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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

Antarctica
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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NOAA and Vulcan team up for ocean science

Deployment of Deep Argo float
Elizabeth Steffen, a scientist at NOAA’s Pacific Marine Environmental Lab and the University of Hawaii, deploys a Deep Argo float off Hawaii in 2018. The float was tested in preparation for its use in a data-tracking array in the western South Atlantic. NOAA and Vulcan Inc. have been collaborating in the project. (University of Hawaii Photo / Blake Watkins)

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says it has forged a new agreement with Vulcan Inc., the Seattle-based holding company created by the late Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, to share data on ocean science and exploration.

The memorandum of understanding builds on an existing relationship between NOAA and Vulcan.

“The future of ocean science and exploration is partnerships,” retired Navy Rear Admiral Tim Gallaudet, assistant secretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere and deputy NOAA administrator, said today in a news release. “NOAA is forging new collaborations, such as the one with Vulcan, to accelerate our mission to map, explore and characterize the ocean, which will help NOAA support the conservation, management and balanced use of America’s ocean and understand its key role in regulating our weather and climate.”

Vulcan CEO Bill Hilf said the agreement furthers his company’s mission, which includes developing new technologies for conservation and addressing environmental challenges relating to the world’s oceans. Vulcan’s projects include the Allen Coral Atlas, which uses satellite imagery and other data sets to monitor the health of coral reefs; and Skylight, which provides real-time intelligence about suspicious maritime activity.

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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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Elephant-watching EarthRanger team widens focus

An elephant herd makes its way through the Serengeti in East Africa. (Vulcan / EarthRanger Photo)

Years ago, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen backed a project called the Great Elephant Census that highlighted a crisis for Africa’s elephant population, brought about primarily by illegal poaching.

Allen passed away last year at the age of 65, but the software-based successor to that project, known as EarthRanger, lives on. What’s more, EarthRanger has adapted to dramatic changes — not only in the challenges facing Africa’s endangered elephants, but also in the way old and new technologies are being used to address those challenges.

“I think the most important thing that’s happened … is the maturity of those of us who are technologists in this space, in what we’re now truly calling conservation technology,” said Ted Schmitt, principal business development manager for conservation technology at Vulcan Inc., Allen’s holding company.

Schmitt and his partners in the EarthRanger effort highlighted technology’s role in saving the elephants today during a news briefing at Vulcan’s Seattle headquarters. Along the way, they delivered a piece of good news from the Mara Elephant Project, which works with Kenyan authorities to protect elephants in the greater Mara ecosystem, part of East Africa’s Serengeti plains.

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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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AI researchers want to make it easier to be green

High-performance computing
High-performance computing is becoming the lifeblood of artificial intelligence research. (Intel Photo)

The development of ever more powerful models for artificial intelligence is revolutionizing the world, but it doesn’t come cheap. In a newly distributed position paper, researchers at Seattle’s Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence argue that more weight should be given to energy efficiency when evaluating research.

The AI2 researchers call on their colleagues to report the “price tag” associated with developing, training and running their models, alongside other metrics such as speed and accuracy. Research leaderboards, including AI2’s, regularly rate AI software in terms of accuracy over time, but they don’t address what it took to get those results.

Of course, cutting-edge research can be expensive in all sorts of fields, ranging from particle physics done at multibillion-dollar colliders to genetic analysis that requires hundreds of DNA sequencers. Financial cost or energy usage isn’t usually mentioned in the resulting studies. But AI2’s CEO, Oren Etzioni, says that times are changing – especially as the carbon footprint of energy-gobbling scientific experiments becomes more of a concern.

“It is an ongoing topic for many scientific communities, the issue of reporting costs,” Etzioni, one of the position paper’s authors, told GeekWire. “I think what makes a difference here is the stunning escalation that we’ve seen” in the resources devoted to AI model development.

One study from OpenAI estimates that the computational resources required for top-level research in deep learning have increased 300,000 times between 2012 and 2018, due to the rapid development of more and more complex models. “This is much faster than Moore’s Law, doubling every three or four months,” Etzioni said.

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Robert Downey Jr. unveils plan to save the planet

Robert Downey Jr.
Robert Downey Jr., at right, is dwarfed by the pictures of his Iron Man character, Tony Stark, projected on a giant video screen at Amazon’s re:MARS conference. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

LAS VEGAS — Robert Downey Jr. has been saving the planet in Marvel movies for 11 years as a cinematic Iron Man. Now he wants to spend the next 11 years helping to save the planet for real.

At tonight’s opening session of Amazon’s re:MARS conference — focusing on the frontiers of Machine learning, Automation, Robotics and Space — Downey announced that he’s setting up a campaign called the Footprint Coalition to develop new technologies for environmental cleanup.

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Bill Gates touts European clean-energy fund

Iceland geothermal energy
One of the companies in Breakthrough Energy Ventures’ portfolio is Sweden’s Baseload Capital, which invests in geothermal facilities including Varmaorka in Iceland. (Photo Courtesy of Baseload Capital)

Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates is celebrating the official launch of Breakthrough Energy Ventures Europe, an investment fund that aims to boost clean-energy innovation in Europe to the tune of 100 million euros. That translates to $112 million at the current rate of exchange.

Half of the money is coming from the European Commission’s Horizon 2020 program, via a financing channel known as InnovFin. The other half is coming from Breakthrough Energy Ventures, the $1 billion fund backed by Gates and other heavyweight investors including Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, Softbank Group CEO Masayoshi Son, Virgin Group founder Richard Branson and Alibaba Group executive chairman Jack Ma.

Breakthrough Energy Ventures was created in 2016 to invest in zero-carbon energy technologies, and it’s laid down bets on 15 ventures since then. But most of those ventures are based in the U.S. and Canada. Breakthrough Energy Ventures Europe, or BEV-E, will make sure Europe is well-represented on the clean-energy frontier.

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