Seasons are a kind of awakening

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Spring is waking up these flowers to come out of their velvety warm blankets

As a kid, I only knew of three seasons in India – Summer, Rainy (Monsoon), and Winter. When I moved to the USA, I heard of – Fall and Spring. Did someone say, Autumn? Delhi Tourism website lists five seasons – Winter, Spring, Autumn, Monsoon, Summer. Makes me wonder – did I miss some science class in school? If you have lived in India, what kind of seasons have you heard of?

Aren’t these seasons a kind of awakening?

Endotherms or warm-blooded animals that generate body heat tend to slow down during winter. Their metabolism, energy consumption, and growth slows down. It’s nature’s way of conserving energy. Even seeds stay dormant until the right environmental conditions favour its growth.

After a period of this deep-sleep or sometimes called as hibernation, these species are awakened by the sun’s warmth. Spring sunshine wakes them up.

When the rain falls, you smell the strong scent (petrichor) in the air after a dry spell produced by awakened bacteria.

External temperatures affect dormancy. Global warming is changing these amazing phenomena – causing spring to arrive early and autumn to come late. Sadly, some species are finding it hard to adapt. The world needs to wake up to this.

Tiny worlds: it’s the small things in life

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Look around you. There is stuff you can’t see but it exists, like magic. In this side of our world,  the human notions of ‘seeing is believing’ fail to exist. This, my friend, is the microscopic world, the one naked to the human eye. Except for humans who have technology at their disposal that help them see this world, such as by using a microscope. We do however manage to see shadows of the Muscae volitantes (Latin: “flying flies”), or mouches volantes (from the French), commonly known as floaters. These are deposits within the eye’s vitreous humour.

It’s amazing how technology helps us see things we can’t normally see. For instance, we know why the wings of a Morpho butterfly are blue even if they contain no blue pigment. The physics of light at the nanoscale tells us that the structures/ridges on their wings have a peculiar structure that refracts light giving out blue and cancelling out other colors of light, a phenomenon called constructive interference. A similar thing happens to gold when we see it on a nanoscale. Colors of monodispersed gold nanoparticles are not golden at all!

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The microscopic world also puts a spell on the environment we live in. The spores that mushrooms give out as a part of their reproduction cycle are nature’s very own cloud seeders. Aerosols too do the same, 90 % of which have natural origins such as the sea salt, dust, and volcanic ash, the first two being the most abundant aerosols on the planet. The clouds that these cloud seeders create reflect about a quarter of the Sun’s energy back to space. Aerosols however have a love and hate relationship with global warming. Depending on their physical structure, they either aid or prevent warming/cooling. For more information, see my article ‘Polluted atmospheric layer in the making‘.

It also works the other way round. Warming of oceans could kill phytoplankton, and eventually all life on the planet. This is because these microscopic marine plants are the base of several aquatic food webs, they provide two-thirds of the planet’s total atmospheric oxygen and absorb as much carbon dioxide as tropical rainforests. If the water temperature of the world’s oceans increases by six degrees Celsius, it could stop oxygen production by phytoplankton by disrupting the process of photosynthesis. The macro is deeply connected to the micro, whether you see it or not.

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We have slowly entered into the depths of Microbial ecology (or environmental microbiology). It is the ecology of microorganisms: their relationship with one another and with their environment. Phytoplanktons provide oxygen and absorb carbon dioxide, chemosynthetic microbes living in the dark corners of our world provide energy and carbon to the other organisms. There are decomposers that keep the nutrient cycle (one of the biogeochemical cycles) running.

Microbial processes have a central role in the global fluxes of the key biogenic greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide) and are likely to respond rapidly to climate change. – Nature Reviews Microbiology

An estimated 5 trillion trillion bacteria reside on this planet. They are in the oceans and the soils. A handful of soil contains about 10 billion bacteria! These keep our soils healthy and ultimately keep us healthy. Overuse of certain chemical fertilizers, fungicides, herbicides, pesticides are rendering soils infertile as they kill these microbes. Technology has a solution for this too. Scientists are now able to map genetic sequences of soil microorganisms, understand what they actually do and how to grow them, and reintroduce them back to the soil.

Last but not the least are the tiny worlds inside our own houses. Molds, mildews, bacteria, and dust mites are potential human health hazards. These are called bioaerosols and are found in homes. These can be controlled just like the indoor non-bio aerosols that are harmful to our environment. Consumer products such as Fingernail polish, perfumes, mouthwashes, pump hair sprays, and roll-on and stick deodorants emit Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs), which not only affect indoor air quality which may cause short- and long-term adverse health effects, but can also act as greenhouse gases, and cause smog.

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Further reading:

Microorganisms and the natural environment. P. A. Trudinger, B. Bubela. Mineralium Deposita November 1967, Volume 2, Issue 3, pp 147-157. This paper looks good to read, however I had no access to the entire text.

Learning from nature

Why make our own mistakes when we can learn from nature? Through unfathomable amounts of trial and error that nature has gone through, it would only be wise to learn how nature does what it does. Biomimicry is what we name – our process of learning from nature. The earliest of examples of biomimicry has been the making of an aeroplane. It is when we tried to see how birds do it is when we understood how humans could fly too. Sonar technology was invented after studying the echolocation that bats use to navigate.

2013-09-07 17.34.53 (1)Green Chemistry and Biomimicry:

Green Chemists too can learn from it as sustainable chemistry is what nature is good at. Nothing goes to waste you see? It is in nature lies the secrets of producing inherently safer chemistries. The enzymes that are at work in our body right now are natural catalysts. This gives rise to bio-catalysis. Learning from corals that fix carbon to create vaccines that do not need refrigeration are few of the many applications that have their origins in biomimicry.

Let’s also see how nature has inspired industries.

Paper and pulp industry:

Paper is made from wood fibres that are bonded together by a natural adhesive known as lignin. Lignin must be removed in order to make paper. While one may think of lignin as waste, it is not. Lignin after separation is used for producing other chemicals and may be also to produce an oddly sounding product called ‘liquid wood‘, a plastic replacement. This entire process is called ‘pulping’ and is done through physical and chemical processes. These processes are water and energy intensive. To ensure that less water and energy is used, scientists have come up with a solution that uses a deep eutectic solvent. These solvents occur naturally: plants produce them during droughts.  Not only that, these scientists used the genius of penguins to solve the problem of high water usage during the drying process that follows pulping. To escape from seals underwater, these birds release trapped air bubbles which form a thin layer of air around their plumage, reducing friction. This gave the researchers an idea to suspend the fibres in a viscous fluid and then expel the fluid by modifying the viscosity around the fibres.

Fuel industry:

Plants are very efficient machinery that can store sunlight directly into storable chemical form. Researchers led by a MIT professor produced something known as a ‘artificial leaf’, a device that can harness sunlight to split water into hydrogen and oxygen without needing any external connections, just like leaves do.

Solar industry:

In the field of solar energy, plants are an exemplary. Have you seen the sunflowers move as they track the position of the sun in the sky for maximum absorption of solar energy? That’s something to learn from and scientists have come up with sunflower-inspired solar panels that track the sun without using motors. Another example of biomimicry in this industry are the dye-sensitized solar cells, that are solar cells inspired by photosynthesizing plants.  Along similar lines, researchers at the Institute of Chemical Technology (ICT) (the institute I majored from) have developed 18 synthetic dye molecules, which can be used to make indigenous dye-sensitised solar cells (DSC) that absorb solar energy.

Windmill industry:

To reduce the drag in wind turbines, some researches decided to use the riblet technology. The channeling effect was first noted in shark skin research in the 60s and 70s, which was first studied by NASA to incorporate it into aerospace engineering.

Water-treatment industry:

Discovery of aquaporins, integral membrane proteins that form pores in the membrane of biological cells, are nature’s very own filters. Inspired from this a Danish company Aquaporin has developed a new approach to seawater desalination.

To know more about such extraordinary lessons on conservation of material and energy, go to AskNature.

Here’s a mind boggling video of the physics of water in trees. Do you think we can take away something from this as well?

Harmon(e)y with environment

Environmental Economics on Wikipedia is a pretty good start for those who want to learn about you know – Environmental Economics. But what is it? It tells you about how we choose to use resources and how it affects our environment. If it weren’t for this, companies wouldn’t have been levied with taxes for polluting our water systems. This is just one example.

4 (15)What particularly interests me is ‘natural capital’ aka the commons or ‘open-access’ properties. World Forum on Natural Capital defines it this way:

Natural Capital can be defined as the world’s stocks of natural assets which include geology, soil, air, water and all living things.

Everything really. Now, there’s something called as ecosystem services too, that we obtain from these natural capital. Whatever we use by altering the natural capital for our survival or luxury are ecosystem services, for example, the fuel we use. Crude oil is a natural capital and fuel is an ecosystem service.

You may be aware what will happen if we run out of natural capital. Say, fuel, what will out world look like without oil? Watch this creepy video:

As we run out of natural capital, so will we run out of ecosystem services. This is why we are turning to green chemistry, green technology, renewable energy etc. So, what can we do? There are people who do the natural capital math. It’s called Green accounting.

Oh this economics lexicon is driving me crazy. Ecological economics, green economy, green accounting, environmental economics. Argh. Nevertheless it is an important topic and there are ways to understand it. This infographic, pretty even, has a few things defined in it.

Amidst the sustainability business, what can a common man do? Plant trees? Yyyyyuuup. A good friend asked me if anything like this exists and I assured him he will have the answer to it in one of my blog articles. An act that will enable exactly this will be formulated soon in Maharashtra, India.  The Hindu states, “The Maharashtra Government is in the final stages of formulating an Act that will enable “tree credits” to be traded in the State.” Does this have some economic term too? Yup. It’s called ‘tree credits‘. Farmers will be given appropriate certification and money. Interested people can read this article that states:

The social forestry is currently inviting feedback on the project from the public. Citizens can reach the authorities at treecredit@hotmail.com.

This was going on in 2011, you might want to check if this email still exists. For tree farming outside India, Fox Business has a report.

This is not as rosy as it looks. Nature.com asks: If growing forests in India can generate lucrative carbon credits, then why isn’t everyone planting trees? Paroma Basu reports. Here’s the article that tells you why.

Why do we waste so much?

“You should eat everything that is served in your plate! Don’t waste anything.”, said my mother and she has been saying it ever since I was an infant. Many of us can relate to this in one form or the other, from one person or the other.

Ever wondered why we waste so much? Why do we waste food, water or anything for that matter? Is it something innate to us? What could possibly be the psychology behind such a behavior?

When I was about 20 years old, I heard a yoga instructor say, “Your stomach is not a garbage bin, if you don’t need it, don’t push it inside you, do not eat it. You are causing more harm that good.” She was right, in a way. Only problem I think with this piece of advice is that it needed an iteration of the question ‘why?’ Why did we feel obligated to not waste food? Why is it morally right to not waste food? If we have to waste food, why do we harm our own bodies for being morally right? Why do we create so much food needlessly? What do we think when we do all this?

My main point was that our perception of waste is relative to our experience of scarcity, and for most of us, things like water, food and energy do not feel scarce, even though, taken globally, they are. In so far as there is a solution, it may lie in simulating the experience of scarcity. I do this incidentally once a year when I visit my in-laws in India, where I learn to live with water shortages and power cuts, even in a relatively developed and affluent part of one of their main cities, Bangalore. – Jonathan Rowson, RSAblogs

Did this ever happen to you? Did you ever experience scarcity? I have. We had a 24 hour water supply for a few days, when I moved to a new place. The new society was yet to have a good foundation of rules. After our society was fully populated, new rules were made. Water was then only supplied for two hours, one hour each, morning and evening. We felt the scarcity. It was uncomfortable. We bought new storage tanks to store water. My mother made sure that nobody wasted water in the house. She’s been always the same, she must have experienced scarcity long back but we, the ones who have not ever lived in a world like she has, do not know of scarcity but we are experiencing it now. She always coaxed me into building things from waste, to save resources. She, like many mothers or people alike out there have continued this legacy, for the good.

A layperson may ask, “We have so much water in the oceans, then why do people say ‘Save Water’?

Everyday, something or the other strengthens my belief in this quote from the movie The Day The Earth Stood Still: “People change at the precipice.”

“Fifty-four percent of the world’s food wastage occurs “upstream” during production, post-harvest handling and storage, according to FAO’s study. Forty-six percent of it happens “downstream,” at the processing, distribution and consumption stages.”

Read more: Food waste harms climate, water, land and biodiversity – new FAO report 

CO2: A friend or a foe?

 

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Looks like CO2 is both, a friend and a foe.

The so-called anthropogenic CO2 seems to be greening the planet’s surface by aiding photosynthesis, according to a new research that calls this effect as the ‘CO2 fertilization effect’. This is just a theory, mind you. Trees seem to be using more of CO2 and less of water. But it is no so rosy yet. There is a downside to this, researchers point out. The water that these trees taken in is spit out in the form of moisture which is then carried downwind to the farms. So if trees use less water, that could ultimately mean less rain for thirsty crops in at least some regions of the world.

Nature correct’s itself eventually, I believe.

Read more:

Carbon emissions helping to make Earth greener (NewScientist)

Some Trees Use Less Water Amid Rising Carbon Dioxide, Paper Says

 

(Image source: Stkarnick)