Steve Fossett may have wanted to explore the ocean’s depths in a manned submersible, but Amy Kukulya thinks there’s a better way: robots.
As a senior engineering technician at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, Kukulya develops applications for autonomous unmanned vehicles. AUVs are the Predator drones of the ocean, programmable torpedoes that carry out any mission assigned to them. They are cheaper, faster, and more efficient than manned research expeditions, and within the past decade they’ve become the “It” tools for marine scientists. For Kukulya, who helps outfit machines with side-scan sonar, various environmental sensors, and cameras (both video and still), that translates into a lot of work.
“Lately, I’ve been traveling about four months a year,” she says—from the Arctic to the Antarctic, Hawaii to the Bahamas. Kukulya and other members of her Oceanographic Systems Laboratory have sought out shipwrecks, mines, and coral mounds. She has run an AUV through New York City’s West Branch Reservoir. She has collected mountains of oceanographic data, helped create bathymetric maps, and has ongoing projects with the U.S. Navy. “About half the stuff I do is classified,” she says. “I can’t even talk about it.”
Her latest fascination is a project led by Woods Hole scientist Al Plueddemann to analyze the waters of the Chukchi Sea in the Alaskan Arctic. The goal is to better understand the melting of sea ice, a topic of vital importance to climate change models.
Ed Shadle wants to drive a car faster than anyone on the planet. And for the past decade, Shadle, his buddy Keith Zanghi, and a group of volunteers have been perfecting a vehicle to do just that. Enter the North American Eagle, a 56-foot fighter jet turned automobile designed to propel Shadle upwards of 800 miles an hour and toward one of the world’s most coveted titles.
Ever since a French race car driver hit 39 mph in 1898 (his craft: an electric buggy), people from all over have competed fiercely for the land speed record. Shadle is going flat out for that trophy—as are his two main rivals: Australian former record-holder Rosco McGlashan (643 mph; 1996) and the current champions, Britons Andy Green and Richard Noble (763 mph; 1997).
The challenges are myriad. Without the proper aerodynamics, a vehicle could catapult into the sky or drive itself straight into the ground. There’s also the issue of passing through the sound barrier around 750 mph, which creates a sonic boom powerful enough to flip a car.
Unlike the Aussies and Brits, who are building their vehicles from scratch, Shadle has some advantages. First, the North American Eagle was cobbled together from a jet engine and the chassis of a 1957 Lockheed F-104 Starfighter (which Shadle scooped up from a Maine junkyard for $25,000), so it’s much cheaper than his competitors’ multimillion-dollar efforts. Second, it’s already been tested at more than 400 mph; the other teams won’t be on the road for at least a year.
“We’d like to take that record away,” Shadle says. “Even if it’s only for a year or two.”
The known world has been charted, plotted, and endlessly measured. Or has it? A groundbreaking mapping technique is changing the way we see the planet.
From hand-drawn to digitally rendered, mapping has come a long way. And now LIDAR (light detection and ranging) is raising the bar. The technique uses laser pulses to construct über-precise 3-D images. It’s kind of like radar, constantly sending out and receiving signals, but LIDAR can map nearly anything. It can image clouds and penetrate forest canopies, measure plankton blooms and cut through water to chart riverbeds. It’s increasing the accuracy of aerial maps by an order of magnitude; indeed, the U.S. Geological Survey is currently working to remap every state with LIDAR. It’s even been used to make music videos—watch Radiohead’s “House of Cards" (below).
There are 176 known and verifiable impact craters on Earth. It’s not a huge number, granted, but for photographer Stan Gaz each one represents a cataclysmic event, the moment our world was assailed by an asteroid or comet.
“Looking at these things,” Gaz says, “you realize the vulnerability of everything. [An impact] could change the world we live in so quickly, in less than a second.” That notion was so compelling that he spent six years traveling the globe to document craters for his book Sites of Impact (Princeton Architectural Press, $60).
To capture the photos, Gaz leaned his Hasselblad Superwide out the open doors of helicopters and a small plane over the Arctic, the Southwest, Australia, and Africa. His harnesses, he says, were usually “little more than car seat belts,” and one time, he looked up to find his pilot sound asleep. But he got the shots, stark black-and-white images that stare down seemingly moments after impact when the world is scattered with ash, when it’s hard to tell if we’re seeing the end or just another beginning.
Jonathan Baillie is not an alarmist. He’s a pragmatist, which makes what he’s about to say so scary: “We’re entering a period of mass extinction. Some 40 percent of species on Earth will likely disappear over the next hundred years.”With this grim time line in mind, Baillie, the conservation programs director at the Zoological Society of London, established the EDGE initiative to protect the world’s most genetically unique species (EDGE stands for Evolutionarily Distinct and Globally Endangered). If we’ve got limited time to safeguard the planet’s biodiversity, the best approach, Baillie reasons, is not to conserve closely related creatures. It’s to focus on genetic outliers: the duck-billed platypus, the long-beaked echidna, the golden-rumped elephant shrew. EDGE is a 21st-century ark of misfits; Baillie is its Noah. In some ways, EDGE operates like any conservation group, with Baillie and team visiting exotic places to set up field programs (recently he’s been to Mongolia to track wild Bactrian camels and to Nepal to protect Asian rhinos from poachers). But a look at the EDGE website (edgeofexistence.org) reveals a conservation model that goes one better, allowing anyone to help save these rare species. Stories posted on the site have gone viral, instigated letter campaigns, and provoked government reform. “It’s not a group of conservationists that’s going to solve the problems facing all these species,” Baillie says. “It’s conservation becoming mainstream.”
Crowdsourcing. Group thinking. Call it what you will, but in the past ten years, average Joes tasked with online assignments (from bird counting to cloud identification and more) have contributed reams of data to the scientific body. Just one thing: Few scientists ever took it seriously. That’s changed. Sites are better, questions keener, and citizens are becoming viable foot soldiers in legitimate scientific studies. “We have over 30 ornithology papers published in peer-reviewed journals that use volunteer-collected data,” says Rick Bonney of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Citizen Science Program. Here are four ways you can lend a hand.
GALAXY ZOO: Volunteers can study telescope images of ouoter space to help Yale and Oxford astro-physicists classify galaxies according to shape. Greatest discovery to date: A 24-year-old Dutch schoolteacher discovered a never before seen astronomical object that is now the subject of two peer-reviewed articles. (galaxyzoo.org)
REEF, pictured above: Home to the world’s largest marine sightings database (130,000 entries and counting), REEF relies on recreational snorkelers and divers to collect information about fish population and density. The site’s data has been used in more than 55 scientific papers. (reef.org)
PROJECT BUDBURST:A Boulder-based plant phenology program, BudBurst asks citizens to keep tabs on the life cycles of plants around them— when flowers bloom, when leaves turn—and report them to climatologists. Latest buzz: The USA National Phenology Network is monitoring the site closely. www.windows.ucar.edu/citizen_science/budburst)
S'COOL ROVER:The NASA-funded project notifies participants every time a CERES satellite passes overhead so they can step outside and corroborate cloud cover readings. Why? Accurate estimates of incoming solar energy are critical for climate change modeling. (scool.larc.nasa.gov)
In the field of pharmaceutical development a disaster is brewing: About half of all new drugs are derived from terrestrial microorganisms, including the first statins (for cholesterol) and more than 80 percent of antibiotics. But the soil is nearly tapped out, so most big pharmaceutical companies have abandoned soil-based R&D programs. As a result, the once massive pipeline for new drugs has turned into a dripping faucet.
Which is where deep-sea bioprospectors come in. These days the best hope for beating infection and illness may rest with a cadre of scientists who dive thousands of feet underwater in search of microbes to fill this looming pharmaceutical gap.
“The ocean is by far the most biologically diverse environment on the planet,” says Bill Fenical, director of marine biotechnology and biomedicine at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. “In sediment at the bottom of the ocean, you can find a billion cells in the volume of a sugar cube.”
A couple of decades ago, Fenical was the field’s lone researcher, strapping on his scuba gear, hand-scooping sediment from the shallow ocean bottom, then taking it back to the lab to analyze. Today scientists are working deepwater sites in southern California, Hawaii, the Caribbean, and the South Pacific.
And none too soon. “Only one new antibiotic has been developed in the past five years,” says Fenical, “and within the next decade, maybe half to two-thirds of the infections that humans acquire will be resistant to the drugs we have today.” The results so far: Fenical has entered the human clinical stages with two cancer-fighting drugs, and other bioprospectors are behind 25 more pharmaceuticals being used in trials. None are a lock for FDA approval, but it’s just a matter of time before the first ocean-derived medicine is officially released.
Dale Andersen has traveled back in time. He’s been to Mars too. Or he’s come as close as possible without leaving terra firma. An astrobiologist for the SETI Institute, Andersen seeks out the world’s most inhospitable places—deep in the Arctic and the Antarctic, the Atacama Desert and the Mojave—to find the last thing you’d expect: life.
Andersen studies organisms called extremophiles, which thrive in hostile environments not unlike those that covered our planet more than 600 million years ago. “It’s like transporting yourself back to the Earth’s earliest biosphere,” Andersen explains. He’s discovered a moss that lives in a primordial soup with the same pH as grapefruit juice, and plants that manage photosynthesis from within ice-capped Antarctic lakes. With these species, Andersen is able to study the very limits of existence. They are far greater, he’s found, than we ever thought.
“If life manages to exist almost everywhere on this planet, what does that mean for Mars?” Andersen asks. “I’m just now beginning to figure out where this research is going to take us—how it informs future Mars missions.” He continues, “These are the building blocks for a whole new science.”
Observation is at the heart of any science. Meg Crofoot simply wants to see a little smarter. As a behavioral ecologist at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institution, Crofoot directs one of science’s most unique tools, ARTS (Automated Radio Telemetry System). Basically, ARTS tracks anything that’s tagged with a radio transmitter. And on Barro Colorado in Panama, the 1,500-hectare island laboratory where Crofoot lives, a lot of things wear radio tags.
Crofoot spends eight hours a day dodging hissing bullet ants, spiny plants, and poisonous fer-de-lance snakes to collar capuchin monkeys. Other researchers brave similar obstacles to tag ocelots, ratlike agoutis, anteaters, and three-toed sloths, among other creatures. ARTS then tracks the movements of these animals every four minutes, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The result is unexpected. Instead of simply charting the disparate parts of an ecosystem, scientists can “see” the system itself, how it acts and reacts, how its members interact, and what drives them to do what they do. Says Crofoot, “It’s a one-of-a-kind system on the planet.” Check it out at princeton.edu.
On March 9, officials at Vietnam’s Haiphong port got suspicious. Something didn’t seem right about the shipping container supposedly filled with recyclable plastic. They were correct. Amid the shredded waste were 6,200 kilograms of poached ivory, some 200 complete sets of tusks with an estimated street value of $29 million. It was Vietnam’s largest haul ever.
To Sam Wasser, it was a call to arms. Over the past decade, Wasser, a biologist at the University of Washington, has waged a war against ivory poaching. He doesn’t fight it with guns or trucks but with DNA. Working with Interpol, Wasser uses genetic analysis to match seized ivory to living elephant populations. His premise: Locating poachers is the first step to stopping them.
His work could not come at a more crucial time. Thanks to underfunded wildlife enforcement, liberalized global trade, and increased Asian demand, the illegal exportation of ivory has exploded in recent years.
“Since 2004 the price of ivory has increased ninefold, from $200 to $1,800 a kilo.” Wasser says. “We are losing between 8 and 12 percent of Africa’s elephant population each year. That’s a higher percentage than ever before.”
According to Wasser, today’s ivory trade is largely controlled by organized crime. That can often mean groups poaching specific areas intensively—and big gains if you shut them down. Wasser’s secret weapon is a genetic map of African elephant populations that he painstakingly assembled by analyzing dung samples from across the continent. Comparing specific DNA mutations from illegal ivory to his map, Wasser can isolate poaching activity with remarkable accuracy; the Selous Game Reserve of Tanzania and Zambia’s southern savanna are among his most recent hot zones.
“What we’re trying to do is to provide the tools needed to get the source countries to take control of their illegal trade, to tell them where to direct their limited law enforcement,” Wasser says. “We’re also trying to expose those countries that have been denying the poaching problem, saying ‘You guys need to do something.’”
So far the tangible results of Wasser’s work have been mixed. Stimulating law enforcement in marginally cooperative countries is a challenge at best. Still, he’s proceeding undeterred. Right now, Wasser says, “We feel like we’re onto the biggest ivory dealer in the world.” For the elephants’ sake, let’s hope he’s right.
Could a rock cure climate change? Well, maybe—if it’s peridotite. Scientists have long known that it acts as a carbon sponge, sequestering CO2 in a limestone-like carbonate, but Peter Kelemen (above) and Jürg Matter have figured out how to put that reaction to work. After traipsing around the peridotite beds of Oman, the Columbia University scientists developed a process to enhance carbonation’s two key catalysts—heat and pressure—thus supercharging the rock’s carbon storage capacity a millionfold. To apply this on an industrial scale, the pair plans to drill into peridotite deposits and inject them with hot water enriched with carbon captured from power plants. A USGS study estimated that the East and West Coasts contain enough peridotite-like rock to suck up more than 500 years’ worth of future U.S. carbon emissions.
Kelemen and Matter are both at work on large-scale applications, but they’re already looking ahead to new schemes, namely drilling into underwater rock deposits to passively suck CO2 from ocean water.
“You’d be using seawater in equilibrium with the atmosphere,” Kelemen says. “And that would take carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. If it works, then there’s really no reason why you couldn’t go forward within a couple of years.”