Scientists construct massive fake sun to develop new renewable energy source


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“Synlight,” the world’s largest artificial sun, was created by scientists to develop new ways to create hydrogen fuel. (Bruno Amaru/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | March 24, 2017

Scientists in Germany have constructed the world’s largest artificial sun in order research how to produce a developing renewable energy source.

Hydrogen is regarded as the renewable fuel of the future, mostly because it does not produce greenhouse gas emissions when burned. However, the gas isn’t found alone in the nature so scientists must split the molecules that make up water (H2O) in order to harness its power. Separating H20 molecules requires a great deal of energy; the German scientists hope to learn how to get that energy from sunlight.

The artificial sun, called “Synlight,” is comprised of 149 high-powered film projector spotlights and is able to generate 350 kilowatts. Bernard Hoffschmidt is research director at the German Aerospace Center, Synlight’s home. Hoffschmidt told the Guardian, “If you went in the room when it was switched on, you’d burn directly.”

The researchers will point all of the artificial sun’s energy at a single 8 by 8 inch spot where it will emit 10,000 times the amount of light that reaches Earth naturally from the sun. Using these strong rays, the scientists will be able to experiment with new ways of creating hydrogen fuel using energy from the sun.

In the short term, Synlight uses an incredible amount of energy: four hours of operation is equivalent to how much electricity a family of four would use in a year. Long term, the researchers anticipate it could help them learn how to use naturally occurring sunlight to produce hydrogen fuel without the use of any fossil fuels.

Hoffschmidt said, “We’d need billions of tons of hydrogen if we wanted to drive airplanes and cars on CO2-free fuel. Climate change is speeding up so we need to speed up innovation.”

Extreme weather reaches ‘uncharted territory’


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Hurricane Matthew is just one example of the climate change-related extreme weather events that have taken place in 2017. (NASA Goddard Space Flight Center/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | March 23, 2017

Last year was a record-breaking year for climate change and not in a good way. Global temperatures set record highs for the third consecutive year and sea ice coverage worldwide shrunk by 4,000,000 square kilometers, that’s about the size of the European Union.

These extraordinary climate conditions led to extreme weather events all around the world. Among them, Hurricane Matthew in the Caribbean, the first category four storm to reach land since in 1963 and severe droughts in southern and eastern Africa. A recent report from the United Nations World Meteorological Organization found that extreme weather has carried over into 2017.

So far this winter, severe storms in the Atlantic Ocean have caused Arctic “heat waves” so that while ice cover in the region should be refreezing, many days it was close to melting. North Africa and the Arabian peninsula have seen colder than usual winter temperatures while parts of Canada and the U.S. have been much warmer than is typical.

David Carlson is the World Climate Research program director. He said, “Even without a strong El Niño in 2017, we are seeing other remarkable changes across the planet that are challenging the limits of our understanding of the climate system.”

In the month of February alone, nearly 12,000 warm temperature records were broken in the U.S.

Carlson added, “We are now in truly uncharted territory.”

Study finds majority of Americans want action on climate change


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Part of a recent Yale University study, this map indicates the percentage of Americans that support regulating carbon dioxide emissions. (Climate Change Communication/Yale University)
Jenna Ladd | March 21, 2017

Researchers at Yale University have provided the most comprehensive look yet at U.S. public opinion and beliefs on climate change.

The study revealed that 70 percent of Americans agree that climate change is happening. Interestingly, while it is widely accepted in the scientific community that humans have caused climate change, only 53 percent of Americans believe this to be true, although 71 percent of the same individuals studied said that they trust what climate scientists say about climate change.

An overwhelming 82 percent of U.S. adults support the funding of renewable energy research projects. Despite this desire, former head of the Trump Department of Energy transition team, Mike McKenna, has publicly stated that the president’s administration is likely to cut funding for renewable energy and redirect funds to fossil fuel development.

Additionally, the Trump administration plans to eliminate President Obama’s plan to reduce carbon emission from the nation’s power plants by 30 percent before 2030. Meanwhile, the majority of citizens in every congressional district- that’s about 70 percent nationwide- support setting strict limits for carbon dioxide emission from power plants.

So why aren’t more Americans taking direct action on climate policy? Some say this has to do with the way humans prioritize risk. A report in the New York Times pointed out that we are only programmed to respond to threats that trigger our flight or fight response, that is, immediate threats. The safety risks and health effects of climate change often occur slowly over time, so we pay them less attention. For example, more than half of the study’s respondents believe that climate change is currently harming people in the U.S. In contrast, only 40 percent of citizens believe that climate change will ever harm them personally.

For more information and to access the interactive public opinion maps, click here.

 

Top doctors say climate change harms human health


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The Medical Society Consortium on Climate and Health details how climate change will affect human health in specific regions of the U.S. (Medical Society Consortium on Climate and Health)
Jenna Ladd | March 16, 2017

The Medical Society Consortium on Climate and Health released a report on Wednesday explaining the ways in which climate change harms the physical and mental health of people in the U.S.

The report, titled “Medical Alert! Climate Change is Impacting our Health” was written by medical doctors, including allergists, pediatricians, infectious-disease doctors, OB/GYNs and gerontologists from eleven health organizations.

Very few Americans, less than 32 percent, can name a specific way in which climate change harms human health. “Doctors in every part of our country see that climate change is making Americans sicker,” said Dr. Mona Sarfaty, the director of the new consortium.

The authors broke down the specific health effects of climate change in each region of the U.S. The doctors explain that three by-products of climate change will directly impact human health: air pollution, extreme heat and extreme weather events. Increased temperatures associated with climate change intensify smog, wildfires and pollen production, leading to poor air quality, the report said. “Poor air quality increases asthma and allergy attacks, and can lead to other illnesses, hospitalizations, and deaths,” the authors wrote.

Rising global temperatures cause more frequent, longer, and more extreme heat waves in many parts of the U.S. Excessive heat leads to heat-related illness, exacerbates some medical conditions, and can cause death due to heat-stroke and dehydration. The report read, “Anyone can be harmed by extreme heat, but some people face greater risk. For example, outdoor workers, student athletes, city dwellers, and people who lack air conditioning (or who lose it during an extended power outage) face greater risk because they are more exposed to extreme heat.”

The physicians pointed out that extreme weather events are also taking a toll on their patients. The increased frequency and severity of major storms, floods, and droughts can cause injury, displacement and death, the report read. These events often prevent residents from receiving proper medical care due to blocked roads, destroyed bridges and the like. Gastrointestinal illness and disease often follow the power outages associated with extreme weather events as well, according to the doctors.

Beyond these direct impacts, climate change also speeds up the spread of infectious diseases and has an insidious impact on humans’ mental health. With temperatures rising around the world, infectious disease vectors like ticks, mosquitoes and fleas can now survive in regions that were previously too cold for them. For example, “Ticks that carry Lyme disease have become more numerous in many areas and have expanded their range northward and westward,” the report said.

U.S. residents that have experienced increasingly common extreme weather events like foods, major storms, and droughts are likely to suffer mental health consequences including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, and anxiety. Anyone could experience these effects, but women, pregnant women, the elderly, children, and those with a preexisting mental health condition are most at risk.

The report concluded with a call to government leaders, asking them to address climate change in the name of human health. It read, “Doctors agree with climate scientists: the sooner we take action, the more harm we can prevent, and the more we can protect the health of all Americans.”

Dr. Steve Hendrix speaks up for the wild bee


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Dr. Steve Hendrix was the keynote speaker at this week’s 34th Bur Oak Land Trust Prairie Preview. (Jenna Ladd/CGRER)
Jenna Ladd | March 10, 2017

When the general public thinks about bees, one image comes to mind: the honeybee.

If UI Professor Emeritus Steve Hendrix’s presentation, titled “Wild Bees of Iowa: Hidden Diversity in the Service of Conservation” had a central message, it was that nearly 20,000 other bee species exist and provide often under-recognized ecosystem services.

Hendrix gave the presentation at 34th Bur Oak Land Trust Prairie Preview on Thursday night to a crowd of nearly 300. He said, “All plants need pollinators some of the time, and at least some plants need pollinators all of the time.” Indeed, pollinators provide 225 billion dollars in pollination services. While honeybees receive the majority of public praise, wild bees, which are often small, solitary creatures with short life spans, do 90 percent of the pollinating on U.S. farms. Additionally, according to Hendrix’s research findings, honeybees are less effective pollinators than wild bees.

While the number of bees in the U.S. is declining, one of Hendrix’s studies provided a glimmer of hope for bees in North America. Hendrix and his colleagues compared populations of bees on large prairies with those in smaller, urban gardens and parks. Surprisingly, regardless of the area of land the bees had to roam, there was no difference in bee diversity, species richness, or abundance. The main predictor for healthy bee populations was the presence of a extremely diverse plant life.

Hendrix rounded out his presentation with a look to the future for wild bees. He emphasized once more the importance of the insects, which are largely credited with providing food security for humans. He said, “There’s going to be changes in the distribution of bees.” Due to global warming, many bee species that were previously found in southern states are making their way to Iowa. Hendrix added, “The big bees are going to be the losers in this climate change world we’re living in…it’s going to be the rare bees that are affected most.” Hendrix said that there has been limited research about what this will mean for ecosystems and human health, but encouraged all those in the audience to continue fighting to conserve habitat for bees in Iowa.

 

Dr. Charles Stanier provides Lake Michigan Ozone Study update


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Red dots indicate areas where mean ozone levels were above 70 parts per billion, which is the new U.S. Environmental Protection Agency standard. (Rob Kaleel/LADCO)
Jenna Ladd | March 9, 2017

The Lake Michigan Ozone Study 2017, a collaborative research campaign designed to better understand ozone levels around the lake, will begin this May.

The communities around Lake Michigan frequently experience an overabundance of surface-level ozone, which can cause respiratory problems for humans and harm plant life. Through the study, scientists are working to generate new information about how ozone in the area is formed and transported above the lake.

Brad Pierce is NOAA Advanced Satellite Products Branch scientist stationed at the Cooperative Institute for Meteorological Satellite Studies (CIMSS) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He said, “There are these sites along the lake… that are in violation, and they’re not really areas that have a whole lot of industry.” Pierce added, “The sense is that a lot of this has to do with lake breeze circulations. We want to go out and measure the lake breeze circulation and the transport of ozone precursors – the emissions that end up producing ozone – in the springtime when this lake breeze is most dominant.”

Since the study was commissioned last year, it has received additional support from the scientific community. Dr. Charles Stanier is a CGRER member and UI professor of chemical and biochemical engineering. He said, “We’ve expanded from one aircraft and two [air quality monitoring] ground sites to two aircrafts and seven ground sites. We’ve got extensive measurements that will start in May and continue into June and then extensive computer simulations that will help make sense of what we see.”

The collaborative field campaign consists of scientists from several universities such as the University of Wisconsin-Madison, University of Iowa, and many more as well as professionals from the agencies like the Lake Michigan Air Directors Consortium (LADCO) and NASA.

Dr. Stanier provides more information about the study’s goals and primary research questions below.

More than half of world’s food calories produced by small farms


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Map of mean agricultural area by farm size in three global regions. (Environmental Research Letters)
Jake Slobe | March 8, 2017

A new study published in Environmental Research Letters (ERL) estimates that more than half the food calories produced worldwide come from regions where the average farm size is less than five hectares.

Despite the importance of this farming activity in providing food security to millions – particularly in South and East Asia, sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America – information on the subnational distribution of smallholdings can be hard to find. To address this, researchers based in the US, Canada and Australia joined forces to generate a map of the mean amount of land per farming household.

The team showed that the combined output of developing world regions dependent on small-scale farming (with an average farm size of less than 5 hectares) contributes more than 80% of global rice production and 75% of the world’s output of groundnuts and palm oil. Small-scale farming regions also provide a large proportion of the world’s millet (60%), cassava (60%), cotton (40%) and sugarcane (40%) found to the study.

The study drew on household micro-data and satellite images of landcover to classify agricultural activity in a way that highlights smallholder contributions to the global food picture. The data cover 2412 subnational units in 83 countries across South and East Asia, sub-Saharan Africa, and Latin America.

To evaluate the prevalence of smaller or larger farms, the scientists use a metric dubbed “mean agricultural area” (MAA), which is defined as hectares of agricultural land divided by the number of farming households.

Units with an MAA of less than five hectares play a dominant role in Asia, the researchers found. In sub-Saharan Africa, the proportion drops slightly with smallholder units producing half of the food calories in the region – supported by places with a medium-density of farm households, which account for another 26%. The situation changes again in Latin America, with 70% of food calories produced in regions with large and very large MAAs.

The team hopes that its results will help not just policy makers, but also technology developers in tackling issues such as food security, poverty reduction and conservation. One of the next steps in the project is to identify factors that lead smallholder regions to be successful.