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Climate contrarian’s fossil fuel funding ignites disclosure debate

When a researcher’s work is relevant to a publicly controversial issue, you can expect to hear accusations about his or her funding. Those who reject the conclusions of climate science may claim that the desire for federal funding compels scientists to exaggerate the impacts of climate change. Baseless cheap shots aside, funding is something we rightly take seriously. A Pepsi-funded study finding that Pepsi is the best soda, for example, should draw even more scrutiny than an independent study would.

Greenpeace recently obtained the details of the funding of an astrophysicist and climate contrarian named Willie Soon. The information, obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, is causing a bit of a stir. Soon, who has authored a handful of papers attempting to show that the Sun—not greenhouse gases—is behind recent global warming, had received some $1.2 million over the last ten years from fossil fuel companies, the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation, and a source-obscuring system called Donors Trust.

It wasn’t actually news that Soon had gotten fossil fuel industry money to support his research—that's been known for years—but some of the details were new. It appears that Soon failed to make the appropriate conflict-of-interest disclosures required by some of the journals he published in. It was also surprising to discover that some of the funding agreements gave his industry funders the opportunity to review and comment on his publications before they were submitted to journals for review.

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Teach the controversy: Education bills contain a revealing confusion

If you knew absolutely nothing about the bitter public debates over certain scientific issues in the US, the “teach the controversy” bills that keep surfacing would probably sound reasonable and unremarkable. These state bills, which are mostly identical, encourage science teachers to discuss the scientific strengths and weaknesses of scientific theories. Duh, right?

But why are these bills mainly focused on protecting said science teachers from being shut down by their superiors? Why would that happen?

To understand, you need to see that this is just the latest in a very long line of attempts to undermine the teaching of certain scientific topics that the legislators don’t like, especially evolution and climate change. The aim of these bills is to provide cover for teachers who want to teach their students that evolution isn’t a scientific fact and that creationism (possibly stealthed within the supposedly non-sectarian label of “intelligent design”) is a viable scientific alternative.

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How leaky is shale gas production?

The boom in US natural gas production made possible by fracking techniques has raised an awkward question: how much is leaking to the atmosphere before reaching a power plant turbine or your furnace? Natural gas power plants are more efficient than coal-burning plants and emit much less CO2. But methane is a potent, though short-lived, greenhouse gas, so the exact benefit of that trade off depends on the level of leaks from wells and pipelines.

The EPA produces estimates of leakage calculated using limited measurements of typical equipment and production practices. Those estimates put natural gas leakage in the neighborhood of one percent of production— low enough to ensure that the shale gas (fracking) boom is a net positive in terms of climate-changing emissions. A major study sampling new shale gas wells showed that the EPA estimates for well leakage did a pretty good job—at least for those newer wells.

Much has been made, however, of several studies that took a different approach and got very different results. Those studies used methane measurements made from a NOAA airplane upwind and downwind of shale gas fields. At a field outside Denver, that yielded an estimate of 3.1 to 5.3 percent leakage. At a Utah field, leakage was estimated at between 6.2 and 11.7 percent. Near Los Angeles, a leakage rate of 12-22 percent was calculated.

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Shade the planet? The dangers are in the details

When the National Academy of Sciences report on geoengineering, released last week, looked at techniques to reflect some sunlight away from the Earth to counteract anthropogenic warming, the result wasn’t exactly a glowing appraisal. Employing that tactic—generally known as Solar Radiation Management—is fraught with oft-discussed risks. It can result in reduced precipitation and ozone depletion, yet does nothing to curb harmful ocean acidification caused by atmospheric CO2. And, since the substances we're considering (mostly sulfate aerosols) are pretty short-lived in the atmosphere, you’d get a dose of extremely rapid warming if you suddenly pulled the plug.

Harvard’s David Keith and Caltech’s Douglas MacMartin think we’ve often been too sloppy in talking about these risks. That is, we're acting like one scenario—using Solar Radiation Management to completely offset anthropogenic warming as greenhouse gas emissions continue—defines the technique. But other approaches to Solar Radiation Management do not necessarily share the same risks.

For example, interventions can reduce precipitation by cooling the Earth’s surface, while rising CO2 is, on average, increasing precipitation. The net result is that, if enough Solar Radiation Management is used to return the globe to its preindustrial average temperature, precipitation will be reduced to below its preindustrial average. But it's also possible to create a smaller amount of cooling, which doesn’t have to reduce precipitation that far.

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Strange show spotted high above Mars’ surface remains mysterious

Almost three years ago, the Red Planet put on a bit of a show for anyone with a telescope big enough, and an eye trained enough, to spot it. As the Terra Cimmeria region of Mars’ Southern Hemisphere rotated into view, a faint bulge rose above the smooth curve of the planet’s surface. It looked like a cloud, but it was too tall and too weird.

Starting on March 12, 2012, amateur astronomers reported seeing the odd lump on the Martian horizon. Reports continued to pour in over the next 11 days as the lump became even more obvious. It petered out some time before April 1, but a second occurrence was observed between April 6 and April 16. Each time, its form varied from day to day, and it was seen as dawn swept across the region—but not at dusk.

Although the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter imaged the area daily, it did so in the afternoon, and nothing showed up. But using the images that were captured by amateurs, a group of researchers led by University of the Basque Country’s Agustín Sánchez-Lavega calculated the size of the fuzzy plume. It covered an area some 500 to 1,000 kilometers across and reached as high as 200 to 250 kilometers above the surface—that is, into Mars’ ionosphere and exosphere.

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South American ice chemistry records rise of Incas, arrival of Spanish

Ice cores are often relied on to be natural archives of past climate, capturing information that predates both our measurements and our greenhouse gas emissions. They're a way of having records of the natural world that we don't have a history of. However, natural archives like these can also act as records of human history, either directly (via fossils or artifacts) or indirectly.

In mountainous regions, glacial ice doesn't go as deep into the past as in Greenland or Antarctica, but it can tell stories of the recent past with excellent resolution. Airborne pollutants, for example, stand out sharply in measurements of the ice. They don’t say “pure as the driven snow” for nothing.

Not much of this kind of work has been done in South America, though. Some lake sediment archives have shown the influence of local mining, but the timeline was fuzzy. In a new study, a team led by Chiara Uglietti, now at Switzerland’s Paul Scherrer Institute, has produced a detailed ice core record of air pollution from Peru’s Quelccaya Ice Cap that goes back to the year 793.

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How Earth’s orbit shapes climate and the seafloor

It’s often helpful to view the Earth as a complex device composed of many interacting sub-systems. Sometimes when you’ve drilled down a few levels, you'll be surprised to find one component is connected to another, seemingly unrelated, one. Groundwater depletion, for example, really can affect earthquakes and mountain ranges, climate change really can affect volcanic eruptions, and plate tectonics really can affect climate.

In a similar vein, it turns out that the activity of some seafloor ridges appear to be linked to orbital cycles by way of ice sheets, sea level, and magma physics. (Kevin Bacon has yet to be implicated.)

The suggestion isn’t new. A 2009 paper laid out the hypothesis on theoretical grounds, and it has been played around with since. But now a study from researchers at Oxford, Harvard, and the Korea Polar Research Institute provides evidence to support the hypothesis using data from the seafloor between Antarctica and Australia.

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Researchers call in the artillery to image the Earth’s interior

If you want to be heard from across a large room, you may have to speak up. From across an open field, you’ll have to shout. If you want to be heard in the Earth’s mantle, you’ll have to be a bit louder than that. And if you want to echo off something way down there clearly enough to be measured, you’ll have to be very loud indeed.

Why would we want to bounce echoes off the mantle? Think about the cartoon simplification of plate tectonics: rigid plates drifting along atop a convecting mantle. Now try to imagine the boundary between the plate and the solid mantle rock below it. How is it that the plate slides freely?

To find out, we have to rely on one of the very few tools that can probe those depths and come up to tell us about it: seismic waves. Every earthquake releases seismic energy that travels through the Earth, and measurements of that energy by seismometers at the surface allow geophysicists to construct CT-scan-like images of the Earth’s interior.

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South African gold traced to 3 billion year old volcanoes, microbes

The miners who answered the call of the California Gold Rush worked pretty hard in the hopes of striking it rich. But from a geological perspective, they were pretty lazy. Nature had already done most of the work. A lot of the gold they found was lying around in “placer” deposits—river sediment containing particles of solid gold. The gold originally came from igneous rocks, where it was very sparsely distributed among other minerals. Erosion liberated the gold and concentrated it, as water carried away lighter particles made of other minerals.

That’s one possible mechanism for gold to become plentiful enough that looking for it in a given volume of rock or sediment is economically viable. Another involves the movement of water heated by magma deep below the surface. The heated water dissolves and carries minerals, including gold, as it rises through rock. As it cools and moves through fractures, which form little highways, those dissolved minerals can precipitate out to form rich veins.

Some of the world’s best gold deposits can be found in South Africa’s Witwatersrand Basin. The Vaal Reef deposit, for example, is gigantic—it coughed up three thousand tons of gold, which would be worth well over $100 billion at today’s prices. However, geologists are still arguing about how the gold got there—riverine placer or hydrothermal precipitation are the two options mentioned above. The gold is found in layers within what was once sediment laid down by rivers, but these rivers flowed roughly three billion years ago. The deposits have become metamorphic rock in the intervening time.

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Updated ice sheet model matches wild swings in past sea levels

It has been a bit of a head scratcher. Records of sea level during the last few million years tell us that there have been some warm periods where sea level may have been as much as 20 meters higher than it is today. When fed the conditions that prevailed at the time, however, our computer models of ice sheets haven’t been able to reproduce such a swelling of the ocean.

The models can simulate that much sea level rise, but it requires temperatures much higher than were seen during those warm periods. Realistic losses of ice from Greenland and the fragile, western part of Antarctica (the West Antarctic Ice Sheet) could only provide something in the neighborhood of 3 to 10 meters of sea level rise. That leaves 10 to 17 meters for the East Antarctic Ice Sheet—the largest and most stable ice sheet—to chip in. Convincing the miserly East Antarctic Ice Sheet to be that generous with its contents isn’t easy, which is why the models required such high temperatures.

Updating the models

So what are the models missing? Penn State’s David Pollard and Richard Alley, and University of Massachussetts, Amherst’s Robert DeConto had an idea for something to try. Two things to try, really. They added a pair of physical processes to an ice sheet model that weren’t simulated previously. The first was hydrofracturing. When water reaches the ice sheet from rain or ice melt at the surface, it fills crevasses in the ice.

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