June 26, 2012
The planet probably won’t become dramatically more sustainable as a result of what happened last week at the U.N. Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro. Yes, lofty speeches were delivered and hundreds of billions of dollars of pledges were made, but the chance of a meaningful climate change treaty coming out of one of these events is now none and noner.
Yet one thing that has become painfully clearer with each passing U.N. climate summit is that the key to sustaining life on Earth is to get smarter about how we develop and reshape cities. Today, more than half of the world’s population lives in urban areas; by mid-century it will be closer to three out of four people.
The need to find more space, along with the desire to develop cleaner and more efficient ways to keep cities running, is spurring urban planners to look for unconventional solutions. And they’re finding that more of the answers may be beneath their feet. It’s a big shift. As Leon Neyfakh wrote recently in the Boston Globe: “In a world where most people are accustomed to thinking of progress as pointing toward the heavens, it can be hard to retrain the imagination to aim downward.”
But cities around the world are adjusting their aim; the underground is becoming the next urban frontier.
Here are a handful of projects pushing the possibilities:
1) When there’s no place to go but down: The showpiece of all the potential underground projects is a 65-story inverted pyramid known as the “Earthscraper.” Instead of reaching for the sky, it would burrow 1,000 feet into the ground beneath Mexico City’s main square, the Zocalo. Taking an elevator 40 floors down into the Earth may not sound like anyone’s idea of an awesome way to start the day, but it can be much better than it might seem, insists architect Esteban Suarez, of BNKR Arquitectura, who imagined this plan.
As he sees it, the Zocalo plaza would be covered with glass that would serve as the building’s ceiling. The Earthscraper’s center would be left as open space to allow natural light and ventilation to flow through each floor. And every 10 floors, there’d be an “Earth Lobby” of plant beds and vertical gardens to help filter the air down there. Suarez envisions the first 10 floors nearest the surface as a museum, with the next 10 down reserved for condos and shops and the next 35 floors designed as office space. The Earthscraper faces a lot of challenges, including an estimated cost of $800 million, and plenty of skeptics think it will be true its vision and never see the light of day. But urban designers are keeping an eye on this one to see if it’s the project that moves cities in a whole new direction.
2) When progress means going back into caves: The hands-down leader in plumbing the possibilities of subterranean life is Helsinki, the only city in the world that actually has a master plan for underground development. The Finnish capital sits above bedrock close to the surface, which has allowed it to start building out another city beneath itself. It’s carved through the rock to create an underground pool, a hockey rink, a church, shopping mall, water treatment plant and what are known as “parking caverns.”
But the most innovative feature of this netherworld is, believe it or not, a data center. Usually, data centers are energy hogs, burning up massive amounts of power to keep machines from overheating. Not under Helsinki. There the computers are kept cool with sea water, and the heat they do generate is used to warm homes on the surface. Both Singapore and Hong Kong are looking to follow Helsinki’s lead in moving the unsightly parts of urban life–treatment plants, garbage transfer centers, fuel storage depots, data centers–into underground caverns.
3) When cities suck, but in a good way: The small, but fast-growing city of Almere in the Netherlands has become a model for cities dealing with the mountains of garbage they generate every day. For years Almere has whisked away its trash through a network of underground suction tubes, but more recently it has added litter cans to the system. The bins automatically drop their trash into the vacuum tubes once sensors indicate that they’re full. So the litter never overflows or ends up in piles that make only the rats happy.
A similar underground trash suction system, also designed by the Swedish firm Envac, has been handling garbage from New York’s Roosevelt Island for years and now feasibility studies are underway to see if it can be extended to serve the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan and Coney Island’s boardwalk.
4) When a walk in the park gets really deep: Among the many things most people couldn’t imagine doing underground, having a picnic likely would be high on the list. But that hasn’t deterred two innovative thinkers, Dan Barasch and James Ramsey, from pushing for the creation of New York’s first underground park. Their idea is to take a dank, subterranean trolley terminal that’s been abandoned since 1948 and turn it into a place where people can stroll under Delancey Street on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.
The key to making this work, says Barasch, is using the latest fiber-optic technology to direct natural sunlight into the space–enough sunlight, he insists, to grow grass and plants. To spark the public’s imagination, they’ve been calling it the “LowLine,” an echo of the celebrated elevated High Line park on the city’s West Side. And while the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which owns the property, would have to buy into the plan, it got a nice little boost in April. Barasch and Ramsey pitched their idea on Kickstarter, hoping to raise $100,000 to start the design work. Instead, they’ve raised $150,000 in pledges from 3,300 people.
In the land down under
More notes from underground:
- I love the smell of mocha blend in the morning: Researchers at the City College of New York say they’ve found a way to take the stink out of sewers. Their remedy? Coffee grounds cooked to about 800 degrees Celsius.
- A fungus among us: A pair of “horitcultural artists” have created some truly authentic underground art in an abandoned London railway station. It’s been designed so that mold, fungi and even edible mushrooms will sprout from and spread across the surface over the summer.
- And such a tasteful way to hide the unsightly tourists: You know that going underground is coming into fashion when you hear the Paris city council is considering building a welcome center and ticket counter underneath the Eiffel Tower. It would be designed to reduce the crowds in the plaza around the tower and allow tourists to line up in dry, air-conditioned comfort.
- A nice little place from which to rule the world: And here’s a bit more evidence that going beneath the surface is trending glamorous. Apple’s new spaceship-esque research center to be built in Cupertino, California will include a huge underground auditorium. And it is there where Apple will unveil its latest products to the universe.
Video bonus: For a closer look at how Helsinki is setting the pace for tapping underground potential, this CNN report takes you down below.
June 8, 2012
You may soon, if you haven’t already, be making your first visit to the beach since last summer. A lot has happened out in the ocean since then, although most of us probably haven’t been paying much attention. Truth is, the sea doesn’t get a whole lot of press, unless a tsunami or shark attack happens.
But, like I said, a lot of unusual things are going on in the ocean these days. Scientists have been doing some innovative research to a get handle on where all this is headed, but they are truly in uncharted waters. As marine biologist Callum Roberts wrote in Newsweek, “With an ever-accelerating tide of human impact, the oceans have changed more in the last 30 years than in all of human history before. In most places, the seas have lost upwards of 75 percent of their megafauna—large animals such as whales, dolphins, sharks, rays, and turtles—as fishing and hunting spread in waves across the face of the planet.”
Since today is World Oceans Day, here’s a rundown of 10 things we now know about the sea that we didn’t a year ago.
1. The oceans are getting more acidic every day. In fact, according to researchers at Columbia University, acidification is occurring at a rate faster than any time in the last 300 million years, a period that includes four mass extinctions. As the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere increases, oceans absorb it, and it turns into a carbon acid. And that is putting sea creatures at risk, particularly coral, oysters and salmon.
2. The “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” is even greater. The latest on that massive swirl of plastic particles in the North Pacific? It’s way bigger than scientists thought. They’ve known that it’s roughly the size of Texas. But in a new study researchers collected samples from the below the surface, in some cases 100 feet down, and they’ve concluded that the size of the mass may have been underestimated by 2.5 to 27 times. Another study found that small insects known as sea skaters have taken to laying their eggs on the plastic and that that could end up harming crabs that feed on them.
3. Coming soon: Deep sea mining. Advances in robotics, computer mapping and underwater drilling are stirring up interest in mining metals and minerals under the ocean floor. For mining companies, the prospect of finding rich veins of high-quality copper is particularly enticing. Also, later this month three Chinese scientists in a submersible will dive into the Marianas Trench, the deepest place on Earth–which is seen as a prelude to gearing up an underwater mining industry.
4. The Arctic meltdown could make harsh winters more likely. Yes, it’s counter-intuitive, but yet another study, this one by researchers at Cornell, reinforces the theory that warmer water in the Arctic sets off a climatic chain reaction that can result in brutal winters, like last year in Europe, or relentless snowfalls, like those that buried America’s East Coast in February, 2010.
5. Sea life needs to swim farther to survive climate change. After analyzing 50 years of global temperature changes, scientists at the University of Queensland concluded that both the velocity of climate change and the shift in seasonal temperatures will be higher at sea than on land at certain latitudes. And that means that if sea creatures can’t adapt to the rising temperatures, they may have to migrate hundreds of miles if they hope to survive.
6. Looks like tough times ahead for leatherback turtles. They’ve been around for more than 100 million years but some scientists believe leatherback turtles, the largest sea turtles in the world, may not make it through the rest of this century. They’re already threatened by the warmer and drier climate that accompanies El Nino cycles in their nesting grounds in Costa Rica, and scientists are predicting a climate that’s 5 degrees warmer and 25 percent drier on the country’s Pacific coast in coming decades.
7. And not such a happy future for the Great Barrier Reef, either. Industrial development in Australia is a growing threat to the Great Barrier Reef, so much so that it may be designated a world heritage site “in danger” later this year. Australia is experiencing an investment boom from Asia, with over $400 billion worth of projects on the horizon, including coal and natural gas plants and development of new ports.
8. Fukushima radiation is showing up in tuna caught off the California coast. A new study published in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences says that bluefin tuna caught off America’s West Coast are carrying radiation from the nuclear power plant in Fukushima badly damaged in a tsunami last year. Fortunately, the radiation is not at levels that would be harmful to humans.
9. Melting of ice sheets caused an ancient global flood. Analysis of coral reefs near Tahiti has linked the collapse of massive ice sheets more than 14,000 years ago to a global flood when sea levels around the world rose an average of 46 feet, at a rate 10 times more quickly than they are now. Scientists hope to create a computer model of the mega-flood, which will help them make better predictions of coastal flooding from our modern-day meltdown.
10. And yet, some creatures still find a way to survive. Scientists have known for awhile that microbes have survived for millions of years in the mud of the ocean bottom. But they couldn’t figure out how they stayed alive. Now they know. After probing sediment at the bottom of the Pacific with oxygen sensors, researchers from Denmark found the bacteria are consuming oxygen at extremely slow rates, and that what they’re consuming is organic matter that’s been trapped with them since dinosaurs walked the Earth. Yes, they’ve been chowing on the same meal for millions of years.
Video bonus: It’s hard to find a better ambassador for the sea than Sylvia Earle, who’s been exploring the deep for more than 40 years. Here’s her TED talk from a few years ago, but it’s more relevant than ever. And as a Bonus Bonus, here’s a video slideshow of some of the stranger creatures you’ll ever see, all living under the sea.
March 20, 2012
Every so often, when I’m disappointed that I don’t have superpowers, I’ve found that it helps to watch a nature documentary. Not that it makes me fly or see through walls or fly through walls I’m seeing through, but usually it does let me speed up time or slow down motion and that’s not too shabby.
It happened again the other night when the latest BBC nature mega-series, Frozen Planet began airing on the Discovery Channel. It’s from the same team that brought us Planet Earth, which became the best-selling high-def DVD of all time. This time they’ve focused exclusively on life in Antarctica and the Arctic, and while neither is in my vacation plans, I have a new appreciation for both because I’m seeing them through time-tricked eyes.
This was a reminder of how filmmaking innovations over the past decade or so have dramatically enhanced our ability to perceive the imperceptible of the natural world. Thanks to cutting-edge time lapse filming and high-speed cameras, I was able to watch ice grow and caterpillars freeze and thaw and penguins skim through the surf with a sea lion giving chase. It was the ultimate reality show. It just hadn’t been part of our reality–until technological innovation let us see it.
Consider, for instance, what is probably the most remarkable image of the Frozen Planet series, one that has yet to air on Discovery, but has been on the Web since last fall when the BBC broadcast the program. The subject is brinicles, bizarre stalactites that form when heavy brine from sea ice on the surface freezes on its way down to the bottom. They’re referred to in the show as “icy fingers of death” because anything they touch become encased in ice.
Not surprisingly, no one had ever filmed brinicles in action. But the filmmakers took on the challenge and built, on site, a time lapse camera that was both watertight and able to withstand the ridiculously cold temperatures. Overnight, the camera captured the stunning scene of a brinicle growing downward until it reached the ocean floor where it spread out in an icy line, killing dozens of starfish unable to scramble out of the way.
Another groundbreaking device is the heligimbal, a camera mounted underneath the front of a helicopter and equipped with a gyroscope that keeps it stable during even the bumpiest of rides. Once the BBC crew added a powerful zoom lens, it was able to capture closeups from the air, but from far enough way that the animals weren’t frightened. For Frozen Planet they figured out how to attach it to a boat, allowing them to film polar bears at close range, no matter how rough the seas got.
“There are images in this series that feel like Narnia,” Alastair Fothergill, Frozen Planet’s executive producer, told an interviewer. “In a world where so much cinema is about magical places, it’s amazing that on our planet, in reality there are spectacles that match anything some crazy Hollywood guy can dream up.”
Shots in the dark
Turns out that someone who fits the description of a “crazy Hollywood guy” is doing his own nature film, one that will go where not even Fothergill and his team have dared to travel. This week James Cameron, best known as the director of Titanic and Avatar, hopes to dive solo to the deepest part of the ocean, the Mariana Trench in the South Pacific.
When Cameron drops almost seven miles under the sea in his specially-designed sub, the DeepSea Challenger, he will become only the third person to reach that depth. The other two, Swiss oceanographer Jacques Piccard and U.S. Navy Lt. Don Walsh, took the plunge more than 50 years ago, but strictly as explorers.
Cameron, naturally, will be making a movie, in partnership with the National Geographic, and so he’ll be taking with him not only customized 3-D, high-definition cameras, but also–because he’ll be filming in total darkness–an eight-foot tall array of LED lights.
Tricks and treats
Here are other examples of how cameras are letting us see the world in a different way:
- Slow down, you’re movin’ too fast: Filmmaker Ann Prum explains how a high-speed camera made it possible to enter the world of hummingbirds for the PBS special, “Hummingbirds: Magic in the Air.”
- Yosemite in motion: Photographers Sheldon Neill and Colin Delehanty spent weeks filming day and night throughout Yosemite National Park. The result is one heaping bowl of eye candy, especially the images of shooting stars in the night sky.
- Camera on board: Critter cams have been around for a while, but they’ve become more and more sophisticated. Watch as a sea lion, with a camera attached, takes on an octopus.
Video bonus: When Piccard and Walsh made their historic dive into the Mariana Trench, they took along a Rolex watch. Rolex was more than happy to make a little movie/ad to commemorate it.
January 17, 2012
Most innovators aren’t inventors. We were reminded of that again last year during the swirl of coverage of Steve Jobs, who achieved his godlike status largely through his unique ability to distill, refine and, above all, execute the ideas of others. As the new year begins to pick up speed, it’s a good time to take a look at some young entrepreneurs whose innovative thinking, rather than pure invention, has them poised for big things in 2012.
Can’t stop the music: The recording industry has been in a death spiral for awhile now, dating back to when Napster fed the notion among a generation that freedom to download music without paying is an inalienable right laid out in the Constitution, or maybe it was the Magna Carta. Whatever. Bottom line is that CDs are going the way of the 8-track. But all may not be lost, thanks to a Swedish computer geek-turned-musician-turned-Internet-innovator. That would be Daniel Ek, who launched Spotify in Europe three years ago when he was 25.
Earlier this month Forbes magazine called him “the most important man in music.” That’s probably over the top, but Ek has devised a model that provides instant access to free music while pumping up struggling record labels through licensing fees. Spotify, which makes its money through advertising and user fees ($10 a month for mobile access to your playlists, $5 a month to avoid ads), didn’t roll out in the U.S. until last summer, but raised its profile dramatically a few months later when it hooked up with Facebook. Ek knows that building a personal brand is a subtext of the Facebook experience and a person’s taste in music is often a big part of that. So now, through Spotify, Facebook users see the songs their friends listen to and the playlists they compile, and with a single click, can give a listen. If Spotify goes mainstream in the U.S. this year, Forbes just may be right.
Return of the pin-ups: Often the shrewdest innovations are about carving out the right niche at the right time and so it appears to be with Pinterest, the hot social network of the moment. As someone who says he was a “maniacal” insect collector while growing up in Iowa, co-founder Ben Silbermann realized how passionate people can be about their hobbies or collections. And he and his partners, Evan Sharp and Paul Sciarra, also recognized that posting photos has become as popular a means of self-expression on social networks as clever status updates and funny video links. So they combined passions and photos in Pinterest, where members can “pin” up pictures–their own or ones found on the Web–of their hobbies or just quirky obsessions. They could be muscle cars or Amish quilts or Halloween costumes made of duct tape. Hey, it’s your show. Yes, a year from now Pinterest could be yet another Web sensation gone south. But some analysts are already saying it’s worth more than $150 million.
Power play: Wind and solar energy are clearly appealing alternatives to 50-year-old coal-powered plants pumping out pollutants. But clean energy sources still face a big hurdle: If the wind’s not blowing or the sun’s not shining, how do you keep the lights on? That’s the key to wind and solar becoming core components of the power grid and it’s why a lot of researchers are trying to find ways to cheaply and efficiently store energy that comes from renewable sources. Danielle Fong, chief scientist for an California company called LightSail Energy, is focusing on a process in which wind and solar power would be converted to compressed air. Then, when needed, it could be expanded to drive turbines that support the power grid. Fong’s only 24, but based on her credentials, you have to think that she has as good a shot as anyone at solving this one. At the age of 12 she was taking college-level physics sources; at 17, she was studying nuclear fusion at Princeton.
Copy that: It’s easy to get carried away with the potential of 3-D printers. Imagine being able to download specs for a part you need, then printing it out in your home office. Or have your kids or grandkids use it to build toys they designed themselves. The reality, though, is that it’s likely to be years, maybe even a decade, before they’re as common as PCs in our homes. But if it does happen sooner rather than later, Bre Pettis and MakerBot, the Brooklyn-based outfit he heads as CEO, will have a lot to do with it. They’ve brought the cost of 3-D printers down to about $1,000 and just last week unveiled the MakerBot Duplicator, which prints objects in two colors. But for Pettis, it’s not just about building a business; he once was a teacher and one of his dreams is to bring 3-D printers into the classroom where they can really tap into kids’ creativity.
When cheese says cheese: If most of us had seen what Alexa Andrzejewski did a few years ago while visiting Japan and South Korea, we probably would have dismissed it as slightly bizarre dining behavior and gone back to our meal we couldn’t pronounce. But Andrzejewski, a one-time graphic designer, thought there was something to it. What she saw was people taking pictures of their meals with their cell phones. She first thought about doing a picture book of exotic meals. But she ultimately concluded that she may have found a way to differentiate a business from all of the restaurant mobile apps out there. Why not provide diner reviews of specific meals and build them around photos of the food so people could see what they’d be ordering.
That was the genesis of Foodspotting, a mobile app that shows you pictures of meals that are near where you are at the moment. Or as Andrzejewki puts it, it’s like gazing at the windows of a bakery, except you’re staring at your phone. Now the company is looking for ways to build its business by partnering with apps that let diners know about deals and working with restaurants that want to promote their specials. It also plans to release a new version of its app, one that suggests nearby meals based on your preferences.
Thanks for sharing: The latest estimates are that by 2050, 70 percent of the world’s population will live in urban areas. Already, 21 mega-cities have populations of 10 to 20 million. I’ll go out on a limb and say we’re going to need some pretty innovative thinking about urban life over the next decade if we’re going to keep cities liveable. One person who’s been giving this a lot of thought is Alex Steffen. He’s the author of Worldchanging: A User’s Guide For the 21st Century, which was updated last year. He’s also been called a futurist and he is, but in a practical way. Steffen’s very big, for instance, on the growth of a culture within cities where people share instead of own, whether it’s cars, sports equipment or power drills. He also knows that it’s going to take a lot more than putting plants and trees on rooftops to make cities sustainable and keep them from, as he puts it, “stealing the future.”
Good reads: I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention other bloggers worth watching this year because of their insightful takes on all things innovative, starting with Dominic Basulto, who works at Electric Artists in New York, but whose writing appears regularly at at Ideas@Innovation at WashingtonPost.com and at BigThink.com. Another deserving a visit is David Dobbs’ “Neuron Culture“ blog for Wired.com. And to stay on top of the latest tech, stop by when you can at the “Bits” blog on the New York Times website.
Video Bonus: Salman Khan has made a big splash with his Khan Academy, built around low-tech, conversational educational videos. Check out his TED Talk from last year on using video to reinvent education.
November 2, 2011
Imagine, if you will, a giant helium balloon, the size of a stadium, floating high above the Earth, and dangling from it is a hose 12 miles long that sprays aerosols into the stratosphere—all with the intent of slowing global warming.
When you’re in the planet-saving business, you need to think big. But big and crazy?
Now massive geoengineering projects—once derided as high-risk lunacy by climate scientists and the height of scientific arrogance by many others—are being taken more seriously these days. According to a survey published last week, about three out of four respondents in the United States, United Kingdom and Canada said they think more research should be done on “solar radiation management,” which would cover things like the sky-hose contraption described above.
And earlier last month a Washington research group, the Bipartisan Policy Center, released a report suggesting the time has come for the federal government to begin looking at ways to manipulate the Earth’s climate—if only as a backup plan. First choice would be to dramatically reduce carbon emissions, but that’s a policy as dead as Prohibition in Washington at the moment.
Here’s how Jane Long, a scientist and co-chair of the panel behind the report, put it in an interview with Yale Environment 360: “People aren’t doing this because they think, ‘Oh, whoopee! We can change the Earth!’ They’re doing it because they just don’t see any progress and it just seems to be getting worse and they want options on the table.”
That’s all well and good, but geoengineering is still pretty much a can of worms with a few snakes mixed in. That big sky-hose project? It’s called Stratospheric Particle Injection Climate Engineering, or SPICE for short, and the British government committed $2.5 million to researching it. There was supposed to be a test run in October with a much smaller model—the hose was slightly more than half a mile long. But it was put on hold for at least six months after 60 organizations from around the world signed a petition arguing more discussion was needed before even testing could begin.
The problem is that geoengineering stirs up a lot of questions beyond “Will this work?” Can you really manipulate nature without ugly ripple effects, such as inadvertent droughts or monsoons? Who decides by how much and where the climate should be cooled—in other words, who controls the thermostat? And what’s to prevent a country from going rogue, even using geoengineering as a weapon?
Jane Long and other scientists acknowledge all that. She says she hopes it never has to be used. But without research and testing, what happens if the worst predictions of climate change come to pass? In her mind, the last thing geoengineering should be is an act of desperation.
Here are some geoengineering ideas out there:
- Make like a volcano: Researchers have taken as inspiration the eruption of Mt. Pinatubo in 1991. The sulfur dioxide cloud it generated dropped global temperatures almost a full degree Fahrenheit the following year. That’s the theory behind the giant sky hose—it would pump sulfuric acid aerosol particles into the stratosphere with the goal of reflecting the sun’s radiation. What worries scientists most is the collateral damage that could come with it.
- Cloud cover: Then there’s the Silver Lining Project, which would involve developing a fleet of boats designed to pump sea water into the atmosphere, with the intent of creating sun-reflecting clouds. Bill Gates has kicked in money for this idea, but there are questions again about how much it could be controlled.
- Space mirrors: Another concept based on reflecting the sun’s rays away from Earth would involve creating a massive “sun shade” of mirrors. But not only would the cost be enormous, some scientists say the rocket launches needed to get the components into space could create so much black soot pollution that it could actually raise the planet’s temperature.
- Suck it up: An alternative approach is to forget about the sun and focus instead on getting rid of the excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. This could involve building machines that suck it out of the atmosphere. There’s actually potential for a business here (Gates has invested in this one, too), but the cost is still way too high. And there’s the matter of what do you do with all that carbon you capture?
- Under the sea: A more “natural” version of carbon removal would involve dumping iron filings into the ocean, which would accelerate the growth of phytoplankton, which, in turn, would ingest more CO2. But it’s not clear how this would affect marine life or if it would even work on the scale needed to make a difference.
Video bonus: What about trees with plastic leaves that suck up carbon? EnergyNOW! goes there.