Environmental Study Curriculum
This page represents the details of the topics covered in the frame of my studies of environmental sciences at the Open University.
Generalities and objectives
I started to study environment sciences at the Open University in October 2005.
My main objective with this study has been to broaden my horizon, but I would be glad I could put the acquired knowledge in practice soon, either professionally or in collaboration with NGOs, but I have no precise plans yet and I am open to any concrete offer or suggestion!
|Year||Course (with the link to the description of the course by the OU as far as the course is still offered)||General contents of the course||Result|
|2005||T172: Working with our environment: technology for a sustainable future||General introduction into environmental studies:
|2005||TXR174: Technology in action||Residential school with laboratory and team activities:
|2006||U216: Environment||Broad social sciences course on environmental issues:
The course involved carrying out a "project" on a free topic within the topics covered by the course, see description below.
|Grade 2 pass|
|2007||S182: Studying Mammals||Optional short science course on Mammals. I chose this course to acquire fundamental knowledge of biology.
The course comprised several aspects about the mammal species:
|2007||T210: Environmental control and public health||Technical course on environmental and pollution management:
The course included performing four "experiments" accompanied by a scientific report which are described below.
|Grade 3 pass|
|2008||T308: Environmental monitoring, modelling and control||Technical course on environmental and pollution management; deepening of the topics of T210:
The course included carrying out a truncated Environmental Impact Assessment of an industrial project, a waste treatment plant with MRF, composting facility and incinerator. Computer modelling, the application of norms and calculations as well as the critical review of techniques planned to be used were performed to evaluate the environmental impact of the development project including public health and annoyance aspects and to detect possible infringements, with the proposal of improvement solutions.
|2009||U316: The environmental web||The course stressed the interdependencies in ecological systems as well as between humans and their environment. Under this perspective, the concepts of globalisation, uncertainty, governance and sustainability were the key topics of the course. It also aimed at developing different communication skills in students for concerted environmental action using different representation tools and making use of the Internet to gather, select critically, and publish information as well as a collaboration tool.
The course involved carrying out a "project" on a free topic within the main concept or the course (globalisation, uncertainty, governance, sustainability) and to be published in form of a website. See description below.
|Grade 2 pass|
|2010||S216: Environmental science||The course provided broad knowledge in different fields of natural sciences applied to the study of environment. The 4 first blocks provided a general and broad knowledge of the Earth’s systems which were then deepened and considered under specific applicative aspects in the subsequent topics.
Block 1, Air & Earth:
Block 3, Water & Life:
Block 4, Landform & cycles:
Topic 1, Extreme weather:
Origin and development of explosive mid-latitude frontal cyclones, hurricanes, and tornadoes.
Topic 2, Atmospheric chemistry and pollution:
The natural components of the air, sources and sinks; photochemistry; atmospheric lifetimes and transport; the mechanisms of ozone pollution.
Topic 3, Wetlands and the carbon cycle:
Wetland systems and types; carbon cycling processes in a wetland and their role in global cycling.
Topic 4, Cryosphere:
Definition and mass balance; ice on land, underground and in the ocean; ice and humans; ice and climatic changes.
Topic 5, Oceans and climate:
Thermohaline structure of the oceans; properties of seawater; ocean currents; carbon cycling in the ocean; influence of climate change on oceans.
Topic 6, Water quality:
water quality vs. its use; properties of water; categorisation of water; water abstraction; discharge and return of used water; water treatment.
Topic 7, Eutrophication:
Natural and human-induced eutrophication; causes, effects, and mechanisms of eutrophication; managing eutrophication.
Topic 8, Acid rain:
Natural and human-induced sources of atmospheric sulphur and nitrogen; wet and dry-phase of sulphur and nitrogen oxides transformations; mechanism of wet and dry deposition; soil and water acidification; modelling the effects of acid deposition.
Topic 9, Grasslands:
Importance, natural and human-induced influences on grassland distribution, occurrence, spatial and temporal variations; types, structures and dynamics; pressures on grasslands, needs for remedial and conservation.
Topic 10, Tropical forests:
Definition, temporal and spatial distribution; theories on biodiversity; structure (trophic levels, food webs, nutrient cycling); deforestation, fragmentation; reforestation, conservation, sustainable management; gap analysis.
Topic 11, Biological conservation:
relationship between species, habitat and climate; Habitat loss and species extinction; causes of species loss; monitoring, protecting and managing species and habitats.
The course took to two virtual field trips (River Teign in south Devon and Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico) including practical exercises, and involved carrying out an individual "project" on a free topic within the restriction of developing a hypothesis to be tested on the basis of data sets – see description below.
|Grade 3 pass|
|2011||SXR216: Environmental science in the field||Practical course in environmental field work:
The course involved carrying out a group "project" for which it was required to develop a hypothesis on a given topic at a given site and to be tested on the basis of the sampling of data – see description below.
|Grade 3 pass|
Special activities within the courses
Project for U216
The course involved the investigation of a free topic within the topics covered by the course (see description of the course above).
My project was entitled "The impact of the use of pesticides for private gardening on biodiversity".
This study investigated, based of a poll in gardeners/consumers, what the public knows about pesticides and their effect on the environment, and how important they judge the survival of species, with a stress on the microcosmos.
The poll showed that, even gardeners/consumers are mostly well informed on the adverse effects of pesticides on the environment, a large proportion still use them. They behaviour to the conservation of species is mainly influenced by anthropocentric view and often by emotional reactions rather than an encompassing ecological view.
The subsequent discussion based on 7 assumptions made by the poll responders to justify their use of pesticides:
- “Pesticides available in commerce have less damaging effects than the pesticides used in agriculture”/“The products sold in gardening shops are harmless”
- “Controlled use has limited effects”
- “Pesticides on natural basis don’t have the damaging effects of chemical products”
- “There are no or not many alternatives to pesticides”
- “The commerce does not offer alternatives to pesticides”
- “The alternative methods are less efficient than chemicals”
- “Some species can be eradicated without inconvenience”
All those assumptions could be denied on the base of studies by scientists, various documentations and an experience carried out on my balcony. The discussion finally showed that the use of pesticides by private gardeners could already affect biodiversity at an extent that is probably widely underestimated.
This assignment gave birth to the section About Chemicals and their Alternatives of this website in which I intend to extend my research on this topic as well as on Environmentally-Friendly Gardening in general.
Experiments in the frame of T210
1. Water hardness
Topic: In this experience, the hardness of tap water had to be measured with the method of complexometric titration and then, in a discussion, one had to judge if measures had to be taken as far as public health and household equipment are concerned.
Results: Munich's water is knowingly very hard. The experiment confirmed this, showing values that were in the upper level of the range published by Munich' water supplier.
Overall, toxicology studies show that hard water is rather advantageous for health, but it is recognized that there is an ‘optimal’ range of calcium content above which diseases might appear (e.g. calculi) or symptoms be exacerbated (e.g. eczema, goitre). The hardness of Munich’s water is situated well above the ‘optimal’ range. As water hardness and thyroid malfunctions are coexisting factors in the alpine region, the relationship between water hardness and susceptibility to develop or exacerbate symptoms of prevalent diseases, would be an interesting subject for further investigations, while correlations have already been demonstrated in Tibet.
As far as the problems caused by water hardness in a household, one should balance the disadvantages and costs caused by the calcium scales and the costs and environmental problems that can arise from counter-measures like special equipments or chemical products. Commercials might exaggerate the adverse effects of hard water on household equipment to sell a product. Often, simple measures like the chosen temperature for machine operation would help saving equipment as well as energy.
Mark: 27 of 30 points
Topic: The waste of one's own household had to be collected, sorted in categories and weighted for 4 weeks. With the help of statistical calculations and calorific data of different materials, the mean composition of waste and its energy content had to be evaluated in order to suggest a the best management option for one's household waste.
Results: The waste of my household was composed to over 50 % of compostable or recyclable material, the other half being almost equally divided in reused/returned and disposed goods. Incineration of the total incineration would have represented a solution that is simple and slightly more profitable than a recycling scheme. Moreover, an evaluation showed that the production of energy from waste would cover up to one third of the energy needs of my household.
Nevertheless the ‘environmental external costs’ can be deemed as much higher in the case of incineration, since the pollution factors of this technique are considerable. Given the high participation of my household and the high fraction of recyclable goods in our household waste, a maximal recycling scheme seemed to be feasible and sufficiently cost-effective in comparison to a full EfW scheme. Incineration with energy recovery was then suggested for the of the 23% remaining waste, since, despite of the pollution factors, this remaining waste was evaluate to cover to 19% of the households energy needs and would still be a preferable solution to landfilling. Finally, landfilling of the incineration residues was considered as inevitable, but the total waste being landfilled would have finally been reduced to 6.9% of the total household waste. To reduce the impact of landfilling, abatement measures have to be undertaken before the final disposal. Such a solution relies nevertheless on the participation of an informed population to the scheme and providing facilities to ease this participation.
Mark: 52 of 55 points
Topic: The objective of this experience was to compare noise indices (energy-equivalent continuous level, background level/peak levels and comparison of A-weighting and C-weighting) for characterizing unsteady ambient noise levels.
Results: The discussion was based on measurements of ambiant noise on my balcony on a Sunday.
All the three indices used in the experiment gave a base for further investigation but showed weaknesses for the proper prediction of annoyance levels: the amplitude of the noise climate does not inform on how often peak levels appear in comparison to a steady background noise, since L10 is limited to the 10 highest values.
The same applies to Leq, which gives only a kind of average, thus do not inform on fluctuations. The measurements had thus to be corrected with a penalty according to the character of the noise climate to obtain a more authentic image of environmental noise. The amplitude of noise variations and the frequency of the occurrences of noise peaks had to be considered, since studies have shown that they have a considerable stressing impact.
C-weighting is increasingly taken in account in environmental noise assessment, since 2.5% of the population is sensitive to low-frequency noise and the impact of high levels of low-frequencies are unknown. Nevertheless, the comparison of the peak levels only will give us little insight into the exposure of a population to low-frequency noise, as the comparison of the mean values can show a much higher difference between the C- and A-weighting measurements. From a difference of 15 dB, it is advisable to add a penalty of 6 dB to the dB(A) measurements in order to predict the annoyance level.
My report showed that, as it is the case for all statistical studies, statistical noise records have to be taken with care: focus on one piece of data only can lead to overseeing a number of factors. Noise annoyance can be influenced by several factors: environmental factors like the fluctuation of noise transmission according to e.g. atmospheric conditions, but also the character of the noise climate (e.g. amplitude of the noise variations, impulsive noise, etc.), human factors as physical aspects (sensitivity to low-frequency noise, age, prevalent health condition, etc.) and psycho-sociological aspects (noise history of individuals, personal appreciation of what is an pleasant/unpleasant noise and other personal values, relationship with the noise source/producer of the noise, etc.).
Mark: 32 of 40 points
4. Biomonitoring of air quality
Topic: The experiment involved making a record of the lichens of two sites, and to determining what this record suggests about air quality a both sites in comparison to the data published by the local monitoring station.
Results: The survey was carried out in two Dutch national parks (Biesbosch and Hamstede dunes). The study tried to evaluate what are the chances of Dutch natural parks to survive, squeezed between the many country's sources of pollution.
The Biesbosch record showed a high pollution grade (according to the toxicotolerance of the found species) with a pollution mainly by ammonia, probably due to the local industry and the intensive traffic network around it (in connexion with catalytic converters that have partly counterbalanced ammonia abatement measures), while the Hamstede dunes seemed to be more affected by sulphur dioxide – probably due to naval traffic along the coast – though the lichen record showed in this last case some signs of relief.
Many efforts have been made in the Netherlands to abate ammonia and sulphur dioxide emissions, which allowed reaching already considerable reductions. Nevertheless, solutions for reduction of one pollutant can bring a new plague, as it is the case for the catalytic converters fitted on cars, which counterbalanced the ammonia abatement measures. In the highly mobile Dutch society, road traffic remains a major source of concern.
Accordingly, the lichen record of my investigation showed a slight relief, but it still witnesses a high pollution burden with persistent effects of former sources pollution. The lichen biomonitoring of the two investigated sites shows that both sites are stressed, which might be also the cause of the many symptoms of sicknesses I noticed on trees on site (in particular a widely spread fungi epidemics). The future of Dutch natural parks remains precarious.
Efforts to reduce pollutant emissions must be maintained and reinforced. Catalytic converters represent at least in part only a pollution shift, thus the technique cannot be considered as a final solution and must be improved or replaced (e. g. alternative fuels or the reinforcement of public transport facilities).
Mark: 54 of 60 points
Project for U316
The course involved the investigation of a free topic within the topics covered by the course (see description of the course above).
My project was entitled "Organic control of the varroa mite to save the honeybee" and covered all the four main concepts of the course, with a stress on globalisation and sustainability.
The varroa mite is originally an Asiatic bee parasite that has spread worldwide on other bee species. Unlike the Asiatic Bee, the other species have developed no defence mechanisms against varroa. Varroa is certainly one the main factors for the current collapse of bee populations. As a response to the dramatic dimensions of this invasion, stumped beekeepers resort soon to chemicals. I saw in this situation a further field of application of my argumentation as an opponent to the use of pesticides, initiated with the U216 project.
The project was mainly divided in two parts:
- An argumentation against the use of pesticides in beekeeping: lack of efficiency, rapid development of resistance of pests, toxic and sublethal effects in bees, residues in bee products
- An overview of the most promising organic methods against varroa that have been discovered or developed in reaction to the varroa invasion: pseudoscorpions (predators of varroa), smoking with medicinal herbs, inert dusts (especially confectioner sugar), bottom screens (especially the tube screens), and fungi that are pathological to varroa (Hirsutella thompsonii and Metarhizium anisopliae).
The current bee extinction phenomenon is reputed as multifactorial. Acaricides add to the current plight and generally to the introduction of pollutants into the environment.
The use of acaricides moreover jeopardizes the reputation of beekeeping as a handicraft and honey as a natural product. Even if there are official tolerances of pesticides residues in honey, the presence of pesticides does not meet the expectations of honey consumers nor the quality standards for its use in the pharmaceutical and cosmetic industries.
Beekeepers are not yet submitted to strict laws and Good Manufacturing Practices since methods depend on bee races and local circumstances. It is thus in the hands of beekeepers to rule out methods that may be detrimental to both bees, their main resource, and the image of their activity.
Alternative methods found during my researches were rather promising, but typically found little echo and few were subject to further investigation and development, leaving their inventors in frustrated isolation. The varroa problem is a phenomena that found its origin in globalisation - the intensified bee trade by beekeepers in order to raise 'gentle' and productive hybrid races contributed largely to the rapid spreading of varroa worldwide - but would also be better controlled with the possibilities offered by globalisation, that is:
- Networking in order to promote exchange of knowledge and experiences, early opportunity recognition and exploitation, intensification of research & development, as well as intensified field experimentations,
- International laws or standards to control sanitary conditions in bee trade and beekeeping for the prevention of epidemics.
The topic of the current bee population collapse, including problems linked with the use of pesticides in beekeeping, is further developed in my more encompassing study on the beekeeping crisis in Europe.
Project for S216
The course involved the investigation of a free topic within the restriction of developing a hypothesis on an environmental to be tested on the basis of data sets.
Topic: My investigation tested the hypothesis that ski pistes cause the retreat of the endemic Alpine flora that is replaced by a less rich community of plant with higher nutrient requirements.
Ski tourism is being extensively developed in the Alps, while, due to climate warming, the snow cover during ski season and the ski season length shrink, the Alps being one of the regions of the world most affected by climate warming. As a response, the developers of ski tourism aim to open new ski areas and make increasingly use of artificial snow to maintain the existing pistes. There are concerns that the endemic flora may be affected by ski tourism due to a number of factors: Compaction due to the passing of skiers and piste preparation machines affect the underlying vegetation in which it is less protected from frost, suffers of anoxic conditions, and emerges later in the spring due to slower melting rate. With its very compact structure, artificial snow may enhance this effect. Moreover, because dung mixed with seeds is sometimes spread in spring over areas damaged by skiing and due to rotting plant material under the snow cover, the soil's nutrient contents may change, and stronger competitors with higher nutrient requirements may displace Alpine endemic species that are specialized on poor soils.
Method: Records were made on two sites: Forsthofalm in Leogang-Hütten, Austria, and Alpspitz near Garmisch-Partenkirchen in Bavaria with 1 m2 quadrats (8 quadrats respectively on and outside a ski piste for each site). The quadrat is divided in subquadrats of 20 cm2; the number of quadrats in which a plant species appears is recorded as an occurrence. The presence in 1 subquadrat accounts then for a coverage of 4% of the total quadrat. For simplification, grass species were ignored and only flowering plants bearing flowers at the respective season and altitude were taken into account, as it may be difficult to identify plants without flowers, while, on the other side, this allows determining 'true' communities of flowering plants in the sense that these plants emerge at the same time.
The results were then analysed statistically to check their significance. The statistics performed on the recorded data analysed the plant diversity and the nutrient requirements of the recorded plants on and outside ski pistes. The nutrient requirement for each species was determined on the basis of the information provided in the BIB database. The statistical data where evaluated to test the null hypothesis ("There is no difference in biodiversity or nutrient requirements for the plants found on ski pistes and outside ski pistes") with the help of SigmaPlot 11.0, using the Mann-Whitney U test.
Results: The statistical evaluation supported, at least for the Garmisch-Partenkirchen site, the hypothesis that typical Alpine flora withdraw from areas used as ski pistes, their replacement by plants that are characterized with higher nutrient requirements and, globally, a biodiversity reduction, but not at Leogang-Hütten. Nevertheless, a considerable representation of nitrate indicators on the Leogang-Hütten site and considerable differences in community diversity between the quadrats on and outside ski pistes at both sites would still back up this part of the theory. The contrast between the two sites may be due to their situations, as vegetation at Garmisch-Partenkirchen, in an unmanaged area above the tree line, due the specific and harsher conditions, may be more sensitive than a deflected climax community under the tree line at Leogang-Hütten.
The extending ski business combined with climate change causing tree line progression to higher altitudes may reduce synergetically potential niches for the most sensitive Alpine flora. If the application of Garmisch-Pattenkirchen for the 2018 Olympic Games is successful, high affluence and the necessity of increased use of artificial snow to ensure a sufficient ski area, while the temptation to use again snow hardeners (currently forbidden in Bavaria as they contain ions that are nutrients to plant) may be great in order to ensure a sufficient snow cover independently of the prevailing temperatures, will represent a supplementary burden for the endemic vegetation.
Project for SRX216
The course involved carrying out a group project for which it was required to develop a hypothesis on a given topic at a given site and to be tested on the basis of the sampling of data.
Topic: The investigation of my group was to develop a hypothesis on the reasons for difference in vegetation a the “Ha Mire” on each of the two different features that it presents: a flat, inundated area and a small elevation forming a drier area.
Hypothesis: On the base of observations on site and a study of the surrounding geology, the mire was interpreted as peaty wetland resulting from paludification and the mound as a drumlin. As peat is normally an acidic soil, it could be expected, that, beside of the moisture levels, a difference in soil pH would influence the type of supported community. A preliminary survey on the base of Ellenberg’s indicator values confirmed moisture and acidity as possible factors for this difference. The hypothesis was therefore formulated as: There is a significant difference in soil pH and moisture between the mire and the drumlin.
Method: Soil sample were then collected to test the two following null hypotheses: 1) There is no significant difference in soil pH between the mire and the drumlin; 2) There is no significant difference in soil moisture between the mire and the drumlin. The pH was measured in lab with a pH meter, the moisture content desiccating the samples in a dry oven. To gain further insight, a plant community survey was performed according to the NVC methodology. Results: The difference in moisture resulted as significant as expected, while the difference in pH revealed as not significant against expectations, with the samples showing approximately the same range of slight acidity only for each site.
Conclusions: The wider environment of the site was then taken into account to explain the overlap of the pH measurements of both sites: As the mire is situated at the feet of a carboniferous limestone cliff and surrounded by glacial drift probably scoured from the surrounding limestone formations, water entering the mire might load it-self with calcium while leaching through these formations, which would neutralise the acidity of the peat. The description of the habitat of the mire’s plant community confirms drainage from calcareous rocks a component of the community’s habitat. An analysis of the mire’s water and a survey of the ground’s hydrology of the site would be needed to verify this new hypothesis.