Thanks to Scientific American‘s Guest Blog feature for this interesting fodder for thought.
Five years ago this month, I wrote in a post titled Preventing Invasive Fire that, “Absolute regulation of invasive species is not possible. We cannot search every inch of soil that enters a country for microorganisms, dormant insect eggs, or plant seeds. But controls must be imposed, and more severe ones than currently in place. The intensely focused damage (biodiversity loss) that a male and female zebra mussel, emerald ash borer beetle, Asian carp, or fire ant can have on a vulnerable ecosystem is much greater than the thinned-out costs of higher taxes or more stringent customs inspections.”
The following year, I discussed the merits of Integrated Pest Management in helping eradicate or at least control pests, which are sometimes introduced from other countries. Reading today about a plan in North Carolina to use beetles as a predator of the hemlock woody adelgid, an aphid-like invasive species from east Asia, I am reminded of those two posts from the past, inspired by Cornell courses in environmental governance and entomology.
In my family we practically never used antibacterial hand-wash, because it wasn’t proven that they perform any better than normal soap – it was convenient sometimes to have a quick gel to clean up on the go without water, but antibacterial consumer products in the household were pretty much nonexistent. As it turns out, chemicals like triclosan, while still not proven with certainty to act negatively on human health, can persist in the natural environment for decades, including in water and soil. And that never seems like a good thing, especially when such compounds might be strengthening bacteria’s resistance to antibiotics. Monique Brouillette reports on the new US Food and Drug Administration’s ruling:
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration released its decision Friday on banning 19 active ingredients in antibacterial soaps. The ruling, 40 years in the making, caps a decades-long debate over whether these germ-busting chemicals are safe and offer any advantage over ordinary soap. The ban includes the most widely used antiseptic in hand soaps, triclosan—after a large number of studies have fallen short of manufacturers’ claims about its health benefits.
Precisely two months ago we shared a great function by Google for investigating the potential for installing solar power in your neighborhood (mostly if you’re in the US). Last week, one of our most successful Instagram posts was of three shades of blue at Villa del Faro (see above), where photovoltaics are key. Panels are becoming less and less expensive, so hopefully the alternative energy will keep spreading! Continue reading
We know how much an Asian elephant eats, but until today we didn’t know the biodiversity footprint of African elephants – that is, the literal biodiversity in the footprints left by these massive animals as they walk around, hopefully avoiding beehives. John Platt reports for Scientific American on the ecosystem engineers’ effects from walking:
When you weigh upwards of 6,000 kilograms, you tend to leave a trace of yourself wherever you walk. That’s definitely the case with African elephants (Loxodonta africana), which, according to new research, is actually a boon for dozens of other, much tinier, species.
As discussed in a paper published this week in the African Journal of Ecology, elephant feet play an important ecological role in Uganda, and probably in other countries. As elephants walk through the forest, they leave deep footprints behind them. These footprints then fill up with water, creating little foot-shaped microhabitats for at least 61 different microinvertebrate species from nine different orders.
Two months ago we posted about non-photovoltaic solar power via a story from Scientific American, and this week they’re exploring the subject again, this time in the desert of Nevada with the first utility-scale “concentrating solar” plant that can provide electricity even at night. Concentrating solar involves storing heat from the sun rather than converting light into electricity, and apparently molten sodium and potassium nitrates can do this very effectively. Knvul Sheikh reports:
Deep in the Nevada desert, halfway between Las Vegas and Reno, a lone white tower stands 195 meters tall, gleaming like a beacon. It is surrounded by more than 10,000 billboard-size mirrors focusing the sun’s rays on its tip. The Crescent Dunes “concentrating solar power” plant looks like some advanced communication device for aliens. But the facility’s innovation lies in the fact that it can store electricity and make it available on demand any time—day or night.
Our posts about solar power normally include some mention of the batteries involved, since that’s where the electricity is stored for actual domestic or commercial use. Lithium-ion batteries in particular are some of the more powerful ones on the market, but sustainable options are on our radar too. This week, we learned about the proposal for a set of over 18,000 lithium-ion batteries to be put together as a super-battery in Los Angeles to meet peak demand. John Fialka reports for Scientific American:
By 2021, electricity use in the west Los Angeles area may be in for a climate change-fighting evolution.
For many years, the tradition has been that on midsummer afternoons, engineers will turn on what they call a “peaker,” a natural gas-burning power plant In Long Beach. It is needed to help the area’s other power plants meet the day’s peak electricity consumption. Thus, as air conditioners max out and people arriving home from work turn on their televisions and other appliances, the juice will be there.
Thankfully, there’s good news on the atmospheric front from the southern edge of the world, where chlorofluorocarbons released in the seventies and eighties had created a hole in the ozone layer. The seasonal gap in this ultraviolet-blocking layer is not as big this year as others in the past, thanks to prompt and concerted action to prevent release of dangerous chemicals. Alexandra Witze writes for Scientific American:
It’s the beginning of the end for the Antarctic ozone hole. A new analysis shows that, on average, the hole — which forms every Southern Hemisphere spring, letting in dangerous ultraviolet light — is smaller and appears later in the year than it did in 2000.
The 1987 global treaty called the Montreal Protocol sought to reduce the ozone hole by banning chlorofluorocarbons, chlorine-containing chemicals — used as refrigerants in products such as air conditioners — that accelerated ozone loss in the stratosphere. The study shows that it worked.
Desalination is clearly going to be a very important technology for the future, as our drinking water supply dwindles. Carbon capture/storage is also an imperative process to be working on in an effort to slow down global warming in any way possible. So the fact that a scientist at Qatar University is working on a process that takes pure CO2 waste from natural gas plants, waste brine from desalination plants, and ammonia, which all react chemically to create sodium bicarbonate (baking soda), calcium chloride (used as a preservative or tanning chemical), and ammonia (which can be recycled to continue the process). Erica Gies reports for Scientific American:
Farid Benyahia wants to solve two environmental problems at once: excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and excess salt in the Persian Gulf (aka the Arabian Gulf). Oil and natural gas drive the region’s booming economies—hence the excess CO2—and desalination supplies the vast majority of drinking water, a process that creates concentrated brine waste that is usually dumped back into the gulf.
Obviously we never thought that extracting oil from tar sands was ecologically friendly, but a new study published in Nature has found that, in Canada (but presumably everywhere else too), the process releases much more fine particle air pollution than previously believed. Bobby Magill reports for Scientific American:
In one of the first studies of its kind, scientists have found that tar sands production in Canada is one of North America’s largest sources of secondary organic aerosols—air pollutants that affect the climate, cloud formation and public health.
The study, published Wednesday in the journal Nature, showed that the production of tar sands and other heavy oil—thick, highly viscous crude oil that is difficult to produce—are a major source of aerosols, a component of fine particle air pollution, which can affect regional weather patterns and increase the risk of lung and heart disease.
Climate change, habitat loss, and predation are all threats to birds in Canada, the United States, and Mexico, among other challenges facing the species throughout North America, with migratory shore birds being classified as particularly vulnerable. Scientific American reports with Reuters reporting, but make sure to check out the North American Bird Conservation Initiative information page too:
OTTAWA, May 18 (Reuters) – More than a third of all North American bird species are at risk of becoming extinct unless significant action is taken, scientists who are part of a tri-nation initiative said on Wednesday, adding that ocean and tropical birds were in particular danger.
The study, compiled by the North American Bird Conservation Initiative and the first of its kind to look at the vulnerability of bird populations in Canada, the United States and Mexico, said 37 percent of all 1,154 species on the continent needed urgent conservation action.
Solar power is always on our radar, but we understand that storing the electricity from photovoltaics can be an issue. Today we are learning about a new solar technology for the first time, even though it revolves around something that we benefit from every day: the sun’s heat. Umair Irfan reports for Scientific American‘s ClimateWire section on this interesting idea being researched in Europe:
COLOGNE, Germany—At Germany’s aerospace agency, the next frontier is capturing the sun here on Earth and keeping it on tap.
In a 4-year-old glass and steel building near the Cologne-Bonn Airport, researchers at the German Aerospace Center (DLR), Germany’s equivalent of NASA, are working on new ways to produce more heat than light in order to smooth over intermittency, one of the biggest drawbacks of solar power on the grid.
Vultures are very important members of many ecosystems in the world as members of a waste-management team, but their role as carrion-feeders is putting them at risk, and has been since the California Condor was endangered in the US (though it’s recovering now). We’ve featured these birds in our daily photo posts quite a bit, even just a week ago, and now there’s news from Scientific American, covering research published in the Journal of Applied Ecology, that European vultures are more threatened than ever, this time by a veterinary drug given to cattle:
A veterinary drug blamed for driving vultures to the brink of extinction on the Indian subcontinent could cause thousands of bird deaths now that it is being used in Spain.
Researchers have expressed concern over use of the anti-inflammatory drug diclofenac in cattle since it was approved for veterinary use in Spain in 2013, as the drug is toxic to vultures who may consume it via dead cows. Now, modelling by Rhys Green, a conservation scientist at the University of Cambridge, UK, and his colleagues suggests that the drug could cause populations of that country’s Eurasian griffon vultures (Gyps fulvus) to decline by between 1–8% each year.
We have a particular interest in students on their way to university, in the middle of their university experience, or just on their way out. Today we celebrate the accomplishment of a young woman in Turkey with a science project that has been recognized as brilliant, as noted in this press release:
Emily Baird of Lund University in Sweden and her colleagues study how animals with tiny brains—such as bees and beetles—perform complex mental tasks, like navigating the world. The dung beetle intrigues Baird because it manages to roll its dung ball in a perfectly straight line, even though it pushes the ball with its back legs, its head pointed at the ground in the opposite direction. If the six-legged Sisyphus can’t see where it’s going, how does it stay on its course?