Courtesy VictorgrigasStart talking about giant cloning projects, and the conversation is going to quickly turn to Jurassic Park, the film that "what iffed" the cloning of dinosaurs. It was all for fun, if beyond hypothetical.
But giants of another kind, trees, are being cloned in an effort to help turn the balance of deteriorating conditions here on Earth. California's iconic, and incredibly tall, redwood trees are getting the cloning treatment. You can read the full details about the project here. And today, Earth Day 2013, the project is going global as clones of these redwoods are being planted in Australia, New Zealand, Great Britain, Ireland, Canada, Germany and the U.S.
Why clone just behemoth trees? The guys running the project surmise where better to find the strongest, hardiest genetic codes to withstand the coming climate pressures than in these huge redwoods, many which have lived for over 4,000 years.
The current crop of plantings come from the DNA of giant trees cut down about a century ago. Even though the bulk of the trees are just stumps today, those stumps are very much alive. They have live shoots emerging from the stumps, which the researchers can extract DNA from to serve as the basis for their cloning work.
The new plantings have a long way to go. They're only about 18 inches tall right now. The big challenge, the researchers say, is to find people and resources to nurture this little trees into viable, independent growers.
Redwoods are considered best suited to absorb massive volumes of carbon dioxide, the greenhouse gas primarily responsible for climate change.
What do you think? Is this a good application for cloning? Can these huge trees make a difference with climate change over the long haul? Should we be tinkering around with this kind of science?
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.
Courtesy NASA/JPLHere's another log to throw on the figurative global climate change fire: a new study shows that recent temperatures are significantly higher than most years since the last ice age some 11,000 years ago. And the trends show that by the end of this century, we'll likely set an all-time high.
Like me, you're probably wondering how researchers can know how cold or warm things were in that time span. Thermometer-measured temperature records only date back to the late 1800s. But temperature information can be gleaned from other datable sources, such as tree rings and isotope ratios in cave formations. Long-chain organic molecules in shells of sea-based microorganisms that settled at the bottom of oceans have also provided temperature clues.
Courtesy OhkamiThe new study aggregated data taken from 73 different studies from across the globe to try to get a better handle on overall temperature trends. And that trend shows that in the past century, which started with some of the lowest global temperatures since the last ice age, we've spiked up in recent years to see some of the highest temperatures recorded in that 11,000-year span. Charting that data on a graph over all those years shows a long horizontal line of slight variations ending with a sharp incline over the last century, hence the hockey stick analogy.
Twin Cities weather guru Paul Douglas will be leading a panel discussion tomorrow night at the Walker Art Center on new approaches to raising public awareness on climate change. The event is tied to the opening of a new climate change-themed show called This Clement World. The free session starts at 7 p.m. at the Walker and among the panelists is Science Buzz blogger and SMM Director of Global Change Initiatives Patrick Hamilton. City Pages has an interview with Douglas about this new approach to climate change education.
Check out this amazing footage from the documentary, CHASING ICE", and watch a slab of ice the size of lower Manhattan drop off the edge of Ilulissat Glacier in Western Greenland. It's the largest calving event ever filmed. Check out the movie, too, if you haven't yet.
All this week is Earth Science Week, a time for celebrating the importance and relevance of the earth sciences. Above is a cool little video produced by the American Geosciences Institute (AGI) that does just that. The website EarthSky.org (where I found this video) lists Nine Big Ideas to ponder and share during the week. Additional ways to celebrate can be found at the official Earth Science Week website. And don't forget, Wednesday, October 17 is National Fossil Day. Groups, museums, and other facilities around the country will be observing it on various days surrounding the official date. Here at the Science Museum of Minnesota we'll be celebrating both fossils and earth science on Saturday, October 20 from 1pm-4pm. Join us for activities around the museum where you can learn about Twin Cities fossils, fossil prep, fossil research, trilobites and more.
Courtesy NASA / JPL-Caltech / Dr. Philip Bart, LSURecent investigations into microfossils show that Antarctica hasn’t been quite the icebox scientists have imagined it to be over the past 34 million years. Pollen and leaf wax samples from Miocene-aged sediments indicate the continent has experienced some periods of warming since the beginning of the most recent glacial period. The core samples studied came from ocean sediments collected near Antarctica, and particulates found in the samples indicate more rain fell on the ice-covered continent during the Middle Miocene epoch (15.5 – 20 million years ago) than previously thought, enough rain to spur the growth of forests of small, stunted trees.
Paleoclimatologist and organic geochemist Sarah Feakins of the University of Southern California and her colleagues analyzed core samples taken from between 144 and 1,100 meters beneath the ocean floor – levels dating back to the Middle Miocene. Spikes of concentrated amounts of pollens and leaf wax appeared in two periods – one about 16.4 million years ago, and another about 15.7 million years ago. The warm periods were relatively short, each lasting less than 30,000 years.
In a previous study, palynologist Sophie Warny of Louisiana State University had first described the pollen and leaf wax spikes found in the core samples, and she and Feakins eventually teamed up for the recent study. The team determined the particle spikes didn’t arise from the leaf wax and pollen blowing in from elsewhere but rather came from two species of trees that once lined the shores of Antarctica. The two species, podocarp conifer and southern beech wouldn’t have grown very tall – maybe knee-high – and neither spreads their pollen over wide areas. Had the pollens blown in from elsewhere - say South America or New Zealand - there were would have been more species in the mix.
Using a mass spectrometer, Feakins and NASA researchers analyzed the ratio of hydrogen to deuterium atoms in the wax molecules which indicated the temperature at the Antarctica location during the two warm periods was about 7 degrees Celsius during the summer. Today, summer temperatures in the same region are about –4 °C. The average global temperature at the time was about 3 °C higher than it is today. As the overall global temperature changes a relatively greater change in polar temperature isn't unexpected due to a process called polar amplification.
The data from Feakins and Warny’s study, which appeared in Nature Geoscience, adds to growing concerns over the sensitivity of Earth’s climatic and hydrological systems. At the moment, no trees line the shores of Antarctica, but current levels of carbon dioxide (393 parts per million) are not far off those thought to have existed during the Middle Miocene’s warm periods (400-600 parts per million) when forests did exist on the margins of the icy continent. This could indicate that even small changes in carbon dioxide levels can are capable of creating big changes in climate.
An opinion piece in the Sunday, August 12, 2012 New York Times by three scientists (listed at the end) deserves repeating. Here are some excerpts:
Until recently, many scientists spoke of climate change mainly as a “threat,” sometime in the future. But it is increasingly clear that we already live in the era of human-induced climate change, with a growing frequency of weather and climate extremes like heat waves, droughts, floods and fires.
In terms of severity and geographic extent, the 2000-4 drought in the West exceeded such legendary events as the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. More seriously still, long-term climate records from tree-ring chronologies show that this drought was the most severe event of its kind in the western United States in the past 800 years.
Most frightening is that this extreme event could become the new normal: climate models point to a warmer planet, largely because of greenhouse gas emissions. Planetary warming, in turn, is expected to create drier conditions across western North America, because of the way global-wind and atmospheric-pressure patterns shift in response.
The current drought plaguing the country is worryingly consistent with these expectations. Although we do not attribute any single event to global warming, the severity of both the turn-of-the-century drought and the current one is consistent with simulations accounting for warming from increased greenhouse gases.
And yet that may be only the beginning, a fact that should force us to confront the likelihood of new and painful challenges. A megadrought would present a major risk to water resources in the American West, which are distributed through a complex series of local, state and regional water-sharing agreements and laws. Virtually every drop of water flowing in the American West is legally claimed, sometimes by several users, and the demand is expected to increase as the population grows.
There is still time to prevent the worst; the risk of a multidecade megadrought in the American West can be reduced if we reduce fossil-fuel emissions. But there can be little doubt that what was once thought to be a future threat is suddenly, catastrophically upon us.
(Christopher R. Schwalm is a research assistant professor of earth sciences at Northern Arizona University. Christopher A. Williams is an assistant professor of geography at Clark University. Kevin Schaefer is a research scientist at the National Snow and Ice Data Center)
Courtesy Mark Svoboda, National Drought Mitigation Center.
Not that you probably couldn't guess this, but it's now official. July of 2012 was the hottest month ever in the United States, topping the aggregate temperature record for a month set during the middle of the Dust Bowl years in 1936. You can read all the steamy data on this record here.