Green (79)

Fracking: The impact of natural gas extraction

Scott reports on fracking. Fracking is the process of breaking apart layers of shale rock to release a natural gas called methane. Methane is a fuel used for everything from cooking food, to heating homes and even generating electricity. However, there is a lot of controversy surrounding fracking. Some believe that fracking methods can cause small earthquakes. Others also argue that the chemicals used in the process can contaminate our air and our water supply.


Meet the teen planting 150 trees for every person on Earth

Felix Finkbeiner is 19 years old and in many ways he is just like your average teen. He is gawky and scrawny, wears rimmed spectacles, and has a ready smile. Yet the German teenager is already a world-famous conservationist who has set himself a mighty goal: to plant a trillion trees around the world.

Children are not often invited to speak to the United Nations General Assembly. But there stood Felix Finkbeiner, German wunderkind in his Harry Potter spectacles, gray hoodie, and mop-top haircut—with a somber question about climate change.

“We children know adults know the challenges and they know the solutions,” he said. “We don’t know why there is so little action.”

The children came up with three possible reasons to explain the lapse, he said. One is differing perspectives on the meaning of the word “future.”

“For most adults, it’s an academic question. For many of us children, it’s a question of survival,” he said. “Twenty-one hundred is still in our lifetime.”

Another explanation is climate denial. The third possibility can be glimpsed in an animal parable about monkeys that made an especially sharp point in the way that only a child delivering the message can.

“If you let a monkey choose if he wants one banana now or six bananas later, the monkey will always chose the one banana now,” he said. “From this, we children understood we cannot trust that adults alone will save our future. To do that, we have to take our future in our hands.”

At the time of his speech, Finkbeiner was four years into leading a remarkable environmental cause that has since expanded into a global network of children activists working to slow the Earth’s warming by reforesting the planet.

Today, Finkbeiner is 19—and Plant-for-the-Planet, the environmental group he founded, together with the UN’s Billion Tree campaign, has planted more than 14 billion trees in more than 130 nations. The group has also pushed the planting goal upward to one trillion trees—150 for every person on the Earth.

The organization also prompted the first scientific, full-scale global tree count, which is now aiding NASA in an ongoing study of forests’ abilities to store carbon dioxide and their potential to better protect the Earth. In many ways, Finkbeiner has done more than any other activist to recruit youth to the climate change movement. Plant-for-the-Planet now has an army of 55,000 “climate justice ambassadors,” who have trained in one-day workshops to become climate activists in their home communities. Most of them are between the ages nine and 12.

“Felix is a combination of inspirational and articulate,” says Thomas Crowther, an ecologist who conducted the tree count while working at Yale University in Connecticut. “A lot of people are good at one of those things. Felix is really good at both.”


Plant-for-the-Planet came about as the result of a fourth grade school assignment in Finkbeiner’s hometown, Uffing am Staffelsee, south of Munich. The topic was climate change. To his nine-year-old worldview, that meant danger for his favorite animal, the polar bear. He consulted Google for his research. Google steered him elsewhere—to stories about Wangari Maathai, a Kenyan woman whose heroic campaign to recover barren land that had been sheared of trees resulted in the planting of 30 million saplings and won her, in 2004, the Nobel Prize.

“I realized it’s not really about the polar bear, it’s about saving humans,” Finkbeiner says in a telephone interview from Britain, where he is a student at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies. His report about trees was a hit and as a dramatic close, Finkbeiner laid down the challenge to plant one million trees in Germany. No one expected anything to come of it.

Finkbeiner’s teacher asked him to present his talk again to other students and the headmaster, and two months later, he planted his first tree, a stunted, unimpressive crab apple, near the entrance to his school. If he had known then how much international media coverage that crab apple would receive, he says now, a little ruefully, he would have insisted his mother buy a more majestic first tree.

Looking back, a nine-year-old kid with a cherubic face, a natural gift for public speaking, and a one-million tree-planting challenge was irresistible to the world’s media. Word of Finkbeiner’s project spread rapidly. The next thing he knew, he was speaking to the European Parliament and attending UN conferences in Norway and South Korea. By the time he delivered his speech at the UN in New York in 2011, at the age of 13, Germany had planted its millionth tree, and Plant-for-the-Planet had been officially launched. It had a website and a full-time employee.

The UN also handed over stewardship of its Billion Tree campaign to the group.

“I knew he was this legendary kid,” says Aji Piper, a 15-year-old tree “ambassador” in Seattle who met Finkbeiner in 2015. Piper, an activist and plaintiff in a children’s’ lawsuit against the United States government over climate change, regards Finkbeiner as a role model.

“We saw he was doing speeches. He was so young. Very impressive. That’s the skill level I want to get to.”

Finkbeiner has an answer for skeptics who doubt the science of climate change.

“If we follow the scientists and we act and in 20 years find out that they were wrong, we didn’t do any mistakes,” Finkbeiner told an Urban Futures conference in Austria last year. “But if we follow the skeptics and in 20 years find out that they were wrong, it will be too late to save our future.”


The tree study came about as Plant-for-the-Planet’s ambitions expanded. One of the largest projects now is a reforestation effort underway on the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico. The group built a nursery that contains 300,000 seedlings of native trees and plans ultimately to plant 10 million trees by 2020.

Larger ambitions prompted new questions. Did the 14 billion trees already planted make any difference? Would 10 million in Mexico? Can planting keep up with the continuing deforestation around the world? No one knew. Scientists have long considered conducting a tree census, but until then, no one had done one. Enter Tom Crowther and his team at Yale.

“Felix asked the simple question: how many trees are there?” Crowther says. “Plant-for-the-Planet was certainly the inspiration for me.”

The two-year study, published in Nature in 2015, found that the Earth has 3 trillion trees—seven times the number of previous estimates. The study found that the number of trees on the planet since the dawn of agriculture 12,000 years ago has fallen by almost half—and that about 10 billion trees are lost every year. Planting a billion trees is a nice effort, but won’t make a dent.

“I thought they might be disheartened,” Crowther says. Instead, “they said, ‘Okay, now we have to scale up.’ They didn’t hesitate. They’re contacting billionaires all over the world. It is amazing.”

Scaling up means Plant-for-the-Planet now aims to plant one trillion trees. That’s 1,000 billion. Those trees could absorb an additional 10 billion tons of carbon dioxide every year; Finkbeiner says that will buy time for the world to get serious about reducing carbon emissions.

Meanwhile, he’ll keep giving speeches to the grownups.

“We’re going to be the victims of climate change. It is in our own self-interest to get children to act,” he says. “At the same time, I don’t think we can give up on this generation of adults and wait 20 or 30 years for our generation to come to power. We don’t have that time. All we can do is push them in the right direction.”


How do Pollution and Overfishing impact our Oceans?

Oceans. For centuries people have regarded them as an inexhaustible supply of food, a useful transport route, and a convenient dumping ground - simply too vast to be affected by anything we do.
But human activity, particularly over the last few decades, has finally pushed oceans to their limit. On our next report, Felipe reports on the elements that are threatening our world’s oceans. Pollution and overfishing are two main problems that are damaging one of our most important resources and slowly disrupting an entire ecosystem


Reprintable Paper Becomes a Reality

As much as 40 percent of our landfills consist of paper and cardboard, and a major source of that material comes from office supplies. Just think of all the paper that gets used and discarded on a daily basis through the printer in your office alone. Even if that paper gets recycled, it still presents a different sort of problem due to pollution associated with the ink removal process.

Then there's the concern about deforestation. In the United States, about one-third of all harvested trees are used for paper and cardboard production.

Paper and printing is a problem, to be sure. But now, thanks to a breakthrough from a team of scientists at Shandong University in China, the University of California, Riverside, and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, it might be a problem with a solution, reports

The video below showcases the basics of how the technology works.

The researchers have invented a new type of rewritable paper that can be printed with light — no ink required. The paper feels like normal paper to the touch, but it's coated in color-changing nanoparticles that react to UV light. The technology works simply enough: a UV light printer zaps the paper everywhere except where the text is meant to be. The text then boldly stands out against the clear, light-zapped background.

"The greatest significance of our work is the development of a new class of solid-state photoreversible color-switching system to produce an ink-free light-printable rewritable paper that has the same feel and appearance as conventional paper, but can be printed and erased repeatedly without the need for additional ink," explained Yadong Yin, chemistry professor at the University of California, Riverside. "Our work is believed to have enormous economic and environmental merits to modern society."

The researchers published a paper on their work in the journal Nano Letters.


Seven Earth-Like Planets Orbit One Nearby Star

For the first time ever, astronomers have discovered seven Earth-size planets orbiting a nearby star — and these new worlds could hold life.

This cluster of planets is less than 40 light-years away in the constellation Aquarius, according to NASA and the Belgian-led research team who announced the discovery Wednesday.

The planets circle tightly around a dim dwarf star called Trappist-1, barely the size of Jupiter. Three are in the so-called habitable zone, where liquid water and, possibly life, might exist. The others are right on the doorstep.

This chart shows, on the top row, artist conceptions of the seven planets of TRAPPIST-1 with their orbital periods, distances from their star, radii and masses as compared to those of Earth. The bottom row shows data about Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars.

Scientists said they need to study the atmospheres before determining whether these rocky, terrestrial planets could support some sort of life. But it already shows just how many Earth-size planets could be out there — especially in a star's sweet spot, ripe for extraterrestrial life.

The takeaway from all this is, "we've made a crucial step toward finding if there is life out there," said the University of Cambridge's Amaury Triaud, one of the researchers. The potential for more Earth-size planets in our Milky Way galaxy is mind-boggling.

"There are 200 billion stars in our galaxy," said co-author Emmanuel Jehin of the University of Liege. So do an account. You multiply this by 10, and you have the number of Earth-size planets in the galaxy — which is a lot."

Last spring, the University of Liege's Michael Gillon and his team reported finding three planets around Trappist-1. Now the count is up to seven, and Gillon said there could be more. Their latest findings appear in the journal Nature.

This compact solar system is reminiscent of Jupiter and its Galilean moons, according to the researchers.

Picture this: If Trappist-1 were our sun, all seven planets would be inside Mercury's orbit. Mercury is the innermost planet of our own solar system.

The ultracool star at the heart of this system would shine 200 times dimmer than our sun, a perpetual twilight as we know it. And the star would glow red — maybe salmon-colored, the researchers speculate.

"The spectacle would be beautiful because every now and then, you would see another planet, maybe about as big as twice the moon in the sky, depending on which planet you're on and which planet you look at," Triaud said Tuesday in a teleconference with reporters.

The Leiden Observatory's Ignas Snellen, who was not involved in the study, is excited by the prospect of learning more about what he calls "the seven sisters of planet Earth." In a companion article in Nature, he said Gillon's team could have been lucky in nabbing so many terrestrial planets in one stellar swoop.

"But finding seven transiting Earth-sized planets in such a small sample suggests that the solar system with its four (sub-) Earth-sized planets might be nothing out of the ordinary," Snellen wrote.

Gillon and his team used both ground and space telescopes to identify and track the planets, which they label simply by lowercase letters, "b'' through "h." As is typical in these cases, the letter "A'' — in upper case — is reserved for the star. Planets cast shadows on their star as they pass in front of it; that's how the scientists spotted them.

Tiny, cold stars like Trappist-1 were long shunned by exoplanet-hunters (exoplanets are those outside our solar system). But the Belgian astronomers decided to seek them out, building a telescope in Chile to observe 60 of the closest ultracool dwarf stars. Their Trappist telescope lent its name to this star.

While faint, the Trappist-1 star is close by cosmic standards, allowing astronomers to study the atmospheres of its seven temperate planets. All seven look to be solid like Earth — mostly rocky and possibly icy, too.

They all appear to be tidally locked, which means the same side continually faces the star, just like the same side of our moon always faces us. Life could still exist at these places, the researchers explained.

"Here, if life managed to thrive and releases gases similar to that that we have on Earth, then we will know," Triaud said.

Chemical analyses should indicate life with perhaps 99 percent confidence, Gillon noted. But he added: "We will never be completely sure" without going there.


Should pollinating drones take over for honeybees?

The bees are dying globally at an alarming rate. As we continue to come to grips with the problems of our dystopian future, it’s probably as good a time as ever to dream up some solutions with an idea straight out of the dystopian show Black Mirror: pollinating drones.

We rely heavily on bees and other species to pollinate our plants, and though there isn’t global data, there have been enough local die-offs to spark widespread concern, according to a report from the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. Now, a team of scientists from the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology (AIST) in Japan have engineered drones featuring a specially-engineered adhesive that can pick up and deposit pollen.

The team is not looking to replace natural pollinators, but to assist them in their pollination efforts. They think that in a future, when bee populations are lower, drones like these might be able to relieve the stress of having to do all of the pollination.

“TV programs about the pollination crisis, honey bee decline, and the latest robotics” so, probably not Black Mirror, “emotionally motivated me,” Eijiro Miyako, chemist from AIST, told Gizmodo in an email. “I thought we urgently needed to create something for these problems.”

Miyako’s drone started with a decade-old bottle of sticky gel from a past experiment he found while cleaning his lab. The so-called ionic liquid gel is composed of a collection of complex molecules joined together in long chains, and has the optimal stickiness to pick up pollen grains. The group performed a number of tests with their gel, like rubbing it on ants and flies and having the bugs hang out around flowers. Each bug ended up covered in pollen grains.

Then, the group prepared a 2-inch G-Force PXY CAM remote-controlled drone, by gluing animal hair to the bottom and covering the hair in their goo. The drone could effectively pick up and deposit pollen grains by knocking into the flowers, said Miyako. The group published their results today in the journal Chem. 

The pollinators aren’t quite ready for our dystopian future, yet—they’re still quite hard to control, said Miyako. Plus, the team used remote controls and only tested the drone on one kind of flower—it’s not like the drone crawled inside, as would be necessary to pollinate certain crops. I asked whether he was concerned about whether the drones might harm other animals or bees. He wasn’t. “I think they might be familiar with our robotic drones soon,” he said.

One researcher, (or beesearcher) I spoke with was excited about Miyako’s work. “It’s a really neat paper,” Noah Wilson-Rich, founder and chief science officer of the Best Bees Company, told Gizmodo. His company, which supplies businesses with beehives and collects data on the best habitats for bees, likes interdisciplinary approaches. Biologists study bees and their behavior, physicists and engineers study the drones, and “now you have the chemists to make it all even better,” he said. “It’s a global problem. Everybody eats food, and bees equal food right now.”

Wilson did point out that the study specifically calls out the popular honeybee, but the honeybee is just one of 20,000 species of bees, and one of 200,000 species of pollinators. However, he appreciated that Miyako worked with non-bee species like ants and flies to emphasize that bees aren’t the only ones supporting our food system.


But others don’t see robotic drones as a realistic solution to humanity’s pollinator problem. Biologist David Goulson from the University of Sussex in the UK pointed me towards his blog, where he wrote on Tuesday that we should “look after [bees], not plan for their demise:”

I would argue that it is exceedingly unlikely that we could ever produce something as cheap or as effective as bees themselves. Bees have been around and pollinating flowers for more than 120 million years; they have evolved to become very good at it. It is remarkable hubris to think that we can improve on that. Consider just the numbers; there are roughly 80 million honeybee hives in the world, each containing perhaps 40,000 bees through the spring and summer. That adds up to 3.2 trillion bees. They feed themselves for free, breed for free, and even give us honey as a bonus. What would the cost be of replacing them with robots?

If conservationists used the same drones that Miyako did, that would equal up to $100 dollars per bee—which would mean a whole lot of money to replace even a single hive. Miyako said that reducing the cost was very important to him.

Regardless, we know we have a pollinator problem, and we rely on these little insects to pollinate 70 percent of our crops, according to a report prepared by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Whether or not drones should be a part of the solution, we know that humanity has to do something—after all, the bees are dying globally at an alarming rate.


Look Up Tonight and You’ll See a Comet, an Eclipse, and a Full Moon

Consider this your reward after a long work week: The heavens are set to go wild Friday with a full snow moon lunar eclipse and the closest brush Earth has had with a comet in three decades.

Friday's event is being referred to as a "Full Snow Moon Penumbral Eclipse," because of an old tradition in which each month's moon was named to describe the time of year.

The eclipse is expected to start around 5:34 p.m. EST, with East Coast residents having the best view. Paul Cox, an astronomer at Slooh, told NBC News that East Coast residents should be able to see the spectacle "an hour or so into the eclipse when the moon has risen."

"We will watch as the Full Snow Moon gradually fades from its left-hand side as it's bathed in the Earth's penumbral shadow. The effect is subtle and is easier to see in a series of images than with the naked eye — but it is possible to see with the naked eye," Cox said.

The greatest eclipse will occur at 7:44 p.m. EST, making it easier for East Coasters to get the best views halfway through the four hour and 19 minute long eclipse.

Even after the eclipse is over, it will still be a busy night in the sky. Comet 45P is set to have its closest brush with Earth Friday at 10:30 p.m. ET, marking the nearest encounter in three decades, according to Slooh.

"It was sporting quite a long tail before reaching perihelion (closest to the Sun) on New Year's Eve. When it reappeared into pre-dawn skies last week, it has taken on a beautiful green hue with a diffuse coma. There is little sign of a tail," Cox said.

Comet 45P is speedy but not as bright as forecast, so Cox recommends "either a strong pair of binoculars or small telescope" for optimal viewing.

Slooh will also have the best views of both events, live streaming the gorgeous views on their website.

And if you thought this was a lot, we're in for another big spectacle later this month.

"A lunar eclipse is usually paired with a solar eclipse — in this case, a 'Ring-of-Fire' solar eclipse on February 26th," Cox said. "So just as the Moon is being plunged into the Earth's shadow on Friday, the Earth will be plunged into the Moon's shadow later this month."


Meet The Fog Catcher Who Brings Water To The Poor

Due to the water shortage and contamination of our water, this could be our future.

Fog is moisture. And in some places in the world, it’s the only kind of moisture. This is true in the Atacama Desert – the world’s driest desert – which runs along the west coast of South America through Chile and Peru. In the Atacama it never rains.

Water is an essential resource to survive, yet there are over a billion people that don’t have assess to reliable drinking water.

Water is often scarce in communities located at high altitudes. Fog collection technology can provide a solution.

For many years Eritrea has been harvesting fresh water from fog. It has helped provide drinking water for the community in Nepal, as well as in Yemen, Morocco, Chili and Ethiopia.

Fog collectors are vertical panels of polyethylene mesh that collects water from fog and channels it to a water storage tank. The sun naturally desalinates the water.

A family of coated meshes with a directed stream of fog droplets to simulate a natural foggy environment and demonstrate a five-fold enhancement in the fog-collecting efficiency of a conventional polyolefin mesh. The design rules developed in this work can be applied to select a mesh surface with optimal topography and wetting characteristics to harvest enhanced water fluxes over a wide range of natural convected fog environments.

Abstract Image

The system is placed on hill tops in areas with persistent fog and heavy winds. 

A single 4m long x 10m high net can collect up tp 250L of water a day, which is enough for a family. 

It's efficient. It's resilient. And it's a hell of a lot more economical than paying truck drivers to bring water each day.


How Wind Fans Flames Into ‘Firenadoes'

A fire tornado or “firenado” can form when a wildfire makes the air super hot and it rises very quickly, pulling in winds to create a rapidly spinning twister made of fire. Also called a firewhirl, it may look like a column of fire or it may be a whirlwind apart from the flames.

According to, a very strong wildfire can create a “pyrocumulus cloud,” which looks like a thunderstorm cloud. If the cloud has enough updraft, a relatively small firewhirl can grow big enough to look like a regular tornado. These flaming storms can fuel dangerous high-speed winds, cause ashes to start burning again, and spread fiery debris over long distances.

The National Oceanic Administration Association (NOAA) has said that fire tornadoes are rare, but in recent years more people have been capturing them on camera.

  • Wildfires and strong winds in the state of Sao Paulo, Brazil, created a firenado that stopped traffic on a local highway in August 2010. 
  • TV cameraman Chris Tangey filmed a 90-foot-tall firewhirl at a cattle station in Northern Territory, Australia, in September 2012. 
  • A firenado comes close to homes during the massive Corona Fire in 2008 in Yorba Linda, Calif. Strong Santa Ana winds destroyed homes and charred thousands of acres around Southern California.

    (Photo: David McNew/Getty Images)

Scientists are just beginning to understand more about this phenomenon, but fire tornadoes aren’t exactly new. A really bad one happened after the 1923 Great Kanto earthquake in Japan, when a huge firestorm created a massive firewhirl that killed 38,000 Tokyo residents in about 15 minutes, according to Smithsonian Magazine. A few years later in California, a series of firewhirls after a lightning-induced firestorm caused a lot of property damage and killed two people.


How Smart and Social are Dolphins?

In our special report from the National Aquarium in Baltimore Maryland, Scott gets a close encounter of the dolphin kind.  A marine mammal trainer takes Scott on a behind the scenes tour for some hands on experiences with bottle nosed dolphins.  We learn just how smart and social this mammal is. Plus Scott finds out that why dolphins always seem to be smiling and does that really mean they’re happy all the time.


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