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Arctic Laughing Gas Emissions Could Accelerate Global Warming

Climate
Arctic Laughing Gas Emissions Could Accelerate Global Warming
NASA scientists flew over the Kuskokwim river in southwest Alaska in 2017 to investigate how water levels in the Arctic landscape change as permafrost thaws. Peter Griffith, NASA

By Tim Radford

Scientists have identified yet another hazard linked to the thawing permafrost: laughing gas. A series of flights over the North Slope of Alaska has detected unexpected levels of emissions of the greenhouse gas nitrous oxide from the rapidly warming soils.


Nitrous oxide, which chemists know also as laughing gas, is an estimated 300 times more potent as a climate warming agent than the principal greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide. It was present in data recordings at levels at least 12 times higher than all previous estimates.

And it is long-lived: it survives in the atmosphere for around 120 years, according to a separate new study of the microbiology of nitrous oxide. And if it gets even higher, into the stratosphere, it can be converted by the action of oxygen and sunlight into another oxide of nitrogen, to quietly destroy the ozone layer.

Oxides of nitrogen are at least as damaging to stratospheric ozone — an invisible screen that absorbs potentially lethal ultraviolet radiation from the sun — as the man-made chlorofluorocarbons banned by an international protocol three decades ago.

Nitrogen is an inert gas which makes up almost four-fifths of the planet's atmosphere. It is vital to life: growing plants build their tissues by absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere with the aid of photosynthesis. But they must also absorb nitrogen from plant decay and animal waste, through their roots, with help from soil microbes.

The process is natural, but too slow to help deliver the cereals, tubers and pulses needed to feed seven billion humans and their livestock. For more than 100 years, nations have been making nitrogenous fertilizer in factories and applying it generously to soils to boost harvest yields.

As a consequence, nitrous oxide is now the third most significant greenhouse gas, and the news that it is rising from the permafrost could be troubling.

The permafrost is home to enormous stores of carbon: as soil microbes become warmer and more active, they start to break down long-frozen and partly-decomposed plant material to release both carbon dioxide and potent quantities of methane. The implication is that nitrous oxide could add to the mix, and accelerate warming still further.

Study's Revelation

"Much smaller increases in nitrous oxide would entail the same kind of climate change that a large plume of CO2 would cause," said Jordan Wilkerson, a Harvard graduate student who led the research, now published in the journal Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics.

"We don't know how much more it's going to increase and we didn't know it was significant at all until this study came out."

The research is based on data collected from a series of low-level flights over four different areas of the North Slope of Alaska, and the scientists used a routine technique to determine the balance of gases getting into the atmosphere from what had once been permafrost.

The point of the flights was to measure levels of carbon dioxide, methane and water vapor, but the raw data included information about nitrous oxide as well: information recovered and examined only years later.

Arctic in Change

The weight of the finding is uncertain. One-fourth of the northern hemisphere is home to permafrost — 23 million square kilometers (approximately 8.9 million square miles) — and the flights covered only 310 square kilometers (approximately 120 square miles) in all, and only in the month of August. What could be true for one part of the frozen landscape may not apply to all of it.

And thanks to global warming driven by fossil fuel emissions from the world's power stations, vehicle exhausts and factory chimneys, the Arctic is changing.

Shrubs and trees are beginning to invade the frozen north. Green things consume nitrogen, and the greening of the Arctic might actually decrease nitrous oxide emissions.

Once again, the study is a reminder of how much more work is needed to understand the chemistry, biology and geophysics of climate change.

Reposted with permission from our media associate Climate News Network.

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A net-casting ogre-faced spider. CBG Photography Group, Centre for Biodiversity Genomics / CC BY-SA 3.0

Just in time for Halloween, scientists at Cornell University have published some frightening research, especially if you're an insect!

The ghoulishly named ogre-faced spider can "hear" with its legs and use that ability to catch insects flying behind it, the study published in Current Biology Thursday concluded.

"Spiders are sensitive to airborne sound," Cornell professor emeritus Dr. Charles Walcott, who was not involved with the study, told the Cornell Chronicle. "That's the big message really."

The net-casting, ogre-faced spider (Deinopis spinosa) has a unique hunting strategy, as study coauthor Cornell University postdoctoral researcher Jay Stafstrom explained in a video.

They hunt only at night using a special kind of web: an A-shaped frame made from non-sticky silk that supports a fuzzy rectangle that they hold with their front forelegs and use to trap prey.

They do this in two ways. In a maneuver called a "forward strike," they pounce down on prey moving beneath them on the ground. This is enabled by their large eyes — the biggest of any spider. These eyes give them 2,000 times the night vision that we have, Science explained.

But the spiders can also perform a move called the "backward strike," Stafstrom explained, in which they reach their legs behind them and catch insects flying through the air.

"So here comes a flying bug and somehow the spider gets information on the sound direction and its distance. The spiders time the 200-millisecond leap if the fly is within its capture zone – much like an over-the-shoulder catch. The spider gets its prey. They're accurate," coauthor Ronald Hoy, the D & D Joslovitz Merksamer Professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior in the College of Arts and Sciences, told the Cornell Chronicle.

What the researchers wanted to understand was how the spiders could tell what was moving behind them when they have no ears.

It isn't a question of peripheral vision. In a 2016 study, the same team blindfolded the spiders and sent them out to hunt, Science explained. This prevented the spiders from making their forward strikes, but they were still able to catch prey using the backwards strike. The researchers thought the spiders were "hearing" their prey with the sensors on the tips of their legs. All spiders have these sensors, but scientists had previously thought they were only able to detect vibrations through surfaces, not sounds in the air.

To test how well the ogre-faced spiders could actually hear, the researchers conducted a two-part experiment.

First, they inserted electrodes into removed spider legs and into the brains of intact spiders. They put the spiders and the legs into a vibration-proof booth and played sounds from two meters (approximately 6.5 feet) away. The spiders and the legs responded to sounds from 100 hertz to 10,000 hertz.

Next, they played the five sounds that had triggered the biggest response to 25 spiders in the wild and 51 spiders in the lab. More than half the spiders did the "backward strike" move when they heard sounds that have a lower frequency similar to insect wing beats. When the higher frequency sounds were played, the spiders did not move. This suggests the higher frequencies may mimic the sounds of predators like birds.

University of Cincinnati spider behavioral ecologist George Uetz told Science that the results were a "surprise" that indicated science has much to learn about spiders as a whole. Because all spiders have these receptors on their legs, it is possible that all spiders can hear. This theory was first put forward by Walcott 60 years ago, but was dismissed at the time, according to the Cornell Chronicle. But studies of other spiders have turned up further evidence since. A 2016 study found that a kind of jumping spider can pick up sonic vibrations in the air.

"We don't know diddly about spiders," Uetz told Science. "They are much more complex than people ever thought they were."

Learning more provides scientists with an opportunity to study their sensory abilities in order to improve technology like bio-sensors, directional microphones and visual processing algorithms, Stafstrom told CNN.

Hoy agreed.

"The point is any understudied, underappreciated group has fascinating lives, even a yucky spider, and we can learn something from it," he told CNN.

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