Science & Technology
05 Apr 2016:
El Nino Prevents Phytoplankton
Growth, Endangering Marine Food Web
El Nino—the cyclical warming of the Pacific Ocean—has wreaked havoc on the world’s weather
for the past two years, from a record-breaking number of cyclones in the North Pacific to flooding in South America.
Satellite images of phytoplankton growth.
But scientists at NASA recently discovered
that the climate phenomenon also has a big impact on phytoplankton, the tiny oceanic organisms that serve as the base of the marine food chain. Normally, ocean currents drive cold, deep water to the surface near the equator, bringing with it a flood of nutrients that feed phytoplankton. El Nino’s mass of warm water stops this upwelling. The result is a marked drop in phytoplankton levels. “This decline echoes through many species,” said Stephanie Uz, an ocean scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland who led the study. “Small fish that feed on phytoplankton starve. This affects everything from penguin and iguana populations in the Galapagos to governments managing fisheries.”
01 Apr 2016:
Scientists Study the Skies
To Create a Map of the World’s Biomes
Curious where certain species live? Don’t look down. Rather, study the skies, according to new research published in the journal PLoS Biology
. Scientists from the University of Buffalo and Yale University
used images from NASA satellites to build a database of cloud cover for every square kilometer of the planet from 2000 to 2014. They then used the information to map the world’s biomes. They found that cloud patterns are a much more accurate way of predicting species distribution than using extrapolated on-the-ground observations, the method most conservationists use today. “Sunlight drives almost every aspect of ecology,” Adam Wilson, an ecologist at the University of Buffalo who led the study, told New Scientist
. “So when you put something in between the sun and plants, that is going to have implications on the amount of energy they are receiving, soil moisture, leaf wetness, and humidity—almost everything that is important.”
31 Mar 2016:
A New, Multi-Colored Way To
Study Cell Regeneration in Zebrafish
Zebrafish have amazing healing capabilities—they can grow back missing limbs and patch an injured heart or spine—but scientists have long been in the dark as to how exactly this process works.
Chen-Hui Chen, Duke University
An engineered zebrafish with multi-colored skin.
Now, a team of scientists at Duke University engineered neurons to create a zebrafish with skin that fluoresces in thousands of colors
in order to visually illustrate how cells regenerate after injury. They found there are three steps to the process: skin cells from neighboring body parts migrate in to cover the new tissue, surviving cells grow in size, and new cells are created. “It is like you have given each cell an individual barcode,” said
Chen-Hui Chen, a postdoctoral fellow at Duke and lead author on the study. “You can precisely see how individual cells collectively behave during regeneration.”
22 Mar 2016:
Old Photos Used to Study
The Fate of a Swedish Seabird Colony
Nearly 100 years of old tourist photos got a second life recently when researchers used them to reconstruct the rise and fall
of a colony of seabirds on the Swedish island of Stora Karlsö. The island, designated a nature preserve in 1880 and a popular tourist destination since the 1920s, hosts a large population of common guillemots, one of the biggest species of auks. Ecologists Jonas Hentati-Sundberg and Olof Olsson of Stockholm University spent five years collecting images of the island from archives, museums, and island visitors in order to count guillemot numbers decade-to-decade. They found that the colony declined in the 1960s and 70s, when contaminants like DDT and PCB were prevalent, but has since rebounded to historically high numbers today, possibly because of an increase in the numbers of forage fish consumed by guillemots. “The population is currently increasing at an unprecedented rate
of about 5 percent annually," said Hentati-Sundberg. "This is interesting in that many common guillemot populations are decreasing worldwide."
18 Mar 2016:
Could Bread Mold Help
Improve Rechargeable Batteries?
A type of bread mold might just be a key to creating better rechargeable batteries, scientists reported in the journal Current Biology
Researchers at the University of Dundee in Scotland discovered that the fungus Neurospora crassa
—known commonly as red bread mold—can transform manganese into a mineral composite with “excellent electrochemical properties” ideal for use in supercapacitors or lithium-ion batteries, said
Geoffrey Gadd, a microbiologist and lead author of the study. Those types of batteries are used to power everything from laptops to railways to solar energy systems. Scientists have long studied how to make batteries more powerful and sustainable and in an environmentally safer way, but this is the first time researchers have looked to mold as a possible solution.
11 Feb 2016:
The U.S. Southwest Is Moving
Toward a Drier Climate, New Study Shows
The southwestern United States is becoming increasingly dry and is likely to stay that way
for the foreseeable future as the weather patterns that typically bring precipitation to the region are becoming increasingly rare, according to a new study. Analyzing 35 years of data, researchers from the National Center for Atmospheric Research identified low-pressure systems in the North Pacific as being responsible for bringing moisture to the Southwest. But between 1979 and 2014, those low-pressure systems increasingly gave way to high-pressure systems, which have generally kept precipitation away from the Southwest and have caused drought there and in California. The outlook for the future is not good, said the researchers, writing in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.
The shift toward higher pressure in the North Pacific is consistent with climate models, which predict that a belt of higher average pressure that now sits closer to the equator will move north.
02 Feb 2016:
General Electric Joins
The Move From CFL Bulbs to LEDs
General Electric, a leader in the lighting market, has announced that it will stop manufacturing compact fluorescent light (CFL) bulbs by the end of the year and
increasingly shift production to LED
(light emitting diode) bulbs, which last longer, produce a better-quality light, and are rapidly declining in price. The move highlights a trend away from CFL bulbs, which several years ago were the go-to choice for energy-saving bulbs to replace energy-intensive incandescent light bulbs. “Now is the right time to transition from CFL to LED,” said GE lighting executive John Strainic. The price of an LED bulb has fallen from $30 to $5 in recent years and continues to decline. Retail giant Ikea abandoned CFL bulbs last year and now sells only LED lights, and other major retailers like Walmart are expected to follow suit — a move welcomed by environmental groups, which laud the large energy savings from LEDs.
01 Feb 2016:
Lab-raised Caribbean Coral
Grown in the Wild for the First Time
Caribbean coral colonies bred in a lab, using in-vitro fertilization, have for the first time been raised to sexual maturity in their
natural marine habitat, according to findings published in the Bulletin of Marine Science
. Offspring of endangered elkhorn coral were reared from gametes collected in the field and successfully reattached to a reef a year later, where they have grown in size considerably
according to researchers from SECORE International
. Over the past four decades, an estimated 80 percent of all Caribbean corals have disappeared. The elkhorn coral’s decline is so severe that it was the first coral species to be listed as threatened under the U.S. Endangered Species Act in 2006. Due to its large size, branching shape, and preference for shallow waters, the coral is particularly effective at protecting shorelines from incoming storms, as well as providing a critical habitat for many reef organisms. Scientists hope this success will be an important step in helping restore endangered reefs
26 Jan 2016:
Cost of Manufacturing Solar
Panels Is Projected to Continue Falling
The cost of manufacturing solar panels is dropping more quickly than previously predicted, putting solar energy on course to meet
20 percent of global energy demand by 2027, according to Oxford University mathematicians, who developed a new forecasting model
. By contrast, the International Energy Agency’s predictions are far more conservative, stating that by 2050, solar panels will generate just 16 percent of global energy demand. The Oxford researchers' model predicts solar panel costs will continue to decrease 10 percent a year for the foreseeable future. Their model draws on historical data from 53 different technologies. The findings should help refute claims that solar PV cannot be ramped up quickly enough, said Oxford's Doyne Farmer, who co-wrote the paper. “We put ourselves in the past, pretended we didn’t know the future, and used a simple method to forecast the costs of the technologies,” he said.
25 Jan 2016:
Massive Transformation to Clean
Energy in the U.S. is Possible, Study Says
A rapid and affordable transformation to wind and solar energy within 15 years is possible in the U.S., according to a new study by NOAA
Map showing U.S. wind energy potential
and University of Colorado Boulder researchers published in the journal Nature Climate Change
. This energy transformation could slash greenhouse emissions by as much as 78 percent below 1990 levels, the study said. One of the biggest issues with weather-related power generation is its inherent intermittent nature, leading utilities to rely on gas-fired generators and other reserves during cloudy or low-wind periods. The solution to this problem is to scale up renewable energy generation systems to match the scale of weather systems, the scientists said. The model partially depends on significant improvements to the nation’s outdated electrical grid, including the creation of new, high-voltage direct-current transmissions lines.
07 Jan 2016:
New Device Harvests Energy From
Walking and Exercising, Researchers Say
Researchers at MIT have developed a new method
for harnessing energy
generated by very small bending motions, which could be capable
Schematic of new human energy harvester
of harvesting power from a broader range of natural human activities such as walking and exercising. Based on electrochemical principles — the slight bending of a sandwich of metal and polymer sheets, with materials similar to those in lithium ion batteries — the new technology can more effectively capture energy from human motions than previous devices. Those devices, which were based on frictional technology or the compression of crystalline materials, can capture energy from mechanical vibrations, but they are not as compatible with the pace of human movements, the researchers explain in the journal Nature Communications
. When bent even a very small amount, the new layered composite produces a pressure difference that squeezes lithium ions through a polymer. The process produces alternating electrical current, the researchers say, which can be used directly to power devices such as cell phones and audio players.
06 Jan 2016:
Graphene Membrane Can Clean
Nuclear Wastewater, New Research Shows
Microscopic graphene membranes can effectively filter radioactive particles from nuclear reactor wastewater
Microscopic image of graphene membrane
at room temperature, researchers from the University of Manchester have shown. Writing in the journal Science
, the researchers demonstrated that graphene membranes can act as a sieve, separating different varieties of hydrogen — both radioactive and non-radioactive isotopes — from water. The new technology could also be scaled to produce significant amounts of so-called "heavy water," which is a non-radioactive component that is required in large quantities to produce nuclear energy. The graphene technology is 10 times cheaper and more efficient than current methods of producing heavy water. "This is really the first membrane shown to distinguish between subatomic particles," said University of Manchester researcher Marcelo Lozada-Hidalgo.
10 Dec 2015:
Paris COP21: An Unexpected Move
Toward Global Target of 1.5 Degrees
It is the big surprise of the Paris talks: the growing acceptance of a call from small nations most vulnerable to climate change
for the conference to declare warming should be halted at 1.5 degrees Celsius. Even a few months ago, this seemed unimaginable. Two degrees was the only target on the table. But here it has gained momentum with more than 100 nations, including the U.S. and the EU, agreeing it should be in the final agreement. With more than a day of talks remaining, inclusion is far from a done deal. But it has strong support. A 1.5-degree target “looks much more scientifically justifiable,” said Johan Rockström, director of the Stockholm Resilience Institute.
07 Dec 2015:
Soaring Global CO2
Emissions May Have Peaked, Data Show
CO2 emissions in 2015, at 35.7 billion tons, are likely to be exactly where they were two years ago, according to a new study
Global CO2 emissions are projected to fall in 2015.
published in the journal Nature Climate Change
. The flat-lining emissions trajectory is the result of China's recent sharp decline in coal burning and the global surge in renewables like wind and solar power, said Corinne Le Quéré, director of the Tyndall Centre at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England, who led the analysis. The study estimates China's emissions have fallen by 3.9 percent this year. Le Quéré said she does not believe the world has yet hit "peak emissions." Continued rapid industrial expansion by countries such as India that still rely on coal for energy means further rises probably lie ahead, she said. But the evidence is growing that peak emissions may be closer than previously imagined.
25 Nov 2015:
Airlines Could Halve Emissions
By 2050 by Making Cost-Saving Changes
Airlines could cut their greenhouse gas emissions in half over the next 35 years by making changes that would actually
Cost-effective changes could cut airline emissions.
save them money, according to
research published in the journal Nature Climate Change
. Researchers developed a list of 14 strategies, all based on current technologies, that airlines could pursue to cut emissions, which account for roughly 2 to 3 percent of the total carbon dioxide added to the atmosphere each year. For example, one recommendation is to keep planes at the gate until takeoff rather than making them idle on the runway, or to use fewer engines — perhaps even electric engines — when taxiing. Emissions could also be cut significantly by reducing aircraft weight, the researchers say, such as by lowering the amount of extra fuel carried or replacing seats and brakes with ones made from lighter materials. Updating flight paths to more direct routes, adjusting altitude and speed to avoid drag-inducing turbulence, and retiring older planes would also cut costs and emissions.
20 Nov 2015:
Global Forest Cover Estimates
Vary Widely Based on Definition, Study Says
Measurements of global forest cover can vary widely — by as much as 6 percent of the planet's land area, a swath equal in size
to China, according to research
from the University of Maryland. The reason behind the discrepancy actually lies in how different researchers and organizations define forest cover, the researchers note. Geographers have long called for the definition to be standardized, but until now, no one had quantified the scope of the variance. The largest ambiguities in forest calculations are driven by uncertainties near savannas, shrublands, mountain ridge forests, and other areas with intermediate tree cover. “It’s not technology’s fault” that forest maps are inconsistent, said lead author Joseph Sexton. But until the definitions are standardized, he said, it will be difficult to properly assess land cover or conservation measures related to climate change and biodiversity.
19 Nov 2015:
Genetically Engineered Salmon
Approved for Sale in U.S. Supermarkets
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration today approved
genetically engineered salmon for human consumption, marking the first
AquAdvantage salmon (top) compared to conventional salmon
time an animal with genetic alterations has been cleared for sale in supermarkets across the nation. A long and bitter battle
has surrounded the issue, and this approval comes five years after government reviewers deemed AquAdvantage Atlantic salmon, as the fish is known, safe for consumers and the environment. Opponents have argued that the genetic integrity of wild salmon could be threatened if the GM fish were to escape from contained farms into rivers and oceans. The company says, however, that the fish will be raised on land, thus making escape into the wild impossible, and that the GM salmon can be farmed more efficiently because they have a faster growth rate than conventionally farmed salmon.
17 Nov 2015:
New Study Finds Limited and
Uneven Water Reserves Near Earth's Surface
Roughly 5.5 million cubic miles of groundwater are stored in the earth’s crust, according to
new research published in
the journal Nature Geoscience
, but the resource is distributed unevenly across the globe, as shown in this map. Combining data with models on the permeability and porosity of rocks and soils, and on water table gradients, researchers illustrated the depth of groundwater around the world. If earth's groundwater were to cover the planet's surface evenly, the scientists predicted that the pool would be approximately 600 feet deep. However, only six percent of this groundwater is usable for most purposes. This water, which is closer to the surface, is also more sensitive to climate change and human contamination. The research highlights how unevenly this resource is distributed across the globe, scientists say, as well as the need to manage water reserves in a sustainable way.
13 Nov 2015:
Sharks Will Likely Be Less
Effective Hunters With Climate Change
Sharks will likely become much smaller and less aggressive hunters under the rising CO2 levels and warming oceans associated
Port Jackson sharks are bottom-dwellers.
with climate change, according to a study published in Scientific Reports
by University of Adelaide researchers. In large-tank laboratory experiments with Port Jackson sharks — a bottom-feeding variety that primarily relies on smell to find food — the researchers found that the combination of warmer water and high CO2 increased the sharks' energy requirements and reduced their metabolic efficiency. Elevated CO2 levels also dulled the sharks' sense of smell to the point that they were unable to locate prey — a finding confirmed in previous CO2/olfaction studies. Together, these effects led to dramatic reductions in the sharks' growth rates. "With a reduced ability to hunt, sharks will no longer be able to exert the same top-down control over the marine food webs, which is essential for maintaining healthy ocean ecosystems," said lead researcher Ivan Nagelkerken.
10 Nov 2015:
New Online Tool Maps Lands
Managed and Protected by Indigenous People
Indigenous people have historically demarcated their ancestral lands in a variety of ways, from rudimentary agreements and maps to,
A new online tool maps native lands.
more recently, drone surveys. But until now, there has been no systematic way of recording the actual boundaries and legal status of each swath of land managed by native peoples, who, as research shows, often do a better job of protecting their lands than local or national governments. LandMark
, a new tool launched today by a broad partnership including the World Resources Institute (WRI), is the first online, interactive platform for mapping lands managed by native communities. It was created to fill a critical gap in indigenous and community rights and make clear that these lands are not vacant, idle, or available to outsiders for exploitative development such as mining, palm oil plantations, or timber concessions. But Abdon Nababan, secretary general of the Indonesia's Indigenous Peoples' Alliance, cautioned that “these maps do us no good unless they become public knowledge and indigenous rights are recognized by all who have ambitions to grab our lands.”
09 Nov 2015:
Globe Is Set to Cross 1 Degree C
Temperature Increase Threshold in 2015
The United Kingdom’s Met Office says that 2015 will be the year when average world temperatures rise more than 1 degree C
Globaly, 2015 is expected to be warmer than 2014.
above pre-industrial levels. That is halfway to the 2 degrees C temperature increase threshold that scientists say could dangerously destabilize the planet’s climate system. The Met office reported that from January to September this year, global temperatures hit 1.02 degrees C above pre-industrial averages and that temperatures for the full year are virtually certain to be above the 1 C level. Meanwhile, the World Meteorological Association (WMO) reported that atmospheric concentrations of CO2 in 2014 averaged 397.7 parts per million
and that average 2015 concentrations could surpass the 400 ppm mark. “We are moving into uncharted territory at a frightening speed,” WMO Secretary General Michel Jarraud said.
30 Oct 2015:
Thousand-Year Storm Event
Leads to Striking Flooding in Death Valley
A system of storms this month caused significant flooding in most of Death Valley National Park in southeastern California. These images,
obtained via a U.S. Geological Survey-NASA satellite
, contrast the region's moisture content in October 2015 and October 2014, which was a year with typical precipitation. The images have been enhanced with false color to highlight water at or near the surface of the earth; green and blue indicate locations with high moisture content. Especially striking is Badwater Basin, the lowest point in North America at an elevation of 279 feet below sea level, which is usually a dry lakebed. In the 2015 image, Badwater Basin is full of water. Flash floods from the so-called "1,000-year" flood event destroyed roads and utilities, and damaged several historical structures, according to the USGS.
27 Oct 2015:
Thawing Permafrost Soils
Rapidly Release CO2 Into Atmosphere
A new study in Alaska shows that as permafrost soils thaw, they rapidly release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere
, further exacerbating
Researchers collected samples of permafrost from underground tunnels.
global warming. Researchers from the U.S. Geological Survey and two universities dug a tunnel in permafrost near Fairbanks and subjected the frozen soils to rising temperatures. The study showed that permafrost is highly biodegradable, with the carbon in the thawing soils rapidly being consumed by single-celled organisms. Those organisms then release carbon into the atmosphere. The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
, documented some of the fastest permafrost decomposition rates ever recorded. In effect, the researchers said, thawing means that permafrost — currently isolated from the carbon cycle
— has the potential to become a major source of carbon emissions.
Interview: ‘Third Way’ Technologies
Could Help Turn the Tide on Climate
Massive seaweed farms that suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and counteract ocean acidification. The widespread adoption of carbon
fiber technology that extracts CO2 from the air and turns it into cars and other industrial products. Concrete manufacturing that is carbon-negative rather than the energy-guzzling Portland cement used today. These and other ideas represent what Australian scientist Tim Flannery calls “third way technologies” — safe methods to reduce carbon dioxide levels that could be adopted in concert with large-scale reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. In an interview with Yale Environment 360
, Flannery explains that unlike risky geo-engineering schemes, these approaches “strengthen Earth’s own self-regulatory system by drawing CO2 out of the atmosphere in ways the planet naturally does already.”
Read the interview.
15 Oct 2015:
Gates Calls Divestment
A `False Solution’ to Global Warming
Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft and co-chair of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, has called the fossil fuel divestment campaign a “false solution”
to climate change and says the best way to decarbonize the global economy is by developing revolutionary renewable energy technologies. “We need an energy miracle,” Gates told The Atlantic magazine.
“That may make it seem too daunting to people, but miracles in science are happening all the time.” Gates said he is pledging $2 billion of his foundation’s endowment to research and develop alternative energy technologies. He criticized the divestment movement
for “using up (campaigners’) idealism and energy on something that won’t emit less carbon.” The Gates Foundation, the world’s largest charitable organization, has $1.4 billion invested in fossil fuel companies, and activists have been calling on Gates to sell those holdings.
14 Oct 2015:
Toyota Vows to Eliminate
Nearly All of Its Gasoline Cars by 2050
The global automobile giant, Toyota, has announced plans to steadily phase out production of gasoline-powered cars
and to slash emissions from its fleet by 90 percent by 2050. Speaking in Tokyo, Toyota executives vowed to work with government officials and other companies to replace internal combustion cars with hydrogen fuel cell vehicles and hybrids. “You may think 35 years is a long time, but for an automaker to envision all combustion engines as gone is pretty extraordinary,” said a senior Toyota executive. The company said that by 2020 annual sales of its hybrid vehicles will reach 1.5 million and sales of fuel cell vehicles will hit 30,000 — 10 times the projected figure for 2017. Meanwhile, Volkswagen, shaken by scandal over falsifying emissions data on its diesel cars, announced it will increasingly shift production
to hybrid and electric vehicles.
06 Oct 2015:
Styrofoam May Be Biodegradable
After All, Thanks to Mealworms, Study Says
Mealworms can survive on a diet of polystyrene plastics — commonly used to make Styrofoam — according to research published in
Mealworms devouring Styrofoam
the journal Environmental Science and Technology
. The findings point toward a possible solution for dealing with one of the most-polluting forms of plastic. In the study, 100 mealworms consumed between 34 and 39 milligrams of Styrofoam per day. These worms were as healthy as those fed a normal diet, the researchers report, and excreted biodegraded Styrofoam fragments that were usable as agricultural soil. While studies have found that other organisms, including waxworms and Indian mealmoth larvae, are able to digest plastics such as polyethylene, this is the first organism able to digest Styrofoam, which is generally considered non-biodegradable. The discovery could aid in better understanding of the conditions and enzymes that contribute to plastic degradation.
02 Oct 2015:
Brown Carbon Plays Larger Role
In Climate Than Assumed, Study Says
Climate models are underestimating the effects of so-called brown carbon from sources such as forest fires because the models
do not account for regional factors — such as areas where wood-burning stoves are common — when estimating brown carbon's climate-warming impacts. Black carbon, primarily from urban combustion sources like vehicles and factories, absorbs the most sunlight, the researchers explain, and it's well-accounted for in climate models. However, most models don't properly account for brown carbon, the researchers say. Brown carbon "can be a significant absorber of sunlight, making it as bad for climate warming as black carbon," said co-author Manvendra Dubey of Los Alamos National Laboratory. The study, published this week in Nature Communications
, stresses the differing effects of black and brown carbon on the climate: Solid wood combustion, a source of brown carbon soot, is pervasive during United Kingdom winters, but very uncommon in other study locations, such as Los Angeles, which generally sees more black carbon soot from vehicles.
25 Sep 2015:
‘Pop-up’ Wetlands Will
Help Millions of Migrating Birds This Fall
Birds migrating south from the Arctic this fall will have access to 7,000 new acres of temporary wetland habitat for their California
stopovers, according to
researchers with NASA, The Nature Conservancy, and other academic and conservation organizations. The BirdReturns program creates “pop-up habitats” — temporarily flooded rice fields — for some of the millions of sandpipers, plovers, and other shorebirds that migrate each year from their summer Arctic breeding grounds to winter homes in California, which is in the midst of a severe drought, Mexico, and Central and South America. By combining on-the-ground observations and NASA satellite data, researchers can identify areas where birds flocked during previous migrations. Matching the location and timing of the pop-up wetland habitats with the route and timing of migrating shorebirds is critical, researchers say.
Interview: A Scientist’s View
On How to Repair the Planet
For an environmental scientist who studies how humanity is pushing the earth close to potentially disastrous tipping points, Johan Rockström
of a new book, Big World, Small Planet
— is surprisingly optimistic. Although he reckons that our species has crossed four of nine “planetary boundaries,” including those on climate change and deforestation, he believes there is still time to pull back from the brink and create a sustainable future based on renewable energy and a “circular” economy that continually reuses resources. In an interview with Yale Environment 360
, Rockström describes how an alignment of science, technological advances, and a growing public hunger for action can get civilization back on track. “It’s not a journey where we are backing into the caves,” says Rockström. “It’s a journey of high technology ... and huge, multiple benefits.”
Read the interview.