The current rate of species extinction is alarming, but it’s happening at a time when we may, for the first time in history, be able to bring back extinct species. We’re getting very close. And some think it may be a key to fighting climate change.
Movies like Jurassic Park have shown the wonders and dangers of bringing back extinct species. It’s not really science fiction anymore.
While we’re probably not going to be bringing back dinosaurs anytime soon – the DNA is just too damaged over that time – there is the potential for bringing back prehistoric mammals, and even animals that we’re losing in the current extinction event.
Some think that bringing back mammoths – or something like them – could help climate change by feeding on the bushes that absorb heat and thaw the permafrost.
Other species, like passenger pigeons, which once migrated in flocks so big they would darken the sky for days at a time, may have served to help keep forests healthy, and bringing them back could help with our forests.
And others, like the saber-tooth tiger, could be just for fun.
Climate change is arguably the most important challenge ever faced by our species, but the magnitude of the problem and timescales involved can make it difficult to conceptualize in human terms.
To this end, the self-described “experimental philosopher” and artist Jonathon Keats has designed a pinhole camera that will take a 1,000-year exposure of Lake Tahoe, which straddles the border of California and Nevada.
Keats, whose most recent project was a brain-controlled factory, hopes the cameras will help our descendants understand climate dynamics and help people envision their long-term impact on the environment today.
“We are changing the planet on timescales of a 1,000, 10,000 or even 100,000 years and we’re completely incapable of psychologically appreciating the power that we have,” Keats told me on the phone.
“They’re a means to have a sort of cognitive prosthesis, a mechanism for us to be able to see ourselves from that far-future perspective.”
Keats’ placed his Millennium Cameras at four locations around Lake Tahoe. Each camera is made of copper and is only 2.75 inches long and 2.25 inches in diameter. Inside the camera is a sheet of 24-karat gold pierced by a small hole.
As light passes through this small hole, it causes a reaction with the rose-colored pigment inside the camera, which causes the color to fade where the light is the brightest. This will slowly imprint an image on the pigment over the next 1,000 years.
According to Keats, the Millennium Cameras have been years in the making. They originated from a project Keats did in Berlin, in which dozens of cheap pinhole cameras were sold for a few dollars apiece and meant to document the way the city was changing.
These cameras would be placed in a location by their purchaser and left there for 100 years at which point they would be collected and the photos featured in a museum.
Although pinhole cameras date back to the earliest days of photography, Keats had to specially adapt the design for his Millennium Cameras.
The 100 year cameras placed around Berlin created a picture on a paper-based emulsion and this was unlikely to withstand 1,000 years outside.
The problem is that photography has only been around since the mid-nineteenth century so there isn’t really any data available for how best to preserve images on this sort of timescale.
According to Keats, the best data he could find on long-term image preservation was from studies done on renaissance paintings, many of which are well over 500 years old.
If a painting or photograph is left for too long in the light, it will begin to fade. The rate at which it fades depends on both the amount of light it is exposed to as well as the material the painting is made of.
A similar effect is at work in Keats’ Millenn20ial Cameras. The main difference is that the pinhole is projecting an image of whatever the camera is pointed at, so when the pigment inside the camera fades, it reproduces that image.
Marek Urban and his team wrote about how they were able to give self-healing qualities to polymers that are used in relatively inexpensive commodities, such as paints, plastics and coatings.
The next step is to go from making small amounts in a lab to producing large quantities.
“It’s not available at the industrial scale, but it’s very close,” said Urban, who is the J.E. Sirrine Foundation Chair and Professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering at Clemson.
Researchers have been making small batches of self-healing polymers for the last two decades, but producing them on a commercial scale has so far been largely cost prohibitive.
Urban said he and his team took advantage of interactions between co-polymers that he likened to spaghetti strands with little brushes on the side.
The longer the spaghetti strands get, the more they become entangled, he said. The side groups interlock like two interlaced hands, making it harder to pull them apart, Urban said.
“At the same time, they like each other,” he said. “So, when you pull them out, they come back together. It becomes self-healable at that point.
“As simple as this may sound, these studies also revealed that ubiquitous and typically weak van der Waals interactions in plastics, when oriented, will result in self-healing.
“This discovery will impact the development of sustainable materials using weak bonding which becomes collectively very strong when oriented.”
What’s significant about his latest breakthrough is that if a company wanted to bring the technology to market, it would no longer have to build a new factory to produce self-healing polymers, Urban said.
Urban estimated that increasing the scale to make polymers or paints by the hundreds of gallons could be done in six to 12 months.
“For anybody who wants to make these types of self-healing materials, they would have to essentially design a synthetic process and scale it up,” Urban said.
“The key is that the scale-up process would have to be precisely controlled. There is a huge difference between making something in the lab and scaling it up. We know the technology is available for them.”
Alien civilizations with technology on a par with humanity’s could be detectable using today’s instruments.
A new study suggests that if geostationary satellites are thick enough around an alien world, they could be spotted with telescopes already hunting for undiscovered planets.
Both governments and private corporations on our own world use geostationary satellites — which orbit such that they hover over the same spot on Earth — for science, communications, espionage and military applications.
If advanced alien civilizations loft enough satellites into their own geostationary belts, these spacecraft could create a dense, ring-like structure visible from Earth, according to the study.
Socas-Navarro simulated the presence of belts of geostationary satellites around exoplanets, to see whether they could be detected by instruments like NASA’s Kepler space telescope and the agency’s recently launched Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS).
He found that the belt would need to be about 0.01 percent full for such spacecraft to detect it, whether populated by many small satellites or a handful of large, city-size objects.
“We just need to look for the right signature in the data,” he said.
Socas-Navarro calls this hypothetical structure the Clarke exobelt (CEB), after famed sci-fi author Arthur C. Clarke.
Hunting alien satellites
Both Kepler and TESS detect planets using what’s known as the transit method. The spacecraft watch a field of stars for an extended amount of time.
If a planet has the right orbit, and the timing is right, that world will pass in front of its host star from the telescope’s perspective, causing a small, potentially detectable dip in brightness.
In addition to working as an astrophysicist, Socas-Navarro hosts a weekly radio show and podcast. That work helped him come up with the Clarke exobelt idea, he said.
One day, a listener asked about a geostationary satellite for the sun.
Sufficient material orbiting an exoplanet causes a small dip in starlight before and after the body of the world makes its transit. Scientists have used this method to discover rings around planets outside the solar system and even around distant solar system bodies.
Socas-Navarro said the putative alien-satellite signal would have a signature similar to that of rings — both an exobelt and rings are made up of a swarm of objects orbiting a planet — but there are subtle technical differences in how that signature would look.
The signal would also reveal the altitude of the orbiting objects, which could provide a significant clue as to whether the objects were natural or alien-made.
A ring system can occur at any number of distances from the surface of the planet. But if the objects orbited at a planet’s geostationary height — about 22,200 miles (35,700 kilometers) — they are “almost certainly artificial,” Socas-Navarro said.
Similarly, a massive space city or a large station close to a space elevator could look like an exomoon. Again, Socas-Navarro said, altitude is key. If the object hovers at geostationary height, it’s likely to be artificial.
“It doesn’t seem to matter too much if they are many small or [a] few large [objects],” he said. “As long as they are spread out all over the orbit, they will basically produce the same signature.”
He also found that the ideal conditions to spot such a satellite belt would be around dim red dwarf stars located within 100 light-years of Earth.
The new study was published last month in The Astrophysical Journal. You can read it for free at the online preprint server arXiv.org.
You already know that using solar and wind power can influence the climate by reducing our dependence on heat-trapping fossil fuels. Now scientists say these renewable forms of energy can change the climate more directly – and do it in ways that might surprise you.
If wind turbines and solar panels were deployed across the Sahara, more rain would fall and more plants would grow in the massive African desert, according to research published in Friday’s edition of the journal Science.
“Renewable energy can have multiple benefits for climate and sustainable development,” wrote a team led by researchers from the University of Maryland Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Science.
To figure this out, the researchers imagined three scenarios for the Sahara and Sahel, a semiarid region immediately to the south.
In one, the area is studded with wind turbines that stand more than 300 feet high. In another, solar panels cover 20 percent of the land.
The third case combines wind and solar farms – a setup that would produce about 82 terawatts of electricity per year.
Once their hypothetical energy farms were built, the researchers fed the details into a sophisticated computer program that simulates Earth’s dynamic climate.
Then the program made predictions about how the farms would change the environment.
In the case of wind farms, the giant turbines would cause warmer air from above to mix with cooler air below, bringing more heat close to the surface.
Air temperatures near the ground would increase by nearly 4 degrees Fahrenheit.
In addition, the turbines would interrupt the smoothness of the desert surface. Winds blowing through the area would move more slowly.
That, combined with the added heat, would change the atmospheric conditions over the Sahara and bring more moisture to the area.
Average rainfall would increase by up to 0.25 of a millimeter per day – about double what it would have been otherwise, according to the study.
The additional water would fuel plant growth, and those extra plants would reduce the amount of sunlight that’s reflected off the desert surface.
From there, it’s a positive feedback loop, the researchers explained: The reduced reflectivity (or surface albedo) enhances precipitation, which fuels plant growth, which reduces albedo, and so on.
The story is a little different for solar farms.
Instead of slowing the wind or causing hot and cool air to mix, the main effect of solar panels is to reduce albedo. That would increase average daily precipitation by about 0.13 of a millimeter in the Sahara and 0.59 of a millimeter in the Sahel.
The additional water would induce more plant growth, further reducing albedo and allowing the cycle to continue.
These changes were predicted to increase the maximum temperature by more than 2 degrees Fahrenheit, the researchers reported.
If wind and solar farms were combined, these effects would be “enhanced,” they said. Average daily precipitation would increase to 0.59 of a millimeter. That’s nearly 1.5 times higher than the Sahara would be in its natural state.
But the rain wouldn’t be spread evenly everywhere. The computer simulations predicted that parts of the Sahel could get as much as nearly 20 inches of additional precipitation per year.
All that extra water could have “major ecological, environmental, and societal impacts,” Li and his colleagues wrote.
Average temperature also would rise, by nearly 5 degrees Fahrenheit.
Changes like these wouldn’t necessarily happen everywhere solar farms are built, the researchers cautioned. In the Sahara, the key is that today’s typical solar panels would increase the surface albedo. But if the landscape were different, that might not be true.
Ditto if the solar panels were more efficient, that could cause temperatures to fall instead of rise. Without added heat, rainfall wouldn’t increase. It might even decrease, the researchers noted.
These are all factors to consider when building a wind or solar farm, they wrote. If placed just so, these power plants could generate more rain and plants in addition to more clean energy.
Rising carbon dioxide emissions are set to make the world’s staple food crops less nutritious, according to new scientific research, worsening the serious ill health already suffered by billions of malnourished people.
The surprise consequence of fossil fuel burning is linked directly to the rise in CO2 levels which, unlike some of the predicted impacts of climate change, are undisputed.
The field trials of wheat, rice, maize and soybeans showed that higher CO2 levels significantly reduced the levels of the essential nutrients iron and zinc, as well as cutting protein levels.
“We found rising levels of CO2 are affecting human nutrition by reducing levels of very important nutrients in very important food crops.”
“From a health viewpoint, iron and zinc are hugely important,” said Prof Samuel Myers, an environmental health expert at Harvard University, Boston, and lead author of the study.
Myers said 2 billion people already suffer iron and zinc deficiencies around the world. This causes serious harm, in particular to developing babies and pregnant women, and currently causes the loss of 63m years of life annually.
“Fundamentally the concern is that there is already an enormous public health problem and rising CO2 in the atmosphere will exacerbate that problem further.”
While wheat, rice, maize and soybeans are relatively low in iron and zinc, in poorer societies where meat is rarely eaten they are a major source of the nutrients.
About 2.4bn people currently get at least 60% of their zinc and iron from these staples and it is over 75% in Bangladesh, Iraq and Algeria.
Wheat grown in high CO2 levels had 9% less zinc and 5% less iron, as well as 6% less protein, while rice had 3% less iron, 5% less iron and 8% less protein.
Maize saw similar falls while soybeans lost similar levels of zinc and iron but, being a legume not a grass, did not see lower protein.
The precise biological mechanism that causes nutrient levels to fall is not well understood as yet.
But Professor Brian Thomas, a plant develoment expert at the University of Warwick and not involved in the research said: “The work is convincing and consistent with what we do know about the plant physiology.”
The impact on human health resulting from the drop in the level of protein is less clear than for the zinc and iron loss.
Myers said the resulting increase in carbohydrate in the crops could increase the rate of metabolic syndrome, the diabetes, heart disease and stroke that currently afflicts many in developed countries due to high levels of obesity.
But Myers said obesity is not necessary for the risk of metabolic syndrome to rise. “It is something to do with the switch of foods itself.”
Myers said simply eating more staple foods to meet zinc and iron requirements was not realistic when food production already must double by 2050 to meet the demand of rising populations.
Some of the varieties used in the research performed better than others, raising the prospect of breeding strains that are less vulnerable to rising CO2.
But the researchers noted: “Such breeding programmes will not be a panacea for many reasons including the affordability of improved seeds and the numerous criteria used by farmers in making planting decisions that include taste, tradition, marketability, growing requirements and yield.”
It’s hard to say “coral molars” repeatedly without tripping over your tongue, but having teeth — and other bones — made from coral is becoming increasingly plausible.
It sounds crazy, but sea coral has actually been used in bone grafting for years as an alternative to using bone from cadavers or synthetic materials, which can introduce disease or infection.
Now, recent business successes and medical research suggests that coral bone grafting could become more mainstream.
First, some history: Back in 1988, Eugene White and h
Please is nephew Rodney White first noticed coral’s similarities to bones when diving in the South Pacific.
They went on to discover that sea coral naturally possesses the similar porous structure and calcium carbonate of human bones.
Over the years, researchers have developed coral as a bone grafting material by taking calcium carbonate from the exoskeleton of sea coral and converting it into a mineral called coralline hydroxyapatite.
Because the coral’s patterns matched the tissue in human bones, the coral could provide a platform for bones to grow.
But sometimes the coral didn’t biodegrade; it sort of stayed in the body, creating problems for the patient, including re-fracturing or turning into a source for bacteria growth.
Then, last year, Zhidao Xia, a lead researcher in coral bone grafting, and fellow researchers at Swansea University published a study in the journal Biomedical Materials, saying they had found a way to make coral more compatible with human bone.
Using their technique, 16 patients with bone defects healed four months after coral graft surgeries; two years later, the coral had naturally left the patients’ bodies.
Although coral bone grafting is still very much a “fringe thing,” according to Dr. Ruth Gates, a lead marine researcher at the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology, coral reefs are definitely developing a reputation as 21st-century medicine cabinets.
According to The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, corals can be used to treat cancer, arthritis, bacterial infections and even Alzheimer’s disease.
The American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) is one of New York’s most famous institutions.
Founded 145 years ago, moviegoers may recognize it as the setting of “Night at the Museum” and its sequels.
While the dinosaurs don’t actually come alive there, the museum has recently embraced digital technology to breathe new life into its attractions, which includes a plan to construct a $325 million science center close to Central Park in New York City.
“Using technology permeates every aspect of what we do,” AMNH president Ellen Futter said.
Ellen Futter has been at the helm of the museum for over two decades. When she took over in the early ’90s, she recognized a lot needed to be done. However, there was one project in particular that needed urgent attention.
“You know, when I first got there, I was worried about getting the museum air-conditioned,” Futter said.
Since then, the museum has not only added air conditioning, but Wi-Fi throughout all the buildings, in addition to 21st century technology to million year-old artifacts.
It’s also attracted a lot more people, with crowds swelling from 3 million to 5 million per year.
We’ve already seen our share of winter storms, severe weather, cold outbreaks, flooding and droughts so far in 2018. But there are some weather events every year that are downright strange, and this year is no exception.
The events we consider strange are weather phenomena happening repeatedly in one place, in a place where you wouldn’t think they would occur or during an unusual time of year.
Some are phenomena you may not find in a Weather 101 textbook.
Freezing Rain in Florida
Just after New Year’s Day, Winter Storm Grayson blanketed Tallahassee, Florida, with its first measurable snow since 1989, and the first January such occurrence, there, in records dating to 1885.
That’s eye-catching enough. What was even more bizarre was seeing an ice accumulation map involving the Sunshine State.
Up to a quarter inch of ice accumulation was measured in Lake City, and light icing on elevated surfaces was reported as far south as Levy County.
A Horseshoe Cloud
While the nor’easter parade was hammering the East Coast, a bizarre cloud was captured in video over Nevada in early March.
As meteorologist Jonathan Belles explained, this rare horseshoe vortex is fleeting, lasting only minutes, when a relatively flat cloud moves over a column of rising air, which also gives the cloud some spin.
A State Record Hailstone
Alabama’s notorious history of severe weather, particularly tornadoes, is well documented. On March 19, however, it was a hailstone that captured meteorologists’ attention.
One softball-size hailstone near Cullman, Alabama, was found to set a new state record, more than 5 inches in diameter.
The giant panda, commonly a symbol for conservation, is no longer considered an endangered species, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
In an update to their Red List of Threatened Species on Sunday, which assesses a species’ conservation status, the IUCN reported the giant panda population has improved enough for the endangered species label to be downgraded to “vulnerable.”
A nationwide census in 2014 found 1,864 giant pandas in the wild in China, excluding cubs — an increase from 1,596 in 2004, according to the IUCN.
Including cubs, the current population count is approaching 2,060, the organization said. The report credits forest protection and reforestation measures in China for increasing the available habitat for the species.
“The decision to downlist the giant panda to ‘vulnerable’ is a positive sign confirming that the Chinese government’s efforts to conserve this species are effective,” the IUCN noted in its assessment.
The giant panda was once widespread throughout southern China, and is revered in the country’s culture.
The IUCN’s first assessment of the species in 1965 listed the giant panda as “very rare but believed to be stable or increasing.”
The species has been the focus of an intensive, high-profile conservation campaign to recover an endangered species since the 1970s, according to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) — which has used the panda in its logo since 1961.
“For over fifty years, the giant panda has been the globe’s most beloved conservation icon as well as the symbol of WWF,” Marco Lambertini, director general of the WWF, said.
“Knowing that the panda is now a step further from extinction is an exciting moment for everyone committed to conserving the world’s wildlife and their habitats.”
Decades of conservation efforts have included the banning of giant panda poaching — their hides were considered a commodity — as well as the creation of the panda reserve system, increasing available habitats.
There are now 67 reserves in China protecting nearly 5,400 square miles (14,000 square kilometers) of habitat and 67 percent of the panda population, reported CNN.
“The recovery of the panda shows that when science, political will and engagement of local communities come together, we can save wildlife and also improve biodiversity,” Lambertini said in the statement.
The Chinese government’s partnerships with the international organization have also spread conservation and breeding efforts. In June, a healthy male cub was born in a Belgian zoo.
The captive population is not taken into consideration by IUCN for the Red List, which is specific to species in the wild.
However, the captive population being bred for recovery and reintroduction are part of the overall conservation picture, according to Joe Walston, Vice President of Conservation Field Programs for the Wildlife Conservation Society.
The giant panda is not completely in the clear, however the IUCN warned that climate change and decreasing bamboo availability could reverse the gains made in the past few decades.
More than one-third of the panda’s bamboo habitat could disappear in the next 80 years, according to the IUCN.
“It is a real concern, and this is emblematic of what species are facing globally with regard to climate change,” Walston told Live Science of the threat to habitat and food supply.
“The most important thing we can do at the moment is to be able to grow the extent and range of that habitat and by doing that you allow pandas to move across landscapes.”
Wildlife as a whole can adapt to short-term changes and season extremes, Walston said, but they need to space to move and adapt.
As such, conservation efforts continue and the giant panda will continue to be considered “a conservation-dependent species for the foreseeable future,” the IUCN’s report concluded.