Permafrost in Canada, Alaska and Siberia is abruptly crumbling in ways that could release large stores of greenhouse gases more quickly than anticipated, researchers have warned.
Scientists have long fretted that climate change – which has heated Arctic and subarctic regions at double the global rate – will release planet-warming CO2 and methane that has remained safely locked inside Earth’s frozen landscapes for millennia.
It was assumed this process would be gradual, leaving humanity time to draw down carbon emissions enough to prevent permafrost thaw from tipping into a self-perpetuating vicious circle of ice melt and global warming.
But a study published on Monday in Nature Geoscience says projections of how much carbon would be released by this kind of slow-and-steady thawing overlook a less well-known process whereby certain types of icy terrain disintegrate suddenly – sometimes within days.
“Although abrupt permafrost thawing will occur in less than 20 percent of frozen land, it increases permafrost carbon release projections by about 50 percent,” said lead author Merritt Turetsky, head of the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research in Boulder, Colorado.
“Under all future warming scenarios, abrupt thaw leads to net carbon losses into the atmosphere,” she told AFP.
Permafrost contains rocks, soil, sand and pockets of pure ground ice. Its rich carbon content is the remains of life that once flourished in the Arctic, including plants, animals and microbes.
This matter – which never fully decomposed – has been frozen for thousands of years.
It stretches across an area nearly as big as Canada and the United States combined, and holds about 1,500 billion tonnes or carbon – twice as much as in the atmosphere and three times the amount humanity has emitted since the start of industrialisation.
Some of this once rock-solid ground has begun to soften, upending indigenous communities and threatening industrial infrastructure across the sub-Arctic region, especially in Russia.
The evidence is mixed as to whether this not-so-permanent permafrost has started to vent significant quantities of methane or CO2.
Projections are also uncertain, with some scientists saying future emissions may be at least partially offset by new vegetation, which absorbs and stores CO2.
But there is no doubt, experts say, that permafrost will continue to give way as temperatures climb.
‘Fast and dramatic’
In a special report published in September, the UN’s scientific advisory body for climate change, the IPCC, looked at two scenarios.
If humanity manages – against all odds – to cap global warming at under 2°C, the cornerstone goal of the 2015 Paris climate treaty, “permafrost area shows a decrease of 24 percent by 2100”, it concluded.
At the other extreme, if fossil fuel emissions continue to grow over the next 50 years – arguably an equally unlikely prospect – up to 70 percent of permafrost could disappear, the IPPC said.
But both scenarios assume the loss will be gradual, and that may be a mistake, Turetsky suggested.
“We estimate that abrupt permafrost thawing – in lowland lakes and wetlands, together with that in upland hills – could release 60 to 100 billion tonnes of carbon by 2300,” she and colleagues noted in a 2019 comment also published by Nature.
One tonne of carbon is equivalent to 3.67 tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2), which means this would be equivalent to about eight years of global emissions at current rates.
“This is in addition to the 200 billion tonnes of carbon expected to be released in other regions that will thaw gradually,” she said.
Current climate models do not account for the possibility of rapid permafrost collapse and the amount of gases it might release, the study notes.
Abrupt thawing is “fast and dramatic”, Merritt said, adding: “Forests can become lakes in the course of a month, landslides can occur with no warning, and invisible methane seep holes can swallow snowmobiles whole.”
NASA’s moon rocket heads back to the launchpad – Kathimerini English Edition
NASA’s big moon rocket is rolling out to the launchpad for the third time – and it actually is slated to launch to the moon.
For once, NASA is ahead of schedule.
For the past month and a half, the Space Launch System rocket, which is the most powerful since the Saturn V that took astronauts to the moon in the 1960s and 1970s, has been parked in a building at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. There, technicians have been getting the rocket ready for its maiden flight, which could occur in two weeks.
The rollout from the building to the launchpad had been scheduled for Thursday, but NASA announced Monday that the move had been moved up to Tuesday evening. This all leads to the launch of NASA’s Artemis I mission, an uncrewed test of the giant rocket and the Orion spacecraft where astronauts will one day sit.
What happens during the rollout, and can I watch it?
It is about 4.2 miles from NASA’s huge Vehicle Assembly Building to the launchpad, which is known as Launch Complex 39B. NASA first used the pad during the Apollo program in the 1960s. The rocket and launch tower will sit on a gigantic vehicle that NASA calls a crawler-transporter. It is the same vehicle that carried the Saturn V for the moon landings, but it has been renovated and upgraded.
The crawler, indeed, crawls. Bigger in area than a baseball infield and able to carry up to 18 million pounds, it will move at a speed up to 1 mph over a gravel path to the launch site. The trip will take about 10 hours.
NASA started broadcasting the rollout at 3 p.m. Eastern time Tuesday on one of its YouTube channels when the doors of the Vehicle Assembly Building opened. The crawler and the rocket could actually start moving around 9 p.m.
What happens next?
Technicians will be making final preparations, including hooking up power and propellant lines to the rocket and the launch tower. Although the rollout is sooner, the target time for the Artemis I launch has not changed: Monday, Aug. 29 at 8:33 a.m. Eastern time.
What are the Space Launch System and Orion, and why are they important?
The Space Launch System and Orion are two of the core components of NASA’s plans to return astronauts to the surface of the moon in the coming years. Getting there requires a rocket powerful enough to push a large spacecraft out of low-Earth orbit to the moon, some 240,000 miles away. Orion is a capsule designed to carry astronauts on space voyages lasting up to a few weeks.
What problems occurred during the dress rehearsal?
NASA first rolled the SLS rocket to the launchpad in mid-March. In early April, it attempted to conduct a “wet dress rehearsal” of countdown procedures, including the loading of more than 700,000 gallons of liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen rocket propellants. However, technical glitches, including a hydrogen leak during three rehearsal tries, cut the countdowns short.
NASA then rolled the rocket back to the Vehicle Assembly Building to conduct repairs. In June, the rocket returned to the launchpad for another attempt at the wet dress rehearsal. That attempt, on June 20, encountered a different hydrogen leak, in a fuel line connector to the rocket’s booster stage. However, the propellant tanks were fully filled for the first time, and controllers were able to continue the rehearsal until the countdown terminated with 29 seconds left. Originally, the aim was to have the countdown stop with just under 10 seconds, when the engines would start for an actual launch.
Despite the leak, NASA officials decided that all of the critical systems had been sufficiently tested and declared the test a success. The rocket headed back for the Vehicle Assembly Building once again for final preparations, including the installation of the flight termination system, which would blow up the rocket in case something went wrong during launch and eliminate the possibility of crashing into a populated area.
The flight termination system’s batteries, installed Aug. 11, are normally only rated to last for 20 days, but the part of the United States Space Force that oversees launches from Florida, granted NASA a waiver that extends the period to 25 days. This allows the Aug. 29 launch date as well as backup opportunities on Sept. 2 and Sept. 5.
NASA hopes it fixed the hydrogen leak, but it will not know for sure until the Aug. 29 countdown, when the propellant line is cooled down to ultracold temperatures, something that cannot be tested in the Vehicle Assembly Building.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
Physicists and business figures gather in Vancouver to crack theory of everything
VANCOUVER — Some of the world’s brightest minds are gathering at a hotel conference centre in Vancouver this week to try to solve a question that has baffled physicists for decades.
The two pillars of modern physics — the theories of quantum mechanics and general relativity — have been used respectively to describe how matter behaves, as well as space, time and gravity.
The problem is that the theories don’t appear to be compatible, said Peter Galison, a professor in history of science and physics at Harvard University.
“These theories can’t just harmoniously live in splendid isolation, one from the other. We know our account of the world is inadequate until we figure out how to make them play nicely together,” he said in an interview after giving a talk on how black holes fit into the equation.
Galison is among several leading thinkers who arrived at the Quantum Gravity Conference for the launch a new global research collaborative known as the Quantum Gravity Institute in Vancouver.
While speakers at the conference are primarily scientists, including Nobel laureates Jim Peebles, Sir Roger Penrose and Kip Thorne, those behind the institute come from less likely fields.
The Quantum Gravity Society represents a group of business, technology and community leaders. Founding members include Frank Giustra of Fiore Group, Terry Hui of Concord Pacific, Paul Lee and Moe Kermani of Vanedge Capital and Markus Frind of Frind Estate Winery. They are joined by physicists Penrose, Abhay Ashtekar, Philip Stamp, Bill Unruh and Birgitta Whaley.
During a panel discussion, Lee said he’s been asked several times why Vancouver would host such an event or institute.
“Why Vancouver? Because we can,” Lee said.
Hui, who studied physics as part of his undergraduate degree, said organizing the conference and launching the institute felt like fulfilling a childhood dream.
“I left the field to pursue other things, you know,” he said in an interview.
“How do I put this?” he said, before likening it to being a guy who never made the high school hockey team getting to hang out in the Canucks’ locker room.
Hui said he wanted to help and saw his role as philanthropic, adding he believed it would benefit Vancouver economically.
As a non-local and the founder of the Black Hole Initiative at Harvard, Galison said he’s happy to see more interdisciplinary support for exploring some of the biggest questions in science.
He called the conference an interesting event for bringing together people in technology and venture capitalism with scientists from varied fields. The launch of the institute is also meaningful, he said.
“It’s also a kickoff event for something much bigger and longer-lasting.”
As for the central question of the conference, Galison said it’s an opportunity to explore where the theories overlap and where they don’t from different angles.
“One place they intersect is clearly at the beginning of the universe, early cosmology, because when energy is incredibly compressed, when you have enormous energy densities, you’re at the limit where the bending of space and time creates so much energy that quantum effects come into play,” he said.
The theory of quantum mechanics, introduced in the 1920s, entered a world already shaken by Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity, which inspired responses not just from scientists but from poets and philosophers, he said.
“That these things are not compatible is really unnerving,” Galison said.
Cracking the code for why isn’t something that will happen in a moment, a week or a year, he said.
“There’s a tremendous amount of work,” he said. “It’s more like building a cathedral than throwing up a bicycle shed.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 17, 2022.
Amy Smart, The Canadian Press
Humans are heading back to the moon — and Canada is playing a bigger role than you may realize – CBC News
If all goes as planned, NASA’s most powerful rocket yet will roar to life on the morning of Aug. 29, as part of the Artemis I mission to the moon.
While the mission will be uncrewed — the only passengers on the towering, 32-storey Space Launch System (SLS) and attached Orion capsule are three mannequins — it is the first moonshot for a human-rated spacecraft since Apollo 17 in December 1972.
The goal of the Artemis program is to send humans back to the moon — and ultimately to Mars.
But unlike the Apollo program of the 1960s, Artemis is an international effort. And Canada has no small role in returning humans to deep space; we are building a new Canadarm, a lunar rover and sending astronauts.
Our country’s role is bigger and better than it ever has been in our quiet, but storied, past with space exploration.
Canada was the third country to have a satellite in space. We have sent astronauts to live and work in space. We have provided crucial instruments to Martian rovers, and tools on a spacecraft that charted a distant asteroid. We are partners in the newly launched James Webb Space Telescope, providing the instrument that keeps it guided.
And, of course, we built the iconic robotic arms — Canadarm and Canadarm2 — that have been used on space shuttles and the International Space Station, as commemorated on our $5 bill.
And we, too, are going to the moon.
The mission of Artemis I is to test the SLS rocket and the Orion capsule. But after that comes Artemis II, scheduled for 2024 or 2025, when four astronauts will travel in Orion and orbit the moon.
On that capsule will be a yet-unnamed Canadian astronaut — the first to travel to deep space.
NASA also has plans to build the Lunar Gateway, a small space station that will orbit the moon. Canada is contributing the Canadarm3, built by MDA, to that project — and the new arm is much more sophisticated than the originals.
“Canadarm2 today is on the International Space Station. It’s about 400 kilometres away from Earth, so a few hours’ drive, if you’re going straight up,” said Holly Johnson, vice-president of space and robotic operations at MDA. “Canadarm3 is going to be orbiting the moon at Lunar Gateway, which is 400,000 kilometres from Earth.”
With that extended travel, she said, the CSA is focused on “evolving” the intelligence and the artificial intelligence of the Canadarm.
“It needs to be more autonomous, it needs to be smarter, because communication takes longer to go between Earth and the moon.”
Just as the first two Canadarms were instrumental in building and maintaining the International Space Station, the Canadarm3 will be crucial in building the new Lunar Gateway.
MDA is also partnering with Lockheed Martin and General Motors to provide a robotic arm on a future lunar rover.
And when it comes to lunar rovers, Canadian companies are also working on one capable of spending two weeks in the frigid temperatures of lunar night.
“Canada’s role in space — we’ve been a player from the beginning,” said Ken Podwalski, executive director of space exploration and the Lunar Gateway program manager at the Canadian Space Agency (CSA).
“I just don’t think Canadians … realize how awesome we are. I don’t think they realize the things we’ve done with the shuttle program, with our astronauts, with science, with our satellite programs, our Earth observation, the International Space Station,” he said.
“We’ve been kicking butt for 25 years on that program and we’ve never failed. Never failed. We are absolutely a go-to player in space exploration. And Canadians need to know that.”
Canada may not be as populous as the U.S., Europe or China — some of the major players in space — but we are definitely mighty, said Chris Gainor, an amateur astronomer and space historian.
“On a per capita basis, we don’t spend nearly as much as the Americans,” he said. “But where we’ve been involved in space, we’ve always been kind of right at the front. We’ve been able to succeed when we put our minds to it and put some resources into it.
“I think that’s the important message: It may not be kind of top of mind what we’re doing, but we are actually playing in the big leagues at a bargain-basement price, I would say.”
A $470B industry that’s growing
Canada’s efforts are also about more than simply going to space, according to those in the industry. It’s also about investing in the future and jobs here at home.
“The global space sector was $470 billion in 2021 — and that’s growing. In Canada, it generates revenues of $5 billion, and it creates 20,000 jobs,” said Lisa Campbell, president of the Canadian Space Agency.
“That’s growing as well,” she said. “More and more young people are gravitating toward the space sector, because it’s exciting, it’s interesting. It’s science, technology, math, law, project management, finance — you name it. And there’s going to be huge demand for people in the future to work in the space sector.”
While it may not be immediately apparent that investments in space help us here at home, over the course of 65 years, there have been trickle-down benefits here on Earth, including technology for the cordless vacuum, memory foam and improved eye surgeries.
Canada’s contributions, too, have had knock-on effects: The Canadarm technology was modified and used to support medical robotics, performing thousands of procedures in hospitals on Earth, Johnson noted.
The CSA is also home to an Advisory Council on Deep-Space Healthcare, which aims to learn more about human health in space, with an eye to innovating here at home. And the agency has launched the Deep Space Healthcare Challenge, seeking to create new diagnostic technologies that will serve both deep space missions and those living in remote communities.
“As we figure out how to sustain human health, and feed people further in space, it also helps us with challenges we have here on Earth with remote communities, food security, and detection and prevention and treatment of illnesses,” said Campbell. “Many of the technologies we develop in space help us here on Earth as well.”
The new race to the moon is now on, Podwalski said, and Canada is a big part of it — and should let it be known.
“As Canadians,” he said, “we don’t brag enough.”
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