Science & Technology
10 Nov 2016:
A New Initiative to Study
The Microbiome of Sub-Saharan Africa
Scientists have begun the first large-scale survey of microbial life in sub-Saharan Africa, analyzing 1,000 Ziploc bags of dirt from 10 countries, the journal Nature reported
. The three-year initiative, funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), hopes to improve understanding of Africa’s diverse microbial biome in an effort to stave off the worst climate change impacts and improve agricultural practices. The project is being led by ecologist Dan Cowan at the University of Pretoria and will involve sampling soils in Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Zambia, Kenya, Ethiopia, Côte d’Ivoire, Nigeria, and South Africa. The scientists will first analyze DNA to identify bacteria in the soils before looking into soil fungi in the next phase of the initiative.
21 Oct 2016:
Scientists Report Finding DNA
Mutations That Caused Snakes to Lose Legs
A mutation in the DNA of some reptiles about 150 million years ago switched off the gene responsible for forming limbs — leading to the
A green tree python.
creation of modern day snakes, according to two studies published week. The findings were discovered by two independent teams of researchers, which reported their results separately in the journals Current Biology
. Some snakes, including pythons and boas, still have tiny leg bones inside their bodies, remnants of this evolutionary history; but most species lost their legs starting about100 million years ago. The scientists traced the mutation back to a docking site for proteins, known as an enhancer, situated in front of the Sonic hedgehog
gene, which controls limb development. They found that the enhancer is simply switched off, not broken. When the missing DNA was fixed and the modified enhancer was put in mice, they grew legs like normal
19 Oct 2016:
Can We Turn CO2 into a Useable
Fuel? Scientists Say They Have Found a Way
Scientists at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee report that they have found a way to convert carbon dioxide into ethanol
, a usable fuel. The team used a spiky nanotechnology-based catalyst made out of carbon, copper, and nitrogen. When they applied voltage to the catalyst, CO2 dissolved in water turned into ethanol, with a yield of 63 percent. “We discovered somewhat by accident that this material works,” said Adam Rondinone, the Oak Ridge scientist that led the research. Because the materials are relatively cheap and the reaction can happen at room temperature, the researchers say the technique could be scaled up to store renewable energy as ethanol, for example, or to convert CO2 emissions into fuel. Finding new ways to use CO2 “in order to displace a fossil feedstock,” the scientists wrote in the study
, “is an appropriate intermediate step towards a carbon-free future.”
18 Oct 2016:
September Breaks Monthly Temp
Record, Continuing World’s Warming Trend
September was the warmest September since modern record keeping began around 1880, measuring 0.91 degrees Celsius higher than the 1951-1980
Temperature anomalies in September 2016.
average, according to new data
by NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies. According to NASA, “11 of the past 12 consecutive months dating back to October 2015 have set new monthly high-temperature records.” Or as the website Climate Central
put it, “September [is] an exclamation point on a string of hot months.” The new temperature data nearly guarantees that 2016 will be named the hottest year on record, measuring about 1.25 degrees Celsius above the late 19th century average, according to climate scientist Gavin Schmidt
, the director of GISS. NASA’s temperature data is collected by 6,300 meteorological stations scattered across the globe, a buoy-based data system in the oceans, and research centers on Antarctica.
14 Oct 2016:
Is There Too Much Emphasis
Being Placed on Carbon Capture Technology?
The world is placing too much credence on being able to combat climate change by pulling carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, a process known as “air capture
,” according to an article in the journal Science
this week. “Negative-emission technologies are not an insurance policy, but rather an unjust and high-stakes gamble,” wrote the article’s authors
, Kevin Anderson, a climate scientist at the University of Manchester in the U.K, and Glen Peters, a scientist at CICERO, a climate research organization in Norway. “There is a real risk they will be unable to deliver on the scale of their promise,” and assuming otherwise is “a moral hazard par excellence,” they wrote. Carbon capture technologies are a key component of the Paris climate agreement, with many of the modeling scenarios assuming the technology will be operating on a large scale later this century, reported Climate Central
13 Oct 2016:
Scientists Creating “Super Grass”
To Cut Methane Emissions from Cows
Danish scientists are developing a grass that will cut down how often cows burp and pass gas — reducing the amount of methane, a potent greenhouse gas,
Dairy cows in Europe.
they release into the atmosphere. Collaborating with international seed company DLF, the scientists are working to create a “super grass” that is easier for cows to digest, thereby reducing the amount of gas that builds up in their stomachs, several media outlets reported
. Global emissions of methane — which is roughly 30 times more potent than carbon dioxide over a 100-year period — have been on the rise since the 1980s. Livestock, specifically cows, are thought to release an estimated 90 million tons of methane into the atmosphere annually. The new, nearly $2 million research collaboration between the University of Aarhus in Denmark and DLF hopes to develop the new grass by 2024, at the latest.
07 Oct 2016:
Scotland to Generate Some of
World’s First Kite-Driven Power in 2017
The United Kingdom will begin harnessing energy from kites flying 450 meters above ground as early as next year. Developed by UK-based Kite Power Solutions
A kite-powered wind energy generator.
the system is composed of two 40-meter wide kites that rise and fall in tandem, spooling a tether line to turn a turbine. A test site was previously built in Essex
, and a 500-kilowatt system will be built near Stranraer, Scotland on the West Freugh air force station. Because the kites are lighter than wind turbines, they can more easily be built offshore and reach higher altitude winds, which are faster and more consistent. The technology, which companies hope could revolutionize global renewable energy strategies, is also being tested
in Switzerland and Italy, among other countries.
Public Art or Renewable Energy?
New Designs Aim to Produce Both
When the topic of energy infrastructure comes up, works of art don’t usually come to mind. But hundreds of such hybrid creations — part renewable power generators,
A vegetable farm off the Santa Monica Pier.
part large-scale art installations — now exist, at least on paper, as the result of a sustainable design competition known as the Land Art Generator Initiative
. Multi-disciplinary teams across the world have taken up the challenge to come up with buildable designs that produce renewable energy and “add value to public space, inspire, and educate.” In a photo essay, Yale Environment 360
highlights eight submissions to this year’s biennial competition, including the three winners announced this week. All designed for the waters off the Santa Monica Pier in Southern California, the systems range from a ring-shaped farm floating offshore to sail-like structures that harvest drinking water from fog.
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