Thursday, 19 December 2013

The End of Night

The bright lights of Europe spilling into the night as seen from the Space Station.

Night is no longer as dark as it used to be. Street lamps, neon signs, ‘security' lights and the rest all contribute to an ever-present glow that has transformed the natural world and turned modern life into a wash of artificial light.

It is a theme the Lighthouse Keeper has looked at in several blog essays this autumn, partly inspired by one of this summer's best-selling books ‘The End of Night', written by US-based journalist Paul Bogard.

Light pollution around the world has expanded exponentially in recent decades and now it is reckoned that the vast majority people across Western Europe and the United States no longer experience a truly dark night.

Night's natural darkness is invaluable for our spiritual health and the health of the natural world and as a consequence every living creature, including ourselves, suffers from its loss.

Like the advancement of technology it is one of those things that changes subtly against the backdrop of busy lives – and almost without noticing we become accustomed to a new ‘normal'.

The Bortle scale, which classifies the darkness of skies from point of view of an astronomer, 
was originally published in Sky & Telescope magazine in 2001 and is an apt illustration for Bogard’s theme.

In his book, Bogard investigates the meaning of darkness and travels to some of the world's intensely lit cities - from Paris, the ‘city of light' to glittering Las Vegas and to still gas-lit streets of London's Westminster district, meeting an inimitable range of characters along the way.

Bogard contrasts the skies above our cities and urban populations to some of the most remote and darkest places on the globe, like the great national parks in America and the Island of Sark off the British coast.

He discusses how light is negatively affecting the natural world, how our well-being is significantly influenced by darkness or its lack, and how it's not a matter of using light at night or not, but rather when and where, how and how much.

Travelling the world looking for dark skies, Bogard considers our affinity for artificial light, the false sense of security it provides, and its implications.

He covers such broadly diverse issues as the health impacts of working the night-shift to the persecution of bats, and urges the reader to weigh the ramifications of light pollution and our failure to address them.  

The growth of light piollution across the United States, including
a projection for the year 2025.

"We think that because of television, the internet, or jet travel we see a lot of the planet," says Bogard.

"But the only chance we really have to retain our sense of the scale in the real universe is by looking at the night sky."

As we approach the winter solstice when the dark nights of the northern hemisphere reach their longest, what better time to delve into such a book?

Bogard's evocation of the night blends environmental and cultural history to make reading about light pollution a surprising pleasure.

By reclaiming the night we stand only to gain. Not least in decreased energy costs and redressing the balance of life but also in that other fast-disappearing phenomenon - wonder.

Bogard draws attention to the naturally dark night as a landscape in its own right - a separate, incredibly valuable environment that we overlook and destroy at our own peril.

‘The End of Night’ by Paul Bogard
is published by Fourth Estate and
is available at your local bookshop
or from Amazon.

Monday, 16 December 2013

Polar ice melt

Three major glaciers in West Antarctica (Pine Island, Thwaites and Smith) are melting into the Amundsen Sea faster than previously thought.

ESA’s Cryosat polar orbiting spacecraft possesses the capability to observe features in more detail than previous missions and has revealed that the region is now losing more than 150 cubic km of ice into the sea every year.

Cryosat was launched in 2010 with a radar specifically designed to measure the shape of ice surfaces - and its latest results indicate the loss appears to be accelerating

The data, presented at the recent American Geophysical Union (AGU) in San Francisco, show that the loss of ice equates to a 15 percent increase in West Antarctica's contribution to global sea level rise.

Prior to Cryosat, scientists concluded that ice losses from West Antarctica had pushed up global sea levels by some 0.28 mm a year between 2005 and 2010. The new Cryosat data starts from the end of that period.

Scientists say that ice at the Pine Island, Thwaites and Smith glacier ‘grounding lines’ - the places where the ice blocks split from the land and begin to float out over the ocean - is now thinning by between four and eight metres per year.

Three years of CryoSat measurements show that
the West Antarctic Ice Sheet is losing over
150 cubic kilometres of ice each year.
Launched in 2010, CryoSat carries a radar altimeter that can ‘see’ through clouds and in the dark, providing continuous measurements over areas like Antarctica that are prone to bad weather and long periods of darkness.

The radar can measure the surface height variation of ice in high resolution, allowing scientists to calculate its volume accurately.

Prof Andrew Shepherd of Leeds University, who led the West Antarctica study, said that part of the increase of ice loss could be due to faster thinning and part may also be down to CryoSat’s capacity to observe previously unseen terrain.

The mission has also provided three consecutive years of accurate Arctic sea ice thickness measurements, which show that ice covering Earth’s north polar region continues to thin.

Prof Shepherd added: "CryoSat continues to provide clear evidence of diminishing Arctic sea ice.

"From the satellite’s measurements we can see that some parts of the ice pack ice have thinned more rapidly than others, but there has been a decrease in the volume of winter and summer ice over the past three years.

"The volume of the sea ice at the end of last winter was less than 15 000 cubic km, which is lower than any other year going into summer and indicates less winter growth than usual."

Thursday, 5 December 2013

Sleeping satellite

If all goes to plan China’s Chang'e 3 probe will land on the Moon at the end of next week and open up a new era of lunar exploration.

The mission is a symbol of China's power and prowess. But look behind the political smokescreen and there is a sharp commercial edge to the country’s space ambitions.

Forty plus years ago it was the United States that inspired a generation growing up in the 1960s by making the ‘giant leap’ from Earth to the Moon.

Capitalism proved it could be first but it was more of a means to an end and became politically unsustainable even before the last men left the Moon in 1972.

How fortunes have changed. Communist China is now the world’s leading and most buoyant economy and has its sights set firmly on the opportunities presented by our nearest planetary neighbour.

Chang'e 3 is scheduled to land on 14 December in a region known as Bay of Rainbows, or Sinus Iridum, located on the upper-left part of the full Moon as viewed from Earth.

The mission blasted off from Xichang in the south of the country at 17.30 GMT on Sunday (1 December) and the spacecraft’s landing module includes a six-wheeled robotic rover called Yutu (translated as Jade Rabbit).

It will be China's first lunar rover as well as becoming the first spacecraft since the Soviet Luna 24 mission in 1976 to make a soft landing on the Moon,

According to information released by its design company the Shanghai Aerospace Systems Engineering Research Institute, the 120 kg Jade Rabbit rover can climb slopes of up to 30 degrees and travel at 200 m per hour.

Its name - chosen in an online poll of 3.4 million voters - derives from an ancient Chinese myth about a rabbit living on the Moon as the pet of the lunar goddess Chang'e.

Both the rover and lander are powered by solar panels but some sources suggest they also carry radioisotope heating units (RHUs) containing plutonium-238 to keep them ‘warm’ during the cold lunar night.

The mission - which will explore the Moon's surface and search for evidence of natural resources such as rare metals - carries a sophisticated payload, including ground-penetrating radar which will gather measurements of the lunar soil and crust.

It marks a milestone in China's ambitious long-term space exploration programme, which includes establishing a permanent space station in Earth orbit.

Future planned launches include a flight to bring back samples of lunar soil to Earth and ultimately sending Chinese nationals to the Moon, in what would likely be the first manned lunar missions since the US Apollo programme in the late 1960s and 1970s.

China knows the Moon is full of plunder that is there for the taking - mainly rare earth elements like titanium and uranium that Earth is really short of. And one day these valuable resources can be mined without limitation.

With NASA currently lacking even its own rocket and relying on the Russians to transport its astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) it seems, in the words of the chart-topping song ‘Sleeping Satellite’, that the West may have ‘peaked too soon’.

It was the debut single by the British singer-songwriter Tasmin Archer and, in the light of China’s Moon mission and ambitious plans, the lyrics are more poignant than when it was released in 1992.

I blame you for the moonlit sky and the dream that died with the eagles' flight; I blame you for the moonlit nights when I wonder why are the seas still dry? Don't blame this sleeping satellite.
Did we fly to the moon too soon; did we squander the chance in the rush of the race; the reason we chase is lost in romance; and still we try to justify the waste for a taste of man's greatest adventure.

"It's not intended as anti-space travel," says Archer. "It's just the opposite and bemoans the fact that at the time of the anniversary the initiative had not been progressed from the original achievement."

The US may never quite catch up again and will probably one day rue the decision made by its politicians not to re-visit our ‘Sleeping Satellite’ sooner. Perhaps Archer is right and they did peak too soon - and lost a collective sense of adventure in the process.

Tasmin Archer performing 'Sleeping Satellite' at the
SECC in Glasgow in 2008.

Friday, 29 November 2013

Upping the tempo

New figures released by two climate research bodies confirm that ‘greenhouse gases’ continue to build in Earth’s atmosphere and that average global temperatures made September 2013 the fourth warmest on record.

According to the World Meteorological Organisation’s (WMO) annual greenhouse gas bulletin, published this month, the levels of gases in the atmosphere that are driving climate change increased to a record high in 2012.

Atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) grew more rapidly in the year than its average rise over the past decade - and concentrations of methane and nitrous oxide also broke previous records.

The WMO has produced an annual greenhouse gas bulletin for the past nine years and says the warming effect on our climate as a result of carbon dioxide and other gases has increased by almost a third since 1990.

Carbon dioxide is the most important of the gases WMO tracks but only about half of the CO2 that is emitted by human activities remains in the atmosphere, with the rest being absorbed by the plants, trees, the land and the oceans.

Since the start of the industrial era in 1750,global average levels of atmospheric CO2 have increased by 141 percent.

"The observations highlight yet again how heat-trapping gases from human activities have upset the natural balance of our atmosphere and are a major contribution to climate change," said WMO Secretary-General Michel Jarraud.

"It is a worry - the more we delay action the bigger the risk we cannot stay under the 2C limit that countries have agreed," he added.

While the daily measurement of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere exceeded the symbolic 400ppm mark in May this year, the global annual average CO2 concentration will cross this point in 2015 or 2016, says the WMO.

Levels of methane also reached record highs in 2012 maintaining an upward trend since 2007 which has followed a period when they appeared to be levelling off.

Recent research indicates that the rate of increase in emissions might be slowing down - but even so the gases can continue to concentrate in the atmosphere and exert a climate influence for hundreds if not thousands of years.

Scientists suggest that the new data indicates that, after a slowdown in the rate of temperature increases over the past 14 years, global warming is returning with a vengeance.

"For the past decade or so the oceans have been sucking up this extra heat, meaning that surface temperatures have only increased slowly," said Prof Piers Forster of Leeds University.

"Don't expect this state of affairs to continue though - the extra heat will eventually come out and bite us, so there will be strong warming over the coming decades."

Should we be surprised? Not really. In September the UN's climate science panel, the IPCC, said that atmospheric CO2 concentrations were at levels ‘unprecedented in at least the last 800,000 years’.

The last time so much greenhouse gas was in the air was several million years ago, when the Arctic was ice-free, savannah spread across the Sahara desert and sea levels were up to 40 metres higher than today.

But, as the WMO points out, the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere is only half of the picture as much of the CO2 is being absorbed by the oceans.

Annual worldwide emissions from power plants, cars and other human activities are currently several billion tonnes too high to keep global temperature rises below 2C and show no sign of stopping.

Other figures released recently by NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center under its ‘State of the Climate: Global Analysis for September 2013' show the combined average temperature over global land and ocean surfaces for September 2013 tied with 2003 as the fourth highest for September on record - at 0.64C above the 20th century average of 15.0C.

The global land surface temperature was 0.89C above the 20th century average of 12.0C, marking the sixth warmest September on record.

For the ocean, the September global sea surface temperature was 0.54C above the 20th Century average of 16.2C, tying with 2006 as the fourth highest for September on record.

The combined global land and ocean average surface temperature for January to September was 0.6C above the 20th century average of 14.1C, tying with 2003 as the sixth warmest such period on record.

Tuesday, 26 November 2013

The Age of Miracles

Karen Walker-Thompson's novel ‘The Age of Miracles’ is not an obvious literary award winner though it is a compulsive read and contains a number of interesting themes and challenging ideas - all introduced as the result of the phenomenon of Earth’s rotation slowing.

My previous blog ‘How fragile we are’ looked at the novel’s apocalyptic catastrophe theme - the dire consequences to all life on Earth as a result of the planet’s rotation gradually slowing and therefore extending both day and night.

But there are more subtle implications also to be considered when looking at the effects exaggerated daylight and dark hours might have on the normal working of our own bodies.

Midway through the book at the beginning of chapter 17, Thompson-Walker writes: "Two thousand years of art and superstition would suggest that it is darkness that haunts us most... but dozens of experiments conducted in the aftermath of the slowing revealed that it was not darkness that tampered most with our moods - it was light."

The implication, though not the cause, of night turning into day is not a million miles from the theme adopted by The Lighthouse Keeper for two of this autumn’s blog essays - ‘Fear of the dark’ and ‘Blinded by the night’.

It is now well-established by the medical profession that working through the night and the influence of light after dark can affect our circadian rhythms and long-term health and well-being in significant ways.

In his 2012 paper ‘Light Pollution, Nuisance and Planning Laws in the UK’ Martin Morgan-Taylor, principal lecturer in law at Leicester’s De Montfort University, states that artificial lighting is known to cause "some fairly obvious negative effects on human health and well-being" - in as much as floodlighting or illuminated advertising hoardings may disturb sleep by shining in bedroom windows.

"Indeed, it may be thought that sleeplessness may cause only temporary or negligible problems, but medical research is increasingly linking artificial light at night with some serious health effects, such as cancer and depression," he says.

"Other research indicates that artificial light at night may general disrupt human circadian rhythms."

In addressing the question of why this might by the case, Prof Morgan-Taylor pins the likely cause on what is known is that ‘white’ or ‘blue rich’ lighting, which mimics natural daylight and is being increasingly used at night.

"This type of light particularly suppresses the production of a circadian rhythm hormone called Melotin, so disturbing circadian rhythms," he states. Melotin is believed to be a powerful anti-oxidant that helps to ward off some human cancers.

"In other words, an avoidable exposure to ‘white/blue rich’ light at night may increase a person’s susceptibility to some cancers - and we are increasing our use of this form of lighting at night," he adds.

In ‘The Age of Miracles’ the world at large is thrust into ever-lengthening days and nights as Earth slows gradually from its standard 24 hour rotation.

At first the consequences are manageable, more of an inconvenience, but as the daylight hours stretch into periods of 30 and then 40 hours, and likewise the night, the effects on daily life become ever more pronounced and difficult. 

The terminator dividing day from night across Earth as seen
from the International Space Station.

The novel takes the concept of our bodies adapting to unnatural light patterns to a whole new level - but in considering current light pollution levels across the developed world (in England it increased by 24 percent between 1993 and 2000) the extrapolation is valuable.

The first chapter of Genesis in the Bible states that God ‘divided the light from the darkness’, which in Biblical terms can be viewed as both symbolic as well as being a statement about the natural environment. In essence we need them both because light allows us to see and darkness gives us an opportunity to sleep.

By lighting our neighbourhoods, towns and cities to excess and flooding our yards with unnecessary light we are wasting energy and undoubttedly contributing to climate change. In a more subtle way we may also be tampering with the laws of nature - and perhaps even creation itself. 

Saturday, 23 November 2013

How fragile we are

The Lighthouse Keeper isn’t an avid reader of modern-day fiction but, determined to unearth a holiday read for a change, succumbed to the much talked about first novel by Karen Thompson-Walker ‘The Age of Miracles’, first published in 2012.

Written from the viewpoint of a woman looking back at her childhood, the ordinary moments of life and adolescence become more profound in the light of an unfolding disaster affecting all life on Earth.

The apocalyptic story is conjured from the idea of a ‘slowing Earth’, the germ of which, according to Thompson-Walker, stems from the powerful Indonesian earthquake and tsunami of 2004 which physically affected the rotation of Earth and shortened our days by a fraction of a second.

‘The Age of Miracles’ pursues the concept to its maximum - the rotation of Earth continuing to slow and slow, thus inflicting enormous and ultimately unmanageable changes on our normal daily existence.

Whilst making broad 'scientific' assumptions in parts, it is convincingly unsettling and points ultimately to how fragile society at large really is.

As it happened, I finished reading the novel in the wake of the giant typhoon that devastated the Philippines in November 2013, killing thousands of people and wrecking the lives of many more.

The suggestion that the increasing frequency and potency of such storms, droughts, intensive heat waves and floods around the world are linked to mankind’s increasing consumption of fossil fuels and the resultant global warming is ignored at our peril.

If, as a global population, we continue to release more and more energy into our system we shouldn’t really be surprised that it will have consequences.

Heat a pan of cold water on the stove and what happens? The more energy in the form of heat that transfers into the water the hotter and more agitated it becomes - a previously relatively stable environment is soon transformed.

Thompson-Walker describes ‘The Age of Miracles’ as a novel about a catastrophe that no one was expecting. "We sometimes over-estimate what we know about the world but I think we all live with more uncertainty than we like to think," she says.

Such a point is brought resolutely home when we view pictures on our TV screens of a natural disaster like in the Philippines caused by one of the largest and most aggressive typhoons ever recorded.

Yet distance and the remote nature of such events in relation to our own daily lives logically means we are seldom moved to any kind of action - either direct or indirect, on behalf of those affected or our future selves.

If, as a global population, we continue to rack up the temperature of our planet then we shouldn’t be surprised when stronger and more devastating natural events are unleashed at more frequent intervals.

We are, perhaps incontrovertibly, becoming just like the anecdotal frog that is placed in a pan of gradually warming water and gets so accustomed to the rising temperature that by the time it is too hot it can no longer jump out.

The story is often used as a metaphor for the inability or unwillingness of people to react to ultimately significant changes that occur gradually.

Today, in respect of climate change, we just about still have a choice. But the point of no return is creeping alarmingly close and there are warning signs all about - not least in the just ended UN Climate talks in Warsaw.

The blog title is taken from the lyric of ‘Fragile', a song composed by English musician, singer-songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, activist, actor and philanthropist Sting and first released on his 1987 album ‘Nothing Like the Sun’. Sting (Gordon Sumner, CBE) was also the principal songwriter, lead singer and bassist for the rock band ‘The Police’.

Saturday, 19 October 2013

Blinded by the night

Winter sunset over the Solent from Portsdown Hill - Clive Simpson

It is hardly surprising to learn that in our modern, consumer-driven culture we are using far more light during the hours of darkness than we actually need.

But what is not generally recognised in our liberal use of illumination is the mounting cost to both the environment and ourselves.

An increasing number of scientific studies are questioning the long-held premise that humans are largely immune to the effects of artificial light at night.

And our own eyes, if only we opened them long enough in a metaphorical sense to see the bigger picture, would surely agree.

Research indicates that artificial nocturnal light - even in quite small doses - disrupts sleep, confuses circadian rhythms and impedes the production of the hormone melatonin.

All of which is bad news if the consequences of excessive exposure to light at night really do include an increased risk for obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

Technological advances such as LEDs (light-emitting diodes) have certainly improved the potential for better targeted lighting - but they are often brighter and more intrusive than the old lights they are replacing.

And much more of this modern light - whether from TVs, computer screens and electronic gadgets or from outdoor lighting of one form or another - is rich with blue wavelengths and most disruptive to the 24 hour biological process that regulates the body's functions.

In effect, blue light sends subtle messages to our brain that night is over – or in a basic, primal way that morning's blue sky has returned and that the day has begun - quite the opposite signal we need in the middle of the night.

Two years ago the American Medical Association (AMA) called for increased research into the risks and benefits of occupational and environmental exposure to artificial light at night and for the introduction of new lighting technologies at home and at work that minimise circadian disruption.

According to Prof Martin Morgan Taylor, of the School of Law, De Montfort University, Leicester, and a Legal Advisor (Lighting) to the UK Campaign for Dark Skies, the physiological effects caused by lighting may be similar to noise.

In his paper ‘Light Pollution and Nuisance: The Enforcement Guidance for Light as a Statutory Nuisance' he says: "Admittedly, there are comparatively few studies as yet on the problems caused by lighting, but lights can and do wake people up, as does noise.

"Moreover, with noise it appears that the subject does not need to be fully awakened to suffer the same negative effects as someone who has been deprived of sleep altogether."

As a result, people's health could be adversely affected by the floodlighting and what the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health (CIEH) refers to as ‘light briefly turning on and off' during the night.

Prof Morgan Taylor states the research concerning cancer risks does not restrict itself to lighting that wakes the subject but the risk factor is akin to the level of night-time light entering the bedroom.

"The glare from overly bright lighting can also cause further problems, for although the iris may contract to cut down the amount of light entering the eye, the scale of the glare from floodlighting can cause momentary blindness and pain," he says. "This is particularly an issue for the elderly, as the muscles controlling the iris do tend to become less efficient with age."

On a personal level, while we seldom leave our interior lights bare, most of our outdoor lighting remains unshielded – indiscriminately sending light straight into the sky, into our eyes, and into our neighbours' bedrooms.

The relatively simple act of adjusting or shielding outdoor lights by installing or retrofitting lamp fixtures that direct light downward to its intended target represents our best chance to control light pollution.

The generic objection to this - based on the premise that light equals protection and darkness represents danger - is that we need all this light for safety and security.

This common belief goes a long way to explain why many supermarkets, petrol station forecourts and car parks as well as our own driveways and yards are lit more than ten times as brightly as they were just 20 years ago.

In fact, the issue of light at night and safety is rather more complex, with little compelling evidence to support widespread assumptions.

For example, ever-brighter lights can actually diminish security by casting glare that impedes vision and creates shadows where criminals can hide.

The ‘World Atlas of the Artificial Night Sky Brightness', a series of computer-generated maps from satellite data that depict the extent of light pollution across the globe, were created by Italian astronomer Fabio Falchi and illustrate the point nicely.

Today, or to be correct, tonight, we have levels of light hundreds and thousands of times higher than the natural night time level – and light pollution is currently rising by an average of 20 per cent a year.

So this evening, before you flood the yard or your front drive with brilliant light, consider for a moment the opposite side of the day. Would we tolerate, with the same kind of indifference, attempts to modify the daytime by lowering light levels a hundred or a thousand times?

If you enjoyed this Lighthouse Keeper essay by Clive Simpson looking at the impact of artificial light at night in our modern world please recommend or Tweet the link - Blinded by the night. The title is derived from ‘Blinded by the Light', a song written and originally recorded by Bruce Springsteen and widely known through the 1976 chart-topping version recorded by Manfred Mann's Earth Band.

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

Fear of the dark

Even lighthouse keepers - at one time true custodians of light - are an endangered species these days, their solitary and lonesome existence largely replaced by automated and computer-controlled systems.

But just as technology has seemingly usurped most aspects of human endeavour and experience - including the once dark night-time skies in the heavens above - the UK’s cross channel neighbour has, as it were, ‘seen the light’. Vive la France!

At the end of August, as its populous was returning to work after ‘les grandes vacances’, the whole country grew darker through the night as one of the world’s most comprehensive lighting ordinances came into effect.

Now, in the early hours of every morning between 1 am and 7 am, shop lights are being turned off and lights inside office buildings must be extinguished within an hour of workers leaving the premises.

Lighting on France’s building facades cannot be turned on before sunset and, over the next two years, new regulations restricting lighting on advertising hoardings will also take effect.

These rules are designed to eventually cut carbon dioxide emissions by 250,000 tons per year, saving the equivalent of the annual energy consumption of 750,000 households and slashing the country’s overall energy bill by 200 million Euros a year.

But, according to France’s Environment Ministry, no less a motivation is to ‘reduce the footprint of artificial lighting on the nocturnal environment’.

This is a powerful acknowledgement that excessive use of lighting is not only consuming too much energy but is endangering our health and the health of the ecosystems on which we rely.

Researchers are now focusing on the impacts of so-called ecological light pollution and warn that disrupting the natural patterns of light and dark - and thus the structures and functions of ecosystems - is having a profound impact far beyond what we realise.

It’s a global problem and is worsening by the month as countries like China, India and Brazil become increasingly affluent and urbanised.

Views of Earth at night show vast areas of North America, Europe, the Middle East, and Asia glowing with light. Only the world’s remotest regions - Siberia, the Tibetan plateau, the Sahara Desert, the Amazon, and the Australian outback remain cloaked in darkness.

Some countries, including the UK, have enacted limited regulations to reduce light pollution but in reality most nations and cities still do little to manage our excessive, almost compulsive, use of light.

The photographs below show the UK and London at night as seen by astronauts on the International Space Station (ISS). It serves as a poignant illustration of the point in question - namely that as both individuals and nations we are using far too much artificial light with little or no consideration for either cost, the environment or our own health.

As the autumn nights draw in, this is the first in a series of short Lighthouse Keeper essays looking at the impact of artificial light at night in our modern world. The title draws from Gordon Giltrap’s classic 1978 album ‘Fear of the Dark’ which was re-released in 2013 and is newly remastered from the original tapes, including eight extra tracks drawn from a series of singles released between 1978 and 1980. ‘Fear of the Dark’ , a Lighthouse Keeper 'top ten' album, saw Giltrap backed by a band of outstanding musicians: John G Perry (Bass), Rod Edwards (keyboards) and Simon Phillips (drums) and featured many outstanding tracks. 

For more articles in this series search under 'artificial light' on the adjacent tag cloud.

Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Chinese space station

China expects to complete its first orbiting space station within a decade and be able to send crews of up to six people there for short-term missions.

Chinese officials revealed details of the country’s space plans for low Earth orbit during the 64th International Astronautical Congress (IAC) taking place in Beijing, China, this week.

Mr Dazhe Xu, general manager of China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp, said the station - covering an area of 60 square metres - would be capable of supporting three astronauts on long-term flights.

Before that China will launch the Tiangong-2 space laboratory in around two years to test renewable life support and in-orbit refuelling systems, technologies that will be essential for the safe operation of the planned space station.

Mr Xu revealed that one cargo 'shuttle' and several crewed spacecraft will be launched to dock with Tiangong-2 at different times.

According to the China Manned Space Engineering Office, the space station will consist of three capsules and a cargo 'shuttle' to transport supplies.

The station's core module will be 18.1 m in length and will weigh 20 to 22 metric tons. It will be attached to two self-contained laboratories.

Mr Wang Zhaoyao, director of the China Manned Space Agency, said that once operational astronauts will be scheduled for long-term missions in orbit, conducting a wide range of technical tests as well as medical, science and educational experiments.

Liu Yang, China's first female astronaut - who appeared with her colleague Wang Yaping, the second Chinese female astronaut who flew into space on Shenzhou 10 in June 2013 - repeated the declaration that her nation would also be willing to accept foreign astronauts for future missions.

The country successfully carried out its first manual space docking, another essential step in building a space station, in June last year when three Chinese astronauts piloted Shenzhou 9 to link up with Tiangong-1.

China became the third country to independently launch a human into space in 2003 and has been rapidly expanding its space programme ever since.

Berndt Feuerbacher, former president of the International Astronautical Federation (IAF), said that China's space programme was developing quickly and actively looking for cooperation opportunities.

The annual IAC space congress has a record number of around 3,500 space scientists and business people attending this year, representing some 74 countries from across the world.

The above is 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

Saturday, 21 September 2013

Back to the blues

There is sometimes a fine line when it comes to discerning the difference between the colours of green and blue - as British Prime Minister David Cameron has been finding out.

His bold claim on coming to power to be leading the "greenest government ever" seems to be turning into something of a wistful ruse at best.

The summer’s unresolved fracas over fracking for shale gas didn’t really help matters but the latest salver came from a more unlikely source - a Conservative party donor.

Alexander Temarko, a significant British energy investor, claims investors in renewable technologies are being scared off by "seriously mis-leading" messages from the Government.

The Russian businessman, who has made donations in excess of £50,000 to the Conservative party, believes the Government is now paying little more than "lip service" to renewable energy.

Temarko says that failing to provide the clear targets investors need before committing to long term green electricity generation projects is squandering the opportunity to create thousands of jobs and generate billions of pounds in revenues.

The charge is levelled equally at the Prime Minister, his Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, and, to a lesser extent, at Ed Davey, the Energy and Climate Change Secretary.

In fairness, Davey campaigned to include a requirement in the Energy Bill - currently progressing through Parliament - that would have required the UK's electricity supply to become almost entirely ‘green' by 2030.

But Osborne replaced the target with less onerous wording that grants the Government the power from 2016 to require Britain's electricity supply to become almost entirely green only at some point in the future and should it choose to do so.

All this comes at a time when the country’s profit-hungry big six energy companies are about to announce another inflation-busting price hike to gas and electricity prices.

An exception to the rule is Ecotricity which announced mid-September that it was ending its ‘Big Six price match’ under which the small energy provider had matched each Big Six standard tariff in their home regions.

This delivered green energy for the price of brown and meant that, for most people in Britain, it costs no more to be with Ecotricity.

The company’s new pricing promise is that it will charge less than each of the Big Six standard tariffs - delivering green energy for less than the price of brown.

In the meantime, the Prime Minister and his Government’s ‘green' credentials have shifted chamaeleon-like back through the political colour spectrum to the traditional Conservative party blue.

And Temarko is right in one sense - the lack of a sound, long term energy policy is doing no one in the UK any favours.

This piece was originally scheduled for publication on 21 September 2013 but the Lighthouse Keeper was unable to access his blog due to Chinese internet restrictions whilst on assignment in Beijing and so it has been published retrospectively. The title is inspired by the album of the same name from the late Gary Moore (1952 – 2011), a musician from Belfast, Northern Ireland, best recognised as a blues rock guitarist and singer. In a career dating back to the 1960s, Moore played with artists including Phil Lynott and Brian Downey and was a member of the Irish rock band Thin Lizzy.

Friday, 20 September 2013

RSPB's fracking objection

The media hiatus in the fracking for shale gas frenzy - which graced the front pages for several weeks during the summer - has left room for some more reasoned debate and comment.

The RSPB, for instance, has waded into the issue by lodging objections to proposals to drill for shale gas and oil in Lancashire and West Sussex, citing that regulations are inadequate to ensure water, landscapes and wildlife are protected.

These are the first formal objections to fracking from the RSPB. The drilling proposal at Singleton, Lancashire, is less than a mile from an internationally important area for pink-footed geese and whooper swans.

The society is also protesting against drilling at Balcombe, West Sussex - the focus of large summer protests - on the grounds that no environmental impact assessment has been carried out.

In both written objections the charity also says that increasing oil and gas use will reduce the UK's chances of meeting climate change targets.

Harry Huyton, head of climate and energy policy at the RSPB, said: "Balcombe hit the headlines as the battleground in the debate over fracking. The public there are rightly concerned about the impact this will have on their countryside.

"We have looked closely at the rules in place to police drilling for shale gas, and they are simply not robust enough to ensure that our water, our landscapes and our wildlife are safe."

Huyton also said that Cuadrilla's proposed operations in Lancashire could damage populations of geese and swans. "This area is protected by European law because it is so valuable for wildlife and the company has done nothing to investigate what damage their activities could do to it," he claimed.

The RSPB says that Government figures show the potential for 5,000 sites and a total of up to 100,000 wells in the north of England.

"The idea that these will have a benign impact on the countryside is very difficult to believe," said Huyton.

"This is all in too much of a hurry – the regulations simply aren't in place," he added. "If Cuadrilla did their assessments and found there wasn't a serious concern, we'd accept that. But no assessments have been done."

The group's other main objection is that a push for shale gas will divert funds and attention from the UK's previously stated goal of having an electricity system almost completely powered by ‘clean' energy by 2030.

This piece was originally scheduled for publication on 20 September 2013 but the Lighthouse Keeper was unable to access his blog due to Chinese internet restrictions whilst on assignment in Beijing and so has been published retrospectively

Saturday, 14 September 2013

Message in a bottle

Give or take a few miles, a 36-year-old unmanned spacecraft is now about 12 billion miles from the Sun, a pretty incomprehensible distance whichever way you look at it.

And this week NASA's Voyager 1 spacecraft officially became the first human-made object to venture into interstellar space.

New data gathered during the summer indicate Voyager 1 has now been travelling for about one year through the plasma (ionized gas) of interstellar space, the space between stars.

Covering nearly a million miles a day, the nuclear-powered spacecraft, has well and truly crossed the boundary between the Sun's influence and interstellar space, sailing into the vast gulf between the stars to become humanity's first true starship.

The announcement was made this week by scientists at NASA’s JPL in California, including Voyager project scientist Ed Stone.

"In leaving the solar system and setting sail on the cosmic seas between the stars, Voyager has joined the other historic journeys of exploration such as the first circumnavigation of the Earth and the first footprint on the Moon," he said.

"This historic step is even more exciting because it marks the beginning of a new era of exploration for Voyager, the exploration of the space between the stars."

It may be a new era of exploration for humankind but in reality we’ll get only limited information from Voyager, partly because of the vast distances involved and also because its instruments are being to wear out.

The fact that some are working even now is testament to the robust design of a spacecraft that was only ever meant to gather data from a spectacular journey through the giant planets of our solar system.

Voyager 1 reached the boundary of the heliosphere in 2004, a milestone marked by readings showing the speed of the solar wind had dropped below that of sound. But it took another nine years to complete the crossing and move out into interstellar space.

The actual transition likely occurred in August last year but an instrument that would have confirmed that failed in 1980, forcing scientists to rely on less direct methods of observation.

As it turned out, the Sun cooperated, blasting huge clouds of charged particles and magnetic energy in Voyager 1's direction in March 2012. When the particles finally got there 13 months later, they created detectable vibrations in the electrically charged plasma surrounding the spacecraft.

After studying those waves, scientists concluded the density of the material was 40 times higher than it would be if Voyager 1 was still in the heliosphere.

The heliosphere is defined by the Sun's magnetic field and is filled with electrically charged particles blasted away from the Sun in all directions -- the solar wind.

Our Sun, its planets, moons, asteroids and comets are embedded in a vast, t teardrop-shaped region, or bubble, in space known as the heliosphere.

Voyager 2 was launched on 20 August 1977 and Voyager 1 lifted off on 5 September the same year. Both probes carry gold discs with recordings designed to portray the diversity of culture on Earth - just incase they are ever intercepted by distant intelligent life forms.

The probes were launched on different trajectories. Voyager 2′s so-called 'slow' trajectory enabled it to visit all four giant planets, while Voyager 1′s faster trajectory meant it would head into deep space after visiting Jupiter and Saturn.

Voyager 1 is now the furthest human-built object from Earth and the distance is so vast that it takes 17 hours now for a radio signal sent from Voyager to reach receivers on Earth.

It is expected that their plutonium power sources will stop supplying electricity in about 10 years, at which point their instruments and 20W transmitters will die. After that Voyager 1 will not approach another star for nearly 40,000 years.

When Voyager 1 blasted into space the world we live in was a very different place and much has changed in the intervening decades, both socially and from a technological perspective.

The Voyager spacecraft was designed to run most of its operations itself and computing power was impressive for its time.

Each probe has three interconnected computer systems: one to control the craft’s flight and altitude, another to control its instruments, and a third to manage the first two.

The computers can process about 8,000 instructions per second - a fraction of the capability of a modern smartphone, which handles upwards of 14 billion each second. With memory measured in kilobytes, the Voyager computers can hold only hold a few thousand words worth of text.

Probably the most intriguing piece of technology onboard Voyager is the legendary ‘Golden Record’ - a phonograph record packaged with a cartridge and needle, operating instructions and loaded with information about Earth.

It contains 115 images of humans, animals and airports, spoken greetings in languages from Akkadian to Chinese, a message from US President Carter and an eclectic 90 minute selection of music.

Carrying such a disc as it travels in silence though the depths of space, Voyager 1 is effectively humanity’s interstellar ‘message in a bottle’ - speeding ever outwards through the ocean of interstellar space towards the edge of forever.

Wednesday, 4 September 2013

Running on empty

It probably slipped past without so much as a blip on the Richter scale of life. Our busy, consumer-led lives likely won’t have notched up that a couple of weeks ago (20 August 2013) was the date humanity exhausted nature’s annual budget for our planet.

As a result we are now operating in overdraft mode and, for the rest of the year, we will maintain our ecological deficit by drawing down local resource stocks and accumulating carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Just as a bank statement tracks income against expenditures, the Global Footprint Network measures humanity’s demand for and supply of natural resources and ecological services. The data is somewhat sobering.

Global Footprint Network estimates that it now takes only approximately eight months for the world’s population as a whole to demand more renewable resources and carbon dioxide sequestration than Earth can provide for an entire year.

Earth Overshoot Day, a concept originally developed by Global Footprint Network partner and UK think tank the New Economics Foundation, is the annual marker of when we begin living beyond our means in a given year.

While only a rough estimate of time and resource trends, it is as close as we can get to measuring the gap between our demand for ecological resources and services, and how much the planet can provide.

Just over a decade ago Earth Overshoot Day fell on 21 October. Given current trends in consumption, one thing is clear - it is relentlessly creeping forward and arriving earlier each year.

Throughout most of history, humanity has used nature’s resources to build homes, towns, cities and roads, to provide food and create products, and to absorb our carbon dioxide at a rate that was well within Earth’s budget. But, in the mid-1970s, we crossed a critical threshold when human consumption began outstripping what the planet could reproduce.

The fact that we are now using, or ‘spending’, our natural capital much faster than it can be replenished is similar to having expenditures that continuously exceed income, a financial deficit.

In planetary terms, the costs of our ecological overspending are becoming more evident by the day. Climate change - a result of greenhouse gases being emitted faster than they can be absorbed by forests and oceans - is one of the most obvious and arguably pressing result.

But there are others - shrinking forests, species loss, fisheries collapse, higher commodity prices, civil unrest and water shortages, to name a few. The environmental and economic crises we are beginning to experience more frequently are symptoms of looming catastrophe.

While the global financial recession that began in October 2008 slowed humanity’s demand for resources somewhat, our overall consumption continues to rise.

To stand any chance of avoiding much more than economic hardship for the planet’s seven billion and growing population, resource limits must be at the core of future decision-making.

Today, more than 80 percent of the world’s population live in nations that use more than their own ecosystems can renew. These ‘ecological debtor’ countries either deplete their own ecological resources or get them from elsewhere.

Ecological debtors are using more than they have within their own borders. Japan’s residents consume the ecological resources of 7.1 Japans. It would take four Italys to support Italy, and 3.5 UK’s - all just at current rates of consumption.

Not every country demands more than their ecosystems can provide, but even the reserves of such ‘ecological creditors’ like Brazil, Indonesia, and Sweden are shrinking over time.

Just as in the financial crisis of 2008, we can no longer sustain a widening gap between what nature is able to provide and how much our infrastructure, economies and lifestyles require.

As Earth Overshoot Day continues its inexorable and quickening march closer to the start of each year we have no real idea of the consequences our living in this way will ultimately have. One thing is for sure, though. We all have some tough choices - both individually and as nations - coming up.


Friday, 30 August 2013

Beauty of the night

Dusk is about to wrap itself around the penultimate day of August - a balmy evening following a warm and sunny day on the prairies of South Lincolnshire.

As the evening quietens there is the distant drone of combine harvesters flat out as they have been all day in fields of wheat and barley, creating a dusty plume and the sweet, husky smell of freshly mown sheafs.

It’s barely 8.30 pm, twilight is fading fast and the local birds embark on a last cacophony of celebratory singing and chirruping before acquiescing to the night.

By now, the garden is alive with insects of the dark, a myriad moths flitting amongst the fading lavender heads and the bright open yellow blooms of evening primrose.

The warm air is rich with heady scents, a toxic mix for our undersung flying heroes of this hour who thrive and live their short lives by the smells of late summer evenings and early autumn nights.

Apart from this transitional time of the year when we might still find occasion to wander through our garden or local park as dusk falls, we tend to largely ignore these night-time creatures - perhaps we fear them, or just prefer to squish them without so much as a second thought.

No one knows exactly but there could be 250,000 different species of moth worldwide, so no matter where we live they inevitably share our space.

Their existence, a somewhat peculiar affair when compared to higher forms, is nevertheless an integral and important part of our natural eco system.

A moth emerges from its cocoon in leaf litter, then mates and lays eggs within the first 48 hours of life. With no more eating or drinking for the rest of its life, existence takes on a self-less and higher calling - pollinating flowers and crops, and maybe becoming a tasty snack for those further up the food chain.

Though an individual may live just a week or two - and a tiny percentage may have serious implications for some forms of agriculture - collectively they pollinate some 80 percent of the world’s flora.

Its largely nocturnal habit, however, means they are largely un-noticed by ourselves, except perhaps because of their fatal attraction to our ever-spreading arrays of artificial lights in backyards, streets and driveways.

Blinded by that same light, we all too often miss the delicate beauty of these nocturnal butterflies. Like bees, the humble moth does much to keep our world alive.


Tuesday, 20 August 2013

Premiership monopoly

We are mid-way through August and the first long weekend of the new Premier League football season is now done and dusted.

In the final game of the ‘weekend’ Man City trounced Newcastle by four goals to nil. A decent thrashing in anyone’s books for an opening game.

But the numbers are not just big on the goal scoring side - City have also been big spenders during the close season, investing a mind-boggling £87 million on just four new players.

Meanwhile, André Villas-Boas is raising the stakes and is poised to break the Tottenham Hotspur transfer record for the third time this summer with the £30 million capture of the Brazilian forward Willian. The deal would push Spurs' summer spending to almost £90 million.

So, as the season gets underway and we hurtle towards the World Cup in Brazil, there are crucial questions to be resolved, as much off the field as on it because we live in a land that is now the home of global football and where transfer fees, wages and television rights dwarf conventional accounting.

In this respect, the new kid on the Premiership block this season is telecoms giant BT, spending £736 million for TV rights over three years for the privilege of screening 38 live games against Sky's 116?

Should Murdoch have bid more than £2.3 billion? How does BT's £200 million deal with Virgin Media alter the equation? And what about the BBC's £180 million on Match of the Day, with its familiar and comforting theme tune that harks back to an altogether different footballing age.

Each major televised match through the coming months will rake in £6.6 million and the past season has seen the money rolling into Britain's top soccer teams rise by 71 percent. And what if Real Madrid pay £100 million for Gareth Bale?

Whichever way you look at the numbers they are all very (massively) big – and all this is before you even get to watch a game of football.

The question is, are we realistically likely to see an end to this madness driven by the egos of global entrepreneurs who demand success at virtually any price?

There is some vague notion about clubs having to balance their budgets due to stricter disciplines imposed by Europe’s governing authorities – but money seems to talk louder than words in the Premiership.

This manic, out-of-control inflation - where currency, wages and transfer fees leave ordinary life and common sense trailing far behind - doesn't translate to excellence on the pitch.

Witness the fact that ‘our Engerland’ are still to qualify for the next year’s World Cup - and  even after that our chances of ‘progressing’ to the quarter finals, let alone lifting the coveted trophy itself, look as inflated as salaries and egos in our bgreat game.

Southampton’s Rickie Lambert, who scored for the England national team last Wednesday on his debut and with his first touch of the ball, illustrates the point nicely. At the age of 31 he was really only there because our cupboard of home-grown talent is bare.

And you only have to look at this year's opening weekend of fixtures that marked an all-time low in terms of the number of Englishmen beginning games at the start of a season.

A survey published by the Guardian newspaper shows two-thirds of those on view in the first round of fixtures were foreign nationals, highlighting the falling number of homegrown players in the top flight.

Back in August 1992, 73 percent of players featuring in first-day first XIs held English nationality but this year that figure fell to 34 percent. Not like in Germany and Spain.

The Premiership is a rule unto itself, an out-of-control sporting juggernaut where a win-at-all-costs logic doesn’t see any need to nurture grass roots talent when you can pay outrageous sums to bag inflated stars that pass in the night.

It's a toxic brew that defies normal morality and even make the banking crisis of recent years look a little tame. Wages are set at levels that would make former Knight of the Realm Fred Goodwin weak at the knees - and long-term strategy hardly seems to stretch beyond the next transfer window.

The once beautiful game of legend, gentlemen and lingering belief has become increasingly ugly, a commercial means to some wider end.

The justice of life in the real world would argue for a time of reckoning that somehow redresses the balance and brings all to account.

But it will soon be a full half century since England last triumphed in a World Cup competition and, with the Premiership in full flight once again, it really doesn’t look as though football is coming home anytime soon. Sir Alf Ramsey might just be turning in his grave.

Thursday, 15 August 2013

Cameron talks up fracking

This week the Prime Minister David Cameron suggested in a national newspaper article that local communities will become richer and we will all see reduced energy bills if the UK embraces a shale gas revolution.

There was no discussion of other issues (such as reducing our dependence on energy) and only a cursory dismissal of some of the very real concerns that fracking for shale gas might cause – irreparable damage to our countryside, pollution in the ground and atmosphere, and severe water shortages.

But different stories are beginning to emerge from the lands of eastern Europe and even America (more of which later) where the mining of shale gas has been seriously on the agenda for a while longer.

Take Poland for instance. The Prague Post – the Czech Republic’s English-language newspaper - reported back in June that the Polish government had announced plans to improve regulation and postpone tax collection on shale gas production in the hopes of encouraging investors to continue their explorations for the fuel.

A somewhat strange move if things were going so well – but then something had to be done following the unexpected withdrawal of three North American companies from explorations in the country.

Doubts over the estimated scale of Poland's shale gas reserves began surfacing more than a year ago after ExxonMobil announced plans to cease exploration in the country, citing disappointing test drilling results.

The withdrawal last month of two more multi-nationals - Talisman Energy of Canada and US oil giant Marathon - has now cast more uncertainty over the commercial viability of shale gas in Poland.

Marathon stated this summer that it had decided to end its Polish operations after ‘unsuccessful attempts to find commercial levels of hydrocarbons’.

Talisman, meanwhile, announced the sale of its Polish operations to the Irish-based San Leon Energy group, which is presumably going to tackle things in a different way - or perhaps with the ‘luck of the Irish’ where the talisman failed.

Exploration company executives had complained that complicated environmental regulations in Poland, along with a lack of legislation on shale gas, has also caused difficulties. Some foreign firms also found the legal framework for shale gas investment in the country to be less straightforward than expected.

Shale gas mania was triggered in Poland when a report by the United States Energy Information Agency estimated the country to have untapped reserves of some 5.3 trillion cubic meters - enough to meet domestic demand for 300 years.

Polish leaders – quick to jump on the fast moving shale gas gravy train (and which government wouldn’t?) soon made shale gas exploration a priority, voicing ambitions that the country could surpass its own domestic requirements and even become a gas exporter.

The country's policy-makers had high hopes that shale gas would provide Poland with a boost to its slowing economy and help reduce its high unemployment rate of around 14 percent.

The strategy was also touted as an energy diversification tool that would lower dependence on Russia's Gazprom, which currently supplies around two-thirds of Poland's gas at some of the highest prices in Europe.

While the initial excitement and unrealistic optimism over a possible shale gas bonanza is fading, some companies remain hopeful. Lower shale gas projections arrived at by the government more recently might still be enough to meet Polish domestic demand for some 70 years and Chevron continues its explorations in Poland, currently drilling a fourth well with two more planned later this year.

The government is now working on a raft of new regulations that it hopes will prevent further departures of these firms, whose expertise and prior experience in North America is thought to be vital.

New regulations will also give North American companies the same rights as EU companies in in the belief their expertise will allow Poland to replicate the recent US ‘energy revolution’ brought about by (racking (hydraulic fracturing ).

The word ‘desperation’ comes to mind and some experts believe that attracting US companies may not be the answer because their techniques may not be as transferrable as they hoped.

So far, Poland has granted more than 111 permits to at least 30 investors, many of them from the United States and Canada, to explore what its government has touted as Europe's richest shale gas deposits.

Thirty-nine wells were planned for 2013, but according to Environment Ministry data only two had been drilled by May this year. Some 300 wells are thought to be needed to determine whether Poland could realistically be self-sufficient.

Back in the UK, in a week when the big six energy companies touted likely increases in the price of energy for the autumn, David Cameron chimed in with a lightweight piece suggesting the UK public should accept fracking and claiming the controversial method of extracting gas will attract ‘real public support’ once the benefits are explained.

Writing in the Daily Telegraph, the Prime Minister said the process would not damage the countryside and would cause only ‘very minor change to the landscape’.

His whimsical PR pros, penned in a let’s ‘dispel the myths’ style, added no depth to the case for fracking and only served to highlight once again the UK government’s inexcusable lack of a long term energy policy and failure to manage properly some of the big issues that really matter.

In demanding that shale gas drilling take place across the country, Cameron is playing a high-stakes political game based more on wishful thinking rather than hard economic analysis.

The Lighthouse Keeper is written by Clive Simpson - for more information, commission enquiries or to re-publish any of his articles click here for contact information

Monday, 29 July 2013

Curiosity on Mars!

An image from NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter released last week shows NASA's Curiosity Mars rover and the wheel tracks from its landing site to the Glenelg area where the rover worked for the first half of 2013.

The orbiter's High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera captured the scene on 27 June 2013, with the orbiter rolled for an eastward-looking angle rather than straight downward. The afternoon sun illuminated the scene from the western sky, so the lighting was nearly behind the camera. This geometry hides shadows and reveals subtle colour variations.

Curiosity that day was examining an outcrop called Shaler, the rover mission's final science target in the Glenelg area before commencing a many-month trek southwestward to an entry point for the lower layers of Mount Sharp. The rover appears as a bright blue spot in the enhanced colouring of the image.

The image also shows two scour marks at the Bradbury landing site where the Mars Science Laboratory mission's skycrane landing system placed Curiosity onto the ground just about one year ago on 6 August 2012.

The scour marks are where the landing system's rockets cleared away reddish surface dust. Visible tracks commencing at the landing site show the path the rover travelled eastward to Glenelg.

Curiosity may be 140 million miles away on a hostile planet but that’s no excuse for not sending home a self-portrait.

This incredible shot shows Curiosity on the surface back in February - it comprises dozens of exposures taken by the rover's Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) during the 177th Martian day (or sol) of Curiosity's work on Mars plus three exposures taken during Sol 270 (10 May 2013) to update the appearance of part of the ground beside the rover.

The updated area, which is in the lower left quadrant of the image, shows grey-powder and two holes where Curiosity used its drill on the rock target ‘John Klein’.

The portion has been spliced into a self-portrait that was originally prepared and released in February before the use of the drill. The result shows what the site where the self-portrait was taken looked like by the time the rover was ready to drive away in May 2013.

MAHLI, which took the component images for the mosaic, is mounted on a turret at the end of the rover’s robotic arm and was able to capture the component images with wrist motions and turret rotations. The arm itself was positioned out of the shot in the images, or portions of images, used in the mosaic.

Thanks to the guys at NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS for some great photography work!

Monday, 22 July 2013

Fracking hell!

So far the market town of Spalding in South Lincolnshire seems to have escaped the rush for shale gas. But the town already has one gas fired power station dominating the flat Fenland landscape, with another one to be built alongside it on the way. And if our local MPs have anything to do with it fracking for shale gas won't be far behind...

For some UK Government ministers and MPs - including Spalding's John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings) and Peterborough’s Stewart Jackson - the enthusiasm for mining shale gas is in part fuelled by a passionate hatred of wind power based largely on the latter’s aesthetic impact on local landscapes.

Blinkered by what they see as a golden economic opportunity, it is perhaps not surprising that such MPs, along with the coalition Government in general, assume the extraction of shale gas offers a palatable and commercially attractive energy source.

Fracking - short for hydraulic fracturing - involves drilling deep underground and releasing a high-pressure mix of water, sand and hundreds of chemicals to crack rocks and release gas stored inside.

Preparing the groundwork for last week’s Government tax-break announcement for fracking prospectors, Jackson used his weekly column in the Peterborough Telegraph (5 July) to promote the shale gas case.

He wrote: "Shale gas exploration gives us another once in a lifetime opportunity with clean, cheap, plentiful and safe shale gas - rather than the lights on the blink and half a million glass panels around Newborough [near Peterborough] and windfarms to boot!

"Government has wised up to the economically damaging Liberal Democrat-inspired green policies costing the UK tens of billions of pounds," he declared.

Hayes, a former energy minister, has clearly stated his opposition to development of many forms of renewable energy and has lent his support to numerous anti-windfarm campaigns across his South Holland constituency, often on the grounds that they would ‘spoil’ the local view and amenity.

The wind power industry has had to deal with a broad range of challenges, particularly visual impact. So far this doesn’t seem to be on the shale gas radar.

But type ‘shale gas rig’ into an internet search engine and select ‘images' to see a taster of what might actually be in store for any rural community where drilling might take place.

We're likely to see the industrialisation of tracts of the British countryside, gas flaring in the home counties and a steady stream of trucks carrying contaminated water down rural lanes.

Another problem with fracking for gas is that the drilling process releases a host of undesirable by-products into the atmosphere, including large quantities of methane.

Strategic opposition to the development of shale gas in the UK rests on the fact that such large-scale exploitation is not compatible with meeting our targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Analysis by Carbon Tracker estimates that if we are to contain greenhouse gas emissions at a level that preserves a reasonable chance of remaining below the 2C of global average temperature increase (considered a critical danger threshold), then four-fifths of known fossil fuel reserves need to remain locked in the ground.

The official Committee on Climate Change has warned that in the context of the UK’s legally binding climate-change targets, a new ‘dash for gas’ should be Plan Z, not Plan A.

All this makes for a risky backdrop to shale gas development in this country, which the Government seems determined to ignore in its public pronouncements.

The industry will require major investment to get going and investors will need to be patient in getting a return, as going through the planning process and exploratory drilling will take years of expensive development before commercially useful quantities of gas are produced.

And no one really knows how much of gas can be got out, or how much that will cost both financially and to the environment at large.

Production rates for the UK are expected to be lower than in the US because of lower pressure in UK basins, while costs might be higher because of demanding local environmental standards and the proximity of populated areas.

Add to that the expectation that it will not in reality reduce energy prices, then the case for shale gas looks a lot more risky than proponents and our Government suggest.

But where there are potentially large amounts of money to be made there are also vested interests at stake.

So far the Prime Minister David Cameron has managed to dodge the claim that he bowed to pressure from lobbyists such as the Tory election strategist Lynton Crosby over the Government decision to give tax breaks for fracking.

Last week The Independent newspaper detailed the work that Mr Crosby's lobbying firm, Crosby Textor, does on behalf of companies promoting the controversial method of extracting shale gas.

The shale gas narrative and tax break presented by George Osborne last week is also, in part, based on the fear of being ‘left behind'.

Osborne’s Environment Minister colleague Owen Paterson (who dismayed climate scientists by expressing doubts as to the human impact on the climate system) used the same phrase in his promotion of GM crops.

Both Osborne and Paterson say that a technological revolution based on government getting out of the way of progress is what we need. They couldn't be more wrong.

Where we are being left behind is in the development of new environmental technologies, including renewables and carbon capture. If we are to keep up in these areas, perhaps with some gas in the mix, it requires clear policy.

You can get away with small government on some issues, but not on energy. The UK needs a clear framework and strategy that sets out how we will secure our energy needs while meeting environmental goals. Right now we don't have that.

The dash for shale - with all its inherent risks and uncertainties - ignores the massive growth potential of the renewable sector and the vital long-term goal of reducing carbon emissions.

Look at Germany, for instance. Some 26 per cent of its energy now comes from renewable sources. And its renewables industry is growing because it gets tax breaks. Germany's economy is larger, more successful and infinitely more resilient than the UK's. So who is right?

The current UK Government - initially hailed by Cameron as ‘the greenest ever’ - is a liturgy of broken promises and short-term opportunism. When it comes to energy policy and the long-term future of our country it seems that little George has no idea. And neither has little Britain.

The Lighthouse Keeper is written by Clive Simpson - for more information, commission enquiries or to re-publish any of his articles click here for contact information