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Author Archive

Soliciting Questions from the Crowd, Looking for the Crowd to Rank Questions

by April 2, 2012

process-sketch-v01 Over the past few weeks, we’ve been preparing to launch the EarthQ project. Modeled after Spot.us, which was recently acquired by American Public Media, we’re soliciting questions for which people would like to see high-quality, evergreen content developed (see some example answers here). In order for a question to move up the queue, or have its EarthQ rank increased, it needs to be shared a lot through Twitter, Facebook, and other social media. We’re doing this because it will be a substantial research effort to develop the high-quality answers, and we want to ensure that the question is of interest broadly.

Then, just like Spot.us raises funds to support the reporting on a particular topic, we’ll be looking for donations to support our research team. We’ll be aiming to raise micro-donations in 99 cent increments.

Head over to the Questions page to share (rank) questions and feel free to click the Amazon donate button to throw your 99 cents behind a question.

Over the past few days, these questions have been submitted via the website:

We welcome your feedback and ideas on this new project.

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How Can Cars Run on Hydrogen?

by March 31, 2012

needs_rank As part of this answer, we’ll need to explain the role of batteries and/or fuel cells. The answer infographic will detail different ways that fruit trees are pollinated. If you would like to see a high-quality infographic developed for this question, please share it with your network using the sharing icons above—these actions will increase the question’s priority. Please look at the example answers here. Also, if you would value a high-quality answer being available on the Web, please consider a small donation ($0.99) to support our research team.

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How Are Fruit Trees Pollinated?

by March 29, 2012

needs_rank The answer infographic will detail different ways that fruit trees are pollinated. If you would like to see a high-quality infographic developed for this question, please share it with your network using the sharing icons above—these actions will increase the question’s priority. Please look at the example answers here. Also, if you would value a high-quality answer being available on the Web, please consider a small donation ($0.99) to support our research team.

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What Are Ecosystem Services?

by March 26, 2012

If you would like to see a high-quality infographic developed for this question, please share it with your network using the sharing icons above—these actions will increase the question’s priority. Please look at the example answers here. Also, if you would value a high-quality answer being available on the Web, please consider a small donation ($0.99) to support our research team.

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How Is Our Food Supply Dependent on Pollinators Like Bees?

by March 26, 2012

If you would like to see a high-quality infographic developed for this question, please share it with your network using the sharing icons above—these actions will increase the question’s priority. Please look at the example answers here. Also, if you would value a high-quality answer being available on the Web, please consider a small donation ($0.99) to support our research team.

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Why Does Sea Level Rise When the Planet Warms?

by March 26, 2012

If you would like to see a high-quality infographic developed for this question, please share it with your network using the sharing icons above—these actions will increase the question’s priority. Please look at the example answers here. Also, if you would value a high-quality answer being available on the Web, please consider a small donation ($0.99) to support our research team.

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What Is Ocean Acidification?

by March 26, 2012

ANSWER (CURRENTLY UNDER REVIEW): A gradual yet steady change of ocean chemistry marked by a decrease in pH that is caused by increasing concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. This answer is focused on changes to the ocean over recent decades. In addition to the infographic below, check out several videos on our YouTube channel that we produced through a video contest.
Q001 what is ocean acidification v0289

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How Do Greenhouse Gases Trap Heat in the Atmosphere?

by February 26, 2012

If you would like to see a high-quality infographic developed for this question, please share it with your network using the sharing icons above—these actions will increase the question’s priority. Please look at the example answers here. Also, if you would value a high-quality answer being available on the Web, please consider a small donation ($0.99) to support our research team.

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What Causes Oxygen to be Used Up In Deep Waters?

by February 26, 2012

ANSWER (CURRENTLY UNDER REVIEW): Bacteria use up the oxygen in the process of breaking down organic matter, like the waste from tiny animals and dead algae. This answer is focused on coastal ocean waters, but generally applies to deep waters in estuaries, ponds, lakes, and slow-moving stretches of rivers.
 

Q001 how oxygen is used up in deep waters v04

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From Toilet to Treatment to Treatment to Tap in San Diego

by February 10, 2012

dog-drinking-from-toilet_sm2 My first reaction to hearing at the breakfast table about today’s piece in the NY Times about water reuse in San Diego was that it isn’t all that different from what we have been doing for years: discharging treated waste water into streams and rivers and then drawing out drinking water downstream, counting on bacterial decomposition, dilution, and other processes to treat further the discharged water. I was pleased to see that this point was discussed in the article.

Drinking water that recently was flushed down a neighbor’s drain is a tough concept, pardon the pun, to swallow. However, as the piece in the Times correctly points out, we are headed into times in which resources like water are likely to be scarcer. To my mind, this community is a shining example of people—who rightly had very strong feelings on an issue—being willing to accept what the science community had to offer. Jerry Sanders, the mayor of this San Diego community, put it this way: “If science is behind you and you can prove that, I think people are willing to listen.” Here, here!

Image in post from Climate Watch. Thumbnail image on home page from the NY Times article.

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EarthQ Core Business Model: Where Is the Sweet Spot?

by February 1, 2012

Recently, we have been working to launch a project dubbed EarthQ. The goal has been to shepherd good questions and cultivate good answers by bringing the right mix of experts to Quora, as is described in this post about bringing the carbon cycle to Quora. This work continues, but so far, my attempts to draw in a few experts to help with answers have come up dry. The Quora team thinks it is okay for those who pose a question to answer it, so that will likely be my next step. Perhaps with a solid answer to the first question, What are the compartments in which carbon is stored on Earth?, I can then start to draw in some colleagues to endorse the answer by up-voting it… (more…)

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Monitoring Will Be Key As Minnesota Takes A Leadership Role in Managing Nutrient Runoff

by January 18, 2012

5223892647_2a55e1b7c2 Yesterday I had the opportunity to hear EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson speak at the University of Minnesota, who was in town to launch a new program along with Minnesota’s Governor Mark Dayton and USDA secretary Tom Vilsack. The new initiative, Minnesota Agricultural Water Quality Certification Program, has a goal of reducing the introduction of nutrients and soils to waterways via runoff, a process known as “non-point source pollution” (a point source is a pipe, a sewage treatment plant, etc.).

I was drawn to the talk specifically to hear what Administrator Jackson would say about the new program, which I had read about in the morning’s Minneapolis StarTribune. She did not disappoint, although the bit about this new program occurred just as the questioning period came to a close. It was clear that she has a good deal of enthusiasm about this new program and its prospects for helping to reduce pollution, such as the introduction of nitrogen into the Mississippi that can lead to low-oxygen conditions in the Gulf of Mexico. (more…)

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A Billion Dollars Flowing Down the Mississippi Annually

by December 20, 2011

In a recent post, I did a bit of research to update the picture of nutrient flows down the Mississippi due to runoff and other sources in its watershed. There’s been an ongoing debate about the source of the nutrients in the river that are directly linked to low-oxygen conditions in the Gulf of Mexico.

For a taste of the debate, check out the controversy a year ago surrounding the premier of Troubled Waters, A Mississippi River Story (link to view on Twin Cities Public TV). Among other activity, there was a heated back-and-forth on the opinion pages of the Minneapolis Star Tribune (first piece arguing that research for film was dubious, counter piece by producers about the research behind the film). The flare up nearly squelched the premier, although it ultimately took place.

Personally, I experienced how difficult it can be to establish a “consensus view” of how to describe nitrogen flows for the report on ecosystem indicators described in my previous post. There was a constant tension throughout the report process to “tell readers what to do with the information” rather than just “giving them the facts.” I believe we ultimately struck a good balance, however, we nearly had resignations of participants when we unintentionally pushed the line on the indicator dealing with the movement of nitrogen and got too close to pointing fingers. (more…)

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Anything New in the Story of Nitrogen Moving into the Gulf of Mexico?

by December 14, 2011

Dialogue Earth has roots in a broad, stakeholder-based national report on the condition and use of U.S. ecosystems published by the Heinz Center in Washington, D.C. (the report is available in hard-copy from Island Press). Curiosity about the ongoing relevance of these indicators has led me to dive in and see what, if anything, can be said about trends since the release of the report in 2008.

The first indicator in the spotlight is one that describes the movement of nitrogen (N) into major waterways, through run-off as well as point discharges such as sewage treatment facilities (here’s a link to download a pdf of the indicator). Why is this an important indicator of the state of U.S. ecosystems? Our explanation in the report does a good job of answering this question:

Nitrogen is an important plant nutrient and is essential to all life. Nitrogen is an abundant component of the earth’s atmosphere, but it is unavailable to most life in gaseous form. In order to be used by plants and other organisms, nitrogen gas must be “fixed,” or converted to a “reactive” form, that plants can use, such as nitrate. Nitrogen is fixed and accumulates in ecosystems through natural processes, such as the growth of nitrogen-fixing plants like clover and soybeans. However, human activity has greatly increased the amount of reactive nitrogen added to ecosystems. The largest human-caused input of nitrogen to ecosystems comes from the conversion of atmospheric nitrogen gas into fertilizers. Additional reactive nitrogen gas is produced by the combustion of fossil fuels. Reactive nitrogen from all these sources can ultimately enter streams and rivers. Excess nitrogen transported to coastal waters by rivers can lead to low oxygen conditions, threaten fish and animal life, and degrade coastal water quality. (more…)

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Bringing the Global Carbon Cycle to Quora

by December 3, 2011

In a recent post about building a knowledge base for general consumption on the topic of ocean acidification, I suggested that it would be wise to step back and address questions-and-answers about the carbon cycle. This is a cross-posting of a post I just put up on Quora: The Carbon Cycle, Starting in.

And, the first question is also up on Quora: What are the compartments in which carbon is stored on Earth? Do you have the credentials to answer this, or do you know someone who does? Please help out—I believe it will be a rewarding way to bridge the gap between the science community and the rest of society. Also, keep in mind that “upvoting,” adding comments for the author, or suggesting edits,  as soon as there is one or more answers will be a really great way to participate.

For anyone new to Quora, I’d encourage you to take a look at a new infographic and video that helps explain how to have a winning strategy within the Quora community.

Any and all feedback is welcome!

carbon-cycle-01_lower_res More »

How Do I Go About Answering A Question on Quora?

by December 3, 2011

As a follow-up to a first infographic designed to help newcomers make sense of Quora, a relatively new question-and-answer site on the Web, this new infographic targets those who are new and want to dive in and begin answering questions. It is posted as an answer to How do you answer a question on Quora? There already are some great resources on Quora for those who are getting started, such as Lucretia Pruitt’s post “Welcome to Quora. Do Yourself a Favor & Slow Down” (1663 upvotes, and counting) and What are the basic rules around using Quora?

As an experiment, I created a short (3 min) video that walks you through the infographic. Note that there are a bunch of links to Quora questions throughout the video—ensure annotations are turned on to see them. Feedback welcome!

And, the infographic…

new-answerer-infographic-sketch-v02

 

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Making Decisions About Purchasing Alternative Vehicles

by November 28, 2011

In a recent post, I discussed Why Hybrid Cars Are Tough To Justify On Fuel Savings Alone and how Gallons per Mile (GPM) would be a better metric than Miles per Gallon (MPG) to use to compare vehicles. The gist of it is that we save a lot more fuel replacing a 15 MPG vehicle with one that gets 20 MPG compared to replacing a 30 MPG vehicle with one that gets 35 MPG. The GPM metric makes this intuitively obvious, whereas MPG does not.

A few weeks back when I dipped my cup into the Twitter river, which I need to do more often, I happened upon a press release from the U of Minnesota Extension having to do with a new spreadsheet tool designed by energy economist Doug Tiffany to help those considering an alternative vehicle purchase.

Tiffany’s tool allows the user to customize the data input, adjusting things like purchase price, down payments, expected cost of fuel, one’s personal opportunity cost (the cost to me for tying up cash for down payment and monthly car payments). The tool then produces several graphs, the first of which is a 15-year cumulative cost projection comparing several vehicle types. For the graph below, I used the default values in the tool, which can be downloaded here.

cumulative-cost-curves

So, what this means, is that for the input parameters, the 15-year cumulative cost of ownership of the extended range vehicle, such as a Chevy Volt, comes out the highest, whereas the electric vehicle, like the Nissan Leaf, comes in with the lowest cost. The following graph shows the breakdown between car types at year 15.

year15costs

Cost may not be the only motivator, however, at a time when many are concerned about greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Thus, it may be important for many to compare the estimated emissions of greenhouse gases from the different vehicle types. Tiffany’s tool produces this graph based on various inputs.

annualghgemissions

As would be expected, the conventional gasoline-powered vehicle has the highest emissions. There’s not as much difference between the other types, with the hybrid having somewhat higher GHG emissions than the all-electric, both of which do somewhat better than the extended range electric.

Tiffany’s tool reminded me of a widget available from my colleagues over at Climate Central, which is embedded below. It allows you to get a good sense of potential fuel and GHG emission savings between two different vehicles. It dynamically updates fuel costs for your state, which is a nice feature.

Together, these tools provide a great resource to anyone considering an alternative car purchase. Perhaps these groups could team up to create a tool that blends together both annual costs / savings and economics over the vehicle’s lifetime.

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The Role of Storage with Variable Energy Sources Like Wind and Solar

by November 8, 2011

In a recent post, I asked What’s Going To Happen To Your Vehicle’s Lithium Battery At the End Of Its Life? One of the options discussed in the NY Times article about the fate of batteries that sparked my post was as a means for storing electricity generated by wind turbines. A couple of other recent articles about energy storage caught my eye—both related to wind energy.

Why might storage play a key role in a grid that has a lot of wind turbines?

In early October, Mark Ahlstrom, the CEO of WindLogics, gave an excellent presentation as part of Frontiers in the Environment series at the U of MN’s Institute on the Environment (view the video here). He explained how our variable demand for electricity over the course of a typical day is met by a range of generation sources, from base load to “peakers.” Base load is met by nuclear, coal, and hyrdo—depending on location. Base load plants are meant to run 24/7, and adjustments to their output need to be scheduled well in advance. On the other end of the spectrum are peakers, which are small electrical generators that can be turned on with little notice and do not need to run for a minimum period of, say, a day. The figure below is based on a slide from Ahlstrom’s slides.

ahlstrom-sys-load-combo

Ahlstrom went on to explain how things get interesting when a substantial amount of wind generators are added to the mix. In the figure below, the bright green line represents the reduced daily load that results by adding a number of wind turbines to this hypothetical typical energy demand. He goes on to explain how the rest of the electricity generators need to adapt to this new load curve, which can have more spikes and other challenges, such as a faster ramp-up in the early morning hours—challenges that the current energy system wasn’t set up to tackle.

ahlstrom-sys-load-combo-2

Here’s a good piece by the ClimateWire group that landed in the NY Times: Fickle Winds, Intermittent Sunshine Start to Stress U.S. Power System. It dives into detail about the policy challenges that blending intermittent energy sources with our traditional electrical generation system.

Back to storage. A recent piece in the NY Times described how Batteries at a Wind Farm Help Control Output. In the largest battery installation connected to the grid in the U.S., they’ll use over a million batteries to provide storage for a few minutes of generated electricity from a large wind farm in West Virginia. The idea is that this stored electricity can be fed into the grid to help smooth things out when output from the wind turbines drops off momentarily. It is not designed to even out longer periods when the wind is calm. Significant storage on the time scale of hours and possibly days would most likely require a solution such as pumping water uphill or compressing air when the wind blows, and then using this stored energy to run a generator when the wind is quiet (here’s a project underway to study pumped hydro in conjunction with wind farms in northern Minnesota). There may also be options to store electricity in electric vehicles integrated with a smart grid of the future.

Finally, another NY Times piece that gave me some pause had to do using water heaters and electrical space heaters to store excess electricity brought about in part from excessive winds in the Pacific Northwest. The idea is that automated, shorter-term storage of excess electricity in homes that already have electric hot water heaters and heat with electricity could bleed off excess electricity pouring into the grid during storms when wind generators are running at maximum output (note that the situation was further complicated because hydropower operators were unable to reduce output from their generators for fear of creating conditions that might kill fish).

At a gut level, this strikes me as a good way to avert disaster, but probably not a great strategy from an energy efficiency standpoint. My sense is that using electricity for water heating and space heating is not nearly as efficient as, say, natural gas. The standard reason for arguing this point is that the efficiency of traditional energy plants is much less than 50%, whereas a high-efficiency hot water tank can exceed 90%. However, maybe this standard reasoning needs to be updated in a situation where electricity comes from wind or solar. This is a topic that merits further consideration.

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MinutePhysics: Short Videos Demystify Physics

by October 25, 2011

If you haven’t seen the videos produced by Henry at MinutePhysics, they are definitely worth a look. Here’s his latest, tackling two very different questions: Why does light speed up after leaving glass or water? What does this have to do with the President of the US?

Incidentally, Henry placed second in our energy video contest, with his “Uncle Sam’s Dinner” video, where the guy playing Uncle Sam literally eats his way through the U.S. energy diet to demonstrate our various sources of energy.

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So You’re On Quora, Now What?

by October 16, 2011

As we gear up to tackle some basic questions and answers on Quora about the carbon cycle as part of our EarthQ project, with a goal of soon being able to tackle issues like ocean acidification and global warming, it seemed that a roadmap to Quora would be key for collaborators who might never have hear of it. Hence, the idea of a Quora Infographic emerged late this past week. Here’s version 0.1 that I’m throwing out for feedback. What do you think? Helpful? Silly? Gaping holes?

infographic-sketch-v02_small

UPDATE: Now showing version 0.2, thanks to a comment from friend Mike Troiano to highlight the start arrow. Keep the comments coming!

Version 0.1
infographic-sketch-v01_small

See this also on my post on Quora. I’d appreciate you up-voting it there if you like the idea.

Creative Commons License
So you’re on Quora, now what? by Dialogue Earth is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License. Permissions beyond the scope of this license should be submitted here.

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