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Blotting Out the Sun to Save the Earth? Seriously?

Science
Blotting Out the Sun to Save the Earth? Seriously?
Gorancakmazovic / Getty Images

By Jeff Turrentine

Science fiction doesn't always stay fictional. Space exploration, robots and self-driving cars are just a few of the modern-day wonders that once existed only as plot devices or fantastical theories. Our capacity for turning science-fictional notions into the stuff of everyday life has grown with each new generation of scientists and microchips, such that more and more ideas previously deemed too far "out there" are now actually here, or at least technologically plausible.


To this list we can now add geoengineering—whether we want to or not. As broadly defined by the science-fiction author and environmentalist Kim Stanley Robinson, geoengineering is the "deliberate planned attempt by human beings to mitigate the damages of climate change, of carbon dioxide and methane buildup in the atmosphere, and of ecological damage generally, by way of some action that is large-scale." In theory, geoengineering might look like any number of things: engaging in mass, worldwide reforestation; dumping iron dust into the oceans to encourage the growth of carbon-eating plankton; "brightening" clouds to make them more reflective; dotting the planet with millions of industrial-strength carbon scrubbers.

Geoengineering ideas are as numerous and varied as the scientific imaginations that spawn them. What usually ties them together is the goal of dramatically reducing global temperatures and/or carbon emissions over a short period of time. Scale and speed are what separate most geoengineering schemes from other, less risky, more tried-and-true attempts at climate mitigation, such as building seawalls or boosting energy efficiency. But increasingly, many who once disparaged geoengineering are now citing its scale and speed as the two main reasons why it may be our best hope for fighting climate change—the biggest and most immediate threat to life on earth as we currently know it.

The latest geoengineering conversation has been sparked in part by a study published last week in the journal Nature that acknowledges the potential benefits of solar radiation management (SRM)—as well as the very real risks that would come along with it. One much-discussed iteration of SRM would involve saturating Earth's atmosphere with sulfur-laden aerosols to reflect solar light back into space, cooling the planet in the process. Support for the theory began to swell among geoengineering proponents after the discovery that global temperatures fell by as much as 0.6 degrees Celsius following giant volcanic eruptions in Mexico and the Philippines that spewed millions of tons of sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere.

The summit of the Mount Pinatubo volcano in the Philippines, 15 days after its eruption in 1991. Global temperatures fell slightly after the volcano's eruption sent vast quantities of sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere.United States Geological Survey

If we could mimic the effects of these volcanoes (so the theory goes) by strategically injecting sulfate aerosols into the atmosphere, the researchers propose that we might be able to effectively "shade" the entire planet and save vulnerable crops from frying under the sun. The problem with that scenario, though? While crops might not wither and die from heat, the ever-cloudy conditions under sulfur-laden skies would also severely stunt the crops' growth, causing them to yield far less food. Whatever gains realized from the lower temperatures, in other words, would be more than offset by losses resulting from the dearth of direct sunlight.

Though they do not state it explicitly in the "Conclusions" section of their study, the researchers confirm a hypothesis that nearly everyone who has looked at geoengineering already accepts: There are no risk-free scenarios. At its core, geoengineering is really just a globally scaled hack, a work-around born of exigency as much as industriousness. And like any hack, it's less than ideal.

Every geoengineering proposal that's been put forth so far, in fact, has come with its own bold-print caveat that we ignore at our peril. Adding iron ore to the oceans, for instance, carries the risk of over-oxygenating water and destroying bacteria crucial to the marine food chain, or of generating dangerous amounts of nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas. As for cloud brightening, even those who support more research into this approach admit that it could alter precipitation patterns in unexpected and quite possibly harmful ways.

But what's telling is the evolution of the scientific community's response to geoengineering over the past few decades—from outright alarm to qualified alarm to extreme hesitation. This response tracks our understanding of just how much trouble our carbon pollution has gotten us into. Ask any climate scientist, and she'll tell you that the only surefire way to save ourselves is to immediately cut carbon emissions and transition to a clean-energy economy. But she may also be more willing today than she was five or ten years ago to entertain the idea of further research into solar radiation management, cloud brightening, and the like.

Geoengineering is extraordinarily risky. In a perfect world—or even in an imperfect but climatologically hospitable one—we would never even consider it, for fear that our actions could usher in the dystopia we've seen in countless science-fiction movies. But we need to be honest about where we are in the story of humanity and climate change. It's the third act. And while we'd have to be desperate to try to geoengineer our way to a happy ending, there's just not that much time left to argue over the definition of the word desperate.

Reposted with permission from our media associate onEarth.

Eating too much black licorice can be toxic. Nat Aggiato / Pixabay

By Bill Sullivan

Black licorice may look and taste like an innocent treat, but this candy has a dark side. On Sept. 23, 2020, it was reported that black licorice was the culprit in the death of a 54-year-old man in Massachusetts. How could this be? Overdosing on licorice sounds more like a twisted tale than a plausible fact.

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Sustainable t-shirts by Allbirds are made from a new, low-carbon material that uses a mineral extract from discarded snow crab shells. Jerry Buttles / Allbirds

In the age of consumption, sustainability innovations can help shift cultural habits and protect dwindling natural resources. Improvements in source materials, product durability and end-of-life disposal procedures can create consumer products that are better for the Earth throughout their lifecycles. Three recent advancements hope to make a difference.

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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.

Financial institutions in New York state will now have to consider the climate-related risks of their planning strategies. Ramy Majouji / WikiMedia Commons

By Brett Wilkins

Regulators in New York state announced Thursday that banks and other financial services companies are expected to plan and prepare for risks posed by the climate crisis.

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