December 5 – Smoke On The Water

Today’s factismal: Smog killed 4,000 people in London between December 5 and December 9, 1952.

John Carpenter once made a scary movie about a fog that envelops people and drives them mad. Little did he know that his art was imitating real life! In late November of 1952, London was gripped by a cold wave, forcing many to burn extra coal to keep warm. In addition, the many coal-fired power plants in the London area were going full blast, trying to keep up with the increased demand for electricity. Normally, the smoke created by the fireplaces and power plants would have just blown out to sea and out of mind. But this time, something else would intervene.

 

Just as November changed to December, a high pressure zone moved over London and settled in to stay. This created a temperature inversion. Normally, the air temperature goes down with altitude. But in an inversion, it goes up. This means that the smoke could only rise so far before being trapped against the warmer air above. In effect, London was under a giant dome with no way to get clean air. The final ingredient needed to make this a perfect anti-storm was the fog that soon developed below the inversion layer. The fog mixed with the smoke to form a noxious smog, rich in carbon dioxide and sulfur dioxide and poor in oxygen.It created what Londoners soon called “the Big Smoke”.

Downtown London during the "Big Smoke" (Image courtesy N T Stobbs)

Downtown London during the “Big Smoke”
(Image courtesy N T Stobbs)

The smog soon became so thick that it soon became impossible to see more than a few yards away. Movie houses and restaurants closed because it was impossible for the audience to see the screen or the waiter to find the tables! All surface traffic – including emergency vehicles such as ambulances – was stopped, with only the London underground left as public transport. If you got ill, you had to find your own way to the hospital. And get sick they did, by the thousands. More than 100,000 people were made ill by the Big Smoke, and at least 4,000 people died. Most of those who died were either very old or very young or suffered from breathing problems such as asthma or emphysema. And later reviews of the death rates during the Big Smoke suggest that the actual toll may have been as high as 12,000 deaths!

Fortunately, the Big Smoke lasted just a few days. By December 9, the inversion layer had moved off of London and the Big Smoke was nothing more than a bad memory and a cause for action. England quickly passed a clean air bill that paid homeowners to convert their coal fireplaces to natural gas and that forced power plants to install pollution reduction controls. Thanks to the cleaned-up environment, London has seen just one other Big Smoke since then (in 1962, before all of the controls were in place).

Air pollution in Beijing isn't the world's worst (Image courtesy Discovery News)

London isn’t the only place with air pollution; this is downtown Beijing
(Image courtesy Discovery News)

Of course, London isn’t the only place that has an environment or pollution or people willing to work to preserve the former and get rid of the latter. And, as you might guess, there are plenty of citizen science opportunities working with the environment. One of my favorites is AirVisual. Using reports from meteorologists and people like you from around the world, they monitor air pollution in real time and share that information with scientists, policy makers, and people like you! To learn more, drift over to:
https://airvisual.com/

June 4 – Up In The Air

Today’s Factismal: Humans put out 135 times the amount of CO2 of all the volcanoes on Earth combined.

Today is Clean Air Day, so here are five fast facts about air pollution:

1 The ozone layer has begun to recover, thanks to the ban on CFCs enacted in 1996. But it will take another four decades to complete heal.
2 Though ozone in the stratosphere is essential for screening out UV rays, ozone at the surface is a pollutant that can cause emphysema, asthma, and other breathing problems. So pity the folks of Los Angeles, which has the highest ozone count in the USA!
3 Smog created by burning old palm trees and forests to clear land for palm oil plantations can reach all the way from Indonesia to Oregon!

Smoke from Siberia reaches the USA (Image courtesy NASA)

Smoke from Siberia reaches the USA
(Image courtesy NASA)

4 Two-thirds of the people killed by air pollution live in Asia, thanks to their lax standards.
5 The world’s worst air pollution is over the Iranian city of Ahwaz, which is three times more polluted than Beijing!
Air pollution in Beijing isn't the world's worst (Image courtesy Discovery News)

Air pollution in Beijing isn’t the world’s worst
(Image courtesy Discovery News)

If you’d like to learn more about air pollution, including how you can measure it at home and what you can do to help reduce it, then head on over to the EPA’s EnviroAtlas:
http://enviroatlas.epa.gov/enviroatlas/atlas.html

March 24 – Nozone Layer

Today’s Factismal: The Vienna Convention for the Protection of the Ozone Layer was adopted in 1985; the ozone hole is expected to recover around 2115.

It is hard to love a molecule whose very name means “it stinks”. But ozone is a vital part of life on Earth. Though it is harmful when found in the lower atmosphere, due to the way it makes things oxidize even faster than normal, it is essential in the stratosphere where it gathers into a region known cleverly enough as the ozone layer. This part of the stratosphere has between two and eight parts per million of ozone. Though that may not sound like much, it is enough to reduce the UV that reaches the ground by a factor of 350 million. If the UV at the top of the atmosphere were represented by the US population, then only one person would make it past the ozone layer to reach the ground.

Ozone concentration in the atmosphere; the red line shows the "hole" near the South Pole (Image courtesy NOAA)

Ozone concentration in the atmosphere; the red line shows the “hole” near the South Pole (Image courtesy NOAA)

But in the 1970s and 1980s, scientists discovered that there was a problem with the ozone layer. For some reason, the amount of ozone in the layer was dropping; it had reached the point where a large hole had developed in the ozone layer over the South Pole. (It happened there first because of the way that the Earth’s atmosphere circulates.) If the trend continued, then the depletion of the ozone layer was expected to reach disastrous proportions within the century. But what was causing the depletion?

It turned out that the cause was good intentions. In the 1920s and 1930s, most refrigerators used an ammonia gas cycle to cool food. Unfortunately, ammonia is poisonous even in small quantities. As a result, though the refrigerators improved life, they also made it a little more hazardous. Scientists developed a new cycle based on chlorofluorocarbon gasses (CFCs) that was both more efficient and less hazardous. What they didn’t know (because the ozone layer hadn’t been discovered yet) was that the CFCs would break down ozone into oxygen, which isn’t nearly as effective at reducing UV. So people started buying these new, safer refrigerators and found more uses for CFCs; one popular use was as the propellant for hairspray and other canned goop. That led to more CFCs being released into the atmosphere and more damage to the ozone layer. By the time that the damage was discovered, it was almost too late to fix it.

But there is a world of difference between “almost too late” and “too late”. In this case, the evidence was overwhelming enough that the international community took swift and decisive action. In 1985, twenty nations signed a treaty limiting the amount of CFCs that could be used. In 1992, the treaty was amended to ban CFCs. Substitutes were found for use in air conditioning, refrigeration, and hair spray.

Unfortunately, it takes time for CFCs to work their way out of the atmosphere. Even though we’ve stopped adding them, (or think that we have) the amount of CFCs has decreased by just 10%. Though that 10% reduction has prevented the ozone hole from getting any larger, it is only slowly getting smaller as more CFCs work their way out of the environment. It is expected that it will take another century before the ozone layer returns to normal.

This hole in the ozone layer and the subsequent treaty that fixed the problem couldn’t have happened unless scientists had been out there, measuring things. And ozone isn’t the only climate challenge that faces us. If you know a teen who would like to help measure key climate indicators such as rainfall and wind speed, then why not send them over to Tracking Climate In Your Backyard?
http://www.museumoftheearth.org/outreach.php?page=citizenscienceed/TCYIB

September 23 – Hole Lotta Trouble

Today’s factismal: The ozone hole stretched to cover a city for the first time fifteen¬† years ago.

One of the great successes in pollution control was the 1992 international treaty banning the use of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) due to their effect on the ozone layer. Following the signing of the treaty, nations were required to change their refrigerators and hairsprays so that they didn’t use CFCs; the only exceptions were for national security. So with the pollution stopped, the problem was solved, right?

2009 Ozone Hole (Image courtesy NASA)

2009 Ozone Hole
(Image courtesy NASA)

Wrong. The problem with pollution is that it doesn’t stop doing harm just because you’ve stopped putting more trash into the atmosphere. You still have to deal with all of the junk that was put into the atmosphere before you stopped. Some environmentalists call this the “teenager’s room problem”: sure, your kid has gone to college and left his room empty – but you still have the ten years of empty soda cans, candy bar wrappers, and dirty laundry piled in the corners that need to be cleaned out before it can be turned into a sewing room. And that’s where we are with CFCs in the atmosphere. We’ve stopped adding them but we still have to wait for the ones in the air to break down and go away. And, until they do, we will have problems.

This year's ozone hole (Image courtesy MACC)

This year’s ozone hole
(Image courtesy MACC)

In 2000 we saw one example of the sort of problem we’ll have; the ozone hole grew to cover an area three times the size of the continental United States. It got so large that it covered all of Antarctica and part of South America, including the city of Punta Arenas. For two days, the residents were exposed to more UV radiation than normal. Though they haven’t reported much in the way of side effects that is because UV damage is a long-term problem (e.g., skin cancer, glaucoma) caused by a short-term exposure. Fortunately, that was the largest that the ozone hole has ever gotten; since then it has shrunken considerably.

Of course, a hole in the ozone layer isn’t the only problem we’ve got. If you’d like to help monitor air quality, then why not join NASA’s Citizens and Remote Sensing Observation Network Air Quality project?
http://terra.nasa.gov/citizen-science

January 16 – Seed Pearls Of Change

Today’s factismal: The oysters in Chesapeake Bay once filtered all the water in the bay in four days; today it takes them a year.

Oysters are amazing animals. They filter feed by sucking in dirty water, passing it over their gills, and then noshing on the sediment and floating debris that gets trapped in their mucus. As they do so, they clarify the water and make it suitable for other critters to live in. At one time, there were so many oysters in Chesapeake Bay (located by Baltimore) that they could clean all of the water in the bay in just four days. Unfortunately, over the past century, the number of oysters in the bay have decreased due to over harvesting (people like to eat oysters as much as oysters like to eat crud), pollution, and changes in the water chemistry.

An oyster shares its tank with a horseshoe crab (My camera)

An oyster shares its tank with a horseshoe crab
(My camera)

How can a change in water chemistry affect an oyster? By making it harder to grow a shell. Oysters create shells (and pearls) out of calcium carbonate (CaCO3) that is dissolved in the water as calcium ions (Ca++) and carbonate ions (CO3–). But when carbon dioxide (CO2) dissolves in water it forms carbonic acid (H2CO3) which dissolves calcium carbonate; as a result, the shells of the oysters are thinner, more brittle, and take more energy to build. (This is also the cause behind coral bleaching.) And that leads to what is known in the oyster business as “lazy larva syndrome”. The young oysters have to spend so much energy building their shells that they have little left for eating or swimming. At the end of a year, oysters that grow up in a more acidic ocean are smaller and don’t reproduce well.

Bleached coral (My camera)

Bleached coral
(My camera)

The interesting thing is that it takes only a small change in ocean chemistry to create a big change in the number of lazy larvae. Thus far, the oceans have changed from a pH of 8.25 to 8.14; almost all of that change is due to increases in atmospheric CO2.¬† And the other interesting thing about this is that it isn’t just oysters that are affected; the change in ocean pH has led to more coral bleaching and slower growth of bony fish like tuna. So what is a citizen scientist to do?

Other than making sure your tires are inflated properly, perhaps the most powerful thing you can do is help the folks at Ventus as they map out all of the sources of CO2 in the world starting with the power plants. They hope that by producing an hour by hour map of how much CO2 is produced, we can identify easy places to cut back on CO2 without cutting back on our standard of living. If you’d like to help (or just see what they’ve found so far), then blow on over to:
http://ventus.project.asu.edu/

October 14 – Acid Trip

Today’s factismal: Acid rain has about the same pH level as wine or beer.

In the late 1800s, the fogs of London were notorious not just for their thickness (“pea soup” being about the kindest appellation that they were given) but also for their effect. Going out in a London fog would leave you with a raspy voice, itchy eyes, and a dry, chapped skin. How could a little fog do so much damage? It was because at that time, London was powered almost exclusively by high-sulfur coal. When the sulfur from the coal combined with the water in the fog, it created a weak sulfuric acid solution (about as acidic as wine or beer); walking in the fog was literally like walking in acid!

How acid rain forms (Image courtesy EPA)

How acid rain forms
(Image courtesy EPA)

The fogs of London are now nothing but a memory, thanks to improved power generation methods, but acid rain is still with us. There are many places around the world (e.g., China, India) where it is cheaper and easier to burn high sulfur coal and oil to generate energy, which means that there is still plenty of sulfuric acid being formed. And, because the atmosphere doesn’t stop at a country’s borders, the pollution that one nation creates can easily affect other nations across the globe. However, quantifying that damage can be frustratingly difficult.

This fountain has been damaged by acid rain (My camera)

This fountain has been damaged by acid rain
(My camera)

And that’s where you come in. A group of scientists in Sydney (Utah) are looking for volunteers across the globe to go out and look at old gravestones in order to measure the effects of acid rain. The sulfuric acid created by sulfur pollution will slowly eat away at a marble gravestone; by measuring the amount of damage that’s been done, they can tell how much sulfur pollution the area has had. If you’d like to help, then head over to:
http://www.earthscienceeducation.org/Dj-AnthrosphereUT/EarthTrek%20-%20Gravestone%20Project.htm

September 9 – Hole lotta trouble

Today’s factismal: The ozone hole stretched to cover a city for the first time fourteen years ago.

One of the great successes in pollution control was the 1992 international treaty banning the use of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) due to their effect on the ozone layer. Following the signing of the treaty, nations were required to change their refrigerators and hairsprays so that they didn’t use CFCs; the only exceptions were for national security. So with the pollution stopped, the problem was solved, right?

2009 Ozone Hole (Image courtesy NASA)

2009 Ozone Hole
(Image courtesy NASA)

Wrong. The problem with pollution is that it doesn’t stop doing harm just because you’ve stopped putting more trash into the atmosphere. You still have to deal with all of the junk that was put into the atmosphere before you stopped. Some environmentalists call this the “teenager’s room problem”: sure, your kid has gone to college and left his room empty – but you still have the ten years of empty soda cans, candy bar wrappers, and dirty laundry piled in the corners that need to be cleaned out before it can be turned into a sewing room. And that’s where we are with CFCs in the atmosphere. We’ve stopped adding them but we still have to wait for the ones in the air to break down and go away. And, until they do, we will have problems.

This year's ozone hole (Image courtesy MACC)

This year’s ozone hole
(Image courtesy MACC)

In 2000 we saw one example of the sort of problem we’ll have; the ozone hole grew to cover an area three times the size of the continental United States. It got so large that it covered all of Antarctica and part of South America, including the city of Punta Arenas. For two days, the residents were exposed to more UV radiation than normal. Though they haven’t reported much in the way of side effects that is because UV damage is a long-term problem (e.g., skin cancer, glaucoma) caused by a short-term exposure. Fortunately, that was the largest that the ozone hole has ever gotten; since then it has shrunken considerably.

Of course, a hole in the ozone layer isn’t the only problem we’ve got. If you’d like to help monitor air quality, then why not join NASA’s Citizens and Remote Sensing Observation Network Air Quality project?
http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/Experiments/CitizenScientist/AirQuality/