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  • richardmitnick 9:44 am on February 16, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: Applied Research & Technology, Building 10 million wind-powered pumps over the Arctic ice cap, Could a £400bn plan to refreeze the Arctic before the ice melts really work?, ,   

    From The Guardian: “Could a £400bn plan to refreeze the Arctic before the ice melts really work?” 

    The Guardian Logo

    The Guardian

    11 February 2017
    Robin McKie

    Roxanne Desgagnés/Unsplash

    Physicist Steven Desch has come up with a novel solution to the problems that now beset the Arctic. He and a team of colleagues from Arizona State University want to replenish the region’s shrinking sea ice – by building 10 million wind-powered pumps over the Arctic ice cap. In winter, these would be used to pump water to the surface of the ice where it would freeze, thickening the cap.

    The pumps could add an extra metre of sea ice to the Arctic’s current layer, Desch argues. The current cap rarely exceeds 2-3 metres in thickness and is being eroded constantly as the planet succumbs to climate change.

    “Thicker ice would mean longer-lasting ice. In turn, that would mean the danger of all sea ice disappearing from the Arctic in summer would be reduced significantly,” Desch told the Observer.

    Desch and his team have put forward the scheme in a paper that has just been published in Earth’s Future, the journal of the American Geophysical Union, and have worked out a price tag for the project: $500bn (£400bn).

    It is an astonishing sum. However, it is the kind of outlay that may become necessary if we want to halt the calamity that faces the Arctic, says Desch, who, like many other scientists, has become alarmed at temperature change in the region. They say that it is now warming twice as fast as their climate models predicted only a few years ago and argue that the 2015 Paris agreement to limit global warming will be insufficient to prevent the region’s sea ice disappearing completely in summer, possibly by 2030.

    “Our only strategy at present seems to be to tell people to stop burning fossil fuels,” says Desch. “It’s a good idea but it is going to need a lot more than that to stop the Arctic’s sea ice from disappearing.”

    The loss of the Arctic’s summer sea ice cover would disrupt life in the region, endanger many of its species, from Arctic cod to polar bears, and destroy a pristine habitat. It would also trigger further warming of the planet by removing ice that reflects solar radiation back into space, disrupt weather patterns across the northern hemisphere and melt permafrost, releasing more carbon gases into the atmosphere.

    Hence Desch’s scheme to use wind pumps to bring water that is insulated from the bitter Arctic cold to its icy surface, where it will freeze and thicken the ice cap. Nor is the physicist alone in his Arctic scheming: other projects to halt sea-ice loss include one to artificially whiten the Arctic by scattering light-coloured aerosol particles over it to reflect solar radiation back into space, and another to spray sea water into the atmosphere above the region to create clouds that would also reflect sunlight away from the surface.

    All the projects are highly imaginative – and extremely costly. The fact that they are even being considered reveals just how desperately worried researchers have become about the Arctic. “The situation is causing grave concern,” says Professor Julienne Stroeve, of University College London. “It is now much more dire than even our worst case scenarios originally suggested.’

    Last November, when sea ice should have begun thickening and spreading over the Arctic as winter set in, the region warmed up. Temperatures should have plummeted to -25C but reached several degrees above freezing instead. “It’s been about 20C warmer than normal over most of the Arctic Ocean. This is unprecedented,” research professor Jennifer Francis of Rutgers University told the Guardian in November. “These temperatures are literally off the charts for where they should be at this time of year. It is pretty shocking. The Arctic has been breaking records all year. It is exciting but also scary.”

    Nor have things got better in the intervening months. Figures issued by the US National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC), in Boulder, Colorado, last week revealed that in January the Arctic’s sea ice covered 13.38 million sq km, the lowest January extent in the 38 years since satellites began surveying the region. That figure is 260,000 sq km below the level for January last year, which was the previous lowest extent for that month, and a worrying 1.26 million sq km below the long-term average for January.

    In fact, sea ice growth stalled during the second week of January – in the heart of the Arctic winter – while the ice cap actually retreated within the Kara and Barents seas, and within the Sea of Okhotsk. Similarly, the Svalbard archipelago, normally shrouded in ice, has remained relatively free because of the inflow of warm Atlantic water along the western part of the island chain. Although there has been some recovery, sea ice remains well below all previous record lows.

    The area covered by Arctic sea ice at least four years old has decreased from 1,860,000 sq km in September 1984 to 110,000 sq km in September 2016. In this visualisation, the age of the ice is indicated by shades ranging from blue-gray for the youngest ice to white for the oldest. Photograph: Scientific Visualization Studio/Nasa

    This paucity of sea ice bodes ill for the Arctic’s summer months when cover traditionally drops to its lower annual level, and could plunge to a record minimum this year. Most scientists expect that, at current emission rates, the Arctic will be reliably free of sea ice in summer by 2030.

    By “free” they mean there will be less than 1m sq km of sea ice left in the Arctic, most of it packed into remote bays and channels, while the central Arctic Ocean over the north pole will be completely open. And by “reliably”, scientists mean there will have been five consecutive years with less than 1m sq km of ice by the year 2050. The first single ice-free year will come much earlier than this, however.

    And when that happens, the consequences are likely to be severe for the human and animal inhabitants of the region. An ice-free Arctic will be wide open to commercial exploitation, for example. Already, mining, oil and tourism companies have revealed plans to begin operations – schemes that could put severe strain on indigenous communities’ way of life in the region.

    Equally worrying is the likely impact on wildlife, says Stroeve. “Juvenile Arctic cod like to hang out under the sea ice. Polar bears hunt on sea ice, and seals give birth on it. We have no idea what will happen when that lot disappears. In addition, there is the problem of increasing numbers of warm spells during which rain falls instead of snow. That rain then freezes on the ground and forms a hard coating that prevents reindeer and caribou from finding food under the snow.”

    Nor would the rest of the world be isolated. With less ice to reflect solar radiation back into space, the dark ocean waters of the high latitudes will warm and the Arctic will heat up even further.

    “If you warm the Arctic you decrease the temperature difference between the poles and the mid-latitudes, and that affects the polar vortex, the winds that blow between the mid latitudes and the high latitudes,” says Henry Burgess, head of the Arctic office of the UK Natural Environment Research Council.

    “Normally this process tends to keep the cold in the high north and milder air in mid-latitudes but there is an increasing risk this will be disrupted as the temperature differential gets weaker. We may get more and more long, cold spells spilling down from the Arctic, longer and slower periods of Atlantic storms and equally warmer periods in the Arctic. What happens up there touches us all. It is hard to believe you can take away several million sq km of ice a few thousand kilometres to the north and not expect there will be an impact on weather patterns here in the UK.”

    For her part, Stroeve puts it more bleakly: “We are carrying out a blind experiment on our planet whose outcome is almost impossible to guess.”

    This point is backed by Desch. “Sea ice is disappearing from the Arctic – rapidly. The sorts of options we are proposing need to be researched and discussed now. If we are provocative and get people to think about this, that is good.


    The Arctic ice cap reaches its maximum extent every March and then, over the next six months, dwindles. The trough is reached around mid-September at the end of the melting season. The ice growth cycle then restarts. However, the extent of regrowth began slackening towards the end of the last century. According to meteorologists, the Arctic’s ice cover at its minimum is now decreasing by 13% every decade – a direct consequence of heating triggered by increased levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

    Climate change deniers claim this loss is matched by gains in sea ice around the Antarctic. It is not. Antarctic ice fluctuations are slight compared with the Arctic’s plummeting coverage and if you combine the changes at both poles, you find more than a million sq km of ice has been lost globally in 30 years.

    See the full article here .

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  • richardmitnick 9:12 am on February 16, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: Applied Research & Technology, , , Technique could help increase resolution of microscopes and telescopes.,   

    From U Toronto: “University of Toronto physicists harness neglected properties of light” 

    U Toronto Bloc

    University of Toronto

    February 15, 2017
    Patchen Barss

    Technique could help increase resolution of microscopes and telescopes.

    U of T researchers have demonstrated a way to increase the resolution of microscopes and telescopes beyond long-accepted limitations by tapping into previously neglected properties of light. The method allows observers to distinguish very small or distant objects that are so close together they normally meld into a single blur.

    Telescopes and microscopes are great for observing lone subjects. Scientists can precisely detect and measure a single distant star. The longer they observe, the more refined their data becomes.

    But objects like binary stars don’t work the same way.

    That’s because even the best telescopes are subject to laws of physics that cause light to spread out or “diffract.” A sharp pinpoint becomes an ever-so-slightly blurry dot. If two stars are so close together that their blurs overlap, no amount of observation can separate them out. Their individual information is irrevocably lost.

    Circumventing the limitations of the “Rayleigh Criterion”

    More than 100 years ago, British physicist John William Strutt – better known as Lord Rayleigh – established the minimum distance between objects necessary for a telescope to pick out each individually. The “Rayleigh Criterion” has stood as an inherent limitation of the field of optics ever since.

    Telescopes, though, only register light’s “intensity” or brightness. Light has other properties that now appear to allow one to circumvent the Rayleigh Criterion.

    “To beat Rayleigh’s curse, you have to do something clever,” says Professor Aephraim Steinberg, a physicist at U of T’s Centre for Quantum Information and Quantum Control, and Senior Fellow in CIFAR’s Quantum Information Science program. He’s the lead author of a paper published today in the journal Physical Review Letters.

    Professor Aephraim Steinberg, is a physicist at U of T’s Centre for Quantum Information and Quantum Control, and Senior Fellow in CIFAR’s Quantum Information Science program.

    Measuring a property of light called ‘phase’

    Some of these clever ideas were recognized with the 2014 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, notes Steinberg, but those methods all still rely on intensity only, limiting the situations in which they can be applied. “We measured another property of light called ‘phase.’ And phase gives you just as much information about sources that are very close together as it does those with large separations.”

    Light travels in waves, and all waves have a phase. Phase refers to the location of a wave’s crests and troughs. Even when a pair of close-together light sources blurs into a single blob, information about their individual wave phases remains intact. You just have to know how to look for it. This realization was published by Tsang, Nair, and Lu last year in Physical Review X, and Steinberg’s and three other experimental groups immediately set about devising a variety of ways to put it into practice.

    “Light is actually easy to slow down”

    “We tried to come up with the simplest thing you could possibly do,” Steinberg says. “To play with the phase, you have to slow a wave down, and light is actually easy to slow down.”

    PhD students Edwin (Weng Kian) Tham and Hugo Ferretti. Photo: Diana Tyszko

    His team, including PhD students Edwin (Weng Kian) Tham and Hugo Ferretti, split test images in half. Light from each half passes through glass of a different thickness, which slows the waves for different amounts of time, changing their respective phases. When the beams recombine, they create distinct interference patterns that tell the researchers whether the original image contained one object or two – at resolutions well beyond the Rayleigh Criterion.

    So far, Steinberg’s team has tested the method only in artificial situations involving highly restrictive parameters.

    True value lies in shaking up physicists’ concept of “where information actually is”

    “I want to be cautious – these are early stages,” he says. “In our laboratory experiments, we knew we just had one spot or two, and we could assume they had the same intensity. That’s not necessarily the case in the real world. But people are already taking these ideas and looking at what happens when you relax those assumptions.”

    The advance has potential applications both in observing the cosmos, and also in microscopy, where the method can be used to study bonded molecules and other tiny, tight-packed structures.

    Regardless of how much phase measurements ultimately improve imaging resolution, Steinberg says the experiment’s true value is in shaking up physicists’ concept of “where information actually is.”

    Steinberg’s “day job” is in quantum physics – this experiment was a departure for him. He says work in the quantum realm provided key philosophical insights about information itself that helped him beat Rayleigh’s Curse.

    “When we measure quantum states, you have something called the Uncertainty Principle, which says you can look at position or velocity, but not both. You have to choose what you measure. Now we’re learning that imaging is more like quantum mechanics than we realized,” he says. “When you only measure intensity, you’ve made a choice and you’ve thrown out information. What you learn depends on where you look.”

    See the full article here .

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    U Toronto Campus

    Established in 1827, the University of Toronto has one of the strongest research and teaching faculties in North America, presenting top students at all levels with an intellectual environment unmatched in depth and breadth on any other Canadian campus.

    Established in 1827, the University of Toronto has one of the strongest research and teaching faculties in North America, presenting top students at all levels with an intellectual environment unmatched in depth and breadth on any other Canadian campus.

  • richardmitnick 11:17 am on February 14, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: A Race to Document Rare Plants Before These Cliffs Are Ground to Dust, Applied Research & Technology, , KAMPONG TRACH MOUNTAIN in Cambodia, Karsts,   

    From NYT: “A Race to Document Rare Plants Before These Cliffs Are Ground to Dust” 

    New York Times

    The New York Times

    FEB. 13, 2017

    The chief of the Forestry Association of Kampong Trach, Ken Sam An, left, Neang Thy, a herpetologist at the Cambodian Ministry of Environment and Lorn Sokchan, a Cambodian entomology researcher, exploring the interior of a cave known as the “Bat Cave.” Credit Omar Havana for The New York Times

    KAMPONG TRACH MOUNTAIN, Cambodia — Millions of years ago, a cluster of coral reefs stood firm here as the water receded, leaving them surrounded by the marshy, mangrove-studded Mekong Delta.

    Today, these reefs have been carved by the wind and rain into spiky limestone cliffs known as karsts that stand stark against the Cambodian landscape, even as the lowland rain forest around them has been denuded by centuries of intensive rice cultivation and logging.

    The karsts are full of nooks and crannies that have nurtured highly specialized plants and animals found nowhere else. They are also important to humans, studded with small altars and temples that are thought to be homes to neak ta, landscape spirits in the local animist pantheon.

    Soon, they will be gone.

    A small group of scientists are now racing to document rare plant life in these limestone karsts before local companies quarry them to dust and grind them up for production of the cement that is fueling this country’s building boom.

    Most of the wood in mainland Southeast Asia has already been logged to support the region’s rapid economic growth and its relentless appetite for luxury hardwood. (Nearly all the forest cover in neighboring Thailand is gone and Cambodia is now experiencing the fastest acceleration of forest loss in the world, despite a putative ban on logging.) Cement and concrete are also in high demand, so the karsts are next in line.

    “They are the last refuges of what made it to the Mekong Delta, natural harbors for a specialized kind of vegetation that has very little timber value, sanctuaries of rare species,” said J. Andrew McDonald, a botany professor at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, who is spearheading the plant collection project with support from the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

    The limestone habitats can act as “arks” of biodiversity that replenish surrounding areas after ecological damage. But they are so complex that, once destroyed, they can never themselves be recreated.

    They have scant access to water for six months of the year, creating a harsh, alkaline environment that has led to the evolution of desertlike flora in the middle of a hot, wet country. Dr. McDonald calls them “Dr. Seuss-type plants,” ones that look and behave like cactuses and succulent desert flora, but are related to the local tropical foliage.

    There are fat, succulent grapevines, fig trees with thick, waxy leaves, and false cactuses — as spiky and segmented as those that grow in the American desert, but actually members of the poinsettia family that evolved independently. Perhaps most unusual are the large, phallic flowers known as Amorphophallus, which look like a cross between an orchid and a Muppet’s nose.

    The toughest and most determined plants nestle themselves into the fissures and cracks atop the karsts, or cling to the razor-sharp outcroppings exposed to the wind and sun. More delicate tropical flowers — feathery orchids and little white touch-me-nots — make homes in the grottoes within, sucking up the water that drips through the limestone. At the bottom, the karsts are like Swiss cheese, full of water-carved pockets that open up into large underground lakes where rare bats feed and mushrooms grow.

    Over four days in January, armed with rice sacks and pruning shears, Dr. McDonald and several colleagues and students pored over two linked karsts, Phnom Kampong Trach and Phnom Domrei, climbing atop their jagged surfaces and passing all the way through them in a network of caves.

    Dr. McDonald, 62, is a plain-spoken Texan with a mystical streak who spends his spare time working on a 1,000-page manuscript on the religious iconography of the lotus. He can clamber up and down the slippery, precipitous karsts like one of the mountain goats that live here (another anomaly in flat Cambodia).

    “Fruits! Flowers! Fruits! Flowers! Eyes on the prize!” he chanted, trying to urge the group to collect specimens. Among the group was a pair of technophilic Vietnamese botanists lugging huge cameras who kept falling behind to take close-up shots of the foliage.

    At first glance, Dr. McDonald was excited by a novel-looking parasitic Balanaflora with droopy, bulbous male flowers (“they latch onto this tree and have sex there”) and a huge, feathery white blossom at the edge of a grotto. It was an unusual variant of dogbane, a nocturnal plant with a dangling structure that dusts the underside of a visiting moth or bat with pollen. “I’ve never seen an Apocynaceae with an irregular flower like that!” he exclaimed, before gingerly tossing the specimens, one by one, across a huge fissure to the safe hands of a waiting colleague.

    Ultimately, over the course of two botanical excursions, the group found more than 130 species of vascular plants native to this patch of limestone, a comparatively rich assortment, including some thought to be new to science: an Amorphophallus and another related flower, a new type of jasmine, and a member of the coffee family.

    Kampot Cement (SCG) Quarry in Cambodia Video by Tony Whitten

    Along with discovering these rare species, the scientists wanted to document the karsts’s biodiversity and the ways in which different parts of the habitat work together before it is gone. Ultimately, they hope to persuade the government to make these two karsts a protected area and declare them off-limits to future cement quarrying.

    The team was accompanied by a representative of the Ministry of Environment who was to report back to his superiors on the merits of the protection proposal. The ministry is bereft of plant experts, so they sent Neang Thy, the country’s leading herpetologist, instead.

    “The vegetation you see here, you may not see anywhere else,” he said. “If it is destroyed, that is a problem.”

    Andrew McDonald, a researcher at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, holding an unknown flower specimen that he found on the Kampot Karst. Credit Omar Havana for The New York Times

    He said he hoped future trips would allow for a survey of animal life in the karsts. Similar limestone formations in Vietnam and Thailand are home to novel species of fish, lizards, crabs and insects that adapt to life inside caves by becoming pale, blind and wingless, often looking very different from their aboveground brethren.

    There are highly biodiverse karsts scattered across Southeast Asia, from Vietnam to Borneo, like desert islands surrounded by oceans of tropical rain forest. The destruction of karsts at the hands of cement companies, developers and tourists is a problem throughout the region.

    But it is particularly acute here, where government regulation is lax and the state of local scientific knowledge fledgling.

    “They are threatened, as they are elsewhere, but the difference is that there is almost nothing known about the biodiversity of the hills” in Cambodia, said Tony Whitten, the international regional director for Fauna and Flora International’s Asia-Pacific division, who coedited a book on the subject — “Biodiversity and Cultural Property in the Management of Limestone Resources: Lessons from East Asia.”

    Cambodia has almost no botanists and the study of plants in the country came to a standstill from 1970 to 1992 during an extended period of war and unrest punctuated by the trauma of the Khmer Rouge takeover from 1975 to 1979.

    The country’s main herbarium is a single room at the Royal University of Phnom Penh. It houses about 12,000 specimens, many of which have not been inventoried and are simply piling up on shelves. They are meant to be kept cool and dry by two air-conditioners, but one air-conditioner is broken and there is no money to fix it.

    “You talk about a herbarium in another country and it should be very big, but this is just one room,” said Ith Saveng, who runs the university’s Center for Biodiversity Conservation. “We hope to expand to another room within the next two years.”

    Rare plants found in karsts have to be shipped to Vietnam so better-trained scientists can do the precise work of matching species to species.

    In Kampot, the scientists were led through some of the more treacherous cave networks by Ken Sam An, a 61-year-old native of a village just below the Phnom Kampong Trach karst. He knows more about these caves than just about anyone else. As a teenager, he watched as the Viet Cong hid in the caves, resulting in retaliatory bombing campaigns by the United States that drove the population to flee. Soon, ultra-Communist rebels swept into the area and he was conscripted into a Khmer Rouge youth unit.

    Members of the team led by Dr. McDonald, center, prepare newspapers to dry the species collected during their expedition at the Kampot Karst, while Luu Hong Truong of the Vietnam Academy of Science and Technology takes a photograph of a specimen. Credit Omar Havana for The New York Times

    Whatever scientific research apparatus still existed was totally dismantled by the victorious Khmer Rouge government, which declared higher education anathema and sent city dwellers back to the land to work as rice farmers and dam builders. Although Mr. Ken Sam An possesses vast botanical knowledge, he has not attended school since the sixth grade.

    After the fall of the Khmer Rouge in 1979, Mr. Ken Sam An spent years working for a limestone quarrying company, but now he serves on a local committee that tries to preserve the karsts, urging local residents to stop stripping them and chopping off rocks to sell.

    “I tell them, ‘If you break the mountain, it’s not good for the environment, and if you work in tourism you can come and sell things to the tourists instead of breaking rocks.’”

    A far bigger risk is large-scale limestone quarrying by companies producing cement. Kampot (K) Cement, a joint venture between the well-connected local company Khaou Chuly Group and the Thai cement manufacturer Siam Cement, has claim to large karsts in the area. The site is churning out a million tons of cement a year.

    Another local company, Chip Mong, formed a partnership with a different Thai firm and started building a $262 million factory in the area last year, with the goal of producing 1.5 million tons a year. This is still not enough to slake Cambodia’s growing thirst for cement, expected to reach five million tons this year.

    Bags from the Kampot Cement company outside a hut in Chrokchey Village. The company is quarrying a limestone hill in the background. Credit Omar Havana for The New York Times

    The cement firms have also spawned a mini-land boom in Kampot, where prices have risen thirtyfold in the last decade, according to locals. In interviews, the inhabitants complained that rocks being blasted off the mountains were falling on their homes and angering the local neak ta, who had to be propitiated with offerings of roast pigs.

    Dr. Whitten said he had tried for years, fruitlessly, to determine whether environmental impact assessments had been carried out before cement companies were given permission to dynamite the karsts. The Ministry of Mines and Energy, which is responsible for granting and regulating concessions for limestone quarrying, declined to comment.

    Even when environmental assessments are conducted, they often focus on large mammals, overlooking plants and small species that are highly endemic to certain caves. The slimy, squishy invertebrates and strange plants that live in karsts can be a hard sell to donors, who prefer what are known as “charismatic megafauna”— cute, easy-to-anthropomorphize animals like elephants, tigers and dolphins that appeal to the public.

    “It takes a botanist to appreciate the charisma of a plant,” Dr. McDonald said.

    The karsts his group wants to protect have the advantage of already being a minor tourist attraction, with a Buddhist pagoda sprawling out at their feet, small shrines nestled into the caves and a set of stone steps leading down to an underground pond where monks bathe.

    “They are linked together — people come to pray at the pagoda and then they always go to the cave,” Mr. Ken Sam An said. It is also common for him and his neighbors to make offerings to the spirits believed to inhabit the karsts, going to different caves on different holy days. Each one is believed to be the domain of a different neak ta.

    Mr. Thy climbing at Kampot Karst. “The vegetation you see here, you may not see anywhere else,” he said. “If it is destroyed, that is a problem.” Credit Omar Havana for The New York Times

    Mr. Ken Sam An can rattle off their names as if they are members of his extended family: “There’s the Red Neck spirit, the Eight Heads spirit, the spirit of the 100 Rice Fields, the spirit of the Monk Who Lives in the Jungle, the White Elephant spirit, the Dragon’s Mouth spirit, the Magic Boy spirit, the Reincarnated Grandmother spirit and the Magic Mushroom spirit.”

    Altogether, the caves are thought by locals to be chambers in the stomach of a dragon that beached here when an ancient sea receded thousands of years ago — a tale not entirely different from the stories told by geologists and botanists.

    “This is what we lose when they take out a mountain,” Dr. McDonald said.

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  • richardmitnick 10:48 am on February 14, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: Applied Research & Technology, Descent into a Frozen Underworld, Ice Screw End Effector (ISEE), JPL's Extreme Environments Robotics Group, Mt. Erebus - our planet's southernmost active volcano reaching 12448 feet (3794 meters) above Ross Island in Antarctica, , PUFFER, Robotic Prototyping Lab, Testing robots and instruments designed for icy worlds like Europa   

    From JPL-Caltech: “Descent into a Frozen Underworld” 

    NASA JPL Banner


    February 13, 2017
    Andrew Good
    Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.

    Aaron Curtis, a postdoctoral scholar at JPL, traveled to Antarctica this past December, where he tested robots and instruments designed for icy worlds like Europa. Image Credit: Nial Peters

    JPL tests robotics in ice caves near active volcano.

    Mt. Erebus is at the end of our world — and offers a portal to another.

    It’s our planet’s southernmost active volcano, reaching 12,448 feet (3,794 meters) above Ross Island in Antarctica. Temperatures at the surface are well below freezing most of the year, but that doesn’t stop visits from scientists: Erebus is also one of the few volcanoes in the world with an exposed lava lake. You can peer over the lip of its main crater and stare straight into it.

    It’s also a good stand-in for a frozen alien world, the kind NASA wants to send robots to someday. That’s why Aaron Curtis, a post-doctoral scholar at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California, spent the month of December exploring ice caves beneath the volcano. For several weeks, he tested robots, a drill and computer-aided mapping technology that could one day help us understand the icy worlds in our outer solar system.

    It was Curtis’ seventh visit to Mt. Erebus, which he made on behalf of both JPL and the Mt. Erebus Volcano Observatory. He traveled with several colleagues who were studying everything from the age of the rocks to the composition of gasses emitted from the lava lake.

    Ocean worlds like Europa are sure to be distinctly more alien than Erebus. Europa’s temperatures are hundreds of degrees below freezing; its ice is certain to be different than that of Earth’s; its surface is bathed in Jupiter’s radiation.

    But there are some similarities that make Erebus a good testing ground for future technologies.

    “We think some features of these caves are similar to what you might see on a moon like Europa,” Curtis said.

    Aaron Curtis, peers into the caldera of Mt. Erebus, an active volcano in Antarctica. Image Credit: Dylan Taylor

    Frozen beauty

    For the ancient Greeks, Erebus was an entrance to the underworld. It’s a fitting namesake: scientists have discovered that Mt. Erebus has its own underworld — though one of stunning beauty.

    The volcano’s gases have carved out massive caves, which are filled with forests of hoarfrost and cathedral-like ice ceilings. Curtis said the heat from Erebus keeps the caves cozy — close to 32 degrees Fahrenheit (0 degrees Celsius) — and drives warm gases out of vents at the surface, where they freeze into towers. Within the caves, the mixing of warm and cold air forms icy “chimneys” that reach toward the ground.

    While pursuing his doctorate at the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology, Curtis wrote his dissertation on the formation of these caves. He said that in recent years, scientists have also discovered a diverse array of microscopic organisms living in their interior. These extremophiles, as they’re known, suggest that life might be possible on distant planets with similar cave systems.

    Aaron Curtis, in one of the Mt. Erebus ice caves. Image Credit: Dylan Taylor.

    Tools for an Icy Moon

    Curtis joined JPL’s Extreme Environments Robotics Group in 2016, where engineers are developing nimble machines that can climb, scurry and rove across difficult terrain.

    Aaron Parness, manager of the Robotic Prototyping Lab, said Mt. Erebus was a good testing ground for some of the robots and instruments in development. When a member of the group is conducting field research, they often test each other’s work. It’s part of the rapid design prototyping that steers the group’s efforts.

    “Field testing shows you things that are hard to learn in the laboratory,” Parness said. “We jump on those opportunities. Even if the prototype isn’t ready to work perfectly, it doesn’t mean it isn’t ready to teach us lessons on how to make the next iteration better.”

    Curtis tested several unique projects at Mt. Erebus. There was the Ice Screw End Effector (ISEE), a kind of ice drill designed for the “feet” of a wall-climbing robot called LEMUR. The drill would allow LEMUR to attach itself to walls, while also pulling out samples of the ice with each step. Future designs might be able to check for chemical signs of life within these samples.

    ISEE hadn’t seen much field testing before this trip — just the ice growing inside a fridge at JPL.

    “We’re trying to get a feel for what kind of ice this drill works in,” Curtis said. He added that ice can be plastic or brittle depending on different densities, humidity and other factors. The ice caves under Erebus proved to have much higher concentrations of air than expected: “The differences involved can be like trying to climb a marshmallow versus a light metal.”

    Another test was for PUFFER, an origami-inspired robot that can sit flat during storage and “puff up” to explore a wider area. PUFFER has driven extensively around JPL, in Pasadena’s Arroyo Seco and other desert environments — but not on snow. Curtis joysticked the robot around using newly designed snow wheels, which have a broad, flat surface.

    Another tool that that could be helpful for future explorers is a structured light sensor used for creating 3-D cave maps. JPL’s Jeremy Nash and Renaud Detry provided the sensor, which relies on computer vision to map the interior of a cave.

    Curtis said that ice is a hard material to 3-D model, in large part because it’s so reflective. Light has a tendency to bounce off its surface, making it difficult for a computer to read that data and reconstruct a space.

    “Ice sparkles, and the sparkly crystals look different from each angle,” Curtis said. “It’s like a hall of mirrors.”

    A helicopter brings in supplies to Lower Erebus Hut, a camp at 11,000 feet. The camp is considered the main base of operations that scientists work out of. Image Credit: Dylan Taylor

    Adventurous Science

    Make no mistake about it — a research trip to Mt. Erebus isn’t exactly a vacation.

    Curtis and his colleagues faced three large blizzards during their trip, each lasting around a week. That led to travel delays when supply helicopters couldn’t make safe passage.

    The team also dealt with limited energy in a region that experiences six months of night, blocking out sunlight for solar cells. Wind turbines on the volcano are the most common form of energy, though they face their own challenges: frost builds up on the blades, causing them to vibrate themselves to bits.

    But the chance to conduct research in such a desolate and awe-inspiring location is hard to pass up.

    “When I smell that hydrogen sulfide perfuming the minus-25-degrees-Celsius air, there’s nowhere I’d rather be,” Curtis said.

    See the full article here .

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    NASA JPL Campus

    Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) is a federally funded research and development center and NASA field center located in the San Gabriel Valley area of Los Angeles County, California, United States. Although the facility has a Pasadena postal address, it is actually headquartered in the city of La Cañada Flintridge [1], on the northwest border of Pasadena. JPL is managed by the nearby California Institute of Technology (Caltech) for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. The Laboratory’s primary function is the construction and operation of robotic planetary spacecraft, though it also conducts Earth-orbit and astronomy missions. It is also responsible for operating NASA’s Deep Space Network.

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  • richardmitnick 10:19 am on February 14, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: Applied Research & Technology, , , Stem Cells Step Forward   

    From HMS: “Stem Cells Step Forward” 

    Harvard University

    Harvard University

    Harvard Medical School

    Harvard Medical School

    February 8, 2017

    For first time, iPS cells flag potential drug for blood disease.

    Red blood cells were successfully made via induced pluripotent stem cells from a Diamond-Blackfan anemia patient. Image: Daley lab, Boston Children’s.

    Researchers at Harvard Medical School and Boston Children’s Hospital were able, for the first time, to use patients’ own cells to create cells similar to those in bone marrow and then use them to identify potential treatments for a blood disorder.

    The work was published Feb. 8 in Science Translational Medicine.

    The team derived the so-called blood progenitor cells from two patients with Diamond-Blackfan anemia (DBA), a rare, severe blood disorder in which the bone marrow cannot make enough oxygen-carrying red blood cells.

    The researchers first converted some of the patients’ skin cells into induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells. They then got the iPS cells to make blood progenitor cells, which they loaded into a high-throughput drug-screening system.

    Testing a library of 1,440 chemicals, the team found several that showed promise in a dish. One compound, SMER28, was able to get live mice and zebrafish to start churning out red blood cells.

    The study marks an important advance in the stem cell field. iPS cells, theoretically capable of making virtually any cell type, were first created in the lab in 2006 from skin cells treated with genetic reprogramming factors. Specialized cells generated by iPS cells have been used to look for drugs for a variety of diseases—except for blood disorders, because of technical problems in getting iPS cells to make blood cells.

    “iPS cells have been hard to instruct when it comes to making blood,” said Sergei Doulatov, former HMS research fellow at Boston Children’s and co-first author on the paper with doctoral student Linda Vo and research fellow Elizabeth Macari. “This is the first time iPS cells have been used to identify a drug to treat a blood disorder.”

    DBA is currently treated with steroids, but these drugs help only about half of patients, and some of them eventually stop responding. When steroids fail, patients must receive lifelong blood transfusions, and quality of life for many patients is poor. The researchers believe SMER28 or a similar compound might offer another option.

    “It is very satisfying as physician-scientists to find new potential treatments for rare blood diseases such as Diamond-Blackfan anemia,” said Leonard Zon, HMS Grousbeck Professor of Pediatrics and director of the Stem Cell Research Program at Boston Children’s and co-corresponding author on the paper.

    “This work illustrates a wonderful triumph,” said co-corresponding author George Q. Daley, dean of HMS and associate director of the Stem Cell Research Program.

    Making red blood cells

    As in DBA itself, the patient-derived blood progenitor cells, studied in a dish, failed to generate the precursors of red blood cells, known as erythroid cells. The same was true when the cells were transplanted into mice. But the chemical screen got several “hits”: in wells loaded with these chemicals, erythroid cells began appearing.

    Because of its especially strong effect, SMER28 was put through additional testing. When used to treat the marrow in zebrafish and mouse models of DBA, the animals made erythroid progenitor cells that in turn made red blood cells, reversing or stabilizing anemia.

    The same was true in cells from DBA patients transplanted into mice. The higher the dose of SMER28, the more red blood cells were produced, and no ill effects were found. Formal toxicity studies have not yet been conducted.

    Circumventing a roadblock

    Previous researchers have tried for years to isolate blood stem cells from patients. They have sometimes succeeded, but the cells are very rare and cannot create enough copies of themselves to be useful for research. Attempts to get iPS cells to make blood stem cells have also failed.

    The HMS and Boston Children’s researchers were able to circumvent these problems by instead transforming iPS cells into blood progenitor cells using a combination of five reprogramming factors. Blood progenitor cells share many properties with blood stem cells and are readily multiplied in a dish.

    “Drug screens are usually done in duplicate, in tens of thousands of wells, so you need a lot of cells,” said Doulatov, who now heads a lab at the University of Washington. “Although blood progenitor cells aren’t bona fide stem cells, they are multipotent and they made red cells just fine.”

    SMER28 has been tested preclinically for some neurodegenerative diseases. It activates a so-called autophagy pathway that recycles damaged cellular components. In DBA, SMER28 appears to turn on autophagy in erythroid progenitors. Doulatov plans to further explore how this interferes with red blood cell production.

    Zon and Daley have been awarded NIH funding from the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute’s Progenitor Cell Translational Consortium to further explore several promising compounds identified through the study.

    The study was supported by grants from the National Institutes of Health (R24-DK092760, R24-DK49216, UO1-HL100001, R01HL04880, AQ42R24OD017870-01), Alex’s Lemonade Stand, the Taub Foundation Grants Program for MDS AQ43 Research and the Doris Duke Medical Foundation. Additional funding came from a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship and NHLBI grant 1F32HL124948-01.

    See the full article here .

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    HMS campus

    Established in 1782, Harvard Medical School began with a handful of students and a faculty of three. The first classes were held in Harvard Hall in Cambridge, long before the school’s iconic quadrangle was built in Boston. With each passing decade, the school’s faculty and trainees amassed knowledge and influence, shaping medicine in the United States and beyond. Some community members—and their accomplishments—have assumed the status of legend. We invite you to access the following resources to explore Harvard Medical School’s rich history.

    Harvard University campus

    Harvard is the oldest institution of higher education in the United States, established in 1636 by vote of the Great and General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. It was named after the College’s first benefactor, the young minister John Harvard of Charlestown, who upon his death in 1638 left his library and half his estate to the institution. A statue of John Harvard stands today in front of University Hall in Harvard Yard, and is perhaps the University’s best known landmark.

    Harvard University has 12 degree-granting Schools in addition to the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. The University has grown from nine students with a single master to an enrollment of more than 20,000 degree candidates including undergraduate, graduate, and professional students. There are more than 360,000 living alumni in the U.S. and over 190 other countries.

  • richardmitnick 10:07 am on February 14, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, Applied Research & Technology,   

    From Rutgers: “Alzheimer’s May Be Linked to Defective Brain Cells Spreading Disease” 

    Rutgers University
    Rutgers University

    February 13, 2017
    Robin Lally

    Rutgers study finds toxic proteins doing harm to neighboring neurons.

    Rutgers scientists have discovered that toxic proteins may be spreading neurodegeneration and diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. No image credit.

    Rutgers scientists say neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s may be linked to defective brain cells disposing toxic proteins that make neighboring cells sick.

    In a study published in Nature, Monica Driscoll, distinguished professor of molecular biology and biochemistry, School of Arts and Sciences, and her team, found that while healthy neurons should be able to sort out and rid brain cells of toxic proteins and damaged cell structures without causing problems, laboratory findings indicate that it does not always occur.

    These findings, Driscoll said, could have major implications for neurological disease in humans and could possibly be the way that disease can spread in the brain.

    “Normally the process of throwing out this trash would be a good thing,” said Driscoll. “But we think with neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s there might be a mismanagement of this very important process that is supposed to protect neurons but, instead, is doing harm to neighbor cells.”

    Driscoll said scientists have understood how the process of eliminating toxic cellular substances works internally within the cell, comparing it to a garbage disposal getting rid of waste, but they did not know how cells released the garbage externally.

    “What we found out could be compared to a person collecting trash and putting it outside for garbage day,” said Driscoll. “They actively select and sort the trash from the good stuff, but if it’s not picked up, the garbage can cause real problems.”

    Working with the transparent roundworm, known as the C. elegans, which are similar in molecular form, function and genetics to those of humans, Driscoll and her team discovered that the worms – which have a lifespan of about three weeks — had an external garbage removal mechanism and were disposing these toxic proteins outside the cell as well.

    Ilija Melentijevic, a graduate student in Driscoll’s laboratory and the lead author of the study, realized what was occurring when he observed a small cloud-like, bright blob forming outside of the cell in some of the worms. Over two years, he counted and monitored their production and degradation in single still images until finally he caught one in mid-formation.

    “They were very dynamic,” said Melentijevic, an undergraduate student at the time who spent three nights in the lab taking photos of the process viewed through a microscope every 15 minutes. “You couldn’t see them often, and when they did occur, they were gone the next day.”

    Research using roundworms has provided scientists with important information on aging, which would be difficult to conduct in people and other organisms that have long life spans.

    In the newly published study, the Rutgers team found that roundworms engineered to produce human disease proteins associated with Huntington’s disease and Alzheimer’s, threw out more trash consisting of these neurodegenerative toxic materials. While neighboring cells degraded some of the material, more distant cells scavenged other portions of the diseased proteins.

    “These findings are significant,” said Driscoll. “The work in the little worm may open the door to much needed new approaches to addressing neurodegeneration and diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.”

    See the full article here .

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    Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, is a leading national research university and the state’s preeminent, comprehensive public institution of higher education. Rutgers is dedicated to teaching that meets the highest standards of excellence; to conducting research that breaks new ground; and to providing services, solutions, and clinical care that help individuals and the local, national, and global communities where they live.

    Founded in 1766, Rutgers teaches across the full educational spectrum: preschool to precollege; undergraduate to graduate; postdoctoral fellowships to residencies; and continuing education for professional and personal advancement.

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  • richardmitnick 9:55 am on February 14, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: Applied Research & Technology, , , WISE - Women in Science and Engineering program, Women in Science and Engineering program brings Baltimore-area students into the lab,   

    From Hopkins: Women in STEM – “Women in Science and Engineering program brings Baltimore-area students into the lab” This is how to Get It Done 

    Johns Hopkins
    Johns Hopkins University

    Feb 10, 2017
    Lisa Ercolano

    Budding engineer Devyn Anderson (left) helps materials science grad student Jennifer Dailey in the lab. Image credit: Makea King

    While many of her classmates at Baltimore City’s Western High School are hanging out with friends or participating in clubs after school, Devyn Anderson is in a materials science laboratory on Johns Hopkins University’s Homewood campus, working to develop a sensor that can detect proteins associated with Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, otherwise known as MRSA.

    “I’m handling antibodies and polymers and equipment like thermal evaporators and probe stations, and it is a big challenge,” she says. “But it’s also pretty exciting.”

    “I’ve always been interested in the medical side of science, and thought going to medical school was pretty much the only option. Now I know that there are great things being done in chemical and biomolecular engineering, too.” Miyanna Hunt,WISE program participant

    A 16-year-old junior, Anderson is part of Johns Hopkins’ Women in Science and Engineering program, which brings female high school students to campus to work in engineering and science laboratories, where they conduct real research under the guidance of faculty and graduate student mentors.

    This fall and winter, the WISE program welcomed three students from Western High School, an all-girls public high school in Baltimore City; and 11 from Garrison Forest School, an all-girls independent school in Owings Mills, Maryland, to spend two afternoons a week doing research in areas including chemical engineering, materials science, and computer science. Next month, after the current cohort of students finishes up, a new cohort from the two schools will take their places.

    The aim of the program is to encourage girls to pursue education and careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, according to Margaret Hart, from the Center for Educational Outreach, which runs the program.

    “WISE provides high school students with a real taste of what being a researcher is like,” Hart says. “They learn a lot of skills they will need to be successful in a research lab, but also the skills they need to do anything they want to do—tenacity, attention to detail, curiosity, patience, and most importantly, how to recover from failure.”

    Anderson says the program not only has taught her a lot about materials science, but also improved her time-management skills and bolstered her confidence.

    “Being part of WISE has been extremely worthwhile for a lot of reasons, including the fact that it gave me experience in juggling a lot of things at once and handling challenges that were completely new to me,” Anderson says. “I think it has also made me more confident in general.”

    Jennifer Dailey, a materials science graduate student serving as Anderson’s mentor in the laboratory of Whiting School Professor Howard Katz, is not surprised to hear that. She believes that WISE has a profound impact in a number of ways.

    “For one thing, they learn some specific advanced topics in physics, chemistry and engineering, which can only help them in their future studies,” Dailey says. “But perhaps even more important, it encourages young women to explore a whole new world of career possibilities that may never have occurred to them before.”

    Take Miyanna Hunt, for example. A 17-year-old junior at Western High School, she spent this fall and winter working with mentor Pengfei Xie in Chao Wang’s chemical and biomolecular engineering laboratory. Before WISE, Hunt imagined herself someday going to medical school. Now she is considering other options, too.

    “I can say for sure that this program has broadened my horizons,” Hunt says. “I’ve always been interested in the medical side of science, and thought going to medical school was pretty much the only option. Now I know that there are great things being done in chemical and biomolecular engineering, too. Going forward, I now have another option that I didn’t even know about before this.”

    See the full article here .

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    Johns Hopkins Campus

    The Johns Hopkins University opened in 1876, with the inauguration of its first president, Daniel Coit Gilman. “What are we aiming at?” Gilman asked in his installation address. “The encouragement of research … and the advancement of individual scholars, who by their excellence will advance the sciences they pursue, and the society where they dwell.”

    The mission laid out by Gilman remains the university’s mission today, summed up in a simple but powerful restatement of Gilman’s own words: “Knowledge for the world.”

    What Gilman created was a research university, dedicated to advancing both students’ knowledge and the state of human knowledge through research and scholarship. Gilman believed that teaching and research are interdependent, that success in one depends on success in the other. A modern university, he believed, must do both well. The realization of Gilman’s philosophy at Johns Hopkins, and at other institutions that later attracted Johns Hopkins-trained scholars, revolutionized higher education in America, leading to the research university system as it exists today.

  • richardmitnick 5:11 pm on February 12, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: Applied Research & Technology, Arctic 2.0: What Happens after All the Ice Goes?, ,   

    From SA: “Arctic 2.0: What Happens after All the Ice Goes?” 

    Scientific American

    Scientific American

    February 9, 2017
    Julia Rosen

    Credit: Global Panorama Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

    As the Arctic slipped into the half-darkness of autumn last year, it seemed to enter the Twilight Zone. In the span of a few months, all manner of strange things happened.

    The cap of sea ice covering the Arctic Ocean started to shrink when it should have been growing. Temperatures at the North Pole soared more than 20 °C above normal at times. And polar bears prowling the shorelines of Hudson Bay had a record number of run-ins with people while waiting for the water to freeze over.

    It was a stark illustration of just how quickly climate change is reshaping the far north. And if last autumn was bizarre, it’s the summers that have really got scientists worried. As early as 2030, researchers say, the Arctic Ocean could lose essentially all of its ice during the warmest months of the year—a radical transformation that would upend Arctic ecosystems and disrupt many northern communities.

    Change will spill beyond the region, too. An increasingly blue Arctic Ocean could amplify warming trends and even scramble weather patterns around the globe. “It’s not just that we’re talking about polar bears or seals,” says Julienne Stroeve, a sea-ice researcher at University College London. “We all are ice-dependent species.”

    With the prospect of ice-free Arctic summers on the horizon, scientists are striving to understand how residents of the north will fare, which animals face the biggest risks and whether nations could save them by protecting small icy refuges.

    But as some researchers look even further into the future, they see reasons to preserve hope. If society ever manages to reverse the surge in greenhouse-gas concentrations—as some suspect it ultimately will—then the same physics that makes it easy for Arctic sea ice to melt rapidly may also allow it to regrow, says Stephanie Pfirman, a sea-ice researcher at Barnard College in New York City.

    She and other scientists say that it’s time to look beyond the Arctic’s decline and start thinking about what it would take to restore sea ice. That raises controversial questions about how quickly summer ice could return and whether it could regrow fast enough to spare Arctic species. Could nations even cool the climate quickly through geoengineering, to reverse the most drastic changes up north?

    Pfirman and her colleagues published a paper last year designed to kick-start a broader conversation about how countries might plan for the regrowth of ice, and whether they would welcome it. Only by considering all the possibilities for the far future can the world stay one step ahead of the ever-changing Arctic, say scientists. “We’ve committed to the Arctic of the next generation,” Pfirman says. “What comes next?”

    Blue period

    Pfirman remembers the first time she realized just how fast the Arctic was unravelling. It was September 2007, and she was preparing to give a talk. She went online to download the latest sea-ice maps and discovered something disturbing: the extent of Arctic ice had shrunk past the record minimum and was still dropping. “Oh, no! It’s happening,” she thought.

    Although Pfirman and others knew that Arctic sea ice was shrinking, they hadn’t expected to see such extreme ice losses until the middle of the twenty-first century. “It was a wake-up call that we had basically run out of time,” she says.

    In theory, there’s still a chance that the world could prevent the total loss of summer sea ice. Global climate models suggest that about 3 million square kilometres—roughly half of the minimum summer coverage in recent decades—could survive if countries fulfil their commitments to the newly ratified Paris climate agreement, which limits global warming to 2 °C above pre-industrial temperatures.

    But sea-ice researchers aren’t counting on that. Models have consistently underestimated ice losses in the past, causing scientists to worry that the declines in the next few decades will outpace projections. And given the limited commitments that countries have made so far to address climate change, many researchers suspect the world will overshoot the 2 °C target, all but guaranteeing essentially ice-free summers (winter ice is projected to persist for much longer).

    In the best-case scenario, the Arctic is in for a 4–5 °C temperature rise, thanks to processes that amplify warming at high latitudes, says James Overland, an oceanographer at the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Seattle, Washington. “We really don’t have any clue about how disruptive that’s going to be.”

    The Arctic’s 4 million residents—including 400,000 indigenous people—will feel the most direct effects of ice loss. Entire coastal communities, such as many in Alaska, will be forced to relocate as permafrost melts and shorelines crumble without sea ice to buffer them from violent storms, according to a 2013 report by the Brookings Institution in Washington DC. Residents in Greenland will find it hard to travel on sea ice, and reindeer herders in Siberia could struggle to feed their animals. At the same time, new economic opportunities will beckon as open water allows greater access to fishing grounds, oil and gas deposits, and other sources of revenue.

    People living at mid-latitudes may not be immune, either. Emerging research suggests that open water in the Arctic might have helped to amplify weather events, such as cold snaps in the United States, Europe and Asia in recent winters.

    Indeed, the impacts could reach around the globe. That’s because sea ice helps to cool the planet by reflecting sunlight and preventing the Arctic Ocean from absorbing heat. Keeping local air and water temperatures low, in turn, limits melting of the Greenland ice sheet and permafrost. With summer ice gone, Greenland’s glaciers could contribute more to sea-level rise, and permafrost could release its stores of greenhouse gases such as methane. Such is the vast influence of Arctic ice.

    “It is really the tail that wags the dog of global climate,” says Brenda Ekwurzel, director of climate science at the Union of Concerned Scientists in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

    But Arctic ecosystems will take the biggest hit. In 2007, for example, biologists in Alaska noticed something odd: vast numbers of walruses had clambered ashore on the coast of the Chukchi Sea. From above, it looked like the Woodstock music festival—with tusks—as thousands of plump pinnipeds crowded swathes of ice-free shoreline.

    Normally, walruses rest atop sea ice while foraging on the shallow sea floor. But that year, and almost every year since, sea-ice retreat made that impossible by late summer. Pacific walruses have adapted by hauling out on land, but scientists with the US Fish and Wildlife Service worry that their numbers will continue to decline. Here and across the region, the effects of Arctic thawing will ripple through ecosystems.

    In the ocean, photosynthetic plankton that thrive in open water will replace algae that grow on ice. Some models suggest that biological productivity in a seasonally ice-free Arctic could increase by up to 70% by 2100, which could boost revenue from Arctic fisheries even more. (To prevent a seafood gold rush, five Arctic nations have agreed to refrain from unregulated fishing in international waters for now.) Many whales already seem to be benefiting from the bounty of food, says Sue Moore, an Arctic mammal specialist at the Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory.

    But the changing Arctic will pose a challenge for species whose life cycles are intimately linked to sea ice, such as walruses and Arctic seals—as well as polar bears, which don’t have much to eat on land. Research suggests that many will starve if the ice-free season gets too long in much of the Arctic. “Basically, you can write off most of the southern populations,” says Andrew Derocher, a biologist at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada. Such findings spurred the US Fish and Wildlife Service to list polar bears as threatened in 2008.

    The last of the ice

    Ice-dependent ecosystems may survive for longest along the rugged north shores of Greenland and Canada, where models suggest that about half a million square kilometres of summer sea ice will linger after the rest of the Arctic opens up. Wind patterns cause ice to pile up there, and the thickness of the ice—along with the high latitude—helps prevent it from melting. “The Siberian coastlines are the ice factory, and the Canadian Arctic Archipelago is the ice graveyard,” says Robert Newton, an oceanographer at Columbia University’s Lamont–Doherty Earth Observatory in Palisades, New York.

    Groups such as the wildlife charity WWF have proposed protecting this ‘last ice area’ as a World Heritage Site in the hope that it will serve as a life preserver for many Arctic species. Last December, Canada announced that it would at least consider setting the area aside for conservation, and indigenous groups have expressed interest in helping to manage it. (Before he left office, then-US president Barack Obama joined Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in pledging to protect 17% of the countries’ Arctic lands and 10% of marine areas by 2020.)

    But the last ice area has limitations as an Arctic Noah’s ark. Some species don’t live in the region, and those that do are there in only small numbers. Derocher estimates that there are less than 2,000 polar bears in that last ice area today—a fraction of the total Arctic population of roughly 25,000. How many bears will live there in the future depends on how the ecosystem evolves with warming.

    The area may also be more vulnerable than global climate models suggest. Bruno Tremblay, a sea-ice researcher at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, and David Huard, an independent climate consultant based in Quebec, Canada, studied the fate of the refuge with a high-resolution sea-ice and ocean model that better represented the narrow channels between the islands of the Canadian archipelago.

    In a report commissioned by the WWF, they found that ice might actually be able to sneak between the islands and flow south to latitudes where it would melt. According to the model, Tremblay says, “even the last ice area gets flushed out much more efficiently”.

    If the future of the Arctic seems dire, there is one source of optimism: summer sea ice will return whenever the planet cools down again. “It’s not this irreversible process,” Stroeve says. “You could bring it back even if you lose it all.”

    Unlike land-based ice sheets, which wax and wane over millennia and lag behind climate changes by similar spans, sea ice will regrow as soon as summer temperatures get cold enough. But identifying the exact threshold at which sea ice will return is tricky, says Dirk Notz, a sea-ice researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Meteorology in Hamburg, Germany. On the basis of model projections, researchers suggest that the threshold hovers around 450 parts per million (p.p.m.)—some 50 p.p.m. higher than today. But greenhouse-gas concentrations are not the only factor that affects ice regrowth; it also depends on how long the region has been ice-free in summer, which determines how much heat can build up in the Arctic Ocean.

    Notz and his colleagues studied the interplay between greenhouse gases and ocean temperature with a global climate model. They increased CO2 from pre-industrial concentrations of 280 p.p.m. to 1,100 p.p.m.—a bit more than the 1,000 p.p.m. projected by 2100 if no major action is taken to curtail greenhouse-gas emissions. Then they left it at those levels for millennia.

    This obliterated both winter and summer sea ice, and allowed the ocean to warm up. The researchers then reduced CO2 concentrations to levels at which summer ice should have returned, but it did not regrow until the ocean had a chance to cool off, which took centuries.

    By contrast, if the Arctic experiences ice-free summers for a relatively short time before greenhouse gases drop, then models suggest ice would regrow much sooner. That could theoretically start to happen by the end of the century, assuming that nations take very aggressive steps to reduce carbon dioxide levels, according to Newton, Pfirman and their colleagues. So even if society cannot forestall the loss of summer sea ice in coming decades, taking action to keep CO2 concentrations under control could still make it easier to regrow the ice cover later, Notz says.

    Global cooling

    Given the stakes, some researchers have proposed global-scale geoengineering to cool the planet and, by extension, preserve or restore ice. Others argue that it might be possible to chill just the north, for instance by artificially whitening the Arctic Ocean with light-coloured floating particles to reflect sunlight. A study this year suggested installing wind-powered pumps to bring water to the surface in winter, where it would freeze, forming thicker ice.

    But many researchers hesitate to embrace geoengineering. And most agree that regional efforts would take tremendous effort and have limited benefits, given that Earth’s circulation systems could just bring more heat north to compensate. “It’s kind of like walking against a conveyor the wrong way,” Pfirman says. She and others agree that managing greenhouse gases—and local pollutants such as black carbon from shipping—is the only long-term solution.

    Returning to a world with summer sea ice could have big perks, such as restoring some of the climate services that the Arctic provides to the globe and stabilizing weather patterns. And in the region itself, restoring a white Arctic could offer relief to polar bears and other ice-dependent species, says Pfirman. These creatures might be able to weather a relatively short ice-free window, hunkered down in either the last ice area or other places set aside to preserve biodiversity. When the ice returned, they could spread out again to repopulate the Arctic.

    That has almost certainly happened during past climate changes. For instance, researchers think the Arctic may have experienced nearly ice-free summers during the last interglacial period, 130,000 years ago.

    But, one thing is certain: getting back to a world with Arctic summer sea ice won’t be simple, politically or technically. Not everyone will embrace a return to an ice-covered Arctic, especially if it’s been blue for several generations. Companies and countries are already eyeing the opportunities for oil and gas exploration, mining, shipping, tourism and fishing in a region hungry for economic development. “In many communities, people are split,” Pfirman says.

    Some researchers also say that the idea of regrowing sea ice seems like wishful thinking, because it would require efforts well beyond what nations must do to meet the Paris agreement. Limiting warming to 2 °C will probably entail converting huge swathes of land into forest and using still-nascent technologies to suck billions of tonnes of CO2 out of the air. Lowering greenhouse-gas concentrations enough to regrow ice would demand even more.

    And if summer sea ice ever does come back, it’s hard to know how a remade Arctic would work, Derocher says. “There will be an ecosystem. It will function. It just may not look like the one we currently have.”

    See the full article here .

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    Scientific American, the oldest continuously published magazine in the U.S., has been bringing its readers unique insights about developments in science and technology for more than 160 years.

  • richardmitnick 12:16 pm on February 11, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: Applied Research & Technology, Beamsplitter, , , Wave function, What shape are photons? Quantum holography sheds light   

    From COSMOS: “What shape are photons? Quantum holography sheds light” 

    Cosmos Magazine bloc


    20 July 2016 [Just found this in social media]
    Cathal O’Connell

    Hologram of a single photon reconstructed from raw measurements (left) and theoretically predicted (right).

    Imagine a shaft of yellow sunlight beaming through a window. Quantum physics tells us that beam is made of zillions of tiny packets of light, called photons, streaming through the air. But what does an individual photon “look” like? Does it have a shape? Are these questions even meaningful?

    Now, Polish physicists have created the first ever hologram of a single light particle. The feat, achieved by observing the interference of two intersecting light beams, is an important insight into the fundamental quantum nature of light.

    The result could also be important for technologies that require an understanding of the shape of single photons – such as quantum communication and quantum computers.

    ”We performed a relatively simple experiment to measure and view something incredibly difficult to observe: the shape of wavefronts of a single photon,” says Radoslaw Chrapkiewicz, a physicist at the University of Warsaw and lead author of the new paper, published in Nature Photonics.

    For hundreds of years, physicists have been working to figure out what light is made of. In the 19th century, the debate seemed to be settled by Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell’s description of light as a wave of electromagnetism.

    But things got a bit more complicated at the turn of the 20th century when German physicist Max Planck, then fellow countryman Albert Einstein, showed light was made up of tiny indivisible packets called photons.

    In the 1920s, Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger elaborated on these ideas with his equation for the quantum wave function to describe what a wave looks like, which has proved incredibly powerful in predicting the results of experiments with photons. But, despite the success of Schrödinger’s theory, physicists still debate what the wave function really means.

    Now physicists at the University of Warsaw measured, for the first time, the shape described by Schrödinger’s equation in a real experiment.

    Photons, travelling as waves, can be in step (called having the same phase). If they interact, they produce a bright signal. If they’re out of phase, they cancel each other out. It’s like sound waves from two speakers producing loud and quiet patches in a room.

    The image – which is called a hologram because it holds information on both the photon’s shape and phase – was created by firing two light beams at a beamsplitter, made of calcite crystal, at the same time.

    The beamsplitter acts a bit like a traffic intersection, where each photon can either pass straight on through or make a turn. The Polish team’s experiment hinged on measuring which path each photon took, which depends on the shape of their wave functions.

    Scheme of the experimental setup for measuring holograms of single photons. FUW / dualcolor.pl / jch

    For a photon on its own, each path is equally probable. But when two photons approach the intersection, they interact – and these odds change.

    The team realised that if they knew the wave function of one of the photons, they could figure out the shape of the second from the positions of flashes appearing on a detector.

    It’s a little like firing two bullets to glance off one another mid-air and using the deflected trajectories to figure our shape of each projectile.

    Each run of the experiment produced two flashes on a detector, one for each photon. After more than 2,000 repetitions, a pattern of flashes built up and the team were able to reconstruct the shape of the unknown photon’s wave function.

    The resulting image looks a bit like a Maltese cross, just like the wave function predicted from Schrödinger’s equation. In the arms of the cross, where the photons were in step, the image is bright – and where they weren’t, we see darkness.

    The experiment brings us “a step closer to understanding what the wave function really is,” says Michal Jachura, who co-authored the work, and it could be a new tool for studying the interaction between two photons, on which technologies such as quantum communication and some versions of quantum computing rely.

    The researchers also hope to recreate wave functions of more complex quantum objects, such as atoms.

    “It’s likely that real applications of quantum holography won’t appear for a few decades yet,” says Konrad Banaszek, who was also part of the team, “but if there’s one thing we can be sure of it’s that they will be surprising.”

    See the full article here .

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  • richardmitnick 5:15 pm on February 10, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: Applied Research & Technology, , Deccan Traps eruption,   

    From COSMOS: “Two huge magma plumes fed the Deccan Traps eruption” 

    Cosmos Magazine bloc


    10 February 2017
    Kate Ravilious

    Thick lava flows in Hawaii are nothing compared to the mammoth rivers of hot rock that rolled across in India in the late Cretaceous. New research suggests those flows were fed by two magma sources. Justinreznick / Getty Images

    Some 65 million years ago, the skies over India darkened as one of Earth’s biggest volcanic eruptions burbled from below. It rumbled on for millions of years, blocking out sunlight and casting a chill globally, to produce what we know today as the Deccan Traps.

    Many believe the eruption sent the dinosaurs into severe demise before an asteroid collision finally finished them off. But just how the Earth produced such vast volumes of lava (covering an area greater than the Australian states of New South Wales and Victoria combined) has remained a bit of a mystery. Now a new study by a pair of geologists in Canada shows that the eruption may have been fed by not one, but two deep mantle plumes.

    Like the hot air that rises to create a thundercloud, mantle plumes are thought to be narrow regions of convection that fast-track hot material all the way up from the core-mantle boundary and through the Earth’s 2,900-kilometre-thick layer of hot rock called the mantle.

    There are thought to be a number of active mantle plumes today, some of which have created a chain of volcanic islands as the oceanic plate glides across the plume top. The Hawaiian-Emperor seamount chain, the Easter Islands and the Walvis Ridge (culminating in the island of Tristan da Cunha) are just a few examples.

    By calculating past movements of tectonic plates, scientists have shown that the mantle plume currently underneath the Indian Ocean Island of Réunion was probably responsible for melting the mantle underneath the Deccan region 66 million years ago. But scientists have remained perplexed as to how one mantle plume could produce such a prodigious volume of melt.

    Petar Glišović and Alessandro Forte from the University of Quebec in Montréal, Canada, decided to revisit the Deccan conundrum using a model of mantle convection and running it in reverse for 70 million years.

    “This is a really hard problem as it is impossible to undo heat diffusion,” explains James Wookey, a geophysicist at the University of Bristol in the UK, who wasn’t involved with the study.

    So the pair ran many iterations of their model, with each scenario starting 2.5 million years ago with a different mantle structure configuration, and run forwards until one produced current mantle conditions.

    Taking the best fit and rewinding mantle dynamics by 70 million years, Glišović and Forte’s model showed that the Réunion mantle plume was situated underneath the Deccan region of India, as expected, but to their surprise there was also another mantle plume nearby at that time, responsible for feeding the volcanism on the East African island of Comoros today.

    Publishing in Science, Glišović and Forte calculated that the combined heat of the Réunion and Comoros mantle plumes would have been sufficient to melt around 60 million cubic kilometres of mantle at the time of the eruption; more than enough to feed the Deccan Traps. “We see mantle plumes merging and splitting in our forward running models of mantle convection, so the idea that these two plumes merged in the past is certainly plausible,” says Wookey.

    The model also shows that the Comoros plume had lost most of its heat by 40 million years ago, while the Réunion mantle plume ran out of steam around 20 million years ago. Today, both plumes are mere shadows of their former selves. But Wookey cautions against taking the findings too literally, adding: “the physics of the model is reasonable, but whether the mantle movements are precisely what the Earth actually did is another matter.”

    See the full article here .

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