Category Archives: environment

Our grandchildren will have to cope without fossil fuels

If the exploitation of fossil fuels becomes economically prohibitive in 50 to 100 years, our grandchildren and our 4th generation descendants will have to find new ways to power their cities and industries. In addition, they will have to try to reverse the effects of global warming from the combustion products of fossil fuels that we are using today.

It is unlikely that industrialized nations will give up the use of fossil fuels any time soon because they are so convenient and so cheap. In spite of the Kyoto Protocol and similar agreements to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the use of fossil fuels will only stop when these fuels cannot be economically extracted from the Earth. BP’s “Statistical Review of World Energy” published in mid 2014 says that the world has in reserves 892 billion tons of coal, 186 trillion cubic meters of natural gas, and 1688 billion barrels of crude oil. At current rates of usage, the oil and gas will be exhausted in 55 years, and the coal will last 113 years.[1]

Hydroelectric power will not be a viable option in the future because global warming will reduce the glacier ice in the mountains which is the source of the water in the rivers. Similarly, the experiences with Chernobyl and Fukushima show us that we cannot build nuclear power plants that guarantee the safety of our environment. One accident can make the surface of the Earth uninhabitable for hundreds or thousands of years, and no satisfactory solution has been found for the problem of disposing of nuclear waste that remains radioactive for millennia. The zone contaminated by the Fukushima disaster is roughly 310 sq miles (800 sq km). Radioactive cesium-137 has a half-life of 30 years, and since it takes about 10 half-lives for any radionuclide to decrease to a tolerable radiation level, the Fukushima exclusion zone will be closed to human habitation and farming for at least 300 years. The Fukushima nuclear reactors are still leaking radioactive material, and if one of the heavily damaged reactors should collapse, additional radiation would be released and much of Japan could become uninhabitable.[2]

This only leaves geothermal, tidal, wind and solar energy as the safest and most reliable power sources for the future. Geothermal energy is used extensively in Iceland, but places which are not in volcanic areas would have to dig very deep to tap the heat in the crust of the Earth. The use of energy from tides and marine currents may only be practical in coastal areas. Similarly, the use of wind energy may only be feasible in areas with constant winds.

Solar energy appears to be the most abundant and widely available clean energy source, and it can be harvested through photovoltaic cells and through biofuels. Biofuels require irrigation, and that is a problem when our supply of fresh water is limited. In a world where there is much hunger, it is a perversion to use corn or cane sugar to fuel our machinery. Farmland should not be used for fuel production because the population of the Earth will only increase and therefore more land will be required for food production. Only cellulose from grasses, or the inedible parts of plants should be used for biofuels. Perhaps algal aquaculture on the surface of the ocean or harvesting the algal blooms that pollute the oceans might be a source of biofuels. If photovoltaic cells could be produced by processes that do not cause pollution, the roofs of our buildings could be covered with photovoltaic cells that could help us meet many of our daily energy needs. Germany is already making substantial progress in the use of solar energy in houses and factories.

[1] BP. Statistical Review of World Energy 2014.

[2] Steven Starr, Costs and Consequences of the Fukushima Daiichi Disaster.

Skeptics doubt global warming

A NASA report stating that it was “unprecedented” that melting was taking place on 97 percent of Greenland’s ice cover was criticized by people who doubt that global warming is actually occurring. The critics point out that the current melting may be part of a regular planetary cycle that recurs approximately every 150 years, with the last one happening in 1889. Furthermore, they say that the current fires in the west coast and the drought in the central and southern part of the U.S. are just variations within the normal range of weather patterns and are not the result of global warming.

Is global warming real, or is it an exaggeration? If it is real, and if it is caused by the carbon dioxide emissions from burning fossil fuels, there is something that we can do about it by switching to alternate sources of energy. If we don’t do anything about global warming, there are serious consequences. Two major things will happen: 1) as the ice in Greenland and Antarctica melt, the sea level will rise by several feet flooding coastal communities around the world, and 2) the shrinking glaciers and snow cover in the mountains will decrease the flow of fresh water in the rivers thus reducing our crop yields and our food supply.

Some scientists have predicted that there will be a mass extinction event in about 200 years if nothing is done about the rate at which we are putting carbon dioxide into the air. Basically, we are killing ourselves and many other fragile life forms with our pollution. After humans are gone, other life forms will inherit the Earth.

The following video shows a huge newly discovered rift in Antarctica that will create a giant glacier when the ice finally breaks. You may hear about this in the news soon.

Global warming brings early cherry blossoms

Carpet of cherry blossomsThe USDA published a new Plant Hardiness Zone Map based on the average annual minimum winter temperatures.  Growers and gardeners use the map as a guide to determine which plants are most likely to thrive at a location. When the new guide came out, it was evident that the hardiness zones had shifted further to the north.  This is a clear indication that the plants feel that the weather is warmer.  Some lettuce plants that sprouted in the fall in Washington, DC survived the winter without freezing.  Washington’s famous cherry trees reached peak bloom two weeks earlier than usual, and the Cherry Blossom Festival had to be held earlier.  By the end of March, which is the usual time of the festival, the flowers were gone and the ground and the cars were covered with cherry blossom petals.
Car covered with cherry blossoms
The release of the new hardiness map did not mention global warming because this is a political hot topic in the United States.  If global warming is accepted as a fact, there are economic implications.  For example, carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases will have to be controlled by reducing the combustion of fossil fuels.  This would reduce the profits for energy producers, car manufacturers, and many other industries.  To maintain the current business models, it is better to deny global warming and continue burning fossil fuels.  There is another reason why manufacturers would like to keep the status quo.  If the cost of fossil fuels is raised to try to reduce their use, new alternative fuel technologies and green power sources will be developed to compete with existing industries.  This is bad for the businesses that profit from the consumption of fossil fuels.  They will be like the buggy whip manufacturers that eventually went out of business when internal combustion vehicles replaced horse-drawn carriages and became the main mode of personal transportation at the beginning of the twentieth century.

Global warming poses a real threat to our ecosystems, including the risk of mass extinctions.  The winters with little snow, tornadoes before springtime, rising sea levels, and early blooming of trees are all signs of warmer weather.  The rise in temperatures is correlated with the increase of atmospheric carbon dioxide which started with the industrial revolution.  It is getting harder and harder to deny the impact that our industrialization is having on our planet.

Geologic history of the Earth and global warming

Forest Fires in Russia and Floods in Pakistan

The Earth’s weather patterns are changing.  Floods in Pakistan have destroyed many villages and killed thousands of people.  A heat wave in Russia has started forest fires, burned grain fields and filled the air in Moscow with smoke that has doubled the death rate from heart and lung ailments.  These extreme meteorological conditions are examples of events that provide further evidence that global warming is a real threat in our lifetime.

Moscow in the Western part Russia typically has summer temperatures that average 75 degrees Fahrenheit, but this summer has been very hot and very dry with temperatures as high as 100 degrees.  More than 500 forest fires have filled the air with smoke and ignited underground peat-bog fires.  The smoke has filled many buildings, and the State Historical Museum on Red Square was forced to close because it couldn’t stop its smoke detectors from going off.  The cloak of smoke turned the picturesque spires of St. Basil’s Cathedral into gray outlines.  The pedestrians that had to be outdoors had their faces hidden by surgical masks and water-soaked bandanas.

The heat and smoke in Moscow have nearly doubled the mortality rate in recent days.  The health minister, Andrei Seltsovsky, said that the daily death toll had risen from an average of between 360 and 380 to around 700. Ambulance calls were up by about 25% because of increases in heart and lung ailments and strokes.  Many residents are leaving the Moscow area temporarily to escape the polluted air.

In 2009, Russia was the world’s third-largest wheat exporter, but this year’s severe drought has destroyed at least 20 percent of the harvest and the fires have burned many fields.  Global commodity prices for wheat have been climbing since June as a result.  Fearing domestic deficits, Russia has imposed a ban on wheat exports and this has pushed prices even higher.

While Russia is suffering droughts and sweltering record temperatures, Pakistan has been deluged by torrential rains that brought death and destruction to many villages.  Millions of Pakistanis are affected by the worst floods to hit the country in decades, and the heavy rains make it very difficult to deliver supplies to communities in the Swat Valley that have been isolated by the high waters. According to UN estimates, as many as four million Pakistanis face food shortages after floods destroyed up to 570,000 hectares of crops in central Punjab province alone.  The prices for fruits and vegetables were reportedly soaring throughout Pakistan.

Global warming is the increase in the average temperature of Earth’s oceans and surface air.  Most of the temperature increase since the middle of the 20th century has been caused by increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide which results from burning of fossil fuels.  As warming continues, the tawing of the permafrost in the northern latitudes will release methane which is a more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.  The warmer temperatures will evaporate more ocean water and create more violent storms and more unpredictable weather patterns.

Learn more about Earth’s Mass Extinctions

Swine flu forces students and parents to work from home

Don't Pollute e-commute

Many schools across the country have closed because of swine flu infections.  This has forced some parents to stay at home to take care of the kids.  These unexpected changes in schedules are a hardship for the parents and for the firms that employ them because it reduces productivity.

Some firms provide employees with the opportunity to work from home.  The work-at-home programs may be called telecommuting, e-commuting, e-work, or telework.  The firms that allow working from home may also provide equipment, such as computers, modems, and internet access.  The most effective way to work from home requires a connection for the computer and a separate line for the telephone so that both can be used at the same time.

When a significant portion of the employees work from home, a company is able to reduce its office space.  In addition, a company that allows telecommuting may be able to hire qualified individuals who live far away or who, because of disabilities or other obligations, may not be able to drive to the company location.

Telecommuting provides a “green” alternative to driving.  You don’t use gasoline.  You don’t have to fight traffic.  You don’t pollute and you reduce your carbon footprint.  However, you need to have discipline to get your work done in spite of the distractions that can be found at home.  You cannot just surf the internet or play solitaire and expect to get paid.

Native Americans wiped out by comet explosion over Canada

Clovis Spear Point
Clovis spear point

Approximately 15,000 years ago, the Earth started coming out of an ice age.  There were glaciers several miles thick in North America which trapped great volumes of water, and the sea level was 130 meters (426 feet) lower than today.  As the weather warmed, a land bridge opened between Alaska and Siberia in what is now the Bering strait.  This allowed humans to walk from Asia to America and establish new colonies.

At the time, the wildlife in North America was like Africa.  There were huge animals like mammoths, giant sloths, camels, and saber tooth tigers.  The Clovis people, who had spread throughout what is now the United States, hunted these animals with finely-crafted flint spear points and arrow heads.  And then, around 12,900 years ago, all the large animals disappeared from North America, and with them, the Clovis culture.

It was long thought that the Clovis people had annihilated the megafauna, but new studies reveal that the large animals and the Clovis people themselves were destroyed by a comet explosion over south-east Canada, around the great lakes.  The explosion was so bright and so intense that it ignited much of the vegetation of North America.  The forest fires created a layer of black dirt which became mixed with a thin dusting of microscopic diamonds from the comet.[1,2]  The smoke and dust from the impact blocked the light of the sun for many years and the global temperature dropped, creating a rapid return to glacial conditions. Without vegetation, the large herbivores could not survive, and the carnivores were left with nothing to eat.  The catastrophe started what is now called the Younger Dryas cool interval, which was a period of cold weather lasting approximately 1300 years.

band of dark sediment at Murray Spring, Arizona Younger Dryas cooling event

A band of dark sediment at Murray Spring, Arizona contains evidence for a cosmic impact that started an abrupt period of global cooling and a mass extinction in North America.  Similar deposits have been found in five other widely separated locations:  Bull Creek, Oklahoma, Gainey, Michigan, Topper, South Carolina, as well as Lake Hind, Manitoba, and Chobot, Alberta, in Canada. The highest concentrations of extraterrestrial impact materials occur in the Great Lakes area.

[1] D. J. Kennett, et al., Nanodiamonds in the Younger Dryas Boundary Sediment Layer, Science 2 January 2009: Vol. 323. no. 5910, p. 94. DOI: 10.1126/science.1162819 [link]

[2] University of Cincinnati. “Exploding Asteroid Theory Strengthened By New Evidence Located In Ohio, Indiana.” ScienceDaily 3 July 2008. [link]

Bumblebees are highly territorial

Territorial Bumblebee

As soon as the weather got warm, I noticed that two bumblebees staked a claim in my terrace.  One patrols the north side, and the other guards the east side.  If they get into each other’s territory they scuffle, and sometimes they drop to the floor as they attack each other.

The bumblebees just seem to hover back-and-forth along “their” territory in spite of the high winds in the penthouse patio.  They do this all day long.  I don’t know what they eat to have all that energy.  There are no flowers yet.

The bumblebees don’t seem to be interested in people.  When I walk around in the patio, they just keep buzzing in their normal flight patterns.  However, as soon as another bumblebee comes into their visual range, they chase after it.  Sometimes, you will see a bumblebee take off in a hurry chasing after another bee that may be thirty feet away.  Bumblebees really have good eyesight and great reflexes!

Several years ago, before I knew that the bumblebees were harmless if left alone, I doused one with the hose and it fell into a pool of water and drowned.  I felt so guilty.  This animal was not hurting me, and it was not harming my home, but I killed it.  Now, I try to be more respectful of nature.

May 25, 2009 update. I was explaining to a visitor how the bumblebees are so protective of their territory. I told him that I wanted to try an experiment where we would toss a small stone toward each other in the area where the bumblebee was flying.  Sure enough, as soon as the stone was in the air, the bumblebee flew toward it and tried to attack it.  We stopped the game when the bumble bee got too close for our comfort.

Earth Day: Poisons in our environment

The Washington Post reported that more than 80 percent of the male smallmouth bass in the Potomac River are growing eggs, and after six years of searching, scientists still have not found the pollutants that are causing the abnormality.  The Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, which provides water to over 5 million people in the Washington metropolitan area says that the drinking water is clean, but the WSSC report for 2008 shows detectable levels of Dalapon (less than 1 microgram per liter), and Di(2-ethylhexyl)phthalate (less than 2 micrograms per liter).[1]

Dalapon is a herbicide used to control grasses in a wide variety of crops.   Di(2-ethylhexyl)phthalate (DEHP) is a commonly used plasticizer in the manufacture of articles made of polyvinyl chloride (PVC).  DEHP is also used as a hydraulic fluid and as a dielectric fluid in capacitors.

Many organic chemicals mimic the effects of sex-hormones.  DEHP metabolites in the blood of pregnant women have been significantly associated with decreased penis size, shorter anogenital distance, and the incomplete descent of testes in newborn boys.[2]

[1] WSSC Tap Water Analysis – 2008, Potomac Water Filtration Plant

[2] Pelley, Janet (November 2008). “Plasticizer may make boys less masculine“. Environ Sci Technol.

Cherry Blossom Festival in Washington, D.C.

Cherry Blossom Festival

April is a colorful month in Washington, D.C.  The blooming of the cherry trees around the Tidal Basin and the Jefferson Memorial is an example of the natural beauty of the capital of the United States.  These Japanese cherry trees, also called sakura, were originally a gift from Japan in 1912, and additional trees were planted in 1965.

People who live in the Washington area look forward to the Cherry Blossom Festival which is held every year at the beginning of April.  The festival includes a parade that runs along Constitution Avenue and is usually televised.  Giant colorful balloons, marching bands, performers, celebrities, and spectators fill the streets of Washington.  Several streets are closed for the Annual Sakura Matsuri, the largest Japanese Street Festival in the United States.

The booths for the Japanese festival display a wide variety of arts, crafts, and products.  Geishas in their bright kimonos demonstrate dances to the sounds of traditional Japanese instruments.  Visitors can learn how to fold origami, and they can buy anime, manga, J-POP music, and Japanese food delicacies. 

Surviving the Flood in Bethesda

Bethesda Flood

A 66-inch water main broke in Bethesda today due to several days of sub-freezing weather.  The flow of the water was so powerful and so sudden, that it trapped several cars on River Road and the drivers had to be rescued by helicopter.  The water company took several hours to determine which valves to turn off to control the flood, but we will be living with the consequences of this rupture for many days. The strong water flow undermined a portion of the road and it will take several days to repair it.   There will be terrible traffic jams because River Road is a major commuting artery from Potomac, MD to Washington, D.C.

The water main break happened early in the morning, and many people woke up to find that they could not brush their teeth or take a shower.   Shoppers rushed to the grocery stores to stock up on drinking water.  Partial water service was restored by noon to some neighborhoods, but the pressure was too low to get to the top of high-rise buildings.  On the 19th floor of my building there is no water.  The breakfast dishes are piled in the sink.  County regulations require office buildings to close when there is no water due to concerns about sanitation.  The Bethesda Post Office was closed and the bank across the street was closed.   You cannot mail Christmas gifts, and you cannot do banking transactions unless you travel several miles to Rockville, Md. which is unaffected by the water main break.

Incidents like this make you think about strategies for surviving natural disasters.   In this modern age, we depend on an infrastructure of utilities that bring water, electricity, and communications to our home.   Water is the most important for survival, but electricity is a basic necessity that powers elevators, heating fans, telephones, and computers.  It would probably be impractical or impossible to live in a high-rise building without electricity.