Chris Impey writes about his specialty in observational cosmology.
This has nothing to do with life, nothing that we are dealing with in our daily affairs, and has nothing to do with our dear dogs. BUT! This is incredibly interesting! Incredibly and beautifully interesting!
The most powerful space telescope ever built will look back in time to the Dark Ages of the universe
I’m an astronomer with a specialty in observational cosmology – I’ve been studying distant galaxies for 30 years. Some of the biggest unanswered questions about the universe relate to its early years just after the Big Bang. When did the first stars and galaxies form? Which came first, and why? I am incredibly excited that astronomers may soon uncover the story of how galaxies started because James Webb was built specifically to answer these very questions.
The ‘Dark Ages’ of the universe
Excellent evidence shows that the universe started with an event called the Big Bang 13.8 billion years ago, which left it in an ultra-hot, ultra-dense state. The universe immediately began expanding after the Big Bang, cooling as it did so. One second after the Big Bang, the universe was a hundred trillion miles across with an average temperature of an incredible 18 billion F (10 billion C). Around 400,000 years after the Big Bang, the universe was 10 million light years across and the temperature had cooled to 5,500 F (3,000 C). If anyone had been there to see it at this point, the universe would have been glowing dull red like a giant heat lamp.
Throughout this time, space was filled with a smooth soup of high energy particles, radiation, hydrogen and helium. There was no structure. As the expanding universe became bigger and colder, the soup thinned out and everything faded to black. This was the start of what astronomers call the Dark Ages of the universe.
The soup of the Dark Ages was not perfectly uniform and due to gravity, tiny areas of gas began to clump together and become more dense. The smooth universe became lumpy and these small clumps of denser gas were seeds for the eventual formation of stars, galaxies and everything else in the universe.
Although there was nothing to see, the Dark Ages were an important phase in the evolution of the universe.
Looking for the first light
The Dark Ages ended when gravity formed the first stars and galaxies that eventually began to emit the first light. Although astronomers don’t know when first light happened, the best guess is that it was several hundred million years after the Big Bang. Astronomers also don’t know whether stars or galaxies formed first.
Current theories based on how gravity forms structure in a universe dominated by dark matter suggest that small objects – like stars and star clusters – likely formed first and then later grew into dwarf galaxies and then larger galaxies like the Milky Way. These first stars in the universe were extreme objects compared to stars of today. They were a million times brighter but they lived very short lives. They burned hot and bright and when they died, they left behind black holes up to a hundred times the Sun’s mass, which might have acted as the seeds for galaxy formation.
Astronomers would love to study this fascinating and important era of the universe, but detecting first light is incredibly challenging. Compared to massive, bright galaxies of today, the first objects were very small and due to the constant expansion of the universe, they’re now tens of billions of light years away from Earth. Also, the earliest stars were surrounded by gas left over from their formation and this gas acted like fog that absorbed most of the light. It took several hundred million years for radiation to blast away the fog. This early light is very faint by the time it gets to Earth.
But this is not the only challenge.
As the universe expands, it continuously stretches the wavelength of light traveling through it. This is called redshift because it shifts light of shorter wavelengths – like blue or white light – to longer wavelengths like red or infrared light. Though not a perfect analogy, it is similar to how when a car drives past you, the pitch of any sounds it is making drops noticeably. Similar to how a pitch of a sound drops if the source is moving away from you, the wavelength of light stretches due to the expansion of the universe.
By the time light emitted by an early star or galaxy 13 billion years ago reaches any telescope on Earth, it has been stretched by a factor of 10 by the expansion of the universe. It arrives as infrared light, meaning it has a wavelength longer than that of red light. To see first light, you have to be looking for infrared light.
Telescope as a time machine
Enter the James Webb Space Telescope.
Telescopes are like time machines. If an object is 10,000 light-years away, that means the light takes 10,000 years to reach Earth. So the further out in space astronomers look, the further back in time we are looking.
James Webb is the most technically difficult mission NASA has ever attempted. But I think the scientific questions it may help answer will be worth every ounce of effort. I and other astronomers are waiting excitedly for the data to start coming back sometime in 2022.
We live in a rural part of Southern Oregon. The number of deer hit on our roads is appalling. Not infrequently when out cycling I come across a deer that seems uninjured. Often I get off my bike and stroke the animal, or drag it from the centre of the road to the shoulder. But it is dead.
Once recently the deer was still warm. What surprises me is that they are always dead. There never seems to be a deer that has been wounded. Probably just as well as I wouldn’t want to leave the animal.
We feed the deer at home on a daily basis and there is a young stag that has become familiar with me and starts eating the COB (corn, oats and barley mixed together) even before I have finished setting out the six piles of food. They are very dear creatures.
So this article has to be shared with you!
Fall means more deer on the road: 4 ways time of day, month and year raise your risk of crashes
Autumn is here, and that means the risk of hitting deer on rural roads and highways is rising, especially around dusk and during a full moon.
Deer cause over 1 million motor vehicle accidents in the U.S. each year, resulting in more than US$1 billion in property damage, about 200 human deaths and 29,000 serious injuries. Property damage insurance claims average around $2,600 per accident, and the overall average cost, including severe injuries or death, is over $6,000.
Transportation agencies, working with scientists, have been developing ways to predict where deer and other ungulates enter roads so they can post warning signs or install fencing or wildlife passages under or over the roadway. Just as important is knowing when these accidents occur.
The risk of hitting a deer varies by time of day, day of the week, the monthly lunar cycle and seasons of the year.
These accident cycles are partly a function of driver behavior – they are highest when traffic is heavy, drivers are least alert and driving conditions are poorest for spotting animals. They are also affected by deer behavior. Not infrequently, deer-vehicle accidents involve multiple vehicles, as startled drivers swerve to miss a deer and collide with a vehicle in another lane, or they slam on the breaks and are rear-ended by the vehicle behind.
In analyzing thousands of deer-vehicle collisions, we found that these accidents occur most frequently at dusk and dawn, when deer are most active and drivers’ ability to spot them is poorest. Only about 20% of accidents occur during daylight hours. Deer-vehicle accidents are eight times more frequent per hour of dusk than daylight, and four times more frequent at dusk than after nightfall.
During the week, accidents occur most frequently on days that have the most drivers on the road at dawn or dusk, so they are associated with work commuter driving patterns and social factors such as Friday “date night” traffic.
Over the span of a month, the most deer-vehicle accidents occur during the full moon, and at the time of night that the moon is brightest. Deer move greater distances from cover and are more likely to enter roadways when there is more illumination at night. The pattern holds for deer and other ungulates in both North America and Europe.
That high-risk period is also when daylight saving time ends – it happens on Nov. 7, 2021, in the U.S. Shifting the clock one hour back means more commuters are on the road during the high-risk dusk hours. The result is more cars driving at the peak time of day and during the peak time of the year for deer-vehicle accidents.
Overall, given that most U.S. states and more than 70 countries have seasonal “daylight saving” clock shifts, elevated ungulate-vehicle accident rates caused by clock shift may be a widespread problem.
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It’s important to remember that deer-vehicle accidents can occur at any time of day or night, on any day of the year – and that deer can show up in urban areas as well as rural ones.
The insurance company State Farm found that on average, U.S. drivers have a 1 in 116 chance of hitting an animal, with much higher rates in states such as West Virginia, Montana and Pennsylvania. Over the 12 months ending in June 2020, State Farm counted 1.9 million insurance claims for collisions with wildlife nationwide. Around 90% of those involved deer.
Where deer or other ungulates are likely to be present, drivers should always be alert and cautious, especially at dawn, dusk, on bright moonlit nights and during the fall rut.
Nothing else to say but we drivers need to slow down and extra vigilant. Driving safely means always allowing for the unexpected and never following the vehicle in front too close. The minimum safe distance is one vehicle length for every 10 miles per hour in speed!
I wasn’t going to publish a post for today but then yesterday I read this article on The Conversation and wanted to share it with you. In fact it shares much of what I posted on the 1st, The Big Question. Because time and infinity are beautifully connected.
Imagine time running backwards. People would grow younger instead of older and, after a long life of gradual rejuvenation – unlearning everything they know – they would end as a twinkle in their parents’ eyes. That’s time as represented in a novel by science fiction writer Philip K Dick but, surprisingly, time’s direction is also an issue that cosmologists are grappling with.
While we take for granted that time has a given direction, physicists don’t: most natural laws are “time reversible” which means they would work just as well if time was defined as running backwards. So why does time always move forward? And will it always do so?
Does time have a beginning?
Any universal concept of time must ultimately be based on the evolution of the cosmos itself. When you look up at the universe you’re seeing events that happened in the past – it takes light time to reach us. In fact, even the simplest observation can help us understand cosmological time: for example the fact that the night sky is dark. If the universe had an infinite past and was infinite in extent, the night sky would be completely bright – filled with the light from an infinite number of stars in a cosmos that had always existed.
For a long time scientists, including Albert Einstein, thought that the universe was static and infinite. Observations have since shown that it is in fact expanding, and at an accelerating rate. This means that it must have originated from a more compact state that we call the Big Bang, implying that time does have a beginning. In fact, if we look for light that is old enough we can even see the relic radiation from Big Bang – the cosmic microwave background. Realising this was a first step in determining the age of the universe (see below).
But there is a snag, Einstein’s special theory of relativity, shows that time is … relative: the faster you move relative to me, the slower time will pass for you relative to my perception of time. So in our universe of expanding galaxies, spinning stars and swirling planets, experiences of time vary: everything’s past, present and future is relative.
So is there a universal time that we could all agree on?
It turns out that because the universe is on average the same everywhere, and on average looks the same in every direction, there does exist a “cosmic time”. To measure it, all we have to do is measure the properties of the cosmic microwave background. Cosmologists have used this to determine the age of the universe; its cosmic age. It turns out that the universe is 13.799 billion years old.
So we know time most likely started during the Big Bang. But there is one nagging question that remains: what exactly is time?
To unpack this question, we have to look at the basic properties of space and time. In the dimension of space, you can move forwards and backwards; commuters experience this everyday. But time is different, it has a direction, you always move forward, never in reverse. So why is the dimension of time irreversible? This is one of the major unsolved problems in physics.
To explain why time itself is irreversible, we need to find processes in nature that are also irreversible. One of the few such concepts in physics (and life!) is that things tend to become less “tidy” as time passes. We describe this using a physical property called entropy that encodes how ordered something is.
Imagine a box of gas in which all the particles were initially placed in one corner (an ordered state). Over time they would naturally seek to fill the entire box (a disordered state) – and to put the particles back into an ordered state would require energy. This is irreversible. It’s like cracking an egg to make an omelette – once it spreads out and fills the frying pan, it will never go back to being egg-shaped. It’s the same with the universe: as it evolves, the overall entropy increases.
It turns out entropy is a pretty good way to explain time’s arrow. And while it may seem like the universe is becoming more ordered rather than less – going from a wild sea of relatively uniformly spread out hot gas in its early stages to stars, planets, humans and articles about time – it’s nevertheless possible that it is increasing in disorder. That’s because the gravity associated with large masses may be pulling matter into seemingly ordered states – with the increase in disorder that we think must have taken place being somehow hidden away in the gravitational fields. So disorder could be increasing even though we don’t see it.
But given nature’s tendency to prefer disorder, why did the universe start off in such an ordered state in the first place? This is still considered a mystery. Some researchers argue that the Big Bang may not even have been the beginning, there may in fact be “parallel universes” where time runs in different directions.
Will time end?
Time had a beginning but whether it will have an end depends on the nature of the dark energy that is causing it to expand at an accelerating rate. The rate of this expansion may eventually tear the universe apart, forcing it to end in a Big Rip; alternatively dark energy may decay, reversing the Big Bang and ending the Universe in a Big Crunch; or the Universe may simply expand forever.
But would any of these future scenarios end time? Well, according to the strange rules of quantum mechanics, tiny random particles can momentarily pop out of a vacuum – something seen constantly in particle physics experiments. Some have argued that dark energy could cause such “quantum fluctuations” giving rise to a new Big Bang, ending our time line and starting a new one. While this is extremely speculative and highly unlikely, what we do know is that only when we understand dark energy will we know the fate of the universe.
So what is the most likely outcome? Only time will tell.
Let me explain, in part, entropy. Because while I and many others sort of understand it, the principle behind entropy is much more detailed.
It is explained pretty well on WikiPedia, from which I reproduce the first paragraph.
For the first day of September I wanted to change the topic to an item that was recently published by The Conversation.
Space has always been fascinating to me. One of my enduring memories was standing on the roof of my Land Rover in 1969 during a long journey around the interior of Australia. We were in the Nullabor desert and it was flat, and lonely, for miles and miles. This particular night I clambered up onto the roof and just took in the night sky. There was not a single spot of human-caused light pollution and the night sky was beautiful beyond words.
Later on when I was sailing I used to regard the North Star as my friend.
Above the atmosphere is space. It’s called that because it has far fewer molecules, with lots of empty space between them.
Have you ever wondered what it would be like to travel to outer space – and then keep going? What would you find? Scientists like me are able to explain a lot of what you’d see. But there are some things we don’t know yet, like whether space just goes on forever.
Planets, stars and galaxies
At the beginning of your trip through space, you might recognize some of the sights. The Earth is part of a group of planets that all orbit the Sun – with some orbiting asteroids and comets mixed in, too.
You might know that the Sun is actually just an average star, and looks bigger and brighter than the other stars only because it is closer. To get to the next nearest star, you would have to travel through trillions of miles of space. If you could ride on the fastest space probe NASA has ever made, it would still take you thousands of years to get there.
If stars are like houses, then galaxies are like cities full of houses. Scientists estimate there are 100 billion stars in Earth’s galaxy. If you could zoom out, way beyond Earth’s galaxy, those 100 billion stars would blend together – the way lights of city buildings do when viewed from an airplane.
If you could watch for long enough, over millions of years, it would look like new space is gradually being added between all the galaxies. You can visualize this by imagining tiny dots on a deflated balloon and then thinking about blowing it up. The dots would keep moving farther apart, just like the galaxies are.
Is there an end?
If you could keep going out, as far as you wanted, would you just keep passing by galaxies forever? Are there an infinite number of galaxies in every direction? Or does the whole thing eventually end? And if it does end, what does it end with?
One way to think about this is to picture a globe, and imagine that you are a creature that can move only on the surface. If you start walking any direction, east for example, and just keep going, eventually you would come back to where you began. If this were the case for the universe, it would mean it is not infinitely big – although it would still be bigger than you can imagine.
In either case, you could never get to the end of the universe or space. Scientists now consider it unlikely the universe has an end – a region where the galaxies stop or where there would be a barrier of some kind marking the end of space.
But nobody knows for sure. How to answer this question will need to be figured out by a future scientist.
Now of course the majority of people reading the title to today’s post would think of us humans. And what I am about to republish is for us. But dogs require exercise just as much as we humans. The question is whether dog’s brains are better protected with exercise?
The exercise pill: How exercise keeps your brain healthy and protects it against depression and anxiety.
By Arash Javanbakht, Associate Professor of Psychiatry, Wayne State University, February 25th, 2021
As with many other physicians, recommending physical activity to patients was just a doctor chore for me – until a few years ago. That was because I myself was not very active. Over the years, as I picked up boxing and became more active, I got firsthand experience of positive impacts on my mind. I also started researching the effects of dance and movement therapies on trauma and anxiety in refugee children, and I learned a lot more about the neurobiology of exercise.
I am a psychiatrist and neuroscientist researching the neurobiology of anxiety and how our interventions change the brain. I have begun to think of prescribing exercise as telling patients to take their “exercise pills.” Now knowing the importance of exercising, almost all my patients commit to some level of exercise, and I have seen how it benefits several areas of their life and livelihood.
We all have heard details on how exercise improves musculoskeletal, cardiovascular, metabolic and other aspects of health. What you may not know is how this happens within the brain.
Brain biology and growth
Working out regularly really does change the brain biology, and it is not just “go walk and you will just feel better.” Regular exercise, especially cardio, does change the brain. Contrary to what some may think, the brain is a very plastic organ. Not only are new neuronal connections formed every day, but also new cells are generated in important areas of the brain. One key area is the hippocampus, which is involved in learning and memory and regulating negative emotions.
Finally, there is evidence for the positive effects of exercise on the neurotransmitters – brain chemicals that send signals between neurons – dopamine and endorphins. Both of these are involved in positive mood and motivation.
Exercise improves clinical symptoms of anxiety and depression
Exercise could even potentially desensitize people to physical symptoms of anxiety. That is because of the similarity between bodily effects of exercise, specifically high-intensity exercise, and those of anxiety, including shortness of breath, heart palpitation and chest tightness. Also, by reducing baseline heart rate, exercise might lead to signaling of a calmer internal physical environment to the brain.
It is important to note that the majority of studies examined the effects of exercise in isolation and not in combination with other effective treatments of clinical anxiety and depression, such as psychotherapy and medication. For the same reason, I am not suggesting exercise as a replacement for necessary mental health care of depression or anxiety, but as part of it, and for prevention.
There are other perks besides the neurobiological impacts of exercise. When going out for a walk, one gets more exposure to sunlight, fresh air and nature. One of my patients befriended a neighbor during her regular walks, leading to regular taco Tuesdays with that new friend. I have made some great friends at my boxing gym, who are not only my motivators, but also a great supporting social network. One might pick a dog as their running mate, and another might meet a new date, or enjoy the high energy at the gym. Exercise can also function as a mindfulness practice and a respite from common daily stressors, and from our electronic devices and TV.
So how can you find time to exercise, especially with all the additional time demands of the pandemic, and the limitations imposed by the pandemic such as limited access to the gyms?
Pick something you can love. Not all of us have to run on a treadmill (I actually hate it). What works for one person might not work for another. Try a diverse group of activities and see which one you will like more: running, walking, dancing, biking, kayaking, boxing, weights, swimming. You can even rotate between some or make seasonal changes to avoid boredom. It does not even have to be called an exercise. Whatever ups your heartbeat, even dancing with the TV ads or playing with the kids.
Use positive peer pressure to your advantage. I have created a group messaging for the boxing gym because at 5:30 p.m., after a busy day at the clinic, I might have trouble finding the motivation to go to the gym or do an online workout. It is easier when friends send a message they are going and motivate you. And even if you do not feel comfortable going to a gym during the pandemic, you can join an online workout together.
Do not see it as all or none. It does not have to be a one-hour drive to and from the gym or biking trail for a one-hour workout vs. staying on the couch. I always say to my patients: “One more step is better than none, and three squats are better than no squats.” When less motivated, or in the beginning, just be nice to yourself. Do as much as possible. Three minutes of dancing with your favorite music still counts.
Merge it with other activities: 15 minutes of walking while on the phone with a friend, even around the house, is still being active.
When hesitant or low on motivation, ask yourself: “When was the last time I regretted doing it?”
Although it can help, exercise is not the ultimate weight loss strategy; diet is. One large brownie might be more calories than one hour of running. Don’t give up on exercise if you are not losing weight. It is still providing all the benefits we discussed.
Even if you do not feel anxious or depressed, still take the exercise pills. Use them for protecting your brain.
This is a very good post. Arash Javanbakht is a scientist of the first order and we all should do as she advises. I’m going to close today’s post by republish the first two paragraphs of his bio that is also published by The Conversation:
Associate Professor of Psychiatry, Wayne State University Arash Javanbakht, M.D., is the director of the Stress, Trauma, and Anxiety Research Clinic (STARC; https://www.starclab.org) at Wayne State University. Dr Javanbakht and her work have been featured on the National Geographic, The Atlantic, CNN, Aljazeera, NPR, Washington Post, Smithsonian, PBS, American Psychiatric Association, Anxiety and Depression Association of America, American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and tens of other media.
Her clinical and research work is mainly focused on anxiety and trauma related disorders, and PTSD. She often helps civilians and first responders with PTSD. Her clinic utilizes pharmacotherapy (medication), psychotherapy, exercise, and lifestyle modification to help patients achieve their full capacity for a fulfilling life.
Luckily, her mom found the perfect place to help her come out of her shell — Home Depot.
“The Home Depot runs started as a way to help her with her fears,” Rakers told The Dodo. “She was nervous about new places and new sounds, so we’d go for five minutes and she’d get all the treats. Then we started going longer and longer and exposing her to more and more things within the store.”
The large, dog-friendly store was the perfect place for Heaven to socialize, and the pup was such a good girl on her visits that she earned her own tiny employee apron.
Now, Heaven knows that when the apron comes out, she’s about to go to her favorite place.
“I keep it in the car so we are always ready,” Rakers said. “As soon as she can tell we are in the parking lot, she just quivers until I put [the apron] on her and then she takes off towards ‘work.’”
“She walks around like she owns the place,” Rakers added.
Heaven has become a bit of a celebrity at her local Home Depot, where all the staff knows her by name, and there’s even a picture of her in the break room.
And while she may not be an official employee, when she’s at her favorite store, she offers excellent customer service.
“She walks around minding her own business and then suddenly insists on meeting someone,” Rakers said. “She just sits and stares. They always end up saying how they needed that pick-me-up. It’s like she has a sense of who needs to be shown they are loved that day — and one of her favorite places to do that is Home Depot!”
Heaven loves running errands with her mom, and everywhere they go, she finds someone having a rough day who needs her smile.
“She was scared of everything, but with a lot of training and patience she learned to trust and now it’s like she pays it forward,” Rakers said. “She finds who needs her and gives them that smile and a cuddle.”
The only downside of all their Home Depot runs is that every time they visit, Rakers comes up with a new home improvement project. But all the retail therapy is worth it when she sees how happy Heaven is and how far she’s come.
“She’s the perfect example of what happens when you meet someone where they are at and love unconditionally,” Rakers said. “She went from so scared and so sad to the happiest dog.”
Thank goodness our local Home Depot here in Grants Pass (Oregon) don’t have a Heaven in the store. For if they did Jean and I would be in the store every day of the year. OK, maybe a small exaggeration but only a small one!
Seriously, Home Depot are to be congratulated. It’s good for the store. It’s good for the employees. It’s good for the customers. But it is fantastic for Heaven!
Sometimes realisation comes in a blinding flash. Blurred outlines snap into shape and suddenly it all makes sense. Underneath such revelations is typically a much slower-dawning process. Doubts at the back of the mind grow. The sense of confusion that things cannot be made to fit together increases until something clicks. Or perhaps snaps.
Collectively we three authors of this article must have spent more than 80 years thinking about climate change. Why has it taken us so long to speak out about the obvious dangers of the concept of net zero? In our defence, the premise of net zero is deceptively simple – and we admit that it deceived us.
The threats of climate change are the direct result of there being too much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. So it follows that we must stop emitting more and even remove some of it. This idea is central to the world’s current plan to avoid catastrophe. In fact, there are many suggestions as to how to actually do this, from mass tree planting, to high tech direct air capture devices that suck out carbon dioxide from the air.
The current consensus is that if we deploy these and other so-called “carbon dioxide removal” techniques at the same time as reducing our burning of fossil fuels, we can more rapidly halt global warming. Hopefully around the middle of this century we will achieve “net zero”. This is the point at which any residual emissions of greenhouse gases are balanced by technologies removing them from the atmosphere.
This is a great idea, in principle. Unfortunately, in practice it helps perpetuate a belief in technological salvation and diminishes the sense of urgency surrounding the need to curb emissions now.
We have arrived at the painful realisation that the idea of net zero has licensed a recklessly cavalier “burn now, pay later” approach which has seen carbon emissions continue to soar. It has also hastened the destruction of the natural world by increasing deforestation today, and greatly increases the risk of further devastation in the future.
To understand how this has happened, how humanity has gambled its civilisation on no more than promises of future solutions, we must return to the late 1980s, when climate change broke out onto the international stage.
Steps towards net zero
On June 22 1988, James Hansen was the administrator of Nasa’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, a prestigious appointment but someone largely unknown outside of academia.
By the afternoon of the 23rd he was well on the way to becoming the world’s most famous climate scientist. This was as a direct result of his testimony to the US congress, when he forensically presented the evidence that the Earth’s climate was warming and that humans were the primary cause: “The greenhouse effect has been detected, and it is changing our climate now.”
If we had acted on Hansen’s testimony at the time, we would have been able to decarbonise our societies at a rate of around 2% a year in order to give us about a two-in-three chance of limiting warming to no more than 1.5°C. It would have been a huge challenge, but the main task at that time would have been to simply stop the accelerating use of fossil fuels while fairly sharing out future emissions.
Four years later, there were glimmers of hope that this would be possible. During the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio, all nations agreed to stabilise concentrations of greenhouse gases to ensure that they did not produce dangerous interference with the climate. The 1997 Kyoto Summit attempted to start to put that goal into practice. But as the years passed, the initial task of keeping us safe became increasingly harder given the continual increase in fossil fuel use.
It was around that time that the first computer models linking greenhouse gas emissions to impacts on different sectors of the economy were developed. These hybrid climate-economic models are known as Integrated Assessment Models. They allowed modellers to link economic activity to the climate by, for example, exploring how changes in investments and technology could lead to changes in greenhouse gas emissions.
They seemed like a miracle: you could try out policies on a computer screen before implementing them, saving humanity costly experimentation. They rapidly emerged to become key guidance for climate policy. A primacy they maintain to this day.
Unfortunately, they also removed the need for deep critical thinking. Such models represent society as a web of idealised, emotionless buyers and sellers and thus ignore complex social and political realities, or even the impacts of climate change itself. Their implicit promise is that market-based approaches will always work. This meant that discussions about policies were limited to those most convenient to politicians: incremental changes to legislation and taxes.
Around the time they were first developed, efforts were being made to secure US action on the climate by allowing it to count carbon sinks of the country’s forests. The US argued that if it managed its forests well, it would be able to store a large amount of carbon in trees and soil which should be subtracted from its obligations to limit the burning of coal, oil and gas. In the end, the US largely got its way. Ironically, the concessions were all in vain, since the US senate never ratified the agreement.
Postulating a future with more trees could in effect offset the burning of coal, oil and gas now. As models could easily churn out numbers that saw atmospheric carbon dioxide go as low as one wanted, ever more sophisticated scenarios could be explored which reduced the perceived urgency to reduce fossil fuel use. By including carbon sinks in climate-economic models, a Pandora’s box had been opened.
It’s here we find the genesis of today’s net zero policies.
That said, most attention in the mid-1990s was focused on increasing energy efficiency and energy switching (such as the UK’s move from coal to gas) and the potential of nuclear energy to deliver large amounts of carbon-free electricity. The hope was that such innovations would quickly reverse increases in fossil fuel emissions.
But by around the turn of the new millennium it was clear that such hopes were unfounded. Given their core assumption of incremental change, it was becoming more and more difficult for economic-climate models to find viable pathways to avoid dangerous climate change. In response, the models began to include more and more examples of carbon capture and storage, a technology that could remove the carbon dioxide from coal-fired power stations and then store the captured carbon deep underground indefinitely.
This had been shown to be possible in principle: compressed carbon dioxide had been separated from fossil gas and then injected underground in a number of projects since the 1970s. These Enhanced Oil Recovery schemes were designed to force gases into oil wells in order to push oil towards drilling rigs and so allow more to be recovered – oil that would later be burnt, releasing even more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
Carbon capture and storage offered the twist that instead of using the carbon dioxide to extract more oil, the gas would instead be left underground and removed from the atmosphere. This promised breakthrough technology would allow climate friendly coal and so the continued use of this fossil fuel. But long before the world would witness any such schemes, the hypothetical process had been included in climate-economic models. In the end, the mere prospect of carbon capture and storage gave policy makers a way out of making the much needed cuts to greenhouse gas emissions.
The rise of net zero
When the international climate change community convened in Copenhagen in 2009 it was clear that carbon capture and storage was not going to be sufficient for two reasons.
First, it still did not exist. There were no carbon capture and storage facilities in operation on any coal fired power station and no prospect the technology was going to have any impact on rising emissions from increased coal use in the foreseeable future.
The biggest barrier to implementation was essentially cost. The motivation to burn vast amounts of coal is to generate relatively cheap electricity. Retrofitting carbon scrubbers on existing power stations, building the infrastructure to pipe captured carbon, and developing suitable geological storage sites required huge sums of money. Consequently the only application of carbon capture in actual operation then – and now – is to use the trapped gas in enhanced oil recovery schemes. Beyond a single demonstrator, there has never been any capture of carbon dioxide from a coal fired power station chimney with that captured carbon then being stored underground.
Just as important, by 2009 it was becoming increasingly clear that it would not be possible to make even the gradual reductions that policy makers demanded. That was the case even if carbon capture and storage was up and running. The amount of carbon dioxide that was being pumped into the air each year meant humanity was rapidly running out of time.
With hopes for a solution to the climate crisis fading again, another magic bullet was required. A technology was needed not only to slow down the increasing concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, but actually reverse it. In response, the climate-economic modelling community – already able to include plant-based carbon sinks and geological carbon storage in their models – increasingly adopted the “solution” of combining the two.
So it was that Bioenergy Carbon Capture and Storage, or BECCS, rapidly emerged as the new saviour technology. By burning “replaceable” biomass such as wood, crops, and agricultural waste instead of coal in power stations, and then capturing the carbon dioxide from the power station chimney and storing it underground, BECCS could produce electricity at the same time as removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. That’s because as biomass such as trees grow, they suck in carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. By planting trees and other bioenergy crops and storing carbon dioxide released when they are burnt, more carbon could be removed from the atmosphere.
With this new solution in hand the international community regrouped from repeated failures to mount another attempt at reining in our dangerous interference with the climate. The scene was set for the crucial 2015 climate conference in Paris.
A Parisian false dawn
As its general secretary brought the 21st United Nations conference on climate change to an end, a great roar issued from the crowd. People leaped to their feet, strangers embraced, tears welled up in eyes bloodshot from lack of sleep.
The emotions on display on December 13, 2015 were not just for the cameras. After weeks of gruelling high-level negotiations in Paris a breakthrough had finally been achieved. Against all expectations, after decades of false starts and failures, the international community had finally agreed to do what it took to limit global warming to well below 2°C, preferably to 1.5°C, compared to pre-industrial levels.
But dig a little deeper and you could find another emotion lurking within delegates on December 13. Doubt. We struggle to name any climate scientist who at that time thought the Paris Agreement was feasible. We have since been told by some scientists that the Paris Agreement was “of course important for climate justice but unworkable” and “a complete shock, no one thought limiting to 1.5°C was possible”. Rather than being able to limit warming to 1.5°C, a senior academic involved in the IPCC concluded we were heading beyond 3°C by the end of this century.
Instead of confront our doubts, we scientists decided to construct ever more elaborate fantasy worlds in which we would be safe. The price to pay for our cowardice: having to keep our mouths shut about the ever growing absurdity of the required planetary-scale carbon dioxide removal.
Taking centre stage was BECCS because at the time this was the only way climate-economic models could find scenarios that would be consistent with the Paris Agreement. Rather than stabilise, global emissions of carbon dioxide had increased some 60% since 1992.
Alas, BECCS, just like all the previous solutions, was too good to be true.
Across the scenarios produced by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) with a 66% or better chance of limiting temperature increase to 1.5°C, BECCS would need to remove 12 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide each year. BECCS at this scale would require massive planting schemes for trees and bioenergy crops.
The Earth certainly needs more trees. Humanity has cut down some three trillion since we first started farming some 13,000 years ago. But rather than allow ecosystems to recover from human impacts and forests to regrow, BECCS generally refers to dedicated industrial-scale plantations regularly harvested for bioenergy rather than carbon stored away in forest trunks, roots and soils.
Currently, the two most efficient biofuels are sugarcane for bioethanol and palm oil for biodiesel – both grown in the tropics. Endless rows of such fast growing monoculture trees or other bioenergy crops harvested at frequent intervals devastate biodiversity.
It has been estimated that BECCS would demand between 0.4 and 1.2 billion hectares of land. That’s 25% to 80% of all the land currently under cultivation. How will that be achieved at the same time as feeding 8-10 billion people around the middle of the century or without destroying native vegetation and biodiversity?
Growing billions of trees would consume vast amounts of water – in some places where people are already thirsty. Increasing forest cover in higher latitudes can have an overall warming effect because replacing grassland or fields with forests means the land surface becomes darker. This darker land absorbs more energy from the Sun and so temperatures rise. Focusing on developing vast plantations in poorer tropical nations comes with real risks of people being driven off their lands.
And it is often forgotten that trees and the land in general already soak up and store away vast amounts of carbon through what is called the natural terrestrial carbon sink. Interfering with it could both disrupt the sink and lead to double accounting.
As these impacts are becoming better understood, the sense of optimism around BECCS has diminished.
Given the dawning realisation of how difficult Paris would be in the light of ever rising emissions and limited potential of BECCS, a new buzzword emerged in policy circles: the “overshoot scenario”. Temperatures would be allowed to go beyond 1.5°C in the near term, but then be brought down with a range of carbon dioxide removal by the end of the century. This means that net zero actually means carbon negative. Within a few decades, we will need to transform our civilisation from one that currently pumps out 40 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year, to one that produces a net removal of tens of billions.
Mass tree planting, for bioenergy or as an attempt at offsetting, had been the latest attempt to stall cuts in fossil fuel use. But the ever-increasing need for carbon removal was calling for more. This is why the idea of direct air capture, now being touted by some as the most promising technology out there, has taken hold. It is generally more benign to ecosystems because it requires significantly less land to operate than BECCS, including the land needed to power them using wind or solar panels.
Unfortunately, it is widely believed that direct air capture, because of its exorbitant costs and energy demand, if it ever becomes feasible to be deployed at scale, will not be able to compete with BECCS with its voracious appetite for prime agricultural land.
It should now be getting clear where the journey is heading. As the mirage of each magical technical solution disappears, another equally unworkable alternative pops up to take its place. The next is already on the horizon – and it’s even more ghastly. Once we realise net zero will not happen in time or even at all, geoengineering – the deliberate and large scale intervention in the Earth’s climate system – will probably be invoked as the solution to limit temperature increases.
One of the most researched geoengineering ideas is solar radiation management – the injection of millions of tons of sulphuric acid into the stratosphere that will reflect some of the Sun’s energy away from the Earth. It is a wild idea, but some academics and politicians are deadly serious, despite significant risks. The US National Academies of Sciences, for example, has recommended allocating up to US$200 million over the next five years to explore how geoengineering could be deployed and regulated. Funding and research in this area is sure to significantly increase.
In principle there is nothing wrong or dangerous about carbon dioxide removal proposals. In fact developing ways of reducing concentrations of carbon dioxide can feel tremendously exciting. You are using science and engineering to save humanity from disaster. What you are doing is important. There is also the realisation that carbon removal will be needed to mop up some of the emissions from sectors such as aviation and cement production. So there will be some small role for a number of different carbon dioxide removal approaches.
The problems come when it is assumed that these can be deployed at vast scale. This effectively serves as a blank cheque for the continued burning of fossil fuels and the acceleration of habitat destruction.
Carbon reduction technologies and geoengineering should be seen as a sort of ejector seat that could propel humanity away from rapid and catastrophic environmental change. Just like an ejector seat in a jet aircraft, it should only be used as the very last resort. However, policymakers and businesses appear to be entirely serious about deploying highly speculative technologies as a way to land our civilisation at a sustainable destination. In fact, these are no more than fairy tales.
The only way to keep humanity safe is the immediate and sustained radical cuts to greenhouse gas emissions in a socially just way.
Academics typically see themselves as servants to society. Indeed, many are employed as civil servants. Those working at the climate science and policy interface desperately wrestle with an increasingly difficult problem. Similarly, those that champion net zero as a way of breaking through barriers holding back effective action on the climate also work with the very best of intentions.
The tragedy is that their collective efforts were never able to mount an effective challenge to a climate policy process that would only allow a narrow range of scenarios to be explored.
Most academics feel distinctly uncomfortable stepping over the invisible line that separates their day job from wider social and political concerns. There are genuine fears that being seen as advocates for or against particular issues could threaten their perceived independence. Scientists are one of the most trusted professions. Trust is very hard to build and easy to destroy.
But there is another invisible line, the one that separates maintaining academic integrity and self-censorship. As scientists, we are taught to be sceptical, to subject hypotheses to rigorous tests and interrogation. But when it comes to perhaps the greatest challenge humanity faces, we often show a dangerous lack of critical analysis.
In private, scientists express significant scepticism about the Paris Agreement, BECCS, offsetting, geoengineering and net zero. Apart from some notable exceptions, in public we quietly go about our work, apply for funding, publish papers and teach. The path to disastrous climate change is paved with feasibility studies and impact assessments.
Rather than acknowledge the seriousness of our situation, we instead continue to participate in the fantasy of net zero. What will we do when reality bites? What will we say to our friends and loved ones about our failure to speak out now?
The time has come to voice our fears and be honest with wider society. Current net zero policies will not keep warming to within 1.5°C because they were never intended to. They were and still are driven by a need to protect business as usual, not the climate. If we want to keep people safe then large and sustained cuts to carbon emissions need to happen now. That is the very simple acid test that must be applied to all climate policies. The time for wishful thinking is over.
I can’t add anything to this article because it is written by scientists and that is one thing that I know I am not!
But I can comment as a very concerned adult and really can do more that repeat what I said in yesterday’s post:
Thank goodness for our younger generation. Because these young people are coming together to fight for change. May they have universal encouragement from those of us who will never see our younger days again!
This is one of the most important posts since I started blogging!
I was born in 1944 and that makes me 76. I am reasonably engaged in the issues facing us but, in a sense, protected from the realities of the modern world because I have a loving wife, two loving young people, as in my son Alex and my daughter Maija, and a special grandson, Morten.
We are also very lucky in that my wife, Jean, and I are both retired and we live on 13 rural acres in a beautiful part of Southern Oregon and enjoy immensely our six dogs, two horses, two parakeets and feeding the wild birds and deer.
But it can’t stay that way because of the encroaching elephant in the room.
I am speaking of climate change that if not dealt with in the near future, say in the next 10 years, will lead to an unimaginable state of affairs.
Now one could argue that you come to Learning from Dogs to get away from climate change and the like. But this is too important and, also, involves all of us including our gorgeous dogs.
First, I want to include an extract from a recent Scientists Warning newsletter (and please read this extract carefully).
Recently, one article on the climate emergency above all others has cut through – with over ONE MILLION views, “Climate scientists: concept of net zero is a dangerous trap” published in The Conversation is being talked about by many thousands, and led Greta Thunberg to tweet: “This is one of the most important and informative texts I have ever read on the climate- and ecological crises.”
So why is this article so very important?
In our latest interview, I talk with two of the authors – Dr. James Dyke, global systems scientist at the University of Exeter and Dr. Wolfgang Knorr, climate scientist at Lund University. And the conversation does not make for comfortable viewing. We discuss what led James, Wolfgang and Professor Bob Watson to write an article that they have described as being one of the hardest they have ever written. The article is *not* an attack on net zero, nor does it advocate a fatalistic position. Instead, as you will hear, the interview reveals the heartfelt concerns of two scientists who are profoundly worried about the failure of a climate policy system that suppresses the voice of science and is fundamentally flawed. A climate policy system that year after year has failed.
But it is not just the climate policy system that has failed. Academia has failed too, and continues to fail Greta and young people like her. And this *must* stop. Young people have become the adults in the room. We cannot place this burden on their shoulders. They have shown their courage and bravery. Now it’s time for academia to step up to the challenge and to critically examine why we are failing.
Secondly, I want to share that interview with you. This is a 36-minute interview. Please, please watch it. If it is not a convenient time just now then bookmark the post and watch it when you can sit down and be fully engaged. You will understand then and agree with me that this is one of the most important videos ever!
Lastly, I would like you to read the article published in The Conversation. I have included a link to it but I am also going to republish it on Friday.
Because we have to listen to the scientists without delay and press for change now.
Thank goodness for our younger generation. Because these young people are coming together to fight for change. May they have universal encouragement from those of us who will never see our younger days again!
Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology & Microbiology and Molecular Genetics; Interim Assistant Vice President of Research & Innovation, Michigan State University.
As a species, humans are wired to collaborate. That’s why lockdowns and remote work have felt difficult for many of us during the COVID-19 pandemic.
For other living organisms, social distancing comes more naturally. I am a plant scientist and have spent years studying how light cues affect plants, from the very beginning of a plant’s life cycle – the germination of seeds – all the way through to leaf drop or death. In my new book, “Lessons from Plants,” I explore what we can learn from the environmental tuning of plant behaviors.
One key takeaway is that plants have the ability to develop interdependence, but also to avoid it when being connected could be damaging. Generally, plants are constantly communicating and engaged with other organisms in their ecosystems. But when these ongoing connections threaten to cause more harm than good, plants can exhibit a form of social distancing.
The power of connection and interdependence
When conditions are good, most plants are networkers. The vast majority of plants have fungi that live on or within their roots. Together, the fungi and roots form structures known as mycorrhizae, which resemble a netlike web.
Mycorrhizae increase their host plants’ ability to absorb water and nutrients, such as nitrogen and phosphate, through their roots. In return, the plants share sugars that they produce through photosynthesis with their fungal partners. Thus, the fungi and host plants are powerfully interconnected, and depend on one another to survive and thrive.
Mycorrhizal connections can link multiple plants in a functioning network. When plants produce more sugars than they need, they can share them via this interconnected root-fungal network. By doing so, they ensure that all plants in the community have access to the energy they need to support their growth.
Put another way, these connections extend beyond a single host plant and its fungal partner. They create communitywide relationships and interdependent networks of plants and fungi. Factors in the external environment, such as the amount of light available for photosynthesis and the composition of soil around the plants, fine-tune the connections in these networks.
Mycorrhizhae also serve as communication channels. Scientists have documented that plants pass defensive chemicals, such as substances that promote resistance against insect pests, to other plants via fungal networks. These connections also allow a plant that has been attacked by aphids or other such pests to signal to neighboring plants to preemptively activate their own defense responses.
When it’s safer to keep your distance
Sharing resources or information that helps other plants ward off danger is a valuable example of the power of connectedness and interdependence in plant ecosystems. Sometimes, however, surviving requires plants to disconnect.
When environmental cues such as light or nutrients become scarce enough that a host plant can produce enough sugars through photosynthesis to support only its own growth, staying actively interconnected in a larger community network could be dangerous. Under such conditions, the host plant would lose more from sharing limited sugar supplies than it would gain from the network in water and nutrients.
At times like these, plants can limit mycorrhizal connections and development by restricting how many materials they exchange with their fungal partners and avoiding making new connections. This is a form of physical distancing that protects the plants’ ability to support themselves when they have limited energy supplies so they can survive for the long term.
When conditions improve, plants can resume sharing with their fungal partners and establish additional connections and interdependence. Once again, they can benefit from sharing resources and information about the ecosystem with their extended plant and fungal communities.
Recognizing kin and collaboration
Social distancing isn’t the only trick plants use to make their way in the world. They also recognize related plants and tune their abilities to share or compete accordingly. When the plants that are interconnected by a fungal network are close genetic relatives, they share more sugars with the fungi in that network than they do when the other plants are more distantly related.
Prioritizing kin may feel highly familiar to us. Humans, like other biological organisms, often actively contribute to help our kin survive. People sometimes speak of this as working to ensure that the “family name” will live on. For plants, supporting relatives is a way to ensure they carry on their genes.
Plants can also transform aspects of their environment to better support their growth. Sometimes essential nutrients that are present in soil are “locked up” in a form that plants can’t absorb: For example, iron can become bound up with other chemicals in forms very similar to rust. When this happens, plants can excrete compounds from their roots that essentially dissolve these nutrients into a form that the plants can readily use.
Plants can transform their environments in this way either individually or collectively. Plant roots can grow in the same direction, in a collaborative process known as swarming that is similar to bee swarms or bird flocks. Such swarming of roots enables the plants to release a lot of chemicals in a particular soil region, which frees up more nutrients for the plants’ use.
Behaviors like mycorrhizal symbiosis, kin recognition and collaborative environmental transformation suggest that overall, plants are better together. By staying in tune with their external environment, plants can determine when working together and fostering interdependence is better than going it alone.
When I reflect on these tunable connections and interdependence between plants and fungi, I draw constant inspiration – especially during this pandemic year. As we make our way in a constantly changing world, plants offer all kinds of lessons for humans about independence, interdependence and supporting each other.
I agree with Professor Montgomery. Who would have though it! Plants do indeed offer strong social lessons for us humans. Maybe that explains why trees, especially trees, have such a profound, beautiful appeal to yours truly as well as many other people.
Going to close with a photograph taken of our trees and pond here at home.
The unconditional love of dogs put to a very beneficial human use!
Yesterday while we were waiting to pay for a few food items in Winco we stopped behind a woman with a small service dog. The dog was a Dachshund and had a jacket on which were sewn badges saying that this was a service dog and not to make contact.
The woman suffered from panic attacks and strongly recommended an organisation that was called ADA. In fact it is a government organisation and ADA stands for Americans with Disabilities Act.
PTSD, a mental health problem that some people develop after experiencing or witnessing a life-threatening traumatic event, is a complex condition and can be hard to treat. Our lab is studying whether service dogs can help these military veterans, who may also have depression and anxiety – and run an elevated risk of death by suicide – in addition to having PTSD.
The traditional treatments for PTSD, such as talk therapy and medication, do work for many veterans. But these approaches do not alleviate the symptoms for all veterans, so a growing number of them are seeking additional help from PTSD service dogs.
The nation’s estimated 500,000 service dogs aid people experiencing a wide array of conditions that include visual or hearing impairments, psychological challenges, epilepsy and multiple sclerosis.
Service dogs can help vets with PTSD in many ways. The most common tasks include helping veterans remain calm and interrupting their anxiety. The veterans said they are asking their dogs to calm or comfort them from anxiety five times per day and that their dogs independently interrupted their anxiety three times per day on average.
For example, a dog may “cover” a veteran at a supermarket, allowing its owner to calmly turn to take something off the shelf, because veterans with PTSD can get startled if they don’t know if someone is approaching and benefit if their dogs signal that this is happening. If a veteran starts to have a panic attack, a service dog can nudge its owner to “alert” and interrupt the anxiety. At that point, the veteran can focus on petting the dog to re-center on the present – ideally preventing or minimizing the panic attack.
Aside from the tasks that their dogs are trained to do, veterans also shared that the love and companionship they get from simply being with their dogs is helping make their PTSD easier to manage.
Once veterans got service dogs, they described themselves in surveys as more satisfied with their lives, said they felt a greater sense of well-being and deemed themselves as having better relationships with friends and loved ones.
Not all veterans are willing or able to benefit from having their own service dogs.
Being accompanied by dogs in public can draw attention to the veterans. Some veterans appreciate this attention and the way it encourages them to get out of their shell, while others dread having to avoid well-meaning, dog-loving strangers. We’ve found that veterans do not expect this challenge, but often experience it.
Service dogs can also make it harder to travel, since bringing a dog along can require more planning and effort, especially because many people don’t understand the legal rights of people with service dogs and may ask inappropriate questions or create barriers that they aren’t legally allowed to do. Many experts believe educating the public about service dogs could alleviate these challenges.
What’s more, feeding, walking, grooming and otherwise taking care of a dog also entails additional responsibilities, including making sure they see a veterinarian from time to time.
There can also be a new sense of stigma that goes along with making a disability that might otherwise be hidden readily apparent. Someone who has PTSD might not stick out until they get a service dog that is always present.
Most veterans say it’s worth it because the benefits tend to outweigh the challenges, especially when appropriate expectations are set. Clinicians can play a role in helping veterans realize in advance what caring for the animal entails, to make the intervention positive for both the veterans and the dogs.
We are now completing the first registered clinical trial comparing what happens when these veterans get the usual PTSD interventions with what happens when they get that same treatment in addition to a trained service dog.
As our research proceeds, we are trying to see how the effects of a service dog last over time, how the service dogs affect veterans’ families and how we can support the partnership between veterans and their service dogs.
I am still struggling with WordPress. For example I haven’t yet worked out how to place the credit for the photograph underneath the picture. (It did it all on its own!) And there doesn’t seem to be a ‘blockquote’ command.
But coming back to the article it was a perfect description of the way that dogs are so, so good to us humans whether we have a medical need for a service dog or not.