Category Archives: Global Warming

Algae, the Fuel of the Future

Earth2tech

Earth2tech

Biofuels that come from corn, palm, sugar cane or soy are responsible for deforestation and an increase in food prices.

This is not the case of a  biofuel that was first considered in the seventies, and is now getting much deserved attention: algae.

Algae transform carbon dioxide and sunlight into energy so efficiently that they can double their weight several times a day, and can generate 30 times more oil per hectare than other plant based biofuels. Algae can grow in salt water, freshwater or even contaminated water, at sea or in ponds, and on land not suitable for food production.

Its production doesn’t require massive amounts of land like other plant based fuels.

On top of those advantages, algae grows better when fed extra carbon dioxide (the main greenhouse gas),  and on contaminated water bodies. By collecting algae we could produce biofuel while cleaning up other problems at the same time.

Various algae contain different levels of oil, and they can also be genetically modified to produce more oil. Most scientists argue that the algae found in pond scum is best suited for biodiesel.

Also, pressing algae creates a few more useful byproducts such as fertilizer and feedstock without depleting other food sources.

Once the oil’s extracted, it’s refined, mixed with an alcohol (such as methanol), and a few more steps will bring algae biodiesel fuel.

Polluted lake-Algal bloom

Polluted lake-Algal bloom

But the most exciting part of algae biodiesel is the great productivity at low cost (economic and environmental). Biodiesel makers claim they’ll be able to produce more than 800 gallons of algae oil per ha per year.

Algae production has the potential to outperform other potential biodiesel products such as palm or corn. For example, a 50 ha algae biodiesel plant could potentially produce 10 million gallons of biodiesel in a single year. Experts estimate it will take 140 billion gallons of algae biodiesel to replace petroleum-based products each year. To reach this goal, algae biodiesel companies will only need about 40 million ha of land to build biodiesel plants, compared to billions of hectares for other biodiesel products. Since algae can be grown anywhere indoors, it’s a promising element in the race to produce a new fuel.

For now algae based biofuel is still in the R&D stage, but we’ll hopefully  run our cars on this uber green fuel in our lifetime.

Some interesting Algae Biodiesel Start-ups:

GreenFuel

Aurora

BFS

Saphire

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Sea Level Rise will be worse than anticipated

Sea level rise is one of the most feared consequences of global warming.

Polar ice caps and mountain glaciers are melting at such an alarming rate, that scientists don’t seem to agree how many meters the sea level will rise and how fast it will happen.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change worst case scenario predictions were of less than 1 m of sea level rise by the end of the century, but apparently they were way too optimistic. Recent studies suggest that the IPCC global sea level rise predictions were seriously underestimated.

The two major ice sheets that will most likely cause sea level rise (when melted) are Greenland and the West Antarctic Ice Sheet. But the amount of ice that will melt and the time it will take it’s still unknown.

Greenland is the world’s largest island, with an area of over 2 million square kilometers. Most of the island is covered by an ice cap that can reach thicknesses of 3 kilometers

Data from a NASA satellite shows that the melting rate has dramatically accelerated since 2000.

If the ice cap were to completely disappear, global sea levels would rise by 6.5m.

Estimated monthly changes in the mass of Greenland’s ice sheet suggest it is melting at a rate of about 239 cubic kilometres per year. Most scientists agree that the melting won’t be gradual, there will be a tipping point when the melting will abruptly accelerate. When will this happen is still unknown.

greenland_melting

National Snow and Ice Data Centre

 

We have known about Greenland’s dangerous warming for a while, but we recently learned that Antarctica is no longer immune to global warming.

A very recent study (Mann, et. al) published in Nature magazine, shows the increased and abrupt warming of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet. Mann explains that “a larger part of West Antarctica is melting than previously thought”.

In stark contrast, a large part of the continent — the East Antarctic Ice Sheet — was found to be getting colder. The cooling was linked to another anthropogenic (human-caused) effect: ozone depletion.

The West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) is 1,800 meters above sea level and holds approximately 2.2 million cubic kilometers of ice, about the same amount of ice contained in the Greenland Ice Sheet.

 

NASA

NASA

Jerry Mitrovica, co-author of a new and groundbreaking study (published in Science) explains that “The West Antarctic is fringed by ice shelves, which act to stabilize the ice sheet — these shelves are sensitive to global warming, and if they break up, the ice sheet will have a lot less impediment to collapse”.

Whether or when this ice sheet might collapse and melt is still very uncertain, but even a partial melt would have a bigger impact on some coastal areas than others.

Sea level rise will not happen uniformly around the globe. When physical and gravitational factors are applied to projections of sea level rise, the impact on coastal areas is dramatically worse in some parts of the world than predicted so far.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimates that a full collapse of the WAIS would raise sea levels by 5 meters globally.
Mitrovica explains that this is an oversimplification, and that sea level rise will be higher than expected, and greater in some places than in others (such as North America).

This study shows three important factors that the IPCC overlooked:

  • Gravity: Huge ice sheets exert a gravitational pull on the nearby ocean, drawing water toward it. If an ice sheet melted, that pull would be gone, and water would move away. In the case of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, the water would move away from the south towards northern latitudes.

  • Rebound: The WAIS is called a marine-based ice sheet because the weight of all that ice has depressed the bedrock underneath to the point that most of it sits below sea level. If all, or even some, of that ice melts, the bedrock will rebound, pushing some of the water on top of it out into the ocean, further contributing to sea level rise.

  • Earth’s rotation: A collapse of the WAIS would also shift the South Pole location of the earth’s rotation axis from its present location. This would shift water from the southern Atlantic and Pacific oceans northward toward North America and the southern Indian Ocean.

Mitrovica explains that “The net effect of all of these processes is that if the West Antarctic Ice Sheet collapses, the rise in sea levels around many coastal regions will be as much as 25 % more than expected, for a total of between 6 and 7 meters if the whole ice sheet melts,”. That’s a lot of additional water, particularly around such highly populated areas as Washington, D.C., New York City, and the California coastline.

“We aren’t suggesting that a collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet is imminent,” said study co-author Peter Clark of Oregon State University. “But these findings do suggest that if you are planning for sea level rise, you had better plan a little higher.”

 

Click here for a great interview with the researchers of this amazing study.

If you want to see different scenarios of sea level rise in your area go to Google Flood Maps, select 5-7 m and zoom in your home town to see if in the next 100 years your home will be under water!

 

 

Global Warming: Faster than Predicted

Our current CO2 emissions are already above the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change  (IPCC) projections. (IPCC report)

We are headed towards a future which is even more dangerous than the report’s most pessimistic scenarios.

This figure shows the past and current global warming,  showing clear evidence of the man caused temperature increase.

Different surface warming scenarios are also shown, red representing the worst case scenario:

IPCC

IPCC

The following figure from a recent study shows that we are currently above the worst case scenario projections (A1FI-red line).

A1FI (high) projections were of +2.7% increase of Co2 emissions per year, but the actual growth is at +3.5% per year (from 2000-2007).

coemissions

Raupach et al., PNAS, 2007

This means that our temperature will increase more than 5 °C   by the end of the century. How many degrees and how fast our temperatures will rise is still uncertain, but we will see the impacts of global warming in our lifetime, that’s almost guaranteed.

Following is a summary of some of the consequences of climate change:

impactsclimatechange

Stern review on the economics of climate change, 2006

The Amazon at “Steak”

25beef-span-6001

The cattle industry is responsible for 80% of the deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon according to a recent report by Greenpeace : “Amazon Cattle Footprint”.

Brazil has rapidly become the world’s largest beef exporter:


USDA

USDA

Over the last ten years more that 10 million hectares of forest (an area about the size of Iceland) has been cleared for cattle ranching. And the figures are rapidly increasing; the Brazilian government wants to double the beef production by 60% , and most of this expansion will take place in the Amazon, where land is cheap and available.

Greenpeace

Greenpeace

Industrial agriculture is also a large contributor to the Amazon deforestation, soy plantations are on the rise, mainly for bio-diesel and cattle feed production. Both cattle farmers and agribusiness are very powerful in Brazil, many of the country’s most influential politicians are linked to the industry.

A lot of money is being made at the expense of the Amazon, but the value of this ecosystem is far greater than what we are destroying it for.  It’s terrifying to know that we’ll probably find out it’s real value when it’s too late.

The Amazon rain forest is one of the most biodiverse places on earth, being the home of at least 40,000 different plant, 430 mammal, 1399 bird, 500 amphibians and 3,000 fish species, and many others that we haven’t discovered yet (and could be potential cures for human diseases).

Deforestation causes over 20% of global carbon emission, more than the world’s entire transport sector. The Amazon is estimated to store over 120 billion tonnes of carbon, which would be equal to over 50 years of current US carbon emissions if destroyed.

Cattle ranching in the Amazon also has social impacts on the region, including the highest rates of slave labor in Brazil. In 2008, 3005 rural workers who were kept in slavery were freed from cattle ranches in the Amazon.

The Amazon is also home to over 300,000 indigenous people who depend on the forest for their food, shelter, tools and medicines.


deforestation1

Greenpeace believes that Brazil can reach zero deforestation by 2015 through stronger enforcement of its existing environmental laws such as asking landowners to keep 80 % of their land forested,  promote sustainable development programs, increasing funding for monitoring and law enforcement, etc.

We as consumers can also do our part by reducing our carbon footprint. Some ways of doing so include reducing the quantity of meat that we consume, and checking its origin and how it was produced.

The greenhouse gas emissions from beef are 13 kilograms of CO2  per kg. This means that eating a kilogram of beef represents roughly the same greenhouse emissions as flying 100 kilometers of a flight, per passenger.

To know more about your carbon footprint go to this site.

How Biofuels are killing the last Orangutans

2810orangutan_narrowweb__300x4280The Orangutan is one of our closest and most enigmatic relatives, sharing 97% of our DNA.

Their name is derived from the Malaysian words orang hutan, which means the person of the forest.

According to recent research, orangutans are the world’s most intelligent animal other than humans, with higher learning and problem solving ability than chimpanzees, which were previously considered to have greater abilities.

They have been documented to use tools like chimpanzees, but also have been found capable of other tasks beyond chimpanzees’ abilities such as using leaves to make rain hats and leak proof roofs over their sleeping nests.

But there are still many questions about their intelligence and social behaviour that will probably remain unanswered.

It is now clear that if their habitat continues to be destroyed at the current rate, they will be extinct in 5 to 8 years.

There are only an estimated 50,000 orangutans left in the wild, 90 % of them are in Indonesia and the rest in Malaysia. Most live in small, scattered populations that cannot take the destruction on the forests much longer. Trees are being cut at a rate of 300 football fields every day. The majority of the cleared forest  is being converted into huge oil palm plantations.


forest_fires_borneo_sumatra

Forest fires from the air

Forest fire-Palm oil plantation

Forest fire-Palm oil plantation

Palm oil is currently considered the most productive source of biodiesel fuel, and Indonesia and Malaysia account for 83 % of its global production.

A United Nations report has found that “illegal logging and fires have been overtaken as the primary cause of deforestation by a huge expansion of oil palm plantations, which are racing to meet the increasing demand from western food manufacturers and the European Union’s increased demand for biofuels.”

But several new studies show that the biodiesel boom is doing exactly the opposite of what its supporters intended: it’s dramatically accelerating global warming instead of saving us from it.

The basic problem with most biofuels is very simple: using land to grow fuel leads to the destruction of forests that store enormous amounts of carbon. Indonesia has burned so much forest to grow palm oil trees for biodiesel that its ranking among the world’s top carbon emitters.

The studies which favored biofuels did not take into consideration whether the crops would ultimately replace vegetation and soils that sucked up even more carbon. It was as if they assumed biofuels would be grown in parking lots.

One groundbreaking new study in Science concluded that when this deforestation effect is taken into account, corn ethanol and soy and palm biodiesel produce about twice the emissions of gasoline.

Palm plantation

Oil palm plantation

But while the western world drives their cars fueled by biodiesel from palm oil, more than 5.000 orangutans die every year.

Dr. Birute Mary Galdikas and baby Orangutan

Dr. Birute Mary Galdikas and baby Orangutan

Dr. Galdikas, a pioneer in Orangutan conservation (the Jane Goodall of Orangutans but not as famous) runs a rehabilitation center with more than 300 animals orphaned when their mothers were killed by palm oil plantation workers.

In a recent article she explains that “Many come in very badly wounded, suffering from malnutrition, psychological and emotional and even physical trauma”. After years of being cared for in the center, they introduce them back to the wild, but she explains that “it is getting harder and harder to find good, safe forest in which to free them”.

Friends of the Earth state in their report “Oil for Ape” that “Destructive oil-palm plantations will continue to spread, and the forests of Borneo and Sumatra will continue to be destroyed, unless the governments of Indonesia and Malaysia recognize the customary land rights of indigenous peoples and local communities”.

The Indonesian government took the indigenous land and is now selling it to the Palm Oil corporations. They are both making more money than they could ever imagine.

Don’t be fooled by this fuel; biofuels are not clean energy. Not only do they contribute to carbon emissions by replacing forests, but also kill thousands of animals by destroying their habitat, and the Orangutans have very little time left.


babyorang

Check out these videos and organizations to learn more about them and about what you can do:

UN : “The last stand of the Orangutan” (PDF)

Will Spain get colder than Maine?

Have you ever noticed that Europe is at the same latitude than northern United States and Canada?

But then… why is the climate in Spain much warmer than in Maine?

Ahaaa! that’s because of the Gulf Stream!

The Gulf Steam is a powerful current of warm water that originates in the Gulf of Mexico and carries warm water to Europe through the eastern United States.

The circulation is driven by differences in seawater density, caused by temperature and salinity.

gulf-stream

But due to Global Warming ice sheets in Greenland as well as sea ice and glaciers are rapidly melting. The ice melting is injecting massive amounts of fresh water into the system which dilutes the salinity of the sea water, ultimately disturbing the circulation pattern.

gulfstream

Scientists fear the shutting down of the gulf stream could lead to devastating changes in Europe’s climate :

“If it switched off [the gulf stream], Europe could be plunged into a mini-Ice Age”.

And we are already noticing changes in the climate, not only in Europe, but worldwide.

This winter (08-09) it has snowed in many areas of Spain, and other parts of Europe where it rarely snows, and the temperatures have been record low.

Does this mean that the Gulf Stream is already shutting down?

And how much fresh water is needed to stop the circulation pattern?

Scientists are still trying to find answers for these and more questions, but we still don’t know if the rapid melting of the northern ice caps will irreversibly shut down the gulf stream, and if so, we can only imagine the catastrophic consequences.

But something that most scientists agree on is that we have little time left to act.

This is a great BBC documentary that explains this process in further detail “The Big Chill”, which I highly recommend (this is video 1/5, you’ll find the rest in youtube)

Sources:

http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2004/12/041219153611.htm

http://www.firstscience.com/home/articles/earth/ocean-forces-threaten-our-climate-page-1-1_1253.html

Lessons from the Golden Toad

golden toads

We will no longer be able to see the beautiful and unique golden toad (Bufo periglenes).

It was once abundant in the Monteverde cloud forest, a Costa Rica region where it was endemic (it only existed there), but no one has seen one since 1989, being therefore listed as an extinct species.

Scientists believe that the golden toad was driven to extinction by global warming.

Monteverde is a cloud forest, and the whole ecosystem depends on frequent formation of clouds and mist. The mist frequency has declined dramatically because of the warming of the oceans and the atmosphere.

The rise in temperatures and higher mist formation in the forest have also triggered disease outbreaks (such as the chytrid fungi) that infects the moist skins of frogs, toads and salamanders.


goldentoads-costarica

The golden toad is just one species among thousands that go extinct every year.

Biodiversity is being irreversibly destroyed by human activities at an unprecedented rate. Scientists estimate there are 10 to 30 million plant and animal species on the planet, most of them unidentified. Each year at least 50,000 species disappear.

Many scientists have argued that the current rate of extinction is approaching to when a gigantic meteorite struck the earth 65 million years ago, causing a dramatic climate change that led to mass extinction.

Frogs, toads and in gerenal all amphibians are extremely sensitive indicators of environmental changes, as the uptake of oxygen and water through their skin can increase concentrations of pollutants.

They are so sensitive to changes in the environment that scientists have compared them to a canary in a coal mine.

In coal mines a poisonous coal gas is released from the earth during mining operations, which is a risk to the workers.

Coal miners used canaries to warn the miners of imminent danger since canaries are more sensitive to toxic fumes and will die of exposure before a human. If the canary that they carried in the cage died, it meant that it was time to get out!

And this is exactly what many species like the golden toad are trying to tell us, it’s time to stop!!

Time to stop polluting our environment and change our unsustainable life style.

Not only the survival of millions of animal and plant species are at stake, but also life for humans on earth.

Let’s listen to the golden toad and change before its too late.


golden_toad1