How Google Will Use High-Flying Balloons To Deliver Internet To The Hinterlands

Project Loon sails through the stratosphere, where there are different wind layers.

Using wind data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the balloons are maneuvered by identifying the wind layer with the desired speed and direction and then adjusting altitude to float in that layer.

The Project Loon team prepared for launch in the pre-dawn frost near Lake Tekapo, New Zealand.

Solar panels and insulated electronics packages, prepared for launch. It takes 4 hours for the solar panels to charge the battery during the day, and that power is sufficient to keep all the flight systems working 24 hours a day.

A fully-inflated balloon envelope at Moffett Field, California. The balloons are 15m in diameter when fully inflated, but they do not inflate until they’ve reached float altitude in the stratosphere.

Project Loon team members Paul Acosta and Peter Capraro placed red balloons near the launch site at sunrise. The balloons were used as a rough indicator of wind direction and speed just above ground level.

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Steve The Weird ‘Aurora’ Is Not What We Thought It Was

Well, well, well. Looks like the jig is up. The “new kind of aurora” discovered earlier this year, and subsequently named “STEVE” has been rumbled. It seems Steve isn’t an aurora after all.

But that doesn’t mean the game is over. Because Steve’s actual identity may be even more interesting. Physicists have concluded that the erstwhile aurora is in fact an entirely new celestial phenomenon.

Steve – which manifests as gorgeous glowing purple ribbons across the sky – has been around for a few decades now, known to photographers and aurora chasers, but was only brought to the attention of scientists in 2016.

It had been nicknamed Steve by the Alberta Aurora Chasers, which scientists upheld when they officially named it Strong Thermal Emission Velocity Enhancement (STEVE).

Earlier this year, researchers announced that the purple and white streamers, while very different from the shimmering green auroral curtains, were indeed a new kind of aurora.

But the light produced by Steve isn’t the same as the light produced by an aurora, so a new team of researchers worked on figuring out Steve’s mechanism by studying a Steve event from March 2008.

An aurora is generated by solar winds, which interact with charged particles in our magnetosphere, mainly protons and electrons.

These charged particles rain into the ionosphere and travel along the planet’s magnetic field lines to the poles, where they manifest as dancing lights in the sky, usually green, but sometimes red or blue, producing strong radio emissions.

This is not what is happening with Steve.

Such an event occurred on 28 March 2008, and data was obtained both by ground-based cameras that record auroras, and the NOAA’s Polar Orbiting Environmental Satellite 17, which was directly overhead at the time, and which carries an instrument that can measure charged particles raining into the ionosphere.

This instrument detected no such particles. This means the mechanism that produces Steve must be different from the mechanism that produces auroras.

For now, the researchers have named the new optical phenomenon “skyglow” (don’t worry, it’s also still Steve for now). And they have plans to learn more.

The next step in their mission to unmask the true Steve is to try and determine if streams of fast ions and hot electrons in the ionosphere are responsible for Steve, or if its source is occurring at a higher altitude.

The research has been published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.

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Cleaning Products And Perfumes Are Major Sources Of Air Pollution, According To Scientists

Chemicals in household cleaning products, paints and perfumes could now rival motor vehicles as the top contributor to urban air pollution, a study has said.

Scientists in Los Angeles found that the amount of chemical vapours emitted into the atmosphere from these everyday items is roughly the same as from the transportation sector.

These vapours – known as volatile organic compounds (VOC) – react with sunlight to form ozone pollution and also react with other chemicals to form tiny particles in the air which can lead to lung damage.

The team of researchers concluded that as stricter policies on vehicles work to reduce traffic emissions, the impact of chemical products will become more significant.

As the transportation sector gets cleaner, these other sources of VOCs become more and more important,” said scientist Brian McDonald, the lead author of the study.

A lot of stuff we use in our everyday lives can impact air pollution.

Despite the fact people still use a lot more fuel than petroleum-based compounds in chemical products, there are some fundamental differences which can increase the impact of these household items, the researchers said.

Gasoline is stored in closed, hopefully airtight, containers and the VOCs in gasoline are burned for energy,” said Jessica Gilman, a co-author of the report.

You wear perfume or use scented products so that you or your neighbour can enjoy the aroma. You don’t do this with gasoline.”

They also found people become exposed to higher concentrations of VOCs while indoors compared to outdoors.

The findings from the study, which was led by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, have been published in the journal Science.

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What Would Happen If Earth Became 2 Degrees Warmer?

In 2015, the Paris Agreement declared that the world should try to keep Earth’s warming trend to well below 2°C by 2100. Here’s what would happen if temperatures did increase by 2° C.

Sea levels will likely rise by 1.6 feet. Flooding coastlines worldwide.

While the amount of fresh water may increase for high latitudes, East Africa, and parts of India and Sahel, subtropical regions may lose nearly one-third of its fresh water.

Making matters worse, heat waves could intensify. Tropical regions may experience heat waves for up to 3 months which will affect the growth of certain staple crops.

These areas will likely produce less wheat and corn but slightly more soy and rice.Which could affect overall diets worldwide.

Likewise, North Asia may see a boost in soy crops. Growing up to a quarter more soy each year.

For sea life, the situation is more dire. Warmer oceans will do irreversible damage to 99% of coral reefs. As the reefs die off, it will disrupt ecosystems for up to 9 million different species.

This scenario was forecasted by the European Geosciences Union in 2016. In 2017, another team of scientists estimated there’s a 95% chance Earth will warm more than 2 ºC by 2100.

Bleak forecasts may not be enough to stop humans from warming Earth. But at least they’re a guide on how to prepare for a frightening future.

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This Shark Eats Grass, And No One Knows Why

These sharks might be taking the expression “eating like a horse” a bit too literally.

Scientists have discovered that some sharks are eating a large amount of seagrass, as a significant part of their diet—but experts aren’t sure why the fish are deviating from their traditional carnivorous diet.

New research has shown that seagrass can make up more than 50 percent of a bonnethead shark’s diet. The small, shovel-headed sharks are closely related to the more familiar hammerheads.

It’s still possible that the sharks are just incidentally munching on seagrass as they feed on other prey, said Samantha Leigh, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of California, Irvine and a National Geographic explorer.

Even if it is incidental, it is a very large amount of grass, so they have to be able to process that somehow,” said Leigh.

Leigh conducted a nutrient content analysis that showed bonnetheads were digesting 56 percent of the organic matter in seagrass, similar to young sea turtles.

But in order to be considered true omnivores, an animal must obtain nutritional value or energy from the plants they eat.

Without knowing why bonnetheads are eating seagrass, it’s hard to know if this habit is purposeful, said Leigh, who is studying the shark’s digestive behavior.

It’s very likely they have some sort of microbiome living in their gut that is producing some of the enzymes that they need to break down this plant material, which is something we commonly find in omnivorous and especially herbivorous species,” she said.

However, younger bonnethead sharks have been found to have more seagrass in their stomachs than adult bonnetheads, which could point to a learning curve as the sharks mature and understand how to feed without simultaneously eating seagrass, said Dana Bethea, a research ecologist with NOAA Fisheries in Florida.

There’s a lot of prey handling learning that goes on in the younger life stages until they get to be bigger and really get their mouths around what they’re feeding,” she said.

Leigh thinks it’s a “definite possibility” that this could be related to their unique diet, though Bethea isn’t sure.

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This City In Alaska Is Warming So Fast, Algorithms Removed The Data Because It Seemed Unreal

Last week, scientists were pulling together the latest data for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s monthly report on the climate when they noticed something strange: One of their key climate monitoring stations had fallen off the map.

All of the data for Barrow, Alaska — the northernmost city in the United States — was missing.

No, Barrow hadn’t literally been vanquished by the pounding waves of the Arctic Sea (although it does sit precipitously close).

The missing station was just the result of rapid, man-made climate change, with a runaway effect on the Arctic.

The temperature in Barrow had been warming so fast this year, the data was automatically flagged as unreal and removed from the climate database.

It was done by algorithms that were put in place to ensure that only the best data gets included in NOAA’s reports.

They’re handy to keep the data sets clean, but this kind of quality-control algorithm is good only in “average” situations, with no outliers. The situation in Barrow, however, is anything but average.

If climate change is a fiery coal-mine disaster, then Barrow is our canary. The Arctic is warming faster than any other place on Earth, and Barrow is in the thick of it.

With less and less sea ice to reflect sunlight, the temperature around the North Pole is speeding upward.

The missing data obviously confused meteorologists and researchers, since it’s a record they’ve been watching closely, according to Deke Arndt, the chief of NOAA’s Climate Monitoring Branch.

He described it as “an ironic exclamation point to swift regional climate change in and near the Arctic.

Just this week, scientists reported that the Arctic had its second-warmest year — behind 2016 — with the lowest sea ice ever recorded.

The announcement came at the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union, and the report is topped with an alarming headline: “Arctic shows no sign of returning to reliably frozen region of recent past decades.

Changes in the Arctic extend beyond sea ice. Vast expanses of former permafrost have been reduced to mud. Nonnative species of plants, types that grow only in warmer climates, are spreading into what used to be the tundra.

Nowhere is this greening of the Arctic happening faster than the North Slope of Alaska, observable with high-resolution clarity on NOAA satellite imagery.

The current observed rate of sea ice decline and warming temperatures are higher than at any other time in the last 1,500 years, and likely longer than that,” the NOAA report says.

At no place is this more blatantly obvious than Barrow itself, which recently changed its name to the traditional native Alaskan name Utqiagvik.

In just the 17 years since 2000, the average October temperature in Barrow has climbed 7.8 degrees. The November temperature is up 6.9 degrees.

The December average has warmed 4.7 degrees. No wonder the data was flagged.

The Barrow temperatures are now safely back in the climate-monitoring data sets. Statisticians will have to come up with a new algorithm to prevent legitimate temperatures from being removed in the future.

New algorithms for a new normal.

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Sun Unleashes Most Powerful Solar Flare In Years

A major solar flare erupted from the sun Saturday ? one of the most powerful in years ? sending an energetic blast of X-rays from a hotspot of activity that may still belch more solar storms in the days to come.

On the morning of 6 September, from an active group of sunspots called 1121 belched out two huge streams of radiation.

It was the third major flare from the solar hotspot and registered a Class M 5.4 on the scale for sun storms, according to the Space Weather Prediction Center operated by NOAA.

Astronomers who study the sun have five categories of flares: A, B, C, M and X,” explained by skywatching columnist Joe Rao.

The M and X flares are the most potent types and the one that erupted [Saturday] was an M 5.4 which is just about the most powerful flare we’ve seen in many years.

At the time of the flare, sunspot group 1121 was on the limb, or the edge, of the sun’s disk, so any cloud of electrified particles ejected by the flare would not reach Earth, Rao said.

But as the sun rotates, this active region of the sun will be turned more and more toward the center of its disk ? it will be there around Nov. 12 to 13,” Rao said.

If a similar M-class flare erupts around that time, we could be in line to see a very nice display of northern lights a day or two later when the cloud of electrified solar particles reaches Earth.

According to the website Spaceweather.com, which monitors space weather and sky events, the radiation from the solar flare “created a wave of ionization in Earth’s upper atmosphere that altered the propagation of low-frequency radio waves.”

Severe solar flare events can cripple satellites and pose a risk to astronauts in orbit, and also have the potential to knock out power grids on Earth.

NASA recently began a project, called the Solar Shield, to provide early-warning alerts to electricity providers to help limit damage to power utility infrastructure as a result of extremely powerful solar storms.

The sun is currently entering an active period of its 11-year solar weather cycle after a lull in activity.

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Harvey Makes Landfall In Texas As Category 4 Storm. Here’s What You Need To Know.

Harvey made landfall as an extremely powerful Category 4 hurricane at 11 p.m. Friday between Port Aransas and Port O’Connor, Texas.

Packing 130 mph winds, the storm became the first major hurricane, rated Category 3 or higher (on the 1-5 Saffir-Simpson intensity scale), to strike U.S. soil in 12 years.

At 11 p.m. Friday, Harvey was centered about 30 miles east-northeast of Corpus Christi, tracking toward the northwest at 8 mph.

A weather station at Aransas Pass – northeast of Corpus Christi and within storm’s eyewall, reported sustained winds up to 111 mph and gusts to 131 mph in the previous hour.

In Rockport, Tex., the National Weather Service logged reports indicating “numerous structures destroyed”, and “buildings collapsed with people trapped inside”. The full extent of the damage will not be known until daylight.

In addition to damaging winds, the National Hurricane Center said it expects “catastrophic and life-threatening” flash flooding along the middle and upper Texas coast.

An incredible amount of rain, 15 to 30 inches with isolated amounts of up to 40 inches, is predicted because the storm is expected to stall and unload torrents for four to six straight days.

In just a few days, the storm may dispense the amount of rain that normally falls over an entire year, shattering records.

The storm is also predicted to generate a devastating storm surge — or raise the water as much as 13 feet above normally dry land at the coast.

The National Weather Service office in Corpus Christi, near where the storm is expected to make landfall, said that due to the combination of flooding from storm surge and rainfall, “locations may be uninhabitable for an extended period.

It warned of “structural damage to buildings, with many washing away” and that “streets and parking lots become rivers of raging water with underpasses submerged.

Hurricane, storm surge and flood warnings plastered coastal and inland portions of East Texas Friday evening, and tropical-storm-force winds are forecast to spread well into the interior of Texas Friday night.

The rain forecasts are extremely ominous. “Somebody is going to get a rainstorm to tell their grandkids about,” said Bill Read, a former director of the National Hurricane Center.

Areas along the middle and upper Texas coast may see 15 to 30 inches of rain, with a few areas receiving as much as 40 inches, although it is impossible to pinpoint exactly where the heaviest rain will fall.

Millions of people from Corpus Christi to Houston will get more than two feet of rain when all is done, with Southern Louisiana getting up to a foot of rain,” said Louis Uccellini, director of the National Weather Service.

Houston, the nation’s fourth-largest city, could receive 20 inches or more of rain from the storm, depending on exactly where it tracks — with the heaviest moving in Saturday or Sunday and then continuing into early next week.

Matt Lanza, a meteorologist based in Houston, said 20 inches would be “devastating” for the city, depending where it fell.

A worst-case scenario, Lanza said, would be for this amount of rain to fall just northwest of downtown as “all that water has to push through the bayou networks across the city into Galveston Bay.

The Hurricane Center predicts 6 to 13 feet of water — above normally dry land — inundating coastal areas immediately to the east and north of the landfall location.

That amount is based on the assumption that Harvey makes landfall as a Category 3 hurricane. It is critical that affected residents heed evacuation orders.

Keep in mind that the timing of normal astronomical tides is a factor. If the highest storm surge arrives at or near high tide, the total “storm tide” will be maximized.

In coastal areas, the combination of double digit rainfall and a storm surge that raises water levels (above normally dry land) for days (because the storm will stall) may result in massive water buildup.

A major hurricane is technically defined as one rated Category 3 or higher on the 1-5 Saffir-Simpson intensity scale.

The last major hurricane to make landfall on the United States was Wilma in October 2005.While Hurricane Ike in 2008 produced a devastating storm surge around Galveston and a massive economic toll, it was rated a high-end Category 2 storm at landfall.

While Hurricane Ike in 2008 produced a devastating storm surge around Galveston and a massive economic toll, it was rated a high-end Category 2 storm at landfall.

Superstorm Sandy, another devastating weather event, was no longer officially considered a hurricane when it made landfall near Atlantic City in 2012.

It had transitioned into a what was called a “post tropical storm” as it was beginning to lose tropical characteristics.

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Global Warming Will Make Our Winter Colder

global warming

According to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the 10 warmest years on record have occurred since 1997.

And the National Atmospheric and Oceanographic Administration (NOAA) reports that recent decades have been the warmest since at least around 1000 AD, and that the warming we’ve seen since the late 19th century is unprecedented over the last 1,000 years.

“You can’t tell much about the climate or where it’s headed by focusing on a particularly frigid day, or season, or year, even,” writes Eoin O’Carroll of the Christian Science Monitor.

“It’s all in the long-term trends,” concurs Dr. Gavin Schmidt, a climatologist at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies.

Most scientists agree that we need to differentiate between weather and climate. The NOAA defines climate as the average of weather over at least a 30-year period.

So periodic aberrations like the harsh winter storms ravaging the Southeast and other parts of the country this winter do not call the science of human-induced global warming into question.

The flip side of the question, of course, is whether global warming is at least partly to blame for especially harsh winter weather.


As we pointed out in a recent EarthTalk column, warmer temperatures in the winter of 2006 caused Lake Erie to not freeze for the first time in its history.

This actually led to increased snowfalls because more evaporating water from the lake was available for precipitation.

But while more extreme weather events of all kinds from snowstorms to hurricanes to droughts are likely side effects of a climate in transition, most scientists maintain that any year-to-year variation in weather cannot be linked directly to either a warming or cooling climate.

Even most global warming skeptics agree that a specific cold snap or freak storm doesn’t have any bearing on whether or not the climate problem is real.

snow storm

One such skeptic, Jimmy Hogan of the Rational Environmentalist website writes, “If we are throwing out anecdotal evidence that refutes global warming we must at the same time throw out anecdotal evidence that supports it.”

He cites environmental groups holding up Hurricane Katrina as proof of global warming as one example of the latter.

If nothing else, we should all keep in mind that every time we turn up the thermostat this winter to combat the cold, we are contributing to global warming by consuming more fossil fuel power.Until we can shift our economy over to greener energy sources, global warming will be a problem, regardless of how warm or cold it is outside.

Until we can shift our economy over to greener energy sources, global warming will be a problem, regardless of how warm or cold it is outside.

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