Courtesy ThorThat's right. There is something rotten, smelly, nasty happening right in the lobby of the Science Museum of Minnesota. We've got compost on display. You can see the three phases of compost from fresh organic garbage to midway decomposed waste to finished compost. And you can learn all about the science that makes it possible to turn trash into ground-enriching treasure. Here's the link to the web content that accompanies this exhibit. Oh, and don't worry about the smell. The case the compost is presented in has special filters to keep any nastiness from getting out!
This week Time has an amazing feature showing time lapse satellite images taken from space document land-use changes over 30 or 40 years at significant locations around the world. Watch a lake practically dry up in Asia. See the retreat of the Columbia Glacier in Alaska. View the sprawl of Las Vegas across the Nevada desert. And there's much, much more including an option to select a spot on Earth you especially care about. Cool stuff.
Do you like hot weather? Do you like playing with graphs? Combine those two interests in at this interactive website that charts the fluxuation in global temperature over your own personal lifetime.
Courtesy © Solar Impulse | Revillard | Rezo.chIt's one flight down and four more to go for Solar Impulse, the completely solar airplane that's soaring its way across the USA. Solar Impulse flew from San Francisco to Phoenix on May 3, taking a shade over 18 hours to complete the trip. Over the next couple months, it will fly legs to Dallas, St. Louis, Washington D.C. and New York City with the New York trip scheduled to conclude in early July.
For the stat freaks, the solar plane averaged a speed of 40 miles an hour at an average altitude of 10,000 feet. It soared to a maximum altitude of 21,000 feet over the 650 mile trip. And yes, it took off and landed in the dark.
More information about the Solar Impulse project can be found at its website here and to follow its progress flying across the country.
So how does a solar airplane work exactly?
Made of carbon fiber, the plane has the wingspan of a Boeing 747 (208 feet) and the weight of a small car (3,527 lbs). It is the result of seven years of intense work by a team of about 80 people and 100 partners and advisors. The 12,000 solar cells built into the wing provide four 10 horsepower electric motors with renewable energy. By day the solar cells recharge lithium batteries which allow the plane to fly at night. Swiss pioneers Bertrand Piccard (chairman) and André Borschberg (CEO) are the founders, pilots and the driving forces behind Solar Impulse.
The plane made its first night flight in 2010 and has a record endurance flight of 26 hours, 10 minutes, 19 seconds.
Solar Impulse wants to inspire and motivate as many people as possible throughout its journey across America. “We want to show that with clean technologies, a passionate team and a fa-reaching pioneering vision one can achieve the impossible.” said Piccard, adding “If we all challenged certitudes by driving change and being pioneers in our everyday lives, we can create innovative solutions for society’s biggest challenges.”
Here's some more nitty gritty about the plane's specs and future:
• The electricity produced by the solar panels is about the same as needed to run a scooter for 24 hours.
• The light plane is sensitive to turbulence. Winds cannot exceed 11.5 miles per hour at take off and crosswinds at takeoff can be no more than 4.6 miles per hour.
* A second plane is now being constructed.
* Solar Impluse has a goal of making an around-the-world trip in 2015, with 2-3 day flights over continents and 4-6 day legs over oceans.
And just to prove it actually flies, here's video shot in the San Francisco skies before Solar Impulse began its USA journey.
How much of terrestrial plant and animal life can humanity safely consume without seriously damaging the live-support systems of our planet? It has been challenging to answer that question because of the difficulty of measuring how much biomass is produced annually on land and how much of this yearly production humans co-opt.
Huge regional variability exists in terrestrial productivity from year to year because of heat, cold, floods and droughts but what is striking from recent reviews of more than 30 years of satellite imagery is how little global variability there is annually. Each year, terrestrial plants fix about 53.6 petagrams of biomass – a gigantic quantity but what matters is not so much the size of annual biomass production but rather that it seems to vary by only about two percent per year.
Recent estimates from satellite imagery indicate that humans now appropriate 38 percent of all terrestrial biomass generated annually. That would seem to leave 62 percent on the table for expanded human consumption but the vast majority of this biomass appears to be not harvestable because it includes root growth below ground and biomass production on lands in parks or wilderness areas that are either protected or inaccessible.
It appears likely that the upper limit for how much of terrestrial biomass that humans can co-opt annually is only about ten percent more for a total of 48 percent. Current land use patterns and projections that the global human population may reach nine billion by 2050 suggest that this 48 percent of all available terrestrial biomass may be reached within the next few decades.
Courtesy NOAANitrogen is an essential nutrient for plants. So how can nitrogen limit plant growth, given that nitrogen comprises 79 percent of the atmosphere? But atmospheric nitrogen is composed of molecules consisting of two atoms of nitrogen and this form of nitrogen cannot be used by plants.
Farmers have for centuries spread animal manure on fields or plowed under leguminous crops (such as alfalfa which has microbial communities living on its roots that fix nitrogen) to add useful, reactive forms of nitrogen to soils. German ingenuity in the early 20th century invented an industrial process that made it possible for the first time to manufacture plant-usable forms of nitrogen, which made possible the artificial fertilizing of crops.
Manmade production of ammonia and nitrate fertilizers has exploded in recent decades and now vastly exceeds the amount of atmospheric nitrogen converted into reactive nitrogen by microbial organisms around the world. At the same time, the burning of ever-increasing quantities of coal, oil and natural gas converts some atmospheric nitrogen into oxides of nitrogen (NOx). NOx emissions can both increase crop growth and diminish it because NOx gases help catalyze the formation of ground-level ozone and this gas is toxic to plant life.
The huge increases of human-produced forms of nitrogen that are applied to croplands and that are released into the atmosphere and eventually settle out have many unintended consequences. In particular, excess nitrogen washes off of agricultural and urban landscapes and is accelerating the destructive growth of algae in lakes, rivers and coastal estuaries around the world.
The connections between manmade carbon dioxide emissions and climate change are quite worrying and receive much scientific and media attention. Nitrogen pollution receives much less notice but is a dramatic example of how human activities now dominate many of the chemical, physical and biological processes that make this plant so amenable to human life.
The Science Museum of Minnesota is a partner with the University of Minnesota on its Islands in the Sun project, which is monitoring the urban heat island in the Twin Cities to find ways of lessening its effects through landscape design. More than half the global population now lives in cities and so there is urgent need to understand and mitigate urban heat islands, especially during heat waves when the risk of heat-related illness and mortality can increase dramatically.
Courtesy Courtesy Department of Soil, Water and Climate, University of Minnesota
Islands in the Sun is setting up temperature sensors throughout the Twin Cities Metro Area. This temperature network when completed will be one of the densest in the world. Would you like to be a part of this effort? Islands in the Sun is especially interested in volunteers willing to have a sensor installed on their property and who live in the following locations -- downtown Minneapolis, downtown Saint Paul, Saint Paul – east of Rice St, West Saint Paul, South Saint Paul, Mendota Heights, Inver Grove Heights, Eagan, Oakdale, Woodbury, Cottage Grove, northern Roseville, Arden Hills, and Plymouth.
Information about the sensor and its placement can be found here. If you are still interested after reviewing this information, then fill out and submit a volunteer form. Please note that your interest does not guarantee that a sensor will be installed because each site must meet certain criteria. If selected, a temperature sensor will be installed at a location on your property acceptable to you with the expectation that it will remain onsite collecting data for up to four years. A technician will visit the sensor every two to three months to download data.
Thanks for considering being a part of this ground-breaking research project.
Courtesy NASAHave you ever wanted to change the world? Of course you have. Who hasn’t? Even JGordon, world renowned for being more or less satisfied with his immediate surroundings, keeps a list of Things I Will Change When I Am King.
Some sample items from the list:
31: No more cake pops. What a joke.
54: Round up the jerks, make them live on Jerk Island.
55: Make sure Jerk Island isn’t actually an awesome place to live.
70: Transform Lake Michigan into biggest ball pit. Cover dead fish with plastic balls.
115: More eyepatches.
262: Regulate burps.
I think you get the idea. As Tears for Fears almost said, everybody wants to change the world.
And we do change it. We change it in a huge way. Cumulatively, the tremendous force of the human race has drastically altered the face of the planet, from oceans to atmosphere. But a lot of that change is sort of accidental; we don’t mean to affect the acidity of the oceans or warm the atmosphere, but we like driving around, making things, using electricity, and all that, and the byproducts of these activities have global effects that we can’t always control.
The notion that we could control these effects is called geoengineering. So we’re accidentally causing global warming … what if we could engineer a global solution to actively cool the planet. We’re causing ocean acidification … what if we could chemically alter the oceans on purpose to balance it out? The trick would be to balance out the positive effects of geoengineering with the potential side effects … if we could even figure out what those side effects are.
Geoengineering is necessarily a really large-scale thing, so for the most part it’s been limited to theoretical projects. But it’s been pointed out that some geoengineering projects would be within the capabilities of not just international bodies or individual countries, but corporations or even wealthy individuals. The Science Museum of Minnesota even has an exhibit on just this possibility: What would you do if you had the wealth to literally change the world?
But there are rules against that sort of thing, and it’s potentially really, really dangerous. So no one would actually do it in the real world ever, right?
Apparently someone did do it. Back in July.
A guy named Russ George, in partnership with a First Nations village, is thought to have dumped about 100,000 kilograms of iron sulfate into the ocean off the Western Coast of Canada. Why iron sulfate? Because iron sulfate is an effective fertilizer for plankton, the microscopic plant-like things in the ocean. The idea is that if you could cause massive growth in plankton, the plankton would suck up a bunch of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere before dying and falling the ocean floor, taking the CO2 with it.
The first part of the plan seems to have worked: satellites have detected an artificial plankton bloom about 6,200 square miles large off the west coast of Canada (which is how the operation was discovered).
George was hoping to make money selling carbon credits gained from the CO2 captured by the plankton, and he convinced the First Nations group involved to put about a million dollars into the project, telling them that it was meant to help bolster the area’s salmon population.
The thing is, it’s really hard to say what dumping almost half a million pounds of iron sulfate into the ocean will do, besides capture some CO2. And, what’s more, it looks like it was illegal: conducted as it was, the operation violates the UN’s Convention on Biological Diversity and the London convention on dumping wastes at sea. Whoops.
So does this spell the end for individually funded geoengineering projects? Or has George’s scheme just opened the door for similar operations?
And, more importantly, is this a good thing or a bad thing? Are people like George taking big steps toward addressing human-caused global change? Or are they creating what I like to call “Pandora’s Frankenstein*”?
Weigh in in the comments, and let us know what you think!
(*My friend Pandora has a pet chinchilla named Frankenstein, and he is horrible. I can’t wait until that chinchilla dies.)
Here's some good news for a cheery day. A new report says that that the Mississippi River around the Twin Cities is as clean as it's ever been in the time frame that river water quality has been measured.
Courtesy JMTThe way technology usually works, things get smaller and faster to be more efficient. That's not the case with wind turbines. Read this interesting piece on how new innovations are making wind turbines taller (reaching up into the sky the length of a football field), the blades are getting longer and are moving slower. All of this is actually generating more electricity.