As Cold Fronts Hit America, Half a Million Lose Power

More than 126,000 Californians are without electricity, reports ABC News. But Reuters notes that meanwhile “more than 400,000 customers of Detroit based DTE Energy remained without power on Saturday, the Detroit News reported,” suffering through “a separate storm that clobbered the U.S. Plains, Midwest and Great Lakes regions earlier this week” that finally moved over the Atlantic.

And ABC News notes that as of Saturday morning, “more than 30 million Americans are under weather alerts in the West” — roughly 1 in 11 Americans — “ranging from blizzard warnings in the mountains near Los Angeles to wind chill alerts in the Northern Plains” near Wyoming. But California’s problems came from its own major storm that delivered heavy snow, record rainfall, and damaging winds — a storm that “will be moving from southern California across the entire country over the next few days, eventually moving northeast by Tuesday.”

The Los Angeles area saw record rainfall on Friday, and it came along with 50- to 70-mile-per-hour winds. Burbank, California, saw 4.6 inches of rain Friday — stranding cars in floods and causing dozens of flight delays and cancellations. Records for daily rainfall were also set at the Los Angeles International Airport and the cities of Fresno, Bakersfield, Modesto and Oxnard…. Multiple stretches of I-5 in Los Angeles County were shuttered on Saturday due to rain and snow.

Snowflakes even fell around the “Hollywood” sign, reports Reuters. But bad weather wasn’t just hitting southern California:

In Northern California, San Francisco was expected to experience record cold temperatures on Saturday, and the National Weather Service warned residents of the state capital of Sacramento to avoid travel from Sunday through Wednesday as rain and snow started up again after a reprieve on Saturday. “Extreme impacts from heavy snow & winds will cause extremely dangerous to impossible driving conditions & likely widespread road closures & infrastructure impacts!” the agency said on Twitter. The next set of storms, expected to hit on Sunday, will bring wind gusts of up to 50 miles per hour (80 kph) in the Sacramento Valley, and up to 70 miles per hour in the nearby Sierra Nevada mountains….
A massive low-pressure system driven from the Arctic was responsible for the unusual conditions, said Bryan Jackson, a forecaster at the NWS Weather Prediction Center in College Park, Maryland.

This week one political cartoonist suggested a connection between “crazy weather” and climate change.

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MIT Team Makes a Case For Direct Carbon Capture From Seawater, Not Air

The oceans soak up enormous quantities of carbon dioxide, and MIT researchers say they’ve developed a way of releasing and capturing it that uses far less energy than direct air capture — with some other environmental benefits to boot. New Atlas reports: According to IEA figures from 2022, even the more efficient air capture technologies require about 6.6 gigajoules of energy, or 1.83 megawatt-hours per ton of carbon dioxide captured. Most of that energy isn’t used to directly separate the CO2 from the air, it’s in heat energy to keep the absorbers at operating temperatures, or electrical energy used to compress large amounts of air to the point where the capture operation can be done efficiently. But either way, the costs are out of control, with 2030 price estimates per ton ranging between US$300-$1,000. According to Statista, there’s not a nation on Earth currently willing to tax carbon emitters even half of the lower estimate; first-placed Uruguay taxes it at US$137/ton. Direct air capture is not going to work as a business unless its costs come way down.

It turns out there’s another option: seawater. As atmospheric carbon concentrations rise, carbon dioxide begins to dissolve into seawater. The ocean currently soaks up some 30-40% of all humanity’s annual carbon emissions, and maintains a constant free exchange with the air. Suck the carbon out of the seawater, and it’ll suck more out of the air to re-balance the concentrations. Best of all, the concentration of carbon dioxide in seawater is more than 100 times greater than in air. Previous research teams have managed to release CO2 from seawater and capture it, but their methods have required expensive membranes and a constant supply of chemicals to keep the reactions going. MIT’s team, on the other hand, has announced the successful testing of a system that uses neither, and requires vastly less energy than air capture methods.

In the new system, seawater is passed through two chambers. The first uses reactive electrodes to release protons into the seawater, which acidifies the water, turning dissolved inorganic bicarbonates into carbon dioxide gas, which bubbles out and is collected using a vacuum. Then the water’s pushed through to a second set of cells with a reversed voltage, calling those protons back in and turning the acidic water back to alkaline before releasing it back into the sea. Periodically, when the active electrode is depleted of protons, the polarity of the voltage is reversed, and the same reaction continues with water flowing in the opposite direction. In a new study published in the peer-reviewed journal Energy & Environmental Science, the team says its technique requires an energy input of 122 kJ/mol, equating by our math to 0.77 mWh per ton. And the team is confident it can do even better: “Though our base energy consumption of 122 kJ/mol-CO2 is a record-low,” reads the study, “it may still be substantially decreased towards the thermodynamic limit of 32 kJ/mol-CO2.”

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Single-Use Plastic Production Rose Between 2019 and 2021 Despite Pledges

Polluting single-use plastic production rose globally by 6 million tons per year from 2019 to 2021 despite tougher worldwide regulations, with producers making “little progress” to tackle the problem and boost recycling, new research showed on Monday. Reuters reports: Single-use plastics have emerged as one of the world’s most pressing environmental threats, with vast amounts of waste buried in landfills or dumped untreated in rivers and oceans. The manufacturing process is also a major source of climate-warming greenhouse gas. But while growth has slowed recently, the production of single-use plastic from “virgin” fossil fuel sources is still nowhere near its peak, and the use of recycled feedstocks remains “at best a marginal activity,” Australia’s Minderoo Foundation said in its Plastic Waste Makers Index. “Make no mistake, the plastic waste crisis is going to get significantly worse before we see an absolute year-on-year decline in virgin single-use plastic consumption,” it said.

Exxon Mobil was at the top of the list of global petrochemical companies producing virgin polymers used in single-use plastics, followed by China’s Sinopec. Sinopec also leads the way when it comes to building new production facilities over the 2019-2027 period, the report said, with more than 5 million tons of annual capacity planned. Exxon Mobil was second with around 4 million tons. […] Around 137 million tons of single-use plastics were produced from fossil fuels in 2021, and it is expected to rise by another 17 million tons by 2027, the researchers said.

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Startups Capture CO2 and Store It In Concrete

A California startup using rocks to soak up carbon dioxide from the air has teamed up with a Canadian company to mineralize the gas in concrete, a technological tie-up that is a first and they say could provide a model for fighting climate change globally. Reuters reports: Heirloom Carbon Technologies delivered about 30 kg (66 lb) of CO2 collected from the air around its San Francisco Bay Area headquarters to neighboring Central Concrete, a Vulcan Materials’ (VMC.N) subsidiary that on Wednesday incorporated the gas into new concrete. That’s equivalent to tailpipe emissions of driving about 75 miles (120 km) in a car. The joint effort was the first time that carbon dioxide absorbed from the atmosphere using such Direct Air Capture (DAC) technology had been secured in concrete, where the CO2 will stay put for centuries, several scientists said.

Heirloom heats crushed limestone to release naturally absorbed CO2, then puts the CO2-starved rock on columns of huge trays, where they act like sponges, soaking up close to half their weight in the gas over three days. The rock is then heated to release the collected ambient carbon dioxide, and the cycle repeats. Canada’s CarbonCure, the concrete technology company, mixes CO2 with concrete ingredients, turning it into a mineral that strengthens the concrete, cutting the need for cement — the part of concrete with the biggest carbon footprint.

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High-Powered Lasers Can Be Used To Steer Lightning Strikes

fahrbot-bot shares a report from Engadget: Lightning rods have been used to safely guide strikes into the ground since Benjamin Franklin’s day, but their short range (roughly the same radius as the height) and fixed-in-place design makes them ineffective for protecting large areas. The technology may finally be here to replace them in some situations. European researchers have successfully tested a system that uses terawatt-level laser pulses to steer lighting toward a 26-foot rod. It’s not limited by its physical height, and can cover much wider areas — in this case, 590 feet — while penetrating clouds and fog.

[“The experiment was performed on Santis Mountain, in northeast Switzerland,” adds The Washington Post. “A 407-foot (124-meter) communications tower there, equipped with a lightning rod, is struck roughly a hundred times a year.”] The design ionizes nitrogen and oxygen molecules, releasing electrons and creating a plasma that conducts electricity. As the laser fires at a very quick 1,000 pulses per second, it’s considerably more likely to intercept lightning as it forms. In the test, conducted between June and September 2021, lightning followed the beam for nearly 197 feet before hitting the rod. The findings have been published in the journal Nature Photonics. A video of the work has also been published on YouTube.

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Op-Ed Argues ‘Put Down the Burger’ to Protect Earth’s Biodiversity

“Earth is in the midst of the worst mass extinction since an asteroid wiped out the dinosaurs 66 million years ago — and this time, the asteroid is us.” So says Michael Grunwald, an environmentalist, in an opinion piece for the New York Times.

But his larger point is that “biodiversity loss is not that complicated a mystery.” The amount of area on planet earth devoted ot agriculture is now more than twice the size of North America.

We’re destroying and degrading the habitats of other species to grow food for our own. This means the fate of the world’s bugs, bunnies and other creatures and critters — and what’s left of the forests, wetlands and other habitats they call home — depends more than anything else on what we put in our mouths and how it gets made….

Humanity needs to start shrinking our agricultural footprint and expanding our natural footprint, after thousands of years of doing the reverse. This will be an extraordinary challenge, because we’ll also need to produce more than 7.4 quadrillion additional calories every year to feed our growing population, in an era when climate-fueled droughts, heat waves, floods and blights could make it harder to grow food…. If we are serious about cleaning up the mess we’re making for less influential species, there are four things individuals as well as nations and corporations can do. The first is to eat less meat, which would be a lot easier if meat weren’t so beloved and delicious….

But the inconvenient truth is that when we eat cows, chickens and other livestock, we might as well be eating macaws, jaguars and other endangered species. That’s because livestock chew up far more land per calorie than crops. Producing beef is 100 times as land-intensive as cultivating potatoes and 55 times as land-intensive as peas or nuts. Livestock now use nearly 80 percent of agricultural land while producing less than 20 percent of calories. Cattle are the leading driver of deforestation in the Amazon, followed by soybeans, another commodity, which get fed to pigs and chickens…. If Americans continue to average three burgers a week while the developing world starts to follow our path, it’s hard to see how the Amazon survives.

But it’s at least possible that we could shrink agricultural footprints by shifting our diets toward meat made without livestock, like the plant-based substitutes offered by companies such as Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat or maybe someday cultured meat grown from animal cells.
Grunwald also recommends wasting less food. “About a third of the food grown on Earth is lost or tossed before it reaches our mouths, which means a third of the land (as well as the water, fertilizer and other resources) used to grow that food is also wasted.”

The third way to ease the global land squeeze “would be to stop using productive farmland for biofuels like ethanol and biodiesel — and to stop burning trees for power.” And finally, “farmers will have to supersize their yields enough to make a lot more food with a lot less land.

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Saudi Arabia’s Sci-Fi Megacity Is Well Underway

Mark Harris writes via MIT Technology Review: In early 2021, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia announced The Line: a “civilizational revolution” that would house up to 9 million people in a zero-carbon megacity, 170 kilometers long and half a kilometer high but just 200 meters wide. Within its mirrored, car-free walls, residents would be whisked around in underground trains and electric air taxis. Satellite images of the $500 billion project obtained exclusively by MIT Technology Review show that the Line’s vast linear building site is already taking shape, running as straight as an arrow across the deserts and through the mountains of northern Saudi Arabia. The site, tens of meters deep in places, is teeming with many hundreds of construction vehicles and likely thousands of workers, themselves housed in sprawling bases nearby.

Analysis of the satellite images by Soar Earth, an Australian startup that aggregates satellite imagery and crowdsourced maps into an online digital atlas, suggests that the workers have already excavated around 26 million cubic meters of earth and rock — 78 times the volume of the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa. Official drone footage of The Line’s construction site, released in October, indeed showed fleets of bulldozers, trucks, and diggers excavating its foundations. Visit The Line’s location on Google Maps and Google Earth, however, and you will see little more than bare rock and sand.

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Debate at COP27: Nuclear Energy, Climate Friend or Foe?

Long-time Slashdot reader gordm shares an interesting video from the United Nations Climate Change Conference. “At COP27, Tobias Holle (activist with Youth Strike for Climate) debated Mark Nelson (founder of Radiant Energy Fund) as to whether nuclear power can help us tackle climate change.”

The event took place at the International Atomic Energy Agency’s “Atoms for Climate” pavillion, where the IAEA’s climate advisor presented the debate’s topic as “Nuclear Energy: Climate Friend or Foe?” (and introduced the two debaters as “enthusiastic young climate champions”). The Youth Strike for Climate activist objected to commiting humanity to 1 million years of maintaining nuclear waste. But he also argued that extreme weather was creating additional security risks, that the per-kilowatt hour cost was economically prohibitive, that nuclear plants were politically unpopular — and that anyways, they take too long to build giving our current climate crisis. “We need fast solutions.”

The Radiant Energy founder disagreed, arguing over specific statistics and insisting that nuclear energy should be considered a low-carbon energy solution, and also safe. (He pointed out that Chernobyl’s nuclear plant actually continued operating for 14 years after its 1986 nuclear accident.) Interestingly he also argued that in the Netherlands there’s a museum of nuclear waste — a science museum attached to their nuclear facility — “where they don’t just have the high-level waste, they have the highest part of high-level waste, the most dangerous isotopes, separated from the nuclear fuel. The most radioactive stuff — very hot for 500 years — and they have a tour where you can walk over it, and you can feel the warmth from the floor from the radioactive isotopes….

“You can absolutely manage the safe, secure, and even educational storage of the most radioactive isotopes… We know very well how to manage it.”

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