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.”

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.

 

Intense summer heat to become more likely due to climate change


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Sydney, Australia saw record heat this summer, with mean temperatures 37 degrees Fahrenheit above average. (Bernard Spragg/Flickr)
Jenna Ladd | March 3, 2017

Southern Australia just endured its hottest summer ever recorded, and recent research found that the likelihood of more extreme summer weather is on the rise.

Following summer months where Sydney’s mean temperature remained 37 degrees Fahrenheit above average, Dr. Perkins-Kirkpatrick at the University of New South Wales in Sydney began to study the relationship between human-induced climate change and summer heat waves.

Along with other researchers at the World Weather Attribution, Perkins-Kirkpatrick concluded that climate change has made it 50 times more likely that New South Wales will experience another similarly scorching summer. Simply put, before 1910 extreme weather like that experienced this summer was likely to occur once every 500 years, now it is likely to occur every 50 years on average. If climate change remains unabated, researchers say that likelihood could increase even more.

The report said, “In the future, a summer as hot as this past summer in New South Wales is likely to happen roughly once every five years.”

Energy companies in New South Wales had trouble supplying enough electricity to meet the demand for air conditioning units during the heatwave’s most intense days from February 9th through the 11th. Meanwhile, according to report by The Guardian, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull criticized renewable energy efforts, calling renewable energy goals in the country “completely unrealistic.”

Dr. Andrew King of Melbourne University was another one of the report’s authors. He said, “Yes, people would have experienced 40C [104 degrees Fahrenheit] days several decades ago around different parts of Australia and in Sydney but we know that these incidences of very hot days are getting more frequent and we are setting more records for heat.”

King added, “The purpose of the analysis in this report is to raise awareness that climate change is already impacting on weather in Australia. Hopefully it motivates action on climate change, because we know what the solution to climate change is.”

Rising temperatures deplete Colorado River


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The Colorado River provides drinking water for 40 million people. (Katie Rompala/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | February 24, 2017

The volume of the Colorado River has decreased by 19 percent since 2000, and recent research shows that climate change is partly to blame.

Two researchers from Colorado State University and University of Arizona compared temperature, precipitation and water volume in the Colorado River basin from 2000-2014 to historical records dating back to 1896. Since 2000, precipitation in region has decreased by 4.6 percent while temperatures have risen 1.6 degrees Fahrenheit above historical averages. Utilizing existing climate models, the scientists found that the river’s flow should have only decreased by roughly 11.6 percent since the drought began in the area in 2000. Instead, the river’s flow decreased by 19.3 percent due to the effects of global warming, they said.

Published last week in the journal Water Resources, the study read,

“Fifteen years into the 21st century, the emerging reality is that climate change is already depleting the Colorado River water supplies at the upper end of the range suggested by previously published projections. Record-setting temperatures are an important and under-appreciated component of the flow reductions now being observed.”

The Colorado River provides drinking water for 40 million people and irrigates 6,300 square miles of agricultural land. Moving forward, the study’s authors said precipitation in the river’s basin would have to increase by 14 percent by the end of the century in order to mitigate the rising temperature’s effects.

Brad Udall of Colorado State University is one of the study’s co-authors. He said, “We can’t say with any certainty that precipitation is going to increase and come to our rescue.”

Warming ponds could speed up climate change


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Small ponds used by researchers at the University of Exeter and Queen Mary University. (University of Exeter)
Jenna Ladd | February 23, 2017

A recent study shows that when freshwater ponds warm, they release more methane and are able to store less carbon dioxide.

Researchers at the University of Exeter and Queen Mary University of London warmed a collection of man-made ponds by four to five degrees Celsius over the course of seven years. The first of its kind, the study found that the amount of methane released by the ponds increased by double while the amount of carbon dioxide the ponds could store decreased by half.

Professor Gabriel Yvon-Durocher was the study’s lead investigator. He said, “Given the substantial contribution small ponds make to the emission of greenhouse gases, it is vital to understand how they might respond to global warming.”

While ponds and lakes only account for about 0.008 percent of the total volume of water on Earth, they are major contributors of carbon dioxide and methane. Greenhouse gases from freshwater sources are mostly the byproduct of organic matter breaking down in low-oxygen environments.

Yvon-Durocher continued, “Our findings show that warming can fundamentally alter the carbon balance of small ponds over a number of years, reducing their capacity to absorb and increasing emissions of methane. This could ultimately accelerate climate change.”

The scientist noted that these findings are different than those normally observed on land, where the effect of rising temperatures lessen over time. In contrast, when ponds warm and release methane, a gas that is known to be 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide, they actually exacerbate warming.

Ponds of less than one meter, such as those used in the study, are responsible for the release of 40 percent of all inland methane emissions.

 

The professor noted, “This accelerating effect in ponds, which could have serious impacts on climate change, is not currently accounted for in Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change models.”

The complete study can be found in the journal Nature Climate Change.

Iowa State researchers receive grants to improve glacier flow models and sea level predictions


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                         Calving of the Aialik Glacier in Kenai Fjords National Park in Alaska. (Alaska National Park Service)
Jake Slobe | February 15, 2017

Iowa State University’s Neal Iverson and a team of researchers are working on research that will predict how much glaciers will contribute to the rise of sea levels.

The research will focus on the extent to which glacier-flow to oceans is likely speed up over the next century as the climate warms.

Iverson, an Iowa State University professor of geological and atmospheric sciences who has studied glaciers in Iceland and Norway, and the rest of the research team will look to lab experiments and field work to build more realistic computer models of glacier flow.

Iverson said about the project:

“Glaciologists are trying to predict how fast glaciers will flow to the oceans. To do that, we need new lab and field data to include complexity in models that is usually neglected. These are complicated systems. Modeling them is hard. But we need to include how water in ice affects its flow resistance, and we need sliding laws that are based on the real topography of glacier beds and that include rock friction. Adding these things really matters.”

Two new grants will help Iverson and his team fund their research, both of which grants are from the National Science Foundation.  The research will also receive funding from the United Kingdom’s Natural Environment Research Council to support the work of applied mathematicians at the University of Oxford in England.

Iverson is the lead investigator on both grant proposals. The other researchers are Lucas Zoet, an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a former postdoctoral research associate at Iowa State; Ian Hewitt, an associate professor and university lecturer at Oxford’s Mathematical Institute; and Richard Katz, a professor of geodynamics at Oxford.

The first project will look at temperate ice, or ice at its melting point, and how this soft, watery ice resists deformation. That’s important because the resistance to deformation of temperate ice at the edges of ice streams – areas of rapid ice flow within the Antarctic ice sheet that can be hundreds of miles long and tens of miles wide – holds back the flowing ice.

The second project will support development of better “sliding laws” to help predict the sliding speeds of glaciers and ice sheets. Sliding laws are the mathematical relationships between the glacier sliding speed and the factors that control it, such as the stresses below the glacier, the water pressure there, the topography of the glacier bed and the concentration of debris in glacier ice.

Both projects will use the glacier sliding simulator Iverson has been using since 2009 to study glacier movement.

The new projects will add complexity to Iverson’s lab experiments. Debris, for example, will be added to the ice ring to study friction between it and the rock bed during sliding. In other experiments, temperate ice will be sheared between rotating plates to study how its resistance to flow depends on its water content.

As global temperatures rise, future of agriculture uncertain


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Soybean yields could decrease by as much as 40 percent due to rising temperatures. (United Soybean Board/flickr)

 Jenna Ladd | January 20, 2017

Without further action to curb greenhouse gas emissions, global temperatures are expected to rise as much as 6.1 degrees Fahrenheit above pre-industrial averages, which may meaningfully impact agricultural outputs.

According to a recent study by the the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and the University of Chicago, rising temperatures could significantly reduce U.S. grain harvests. Using a set of computer simulations, the researchers found that yield reduction could reach 40 percent for soybeans and almost 50 percent for corn by the end of the century if carbon emissions are not cut drastically. Wheat would fare slightly better, with its yields decreasing by an estimated 20 percent.

The researchers said, “The effects go far beyond the U.S., one of the largest crop exporters. World market crop prices might increase, which is an issue for food security in poor countries.”

A report by the European Union’s Joint Research Centre came to a different conclusion. They found that wheat may actually benefit from higher concentrations of carbon-dioxide in the atmosphere, while corn yields would decrease.

Although the global temperature has reached record highs for three consecutive years, U.S. corn and soybean yields were seemingly unaffected. Thanks in part to genetically modified seed, which can have adverse environmental impacts, corn and soybean output was higher than ever in 2016.

However, the extreme drought of 2012 serves as a reminder that agricultural productivity is vulnerable to a changing climate. That year, U.S. corn harvests decreased considerably and caused global corn prices to skyrocket.