Category Archives: Environment

Too clever by half: is technology killing the planet?

Technology Map - Tutornet

Image by steven w via Flickr

Technology is at once a hugely constructive and a hugely destructive force, and for the most part we have been content to ignore the latter while enjoying the benefits of the former. But, suggests Ian Michler, it’s high time that we begin to think seriously – and innovatively – about tempering its damaging effects. From ‘The Ecologist’.

In the course of my research for an article entitled, ‘The end of the line?’, one factor cropped up again and again: the role technology has played in our destruction of the oceans. In essence, global fishing fleets are using such advanced equipment that without the most stringent of controls, they will completely empty every marine ecosystem on earth. And it’s not only the oceans. The same applies to almost every facet of humankind’s development over the past century or more. As much as any other contributing factor, technology is responsible for the predicament our planet finds itself in. But say that out loud and most people will baulk at the idea. To admit the truth of it would mean having to change the way we think, behave and, ultimately, live. This is a very uncomfortable message for most of the middle and upper economic classes around the world.

Let’s look at some of the high-tech developments that we take for granted, like the combustion engine, super-tankers, plastic products, splitting the atom, deep mining techniques, drug manufacture and space travel. When they arrived on the scene they were all major advances, technologies that would make our lives easier and more successful. And, if we ignore everything but the direct impact they have had on individual lives, mostly they have done that. As time has passed, though, we now know that when viewed collectively as the primary components of our means of production and consumption – in other words, our global footprint – their impact on the planet has been hugely significant and ultimately negative.

Driven by the notion that a constantly increasing rate of economic growth is the overriding marker of a successful society, developing or purchasing more  advanced technologies has become fundamental to fulfilling this aim. And with the array of new tools at our disposal, we have been able to reach further, deeper and higher into every imaginable ecosystem and exploit more effectively every possible resource. History indicates that most engineers or scientists side with the vested interests of the day, and it is also apparent that each generation of innovators has failed to consider the contraindications or long-term consequences of their technologies. Spare a thought for the generation 50 years hence and what it may have to deal with because of today’s scientists who are forging ahead with genetic engineering. After well over a century of this developmental model, it is now difficult to argue that the world’s natural systems – so vital for our survival – are not faltering.

 

Earthquake Updates

Sanitation concerns in post-quake Christchurch

Wendy Zukerman, Australasia reporter

In the New Zealand city of Christchurch authorities are scrambling to restore water supplies and sewage systems which were severely damaged by last week’s 6.3-magnitude earthquake.

Canterbury medical officer of health Alistair Humphrey told New Zealand Doctor that 40 per cent of Christchurch doesn’t have running water and the entire city’s water supply is “compromised”.

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(Image: Jamie Ball/Rex Features)

Isolated cases of measles and gastroenteritis have been reported. According to Humphrey the gastro cases were likely to have been water-borne and the result of people brushing their teeth with contaminated water – rather than spread through human contact.

But, a Canterbury District Health Board spokeswoman told the New Zealand Herald: “There is an underlying potential for there to be a measles outbreak. There’s a chance of an outbreak of gastro diseases.”

Many residents are living in camps, where the poor sanitation and cramped living conditions are perfect for disease outbreaks.

On Friday, Cowles Stadium welfare centre – which provided accommodation for Christchurch earthquake evacuees – was forced to close because its water and sewage services were not considered reliable.

Radio New Zealand reported that the Christchurch City Council was “worried about disease” at the stadium, and said it could not “afford an outbreak of diarrhoea.”

All citizens are being encouraged to boil their water before consuming it.

At 12.51 pm local time today – precisely one week from when the earthquake struck, burying as many as 200 people - the city stood silent for 2 minutes.

Mental health is seen as a growing concern in the city, too. A doctor from a nearby hospital that has been helping patients told the New Zealand Herald, “We had walking wounded coming in initially on Tuesday – people with cuts, minor injuries and things like that. We are starting to get more people with shock coming in and I expect that to increase.”

http://www.newscientist.com/blogs/shortsharpscience/2011/03/sanitation-concerns-in-post-qu.html

The tectonic forces that are shredding New Zealand

The week of 22 February the New Zealand city of Christchurch felt the force of a 6.3-magnitude earthquake. The quake came just five months after an even larger one struck 40 kilometres west of Christchurch, near the town of Darfield. In fact New Zealand experiences around 14,000 tremors each year, although most are too small to be felt. They are a sign of the tectonic processes that are gradually shredding the country.

Why is New Zealand so prone to earthquakes?
Regions that lie close to a boundary between tectonic plates tend to feel more quakes than areas in the middle of a plate. New Zealand may have a total land area of just 27,000 square kilometres, but that area happens to coincide with the margin between the Pacific and Australian plates, leaving parts of the island very seismically active.

Which areas are most vulnerable?
Large areas of both North and South Islands have felt earthquakes with a magnitude greater than 5 within the past 200 years. This is because of New Zealand’s unique tectonic regime: despite its small size, the country feels the impact of three distinct regions of tectonic activity.

The relatively low-density continental crust of the North Island, which sits on the Australian plate, is forcing the dense oceanic crust on the Pacific plate beneath it in a process called subduction. This creates a so-called destructive plate margin that is nibbling away at the Pacific plate. Earthquakes are common where a subducting plate grinds against the underside of an overriding plate.

Something similar is occurring to the south-west of South Island. But here the sliver of continental crust lies on the Pacific plate, and it is the Australian plate that is being destroyed through subduction.

In between, the continental crust on the Pacific and Australian plates slide past one another on South Island, creating a conservative plate margin where crust is neither created nor destroyed. This area is still prone to earthquakes, most notably along the Alpine fault. Further away from these fault zones the ground is generally more quiescent. Christchurch is over 100 kilometres from the Alpine fault.

So what caused the Christchurch quake?
It was caused by a new fault – or, to be more precise, a previously unrecognised fault.

“The fault is likely to have existed previously – and possibly produced earthquakes before – but they have not ruptured recently, in a geological sense,” says John Townend at the Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand. The unrecognised fault appears to be an offshoot from the Alpine fault. Unfortunately for the residents of Christchurch, that offshoot passes very near South Island’s largest city.

Are more quakes on the fault likely?
Earthquake prediction is an inexact science, despite tantalising evidence thatearly warning systems may be possible in some cases. But some seismologists are cautiously optimistic.

“An earthquake of this magnitude does a good job of releasing stress,” says Gary Gibson, a seismologist at the University of Melbourne, Australia. Townend agrees: “My interpretation of what we are seeing near Christchurch is temporary, albeit harrowing, activity in what is generally a relatively low-seismicity part of the broad plate boundary.”

What’s the long-term prognosis for New Zealand?
Even if Christchurch dodges major seismic activity in the near future, tectonic forces will continue to act on New Zealand. Hamish Campbell at the research consultancy GNS Science in Lower Hutt, New Zealand, says it’s “very unlikely” that the newly recognised fault will have any serious effect on the country’s geography, but activity on the Alpine fault may well do so.

The rocks on either side of the Alpine fault are grinding past each other quickly – at around 30 millimetres per year. The southern part of South Island has moved at least 480 kilometres relative to the northern part within the past 25 million years. That rate of movement is “colossal”, says Campbell – and not far off the displacement seen on the world-famous San Andreas fault in California, which is itself a conservative plate margin.

Fast forward several million years and New Zealand will continue to twist and turn. The activity that is already shredding the country will ultimately see South Island “split in two along the Alpine boundary”, says Campbell. The town of Kaikoura would be at the northern tip of one island, with Greymouth at the southern tip of the other, he predicts.

 

Earthquake: The unknown fault that caught out Christchurch

Quake.jpg

NEW ZEALAND is riddled with major active faults, but it seems the fatal 6.3-magnitude earthquake that hit Christchurch this week was caused by one that was not on the list.

“Christchurch has never been identified as a major earthquake zone, because no one knew this fault ran beneath,” says Roger Musson, a seismologist at the British Geological Survey in Edinburgh.

The Alpine fault that runs along the mountainous spine of South Island marks the boundary between the Australian and Pacific plates. It now appears likely that the Christchurch quake resulted from a previously unknown fault extending directly eastward from the Alpine fault.

It first came to light last September when a stronger but less calamitous quake shook Darfield, 40 kilometres west of Christchurch. Seismologists believe the latest quake resulted from …

http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg20928012.500-the-unknown-fault-that-caught-out-christchurch.html

http://www.bgs.ac.uk/

Full article

Today’s fatal earthquake near Christchurch in New Zealand confirms that a country already riddled with major fault lines has gained another one, say seismologists.

“Christchurch has never been identified as a major earthquake zone, because no one knew this fault ran beneath,” says Roger Musson, a seismologist at the British Geological Survey in Edinburgh.

New Zealand experiences thousands of earthquakes each year, because it lies on the boundary between the Pacific and the Australian tectonic plates. To the north-east, the Pacific plate is subducting beneath New Zealand’s North Island, and to the south-west, the Australian plate is subducting beneath the South Island. Between these two subduction zones lies theAlpine fault, running along the mountainous spine of the South Island.

It now appears likely that the Christchurch quake resulted from activity on a fault extending directly eastward from the Alpine fault that remained unknown until last year, says Musson.

The new fault first came to light last September when a stronger but less calamitous quakeshook Darfield, 40 kilometres west of Christchurch. Musson says the latest quake probably resulted from an eastward continuation of activity on the same fault. “It has probably not moved for tens of thousands of years, so lots of strain built up,” says Musson.

Christchurch was understandably unprepared for activity on a fault that is only now making its presence known. But two factors made today’s damage worse. The quake was just 5 kilometres down, limiting the amount of energy it dissipated before reaching Christchurch from its epicentre just 10 kilometres away. Also, the rock on either side of the fault accelerated almost three times as fast as in a typical quake, says Musson, so the shaking was extra violent – and significantly greater than the levels Christchurch’s structures have been designed to withstand

 

 

China plan aims to reduce pollution… Will it succeed?

BEIJING — China’s leaders unwrapped a new five-year economic blueprint on Saturday that set ambitious goals to raise ordinary people’s incomes, rein in pollution and energy use, and build advanced-science industries in fields like biotechnology and environmental protection.

After five years of scorching growth, averaging 11.2 percent a year, the plan projected an average 7 percent annual rise in the gross domestic product through 2015. The government also pledged a war on inflation, officially pegged at 4.9 percent in January but believed by experts to be considerably higher.

The moves are crucial to shifting China’s economic base away from factory exports toward one rooted in demand for goods and services by increasingly affluent consumers. And that is crucial to the Communist Party’s central aim: keeping the allegiance of a society that wants a bigger share of the nation’s prosperity.

The new plan was the centerpiece of an annual report on the government’s work that Prime Minister Wen Jiabao presented on Saturday to the National People’s Congress, China’s quasi-legislature. Past reports have set broadly similar targets for China’s development, which the report frankly acknowledged had not always been met.

“We are keenly aware that we still have a serious problem in that our development is not yet well-balanced, coordinated or sustainable,” the report said. Among the shortcomings it cited were a widening gap between the rich and poor, an “irrational industrial structure,” sharply rising land and housing prices, and illegal seizures of people’s land and the demolition of their homes by state-backed developers.

Some main economic goals may be especially hard to attain.

Mr. Wen set an 8 percent target for gross domestic product growth this year, implying slower growth in succeeding years. But many economists believe the economy will grow faster, just as growth in 2010 exceeded the government’s target. Soaring land and home prices have also proved difficult to curb.

But the report claimed impressive gains on other important fronts that are at the head of plans for the next five years, including a 19.1 percent cut in the amount of energy used per unit of economic growth, a rapidly expanding service economy and a boom in the high-technology sector. The government opened a national nanotechnology research center and is building 50 engineering centers, 32 national engineering laboratories and 56 other labs focusing on technologies like digital television and high-speed Internet, the report said.

Software sales, integrated circuit production and other advanced products like microcomputers all logged double-digit increases last year.

In the next five years, raising standards of living appears to be perhaps the government’s main priority.

The government pledged to keep prices “basically stable” through 2015, limiting inflation to 4 percent this year, and to raise household income by an annual average of 7 percent, roughly in line with economic growth.

That would break from the past 20 years, in which the growth of ordinary workers’ income has regularly lagged behind the growth in gross domestic product, and consumer spending as a share of the economy has dropped to a record low.

The report called expanding domestic demand “a long-term strategic principle” and pledged to increase subsidies to low-income households, extend broadband Internet to rural areas and smaller cities, and expand retail sectors like chain stores and online commerce.

Retail sales of consumer goods should grow 16 percent in 2011 alone, it stated.

Environmental protection, energy conservation and technology also are allotted ambitious goals: in technology, for example, laying a million kilometers, or 621,000 miles, of new fiber optic cable; and adding 35 million new broadband internet ports, to a total of 223 million; and drafting a plan to support emerging high-technology industries.

The report pledges to further reduce energy consumption per unit of G.D.P. by 16 percent, and carbon dioxide emissions per unit by 17 percent. And for the first time, the state-run Xinhua news agency reported, the government will place a cap on total energy use, limiting consumption to the equivalent of four billion tons of coal by 2015.

 

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/05/world/asia/05china.html?_r=1&ref=global-home

New environmentally friendly search engine launched

Nonprofit organization Carbonfund.org announced on March 2 the launch of www.envirosearch.org, a new ‘environmentally friendlysearch engine.

Launched by Carbonfund.org, which supports third-party renewable energy and reforestation projects around the world, the free online search engine is powered by Bing and hosts sponsored advertisements through Yahoo!.

The revenue generated by these advertisements is then donated by Carbonfund.org to environmental projects around the world, including the Haiti Reforestation Initiative, and the India Mangrove Project. 

The green nature of the search engine does not appear to change results in any way; for instance typing “BP” into www.envirosearch.org produces the energy company’s homepage as the top result rather than information regarding the recent oil spill in which it was involved – the same results that are returned on www.bing.com.

‘Green’ search engines have been in existence for several years and are growing in popularity; perhaps one of the biggest is the Google-powered http://www.carbonneutralsearch.co.uk/ which buys carbon offsets to make searches carbon neutral.  

Search engine www.gigablast.com claims to generate 90 percent of its energy usage from wind energy and the Yahoo! powered www.goodsearch.com allows users to choose one of the participating charities – including many dedicated to the environment – to sponsor with their searches; US$0.01 is then donated to the charity of the user’s choice. 

Other business models of ‘green’ search engines include www.greenmaven.com which, rather than donating profits, filters results and only returns hits from those from sites that are environmentally friendly or promote a green cause; and www.ecoseek.net which searches for environmentally friendly products.

http://www.independent.co.uk/environment/new-environmentally-friendly-search-engine-donates-profits-to-charity-2232007.html

 

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