Category: earth

Large Near-Earth Asteroid Will Pass Earth by This September

NEOs

Within Earth’s orbit, there are literally thousands of what are known as Near-Earth Objects (NEOs), more than fourteen thousands of which are asteroids that periodically pass close to Earth. Since the 1980s, these objects have become a growing source of interest to astronomers, due to the threat they sometimes represent. But as ongoing studies and decades of tracking the larger asteroids has shown, they usually just pass Earth by.

More importantly, it is only on very rare occasions (i.e. over the course of millions of years) that a larger asteroid will come close to colliding with Earth. For example, this September 1st, the Near-Earth Asteroid (NEA) known as 3122 Florence, will pass by Earth, but poses no danger of hitting us. Good thing too, since this Near-Earth Asteroid is one of the largest yet to be discovered, measuring about 4.4 km (2.7 mi) in diameter!

To put that in perspective, the asteroid which is thought to have killed the dinosaurs roughly 65 million years ago (aka. the Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event) is believed to have measured 10 km (6 mi) in diameter. This impact also destroyed three-quarters of the plant and animal species on Earth, hence why organizations like NASA’s Center for Near-Earth Object Studies (CNEOS) is in he habit of tracking the larger NEAs.

Asteroid Florence, a large near-Earth asteroid, will pass safely by Earth on Sept. 1, 2017, at a distance of about 7 million km (4.4 million mi). Image Source: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Once again, NASA has determined that this particular asteroid will sail harmlessly by, passing Earth at a minimum distance of over 7 million km (4.4 million mi), or about 18 times the distance between the Earth and the Moon. As Paul Chodas – NASA’s manager of CNEOS at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California – said in a NASA press statement:

“While many known asteroids have passed by closer to Earth than Florence will on September 1, all of those were estimated to be smaller. Florence is the largest asteroid to pass by our planet this close since the NASA program to detect and track near-Earth asteroids began.”

Rather than being a threat, the flyby of this asteroid will be an opportunity for scientists to study it up close. NASA is planning on conducting radar studies of Florence using the Goldstone Solar System Radar in California, and the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Arecibo Observatory in Peurto Rico. These studies are expected to yield more accurate data on its size, and reveal surface details at resolutions of up to 10 m (30 feet).

Florence

This asteroid was originally discovered on March 2nd, 1981, by American astronomer Schelte Bus at the Siding Spring Observatory in southwestern Australia. It was named in honor of Florence Nightingale (1820-1910) the founder of modern nursing. Measurements obtained by NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope and the NEOWISE mission are what led to the current estimates on its size – about 4.4 km (2.7 mi) in diameter.

Artist’s rendition of how far Florence will pass by Earth. Image Source: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The upcoming flyby will be the closest this asteroid has passed to Earth since August 31st, 1890, where it passed at a distance of 6.7 million km (4.16 million mi). Between now and then, it also flew by Earth on August 29th, 1930, passing Earth at a distance of about 7.8 million km (4.87 million mi). While it will pass Earth another seven times over the course of the next 500 years, it will not be as close as it will be this September until after 2500.

For those interesting into doing a little sky watching, Florence will be brightening substantially by late August and early September. During this time, it will be visible to those using small telescopes for several nights as it moves through the constellations of Piscis Austrinus, Capricornus, Aquarius and Delphinus.

Be sure to check out these animations of Florence’s orbit and its close flyby to Earth:

https://echo.jpl.nasa.gov/asteroids/Florence/Florence_orbit.mov

https://echo.jpl.nasa.gov/asteroids/Florence/Florence_Earth_flyby.mov

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No, a Huge Asteroid Probably Won’t Wipe out Humanity

Asterdestroyed?

A future in which an asteroid crashes into Earth and destroys the planet — or all life on it, in the case of the dinosaurs — is prevalent in popular culture: Bruce Willis sacrificed himself to stop in happening in Armageddon, aliens have arrived on one in Day of the Triffids, and there have been a multitude of apocalyptic predictions on the news over the last few years. So, what is the precise nature of asteroids, and how likely are they wipe us from the face of the planet?

Asteroids are rocky bodies orbiting the Sun, which differ from comets in that they are composed of metal and rock rather ice, dust, and rock. They were formed 4.5 billion years ago, but don’t have sufficient gravity to round out like planets or have atmospheres.

When the Earth Caught Fire [INFOGRAPHIC]
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Several asteroids have played pivotal roles in the world’s formation and cosmic history. An asteroid the size of Mars, which has been retrospectively named Theia, hit the Earth and was partially absorbed: some debris from the impact, though, was conglomerated by gravity to form the Moon. The most famous asteroid, though, is Chicxulub — the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs by causing sufficient sulphur displacement to block out the Sun.

Small asteroids hit Earth frequently, but rarely have any effect — the most violent example in recent memory was the 17- to 20-meter diameter Chelyabinsk meteor which hit Russia in February 2013, smashing windows and injuring 1,400 people in the process. Asteroids with a one-kilometer diameter hit Earth every 500,000 years or so; with the last known example of one with a 10-kilometer diameter occurring 66 million years ago. The chances of an asteroid apocalypse, then, are minimal.

Peter Brown, professor of physics and astronomy at Western University in London, Ontario, said in an interview with CBC News:

There certainly is a risk from asteroid impacts; it’s the only natural risk that we as a species have the ability to predict well in advance and mitigate against, entirely, […] But I want people to keep it in context. You shouldn’t be losing sleep over it.

Our Plan to Avoid Destruction

Despite the chances of an asteroid apocalypse being fortunately slim, our planet has measures in place to protect against smaller near Earth objects (NEOs) like the Chelyabinsk meteor.

The main agency responsible for tracking and putting contingency measures in place is NASA’s Center for Near Earth Object Studies, which has a database sophisticated enough for us “to know within the next couple of decades for sure if any time over the next century if there’s an asteroid that’s going to hit,” Brown said in the interview. The organization, according to its 2016 report, is also developing “Methods for NEO Deflection and Disruption.”

This diagram maps the data gathered from 1994-2013 on small asteroids impacting Earth’s atmosphere and disintegrating to create very bright meteors, technically called “bolides” and commonly referred to as “fireballs”. Sizes of orange dots (daytime impacts) and blue dots (nighttime impacts) are proportional to the optical radiated energy of impacts measured in billions of Joules (GJ) of energy, and show the location of impacts from objects about 1 meter (3 feet) to almost 20 meters (60 feet) in size.
This diagram maps the data gathered from 1994-2013 on small asteroids (1-20 meters) impacting Earth’s atmosphere and disintegrating to create very bright meteors. Image Credit: NASA

NASA has already launched a progenitor for how a gravity-based asteroid diversion could work in the form of its Dawn Aircraft, which is currently orbiting the space rock Vesta. A future version of Dawn could exert a subtle gravitational pull on a space object, which would allow it to change the trajectory of rocks with remarkable subtlety and specificity. Rusty Schweickart, chairman of the B612 Foundation, who’s mission is to protect the world from asteroid attacks, said in an interview with Space.com, “you can get a very precise change in the orbit for the final part of the deflection using a technology of this kind.”

At the more futurist end of our planetary defense arsenal is the idea of “Mirror Bees.” Hypothetically, we could send a swarm of robotic spacecraft bearing mirrors to an asteroid, which would then focus the solar energy on one spot: Bill Nye, executive director of the Planetary Society, said to Space.com that “The reaction of that gas or material being ejected from the asteroid would nudge it off-course.”

While the threat of a dinosaur-level disaster is extremely slim, even small asteroids can still cause huge amounts of damage, destruction, and pain. It’s comforting that individuals and organizations are working towards developing methods to minimize the disruption asteroids — big or small — can cause.

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Scientists Think Our Moon Used to Be Home to a Molten Metal Ocean and Supersonic Winds

A Metal Moon

Researchers at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC) have developed a simulation they think reveals new information about the precise nature of the Earth’s Moon in its earliest years.

Most researchers believe the Moon formed when a Mars-sized object collided with the Earth 4.5 billion years ago, forming a cloud of molten material that was later coagulated into the Moon by gravitational forces. Existing models suggest that the Moon would have had its own atmosphere soon after this formation, but the team from GSFC actually did the math to reach a more precise understanding of this atmosphere and how it reacted with the Moon’s surface.

Moon Phases and Phenomena [INFOGRAPHIC]
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The researchers added up the radiation the young satellite would have felt from the magma covering its surface, the Earth, and the Sun. According to their model, supersonic winds would have blown across the surface of the side of the Moon facing the Earth, causing waves in the magma ocean covering it. After about a thousand years of cooling, the surface of the ocean would have been covered by floating rocks, at which point the atmosphere would have collapsed.

“The Moon’s atmosphere was like a hard-partying rock star,” Prabel Saxena, one of the researchers involved in the study, told Science News. “It had a really violent, heavy metal existence, but it rapidly just fell apart.”

Explaining Exoplanets

This new model is particularly exciting because the greater our understanding of our Moon’s formation, the greater our understanding of how other space objects form. Exoplanets currently orbiting Red Dwarfs, for example, should in some ways be comparable to our Moon in its early years. “If we can characterize what the early Moon looked like, it can tell us about the physical mechanisms that are operating on these close-in extreme exoplanets,” explains Saxena.

Exoplanets are perhaps humanity’s best bet for finding extraterrestrial life, and in just a short amount of time, we have discovered thousands of them. A model like that created by the team at GSFC could help us narrow down the list to those most likely to harbor life, which could then be studied further using tools like the James Webb Space Telescope.

Truly, thanks to the work of researchers like those at GSFC, we have never been closer to answering humanity’s greatest questions: Where did we come from, and are we alone?

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NASA Just Discovered a Manmade Space Bubble Around Earth

NASA just learned that Very Low Frequency Radio Waves from Earthbound technologies reach into space, creating a protective “bubble” that shields the space around earth from dangerous solar radiation. Learning how this works could lead to controlled space weather for travelers and machines.

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Scientists Announce That The Great Barrier Reef is Officially “Terminal”

The Great Barrier Reef

Why care about reefs? In a word—biodiversity. The reef is home to 3,000 varieties of mollusks, over a hundred types of jellyfish, 1,625 species of fish, hundreds of shark and ray species, and over 30 kinds of whales and dolphins. These sea creatures call the soft and hard corals that make up the reef “home.” And without it, many of them will die.

If that’s not enough, it has the distinction of being the largest living structure on the planet.

The Great Barrier Reef is home to 3,000 individual coral reefs stretching across a staggering 2,575 kilometers (1,600 miles), covering an area of about 344,400 square kilometers (133,000 square miles.)

Unfortunately, because of back to back mass bleaching events, scientists are telling us that the massive, impressive Australian Great Barrier Reef is now at a ‘terminal stage’—with large portions having no hope of recovery.

Our Warming World: The Future of Climate Change [INFOGRAPHIC]
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Mass bleaching, a phenomenon caused by global warming, is prompted when the water warms to a point that corals begin ejecting the symbiotic algae in their tissue, essential for their survival. Throughout history, there have only been four instances of this occurrence, and after such an event, it will take decades to recover.

“This is the fourth time the Great Barrier Reef has bleached severely – in 1998, 2002, 2016, and now in 2017. Bleached corals are not necessarily dead corals, but in the severe central region we anticipate high levels of coral loss,” said researcher James Kerry from James Cook University’s ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies. He clarifies why the 2017 bleaching is significant: “It takes at least a decade for a full recovery of even the fastest growing corals, so mass bleaching events 12 months apart offers zero prospect of recovery for reefs that were damaged in 2016.”

Death Toll

The newest aerial surveys covered over 8,000 kilometers (5,000) miles, which includes 800 individual coral reefs.

According to the surveys, 1,500 kilometers (932 miles) of the Great Barrier Reef is now bleached. These new statistics come less than a year after 93 percent of the reef suffered severe damage, with reports adding that the effects have also spread further south.

Combined with the mass bleaching event, the arrival of Tropical Cyclone Debbie added to the devastation, as it struck a section of the reef that managed to escape the worst of the bleaching.

“We’ve given up,” said Jon Brodie, a James Cook University water quality expert, who was referring to inaction on the part of the Australian government. “It’s been my life managing water quality, we’ve failed.”

Unfortunately, in this age of global warming, temperatures are expected to continue rising, which means more of these bleaching events will happen, and they will cause even more damage. And the reality is, this could be the last generation who will get to see the grand beauty of this reef.

Fortunately, it’s not too late for us to save the rest of the planet from the worst effects of climate change. But we must act now.

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Scientists Want to Search for Life Deep Below the Earth’s Surface

Digging Deep

There’s still much to be discovered about the Earth, from the deep seas — which has been likened to our very own deep space — to the planet’s rocky layers. A team of scientists from Japan’s Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology (JAMSTEC) wants to explore the Earth’s mantle by drilling into it for the first time, using its largest drilling ship called “Chikyu.”

[saved for tomorrow due to graphic] Drilling to the Center of the Earth

The JAMSTEC team wants to start drilling by the 2020s. To do this, they need to explore potential underwater drill sites. This September, a two-week preliminary study to find such a site will be done by JAMSTEC deep-sea research vessel Kairei in the waters northeast of Hawaii, according to The Yomiuri Shimbun. Other candidate drill sites have been identified in Mexico and Costa Rica, in case the one in Hawaii won’t work.

“There are still issues to be resolved, particularly the cost,” said petrology professor Susumu Umino from the Kanazawa University. The research team estimates that around ¥60 billion (roughly $542 million) would be needed for the project. “However, the preliminary study will be a big step forward for this project to enter a new stage,” Umino added.

Into the Unknown

The decision to drill through the oceanic crust is a practical one, as it’s thinner (around 6 kilometers [4 miles] thick) than the continental crust. To reach the mantle, the Chikyu’s drill must pass through 4 km (2.5 miles) of water and 6 km (3.7 miles) of crust.

Deep Ocean Dwellers [INFOGRAPHIC]
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The Earth’s mantle is located beneath the crust, and comprises about 80 percent of the planet’s total volume. It’s a flowing silicate rocky shell that is known to affect volcanic activity. As such, one practical consequence of exploring the mantle is to be able to understand such surface phenomena. The researchers also want to understand how the crust was formed by investigating the boundary between oceanic crust and the Earth’s mantle.

Apart from this, the scientists also want to find out if microbial life could survive deep inside the planet. Such a discovery could yield information useful in the search for extraterrestrial life, as the conditions inside the Earth’s mantle could simulate those found on other worlds.

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The Sun Is Slowly Expanding. How Can We Stop It From Killing Us All?

The Earth’s future seems to always be at stake, whether it’s climate change, country politics, or even the expansion of our sun. While the other threats seem a bit exaggerated and current, the aging of our sun into a red giant in 7.6 billion years is a legitimate threat the existence of life on Earth — as well as the Earth itself.

While some scientists contend that the expansion of the Sun results in its loss of mass, and thereby the gravitational tug on the Earth should lessen, others disagree with this prediction. In fact, several papers suggest that Sun will expand too far and too quickly for any lessening of the Sun’s gravitational tug on Earth to protect the blue planet.

In fact, as the Sun expands, many scientists extrapolate that, in about a billion years, the oceans will dry up. In the four billion years after that, entire terrains will melt due to the immense heat, with life being a long forgotten artifact on the once fertile planet.

To avoid this, scientists have theorized about taking advantage of Newton’s laws of physics. We could counterbalance an asteroid 100 kilometers (62 miles) wide and 10^19 kilograms (2.2 × 10^19 lbs) in weight around the Earth and Jupiter to slowly edge the Earth out of the Sun’s expansion radius over the next billion years.

Another solution suggested by Stephen Hawking is to leave Earth entirely and colonize other parts of our solar system. Unless we find the cure to aging, most of us won’t be around to try any of these options — let’s hope our descendants don’t mess it up.

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Scientists Just Found Fossils Containing the Oldest Evidence of Life on Earth

3,770,000,000 Years Ago

The origin of life has long been contentiously debated, often because researchers are trying to understand events that occurred billions of years ago. Adding to the debate is a recent discovery from deep in the exotic landscape of the Nuvvuagittuq (nuh-vu-ah-gi-took) belt in Canada where scientists have uncovered fossils they believe to be 3.77 billion years old. If they’re right, that would make their discovery the oldest fossil evidence on record.

origin of life
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Claims that speculate the age of ancient fossils always set the science world ablaze, mainly because very old rocks often undergo geological deformations. Everything from erosion to weathering can remove signs of life, making it highly unlikely we’d find anything thousands, let alone billions, of years later. However, lead researcher Matthew Dodd is confident that his team’s Canadian discovery will hold up to the scrutiny.

The straw-shaped “microfossils” uncovered by the team were found in a part of Canada that once was a hydrothermal vent on the ocean floor. The microscopic microbes that created these fossils would have germinated around the vents to take advantage of their volatile chemistry to create fuel. When the microbes died, iron in the water would latch onto their decaying bodies, eventually replacing their organic structures with stone that the researchers can now study.

After proper analysis, the youngest estimate of the microbes is around 3.77 billion years. However, the microbes may be as old as 4.28 billion years — that’s only about 260 million years after the Earth was formed. The research is published in the journal Nature.

Life, Aliens, and the Pursuit of the Unknown

Our current understanding of the origin of life on Earth is that it dates back to 3.4 to 3.5 billion years ago. The present findings suggest that the first incidence of life occurred 300 million years sooner than that, so if the age of the microbe fossils is verified, the implications would be tremendous.

In addition to the findings by Dodd’s team, the discovery of reportedly 3.7 billion year old fossils in Issua, Greenland is awaiting verification as well. Those fossils indicated the existence of a photosynthetic bacteria, while Dodd’s team is suggesting their discovery is of a chemosynthetic bacteria’s fossil. The age and apparent diversity of these organisms suggests a much more profound outlook on the origin of life in the universe.

These fossils would challenge our fundamental understanding of the origin of life. We would have to revisit what we thought we knew about the potential for organic matter to flourish during a time when the Earth was bombarded by asteroids, the environment was changing radically every hundred years, and the planet’s surface was sodden with molten lava. If life was able to develop under those conditions, we’re left with more questions than answers.

What we believed to be a steady process that required time and caution might just be something more sporadic, which would in turn suggest that life might be more of a cosmic phenomenon than just an Earth-based one. This could change how we think about the potential for life on other planets, or even Mars, which was teeming with oceans and warm 3.77 billion years ago. Not finding life on the Red Planet would tell us a lot, too, namely that life on Earth is due to some fluke or a phenomenon unique to our planet.

Now, all that’s left to do is wait to find out if these ancient fossils are as ancient as their discoverers hope.

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Anti-EPA Advocate Scott Pruitt Confirmed to Lead the Environmental Protection Agency

Leading the Environment

The Senate just confirmed Scott Pruitt, a man who has been very critical of the EPA, as the head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. If you aren’t familiar with the agency, the EPA exists as a federal measure to protect human health and the environment. The agency oversees regulations for corporations and other organizations in order to ensure that the needs of the environment are taken into consideration.

Thus, it is a necessary piece to a fully functioning government (and biosphere).

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Republicans have been trying to curtail the reach of the EPA for some time, a move which Pruitt has supported. Previously, he vowed to curb the EPA’s regulatory reach once in office.

This promise is in line with the moves made by other republicans. Case in point, on Friday February 3, republican Florida congressman Matt Gaetz presented the bill H.R.861, which would eliminate the EPA and, instead, focus efforts on preserving jobs. Kentucky representative Thomas Massie, a republican, supported this move, noting that “The EPA makes rules that undermine the voice of the American people and threaten jobs in Kentucky.”

Today’s vote was largely along party lines, coming in at 52-46.

Also of note is the fact that this decision comes just a day after a federal judge ruled that the Oklahoma attorney general’s office (Pruitt was the attorney general in the state) must turn over some 3,000 emails between Pruitt and fossil fuel companies, which have an enormous presence in his state.

Several congressmen spoke out against the confirmation, noting Pruitt’s ties to the fossil fuel industry and his history of favoring, what they call, the special interests of corporations over the public and the needs of the environment.

“Mr. Pruitt has extreme environmental policy views. And he has zero experience running an environmental protection agency. In fact, he does not believe in the fundamental mission of EPA,” said Sen. Tom Udall, D-New Mexico. “Attorney General Pruitt made his name opposing EPA rules that protect human health and the environment, fighting against clean air and clean water, disregarding the science behind the EPA’s protections for human health and the environment, on behalf of for-profit special interests, not the public interest.”

“This Trump administration has nominated as administrator at the EPA a tool of the fossil fuel industry, a man who demonstrably will not take his government responsibilities seriously because he never has,” stated Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) “He has never taken EPA’s responsibility seriously. He has done nothing but sue them.”

Of course, there are many who are not displeased with this confirmation.

“He’s exceptionally qualified,” said republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. “He’s dedicated to environmental protection. And, as someone with state government experience, he understands the real-world consequences of EPA actions and knows that balance is the key to making policies that are sustainable over the long-term.”

A Warming Reality

However, it is important to remember that, regardless of who is heading the EPA (or whether or not it even exists), the science is sound and irrefutable: Human-made climate change remains part of our daily reality, a reality which is progressively worsening.

Earth’s temperatures have been consistently warming. Despite political pushback from those who deny climate change, the actual effects of anthropogenic (manmade) climate change continue.

But there is good reason to hope for a cleaner and cooler tomorrow.

Renewable energy sources continue to become more affordable and widespread, while their fossil fuel counterparts continue to increase in cost and decrease in usage. Individuals could argue that this is due to increased mining and emissions regulations, or government incentives for clean energy, but they’d be wrong.

For the first time since the Energy Information Agency (EIA) began tracking energy consumption way back in 1950, coal will not be the dominant source of energy in the U.S. (that distinction goes to natural gas). While the EIA cites environmental regulations as playing a “secondary role” in the decline of coal, the primary factor is cost.

The death of fossil fuels is coming. True, it can’t come fast enough if the environment is going to have any chance of bouncing back against man-made climate change…but we are on our way.

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The Antarctic Ice Sheet Is the Smallest It’s Ever Been

Melting Fast

The Antarctic ice sheet goes through a cycle of expansion and contraction every year. Ultimately, the ice that exists around the continent melts during the southern hemisphere’s summer, which occurs towards the end of February, and expands again when autumn sets in.

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However, that melting is increasing dramatically.

This week, the US National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) announced that the sea ice contracted to just 883,015 sq. miles (2.28m sq. km). The announcement came on February 13, and these numbers mean that the ice is now at the smallest extent on record, reaching just a little smaller than the previous low of 884,173 sq. miles, which was recorded February 27, 1997.

NSIDC director Mark Serreze asserts that we will need to wait for measurements in the coming days before officially confirming this new all-time low; however, he is not optimistic. “Unless something funny happens, we’re looking at a record minimum in Antarctica,” Serreze told Reuters.

Putting the Brakes On It

Climate change skeptics have often pointed to the tendency of the Antarctic ice sheet to expand as evidence against global warming. But with world average temperatures hitting an all time high in 2016, the impact of climate change on planet Earth is getting more pronounced and harder to deny. “We’ve always thought of the Antarctic as the sleeping elephant starting to stir,” Serreze stated; “Well, maybe it’s starting to stir now.”

That said, all is not lost. Despite the hesitancy of some world governments when it comes to taking action against fossil fuels and climate change, efforts to reverse the effects of global warming are in no short supply.

The historic Paris Climate Agreement is one such step, with nations beefing up their efforts in transitioning from fossil fuels to renewable energy—like solar, wind, and even nuclear power. Moreover, a number of private efforts by companies like Microsoft, who plans to run on 50% renewables, and Tesla, who is pushing for electric cars and solar powered roofs, provide hope for the future and make the case for renewable energy sources.

If we truly invest in these efforts, future generations may never have to witness the Antarctic ice sheets receding to such low levels.

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Soon, Earth’s Magnetic Poles Could Flip

The Earth’s Magnetic Field

If you’ve ever used a compass, you already know that the Earth has a magnetic field by which we can navigate. When the needle of our compass points north, it’s actually pointing toward Earth’s magnetic south — because, with magnets, opposites attract. But north as we know it has not always been. In fact, throughout the history of our planet, the poles have switched many times.

The Earth’s core, what we know of it at least, is made up of molten iron. As it flows, it produces an electrical current. That current creates the Earth’s magnetic field, which is important to fostering life for a number of reasons: the foremost of which is that it protects harmful amounts of solar radiation from penetrating the atmosphere.

The thing is, the polarity created by the magnetic field isn’t a universal constant. In the history of our planet, the poles have completely reversed a number of times. And while complete reversals have been somewhat irregular, scientists estimate that they’ve happened roughly every 200,000 to 300,000 years. That is, except for the most recent complete pole reversal, which happened about 780,000 years ago. This means that we are currently long overdue for the poles to swap again.

What Will Happen To Us If The Poles Reverse?

The last time that Earth experienced a complete pole reversal, known as the Brunhes-Matuyama, the planet was lush with plants and animals. Fossils from this epoch have convinced geophysicists that the pole switch didn’t have a catastrophic impact on life. Glacial records, too, indicate that the reversal didn’t cause the Earth’s axis or rotation to shift — which would have drastically altered the climate and shown up in glacier samples.

Of course, that being said, scientists don’t know what a pole reversal would mean for humans of today’s world. Many animal species have magnetoreception which allows them to not only sense the Earth’s magnetic field but use it for navigation (think migration). Other than our ability to interpret a compass, humans don’t have an innate sense of direction (some of us don’t have much of one at all, which you know if you’ve ever gotten disoriented in a parking lot).

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One thing scientists are fairly certain of is that the magnetic field would not completely disappear. It could possibly weaken, but it wouldn’t suddenly let in enough solar radiation to destroy us all in some kind of sci-fi doomsday scenario. The shifting of the poles happens gradually — and in fact, the North Pole has been moving at a rate of about 64 km (40 miles) per year within the last century. That’s actually quite a bit faster than it moved at the start of the 20th century when it traveled at just 16 km (10 miles) per year.

Still, what would be the most likely thing to harm humans if the poles were to reverse again would be the ways in which a disturbance in Earth’s electromagnetic field would mess with all of our technological devices. Aviation would probably need significant reworking in order to function, our satellites would need to be redesigned, and Earth-bound power grids could experience interruptions under the altered circumstances.

That being said, while we can’t predict exactly when the next pole reversal will occur, most scientists don’t think it could lead to mass extinction — unless humans have evolved to the point where they, literally, can’t live without their electronic devices. And we’re not there yet…right?

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No, The NOAA Never Faked Any Climate Change Data

No One’s Faking It

There is such a thing as anthropogenic (human-made) climate change. Almost 200 international scientific organizations are in agreement on this. Earth’s temperatures have been consistently on the rise, and human activity is a major contributor. This fact is backed by data from studies by scientists around the globe—scientists who are experts and monitoring atmospheric carbon levels and tracing how the planet has been warming over the past decades.

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But sadly, not everyone accepts science.

Recently, an article by David Rose appeared in the Daily Mail with the rather worrisome title “Exposed: How world leaders were duped into investing billions over manipulated global warming data.” The article, which came out last week, has naturally caused quite an uproar, as people believe that climate data has truly been faked.

But it hasn’t. So, what exactly happened? What Rose claimed was the ”

Well, what Rose claimed was the “manipulation” of data at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) was actually a case of two climate scientists arguing about methodology. Take note, methodology and not data.

These kinds of argument are relatively normal in the scientific community, except that they usually just involve scientists. Rose interviewed retired NOAA scientist John Bates, who mentioned a specific criticism he has about fellow NOAA researcher Thomas Karl’s methodology for a 2015 paper. The paper focused on a particular climate science question: Why does it seem that the global rise in temperatures paused or slowed down during the first decade of the 21st century?

Bates felt that Karl didn’t properly understand data archiving standards used in his methodology.

Taking Advantage

Rose was quick to take advantage of the seeming conflict in NOAA, suggesting a huge conspiracy that duped the world. Concretely, he took a blog post by Bates that criticized Karl’s paper and turned it into a “whistleblowing” document that sheds light into the grand conspiracy designed to fool the public into believing that climate change is real.

Nothing can be further from reality.

What Bates (the former NOAA scientist) criticized was not the climate problem, but Karl’s approach to answering the question about the supposed pause of global temperature increase. Karl’s conclusion was that there wasn’t really a pause but that, instead, there was a change in measurement tools. Bates said that Karl’s paper wasn’t rigorous enough and that he failed to hew closely to the data-archiving standards Bates worked to implement during his time at the NOAA.

Bates, essentially, was arguing about the methodology of one paper, but Rose took it as a challenge to climate science itself.

Bates was quick to clarify the whole situation. Speaking to E&E News, Bates later said that “The issue here is not an issue of tampering with data, but rather really of timing of a release of a paper that had not properly disclosed everything.”

Alas. This isn’t the first time that accusations about fiddling with temperature data have been made, and it won’t be the last. Back in 2015, a similar issue was made by the British paper Telegraph. Back then, what the newspaper failed to do was to distinguish between manipulating and processing data. The latter is part of every serious scientific study, undertaken precisely to make sure that data is solid.

In any case, the lesson here is not to be quick to jump to conclusion or deny what (quite literally) hundreds of scientific organizations have concluded. Always remember Occam’s razor: “Among competing hypotheses, the one with the fewest assumptions should be selected.”

And what requires more assumptions, that a writer for the Daily Mail got something wrong, or that thousands of scientists and scientific organization created a vast conspiracy to dupe the world?

The post No, The NOAA Never Faked Any Climate Change Data appeared first on Futurism.

Extreme Weather: The Polar Vortex is Officially Back

A Changing World

Hope that you stayed warm, guys: newly released NASA images show the brutal polar vortex that descended upon North America last week, and brought remarkably low temperatures to the US and Canada.

The data was captured by the Atmospheric Infrared Sounder (AIRS) instrument onboard NASA’s Aqua satellite, and it shows the air temperature around 5,500 meters or 18,000 feet above the ground, which is currently as low as –40 degrees Celsius (–40 Fahrenheit).

The NASA satellite measured the atmospheric air temperatures from December 1 to 11, and shows the dark blue and purple cold air moving eastwards across the northern US and Canada.

On December 7, the frigid temperatures had moved into the plains states and were traveling into Colorado, Kansas, and Missouri. The cold is now moving from west to east, and it’s looking like it’s going to be a cold weekend, particularly for New England.

“That cold air shifted east on December 9 into the Ohio Valley and New England,” writes NASA.

“On December 11, another trough of cold air was sweeping down from Canada into the northern plains and is expected to bring very chilly temperatures over the north central and northeastern US on December 14 and 15.”

You can see the December 1 to 11 visualization below:

But that’s the temperature at the height of satellites.

Here’s what those temperatures are going to feel like on the ground, with wind chill factored in. Yep, that’s a nightmarish –29 degrees Celsius (–20 degrees Fahrenheit) over the northern Plains:

Accuweather
Accuweather

“Forecast highs are expected to be 20 to 30 degrees Fahrenheit [11 to 17 degrees Celsius] below average over the north-central tier of the US,” said National Weather Service’s prediction service on December 15.

Meet the Polar Vortex

So what’s causing all these subzero temperatures? The polar vortex is the name given to the swirling cold air pattern that’s seen circulating the North Pole in winter.

When the polar vortex is strong, it’s contained nicely in the Arctic circle and doesn’t bother the rest of us. But scientists have known for years now that the polar vortex is weakening, which means that the vortex is more likely to break and send blasts of cold air down into the lower latitudes.

When those breaks happen – like right now – little vortices of cold air spiral out of the polar vortex and bring unseasonably icy weather further south.

The last time this happened was in 2014, when it caused an extreme weather event in the northern US and Canada.

But new research has shown that the polar vortex has not only been getting weaker over the past 30 years, it’s also shifting away from North America towards Europe and Asia during February each year.

That might sound like a good thing, but it could actually cause the east coast to get even colder and longer winters.

Despite these record-breaking lows, let’s not forget that 2016 is still on track to be the hottest year on record globally.

And research has also found that the vortex break down is “closely related” to shrinking sea ice coverage in the Arctic – particularly in the Barents-Kara seas.

That link is still tenuous, but it doesn’t change the fact that this November, temperatures around the North Pole were around 20 degrees Celsius (36 degrees Fahrenheit) warmer than they should be.

If nothing else, let’s hope this current cold snap helps freeze some more sea ice in the Arctic, because we desperately need it.

Stay safe out there this weekend, kids.

The post Extreme Weather: The Polar Vortex is Officially Back appeared first on Futurism.

How a New U.S. Space Station Would Let Humanity Colonize the Solar System

The Universe Beyond Earth

“Mars is the next step of our space program. It’s the challenge that’s been staring us in the face for the past 30 years. At one time in the ancient past, Mars was very similar to the conditions of early Earth. We now have ‘eyes’ and ‘ears’ on the surface of this new world. The Mars rovers have captured our imaginations. They genuinely are explorers in the old-fashioned sense.”

Thirty years ago, Carl Sagan wrote these words, urging the continued funding of NASA’s programs in the U.S. budget. However, there are obstacles that we still face when it comes to exploring, understanding, and conquering the Red Planet.

The U.S. is the world’s leading aerospace manufacturer. We lead the globe in the exploration of the solar system and the development of commercial, military, and communication satellites. We can reach the Moon and Mars, but it seems we can’t (or don’t) stay long. Instead, we spend billions of dollars leaving and returning again.

In order to build on Mars, to stay on Mars, and ultimately expand to other worlds, there are two seemingly insurmountable obstacles. First, the establishment of a permanent presence in space requires the development of space-based infrastructures. We can see Mars with our “eyes” and “ears”—our probes—but we can neither physically reach it nor stay there until we’ve first established significant human enterprise, industry, and presence operating off Earth.

The second obstacle in relation to establishing a permanent human presence in space is the why? In short, to explore, understand, and build on the Red Planet, we need an economic impetus to do so.

So what is the next step? How do we maintain a human presence off Earth? How can we access the resources of the Solar System if we can’t stay in space any longer than it takes for the trip there and back again?

In the past half-century, we’ve had three real answers to this question: the Manned Orbiting Laboratory, the Skylab, and the Freedom. All projects towards permanent habitable space stations. Yet, all three projects were canceled due to financial obstacles.

With one exception.

A Long Voyage into the Cosmos

The Freedom Space Station project launched in 1994, and it was eventually converted into a larger Space Station, one that is still in operation today under a different name. The Freedom and Russian Federal Space Agency space station project (MIR-2) modules were integrated, ultimately becoming the Russian Orbital Segments and American Orbital Segments of the International Space Station (ISS).

These canceled Russian and American projects formed the first joint international undertaking off Earth.

Can the U.S. maintain its place as a leader of the development of space-based industry? Could the U.S. create its own space station as a stepping stone into the cosmos? Let’s imagine it.

nasa international space station 4k video iss
Image of Earth from the ISS. Credit: NASA/ISS

The space station could legally operate the way Tiangong 1 and 2 have. The Tiangong stations, translating to Heavenly Palace, have been the only other manned stations in space besides the ISS. Though small, the Tiangongs are nonetheless an entity of the Chinese government. An easy, if not entirely semantically correct, way to think about it is that the Tiangongs are a city of China in space.

Any developments by the U.S would be the American counterpart, the city in space—a design which was investigated by NASA more than a quarter of a century ago. The U.S space station should not only be intended as a scientific laboratory, but as a central location for U.S. economic activities, such as asteroid mining and space solar power (1). Ultimately, this new space station’s primary purpose would be to generate space-based industry, providing burgeoning enterprises with the resources to initiate economic activity off Earth. The new U.S. Space Station would be the realization of the three failed NASA projects to colonize the solar system

Making Space Affordable

With the development of space-based economic activities, such as space solar power and asteroid mining, this can lead to the creation of technology that will facilitate the accessibility of space by allowing companies to generate revenue from their efforts.

Currently, it costs millions of dollars to send a pound of anything into space, whether it’s computers, water, or personnel. Space solar power is an economic impetus that could lead to sustainable and renewable energy that does not emit greenhouse gasses, hazardous waste, and is available 24 hours a day 7 days a week. Additionally, asteroid mining can bring rare-earth metals and resources within our grasp, materials that are in limited supply on Earth and are used in everything from electric vehicles to computer chips. Resources that could be mined or extracted include iron, nickel, titanium, water, rare-earth metals, oxygen, and hydrogen. These could be used to sustain the lives of astronauts on-site, to create rocket propellants, and to send back to Earth. Notably, in space exploration, using resources gathered while on a journey is referred to as in-situ resource utilization, eliminating the need for billion-dollar-chemically-based rockets to bring such necessities from Earth.

Image Credit: Planetary Resources
Image Credit: Planetary Resources

These space-based industries are our frontier, the new frontier. Building a home amongst the stars can not only lead to the construction of the technology for easier ways of getting off the Earth, but also to new ways of thinking about space travel—like non-rocket space launches, a geosynchronous orbital tether to the stars, or even the laser propelled lightcraft (2).

Understanding The Need

Of course, having a U.S. space station would not be simple. The project will require us to create new space-based industries and catalyze a new frontier of economic activity with a dedicated human presence in space. But imagine drastically reducing the financial burden of maintaining satellites in space. Imagine being able to build ships while in space as opposed to launching them from the Earth and battling the clutches of gravity. Imagine the military advantage of a space station that can send aid to any position on the globe. Imagine 1000 Americans in space on an American Space Station in a new branch of the military.

Most importantly, such an enterprise would likely create unprecedented economic opportunities off Earth that we’ve never before considered, which could ultimately lead up to an even larger space station and the true colonization of the solar system.

Ultimately, a permanent U.S space station is not only a step for American aerospace industry gaining the foothold to tap resources of the solar system, but another big step for humanity becoming a multi-planetary civilization and one day reaching (and staying) on the Red Planet.


Footnotes:

(1) Unlike terrestrial solar and wind power, oil, gas, ethanol, nuclear plants, and coal plants, space solar power does not emit greenhouse gasses or hazardous waste. It is also available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, in huge quantities. It works regardless of cloud cover, daylight, or wind speed. Further, space solar power can be exported to virtually any place in the world, and its energy can be converted for local needs — such as the manufacturing of methanol for use in places like rural India, where there are no electric power grids. Space solar power can also be used for the desalination of sea water and the agricultural development of previously barren, open lands. Lastly, space solar power can provide a market large enough to develop the low-cost space transportation system that is required for its deployment. This, in turn, will also bring the resources of the solar system within economic reach.

(2) Laser propulsion is in its early stages of development. Lightcraft use an external laser source or maser energy to provide power for producing thrust. The laser/maser energy is focused to a high intensity in order to create a plasma. The plasma expands, producing thrust.

The post How a New U.S. Space Station Would Let Humanity Colonize the Solar System appeared first on Futurism.

We Must Reach the Final Frontier: The Legacy of John Glenn

“That View is Tremendous”

john-glenn-friendship-7-cp-300x214
NASA

John Glenn, the last of NASA’s seven original astronauts, and former U.S. Senator, died last night (Dec. 8) at the age of 95. Prior to his death, Glenn had been hospitalized at the university at the James Cancer Center, but his illness was not disclosed.

As a part of the Mercury Seven group, Glenn paved the way for future space explorers. In 1962, Glenn circled the Earth three times over the course of less than five hours, traveling faster than 27,359 km/h (17,000 mph) on board the Mercury capsule “Friendship 7” – a ship run by a computer less powerful than an iPhone.

“Zero-g and I feel fine,” Glenn reported to the ground five minutes into the flight. “Oh, that view is tremendous.”

“During my [three-orbit] flight, I was able to perform basic research experiments, which helped contribute to what we know about humans in space,” Glenn told Space.com back in 1996. But more than that, this flight inspired countless people to pursue careers in aerospace, proved the U.S. deserved a spot in the space race against the Soviet Union, and established a legacy for Glenn.

glenn_adsep
NASA

“It seemed that he had given Americans back their self-respect,” said author Walter A. McDougall, “and more than that — it seemed Americans dared again to hope.”

Although Glenn went on to be elected into the U.S. Senate in 1974, he wasn’t finished with his off-world adventures. In 1998, while still a senator, Glenn took a ride on the space shuttle Discovery and orbited Earth 134 times over the course of nine days. He was 77 years old, making him the oldest space traveler ever. His participation in the flight allowed NASA to study how microgravity affects aging.

“I’m proud to have been part of the beginning of America’s space program, and needless to say I’m excited to be back and I am honored and privileged,” said Glenn at a Jan. 16, 1998 press conference announcing his second flight.

Modern Day Space Race

The space race truly fueled innovation. But the competition isn’t over. In fact, the race is more robust than ever, as more players have entered from the private sector including SpaceX, Blue Origin, Boeing, Virgin Galactic, and more. Just this year, SpaceX celebrated landing six reusable rockets while Blue Origin landed five. These successes will all contribute to our eventual landing on Mars and, perhaps one day, we will have a colony there.

Then there’s the slew of incredible companies offering innovative technologies that can be used to obtain resources off world. Planetary Resources hopes to “expand Earth’s natural resource base” by developing and deploying the technologies needed for asteroid mining. Deep Space Industries is another asteroid mining company that’s developing the technologies to find, harvest, and supply the asteroid resources that will transform our space economy and enable longterm space missions.

Today, orbiting the Earth might be commonplace for the crew of the International Space Station; however, it is important to remember that Apollo 17 commander Gene Cernan was the last man to walk on the lunar surface…and that was in 1972.

It has been 40 years since we have been back to the Moon, and while a host of innovative companies are leading us to the stars, we, as a society, must invest in in the final frontier. Not only does it fuel a number of industries and, thereby, assist our economy, it inspires our future innovators as nothing else. As Alan Stern noted in a recent Futurism interview, such enterprises are worthy for a number of reasons: “Beyond the obvious—that we’re creating new knowledge—we create a greater society. We do something which is, in the case of great exploration, historic. It’s something people read about, not just days and weeks later, but decades and centuries later. It makes a mark for our time of what we aspire to be, which is a greater society.”

The day will come when we’ll be looking out over the Red Planet, watching the Earth pass by with the same wonder Glenn felt looking back at our planet from space…but only if we truly invest in that future.

The post We Must Reach the Final Frontier: The Legacy of John Glenn appeared first on Futurism.