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December 8, 2021

Environmental News in Brief

By Julia Zhang | October 29, 2009

Climate bill incites strife between energy companies

The once-unified major energy producers in the U.S. are now splintering into factions over the latest climate bill. The proposed legislation would limit the amount of greenhouse emissions per year through the use of a set number of pollution permits that companies can purchase and sell. Known as cap and trade, this system effectively places a hefty price on carbon to encourage investment in low-carbon and alternative technologies. Now, coal companies are battling with natural gas companies to gain favor among consumers and to advocate the use of their goods for electricity production.

Recently, the American Natural Gas Alliance was formed to draw attention to the fact that gas emits far less carbon dioxide than coal. In total, energy producers have spent over $200 million in just half a year on lobbying efforts in Washington, D.C.. Meanwhile, companies with hydroelectric power or nuclear energy plants have their own agenda and support a mandate to increase the use of renewable power.

Color-changing roof tiles cut costs

Recent MIT graduates have developed roof tiles that change color based on the temperature. They are made of a special polymer placed between layers of plastic. At cooler temperatures, the polymer can dissolve into solution, allowing a black background to show through.

However, when heated, the polymer condenses to form tiny droplets that scatter light to create a white surface. In warm weather, the tiles are white and reflect 80 percent of the sunlight that strikes them, helping to cool down homes. This has been shown to save up to 20 percent of current air-conditioning costs.

In cold weather, the tiles turn black and reflect only 30 percent of sunlight, absorbing most of it to generate warmth inside a house. More work still needs to be done to test the durability of the tiles before they are marketable.

Top predator decline threatens ecosystems

The growing decline of apex predators, those at the top of the food chain like cougars, lions and sharks, and the resulting surge in mesopredators (such as foxes or raccoons) are becoming global problems with significant environmental and economic costs.

As just one example, killing of wolves, a type of apex predator, has been the easy solution to protecting livestock. This, however, leads to an increase in the coyote population, mesopredators that are usually kept in check by wolves. The coyotes can then attack more antelope and sheep, costing ranchers millions of dollars, and throwing off the natural balances of the ecosystem. This catastrophic disruption is not limited to one area: Increases in mesopredator populations have occurred in oceans, rivers, forests and grasslands all over the world. Unfortunately, this process is very expensive and nearly impossible to reverse in its current state.

Strong earthquakes weaken faults half a world away

Seismologists at the Carnegie Institution of Science in Washington, D.C., and the University of California, Berkeley have examined the 1987 to 2008 seismic records from Parkfield, Calif., which is part of the San Andreas Fault.

From these records they discovered that all three series of microearthquakes in the area during that time period were the result of earthquakes in other regions of the world, the most deadly being the 2004 Sumatran-Andaman earthquake whose epicenter was in Indonesia.

If the 2004 quake that was concentrated in the Indian Ocean was able to have this long-distance effect on the San Andreas Fault, it may have also weakened other faults all around the world. Some scientists suspect that the extraordinarily high number of strong, magnitude eight earthquakes that occurred worldwide in 2005 and 2006 were also triggered by the 9.3-magnitude Sumatran-Andaman quake.

Ice-free Arctic may become reality in the next two decades

Some scientists believe that the Arctic Ocean will be largely ice-free during the summer in just 10 years and that the summer sea ice will disappear completely by 2030. Measurements taken there last spring show that most of the remaining ice is just a year old, 6 feet thick and very vulnerable. In contrast, the ice that used to cover the Arctic more than a year old and was usually about 9 feet thick. The thinner Arctic ice takes less solar energy to melt and can also be broken up easily and pushed away by powerful wind and ocean currents. However, other researchers say that the ice will last until as late as 2100, basing their predictions on natural variability. They cite the example of 2007, when there was a record low amount of summer Arctic ice with very warm temperatures and strong winds, whereas in the summers of 2008 and 2009, there was some recovery of the ice.

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