May 9, 2013 11:18 am
Since 1972, the U.S. has flown a series of satellites known as the Landsat program, a fleet of Earth-observing satellites that were tasked with taking pictures from space. Landsat’s gorgeous photos have been a favorite of the Earth-as-art crowd, and the satellites’ observations have provided an absolutely critical long-term record of how our planet is changing.
Today, Google put out the Earth Engine, a fascinating tool that showcases a scrollable, zoomable time-lapse of the entire planet as seen by Landsat over the decades. The Landsat photos only go back to 1984, but they show the dramatic ways in which the planet has changed in such a brief period of time. To help you get started, Google pulled out some highlights to look at, such as the drying of the Aral Sea or the deforestation of the Amazon. But the tool does show the whole planet (just the land, not the oceans), and there are many more cool things to be seen.
But don’t bother looking for Antarctica, because it’s not included. (Sad.)
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May 7, 2013 3:03 pm
For the first time in human history, later this month the world’s atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide will likely exceed 400 parts per million, according to a study conducted by the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. The researchers monitor CO2 concentrations from a station in Hawaii, and those levels usually peak in May. Right now, levels are teetering at 399 ppm. If they do not exceed 400 ppm this year, the researchers say, they almost certainly will next year.
In March 1958, when the first measurements of atmospheric CO2 were made, the northern hemisphere stood at 316 ppm. Researchers project that the pre-industrial atmosphere was around 280 ppm. For the past 800,000 years prior to the industrial revolution, Scripps points out, CO2 levels never exceeded 300 ppm. At this rate, however, we’re likely to hit 450 ppm within the next few decades. “With global emissions showing no sign of slowing, it may well be that within our lifetimes we look back on 400 ppm as a fond memory,” muses the Carbon Brief.
This landmark is more symbolically the scientifically significant, however. The International Herald Tribune points out:
While the milestone is arbitrary (why is hitting 400 parts per million more alarming than a measurement of 399?), scientists say it’s an important reminder of how the levels continue to rise.
Regardless of whether we’re at 390 or 400 ppm, the fact is that atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide are rising are projected to continue to do so. Some researchers and advocates hope that crossing the 400 ppm threshold will help kick politicians and the public into action since climate change is just as much a political issue as a scientific one these days. Responding to Climate Change writes:
Let us hope that reaching 400ppm can serve as a spark to ignite a new sense of urgency about climate change. Otherwise, in a few decades, we’ll lament our inaction when we hit 450ppm.
But there’s no guarantee or even hint that this latest development will cause significant ripples in policy, attitude or action. Indeed, the station in Hawaii that monitors CO2 levels is in danger of shutting down because of budget cuts and the perception that the research conducted there is not essential, reports Nature News. “It’s kind of silly that we chose to go all ostrich-like,” biogeochemist Jim White told Nature. “We don’t want to know how much CO is in the atmosphere, when we ought to be monitoring even more.”
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May 2, 2013 10:11 am
Buying a green product—an energy-saving lightbulb or bird-friendly coffee—can give shoppers a feeling of satisfaction for doing a small part to help the environment. But green-certified product label don’t give everyone the warm fuzzies. New research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of the Sciences found that some politically conservative shoppers actively avoid products that advertise their environmental friendliness.
The researchers conducted two studies to investigate how political ideology might influence a shopper’s choices. The researchers surveyed around 650 Americans ranging in age from 19 to 81. The interviewees answered questions about their political leanings, the value of reducing carbon dioxide emissions, and their thoughts on the environment and on energy efficiency.
The results revealed that the more conservative a survey taker, the less likely he was to support energy-efficient technology. The researchers attributed this finding to the lower value that political conservatives place on reducing carbon emissions rather than on energy independence or reducing energy costs, both of which still appealed to this group of people.
In a second study, around 200 participants were given $2 to spend on either a compact fluorescent light (CFL) bulb or an incandescent bulb. Before making their purchase, the researchers informed the participants that the CFL bulb reduce energy costs by 75 percent. Some of the CFL bulbs also included a “Protect the Environment” sticker on their box.
When the researchers placed the CFL bulbs at $1.50 and the incandescent bulb at just 50 cents, conservative participants but not liberal ones were less likely to buy it. However, when that more expensive CFL bulb did not include a “Protect the Environment” sticker, liberals and conservatives were just as likely to buy it.
In other groups of participants, the CFL and incandescent bulbs were both sold for 50 cents. In this case, conservatives bought the CFL more often than the incandescent bulb.
While energy efficiency and green labeling is a popular marketing strategy today, the researchers point out that in some cases this may work against the product and polarize potential customers. Instead, in order to attract political conservatives, providing a competitive price tag may be the surest way to promote purchases.
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April 30, 2013 3:26 pm
It took a while for Americans to get comfortable with the idea of shopping for groceries online. The first ventures into online groceries through sites—like Webvan, founded in the 1990s, closed in 2001—flopped. But as consumers bought more books, movies, shoes, clothes, toys and everything else online, companies like New York-centric FreshDirect made web grocery shopping and delivery work.
Services like FreshDirect don’t just cut down on hassle of having to drive to the grocery store. New research shows that they can also be good for the environment. Ordering online cuts carbon emissions on average by half when compared with traveling to the store by car, the researchers found, especially when delivery trucks were filled to capacity.
In their analysis, the researchers randomly sampled Seattle households. To calculate emissions, they included data such as the type of car families owned, the roadway type, the distance to the grocery store and the speed limit.
They found that grocery delivery trucks produced 20 to 75 percent less CO2 emissions than the corresponding number of personal vehicles would have. If households were targeted based upon established routes rather than individual delivery time requests, that figure jumped to 80 to 90 percent fewer emissions. This finding held true in both Seattle’s dense downtown and in the suburbs.
Nothing beats walking or riding a bike, however, for those shoppers living close enough to the grocery store to enjoy that option.
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April 25, 2013 1:42 pm
The Cold War was a strange time. Fresh off the Manhattan Project and steeped in the race for space, Big Science—or rather, Big Engineering—was in full swing, and Derek Mead is doing an excellent job of documenting, for Motherboard, the weird results. With nothing to do with their stockpiled nukes, for instance, America turned to Project Plowshare, a plan to use nuclear explosions to dig tunnels and dredge ports and do anything else you can think of where making a really big hole would come in handy. And on the other side of the Pacific, Mead writes, the Soviets had their own wacky scheme—a plan so big, so expensive and so replete with likely devastating consequences for the entire planet that it makes it all the more awesome to hear that people were taking the plan quite seriously.
The Russians, says Mead, wanted to melt the Arctic.
You might laugh, but while Soviet Russia was blessed with the largest land mass of any nation on Earth, much of it resource rich, putting that land to use was stunningly difficult.
…Russia was already spending an enormous amount of money combating the ice. Exploiting the vast petroleum reserves of the Arctic and Siberia was crucial to the growth of the Soviet economy, but every well pitted far-flung men against frozen earth and wind.
So, to exploit their trove of resources and beat the Americans, Russia needed Siberia to thaw. And their plan to do so was completely and absolutely ridiculous. The Soviets wanted to build a dam. A really, really, really big dam. A dam from Russia to Alaska, choking off the Pacific Ocean’s access to the Arctic Ocean. They thought that by doing so they could redirect the Gulf Stream in the Atlantic Ocean (which brings warm water from Florida up to Europe) to flow into the northern reaches, bringing warm salty water that would nullify the Arctic’s chill.
The plan isn’t necessarily ridiculous from a scientific standpoint. Changing the ocean currents would certainly have consequences. Indeed, 50 million years ago, when Antarctica was still connected to Australia with a long land bridge and the Antarctic Circumpolar Current didn’t exist, Antarctica had palm trees. So consequences, yes. Controlled consequences, probably not. Unintended consequences that could devastate the rest of the world? Certainly.
From pretty much every perspective other than “this might potentially work,” the Russian’s plan was crazy. Which makes it all the more suprising that America were almost on-board.
Borisov dreamed of enlisting the US, Canada, Japan, and Northern Europe in the plan, as all would theoretically benefit from a warmer climate. Surprisingly, the US was intrigued by the idea. In fact, in a response to a series of questions sent in 1960 by the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists to presidential candidates Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy, Senator Kennedy noted, as part of a larger point about the value of innovation in fostering cooperation, that the Siberia-Alaska dam was “certainly worth exploring.”
Big Science of today is big, but it is also certainly much more careful. Mead’s story explores a time when engineering dreams quite nearly ran ahead of engineering caution.
More from Smithsonian.com:
Ancient Climate Change Meant Antarctica Was Once Covered with Palm Trees
The Russian Government Once Funded a Scientist’s Quest To Make an Ape-Human Hybrid
The U.S. Once Wanted To Use Nuclear Bombs as a Construction Tool