Map shows where climate will move species

Image: Migrations in Motion
A visualization shows the likely routes that would be taken by mammals (pink), birds (blue) and amphibians (yellow) as they move northward in response to climate change. (Credit: Mapbox / OpenStreetMap / Migrations in Motion / Nature Conservancy)

A University of Washington professor’s research into climate-caused migrations has been transformed into a hypnotic map of the Americas that gets the message across.

The animated map, titled “Migrations in Motion,” shows the trajectories that species are expected to take in response to the warming trend that’s likely to unfold over the course of the coming decades.

“One of the nice things about the map is that it gives you a look at the main effects of climate change for animals: that species are going to move around,” UW ecologist Joshua Lawler told GeekWire.

Three years ago, Lawler and his colleagues published a study in Ecology Letters that laid out the likely impact of rising temperatures on migration patterns for nearly 3,000 species.

The study suggested that species in North America would tend to shift toward more northerly habitats, following routes that went through higher elevations and less developed terrain. In the eastern United States, the Appalachian Mountains stuck out as a superhighway for species shifts.

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Climate models suggest Venus was habitable

Image: Watery Venus
A land-ocean pattern like the one shown in this artist’s conception was used in a climate model to show how storm clouds could have shielded ancient Venus from strong sunlight. (Credit: NASA)

Today Venus is a hellish planet with a crushingly dense atmosphere of carbon dioxide, but billions of years ago, it could have had habitable surface temperatures and a watery ocean.

That’s the conclusion drawn from a fresh round of climate modeling conducted by scientists at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York. The analysis was published this week in Geophysical Research Letters.

The computer modeling wound the clock back on Venus’ climate, using calculations similar to those employed to wind the clock forward for our own planet’s climate.

“Many of the same tools we use to model climate change on Earth can be adapted to study climates on other planets, both past and present,” lead study author Michael Way, a researcher at the Goddard Institute, said in a NASA news release. “These results show ancient Venus may have been a very different place than it is today.”

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Early Earth’s atmosphere was way lighter

Image: Australian rock
The layers on this 2.7 billion-year-old rock, a stromatolite from Western Australia, show evidence of single-celled, photosynthetic life on the shore of a large lake. The new result suggests that this microbial life thrived despite a thin atmosphere. (Credit: Roger Buick / UW)

Tiny bubbles that were trapped inside 2.7 billion-year-old rocks have led scientists to conclude that Earth’s atmosphere was less than half as dense as it is today – which runs counter to conventional wisdom.

Scientists had assumed that our planet’s atmosphere was thicker billions of years ago, in order to retain heat and keep the planet warm enough for life during an era when the sun shone less brightly than it does today.

“Our result is the opposite of what we were expecting,” Sanjoy Som, an astrobiologist at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California, said in a news releasefrom the University of Washington.

Som is the principal author of a study reporting the findings, published today by Nature Geoscience. He conducted the research during his doctoral studies at the UW, and retains a Seattle connection as the CEO of a nonprofit space science outreach group called Blue Marble Space.

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Supernovae spread radioactive fallout on Earth

Image: Supernova
An artist’s impression shows a supernova explosion in its prime. (Credit: Greg Stewart / SLAC)

Researchers say they’ve found evidence of supernova explosions that spewed radioactive fallout over Earth during the age when humanity’s ancestors were evolving into upright-walking, big-brained creatures.

One of two studies published in the journal Nature identifies deposits of radioactive iron-60 in deep-sea cores extracted from the bottom of the Indian, Pacific and Atlantic oceans. The deposits were traced back to one time frame ranging from 1.5 million to 3.2 million years ago, and another period 6.5 million to 8.7 million years ago.

The researchers behind that study, led by Anton Wallner of Australian National University, say the iron-60 was blasted toward us by “multiple supernova and massive-star events” that occurred within 325 light-years of Earth.

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Pacific pattern provides early heat wave warning

Image: Heat map
A color-coded map shows how hot temperatures got on June 29, 2012, with the reddest region indicating temperatures above 100 degrees Fahrenheit. A model based on Pacific sea surface temperatures could predict such a heat wave up to seven weeks in advance. (Credit: NWS Weather Prediction Center)

Meteorologists say they’ve found a pattern in Pacific Ocean sea surface temperatures that could help authorities prepare for heat waves in the eastern United States up to 50 days in advance.

Now that the pattern has been found, forecasters will start keeping track of the heat wave indicators in May. But don’t expect the 50-day forecast to show up in the nightly weather report.

“Most seasonal predictions, including this one, are probabilistic rather than deterministic,” lead author Karen McKinnon, a climate scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Colorado, explained in an email. “For example, we can predict an increase in the odds in favor of having a hot day in the Eastern U.S. from about 1 in 6, to 1 in 2, at lead times of 40 days if the Pacific Extreme Pattern is particularly strong.”

She said the indicators are most likely to come into play during preparations for the peak of the summer.

“For example, city leaders could ensure they have sufficient cooling rooms for the elderly or those without air conditioning; farmers could alter their management tactics to prevent crop loss; businesses could be prepared for increased demand of air conditioners and fans; and utilities could ensure they have sufficient power options available to bring online quickly in case of a spike in demand,” she said.

The research was published today by Nature Geoscience. One of the authors, Andy Rhines, is a climate scientist at the University of Washington.

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Starfish die-off traced to virus plus warmer seas

Image: Sick Starfish
Sea star wasting disease can cause starfish to turn white, lose their limbs and disintegrate in a matter of days. (Credit: Kevin Lafferty / USGS)

The mass die-off of starfish off the West Coast is becoming a little less mysterious: Scientists say the starfish, also known as sea stars, fell prey to a one-two punch of virus infection plus unusually warm sea water.

The die-off started in 2013, reached a peak in 2014 and continued last year. Infected sea stars developed lesions that gradually dissolved the creatures from the outside, causing the arms to break away and leaving only whitened piles of starfish goop.

The outbreak has virtually wiped out ochre stars in the coastal waters of Puget Sound, the San Juan Islands and the Olympic Peninsula. More than 20 other species have suffered from Mexico all the way north to Alaska.

In a study published Feb. 15 by the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, scientists concentrated on what happened to the ochre stars. They already knew that the sea star wasting disease was linked to a densovirus – a pathogen that the scientists say apparently caused more limited outbreaks of the disease decades earlier. But what made the virus more virulent this time?

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Elon Musk explains why he favors a carbon tax

Image: Elon Musk
Elon Musk, the billionaire CEO of SpaceX and Tesla Motors, takes questions at the American Geophysical Union’s fall meeting in San Francisco. (Credit: AGU)

Policymakers have been debating – and dismissing – the idea of putting a tax on carbon emissions for more than a decade, but the way billionaire innovator Elon Musk sees it, the concept is a no-brainer.

The 44-year-old CEO of the SpaceX rocket venture and the Tesla electric car company laid out his rationale today in San Francisco during a webcast chat at theAmerican Geophysical Union’s fall meeting. He said not paying a carbon tax is like not paying for garbage collection.

Say what?

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Rain-measuring mission gets a good, soggy start

Image: DC-8
Members of a NASA Social group at Joint Base Lewis-McChord get ready to tour a DC-8 plane that NASA is using to document rainfall on the Olympic Peninsula. (GeekWire photo: Alan Boyle)

JOINT BASE LEWIS-McCHORD, Wash. — The weather forecast for the Olympic Peninsula is dark and rainy, and that’s putting the scientists behind NASA’s OLYMPEX campaign in a sunny mood.

“The really exciting thing that everyone’s talking about is, there’s this huge rain event that’s coming in,” says Rachael Kroodsma, an atmospheric scientist from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, helping to get a specially outfitted DC-8 plane ready to fly into the storm this week. “There’s a lot of buzz about that. … It’s a good start to the campaign.”

Usually, bad weather is bad news.

Not for OLYMPEX, the Olympic Mountain Experiment.

Under the leadership of NASA and the University of Washington, the months-long effort is using aerial observations as well as a bevy of radars and rain gauges to validate orbital data from the Global Precipitation Measurement satellite, also known as GPM. The $3 million campaign is the latest of several field studies aimed at making sure the satellite readings reflect ground truth.

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Scientists raise alarm over Persian Gulf climate

Image: Hajj
Hundreds of thousands of Muslim pilgrims pray outside the Namira Mosque near Mecca on Sept. 23 during this year’s hajj pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia. (AP file photo by Mosa’ab Elshamy)

Climate researchers say that summertime conditions in some parts of the Persian Gulf region could become intolerable by the end of the century – and that the annual hajj pilgrimage, a core observance for Muslims, is ”likely to become hazardous to human health.”

“The main day of the pilgrimage involves worshiping at a site outside Mecca from sunrise to sunset in an outdoor setting. … That’s the kind of ritual that could be quite limited,” said Elfatih Eltahir, a climatologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who is one of the authors of a report published today by Nature Climate Change.

Eltahir and his co-author, Jeremy Pal of Loyola Marymount University, base their projections on an analysis of the potential regional effects from global climate change under two of the scenarios laid out by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. One scenario assumes “business as usual” and a steady rise in greenhouse gas emissions. The other, known as the RCP4.5 scenario, assumes the rise in emissions can be stabilized.

The analysis suggests that if current trends continue, summertime heat and humidity would occasionally rise beyond the limit of human endurance in Abu Dhabi and Dubai; in Qatar’s capital, Doha; in the Saudi city of Dhahran and the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas. Temperatures in Mecca wouldn’t hit the threshold by the end of the century, but they’d come close.

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Cosmic Environment Cosmic Tech

Carbon X Prize could turn CO2 into $20 million

Image: Power plant
The Four Corners power plant in New Mexico is a major source of greenhouse gas emissions, based on measurements made by researchers at Los Alamos National Laboratory (Credit: LANL)

Can you turn carbon dioxide emissions into gold? How about biofuel? The Carbon X Prize competition is offering $20 million for the best strategies to make use of CO2.

Past X Prizes have rewarded high-tech achievements in private-sector spaceflight and super-efficient automobiles. There are also X Prizes for moon missions“Star Trek” tricorders and educational software. The competition announced Tuesday is aimed at identifying technologies that convert industrial carbon dioxide emissions into high-value products – for example, clothing or shoes, building materials or industrial chemicals.

Carbon dioxide emissions are considered one of the factors behind global climate change, and the Obama administration is seeking steep cuts in such emissions from power plants. The Carbon X Prize could highlight high-tech solutions to the environmental problem.

“In order to demonstrate the widest possible applicability of potential solutions, the competition will have two tracks: one focused on testing technologies at a coal power plant, and one focused on testing technologies at a natural gas power plant,” Paul Bunje, principal and senior scientist for energy and environment at XPrize, said in Tuesday’s announcement.

Would-be competitors have until next June to sign up. Their proposals will be assessed by a judging panel, and the top 15 teams in each track will move on to demonstrate their technologies in controlled experiments.

In each track, the five top-rated finalists will share a $2.5 million milestone purse, based on the results of the experiments. Then they’ll try out their technologies using actual emissions from power plants. In March 2020, the highest-rated team in each track will be awarded a grand prize of $7.5 million. Check out the Carbon XPrize website for the details.

The competition is sponsored by NRG Energy and Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance, or COSIA. It follows up on a similar multimillion-dollar carbon conversion contest in Canada known as the CCEMC Grand Challenge.