We are more connected with garbage than we think

The theory that Earth is a globe with a finite space is not new. We are more connected with garbage than we think. We are leaving a heritage to future generations with culture, technology and also garbage. In some cases we are basically putting our garbage under the rug (landfills). If the rug is the ocean imagine how hard will be in the future when next generations will have to deal with it, cleaning our garbage.

We consider ourselves the superior animal, however in most of the cases we are incapable of take care of our own garbage. Are we pigs? No, pigs don’t dump they garbage elsewhere. They live with their own garbage. Sometimes I don’t get it. How can we consider ourselves superior if we are not able to handle our own garbage? Why people still think that garbage will disappear if left on the streets. Every product we use has to come from a place and has to go somewhere. It does not matter the size or the material. In most of the cases the products, after they are used, go to a landfill or a recycle factory. However there are cases where they are left in the streets or dumped in the wrong place. Is it really hard to put garbage in the correct place? Last year I wrote a post about a recycle day for electronics in my neighbourhood and one of my neighbours dumping his old TV in the back alley. Now, I’ve been taking some pictures to prove my theory: we are not that intelligent and we are leaving our dirty culture to future generations. Every piece (small or big) of garbage that we leave is our direct responsibility.

I am optimistic because there are a few amount of people trying to do the right thing and most important: they are teaching children how to take care of the environment. Children are learning already that what we are doing with the environment is not right.

Where Should My Broken Blender go?

A couple of weeks ago I tried to use my blender and it did not work. My first thought it was, I need to get a new one. It could be a small problem easy to fix. However, as the majority of the world population, I don’t know how to fix a blender (or any electronic product) so i have to find someone to do that for me. Normally the cost to fix a blender is similar to buy a new one. Ok, I know, I am being cheap and that is not environmental friendly but I am not in that eco-level yet. It is a working in progress.

However, to feel “less guilty” about the situation i thought, is the blender recyclable? Should i throw it in the regular garbage? I am trying to reduce the amount of garbage that i generate and the amount of garbage that I throw in the regular garbage (which goes to the landfills). First, it is obvious that the blender should not go to the regular garbage. Why? Because all those products have a label saying so. Why? These products are made of different materials, and some of them are harmful to the environment. It can pollute water, food and cause diseases in animals and humans.

Second, where should i dispose the blender? In my recyclable bin? No. But where? I searched a bit in the Internet. I found some places where it is possible to dispose some electronic equipments, but unfortunately it was not for kitchen appliances but for computers, remote controls, tv, etc. I searched a little bit more and then I finally discovered that in the city where I live there is a program where in certain locations it is possible to dispose the blender. In the end I did the right thing and my old blender went to the right place. I used one of the neighbourhood programs to collect electronics.

I live in a building with around 20 suites, and it is not hard to find electronics inside our normal garbage can. Why? Do the people know about the recyclable program? Are they lazy ? All these products have a label showing they should not go to regular garbage. Well, I didn’t know about the program until I started to look for the right place to throw my old blender. Surprisingly, here in my city an environmental fee is charged every time an electronic product is sold to support the program.

 

What are the consequences of not dispose this kind of garbage in a proper way? An example (which only scratches the surface) is this documentary about the plastic pollution in the ocean called “Plastic Paradise: The Great Pacific Garbage Patch”. Most of these products are made of plastic with a combination of poison metals. Most of the plastic that has ever been created since the 19th century is still somewhere on our planet. So if it never goes away, where does it go? And If they are threw into the sea? Thousands of miles away from civilization, Midway Atoll is in one of the most remote places on earth. And yet its become ground zero for The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, accumulating plastics from three distant continents. 

Once I heard an old tale about a huge forest fire. All the animals of the forest were running away from the fire except for a little bird. The bird was diving into a lake close to the forest trying to hold as much water as possible and coming back in the direction of the fire. When he was flying above the fire he flapped its wings to release all the water he was holding, which it was normally a few drops. When an elephant saw the bird he asked: “Are you stupid? You know you will never end that fire”. The bird answered: “I am doing my part, if all the animals do the same we can fight the fire and save whatever we can of our forest”.

Sometimes I think, destroy a little less doesn’t protect anything. There are billions of people in this word. Millions of them are throwing garbage in the wrong place (including some of my neighbours) but I am trying to do my part and I know I am not the only one.

Next step… Where should my old bass strings go?

Would you like to know more and help?

http://plasticbank.org/

http://www.plasticoceanproject.org/

How is Artificial Intelligence Helping the Environment?

Recently, one of the most intelligent man alive, the theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, said in an interview: “The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race.”. Should we be afraid of Artificial intelligence (AI) because the machines could take over the human race (similarly to the terminator)? For the environmental science point of view, AI so far has been really helpful. First what is AI? There are different definitions, but one of my favourites is:

[The automation of] activities that we associate with human thinking, activities such as decision-making, problem solving, learning…
(Hellman 1978)

Thus, it is basically the use of machines (e.g. computers) to solve problems and to help complex decisions. There is a branch of AI called machine learning (ML). It is a scientific discipline which studies computational algorithms that can learn from data. One of the applications of the ML algorithms is to use some particular data to perform classification and numerical regression. But how is ML helping the environment?

Satellites (remote sensing) generate thousands of data every day. Images around the globe with different frequencies band (infrared, microwave, visible to the human eye, etc), time and scales. But How useful can be those images? One example is to detect phytoplankton in the ocean. Phytoplankton are important components to sustain the aquatic food web. The importance of them is beyond of being food for krills. Accurate estimates of chlorophyll concentrations (consequently phytoplankton) are essential for estimating primary productivity, biomass, etc.

Image Credit: NASA

Image Credit: NASA

It is possible to use satellites to detect phytoplankton presence in the ocean due the concentration chlorophyll in the surface water. Each frequency channel has a purpose. For example, at certain wavelengths, sand reflects more energy than green vegetation while at other wavelengths it absorbs more (reflects less) energy. However, even using satellites this is not a easy task. Aerosol concentrations could affect the ocean colour viewed from the satellite. Further complications arise when there are also suspended sediments,and/or dissolved organic matter from decayed vegetation in the water. In addition coastal water quality gradually degrades from increased pollution and human activities. To overcome those problems, ML algorithms such as artificial neural networks and support vector machines are used to automatically classify (separating chlorophyll from aerosols, pollution, etc) and detect the presence of phytoplankton in the ocean.

Credit: Nasa

It is also possible to use remote sensing to classify and detect land cover applying the same algorithms to identify and classify different types of vegetation including forests, dead trees in the forest, forest fires, portion of regenerated trees after forest fires, etc. With accurate information is possible to avoid more deforestation, track urbanization, mitigate diseases, understand and control ecosystems, planning, etc.

asfd

These are only small samples of how AI is used in environmental sciences. There are so many contributions that is unfair to give only a few examples about the topic.

More about:

http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/Features/RemoteSensing/remote.php

Sources:

William Hsieh (2009). Machine Learning Methods in the Environmental Sciences Cambridge DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511627217

Keiner, L., & Yan, X. (1998). A Neural Network Model for Estimating Sea Surface Chlorophyll and Sediments from Thematic Mapper Imagery Remote Sensing of Environment, 66 (2), 153-165 DOI: 10.1016/S0034-4257(98)00054-6

Schiller, H., & Doerffer, R. (2005). Improved determination of coastal water constituent concentrations from MERIS data IEEE Transactions on Geoscience and Remote Sensing, 43 (7), 1585-1591 DOI: 10.1109/TGRS.2005.848410

Dash, J., Mathur, A., Foody, G., Curran, P., Chipman, J., & Lillesand, T. (2007). Land cover classification using multi‐temporal MERIS vegetation indices International Journal of Remote Sensing, 28 (6), 1137-1159 DOI: 10.1080/01431160600784259

The Chaos of Weather

After a long break I am finally back. This is the first post of the “Weather Forecasting” posts. Roughly speaking, to forecast the weather, scientists use computer models to mimic Earth dynamics. These models are mathematical equations of the atmosphere and oceans. However, the Earth dynamics is a big complex system. On top of that some Earth natural systems have a chaotic behavior. But what is chaos? Summarizing the wikipedia definition:

Chaos is when the behavior of dynamical systems are highly sensitive to initial conditions. Thus, small differences in initial conditions (such as those due to rounding errors in numerical computation) yield widely diverging outcomes for such dynamical systems. Therefore, chaotic systems are predictable for a while and then appear to become random. In other words, the deterministic nature of these systems does not make them predictable.

Around 1960, the meteorologist Edward Lorenz (one of the fathers of chaos theory), was working on a set of differential equations describing convective processes in the atmosphere which were producing encouragingly realistic results. One day, he decided to enter data manually from a point part way through rather than waste time by starting the run over. He found that not long after the run had been restarted from this intermediate point, the forecast diverged and it was completely different. The reason behind, was the output data he used to restart the model. It had been rounded to 3 significant digits, while the computations were done to 6, an error of about 1%. With this unexpected results he discovered that the degree of numerical precision in the initial conditions provided to a numerical weather prediction (NWP) model affects the resulting forecast significantly after only a few days of forecast time (Lorenz 1963).  A good example (also from wikipedia) of chaotic behavior  is the double rod pendulum where the start of the pendulum from a slightly different initial condition would result in a completely different trajectory:

Double-compound-pendulum.gif
Double-compound-pendulum” by CatslashOwn work. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

The Earth weather is one of the Earth natural systems with a chaotic behavior. Consequently, the use of different initial conditions in the atmospheric and oceans equations will lead to different final results. So why does not use the same initial condition always to forecast the weather and have the same results? The source of the errors in the forecasting is a more complex subject and I will explain in a post later. However if the Earth system is so unpredictable how come scientists can use computer models to reconstruct past and future climate? First it is necessary to explain the difference between weather and climate where the difference is a measure of time. Weather is what conditions of the atmosphere are over a short period of time, and climate is how the atmosphere “behaves” over relatively long periods of time. Weather is more difficult to predict and has more uncertainties than climate. An elegant demonstration of this difference can be seen in this short video from National Geographic. The astrophysicist and Cosmos host Neil deGrasse Tyson uses a dog walking to clarify the concept.

More additional information of computer models and how they are used to predict climate can be found here: Can we trust climate models?  and Numerical weather prediction.

Can We Really Count on Plants to Slow Down Global Warming?

The idea is simple. Fact 1:Plants reduce CO2 in the atmosphere trough photosynthesis. Fact 2: Increasing CO2 in the atmosphere stimulates plants growth. Thus fact 1 + fact 2 is the perfect scenario. If there is more CO2 in the atmosphere and plants are growing more because of that, the solution to global warming is to plant more trees right? Well not really. There is a missing piece called Carbon cycle.

Continue reading