Sunday, February 12, 2017

A new chapter: trying times in science

Three years ago, I started this blog to help make science more accessible to anyone and everyone who cares about science or issues tied to it. My goal was to excite people like you about science and to help show how scientific research is connected to every person's everyday life. I attempted to write in a non-partisan voice and to be as unbiased as possible, focusing on presenting facts and data.

Martin Luther King, Jr. memorial in Washington, D.C.
In a perfect world, my blog would have gotten so popular that celebrities and politicians were reading it and making decisions based on the facts I presented. That didn’t happen, and despite the growing popularity of science in popular culture, facts and scientific recommendation became politicized. To be clear, science and facts are not and never have been partisan. However, willingness to ignore scientific facts and the promotion and accessibility of science has, unfortunately, fallen victim to the intense partisanship of our country.

Interstellar Movie Advertisement
I sincerely believe the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. “I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality.” The “post-truth era” will not prevail. But we will have to resist the spread of misinformation and “alternative facts” to ensure our democracy stays intact. If we don’t fight for truth, our world could devolve to the dystopian future depicted at the beginning of the movie Interstellar, where humans are forced to live in hostile environmental conditions as a result of climate change and history and science textbooks are altered by government officials.  

Because of this real threat that is quickly descending upon our country, I have spent my first half-year living in Washington, D.C. doing everything I can to defend science. I joined the leadership board of 500 Women Scientists, an organization formed to promote an inclusive and diverse scientific community. That means defending the science itself along with policies that are evidence-based. Science is intertwined with social and economic policies as much as it is on the surface of funding to do the research.

Science needs diverse representation to bring together the best ideas and minds that will solve global challenges like climate change, anti-bacterial resistant disease, and overpopulation. Many brilliant minds are never given the opportunity to contribute to STEM. Some kids are never able to afford to go to college, no matter how hard they work. Some are never given a chance to succeed with biased teachers and magazines that depict scientists and engineers as white and male. Many are told they can't succeed so they never even try. Some people live in the wrong country, and are never given the chance to share their ideas. Systemic inequality is limiting the scientific potential we have in the U.S. and around the world.

Social, economic, and foreign policies change the way the United States and other countries do science. We are at a critical fork in the road, and I am dedicated to ensuring that we, as a country, go down the right path.

I have loved the three years I spent writing Gray Matter Happy Hour, but I need to focus my efforts on more advocacy work related to the policies described above. I will continue writing through other mediums and hope that the blog posts I wrote on this website will continue to inform people who are curious about the topics I researched and wrote about. 

If you want to help, check out, and consider attending your local March for Science. Pay attention to reliable news sources. Call your representatives and voice your concerns over science and other important issues. Thank you for being a loyal reader, you kept me going throughout some stressful times in graduate school! Cheers, and let's get to work! 

Friday, April 22, 2016

Earth Day: Help clean our air using cheaper "regular" gasoline

Every year on April 22 we honor Earth Day around the world. The day is celebrated by nearly 200 countries to honor and promote environmental preservation. Today I would like to tell you about gasoline, and how to breathe cleaner air and spend less money! But first, some history on why I chose today to lecture you on clean air.

In 1969 a massive oil spill in Santa Barbara devastated the coast. This was amidst a time of war protests and increasing concern with pollution and public health. A senator from Wisconsin named Gaylord Nelson had the idea to use this politically charged time to create a national day to teach about the environment through the media. He and his chosen bipartisan staff chose the date April 22 to be Earth Day, which fell between Spring Break and Finals.

Ultimately, public support for Earth Day led to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), raised support for the Clean Air Act, the Endangered Species Act, and the Water Quality Improvement Act. In honor of Earth Day, I encourage you to take one easy step any car-driver can do to improve air quality and save money – stop buying premium gasoline!

What is an Octane Rating? And why are they lower in Colorado?

Have you ever wondered what the difference between regular, premium, and super fuel is? What do the numbers on the pumps mean? 87, 92, 94? Nearly every car manufactured today is made to run on “regular” grade fuel – usually 87 octane (or 85 if you live at a high altitude like Colorado).  The numbers associated with fuel grade signify the “octane rating” of the fuel.

Octanes are a family of molecules made up of hydrogen and carbon atoms that are typically used in gasoline fuels. There are many forms of octants (isomers), but they are all volatile and very flammable, which is why they make a good form of fuel.

An octane rating or octane number measures how much compression the fuel can handle before it ignites (for you thermo nerds out there- it is related to activation energies and the Otto-cycle). In cars, if the fuel ignites too early, it will cause the engine to knock because the pistons are not operating in the correct order. So, the higher the octane rating, the better it is able to resist premature ignition and knocking. At higher altitudes, like in Colorado, because there is less oxygen the fuel is less likely to ignite prematurely, which is why they sell lower octane rated gasoline there (regular is 85).

When is the last time you heard someone’s engine knocking? I’m not sure I have ever heard it in person, only seen it in old TV shows and movies that took place over 30 years ago. This is because typical cars today are designed to run on gasoline with an octane rating of about 80. If you drive a luxury or sports car that requires higher compression- like cars with turbo power – you might need a higher-octane fuel.

As engines get older, sometimes deposits are left in the combustion chamber so higher octane is needed, but typically only an increase in two to four points. Modern cars have computer-controlled engines to adjust for such elements to keep your car running knock-free. Yay technology!

Why do so many people use premium gasoline?

40%  of the fuel sold in the U.S. is rated higher than 87, even though over 90% of cars on the road don’t need it. Before cars were made to withstand lower grade fuel and engines were controlled by computers, this was much more important. Now, buying premium fuel when your car doesn’t require it is nothing more than “throwing money away” in the words of David Cole, former chairman of the Center for Automotive Research.

Oil companies have made more expensive fuel desirable using marketing strategies. For example, just the way they are named tempts people into buying higher octane fuel. Who wants to buy regular when you could have “premium” or “super.” Typically regular gasoline is labeled with dull colors while the more expensive grades are labeled with bright, contrasting colors.

Some gas stations even get consumers to buy more expensive gasoline on accident, by placing the premium grades to the left of the regular grade, like the pump pictured here. Because we read from left to right, many people naturally assume that the lowest grade will be on the left, which is where their hand goes first.

If you aren’t sure what type of gasoline you should be buying, please read this informational website from the Federal Trade Commission for consumers.

Using higher-octane fuel does not give cars better gas mileage. In other words the same amount of energy is released no matter how high the octane rating is for gasoline. The only way to get more power out of your car is to change the compression ratio, which is the reason sports cars require premium fuel. If you want more power, you need a different car, not a different fuel.

But high Octane can’t hurt, right?

Wrong. Unfortunately, there is one HUGE environmental consequence to producing and using premium fuels that is seldom talked about. Producing high-octane fuel uses more energy during the refining process. In 1990, Energy Secretary James Watkins even proposed that the U.S. stop selling high-octane fuels to save 80,000 barrels of crude oil a day during the invasion of Kuwait.

Not only does producing high-octane fuel waste extra energy, when it is burned it releases extra toxins into the air. When cars were first made, lead was added to gasoline to increase octane and prevent knocking. Lead was banned from gasoline in the Clean Air Act (thanks Earth Day!) after it was found to cause neurological disorders and other respiratory problems. In the 1970s it was phased out and oil and gas companies needed to come up with a new way to increase octane.

Crude petroleum contains aromatic compounds benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylene, referred to as BTEX compounds. BTEX compounds are known carcinogens and are very toxic when inhaled- they wouldn’t let us go near them in any of our chemical engineering lab classes because of this. Oil companies found that by increasing the levels of BTEX compounds in gasoline, octane rating was also increased. So in the 1970s instead of using lead in gasoline, it was replaced with BTEX.

In the 1980s, when all gasoline contained much higher levels of BTEX compounds, the EPA found that that benzene concentrations in the air were at an all time high, 14 times higher than before it was added to gasoline. Other options that oil companies could have used instead of BTEX to increase octane were ethanol and ethers produced from wood and corn. But because those are not produced within the refinery, profit was higher using the dirtier and more toxic BTEX compounds.

In other words, by using a higher-octane fuel that you do not need, BTEX compounds are being released into the air that we all breathe every day, causing smog, and releasing compounds been shown to increase asthma, allergies, and even lung cancer.

View of Denver in a smog cloud

So, on this Earth Day I am challenging you all to start paying attention more to the gasoline you are putting into your car. NEVER use high-grade fuel unless your car really needs it. And even better yet, consider biking, walking, or taking public transportation! Or if you really need a super awesome fast car, get one of those awesome new electric Teslas, and take me for a ride in it!

And read this informative and hilarious comic by The Oatmeal about his first Tesla. 
Cheers to your brain and thanks for reading!

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Friday, November 13, 2015

Scientific Methods: should you trust science?

How do scientists know gravity is the reason we don’t fly away, that there used to be dinosaurs on the earth, and that humans have DNA? Do scientists really know that climate change is caused by humans, vaccines are effective, and that evolution occurs by natural selection?

Scientists make conclusions based on the scientific method, which Isaac Newton was a founder of. In the 1600s Isaac Newton was forced to stay at his home in Lincolnshire because the bubonic plague was rampant in Cambridge. He wrote in a journal about some of the questions of life, like gravity, motion, and calculus.

Newton's journal

Newton made two observations, which led to his experiments on color and light, or optics. It was believed that color was made through mixing light and dark, but Newton observed that black print on his book looked grey when he viewed it from far away. One day, he made an observation that when he projected concentrated light (through a hole in his shutters) into a glass prism, it was a band of the colors of the rainbow when it came out the other side. 

White light shining through a prism into a rainbow of color
 ‘In a very dark Chamber, at a round hole, about one third Part of an Inch broad, made in the Shut of a Window, I placed a Glass Prism’. See Opticks, Prop. II, Theor. II Exper. 3. 
Because of this observation, Newton continued doing experiments on light, and his results eventually led to the discovery of white light and the visible light spectrum, among many other important discoveries for optics. To get to these conclusions, Newton followed the scientific method, which he was one of the founders of.

The scientific method is the gold standard for scientists when they are conducting research. I spent the last five years of my life conducting research, mostly related to chemical reactions. I finished my final exam and dissertation a couple of weeks ago, which wrapped up the findings of my experiments from the past five years, and is the reason I have been absent for so long, for which I apologize! But I am finally a doctor*, so maybe you can trust me more now, or something like that, because I spent the past 5 years learning to properly use this method.

*In no way am I qualified to diagnose or treat medical conditions, that's different kind of doctor

One of my favorite grad-school related comics-

So how exactly do trained scientists and engineers conduct research, and what do they do with it? Why is there disagreement among scientists about scientific findings and their meanings?

The Scientific Method leads to scientific claims

Acquiring knowledge is something that humans do on a daily basis from the time we are born. The way we collect that knowledge, however, varies. For a method to be considered scientific, the evidence must be measureable, or observable. This is a long and continuing process, beginning with an observation lacking an explanation. Because humans are curious, they devise questions and ideas about why they observe something. This is called a scientific question, and a hypothesis (or a prediction or idea about the answer to the question).

In the case of Isaac Newton, once he noticed that the prism showed a rainbow of color, he wanted to figure out why. His hypothesis was that the colors were in the sunlight that was shining into his bedroom, and if all the colors were combined again, it would create white light again.

The next step in the scientific method is to test the hypothesis. What distinguishes “scientific” is this step, where the hypothesis must be tested using something measureable and reproducible. The data or observation collected is then analyzed to draw a conclusion.

To test his hypothesis, Newton placed another prism in front of the first prism, upside down this time, so that the light pattern was reversed. He observed that the light combined into the second prism to produce white light again, his hypothesis was correct. An explanation for the observation of color separation in the prism is that white light is made up of the different colors of the rainbow.

Newton's experimental setup

The final step of the experimental method is to reproduce the experimental results until the theory and the observations have no inconsistencies. Newton’s light prism experiment has been successfully replicated time and time again, and never proven to have any inconsistencies. Other possible explanations must be tested and confirmed or denied to be true. Through this rigorous method, the final conclusion for Newton’s observation was that white light is made up of all the colors in the rainbow.

The scientific method has evolved and become more stringent as time has gone on, but the main steps of it are shown here.

Theories and Laws

Once a hypothesis is proven, does that give us a theory or law? Not necessarily either. There is a huge misunderstanding about scientific theories and laws; some people think a theory is something we are unsure about. While this is true in the general English language, it is different in the realm of science.

A theory is an explanation acquired using the scientific method which has been tested and confirmed repeatedly with experiments and observations.  It explains why something happens. It is developed when all of the possible hypotheses have been tested, which leads to a single conclusion. Theories can then be used to make predictions.

The word theory is often confused with hypothesis in everyday language. Saying that you have a theory about how those New England footballs lost their air – Tom Brady deflated them – is not really a theory, it’s a hypothesis, based on the fact that the footballs had less air than was allowed. Other hypotheses were that the weather caused the pressure in the balls to decrease, or that the team equipment manager tampered with them.

On the other hand, anthropogenic climate change is a theory, an explanation for the reason the earth is heating at an exponential rate. It is based on experimental methods and results, which examine many different hypotheses. Most of the results have confirmed the explanation that fossil fuel use is a reason for the acceleration in the temperature change. These measurements are made using scientific laws.

A law is a description of how something happens using math or some other description. For example, Newton derived laws to explain how objects interact with each other, by relating their forces, masses, and accelerations (F=ma). Laws can be used to devise theories, like the theory of gravity, or the theory of relativity.

This video explains the scientific method in terms of facts, hypotheses, laws, and theories, and illustrates their differences:

Scientific Consensus

Red meat was found to cause cancer! Should you stop eating red meat? Well, that is a personal choice, but before the FDA and medical experts can recommend we stop eating it, more studies and evidence need to be collected, like was done for smoking cigarettes.

Medical consensus is that smoking cigarettes causes cancer.

When a new conclusion is presented, it is important to replicate its findings. This is especially important when the conclusion has policy implications. Scientific consensus is a general agreement between a community of experts in a certain scientific field. 

An important thing to remember is that consensus doesn’t have to be unanimous, but it is general agreement of other scientists. This is established using the communication of scientific results to other scientists at conferences, through publishing scientific studies, replication from other scientists, and the peer review process.

Peer review is another important concept when we are discussing scientific findings. Before a new scientific result can be published in a reputable journal, it is reviewed by other experts with similar competency in that specific field of science. For example, in my research, other scientists who work with methods using quantum mechanics for biomolecules are my peer reviewers. They get to review my results before they are published, and object to anything that may seem wrong with my experimental method, or suggest follow up experiments that are needed to check the work for error. Typically the study goes through several rounds of revisions with peer reviewers and editors before it is published in a scientific journal.

So, scientists review each other’s work down to every detail, and then they try to replicate each other’s results. If those results are easily reproducible, other scientists can begin to form conclusions based on a broad body of work, and scientific consensus is reached.

Because there are inherently a small number of scientists who disagree with the majority, scientific consensus is rarely unanimous, but recommendations are typically made based on that consensus. Unfortunately, science has become politicized because of the small amount of scientists who disagree with the consensus for various reasons.

For example, as is highly cited, over 97% of scientists agree that climate change is caused by burning fossil fuels. 3% of scientists believe that it is caused by something else, and many of them were given money by fossil fuel companies to do studies to find other links. The media portrays this as a general disagreement within the scientific community, which is false. The study linking vaccines to autism was retracted, and no other study has ever been able to replicate its results. There is a scientific consensus that vaccines do not cause autism, and they are completely safe and necessary.

The big takeaway message here is that scientists don’t tend to make big claims that change the way we live unless they are absolutely sure. It is important to make sure you look up information from the scientific source so it doesn’t get buried by the bias of reporters and politicians. Make sure it is published in a peer-reviewed journal. And keep in mind that if there is only one study reporting an important finding, don’t freak out until there are more to confirm and gain a scientific consensus.

If we didn't have the scientific method and other scientists to help us, our heads might explode!

Cheers to your brain and thanks for reading!

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I made a new Twitter account, @KineticKelly, linked on the side, for those of you who don't want to see my football tweets.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Engage Science: Communicating Complex Scientific Research

Last quarter, I was lucky enough to take a class through the Engage Science program at the University of Washington. Engage is an organization that helps students communicate their research to the public in an effective way, to help address the communication gap between scientists and the public.

As one of our assignments, we each wrote a blog post about a topic of our choosing. I chose to write about a talk I heard at the national conference for the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) on how to communicate science to people with differing worldviews. Check it out here!

The end-goal of the class was to talk about our own research in an engaging way. To finish off the course, we each had to give a lecture at Seattle Town Hall about our research. Here you can see my talk about some of the research I work on to help advance biofuel production, or watch the youtube video below.

Thanks for reading and cheers to your brain!

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Canine Companionship: Humans bond with dogs as if they are children

Image via Buzzfeed
Nothing is stronger than the bond between a mother and child... and between dog and human? Although I have not personally experienced motherhood, I recently added a new family member; a four-month-old rescue puppy named Linus (after one of my role models and great chemical engineers, Linus Pauling). When he looks into my eyes my heart melts a little, and I just want to scoop him up and hug him. These feelings are helping me understand why people refer to their dogs as “fur babies,” showering them with toys, treats, costumes, and even pushing them in strollers.

My new puppy, Linus
Now science explains why dogs really are “Man’s Best Friend.” When people refer to their dogs as their kids, they aren’t too far off. A new study in Science shows that humans and dogs actually share a unique bond, mediated through the love hormone, oxytocin. What makes dogs so special to us, and how did this symbiotic relationship begin?

Dogs were the first animal to be domesticated by humans

Image credit Dan Burr via Flickr
The dog-human relationship has a long history. Dogs were domesticated by humans before any other plant or animal, including food crops or livestock like horses and cattle. Scientists know that dogs evolved from the gray wolf, however they are still trying to figure out where and when they became friends with humans. The consensus among scientists is that dogs and humans began their relationship somewhere between 15,000 and 30,000 years ago during the Paleolithic era.

Charles Darwin, the man responsible for the theory of evolution, theorized that dogs initiated their relationship with humans, following them to scavenge their leftover animal carcasses and scraps. Eventually, dogs evolved to be more and more trusting of humans. The less fearful and friendlier dogs lived longer, evolving to become the human-like pets we know today that sit on our furniture, ride in cars, coexist (hopefully) with our other pets, and understand our language; although, we must remember they still have some wolf-like instincts from their ancient ancestors.

Image via 
Dogs have evolved to be the most responsive animal to human body language. For example, dogs are the only animal that understand what humans mean when they point at something with their hand - “look at that.” They respond to human cues and words, along with eye contact. Not even other primates can understand our complicated social cues to that extent. Why are dogs so unique in this aspect? A new study from researchers in Japan shows the feelings of companionship we have towards dogs are a result of direct eye contact.

Dogs manipulate the human feelings by staring at us

Image credit: B Rosen via Flickr
When dogs and humans stare at each other, the love hormone, oxytocin, is produced. This relationship has evolved to create a bond between human and dog similar to the bond a mother and child have. Oxytocin is related to the feelings of love and comfort between humans, which you can read more about in this Valentine’s Day post. A new study by a group at Azabu University in Japan has linked the oxytocin hormone to the bond that humans and dogs have.

Increased levels of oxytocin are positively associated with increased social behavior towards both humans and other dogs. According to several studies, after dogs and their owners interact, oxytocin levels increased in both the dog and its owner. The Japanese researchers, however, showed that oxytocin increased the most after dogs and their owners share a mutual gaze for a sustained period of time, more than talking or touching.

To further solidify their findings, the researchers also artificially administered oxytocin to dogs and then had them interact with their owners. Dogs given oxytocin stared at their owners more than the dogs not administered oxytocin. Following the interaction, the dogs given oxytocin and their owners both showed an increased production of the hormone after the interaction. This suggests something known as a positive feedback loop, meaning that the more oxytocin present, the more gazing, and the more oxytocin is produced. In other words, it’s like a snowball effect, the more you and your dog stare at each other, the more love there is and the more you want to stare at each other.

A dog and owner gazing at each other
The special bond between a dog and its human is unique to its owner. Researchers also observed dogs interacting with humans who were not their owners, and oxytocin levels were unchanged. Not only is oxytocin production unique to the owner, it is unique to dogs as a species. Wolves reared by humans were studied along with their owners, and no relationship was observed between eye contact and oxytocin levels.

All of these observations suggest dogs have a unique neurological pathway specific to human bonding, which they have evolved over tens of thousands of years with us. They have also evolved to have adorable child-like characteristics to give us the “feels” for them, to put it unscientifically. These findings could also explain why aggressive behavior of dogs towards humans is correlated to their interactions with humans and not their breed. My only question is, why am I attached to my cat in a similar way, and when will he and my dog become friends?

For more information, check out this podcast from Science. 

Human health benefits from furry companions

Oxytocin is currently studied as a treatment for several mental disorders associated with decreased levels of the hormone. To treat these diseases, researchers are artificially administering oxytocin to improve social symptoms of disorders like autism and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Understanding how dogs can chemically alter our brains gives us an understanding of how and why service animals are beneficial. Assistance dogs can stimulate the production of oxytocin in people suffering from mental disorders.

Image via The Daily Republic
Oxytocin has also been studied to treat other mental disorders like depression, anxiety, and stress. More research is needed to understand more about this link, but for now I will take it as a sign to spend more quality time with my newest 4-legged friend, especially when I am stressed out. So at the end of the day, it might be mentally beneficial to take your furry friend on a walk or jog, play some ball, snuggle on the couch… or just stare at each other.

Image via Giphy

Cheers to your brain and thanks for reading!

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Friday, January 23, 2015

Fracking and climate change: solution or cause?

Hydraulic fracturing, better known as “fracking,” has reshaped energy in North America in the last decade - making it possible to extract oil and natural gas from traditionally hard areas to drill. Whether the emergence of this technique is for better or worse is still a hotly debated topic.

Proponents argue that along with more affordable and domestic energy, fracking decreases greenhouse gas emissions, therefore slowing climate change.  A recent model by the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory shows this claim to be untrue, and that more likely, fracking will increase greenhouse gas emissions in the long run.

What is Fracking?

Fracking is a technique developed in 1947 to extract natural gas trapped in rocks. Pumping a pressurized liquid into the ground cracks (or fractures - where the name “fracking” originates) the rock, allowing natural gas to be released. Fracking liquid typically consists of sand and chemicals suspended in water, which holds the fracture open once the rock is cracked.  Fracking offers another option for extracting fossil fuels that are more abundant in North America, so proponents advocate that it will reduce dependence on Middle East countries for energy.

How fracking works. Image credit USA Today

Fracking is a controversial technique because of its potential environmental impact. Concerns have grown over ground water contamination (people's faucet water actually lighting on fire) from the undisclosed chemicals in fracking liquid and water shortages due to the high volume fracking demands. In addition, researchers have shown that fracking might be responsible for causing small-scale earthquakes that could lead to more serious long-term consequences.

Faucet water near some fracking sites has become flammable.

Will fracking change greenhouse gas emissions?

Some reports have suggested that because natural gas can replace coal as an electricity source it will reduce carbon dioxide emissions and so can be thought of as a climate change solution. But that claim assumes that natural gas only replaces coal and that energy consumption remains at current levels. Depending on the energy policy of the country, this is a generous assumption. 

The PNNL study showed that in the likely event of an increase in energy consumption, fracking for natural gas will not decrease carbon dioxide emissions and is not a plausible solution to climate change.

Instead, they found that having more affordable access to natural gas would increase climate forcing (human-imposed disruption to the climate) between 0.3 percent decrease and a 7 percent increase, which is far less than the 80 percent decrease climate experts are recommending.

Integrating energy, economy and climate systems, the researchers predicted long-term changes in carbon dioxide emissions. In the study, five separate models were used to demonstrate how greenhouse gas emissions would change based on several scenarios of natural gas production and use. Although the exact amounts vary, every model showed that increasing natural gas supply through unconventional extraction methods (fracking) does not reduce carbon dioxide emissions because of two effects: natural gas replacing alternative forms of energy, and the increase in energy use as a result of the decrease in price.

In the most realistic case, natural gas would substitute for 18 percent of coal and 17 percent of other lower carbon energy, such as solar and wind power. Substituting coal for natural gas will decrease carbon dioxide emissions. However natural gas also costs less than wind, solar, fuel cell, hydropower, or nuclear power, so energy consumption will shift from these technologies to natural gas. Using natural gas in place of renewable sources will significantly increase atmospheric carbon dioxide.

Furthermore, when energy (natural gas in this case) is available at a low cost, more people will use it. The more natural gas people use, the more carbon dioxide is emitted. Even when the PNNL model predicted that energy policy effectively banned coal so that natural gas replaced only coal, the carbon dioxide emissions are only reduced by 6 percent; the best case scenario.

Carbon dioxide isn’t the only climate-warming gas (greenhouse gas) that natural gas releases. Greenhouse gas is most commonly thought of as carbon dioxide; however, natural gas itself (methane) is actually has over 20 times more climate warming potential than carbon dioxide. Another environmental concern is that fracking will result in more gas leaks during drilling, extraction, and transportation (known as fugitive methane emissions). When modeling for the likely increase in fugitive methane, greenhouse gas emissions increase between 7 percent and 20 percent.

Carbon dioxide isn't the only greenhouse gas.

The authors of the study conclude that: Abundant gas does not discernibly reduce climate forcing … and, under high fugitive emission assumptions, three models reported increased climate forcing of more than 5%. Evidence reported in this study shows yet another environmental concern posed by fracking. Proponents and oil companies cannot claim that natural gas is a sufficient solution to reducing the impacts of climate change.

Will Fracking Help Us Become Energy Independent?

You have probably noticed the recent drop in prices at the pump. OPEC has declared a war on fracking by dropping oil prices to a level that deems North American companies unprofitable. The type of oil that is extracted from fracking is more expensive to produce than oil produced by OPEC. The United States is currently producing more oil than any OPEC country, so in order for them to drive North American countries out of business, oil prices will need to be low for a very long time.

The environmental consequence of this is consumers will continue to increase their energy consumption because of the lower cost, which in turn will continue producing more greenhouse gas emissions. Not only is the U.S. still suffering the consequences of OPEC controlling the U.S.’s energy production, but we are now contributing more to climate change than before.

Fracking is an innovative technology, but is not a solution to our climate and energy problems. A real solution will be found after continuing to invest our efforts and research into renewable sources of energy that can be produced in the United States. We can use the type of innovation to come up with a longer term solution to energy independence and climate change. That seems easier than exploring for a new colder planet to live on.

Scene from Interstellar. Image credit: Giphy.

Cheers to your brain and thanks for reading!

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