Tuesday, December 1, 2015

In massive stranding, 337 whales beached on Chilean coast

Source: http://www.businessinsider.com/ap-in-massive-stranding-337-whales-beached-on-chilean-coast-2015-12

In this photo taken on April 21, 2015, and released on Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2015, by the Huinay Scientific Center, Sei whales lie dead at Caleta Buena, in the southern Aysen region of Chile. The coast of southern Chile has turned into a grave for 337 sei whales that were found beached in what scientists say is one of the biggest whale strandings ever recorded. (Vreni Haussermann/Huinay Scientific Center via AP)

SANTIAGO, Chile (AP) — The coast of southern Chile has become a grave for 337 sei whales that were found beached in what scientists say is one of the biggest whale strandings ever recorded.

Biologist Vreni Haussermann told The Associated Press Tuesday that she made the discovery along with other scientists in June during an observation flight over fjords in Chile's southern Patagonia region. The team has been collecting samples since then.

"This is one of the largest strandings worldwide," said Haussermann, the director of the Huinay Scientific Field Station, which focuses on marine research. She declined to disclose the conclusions, which will be published by a scientific journal later this year.

The scientific expedition counted 305 bodies and 32 skeletons of whales through aerial and satellite photography in the remote Aysen area between the Gulf of Penas and Puerto Natales. The cause of death of the sei whales is unknown, but human intervention has been ruled out.

Whale strandings are common in Aysen, a region of southern Patagonia where rainfall is nearly constant and rivers plunge from Andean glaciers to the Pacific Ocean through green valleys and fjords.

"They probably died at sea, we don't know exactly where, but they didn't just die by stranding," said Carolina Simon Gutstein, a paleontologist at University of Chile who was part of the team.

Sei, humpback and blue whales, which belong to the rorquals family, are the largest group of baleen whales, and "are not normally seen gathering in large groups," Gutstein said.

Scientists say the whale die-off might help them find out more about their habits and develop policies to protect them, including the creation of a whale sanctuary in the Gulf of Penas.

The first 37 beached whales were found in April by a team led by Haussermann. They alerted the National Fisheries Service, which launched an investigation in May together with environmental police and the Chilean Navy.

Since the Fisheries Service did not carry out observation flights, the scientists got funding for their own flights in June and August. They were unable to examine the whales because the area is so remote, the coast is so steep and the sea is so rough that it makes it nearly impossible to land. But they were still able to take the photographs to confirm the deaths.

Based on their size and location, scientists believe they are all sei whales. The International Union for Conservation of Nature lists the sei as an endangered species. Also called pollack, adults can be longer than 50 feet (15 meters) and weigh 20 tons or more.

Between 1999 and 2001, about 600 gray whales were stranded on the North American Pacific Coast from Alaska to Mexico. But scientists say it happened over a longer period of time and in a larger area.

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Thursday, October 1, 2015

Scientists are developing an invisibility cloak for solar panels

Source: http://www.engadget.com/2015/10/01/scientists-are-developing-an-invisibility-cloak-for-solar-panels/

Current solar panel technology has enough trouble as it is converting sunlight into useable current, what with their paltry 20 percent average efficiencies. And it certainly doesn't help matters that up to a tenth of every solar panel's active collection areas are obscured from the sun by electrical leads called "contact fingers." But researchers at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) have developed a novel workaround: they're wrapping the finger contacts in little invisibility cloaks.

Like other invisibility cloaks, this system works to wrap light around the object. The fingers are still visible to the human eye -- I mean, they're not really invisible -- but the light that hits the top of the contacts is redirected to the solar panel underneath through some tricky physics. The team is currently looking at two alternative methods for accomplishing this feat. The first method involves wrapping the fingers in a polymer coating with a precisely tuned refractive index. The other involves etching grooves into the fingers themselves that refract light around the components. Current computer models of both methods suggest that panel efficiencies would increase by about 10 percent should the contact fingers be made to disappear.

[Image Credit: KIT]

Source: KIT

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Monday, August 24, 2015

Something mysterious is killing off whales in Alaska

Source: http://www.techinsider.io/why-are-whales-dying-off-the-coast-of-alaska-2015-8

dead in whale carcass bears

The event began with reports of a dead fin whale calf in Marmot Bay, by Kodiak Island, Alaska.

Since then, ten more fin whale bodies have been discovered, along 14 dead humpbacks, one gray whale, and four unidentified cetacean carcasses.

Whales die and their bodies wash up or are discovered floating in oceans around the world — that's not unusual.

But in this case, there have been far more dead whales in the Pacific Northwest than would be expected — about three times as many — making this what the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration calls an "unusual mortality event."

This is a significant enough event that NOAA says that it "demands immediate response."

Canadian researchers on the West Coast have found another six dead whales between August 7 and 13, including a fin whale (that seems to have been hit by a ship); four humpbacks; and one sperm whale — an unusual and above average number, though not as strikingly high as the number of dead whales in Alaska.

whale stranding deaths alaskaSo far, researchers have not been able to figure out what's killing them off.

dead fin whale"NOAA Fisheries scientists and partners are very concerned about the large number of whales stranding" — and dying — "in the western Gulf of Alaska," Dr. Teri Rowles, NOAA Fisheries' marine mammal health and stranding response coordinator said in a press release. "[W]e do not yet know the cause of these strandings."

dead whale mapResearchers in Alaska have only been able to examine one of the dead whales, and they haven't yet determined a cause of death. Most of the rest have been unreachable. As you can see in the image at the top of this article, wildlife can — and does — get in the way of examinations.

Canadian scientists examined two of the humpback bodies they found, but are still waiting on results.

fin whale carcassPotential explanations include the toxic algae bloom raging in the warm waters off the West Coast, or perhaps an outbreak of some kind of infectious disease, but until researchers are able to analyze more samples, they won't know for sure.

They do say that a connection to the Fukushima nuclear reactor meltdown is "highly unlikely."

If you come across a dead or stranded whale, NOAA would like to hear from you.

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Thursday, August 20, 2015

Researchers pluck carbon from the sky, turn it into diamonds

Source: http://www.engadget.com/2015/08/20/carbon-from-the-air//

Diamonds

Carbon's the perfect material to build strong yet lightweight materials, but it's also the reason we're running head-first into an ecological apocalypse. Wouldn't it be great if we could snatch the excess CO2 from the air and use it to cheaply build aircraft fuselages, modern cars and artificial diamonds? That's what a group of researchers from George Washington University claim to have achieved at a recent meeting of the American Chemical Society. Not only would it mean that future engineering projects would have an abundant source of cheap materials, but it also has planet-saving consequences.

The process works a little like the electrolysis you'd have seen in high school. Rather than dunking a pair of electrodes in a bath of water, however, they're placed in a mix of molten lithium carbonate and lithium oxide. When this compound reacts, it effectively pulls in CO2 from the surrounding air, and the electrodes cause solid carbon to gather around one terminal. The researchers have been able to tweak this system to create carbon nanofibers of varying shapes and sizes, which could theoretically be used to build pretty much anything. In addition, because the team can use solar power to drive this reaction, it's believed that the process could actually produce a net reduction in atmospheric carbon dioxide.

CO2 in the air is one of the key causes of climate change and we're now well beyond the "safe" limit of 350 parts per million that the UN put in place. The increasing rate of atmospheric carbon dioxide is also causing faster acidification of our oceans which, you probably don't need us to tell you, is a pretty bad thing. This system is, effectively, a super-smart carbon capture and storage system, but rather than dumping the material in chambers underground, would actually create something useful with it.

In a report by MIT Tech Review, it's claimed that this process could actually return the levels of CO2 in the atmosphere to pre industrial levels in just a decade. That's an ambitious claim, and it'd require a facility that took up roughly 940,000 square kilometers to make it happen. But let's be honest, if this process can be proven to work, we could wind up with super-clean air, not to mention cars, planes and computers made out of carbon fiber. Let's just hope that the team can make good on these promises, and fast.

[Image Credit: Getty]

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Via: MIT Technology Review

Source: Nano Letters, George Washington University, American Chemical Society

Tags: AmericanChemicalSociety, Carbon, CarbonFiber, ClimateChange, GeorgeWashingtonUniversity, StuartLicht

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Further investigation planned in whale deaths in Alaska

Source: http://www.businessinsider.com/ap-further-investigation-planned-in-whale-deaths-in-alaska-2015-8

This June 5, 2015 photos provided by the Alaska Sea Grant Marine Advisory Program, shows a fin whale carcass found on Whale Island, Alaska in the Kodiak Archipelago. A federal agency announced plans Thursday, Aug. 20, 2015, for a more intense investigation into what caused the deaths of many large whales in the western Gulf of Alaska since May. (Dr. Bree Witteveen/Alaska Sea Grant Marine Advisory Program via AP)

JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) — A federal agency announced plans Thursday for a more intense investigation into what caused the deaths of 30 large whales in the western Gulf of Alaska since May.

NOAA Fisheries declared the deaths an "unusual mortality event," triggering a new-level investigation that brings with it access to additional resources. The agency said the deaths are about three times the historical average for the region.

Julie Speegle, a spokeswoman for NOAA Fisheries in Alaska, said a leading hypothesis for the deaths is harmful algal bloom toxins but she noted that there currently is no conclusive evidence linking the two.

Officials have only been able to get samples from one of the 30 whales. Teri Rowles, NOAA Fisheries' marine mammal health and stranding response coordinator, told reporters during a teleconference Thursday that large-scale whale deaths are among the toughest to investigate, partly because the carcasses often are floating, rarely beached and difficult to access for examination. In Alaska, bears feeding on washed-up whale carcasses create safety concerns for researchers who want to collect samples, she said.

Without being able to conduct a more complete necropsy, scientists and researchers can look at such things as environmental factors, historical information and mortality among seabirds or other sea creatures to try to get a better sense of what is going on, Rowles said. But they are limited in what they can do without better access to the carcasses, she said.

Officials urged the public to report any sightings of dead whales or distressed animals that they encounter.

The agency plans to work with colleagues in Canada, where six large whales have been reported dead off the coast of British Columbia since May — five of those this month. Necropsies were conducted on two of the more recent carcasses, and the results are pending, said Paul Cottrell, marine mammals coordinator for the Pacific region of Canada's Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

Rowles said this does not appear to be a "coast-wide" event at this point, noting that large whale deaths have not increased during the same timeframe near California, Washington and Oregon as they have very locally in the western Gulf of Alaska.

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Monday, August 17, 2015

The EPA’s spill is the least of Colorado's problems: 230 mines have been dumping thousands of gallons of contaminated water every minute for years

Source: http://www.businessinsider.com/230-other-colorado-mines-are-contaminating-rivers-with-heavy-metals-2015-8

Gold King Mine entrance

On August 5, over 3 million gallons of toxic waste spilled into the Animas River in southwest Colorado. But it wasn't the first, and it won't be the last, time these harmful materials have leaked into the river.

The toxic sludge came from the Gold King Mine, but there are 230 other mines currently leaking heavy metals the state's river system — materials that threaten drinking water, as well as animal and plant life.

Heavy metals, including copper, iron, cadmium and manganese, come from mining gold deep in the Colorado mountains. When miners have depleted all of the gold, they abandon it. Over time, the materials that are left over from the mining process build up in the acidic groundwater also left in the mines, supplemented by years of rain and snowmelt water that gets in as well, flowing from there into nearby creeks and later major rivers.

The Gold King Mine spill leaked copper, lead, cadmium, iron, and other metals, and the 230 mines are leaking their own mixtures of the metallic sludge into rivers all over Colorado. The Denver Post estimates the mines leak thousands of gallons per minute — quickly adding up to more than the Gold King Mine spill that occurred while the EPA worked on the mine.

However, the Denver Post reports that state officials aren't keeping track of how much these mines are leaking, which is why the Environmental Protection Agency set out to get a better idea of what's getting into the rivers. During the investigation, which involved the use of heavy machinery, EPA workers accidentally ripped a hole in the mine, giving the dirty mine water a more direct route to the Animas River.

Metals in low enough doses don’t have much of an effect on the ecosystem of river, Colorado State University geoscience professor Ellen Wohl told Business Insider. But the higher the concentration of metals, the more likely the plants, fish and microbes in the environment won’t be able to thrive, let alone survive.

Colorado is having a tough time figuring out how to keep track of and fix all the mines that are leaking around the state.

"You're going to have some people say: 'Hey, the EPA, look at how incompetent they are.' But others will see this is part of a longer-term problem," Peter Butler, a coordinator of the Animas stakeholders group, told the Denver Post. "Mistakes happened. We need to have this agency come in and provide more resources. There's just a shortage of state resources."

Without the manpower to keep these spills from happening, toxic sludge will continue to pump into rivers, killing fish and making water undrinkable, for years to come.

RELATED: Colorado wants to re-open the river that turned mustard-yellow with toxic sludge days ago — here's why that's not the best idea

CHECK OUT: Wind is blowing China's air pollution 'straight across' to the US West Coast

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Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Ikea Is Buying Up Whole Forests, and So Is Apple

Source: http://gizmodo.com/ikea-is-buying-up-whole-forests-and-so-is-apple-1721878293

Ikea bought 83,000 acres of forest last month. In April, Apple bought 36,000 acres. What’s the reasoning behind these retail giants buying their own forests? To manage them.

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Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Nanowires help produce hydrogen fuel using sunlight

Source: http://www.engadget.com/2015/07/20/nanowires-help-produce-hydrogen-fuel-using-sunlight/

Toyota's hydrogen-powered Mirai at a fuel station

You ideally want to produce clean hydrogen fuel using clean sources, and Dutch researchers have taken a big step toward making that a practical reality. They've built a solar cell that uses a grid of gallium phosphide nanowires to make hydrogen gas from water. The approach gets a useful yield of about 2.9 percent in lab tests. That may not sound like much, but it's about 10 times more effective than previous techniques and uses 10,000 times less exotic material.

It's still going to take more refinements before this kind of technology is practical. Even hooking up silicon cells to a battery nets a 15 percent yield, for example. If scientists improve their methods, though, you could be driving hydrogen cars whose fuel is eco-friendly at every step, not just when it's in your vehicle.

[Image credit: AP Photo/Shizuo Kambayashi]

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Source: TUE, Nature

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Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Wave generator supplies US electrical grid for the first time

Source: http://www.engadget.com/2015/07/07/wave-generator-hawaii-power-grid/

A prototype wave generator called Azura is supplying grid power to Hawaii, the first time such a feat has been officially verified, according to the US Department of Energy (DoE). Though it can only produce 20 kilowatts, the DoE said that similar devices could eventually provide large amounts of clean power to coastal cities. The project is co-sponsored by the US Navy and was developed by an Oregon-based company called Northwest Energy Innovations (NWEI). It's located at the Navy's Wave Energy Test Site in Kaneohe Bay in Oahu, at a depth of about 30 meters (100 feet).

The prototype consists of a 45-ton wave energy converter that can capture energy from both the heave (up/down) and surge (front/back) motions of waves. It has an onboard generator to convert kinetic motion to electricity, which is transferred to the grid via an undersea cable. The device first went online last month, bringing an unknown quantity of power to Hawaii's electrical grid. Researchers from the University of Hawaii recently confirmed its performance, marking the first time that US cities and homes have officially been powered, in part, by waves.

Following further tests on the current system, the NWEI and DoE plan to ramp things up considerably. They'll use the result from the current trial to design a new generator that will operate in bigger waves at 60-80 meter depths (100-150 feet) and generate up to 1 megawatt, enough energy to power several hundred homes. That system could come online as early as 2017, but meanwhile, researchers will continue testing Azura over the next year.

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Via: Network World

Source: US Department of Energy

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Monday, June 22, 2015

Article: MIT Students Create A Brick That Could End Pollution From Dirty Brick Kilns

We use a lot of bricks. Making them, though, is pretty bad. The Eco BLAC brick is made with waste ash and requires no firing at all. India's brick industry, spread out over 100,000 kilns and producing up to 2 billion bricks a year, is a big source of pollution. To fire to hot temperatures, the ki...

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UCLA discovers how solar cells' charges can last for weeks

Source: http://www.engadget.com/2015/06/20/ucla-solar-cell/

30,000 Lux

Solar cells have always been inspired by photosynthesis, so it's only natural for researchers to take cues from different aspects of the energy-making process. A team of UCLA chemists, for instance, have developed a way that will allow solar cells to keep their charge for weeks instead of just a few seconds like current products are capable of. According to Sarah Tolbert, UCLA chem professor and one of the study's authors, they looked into plants' nanoscale structures that can keep negatively charged molecules separated from positively charged ones. "That separation is the key to making the process so efficient," she said.

The team has discovered that in order to mimic those nanoscale structures in plastic solar cells (which are potentially cheaper to make than silicon-based ones), they need to use two components: a polymer donor and a nano-scale fullerene acceptor. The team describes the process as follows:

The UCLA technology arranges the elements more neatly -- like small bundles of uncooked spaghetti with precisely placed meatballs (see image below). Some fullerene meatballs are designed to sit inside the spaghetti bundles, but others are forced to stay on the outside. The fullerenes inside the structure take electrons from the polymers and toss them to the outside fullerene, which can effectively keep the electrons away from the polymer for weeks.

In short, those two can form the right "noodle and meatball" structure to keep different charges away from each other for days to weeks, greatly improving a cell's capability to retain power. It's also a plus that the components can auto-assemble, simply by putting them in water. The ability to store energy is a big deal for solar energy systems, since they need to be able to save enough power to use at night or during days when the sun isn't shining as brightly. UCLA's technology isn't quite ready yet, but Tolbert and her team are already trying to figure out how to incorporate it into real solar cells.

[Image credit: Jason A. Samfield/Flickr, UCLA Chemistry]

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Source: UCLA, Science

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Friday, June 5, 2015

High-yield yeast converts 97 percent of a plant's sugars to biofuel

Source: http://www.engadget.com/2015/06/04/high-yield-yeast-converts-97-percent-of-a-plant-to-biofuel

Operations At Usina da Mata Ethanol, Sugar and Energy Plant As Brazil Expands Ethanol Tax Credit

The Department of Energy's BioEnergy Science Center announced a major breakthrough in the biofuel field yesterday: a newly developed strain of yeast capable of producing more than three times the amount of fuel from plant matter as the current record holder. The Center has teamed with Mascoma LLC to develop the new strain, dubbed C5 FUEL. Existing biofuel yeast strains generally only convert about 30 percent of a plant's sugars and cannot effectively convert tough xylose sugars. C5 however can ferment up to 97 percent of plant sugars into ethanol, including the xylose that other strains can't break down. What's more, it does all that in just 48 hours as opposed to the multiple days or weeks that other strains require.

Update: The headline of this post has been updated to clarify that it's 97 percent of a plant's sugars the team is claiming to convert into biofuel, not 97 percent of the entire plant.

The BESC team presented its findings at the 31st International Fuel Ethanol Workshop in Minneapolis on Thursday morning. They hope that the discovery will help make ethanol-based biofuels more accessible to the consumer market. "Driving down the cost to develop, verify and consolidate bioprocessing was at the heart of the BESC effort when we began in 2007, and this achievement allows us to advance to the next challenge," BESC Director Paul Gilna said in a statement. "This accomplishment represents a clearly impactful example of how our partnering with industry can accelerate the translation of our research capabilities and findings into commercial products." Up next, the BESC hopes to perform the same biochemical gymnastics with thermophilic bacteria, which would produce fuel directly from biomass in just one step.

[Image Credit: Bloomberg via Getty Images (Top) - ORNL (inline)]


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Saturday, May 30, 2015

Mass deaths of rare Kazakhstan antelopes stir conservation fears

Source: http://www.businessinsider.com/afp-mass-deaths-of-rare-kazakhstan-antelopes-stir-conservation-fears-2015-5

The sudden deaths of tens of thousands of endangered antelopes in ex-Soviet Kazakhstan over the past two weeks have left scientists scrambling for answers and conservationists worried about the animal's future

Astana (Kazakhstan) (AFP) - The sudden deaths of tens of thousands of endangered antelopes in ex-Soviet Kazakhstan over the past two weeks have left scientists scrambling for answers and conservationists worried about the animal's future.

Over 120,000 rare saiga antelopes -- more than a third of the total global population -- have been wiped out in a devastating blow that the United Nations Environment Programme has called "catastrophic". 

UN experts have said the mass deaths are down to "a combination of biological and environmental factors."

Scientists have struggled to put their finger on the exact nature of the disease that has felled entire herds, but say findings point towards an infectious disease caused by various bacteria.

Any infections have likely been exacerbated by recent rains that have made the antelopes -- 90 percent of which live on the steppes of Central Asian Kazakhstan -- less able to cope with diseases.

"Unseasonal wetness may have been something that lowered their immunity to infection but until we do more analysis we will not know anything for sure," Steffen Zuther of the Altyn Dala Conservation Initiative told AFP.

The rate of the deaths has staggered those who have studied the species -- whose ancestors have inhabited the region since the ice age. 

"A one hundred percent mortality for the herds affected is extraordinary," said Richard Kock, a professor at the Royal Veterinary College in London who recently returned from Kazakhstan. 

"We are dealing with creatures that have fairly low resilience." 

The sudden spate of deaths comes as a nasty shock as up until recently the saiga antelopes -- which live for between six and 10 years and are known for their protruding noses -- had been hailed as something of a conservation success.

Until mid-May, when the country's Ministry of Agriculture began reporting the deaths, saiga numbers in Kazakhstan had rallied from an estimated 20,000 in 2003 to the more than 250,000.

In 1993, there were over a million saiga antelopes, mostly concentrated in the steppe land of Kazakhstan, neighbouring Russia and Mongolia. 

The susceptibility of the population since then has raised extinction fears and the saiga is listed as critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

- Decade to recover -

While herds that have not already been struck down are thought to be safe for the moment, Kazakhstan's Prime Minister Karim Massimov set up a working group including international experts Thursday to establish reasons for the deaths and oversee disinfection of lands in the three regions where the saiga died.

"If there is one positive that has come from this it is that the government has become very open to international channels of cooperation now," Kock from the Royal Veterinary College in London said.

Even then, however, scientists estimate that it will take a decade for the antelope numbers to recover from the recent deaths.

For now though they are hoping that the beasts can avoid even more potent diseases that have raged in nearby areas, such as the morbillivirus epidemic that swept across neighbouring China last year, and other threats. 

One of those is the rise in poaching for the animal's horn -- prized in Chinese medicine -- which grew widespread following the collapse of the Soviet Union but has slowed down since.

Kazakhstan extended a ban on hunting the saiga until 2021 four years ago and imposes penalties of up to five years in prison for poachers.

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Thursday, April 16, 2015

These Tiny Capsules Suck Up CO2

Source: http://gizmodo.com/these-tiny-capsules-suck-up-co2-1698167277

They might look more like candy, but these micro-capsules are rather more special than that. Their shiny shell allows CO2 to pass straight through—where it can be trapped by a liquid held in their core.

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