Conservation, Nature, Science

There Are More Unique Species on Earth that We Thought

Soils are one of the largest reservoirs of microbial diversity on Earth. It is not uncommon for a gram of soil to contain 1 trillion cells and 10,000 species of bacteria, including Actinomyces israelii (pictured). |
Soils are one of the largest reservoirs of microbial diversity on Earth. It is not uncommon for a gram of soil to contain 1 trillion cells and 10,000 species of bacteria, including Actinomyces israelii (pictured). | Photo: GrahamColm | WikipediaCC.

If you follow science news at all, you’ve likely read about the discovery of countless new species. It seems like nearly every day a scientist somewhere is describing a new form of life that we didn’t know.

Consider microbial organisms, i.e. anything too small to be seen by the naked eye. Those little things are everywhere, with a single gram of soil containing up to a billion such life forms.

So we keep finding new life, but that has to stop eventually, right? According to a study from Indiana University, it’s more likely that we will never successfully catalog all the life on Earth.

Why? Not for lack of trying, but that study estimates that there are about one trillion unique species on Earth. How many have we found so far? Only one thousandth of one percent, meaning 99.999% of organisms out there is a total mystery.

Those are some staggering numbers, and like the best science, in trying to answer a question, these researchers found out just how little we know. The study reviewed other studies on biodiversity. Over 35,000 recorded sampling efforts of everything from trees to bacteria.

Earlier estimates assumed a much lower number of unique species, but they have routinely used sample sizes that were too small and sometimes suspect math. There also haven’t been many efforts to look at these samplings in the larger context and ask the big questions about biodiversity.

So what does all this mean? Well for one it means that scientists who study microbial life will never want for something to do, which is a nice bit of job security.

But it also gives us an idea of just how diverse life on the planet is, and why protecting it is so important because it’s not as if every single species is represented everywhere.

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Climate Change, Conservation, Science

Thirsty Yet? Climate Change is Drying Up Your Drinking Water!

The Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest watersheds drain into Hubbard Brook, and then into Mirror Lake, pictured here.
The Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest watersheds drain into Hubbard Brook, and then into Mirror Lake, pictured here. Photo: Chemical Heritage Foundation | WikimediaCC.

Climate change is shrinking global drinking water resources, reveals a recent study published by researchers from SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry. The research is based on over 40 years of water samples taken in the Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest.

What the study finds is that water from more recent samples is coming from different parts of the world that it used to, namely from the Arctic. Isotopic analysis of the water samples allows us to know where rain and snow came from in the first place, because water from different parts of the world has different isotopic identifiers.

The water that has been falling on New Hampshire, where the Hubbard Brook forest is located, has been coming from the Arctic because ice levels are dropping there and more water is evaporating.

Subsequently, the polar vortex that has been responsible for record low temperatures in places as diverse as New York and Florida in recent years, not to mention huge blizzards in recent memory, has also been bringing that water some 2,500 miles south to New England.

About 85% of the world’s population lives in the driest half of the planet, and some 783 million people do not have access to clean water, so figuring out how climate change impacts the distribution of water around the globe is of great importance.

Further research along these lines will be necessary for scientists to understand some of the more subtle effects of climate change, and for policymakers to take that information into account when determining how to deal with climate change in the future.

More research will be forthcoming to help scientists build a better picture of how water resources are distributed globally. This information may help us to find ways to harness that information and improve the lives of people around the world.

Business, Conservation, Sustainability

Study Unveils Roots of Mangrove Deforestation

Tall-stilt Mangroves (Rhizophora apiculata) in Batang Salak Estuary North of Kuching, Sarawak, MALAYSIA.
Tall-stilt Mangroves (Rhizophora apiculata) in Batang Salak Estuary North of Kuching, Sarawak, MALAYSIA. Photo: Bernard Dupont | FlickrCC.

Mangrove forests provide a number of ecological services to animals and people. They provide excellent cover for young fish to hide both from predators and from storms, which benefit other animals as well. They also store much higher levels of carbon than most other ecosystems, which make them valuable globally in the fight to reduce carbon emissions and slow climate change.

Unfortunately, in Southeast Asia, which is home to the greatest variety of mangrove species on the planet, deforestation is having a huge impact on these ecosystems. Between 2002 and 2012, two percent of the mangrove forests in Southeast Asia were removed so that the land could be used for other purposes.

While these numbers are actually smaller than expected, they are still too high. This is still a substantial loss and one destined to affect Southeast Asia and the world for decades to come. Most of the forests were cut down to provide additional land for rice or palm oil cultivation. Myanmar considers rice production crucial for food security, while Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand promote palm oil production for economic and energy security.

As demand for these items is expected to increase in the near future, due to a growing global population and increasing global affluence, the problems caused by mangrove deforestation will continue to persist and worsen.

With this information in mind, scientists are trying to make the case of mangrove conservation. With a better understanding of what mangrove deforestation does to local ecosystems and the world at large, it will be easier to make arguments for that conservation. And, with a greater understanding of policies causing deforestation and the rates at which that deforestation happens, it will be easier to formulate plans to halt, if not reverse, those damages.

Environmental Hazards, Science, Uncategorized

Radioactive Pollution From Fukishima Is Nearing The United States

 NASA satellite photo of Japan’s Fukushima Prefecture after being struck by a tsunami, since the incident in 2011 seawater contaminated with Cesium-134 has been moving closer to the United States.
NASA satellite photo of Japan’s Fukushima Prefecture after being struck by a tsunami, since the incident in 2011 seawater contaminated with Cesium-134 has been moving closer to the United States. Photo: NASA | FlickrCC.

In 2011 a tsunami caused by an earthquake hit the Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan, resulting in three reactor meltdowns. Since then, scientists have been testing water in the Pacific Ocean at various distances from the site to determine what kind of contaminants have escaped from the site. The bad news is that contaminants keep entering the ocean from Fukushima, but the good news is that those levels are far lower than they were just after the event.

Cesium-134 is an isotope that acts as a sort of “fingerprint” for Fukushima, and finding it in water means provides the geographical sources for those particular isotopes. Cesium-134 has a half life of two years, meaning that every two years half of it decays, so based on the amount in a given body, scientists can tell how long it’s been there.

Lately, measurements have indicated that levels of Cesium-134 are elevated in water as close to the United States as 1,600 miles west of San Francisco. These samples have 50% more Cesium than previous samples, but those levels are still 500 times lower than safety limits for drinking water, and well below the levels where direct exposure is dangerous.

This information, coupled with samples taken from a kilometer from the site, indicates that Cesium-134 is still leaking out and getting into the water, but it can also allow scientists to figure out how much material actually made it into the ocean in the first place.

An interesting side effect too is that, since these isotopes can only have come from Fukushima, researchers can use them as markers to track how water moves though the Pacific Ocean. That could prove pretty useful for oceanographers, and it’s nice to know that there is at least some small benefit from that disaster.

Conservation, Eco-friendly, Green, Uncategorized

All The Dirt You Need To Know About The International Year Of Soils

USDA Soil Science Deputy Dave Smith listens to Under Secretary Robert Bonnie speaks at the International Year of Soils 1st World Soil Day celebration held at the United Nations.
USDA Soil Science Deputy Dave Smith listens to Under Secretary Robert Bonnie speaks at the International Year of Soils 1st World Soil Day celebration held at the United Nations. Photo: USDA | FlickrCC.

In case you missed it, the United Nations declared 2015 the International Year of Soils. That ended on December 5th, but the importance of soil and soil conservation didn’t.

Soil isn’t something that a lot of people give much thought, but soil health is important to human health, and understanding the best ways to conserve it is a necessary part of modern science.

Obviously, plants grow in soil, like the crops we eat or feed to livestock, or the trees that help produce oxygen and store carbon dioxide. As it turns out, soil also helps store carbon, and of course properly maintained soil is more resistant to being washed away or otherwise eroded as climate change impacts the world.

There are a lot of concerns scientists have about the state of the world’s soil, things like desertification, biodiversity loss, erosion, contamination, and a host of other issues, which can impact the world in a variety of ways. Luckily, there are researchers around the world who are investigating these issues, such as RECARE, a European Union funded project that is continuing its work well past the International Year of Soils.

RECARE, headed in part by Professor Coen Ritsema of Wageningen University in the Netherlands, and including a team of Norwegian scientists, is working on projects around Europe to develop soil solutions and figure out how to put them into practice. They are currently running 17 case studies in which they are working with locals to develop simple yet scientifically informed practices to address soil issues.

The goal is to find efficient, simple, and relatively cheap ways to address problems that farmers and other people face around the world. Things like mulching or terracing to prevent erosion, or using plants, which can pull contaminants out of the soil around them.

Business, Science, Sustainability

Harnessing Energy Where Freshwater Meets Seawater

The spot where fresh and salt water meet, near Tasmania, could provide an alternative power source.
Fresh and salt water meet near Tasmania. Salinity gradients in areas like this could provide an alternative power source. Photo: jeaneeem | FlickrCC.

The key to combating climate change is reducing carbon emissions through alternative energy sources. We need to find ways to produce energy that doesn’t dump carbon into the atmosphere, and we could do a lot worse than looking at nature for inspiration. After all, the universe gets along without destroying itself rather well. Salinity gradients are a natural feature that might provide clean energy.

The term refers to the meeting of water with different levels of salt, such as when a freshwater river meets the sea. Acceding to a recent study by scientists at Griffith University in Queensland, Australia, harnessing salinity gradients could provide a renewable source of clean energy. Harnessing that energy would help to mitigate climate impact by reducing our reliance on fossil fuels, and could help improve processes in the desalination industry.

Getting energy in this way would require a process called Pressure Retarded Osmosis (or PRO), which basically involved passing water through a membrane that helps separate water of different salinities. This creates a solution that, after being depressurized via turbine, can be used to provide electricity.

As an added benefit, the process makes use of brine, which is a byproduct of the desalination process that is otherwise hard to put to use. The study suggests that osmotic plants could be built on rivers, especially in places like Australia, where most major cities sit at the meeting point of rivers and the sea. In fact, many of the world’s largest cities are in similar positions, so osmotic plants could pop up all over the place.

The question of just how efficient such plants would be remains unanswered, as the team has more research to do, but they think there’s a future. At the very least, as the process generates electricity almost as a byproduct of desalination, such technology could at least help reduce desalination plant’s reliance on fossil fuels.