Environmental Degradation

It seems to me….

Unprecedented technological capabilities combined with unlimited human creativity have given us tremendous power to take on intractable problems like poverty, unemployment, disease, and environmental degradation. Our challenge is to translate this extraordinary potential into meaningful change.” ~ Muhammad Yunus[1].

No one wishes to be the constant bearer of dire warnings but the consistent tone of environmental studies is that current planetary stress has become extremely serious and requires immediate action to avoid possible catastrophic consequences.

Environmental degradation is probably the greatest threat confronting the world today. Our environment is undergoing significant ecosystem and habitat destruction, species extinction, pollution, and deterioration of resources such as air, water, and soil. It involves changes or disturbances to the environment perceived to be deleterious or undesirable and results from a combination of an already very large and increasing human population, continually increasing economic growth or per capita affluence, and the application of resource-depleting and polluting technology.

It needs to be taken extremely seriously as our planet is already experiencing severe negative effects primarily resulting from excessive amounts of carbon dioxide (CO2) being released into the atmosphere. While some segments of the general population remain unsure despite nearly unanimous studies by environmentalists, the cause has been proven to be anthropogenic.

The last time CO2 levels exceeded their current 400 ppm, there were camels and forests in the Arctic, the tropics were locked in a near constant el Nino (the pattern that typically floods the western U.S.), and large expanses of the U.S. East Coast, Florida, and the Gulf States were underwater since sea levels were around 100 feet (30.5 meters) higher than today.

Ocean temperatures have risen 1.4F (0.8C) degrees since 1970. Unless these trends are reversed, by the end of the century global temperatures could increases by as much as 10.4F (5.8C) degrees, sea levels could rise between 7 and 23 inches (18 and 59 centimeters), hurricanes and other storms would be stronger and of greater intensity, and both floods and droughts would become increasingly common.

Increases in average global precipitation (rain and snowfall), more common droughts and flooding, and melting of mountain glaciers and ice sheets covering West Antarctica, Greenland, and the Arctic can be attributed to rising global temperatures.

As warmer air holds more water vapor, inland areas can anticipate increased rainfall and flooding. Melting ice caps, composed of fresh water, would unbalance the global ecosystem. Reduced Gulf Steam salt percentages could disrupt global currents that now warm Northeast America and Western Europe. Rising oceans temperatures increase the probability of extreme weather including devastating storms. The destructive power of hurricanes has increased by 50 percent in the last 30 years.

Ecosystem changes will result in some species moving farther north or become more successful while others unable to move becoming extinct. There has been a decline in the number of polar bears and Adélie penguins (from 32,000 to 11,000 breeding pairs in 30 years). Coral reefs are affected by disease, heat stress, and ocean acidification. Some species of butterflies, foxes, and alpine plants have moved farther north or to higher cooler areas. Spruce bark beetles have chewed up 4 million acres of Alaskan spruce trees. Diseases such as mosquito-borne malaria are spreading northward. Some dependent species have become unsynchronized, such as plants blooming earlier than when their pollinating insects become active or the spring arrival of migratory birds arriving later than the emergence of destructive insects.

Ocean warming has reduced phytoplankton, the tiny plants that are an integral food source for ocean life and responsible for around half of the world’s photosynthetic activity. Phytoplankton are the lowest level of the oceanic food chain so any reduction affects the entire food chain – particularly predators at the top. Ocean acidification and warmer surface temperatures increase the dangers to many aquatic animals, particularly crustaceans, mollusks, and coral reefs.

Conversely, while some areas of the planet can anticipate higher levels of precipitation, other less humid areas currently susceptible to wildfires can expect them to become more prevalent and destructive. Increased evapotranspiration and the accompanying decrease in rainfall in already semi-arid and sub-humid areas would result in desertification negatively affecting biodiversity and have a major impact on local human culture and wildlife. Droughts and heat waves could threaten food supplies.

Along with vehicular fumes, ground-level ozone, airborne industrial pollution, and stagnant hot air associated with warmer temperatures, smog represents an immediate and chronic health threat to those living in developed urban areas resulting in an increase in smog-related deaths of about 4.5 percent from the 1990s to the 2050s. Temperature increases also aggravate pre-existing respiratory system health conditions such as emphysema, bronchitis, and asthma and in general impede the immune system’s ability to fight against infection and disease. An estimated 65 million people died in just 2012 due to air pollution according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

A so-called “Deadly Dozen” group of diseases including Avian Flu, Cholera, Plague, Ebola, and Tuberculosis are likely to spread due to global warming. Other sources of serious illnesses are aggravated by the effects of pollution and release of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) that harm the ozone layer. Since disease-bearing insects such as mosquitoes multiply more rapidly as temperature increases, diseases like Malaria, West Nile virus, and Dengue fever also are expected to spread. Increases in affected populations could potentially overwhelm public health services especially in poor or unprepared countries.

Many heavily populated places throughout the world could become uninhabitable due to flooding, heat, or other factors displacing millions of people. Africa is the continent most prone to climate-induced instability resulting from widespread poverty, rain-dependent subsistence agriculture, extreme climate variance, and poor governance. Compounding the problem is a population predicted to double by 2050 and already susceptible to disease, crop failure, ethnic/religious rivalry, and corruption.

Resource reductions will lead to migration and population relocations resulting in social and economic impact as countries and factions seek to control valuable and dwindling resources to provide safety and shelter for their own people. Unwelcome refugees might be forced into semi-permanent camps which become breeding-grounds for extremists. In addition to the forced relocation of 150 to 200 million people worldwide by 2050, anticipated ocean surface level increases would submerge considerable sections of low-lying or coastal communities and facilities along the U.S. eastern seaboard necessitating expensive relocation of power stations, refineries, hospitals, homes, etc.

All energy production comes at a cost – none is perfect – but we still are primarily dependent upon the same fossil-fueled power generation, though slightly cleaner and more efficient, we have depended on for most of the past century. Major breakthroughs are needed to advance renewable energy production at costs comparable to fossil fuels. Advances in renewable fuel energy have not happened at the speed desired for a number of reasons: in spite of all the apparent attention, it never has become a sufficiently high priority; anticipated exponential scientific and engineering advances in energy-related fields never have occurred, sustained fossil-fuel government financial support and tax incentives…. So far there has been far more talk than action.

There are many causes of environmental degradation, nearly all of them rooted in human technology. While some are the result of the unintended consequences of technological advancement, others are examples of humans becoming too successful and efficient at resource extraction. Not only is change necessary, it is needed quickly.

That’s what I think, what about you?


[1] Muhammad Yunus is a Bangladeshi social entrepreneur, banker, economist, and civil society lead, er who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for founding the Grameen Bank and pioneering the concepts of microcredit and microfinance.

About lewbornmann

Lewis J. Bornmann has his doctorate in Computer Science. He became a volunteer for the American Red Cross following his retirement from teaching Computer Science, Mathematics, and Information Systems, at Mesa State College in Grand Junction, CO. He previously was on the staff at the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus, Stanford University, and several other universities. Dr. Bornmann has provided emergency assistance in areas devastated by hurricanes, floods, and wildfires. He has responded to emergencies on local Disaster Action Teams (DAT), assisted with Services to Armed Forces (SAF), and taught Disaster Services classes and Health & Safety classes. He and his wife, Barb, are certified operators of the American Red Cross Emergency Communications Response Vehicle (ECRV), a self-contained unit capable of providing satellite-based communications and technology-related assistance at disaster sites. He served on the governing board of a large international professional organization (ACM), was chair of a committee overseeing several hundred worldwide volunteer chapters, helped organize large international conferences, served on numerous technical committees, and presented technical papers at numerous symposiums and conferences. He has numerous Who’s Who citations for his technical and professional contributions and many years of management experience with major corporations including General Electric, Boeing, and as an independent contractor. He was a principal contributor on numerous large technology-related development projects, including having written the Systems Concepts for NASA’s largest supercomputing system at the Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley. With over 40 years of experience in scientific and commercial computer systems management and development, he worked on a wide variety of computer-related systems from small single embedded microprocessor based applications to some of the largest distributed heterogeneous supercomputing systems ever planned.
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2 Responses to Environmental Degradation

  1. Eugene Greer says:

    Hi Lew, Gene Greer.

    I have not messaged with you before on your posts, but I though I would on this. I have been studying the environmental situation for a long time. Forty years ago, I reviewed a satellite proposal to put larger reflectors in space that could reflect sun light to parts of the Earth that were in darkness at night so solar panels could have continuous sun light to produce power during all times of the day. Creating such a large structure seemed beyond the capabilities in the 1970’s, but it was possible. In the 1980’s, I saw the potentials for wind power with several early demonstration projects in Northern California. I remember that the power companies were not interested because the power was “dirty” due to the variation in wind speed. Also standalone systems were not available for homes of businesses because there were not batteries available to technically and economically store energy for low/no wind conditions. However things have changes.

    Recently a neighbor who was trying to build a home development in the Caribbean asked if I could create an alternative to central power station electrical power grid. So I looked into off grid systems. The potential for wind and solar panel generated power is very promising. The backup power would be batteries. It turns out that several companies have hybrid systems that can power a home very cost effectively. What I did discover is that using community based wind turbines is actually more cost effective. Anyway, I provided several proposals that would work. The proposals were motivation enough for local power company to drop its pricing and provide centralized power.

    Sense the hybrid off grid proposal was going no where, I looked into powering large scale islands. Based on offshore wind farms powering significant populations around the world, I looked into what it would take to do the Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico or other islands. What I developed was an integrated but distributed power grid that had solar, wind farms systems combined with sea water desalination and hydrogen generation. I combined these technologies because during the Hurricane Mari disaster, there were several situations namely: 1. Lack of water 2. Power grid outage 3. Emergence fuel storage Integrating the technologies I have mentioned allows for wind turbines to power desalination systems to generate drinkable water after the emergency with multiple turbine spread around in a distributed fashion. Wind turbines can be distributed around the country side to power localized community grids. Associated with the wind farms and the desalination plants could be hydrogen production facilities. These plant could generate hydrogen for power storage along with batteries. The hydrogen could also be used as a backup generation power source with hydrogen fuel cells.

    This integrated approach could make islands nations and territories independent of fossil fuels. Removing the costs of fossil fuel procurement can actually pay for the total system.

    I have researched Deptment of Energy, the Internet and other sources for validation of my concepts. Let me know what you think.

    Sent from Mail for Windows 10

    Like

    • lewbornmann says:

      Hi Gene,
      You obviously have been out there ahead of the curve — as usual. I’m more optimistic than you as to the future of non-carbon energy generation. It not only will happen, it HAS too. The main question is whether it will be sufficient and in time to prevent catastrophic effects.

      Briefly restating what I believe for other readers, environmental degradation, primarily from human activity, has pushed the planet into a sixth mass extinction event. Approximately one million species of plants and animals face extinction from anthropogenic causes, such as expanding human land use for industrial agriculture and livestock rearing along with overfishing.

      While there are many types, causes, and consequences, the extent of environmental impact varies with the source, the habitat, and the plants and animals affected. The interaction between human health and the environment has been extensively studied and environmental risks have been proven to significantly impact health either directly, by exposing people to harmful agents, or indirectly, by disrupting life-sustaining ecosystems.

      Causes include overpopulation, air and water pollution, deforestation, global warming, unsustainable agricultural and fishing practices, overconsumption, economic inequality, and militarization and wars. There are numerous additional destructive development activities such as mining where ecology is degraded due to economic priorities.

      Consequences include increased poverty, overcrowding, famine, migration, weather extremes, loss of biodiversity, acute and chronic medical maladies, war and human rights abuses, and increasingly global instability.

      As improved healthcare systems have increased the lifespan of human beings, overcrowding due to subsequent population increases has also contributed to environmental degradation. Population increases also mean a parallel rise in basic needs necessitating more land for settlement and farming leading to deforestation. Reduced forest cover results in an elevated level of atmospheric CO2 and increased global warming.

      24 percent of the global disease burden (healthy life years lost) and 23 percent of all deaths (premature mortality) are attributable to environmental factors. The environmental burden of diseases is 15 times higher in developing countries than in developed countries due to differences in exposure to environmental risks and access to adequate healthcare.

      What you have proposed is entirely feasible. The hydrogen production, while possible, creates other associated problems that still remain difficult to deal with for the same reason that hydrogen/fuel cell vehicles are still not readily available — namely storage and transportation. While possible, it probably will be several years prior to it being cost competitive. Desalinization is being used at over 13,000 locations in 120 nations but, while improving, associated costs still advantage largescale facilities. It all can be done but the upfront costs would be very high, especially if you attempted to do all of it at once.

      I will post my thoughts on some of this in a week or two. It is motivated by the devastating wildland fires we have had for the past couple of years but the primary emphasis will be on microgrids. They are logical solutions for most locations, are cost competitive, and increasingly available off-the-shelf. They only address part of what you need but are a start and could provide the basic foundation for the remaining aspects you mentioned.

      Say hi to Sue. Take care….

      Like

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