We've probably been debating the virtues of urban areas since humans gathered in the first cities thousands of years ago. But one question we probably haven't explored much is how we can prepare our cities for climate change.
Climate and sea level have changed slowly throughout humanity's history, and we've been able to adapt. Until quite recently, humans either didn't build settlements in risky areas, or the ones they built (say on floodplains or near a sea shore) were temporary and easily moved or abandoned.
Now that we face accelerating and more extreme changes in the next 100 years, we also have some very permanent structures (and infrastructures) in the riskiest of places. Over 100 million people live in areas likely to be underwater by 2100. And even landlubbers face the challenges of more frequent extreme weather events--heavier rainfalls, droughts, etc.
Courtesy John Polo
Luckily, engineers are already beginning to plan for these changes as they retrofit and build new buildings and infrastructure. Often, these engineers are ahead of city building codes and have trouble persuading property owners to invest in addressing threats that lie in the future. But isn't it better safe than sorry? Maybe we could build cities so strong that climate change barely bothers us.
And even luckier perhaps is that cities are hotbeds of innovation and creativity. We could see the efforts of these engineers as just another example of urban virtues. More people mean more ideas and more resources devoted to the cause. And in our rapidly changing world, we need that teamwork more than ever.
Courtesy USGS/Cascades Volcano ObservatoryThe gigantic volcano seething under Yellowstone National Park could be ready to erupt with the force of a thousand Mt. St. Helenses! Large parts of the U.S. could be buried under ash and toxic gas!
Or, y'know, not.
This story has popped up in a couple of places recently, including National Geographic's website and, more sensationally, the UK's Daily Mail. Shifts in the floor of Yellowstone's caldera indicate that magma may be pooling below the surface, a phenomenon that might be the very earliest stages of an eruption. Then again, it's difficult to predict volcanic eruptions with much accuracy because there's no good way to take measurements of phenomena happening so far below the earth's surface.
Incidentally, the contrast in tone between the two stories makes them an interesting case study in science reporting: The Daily Mail plays up the possible risk and horrific consequences of an eruption, while National Geographic is much more matter-of-fact about the remoteness of that possibility. Which do you think makes better reading?
Courtesy Mark RyanResearchers in Japan are studying the wing structure of dragonflies to help improve how micro wind turbines perform during high winds. Micro turbines are small, affordable energy converters that can be used in both urban and rural settings where giant turbines would be too expensive, too large, and too impractical. Micro turbines can be set up relatively easily in configurations of a single unit or as a bank of several units, and the energy generated can be stored in batteries.
They work on the same principle as the large turbines, but can generate power in wind speeds as low as 4 or 5 miles per hour. One fallback, though, is their generators can get overloaded when hit with high storm winds, producing more energy than the system can handle. Large turbines solve this problem by tilting their propellers - either by computer or otherwise - and adjusting their rotation speed. But that kind of technology just isn’t affordable with micro turbines.
That’s where studying dragonfly wings comes in. Aerospace engineer Akira Obata of Nippon Bunri University in Oita, Japan wondered how dragonflies were able to remain stable in flight at low speeds. He placed a plastic model of a dragonfly wing into a large tank of water laced with aluminum powder and videotaped the flow patterns. He noticed that as the water flow slowed down vortices arose on the wing’s surface that allowed the water to pass over the wing at the same speed, thus keeping it stable. But when water flow sped up the wings aerodynamics performance decreased.
So, Obata developed an inexpensive paper micro turbine with similar “dragonfly wing” bumps on its surface and it did just as he hoped. When air speeds flowing over the turbine wing increased between 15 and 90 mph, rather than speeding up its rotation and overwhelming its battery, the micro turbine curved into a conical shape that stunted rotation and kept power generation low.
Leigh and I have safely arrive in Christchurch, preparing for our second trip to Antarctica this field season. We flew down with several folks that will be wintering over on the ice. For some, this is their first trip to the ice ever, for others, this has just become a bit routine.
The weather here is a bit chilly and overcast this evening, with a very nice forecast for the next two days. The forecast for our friends and family back home in KS is not nearly as positive. I guess that all depends on how you look at it though.
It's already been a crazy winter, and now this! I'm not going to lie, there is a part of me that really wishes I was going to be there for this one. I'm obviously a person that doesn't mind the cold weather or snow. Safe travels to everyone back in the Midwest! Stay safe and warm! We'll try to do the same down south.
Pop QUIZ: How would you describe the job of a Petroleum Transfer Engineer?
Courtesy WikipediaYou know, today is Buzz contributor Thor's birthday. I'm not sure how old he is, but I think we're pretty close in age. He may be a little younger than I am. Whatever. It doesn't matter. But if he's like me, he's not just celebrating his birthday, he's complaining about it. Complaining that he just keeps getting older and older. Yeah, yeah, I know. You’re thinking: “Well, isn’t getting older better than the alternative?” Okay, I suppose it is. And I think Thor would agree. But for some life forms, it’s way, way better.
You can see what I mean over at the NOVA website's interesting interactive that goes through a list of several oldest living creatures on Earth. You’ll see that we humans get the short end of the stick, mortality-wise. Our oldest, verified member lived to be 122 years old. She was a French woman named Jeanne Calment who attributed her long existence to eating lots of chocolate and olive oil. From our normal four-score average perspective, it’s not a bad record, but it doesn’t hold a candle to some of our fungal or botanical co-habitants. Some of those have lived for thousands of years. There’s even a genus of water-borne, microscopic creatures known as Hydra that, due to its regenerative capabilities, may have achieved immortality, although all the votes aren’t in on that feat yet.
My personal favorites, however, are the bacterial spores trapped in salt crystals that have been revived and estimated to be about 250 millions of years old! That means they were living back when some Triassic archosaurs were trying to kick-start the Age of Reptiles. They also add credence to the theory that life on Earth may have originated from bacteria-bearing meteor impacts from outer space.
Okay, so it looks like, in the general scheme of things, we humans aren’t that impressive in the long-life department. But it doesn’t bother me too much - and again I'm guessing Thor feels the same way - because with Jeanne Calment’s record of 122 years it could mean we haven’t even reached middle age yet. Happy birthday, Thor!
You think you’re safe from the dangers of the wild just because you live in a city? This video will change your view. It was shot by a guy named Craig Kuberski, who lives within the city limits of St. Paul, MN. I know some of you were hoping you'd get to see a rogue cougar or bear mauling innocent urbanites or eating their pets, but that’s not the case here. It’s just a couple of bucks on the town and in a rut trying to catch some city girls' attention.
Rutting period is the mating season for many ruminants, (i.e. mammals like moose, caribou, bison, and deer). The rut is set-off by the shortening of daylight hours during autumn and in the case of white-tail deer (Odocoileus virginianus - which I’m pretty sure these are) can last for one to three months. During that time, male deer get all goofy and twitterpated, rubbing their antlers against trees, rolling in the dirt or mud, or battling each other – as seen in this video. Rutting season is the best time to hunt for them, and the easiest time to hit them with your car, although I don’t advise you do the latter.
As you may notice, Mr. Kubinski posted two buck fever videos on YouTube. I’ve only used the second here because it’s the better of the two, focus-wise, But if you’d also like to watch Part I, there you have it. KARE 11 also ran a story on it.
Courtesy Paige Shoemaker
Next time you look at the clouds, shake your fist and yell at those jerks for making our lives difficult. You might look crazy, but somebody needs to tell those fools.
While it's relatively easy to model temperature changes over the last century thanks to detailed records, clouds are more tricky to understand because we don't have a similar history of cloud observations, and also because they are ornery. So in order to understand how clouds work, scientists are building a body of evidence to model cloud behavior and help show how clouds will impact our weather as well as our climate in the future. I believe they also plan to show those clouds who is the boss of them.
Like a child running loose in a toy store, hurricanes have always been difficult to predict because they can unexpectedly change direction. This confounds plans for evacuation, leading some people to leave areas that are never hit, leading others to stay put and potentially face nasty weather because they don't trust the meteorologist, and leading meteorologists to keep Advil in business. But since the 90s, our ability to predict where hurricanes will make landfall has become twice as accurate. This new prescience is due to the development and use of more accurate models of how clouds work, which is in turn due to better understanding of cloud dynamics and faster computers. How about that, punk clouds?
Intensity, however, remains elusive to model. (Shh, don't let them know we have a weakness!)
"While we pride ourselves that the track forecast is getting better and better, we remain humbled by the uncertainties of the science we don't yet understand," Schott said. "This is not an algebra question where there's only one right answer."
Despite being a "forecasting nightmare," Earl ended up hitting about where it was predicted to go. This means that the right people have been evacuated to avoid injury and fatality. That's right, stick your tail between your legs, Earl.
Connecting to climate
Short-term events such as hurricanes and other storms are difficult to predict, but climate change is a whole other world of uncertainty--again, thanks to those uncouth clouds. Climate scientists are developing new tools, such as satellite technologies that show how much light different cloud types reflect and models that demonstrate localized cloud processes. These approaches look specifically at certain groups of clouds and their patterns of change to add detail to older, larger models that look at climate over larger scales.
Courtesy Nic McPhee
The problem with the older models is that they have a low resolution that doesn't accurately represent clouds because the clouds are smaller than they can show. Think of it like Google maps--at the beginning, you're looking at the entire planet, or a whole continent--this is similar to older, low-res climate models. The new models are like zooming in on a city--you can see bus stops, restaurants, and highways. But you have to zoom out to see how these small pieces relate to the larger surroundings. In a similar way, the new high-res models are helping to inform older models--this type of work is called multiscale modeling.
Researchers at the Center for Multiscale Modeling of Atmospheric Processes (CMMAP) are developing this exact type of model. You can read about their advances here. This work is important because it brings insight into questions about whether clouds will reflect or trap more sunlight, which can have a big impact on the rate of global warming. It also helps us understand whether geoengineering projects that alter clouds will really have the intended effect. Plus it's just one more way we can pwn clouds.
Courtesy wvs (Sam Javanrouh)In a paper delivered at the 240th National Meeting of the American Chemical Society in Boston, a researcher envisioned a time in the not-too-distant future when houses and buildings outfitted with the proper equipment would be able gather electric energy stored in humidity in the atmosphere that could be used to fill a community’s electrical needs.
The concept isn’t new; electrical wunderkind Nikola Tesla had a similar idea more than a century ago.
Science has long sought the answer to how electricity builds up and discharges in the atmosphere, and whether the moisture in the atmosphere could even hold an electrical charge. But Fernando Galembeck, a professor at Brazil’s University of Campinas, claims he and his research team have successfully shown that it can, and by using special metal conduits to collect that electricity, it could allow homeowners and building managers to gather and store the electricity as an alternative energy source.
”Just as solar energy could free some households from paying electric bills, this promising new energy source could have a similar effect,” Galembeck said. He terms the new method “hygroelectricity” which means “humidity electricity”. Galembeck's research could also add to our understanding of how thunderstorms form.
In their laboratory experiments, Galembeck’s research team created a simulated atmosphere densely saturated with water (humidity), which they seeded with silica and aluminum phosphate, two chemical compounds commonly found in air. As water droplets formed around the tiny, airborne chemical substances, the researchers noticed the silica took on a negative charge while the aluminum phosphate droplets held a positive charge. The charged water vapor readily condenses upon contact with surfaces such as a cold can of soda or beer, and on the windows of air-conditioned buildings or vehicles. In the process, energy is transferred onto the contact surface.
“This was clear evidence that water in the atmosphere can accumulate electrical charges and transfer them to other materials it comes in contact with,” Galembeck said.
Just as solar panels convert energy from sunlight into a usable power source, the researchers think water vapor in the atmosphere could someday be harvested for its hygroelectric energy. The rooftops of buildings in regions of high humidity and thunderstorm activity could someday be fitted with special hygroelectric panels that would absorb the charges built up in the humid atmosphere and funnel the energy to where it can be utilized, and at the same time reduce the risk of lightning forming and discharging. The technology would be best suited to regions of high humidity, such as the tropics or the eastern and southeastern U.S.
Thunderstorm over Lake Harriet in Minneapolis; Could this be a new source of energy for the Upper Midwest?
Courtesy Mark RyanThe meteor that created the Chicxulub Crater in Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula may have not been the only one responsible for the extinction of non-avian dinosaurs 65 million years ago. "Fern spike" evidence in another similarly-aged crater found in the Ukraine indicates at least two large impacts took place within a few thousand years of each other. Concentrations of fern spores are commonly found in the mud that fills in impact craters. The Boltysh Crater contains two layers of spores within three feet of each other, indicating not one but two impacts.
"We interpret this second layer as the aftermath of the Chicxulub impact", said Simon Kelley, co-author of the study, and professor of Isotope Geochemistry at the Open University.
Both the Chicxulub and Boltysh bolide events could have been part of a meteor shower that hit Earth at the end of the Cretaceous. The study appears in the journal Geology.
Courtesy Mark RyanLast week, Lake Superior, which is bordered by Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Ontario, Canada, recorded its highest average surface temperature ever, a balmy 68.3°F. People seeking relief from a very hot summer have been flocking to the shores and beaches and actually swimming in the lake! That is so unlike the Lake Superior I remember growing up in Duluth. Sure, we liked to spend a day on the sand beaches of Park Point or lounging on the rocky outcrops along the North Shore but swimming was usually not an option. On average, Lake Superior’s overall temperature is barely above freezing (39 °F), and back then it seemed you couldn’t even wade in ankle-deep without having your breath sucked out of your lungs and thinking your feet had fallen off. Standing knee-deep in the water for even a short time was unbearable and a true test of endurance. And for guys, going any further was just plain crazy, unless you wanted verifiable (and excruciating) proof of Costanza’sTheory of Shrinkage.
Those hell-bent among us would sometimes make a mad suicide dash across the burning sands and actually dive into the frigid waters only to set off the mammalian diving reflex and cause their vital organs to start to shut down. Their only hope was if the lifeguards were watching and were properly certified in CPR.
Temperature ranges on Superior have been recorded for more than three decades. In recent years, the normal average surface temperature for Lake Superior during the month of August has been only 55°, so this dramatic rise in the average is unusual. As expected, many people are quick to point a finger at global warming as the cause for the rise. That’s not a bad guess considering the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) just proclaimed the year 2010 as the hottest on record, globally.
But physicist Jay Austin at the University of Minnesota-Duluth’s Large Lake Observatory has been closely tracking the lake’s surface temperatures, and predicted the record high back in July. He says the warm water this summer is at least partially due to a recent El Niño event that had an unusual effect on the lake this past winter.
“2009 was a very strong El Niño year,” Austin said. “And that El Niño year led to a year at least on Superior where there was very little ice.”
That lack of ice led to a quicker and earlier warm up of Lake Superior’s surface waters. The other Great Lakes showed similar increases in their average warm temperatures as well. Although ice usually forms on the lake surface during the winter months, Lake Superior rarely freezes over completely. The last time was in 1979.
The following video illustrates the contrast between last winter and the one prior to that. Each day on their Coast Watch website, NOAA posts 3 or 4 photographs taken by a satellite in geosynchronous orbit above Lake Superior. Early in 2009 I began collecting the images regularly thinking they could come in handy for a future Buzz story such as this. From March 2009 to May 2010 I collected something like 1100 satellite photos. Edited together, they make for an interesting time-lapse video that illustrates the weather patterns over the big lake from one winter to the next. At the start of the video (March 2009) ice-cover is apparent over much of the lake and can be seen building then melting away as the spring thaw brings warmer temperatures. But later in the video, as summer passes into fall and fall into winter, no ice appears at all over the expanse of the lake’s surface. Other than that I don’t know how informative the time-lapse ended up being but it’s certainly interesting to watch, particularly the wind and cloud patterns seen flowing off the lake starting in late January 2010.
"This year is just tremendously anomalous," Austin said. "This year ranks up there with the warmest water we have ever seen, and the warming trend appears to be going on in all of the Great Lakes."
The big question is what effect these warmer temperatures have on the lake’s ecology? Austin admits it’s hard to say.
"Fish have a specific range of temperatures in which they like to spawn," he said. "It may be that for some fish this very warm year is going to be great for them, but for others, like trout which are a very cold-adapted fish, it's not going to be great."
One problem for the trout could be that scourge of the Great Lakes, the jawless sea lamprey. Lampreys are invasive parasites and attach themselves to lake trout and live off their blood. It’s unknown what changes, if any, the warmer waters will have on their life-cycle. They may lay eggs faster and in larger quantities, increasing their populations, and their impact on the trout species.
Lake Superior has probably passed through its peak time for temperature this summer so more than likely the 68.3°F record will stand for the rest of the year. If you want to keep track you can go to the Michigan Sea Grant website where you can follow all the Great Lakes’ daily surface temperatures. But who knows? This summer may not be the height of the 30-year warming trend. Let’s see what next year has in store.
Personally, I’m concerned these warm water temperatures will spoil us. Being able to endure extremely cold temperatures is a Minnesota tradition, and helps build character. It makes you tough and able to withstand all sorts of adversity as well as the harshest of elements. Which brings to mind the time when my wife (then girlfriend) and I were in Glacier National Park and decided to go for a swim in St. Mary’s Lake. There were only a few other people goofy enough to be swimming in the glacial lake at the same time. It didn’t surprise us to learn they were all from Minnesota.
We were so proud of ourselves.