Monday, July 24, 2017

Coal Collapsing in the UK

Coal was once a big thing in the UK. This is a photo from the 1912
coal miner's strike. Today, just 10 coal burning power plants are
in operation in the UK. Click for photo credit.
An article by Ian Clover in PV Magazine provides some stunning statistics on the use of coal in the UK: so far this year, coal provided only 2% of the national power supply. Contrast this with just 5 years ago when coal provided 40% of the power.

Many of us of a certain age remember the significance of coal in the UK economy. In 1984 and 1985, the country went through tremendous turmoil during a coal miner's strike. Nearly 150,000 coal miners were on strike during that period. At one time, there were over 1000 coal mines in the country, while today there are just 10.

In 2006, the government created a group to try to "secure the long-term future of coal power and mining.." but it is shutting down operations this year.

As I have been saying in this space for many years, coal is the energy of our grandparents.

While many are rightly concerned about what will happen to coal producing areas in the United States during our transition away from coal, we give coal communities false promises when politicians vow to bring back coal. It is like forcing a computer punch card reader on a mac user. The world is moving on to new technologies.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

UK Bans Microbeads

Microbeads. Click for photo credit.
The United Kingdom announced that they are banning microbeads from most products. In case you haven't been paying attention, manufacturers have added microbeads to a variety of personal care items such as toothpaste, shower gels, and skin care products. They provide a light abrasion that cleans skin or teeth. After use, the beads enter water treatment systems where they are not picked up in current treatment practices. As a result, the beads are released to surface water bodies where small animals may ingest them. They have entered the human food chain.

Ecologists have been ringing the warning bell for several years about microbeads. They are playing havoc in marine and freshwater systems. Many U.S. States have banned microbeads and the U.S. government followed suit near the end of the Obama administration. Prior to the band, it was estimated that 8 trillion microbeads were released into surface waters of the U.S. from sewage treatment plants every day. Some of the environmental impacts of microbeads on marine organisms are listed the site Beat the Microbead

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Plastic Everywhere

Click for photo credit.
The first time I ever visited a desert, one of the first things I noticed was the preponderance of plastic bag litter. It was stuck in thorny acacia trees, on cacti, and it was in the soil covered with sand. That was back in the mid 1980's. A couple decades later, I was lucky enough to travel to Transylvania in Romania and found that the floodplains of rivers were dotted with plastic waste: soda bottles, bags, and many other left overs. Here on Long Island, one often encounters plastic waste on the shoreline. Some of it is weathered quite a bit while other pieces look like they were just dropped. In many waterways, micro plastics are a serious concern.

The New York Times published an article by Tatiana Schlossberg yesterday about the impact of plastics across the planet. It is worth a read. It summarizes the results of the first major study of the impact of plastic waste on the planet. As you can imagine, the impacts are huge. We throw away millions of tons of plastics each year and 5-13 million metric tons of plastic enter the ocean annually. Most of the waste we throw away comes from packaging. We are truly in a new age where plastic is our geologic marker like dinosaur bones are in the Jurassic. But I predict that the age of dinosaurs will last longer than the age of plastic.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

New Evidence of Jurassic Climate Change in Canada

Ya Ta Hinda near where the Jurassic rocks were found.
Click for photo credit.
Science Daily is reporting that research conducted on Jurassic rocks that are 183 million years old point to a major planetary climate shift. The scientists studied strata of rocks that show a distinct change in fossil assemblage. Just prior to the shift, the rocks contain abundant fossils of a variety of sea creatures including clams, ammonites, lobsters, fish, and many other extinct creatures. The animals were large indicating that there was abundant oxygen and nutrients in the ocean water.

However, immediately above this bed is a layer of rocks that shows that there was a sudden shift. Fossils are fewer and smaller. There was extinction of some animals. The culprit? The shift was caused by a decline of dissolved oxygen in the water which means that there was some mechanism in play to change the atmospheric chemistry. These events have occurred on occasion throughout the history of our planet. They are called anoxic events. Other anoxic events have also triggered extinctions.

What makes the discovery in Canada so interesting is that up until now, the only other evidence for a Jurassic anoxic event was found in Europe. Thus, the rocks in Canada show that the event was widespread and likely global in scale. Based on the research of anoxic events, it seems that they do not last long (geologically) and span about 1 million years. They likely occur as the earth "resets" from some unusual event.

Scientists have come up with many ideas as to what triggers these anoxic events. They include volcanic events, upwelling of hydrogen sulfide from the oceans, release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere from the oceans, and addition of nutrients via weathering to oceans which causes algal blooms and associated eutrophication.

Regardless of the cause, the research provides a glimpse into ancient climate change and how it impacted ocean life.

Friday, July 14, 2017

What We Can Learn from Today's Big Sinkhole in Florida

A big sinkhole opened up in Land 'O Lakes Florida today. Check out the two videos below of two different homes collapsing into the void. Ten other homes have been declared unsafe and as of this writing it is unclear if they can be reoccupied.

There are two things we can learn from this sinkhole.

First, sinkhole repairs do not always work. According to this news report, repairs were made to stabilize the property a few years ago. It is clear that sometimes the subsurface voids are too big for repairs and sometimes new subsurface voids form after repairs are made.

Second, the rule of uniformitarianism is alive and well. Uniformitarianism in the field of geology is the idea that processes that happened in the past will occur again. Just take a look at the below map of the Land 'O Lakes area where the sinkhole formed. It is full of sinkhole lakes that formed in the past. I don't think it is a surprise to any geologist that a new sinkhole formed in this area. One of the key questions that geologists have not been able to answer is how frequently sinkholes formed in the past. The answer to this question would help us better understand the timing of new sinkhole formation.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

EPA Head Wants to Debate Climate Change While NASA Notes There Is Already Consensus

Click for photo credit.
One of the many cognitive dissonance issues of our current era is that the head of the EPA, who is a well-known climate denier, wants to debate climate change on television, while NASA, in its climate change Website, notes that there is scientific consensus that the planet's climate is changing.

Everyone in the field knows that the science on climate change was put to bed years ago. People who were skeptical in the scientific community have accepted that climate change is a reality. There are a few strange holdouts, particular those who are well funded by energy interests (like the head of the EPA).

The idea that there is a real "debate" over climate change is a red herring. That debate is long over among serious scientists. Most Americans understand that humans are causing a change in climate which underscores that climate change is a settled issue.

The real questions are how we try to modify our behavior to reduce greenhouse gases and how we can adapt to the changes in store for our planet. There is plenty of evidence that climate change is already impacting our planet in unexpected ways. Those who are trying to protect the interests of the few who have much to gain by us doing nothing are trying to distract the many who have the most to lose.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Cascade Siskiyou National Monument

Today I continue my series on all 129 U.S. National Monuments. This is in follow up to my series that featured open access photos of all of the U.S. National Parks. In the coming years, I will highlight open access images all of the U.S. National Monuments in alphabetical order.

Today's featured monument is Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument in Oregon. This is one of the monuments that is under review for delisting as per executive order by the president. In fact, the BLM Website about the monument is not live. Following the photos is a list of U.S. National Monuments previously featured on this blog.

Click for photo credit.
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Admiralty Island National Monument
African Burial Ground National Monument
Agate Fossil Beds National Monument
Agua Fria National Monument
Alibates Flint Quarries National Monument
Aniakchak National Monument
Aztec Ruins National Monument
Bandelier National Monument
Basin and Range National Monument
Bears Ears National Monument
Belmont-Paul Women's Equality National Monument
Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument
Berryessa Snow Mountain National Monument
Booker T. Washington National Monument
Browns Canyon National Monument
Buck Island Reef National Monument
Cabrillo National Monument
California Coastal National Monument
Canyon de Chelly National Monument

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Better Unread than Red: How the Cold War Delayed Interpretation of Mayan Writing

One of the few existing Mayan books. Click for photo credit.
Growing up in the 1960's during the Cold War, I heard the phrase, better dead than red many times. There was tremendous fear of the Soviet Union during the era that led to distrust of anything Russian. The extreme display of the fear was McCarthyism, but the expression of fear permeated many sections of society. From cartoons to maps, the Cold War had a significant influence on American and European culture.

Yet one of the oddest impacts of the Cold War on culture was the suppression of the work of a Russian Mayanist in the 1960's.

The leading Mayanist of the time was a British researcher by the name of J. Eric S. Thompson. He was one of those brilliant scholars who dominates a field. Every area of study has one of these leaders who emerge in different eras. Using their power, they can advance or retard new ideas.

Mayan glyphs on a temple in Honduras.
Click for photo caption.
During the mid 20th century, Thompson and many others thought that the glyphs shown in Mayan script on murals, stone carvings, and the few books that survived the Spanish invasion were symbolic representation of real things. Thus, a jaguar carving represented a jaguar and a person's head represented a head or a real person. As a result, the glyphs at the time were thought of as odd representations of a strange reality.

However, during World War II, a Russian linguist by the name of Yuri Knorozov got a copy of a Mayan book dating to a few centuries before Spanish conquest. There is some mystery surrounding how he got the book, but generally it is believed he got it while stationed in Germany near the end of the war. A few years later, he studied the glyphs in the book and wrote a paper in 1952 making a case that the glyphs were not direct representations, but syllabic sound representations. Eventually, Knorozov's ideas were accepted by the 1970's, but for 20 years, in the height of the Cold War, his ideas were not given serious consideration by western Mayanists.

Knorozov's work opened the door to a deeper understanding of Mayan language and culture. Mayan writing told stories of the mundane to the spiritual. No longer were they odd symbols thought of as simple representations. We found that the Mayan people told stories, did complex math, understood detailed astronomy equal to enlightenment astronomers, and had a complex religion based on a number of gods and their relationship to ancestors.

A stelae in Mexico. Click for photo credit.
One of the reasons that Knorozov's work wasn't taken all that seriously in the midst of the Cold War is that his key 1952 paper had an introduction by the journal's editor full of anti-western propaganda. The introduction also noted that a Soviet scientist was able to translate the language while all westerners failed in the task. Of course, this introduction, not written by Knorozov, was not a great way to introduce Knorozov's ideas to the west. As a result, his work was not given much credence by Thompson and other Mayanists.

Eventually, by the mid 1970's Knorozov's ideas were accepted. Today, we understand the language to be syllabic in nature with some direct representation short cuts. What I mean by this is that the written language is sort of like our modern texting with emojis. We use a heart symbol when texting instead of spelling out the word heart. The Mayan writers did the same thing. There is still much more work to be done to fully understand Mayan writing, but we have come a long way since 1952.

The story of the translation of Mayan text is a cautionary tale about how distrust and propaganda can influence discovery and the intellectual development of a field of study. One wonders how much further we would be if Knorozov's ideas were accepted in the west earlier.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

93.4 Miles Per Gallon and How I Turned My Gas Consumption Into a Carbon Neutral Experience

My milage reader the day I turned in my electric hybrid.
As I reported elsewhere on this blog, I leased an electric hybrid, a Ford Fusion Energi, just over three years ago. Recently I turned it into the dealership and I wanted to report on its overall effectiveness in reducing gas consumption here.

First of all, a bit about the infrastructure of charging the car. I get many questions about this issue from friends who wonder whether or not an electric car is worth the trouble. We have free electric charging stations where I work at Hofstra University and I also charge at home. The charge is enough that I am able to get too and from work without using any gasoline unless I need to accelerate rapidly. I tend to use gas if I make a bunch of shopping side trips, if we take the car into New York City from our home on Long Island, or if we make longer trips to places like upstate New York, Cape Cod, or the East End of Long Island. It takes just a few hours to charge the car. I haven't noticed any change in my electric bill at all.

Over the 38 month lease, I averaged 93.4 miles per gallon and drove 30,380 miles. This means that I used 325 gallons of gas over those 38 months for an average of about 8.5 gallons per month. The Ford Fusion Energi has a gas tank of 14 gallons. As a result, I needed to get gas about every month and a half. 

About 20 pounds of carbon dioxide are produced from a gallon of gas. Over the 38 months, I produced 6,500 pounds of carbon dioxide from burning gasoline. In order to offset this carbon, I purchased 7000 pounds of carbon offsets from Terrapass (not an endorsement, but it is a very user friendly site) for $35. Terrapass sells carbon offsets for $5 for 1000 pounds of carbon dioxide. You can poke around their Website to find out how they offset carbon, but basically, they are pooling funds like mine to invest in green energy and carbon offset projects. One project turns methane from manure at a dairy farm in Wisconsin into green energy. If you don't have an electric car, you can still offset your carbon emissions pretty easily by purchasing carbon credits.

I liked the electric hybrid so much, I decided to lease another Ford Fusion Energi. It fits my driving habits on Long Island quite nicely. In fact, I believe that due to the unique nature of Long Island's geography, it is the perfect place to use an electric car.