Blue Marble - September 2012

Scientists: We Can Build the Starship Enterprise

| Wed Sep. 19, 2012 3:05 PM PDT

While we were all poring over Mitt Romney's aversion to the poor, physicists in Texas gathered to work on bending the space-time continuum so that spacecraft can travel 10 times faster than the speed of light. 

Clara Moskowitz at Space.com has this Quantum Leap episode—er, story—detailing how the researchers are trying to make the concept "popularized in television's Star Trek" run efficiently and, you know, realistically:

An Alcubierre warp drive would involve a football-shape spacecraft attached to a large ring encircling it. This ring, potentially made of exotic matter, would cause space-time to warp around the starship, creating a region of contracted space in front of it and expanded space behind...Meanwhile, the starship itself would stay inside a bubble of flat space-time that wasn't being warped at all...[S]cientists stressed that even outlandish-sounding ideas, such as the warp drive, need to be considered if humanity is serious about traveling to other stars.

The recent brainstorming on interstellar travel was conducted by a diverse array of scientists participating in a NASA- and Pentagon-backed summit in Houston. Previous studies had concluded that, in order to function, a single warp drive would likely require an amount of energy on par with the mass-energy of Jupiter (which is a lot). New calculations by the Johnson Space Center suggest that if the shape of the ring around the spaceship were "adjusted into more of a rounded donut," the drive could run on a mass roughly the size of the famous unmanned space probe Voyager 1.

This would give you an estimated speed of 6.7 billion miles per hour.

There you have it. The era of the man-made space-time warp may soon be upon us. It's just too bad that time travel...

By XXBy xkcd

...has largely been panned as impossible by the scientific community.

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Coal Exec Dresses Up Like Miner for Congressional Candidate's Campaign

| Wed Sep. 19, 2012 10:57 AM PDT

Remember Mitt Romney's Ohio campaign event, where a coal company forced a bunch of miners to take the day off and attend the rally without pay? Now Romney is featuring images of those miners in new TV ads (via Grist).

Of course, there seems to be no sense of irony in using images of men forced to take a day off work without pay to go to a rally in an ad claiming the Obama administration is taking away all the coal jobs. But Romney isn't the only person getting himself in trouble for his appropriation of coal miners. Down in Kentucky's 6th congressional district, Republican Andy Barr is also getting lambasted for a new ad that features Heath Lovell, a coal executive from western Kentucky, dressed up like a miner and accusing incumbent Democratic Rep. Ben Chandler of destroying the coal industry in Eastern Kentucky. Here's the description, from the Lexington Herald-Leader:

In the ad, Lovell talks about the decline of coal trains in Ravenna in Estill County, which is in the 6th District. Lovell claims that Chandler, President Barack Obama and the federal Environmental Protection Agency "are destroying us."
"They are putting the coal industry out of business, and it's just devastating," he says.
Lovell, who has contributed $2,500 to Republican Mitt Romney's presidential campaign, said in an interview that the ad is not misleading.
"I still consider myself a coal miner," he said. "I still go underground and keep up my training."

But make no mistake; he's no miner. The New York Times notes that Lovell and his wife have donated $21,400 to Republican candidates in the last two years, including Mitt Romney. His wife also recently posted this photo of Lovell making pizza with Romney at a fundraiser held in the home of Papa John's Pizza's founder on Facebook:

Kitties, Rabies, the Plague, and You

| Tue Sep. 18, 2012 1:37 PM PDT

In the neverending war between cat people and bird people, troops on either side gather ammunition in the form of research. Add this one to Team Bird's quiver: a new study that shows how that feral cats carry deadly diseases like rabies, toxoplasmosis, and the plague(!). Published in the journal Zoonoses and Public Health, the study finds that rabies in particular is a much bigger problem among cats than dogs. In 2008, cats had four times the rabies rate of dogs, and in 2010 cats accounted for 62 percent of all rabies cases in domestic animals. 

The study also casts doubt the feral-cat control technique known as Trap-Neuter-Return, or TNR, wherein feral cats are rounded up, fixed, and released back to where they were found. Feral-cat advocates have long favored TNR, claiming it humanely reduces the feral cat population. But the new study suggests it's not effective in stopping cats from spreading rabies. From the abstract:

...some studies have shown that TNR leads to increased immigration of unneutered cats into neutered populations as well as increased kitten survival in neutered groups. These compensatory mechanisms in neutered groups leading to increased kitten survival and immigration would confound rabies vaccination campaigns and produce naïve populations of cats that can serve as source of zoonotic disease agents owing to lack of immunity.

The bird advocacy group American Bird Conservancy crows in a press release:

"This is a significant study that documents serious wildlife and public health issues associated with 125 million outdoor cats in the United States.  Decision-making officials need to start looking at the unintended impacts these animals have on both the environment and human health when they consider arguments to sanction Trap, Neuter, and Return (TNR) cat colonies. These colonies are highly detrimental to cats, wildlife, and people, and only serve to exacerbate the cat overpopulation problem," said Darin Schroeder, Vice President for Conservation Advocacy at American Bird Conservancy.

Oh no they didn't! Team Cat, what have you got?

Hottest Ever Water Temperatures Off East Coast All the Way Down to the Bottom of the Ocean

| Tue Sep. 18, 2012 11:49 AM PDT

Cod: Derek Keats. Flame: designshard. Bubbles: Velo Steve. All via Flickr.Cod: Derek Keats. Flame: designshard. Bubbles: Velo Steve. All via Flickr. Mashup: Julia Whitty.

Sea surface temperatures (SSTs) off the East Coast from North Carolina to the Gulf of Maine were the hottest ever recorded for the first six months of 2012, according to NOAA's latest Ecosystem Advisory. Above-average temperatures were found everywhere: from the sea surface to the ocean bottom and out beyond the Gulf Stream.

The area is known as the Northeast Shelf Large Marine Ecosystem. Parts of it were declared a fisheries disaster last week (I posted about that here: Fisheries Declared Disasters on Four Coasts). This was due to the fact that stocks of cod, yellowtail flounder, and other groundfish are not rebuilding even though most fishers have adhered to tough quotas.

The problem lies in the warming waters. The super warm SSTs of 2012 jumpstarted an early and intense spring plankton bloom—which began in some places as early as February—and lasted longer than average. This ricocheted through the marine foodweb from the smallest creatures to the largest marine mammals like whales.

NOAA | NEFSC Ecosystem Assessment ProgramNOAA It forced the ongoing trend whereby Atlantic cod are shifting northeastward from their historic distribution center. That's consistent with a response to ecosystem warming—as you can see that in the two maps above. The top map shows cod distribution between 1968-1972. The bottom map shows cod distribution between 2008-2012. (All other four-year distribution maps for the interim here.)

Kevin Friedland, a scientist in NOAA's Northeast Fisheries Science Center Assessment Program (NEFSC), says the average sea surface temperature exceeded 51°F (10.5°C) during the first half of 2012. Whereas the average SST during this period over the past three decades has typically been below 48°F (9°C). Noteworthy from the Ecosystem Advisory:

  • SST data are based on satellite remote-sensing data and long-term shipboard measurements, plus historical SST conditions based on shipboard measurements dating back to 1854. 
  • Some nearshore locations like Delaware and Chesapeake Bays in the Middle Atlantic Bight region saw SSTs more than 11°F (6°C) above historical average at the surface and more than 9°F (5°C) above average at the bottom.
  • Deeper offshore waters to the north saw bottom water temperatures 2°F (1°C) warmer in the eastern Gulf of Maine and more than 3.6°F (2°C) warmer in the western Gulf of Maine.

 

DIstribution of silver hake, red hake and spotted hake 1968-2008: Janet Nye | NOAA | NEFSCDistribution of silver hake, red hake, and spotted hake 1968-2008: Janet Nye | NOAA | NEFSC NEFSC Ecosystem Assessment Program

Warming ocean temperatures have changed the distribution of other fish stocks besides cod, as reported by the NEFSC in a 2009 study published in Marine Ecology Progress Series. About half the 36 fish stocks studied in the Northwest Atlantic Ocean—many commercially valuable species—have been  shifting northward for the past four decades.

Some, like the three hake species shown in the maps above, have shifted themselves completely out of US waters.

Arctic 1, Shell Oil 0, for 2012 Season

| Mon Sep. 17, 2012 3:15 PM PDT

Noble Discoverer, Shell's Arctic drill rig: US Coast Guard via FlickrNoble Discoverer, Shell's Arctic drill rig: US Coast Guard via Flickr

Shell's comedy-of-errors season of not-drilling in the Arctic drew to a close today as the company announced it was wrapping up ahead of its 24 September deadline.

Shell was hoping that its $4.5 billion investment and multiple years of preparation would allow it to pierce the virgin seafloor of Alaska's Chukchi Sea and squeeze out some of the 22 percent of Earth's undiscovered fossil fuels believed to be underlying the Arctic and recoverable by current technology, according to the USGS.

Here's a list of some of what went awry with Shell's opening season:

  1. Their drill ship Noble Discoverer—seriously, that's its name—sailed late from New Zealand. Remember Xena the Princess Warrior, aka Lucy Lawless, occupied the ship briefly in protest in February?
  2. The late start ate into a season already shortened by the US Bureau of Ocean Management.
  3. En route to the Chukchi Sea, Noble Discoverer ignobly dragged anchor in the port of Dutch Harbor in the Aleutian Islands under only 35mph of wind... a morning breeze in the Arctic.
  4. Drilling was delayed again because Shell's primary safety vessel, the oil spill containment barge Arctic Challenger, wasn't still being built in the shipyards in Bellingham, WA.
  5. Shell failed to meet some limits on air pollution emissions for its operations set by the EPA.
  6. Test drilling (nowhere near a real oil field, because Arctic Challenger wasn't there) finally began on 9 September, nearly two months later than scheduled. "This is an exciting time for Alaska and for Shell," said Royal Dutch Shell on its website. "We look forward to continued drilling progress throughout the next several weeks and to adding another chapter to Alaska's esteemed oil and gas history."
  7. Noble Discoverer got in 300+ feet of a thin pilot hole—the first drilling offshore in the Alaska Arctic in two decades—before it was halted the next day when a massive iceberg 30 miles long by 12 miles wide came within 105 miles of the drill rig.
  8. Also, damagingly, documents obtained by PEER (Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility) under a Freedom of Information Act request showed that original field-testing of the "capping stack"—a containment dome designed to contain a Deepwater Horizon type blowout—deployed on Arctic Challenger took place over a mere two hours on 25 and 26 June and was not verified by anyone other than two officials from the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement. "The first test merely showed that Shell could dangle its cap in 200ft of water without dropping it," said Kathryn Douglass, a Peer staff lawyer, via The Guardian. "The second test showed the capping system could hold up under laboratory conditions for up to 15 minutes without crumbling.
  9. Finally that same "capping stack" was damaged during final testing off Bellingham, Washington, benching it for the remainder of the season... and ending Shell's miserable Noble Discoverer season.

Peter Slaiby, a VP of Shell Alaska, claimed: "The [Arctic] sea conditions in terms of the wind, waves and currents are not even as extreme as the North Sea, although, clearly, there is no ice in the North Sea." Sounds like the prelude to dangerous hubris.

Fisheries Declared Disasters on 4 Coasts

| Thu Sep. 13, 2012 2:37 PM PDT

jekrub via Flickrjekrub via FlickrToday the US Commerce Department declared disasters not of fishermen's making in three key fisheries on four US coasts: the North Atlantic, the Gulf of Mexico, the Bering Sea, and the Gulf of Alaska in the Pacific Ocean. The declaration opens the door for Congress—if they choose to accept the mission—to appropriate funds to help struggling fishers. The disasters are:

  1. The Northeast, where even though most fishers have adhered to tough quotas on several key groundfish—including cod in the Gulf of Maine and yellowtail flounder in the Georges Bank—stocks are not rebuilding.

  2. Alaska, where low returns of chinook salmon have resulted in commercial fishery disasters in the the Yukon River fishery (ongoing since 2010), the Kuskokwim River (ongoing since 2011), and Cook Inlet fishery (beginning in 2012).

  3. Mississippi, where historically high flooding of the lower Mississippi River in spring 2011 wiped out the oyster fishery and the blue crab fishery from massive freshwater flows. (This disaster might have included the inshore shrimp fishery too, since flooding drove landings down by 41 percent in 2011. But Commerce didn't deem it a commercial failure since revenue losses were "only 19 percent less than the 2006-2009 average.")

The causes run the gamut of natural and anthropogenic. In other words, something of everything, including plenty of unknowns. The disaster declaration for Alaska states:

Exact causes for recent poor Chinook salmon returns are unknown, but may involve a variety of factors outside the control of fishery managers to mitigate, including unfavorable ocean conditions, freshwater environmental factors, disease, or other factors.

The causes in New England are deemed unknown, and severe fishing quotas are pending for 2013, reports Boston.com:

The final numbers aren't in, but officials said preliminary information indicates that catch limits could go down by 72 percent for the cod population in the Gulf of Maine and 70 percent for cod on the Georges Bank fishing grounds east of Cape Cod.

The New England disaster declaration is "a huge win" for fishers, says Democratic Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, via the AP. "Our fishermen are the farmers of the sea and today our fishermen are facing exactly what farmers in the Midwest are facing—a drought. They need our help to get through it."

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White Roofs in Cities Could Reduce Rainfall

| Thu Sep. 13, 2012 12:38 PM PDT

Sunset over Phoenix, Arizona.

This story first appeared on the Atlantic Cities website and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

You don't really need to know much about the urban heat island effect to understand that Arizona is feeling it.

With both a rapidly expanding urban footprint and some of the highest temperatures in the country, the increasingly studied feedback loop of city surfaces absorbing heat and raising temperatures is in hyperdrive in Arizona. Mitigating the heat-holding effects of urban growth has become a high priority in the state's metropolitan areas, and various efforts are underway to prevent some of that heat from soaking into the sponge that is the paved and built urban environment. But these efforts could also be making the region's overall environmental future worse.

According to new research out of Arizona State University, efforts to improve the reflectance of Arizona's cities by painting roofs white may be reducing rainfall across the state.

Published recently in the journal Environmental Review Letters, the study finds that average rainfall statewide could drop by as much as 4 percent if roof painting efforts continue. The increased reflectivity of these roofs has been found to modify hydroclimatic processes in the region by reducing what's called evapotranspiration, or how much water evaporates back into the air from the land and its plants.

The researchers looked specifically at the "Sun Corridor"—the metropolitan areas of Phoenix, Tucson, Prescott and Nogales. By projecting growth and urban expansion models out to 2050, the researchers warn that overall precipitation could go down as the use of this white roof mitigation measure spreads across the growing urban footprint.

The researchers also note that the urban heat island itself is a major cause of reduced rainfall in the region. If urban expansion reaches the projected growth the region's association of governments is expecting, the researchers say that urban heat island effects could result in a 12 percent reduction in rainfall averaged across the state.

Combating the urban heat island effect will be incredibly important for growing places like Arizona. Though this research shows that white roofs are effective at reducing urban heat island effects, there may also be side effects of this mitigation approach that shouldn't be ignored.

Watch: How Oil Spills Could Be Cleaned Up With Magnets

Wed Sep. 12, 2012 12:25 PM PDT

This story first appeared on the Guardian website.

Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have developed a new technique for magnetically separating oil and water. Here, they explain how their technique, which uses nanoparticles that turn the oil into magnetic ferrofluids, could recover spilled oil for use and offset clean up costs.

Walmart Is Biggest Corporate User of Solar

| Wed Sep. 12, 2012 3:00 AM PDT

SEIASEIADespite claims from a certain Republican vice-presidential candidate that the failure of Solyndra was a sign of a "make-believe market" for solar power, and grumblings from Republican congressmen and Mitt Romney about the merits of investment in solar power technology, a new report today indicates that many of the country's biggest companies are still committed to bringing more sunlight into their energy portfolios.

Walmart uses more solar power than any other US company, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association. All told, the twenty companies on the list had 279,122 kilowatts of solar installed by mid-2012, accounting for roughly twelve percent of America's total solar capacity.

That Walmart would top the list isn't a huge surprise, given that it's the biggest company on Earth, but still, encouraging, right? Now if it could just clean up that pesky supply chain...

Climate Change Will Extend Hay Fever Season by 6 Weeks

| Tue Sep. 11, 2012 2:27 PM PDT

This story first appeared on the Guardian website.

Hay fever sufferers face longer pollen seasons and highly allergenic new strains from invasive plants, a new report on the health effects of climate change on the UK warned on Tuesday.

Global warming will cause earlier flowering, possibly extending the hay fever season by six weeks, and enable new species to grow in the UK. Pollen is also getting more potent, packing more allergen into each grain.

The report, from the Health Protection Agency (HPA), analyses a wide range of risks including killer heatwaves, increased flooding, greater food poisoning and new infectious diseases carried by mosquitoes.

"There is no doubt that climate change poses a wide range of challenges to public health in the UK," said David Heymann, chairman of the HPA.