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Time to move to the moon, says Stephen Hawking

Convinced that our time on Earth is short, the astrophysicist says we should (and could) hit the moon within 30 years. […]

Simulator predicts how a tsunami will behave before it hits

The system only takes 10 minutes to make the prediction giving governments and rescue teams time to prepare. […]

Building Resilient Cities in a Changing Climate

West Texas roads are long and straight. So straight that, if you really wanted to, you could drive all the way from Lubbock to Plainview just looking in the rearview mirror. Almost all the way, that is. Because just before Plainview, there’s one giant curve in the road. If you are not looking forward, you will miss the curve, and boom! The car is off the road. What does this have to do with climate? The same principle applies: The information we use to plan for our future is crucial. Basing our decisions on what’s happened before works well if we know the future will look the same as the past. If we’re relying on historical climate to define future risks, we’ll end up far from where we wanted to be, unprepared for the more intense flooding, record heat waves, or rising seas up ahead. In a rapidly changing climate, using the rearview mirror to inform future planning doesn’t work. And today, climate is changing at a pace we humans have never experienced before. Yes, there have been warmer conditions and higher sea levels in the distant past. But there weren’t any people on the planet at that time, and there definitely weren’t any megacities within just a few feet of sea level; trillions of dollars of valuable infrastructure vulnerable to flooding; extensive agricultural systems that could be decimated by drought; or preexisting threats to water supply, disease, and even political instability, all of which are exacerbated by a changing climate. My colleagues and I at the Texas Tech Climate Science Center spend a lot of our time figuring out how to look ahead, down the climate highway, to see what might be coming up. Lacking a crystal ball, we use the fundamental laws of physics, chemistry, and even biology to calculate how human choices may be affecting our planet today and in the future. Over the last 10 years, I’ve worked with a broad range of cities, states, and other planning organizations, from state water agencies to transportation and port authorities. Throughout this work, I’ve seen how climate projections can help planners make more informed decisions, even when facing an uncertain future. From year to year, plain old natural variability, or weather, remains the greatest source of uncertainty in both average conditions and the risk of extremes. Once we get a decade or two down the road, though, the influence of human-induced climate change starts to kick in, with associated scientific uncertainty. How sensitive is our planet to all the extra heat-trapping gases we’re pouring into the atmosphere? How do tropical clouds or Arctic sea ice respond to a warming climate? How are natural weather patterns being affected by climate change? The further down the road we look, the more important our societal decisions become. Will we continue to rely on coal, natural gas, and oil to supply our energy needs? Or can we transition to carbon-free sources of energy, slowing the planet’s warming and giving us time to adapt? We scientists can’t predict what people will do, so we develop projections of how climate might change under higher and lower amounts of carbon emissions. How quickly that curve in the road comes up–and how steep the curve will be — depends on our choices. What does this look like in practice? When working with a city, such as Austin, Texas, or Washington, D.C., it’s essential for the climate scientists and knowledgeable city experts to sit down for a chat first thing. Which weather stations are planners already using for information on extreme heat conditions or heavy rain events? How has the city been affected by climate and weather in the past? What types of costly weather events have already impacted local infrastructure? Armed with this crucial information, we scientists can create high-resolution, or “downscaled,” climate projections for each of those weather stations: maximum and minimum temperature, humidity, precipitation, even solar radiation, for every day from 1950 to 2100. These projections are not intended to match the real world from day to day, but they do have the same statistics as real weather for the historical period. In the future, the projections follow different roads depending on the societal choices assumed. We then translate these climate projections into information that’s relevant and useful to planners. In 2012, for example, Washington, D.C., experienced a record heat wave. With our projections, we calculated how frequently those same heat and humidity conditions might recur in the future, providing important input to public health officials and city managers. In Austin, both flood and drought are concerns. We calculated how often future rainfall amounts might cross the threshold that raises the risk of serious flood, or fall below the level at which drought restrictions kick in. Certain Chicago rapid-transit rails warp on hot summer days. We calculated how often future temperatures would exceed this threshold, so planners could determine how soon to replace the rails with a more heat-tolerant material. State-of-the-art climate projections can’t answer every question. It’s likely that most of the U.S. will experience increases in average temperatures, more frequent high temperature and precipitation extremes, and stronger droughts during summer heat.However, knowing how small-scale weather events like tornadoes, windstorms, and thunderstorms will be affected by climate change is much harder. And some events — like the 2013 Boulder floods — are so rare, it’s anyone’s guess when we’ll see them again. We do know one thing for sure, though. Factoring in climate change is essential to successfully navigating the giant curve in our road that’s coming up ahead — and to coming out the other side in one piece, where we planned to be. This essay originally appeared in Planning, the magazine of the American Planning Association. — This feed and its contents are the property of The Huffington Post, and use is subject to our terms. It may be used for personal consumption, but may not be distributed on a website. […]

It’s time to stop blaming cyclists; instead make our roads work for everyone

As this comic strip points out, the rules were written for cars. […]

Damned If You Do, Damned if You Don’t: The Conundrum of COP21

In a few short months, world delegates will descend on Paris to debate over an acceptable framework on energy policies for their respective countries, one designed to hold global temperatures to a 2C degree increase over preindustrial levels. If this feels like a familiar film, it’s because we have been there before. The last 20 years of the conference have seen mostly failed attempts at binding agreements, with the biggest polluters walking away without accountable commitments. However, given last year’s historic announcement by the U.S. and China to join the European Union in limiting green house gas emissions, this could be a new deal; and a lot is riding on it. But are we queuing up the wrong film? To be blunt, debating over whether emissions should peak in 2030 to undefined levels is a little bit like passengers on the Titanic debating over bathing suits. To begin with, a 2C degrees target is an arbitrary goal: the Earth doesn’t know round decimals. It is the result of political negotiations, which have more to do with economic concerns than realistic consequences on the natural world. Our planet is already 0.8C degree warmer, and the transformations have been far-reaching and exponential. Temperature increases have shown to disrupt air and ocean currents affecting the world’s hydrological cycles and weather patterns, not to speak of sea level rise. But it can be decades before emissions evenly spread into the atmosphere; in other words, some of the warming we are experiencing today may result from emissions that were released in the 1980’s. The truth is, we have no quantifiable way of knowing how to hold temperatures to a 2C degree rise. Just like a freight train’s momentum is not measured by speed alone, setting goals to stabilize the Earth’s temperatures in such a short term is misleading at best, and potentially dangerous. We can land a rover on Mars, and transmit images from interstellar space but when it comes to environmental science, much remains as nebulous today as it was a century ago when scientists first speculated about the relationship of CO2 emissions to the Earth’s temperature. Invested though we are in sophisticated land and satellite measurements, we are only beginning to scratch the surface on systemic changes and their feedback mechanisms. To make matters worse, the Earth behaves in a non-linear fashion making accurate modeling even more challenging. The only thing we know is that air and ocean temperatures are rising; and the relationship of cause and effect is well understood. Central to it are anthropogenic activities, specifically the increase in green house gases associated with the burning of fossil fuels. In other words, we can identify the cause (emissions), but we are not entirely clear on the symptoms (the plethora of changes). A temperature target is neither realistic, nor necessarily relevant. Increasingly, scientists are discovering new positive feedbacks: if the ocean warms, the ice around it melts faster; if the ice melt, water columns get affected by the cold influence of melting ice and so on. But the magnitude of these feedbacks has proven to be mostly underestimated. Last year, NASA released the fruit of 10 years worth of studies of the West Antarctic glaciers. The findings sent a chill through the scientific community: deep warm currents driven down by cold surface water (resulting from higher ice melt pouring into the ocean) has been eating away at land-based glacier ice from below the floating ice shelves that hug them. What’s more, given the down slopping of the terrain from the grounding line as it extends for hundreds of miles inland below the glacier, NASA deemed this phenomenon “unstoppable”– a language mostly avoided among scientists (for the obvious vulnerability it creates should they later be proven wrong). The melting of these glaciers directly contributes to ocean rise. In fact it is predicted that global levels would rise four and perhaps thirteen feet from this event alone over the next one to two centuries (this on top of the IPCC’s projection of up to four feet by the end of this century). Similar events were just recently identified in East Antarctica. The rise in global sea levels speeds the melt of ice shelves everywhere, precipitating the glaciers’ pour into the ocean. It is called a feedback, and predicting when it stops is almost impossible. At the other end of the world another feedback is threatening the plausibility of stabilizing temperatures to a 2C degree rise. 5.3 million years ago, much of the northern Arctic was densely covered in spruce and pine forests. Since that time, temperature cycles have alternatively led to global sea levels rise or retreat. The more recent ice ages have trapped all that organic matter into the frozen ground, or below the ocean, as it converted into methane gas. The atmosphere presently holds about five Gigatons of methane. Off the Siberian Arctic shelf alone are an estimated 1,000 to 5,000 Gigatons of trapped methane, a green house gas eighty four times more potent than carbon dioxide during the first twenty years of its release. Due to feedback loops, thawing and methane release may prove exponential and irreversible. An accelerated rate of methane release could throw the Earth’s atmosphere into a spiral that would triple the 2C degrees increase by the end of the century. Scientists believe that high levels of methane released 252 million years ago were responsible for the Great Permian Extinction event that nearly wiped out all life on Earth. According to James Hansen in a paper recently published by the Journal of Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics, it is the concentration of greenhouse gases that we should be focused on, and not temperature. CO2 levels have recently exceeded the symbolic mark of 400 parts per million, a level not reached in at least 800,000 years and possibly 5 million years. And they keep surging up, at rates of up to 2.9 ppm per year. Feedback loops increasingly look like they could neutralize the effects hoped for by a 2C degrees stabilization. It is imperative that we focus on carbon negative efforts on top of reductions, effective immediately. The goal of the conference is noble: to set achievable targets and get everyone to the table. But the method is dangerous. In the hope of reaching multi lateral agreements, the scientific community has set the bar too low, exposing the Achilles heal of the conference. A negotiator worth his or her paycheck operates on the premise of wiggle room. Realistically, that option has long since been taken off the table — read 50 years ago. Ineffectual targets happen when politics muddles up science. Sadly, pitting scientists against political negotiators is like throwing a mouse in a bag of snakes; and expect a fair outcome. It is time to state loudly what most scientists quietly believe: a 2C degree limit is too little and inappropriate. Let us, instead, actively campaign to increase the target by focusing on emission levels before it is too late. — This feed and its contents are the property of The Huffington Post, and use is subject to our terms. It may be used for personal consumption, but may not be distributed on a website. […]

This Is How You Grow Girls in Harlem!

In the middle of Harlem on a derelict plot of land where old men used to play cards, with no kids allowed, is growing one of the most exciting social projects I’ve seen this year as I go out looking for business partners. Over in Harlem kids that were eating Twix bars for lunch are now eating fresh greens — food that they and their mothers are growing through a non-profit project called Harlem Grown. Latonya Assanah from Harlem, New York (pictured above) has an 8-year-old daughter who just “wouldn’t eat green things.” That is — until her daughter started growing food on water: A couple of years ago Nevaeh Seeley started tending to the hydroponic garden across the street from her school in Harlem. It used to be lunchtime and that meant “junk food from the candy store, now she and her friends are waiting for the greens,” Assanah her mom tells Green Prophet. Just look around: from the exotic mustard greens to dwarf kale and koji: “These are things you can’t find in the grocery store. I bring this food home to my mother, originally from Ghana – it’s us three girls, and she is so excited. My mom told me she used to grow greens like this in Ghana where she comes from, and knows exactly what to do with them.” So it started out with curiosity, but today Assanah is the greenhouse manager, working days at the high-tech farm, which feeds 150 local Harlem families. It is part of the Harlem Grown non-profit farm. The farm stands on what was 4 brownstone houses in the middle of the city. On one side the students grow food on raised beds — raised to protect the food from heavy metals, asbestos and soil contaminants that penetrates soil after a demolition. The other is where Assanah runs the hydroponic farm. Both sides of the farm feed people — but just as importantly nourishes local brains and souls. Case in point: Assanah sings to her plants when she comes into work in the morning. She demonstrates to me: “Good morning plants I am here!” The job she got because she was hanging out in the hydroponic greenhouse helping the kids. Assanah plants seeds, transplants seedlings, feeds the plants nutrients into a large water reservoir and tests the water daily to make sure the pH is right. Above – Harlem Grown founder Tony Hillery with school girls. Assanah and the kids learn much more than growing food. Hydroponics at schools is an excellent way to teach kids, especially girls, essentials about STEM – Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. Hydroponic farming is as much about chemistry, ratios and the physics of water movement as it is about having a green thumb. The approach called hydroponics uses less water, and can produce an acre’s worth of food in a small greenhouse because greens can grow densely when nutrient rich water is delivered right to the plants’ roots. It is also used by NASA to grow food in outer space. So why not young girls and their moms in Harlem? The sunny summer day I visited the Harlem Grown there were four young women from 12 to 16 who were tending the garden outside. They were getting paid as summer interns to work on the farm. Below is Lydia. She’s the farm manager and right hand woman to Tony Hillery, who founded Harlem Grown 4 years ago. She helps runs a summer camp at the farm, makes sure plants and people are being tended to at all times. Some 1800 pounds of produce that they measured was grown on the farm last year, she reports. Part of it gets sold to keep the farm running, but the idea is really to feed people, and provide youth development, Nebel tells Green Prophet. So that 1800 pounds – that’s just what they were able to weigh, as more than twice that amount was likely eaten – from the hands of babes right to their mouths, local, organic and green. This thought makes Lydia smile as she heads over to the farm’s second largest location which has sprouted up over on 126th Street in Harlem, just down the road. Harlem Grown and Hillery’s vision is growing like weeds, to 6 locations with more planned for the next year. For more on how Harlem Grown is changing lives through urban farming, see Harlem Grown website. For more on the technology I am building see this story on flux. — This feed and its contents are the property of The Huffington Post, and use is subject to our terms. It may be used for personal consumption, but may not be distributed on a website. […]

70 Years After Hiroshima, Disarmament Is Still Vital

Co-authored by Ken Olum, research professor in the Physics and Astronomy Department, Tufts University. A little over 70 years ago, our father, Paul Olum, stood with his colleagues in the desert near Alamogordo, New Mexico. They had spent the last two and a half years designing a new weapon, the first atomic bomb, and now they waited to see whether it would work. Then the explosion seemed to fill the sky, until it resolved into a huge mushroom-shaped cloud. The project had succeeded. They had designed and built the most powerful weapon ever seen on Earth. Three weeks later, on August 6, 1945, the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, and, three days after that, another bomb on Nagasaki. The two bombs together killed over 100,000 people instantly, and a similar number died later from radiation exposure. Paul had mixed feelings about the bombing of Hiroshima. It seemed clear it would end the war swiftly, but there had been a very high cost in civilian lives. However, he felt the bombing of Nagasaki was unconscionable, because three days had not been long enough for the surrender. Six days after the bombing of Nagasaki, Japan did announce its surrender. World War II was over, but the nuclear arms race had begun, and Paul Olum became a lifelong advocate of nuclear arms control and disarmament. By the 1980s, the United States and the Soviet Union together had amassed about 27,000 “active” strategic nuclear bombs each hugely more powerful than those that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The arsenals of either nation were sufficient to destroy humanity many times over. Paul had been only 24 years old when he and our mother Vivian went to Los Alamos in 1943. After the war was over, he went on to a distinguished career as a mathematics professor at Cornell and later as provost and then president of the University of Oregon. Yet, whatever else he was doing, he felt a responsibility to talk about the dangers of nuclear weapons and the importance of disarmament. In 1983, Paul and Vivian received an invitation to a celebration of the 40th anniversary of the opening of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, where the atomic bombs had been designed. They felt they did not want to celebrate the building of those bombs, which led to nuclear arsenals that could destroy the human race. Paul drafted a petition calling for an end to the nuclear arms race and the eventual elimination of nuclear weapons. It was signed by 70 scientists, including five Nobel Prize winners, and widely publicized. The scientists wrote that they were “profoundly frightened for the future of humanity.” Paul’s efforts, and those of many others, brought a turning point in the arms race. Treaties between the United States and the Soviet Union and later Russia began to reduce the numbers of warheads and remove them from active status. When Paul died in 2001, the total number of active strategic nuclear warheads had been reduced to about 14,000. When the New START treaty of 2011 is fully implemented, the U.S. and Russia will have about 3,000 deployed strategic warheads in total, but this is still more than enough to destroy civilization. Unfortunately, the threat of nuclear weapons seems to have faded from public consciousness, perhaps having been displaced by concerns over climate change. Climate change is a very serious threat, but it is a threat of a different character. Climate change could kill billions of people over the course of decades and render parts of the world uninhabitable. Nuclear war could kill billions of people immediately and might render the entire world uninhabitable as a result of radioactive fallout and nuclear winter (severe global cooling caused by soot propelled into the stratosphere from burning cities.) So it is crucial that nuclear disarmament continue. Instead, the U.S. and Russia seem poised on the brink of a new nuclear arms race. Present U.S. plans involve new warheads with new missiles, bombers, and submarines to deliver them, at a total cost of about $1 trillion over the next 30 years. And this huge expense does not make America safer. Our current arsenal goes far beyond anything needed as a deterrent. Instead, it increases the risk that these weapons will someday be used, either intentionally, accidentally, or because they fall into the wrong hands. Enough is enough. More than 30 years after Paul’s Los Alamos disarmament petition, nuclear weapons still pose a threat to the existence of the human race. The time has come to end this threat, so that that 30 years from now it will not be necessary for our children to begin an article, “One hundred years ago our grandfather stood in the desert near Alamogordo….” Joyce Olum Galaski is rabbi emeritus of Congregation Ahavas Achim in Westfield, Massachusetts, and Ken Olum is a research professor in the Physics and Astronomy Department at Tufts University. This year, they established the Paul Olum Grant Fund through Ploughshares Fund to support scientists working for nuclear disarmament. — This feed and its contents are the property of The Huffington Post, and use is subject to our terms. It may be used for personal consumption, but may not be distributed on a website. […]