May 2, 2013
In the wealthy world, improving the energy system generally means increasing the central supply of reliable, inexpensive and environmentally-friendly power and distributing it through the power grid. Across most of the planet, though, simply providing new energy sources to the millions who are without electricity and depend on burning wood or kerosene for heat and light would open up new opportunities.
With that in mind, engineers and designers have recently created a range of innovative devices that can increase the supply of safe, cheap energy on a user-by-user basis, bypassing the years it takes to extend the power grid to remote places and the resources needed to increase a country’s energy production capacity. Here are a few of the most promising technologies.
1. VOTO: Millions of people around the world use charcoal and wood-fueled stoves on a daily basis. VOTO (above), developed by the company Point Source Power, converts the energy these fires release as heat into electricity, which can power a handheld light, charge a phone or even charge a spare battery. The company initially designed VOTO for backpackers and campers in wealthy countries so they can charge their devices during trips, but is also trying to find a way to make it accessible to residents of the developing world for daily use.
2.Window Socket: This is perhaps the simplest solar charger in existence: Just stick it on a sunny window for 5 to 8 hours with the built-in suction cup, and the solar panels on the back will store about 10 hours worth of electricity that can be used with any device. If there’s no window available, a user can just leave it on any sunny surface, including the ground. Once it’s fully charged, it can be removed and taken anywhere—inside a building, stored around in a bag or carried around in a vehicle. The designers, Kyuho Song and Boa Oh of Yanko Design, created it to resemble a normal wall outlet as closely as possible, so it can be used intuitively without any special instructions.
3. The Berkeley-Darfur Stove: In the past few years, a number of health researchers have come to the same conclusion: that providing a safe, energy-efficient wood-burning cookstove to millions of people in the developing world can directly improve health (by reducing smoke inhalation), aid the environment (by reducing the amount of wood needed for fuel) and alleviate poverty (by reducing the amount of time needed to devote to gather wood every day).
Many projects have pursued this goal, but Potential Energy, a nonprofit dedicated to adapting and scaling technologies to help improve lives in the developing world, is the furthest along, having distributed more than 25,000 of their Berkeley-Darfur Stoves in Darfur and Ethiopia. Their stove’s design achieves these aims with features such as a tapered wind collar, a small fire box opening, nonaligned air vents that reduce the amount of wind allowed to stoke or snuff the fire (which wastes fuel) and ridges that ensure the optimal distance between the fire and pot in terms of fuel efficiency.
4. GravityLight: Along with wood-burning stoves, the kerosene-burning lamps that provide light throughout the developing world have recently become a target for replacement for one of the same reasons: The fumes generated by burning kerosene in closed corners are a major health problem. A seemingly simple solution is GravityLight, developed by the research initiative deciwatt.org.
To power the device, a user fills an included bag with about 20 pounds of rock or dirt, attaches it to the cord hanging down from the device and lifts it upward. The potential energy stored in that lifting motion is then gradually converted to electricity by the GravityLight, which slowly lets the bag downward over the course of about 30 minutes and powers a light or other electrical device during that time. It’s currently priced at about $10, and because it requires no running costs, the development team estimates that the investment will be paid back in about 3 months, as compared to the cost of kerosene.
5. SOCCKET: Soccer—known simply as football in nearly every English-speaking country besides the U.S.—is easily the most popular sport in the world. The newest product of Uncharted Play, a for-profit social enterprise, seeks to take advantage of the millions of people already playing the sport to replace kerosene lamps with electric light generated in a much different manner. Their ball uses an internal kinetically-powered pendulum to generate and store electricity. After about 30 minutes of play, the ball stores enough energy to power an attachable LED lamp for 3 hours. Development of the product was funded via Kickstarter, and the first ones will ship in the next few weeks. A percentage of all retail sales will go to providing SOCCKETs to schools in the developing world.
April 19, 2013
Last year, to celebrate the 42nd Earth Day, we took a look at 10 of the most surprising, disheartening, and exciting things we’d learned about our home planet in the previous year—a list that included discoveries about the role pesticides play in bee colony collapses, the various environmental stresses faced by the world’s oceans and the millions of unknown species are still out in the environment, waiting to be found.
This year, in time for Earth Day on Monday, we’ve done it again, putting together another list of 10 notable discoveries made by scientists since Earth Day 2012—a list that ranges from specific topics (a species of plant, a group of catfish) to broad (the core of planet Earth), and from the alarming (the consequences of climate change) to the awe-inspiring (Earth’s place in the universe).
1. Trash is accumulating everywhere, even in Antarctica. As we’ve explored the most remote stretches of the planet, we’ve consistently left behind a trail of one supply in particular: garbage. Even in Antarctica, a February study found (PDF), abandoned field huts and piles of trash are mounting. Meanwhile, in the fall, a new research expedition went to study the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, counting nearly 70,000 pieces of garbage over the course of a month at sea.
2. Climate change could erode the ozone layer. Until recently, atmospheric scientists viewed climate change and the disintegration of the ozone layer as entirely distinct problems. Then, in July, Harvard researcher Jim Anderson (who won a Smithsonian Ingenuity Award for his work) led a team that published the troubling finding that the two might be linked. Some warm summer storms, they discovered, can pull moisture up into the stratosphere, an atmospheric layer 6 miles up. Through a chain of chemical reactions, this moisture can lead to the disintegration of ozone, which is crucial for protecting us from ultraviolet (UV) radiation. Climate change, unfortunately, is projected to cause more of these sorts of storms.
3. This flower lives on exactly two cliffs in Spain. In September, Spanish scientists told us about one of the most astounding survival stories in the plant kingdom: Borderea chouardii, an extremely rare flowering plant that is found on only two adjacent cliffs in the Pyrenees. The species is believed to be a relic of the Tertiary Period, which ended more than 2 million years ago, and relies on several different local ant species to spread pollen between its two local populations.
4. Some catfish have learned to kill pigeons. In December, a group of French scientists revealed a phenomenon they’d carefully been observing over the previous year: a group of catfish in Southwestern France had learned how to leap onto shore, briefly strand themselves, and swim back into the water to consume their prey. With more than 2,000,000 Youtube views so far, this is clearly one of the year’s most widely enjoyed scientific discoveries.
5. Fracking for natural gas can trigger moderate earthquakes. Scientists have known for a while that whenever oil and gas are extracted from the ground at a large scale, seismic activity can be induced. Over the past few years, evidence has mounted that injecting water, sand and chemicals into bedrock to cause gas and oil to flow upward—a practice commonly known as fracking—can cause earthquakes by lubricating pre-existing faults in the ground. Initially, scientists found correlations between fracking sites and the number of small earthquakes in particular areas. Then, in March, other researchers found evidence that a medium-sized 2011 earthquake in Oklahoma(which registered a 5.7 on the moment magnitude scale) was likely caused by injecting wastewater into wells to extract oil.
6. Our planet’s inner core is more complicated than we thought. Despite decades of research, new data on the iron and nickel ball 3,100 miles beneath our feet continue to upset our assumptions about just how the earth’s core operates. A paper published last May showed that iron in the outer parts of the inner core is losing heat much more quickly than previously estimated
, suggesting that it might hold more radioactive energy than we’d assumed, or that novel and unknown chemical interactions are occurring. Ideas for directly probing the core are widely regarded as pipe dreams, so our only options remains studying it from afar, largely by monitoring seismic waves.
7. The world’s most intense natural color comes from an African fruit. When a team of researchers looked closely at the blue berries of Pollia condensata, a wild plant that grows in East Africa, they found something unexpected: it uses an uncommon structural coloration method to produce the most intense natural color ever measured. Instead of pigments, the fruit’s brilliant blue results from nanoscale-size cellulose strands layered in twisting shapes, which which interact with each other to scatter light in all directions.
8. Climate change will let ships cruise across the North Pole. Climate change is sure to create countless problems for many people around the world, but one specific group is likely to see a significant benefit from it: international shipping companies. A study published last month found that rising temperatures make it probable that during summertime, reinforced ice-breaking ships will be able to sail directly across the North Pole—an area currently covered by up to 65 feet of ice—by the year 2040. This dramatic shift will shorten shipping routes from North America and Europe to Asia.
9. One bacteria species conducts electricity. In October, a group of Danish researchers revealed that the seafloor mud of Aarhus’ harbor was coursing with electricity due to an unlikely source: mutlicellular bacteria that behave like tiny electrical cables. The organisms, the team found, built structures that traveled several centimeters down into the sediment and conduct measurable levels of electricity. The researchers speculate that this seemingly strange behavior is a byproduct of the way of the bacteria harvests energy from the nutrients buried in the soil.
10. Our Earth isn’t alone. Okay, this one might not technically be a discovery about Earth, but over the past year we have learned a tremendous amount about what our Earth isn’t: the only habitable planet in the visible universe. The pace of exoplanet detection has accelerated rapidly, with a total of 866 planets in other solar systems discovered so far. As our methods have become more refined, we’ve been able to detect smaller and smaller planets, and just yesterday, scientists finally discovered a pair of distant planets in the habitable zone of their stars that are relatively close in size to Earth, making it more likely than ever that we might have spied an alien planet that actually supports life.
April 3, 2013
For decades, a total of 124 swords, tridents and spears taken from the Pacific Ocean’s Gilbert Islands in the mid-1800s sat untouched in vaults in Chicago’s Field Museum. The weapons—each made up of dozens of individual shark teeth that islanders lashed to a wooden core with coconut fibers—were primarily considered artifacts of anthropological value.
Then, Joshua Drew, a marine conservation biologist at the museum, had an unusual idea: that the shark teeth lining the serrated blades could also serve as an ecological snapshot of the reefs that lined the islands more than a century ago. Sharks can be clearly identified solely by their teeth, so the teeth that islanders had harvested and used for their weapons might reflect historical biodiversity in the reefs that’s since been lost due to environmental degradation.
When Drew and others closely examined the hundreds of teeth on the weapons, they found that they came from eight different shark species, six of which were known to commonly swim in the Gilbert Islands’ waters. Two species, though—the dusky shark (Carcharhinus obscurus) and the spottail shark (Carcharhinus sorrah)—were something of a surprise. When the researchers looked at the scientific literature and various museum holdings of fish collected in the area, they found that these two species had never been documented within thousands of miles of the islands.
Drew calls this “shadow biodiversity”—a reflection of the life that lived in an ecosystem before we even started studying what was there. “[These are] hints and whispers of what these reefs used to be like,” he said in a press statement accompanying the paper documenting his team’s find, published today in PLOS ONE. “It’s our hope that by understanding how reefs used to look we’ll be able to come up with conservation strategies to return them to their former vivid splendor.”
Working with Mark Westneat, the museum’s curator of fishes, and Christopher Philipp, who manages the anthropology collections, Drew classified each tooth on every weapon by shark species, primarily using field guides and photos. In cases where the tooth’s identity was ambiguous, he made use of the Museum’s own ichthyological holdings, comparing it to preserved specimens from each shark species.
Because dusky and spottail shark teeth were found on the weapons—crafted sometime between the 1840s and 1860s, shortly before they were collected—the researchers believe these two species were once part of the ecosystem and have since been eradicated. There is the possibility that the teeth were harvested elsewhere and came to the Gilbert Islands via trade, but the team says it’s unlikely.
For one, sharks figure largely in the islanders’ traditional culture, and it’s well-known that they had effective shark-fishing techniques, making it unlikely that they’d go to the trouble of exporting teeth from afar. The two species’ teeth were among the most common found on the weapons, so it also stands to reason that they were fairly abundant nearby. Secondly, there is no historical or archaeological evidence that trade occurred between the extremely remote Gilbert Islands and either the Solomon Islands (the closest known location of spottail sharks) or Fiji (for dusky sharks).
It’s impossible to know for sure, but given the environmental degradation that’s occurred over the past century in the Pacific’s coral reefs, the researchers suspect that humans played a role in these sharks’ local eradication. Because sharks mature slowly and have a small number of offspring per individual, they can be wiped out quickly by moderate levels of fishing, and the commercial shark fishing industry started up in the area as early as 1910.
Rigorous fish surveys of the Pacific didn’t begin for a few more decades, so these weapons—and perhaps other human artifacts that incorporate biological specimens—serve as a valuable time capsule of the ecosystems that predated scientific study. Drew thinks that the “shadow diversity” we’ve since lost should inspire people in the marine conservation field to recreate the biodiversity that predates the Industrial Age.
“When we set up modern conservation plans, we shouldn’t sell ourselves short,” he told Nature last year, when he revealed his preliminary results at a conference. “We might not recapture the vivid splendor of those super-rich levels, but this information argues for setting up management plans to protect what sharks are there.”
April 2, 2013
Step outside after the first storm after a dry spell and it invariably hits you: the sweet, fresh, powerfully evocative smell of fresh rain.
If you’ve ever noticed this mysterious scent and wondered what’s responsible for it, you’re not alone.
Back in 1964, a pair of Australian scientists (Isabel Joy Bear and R. G. Thomas) began the scientific study of rain’s aroma in earnest with an article in Nature titled “Nature of Agrillaceous Odor.” In it, they coined the term petrichor to help explain the phenomenon, combining a pair of Greek roots: petra (stone) and ichor (the blood of gods in ancient myth).
In that study and subsequent research, they determined that one of the main causes of this distinctive smell is a blend of oils secreted by some plants during arid periods. When a rainstorm comes after a drought, compounds from the oils—which accumulate over time in dry rocks and soil—are mixed and released into the air. The duo also observed that the oils inhibit seed germination, and speculated that plants produce them to limit competition for scarce water supplies during dry times.
These airborne oils combine with other compounds to produce the smell. In moist, forested areas in particular, a common substance is geosmin, a chemical produced by a soil-dwelling bacteria known as actinomycetes. The bacteria secrete the compound when they produce spores, then the force of rain landing on the ground sends these spores up into the air, and the moist air conveys the chemical into our noses.
“It’s a very pleasant aroma, sort of a musky smell,” soil specialist Bill Ypsilantis told NPR during an interview on the topic. “You’ll also smell that when you are in your garden and you’re turning over your soil.”
Because these bacteria thrive in wet conditions and produce spores during dry spells, the smell of geosmin is often most pronounced when it rains for the first time in a while, because the largest supply of spores has collected in the soil. Studies have revealed that the human nose is extremely sensitive to geosmin in particular—some people can detect it at concentrations as low as 5 parts per trillion. (Coincidentally, it’s also responsible for the distinctively earthy taste in beets.)
Ozone—O3, the molecule made up of three oxygen atoms bonded together—also plays a role in the smell, especially after thunderstorms. A lightning bolt’s electrical charge can split oxygen and nitrogen molecules in the atmosphere, and they often recombine into nitric oxide (NO), which then interacts with other chemicals in the atmosphere to produce ozone. Sometimes, you can even smell ozone in the air (it has a sharp scent reminiscent of chlorine) before a storm arrives because it can be carried over long distances from high altitudes.
But apart from the specific chemicals responsible, there’s also the deeper question of why we find the smell of rain pleasant in the first place. Some scientists have speculated that it’s a product of evolution.
Anthropologist Diana Young of the University of Queensland in Australia, for example, who studied the culture of Western Australia’s Pitjantjatjara people, has observed that they associate the smell of rain with the color green, hinting at the deep-seated link between a season’s first rain and the expectation of growth and associated game animals, both crucial for their diet. She calls this “cultural synesthesia”—the blending of different sensory experiences on a society-wide scale due to evolutionary history.
It’s not a major leap to imagine how other cultures might similarly have positive associations of rain embedded in their collective consciousness—humans around the world, after all, require either plants or animals to eat, and both are more plentiful in rainy times than during drought. If this hypothesis is correct, then the next time you relish the scent of fresh rain, think of it as a cultural imprint, derived from your ancestors.
March 31, 2013
You probably think of the Arctic as a cold, frozen tundra—home to lichen, polar bears and scattered herds of reindeer. In many places, this view would be accurate, but in a few relatively southern areas in Canada, Alaska and Russia, warming temperatures over the past few decades have allowed new types of plants, such as shrubs, to take root.
And by 2050—if current warming trends continue—we’ll see a dramatically different ecosystem across the Arctic, starting with something that’s largely unknown in the area currently: trees. According to research published today in Nature Climate Change, tree cover in the Arctic could increase by more than 50 percent over the next few decades.
The research team, which included scientists from a number of universities and was led by Richard Pearson of the American Museum of Natural History, made the calculation based off of current projections of how the Arctic’s climate will change by 2050. So far, temperatures in the region have risen about twice as fast as those for the planet as a whole.
They created a model that predicts which class of plants (various grasses, mosses, shrubs or trees) will grow given a particular temperature and precipitation range expected for the future; for each spot on a map of the Arctic, they fed in the 2050 projections. Doing this kind of vegetative modeling for the Arctic, they say, is relatively straightforward compared to doing it for somewhere like the tropics, because there are hard limits on the temperature and growing season length that given plant types can tolerate.
They found that tree cover will expand drastically, covering up to 52 percent more land area than currently, rising far north of the current tree line in Alaska and Canada. This new tree cover will mostly come at the expense of areas currently covered by shrubs, but shrubs will take over places now dominated by tundra plants (lichens and mosses), and some areas presently under ice will convert into tundra.
In effect, the area’s warming climate and lengthening growing season will shift all current vegetation zones to more northerly and colder regions. Already, these vegetation zones have shifted an average of five degrees of latitude over the past 30 years–in other words,
the vegetation in one spot resembles how a location five degrees south looked 30 years ago .
But by 2050, this shift will be even more dramatic—perhaps equaling 20 degrees of latitude—and a projected 48 to 69 percent of the Arctic’s vegetated areas will switch to a different class of plants. Some rare plant species could be at risk of extinction if they’re not able to migrate as quickly as the vegetation zones move.
Because plants are the base of any food chain, this conversion will have wide-ranging effects, both locally and elsewhere. “These impacts would extend far beyond the Arctic region,” Pearson said in a press statement. “For example, some species of birds seasonally migrate from lower latitudes and rely on finding particular polar habitats, such as open space for ground-nesting.” Their migrations patterns would presumably be altered by the growth of forests on what had been open tundra.
Most troubling, the conversion of white, snow-covered land to dark vegetation will further
affect the warming of the planet. Because darker colors absorb more radiation than the white of ice and snow, shifting large masses of land to a darker color is projected to further accelerate warming, creating a positive feedback loop: more warming leads to a greener Arctic, which leads to more warming.
Given all the other problems that the area is rapidly encountering as the climate changes—melting glaciers, increasing oil exploration and hybridizing bear species—it’s clear that the Arctic will be one of the most environmentally fragile regions of the planet over the coming century.