Towers of power

Wind turbines go to work 16 miles off the Rhode Island coast.

Offshore wind turbines seemed a bit, well, gimmicky to me until a few years ago when I saw a farm calmly spinning its blades as I flew home from Europe. Anything that keeps working in the North Sea is entirely real. Now they have arrived in 600-foot-form off the New England coast, as I saw last month in a trip to Deepwater Wind’s installation off Block Island (thanks, Noelle Swan and the New England Association of Science Writers!). These giant beasts won’t always be easy to maintain, as we saw watching a crew struggling to jump onto one tower from a support vessel in gentle six-foot swells from Hurricane Maria. The 240-foot blades are no favor to offshore birds. But Deepwater Wind seems to have made every reasonable effort to minimize and monitor the overall environmental impact of the turbines, as attested by the National Wildlife Federation scientist onboard our fast ferry. Ocean wind turbine technology is advancing rapidly, one example being the replacement of the traditional gearbox with a GE direct-drive permanent magnet generator, noted Willett Kempton of the University of Delaware’s ocean wind power program. Wind turbines can tap steady winds at sea, where they can be built much larger than on land, and a wealth of projects are planned along the U.S. east coast. Yes, they’re designed to survive hurricanes, although maybe not a problem like Maria. And although offshore wind still can’t produce power here as cheaply as fossil-fuel plants, European wind costs are already below that mark.

Public Spectacle

A beacon of hope in a changing climate.

kid Spectacle

On a clear hot August day you can take a ferry to Spectacle Island and walk a winding path up to its northern summit, admiring wildflowers and eating blackberries. The summit is the highest point of land on Boston Harbor, with low wooded islands scattered around.

Off to the east you can spot a windmill near the huge sludge-digesting eggs of Deer Island, and a second windmill a few miles south at the tip of the Hull peninsula. These two points of land bracket the entrance from Massachusetts Bay to the harbor’s inner archipelago.

One distant day, Deer Island and Hull also may anchor a massive sea barrier, holding off an ocean that’s now projected to climb as much as eight feet by 2100.

Today it’s hard to imagine how we might start to build such a Big Dike, given our current politics.

But you can also see hopeful signs on this Spectacle for our ability to clean up our own messes.

The first time I sailed past the island it was a garbage dump, with the remnants of a horse-rendering plant buried under many feet of still-smoldering refuse.

Now that’s all taken away and replaced by fill from the Big Dig. The island was reengineered and replanted. Rich ecosystems began to reappear. On summer days like this, children swim a stone’s throw away from the site of the old factories.

In wildness is the preservation of the world, as Thoreau said. But not just in wildness.

Ark de Triage

What should we prioritize to try to save from the flood tide of extinction?

Big_Ark_in_Dordrecht_3

“The world is on fire, and we have to do something about it,” said Kate Jones, an ecologist with University of College in London.

Jones was one of the speakers at two Harvard panels last month about the species extinction perils of our Anthropocene age: climate change, overfishing and overhunting, pollution, loss of habitat, invasive species, sea level rise, ocean acidification and all the ugly rest.

Extinction threats are not like a field of bullets hitting everything equally, noted Jones, speaking at a session on Human Imprints on the Tree of Life. Primates are at greater risk than most mammals. Amphibians, palms and corals are particularly vulnerable. Ditto species on islands. Animals with large body sizes, long lives and small ranges are vanishing. Along with, of course, so many other forms of life.

Facing this global storm of extinction with severely limited resources, what should conservation groups and governments prioritize?

One framework for decisions is to safeguard plants and animals with particular values to humans, as food, fuel, eye candy or just insurance for the future, the scientists said. Another framework is to consider the tree of life—protecting genetic diversity so that we can better understand biology and maybe exploit that understanding down the road. (Saving, for instance, the ginkgo tree, full of idiosyncrasies after branching off from other trees 100 million years ago.)

Habitat protection initiatives don’t always follow these outlines, naturally enough. As one audience member noted, many projects in Britain aim to preserve butterflies that remain happily common elsewhere in Europe.

“Most conservation is local, which is fine,” said Ana Rodrigues of the French National Center for Scientific Research. But very few resources work at a global level, Rodrigues emphasized.

One of the few is the Evolutionarily Distinct & Globally Endangered (EDGE) program led by the Zoological Society of London. “We can take attention away from charismatic megafauna like pandas, which are cute and fluffy with big eyes,” remarked Jones. Instead, attention can be paid to offbeat creatures like the pink fairy armadillo. (“It’s another poster child but I think it’s spreading out the love.”)

“We’re in deep trouble,” said Yale botanist Michael Donoghue. “We have to act quickly. The problem is, there are too many things we value.”

Many forms of ecological damage have spread surprisingly quickly across vast areas of ocean, noted biologists at an Ocean Evolution Today seminar. Jellyfish are on the march  as we vacuum up commercial finfish. Two-thirds of the Great Barrier Reef’s coral died off in two years. “In the Arctic, ice algae is disappearing and the entire food web is compromised,” commented Samantha Joye of the University of Georgia.

All too often this marine damage is invisible to most of us, said Boston University’s Randi Dawn Rotjan. Even survival stories can be worrisome–for instance, the killifish that have evolved to shrug off PCB-laced harbors.

More generally, “I’m worried that my children will jump into the water and not know what they haven’t seen,” Rotjan said.

“The most important ecosystems on the planet are almost unknown,” pointed out Bruce Robison of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute. One case in point: the ocean animals that migrate in “uncountable numbers” up toward the surface at night and then back down during the day, which brings carbon out of the surface waters.

Or we can think of the seafloor hot water vents discovered 40 years ago, which stream out key nutrients and may act “like the ocean’s multi-vitamins,” said Harvard’s Peter Girguis. Life throughout the sea, he added, “is linked to things that happen in the deepest darkest parts of the ocean.”

The scientists applauded the spread of marine sanctuaries, which can provide significant safeguards if established (and enforced) on sufficient scale. So far, sanctuaries have grown most notably in sparsely populated stretches of the Pacific. (The Republic of Kiribati’s Phoenix Islands Protected Area is a coral archipelago the size of California with exactly 24 people, living on one island, Rotjan said.) The High Seas Alliance aims to extend this strategy with protected areas in the no-man’s-lands of the open ocean.

Another positive sign is the rapid growth of sustainable aquaculture, to supplement and replace capture fisheries.

And we also can see payoffs of local and regional marine renewal efforts, such as the massive cleanup of Boston Harbor. Last month, out with a boatful of biologists for a conference hosted by Northeastern University, we were cheered to see harbor porpoises calmly working the clean waters of the Mystic River, in what not long ago was the dirtiest harbor in the U.S.

Top, the “life-size” version of Noah’s Ark built by Johan Huibers of the Netherlands. Bottom, clockwise from panda: Ice algae, pink fairy armadillo, ginkgo berries, mussel.

10 farm fish stories

What aquaculture experts tell me about the world’s fastest-growing food source.26326495102_757a4e2476_k

  1. Nigerian catfish are bred so densely you can walk across their ponds.
  2. “In an urban environment, why not use a rooftop to grow fish in a couple of recirculating ponds?”
  3. China grows grass carp in quantities equal to the catch of the entire U.S. fishing fleet.
  4. “Everyone’s working hard to reduce the use of fishmeal and fish oil in feed, and to fool the fish into thinking they are eating what they want.”
  5. All the tilapia we eat are male, with females forced that way early in life.
  6. “Many agricultural landscapes are becoming more saline and facing more seasonal inundation from the sea. There’s a big opportunity for aquaculture explicitly to be part of a planned transition that can not only recover but actually dramatically increase the value of these landscapes.”
  7. Shrimp lack an immune system.
  8. “In Africa, the sooner we move past small-scale aquaculture, the better. It’s a dead duck.”
  9. Eight miles off Panama’s Atlantic coast, cobia destined for plates in the United States fatten up in high-tech cages.
  10. The world needs to grow 30 million more tons of fish each year by 2050: “We mostly know how, but is there a will to do it?”

Photos courtesy WorldFish.

An Engine for solving societal problems

MIT’s accelerator brings an incubator and funding to startups that matter.

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“One of my frustrations as an academic is that over the last twelve years we’ve produced a lot of really useful methods and techniques, and almost none of them has been put into practice,” one prominent MIT professor told me earlier this year. “This is not an unusual problem for academics. But it’s frustrating to have things that you know could help and they’re not helping.”

Generating the intellectual property (IP) is only the very first step on the road to the real world. Established companies often are not very interested in IP, even game-changing IP. They are more likely to want prototypes, and people who know how to build the prototypes.

They want, in brief, to work with startups.

That’s one reason why this professor launched a startup. It’s also one reason why MIT actively spreads the entrepreneurial gospel to students and staff who might not have considered it a few years back, and keeps deepening its “environmental ecosystem” of competitions and advisory networks and resources like the Startup Exchange.

And it’s the thinking behind the Engine, the startup accelerator that MIT president L. Rafael Reif announced yesterday. The Engine will combine an incubator with funding for startups focused on real needs.

“When it comes to the most important problems humanity needs to solve — climate change, clean energy, fresh water and food for the world, cancer, and infectious disease, to name a few — there is no app for that,” as Reif explained in the Boston Globe. “We believe the Engine will help deliver important answers for addressing such intractable problems — answers that might otherwise never leave the lab.”

Venture capitalists do a reasonable job of funding many tech companies, but very few VCs are interested in startups that may take more than five years to pay off. The Engine won’t sponsor quick-turnaround firms, or companies that join the thundering herds of marketing middlemen, or oddities like the outfit that claims to deliver wine matched to your DNA.

Instead the funds might go to biotechs, like Oxalys, which do very well if they can even get their drug candidates into first clinical trials within a few years. Or makers of industrial products, like Dropwise’s energy-saving coatings for power plants, which manufacturers probably will adopt quite slowly because that’s how that industry works. Or any number of truly innovative, truly needed products and services.

It will take a decade or more to see how the Engine’s bets turn out. Many will fail. But these are bets we need.

Hub of Universe meets change of climate

swirlsmall (2)Boston often sits under rather large swirls of clouds.

Hurricane Joaquin was a surprisingly narrow miss last week. Experts may worry even more about northeasters like those that pounded Boston last winter. In a truly major storm, hundreds of thousands of people may wait too late to evacuate and be stuck without power or other services for weeks. In the long run, Boston’s inner harbor will need to look a lot more like the future New Orleans, with the waterfront turned into parks and wetlands, and Logan Airport and residential areas barricaded behind high levies.

That’s some of what we heard on Wednesday about how Boston is readying (or not) for climate change. Here are 10 highlights from a Hubweek session’s speakers and videos, held at Harvard’s Sanders Theatre.

1. Sitting in between the Canadian Arctic and the Gulf Stream, the northeastern U.S. has “one of the most significant temperature gradients on the planet,” commented Kerry Emanuel, MIT professor of atmospheric sciences.

2. Joaquin was “the most intense extratropical storm ever to reach this high in latitude this late in the season,” said James McCarthy, Harvard professor of biological oceanography. “That was really eye-opening.” The storm packed winds up to 155 mph as it veered off toward Bermuda.

3. Alan Berger, MIT professor of landscape architecture and urban design, proposed reimagining Boston’s waterfront with open areas backed by lines of defense against rising sea levels and storms. This approach would create a “new urban fabric, with eight or nine pockets of high density,” Berger said. And yes, “so much for living on the waterfront!”

4. Hurricane Katrina “was the most predictable of surprises,” commented Daniel Schrag, director of Harvard’s Center for the Environment. “We made a conscious decision not to prepare; we’re lucky it wasn’t worse.” Fortunately, the storm didn’t hit New Orleans directly, or there might have been tens of thousands of deaths. “The surprise was not that we didn’t get everybody out, but that we couldn’t cope with people who didn’t get out,” added Robert Young, director of Western Carolina University’s Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines. “We need to ensure we have a plan to get services to people where they are.”

5. People in Boston “think they are tough and want to sit home and wait it out,” said Jennifer Leaning, professor of the practice of health and human rights at the Harvard Chan School of Public Health. But by the time residents realize they really need to leave, it may be too late, and they may lose power for weeks. Atyia Martin, Boston’s chief resilience officer, pointed out that emergencies like Katrina have shown that many people don’t get clear word in time, or simply can’t leave. “We assume people are not educated about these issues, but they are,” Martin said. In planning for emergencies, it’s key to remember that “the community is the expert on the community,” she emphasized.

6. Last week’s astonishing South Carolina rainstorm often was called a thousand-year storm. That description is meaningless, because “there’s no precedent for a storm like this,” Schrag said flatly.

7. Unsurprisingly, much of the South Carolina flooding was in areas of recent development, “in places where water would like to be,” as Young put it. That’s a theme all along the coast: Some new Gulf coast communities just should never have been built, he remarked.

8. Carl Spector, Boston’s director of climate and environmental planning, outlined regional planning initiatives  to address vulnerable supplies such as the Chelsea Food Market and other threats such as extreme high heat days. Young applauded those efforts, but added that “the trick is taking all that high-level, long-term planning and putting that thinking into the minutiae of how we run our government.”

9. “Money seems to flow after a disaster,” Schrag noted, but not always in the best directions. We’ve done a “terrible job” recovering from Hurricane Sandy, in Young’s opinion. To actually create change, he declared, governments and all their partners must move very quickly after storms before business as usual resumes. Owners in floodplains, for instance, may be ready to buy out a few weeks after the storm, but not a few years after.

10. “Every storm is an argument to change the vulnerability of our community,” Young said. “Storms tell you where the problems are.”

7.5-foot_flood_Boston_Harbor_AssociationBoston under a hypothetical-but-expected flood (from Boston Harbor Associates data).

Big research ideas in five minutes

The Cambridge Science Festival’s launch event, Big Ideas for Busy People, presented quick snapshots of recent work by 10 researchers “who are established stars or stars on the rise,” noted John Durant, director of the MIT Museum and the festival.

The topics ranged from disaster preparedness to the rise of atmospheric oxygen and from dancing with bionics to how today’s slot machines are designed to addict their patrons. Each researcher raced to summarize their ideas and results as a five-minute clock ticked down, and then answered thoughtful questions from an audience of hundreds in First Parish Church on Friday evening.

Some notes and quotes:

“Why do we so often make decisions that we later regret?” asked Harvard’s Daniel Gilbert. “We have a fundamental misperception of time; we will change much more than we predict. It’s an illusion we all have—that we’ve just become the people we will be for the rest of our lives.”

“The bad news is yes, there are more disasters and the impact of disasters is increasing,” said Paul Biddinger of Massachusetts General Hospital. Working to minimize their effect, “we’ve learned what works and doesn’t work, and what does work is practice, practice, practice.”

Lawrence Candell of MIT Lincoln Labs showed a visual surveillance system under development that integrates 48 cell-phone-like video cameras to provide powerful 360-degree images and can automatically follow items such as moving cars. As such systems become commercialized, they could find many uses beyond surveillance, for instance at sport arenas such as the Boston Garden. “You could film and watch your own Boston Celtics game,” with the ability to narrow in on the actions and players that interest you most, Candell remarked.

Elliott Rouse of the MIT Media Lab described the development of a bionic ankle for Adrianne Haslet-Davis, a dancer who lost part of her lower leg in last year’s Boston Marathon attack, and showed a video of her dancing again. “We can put people back in places they thought they’d never have again,” Rouse said. “It’s only a matter of time until bionic limbs are better than the ones we have.”

Harvard’s Tadashi Tokieda demonstrated a “chain fountain”—pull a thin chain out of a plastic cup and let go of the chain and it will flow up before turning back down again—and explained a likely mechanism with a stick. “I like to explore surprises that are amusing and interesting to non-scientists and scientists,” he added. Asked where he finds such surprises, Tokieda said they are everywhere around: “There’s an enormous amount of universe.”

Many Boston-area plants now blossom 10 days or more earlier than they did in the 1850s, according to records kept by Henry David Thoreau and others, said Boston University’s Richard Primack. Bees and butterlies also often emerge much earlier in the spring, but migrating birds often arrive only a few days earlier than they did back then. These changes in schedule raise worries that “birds could miss this great pulse of insects in the spring,” he pointed out.

Amanda Randles of Lawrence Livermore Labs presented work that models the fluid dynamics of blood plasma with the movement of red blood cells to help study cardiovascular disease for individual patients using their MRI and CT scans. Such an analysis currently takes hours on one of the world’s largest supercomputers, but she hopes that within a few years, “it becomes something physicians can do on a real-time basis in the office.”

“I don’t know why we long so for permanence, given the fleeting nature of things,” remarked MIT’s Alan Lightman. “Our consciousness makes us feel we are immortal beings,” he added. “Yet Nature is screaming at us as the top of her lungs that everything is passing fast.”

And MIT’s Tanja Bosak skimmed through the mysterious multi-billion-year timeline in which Earth’s oxygen levels rose from almost nothing, noting that jellyfish-like fossils gave one indication of their rise as of 560 million years ago. “If you ask me why we have 20% oxygen in today’s atmosphere, I have no idea,” she acknowledged.

All the speakers seemed to enjoy their ten minutes of public science fame.