EarthTalk

Antarctica’s Melting and its Impact on Coastlines

Antarctica’s Melting and its Impact on Coastlines

Researchers from NASA and UC Irvine studying ice in an area of West Antarctica roughly the size of Texas called the Amundsen Sea Embayment report a “continuous and rapid retreat” of glaciers there. They worry that, perhaps as soon as two centuries from now, the area could melt entirely — leading to between four and 10 feet of sea level rise around the world. Pictured: Melting ice floes in Antarctica. Photo: Chris Vees To what extent is Antarctica really melting and what impact might it have on coastlines around the world? — Andrea Hutchinson, Cary, NC The Antarctic continent, roughly the size of the United States and Mexico combined, is composed of rock covered by glaciers some 16,000 feet thick. The glaciers form from fallen snow compacting into successive layers of ice, and they eventually move downhill toward the coasts and “calve” into the ocean as icebergs and eventually...
Safer and More Effective Sunscreens

Safer and More Effective Sunscreens

With summer officially here now, what can you tell us about which sunscreens are safe and which are not? — Clara Rosen, New York, NY Skin cancer is by far the most common form of cancer in the United States, with more new cases each year than breast, prostate, lung and colon cancers combined. And the rate of newly diagnosed cases of the most deadly skin cancer, melanoma, has tripled over the last three decades. But many of the sunscreens on the market do not provide enough protection from the sun’s damaging rays. Also, some of them contain chemicals that can also cause health problems in their own right. According to the non-profit Environmental Working Group (EWG), which assessed the safety and effectiveness of more than 1,400 “SPF” (sun protection factor) products for its 2014 Guide to Sunscreens, only one in three sunscreens for sale on the shelves of...
Keeping Polluters out of our Neighborhoods

Keeping Polluters out of our Neighborhoods

Communities need to be vigilant about plans to site incinerators, landfills, waste transfer stations, sewage treatment plants or other toxic facilities nearby where they might threaten the health of residents. Pictured: Unwitting children play at a local waste dump. Photo: Bruce McAllister What can communities do to keep polluters out of the neighborhoods? — Wendell Bovey, Los Angeles, CA It’s unfair that communities which are less organized and less wealthy often shoulder the burden of hosting polluters like landfills, incinerators and power plants. “Frequently, these facilities end up in the places that put up the least resistance, either because residents are unaware of the projects planned for their area, or because they don’t have the money, organization, knowledge or political clout to mount effective opposition,” says the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), a leading non-profit. The key, says NRDC, is to stay informed: “A lot of bad projects slip...
Apple Computer’s Green Initiatives

Apple Computer’s Green Initiatives

Having brought in former Obama EPA administrator Lisa Jackson to head its environmental initiatives, Apple Computer has a new corporate headquarters under construction in Cupertino, California that will use 30 percent less energy than an equivalent conventional building, and has taken steps to decrease the material required to produce its iPhones, iPads, iPods and Macs. The new iPad Air, pictured here, uses a third less material overall by weight than the original iPad. Photo: Sean MacEntee, courtesy Flickr Apple just put out a big PR campaign about its sustainability initiatives. Has the company made real progress in this regard or is this just more corporate “greenwashing?” And how are the other big tech companies addressing their carbon footprints? — Billy A., Oakland, CA Long criticized for its lack of commitment to sustainability—from supporting the dangerous mining of precious resources and exploiting factory workers to powering its data centers with...
Public Transportation on the Upswing

Public Transportation on the Upswing

According to data collected by the American Public Transportation Association, Americans took 10.7 billion trips on public transportation in 2013—the highest number since the 1950s when many fewer of us owned our own cars. Photo: Missouri Dept. of Transportation What’s behind the rise in public transit in the U.S. in the last few years, and how does our transit use compare with that of other developed countries? — Angie Whitby, New Bern, NC Transit ridership is indeed at its highest level in the U.S. in 57 years. According to data collected by the American Public Transportation Association (APTA), Americans took 10.7 billion trips on public transportation in 2013—the highest number since the 1950s when many fewer of us owned our own cars. And this increase “isn’t just a one-year blip,” says APTA. Since 1995—when Congress passed the landmark ISTEA legislation and other surface transportation bills that greatly increased funding...
Earth Day 2014: Greening our Cities

Earth Day 2014: Greening our Cities

Earth Day Network hopes to galvanize the support of more than a billion people across 192 countries this Earth Day for increasing the sustainability and reducing the carbon footprints of urban areas everywhere. Photo: Matthew Rutledge/Flickr What’s going on with Earth Day this year and how can I get involved? — Christine B., Boston, MA This coming April 22 will mark the 44th annual celebration of Earth Day, and the focus this year will be green cities. “As the world’s population migrates to cities, and as the bleak reality of climate change becomes increasingly clear, the need to create sustainable communities is more important than ever,” reports Earth Day Network, the Seattle-based non-profit that helps coordinate Earth Day celebrations and serves as a clearinghouse for related information and resources. The group hopes to galvanize the support of more than a billion people across 192 countries this Earth Day for...
Global Warming and Our Health

Global Warming and Our Health

The Union of Concerned Scientists reports that, thanks to global warming, insects previously stopped by cold winters are already moving to higher latitudes, a phenomenon that could expose an extra two billion people, mostly in developing countries, to the dengue virus over the next half century. Photo: U.S. Department of Agriculture How is it that global warming could cause an increase in health problems and disease epidemics? Do we have any evidence that it is already happening? — Jim Merrill, Provo, UT Global warming isn’t just bad for the environment. There are several ways that it is expected to take a toll on human health. For starters, the extreme summer heat that is becoming more normal in a warming world can directly impact the health of billions of people. “Extreme high air temperatures contribute directly to deaths from cardiovascular and respiratory disease, particularly among elderly people,” reports the World...
Synthetic Biology

Synthetic Biology

Proponents of synthetic biology tout its potential for bringing about great advances in medicine, energy and cheaper foods. But health advocates worry that the risks to health and the environment may be too great. Pictured: a researcher using “synbio” to engineer new microbes as an alternative to yeast for turning complex sugars into biofuels. Photo: Lawrence Berkeley Nationall Laboratory/Roy Kaltschmidt Should those of us who care about our health and the planet be concerned about the new trend in genetic engineering called synthetic biology? — Chrissie Wilkins, Bern, NC “Synthetic biology” (or “synbio”) refers to the design and fabrication of novel biological parts, devices and systems that do not otherwise occur in nature. Many see it as an extreme version of genetic engineering (GE). But unlike GE, whereby genetic information with certain desirable traits is inserted from one organism into another, synbio uses computers and chemicals to create...
Wind Power’s Bright Future

Wind Power’s Bright Future

Here in the U.S., energy generated by domestic wind farms has nearly tripled in just the past four years andrepresents about a third of all new power added to the U.S. grid over the past five years. Photo: Martin Abegglen, Courtesy Flickr What is the latest prognosis for wind energy to command a larger piece of the renewable energy pie? — Peter M., Akron, OH Hydroelectric sources of power dwarf other forms of renewable energy, but wind power has been a dominant second for years, and continues to show “hockey stick” growth moving forward. According to the Global Wind Energy Council (GWEC), global cumulative installed wind capacity—the total amount of wind power available—has grown fifty-fold in less than two decades, from just 6,100 megawatts (MW) in 1996 to 318,137 MW in 2013. And the future looks brighter still. Analysts from Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF) predict that wind will...
A Nuclear Power Resurgence?

A Nuclear Power Resurgence?

The 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster did cause many nations to reconsider their nuclear commitments, but many countries are still looking to nuclear power as a way to increase energy production without adding to greenhouse gas emissions. Photo: Kawamoto Takuo I thought Japan’s 2011 Fukushima nuclear plant meltdown would have sealed nuclear power’s fate, but I keep hearing otherwise. Can you enlighten? — Jacob Allen, New York, NY The 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster did cause many nations to reconsider their nuclear committments, though many European countries—Switzerland, Belgium, Austria, Germany, Italy, Spain and Sweden—had already begun phasing out nuclear power decades earlier. After Fukushima, Germany, Belgium and Switzerland all moved to decommission their nuclear facilities altogether by 2022, 2025 and 2034 respectively. Japan’s nuclear program, which provided 30 percent of the country’s electricity needs before the March 2011 disaster, is now essentially non-operational due to public safety concerns. Furthermore, Japan announced...
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