Frozen cones on Pluto – the first discovery of ice volcanoes?


Helen Maynard-Casely, Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation

Ice volcanoes have shaped my life, and until today I didn’t even know if they actually existed. Now, thanks to NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, there’s a good chance we’ve found a frozen volcanic cone on the surface of Pluto.

The first type of scientist I ever wanted to be was a volcanologist. Aged 12 the prospect of running up and down volcanoes and finding out what make them tick really enthused me.

Then, a pivotal moment for me, I must have been about 16, I watched ‘The Planets’ on TV and heard scientists talk of the possibility of ice volcanoes on the moons of Jupiter and Saturn (or cryo-volcanoes given that they would erupt a temperatures below −150 °C). For me, the fact that the solar system could possibly build volcanoes out of materials other than rock was captivating.

I steered away from an undergrad in geophysics to planetary science and my future of investigating icy stuff was set.

We’ve been searching for ice volcanoes in the solar system for a while and so far no ‘smoking caldera’ has turned up. For instance, we know that the surfaces of the icy moons Europa (orbiting Jupiter) and Titan (orbiting Saturn) are geologically young. However, the puzzle as to how they resurface is continuing as no ‘cryo-volcanic’ features have yet been spotted on these moons.

But now, 16 years after I watched that program, we’ve actually now got the first hint of a volcano of ice sitting on another body. In the pictures that New Horizon’s took of the Southern edge of Sputnik Platina, two volcano features have been spotted. They’ve been informally named Wright and Piccard Mons (I’ve been reliably informed that ‘Piccard’ is in reference to August Piccard the physicist and explorer).

Topographic maps of Piccard Mons (left) and Wright Mons (right).
NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI

It is early days in the discovery, but as Dr Oliver White, one of team of scientists looking through New Horizon’s data, said ‘These are big mountains with a large hole in their summit, and on Earth that generally means one thing – a volcano”.

The surface of Pluto hovers about 44 K (about -230°C) so, I’m sure you’re wondering how anything can be fluid enough at those chilly temperatures to erupt. This is because the ice that makes up these mountains is not pure, it will contain a significant amount of substances like methane, nitrogen and ammonia.

Freezing curve of ammonia-water system.

When mixed with water these materials, especially ammonia, cause an effect known as ‘freezing point depression’ lowering the temperature that the water becomes solid. In fact, anything that dissolves in water will have this effect, but ammonia is particularly effective at it – lowering the freezing temperature to -100 °C. Ok, so that’s not quite the -230°C of the surface so then this raises the possibility that internal heating may have play a role on Pluto too.

New Horizons is only a fifth of the way through downloading all of the data it collected as it shot past Pluto, there’s hopefully a lot more of these features yet to be identified. More importantly for knowing more about Wright and Piccard Mons is the spectroscopy data that’s on it way. Analysing the sunlight reflected off them will hopefully give us a hint of their chemistry. Once we have that, then we can start to build models of how these things have built and speculate if they are still active or not.

As well as sending all the data it has already collected, New Horizons is now on its way to the next encounter. Little nudges last week to the frighteningly fast trajectory is propelling the spacecraft towards 2014 MU69, a Kuiper Belt object that it will hopefully fly past in 2019. Given all that New Horizon’s has discovered (from only a fifth of the data) it is rather exciting to think what we are going to see further out.

The Conversation

Helen Maynard-Casely, Instrument Scientist, Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

10 Tips for Unpacking your Gear


Girly Camping®

10 tips for unpacking your gear

10 Tips for unpacking your gear and making the last bit of your trip less painful

You’ve had the best trip of your life! You saw unbelievable sights, cooked amazing meals, and made unforgettable memories. You’ve packed up your gear, drove the long trek home, and as exhausted as you are from your trip, you have one more task: to unpack your gear. But it doesn’t have to painful. It can actually be quick and organized! Here are 10 tips for unpacking your gear:

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How green is our infrastructure? Helping cities assess its value for long-term liveability


Roger Jones, Victoria University; Celeste Young, Victoria University, and John Symons, Victoria University

Australian cities score high in liveability awards. Melbourne has topped The Economist’s most liveable cities ranking five years in a row, with Adelaide, Sydney and Perth not far behind and Brisbane in the top 20. Australian cities rank well in other liveability surveys, too, if not so highly. Environment is one of the key factors that these surveys measure, but the data and methods being used are not very sophisticated.

Green infrastructure is a key contributor to these rankings. The networks of green and blue – taking in rivers and streams, parks, green wedges, gardens and tree-lined roads and rail – underpin urban liveability.

Yet, if we look at these valuable assets, they are mainly historical legacies of the 19th century. They include The Domain, Treasury-Fitzroy Gardens and Royal Park in Melbourne, Hyde and Centennial Parks in Sydney, King’s Park in Perth, the Adelaide Parklands and those in Brisbane, Hobart and Canberra.

Their creation was driven mainly by visions of what a city should look like and provide for its people. This was long before the invention of cost-benefit analysis and many of the other tools used to make the economic case for infrastructure.

Future-proofing urban environments

Today, if a key parcel of land is up for development, green infrastructure is often an afterthought, if considered at all. The recent reports that the former Victorian government rezoned Fishermans Bend, a former industrial site of 455 hectares, without proper regard for grey or green infrastructure are not unique.

In an area threatened by sea-level rise, increased flooding and heat island effects, to allow development that exacerbates these issues is extremely short-sighted.

But this is happening in many localities. Changing climate and the unintended consequences of small decisions, such as urban infilling, are making cities hotter, more prone to flash-flooding and less green.

Rain gardens have aesthetic and practical value as they reduce urban flooding by slowing water run-off.
shutterstock

Local government authorities are on the front line with these issues. They carry the major burden of responsibility for developing and maintaining neighbourhood environments. Over the last few years, some councils have considerably increased spending on park renewal, rain gardens to slow runoff, water capture and recycling and urban forest strategies.

However, this is occurring in an economic environment where local government’s resources are limited and efficiency is emphasised at every turn. State governments run on a platform of capping rates, not considering whether those rates reinvested by council generate ongoing socially beneficial returns.

When communities are asked what they want councils to invest in, green infrastructure is usually high on the list. Local government has recognised these pressures, identifying the need to build better business cases for green infrastructure projects and programs in order to justify their expenditure.

Finding better ways to value green assets

A recent collaborative project, involving four metropolitan Melbourne councils and Victoria University, has put together a framework to help local government identify the benefits of green infrastructure over its whole lifecycle.

The aim is to build better business cases to support projects and develop asset management programs for green infrastructure. This would lead to trees and parks being considered in a similar way to roads and buildings as assets that provide a stream of benefits to the community over their lifetimes.

Valuing the benefits of green infrastructure is tricky, though. This is because each element provides multiple benefits, which cover very different types of value.

For example, a wetland can provide flood protection, substitute for external water supply, cool an area, increase biodiversity, provide recreational opportunities and contribute to adjacent property value. These wetland benefits are public, private and intrinsic.

High-quality open space can contribute to people’s physical and mental health and wellbeing. This has the results of offsetting medical costs and promoting higher economic productivity and improved human welfare (happiness and satisfaction). Putting a dollar figure on all of these benefits is extremely complex.

The long-lived aspect of green infrastructure also means it can play a major role in adapting to changing climates within urban environments. The future value of flood protection, cooling services, amenity, recreation and human health and welfare can be substantial.

However, current methods of discounting future dollar benefits, at roughly 5% each year, undervalue these long-term benefits. A recently completed project in Melbourne’s west identified the potential for welfare and environmental benefits exceeding A$300 million over 30 years (discounting at 3.5%) by reducing pollution from an industrial precinct using integrated urban water management principles.

The framework is a starting point for councils to address the economic value of green infrastructure. It is different to most other frameworks, with the emphasis not being on how to select the type of infrastructure, but on how to get a project or program valued, approved and implemented. It has been tailored to existing council processes so it can be used now, but also grow as council programs evolve.

One major gap that our work has pointed out is the lack of available data in Australia to measure green infrastructure benefits with confidence. They are there, but it would be great to rate liveability with confidence and to have it on the same footing as income or GDP.

The Conversation

Roger Jones, Professorial Research Fellow, Victoria University; Celeste Young, Collaborative Research Fellow, Centre for Strategic Economic Studies, Victoria University, and John Symons, Research Fellow in the Victorian Institute for Strategic Economic Studies, Victoria University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Australia’s right whales are recovering after whaling bans, but there are still worrying signs


Rob Harcourt

Every July southern right whales arrive in the sheltered inlets of southern Australia to breed. These endangered whales were severely depleted by whaling, with up to 150,000 killed between 1790 and 1980.

After more than a century of protection they are recovering well in parts of their range. Off south west Australia their numbers are increasing at nearly 7% each year. The population found in the New Zealand sub-Antarctic is also looking robust. But the population found in south east Australia and mainland New Zealand does not seem to be faring so well.

In a study published today in Nature Scientific Reports we looked at the migration routes of these whales, which may help explain why they have been so slow to recover.

Where do the whales go?

Southern right whales migrate between their breeding grounds off the coast of Australia and New Zealand and feeding grounds in the Southern Ocean.

For a long time we have suspected that these whales show fidelity to their breeding grounds, as individuals return each year to popular tourist sites such as The Head of the Bight in South Australia and to Warrnambool in Victoria. But where exactly they feed has remained a mystery.

For more than 20 years we have studied these whales using small skin biopsies. We looked at genetic evidence and analysis of stable isotopes of carbon and nitrogen. Carbon isotopes provide an indication of where animals are feeding. Combined with genetic evidence, this provides clear insights into who is feeding where, and in part with whom.

We found evidence of genetic structure at both ends of the migratory network of southern right whales. That is animals showed high fidelity and bred within the same populations returning to familiar calving sites in Australia and New Zealand over many years. These animals also showed distinct separation when feeding in the southern ocean.

This suggests that whales that follow different migration routes belong to different subsets of the population, because if whales were moving between routes we would see more genetic mixing.

Migratory culture

Our data suggest that these whales pass on their migration routes culturally – particularly from mothers to their daughters.

Fidelity to migratory routes is widespread in the animal kingdom, from eels and the Sargasso Sea, through Pacific Salmon returning to spawn in only a single river catchment, the great migrations of the African savanna, to the annual migrations of the great whales.

In the marine environment returning to the place of your birth can have an enormous influence on population structure, and is important for assessing stocks of commercial species such as Pacific Salmon, as well as in conserving endangered species.

For long-lived animals, passing on knowledge of migration routes may be more successful than leaving offspring to fend for themselves. If behaviour is socially transmitted and then shared within subsets of a population, it is called culture.

Therefore, in species with long periods of parental care the transmission of parental preferences for breeding or feeding grounds to offspring is termed migratory culture.

Threatened by loyalty

Migratory culture could help explain why some populations of southern right whales are recovering and others aren’t.

When animals that show fidelity to a particular migratory destination are lost, the “memory” of that migratory destination is also lost. The effect is exacerbated when animals are lost across the migratory network, as was the case with whaling. These losses due to rapid reductions in populations can mean that safe havens may remain lost to a population for generations.

Migratory traditions can be a big advantage to long-lived animals by providing young with ready access to proven feeding areas and safe breeding habitat. But in a rapidly-changing environment, such as hat we face today, previously productive feeding grounds may become less productive.

Loyalty to their migration routes might then mean these animals are pushed back to the brink of extinction.

The Conversation

Rob Harcourt, Professor of Marine Ecology

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Paris climate talks could be a light in the darkness of terror


Nick Rowley, University of Sydney

With a country still in shock, and more than 200 innocent people either killed or receiving hospital care in Paris, it seems perverse to even turn one’s mind to what implications this horrific event might have for the international response to climate change.

The French hosts have been quick to confirm that the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change conference starting in Paris next Monday will still go ahead. For it to be cancelled or postponed would have handed an apparent success to terror.

Yet the whole tone and context of the lead-up to the meeting has changed. It is likely that fewer people will attend. The security presence, already tight, will now be intense. Leaders of all the major economies are planning to be in Paris for the first half of the meeting. Their minds will be occupied, and the media will be asking them about more than climate change.

Already, with a full agenda coming to Paris after the G20 Antalya summit in Turkey, actually being in the city will pull leaders’ attention towards more immediate international security concerns.

How can more than 100 heads of state be in Paris and not make reference to the most grotesque terrorist attack in Europe since the 2004 Madrid train bombings?

The London bombings and the G8

For me, this is all eerily reminiscent of the tense days at the Gleneagles G8 meeting in 2005. July 7, the day set aside for discussions on climate change, was sent into turmoil by the London bombings.

I was with then-British prime minister Tony Blair that morning as news of the attacks started coming in. First on Sky News, then a call from the Chief Executive of London Transport indicating that these were not crashes or engineering errors: this was catastrophic. The morning before, London had won the right to hold the Olympics in 2012; the morning after suicide bombers were wreaking havoc on innocent commuters.

While the G8 meeting continued without disruption, the prime minister flew back to London to help coordinate the response from Downing Street. That evening Blair returned to Gleneagles and continued chairing the meeting. It was a big day. I will never forget it.

Although the prime minister had to be in Whitehall that day, on his return many of the issues still open for what we envisaged would be a hard negotiation (on financing for African development and new low emissions technology development) had disappeared. Blair’s fellow leaders recognised the need for the G8 meeting to be, and be seen to be, a success for the international geopolitical order.

So, on July 8, in front of the world’s media, the Gleneagles communiqué on climate change and Africa was signed, very publicly, by all the G8 leaders coming up to the lectern in turn. It was a piece of high political theatre unprecedented at such meetings. A colleague of mine, having been tasked with finding a suitable fountain pen for eight rather powerful signatures, kept it.

Building momentum

A Conservative British prime minister, Harold Macmillan, was once asked what was the most difficult thing about his job. “Events, dear boy, events,” was his alleged response.

No matter how much any leader might prepare and seek to spend time and political capital on his or her priorities, events cannot be ignored. Events, be they severe climate events such as Typhoon Haiyan and Hurricane Sandy, or policy decisions such as China’s commitment that its emissions will peak in less than 15 years, or the G7 agreeing to phase out fuels by the end of the century, have drawn heads of state back to the issue.

Prior to Friday, the momentum behind reaching a more adequate international agreement on climate change was already significant.

States have presented their emissions reduction commitments prior to the meeting (through their “Intended Nationally Determined Contributions”). The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change has also learnt important lessons from previous meetings.

US President Barack Obama, Chinese President Xi Jinping, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel are all coming to Paris having committed themselves to significant and ambitious domestic climate policies. They aren’t coming to Paris to negotiate what might be achieved, they are focused on ensuring a supportive international policy environment that will assist the how: namely the effective implementation of what is committed to internationally and a process for supporting further policy ambition.

One perverse consequence of the horror of Friday night might be that it provides further incentive for demonstrated unity and agreement at the Paris climate change conference. With France, President Hollande and his highly able Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, presiding over the conference, the world community might now be more well disposed to helping achieve a clear, symbolic and positive success. Both for France, and as a potent demonstration of the enduring effectiveness of international diplomatic process.

Out of the darkness of last Friday night in Paris an ambitious and meaningful climate agreement might just provide some positive and enduring light.

The Conversation

Nick Rowley, Adjunct professor, University of Sydney

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.