Nature, Science

Dutch Toxic Landfill Site Now Capturing and Storing Carbon

The Volgermeerpolder, near Amsterdam, proves that peat bogs can be created artificially.
A peat bog. Photo: Shutterstock

The Volgermeerpolder, located near Amsterdam in the Netherlands, is a toxic waste site that was capped with foil and an artificial wetland on top.

According to researchers at Radboud University, six years after the opening of the wetland, it appears that the new site is already forming peat, which can capture and store carbon.

How does this work? Peat contains high levels of carbon, which binds pollutants. There is already a large layer of peat beneath the toxic landfill, which is preventing toxins from leaking from the landfill into the groundwater. That layer of peat has eliminated the need to dig up the entire toxic site at the Volgermeer. Instead, authorities were able to cap the site with a layer of foil.

If the foil were to tear, another protective layer of peat is forming on top of that protective barrier. Growing peat from scratch has never been attempted before, but it appears to be working.

Peat grows at a very slow pace—only about 1 millimeter per year on average—and researcher Sarah Faye Harpenslager says this growth is something that can’t be measured directly.

“That one millimeter falls outside of the margin of error,” she said. “But we can measure whether carbon is being captured and stored by determining the difference in carbon dioxide levels by taking the amount of carbon dioxide that is captured by plants and then subtracting the carbon dioxide that is released when those plans decompose. The less plants decompose, the more peat that is formed. The Volgermeer is indeed capturing and storing carbon, so peat is clearly being formed even though you can’t see it.”

Harpenslager and her colleagues also compared peat formation in ponds with different bottoms—sand, clay, or a layer of organic topsoil. The topsoil was shown to be the more fertile. “In ponds with a thin layer of topsoil, peat-forming plants grow most prolifically and capture the most carbon,” Harpenslager said. “For peat o form, it is essential that peat-forming plants such as common reed, cattail, and water soldiers start to grow here.”

According to the researchers, the results of their study are not just applicable to capping of polluted land. Their research shows that peat could also be important for the capture and storage of greenhouse gases through need peat formation and preventing subsidence.

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Eco-friendly, Green, Science

Converting Carbon Dioxide into Ethanol is Actually Pretty Easy

Scientists discovered a way to produce ethanol from carbon dioxide.
An ethanol refinery in the American midwest. Photo: Shutterstock

The goal of developing alternative energy is twofold: to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels because we will run out of them eventually, and to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) that we dump into the air.

CO2 acts as a greenhouse gas, trapping heat against the Earth. It is one of the major culprits in global climate change. However, even as we turn to alternative energy sources like wind or solar, we still have a lot of CO2 in the atmosphere, and we need to get rid of it to turn back the damage we’ve already done.

A team at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory was working on a way to convert CO2 into something useful when they did exactly that. They developed a system using copper and carbon, easily obtained materials, which converts CO2 into ethanol, an alternative, renewable fuel. Best of all, the process works at room temperature, which makes it easy to start and stop, and reasonably cheap.

The team is exploring the technology further in the hopes of making it efficient enough for industrial use. This could be a huge step in the right direction. By converting CO2 into ethanol, either in the atmosphere or while it’s being created, we get more fuel out of the process. This, in turn, reduces our reliance on fossil fuels and reduces pollution, which slows the effects of climate change. It’s a win-win.

The carbon and copper method the researchers discovered would allow us to create ethanol without using as much arable land (it’s usually made from corn) and without affecting food prices. Plus, burning ethanol produces CO2, which could subsequently be turned into more ethanol. This process may not be exactly carbon neutral, but it’s a huge step toward that goal and an excellent way to make up for shortfalls from solar or wind energy production.

Climate Change, Nature, Science

Better Understanding of Soil Means a Better Understanding of Climate Change

Photo: Shutterstock
Photo: Shutterstock

Carbon dioxide gets into the atmosphere from numerous sources, and when there’s too much of it, it causes global warming. That is a gross oversimplification, but the issue of global climate change is far too complex to fit into one sentence. Part of the reason it’s so complex is because there are a lot of parts of the process that we don’t understand very well yet. The role of soil in the process is one of those.

It may not seem, at first glance, that soil has a big part to play in climate change, but it actually holds onto a lot of carbon, which might otherwise get into the atmosphere and contribute to climate change.

While scientists have known for some time that soil acts as a carbon pool, they still don’t fully understand how much carbon soil can hold. Recent research implies that previous models of how much carbon can be stored in soil were inaccurate. Thus, they didn’t know how much carbon soil was holding, and how much it was releasing into the atmosphere (called carbon dioxide efflux).

While previous models were pretty accurate on barren or mesotrophic (moderately fertile) soils, they may have underestimated how much carbon could be held by more fertile soils. This means that many forests, which tend to have more fertile soil, could be helping to hold back even more carbon dioxide than we thought. That’s a good thing, until those forests get cut down.

Forestry, the science of maintaining forests, has traditionally been more concerned with not running out of resources, but increasingly has come to be concerned with the environmental effects of poorly managed forests. Cutting down swaths of forests that are holding onto significant amounts of carbon dioxide, could lead to much of that carbon entering the atmosphere.

Better understanding of soil as a carbon dioxide storage point will give scientists and foresters a better understanding of how to manage forests so that we don’t make climate change even worse through clear-cutting or other such practices.

Climate Change, Eco-friendly, Green, Science, Uncategorized

Plants Show Us How To Reduce Carbon Dioxide in the Atmosphere

A greenhouse full of plants. Scientists have found a way to turn carbon dioxide into carbon monoxide.
Photo: Shutterstock

Carbon dioxide is one of the major contributors to global climate change. The good news is that plants use it for energy, converting it into oxygen, which animals need to breathe. The bad news is that using fossil fuels like oil, coal, and natural gas creates more carbon dioxide than plants can keep up with.

However, plants can also teach us how to deal with the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

A team at the Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory and the University of Illinois at Chicago have found a way to convert carbon dioxide into carbon monoxide.

You may be alarmed by the production of carbon monoxide, as it is a known poison that can lead to suffocation and death. However, it’s much more reactive than carbon dioxide, which means it can be more easily converted into usable fuel sources.

“Making fuel from carbon monoxide means traveling ‘downhill’ energetically, while trying to create it directly from carbon dioxide means needing to go ‘uphill,’” said Argonne physicist Peter Zapol, one of the authors of the study.

The system by which the scientists did this took inspiration from plants, using many of the same ingredients, like light and water, that plants use to convert carbon dioxide into sugars. They even created an artificial leaf through which they processed the carbon dioxide. The process is very efficient, which is important because the more efficient a process, the cheaper it is and the more likely it is to catch on.

Carbon dioxide pollution is an important issue that scientists have been trying to address for decades now. While many plans going forward call for a reduction in carbon dioxide production, and that will certainly help, it won’t be enough to undo the damage caused by what is already in the atmosphere.

Other plans involve sequestering carbon dioxide by storing it underground, but that can be difficult and expensive, and it doesn’t get rid of the carbon dioxide.

Turning carbon dioxide into carbon monoxide and subsequently into methanol could be a huge boon, as it would reduce greenhouse gases and provide renewable fuel sources.

Climate Change, Environmental Hazards, Science

Humans Cause Global Warming Proven In New Study

An oil sands mine north of Fort McMurray, Canada shows the extensive damage done to the local environment in the ongoing search for fossil fuels.
An oil sands mine north of Fort McMurray, Canada shows the extensive damage done to the local environment in the ongoing search for fossil fuels. Photo: Elias Schewel | FlickrCC.

According to the Joint Research Centre, which serves as the European Commission’s in-house science service, a new study published in February confirms that human activity drives global warming.

For most of us, that doesn’t really seem necessary. We know that human activity causes global warming. We’re more interested in finding ways to slow it down or reverse it. But there are still people out there, even a handful in the scientific community, who don’t believe that humans cause global warming.

Belief is key to this problem, because this not believing in global warming is contrary to all evidence. And the people who don’t support human activity as the cause of global warming are generally either misinformed and flat out lied to by people who have a reason to argue against human causes.

Of course, convincing the people who want to keep releasing CO2 into the atmosphere to feed their wallets is going to take far more than scientific proof. They need a profit motive to change their minds.

But the people who simply don’t know better, well maybe yet another study will help change their minds. This most recent study looked at measurements taken for the last 150 years of temperatures, carbon dioxide emissions, and methane emissions. They found, not only that all of these things have been increasing due to human activity, but the regions worse affected were North America, China, Europe, Siberia, the Sahel zone of Africa, and Alaska.

The first three aren’t very surprising, as they’re centers of population and manufacturing. The others are going to take some additional research to figure out why those regions are so heavily affected, when there are far less emissions there.

The researchers are suggesting that we start doing research in that direction, to figure out why these less populated regions are so affected, and that’s a great idea. Getting people to understand this data, or care about it, might be the first step though.

Climate Change, Science

Climate Change Computer Models Prove The World Is Doomed!

The Philippines is one of many densely populated nations in and around Southeast Asia that are endangered by rising sea levels caused by global warming. Global average sea level is rising 3.1 centimeters per decade.
The Philippines is one of many densely populated nations in and around Southeast Asia that are endangered by rising sea levels caused by global warming. Global average sea level is rising 3.1 centimeters per decade. Photo: Department Of Foreign Affairs And Trade.

Thanks to computer modeling of climate change we know that world is doomed. Actually, doomed might be to strong a word, but it’s definitely in for a wild ride. A ride in which climate change is the driver. He’s a bad driver with a license that will not expire for millennia.

A bad driver with a license to kill is an apt metaphor for climate change. After all, automobiles drove carbon dioxide in the air. Due to the increase of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere our planet will be substantially changed within several centuries. These changes could last up to 10,000 years.

We know that climate change is caused by human activity. But most people seem to think that by reducing the amount of carbon we’re putting into the atmosphere we’ll start mitigating that change soon. That’s not how it works though.

According to a new study by researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, even if we severely reduce the amount of carbon we create, we’ll suffer from the results of climate change for centuries.

This is because carbon sticks around. Sure, by creating less of it we’re adding less, but we’re not getting rid of what’s already there.

Climate change projections generally don’t go more than a few centuries into our future, and many don’t go past 2100, because most humans are shortsighted and don’t much care about a time after they, and maybe their kids, are dead. The problem is that we spend a lot of time patting ourselves on the back about how much better we’re going to be about the creation of carbon dioxide.

We fail to realize that we might limit the temperature rise over the next century or so.

We fail to understand that it’s going to take thousands of years for those temperatures to fall.

Climate Change, Nature, Science

Icebergs Are Essential to Fighting Global Warming

Surrounded by ice, bright green phytoplankton bloom in open water areas—called polynyas—in the Ross Sea during Antarctica’s spring and summer.
Surrounded by ice, bright green phytoplankton bloom in open water areas—called polynyas—in the Ross Sea during Antarctica’s spring and summer. Photo: NASA Earth Observatory | FlickrCC.

According to the University of Sheffield, icebergs in the Southern Ocean have a pretty big impact on how much carbon is sequestered in those waters.  Runoff from the icebergs is rich in nutrients, and helps phytoplankton grow. Phytoplankton work like plants, and so they breathe in carbon in the air and contribute to keeping that carbon from getting trapped in the atmosphere and contributing to global warming. The Southern Ocean is responsible for about 10% of oceanic carbon sequestration.

The researchers looked at satellite imagery of the oceans color, an easy way to determine phytoplankton activity, taken between 2003 and 2013. They focused on icebergs that were at least 19 kilometers long (about 11 miles, almost as long as Manhattan Island), which could leave trails of fertile water hundreds of kilometers long. All told, it looks like icebergs are responsible for about 20% of the total carbon sequestered in the Southern Ocean.

Now for the bad news—icebergs have been calving or breaking into smaller units, more rapidly in recent years, because global warming has been increasing average ocean temperatures. With more miniature icebergs, there will be fewer phytoplankton blooms, meaning less carbon gets sequestered and more carbon enters the atmosphere. More carbon in the atmosphere means more global warming, higher water temperatures, and fewer icebergs.

While icebergs have contributed to carbon sequestration for much longer than humans have been around, there’s already more carbon in the atmosphere than they handle. That means we’re looking at a downward spiral. This change will happen gradually, of course, but we’re already getting pretty close to the point of no return as far as climate change is concerned. While this new information about icebergs and their relationship with carbon sequestration is fascinating, it also serves to point out another problem we need to fix.