TIME climate change

New Methane Measurements Suggest Pollution is Worse Than Researchers Thought

Caucasian technicians tightening bolts on pipe
Getty Images

Methane can have a major effect on global warming

A new study has found that a device widely used to detect methane gas may fail to capture the full scale of leakages, resulting in chronic underestimates of the potent greenhouse gas.

University of Texas researchers identified a pattern of measurement errors from the Bacharach Hi-Flow Sampler, a device widely deployed at natural gas facilities, which the Environmental Protection Agency uses to collect nationwide data on methane emissions. The device switches between two sensors that measure low and high intensity leakages. Researchers found the device frequently malfunctioned in the handoff, resulting in “systematically underestimated emissions.”

The study was published Tuesday in the journal Energy Science & Engineering.

TIME natural disaster

Al Roker: The Tragic History of Early Weather Forecasting

Galveston boats wrecked in the hurricane of 1900
AP Hand-colored halftone reproduction of a photograph of oyster boats piled up at a Galveston wharf after the hurricane of 1900

This exclusive excerpt from Al Roker's upcoming book about the Great Gulf Hurricane of 1900 explains how the science of weather forecasting came to be

Meteorology hasn’t always been as exact a science as it is today—as Al Roker well knows. His upcoming book, The Storm of the Century, is a narrative account of the hurricane that devastated Galveston, Tex., in September of 1900, essentially destroying a city in one single day. One of the many figures who populates the story of unprecedented disaster is Isaac Cline, the chief meteorologist for Galveston. The turn of the century was an exciting time to be in meteorology: it seemed that, as Roker writes, “nature’s terrors would succumb to the superior intelligence of the human race.” Galveston proved that theory wrong, even though Cline was well versed in the most advanced weather science of his day, which Roker explains in the exclusive excerpt below:

While the science of forecasting was becoming, in Cline’s day, a modern and objective one, much of the technology on which it depended was ancient.

Of the big three, the anemometer used the oldest technology. Four fine, metal, hemispherical cups, their bowls set vertically against the wind, caught air flow. Because each cup was fixed to one of the four posts of a thin, square metal cross, lying horizontally, and because the cross’s crux was fixed to a vertical pole, when wind pushed the cups, they made the whole cross rotate. It made revolutions around the pole.

In Cline’s day, the pole was connected to a sensor with a dial read-out display. The number of revolutions the cross made per minute—clocked by the sensor, transferred by the turnings of the wheels, and displayed on the dial—indicated a proportion of the wind’s speed in miles per hour.

Rotating cups, wheels, and a dial: the anemometer was fully mechanical, with no reliance on electricity. And while other competing anemometer designs existed, involving liquids and tubes, the four-cup design became standard in American mete- orology in the nineteenth century, remaining remarkably stable.

In 1846, an Irish meteorologist named John Thomas Romney Robinson upgraded the technology. But before that, the biggest development in clocking wind speeds had been made in 1485—by Leonardo da Vinci. The anemometer was already a durable meteorology classic when Isaac Cline began studying.

The second member of the forecasting big three, which Isaac Cline studied with such interest under the Signal Corps, was the hygrometer, which measures relative humidity. Like the anemometer, it’s been around ever since a not-very-accurate means of measuring relative humidity was built by—once again—Leonardo da Vinci.

By Cline’s day, a basic hygrometer measured the degree of moisture in the air by using two glass bulbs, each at one end of a glass tube. The tube passed through the top of a wooden post and bent downward on both sides of the post, farther down one side than the other. Thus one of the bulbs was lower than the other. In that lower bulb sat a thermometer, dipped in ether, a gas that had condensed in the bulb into a liquid.

The other, higher bulb contained ether too, but here the gas remained in its vapor form. That bulb was covered in a light fabric.

When condensed ether was poured over the fabric covering the higher bulb, the bulb cooled, and the vaporized ether within condensed, lowering vapor pressure in the bulb. That lowering of pressure caused the liquid ether in the lower bulb to begin evaporating into the space provided. So the lower bulb’s temperature fell as well.

Moisture—known as a “dew”—therefore formed on the outside of the lower bulb. As it did, the temperature indicated by the thermometer in that bulb was read and noted. That reading is called the dew-point temperature. Simply comparing the dew-point temperature to the air temperature outside the bulbs—as measured by a common weather thermometer, conveniently mounted on the hygrometer’s wooden post—gives the relative humidity. It’s a ratio of dew-point temperature to air temperature. The closer dew-point temperature gets to air temperature, the higher the relative humidity.

As a student of humidity, Isaac Cline read tables (some- times built into the hygrometer for quick reference) showing the exact humidity ratios. But experienced forecasters know the rough ratios by heart.

We concern ourselves with humidity mainly on hot days. When there’s lots of moisture in the air, it can’t accept much more moisture, and that means warmth has a harder time leaving our bodies via perspiration. With a temperature of 95 degrees Fahrenheit and a dew point of 90 degrees Fahrenheit, you’ll get a relative humidity of nearly 86 percent—quite un- comfortable. When air temperature and dew point are identical, humidity is said to be 100 percent. We really don’t like that.

There were other kinds of hygrometers as well, developed during Isaac Cline’s early career as a meteorologist. One, called a psychrometer, compared a wet thermometer bulb, cooled by evaporation, with a dry thermometer bulb.

And in 1892, a German scientist—he had the unfortunate name of Richard Assmann—built what was known as an aspiration psychrometer for even more minute accuracy. It used two matched thermometers, protected from radiation interference by a thermal shield, and a drying fan driven by a motor. By 1900, when Isaac Cline was working in the weather station in the Levy Building in Galveston, hygrometer science was at its apex.

But perhaps the most important element in weather forecasting is the barometer.

The role of barometric pressure—air pressure—is counterintuitive. We can directly feel the phenomena measured by anemometers and hygrometers—wind speeds and relative humidity: wind knocks us around and humidity makes us sticky. But the sensations caused by air pressure work differently from the way we might expect.

That difference has to do with the very nature of air. Usually we don’t think much about air. While we know it gives us oxygen, breathing is largely unconscious. We notice air when it’s very still or very windy. And we notice air when it stinks.

Otherwise we generally ignore the air. We imagine it as nothing but a weightless emptiness.

But air does have weight. That weight exerts pressure on the Earth’s surface, as well as on everything on the Earth: human skin and inanimate objects. We refer to the pressure of that weight as “atmospheric pressure,” and we measure it with a barometer.

When more and bigger molecules gather, air’s weight increases, and the atmosphere bears down snugly on all surfaces. We call that effect, not surprisingly, “high pressure.” The strange thing, though, is that high pressure—all that heavy weight of air—makes us feel freer, more energetic. It makes the air feel not heavier but lighter.

That’s because where pressure is high, relative humidity is suppressed. Warmth can’t lift as easily from the surface of any object—including from the Earth’s surface. Warm air currents are held at bay, moisture is blocked, winds remain stable. Rain, lightning, and thunder are discouraged. High pressure usually means nice weather.

By the same token, when we complain that the air feels heavy—on those days of sluggishness, when we feel as if we’re struggling through a swamp—heaviness is not really what we’re feeling. Just the opposite. On those days, the air has less weight, lower pressure.

The result, usually, is just some unpleasantness. That’s be- cause lighter and fewer molecules in the atmosphere cause atmospheric “lifting.” Heat and moisture lift upward from all surfaces. The humidity gets bad.

But when barometric pressure falls low enough, winds may be expected to rise, clouds form, and rain, thunder, and lightning follow. With very low air pressure, things aren’t just unpleasant. They’re dangerous, sometimes deadly.

Barometers for measuring pressure had been part of experimentation in natural science since the 1640s, well before modern weather forecasting. For a long time, it just seemed interesting, and possibly useful, to know that atmospheric pressure exists at all. Or to see that it can do work—like pushing mercury upward in a column.

But soon people began to apply the science. They used pressure readings not only to note the existing weather but to predict future changes in weather. One scientist graduated the scale so the pressure could be measured in exact increments. Another realized that instead of pushing mercury upward, the scale could be turned into a circle to form a dial; that enabled far subtler readings.

Yet another change came with the portable barometer. Using no liquid, and therefore easier to transport on ships, the portable barometer took the form of a small vacuum-sealed metal box, made of beryllium and copper. Atmospheric pressure made the box expand and contract, thus moving a needle on its face. A barometer like that could be carried in a pocket by a ship’s captain. He could watch the pressure fall and know that he was sailing into a storm.

Just before Isaac Cline began studying, the widely traveled Vice-Admiral Robert FitzRoy, of the British Royal Navy, formalized a new system for detailed weather prediction based on barometric readings. FitzRoy had served as captain on HMS Beagle, Charles Darwin’s exploration ship, and also as governor of New Zealand. His idea was to go beyond just noting existing and future weather conditions. He found ways of communicating conditions from ship to ship. That aided safety at sea.

By the mid-nineteenth century, a large barometer of FitzRoy’s design was set up on big stone housings at every British port. Captains and crews could see what they were about to get into. In 1859, a storm at sea caused so many deaths that FitzRoy began working up a system of charts that would allow for what he called, for the first time anywhere, “forecasting the weather.”

HarperCollins

The Storm of the Century by Al Roker will be available on Aug. 11, 2015.

TIME human behavior

Are There Really Benefits to Writing Things By Hand?

Writing by hand on chalkboard
Jeffrey Coolidge / Getty Images Is writing by hand really psychologically beneficial?

A new Bic commercial claims four benefits to writing by hand.

Most office-working adults in America spend their days hunched over a computer, tapping at keys to form words on a screen. Very few use a notebook or spend time writing. Even those of us whose professional occupation is “writer” tend to spend far less time writing with a pen in hand than they do typing.

Of course, as with so many things that are perceived as old-timey, writing by hand has become if not a modern necessity, then a trend. Cursive lessons have become all the vogue in some circles and is credited with helping dyslexic students. J. K. Rowling famously wrote the Harry Potter series on napkins. Handwriting has been elevated to the highest levels of art, be it the digitally collected ecriture infinie or Brooklyn Museum’s exhibit on artist Jean-Michel Basquiat’s notebooks.

Jumping on the bandwagon too is Bic, the pen company, which has launched a campaign to get kids to write. Called “Fight for the Write,” the campaign boasts a video featuring a boy inspiring a classroom of kids through a series of “interesting facts” that show the benefits of writing: increased creativity, better critical thinking, boosted self confidence, and a correlated improvement in reading capability with writing prowess.

But are these benefits real? The short answer: Mostly not. “There’s lot of caveats in handwriting research,” says Karin James, a psychologist at Indiana University who studies early childhood brain development at Indiana University and has looked at how writing by hand affects pre-literate brains.

The creativity claim is most likely a stretch because measuring creativity is nearly impossible. “How are you defining creativity?” James says. “There’s all kinds of ways to: across individuals, ages, contexts—social, academic. It’s really hard to study, so that [claim] is a stretch.”

Intuitively, the idea that handwriting can improve critical thinking makes sense: Writing more would seem to entail thinking more thoroughly about topics and journaling, we know, has been shown to be excellent for introspection. But while writing by hand has been shown to be a good exercise for introspection, the evidence of writing out homework assignments remains very muddled.

As for self-confidence: writing and reading comprehension are neurally connected, and better readers often have more academic self-confidence. “If a kindergartner is reading at a first grade level, they do better academically, which means they have more confidence in their ability to perform,” James says. “The more children write, the easier it is for them to recognize a letter. Letter recognition is the highest predictor to reading later on.”

So there is merit in this claim. But on its own, writing probably does little to boost self-confidence. More likely, James says, is that increased creativity and self-confidence are secondary, correlated effects.

In 2012, James published a study along with her co-author, Laura Engelhardt, that began: “In an age of increasing technology, the possibility that typing on a keyboard will replace handwriting raises questions about the future usefulness of handwriting skills.”

James and Engelhardt found that writing is particularly instrumental in the cognitive development of pre-literate 5 year olds. The kids, who were learning the alphabet, wrote, traced, and typed letters. MRI scans found that the kids who had written letters were able to perceive the letters better, helping them to read at better rates compared to the typers and tracers.

Still, since control groups are impossible in reading and writing studies—you can’t decide to not teach some kids to read or write—“It’s tricky,” James says.

The parts of the brain activated when children learn to write—the left fusiform gyrus, the inferior frontal gyrus and the posterior parietal cortex—are the same that are active in older children and adults when they are reading. James wanted to know whether reading affected writing or the other way around. “That’s why we looked at [pre-literate] kids,” she said. “We didn’t know if reading came first and activated this network for handwriting of if it was vice versa. We found that reading networks are activated when reading happens, and writing uses that network.”

So while the idea of writing by hand and its memory-enhancing capabilities have been covered—and studied—ad nauseum, the effects of writing on other mental indicators are less understood. Research is correlational. “We don’t really have facts, we have evidence,” says James. “But it’s highly suggestive evidence.”

TIME the brain

Why Your Brain Thinks This Picture Shows a Giant, Martian Crab Monster

nasa crab monster mars
NASA Is this a terrifying crab monster or just a pile of rocks?

Blame 'pareidolia' - a phenomenon that makes us see all kinds of things

Think you’re savvy in the ways of social media? OK, which of the following two headlines would be likelier to get your attention?

a) Mars Rover Team Studies Geological Zone With High Silica Content

b) Mysterious Crab Monster Found on Mars!

If you said a), you can probably forget about that job application you sent to Facebook. It’s the crab monster news that, of course, has set social media on fire in the past day, with a real-life, wholly gross image sent back by the Mars Curiosity rover that — when seen up close — does appear to show some sort of giant crab lurking in a cave.

But here’s the less clickable part of that news: It’s definitely not a giant crab lurking in a cave. In fact, it’s just one more example of the sometimes whimsical, always spooky phenomenon known as pareidolia, or the tendency of the brain to see familiar shapes—especially faces—emerging from random patterns.

Pareidolia is what’s behind J.C. Penney’s disastrously ill-designed Adolf Hitler teapot, which was not the marketing name the Penney folks assigned to it, but is the only way the unfortunate product will ever be known thanks to the mustache, bangs and upthrust arm it calls to mind. It’s also the reason we see faces in the random patterns of marble tiles or burned toast, or in the more orderly design of a handbag with two side-by-side loops where the handle is attached and a horizontal zipper below, forming a mouth and a pair of eyes.

The pareidolia phenomenon is actually a deeply rooted one, something that helps infants focus on faces early and also allowed humans in the wild to spot danger easily—picking a potentially menacing human or animal peering out from a backdrop of leaves or scrub. Yes, more often than not it’s a false alarm, but better to overreact fifty times than under-react even once.

A 2012 study published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to pinpoint the spot in the brain in which pareidolia plays out, and determined that it’s actually in two spots called the left and right fusiform gyrus. It is the left that reacts first to a possible face in a background patten, sending out a What’s this? signal to the right. The right then makes the call—Is this really a face?—and for safety’s sake, it tends to err on the side of yes. The left then uses those few processing microseconds to consider the context of the image, and often as not will sound the all-clear. The right, however, is sometimes not persuaded, and continues to process the image as a face—helping us avoid danger, perhaps, but scaring us more than we need to be too.

This is not the first time something suspicious on Mars got Earthlings worked up. In 1976, the Viking 1 orbiter discovered what for all the world appeared to be a face staring up from the Martian terrain. Even in that pre-Internet era, the image went the 1970s equivalent of viral, and later figured significantly in the 2000 Brian de Palma movie, Mission to Mars. By then, however, the face had already been unmasked, with a subsequent flyover by the Mars Global Surveyor in 1998 showing it merely to be the natural landform it was—and one that had significantly eroded away at that. A subsequent image from 2001 showed even more natural erasure of the original shape.

In fairness to the folks freaked out by the current image, a crab is not a face and the brain has to work a little harder to force that image out of the background shapes, but it does the job all the same—just as it will interpret a branch in the underbrush as a snake or a shadow in the closet as a monster. Your pattern recognition regions are not the smartest part of your brain, but they’re not designed to be. They only have to be right once, and on the offchance you ever do run across a bear in the woods or a crab monster on Mars, you’ll have your fusiform gyri to thank for keeping you alive.

TIME Environment

Obama to Unveil ‘Most Important Step’ Ever to Combat Climate Change

President hails new regulations as "the biggest, most important step" ever taken to combat climate change

The White House plans to unveil regulations on Monday to dramatically curtail greenhouse gas emissions from power plants and eventually revamp the country’s energy industry. The regulations, billed by the President Obama as “the biggest, most important step” ever taken to address climate change, play a key role in the President’s aim to make combatting climate change a priority of his final months in office.

The Environmental Protection Agency rules, finalized versions of 2012 and 2014 proposals, call for a 32% reduction in carbon emissions from power plants by 2030 from 2005 levels. The White House projects that the rules will drive increased investment in renewable energy, leading to 30% more clean energy generation by 2030 and a dramatic reduction in coal power.

“No matter who you are, where you live or what you care about, climate change is personal and it’s affecting you and your family today,” EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy told reporters Sunday on a conference call.

The rule sets carbon emissions reductions standards for each state to meet based on the current makeup of the state’s energy sources. Under the regulation, each state will be allowed to determine how it meets those standards, whether by targeting specific plants or making changes across the board. The plan also includes an incentive program to provide federal funds for states to develop clean energy.

The plan has already been met with intense criticism from the oil and gas industry, including the promise of legal challenges. Republicans in Congress, as well as state governors, have taken up the mantle of challenging the rule saying that it would harm the economy. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell sent letters to governors across the country in March providing the legal arguments to suggest that the federal government lacks the authority to mandate such reductions.

“This proposed regulation would have a negligible effect on global climate but a profoundly negative impact on countless American families already struggling,” McConnell wrote in a March op-ed in the Lexington Herald-Leader. “The regulation is unfair. It’s probably illegal.”

The White House and environmental advocates have argued that the rule would stimulate the economy and create tens of thousands of jobs. Asked whether the EPA has the legal authority to implement the rule, McCarthy said that the agency had considered the legal issues and the measure is “legally a very strong rule.”

Monday’s news is one of many expected announcements from the White House designed to elevate the issue of climate change in the U.S. The President will highlight the issue in his meeting with Pope Francis this fall and his travel to Alaskan Arctic, and has announced a number of new policies and partnerships. All told, the attention is meant to position the U.S. as a leader in fighting climate change in the lead up to a United Nations conference on climate change in December.

“This rule actually enhances in important ways our ability to achieve the international commitments that we have,” said Brian Deese on a conference call for journalists. “This rule gives us a strong foundation to keep pushing against our international commitment.”

MORE Here’s Where to Buy a House In the U.S. That Will Be Resilient to Climate Change

TIME A Year In Space

See the Space Station Caught in the Light of the Moon

international space station moon
Bill Ingalls/Nasa The International Space Station, with a crew of six onboard, is seen in silhouette as it transits the moon at roughly five miles per second on Aug. 2, 2015 in Woodford, VA.

Can you spot it?

TIME A Year In Space

These Long Exposure Photos Show the Space Station Streaking Across the Night Sky

NASA images show the International Space Station as it circumnavigates the planet at 4.76 miles per second

TIME Zimbabwe

Cecil the Lion’s Brother Jericho Is Alive, Researcher Says

As Zimbabwe accuses second American of illegally killing a lion

Cecil the lion’s brother Jericho is in fact alive, an Oxford University researcher monitoring the animal confirmed on Sunday, a day after conflicting reports emerged that claimed Jericho had been killed by hunters.

The news came as Zimbabwean officials alleged on Sunday that a second American, Jan Casmir Sieski of Murrysville, Pa., had illegally killed a lion in Zimbabwe several months ago.

Researcher Brent Stapelkamp, who is tracking Jericho the lion with a GPS tag, said the device indicates that he is “alive and well,” CNN reports. Stapelkamp also shared a photo through Oxford University’s Twitter account showing Jericho roaming his park habitat on Sunday morning:

The Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force, which had reported on Saturday that Jericho had been killed, also issued a retraction on Sunday, reporting that it was a different lion that had been killed. “This was a case of mistaken identity, but a lion has in fact been killed,” the group posted on Facebook. “Although we are relieved that it was not Jericho, we are not happy that yet another lion has been killed.”

Zimbabwean officials said Sunday that another U.S. citizen had taken part in an illegal hunt of a lion, only days after it emerged that Minnesota dentist Walter Palmer had killed Cecil, a lion beloved by tourists, on July 1. A landowner, Headman Sibanda, was arrested in relation to the case and is assisting the investigation, authorities said.

[CNN]

TIME astronomy

See an Incredible Photo of Friday Night’s Blue Moon

blue moon statue liberty new york
Eduardo Munoz—Reuters A full moon, known as the Blue Moon, is seen next to the Statue of Liberty in New York on July 31, 2015.

It usually happens just once every couple of years

The second full moon of July rose Friday night, a phenomenon referred to as a “blue moon.”

Though the phrase “once in a blue moon” is meant to describe a rare event, a blue moon is neither rare, or blue. “Blue moon” is actually a term used to describe the second full moon in a single calendar month. Most years only have 12 moons, but this year has 13, which happens every two to three years, according to astronomers. “Blue moons” don’t actually appear blue, but the moon can appear blue after events on earth like wildfires and volcanic eruptions, according to NASA.

TIME enivronment

This App Shows How Climate Change Is Affecting the World Around You

You may live closer to a earthquake zone than you think

You’ve heard about what climate change is doing the arctic and to the sea levels around the world. But sometimes it can be hard to understand what’s happening in your own backyard. A new app called Field Notes shows you just that.

The free app, manufactured by tech mapping company Esri, is part of a broader effort by the company to put data about people, climate and geography at your fingertips.

Take data on the location of TIME’s office in New York City. The app tells me that our office is located in a warm zone and, by 2050, it’s expected to get much warmer. The nearest earthquake zone is 240 miles (386 km) away and the nearest volcano more than 1,100 miles (1,770 km) away. Unsurprisingly, the app tell me, the soil isn’t great for growing crops. You can get the same data, and more, for any location on the globe.

“If you’re interested in engaging and understanding, this gives you a very quick basis to do that,” said Charlie Frye, chief cartographer.

The app, available for both iPhones and Androids, builds on the desktop version of the mapping technology, called the Eco Tapestry Map, which offers an even more in-depth view of world ecosystems. And while it’s fun to get a sense of what’s going on in your backyard, the map also sheds light on the impact of climate change where its effects have been most damaging.

Read More: Why Some California Cities Are Bracing for a Bear Invasion

Take the drought in California, for instance. Esri’s map shows how diverse climates co-exist in the state—from desert areas like Death Valley to temperate rainforests. And, while California is a large state, each climate exists side by side with other drastically different climates, making it difficult for endemic species to move in search of water without leaving their natural habitat.

The project originated from a partnership between Esri and a U.S. Geological Survey scientist who hoped to show how different layers like bioclimate, landforms and land cover combine to form the world’s “ecological tapestry.” Esri, which provides mapping technology for a variety of uses, helped utilize the technology to describe the whole world in quantitative terms.

“One of the things that’s been lacking before this map came out is this sort of common language way of talking about the eco-system at a higher level,” said Sean Breyer, content program manager at Esri.

Esri scientists have directed their work with Field Notes to help consumers understand the world around them, but the company’s environmental work also has implications for governments, academics and policymakers. The White House, for instance, has partnered with the company to provide tools that will allow local communities to prepare for the worst of climate change.

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