Blog Archive for the ‘Long Term Science’ Category

navigateleft Older Articles   

MIT Paleoclimate Study Reveals When the American West Dried Up

Posted on Tuesday, November 3rd, 02015 by Charlotte Hajer
link   Categories: Long Term Science   chat 0 Comments

We know that the American West was once much wetter than it is today; the region is riddled with ancient lake beds and fossilized aquatic creatures. At some point in the last 15,000 years, these inland seas disappeared and turned to desert – but exactly when this happened was not well known.

Until recently: a group of MIT researchers has discovered that the American west must have dried up just about 8,200 years ago – and that it did so relatively rapidly.

They came to this conclusion by studying stalagmites found inside a cave in the Nevada Great Basin. Stalagmites – rock formations that grow upwards on the floor of a cave from material that drips down from the ceiling – are “deposited in layers, kind of like stacked traffic cones,” says David McGee, an MIT paleoclimatologist and leader of the research team.

“Each year’s drips make a new coating, and when you cut them open, they have a very clear set of layers, and a clear sense of this is older, this is younger. So they have stratigraphy to them, which is important to us.”

The team was able to date each layer by calculating its ratio of Uranium to Thorium isotopes – a common way to determine the age of limestone. The researchers then looked at the mineral composition of each layer, and realized that it gave an indication of the moisture content that must have been present in the soil above ground at the time each layer was deposited. ”I’ve heard stalagmites called ‘fossilized groundwater,’ and that’s essentially what they are,” McGee explains. “Groundwater is percolating through the soil and rock, gets to the cave and drips out, and precipitates this stalagmite. The chemistry of that groundwater tells us something about the conditions outside the cave.” Groundwater contains large quantities of calcium and magnesium. As it seeps downward through the soil it leaves that calcium behind, leaving the water that ultimately drips into the cave with a relatively high concentration of magnesium. The research team realized that a drier climate slows down this percolation of water through soil, resulting in more calcium deposits in the ground, higher magnesium concentrations in the water that entered the cave, and thus higher levels of magnesium in the stalagmite layers that correspond to a dry period.

Analysis revealed a marked and steep rise in the concentration of magnesium in stalagmite layers that began about 8,200 years ago. It marks a major climatic change – one that must have affected the way people lived at the time. Exactly what caused this drying out remains a mystery, though McGee has an idea:

One of the big things that was happening at this time worldwide was the collapse of the last vestiges of this big ice sheet in Canada,” McGee says. “An ice sheet is thought to have important effects on where the jet stream goes. By having this ice sheet here, it made it so the jet stream was more likely to bring storms into the American West, and when it collapsed, the region became more like it is today.

The MIT study complements other ongoing analyses of long-term Great Basin climate change, including ones that are hosted and facilitated by Long Now itself: our Nevada property is one of several field locations used by researchers Scotty Strachan and Matt Salzer (pictured below), who study bristlecone core samples and weather station data to study long-term trends in weather patterns – such as moisture content in the air, or the amount of sunlight per year – across a variety of Great Basin microclimates.

Studies like these not only help us understand how our landscape came to look the way it does, but also create a larger picture for us of long-term climate change and its impact on human civilization – much like former SALT speaker Stefan Kroepelin does in the Sahara. This larger picture can help us better assess the meaning of more short-term weather fluctuations, and help us predict what may happen – and how we should respond – as we see our planet warming up.

Live audio stream for Andy Weir at The Interval on October 27, 02015

Posted on Saturday, October 24th, 02015 by Mikl Em
link   Categories: Announcements, Events, Long Term Science, The Interval   chat 0 Comments

Long Now members can tune in for a live audio simulcast of this sold out event starting at 7:15 PT, October 27

Andy Weir at The Interval, October 27, 02015

Andy Weir author of The Martian speaks in Long Now’s “Conversations at The Interval” series this Tuesday. Andy will talk about the real science of a Mars colonization mission. What would Martian colonization really be like? What would it take to get us to the red planet? What would we do to establish a colony once we landed?

Andy will speak live at The Interval, Long Now’s cafe/bar/museum/headquarters in San Francisco. We will stream his talk live (and free) for Long Now members on the member site. Then Long Now’s Peter Schwartz will interview Andy onstage. We’ll have copies of The Martian on sale and Andy will sign books after he speaks.

Tickets to this event sold out quickly, as our Interval talks often do. Due to the huge interest we will be live audio-streaming Tuesday’s talk for members. We also livestream our monthly SALT series as a free benefit for our members.

Long Now members can tune in for a live audio simulcast at 7:15 PT on October 27

Current Long Now members, just login on the member site. You can join Long Now for just $8/month; benefits includes tickets to Seminars, HD video of 12 years of Long Now talks, and many other perks.

While we don’t currently live stream all our Interval event, we hope to do so increasingly in the future. We also plan to release Interval talks as podcasts and video on the Long Now site (similarly to our Seminar series). Long Now is seeking a major sponsor to fund the cost of producing this series to the standard of our Seminar media. Sponsorship inquiries are welcome.

Mount Tambora Eruption in 01815 Reverberated Across the Planet

Posted on Friday, September 18th, 02015 by Charlotte Hajer
link   Categories: Long Term Science, The Big Here   chat 0 Comments

In April of 01815, Mount Tambora - an active volcano in what is now Indonesia - erupted after a few hundred years of dormancy. For several days, it spewed hot lava and ash into the air, casting its environment in pitch black darkness. The largest observed eruption in recorded history, it was heard and felt as far as 1,600 miles away, and produced tsunami waves of up to 4 meters across the Indonesian archipelago. The explosion caused part of the volcano itself to cave in, and killed tens of thousands of people.

A year later, England noted the coldest winter of its recorded history, and the Eastern United States reported an uncharacteristically short summer. In 01817, Germany suffered a famine, and India a cholera epidemic. Though never linked back to the Tambora eruption at the time, a new book by Gillen D’Arcy Wood shows how the explosion in Indonesia reverberated across the planet, producing colder weather and dark storm clouds – followed by crop failure – for several years following the event.

Tambora’s impact can be traced through European cultural history: it is memorialized in J.M.W. Turner’s fiery sunsets – caused by particles of ash that spread across the planetary atmosphere – and even in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, which was inspired by a gloomy summer that forced England’s gentry to keep itself entertained with indoor activities.

There is a lesson in this retrospective connection of the dots, Wood argues:

… the revelation of global volcanic ruin – a portrait 200 years in the making – offers a kind of meditation on the difficulty of uncovering the subtle effects of climate change, whether its origins lie in nature’s fury or the invisible byproducts of human civilization.

Moreover, Wood’s analysis reminds us that even the most subtle (and temporary) climatic changes can have a profound impact on global civilization.


2,000-Year Old Termite Mounds Found in Central Africa

Posted on Friday, August 28th, 02015 by Charlotte Hajer
link   Categories: Long Term Science, Millennial Precedent, Technology, The Big Here   chat 0 Comments

Much like ants, termites are a testament to the adage that a whole is greater than the sum of its parts. A single termite is an almost translucent creature, no more than a few millimeters long. But put several thousand of them together, and they become capable of building expansive structures, some reaching up as high as 17 feet.

Moreover, a recent discovery suggests that some termite mounds are not only very tall, but also very old. A joint Belgian-Congolese team of geologists carbon-dated a set of four mounds in the Congo’s Miombo Woods, and found them to be between 680 and 2200 years old. Though the oldest of these had been abandoned centuries ago, the researchers infer from their findings that some species of termites can inhabit one and the same structure for several hundreds of years. This far exceeds the lifespan of any one colony (which matches that of its queen), suggesting that a kind of intergenerational inheritance passes the mound from one queen to the next.

Swarm intelligence, it seems, leads not only to highly organized labor and solid engineering, but also to long-term thinking.

Himawari-8 Satellite Offers A New Look at Our Planet – 144 Times Per Day

Posted on Wednesday, August 5th, 02015 by Charlotte Hajer
link   Categories: Long Term Science, Technology, The Big Here   chat 0 Comments


A sense of perspective is unavoidable from 22,000 miles out. Looking down at Earth from that distance — almost three times farther than the diameter of the planet itself — allows a view of the globe as a massive organic system, pulsing with continuous movement. (NY Times)

Last month, Japan’s new Himawari-8 weather satellite began sending data back to Earth. Launched in late 02014 to help track storm systems and other weather patterns in the Pacific Rim, it looks down on Earth from a geostationary orbit, at about 36,000 kilometers (or 22,000 miles) from the surface.

Its considerable distance from Earth isn’t necessarily surprising; most weather satellites do their work in high earth orbit. But what makes Himawari-8 unique among its colleagues is the fact that it is capable of taking full-color photos of the entire planet. Every day, it sends 144 of these “living portraits” back down to Earth – or one photograph every ten minutes.


With an unprecedentedly high resolution that can visualize features as small as 500 square meters, these images will help scientists better understand the genesis, evolution, and outcome of large-scale weather patterns. But on a broader level, the pictures Himawari-8 sends back can’t help but awaken in us what the Planetary Collective has called the Overview Effect: the combined sense of awe and oneness that seems to come over us all when we see images of the whole Earth, framed by the blackness of space.

The data Himawari-8 produces is meant to help us better grasp the ever-changing, fleeting, and highly localized behavior of the Pacific atmosphere. But it also offers us a reminder to step outside of ourselves and consider the fact that we ultimately inhabit a very small corner of a much larger unit of space and time.

The Really Big One

Posted on Monday, July 13th, 02015 by Andrew Warner
link   Categories: Long Term Science   chat 0 Comments


On the face of it, earthquakes seem to present us with problems of space: the way we live along fault lines, in brick buildings, in homes made valuable by their proximity to the sea. But, covertly, they also present us with problems of time. The earth is 4.5 billion years old, but we are a young species, relatively speaking, with an average individual allotment of three score years and ten. The brevity of our lives breeds a kind of temporal parochialism—an ignorance of or an indifference to those planetary gears which turn more slowly than our own.

A sobering article detailing the science, infrastructure, and politics behind preparing for a once-a-several-century earthquake from Kathryn Schulz at The New Yorker.

Centre for the Study of Existential Risk needs researchers

Posted on Monday, April 6th, 02015 by Alexander Rose - Twitter: @zander
link   Categories: Long Term Science   chat 0 Comments


Former Long Now speaker Sir Martin Rees just wrote in to let us know that the new Centre for the Study of Existential Risk (At the University of Cambridge) is recruiting four postdoctoral researchers to work on the study of extreme risks arising from technological advances. Specific projects include: responsible innovation in transformative technologies; horizon-scanning and foresight; ethics and evaluation of extreme technological risks, and policy and governance challenges associated with emerging technologies.

They also have the flexibility to hire one or more postdoctoral researchers to work on additional projects relevant to the Centre’s broad aims, which include impacts and safety in artificial intelligence and synthetic biology, biosecurity, extreme tail climate change, geoengineering, and catastrophic biodiversity loss. They welcome proposals from a range of fields.

The deadline for applications is April 24th, and details can be found here:

1,000 Year Old Recipe Effectively Kills MRSA (An Antibiotic-Resistant Superbug)

Posted on Thursday, April 2nd, 02015 by Andrew Warner
link   Categories: Long Term Science   chat 0 Comments


A 1,000 year old treatment for eye infections, recreated from a recipe recorded in the 9th Century, killed up to 90% of MRSA bacteria, suggesting a new path of research against antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria. The treatment is made up of onion, garlic, wine, and cow bile, and was recorded in Bald’s Leechbook, an early medical textbook that has been preserved by The British Library.

The Cosmological Limits of Information Storage

Posted on Thursday, February 12th, 02015 by Charlotte Hajer
link   Categories: Digital Dark Age, Long Term Science   chat 0 Comments


An important part of long-term thinking is the never-ending search for very long-lived methods of information storage. A perfect, eternal storage medium still eludes us; most of the ones we’ve invented and used over the course of civilization have had their limitations – even stone, nickel, and sapphire have a shelf life.

But new research by a team of physicists now suggests that searching for a storage medium that lives forever may be a waste of energy, because the laws of physics themselves limit the amount of time that any information can be kept.

In a paper recently published by the New Journal of Physics, the researchers review how spacetime dynamics might influence the storage of information by asking how much data we can reliably hold on to from the beginning to the end of time.

In order to answer that question, the team combined Einsteinian cosmology with quantum theories about the nature of matter and reality. They worked with a standard model of the universe, called the Friedman-Lemaître-Robertson-Walker metric: based on Einstein’s theory of general relativity, it describes a universe that is homogeneous and isotropic, and therefore expands (or contracts) uniformly in all directions.

Working with this metric, the researchers modeled what would happen to stored data over the course of universe expansion. When you encode information into some kind of matter and then track what happens to your storage medium throughout the life course of the universe, you’ll find that the quantum state of its matter (in other words, its properties: its position, momentum, and spin) will eventually and inevitably change. The research team was able to prove that this change in state creates ‘noise’ that dampens the stored information. One of the research physicists explains the process in this video abstract of the paper:

The faster the universe expands, the team argues, the more ‘noise’ interferes with stored data. Looking at the storage of both classical information (anything encoded in bits) and quantum information (anything encoded by the quantum state of a given particle), they conclude that not very much data will last from the beginning to the end of time.

In other words, it seems as though we may be doomed to an eventual quantum dark age. Unless, of course, we always take care to anticipate these state changes, and continuously forward migrate our data.

David Keith Seminar Primer

Posted on Wednesday, February 4th, 02015 by Charlotte Hajer
link   Categories: Long Term Science, Seminars   chat 0 Comments

On Tuesday, February 17, David Keith will present Patient Geoengineering, as part of our monthly Seminars About Long-Term Thinking. Each month the Seminar Primer gives you some background information about the speaker, including links to learn even more.

In 01991, Mount Pinatubo – a largely forgotten and underestimated volcano in the Philippines – erupted in what would turn out to be one of the 20th century’s most significant geological events. It shot about 20 million tons of sulfur dioxide to the surface, much of which a coinciding typhoon then swept up into the air. This produced a cloud of sulfuric acid aerosols that quickly spread across the planet and managed to lower global temperatures by about 0.5 ºCelsius for the next few years.

This one-time event thereby managed to achieve what decades of political discussion about curbing CO₂ emissions has so far been unsuccessful at doing: counteracting the unprecedented global warming of our planet. Could Mount Pinatubo be pointing us to a viable new solution for climate change?

Many people, climate scientists included, are wary of proposals to reverse or reduce global warming by tinkering directly with Earth’s climate and atmosphere. Such efforts at geoengineering, they worry, could have unforeseen and dangerous regional side effects that we may not be able to control or reverse. What if it interferes with local patterns of rainfall – or produces powerful storms?

But after decades of getting nowhere with emissions caps, argues David Keith, we simply can no longer afford not to put these ideas on the table.

Keith is an applied physicist and climate scientist at Harvard, with dual appointments in the university’s schools of engineering and public policy. He splits his time between Cambridge and Calgary, where he runs Carbon Engineering – a company that works on developing technologies for the capture of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and turning it into low-carbon fuel.

Keith dedicates both his academic and entrepreneurial efforts to the exploration of climate engineering. While his company works on methods to directly reduce the amount of CO₂ in the air, his research explores ways to counteract human contributions to rising CO₂ levels by diminishing the amount of solar energy that reaches Earth’s surface. Indeed, one method for this kind of Solar Radiation Management (SRM) takes a cue from Mount Pinatubo, and would involve the release of sulfate particles into the upper atmosphere:

Keith not only argues that we must seriously consider these options, but also suggests that they may not be as irreversible, costly, or dangerous as they seem.

There’s no question [solar radiation management] reduces the global average temperatures; even the people who hate it agree you could reduce average global temperatures. The question is: how does it do on a regional basis? By far the single most important thing to look at on a region-by-region basis is the impact on rainfall and temperature. And the answer is, it works a lot better than I expected. It’s really stunning. A lot of us thought that, in fact, geoengineering would do a lousy job on a regional basis – and there’s lots of talk on the inequalities – but in fact, when you actually look at the climate models, the results show they’re strikingly even.

Nevertheless, Keith by no means means to suggest humanity should begin experimenting with these methods immediately, nor should they be considered a viable and ethical alternative to cutting CO₂ emissions. Above all, he argues for thoughtful discussion, rigorous research, and global consensus about the best way forward. We must, above all, be patient and thorough. As he told Time Magazine in 02009, when the weekly named him a Hero of the Environment, “The thing about tools … is not that you have to use them: it’s that you have to understand them.”

Join us next Tuesday, February 17th at SFJAZZ Center to hear David Keith present his case for patient geoengineering.