UW to host institute on climate and oceans

Beluga whales
The beluga whales that make their home in Alaska’s Cook Inlet have been the subject of studies by researchers at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the University of Washington’s Joint Institute for the Study of the Atmosphere and Ocean. (JISAO Photo / Manuel Castellote)

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has selected the University of Washington to host a Pacific Northwest research institute focusing on climate, ocean and coastal challenges, supported by a five-year award worth up to $300 million.

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ICESat-2 satellite tracks how polar ice is lost

This color-coded map shows the amount of ice gained or lost by Antarctica between 2003 and 2019. Dark reds and purples show large average rates of ice loss near the Antarctic coast, while blues show smaller rates of ice gain in the interior. (Smith et al. / Science / AAAS via UW)

A satellite mission that bounces laser light off the ice sheets of Antarctica and Greenland has found that hundreds of billions of tons’ worth of ice are being lost every year due to Earth’s changing climate.

Scientists involved in NASA’s ICESat-2 project report in the journal Science that the net loss of ice from those regions has been responsible for 0.55 inches of sea level rise since 2003. That’s slightly less than a third of the total amount of sea level rise observed in the world’s oceans over that time.

To track how the ice sheets are changing, the ICESat-2 team compared the satellite’s laser scans with similar measurements that were taken by the original ICESat spacecraft from 2003 to 2009. (ICESat stands for “Ice, Cloud and Elevation Satellite.”)

“If you watch a glacier or ice sheet for a month, or a year, you’re not going to learn much about what the climate is doing to it,” Ben Smith, a glaciologist at the University of Washington and lead author of the Science paper, said in a NASA news release. “We now have a 16-year span between ICESat and ICESat-2 and can be much more confident that the changes we’re seeing in the ice have to do with the long-term changes in the climate.”

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Have we been living in a megadrought?

Catalina Mountains
In the Catalina Mountains in southern Arizona, forests struggle to keep up with recent increases in drought and wildfire activity, which are expected to continue due to human-caused climate change. (Park Williams / Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory)

A comparison of weather records since 2000 with similar time frames in past centuries has led researchers to conclude that we’re in the midst of a megadrought of historic proportions.

The assessment draws upon tree-ring data from nine Western states, stretching from Oregon and Idaho down through California and New Mexico, plus part of northern Mexico. The patterns in the tree rings served to track annual soil moisture going back to the ninth century.

Researchers saw evidence for dozens of droughts across the region over the centuries, but four periods of extreme aridity stood out, in the late 800s, the mid-1100s, the 1200s and the late 1500s. The fourth megadrought, which lasted from 1575 to 1603, was the worst of the bunch.

Since then, there have been no droughts on that scale. Until now.

In this week’s issue of the journal Science, the research team reports that the 19-year period beginning in the year 2000 has been almost as dry as the worst 19-year period of the 1575-1603 megadrought, based on soil moisture readings.

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Jeff Bezos launches $10 billion Bezos Earth Fund

Jeff Bezos
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos speaks at the Amazon Spheres in 2018. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos says he’s launching a $10 billion Bezos Earth Fund that will issue grants aimed at addressing climate change — a move that comes less than a month after hundreds of Amazon employees criticized what they saw as the company’s weak commitment to tackling the issue.

Bezos, who’s the world’s richest individual with a net worth estimated at nearly $130 billion, unveiled his philanthropic initiative in an Instagram post.

“Climate change is the biggest threat to our planet,” he wrote. “I want to work alongside others both to amplify known ways and to explore new ways of fighting the devastating impact of climate change on this planet we all share.”

He said the first grants to scientists, activists and non-governmental organizations would be issued this summer.

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How Jay Inslee moved the ball on the climate issue

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee talks with Marsha Maus, a resident of Agoura Hills, Calif., during a visit to the site of the Woolsey Fire, which Inslee said “was made worse by climate change.” (Jay Inslee Photo via Twitter)

Jay Inslee may be out of the presidential race, but he’s not out of the minds of climate policy campaigners.

The two-term Washington state governor won high praise from his Democratic rivals as well as experts on global climate change after he acknowledged on Aug. 21 that he would not be “carrying the ball” in the presidential campaign, largely due to his failure to attract sufficient support in political polls.

One of Inslee’s problems on the campaign trail was that he didn’t have a “unique selling proposition” for his climate policy initiatives, said Aseem Prakash, founding director of the University of Washington’s Center for Environmental Politics.

He said Inslee’s clarion call on climate was “pioneering” – but easily co-opted by other candidates. “So, in some sense, Jay Inslee is a victim of his own success,” Prakash said.

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SpaceX launches Dragon to deliver climate probe

SpaceX Falcon 9 launch
SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket rises from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. (NASA Photo)

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket sent a robotic Dragon cargo capsule on the first leg of its trip to the International Space Station, loaded up with more than two tons of supplies — including NASA’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory-3 and scores of other science experiments.

Liftoff from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida came exactly when it had to, at 2:48 a.m. ET May 4 (11:48 p.m. PT May 3).

The previous night’s launch attempt had to be called off due to power problems on SpaceX’s drone landing ship in the Atlantic Ocean. No such problems cropped up tonight, and the first-stage booster made a pinpoint landing at sea.

SpaceX’s cargo-carrying Dragon, meanwhile, was successfully delivered to orbit by the Falcon 9’s second stage.

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Earthrise Alliance uses space data for climate action

Image: Lori Garver
During her stint as NASA’s deputy administrator, Lori Garver visited Seattle’s Museum of Flight in 2011 for a NASA Future Forum. (Credit: Ted Huetter / Museum of Flight)

Former NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver helped lead the charge for commercial space ventures, and now she’s leading a brand-new space campaign to address the climate change challenge.

Garver is the CEO of Earthrise Alliance, a philanthropic initiative that will leverage space connections and satellite data get policymakers, educators and the public fired up about climate action.

She noted the connection between observing Earth from space and taking action on the environment goes back 50 years or so, to Apollo 8’s famous Earthrise photo in 1968 and the first Earth Day in 1970.

“Investment in space activities have driven scientific and technological advances that have transformed our understanding of Earth’s changing climate,” Garver said in a news release. “Earthrise Alliance was created to translate this knowledge into meaningful action and to inform critical decision making that supports and sustains humanity on planet Earth.”

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Bill Gates endorses bill to boost nuclear power

TerraPower test
A technician places a full-size test fuel pin bundle in TerraPower’s pin duct interaction test apparatus. TerraPower, founded by Bill Gates, is working on traveling-wave reactor technology. (TerraPower Photo)

If dollars were votes, newly reintroduced legislation aimed at boosting nuclear energy innovation and advanced reactors would be a winner, thanks to Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates’ strong endorsement today.

The world’s second-richest person is the founder and chairman of Bellevue, Wash.-based TerraPower, a startup that’s working on next-generation nuclear fission reactors. Back in December, Gates listed nuclear energy research as one of his top policy priorities, and he reportedly followed up by promising lawmakers he’d invest $1 billion of his own money and line up another $1 billion in private capital if federal funds were approved for a TerraPower pilot project in the United States.

TerraPower had planned a pilot in China, but trade tensions upset the plan.

During the waning days of the previous congressional session, a bipartisan group in the Senate introduced a measure called the Nuclear Energy Leadership Act, which would promote next-generation nuclear power by boosting research and setting up long-term agreements for federal power purchases from newly licensed reactors.

The bill would require the Department of Energy to demonstrate two advanced reactor concepts by 2025, followed by another two to five concepts by 2035.

That would brighten the outlook for TerraPower as well as other next-gen nuclear power companies such as Oregon-based NuScale Power, which is planning to build a small-scale modular reactor at the Idaho National Laboratory by 2026.

There wasn’t enough time to move the bill out of committee last year — but on Wednesday, the legislation was reintroduced by 15 senators, including Republicans such as Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski and South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham as well as Democrats such as New Jersey’s Cory Booker and West Virginia’s Joe Manchin.

That came as music to Gates’ ears, and today he let the world know on Twitter.

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Disease and warming seas are wiping out sea stars

Dying sea star
A dying sunflower sea star sits on the seafloor. (Ed Gullekson Photo via Science)

Warming oceans and an infectious wasting disease have combined to devastate what was once an abundant type of sea stars along the West Coast, scientists say in a newly published study.

The study, published today by the open-access journal Science Advances, provides fresh evidence for the climate-related decline of multiple species of sea stars, a class of marine invertebrates popularly known as starfish.

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Research robots survive a year under Antarctic ice

Seaglider deployment
Researchers deploy a Seaglider underwater drone from the South Korean icebreaker Araon in January 2018. (Paul G. Allen Philanthropies / UW APL / Columbia LDEO)

It’s been a year since a squadron of underwater robots was sent out to monitor the underside of Antarctica’s Dotson Ice Shelf, and researchers report that the whole squad has survived the harsh southern winter.

Except for one unfortunate battery-powered drone, that is.

“The one that hasn’t come back, it could be any number of things,” said Jason Gobat, a senior principal oceanographer at the University of Washington’s Applied Physics Laboratory. Maybe something broke, or maybe it got stuck in the silt at the bottom of the sea.

The good news is that two other Seaglider drones are continuing to transmit data via satellite. Four free-floating EM-APEX probes have been heard from as well.

Craig Lee, another senior principal oceanographer at the UW lab, said getting useful scientific data from the robo-squadron amounts to mission success for the research project known as Ocean Robots Beneath Ice Shelves, or ORBIS.

The experiment, supported with nearly $2 million in funding from Seattle’s Paul G. Allen Philanthropies, has shown that the robots can use acoustic signals to navigate their way under the ice shelf, monitor the water that flows into and out of the ice shelf’s subsurface cavity, and keep operating for a whole year.

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