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13 on the 13th: A Look at the Number 13 Through a Scientific Lens


by Bill Chameides | May 13th, 2011
posted by Erica Rowell (Editor)

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It’s Friday the 13th even in environmental circles.

If you suffer friggatriskaidekaphobia or its close cousin paraskevidekatriaphobia, you’re no doubt hiding in a closet somewhere waiting for midnight. For the rest of you, let’s focus on 13 non-superstitious news items and factoids related to the number 13 in the world of environmental science.

1. Friday the 13th, 2029 Some believe the world will end on May 21. You’re probably not convinced, but did you know that NASA scientists predict that in 2029, Asteroid 2004 MN4 will come scarily close to Earth. Should you be worried? Find out.

2. Carbon 13 or C-13 – Know your isotopes. While carbon-14 (the carbon isotope with eight neutrons) is the stuff that’s key to carbon dating, C-13 is no slouch. In Earth sciences, scientists use C-13 “to determine identity of water sources by studying its ratio with respect to other carbon isotopes.”

Carbon-13 also tells us about atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2). As I wrote in a previous post: “The carbon in fossil fuels is made up of less C-13 than the CO2 in the atmosphere. As a result, one would expect that as fossil fuels are burned and the C-13-poor carbon in fossil fuels is converted into atmospheric CO2, the C-13 abundance in atmospheric CO2 would decline. And that is in fact exactly what is observed. … The conclusion: burning fossil fuels is increasing atmospheric CO2 concentrations.”

3. Not quite 13 – The number of Americans who are able to say they’ve walked on the moon is 12.  With the space shuttle program ending and would-be moon-walking astronauts grounded, it does not look like the number of American moon-walkers will reach 13 any time soon.

4. The 13 colonies – While not widely discussed when studying the New England colonists, the environment was critical to their survival. While at times severe, it was the environment, fertile soils, and abundant wildlife that made Thanksgiving possible.

5. The element with the atomic number 13: aluminum If you’re up to date with our Chemical Marketplace series, then you’ve read this post on the aluminum that’s in your average drug-store antiperspirant. But if you’re not caught up, then you might not know that average roll-on is an FDA-regulated drug. Read on here

6. 13.7 billion – The age in years of the known universe (with a margin of error of one percent).

7. 1913 – A sad year for conservation, as it marked the passing of John Muir, the man known as the Father of Conservation. Among his achievements, the Scottish-born American:

Read more on Muir

8. Darwin’s 13 Galapágos finches – They’re just birds, but they occupy a critical notch in helping establish the theory of evolution. As one site puts it: “The finches of the Galápagos are important in that all 13 species of the genus Geospiza (and one other species found on Cocos Island, 300 miles north) are quite likely descended from a single South American species, either the Blue-back grassquit or the St. Lucia black finch.” (More on this topic here and here.)

9. The Huffington Post’s “Ocean’s 13” In 2010 the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List designated 620 species of marine animals as threatened. The HuffPo’s editorial team spotlighted 13 of these in their slide show “Threatened Animals Of The Ocean.”

10. Thirteen signs of global warming – While no single event can be connected to global warming, longer-term trends can be. Scientists have determined extreme weather events are likely to be one of the impacts we can expect in a warming world. Here are 13 extreme weather events from 2007 that the U.N. World Meteorological Association has linked to global warming.

11. The best-laid plans for 13 high-speed rail corridors go awry – I’m sure you’ve read about this here on TheGreenGrok or elsewhere by now. President Obama had set aside $8 billion to jump-start 13 high-speed rail corridors as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, but some governors refused the dough. As they say, one man’s trash is another’s treasure – and the states that have now received the refused funds are reportedly tickled pink at the newfound green. Oh, and turns out that some of those “refusiators,” like Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin, are having second thoughts.

12. 13 thousand The rough estimate reported by the Clean Air Task Force [pdf] for the number of U.S. deaths from “fine particle pollution from existing coal plants” expected in 2010. (The more precise estimate, cited in the September 2010 report The Toll From Coal [pdf], is 13,200.)

13. Thirteen countries where tigers still roam Tiger populations have plummeted precipitously over the past century [pdf]. Now just 13 countries hold the key t
o bringing this species back from the brink. Read about one man’s efforts on this enormous but important task.

Happy Friday, all.

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