For 53-year-old photographer Stefanie Harron, the past few weeks have felt like living in a smoky, fiery hell.
The air in her hometown of Castlegar, B.C., has been thick with smoke as wildfires rage nearby. Her neighbour’s house is barely visible though a mere 25 metres away. Her eyes water and her asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) make the simple act of breathing a challenge.
Instead of using her puffer once or twice a week, she’s now using it four to five times a day.
“The air, thick with particulates, makes me want to vomit,” she says. “The first thing you notice is the taste before the acrid smell. I would compare it to living in an ashtray. Every breath without a respirator is like short gasps for air,” Harron says. “[I’m] almost scared to take a deep breath knowing it will result in coughing and make it worse and more difficult.”
Harron is not alone. As roughly 250 fires rage across the province, tens of thousands of people have been exposed to poor air quality, and it’s particularly difficult on those who have health issues. Another 200 wildfires burn across the country.
Climate change is expected to exacerbate wildfires, with estimates of anywhere from a 74 to 118 per cent increase in Canadian land burned by 2100.
WATCH | What’s the health impact of wildfire smoke?
And though the risks from smoke are among the biggest worries, there are also less-obvious health concerns such as the impact on mental health and clean water to consider.
Questions about long-term effects
Scientists examining air pollution — including that produced by wildfires — study various types of emissions, but among those most commonly measured is particulate matter (PM), specifically PM 2.5.
PM 2.5 are fine particles measuring roughly 2.5 micrometres and smaller. Inhaling them can affect the lungs and heart, and are of serious concern to those with existing health issues such as asthma or heart and lung disease.
The immediate effects may be obvious, but doctors are also trying to better understand the long-term impact.
“Four of the past five summers in British Columbia have had significant wildfire smoke events. And … we’re not really sure what the long-term health consequences are for populations who are exposed this way, sort of season after season,” said Sarah Henderson, the scientific director of environmental health at the British Columbia Centre for Disease Control. “There’s the potential for these big and significant wildfire smoke exposures to affect the health of those individuals throughout their lives.”
And those particles aren’t just concerning for those who live near the fires. Smoke can travel far from its source, sometimes traversing the globe.
“For major smoke events, you’ll see the intercontinental transport of smoke,” said Jeff Eyamie, regional air health officer for Health Canada. “For the Fort Mac fires [in 2016], they had smoke as far away as the Ukraine that they could trace back to the Fort McMurray fires.”
Here at home, on July 19, Environment and Climate Change Canada issued an air quality advisory for southern Ontario, including Toronto, as well as Ottawa as smoke from wildfires in northwestern Ontario blanketed the province. A week later, parts of Quebec, including Montreal, were put under a similar advisory.
Anxious and irritable
And then there is the impact on mental health. Wildfires sometimes force people to be evacuated from their homes, causing high levels of stress. Those who live in areas where the air is thick with smoke may also be forced to remain indoors for long periods of time. In addition, there may be other hidden costs, like a run on asthma medication.
Dr. Courtney Howard, an emergency physician in Yellowknife and past president of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment, was involved in a study that interviewed 30 residents in Yellowknife, which experiences wildfires every year. In the study, they were asked what it felt like to live through a long period of smoky air.
“What people told us was that they felt anxious and irritable,” she said. “They were cooped up, had that cabin fever … lots of comments about the decrease in physical activity. And so, of course, what that means is that people lose the treatment benefit that we know we get from being outside in nature, exercising.”
At one point, the mayor of Yellowknife opened up an indoor exercise space so people could be active in a well-ventilated area, said Howard. It’s something she believes officials might need to consider in a future with climate change.
Impact on the environment
The particles that waft into the air affect more than just physical health. Those particles also land on trees, plants, buildings and end up in water.
Ash, sediment and minerals not only flow into streams and rivers, but also downstream into lakes and reservoirs, potentially affecting drinking water and contributing to algal blooms.
The good news is that in Canada the water purification systems are able to filter them out for the most part. But the added strain on the system means that it may cost more to handle the higher level of contaminants.
“The issue around fire and drinking water is not — and I have to emphasize not — generally an issue of ‘Am I drinking something with some sort of toxic contaminant in it?'” says Monica Emelko, a professor in the University of Waterloo’s civil and environmental engineering department. “It’s rather an issue of: ‘If toxic contaminants get into the water, will you be able to have something running out of your tap that you can use?’ … When we have these disturbances on the landscape, that really pushes our ability to do that in a cost effective way.”
There are also effects on ecosystems, says Uldis Silins, a professor of forest hydrology at the University of Alberta. For example, as sediment and minerals flow into water they can upset the chemical balance in a lake.
“One of the things that we’ve seen repetitively is very large impacts on things like sediment,” Silins said. “Unlike other kinds of disturbance pressures we might be thinking about, the scope of those impacts was not a 30 or 50 per cent kind of increase in sediment production, they were hundreds of percentages or thousands of percentages, so, orders of magnitude increases in those contaminants.”
And as humans rely on those ecosystems, there may be other consequences – such as the impact on fish in lakes that are eaten.
“I don’t think it’s bold of me to say we’re in a climate emergency. And everyone needs to be aware that this is happening,” said Health Canada’s Eyamie. “The models may not be 100 per cent accurate, but they’ll be accurate enough that this should be cause for concern for everyone.”
Dark Energy Could Be Responsible for Mysterious Experiment Signals, Researchers Say – Gizmodo
A team of physicists at the University of Cambridge suspects that dark energy may have muddled results from the XENON1T experiment, a series of underground vats of xenon that are being used to search for dark matter.
Dark matter and dark energy are two of the most discussed quandaries of contemporary physics. The two darks are placeholder names for mysterious somethings that seem to be affecting the behavior of the universe and the stuff in it. Dark matter refers to the seemingly invisible mass that only makes itself known through its gravitational effects. Dark energy refers to the as-yet unexplained reason for the universe’s accelerating expansion. Dark matter is thought to make up about 27% of the universe, while dark energy is 68%, according to NASA.
Physicists have some ideas to explain dark matter: axions, WIMPs, SIMPs, and primordial black holes, to name a few. But dark energy is a lot more enigmatic, and now a group of researchers working on XENON1T data says an unexpected excess of activity could be due to that unknown force, rather than any dark matter candidate. The team’s research was published this week in Physical Review D.
The XENON1T experiment, buried below Italy’s Apennine Mountains, is set up to be as far away from any noise as possible. It consists of vats of liquid xenon that will light up if interacted with by a passing particle. As previously reported by Gizmodo, in June 2020 the XENON1T team reported that the project was seeing more interactions than it ought to be under the Standard Model of physics, meaning that it could be detecting theorized subatomic particles like axions—or something could be screwy with the experiment.
“These sorts of excesses are often flukes, but once in a while they can also lead to fundamental discoveries,” said Luca Visinelli, a researcher at Frascati National Laboratories in Italy and a co-author of the study, in a University of Cambridge release. “We explored a model in which this signal could be attributable to dark energy, rather than the dark matter the experiment was originally devised to detect.”
“We first need to know that this wasn’t simply a fluke,” Visinelli added. “If XENON1T actually saw something, you’d expect to see a similar excess again in future experiments, but this time with a much stronger signal.”
Despite constituting so much of the universe, dark energy has not yet been identified. Many models suggest that there may be some fifth force besides the known four known fundamental forces in the universe, one that is hidden until you get to some of the largest-scale phenomena, like the universe’s ever-faster expansion.
Axions shooting out of the Sun seemed a possible explanation for the excess signal, but there were holes in that idea, as it would require a re-think of what we know about stars. “Even our Sun would not agree with the best theoretical models and experiments as well as it does now,” one researcher told Gizmodo last year.
Part of the problem with looking for dark energy are “chameleon particles” (also known as solar axions or solar chameleons), so-called for their theorized ability to vary in mass based on the amount of matter around them. That would make the particles’ mass larger when passing through a dense object like Earth and would make their force on surrounding masses smaller, as New Atlas explained in 2019. The recent research team built a model that uses chameleon screening to probe how dark energy behaves on scales well beyond that of the dense local universe.
“Our chameleon screening shuts down the production of dark energy particles in very dense objects, avoiding the problems faced by solar axions,” said lead author Sunny Vagnozzi, a cosmologist at Cambridge’s Kavli Institute for Cosmology, in a university release. “It also allows us to decouple what happens in the local very dense Universe from what happens on the largest scales, where the density is extremely low.”
The model allowed the team to understand how XENON1T would behave if the dark energy were produced in a magnetically strong region of the Sun. Their calculations indicated that dark energy could be detected with XENON1T.
Since the excess was first discovered, the XENON1T team “tried in any way to destroy it,” as one researcher told The New York Times. The signal’s obstinacy is as perplexing as it is thrilling.
“The authors propose an exciting and interesting possibility to expand the scope of the dark matter detection experiments towards the direct detection of dark energy,” Zara Bagdasarian, a physicist at UC Berkeley who was unaffiliated with the recent paper, told Gizmodo in an email. “The case study of XENON1T excess is definitely not conclusive, and we have to wait for more data from more experiments to test the validity of the solar chameleons idea.”
The next generation of XENON1T, called XENONnT, is slated to have its first experimental runs later this year. Upgrades to the experiment will hopefully seal out any noise and help physicists home in on what exactly is messing with the subterranean detector.
Scientists may have accidentally detected dark energy – CTV News
Dark energy, a mysterious force believed to be causing the universe to expand at an accelerated rate, may have been detected by scientists for the first time.
In a new study, published Wednesday in the journal Physical Review D, the authors suggest certain unexplained results from an experiment designed to detect dark matter could have been caused by dark energy.
“Despite both components being invisible, we know a lot more about dark matter, since its existence was suggested as early as the 1920s, while dark energy wasn’t discovered until 1998,” Sunny Vagnozzi, of the University of Cambridge’s Kavli Institute for Cosmology, said in a story posted by the university. “Large-scale experiments like XENON1T have been designed to directly detect dark matter, by searching for signs of dark matter ‘hitting’ ordinary matter, but dark energy is even more elusive.”
Nearly everything we can see and interact with, from bacteria to entire galaxies, is considered ordinary matter and energy, and makes up about five per cent of our universe, according to scientists. The rest is made up of dark matter (27 per cent), an invisible attractive force that holds the cosmos together, and dark energy (68 per cent), a repulsive force considered to be responsible for the accelerating expansion of the universe.
The XENON research project is a collaboration of 160 scientists from around the world who have come together to perform a series of experiments aimed at detecting dark matter particles. These experiments involve the use of ultra-pure liquid xenon, a colourless, dense, odourless noble gas found in trace amounts in Earth’s atmosphere.
Experiments are performed at the Gran Sasso National Laboratory, the largest underground laboratory in the world, located approximately 1.4 kilometres beneath the Gran Sasso mountains in central Italy, about 120 kilometres northeast of Rome.
The XENON1T experiment was the latest phase of the project. About a year ago, it detected an unexpected signal, or excess, over the expected background profile.
“These sorts of excesses are often flukes, but once in a while they can also lead to fundamental discoveries,” Luca Visinelli, researcher at Frascati National Laboratories in Italy, said. “We explored a model in which this signal could be attributable to dark energy, rather than the dark matter the experiment was originally devised to detect.”
The researchers created a physical model that used a type of screening mechanism known as chameleon screening to show that dark energy particles produced in the Sun’s strong magnetic fields could explain the XENON1T signal.
“It was really surprising that this excess could in principle have been caused by dark energy rather than dark matter,” Vagnozzi said. “When things click together like that, it’s really special.”
A discovery such as this would mean that experiments designed to detect dark matter, including those performed during the XENON project, could also be used to detect dark energy. But further research is required to confirm these findings.
“We first need to know that this wasn’t simply a fluke,” Visinelli said. “If XENON1T actually saw something, you’d expect to see a similar excess again in future experiments, but this time with a much stronger signal.”
'Happy' SpaceX tourist crew spend first day whizzing around Earth – Phys.org
SpaceX’s all-civilian Inspiration4 crew spent their first day in orbit conducting scientific research and talking to children at a pediatric cancer hospital, after blasting off on their pioneering mission from Cape Canaveral the night before.
St Jude tweeted its patients got to speak with the four American space tourists, “asking the questions we all want to know like ‘are there cows on the Moon?'”
Billionaire Jared Isaacman, who chartered the flight, is trying to raise $200 million for the research facility.
Inspiration4 is the first orbital spaceflight with only private citizens aboard.
Earlier, Elon Musk’s company tweeted that the four were “healthy” and “happy,” had completed their first round of scientific research, and enjoyed a couple of meals.
Musk himself tweeted that he had personally spoken with the crew and “all is well.”
By now, they should have also been able to gaze out from the Dragon ship’s cupola—the largest space window ever built, which has been fitted onto the vessel for the first time in place of its usual docking mechanism.
Most humans in space
The Inspiration4 mission also brings the total number of humans currently in space to 14—a new record. In 2009, there were 13 people on the International Space Station (ISS).
There are currently seven people aboard the ISS, including two Russian cosmonauts, and three Chinese astronauts on spaceship Shenzhou-12, which is bound home after its crew spent 90 days at the Tiangong space station.
Isaacman, physician assistant Hayley Arceneaux, geoscientist Sian Proctor and aerospace data engineer Chris Sembroski are whizzing around the planet at an altitude that at times reaches 590 kilometers (367 miles).
That is deeper in space than the ISS, which orbits at 420 kilometers (260 miles), and the furthest any humans have ventured since a 2009 maintenance mission for the Hubble telescope.
Their ship is moving at about 17,500 mph (28,000 kph) and each day they will experience about 15 sunrises and sunsets.
Their high speed means they are experiencing time slightly slower than people on the surface, because of a phenomenon called “relative velocity time dilation.”
Apart from fundraising for charity, the mission aims to study the biological effects of deep space on the astronauts’ bodies.
“Missions like Inspiration4 help advance spaceflight to enable ultimately anyone to go to orbit & beyond,” added Musk in a tweet.
The space adventure bookends a summer marked by the battle of the billionaires Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos to reach the final frontier.
But these flights only offered a few minutes of weightlessness—rather than the three full days of orbit the Inspiration4 crew will experience, before splashing down off the coast of Florida on Saturday.
© 2021 AFP
‘Happy’ SpaceX tourist crew spend first day whizzing around Earth (2021, September 17)
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