Archive for the 'environmental research' Category

Published by Rosalind on 03 Mar 2010

Plastic is not so fantastic (in the ocean, anyway)

Plastic Rubbish Blights Atlantic Ocean

After more than 6100 tows of special nets over twenty years, scientists and students from the Sea Education Association have shown that the Atlantic Ocean has its own garbage patch area. Like the Great Garbage Patch in the Pacific Ocean, the ocean currents collect small bits of plastic and trash, endangering sealife and birds. The maximum “plastic density” found by the researchers was 200,000 pieces of debris per square kilometer.

Published by Diana on 05 May 2009

Thinking About Bees

It’s been a cool spring where I live in the Pacific Northwest. The cherry trees are late this year, and the tulips are so late that the Skagit Valley Tulip Festival, scheduled for April 1st to April 30th, has been extended two weeks, well into May. The tulips weren’t really blooming this year until this week, I’m told by friends who went up last weekend.

The Northwest apricot trees are starting to bloom as well, and the growers are starting to move the bee hives into the field to pollinate the trees. Without bees, there would be very little fruit on the fruit trees here in the Northwest. We need bees to pollinate the apricots and peaches and (of course) the Washington apples for which we are famous. We need bees to pollinate the grapes that are made into Oregon’s wonderful pinot noir wines.

African Honeybees, Photo by Jay Torborg

African Honeybees (Photo by Jay Torborg)

In fact, bees (and a few other insects) pollinate pretty much all of our fruits, vegetables, and nuts. (Grains are mostly pollinated by wind.) This link lists the plants that are pollinated by bees: Crop Plants Pollinated by Bees.

Pollination occurs when a bee picks up pollen (from the stamens of the flower) when visiting a flower for its nectar. Then, when the bee flies to the next flower, some of the pollen falls off onto the stigma (or stigmas) of the flower. The pollen is comparable to sperm–it is the male gametes of the flower–and the stigma is a tube that leads directly to the “egg” of the female flower. (Some flowers are both male and female; some are male; some are female. It depends on the kind of plant it is. Plant sex is complicated.)

When the pollen grain lands on the stigma, it sends down a tube to the egg, then sends the DNA down to the tube, and the egg is fertilized.

Once the egg is fertilized, the egg produces a seed and the fruit around the seed. Imagine an apple. The whole apple is there just to persuade an animal to eat the seeds inside the apple. There is all that sweet fruit surrounding the seeds. So the animal eats the apple, and swallows the seeds, and they travel through the digestive tract, and are eventually eliminated, along with a nice bit of fertilizer. (From a plant’s point of view, an animal is just a really good way to get your seeds spread around.)

But without bees, there’d be no fruit.

So when bees are threatened, it’s a really big deal. A few years back, beekeepers discovered that their bees were dying in large numbers. It was called Colony Collapse Disorder and of course scientists started studying it.

Unfortunately, we don’t really know a lot about Colony Collapse Disorder yet, but there are a lot of theories about what to do about making sure we have pollinators. The New York Times had a great column about it a while back: Treatment for Bee Plague.

And researchers at Washington State University say it might not be that bad: Bee experts say Colony Collapse Disorder might not be as bad as first thought. (I have to say that traces of seventy different pesticides sounds pretty awful to me, though.)

What can you do? Plant food for your local bees. Don’t use pesticides.

(Honeybees are actually not native to this country. They were brought here by the first colonists, because they were considered essential. There are native bees that pollinate our native fruits and vegetables, but they need to be encouraged. In the meantime, beekeeping–maintaining hives of honeybees–is a huge business here in the United States. Half a million hives are brought into California every spring just to pollinate the almond trees so that we can all have almonds.)

There are other great websites for more information on bees and how you can help them in your garden! This website will tell you good plants to plant at home for bees: Bee Gardens.

This is a good place to learn more about Colony Collapse Disorder: Plan Bee Central.

Published by Diana on 31 Jan 2009

How we know what we know about carbon dioxide and climate

In the 1950s, a scientist named Charles Keeling started doing the kind of scientific work that looks boring but leads to incredibly important discoveries. It can take hundreds or thousands of observations–collecting information–before a scientist sees a pattern. Imagine, for example, how long it would take to realize that the sun follows the same path through our heavens every year and that it is predictable. Humans built Stonehenge to track solar observations–just one example of how important information gathering can be.

Charles Keeling began to measure the amount of carbon dioxide in the air, in just one place, regularly. Sometimes he took measurements several times a day. He made his measurements at the top of the dormant Hawaiian volcano Mauna Loa, where he could be sure he wasn’t measuring carbon dioxide produced by local sources like a power plant or a fireplace. He wanted to be sure he was measuring the carbon dioxide normally found in the air.

He found the level of carbon dioxide in the air increased a bit in the spring, and fell in the fall, as the planet went through its seasons. You can see the curve in this Wikipedia article: Keeling Curve. He also found that the level of carbon dioxide in our air was increasing steadily.

But it took YEARS of observations–made often–before scientists could be sure of what they were seeing. Keeling must have thought “do I have to make this observation?” at least a few times. Yet he kept on, and he made observations regularly from 1958 to 2005. His son continues to make observations regularly now.

National Public Radio did a great broadcast about Keeling recently: check it out here: NPR on Charles Keeling.

Published by Diana on 18 Nov 2008

Unintended Consequences

The Mountain Pine Beetle, a particularly nasty pest of lodgepole pines, is devastating forests throughout the west. Why? Well, buried in this article: Bark Beetles Kill Millions of Acres of Trees in West is a tiny little mention of ONE of the many causes: milder winters.

Scientists have said that the beetles are only destroyed by winter temperatures of 30 to 40 degrees below zero (Celsius)–and it hasn’t been that cold in the winter for many years in most of the west.

Published by Rosalind on 13 Oct 2008

Arctic Summer and Shrinking Sea Ice

Warming of the Arctic is leading to big changes in the Sea Ice!
Recently, the National Snow and Ice Data Center put out a press release on the decline in sea ice extent and volume. Summer melting of the Arctic sea ice continues the 30 year trend, and the amounts of open water and thin first year ice continue to grow. Read the press release here: NSIDC October 2008
The thawing also affects Arctic land. You can also see what’s happening in this amazing video of Alaska’s eroding coast. The melting trend causes previously frozen land to thaw and break away. Check out the story and watch the changes happen: Dot Earth Video

Published by Rosalind on 26 Sep 2008

Presidential Candidates and Science Issues

A group of concerned citizens and scientists called Science Debate 2008 has released the presidential candidates’ answers to the “top 14 Science questions facing America.” As you can imagine, it took a lot of work for the group to come up with only 14 questions — they started with 3,400 questions! Mr. McCain and Mr. Obama answered the 14 questions thoughtfully and at length, and the answers are presented side by side so you can compare them.

Here’s the link: Science Debate 2008

Published by Diana on 30 May 2008

That Sinking Feeling

The May 10, 2008 issue of Science News has a fascinating article called Down With Carbon, in which they explore some methods of removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Some methods are:

  • Fertilizing the oceans with iron, which causes a plankton bloom, which then sinks to the bottom of the ocean and takes the carbon with it
  • Using zeolites–minerals that trap other substances in their internal structure–to trap the carbon dioxide
  • Sinking liquid carbon dioxide in the ocean
  • Burying trees
  • Trapping carbon dioxide in volcanic rock or saline layers

This links to the article:
Clearing the Air, what science can do to capture carbon dioxide .

Published by Rosalind on 20 May 2008

Thinking About Your Carbon Footprint

More and more people worldwide are thinking about ways to reduce their personal or business carbon footprints. Your carbon footprint is basically how much CO2 you are putting into the atmosphere. There are so many ways that we contribute that CO2, ranging from home energy use (heating, cooling, lighting, cooking) to transportation (car, train, bus, plane) and consumption (manufacturing use, how far goods — including food — travel) and it’s hard to calculate your personal share. If you look online, you’ll find many different carbon calculators. Two that are frequently recommended are the EPA Carbon Calculator and the “Inconvenient Truth” Carbon Calculator .
Once you figure out your carbon footprint, you can begin to work on ways to reduce it, whether by using more renewable energy sources such as wind and solar, or by cutting your energy use. You can also find eco-footprint calculators, which rate your impact on the global ecosystem in other areas, such as pollutants and toxic chemicals.

Published by Rosalind on 09 May 2008

Arctic Research Continues

Scientific efforts to find out what’s happening to the Arctic ice cap and to the polar bears who live there are continuing. In 2009, the Arctic Survey project plans to send a team of explorers to travel across the Arctic on foot, measuring the thickness of the ice. The team will be led by Arctic explorer Pen Hadow. The “on the ice” measurements will help scientists see what is actually happening and refine their computer simulations. Current predictions show the ice disappearing in the next 5 to 100 years, which will change the face of the Arctic completely. Read about the planned expedition — the Arctic Survey .