Monday, June 11, 2012

Heading toward a tipping point

The featured story in yesterday's Overnight News Digest: Science Saturday (Global Tipping Point edition) on Daily Kos came from the University of California, Berkeley. It was such an important news item that I'm giving it a post of its own.

Scientists uncover evidence of impending tipping point for Earth
By Robert Sanders, Media Relations
June 6, 2012
A prestigious group of scientists from around the world is warning that population growth, widespread destruction of natural ecosystems, and climate change may be driving Earth toward an irreversible change in the biosphere, a planet-wide tipping point that would have destructive consequences absent adequate preparation and mitigation.

“It really will be a new world, biologically, at that point,” warns Anthony Barnosky, professor of integrative biology at the University of California, Berkeley, and lead author of a review paper appearing in the June 7 issue of the journal Nature. “The data suggests that there will be a reduction in biodiversity and severe impacts on much of what we depend on to sustain our quality of life, including, for example, fisheries, agriculture, forest products and clean water. This could happen within just a few generations.”

The Nature paper, in which the scientists compare the biological impact of past incidences of global change with processes under way today and assess evidence for what the future holds, appears in an issue devoted to the environment in advance of the June 20-22 United Nations Rio+20 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

The result of such a major shift in the biosphere would be mixed, Barnosky noted, with some plant and animal species disappearing, new mixes of remaining species, and major disruptions in terms of which agricultural crops can grow where.
I've been documenting the extreme weather Detroit and the nation have been having for the past year, most recently in Warmest spring in Detroit history on and excerpted in article on warmest spring in Detroit history here on this blog. I'll add another detail. After the mild winter and record warm spring, I was wondering if the fireflies would come out early. They did. On Saturday, I saw a firefly. This is the earliest I've ever seen one here in Michigan. When I first moved here 23 years ago, I didn't see them until about June 21st. I don't ever recall seeing them before Father's Day. This is on top of seeing the first June bug at the end of April, when one flew in the window, and the first maples leafing out in the middle of April. I don't usually see June bugs until the end of May and the maples don't leaf out until the last week of April. Everything is running early, including July weather on Memorial Day. I know weather isn't climate, but what has been happening the past year looks just like what I'd expect from a warming world.

That's just the climate. I haven't even touched other forms of pollution and resource depletion. Look for articles about those, along with a bonus video, over the jump.

University of California, Berkeley on YouTube: Berkeley Initiative in Global Change Biology

The Berkeley Initiative in Global Change Biology (BiGCB) is a group of approximately 70 scientists who are working to improve models that predict how plants and animals will respond to climate change and habitat destruction. Anthony Barnosky, professor of integrative biology at the University of California, Berkeley discusses the goal of the BiGCB.
And now, two articles on resource depletion and pollution, plus some news about a possible solution to excess carbon dioxide emissions, that I included in Overnight News Digest: Science Saturday (Venus Transit, Partial Eclipse, and Total Recall edition) on Daily Kos.

University of Texas at Austin: Groundwater Depletion in Semiarid Regions of Texas and California Threatens U.S. Food Security
May 29, 2012
AUSTIN, Texas — The nation's food supply may be vulnerable to rapid groundwater depletion from irrigated agriculture, according to a new study by researchers at The University of Texas at Austin and elsewhere.

The study, which appears in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, paints the highest resolution picture yet of how groundwater depletion varies across space and time in California's Central Valley and the High Plains of the central U.S. Researchers hope this information will enable more sustainable use of water in these areas, although they think irrigated agriculture may be unsustainable in some parts.

"We're already seeing changes in both areas," said Bridget Scanlon, senior research scientist at The University of Texas at Austin's Bureau of Economic Geology and lead author of the study. "We're seeing decreases in rural populations in the High Plains. Increasing urbanization is replacing farms in the Central Valley. And during droughts some farmers are forced to fallow their land. These trends will only accelerate as water scarcity issues become more severe."
I include both of the regions discussed above as examples of water depletion in my lectures about water use. Looks like I will be giving my students an update.

Now, contamination of the food supply.

University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston: Researchers find flame retardant in food samples, according to UTHealth study
HOUSTON - (June 1, 2012) - Researchers at The University of Texas School of Public Health Dallas Regional Campus discovered the presence of a widely-used flame retardant, hexabromocyclododecane (HBCD), in food purchased in the United States.

"We believe food may be an important contributor to the levels of HBCD seen in recent human exposure studies," said Arnold Schecter, M.D., M.P.H., professor of environmental health at The University of Texas School of Public Health, part of The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth).

The study is published in the online edition of the Environmental Health Perspectives, a journal of the National Institutes of Health. Schecter believes this is the first study to compile detailed analysis of HBCD found in U.S. food.

HBCD is a brominated flame retardant used in home insulation materials and electrical equipment. According to Schecter, health concerns of HBCD exposure include potential alterations in immune and reproductive systems, neurotoxic effects in children and endocrine disruption.
Finally, some good news.

University of California: Computer model fuels efficient carbon capture
May 29, 2012
BERKELEY — When power plants begin capturing their carbon emissions to reduce greenhouse gases — and to most in the electric power industry, it's a question of when, not if — it will be an expensive undertaking.

Current technologies would use about one-third of the energy generated by the plants — what's called "parasitic energy" — and, as a result, substantially drive up the price of electricity.

But a new computer model developed by University of California, Berkeley, chemists shows that less expensive technologies are on the horizon. They will use new solid materials like zeolites and metal oxide frameworks (MOFs) that more efficiently capture carbon dioxide so that it can be sequestered underground.
Good luck to the people researching this technology. They'll need it.

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