Blue Marble - March 2007

Chasing Branson's Earth Challenge? Catalyst Might Turn CO2 Into Fuel

| Fri Mar. 16, 2007 7:28 PM EDT

News from the Max Planck Institute in Potsdam, Germany, describes how a new catalyst that can split carbon dioxide gas might allow us to use carbon from the atmosphere as a fuel source. You know, the way plants do. If so, the Germans might find themselves in contention for Richard Branson's Earth Challenge:

The Virgin Earth Challenge is a prize of $25m for whoever can demonstrate to the judges' satisfaction a commercially viable design which results in the removal of anthropogenic, atmospheric greenhouse gases so as to contribute materially to the stability of Earth's climate.

As New Scientist reports:

"Breaking open the very stable bonds in CO2 is one of the biggest challenges in synthetic chemistry," says Frederic Goettmann, a chemist at the Max Planck Institute for Colloids and Interfaces in Potsdam, Germany. "But plants have been doing it for millions of years."

Plants use the energy of sunlight to cleave the relatively stable chemical bonds between the carbon and oxygen atoms in a carbon dioxide molecule. In photosynthesis, the CO2 molecule is initially bonded to nitrogen atoms, making reactive compounds called carbamates. These less stable compounds can then be broken down, allowing the carbon to be used in the synthesis of other plant products, such as sugars and proteins.

In an attempt to emulate this natural process, Goettmann and colleagues Arne Thomas and Markus Antonietti developed their own nitrogen-based catalyst that can produce carbamates. The graphite-like compound is made from flat layers of carbon and nitrogen atoms arranged in hexagons.

"Carbon monoxide can be used to build new carbon-carbon bonds," explains Goettmann. "We have taken the first step towards using carbon dioxide from the atmosphere as a source for chemical synthesis."

Future refinements could allow chemists to reduce their dependence on fossil fuels as sources for making chemicals. Liquid fuel could also be made from CO split from CO2, says Goettmann. "It was common in Second World War Germany and in South Africa in the 1980s to make fuel from CO derived from coal," he adds.

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Crops Feel the Heat of Warming Climate

| Fri Mar. 16, 2007 6:47 PM EDT

Listen up, naysayers. Still think balmy temps will be good for the world food supply? Think again.

In the first study estimating how much global food production is already affected by climate change, researchers from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and the Carnegie Institution's Department of Global Ecology report that warming since 1981 has caused annual losses of roughly $5 billion to the major cereal crops. This during a time when annual global temperatures increased by about 0.7 degrees Fahrenheit, with even larger changes observed in some regions.

From 1981-2002, fields of wheat, corn and barley throughout the world produced a combined 40 million metric tons of food less per year because of increasing temperatures caused by human activities. From Lawrence Livermore

"There is clearly a negative response of global yields to increased temperatures," said David Lobell, a Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory researcher and lead author of the study that appears online March 16 in Environmental Research Letters. "Though the impacts are relatively small compared to the technological yield gains over the same period, the results demonstrate that negative impacts of climate trends on crop yields at the global scale are already occurring."

"Most people tend to think of climate change as something that will impact the future, but this study shows that warming over the past two decades already has had real effects on global food supply," said Christopher Field, co-author on the study and director of Carnegie Institution's Department of Global Ecology.

Using global yield data from the Food and Agriculture Organization for 1961-2002, Lobell and Field compared average temperatures and precipitation with yields over the major growing regions. On average, they found, several food crops responded negatively to warmer temperatures. They then used these relationships to estimate the effect of observed warming trends.

"To do this, we assumed that farmers have not yet adapted to climate change, for example by selecting new crop varieties to deal with climate change," Lobell said. "If they have been adapting – something that is very difficult to measure – then the effects of warming may have been lower."

Most experts believe that adaptation would lag several years behind climate trends, because of the difficulty of distinguishing climate trends from natural variability. The importance of this study, the authors said, was that it demonstrates a clear and simple relationship at the global scale, with yields dropping by approximately 3-5 percent for a one-degree Fahrenheit increase. "A key to moving forward is how well cropping systems can adapt to a warmer world," Lobell said. "Investments in this area could potentially save billions of dollars and millions of lives."

So what happens if, as some predict, change comes too fast for even intelligent agriculture to keep up?

Weird Weather Watch: Warmest Winter on Record

| Fri Mar. 16, 2007 6:28 PM EDT

hot_hot_hot.jpgThe National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported yesterday that this winter was the warmest since record-keeping began in 1880. U.S. temperatures were near average, but global temperatures were hot, hot, hot.

Antarctic Ice Melting Faster than Previously Thought

| Fri Mar. 16, 2007 6:19 PM EDT

Ice in Antarctica is being pushed out to sea by some unusually fast-moving glaciers. Scientists don't know for sure why it's happening or even if it's related to human activity, but the ice shelf forms the lion's share of the world's ice, so this unexpected loss would require existing climate change models to be sped up accordingly. According to the Washington Post, the net loss of Antarctic ice is estimated at 25 billion metric tons a year.

We are so screwed.

Sewage-to-Snow Plan Stopped Short on Sacred Indian Mountains

| Fri Mar. 16, 2007 3:25 PM EDT

Thirteen Native American tribes in Arizona don't want their sacred mountain defiled by faux snow made from treated wastewater. A federal appeals court ruled that Arizona Snowbowl's plan to augment the ski season in the San Francisco peaks would violate the tribes' religious freedom.

Judge William A. Fletcher compared the snow-making plan to conducting Christian baptisms with wastewater. The plan would violate the Religious Freedom Restoration act of 1993, he ruled. Tribal representative Howard Shanker said that the ruling "creates a tremendous precedent for tribes to protect their sacred sites." Before the ruling, Snowbowl owner Eric Borowsky said that he would sell the resort if the appeals court ruled against him, due to both a string of bad-snow years and the $4 million he spent on environmental impact statements and legal fees.


— Rose Miller

British Environment Minister Turns to You Tube To Pimp Carbon Cuts

| Wed Mar. 14, 2007 7:19 PM EDT

It's a heartening move. It's long overdue. And it's not enough.

The British government today revealed its draft climate bill, with 60% cuts in carbon dioxide emissions by 2050--making Britain the first of the heavy hitters to produce a significant plan for reducing greenhouse-gas emissions. Britain's plan will measure emissions against their 1990 levels--like the essentially defunct Kyoto Protocol--while exceeding Kyoto by seeking an average 5.2% cut among developed-world nations by 2012.

From Nature.com:

The plan will involve setting five-year targets for emissions reduction, called 'carbon budgets'. These targets should see Britain cut its carbon emissions by between 26% and 32% by 2020--exceeding the 20% cuts agreed by many European nations at a summit last week. The United States has no federally mandated emissions targets, although some individual states have set goals.

Again from Nature.com:

It is not clear exactly how the UK targets will be met, although the government has pledged to invest in energy efficiency, home power-generation schemes, renewable-energy technologies, and increased carbon trading. Miliband stressed that individuals will be able to make a difference: "In the end, this isn't something that governments and businesses can do alone," he said.

The Los Angeles Times reports that new legislation is not as stringent as many political leaders are seeking:

[California] Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who has overseen the adoption of similar legislation in California, joined Blair for the launch by satellite link via the ITN network. He said technology and carbon tradeoff partnerships across the globe would allow gains that would not be achievable individually. "This is a huge, huge announcement," Schwarzenegger said of the proposed British legislation.

Yet California's regulation is far more ambitious than the British proposal, calling for an 80% reduction in greenhouse gases by 2050. Again from the LA Times:

Many environmental groups also have urged annual targets. Friends of the Earth welcomed the proposed law but called for it to be even stronger, with targeted emission cuts of 3% every year, annual progress reports and taxes on international aviation and shipping emissions. "The government's current target--a cut in emissions of 60% by 2050--is no longer considered to be a sufficient contribution by the U.K. or other developed countries," the organization said in a statement.

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Even Camels Aren't Safe From Global Warming

| Wed Mar. 14, 2007 5:57 PM EDT

camels.jpg

Australia's current drought, the worst in a century, is driving its feral camels mad with thirst. The country's 1 million wild camels, the largest population in the world, are stampeding through Western Australian towns looking for water. "They did a lot of damage searching for water," a townswoman told Reuters, "trampling air conditioning hoses, taps, and pipes." Despite these attempts, thousands of the animals are being found dead along the dried-up banks of the Docker River.

The camels, which usually travel in groups of about 100 animals, were first introduced to Australia around 1840 to provide transportation through the dangerously hot and expansive deserts of Western and Central Australia. The several different breeds--slender riding camels from the Middle East, two-humped camels from China, and draft camels from India--were essential cargo vehicles for the country's many infrastructure projects. But by 1930, autos had replaced camels and the animals were left to fend for themselves.

Left alone, the animals flourished in the desert and today camels are an epic problem Down Under, particularly for the Aboriginees who live in more remote areas of the contintent. In an attempt to control populations, Australia captures and sends live camels to Southeast Asia and hope to send 25,000 a year to Muslim markets.

Even such measures will be insufficient to deal with animals that live for 50 years, breed for 30, and whose population doubles every eight years. As global warming increases the droughts, gangs of hundreds of thirsty camels will most likely continue to be a force to reckon with. Researchers are meeting in Perth tomorrow to decide their fate.

--Jen Phillips

Weird Weather Watch: Year-Round Fire Season in SoCal

| Tue Mar. 13, 2007 5:26 PM EDT

Southern California is enduring its driest 12 months ever, which means firefighters are already busy again with little rest after the fall fires. The Santa Ana winds, which usually blow from October through December, have continued to blow, fueling fires started in the dry brush. It's also hotter there than ever before. Finally, the Los Angeles Times reports:

The deep freeze that hit much of the region in January is also worrying firefighters because it killed or damaged countless trees and plants, leaving them vulnerable to fire.

Fire experts say the vegetation looks like it's already dried out from the summer. "If this is the beginning, I don't know where we're going to end up," one said. No rain in the forecast.

This is what the earth looks like on global warming.

African Dust Cooled 2006 Hurricane Season

| Mon Mar. 12, 2007 2:35 PM EDT

Right-coasters and south-coasters can thank African dust for a quiet hurricane season in 2006. A little puff from just the right place in the Sahara cooled the pyrotechnics of storm formation. The Mother Jones piece "The 13th Tipping Point" (Nov/Dec 2006), explained just how Saharan dust is one of the critical global-warming tipping points keeping our world in balance—and likely to screw things up right royally if it falls out of balance.

From the MoJo article:

Global warming is expected to shrink the Sahara by increasing rainfall along its southern border. A greener Sahara will emit less airborne desert dust to seed the Atlantic and feed its phytoplankton, to suppress hurricane formation, and to fertilize the CO2-eating trees of Amazonia. Hardly a neighborhood on earth will look the same if Africa tips.

And the latest news from Sciencemag.org:

Meteorological signs were unanimous in foretelling yet another hyperactive hurricane season, the eighth in 10 years. But the forecasts were far off the mark. The 2006 season was normal, and no hurricanes came anywhere near the United States or the Caribbean.

Now two climatologists are suggesting that dust blown across the Atlantic from the Sahara was pivotal in the busted forecasts. The dust seems to have suppressed storm activity over the southwestern North Atlantic and Caribbean by blocking some energizing sunlight, they say.

But, unremarked by forecasters, an unusually heavy surge of dust began blowing off North Africa and into the western Atlantic at the 1 June beginning of the official hurricane season. Two weeks later, the surface waters of the western Atlantic began to cool compared with temperatures in the previous season.

Climatologists William Lau of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, and Kyu-Myong Kim of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, in Baltimore argue in the 27 February issue of Eos that the arrival of the thick dust and the subsequent cooling were no coincidence. The dust blocked some sunlight and cooled the surface, they say. That cooling went on to trigger a shift toward less favorable conditions for the formation and intensification of storms in the western Atlantic, they argue. As a result, no storm tracks crossed where nine had passed the previous season.

Ancient Carvings of Nude Females Promote Wild Scientific ASSumptions

| Mon Mar. 12, 2007 2:02 PM EDT

Okay, so maybe carvings of female figurines 15,000 years old reveal the preferred body shape for women was curvy with prominent buttocks. Or maybe, as the social anthropologist says, these were spiritual images (can't they be the same thing?). But, jaysus, does anyone else ever get annoyed that no one ever even once seems to consider the possibility that maybe women carved these things?

From New Scientist magazine:

Romuald Schild of the Polish Academy of Sciences in Warsaw and colleagues have uncovered 30 flint female figurines from an ancient hunting site near the village of Wilczyce in central Poland. Hunter-gatherer men whittled these voluptuous female figures in their spare time.

Preserved in ice, the figurines were part of a haul of over 10,000 artifacts, including animal bones, beads made from Arctic fox teeth, and bone needles. The site is thought to have been an autumn or winter camp for a hunter-gatherer tribe.

All of the figurines were headless and had hugely exaggerated buttocks. Perhaps strangely, given their allure today, few of the figures had breasts.

This bottom-heavy shape ties in with northern European stone carvings and cave engravings of women from a similar period.

However, the figurines may have expressed more than just men's desires. "It is hard to say if this body shape was a social preference or if it represented a spiritual image," says Nanneke Redclift, a social anthropologist at University College London.