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Planet Human

NYU 2016

Rapid Evolution and the Anthropocene

kil-fishLocated in Newark, the Diamond Alkali Superfund Site shows evidence of an astonishing evolutionary feat. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) alerts us of the dangers that exist at this former chemical manufacturing plant; remnants of “Agent Orange” and DDT plague the area. The animals inhabiting the surrounding waters have taken up these chemicals and remarkably have survived. A recently published study states that the Atlantic killifish has been able to overcome the toxic waters by adapting at an incredible rate due to the nucleotide diversity of the species. The fish have developed without a harmful pathway that can be triggered by polychlorinated biphenyls. Since this pathway cannot be activated, the adults and their embryos are able to survive PCBs levels thousands of times higher than fish that have the pathway — evolution at its finest.

The Mummichog, as it’s frequently referred to, is a common fish found around the Lower Passaic River and Newark Bay areas. And since the late 1990s, researches have found evidence of the species becoming tolerant to the polluted water of the Lower Passaic Superfund site and other locations along the Atlantic.

Over the course of a few decades, independent populations of the fish have developed similar genetic adaptations. The key point made by the study, through the genomic analysis of 384 killifish, was that evolution does not necessarily have to occur at a single, particular place to be repeated. From these findings, researchers are able to have concrete examples of how animals can respond effectively to the rate of change taking place in the environment.

The Anthropocene has been characterized by unprecedented transformation. I will continue to wonder how species will respond to the ever-evolving world, if we are even capable of doing so. Researchers studying the Atlantic killifish are curious about the same thing. They next ask the question, “What will happen to the population when waters finally become clean?” It is evident, however, a species like the killifish is poised to take on whatever trouble comes its way.

 

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Opening the Gates for Climate Reform

Within the past week, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates announced a billion-dollar fund to invest in energy development and research to reduce our emissions. Partnering with 19 other worldwide investors and the University of California system, Gates hopes to expand on current government research and act as a guarantee for future research even if the Trump administration halts government research. The concern of the Trump administration is completely valid, and while Donald Trump himself may have not said much about his exact opinions on energy research and development, other than climate change being a hoax, he has appointed cabinet members who very much reject climate science and are major advocates for the fossil fuel industry. The fund, titled Breakthrough Energy Ventures, will carry a lifespan of 15-20 years while focusing on electricity generation & storage, agriculture efficiency, and providing seed money for start-ups. While many details of this investment remain unclear, Gates asserts that a management team will be named within 3 months. Furthermore, amongst concerns of previous failed investment ventures, Gates reassured skeptics by explaining that the fund will utilize scientific expertise, “way more than any venture fund would have.” He reiterated his point by stating, “We’re going to have a very deep scientific team both at the companies itself and as our advisers.”

I find this to be a very comforting gesture from Bill Gates and other world investors. I believe this fund shows a commitment to climate change through the private sector, even in the wake of the public sector fallbacks. Trump has expressed his doubts in climate change and has reinforced commitments to the fossil fuel industries, both of which are problematic viewpoints since climate change is a science and we see that the fossil fuel industry leads to increased emissions and environmental degradation. Moreover, I hope this venture acts as a signal to the Trump administration, highlighting that this is an important issue that people care about enough to invest one billion dollars in. I believe by partnering with the University of California system, the Breakthrough Energy Venture will be able to research climate change and educate students on the environment and its importance for decades to come. I look forward to the research developed as a result of this fund and the solutions we can develop to ensure a sustainable future.

Reindeer Trouble

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The holiday season is almost in full swing, but one group that has long embodied the lively spirit of the winter months is in dire straits: reindeer.

In part due to bad luck, reindeer populations have taken a significant hit over the course of 2016. In July, thousands died of anthrax, possibly caused by the thawing of a reindeer carcass that had died earlier from the disease. A month later, a lightning storm in Norway resulted in a death toll of over 300 wild reindeer.

But scientists are hypothesizing that large numbers of reindeer are dying from the effects of climate change, a major consequence of anthropogenic activities. The scientific journal Biology Letters recently reported that two major reindeer mortality incidents occurred in the falls of 2006 and 2013 on the Yamal Peninsula, located northwest of Siberia. As a result of atmospheric warming, the journal found that “rain-on-snow” (ROS) precipitation events in autumn months became more frequent, but as the temperature dropped over the course of the winter, the rain froze into abnormally thick ice. Reindeer typically find food by digging through soft snow, not impenetrable ice—so tens of thousands of reindeer died of starvation during the late months of 2006 and 2013.

The Nenets, a group of indigenous nomadic herders, live in the Arctic and rely on reindeer to survive. They were essentially stranded in the tundra after the 2013 reindeer die-out because they had no animals to transport their camps. Nenets eat reindeer meat, use hides for warm clothes, and fashion their bones into tools. Thus, it is evident that the effects of climate change are jeopardizing the stability of both an iconic animal population and an ancient, self-sufficient nomadic culture. No one is spared from the havoc of the Anthropocene.

 

A Whirlwind of Energy

Just days ago, the United States’ first offshore wind turbines starting spinning to life. Before this, the country’s wind power was harnessed completely on land. The offshore wind farm, consisting of 5 turbines, is located off the coast of Rhode Island. The goal of the farm is to provide electricity for nearby Block Island, a small community roughly 13 miles off of Rhode Island’s mainland. The Block Island wind farm represents the country’s first successful venture of offshore wind development and will be able to supply 17,000 homes with electricity. Approximately 90% of Block Island’s needs are expected to be fulfilled through the energy generated by the farm, and it is estimated that it will represent 1% of the state’s total electricity. While 5 turbines may seem like a small amount, the farm cost $300 million to construct and will save 40,000 tons of CO2 emissions each year.

I believe this is fantastic news for not only the state of Rhode Island, but the entire country at large. While wind power is complicated, with high costs, property rights to the sea-floor, and possible aesthetic disruptions, I think we can expand upon our wind energy programs to develop a more efficient and cost-effective strategy. In Europe, for example, thousands of wind turbines sit on the coastlines, providing more than 100 times the amount of power generated by the wind farm in Block Island However, while I support the farm and its mission, I question if it will stand alone in our nation’s waters. With a new presidential administration on the horizon, the rise of wind power does not seem promising. Donald Trump has said himself, “the wind is a very deceiving thing,” and that wind power, “kills all the birds.” This is despite the fact that only 100 golden eagles are estimated to be killed by wind turbines each year and the cost of wind power has been reduced by over 65% since 2010.

Moving forward, I believe the wind farm will thrive and be able to provide clean energy for the people of Block Island and Rhode Island, and I hope that ventures such as this continue to develop and prosper in the coming years, so we can move towards a more sustainable society, even in the wake of an administration that does not believe in climate change.

Arctic Ice Loss

Image result for west antarctic ice sheet collapseIn 2015, an iceberg connected to the West Antarctic Ice Shelf broke. A 2016 study by the American Geophysical Union finds that the break was caused by a rift at the base of the shelf. The evidence implies that the fracture originated from the inside out—a new type of melting discovered in Arctic ice. The study’s lead author, Ian Howat, declares that the glacier’s internal behavior indicates that the ice sheet continues to melt: “It’s no longer a question of whether the West Antarctic Ice Sheet will melt—it’s a question of when.”

Arctic ice loss, caused by climate change, has dire consequences. For one, it amplifies the absorption of solar heat, as ice sheets that deflect 85% of sunlight turn into water that merely deflects 7% of sunlight. The surplus heat absorbed by our planet warms the oceans and later is discharged back into the atmosphere, increasing atmospheric temperatures. Scientists predict that the West Antarctic Ice Sheet could break down in the next hundred years, raising sea levels by nearly ten feet. This would cause many problems; chief among them is coastline flooding, which is detrimental for species that rely on these terrains. Sea turtles, for example, would suffer as their nesting and feeding habitats would be inundated and destroyed, reducing their chances for survival.

As tragic as this may sound, some individuals are aware—even numb—to these types of findings. A Times article, for instance, foresees an increase in tourism in places such as Greenland and Canada. It also highlights a decrease in commercial shipping times in Arctic waters. These companies are not necessarily evil; they are operating like all businesses, on what yields the most profit, not what is best for the planet long term.

We have reached a point where the predicted problems caused by global warming demand that we prioritize long-term needs of our planet over profit margins. This shift in focus benefits all, including the businesses that turn a blind eye to environmental decline. After all, the consequences of global warming trump the cost of preventing it.

Is the Wind Industry Hurting the Already Vulerable Bat?

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In an age where climate change beckons forth an extinction on par with the death of the dinosaurs, its no surprise that many countries have committed vast budgets to renewable, clean forms of energy. Hydropower is currently the most exploited form of renewable energy, accounting for 65% of the world’s green power, and the wind energy industry is the fastest growing, with nearly 25% growth annually. While weening ourselves off fossil fuels is certainly beneficial to the environment, harvesting renewable power can detrimentally affect the certain species.

Take wind energy for example. A recent study of British wind turbines shows that the spinning blades kill two bats a month on average per turbine. This may not seem like a significant number, but with over 300,000 wind turbines world wide, that comes to about 7.2 million bats per year. The dangers wind turbines present to birds have been well studied and as a result is reasonably understood, but up until this research, there was little information regarding their effect on bats. While this investigation only examined turbines on British soil, the scientists are confident the results could be extrapolated to show similar effects on bats in North America, where the creatures are already threatened due to white-nose syndrome.

Bats, like bees, are important pollinators and their consumption of insects helps to keep pests at a tolerable level. Bats are particularly susceptible to wind turbine blades as they’re drawn both by the sound and by the bugs that get trapped in the powerful wind currents. Luckily, the solution may be as simple as shutting off turbines at times of low wind. This would have minimal effect on the industry’s output, as little power is generated during low winds, and would allow bats to feed freely during these times. Bats rarely leave the cave when winds are high, so turbines could still be run at these times, which is when they are most effective.

We’re finally taking steps in the right direction, let’s just make sure that this time we consider the consequences of our actions.

 

Chitown Birdies

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For such an Urban environment, Chicago, Illinois serves as home to a variety of plant, insect, and animal species. Since my upbringing in the northern suburbs, I have noticed that Chicago has an extremely high population of squirrels, and birds. One reason for this are the forest preserves just West of downtown, but recent research has found that Chicagoans, and their homes, also play a major role in fostering bird populations.

Researchers from the University of Illinois at Chicago studied the number of bird species within Chicago neighborhoods, finding 36 different total species. Residents of these neighborhoods were surveyed to determine what kinds of trees, shrubs, and other plant matter were present in yards, as well as whether a dog or cat was allowed outside the home. In comparing their findings, the team found that trees and fruit yielding plants attracted the largest population of birds, and the presence of an animal had the opposite effect.

The research suggests that conservation efforts in the area would benefit from “thinking outside the park,” by encouraging residents to create an environment that birds can thrive in. Since urbanization has limited the amount of wildlife in city areas, making local neighborhoods more habitable by planting more fruitful plants and trees, or limiting predator presence could allow bird species to thrive. This allows bird populations to maintain more stability, and overall decrease human affect on the animal.

This is just one example of a way that we can manipulate our environment to mitigate our toll on nature. Just another bit of hope in the unfortunate scope of the anthropocene.

 

 

On the Rise

Globally, eight of the world’s ten largest cities are near an ocean, as reported by the U.N. Atlas of the Oceans. In the United States, almost forty percent of the population lives in relatively high-population-density coastal areas, where sea levels play a major a role in flooding, erosion and storm hazards. According to chapter two of The National Academies Press, there are three main contributors to rising sea levels: Thermal expansion, melting of glaciers and polar ice caps and ice loss from Greenland and West Antarctica. Higher sea levels mean more frequent nuisance floods, which are floods that inconvenience civilized areas, overwhelming drain systems and eroding infrastructure. Nuisance flooding is predicted to be over 300 percent more frequent among coastal cities, compared to just 50 years ago.

Average temperatures have risen about 1 degree celsius since the 1800s, last year being the hottest ever recorded, surpassing the mark set the year before, as stated by Climate Central. National Geographic scientists report worldwide sea levels have been increasing at a rate of about 0.14 inches per year since the early 1990s.

Even though many people are hopeful of combatting the rise of sea levels, there is not much that can be done momentarily to halt the process. As stated in a Climate Central Article, even if humans quickly stop polluting the atmosphere, potentially lowering temperature rise or at least keeping it stable around 2 degrees Celsius (3.8 degrees Fahrenheit), seas may still rise by an additional 9 to 24 inches within the next century.

An Accidental Catasrophe

 

 

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In a desperate attempt to kill mosquitoes that carry the Zika Virus in South Carolina, about 2.5 million bees were killed on August 28th 2016 followed by an aerial spray of the pesticide called Naled.

The Zika Virus, named after the Zika Forest of Uganda where it was first isolated in 1947, is carried by the Aedes mosquito. The symptoms include pain in eyes, joints and muscles. It is particularly dangerous for pregnant women. Their children can suffer from Microcephaly, because of which babies are born seriously deformed due to abnormal growth of the brain. There is no vaccine or treatment for the Zika virus. 43 people in South Carolina had caught this virus.

However, the bee keepers condemned the carelessness shown by the authorities in South Carolina which led to collateral damage of such great magnitude. Instead of spraying the pesticide at night, they sprayed it after dawn when the bees were active outside their hives. They were disappointed that it was done without proper notice otherwise they would have demanded that it be done at night.

On the other hand, few suggest that this incident is not worth worrying about since the bees that died were commercial bees that can easily be replaced by human action such as importing more bees which would then reproduce. Furthermore, queen bees lay up to 2000 eggs in a day thus the population can be revived soon. The only thing for the beekeepers to worry about is their loss of income through the selling of honey which they say will be compensated by the county.

It is true that getting rid of the mosquitoes was crucial to avoid an outbreak of this virus but such endeavors should be carried out wisely. Possible safer solutions include using mosquito specific pesticides, using mosquito repellants at home and raising genetically modified mosquitoes which when mate with females, give an offspring that is incapable of mating. However, this solution is still in the stage of research and development. Hopefully, the bee population will be revived soon and such an inadvertent catastrophe will be avoided in the future.

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