Category Archives: Environment

Dealing with Nuclear Waste – How can we hide something forever?

Radiation Symbol - Daderot via Wikimedia Commons

Nuclear waste is toxic to all organisms and remains active for 100 000 years. To put that in perspective, it’s about the same amount of time that the human species has existed and we’ve changed a lot in that time frame.

To find out how nuclear radiation affects people you can read this article on ABC News, or watch: Radiation and the Human Body – ABC News.

Nuclear power plants have produced between 250 000 and 300 000 tons of nuclear waste worldwide. Interim storage of this waste currently consists of above ground water pools. This is not a viable long-term solution because conditions are unpredictable and long-term, in this case, is 100 000 years. We have no idea what the world will be like in that amount of time.

Finland has begun creating a permanent storage facility for their nuclear waste. They’ve named it Onkalo – “hiding place” in Finish. Onkalo consists of a series of tunnels descending 5 kilometers into the bedrock. Construction began in 1970 and will be finished in 2100, meaning that nobody working on the project today will be alive when it is finished. When Onkalo is complete the tunnel will be filled with rock and clay, and the entire site will disappear back into the surrounding area.

The documentary “Into Eternity” gives a disquieting look at the construction of Onkalo and science behind it. Narrated as though it is being watched by a future generation, the film begins by saying “stay away from this place and then you will be safe.” You can watch the film on youtube.

There is no way to guarantee that future species won’t dig into Onkalo. We are still unable to decipher many of the languages spoken by our ancestors. Will languages spoken today mean anything in the future? How can we communicate danger to the unknown?

Whether or not to mark Onkalo’s presence is still being debated. Many worry that marking the site will peak the curiosity of future “humans”, leading them to dig it up, before understanding that it was built to protect them. Humans have a history of ignoring signs to leave things undisturbed. When the Egyptian’s built the pyramids, they never intended for them to be excavated. However, the wishes of the distant past were not enough to stop us. On the other hand, what if we don’t mark it and it is discovered by accident and there are no warnings in place?

This leads me to think that curiosity might have killed the cat, but radiation may wipe out the future and makes me wonder if nuclear energy is really a good alternative energy source? Is it really responsible to leave around tons toxic waste that could destroy future organisms? And isn’t it rather unsettling that even after 130 years of construction the only thing we’re going to be able to do is hope that Onkalo and the secret it contains are never discovered?

Arsenic – Venomous or Vital for Life?

Arsenic. Just the thought of the compound sickens many due it its infamous toxic properties.  Who would’ve thought that a compound this hazardous to most organisms could be one of the building blocks of life for another?

A recent discovery of microorganisms in Mono Lake, California shocked geneticists and scientists all over the world. This past December, NASA proclaimed that they had discovered the first known organism on Earth that utilizes arsenic as one of its chemical means of life and survival. Though some bacteria are known to obtain their energy by oxidizing arsenic as a fuel, Prior to this discovery, every known organism on Earth had used carbon, nitrogen, phosphorous, oxygen, sulphur, and hydrogen as the six fundamental elements of life. This organism discovered has been found to replace the phosphorous in the classic combination, with arsenic – using it as a staple backbone in its hereditary units and as an energy-carrying molecule.

Some researchers believe that due to the harsh conditions within Mono Lake, (high levels of saline, alkanes, and arsenic – fun fact, the lake actually has a layer of dead flies floating around the circumference of its surface) the organism may have evolved to adapt to the depleting levels of nutrients and utilize other chemicals present – a process that could have taken who knows how long.

It’s mind-boggling to believe that the discovery of one miniscule, seemingly insignificant organism has completely changed the way scientists viewed the way life has survived. This ‘seventh’ core element can only lead those to wonder what other microorganisms are waiting to be discovered that could potentially utilize fluorine as a main structural component, or harness radio waves as energy.

What about life beyond the planet Earth? Could this discovery just prove that complex species may be thriving in the inhuman conditions of the other planets?

Are we headed towards extinction?

Is it true? Although it is highly debated, our current understanding of science shows that we are facing the next  mass extinction event of the Earth. Many palaeontologists agree that the dinosaurs went extinct at the end of the Cretaceous period 65 million years ago. This mass extinction event called the Cretaceous-Tertiary (KT) Extinction wiped out more than 50% of all species on the planet.

The KT Extinction was caused by a giant asteroid of diameter greater than 10km  that hit the Yuccatan Peninsula of Mexico 65 million years ago, leaving the Chicxulub Impact Crator of more than 180 km in diameter! Initially, this impact vaporized everything close to its vicinity instantaneously, and created an enormous tsunami. A dense cloud formed of debris from the impact created a series of long term effects.  One of which was a global acidic rain phenomenon killing many plants on the surface of the land and causing over 80% of the  marine species.

The KT Extinction was the last mass extinction the Earth has had, but there had been four others beforehand: Late Ordovician, Late Denovian, Late Permian, and Late Triassic. It has been suggested that we are heading towards the 6th mass extinction with our current rate of species going extinct (for example, the Dodo bird, and the Marsupial wolf). Extinction of different types of species on our planet suggest that a smaller variance of creatures will have the ability to survive the next type of mass extinction event whether it be a flood, giant meteor or global climate change.

Marsupial Wolf

Dodo Birds From Ice Age!

In 1984, D. Raup and J. J. Sepkoski analyzed the number of asteroid extinctions during the history of Earth and concluded that there was a mass extinction event every 25 million years. This landmark paper has been cited in over 400 scholarly sources and has led the start of many theories of possible mass extinction scenarios.

So if Raup and Sepkoski’s prediction is true, and our human race faces the next mass extinction event, will we be able to survive?