Monthly Archives: July 2016

Ozone on the Mend



For once I can bring good [environmental] news to this column. The Ozone hole is shrinking! This is a result of what may be the most successful international treaty ever to address a dire environmental threat. First a little background and then the details.

Ozone is an allotrope of the element Oxygen. Allotrope is the name given to substances made of the same element which have different atomic arrangements. Diamonds and graphite are perhaps the best know substances which are allotropes, in this case of carbon. The stuff which comprises 21% of the atmosphere, the stuff that aerobic organisms such as we human beings need to live is also an allotrope of Oxygen. It’s the most common form so it is just called Oxygen, but it is more formally Dioxygen. It’s chemical formula is O2, whereas the formula of Ozone is O3.

Ozone is created in the upper atmosphere via the reaction of dioxygen. The process of the conversion of Dioxygen to Ozone absorbs significant amounts Ultraviolet light. If this light were not absorbed in the process it would continue to the surface and make life on earth impossible. What little Ultraviolet light does make it to the surface of earth is responsible for the most common form of cancer – skin cancer.

OK, that is a little dense, to recap simply, life would not exist on the surface of the planet without a proper amount of Ozone in the upper atmosphere.

In the early 1970s scientists showed in laboratory studies that certain man made compounds known as chlorofluorocarbons (CFC) react with Ozone and suggested that if these compounds are released to the atmosphere they could cause the depletion of Ozone in the stratosphere (upper atmosphere.) Subsequent measurements of the amount of Ozone showed that in fact the CFCs were going up to the stratosphere and Ozone was being depleted. And the depletion correlated precisely with the concentration of CFCs.

For complex meteorologic reasons, the depletion was the most severe during the spring over the north and south poles. The depletion was so great as to constitute a “hole in the Ozone layer.” Whereas the reduction of Ozone amounted to a few percent at the equator, it got as high as 90% or more at the poles.

In the late 1980s world leaders met in Montreal and agreed to a treaty, thenceforth called the Montreal Protocol which would phase out the use of CFCs and similar compounds, the majority of which were used as refrigerants. New compounds that did not deplete Ozone were gradually developed and put in to service, but it was a decades long process to find the right compounds and modify the refrigerator compressors to work with the new compounds.

Recent measurements now show that it worked! Reductions in the production and release of CFCs has slowed the degradation of stratospheric Ozone and in fact the “holes” have begun to heal. Besides the fact that life on the planet can go on unimpeded by damaging ultraviolet light, it shows that the world community can come to agreements that affect all of us.

Agriculture and Climate Change – A Two Way Street


Global warming and the attendant changing climate is caused mainly but not entirely by burning fossil fuels. This releases carbon dioxide, the principle greenhouse gas, to the atmosphere which traps heat by absorbing infrared radiation. Close to 25 per cent of the greenhouse gasses produced in the United States is due to agriculture.

Fuel, mostly oil derived gasoline and diesel fuel is used in tractors and other farm equipment to produce and haul food and fiber. Additional fossil fuels are used to produce fertilizer and a bevy of “cides” – insecticides, herbicides, etc. .

Nitrous Oxide and Methane are two more greenhouse gasses released to the atmosphere and have agricultural sources. Nitrous Oxide comes mainly from application of nitrogen fertilizers. Methane comes from the action of anerobic bacteria on plant matter. This can occur in wet soils such as occur in rice farming. Sewage lagoons where the wastes from confined animal operations also produce methane. Last but not least the stomachs of ruminants such as cows and sheep contain the same bacteria and produce the same methane emissions.

A final agricultural contribution to global warming comes from clearing timberland or more importantly rainforests for crop production. This is not particularly an issue here in the United States but is an issue on the global stage. The role the United States plays is as a consumer. Rainforests in the Amazon basin are being cleared to create pasture for cattle, aka hamburgers. In southeast Asia forests are cleared to create cropland for palm oil production, aka deep fried whatever.

Briefly that’s the impact of agriculture on climate change, how about the obverse, the impact of climate change on agriculture, especially here in the United States? The picture is not pretty.

Global warming is a cause, climate change is a result. Changing climate means a disruption of agricultural zones, not only based on temperature, but also rainfall. Crop production, whether for us to eat directly or for feed for livestock requires climatic stability. Any individual crop requires just the right combination of temperature, rainfall at the right time and proper soil conditions for that crop.

Climate change will disrupt all of the above. Consider our breadbasket, grain production in the upper midwest. Two factors impacted by global warming are a problem. First is the temperature. As the planet warms the growing zone will shift to the north. No problem you say, we will just grow our corn in Manitoba rather than Iowa. The problem is that the deep loam of Iowa doesn’t exist in Manitoba, and soil is a big deal.

Second is timely rainfall. Computer models of global warming predict that rainfall patterns will change in two ways. Rainfall will increase in the coastal areas, but decrease in the mid-continental regions. Not good. Also what rainfall that does occur will come in more intense storms. Even worse.

We have to eat, but we need to learn to produce our food in ways that lessen our carbon footprint, and at the same time decrease our dependence on crops that are too sensitive to climate. For starters, support your local small farmers. They generally have a smaller carbon footprint and can react more quickly to climate change.

Go Solar

The amount of solar energy available to the United States is overwhelming. With today’s Photovoltaic technology, 16 per cent efficient PV panels, the total energy needs of the country could be met using a land area of only 8,000 square miles. This is an incredibly small area compared to the 3.8 million square miles of total land area. All the solar panels we need to power the country could fit in a fraction of Elko County in Northeast Nevada.

Just imagine, miners don’t need to die underground to extract coal. Mountain tops don’t need to be blown off and pushed into valleys to get at a coal seam. We wouldn’t need to worry about whether fracking wastes pollute our ground water, or bust up the foundations of homes to access natural gas. We don’t need parking lots full of high level radioactive waste from nuclear power plants. Yes, you read that right. Our only plan for the storage of high level radioactive wastes, hot for tens of thousands of years, is to store the waste in concrete containers around the sites of nuclear plants.

The health of the public would be improved and incidentally the cost of healthcare lowered as we no longer would have have all the untoward things in the air that cause problems. Not burning any fossil fuels means less lung irritants such as fine particulates. Less heavy metals that cause nerve damage, less acid rain, less ozone, and the list goes on and on.

Rather than produce all the energy in a fraction of one county in Nevada, we could spread it out to the individual states. The US uses a total of about 4 trillion kWh per year. Closer to home, Arkansas uses about 50 billion kWh per year. To meet that need we would only use about 100 square miles, less than a tenth of the area of Arkansas County in the southeast part of the state. Or let’s make each county generate their share. For Pope County we need a scant 2 square miles out of 831. It’s easy to see that we have plenty of free, sustainable sunlight and the land foot print needed is not even an issue. We will also need to upgrade our transmission network, but still that’s doable. The real fly in the ointment is storage.

The aforementioned calculations of land area needed are for full power, 24/7 year around, assuming we have storage for when the sun doesn’t shine due to time of day, season or weather. This a problem but not an insurmountable one. Elon Musk, the manufacturer of the Tesla electric car, and Space X reusable rockets is building a huge battery factory in Sparks, Nevada. The battery factory will occupy a building covering an area equal to 95 football fields.

The factory will be powered exclusively by solar electric power, with energy to spare. The batteries built in this factory are lithium based and are intended for his fleet of electric cars, but it shows that really large scale production of all aspects of sustainable energy are not just something in the distant future but are close at hand.

A Few Red Birds

T his summer the color of Bullfrog Valley is red, for birds anyway. There are the eponymous Cardinals who literally define their color – Cardinal red. They are year round residents and very common visitors at bird feeders. Cardinals are all red, save a black face and are distinguished by a tuffed head.

North America’s only all red bird is the Summer Tanager, and a summer visitor to the area. The male as noted is all red, sort of a strawberry color while the female is an olive yellow color. They aren’t often seen at feeders because they are insectivores grabbing large numbers of bees and wasps from the air. They are common but not often seen. They are best detected nearby from their sound. They have a distinct call note that sounds like a downward pitched “tsk, tsk, tsk, tsk.”” Also denoted as pit-ti-tuck.”

The Scarlet tanager also spends it summers here. The male is red the female yellowish green, is hard to find in the canopy and is insectivorous. The only difference is this red tanager has black wings. The distinct call note for the Scarlet Tanager is “chick-burrr.”

One more somewhat red bird, now a year round resident, is the house finch. They fill the day at my feeders eating lots and lots of sunflower seed. They are a predominately brown/tan finch, but the males have a red head, throat, and rump.

So much for a little natural history of a few local red birds, now the why and how of red birds. The why is clear. The brighter the color the better, due to it’s signaling fitness to a mate. One of the ways a female measures the health of a possible mate may be via the the proxy of bright colors. It’s true of not only red but any other bright color or combination thereof.

There seem to be a whole complement of genes that “travel” together evolutionarily speaking. Genes that lead to bright colors, or striking patterns, or big antlers for that matter seem to be linked with genes the contribute to fitness. These would be genes for physical or ever immunologic strength, genes for adaptability, or even intelligence. This evolutionary cooperativity has been referred to as a society of genes.

So bright redness is indicative of fitness, the fitter birds succeeding in the game of evolution. Now how about the how? How do bird make or get these bright colors? It’s all in the biochemistry. It turns out that birds redness comes from a birds ability to convert dietary components which contain pale yellow pigments. Bright red birds have an excess of a particular enzyme know as cytochrome P450, an enzyme shared with animals and used mainly to detoxify certain toxins. It also converts pale yellow pigments to bright red pigments.

In a study of red vs yellow domestic canaries, the red variety had thousands of times the cytochrome P450 activity as their yellow conspecifics. The pale yellow pigments are converted to bright red pigments, then deposited in feathers and voila, bright red birds.