August 15, 2013
A little more than a year ago, Australian scientist Roger Bradbury declared that it was game over for the world’s coral reefs. He referred to them as “zombie ecosystems” that were neither dead nor really alive, and “on a trajectory to collapse within a human generation.” He went so far as to suggest that it’s now a waste of time and money to try to protect coral reefs. Instead, he argued, scientists should focus on figuring out what can replace them.
His piece in the New York Times provoked a lot of feedback, much of it suggesting that he had been far too dire, that while the situation may be grim, it’s not hopeless and that the last thing scientists should do is to stop looking for ways to keep them alive.
Now, as we slide into the last weeks of summer, is Bradbury seeming more prescient? Is it clearer that we’re a year closer to the demise of one of more diverse and vibrant ecosystems the Earth has seen? Most experts would tell you no, that they’re not ready to concede coral reefs are going the way of dinosaurs. But they haven’t had much reason to be more hopeful, either.
A study from Stanford University, published last month, concluded that if carbon emissions stay near where they are now, there will, by the end of the century, be no water left on Earth that has the chemical makeup to support coral growth. The ocean will simply be too acidic.
Another research paper, published in the journal Current Biology earlier this week, suggests that without serious action on climate change, reefs in the Caribbean will likely stop growing and start to break down within the next 20 to 30 years. They’ll basically wear away. An extensive survey is being done in the Caribbean this summer to determine how much of its coral reefs has already been lost. Some estimates are as high as 80 percent.
Clouds as umbrellas
It’s reached the point where some scientists think they can no longer rely on natural forces to keep reefs alive; instead they’re developing ways to use technology to save them. A team of British researchers, for instance, believes geoengineering is called for. Their idea is to turn clouds into umbrellas that would protect reefs by bouncing more sunlight back into space.
They would do this by spraying tiny droplets of seawater up into the clouds above the reefs, which would have the effect of making the clouds last longer and cause their tops to brighten and reflect more sunlight. That should lower the water temperature and slow any bleaching of the coral down below.
Geoengineering makes a lot of people nervous because once humans starts manipulating nature on that large a scale, it’s nearly impossible to foresee all of the possible ripple effects. But they could be minimized in this case because the cloud spraying would be targeted to skies only above reefs. That said, even its boosters don’t see this as a long-term solution; at best it buys some time.
Robots that work like ants
Another group of scientists, this one based at Heriot-Watt University in Scotland, is thinking even more boldly. Their idea is to set loose swarms of small robots on dying reefs and have them transplant healthy coral into places where it’s needed. Each robot would have a video camera, along with the ability to process images, and basic tools, such as scoops and “hands” that can grab the coral.
Clever, but also quite challenging. The robots, called coralbots, would need to learn to identify healthy coral and distinguish it from everything else down there. And they would need to be able to navigate their way around the ocean bottom and keep from running into other obstacles and, God forbid, healthy coral.
A key to this approach is how successful the scientists are at programming the robots with “swarm intelligence.” They would work together like ants or bees to perform complex tasks, with different robots having different roles. One might know how to spot places where coral can be planted; another might focus solely on planting.
But it could be a while before we find out if swarming robots is an answer for saving reefs. The researchers hoped to raise about $100,000 on Kickstarter, but weren’t able to reach their goal.
One piece of technology that is functional, however, is the device that’s performing the Caribbean coral reef survey mentioned above. Custom-designed lenses on three camera bodies, mounted at the end of a six-foot pole and propelled by a motorized sled, are capturing amazing 360-degree images of life on the ocean floor. See for yourself.
Here are more recent developments in the world of coral reefs, ocean life and beaches:
- Just beware of crevasse-seeking fish: CSIRO, Australia’s national science agency, has helped develop the first sunscreen filters that mimic the sun protection used by corals on the Great Barrier Reef. But you may have to wait a bit to take advantage of the Reef’s special powers. The filters, which are resistant to both UVA and UVB rays, may not be incorporated into commercial sunscreens for another five years.
- Where fish pray never to be caught: Earlier this month an artificial reef more than 200 feet long and designed to look like a rosary was lowered into the sea off the coast of Sto. Domingo in the Phillipines. In addition to becoming a home for sea life, the rosary reef was created with the hope that it will become a tourist attraction.
- Hard to get past the idea of glass in your trunks: Meanwhile, back on the beaches, pulverized glass may begin replacing actual sand. In Florida’s Broward County, officials are considering using finely-crushed glass to help fill in sections of beaches where sand has eroded.
- The bad old days: Scientists at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego say that the last time Earth was a “greenhouse world”–when the planet had very high levels of greenhouse gases 50 million years ago–it had few coral reefs, tropical water that felt like a hot bath and a paucity of sharks, tuna, whales and seals.
- Finally, we get jet packs, and now this?: A state agency in Hawaii has begun a review of the use of water-powered jet packs. Seems that the devices, which have become popular among tourists wanting to launch themselves over the ocean, may be doing damage to coral reefs.
Video bonus: Take a breather and see what’s going on at the bottom of the sea. Check out NOAA’s live-streaming video camera.
Video bonus bonus: See how statues are being turned into a man-made reef off the coast of Mexico.
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June 7, 2013
Andrea, the first tropical storm of hurricane season is churning up the East Coast today and while it’s not expected to do much more than deliver a heavy drenching, it has kicked off the first wave of storm tracking.
Will it hug the coast or drift inland? Will it dump and inch of rain or three? Will it provide us with our first 2013 image of a TV reporter doing unintended slapstick on a beach?
Already we’ve been told that this could be one nasty season, with a prediction from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) of seven to 11 hurricanes, of which three to six could be major–that’s with winds of 111 mph or higher. And hurricane experts at Colorado State University are pretty confident–they put the likelihood at 72 percent–that at least one of those major hurricanes will make landfall somewhere along the Gulf Coast or the Eastern seaboard. Keep in mind that Sandy was not considered a major hurricane when it swept in over New Jersey last fall.
Hurricane forecasting is much more science than crapshoot these days. Computer models have become amazingly accurate, considering how many variables need to be taken into account–temperature, wind speed, humidity, barometric pressure, topography–from many different locations at different times. All told, there can be hundreds of thousands of factors that need to be weighed. And the task is complicated by the fact that we only have about 60 years of good historical data to plug into the models.
Most of the real-time data that gets fed into the computers comes from dropsonde sensors that are dropped into the storms from big, heavy “hurricane hunters,” planes that are essentially flying laboratories. These are impressive machines. They also are quite expensive. One plane costs about $22 million.
Kamran Mohseni thinks there may be a better way to gather storm data. It’s about thinking small.
Mohseni, an engineering professor at the University of Florida, believes the next generation of hurricane hunters will be drones small enough to almost fit into the palm of your hand, but able to engage fierce hurricanes by riding the wind rather than trying to punch through it. Its weight–about as much as an iPod Nano–is an asset in his mind. “Our vehicles don’t fight the hurricane,” he says. “We use the hurricane to take us places.”
His take is that instead of relying on a few “super-duper” aircraft, why not use hundreds of little drones that through their sheer numbers, could make the data that much more accurate or, as he put it, “You get super duper on an aggregate level.”
Mohseni’s drones, with their sensors, would be launched with commands from a laptop, and then, with the help of mathematical models that predict where the best wind currents can be found, would be able to hitch a ride into the storm. Once there, the drones can be powered up or down as needed, with the goal of taking advantage of the wind’s power to explore the hurricane.
Riding the waves
But Mohseni is not just talking about flying drones. He also has developed underwater vehicles designed to mimic jellyfish as they move through the ocean. He envisions them as a tiny naval fleet working in tandem with a squadron of his flying drones, and that could allow scientists to also gather data from under the sea, which can be particularly difficult to collect.
He realizes, of course, that even though his drones–since they won’t resist the wind–aren’t likely to be blown apart, a lot of them will be lost once they take on a hurricane. But because they’re so small and light, they’re not likely to do much damage if they hit something. And he figures the data gained will be worth the expense.
Each of his drones costs about $250.
Eyes of the storm
Here are other recent developments in weather tech:
- It’s a wind win: The Canadian firm Aeryon Labs has developed an “Unmanned Aerial Vehicle” (UAV) designed to do military reconnaissance in bad weather. It promises that its SkyRanger drone can remain stable in winds for 40 and survive gusts of 55 mph and also can function in temperatures from -22 to 122º Fahrenheit.
- It was a dark and stormy flight: Later this summer NASA will send a pair of large unmanned aircraft loaded with instruments out over the Atlantic to study more closely how hurricanes form and build in intensity. Last fall, the agency used one of these drones, called Global Hawk, but will add another as it expands its focus to wind and rain bands inside hurricanes.
- After all, why shouldn’t clouds be able to get that inner glow: With the goal of seeing how lasers might affect cloud formation, researchers at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology in Germany found that lasers can actually make a cirrus cloud glow. Unfortunately, lasers aren’t able to do this yet with real clouds; the scientists produced the effect on clouds created in the lab.
- Not to mention, an awesome shield against flying beer: And now, meet the Rainshader, an umbrella that looks more like a motorcycle helmet on a stick. Designed to protect you from rain at sporting events, it promises not to blow inside out, poke people in the eye, or drip on those sitting next to you. And, best of all, because it can he held to sit low on your head, it shouldn’t block anyone else’s view.
Video bonus: Watch Kamran Mohseni’s little hurricane hunters taking flight.
Video bonus bonus: And for old time’s sake, the lighter side of big storms.
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May 24, 2013
Summer in America unofficially begins this weekend, and with it come the late afternoon and middle-of-the-night thunderstorms that are Nature’s version of shock and awe. But as common as they are, much about thunder and lightning remains a mystery. In fact, scientists are still debating what actually causes those amazing flashes across the sky.
Here are eight recent findings related to storm-watching:
1) Come to the dark side: The dazzling thunderbolts get all the attention, but within each thunderstorm are invisible intense bursts of gamma rays, which have become known as “dark lightning.” Scientists recently discovered that the two types of lightning seemed to be connected, that there’s a gamma ray discharge immediately before a bolt shoots through the sky, although no one’s quite sure what that connection is. The good thing about dark lightning is that it dissipates quickly so it can’t really hurt anyone on the ground. But if you should be so unlucky and fly through a thunderstorm, a release of dark lightning nearby could expose you to a significant dose of radiation. Which is just one more reason for pilots to fly around them.
2) When planes go bump in the night: By the middle of the century, transatlantic flights could get a whole lot bumpier if a team of British scientists is right. They’re projecting that, because of climate change, the chances of encountering significant turbulence will increase by between 40 and 170 percent. Most likely, they say, the amount of airspace where nasty turbulence occurs will double. But wait, there’s more. They predict that the average strength of turbulence will also increase by 10 to 40 percent.
3) The pain in rain lies mainly in the brain: A study published earlier this year concluded that lightning could actually trigger migraines and other headaches. The researchers asked 90 chronic migraine sufferers to document when they developed migraines during a three-to-six month period, and then tracked that data against lightning strikes within 25 miles of the migraine victims’ homes. Their analysis found a 28 percent increased chance of a migraine and a 31 percent chance of a non-migraine headache on days when lightning struck nearby. So what’s the connection? Not absolutely clear. Some have suggested that high pressure increases the risk of migraines, while others have argued that low pressure can increase the risk. And still other research has failed to show that there even is a definite connection.
4) Hi, I’m Big Data and from now on I’ll be doing the weather: IBM obviously is big on Big Data–it’s pretty much building its future around it–and not long ago it launched a weather analysis project it calls “Deep Thunder.” Using complex algorithms and massive computing power, the company is compiling data around the physics of the atmosphere over a number of major cities. With the resulting mathematical models, the company says it should be able to predict up to 40 hours ahead of time how much rain will fall in a particular location—with 90 percent accuracy.
5) Now if it could only get the lightning to charge your phone: In case you can’t figure it out on your own, there’s now an app that tells you when lightning is nearby. Called Spark, it’s a product from WeatherBug, available on Android and iPhones, that tells you where the nearest lightning strike is, based on data from the Total Lightning Network and your phone’s GPS. And this isn’t just about getting the lowdown on lightning near you. It also allows you to check on what’s happening at GPS locations you’ve saved on your phone–such as your favorite golf course.
6) And now, time for a cosmic interlude: Two Russian researchers say they have more evidence that lightning is caused by the interaction of cosmic rays with water droplets in thunderclouds. Their theory is that cosmic rays–which are created in deep space by star collisions and supernovae–zoom across space and the ones that pass through Earth’s upper atmosphere create showers of ionized particles and electromagnetic radiation. And that, the scientists contend, causes lightning when it passes through a thundercloud. The other popular theory is that lightning occurs when collisions between ice crystals and hailstones in storm clouds separate enough electric charge to cause a high electric field. The debate goes on.
7) Now that’s shock and awe: The U.S. Army is developing a weapon that allows it to shoot lighting bolts along a laser beam directly into a target. So, basically, they’ve figured out how to fire lightning. Called the Laser-Induced Plasma Channel, it can be used to destroy anything that conducts electricity better than the air or ground surrounding it.
8) Just don’t name the kid “Flash:” And just in case you wondered, 70 percent of Americans who responded to a survey by Trojan Brand Condoms said that they’ve had sex during a nasty storm.
Video bonus: You’ve never seen lightning quite like this, slowed down so that one flash is drawn out to last six minutes. You can watch every incredible step of the way.
Video bonus bonus: And here’s what it’s like to have lightning strike next to you.
Video bonus bonus bonus: That’s right, a bonus bonus bonus because you can never watch enough lightning strikes. Here’s a collection of lightning shooting upward.
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April 30, 2013
Bet you didn’t know that Texas has more solar energy workers than ranchers and California has more of them than actors, and that more people now work in the solar industry in the U.S. than in coal mines.
Or that in March, for the first time ever, 100 percent of the energy added to the U.S. power grid was solar.
Okay, so now you know all that, but I’m guessing you’re no more aquiver over solar energy than you were five minutes ago. That’s the way it is in America these days. Most people think solar is a good thing, but how jazzed can you get about putting panels on a roof.
Bertrand Piccard understands this. Which is why later this week, weather permitting, he will take off from Moffett Field near San Francisco and begin a flight across the U.S. in a plane entirely dependent on the sun. Called Solar Impulse, it will move at a snail’s pace compared to commercial jets–top speed will be under 50 miles per hour–and will stop in several cities before it ends its journey in New York in late June or early July.
But the point isn’t to to mimic a plane in a hurry, crossing the country on thousands of gallons of jet fuel. The point is to show what’s possible without it.
To do this, Piccard and his partner, André Borschberg, have created one of the strangest flying machines ever–a plane with the wingspan of a jumbo jet, but one that weighs about a ton less than an SUV. Its power is generated by nearly 12,000 silicon solar cells over the main wing and the horizontal stabilizer that charge lithium-polymer battery packs contained in the four gondolas under the wing. The batteries in total weigh almost 900 pounds–that’s about one quarter of the plane’s weight–and they’re capable of storing enough energy to allow the plane to fly at night.
Piloting the Solar Impulse is neither comfortable nor without a good deal of risk. Only one pilot can be in the cockpit–a second adds too much weight–and the engines are vulnerable to wind, rain, fog and heavy clouds. But Piccard is, by blood, an inveterate risk-taker. In 1999, he co-piloted the first gas-powered balloon to travel non-stop around the world. In 1960, his father, Jacques, was one of the two men aboard the bathysphere lowered into the Marianas Trench, the deepest part of the world’s oceans. In 1931, his grandfather, Auguste, was the first balloonist to enter the Earth’s stratosphere.
It was near the end of his own record-setting balloon trip that Bertrand Piccard was inspired to find a way to fly without needing to rely on fuel. He almost ran out of propane while crossing the Atlantic. He and Borschberg spent years planning, designing and finding investors–that was no small challenge–but they persevered and, in 2010, the Solar Impulse made the first solar-powered night flight over Switzerland. Last year it completed the first solar intercontinental flight, from Europe to Africa.
The ultimate goal–after the flight across America–is to fly a solar plane non-stop around the world. That’s tentatively scheduled for 2015, but it will require a bigger plane than the Impulse. Since they estimate that it will take three days to fly over the Atlantic and five to cross the Pacific, Piccard and Borschberg have been making other alterations, too–the larger version will have an autopilot, more efficient electric motors and a body made of even lighter carbon fiber. It also will have a seat that reclines and yes, a toilet.
There certainly are easier ways to go around the world, but Piccard sees his mission as stretching our imaginations about the sun’s potential. “Very often, when we speak of protection of the environment, it’s boring,” he said during a recent interview with Popular Science. “It’s about less mobility, less comfort, less growth.”
Instead, he wants to show that clean energy can just as easily be about being a pioneer.
Here comes the sun
Here’s other recent developments related to solar power:
- It’s always good to save some for later: A team of researchers at Stanford University has devised a partially liquid battery that could lead to the development of inexpensive batteries which can store energy created by solar panels and wind turbines. One of the challenges of both sun and wind power is to be able to store energy efficiently so it’s available when the sun’s not shining and the wind’s not blowing.
- Forget the undercoating, we’ll throw in solar panels: BMW, which will begin selling its first electric cars later this year, says it will offer buyers the opportunity to get a solar-powered home charging system designed to be installed in their garages.
- Go ahead and fold. Avoid spindling and mutilation: A Milwaukee middle school teacher-turned-inventor has created a small, foldable solar array that can charge an iPhone in two hours. Joshua Zimmerman turned what had been a hobby into a company named Brown Dog Gadgets and he’s already raised more than $150,000 on Kickstarter to get his business off the ground.
- And you thought your shirt was cool: An Indian scientist has designed a shirt containing solar cells that power small fans to keep the wearer cool. The shirt would also be able to store enough juice to charge cell phones and tablets.
- Charge of the light brigade: Since you never know when you need a lantern, there’s now a solar powered bottle cap that lights up your water bottle. Its four bright, white LED lights can turn your beat up water bottle into a shiny beacon.
Video bonus: Take a peek at the Solar Impulse during its test flight over San Francisco last week.
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April 5, 2013
Bet you didn’t know that last year a record amount of wind power was installed around the planet. The U.S. set a record, too, and, once again, became the world leader in adding new wind power, pushing China into second place for the year.
You’re not alone in being clueless about this. So was I. After all, this is a subject that gets about as much attention as 17-year-cicadas in a off year. What generally passes for energy coverage in the U.S. these days is the relentless cycle of gas-prices-up, gas-prices-down stories and the occasional foray into the natural-gas-fracking-is-a-blessing-or-is-it-a-curse? debate.
Okay, so wind power had a very good year in 2012. But that doesn’t mean that it’s gone mainstream. Hardly. It accounts for only 4 percent of the energy produced in the U.S. Plus, a big reason for the spike last year was that companies scrambled to finish projects before a federal tax credit expired at the end of December. (It was renewed as part of the end of the year tax deal, but only for one more year.)
Truth is, wind power still has some familiar challenges, such as the wind’s refusal to blow 24/7 and the not insubstantial death toll inflicted on bird and bat populations by twirling turbine blades–estimated to be hundreds of thousands killed a year. (Although that pales in comparison to the hundreds of millions that die from flying into buildings.)
And it has some new ones–”wind turbine syndrome,” for instance. That’s the name that’s been given to the ill effects that some people who live near wind farms have complained about–headaches, dizziness, ear pain, difficulty sleeping. NPR ran a story on it just the other day.
But many scientists and public health experts think the ailment is more psychosomatic than physiological. In fact, a recent study in Australia found that the syndrome was much more prevalent in communities where anti-wind farm groups spread warnings about negative health effects. In short, the research concluded, people were more likely to feel sick if they were told turbines could make them sick.
Lose the spin
That said, the industry could probably use a different approach to capturing the wind, something that didn’t involve huge spinning blades. Which explains why there’s so much interest in an innovation developed at the Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands. It’s a wind turbine that not only has no blades, it has no moving parts, meaning little wear and tear.
It works like this. Instead of generating electrical energy from the mechanical energy of the rotating blades, this device, called a Ewicon (short for Electostatic Wind Energy Converter) skips the whole mechanical energy part.
It comprises a steel frame holding horizontal rows of insulated tubes, each of which has several electrodes and nozzles. The nozzles release positively charged water droplets and they are drawn to the negatively-charged electrodes. But when the wind blows, it creates resistance and that generates energy.
Only a few prototypes have been built so far, but the inventors, Johan Smit and Dhiradi Djairam, think that if their design takes off, it could be a boon to wind power in cities, where massive turbines aren’t an option.
Still another approach is what is known as Windstalk. Again no blades, but in this case, energy is generated by a small forest of more than a thousand narrow, 180-foot-tall poles packed tightly together. Within each hollow, carbon fiber pole, which narrows from base to tip, is a stack of small ceramic disks and between the disks are electrodes.
These discs and electrodes are connected to a cable which runs up the pole. When wind causes the ‘stalks’ to sway, the discs compress, generating a current.
The windstalks have been proposed as one of the sources of energy in Masdar City, the world’s first carbon-neutral and car-free city, being built near Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates.
Catching the breeze
Here are five other recent wind power stories. Chances are you haven’t heard them either.
1) And the wind…cries…chowda: It’s been 10 years in the works, but Cape Wind, the first offshore wind farm in the U.S., took a big step forward last month when the Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi UFJ signed a $2 billion agreement with the project’s developers. The plan is to build 130 turbines, each with blades 50 yards long, in Nantucket Sound off the coast of Cape Cod. If it stays on schedule–construction is supposed to begin late this year–Cape Wind could be lighting 100,000 to 200,000 homes by 2015.
2) That “beyond petroleum” thing…just kidding: It wasn’t all that long ago that British Petroleum changed its name to BP and then CEO John Browne made it clear that it stood for “beyond petroleum” and that the company was fully committed to begin shifting to renewable energy. But that was before that messy spill in the Gulf of Mexico a few years ago, the one that may cost BP as much as $42 billion. Earlier this week, the company announced that it plans to sell its wind energy interests in the U.S. It has investments in 16 wind farms in nine different states and hopes to earn as much as $3 billion by putting them on the market.
3) That’s because back East anything that big has a video screen: A study done by researchers at Purdue University found that a lot of people in Indiana actually like having wind farms in their communities. More than 80 percent of the people surveyed said they supported wind turbines, even in counties where local governments had opposed them. Some said wind farms gave rural areas a certain charm and one person noted that when friends visited from the East Coast, they couldn’t stop staring at them.
4) The answer, my friend, is bobbin’ in the wind: A new type of wind turbine that floats is being tested off the coast of Japan. Most turbines extend from pylons buried in the seabed, but this model, while anchored to bottom, has a hollow lower core that’s filled with seawater. And that keeps it upright. If it works, this approach could dramatically reduce costs of offshore wind farms.
5) Waste management is so 20th century: And in Italy, law enforcement authorities have seized the assets of a Sicilian businessman suspected of laundering money for the Mafia. The man under investigation, Vito Nicastri, is so big in the renewable energy business in Italy that he’s known as “Lord of the Wind.”
Video bonus: So why do wind turbines have to be so big? Here’s a nice, little video on how a wind farm off the Dutch coast works.
Video bonus bonus: And for a change of pace, here’s a tutorial on how Windstalk would work.
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