The Earth is running out of helium! That’s right: helium cannot be synthesized in a lab, and it’s a nonrenewable gas, so we get all of our supplies by separating it from the natural gas found by drilling underground. Once that helium is pumped into a balloon, we all know that it slowly deflates and loses that helium. What I didn’t know (and I’ll bet you didn’t either) is that once it leaks out into the atmosphere, it cannot be recovered. There is currently no viable method of extracting helium from the mix of other gases in the Earth’s atmosphere.
But what else can you do with helium besides fill balloons and make yourself sound funny after inhaling it? A lot of important things, actually! It’s a very stable, odorless, colorless gas that will not burn or react with other elements, so it has many applications in the medical field. Helium is used in its liquid form to cool the magnets in hospital MRI machines and cryogenically preserve tissue samples, and is also mixed with oxygen in tanks to make it easier for the elderly to breathe in and process (a mixture of helium and oxygen requires less pressure to reach the lungs than pure oxygen). It helped with NASA’s shuttle launch by cooling and purging the cavity between the cold fuel and the hot gas created by burning the fuel.
The U.S has the highest production rate of helium in the world, probably because we have high rates of natural gas extraction. About 75% of the world’s helium supply comes from the U.S.Unfortunately, neither of these resources are indefinite, and experts believe that helium reserves will run out completely in 30 to 50 years. As of now, there is no substitute that can be used in all of these applications, and no way of synthesizing helium artificially. So, what can you do about it? STOP BUYING HELIUM BALLOONS! There are so many other ways of decorating that don’t use up this valuable resource. Or, if you absolutely have to have balloons, fill them with regular air and let guests kick them around on the floor, or just use one or two in strategic spots rather than bunches and bunches of them.
A genetically modified (GM) food has had some portion of its genome altered, whether through insertion of a gene from another unrelated species (transgenic) or just from another strain of the same species (cisgenic). These genetic changes help confer benefits to the plant, such as the classic example of “golden rice”, a strain of rice developed in 2000 for areas with a shortage of Vitamin A. The rice can synthesize betacarotene, which is a precursor of Vitamin A, to help with this deficiency, and the rice grains are consequently a golden yellow color rather than white.
We have all eaten (GM) foods before, even if we don’t think we have. Almost all of the vegetable oil in the US comes from GM plants, as well as any products that this oil is used in, like margarine, cooking oil, and shortening. Additionally, a high percentage of sugar beets used to produce sugar are genetically modified, as well as the commodity crops: corn, wheat, and soy.
Some of the benefits of GM foods are:
- More nutrition per same amount of food
- Higher income for poor farmers (higher yields per area)
- Drought, disease, and pest resistance
- Less loss/waste
- Longer storage ability for transport
- Can be specific to indigenous crops
- Vaccines implanted in foods
- Food security for the country
- Reduce labor needs
- Able to grow crops on previously “useless” land
Some negative effects include:
- Unknown human health effects; not enough research
- “Playing God”
- creation of super viruses, stronger pests, or herbicide-resistant plants
- Claiming of modifications as intellectual property could create monopolies
- Ethical questions-are we changing the “purpose” of an organism?
- No precautionary principle in place right now
- Animal rights questions
- Environmental risks
- Some modifications don’t actually work well (i.e. golden rice-need to eat 27 bowls a day to have enough Vitamin A)
- Allergen issues
Prop 37, a Californian statute that would have required all GM foods to be labeled as such, was unfortunately defeated. People who were against the bill believed that it would add too many costs for the consumer, and . Many other countries have already banned the import of GM foods, including Peru, Ireland, China, Japan, Austria, Hungary, and most recently: Kenya.
Personally, I believe that GM foods can be a good thing, but that there should be a lot more research done of the long-term human health effects before they are used at such a huge scale. In addition, I believe that items that use these foods should be labeled (as Prop 37 would have done), so that anyone who makes the conscious choice to avoid GM foods could do so more easily.
And now for some positive news! The rate of deforestation in the Amazon Rainforest is the lowest it’s been in 24 years!
(Rather than reposting an article from another source, I will now write a few articles of my own. Keep those comments coming!)
One of the environmental causes that I am the most passionate about is the destruction and deforestation of the Amazon Rainforest. In fact, when we were given free reign on the topic for our ENV 100 final paper, this is the one that I chose. While conducting my research, I realized just how scary the situation in the rainforest is–we immediately think of deforestation when we hear the words “Amazon Rainforest”, but it is difficult for most of us to realize the true scale and consequences of this destruction. Every second, 1.5 acres of rainforest are destroyed. To compare this to an image that may be more easily understood, a football field has a total area of about 9/10ths of an acre. That’s a little less than one-and-a-half football fields gone EVERY SECOND. Now do you see how terrifying this is?
Luckily, a new low in Amazonian destruction may be on the horizon. The Brazilian government reported on the 27th of November that the deforestation within the Amazon was the lowest it has been in 24 years! Using satellite images, the Brazilian Nation Institute for Space Research reported that 27% fewer square miles were destroyed this year in comparison to last year’s data (1,798 sq. miles this year as compared to 2,478 sq. miles last year). While these numbers are still staggeringly high when we think about the loss of habitat, biodiversity, and more, this drop in destruction is a very good thing.
However, deforestation is not the only problem that the Amazon has to worry about. As popularized by shows like “Jungle Gold” on the Discovery Channel, the Amazon plays host to massive quantities of gold ore, which is extracted using processes that not only rip apart huge areas of the land itself and fell thousands of trees, but also dumps thousands of gallons of toxic, mercury-contaminated waste water back into the river systems. The mercury is used to extract the gold from the junk dirt and ore surrounding it, and since the miners cannot afford to (or just don’t want to) dispose of the chemical correctly, they just pour it back into the water, where it can contaminate fish and other river organisms, and in turn poison the native people who eat the fish.
In order to stop the total destruction of the Amazon rainforest before it’s too late, we must focus our attention on the multitude of problems that the it is facing, and strive to continue this downward trend in deforestation!
Around the world, we are emitting more carbon dioxide than ever.
For 2012, according to new projections by the Global Carbon Project, there is likely to be a 2.6 percent rise in global CO2 emissions from the burning of fossil fuels compared to the year before. That puts emissions of the gas at 58 percent higher than 1990 levels.
In 2011, China was the biggest producer of CO2, accounting for 28 percent of global emissions, researchers report in the journals Nature Climate Change and Earth System Science Data Discussions. The United States followed with 16 percent, the European Union with 11 percent and India with seven percent.
Regionally, emissions are increasing faster in some places than in others. In 2011, emissions grew in China by nearly 10 percent and in India by more than seven percent.
In the United States and the European Union, on the other hand, emission rates declined by a couple of percentage points.
Still, in emissions-per-person tallies, the United States led the way with more than 17 tons of CO2 released for every American. The European Union came next with just over seven tons per person. China was close behind and India was lowest, with slightly less than two tons emitted per person.
The findings, say the authors, add urgency to reports about how dangerously high levels of emissions are affecting the environment and society. Projections for 2012 make it seem less and less likely that we’ll be able to stay within the international goal of keeping global warming below two degrees.
“These latest figures come amidst climate talks in Doha,” said Corinne Le Quéré, director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research and professor at UEA in a press release. “But with emissions continuing to grow, it’s as if no one is listening to the entire scientific community.”
As we get ready for a great traditional Thanksgiving feast, I often wonder if this meal is really what the pilgrims and Native Americans would have eaten. Most likely our traditions have nothing to do with what really went down. We cannot even be sure that the first Thanksgiving had a turkey, and even if they did, according to a new study, this main dish would be genetically different than the bird present at the first Thanksgiving.
“Ancient turkeys weren’t your Butterball,” said Rob Fleischer, head of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute’s Center for Conservation and Evolutionary Genetics. “We set out to compare the genetic diversity of the domestic turkeys we eat today with that of the ancestral wild turkey from South Mexico. Some of what we found surprised us.” First to note is that all commercial turkey lines have descended from the South Mexican turkey that was first domesticated in 800 BC.
To obtain the turkeys’ genetic code, researchers sequenced the genomes of domestic turkeys from seven commercial lines and compared the genomes to those of three museum specimens of the South Mexican turkeys collected in 1899 from Chihuahua, Mexico.
What researchers found was that the domestic turkey exhibits less genetic variation than not only its ancestral wild counterparts, but the species has less diversity compared to other livestock breeds, like domestic pigs or chickens.
“It is often the case that selection in domestication reduces the level of variation,” Fleischer said. “What did surprise us, however, is how well the ancient DNA from the three museum specimens worked to generate the genome sequences needed to determine the genetic variation and structure. These data and this approach show great promise for determining what genes were involved in the process of turkey domestication.”
Turkey is the second largest contributor of poultry meat consumed worldwide and the production per bird doubled between 1970 and 2008 as breeders started selecting traits that would appeal to consumers. However, this genetic “improvement” of farm animals has resulted in a loss of genetic diversity.
The research is important in order to discover the differences between ancient and modern domesticated turkeys, which can predict any unforeseen problems that may threaten the stability of the commercial turkey lines.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Americans consume more than 45 million turkeys every Thanksgiving. So gobble up and enjoy your turkey day!
In an effort to enhance American security and address climate change, the U.S. military is diminishing its footprint. The military is producing cleaner power, reducing energy consumption, managing water and minimizing waste. Their efforts encompass vast numbers of vehicles, ships, planes, buildings, lands, and other facilities.
A major impetus for these efforts is Executive Order 13514, “Federal Leadership in Environmental, Energy, and Economic Performance,” which President Obama signed on October 5, 2009. It mandates a 30 percent reduction in energy usage by federal agencies.
Independent of EO 13514, most senior ranking military officials acknowledge the need to address the risks posed by climate change. Even military men that were around long before the Obama administration believe that it is urgent that we address climate change. Admiral John Nathman, USN (Ret.), former Commander of the U.S. Fleet Forces Command under President George W. Bush, put it this way:
“There are serious risks to doing nothing about climate change. We can pay now or we’re going to pay a whole lot later. The U.S. has a unique opportunity to become energy independent, protect our national security and boost our economy while reducing our carbon footprint. We’ve been a model of success for the rest of the world in the past and now we must lead the way on climate change.”
Climate change has been an important issue for the Department of Defense (DoD) dating back to the dawn of the 21st century. In 2008, the DoD set the goal of generating 25 percent of all energy from renewable sources by 2025. In 2009, the U.S. military launched several clean energy initiatives including solar and wind projects. The DoD’s current Comprehensive Energy Strategy involves annual reduction requirements, which include energy, water, and GHGs.
A Pike Research report titled, “Renewable Energy for Military Applications”, indicates that annual spending on renewable energy by the DoD will reach $10 billion by 2030.
The US Department of Defense spends approximately $4 billion per year on energy. About one quarter of these costs come from 500 fixed installations, comprising nearly 300,000 buildings that cover 2.3 billion square feet.
To help manage these facilities, the DoD has developed an energy strategy designed to reduce energy demand through conservation and efficiency. To achieve these goals, they are expanding their supply of renewable energy and leveraging advanced technology.
Today is America Recycles Day, a nationally recognized day dedicated to promoting recycling in the US. All across the country, thousands of events are being held to celebrate recycling awareness in communities.
One way organizations are participating this year is by taking the Food Recovery Challenge. The Food Recovery Challenge is a voluntary program established by the EPA with a goal to cut the 35 million tons of food wasted nationwide annually by reducing unnecessary consumption and increasing donations to charity and composting.
Whether it’s week-old leftovers, spoiled vegetables, or food you’re just tired of eating, the average America throws away $2275 per year in unwanted food- and this food ends up in landfills where it decomposes to generate methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. Nationally, food is the single largest material sent to landfills, accounting for 25 percent of all waste. By limiting wasted food, we have the potential to reduce methane emissions.
Instead of throwing away food, the Food Recovery Challenge emphasizes the use of composting. When compostable foods are put into composts piles, they break down faster and put key nutrients back into the soil. If you do not have the means to start your own compost heap, many organizations will often come and collect your leftover food scraps for a nominal fee.
For foods that are in surplus, the campaign suggests donations. A lot of supermarkets and restaurants that have expired or leftover food often throw these products away. However, donating these foodstuffs to the appropriate parties not only saves the food from going into landfills, but it also helps those in need. According to the EPA, in 2009, more than 14 percent of households in the US did not know where their next meal would come from, so it is important that we donate any and all leftovers.
Some examples of how organizations can implement food waste reduction programs is by including trayless dining, which reduces the tendency to take more food than can be consumed. For restaurants, management can modify their purchasing orders or pay attention to food that is left on diner’s plates. Individually, we can focus on portion control to not only reduce excess food waste, but to also save money.
Over 100 higher education institutions, grocers, businesses, cafeterias, and entertainment venues have signed up to take the challenge. Will you?
Find a recycling event for America Recycles Day.
Read more about the Food Recovery Challenge.
Food waste image via Shutterstock.