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Complete Archive (organized by chapter)
New World View
Climate Change
Life and Climate
Losing Biodiversity
Energy Flow
Ecosystem Change
Population Growth
Energy Use
A Changing Cosmos
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Latest News and Updates

2016-08-19. How Garbage Trucks Can Drive a Green Future.

posted Aug 19, 2016, 1:01 PM by Alan Gould   [ updated Aug 19, 2016, 1:02 PM ]

By ROBERT B. CATELL and JOANNA D. UNDERWOOD, The New York Times. For GSS Energy Use chapter 9. Excerpt: ...In the wake of last year’s Paris climate agreement, the mayor [Bill de Blasio] announced plans to cut emissions from activities controlled by the city government by 80 percent by 2050. ...[including] cutting emissions from the city’s vehicle fleets by 50 percent by 2025, and by 80 percent by 2035. Halving emissions in less than a decade requires immediate, concerted action. ...renewable natural gas... is nearly identical to geologic natural gas, so trucks and buses equipped with natural gas engines can also run on renewable natural gas. But it’s not a fossil fuel like shale gas; it’s a renewable, made from biogases emitted by decomposing organic waste, like wastewater or food waste.... ...where food wastes are a major source, as they are in New York City, renewable natural gas can be carbon-free or even net carbon-negative over its life cycle. ...Cities like Sacramento; South San Francisco, Calif.; and Grand Junction, Colo., are producing renewable natural gas from local waste sources and using it to power refuse trucks and other municipal vehicles. In Southern California, Orange County, Long Beach, Culver City and Santa Monica have committed to using the fuel in their transit buses. Santa Monica has also ordered 100 “near zero” natural gas engines for its bus fleet.  ...production of the gas using anaerobic digesters is ramping up....

2016-08-19. Reeling From Effects of Climate Change, Alaskan Village Votes to Relocate.

posted Aug 19, 2016, 12:56 PM by Alan Gould

By Christopher Mele and Daniel Victor, The New York Times. For GSS Climate Change chapter 8. Excerpt: Residents of a small Alaskan village voted this week to relocate their entire community from a barrier island that has been steadily disappearing because of erosion and flooding attributed to climate change. ...Shishmaref is not alone in facing a move because of the effects of climate change. In January, the federal government allocated $48 million to relocate Isle de Jean Charles, La., an island that is sinking into the sea. The effort earned the residents the title of the United States’ first “climate refugees.” As many as 200 million people could be displaced by 2050 because of climate change, according to a study for the British government. In Alaska, 31 villages face “imminent threat of destruction” from erosion and flooding, according to the Arctic Institute, a nonprofit group in Washington that studies issues affecting the Arctic....

2016-08-18. A Danish Wind Turbine Maker Harnesses Data in a Push to Stay Ahead.

posted Aug 19, 2016, 12:55 PM by Alan Gould

By Stanley Reed, The New York Times. For GSS Energy Use chapter 10. Excerpt: AARHUS, Denmark — A project to install hundreds of wind turbines in the Fosen peninsula area of Norway at one point was shelved as unfeasible. The strong breezes that whip off the sea can shift and swing unpredictably, while the soaring cliffs and steep drop-offs create turbulence that wears out expensive equipment. The venture was rescued with a lot of help from the mathematical calculations of Vestas Wind Systems, a Danish wind power company. ...Producing wind power is also getting cheaper. In some parts of the world, like India, setting up a wind farm to power a factory or a town nearby can even be more practical than conventional methods like building a natural gas pipeline. It is competitive with fossil fuels even in oil-rich places like the Texas Panhandle in the United States, the company’s largest market. Under favorable circumstances, Mr. Vos pegs Panhandle wind costs at about $29 a megawatt-hour, a wholesale measurement, over the life of a project, compared with $33 a megawatt-hour for a new gas-fired plant in the United States. ...Vestas has been refining mathematical techniques to predict the speed, variability and other characteristics of wind for more than a decade. ...

2016-08-17. From Fins Into Hands: Scientists Discover a Deep Evolutionary Link.

posted Aug 19, 2016, 12:51 PM by Alan Gould

By Carl Zimmer, The New York Times. For GSS Losing Biodiversity chapter 3. Excerpt: To help his readers fathom evolution, Charles Darwin asked them to consider their own hands. “What can be more curious,” he asked, “than that the hand of a man, formed for grasping, that of a mole for digging, the leg of the horse, the paddle of the porpoise, and the wing of the bat, should all be constructed on the same pattern, and should include similar bones, in the same relative positions?” Darwin had a straightforward explanation: People, moles, horses, porpoises and bats all shared a common ancestor that grew limbs with digits. ...On Wednesday, a team of researchers at the University of Chicago reported that our hands share a deep evolutionary connection not only to bat wings or horse hooves, but also to fish fins. ...The fossil record shows that we share a common aquatic ancestor with ray-finned fish that lived some 430 million years ago. Four-limbed creatures with spines — known as tetrapods — had evolved by 360 million years ago and went on to colonize dry land. ...For over two decades, Neil H. Shubin, an evolutionary biologist, has investigated this transition in two radically different ways. ...In 1996, a team of French researchers studying mice discovered genes that are essential for the development of their legs. When the scientists shut down two genes, called Hoxa-13 and Hoxd-13, the mice developed normal long bones in their legs. But their wrist and ankle bones failed to appear, and they did not grow any digits. This discovery suggested that Hoxa-13 and Hoxd-13 genes tell certain cells in the tetrapod limb bud that they will develop into hands and feet. Dr. Shubin knew that fish have genes related to Hoxa-13 and Hoxd-13. He wondered what those genes were doing, if anything, in developing fins. An experiment on fish might give him and his colleagues a clue. “But we didn’t have the means to do it until technology caught up with our aspirations,” Dr. Shubin said. ...thanks to a new gene-editing technology called Crispr. Scientists can use it to readily alter genes in virtually any species. ...Andrew R. Gehrke, a graduate student... engineered zebrafish so that he could follow individual cells during the development of embryos. ...cells that switched on the Hox genes started to glow. They kept glowing throughout development, until they reached their final location in the fish’s body. ...When the fins were fully developed, ...the fin rays were glowing. In a similar experiment on mice, the digits and wrist bones lit up. “Here we’re finding that the digits and the fin rays have some sort of equivalence at the level of the cells that make them,” Dr. Shubin said....

2016-08-17. Coal Burning Causes the Most Air Pollution Deaths in China, Study Finds.

posted Aug 19, 2016, 12:42 PM by Alan Gould

By Edward Wong, The New York Times. For GSS Energy Use chapter 4. Excerpt: BEIJING — Burning coal has the worst health impact of any source of air pollution in China and caused 366,000 premature deaths in 2013, Chinese and American researchers said on Thursday. Coal is responsible for about 40 percent of the deadly fine particulate matter known as PM 2.5 in China’s atmosphere, according to a study the researchers released in Beijing. ...The study attributed 155,000 deaths in 2013 related to ambient PM 2.5 to industrial coal burning, and 86,500 deaths to coal burning at power plants. Fuel combustion of both coal and biomass in households was another major cause of disease that year, resulting in 177,000 deaths, the study concluded. The researchers also found that transportation was a major cause of mortality related to PM 2.5, with 137,000 deaths attributed to it in 2013. In recent years, Chinese scientists have said that motor vehicle emissions are a leading source of air pollution in cities, although not as great as coal burning. Vehicle ownership is rising fast in China, and officials, carmakers, and oil and gas companies have quarreled over setting emissions standards. China consumes almost as much coal annually as all other countries combined, and coal burning in the country is the biggest source of both air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, the leading cause of climate change....

2016-08-17. Six Things Dwarf Planets Have Taught Us About the Solar System.

posted Aug 19, 2016, 12:14 PM by Alan Gould

By By Earth & Space News EoS (AGU). For GSS A Changing Cosmos chapter 7. Excerpt: 1. Dwarf Planets Are as Complex as Regular Planets. ...2. Dwarf Planets Reveal Neptune’s Orbital Origins. ...3. Dwarf Planets Give Us a Peek into the Early Solar System. ...4. Dwarf Planet Candidates Helped Scientists “Find” Planet 9. ...5. Ceres (We Hope) Will Help Us Understand Icy Ocean Moons. ...6. Dwarf Planets Are Prolific....

2016-08-16. Melting glaciers portend variety of catastrophes.

posted Aug 19, 2016, 12:08 PM by Alan Gould

By Associated Press. For GSS Climate Change chapter 8. Excerpt: PASTORURI GLACIER, Peru — The tropical glaciers of South America are dying from soot and rising temperatures, threatening water supplies to communities that have depended on them for centuries. But experts say that the slow process measured in inches of glacial retreat per year also can lead to a sudden, dramatic tragedy. The melting of glaciers like Peru’s Pastoruri has put cities such as Huaraz, located downslope from the glacier about 35 miles away, at risk from what scientists call a “glof” — glacial lake outburst flood. A glof occurs when the weak walls of a mountain valley collapse under the weight of meltwater from a glacier. Recent examples include the rapid draining in 2013 of a lake at Chile’s Ventisquero glacier in the Bernardo O’Higgins National Park, six years after another, nearby lake essentially disappeared there. ...“As glaciers disappear around the world, there is less water available for use for hydroelectric power, as a renewable resource for agriculture, for human consumption,” said Benjamin Orlove, a professor of international and public affairs at Colombia University in New York. “The glacier retreat also brings many disasters. Entire slopes are destabilized, creating landslides that travel many miles and have destroyed entire towns.”....

2016-08-15. Giant Coral Reef in Protected Area Shows New Signs of Life.

posted Aug 19, 2016, 12:06 PM by Alan Gould

By Karen Weintraub, The New York Times. For GSS Losing Biodiversity chapter 7. Excerpt: On the floor of a remote island lagoon halfway between Hawaii and Fiji, the giant reef site had been devastated by unusually warm water. Its remains looked like a pile of drab dinner plates tossed into the sea. Research dives in 2009 and 2012 had shown little improvement in the coral colonies. Then in 2015, a team of marine biologists was stunned and overjoyed to find Coral Castles, genus Acropora, once again teeming with life. But the rebound came with a big question: Could the enormous and presumably still fragile coral survive what would be the hottest year on record? This month, the Massachusetts-based research team finished a new exploration of the reefs in the secluded Phoenix Islands, a tiny Pacific archipelago, and were thrilled by what they saw. ...they were greeted with a vista of bright greens and purples — unmistakable signs of life....

2016-08-11. Does Water Vapor from Volcanic Eruptions Cause Climate Warming?

posted Aug 19, 2016, 12:02 PM by Alan Gould

By Alexandra Branscombe, Earth & Space News EoS (AGU). For GSS Climate Change chapter 7. Excerpt: ...A longstanding question involves whether gases emitted by volcanoes help trap energy on a global scale. Specifically, water vapor—which traps more radiation in the atmosphere than any other gas, alone accounting for half of the greenhouse gas effect—is of great interest to scientists studying volcanoes and global climate change. In theory, the force of eruptions could inject water vapor into the stratosphere, where the water vapor could reside for months and cause significant warming.  ...Sioris et al. took measurements from the 2015 eruption of the Calbuco volcano in Chile to see how much vapor a moderate-sized volcanic eruption would spew into the stratosphere. The researchers used the Aura satellite to take samples of the water vapor in the volcanic plume following the eruption. This is the first time that satellite observations have been used to determine the total amount of water vapor injected into the stratosphere by a volcanic eruption, giving researchers a more representative data reading than in situ observations used in an earlier study. The satellite data revealed that the ratio of water vapor to dry air reached 14 parts per million by volume in the stratosphere days after the eruption. The researchers found that this significant vapor enhancement from Calbuco, as had been observed following Mount St. Helens, persisted for only a few days in the stratosphere. Using the data in this study and the measurements of other eruptions, the authors confirm that moderate-sized volcanic eruptions do not deliver enough water vapor to the stratosphere on timescales long enough to consistently contribute to the greenhouse effect. (Geophysical Research Letters, doi:10.1002/2016GL069918, 2016)...

2016-08-07. Martians Might Be Real. That makes Mars exploration way more complicated.

posted Aug 19, 2016, 11:55 AM by Alan Gould

By Kevin Carey, WIRED. For GSS A Changing Cosmos chapter 8. Excerpt: History will note that the guy who discovered liquid water on Mars was an undergraduate at the University of Arizona, a 20-year-old who played guitar in a death-metal band and worked in a planetary science lab. ...he noticed something odd: a set of dark streaks in the soil that grew in the Martian summer and shrank in the winter. They seemed to flow down the crater’s slope, like a spill. September of 2015, [NASA] called a big press conference. It confirmed ... That was water in that crater. ...About a month after the press conference, a NASA administrator named Cassie Conley was sitting in her office, staring into her computer screen at a crudely designed website called UFO Sightings Daily. ...The item that Conley had come looking for was a photograph taken by the Curiosity rover and annotated by the website’s author. ...that streak in the soil descending from a crook between two rocks? The guy had labeled it “water.” And it really did look like water. ...It’s looking more and more likely that Mars might already be inhabited—by Martians. Very tiny ones. ...Conley’s full-time job at NASA is to make sure that we don’t royally screw up our first encounter with aliens, however small. Her official title is US planetary protection officer. She’s a kind of interplanetary sheriff, whose main duty is to police the comings and goings of the tiniest Earthlings: microorganisms, which as it turns out are extraordinarily good at hitching rides on spacecraft.  ...Conley’s office serves to prevent NASA from doing to Martians what European explorers did to Native Americans with smallpox.  ...And the third main rationale for Conley’s office is, well, mildly apocalyptic...guarding this planet against potentially virulent alien life. ...when Conley picked up the phone after her visit to UFO Sightings Daily, it wasn’t to spur Curiosity’s team on toward that possible water. It was to keep the rover away from it. ...Because it’s impossible to eliminate all of the microbes from a Mars rover, even the most stringent decontamination protocols are defined in ratios and probabilities. The most Conley can do is make sure there are no more than 0.03 microbes per square meter of spacecraft surface area. That was the standard applied to the Viking mission in 1976.  ...Conley’s job is, by nature, a pretty lonely one. She’s a microbiologist in an agency dominated by physicists and engineers, a woman in a field dominated by men, and a sheriff (someone even gave her a joke badge) who stands a head shorter than many of her colleagues.  ...The curiosity rover wasn’t supposed to be high on Conley’s list of worries. NASA had deliberately sent it to Gale Crater, thought to be among the least likely places to harbor life, because the rover was largely built for geological research. She’d helped pick the landing site herself. When Curiosity left Earth in 2011, it was subjected to milder decontamination controls: It was allowed 300 organisms per square meter. Now, trundling around a possibly somewhat damp Gale Crater millions of miles away, Curiosity was very likely infested with tens of thousands of hardy Earth microbes that had survived the violent blastoff and months-long journey through the harsh vacuum of space. All they needed to reanimate and reproduce was the right combination of food, water, and heat. ...Mars 2020, which will land another robot rover much like Curiosity ... will be designed to search for signs of ancient microbial life on Mars and—even more ambitiously—to collect soil samples that can be retrieved by another spacecraft and sent back to Earth. ...observers inside and outside of NASA say they’re in a heated battle with the Office of Planetary Protection over where they can land and what measures they need to take to sterilize their craft before it leaves for Mars....

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