Massive boom hopes to corral Pacific Ocean’s plastic trash
By OLGA R. RODRIGUEZ
Monday, September 10
SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Engineers are deploying a trash collection device to corral plastic litter floating between California and Hawaii in an attempt to clean up the world’s largest garbage patch in the heart of the Pacific Ocean.
The 2,000-foot (600-meter) long floating boom is being towed from San Francisco to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch — an island of trash twice the size of Texas.
The system was created by The Ocean Cleanup, an organization founded by Boyan Slat, a 24-year-old innovator from the Netherlands who first became passionate about cleaning the oceans when he went scuba diving at age 16 in the Mediterranean Sea and saw more plastic bags than fish.
“The plastic is really persistent and it doesn’t go away by itself and the time to act is now,” Slat said, adding that researchers with his organization found plastic going back to the 1960s and 1970s bobbing in the patch.
The buoyant, U-shaped barrier made of plastic and with a tapered 10-foot (3-meter) deep screen, is intended to act like a coastline, trapping some of the 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic that scientists estimate are swirling in that gyre but allowing marine life to safely swim beneath it.
Fitted with solar power lights, cameras, sensors and satellite antennas, the cleanup system will communicate its position at all times, allowing a support vessel to fish out the collected plastic every few months and transport it to dry land where it will be recycled, said Slat.
Shipping containers filled with the fishing nets, plastic bottles, laundry baskets and other plastic refuse scooped up by the system being deployed Saturday are expected to be back on land within a year, he said.
Slat said he and his team will pay close attention to whether the system works efficiently and withstands harsh ocean conditions, including huge waves. He said he’s most looking forward to a ship loaded with plastic coming back to port.
“We still have to prove the technology… which will then allow us to scale up a fleet of systems,” he said.
The Ocean Cleanup, which has raised $35 million in donations to fund the project, including from Salesforce.com chief executive Marc Benioff and PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel, will deploy 60 free-floating barriers in the Pacific Ocean by 2020.
“One of our goals is to remove 50 percent of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in five years,” Slat said.
The free-floating barriers are made to withstand harsh weather conditions and constant wear and tear. They will stay in the water for two decades and in that time collect 90 percent of the trash in the patch, he added.
George Leonard, chief scientist of the Ocean Conservancy, a nonprofit environmental advocacy group, said he’s skeptical Slat can achieve that goal because even if plastic trash can be taken out of the ocean, a lot more is pouring in each year.
“We at the Ocean Conservancy are highly skeptical but we hope it works,” he said. “The ocean needs all the help it can get.”
Leonard said 9 million tons (8 million metric tons) of plastic waste enter the ocean annually and that a solution must include a multi-pronged approach, including stopping plastic from reaching the ocean and more education so people reduce consumption of single use plastic containers and bottles.
“If you don’t stop plastics from flowing into the ocean, it will be a Sisyphean task,” Leonard said, citing the Greek myth of a task never completed. He added that on September 15 about 1 million volunteers around the world will collect trash from beaches and waterways as part of the Ocean Conservancy’s annual International Coastal Cleanup. Volunteers last year collected about 10,000 tons of plastics worldwide over two hours, he said.
Leonard also raised concerns that marine and wildlife could be entangled by the net that will hang below the surface. He said he hopes Slat’s group is transparent with its data and shares information with the public about what happens with the first deployment.
“He has set a very large and lofty goal and we certainly hope it works but we really are not going to know until it is deployed,” Leonard said. “We have to wait and see.”
The system will act as a “big boat that stands still in the water” and will have a screen and not a net so that there is nothing for marine life to get entangled with. As an extra precautionary measure, a boat carrying experienced marine biologists will be deployed to make sure the device is not harming wildlife, Slat said.
“I’m the first to acknowledge this has never done before and that it is important to collect plastic on land and close the taps on plastic entering into the ocean, but I also think humanity can do more than one thing at a time to tackle this problem,” Slat said.
Freelance photographer Lorin Eleni Gill in San Francisco contributed to this story.
Ten years of Large Hadron Collider discoveries are just the start of decoding the universe
September 7, 2018
Professor of Physics, Florida State University
Todd Adams receives funding from US Department of Energy.
Florida State University provides funding as a member of The Conversation US.
Ten years! Ten years since the start of operations for the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), one of the most complex machines ever created. The LHC is the world’s largest particle accelerator, buried 100 meters under the French and Swiss countryside with a 17-mile circumference.
On Sept. 10, 2008, protons, the center of a hydrogen atom, were circulated around the LHC accelerator for the first time. However, the excitement was short-lived because on Sept. 22 an incident occurred that damaged more than 50 of the LHC’s more than 6,000 magnets – which are critical for keeping the protons traveling on their circular path. Repairs took more than a year, but in March 2010 the LHC began colliding protons. The LHC is the crown jewel of CERN, the European particle physics laboratory that was founded after World War II as a way to reunite and rebuild science in war-torn Europe. Now scientists from six continents and 100 countries conduct experiments there.
You might be wondering what the LHC does and why it is a big deal. Great questions. The LHC collides two beams of protons together at the highest energies ever achieved in a laboratory. Six experiments located around the 17-mile ring study the results of these collisions with massive detectors built in underground caverns. That’s the what, but why? The goal is to understand the nature of the most basic building blocks of universe and how they interact with each other. This is fundamental science at its most basic.
The LHC has not disappointed. One of the discoveries made with the LHC includes the long sought-after Higgs boson, predicted in 1964 by scientists working to combine theories of two of the fundamental forces of nature.
I work on one of the six LHC experiments – the Compact Muon Solenoid experiment designed to discover the Higgs boson and search for signs of previously unknown particles or forces. My institution, Florida State University, joined the Compact Muon Solenoid collaboration in 1994 when I was a young graduate student at another school working on a different experiment at a different laboratory. Planning for the LHC dates back to 1984. The LHC was hard to build and expensive – 10 billion euros – and took 24 years to come to fruition. Now we are celebrating 10 years since the LHC began operating.
Discoveries from the LHC
The most significant discovery to come from the LHC so far is the discovery of the Higgs boson on July 4, 2012. The announcement was made at CERN and captivated a worldwide audience. In fact, my wife and I watched it via webcast on our big screen TV in our living room. Since the announcement was at 3 a.m. Florida time, we went for pancakes at IHOP to celebrate afterwards.
The Higgs boson was the last remaining piece of what we call the standard model of particle physics. This theory covers all of the known fundamental particles – 17 of them – and three of the four forces through which they interact, although gravity is not yet included. The standard model is an incredibly well-tested theory. Two of the six scientists who developed the part of the standard model that predicts the Higgs boson won the Nobel Prize in 2013.
I am often asked, why do we continue to run experiments, smashing together protons, if we’ve already discovered the Higgs boson? Aren’t we done? Well, there is still lots to be understood. There are a number of questions that the standard model does not answer. For example, studies of galaxies and other large-scale structures in the universe indicate that there is a lot more matter out there than we observe. We call this dark matter since we can’t see it. The most common explanation to date is that dark matter is made of an unknown particle. Physicists hope that the LHC may be able to produce this mystery particle and study it. That would be an amazing discovery.
Just last week, the ATLAS and Compact Muon Solenoid collaborations announced the first observation of the Higgs boson decaying, or breaking apart, into bottom quarks. The Higgs boson decays in many different ways – some rare, some common. The standard model makes predictions about how often each type of decay happens. To fully test the model, we need to observe all of the predicted decays. Our recent observation is in agreement with the standard model – another success.
More questions, more answers to come
There are lots of other puzzles in the universe and we may require new theories of physics to explain such phenomena – such as matter/anti-matter asymmetry to explain why the universe has more matter than anti-matter, or the hierarchy problem to understand why gravity is so much weaker than the other forces.
But for me, the quest for new, unexplained data is important because every time that physicists think we have it all figured out, nature provides a surprise that leads to a deeper understanding of our world.
The LHC continues to test the standard model of particle physics. Scientists love when theory matches data. But we usually learn more when they don’t. This means we don’t fully understand what is happening. And that, for many of us, is the future goal of the LHC: to discover evidence of something we don’t understand. There are thousands of theories that predict new physics that we have not observed. Which are right? We need a discovery to learn if any are correct.
CERN plans to continue LHC operations for a long time. We are planning upgrades to the accelerator and detectors to allow it to run through 2035. It is not clear who will retire first, me or the LHC. Ten years ago, we anxiously awaited the first beams of protons. Now we are busy studying a wealth of data and hope for a surprise that leads us down a new path. Here’s to looking forward to the next 20 years.
The 19th-century tumult over climate change – and why it matters today
September 10, 2018
Professor of History and Chair of the Program in History of Science and Medicine, Yale University
Deborah Coen does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
Back in the 19th century, when tractors were still pulled by horses and the word “computer” meant a person hired to carry out tedious calculations, climate science made front-page news.
One European forester remarked in 1901 that few questions had “been debated and addressed from so many sides and so relentlessly” as that of the climatic effect of deforestation. Recalling this crowded, noisy and wide-ranging conflict – a “hurly-burly” over the “climate question,” as the scientist Eduard Brückner called it at the time – reminds us that climate science has not always been the elite, well-mannered pursuit that it is today.
Might this popular, participatory approach have been an advantage? Given the ongoing rise in global greenhouse gas emissions five years after a U.N. report found that humans are “the dominant cause” of global warming, it’s a question worth asking.
The science of climatology is born
As I write about in my book about the history of climate science in the 19th century, the possibility that human actions might wreak havoc with the climate became a widespread concern for ordinary people across Europe, North Africa and the Americas.
Farmers knew intuitively that even a small change in baseline climate greatly increased the risk of extremes, and a single drought could ruin a farming community, even if followed by years of good weather. As one farmer in Central Europe put it in a letter to a local paper, you couldn’t rightly grasp the import of climate change unless you were “dependent on the yield of a few small plots of land,” and until you had “kept a lookout for a hearty rainfall day by day throughout the dry summer for several years, in vain…You must have seen your favorite fruit trees mourning with wilting leaves.”
19th-century photographs like this one, by the self-educated Bohemian naturalist Friedrich Simony, contribute evidence of recent glacier retreat related to anthropogenic climate change. Simony was among the earliest explorers of the high Alps, and his images of them were of wide scientific and popular interest in his day. Friedrich Simony
When a dry spell hit, the question of the day was whether man-made changes to the environment, including deforestation, swamp drainage and urban growth, might be robbing the atmosphere of the moisture necessary for agriculture and human health to flourish. The evidence came from historical records of extreme weather events, as well as from newly established experimental forestry stations. It was hashed out in newspapers, town councils and national parliaments, where the trade-offs between conservation and development were likewise up for debate.
In this historical context, the science called climatology developed into a multifaceted research program that offered many different things to many different people. It was, on one hand, an academic field of study, straddling physics, geography and medicine, which investigated the sensitivity of living things to the complex variation of atmospheric conditions across the surface of the Earth.
But it was also a public-oriented enterprise intent on empowering individuals and communities to improve their own health and prosperity. Climatology informed doctors and patients, for instance, about weather that might speed or delay a recovery; it taught engineers about the height of floodwaters and the strength of storms; it offered farmers knowledge of rainfall, extreme temperatures, the length of growing seasons and the frequency of damaging hail. Climatology was a planetary science, yet one that was also intimately concerned with the variability of atmospheric conditions on the scale of a single field of wheat.
What’s more, it was a 19th-century version of what we have come to call “citizen science.” It relied on people of all walks of life to report on the weather and its effects on their health and crops. Farmers and vintners supplied harvest dates to track the seasons from one year to the next, while sailors and fishermen informed early schemes for classifying clouds and winds.
Exchanges like these had far-reaching consequences. They kept scientists’ attention focused on issues of concern to their communities; they inspired experts to clarify their terms in everyday language; they honed the acuity with which the public perceived changes in their natural environment; and they gave rise to vibrant discussions of science in the popular press.
Ultimately, this give-and-take sustained the public’s trust in science. Karl Kreil, the founder of the largest climatological observing network in continental Europe in the 19th century, proudly proclaimed his “dual” identity, both scholar and public servant. His successor, Julius Hann, insisted on the importance of “public feeling” for the science of weather and climate.
The merits of messy science
To a scientist today, this approach may sound unpromising, neither fish nor fowl, incapable of producing a unified theory or yielding reliable forecasts. Indeed, 19th-century climatology has been dismissed by historians as a scientific “backwater,” mere prologue to the modern science of climate that dawned with the computer age.
However, I see the power of 19th-century climatology as lying precisely in its messiness, to borrow a term from Helga Nowotny. Climatology didn’t aspire to become a “pure” science. Indeed, its impurity makes it worth remembering today. As unruly as it might appear to scientists of the 21st century, its multifariousness seems altogether appropriate to a subject as complex as the Earth’s climate. Climate change is not one phenomenon but many, and it means different things to different living creatures. It is a catastrophe unfolding at different spatial and temporal scales, from the distant to the here and now. It demands not one way of knowing but many.
The principal virtue of the messy and often cacophonous field of 19th-century climatology is what philosophers of science call pluralism. This means pursuing not a single, all-encompassing theory, but a multiplicity of perspectives that cannot be unified, but only loosely coordinated.
Encouraging scientific pluralism makes sense for a democratic society that acknowledges that different observers inevitably see things differently, and that alternative perspectives, if held to appropriate standards of rigor, may shed important light on scientific questions. The advantages of pluralist science include its flexibility when confronted with new evidence and its capacity to learn from multiple frameworks, even if those frameworks cannot be reconciled with each other.
By contrast, over the past 30 years, climate scientists have responded to political controversy by pursuing monism, or a single unified approach. In the face of skepticism, they have, understandably, prioritized consensus-building.
They have done so largely by means of “integrated global assessments,” such as the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. These have involved bodies of experts charged to reach agreement on a narrow set of questions, which they typically accomplish by reducing their statements to the vaguest, blandest terms. These experts have tended to come from the physical sciences and economics, to the exclusion of many other relevant disciplines; and they have been overwhelmingly white, male and European or North American.
Consensus-building has also rested on one particular form of knowledge: predictive modeling. What counts as evidence has narrowed to mean only what can be fed into a computer model that simulates the effects of a warming planet, even when it comes to describing the subtle interactions between environmental and social change. Even here, diversity has been minimized, as researchers have concentrated on elaborating the complexity of only a small number of models.
Creating a climate dialogue
The consensus-building approach of recent climate science has successfully established anthropogenic climate change as an indisputable fact. But it has failed to translate that knowledge into action.
The solution may lie in a return to pluralism. In talking with scientists, I have found that some of them feel that monism has failed them. Instead, they are pinning their hopes on new forums that promise to integrate a wider array of disciplines and draw stakeholders into the research process. These initiatives take a collaborative, iterative approach to knowledge-making, one that allows policymakers, entrepreneurs, indigenous communities and other concerned citizens to help shape the course of research.
Examples include the Initiative on Extreme Weather and Climate, which works with city governments and insurance companies to assess risks and develop adaptation strategies, and the Green-Win project, which coordinates dialogue among a variety of constituencies in order to develop green-growth plans that work for everyone. In another example, one scientist working with the project Transforming Climate Knowledge with and for Society is revising the scientific definition of the monsoon season in Bangladesh to better reflect locals’ experiences of it.
Implementing initiatives like these means resisting the pressure of monism, and it isn’t easy. As one of Green-Win’s leaders, Jill Jaeger, remarked to me, “People don’t know how to have a dialogue any more.” My hope is that the case of 19th-century climatology will remind us what a genuine dialogue looks like.