Science & Technology
Earth Observation Satellites Help
Scientists Understand Global Change
Global warming is affecting more than just atmospheric temperatures — it is also changing water cycles
, soil conditions, and animal migrations. Earth observation satellites aid scientists in measuring and monitoring these changes so societies can better adapt. Although there are well over 1,000 active orbiting satellites, less than 15 percent are used to monitor Earth’s environment. Yale Environment 360
presents a gallery of satellites that scientists are using to better understand how the planet is changing.
View the gallery.
14 Jul 2014:
Human Activity Has Caused
Long-term Australian Drought, Model Shows
A new high-resolution climate model shows that southwestern Australia's long-term decline in fall and winter rainfall, which began around 1970 and has increased over the last four decades, is caused by
increases in man-made greenhouse gas emissions and ozone depletion, according to
research published in Nature Geoscience
. Simulating both natural and man-made climate effects, scientists showed that the decline in rainfall is primarily driven by human activity. Rises in greenhouse gas emissions and thinning of the ozone hole have led to changes in large-scale atmospheric circulation, including a poleward movement of the westerly winds and increasing atmospheric surface pressure over parts of southern Australia. This has led to decreased rainfall, the study said. The drying is most severe over southwest Australia, where the model forecasts a 40 percent decline in average rainfall by the late 21st century, with significant implications for regional water resources.
10 Jul 2014:
A Possible Advance in Fight
To Combat a Deadly Amphibian Fungus
Scientists have discovered that a certain kind of toad can acquire immunity to the deadly chytrid fungus
, which has caused widespread mortality among amphibians worldwide. Reporting in Nature
, the scientists say they have conferred immunity in oak toads to the chytrid fungus after repeatedly exposing them to the organism that causes the disease. The lead author of the study, Jason Rohr of the University of South Florida, said the discovery means it might be possible to confer immunity on entire communities of amphibians in the wild by lacing local water sources with dead versions of the fungus that could be absorbed by the amphibians. But Rohr said many questions remain, including how long immunity lasts, what concentration of released antigen would confer immunity, and whether such releases would harm other organisms. The chytrid fungus, Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis
, attacks the skin of amphibians
, thickening it and preventing the animals from absorbing water and vital salts.
02 Jul 2014:
Roughly $80 Billion Wasted on
Power for Networked Devices, Report Says
The world’s 14 billion online electronic devices, such as modems, printers, game consoles, and cable boxes, waste around $80 billion in electricity annually because of inefficient technology, according to a new report
the International Energy Agency (IEA). In 2013, networked devices consumed around 616 terawatt hours (TWh) of electricity, with most of that used in standby mode. Roughly 400 TWh — equivalent to the combined annual electricity consumption of the United Kingdom and Norway — was wasted because of inefficient technology. The problem will worsen by 2020, the agency projects, with an estimated $120 billion wasted as devices such as refrigerators, washing machines, and thermostats become networked. Much of the problem boils down to inefficient “network standby,” or maintaining a network connection while in standby mode. Most network-enabled devices draw as much power in this mode as when fully active, the report notes. Using today's best technology could cut energy consumption by 65 percent, the IEA said.
Interview: Where Will the Earth
Head After Its ‘Climate Departure’?
The term “climate departure” has an odd ring, but its meaning is relatively straightforward. It marks the point at which the earth’s climate begins to cease resembling
what has come before and moves into a new state where the extreme becomes the norm. Camilo Mora — a University of Hawaii biogeographer, ecologist, and specialist in marshaling big data for climate modeling — has calculated a rough idea for the time of the earth’s climate departure: 2047. That date varies depending on region
, he says. But in a widely publicized paper published in the journal Nature
last year, Mora and 13 colleagues explored the concept of climate departure and what it will mean for our planet. In an interview with Yale Environment 360
, Mora explains why tropical regions will be most profoundly affected by climate change, why controlling population growth is at the core of the challenge posed by global warming, and the frustrations he and other scientists feel as their warnings about rising temperatures are ignored.
25 Jun 2014:
Blizzard Helps Scientists
Visualize Airflow Around Wind Turbines
A Minnesota blizzard has helped scientists understand airflow patterns around large wind turbines, paving the way for more efficient turbine designs and wind farm
Airflow patterns are visible during blizzard.
configurations, researchers report
in Nature Communications
. Wind farms lose roughly 10 to 20 percent of the potential energy they could harvest, and complex airflow patterns play the largest role in those energy losses. Studying airflow around large turbines, which can be more than 100 meters tall, is not feasible in lab settings, so scientists typically test smaller turbine models in wind tunnels and use tracer particles to visualize airflow patterns. Researchers from the University of Minnesota realized they could scale up their experiments to real-world conditions by using heavy snowfall during a blizzard to trace airflow patterns, as shown in this video. Their findings show that airflow patterns under real-world conditions differ from smaller-scale laboratory tests in important ways, and those differences should be taken into account when designing turbines and wind farms.
24 Jun 2014:
Concentrated Solar Power
Could Compete with Natural Gas, Study Says
Concentrated solar power (CSP) could meet a substantial percentage of current energy demand in some parts of the world, according to research
CSP plant in San Bernardino County, CA
published in the journal Nature Climate Change
. In the Mediterranean region, for example, the study shows that a grid-connected CSP network could provide 70 to 80 percent of current electricity demand, at no extra cost compared to natural gas-fired power plants. CSP could also feasibly meet energy demands in parts of southern Africa, according to researchers. CSP systems use mirrors or lenses to concentrate solar rays into a small area. The concentrated energy heats a liquid that produces steam to drive turbines, which means that the collected energy can be stored as heat and converted to electricity when needed — a major advantage over solar panels, which store energy much less efficiently.
How Citizen Scientists Are Using
The Web to Track the Natural World
By making the recording and sharing of environmental data easier than ever, web-based technology has fostered the rapid growth of so-called citizen scientists — volunteers who collaborate with scientists to collect and interpret data. Numerous Internet-based projects
now make use of citizen scientists to monitor environmental health and to track sensitive plant and wildlife populations. From counting butterflies, frogs, and bats across the globe, to piloting personal drones capable of high-definition infrared imaging, citizen scientists are playing a crucial role in collecting data that will help researchers understand the environment. Here is a sampling of some of these projects.
View the gallery.
16 Jun 2014:
Skyscraper-Size Ice Structures
Discovered at Base of Greenland Ice Sheet
Melting and refreezing at the base of the Greenland ice sheet has created massive, complex structures the height of skyscrapers and the width of Manhattan, according to
research published in Nature Geoscience
The hidden formations more than a mile below the surface stand in stark contrast to the nearly flat, smooth exterior of the ice sheet and may accelerate its flow toward the sea, researchers say. Scientists had previously interpreted the irregular topography at the base of the ice as hills or mountains, but ice-penetrating radar revealed that the structures were made of ice rather than rock. Scientists from Columbia University explained that as meltwater at the bottom refreezes over hundreds or thousands of years, it radiates heat into the surrounding ice sheet, making it pick up its pace as the ice becomes softer and flows more easily. Greenland's glaciers appear to be moving more rapidly toward the sea as climate warms, but it's unclear how the refreezing process will influence this trend, researchers said.
10 Jun 2014:
Air Pollution Smartphone App
Seeks to Shame China's Polluting Factories
A new smartphone app
seeks to shine a spotlight on major Chinese polluters by letting users see in real-time which factories are violating air pollution emissions
App monitors factories' air pollution in China.
limits. The app, developed by the Beijing-based Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs (IPE), uses data from some 15,000 factories throughout China that are now required to report emissions to local officials and the Environment Ministry on an hourly basis. The government made all the data public at the beginning of this year, but now, for the first time, those data are available in one place through IPE's app and website. The app allows users to check air quality data for 190 cities and share air emissions data from polluters in those areas. Factories producing excessive emissions are shown in red. "If the air quality is bad you can switch (to the factory map) and see who is in your neighborhood," IPE's senior project manager explained.
05 Jun 2014:
Coating for Roof Tiles Could
Help Clear Smog-Causing Air Pollutants
Engineering students have created a roof tile coating
that, when applied to an average-sized residential roof,
Coated tiles (left) and an uncoated tile (right).
breaks down the same amount of smog-causing nitrogen oxides per year as a car driven 11,000 miles makes. If applied to one million roofs, the titanium-dioxide based coating, which costs roughly $5 per roof, could clear 21 tons of nitrogen oxides each day, the team calculated. That could put a noticeable dent in atmospheric levels of the pollutant; in Southern California, for example, an average of 500 tons of nitrogen oxides are emitted daily. The team, which was recently recognized in a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency student design contest, showed that their tiles could remove 88 to 97 percent of nitrogen oxides in laboratory tests — a feat that other roof tile prototypes have not demonstrated.
30 May 2014:
New Battery Technology
Could Offer Cheap Renewable Energy Storage
New battery technology that uses cheaper and safer materials to store large amounts of energy may soon enable utility companies to use more renewable power,
Iron-chromium flow battery technology
MIT Technology Review. The new device is a type of flow battery, and it uses liquid materials that rely on iron-chromium chemical reactions to store energy. California-based startup Enervault, developer of the new battery, figured out how to use materials that had been tried in batteries decades ago; Enervault overcame a key technical challenge that had caused the earlier batteries to quickly degrade. The new battery is large — it can store one megawatt-hour of electricity, or enough to run 10,000 100-watt light bulbs for an hour — and the materials last more than 20 years, according to its developer. Although the battery is inefficient compared to conventional batteries — it loses 30 percent of the energy used to charge it — it is still economically viable, the company says. The iron-chromium flow battery costs 80 percent less than vanadium flow batteries, a competing technology. The batteries are currently in use at a small power plant near Modesto, California.
20 May 2014:
Widespread Greenland Melting
Due to Forest Fires and Warming, Study Says
Rising temperatures and ash from Northern Hemisphere forest fires combined to cause large-scale surface melting of the Greenland ice sheet in 2012, an
echo of a similar event that occurred in 1889, a new study
finds. The massive Greenland ice sheet — the second largest ice body in the world after the Antarctic ice sheet — experiences annual melting at low elevations near the coastline, but surface melt is rare in the dry snow region in its center. In July 2012, however, satellites observed for the first time surface melt across more than 97 percent of the ice sheet, generating reports that the event was almost exclusively the result of climate change. In the new report, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
, researchers found that in both 2012 and 1889 exceptionally warm temperatures combined with black carbon sediments from Northern Hemisphere forest fires to darken the surface of the ice sheet to a critical albedo threshold, causing the large-scale melting events. Since Arctic temperatures and the frequency of forest fires are both expected to rise with climate change, large-scale melt events on the Greenland ice sheet may begin to occur almost annually by 2100, the researchers say.
15 May 2014:
Intensity of Hurricanes
Now Peaking Farther From the Equator
Powerful, destructive tropical cyclones are now reaching their peak intensity farther from the equator and closer to the poles, according to a new study
in the journal
Hurricane Sandy's progression in 2012
. Over the last 30 years, tropical cyclones, also known as hurricanes or typhoons, have moved poleward at a rate of roughly 33 miles per decade in the Northern Hemisphere and 38 miles per decade in the Southern Hemisphere. Ocean temperatures between 82 and 86 degrees F seem to be "ideal for the genesis of tropical cyclones," said MIT scientist Kerry Emanuel, who co-authored the study, "and as that belt migrates poleward, which surely it must as the whole ocean warms, the tropical cyclone genesis regions might just move with it." The poleward shift of hurricanes and typhoons could lead to "potentially profound consequences to life and property" in regions that previously had not been hit by tropical cyclones.
Five Questions for John Holdren
On the U.S. Climate Assessment
The federal government this month released its National Climate Assessment
, the most comprehensive report to
John P. Holdren
date on the climate impacts already being felt in the U.S. Saying climate change “has moved firmly into the present,” the report documented how drier regions are growing drier, heat waves more intense, and large swaths of forest dying from insect infestations. Yale Environment 360
asked John P. Holdren, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, five questions about the report and about plans by President Obama to intensify actions to rein in CO2 emissions and adapt to rising seas and other changes. Read more.
Interview: Can Marine Life Adapt
To the World’s Acidifying Oceans?
As the world’s oceans grow more acidic from increased absorption of atmospheric carbon dioxide, marine scientists are confronting a key question: How well can
organisms like mollusks, crustaceans, and corals adapt to these more corrosive conditions? One of the leading authorities in this field is University of California, Santa Barbara marine biologist Gretchen Hofmann. Her work in recent years has shown, in fact, that some sea organisms that build shells do seem to have some ability to acclimate to more acidic waters. But in an interview with Yale Environment 360
, Hofmann cautions that this adaptive capacity has its limits. The continuing burning of fossil fuels, she says, could push ocean acidity past a tipping point, rendering some mollusks and other organisms unable to build shells.
Read the interview.
09 May 2014:
Biodiversity, But Not Community
Composition, Surprisingly Stable Over Time
A major turnover of species in habitats around the globe is underway, resulting in the creation of novel biological communities, but overall species diversity is much more
stable than scientists had believed, according to a new report
in the journal Science
. In a survey of 100 long-term biodiversity monitoring projects in a variety of habitats around the world, the authors found that the majority of those studies (59 percent) documented increasing species richness. Biodiversity declined in 41 percent of the studies, but, in all cases the overall change in biodiversity was modest, the researchers said. When looking at changes in the species constituting those communities, however, the researchers found a surprisingly high rate of change — an average of about 10 percent change per decade. "A main policy application of this work is that we're going to need to focus as much on the identity of species as on the number of species," one of the study's authors said. "The number of species in a place may not be our best scorecard for environmental change."
08 May 2014:
Natural Variations May Account
For Up to Half of Greenland's Warming
Up to half of the recent climate change in Greenland and surrounding regions — which have warmed at roughly twice the pace of the rest of the planet since 1979 — may be due to natural climate variations that originate in the tropical Pacific and are not connected
Meltwater from Russell Glacier
with the overall warming of the Earth, a new study
says. Still, at least half the warming remains attributable to rising global carbon dioxide emissions, according to research published in the journal Nature
. Climate data and advanced computer models show that changes in the western tropical Pacific Ocean, which has been about 0.3 degrees warmer than normal, have caused shifts in atmospheric pressure over the North Atlantic. Those changes set off a stationary wave in the atmosphere that arcs in a great circle from the tropical Pacific toward Greenland, pulling warmer air over that massive island. "Along this wave train there are warm spots where the air has been pushed down, and cold spots where the air has been pulled up," one author explained. "And Greenland is in one of the warm spots."
06 May 2014:
Darwin's Finches Fight Off
Parasitic Maggots with Treated Nest Fibers
Researchers apparently have discovered a unique way to help Darwin's finches on the Galápagos Islands fight off the parasitic maggots
threatening their survival, according to a new report
in the journal Current Biology
. While working in the Galápagos, scientists
A Darwin's finch collects treated cotton for its nest
from the University of Utah noticed that the finches often collected cotton and other fibers to weave into their nests. The researchers decided to provide the birds with cotton treated with permethrin — a mild pesticide, commonly used to treat head lice in children, that is safe for birds — hoping the finches would incorporate the fibers in their nests. Finches near the test sites did just that, and their "self-fumigated" nests contained about half as many parasitic maggots — which infest and can kill newly-hatched chicks — compared to nests with untreated cotton. Darwin's finches and other bird species in the Galápagos have suffered steep population declines since the flies showed up in large numbers in the 1990s.
05 May 2014:
New European Satellites
To Give More Detailed Views of Earth
The European Space Agency has begun launching
a series of satellites designed to collect detailed environmental data around the globe — from radar-based, high-definition imagery to information about the
atmosphere's chemical composition. The first satellite in the ESA's Copernicus program, the Sentinel 1A, was launched last month and has already returned many striking images based on radar data, such as this view of Brussels, Belgium, in which the dense urban area contrasts with the city's heavily vegetated surroundings. Once Sentinel satellite 1B is launched next year, the two will be able to map the entire globe in six days, giving researchers and conservationists a powerful way to monitor both short- and long-term changes in the environment. Four additional groups of satellites are set to launch this year. Those arrays will focus on high-resolution photo imagery, topography, surface temperatures, and atmospheric chemistry.
02 May 2014:
Fracking May Induce Quakes at
Greater Distance than Previously Thought
Hydraulic fracturing and underground wastewater disposal may trigger earthquakes at tens of kilometers from the wells in which water is injected — a greater range than previously thought, according to new research from seismologists
. In one case, an earthquake
Fracking injection well in Louisiana
swarm in Oklahoma has been linked to a cluster of fracking injection wells up to 50 kilometers (31 miles) away, Cornell University researchers report. So-called "induced seismicity" — when human activity causes tremors in the earth's crust — is gaining attention as reports of earthquakes within the central and eastern U.S. have increased dramatically over the past few years. The rise coincides with increased hydraulic fracturing for oil and natural gas, and the injection of wastewater in deep disposal wells in many locations, including Colorado, Oklahoma, and Texas. According to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), an average rate of 100 earthquakes per year above a magnitude 3.0 occurred in the three years from 2010-2012, compared with an average rate of 21 events per year observed from 1967-2000.
Carries on in Key Arctic Ecosystem
At a time of rapidly deteriorating relations between Russia and America, U.S. scientist Joel Berger continues his work with his Russian counterparts
Third in a series of blog posts from the Russian Arctic
on Siberia's Wrangel Island. In the third of three blog posts for Yale Environment 360
, Berger — a biologist with the Wildlife Conservation Society and the University of Montana — writes about efforts to better understand how rapid climate change might affect muskoxen and other wildlife in the Russian and North American Arctic. As Berger explains, a key focus of Russian-American scientific cooperation is Beringia, the region of northwestern Alaska and extreme northeastern Russia where two countries — and continents — are divided by the Bering Sea.
25 Apr 2014:
Soils Release Far More CO2
Than Previously Thought, Researchers Find
As atmospheric CO2 levels rise, soils will likely store less carbon than scientists and climate models had predicted, according to new research
published in Science
. Scientists have long understood that rising carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere spur
photosynthesis and plant growth, adding more carbon to the soil. Scientists had thought this soil carbon was relatively stable and could remain locked away
for centuries. But the new study, from researchers at Northern Arizona University shows that increasing soil carbon actually spurs microbes to produce more CO2. Higher atmospheric CO2 levels added roughly 20 percent more carbon to the soil, through increased photosynthesis, but they also increased carbon turnover by microbes by 16.5 percent. Many climate models had assumed that far more of the carbon absorbed by soils stayed there for long periods of time. "Our findings mean that nature is not as efficient in slowing global warming as we previously thought," the lead researcher said.
Five Questions for IPCC Chairman
On Future of Climate Change Action
The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued a report last month on steps the world can take
to avoid the worst impacts of future climate change. It was the final interim report before the IPCC’s major Fifth Assessment Report due to be released in October. Yale Environment 360
asked Rajendra K. Pachauri, who has served as IPCC chairman since 2002, five questions about the latest report and about the prospects that the international community will finally take decisive action to address climate change at talks scheduled in Paris in 2015.Read more.
21 Apr 2014:
Massive Data Crunch
Shows Steady Rise in Warmer Days
The proportion of days in the United States that are warmer than the long-term average increased from 42 percent in 1964 to 67 percent today,
according to an analysis of 3.2 million temperature anomalies over the last
50 years. Enigma.io
, a New York City-based company that specializes in searches of information from public databases, examined data from 2,716 U.S. weather stations to track the temperature anomalies. The company found that since 1964, temperature anomalies characterized as warm or “strong warm” have increased by an average of .5 percent a year. Enigma’s data show, for example, that in 2012, 84 percent of temperature anomalies in the U.S. skewed on the warm side. The company forecast that by the 2030s more than 70 percent of anomalous temperatures in the U.S. are likely to be higher than the historical average, rather than colder.
17 Apr 2014:
Five Kamchatka Volcanoes
Erupt Simultaneously, NASA Images Show
A NASA satellite passing over Russia's Kamchatka Peninsula this week photographed five simultaneous volcanic eruptions
. The erupting volcanoes, from north
to south, are Shiveluch, Klyuchevskaya, Bezymianny, Kizimen, and Karymsky. Karymsky, a 1,536-meter (5,039-foot) peak that has erupted regularly since 1996, is the most active of the five. The tallest, Klyuchevskaya, is 4,750 meters (15,580 feet) high. Of the planet's roughly 1,550 volcanoes that have erupted in the recent geologic past, 113 are found on the Kamchatka Peninsula, in Russia's far northeast, according to NASA. Forty volcanoes on Kamchatka are active, meaning they are either erupting now or capable of erupting at any time. Kamchatka's fiery landscape is driven by plate tectonics: The Pacific Plate is slowly colliding with and sliding beneath the Okhotsk Plate. As the Pacific Plate melts, magma migrates up toward the surface, causing volcanic eruptions.
Studying a Polar Menagerie
On an Island in Arctic Russia
Ninety miles from the Russian mainland and 300 miles above the Arctic Circle, Wrangel Island is home to an eclectic assortment of fauna and flora — muskoxen,
Second in a series of blog posts from the Russian Arctic
polar bears, wolves, reindeer, wolverines, walruses, Asia’s only population of snow geese, and 417 plant species. Joel Berger, a field biologist with the Wildlife Conservation Society and the University of Montana, spent several weeks on Wrangel Island this spring. In the second of three blog posts for e360
, he describes the arduous conditions under which Russian and U.S. scientists collect data on the island’s odd assortment of creatures.
15 Apr 2014:
Possible with Advances in Semiconductors
New semiconductor technology is advancing the development of house windows that could double as solar panels, according to scientists
from Los Alamos National Lab and Italy. Their research into so-called
Solar-harvesting materials under UV light
"quantum dots" — ultra-small bits of semiconductors that transmit energy extremely efficiently and can be tuned toward specific colors — shows that quantum dots can be used in transparent materials to harvest sunlight with efficiencies comparable to standard solar panels. When highly transparent materials are embedded with quantum dots, they are known as luminescent solar concentrators (LSCs); the structures can absorb sunlight and re-radiate it at longer wavelengths directed toward the edge of the slab, where the energy is collected by a solar cell. In tests using large LSC slabs (sized in tens of centimeters), researchers reported harvesting photons at roughly 10 percent efficiency. Typical photovoltaic solar panels have an average efficiency of about 15 percent.
11 Apr 2014:
Parasitic Flatworm Could Be
Major Threat to Coral Reefs, Scientists Say
A coral-eating flatworm with a unique camouflaging strategy could be a major threat to the world's coral reefs, according to
researchers in the U.K. The parasite, called Amakusaplana acroporae
, infects a type of staghorn coral known as acropora, a major component
Amakusaplana acroporae, a parasitic coral flatworm
of reefs, and can destroy its coral host very quickly. The parasite has been detected at the Great Barrier Reef, and because it has no known natural predators, researchers are concerned it could spread quickly and decimate reefs worldwide. A novel camouflaging strategy makes the flatworm difficult to detect and monitor, the researchers say. When eating the coral tissue, the worm also ingests the coral's symbiotic algae. Instead of digesting the algae completely, the worm keeps a fraction of them alive and distributes them, along with the fluorescent pigments that give coral its characteristic hue, throughout its gut so that it perfectly mimics the appearance of the coral. The parasite has been identified in numerous aquarium-based corals, and biologists worry that it could spread rapidly if aquarium-raised coral, fish, or seaweed are introduced to natural reef environments.
07 Apr 2014:
Newfound Atmospheric 'Hole'
Threatens Polar Ozone Layer, Scientists Say
Researchers have discovered
a large opening in the Earth's atmosphere that is enabling pollutants to rise
Pacific atmosphere hole an elevator to the stratosphere
into the stratosphere and destroy ozone. The hole, which is in a part of the lower atmosphere called the "OH shield," is several thousand kilometers long and is centered over the tropical west Pacific Ocean. It's relatively close to Southeast Asia, a region with a booming population and rapidly increasing air pollution. The hole is a major concern because the OH shield usually scrubs air of chemical compounds emitted near the ground before they can reach the stratosphere, where those compounds can persist for long periods of time, reacting with and destroying ozone, say researchers at Germany's Alfred Wegener Institute who identified the hole. The newly discovered phenomenon acts as a sort of elevator, researchers say, drawing chlorofluorocarbons, sulfur dioxide, and other contaminants straight up to the stratosphere and bypassing the OH shield scrub.