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Shout-out for famous painting at EGU meeting

by Liz Kalaugher

According to psychologists, the vivid orange, red and turquoise sky in Munch’s famous Scream painting of the late 19th and early 20th century may represent his emotional state. But meteorologists argued that it depicted a colourful sunset caused by the eruption of Krakatoa in 1883. Now a team from Norway has proposed that rather than painting the results of volcanic ash, Munch was inspired by unusual “mother-of-pearl” clouds high up in the stratosphere.

munch.scream

“We are natural scientists so we tend to look for answers in nature whilst the psychologists have looked for inner torment,” said Helene Muri of the University of Oslo, speaking on behalf of meteorological consultant Svein Fikke at a press conference at the European Geosciences Union General Assembly in Vienna.

These “mother-of-pearl” clouds, otherwise known as nacreous clouds or polar stratospheric clouds type II, form when the stratosphere is both unusually cold (-85°C compared to its average of -60°C) and humid. Such conditions typically occur in high latitudes during the winter, often near mountains. The clouds contain small ice crystals – about 1 micron across – and sit at 20-30 km, well above the heights clouds normally form. They often have a wavy appearance because of the lee-waves behind mountain ranges.

Mother-of-pearl clouds are too thin to be visible during the day but appear around half an hour after sunset or before dawn, when the sun shines onto them at a low angle. Their sudden appearance in a dark sky and their changing colours can be striking, particularly if you don’t know about the phenomenon. Munch wrote in a poem in his diary between 1890 and 1892, “I went along the road with two friends – the sun set…The sky suddenly became bloodish red….watched over the flaming clouds as blood and sword….I felt this big infinite scream through nature”.

Fikke observed such clouds above Oslo in December 2014 and noticed their similarity to the sky in the 1910 version of The Scream. He and colleagues Øyvind Nordli of the Norwegian Meteorological Institute and the late Jón Egill Kristjánsson of the University of Oslo believed that Munch painted mother-of-pearl clouds rather than a volcanic-ash-enhanced sunset because colourful sunsets caused by volcanoes have a stratified appearance and don’t exhibit wavy lines. What’s more, volcanoes tend to produce frequent colourful sunsets over a couple of years whereas Munch’s diary indicates that his experience was a one-off.

Muri, an Oslo resident for around 25 years, has seen mother-of-pearl clouds only once. But the phenomenon was definitely seen in the Oslo area on the right timescale for Munch – physicist Fredrik Carl Stőrmer documented its appearance in January 1890, when he was just 16, making detailing drawings of the clouds’ shapes and colours. “They are so beautiful you could believe you were in another world,” Stőrmer wrote when he published his observations 42 years later. Munch painted four versions of The Scream between 1893 and 1910.

Fikke and colleagues published their results today in the journal Weather. An EGU session this morning was dedicated to Kristjánsson’s memory.

 

 

 

 

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Nuclear Power: Past, present and future

By Dave Elliott

I have been looking at some early, novel, nuclear ideas and how some of them are being re-explored. Thorium, molten salt reactors, high temperature reactors, fast neutron reactors- they have all been tried earlier on, with mixed results. In a new book for IOPP I ask, will the revamped variants, including smaller versions, do any better? And more radically, do we actually need any of them- has nuclear really got a future?

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ERL celebrates award winners for 2016

By Gui Wright, Publisher, ERL

Environmental Research Letters (ERL), environmentalresearchweb’s sister journal, marked a successful year by recognising key contributors to the journal in 2016.

As part of the Highlights of 2016 collection, following a hotly-contested vote amongst the ERL Editorial Board, Mary Collins (from the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry, and National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center in the US) and colleagues were awarded the ‘Best Article of 2016’ prize for “Linking ‘toxic outliers’ to environmental justice communities”. Collins and her co-workers, Ian Munoz and Joseph JaJa, were interviewed by environmentalresearchweb where they discussed how a handful of super-polluters account for 90% of toxic chemical pollution in the US, and disproportionately expose communities of colour and low income populations to potential harm.

Mary Collins (credit: SESYNC)

Mary Collins group (credit: SESYNC)

The article forms part of ERL’s Focus on Environmental Justice: New Directions in International Research, a collection featuring new research on quantitative and interdisciplinary approaches to environmental justice, a field increasingly integral to the development of environmental policy.

The Editorial Board also chose to honour Kimberly Van Meter (University of Waterloo, Canada) and colleagues for their article “The nitrogen legacy: emerging evidence of nitrogen accumulation in anthropogenic landscapes”, awarding the work ‘Best Early Career Article of 2016’

Kimberly Van Meter and Nandita Basu

Kimberly Van Meter and Nandita Basu

Van Meter, Nadita Basu and the rest of the teamstudied the accumulation of nitrogen following modern-day increases in nitrogen-based fertilizer use. Much of the ‘missing’

nitrogen is stored in the post-harvest plant root residue, they found. With nitrogen management now seen as an issue of critical environmental and ecological importance, Van Meter and Basu discuss the long-term implications of their latest discovery in an ERL article video abstract and interview with environmentalresearchweb.

Congratulations to both sets of prize-winning authors, who have been awarded free open-access publication in ERL during 2017, once again proving that the reward for ground-breaking work is…more hard work!

“From the local to the global environment, this amazing collection of articles show both the value and the power of studies that investigate the frontiers of environmental change and of human-environmental interactions,” said ERL Editor-in-Chief Daniel Kammen of the Highlights of 2016 collection.

2016 also saw the launch of the IOP Reviewer Awards, with ERL recognising the contribution of our hard-working reviewers by nominating over 45 Outstanding Reviewers for the year. Our inaugural ‘ERL Reviewer of the Year’ is Shannan Sweet of Cornell University, US.

Shannan Sweet (credit: Molly Timm)

Shannan Sweet (credit: Molly Timm)

ERL continually strives to serve the environmental science community and beyond, at a time where open science and public outreach are seemingly more important than ever. Our 10th anniversary last year was a good point to reflect on milestones reached so far. Taking the time to acknowledge those authors and reviewers who gave us their support during 2016 provides a further reminder of our shared values, and our motivation to do all we can in return.

Thank you to the community, from all at ERL.

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Nuclear is cheap says Lloyd’s Register

By Dave Elliott

Nuclear power generation technologies are now cost competitive in some contexts and innovation is gathering pace across the sector, British consultancy Lloyd’s Register says in a report Technology Radar – a Nuclear Perspective. A parallel, wider Technology Radar – Low Carbon report, reviews renewables, energy storage and infrastructure, as well as nuclear. That is quite positive about solar power and storage, but it also presents nuclear as a possible winner.    Continue reading

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The last word on the cost of balancing renewables

By Dave Elliott

The UK Energy Research Centre (UKERC) has produced an update to its 2006 report that had looked at the costs and impacts of using ‘intermittent’ electricity from renewables such as wind and solar. The 2006 study had only examined impacts with up to a 20% input, but the UKERC researchers now say that, even at the higher levels we are now expecting, it was still the case that the costs of balancing renewables could be low. However, they warned that, unless ‘urgent’ action was taken by the government to boost grid flexibility, the costs of adding renewables in future will be ‘much higher than they need to be’.

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Nuclear or renewables – two new scenarios

By Dave Elliott

Guest posts by Energy Matters’ commentators Alex Terrell and Andy Dawson present two rival UK scenarios for 2050 with, respectively, high nuclear and high renewables. It’s an interesting exercise. They looked at DECC’s 2050 Pathways models, but say ‘it’s far from clear if the underlying models take adequate account of variations in demand’. So they developed their own demand projections.

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ICL and UCL on renewable balancing

By Dave Elliott

Several academic studies have indicated that balancing variable renewables need not be expensive. An authoritative review of over 200 studies by UK Energy Research Centre in 2006 concluded: ‘Intermittency costs in Britain are of the order of £5 to £8/MWh, made up of £2 to £3/MWh from short-run balancing costs and £3 to £5/MWh from the cost of maintaining a higher system margin’.  

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Can tidal power match wind costs?

By Dave Elliott

Wind power has developed quite rapidly around the world, heading for 500GW soon, with costs falling. On-shore wind is now one of the cheapest renewables. The UK has nearly 10GW on-shore and over 5GW offshore, with the latter expanding and new technology emerging – floating wind turbines.  However tidal power, although mostly at a much earlier stage in its evolution, is making a bid to compete, at least in the medium to long term. Although the Swansea tidal lagoon project will generate at a somewhat higher cost than offshore wind power, and certainly much higher than on-shore wind, it’s claimed that subsequent lagoons should be much cheaper, and tidal stream turbine developers are also confident about price reductions. Will tidal power really get cheap? That may depend on how these technologies get supported in the near future.

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Can tidal lagoons supply base-load power?

By Dave Elliott

The Swansea Lagoon didn’t feature in the Budget announcement, despite Labour’s John McDonnell saying “get on with it”, but with a decision still expected soon it does represent an intriguing idea, especially if it can be extended.  Charles Hendry’s review of Tidal Lagoons threw up some interesting possibilities and issues, including the idea that multiple projects could offer more nearly continuous output, as well as identifying some conflicts over what should be done. He noted that there were “some views that were mutually exclusive. Whilst some, especially in the financial and environmental communities, argue that a smaller tidal lagoon in Swansea Bay needs to be operational before a commitment can be made to larger projects on the most competitive terms; others, in the supply chain, academia and those pushing for faster action on climate change, argue that the cumulative economic and industrial benefits of a programme of tidal lagoons would inevitably be lost by such a delay”.

Hendry backed the latter view and proposed an initial trial go-ahead for the small 320 MW Swansea project – see my earlier post. But the aim was to see if further projects, including possibly cheaper, larger variants, might be worth pursuing and he also looked at some of the wider options that could open up.

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UK Industrial Strategy – the energy dimension

By Dave Elliott

The government’s new long-term Industrial Strategy’ green paper is about growth, exports, competition and the development of new technology, to be achieved by upgrading skills and infrastructure, improving supply chains and increasing investment in research and innovation – with £4.7 bn by 2020-21 in R&D funding. The new Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund could support smart and clean energy technologies, such as storage and demand-response grid technologies. Nuclear also gets a mention – SMRs and even fusion. That’s along with robotics/artificial intelligence, biotech, digital technologies and 5G mobile networks and the like.

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