Friday, 24 January 2014

Warming trend continues

Lord Stern, who completed a review of the economics of climate change for the British government in 2006, says he should have been fiercer in his report.

Speaking at the start of the World Economic Forum in Davros, Switzerland, this week he said governments are “fooling themselves” if they think global temperature rises will only have modest economic impacts.

Stern says things have moved on in the eight years since his review. "I would have been much fiercer,” he admits. "Emissions have gone up faster than I thought and some of the effects of global warming are coming through more quickly, such as melting of the glaciers and the polar ice caps.”

He estimates global temperatures will be 4-5 C higher in the next century on present trends and that governments are being unrealistic if they think this will only have a modest impact on economies.

"The last time we had a change in global temperatures of this order of magnitude it was in the other direction. It was called the Ice Age,” Stern added.

According to new figures released by NASA the year just past tied with 2009 and 2006 for the seventh warmest year since 1880, continuing the long-term trend of rising global temperatures.

With the exception of 1998, the 10 warmest years in the 134 year record all have occurred since 2000, with 2010 and 2005 ranking as the warmest years on record.

NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS) in New York, which analyses global surface temperatures on an ongoing basis, released an updated report this week on temperatures around the globe in 2013. 

The comparison shows how Earth continues to experience temperatures warmer than those measured several decades ago.

The average temperature in 2013 was 14.6 Celsius, which is 0.6 C warmer than the mid-20th century baseline. The average global temperature has risen about 0.8 C since 1880, according to the new analysis. Exact rankings for individual years are sensitive to data inputs and analysis methods.

"Long-term trends in surface temperatures are unusual and 2013 adds to the evidence for ongoing climate change," said GISS climatologist Gavin Schmidt at a NASA press conference on Tuesday.

"While one year or one season can be affected by random weather events, this analysis shows the necessity for continued, long-term monitoring.”

Scientists emphasise that weather patterns will always cause fluctuations in average temperatures from year to year but say the continued increases in greenhouse gas levels in Earth's atmosphere are driving a long-term rise in global temperatures. 

Each successive year will not necessarily be warmer than the year before, but with the current level of greenhouse gas emissions, scientists expect each successive decade to be warmer than the previous.

Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas that traps heat and plays a major role in controlling changes to Earth's climate. It occurs naturally and is also emitted by the burning of fossil fuels for energy. 

Driven by increasing man-made emissions, the level of carbon dioxide in Earth's atmosphere at present is higher than at any time in the last 800,000 years.

The carbon dioxide level in the atmosphere was about 285 parts per million in 1880, the first year in the GISS temperature record. By 1960, the atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration, measured at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii, was about 315 parts per million. This measurement peaked last year at more than 400 parts per million.

While the world experienced relatively warm temperatures in 2013, the continental United States experienced the 42nd warmest year on record, according to GISS analysis. For some other countries, such as Australia, 2013 was the hottest year on record.

The temperature analysis produced at GISS is compiled from weather data from more than 1,000 meteorological stations around the world, satellite observations of sea-surface temperature and Antarctic research station measurements, taking into account station history and urban heat island effects. 

Software is used to calculate the difference between surface temperature in a given month and the average temperature for the same place from 1951 to 1980. This three-decade period functions as a baseline for the analysis. It has been 38 years since the recording of a year of cooler than average temperatures.

The GISS temperature record is one of several global temperature analyses, along with those produced by the Met Office Hadley Centre in the UK and NOAA's National Climatic Data Center in the US. These three primary records use slightly different methods but overall their trends show close agreement.

Sunday, 19 January 2014

Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go

The dreaded Monday morning alarm clock takes on an extra dimension tomorrow when it will rouse a slumbering spacecraft that is hurtling back towards our Sun from the darkest reaches of the solar system. 

ESA’s Rosetta probe is chasing comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko at intergalactic speeds and later this year will close in for a high speed rendezvous with the comet before ejecting a lander called Philae towards its surface.

Since its launch in 2004, Rosetta has made three flybys of Earth and one of Mars to build up enough speed and get on a trajectory towards the comet. It has also encountered asteroids Steins and Lutetia along the way.

Operating on solar energy alone, the spacecraft was placed into a deep space hibernation in mid-2011 as it cruised far from the Sun and out towards the orbit of Jupiter. 

To prepare for its long sleep, Rosetta was oriented so that its solar arrays faced the Sun and put into a once per minute spin for stability. The only devices left running were its computer and several heaters.

Thirty-one months later, Rosetta’s orbit has brought it back to within ‘only’ 673 million km of the Sun where there is finally just enough solar energy to power the spacecraft fully again. It is time to wake up.

Tomorrow morning Rosetta’s computer is programmed to carry out a sequence of events to re-establish contact with Earth, starting with an ‘alarm clock’ at 10:00 GMT. Immediately afterwards, the spacecraft’s star trackers will begin to warm up, taking around six hours.

Then its thrusters will fire to stop the slow rotation and a slight adjustment will be made to Rosetta’s orientation to ensure that the solar arrays are still facing directly towards the Sun, before the star trackers are switched on to determine the spacecraft’s attitude.

Once Rosetta has regained its bearings the spacecraft will turn directly towards Earth, switch on its transmitter and point its high-gain antenna to send a signal to announce that it is awake.

Because of Rosetta’s vast distance – just over 807 million km from Earth – it will take 45 minutes for that signal to reach ground stations so the first opportunity for receiving a signal on Earth is expected between 17:30 and 18:30 GMT.

Once mission controllers have verified Rosetta’s health, each of its scientific instruments will be switched back on and checked, an effort that will take several months as the spacecraft continues to eat up the remaining 9 million km separating it from the comet.

During May the spacecraft must pull off a tricky braking manoeuvre to slow its approach relative to the speed comet to walking speed - and if that goes to plan it will cruise alongside in August.

Once alongside the 4 km wide comet, Rosetta will steer itself into an orbit that takes it within 20 km of the surface. From here, its cameras will map the surface and search for a landing spot for Philae.

With gravity too weak to hold it on the surface, the sophisticated box of electronics and sensors attached to spindly legs will cling to its interplanetary roller coaster with an explosive metal harpoon.

Comets like 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko probably formed some 4.6 billion years ago and are considered to be the primitive building blocks of the Solar System that may have helped ‘seed’ Earth with water.

In a spectacular series of firsts for space exploration, Rosetta will become the first space mission to rendezvous with a comet, the first to attempt a landing, and the first to follow a comet as it swings close to the Sun.

Many fundamental questions about these enigmatic and ancient objects of the solar system remain - but first there is that all important wake-up call.

A note on the title of this report - ‘Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go’ was a two-million-selling  pop song from the early 1980s by the English pop duo Wham! Written and produced by George Michael, it became the group’s first number one hit in both America and the UK.

Monday, 13 January 2014

Space Station top ten

The Obama administration has given NASA the go-ahead to operate the International Space Station (ISS) until at least 2024 but many of its scientific achievements to date remain largely unsung to the population at large. 
The US decision means partner agencies, US government establishments and private-sector researchers from around the world can now count on at least another decade of orbital operations.
Bill Gerstenmaier, chief of space operations at NASA Headquarters, said the expanded lifetime will encourage increased commercial use of the lab complex, solidify the commercial launch market and provide critical insights into technology development and human physiology needed for eventual flights to deep space targets like Mars.
But what of the scientific value of such a challenging, and ultimately costly, enterprise like the International Space Station?
In September at the 64th International Astronautical Congress (IAC) in Beijing, China, delegates were treated to an inspiring presentation by NASA’s Dr Julie Robinson, International Space Station Program Scientist at the Johnson Space Center (JSC).
Dr Robinson, who coordinates the International Space Station (ISS) science programme and is author of ‘ISS Benefits for Humanity’ (published by NASA in 2012) spoke on the ‘Top 10 Research Results from Space Station’.
She provided historical context to her personal choice by stating the fundamental reason humans explore is not being motivated  by the advancement of science.
“Early explorers travelled the world to exploit economic opportunities not to inspire their children about it,” she said. “Explorers are responsible for pushing the boundaries and the scientists follow behind.”
Dr Robinson described the ISS as “the most complex machine ever built by humans” and told delegates that it was easy to be “uniformed” about some of the great results coming from the Space Station.
“The Space Station is unique in that it supports almost every scientific discipline in some way,” she explained.
“Ultimately it will be judged on its engineering achievements, international achievements and science achievements. We are now in the research stage and this is very important to our stakeholders - 69 countries have participated in ISS utilisation so far.” 
In selecting a personal ‘top 10',  Dr Robinson took into account a variety of criteria - scientific journal quality, comments and reviews by other scientists, cases where novel information was presented, and benefits to humankind - all of which she described as important considerations in terms of research legacy.
Number 10 - preventing loss of bone mass in space through diet and exercise; if astronauts do the right set of exercises, have the correct amount of vitamin D and calories in their diet then they come home okay. Resistive exercise now helps treat osteoporosis cases on Earth.
Number 9 - understanding the mechanism of osteoporosis and developing new drugs to treat it. The first new drugs for treating muscle waste are now on the market as a result of research in microgravity.
Number 8 - Hyper-spectral imaging for water quality in coastal bays. A ‘gold standard’, according to Dr Robinson, which also allows scientists to distinguish between sediment pollution on satellite imagery.
Number 7 - Colloid self-assembly using electron fields for nano particles, a process which is impacting manufacturing processes on Earth.
Number 6 - New process of cool flame combustion - an unexpected and novel result. In microgravity, flames burn differently forming flaming spheres that turn out to be mini-labs for combustion research. Unlike flames on Earth, which expand greedily when they need more fuel, flame balls let the oxygen come to them.
Number 5 - A pathway for bacterial pathogens to become virulent; bacteria can become more virulent in space. Studying this helps develop new treatments and is an example of where biological science can make a significant advance by going into a different environment.
Number 4 - educational outreach, with 43 million students from all over the globe.
Number 3 - Dark matter is still out there according to the first data gathered from the ISS Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS) the most sophisticated detector of gamma cosmic rays that has ever been built.
Number 2 - Robotic assistance for brain surgery - the technology that went into developing neuroArm, the world’s first robot capable of performing surgery inside magnetic resonance machines, was born of the Canadarm.
Number 1 - A new targeted method of chemotherapy drug delivery with medical trials now underway as a result of ISS medical developments. It involves a single step process forming tiny liquid-filled, biodegradable micro-balloons containing various drug solutions (a process called microgravity micro-encapsulation) that can provide better drug delivery for tumours.
Dr Robinson concluded: “The benefits I have selected serve as examples of the Space Station’s potential as a ground-breaking scientific research facility. 
“The ISS advances the state of scientific knowledge of our planet, looking after our health, and providing a space platform that inspires and educates the science and technology leaders of tomorrow.
“These benefits will drive the legacy of the ISS as its research strengthens economies and enhances the quality of life here on Earth for all people.”

The above article is based on one of a series of daily reports from the International Astronautical Congress 2013 held in Beijing, China, written by Clive Simpson for the Paris-based International Astronautical Association (IAF) and first appearing on the IAF website

Wednesday, 8 January 2014

Maximum benefit

Over the past year the Lighthouse Keeper has been following the writings and posts of fellow blogger Joshua Becker on his excellent Becoming Minimalist website.

It’s been an illuminating journey, contrasting the commercialism of modern life with an approach of de-cluttering life in general and owning less.

Becker describes minimalist living as “counter-cultural” because it is contrary to every magazine, newspaper of TV advertisement and because society prides itself on the accumulation of possessions.

“But there is far more joy to be found in the pursuit of fewer possessions than can ever be discovered in the pursuit of more,” he says.

The first month of any year is often a time when we look back on the past 12 months and evaluate the direction of our lives – maybe changing, adopting new habits, or making some healthy changes – and in his New Year post Becker asks us to consider ‘11 Resolutions for a Better You - Proven by Science’.

His key points are summarised below but if it’s wetted your appetite for more you can catch the full version, or browse the Becoming Minimalist website, by clicking here.
Most of us recognise the benefits of physical exercise - healthy bodies, healthy minds and healthy confidence. Some studies indicate exercise contributes to a positive body image even prior to any body weight or shape change - with as little as two weeks of regular exercise.

Less television
Those seeking intentionality realise the negative influence television has on their mind - it impacts our worldview, encourages consumerism, oversimplifies life and results in less life satisfaction. Deciding to cut back in the coming year may be one of the best decisions you could ever make.

Go outside
According to recent studies published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology, simply spending time outside with nature contributes to increased energy, wards off feelings of exhaustion and results in a heightened sense of well-being.

Read fiction
Researchers have discovered that reading results in heightened connectivity and brain activity - sometimes even up to five days after the book has been completed.

Numerous studies show charitable giving boosts happiness and reduce stress - especially when the generosity promotes positive social connection. If you don’t already, find a cause or person you believe in and offer consistent monthly support. They will benefit. You will benefit. And the world will be a better place.

Volunteering provides great value for our lives and the lives of those we choose to enrich. Volunteers often feel like they have more time and are more efficient, as well as feeling better about themselves, experiencing lower stress levels, and developing a deeper connection with others.

Buy less
Research suggests that buying life experiences rather than material possessions leads to greater happiness for both the consumer and those around them. Decide today to spend less money this year on possessions and more money on meaningful, memorable experiences.

Display gratitude
Psychologists state that one of the greatest contributing factors to overall happiness in your life is how much gratitude you show. Getting started is so easy and beneficial. It could be the easiest decision you make all year.

Practice smiling
A study conducted at the Michigan State Business School found that customer service professionals who fake a smile throughout the day worsen their mood. But people who smile as a result of cultivating positive thoughts improve their mood and withdraw less.

Stop and play
Our world is becoming increasingly busy and the temptation to measure our worth by external factors continues to grow. As a result, taking time to slow down and just play is becoming increasingly rare. But play is fun and enjoyable. Play enriches the lives of children by exercising their mind and body. And it has the same positive effect on adults.

Be happy
Two experimental studies published in The Journal of Positive Psychology this past year offer ground-breaking research on the cultivation of happiness. Based on the experiments, participants who listened to ‘happy’ or uplifting music and actively tried to feel happier reported the highest level of positive mood afterwards - more so than those who simply listened to the music. In other words, determining to be happy is a productive decision towards achieving it.

Of course, changing everything at once is a recipe for failure so Becker suggests choosing just one or two - and giving them a month-long try out.

The Lighthouse Keeper, having heartily digested the recommendations over a cup of strong early New Year coffee and a leftover Christmas mince pie or two, can definitely see life-changing merit in all 11 resolutions – but which ones to pick?

I'm also tempted to complete the list by adding a couple of my own. Drink more water to keep the body well hydrated at all times and don’t neglect your spiritual side. Both bring untold and life-transforming benefits.

Thank you, Mr Becker, for a year of inspiring and thought-provoking reads. Here’s to 2014 – toasted, of course, with a glass of H20!