Science & Technology
11 Feb 2015:
Learning About Geoengineering
Spurs More Agreement on Climate, Study Says
Geoengineering, an experimental series of technologies aimed at counteracting the effects of climate change, could potentially diminish political polarization over global warming, according to new research
. Roughly 3,000 participants in a study displayed more open-mindedness toward evidence of climate change and more agreement on the significance of such evidence after learning about geoengineering technologies, according to a study conducted by researchers at Yale and other universities. Participants became more polarized when they were told that curbing climate change would require reducing greenhouse gas emissions, the researchers report. The findings come after a report this week from the U.S. National Research Council
recommended limited government-sponsored research into the use of sulfate aerosols, a potential geoengineering strategy known as albedo modification.
06 Feb 2015:
Maine’s Iconic Lobsters
Face Threats From Ocean Acidification
Maine’s lobster fishery, worth $1.7 billion
to the state and a vital source of employment, could be
threatened by acidifying ocean waters
A Maine lobster
and rising sea temperatures, according to a new report. The report
, issued by a state commission, called increasingly acidic ocean waters — caused by the absorption of CO2 from the atmosphere — an “urgent matter” that needs to be addressed by state and local governments and the fishing infustry. Facing the prospect that increasing acidity could interfere with the ability of lobsters to make their shells, the commission set forth a handful of goals, including a stepped-up research effort on the acidification of the coast’s waters and its impact on crustaceans. Maine lawmakers have already introduced legislation for limits on industrial and agricultural runoff, which contribute to coastal water acidification.
05 Feb 2015:
Ultra-Efficient Solar Cells
Can Be Adapted for Rooftops, Research Finds
Extremely efficient solar cells similar to those used in space may soon be ready for installation on residential rooftops, according to a report
in Nature Communications
. Concentrated photovoltaic (CPV) systems, which use lenses and curved mirrors to focus sunlight onto small solar cells, produce energy much more efficiently than conventional solar panels — 40-percent efficiency compared to less than 20 percent for standard silicon systems. But they are typically the size of billboards and have to be positioned very accurately to track the sun throughout the day. Now researchers have overcome these obstacles by developing a CPV system that uses miniaturized gallium-arsenide photovoltaic cells, 3D-printed plastic lens arrays, and a moveable focusing mechanism. The new system is small and light enough to fit on a residential rooftop and should be inexpensive to produce, researchers say.
04 Feb 2015:
Plant-Like Sea Slug Can Steal
Genes From its Food, Researchers Report
The emerald green, leaf-shaped sea slug known as Elysia chlorotica
can live for months at a time by
photosynthesizing its own food, like a plant does, but until recently scientists did not understand how the slug acquired and maintained this rare ability. A recent report in the journal The Biological Bulletin
shows that the slug steals genes and chloroplasts
— the cellular machinery that converts sunlight into food — from algae that the slug eats. Genes lifted from the algae can maintain cholorplasts in the slug for up to nine months, the researchers say — much longer than the chloroplasts would last in the algae themselves. Moreover, the slug can pass on those stolen genes to its offspring. The process is a mechanism of rapid evolution, says one of the study's authors.
02 Feb 2015:
Many California Farms and
Orchards Idled By Drought, NASA Maps Show
In 2014 — the driest year ever recorded in California — farms and orchards in the state's Central Valley took a major hit
Status of CA farms in 2011 (left) and 2014 (right).
and many agricultural plots were left fallow, as shown in these maps based on NASA satellite data
. The maps depict the status of crop cultivation in California in August 2011 and August 2014. Brown pixels show farms and orchards that have been left fallow, or “idled,” since January 1 in each year. Green pixels show plots where at least one crop was grown during the year. The most recent year with average or above average precipitation across the state was 2011, and, as the map shows, relatively little agricultural land was left fallow that year. In 2014, a much higher proportion of farms and orchards were idle.
15 Jan 2015:
Underwater Kelp Forests Mapped
In New Citizen Science Project
grow along roughly 25 percent of the world’s coastlines and provide valuable habitat and nutrients for many types of aquatic life. Now, research by the “Floating Forests
” project is shedding light on how these underwater kelp forests are affected by climate change. The project is using NASA satellite data to observe changes in kelp forests over a period of more than four decades. The catch: No accurate way to automate the process exists, so the researchers rely on an international team of nearly 3,500 citizen scientists to mark the bright green kelp forests, which contrast with the deep blues of the ocean in the images.
06 Jan 2015:
Penguin Watch Projects Asks
Citizen Scientists to Monitor Birds' Habits
, a citizen science project launched by researchers from the University of Oxford in the U.K., is enlisting the
Group of Gentoo penguins
public's help in counting penguins in some 175,000 photos from locations across the Southern Hemisphere. Researchers are monitoring five penguin species — Gentoo, Chinstrap, Adelie, Rockhopper, and King penguins — and recording information on the number of adults, chicks, and eggs, as well as their winter behavior, breeding success, and travel habits. The project is especially useful for monitoring penguins' winter behavior, for example, because it's logistically difficult for the researchers to visit these locations in winter, they say
, and the images are far too numerous for researchers to view on their own. Understanding how the penguins live day-to-day should help shed light on how the penguins will respond to an increasingly volatile climate, the team says.
05 Jan 2015:
U.S. Cities Are Significantly
Brighter than German Cities, Scientists Say
German cities emit several times less light per capita than similarly sized American cities, according to new research
published in the journal Remote Sensing
Berlin, Germany, at night
Moreover, the differences in light emission become more dramatic as city size increases: Light per capita increases with city size in the U.S. but decreases in Germany. Factors such as the type of lamps used and architectural elements like the width of the streets and the amount of trees are likely behind the differences, the researchers say. Energy-efficient LED street lighting
is currently being installed in many cities worldwide, and the researchers expect this to change the nighttime environment in many ways — for example, by reducing the amount of light that shines upward. The study also found that, in major cities in developing countries, the brightest light sources were typically airports or harbors, whereas the brightest areas in large European cities are often stadiums and city centers.
02 Jan 2015:
Historical Photos Help
Document Changes in Greenland Glaciers
Historical photographs from the early and mid-1900s have helped researchers from Denmark map the retreat
Photo of a Greenland glacier from 1935
of Greenland's glaciers, according to
findings presented recently at the American Geophysical Union meeting. This glacier near the Sukkertoppen ice cap in southwest Greenland, for example, retreated roughly two miles between 1935 and 2013, as shown in photographs from the Danish Geodata Agency and the Natural History Museum of Denmark. Older photographs, from 1900 to 1930, show even more remarkable changes. During that time, following the end of the Little Ice Age in the late-19th century, glaciers retreated more rapidly than they have been in recent years, the researchers say. They believe the findings will shed light on how quickly these glaciers might react to future temperature changes.
23 Dec 2014:
Madrid Announces Largest
Energy-Efficient Street Lighting Project
The city of Madrid has announced plans
to renew its entire street lighting system with 225,000 new energy-efficient
New energy-efficient street lighting in Madrid, Spain.
bulbs, the world’s largest street-lighting upgrade to date. The new lights, which will afford the city a 44-percent reduction in energy costs, will pay for themselves, according to Philips
, the company supplying the new system. In addition to drawing less overall power, the bulbs’ intensity will be controlled from a central command panel, resulting in less wasted energy. Of the 225,000 new lights, 84,000 will be locally manufactured LEDs, and the city is taking measures to ensure the safe recycling of heavy metals found in the old lamps. Similar, though smaller, projects have been undertaken in Argentina, Sweden, and the Netherlands.
26 Nov 2014:
Aerodynamic Upgrades to
Large Trucks Would Cut Fuel Use Steeply
The fuel consumption of the 2 million tractor-trailer trucks hauling cargo across the U.S. — which currently
Airflow patterns around a tractor-trailer truck
burn 36 billion gallons of diesel fuel per year — could be cut by billions of gallons through the use of drag-reducing devices, according to
researchers at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. In wind tunnel tests, researchers fitted a scale-model truck with two types of devices designed to reduce drag and improve aerodynamics: a trailer skirt, which consists of panels affixed along the lower side edges of a trailer, and a boat tail fairing, which is affixed to the back of the trailer to reduce the size of its wake. The researchers found that using the devices in combination — technology currently installed on only 3 to 4 percent of the nation’s large trucks — reduced the aerodynamic drag by as much as 25 percent, which translates to a 13-percent decrease in fuel consumption. If the U.S. tractor-trailer fleet were to improve its fuel economy by 19 percent, which the researchers say is achievable, 6.5 billion gallons of diesel fuel would be saved each year, avoiding 66 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions.
18 Nov 2014:
Social Media Can Help Track Severity of Air Pollution, Researchers Say
Social media posts can help researchers estimate air pollution levels with significant accuracy, according to a team of computer scientists from the University of Wisconsin
. The researchers analyzed posts on Weibo — a Twitter-like site that is China's most popular social media outlet — from 108 Chinese cities over 30 days, tracking how often people complained about the air and the words they used to describe air quality. The study showed that the process can provide accurate, real-time information on the air quality index, a widely used measure of common air pollutants. Large Chinese cities sometimes have physical monitoring stations to gauge pollution levels, but smaller cities generally do not because monitors are expensive to install and maintain. The researchers hope these findings will help residents of smaller towns and less affluent areas understand the severity of their local air pollution. Between 350,000 and 500,000 Chinese citizens die prematurely each year because of air pollution, a former Chinese health minister estimated in the journal The Lancet
14 Nov 2014:
New Material Can Trap Powerful Greenhouse Gases Efficiently, Chemists Say
Scientists from the U.S. and Taiwan have developed a new type of lightweight, self-assembling molecule that can capture large amounts of potent greenhouse gases,
This porous material traps greenhouse gases.
according to a report
in Nature Communications
. The molecules create a lightweight structure with many microscopic pores that can adsorb gases such as chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). Those long-lived compounds, once widely used as refrigerants, were phased out because they damage the ozone layer, but they are still used in various industrial processes. The newly developed material is rich in the element fluorine, which helps it bind CFCs and various other hydro- and fluorocarbon gases very efficiently — to the tune of 75 percent by weight, the chemists say. Although they are less prevalent, the greenhouse effect of those gases can be hundreds- or thousands-fold more powerful than carbon dioxide, the researchers note. Heavier, metal-based materials with similar capabilities have been developed in previous studies, but these were sensitive to water and difficult to process and recycle.
13 Nov 2014:
Global Maps Detail Seasonal and Geographic Trends in Ocean Acidification
A team of scientists has published the most comprehensive analysis yet of how acidity levels vary across the world’s oceans. Drawing on four decades of
Ocean acidification map
measurements, researchers from Columbia University and the University of Colorado mapped changes in ocean acidity by season and location, as well as how acidity levels affect the stability of shell-building minerals. The maps
reveal that the northern Indian Ocean is at least 10 percent more acidic than the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, possibly due to its unique geography, the researchers say. The maps also show that ocean acidity fluctuates most in the colder waters off Siberia, Alaska, Antarctica, and the Pacific Northwest, due to cycles of deep-water upwelling and massive plankton blooms. The oceans have taken up a quarter of the carbon dioxide humans have put in the atmosphere over the last two hundred years, and acid levels at the surface have increased by 30 percent since the beginning of the industrial era, researchers say.
06 Nov 2014:
Scientists Call For Greater Diversity of Viewpoints on Conservation
In a call to arms published this week in the journal Nature
, a group of more than 200 environmental scientists, academics and others involved in the fields of conservation research, policy and advocacy, condemned what they called a lack of diversity within their ranks and the philosophical polarization they say it has engendered. Spearheaded by Heather Tallis, lead scientist at the Nature Conservancy, and Jane Lubchenco, a professor of marine biology at Oregon State University and former head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the commentary argues that a once-spirited but constructive debate between two conservation philosophies — one viewing nature as intrinsically valuable, the other connecting its value with its utility — was now mired in vitriol and acrimony. "We believe that this situation is stifling productive discourse, inhibiting funding and halting progress," the authors wrote, adding that the situation was being made worse because the "dispute has become dominated by only a few voices, nearly all of them men’s."
03 Nov 2014:
Climate Impacts To Be Severe and Irreversible Without Emission Cuts, UN Says
Climate change will have “severe, widespread, and irreversible impacts” on society and the environment
The U.N. climate panel's synthesis report was released on November 2.
unless nations swiftly and drastically cut carbon emissions — a goal that, while difficult, still remains within reach, according to a comprehensive new United Nations climate report released this week. Failure to curb emissions by the end of the century will likely lead to food shortages, refugee crises, the flooding of major coastal cities and entire island nations, and dangerous yet routine heat waves, among other impacts, the analysis concluded. But the panel also said for the first time that combating climate change is economically feasible. The new U.N. report synthesizes the findings from a series of analyses released over the past year by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change — the panel's first major update since 2007.
24 Oct 2014:
New Mapping Tool Shows U.S. Geothermal Plants and Heat Potential
A new mapping tool from the U.S. Department of Energy
lets users see how geothermal power plants
Geothermal power plants and heat flow potential
across the country are taking advantage of the heat stored within the earth’s crust. Most of the nation’s 154 operational and planned geothermal plants are clustered in western states, where geothermal heat potential is especially high (red areas). Notably, the map identifies two areas that appear ripe for new geothermal development: one in the Great Plains and another at the border of Virginia and West Virginia. The bulk of the facilities are conventional geothermal plants, which generate power using fluid found naturally deep below earth's surface. Steam captured at the surface spins a turbine, which then powers an electric generator. A newer type of technology, called enhanced geothermal, forces cold water from the surface down into the hot crust. Both types are generally considered clean sources of energy.
17 Oct 2014:
Pesticide Linked to Bee Deaths
Does Not Improve Soybean Crops, EPA Finds
Coating soybean seeds with a class of insecticides that has been implicated in honeybee deaths
Soybeans (left) and corn coated with pesticides
banned in the European Union does not increase soybean yields compared to using no pesticides at all, according to
an extensive review by the the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Seed treatment provides at most $6 in benefits per acre (an increase in revenue of less than 2 percent), and most likely no financial benefit at all, the EPA analysis
concluded. The insecticides, known as neonicotinoids, are only effective for the first few weeks after planting, studies have found, when soybean pests are not typically active. Neonicotinoid seed treatments could theoretically help fend off sporadic and unpredictable pests, the report notes, but that benefit would be small and unlikely to be noticed outside of the southern U.S.
14 Oct 2014:
Researchers Explain Puzzling
Stability of Some Himalayan Glaciers
Unlike nearly all other high-altitude glaciers across the globe, glaciers in the Karakoram mountain chain, part
Baltoro Glacier in the Karakoram range
of the Himalayas, are not melting and are even expanding in some areas. This so-called “Karakoram anomaly” has puzzled scientists for years, but now a team of researchers has offered an explanation
: While rain from warm summer monsoons tends to melt mountain glaciers in other parts of the Himalayas and the nearby Tibetan Plateau, the location and height of mountains in the Karakoram chain, which runs along the borders of China, India, and Pakistan, protect the area from this seasonal precipitation. Instead, the mountain chain receives most of its precipitation in the form of winter snowfall, according to findings published in Nature Geoscience
. The study suggests that the Karakoram glaciers are likely to persist until 2100, but not long after, if global warming continues at its current pace.
10 Oct 2014:
Natural Gas Production Causing
Large Methane Hotspot Over U.S. Southwest
A single methane “hotspot” in the U.S. Southwest accounts for 10 percent of the nation’s total estimated
Coalbed natural gas field in northwest New Mexico
methane emissions, according to an analysis
by researchers at the University of Michigan and Caltech. The area is centered in New Mexico's San Juan Basin near the shared borders of Colorado, Utah, and Arizona — the site of the largest and most active coalbed natural gas production operation in the U.S. Natural gas from the basin is more than 95 percent methane, a significantly more potent heat-trapping gas than carbon dioxide. Satellite measurements collected over seven years showed natural gas production operations in the area released roughly 650,000 tons of methane to the atmosphere each year. The methane emissions are not associated with hydraulic fracturing operations in the region, which began after the measurements were collected.
09 Oct 2014:
Investment in Energy Efficiency
Outpaces the Renewable Energy Sector
Global investments in energy-efficiency measures have reached $310 billion annually — nearly $100 billion more
than investments in renewable energy last year, according to a new report from the International Energy Agency
. Efficiency measures saved the equivalent of 2 billion tons of oil between 2001 and 2011 in the 18 countries evaluated in the report, which is more than the annual energy demand of the U.S. and Germany combined. The residential sector saw the largest improvement in efficiency, with energy demand falling 5 percent from 2001 levels, according to the report. Homes and businesses are commonly turning to efficiency measures
such as low-energy lighting, smart thermostats, and improved insulation to lower energy costs. To limit global temperature increases to no more than 2 degrees Celsius, the largest share of emissions reductions — 40 percent — will need to come from improvements in energy efficiency, the agency said.
Interview: A Call for Climate Goals Other Than Two Degrees Celsius
When international delegates meet in Paris next year to negotiate a new climate agreement, they'll be aiming to keep the global average temperature from rising more than 2 degrees
Celsius above pre-industrial levels, the maximum seen by many for avoiding the worst impacts of climate change. But David Victor, a professor of international relations at University of California San Diego, argued in a recent controversial commentary in Nature
that the 2-degree goal is now unattainable and should be replaced by more meaningful goals. In an interview with Yale Environment 360
, Victor explains why he believes the 2-degree threshold has failed to position policy makers to take serious action on climate change and outlines the "basket of indicators" that he and his co-author are suggesting be used instead. Read the interview.
03 Oct 2014:
Thousands of Uncharted Ocean
Floor Features Revealed by Satellite Data
New maps of the seafloor created using satellite data reveal thousands of uncharted mountains and clues
about the formation of continents, researchers say. Among other findings, they identified a ridge in the Gulf of Mexico that had previously been associated with seafloor spreading, a major rift in the South Atlantic Ocean, and thousands of sea mountains — all of which had never before been documented. The maps are based on small ripples and dips in the surface of the ocean, which can be detected by satellites, the researchers explain in the journal Science
. Using these ocean surface variations, the scientists were able to infer the shape and contours of the new seafloor features. Previously, the only way to create detailed maps was to collect depth soundings from ships sailing directly over the seafloor, so only about 20 percent of the ocean floor had been accurately mapped, researchers say.
Interview: Still Bullish on Hybrids,
But Skeptical about Electric Cars
As one of the principal designers of the gasoline-electric hybrid Prius, Bill Reinert has never been shy about sharing his views on what
he considers the poor prospects for fully electric vehicles — and on just about anything related to alternative fuels and the future of transportation. For Reinert, who recently retired from the Toyota Motor Corporation, the physical and performance limitations of battery technology are the key stumbling blocks for electrics. In an interview with Yale Environment 360
, he talks about the potential he sees in other low-emissions vehicle technologies now in development, particularly fuel cells, and the state of the global effort to find efficient and affordable alternatives to gasoline-powered cars. Read the interview.
E360 Video: Indonesian Villagers
Use Drones to Protect Their Forest
The villagers of Setulang in Indonesian Borneo have enlisted a new ally in their fight against the illegal clearing of their forests for oil palm plantations: aerial drones. The indigenous Dayaks manage the surrounding forest conservation area, and they are hoping the drones can help them ward off illegal oil palm operations and protect their land. “Dayaks and Drones
,” a video produced by Handcrafted Films, chronicles how the villagers teamed up with an Indonesian nonprofit to learn how to program and operate drones. Equipped with GPS technology, the small drones photograph the forest and monitor the area for illegal activities.
Watch the video.
29 Sep 2014:
Inexpensive Solar Cell
Makes Hydrogen Fuel from Sunlight
Researchers have developed a device that can store solar energy by inexpensively converting it to hydrogen —
Electrodes split water to hydrogen and oxygen.
an important step
toward making solar power available around the clock. The technology, which which was recently described in the journal Science
, is a type of "water splitter," a device that can efficiently divide water into its constituent parts: hydrogen and oxygen. The concept is important for solar energy storage because hydrogen gas can be used directly as fuel and is relatively easy to store, the researchers say. The device can convert 12.3 percent of the energy in sunlight to hydrogen, according to the report; conventional solar cells, in comparison, convert roughly 16 percent of energy from sunlight to electricity, but a significant portion of that energy is lost when converting it to a form that is easily stored. The design of this water splitter is an improvement over previous iterations, the researchers say, but the device's longevity and reliability will need to improve before it becomes a practical, large-scale solar energy storage option.
22 Sep 2014:
Planet Set to Reach CO2
Threshold in 30 Years, Researchers Say
Only 1.2 trillion metric tons of carbon dioxide can be emitted in the future if nations are to avoid causing the
global mean surface temperature to rise more than 2 degrees C beyond the pre-industrial average, according to
researchers with the Global Carbon Project
. Combined historical and future carbon dioxide emissions must remain below 3.2 trillion metric tons to have a 66-percent chance of keeping that temperature increase below 2 degrees C — the internationally accepted benchmark for restraining global warming. But two-thirds of this allotment has already been emitted, and at the current pace of emissions, the global population will burn through the rest within the next 30 years, the researchers conclude. CO2 emissions rose 2.3 percent in 2013 and are on track to increase by 2.5 percent in 2014, according to the report, which was released ahead of this week's UN climate summit.
12 Sep 2014:
New High-Resolution Maps Show
Greenhouse Gas Emissions at City-Level
Researchers have developed a new method for mapping global carbon emissions for individual cities on an
hourly basis — a major improvement over previous techniques, which quantified greenhouse emissions less accurately and at coarser scales, according to researchers at Arizona State University
. The maps are derived from worldwide databases of population, power plants, and national fuel use statistics, and they encompass 15 years of data. Among other findings, the analysis revealed increased emissions in China, India, Europe, and the northern U.S. in 2010, after the peak of the global financial crisis. The researchers say this reflects faster recoveries from the crisis in those regions compared to, for example, the southeastern U.S., where emissions lagged in 2010. The results of the analysis match ground-level measurements, confirming the accuracy of the maps, the researchers say.
04 Sep 2014:
Buying Video Games on Disc Is
More Energy Efficient than Downloading
Downloading video games from the Internet creates a larger carbon footprint than driving to the store to purchase the same game on a Blu-ray disc, according to findings published in the
Journal of Industrial Ecology
PlayStation game console and Blu-ray disc
. For an 8.8-gigabyte PlayStation video game file — the average size of video games in 2010 — the resources required to produce, distribute, and dispose of Blu-ray discs are far less than the energy required to power servers, routers, and networks involved in downloading the game file, researchers say. The advantages of discs decrease as file sizes shrink, the analysis found, and for game files less than 1.3 gigabytes, downloading has a smaller carbon footprint than purchasing the game on Blu-ray. Between 2010 and 2013, however, game file sizes actually doubled for PlayStation4 and increased by 25 percent for PlayStation3. The analysis illustrates why it is not always true that digital distribution of media will have lower carbon emissions than distribution by physical means, the researchers say.
03 Sep 2014:
Mobile Phone Networks Can
Help Monitor Global Rainfall, Study Says
New research shows
that mobile phone networks, which cover 90 percent of the world's population, can help track rainfall events — a task that has proven difficult for both advanced satellite systems
and ground-level observation networks. By compiling data on signal disruptions from mobile phone networks in Burkina Faso in West Africa, a team of researchers was able to calculate with 95 percent accuracy both the location and volume of rain that fell, even during short-lived storms, according to a report in Geophysical Research Letters
. Mobile phone companies maintain detailed records on signal disruptions, which can occur when water droplets block and deflect signals between antennae, to determine whether their networks are functioning properly. By tapping into those records, researchers could distill data on rainfall events at extremely fine spatial and temporal scales. As mobile phone networks expand across the globe, such data could be used to create highly accurate rainfall maps, researchers say, although gaining access to records could prove difficult.