Scientific American July 2013
Environment: Greenhouse Goo (p 56)
The Keystone XL pipeline is the most economical way to distribute oil from the Canadian tar sands to the U.S. Yet it is also the faucet that could open a flood of carbon dioxide, and turning ever more tar sands into oil could bust the planet’s greenhouse gas budget and trigger potentially catastrophic climate change, writes David Biello in a feature article in this week’s Scientific American.
The proposed Keystone XL pipeline would transport oil from tar sands mines and other production facilities in Alberta, Canada over 2000 miles to refineries on the Gulf Coast of Texas. Proponents of the project believe this oil is imperative in diminishing the U.S.’s dependence on oil from the Middle East. However, opponents raise grave concerns, not least the environmental impacts of accelerated CO2 emissions that will speedily surpass our agreed upon limit. "We can reach that limit fast or slow," explains Biello. "What matters is not exceeding that budget because much of the carbon stays in the atmosphere for centuries or more, trapping heat." These findings suggest that the fate of the planet may partially hinge on President Barack Obama’s decision on whether or not to allow the Keystone XL project to proceed.
Science Agenda: Exploded Trust (p 10)
The fatal explosion of the fertilizer plant in West, Tex., shines a light on the lack of governance and policing for potentially dangerous industrial sites. Though it is good to trust local industrial sites to abide by safety and security rules, we must be more vigilant about verifying this, argue the editors of Scientific American in this month’s magazine.
The problem with verification can be seen on many levels at the West fertilizer plant. For instance, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration had not checked on the site since 1985; and when it did it discovered five serious violations, but only issued at $30 fine. The plant was not checked on again. Part of the problem is funding: OSHA relies on 2,200 inspectors to monitor more than eight million work sites and safeguard 130 million workers. The 2013 federal budget sequester is further slicing away at these resources. For OSHA and Department of Homeland Security to adequately be able to inspect and safeguard such sites, the editors note, there needs to be more consistent funding and resources available.
Chemistry: A Nobel Gathering (p 68)
In June, past winners of the Nobel Prize will come together to discuss previous breakthroughs and future prospects at the 63rd Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting in Germany. To commemorate the event, Scientific American is publishing excerpts from 11 articles authored by Nobel Laureates in chemistry.
Starting with Marie Curie’s article, Modern Theories of Electricity and Matter, published in 1908, and concluding with Ahmed Zewail’s description of four-dimensional electron microscopy in 2010, the extracts highlight many of the key chemistry discoveries of the 20th century.
The pieces also span a wide range of subjects, from the details of atoms and molecules — described by Theodor Svedberg in his 1913 Scientific American article — to the chemical makeup of the earth’s atmosphere — discussed by Thomas Graedel and Paul Crutzen in their 1989 piece. And the collection illustrates how some of the questions that preoccupied chemists many decades ago remain unanswered today.
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