Science & Technology
03 May 2016:
A Sea Urchin's Mouth Could
Make it Easier to Study Distant Planets
Sea urchins have long inspired awe among scientists for their ability to chew through almost anything, from entire kelp forests to rocks. Their mouths — comprised of a ring of intricate muscles and five curved, pointed teeth —
UC San Diego
operate like a giant claw in an arcade game. Now scientists have designed a new space-exploration device based on the urchins’ teeth
that will make it easier to collect sediment samples on other planets, like Mars. “Our goal was a bio-inspired device that's more precise and efficient at grabbing ground samples, and won't disturb the surrounding area like a shovel" — the tool space vehicles like the Mars rovers currently use, said
Michael Frank, an engineer at the University of California, San Diego. The technology, based on 3D scans of pink sea urchins, has five claws with beveled edges that gather and trap material in a smooth, quick motion.
28 Apr 2016:
Half of All Farmed Fish Have
Deformed Ear Bones That Cause Hearing Loss
Farmed fish have become an increasingly larger share of the world’s seafood market in recent decades—now accounting for 50 percent of global seafood consumption.
At the same time, however, debate about the ethics, safety and health of farmed fish versus their wild counterparts has also intensified. A new study
published in the journal Nature Scientific Reports
finds that half of all farmed Atlantic salmon have deformed ear bones that lead to hearing loss. These salmon are 10 times more likely to have the deformity than wild fish. The findings “raise questions about the welfare of farmed animals," said
Tim Dempster, a biologist at the University of Melbourne involved in the study. It may also explain why efforts to boost wild populations by releasing farmed juveniles have proven unsuccessful. Hearing loss would prevent farmed fish from detecting predators, or restrict their ability to navigate to breeding sites, the scientists said.
27 Apr 2016:
Wooden Skypscrapers Grow in
Popularity in Effort to Reduce Emissions
Architects are increasingly abandoning traditional steel-and-cement skyscrapers in favor of wood-and-glue designs — a move that experts say could help drastically reduce CO2 emissions from the world’s building sector.
Acton Ostry Architects
Creating steel, iron, and non-metallic minerals — including concrete — is an energy-intensive process that accounts for more than 10 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. In the 1990s, developers created a product known as cross-laminated timber — planks of wood glued together by a polyurethane adhesive — with the strength and durability of traditional building materials, and far fewer CO2 emissions. With concern for climate change mounting, wood-based skyscrapers have been popping up around the globe in recent years
. The University of British Columbia, for example, approved an 18-story, wooden housing complex in 2015. “This revolution has happened rather quietly and happened rather slow,” Kris Spickler, a heavy timber specialist at Structurlam, told Popular Science
. “But I think we’re in a year right now where we’re going to see it explode.”
From Mass Coral Bleaching,
A Scientist Looks for Lessons
Twice a year, Georgia Tech climate scientist Kim Cobb travels to Christmas Island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean to collect samples from coral reefs to better understand past and future climate change.
But when Cobb arrived on the island earlier this month, she was stunned. The corals she had spent the past 18 years studying were largely dead or dying. The scene has become a familiar one across the Pacific and Indian oceans this year as a record-breaking El Niño drove up water temperatures and caused fragile coral reef systems to bleach from stress or die. In an interview with Yale Environment 360
, Cobb talked about the recent bleaching event, the race to make reefs more resilient, and how coral records could improve short-term climate projections. “What you think reefs might be experiencing in 20 years,” she says, “they're experiencing now.” Read the interview.
26 Apr 2016:
Historical Citizen-Scientists’ Ice
Records Confirm Global Temperature Rise
Centuries-old records from Japanese priests and European shipping merchants are helping scientists confirm that the earth has warmed substantially — and freshwater ice formation significantly decreased — since the Industrial Revolution.
These early record keepers tracked annual freeze dates and the breakup of ice each spring on lakes and rivers for hundreds of years, beginning in the 1440s in Japan and 1690s in Finland. The data represents the oldest known inland ice records. An international team of scientists published a study this week in Nature Scientific Reports
examining how ice behavior changed over the records’ years. They found that from 1443 to 1683, for example, the annual freeze date of Lake Suwa in Japan moved back 0.19 days per decade. From the start of the Industrial Revolution, however, that trend grew 24 times faster, pushing back the date of ice formation on the lake by 4.6 days per decade.
25 Apr 2016:
Scientists Discover Antarctic
Lake That Could Contain Unique Life Forms
Scientists have discovered what they think is a massive, ribbon-shaped lake under the Antarctic ice sheet that could lead to the discovery of a bevy of new unique life forms.
The lake, which measures 60 miles long by 6 miles wide, was discovered using satellite imagery, and scientists plan to confirm its existence using ice-penetrating radar this spring. The lake has likely been locked under the ice for millions of years — allowing bacteria and other life forms to evolve in complete isolation from the rest of the world, according to a report released at the European Geosciences Union meeting. Unlike the continent’s largest under-ice lake, Vostok, the newly discovered waterbody — located in East Antarctica — is relatively close to a research station, making it easier to explore. “It’s the last un-researched part of Antarctica, so it’s very exciting news,” Bryn Hubbard of the University of Aberystwyth UK told the New Scientist
20 Apr 2016:
Entries Invited for Third
Annual Yale Environment 360 Video Contest
The third annual Yale Environment 360
Video Contest is now accepting entries. The contest honors the year's best environmental videos. Submissions must focus on an environmental issue or theme, have not been widely viewed online, and be a maximum of 15 minutes in length. Videos that are funded by an organization or company and are primarily about that organization or company are not eligible. The first-place winner will receive $2,000, and two runners-up will each receive $500. The winning entries will be posted on Yale Environment 360
. The contest judges will be Yale Environment 360
editor Roger Cohn, New Yorker
writer and e360
contributor Elizabeth Kolbert, and documentary filmmaker Thomas Lennon. Deadline for entries is June 10, 2016. Read More.
19 Apr 2016:
Thirty Years After Chernobyl,
Wildlife Thrives in the Contaminated Zone
Thirty years after the meltdown of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine, humans remain relatively scarce near the accident site.
Jim Beasley/Sarah Webster
A gray wolf is caught on camera near Chernobyl.
Wildlife, however, is thriving, according to a recent study
by scientists at the University of Georgia. The researchers set up cameras at 94 sites in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone—a 1,000-square-mile area where radiation levels remain high—and applied a fatty acid scent to attract animals. In total, they saw 14 mammal species in the footage, most frequently gray wolves, boars, red fox, and raccoon dogs. Since carnivores tend to accumulate radiation faster that animals further down the food chain, finding so many of them was good news. "We didn't find any evidence to support the idea that populations are suppressed in highly contaminated areas,” said
James Beasley, an ecologist at the University of Georgia who helped lead the study.
12 Apr 2016:
Scientists Reimagine The
Tree of Life With New Microbe Knowledge
Following years of intense exploration and research into the microbial world, scientists have reimagined the tree of life
—the iconic visual representation of the living world first proposed by Charles Darwin in 1859.
The new tree of life.
The project was led by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, who over the last decade have been gathering DNA from across the globe—from everywhere from meadow soils and river mud to deep sea vents—to reconstruct genomes and describe thousands of new microbial species. Curious how their findings fit into the tree of life, the scientists used a supercomputer
to visualize how more than 3,000 new and known species related to one another. They discovered that eukaryotes, the group that includes humans, exist on a thin twig compared to the microbial branch of the tree. “The tree of life as we know it has dramatically expanded due to new genomic sampling of previously enigmatic or unknown microbial lineages,” the authors wrote
For James Hansen, the Science
Demands Activism on Climate
Climate scientist James Hansen has been a prominent figure in the global climate conversation for more than 40 years. His 1988 congressional testimony on climate change helped introduce the problem of rising greenhouse gas emissions to the American public,
and he has led study after study examining how our world will change as a result of global warming. Eight years ago, Hansen made the rare decision to begin engaging in climate activism—a move that has earned him both praise and criticism from the media and scientific community. In an interview with Yale Environment 360
last week, Hansen opened up about his unconventional career path and what he believes the world could look like a century from now. “I don't think that I have been alarmist — maybe alarming, but I don't think I'm an alarmist,” he said. “We have a society in which most people have become unable to understand or appreciate science, and partly that's a communication problem, which we need to try to alleviate.”
Read the interview.
07 Apr 2016:
How Ancient Algae Could
Help Cure Brain and Breast Cancer
One of the oldest life forms on earth may hold the key to battling hard-to-treat cancers, according to new research
by scientists at Oregon State University. The compound, coibamide A, is found in blue-green algae, organisms that have existed for at least two billion years. It was found during a diving trip in Panama’s Coiba National Park eight years ago and run through the National Cancer Institute’s database of potential anti-cancer compounds. Coibamide A was tested on mice and found to be more effective at killing brain and triple negative breast cancer cells—two of the most aggressive and hard-to-treat types of the disease—than anything ever tested before. "The chemical diversity found in nature has always been a significant source of inspiration for drug design and development, but… marine environments remain relatively unexplored," said Jane Ishmael, a cellular biologist at Oregon State University and lead author of the new study.
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.