Category Archives: By Daniel Sternklar

2015, The Year That Was: Environment And Energy

The biggest story of 2105 from the environment and energy desk is a clear choice but, paradoxically, its impact is still murky.

The COP21 United Nations climate summit in December yielded the Paris Agreement, which includes pledges from nearly 200 countries to dramatically lower greenhouse gas emissions in the years ahead.

Most everyone can agree that its a remarkable demonstration of the worlds commitment to combat climate change, but whether its a historic turning point in greenhouse gas emissions is very much a matter of debate.

Indeed, moments after the gavel went down in Paris amid much celebration, a number of questions arose, including how accountable countries will be to their commitments and whether there will be sufficient money to help developing countries adapt to the effects of climate change and move off of fossil fuels.

Here in the US, the question was: could Congress and a subsequent president unravel or block Obamas signature climate policies? (Short version: it wouldnt be easy.)

How The Energy System Is Changing Or Isnt

In the run-up to Paris, The Conversation published a number of articles to explore the effects of climate change and how our energy system is (or isnt) changing.

Given how much capital is already invested in our fossil fuel-dominated energy system, it will take decades to replace the energy infrastructure, even with climate-friendly policies.

Our academics also explained why energy innovation is so slow, what to do about earthquakes linked to oil and gas drilling, why Teslas home batteries are such a big deal and how rooftop solar is disrupting the power grid.

The tension between our dependence on fossil fuels and climate change was a theme in many articles, including a look at the merits of hybrid solar-and-natural gas power plants, the emissions cost of shutting down aging nuclear plants, the slow progress on carbon capture and storage, Shells decision to drop plans to drill in the Arctic and, most dramatically, the Obama administrations rejection of the Keystone XL pipeline.

From California To The Arctic

Much environmental news came from the West this year: Californias punishing drought, the rise of a giant El Nio, the warm blob in the Pacific Ocean thats wreaking havoc in surprising ways and the devastating wildfire season.

Making sense of a changing Arctic. NASA

In climate science, we published scientists studies on melting ice sheets in Antarctica, the so-called hiatus in global warming and whether natural variability in the atmosphere and ocean masks the long-term warming trend.

Elsewhere, we focused on the fast-changing Arctic.

We unpacked the latest science on whether a warming Arctic can explain North Americas brutally cold weather last winter, how quickly polar bears can adapt to warming, plans to open up commercial fishing and whether the far North will shift from being a carbon sink to a source of carbon.

The Anthropocene

With all the changes humanity is bringing to the planet, we will most certainly hear more of the term the Anthropocene, the notion that we are in a new geological epoch defined by our species’ dominance over the Earth.

Our academics weighed in on various aspects of the Anthropocene, including the value of nature, the ethics of rewilding large portions of the Earth and what preserving nature means.

Perhaps the biggest newsmaker in the environment came from an unlikely source this year: the Vatican.

Making waves: Pope Francis speaks to the European Parliament earlier this year. European Parliament, CC BY-NC-ND

Pope Francis encyclical on the environment known as Laudato Si raised the issue of humanitys treatment of the Earth into the realm of moral philosophy and reached millions of people.

Also in politics and policy, we covered the link between the climate change-worsened drought in Syria and its civil war.

In Washington, DC we documented Obamas attempts to build a strong legacy on climate change despite his political foes.

What did our readers like? Certainly all of the above, but who doesnt like a good story about animals and wildlife? Here we had a number: eastern coyotes, feral cats, urban wildlife, dogs and elephants.

For more of what you liked, below youll find links to the 10 most-read articles from environment and energy this year.

Martin LaMonica, Deputy Editor, Environment & Energy Editor, The Conversation

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With 2 Weeks to Go, the Net Neutrality Battle Heats Up


Protesters march past the FCC headquarters before the Commission meeting on net neutrality proposal on May, 15, 2014 in Washington, DC.
Image: Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post/Getty Images

With less than two weeks until the end of the comment period on proposed Internet regulations, both sides of the debate are pushing publicity campaigns aimed at swaying the net neutrality debate.

The battle has coalesced around a particular issue: the reclassification of broadband Internet, a move that would either maintain an open and equal web or destroy it, depending on which side of the debate is lobbying. Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler has publicly stated that it could vote to reclassify broadband as a utility, bringing Internet providers under more stringent regulations.

A new “don’t break the Internet” campaign launched on Tuesday with a website that seeks to push back against calls for the Federal Communications Commission to reclassify. Drawing on the words of net neutrality advocates like Tim Wu, Lawrence Lessig and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the site makes plain its stance at the top.

“Dear Mr. Chairman, don’t break the Internet! Cat videos aren’t megawatts and the net’s not a series of tubes, so don’t treat it like a utility,” the post states alongside Photoshopped images of the FCC chairman with cats.


The FCC is currently considering new regulations about how data flows on the Internet, an issue that has sparked debate about the role or regulation and Internet providers. Advocates of net neutrality — which dictates that all data should be treated equally so as to maintain and open and competitive Internet — have called for the FCC to consider the Internet a utility, which would bring it under more stringent regulation. The deadline for comments on the FCC’s proposed Internet regulation and replying to earlier comments is Sept. 15.

The initial draft of the rules built in allowances for “commercially reasonable” deals between content providers and Internet companies. This allowance caused a flood of concern from net neutrality advocates who worried this could lead to “fast lanes” that would make the Internet more similar to cable television.

Those concerns led to calls for the FCC to change how it regulates the Internet by switching to “Title II,” which would treat it similar to utilities.

The “don’t break the Internet” campaign is backed by TechFreedom, a nonprofit think tank that says it is backed by Internet providers as well as content providers. It is calling for congressional action to limit FCC power and explicitly detail how it can regulate the Internet.

“Democrats and Republicans should join in a bipartisan compromise that sets out clear, but specific and narrow, authority over core net neutrality concerns. Congress should bar the FCC from ever applying Title II to the Internet,” the site states.

There is no shortage of advocates of reclassification. Democratic Senator Carl Levin is the most recent politician to back reclassification, stating it is “the best and clearest way to ensure an open and free Internet.”

Fight for the Future, another nonprofit think tank “dedicated to protecting and expanding the Internet’s transformative power,” has organized an “Internet slowdown” on Sept. 10 to bring attention to the issue.

“On Sept. 10th, sites across the web will display an alert with a symbolic ‘loading’ symbol (the proverbial “spinning wheel of death”) and promote a call to action for users to push comments to the FCC, Congress, and the White House,” the site states.

The final push over net neutrality comes after a particularly active comment period, including a John Oliver video that went viral and sparked thousands of comments through the FCC’s online system.

The Sunlight Foundation, a nonprofit that advocates for government accountability and transparency, found that around two-thirds of comments were against allowing content providers to pay for better service and about the same number supported reclassification.

The study found that those against some effort to ensure an open and fair Internet were in the extreme minority.

“We estimate that less than 1 percent of comments were clearly opposed to net neutrality,” the organization wrote in a post.

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Cat Is Intrigued By Floating Snake Illusion

The Rotating Snake Illusion is an art piece that so many recognize, but few know the title. YouTuber Rasmusab thought it would make for an interesting experiment to show his cat the illusion, and record the results. 

Now, the video from February has experienced a viral explosion, amassing over 100,000 visits just today. It is also featured on VideoSift, Gizmodo, TastefullyO, and HyperVocal.

Did your cat react to the visuals?


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Extremely Elusive Monkey Population Captured On Camera For First Time

The Dryas monkey is one of the most elusive primates known to science. Found only on the left bank of the Congo River, there are only as many as 200 cat-sized, highly social individuals living today. This incredibly small population has led to it being classified as Critically Endangered one step away from Extinct (in the wild) by the International Union for Conversation of Nature.

Researchers have long dreamed of stumbling across a new population of these monkeys in the hope that their numbers arent quite as limited as estimates suggest. Now, thanks to an exploratory band of researchers from theLukuru Foundation, we now know that a second population has been hiding within another part of the Democratic Republic of Congo all this time.

Stepping into the Yellowstone National Park-sized Lomami National Park, the team of primatologists found a hunter standing beside a dead monkey, which turned out to be a Dryas monkey. This, of course, meant that there were likely others sneaking around in the rainforest, so the Foundation in conjunction with Florida Atlantic University (FAU) decided to place a few stealthy cameras around the area.

The Dryas monkey is extremely cryptic and we had to think of a creative strategy to observe them in the wild,Kate Detwiler, an assistant professor of anthropology at FAU and a longtime collaborator with the Lukuru Foundation, said in a statement.Dryas monkeys are drawn to dense thickets and flooded areas.When threatened, they quickly disappear into a tangle of vines and foliage, mastering the art of hiding.

A clip of the new populaiton of Dryas monkeys. Florida Atlantic University via YouTube

Dryas monkeys tend to stay away from clear, open spaces and were thought to stick to the lofty heights of the trees, which meant that the camera-trap equipment had to be hoisted up there too.

In order to do this, a nifty Masters student was recruited by FAUs lead researcher to learn how to climb trees. In fact, he was so good at it that he received a tree-climbing certificate from Panamas Institute of Tropical Ecology and Conservation.

Sure enough, the FAU were thrilled to discover that they were the first researchers in the world to capture footage of this previously unknown Dryas monkey population. Its early days, and numbers are yet to come in, but the group of primates seem healthy at the very least.

Dryas monkeys sadly suffer from the same threats that most wild primates do these days hunting, deforestation, and environmental degradation. Fortunately, as theyre in a national park, they are protected for the most part from such nefarious activities.

Now that this new population has been identified, work can begin to ensure that they dont meet an early demise at the hands of our own species.

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Bird Tries To Bother Apathetic Cat

After watching so many Looney Tunes cartoons, I learned at a young age that cats like to eat birds. Even when birds are in the trees, cats seem fixated on catching them. But this strange video breaks all the rules. First, a bird swoops around and even lands on a cat. Birds aren’t usually that aggressive. But even stranger is the how the cat responds. It acts as if there is no bird and just ignored the flying menace.  


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Happy Birthday, Grumpy Cat: Today Is the Worst

The Internet’s favorite sourpuss turns 1 on Thursday, and we bet she is extra miserable on this merry occasion.

So how do you celebrate the birthday of a cat that hates everything? Misery loves company, of course. Besides, everyone knows birthdays are actually the worst, unless you’re 7 and theme parties — no, your toga party doesn’t count — are still considered cool.

There is so much hype that comes with birthdays, and it usually fails to meet expectations. So, here are 10 reasons why birthdays are simply terrible — which may just turn Grumpy Cat’s permanent frown upside down.

Happy birthday, Grumpy!

1. Surprise Parties: Good Intentions, Too Much Anxiety

Image courtesy of iStockphoto, jackscoldsweat

2. Most of Us Will Have to Go to Work

Image courtesy of iStockphoto, AVAVA

3. Getting Older Stinks

Image courtesy of iStockphoto, SteveLuker

4. Useless Gifts You Can’t Return … Or Are Just Too Lazy To

Image courtesy of iStockphoto, miriam-doerr

5. Facebook Friends Don’t Even Have Time for You

Image courtesy of Reddit, Vakattack

6. Your Family Forgets to Call

Image courtesy of iStockphoto, PolenAZ

7. Birthday Clowns

Image courtesy of iStockphoto, lisafx

8. No One Shows Up to Your Party

Image courtesy of iStockphoto, mediaphotos

9. People Show Up, But Your Party Is Lame

Image courtesy of iStockphoto, craftvision

BONUS: 10 Terrific Grumpy Cat Tributes on Etsy

Exoplanet’s Year Measured With Incredible Precision Of Just 18 Seconds

Researchers from the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan have measured the orbital period of K2-3d to a staggering precision of 18 seconds.

This measurement is crucial for future observations looking for signs of life on the planet. K2-3d was discovered because it transits in front of its star, and future telescopes could use these transits to study the exoplanet’s atmosphere and possiblywork out if life is present.

Previous estimates of the planets year were too uncertain to predict the timing of the transits, and that uncertainty gets bigger and bigger when it comes to predicting transits further in the future. The exoplanet was discovered by the space telescope Kepler, which observed it twice and took measurements.

To improve on that value, the team used the MuSCAT instrument, which uses three different wavelengths to obtain a higher precision. The team observed several transits in order toestimatethe timing of future transits within a window of 80 minutes.

The new observations of K2-3d are published in the Astrophysical Journal. The object has 1.5 times the mass of Earth and orbits its star every 44.556 days. That makes the planet really close to its parent star, but the star is only half the size of our Sun and quite a lot dimmer, positioning K2-3d firmly in the habitable zone.

K2-3d is also relatively close to Earth, being 150 light-years away. Its size and location make it a likely candidate for life, and thedistance and brightness of its star make it a great target for further investigation.

Only 0.07 percent of the star’s light is taken away when the planet crosses the stellar disk in a transit, but by studying how this shadow size changes with the different types of light, astronomers will be able to estimate what kind of chemicals are present in the exoplanets atmosphere.

We have found thousands of exoplanets, but so far a true Earth twin remains elusive. There are many candidates for that title, but what makes Earth so special seems to be beyond what our instruments can currently detect. These latest findingsfrom Japanese researchers provide great groundwork for future telescopes like the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS)and the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST).

content-1480349075-k2-3d-fig1-m.jpgThis collage summarizes the research done by the Japanese team. NAOJ

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SpaceX Will Make History With Its Next Launch Tomorrow

Tomorrow, SpaceX will become the first private company tolaunch an orbital spacecraft twice. Only government agencies have done this before.

The company will be launching a Dragon spacecraft on a Falcon 9 to the International Space Station (ISS) from Launch Complex 39Aat Cape Canaveral in Florida. This mission which will be the 100th flight from 39A will also see the first stage booster of the rocketattempt to land on a landing pad at Cape Canaveral.

This will be the 11th cargo mission under contract with NASA, called CRS-11 (Commercial Resupply Services). This spacecraft was launched for the first time in September 2014, on CRS-4.

And thats a big deal. One of SpaceXs goals is to bring down the cost of space travel by reusing components. Theyve already launched and landed multiple rockets, with one of these flying to space twice. Reusing the Dragon vehicle is the next milestone.

The launch was originally scheduled to take place yesterday, but storms hampered that effort. The company is now planning to launch tomorrow, Saturday, June 3, at 5.07pm EDT (10.07pm BST).

The list of vehicles that have gone to space, returned, and then flown again is small. Scaled Composites did it with their suborbital space plane SpaceShipOne in 2004, and Blue Origins New Shepardperformed a similar suborbital feat in 2015 and 2016.

As for orbital vehicles, NASAs Space Shuttle is no doubt the most famous reusable orbiter, flying from 1981 to 2015. The Soviet Unions Buran space shuttle completed one unmanned spaceflight in 1988. And more recently, the mysterious X-37B mini-shuttle returned from space after its fourth mission.

So reusing Dragon will be a big deal for SpaceX. The exact cost of refurbishing the spacecraft to fly again isnt clear, but one would expect it was significantly cheaper than the cost of building a new spacecraft.

Dragon will be carrying vital supplies to the ISS, as well as a number of interesting experiments. One of these is NASAs Neutron Star Interior Composition Explorer (NICER), which will be attached to the outside of the station in an attempt to study rapidly spinning neutron stars.

It will also be carrying experiments to monitor seedling growth in microgravity, study gaseous flames on the station, and see how particles called colloids move in gels and creams.

Dragon will stay aboard the station for one month, returning in early July with a splashdown in the Pacific Ocean near Baja California. We dont yet know if itll fly again, but if all goes to plan,we’ll surely be seeing more Dragon vehicles make multiple trips to space.

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Some Quasars Are So Powerful They Turn Their Galaxies Into Doughnut Shapes

A study of 29 bright quasars has turned up something unexpected. Four of these quasars are located inside dusty galaxies that are still rapidly forming stars, but the quasars are so powerful, they may be punching holes in the galaxy, allowing us to see them. The discovery could help explain giant galaxies where little stellar formation has occurred for billions of years.

Peering back towards the dawn of time, astronomers see giant galaxies that are so busy making new stars, they are called dusty starburst galaxies, with the dust a byproduct of star formation and explosion. Yet when we look closer to home, many equally large galaxies havebecome burnt out, barely able to produce new stars. This createsa puzzle as to the reason for the transformation.

Astronomers have detected some distant starburst galaxies that, considering their enormous distances, are bright at wavelengths somewhat shorter than a millimeter. Surprisingly, many of these galaxies have been found to lie close to quasarssupermassive black holes accreting material so rapidly they emit vast amounts of energy. Indeed, about a third of quasars at distances greater than 12 billion light-years appear to be in close proximity to these submillimeter-bright galaxies (SMGs).

To investigate this relationship, the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array examined 29 quasars. In 16cases, the quasar and SMG are close but not co-located, possibly engaged in a gravitational dance. The authors of the paper in the Astrophysical Journal believe the quasars light will be useful to probe the circumgalactic medium around the SMGs.

Four of the cases are even more interesting, with the quasars apparently located inside the dusty starburst galaxies. This was unexpected since such thick dust ought to obscure the quasars. “So, the fact that we saw any such quasars implies that there must be more quasars hidden in dusty starbursts,” said Dr Hai Fu of the University of Iowa in a statement. “To push this to the extreme, maybe every dusty starburst galaxy hosts a quasar and we just cannot see the quasars.”

So why are these quasars visible? Fu and his co-authors propose that the quasars are emitting so much energy that they pushed out enough gas and dust to convert the galaxies into doughnut shapes. We can see these particular quasars because the galaxies happen to be aligned withtheir holes facing us. With so much raw material expelled from the galaxy, star formation stops, eventually leading to the galactic wastelands we see today.

The study also found two quasars that are close to, but not inside, galaxies with which they may be merging. These two quasars could prove extremely interesting targets for future study, potentially giving us unprecedented information about galactic evolution and the material that surrounds large galaxies.

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