How NASA Can Save Us Billions of Gallons of Water

A $1.5 million machine, a small aircraft, and a bunch of ex–ski bums traipsing about in the woods could be the key to a well-irrigated future.

March 21, 2014 By Vince Beiser Vince Beiser has reported from more than two dozen countries for publications including ‘Wired,’ ‘Harper’s,’ ‘The Atlantic,’ and ‘Rolling Stone.’ He is the winner of the 2014 Media for Liberty Award. ___ Here’s something to add to your doomsday list of natural resources that people need to survive but are threatened by climate change: snow. coque iphone 8 It’s a key source of freshwater for more than 1 billion people across the globe, slaking thirst, irrigating croplands, and driving turbines that generate electricity. Conveniently, in much of the world, snow also acts as a natural reservoir, storing water during wet seasons, then rationing it out slowly during drier summer months. But today, growing populations, warming temperatures, and changing weather patterns are straining that supply like never before. “June is the new July,” says Auden Schendler, vice president of sustainability at Aspen Skiing Company in Colorado. “Snowmelt comes earlier than it used to, and it all happens in one big flood.” Which means that knowing exactly how much snow is in the highlands—and when it’s coming down to lower elevations to feed rivers, aqueducts, and irrigation channels—is ever more important. outlet coque iphone But how do you measure something that’s spread over thousands of miles of steep, rugged, alpine terrain? Tom Painter, a research scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, has an answer: by measuring snow from thousands of feet in the air. Using sophisticated, aircraft-borne sensors that gauge snow’s depth and the amount of light it reflects, Painter and his team are assembling the most accurate measurement ever made of just how much water the mountains hold. This is welcome news in California, where the water content of accumulated snow is at historically low levels. Runoff from the Sierra Nevada mountains provides about a third of the entire state’s water, and up to 80 percent in some areas, supplying tens of millions of people and almost 1 million acres of farmland. Painter can’t make it snow, but he can provide more and better data to water managers, who need to plan how to most efficiently fill their reservoirs; farmers deciding which crops to plant and when; and cities trying to figure out if they’ll have enough water to supply their residents—or will need to start rationing. “The demand for knowledge about water resources is at an all-time high,” says Painter, a gregarious, athletically built 46-year-old. For decades, state water officials have estimated the snowpack’s water content by a straightforward method that will appeal to steampunk aficionados: They clamber into the mountains on snowshoes and stick aluminum tubes into the snow. The tubes indicate depth while collecting a sample revealing water volume. More recently, California has added a network of tabletop-size scales scattered through the mountains that electronically transmit the weight of snow that has fallen on them. coque iphone xs max Both systems yield reliable measurements but only of the snow where the measurement is taken; extrapolating out from that to a whole basin, or a whole mountain range, is better than guesswork but less than precise. What’s more, both the scales and the human surveyors are concentrated at lower elevations, leaving scientists to wonder what lies farther uphill. “The old system worked OK historically because there was always enough water,” says Painter. “But now it’s all been allocated out, and demand is starting to exceed supply.” With a wide, toothy smile, an open-collared shirt, and stylishly-frayed-at-the-cuffs jeans, Painter comes across more like an enthusiastic backcountry guide than a Ph.D. who’s been published in top research journals. There’s a reason for that: Growing up in Fort Collins, Colo., he says, he always felt at home in the mountains—so much so that he dropped out of college twice to be a ski bum. “The problem was that I had to be in the mountains, but I also had to use my brain,” he says. “I’m so lucky to have found this job.” (Many on Painter’s team tell similar stories of finding a way to turn a passion for wilderness into a respectable profession.) Painter’s project, dubbed the Airborne Snow Observatory, is a three-year, $4 million trial funded by JPL and California’s Department of Water Resources. On a recent morning at JPL’s tree-lined campus northeast of downtown Los Angeles, the project’s white-walled lab was strewn with gear being readied for the next batch of flights: two-way radios, boxes of tools, and a desk-size metal frame that will be attached to a little Twin Otter plane to house the project’s two key remote sensing instruments. The first is a lidar system—a gizmo similar to radar that uses light instead of sound, shooting out as many as 800,000 pulses a second to measure the elevation of the terrain beneath the plane. Those readings are then compared with lidar measurements taken of the same area during the snow-free summer to figure out the snow’s current depth. The second is a spectrometer, which measures the snow’s reflectivity, or albedo, to gauge how much sunlight the snow is absorbing, a key indicator of how fast it will melt. coque iphone soldes In flight, the plane is tracked by GPS and an accelerometer to align its measurements precisely with a geographical position. “We get about a terabyte of data from each flight,” says Painter. coque iphone 8 Painter’s team is focusing on Colorado’s Uncompahgre River Basin, part of the huge Colorado River Basin that supplies water to much of the Western United States, and California’s Tuolumne River Basin in the Sierra Nevada, which feeds the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, the primary water supply for 2.6 million people in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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NASA is calling the results the most accurate measurements ever of the water content of snowpack. Last spring, managers of the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir used Painter’s data to help figure out optimal flows for generating the hydroelectric power that runs much of San Francisco’s public transportation system, and for keeping the reservoir filled. The ASO, says Jeff Dozier, the founding dean of the Bren School of Environmental Science & Management at UC Santa Barbara, where Painter got his Ph.D., “gives us a very good measurement of the properties of snow. It’s a really systematic set of observations that are not easy to measure over the spatial scales of mountain ranges. Everybody is pretty excited about it.” Measuring snow from the air isn’t an entirely new concept. The National Weather Service has been doing it for some 30 years, using airplane-mounted sensors that record gamma radiation levels emitted from a given piece of ground when it’s clear and when it’s covered in snow, a difference that can be used to calculate the snow’s depth with great accuracy. That works well in the eastern part of the U.S., says Andrew Rost, director of the NWS’s National Operational Hydrologic Remote Sensing Center, but not in high mountains like the Rockies or the Sierra. “Out West, the snow is so deep that it blocks the gamma radiation completely,” Rost says. coque iphone xr “And our planes need to fly just 500 feet above the ground. You can’t do that in steep mountains.” If the ASO proves reliable, Rost says, “it would be a huge step forward.” One of the project’s most important findings is the crucial role of dust. Mountain bikes, ATVs, resource extraction, road building—all that and more across the West and as far away as China has contributed to the atmosphere in the Rockies containing seven times more dust than when settlers arrived from the East Coast in the 19th century. “Until recently we assumed the albedo of snow stayed constant,” says Painter. “But now we’re learning there’s a huge range.” Concentrations of factories and highways near mountains can have a major impact on the timing of snowmelt. That’s why half of Painter’s lab is taken up with a walk-in freezer full of ice and snow samples from around the world, and machines for measuring the concentrations of particulates they hold. The American West is hardly the only place facing serious water worries. A 2012 report by the National Intelligence Council warns that “during the next 10 years, many countries important to the United States will experience water problems—shortages, poor water quality, or floods—that will risk instability and state failure [and] increase regional tensions.” Tens of millions of people depend on meltwater from the Andes, as do hundreds of millions on waters flowing from the Himalayas. Nuclear-armed archrivals India and Pakistan are quarreling over rights to the waters of the Indus River, which is seeing reduced flows thanks in part to declining snowmelts. Meanwhile, tensions run high among Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran over the snowpack-fed Tigris and Euphrates rivers. “If we can put together the remote sensing infrastructure that tells us what’s going on with snowmelt in the Western U.S.,” Painter says, “we can migrate the technology around the globe, because the regions of water stress—the Himalayas, the Hindu Kush, the Kazakhstan-China border, the Andes—are all at the intersection of mountains and desert, just like here in the U.S.” Painter says he’s been contacted by water officials in several foreign countries interested in trying out his technology, and he hopes to start a pilot project in one of them soon—he won’t say where. In the meantime, he’s aiming to expand beyond the Tuolumne basin to cover the entire Sierra Nevada. “The information we have on our snowpack here is the envy of the world, but it’s actually pretty sparse,” says Painter.

Climate Engineering a Good Idea?

Climate EngineeringClimate Engineering No Longer Pie in the Sky

Scientists backed by the government and Bill Gates are studying schemes such as sunlight-blocking particles

This rendering [to the right] shows a cloud-brightening scheme by scientist John Latham in which a ship sprays salt particles into the air to reflect sunlight and slow global warming. (John MacNeil)

WASHINGTON — As international efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions stall, schemes to slow global warming using fantastical technologies once dismissed as a sideshow are getting serious consideration in Washington.

Ships that spew salt into the air to block sunlight. Mirrored satellites designed to bounce solar rays back into space. Massive “reverse” power plants that would suck carbon from the atmosphere. These are among the ideas the National Academy of Sciences has charged a panel of some of the nation’s top climate thinkers to investigate. Several agencies requested the inquiry, including the CIA.  At the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Cañada Flintridge, scientists are modeling what such technologies might do to weather patterns. At the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, Wash., a fund created by Microsoft founder Bill Gates — an enthusiast of research into climate engineering — helps bankroll another such effort. “There is a level of seriousness about these strategies that didn’t exist a decade ago, when it was considered just a game,” said Ken Caldeira, a scientist with the Carnegie Institution at Stanford University, who sits on the National Academy of Sciences panel. “Attitudes have changed dramatically.”

Even as the research moves forward, many scientists and government officials worry about the risks of massive climate-control contraptions. Some fear the potential for error in tampering with the world’s thermostat. Get it wrong, they say, and the consequences could be disastrous. Many also say the public could develop a false hope that geo-engineering schemes alone could halt climate change. That, they worry, would undermine already tenuous support for efforts to seriously reduce emissions of carbon dioxide and other gases that contribute to warming the climate. Even so, once-skeptical federal officials and scientists at major research institutions including Stanford, Harvard and Caltech have decided that ignoring these largely untested technologies also poses dangers. “There has been so little movement globally and, particularly, nationally toward mitigation of climate change that we’re in a situation where we need to know what the prospects are for this,” said Marcia McNutt, a former director of the U.S. Geological Survey, who is chairwoman of the National Academy of Sciences panel. “Whether we wind up using these technologies, or someone else does and we suddenly find ourselves in a geo-engineered world, we have to better understand the impacts and the consequences,” she said.

Agencies are struggling to analyze the possibilities of weather control and how it might be policed. In November, the Congressional Research Service advised lawmakers to pay attention to the issue, saying “these new technologies may become available to foreign governments and entities in the private sector to use unilaterally — without authorization from the United States government or an international treaty.” That already happened to a limited extent in mid-2012 when a California businessman, Russ George, dumped 200,000 pounds of iron-rich dust off the coast of British Columbia, Canada, in an effort — many say publicity stunt — aimed at spurring a massive plankton bloom. The theory of ocean fertilization holds that more plankton would increase the ocean’s capacity to absorb carbon from the atmosphere. George’s test did appear to cause more plankton to bloom, but it is unclear whether it had any effect on carbon dioxide levels in the air.

That same year, British scientists canceled plans to test the effect that spraying liquids at high altitude would have on sunlight. The proposed small-scale test involved launching a balloon high above the sea and spraying what would have amounted to a couple of bathtubs of water into the atmosphere. In theory, that would mimic the cooling effect that occurs when ash from a volcanic eruption blocks sunlight. The experiment was grounded amid a heated dispute, which continues today, over whether field tests should be taking place at all in the absence of international rules guiding how to go about them. Some prominent climate experts have argued that the technology the British scientists were testing, were it ever to be used on a large scale, could exacerbate extreme drought and flooding in parts of the world. “We need to consider whether we have the right legal architecture in place to make sure bad things don’t happen,” said Harvard law professor Jody Freeman, a former White House counselor for energy and climate change. “It is important we have some control and society is engaged in the risks.”

The technologies being proposed are numerous, and often odd.

“I have seen all kinds of proposals,” said James Fleming, author of “Fixing the Sky: The Checkered History of Weather and Climate Control” and a member of the National Academy geo-engineering committee. “There is a crazy new one in my email every week,” he said. “There are a lot of Rube Goldbergs out there, and some Dr. Strangeloves.”  Of the technologies being considered, those that would remove carbon tend to be less controversial. Riley Duren, chief systems engineer for Earth science and technology at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, estimates, for example, that counteracting today’s emissions would require about 30,000 of what he calls reverse power plants: enormous steel structures developed by a start-up in Calgary, Canada, that would use fans to suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. The bids to redirect sunlight are much more economical and could be deployed more quickly. They also carry much more risk, the congressional research study warns. Proposals in that category include efforts at cloud whitening, in which planes or ships would shoot particles of sea salt into the sky, stimulating the formation of brighter clouds that would reflect sunlight. Other proposals would inject sulfates into the atmosphere to absorb heat, or bounce solar radiation back into space.

In addition to the danger of exacerbating drought, the congressional report warns, if such contraptions malfunctioned or were otherwise shut down, the climate could rapidly warm, “leaving little time for humans or nature to adapt.”

The authors echo the concerns of many scientists that small changes in climate over the history of Earth have been known to have severe consequences. Much of the momentum behind geo-engineering comes from an organization Gates created with Caldeira and Harvard professor David Keith. The two scientists have been getting $1.3 million annually from Gates to fund their research, as well as to distribute to other projects, such as the modeling being done at Pacific Northwest Laboratory, Caldeira said. They also hold cram sessions for the billionaire a few times each year on climate and energy issues, including geo-engineering. Caldeira and Keith hope the National Academy effort will open the way for government-sponsored field tests. But McNutt cautions that may not happen. John Latham won’t be staying idle waiting for the government to resolve that debate. A senior research scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo., Latham is confident that he and his partners have developed a viable contraption. Their cloud-brightening scheme would involve ships at sea unleashing a spray of salt particles. It would use nozzles designed by Armand Neukermans, a physicist who helped invent the inkjet printer while at Hewlett-Packard. As recently as last year, the group had little hope of securing enough money to test the contraption outside the lab, Latham said. But as the buzz around geo-engineering has intensified, some wealthy individuals have stepped forward with about $1 million needed for a small-scale trial. Latham anticipates that within two or three years he will be conducting a government-sanctioned field test over thousands of acres of ocean. “People are getting more and more desperate about climate change,” he said. “I think it is quite probable we will get the OK to do this.”

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times,0,3602250.story#ixzz2v9DeDWlU

Should We Turn Earth’s Radiation Into Energy?

Physicists May Have Found New Way To Turn Earth’s Radiation Into Energy

By: Hunter Stuart; The Huffington Post

Our planet is warm. Outer space is cold. Can we take that heat difference and turn it into electricity?

Physicists at Harvard University may have found a way to do just that. They’ve proposed in a new study how to harvest the Earth’s thermal infrared radiation, and convert it into direct-current (DC) power.

“It’s not at all obvious, at first, how you would generate DC power by emitting infrared light in free space toward the cold,” study co-author Dr. Federico Capasso, a professor of applied physics and senior research fellow in electrical engineering at the university, said in a written statement. “To generate power by emitting, not by absorbing light, that’s weird. It makes sense physically once you think about it, but it’s highly counterintuitive. We’re talking about the use of physics at the nanoscale for a completely new application.”

One method in the study involves putting a hot plate (at the temperature of the Earth) beneath a cooler plate made from emissive material that gets colder by radiating heat toward the sky. The researchers said, based on a separate study they did on infrared emissions, that during the day or night such a contraption could produce a few watts of electricity for every square meter of the device, depending on the size of the plates.

That approach is “fairly intuitive,” study co-author Steven J. Byrnes, a postdoc researcher at Harvard, said in the statement. But a second proposed method is a little more complex.

It involves making many tiny electric circuits that would have two parts: “resistors” (or antennas) that emit the Earth’s infrared radiation, and mini electronic components called “diodes” that conduct a resistor’s electric current in a single direction. Keeping the diode warmer than the resistor will create voltage, the researchers said, and by covering a flat device with thousands or perhaps millions of these circuits and pointing it at the sky, you could get a significant amount of electricity using the Earth’s radiation as its source.

But there are still complications to figure out, the researchers said, one of which is that it’s hard to build and manipulate a diode with the low voltage levels created by the infrared emissions. A possible solution may lie in the manufacture of molecular-sized devices.

“People have been working on infrared diodes for at least 50 years without much progress,” Byrnes said. “But recent advances such as nanofabrication are essential to making them better, more scalable, and more reproducible.”

This new research was published this week in the journal Proceedings Of The National Academy Of Sciences.

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James Lovelock – Gaia Founder

lovelockJames Lovelock, originator of Gaia theory, inventor of the electron capture detector (which made possible the detection of CFCs and other atmospheric nano-pollutants) and of the microwave oven.

The study of planetary habitability is partly based upon extrapolation from knowledge of the Earth’s conditions, as the Earth is the only planet currently known to harbour life

The Gaia hypothesis, also known as Gaia theory or Gaia principle, proposes that organisms interact with their inorganic surroundings on Earth to form a self-regulating, complex system that contributes to maintaining the conditions for life on the planet. Topics of interest include how the biosphere and the evolution of life forms affect the stability of global temperature, ocean salinity, oxygen in the atmosphere and other environmental variables that affect the habitability of Earth.

The hypothesis, which is named after the Greek goddess Gaia, was formulated by the scientist James Lovelock and co-developed by the microbiologist Lynn Margulis in the 1970s. While early versions of the hypothesis were criticized for being teleological and contradicting principles of natural selection, later refinements have resulted in ideas highlighted by the Gaia Hypothesis being used in subjects such as geophysiology, Earth system science, biogeochemistry, systems ecology, and climate science.2006, the Geological Society of London awarded Lovelock the Wollaston Medal largely for his work on the Gaia theory.

Credit: Wikipedia