Stories tagged Future Earth

Feb
13
2013

The Science Museum of Minnesota is a partner with the University of Minnesota on its Islands in the Sun project, which is monitoring the urban heat island in the Twin Cities to find ways of lessening its effects through landscape design. More than half the global population now lives in cities and so there is urgent need to understand and mitigate urban heat islands, especially during heat waves when the risk of heat-related illness and mortality can increase dramatically.Islands in the Sun temperature sensor
Islands in the Sun temperature sensorCourtesy Courtesy Department of Soil, Water and Climate, University of Minnesota

Islands in the Sun is setting up temperature sensors throughout the Twin Cities Metro Area. This temperature network when completed will be one of the densest in the world. Would you like to be a part of this effort? Islands in the Sun is especially interested in volunteers willing to have a sensor installed on their property and who live in the following locations -- downtown Minneapolis, downtown Saint Paul, Saint Paul – east of Rice St, West Saint Paul, South Saint Paul, Mendota Heights, Inver Grove Heights, Eagan, Oakdale, Woodbury, Cottage Grove, northern Roseville, Arden Hills, and Plymouth.

Information about the sensor and its placement can be found here. If you are still interested after reviewing this information, then fill out and submit a volunteer form. Please note that your interest does not guarantee that a sensor will be installed because each site must meet certain criteria. If selected, a temperature sensor will be installed at a location on your property acceptable to you with the expectation that it will remain onsite collecting data for up to four years. A technician will visit the sensor every two to three months to download data.

Thanks for considering being a part of this ground-breaking research project.

Oct
16
2012

A plankton bloom: Not the new bloom off of Canada, but this is what it looks like. The green stuff in the water is sucking up carbon dioxide and doing ... we don't know exactly what else yet.
A plankton bloom: Not the new bloom off of Canada, but this is what it looks like. The green stuff in the water is sucking up carbon dioxide and doing ... we don't know exactly what else yet.Courtesy NASA
Have you ever wanted to change the world? Of course you have. Who hasn’t? Even JGordon, world renowned for being more or less satisfied with his immediate surroundings, keeps a list of Things I Will Change When I Am King.

Some sample items from the list:
31: No more cake pops. What a joke.
54: Round up the jerks, make them live on Jerk Island.
55: Make sure Jerk Island isn’t actually an awesome place to live.
70: Transform Lake Michigan into biggest ball pit. Cover dead fish with plastic balls.
115: More eyepatches.
262: Regulate burps.

I think you get the idea. As Tears for Fears almost said, everybody wants to change the world.

And we do change it. We change it in a huge way. Cumulatively, the tremendous force of the human race has drastically altered the face of the planet, from oceans to atmosphere. But a lot of that change is sort of accidental; we don’t mean to affect the acidity of the oceans or warm the atmosphere, but we like driving around, making things, using electricity, and all that, and the byproducts of these activities have global effects that we can’t always control.

The notion that we could control these effects is called geoengineering. So we’re accidentally causing global warming … what if we could engineer a global solution to actively cool the planet. We’re causing ocean acidification … what if we could chemically alter the oceans on purpose to balance it out? The trick would be to balance out the positive effects of geoengineering with the potential side effects … if we could even figure out what those side effects are.

Geoengineering is necessarily a really large-scale thing, so for the most part it’s been limited to theoretical projects. But it’s been pointed out that some geoengineering projects would be within the capabilities of not just international bodies or individual countries, but corporations or even wealthy individuals. The Science Museum of Minnesota even has an exhibit on just this possibility: What would you do if you had the wealth to literally change the world?

But there are rules against that sort of thing, and it’s potentially really, really dangerous. So no one would actually do it in the real world ever, right?

Wrong!

Apparently someone did do it. Back in July.

A guy named Russ George, in partnership with a First Nations village, is thought to have dumped about 100,000 kilograms of iron sulfate into the ocean off the Western Coast of Canada. Why iron sulfate? Because iron sulfate is an effective fertilizer for plankton, the microscopic plant-like things in the ocean. The idea is that if you could cause massive growth in plankton, the plankton would suck up a bunch of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere before dying and falling the ocean floor, taking the CO2 with it.

The first part of the plan seems to have worked: satellites have detected an artificial plankton bloom about 6,200 square miles large off the west coast of Canada (which is how the operation was discovered).

George was hoping to make money selling carbon credits gained from the CO2 captured by the plankton, and he convinced the First Nations group involved to put about a million dollars into the project, telling them that it was meant to help bolster the area’s salmon population.

The thing is, it’s really hard to say what dumping almost half a million pounds of iron sulfate into the ocean will do, besides capture some CO2. And, what’s more, it looks like it was illegal: conducted as it was, the operation violates the UN’s Convention on Biological Diversity and the London convention on dumping wastes at sea. Whoops.

So does this spell the end for individually funded geoengineering projects? Or has George’s scheme just opened the door for similar operations?

And, more importantly, is this a good thing or a bad thing? Are people like George taking big steps toward addressing human-caused global change? Or are they creating what I like to call “Pandora’s Frankenstein*”?

Weigh in in the comments, and let us know what you think!

(*My friend Pandora has a pet chinchilla named Frankenstein, and he is horrible. I can’t wait until that chinchilla dies.)

Wind catcher: New wind turbines are getting taller and slower in order to generate more electricity.
Wind catcher: New wind turbines are getting taller and slower in order to generate more electricity.Courtesy JMT
The way technology usually works, things get smaller and faster to be more efficient. That's not the case with wind turbines. Read this interesting piece on how new innovations are making wind turbines taller (reaching up into the sky the length of a football field), the blades are getting longer and are moving slower. All of this is actually generating more electricity.

Aug
14
2012

An opinion piece in the Sunday, August 12, 2012 New York Times by three scientists (listed at the end) deserves repeating. Here are some excerpts:

Until recently, many scientists spoke of climate change mainly as a “threat,” sometime in the future. But it is increasingly clear that we already live in the era of human-induced climate change, with a growing frequency of weather and climate extremes like heat waves, droughts, floods and fires.

In terms of severity and geographic extent, the 2000-4 drought in the West exceeded such legendary events as the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. More seriously still, long-term climate records from tree-ring chronologies show that this drought was the most severe event of its kind in the western United States in the past 800 years.

Most frightening is that this extreme event could become the new normal: climate models point to a warmer planet, largely because of greenhouse gas emissions. Planetary warming, in turn, is expected to create drier conditions across western North America, because of the way global-wind and atmospheric-pressure patterns shift in response.

The current drought plaguing the country is worryingly consistent with these expectations. Although we do not attribute any single event to global warming, the severity of both the turn-of-the-century drought and the current one is consistent with simulations accounting for warming from increased greenhouse gases.

And yet that may be only the beginning, a fact that should force us to confront the likelihood of new and painful challenges. A megadrought would present a major risk to water resources in the American West, which are distributed through a complex series of local, state and regional water-sharing agreements and laws. Virtually every drop of water flowing in the American West is legally claimed, sometimes by several users, and the demand is expected to increase as the population grows.

There is still time to prevent the worst; the risk of a multidecade megadrought in the American West can be reduced if we reduce fossil-fuel emissions. But there can be little doubt that what was once thought to be a future threat is suddenly, catastrophically upon us.

(Christopher R. Schwalm is a research assistant professor of earth sciences at Northern Arizona University. Christopher A. Williams is an assistant professor of geography at Clark University. Kevin Schaefer is a research scientist at the National Snow and Ice Data Center)US Drought as of August 7, 2012
US Drought as of August 7, 2012Courtesy Mark Svoboda, National Drought Mitigation Center
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Jul
25
2012

43 percent melt: This NASA satellite image from July 8 shows 43 percent of the Greenland ice sheet was melting.
43 percent melt: This NASA satellite image from July 8 shows 43 percent of the Greenland ice sheet was melting.Courtesy NASA
Johnny Carson used to have a standard round of jokes for the summertime on his Tonight Show.

"How hot is it outside today? It's so hot (insert punchline)," was the standard humorous convention he would use.

NASA researchers have a new take on how hot it is this summer, and it's not that funny. Satellite photos taken this month over Greenland show that the massive ice sheet that covers almost all of the Arctic region island was now melting at some degree earlier this month. Like the tried-and-true diet ads in the back of magazines, NASA has before and after satellite images that show the extent of melting that happened.

The top image, complied from three satellite photos taken on July 8, show about 40 percent of the ice sheet's surface was melting. Areas that are pink show where melting is occurring. Areas that are white show non-melting ice and areas that are grey have no ice cover.

97 percent melt: This satellite image from July 12 shows the melt rate surging up to 97 percent.
97 percent melt: This satellite image from July 12 shows the melt rate surging up to 97 percent.Courtesy NASA
The bottom image, taken on July 12, shows a rapid acceleration of melting on the island, with 97 percent of the ice sheet melting. It's a surge in melting rates that scientists figure happens about once every 150 years. This month's data is the highest melting rate that NASA has seen in Greenland since satellite data has been collected for about 30 years.

A rare warm front stalling over Greenland is the cause of the high amount of melting and by the middle of the month, that front had moved on and things were getting back to normal. You can read the NASA press release about this weather event here.

While the brief massive melting is unusual, it's not a huge immediate threat to Greenland's ice sheet, which is some spots is more than two miles thick.

In other recent Greenland ice sheet news, a huge chunk of coastal ice broke off and is now adrift in the Atlantic Ocean earlier this month. Measuring 59 square miles, the ice sheet is twice the size of Manhattan. You can read more about that story here. Two years ago, an iceberg twice as big as this year's broke off from the same location. Experts say it's extremely rare to have two huge icebergs break loose in such a short amount of time.

Jul
20
2012

Bone dry: Significant sections of the country are facing drought just weeks after the major weather stories were about heavy rains and flooding. What's going on?
Bone dry: Significant sections of the country are facing drought just weeks after the major weather stories were about heavy rains and flooding. What's going on?Courtesy Tomas Castelazo
It was just a few weeks ago we posted incredible pictures and video of devastating floods ripping through Duluth. Now, on a national scale, the weather story is drought. But how bad is it really?

Depends on where you live, but much of the Midwest is falling into drought conditions. It's bad, but not as wide spread as the peak of U.S. drought conditions from 1934. USA Today has an interesting toggle map that allows you compare today's conditions with that record drought.

Even earlier this summer, heavy rains in the Twin Cities had lockmasters along the Mississippi River shutting their gates to control fast-flowing river water. Now downstream, the Mississippi is approaching record-level lows. In some areas around Memphis, the river level has fallen 55 feet from highs set last summer. This CNN website report has interesting satellite images of the newly slimmed Mississippi compared to last year's look.

What do you think of this crazy weather? Share your thoughts here with other Buzz readers.

Jul
12
2012

Radiometers at Science Museum of Minnesota
Radiometers at Science Museum of MinnesotaCourtesy Patrick Hamilton
The Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport reported a low at 6:00 a.m. this morning of 73 degrees F degrees while nearby Lakeville was at 57 – a 16 degree difference in only 20 miles. Said Paul Huttner, an MPR meteorologist, “…one of the biggest urban heat island effects today I have ever seen in 40+ years of watching and forecasting weather in the Twin Cities.”

Urban heat islands are regions of strong warming localized around the heart of a city with progressively lower temperatures as one travels away from the center – hence the name “heat island”. Urban heat islands exist because of large differences in land use, building materials, and vegetation between cities and their rural surroundings. In much of the world, cities are warming at twice the rate of outlying rural areas and so the frequency of urban heat waves is projected to increase with climate change through the 21st century.

Drs. Peter Snyder and Tracy Twine are in the midst of a four-year research project funded by the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment and the College of Food, Agriculture, and Natural Resource Sciences to monitor the urban heat island of the Twin Cities. The project aims to improve understanding of the mechanisms contributing to urban heat islands with a goal of finding ways to lessen their effects through landscape design.

Snyder, Twine and two graduate students installed two instrument towers at the Science Museum on Monday as part of their urban heat island research project. One is on the white roof outside of the windows of Elements Café and the other is on a nearby black roof. Both are visible if you stand at the southwest corner of the plaza outside of the Café and look back at the museum. The two towers with their arrays of temperature sensors and radiometers will collect data at the museum for about four weeks, permitting Snyder and Twine to better characterize the interactions between different roof types and solar radiation in their urban heat island modeling work.

May
29
2012

Plastics!
Plastics!Courtesy IonE
This is a couple weeks old, but I just noticed that the University of Minnesota's Institute on the Environment (one of the Science Museum's partners on the Future Earth exhibit) has posted another "Big Question" video. These are short, fun videos that cover some of the challenges humans will be facing in the coming decades. This one is about plastics, and whether we can make them sustainable.

Anyway, here you are:

(And for more on the subject, check out Science Buzz posts on plastics, plastic, and sustainability.)

May
24
2012

So it's true?: Not necessarily the moon thing. The other part.
So it's true?: Not necessarily the moon thing. The other part.Courtesy Thomas Fowler and OZinOH
What does that title even mean?! I don’t know! Yakov Smirnoff stopped making jokes when I was a baby!

In Russia, phone dials you! In Russia, self-tanner applies you! In Russia, wife buys you! They’re all just meaningless words without the code!

Could it be that Russia has plans to establish a permanent base on the moon? Could that be? I mean, on one hand, my conception of Russia is more or less summed up by an imagined scene in which an old woman and a bear fight over a wilted cabbage. The old lady has a broom … but the bear wants the cabbage too! Does that sound like a space-colonizing nation?

Then again, the mighty USA has been hitching rides into space on Russian rockets for a while now, since we apparently decided that spaceships weren’t something we wanted to buy.

So who knows? Maybe Russia will put a permanent base on the moon. (Or maybe China or Japan will.) Maybe the US will go to an asteroid or to Mars. Maybe, in Russia, asteroid will go to you. Or maybe it’s all just astronaut pillow talk.