Posts by: James Dacey

Are reticent climate researchers ‘failing humanity’?

By James Dacey in San Francisco.

Droves of delegates poured into the Moscone Center in San Francisco today for day one of AGU Fall 2015 – the largest Earth and space-science meeting in the world, with a whopping 24,000 delegates expected over the week. Having arrived from the UK on Saturday night, the jet-lag has kicked in with a vengeance today, so a couple of the conference coffees were definitely in order this morning. I’m just taking a break now after an interesting session about communicating climate change, and whether those researchers who don’t engage in the public debate are “failing humanity”.

The room was packed to the rafters, no doubt down to the profile of the speakers. First up was James Hansen, the former NASA scientist who has been outspoken in his criticism of the recent COP21 climate discussions, or at least the lack of concrete proposals to cut carbon emissions. Hansen restated his beef with the deal and argued that the only workable solution is for authorities to collect a carbon fee at source, such as charging domestic mines for the weight of carbon they sell. This, he believes, is the most effective way to make renewable energy and low-carbon options more viable. Not one to pull his punches, Hansen described US Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz’s idea that China will be able to curb much of its carbon missions using carbon capture and storage (CSS) technologies as “pure unadulterated bullshit”.

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Designing smarter cities

By James Dacey in Berkeley, US.

This weekend politicians at the COP21 summit in Paris signed a landmark legal agreement to keep global temperature rises at bay by curbing carbon emissions. The tricky next question of course is: how are we actually going to do this? In this short video, civil engineer Arpad Horvath of the University of California Berkeley explains that one of the aspects will be a fundamental rethink of our urban infrastructures. Horvath believes we need to move towards “smart cities” with smaller carbon footprints at all levels – from greener individual buildings, to more sustainable transport networks.

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Should we engineer the climate to counter the effect of global warming?

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By James Dacey, Physics World

Geoengineering is the idea of controlling the weather and climate by the large-scale engineering of the environment. The idea has come to prominence in recent years as concerns about man-made global warming have increased and governments have faltered on negotiations to restrict carbon-dioxide emissions.

One of the more radical proposals is to intervene with the Earth’s solar-energy balance by deploying technologies to reflect sunlight. Suggestions include painting buildings white to make them more reflective, injecting reflective aerosols into the atmosphere, or even deploying a fleet of shields into the Earth’s orbit to directly intercept incoming sunlight.

The other main approach to geoengineering is to try to directly remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. One area already being developed is carbon capture and storage (CCS), a three-stage process that involves harvesting, transporting and then storing the carbon dioxide in suitable underground locations such as vast saline aquifers. A more radical approach is to fertilize the ocean with a limiting nutrient such as iron to promote more marine flora, which will draw more carbon out of the atmosphere during photosynthesis.

Earlier this month, environmentalresearchweb published an interview with the high-profile geophysicist Ken Caldeira of the Carnegie Institution for Science in the US. Caldeira has some severe reservations about geoengineering, specifically concerning: its environmental impact; how the presence of a “plan B” that may prove unreliable could affect efforts to cut carbon emissions; and who on the global stage should regulate use of the technology, particularly when it may reduce rainfall in some areas.

We want to know your opinion on this issue, via this week’s Physics World Facebook poll.

Should we engineer the climate to counter the effect of global warming?

Let’s do it!
We should prepare to do it as a “plan B” if carbon emissions continue to rise
No way! The environmental risks are too high
No, because it won’t work anyway

Have your say by casting your vote on our Facebook page. As always, please feel free to explain your response by posting a comment.

In last week’s poll we looked at the issue of university ranking exercises. The issue was on our minds because the Times Higher Education (THE) had just released its annual list of the top 100 universities, which was dominated by institutions in English-speaking countries.  We asked whether you think these university ranking exercises are inherently biased. The outcome was highly conclusive, with 96% of respondents opting for “yes”.

Thank you for your participation and we look forward to hearing from you in this week’s poll.

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Tracking our planet from above

By James Dacey

Advances in satellite technology are giving us fresh opportunities to monitor the Earth’s geography and track changes over time. During a recent visit to San Francisco, I got the chance to meet a few of the scientists who use such data to develop a better understanding of global processes. I met them alongside a giant screen, which was part of a NASA exhibition at the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union.

In this first video interview, I meet NASA scientist Compton Tucker, who is interested in deforestation in the Amazon rainforest. He uses the screen to show me images of a region in north-west Brazil as captured by satellites from the Landsat Program, which has been collecting images since 1972. Tucker explains how he uses these images to identify where deforestation has increased over time and why these changes have occurred.

Tucker says that this information is useful for a number of reasons, including climate studies, because it can help to quantify the amount of carbon dioxide released as a result of deforestation. He explained that scientists collect the data and integrate them with scientific observations obtained on the ground. It was also interesting to hear about Tucker’s adventures in the jungle, particularly his experiences meeting the locals.

In this second video interview, I meet another NASA scientist, Eric Lindstrom, who uses the screen to show me an animation from NASA’s ECCO2 project. This project is designed to create an accurate model of the world’s oceans and sea-ice based on data collected by a whole fleet of satellites. He showed me how the model can identify the extent of turbulence in the oceans in the form of eddy currents.

If you enjoy these videos, then you may also be interested in one of the articles in the March issue of Physics World. It features a series of images focusing on different aspects of planet Earth, including the varying sea-surface temperatures and the elevation of the land surface. You can download a free PDF of this special earth-science issue via this link.

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Mapping forest carbon stocks

biomass map.jpg

By James Dacey, Physics World

The distribution of stored carbon across the globe is considered to be a major uncertainty in greenhouse gas emissions calculations. But this map could help to improve the situation by detailing the spread of biomass carbon stocks over 2.5 billion hectares of forests across three continents – encompassing all tropical forests.

The map was created by researchers in the US, the UK and Gabon, who combined satellite data and ground-based observations to calculate above- and below-ground biomass quantities to a resolution of 1 km. To calculate forest heights, the researchers collected more than 3 million lidar shots using an instrument aboard NASA’s Ice, Cloud,and land Elevation Satellite (ICESat).

Presenting their map in a paper published online yesterday in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the researchers say that forests in the study region contained 247 GT of carbon. Forests in Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa, and south-east Asia accounted for 49%, 25% and 26% of the total carbon stock respectively.

The regions with the largest carbon biomasses are highlighted in deep red, while the zones with the least carbon are coloured in violet.

The researchers say that the new data and accompanying map could help developing countries in the study area to implement climate change mitigation policies relating to deforestation and degradation (REDD).

Source: physicsworld.com

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New Royal Society president explores Climategate in documentary

By James Dacey

At the end of November last year, the presidency of the UK’s Royal Society passed from cosmologist Martin Rees into the hands of the Nobel-prize-winning geneticist Sir Paul Nurse. Heading the world’s oldest scientific academy brings a responsibility to uphold the organization’s grand aim “to expand the frontiers of knowledge by championing the development and use of science, mathematics, engineering and medicine for the benefit of humanity and the good of the planet.”

And Nurse, it seems, is wasting no time in grabbing his presidency by the reigns. Last night he appeared on UK television presenting an episode of the long-standing documentary series Horizon, entitled “Science under attack”. The hour-long show explored the public’s relationship with science, as influenced by the media, and it focused primarily on climate science and the rise of public scepticism.

Towards the beginning of the show, Nurse cited a recent poll that found nearly half of people in the US, and more than a third of Britons, believe that manmade climate change is being exaggerated. “It’s this gap between scientists and the public that I want to understand,” proclaimed Nurse, teeing up the show.

For the next 50 minutes or so, Nurse then visited a selection of players on either side of the debate. It was framed within the narrative of a personal journey: an eminently reasonable scientist who knows lots about the process of science but not the specifics of climate science. And to his credit, Nurse played his part exceptionally well, showing that science involves personalities and conflicts just like any other human activity.

Naturally, the show came to focus on “Climategate”, the controversy that erupted in November when internal e-mails between members of the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia, UK were leaked to the public. The main controversy blew up around an e-mail sent by the then CRU director Phil Jones to a colleague in which he referred to “Mike’s Nature trick”, describing the splicing of temperature data from direct and indirect sources.

“The [World Meteorological Organization] wanted a relatively simple diagram for their particular audience,” Jones explained to Nurse. When asked why he thought there had been such a huge reaction to the leaks, Jones is obviously still perplexed. “A number of the climate change sceptics or doubters or deniers, whatever you want to call them, just wanted to use these e-mails for their own purposes, to cast doubt on the basic science.”

Following his visit to UEA, Jones then paid a visit to a person firmly on the other side of the debate, James Delingpole, the online journalist who broke the “Climategate” story on his Telegraph blog. This led to the most captivating scene of the documentary when Nurse puts it to Delingpole that denying climate change is like ignoring the consensus medical view when choosing how to treat cancer.

Asking Nurse to change the topic, Delingpole retorts, “I think it’s very easy to caricature the position of climate change sceptics as the sort of people who don’t look left and right when crossing the road.” Adding that he “slightly resented” the way the analogy had been brought in.

UK viewers can watch the documentary at this link.

Source: <a href="http://physicsworld.com/blog/2011/01/new_royal_society_president_ex.html
“>www.physicsworld.com

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