Monday, June 2, 2014

Marine Debris

This school year my Environmental Science class covered an entire unit on the problem with ocean plastics. We started the unit with plastics chemistry and studied plastics from their fossil fuel source, industrial processing, commercial uses, and finally, improper disposal and journey to various ocean ecosystems. Once in the ocean, these plastics float on the surface, remain suspended in the water column, or sink to the abyss and settle on the ocean floor - never to biodegrade and be used by organisms in any beneficial manner.

We studied marine organisms at each ocean level and how different plastic artifacts might (and do) affect various organisms. For example, sea turtles consume plastic bags mistaken for jellyfish and nesting birds feed plastics to their chicks. Class projects included: creating plans to stop the flow of plastics into the sea at their source, how to collect them once they enter the system and how to educate the public on proper disposal. Below is an example and above students had some fun learning about deep sea creatures and the difficulty exploring the deep sea. This is a topic that should be covered in all science classes as aspects of Chemistry, Physics, Geology, Oceanography, Marine Science, Biology and Environmental Science are discussed.

I proposed a challenge question to my students: How does the human traffic trade in Houston, Texas contribute to the death of sea turtles in the Gulf of Mexico? Answer: behind brothels and forced labor camps authorities find massive illegal dumps filled with plastic bags, condoms, needles, etc. These wash into the waterways and enter the estuaries/bays and eventually the gulf. Making broad, obscure connections are vital for understanding the delicate nature of how to care for our environment as well as encouraging critical thinking.

Friday, April 12, 2013

One of my favorite topics of interest is that of microbial life living in extreme environments. These creatures used to be distant topics in Biology but now receive a lot of attention due to many beliefs that analogous organisms could live on other bodies in our solar system: Mars, Europa, Titan, (the Titan link is a BBC video), Enceladus, Ceres. Looking at the picture below you can see where we find these organisms on Earth. The icy moons that NASA and others are so interested in could potentially allow life to develop. Designing, launching and successfully getting an ice penetrating probe to Europa for example is decades away, if not longer. Once we get to Europa, getting through kilometers of ice will be incredibly difficult. Europa is so cold and its ocean so deep beneath the ice, I would be very surprised (but still excited!) if any cellular life has evolved there. So called "Chaos" regions have scientist most excited as these regions might contain subsurface lakes. Lake Vostoc is the closest thing we have and I do not think it makes a good comparison as the life in it possibly (if any) evolved under different conditions and then adapted to a changing environment. Regardless, extremophiles are super cool organisms that deserve to be known about and discussed in the mainstream.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Mention Campi Flegrei and most people will not know what you are talking about - even many scientist. It's a potential threat to our lush western lifestyle. Like Yellowstone National Park, the entire northwest Bay of Naples is in fact, one large super volcano. Everyone has heard of Vesuvius and its famous eruption that buried Pompeii and Herculaneum but few have heard of the larger volcanic network that poses a much greater threat to all of Europe and potentially the planet. Scientist can measure noticeable bradyseism as the magma chamber under the bay as it expands and contracts.

I love this image. Europe is crowded and people have built right up to - and even into the craters. Go to Google Earth and zoom in on the craters and you can see the developments inside them. Eruptions occurring from Super Volcanoes are few and far between and modern society has not seen one. Lucky you're here - Lake Toba almost got us....We really have no idea what to expect if one of these giant volcanoes erupts. It might just be an "ashy" nuisance for a few months (devastating only local regions) or it could set us all back to living as people did in centuries past.

Sadly, no matter how advanced we get, how many space rockets we build and how many subatomic particles we find - I do not think we will ever be able to control these forces. We might be able to predict an event down to a few years before an eruption, but never stop one. My final thought on the subject is to travel and enjoy the magnificent Italian countryside as much as possible and enjoy the incredible scenery (due to plate tectonics) and the  rich soils that allow for complex wine chemistry and abundant food production.

Friday, February 1, 2013

On oceans, fuels and beyond..

The future of science will focus on maintaining biosphere stability, discoveries in medicine, deep sea exploration, sustainable resource extraction, finding new energy sources, and exploration of the solar system. As we exhaust our resources here we will need to look at other metal and carbon rich moons to satisfy our resource needs. If we stay put, then we will have to develop better fuel sources, such as those from algae, recycle efficiently and develop ways to manage the atmosphere. The potential is there for a very well managed future. Here I am at Point Dume with the holdfast of  Macrocystis.

We have barely explored our deep oceans and if we hope to find life on other worlds, we will need to develop an understanding of the life on Earth that survives in harsh environments. Secrets in curing disease and promoting longevity might hide in the biochemistry of these organism. A new field of scientific research is emerging in this area. Examples include life in caverns and the basics of Extremophiles in general.

Besides learning about various environments and making new discoveries, we must decide how best to utilize resources for our own good and learn how to manage and preserve them for future generations while maintaining ecosystem balance. In order to do this, our future scientists will need to tackle such problems as  ocean acidification and cnidarian proliferation. These will be hot topics in the near future demanding attention and world-wide cooperation. Our existence depends on Ocean Chemistry and health. Another hot spot problem will be the monumental task of collecting and recycling plastics in the ocean.

A modern Biology or science class should include conceptual exploration and discovery projects as these issues must be managed in the coming decades. Integration of all the sciences is the best way to go about this covering Geoscience, Physics, Chemistry, Biology (all fields), relevant mathematics and Cosmology.

Current Issues

I like to imagine what it would be like if Mammuthus still roamed around. They were victims of a changing climate. Question: We are seeing warming probably induced by human activity and searching for ways to control it. However, if we were entering a new ice age, with large ice sheets advancing over the northern US and Europe, might we be trying to increase heat trapping gasses to heat up the planet? Interesting thought question as we try to find ways to balance the ecosystem (if possible) to a level that suits us comfortably. I hear fierce opinions on climate change. Is climate change due to Heliophysics alone, the burning of fossil fuels, or perhaps both? Influenced by us or not, there is still the pollution aspect that must be controlled. End of argument - in case you come across one!

What are we as a global society willing to give up? How will we manage a changing planet? Can our students today be inspired to learn how to create a balanced ecosystem? Can we sustain our economies and way of life in ecological balance? Scientists are experimenting with ideas now (algal fuels) that our science students will perfect in the future.  Students must understand the entire global ecosystem and the Geosciences that influence it. Important issues facing our students are emerging pathogens (old & new), population increase, habitat destruction, ocean acidification, resource extraction problems, space exploration and developing stable global economics.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

A really amazing video with some surprising properties of hyper saline water (Brine).

Resources: online Labs in Marine Science.

Deep Sea Creature DATABASE.

Neptune Deep Sea Observatory. Ocean Plastics hyperlink reference.

Video on the importance of the Fungi! This is an often ignored topic in Biology (the Fungi) and actually one of the most important for the health of the planet ecosystem. I have spoken with many Biology teachers who admit to not really covering the Kingdom Fungi, which is not emphasized in the standards, but should be. Not only could we not survive without them, they are very important economically and medically and most likely hold many more secrets that we have yet to discover. How much do you know about Fungi? Some glow!

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Places around LA for science education.

Click the link above - LA has some of the best urban parks anywhere. Just a few hundred yards away from traffic jams and stagnant street air are wonderful parks filled with a diverse array of plants and animals as well as great views of the city and surrounding mountains. These are great places for educators and families to visit to learn about Geology and Biology. Lichens can be found on the bark of many trees in these parks. Lichens are indicators of good air quality. If you see them growing, you know you are in an area that is less impacted by smog. Lichen Biology is very important and interesting and a topic rarely discussed in detail, if at all.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Here I am in front of some very nice succulent examples at the LA Zoo. The Zoo has amazing gardens and planters filled with wonderful examples that are mostly ignored by Zoo patrons who are there naturally to focus on the animals. One can find tropical, desert and even cycad gardens.

A great educational opportunity might be missed if you are there and do not notice these. These plants provide a great addition to many subject areas like convergent evolution and basic adaptations for dry climates. Many of these "cactus" are not cactus at all, they have just evolved similar characteristics selected for by their environment.

You can discuss convergence, water loss prevention, as well as economic uses - the Agave sp.