03.29.12Kelly Duke

An Environment Tipping Point Case Study

Yeast Hanging with their buds; Yeast live fast and die young, usually in a pool of cheap rotgut. A lesson in micro-ecology and enviromental tipping point dynamics

This post had crossed my mind to write but I dismissed it as a bit “preachy” until I read Alan Harris’ recent piece about re-tweeting the Laura Huffman lectures at Rice University.  I am not yet tweet-savvy so my interest was in Ms. Huffman’s topic and not on the efficacy of tweetups as a viable means of amplifying the dissemination of relevant and topical information (there is probably a master’s thesis in there somewhere).  I wanted to illustrate the concept of an environmental tipping point.

At the core of Ms. Huffman’s presentation was the relative scarcity of water.  Among the many factors influencing our drinkable water supply is population growth.  This took me back several decades to the seventh grade and Mr. Tyree’s science class.

Early Lessons on Environmental Tipping Points

In that class we performed a simple experiment where we put yeast into a sugar and water culture.  We counted representative samples through the microscope every class session to chart the growth of the colony.  Fueled by an abundance of resources the yeast colony was budding like mad rabbits, driving the population up at an incredible rate.  Then something started to happen.  We did not know it then, but our colony had surpassed an environmental tipping point.

Yeast, as is their way, convert sugars and water to carbon dioxide and alcohol.  This does not make them bad creatures.  Indeed without them bread would not rise and beer would be both flat and less buzzy.  The problem is that, in a closed environment, they converted the ingredients key to their very survival into a waste product that ultimately killed them.  Somewhere near the end they had passed that tipping point.

Are WE Men or Are We Mic…robes?

Allegorical?  Perhaps.  Applicable?  Most Certainly.  But if discussions about limiting population growth are taboo, then our only other choices are to reduce individual consumption and waste.  Anyone following this Blog knows that all or our contributors see water as the big issue.

The Earth is a closed environment.  We cannot yet import water from outer space.  And while there is evidence that there may be vast deposits of water ice below the surfaces of the Moon or more than polar ice caps on Mars, you really have to think about what that could do to the price of a bottle of drinking water.  Similarly, we cannot yet economically dispose of our waste stream by hauling it off world (it had disastrous effects in the 1970’s British Sci-Fi TV show Space: 1999).

Our doom is not immediate, nor will it be all encompassing.  It will likely be on an ad hoc basis.  Certain ecological systems will hit their environmental tipping point and decline and die.  We may lament the loss but fail to recognize its influence upon the bigger environmental picture.  We are already seeing signs of this in the decline of coral from the increased temperatures and altered pH in our oceans likely resulting from global warming and incresad atmospheric greenhouse gasses.  If coral goes, so goes a major link in the ocean’s food chain.

The isolated collapse of seemingly scattered, smaller, and more sensitive ecological systems will contribute, over time, to a more global environmental tipping point.  When that happens it will likely impact we humans along geographical and socio-economic lines favoring location, education, and money.   It may be incremental but an environmental tipping point is inevitable if we do not recognize our role as stewards of our own fate.  Further, “our” fate is linked through the vast web of balanced ecologies to the fates of all the other natural systems be they bugs, bunnies, plants, people, states, or nations.  And linking it all together are air and water.

So while Chicken Little may have had concerns about the sky falling,  I have concerns that things are happening to the world water supply that could have dramatic impacts on lifestyle, if not life itself.

Thank you Mr. Tyree for an early lesson on environmental tipping points and glimpse of a possible future such that I might have some time to affect ways to improve it.

K. F. Duke

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Kelly Duke

Not many people can say that they have dedicated their life to the landscape industry. Kelly Duke can. His diverse background ranging from maintenance to estimating, to design, along with a passionate commitment to his trade has given Kelly a lifecycle perspective to landscaping. As the leader of the ValleyCrest’s Pre-Construction Services team, he analyzes early conceptual designs to determine whether or not and how they can be built within budget while meeting long-term design and maintenance goals. Many of the projects that come across Kelly’s desk require he examine the cost and savings of baseline water use in comparison to high efficiency alternatives.


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  1. Thursday, 7:11 Alan Harris

    Kelly – you have been away too long!
    Your comment about “…vast deposits of water ice below the surfaces of the Moon…polar ice caps on Mars, you really have to think about what that could do to the price of a bottle of drinking water” made me laugh for an embarrassingly long time. I am not “anti-bottled water”, but do find it interesting that Americans will happily pay for bottled water shipped from Fiji, so why not the Moon or Mars?
    Thanks for recommending my post for a master thesis and the great example of what happens to a population that consumes all of its resources in a closed environment. Earth after all is just a really BIG closed environment.

  2. Saturday, 6:00 Alan Harris

    The may not bottle Moon water to bring back to Earth, but…
    …At the moon’s north pole, Spudis said, a minimum estimate for the amount of ice located there — as gleaned from Mini-RF data alone — is 600 million metric tons.
    “If you convert that to liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen to launch a rocket … that is the equivalent of a space shuttle launch every day for 2,200 years,” Spudis said. “And that’s just what we can see. I think the actual amount is at least an order of magnitude greater than that. So there’s plenty of water. The water is there. We can use it to actually bootstrap spacefaring infrastructure. That’s the real significance.”
    Earth’s moon contains the material and energy resources needed to create a permanent, reusable and extensible space transportation system, Spudis added…
    The water or energy debate exists even on the Moon!

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