Saturday, April 20, 2013

Earth Science for Earth Day

It's Saturday and that mean's its time for another thrilling installment of 

This Saturday in Science!

Due to the proximity of Earth Day (it's on Monday in case you didn't know) this
Monday is Earth Day people.
week's installment will be devoted to all things Earth, including the planet itself, it's weather and the plants and animals that live on it.

Let's begin with the controversy -- Global Warming (or "Climate Change" as the more moderate among us like to say).

Every winter, it snows, and we say "what global warming? It's cold here. Now. In winter."

Well this winter, there weren't much snow to fuel that argument, here or in places that really depend on it, like the drought-starved western states.

In February it became clear that there would only be slim snowpack to break the drought's grip. As The New York Times reported in this article:
Lakes are half full and mountain snows are thin, omens of another summer of drought and wildfire. Complicating matters, many of the worst-hit states have even less water on hand than a year ago, raising the specter of shortages and rationing that could inflict another year of losses on struggling farms.
Reservoir levels have fallen sharply in Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada. The soil is drier than normal. And while a few recent snowstorms have cheered skiers, the snowpack is so thin in parts of Colorado that the government has declared an “extreme drought” around the ski havens of Vail and Aspen.
“It’s approaching a critical situation,” said Mike Hungenberg, who grows carrots and cabbage on a 3,000-acre farm in Northern Colorado. There is so little water available this year, he said, that he may scale back his planting by a third, and sow less thirsty crops, like beans.
“A year ago we went into the spring season with most of the reservoirs full,” Mr. Hungenberg said. “This year, you’re going in with basically everything empty.”
Thank goodness this whole global warming thing is just a hoax....

It snowed in Jerusalem this year. In Jerusalem!
And hey, global warming can't be real. China experienced the coldest winter in nearly 30 years.

Which is perhaps why "climate change" is the more appropriate term.

It's not so much warming per se, but radical change in normal weather patterns.

As The New York Times reported in January, the evidence is piling up that around the world, extreme weather is the new normal.
China is enduring its coldest winter in nearly 30 years. Brazil is in the grip of a dreadful heat spell. Eastern Russia is so freezing — minus 50 degrees Fahrenheit, and counting — that the traffic lights recently stopped working in the city of Yakutsk.
Things are really heating up down under...
Bush fires are raging across Australia, fueled by a record-shattering heat wave. Pakistan was inundated by unexpected flooding in September. A vicious storm bringing rain, snow and floods just struck the Middle East. And in the United States, scientists confirmed this week what people could have figured out simply by going outside: last year was the hottest since records began.
According to Omar Baddour, chief of the data management applications division at the World Meteorological Organization, in Geneva, such events are increasing in intensity as well as frequency, a sign that climate change is not just about rising temperatures, but also about intense, unpleasant, anomalous weather of all kinds.

In Australia, the first eight days of 2013 were among the 20 hottest on record.
Every decade since the 1950s has been hotter in Australia than the one before, said Mark Stafford Smith, science director of the Climate Adaptation Flagship at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization.

To the north, the extremes have swung the other way, with a band of cold settling across Russia and Northern Europe, bringing thick snow and howling winds to Stockholm, Helsinki and Moscow. (Incongruously, there were also severe snowstorms in Sicily and southern Italy for the first time since World War II; in December, tornadoes and waterspouts struck the Italian coast.)
And then there are the bees.

Stinging aside, bees are an integral part of our food chain and provide crucial pollination services to farmers throughout the world.

Well, they're dying.

As many as half the hives kept by commercial beekeepers died in 2012.
Over the past seven years, the honeybee die-off, known as "colony collapse disorder,"has claimed 5,650,000 hives, valued at $1.61 billion. Italy, France, Slovenia and Germany have taken action to limit the use of bee-killing pesticides. But here in the U.S.? The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is getting ready to approve a deadly new neonicotinoid called Sulfoxaflor.
This bee looks kind of angry to me....

Several environmental groups have filed a lawsuit against the EPA, claiming the agency has failed in its obligation to protect one of the Earth's most vital pollinators from dangerous pesticides.

The Organic Consumers Association urges people to: Take Action Today:
Tell Congress to Ban Neonicotinoid Pesticides before They Devastate the U. S. Bee Population

RSVP: Swarm the EPA on Earth Day

Here is more reporting from the Times:
Last year, researchers identified a virus as a major cause of the die-off; the latest suspect is a class of pesticides called neonicotinoids, which are used to protect common agricultural seeds, including corn. The insecticides are systemic, which means they persist throughout the life of the plant. Scientists have demonstrated that exposure to these chemicals damages bees’ brain function, including their ability to home in on the hive.
The data here is a little old, but it just shows how long 
this problem has been growing or, rather, shrinking.
The manufacturers of these chemicals — notably Syngenta and Bayer CropScience — have claimed again and again that they are safe. And it is true that bees face other stresses. Even so, beekeepers managed to keep their hives relatively healthy before the increased use of neonicotinoids began in 2005.
No doubt those same claims were made about DDT's, until they were proven wrong by people who did not stand to make money by their continued manufacture.

(Today's note of irony: It was the effects of DDT and Rachael Carson's landmark book, "Silent Spring," which kicked off the environmental movement and gave us the Earth Day we will mark on Monday.)
So if it all seems like more than we can handle, what can we do?

Well, we can plant trees.

Our forests can help make a difference.
A 40-acre woodlot of 50-year-old trees takes in 30,000 pounds of carbon dioxide sequestered per acre,” according to Timothy J. Fahey, professor of ecology in the department of natural resources at Cornell University. “The forest would be emitting about 22,000 pounds of oxygen.”

The above and below, again, courtesy of The New York Times:
“Every little bit matters,” he said. “In the grand scheme of things, forests in the northeastern United States are counteracting a considerable amount of fossil fuel burning by cars, slowing down the rate at which the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide is accumulating in the atmosphere.”
The contribution varies with the age of the forest and the species involved. There is no real rule of thumb on the difference between conifers and deciduous trees, Dr. Fahey said. Some conifers grow faster, providing more impact sooner.
The Environmental Protection Agency has calculated the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by the average car as of 2007 at about five metric tons, more than 11,000 pounds, so a single acre of woodlot would be countering the emissions of about 2.7 cars. For 40 acres, that would be about 109 cars.
As U.S. Senator Mark Udall, Democrat of Colorado, said when asked about the drought out west: “Mother Nature is testing us.”

Lately, I'm not so sure we're going to pass it.

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