Archive for the ‘Research’ tag
Twenty-eight scientists published the concept of a “safe operating space for humanity” in “Nature” two days ago. Here’s the description of what this operating space is, straight from their paper:
To meet the challenge of maintaining the Holocene state, we propose a framework based on ‘planetary boundaries’. These boundaries define the safe operating space for humanity with respect to the Earth system and are associated with the planet’s biophysical subsystems or processes. Although Earth’s complex systems sometimes respond smoothly to changing pressures, it seems that this will prove to be the exception rather than the rule. Many subsystems of Earth react in a nonlinear, often abrupt, way, and are particularly sensitive around threshold levels of certain key variables. If these thresholds are crossed, then important subsystems, such as a monsoon system, could shift into a new state, often with deleterious or potentially even disastrous consequences for humans.
The figure below is used to illustrate their concept:
It should be noted, that their analysis is based on data, even though I haven’t found a clear description how they calculated the distance away from the tipping point. Here is some more detailed description from their paper
Three of the Earth-system processes — climate change, rate of biodiversity loss and interference with the nitrogen cycle — have already transgressed their boundaries. [This transgression] cannot continue without significantly eroding the resilience of major components of Earth-system functioning. Here we describe these three processes.
Although the planetary boundaries are described in terms of individual quantities and separate processes, the boundaries are tightly coupled. We do not have the luxury of concentrating our efforts on any one of them in isolation from the others. If one boundary is transgressed, then other boundaries are also under serious risk. For instance, significant land-use changes in the Amazon could influence water resources as far away as Tibet. The climate-change boundary depends on staying on the safe side of the freshwater, land, aerosol, nitrogen–phosphorus, ocean and stratospheric boundaries. Transgressing the nitrogen–phosphorus boundary can erode the resilience of some marine ecosystems, potentially reducing their capacity to absorb CO2 and thus affecting the climate boundary.
It seems like a good idea to promote the idea that we have to take care of many tipping points at the same time. It seems even more important to stress non-linear behaviour and non-reversible behaviour. This is nothing new, but it is important to stress such important things once in a while. If a contaminant plume was reversible much of our subsurface remediation problems would be solved quite easily. However, there is dispersion, and hence a plume cannot be reversed. A similar example, related to the contamination of a lake, is given by Shahid Naeem, as quoted by Carl Zimmer:
A lake, for example, can absorb a fair amount of phosphorus from fertilizer runoff In five areas, the scientists found, the world has not yet reached the danger threshold. without any sign of change. ‘You add a little, not much happens. Add a little more, not much happens. Add a little… then, all of sudden, you add a little more and — boom! — phytoplankton bloom, oxygen depletion, fish die-off, smelliness. Remove the little phosphorus that caused the tipping of the system, and it does not reverse. In fact, you have to go back to much cleaner water than you would have imagined.
To conclude, it seems like a neat idea to establish such indicators that seem to tell us in what areas we are doing ok and in what other areas we exceeded the threshold. However such a compartmented visualization seems to contradict the intention of the authors when they write how they had coupling of the compartments in mind.
Where does this leave us on an operational level? Are those guys going to publish their indicator-levels every half year from now on, and then we can see the areas where we improved and where things got worse? Could we even narrow all human activities down to one indicator? If not, then why those seven? And how come we exceeded the outer limit of earth for “Biodiversity loss” while we’re only one step outside the green zone for climate change?
It remains to be noted, that both ” Atmospheric aerosol loading” as well as “Chemical Pollution” are not yet quantified and it is not clear as to why they are not yet quantified.
- The Stockholm Resilience Centre, where the lead author Johan Rockström is based at;
- An editorial at Nature;
- Commentaries by “seven experts” (one for each category)
- discussion at wired.com
A safe operating space for humanity Johan Rockström, Will Steffen, Kevin Noone, Åsa Persson, F. Stuart Chapin, III, Eric F. Lambin, Timothy M. Lenton, Marten Scheffer, Carl Folke, Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, Björn Nykvist, Cynthia A. de Wit, Terry Hughes, Sander van der Leeuw, Henning Rodhe, Sverker Sörlin, Peter K. Snyder, Robert Costanza, Uno Svedin, Malin Falkenmark, Louise Karlberg, Robert W. Corell, Victoria J. Fabry, James Hansen, Brian Walker, Diana Liverman, Katherine Richardson, Paul Crutzen & Jonathan A. Foley Nature 461, 472-475(24 September 2009) doi:10.1038/461472a
Mark C. Taylor, the chairman of the religion department at Columbia, has an interesting opinion piece in the New York Times on the future of university education in general and, more specifically, graduate programs. Particularly interesting is his call to “abolish permanent departments, even for undergraduate education, and create problem-focused programs”. The example he chooses — water.
2. Abolish permanent departments, even for undergraduate education, and create problem-focused programs. These constantly evolving programs would have sunset clauses, and every seven years each one should be evaluated and either abolished, continued or significantly changed. It is possible to imagine a broad range of topics around which such zones of inquiry could be organized: Mind, Body, Law, Information, Networks, Language, Space, Time, Media, Money, Life and Water.
Consider, for example, a Water program. In the coming decades, water will become a more pressing problem than oil, and the quantity, quality and distribution of water will pose significant scientific, technological and ecological difficulties as well as serious political and economic challenges. These vexing practical problems cannot be adequately addressed without also considering important philosophical, religious and ethical issues. After all, beliefs shape practices as much as practices shape beliefs.
A Water program would bring together people in the humanities, arts, social and natural sciences with representatives from professional schools like medicine, law, business, engineering, social work, theology and architecture. Through the intersection of multiple perspectives and approaches, new theoretical insights will develop and unexpected practical solutions will emerge.
Read the full article here.
Recently, I ran into the word geoengineering quite frequently. I kind of thought of it as a form of geotechnical engineering, but it seemed like the things that were talked about had not very much to do with geotechnical engineering.
This blog post will try and shed some light into what geoengineering implies. As [wikipedia] points out right at the start of its article on “geoengineering“, this term is not to be confused with “geotechnical engineering”! To keep confusion at a minimum level, let’s start with some definitions:
To clarify things, here are a few related important definitions from wikipedia:
Geoengineering: manipulate the Earth’s climate to counteract the effects of global warming from greenhouse gas emissions.
Planetary engineering is the application of technology for the purpose of influencing the global properties of a planet. The goal of this theoretical task is usually to make other worlds habitable for life. Geoengineering ti the application of planetary engineering techniques to Earth.
Terraforming is a type of planetary engineering by which a planet’s surface conditions are altered to be more like those of Earth
Geotechnical Engineering is the branch of civil engineering concerned with the engineering behavior of earth materials
One of the blog posts I came across recently which talk about geoengineering was a post by Miriam Goldstein at The Oyster’s Garter. She discusses the risks and benefits of geoengineering, especially a type of geoengineering called “iron fertilization”. This proposal involves “deliberately stimulating plant growth in the ocean with the aim that the excess material will be permanently sequestered in the deep sea. This would remove carbon from the atmosphere”. For German speaking readers, here is a nice summary. Other types of geoengineering she discusses include stratospheric aerosols, cloud whitening, atmospheric carbon capture, and geochemical carbon capture.
Probably, Miriam is talking about the same iron fertilization project as the german news-magazin “Der Spiegel” in its article from January 14th, 2009. “Der Spiegel” reported then that the project has been halted due to “environmental concerns” – the same concerns which have been raised by Miriram. On January 27th, the german federal research ministry allowed the Polarstern to conduct the experiment (see also this report). The AWI already posted first measurement results. I am not a remote sensing expert, but I kind of believe this map showing that more algae live in the area where the iron was put into the ocean. However, the total range of chlorophyll concentration on the map is from 0.1mg/m3 to 3mg/m3. That’s one order of magnitude. Map taken from here
Another set of measurements made available by the Alfred Wegener Institute are depth profiles of dissolved oxygen, silicate, ammonium and chlorophyll taken at two different moments in time: before the iron was put in place and four days after. Again, I am not a biologist or oceanologist, but the changes do not seem extremely high. But then, it’s only after four days.
To conclude, I guess it’s too early to conclude if the experiment was successful or not. However, it seems a very risky and monetary intensive experiment.
Here are two more posts dealing with geoengineering:
James Hrynyshyn at “Living on an Island of Doubt in a climate of change” posts some similar doubtful concerns about the effectivity of geoengineering. He writes:
As Lenton and Vaughan write, geoengineering really only makes sense as a part of a larger strategy that includes cutting back hard on greenhouse gas emissions.
Wired reports on a “Carbon Burial” project, also referred to as “geological sequestration”, that will deposit a million metric tons of carbon dioxide into the ground by 2012. This is such a hot topic, it probably deserves an individual post.
After all these novel approaches, an interesting side-node from some classic geotechnical engineering, with an interesting outcome – Wired reports:
Drillers accidentally hit a pocket of molten rock underneath a working geothermal energy field in Hawaii, a lucky break for geologists that could allow them to map the geological plumbing that created everything we know as land.
update Wednesday; April 15, 2009: Wired has an article from a researcher on board a boat in the southern ocean.
The independent has a little text for one example that demonstrates how the climate is changing: Reindeer herders in northern Scandinavia see in their daily lives how fast climate changes, and how they experience weather types that they have never experienced at the given times of the year, rain in winter, f.ex.
This is a great website with links to kmz-files containing information about mineral resources around the world. Looking at these files in google earth shows the locations of an individual mineral resource and its type. I’ve been always wondering if there are some resources in Tibet, and it turns out there are (see screenshot; from GoogleEarth with data from here). Can anybody tell me the value of those resources?
This is a little movie of a water-balloon exploding after somebody stuck a needle into it. The cool thing: it’s filmed at 2000 frames per second!
The legendary red books, also known as the IAHS publication series, can be accessed now online as pdfs, free of charge. Check out [this article in volume 297]! 😉
The “Scientific Activist” has an interesting post on the role of youTube/goolge during times of crisis. Since nothing seems to be possible without google anymore, this is a pressing issue. Update: 2008-03-18, 3:21pm: More on this issue at macworld.uk, as well as a youTube search for “Amdo2007”
The magazine Science published an editorial titled “Science 2.0“. One key point of the author, Ben Shneiderman, is that online collaboration is going to shift focus of science, towards the social sciences. “Online collaboration” inspired the title, since online collaboration was a key new possibility offered by web-based communities since the technology (CSS, Ajax, XHTML, weblogs) has been available, and titled “web 2.0” after a conference hosted by O’Reilly Media. Along the same lines, O’Reilley offers a “where 2.0” (in 2004 and one coming up in May 2008) conference, geared towards location based digital / online services.
There is a commentary on “Science 2.0” at wired.com, with interesting comments. The key point for me though seems to be that funding is going to be granted to collaborators:
Science 1.0 remains vital, but this ambitious vision of Science 2.0 will affect research funding, educational practices, and evaluation of research outcomes. Science funding agencies will face resistance as they promote a transformation that seeks to make a safe space for Science 2.0. Scientific journal editorial boards and conference program committees are already shifting their attention to new topics and opening their doors to new scientific research methods. Pioneering educators have begun changing their curricula, focusing on collaboration strategies and teaching new research methods. The innovators are courageously taking on new challenges, but they should be ready for the resistance to novel ideas that has always been part of science. In that way, Science 2.0 is part of a great tradition.
I’m not sure how the effectiveness and quality of your collaborations are going to be measured. Also I think of critical importance will be to stay on top of Science 1.0 while collaborating!
What do you think about all this? Are you using “Web 2.0” “technologies”? And if so, mostly privately or also for your business?
Measuring how much rain falls during a given time, the meteorological parameter “rainfall intensity”, is difficult to measure. It gets even more difficult if the goal is to measure the spatial distribution of rainfall, and how it changes over time.
The Convective and Orographically-induced Precipitation Study (COPS) will try and use different new remote sensing techniques and proven ground based or air borne techniques such as lidars, radars, precipitation detectors. Obviously over a large are, the Black Forrest in south-west Germany. The german news station ZDF has quite an enthusiastic report on this measurement-campaign and the improvement the scientists will gain for mathematical weather forecasting.