Thursday, November 27, 2008

Happy Thanksgiving!

I hope everyone is having a healthy and blessed Thanksgiving today.

I have no idea where the cartoon from the right is from, otherwise I would cite it.

If you are able to, and would like to, this is a great time of the year to give to those who are lacking.

Here are a few great options for people to donate to if you are feeling moved. Please leave more suggestions in the comments, of other good alternatives.

Ossining Food Pantry
Westchester Food Bank
Long Island Cares
New York City Food Bank

Thanks for reading. Enjoy the holiday!

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

South Korea threatens Madagascar's Rain Forests

The number one environmental problem is population growth. Population growth is in effect the cause of all other environmental issues. How do you know that your nation has a population growth problem? Perhaps when you have to start leasing lands in other countries to grow enough food to support your exploding population, as South Korea is presently having to do. The BBC reports that South Korea’s largest corporation is leasing huge tracts of land in Madagascar.

Madagascar is already under tremendous pressure from its own population for farmland. The rain forest there, which is home to many, many endangered species, is under tremendous pressure and is being destroyed at terrifyingly high rates. That pristine environments are now being threatened by population growth in nations thousands of miles away is a new threat.

Take a look at how ridiculous the population growth has been in the past 100 years (image taken from At the same time the amount of land available for use on Earth has not increased at all. Leaving some nations in situations like those that are now being seen in South Korea, where people are outsourcing agriculture for their survival.

Daewoo is leasing the vast tract of land - half the size of Belgium - for 99 years and hopes to produce 5 million tonnes of corn a year by 2023.

It will use South African expertise and local labour on the plantations.
Asian countries have been trying to ensure access to food supplies after grain prices soared earlier this year.

Daewoo will also grow palm oil on another 300,000 acres of land leased in Madagascar.
The conglomerate is already developing a 50,000-acre corn farm in Indonesia in partnership with South Korea's biggest feed maker, Nonghyup Feed.

Other countries short of arable land, such as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, have also been seeking agricultural investments in Africa or Asia.

And some African countries have expressed interest in receiving foreign investors.
Angola has offered farmland for development while Ethiopia's prime minister, Meles Zenawi, has said he was eager to see foreign companies take a stake in his country's agriculture.

My college roommate Kevin is in the Air Force and was stationed in Korea for a while. When last I spoke to him he had a strong impression of how very urbanized that nation is, as opposed to Germany (where he was stationed previously) and the United States. The article notes that South Korea is not alone, that Kuwait and Saudi Arabia are also looking to acquire arable land by proxy. I suspect that other nations will be looking to outsource their food needs, as their population continues to explode. (My guess: Nigeria and the Philippines will soon be on this list).

The population growth issue brings up many spiritual and moral questions. It is one thing to have the communist government of China limit their subjects to one child per couple, but it is another thing for a free nation to impose such restrictions. Some faiths have come out as being strongly against birth control. How then do we deal with this great looming problem?

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Microscope Images of Dust

Ever wonder what blown dust looks like under a microscope? No, you haven’t? Well then this post isn’t for you. Here we’re going to look at collected dust particles under extreme magnification, by way of the scanning electron microscope at the material science department at Stony Brook. If you’re interested in learning more about the machine check out the wikipedia page on how scanning electron microscropes work and then check out the gallery of images taken from the scanning electron microscope at Stony Brook, maintained by Jim Quinn. Some very cool shots over there.

The images we’re about to look at are taken at a very high magnification. The particles we are looking at are in actuality tiny, but here will appear to be quite large. From these images we get an idea of how big the dust is, how it is shaped, how dense it is on the filter and what the dust particles are made of (by mass spectroscopy).

The filter we are looking at is from Pensacola, Florida. We chose Florida because it is apt to be impacted by dust from North Africa (the Sahara Desert) and possibly from Asia too. This filter is from a particularly dusty period. The sample was shared with us by Atmospheric Research Inc, and we are grateful for their assistance.

The unit of length is measured in microns, or to be technical micro-meters. The human eye can detect objects down to about 40 microns in size. A grain of salt is about 60 microns in size. A human hair is 70 to 100 microns in diameter. The objects we are looking at are between 1 and 10 microns generally, so much smaller than what the naked eye can detect.

Image #1:

The spider-like dark grey strands are Teflon filbers. They interconnect in a weave to form the filter on which particles in the atmosphere are collected. I was quite surprised that the filter looked like this. I expected it to be much more solid, but as you can see it is quite porous, well at least on a particle level.

On the filter we see three flakes of dust one in the top left, one in the top right and one in the center. The dust appears to be white on the image. The brighter the color on the image the higher the atomic weight of the particle. Thus, heavier elements appear to be bright white, and light elements appear to be dark grey. The dust particles are well rounded and look to be quite physically weathered.

On the bottom of the image, on the footer, you can see the scale bar. Using the scale bar at the bottom we can estimate the dust particles to be about 2 microns in length.

From the spectral analysis, we see that this particle is composed mainly of silicon and oxygen, suggesting that this is likely sand. (Note if you are looking at the spectral analysis, that the fluorine peak is from the Teflon filter itself).

Image #7:

This is a much larger particle, coming in at about 5 microns in width and 10 microns in length. It has much sharper edges, suggesting it has not been weathered much.

Spectral analysis shows that this particle is composed of iron, nickel, chromium, calcium and aluminum; as well as silicon and oxygen. This suggests it is an iron oxide of some variety.

Image #10:

Again this is a very large particle, coming in at 7.5 microns in width and nearly 15 microns in length. The larger the particle the more likely it is from local sources. Large particles tend to be heavier and thus fall out of the atmosphere quicker. Thus we expect particles from distant sources like Africa and Asia to be small.

Spectral analysis suggests that this particle is composed of iron, chromium, calcium, and aluminum; as well as silicon and oxygen. This is likely an iron oxide as well.

Image #11:

This mammoth particle is over 20 microns in width and 15 microns in length. Note how smooth it looks, with rounded edges. There appear to be little deposits growing on top of the particle.

Spectral analysis shows that this particle is rich is calcium, oxygen, aluminum and silicon. It is likely calcium carbonate – with some sort mineral contained in the matrix.

Image #12:

Now we are looking at the type of particles that make up windblown dust, small and spherical, ready for flight. This particle weighs in at less than 1 micron in diameter.

Spectral analysis shows that it is composed of nearly pure lead!

Image #13:

Here is another small fellow (bright spot, center of image). He is composed of iron, zinc and sulphur.

Image #15:

Look in the center of the image for a small grey, box like image. The particle is about 1.5 microns by 1.5 microns. This is a crystal of pure sulphur. It has nearly perfectly squared edges.

Image #21:

Soil, dirt and sand aren’t the only particles in the atmosphere. Here we see signs of living material in the atmosphere. Take a look at the honey comb like particles in the middle of the image. I’m not a marine biologist, but those appear to be diatoms (a type of plankton from marine environments) or diatom like cells on top of a dust particle. It’s hard to tell but the strand of diatoms seem to continue downward over the dust particle, before their signal is subsumed.

I hope you enjoyed your fun science pictures of the day!

Friday, November 7, 2008

Catching up...

During the period I was away working BNL, I was looking at and archiving interesting articles to blog about when I got back. Well then came the election special, and now I’m all sorts of behind.

So here are a few articles that you might find interesting, that I just don’t have proper time to discuss here:

Scientists performing research in the Amazon have discovered a species of ancient ants, that are probably the forbearers to the common ant found today. Evolutionary ecologist have long suspected that ants descended from wasps, and that ancestor ants should look something like a hybrid between the two. The results are surprising. An image at the Times website had a really neat interactive picture of the ant, with notations about unique characteristics of the ancient ant.

The Hubbel telescope is back in operation after a data router failed in late September. NASA engineers were able to activate a backup system, which had not been used in 18 years. A mission to repair the data router has been delayed, as parts are not yet ready for the mission.

The worlds fisheries are in danger of collapsing in the next few decades, as overfishing and government mis-management puts tremendous pressure on fish populations. This recent report suggests private ownership of fish stocks can improve fish populations. There appears to be a certain “Tragedy of the Commons” feel to this story, as a public, community resource has been exploited over the past 50 years, to the point of which the shared resource is nearing the point of collapse.

Researchers at Yale University are attempting to return some now extinct turtles tortoises to existence. The tortoises, from the Galapagos Islands were decimated by whaling ships hunting them to extinction. This genetic manipulation is either exciting/scary/confusing depending on your perspective of genetics research.

Meanwhile German scientists have concluded that intermediate quantities of emitted dirt and dust enhances rainfall. Evidently there is a Goldilocks syndrome with respect to rain and earthborne particles; too little dirt and too much dirt leads to little rain. You need just the right amount of dirt to get a rainstorm. The article itself is a bit tough to read and contains a couple of misnomers (i.e. implying that humans have increased the amount of terrestrial aerosols by 5000% or 50x more), but explaining aerosols is difficult, so the author gets a pass from me.

If everyone knows the tree had fallen, and then someone finds the fallen tree, is it news? Image to the right shows the so called chemical-equator, a line which pollutants do not freely cross. Image taken from Hamilton et al, from AGU journals.

And lastly, we’ve known for quite some time that the northern and southern hemispheres exchange gasses slowly. Pollutants emitted in the Northern Hemisphere rarely enter the Southern Hemisphere because they are typically removed from the atmosphere much faster than air is transported in between the two hemispheres. Anyway, a group of Aussie scientists have evidently proven this experimentally, identifying a barrier between the Northern and Southern Hemisphere. Question: if we already knew this, is it news?

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Chicago's Carbon Cap and Trade

The City of Chicago is all set to launch a cap-and-trade system for carbon emissions. The city is seen to the right, as viewed from a NASA satellite. Image source: NASA.

Both candidates in the presidential election supported a cap and trade system for the nation to reduce carbon emissions. As such it’s likely that we’ll see a national plan developed in the next few years. The city of Chicago is ahead of the game however, having started one in their metro region as reported by this article.

Mayor Richard M. Daley of Chicago on Thursday unveiled perhaps the most aggressive plan of any major American city to reduce heat-trapping gases.

The blueprint would change the city’s building codes to promote energy efficiency. It also calls for installing huge solar panels at municipal properties and building alternative fueling stations.


Like hundreds of other cities, Chicago has pledged by 2020 to reduce the emissions of heat-trapping gases 25 percent from the levels in 1990, the baseline established by the Kyoto Protocol, an international climate treaty. Mr. Burke said the Chicago plan offered much more specific ways than other cities’ plans to measure and cut the emissions.

The challenge facing cap and trade programs is implementation. It’s one thing to limit emissions, and a second thing to empower citizens, small businesses and industry to make the changes necessary to achieve emission reductions. For a city to succeed it must develop a multi-faceted plan, addressing private and public transportation, residential energy consumption, commercial energy consumption, government energy consumption, as well as low impact water and sanitation systems. Chicago’s proposal is a comprehensive one, addressing issues from renewable, alternative fuels, to building design and reducing water consumption.

“People think in terms of polar ice caps and rising ocean levels,” Mr. Burke said, “but this takes a look at what would happen to a Midwestern city like Chicago if nothing is done.”

By the end of the century, if no action is taken, he said, Chicago is likely to face 30 more days of 100-degree weather per year, as well as stretches of severe drought.
“The climate of Chicago,” Mr. Burke said, “would resemble what is currently East Texas.”

This was the first time a major American city has produced models to show local effects of global warming, he added.

The mayor argues why he is enacting these changes on a region scale, when climate change is truly a global problem.

“We can’t solve the world’s climate change problem in Chicago,” Mr. Daley said at a news conference at the John G. Shedd Aquarium, “but we can do our part.”

Mayor Bloomberg, who is pushing hard for a third term in spite of recent public referendums supporting term limits, has begun investigation how New York City could handle the effects of climate change, but has not yet proposed a cap and trade for the city. It is likely that he will not be willing or able to do so under the current economic conditions.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Thanks for reading!

Hello Dear Readers***,

Thanks for reading the blog. We're a bit over two months old now, and we're at about 40 posts. Last week was a highlight for the blog. In addition to our much anticipated election special we received a bit of national attention.

Joe Posnanski, a columnist for the Kansas City Star and Sports Illustrated, who has been twice cited by the Associated Press Editors as the best sports columnist of the year, wrote a blog post citing my rant railing against Bud Selig's verbal trashing of weathermen. The article was also picked up at the very popular LoHud Yankees Blog by Peter Abraham, which is probably the first stop I make on the internet every morning. Later on in the week the blog post was also picked up in an internal NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) newsletter and carried as the first topic. A friend of the blog notes that this is circulated not only at NOAA but also on capitol hill to congressional offices. So I remain quite excited about all the excitement that one innocent post generated. Hopefully we can continue to provide some interesting, and occasionally provocative material for your consumption.

So, thanks again for reading and keep commenting. If you would like to contribute to the blog or have an issue that you'd like to see discussed, please let me know and I'll be happy to address it if I can.

Yours Truly,


Monday, November 3, 2008

Election 2008: Metro Environmental Blog Endorsements

In case you missed it, we've spent the last few days discussing the presidential candiates' positions on environmental issues. We've talked about Funding Science Research, Alternative Energy, Non-Renwable Energy, and Climate Change. Today we make some endorsements for local and federal elections, based on the candidates environmental voting records and proposals.

State Senate:

Ken LaVelle (R) – District 1 (Eastern Suffolk).

Endorsed by New York Conservation League. Has a long term history of environmental stewardship.

John Flanagan (R) – District 2 (Northwestern Suffolk).

His opponent does not appear capable of handling the responsibilities of state senate. Senator Flanagan does not appear to take much interest in the environment, instead pursing other issues in Albany. We’d like to hear more from him on the environment but endorse him none the less.

Brian Foley (D) – District 3 (Southwestern Suffolk)

His opponent, 82 year old Cesar Trunzo is no longer an active legislature, having not spoken on the Senate floor in over 2 years. Brian Foley did a good job cleaning up corruption in Brookhaven Town, and will do a good job in Albany too.


Tim Bishop (D) - District 1 (Eastern Long Island)
Tim Biship has long been a friend to environmental causes and improving higher education. Comes endorsed by the New York League of Conservation Voters.

Jim Hall (D) - District 19 (Middle Hudson Valley, Northern Westchester)
Strong voting record on the environment, received a score of 100% from League of Conservation Voters.

Nita Lowey (D) - District 18 (Westchester County)
Strong voting record on the environment, received a score of 100% from League of Conservation Voters.

State Assembly:

Steve Engelbright (D) – District 4 (Stony Brook, Port Jefferson)
A member of the Geosciences faculty at Stony Brook University, he is one of the few science educated members of the Assembly. He comes highly endorsed for his deep seeded support of the environment and higher education. He is endorsed by the New York League of Conservation Voter.

Sandy Galef (D) – District 37 (Ossining, Yorktown)
Ms. Galef is a long time assemblywoman, and has a demonstrated long term record of supporting environmentally friendly legislation. She is endorsed by the New York League of Conservation Voter.

US President

I am endorsing and supporting Barack Obama for President of the United States of America, based on his proposed plan for energy and the environment.

I have long admired Senator John McCain, so much so in fact that I agreed to trade my vote in the Democratic Primary with the vote of a friend who was a Republican. I would pull the lever for Barack Obama for her, if she would vote for John McCain for me. So this election was, until a certain point, a relatively difficult decision for me.

Senator McCain, I believe will tackle greenhouse gas emissions comprehensively. I like his proposal to increase nuclear power, and his opposition to federal corn subsidies. I don’t quite understand his lukewarm support for wind and solar power, and wish he would commit to increasing funding for the hard sciences. I cringe at his desire to pursue offshore drilling, and find his overwhelming support for coal energy to be quite disappointing. Overall Senator McCain has a modest proposal to handle the environment, that is most likely acceptable to address the challenges we will face this century.

However, Senator Obama’s environmental policy is more than acceptable, it’s both exciting and visionary and will make the United States into a leader on environmental issues. Senator Obama receives high marks for his support for wind and solar energy, his willingness to increase funding of science research, and his support science education. I hope that he continues to qualify his support for coal and offshore drilling, and I pray that his support for corn subsidies wanes as he shifts his responsibilities to representing the people of Illinois to representing the people of America. Senator Obama could be the first president since Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter to truly advance environmental stewardship in the United States, and now more than ever that sort of leadership is needed.

While Senator Obama has a better plan, it was not so superior to Senator McCain to sway me in voting overall. But frankly, I lost my admiration for Senator McCain when he nominated Sarah Palin to be his vice president. Her environmental record as Governor of Alaska is frightening. She has routinely ignored science research, and instead has supported polices that agree with her ideology. She doesn’t believe that man has caused global warming, and will not take the decisive actions needed to curb our emissions. She has a history of being insensitive to biodiversity concerns, except when industry can be hurt by the results. Sarah Palin is not qualified to be vice-president of the United States, and should God forbid anything happen to Senator McCain, she would be an absolute disaster as a president.

So on Tuesday I will be voting for Barack Obama. Not so much as casting a vote for him, but rather casting a vote against Sarah Palin. Thanks for reading this series. Regular posting will continue on Wednesday.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Election 2008: Climate Change

Today we continue our look at the two presidential candidates' positions on environmental science issues. We’ve previously looked at the candidates’ positions on Funding Science Research, Alternative Energy, and non-Renewable Energy. Today we conclude our discussion with a look at how the candidates will tackle the looming challenge of climate change.

I’m ready to be done with this election. I’m tired of seeing attack ads on the sides of highways, hearing damning reports on the radio and having a steam of slanderous video beamed into my living room. I’m certainly tired of hearing about the latest polls from Pennsylvania, Nevada or North Carolina. And I’m definitely tired of writing these long winded research intensive posts that have seemingly generated very little interest.

Do the candidates believe that climate change is occurring?

There can no longer be any doubt that human activities are influencing the global climate and we must react quickly and effectively.


We know that greenhouse gas emissions, by retaining heat within the atmosphere, threaten disastrous changes in the climate. The same fossil-fuels that power our economic engine also produced greenhouse gases that retain heat and thus threaten to alter the global climate….The facts of global warming demand our urgent attention, especially in Washington.

Okay great, glad we’re all on the same page here.

What actions will you take to address the situation?

To dramatically reduce carbon emissions, I will institute a new cap-and-trade system…


Specifically, I will implement a market-based cap-and-trade system to reduce carbon emissions…

Alright, everyone’s on the same page, this is going to be a short post! Both McCain and Obama state that their cap and trade program will reduce US emissions to 1990’s levels by 2020, and then to a cut 60% (McCain) or 80% (Obama) on current emissions by 2050. In essence the same thing.

McCain in his answer proposes a few additional steps:
- Increasing the penalty for not meeting CAFÉ standards. CAFÉ standards set the gas mileage standards for passenger vehicles in the United States. Senator McCain does not however indicate a desire to increase standards, which Senator Obama proposes to do.
- Senator McCain proposes to create a research and development tax credit to those businesses producing greenhouse gas friendly products.
- Senator McCain proposes a $300 million dollar prize for the creation of a battery to power hybrid-electric vehicles.

The Devil is in the details…
So Senators McCain and Obama have similar perspectives on global warming, similar goals and share a mechanism by which to address it. Both propose a cap and trade, but each would go about implementing their cap and trade in different ways.

First, let’s shed a bit of light on what a cap and trade is. A regulating body, in the form of a government sets a limit (cap) on the total amount of pollutants to be allowed. The total amount of pollutants is divided into small increments, otherwise called “credits,” and are distributed to those doing the polluting. If a polluter produces more pollution than it has credits for, it must purchase additional credits from a polluter who has not used all of theirs. Thus trading industry is developed, with fiscal incentives for companies to reduce the amount of pollution produced. The total cap is often reduced incrementally, so as to over time slowly reduce the total amount of pollution a nation is producing.

This concept is not new to the United States. There is a cap and trade system in place for sulphur and nitrogen oxides, a gas most commonly produced from coal burning.

There are two major variables in a cap and trade: the initial allocation of credits and at what level the “cap” is set. The candidates are more or less in agreement of the cap, that is to say they have a specific goal to be at by 2020. But how the candidates would initially distribute the carbon credits is different. Senator Obama would auction off carbon credits, whereas Senator McCain would give allotments to companies based on current emissions.

Both Senator Obama and Senator McCain are in agreement about climate change being the fault of mankind. Both Senators agree that US needs to take a leadership role. Senator McCain supports market based, Senator Obama supports federal regulations (mandates). Both would address the situation by implementing a cap and trade. There are slight differences in how the candidates would initially distribute their carbon credits. From what I read environmentalists tend to prefer Senator Obama’s cap and trade program, but both candidates get good marks from me for their desire to tackle climate change.

Another reference that might be interesting is’s candidates factsheets about the environment. Click here for Obama’s and here for McCain’s. Actually those factsheets cover pretty much everything we discussed over the past four posts but much more succinctly.

Oh well, next we’ll hear my endorsement for President, along with a few other races in the New York Metro Region.