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Environment: Researchers still tracking oil leaks from the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico

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A massive slick from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill spreads across the Gulf of Mexico in July 2010. Photo courtesy NASA.

Oil ‘fingerprinting’ technique shows the oil is likely from the wreckage of the sunken drill rig

By Summit Voice

FRISCO — Chemical fingerprints show that oil sheens in the Gulf of Mexico are probably from pockets of oil trapped within the wreckage of the sunken Deepwater Horizon drilling rig. Both the Macondo well and natural oil seeps common to the Gulf of Mexico were confidently ruled out by researchers from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and the University of California, Santa Barbara. The study was published online this week in Environmental Science & Technology.

The oil sheens were first reported to the United States Coast Guard by BP in mid-September 2012, raising public concern that the Macondo well, which was capped in July 2010, might be leaking.

“It was important to determine where the oil was coming from because of the environmental and legal concerns around these sheens. First, the public needed to be certain the leak was not coming from the Macondo well, but beyond that we needed to know the source of these sheens and how much oil is supplying them so we could define the magnitude of the problem,” said WHOI chemist Chris Reddy. Continue reading

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Climate: Study shows possible pitfalls of ‘seeding’ oceans

Stimulating phytoplankton could backfire

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By Summit Voice
One of the ideas that has surfaced most often is adding certain types of nutrients to the oceans to stimulate algae production in the hopes of reducing CO2. But new research shows that the law of unintended consequences always applies, perhaps even more so when experimenting with climate on a global scale.

The new study on the feeding habits of ocean microbes shows that the idea could backfire by disturbing the natural balance of ocean chemistry. After carefully studying diatoms, one type of plankton, the scientists determined that it is uses more iron that it needs for photosynthesis and storing the extra in its silica skeletons and shells. This reduces the amount of iron left over to support the carbon-eating plankton.

“Just like someone walking through a buffet line who takes the last two pieces of cake, even though they know they’ll only eat one, they’re hogging the food,” said Ellery Ingall, a professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology and co-lead author on this result.  “Everyone else in line gets nothing; the person’s decision affects these other people.” Continue reading

Climate: New study helps illustrate how CO2 affects Arctic

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A new study suggests the Earth’s climate system is more sensitive to CO2 changes than assumed by the IPCC’s 2007 global climate report.

Researchers establish longest regional climate record using sediment cores from an Arctic Lake that’s been undisturbed for 3.6 million years

By Summit Voice

FRISCO — Sediment cores from a crater lake in Siberia are helping scientists understand how varying concentrations of atmospheric carbon dioxide affect the Arctic climate.

The sediment cores help establish the longest continuous climate record from the region, showing that the Arctic was a very warm place during a period about 3.5 to 2 million years ago, when CO2 levels were similar to today’s.

The research leads to the conclusion that even small fluctuations in CO2 can result in big changes in the Arctic, according to Julie Brigham-Grette, of the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

The study indicates Arctic may have been much warmer during that era than other climate studies suggest, and that the planet’s climate system is probably more sensitive to CO2 levels than assumed in the 2007 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Continue reading

Newly discovered magma layer may help answer some long-standing questions about plate tectonics

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Research off the coast of Nicaragua led researchers to discover a previously unknown layer of magma that may help explain tectonic movements in the Earth’s crust and mantle.

Findings could lead to better understanding of earthquake dynamics

By Summit Voice

SUMMIT COUNTY — While the observation-based scientific understanding of plate tectonics is well advanced, researchers have long debated the exact mechanics that drive the movement of the Earth’s crust.

New findings based on research conducted off the Nicaragua coastline may help answer some of those questions, as scientists say they’ve discovered a layer of liquified molten rock in Earth’s mantle that may be responsible for the sliding motions of the planet’s massive tectonic plates. Continue reading

Changes considered for U.S. Antarctic research program

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South Shetland Islands, Antarctic Peninsula. Bob Berwyn photo.

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U.S. Antarctic research program to upgrade logistical operations in cost-savings push.

Costs of aging infrastructure, outdated management procedures cut into science funding

By Summit Voice

SUMMIT COUNTY — Federal science officials say they’ve outlined a plan for streamlining U.S. research efforts in Antarctica, including the use of robotics for some logistical tasks, as well as additional use of renewable sources for some energy needs at the three research bases.

The 2012 budget included about $350 million dollars for invaluable climate and atmospheric research that can’t really be done anywhere else. About 3,500 people (including logistical support roles) work with the Antarctic program each year, supporting about 800 scientists working to understand the Antarctic and its associated ecosystems and  to understand the region’s effects on, and responses to, global processes such as climate.

The U.S. maintains three Antarctic research bases: McMurdo Station, on the Ross Sea, which is the largest facility and acts as a gateway for most of the research activity; Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, focusing primarily on astronomy and astrophysics, and Palmer Station, in the Antarctic Peninsula region, where the emphasis is on marine biology, oceanography, and geophysics.

This past week, the National Science Foundation responded to the findings of a special panel convened to look for ways to operate the Antarctic Research Program more efficiently. The NSF acknowledged the issues raised by the panel and said it has already started working on implementing some of the recommendations.

The Blue Ribbon Panel report, released in July 2012, found that, “U.S. activities in Antarctica are very well managed but suffer from an aging infrastructure, lack of a capital budget, and the effects of operating in an extremely unforgiving environment.”

The panel concluded that the lack of a capital budget is the main challenge, and that making changes to the logistics support system would help realize long-term savings, but will require front-end investments that could be supported with additional funding, temporary reductions in research, or both.

The panel spelled out a laundry list of problems, including: “A warehouse where some areas are avoided because the forklifts fall through the floor; kitchens with no grease traps; outdoor storage of supplies that can only be found by digging through deep piles of snow; gaps so large under doors that the wind blows snow into the buildings; late 1950s International Geophysical Year- era vehicles; antiquated communications; an almost total absence of modern inventory management systems (including the use of bar codes in many cases); indoor storage inefficiently dispersed in more than 20 buildings at McMurdo Station; some 350,000 pounds of scrap lumber awaiting return to the U.S. for disposal.

“The status quo is simply not an option; sooner or later the atrophying logistics infrastructure will need to be upgraded or replaced. Failure to do so will simply increase logistics costs until they altogether squeeze out funding for science. A ten percent increase in the cost of logistics will consume 40 percent of the remaining science budget,” the panel found.

Greenland runoff may be a big source of iron

Runoff from melting Greenland glaciers may be a significant source of iron in the North Atlantic.

Runoff from melting Greenland glaciers may be a significant source of iron in the North Atlantic. Bob Berwyn photo.

Arctic meltdown may have consequences besides raising sea level

By Summit Voice

FRISCO — Melting Greenland glaciers may have an unforeseen side effect on ocean biology, as the surging runoff adds iron to the water, potentially fueling more plankton growth.

Glaciers have just recently been identified as a significant source of iron in a study by biogeochemists and glaciologists at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. The findings suggest that the influx of iron could increase as melting of the Greenland ice sheet escalates under a warming climate.

It’s long been known wind-blown dust and river runoff are source of iron, but meltwater runoff from glaciers and ice sheets was considered too dilute to carry much iron, although previous research has shown a strong correlation between the plankton blooms and the runoff from Greenland ice sheet. Continue reading

Climate: Tracking Arctic ecosystem changes

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An adult female walrus on an ice floe in the Arctic. Photo courtesy USGS.

Five-year project will monitor Bering Sea

By Summit Voice

FRISCO — With a five-year grant from the National Science Foundation, a team of biologists from the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science’s Chesapeake Biological Laboratory will take an in-depth look at how global warming plays out in the Arctic ecosystems of the Bering Sea.

The two researchers, Jackie Grebmeier and Lee Cooper, have been visiting the area north of Alaska for nearly 30 years, reporting that the biggest changes have come in just the past few years. Last summer marked a record-low for Arctic sea ice extent, and eight of the last ten years have seen the lowest ice coverage on record. Continue reading

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