State of the planet: 7 eye-opening facts for Earth Day

Earth recently hit several remarkable records — but not in a good way.

The amount of carbon dioxide gas, a global warming pollutant, has risen to the highest level in at least 800,000 years. Monthly average Arctic sea ice extent in March was the lowest in the satellite record. So far, 2015 has seen the warmest start of the year in at least 136 years.

See also: 6 Major Climate Change Myths, Debunked

For the 45th annual Earth Day on Wednesday, we compiled seven facts about the current state of our planet — indicators of the Earth under stress, largely due to humanity’s own footprint.

In the video above and list below, learn how manmade climate change has drastically altered our world.

1. Atmospheric CO2 concentrations are at a record high: greater than 400 ppm.

Smoke rises from a brick kiln on the outskirts of Gauhati, India, on Jan. 26, 2015. Heavy reliance on fossil fuels has transformed New Delhi into the planet’s most polluted capital and made India the third-biggest national emitter of greenhouse gases.

Carbon dioxide levels in the Earth’s atmosphere exceeded 402 parts per million in April 2014 — the highest it has been in at least the past 800,000 years. The buildup is a result of the burning of fossil fuels, and is resulting in global warming. Because a single molecule of CO2 can stay in the atmosphere for hundreds of years, today’s emissions will affect many future generations.

Sources: NOAA; Mashable; 350.org

2. We dump 19.4 billion pounds of plastic into the ocean every year.

A comprehensive February 2015 study found that 8.8 million metric tons of plastic waste are dumped into the ocean annually. As the world’s population density increases, scientists say marine debris levels could reach up to 155 million metric tons (341.7 billion pounds) by 2025.

Sources: Science; Mashable

3. An estimated 18 million acres of forest are lost each year.

This Sept. 15, 2009 file photo shows a deforested area near Novo Progresso in Brazil’s northern state of Para. On Feb. 21, 2015, Brazil detained a land-grabber in Para, thought to be the Amazon’s single biggest deforester.

Although deforestation has shown signs of decreasing in some areas, logging and other forms of forest-clearing affected an estimated 13 million hectares of land every year between 2000 and 2010. Due to afforestation and natural expansion, the net forest loss was 5.2 million hectares per year. Forests are important sinks for carbon dioxide and hotspots of biodiversity.

Sources: FAO; Live Science

4. Earth is facing a 40% shortfall in water supply by 2030.

The 2015 United Nations World Water Development Report found that unless the international community “dramatically” improves water supply management, the planet may face a 40% shortfall within the next 15 years. This is due to increased demand — agriculture uses 70% of the world’s water withdrawal, and in order to feed the world’s rapidly growing population, we need to produce 60% more food from now until 2050.

Sources: UNESCO; FAO

5. Climate change-related extreme events, plus population growth, could increase hunger by up to 20% by 2050.

Due to extreme weather events such as floods and droughts, climate change adversely affects agricultural productivity, increasing the risk of hunger and malnutrition and breaking down food systems. The majority of hungry people live in areas of the world prone to climate-related disruptions. Making such populations more resilient to such impacts is a high priority for international development organizations.

Source: WFP

6. September Arctic sea ice extent is declining at a rate of 13.3% per decade.

Arctic sea ice coverage reaches its minimum in September every year. In September 2014, the arctic sea ice reached its sixth lowest minimum on record since 1978. The monthly average Arctic sea ice extent in March 2015 was the lowest in the satellite record.

Sources: NASA (2); NSIDC

7. Earth is off to its warmest start on record.

Data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Japan Meteorological Agency (JMA) show that Earth has had the warmest first quarter of the year on record.

Sources: NOAA; Mashable

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Automated undercounter garden promises zero-mile micro-greens and herbs : TreeHugger

© Urban Cultivator

Grow fresh greens & herbs year-round in your kitchen with the dishwasher-sized Urban Cultivator, a computer-controlled micro-garden.

In order to get the freshest greens and herbs possible, all year long, an indoor garden or an outdoor greenhouse is necessary in most regions. While building a climate-controlled greenhouse in your yard isn’t for everyone, setting up an indoor garden is one possible route to growing some zero-mile food at home.

It’s completely possible, and fairly easy, to build your own growing space indoors, either using a hydroponic system or a soil-based system, and there are plenty of DIY plans on the web to get you started. But if sourcing and putting together all of the components by yourself isn’t your cup of tea, or if you’re looking for something a bit more aesthetically pleasing, then this fully automated indoor growing system might be more appropriate, assuming it fits into your budget.

The Urban Cultivator units are fully-enclosed automated growing systems, available in either a home-sized version (about the same size as an undercounter dishwasher or fridge) or the commercial version (similar in size to an upright commercial freezer), which can be used to sprout and grow greens, herbs, or other vegetables with only minimal maintenance. The units are said to maintain optimal plant-growing conditions inside themselves by controlling the lighting, watering, and ventilation, allowing you to "grow what you want, when you want."

For the residential version, the Urban Cultivators can be used either as a standalone unit with a butcher block top, or as an undercounter unit that is easily hooked up to water and power in the same way that a dishwasher is, and customers have a choice of several kinds of glass door for the front, or for a completely hidden installation, with a cabinet door on the front that matches the rest of the kitchen.

© Urban CultivatorThe biggest drawback to the residential Urban Cultivator seems to be the price tag, which is about $2500, but for homes that have the latest and greatest appliances already, the price for this little grow cabinet isn’t really out of line, and a monthly lease option may take the sting out of the cost. Martha Stewart is a fan of the both the Commercial Urban Cultivator and the residential version, so it must be a kitchen must-have, right?

The commercial version, which is in use at a number of restaurants, is said to cost about $8800, but according to Co.Exist, the founder of the company, Tarren Wolfe, says that restaurants could save up to $1500 per month with the unit.

Find out more at Urban Cultivator.

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This Algae Farm Eats Pollution From the Highway Below It

A highway overpass is the last place most of us would think to install a farm. But algae, that wonderful little ecological miracle, is different. Since it consumes sunlight and CO2 and spits out oxygen, places with high emissions are actually the perfect growing area. Which is why this overpass in France has its own algae farm.

Built this summer as part of a festival in Genève, the farm is actually fairly simple: It thrives on the emissions of cars that pass below it, augmented by sunlight. A series of pumps and filters regulate the system, and over time, the algae matures into what can be turned into any number of usable products. According to the designers behind it, the Dutch and French design firm Cloud Collective, those uses can range from combustable biomass to material for use in cosmetics and other consumer-facing products.

Of course, this is just a proof of concept—an installation to explain how easy it would be to do this on a larger scale. But that’s just as important, at this point. Injecting an emerging system like algae into the public consciousness, bit by bit, shows how realistic a larger scale version could really be. [Cloud Collective; DesignBoom]

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Seeing dinosaur feathers in a new light — ScienceDaily

October 30, 2014
Universität Bonn
Why were dinosaurs covered in a cloak of feathers long before the early bird species Archaeopteryx first attempted flight? Researchers postulate that these ancient reptiles had a highly developed ability to discern color. Their hypothesis: The evolution of feathers made dinosaurs more colorful, which in turn had a profoundly positive impact on communication, the selection of mates and on dinosaurs’ procreation.

Ring of Stellar Fire Surrounds 12-Billion-Year-Old Galaxy | IFLScience

October 30, 2014 | by Janet Fang

Photo credit: A new image taken in infrared light shows where the action is taking place in galaxy NGC 1291. The outer ring, colored red in this view, is filled with new stars that are igniting and heating up dust that glows with infrared light / NASA/JPL-Caltech

The galaxy NGC 1291 is about 12 billion years old—and that’s old. So what’s it doing with a ring of newborn stars around it? In this newly released image from NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope, trapped gas at the galaxy’s outskirts have triggered star birth.

Located 33 million light-years away in the Eridanus constellation, NGC 1291 is known as a barred galaxy because its central region is dominated by a long bar of stars—which appears as an "S” in the blue circle in the image above. (Our galaxy has a bar too, though not as prominent.) The stellar bar formed early in the galaxy’s history, and as it stirred material around, stars and gas were forced into large, non-circular orbits. This created areas where gas was compressed—called resonances—which trigger the formation of new stars.

"The rest of the galaxy is done maturing," Kartik Sheth of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory explains in a news release. "But the outer ring is just now starting to light up with stars."

In young, gas-rich galaxies, stellar bars drive gas toward the center, feeding star formation. But as the galaxies age, and the star-forming fuel runs out, the central regions become inactive, and star-formation shifts to the galaxy’s outskirts. There, spiral density waves and resonances produced by the central bar convert gas into stars.

In the image above, shorter-wavelength infrared light appears blue, longer-wavelength light is red. The stars in the galaxy’s center (blue) are older, since most of the central region’s gas was already used up by earlier generations of stars. The outer ring (red) is the resonance area where trapped gas has ignited a star-forming frenzy. The new stars are heating up dust that glows with infrared light.

To better understand how stellar bars influence galaxies, Sheth and colleagues are analyzing the structures of more than 3,000 galaxies in our local neighborhood as part of the Spitzer Survey of Stellar Structure in Galaxies, or S4G. "The bars are a natural product of cosmic evolution, and they are part of the galaxies’ endoskeleton,” he says. “Examining this endoskeleton for the fossilized clues to their past gives us a unique view of their evolution."

Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech

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Dwarf Galaxies Dim Hopes of Dark Matter | Quanta Magazine

For five years physicists have been tantalized by possible evidence of dark matter in the Milky Way’s center. But new results from small satellite galaxies have complicated the story.

NASA/JPL-Caltech

The center of the Milky Way, seen here in an image from the Spitzer Space Telescope, is the source of an intriguing gamma-ray signal that could be evidence of dark matter.

Once again, a shadow of a signal that scientists hoped would amplify into conclusive evidence of dark matter has instead flatlined, repeating a maddening refrain in the search for the invisible, omnipresent particles.

The Fermi Large Area Telescope (LAT) failed to detect the glow of gamma rays emitted by annihilating dark matter in miniature “dwarf” galaxies that orbit the Milky Way, scientists reported Friday at a meeting in Nagoya, Japan. The hint of such a glow showed up in a Fermi analysis last year, but the statistical bump disappeared as more data accumulated.

“We were obviously somewhat disappointed not to see a signal,” said Matthew Wood, a postdoctoral researcher at Stanford University who was centrally involved the Fermi-LAT collaboration’s new analysis, in an email.

Scientists homed in on the dwarf galaxies after Dan Hooper, a theoretical astrophysicist at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, Ill., and Lisa Goodenough, his graduate student at the time, detected an unexplained gamma-ray signal coming from the center of the Milky Way in 2009. Hooper and several collaborators proposed that the gamma rays might be due to dark matter in the form of WIMPs, or weakly interacting massive particles, which are the leading candidates for the invisible substance that comprises six-sevenths of the universe’s mass. When two WIMPs collide in the dense galactic center, they should annihilate, with gamma rays as the fallout. Over the past five years the intriguing gamma-ray signal has seemed more and more likely to be the detritus of annihilating WIMPs.

However, scientists knew that the same glow could also originate from an unknown population of millisecond pulsars in the galactic center — bright, rapidly spinning stars that spew gamma rays into space.

Looking for ways to distinguish the two possibilities, scientists turned to dwarf galaxies, which are thought to be rich in dark matter but free of pulsars. If researchers found gamma rays pouring out of dwarf galaxies, the observation would rule out alternative explanations and provide emphatic evidence of WIMPs.

Yet no such signal has been detected in five years’ worth of the highest-quality data from 15 nearby dwarfs, Wood and his colleagues report. “Dwarf galaxies are one of the few targets which could give us a definitive confirmation of a signal in the galactic center,” Wood said. “Without this confirmation the case for the dark matter interpretation of the galactic center excess is substantially weakened.”

Olena Shmahalo/Quanta Magazine; data courtesy of Matthew Wood

Based on the analysis presented by the Fermi-LAT team, new observations of dwarf galaxies exclude some, but not all, models of dark-matter particles that could be producing a signal coming from the center of the Milky Way. The range of particle properties proposed in a 2014 paper by Dan Hooper and colleagues (purple) is still viable, while a model proposed by Francesca Calore et al. (orange), which experts consider the most comprehensive, predicts a range of properties that is cut exactly in half.

The possibility remains that the signal from the Milky Way’s center does come from dark matter, but only if the density of dark matter in the galaxy is at the high end of researchers’ estimates. If dark matter is sufficiently dense, it doesn’t have to annihilate at a very high rate to explain the signal from the galactic center. And if dark matter annihilates at a low rate, then researchers shouldn’t be surprised when they don’t see a signal coming from the more-diffuse dwarfs.

“At this stage we do not entirely exclude all of the dark-matter models proposed to explain the reported excess,” Wood said.

Hooper, whose model barely survives the blow of the new dwarf-galaxy findings, seems unfazed, and he maintains his position that the signal from the galactic center most likely comes from colliding WIMPs that vanish in puffs of gamma rays. “That’s where my money is,” he told Quanta Magazine in March. Speaking from the meeting in Japan, he said, “That hasn’t changed in any significant way.”

Other scientists agree that the dark-matter explanation of the gamma-ray excess is still viable, for now. “It is what it is,” said Savvas Koushiappas, a physicist at Brown University and co-author of another recent analysis of gamma rays from the dwarfs. “There is a dark-matter interpretation, and the dwarfs at the moment did not rule it out, or confirm it. However, we are close.”

Tracy Slatyer, a physicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who has collaborated with Hooper on models of the galactic-center excess, said she finds the new results “really encouraging.”

“Of course, I would like the galactic-center excess to come from annihilating dark matter, but I would much rather know one way or the other,” she said. “This result increases the probability that we will know for sure in the near future.”

The paradigm that dark matter is likely composed of WIMPs has long reigned among physicists because of the “WIMP miracle,” or the fact that the same hypothetical particle could account for mysteries of both the cosmic and the quantum worlds. With roughly the same mass as many of the known particles in nature, WIMPs would counteract the effects of those particles in quantum equations in a way that would make apparently faulty calculations work. And the presence of a halo of WIMPs around galaxies would explain why the galaxies rotate faster than expected at their outskirts — the most compelling indirect evidence that dark matter exists.

But the fact that WIMPs would represent an elegant solution to deep questions doesn’t mean they’re real. Scientists have spent the past decade monitoring ultra-cooled vats of liquid chemicals located deep underground in repurposed mine shafts all over the world, hoping that WIMPs would occasionally leave traces of energy as they traversed the liquids. But the search has not produced a single convincing signal.

As the experiments become ever more sensitive, they eat away at the abstract space of all viable WIMP models, giving it the look of Swiss cheese. The discouraging results have pushed researchers to get more creative. “Even though many people are working very hard on the WIMP paradigm, people are starting to think more broadly,” said Mark Trodden, a professor of theoretical physics at the University of Pennsylvania.

Dwarf galaxies have already inspired alternatives to the standard WIMP picture. If dark-matter particles can interact with one another (instead of “weakly interacting” only with ordinary matter, as in conventional WIMP models), they will transfer heat as they collide. “When you transfer heat, you get a less dense center,” explained David Spergel, an astrophysicist at Princeton University who, along with his colleague Paul Steinhardt, first proposed the self-interacting dark-matter scenario in 2000. Indeed, astronomers have observed that the cores of dwarf galaxies are less dense than would be expected based on simulations of galaxy formation that use WIMPs.

J. Bullock, M. Geha, R. Powell

A map of dwarf galaxies orbiting the Milky Way Galaxy. Each dwarf contains up to several billion stars, compared to several hundred billion in the Milky Way.

Self-interacting dark matter has attracted growing interest among scientists, but not everyone feels comfortable postulating a new property to patch over the problems with current models.

“We’re just making this invisible particle increasingly complicated,” said Justin Khoury, a theoretical physicist at the University of Pennsylvania. “I’m torn about that.”

Meanwhile, new and improved simulations by Alyson Brooks of Rutgers University and colleagues suggest that dwarf galaxies can be modeled correctly without dark matter self-interactions after all, if the simulations include the effects of ordinary particles — the one-seventh of all matter that we actually see, but which models often ignore for the sake of simplicity. When stars go supernova, Brooks explained, they produce hot bubbles of gas that rapidly expand. “It turns out that process gives energy to the dark matter in the center of galaxies and pushes it out,” she said.

Although Brooks’ simulations match observations, some other leading modelers can’t get the effects of ordinary matter to fix the discrepancy in their own simulations, fueling the interest in self-interacting dark matter.

Complicating the debate is the fact that if dark-matter particles self-interact, that means they don’t annihilate upon contact in bursts of gamma rays. In that case, the signal from the Milky Way’s center would not come from dark matter.

“If this all sounds lively and contradictory and confused, you have the right idea,” Steinhardt said.

Khoury has moved the furthest from the WIMP picture with a recent paper postulating that dark matter may not be composed of particles at all. His theory revamps an old idea called modified Newtonian dynamics, or MOND, which proposes a change to the law of gravity. In Khoury’s theory, dark matter is a fluidlike field that permeates space, interacting with the gravitational fields of galaxies in a way that alters their rotation.

Erik Verlinde, a theoretical physicist at the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands, has proposed a different modified-gravity theory, one in which dark matter doesn’t exist at all and the rotational speeds of galaxies reflect the entropy, or disorder, of space and time.

At this stage, one theorist’s guess seems as good as another’s.

“There are many, many, many things that dark matter could be,” Trodden said. “If you gave me license to write down particle physics [models] that could give me dark matter, I could write down 10 that haven’t been thought about before.” As for which ones hold the most promise, the universe isn’t telling.

Correction: This article was revised on October 26, 2014, to present Matthew Wood’s full quote about the status of the dark-matter interpretation of the galactic-center gamma ray excess. The original shortened quote did not accurately convey Wood’s intended meaning.

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