Monthly Archives: December 2010

Burning the rainforest to cool the globe

Burning plant material in the Amazon rain forest can be good for the planet?
Yes–provided it’s done in the right way.  A scientist at Cornell University has discovered that the ancient practice of burning biomass underground, starved of oxygen.  The process produces “terra preta” (also known as “black gold” and biochar)–a carbon-rich soil that helps to fertilize the ground, making it possible to grow food crops in the nutrient-poor rainforest soil.
Johannes Lehmann holds biochar, left, and the biomass from which it was created
University Photography: Johannes Lehmann holds biochar, left, and the biomass from which it was created

In addition, burning the biomass underground produces “syngas,” an energy source that can be used to power homes and equipment.  Those are great benefits for the locals, but this process benefits everyone on the planet since it helps to store carbon in the soils.  Biochar can be 80% or more pure carbon!
The ancient people may not have known about global warming, but they did know how to sustain the local ecosystems.  This just adds more meaning to the old slogan, “Think Globally, Act Locally!”

Learn more about how carbon dioxide enhances global warming in our “What will Earth’s climate be in the future?” investigation.

Science and Politics: What to do?

From xkcd:

Science is about facts and evidence.  There is a lot of evidence that carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas.  You can explore with our models how carbon dioxide impacts the global temperature.

Politics is about what to do about those facts.  But politics too often turns into a blame game, in which people take sides without really listening to the evidence.

Do we ban the burning of fossil fuels because it increases carbon dioxide emissions?  Do we look  for ways to capture all carbon dioxide emissions from human activities?  Do we impose a “carbon tax” on all goods?  What would be the economic impacts of these policies?  Is the electronics-centric lifestyle to which we’ve become accustomed even compatible with low carbon dioxide emissions?

In the end, it all comes down to a cost-benefit analysis of the risks and rewards for each course of action.  What risks do we undertake by doing nothing?  What risks do we undertake by completely changing the ways by which people travel around the world?  What benefits do we gain from each action?

But to do a cost-benefit analysis, we have to understand the facts; we have to understand our “known knowns”–what we know we know–and our “known unknowns”–what we know we don’t know.  We have to remember that there are always “unknown unknowns”–those things that we don’t even know that we don’t know.

That’s why it’s up to each of us, as individuals, to learn about the science–about the facts and the real evidence and what’s still not fully understood–and then choose our actions based on our own understandings of the facts and preponderance of the evidence, not on someone else’s views.  We have to think for ourselves and act accordingly.

But we also have to remember that our actions impact those around us.  We’re all on this planet together.

Tracking the Permafrost Line

From xkcd:

The permafrost line is shifting.  It may be slow by tornado-chasing standards, but it’s shifting.

A study earlier this year from Université Laval in Quebec City, Canada showed that the permafrost line has moved northward by 130 kilometers in the last 50 years.  While climate change is the most probable explanation for the melting permafrost, there is not enough long-term data for scientists to confirm this.

And so the research goes on to study and better understand our ever-changing world.

Learn more about climate change in our “What will Earth’s climate be in the future?” investigation.

Carbon dioxide as a structural component?

Yes–if you’re a coral.  Biologist Brent Constantz has formed a company to sequester carbon dioxide just as corals in the ocean do.  The strategy is simple–combine carbon dioxide, water, and calcium.  The carbon dioxide comes from the smokestacks of electrical power plants, and the water and calcium come from seawater.
The material produced is used to make cement that can be used to build buildings, just as corals build their limestone structures.  The first plant is capable of sequestering 550 tons of carbon dioxide per day.  With more plants scheduled to be built, this could make a significant impact on the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
Big buildings may one day be a sign of a carbon-capturing (rather than carbon-emitting) society…
Learn more about how carbon dioxide and global warming in our “What will Earth’s climate be in the future?” investigation.
Read the full article from Popular Science at:

How to Teach About Climate?

Global temperatures in the year 2010 are on course to be the highest ever in 130-year record. This is the consensus of recent three different analyses by NASA, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Climatic Data Center and a joint record kept by Britain’s Met Office and the University of East Anglia. While these results do not prove that the long-term trend will continue, the conclusions add to a growing mountain of data and models that do predict catastrophic global temperature rise over the next half-century. Scientists who specialize in climate have carefully weighed all the evidence and an overwhelming number agree.

A snapshot of the stylized model of the atmosphere and oceans that students can investigate from the High Adventure Science activity on Climate Change. Programmed in NetLogo  by Bob Tinker.
A snapshot of the stylized model of the atmosphere and oceans that students can investigate from the High Adventure Science activity on Climate Change. Programmed in NetLogo by Bob Tinker.

There is a rising chorus of “deniers,” people who deny the data and projections. These are not skeptics who look at the data and draw serious opinions. Serious skepticism is an important part of science. The deniers are “contrarian scientists, free-market think tanks, and industry [spokesmen, who have] created a paralyzing fog of doubt around climate change.” The deniers claim, without proof, that the scientific case has not been made, that certain scientists are lying, even though investigations have cleared them, assert that climate change is benign, and even claim that the covenant God made with Noah will protect us. This is not science, it is propaganda.

The public is confused about these public debates and is increasingly convinced that they reflect true scientific uncertainty. Gallup polls show the percent of the population that thinks that the seriousness of global warming is generally exaggerated has grown from 30%in 2006 to 41% in 2009.

It is important to go to the root of the problem: a poorly educated nation that is unequipped to tell the difference between science and propaganda. An example of what is needed is an engaging activity we created on climate that is designed to help students understand the possible causes of climate change and appreciate the issues involved. Our key innovation is an interactive model that incorporates many of the important factors that influence climate such as clouds, CO2, water vapor, ice sheets, ocean absorption of greenhouse gasses. Students can learn for themselves about the interactions of these factors by experimenting with the model. The model is not intended to be predictive—that requires the most powerful computers that exist—but it does illustrate many of the dynamic features in the scientist’s models.

Materials based on this model should help students understand the science, but science educators need to go one step farther and help students understand the difference between science and propaganda. We need to engage students in thoughtful debate about the issue so they can form their own opinion. We should care less about what those opinions are than that they are backed by an understanding of the science and the process of science. This is why every student needs a better understanding of science.

Goldilocks and the Habitable Planets?

In the fairy tale, Goldilocks was a little girl who walked into a house in the forest.  She ate porridge, sat in chairs, and slept in beds.  The first choices she tried were too hot, too big, and too hard.  Her second choices were too cold, too big, and too soft.  Her third choices were all “just right.”
The story of Goldilocks is a good metaphor for finding planets that can harbor life.  Some are too close to their stars (too hot), some are too far from their stars (too cold), and some are just the right distance from their stars (not too hot or too cold).
In September 2010, planet-hunting scientists from the University of California Santa Cruz and the Carnegie Institution of Washington found such a “Goldilocks” planet.  Does this planet, dubbed Gliese 581g, have life?  Maybe, maybe not.  Even if it did have life, it’s unlikely to look like the fictional movie and television versions of aliens.
Much like the movies and televisions, artists’ representations of planets (like Lynette Cook’s version of Gliese581g, courtesy of NASA, at left) are also fantasy.  Gliese 581g is close to 19 billion kilometers from Earth–far too far away for any visual sightings with a telescope!
Still, the ability to find planets that are in habitable Goldilocks zone orbits is amazing in itself!  While scientists have been able to find planets for a while, most of the planets discovered have been very large.  After all, those are the easiest ones to detect with the current technology.  As telescope technology advances, scientists should be able to detect smaller and smaller planets, some of which might be more like Earth.
Even if scientists never find planets with living organisms, the advances in technology and the information we learn about other solar systems will only help us to better understand our own planet and the wide variety of organisms with which we share it.
Learn how scientists find new planets and practice finding your own in our newest High-Adventure Science curriculum module: “Is there life outside of Earth?

U.S. Does Poorly in Math and Science. Again.

Today yet another international comparison reaffirmed that the United States is failing to prepare its students to compete successfully in the new flat world. PISA, the Program for International Student Assessment, was administered to 15-year-old students last year by the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development). This is a highly respected group whose conclusions are sound and reliable.

The results of the PISA assessments showed the U.S. performance in math, science, and reading is mediocre compared to stellar performance by most Asian and European countries. In the first time participating in this exam, Shanghai students stunned the world by taking first place; in math they scored 600 on a scale for which the average was 497 and the U.S. scored 487.

Unless dramatic measures are started now, in one decade America will be unable to turn to its talented workers, inventors, scientists, and financial wizards to rescue the country from debt, pollution, and soaring energy costs. This is a national security issue as important as any.

We know how to fix the problem. The President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) recently issued a comprehensive plan for addressing the problems in mathematics and science precollege education. They provide a detailed blueprint for tightening standards, improving teacher preparation, and exploiting technology for new, research-based curricula, assessment and professional development.

The cost of the PCAST recommendations would be at most $0.3B per year. This is a trivial expense compared to the total Federal budget of $3,550B (0.008%) or even the National Science Foundation budget of $7.4B (4%). The Sustainable Defense task force has shown how we could save $100B/yr from the Defense budget with no reduction in military security, 300 times what PCAST needs.

One may wonder why the $100B already spent annually on education at the federal level is insufficient to fund the PCAST agenda. The quick answer is that there is an inbred fear of a national curriculum that would impinge on State’s rights and local control. Thus, the Department of Education is not allowed to create curricula. PCAST addressed this concern by advocating that any curricula created be available in three versions and be freely available online so that it could be modified. PCAST also recommends that a mission-oriented organization be created to implement its recommendations—not the Department of Education, which is not allowed to, or the NSF which is research oriented.

Is it impossible to imagine that Congress would fund any new initiative given the tax and budget cutting frenzy in Washington? One group looking at the rather terrifying future is the Administration’s bipartisan Deficit Reduction Panel, which just released a report “Moment of Truth” that shows how to balance the budget while still supporting educational initiatives like PCAST. It says, “At the same time, we must invest in education, infrastructure, and high-value research and development…”

Perhaps this latest PISA results will push lawmakers to finally focus on meaningful improvements in our educational system. It would be good politics, inexpensive, and absolutely essential to our national security.


From xkcd:

Question: How can we trust ourselves (or scientists) to know the truth about anything?

Answer: We look at the evidence.

Scientists back up their claims with evidence.  If the evidence doesn’t fit the claim, then the claim is rejected and revised.  New evidence can result in changes to long-held understandings about how the world works–it is the evidence that rules in the scientific process!

Through experiments and models, scientists test their hypotheses to learn more about how the world works.

Will we ever be totally certain about how the world works?  Nope.  But that just means that there will always be something to discover!

Test your own hypotheses with models in the High-Adventure Science curriculum modules: “What will Earth’s climate be in the future?” and “Is there life outside of Earth?“.

Climate and Pollution

Pollution has its benefits.

With fewer particulates being released by smokestacks and cars, there are fewer aerosols in the atmosphere.  Fewer aerosols means that more solar radiation hits the ground.  With more sunlight hitting the Earth, the Earth warms up–faster than many scientists had initially predicted.

Calculations by Jan Magnus, Bertrand Melenberg, and Chris Muris, econometricians at Tilburg University in the Netherlands, suggest that carbon dioxide emissions will have to be reduced by an additional 50 million tons to compensate for the additional solar radiation reaching the surface.  That’s just to keep the temperature rise to 2 degrees Centigrade!

The Clean Air Act of 1970 gave us clear blue skies and pure white snows, but they weren’t counting on enhanced carbon dioxide emissions to accelerate the warming process.

Read the summary at /releases/2010/03/100309083700.htm.

Learn how albedo affects global temperature with our models in the “What will Earth’s climate be in the future?” investigation.