Earth

Anti-GMO Activists Slow Scientists Breeding a CO2-Reducing Superplant (thebulletin.org) 151

The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists calls it "a plant that could save civilization, if we let it." Slashdot reader meckdevil writes: A "super chickpea plant" now in development could remove huge amounts of excess atmospheric carbon dioxide and fix it in the soil, greatly diminishing the impacts of climate change (not to mention producing large amounts of tasty hummus). But fear of anti-GMO activists has so far deterred her from using the CRISPR gene-editing tool to speed work on the plant.
The effort is led by Joanne Chory, director of the Plant Molecular and Cellular Biology laboratory at the Salk Institute for Biological Sciences -- who according to the article will make much slower progress without CRISPR. "Even with advanced breeding techniques, Chory estimates that developing a super plant in this fashion would take around 10 years..."

"She estimates that if 5 percent of the world's cropland, approximately the total area of Egypt, were devoted to such super plants, they could capture about 50 percent of current global carbon dioxide emissions."
Space

Astronomers Discovered the Fastest-Growing Black Hole Ever Seen (wral.com) 61

Long-time Slashdot reader Yhcrana shares "some good old fashioned astronomy news." Astronomers have discovered "a black hole 20 billion times the mass of the sun eating the equivalent of a star every two days," reports the New York Times. The black hole is growing so rapidly, said Christian Wolf, of the Australian National University, who led the team that found it in the depths of time, "that it is probably 10,000 times brighter than the galaxy it lives in." So bright, that it is dazzling our view and we can't see the galaxy itself. He and his colleagues announced the discovery in a paper to be published in the Publications of the Astronomical Society of Australia...

The blaze from material swirling around this newly observed drainpipe into eternity -- known officially as SMSS J215728.21-360215.1 -- is as luminous as 700 trillion suns, according to Wolf and his collaborators. If it were at the center of our own galaxy, the Milky Way, it would be 10 times brighter than the moon and bathe the Earth in so many X-rays that life would be impossible. Luckily it's not anywhere nearby. It is in fact 12 billion light years away, which means it took that long for its light to reach us, so we are glimpsing this cataclysm as it appeared at the dawn of time, only 2 billion years after the Big Bang, when stars and galaxies were furiously forming.

Earth

Floating Pacific Island Is In the Works With Its Own Government, Cryptocurrency (cnbc.com) 161

An anonymous reader quotes a report from CNBC: Nathalie Mezza-Garcia is a political scientist turned "seavangelesse" -- her term for an evangelist in favor of living off the grid -- and on the ocean. Mezza-Garcia spoke with CNBC's Matthew Taylor about what she sees as the trouble with governments, and why she believes tech startups should head to Tahiti. This seavangelesse is a researcher for the Blue Frontiers and Seasteading Institute's highly-anticipated Floating Island Project. The project is a pilot program in partnership with the government of French Polynesia, which will see 300 homes built on an island that runs under its own governance, using a cryptocurrency called Varyon.

"Once we can see how this first island works, we will have a proof of concept to plan for islands to house climate refugees," she said. The project is funded through philanthropic donations via the Seasteading Institute and Blue Frontiers, which sells tokens of the cryptocurrency Varyon. The pilot island is expected to be completed by 2022 and cost up to $50 million. As well as offering a home for the displaced, the self-contained islands are designed to function as business centers that are beyond the influence of government regulation.

Government

US Government Wants To Start Charging For Landsat, the Best Free Satellite Data On Earth (qz.com) 234

The U.S. government may begin charging users for access to five decades of satellite images of Earth. Quartz reports: Nature reports that the Department of Interior has asked an advisory board to consider the consequences of charging for the data generated by the Landsat program, which is the largest continuously collected set of Earth images taken in space and has been freely available to the public since 2008. Since 1972, Landsat has used eight different satellites to gather images of the Earth, with a ninth currently slated for a December 2020 launch. The data are widely used by government agencies, and since it became free, by an increasing number of academics, private companies and journalists. "As of March 31, 2018, more than 75 million Landsat scenes have been downloaded from the USGS-managed archive!" the agency noted on the 10th anniversary of the program.

Now, the government says the cost of sharing the data has grown as more people access it. Advocates for open data say the public benefit produced through research and business activity far outweigh those costs. A 2013 survey cited by Nature found that the dataset generated $2 billion in economic activity, compared to an $80 million budget for the program.

Earth

Kilauea Volcano Erupts On Hawaii's Big Island (nytimes.com) 56

An anonymous reader quotes a report from The New York Times: The Kilauea volcano erupted from its summit on Thursday morning (Warning: source may be paywalled; alternative source), spewing an ash plume that reached 30,000 feet above the island of Hawaii, the authorities said. The eruption was the most forceful new explosion so far at Kilauea, one of the world's most active volcanoes. Kilauea has already been triggering small earthquakes, creating gas-emitting fissures and releasing flows of lava that have destroyed dozens of homes this month. The Hawaiian Volcano Observatory issued a "code red" warning that additional activity could be expected. "At any time, activity may again become more explosive, increasing the intensity of ash production and producing ballistic projectiles near the vent," the observatory said. But Dr. Michelle Coombs of the United States Geological Survey said that ash fall from the eruption, which occurred shortly after 4 a.m., was "pretty limited" to the area around Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. She emphasized that the new eruption wasn't the "big one" that some are fearing, drawing a contrast with the eruption in 1980 of Mount St. Helens in Washington State that killed 57 people.
Businesses

Faster Flights Are Coming With New Satellite Tracking Technology (bloomberg.com) 34

An anonymous reader shares a report: The company that provides the U.K.'s air-traffic control service is taking a 10 percent stake in Aireon, a U.S. firm that's building a satellite-based tracking system and will offer commercial services to controllers starting next year. Aireon plans to use a constellation of 66 Iridium Communications. Next satellites in low Earth orbit to track aircraft. Iridium has 50 in orbit already, 47 of which are operational. Each carries equipment to offer aircraft position data to ground controllers.

Iridium plans to launch five additional satellites on May 22 from California, completing its full network later this year. Aireon said 70 percent of the world's airspace lacks satellite tracking or airline surveillance coverage, including most oceans and parts of Africa and Latin America.

ISS

NASA's Atomic Fridge Will Make the ISS the Coldest Known Place in the Universe (vice.com) 97

An anonymous reader shares a report: Later this year, a small part of the International Space Station will become 10 billion times colder than the average temperature of the vacuum of space thanks to the Cold Atom Lab (CAL). Once it's on the space station, this atomic fridge will be the coldest known place in the universe and will allow physicists to 'see' into the quantum realm in a way that would never be possible on Earth.

In a normal room, "atoms are bouncing off one another in all directions at a few hundred meters per second," Rob Thompson, a NASA scientist working on CAL explained in a statement. CAL, however, can reach temperatures that are just one ten billionth of a degree above absolute zero -- the point at which matter loses all its thermal energy -- which means that this chaotic atomic motion comes to a near standstill.

CAL uses magnetic fields and lasers traps to capture the gaseous atoms and cool them to nearly absolute zero. Since all the atoms have the same energy levels at that point, these effectively motionless atoms condense into a state of quantum matter called a Bose-Einstein condensate. This state of matter means that the atoms have the properties of one continuous wave rather discrete particles.

Earth

NASA Says Humans Are Causing Massive Changes In Location of Water Around the World (desertsun.com) 99

Using measurements from Earth-observing satellites, NASA scientists have found that humans have dramatically altered the location of water around the world. "The team of researchers analyzed 14 years of data from NASA's twin GRACE satellites and studied regions that have seen large increases or decreases in the total amount of freshwater, including water in lakes and rivers and water stored in underground aquifers, soil, snow and ice," reports The Desert Sun. From the report: The scientists examined precipitation trends and other data to determine the most likely causes of these huge losses and gains of water around the world. Their findings in a new study reveal that of the 34 "hotspots" of water change in places from California to China, the trends in about two-thirds of those areas may be linked to climate change or human activities, such as excessive groundwater pumping in farming regions. In eight of the 34 regions, the researchers said the trends reflect "possible" or "probable" impacts of climate change, including losses of ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica, precipitation increases in the high latitudes of Eurasia and North America, the retreat of Alaska's glaciers and melting ice fields in Patagonia.

They ascribed changes in 12 regions to natural variability, including a progression from a dry period to a wet period in the northern Great Plains, a drought in eastern Brazil and wetter periods in the Amazon and tropical West Africa. In 14 of the areas -- more than 40 percent of the hotspots -- the scientists associated the water shifts partially or largely with human activity. That included groundwater depletion combined with drought in Southern California and the southern High Plains from Kansas to the Texas Panhandle, as well as in the northern Middle East, northern Africa, southern Russia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan.
The first-of-its-kind study has been published in the journal Nature.
Earth

A Fleet of Sailing Robots Sets Out To Quantify the Oceans (bloomberg.com) 76

pacopico writes: A start-up in California called Saildrone has built a fleet of robotic sailboats that are gathering tons of data about the oceans. The saildrones rely on a hard, carbon-fiber sail to catch wind, and solar panels to power all of their electronics and sensors. "Each drone carries at least $100,000 of electronics, batteries, and related gear," reports Businessweek. "Devices near the tip of the sail measure wind speed and direction, sunlight, air temperature and pressure, and humidity. Across the top of the drone's body, other electronics track wave height and period, carbon dioxide levels, and the strength of the Earth's magnetic field. Underwater, sensors monitor currents, dissolved oxygen levels, and water temperature, acidity, and salinity. Sonars and other acoustic instruments try to identify animal life." So far they've been used to find sharks, monitor fisheries, check on climate change and provide weather forecasts. Saildrone just raised $90 million to build a fleet of 1,000 drones, which it thinks will be enough to measure all of the world's oceans.
NASA

Moon of Jupiter Prime Candidate For Alien Life After Water Blast Found (theguardian.com) 133

A NASA probe that explored Jupiter's moon Europa flew through a giant plume of water vapour that erupted from the icy surface and reached a hundred miles high, according to a fresh analysis of the spacecraft's data. An anonymous reader shares a The Guardian report: The discovery has cemented the view among some scientists that the Jovian moon, one of four first spotted by the Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei in 1610, is the most promising place in the solar system to hunt for alien life. If such geysers are common on Europa, NASA and European Space Agency (ESA) missions that are already in the pipeline could fly through and look for signs of life in the brine, which comes from a vast subsurface ocean containing twice as much water as all the oceans on Earth.

NASA's Galileo spacecraft spent eight years in orbit around Jupiter and made its closest pass over Europa, a moon about the size of our own, on 16 December 1997. As the probe dropped beneath an altitude of 250 miles, its sensors twitched with unexpected signals that scientists were unable to explain at the time. Now, in a new study, the researchers describe how they went back to the Galileo data after grainy images beamed home from the Hubble space telescope in 2016 showed what appeared to be plumes of water blasting from Europa's surface.

Science

Reporter Shares Experience of Visiting a Flat Earth Convention (vice.com) 356

Tom Usher, reporting for Vice: I arrived at the venue -- a Jurys Inn hotel -- on a wet Saturday morning, to discover that the event was essentially a small carpeted convention room boasting a few cameras, some stalls selling merchandise, and 70 or so attendees watching PowerPoint presentations beamed onto a wall. As I entered, I was offered a gift of "fluoride-free" toothpaste. This made perfect sense, given the location. A popular conspiracy theory states that governments across the world have been putting fluoride in our water supply to tranquilize the masses, despite the fact the only piece of "evidence" for this theory -- which involves both the Nazis and the Communists -- has been widely discredited. With the tone set for the day, I sat down to watch some speeches.

The speakers all seemed well aware of how "globe-earthers" view the idea of a flat Earth, i.e. ludicrous, and their talk of the current scientific establishment felt very "us versus them" -- a nice bit of truther tribalism. One speaker talked at length about the moon, and how its orbit proved the Earth couldn't be spherical, which seemed a little counterintuitive. Another talked about how the Egyptian pyramid structure points toward clues that the Earth is a flat diamond shape, supported by pillars. Between sounding off about the Vatican and the fact that the establishment has indoctrinated us to believe all sorts of things, including that the Earth is a sphere, a third speaker suggested that cancer is caused by negative emotions and argued that dinosaurs didn't exist.
The story also explores why some people still believe these long-debunked theories. Further reading: The bizarre tale of the flat-Earth convention that fell apart (CNET).
NASA

NASA Will Send Helicopter To Mars To Test Otherworldly Flight (bbc.com) 103

NASA is sending a small, autonomous rotorcraft to Mars via the agency's Mars 2020 rover mission, currently scheduled to launch in July 2020. NASA says the goal of the mission is to "demonstrate the viability and potential of heavier-than-air vehicles on the Red Planet." BBC reports: Its design team spent more than four years shrinking a working helicopter to "the size of a softball" and cutting its weight to 1.8kg (4lbs). It is specifically designed to fly in the atmosphere of Mars, which is 100 times thinner than Earth's. NASA describes the helicopter as a "heavier-than-air" aircraft because the other type -- sometimes called an aerostat -- refers to aircraft like balloons and blimps. The helicopter's two blades will spin at close to 3,000 revolutions a minute, which NASA says is about 10 times faster than a standard helicopter on Earth.
Space

Earth's 'Bigger, Older Cousin' Maybe Doesn't Even Exist (npr.org) 52

Ever since astronomers started to detect planets beyond our solar system, they've been trying to find another world just like Earth. And few years ago, they announced that they'd found a planet that was the closest match yet -- Kepler-452b. Trouble is, some astronomers now say it's not possible to know for sure that this planet actually exists. From a report: "There's new information that we can now quantify which tells us something that we didn't know before," says Fergal Mullally, who used to be an astronomer on the science team for NASA's Kepler Space Telescope. In 2015, NASA declared that Kepler-452b was the first near-Earth-sized planet orbiting in the "habitable" zone around a star very similar to our sun. The space agency called it Earth's "bigger, older cousin," and scientists were so enthusiastic that one began quoting poetry at a news conference. The original science wasn't shoddy, Mullally says. It's just that, since then, researchers have learned more about the telescope's imperfections.
Earth

Large Island Declared Rat-Free in Biggest Removal Success (nationalgeographic.com) 134

An anonymous reader shares a report: A remote, freezing, salt-spray lashed paradise for wildlife has been completely cleared of rats in the largest rodent eradication of all time, the South Georgia Heritage Trust (SGHT) announced this week. Rats are smart, adaptable, and hungry. For all these reasons, they can be incredibly voracious predators when people accidentally introduce them to remote islands, where the local animals lack evolved defenses to rodents. They have flourished even on an island as harsh and cold as South Georgia, which is so far south that it hosts penguins, elephant seals, and fur seals, as well as massive permanent glaciers.

"There are no trees, there are no bushes. All nest on the ground or underground in burrows," says Mike Richardson, Chairman of the SGHT Habitat Restoration Project Steering Committee. Such nests are easy pickings for rats. The rats -- brought to the island by whalers and sealers as early as the late 18th century -- ate the eggs and vulnerable chicks of seabirds, including albatrosses, skua, terns, and petrels. They also threatened two birds with extinction that are found nowhere else in the world: the South Georgia Pipit -- a tiny speckled songbird -- and the South Georgia Pintail, a brown duck.

The rat eradication was a massive, arduous undertaking, costing more than $13 million and taking nearly a decade. More than 300 metric tons of poison bait was dropped on the island by helicopter in three separate trips during the Austral Summers of 2010-2011, 2012-2013, and 2014-2015. Poisoned rats tend to head underground to die, Richardson says, limiting the damage caused to birds like gulls that might have otherwise eaten the poison-tainted carcasses.

Space

'Yes, Pluto Is a Planet' (sfgate.com) 301

schwit1 quotes a Washington Post perspective piece by the authors of a new book about Pluto: The process for redefining planet was deeply flawed and widely criticized even by those who accepted the outcome. At the 2006 IAU conference, which was held in Prague, the few scientists remaining at the very end of the week-long meeting (less than 4 percent of the world's astronomers and even a smaller percentage of the world's planetary scientists) ratified a hastily drawn definition that contains obvious flaws. For one thing, it defines a planet as an object orbiting around our sun -- thereby disqualifying the planets around other stars, ignoring the exoplanet revolution, and decreeing that essentially all the planets in the universe are not, in fact, planets.

Even within our solar system, the IAU scientists defined "planet" in a strange way, declaring that if an orbiting world has "cleared its zone," or thrown its weight around enough to eject all other nearby objects, it is a planet. Otherwise it is not. This criterion is imprecise and leaves many borderline cases, but what's worse is that they chose a definition that discounts the actual physical properties of a potential planet, electing instead to define "planet" in terms of the other objects that are -- or are not -- orbiting nearby. This leads to many bizarre and absurd conclusions. For example, it would mean that Earth was not a planet for its first 500 million years of history, because it orbited among a swarm of debris until that time, and also that if you took Earth today and moved it somewhere else, say out to the asteroid belt, it would cease being a planet.

To add insult to injury, they amended their convoluted definition with the vindictive and linguistically paradoxical statement that "a dwarf planet is not a planet." This seemingly served no purpose but to satisfy those motivated by a desire -- for whatever reason -- to ensure that Pluto was "demoted" by the new definition. By and large, astronomers ignore the new definition of "planet" every time they discuss all of the exciting discoveries of planets orbiting other stars.

Earth

Orbits of Jupiter and Venus Affect Earth's Climate, Says Study (usatoday.com) 208

According to a new study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, gravitational tugs from the planets Jupiter and Venus gradually affect Earth's climate and life forms. The phenomenon occurs every 405,000 years and has been going on for at least 215 million years. USA Today reports: Jupiter and Venus are such strong influences because of their size and proximity. Venus is the nearest planet to us -- at its farthest, only about 162 million miles -- and roughly similar in mass. Jupiter is much farther away, but is the Solar System's largest planet. The study says that every 405,000 years, due to wobbles in our orbit caused by the gravitational pulls of the two planets, seasonal differences here on Earth become more intense. Summers are hotter and winters colder; dry times drier, wet times wetter. At the height of the cycle, more rain falls in the tropics, allowing lakes there to fill up. This compares to the other end of the cycle, when seasonal rains in the tropics "are less and lakes have much less of a tendency to become as full," [study lead author Dennis] Kent said. The results showed that the 405,000-year cycle is the most regular astronomical pattern linked to the Earth's annual turn around the sun, he said. Right now, we are in the middle of the cycle, as the most recent peak was around 200,000 years ago.
Education

Ask Slashdot: Do Citizen Science Platforms Exist? (arstechnica.com) 105

Loren Chorley writes: After reading about a new surge in the trend for citizen science (also known as community science, civic science or networked science), I was intrigued by the idea and wondered if there are websites that do this in a crowd sourced and open sourced manner. I know sites like YouTube allow people to show off their scientific experiments, but they don't facilitate uploading all their data or linking studies together to draw more advanced conclusions, or making methodologies like you'd see in academia straight forward and available through a simple interface. What about rating of experiments for peer review, revisions and refinement, requirement lists, step-by-step instructions for repeatability, ease of access, and simple language for people who don't find academia accessible? Does something like this exist already? Do you, Slashdot, think this is something useful, or that people are interested in? Or would the potential for fraud and misinformation be too great?
Wikipedia

Decade Old Academic Paper on Global Climate Zones Named the Most Cited Source on Wikipedia (theguardian.com) 37

An academic paper on global climate zones written by three Australians more than a decade ago has been named the most cited source on Wikipedia, having being referenced more than 2.8m times. From a report: The authors of the paper, who are still good friends, had no idea about the wider impact of their work until recently. The paper, published in 2007 in the journal Hydrology and Earth System Sciences, used contemporary data to update a widely used model for classifying the world's climates. Known as the Koppen Climate Classification System, the model was first published by climatologist Wladimir Koppen in 1884, but it had not been comprehensively updated for decades.

The lead author of the paper is Dr Murray Peel, a senior lecturer in the department of infrastructure engineering at the University of Melbourne, and he co-authored the updated climate map with geography professor Brian Finlayson and engineering professor Thomas McMahon, both now retired. "We are amazed, absolutely amazed at the number of citations," Finlayson told Guardian Australia from his home in Melbourne. "We are not so much amazed at the fact it's been cited as we are about the number of people who have cited it."

Earth

Earth's Carbon Dioxide Levels Reach Highest Point In 800,000 Years (washingtonpost.com) 433

An anonymous reader quotes a report from The Washington Post: For the first time since humans have been monitoring, atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide have exceeded 410 parts per million averaged across an entire month (Warning: source may be paywalled; alternative source), a threshold that pushes the planet ever closer to warming beyond levels that scientists and the international community have deemed "safe." The reading from the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii finds that concentrations of the climate-warming gas averaged above 410 parts per million throughout April. The first time readings crossed 410 at all occurred on April 18, 2017, or just about a year ago. Carbon dioxide concentrations -- whose "greenhouse gas effect" traps heat and drives climate change -- were around 280 parts per million circa 1880, at the dawn of the industrial revolution. They're now 46 percent higher. According to Scripps Institute of Oceanography, this amount is the highest in at least the past 800,000 years. "We keep burning fossil fuels. Carbon dioxide keeps building up in the air," said Scripps scientist Ralph Keeling, who maintains the longest continuous record of atmospheric carbon dioxide on Earth. "It's essentially as simple as that."
Earth

Can We Live Without Concrete? (cnn.com) 407

A combination of cement, water and ground rock or sand, on the surface concrete might seem crushingly mundane. Yet it has defined construction in recent centuries and with it, in part, modernity. From a report: But do we need to re-evaluate our concrete habit for our sakes and the planet's? Production of cement is disastrous for our biosphere, while the degradation of many concrete buildings has some construction experts predicting a colossal headache in the future. There are myriad proposed solutions, such as changing the way we make concrete, creating sustainable alternatives or doing away with it altogether. But would we want to live in a world without concrete? And what would that world look like?

"We make more concrete than anything else, any other product, apart from clean water," says Paul Fennell, professor of clean energy at Imperial College London. One 2015 report estimates that each year approximately three tons of concrete are used for every person on Earth -- roughly, 22 billion tons. To put that in context, a recent study estimated that 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic have been produced, ever. Manufacturing cement, concrete's binding agent, is energy-intensive, Fennell says. Ordinary Portland cement -- the most common form in concrete -- is produced by baking lime in a kiln and emits approximately one ton of carbon dioxide for every ton of cement. Concrete production is responsible for approximately 5% of global man-made CO2 emissions, according to the World Business Council for Sustainable Development.

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