waterways are "navigable", water has an incredible ability to scatter pollution over a wide area.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Whatever your view of U.S. politics, and our current president in particular, I hope you will agree on the importance for investing in science & technology.  In addition to monetary investment, an investment in inspiration to young people to pursue careers in science & technology is also needed.  At last night's State of the Union speech, President Obama had two young people in attendance sitting next to the first lady.  They included Li Boynton, an 18-year-old who was the winner of the Intel International Science & Engineering Fair last year for her work on water quality testing, and Gabriela Farfan, a 19-year-old who one of of the top awards in the Intel Science Talent Search for her work in mineralogy. An article from the Office of Science & Technology Policy today highlights the goal of reaching young Americans for careers in science.