Thursday, October 29, 2009

Importance of Polar Ice -- It's Not Just for Polar Bears

One of the major TV news networks reported recently that fewer people these days believe in global warmer, perhaps because in these economic times they aren't willing to accept restrictions on green house gas emissions (mostly CO2) that might burden them with increased energy costs. That's too bad, because the evidence for a warming planet is growing, and there are dire consequences awaiting an unsuspecting public. I read a post on one of the blogs I follow, Bad Mom, Good Mom, that, while decrying the lack of awareness of global warming dynamics, provided a very nice example of the albedo effect and why polar ice melt is something to be concerned about. Read the post here.

You can get an idea of polar ice shinkage by playing with this widget on the NYT Science page.

The problem with sea ice melt is that it creates a positive feedback loop, like eating potato chips -- the more you eat the more you want. With sea ice, the more it melts, the more of the sun's heat the water absorbs, and the warmer the water, the more the sea ice melts, and so on. Basically, sea ice is like your house air conditioner, only for the planet. The dramatic downward trend in sea ice coverage portends dire consequences for efforts to halt global warming. Because of positive feedback, many scientists believe we may already have passed the tipping point. We'd better hope not.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Reborn Hubble and Stellar Blast

The repaired and improved Hubble Space Telescope is sending back some spectacular images, including dazzling pictures of galaxies headed for a pile-up, a star throwing off its outer layers, dense clouds of gas and dust, and a new pin-sharp look at the planet Jupiter.

In another remarkable development, two teams of astronomers reported their observations of a gamma-ray burst from a star that died 13.1 billion light-years away. The massive star died about 630 million years after the Big Bang. UK astronomer Nial Tanvir described the observation as "a step back in cosmic time". Professor Tanvir led an international team studying the afterglow of the explosion, using the United Kingdom Infrared Telescope (UKIRT) in Hawaii.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Aral Sea Disappears in a Cloud of Toxic Dust

The Aral Sea is located in the lowlands of Turan occupying land in the Republics of Kazakstan and Uzbekistan. From ancient times it was known as an oasis. Traders, hunters, fishers, and merchants populated this fertile site littered with lagoons and shallow straits that characterised the Aral landscape. The word “aral” in Kazakh is translated “island”, over a thousand of which were scattered throughout this region which made up part of the Silk Road, the highway between Europe and Asia.

During the former Soviet Union's hay day of central planning a major project was undertaken to turn the Central Asian plain between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan into the Soviet Union's own version of the Fertile Crescent by diverting the Amu Darya and Syr Darya, the two rivers that fed the Aral Sea. At the time, early 1960s, the Aral Sea was the World's fourth largest lake.

From a report on NASA's Earth Observatory web site:

Beginning in the 1960s, farmers and state offices in Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Central Asian states opened significant diversions from the rivers that supply water to the lake, thus siphoning off millions of gallons to irrigate cotton fields and rice paddies. As recently as 1965, the Aral Sea received about 50 cubic kilometers of fresh water per year—a number that fell to zero by the early 1980s. Consequently, concentrations of salts and minerals began to rise in the shrinking body of water. That change in chemistry has led to staggering alterations in the lake's ecology, causing precipitous drops in the Aral Sea’s fish population.

The Aral Sea supported a thriving commercial fishing industry employing roughly 60,000 people in the early 1960s. By 1977, the fish harvest was reduced by 75 percent, and by the early 1980s the commercial fishing industry had been eliminated. The shrinking Aral Sea has also had a noticeable affect on the region's climate. The growing season there is now shorter, causing many farmers to switch from cotton to rice, which demands even more diverted water.

A secondary effect of the reduction in the Aral Sea’s overall size is the rapid exposure of the lake bed. Strong winds that blow across this part of Asia routinely pick up and deposit tens of thousands of tons of now exposed soil every year. This process has not only contributed to significant reduction in breathable air quality for nearby residents, but has also appreciably affected crop yields due to those heavily salt-laden particles falling on arable land.

It is no exaggeration to say that the case of the Aral Sea is one of the greatest environmental catastrophes ever recorded. For more information, see Philip P. Mickin, 1988, and The Aral Sea Crisis, Thompson, 2008.

Spiritual Leader Calls for Action on the Environment

The Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew has called upon leaders of all faiths to involve themselves and their communities in efforts to rescue the global environment, pointing out that respect for the planet has a profoundly spiritual dimension.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

The Ecological Crisis: In Search of a Solution

Today, the dramatic threat of ecological breakdown is teaching us the extent to which greed and selfishness—both individual and collective—are contrary to the order of creation, an order which is characterized by mutual interdependence. (Pope John Paul II, 1989)

There are those who argue that America would be foolhardy to suffer under a self-imposed cap and trade policy in an effort to limit green house gas emissions when China has been building new coal-fired plants at a rate of three per month and, it is estimated will, by 2020, generate roughly the same amount of electricity from coal as the United States does from all sources combined. Why should we saddle ourselves with what amounts to a tax on CO2 emissions when China, and for that matter India, and probably other developing countries will continue to use cheap coal?

The irony of the argument for doing nothing, although it recognizes the reality of an interconnected and therefore, interdependent world, is that it is promulgated by global warming deniers. These people, represented aggressively by the Heartland Institute, among others, with support from major players in US industry, have all along denied the human element in global warming, but in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence to the contrary are now changing tactics. Basically, their argument boils down to, They're doing it. Why shouldn't we? To label this argument juvenile is to give it more credit than it is due. These people are not ignorant of the facts, they simply choose to distort or ignore them in order to further the ends of complicit industrial partners who can't imagine a future in which their bottom line isn't the promised land to which all humanity aspires.

Let's face the facts. The United States, a country just two hundred and thirty-three years old, has pumped more green house gases into the environment cumulatively since 1850 than any other country, including the combined countries of the European Union. America's cumulative contribution to GHG emissions is four times that of China, and fifteen times that of India. China did overtake the US in 2007 as the World's largest emitter of CO2 from fuel combustion, but the per capita CO2 emission in the US is five times that of China. In 2007, the United States alone generated 20% of world CO2 emissions, despite a population of less than 5% of the global total.

The United States has been an industrial powerhouse creating a standard of living for its citizens that is the envy of the world. America's scientific and technological achievements are second to none. Americans on the whole, are one of the World's most generous people. It is now time for America to translate its productivity, its science and technology, and its generosity into comprehensive, wide-ranging action to rescue our imperiled planet.

In his 1989 message, Pope John Paul II made the point that "the newly industrialized States cannot... be asked to apply restrictive environmental standards to their emerging industries unless the industrialized States first apply them within their own boundaries. At the same time, countries in the process of industrialization are not morally free to repeat the errors made in the past by others, and recklessly continue to damage the environment through industrial pollutants, radical deforestation, or unlimited exploitation of non-renewable resources."

The Pope points out that "The earth is ultimately A COMMON HERITAGE, THE FRUITS OF WHICH ARE FOR THE BENEFIT OF ALL. God destined the earth and all it contains for the use of every individual and all peoples (Gaudium et Spes, 69). It is manifestly unjust that a privileged few should continue to accumulate excess goods, squandering available resources, while masses of people are living in conditions of misery at the very lowest level of subsistence. Today, the dramatic threat of ecological breakdown is teaching us the extent to which greed and selfishness—both individual and collective—are contrary to the order of creation, an order which is characterized by mutual interdependence.

The Pope goes on to say that "There is an order in the universe which must be respected, and that the human person, endowed with the capability of choosing freely, has a grave responsibility to preserve this order for the well-being of future generations. THE ECOLOGICAL CRISIS IS A MORAL ISSUE. Even men and women without any particular religious conviction, but with an acute sense of their responsibilities for the common good, recognize their obligation to contribute to the restoration of a healthy environment. All the more should men and women who believe in God the Creator, and who are thus convinced that there is a well-defined unity and order in the world, feel called to address the problem. Christians, in particular, realize that their responsibility within creation and their duty towards nature and the Creator are an essential part of their faith." Evangelical Christian leaders have published their own call to action on global warming.

Pope John Paul II conveys both the critical need for action to rescue the environment, but also the moral responsibility we all have for doing so. He makes it clear that countries and their leaders must work hand-in-hand to overcome the obstacles to effective action. Those obstacles include, among others, distrust, greed, selfishness, and apathy.

According to Pope John Paul II, modern society must take a serious look at its life style. This, I think, is particularly true of American society, where consumerism has been for so long now, the engine that drives the US economy. After former President George W. Bush signed into law an economic stimulus package that, among other things, provided $600 to individuals, there were some who voiced regret that people seemed to be saving the money rather than spending it. The fact that on average, the US tax payer was burdened with nine to ten thousand dollars of annual debt didn't seem to matter. Our commercial sector creates products that are designed to be thrown out, and packages them elaborately in plastic, and cardboard, and paper, and cellophane, and rubber, and we throw that out, too. If America continues to be a throw away society, we are likely to find ourselves throwing away our future.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Therefore the land mourns

"Therefore the land mourns and all who dwell in it languish, and also the beasts of the field and the birds of the air and even the fish of the sea are taken away" (Hos 4:3).

On December 8, 1989, Pope John Paul II delivered a message for the celebration of World Peace Day, January 1, 1990. The message was titled, "The Ecological Crisis, A Common Responsibility." Pope John started by saying, "In our day there is a growing awareness that world peace is threatened not only by the arms race, regional conflicts and continued injustices among peoples and nations, but also by a LACK OF DUE RESPECT FOR NATURE, by the plundering of natural resources and by a progressive decline in the quality of life. The sense of precariousness and insecurity that such a situation engenders is a seedbed for collective selfishness, disregard for others and dishonesty."

In my view, the Pope's message was the most pointed, insightful, and forceful statement on man and his place in nature ever delivered by a leader of a major religious movement at any time anywhere in the world. It was a remarkable lesson in just what it means to be a Christian who believes that, "the Father has made known to us in all wisdom and insight the mystery ... which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite ALL THINGS in him, all things in heaven and things on earth (Eph. 1:9-10)."

The Pope used various biblical considerations to help the followers of Christ better understand the relationship between human activity and the whole of God's creation. But he also stated that, "The profound sense that the earth is suffering is also shared by those who do not profess our faith in God. Indeed, the increasing devastation of the world of nature is apparent to all."

The Pope's message states that the world's current ecological crisis is a MORAL problem and further, that "the most profound and serious indication of the moral implications underlying the ecological crisis is the lack of RESPECT FOR LIFE evident in many patterns of environmental pollution. Often, the interests of production prevail over concern for the dignity of workers, while economic interests take priority over the good of individuals and even entire peoples. In these cases, pollution or environmental destruction is the result of an unnatural and reductionist vision which at times leads to a genuine contempt for man."

The Pope's message points out forcefully that "WE CANNOT INTERFERE IN ONE AREA OF THE ECOSYSTEM WITHOUT PAYING DUE ATTENTION BOTH TO THE CONSEQUENCES OF SUCH INTERFERENCE IN OTHER AREAS AND TO THE WELL-BEING OF FUTURE GENERATIONS...delicate ecological balances are upset by the uncontrolled destruction of animal and plant life or by a reckless exploitation of natural resources. It should be pointed out that all of this, even if carried out in the name of progress and well- being is ultimately to mankind's disadvantage."


Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Severe drought grips East Africa

Kenya’s Ewaso Nyiro River Dries

The Ewaso Nyiro River flows down from Mount Kenya to water the dry plains that stretch east from the Great Rift Valley in Kenya. The sparsely populated plains are a haven for wildlife, which rely on the Ewaso Nyiro River as a source of water.

The portion of the river that borders on the Samburu National Reserve had been dry for at least six months by the end of September, reported BBC News. The impact on wildlife was tragic. Samburu National Reserve and other reserves in the region support large herds of elephants, Grevy’s zebras, reticulated giraffes, buffalo, lions, leopards, cheetahs, wild dogs, gazelles, rhinos, and more. By the time this image was taken, at least 24 elephants had died in the region, reported BBC News. Zebras, buffalo, and carnivores were also dying, said Reuters. The impact was not limited to wildlife: many news reports describe decimated herds of goats, cattle, and other livestock among northern Kenya’s pastoralists. As of October 13, the World Food Program was providing food aid for 3.8 million people throughout Kenya.

Severe drought gripped much of East Africa when the rainy season in March through June produced very little rain. At the end of the first rainy season of 2009, satellite observations revealed that plant growth—both crops and natural vegetation—across Kenya was significantly lower than normal, a harbinger of the unfolding disaster. The next rainy period should settle over Kenya in October and last through November or December.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Mysterious Ribbon Around Solar System

Whale's Eye Star and Cluster, Hubble Space Telescope

"We thought we knew everything about everything, and it turned out that there were unknown unknowns." Richard Fisher, Director of NASA's Heliophysics Division, upon discovery of a mysterious ribbon around our solar system —- a stripe made of hydrogen —- that defies all current expectations about what the edge of the solar system might look like.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Clean Coal

Much of America’s coal is mined by blowing the tops off of entire mountains and then dumping the rubble in streams and valleys. Not clean.

We know coal is dirty at the stack, and right now CCS technology is not being used to handle GHG emissions. Not clean.

The coal lifecycle doesn’t end at the smokestacks. Even after coal is burned, we’re left with billions of tons of coal ash and liquid coal slurry/sludge that must be stored and disposed of all across the country. The stuff is toxic, containing elevated levels of heavy metals like mercury and arsenic. Not clean.

Images are from Melange, at Wordpress.

For information on the threats that coal slurries pose, see this New York Times story from 2008. You can also read articles from major American newspapers on coal mining by mountain top removal here.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Mitigating Global Warming -- Too Costly?

There are no reasonable studies that say that a 350 ppm stabilization target will destroy the economy; there are no studies that claim that it is desirable to wait before taking action on climate protection. On the contrary, there is strong, widespread endorsement for policies to promote energy conservation, development of new energy technologies, and price incentives and other economic measures that will redirect the world economy onto a low-carbon path to sustainability.

That’s what the study “The Economics of 350,” concludes. The study was conducted by Economics for Equity and the Environment, a group of climate economists put together by Ecotrust. It puts a price tag on the goal of keeping global carbon-dioxide concentrations at 350 parts per million, an ambitious target.

Stabilizing CO2 concentrations at 350 ppm may cost between 1% and 3% of WORLD gross domestic product. Is that a large or a small number? If you believe that global warming is real, as do the vast majority of climate scientists, if you believe the consequences will be dire, as do the vast majority of climate scientists, and that man-made green-house gas emissions are the cause, as do the vast majority of climate scientists, then the relative cost is really not relevant, is it?

"We’re making choices that future generations are going to have to live with and I don’t really think it’s our choice to destroy something that they are never going to get to see. Scott Doney, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute.

Friday, October 9, 2009


Scientists have uncovered a strong link between an unusual virus and chronic fatigue syndrome, which affects more than 1 million people in the United States. Researchers found that two-thirds of people with chronic fatigue are infected with a retrovirus called XMRV, according to a new study in the journal Science Express. XMRV has also been found in the tumors of some prostate cancer patients. Scientists say it's too soon to say whether XMRV actually causes chronic fatigue. People with the syndrome feel tired even after a good night's sleep. Many also have debilitating pain in their muscles or joints, trouble concentrating and immune problems.

The story is on NPR here.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Carbon Capture and Storage

Carbon capture and storage (CCS) is just what the phrase would indicate; capturing carbon in the form of carbon dioxide (CO2) emitted say, by coal-fired power plants, and storing it in places where, theoretically, it will remain, if not forever, then for long enough to allow the world's green house gas emissions to be brought under control. Storage, also termed sequestration, may be in subsurface saline aquifers, reservoirs, ocean water, aging oil fields, or other carbon sinks. Interestingly, nature, if left alone to do its job, sequesters an enormous amount of CO2 (biological sequestration). Unfortunately, man seems hell bent on either overloading nature's "sinks," or destroying them.

The surface ocean currently absorbs about one-fourth of the CO2 emitted to the atmosphere by human activities from fossil fuel combustion, among other things. As this CO2 dissolves in seawater, it forms carbonic acid, increasing ocean acidity. Since industrialization began in the 18th century, surface ocean acidity has increased by 30%. High acidity is already causing serious damage to ocean ecosystems. It could ultimately severely and irreparably damage marine food webs and lead to drastic reductions in commercial fish stocks. The current increase in ocean acidity is a hundred times faster than any previous natural change that has occurred over the last many millions of years.

At the same time we're overloading the oceans with man-made CO2, we're destroying other natural CO2 sinks. Each day at least 80,000 acres of rainforest disappear from Earth. At least another 80,000 acres of forest are degraded. As these forests fall, more carbon is added to the atmosphere.

Research and development by government and industry (including the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory) has been aimed at developing CCS systems specifically designed to remove carbon dioxide from the flue gases and various process streams of large power plants and industrial facilities and safely deposit the carbon dioxide in secure storage sites deep underground – thus keeping it out of the atmosphere.

Vattenfall AB, a large Swedish energy company, has plans to store millions of tons of CO2 in saline aquifers under the rolling fields of eastern Germany, but local opposition may thwart these plans. People are frieghtened that the gas may escape and poison them, or blow up and send them prematurly to Valhalla. And the technology is expensive, in the billions of dollars. Without some way to artificially raise the cost of carbon, say through cap and trade, CSS is currently not economical.

When CEOs Misbehave

I recently read the transcript of an interesting interview with Jeffrey Pfeffer, the Thomas D. Dee II Professor of Organizational Behavior at the Graduate School of Business, Stanford University, published on Guy Kawasaki's blog. Pfeffer was asked, "How do you stop the misdeeds (for example, Enron) in organizations?" Here's his answer.

"What is interesting is that there are few social sanctions—as contrasted with legal or financial ones—for bad behavior. Executives who have served jail time are back on TV and are still celebreties. More to the point, they aren’t shunned by their colleagues. The prevailing mood seems to be, as long as people retain enough wealth, they can buy their way back by donating time and money. If we are serious about enforcing norms, then there have to be real sanctions. In the military academies, violations of important norms are met with expulsion or social ostracism—eating alone, for instance. Not so, not yet, for the most part in the corporate world."

Makes sense, doesn't it? When we learn of a corporation's misdeeds, we need to find out who led that organization at the time and make sure they hear what we think of them. If we buy their products, we need to stop buying their products. If we bank/invest with their company, we need to stop banking/investing with their company. If we blog, we need to say what we think about their behavior on our blogs. People who misbehave, whether they be congressional representatives or CEOs, must be held accountable.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Bioneers Conference, October 16-19, 2009, San Rafael, California, October 16-18

“Bioneers” is an odd name. It was coined by Kenny Ausubel, who along with Nina Simons founded the non-profit organization and its annual conference in 1990. The word derives from its founders’ belief that humans can work with and through nature to make our world a better place. Bioneers’ “founding perspectives" are:

Natural Medicine. Nature has a profound and profoundly mysterious ability for self-repair. The primary source of healing lies in nature. In environmental restoration as in medicine, the role of the practitioner is to support nature to heal itself. This principle became foundational to Bioneers.

Nature’s Solutions. Nature has solved all the ecological challenges we’re trying to address. Practitioners such as John Todd, Amory Lovins, Wes Jackson and Donald Hammer, as well as traditional indigenous practices, were a primary inspiration. In 1997, naturalist and author Janine Benyus gave this emerging science a name in her landmark book Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature, the same year she first spoke at Bioneers. Biomimicry has been a core focus since Bioneers’ inception.

Biocultural Diversity. In nature, diversity is the very fabric of life. Because change is the only constant in nature, diversity is the source of resilience to adapt to change in both natural and human systems. Successful adaptation requires keeping open the greatest range of biologically and culturally diverse options. Diversity is also the sacred tree of life, with intrinsic value.

The Bioneers Conference is a leading-edge forum of social and scientific innovators focused on solutions inspired by nature and human ingenuity where you may:

Explore the forefront of positive change in deeply inspiring keynote talks, panels, workshops and intensives.

Connect with leading-edge people and ideas. Network with dynamic changemakers. Experience Moving Image Festival screenings, and networking receptions.

Discover powerful opportunities and strategies for creating positive change in your work, life and community.

You can participate virtually in the conference by registering and downloading the electronic program.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Freeing Up Disk Space on a Mac

As a long-time Mac user, I'm always looking for good advice on maintaining my Mac, especially freeing up disk space. I found this post from "Baby Boomer" on the Apple Mac discussion forum.

Empty the trash

Open up your application folder & go through all your apps. Trash all the apps you no longer want and/or use. An easier way to do this is to open the Application folder in list view & press the Command+j keys.
In the the dialog that appears, click the "This Window Only" button & the "Calculate All Sizes" check box. Wait a bit until your file & folder sizes have all been calculated, then click the "Size" column to sort your apps from the fattest to the most anorexic.

Get rid of all your photo files you don't want and/or need. Same goes for those pics off the websites you downloaded (gifs, jpegs, etc.).

Get rid of all your music files you no longer listen too. Especially, if you already have the actual CDs and/or DVDs or you can later redownload from a website. Use Spotlight to make sure you got rid of everything. You can even trash directly from Spotlight!

Drag what you don't want and/or need to the trash. Better yet, download this neat little shareware app demo called AppZapper. It basically does all the work for you by not only trashing the apps but the apps preference files, caches & all its associated files. Another software that does the above is AppDelete. Best of all this software is free! Burn what you want and/or need onto CDs or DVDs.

Not everyone has the luxury of purchasing an external HD and/or a .Mac account to store their "stuff, junk, music & photos". You can check with your ISP to see if they offer free storage space. Most if not all do now-a-days. I store all 5000+ of my music (mp3s) files & 500+ music videos in my ISP storage bin. There are thousands if not millions of free storage facilities on the web also. Use your favorite search engine, Google &/or MacGoogle to search them out as they come in different storage sizes to fit your needs & wants.

Check for duplicate fonts. Applications>Font Book. Select “All Fonts.” If you see any “black dots” next to any fonts this mean you have duplicates and/or multiple versions of these fonts. To clean this up, select a “black dotted” font or the Apple + click to select multiple dotted fonts; Edit>Resolve>Duplicates. What this does is turns off the duplicates & multiple version fonts. Not delete them. More than likely the “extras” were installed by other programs and/or other users. Clear out font caches Use FontNuke. It does all the work for you. And, best of all it’s FREE.

Printer Drivers:Get rid of all the printer drivers you don’t need & use except the ones for your current printer(s)/scanner(s). HD>Library>Printers Folder. If you accidently threw something out that you needed for your printer/scanner it can be easily obtained from the manufacturer’s website and/or from the CD that came w/the printer/scanner.

Garage Band has about 1GB of loops stored. Get rid of some some them. You surely don’t use, like and/or need them all. HD>Library>Audio/Apple Loops>Apple>Apple Loops For GarageBand. Or just get rid of the Garage Band app altogether if you don’t use it.

Get rid of extra languages. Strip your computer down to your “native” tongue. You can do this with a FREE utility called Monolingual. Another app that apparently does all the work for you. I’ve never used it. However, a lot of users here swear by & recommend it highly. However, there is a warning for native English speakers. Make sure you keep BOTH English and English (United States)..

Other Resources: Knowledge Base Article Mac Maintenance Quick Assist. Scroll down to "4) Prune Through Your Files".Slimming your hard drive.

Rule of thumb: You should never let your hard drive get to where you have only 10-15% of space left.