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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

2014-09-11. Changing how we farm can save evolutionary diversity, study suggests.

posted Sep 19, 2014, 10:11 AM by Alan Gould

For GSS Losing Biodiversity chapter 3. Excerpt: A new study by biologists at Stanford University and UC Berkeley highlights the dramatic hit on the evolutionary diversity of wildlife when forests are transformed into agricultural lands. ...The researchers studied nearly 500 species of birds in Costa Rica in three types of habitat, and calculated the birds’ phylogenetic diversity, a measure of the evolutionary history embodied in wildlife. ...The study, to be published in the Sept. 12 issue of the journal Science, found that the phylogenetic diversity of the birds fared worst in habitats characterized by intensive farmlands consisting of single crops. Such intensive monocultures supported 900 million fewer years of evolutionary history, on average, compared with untouched forest reserves. The researchers found a middle ground in diversified agriculture, or farmlands with multiple crops adjoined by small patches of forest. Such landscapes supported on average 600 million more years of evolutionary history than the single crop farms. “The loss of habitat to agriculture is the primary driver of diversity loss globally, but we hadn’t known until now how agriculture affected diversity in an evolutionary context,” said study co-lead author Daniel Karp, UC Berkeley postdoctoral research fellow in environmental science, policy and management. “We found that forests outperform agriculture when it comes to supporting a larger range of species that are more distantly related, so by maintaining patches of tropical trees and multiple crops on their land, farmers can enhance evolutionarily distinct species.”... By Sarah Yang, UC Berkeley News Center.

2014-09-13. Sun and Wind Alter Global Landscape, Leaving Utilities Behind.

posted Sep 19, 2014, 10:04 AM by Alan Gould

For GSS Energy Use chapter 10. Excerpt: ...Of all the developed nations, few have pushed harder than Germany to find a solution to global warming. ...wind turbines, standing as far as 60 miles from the mainland, stretching as high as 60-story buildings and costing up to $30 million apiece. On some of these giant machines, a single blade roughly equals the wingspan of the largest airliner in the sky, the Airbus A380. By year’s end, scores of new turbines will be sending low-emission electricity to German cities hundreds of miles to the south. ...Germans will soon be getting 30 percent of their power from renewable energy sources.  ...The word the Germans use for their plan is starting to make its way into conversations elsewhere: energiewende, the energy transition. ...“I am convinced that wind and sun will be the central sources of energy, not only in Germany but worldwide,” said Patrick Graichen, who heads a think tank in Berlin, Agora Energiewende, devoted to studying the shift.  ...One recent day, under a brilliant California sun, ...Lennar Corporation was putting solar panels on every house it built. The prices of the panels have plunged 70 percent in the past five years. That huge decline means solar power is starting to make more economic sense, especially in parts of the United States with high electricity prices. ...The decline in the cost of renewable power spells potential trouble for companies that generate electricity. They make a lot of their money at times of day when demand for power, and therefore power prices, are high. Solar power, even a small amount, could be especially disruptive, shaving wholesale prices during those peak periods. ...some utilities, fearful of losing out as the power mix changes, have started attacking rules that encourage solar panels. Others are taking the opposite tack, jumping into the solar market themselves. ...In Germany, where solar panels supply 7 percent of power and wind turbines about 10 percent, wholesale power prices have crashed during what were once the most profitable times of day.... By Justin Gillis, The New York Times.

2014-09-14. In Vermont, a milestone in green-energy efforts.

posted Sep 19, 2014, 9:54 AM by Alan Gould

For GSS Energy Use chapter 10. Excerpt: BURLINGTON, Vt. — Vermont’s largest city has a new success to add to its list of socially conscious achievements: 100 percent of its electricity now comes from renewable sources such as wind, water and biomass. With little fanfare, the Burlington Electric Department crossed the threshold this month with the purchase of the 7.4-megawatt Winooski 1 hydroelectric project on the Winooski River at the city’s edge. When it did, Burlington joined the Washington Electric Co-operative, which has about 11,000 customers across central and northern Vermont, which reached 100 percent earlier this year. “It shows that we’re able to do it, and we’re able to do it cost effectively in a way that makes Vermonters really positioned well for the future,” said Christopher Recchia, the commissioner of the Vermont Department of Public Service. It’s part of a broader movement that includes a statewide goal of getting 90 percent of Vermont’s energy from renewable resources by 2050, including electricity, heating and transportation.  ...It’s also a growing movement across the country, as governments and businesses seek to liberate themselves from using power produced by environmentally harmful fossil fuels. ...Greensburg, Kansas, almost wiped out by a 2007 tornado, rebuilt with energy efficiency in mind. A 12.5-megawatt wind farm went online in 2009, producing electricity in excess of that consumed by the community of 850, said Administrator Ed Truelove.... Associated Press, The Washington Post.

2014-09-09. Biologists try to dig endangered pupfish out of its hole.

posted Sep 11, 2014, 6:56 AM by Alan Gould

For GSS Losing Biodiversity chapter 7. Excerpt: Scientists estimate that fewer than 100 Devils Hole pupfish remain in their Mojave Desert home, but a conservation biologist at the University of California, Berkeley, is giving important guidance in the efforts to rescue them by establishing a captive breeding program. Considered the world’s rarest fish, with one of the smallest geographic ranges of any wild vertebrate, the tiny pupfish (Cyprinodon diabolis) – about one-inch long as an adult – neared extinction in spring 2013 when populations dropped to an all-time low of 35 observable pupfish. ...the species is considered critically endangered. ...The pupfish is found only in a limestone cavern in the Devils Hole geothermal pool, about 60 miles east of Death Valley National Park. ...The oxygen-poor water in Devils Hole stays a toasty 92-93 degrees Fahrenheit, around the upper limits of temperature tolerated by most fish. A study published last month found that climate change is contributing to the warming of the water in Devils Hole, negatively affecting the ability of eggs to hatch and larvae to survive. Pupfish populations also may have declined due to reductions in food supply and genetic diversity.... By Sarah Yang, UC Berkeley News Center.

2014-09-05. A Whale of a Recovery for California’s Blue Whales.

posted Sep 11, 2014, 6:49 AM by Alan Gould

For GSS Losing Biodiversity chapter 7. Excerpt: The blue whale, the biggest animal on the planet, was hunted with abandon in the Pacific Ocean until the early 1970s. The species has been rebounding ever since,  ...Scientists at the University of Washington (Cole C. Monnahan, Trevor A. Branch and André E. Punt) have just published research finding that the West Coast blue whale population of around 2,200 individuals appears to be approaching its pre-slaughter size, with the slowing growth a function of the carrying capacity of the marine ecosystem. Collisions with ships remain a problem, the scientists write, but should not affect the whales’ prospects.... By Andrew C. Revkin, The New York Times.

2014-09-09. CO2 levels in atmosphere rising at dramatically faster rate, U.N. report warns.

posted Sep 9, 2014, 10:36 AM by Alan Gould

For GSS Climate Change chapter 6. Excerpt: ...Concentrations of nearly all the major greenhouse gases reached historic highs in 2013, reflecting ...a diminishing ability of the world’s oceans and plant life to soak up the excess carbon put into the atmosphere by humans, according to data released early Tuesday by the United Nations’ meteorological advisory body. The latest figures from the World Meteorological Organization’s monitoring network are considered particularly significant because they reflect not only the amount of carbon pumped into the air by humans, but also the complex interaction between man-made gases and the natural world. Historically, about half of the pollution from human sources has been absorbed by the oceans and by terrestrial plants, preventing temperatures from rising as quickly as they otherwise would, scientists say. “If the oceans and the biosphere cannot absorb as much carbon, the effect on the atmosphere could be much worse,” said Oksana Tarasova, a scientist and chief of the WMO’s Global Atmospheric Watch program, which collects data from 125 monitoring stations worldwide.  ...Global concentrations of methane — a byproduct of farming and fossil-fuel extraction, as well as numerous natural processes — are now 2.5 times as high as they were at the start of the industrial age, in the mid-18th century, the report said. The organization’s annual report included, for the first time, figures on the increasing acidification of the oceans stemming from higher levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. ...the rate of acidification is now “unprecedented, at least over the past 300,000 years,” the WMO said. ...In an indirect way, the acidification of seawater also exacerbates climate change: The oceans over time become less capable of absorbing carbon from the air, allowing more of the greenhouse gas to accumulate in the atmosphere, the report said.... By Joby Warrick, Washington Post.

2014-09-08. Scientists Find Evidence of ‘Diving’ Tectonic Plates on Jupiter’s Moon Europa.

posted Sep 9, 2014, 2:14 AM by Alan Gould

For GSS A Changing Cosmos chapter 7. Excerpt: Scientists have found evidence of plate tectonics on Jupiter’s moon Europa. This indicates the first sign of this type of surface-shifting geological activity on a world other than Earth. ...While examining Europa images taken by NASA’s Galileo orbiter in the early 2000s, planetary geologists Simon Kattenhorn, of the University of Idaho, Moscow, and Louise Prockter, of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, discovered some unusual geological boundaries. ...When Kattenhorn and Prockter rearranged the icy terrain in the images, they discovered about 7,700 square miles (about 20,000 square kilometers) of the surface were missing in the moon’s high northern latitudes. Further evidence suggested the missing terrain moved under a second surface plate -- a scenario commonly seen on Earth at plate-tectonic boundaries. Kattenhorn and Prockter saw ice volcanoes on the overriding plate, possibly formed through melting and absorption of the slab as it dove below the surface, and a lack of mountains at the subduction zone, implying material was pushed into the interior rather than crumpled up as the two plates mashed against each other. The scientists believe the subducted area was absorbed into Europa's ice shell, which may be up to 20 miles (about 30 kilometers) thick, rather than breaking through it into Europa's underlying ocean.  ...Previous scientific findings point to the existence of a liquid water ocean located under the moon’s icy crust. This ocean covers Europa entirely and contains more liquid water than all of Earth's oceans combined. ...For more information about Europa and images of the plate tectonics, visit: Information is available online about the Galileo Mission at: .... By NASA RELEASE 14-241.

2014-09-08. Climate Change Will Disrupt Half of North America’s Bird Species, Study Says.

posted Sep 9, 2014, 1:45 AM by Alan Gould

For GSS Climate Change chapter 8 and Losing Biodiversity chapter 6. Excerpt: The Baltimore oriole will probably no longer live in Maryland, the common loon might leave Minnesota, and the trumpeter swan could be entirely gone. Those are some of the grim prospects outlined in a report released on Monday by the National Audubon Society, which found that climate change is likely to so alter the bird population of North America that about half of the approximately 650 species will be driven to smaller spaces or forced to find new places to live, feed and breed over the next 65 years. If they do not — and for several dozen it will be very difficult — they could become extinct. The four Audubon Society scientists who wrote the report projected in it that 21.4 percent of existing bird species studied will lose “more than half of the current climactic range by 2050 without the potential to make up losses by moving to other areas.” An additional 32 percent will be in the same predicament by 2080, they said. Among the most threatened species are the three-toed woodpecker, the northern hawk owl, the northern gannet, Baird’s sparrow, the rufous hummingbird and the trumpeter swan, the report said. They are among the 30 species that, by 2050, will no longer be able to live and breed in more than 90 percent of their current territory. ...“Common sense will tell you that with these kinds of findings, it’s hard to believe we won’t lose some species to extinction,” said David Yarnold, the president of the National Audubon Society. “How many? We honestly don’t know. We don’t know which ones are going to prove heroically resilient.” ...Drought in Southern California is blamed for a sharp drop in breeding among California raptors, perhaps because a lack of water is killing the insects and small rodents they feed on.... By Felicity Barringer. The New York Times.

2014-09-01. Research Aimed at the Heart of the Sun.

posted Sep 5, 2014, 9:07 PM by Alan Gould

 For GSS A Changing Cosmos chapter 3. Excerpt: With the aid of a powerful instrument, researchers have detected subatomic particles produced by fusion reactions at the very core of the sun. The particles are neutrinos, and the ones detected in this study are low in energy but abundant in number, said Andrea P. Pocar, a physicist at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. The neutrinos are formed by a fusion reaction between two protons at the core of the sun; they travel to Earth in just eight minutes.... “Previous experiments had measured neutrinos from the sun, but those neutrinos are present in very low numbers,” Dr. Pocar said. “These make up about 90 percent of the total neutrinos from the sun.” Dr. Pocar and his colleagues, a group of more than 90 physicists from around the world, published their findings in the current issue of the journal Nature. They relied on the Borexino detector, an instrument located deep beneath Italy’s Apennine Mountains that is sensitive enough to detect the low-energy particles.... By Sindya N. Bhanoo, The New York Times.

2014-09-03. The Laniakea supercluster of galaxies.

posted Sep 5, 2014, 8:59 PM by Alan Gould

For GSS A Changing Cosmos chapter 9. Abstract excerpt: Galaxies congregate in clusters and along filaments, and are missing from large regions referred to as voids. These structures are seen in maps derived from spectroscopic surveys that reveal networks of structure that are interconnected with no clear boundaries. Extended regions with a high concentration of galaxies are called ‘superclusters’, although this term is not precise. ...We define a supercluster to be the volume within such a surface, and so we are defining the extent of our home supercluster, which we call Laniakea.... By  R. Brent Tully et al, Nature 513. See also article in Huffington Post -

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