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Monday, 26 June 2017

Tipping points are real: Gradual changes in CO2 levels can induce abrupt climate changes

During the last glacial period, within only a few decades the influence of atmospheric CO2 on the North Atlantic circulation resulted in temperature increases of up to 10 degrees Celsius in Greenland - as indicated by new climate calculations from researchers at the Alfred Wegener Institute and the University of Cardiff. Their study is the first to confirm that there have been situations in our planet's history in which gradually rising CO2 concentrations have set off abrupt changes in ocean circulation and climate at "tipping points." These sudden changes, referred to as Dansgaard-Oeschger events, have been observed in ice cores collected in Greenland. The results of the study have just been released in the journal Nature Geoscience.

Ice core sample taken from drill. Photo by Lonnie Thompson, Byrd Polar Research Center, Ohio State University. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Previous glacial periods were characterised by several abrupt climate changes in the high latitudes of the Northern Hemisphere. However, the cause of these past phenomena remains unclear. In an attempt to better grasp the role of CO2 in this context, scientists from the Alfred Wegener Institute, Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research (AWI) recently conducted a series of experiments using a coupled atmosphere-ocean-sea ice model.

First author Xu Zhang explains: "With this study, we've managed to show for the first time how gradual increases of CO2 triggered rapid warming." This temperature rise is the result of interactions between ocean currents and the atmosphere, which the scientists used the climate model to explore. According to their findings, the increased CO2 intensifies the trade winds over Central America, as the eastern Pacific is warmed more than the western Atlantic. This is turn produces increased moisture transport from the Atlantic, and with it, an increase in the salinity and density of the surface water. Finally, these changes lead to an abrupt amplification of the large-scale overturning circulation in the Atlantic. "Our simulations indicate that even small changes in the CO2 concentration suffice to change the circulation pattern, which can end in sudden temperature increases," says Zhang.

Further, the study's authors reveal that rising CO2 levels are the dominant cause of changed ocean currents during the transitions between glacial and interglacial periods. As climate researcher Gerrit Lohmann explains, "We can't say for certain whether rising CO2 levels will produce similar effects in the future, because the framework conditions today differ from those in a glacial period. That being said, we've now confirmed that there have definitely been abrupt climate changes in the Earth's past that were the result of continually rising CO2 concentrations."

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Monday, 19 June 2017

Solar paint offers endless energy from water vapor

Researchers have developed a solar paint that can absorb water vapour and split it to generate hydrogen - the cleanest source of energy.

The paint contains a newly developed compound that acts like silica gel, which is used in sachets to absorb moisture and keep food, medicines and electronics fresh and dry.

Sun with sunspots and limb darkening as seen in visible light with solar filter. By Geoff Elston [CC BY 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
But unlike silica gel, the new material, synthetic molybdenum-sulphide, also acts as a semi-conductor and catalyses the splitting of water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen.

Lead researcher Dr Torben Daeneke, from RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia, said: "We found that mixing the compound with titanium oxide particles leads to a sunlight-absorbing paint that produces hydrogen fuel from solar energy and moist air.

"Titanium oxide is the white pigment that is already commonly used in wall paint, meaning that the simple addition of the new material can convert a brick wall into energy harvesting and fuel production real estate.

"Our new development has a big range of advantages," he said. "There's no need for clean or filtered water to feed the system. Any place that has water vapour in the air, even remote areas far from water, can produce fuel."

His colleague, Distinguished Professor Kourosh Kalantar-zadeh, said hydrogen was the cleanest source of energy and could be used in fuel cells as well as conventional combustion engines as an alternative to fossil fuels.

"This system can also be used in very dry but hot climates near oceans. The sea water is evaporated by the hot sunlight and the vapour can then be absorbed to produce fuel.

"This is an extraordinary concept - making fuel from the sun and water vapour in the air."

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Monday, 12 June 2017

Which Earth-Size Planets are Habitable?

A University of Oklahoma post-doctoral astrophysics researcher, Billy Quarles, has identified the possible compositions of the seven planets in the TRAPPIST-1 system. Using thousands of numerical simulations to identify the planets stable for millions of years, Quarles concluded that six of the seven planets are consistent with an Earth-like composition. The exception is TRAPPIST-1f, which has a mass of 25 percent water, suggesting that TRAPPIST-1e may be the best candidate for future habitability studies.

"The goal of exoplanetary astronomy is to find planets that are similar to Earth in composition and potentially habitable," said Quarles. "For thousands of years, astronomers have sought other worlds capable of sustaining life."

The Earth seen from space, by NASA/Apollo 17 crew; taken by either Harrison Schmitt or Ron Evans [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Quarles, a researcher in the Homer L. Dodge Department of Physics and Astronomy, OU College of Arts and Sciences, collaborated with scientists, E.V. Quintana, E. Lopez, J.E. Schlieder and T. Barclay at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center on the project. Numerical simulations for this project were performed using the Pleiades Supercomputer provided by the NASA High-End Computing Program through the Ames Research Center and at the OU Supercomputing Center for Education and Research.

TRAPPIST-1 planets are more tightly spaced than in Kepler systems, which allow for transit timing variations with the photometric observations. These variations tell the researchers about the mass of the planets and the radii are measured through the eclipses. Mass and radius measurements can then infer the density. By comparing Earth's density (mostly rock) to the TRAPPIST-1 planets, Quarles can determine what the planets are likely composed of and provide insight into whether they are potentially habitable.

TRAPPIST-1f has the tightest constraints with 25 percent of its mass in water, which is rare given its radius. The concern of this planet is that the mass is 70 percent the mass of Earth, but it is the same size as Earth. Because the radius is so large, the pressure turns the water to steam, and it is likely too hot for life as we know it. The search for planets with a composition as close to Earth's as possible is key for finding places that we could identify as being habitable. Quarles said he is continually learning about the planets and will investigate them further in his studies.

TRAPPIST-1 is a nearby ultra-cool dwarf about 40 light-years away from Earth and host to a remarkable planetary system consisting of seven transiting planets. The seven planets are known as TRAPPIST 1b, c, d, e, f, g and h.

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