Previously stable zones of Antarctica are now falling victim to climate change

August 1, 2018 by  
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Unlike its counterpart, West Antarctica, which has long been decimated by melting ice caps, East Antarctica used to be a safe zone – something scientists could depend on as a constant while they solved the more pressing destruction in the western part of the continent. Unfortunately, this is no longer the case. According to  research unveiled last week in the journal  Geophysical Research Letters , despite the higher elevation and colder temperatures found in the eastern portion of the Antarctic continent, warm ocean currents and rising global temperatures are now destabilizing two of its glaciers. The research has chronicled the lives of two glaciers in the coldest region on Earth for the past 15 years. These glaciers shield the Eastern zone’s land ice, descending from the ice directly toward the sea. This creates a naturally formed dam that, if disturbed, would affect the ice that covers the rest of the region by subjecting it to the warming ocean waters. The melting of these two massive glaciers alone would raise sea levels more than 16 feet (five meters), undoubtedly compromising the rest of the territory. In an interview with Earther , Yara Mohajerani, lead expert in the study and PhD candidate at the University of California, explained, “The East Antarctic ice sheet contains much more ice and sea level potential than any other ice sheet by far, making it of crucial global significance.” Past research has shown the disappearance of similar glaciers in the East Antarctic region when carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere have reached levels comparable to those found today as a result of human activities. Related: Scientists uncover giant canyons under the ice in Antarctica Scientists believe that, due to the circulation of warm ocean water under the two glaciers, they’ve been losing mass for quite some time. To help quantify the losses, NASA provided the researchers with its Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) satellite, which measures small changes in gravity. GRACE collected data from 2002 to 2017, and the new study reveals that the glaciers are losing 18.5 gigatons of ice each year, or the equivalent of 7.4 million Olympic-sized swimming pools. While this is minuscule in comparison to losses in the rest of Antarctica, the location of these glaciers makes their survival central to the discussion of East Antarctica’s stability and, therefore, the state of the continent as a whole. + Geophysical Research Letters Via Earther

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Deadly heatwaves may make parts of China uninhabitable by the end of the century

August 1, 2018 by  
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It is no surprise that the world’s most populous country, China , is also the largest polluter on Earth. However, for individuals living in China’s northern plain, the most densely populated region on the planet, it may come as a shock that their homes could become uninhabitable by the end of the century. The region is expected to be subject to aggressive heatwaves that could kill even the healthiest of people in just a matter of hours if carbon emissions are not reduced. In a recent study published by MIT’s Center for Global Change Science , researchers found that China’s northern plain will be the worst spot in the world for future deadly heatwaves. “China is currently the largest contributor to the emissions of greenhouse gases , with potentially serious implications to its own population,” said Professor Elfatih Eltahir, speaking on behalf of his team who ran extensive computerized climate models to research the unfolding event. “Continuation of current global emissions may limit the habitability of the most populous region of the most populous country on Earth.” Related: 6 ways that scientists are hacking the planet This is especially worrisome, because a large portion of the region’s 400 million people are farmers dependent on both the land and outdoor conditions for their livelihoods. According to Bloomberg , Chinese diets are becoming increasingly more like western ones — and it takes about 1 acre to feed the average individual in the U.S. When considering fields that are affected by pollution, which produce mercury-infected rice and milk powder with melamine, China barely has 0.2 acres of arable land per citizen. Pair the degradation of prime land by pollution with the dangerous heatwaves, and China will have a major humanitarian crisis in the near future. Eltahir and his team have previously published global models noting that the key driver to these heat waves is climate change, but that irrigation for farmland is also a serious contributor as water evaporation leads to harmful humidity levels. This combination of heat and humidity is measured in units called “wet bulb” temperature or WBTs. According to the U.S. National Weather Service, WBTs above 87.8 degrees Fahrenheit are classified with an “extreme danger” warning and, “If you don’t take precautions immediately, you may become seriously ill or even die.” WBTs above 95 degrees Fahrenheit will kill even the healthiest individuals sitting in the shade within just six hours. The country will be gambling with the lives of their citizens — not only those living in the northern region — if stricter regulations on carbon and greenhouse gas emissions are not adopted. + MIT Center for Global Change Science + Nature Communications Via The Guardian

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Deadly heatwaves may make parts of China uninhabitable by the end of the century

Images from NASA reveal the enduring damage in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria

May 24, 2018 by  
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NASA has released more than  65,000 high-resolution aerial images of Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria , which document the full extent of the ecological damage caused by the deadly hurricane in 2017. With only days remaining before the start of the 2018 hurricane season, the images from NASA reflect the impact from last year’s record-breaking storms — an impact that is still felt today. NASA gathered the images in a survey this past April, building upon similar work from the previous spring. The original mission focused on tracking long-term forest regeneration after humans abandoned land. After Maria, the mission shifted to become the first comprehensive aerial survey of the island following the devastating storm. “The photos are powerful,” NASA earth scientist Doug Morton told Earther . “[They’re] powerful reminders of the extent of damage.” In a typical year, scientists would expect to observe damage from storms on about 1 percent of the total forest canopy. In the wake of 2017, NASA images show that about 50 percent of forest canopy has suffered damage. “Every forest type we observed has clear signs of damage from the hurricane,” Morton noted. However, the forest is expected to recover. “It’s pretty much prime growing conditions,” said Morton, referring to the now-abundant sunlight and nutrient accumulation from fallen trees and leaves on the forest floor. Related: 2018 hurricane season may be worse than last year While some ecosystems in Puerto Rico may be recovering quickly, others, such as the mangrove swamps found in the island’s northeast region, are still struggling. This data is important to the team at NASA as they try to learn more about the varied resilience of diverse ecosystems found in Puerto Rico. The team also plans to use its aerial imagery and LiDAR data to better inform recovery efforts. + NASA Via Earther Images via NASA

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Images from NASA reveal the enduring damage in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria

NASA plans to send a helicopter to Mars

May 14, 2018 by  
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A small, autonomous helicopter could soon soar above the rusty rocks of Mars . Dubbed the Mars Helicopter, the rotorcraft is hitching a ride to the Red Planet as part of NASA’s Mars 2020 rover mission. The BBC said this could be the first test of “heavier-than-air aircraft on another planet.” “After the Wright Brothers proved 117 years ago that powered, sustained, and controlled flight was possible here on Earth, another group of American pioneers may prove the same can be done on another world,” NASA’s Science Mission Directorate associate administrator Thomas Zurbuchen said . The technology demonstration has been many years in the making; it started in 2013 at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). The Mars Helicopter weighs just under four pounds, with a fuselage about as big as a softball. It has twin, counter-rotating blades that will slice the air at nearly 3,000 revolutions per minute (rpm), which, according to NASA , is “about 10 times the rate of a helicopter on Earth.” Related: NASA unveils plan to make oxygen on Mars Solar cells will help the Mars Helicopter charge its lithium-ion batteries , and it’s equipped with a heating mechanism to survive frigid Martian nights. NASA is planning as many as five flights over a 30-day test campaign. The first flight could see the Mars Helicopter fly up to 10 feet and hover there for around 30 seconds. As it flies farther and longer in following tests, it could travel “up to a few hundred meters” and soar for around 90 seconds. JPL Mars Helicopter project manager Mimi Aung said in NASA’s statement, “The altitude record for a helicopter flying here on Earth is about 40,000 feet. The atmosphere of Mars is only one percent that of Earth, so when our helicopter is on the Martian surface, it’s already at the Earth equivalent of 100,000 feet up. To make it fly at that low atmospheric density, we had to scrutinize everything, make it as light as possible while being as strong and powerful as it can possibly be.” NASA describes the Mars Helicopter as a high-risk, high-reward project. The agency said in their statement if the technology demonstration doesn’t work, the Mars 2020 mission won’t be impacted — but if it does, “helicopters may have a real future as low-flying scouts and aerial vehicles to access locations not reachable by ground level.” + NASA Via the BBC Image via NASA/JPL-Caltech

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The Trump Administration just ended the program that lets us monitor carbon emissions

May 10, 2018 by  
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While the news media focuses its attention on the withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal and the scandals related President Trump’s lawyer Michael Cohen, the Trump Administration quietly ended the Carbon Monitoring System (CMS). With a $10 million annual budget and administered by NASA, CMS served to track the flow of Earth’s carbon, a particularly important mission as the United States and other nations confront climate change. “If you cannot measure emissions reductions, you cannot be confident that countries are adhering to the agreement,” Kelly Sims Gallagher, director of Tufts University’s Center for International Environment and Resource Policy, told Science . Gallagher described the administration’s decision to end the program as “a grave mistake.” Much of the work done by the CMS since 2010 has focused on forests and the carbon that they contain. One such project involved a collaboration between NASA and the US Forestry Service, in which the organizations created an aircraft-based laser imaging device to quantify forest carbon stocks. “They’ve now completed an inventory of forest carbon in Alaska at a fraction of the cost,” CMS science team leader George Hurtt told Science . The CMS has also used its capacity to support other countries in their efforts to preserve and study their forest stocks, particularly in tropical locations. Related: Even NASA isn’t quite sure how to explain these holes in the Arctic Sea’s ice Though disheartening for those who work to combat climate change, the Trump Administration’s decision to end CMS fits with its previous policy making on climate change . However, this decision, like others, puts the United States outside of the global climate mainstream. “The topic of climate mitigation and carbon monitoring is maybe not the highest priority now in the United States,” said Hurtt. “But it is almost everywhere else.” The work of carbon monitoring will continue in Europe , though the United States has ceded leadership in the process. “We really shoot ourselves in the foot if we let other people develop the technology,” president of the Woods Hole Research Center Phil Duff told Science . Via ScienceAlert Images via IIP Photo Archive/Flickr and Joshua Meyer/Flickr

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Scientists just detected helium in an exoplanet’s atmosphere for the first time

May 3, 2018 by  
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For the first time, researchers have identified the presence of helium within the atmosphere of a planet beyond our solar system, offering yet another glimpse into the weather patterns of exoplanets. This discovery is particularly notable for the methods used to detect helium, demonstrating that it is possible to identify the atmospheric composition of some exoplanets with current technology. Although scientists have long expected to find helium on large exoplanets, its presence on planet WASP-107b has now been confirmed, thanks to a technique that involves analysis of the light spectrum of the upper levels of the planet’s atmosphere. “We hope to use this technique with the upcoming James Webb Space Telescope,” said lead researcher Jessica Spake in a statement. “For example, to learn what kind of planets have large envelopes of hydrogen and helium, and how long planets can hold on to their atmospheres . By measuring infrared light, we can see further out into space than if we were using ultraviolet light .” Related: The Earth-like planets orbiting this star could hold 250 times more water than Earth An ultra-low-density planet, WASP-107b is roughly equivalent to the size of Jupiter but only has 12 percent of that planet’s mass. WASP-107, the star around which WASP-107b orbits every six days, is so powerful that it is gradually dissolving the exoplanet’s atmosphere. As a result, WASP-107b leaves a comet-like trail of helium in its wake. “The helium we detected extends far out to space as a tenuous cloud surrounding the planet,” explained study co-author Tom Evans in a statement . “If smaller, Earth-sized planets have similar helium clouds, this new technique offers an exciting means to study their upper atmospheres in the very near future.” Via Space.com and Nature Images via Nature / EngineHouseVFX and ESA/Hubble, NASA, M. Kornmesser

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The Earth-like planets orbiting this star could hold 250 times more water than Earth

April 27, 2018 by  
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Recent research suggests that some of the Earth-size planets orbiting the star TRAPPIST-1 could carry more water than our own planet. TRAPPIST-1 is an ultra-cool red dwarf discovered in 1999, and its planets were first documented within the past few years. Scientists have measured the density of TRAPPIST-1’s planets and concluded that the mass of some of these planets may be composed of five percent water – roughly 250 times the amount of water found in our planet’s oceans. Stars such as TRAPPIST-1 are of particular interest to astronomers because their size and faintness allows for more in-depth study of orbiting planets. Through the European Union-funded SPECULOOS project, scientists have been able to focus on these planets as they search for life beyond Earth . Researchers have also observed differences based on the planets’ distance from their sun. For example, planets closest to TRAPPIST-1 may contain thick, steamy atmospheres while outer planets may be covered in ice. Perhaps most importantly, astronomers have concluded that the lack of a hydrogen -rich atmosphere on three planets indicates that they are not gaseous and therefore much more likely candidates for harboring extraterrestrial life. Related: Two Trappist-1 planets are highly likely to be habitable The intensive study of the TRAPPIST-1 system is only in its early stages. In 2020, NASA and the European Space Agency will launch the James Webb Space Telescope, which will be capable of detecting possible molecules of biological origin. “In the temperate – and potentially habitable – Earth-size regime, SPECULOOS’s detection potential should be significantly better,” Dr. Michaël Gillon from the University of Liège, Belgium told Science Magazine . “The next years are going to be very exciting!” Gillon plans on expanding the observation of Earth-like planets by searching through 1,000 stars similar to TRAPPIST-1. Via Phys.org Images via NASA (1)

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The Earth-like planets orbiting this star could hold 250 times more water than Earth

Even NASA isn’t quite sure how to explain these holes in the Arctic Sea’s ice

April 23, 2018 by  
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Can you identify the holes in the sea ice pictured above? If so, let NASA know. They recently posted the image, snapped over the Beaufort Sea, as the April 2018 Puzzler on their “Earth Matters” blog. They aren’t quite sure what caused them, although they ventured a few ideas, including heat, thin ice, and even rogue seals. NASA Operation IceBridge mission scientist John Sonntag captured the baffling image from a P-3 research plane soaring over the eastern Beaufort Sea. Sonntag had never seen holes like this before; writing from the field, he said, “We saw these sorta-circular features only for a few minutes today. I don’t recall seeing this sort of thing elsewhere.” Related: The first salty lakes discovered in the Arctic could hold the key to finding alien life Before the agency revealed that the photo was from the Arctic , Internet users offered plenty of guesses as to its location – from fires in Oklahoma to the surface of Mars. User Scott Stensland came close when he guessed the circles were open water holes in ice created by ocean mammals, such as seals . Indeed, that’s similar to one answer NASA has come up with: the holes bear a resemblance to photographs of breathing holes harp seals and ring seals have created. National Snow and Ice Data Center scientist Walt Meier told NASA, “The encircling features may be due to waves of water washing out over the snow and ice when the seals surface. Or it could be a sort of drainage feature that results from when the hole is made in the ice.” Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory sea ice scientist Chris Polashenski told NASA he’d glimpsed features like these holes in the past. Seals could offer one answer; another is convection. University of Maryland at Baltimore County glaciologist Chris Shuman, who’s based at the agency’s Goddard Space Flight Center, told NASA, “This is in pretty shallow water generally, so there is every chance this is just ‘warm springs’ or seeps of ground water flowing from the mountains inland that make their presence known in this particular area. The other possibility is that warmer water from Beaufort currents or out of the Mackenzie River is finding its way to the surface due to interacting with the bathymetry , just the way some polynyas form.” + NASA Earth Observatory + Curious Circles in Arctic Sea Ice Images via John Sonntag/Operation IceBridge/NASA and NASA/Joe MacGregor

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Even NASA isn’t quite sure how to explain these holes in the Arctic Sea’s ice

This great ape species was discovered 6 months ago and it’s already threatened by a dam

April 23, 2018 by  
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The Tapanuli orangutan was only discovered six months ago — and it’s already under threat of extinction from human development. Only 800 Tapanuli orangutans live in the wild today — however state-run Chinese company Sinohydro plans to construct a dam in northern Sumatra that will result in the deforestation of the orangutan’s habitat. If completed, the dam could pose an existential danger to the animals. Researchers fear that the construction of the  510 megawatt dam in the fragile Batang Toru ecosystem will result in the extinction of certain communities within the already vulnerable Tapanuli population. “Building the dam means chopping the orangutan population in half,” Borneo Futures director and orangutan expert Erik Meijaard told The Guardian . “You end up with two smaller populations, and these will have much reduced chances of survival, because a small population is more likely to go extinct than a large one.” Although Sinohydro did not include the orangutan in its environmental management plan, the Indonesian government approved the project. “The impact will not just be the destruction of the habitat where they want to build the dam and roads, tunnel, electricity lines,” scientist Gabriella Fredriksson explained to the Guardian , “but it will cause the extinction of two of the three sub-populations, and in addition create access and destroy the most important habitat of the only viable population left.” Related: UK researchers are developing an orangutan-safe alternative to palm oil “The Indonesian government needs to respect its own laws,” Meijaard said. “Orangutans are protected species. The Indonesian law clearly prohibits any actions that harm a protected species or its nests. It is obvious that the hydrodam is harming a protected species, so why does the government allow this?” Instead of building a dam, researcher Serge Wich suggested that the government pursue a geothermal project farther north from the orangutan habitat. According to Wich, this proposed project could yield one gigawatt of power, significantly more than the dam. The newly discovered orangutans are suffering under a broader extinction crisis, in which the large mammals of Sumatra, such as the Sumatran tiger , the Sumatran rhino and the Sumatran elephant have become critically endangered. Via The Guardian Images via Tim Laman and Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme

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This great ape species was discovered 6 months ago and it’s already threatened by a dam

The largest fire in Greenland’s history warns of an extreme future

April 13, 2018 by  
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The largest wildfire in Greenland ‘s history burned bright last summer, a potential warning sign for a future rattled by catastrophic climate change . Scientists are concerned that Greenland’s massive ice sheet may absorb the black carbon smog produced by the fires, as well as by any fires that occur in the future. One-third of the ice sheet has been affected by the soot from the wildfire, which accelerates heat absorption and glacial melting. “I think it’s a warning sign that something like this can happen on permafrost that was supposed to be melting at the end of the century,” rather than the present, Andreas Stohl, senior scientist at the Norwegian Institute for Air Research (NILU),  told Live Science . The fire burned about 90 miles northeast of Sisimiut, Greenland’s second largest city, and some suspect it was started by human activity. However, it is possible for  peat in oxygen-rich conditions to spontaneously combust, even when temperatures are low. In total, the wildfire burned about nine square miles of land. Of particular interest to scientists at NILU was the impact that soot might have as it landed on the ice sheets. “If you consider that Greenland has the largest ice sheet, apart from Antarctica , it immediately triggers some thinking,” NILU scientist Nikolaos Evangeliou told Live Science . Related: Scientists puzzle over subterranean heat melting Greenland’s glaciers Computer modeling enabled the NILU team to determine that seven tons of black carbon, approximately 30 percent of the total emissions produced by the fire , landed on the ice sheet . Ultimately, this amount of soot had a relatively small impact, less so even than that of North American wildfires that deposited soot across the sea to Greenland. Nonetheless, the fire may forecast larger ones in Greenland’s future. “If larger fires would burn, they would actually have a substantial impact on melting,” explained Stohl. Fires in Greenland potentially can also continue burning underground even when the surface fires have abated. “We cannot actually be sure that the fires (in Greenland) are out,” said Stohl. Via Live Science Images via NASA Earth Observatory

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