AP Biology class blog for discussing current research in Biology

Tag: greenhouse gas

Astronomers: The Next Climate Change Culprit

     An article published in October 2020 on the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s website, discusses two of the six papers published in Nature Astronomy in September 2020. The papers discuss astronomers and the large amounts of carbon they emit due to their long flights to meetings and their energy-eating telescopes. These carbon emissions have added to the global warming crisis and the Greenhouse effect. The Greenhouse effect occurs when gases (most commonly Carbon dioxide, Methane, and Nitrous oxide) absorb solar radiated heat that is projected off of the earth’s surface. The trapping of this heat in the atmosphere ultimately increases the overall global temperature. Water, “the moderator of temperature”, has a high specific heat and therefore a high heat of vaporization, as it takes a large amount of energy to raise the temperature of water 1 degree Celsius. Water molecules can absorb large amounts of heat emitted within earth’s lower atmosphere, and radiate this absorbed heat out in all directions. When this heat is released, the water vapor lowers the temperature of the surface it leaves, creating a cooling effect to monitor the temperature. However, in the case of global warming, water vapor acts as a greenhouse gas.  The vapor molecules holds heat within them, and some of the heat is projected back onto the surface, further adding to the Greenhouse effect.

      The first paper in Nature Astronomy discusses a study done by delegates at the 2019 European Astronomical Society (EAS) meeting in France. After sitting through a heatwave during their meeting and sweating through their shirts, the delegates decided to calculate the amount of carbon dioxide they emitted from their meeting travels. They found they produced 1.5 tons of carbon dioxide (1900 tons in total) per delegate. This is more than the average resident in India emits yearly! Besides flights, supercomputers are the next leading cause of astronomers’ carbon emissions. Another study showed that each Australian astronomer produced 37 tons of CO2 equivalent per year. 60% of those carbon emitted came from supercomputers and their energy usage.

     The second paper published discusses the work of MPIA’s Faustine Cantaloupe and her colleagues that uncovered 30 years of weather records from the Paranal Observatory in Chile, operated by the European Southern Observatory (ESO). They discovered temperatures in Chile rose 1.5°C each year. This increase in temperature causes complications for Paranal’s very large telescope, which does not function past 16°C. Ironically, the carbon the astronomers are producing is hindering their ability to use their telescopes.

     In hopes to combat carbon emissions from astronomers and to help decrease global temperatures, MPIA’s Knud Jahnke plans to set up supercomputers in Iceland, using the environmentally friendly geothermal energy power plants there. Geothermal power plants dig boreholes and use the steam from hot water to run power turbines, harnessing energy without carbon emissions. I recently went to the Svartsengi Geothermal Power Plant in Iceland, which uses geothermal energy to heat the famous Blue Lagoon in Iceland! After seeing the power plant in action, I think that installing more supercomputers in Iceland would prove to be very effective and could help reduce their carbon footprint immensely. 

   Here is a photograph of Svartsengi Geothermal Power Plant in Iceland! 

                                                                        Photo by Author

     This year, the European Astronomical Society meeting took place again, but this time they were virtual due to Covid-19. The team of delegates continued their studies and calculated the carbon costs for the new 2020 meeting and discovered that they emitted 582 kilograms of carbon during the entire meeting (based on computer energy usage)- about one–three-thousandth of the previous 2019 meeting in total. The EAS is currently studying a hybrid format for future meetings. 

Do you think Zoom and virtual meetings could help solve the EAS’s carbon-producing problem? Comment down below! 

It’s Time to Pay Attention to the Reef

You’ve heard time and time again about how coral reefs are dying, little by little- and that’s because it’s true. We can and should stop it; if we don’t, we risk everything we’ve ever known.

A healthy coral reef at Palmyra Atoll National Wildlife Refuge.

The warming of the oceans is caused by a number of things, almost all of them placing humans at fault. These elements include fossil fuel use, deforestation, and cement production. The creation of greenhouse gases warms the Earth itself, so far by almost 33º F since 1880. This includes the warming of the oceans. Melting glaciers (because of ocean warmth) increase sea levels and can even lead to more powerful and dangerous storms. The increase in CO2 in the water causes ocean acidification as well.

The warming of the oceans is caused by a number of things, almost all of them placing humans at fault. These elements include fossil fuel use, deforestation, and cement production. The creation of greenhouse gases warms the Earth itself, so far by almost 33º F since 1880. This includes the warming of the oceans. Melting glaciers (because of ocean warmth) increase sea levels and can even lead to more powerful and dangerous storms. The increase in CO2 in the water causes ocean acidification as well.

The ocean warming directly affects coral reefs through their symbiotic relationship with algae. The algae lives within the coral polyps, photosynthesizing and sharing energy with the coral. The easy access to sunlight coral provides is important to the algae. However, when the water gets too warm and too acidic, the algae gets expelled from the polyps. The coral then loses color as their skeletons, which cannot endure ecological changes, are exposed. This is coral bleaching.

Bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef in Australia.

The coral bleaching is a direct result of our rapid consumption of resources and production of greenhouse gases. A simple, small cutback on this consumption could solve so many of the earth’s growing problems. Turn off the lights. Use less water. Eat less red meat. Walk or bike instead of drive, just once a week. Small changes that affect the entire planet. The reefs are not only food for marine life, but they protect coastlines from flood/storm damage and provide employment for thousands. It doesn’t just affect wildlife. It directly affects a human’s quality of life. If you don’t do it for the environment, do it for the people.

Saving our planet, one fart at a time

Cows are really cute. They just stand there in the grass, four-legged and everything, eating their grass, mooing, and just living life like cows should. They taste good, and they make milk, which means that we (humans, if you needed that clarification) love to farm them. As a result, there’s a LOT of them (more than 1.5 billion) all over the planet. Seems like a good thing right? I mean, how could too much of this be a bad thing?

Look at this cutie just chillin’. Photo by Daniel Schwen.

Unfortunately, cows have a dark side. Cattle are a type of animal called a ruminant, which have specialized stomach to digest plant material by storing it and fermenting it. Once fermented, the food, known as cud, must be chewed again before digestion is complete. In the cow’s stomach aiding it in this process are tiny microbes known as methanogens. These guys allow cows to digest things like cellulose (plant matter), but produce methane as a waste products. Cows then either burp or fart out this gas.

With all the cows on the planet, the methane being emitted has become a major problem. Methane is a greenhouse gas 25 times more powerful than carbon dioxide, meaning it warms the planet at a much higher rate. Livestock account for 14.5% of all anthropomorphic (human) greenhouse gas emissions, and cattle account for 65% of all livestock emissions. So obviously, cows’ farts and burps are a problem. So how can we fix it?

Our cute friends are a large part of this… Made by Al Rodger.

The three issues, according to microbiologist Lorenzo Morelli, are diet, genetics, and the microbiology of cows. Phil Garnsworthy of Ruminomics, an organization with a goal of reducing cows’ emissions, looks to selection to help lessen the problem. According to him, cattle vary by a factor of two to three on the amount of methane given off. By simply favoring and only breeding those cattle that only emit low amounts of methane, the problem can be immediately mitigated. Dairy Farmers have an extra incentive to reduce methane by breeding low methane cows separate from the environment, as well. The methane represents lost energy that could go into producing more milk, and so adding low-methane to a list of attractive cow characteristics would not only help the environment, but also farmers’ wallets. But plain ol’ artificial selection isn’t the only option.

Changing cows’ diet may also help reduce the problem. Scientists at Aarhus University are looking into producing a genetically-engineered grass to give to cows. By changing and running tests on the DNA of the grass and eventually finding the optimal type, the scientists hope to make grass less stiff and easier to digest for the cows, which would not only decrease methane production due to less activity from the microbes, but also increase milk production.

Cows grazing. Photo by Scott Bauer.

There is an also an option of dealing directly with the microbes themselves and their methane release. For example, Researches at Penn State are studying the effects of  3-nitrooxypropanol (3NOP) on cows’ methane emissions. 3NOP, when put into cow feed, would in theory stop the microbes from producing methane when it binds to the cows’ digestive tracts. Cattle saw a 30% reduction of methane when fed 3NOP.

And finally, there is always the prospect of genetically modifying cows themselves to produce less methane. The tricky part about this is that it’s the microbes that actually produce the methane, not the cows. Morelli says, “We think that animal genetics may well influence their gut microbiology. However, this link has not been proved and we are still in the data collection phase.” Essentially, though we might be far from a GMO cow that produces less methane, it is not outside the realm of possibility. Even now, the Genome Canada project is looking into the genes responsible for lower methane emissions, with the hope of spreading the gene to other populations of cows.

Personally, I believe scientists should be doing whatever they can to reduce methane emissions. This is our planet, and we need to do everything we can to save it. This includes GMO research, which I realize makes some people uneasy, but in my opinion is a great, new way to help our planet and help ourselves. However, any solution that would hurt cows, reduce lifespan, or ruin milk or beef taste should only be used as a last resort. Even then, I would be hesitant to implement such changes. Essentially, what route is the most efficient and practical, and what are you willing to sacrifice? These are the two questions that must be answered in finding a way to reducing cows’ methane emissions.

All in all, it seems cows are on their way to being lesser burdens on our environment. And that’s a great thing, because then I would be able to appreciate their cuteness more without feeling a bit of guilt.



Another reason to not cut down old trees

Imagine if human growth accelerates, instead of slowing down after adolescence. This way, humans would weigh less than half as much at their middle age than at when they are at their old age.

In a study published in the journal Nature, scientists found out that the growth of the tree accelerates with the tree size. This means that the bigger the tree, the faster it will grow to become even larger.

This discovery is important, as it tells us another reason to save old trees to help protect our planet. The bigger the tree size, the higher the rate of carbon accumulation of the tree. Therefore, one old tree helps lessen the greenhouse gases in our atmosphere much more than a tree that is much younger. Bigger and older trees are important carbon sinks to our environment.

Photo by Author

Photo by Author

Here is a link to a video which showcases a giant tree — the extreme end of the spectrum.

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