Category Archives: environment

The specter of ocean garbage

On a spring afternoon walk earlier this year, I obsessively took pictures of New York harbor garbage. A buildup of plastic bottles, crates, driftwood and furniture fragments littered the rocks along our coastal walkway– a strange jumble of junk.

May 2009 photos of NY harbor garbage in Brooklyn
May 2009 photos of NY harbor garbage in Brooklyn

But my local trash doesn’t come close to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch– our global oceanic trash dump– where swirling currents collect garbage and have created an oceanic desert. I can’t even fathom a clump of refuse the size of Texas.

How did we get to this point? A few plastic bottles here? A few cheap plastic items there? In August, researchers took a closer look at the Patch to see our garbage’s impact on the ocean environment.

First off, they found even more garbage than they expected, according to the Associated Press.

“It’s pretty shocking — it’s unusual to find exactly what you’re looking for,” said Miriam Goldstein, who led fellow researchers from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at U.C. San Diego on the three-week voyage.

Plastics in the ocean are (at least) a three-pronged problem from what I can tell:

  • Wildlife get tangled in the junk or choke on it.
  • The plastics break down into smaller pieces that interfere with the life cycles of smaller organisms.
  • Then there’s the unknown of how much these plastics break down into their essential chemicals. As organisms are living in this water, how much do these chemicals build up?

I’m haunted by that floating Texas in the Pacific, the largest “landfill” in the world. Want to be even more depressed? There might be another one at least as large and just as nasty in the Southern Hemisphere.

P.S. Thanks, Suzanne, for the story tip.

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Exploding Color

NYC fireworks July 4, 2008 by Barry Yanowitz via flickr
NYC fireworks July 4, 2008 by Barry Yanowitz via flickr

Yesterday, we plotted how best to see the NYC fireworks display tonight with the least amount of inconvenience. In other years, we’ve had friends with roof access and good proximity. And a few years ago, we lived in an apartment in New Jersey that sat on a hill facing Manhattan with a bay window vantage point of much of New York Harbor.

That view was my favorite feature of that apartment, which we paid for in sweat equity– a climb up narrow stairs to the third floor. Any time of the year, but particularly on summer evenings, we might hear pops and crackles and head to the window to see where the colored bursts might appear next. Though we usually had no idea of the reason, the sky exploded in color just for us.

As a chemist I know that the palette of those bursts is all about burning different metal ions to produce fountains of shimmering color. And there’s a downside: some of the chemicals– such as perchlorates– in traditional fireworks can cause health and environmental problems. While researchers are working on greener solutions, conventional pyrotechnics are still cheaper.

Even if it means fewer displays, I hope more fireworks shows will “go green”– and red and blue and purple. Even if fireworks occur less often, the “added color value” would be worth it.

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Molecule of the Week: Carbon dioxide (part 1 of many)

Carbon dioxide (via Wikipedia by JacekFH) carbon atom in the middle flanked by two oxygen atoms
Carbon dioxide (via Wikipedia by JacekFH) carbon atom in the middle flanked by two oxygen atoms

This small molecule is too big for a single post, so I’ll probably revisit it at different points in this blog. It’s the most oxidized form of carbon, often thought of as waste product: both of fossil fuel burning and of the energy reactions that fuel life. But it’s also an essential component of photosynthesis to generate food and natural fuel sources.

But today I’m thinking about one of the many environmental impacts of rising atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide: the acidification of the oceans.

Changing the acidity of the oceans alters a delicate balance. Science suggests that this growing acidity may be dissolving carbonate in corals and releasing metal ions that would normally be wrapped up in carbonate minerals. (See this article in Chemical & Engineering News about the disrupted chemical balance).

The ocean has always been a giant sink for carbon dioxide, water absorbs it forming carbonic acid. Cooler water absorbs more carbon dioxide, but higher concentrations in the atmosphere are the primary force in pushing more of the gas to dissolve into the water, turning the ocean more seltzer-like (in terms of pH, not fizz).

coral reef in Red Sea, copyright iStockphoto/wierdeau
coral reef in Red Sea, copyright iStockphoto/wierdeau

The effects, however, are not always what one might expect. In looking at fish earbones, called otoliths, researchers reported in Science that higher carbon dioxide levels actually made these structures larger rather than smaller. (Cornelia Dean of the New York Times wrote about it on Andy Revkin’s Dot Earth blog).

Otoliths are the tree rings of fish life-cycles. What does this mean for the fish? Not necessarily good– changes in ear bones could mangle their navigations skills.

Of course all of this science sits around the edge of the passage of the American Clean Energy and Security Act (ACES) by the House of Representatives this week. There will be plenty of opportunities to talk more about carbon dioxide. . . . stay tuned.

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Molecule of the Week: Water

Rippling water drop, copyright iStockphoto.com/deliormanli
Rippling water drop, copyright iStockphoto.com/deliormanli

It’s been a rainy week in New York City, and my office next to our front porch and my container garden has me thinking about that ubiquitous wetness. It’s been soaking my plants, and after a quick errand on Friday afternoon, its dampness lurked for hours on the hem of my jeans.

It’s easy to take the wonder of water for granted because it’s everywhere, but its physical properties are anything but ordinary. Almost all solids of any substance are more dense than their liquid counterparts. But if ice were more dense than liquid water, ice cubes wouldn’t float in cool drinks on a summer day. Ice wouldn’t freeze at the tops of cold lakes (no ice skating), and polar ice caps would be more like suboceanic ice cushions. If water were a normal liquid, the Earth would look really weird.

Water molecule, via Wikipedia/Booyabazooka
Water molecule, via Wikipedia/Booyabazooka

The molecule itself is bent, lending hexagonal elegance to snowflakes. In a liquid the molecules glom to each other, not quite like superglue. But that watched pot (that seemingly never boils) needs lots of energy to release water into steam.

For those of us who’ve built molecules for a living, water is often our enemy, something that can get in the way and keep the right components from getting together. But Nature incorporates water beautifully, using the molecule as a structural tool and as a critical player in the reactions that make life work. Forced to take some tricks from Nature in my own graduate work (my highly charged molecules wouldn’t dissolve in any other solvent), working in water was like learning a related foreign language. I learned some basic grammar and vocabulary, but fluency of water chemistry is a challenge beyond the synthetic lab. By Nature’s standards, I was, perhaps, third rate.

I missed the AMNH’s exhibit on Water when it was in NYC (but I think it’s still touring, check your local science museum). As climates change, ice melts, sea levels rise, more intense storms brew in the oceans, water sits at the heart of the environmental challenge. According to the World Health Organization, as of 2002, nearly 20 percent of the world’s population didn’t have access to healthy, sanitized drinking water supplies.

Three atoms hooked together connect to the inner workings of life, health, the environment and public policy.

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Whales in NY Harbor: Update

Blue Whale, copyright iStockphoto.com/roclwyr
Blue Whale, copyright iStockphoto.com/roclwyr

In my post last week about blue whales singing in NY Harbor, I mentioned that I had an email out to the Cornell Bioacoustics Research Program to find out the current status of the NY harbor listening project. I heard back yesterday from Connie Bruce at Cornell:

The current status is that we have terminated data collection efforts as of April of this year. The data we collected is approximately 50% analyzed and yielding ground breaking scientific information since this, to our knowledge, is the first acoustic study of it’s kind in the NY area. Dr. Clark is encouraged by the initial results to continue and expand the study.

They are actively looking for funding sources to continue the research, and the clock is ticking.

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Whales in New York Harbor

They’re the largest animal to ever live on Earth, and for the first time researchers have confirmed that blue whales have been singing off the coast of Long Island. (These animals are almost unfathomably huge. If you’re in NYC sometime, check out the blue whale model suspended in the American Museum of Natural History’s Hall of Ocean Life. It’s mind-blowing.).

The Cornell University Bioacoustics Research Program working with the New York Department of Environmental Conservation had placed underwater listening devices deep off the coast of Long Island to understand more about which whales and how many might be swimming along the shore. This blue whale was singing nearby in January 2009.

Christopher Clark, the head of the Cornell Bioacoustics Research Program, and his colleagues have been listening to whales in many different waters. In Massachusetts Bay, they’ve set up a listening network of floating buoys specifically designed for detecting endangered right whales in the harbor (There are less than 400 remaining North Atlantic right whales which migrate along the East Coast each year). That listening network is connected with a system for alerting ships to slow down for right whales in the area. (My article about the network appeared in Wildlife Conservation magazine in April).

While there’s excitement in hearing the sounds of these creatures in NY Harbor, there’s true environmental concern. Endangered and threatened whale species face a jungle of obstacles in these traffic-filled shipping lanes. In addition, budget cuts forced the New York Department of Environmental Conservation to pull their funding for the listening project– which also meant pulling the buoys– back in March, after just one year.

I have an email out, asking about whether they’ve found other funding. But I’m guessing we’ve lost our tiny window on that whale world, for now.

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Molecule of the Week: Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs)

structure of PCBs via Wikimedia Commons, GNU Free Documentation license
structure of PCBs via Wikimedia Commons, GNU Free Documentation license


The molecule of the week
is actually a collection of 209 different possible versions of this molecule that have multiple chlorine atoms connected in different combinations along the hexagonal segments of the structure– like charms on a bracelet.

Though these chemicals are highly heat resistant (used as flame retardants in electronics manufacturing until the late 1970s, more info at the EPA website), they are now considered possible cancer causing agents, may cause developmental problems, and persist in the environment for years. They also bioaccumulate, increasing in concentration in larger animals as they eat smaller ones.

PCBs are particularly problematic in the Hudson River, where more than 1 million pounds of the chemicals were dumped in the upper part of the river from 2 General Electric factories for 30 years before the chemicals were banned. For the last 25 years, 197 miles of the river– reaching all the way to New York Harbor have been considered an EPA Superfund site. On, May 15, the dredging clean-up began— in an area upstream of Albany, New York, near where the chemicals were originally dumped.

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