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Copyright 2018 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

 
Science & Nature
 

November 17, 2018 - November 23, 2018

Report: Efforts to suck carbon from air must be ramped up

 This illustration provided by Carbon Engineering in October 2018 shows one of the designs of the company’s air contactor assemblies to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. (Carbon Engineering via AP)

Seth Borenstein

Washington (AP) - The United States needs to ramp up efforts to suck heat-trapping gases out of the air to fight climate change, a new  report said.

The report from the National Academy of Sciences says technology to do so has gotten better, and climate change is worsening. By mid-century, the world needs to be removing about 10 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide out of the air each year. That’s the equivalent of about twice the yearly emissions of the U.S.

Last year the world put nearly 37 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide into the air, and emissions have been rising.

Steve Pacala, Princeton University biologist and chair of the panel, said in an interview that having ways to remove heat-trapping gases from the atmosphere would make the job of tackling climate change “much easier.”

“It causes one to think differently about the climate problem when you have a backstop,” he said. “And the ultimate temperature we have to suffer through is going to be lower.”

The report comes on the heels of a United Nations science report that painted a bleak picture of the world’s ability to avoid dangerous warming. The latest study “is sort of more optimistic; it gives some operational advice,” said Kate Gordon, a research scholar at the Columbia Center for Global Energy policy who was not part of the report’s panel.

The 370-page report called for the nation to invest in technologies and methods that would remove the heat-trapping gasses like carbon dioxide from the atmosphere that are generated from human activities like burning coal and natural gas for electricity, or burning gasoline and diesel for transportation. The technologies outlined include the simple and the futuristic:

- Plant more trees and manage forests better, and limit the amount of land used by people. Plants take carbon dioxide from the air and use it to grow.

- Conserve soils better so they can store more carbon dioxide and produce more food.

- Conserve and restore coastal plants, like marshlands and sea grass beds.

- A relatively new technology called direct air capture. Pilot projects have started using giant fans that pull in air, use a chemical reaction to suck carbon out, and then inject it underground.

- A still-to-be-worked out technology that relies on certain types of rock that can absorb carbon dioxide.

- Burning more biofuel - like wood - and capturing the carbon dioxide after combustion and either burying it underground or making it into solids that can be spread on dirt.

“These technologies will clearly help since we have screwed up a lot,” said Nobel Prize-winning atmospheric chemist Mario Molina of the University of California San Diego, who wasn’t part of the report’s panel.

The good news is that technology in this field has advanced more in the past nine months than it had in the previous decade, said study co-author Christopher Jones, an engineering professor of Georgia Tech.

Pacala said the natural methods like tree planting is pretty cheap and available now. But he said they can only do so much because “there’s a limit to available land.”

Jason Furtado, a meteorology professor at the University of Oklahoma who wasn’t part of the report, called the bioenergy method the most promising, but not necessarily the easiest.

The direct air capture, being used by Climeworks, Carbon Engineering and others, is mostly limited by cost, Pacala said.

Carbon Engineering acting chief scientist David Keith, a Harvard University professor, said removing carbon from the air makes sense only once humans have stopped putting so much in the air. “The idea that humanity might continue huge fossil (fuel) emissions while simultaneously balancing them with removal is nutty - you plug the leaks before bailing the boat.”

The report addresses concerns that it creates a “moral hazard” - raising hopes about the promise of these carbon-removal technologies that could give civilization an excuse not to cut emissions from coal, oil and gas now. Pacala said carbon removal technologies aren’t a substitute for massive reductions in carbon emissions. They are tools to get overall emissions down, he said.

“The fact that we need large-scale negative emissions essentially tells us that we have left it (until) too late to solve the problem,” said Norwegian scientist Glen Peters, who tracks global carbon emissions.


November 10, 2018 - November 16, 2018

As sea ice melts, some say walruses need better protection

In this July 17, 2012, file photo, adult female Pacific walruses rest on an ice flow with young walruses in the Eastern Chukchi Sea, Alaska. A lawsuit making its way through federal court in Alaska will decide whether Pacific walruses should be listed as a threatened species, giving them additional protections. (S.A. Sonsthagen/U.S. Geological Survey via AP, File)

Dan Joling

Anchorage, Alaska (AP) - Given a choice between giving birth on land or sea ice, Pacific walrus mothers most often choose ice.

Likewise, they prefer sea ice for molting, mating, nursing and resting between dives for food. Trouble is, as the century progresses, there’s going to be far less ice around.

How well walruses cope with less sea ice is at the heart of a legal fight over whether walruses should be listed as a threatened species, giving them an added protection against human encroachments.

The federal government in 2008 listed polar bears as a threatened species because of diminished sea ice brought on by climate warming. That year the Center for Biological Diversity petitioned to do the same for walruses.

However, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service concluded in October 2017 that walruses are adapting and no one has proven that they “need” sea ice.

“It is unknown whether Pacific walruses can give birth, conduct their nursing during immediate post-natal care period, or complete courtship on land,” said Justice Department lawyers in defending the decision.

A federal judge in Alaska will hear the center’s lawsuit challenging the government’s decision not to list the walrus as threatened. There is no court date set for the lawsuit.

Pacific walrus males grow to 12 feet (3.7 meters) long and up to 4,000 pounds (1,815 kilograms) - more than an average midsize sedan. Females reach half that weight. Walruses dive and use sensitive whiskers to find clams and snails in dim light on the sea floor.

Historically hunted for ivory tusks, meat and blubber, walruses since 1972 have been shielded by the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Only Alaska Native subsistence hunters may legally kill them.

An Endangered Species Act listing would require the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to designate critical habitat for walruses and plan for their recovery. Federal agencies, before issuing permits for development such as offshore drilling, would be required to ensure walruses and their habitat would not be jeopardized.

Inaccessibility protected walruses for decades, but a rapid decline in summer sea ice has made them vulnerable.

In the Chukchi Sea between Alaska and Russia, where Pacific walrus females and juveniles spend their summer, ice could be absent during that season by 2060 or sooner, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service.

Since 1981, an area more than double the size of Texas - 610,000 square miles (1.58 million square kilometers) - has become unavailable to Arctic marine mammals by summer’s end, according to the National Snow and Ice Data Center.

By late August, as sea ice recedes beyond the shallow continental shelf, female walruses and their calves face a choice: Stay on ice over water too deep to reach the ocean floor for feeding - or come ashore for rest periods, where the smallest animals can be crushed in stampedes triggered by a hunter, airplane or bear.

More open water already has meant more ship traffic. Walruses also could find more humans in their habitat with a reversal of U.S. policy on Arctic offshore drilling. Former President Barack Obama permanently withdrew most Arctic waters from lease sales, but President Donald Trump in April 2017 announced he was reversing Obama, a decision being challenged in court. The administration’s proposed five-year offshore leasing plan includes sales in the Chukchi Sea.

Designating walruses as threatened would mean oil exploration companies would have to consult with federal wildlife officials to make sure drill rigs don’t endanger the animals. However, Trump’s Interior and Commerce departments in July proposed administrative changes to the species law that would end automatic protections for threatened plants and animals and set limits on designating habitat as crucial to recovery.

Walruses are notoriously difficult to count - and population estimates range widely. A preliminary one in 2017 put the number at 283,213, with the caveat that it could be as low as 93,000 or as high as 478,975.

The array of stresses and uncertainty about the walruses’ future are enough evidence for listing them as threatened, the Center for Biological Diversity argues.

In the last decade, walruses that gathered on shores have suffered hundreds of stampede deaths, and the loss of ice floes has pushed them away from feeding areas, said Shaye Wolf, climate science director for the nonprofit conservation group.

“They’re not adapting. They’re suffering,” Wolf said.

Scientists advising the Fish and Wildlife Service say the answer is not so clear cut, and much is unknown about how sea ice loss will affect walruses.

Chad Jay of the U.S. Geological Survey said it’s unknown, for example, why female walruses give birth on ice instead of land.

“One of the thoughts is that ... there’s more protection for the young from predators,” he said. “They’re offshore, and it’s a cleaner environment, too, for giving birth. But those are hypotheses that are difficult to prove.”

A nursing walrus needs to consume more than 7,800 clams per day, according to a federal assessment. And summer is the usual time for animals to fatten up.

When ice melted in alarming quantities, forcing females and their calves to shore in herds as large as 40,000, government scientists in 2008 tagged and tracked walruses to see how the changes affected their feeding.

They learned that females, forced to rest on beaches instead of ice, were still visiting their favorite feeding areas. However, the longer swims drew down fat reserves critical for lactating.

The walruses should be fine, the study concluded, if they can replace calories with additional feeding in winter, but whether that’s happening is unknown.

Undernourished females produce smaller offspring less likely to survive. The declining size of polar bear cubs in the southern Beaufort Sea was a factor in the decision to list them as threatened.

Endangered species law does not require perfect science to demonstrate adverse effects, Wolf said. When there’s uncertainty, she said, the benefit of the doubt goes to the species.

There have been previous geological time periods when walruses experienced a lack of sea ice, said Jay.

“Maybe they can get through that sort of an environment. Maybe they can’t,” he said. “No one really knows.”


November 3, 2018 - November 9, 2018

Europe, Japan send spacecraft on 7-year journey to Mercury

In this photo released by European Space Agency (ESA), the Ariane 5 rocket carrying BepiColombo lifts off from its launch pad at Kourou in French Guiana, for the mission to Mercury, Saturday, Oct. 20, 2018. (JM Guillon/2018 ESA-CNES-Arianespace via AP)

Mari Yamguchi & Frank Jordans

Tokyo (AP) - European and Japanese space agencies said an Ariane 5 rocket successfully lifted a spacecraft carrying two probes into orbit Saturday, Oct. 20 for a joint mission to Mercury, the closest planet to the sun.

The European Space Agency and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency said the unmanned BepiColombo spacecraft successfully separated and was sent into orbit from French Guiana as planned to begin a seven-year journey to Mercury.

They said the spacecraft, named after Italian scientist Giuseppe "Bepi" Colombo, was in the right orbit and has sent the first signal after the liftoff.

ESA says the 1.3 billion-euro mission is one of the most challenging in its history. Mercury's extreme temperatures, the intense gravity pull of the sun and blistering solar radiation make for hellish conditions.

The BepiColombo spacecraft will have to follow an elliptical path that involves a fly-by of Earth, two of Venus and six of Mercury itself so it can slow down before arriving at its destination in December 2025.

When it arrives, BepiColombo will release two probes - Bepi and Mio - that will independently investigate the surface and magnetic field of Mercury. The probes are designed to cope with temperatures varying from 430 degrees Celsius (806 F) on the side facing the sun, and -180 degrees Celsius (-292 F) in Mercury's shadow.

The ESA-developed Bepi will operate in Mercury's inner orbit, and JAXA's Mio will be in the outer orbit to gather data that would reveal the internal structure of the planet, its surface and geological evolution.

Scientists hope to build on the insights gained by NASA's Messenger probe, which ended its mission in 2015 after a four-year orbit of Mercury. The only other spacecraft to visit Mercury was NASA's Mariner 10 that flew past the planet in the mid-1970s.

Mercury, which is only slightly larger than Earth's moon, has a massive iron core about which little is known. Researchers are also hoping to learn more about the formation of the solar system from the data gathered by the BepiColombo mission.

"Beyond completing the challenging journey, this mission will return a huge bounty of science," said Jan Wörner, ESA Director General, in a statement.

JAXA President Hiroshi Yamakawa, who earlier managed the project, said, "We have high expectations that the ensuing detailed observations of Mercury will help us better understand the environment of the planet, and ultimately, the origin of the Solar System including that of Earth."

It is the second recent cooperation between the Europeans and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency. JAXA's Hayabusa2 probe dropped a German-French rover on the asteroid Ryugu earlier this month.


12-pound lunar meteorite sells for more than $600,000

 

(AP Photo/Rodrique Ngowi)

Boston (AP) - A 12-pound (5.5 kilogram) chunk of the moon that fell to the Earth as a lunar meteorite has been sold at auction for more than $600,000.

Boston-based RR Auction announced Friday the $612,500 winning bid for the meteorite, composed of six fragments that fit together like a puzzle, came from a representative working with the Tam Chuc Pagoda complex in Ha Nam Province, Vietnam.

RR predicted it would get $500,000 at auction.

The meteorite was found last year in a remote area of Mauritania in northwest Africa.

It is considered one of the most significant lunar meteorites ever found because of its large size and because it has "partial fusion crust" caused by the tremendous heat that sears the rock as it falls to Earth.


HEADLINES [click on headline to view story]

Report: Efforts to suck carbon from air must be ramped up


As sea ice melts, some say walruses need better protection


Europe, Japan send spacecraft on 7-year journey to Mercury

12-pound lunar meteorite sells for more than $600,000