News from Mars: Curiosity Arrives at Mount Sharp

curiosity-mars-self-portrait-crop-640x353After two years exploring the Martian surface, the Curiosity Rover has finally reached its primary science destination – the foot of Mount Sharp, officially known as Aeolis Mons. Now that it’s there, it will begin its ascent of the rock formation, drill into rocks and analyze the different strata in the hopes of learning more about the history of the Red Planet. This is an event a long time in the making, and may prove to yield some of the greatest scientific discoveries ever made.

Located in the heart of the Gale Crater, Mount Sharp is like a layer cake, holding a chronology of past events reaching back billions of years. Because of this, it is an ideal place to find evidence that the Martian surface and atmosphere were once capable of supporting life. It took two years and one month for Curiosity reach the foot of this mountain, which lies some 5500 meters (18,000 feet) above the floor of Gale Crater.

MarsCuriosityTrek_20140911_AThe mountain is the central peak in a crater that measures 154 km/96 miles in diameter and which was formed when a meteor impacted the surface between 3.5 and 3.8 billion years ago. Beyond a certain size, and depending on the gravity of the planet, craters like this all have a central peak. But Mount Sharp represents something much more, otherwise NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory wouldn’t be bothering with it.

Basically, Mars scientists believe that after its creation, the Gale crater was completely filled with sedimentary material from a series of huge floods, or by dust and ice deposits like those that happened at the Martian polar caps. The deposition over 2 billion years left a series sedimentary layers that filled the crater. Following the deposition of the layers, there was a long period of erosion which has finally led to the condition of the crater today.

mountsharp_galecraterThe erosion by some combination of aeolean (wind) forces and water (additional flooding), scooped out the huge crater, re-exposing most of the original depth. However, covering the original central peak are many sedimentary layers of debris. Gale crater’s original central peak actually remains completely hidden and covered by sedimentation. And it is this that attracted scientists with the Curiosity rover to the base of Mount Sharp.

Within the sedimentary layers is a sequential record of the environmental conditions on Mars going back over 2 billion years. While at the base, Curiosity will be able to examine the oldest sedimentary layers; but as it climbs the flanks of the mountain, it will be able to step forward in time. Each layer and its age will reveal information such as how much water was present, whether the water was alkaline or acidic, if there is any organic compounds.

john_klein_curiosity-2The discovery of organic compounds on Mount Sharp could be “Earth shaking”, since the discovery of organics is of very high importance to this mission. Already, over the two year trek, Curiosity has seen numerous signs of the flow of water and sedimentation. Interestingly enough, evidence began to turn up way back in Yellowknife Bay — one of its first destinations, which it visited almost two years ago. But as of yet, signs of organic compounds have remained illusive.

What’s more, Curiosity sadly lacks the necessary equipment to look for evidence of microbial fossils or other signatures of life. Fortunately, the next rover – the Mars 2020 rover – will be equipped with the necessary tools to work out whether Mars ever harbored life. In any case, because of the lack of organic compounds in Yellowknife, NASA decided to continue to Mount Sharp, which is currently the best place to dig up scientific data about Mars’ past.

MSL_TraverseMap_Sol0743-2048Curiosity is currently at the base of Mount Sharp, in a region called the Pahrump Hills, where it will continue on to the Murray Formation. Once there, it will take a drill sample of some rock and then continue up Mount Sharp towards the Hematite Ridge where two drill sites await. This farthest site is about 8 km (5 mi) away from its present position, and Curiosity has driven only 9 km since it landed in 2012. So there’s plenty of trekking and work ahead!

One of the greatest challenges is finding a path that will reduce the stress on Curiosity’s wheels, which have been put through some serious wear and tear in the past two years. Because of this, the rover is being driven in reverse for the time being, and the team is looking the path with the least amount of sharp rocks. However, the Mars Curiosity remains confident that the mobility system will be capable of surviving the ten year life span of the rover’s power supply.

And be sure to check out this “Curiosity Rover Report” that talks about this historic accomplishment, courtesy of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory:

Sources: universetoday.com, extremetech.com, jpl.nasa.gov, space.com

Climate Crisis: Visualizing the Effects of Climate Change

future-summer-heat-20140709-001Climate Change means more than just on average hotter temperatures year round. There are also numerous consequences for sea levels, glaciers, weather patterns, weather stability, crop growth, fisheries, wildlife, forest fires, disease, parasites, rivers and fresh water tables. Explaining it can be a challenge, which is why visual tools like tables, maps and charts are so very useful.

Unfortunately, these too can seem bland and technocratic, and fail to capture the true extent and critical nature of Climate Change. Luckily, this past summer, a season that has been marked by uncharacteristically cool and hot temperatures, two particularly useful visual aids have been produced that seek to remedy this. By combining data-driven predictions with aids that are both personal and global in outlook, they bring the consequences of Climate Change home.

1001-blistering-summersThe first is known as 1001 Blistering Future Summers, a tool produced by the Princeton-based research and journalist organization Climate Central. This interactive map illustrates much hotter summers will become by the end of the century if nothing is done to stem global warming. Users simply type in the name of their hometown and the map compares current temperatures in their town to how high they will be and finds the geographic equivalent.

On average, according to Climate Central, daytime summer temperatures will be 4 to 6° Celsius (7 to 10° Fahrenheit) warmer across U.S. cities. That translates to most cities in the U.S. feeling like Florida or Texas feel in the summer today. For example, in the future, Boston will feel like North Miami Beach. And Las Vegas, where temperatures are projected to an average of 111 degrees, will feel more like Saudi Arabia.

dynamics_ccAs you can imagine, changes like these will have drastic effects that go far beyond scorching summers and inflated AC bills. Furthermore, when one considers the changes in a global context, and they will be disproportionately felt, they become even more disconcerting. And that is where the series of maps, collectively known as the “human dynamics of climate change”, come into play.

Developed by the U.K. Met Office (the official British weather forecast service) with the U.K. Foreign Office and several universities, they start with a “present-day” picture map – which shows trade in various commodities (wheat, maize, etc), important areas for fishing, routes for shipping and air freight, and regions with high degrees of water stress and political fragility.

dynamics_ccwThen the maps get into specific issues, based on climate forecasts for 2100 that assume that nothing will be done to stop global warming. You can see, for example, how higher temperatures could increase demand for irrigation water; how parts of the world could see increases and decreases in water run-off into rivers; how different areas are set for more flooding; and how the warmest days in Europe, parts of Asia, and North America are projected to be 6°C warmer.

The poster also has summaries for each region of the world. North Africa, for instance, “is projected to see some of the largest increases in the number of drought days and decreases in average annual water run-off.” North America, meanwhile, is forecast to see an increase in the number of drought days, increasing temperatures on its warmest days, and, depending on the region, both increases and decreases in river flooding.

climate-changeThe overall impression is one of flux, with changing temperatures also resulting in vast changes to systems that human beings heavily rely on. This is the most frightening aspect of Climate Change, since it will mean that governments around the world will be forced to cooperate extensively to adapt to changes and make do with less. And in most cases, the odds of this aren’t good.

For instance,the Indu River, a major waterway that provides Pakistan and India with extensive irrigation, originates in Pakistan. Should this country choose to board the river to get more use out of its waters, India would certainly attempt to intervene to prevent the loss of precious water flowing to their farmers down river. This scenario would very easily escalate into full-scale war, with nuclear arsenals coming into play.

climate_changetideThe Yangtze, China’s greatest river, similarly originates in territory that the country considers unstable – i.e. the Tibetan Plateau. Should water from this river prove scarcer in the future, control and repression surrounding its source is likely to increase. And when one considers that the Arab Spring was in large part motivated by food price spikes in 2010 – itself the result of Climate Change – the potential for incendiary action becomes increasingly clear.

And Europe is also likely experience significant changes due to the melting of the Greenland’s glaciers. With runoff from these glaciers bleeding into the North Atlantic, the Gulf Stream will be disrupted, resulting in Europe experiencing a string of very cold winters and dry summers. This in turn is likely to have a drastic effect on Europe’s food production, with predictable social and economic consequences.

Getting people to understand this is difficult, since most crises don’t seem real until they are upon us. However, the more we can drive home the consequences by putting into a personal, relatable format – not to mention a big-picture format – the more we can expect people to make informed choices and changes.

Sources: fastcoexist.com, (2), climatecentral.org, metoffice.gov.uk

Climate Crisis: Present Changes and Coming Impacts

climate-changeThis Tuesday, the Whitehouse received the latest draft of the Climate Assessment Report, a scientific study produced by the National Climate Assessment to determine the impacts of Climate Change. In addition to outlining the risks it poses to various regions in the US, the report also addresses the apparent increase in the number of severe weather events that have taken place in the past few years, and how these events affect local economies and communities.

According to the 840-page report, America is fast becoming a stormy and dangerous place, with rising seas and disasters effecting regions from flood-stricken Florida to the wildfire-ravaged West. The report concluded that Climate change’s assorted harms “are expected to become increasingly disruptive across the nation throughout this century and beyond.” It also emphasized how warming and its all-too-wild weather are changing daily lives, even using the phrase “climate disruption” as another way of saying global warming.

Climate_Change_vulnerability_USHenry Jacoby, co-director of the Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change at the MIT, was joined by other scientists and White House officials when he claimed that this is the most detailed and U.S.-focused scientific report on global warming. Above all, the most chilling claim contained within is the fact that “Climate change, once considered an issue for a distant future, has moved firmly into the present.”

The report also examined the effects at the regional and state-level, compared with recent reports from the UN that examined North America as a single case study. In a recent interview with CBC’s The Lang & O’Leary Exchange, Jacoby pointed to a range of impacts of global warming that people see everyday, from the change in the growing season, to extreme heat, severe Atlantic storms and drought in some areas.

climate_change_variableweatherAs he explained, these changes are far more than just variable weather:

If you look at what’s happening to the Arctic ice at your northern border, you are seeing changes to the ice like you haven’t seen in hundreds of years. We’re seeing change on a scale that’s going beyond variability.

A draft of the report was released in January 2013, but this version has been reviewed by more scientists, the National Academy of Science, 13 other government agencies, and was subject to public comment. It is written in a bit more simple language so people could realize “that there’s a new source of risk in their lives,” said study lead author Gary Yohe of Wesleyan University in Connecticut.

Even though the nation’s average temperature has risen by as much as 1.9 degrees since record keeping began in 1895, it’s in the big, wild weather where the average person feels climate change the most. As the report’s co-author Katharine Hayhoe – a Texas Tech University climate scientist – put it, extreme weather like droughts, storms and heat waves hit us in the pocketbooks and can be seen by our own eyes. And it’s happening a lot more often lately.

climate_change_precipThe report says the intensity, frequency and duration of the strongest Atlantic hurricanes have increased since the early 1980s. Winter storms have increased in frequency and intensity and shifted northward since the 1950s, with heavy downpours increasing by 71 per cent in the northeast alone. Heat waves are projected to intensify nationwide, with droughts in the southwest expected to get stronger. Sea levels have risen 20 centimetres since 1880 and are projected to rise between 0.3 meters and 1.2 metres by 2100.

The report was also clear that the 2010’s have been a record-setting decade. For example, since January 2010, 43 of the lower 48 states have set at least one monthly record for heat, such as California having its warmest January on record this year. In the past 51 months, states have set 80 monthly records for heat, 33 records for being too wet, 12 for lack of rain and just three for cold, according to an Associated Press analysis of federal weather records.

climate_change_tempsAs she described it, America is basically in a boxing match, and is currently on the ropes:

We’re being hit hard. We’re holding steady, and we’re getting hit in the jaw. We’re starting to recover from one punch, and another punch comes.

John Podesta, an adviser to President Barack Obama, said on Monday that the report includes “a huge amount of practical, usable knowledge that state and local decision-makers can take advantage of.” The report also stressed that climate change threatens human health and well-being in a number of ways. Those include smoke-filled air from more wildfires, smoggy air from pollution, more diseases from tainted food, water, mosquitoes and ticks.

climate_change_lossAnd then there’s more pollen because of warming weather and the effects of carbon dioxide on plants. Ragweed pollen season has lengthened by 24 days in the Minnesota-North Dakota region between 1995 and 2011, the report says. In other parts of the Midwest, the pollen season has gotten longer by anywhere from 11 days to 20 days. And all of this has associated costs, not the least of which is in damages, insurance costs, and health care expenses.

Flooding alone may cost $325 billion by the year 2100 in one of the worst-case scenarios, with $130 billion of that in Florida, the report says. Already the droughts and heat waves of 2011 and 2012 added about $10 billion to farm costs, the report says. Billion-dollar weather disasters have hit everywhere across the nation, but have hit Texas, Oklahoma and the southeast most often, the report says. And there is the impact on agricultural producers, which is also stressed:

Corn producers in Iowa, oyster growers in Washington state and maple syrup producers in Vermont are all observing climate-related changes that are outside of recent experience.

Climate_Change_vulnerability1Still, it’s not too late to prevent the worst of climate change, says the 840-page report, which the White House is highlighting as it tries to jump-start often stalled efforts to curb heat-trapping gases. However, if the U.S. and the world don’t change the way they use energy, the current effects will continue to intensify to the point where property damage, wildfires, storms, flooding and agricultural collapse will become untenable.

Already, the report has its detractors, many of whom appeared together for a Special Report segment on Fox News. In addition to commentator George Will questioning the scientific consensus – which accounts for 97% of the scientific community – Charles Krauthammer compared to the findings to a bargaining process, and ultimately condemned it as “superstition”. As he put it:

What we’re ultimately talking about here is human sin, through the production of carbon. It’s the oldest superstition around. It was in the Old Testament. It’s in the rain dance of the Native Americans. If you sin, the skies will not cooperate. This is quite superstitious and I’m waiting for science that doesn’t declare itself definitive but is otherwise convincing.

climate_change_denialNot to belabor the point, but superstition is what happens when people trust in rituals and practices that have no discernible effect whatsoever on a problem to protect themselves from said problem. Conducting research, performing field studies, and compiling statistics that cover hundreds, thousands, and even millions of years – this is called the scientific method. And Krauthammer would do well to realize that it is this same method that has done away with countless superstitious rituals throughout history.

He and other so-called skeptics (though a more accurate term is deniers) would also do well to understand the difference between superstition and a little thing known as cause and effect. For example, avoiding black cats, not walking under ladders, or sacrificing human beings to make the sun rise or the crops grow is superstition. Pumping thousands of tons of carbon dioxide into the air, which is known to have the effect of absorbing the sun’s thermal energy (aka. radiant forcing), is cause and effect.

See? Easily distinguished. But if there’s one thing that the “denial machine” has shown an affinity for, its remaining divorced from the scientific consensus. Luckily, they have been in full-retreat for some time, leaving only the most die hard behind to fight their battles. One can only hope their influence continues to diminish as time goes on and the problems associated with Climate Change get worse.

You can read the  full Climate Assessment Report here.

Sources: cbc.ca, abcnews.go.com, IO9.com, (2), nca2014.globalchange.gov