Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Was fog in the forecast today? Smog and Solutions

            Smog is a hot-button topic for several countries around the globe as the world continues to burn fossil fuel.  There are reports of dangerous smog occurring in France, Indonesia, and most recently China to name a few.  The term “smog” was first coined in 1905 by Dr. Henry Antoine Des Voeux by combining the words “smoke” and “fog” to describe the hazardous haze (3).  Normally, the acceptable level of air pollutants, including smog, is around 25 to 30 micrograms before it becomes dangerous (1).  Likewise, based on the air quality index, anything over 200 is considered to be unhealthy (4).  Both Delhi and Beijing have violated the acceptable level of air pollutants with numbers exceeding 300 micrograms of smog and Indonesia has a number of 983 on the air quality index (1, 4).  As a part of the Global Burden of Disease Project, scientists say more than 5.5 million people worldwide are dying prematurely per year due to the smog (1).  Breathing in the smog at unsafe levels can lead to an increased risk of heart disease, stroke, cancers, and respiratory irritation (1).  Smog causes severe and lasting effects on the ecosystem but can also cause drastic economic losses due to countries having to shut down production to prevent people from being exposed (2, 3). The elderly as well as children are the most vulnerable to the smog’s often deadly effects (1).
There are several case studies to examine where the smog has gotten out of control. In Indonesia, plantations have farmed over peatland and when the farmland is dried out, it is burned for the next planting season which is outlawed by the government (4).  However, plantation owners who part-took in it this season caused a thick haze that spread across Indonesia, Singapore, and Malaysia (4).  The haze is augmented by this year’s El Nino which has created drier conditions for the fires to continue to burn (4).  In Paris, smog has affected the quality of air. A prediction was made by air quality control monitors that the smog would reach unsafe levels in March of 2015 (5). In China, there was a week-long epidemic of smog which shut down the country due to unsafe levels in 2013 in Beijing (3). In 2015, China issued its first “red alert” because the air quality index was 308 (2). Due to the alert, schools, businesses, and factories were shut down and motorists were forced off the roads to wait for the smog to clear (2).  China has among the world’s worst air due to the perpetual burning of coal from the industry (2).
Comparison of a smoggy and clear day in Beijing, China 
More can be done but these countries in each case study have been putting forth effort to clean up their act.  In Indonesia, personnel worked tirelessly to put out the flames by dropping water over the inferno and coercing rainfall by using chemicals (4).  In addition, seven executives of plantation companies were arrested for starting fires and face a fine of roughly $700,000 and up to ten years jail time (4). In France, drivers were temporarily banned from the roads, barring emergency vehicles and electric cars (5).  Furthermore, all public transportation was free for the period in curb the possible air pollution (5).  Although precautionary, France has been actively trying to combat the on-going smog by discouraging motorists.  China is beginning to battle smog after issuing a red alert unlike earlier in the year when an orange alert, meaning limited exposure to the outdoors, was issued (2). China’s code system, which is a part of their plan to reduce the smog, was strengthened in 2013 to hopefully gain a grasp on the situation (2). 

The research article by Shi, et al, 2016, offered some options for the world to decrease smog.  Firstly, monitoring the air and scientific research are invaluable to assess the problem (3).  Next would be creating and implementing policies, similar to Indonesia and China, and then evaluating if the policies are aiding (3).  The authors also suggested economic incentives such as carbon taxes or tax breaks for clean energy and educating the public to lessen emissions (3).  Finally, advancements in a cleaner technology should be implemented as well as change societal norms through less consumption of conventional livestock and greener celebrations (3). There is support from people globally for more aggressive policies to prevent the smog from worsening (1, 5).  Despite this, people globally need to change their attitude towards smog to correct it.  Education is needed and incentives would easily complement the cause.  The “airpocalype” can be stopped only if everyone pitches in and reduce emissions (2).

The Lengthening of the Wildfire Season due to Climate Change

The last couple of year’s wildfires have made more appearances in the news with their frequency and magnitude of devastation.  A wildfire is defined as an uncontrolled, quickly spreading fire in an area of combustible vegetation that is unwanted or unplanned. A wildfire season is when wildfires are more likely to occur, which is usually from the spring when the snow melts until full foliage is present. Thirty-five Years of meteorological data has recently been published and confirms a lengthening in the season of wildfires (NASA, 2015). The study observed four variables that affect the length of fire seasons temperature, humidity, precipitation, and wind speed. A combination of high temperatures, low humidity, rainless days, and high winds make wildfires more likely to spread and lengthens fire seasons (NASA, 2015). Research found that fire seasons in parts of the western United States and Mexico, Brazil, and East Africa face wildfire seasons more than a month longer than they were 35 years earlier.

Figure 1.1 Changes in Fire Season Length 1979-2013 (NASA)

The overall 18.7% length increase worldwide is attributed to more rain-free days and hotter temperatures (Cochrane, 2015). The longer season in The United States is attributed to changes in the timing of snowmelt, vapor pressure, and the timing of spring rain, which all are linked to global warming and climate change. Not only are seasons becoming longer but it was found that they are becoming more frequent regardless of length.

Figure 1.2 Changes in Frequency of Long Fire Seasons 1979-2013 (NASA)

The researchers found that the number of rain-free days has increased by 1.31 days per decade. The average temperature on vegetated land increased by 0.185 degrees per decade, while the annual relative humidity dropped by 0.127 percent per decade. Conversely, the mean annual precipitation worldwide is the same, according to Cochrane. "It's still the same amount of rainfall, just concentrated in fewer days." This means more dry days when conditions are agreeable to burning (Cochrane, 2015).
Increased wildfire seasons lead to more destruction of not only woodlands and other habitats but in property and the relocations of people’s lives. This all leads to substantial investments in fire suppression by the government (CNBC, 2015). Since 2000 the US Forest Service has doubled its spending from 540 million dollars to 1.7 billion dollars (Goldenburg, 2013).  To feed this needed fund to suppress fires the US government is pulling funding from other Forest Service areas to compensate, in turn leaving these other groups short on funds. The Deferred Maintenance and Infrastructure Improvement program is projected to lose 95% of its budget, Roads 46%, Facilities 68%, and other such areas as recreation, and habitat management (USDA Forest Services, 2015). 

As the wildfires burn they add more CO2 into the atmosphere contributing to the global warming which is enabling these fires to occur. Future outlooks show a somewhat cyclic effect of increased funds needed to fight increased fires which are increasing preferable conditions for future wildfires. Currently the only ways to limit the potential damage is public education on potential fire starters, cheaper more effective fire retardants, and a better allocation of funds. 

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

The Battle Between Fracking and Human Health
Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, is a widely growing natural gas collection operation that was first used in the 1940s to retrieve gas from ordinary gas wells. In this process, the rock is drilled while being pumped with water and hundreds of chemicals in order to fracture the rock. Fracturing the rock and filling the cracks with water allows the natural gas to be released and collected. New innovations have been created to improve the efficiency of fracking and these new technologies are being used in many states across the United States, including Texas, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Colorado, California, and North Dakota (Goldenberg). Updated regulations, standards, and management efforts are being imposed for Britain in hopes that fracking will be less of a threat to the environment and humans as compared to fracking in the United States (Goldenberg).
While fracking may have some outward benefits, such as decreasing coal consumption and lowering electricity and heating costs, it also has many negative connotations and threats that come along with it (Goldenberg). The greatest threat from fracking lies in the contamination of the air and ground water surrounding the fracking site. During the fracking operation hundreds of chemicals are pumped into the ground in order to crack the rock (Goldenberg). These chemicals often find their way into nearby water wells, causing contamination of the drinking water used by many residents or they are illegally dumped into waterways by companies (Goldenberg). During the set-up of the operation, the air is often filled with excessive amounts of dust that is full of chemicals as well. Scientists have discovered that many of the 750 chemicals used pose a risk to fertility and developmental growth in humans (Sample). The pollution to the air has been known to cause many respiratory issues such as asthma, difficulty breathing, and lung disease (Kiely). Cancer is also a risk factor of fracking because of the levels of benzene, formaldehyde, diesel particulates, and PAHs that are released into the air during fracking operations. Benzene is also a culprit for blood disorders, such as anemia and bone marrow damage, that can be a result of long-term exposure to the chemical (Kiely).
In local residential studies, many scientists have noted that residents are showing symptoms of coughing, itchy eyes, nosebleeds, and skin rashes (Stannard). Many residents also complain of daily nausea and headaches throughout the entirety of the fracking operation. One resident in Texas even said that she had developed pneumonia three times in an 18 month period following the introduction of fracking wells in her area (Goldenberg). Many researchers have set out to test the drinking water in many residential areas in order to show that these fracking operations are causing the health concerns in these citizens. A study conducted in Pennsylvania in 2012 revealed that one household’s water contained 2-Butoxyethanol (2BE), a chemical commonly used in drilling that has carcinogenic properties in rats (Fleur). The levels were measured in parts per trillion and still considered to be safe, posing no health risk to anyone drinking the water (Fleur).
Globally, fracking adds to the carbon and methane pollution that is motivating the global climate change (Kiely). If fracking operations continue to expand in the United States and other countries around the world, the health concerns and pollution issues will only increase. The United Kingdom has also begun implementing fracking, but in 2011 Lancashire discovered one of the negative geological effects of fracking when two small earthquakes and aftershocks occurred after drilling their first well. Britain’s fracking operations are slightly different than those in the United States because of the difference in geology between the two locations. Britain also regulates the operations and drilling companies are required to monitor the drinking water throughout the entirety of the operation. Despite more regulations, some people are still concerned that the operations could cause contamination and health effects (Goldenberg).
For the people affected by these fracking operations, getting their voice heard has proved to be a very difficult task. Many of the drilling companies deny all claims that their operations are causing detrimental effects to the residents’ health and livelihoods. Many of the companies, such as Devon Energy Corporation, even deny being aware of any residents’ complaints about health problems despite having been present for public meetings where they were accused of causing residential health problems (Goldenberg). Some residents do win their fight against the fracking industry, though, as displayed by three homeowners from Pennsylvania who sued Chesapeake Energy Corporation after they discovered their drinking water was contaminated with natural gas and sediment (Fleur).
Despite all of the negative effects that fracking presents to human health, the industry is continuing to grow. If researchers continue to study the effects that fracking has on the environment, human health, and the climate they may be able to slow down the industry if their findings are supported by larger companies or government agencies. Also, if residents can continue to voice their concerns and present the issues that they are enduring from fracking operations in their areas to local and national representatives, the problem can become more widely known and actions can be taken to reduce, improve the safety of, or even stop the fracking industry. 

Monday, March 21, 2016

Algal Blooms Producing Deadly Toxins
            Over the past few years, algal blooms have become a serious issue that affects humans and aquatic organisms. They occur when the temperatures and nutrient inputs, such as phosphorous, are high (Townhall). These conditions are favorable for algal blooms because it allows for fast growth (Townhall). Algal blooms find their way into aquatic organisms from being consumed by zooplankton, clams, mussels, and shellfish and then they move up the food web when those organisms are consumed (Townhall). Algal blooms can also create dangerous toxins that can have huge impacts on the organisms that consume them. Two of the toxins that have been found in marine systems are domoic acid, which is produced by an alga called Pseudo-nitzschia (shown above), and saxitoxin, produced by dinoflagellates (nwfsc). Domoic acid causes brain damage in affected organisms which can lead to deficits in spatial memory (Townhall). It also causes seizures in sea lions (nwfsc). This toxin increases the likelihood of death due to not remembering how to forage, avoid ship strikes, or migrate (Townhall). Saxitoxin causes PSP (paralytic seafood poisoning) in clams (Townhall).

     Recently, both these toxins were found in marine mammals in Alaskan waters which is very unusual since the waters are normally too cold for blooms to occur (nwfsc). Samples from 900 marine mammals of 13 different species, including whales, walruses, sea lions, seals, porpoises and sea otters were found to contain these toxins and from all regions of Alaska (nwfsc). As of now, warming trends seem to be the cause of the blooms that contain these toxins (Townhall). Alaska is not the only place to experience these blooms and toxins. Last year, a record-breaking algal bloom off the Pacific coast occurred where domoic acid concentrations were 10 to 30 times higher than a normal bloom (cbsnews). Because these blooms occur from May through October, California and other neighboring states temporarily executed a freeze on shellfish harvesting ( This particular bloom caused fisheries to close for a while because toxin levels were so high ( Normally the levels of domoic acid are not enough to cause harm to humans while swimming, but it can be harmful when eating seafood that contains large quantities of domoic acid (cbsnews). However, there are forms of algae that can cause human harm if there is major contact. This type of algae was found in Lake Erie last year due to high concentrations of phosphorous from runoff from all the precipitation that occurred during the summer (Time). Scientists confirmed that it was toxic cyanobacteria and that if any human were to go swimming in it, they risk intestinal distress, liver damage, or dermatitis (Time). Because Lake Erie a source of freshwater for many people, there was discussion of treating the water to get rid of this harmful toxin to prevent it from polluting drinking sources. However it is more expensive for water treatment when there are algal blooms and it takes a great amount of effort to clean it all up (Time).
These are just a few examples of marine systems that are affected by algal blooms and the resulting toxins. Humans need to decrease nutrient inputs in order for these harmful toxins to stop being a problem and continue to reduce global warming trends in order for real change to be observed.


Climate Change on Coral Reefs

Coral Reefs are one of the most diverse ecosystems in the ocean. They are often called the rainforests of the ocean. Corals only cover one-tenth of the ocean floor but they are homes and shelter to 25 percent of known marine species (Chicago Tribune).  Coral reefs act as a natural breakwater for strong waves and storms. They also provide food and a job for many millions of people and have a huge tourism revenue (New York Times). Even though corals are important to people, humans have the greatest threat to the coral reefs. Humans are destroying the reefs with pollution, overfishing, habitat destruction, and contributing to global warming. One of the greatest stressors is the rise in ocean temperatures.  (Ocean Portal)
When the ocean temperatures rise is causes the coral reef polyps to expel their symbiotic photosynthetic algae called zooxanthellae making the corals turn white. This process is called coral bleaching. The zooxanthellae provide the reef with its bright colors and 70 % of their nutrients. (LA Times) Since the return of El Nino in the Pacific Ocean and the effects of climate change the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has just declared the third global coral bleaching event in history (LA Times). Even In the Great Barrier Reef in Australia which one of the most highly protected areas in the world has seen a 50 % decline in reefs in the last 50 years (The New York Times). There were 2,600 of marine scientists gathering for the International Coral Reef Symposium conference and there they talked about ways to stop of the degradation of reefs. (New York Times) Recent studies in Hawaii have shown that corals that have been bleached before and survived are weak and it is harder for them to withstand warm temperatures in the future. (Chicago Tribune)  Some Local actions have occurred in order to save the reefs such as rebuilding fish stocks, reducing harmful runoff and establishing more marine protected areas (New York Times).
There has been a species found that can protect itself against rising temperatures and ocean acidification.  The researchers have found that the species Porities cylindrica contains a calcifying fluid that helps it maintain a pH level that is not influenced by the pH level in the water. This fluid helps the coral to grow and strive when the ocean is acidic. This species can be found at the Heron Island Lagoon and the Great Barrier Reef. They stated that the nest step in the research is to find out if the species from other environments have the mechanisms to survive in the acidic ocean. A researcher stated, “We also need to explore whether rising sea temperatures impacts their ability to maintain a constant internal pH level.” (Marine Science Today).

Actions are taking place in order to help save the reefs from rising sea temperatures. Help has to start somewhere and if nothing takes place the world might just see its last brightly colored coral reef.