Climate Change, Disease and the Fall of Rome

By Kyle Harper | December 15, 2017 11:01 am
fall-of-rome

This painting (circa 1836) titled “Destruction” is one painting depicting in a five part series by Thomas Cole called “The Course of an Empire.” (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

At some time or another, every historian of Rome has been asked to say where we are, today, on Rome’s cycle of decline. Historians might squirm at such attempts to use the past but, even if history does not repeat itself, nor come packaged into moral lessons, it can deepen our sense of what it means to be human and how fragile our societies are. Read More

A Geoengineered Future Is Downright Scary

By Nathaniel Scharping | December 13, 2017 2:06 pm
(Credit: kazuend/Unsplash)

(Credit: kazuend/Unsplash)

Catastrophic climate change seems inevitable. Between the still-accelerating pace of greenhouse gas emissions and the voices of global warming deniers, hitting the targets laid out in the Paris Accord to slow the pace of a warming climate feels increasingly elusive.

To hit even the 2 degree Celsius cap on a global temperature increase, emissions would need to peak in 2020, or less than three years from now, and keep going down after that. We could do it, but will we? Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Top Posts

The Mysterious Asteroid Behind the Year’s Best Meteor Shower

By Eric Betz | December 13, 2017 10:35 am
Geminids over ESO’s Paranal Observatory in Chile in 2013. Image: ESO/G. Lombardi

Geminids over ESO’s Paranal Observatory in Chile in 2013. (Credit: ESO/G. Lombardi)

Step outside after dark this week and you can watch chunks of an asteroid burn up in Earth’s atmosphere. Behold, the Geminid meteor shower, which is renowned as the year’s best.

At peak Geminids, you could catch a shooting star every minute, and this year the moon won’t be bright enough to foul the show. That main action arrives just past 9 p.m. local time Wednesday and lasts until dawn. “The Geminids are rich in fireballs and bright meteors so that makes them very good to observe,” says Bill Cooke, who runs NASA’s Meteoroid Environment Office. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics, Top Posts

Indigenous People are Deploying Drones to Preserve Land and Traditions

By K. N. Smith | December 11, 2017 10:00 am
Fixedwing-drone-Panama_Credit-FAO-Panama

(Credit: FAO Panama)

Indigenous tribes from the Pacific Northwest to the Amazon Basin face a similar set of challenges: How to manage their lands, defend against corporate encroachment and document historic and religious sites for future generations. Often working with limited resources, many indigenous groups are turning to drones to protect and preserve their traditional lands.

Many Central and South American countries have laws that, on paper, limit what companies can do on indigenous lands. But enforcement is hit-or-miss. To make their voices heard, indigenous tribes must go to the government with solid evidence that shows the land is theirs and laws are being broken.

Drones can help gather that evidence. In two separate programs, indigenous communities in both Panama and Guyana are using drones to help monitor deforestation, document their own land use, and fight illegal encroachment into their territories.

Reclaiming What’s Theirs

In Guyana, members of the Wapichan tribe ride motorbikes along bumpy forest roads, drones tucked safely inside their backpacks. They’re heading toward an illegal gold mining operation on the tribe’s land, where workers are clearing away the rainforest and allowing pollutants to run into the Wapichan’s water sources. The drone team will photograph the site from above, creating a mosaic of aerial photos that can be used to defend the tribe’s land in court.

The Wapichan tribe built its own fixed-wing drone in 2014 to patrol its territory from above. Gregor MacLennan, a program director for the nonprofit organization Digital Democracy, and tribe members relied on YouTube videos and online forums to help assemble the drone.

While MacLennan brought some tools and electronic components with him to Guyana, most of the drone’s body was improvised from materials in the village. In part, so the drone was repairable with whatever was on hand in the event of damage. The drone features a motor mount made of plastic cut from an old beer crate.

Since then, the Wapichan program has acquired a few Parrot Bebop quadcopters. And the program has already shown some results: In 2015, a Wapichan drone team spotted an illegal logging operation on the Brazilian border, where settlers often encroach. They also found evidence that the Marudi Mountain gold mine was leaking pollution into Wapichan water sources.

drone-guyana-mapping-indigenous

The Wapichan tribe built a fixed-wing drone with many items from the village. That way, it could be easily repaired if it it got damaged. (Credit: Digital Democracy/Gregor MacLennan)

Within the next year, the tribe’s drone team hopes to fly a mission every month or two. They especially want to focus on the mining area around Marudi Mountain, tracking its rate of deforestation.

Meanwhile, seven of Panama’s largest indigenous tribes—the BriBri, Buglé, Emberá, Kuna, Naso, Ngäbe and Wounaan—have teamed up with the United Nations (U.N.) program Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation, or UN-REDD. Through this partnership, a combination of technology and local knowledge will help monitor indigenous lands and curb the trend of forest loss. Since February 2016, volunteers from each tribe have been learning to design flight plans, pilot drones and use aerial data to produce detailed maps of tribal lands. The first flight took off from the indigenous territory of Madugandí, near Panama’s northeastern coast, in April 2016.

Equipped with a smartphone app and GIS training from the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, which runs UN-REDD, volunteers from local indigenous communities on the ground look for freshly-cleared areas of forest—the calling card of mining, logging or ranching operations encroaching on tribal lands. Marking the GPS coordinates in the app flags the area for a drone mission so the three-person drone team can map and photograph the site from the air.

“After that, we move to the area, which sometimes is located quite far, about two hours away from a road,” says Rafael Valdespino, a trained drone technician from the territory of Emberá-Wounaan in Panama. The country’s rainy season makes ground surveys practically impossible for roughly six months, and can thwart even satellites, so the drones’ ability to cover remote areas from above makes them vital tools for forest monitoring.

Some of Valdespino’s fellow technicians have already helped develop maps and other documents to support land claims their communities plan to file with the Panamanian government. Some technicians have already held workshops on drone use in Guatemala and Peru, with plans to expand to Paraguay before 2018.

“I encourage other indigenous communities to replicate this project and offer all our support,” says Valdespino.

Mutual Accountability

Thousands of miles north, the 2016 standoff between indigenous activists and Dakota Access, LLC was in full swing. The two sides were at odds over construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), near the Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota. The conflict provided a high-profile example of how indigenous filmmakers and photographers could use drones to document key events and raise awareness of their struggle to maintain land rights.

Drones were essential to the story at Standing Rock, capturing footage that drew national attention to Standing Rock and helped shape the unfolding narrative. But the drones also sparked tense encounters with law enforcement. The DAPL protest is one of the first major events where indigenous people were, in part, in control of the story. And that is significant, says Myron Dewey, a drone pilot, filmmaker, and member of the Paiute and Shoshone tribes.

MyronDewey-dapl-drone-indigenous

Myron Dewey flew drones during the ongoing Stand Rock protests—he believes a drone of his was shot down by local police officers. (Credit: Myron Dewey)

“Being indigenous, it’s very important that we document our own stories, because for too long, our stories have been documented for us, and so it changes the narrative,” he says. “And because of the drones, I was able to do that.”

Drones also provided a layer of security and accountability for the protesters during the tense—and sometimes violent—confrontations with law enforcement and private security.

In August 2016, he says, “I documented two of the security that were harassing people going into camps, from 3 miles away.” And having “eyes always on the people” meant that the protesters had a heightened sense of accountability for their own actions, as well.

And the drone “was used ceremonially. It was smudged, it was blessed, it was sent up, it was taken care of, and it took care of us,” Dewey says.

Not Always A Struggle

Drones are also empowering indigenous groups around the world to make better-informed decisions about their own land management. From documenting the preservation of important historical and sacred sites to monitoring wildlife populations and land-use patterns, these tools give indigenous tribes greater autonomy—they don’t have to rely on outside agencies or groups to monitor their lands and make ecological decisions.

For instance, the drones patrolling Panama’s forests will eventually also help monitor forest fires, harvests from farmland, and the status of water sources. “The combination of land and remote sensing monitoring allows us to know the dynamics of loss, degradation, and restoration of forest cover,” says Valdespino.

drone-panama-indigenous

Rafael Valdespino, assisting the drone as it takes flight, and other drone technicians have used unmanned aircraft to monitor forests in Panama. Some have used data gathered from drones to help support land claims. (Credit: FAO Panama)

In Washington state, entomologist and Colville Confederated Tribes member Nathan Moses-Gonzales hopes to use drones for wildlife monitoring on the Colville Reservation. Previously, the Colville Confederated Tribes used a full-sized manned aircraft to conduct salmon research missions. But the areas surrounding canyons make it difficult for airplanes to get good views, so the tribe is looking to drones.

“Moving ahead, I think [drones offer] strong options for the tribal members to begin to take over their own initiatives and to support their own research locally with tribal members and with tribal support,” Moses-Gonzales says.

Dewey plans to return to a project he started before he brought his drones to Standing Rock, working with state officials to document Paiute and Shoshone historical and sacred sites from the air. “Our battle in Nevada now isn’t water, but also the deforestation of our traditional harvesting areas,” he says.

Using 360-degree drone technology, Dewey also hopes to give Paiute elders a virtual tour of the places that mean so much to them and their people.

But the use of drone technology by indigenous people is not just about the past, or even the present. Much of it is also looking toward the future. Drones have the ability to carry traditional ways of life into the future, possibly bringing technology-based jobs to reservations and helping spark preservation-interest in tribal youth.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Technology

We Can Do Better Than Road Salt

road-salt

(Credit: Shutterstock)

Marshes, streams and lakes lie alongside many of the roads and highways that zigzag across North America. Plants and animals inhabit these water bodies and can be exposed to many of the substances we put on those roads, including road salt.

Rock salt helps keep roads safe when winter storms hit, reducing winter road accidents. But it can also have serious, negative effects on aquatic ecosystems. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: pollution

Do Robots Deserve Human Rights?

By Lauren Sigfusson | December 5, 2017 10:45 am
human-rights-robots-future-sophia-citizenship-legal

(Credit: Shutterstock)

When the humanoid robot Sophia was granted citizenship in Saudi Arabia—the first robot to receive citizenship anywhere in the world—many people were outraged. Some were upset because she now had more rights than human women living in the same country. Others just thought it was a ridiculous PR stunt.

Sophia’s big news brought forth a lingering question, especially as scientists continue to develop advanced and human-like AI machines: Should robots be given human rights? Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Technology, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: robots

If Your Pet Has This Tapeworm, It Could Kill You

By Emily J. Jenkins, University of Saskatchewan | December 4, 2017 12:35 pm
File 20171128 28892 90kjir.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1

A coyote cools off in the shade of a leafy suburb. Wildlife interactions with pets and humans can transfer disease, including the tapeworm Echinococcus multilocularis. (Winston Wong/flickr)

Dogs are sending us an early warning signal about the spread of a potentially deadly tapeworm in North America.

The tapeworm, Echinococcus multilocularis, is normally found in rodents and other wild animals, including coyotes and foxes, but can spill over into cats and dogs — and even humans. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, Top Posts

The Atomic Age: Far More Than Explosions and Electricity

By Carl Engelking | December 1, 2017 6:53 pm
Scientists witness the first self-sustained fission reaction.

Scientists witness the first nuclear fission chain reaction. (Credit: John Cadel/Chicago History Museum)

Seventy-five years ago, the world officially entered the Atomic Age. Henceforth, it would never be the same.

In October 1942, as part of the Manhattan Project, Enrico Fermi assembled a crack team of physicists for an urgent, top-secret government mission: Conduct the first man-made, self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction to prove it was indeed possible to build an atomic weapon—and do it before the Germans. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics, Top Posts

Close Calls Nearly Doomed These Space Missions

By K. N. Smith | December 1, 2017 2:21 pm
mariner-10

The Mariner 10 spacecraft experienced several problems, but nonetheless accomplished its goals, thanks to a smart mission team and some quick fixes. (Credit: NASA)

A tiny problem can have huge consequences for a space mission. Sometimes a huge endeavor hinges on the smallest detail — three seconds’ worth of fuel, an engineer’s stubbornness, a speck of paint, or a 1.3-millimeter calibration.

When surprise glitches revealed themselves after launch, it took massive efforts to save the missions that gave us a closer look at Mercury, a tour of the outer solar system, our only glimpse of Titan’s surface, and an incredible view of the early universe. But even with hundreds of people putting in months of work, a few of these missions only succeeded by a razor-thin margin. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics, Top Posts

How Visionaries Planned to Reach the Moon 500 Years Ago

Map of the moon engraved by the astronomer Johannes Hevelius, 1645. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

People have been dreaming about space travel for hundreds of years, long before the arrival of the spectacular technologies behind space exploration today – mighty engines roaring fire and thunder, shiny metal shapes gliding in the vastness of the universe.

We’ve only traveled into space in the last century, but humanity’s desire to reach the moon is far from recent. In the second century AD, Lucian’s True History, a parody of travel tales, already pictured a group of adventure seekers lifted to the moon. A whirlwind delivered them into the turbulence of lunar politics – a colonial war. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: space exploration
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