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Humanitarian Engineering Bringing Renewable Energy to Disaster-Hit Communities

July 18, 2019

Public attention may fade, but the effects of a natural disaster can linger long after camera crews have left. The lasting consequences of Hurricane Maria on the island of Puerto Rico serve as a fitting example of this phenomenon. After the hurricane severely compromised their power grid, the island’s infrastructure fell apart, and entire towns went without electricity for almost a year.

In the wake of the destruction, families had to depend on backup generators, navigating a dangerous landscape of leaning power poles, fallen trees and other debris. Fortunately, humanitarian engineering has helped manage the energy needs of affected areas in the aftermath of many natural disasters.

The executive director and co-founder of Empowered by Light, Moira Hanes, sees renewable energy as the solution. Her nonprofit partnered with the Las Vegas Fire Department to install solar hubs at firehouses across Puerto Rico. The solar and construction companies Sunrun and Aireko also participated.

Concerning their efforts in the region, Hanes said, “These communities need to rebuild using smarter, more resilient, diversified power sources… Solar and storage is the foundation for the future of any energy infrastructure for places like this that are really prone to extreme weather events.”

With this in mind, how have renewable energy systems improved the quality of life in disaster-hit communities? Where have we seen these technologies at work, and where might we see them in the future? These questions have fascinating answers, and we’ll explore them below.

A Closer Look at Puerto Rico

Puerto Rico has provided a clear picture of the value of renewable energy systems. The island’s dependence on the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, or PREPA, provides a strong argument for a change in infrastructure. The vulnerabilities in their power plants placed them at increased risk in the event of a natural disaster.

As context, PREPA facilities run almost exclusively on fossil fuels, with as much as 98% of the island’s energy supply the product of coal, oil and natural gas. When the first wave of Hurricane Maria swept through the area, flooding and overgrown trees overwhelmed the outdated buildings and toppled power lines.

In addition to the commonwealth’s grid, 65% of its transmission and distribution system took damage as well. Rebuilding Puerto Rico’s infrastructure would require an enormous amount of work. The process wasn’t entirely negative, however, as rebuilding gave rise to a sort of renaissance for renewables.

Solar-powered washing machines are only one example of many technologies that have helped mitigate the effects of Hurricane Maria. They’ve eliminated the risks involved in handwashing clothes with untreated wastewater, reducing instances of disease. Companies have also made donations to affected communities.

Sonnen, a leader in solar batteries, donated microgrids at food shelters, schools and various locations around the island. The adoption of these microgrids and similar solar technologies may lead to an expansion of renewable energy systems across Puerto Rico. In time, they can enjoy a higher degree of security.

Solutions for Disaster Relief

The solutions in the previous section offer only a partial view of a much bigger picture. Microgrids and solar-powered washing machines have value, of course, but they’re far from the only equipment available. Communities have a significant number of systems they can trust to endure a natural disaster.

For example, portable electric generator sets can use solar energy without taking up a lot of room. They’re durable, safe to operate and environmentally friendly, an ideal solution for someone who has to travel across a devastated region. You can rely on them to supply power for your devices, lighting and similar needs.

Researchers and environmentalists have also considered the practice of geoengineering as a potential solution to climate change. It’s the subject of heated debate, with some arguing for these extreme measures and others warning vehemently against them. When you look at the concept, it’s easy to understand why.

Geoengineering refers to the act of deliberately intervening in the Earth’s natural systems on a massive scale. It usually falls into one of two categories: capturing and sequestering carbon or blocking sunlight to cool the planet. Either way, it might help reverse climate change and reduce the associated issues.

The practice has many social benefits as well, providing more opportunities for women in engineering. Even with these benefits, however, the subject is incredibly complicated. Some scientists have claimed specific methods of geoengineering are impossible to stop safely, with potentially dangerous side effects.

Embracing Renewable Energy

Disaster relief efforts in Puerto Rico have shown the necessity of renewable energy systems. Through solar technologies and similar equipment, countries around the world can protect themselves and rebuild in the aftermath of a natural disaster. They can also preserve the safety and security of their citizens.

With a progressive mindset and the innovations of humanitarian engineering, we’ll continue to make forward progress. It may take time and considerable investment, but the dangers of climate change demand a comparable solution. Fortunately, we have the means to make a difference.

Oceans

Insidious Indifference: Our Role in Marine Pollution and the Impact of Animals Eating Plastic Particles

July 15, 2019
animals eating plastic

As humanity’s dependence on plastic has continued to swell, so too has its ecological footprint on ocean pollution. Disposing of waste without weighing the consequences has resulted in problematic repercussions for animals eating plastic particles without realizing how it may harm them. Humanity needs to take note of our culpability in widespread marine devastation and pursue a more sustainable approach.

The Threat of Pollution and Animals Eating Plastic Particles

When we reflect on marine pollution, most of us probably envision hapless animals tangled in plastic bags or six-pack rings. While this image accurately speaks to a subset of our pollution woes, the unfortunate reality is that it’s a far more significant problem than we likely perceive.

As plastic slowly degrades, it breaks down into particles that can range from the size of a grain of rice to microscopic dimensions. Marine animals commonly mistake plastic for food and ingest it without ever knowing any better.

Once ingested, these plastic particles can damage organs and spread hazardous chemicals. These adverse conditions can subsequently climb up the food chain, destroying entire ecosystems that can, in turn, negatively affect humans.

As concluded in a United Nations report on pollution, the number of species directly affected by marine debris exceeds 800, and the mounting threats to human health have simultaneously cost countries billions of dollars every year. The report also revealed the ingestion of marine debris affected as many as 40% of cetaceans and 44% of seabird species.

In a study conducted by Anela Choy, an assistant professor at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California in San Diego, remotely operated vehicles sampled waterat depths ranging between approximately 20 feet and 3,000 feet. Choy and her colleagues discovered the highest concentration of plastic particles resided near the middle, between 650 feet and 2,000 feet — the level at those depths amounted to nearly four times what the team recorded near the surface.

Though various well-meaning organizations have launched several campaigns to skim plastic from the ocean’s surface, Choy’s study demonstrates such efforts likely wouldn’t be capable of reaching a significant portion of the plastic particles found in deeper waters.

Another study from Mark Browne detailed an experiment with blue mussels to see whether or not animals would excrete the plastic particles they ate. After placing the mussels in tanks spiked with plastic particles smaller than a human red blood cell, Browne found the plastic particles remained in their bodies after six weeks of examination.

The fact that plastic particles are present in marine life is unsettling enough, but knowing these particles linger and cause internal damage is even more troubling.

How Far Does the Problem of Plastic Particles Extend?

While we tend to localize the troubling impact of plastic pollution and assume densely populated areas are at a predominantly higher risk for unchecked waste, the reality is that the problem of plastic pollution is far more encompassing. Henderson Island, a remote stretch of land in the eastern part of the South Pacific, provides an alarming and harrowing example — though no humans live on the island, researchers estimate as much as 13,000 pieces of plastic infiltrate its shores daily. Despite it being an uninhabited coral atoll, scientists have found Henderson Island has the highest density of anthropogenic pollutants in the world, with virtually all of it consisting of plastic debris.

To raise public awareness of the issues regarding plastic pollution, Ben Lecomte attempted to swim across the Pacific Ocean on June 5, 2018 — the distance would have covered a world record total of 5,530 miles. Motivated by his love for the ocean, Lecomte set out with a team who gathered samples from the water as he swam. After starting in Tokyo, Lecomte and his crew had to stop in Oahu, Hawaii, after bad weather damaged their boat.

During their journey, Lecomte reportedly saw at least one piece of plastic in the ocean every three minutes. At various points, he would be swimming with wildlife, only to stumble across floating mounds of plastic a few minutes later. Concerned for the animals eating plastic and ingesting various toxins, Lecomte stressed the importance of taking action, stating on a blog he and his team maintain, “The ocean is in peril right now. If we don’t do something that is going to reverse that in the next few years, then it’s going to be much more difficult.”

What Steps Can We Take Toward Improving Conservation Efforts?

Change can begin to take root right from the comforts of your home. The devastation of plastic pollution is often daunting to reflect on, but a willingness to alter your lifestyle to reduce our ecological footprint can go a long way.

It is essential to reshape our perspective on pollution and actively seek to overcome our culture of convenience by discontinuing wasteful practices of squandering single-use plastics. Minimizing our dependence on anything with plastic packaging and recycling as much as possible are excellent starting points for limiting the amount of plastic we dump into our oceans.

The damaging impact on our oceans is undeniable, but the labor of sustainability for our planet is a collective responsibility we must share.

Without a voice of their own, marine animals need us to intervene as advocates striving to ensure their survival. Many may be ignorant of the damaging behaviors they’ve exhibited, so with a sensitive understanding, you can guide them toward practices that will improve conservation efforts.

Take a Stance Against Plastic Pollution

While awareness of plastic pollution is vital, action is the only thing capable of rectifying the issue. The sheer volume of adverse conditions plastic particles cause demands we intervene on behalf of our world — humanity should feel compelled to clean up its act.

Environment

World Population Day: Can Our Planet Sustain a Growing Number of People?

July 11, 2019
world population day

In 1989, the United Nations dubbed July 11 World Population Day to focus on the urgency of Earth’s growing population. The day’s purpose is to encourage discussion about health care, contraceptives, family planning and much more. With a current population of more than 7 billion people, the Earth is seemingly already at capacity.

Experts are searching for ways to extend our planet’s natural resources. But in the meantime, overpopulation acts as a threat to our species’ existence, with 83 million people added to the population each day. As the years pass and more people are born, it will compound the problem.

The Effects of Overpopulation

Earth’s population is snowballing. As we reach a tipping point and the planet becomes overpopulated, we’ll begin to see several adverse effects.

Water Will Become Scarce

More than 2 billion people already lack access to safe drinking water, and twice as many don’t have access to clean water for sanitation. As the population grows, the lack of potable water will become a major threat. While options for producing clean water exist — such as desalination, which removes the harmful minerals from saltwater — they are often costly and a drain on energy resources. Advancements in technology will determine if a water treatment process ultimately becomes viable in the future.

Animals Will Go Extinct

So many people exist on Earth that it’s driving down the population of other species. Scientists believe we’re entering the Earth’s sixth mass extinction, an event that could wipe out three-quarters of the planet’s animals. As the human population grows, so does the threat to animals’ natural habitats. Humans poach threatened and endangered species, reducing their numbers and preventing the chance of repopulation. We depend on many of these animals to survive and will need to adopt alternative food sources as the population grows.

The Earth Will Warm

The more people on Earth, the higher the demand for fossil fuels like oil, gas and coal, which, when burned, release carbon dioxide into the air. CO2 is what traps heat inside the atmosphere, making the Earth’s temperature warm up. The rates of deforestation also rise with the population. Trees can capture CO2, able to mitigate the effects of global warming. 

However, we lose 8.7 million acres of forest on Earth each year, working against our chances to reverse climate change. Even remote areas, especially those with oil or gold, are susceptible to deforestation.

Diseases Will Spread

Infectious diseases are something we as a species already fight against, developing vaccines to eradicate viruses like smallpox. But people can’t keep all infections at bay, especially when they lack access to clean water. When the planet is overpopulated, the chances of an infectious breakout increase rapidly. Some of the most troubling diseases we face as the population grows are cholera, influenza, Ebola and typhoid fever. Many of these diseases, including cholera and typhoid fever, are infectious and spread through the water supply.

How Many People Can the Planet Support?

By 1800, the Earth’s population had reached 1 billion people. In 1927, the population was 2 billion. By 1974, it was at 4 billion. The more people there are, the less time it takes for populations to double in growth. And this growth is not slowing anytime soon, with the world population expected to reach 8 billion around 2023.

There’s no denying the population is rising fast. But the problem might not be as dire as it sounds. While sustainable resources are still a necessity, research shows Earth’s population will peak by 2070, mainly due to the slowdown of population growth in Asia, the world’s fastest-growing region. The steps we take now to mitigate the effects of overpopulation could lead to future sustainable improvements adopted across the globe.

The Future of the Human Race

The future of the human species is hard to predict. The desire to have children can be powerful for many families. How will the growing population shape our planet’s future?

It’s natural for the population to increase. A population decline typically comes with unwanted events like famine, war or natural disaster. But we shouldn’t wait for these events to happen to take action. The problem of the planet’s growing population should remain a global topic of conversation, especially how to control numbers by implementing new regulations and technology.

Experts are discovering more efficient ways to create clean drinking water. Government-subsidized programs can aid farmers and prevent food shortages. Educational programs focusing on proper hygiene, such as washing hands before eating and taking a daily shower, can easily cut down on disease-causing organisms. And we can mitigate pollution and environmental effects by investing in sustainable resources, such as solar, wind or hydroelectric power.

Oceans

Threats to the Ocean From Poor Water Management

June 27, 2019
threats to the ocean

When you see a puddle on the street, or a flowerpot full of rain, it’s natural to think this water is separate from the ocean. After all, it’s miles from the coastline. The way we treat water that far inland shouldn’t have an effect on a marine ecosystem such a distance away — but it does.

In truth, all of the earth’s water is connected. The water cycle is a series of linked processes turning in an endless loop, from evaporation to precipitation and runoff. A seemingly harmless action may have consequences elsewhere, and large-scale mismanagement of water can result in serious threats to the ocean.

To visualize the idea, consider the path of a stream. The stream will eventually lead into a river, and the river will eventually lead into the sea. If someone pollutes the stream, it has far-reaching implications beyond the stream itself, causing issues as the contaminants travel toward their inevitable destination.

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Wildlife

How Aquatic Invasive Species Are Hurting Our Ecosystems

June 24, 2019
aquatic invasive species

The world consists of various ecosystems where native species to the area thrive. However, the only thing constant in the world is change. The science of evolution tells us that all organisms grow and adapt to different environments — most of these changes are for the good, but others can cause damage.

One such negative adaptation involves the introduction of aquatic invasive species into ecosystems where they compete with and eventually drive native species to extinction. As humans are responsible for the majority of the movement of these species, it is incumbent upon us to find solutions which protect all water-bound life for future generations.

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Oceans

Repealing Clean Water Act Could Devastate Our Waters

June 13, 2019
clean water act

During 2017, Donald Trump signed an executive order allowing former Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Secretary Scott Pruitt to begin the process of replacing the Clean Water Act. Stating the move stemmed from a desire to protect the interests of industry, the president once again demonstrates he has little understanding of the reality of environmental devastation and what unfettered pollution will do to the human population, including to business leaders and their brain children. Even though Pruitt recently stepped down as head of the EPA, his replacement Andrew Wheeler, a former coal lobbyist, promises to be every bit as hostile to the planet.

The waterways of the world are interconnected through series of smaller streams, seasonal wetlands and underground aquifers where humans draw their drinking water. In 2015, former President Obama clarified a rule stating prior to any development destroying a natural water source, the developer must receive a special permit from the EPA. The revocation of this requirement will not only affect smaller streams — it will affect the entirety of the precious resource American citizens rely upon for their very survival.

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Oceans

Water Shows Us More Diversity in the Galápagos Species Than We Initially Thought

June 3, 2019
galapagos species

Scientists already know that the Galápagos Islands are home to an impressive amount of biodiversity. However, a new study shows they’re even more biodiverse than expected due to the number of non-native species migrating to the area. Scientists are concerned because they don’t yet know how these so-called alien species will impact the ones native to the Galápagos Islands.

The Galapágos Islands famously aided much of Charles Darwin’s research, and scientists are still looking into why the species diversity occurred. Recent conclusions indicate that although researchers thought only five non-native marine invertebrate species were living there, there are at least 53.

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Wildlife

Animal Behavior Could Yield Key Clues for Conservation Efforts

May 30, 2019
animal behavior

Human impact on wildlife stretches wide, but studying the behavior of animals allows conservationists to better target efforts to protect potentially endangered species for future generations. It’s vital to better educate the public about how to change what we’re doing so we can live in harmony with the world around us.

Because of the many changes humans bring to natural habitat, plants and animals disappear about a thousand times faster than they ever have before, meaning around 100 species a day go extinct — both plants and animals. Many factors contribute to some animals becoming endangered. People can’t control everything, such as unfair competition for resources, but they can manage a number of factors leading to potential loss of a species.

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Green Technology

Women in Engineering Continuing to Gain Renown in the Field

May 27, 2019
women in engineering

Women aren’t a new occurrence in engineering, but until recently the field has been primarily dominated by men. In today’s world, even in the states that have the highest number of female graduates with engineering degrees, women still only make up, at most, 22% of graduates and 14% of working engineers.

That hasn’t stopped these amazing women from making some astonishing discoveries, though. Let’s take a closer look at the advances that women are making in engineering and how schools are trying to get more girls interested in the field.

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