Climate Crisis: Solar-Powered Oasis to Feed Desert Cities is one of the biggest threats associated with Climate Change. In places like North Africa and the Middle East, where countries already import up to 90% of their food, the spread of the desert due to increasing temperatures and diminished rainfall is made worse by the fact that cities in the region continue to grow. It’s a situation that is getting more expensive and energy-intensive at a time when things need to be getting more cost-effective and sustainable.

Luckily, a team of architects hopes to create a new agricultural system that could grow and deliver food in the desert. It’s called OAXIS, a conceptual design for a modular set of prefab greenhouses, covered in solar panels, which would extend from a city into the desert. The design of the buildings aims to keep out intense summer heat while the solar panels would power the rest of the building’s infrastructure and send extra energy back into the city. by Forward Thinking Architecture, a Barcelona-based firm, the concept seeks to combine flexibility with a minimal carbon footprint. Towards this end, they chose to forgo usual transportation and create a unique conveyor system that would deliver produce without the use of any fossil fuels. The conveyor belt would be underground so it could keep running in a straight line even if buildings were in the way.

Inside the prefab greenhouses, farmers would grow crops like tomatoes, lettuce, and strawberries using a hydroponic system that can reduce fertilizers and pesticides and save 80% of the water used in traditional agriculture, in part by recycling and reusing it. As for where the water comes from, the designers suggest that groundwater could supply the farm’s needs, but many Middle Eastern countries already rely on desalination., desert populations would be small enough that the region’s sparse rainfall could support local crops. But that’s not the reality. In addition, a small part of the recycled water would also be used to create an outdoor garden for education. As architect Javier Ponce, principal and founder of Forward Thinking Architecture, explained:

We thought it cannot only be a farming-only building, it must have a pedagogical approach and have to be attractive in order to become a biodiversity hub which can be visited by the local people and visitors… The cities should be smaller, denser, and compact, but this is not the current situation for some of the Arabian peninsula cities since they have exponentially grown and attract more people and workers. There has been a rapid urbanization in the area since the middle of the 20th century.

The project, he hopes, could help supply food as climate change makes the situation even more challenging. Already, countries in the worst-affected regions are desperately looking for solutions. For example, Qatar has already invested hundreds of millions in a plan to grow as much local food as possible by 2030. Other countries in the region, like Kuwait, Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Jordan, and the desert-locked Saudi Arabia are expected to follow. regions in particular have felt the pressure brought on by the escalating price of importing food. This pressure is exacerbated due to the disappearance of peak oil, which accounted for the vast majority of this region’s wealth. However, the project has farther-reaching implications, as Climate Change threatens to turn much of the world’s arable land into dry, drought-ridden plains.

At the same time, it takes into account the need to reduce reliance on water and fossil-fuels. As our population continues to skyrocket, a smarter and more sustainable use of available resources are always needed. As Ponce explained:

The OAXIS project is an alternative or complementary way to respond to the food insecurity and water scarcity of the region in a self-sufficient way. It aims to help reduce the food imports to feed part of the people in a nearby future based on renewable energies.

And be sure to check out this OAXIS promotional video, courtesy of Forward Thinking Architecture:

Sources:, forwardthinkingarchitecture

Climate Crisis: Visualizing the Effects of Climate Change

future-summer-heat-20140709-001Climate Change means more than just on average hotter temperatures year round. There are also numerous consequences for sea levels, glaciers, weather patterns, weather stability, crop growth, fisheries, wildlife, forest fires, disease, parasites, rivers and fresh water tables. Explaining it can be a challenge, which is why visual tools like tables, maps and charts are so very useful.

Unfortunately, these too can seem bland and technocratic, and fail to capture the true extent and critical nature of Climate Change. Luckily, this past summer, a season that has been marked by uncharacteristically cool and hot temperatures, two particularly useful visual aids have been produced that seek to remedy this. By combining data-driven predictions with aids that are both personal and global in outlook, they bring the consequences of Climate Change home.

1001-blistering-summersThe first is known as 1001 Blistering Future Summers, a tool produced by the Princeton-based research and journalist organization Climate Central. This interactive map illustrates much hotter summers will become by the end of the century if nothing is done to stem global warming. Users simply type in the name of their hometown and the map compares current temperatures in their town to how high they will be and finds the geographic equivalent.

On average, according to Climate Central, daytime summer temperatures will be 4 to 6° Celsius (7 to 10° Fahrenheit) warmer across U.S. cities. That translates to most cities in the U.S. feeling like Florida or Texas feel in the summer today. For example, in the future, Boston will feel like North Miami Beach. And Las Vegas, where temperatures are projected to an average of 111 degrees, will feel more like Saudi Arabia.

dynamics_ccAs you can imagine, changes like these will have drastic effects that go far beyond scorching summers and inflated AC bills. Furthermore, when one considers the changes in a global context, and they will be disproportionately felt, they become even more disconcerting. And that is where the series of maps, collectively known as the “human dynamics of climate change”, come into play.

Developed by the U.K. Met Office (the official British weather forecast service) with the U.K. Foreign Office and several universities, they start with a “present-day” picture map – which shows trade in various commodities (wheat, maize, etc), important areas for fishing, routes for shipping and air freight, and regions with high degrees of water stress and political fragility.

dynamics_ccwThen the maps get into specific issues, based on climate forecasts for 2100 that assume that nothing will be done to stop global warming. You can see, for example, how higher temperatures could increase demand for irrigation water; how parts of the world could see increases and decreases in water run-off into rivers; how different areas are set for more flooding; and how the warmest days in Europe, parts of Asia, and North America are projected to be 6°C warmer.

The poster also has summaries for each region of the world. North Africa, for instance, “is projected to see some of the largest increases in the number of drought days and decreases in average annual water run-off.” North America, meanwhile, is forecast to see an increase in the number of drought days, increasing temperatures on its warmest days, and, depending on the region, both increases and decreases in river flooding.

climate-changeThe overall impression is one of flux, with changing temperatures also resulting in vast changes to systems that human beings heavily rely on. This is the most frightening aspect of Climate Change, since it will mean that governments around the world will be forced to cooperate extensively to adapt to changes and make do with less. And in most cases, the odds of this aren’t good.

For instance,the Indu River, a major waterway that provides Pakistan and India with extensive irrigation, originates in Pakistan. Should this country choose to board the river to get more use out of its waters, India would certainly attempt to intervene to prevent the loss of precious water flowing to their farmers down river. This scenario would very easily escalate into full-scale war, with nuclear arsenals coming into play.

climate_changetideThe Yangtze, China’s greatest river, similarly originates in territory that the country considers unstable – i.e. the Tibetan Plateau. Should water from this river prove scarcer in the future, control and repression surrounding its source is likely to increase. And when one considers that the Arab Spring was in large part motivated by food price spikes in 2010 – itself the result of Climate Change – the potential for incendiary action becomes increasingly clear.

And Europe is also likely experience significant changes due to the melting of the Greenland’s glaciers. With runoff from these glaciers bleeding into the North Atlantic, the Gulf Stream will be disrupted, resulting in Europe experiencing a string of very cold winters and dry summers. This in turn is likely to have a drastic effect on Europe’s food production, with predictable social and economic consequences.

Getting people to understand this is difficult, since most crises don’t seem real until they are upon us. However, the more we can drive home the consequences by putting into a personal, relatable format – not to mention a big-picture format – the more we can expect people to make informed choices and changes.

Sources:, (2),,

Climate Wars: Cropland Destruction and Improvement

cereals-agriculture-earClimate Change is currently recognized as one of the greatest threats to the stability and well being of the world and its people. But far worse than rising sea levels, unpredictable weather patterns, and an increase in forest fires is the threat that it could have on the global food supply. As our population increases by several billion over the next few decades, these problems will make it even harder to feed everyone.

Up until now, predictions and projections have taken into account rising temperatures, drought, erosion, and longer growing seasons. But a recent study, produced by researchers at MIT and Colorado State University shows that air pollution is also a major factor. In their report, which was published in Nature Climate Change, they claim that ground-level ozone could exacerbate the effects on staple food crops like wheat, soybeans, maize, and rice.

crop_failureUsing two scenarios, researchers mapped out the tandem relationship between pollution and climate change. As a baseline, the MIT and Colorado State researchers estimate that climate change alone will result in a 11% decrease in global crop production. But if countries fail to substantially curb greenhouse gas emissions (the first scenario), the scientists’ model shows that air pollution could trigger an additional 4% of crop failures.

That means that barring significant changes, croplands could see a 15% drop in productivity in the next 40 years. But if countries work to decrease greenhouse gas emissions after 2040, the researchers’ model shows that reduced air pollution could actually offset other negative impacts of warming on crops. They calculate that reduced air pollution in this second scenario could actually increase yields by 3%.

Pollution over Mexico CityThe link between air quality and food production may seem a bit odd, but the logic is actually very straightforward. Basically, the atmosphere forms ozone when sunlight energizes pollutants generated from sources like cars and power plants. Ozone concentrations can also increase at higher temperatures, the kind that already wither temperature-sensitive crops like maize. On top of the heat, increased ozone levels attack pollution-sensitive crops, like wheat.

In the climate scenario where emissions decrease after 2040, the reduction in ozone alone would be enough to increase wheat production in the U.S. and China, the researchers say. Their findings show that reducing air pollution could slow the negative impacts of climate change–even enough to reverse some of them. But some regions will be negatively impacted no matter what.

trafficAs Amos Tai, one of the study’s co-authors, explained:

It appears that South Asia will be the most hard-hit by the combination of warming and ozone trends, where ozone is expected to increase even in the more optimistic scenario. African countries with low domestic production and heavily reliant on food imports are also expected to suffer more in terms of climate-pollution-driven food insecurity.

In short, food production is likely to suffer no matter what, but the effects could be confined to certain areas of the world. With proper management, and the provision of food to these regions from those that are unaffected (say, a pollution-fighting US and China), the worst could be avoided. And there’s some good news coming from another report, which claims we can further increase our food production without taxing the environment.

crop_growthAccording to a new report by researchers at the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment, by focusing efforts to improve food systems on a few specific regions, crops and actions could make it possible to both meet the basic needs of three billion more people while simultaneously decreasing agriculture’s environmental carbon footprint. The report, published in Science back in July, may sound like fantasy, but the argument offered is logical and compelling.

The report focuses on 17 key crops that produce 86 percent of the world’s crop calories and account for most irrigation and fertilizer consumption. It then proposes a set of key actions in three broad areas that have the greatest potential for reducing the environmental impact of agriculture while boosting production. For each, it identifies specific “leverage points” where NGOs, foundations, governments, businesses and citizens can have the greatest impact.

agriculture_indiaThe biggest opportunities cluster in six countries – China, India, U.S., Brazil, Indonesia and Pakistan – along with Europe. As the report’s lead author Paul West, co-director of the Institute on the Environment’s Global Landscapes Initiative, explains:

This paper represents an important next step beyond previous studies that have broadly outlined strategies for sustainably feeding people. By pointing out specifically what we can do and where, it gives funders and policy makers the information they need to target their activities for the greatest good.

Overall, the report identified a number of major areas of opportunity and key leverage points for improving the efficiency and sustainability of global food production. First, there is reducing the “yield gap” – i.e. the difference between potential and actual crop yields – in many parts of the world. Currently, the largest gaps are to be found in Africa, Asia and Eastern Europe, and reducing it by just 50% could provide enough calories to feed 850 million more people.

china agriculture researchSecond, there is improving growth efficiency. The study identified two key areas where major opportunities exist to reduce climate impacts and improve efficiency of crop growth. These included the reduction of emissions of global greenhouse gas – which agriculture is responsible for 20 t0 35 percent of – in the form of CO2, tropical deforestation and methane, as well as improved efficiency in water usage.

In the case of emissions, the biggest opportunities are in Brazil and Indonesia where deforestation is a major problem, and in China, India and the US, where the production of rice, livestock, and crop fertilization all lead to sizable carbon and methane emissions. With respect to nutrient use, the study found that worldwide, 60 percent of nitrogen and nearly 50 percent of phosphorus applications exceed what crops need to grow.

agribusinessIn the case of water usage, the greatest opportunities are in China, India and the US, where the production of rice, wheat and corn create the most demand for irrigation. India, Pakistan, China and the U.S. also account for the bulk of irrigation water use in water-limited areas. Thus, by boosting crop water use efficiency could also reduce water demand by 8 to 15% without compromising food production.

Third, the report calls for improved efficiency in crop use, which can be done by shifting crops from livestock to humans use and reducing food waste. Currently, the amount of crops fed to animals is sufficient to meet the calorie needs of 4 billion people. The U.S., China and Western Europe account for the bulk of this “diet gap,” with corn being the main crop diverted to animal feed. Shifting these crops could also form a “safety net” in the event of an unforeseen shortfall.

Last, but not least, the report calls for the elimination of food waste, which accounts for some 30 to 50 percent of food production worldwide. Again, the U.S., China and India are the major players, and reducing waste in these three countries alone could yield food for more than 400 million people. All told, these changes could allow for enough food for an additional 3 billion people, which is what the world population is expected to reach by 2050.

world_hungerOverall, West summarizes the report and its recommendations as follows:

Sustainably feeding people today and in the future is one of humanity’s grand challenges. Agriculture is the main source of water use, greenhouse gas emissions, and habitat loss, yet we need to grow more food. Fortunately, the opportunities to have a global impact and move in the right direction are clustered. By focusing on areas, crops and practices with the most to be gained, companies, governments, NGOs and others can ensure that their efforts are being targeted in a way that best accomplishes the common and critically important goal of feeding the world while protecting the environment. Of course, while calories are a key measure of improving food security, nutrition, access and cultural preferences must also be addressed. But the need to boost food security is high. So let’s do it.

As always, the good news is contained within the bad. Or more precisely, every crisis present us with an opportunity for change and advancement. Though Climate Change and air pollution may threaten current and future levels of food production, there are solutions. And in all cases, they present opportunities for healthier living, more efficient use of land and water, and a more sustainable way of meeting our most basic needs.


The Future of Urban Planning: The Urban Skyfarm

urban-skyfarm-9The world’s population is projected to grow to between 9 and 10 billion people by the middle of the century. What’s more, roughly two-thirds of those people are expected to live in major cities. Coupled with the expected changes caused by Climate Change (i.e. increased drought and less in the way of arable land), and its understandable why urban farms are seen as a means of picking up the slack.

That’s the concept behind the Urban Skyfarm, a concept for a skyscraper that is shaped like a tree and comes with leaf-like decks to provide space for real trees to grow. Currently, most vertical farming operations – like warehouses in Chicago, Kyoto, Singapore and a recent skyscraper built in Sweden by Plantagon – grow plants with ultra-high-efficiency systems under artificial light.

urban-skyfarm-2However, this new design concept from Aprilli Design Studio takes a different approach, using lightweight decks to provide growing space outdoors on the sides of a giant skyscraper. The architects aren’t the first to embrace the trend of sticking greenery on towers, but they may be one of the first to look at how to use the technique to maximize food production. As architects Steve Lee and See Yoon Park explained:

Our version of the vertical farm was intended to become an independent, open-to-air structure which would be purely focusing on farming activities and sustainable functions such as generating renewable energy and performing air, and water filtration.

Designed to mimic the shape of an enormous tree, the Urban Skyfarm uses leaf-like decks to provide 24 acres of space for growing fruit trees and plants. The “trunk” houses an indoor hydroponic farm for greens, and solar panels and wind turbines at the top of the tower provide enough energy to power the whole operation. The design would also capture rainwater and filter it through a constructed wetland before returning it to a nearby stream.

urban-skyfarm-5So in addition to growing food and using rainwater to provide irrigation, the building also was also designed with an eye towards energy independence. The architects envision the project in the middle of downtown Seoul, South Korea:

It seemed to be an ideal place to test out our prototype since the specific area is very dense and highly active and has been suffering for a long time by all sorts of environmental problems resulting from rapid urbanization…With the support of hydroponic farming technology, the space could efficiently host more than 5,000 fruit trees. Vertical farming is more than an issue of economical feasibility, since it can provide more trees than average urban parks, helping resolve urban environmental issues such as air pollution, water run-off and heat island effects, and bringing back balance to the urban ecology.

The design would also provide community gardens, park space, and a farmers market to cater to a demand for fresh, local food in a city where apples can cost more than $20 at local markets.

urban-skyfarm-7Vertical farming has already started in South Korea. Another project, based in Suwon, is growing food in a three-story building and may eventually expand into a skyscraper. But the outdoor vertical farm is just a concept for now. Lee and Park are confident this is the way of the future, and that demand for clean, sustainable buildings that grow fresh food is only going to increase:

We believe there will be more attention and discussions of vertical farms as the 2015 Milan Expo approaches, and we hope the Urban Skyfarm can become part of the discussion as a prototype proposal. Vertical farming really is not only a great solution to future food shortage problems but a great strategy to address many environmental problems resulting from urbanization.

And with the problems of urban growth and diminished farmland occurring all over the developed world – but especially in nations like China, Indonesia, the Philippines, and India (which are likely to be the hardest hit by Climate Change) – innovative designs that combine sustainability and urban farming are likely to become all the rage all over the world.


Looking Forward: 10 Breakthroughs by 2025

BrightFutureWorld-changing scientific discoveries are emerging all the time; from drugs and vaccines that are making incurable diseases curable, to inventions that are making renewable energies cheaper and more efficient. But how will these develops truly shape the world of tomorrow? How will the combination of advancements being made in the fields of medical, digital and industrial technology come together to change things by 2025?

Well, according to the Thomson Reuters IP & Science unit – a leading intellectual property and collaboration platform – has made a list of the top 10 breakthroughs likely to change the world. To make these predictions, they  looked at two sorts of data – current scientific journal literature and patent applications. Counting citations and other measures of buzz, they identified 10 major fields of development, then made specific forecasts for each.

As Basil Moftah, president of the IP & Science business (which sells scientific database products) said:

A powerful outcome of studying scientific literature and patent data is that it gives you a window into the future–insight that isn’t always found in the public domain. We estimate that these will be in effect in another 11 years.

In short, they predict that people living in 2025 will have access to far more in the way of medical treatments and cures, food will be more plentiful (surprisingly enough), renewable energy sources and applications will be more available, the internet of things will become a reality, and quantum and medical science will be doing some very interesting thins.

1. Dementia Declines:
geneticsPrevailing opinion says dementia could be one of our most serious future health challenges, thanks in no small part to increased life expectancy. In fact, the World Health Organization expects the number of cases to triple by 2050. The Thomson Reuters report is far more optimistic though, claiming that a focus on the pathogenic chromosomes that cause neuro-degenerative disease will result in more timely diagnosis, and earlier, more effective treatment:

In 2025, the studies of genetic mutations causing dementia, coupled with improved detection and onset-prevention methods, will result in far fewer people suffering from this disease.

2. Solar Power Everywhere:
solarpowergeWith the conjunction of increased efficiencies, dropping prices and improved storage methods, solar power will be the world’s largest single source of energy by 2025. And while issues such as weather-dependence will not yet be fully resolved, the expansion in panel use and the incorporation of thin photovoltaic cells into just about every surface imaginable (from buildings to roadways to clothing) will means that solar will finally outstrip fossil fuels as coal as the predominant means of getting power.

As the authors of the report write:

Solar thermal and solar photovoltaic energy (from new dye-sensitized and thin-film materials) will heat buildings, water, and provide energy for devices in the home and office, as well as in retail buildings and manufacturing facilities.

3. Type 1 Diabetes Prevention:
diabetes_worldwideType 1 diabetes strikes at an early age and isn’t as prevalent as Type 2 diabetes, which comes on in middle age. But cases have been rising fast nonetheless, and explanations range from nutritional causes to contaminants and fungi. But the report gives hope that kids of the future won’t have to give themselves daily insulin shots, thanks to “genomic-editing-and-repairing” that it expects will fix the problem before it sets in. As it specifies:

The human genome engineering platform will pave the way for the modification of disease-causing genes in humans, leading to the prevention of type I diabetes, among other ailments.

4. No More Food Shortages:
GMO_seedsContrary to what many speculative reports and futurists anticipate, the report indicates that by the year 2025, there will be no more food shortages in the world. Thanks to a combination of lighting and genetically-modified crops, it will be possible to grow food quickly and easily in a plethora of different environments. As it says in the report:

In 2025, genetically modified crops will be grown rapidly and safely indoors, with round-the-clock light, using low energy LEDs that emit specific wavelengths to enhance growth by matching the crop to growth receptors added to the food’s DNA. Crops will also be bred to be disease resistant. And, they will be bred for high yield at specified wavelengths.

5. Simple Electric Flight:
Solar Impulse HB-SIA prototype airplane attends his first flight over PayerneThe explosion in the use of electric aircraft (be they solar-powered or hydrogen fueled) in the past few decades has led to predictions that by 2025, small electric aircraft will offset commercial flight using gas-powered, heavy jets. The report says advances in lithium-ion batteries and hydrogen storage will make electric transport a reality:

These aircraft will also utilize new materials that bring down the weight of the vehicle and have motors with superconducting technology. Micro-commercial aircraft will fly the skies for short-hop journeys.

6. The Internet of Things:
internet-of-things-2By 2025, the internet is likely to expand into every corner of life, with growing wifi networks connecting more people all across the world. At the same time, more and more in the way of devices and personal possessions are likely to become “smart” – meaning that they will can be accessed digitally and networked to other things. In short, the internet of things will become a reality. And the speed at which things move will vastly increase due to proposed solutions to the computing bottleneck.

Here’s how the report puts it:

Thanks to the prevalence of improved semiconductors, graphene-carbon nanotube capacitators, cell-free networks of service antenna, and 5G technology, wireless communications will dominate everything, everywhere.

7. No More Plastic Garbage:
110315-N-IC111-592Ever heard of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (aka. the Pacific Trash Vortex), the mass of plastic debris in the Pacific Ocean that measures somewhere between 700,000 and 15,000,000 square kilometres (270,000 – 5,800,000 sq mi)? Well, according to the report, such things will become a thing of the past. By 2025, it claims, the “glucose economy” will lead to the predominance of packaging made from plant-derived cellulose (aka. bioplastics).

Because of this influx of biodegradable plastics, there will be no more permanent deposits of plastic garbage filling our oceans, landfills, and streets. As it says:

Toxic plastic-petroleum packaging that litters cities, fields, beaches, and oceans, and which isn’t biodegradable, will be nearing extinction in another decade. Thanks to advancements in the technology related to and use of these bio-nano materials, petroleum-based packaging products will be history.

8. More Precise Drugs:
drugsBy 2025, we’ll have sophisticated, personalized medicine, thanks to improved production methods, biomedical research, and the growth of up-to-the-minute health data being provided by wearable medical sensors and patches. The report also offers specific examples:

Drugs in development are becoming so targeted that they can bind to specific proteins and use antibodies to give precise mechanisms of action. Knowledge of specific gene mutations will be so much more advanced that scientists and physicians can treat those specific mutations. Examples of this include HER2 (breast cancer), BRAF V600 (melanoma), and ROS1 (lung cancer), among many others.

9. DNA Mapping Formalized:
DNA-1Recent explosions in genetic research – which include the Genome Project and ENCODE – are leading to a world where personal genetic information will become the norm. As a result, kids born in 2025 will be tested at the DNA level, and not just once or twice, but continually using nano-probes inserted in the body. The result will be a boon for anticipating genetic diseases, but could also raise various privacy-related issues. As it states:

In 2025, humans will have their DNA mapped at birth and checked annually to identify any changes that could point to the onset of autoimmune diseases.

10. Teleportation Tested:
quantum-entanglement1Last, but certainly not least, the report says research into teleportation will be underway. Between the confirmation of the Higgs Boson (and by extension, the Standard Model of particle physics), recent revelations about quantum entanglements and wormholes, and the discovery of the Amplituhedron, the field of teleportation is likely to produce some serious breakthroughs. No telling what these will be – be it the ability to teleport simple photons or something larger – but the fact that the research will be happening seems a foregone conclusion:

We are on the precipice of this field’s explosion; it is truly an emerging research front. Early indicators point to a rapid acceleration of research leading to the testing of quantum teleportation in 2025.

Will all of these changes come to pass? Who knows? If history has taught us anything, it’s that predictions are often wrong and much in the way of exciting research doesn’t always make it to the market. And as always, various factors – such as politics, money, public resistance, private interests – have a way of complicating things. However, there is reason to believe that the aforementioned 10 things will become a viable reality. And Moftah believes we should be positive about the future:

[The predictions] are positive in nature because they are solutions researchers and scientists are working on to address challenges we face in the world today. There will always be obstacles and issues to overcome, but science and innovation give us hope for how we will address them.

I, for one, am happy and intrigued to see certain items making this list. The explosion in solar usage, bioplastics, and the elimination of food scarcity are all very encouraging. If there was one thing I was anticipating by 2025, it was increased drought and food shortages. But as the saying goes, “necessity is the mother of invention”. And as someone who has had two grandmothers who lived into their nineties and have both suffered from the scourges of dementia, it is good to know that this disease will be on the wane for future generations.

It is also encouraging to know that there will be better treatments for diseases like cancer, HIV, and diabetes. While the idea of a world in which all diseases are preventable and/or treatable worries some (on a count of how it might stoke overpopulation), no one who has ever lived with this disease, or known someone who has, would think twice if presented with a cure. And hardship, hunger, a lack of education, resources and health services are some of the main reasons for population explosions.

And, let’s face it, its good to live in an age where the future looks bright for a change. After a good century of total war, totalitarianism, atomic diplomacy, terrorism, and oh so much existential angst and dystopian fiction, it’s nice to think that the coming age will turn out alright after all.


Frontiers in 3-D Printing: Frankenfruit and Blood Vessels

bioprinting3-D printing is pushing the boundaries of manufacturing all the time, expanding its repertoire to include more and more in the way of manufactured products and even organic materials. Amongst the many possibilities this offers, arguably the most impressive are those that fall into the categories of synthetic food and replacement organs. In this vein, two major breakthroughs took place last month, with the first-time unveiling of both 3-D printed hybrid fruit and blood vessels.

The first comes from a Dovetailed, UK-based design company which presented its 3-D food printer on Saturday, May 24th, at the Tech Food Hack event in Cambridge. Although details on how it works are still a bit sparse, it is said to utilize a technique known as “spherification” – a molecular gastronomy technique in which liquids are shaped into tiny spheres – and then combined with spheres of different flavors into a fruit shape.

frankenfruit1According to a report on 3DPrint, the process likely involves combining fruit puree or juice with sodium alginate and then dripping the mixture into a bowl of cold calcium chloride. This causes the droplets to form into tiny caviar-like spheres, which could subsequently be mixed with spheres derived from other fruits. The blended spheres could then be pressed, extruded or otherwise formed into fruit-like shapes for consumption.

The designers claim that the machine is capable of 3D-printing existing types of fruit such as apples or pears, or user-invented combined fruits, within seconds. They add that the taste, texture, size and shape of those fruits can all be customized. As Vaiva Kalnikaitė, creative director and founder of Dovetailed, explained:

Our 3D fruit printer will open up new possibilities not only to professional chefs but also to our home kitchens – allowing us to enhance and expand our dining experiences… We have been thinking of making this for a while. It’s such an exciting time for us as an innovation lab. Our 3D fruit printer will open up new possibilities not only to professional chefs but also to our home kitchens, allowing us to enhance and expand our dining experiences. We have re-invented the concept of fresh fruit on demand.

frankenfruit2And though the idea of 3-D printed fruit might seem unnerving to some (the name “Frankenfruit” is certainly predicative of that), it is an elegant solution of what to do in an age where fresh fruit and produce are likely to become increasingly rare for many. With the effects of Climate Change (which included increased rates of drought and crop failure) expected to intensify in the coming decades, millions of people around the world will have to look elsewhere to satisfy their nutritional needs.

As we rethink the very nature of food, solutions that can provide us sustenance and make it look the real thing are likely to be the ones that get adopted. A video of the printing in action is show below:

Meanwhile, in the field of bioprinting, researchers have experienced another breakthrough that may revolution the field of medicine. When it comes to replacing vital parts of a person’s anatomy, finding replacement blood vessels and arteries can be just as daunting as finding sources of replacement organs,  limbs, skin, or any other biological material. And thanks to the recent efforts of a team from Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH) in Boston, MA, it may now be possible to fabricate these using a bioprinting technique.

3d_bloodvesselsThe study was published online late last month in Lab on a Chip. The study’s senior author,  Ali Khademhosseini – PhD, biomedical engineer, and director of the BWH Biomaterials Innovation Research Center – explained the challenge and their goal as follows:

Engineers have made incredible strides in making complex artificial tissues such as those of the heart, liver and lungs. However, creating artificial blood vessels remains a critical challenge in tissue engineering. We’ve attempted to address this challenge by offering a unique strategy for vascularization of hydrogel constructs that combine advances in 3D bioprinting technology and biomaterials.

The researchers first used a 3D bioprinter to make an agarose (naturally derived sugar-based molecule) fiber template to serve as the mold for the blood vessels. They then covered the mold with a gelatin-like substance called hydrogel, forming a cast over the mold which was then  reinforced via photocrosslinks. Khademhosseini and his team were able to construct microchannel networks exhibiting various architectural features – in other words, complex channels with interior layouts similar to organic blood vessels.

bioprinting1They were also able to successfully embed these functional and perfusable microchannels inside a wide range of commonly used hydrogels, such as methacrylated gelatin or polyethylene glycol-based hydrogels. In the former case, the cell-laden gelatin was used to show how their fabricated vascular networks functioned to improve mass transport, cellular viability and cellular differentiation. Moreover, successful formation of endothelial monolayers within the fabricated channels was achieved.

According to Khademhosseini, this development is right up there with the possibility of individually-tailored replacement organs or skin:

In the future, 3D printing technology may be used to develop transplantable tissues customized to each patient’s needs or be used outside the body to develop drugs that are safe and effective.

Taken as a whole, the strides being made in all fields of additive manufacturing – from printed metal products, robotic parts, and housing, to synthetic foods and biomaterials – all add up to a future where just about anything can be manufactured, and in a way that is remarkably more efficient and advanced than current methods allow.


Climate Crisis: Present Changes and Coming Impacts

climate-changeThis Tuesday, the Whitehouse received the latest draft of the Climate Assessment Report, a scientific study produced by the National Climate Assessment to determine the impacts of Climate Change. In addition to outlining the risks it poses to various regions in the US, the report also addresses the apparent increase in the number of severe weather events that have taken place in the past few years, and how these events affect local economies and communities.

According to the 840-page report, America is fast becoming a stormy and dangerous place, with rising seas and disasters effecting regions from flood-stricken Florida to the wildfire-ravaged West. The report concluded that Climate change’s assorted harms “are expected to become increasingly disruptive across the nation throughout this century and beyond.” It also emphasized how warming and its all-too-wild weather are changing daily lives, even using the phrase “climate disruption” as another way of saying global warming.

Climate_Change_vulnerability_USHenry Jacoby, co-director of the Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change at the MIT, was joined by other scientists and White House officials when he claimed that this is the most detailed and U.S.-focused scientific report on global warming. Above all, the most chilling claim contained within is the fact that “Climate change, once considered an issue for a distant future, has moved firmly into the present.”

The report also examined the effects at the regional and state-level, compared with recent reports from the UN that examined North America as a single case study. In a recent interview with CBC’s The Lang & O’Leary Exchange, Jacoby pointed to a range of impacts of global warming that people see everyday, from the change in the growing season, to extreme heat, severe Atlantic storms and drought in some areas.

climate_change_variableweatherAs he explained, these changes are far more than just variable weather:

If you look at what’s happening to the Arctic ice at your northern border, you are seeing changes to the ice like you haven’t seen in hundreds of years. We’re seeing change on a scale that’s going beyond variability.

A draft of the report was released in January 2013, but this version has been reviewed by more scientists, the National Academy of Science, 13 other government agencies, and was subject to public comment. It is written in a bit more simple language so people could realize “that there’s a new source of risk in their lives,” said study lead author Gary Yohe of Wesleyan University in Connecticut.

Even though the nation’s average temperature has risen by as much as 1.9 degrees since record keeping began in 1895, it’s in the big, wild weather where the average person feels climate change the most. As the report’s co-author Katharine Hayhoe – a Texas Tech University climate scientist – put it, extreme weather like droughts, storms and heat waves hit us in the pocketbooks and can be seen by our own eyes. And it’s happening a lot more often lately.

climate_change_precipThe report says the intensity, frequency and duration of the strongest Atlantic hurricanes have increased since the early 1980s. Winter storms have increased in frequency and intensity and shifted northward since the 1950s, with heavy downpours increasing by 71 per cent in the northeast alone. Heat waves are projected to intensify nationwide, with droughts in the southwest expected to get stronger. Sea levels have risen 20 centimetres since 1880 and are projected to rise between 0.3 meters and 1.2 metres by 2100.

The report was also clear that the 2010’s have been a record-setting decade. For example, since January 2010, 43 of the lower 48 states have set at least one monthly record for heat, such as California having its warmest January on record this year. In the past 51 months, states have set 80 monthly records for heat, 33 records for being too wet, 12 for lack of rain and just three for cold, according to an Associated Press analysis of federal weather records.

climate_change_tempsAs she described it, America is basically in a boxing match, and is currently on the ropes:

We’re being hit hard. We’re holding steady, and we’re getting hit in the jaw. We’re starting to recover from one punch, and another punch comes.

John Podesta, an adviser to President Barack Obama, said on Monday that the report includes “a huge amount of practical, usable knowledge that state and local decision-makers can take advantage of.” The report also stressed that climate change threatens human health and well-being in a number of ways. Those include smoke-filled air from more wildfires, smoggy air from pollution, more diseases from tainted food, water, mosquitoes and ticks.

climate_change_lossAnd then there’s more pollen because of warming weather and the effects of carbon dioxide on plants. Ragweed pollen season has lengthened by 24 days in the Minnesota-North Dakota region between 1995 and 2011, the report says. In other parts of the Midwest, the pollen season has gotten longer by anywhere from 11 days to 20 days. And all of this has associated costs, not the least of which is in damages, insurance costs, and health care expenses.

Flooding alone may cost $325 billion by the year 2100 in one of the worst-case scenarios, with $130 billion of that in Florida, the report says. Already the droughts and heat waves of 2011 and 2012 added about $10 billion to farm costs, the report says. Billion-dollar weather disasters have hit everywhere across the nation, but have hit Texas, Oklahoma and the southeast most often, the report says. And there is the impact on agricultural producers, which is also stressed:

Corn producers in Iowa, oyster growers in Washington state and maple syrup producers in Vermont are all observing climate-related changes that are outside of recent experience.

Climate_Change_vulnerability1Still, it’s not too late to prevent the worst of climate change, says the 840-page report, which the White House is highlighting as it tries to jump-start often stalled efforts to curb heat-trapping gases. However, if the U.S. and the world don’t change the way they use energy, the current effects will continue to intensify to the point where property damage, wildfires, storms, flooding and agricultural collapse will become untenable.

Already, the report has its detractors, many of whom appeared together for a Special Report segment on Fox News. In addition to commentator George Will questioning the scientific consensus – which accounts for 97% of the scientific community – Charles Krauthammer compared to the findings to a bargaining process, and ultimately condemned it as “superstition”. As he put it:

What we’re ultimately talking about here is human sin, through the production of carbon. It’s the oldest superstition around. It was in the Old Testament. It’s in the rain dance of the Native Americans. If you sin, the skies will not cooperate. This is quite superstitious and I’m waiting for science that doesn’t declare itself definitive but is otherwise convincing.

climate_change_denialNot to belabor the point, but superstition is what happens when people trust in rituals and practices that have no discernible effect whatsoever on a problem to protect themselves from said problem. Conducting research, performing field studies, and compiling statistics that cover hundreds, thousands, and even millions of years – this is called the scientific method. And Krauthammer would do well to realize that it is this same method that has done away with countless superstitious rituals throughout history.

He and other so-called skeptics (though a more accurate term is deniers) would also do well to understand the difference between superstition and a little thing known as cause and effect. For example, avoiding black cats, not walking under ladders, or sacrificing human beings to make the sun rise or the crops grow is superstition. Pumping thousands of tons of carbon dioxide into the air, which is known to have the effect of absorbing the sun’s thermal energy (aka. radiant forcing), is cause and effect.

See? Easily distinguished. But if there’s one thing that the “denial machine” has shown an affinity for, its remaining divorced from the scientific consensus. Luckily, they have been in full-retreat for some time, leaving only the most die hard behind to fight their battles. One can only hope their influence continues to diminish as time goes on and the problems associated with Climate Change get worse.

You can read the  full Climate Assessment Report here.

Sources:,,, (2),

Climate Crisis: India Flood Death Toll Passes 1,000

india-floodIn recent days, my attention has been pretty firmly fixed on Alberta and the Canadian Priaries, due to the flooding that’s been taking place and forced the evacuation of 175,000 people – some of whom I’m related to. However, this morning I learned that other regions of the world, one’s which are far more accustomed to natural disasters, are also being effected, and more severely so.

This story comes from India, where once again, unpredictable weather patterns are causing a mass displacement of human beings. Every year, people living on the subcontinent are forced to deal with torrential rains – monsoons – which lead to overflowing river banks. However, in recent years, the unpredictable nature of these patterns have become a severe source of death, displacement and property damage.

india-flood4The province of Uttarakhand is home to some of India’s holiest shrines, and is also one of many parts of India where the Ganges river traverses. During the Monsoon’s that come in late summer, flooding is common and even depended on for the sake of farming. Every year, hundreds of thousands of devout Hindus make the pilgrimage to Uttarakhand during the summer months hoping to get in before the rains begin.

However, this year the monsoon rains arrived early, catching hundreds of thousands of tourists, pilgrims and local residents of guard. Tens of thousands of people remained stranded in high mountain passes and temple towns after the torrential rains washed away homes and roads and triggered landslides that cut off communication links with large parts of the state nearly a week ago.

india-flood1About 10,000 army and paramilitary troops, members of the disaster management agency and volunteers have taken part in six days of rescue and relief efforts. However, helicopter rescue efforts – which have been an essential part of the rescue effort so far – were suspended when dense fog descended on the Himalayan region this Sunday. Luckily, the army began resorting to building makeshift bridges and people were being rescued by road.

All told, some 80,000 people by road and air, according to a state government spokesman. The exact number of people who died in the heavy downpours and flooding of the Ganges River and its tributaries won’t be known until rescue efforts end. However, the state’s chief minister told reporters late on Saturday that the death toll had reached one-thousand.

india-flood2The rains in Uttarakhand were said to have been the heaviest in nearly 80 years and more rain is expected in the worst-hit districts of Chamoli and Uttarkashi over the next few days. According to meteorologists, an unusual clash of weather systems from opposite directions is to blame, as the monsoon advancing towards the west of South Asia combined with westerly winds for an unusually long time and with an extraordinary intensity, resulting in days of torrential rains.

And while India is no stranger to floods – over 3 million people were displaced when the Kosi river in Bihar burst its banks in 2008 – this year’s came as a shock due to their sudden appearance and intensity. Not only were the rains were six times more forceful than usual, they came on the heels of one of the weakest monsoon’s in 40 years, which left crops stricken by drought. Still, climate change experts are anything but surprises.

india-flood3In its fourth assessment report in 2007, the Inter- Government Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicted that more extreme droughts, floods, and storms, would become commonplace in the future, and that these intense weather conditions would follow in close succession to each other, often in the same areas. In addition to this latest flood, several other volatile weather patterns predicted by the IPCC are beginning to show in India.

In the northwest alone, the water table is falling by about 1.6 inches per year, according to the GRACE (Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment) mission. At least half of India’s precipitation comes from the annual monsoon rains, and as they become increasingly diminished and unpredictable, the country faces an imminent threat of extreme water shortages.

Countries_by_population_density.svgChanging rainfall patterns aren’t the only climate- change effect threatening India’s water supply: Himalayan glaciers — the source for the many Indian rivers such as the Ganges — are melting at a rapid rate as a result of warmer temperatures. And the Doni river, whose water many consider no longer fit for human consumption, is gaining notoriety for its unpredictable nature — flash floods one day, barely a trickle the next.

This is just another indication of the effects Climate Change is having around the world. In developing regions of the world, especially those that are closer to the equator, rising temperatures mean weather systems that vacillate between drought and heavy rains, which has a devastating effect on agriculture. The combination of dry weather and powerful storms causes topsoil, the lifeblood of farming, to grow dry and then wash away.

India-Pakistan_Borderlands_at_NightWhat’s more, the majority of humanity lives in this region, which encompasses Central America, the Caribbean, Sub-Saharan Africa,  the Middle East, South Asia and China. And in areas like the Indo-Gangetic Plain –  the densely-populated river valley that stretches from Pakistan to northern India – the combination of drought and floods will lead to hundreds of millions of deaths and refugees.

Factor in the number of deaths and displacements caused by rising tides and the effect on coastal regions, and you see why Climate Change experts are so very concerned about the problem. Not only is the environment and our way of life at stake here, our very existence is as well. The best we can hope for right now is that this season of crisis abates so we can get to the crucial work of getting our act together and developing cleaner ways of living.

And will somebody please start deploying those artificial trees and other carbon capture operations!