Science & Technology
12 Sep 2016:
Dolphins Speak in Ways Similar
To Human Conversation, Finds New Study
Dolphins communicate in a way very similar to how humans talk, saying up to five complex “words” in a sentence and pausing to listen to each other before speaking, according to a new study
. Researchers at the T. I. Vyazemsky Karadag Scientific Station in Russia observed the conversation
in two Black Sea bottlenose dolphins, known as Yasha and Yana. “The dolphins took turns producing pulse packs [words and phrases] and did not interrupt each other, which gives reason to believe that each of the dolphins listened to the other's pulses before producing its own,” the scientists wrote in the study. “This language exhibits all the design features present in human spoken language, [indicating] a high level of intelligence and consciousness in dolphins.”
01 Sep 2016:
Newly Discovered Fossils Break
Record, Dating Back 3.7 Billion Years Ago
Geologists have found fossils in Greenland dating back 3.7 billion years — the oldest evidence of life on earth discovered to date. The layers of stromatolites, which are made up of fossilized microbes,
3.7 billion-year-old fossils found in Greenland.
were found in the world’s oldest sedimentary rocks, the Isua supracrustal belt along the edge of the Greenland ice cap. They predate the previous fossil record holder by roughly 220 million years, according to Allen Nutman
, a geologist at the University of Wollongong in Australia and lead author of the new findings, published in the journal Nature
this week. The fossils “indicate that as long as 3.7 billion years ago, microbial life was already diverse,” said Nutman. “This diversity shows that life emerged within the first few hundred millions years of Earth’s existence, which is in keeping with biologists’ calculations showing the great antiquity of life’s genetic code.”
Interview: Exploring How and
Why Trees ‘Talk’ to Each Other
Two decades ago, while researching her doctoral thesis, ecologist Suzanne Simard discovered that trees communicate their needs and send each other nutrients via a network of latticed fungi buried in the soil
– in other words, she found, they “talk” to each other. Since then, Simard, now at the University of British Columbia, has pioneered further research into how trees converse, including how these fungal filigrees help trees send warning signals about environmental change, search for kin, and transfer their nutrients to neighboring plants before they die. Simard is now focused on understanding how these vital communication systems, which she compares to neural networks in human brains, could be disrupted by environmental threats, such as climate change, pine beetle infestations, and logging. “These networks will go on,” she told Yale Environment 360
. “Whether they're beneficial to native plant species, or exotics, or invader weeds and so on, that remains to be seen.” Read the interview.
26 Aug 2016:
Ragweed Allergies Could Double
In Europe as Global Temperatures Rise
The number of people suffering from ragweed allergies in Europe could more than double by mid-century due to climate change, according to a new study published in the journal
Environmental Health Prospectives
Ragweed (Ambrosia artemisiifolia)
. Warming global temperatures, the research found, will help increase the distribution of ragweed (Ambrosia artemisiifolia
) by making more areas of the continent suitable for its growth. Higher temperatures will also make growing seasons longer and increase pollen concentration in the air. Ragweed allergies, popularly known as hay fever, could impact 77 million people in Europe by 2041 to 2060, up from 33 million today, said the new study, led by scientists at the University of East Anglia. Allergies cost Europe $62 billion a year in lost productivity and are responsible for four million sick days worldwide, according to the news site Quartz
25 Aug 2016:
Scientists Find New Way
To Convert Carbon Dioxide into Energy
Scientists have discovered a way to convert greenhouse gas emissions into a fuel
in a single step using a light-driven bacterium, according to new research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
. A team of U.S. scientists, led by biochemists at Utah State University, used a modified version of the phototrophic bacterium Rhodopseudomonas palustris
as a catalyst to break apart carbon dioxide and turn it into hydrogen and methane, the latter of which can be burned to generate electricity. "It's a baby step, but it's also a big step," said Utah State biochemist Lance Seefeldt
, a co-author of the study. "Imagine the far-reaching benefits of large-scale capture of environmentally damaging byproducts from burning fossils fuels and converting them to alternative fuels using light, which is abundant and clean."
24 Aug 2016:
How Elephant Seals Are
Helping Scientists Study Climate Change
A group of southern elephant seals is helping scientists monitor
how climate change is impacting Antarctica by tracking water temperature, depth, and salinity as they swim and dive around the frozen continent.
An elephant seal wearing a data tracker.
Most recently, data from the seals — which routinely dive to depths of 1,000 to 2,000 feet — showed that water melting off the Antarctic ice sheet is causing the surrounding seas to become less salty, disrupting a conveyor belt-like system that transfers heat and nutrients around the globe. The new findings were published this week in the journal Nature Communications
. The elephant seal data, as well as records from monitoring devices on other marine mammals, have generated more than 500,000 vertical profiles of temperature and salinity in the world’s oceans and helped inform nearly 100 scientific studies. “"At the moment it's all about filling gaps” in the environmental records, lead author Guy Williams of the University of Tasmania told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation
. “The [seals] have gone to areas where we've never had an observation before."
23 Aug 2016:
Study Shows Humans Learning
To Use Natural Resources More Efficiently
Humanity’s influence on the natural world is widespread, but a new study published in the journal Nature Communications
finds promising signs that we are slowly learning to live in a more sustainable way. The study found that between 1993 and 2009, the global population grew 23 percent and the global economy grew 153 percent. Meanwhile, the global human footprint grew only 9 percent over the same period. "Seeing that our impacts have expanded at a rate that is slower than the rate of economic and population growth is encouraging," said lead author Oscar Venter, an ecologist at the University of Northern British Columbia. "It means we are becoming more efficient in how we use natural resources." The study authors warned, however, that even with the good news, human activity affects 75 percent of the planet’s surface and remains “perversely intense, widespread, and rapidly intensifying in places with high biodiversity.”
19 Aug 2016:
Scientists Find 1,075-Year-Old
Tree in Northern Greece, Europe’s Oldest
Scientists have discovered the oldest known living tree
in Europe, dating it at more than 1,075 years old. The Bosnian pine (Pinus heldreichii
) — a densely branched, slow-growing tree —
Europe's oldest tree, a Bosnian pine, in Greece.
was found in northern Greece, high in the Pindus Mountains. A team of Swedish, German, and U.S. scientists extracted a core of the tree’s one-meter thick trunk, and counted the rings that mark its annual growth—a dating technique known as dendrochronology. They found the tree started its life in 941. "I am impressed, in the context of Western civilization, all the human history that has surrounded this tree, all the empires – the Byzantine, the Ottoman – all the people living in this region,” said University of Stockholm dendrochronologist Paul Krusic, who led the research. “So many things could have led to its demise. Fortunately, this forest has been basically untouched for over a thousand years."
17 Aug 2016:
NASA Graphic Shows Severity of
Rainstorm That Caused Louisiana Flooding
A new graphic created by NASA and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency illustrates the severity
of a recent rainstorm that caused widespread flooding in Louisiana this week,
Rainfall totals in the southeastern U.S.
killing 11 people and forcing tens of thousands of residents from their homes. As much as 31 inches of rain fell in the southeastern U.S., much of it over a period of just three days, in what forecasters classified a 500-year storm event. An international team of scientists called the flooding “a classic signal of climate change
,” and warned that heavy rain events are becoming more frequent as the oceans and atmosphere warm up, feeding more moisture-laden storm systems. The New York Times reports
that five others states have experienced deadly flooding in the last 15 months, including Oklahoma, Texas, and South Carolina.
16 Aug 2016:
July Was the Hottest Month on
Record, Continuing Steak of High Temps
July was the world’s hottest month since modern temperature record keeping began in 1880, according to new NASA data released this week.
July 2016 temperatures compared to average.
July measured 1.27 degrees F above the 1951-1980 average, and 0.2 degrees F above July 2015, the previous record. This year has seen a streak of record-breaking monthly temperatures, fueled by a strong El Niño and climate change. Gavin Schmidt, the director of NASA’s Goddard Institute of Space Studies, said on Twitter
that 2016 now has a 99 percent chance of being the hottest year on record. If that happens, it will be the third such year in a row, reported Climate Central
. Fourteen of the 15 hottest years on record have occurred since the start of the 21st century.
15 Aug 2016:
Researchers Discover Ocean
Crust Dating Back 340 Million Years
Scientists have found what they believe is the world’s oldest piece of ocean floor — dating to more than 300 million years ago — in the Mediterranean Sea.
The Herodotus Basin in the eastern Mediterranean Sea.
Because shifting tectonic plates continuously drag seafloor rock into the earth’s mantle, most ocean crust is younger than 200 million years. The new discovery, found in the Herodotus Basin between Cyprus, Crete, and Egypt, indicates that area of seafloor is likely a remnant of the Tethys Ocean, which existed at the time of the Pangaea supercontinent, according to a new study in the journal Nature Geoscience
. To determine the rock’s age, scientists dragged a magnetometer
behind a research vessel on four different trips, measuring the magnetic signals in the underlying seafloor, and comparing them to signals of the African continental plate and the earth’s shifting magnetic alignment over millions of years. They determined that the oceanic crust in the Herodotus Basin is between 315 and 365 million years old.
12 Aug 2016:
July Electric Car Sales in China
Rose by 188 Percent Over Last Year
Chinese consumers bought 34,000 new electric cars in July, a 188 percent jump over the same period last year, according to CleanTechnica
, an energy and technology news organization. The monthly total puts China on track to sell 400,000 electrical vehicles in 2016, accounting for 1.5 percent of the total auto sales market — larger than annual EV sales in Europe, or the U.S., Canada, and Mexico combined. By the end of the year, China is projected to have 700,000 electric cars on its streets; the vast majority of EV sales, 96 percent, are for Chinese-made cars, including from manufacturers BYD Auto, Zhidou, and SAIC Motor. Tesla accounts for just 2 percent of EV sales in the country, and Porsche just 1 percent.
27 Jul 2016:
Ukraine Looking to Turn
Chernobyl Into a Massive Solar Farm
Chernobyl could soon start producing energy again — this time as a massive solar farm. Thirty years after the meltdown of the nuclear power plant,
The ghost town Pripyat.
Ukraine is looking for investors for a 1-gigawatt solar farm in the 1,000-square-mile exclusion zone, where radiation levels remain too high for farming or forestry, reported Bloomberg
. The project would cost $1.1 billion and transform Chernobyl into one of world’s largest solar installations. Government officials say that two U.S. investment firms and four Canadian energy companies have expressed interest in the project. The European Bank for Reconstruction & Development is also considering financing the solar farm. “The Chernobyl site has really good potential for renewable energy,” Ukraine’s environment minister Ostap Semerak said
. “We already have high-voltage transmission lines that were previously used for the nuclear stations, the land is very cheap, and we have many people trained to work at power plants.”
22 Jul 2016:
Ford is Developing Car Parts
Made Out of Captured Carbon Dioxide
Ford Motor Company is developing car parts made out of captured CO2 to help reduce the environmental footprint of their vehicles. The automaker is working with Novomer, a Massachusetts-based chemistry company, to convert CO2 emissions from sources like power plants into foams and plastics for use in everything from headrests, seat cushions, and instrument panels, according to The Washington Post
. Most foams and plastics in Ford cars today are made out of petroleum, the Post reported, meaning that not only do the cars use fossil fuels as they drive, but also in their construction. So far, Novomer has been able to replace about half of the petroleum in foam with CO2-based materials — at least in the lab. It could be years before the technology finds its way into commercially available Ford vehicles. The company claims to be the first automaker
developing CO2-based car parts.
30 Jun 2016:
Rare Ancient Bird Wings Found
In Perfect Condition Preserved in Amber
Researchers digging through amber mined in Myanmar have discovered one of the most pristine pairs of ancient bird wings
ever found — tiny, fossilized, feathered appendages belonging to a hummingbird-sized create that lived roughly 99 million years ago. Preserved in amber — clear, fossilized tree resin — the wings belonged to the group Enantiornithes. The preserved wings came from a bird that was much closer in appearance to modern-day birds than other bird species of that era. Researchers have discovered other ancient bird parts in amber, but usually just small fragments of isolated feathers. The pair of wings discovered in Myanmar by a Canadian team of researchers was preserved in minute detail, with hair, feathers, and bones arranged in their original form. The scientists said that even the feathers’ color was still visible. “It gives us all the details we could hope for — it’s the next best thing to having the animal in your hand,” said one scientist.
27 Jun 2016:
Abandoned Coal Mines Emit
As Much CO2 as a Small Power Plant
Thousands of abandoned coal mines dot the U.S. landscape, vestiges of old fossil fuel boomtowns and industrial hubs.
An abandoned coal mine in Ashland, Penn.
But despite no longer producing coal, these sites are still contributing to climate change by leaking carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, according to a recent study by scientists at West Virginia University
. The total amount of CO2 released annually by 140 abandoned sites in Pennsylvania is equal to that “of a small coal-fired power plant,” says the study, published in Environmental Earth Sciences
. CO2 is created when sulfuric acid generated during the mining process interacts with carbonate rocks. It is then carried to the surface
in runoff water. “Although considerable research has been conducted regarding the environmental legacy of abandoned mine lands, their role in carbon cycling is poorly [understood],” wrote the scientists. The findings “suggest that these waters may be important to carbon cycling on a regional scale.”
22 Jun 2016:
New NASA Visualization
Illustrates Severity of Recent Texas Floods
Texas experienced record flooding earlier this month after two weeks of near-constant storms dumped heavy rain on the eastern part of the state.
Rainfall accumulation during recent Texas floods.
As much as 30 inches of rain fell, causing thousands of residents from Dallas to Houston to evacuate, 15 deaths, and billions of dollars in damage. Now, NASA’s Scientific Visualization Studio has released a video illustrating rainfall accumulation
in the U.S. from May 27 to June 9, highlighting just how severe and protracted the Texas storms were. Warmer air holds more moisture, so as temperatures have risen in recent decades, Texas has experienced more severe flooding. Houston, for example, has seen a 167 percent increase in the heaviest downpours
since the 1950s. Five major floods have occurred in the Houston area in the past year.
15 Jun 2016:
Clean Energy Could Cost Up To
59 Percent Less by 2025, Report Finds
The cost of solar energy could drop by as much as 59 percent by 2025, from 13 cents to 6 cents per kilowatt hour, according to a new report from the International Renewable Energy Agency
Rooftop solar panels in Hannover, Germany.
Offshore wind could become 35 percent cheaper, and onshore wind 26 percent cheaper, by 2025. The cost of building renewable energy facilities is also likely to fall, by as much as 57 percent by the middle of next decade, the report found. “Historically, cost has been cited as one of the primary barriers to switching from fossil-based energy sources to renewable energy sources, but the narrative has now changed,” Adnan Z. Amin, director-general of IRENA, said in a statement
. “To continue driving the energy transition, we must now shift policy focus to support areas that will result in even greater cost declines and thus maximize the tremendous economic opportunity at hand.”
California Condor Population
Reaches New Heights in 2015
Earlier this year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced what it called a milestone for the California condor: More chicks had hatched and fledged in the wild during 2015 than the number of condors that died,
bringing the total in the wild to 270. It was perhaps the most promising news about the condor in decades. After their numbers dropped to just 22 in the 1980s, the U.S. government began rounding up the birds for a last-ditch captive breeding program, then gradually released newly bred birds to the wild. The program was highly controversial, and the condors’ return to the wild over the past two and a half decades has been fraught with peril. But biologists have noted encouraging signs in recent years: The birds have expanded their range, are more likely to engage in wild behaviors, and have begun foraging for their own food.
10 Jun 2016:
Researchers Find a Way to Turn
CO2 Into Rock at Iceland Power Plant
Scientists have discovered a new way to successfully capture carbon dioxide and transform it into rock deep underground. The experiment, published in this week’s Science
Section of rock made from mixing CO2 and water.
was conducted at the Hellisheidi power plant in Iceland, the world’s largest geothermal facility. When the plant — which helps power Iceland’s capital, Revkjavik — pumps up volcanically heated water to turbines, gases like carbon dioxide and hydrogen sulfide often come up as well. A team of U.S. and European researchers, led by Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, captured the CO2, mixed it with the used volcanic water, and re-injected it into basalt rocks up to a half-mile underground. More than 95 percent of the mixture naturally solidified into carbonate minerals in less than two years. Previous estimates predicted that the process could take hundreds, if not thousands, of years.
09 Jun 2016:
Fish Can Recognize Human
Faces, According to One New Study
Fish now join humans, monkeys, primates, and birds as one of the few animals able to distinguish faces, according to new research published in the journal Scientific Reports
James St. John/Wikimedia
The skill requires a sophisticated combination of perception and memory
— and generally, a neocortex. But scientists at the University of Oxford in England and the University of Queensland in Australia were able to train archerfish to recognize human faces, despite the fact that these tropical fish don’t have complex brain structures. Archerfish typically feed by spitting water at prey, like insects. So the scientists taught the fish to spray water at images of particular human faces in exchange for food. Archerfish identified the correct person 81 percent of the time.
31 May 2016:
Bees’ Fuzzy Bodies Help Them
Detect Electrical Charges From Flowers
Back in 2013, scientists discovered that bees can detect the electrical charges that flowers emit, helping them locate nearby food sources.
Exactly how the bees were doing this, however, remained a mystery. Now, scientists have found that the hairs on bees’ fuzzy bodies move in response to the charges
, which send nerve signals to bees’ brains that flowers are nearby. The finding is an important one: Scientists have long thought
that only animals in marine or moist habitats could detect electric fields, since currents are carried through water. That bees can do this in dry air opens up the possibility that other insects might have the same ability. The research, conducted by scientists at the University of Bristol in the U.K., was published this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
Interview: CO2 'Air Capture' Could
Be Key to Slowing Global Warming
For two decades, Klaus Lackner has pioneered efforts to combat climate change by pulling carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
Now, after years of watching the global community fail to bring greenhouse gas emissions under control, Lackner — director of the Center for Negative Carbon Emissions at Arizona State University — is delivering a blunt message: The best hope to avoid major disruptions from global warming is to launch a massive program of CO2 "air capture" that will begin to reverse the buildup of billions of tons of carbon in our atmosphere. "We need to have the ability to walk this backwards," says Lackner. "I'm saying this is a war, and we need to use all the weapons at our disposal. You don't want to get into this fight with one hand tied behind your back."
Read the interview.
20 May 2016:
Obama Looking for Kids
As Science Advisors to the White House
White House advisors tend to be experts with decades of experience in specific fields, from foreign policy to education to energy.
Chuck Kennedy/White House
But President Barack Obama announced this week
he’s looking for a much younger batch of consultants to advise the White House on science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). The Kid Science Advisors outreach program will ask children which issues are most important to them and how to better engage students studying science to help guide White House policy and priorities. "The real reason we do this, as I’ve said before, is to teach our young people that it’s not just the winner of the Super Bowl or the NCAA tournament that deserves a celebration,” Obama said Thursday
. “We want those who have invented the products and lifesaving medicines and are engineering our future to be celebrated as well."
18 May 2016:
Trees Sleep, With Branches And
Leaves Drooping at Night, New Study Says
Scientists have long known that plants have a day-to-night cycle. Some trees close their leaves in the evening. Most flowers open up their petals in the morning.
But these observations have largely been made only in experiments with potted plants. Now, a team of scientists has used a laser scanner to measure trees’ daily cycles in the wild, and they’ve discovered that trees sleep. “Our results show that the whole tree droops during night, which can be seen as position change in leaves and branches,” Eetu Puttonen, a scientist at the Finnish Geospatial Research Institute and lead author of the new study, said in a statement
. Silver birch leaves drooped to their lowest point a couple of hours before sunrise and became upright again a few hours later. It isn’t yet clear whether the sun or the plants’ internal rhythm spurs the movement. The findings were recently published in the journal Frontiers in Plant Science
03 May 2016:
A Sea Urchin's Mouth Could
Make it Easier to Study Distant Planets
Sea urchins have long inspired awe among scientists for their ability to chew through almost anything, from entire kelp forests to rocks. Their mouths — comprised of a ring of intricate muscles and five curved, pointed teeth —
UC San Diego
operate like a giant claw in an arcade game. Now scientists have designed a new space-exploration device based on the urchins’ teeth
that will make it easier to collect sediment samples on other planets, like Mars. “Our goal was a bio-inspired device that's more precise and efficient at grabbing ground samples, and won't disturb the surrounding area like a shovel" — the tool space vehicles like the Mars rovers currently use, said
Michael Frank, an engineer at the University of California, San Diego. The technology, based on 3D scans of pink sea urchins, has five claws with beveled edges that gather and trap material in a smooth, quick motion.
28 Apr 2016:
Half of All Farmed Fish Have
Deformed Ear Bones That Cause Hearing Loss
Farmed fish have become an increasingly larger share of the world’s seafood market in recent decades—now accounting for 50 percent of global seafood consumption.
At the same time, however, debate about the ethics, safety and health of farmed fish versus their wild counterparts has also intensified. A new study
published in the journal Nature Scientific Reports
finds that half of all farmed Atlantic salmon have deformed ear bones that lead to hearing loss. These salmon are 10 times more likely to have the deformity than wild fish. The findings “raise questions about the welfare of farmed animals," said
Tim Dempster, a biologist at the University of Melbourne involved in the study. It may also explain why efforts to boost wild populations by releasing farmed juveniles have proven unsuccessful. Hearing loss would prevent farmed fish from detecting predators, or restrict their ability to navigate to breeding sites, the scientists said.
27 Apr 2016:
Wooden Skypscrapers Grow in
Popularity in Effort to Reduce Emissions
Architects are increasingly abandoning traditional steel-and-cement skyscrapers in favor of wood-and-glue designs — a move that experts say could help drastically reduce CO2 emissions from the world’s building sector.
Acton Ostry Architects
Creating steel, iron, and non-metallic minerals — including concrete — is an energy-intensive process that accounts for more than 10 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. In the 1990s, developers created a product known as cross-laminated timber — planks of wood glued together by a polyurethane adhesive — with the strength and durability of traditional building materials, and far fewer CO2 emissions. With concern for climate change mounting, wood-based skyscrapers have been popping up around the globe in recent years
. The University of British Columbia, for example, approved an 18-story, wooden housing complex in 2015. “This revolution has happened rather quietly and happened rather slow,” Kris Spickler, a heavy timber specialist at Structurlam, told Popular Science
. “But I think we’re in a year right now where we’re going to see it explode.”
From Mass Coral Bleaching,
A Scientist Looks for Lessons
Twice a year, Georgia Tech climate scientist Kim Cobb travels to Christmas Island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean to collect samples from coral reefs to better understand past and future climate change.
But when Cobb arrived on the island earlier this month, she was stunned. The corals she had spent the past 18 years studying were largely dead or dying. The scene has become a familiar one across the Pacific and Indian oceans this year as a record-breaking El Niño drove up water temperatures and caused fragile coral reef systems to bleach from stress or die. In an interview with Yale Environment 360
, Cobb talked about the recent bleaching event, the race to make reefs more resilient, and how coral records could improve short-term climate projections. “What you think reefs might be experiencing in 20 years,” she says, “they're experiencing now.” Read the interview.
26 Apr 2016:
Historical Citizen-Scientists’ Ice
Records Confirm Global Temperature Rise
Centuries-old records from Japanese priests and European shipping merchants are helping scientists confirm that the earth has warmed substantially — and freshwater ice formation significantly decreased — since the Industrial Revolution.
These early record keepers tracked annual freeze dates and the breakup of ice each spring on lakes and rivers for hundreds of years, beginning in the 1440s in Japan and 1690s in Finland. The data represents the oldest known inland ice records. An international team of scientists published a study this week in Nature Scientific Reports
examining how ice behavior changed over the records’ years. They found that from 1443 to 1683, for example, the annual freeze date of Lake Suwa in Japan moved back 0.19 days per decade. From the start of the Industrial Revolution, however, that trend grew 24 times faster, pushing back the date of ice formation on the lake by 4.6 days per decade.