Science & Technology
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.
22 Aug 2014:
Drought in Western U.S.
Has Caused Land to Rise, Researchers Say
The western U.S. has lost so much water during the ongoing severe drought that the land has sprung up by
GPS station in California's Inyo Mountains
as much as 15 millimeters (0.6 inches), according to a study in the journal Science
. Water at the surface of the earth typically weighs down the land, but the region has lost enough water that the tectonic plate underlying the western U.S. has undergone rapid uplift, much like an uncoiling spring, researchers explain. California's water deficit over the past 18 months has caused some of its mountain ranges to rise by more than half an inch, and the West overall has risen by 0.15 inches, according to the study. Using ground positioning data from GPS stations throughout the region, researchers from the University of California, San Diego, estimate the water loss to be 240 gigatons (63 trillion gallons) — equivalent to a nearly four-inch layer of water spread out over the entire western U.S.
21 Aug 2014:
Antarctica and Greenland
Losing Ice at Fastest Rate Ever Recorded
Ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica are losing mass at an unprecedented rate of 500 cubic kilometers per
year — enough ice to cover the Chicago metropolitan area with a layer of ice 600 meters thick — according to
German researchers. Using data from the European Space Agency's CryoSat 2 satellite from 2011 to 2014, the team created the most detailed maps to date of ice elevations across Antarctica and Greenland, accurate to a few meters in height. The results reveal that Greenland alone is losing ice volume by about 375 cubic kilometers per year, doubling since 2009, the scientists report. Ice loss in the West Antarctic Ice Sheet has increased by a factor of three over the same period. Combined, the two ice sheets are thinning at the highest rate observed since altimetry satellite records began about 20 years ago, the study found. Data show that East Antarctica is gaining ice volume, but at a moderate rate that doesn’t compensate the losses on the continent's other side.
Interview: Drones Are Emerging
As Valuable Conservation Tool
Ecologist Lian Pin Koh
is co-founder of a project called ConservationDrones.org
, which is pioneering the use of
Lian Pin Koh
low-cost drones in conservation efforts and biological research across the globe. In an interview with Yale Environment 360
, Koh, a researcher at the University of Adelaide, explains how drones – also known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) – can help monitor protected areas, collect data in inaccessible regions, and even deter poachers. “In just the last couple of months,” he says, “there has been tremendous interest from universities and other research institutes that finally see the value in this technology.”
Read the interview.
View a gallery.
18 Aug 2014:
Recent Glacier Losses Are
Mostly Driven by Human Activity, Study Says
Roughly one-quarter of the global glacier mass loss between the years 1851 and 2010 can be attributed to
Artesonraju Glacier in Cordillera Blanca, Peru
human activities, and that fraction increased to more than two-thirds between 1991 and 2010, according to
research published in the journal Science
. The study is the first to document the extent of human contribution to glacier mass loss, which is driven by both naturally caused climate factors, such as fluctuations in solar radiation, and anthropogenic influences. “In the 19th and first half of 20th century we observed that glacier mass loss attributable to human activity is hardly noticeable but since then has steadily increased,” the lead researcher said. The analysis was based on data from the recently established Randolph Glacier Inventory and included all glaciers outside of Antarctica. Changes in glaciers in the Alps and North America were particularly well documented and seem to be definitively influenced by human activities, the researchers said.
15 Aug 2014:
New Citizen Science Software
Aims to Document and Curb Illegal Fishing
Citizen scientists can now report — and potentially help stop — illegal fishing
with the snap of a photo thanks to
Illegal shark fin catch
a new smartphone app developed by the Nature Conservancy. The software, called ShipWatch
, was developed this summer during a "Fishackathon," a series of workshops hosted by the U.S. State Department to foster technology development and collaboration among computer programmers. ShipWatch allows users to upload photos of illegal fishing activities to a database, where they are labeled with date and location information and plotted on a central map. The developers hope the data will help authorities enforce existing fishing laws by, for example, developing flight maps for surveillance drones or strategically deploying enforcement authorities. "There are laws in place to say [the fishing] is illegal. The problem is they lack any kind of reporting mechanism," developers told Fast Co.Exist.
12 Aug 2014:
Media Still Disproportionately
Including Views of Climate Change Skeptics
Despite strong agreement among a majority of climate scientists that human activities are contributing to
global warming, media coverage still disproportionately includes the views of contrarian scientists, according to
a study published in Environmental Science and Technology
. In a survey of roughly 1,900 scientists, 90 percent of the respondents who had published more than 10 peer-reviewed climate science articles "explicitly agreed with anthropogenic greenhouse gases being the dominant driver of recent global warming." However, when asked how often they were contacted by the media to comment on climate change issues, 30 percent of scientists who view greenhouse gases' impact to be “insignificant or cooling” reported being featured frequently or very frequently in the media, as opposed to 15 percent of scientists who view greenhouse gases as strongly contributing to warming.
Green Innovations Are Bringing
Energy-Saving Technology Home
Advances in technology and consumer demand for energy-saving devices have made green technology
increasingly accessible. Many innovations are geared toward homeowners looking to lower not only their energy bills, but also the carbon footprints of their homes and daily activities. From solar-harvesting shingles and windows to shoe insoles that can power a smartphone, this Yale Environment 360
gallery explores a few of these energy-saving technologies.
View the gallery.
23 Jul 2014:
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.
23 Jun 2014:
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."