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For the good of the planet, can we curb our addiction to road salt?

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Hello, hello! This is our weekly newsletter on all things environmental, where we highlight trends and solutions that are moving us to a more sustainable world. (Sign up here to get it in your inbox every Thursday.)

This week:

  • Is there a way to curb our consumption of road salt?
  • A bank for the natural riches of the Amazon
  • It’s getting hot in here: Geothermal energy is on the rise
  • One (big) way to keep the planet from warming

The slippery slope of road salt

(Robert F. Bukaty/AP)

We’re all afraid of slipping and falling, especially in winter, so it’s not uncommon to see carpets of salt on Canadian sidewalks and roads this time of year.

But what’s the effect on the environment?

Our bodies need salt, but there is a difference between the stuff we sprinkle in food and what we put on the roads. They’re both sodium chloride, but table salt includes healthy additives like iodine, which deters goiters.

The problem with rock salt (a.k.a. road salt) is that it contains chloride ions, which can have negative effects on ecosystems because once these ions seep into our environment, there’s no way to dilute them and they continue to build up.

And we use a lot of rock salt. According to Environment and Climate Change Canada, the amount of rock salt used on our roads ranges from two to nearly five million tonnes annually. And that’s not including what we’re dumping on sidewalks and driveways.

That salt doesn’t just go away: it leaches into our lakes and rivers and gardens.

It’s “very concerning to someone like me, who’s a freshwater scientist,” said Angela Wallace, project manager at the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority’s (TRCA) watershed planning and reporting division. She said scientists across North America are worried that freshwater, the source of our safe drinking water, “is becoming more and more salinated over time.”

Consider this: the Canadian Water Quality guideline for chloride in freshwater is 120 mg/L. But in and around the Toronto area, there have been measurements of 18,000 to 20,000 mg/L. (Sea water has about 19,250 mg/L.)

And it’s not just in winter. Scientists are finding elevated amounts of salt even in the summer as the ground, which has soaked up all that salt and stored it, slowly releases it into creeks, rivers and lakes.

This can have widespread effects. Fish are disappearing from areas where they once thrived. Frogs — which breed in pools of water, sometimes near roadways — have difficulty breeding. And there’s even fear that birds are consuming it.

“If we’re living in an area where other animals and fish and birds can’t live, that’s going to reflect on … human health impacts as well,” Wallace said.

While there are alternatives, such as beet brine and sand, the fact is that salt is simply cheaper. Many argue, however, that its highly corrosive nature — which damages roadways, bridges and buildings — actually makes it more costly in the end.

According to Tim Van Seters, manager of TRCA’s sustainable technologies evaluation program, there are several ways to help the environment on this issue.

One is to use less salt. “There’s a belief that you need to cover the entire surface with salt so that you can’t see the pavement anymore, otherwise it’s not effective,” said Van Seters. “But that’s just not true.”

Another is to stop using salt to get out of shovelling. “Shovel early and often,” said Van Seters. “Don’t let the snow melt and then refreeze because that’s when you need to really use a lot of salt to get that off.”

Van Seters also said municipalities could deputize people, much like parking enforcement officers, to ensure citizens aren’t over-salting.

“No one’s saying to eliminate salt altogether,” said Van Seters. “We just have to use it better.”

Nicole Mortillaro


We want to hear your ideas

Many of you have written in to offer kind words (thanks!) and suggestions for ways to improve the newsletter. Some of you have also used the opportunity to propose ways of solving some of the big environmental problems that exist.

One of the interesting emails we got this week was from a reader who was thinking about ways to reduce energy use in buildings.

“As a longtime renter of different apartments in Toronto, I am wondering why everywhere in buildings the temperature is so high that I need to keep windows open even in winter. Would it not be more efficient to put in a system that allows each renter to change temperature to a lower level, hence creating a lower expenditure on heating?”

The reader poses an interesting scenario. Is it feasible? It’s something we’ll take a look at in an upcoming issue.


Researchers build bank of genetic codes to protect Amazon rainforest

(Christophe Simon/AFP/Getty Images)

In a battle to protect the Amazon jungle, the world’s largest rainforest, researchers are building a giant database of genetic codes to catalogue material contained in the plants and animals there.

From new medicines and cosmetics to the rubber in car tires, genetic material extracted from the forest has spurred billions of dollars worth of new inventions.

Spread across nine countries, including Brazil, Colombia and Peru, the Amazon is home to one in 10 of all known species on Earth, according to the World Wildlife Fund. Known as the “lungs of the planet” for its role in sucking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, the Amazon also plays a crucial role in stabilizing global weather patterns.

Amazon residents, however, often have few options other than clearing the forest to raise crops or logging to earn a living.

“That doesn’t work when we look at things from an earth systems point of view,” said Dominic Waughray, who heads the Amazon Bank of Codes project for the World Economic Forum (WEF).

Backed by technology researchers, scientists and the Switzerland-based WEF, the Amazon Bank of Codes aims to change that dynamic of resource exploitation by billing companies who want to use genetic material taken from the forest.

Waughray said the project could be up and running by the end of 2020. Once in place, investors who want to use genetic material from the Amazon will be able to log onto the code bank and purchase the specific genetic strains they want to use for a small fee.

Through cellphone banking and other digital tools, royalty fees will be transferred directly to local residents and government authorities, giving people in the Amazon a financial incentive not to cut the trees, Waughray said. In Brazil’s part of the Amazon alone, an area larger than Germany has been deforested since 1988, according to Brazilian government data.

The royalties will be transferred to governments and local communities in the Amazon through blockchain, the same online ledger system that underpins the digital currency bitcoin. If properly managed, royalties from genetic material could end up providing local residents with far more money than ranching or farming, Waughray said.

Brazil’s new president, Jair Bolsonaro, has pledged to open swaths of the Amazon to mining and agribusiness, but has made no move to stop the bank of codes.

Waughray predicts biotechnology based on better mapping of genetic resources could help fuel a “fourth industrial revolution.”

Imagine what it means to be a country with a high biological endowment like a Costa Rica, Brazil or Colombia, where we traditionally think of ranching, soy and timber,” Waughray said.

As a result of this bank of codes, “we think of the habitat itself as being a valuable banker to feed the 21st century.”

Chris Arsenault


The Big Picture: Geothermal power

Last week, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that the federal government would kick in more than $25 million to fund Canada’s first geothermal power facility. The plant, located near Estevan, Sask., will generate five megawatts of power, enough to power around 5,000 homes. Geothermal energy taps heat beneath the earth’s surface and is considered clean and sustainable. Here’s a look at the world’s biggest producers of geothermal energy.

(CBC)

Hot and bothered: Provocative ideas from around the web


Here’s one way to keep the planet from warming

(Patrik Stollarz/Getty Images)

Good news: It’s still possible to keep the Earth from warming above 1.5 C pre-industrial levels.

That’s according to a new study from the University of Leeds, which suggests the solution doesn’t involve untested, futuristic technologies or even giving up your gas-guzzling SUV while it’s still road-worthy.

All we have to do is not repair or replace existing carbon-emitting infrastructure with more of the same. That means aging gas or coal plants, cars and trucks, airplanes and ships — as well as a few less obvious things.

The report said that if we start now, there’s a 64 per cent chance we can stay under the limit of 1.5 C of warming set by the Paris agreement to avoid the most dire consequences of climate change. As Chris Smith and his team of researchers at the University of Leeds write in Nature Communications, “Limiting warming to 1.5 C is not yet geophysically impossible.”

But if we keep repairing and/or building fossil-fuel-based power plants and vehicles, as well as breeding beef cattle, even until 2030, staying under 1.5 C becomes more unlikely. (Although there would still be a good chance we could stay under 2 C, which was the less-ambitious Paris target.)

Smith acknowledges in a separate article in The Conversation that some challenges make this type of plan harder than it sounds. For example, there aren’t any viable alternatives yet to fossil-fuel-powered planes.

One of the study’s assumptions is that building zero-emissions replacements, such as wind and solar, wouldn’t in and of themselves generate emissions — which they largely do at the moment. And while we can wait up to 40 years for our coal plants to break down, the whole world would have to give up beef within three years and completely stop deforestation right now — unlikely.

Still, it makes limiting climate change by quitting fossil fuels look almost achievable. Perhaps part of the solution is resisting the urge to replace dirty infrastructure with … more dirty infrastructure.

Emily Chung


Stay in touch!

Are there issues you’d like us to cover? Questions you want answered? Do you just want to share a kind word? We’d love to hear from you. Email us at whatonearth@cbc.ca.

Sign up here to get What on Earth? in your inbox every Thursday.

Editor: Andre Mayer | Logo design: Sködt McNalty

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Top 5 Analytics Trends That Are Shaping The Future

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Digital transformation is increasingly becoming the focus for many CIOs around the world today—with analytics playing a fundamental role in driving the future of the digital economy.

While data is important to every business, it is necessary for businesses to have a firm grip on data analytics to allow them transform raw pieces of data into important insights. However, unlike the current trends in business intelligence—which is centred around data visualization—the future of data analytics would encompass a more contextual experience.

“The known data analytics development cycle is described in stages: from descriptive (what happened) to diagnostic (why did it happen), to discovery (what can we learn from it), to predictive (what is likely to happen), and, finally, to prescriptive analytics (what action is the best to take),” said Maurice op het Veld is a partner at KPMG Advisory in a report.

“Another way of looking at this is that data analytics initially “supported” the decision-making process but is now enabling “better” decisions than we can make on our own.”

Here are some of the current trends that arealready shaping the future of data analytics in individuals and businesses.

  1. Growth in mobile devices

With the number of mobile devices expanding to include watches, digital personal assistants, smartphones, smart glasses, in-car displays, to even video gaming systems, the final consumption plays a key role on the level of impact analytics can deliver.

Previously, most information consumers accessed were on a computer with sufficient room to view tables, charts and graphs filled with data, now, most consumers require information delivered in a format well optimized for whatever device they are currently viewing it on.

Therefore, the content must be personalized to fit the features of the user’s device and not just the user alone.

  1. Continuous Analytics

More and more businesses are relying on the Internet of Things (IoT) and their respective streaming data—which in turn shortens the time it takes to capture, analyze and react to the information gathered. Therefore, while analytics programspreviously were termed successful when results were delivered within days or weeks of processing, the future of analytics is bound to drastically reduce this benchmark to hours, minutes, seconds—and even milliseconds.

“All devices will be connected and exchange data within the “Internet of Things” and deliver enormous sets of data. Sensor data like location, weather, health, error messages, machine data, etc. will enable diagnostic and predictive analytics capabilities,” noted Maurice.

“We will be able to predict when machines will break down and plan maintenance repairs before it happens. Not only will this be cheaper, as you do not have to exchange supplies when it is not yet needed, but you can also increase uptime.”

  1. Augmented Data Preparation

During the process of data preparation, machine learning automation will begin to augment data profiling and data quality, enrichment, modelling, cataloguing and metadata development.

Newer techniques would include supervised, unsupervised and reinforcement learning which is bound to enhance the entire data preparation process. In contrast to previous processes—which depended on rule-based approach to data transformation—this current trend would involve advanced machine learning processes that would evolve based on recent data to become more precise at responding to changes in data.

  1. Augmented Data Discovery

Combined with the advancement in data preparation, a lot of these newer algorithms now allow information consumers to visualize and obtain relevant information within the data with more ease. Enhancements such as automatically revealing clusters, links, exceptions, correlation and predictions with pieces of data, eliminate the need for end users to build data models or write algorithms themselves.

This new form of augmented data discovery will lead to an increase in the number of citizen data scientist—which include information users who, with the aid of augmented assistance can now identify and respond to various patterns in data faster and a more distributed model.

  1. AugmentedData Science

It is important to note that the rise of citizen data scientist will not in any way eliminate the need for a data scientist who gathers and analyze data to discover profitable opportunities for the growth of a business. However, as these data scientists give room for citizen data scientists to perform the easier tasks, their overall analysis becomes more challenging and equally valuable to the business.

As time goes by, machine learning would be applied in other areas such as feature and model selection. This would free up some of the tasks performed by data scientist and allow them focus on the most important part of their job, which is to identify specific patterns in the data that can potentially transform business operations and ultimately increase revenue.

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Waterloo drone-maker Aeryon Labs bought by U.S. company for $265M

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Waterloo’s Aeryon Labs has been bought by Oregon-based FLIR Systems Inc. for $256 million, or $200 million US.

The acquisition was announced Monday. 

Dave Kroetsch, co-founder and chief technology officer of Aeryon Labs, says not much will change in the foreseeable future.

“The Waterloo operations of Aeryon Labs will actually continue as they did yesterday with manufacturing, engineering and all the functions staying intact in Waterloo and ultimately, we see growing,” he said.

“The business here is very valuable to FLIR and our ability to sell internationally is a key piece of keeping these components of the business here in Canada.”

Aeroyn Labs builds high-performance drones that are sold to a variety of customers including military, police services and commercial businesses. The drones can provide high-resolution images for surveillance and reconnaissance.

The drones already include cameras and thermal technology from FLIR. Jim Cannon, president and CEO of FLIR Systems, said acquiring Aeryon Labs is part of the company’s strategy to move beyond sensors “to the development of complete solutions that save lives and livelihoods.”

‘A piece of a bigger solution’

Kroetsch said this is a good way for the company to grow into something bigger.

“We see the business evolving in much the direction our business has been headed over the last couple of years. And that’s moving beyond the drone as a product in and of itself as a drone as a piece of a bigger solution,” he said.

For example, FLIR bought a drone company that builds smaller drones that look like little helicopters.

“We can imagine integrating those with our drones, perhaps having ours carry their drones and drop them off,” he said.

FLIR also does border security systems, which Kroetsch says could use the drones to allow border agents to look over a hill where there have been issues.

“We see the opportunity there as something that we never could have done on our own but being involved with and part of a larger company that’s already providing these solutions today gives us access not only to these great applications, but also to some fantastic technologies,” he said.

Aeryon Labs has done a lot of work during emergency disasters, including in Philippines after Typhoon Hagupit in 2014, Ecuador after an earthquake in 2016 and the Fort McMurray wildfire in 2016.

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Inuvik infrastructure may not be ready for climate change, says study

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The Arctic is expected to get warmer and wetter by the end of this century and new research says that could mean trouble for infrastructure in Inuvik.

The study from Global Water Futures looked at how climate change could impact Havipak Creek — which crosses the Dempster Highway in Inuvik, N.W.T. — and it predicts some major water changes.

“They were quite distressing,” John Pomeroy, director of Global Water Futures and the study’s lead author, said of the findings.

Researchers used a climate model and a hydrological model to predict future weather and climate patterns in the region. They also looked at data gathered from 1960 to the present. 

If greenhouse gas emissions continue at their current rate — which Pomeroy said they are on track to do — the study projects the region will be 6.1 C warmer by 2099 and precipitation, particularly rain, will increase by almost 40 per cent.

The study also found that the spring flood will be earlier and twice as large, and the permafrost will thaw an additional 25 centimetres. While the soil is expected to be wetter early in the summer, the study said it will be drier in late summer, meaning a higher risk of wildfires.

John Pomeroy is the director of Global Water Futures. (Erin Collins/CBC)

“The model’s painting kind of a different world than we’re living in right now for the Mackenzie Delta region,” Pomeroy said.

He noted these changes are not only expected for Havipak Creek, but also for “many, many creeks along the northern part of the Dempster [Highway].”

Pomeroy said the deeper permafrost thaw and a bigger spring flood could pose challenges for buildings, roads, culverts and crossings in the area that were designed with the 20th century climate in mind.

He said the projected growth of the snowpack and the spring flood are “of grave concern because that’s what washes out the Dempster [Highway] and damages infrastructure in the area.”

Culverts and bridges may have to be adjusted to allow room for greater stream flows, Pomeroy said. And building foundations that are dependent upon the ground staying frozen will have to be reinforced or redesigned.

Pomeroy said the ultimate solution is for humans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

“This study is the future we’re heading for, but it’s not the future we necessarily have if we can find a way to reduce those gases,” he said.  

“It’d be far smarter to get those emissions under control than to pay the terrible expenses for infrastructure and endangered safety of humans and destroyed ecosystems.”

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