Inhabited Earth - “The People Planet”

Lehigh University Dork Sahagian - Smoke stacksMan and the Environment - The importance of human interaction with global environmental systems is becoming ever more apparent. To better understanding this relationship historically, at present and for the future, numerical models are a most useful tool when supported by geological and historical data. These models span a spectrum of scale and complexity, and can be used to determine the co-evolution of environmental and socio-economic conditions may shed light on the political consequences of present and future environmental change. Industry poses for the canonical mug shot for polluting the environment, and indeed there have been cases in which factories spewed harmful materials. One example is that of NJ Zinc, who operated a Zinc smelter in Palmerton, PA for about a century, before closing up shop. In the meantime, it deposited various metals throughout the region. Concern over the contamination of soils in the area may have retarded the town’s ability to recover economically from the closing of the smelter, but after analysis of the soils in the surrounding area, it appears that it is by now basically all within EPA standards for residential soils. Where did the metals go? The arsenic, cadmium, lead, zinc? Various processes can leach metals into the deeper soil, groundwater, and into rivers (Lehigh River, in this case). A complete historical analysis of the fate of the deposited metals has yet to be conducted. One of the most critical industries globally (and locally) is that of energy production. Electricity can be generated by burning coal (and boiling water to steam to drive turbines attached to generators), and we have lots of coal to burn. However, in addition to heat, coal-burning produces sulfur compounds, fly ash, bottom ash, and various “coal combustion residuals” (CCR) that have to be dealt with in the environment. These materials, can, however beneficially reused. The sulfur is scrubbed out using lime to make gypsum which is used to make wallboard used in all buildings. Very useful. The fly ash is actually an excellent pozollan for the production of cement and concrete. In response to a fly ash “spill” in Tennessee, where the ash was impounded behind a pile of more fly ash (not cement), and it failed, EPA considered declaring all CCR as hazardous waste (special waste), unless it was beneficially reused. The idea was that if it was expensive for power plants to send their CCR to hazardous waste facilities, they might use more for beneficial uses like gypsum and cement. Meanwhile, the beneficial reuse companies said that if the stuff they used were branded as hazardous under any conditions, they would stop using it at all. In any case, a simple calculation made by my student in the Energy Systems Engineering program determined that even if beneficial reuse increased until ALL wallboard was made from CCR, and ALL cement and concrete used as much fly as as physically possible, the remaining CCR shipped to the existing hazardous waste facilities throughout the US would fill them all up to capacity in 3 to 7 months, rather than the 40 years they are designed for. In the end, the EPA did not declare CCR as hazardous waste.

Earth System Atlas - To date, there is no single compendium describing the state of the art of in our understanding of the Earth system and how it has responded to, and is likely to respond to, natural and anthropogenic perturbations. The notionLehigh University Dork Sahagian - World maparose in IGBP to construct an Earth System Atlas, a facility that would combine the peer review and publication of data from all areas of Earth system research, as well as offering to the entire world, via web browser technology, the tools to assemble, manipulate, and display specific data sets as selected and customized by the user. While the broad concept was dropped as too ambitious, an operational "proof of principle" prototype has already been developed. Data sets can be added, and web-based tools to manipulate and visualize those data can provide new insights regarding the systems involved.

© IMRC CAS 2016

Dork Sahagian  |  STEPS 424  |  1 West Packer Avenue  |  Bethlehem, PA 18015  |  phone 610-758-6379