TIME Environment

Scientists Have Figured Out a Way to Convert Solar Energy Into Liquid Fuel

The potential applications of solar power just got a whole lot wider

Researchers at Harvard have discovered how to convert solar energy into liquid fuel, potentially accelerating our switch to the alternative-energy source, according to an article in this month’s scientific journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

At the moment, solar energy can be converted into hydrogen by using photovoltaic cells. The hydrogen can then be stored in fuel cells for future use. But hydrogen has failed to make headway as an energy source in a world that is infrastructurally set up to handle liquid fuels.

Now, however, scientists have figured out a way of using sunlight to split water into hydrogen and oxygen. They then use a bacterium to convert the hydrogen, plus carbon dioxide, into the liquid fuel isopropanol.

“This is a proof of concept that you can have a way of harvesting solar energy and storing it in the form of a liquid fuel,” said researcher Pamela Silver.

The hope now is that solar energy will find more takers, particularly in the developing world, where the ability to make energy locally will be a boon.

[Science Daily]

Read next: U.S. Oil Production Reaches All-Time High Amid Low Crude Prices

Listen to the most important stories of the day.

TIME Environment

The U.S. Government Is Spending $3.2 Million to Save This Butterfly

One of the 185 Monarch butterflies symbo
Marty Melville—AFP/Getty Images One of the 185 Monarch butterflies symbolizing the 185 people who lost their lives in the Feb. 22 earthquake is seen after its release by Christchurch youths at a remembrance service in Hagley Park in Christchurch on Feb. 22, 2012, one year after a 6.3 quake hit New Zealand's second largest city

The monarch butterfly's breeding grounds have been threatened in recent years

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) has pledged $3.2 million to protect the iconic monarch butterfly, which has seen a 90% drop in its population in recent years.

Of that money, $2 million will go to restoring 200,000 acres of the butterfly’s natural habitat between California and the Midwest, PBS reports. The rest will establish a conservation fund that will award grants to landowners who will work toward conserving areas home to the milkweed plant, on which monarchs exclusively lay their eggs.

“It is weed control that is driving eradication of the milkweed plant,” FWS director Dan Ashe said at a press conference Monday. Conservation efforts will focus on a part of the U.S. between Texas and Minnesota, through which the butterflies migrate annually.

The federal government is currently in the middle of a one-year review of whether the monarch butterfly deserves to be classified under the Endangered Species Act, which would grant it further protections.

[PBS]

TIME Environment

Mysterious Ash Covers Parts of Washington and Oregon

It could be from a Russian volcano

A strange ashy substance is falling from the sky in parts of Washington state and Oregon, but no one knows where it came from.

“While the substance is likely ash is from Volcano Shiveluch, they are a number of volcanoes that are currently active. The source of the material has not been scientifically confirmed,” energy officials said.

Volcano Shiveluch is on the Kamchatka peninsula in extreme northeast Russia and spewed a 20,000 foot ash plume in January. But officials say the substance could be coming from an entirely different part of the globe.

Other theories include dust picked up by wind or leftover ash from last year’s wildfires in Oregon in Idaho. But the substance will have to be scientifically tested to definitively determine what it is.

TIME climate change

Undersea Volcanoes May Be Impacting Climate Change

An underwater volcanic erupts in the Pacific Ocean
Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science—AP An underwater volcanic erupts in the Pacific Ocean

Does the global warming process actually begin under the sea?

A new study claims that volcanic eruptions along the ocean floor may impact earth’s climate cycle and that predictive models, including those that analyze humanity’s impact on climate change, may need to be modified.

“People have ignored seafloor volcanoes on the idea that their influence is small—but that’s because they are assumed to be in a steady state, which they’re not,” said Maya Tolstoy, a geophysicist and author of the study that appeared in Geophysical Research Letters and was also reported on in Science Daily.

Until now, scientists presumed that seafloor volcanoes exuded lava at a slow and steady pace, but Tolstoy thinks that not only do the volcanoes erupt in bursts, they follow remarkably consistent patterns that range anywhere from two weeks to 100,000 years.

The reason why the study is important is because it offers up the idea that undersea volcanoes may contribute to the beginning of a global warming cycle.

Here’s how:

Scientists believe as the Earth warms and ice melts, pressure is released which causes more land volcanoes to erupt. More eruptions means more CO2 is emitted into the atmosphere, causing the Earth to warm further and creating a cycle.

But undersea volcanoes erupt for the opposite reason. When more ice is created on a cooling Earth, that lowers sea levels and relieves pressure on undersea volcanoes, bringing about more eruptions.

So that begs the question, could the undersea volcanoes be releasing enough CO2 to affect the warming process on land?

Read more at Science Daily.

TIME China

9 out of 10 Chinese Cities Fail Pollution Test

China Smog Air Pollution Jilin
ChinaFotoPress/Getty Images Smog arrives at the banks of the Songhua River due to low temperatures in Jilin Province, China on Jan. 22, 2015.

Only eight of 74 cities monitored met national standards

Nearly 90% of Chinese cities failed to meet government pollution standards last year, according to the country’s environment ministry.

Although only eight of 74 cities monitored were found to meet national standards, the country’s Ministry of Environmental Protection said the results were an improvement over previous years, Reuters reports.

The country declared a “war on pollution” last year and has since taken steps to reduce the use of coal and eliminate factories that don’t meet certain standards.

Read more: Watch This Haunting Seven-Minute Film About China’s Insane Air Pollution

The government has said that meeting its own standards could take up to 15 years. The city of Beijing, for instance, had an average atmospheric pollutant reading of 93 micrograms of particulate matter per cubic meter last year — almost three times the state-determined standard of 35 micrograms per cubic meter.

China—the world’s largest polluter— produces a quarter of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions.

[Reuters]

TIME Environment

California Let Oil Companies Contaminate Water, Report Says

'If there are wells having a direct impact on drinking water, we need to shut them down now'

California state regulators allowed oil companies to dispose of wastewater in clean groundwater supplies for years, according to a new report.

The San Francisco Chronicle, citing a review of state data, reports that oil companies built more than 170 waste-disposal wells feeding into bodies of groundwater that could otherwise have been used for drinking or irrigation during one of the area’s worst droughts in centuries. The wells are primarily located in the state’s agricultural Central Valley region, which was particularly devastated by the drought.

“If there are wells having a direct impact on drinking water, we need to shut them down now,” said Jared Bluemnfeld, regional administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency. “Safe drinking water is only going to become more in demand.”

Read more at the Chronicle

TIME Environment

Climate Change Is Making the Land in Iceland Rise

Blue Lagoon Iceland
Getty Images Blue Lagoon, Iceland

Study is the first to demonstrate the link between climate change and rising land

Land in Iceland is rising at a pace of as much as 1.4 inches per year in certain areas as a result of climate change, according to a new study. The melting of the country’s glaciers reduces pressure on the land below and allows the surface to rise, researchers say.

“Our research makes the connection between recent accelerated uplift and the accelerated melting of the Icelandic ice caps,” study co-author Kathleen Compton, a University of Arizona researcher, said in a statement.

The study, published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, relied on data from 62 global positioning system receivers placed throughout Iceland that allowed researchers to track the land’s movement.

MORE: The Senate Discovers Climate Change!

While scientists have noticed the rise in land levels in certain areas across the globe, this study is the first to demonstrate the link between climate change and rising land, the researchers say.

“Iceland is the first place we can say accelerated uplift means accelerated ice mass loss,” said study co-author Richard Bennett, a professor at the University of Arizona.

TIME Innovation

Five Best Ideas of the Day: January 30

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

1. What if football helmet safety ratings are measuring the wrong hits?

By Bryan Gruley in Bloomberg Business

2. If France wants fewer radicalized Muslims, it must clean up its prisons.

By Michael Birnbaum in the Washington Post

3. They 3D-printed a car.

By Umair Irfan in Scientific American

4. The low price of meat doesn’t reflect its true cost.

By the New Scientist

5. Lesser-known cities and young architects are perfect for each other.

By Amanda Kolson Hurley in CityLab

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Environment

How Climate Change Leads to Volcanoes (Really)

Get used to this: The Eyjafjallajökull eruption in 2010
Arctic-Images; Getty Images Get used to this: The Eyjafjallajökull eruption in 2010

A new study reveals one more consequence of our messing with the environment

Correction appended Jan. 30, 2015

Give climate change credit for one thing: it’s endlessly versatile. There was a time we called it global warming, which meant what it said: the globe would get warmer. It was only later that we appreciated that a planet running a fever is just like a person running a fever, which is to say it has a whole lot of other symptoms: in this case, droughts, floods, wildfires, habitat disruption, sea level rise, species loss, crop death and more.

Now, you can add yet another problem to the climate change hit list: volcanoes. That’s the word from a new study conducted in Iceland and accepted for publication in Geophysical Research Letters. The finding is bad news not just for one comparatively remote part of the world, but for everywhere.

Iceland has always been a natural lab for studying climate change. It may be spared some of the punishment hot, dry places like the American southwest get, but when it comes to glacier melt, few places are hit harder. About 10% of the island nation’s surface area is covered by about 300 different glaciers—and they’re losing an estimated 11 billion tons of ice per year. Not only is that damaging Icelandic habitats and contributing to the global rise in sea levels, it is also—oddly—causing the entire island to rise. And that’s where the trouble begins.

Eleven billion tons of ice weights, well, 11 billion tons; as that weight flows away, the underlying land decompresses a bit. In the new paper, investigators from the University of Arizona and the University of Iceland analyzed data from 62 GPS sensors that have been arrayed around Iceland—some since as long ago as 1995, others only since 2006 or 2009. But all of the sensors told the same story: Iceland is rising—or rebounding as geologists call it—by 1.4 in. (35 mm) per year.

That’s much faster than the investigators expected, and other studies of the Icelandic crust show that the speed began to pick up around 1980, or just the time that glacier melt accelerated, too. “Our research makes the connection between recent accelerated uplift and the accelerated melting of the Icelandic ice caps,” said Kathleen Compton of the University of Arizona, a geoscientist and one of the paper’s co-authors, in a statement.

In some respects that shouldn’t be a bad thing: yes, an inch and a half a year is fast on a geologic scale, but in the modern, climate-disrupted world, a rising coastline might be just what an island needs to keep up with rising sea levels. The problem is, Iceland isn’t just any island, it’s a highly geologically active one, with a lot of suppressed volcanic anger below the surface. The last thing you want to do in a situation like that is take the lid off the pot.

“As the glaciers melt, the pressure on the underlying rocks decreases,” Compton said in an e-mail to TIME. “Rocks at very high temperatures may stay in their solid phase if the pressure is high enough. As you reduce the pressure, you effectively lower the melting temperature.” The result is a softer, more molten subsurface, which increases the amount of eruptive material lying around and makes it easier for more deeply buried magma chambers to escape their confinement and blow the whole mess through the surface.

“High heat content at lower pressure creates an environment prone to melting these rising mantle rocks, which provides magma to the volcanic systems,” says Arizona geoscientist Richard Bennett, another co-author.

Perhaps anticipating the climate change deniers’ uncanny ability to put two and two together and come up with five, the researchers took pains to point out that no, it’s not the very fact that Icelandic ice sits above hot magma deposits that’s causing the glacial melting. The magma’s always been there; it’s the rising global temperature that’s new. At best, only 5% of the accelerated melting is geological in origin.

Icelandic history shows how bad things can get when the ice thins out. During the last deglaciation period 12,000 years ago—one that took much longer to unfold than the current warming phase turbocharged by humans—geologic records suggest that volcanic activity across the island increased as much as 30-fold. Contemporary humans got a nasty taste of what that’s like back in 2010 when the volcanic caldera under the Eyjafjallajökull ice cap in southern Iceland blew its top, erupting for three weeks from late March to mid-April and spreading ash across vast swaths of Europe. The continent was socked in for a week, shutting down most commercial flights.

If you enjoyed that, there’s more of the same coming. At the current pace, the researchers predict, the uplift rate in parts of Iceland will rise to 1.57 in. (40 mm) per year by the middle of the next decade, liberating more calderas and leading to one Eyjafjallajökull-scale blow every seven years. The Earth, we are learning yet again, demands respect. Mess with it and there’s no end to the problems you create.

An earlier version of this story misstated the annual rate of land rebound in the coming decade. It is 1.57 in.

TIME Congress

Senate Passes Keystone Bill

Senate Votes On Keystone XL Pipeline Bill
Mark Wilson—Getty Images Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA) (C) speaks about the Keystone XL Pipeline while flanked by Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) during a news conference on Jan. 29, 2015 at the US Capitol in Washington D.C.

Bill passed in the Republican-led Senate 62-36

The new Republican Congress is on the verge of passing a bill to build the controversial Keystone oil pipeline, helping connect the Alberta tar sands in Canada to the Gulf of Mexico.

After debating the environmental and economic issues surrounding the 1,179 mile pipeline for years, the Senate passed a bill Thursday that would authorize construction of a pipeline linking the Canadian tar sands with Gulf Coast oil refineries. It’s the first politically significant bill that has passed the Senate since Republicans regained a majority there this month.

The bill, which passed 62 to 36, was one of several top priorities for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker John Boehner, advancing despite a White House veto threat over three weeks ago. The House will now decide whether it will take up the Senate bill, or move to go to conference. The President has vowed to veto the final bill.

The way in which it passed through the Senate—with more than double the number of amendments considered last year—provoked McConnell to flash a rare smile during a speech on the chamber floor Thursday morning.

“The debate over these American jobs has shown that with bipartisan cooperation, it’s possible to get Washington functioning again,” said McConnell. “This debate is also providing that the new Congress is ready to work and work hard for the middle class, even in the teeth of opposition from special interests.”

Republicans have often used the $8 billion pipeline to bash the Obama administration for catering to Washington special interests over middle class jobs; in his 2012 presidential run, Mitt Romney said he would build it “if I have to myself.” Polls show that nearly 60% of Americans agree with the GOP’s position on the TransCanada six-year project.

Senate Democrats brought up more than a few amendments to trip up their Republican colleagues. One brought up earlier in January—“To express the sense of the Senate that climate change is real and not a hoax”—passed with only Mississippi Sen. Roger Wicker voting “nay,” as some skeptics of manmade global warming like Oklahoma Senator Jim Inhofe simply retorted that the climate has “always changed.”

A Republican-introduced amendment specifying that humans play some role in climate change was defeated by one vote, but gave 15 Republicans, including some 2016 swing-staters like New Hampshire’s Kelly Ayotte, Ohio’s Rob Portman and Pennsylvania’s Pat Toomey, the chance to have their views marked on the record.

Republicans and anti-Keystone Democrats lobbied the same middle class vs. special interest critique and used the same State Department report to prove their points. That report shows that the pipeline would indirectly and directly support around 42,000 jobs over two years, but only employ around 50 people once the pipeline was built and functional.

“Right out of the gate the first act of the new Republican majority was to pass a special interest bill that’s a giveaway to foreign oil and steel companies that do nothing to benefit the American people,” said New York Sen. Chuck Schumer, a member of the Democrats’ leadership team. “Republicans are calling this a jobs bill, but the fact is that the Keystone [pipeline] would create only 35 permanent jobs—a drop in the bucket. A fried chicken franchise creates about as many jobs.”

The years-long, pick-your-own-statistics messaging adds to the point that the Keystone debate has taken on a political significance greater than its actual one. Its long-term economic significance and environmental impact is minimal. But for Congress and the Obama administration, which has also spun off officials to work for groups on both sides, the Keystone pipeline debate has risen to become one of the best-known symbols in the fight over the environment and economy.

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