Blue Marble - April 2009

Good Methane Burps

| Thu Apr. 23, 2009 1:51 PM PDT

We’ve been hearing for a while how warming temperatures might release huge burps from methane deposits on the seafloor and from permafrost—frozen reservoirs known as clathrates.

This is not something we want. Methane is 20 times more powerful than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas. In the last 150 years it’s more than doubled in the atmosphere until today it totals about half the greenhouse effect caused by carbon.

The good news is that the latest belch 11,600 years ago appears to have been caused by expanding wetlands not melting methane ice. This according to a Scripps Institution of Oceanography study measuring carbon-14 isotopes in methane from air bubbles trapped in glacial ice. They found the surge 11 millennia ago was more chemically consistent with an expansion of wetlands. The paper’s in Science.

Wetlands profusely produce methane as bacteria breakdown organic matter. Wetlands also tend to spread during warming periods.

Not this one though. We’re destroying coastal and inland wetlands faster than any other ecosystem on Earth, according to the 2005 Millennium Ecosystem Assessment.

So we’re killing off the methane factories. But also the biodiversity factories, the water filtration factories, the storm-buffer factories. Wetlands provide ecosystem services estimated at $14 trillion a year.

Sigh. Burp.
 

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Happy Earth Day

| Wed Apr. 22, 2009 2:19 PM PDT

Something Rare In The Air: Osmium

| Tue Apr. 21, 2009 3:58 PM PDT

The rare element osmium is on the rise globally. Why? Because of the increased consumption of refined platinum, the primary ingredient in catalytic converters used in cars to reduce smog.

Ooops. Hate it when that happens. You know, unintended consequences.

A volatile form of osmium is generated during platinum refinement and also during the normal operation of cars and is now dispersed globally through the atmosphere. Osmium occurs naturally. But Dartmouth researchers were surprised to discover that most of the osmium in rain, snow, and in the surface waters of rivers and oceans is produced during the refining of platinum. Their paper is forthcoming in PNAS.

"It’s interesting, maybe ironic, that we stopped adding lead to gasoline in the 70s so that catalytic converters could be introduced to remove smog from car exhaust," says Dartmouth Associate Professor of Earth Sciences Mukul Sharma.

The research team measured osmium in precip in North America, Europe, Asia, and Antarctica, in surface water and deep water from the North Atlantic, Pacific, Indian, and Southern Oceans. Human-made osmium also comes from chromium smelters, hospital incinerators, and the normal operation of cars, but it’s primarily the industrial extraction and refining of platinum that produces the bulk of the osmium found in rain and snow.

Some 95 percent of the world’s platinum comes from South Africa and Russia where it's roasted at extremely high temperatures during extraction and refinement. The heat turns the sulfur in the ore into sulfur dioxide and releases osmium. Neither country has environmental regulations for the process.

"It’s surprising that we are seeing this measurable increase in osmium on a global scale," says Sharma. "And we can virtually blame it on one thing: our insatiable demand for platinum-based catalytic converters. Fortunately, unlike lead, the concentration of osmium in water is extremely small and may not adversely affect biology."

Well let's just hope that's true.
 

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Come Talk Trash With Us

| Mon Apr. 20, 2009 9:29 AM PDT

After last week's organic food online forum, we're ready for the next course. This week's topic: recycling and waste. The modern recycling movement got its start alongside the first Earth Day, nearly 40 years ago this week. Since then, recycling's gone mainstream: Americans now recycle and compost a third of their trash, up from just 6 percent in 1970. Yet, as detailed in the current issue of Mother Jones, we're generating more waste than ever before. In just 5 minutes, we use another 1,060,000 aluminum cans, 2 million plastic bottles, and 15 million sheets of paper. We're still drowning in plastic, New York recycles only a fifth of its garbage, and trash haulers still find landfill more profitable than recycling. Then consider that municipal solid waste—that's the stuff that fills our home garbage cans and office paper bins—is just 2.5 percent of our total "Gross National Trash" output. While we've been agonizing over whether our plastic yogurt lids can be recycled, have we been missing the big picture? Is recycling giving us a false sense that we're solving our waste problem?

We put that question to four experts: Elizabeth Royte, Eric Lombardi, Annie Leonard, and Susan Strasser. Check out some highlights from their answers below the jump. Or head on over to our recycling online forum, which kicks off today. For the rest of this week, our panelists will be checking in to respond to readers, discuss and debate the future of recycling and waste, and perhaps even solve the mystery of the yogurt lid.