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Saturday, August 7, 2010

What is the Greenhouse Effect?

Kumar Prafull
The "greenhouse effect" often gets a bad rap because of its association with global warming, but the truth is we couldn't live without it.

What Causes the Greenhouse Effect?
Life on earth depends on energy from the sun. About 30 percent of the sunlight that beams toward Earth is deflected by the outer atmosphere and scattered back into space. The rest reaches the planet's surface and is reflected upward again as a type of slow-moving energy called infrared radiation.

The heat caused by infrared radiation is absorbed by "greenhouse gases" such as water vapor, carbon dioxide, ozone and methane, which slows its escape from the atmosphere.

Although greenhouse gases make up only about 1 percent of the Earth's atmosphere, they regulate our climate by trapping heat and holding it in a kind of warm-air blanket that surrounds the planet.

This phenomenon is what scientists call the "greenhouse effect." Without it, scientists estimate that the average temperature on Earth would be colder by approximately 30 degrees Celsius (54 degrees Fahrenheit), far too cold to sustain our current ecosystem.

How Do Humans Contribute to the Greenhouse Effect?
While the greenhouse effect is an essential environmental prerequisite for life on Earth, there really can be too much of a good thing.
The problems begin when human activities distort and accelerate the natural process by creating more greenhouse gases in the atmosphere than are necessary to warm the planet to an ideal temperature.
  • Burning natural gas, coal and oil -including gasoline for automobile engines-raises the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
  • Some farming practices and land-use changes increase the levels of methane and nitrous oxide.
  • Many factories produce long-lasting industrial gases that do not occur naturally, yet contribute significantly to the enhanced greenhouse effect and "global warming" that is currently under way.
  • Deforestation also contributes to global warming. Trees use carbon dioxide and give off oxygen in its place, which helps to create the optimal balance of gases in the atmosphere. As more forests are logged for timber or cut down to make way for farming, however, there are fewer trees to perform this critical function.
  • Population growth is another factor in global warming, because as more people use fossil fuels for heat, transportation and manufacturing the level of greenhouse gases continues to increase. As more farming occurs to feed millions of new people, more greenhouse gases enter the atmosphere.
Ultimately, more greenhouse gases means more infrared radiation trapped and held, which gradually increases the temperature of the Earth's surface and the air in the lower atmosphere.

The Average Global Temperature is Increasing Quickly
Today, the increase in the Earth's temperature is increasing with unprecedented speed. To understand just how quickly global warming is accelerating, consider this:

During the entire 20th century, the average global temperature increased by about 0.6 degrees Celsius (slightly more than 1 degree Fahrenheit).

Using computer climate models, scientists estimate that by the year 2100 the average global temperature will increase by 1.4 degrees to 5.8 degrees Celsius (approximately 2.5 degrees to 10.5 degrees Fahrenheit).

Not All Scientists Agree
While the majority of mainstream scientists agree that global warming is a serious problem that is growing steadily worse, there are some who disagree. John Christy, a professor and director of the Earth System Science Center at the University of Alabama in Huntsville is a respected climatologist who argues that global warming isn't worth worrying about.
Christy reached that opinion after analyzing millions of measurements from weather satellites in an effort to find a global temperature trend. He found no sign of global warming in the satellite data, and now believes that predictions of global warming by as much as 10 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the 21st century are incorrect.
Scientists agree that even a small increase in the global temperature would lead to significant climate and weather changes, affecting cloud cover, precipitation, wind patterns, the frequency and severity of storms, and the duration of seasons. 
Rising temperatures would raise sea levels as well, reducing supplies of fresh water as flooding occurs along coastlines worldwide and salt water reaches inland.

Many of the world’s endangered species would become extinct as rising temperatures changed their habitat.

Millions of people also would be affected, especially poor people who live in precarious locations or depend on the land for a subsistence living.

Certain vector-borne diseases carried by animals or insects, such as malaria, would become more widespread as warmer conditions expanded their range.

Carbon Dioxide Emissions are the Biggest Problem
Currently, carbon dioxide accounts for more than 60 percent of the enhanced greenhouse effect caused by the increase of greenhouse gases, and the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is increasing by more than 10 percent every 20 years.

If emissions of carbon dioxide continue to grow at current rates, then the level of the gas in the atmosphere will likely double, or possibly even triple, from pre-industrial levels during the 21st century.

Climate Changes are Inevitable
According to the United Nations, some climate change is already inevitable because of emissions that have occurred since the dawn of the Industrial Age.

While the Earth’s climate does not respond quickly to external changes, many scientists believe that global warming already has significant momentum due to 150 years of industrialization in many countries around the world. As a result, global warming will continue to affect life on Earth for hundreds of years, even if greenhouse gas emissions are reduced and the increase in atmospheric levels halted.

What is Being Done to Reduce Global Warming?
To lessen those long-term effects, many nations, communities and individuals are taking action now to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and slow global warming by reducing dependence on fossil fuels, increasing the use of renewable energy, expanding forests, and making lifestyle choices that help to sustain the environment.

Whether they will be able to recruit enough people to join them, and whether their combined efforts will be enough to head off the most serious effects of global warming, are open questions that can only be answered by future developments.

Top 10 Things You Can Do to Reduce Global Warming

Kumar Prafull
Burning fossil fuels such as natural gas, coal, oil and gasoline raises the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and carbon dioxide is a major contributor to the greenhouse effect and global warming.

You can help to reduce the demand for fossil fuels, which in turn reduces global warming, by using energy more wisely. Here are 10 simple actions you can take to help reduce global warming.
1. Reduce, Reuse, Recycle
Do your part to reduce waste by choosing reusable products instead of disposables. Buying products with minimal packaging (including the economy size when that makes sense for you) will help to reduce waste. And whenever you can, recycle paper, plastic, newspaper, glass and aluminum cans. If there isn't a recycling program at your workplace, school, or in your community, ask about starting one. By recycling half of your household waste, you can save 2,400 pounds of carbon dioxide annually.
2. Use Less Heat and Air Conditioning
Adding insulation to your walls and attic, and installing weather stripping or caulking around doors and windows can lower your heating costs more than 25 percent, by reducing the amount of energy you need to heat and cool your home.

Turn down the heat while you're sleeping at night or away during the day, and keep temperatures moderate at all times. Setting your thermostat just 2 degrees lower in winter and higher in summer could save about 2,000 pounds of carbon dioxide each year.

3. Change a Light Bulb
Wherever practical, replace regular light bulbs with compact fluorescent light (CFL) bulbs. Replacing just one 60-watt incandescent light bulb with a CFL will save you $30 over the life of the bulb. CFLs also last 10 times longer than incandescent bulbs, use two-thirds less energy, and give off 70 percent less heat.

If every U.S. family replaced one regular light bulb with a CFL, it would eliminate 90 billion pounds of greenhouse gases, the same as taking 7.5 million cars off the road.

4. Drive Less and Drive Smart
Less driving means fewer emissions. Besides saving gasoline, walking and biking are great forms of exercise. Explore your community mass transit system, and check out options for carpooling to work or school.

When you do drive, make sure your car is running efficiently. For example, keeping your tires properly inflated can improve your gas mileage by more than 3 percent. Every gallon of gas you save not only helps your budget, it also keeps 20 pounds of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.

5. Buy Energy-Efficient Products
When it's time to buy a new car, choose one that offers good gas mileage. Home appliances now come in a range of energy-efficient models, and compact florescent bulbs are designed to provide more natural-looking light while using far less energy than standard light bulbs.

Avoid products that come with excess packaging, especially molded plastic and other packaging that can't be recycled. If you reduce your household garbage by 10 percent, you can save 1,200 pounds of carbon dioxide annually.

6. Use Less Hot Water
Set your water heater at 120 degrees to save energy, and wrap it in an insulating blanket if it is more than 5 years old. Buy low-flow showerheads to save hot water and about 350 pounds of carbon dioxide yearly. Wash your clothes in warm or cold water to reduce your use of hot water and the energy required to produce it. That change alone can save at least 500 pounds of carbon dioxide annually in most households. Use the energy-saving settings on your dishwasher and let the dishes air-dry.

7. Use the "Off" Switch
Save electricity and reduce global warming by turning off lights when you leave a room, and using only as much light as you need. And remember to turn off your television, video player, stereo and computer when you're not using them.

It's also a good idea to turn off the water when you're not using it. While brushing your teeth, shampooing the dog or washing your car, turn off the water until you actually need it for rinsing. You'll reduce your water bill and help to conserve a vital resource.

8. Plant a Tree
If you have the means to plant a tree, start digging. During photosynthesis, trees and other plants absorb carbon dioxide and give off oxygen. They are an integral part of the natural atmospheric exchange cycle here on Earth, but there are too few of them to fully counter the increases in carbon dioxide caused by automobile traffic, manufacturing and other human activities. A single tree will absorb approximately one ton of carbon dioxide during its lifetime.

9. Get a Report Card from Your Utility Company
Many utility companies provide free home energy audits to help consumers identify areas in their homes that may not be energy efficient. In addition, many utility companies offer rebate programs to help pay for the cost of energy-efficient upgrades.

10. Encourage Others to Conserve
Share information about recycling and energy conservation with your friends, neighbors and co-workers, and take opportunities to encourage public officials to establish programs and policies that are good for the environment.

These 10 steps will take you a long way toward reducing your energy use and your monthly budget. And less energy use means less dependence on the fossil fuels that create greenhouse gases and contribute to global warming.
Apart from these ten steps the necessary innovations in the field of green energy is most important.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Top Environmental Issues of the Decade

Kumar Prafull
The first decade of the 21st century was 10 years of change for the environment, as new environmental issues emerged and existing issues evolved. Here's my take on the top environmental issues of the past decade.
1. Environment Goes Mainstream
The most significant environmental issue of 2000-2009 was the environment itself. During the past 10 years, the environment played an increasingly important role in almost every aspect of modern life—from politics and business to religion and entertainment. The environment was a pivotal issue in all three of the decade's U.S. presidential elections, commanded more congressional attention than any issue except the economy and health care, and was the subject of government action and debate worldwide. During the past decade, businesses embraced green initiatives, religious leaders declared environmental stewardship a moral imperative, and stars from Hollywood to Nashville promoted the virtues of green living and environmental protection.
2. Climate Change
Climate change, and particularly human-generated global warming, has been the topic of more scientific research, political debate, media attention and public concern than any environmental issue of the past 10 years. A truly global issue that demands a global solution, climate change has sparked worldwide concern, but so far has failed to inspire world leaders to set aside their national agendas and work together to craft an international strategy.
3. OverpopulationBetween 1959 and 1999, the global population doubled, growing from 3 billion to 6 billion in just 40 years. According to current projections, the world population will expand to 9 billion by 2040, which will lead to severe shortages of food, water and energy, and dramatic increases in malnutrition and disease. Overpopulation is also expected to exacerbate other environmental problems, such as climate change, loss of wildlife habitat, deforestation, and air and water pollution.
4. Global Water CrisisAbout one third of the world population, one in every three people on Earth, suffers from a scarcity of fresh water—a crisis that will only get worse as the population increases unless new sources of fresh water are developed. At present, we're not even doing a good job of using and preserving the sources we already have. According to the United Nations, for example, 95 percent of the world’s cities still dump raw sewage into their water supplies.
5. Big Oil and Big Coal versus Clean Energy
Our use of renewable energy grew significantly during the past decade, even as Big Oil and Big Coal continued to push their products as the answer to most of the world's energy needs. With the end of global oil supplies not far off, the oil industry's claims sound like a swan song. Big Coal still supplies most of the electricity used in the United States, China and many other nations, but coal has other problems. A major coal ash spill at a Tennessee power plant in 2008 focused attention on inadequate disposal methods for toxic coal waste. Meanwhile, mountaintop mining scarred the landscape of Appalachia and other coal-rich regions of the U.S. and sparked a growing protest movement that attracted national media and political attention.
6. Endangered Species
Every 20 minutes on Earth, another animal species dies out, never to be seen again. At the current rate of extinction, more than 50 percent of all living species will be gone by the end of the century. Scientists believe that we are in the midst of the sixth great extinction to occur on this planet. The first wave of the current extinction may have started a long as 50,000 years ago, but the accelerated pace is largely due to human influences such as overpopulation, loss of habitat, global warming and species exploitation. According to author Jeff Corwin, the black market for rare animal parts—such as shark fins for soup and African elephant ivory—is the third-largest illegal trade in the world, exceeded only by weapons and drugs.
7. Nuclear Energy
Chernobyl and Three Mile Island chilled U.S. enthusiasm for widespread use of nuclear energy, but this was the decade that the chill began to thaw. The United States already gets 70 percent of its non-carbon generated electricity from nuclear power, and even some environmentalists have started to concede that nuclear energy will inevitably play an important role in future U.S. and global energy and climate strategies—despite ongoing concerns about the lack of a long-term solution for safe and secure nuclear waste disposal.
8. China
China is the world's most populous country, and during the past decade it surpassed the United States as the nation that emits the most greenhouse gas emissions-a problem that could get worse as China builds more coal-fired power plants and more Chinese trade their bicycles for cars. China is home to several cities with the world's worst air quality as well as some of the world's most polluted rivers. In addition, China has been named a source of cross-border pollution for Japan, South Korea, and other Asian countries. On the bright side, China has invested billions of dollars in environmental protection, pledged to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, moved to phase out incandescent light bulbs, and banned the use of plastic bags.
9. Food Safety and Chemical ContaminationFrom phthalates in cosmetics to C-8 in cookware and other non-stick items to bisphenol A (BPA) in thousands of everyday products, consumers have become increasingly concerned about the variety of under-regulated and under-researched chemicals and other additives they and their families are exposed to every day. Throw in food safety issues such as genetically modified crops, food tainted with salmonella and E.coli bacteria, milk and other food containing hormones or antibiotics, baby formula laced with perchlorate (a chemical used in rocket fuel and explosives), and it's no wonder consumers are worried.
10. Pandemics and Superbugs
The decade saw growing concerns about possible pandemics and new or resistant viruses and bacteria—such as avian flu, swine flu and the so-called superbugs—many of them rooted in environmental causes related to such things as factory farming. Superbugs, for example, are created by the proliferation of antibiotics caused by everything from doctors prescribing antibiotics when they aren't warranted to the widespread and unnecessary use of antibiotic soap. But some 70 percent of antibiotics are fed to healthy pigs, poultry and cattle, and end up in our food and water supply.

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