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2.74 Million for UEA’s Arctic Ice Melt Project

Published on February 28, 2014, by in Commentary.
UEA's famous ziggurats.

UEA’s famous ziggurats.

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The University of East Anglia—where I spent a semester abroad in 1996—is launching a project to predict how the Arctic will cope with global warming by constructing a sea ice chamber and using state-of-the-art computer models.

The €2M ($2.74 million) research initiative will reproduce the chemical exchanges between the ocean, sea ice, snow and the atmosphere in polar regions.

Funding for the five-year project, finalized earlier this month, comes from the European Research Council (ERC).

“The Arctic Ocean is a vast expanse of sea ice. Most of it is covered with snow for about half of the year, but climate change has caused temperatures to rise more than anywhere else in the world over the last few decades. 2012 saw record lows of snow and sea ice. Global environmental change of this nature is one of the greatest challenges facing society,” noted lead researcher Roland von Glasow, from UEA’s Centre for Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences at the School of Environmental Sciences.

“We will focus on the links between melting sea ice and snow, and the changing chemistry of the troposphere—the lowest 10km (6.2 miles) of atmosphere. This is important because the troposphere is home to concentrations of greenhouse gases and aerosol particles which play key roles for our climate.”

The University will use the funding to build a unique sea ice chamber, two meters (6 feet) square, in a specially designed cold room. The cube will simulate chemical exchanges that are taking place in the Arctic. Scientists will analyze the resulting data to estimate how climate change will affect the Arctic, in both short- and long-term scenarios.

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“Fatal Passage:” Arctic Explorer John Rae and the Fate of Sir John Franklin

Handsome Devil: John Rae, photographed by Matthew Brady.

Handsome Devil: John Rae, photographed by Matthew Brady.

I’m halfway through Kenneth McGoogan’s excellent biography of John Rae, “Fatal Passage: The Story of John Rae, the Arctic Hero Time Forgot.” I love a good story about a forgotten scientific explorer, and McGoogan’s energetic and dramatic book has so far made a strong case for remembering Rae as a polar pioneer—not as the guy who called the men of the Franklin Expedition cannibals.

The reason “time forgot” Rae is due to his honesty. By 1854, the British Admiralty had sent a dozen search missions to the Canadian Arctic in search of the missing Franklin Expedition, which had disappeared from the face of the earth in 1845. The ship-based search parties were hampered by frozen seas and ice-clogged straits; even most sledging parties could not explore far from the ship due to their heavy loads of food and camping gear.

Rae, on the other hand, had mastered the art and science of living off the land, as chilly, treeless and inhospitable as it was. A crack shot, indefatigable snowshoer, master mariner on unpredictable northern rivers, and an open-minded leader, Rae learned these skills from the native Cree, Ojibwa and Inuit bands.

Unlike the British naval men, Rae, as a white man, didn’t assume he was superior to the natives of the tundra. That attitude was likely the difference between his many successful Arctic expeditions for the HBC, and the often grim experiences of the Admiralty’s voyages of discovery.

While Rae hiked 6,555 miles on snowshoes, hunting fresh game along the way, the naval men suffered the agonies of poor nutrition and scurvy. Even expeditions under Edward Parry and James Clark Ross, two Arctic experts, were touched by scurvy to some degree.

Despite his impeccable knowledge of the north, Rae misjudged one thing: the Victorian appetite for the realities of the Arctic. After he spoke with Inuit families who had seen the final stages of the Franklin Expedition, Rae dutifully informed the Admiralty that Franklin’s men had eaten their dead comrades.

Forensic evidence later confirmed Rae’s report, but at the time, no one—especially not Lady Jane Franklin—could accept the truth. Rae was shunned. He spent the rest of his life trying to repair his reputation. McGoogan restores this unfairly maligned Arctic adventurer’s record of achievements.

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Plastic Bags Yield More Diesel, Using Less Energy, than Crude Oil

Published on February 17, 2014, by in Commentary.
Brajendra Kumar Sharma (center) a senior research scientist at the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center at the U. of I., with research chemist Dheeptha Murali (left) and process chemist Jennifer Deluhery, converted plastic shopping bags into diesel fuel. (Photo: L. Brian Stauffer)

Brajendra Kumar Sharma (center) a senior research scientist at the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center at the U. of I., with research chemist Dheeptha Murali (left) and process chemist Jennifer Deluhery, converted plastic shopping bags into diesel fuel. (Photo: L. Brian Stauffer)

Yay, another valuable use for recycled plastic bags! Instead of throwing away 100 billion of them a year, Americans might want to look into gassing up their SUVs with fuel made from the petroleum-based bags.

Researchers at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign (go Illini!) say that plastic shopping bags can be converted into diesel, natural gas and other useful petroleum products—with less energy than it takes to refine crude oil into the same fuels.

“The conversion produces significantly more energy than it requires and results in transportation fuels – diesel, for example – that can be blended with existing ultra-low-sulfur diesels and biodiesels. Other products, such as natural gas, naphtha (a solvent), gasoline, waxes and lubricating oils such as engine oil and hydraulic oil also can be obtained from shopping bags,” the U of I news bureau said in a release.

As reported in the journal Fuel Processing Technology, senior research scientist Brajendra Kumar Sharma and his colleagues refined the recycled plastic bags by heating them in an oxygen-free chamber called a pyrolysis.

“You can get only 50 to 55 percent fuel from the distillation of petroleum crude oil,” Sharma said. “But since this plastic is made from petroleum in the first place, we can recover almost 80 percent fuel from it through distillation.”

Previous studies have used pyrolysis to convert plastic bags into crude oil, the news service said. Sharma’s team took the process further by separating the crude oil into component fuels, and testing them to see if they complied with national standards for ultra-low-sulfur diesel and biodiesel fuels.

The team produced equivalents of (from left to right, in vials) gasoline, diesel #1, diesel #2, and vacuum gas oil. (Photo: L. Brian Stauffer)

The team produced equivalents of (from left to right, in vials) gasoline, diesel #1, diesel #2, and vacuum gas oil. (Photo: L. Brian Stauffer)

Let’s let the scientist explain the results: “A mixture of two distillate fractions, providing an equivalent of U.S. diesel #2, met all of the specifications” after an antioxidant was added, Sharma said. “This diesel mixture had an equivalent energy content, a higher cetane number (a measure of the combustion quality of diesel requiring compression ignition) and better lubricity than ultra-low-sulfur diesel.”

The researchers were able to blend up to 30 percent of their plastic-derived diesel into regular diesel without any compatibility problems.

It’s too early to predict whether the recycling process could be adopted on a wide scale—but if it is, our environment will surely benefit.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reports that “the category of plastics which includes bags, sacks, and wraps was recycled at about 11 percent” based on 2011 data. That means 11,000,000,000 bags were recycled, but 89,000,000,000 ended up in landfills, along the side of the road, in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, and at the bottom of the Arctic Ocean.

Whole shopping bags resemble food for sea turtles, fish and other large marine animals. Some animals become entangled in plastic bags. That’s bad enough, but “over a period of time, this material starts breaking into tiny pieces, and is ingested along with plankton by aquatic animals,” Sharma said.

That’s why 100 percent of plastic bags in my house are recycled. What about yours?

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New Study Questions Franklin Expedition Lead Poisoning Theory

The note left in the cairn on King William Island, hinting at the fate of the Franklin Expedition.

The note left in the cairn on King William Island, hinting at the fate of the Franklin Expedition.

Was the Franklin Expedition doomed by its badly canned food? Or did the men succumb to a combination of unfortunate factors? A new study asserts that all 129 British sailors on the fated expedition died from a “marvelously catastrophic” mix of causes—and lead poisoning was just one of them.

Professors Keith Millar and Adrian Bowman of the University of Glasgow and William Battersby of London examined the much-studied remains of three crew members who died just six months into the voyage, whose mission was to explore the last unknown portion of the Northwest Passage. William Braine, John Torrington and John Hartnell were buried on Beechey Island in the Canadian Arctic when the expedition wintered over in 1845-1846. That September, after exploring Wellington Channel and Cornwallis Island, the expedition ships Erebus and Terror were beset in Peel Sound west of King William Island. They expected to be freed in spring when the ice broke up. Lieutenant Graham Gore left a note in a cairn on May 28, 1847, indicating “all well.”

Their commander, Sir John Franklin, died two weeks later. The ships remained stuck. The crew deserted them on April 25, 1848, and eventually perished on a fatal march toward the Great Fish River. Scientists are still trying to figure out why.

The new study, published last month in the journal Polar Record, reevaluated the theory first advanced by anthropologists Owen Beattie and John Geiger in 1990. In examining the bones of 18 of Franklin’s men, Beattie and Geiger found unusually high levels of lead, prompting them to conclude that expedition was felled by lead poisoning from poorly-sealed canned foods.

Millar, Bowman and Battersby extrapolated Beattie’s and Geiger’s findings and estimated whether the entire crew would have experienced lead poisoning. They concluded that some, but not all, would have become seriously ill.

Sea ice clears from the Northwest Passage in this 2012 satellite image. (Photo: NASA)

Sea ice clears from the Northwest Passage in this 2012 satellite image. (Photo: NASA)

“What is absolutely clear is many of them had high levels of lead. What is less clear is if that was unusual given their background in highly lead-polluted Britain. And the variation across the men that we’ve estimated shows they may not have been affected at all,” Millar told Canada’s CBC News.

“In Britain in the 19th century, lead poisoning was not uncommon,” Millar added in an interview with The Globe and Mail. “Water was often provided through lead pipes, from lead storage tanks, there was a lot of atmospheric lead, there was a lot of lead in food and so on. So the fact that high levels of lead were found in these sailors in the Arctic, we don’t know whether that would have been any different to lead in the British population as a whole.”

Instead, Millar and his colleagues suggest the men suffered from incredibly bad luck. Their food was of poor quality and lacked Vitamin C, which caused scurvy. Their commander died from a still-unknown cause. The expedition took place during an Arctic cold snap, in which the ice failed to clear Peel Sound for at least two years.

John Geiger, who personally examined the lead solder from cans at various Franklin sites in Nunavut, maintains that the contaminated food would have been harmful. But he also agrees with Millar et al. “There has never been any doubt in my mind that it was a combination of factors, of which lead was one,” he told The Globe and Mail.

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Court Deals Blow to Arctic Drilling Plans

A male spectacled eider. (Photo: Olaf Oliviero Riemer)

A male spectacled eider. (Photo: Olaf Oliviero Riemer)

The Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled on January 22 that the Department of the Interior illegally sold offshore oil and gas leases in the Chukchi Sea, off the northwest coast of Alaska. The court found that the government had failed to adequately evaluate the impacts of drilling—and inevitable mishaps—in the Arctic environment.

The lawsuit centers on the Chukchi Sea lease sale (known as Sale 193) that took place in 2008 under the Bush Administration. It offered nearly 30 million underwater acres in the Chukchi Sea to private oil and gas conglomerates for drilling. At the time, there were no active oil leases in the sea. Shell bid $2 billion for the right to drill exploratory wells, and other energy corporations bid $600 million. Shell attempted to begin drilling in 2012, but its first foray was cursed by Arctic weather and the accidental grounding of its main drilling vessel Kulluk.

The Ninth Circuit decided that the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, an agency within the Interior Department, “improperly relied on an estimate of 1 billion barrels of recoverable oil from a hypothetical first Chukchi Sea production project…when it considered potential spills and blowouts,” the Alaska Dispatch reported. Environmentalists contended that the BOEM should have considered far more than one billion barrels and their attendant impact; the Interior Department’s own recent analysis counts 15 billion barrels of recoverable oil, according to the Alaska Dispatch.

The Chukchi Sea, Wrangel Island in the upper left.

The Chukchi Sea, Wrangel Island in the upper left.

The court today agreed with the plaintiffs that the Department of Interior failed adequately to analyze the potentially dramatic environmental effects of the sale before offering the leases. It determined that the agency had analyzed “only the best case scenario for environmental harm, assuming oil development,” and that this analysis “skews the data toward fewer environmental impacts, and thus impedes a full and fair discussion of the potential effects of the project.” The agency will have to revise or supplement its analysis for the lease sale once again and must reconsider its lease sale decision.

The conservation and Native groups* that joined the suit consider the Chukchi Sea ecologically fragile. The ice-choked sea is home to charismatic megafauna like polar bears, walrus, beluga whales, bowhead whales, seals and the spectacled eider. (Charismatic microfauna too: starfish, jellyfish, corals and other invertebrates live on the sea floor.)

Wrangel Island, a UNESCO World Heritage site in the Russian section of the sea, boasts “exceptionally high  levels of biodiversity for this region”—the world’s largest population of Pacific walrus, a major feeding ground for migratory grey whales, 100 migratory bird species (many endangered), and 23 endemic plant species, just to name the highlights.

That's not sushi: a collection of benthic invertebrates from the Chukchi Sea floor. (Photo: NOAA)

That’s not sushi: a collection of benthic invertebrates from the Chukchi Sea floor. (Photo: NOAA)

As has been well documented, the Arctic is warming at a faster rate than the rest of the world, putting tremendous strain on its wildlife and people. Widespread and risky energy exploration in the Chukchi Sea promises to put the polar regions in ever greater danger.

* The Native Village of Point Hope, Inupiat Community of the Arctic Slope, Alaska

Wilderness League, Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife, National Audubon Society, Natural Resources Defense Council, Northern Alaska Environmental Center, Oceana, Pacific Environment, Resisting Environmental Destruction on Indigenous Lands (REDOIL), Sierra Club, The Wilderness Society, and World Wildlife Fund. Earthjustice, a nonprofit environmental law organization, represented the groups.

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