Saturday, September 30, 2017

The Logic of Renewable Energy in the Caribbean

The Caribbean sun isn't just good for sunbathing.  Click for photo credit.
The Washington Post published an interesting article this week by Chris Mooney about the push for the development of renewable energy in the Caribbean--especially given the challenges that we have seen after Hurricanes hit extremely vulnerable islands. Local solar and wind projects can weather some strong storms while traditional electrical systems built around fragile grids can be out for months.

I remember after Sandy hit the New York area, many areas were without power for weeks. Solar generators were extremely useful to help people get access to energy.  They provided opportunities to charge cell phones and other portable devices. Now that solar technology has improved, it is relatively easy to develop home-based solar generators as well as some large-scale generators for vulnerable institutions such as hospitals, water plants, and nursing homes.

This is not the first time that the Caribbean had to rebuild after a disaster. This time, I hope that communities rebuilt with sustainability and local resilience front and center in their plans.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Turning Sewage Into Money

Click for photo credit.
Nature has a great article about the growing trend in developing nations to turn sewage treatment into a profit generating enterprise. Check it out here. The piece highlights how private companies are building infrastructure to collect human waste in order to resell it for fuel and fertilizer. Local governments do not have the funds to build expensive sewage treatment plants like those in the United States and the private enterprises provide one of the few options for environmental protection.

Prior to our technological age, human waste was often treated as a resource and thus taken out of the waste stream. Ancient Romans sold their urine to tanners and clothes washers (who transformed the urine into a more antiseptic ammonia). Solid waste was regularly used as a fertilizer in most cultures. Clearly the move to turn waste into a resource is nothing new.

What is different is what we have done with sewage in our technological age. We have treated sewage as something that is unclean that needs to be processed and released in nature to be transformed into something else. We don't treat it as a resource, we treat it as a waste for processing. We put scientists in charge at treatment plants to manage it and release personal responsibility to local governments for the handling of it. While some advanced sewage treatment plants try to turn waste into a resource, most do not. 

The examples highlighted in the Nature article show us that we can find new ways, or return to old ways, of turning waste into a resource.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Look for Sinkholes to Form After Hurricane Irma

Click for photo credit.
When heavy rains occur in Florida, it is not unusual for sinkholes to form. Given that Hurricane Irma is expected to bring several inches of rain over west central Florida in a relatively short time period, there will be significant added weight on top of the ground that could cause sinkhole formation. In addition, the rapid movement of water into the subsurface can induce sinkholes to form.

I know that this is not the news that is needed as Irma heads toward the sinkhole prone region of the state but it is worth keeping vigilant as the storm passes.

It is worth noting that there is a tremendous amount of funding available to study hazards like hurricanes, earthquakes, and tsunamis. However, there is scant funding available to study sinkholes even though they cause millions of dollars of damage every year.

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Sinkholes of Doom--A Lecture Wednesday October 4th at Hofstra University

Click for photo credit. The image is of a sinkhole in Guatemala.
I will be giving a lecture called Sinkholes of Doom at Hofstra University on Wednesday, October 4th in the Monroe Lecture Hall on the campus of Hofstra University on Long Island. If you are in the area, I hope you can come. The lecture is part of the Science Night Live Lecture Series.

The lecture will focus on why so many sinkholes have formed all over the world as of late. It will review the geologic setting of sinkholes, why sinkholes form, and the dangers of sinkhole collapse. It will also review some fascinating sinkholes from around the world that impacted Mayan, Roman, and Spanish culture as well as those that pose risk in our modern era. The talk will also include a review of what we can do to avoid falling into the voids under us.

I promise that the Monroe Lecture Hall is not at risk of collapse and that the lecture will be sinkhole-free, except for the lecture part. For more information see here.