31 August 2011

Geo-engineering: Manipulating weather patterns potentially disastrous for poorer countries

Critics fear that manipulating weather patterns could have a calamitous effect on poorer countries
Techno-fix ideas include artificial trees and firing silver iodide into clouds to produce rain. Photograph: Peter Andrews/Reuters
The alert on the Climate Ark website in January 2009 was marked urgent: "Take action: A rogue science ship is poised to carry out risky experimental fertilisation of the Southern Ocean. This is likely [to be] the first of many coming attempts to begin geo-engineering the biosphere as a solution to climate change. The chemical cargo is likely to provoke a massive algal bloom big enough to be seen from outer space..."
The response was immediate and vitriolic: "You morons," fumed a woman from a Canadian university. "That isn't a rogue ship... it's one of the best marine science research groups in the world. You are no different than anti-science religious fanatics. You seek to keep the world ignorant. May you drown in your lies..."
Professor Peter Liss, then chair of Britain's Royal Society's global environment research committee and himself involved in research to see the effect of iron on phtyoplankton, stepped in: "The [intention] is to find out what role iron plays in marine biogeochemistry. In no way is it an attempt to geo-engineer the planet. Only by knowing the facts can you argue effectively against such geo-engineering proposals. Emotion and opinion will not win the argument; knowledge and understanding will."
Some hope. Geo-engineering – artificial efforts to mitigate global warming by manipulating weather patterns, oceans, currents, soils and atmosphere to reduce the amount of greenhouses gases – evokes ideological, political and financial passions. For those who have more or less given up on UN climate talks, it is, along with nuclear power, the only practical planetary way to avoid catastrophic climate change; for others, it is an irresponsible move into the unknown by the rich world that will inevitably have unintended consequences, most probably for the poorest.
But as attempts to get major economies to agree to reduce emissions through energy efficiency falter, so groups of scientists, universities and entrepreneurs are coming together, patenting ideas and pressing the case with governments and the UN to back experiments as the first step towards wide-scale deployment of a suite of technologies.
From just a few individuals working in the field 20 years ago, today there are hundreds of groups and institutions proposing experiments. They fall broadly into two camps: one aims to remove greenhouse gases from the air and store them underground; the other, more controversially, tries to cool the Earth down by reflecting sunlight from the atmosphere or space in a process known as solar radiation management.
The range of techno-fix ideas is growing by the month. They include absorbing plankton, growing artificial trees, firing silver iodide into clouds to produce rain, genetically engineering crops to be paler in colour to reflect sunlight back to space, fertilising the ocean with iron nanoparticles to increase phytoplankton, blasting sulphate-based aerosols into the stratosphere to deflect sunlight, covering the desert with white plastic to reflect sunlight and painting cities and roads white.
There are serious proposals to launch a fleet of unmanned ships to spray seawater into the atmosphere to thicken clouds and thus reflect more radiation from Earth. Most controversial of all is an idea to fire trillions of tiny mirrors into space to form a 100,000-mile "sunshade" for Earth.
Most are unlikely to be seriously considered but some are being pushed hard by entrepreneurs and businessmen attracted by the potential to make billions of dollars in an emerging system of UN global carbon credits. Research by ETC, the Canadian-based watchdog, shows at least 27 patents have been granted to inventors and assignees including Bill Gates, Dupont, the US government and various corporations. Chemical engineer Michael Markels has four patents, Professor Steven Salter of Edinburgh University and climate change scientist David Keith have two.
"If geo-engineering techniques move towards actual deployment, the existence of patents could mean that decisions over the climate will be effectively handed over to the private sector," says Diana Bronson of ETC.
In what is shaping up to become a deep, ideological division along the lines of pro- and anti-nuclear or GM crops, the scientists, corporates and entrepreneurs are being broadly opposed by environment groups and developing countries, but backed increasingly by the UK and US governments, as well as businessmen such as Richard Branson. And in a strange new grouping, free market environmentalists such as Mark Lynas in Britain, Stewart Brand in the US and Bjorn Lomborg in Denmark have joined high-profile US conservative politicians and thinktanks to say geo-engineering is a step forward.
"Geo-engineering holds forth the promise of addressing global warming concerns for just a few billion dollars a year," said Newt Gingrich, former speaker of the US House of Representatives, in 2008. "We would have an option to address global warming by rewarding scientific innovation. Bring on American ingenuity. Stop the green pig."
GeoengineeringHow geo-engineering plans to combat climate change. Click here to see a full size version of the graphic
Such people have decided that re-engineering Earth for survival, or for profit, is just an intellectual skip away from what we have been doing for centuries and what has got us into the mess in the first place – cutting down most of the world's forests, converting the savannas, diverting and damming rivers and plundering the seas. With no evidence that mankind is prepared to reduce the emissions of greenhouse gases, it has become necessary to have a plan B, an insurance policy for the situation in which Earth hits a tipping point, they argue.
But to do that requires experiments and money, says Andrew Lockley, moderator of the geoengineering group Google site that brings together many of the world's leading scientists working in different areas. His own area is finding geo-engineering ways to capture methane on a vast scale from melting tundra landscapes.
Lockley says: "We just do not know if a catastrophic methane release could be 50, 100 or 10,000 years away. Different scientists are saying different things. We could be sleepwalking into a climate disaster. What is needed is the support of academe to do further research. We need basic research done on which models might work."
But with most major research institutions scared of the public reaction and hesitating to put money into geo-engineering, it is being left to corporations and billionaire entrepreneurs. Bill Gates has put in $400m (£250m) into two projects and is named in a group of people holding a patent to employ a fleet of vessels to suppress hurricanes through various methods of mixing warm water from the surface of the ocean with colder water at greater depths. Richard Branson's "carbon war room" is backing carbon capture and storage technologies. Behind the scenes, airlines, GM and chemical companies are believed to be cautiously investigating the potential.
Britain now leads the world's public funding, by providing research money and intellectual backing from scientific institutions such as the Royal Society. Last week, the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, a British government funding agency, released over £3m for two geo-engineering research projects.
The most controversial project is for an artificial mini-volcano to block sunlight and lower temperatures. Inspired by the way eruptions can spew particles into the stratosphere dimming the sun and lowering temperatures, the scientists from Bristol, Cambridge and Reading Universities propose to launch a massive balloon system 20-25km into the stratosphere to spray millions of sulphate particles. The prototype will put a balloon just 1km into the sky.
Their work is being mirrored in the California where Philip Rasch, chief scientist for climate science at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, a research group with the US Department of Energy, has proposed fleets of aircraft continually spraying tons of reflective sulphur dioxide into the stratosphere. Geo-engineering critics are appalled, saying the diffusion of the sunlight might result in ozone depletion, reduced plant growth, more humidity in the atmosphere, less energy and even potential damage as particles fall to Earth.
"We just do not know how to recall a planetary-scale technology once it has been released. Techniques that alter the composition of the stratosphere or the chemistry of the oceans are likely to have unintended consequences as well as unequal impacts around the world," says Pat Mooney of ETC.
Scientists are also divided on the deployment of planetary-scale geo-engineering but united on the need for research – if only to show that many of the proposed schemes may be rubbish.
"I am actually pretty scared of putting things in space. Some people are planning to do it [but] it is much harder to check what is going on in the stratosphere. We may need to regulate the experiments. We know very little about secondary consequences. To talk about doing it is naive. To do research is different," he says. "The case for experimentation is not the case for going ahead with major implementation. You cannot consider [these things] until you have done the research. Maybe it goes no further. A first step does not presume a second. That would be for politicians to decide."
But the technologists are at many different stages. According to ETC, there are now several groupings, including the pragmatists, such as Branson, Lomborg and the American Enterprise Institute, which argue that geo-engineering is faster and cheaper than carbon taxes and emissions reductions, so just get on with it; and the theorists, such as the Royal Society and the Carnegie Institution for Science in the US which say we must have an emergency Plan B because we are heading for a certain climate catastrophe; meanwhile, businesses such as the Ocean Fertilisation Company and the Biochar Initiative see dollars.
In the background is the military. According to US science historian James Fleming, control of the climate gives the military an advantage and so it seeks to "weaponise" every technology, providing a stream of resources for scientists. Star Wars architect Lowell Wood argued in the 1990s that by spending about $1bn per year, the US could put enough particles in the stratosphere to reduce sunlight by about 1%.
"It is not easy to see how a serious geo-engineering programme could move forward without some degree of military involvement," says Jeff Goodell, journalist and author of How to Cool the Planet.
The immediate battle, though, is being fought in the media, where the scientists are hoping to be hailed as social visionaries, and in the UN and scientific establishments, where they are seeking intellectual underpinning. According to Bronson: "The geo-engineers have worked hard to conquer the western scientific establishment and are now moving into Brazil, India and China because they know that the northern orientation of everything so far is a huge liability."
There is growing awareness that geo-engineering is not going away, adds Bronson. "Many NGOS and social movements in Latin America have started to get involved and interest in south-east Asia and some parts of Africa is growing. Combined with lacklustre climate talks and rising emissions, though, many environmentalists end up with some kind of reluctant endorsement of the 'more research' agenda. Indigenous peoples and farmers' organisations have proved particularly strong in their opposition. Women's groups are also starting to get interested and alarmed."
Above all, it will be the governments of poor countries which are likely to object to any planetary-scale project. Two years ago, all countries except the US agreed to a de facto voluntary moratorium on geo-engineering projects and experiments. Apart from the unpredictability of the science, there was mistrust that western-northern-driven technological solutions to climate change would be fair or equitable. Two weeks ago, 160 organisations from around the world sent an open letter to Rajendra Pachauri, the Nobel prize-winning chair of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, after it had hosted a meeting of geo-engineers in Lima, Peru.
"Geo-engineering is too dangerous to too many people and to the planet to be left in the hands of small group of so-called experts," they warned. "The IPCC has assured us it will go forward carefully in this work. We will be closely following the process."

29 August 2011

Tectonic Weaponry : How to make an Earthquake

TECTONIC WEAPONS Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen, quoted as saying at a conference in April 1997, "Others are engaging even in an eco type of terrorism, whereby they can alter the climate, set off earthquakes or volcanos remotely, through the use of electromagnetic waves." Bill 107th CONGRESS, 1st Session, H. R. 2977 To preserve the cooperative, peaceful uses of space for the benefit of all humankind by permanently prohibiting the basing of weapons in space by the United States, and to require the President to take action to adopt and implement a world treaty banning space-based weapons 
(i) electronic, psychotronic, or information weapons; 
(ii) chemtrails; 
(iii) high altitude ultra low frequency weapons systems; 
(iv) plasma, electromagnetic, sonic, or ultrasonic weapons; 
(v) laser weapons systems; 
(vi) strategic, theater, tactical, or extraterrestrial weapons; and 
(vii) chemical, biological, environmental, climate, or tectonic weapons. 
Russia, carried out an extensive "tectonic weapon" research program, a deliberate attempt to create earthquakes using underground nuclear weapons. Russian newspaper Moscow News has obtained papers showing that the program, first known as "Mercury" and later as "Volcano," was launched in 1987 and ended in 1992(?) ISTC Project 1545 MHD Induced Seismicity The objective of this Project is to determine physical nature of the induced seismicity under electromagnetic impact caused by the MHD generator and to develop a technology of the controlled electromagnetic impact (EMI) on the Earth crust aimed at the seismic hazard reduction. Seismicity is a process that is highly sensitive to external impacts, both natural and technogenic. The induced seismicity is caused mainly by human technological activity. Changes in the seismicity regime are observed during water-storage reservoir flooding; in the regions where intensive oil & gas extraction takes place; during deep-well disposal of wastes, etc. Also stated is the fact that underground nuclear explosions may effect spatio-temporal seismicity distribution and initiate its increase at separations up to 200-2,000 km. Recently, principally new results are obtained concerning the seismicity regime variation under the EMI caused by the MHD generator. The preliminary analysis of the EMI results shows the following principal features of such induced seismicity: Significant spatio-temporal variations of the seismicity regime are revealed: the seismic activity after the MHD runs is pronouncedly higher than before the runs. Sharp activation of local earthquakes takes place on 2th-7th day after the MHD runs, its duration being within several days. The increment of the total energy release after the MHD runs is 5 to 6 orders of magnitude higher than total energy inserted into the load from the MHD generator. Also noted is a tendency to spatial coincidence of the induced seismicity zones with the active areas of seismogenerating zones. The analysis seismicity variation with depth shows that the highest response takes place in the upper 5-km layer of the earth crust. The external impact is assumed to initiate release of seismic energy accumulated in the media during the tectonic processes in the form of relatively weak earthquakes thus lowering the threshold level of strong catastrophic earthquakes.

Military Robots are a deadly serious business - "Transformers" soon to be a Reality

WASHINGTON—One look at the unblinking electronic eye and dark contours of the Modular Advanced Armed Robotic System and it's hard not think of Skynet, the fictional computer in the Terminator film that becomes aware of its own existence and sends robotic armies to exterminate humans.

Where the Drones Are

The Wall Street Journal
The Airrobot AR100B has flown more then 1,200 missions in Afghanistan.
The brawny combat robot, made by QinetiQ North America, a unit of the U.K.'sQinetiQ Group PLC, rolls on tank-like treads. It boasts day and night-vision cameras, a four-barrel grenade launcher and a 7.62mm machine gun.
Military robots are a deadly serious business, and the gadgetry on display at the Unmanned Systems North America exhibition here underscores the shift by defense companies to selling combat by remote control. The Teal Group, an aerospace and defense consulting firm, forecasts that worldwide spending on unmanned aerial vehicles will grow to around $11.3 billion by the end of the decade from current spending of around $5.9 billion a year.
Christopher Langford, product manager for QinetiQ's unmanned systems group, called the robot an "escalation of force" tool that has been delivered to U.S. special-operations forces. It can stand sentry at a checkpoint, and warn people away with a police-style hailer, a non-blinding laser, tear gas or smoke grenades. As a last resort, it can fire lethal rounds.
Unmanned systems are already widely employed as weapons of war. Armed Predator drones strike insurgent hideouts in Pakistan and Yemen. Over Japan, pilotless military surveillance planes recently inspected the damage from a nuclear disaster.
Of course, the spending on robots is still a fraction of the $220 billion global aerospace market, dominated by the military and commercial sales of giants such as Boeing Co. and European Aeronautic Defence & Space Co.
[ROBOWAR]Charlie Shoemaker for The Wall Street Journal
QinetiQ's grenade- and gun-equipped robot for sentry duty on Thursday.
But robotic weapons aren't without flaws. In Pakistan, the deaths of innocent civilians in U.S. drone strikes have stoked public outrage. P.W. Singer, a fellow at Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank and author of "Wired for War," a book on the revolution in military robotics, has worried that automated warfare, and the killing of enemies at the press of a button, may have the effect of making it more tempting to start wars.
Over the past decade, the Pentagon has poured billions of dollars into developing and fielding pilotless surveillance planes and other robotics. The swarm of new robot weapons on display here showed the defense industry's belief that militaries worldwide will be shopping for years to come.
At an indoor aerial demonstration area—surrounded by netting like a batting cage—vendors demonstrated smaller drones in flight. Defense contractor Lockheed MartinCorp. showcased the Samarai, a handheld, half-pound drone that stays aloft by spinning like the seed pod of a maple tree. While the aircraft floated around the test area, it streamed live video from its onboard camera.
The industry has had initial success selling pilotless aircraft for surveillance and missile attacks. Now, developers say demand for systems that work on land, like QinetiQ's robot, or underwater, are the next frontiers.
"Ground and maritime systems are becoming more popular now," said Gretchen West, the association's executive vice president.
"I give [trade association] AUVSI points for evolving beyond what was almost exclusively unmanned air [systems] to start embracing both ground and underwater," said Joe Dyer, the chief operating officer for iRobot Corp., a major supplier of bomb-disposal robots.
The former Navy admiral said military researchers are starting to see the potential of unmanned underwater vehicles, or UUVs, to hunt for mines or other threats, much as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan accelerated the demand for bomb-disposal robots to search for suspected roadside bombs.
A convention in Washington, D.C., showcasing the latest in robotic technology is featuring a Chinese company for the first time. AEE's F50 drone shoots video in high-definition and can hover in the air for 30 minutes. WSJ's Nathan Hodge reports.
In the future, Mr. Dyer said, "a ship that pulls up on some bad guy's coast...before it goes in, it will have launched unmanned underwater vehicles to deal with the submarine threat. It will send UUVs into the surf, to deploy unmanned ground vehicles, and it'll be launching unmanned air vehicles. So you're going to have a full 360-degree view of the battlefield."
This year's robotics show featured a glass shark tank, where attendees watched swimming robots, such as the Seaglider, an underwater vehicle made by iRobot that was used last year to monitor the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. Elsewhere, ground robots navigated a small obstacle course that looked like a skateboard park.
U.K. manufacturer Cobham PLC also showed off its TeleMAX explosive-ordnance disposal robot, which climbed up a ramp to open a briefcase meant to simulate a suspicious package.
With the introduction of new systems, such as driverless vehicles, the potential for non-military applications may also grow. Oshkosh Defense, a unit of Oshkosh Corp., is developing an autonomous vehicle that can tag along with a military supply convoy. Marine Corps Capt. Warren Watts, who is helping test the feasibility of the concept, said robotic trucks could cut down on casualties from roadside bombs.
"If you remove the Marine from the cab of the vehicle, it limits how many Marines are actually injured," he said.
Perfecting many of these technologies, however, means that robotic vehicles will have to work more autonomously, without someone sitting at a control panel or manipulating a joystick.
Wes Bush, CEO of Northrop Grumman Corp., said the push for greater autonomy—creating machines that are more self-guiding—would enable a new generation of unmanned vehicles that can do complex things like refuel in mid-air or even land on the deck of an aircraft carrier.
"We see these as largely problems of computing power and systems engineering, not fundamental technology development issues," he said. "And we believe they'll be solved, and be solved in fairly short order."

20 August 2011

Scientists 'undo' evolution to create a chicken with a maniraptora snout

Scientists have undone the progress made by evolution by altering chicken DNA to create embryos with alligator-like snouts instead of beaks.
Experts changed the DNA of chicken embryos in the early stage of their development, enabling them to undo evolutionary progress and give the creatures snouts which are thought to have been lost in the cretaceous period millions of years ago.
The scientific revelation of 'rewinding' evolution could pave the way for scientists altering DNA in the other direction and use the same process to create species better able to adapt to Earth's climate.
Rewind evolution: The reseatrch changed the DNA of a chicken egg so the embryo developed an alligator-like snout
Rewind evolution: The reseatrch changed the DNA of a chicken egg so the embryo developed an alligator-like snout
Rewind evolution: The research changed the DNA of a chicken egg so the embryo developed an alligator-like snout
It has also been claimed that the breakthrough could eventually help eliminate birth defects in human children.
Arkhat Abzhanov, an evolutionary biologist at Harvard University, developed the chickens with snouts by cutting a square hole in the shell of a chicken egg and dropping in a small gelatinous protein bead before watching the embryo develop.
The changes allowed separate molecules on the side of the face free to grow into snouts within 14 days.
Although ethical rules prevent the eggs from bring hatched, Dr Abzhanov said he hopes to complete the work one day by turning chickens into Maniraptora.
Dr Abzhanov made the changes by analysing the 'signalling molecules' which control the anatomical changes in birds and other animals.
Adding protein beads to the egg which stifle the development of certain molecules also prevents the birds from growing certain features.
The revolutionary work by biologist Dr Arkhat Abzhanov could help prevent birth defects in human children
The revolutionary work by biologist Dr Arkhat Abzhanov could help prevent birth defects in human children
Maniraptora are small dinosaurs which it is thought spawned thousands of species of birds which exist today.
Chickens and other birds are thought to have descended from dinosaurs through a series of genetic changes.
By altering the DNA of chickens to resemble alligator genes before the beak developed, Dr Abzhanov was able to change the evolutionary path of chickens so that they grew snouts instead.
Dr Abzhanov told the New Scientist: 'It looks exactly like a snout looks in an alligator [at this stage].'
Jack Horner, a leading paleontologist based at the University of Montana, is conducting similar work in an attempt to make a 'chickenosaurus' with a tail and hands similar to those of a dinosaur.
Craig Albertson, a developmental biologist at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, said: 'Abzhanov's 'snouted' chicken provides a striking demonstration of just how easy it can be to provoke major evolutionary changes.'

Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2027558/Scientists-undo-evolution-create-chicken-maniraptora-snout.html#ixzz1j6nRzRKq

19 August 2011

New IBM microchip to 'rival' the human brain

IBM has developed silicon microchips that it says mimic how the brain works and "rewire" themselves in response to new information.

A cross-section of the human brain
A cross-section of the human brain 
The technology has been hailed as a move towards "cognitive computing", allowing machines to perform human-like functions such as recognition and learning.
"Imagine traffic lights that can integrate sights, sounds and smells and flag unsafe intersections before disaster happens or imagine cognitive co-processors that turn servers, laptops, tablets, and phones into machines that can interact better with their environments,” said Dharmendra Modha, the leader of the SyNAPSE project, a collaboration with American universities that has so far received $20m in funding from DARPA, the Pentagon's technology research arm.
The new chips could also lead to more powerful, efficient computers that take up less space, according to IBM. The work aims "to create a system that not only analyzes complex information from multiple sensory modalities at once but also dynamically rewires itself as it interacts with its environment - all while rivalling the brain's compact size and low-power usage", the firm said.
The basis of current computing systems work, known as von Neumann processing, becomes unsustainably inefficient and complex as information from more sources is fed in.
Computer scientists have long been fascinated by how the human brain meanwhile performs incredible feats of information processing simultaneously with little power. It performs many calculations at once in different, linked locations.
A key stage in the development of the new chips was the creation two years ago of BlueMatter, a software algorithm that simulates the pattern of connections in the human brain.
Each of the two new chips contain 256 neurons, connected to each other in a way that mimics this pattern. The ultimate goal is to scale them up to tens of billions of neurons found in the human brain.
"These chips are another significant step in the evolution of computers from calculators to learning systems, signalling the beginning of a new generation of computers and their applications in business, science and government,” said Mr Modha.