The New York Times reveals that 20 million residents in New Delhi, India are wading through the worst smog the city has seen in 17 years. Air quality reports indicate that the levels of the most dangerous pollutant, PM 2.5, have skyrocketed to 70 times what the World Health Organization considers safe (12 to 16 times the limit that India’s own government considers safe). Experts say that the damage from exposure to PM 2.5 is the equivalent of smoking 50 cigarettes a day. The Indian Medical Association has declared a state of medical emergency, urging residents to remain indoors. But in a city where most do not have the luxury of taking time off of work, people have no choice but to risk exposure to the pollutants.According to Epa.gov, PM 2.5 are fine, inhalable particles whose diameters are 2.5 micrometers and smaller. When inhaled, tiny particulates can become lodged in breathing passageways, triggering asthma and other cardio-pulmonary illnesses. A recent article published by the Lancet‘s Commission on Public Health indicates that pollution is the largest environmental cause of disease and death in the world today— responsible for an estimated 9 million premature deaths in 2015. These rates particularly affect low-income and middle-income countries where 92-percent of pollution-related deaths occur. In 2015, an estimated 2.5 million Indian people died from exposure to air pollutants. With the annual increase in levels of air pollution, that number is only expected to rise.
History of Smog
The word smog is derived from a combination of smoke and fog (Smoke +Fog= SMOG — genius! )
During the Industrial Revolution, large cities like London provided the setting for the technological, cultural, and economic changes illustrative of the time. In the early industrial age, British production depended almost entirely on a single fuel source: coal. Coal was used to warm homes, power steam engines, and turn the wheels of industry. Though unregulated coal burning obscured the skies in industrial cities, it took over two centuries for Europeans to recognize the health hazards related to its atmospheric pollution. During the Great Smog of 1952, coal pollution blanketed the city of London, England in a veil of darkness that forced the closure of city streets, railways, and airports. In the span of one week, more than 4,000 people died from respiratory illnesses and policymakers were forced to act. In the weeks to follow, an estimated total of 12,000 people were victims of the polluted air.
Where does India’s pollution come from?
The Indian government faults emissions from vehicles, factories, power plants, and construction as the main contributors to this winter’s horrible smog. Since last year’s record-breaking smog, New Delhi residents have called for increased regulation and policies that would help regulate emissions, but progress has been slow. At the 2015 Paris agreement to address climate change, India promised to curb emissions by moving away from fossil fuels. However, they face a great challenge as 30-percent of the population still does not have access to what is now considered a basic need: electricity. While the demand for inexpensive power begins to rise, areas within South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa— two regions of the globe with the least access to electricity— have become targets for renewable growth. But with renewable energy costs nowhere near as affordable as fossil fuel energy, one wonders how these lower-income areas will be able to move towards development.
Let’s get one thing straight: air pollution is not isolated to India— it is happening worldwide. China, the US, and India are the top three emitters of greenhouse gases, and while China takes the lead— if you examine the per capita (per person) pollution rate— the US more than doubles China’s emissions rate. Climate experts say there is no room for emissions in developing countries to reach the high levels that have been typical of wealthier countries. Fossil fuel generated electricity— the largest single source of greenhouse-gas emissions worldwide— would only intensify current levels of pollution. One potential solution for this growing concern came from the 2015 Paris agreement which responds to the threat of global climate change with the goal of lowering global temperature to pre-industrial levels. The agreement recognized that the poorest countries cannot afford to invest in renewable energy on their own and has promised extensive financial and technical help to them. As the US pulls its support from the climate agreement, it remains to be seen how much help will be given to the developing countries from other UN nations.
In addition to vehicular and industrial emissions, the practices of clearing green spaces and burning croplands has also contributed to the decline in air quality in New Delhi. For farmers in India and neighboring Pakistan, crop burning is the traditional way to dispose of leftovers after their late-October harvest. Fire is used to quickly clear fields of wheat, rice and sugarcane for replanting and some believe the char is ideal for re-growth. However, the smoke that often rises over Delhi is anything but ideal. During the winter, there is little wind and the capital is most vulnerable to toxic smog.
How can you help?
A fix to the greenhouse gas emission crisis that we face is not the work of one person. It will require working together on a global scale to implement changes. Here are a few things you can do in your own life to make a difference:
- Recycle waste, reduce consumption, REUSE! If you are going to buy something that is disposable, try to get more than one use out of it. Sew a small tear in your clothing and take your shoes, wallet, or purse to a repair shop before you decide to toss them.
- Participate in your local food system. Shop local farmers markets and CSA’s and help cut the estimated 13% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions resulting from the production and transportation of food.
- Carpool when you can. Ride your bike. Walk to close destinations.
- Get to know the place where you live so well that you want to protect it. Attend city council meetings when an area is marked for development. Get involved and ask questions, such as how many trees will remain as green belt space to increase the production of oxygen.
- Support organizations that work to better the planet.
Coral reefs are in crisis, dying at an alarming rate worldwide. Since 1975, 80-90% of the reefs in the Florida Keys have lost their living coral (NOAA.org). Overall, around 25% of corals on Earth have disappeared and the speed of degradation has dangerously accelerated over the past decade. Marine biologists predict that if deterioration continues at this rate, there will be no active coral to study by the year 2050. If these estimations are correct, within our lifetime we may witness the expiration of some of the most integral members of Earth’s ecology.
Netflix’s original documentary, “Chasing Coral,” highlights the rapid decline of the world’s coral and the cause of the bleaching events leading to its demise. Jeff Orlowski, the film’s director, Richard Vevers, the founder of the Ocean Agency and a crew of passionate scientists, divers, and photographers spent over four months documenting life in and around the Great Barrier Reef to highlight the impact of climate change on coral reefs. As the film points out, prior to “Chasing Coral” much of this devastating loss has been overlooked by the media, largely because people view the ocean as out of sight, out of mind. Vevers, an ex-advertising executive, views this ignorance as an issue with the way the ocean is advertised and hopes that this documentary brings mainstream attention and interest to the travesties happening beneath the ocean’s surface.
Coral: A Quiet Sophistication
Known as the “rainforests of the sea,” coral reefs are the greatest expression of ocean life and the most biodiverse ecosystems on the planet. A single reef can house over one million animal and plant species and include up to 1000 different species of corals. Among the 1000 species of reef-building coral, one will find a multitude of varying sizes, shapes, and textures. Some coral species look like large underwater rocks, while others uphold intricate branching patterns that give them the appearance of a delicate fan.
In the film, Dr. Ruth Gates, Coral Reef Biologist at the Hawaiian Institute of Marine Biology, describes that coral is an animal made up of thousands of small structures called polyps. Each polyp is a circular mouth surrounded by tentacles. The inside of the coral is filled with microalgae (small plants) that use photosynthesis to produce food for the animal during the daytime. At night, the corals come alive and the animal extends its tentacles, catching whatever passes by it. For the intricately connected coral animal and the plants living within, symbiosis is extreme. Without the microalgae, corals are at risk of starvation.
Coral bleaching is a stress response (like a fever in humans) to warming waters. As the temperature on land escalates, the ocean helps absorb some of that increase. According to recent studies, the ocean has absorbed 93% of the warming created by humans since the 1970’s (IUCN report 2016). When water temperatures spikes above normal range, corals undergo bleaching— a process in which the inside tissues of stressed corals have an impaired ability to photosynthesis and feed the animals. To preserve their polyp and skeletal structure, the animals get rid of plants that are no longer functional and leave behind naked tissues. These bright-white skeletal structures are a far cry from the brilliant corals found in a healthy reef.
During a bleaching event, large swaths of coral reef whiten over the course of a few short weeks. Bleaching itself does not kill the coral. The bright-white pigment pictured below shows the skeleton of a coral that is still alive but without nutrients. In losing their internal food systems, corals begin to starve. As the coral dies, its surface becomes covered in fuzzy micro algae and the aquatic life surrounding the coral must find refuge elsewhere.
Both shallow (between 3 and 150 feet) and deep (up to 450 feet deep) reefs can be found in nearly every corner of the world. Presently, two-thirds of them are endangered.
A Shift In Thinking
Currently, the Great Barrier Reef is the largest living thing on our planet, and in 2016, 29% of it was lost. “Chasing Coral” has drawn the attention of the masses, so there’s no doubt that many will flock to the remaining reefs to catch the last glimpse of their beauty before their predicted eradication. But according to the film, losing the Great Barrier Reef has actually got to mean something. We cannot just let it die so that it becomes photos in an old textbook—it has got to be a wake-up call. After watching “Chasing Coral” and pouring through research, I began to wonder what it would look like if humans viewed the reefs as vital parts of the Earth’s ecosystem rather than as tourist attractions that are marketed to stimulate local economies. What would it mean if each visitor was forced to study the delicate ecosystem in which they are visitors? Would a transition from voyeur to citizen scientist generate enough conversation for people to realize the detrimental ripple effect that consumption, pollution, waste, and exploitation has on our environment? One can only hope.
Northern California firefighters have spent the last week battling 14 separate infernos that claimed the lives of over 40 individuals. With 88 people still missing, the death toll is expected to rise. The fires, which began on October 8th, have charred over 220,000 acres of land and displaced thousands from their homes. Warming Northern climates and unusually high wind speeds of 50mph accelerated the Tubbs fire in Santa Rosa into a raging blaze that scorched mountains and destroyed nearby homes. Now, a little over a week since the fires began, the story of a heroic dog named Odin, who risked his life to protect a herd of goats, arises from the ashes of the blaze.
As the deadly flames of the Tubbs Fire tore through his property, Roland Tembo Hendel loaded his family, cats, and dogs into the car. At least, the dogs that would follow him. Odin, the family’s stubborn and fearless Great Pyrenees refused to abandon the goats that he was responsible for. Faced with the decision to leave behind his beloved dog or put his family in certain danger, Roland bid a sad farewell to Odin.
Roland described via Facebook that “even under the best of circumstances it is nearly impossible to separate Odin from the goats when he takes over the close watch from his sister Tessa after nightfall. I made a decision to leave him, and I doubt I could have made him come with us if I tried.”
Escaping with their lives and the contents of their pockets, Roland wrote on Facebook, “when we had outrun the fires I cried, sure that I had sentenced Odie to death, along with our precious family of bottle-raised goats.” But Odin—whose is named after the Norse God— proved to be the family’s “miracle”.
Preparing for the worst, Roland recounted via Facebook that as they returned to the “smoldering wasteland” and ruins of their home, they were miraculously greeted by a limping Odin and the eight goats that were left in his care. Odin survived the flames that took the life of one of Hendel’s neighbors — Lynne Powell — with burned fur, melted whiskers, and several deer who huddled around him for safety.
Send in the Goats
Meanwhile, suburban hillsides across Southern California have seen an increase in goats working to chomp away at overgrown brush and dry vegetation. As population growth pushes human habitation deeper into fire-vulnerable areas, risk of structural damage, injury, and even death are on the rise.
Traditional clearing methods like the prescribed burn— a fire deliberately set to clear out the threatening dry fuel— can too easily get out of hand. While some fire-prone terrain can be too rocky for mechanical equipment or expose expensive workers to uneven poison oak infested grounds, goats are almost always up for the job.
Since the story has gone viral, Odin’s family has been showered with love and support and Odin himself enjoyed a large steak dinner. Other victims of the recent fires have not been so lucky. Currently, wildfires continue to burn through Northern California, Portugal and Spain— claiming the lives of over 100 innocent victims unable to escape the flames. As the climate continues to change, it is important to keep areas of dry grass manicured and educate yourselves on your local fire plans. If you hear of a wildfire burning in your area, please don’t wait—evacuate as soon as possible.
At the California Science Center’s latest Lunch and Learn, Project Manager and Mars Specialist, Devin Waller, walked a group of around 25 financial contributors of the CSC from the Sun to Saturn. The distance from Saturn (the sixth planet from the sun) and the actual sun spans approximately 891 million miles. Our stroll through a mock model of the solar system built by Science Center employees wasn’t quite as far as that. The walk itself could have been completed in no more than 5 minutes had Devin not gifted us with the engineering and scientific perspectives involved in replicating our universe. Models like the one pictured below help students and visitors of the California Science Center understand the intricacies of space.
We began at the Sun– a 4.5-billion-year old star that accounts for 99.86 percent of the mass in our solar system. Given its size, it is estimated that over one million Earths could fit inside of the sun! This giant ball of gas is composed of 70 percent hydrogen and 28 percent helium. As the two gases react, intense amounts of energy and heat are created. Without this energy, there would be no life on Earth.
Next we arrived at the smallest and innermost planet, Mercury. Mercury orbits the sun in just 88 days, making the shortest orbit of any planet. Each complete orbit around the sun represents one “year,” while a rotation on a planet’s axis represents one “day.” Its temperature ranges from -297 on the side opposite the sun to + 800 degrees on the side facing the sun. Because Mercury is so close to the sun, it is hard to directly observe from Earth except during the hours of dawn or twilight.
The second planet we visited was Venus, a celestial body located 67 million miles from the Sun. Known as the rocky planet, Venus has the longest rotation of the solar system family and has a scorching temperature of 896 degrees. It takes 224 Earth days for Venus to experience one “day.” Unlike most other planets in the Solar System, which rotate on their axes in a counter-clockwise direction, Venus rotates clockwise (this is called “retrograde” rotation). Our home, Earth, is the third planet in line from the sun. One rotation on Earth takes 24 hours with a complete orbit around the sun lasting 365 days. Our planet’s average temperature is a balmy 61 degrees. In contrast, Mars is a rocky planet 141,700,000 miles from the sun that has a temperature of -81 degrees. With its thin atmosphere and lack of liquid water, winds drive the global conditions. NASA space projects have been studying Mars since the 1960s. According to NASA, the goal of the Mars Exploration Program has been to provide a continuous flow of scientific information and discovery through a carefully-selected series of robotic orbiters, landers and mobile laboratories interconnected by a high-bandwidth Mars/Earth communications network. Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars represent the terrestrial planets: inner planets closest to the Sun that are composed primarily of silicate rocks or metals.
As our tour moved on to the outer planets, we stopped at a replica of the gas giant known as Jupiter—the largest planet in our Solar System. Like the Sun, Jupiter is composed of hydrogen and helium yet it is a cold planet (minus 234 degrees Fahrenheit). Its massive size and distance from the sun (483,500,000 miles) makes it so that it takes 11.86 years for Jupiter to complete an orbit. It has 67 known moons and like Saturn, Jupiter has rings. Unlike the vivid, icy rings of Saturn, Jupiter’s rings are subtle, sandy structures.
Our final stops on the walking tour took us to Saturn, one of the most visually stunning celestial bodies in our Solar System, and a replica of the spacecraft Cassini, which spent over a decade studying Saturn. We had the great privilege of listening as Dr. Jo Pitesky, an engineer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory who worked with Cassini from 2001 until 2017, provide details about Cassini and its twenty-year mission. Cassini was the latest NASA spacecraft to explore Saturn, completing its journey on September 15th, 2017. Cassini launched in 1997 and arrived at Saturn seven years later. In that time, the spacecraft captured stunning photos of the planet’s weather systems (including the changing seasons in the Northern Hemisphere), magnificent rings, and it’s 62 moons while providing invaluable data on Saturn and its atmosphere. Cassini viewed, listened, smelled, and even tasted Saturn’s moons– and what it learned about them is nothing short of remarkable. Probing Saturn’s icy moons, Cassini discovered that water is continually spewing out of jets around the southern pole of Saturn’s moon Enceladus. It also found liquid water on Saturn’s largest moon, Titan. These extraordinary discoveries indicate that Enceladus and Titan have all of the ingredients necessary for life and make future space exploration all the more exciting. The “Grand Finale Orbits” that carried Cassini to its end helped solve longtime mysteries such as the planet’s rate of rotation, the length of a day on Saturn, and the mass of its stunning rings. Dr. Pitesky made her commitment to the project transparent, explaining that she could spend weeks describing Cassini accomplishments.
The start of Cassini’s final voyage began on September 12th, 2017. Cassini continued transmitting messages as long as possible until the force of Saturn’s atmosphere overpowered the spacecraft thrusters and Cassini could no longer make contact with Earth. At 3:31 am (PDT) on September 15th, 2017, Cassini’s final signal was received. As Dr. Jo Pitesky narrated the extraordinary life of Cassini and its final descent to Saturn, it was hard to find a dry eye in the room. Showing us photos of the thousands of men and women involved in the Cassini mission– to provide information and educate the world– she likened its journey to the following quote.
“Though here at journey’s end I lie
in darkness buried deep,
beyond all towers strong and high,
beyond all mountains steep,
above all shadows rides the Sun
and Stars for ever dwell:
I will not say the Day is done,
nor bid the Stars farewell.”
J. R. R. Tolkein