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No, scientists aren’t predicting 10ft higher sea level by 2050

You may have seen the headlines last week: “Former Top NASA Scientist Predicts Catastrophic Rise In Sea Levels,” “Earth’s Most Famous Climate Scientist Issues Bombshell Sea Level Warning,” “Climate Seer James Hansen Issues His Direst Forecast Yet." Facebook even told me it was trending. The problem is, all those headlines describe a study, and that study doesn’t predict anything. It certainly doesn’t predict 10 feet of sea level rise by 2100 (or even 2050) as a number of stories have claimed.

So what happened here? A few things. The circumstances surrounding the paper are unusual. First, the paper has not yet been peer-reviewed. (Many stories did make that clear.) It is currently undergoing a transparent review process for the journal Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics. Rather than the traditional, behind-closed-doors review where nothing is revealed until the final paper is accepted and published, the journal posts manuscripts immediately as “discussion papers.” As peer reviews are submitted, those will also be posted, as will the authors’ responses and their revisions.

Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics isn’t the only journal doing this, but these papers aren’t normally publicized until the process runs its course. In this case, a press release initiated by the authors went out immediately. In fact, due to a delay getting the manuscript proofread and posted, news stories began running several days before the manuscript was available on the journal’s website. Only those journalists to whom a draft had been circulated knew what was in it.

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Genetically modified rice makes more food, less greenhouse gas

When it comes to major anthropogenic sources of methane (an important greenhouse gas), livestock and leaky natural gas wells and pipelines might come to mind. However, rice cultivation is also among the largest sources. Microbes in wetlands, where water saturation leads to low-oxygen conditions, produce most of the world’s methane, and rice paddies are essentially human-controlled wetlands.

Down in the warm muck of a rice paddy, the roots of the rice plant release some organic compounds, and they eventually die off and decay themselves, providing the food that microbes turn into methane. Researchers are working on ways to limit that methane production, but this will always be a secondary concern for farmers. Yields rule the day, especially as demand is growing. But a 2002 study hinted at a win-win: increase above-ground growth at the expense of below-ground growth, and yield goes up while methane production goes down.

A great idea, but how to make it happen? A group of researchers led by Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences researchers Jun Su, Changquan Hu, and Xia Yan have used a gene from barley to create a genetically modified rice plant that does just that.

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Measuring the heck out of shale gas leakage in Texas

The process of hydraulic fracturing (or “fracking”) shales to extract oil and natural gas has lowered prices and displaced some coal with cleaner-burning natural gas in the US. However, some of the methane we're extracting also escapes from oil and gas wells and heads straight to the atmosphere, where it is a potent greenhouse gas.

That leakage is harmful to the climate, a wasted resource, and lost profit for natural gas producers, so researchers are working hard to find out just how much is leaking. If enough of it gets loose, natural gas can even lose its carbon emissions advantage over coal, despite its cleaner-burning nature.

Many different natural gas fields have been investigated using different methods. Some estimates are “top-down,” using measurements from aircraft circling well fields to estimate how much is coming out of wells and pipelines. Other estimates are “bottom-up,” relying on measurements on the ground at individual sites and scaling them up to the total number of sites. Top-down techniques often yield larger estimates, and leakage rates can vary widely from one gas field to another. It’s complicated.

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Winners of XPRIZE ocean acidification prize announced

Almost two years ago, we reported the launch of a new XPRIZE competition to build a better ocean pH sensor, one that could enable a more thorough monitoring of the ocean acidification caused by CO2 emissions. The challenge was to design something that could operate autonomously in the harsh conditions of the deep ocean, while sporting accuracy rivaling laboratory techniques topside.

After a series of trials, the winners of the competition were announced Monday night. Three of the five finalists will receive a share of the $2 million—split between prizes focused on accuracy and affordability—put up by Wendy Schmidt.

The $750,000 grand prizes in both categories went to Sunburst Sensors, a small company in Missoula, Montana. They produced a pair of devices (one optimized for each category) based on one they currently manufacture. They utilized a miniaturized version of the most common laboratory method, in which an indicator dye is added to the water sample and the resultant color is precisely measured.

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For “smaller” eruptions, Yellowstone can wake up quickly

After someone learns about the massive, devastating eruptions that have been unleashed from the Yellowstone Caldera, their usual response is two-fold: Will that happen again? And how much warning would we get? In addition to those incredible events, however, Yellowstone and other calderas like it see smaller eruptions of lava much more frequently. These "small" eruptions are still about the size of the largest eruptions the world has seen in the last century—like Mount Pinatubo. So how much warning can we expect for them?

These eruptions spit up rhyolite lavas that are cooler but much more viscous—and therefore violent—than the familiar, chemically distinct, and comparatively tame Hawaiian volcanoes. Magmas vary in chemistry and evolve over time as minerals with lower melting points separate from others that are still solid. For stagnant magmas hovering around those melting points, a fresh shot of hot melt can sometimes stir the pot and cause an eruption. For many of the lava eruptions at Yellowstone, some of which have followed long periods of calm, that kind of rejuvenation is responsible.

There’s a lot we don’t know about that process, though, like how quickly it can happen. To answer that question, Arizona State’s Christy Till, USGS researcher Jorge Vazquez, and UCLA’s Jeremy Boyce had to go small. They put individual crystals of a flavor of feldspar from a Yellowstone lava that erupted around 260,000 years ago under a serious microscope. These crystals clearly have an outer rim younger than the interior. That outer rim represents the rejuvenation episode before the eruption, like extra snow added onto an existing snowball.

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Echo chamber of outrage: Ars attends a climate skeptics’ summit

“I accept that the planet has warmed,” said conservative columnist Mark Steyn from the podium. “And I rejoice that it is warm.”

Steyn was one of many speakers at the libertarian Heartland Institute's 10th “International Conference on Climate Change,” a major event for climate science contrarians. The two-day conference, held in mid-June at the classy Washington Court Hotel just a few blocks from the US Capitol, had all the trappings of an academic conference, but you wouldn’t mistake it for a Geological Society of America meeting. Tables set up outside the hotel’s main ballroom hosted conservative advocacy groups and think tanks like CFACT, the Ayn Rand Institute, and the Heritage Foundation (which attracted visitors with a life-size cardboard cut-out of Ronald Reagan). The audience contained some meteorologists but seemed mostly composed of retired couples with an interest in politics, along with a handful of state legislators.

The goal was to gather speakers—who organizers frequently reminded the audience were some of the most famous and well-respected experts in the world—who could arm attendees with the information they needed to take the Good Fight back out to the streets. A small number of the talks presented research into climate science, but most were arguments against climate policy based on economic impacts. In other words, imagine the opinion pages of the Wall Street Journal plus a podium.

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Curiosity finds continent-building rocks on Mars

Old school geology can’t really be done by helicopter. It requires boots and hammers on the ground, interrogating rocks until they give up their identities and reveal their histories. Planetary geologists are pretty much trapped in helicopters, analyzing whatever can be measured by passing or orbiting spacecraft.

But there are some rare exceptions. What the Mars Curiosity rover lacks in hammers, it more than makes up for in lasers. With those armaments, Curiosity is uncovering some basics of Martian geology that can fill in portions of the history we’ve gleaned from orbit.

Mars’ crust is dominated by rocks produced through volcanism. It seemed to lack Earth’s igneous diversity, however, and little is known about Mars’ early volcanic history around 4 billion years ago. But that’s exactly how old the rocks of Gale Crater, where Curiosity spends its roving days, are.

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Indonesian mud volcano probably human-triggered

In late May 2006, an unusual disaster befell part of the Indonesian island of Java: out of the blue, the area was flooded by a mud volcano. Not a mudflow racing down your typical spits-fire-and-ash volcano, but a natural eruption of mud.

It’s been erupting ever since. Almost 40,000 people have now been displaced by the flood of mud, and almost $3 billion in damages and associated costs (like levee construction to limit the flooded area). The obvious question on everyone’s mind has been what triggered this strange disaster, since there was no history of mud eruptions in the area. This goes beyond academic curiosity as, despite a suspicious earthquake, it seems the most likely culprit was human activity.

Just two days before the eruption began, there was an even worse natural disaster in the region. A magnitude 6.3 earthquake, centered less than 300 kilometers away, killed almost 6,000 people. Although a two-day delay would be a little difficult to explain, one hypothesis for the mud eruption was that the mud was created by liquefaction— where earthquake-driven shaking turns susceptible sediments into mobile muds.

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Familiar fishes found opportunity in mass extinction

For mammals, the mass extinction event at the end of the Cretaceous was the crisis that opened the door to evolutionary success. With so many species gone, like the dominant dinosaurs (minus the ancestors of birds), opportunities were plentiful. Our small, furtive ancestors made the most of those opportunities, giving rise to the diversity of mammals around today.

Perhaps the ray-finned fishes—which include almost every fish you can think of apart from sharks and rays and make up almost half of all modern vertebrate species—found similar opportunities. Researchers knew that this group of fish only took off in the last 100 million years (so since the mid-Cretaceous), but the early details were fuzzy. Scripps Institution of Oceanography’s Elizabeth Sibert and Richard Norris set out to tighten up that history by picking through seafloor mud for tiny fish teeth.

Those seafloor muds came from deep drilling in multiple locations in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Samples of Italian limestone that had been laid down in an ocean long since closed up by plate tectonics rounded out the collection. In all the samples, which spanned from the late Cretaceous (about 75 million years ago) to the mid-Eocene (about 45 million years ago) the researchers sifted out teeth shed by ray-finned fishes and scales belonging to sharks or rays. Both types of fossils are plentiful, as they resist dissolving away on the ocean floor.

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How breaking a glacier makes the Earth quake

In the 1960s, the network of seismometers around the world expanded rapidly. It wasn’t because seismology became a fad—it was because seismometers could detect underground nuclear weapons tests anywhere in the world. Shifting gears from a cold war to the cold science of glaciology, there’s another phenomenon seismometers can pick up: seismic booms from the melting end of glaciers. These “glacial earthquakes” have become increasingly frequent as parts of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets shed mass and shrink in volume, contributing to sea level rise.

Glacial earthquakes have much longer periods than actual tectonic earthquakes, with minutes passing between peaks in the wave. As a result, researchers actually have to analyze seismometer data in a different way in order to pick them up. The quakes aren’t trivial in strength though; most release a similar amount of total energy as a magnitude 5 earthquake.

The weird thing is that, even as we've tracked them, we haven’t actually figured out precisely what a glacial earthquake was. They seemed to be related to calving events, where large icebergs break off the floating front of a glacier that reaches the ocean, but what actually shakes the earth? Was the iceberg scraping along bottom? Did it have something to do with the sudden acceleration of the iceberg as it peels away from the rest of the glacier?

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