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  • richardmitnick 9:57 am on May 14, 2019 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: "Spotlight on the pulse of our planet", , , Climate activist Jakob Blasel: “In my view world leaders do not take the climate crisis seriously.”, , , Earth Sciences, , ESA’s Living Planet Symposium, Information from space, The Living Planet Symposium is hosting over 2000 children with their own dedicated programmes.   

    From European Space Agency: “Spotlight on the pulse of our planet” 

    ESA Space For Europe Banner

    From European Space Agency

    13 May 2019

    ESA’s Earth Explorers surpassing expectations

    Milan in focus


    Satellites deliver crucial information to help solve what is our biggest global problem: climate change. As well as taking the pulse of our planet, satellite data are used in a myriad of daily applications, and are also used increasingly in business. It’s no surprise then that over 4 000 people have flocked to Milan to hear the latest scientific findings on Earth’s natural processes and global change, and to learn about the wealth of new opportunities that Earth observation has to offer.

    ESA’s holds its Living Planet Symposium – the largest Earth observation conference in the world – every three years, each time drawing more participants than the last. The current edition, which has been organised with support from the Italian Space Agency, got off to a flying start this morning in the heart of Milan, Italy.

    Traditionally, the focus of this series of symposiums has been on Earth science – and while this still takes centre stage, the importance of international cooperation in developing satellite observing systems that bring the most benefits to society is also very much at the forefront of discussions.

    In addition, the landscape of Earth observation is changing. Against the backdrop of commercial Earth observation and the digital revolution, participants will be talking about how satellite data and new technologies such as artificial intelligence and blockchain can benefit business, industry and science, and also ESA.

    Living Planet Symposium opens

    With all these topics, and more, to be presented and discussed in the days ahead, the symposium was opened by Milan’s Councillor for Urban Planning, Parks and Agriculture, Pierfrancesco Maran, who wished everyone a warm welcome from the city.

    He noted, “Cites around the world are facing the issues of climate change and pollution, but while cities are part of the problem, they can also be part of the solution through better education and innovation.”

    Participants were also welcomed by ESA’s Director General Jan Wörner. Stressing the importance of information from space to address the global challenges of climate change, energy and resources shortages, he said, “Earth observation is expanding the frontiers of knowledge – through this we understand climate change and much more.

    “From space you don’t see borders and this is the same for us – the countries of Europe are working together for a coherent approach that includes common goals and a full integration of space to bring the biggest benefits to society.”

    Deputy Director-General of the EC DG GROW, Pierre Delsaux, noted, “Climate Change is not just a European issue, it is a world-wide issue. We work to involve, sometimes convince our partners around the word that new missions can give us clear scientific assessments of the changes happening to our planet.”

    Recent demonstrations by students around the world make it clear that the young have serious concerns about the health of the planet and are pushing for action.

    Climate activist Jakob Blasel

    Young climate activist, Jakob Blasel from Fridays for Future talked passionately about his worries, “Our generation is the most conscious about climate change as we will have to live with the consequences in the next decades. I’m one of the people who fears the future.

    “In my view, world leaders do not take the climate crisis seriously.”

    The young are also in the spotlight this week. For the first time, the Living Planet Symposium is hosting over 2000 children with their own dedicated programmes. There are the Open Days available for 8–12 year olds and School Labs for 13–18 year olds. Students, for example, will be taking air pollution measurements, and much more.

    With the environment very much in the news, many governments, institutes, businesses and individuals are making different choices to reduce the impact we are having on our fragile planet.

    The EC’s Deputy Director General for Research and Innovation, Patrick Child, highlighted, “The transition towards a carbon-neutral economy and a sustainable Europe by 2030 requires advancing our knowledge of the Earth system, its dynamics and its interactions with human activities.

    “There is an urgent need to develop instruments to better predict and mitigate the consequences of climate change.

    “The global challenges our society faces requires knowledge-based policy-making, building on reliable observation systems, products and services.”

    Mr Child’s words are at the heart of the symposium – as science and understanding is critical to addressing environmental issues.

    ESA’s Director of Earth Observation Programmes, Josef Aschbacher, said, “I am thrilled to see so many people here – a true testament to the growing interest and importance of what Earth observation brings.

    “We are looking forward to hearing the latest scientific results. And, with ESA’s next ministerial council, Space19+, in November, we will also be talking about how we will take Earth observation into the future, particularly through innovation and partnerships.

    “But crucially we need the engagement of young people, the scientists of tomorrow.”

    With eyes now on Milan, the week not only promises to be a week of discovery about our changing planet, but also showcases how society at large benefits from Earth observation.

    We are changing our natural world faster than at any other time in history. Understanding the intricacies of how Earth works as a system and the impact that human activity is having on natural processes are huge environmental challenges. Satellites are vital for taking the pulse of our planet, delivering the information we need to understand and monitor our precious world, and for making decisions to safeguard our future. Earth observation data is also key to a myriad of practical applications to improve everyday life and to boost economies.

    See the full article here .

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    The European Space Agency (ESA), established in 1975, is an intergovernmental organization dedicated to the exploration of space, currently with 19 member states. Headquartered in Paris, ESA has a staff of more than 2,000. ESA’s space flight program includes human spaceflight, mainly through the participation in the International Space Station program, the launch and operations of unmanned exploration missions to other planets and the Moon, Earth observation, science, telecommunication as well as maintaining a major spaceport, the Guiana Space Centre at Kourou, French Guiana, and designing launch vehicles. ESA science missions are based at ESTEC in Noordwijk, Netherlands, Earth Observation missions at ESRIN in Frascati, Italy, ESA Mission Control (ESOC) is in Darmstadt, Germany, the European Astronaut Centre (EAC) that trains astronauts for future missions is situated in Cologne, Germany, and the European Space Astronomy Centre is located in Villanueva de la Cañada, Spain.

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  • richardmitnick 9:44 am on February 7, 2019 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , , , Earth Sciences, , France- The Scientific Group of Space Biology and Medicine, Germany -DLR Planetary Space Simulation Facilities, Recreating space on Earth – two facilities join ESA’s platforms for spaceflight research, Space reseach   

    From European Space Agency: “Recreating space on Earth – two facilities join ESA’s platforms for spaceflight research” 

    ESA Space For Europe Banner

    From European Space Agency

    6 February 2019

    Science is everywhere but opportunities to carry out research in space can be limited. To combat this, ESA works with institutes across Europe to maintain a network of ground-based facilities that recreate aspects of spaceflight.

    From radiation to weightlessness, isolation and a lack of Earthly comforts, astronauts and robots on missions far from home face many challenges in space.

    To help mitigate these, two new facilities have been added to Europe’s roster of places where researchers can apply to run spaceflight experiments on Earth with ESA.

    New opportunities for young researchers. Released 06/02/2019 ESA–G. Porter

    Random Positioning Machine Simulates martian Gravity

    In Toulouse, France, the Scientific Group of Space Biology and Medicine with support from France’s space agency CNES has a number of instruments that can recreate microgravity for plant experiments. One of these is a random positioning machine that moves its experiment along all axes as it rotates, turning it upside-down and left-to-right for long periods of time.

    Multigen Arabidopsis. Released 04/07/2016 . Copyright ESA

    Charles Darwin first described how plant stems grow in a corkscrew fashion, but how it happens was unclear. The Multigen experiment on the International Space Station showed in 2007 it is driven by an interplay of light and gravity driving cell signals in the plants. The Aradopsis plants were grown in ESA’s European Modular Cultivation System – a miniature greenhouse to probe how plants grow in weightlessness.

    On average, over weeks or months, the effect of gravity negates to zero allowing researchers to study how plants grow in and react to different levels of gravity.
    The facility in Toulouse also has a low-level radiation generator that bombards cells with similar levels of radiation levels to those that plants would receive on Mars or in Earth orbit. These kinds of plant-based experiments are paving the way for greenhouses in space and could see astronauts harvest their own food during long missions away from Earth.

    Space simulation facilities in Germany

    The second new addition comes from the German aerospace center DLR where Planetary Space Simulation Facilities focus on how biological and chemical materials react to spaceflight.
    DLR facilities enable cells and particles to be exposed to ultra-high vacuum, gas compositions, extreme temperatures, UV radiation and x-rays, helping researchers better prepare their experiment or hardware for the realities of spaceflight.

    Planetary and space simulation facilities
    Released 06/02/2019 11:38 am
    Copyright DLR

    The fully equipped and monitored Planetary and Space Simulation facilities allow a broad range of tests with biological and chemical material individually or integrated into space hardware. The equipment can simulate ultra high vacuum, gas compositions, low and high temperature limits, temperature oscillations, extraterrestrial UV radiation and x-ray.
    The analysis of these exposure tests contribute to a deeper under-standing of the individual and synergistic effects of space with the exposed material. In this way they support the design optimisation and verification of spacecraft devices and the selection of the most promising biological candidates and chemical compositions for flight experiments in low Earth orbit or other space destinations.

    “As with any expedition, preparing and testing equipment is key to successful exploration,” says Jennifer Ngo-Anh head of ESA’s human spaceflight research team, “the better prepared we are for the extreme environments humans and robots must face as we explore our Universe, the better the outcome of the missions.

    “We offer researchers state-of-the-art facilities all over Europe and beyond our planet to carry out experiments and increase knowledge of our world. I am very happy to include these two sites in the roster with our partners and hope to see more ground-breaking research projects in the future.”

    European researchers can apply to run their experiment through ESA’s continuously open research announcements here.

    See the full article here .

    Please help promote STEM in your local schools.

    Stem Education Coalition

    The European Space Agency (ESA), established in 1975, is an intergovernmental organization dedicated to the exploration of space, currently with 19 member states. Headquartered in Paris, ESA has a staff of more than 2,000. ESA’s space flight program includes human spaceflight, mainly through the participation in the International Space Station program, the launch and operations of unmanned exploration missions to other planets and the Moon, Earth observation, science, telecommunication as well as maintaining a major spaceport, the Guiana Space Centre at Kourou, French Guiana, and designing launch vehicles. ESA science missions are based at ESTEC in Noordwijk, Netherlands, Earth Observation missions at ESRIN in Frascati, Italy, ESA Mission Control (ESOC) is in Darmstadt, Germany, the European Astronaut Centre (EAC) that trains astronauts for future missions is situated in Cologne, Germany, and the European Space Astronomy Centre is located in Villanueva de la Cañada, Spain.

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  • richardmitnick 8:46 am on February 23, 2018 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: Drones in Geoscience Research: The Sky Is the Only Limit, Earth Sciences,   

    From Eos: “Drones in Geoscience Research: The Sky Is the Only Limit” All Drones Need Proper Control Legislation and Enforcement 

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    Eos news bloc


    All Drones Need Proper Control Legislation and Enforcement

    Christa Kelleher
    Christopher A. Scholz
    Laura Condon
    Marlowe Reardon

    A quadcopter is deployed to collect visual and thermal imagery along Onondaga Creek in Syracuse, N.Y. Credit: Syracuse University photo by Steve Sartori.

    In the digital age, our capabilities for monitoring Earth processes are dramatically increasing, offering new opportunities to observe Earth’s dynamic behavior in fields ranging from hydrology to volcanology to atmospheric sciences. The latest revolution for imaging and sampling Earth’s surface involves unmanned aircraft systems, also known as unmanned aerial vehicles, remotely piloted aircraft, or, colloquially, drones.

    Drones come in a variety of shapes, sizes, and platforms. These include several different designs (single rotors, multirotors, hybrids, and fixed-wing platforms) that can be used to carry many different types of payloads, including sensors, cameras, and sampling equipment. More important, drones are now applied toward a range of objectives for assessing dynamic processes in two, three, and four dimensions, revolutionizing our ability to rapidly collect high-quality observations across Earth’s surface.

    The geosciences community at large has taken to the skies, with a broad spectrum of researchers using an array of drone platforms and sensors or samplers in several unique and innovative applications. The codevelopment of drone technology alongside new sensor technology is paving the way for drones to be used as more than just Earth surface imagers. This opens a world of possibilities for Earth science research.

    Six Ways That Drones Transform Geoscience Research and Environmental Monitoring

    A review of the geosciences literature shows that drones are now actively applied toward several objectives and across many fields (Figure 1). The latest generation of drones is especially versatile because these drones can carry payloads of sensors and sampling equipment capable of collecting an impressive variety of images, physical samples, and synoptic measurements.

    Here are six ways that drones blaze new paths of observation:

    1. Drones characterize topography. In recent years, drones have increasingly assisted with the photogrammetry technique known as structure from motion (SfM), where 2-D images are transformed into 3-D topographic surfaces (Figure 2). This technique provides high-resolution topographic imagery, which can be used to augment existing topographic data as well as to identify microtopographic features like small water channels on the surface of a glacier.

    In a study by Rippin et al. [2015], SfM techniques used drone imagery to produce high-resolution digital elevation models over the lower reaches of a glacier in Svalbard. The team then used the models to identify minor channels that were altering the roughness of the ice surface. Because roughness alters energy exchange, the findings of this study have implications for understanding the energy balance of glaciers.

    SfM is relatively inexpensive compared with traditional survey methods such as lidar, and it can be used with off-the-shelf software available for imagery postprocessing and development to produce high-resolution digital elevation models (DEMs).

    Fig. 2. A 3-D model produced using SfM photogrammetry obtained at Chimney Bluffs State Park in New York. Note the badlands landscape produced by severe shoreline erosion of Pleistocene age drumlins. The inset shows an aerial view of this type of topography on the southern Lake Ontario shoreline at Chimney Bluffs State Park. Credit: Main imaget: P. Cattaneo, J. Corbett; Inset: C. Scholz

    2. Drones assess hazardous or inaccessible areas. Drones are particularly useful for acquiring imagery or measurements over locations that are hazardous or difficult to reach on foot. In one early example, McGonigle et al. [2008] acquired measurements of volcanic gases using a quadcopter outfitted with spectrometers and electrochemical sensors within the La Fossa crater (Vulcano, Italy). The study set the benchmark for quadcopter use in volcanology and its ability to measure carbon dioxide flux and enhance eruption forecasting.

    In another example, Brownlow et al. [2016] deployed octocopters to monitor methane (CH4) dynamics both above and below the trade wind inversion on Ascension Island in the South Atlantic Ocean, an ideal location for characterizing tropical background methane concentrations. The octocopters operated at high elevations, sampling methane at altitudes up to 2,700 meters above mean sea level. The researchers then used observed air chemistries to delineate chemical signatures that indicate sources of air masses at various altitudes. The study demonstrated ultimately that atmospheric monitoring via drones can reveal spatial complexities (e.g., the air column) that are often missed by sampling at the surface.

    In another innovative application, Ore et al. [2015] designed and deployed a quadcopter capable of collecting water samples from rivers and lakes. These researchers successfully applied their system, which can collect three 200-milliliter water samples under moderate wind conditions, during more than 90 different missions on lakes and waterways. Such efforts present an exciting path for monitoring environmental hazards or disasters such as oil spills, tracking waterborne diseases, and sampling remote locations.

    3. Drones image transient events. Drones are ideal for mapping nutrient blooms, sediment plumes (Figure 3), and floods, examples of ecosystem and landscape responses that may occur for only short periods of time. Spence and Mengistu [2016] demonstrated the use of drones to identify an intermittent stream network in the St. Denis National Wildlife Area in Saskatchewan, Canada.

    The authors also found that drone delineation of narrow intermittent streams consistently outperformed delineation with multispectral SPOT-5 satellite imagery (10-meter resolution). In fact, training SPOT-5 delineation on drone imagery did not improve classification accuracy, suggesting that high-resolution drone imagery may be one of the few tools capable of capturing continuous images of fluvial dynamics at relatively fine scales.

    4. Drones contextualize satellite and ground-based imagery. With the proliferation of satellite data products, comparisons between drone-collected data and satellite imagery offer a pathway for reconciling data collected at multiple spatial scales. This nested approach was used by Di Mauro et al. [2015] to examine how such impurities as mineral dust may alter snow radiative properties in the European Alps.

    They used a combination of snow sampling, red-green-blue imaging with quadcopter drones, and Landsat 8 imagery, producing local and regional maps that demonstrated the effects of snow impurities on snow albedo. These impurities directly affect snow surface energy exchanges at many spatial scales, so these researchers’ findings are useful for climate modeling as well as for mapping potential feedbacks between snow surfaces and energy exchange.

    5. Drone imagery validates computational models. Drone-collected data have also been used to constrain model inputs or to compare data to model simulations in many different fields across the geosciences. One growing application is the spatial modeling of stratigraphy (the sequencing of rock layers in a formation). Drones have the potential to revolutionize assessments of spatial patterns of Earth processes, as demonstrated by two recent studies.

    Nieminski and Graham [2017] describe modeling stratigraphic architecture to characterize difficult-to-access outcrops in the Miocene East Coast Basin in New Zealand. They demonstrate how 3-D SfM alongside 2-D visual imagery can enable interpretations useful for both research and the classroom (Figure 4).

    Drones are also commonly used to create model inputs. Vivoni et al. [2014] demonstrated that fine-scale data collected via drones may be particularly useful for generating distributed hydrologic models. The authors describe several different drone-derived data sets, including elevation models and maps of vegetation classification, at resolutions ranging from about a centimeter to a meter that were used as inputs to a spatially distributed watershed model. Such applications may be useful in places where inputs with resolutions finer than 10 meters are desired but may not yet exist.

    6. Drones make the world a better place. Beyond the research world, the drone revolution is spilling over into many everyday humanitarian and environmental applications around the globe. DroneSeed, a company based in Seattle, Wash., is using swarms of off-the-shelf drones to control invasive vegetation with herbicides. The company aims to use drones to identify microhabitat sites ideal for tree planting, deploying biodegradable seedpods, and protecting tree development by limiting invasive vegetation growth. They seek to replant large areas of rough terrain with a fraction of the manpower required to perform the same work on foot.

    Meanwhile, conservationists are protecting vulnerable, threatened, or endangered species using drones. For example, the nonprofit organization Leatherback Trust is tracking leatherback sea turtles via drones, enabling professionals to follow the turtles to locate and observe their nesting sites, rather than painstakingly identifying nests on foot.

    And even more uses abound. For instance, in the wake of recent hurricane disasters in the southern United States, drones were used in search and rescue operations as well as for infrastructure damage assessment [Moore, 2017].

    Notes on Regulations

    As drone use has evolved, so has the regulatory landscape.

    In the United States, regulations distinguish between recreational operations and operations that are commercial and professional in nature, including research efforts [Federal Aviation Administration, 2017]. These regulations specify the necessary training and certification for remote pilots, and they lay out conditions for safe operation.

    Regulations vary among countries and localities; thus, anyone planning to use unmanned aircraft in a research program must review the applicable rules and obtain the required permits and certifications during the project planning stages. Such due diligence should ensure legal and safe data collection.

    Rising to New Heights

    Drones are revolutionizing the research world, industry, and the environment at large. The technology has untold potential for modernizing approaches to time- and energy-intensive tasks while improving documentation and imagery, environmental conservation, and, ultimately, quality of life around the world. When it comes to drones in the geosciences and environment at large, the sky is the limit.

    This work was supported by an award from Gryphon Sensors, LLC; the Syracuse Center of Excellence; and the Center for Advanced Systems and Engineering at Syracuse University. Special thanks for supporting flights and image processing go to Jacqueline Corbett, Ian Joyce, and Peter Cattaneo.


    Brownlow, R., et al. (2016), Methane mole fraction and δ13C above and below the trade wind inversion at Ascension Island in air sampled by aerial robotics, Geophys. Res. Lett., 43(22), 11,893–11,902, https://dx.doi.org/10.1002/2016GL071155.

    Di Mauro, B., et al. (2015), Mineral dust impact on snow radiative properties in the European Alps combining ground, UAV, and satellite observations, J. Geophys. Res. Atmos., 120, 6,080–6,097, https://doi.org/10.1002/2015JD023287.

    Federal Aviation Administration (2017), Small unmanned aircraft systems, Advis. Circ. 107-2, 1 p., U.S. Dep. of Transp., Washington, D. C., https://www.faa.gov/uas/media/AC_107-2_AFS-1_Signed.pdf.

    McGonigle, A. J. S., et al. (2008), Unmanned aerial vehicle measurements of volcanic carbon dioxide fluxes, Geophys. Res. Lett., 35, L06303, https://doi.org/10.1029/2007GL032508.

    Moore, J. (2017), Drones deliver storm response, Aircraft Owners and Pilots Assoc., Frederick, Md., https://www.aopa.org/News-and-Media/All-News/2017/September/18/Drones-deliver-storm-response.

    Nieminski, N. M., and S. A. Graham (2017), Modeling stratigraphic architecture using small unmanned aerial vehicles and photogrammetry: Examples from the Miocene East Coast Basin, New Zealand, J. Sediment. Res., 87(2), 126–132, https://doi.org/10.2110/jsr.2017.5.

    Ore, J.-P., et al. (2015), Autonomous aerial water sampling, J. Field Robotics, 32, 1,095–1,113, https://doi.org/10.1002/rob.21591.

    Rippin, D. M., A. Pomfret, and N. King (2015), High resolution mapping of supra-glacial drainage pathways reveals link between micro-channel drainage density, surface roughness and surface reflectance, Earth Surf. Processes Landforms, 40(10), 1,279–1,290, https://doi.org/10.1002/esp.3719.

    Spence, C., and S. Mengistu (2016), Deployment of an unmanned aerial system to assist in mapping an intermittent stream, Hydrol. Processes, 30, 493–500, https://doi.org/10.1002/hyp.10597.

    Vivoni, E. R., et al. (2014), Ecohydrology with unmanned aerial vehicles, Ecosphere, 5(10), 130, https://doi.org/10.1890/ES14-00217.1.

    Author Information

    Christa Kelleher (email: ckellehe@syr.edu), Department of Earth Sciences and Department of Civil Engineering, Syracuse University, N.Y.;
    Christopher A. Scholz, Department of Earth Sciences, Syracuse University, N.Y.;
    Laura Condon, Department of Earth Sciences and Department of Civil Engineering, Syracuse University, N.Y.;
    Marlowe Reardon, Department of Television, Radio, and Film, Syracuse University, N.Y.

    See the full article here .

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    Eos is the leading source for trustworthy news and perspectives about the Earth and space sciences and their impact. Its namesake is Eos, the Greek goddess of the dawn, who represents the light shed on understanding our planet and its environment in space by the Earth and space sciences.

  • richardmitnick 7:16 pm on October 2, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , Earth Sciences, formamide - common in star-forming regions of space, , Natural nuclear reactor, One possible source of high energy particles on early Earth, Our universal solvent it turns out can be extremely corrosive, , The essential chemical backbones of early life-forming molecules fall apart in water   

    From Many Worlds: “Could High-Energy Radiation Have Played an Important Role in Getting Earth Ready For Life?” 

    NASA NExSS bloc


    Many Words icon

    Many Worlds

    Marc Kaufman

    The fossil remains of a natural nuclear reactor in Oklo, Gabon. It entered a fission state some 2 billion years ago, and so would not have been involved in any origin of life scenario. But is a proof of concept that these natural reactors have existed and some were widespread on earth Earth. It is but one possible source of high energy particles on early Earth. The yellow rock is uranium oxide. (Robert D. Loss, Curtin University, Australia)

    Life on early Earth seems to have begun with a paradox: while life needs water as a solvent, the essential chemical backbones of early life-forming molecules fall apart in water. Our universal solvent, it turns out, can be extremely corrosive.

    Some have pointed to this paradox as a sign that life, or the precursor of life, originated elsewhere and was delivered here via comets or meteorites. Others have looked for solvents that could have the necessary qualities of water without that bond-breaking corrosiveness.

    In recent years the solvent often put forward as the eligible alternative to water is formamide, a clear and moderately irritating liquid consisting of hydrogen, carbon, nitrogen and oxygen. Unlike water, it does not break down the long-chain molecules needed to form the nucleic acids and proteins that make up life’s key initial instruction manual, RNA. Meanwhile it also converts via other useful reactions into key compounds needed to make nucleic acids in the first place.

    Although formamide is common in star-forming regions of space, scientists have struggled to find pathways for it to be prevalent, or even locally concentrated, on early Earth. In fact, it is hardly present on Earth today except as a synthetic chemical for companies.

    New research presented by Zachary Adam, an earth scientist at Harvard University, and Masashi Aono, a complex systems scientist at Earth-Life Science Institute (ELSI) at Tokyo Institute of Technology, has produced formamide by way of a surprising and reproducible pathway: bombardment with radioactive particles.

    In a room fitted for cobalt-60 testing on the campus of the Tokyo Institute of Technology, a team of researchers gather around the (still covered) cobalt-60 and vials of the chemicals they were testing. The ELSI scientists are (from left) Masashi Aono, James Cleaves, Zachary Adam and Riquin Yi. (Isao Yoda)

    The two and their colleagues exposed a mixture of two chemicals known to have existed on early Earth (hydrogen cyanide and aqueous acetonitrile) to the high-energy particles emitted from a cylinder of cobalt-60, an artificially produced radioactive isotope commonly used in cancer therapy. The result, they report, was the production of substantial amounts of formamide more quickly than earlier attempts by researchers using theoretical models and in laboratory settings.

    It remains unclear whether early Earth had enough radioactive material in the right places to produce the chemical reactions that led to the formation of formamide. And even if the conditions were right, scientists cannot yet conclude that formamide played an important role in the origin of life.

    Still, the new research furthers the evidence of the possible role of alternative solvents and presents a differing picture of the basis of life. Furthermore, it is suggestive of processes that might be at work on other exoplanets as well – where solvents other than water could, with energy supplied by radioactive sources, provide the necessary setting for simple compounds to be transformed into far more complex building blocks.

    “Imagine that water-based life was preceded by completely unique networks of interacting molecules that approximated, but were distinct from and followed different chemical rules, than life as we know it,” said Adam.

    Their work was presented at recent gatherings of the International Society for the Study of the Origin of Life, and the Astrobiology Science Conference.

    The team of Adam and Aono are hardly the first to put forward the formamide hypothesis as a solution to the water paradox, and they are also not the first to posit a role for high-energy, radioactive particles in the origin of life.

    An Italian team led by Rafaelle Saladino of Tuscia University recently proposed formamide as a chemical that would supply necessary elements for life and would avoid the ‘water paradox.’ Since the time that Marie Curie described the phenomenon of radioactivity, scientists have proposed innumerable ways that the emission of particle-shedding atomic nuclei might have played roles, either large or small, in initiating life on Earth.

    Merging the science of formamide and radioactivity, as Adam and Aono have done, is a potentially significant step forward, though one that needs deeper study.

    “If we have formamide as a solvent, those precursor molecules can be kept stable, a kind of cradle to preserve very interesting products,” said Aono, who has moved to Tokyo-based Keio University while remaining a fellow at ELSI.

    Aono and technician Isao Yoda in the radiation room with the cobalt-60 safely tucked away. (Nerissa Escanlar.)

    The experiment with cobalt-60 did not begin as a search for a way to concentrate the production of formamide. Rather, Adam was looking more generally into the effects of gamma rays on a variety of molecules and solvents, while Aono was exploring radioactive sources for a role in the origin of life.

    The two came together somewhat serendipitously at ELSI, an origins-of-life research center created by the Japanese government. ELSI was designed to be a place for scientists from around the world and from many different disciplines to tackle some of the notoriously difficult issues in origins of life research. At ELSI, Adam, who had been unable to secure sites to conduct laboratory tests in the United States, learned from Aono about a sparingly-used (and free) cobalt-60 lab; they promptly began collaborating.

    It is well known that the early Earth was bombarded by high-energy cosmic particles and gamma rays. So is the fact that numerous elements (aluminum-26, iron-60, iodine-129) have existed as radioactive isotopes that can emit radiation for minutes to millennium, and that these isotopes were more common on early Earth than today. Indeed, the three listed above are now extinct on Earth, or nearly extinct, in their natural forms

    Less known is the presence of “natural nuclear reactors” as sites where a high concentration of uranium in the presence of water has led to self-sustaining nuclear fission. Only one such spot has been found —in the Oklo region of the African nation of Gabon — where spent radioactive material was identified at 16 sites separate sites. Scientists ultimately concluded widespread natural nuclear reactions occurred in the region some 2 billion years ago.

    That time frame would mean that the site would have been active well after life had begun on Earth, but it is a potential proof of concept of what could have existed elsewhere long before

    Adam and Aono remain agnostic about where the formamide-producing radioactive particles came from. But they are convinced that it is entirely possible that such reactions took place and helped produce an environment where each of the backbone precursors of RNA could readily be found in close quarters.

    Current scientific thinking about how formamide appeared on Earth focuses on limited arrival via asteroid impacts or through the concentration of the chemical in evaporated water-formamide mixtures in desert-like conditions. Adam acknowledges that the prevailing scientific consensus points to low amounts of formamide on early Earth.

    “We are not trying to argue to the contrary,” he said, “but we are trying to say that it may not matter.”

    If you have a unique place (or places) on the Earth creating significant amounts of formamide over a long period of time through radiolysis, then an opportunity exists for the onset of some unique chemistry that can support the production of essential precursor compounds for life, Adam said.

    “So, the argument then shifts to— how likely was it that this unique place existed? We only need one special location on the entire planet to meet these circumstances,” he said.

    Zachary Adam, an earth scientist in the lab of Andrew Knoll at Harvard University. (Nerissa Escanlar)

    After that, the system set into motion would have the ability to bring together the chemical building blocks of life.

    “That’s the possibility that we look forward to investigating in the coming years,” Adam said.

    James Cleaves, an organic chemist also at ELSI and a co-author of the cobalt-60 paper, said while production of formamide from much simpler compounds represents progress, “there are no silver bullets in origin of life work. We collect facts like these, and then see where they lead.”

    Another member of the cobalt-60 team is Albert Fahrenbach, a former postdoc in the lab of Harvard University’s Nobel laureate Jack Szostak and now an associate principal investigator at ELSI.

    An organic geochemist, Fahrenbach was a late-comer to the project, brought in because Cleaves thought the project could use his expertise.

    “Connecting the origins of life, or precursors chemicals, with radiolysis (or radioactivty) was an active field back in the 70s and 80s,” he said. “Then it pretty much died out and went out of fashion.”

    Fahrenbach said he remains uncertain about any possible role for radiolysis in the origin of life story. But the experiment did intrigue him greatly, it led him to experiment with some of the chemicals formed by the gamma ray blasts, and he says the results have been productive.

    “Without this experiment, I would definitely not be going down some very interesting paths,” he said

    See the full article here .

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    About Many Worlds

    There are many worlds out there waiting to fire your imagination.

    Marc Kaufman is an experienced journalist, having spent three decades at The Washington Post and The Philadelphia Inquirer, and is the author of two books on searching for life and planetary habitability. While the “Many Worlds” column is supported by the Lunar Planetary Institute/USRA and informed by NASA’s NExSS initiative, any opinions expressed are the author’s alone.

    This site is for everyone interested in the burgeoning field of exoplanet detection and research, from the general public to scientists in the field. It will present columns, news stories and in-depth features, as well as the work of guest writers.

    About NExSS

    The Nexus for Exoplanet System Science (NExSS) is a NASA research coordination network dedicated to the study of planetary habitability. The goals of NExSS are to investigate the diversity of exoplanets and to learn how their history, geology, and climate interact to create the conditions for life. NExSS investigators also strive to put planets into an architectural context — as solar systems built over the eons through dynamical processes and sculpted by stars. Based on our understanding of our own solar system and habitable planet Earth, researchers in the network aim to identify where habitable niches are most likely to occur, which planets are most likely to be habitable. Leveraging current NASA investments in research and missions, NExSS will accelerate the discovery and characterization of other potentially life-bearing worlds in the galaxy, using a systems science approach.
    The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is the agency of the United States government that is responsible for the nation’s civilian space program and for aeronautics and aerospace research.

    President Dwight D. Eisenhower established the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in 1958 with a distinctly civilian (rather than military) orientation encouraging peaceful applications in space science. The National Aeronautics and Space Act was passed on July 29, 1958, disestablishing NASA’s predecessor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA). The new agency became operational on October 1, 1958.

    Since that time, most U.S. space exploration efforts have been led by NASA, including the Apollo moon-landing missions, the Skylab space station, and later the Space Shuttle. Currently, NASA is supporting the International Space Station and is overseeing the development of the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle and Commercial Crew vehicles. The agency is also responsible for the Launch Services Program (LSP) which provides oversight of launch operations and countdown management for unmanned NASA launches. Most recently, NASA announced a new Space Launch System that it said would take the agency’s astronauts farther into space than ever before and lay the cornerstone for future human space exploration efforts by the U.S.

    NASA science is focused on better understanding Earth through the Earth Observing System, advancing heliophysics through the efforts of the Science Mission Directorate’s Heliophysics Research Program, exploring bodies throughout the Solar System with advanced robotic missions such as New Horizons, and researching astrophysics topics, such as the Big Bang, through the Great Observatories [Hubble, Chandra, Spitzer, and associated programs. NASA shares data with various national and international organizations such as from the [JAXA]Greenhouse Gases Observing Satellite.

  • richardmitnick 11:07 am on March 25, 2016 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , Earth Sciences,   

    From Rice: “New tool probes deep into minerals and more” 

    Rice U bloc

    Rice University

    March 25, 2016
    David Ruth

    Mike Williams

    Rice University geologist Gelu Costin monitors an experiment at the Electron Probe MicroAnalyzer. (Credit: Jeff Fitlow/Rice University)

    Rice University installs sophisticated microprobe for fine analysis of metals, minerals

    Rice Earth scientists have many ways to see deep into the planet, from drilling to seismic models to simulations, and now they have a way to see deep into what comes from the depths.

    The Department of Earth Science brought a powerful new instrument online earlier this year that lets researchers view the fine structures and composition of inorganic samples. The tool has also been of use to local industries and other academic institutions.

    The field emission Electron Probe MicroAnalyzer combines the abilities of an electron microscope and sophisticated spectrometers. Installed at Keith-Wiess Geological Laboratories, it allows for the precise quantitative chemical analysis of samples for almost all of the elements on the periodic table, from beryllium to uranium. New spectroscopic capabilities will allow for the identification of very light elements like lithium in the near future, but analyses are already underway for nitrogen and carbon in crystals and glasses.

    Installation of the new microprobe, a state-of-the-art JEOL JXA 8530F Hyperprobe, drew geologist Gelu Costin to Rice last year.

    EOL JXA 8530F Hyperprobe

    Costin joined the department as a staff scientist to manage the scope, which he said is the only one of its kind at a university in the southwest United States.

    “This is a new invention, field emission on a microprobe,” Costin said.

    The instrument bombards samples of rock or other inorganic materials with electrons focused into a tight beam by a series of electromagnetic lenses. The beam interacts with the sample to reveal nanoscale compositional patterns as small as hundreds of nanometers, while allowing the spectrometers to quantify the object’s constituent elements.

    The probe is fitted with four spectrometers to analyze elements that respond to different wavelengths and an energy-dispersive X-ray spectrometer, all of which work in a high-vacuum environment to image and provide fine analysis of samples. Soon the instrument will be fitted with a fifth spectrometer that will allow quantification of trace elements as well.

    “There are not many analytical techniques that allow major- and minor-element chemistry determination down to micron and submicron scales,” said geologist Rajdeep Dasgupta, a Rice professor of Earth sciences whose experimental petrology lab simulates pressures deep in the planet to produce samples of what might be found there. “This new generation of electron microprobe gives the type of spatial resolution required to characterize some of the high-pressure experiments.

    “We can now determine many minor elements, all the major elements and even some of the trace elements in solid phases and quenched glasses from high-pressure experiments,” he said.

    Dasgupta said the instrument expands the range of research the university’s Earth scientists can take on. “In my group we perform experiments to figure out the behavior of minerals and rocks at extreme pressures and how they exchange elements between different phases,” he said. In the past, researchers would take samples to microprobes at Texas A&M and NASA’s Johnson Space Center to analyze them.

    “We weren’t able to tackle projects that required us to do an experiment and analyze it in detail before designing the next step,” he said. “It wasn’t practically feasible to go to another institution to get one sample analyzed. Now we’re taking on more challenging projects, and we are pushing the analytical capabilities.”

    The microprobe is open to all Rice researchers as well as clients from industry and other academic institutions, Costin said. “We’ve already had a few users from outside geology,” he said. “People are coming over from chemistry to study the quality of nanometer-thin silver films deposited on graphite. With our machine, they can easily check the consistency of its thickness because we know that if the composition changes on the surface, the thickness changes as well.

    “People from metallurgy companies around Houston have used our facility to check the microtextures and composition of micron-scaled phases in metallurgical slugs,” he said. “And people working in the repair and testing of metallic tools in the Houston area have come to check the composition of fillings inside microcracks produced during welding. We are open to all varieties of microprobe applications, from geology to planetary, chemistry, material science and more.”

    The Electron Probe MicroAnalyzer uses spectrometers to quantify elements in rocks or other inorganic samples. These wavelength dispersive spectrometry quantitative maps show the distribution of elements in metallurgical slag. Clockwise from top left: a backscattered electron image that shows differences in average atomic weight of the phases, and atomic weight maps of aluminum, carbon and oxygen. Courtesy of the EPMA Laboratory. (Credit: EMPA Laboratory/Rice University)

    A magnetite sample magnified 5,500 times shows fine details that are invisible to the naked eye but can be clearly captured by the new Electron Probe MicroAnalyzer at Rice University. (Credit: EMPA Laboratory/Rice University)

    See the full article here .

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    Rice U campus

    In his 1912 inaugural address, Rice University president Edgar Odell Lovett set forth an ambitious vision for a great research university in Houston, Texas; one dedicated to excellence across the range of human endeavor. With this bold beginning in mind, and with Rice’s centennial approaching, it is time to ask again what we aspire to in a dynamic and shrinking world in which education and the production of knowledge will play an even greater role. What shall our vision be for Rice as we prepare for its second century, and how ought we to advance over the next decade?

    This was the fundamental question posed in the Call to Conversation, a document released to the Rice community in summer 2005. The Call to Conversation asked us to reexamine many aspects of our enterprise, from our fundamental mission and aspirations to the manner in which we define and achieve excellence. It identified the pressures of a constantly changing and increasingly competitive landscape; it asked us to assess honestly Rice’s comparative strengths and weaknesses; and it called on us to define strategic priorities for the future, an effort that will be a focus of the next phase of this process.

  • richardmitnick 1:58 pm on March 22, 2016 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , Earth Sciences,   

    From U Arizona: “How the Largest Lab Experiment in Earth Sciences Was Built” 

    U Arizona bloc

    University of Arizona

    March 21, 2016
    Robin Tricoles

    Designing and building three massive hill slopes, known as LEO, was no ordinary undertaking for the UA’s Biosphere 2.

    Perhaps it’s the hundreds of overhead windows that emulsify the incoming desert light. Or perhaps it’s the color of the steel housing — praying mantis green — that gives the surrounding space its otherworldly glow.

    Perhaps, but this is no ordinary space. This is the University of Arizona’s Biosphere 2, home to three identical, massive hill slopes each contained within a green steel structure. The three slopes are collectively known as the Landscape Evolution Observatory, or LEO, the world’s largest laboratory experiment in the earth sciences.

    University of Arizona’s Biosphere 2
    University of Arizona’s Biosphere 2

    Designing and building such a laboratory experiment was no ordinary undertaking. Just ask structural engineer Allan Ortega-Gutiérrez, who was instrumental in the structural design and construction phases of LEO.

    “It’s interesting to work on a project like this because it breaks some of the rules that as a structural engineer I do every day,” says Ortega-Gutiérrez, a UA alumnus. “LEO is one of those things that becomes a marriage between science and engineering.”

    Each of LEO’s hill slopes is 30 meters long and 11 meters wide, with an average slope of 10 degrees. Each slope is a 65-ton steel tray filled with 1 meter of crushed basalt rock. The tray holds more than 500 tons of the rock.

    Starting off with the basalt in its initial state, scientists are observing each step of the landscapes’ evolution from the purely mineral and abiotic to living landscapes that will support microbial communities and vascular plants.

    Standing at the base of one of the basalt-filled slopes, Ortega-Gutiérrez points to the ground, noting that he is standing on a concrete-reinforced slab with steel rebar tucked inside. Years ago, the slab supported 4 feet of soil where the Biospherians — four men and four women who took up residence for two years inside Biosphere 2 — grew their own food and crops.

    Ortega-Gutiérrez says one of the biggest challenges he faced was building everything inside the original growing space without changing anything.

    “We had to fit everything through the 10-by-12-foot door on the west side of the building,” he says. “It was a great coordination between the construction team and the engineering team to make sure the size of the pieces could fit.”

    Beneath the slab now resides “a basement full of mechanical equipment that helps LEO breathe,” he says. That equipment not only brings air to LEO but recycles and purifies LEO’s water supply. LEO is equipped with a sprinkler system designed by Ortega-Gutiérrez and his colleagues at M3 Engineering and Technology.

    LEO’s three giant hill slopes rest on load cells — electronic circuits that measure changes in the weight of the slope’s contents depending on how much water is added, runs off or leaves through evaporation or transpiration.

    In addition, each slope is equipped with 1,800 sensors and sampling devices residing within or above each landscape. The sensors monitor variables such as carbon and energy cycling processes, and the physical and chemical evolution of the landscape.

    Access the mp4 video here .

    Construction was finished in late 2012 — early and under budget. Now experiments are underway, and scientists are taking data and analyzing their findings.

    Ortega-Gutiérrez gazes at one of the slope’s load cells. He says he was thrilled to put his designs for LEO down on paper and also to come “see it growing every week” while it was under construction.

    “It’s like having a baby — you see that baby growing and you get to appreciate the progress,” he says.

    “I think this is a great opportunity not only for Tucson, not only for Arizona, not only for the U.S., but I think it’s also a great opportunity for humankind to understand what nature is, how it works, how to keep it clean, how to work with nature, and how to be better earthlings.”

    See the full article here .

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    U Arizona campus

    The University of Arizona (UA) is a place without limits-where teaching, research, service and innovation merge to improve lives in Arizona and beyond. We aren’t afraid to ask big questions, and find even better answers.

    In 1885, establishing Arizona’s first university in the middle of the Sonoran Desert was a bold move. But our founders were fearless, and we have never lost that spirit. To this day, we’re revolutionizing the fields of space sciences, optics, biosciences, medicine, arts and humanities, business, technology transfer and many others. Since it was founded, the UA has grown to cover more than 380 acres in central Tucson, a rich breeding ground for discovery.

    Where else in the world can you find an astronomical observatory mirror lab under a football stadium? An entire ecosystem under a glass dome? Visit our campus, just once, and you’ll quickly understand why the UA is a university unlike any other.

  • richardmitnick 12:00 pm on August 26, 2015 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , Earth Sciences,   

    From The Conversation: “Setting aside half the Earth for ‘rewilding’: the ethical dimension” 

    The Conversation

    August 26, 2015
    William Lynn

    Wildlife corridors: four proposals to ‘rewild’ portions of North America. Smithsonian Institute, CC BY-NC

    A much-anticipated book in conservation and natural science circles is EO Wilson’s Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life, which is due early next year. It builds on his proposal to set aside half the Earth for the preservation of biodiversity.

    The famous biologist and naturalist would do this by establishing huge biodiversity parks to protect, restore and connect habitats at a continental scale. Local people would be integrated into these parks as environmental educators, managers and rangers – a model drawn from existing large-scale conservation projects such as Area de Conservación Guanacaste (ACG) in northwestern Costa Rica.

    The backdrop for this discussion is that we are in the sixth great extinction event in earth’s history. More species are being lost today than at any time since the end of the dinosaurs. There is no mystery as to why this is happening: it is a direct result of human depredations, habitat destruction, overpopulation, resource depletion, urban sprawl and climate change.

    Wilson is one of the world’s premier natural scientists – an expert on ants, the father of island biogeography, apostle of the notion that humans share a bond with other species (biophilia) and a herald about the danger posed by extinction. On these and other matters he is also an eloquent writer, having written numerous books on biodiversity, science, and society. So when Wilson started to talk about half-Earth several years ago, people started to listen.

    As a scholar of ethics and public policy with an interest in animals and the environment, I have been following the discussion of half-Earth for some time. I like the idea and think it is feasible. Yet it suffers from a major blind spot: a human-centric view on the value of life. Wilson’s entry into this debate, and his seeming evolution on matters of ethics, is an invitation to explore how people ought to live with each other, other animals and the natural world, particularly if vast tracts are set aside for wildlife.

    The ethics of Wilson’s volte-face

    I heard Wilson speak for the first time in Washington, DC in the early 2000s. At that talk, Wilson was resigned to the inevitable loss of much of the world’s biodiversity. So he advocated a global biodiversity survey that would sample and store the world’s biotic heritage. In this way, we might still benefit from biodiversity’s genetic information in terms of biomedical research, and perhaps, someday, revive an extinct species or two.

    Not a bad idea in and of itself. Still, it was a drearily fatalistic speech, and one entirely devoid of any sense of moral responsibility to the world of nonhuman animals and nature.

    What is striking about Wilson’s argument for half-Earth is not the apparent about-face from cataloging biodiversity to restoring it. It is the moral dimension he attaches to it. In several interviews, he references the need for humanity to develop an ethic that cares about planetary life, and does not place the wants and needs of a single species (Homo sapiens sapiens) above the well-being of all other species.

    The half-Earth proposal prompts people to consider the role of humans in nature. jene/flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

    To my ear, this sounds great, but I am not exactly sure how far it goes. In the past, Wilson’s discussions of conservation ethics appear to me clearly anthropocentric. They espouse the notion that we are exceptional creatures at the apex of evolution, the sole species that has intrinsic value in and of ourselves, and thus we are to be privileged above all other species.

    In this view, we care about nature and biodiversity only because we care about ourselves. Nature is useful for us in the sense of resources and ecological services, but it has no value in and of itself. In ethics talk, people have intrinsic value while nature’s only value is what it can do for people – extrinsic value.

    For example, in his 1993 book The Biophilia Hypothesis, Wilson argues for “the necessity of a robust and richly textured anthropocentric ethics apart from the issues of rights [for other animals or ecosystems] – one based on the hereditary needs of our own species. In addition to the well-documented utilitarian potential of wild species, the diversity of life has immense aesthetic and spiritual value.”

    The passage indicates Wilson’s long-held view that biodiversity is important because of what it does for humanity, including the resources, beauty and spirituality people find in nature. It sidesteps questions of whether animals and the rest of nature have intrinsic value apart from human use.

    His evolving position, as reflected in the half-Earth proposal, seems much more in tune with what ethicist call non-anthropocentrism – that humanity is simply one marvelous but no more special outcome of evolution; that other beings, species and/or ecosystems also have intrinsic value; and that there is no reason to automatically privilege us over the rest of life.

    Consider this recent statement by Wilson:

    What kind of a species are we that we treat the rest of life so cheaply? There are those who think that’s the destiny of Earth: we arrived, we’re humanizing the Earth, and it will be the destiny of Earth for us to wipe humans out and most of the rest of biodiversity. But I think the great majority of thoughtful people consider that a morally wrong position to take, and a very dangerous one.

    The non-anthropocentric view does not deny that biodiversity and nature provide material, aesthetic and spiritual “resources.” Rather, it holds there is something more – that the community of life has value independent of the resources it provides humanity. Non-anthropocentric ethics requires, therefore, a more caring approach to people’s impact on the planet. Whether Wilson is really leaving anthropocentrism behind, time will tell. But for my part, I at least welcome his opening up possibilities to discuss less prejudicial views of animals and the rest of nature.

    The 50% solution

    It is interesting to note that half-Earth is not a new idea. In North America, the half-Earth concept first arose in the 1990s as a discussion about wilderness in the deep ecology movement. Various nonprofits that arose out of that movement continued to develop the idea, in particular the Wildlands Network, the Rewilding Institute and the Wild Foundation.

    These organizations use a mix of conservation science, education and public policy initiatives to promote protecting and restoring continental-scale habitats and corridors, all with an eye to preserving the native flora and fauna of North America. One example is ongoing work to connect the Yellowstone to Yukon ecosystems along the spine of the Rocky Mountains.

    Take it up a notch? The British Columbia Ministry of Transportation recently started to add signs warning motorists when they are likely to encounter wildlife. British Columbia Ministry of Transportation, CC BY-NC-ND

    When I was a graduate student, the term half-Earth had not yet been used, but the idea was in the air. My classmates and I referred to it as the “50% solution.” We chose this term because of the work of Reed Noss and Allen Cooperrider’s 1994 book, Savings Nature’s Legacy. Amongst other things, the book documents that, depending on the species and ecosystems in question, approximately 30% to 70% of the original habitats of the Earth would be necessary to sustain our planet’s biodiversity. So splitting the difference, we discussed the 50% solution to describe this need.

    This leads directly into my third point. The engagement of Wilson and others with the idea of half-Earth and rewilding presupposes but does not fully articulate the need for an urban vision, one where cities are ecological, sustainable and resilient. Indeed, Wilson has yet to spell out what we do with the people and infrastructure that are not devoted to maintaining and teaching about his proposed biodiversity parks. This is not a criticism, but an urgent question for ongoing and creative thinking.

    Humans are urbanizing like never before. Today, the majority of people live in cities, and by the end of the 21st century, over 90% of people will live in a metropolitan area. If we are to meet the compelling needs of human beings, we have to remake cities into sustainable and resilient “humanitats” that produce a good life.

    Such a good life is not to be measured in simple gross domestic product or consumption, but rather in well-being – freedom, true equality, housing, health, education, recreation, meaningful work, community, sustainable energy, urban farming, green infrastructure, open space in the form of parks and refuges, contact with companion and wild animals, and a culture that values and respects the natural world.

    To do all this in the context of saving half the Earth for its own sake is a tall order. Yet it is a challenge that we are up to if we have the will and ethical vision to value and coexist in a more-than-human world.

    See the full article here.

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    The Conversation US launched as a pilot project in October 2014. It is an independent source of news and views from the academic and research community, delivered direct to the public.
    Our team of professional editors work with university and research institute experts to unlock their knowledge for use by the wider public.
    Access to independent, high quality, authenticated, explanatory journalism underpins a functioning democracy. Our aim is to promote better understanding of current affairs and complex issues. And hopefully allow for a better quality of public discourse and conversation.

  • richardmitnick 7:27 am on August 21, 2015 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: 1.5 billion year old water, , , Earth Sciences, ,   

    From New Scientist: “Watery time capsule hints at how life got started on early Earth” 


    New Scientist

    20 August 2015
    Colin Barras

    The chemical reactions around hydrothermal vents at the bottom of ancient seas could have kick-started life (Image: Dr Bob Embley/NOAA PMEL)

    It has all the ingredients of a primordial soup. What’s more, the chemicals of life – discovered in a pocket of water that last saw the light of day 1.5 billion years ago – appear to have formed without any influence from biological processes.

    That means the idea that life got started as a result of chemical reactions around deep-sea vents looks more likely.

    Barbara Sherwood Lollar at the University of Toronto in Ontario, Canada, and her team discovered the water a few years ago oozing from rocky fractures 2 kilometres below the surface at the Kidd mine near Timmins in Ontario. The water, which is about 1.5 billion years old, appears to show no signs of life – an extremely rare find .

    The rocks are the ancient remains of hydrothermal vents formed at the bottom of Earth’s early oceans, and that means the water they contain could reveal important details about the chemistry that might have occurred at such vents before life began exerting its influence.

    Hot, chemical-laced water gushes out of deep-sea hydrothermal vents – conditions that in theory would be ideal for the origin of life.

    But it is a difficult idea to test. “The chemistry is often heavily overprinted by life,” Sherwood Lollar says.

    Her team has previously found a wealth of complex organic molecules in the water.

    Now her colleague, Christopher Glein, has performed a raft of calculations to show that all of those molecules could have formed through perfectly feasible abiotic chemical reactions in the conditions found in such ancient hydrothermal vents.

    His calculations show the conditions were particularly favourable for the formation of some key chemicals, including glyceraldehyde, one of the precursors of RNA and DNA, and pyruvate, which is important for cell metabolism.

    Traditionally, biochemists have considered these molecules to be relatively hard to generate abiotically, says Glein who presented his findings at the Goldschmidt conference in Prague this week. “But that’s assuming they are being synthesised under familiar conditions at Earth’s surface,” he says.

    Conditions are very different in the ancient hydrothermal vents, they found. The water there has reacted with the rock through a process called serpentinisation to create an environment poor in oxygen but rich in hydrogen, iron and sulphur. Combined with temperatures of about 100 °C – also found there – many complex organic compounds can easily form.

    Sample of serpentinite from the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, California, USA

    William Martin at the University of Düsseldorf, Germany, says hydrothermal vents would have allowed for even more complex things to form. “I say that hydrocarbon synthesis at serpentinising systems is enough to make even the first membranes,” he says.

    Glein emphasises that the water pockets in Kidd mine, while ancient, are not as old as life on Earth itself.

    “We’re not claiming that Kidd actually contains the original prebiotic soup, or a second origin of life,” he says – but it’s a useful system for understanding the kind of hydrothermal chemistry that might have helped kick-start life about 4 billion years ago. “While not the first brand of prebiotic soup, it’s a variety that can potentially provide new clues about the origin of life.”

    See the full article here.

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  • richardmitnick 7:57 am on March 16, 2015 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , Earth Sciences   

    From AAAS: “Alaska’s ponds are disappearing” 



    13 March 2015
    Carolyn Gramling

    Image courtesy of Christian Andresen/UTEP

    Thousands of ponds are scattered like mirrors across Alaska’s coastal plain, providing nesting and feeding grounds for waterfowl. The bodies of water, each less than a hectare in area, fill depressions in the hummocky tundra landscape with meltwater from thawing permafrost. How the surface hydrology of Arctic permafrost regions—a key part of the Arctic carbon cycle—will transform in a changing climate isn’t well understood, but tundra ponds may be a powerful guide, because they are closely tied to changes in precipitation and temperature, scientists report in a study published online before print in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Biogeosciences.

    To gauge how the ponds have changed in the past 65 years, the researchers put high-resolution aerial photos taken across Alaska’s Barrow Peninsula in 1948 (at left) side-by-side with modern satellite images from 2002, 2008, and 2010 (at right). They also used pond data collected during the International Biological Program in the 1970s, including areal extent estimates, water depths, and pond depths, and compared those with field data collected from 2011 to 2013. In all, they found, the number of ponds had shrunk by at least 17% since 1948 and had overall shrunk in size by about 30%. Several factors influenced the change—as temperatures rise, evaporation increases, and rainfall isn’t keeping pace. But warmer temperatures, longer growing seasons, and thawing permafrost (which supplies nutrients) are also promoting the growth of aquatic plants in the ponds, shrinking the size of the basins.

    See the full article here.

    The American Association for the Advancement of Science is an international non-profit organization dedicated to advancing science for the benefit of all people.

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  • richardmitnick 9:08 pm on January 2, 2015 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , Earth Sciences, ,   

    From NASA Earth: “The Forests of Mulanje” 

    NASA Earth Observatory

    NASA Earth Observatory

    In southern Malawi, near the border with Mozambique, the land rises sharply into a multi-lobed plateau that towers about 1,400 meters (4,600 feet) above the landscape. The feature, an inselberg known as Mulanje massif, is the highest point in south-central Africa.

    Mulanje massif

    Mount Mulanje

    Location of Mount Mulanje in Malawi

    The rock that makes up Mulanje formed some 130 million years ago, when underground magma slowly cooled into vast lobes of granite and syenite. Over time, tectonic forces pushed these erosion-resistant rocks upward. As softer rock above and around the granite and syenite eroded away, Mulanje was left behind. Today, about twenty rocky peaks are found on the plateau.

    The Operational Land Imager (OLI) on Landsat 8 captured [the above] natural-color image of Mulanje on October 10, 2014. Since the image was acquired during the dry season, browns and reds dominate the lower-elevation areas surrounding the plateau. Dry grassland, shrubland, and farmland appears tan; it normally greens up during the wet season. Areas with exposed soil have a red-orange hue. The bright green areas south and west of Mulanje are tea and macadamia farms.

    While the lowlands get most of their rain during the wet season, the plateau sees rain year round. Vegetation type varies with elevation. Mulanje’s lower slopes are mainly miombo woodlands. The mid-elevation and upper slopes, as well as many of the ravines, are home to afromontane forests, which have a darker green color. A few scattered groves of endangered Mulanje cypress (Widdringtonia whytei)—Malawi’s national tree—survive in certain valleys. Tussock grasslands and heath dominate the highest-elevation parts of the plateau. Large outcrops of exposed rock appear gray.

    Although conservation groups have attempted to protect Mulanje’s forests, satellite observations show that deforestation has chewed away at the perimeter of many of them over the last decade. The lowlands surrounding Mulanje are densely populated, and people regularly harvest wood for cooking and heating, explained Joy Hecht, an environmental economist and consultant.

    A wildfire is visible on the plateau in the Landsat image. “Fires are frequent and a bad sign, often set by illegal loggers,” said Hecht, who has conducted field research on Mulanje. “The mountain top is a protected forest, and there would not be prescribed burns there.” Other common causes of wildfires on Mulanje include hunting, charcoal production, escaped campfires, and arson.

    See the full article here.

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    The Earth Observatory’s mission is to share with the public the images, stories, and discoveries about climate and the environment that emerge from NASA research, including its satellite missions, in-the-field research, and climate models. The Earth Observatory staff is supported by the Climate and Radiation Laboratory, and the Hydrospheric and Biospheric Sciences Laboratory located at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.

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