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February 2011 Archives

Lava planets, dead zones, spider legs and more!

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outerspace.jpgA massive winter snowstorm, three canceled flights and 232 emails later, I finally have a few minutes to write about the recent AAAS meeting in D.C.

If you're a science geek (or in my case, a Star Wars nerd), then AAAS is a must-go event. In between the press briefings, poster sessions and endless reception appetizers, I managed to attend a few of the presentations. Here are some of the highlights:

1) By 2050 nearly all of the large, predatory fish will be gone from the ocean.

I wrote about this in a previous blog entry, but it's worth repeating since the sheer possibility of this happening is astounding.

2) Scientists don't think the media is doing a good job covering climate change. The media doesn't think scientists are doing a good job communicating about climate change.

Somewhat surprising for an academic conference, this session actually got a bit testy. Andy Revkin did a nice job recently summarizing the discussion on his Dot Earth blog. The takeaway for me: the media is doing a pretty good job lately, but most scientists need to continue to hone their communications skills.

3) Kepler 10b is an Earth-like planet with lava oceans.

Who says science isn't cool?! After hearing about all the doom and gloom here on Earth, I needed a break, so I dropped in on a session focused on frontiers in astronomy.

Kepler 10b is a distant planet in a galaxy far, far away with a surface temperature of 3500 degrees Fahrenheit. By comparison, molten lava is 1800 degrees F.

Sounds like something straight out of an episode of Star Trek!

4) Is nitrogen the next carbon?

This session focused on the good (food production), the bad (smog) and ugly (dead zones) of nitrogen. It's a complex topic, though, because nitrogen has in part fueled green revolutions around the world. I was surprised to learn that the average use in the U.S. is 100kg per hectare, whereas in Africa the number is closer to eight.

The takeaway: we need to use nitrogen to feed the planet, but we also need to do so more wisely.

5) We could learn a thing or two from nature.

During a session focused on biologically-inspired design, I learned that studying eagles could help us design energy-efficient airplanes with retractable wings and better understanding the extremely sensitive hair cells on spiders could lead to breakthroughs in sensor technology.

6) Where did all the oil go?

NOAA's Jane Lubchenco reported that nearly all of the oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill has dispersed, but we still don't know the long-term impacts to marine ecosystems. I was also surprised to learn that the total spill - approximately 5 million barrels - was equivalent to 18 times the Exxon Valdez. Perhaps most shocking, though, is how quickly the story has faded from the public discourse on energy.

The AP's Seth Borenstein recently reported on the spill's impact to the Gulf seafloor.

7) The world's population is approaching 7 billion, and then 9 billion by 2050... or maybe 9.5 billion... or is it 11 billion?

No one really knows, but the comment that stood out for me during this session actually came from IonE's Jon Foley.

"Maybe we're asking the wrong question. Instead of asking 'what's the Earth's carrying capacity,' perhaps we should be asking why we already can't feed a billion people today without serious consequences for the environment?"

As the Word Wildlife Federation's Jason Clay concluded, "If we don't get the food question right, population numbers won't matter. We can turn off the lights and go home."

Sounds like it's time to continue the search for solutions!

Tales Tree Rings Tell

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What can tree rings tell us?

Pretty much any schoolkid knows you can learn a tree's age by counting its rings. But that's just the start of the tale. Within the concentric circles that carve out the years of their lives, trees hold records of droughts, floods, fires and more. By piecing those records together, the science of dendrochronology can help us understand the past and imagine the future.

"Every tree has its own story to tell," Scott St. George, told the audience at IonE's Frontiers on the Environment lecture this week. "We can tease out that story from the record of the rings."

An assistant professor in the U of M's Department of Geography and Center for Dendrochronology, St. George is an expert in learning about the past through the eyes of an oak, white pine or cedar.

Among other things, he said, trees provide a window on infrequent events of an otherwise unrecorded past, such as floods along the Red River of the North and fires the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

"If we understand how these systems work, we're going to be in a better position to make decisions in the future," St. George said.

Learn more about what trees rings have to tell us - and how a native of the Canadian high prairie got into the business of dendrochronology in the first place - by watching St. George's archived presentation here.

Science Overload! (and the future of fish in the ocean)

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shark.jpgBiodiversity. Personalized medicine. Climate change. Global health care. Robotics. Neuroscience. The crowd and the cloud.

Phew, and that was just a sampling of the first two hours of today's AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science) conference in D.C.

For me there was one panel that stood out among the rest those. This particular panel asked a rather startling question:

"Will there be fish in the ocean in 2050?"

Want to know the answer? You might want to put down your tuna sandwich first.

The good news: Yes, there will be more fish. The bad news: Nearly all the large predator fish will be gone.

Let me repeat that. By 2050 experts predict that the oceans will be nearly void of large predator fish like sharks, Bluefin tuna, marlins, etc. As Dr. Villy Christensen from the University of British Columbia said, "Imagine the Serengeti without lions. All that's left are the antelope."

In the past century we've lost nearly 67 percent of ocean's large predator fish. And the rate of decline shows no signs of slowing down.

You've probably heard the causes before, but the list includes overfishing, modernization of fishing fleets, increased pollution, decreased coastal management and climate change.

According to Dr. Reg Watson from the University of Tasmania, near 7 trillion fish were killed in 2006. No, that's not a typo. Seven TRILLION!

But here's the kicker, nearly 75 percent of that catch was converted to animal feed. Often times to feed other fish that we consumers consider more palatable.

Watson went on to say that we might have hit "peak fish" - a point where we're fishing harder and harder for the same or lower catch levels.

Once again, I'm reminded that so many of environmental problems come back to the food we put on our plates. It's one of the most important decisions we make each day.

Now I'm not saying we should all be vegetarians, but as Professor Christensen concluded, "We need to start eating the fish we catch and not using so much of it to feed other fish."

Oil: Can't America Just Get Over It?

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oil.jpgYou would have thought the Gulf oil spill would have shaken us out of our complacency about oil, Fresh Energy executive director Michael Noble told the audience at Frontiers on the Environment Wednesday afternoon. But no. Nearly a year later, oil remains king of the road in this country.
So what? Why should America get over oil?
Energy security, for one thing. Noble noted that the proportion of oil we use that's imported has grown steadily over the years - to the point where we now import more than we produce. And of the countries with the top 10 oil reserves in the world, only one is a stable democracy friendly to the U.S.
Supply, for another. "There really is a finite amount of oil in the world," Noble said. "And at some point - like now - the production of oil will begin to decline."
Holding up a just-off-the-press National Resources Defense Council report on the topic, Noble raise serious concerns about tapping the tar sands in Canada to slake our thirst for oil, citing questions the safety of transporting the diluted bitumen drawn from them in existing pipelines.
"If deep-sea drilling and digging up northern Alberta is the very best oil that technology and human beings can provide, it's the very best we can do, doesn't that lend the obvious, that it's time to get off of oil?" he asked.
What might America do to get over our dependence on oil? Top on Noble's list:
* Electrify transportation
* Increase efficiency of oil-based transportation
* Design communities to be less dependent on oil
* Create better policies for bicycling.
Want to learn more? Watch Noble's archived talk here.

Red, White and Green?

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capitol.jpgBY TIM SMITH
Read the full version of this condensed article here.

Standing in a "river of consumption" - that's how General Services Administration administrator Martha Johnson recently introduced a roundtable discussion aimed at helping GSA meet its recently announced "zero environmental footprint" goal.

As the U.S. government's landlord and procurement agency, GSA provides advice on purchasing $425 billion worth of goods and services annually. The GSA also manages more than 10,000 buildings and 217,000 vehicles and takes back over 10,000 out-of-date computers every. This is a lot of stuff; where it starts, how it is used, and where it goes after use are at the heart of "greening" the operations of the largest purchaser in the world.

A major focal point for GSA is figuring out where to start. Setting priorities for impact reduction is both simple and difficult. It is simple in that areas of consumption that require a lot of energy or that touch production agricultural systems have the largest environmental footprints. It is difficult in that we really don't know what to do once high-impact goods and services are identified.

Will a certified product help reduce impacts? What role does conservation or efficiency play in sourcing decisions? For example, shifting from virgin paper of an unknown source to paper from well-managed forests or to recycled content will help, but maybe not as much as a fundamental shift to paperless offices or e-readers.

We desperately need new tools for translating the way markets think about green products into metrics of how products actually impact environmental and human health. Some of this work is being developed within the NorthStar Initiative at the University of Minnesota. A recent NorthStar discussion paper on the topic, What Is the Greener Choice, takes a first step in outlining alternatives to one-size-fits-all approaches to product comparisons.

While we don't have the answers readily available, what's exciting is that GSA is asking the hard questions--and it isn't the only one! Multi-stakeholder initiatives focused on improving data and communications of "green products" are exploding--from the Walmart-initiated Sustainability Consortium to the Keystone Center's Green Products Roundtable and initiatives emerging out of the Packard Foundation and Brookings Institution.

The GSA roundtable didn't charter new ground during these early discussions. But it does bring the power of the federal government to the many conversations underway in civil society and the business community. The U.S. government's voice and pocketbook will help bring additional legitimacy, and I hope clarity, to the Wild West of green products.

Tim Smith is a resident fellow of the University of Minnesota Institute on the Environment and director of the IonE's NorthStar Initiative for Sustainable Enterprise.

Back from Burkina Faso

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PHOTO BY Justin Evidon, LT Media Lab

How can we learn about the role of education in sustainability - and the role of sustainability in education - on a global scale? Answer: Earthducation. With support from the Institute on the Environment, the adventure learning program is sending a team of explorers to seven continents to answer the questions, "What is education?" and "How can education advance sustainability?"

The team's first expedition took it to Burkina Faso, Africa, this past January. While there, team members - traveling by foot, SUV and motorcycle - interviewed different people to get their response to the questions, "What does the word education mean to you?"; "What does the word sustainability mean to you?"; and "How do you believe education can impact sustainability?" The responses from the African people, along with those from six other "climate hot spots" around the world, will be synthesized into a global look at the links between education and the environment.

Expeditions 2-7 are planned for Europe (June 2011), Australia (January 2012), South America (June 2012), Asia (January 2013), North America (June 2013) and Antarctica (January 2014).

View photos and stories from the Burkina Faso adventure and learn about future expeditions here.

War of Words

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Why is the global climate change message so garbled? And what can we do about it? Former WCCO-TV anchor Don Shelby offered his insights on the issue to a standing-room-only crowd at Wednesday's Frontiers lecture at the University of Minnesota's Institute on the Environment.

Among the challenges Shelby sees:
* Audiences don't always understand. The general public has insufficient scientific knowledge and interest to give the issue the attention it needs.

* Scientists don't communicate as well as they could. Scientists tend to talk with other scientists, using the language of science - limiting their ability to influence the popular buzz on a topic.

* Mainstream media no longer have the time or human resources to give adequate attention to covering science and the environment.

* Journalists who do cover climate change tend to inadvertently distort the message by confusing balance with bias.

* Much of the conversation is orchestrated by online communicators who can "hide behind the nonrules of the Internet" rather than abide by the rules of mainstream journalism.
Shelby called on scientists to help correct misinformation and take the offensive in bringing the truth about climate change to those who create public policy.

"I'm a little bit pissed off at the scientific community," he said. "It's time you throw some punches, time you fight back."

Watch the archived talk online - and check out the rest of this spring's series - at http://z.umn.edu/ionetalk. Opinions expressed in Frontiers lectures are those of the speakers and not necessarily of the Institute on the Environment or the University of Minnesota.

You Don't Have to Move out of Your Neighborhood to Live in a Better One

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A decade ago, New York resident Majora Carter began rebuilding her South Bronx neighborhood, transforming it from industrial wasteland into hope-filled green space. Since then she has become an internationally renowned leader in environment-centered urban renewal.

Next month, Majora Carter will share her inspirational vision for a brighter future at the interface of public health, poverty and climate change as the inaugural speaker in the new Momentum 2011 event series. Watch this brief video for a taste of what Majora Carter is and does. Then get your ticket for her Momentum 2011 presentation, "You Don't Have to Move out of Your Neighborhood to Live in a Better One," before they're gone!

Frontiers Is Back!

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Thumbnail image for frontiers_wordmark.jpg
The new semester of Frontiers in the Environment kicked off this week with a seminar by Terje Mikalsen, CEO of Tysvar, LLC - "Bringing the Green Economy to Scale.

terje.pngMikalsen is regarded as one of Norway's most successful technology investors and entrepreneurs and has had a distinguished career in international business and investing. He is now CEO of Tysvar, LLC, a privately-held strategic advisory firm focused on emerging opportunities in clean technology and health care. 

 Terje Mikalsen's presentation has now been posted online - visit the Frontiers webpage to view the recording, see the rest of the lineup for the spring Frontiers in the Environment seminar series, and view archived presentations from previous semesters!

Also, visit the IonE Events page to view all upcoming events hosted and sponsored by the Institute on the Environment, including the inaugural Momentum Event Series, featuring environmental visionaries Majora Carter, Hans Rosling and Sylvia Earle.

  The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author(s) and not necessarily
  of the Institute on the Environment/University of Minnesota.


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