Budget crunch hits Keeling’s curves

November 20, 2013

Late last month, officials at California’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography turned to Twitter seeking donations to maintain the iconic ‘Keeling curve’, a 55-year record of rising atmospheric carbon dioxide levels. An appeal for funds launched in July had attracted only a few small con­tributions, not nearly enough to keep the programme going.

Scripps geochemist Ralph Keeling, who took over the CO2measurements started by his father Charles, is neither surprised nor disappointed. “That’s more a fishing expedition than anything,” he says of the nascent crowdsourcing at Scripps in La Jolla. But he is worried.

Continue reading in Nature.


Lightning network tested out in Guinea

October 29, 2013

Meteorologists watched as afternoon thunderstorms brewed in the mountainous region of central Guinea. By the evening of 22 October, the storms had intensified and were moving west towards the coast of Africa. At 8.20 p.m., the meteorologists received a thunderstorm alert, and for the next 45 minutes the 130,000 residents of the city of Fria were hammered by heavy rain, flash floods and winds of up to 77 kilometres per hour.

What happened that evening was not un­usual. Similar storms blow through Fria and Guinea’s coastal capital Conakry regularly during the rainy season. Flash flooding is a common problem, and the country is frequently buffeted by tornadoes. What was unusual was the way the storm was detected. Government meteorologists in Guinea lack the Doppler radar system that is usually used for this, and have struggled to track weather using rudimentary equipment. Europe and the United States provide free satellite data and forecasts, but these are coarse and infrequent. Only in recent months has Guinea turned to a new, simple proxy for storms: flashes of lightning.

Continue reading in Nature.


Congo carbon plan kicks off

October 9, 2013

After lifting off this week from the chaotic urban jungle of Kinshasa, scientists guided a twin-engine aircraft over the real jungle. With a small onboard laser, they began sweeping the vast rainforest of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), bouncing photons off leaves and branches. The aim is to measure — and perhaps to preserve — the carbon locked up in the tropical forests that cover two-thirds of the country.

The data will also enhance scientists’ understanding of tropical forests’ role in global climate regulation. “We know very little about the tropics,” says Sassan Saatchi, a remote-sensing scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, who is leading the data analysis for the project. “If these countries know how to monitor their forests quantitatively, it will help us solve the problem.”

Continue reading in Nature.


‘Plastic wood’ is no green guarantee

June 5, 2013

Ishmael Tirado watches as his fellow construction workers rebuild the Steeplechase Pier, a central feature of New York’s iconic Coney Island boardwalk. Planks of tropical ipê wood that were torn asunder by last year’s Hurricane Sandy lie in grey stacks behind him, ready to be scrapped or recycled, but fresh boards are tellingly absent. When the pier reopens this summer, visitors will encounter a shiny expanse of recycled plastic jutting out to sea on a platform of steel-reinforced concrete. “I think it’s a good idea,” Tirado says. “It’s more durable, and we are saving trees.”

Michael Bloomberg, New York’s mayor, would probably agree. He promised in 2008 to reduce the city’s dependence on tropical hardwoods such as ipê (pronounced ‘ee-pay’), and the city has since shifted towards concrete and plastic building materials. Many municipalities and consumers are making a similar choice as they build and maintain outdoor structures. But some researchers fear that a knee-jerk shift away from tropical timber could backfire on the environment.

Continue reading in Nature.


US warheads to get a facelift

May 7, 2013

When he took office in 2009, US President Barack Obama bolstered efforts to secure nuclear materials around the globe. That spring, speaking in Prague, he said that he would push Congress to ratify a long-pending treaty to ban nuclear testing. By 2010, he had reached an agreement with Russia to reduce the number of nuclear weapons in both countries’ arsenals to historic lows.

Yet the weapons laboratories of the US Department of Energy continue to be lavished with money. The administration’s 2014 budget proposal would boost funding for the weapons programme to US$7.9 billion, nearly 30% more than when Obama took office. This rising flow of cash contrasts strikingly with a shrinking stockpile (see ‘Small stockpile, big expense’). Life-extension programmes for weapons would receive more than $1 billion of this ‘stockpile-stewardship’ budget, including $537 million for a showcase initiative to modify and modernize the B61 line of nuclear gravity bombs.

Continue reading in Nature.


Experiment aims to steep rainforest in carbon dioxide

April 23, 2013

One of the wild cards in climate change is the fate of the Amazon rainforest. Will it shrivel as the region dries in a warming climate? Or will it grow even faster as the added carbon dioxide in the atmosphere spurs photosynthesis and allows plants to use water more efficiently? “We don’t know,” says Carlos Nobre, a climate scientist who heads research programmes at the Brazilian Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation in Brasilia. Now an international team of scientists is developing an ambitious experiment in the central Amazon that could study the effect in the real world. The experiment, the first of its kind in the tropics, would be modelled on free-air CO2 enrichment (FACE) experiments conducted over the past couple of decades in the young and biologically simpler temperate forests of the Northern Hemisphere.

Climate modellers trying to build carbon fertilization into their forecasts have had  precious few data to go on. “The number one question is, how will tropical forests react if we put more CO2 into the atmosphere?” says Carlos Nobre, a climate scientist who heads research programmes at the Brazilian Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation in Brasilia. “We don’t know.”

Continue reading in Nature.


Oil boom raises burning issues

March 19, 2013

When Paul Shepson flew his twin-propeller Beech aircraft over the Williston Basin in North Dakota last June, the perverse economics of a modern-day energy bonanza were on vivid display. Shepson, an atmospheric chemist at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, saw 10-metre-high flames writhing in the wind as shale-oil producers burned off the natural gas that was coming up along with the oil — a valuable resource that here, far from gas pipelines, is just a nuisance.

In 2011, North Dakota’s oil producers flared around 1.4 billion cubic metres of natural gas, according to the Energy Information Administration (EIA) in Washington DC. That was nearly 32% of the total amount of gas produced by the state, and enough to heat around 700,000 houses. And the flaring increased in 2012. Scientists are just beginning to assess how the carbon dioxide from the flames adds to the climate footprint of the oil, and how black carbon and other pollutants affect local air quality.

Continue reading in Nature.


June 12, 2012

Brazil’s celebrated coastal metropolis is defined by stark contrasts, both geographic and economic. Extravagant wealth rings the city’s luxurious beaches, while poverty looks on from the haphazard developments called favelas that sprawl across the surrounding hills. Such conspicuous inequality is symbolic of the challenge humanity faces on a global scale — a problem that restricted progress at the Rio+20 meeting last week to a modest and mostly voluntary set of commitments.

“What has been agreed to is entirely insufficient to tackle the problems that are before us on environment and development,” says Manish Bapna, acting president of the World Resources Institute, a global environment think tank in Washington DC.

Continue reading in Nature.


Air sampling reveals high emissions from gas field

February 7, 2012

When US government scientists began sampling the air from a tower north of Denver, Colorado, they expected urban smog — but not strong whiffs of what looked like natural gas. They eventually linked the mysterious pollution to a nearby natural-gas field, and their investigation has now produced the first hard evidence that the cleanest-burning fossil fuel might not be much better than coal when it comes to climate change.

Led by researchers at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the University of Colorado, Boulder, the study estimates that natural-gas producers in an area known as the Denver-Julesburg Basin are losing about 4% of their gas to the atmosphere — not including additional losses in the pipeline and distribution system. This is more than double the official inventory, but roughly in line with estimates made in 2011 that have been challenged by industry. And because methane is some 25 times more efficient than carbon dioxide at trapping heat in the atmosphere, releases of that magnitude could effectively offset the environmental edge that natural gas is said to enjoy over other fossil fuels.

Continue reading in Nature.


Durban maps path to climate treaty

December 13, 2011

In the darkest hours of the international climate-change negotiations in Durban, South Africa, last week, there was talk of postponing a decision altogether. But one question always came up: would more time really make a difference? After all, the issues facing negotiators have not changed in years, and the scientific evidence for the potential impacts of anthropogenic climate change just keeps getting stronger.

The first round of greenhouse-gas reduction commitments under the Kyoto Protocol will expire at the end of 2012, adding to the pressure on policy-makers to tackle the problem and leaving Durban as the last, best chance to establish a fresh road map to curb greenhouse-gas emissions. With tensions high, long-simmering disputes between rich and poor countries erupted time and again in Durban — but the febrile atmosphere gave European negotiators enough leverage to broker a historic global deal. Through a blend of clever politicking and sheer fatigue, the deal was thrashed out in impromptu huddles that formed in the main conference hall during the small hours of 11 December, in plain sight of anyone who was willing to push their way into the crowd — this reporter included.

Continue reading in Nature.


A struggle for power

November 9, 2011

When a few hundred demonstrators, mostly from indigenous communities, temporarily occupied the construction site of the Belo Monte dam on Brazil’s Xingu River early on 27 October, workers laid down their tools. But the Brazilian government did not back down from its stance that this hydroelectric project on a tributary of the Amazon — expected to be among the world’s largest, with a capacity of 11,000 megawatts, when completed in 2015 — is essential to meeting the energy needs of a booming economy. Under a court order, the demonstrators vacated the site later the same day, but the dam remains the subject of fierce litigation.

The episode briefly drew the world’s attention to a controversial mega-project, but this is only part of a larger picture. Led by Brazil, governments in the region are increasingly looking to tap into the Amazon system to slake a growing thirst for energy. If current plans are realized, a wave of dam construction will bring staggering change and development to the rainforest in the coming decades.

Continue reading in Nature.


Brazil cooks up transgenic bean

October 12, 2011

Paired with rice or steeped in feijoada stew, beans are an essential feature of Brazilian cuisine. So great is Brazil’s love of legumes that demand often outstrips domestic supply, forcing the country to import beans from Argentina, Bolivia and China. But this relationship could face the ultimate test as Brazilian scientists roll out a transgenic pinto bean (Phaseolus vulgaris) engineered to fend off one of the crop’s most devastating enemies: the golden mosaic virus.

Continue reading in Nature.


Is FutureGen betting on the wrong rock?

April 27, 2011

Kurt Zenz House watches from a corner office in Berkeley, California, as carbon dioxide is pumped into sandstone 2,000 metres below the southern Illinois farmland. A colourful plume grows on his computer screen, modelling the movement of CO2 through the porous rock. As decades elapse in the simulation, the CO2 rises and settles under the dome of shale that caps the formation.

House says that this is exactly what should happen. “CO2 injected anywhere inside the geological boundary will stay within the boundary,” he says. And, he argues, that is exactly what won’t happen when FutureGen 2.0, the US government’s main commercial demonstration project for carbon capture and sequestration (CCS), begins to store CO2 from a coal-fired power plant in Illinois in 2015.

Continue reading in Nature.


Low-cost carbon-capture project sparks interest

January 18, 2011

The Shidongkou No. 2 Power Plant outside Shanghai, China, has hosted a parade of foreign visitors in recent months, from academics and industry officials to US energy secretary Steven Chu. All have had one question on their minds: have Chinese engineers turned a corner on carbon-capture technology?

That question occupies a small but significant place in a package of clean-energy research initiatives expected to be announced this week as Chinese President Hu Jintao meets US President Barack Obama in Washington DC from 19 January.

Continue reading in Nature.

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