Science Roundup: Toxic Oceans; Extinction Risks; A Quantum Leap For Hydrogen Production.

That the world’s oceans are getting warmer isn’t news. What is news is that all that warming is slowly turning parts of the ocean into a toxic stew of algae.

That’s the result of some new research from New York’s Stony Brook University (SBU) that was published this week.

A team of scientists led by SBU’s Christopher Gobler found that since the 1980’s the gradual warming of the ocean has led to a significant increase in the number of toxic algae blooms.

The areas most affected Gobler says, are the colder Northern waters,  “this study links this expansion to ocean warming in some regions of the North Atlantic and North Pacific Oceans.”

algal bloom

A toxic algae bloom in the Atlantic from 2015

These blooms aren’t uncommon in the summer months, but what most people don’t know is that “These events can sicken or kill people who consume toxin-contaminated shellfish” Gobler says, “and can damage marine ecosystems by killing fish and other marine life.”

There’s no good news here.

“This study demonstrates that the global warming that has already occurred is now impacting human health and our oceans,” said Gobler. “An important implication of the study is that carbon emission and climate change-related policy decisions made today are likely to have important consequences for the fate of our future oceans, including the spread and intensification of toxic algal blooms.”

The study was published online in the April 24 edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science. 

Low-balling extinction risks

A new study from a Columbia University Scientists suggest that some of the world’s flagship conservation organizations may be minimizing the risks of extinction around the world.

It’s not their fault, they’re using bad maps, at least according to Don Melnick, senior investigator on the study and the Thomas Hunt Morgan Professor of Conservation Biology in the Department of Ecology, Evolution and Environmental Biology  at Columbia University.

He says that the “maps describing species’ geographic ranges, which are used by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) to determine threat status, appear to systematically overestimate the size of the habitat in which species can thrive…”

Here’s why, the IUCN, which creates the annual listing of endangered species called “the Red List” uses species sightings to create their species range maps, and then based on the number of species in the range they get their Red List rating, Vulnerable, Endangered, or Critically Endangered.

But Melnick realized that some of the species were showing up in areas that couldn’t support them. So he redrew the maps, to include only areas where the animals could thrive, not just where they showed up. Not surprisingly the maps quickly got a lot smaller.


Don Melnick, Columbia University

Melnick’s study looked at the IUCN maps for 18 endemic bird species living in the Western Ghats mountain chain of southwest India. “We were extremely surprised” he says, “by how much the IUCN ranges overestimated what we deem the true ranges to be. In a number of cases” he says, “the ranges were overestimated by an order of magnitude. The drastic reduction in range size and the increased habitat fragmentation that our study indicates leads us to infer that there is a much greater threat to these endemic birds than was ever imagined.”

Finally, Some Good News!

A potential breakthrough in the production of clean energy from the New Jersey Institute of Technology.

Yong Yan from the institute did the work with colleagues affiliated with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, the Colorado School of Mines and San Diego State University.

What they did was to create a quantum dot photoelectrochemical (PEC) cell that is extremely good at converting water into gaseous hydrogen fuel and oxygen.

What the heck?

Well a quantum dot is an “extremely small semiconductor particle only a few nano-meters in size. (A nano-meter is one-billionth of a meter.) ”

Now, In a normal photoelectrochemical cell, semiconductor materials like silicon, or the very long and overly complicated copper indium gallium arsenide, do the hard work of using sunlight to break down water into its component parts.

But when things get ‘quantum-y’ the team was able to replace those semiconductors with lead sulfide quantum dots.

Yan and his team found is that his tiny quantum dot PEC cell could operate at 100 percent efficiency, that means for each photon his cell absorbed it was producing at least one ore electron to do the actual splitting of the water.

This technology is nowhere near ready for prime time, but it’s important because right now, the energy to split water usually comes from burning fossil fuels. This technology suggests a way to make the production of hydrogen fuel almost completely green.

Yan says, “These results do present the possibility of generating more energy more efficiently with such a solar-capture device in the future. This could also lead to a fundamental change in the entire process of producing hydrogen fuel.”

He goes on to say “… by building on the basic step of achieving such high quantum efficiency for solar hydrogen generation, we could make the process of producing a ‘green’ fuel much greener as well.”



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