Joshua trees in the Mojave Desert
Solar energy has been enjoying its day in the sun with massive federal subsidies, but the energy taken from sunlight also has a dark side. Building these plants in the American West destroys large swathes of the desert ecosystem. Cacti must be mowed down and local wildlife displaced to make room for the giant mirrors that will essentially carpet the desert. The LA Times has a great feature on the Ivanpah project in the Mojave that began construction in October 2010.
Far from an empty stretch of sand, the Mojave supports diverse wildlife. No one knows exactly how the new solar power plant will affect the tortoises, eagles, and Joshua trees that currently inhabit the area. Is it okay to sacrifice the desert in the fight against larger climate change? The situation has put environmental groups in a bind, as Times reporter Julie Cart explains:
The national office of the Sierra Club has had to quash local chapters’ opposition to some solar projects, sending out a 42-page directive making it clear that the club’s national policy goals superseded the objections of a local group. Animosity bubbled over after a local Southern California chapter was told to refrain from opposing solar projects.
The “cradle of humanity” is thought to be located in Sub-Saharan Africa–meaning below the Sahara, the largest hot desert on earth. So how was humanity able to breach such an intimidating barrier to spread out across the rest of the world?
Until now, anthropologists typically argued that hominids could only have followed the lush Nile River valley north in order to reach the Middle East and beyond. But new research is suggesting that the Sahara might not have been an impassable barrier to those humans after all. Some animals (including several fish species) are found on both the north and south sides of the desert, and even in some safe-haven ponds in between. The researchers argue that if these ancestral fish could swim across the region that we now know as the Sahara, humans could have also made it across.
“Fish appeared to have swam across the Sahara during its last wet phase sometime between 10,000 and 6,000 years ago,” researcher Nick Drake, a geographer at King’s College London, told LiveScience. “The Sahara is not a barrier to the migrations of animals and people. Thus it is possible–likely?–that early modern humans did so, and this could explain how we got out of Africa.” [LiveScience]
It’s such a fertile time in the green technology sector, solar power plants may soon begin reproducing.
Using two resources that the Sahara has plenty of, sun and sand, the Sahara Solar Breeder Project hopes to build factories that will refine the sand’s silica into silicon. That silicon will be used to build solar panels, which will power more silica-refining and solar panel factories, which will be able to build more solar panels, and on and on and on.
The potential for exponential growth allows for some extreme optimism: The project’s leaders say they could build enough power stations to meet half of the world’s energy needs by 2050. Project leader Hideomi Koinuma believes the project is key to solving the world’s energy crisis, saying:
“If we can use desert sand to make a substance that provides energy, this will be the key to solving the energy problem. This is probably doable. Moreover, the energy we continually receive from the Sun is 10,000 times the energy currently used by mankind. So if we can utilize 0.01% of it skillfully, we won’t have a shortage of energy, but a surplus.” [DigInfo TV]
Hit the break for a video about the project.
Plans for the world’s largest telescope just took a major step forward. Researchers have selected a site for the European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT): It will sit on the Cerro Armazones mountain in central Chile’s Atacama Desert. This site beat out other contenders, including other sites in Chile and La Palma in Spain, due to its excellent conditions for astronomy.
On this desert mountain, researchers will enjoy near-perfect observing conditions – at least 320 nights a year when the sky is cloudless. The Atacama’s famous aridity means the amount of water vapour in the atmosphere is very limited, reducing further the perturbation starlight experiences as it passes through the Earth’s atmosphere [BBC]. With such clear skies, astronomer Diego Mardones from the University of Chile remarked, “If you want to find another [observation area] like Chile, your options are Antarctica or space” [Merco Press].
The telescope’s primary mirror will measure 138 feet in diameter. The mirror will be made up of 984 segments and will gather 15 times more light than the largest optical telescope while returning images 15 times sharper than those beamed back from the Hubble Space Telescope [Wired]. Astronomers say the telescope will provide new information on the nature of black holes, galaxy formation, dark matter, and dark energy.
The E-ELT, which is estimated to cost almost a billion euros, is expected to be operational by 2018. The final go-ahead for the telescope’s construction is expected later this year.
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In the hot desert kingdom of Saudi Arabia, finding fresh drinking water has always been a great challenge. For decades now, the state has been providing clean water by converting millions of gallons of seawater via desalination plants that remove salts and minerals from the water. Now the country plans to use one of its most abundant resources to counter its fresh-water shortage: sunshine [Technology Review].
Working on a joint project with IBM, Saudi Arabia’s national research group King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology (KACST) has announced that it will open the world’s largest solar-powered desalination plant by 2012 in the city of Al-Khafji. The pilot plant will not just supply 30,000 cubic meters of clean water per day to 100,000 people, but will also reduce operating costs in the long run by harvesting energy from sunshine. Saudi Arabia, the top desalinated water producer in the world, uses 1.5 million barrels of oil per day at its plants, according to Arab News [Technology Review].
1. A tower in Dubai that opens today has earned the title of world’s tallest building with a height of 2,717 feet (828 meters). That’s more than half a mile high. Actually, it grabbed that title during construction back in July 2007 when it passed Taipei 101, which stands 500 meters tall.
2. Until its official opening today, the building’s exact height was a closely held secret known by only a few people. The building’s architects, Chicago-based Skidmore, Owings, and Merril, speculated last week that someone might try to steal the thunder from the big announcement by measuring the building’s shadow to figure out its height.
3. The opening ceremony included another surprise. The tower, which had been known as the Burj Dubai, was renamed the Burj Khalifa, in honor of Sheik Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the president of the neighboring emirate Abu Dhabi. The last-minute switch carries a symbolic weight in light of the billions of dollars oil-rich Abu Dhabi has poured into Dubai in order to cover its debts [The New York Times].
4. The Burj is not only the tallest building in the world, it’s also home to the highest observation deck, swimming pool, elevator, restaurant, and fountain in the world.
Locusts are prompted to band together in enormous, destructive swarms by the same brain chemical that is linked to happiness in humans. A fascinating new study has found that locusts that are about to swarm experience a sudden surge of serotonin, the same neurotransmitter that’s targeted by antidepressant drugs. “Here we have a solitary and lonely creature, the desert locust. But just give them a little serotonin, and they go and join a gang,” observed Malcolm Burrows [AP], one of the study’s authors.
Researchers say the findings may lead to methods to block the formation of locust swarms. These infestations, which can cover hundreds of square miles and involve billions of vegetation-munching insects, can devastate agriculture and cost tens of millions of dollars to control [The New York Times].
Because locusts usually avoid each other, it’s only dire circumstances that bring them together in buzzing hordes. For instance, unpredictable desert rains cause vegetation blooms, which in turn makes locust populations skyrocket. But as the rains abate and fertile land shrivels up, locusts crowd together in the remaining green patches. Eventually, the swarm trigger goes off and the locusts take to the skies—”a strategy of desperation driven by hunger,” [National Geographic News], says coauthor Stephen Rogers. When they make that behavior shift they also change appearance dramatically, going from light green to dark brown.