Exploration: Biosphere 2

Imagine (voluntarily) locking yourself in an enclosed space for two years, growing your own food within a glass bubble.

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The rainforest inside Biosphere 2.

This was reality for eight scientists and researchers — the “Biospherians” — who entered in the Biosphere 2‘s first mission from 1991-1993. The Biosphere, tucked in the mountains in Tucson, Arizona, was invented to see if humans could survive in an enclosed space in case of extreme future CO2 levels (which is already becoming a reality) or a space colony, for example.

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An outside look of the main room, which houses the mangroves, savanna, desert and ocean.

The Biospherians lived off the 5 ecosystems in the Biosphere 2, producing crops in a self-sustaining bubble. The bubble is made up of several ecosystems, including the rainforest, ocean, savanna and desert, to name a few, all of which are populated by plants and animals.

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The rainforest room.

The Biospherians cultivated their own garden, which produced a very “farm to table” approach to food, as they could only prepare what was ready to eat.

Over the next two years they grew 80 percent of their food, something NASA has never attempted. They recycled their sewage and effluent, drinking the same water countless times, totally purified by their plants, soil, atmosphere, and machines. (Discovery Magazine)

Despite good intentions and fact that the scientists made it 2 years within the walls, the experiment has largely been publicized as a failure. Rising CO2 levels inside the glass dropped oxygen levels, and food production waned.

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Plants in the main room above the “ocean,”

As oxygen was converted to carbon dioxide, free oxygen in the atmosphere declined. By January 1993, Biosphere 2’s carbon dioxide levels were 12 times that of the outside, and oxygen levels were what mountaineers get at 17,000 feet. The crew’s doctor was having trouble adding up simple figures and disqualified himself from duty. So, a year and four months into the mission, tank trucks containing 31,000 pounds of liquid oxygen started driving up the access road to the site. (Discovery Magazine)

Despite the deemed “failure,” the Biosphere 2 experiment left behind some great science, namely an entirely enclosed infrastructure with the aim of keeping humans (and plants and animals) alive. I walked around the basement of the dome, as well as the “lungs,” and was blown away by the recycled sewage and water systems, which they recycled for 2 years.

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It also informed how the carbon cycle and oxygen dynamics in humans connect, as well as continues to provide ecological data and fodder for visiting scientists.

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Backside of the Biosphere 2 where the Biospherian’s lived.

And why Biosphere 2, you may be wondering? Because Earth is the original Biosphere. Read more about the Biosphere 2 here.

Earth Week 2015: the rise of renewables

Welcome to my annual Earth Week series! I believe that protecting the Earth deserves more than one day, so I’ve given it a week. Check back every day from April 20-24 to learn about a new environmental issue (or solution!) each day.

So its not all bad news this Earth Week – renewable energy is on the rise. Renewable energy, once widely called alternative energy, is changing, considering it’s not so alternative anymore – it’s finally hitting the mainstream.

solar panels

According to Climate Central, renewable energy is in a “global renaissance”:

Renewables, mainly including hydropower, solar and wind, reached 28 percent of the total electric power supply in Germany in 2014, 19 percent in the United Kingdom, 22 percent in China, 76 percent in Brazil and 13 percent in the U.S., as investments in renewables increased more than 15 percent globally last year, BNEF Chairman Michael Liebreich said Tuesday.

“I haven’t heard the word ‘alternative energy’ in the last few years,” he said. “This is not alternative when the world average (for renewables) is getting to 11 to 13 percent. This is not alternative anymore. And, it’s cheap.”

For the United States, solar energy and nuclear energy are on the rise. Solar is cheaper and more efficient than ever, and more and more areas around the country are adopting it as their method of energy. By 2020, the World Nuclear Association expects America to be home to six new nuclear reactors for clean power generation, despite the stigma nuclear power has had in the past.

There are some cool energy projects starting up around the country and the world.

A vineyard in the Napa Valley outside of San Francisco has put 1,000 floating solar panels on an irrigation pond on the property, reports CBS News. Far Niente Vineyard is a certified national landmark, so the only place open for solar is the ponds, considering all other structures are out of bounds for solar development. The output of the panels daily is four times what the winery uses – they still get a power bill, but the balance has been zero for quite some time. The system also helps the drought “by reducing evaporation from the pond by providing shade. The proximity to the water also keeps the panels cooler and more efficient than they would otherwise be.”

In my opinion, that’s not a bad idea! Nothing much else is going on in those irrigation ponds, and there are farms throughout the entire state of California that could adopt this method.

Australia is also installing it’s first floating solar farm, which will be assembled on top of a wastewater pond.

vancouver

In a move to become more sustainable, Vancouver, British Columbia has committed to run on 100% renewable energy by 2030-2035, reports the Guardian. The Canadian city, population 600,000 will achieve these goals through the greening of their transportation, electricity, and heating and cooling sectors. Since cities make up 70-75% of global CO2 emissions, Andrea Reimer, Vancouver’s deputy mayor, feels it’s important to make this change and alter the global conversation about carbon emissions and how they affect our planet.

Although Vancouver isn’t as populous as major cities in the United States, this model shows that perhaps we can start to make city-wide changes, starting with San Francisco and San Diego, both of which have expressed interest and made progress on becoming green. Other cities around the world are in different stages of the process too, including Sydney, Copenhagen, Reykjavik, and the entire country of Costa Rica.

There are small projects going on throughout the country. Check into your town, city, or state and see how they’re making it sustainable. You may be surprised!

Check back Friday 4/24 for Earth Week 5: the state of our oceans.

 

Earth Week 2015: BP Oil Spill update

Welcome to my annual Earth Week series! I believe that protecting the Earth deserves more than one day, so I’ve given it a week. Check back every day from April 20-24 to learn about a new environmental issue (or solution!) each day.

So, what’s going on with the Gulf of Mexico? The Deepwater Horizon oil spill, more commonly known as the BP oil spill, took place 5 years ago in April 2010. Here’s more background:

In April 2010, there was an oil spill of catastrophic proportions in the Gulf of Mexico due to negligence by BP executives and an explosion on an oil rig. This negligence caused the largest oil spill in U.S. history: 4.9 million barrels (205 million gallons) of oil leaked into the Gulf of Mexico over months, and the blast from the explosion killed 11 workers and sent oil spewing into the Gulf for 87 days. In September 2014, BP was finally found liable for the oil spill in 2010 in court, and was charged with gross negligence. The oil giant could pay up to $4,300 per barrel spilled in fines on top of everything they have already paid (number is floating around $13.7 billion).

Map of the spill during summer 2010 (photo by NASA)
Map of the spill during summer 2010 (photo by NASA)

A lot has happened since then – clean-up efforts have been partially successful, BP has been fined billions, and restoration efforts continue on. On the 5 year anniversary of the spill, news organizations and government agencies alike have compiled information for the public and put them in graphic form.

OnEarth Magazine, magazine of the Natural Resources Defense Council, put together an infographic explaining what scientists know about wildlife deaths, which total in the millions (click-through for full image):

BP oil spill OnEarth

The AP also created a beautiful interactive scrolling image that catalogs the Gulf’s health 5 years after the spill. Categories include the health of the seafloor, mammals, crustaceans, the food web, marshes, birds, fish, water quality, turtles, and beaches before and after the spill. Spoiler alert: every data point except one, the red snapper population numbers, has decreased since the spill (click-through for the full image):

AP gulf oil spill interactive

Here’s a more comprehensive list of what’s been happening since BP was found liable for the oil spill:

1. A study in January 2015: found there may be close to 10 million gallons of oil stuck in the bottom of the Gulf. The scientists speculate the oil may have come from microorganisms digesting it and discarding it on the sea floor, and the extra oil may cause lesions (or death) to deep-sea creatures that live there.

2. The White House has proposed new deep-sea, offshore drilling regulations. If passed, deep-sea drilling rigs, like the BP rig that exploded, will “tighten safety requirements on blowout preventers, the industry-standard devices that are the last line of protection to stop explosions in undersea oil and gas wells,” according to the New York Times. This is huge, considering the blowout preventer is what faulted, causing the Macando well to explode in the first place. These rules and regulations would be imposed on all deep-sea offshore drilling equipment, as this type of drilling is expanding.

If passed, these regulations would be the third of their kind. In 2010, the Department of the Interior introduced new regulations on drilling well casings. In 2012, the DOI announced tighter regulations on the cementing of wells.

3. Cat Island, once one of the four largest bird-nesting grounds in Louisiana, has been disintegrated by the oil from the BP oil spill. Yes – an entire island is gone. National Geographic reports that the spill killed the mangrove trees on the island, the roots of which made up the sediment traps to make Cat Island an actual island. Since there is nothing to hold the sediment, the island has washed away. The 5.5 acre island was once home to rare and endangered birds, including the brown pelican, who’s habitat has been ravaged by the oil spill. Many brown pelicans were also found dead on the shores shortly after the spill. Watch the video below for more:

4. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) continues to work through restoration projects throughout the Gulf, all of which can be seen in this interactive map. NOAA, along with other government agencies, is working with the $700 million pool they have to work on restoration projects revolving around barrier islands, dunes, marshes, shorelines, and oyster beds, along with wildlife issues and recreation areas. For more from NOAA, visit their Response and Restoration website.

Restoration will continue until oil stops washing up on shore or until BP’s money runs out. Craving more? Check out OnEarth’s 5 years later series.

Check back Wednesday 4/22 for Earth Week 3: Happy Earth Day!

 

Keystone XL Update (Feb. 2015)

For now, the Keystone XL pipeline goes back to the planning stages.

The newly-sworn in Republican Congress passed the bill earlier this year, after it failed in the Senate in November. The pipeline bill would allow for a Keystone XL tar sands pipeline to span from Alberta to the Gulf of Mexico, but President Obama vetoed it within minutes of it reaching his desk, reports Reuters. USA Today reports that Obama mentioned the bill “earned” his veto:

“The presidential power to veto legislation is one I take seriously,” Obama said in his veto message to the Senate. “But I also take seriously my responsibility to the American people. And because this act of Congress conflicts with established executive branch procedures and cuts short thorough consideration of issues that could bear on our national interest — including our security, safety, and environment — it has earned my veto.”

Image from NPR, adapted from TransCanada

The pipeline – actually named the TransCanada Corp pipeline – would carry 830,000 barrels a day of mostly Canadian oil sands/tar sands/crude oil through Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Nebraska to refineries and ports along the U.S. Gulf. “It has been pending for more than six years,” reports Reuters.

Nebraska courts rejected the pipeline’s path in 2014, citing land ownership problems as unconstitutional. #NOKXL groups cite spill hazards and the interruption of wildlife migration as serious reasons why the pipeline should remain a figment of America’s imagination.

The bill is likely to pass through Congress again, as Republicans have the majority. For now, we wait.