Scientists have found a (partial) explanation for the ‘blood rain’ in Spain

Rain showers can sometimes take a bizarre turn: in very rare cases, animals such as fish and frogs have been known to fall from the sky alongside water droplets, and around the world, people have experienced what’s known as blood rain, where the water has a peculiar red tinge.

Reports of blood rain have been recorded for centuries – back before humans knew any better, it was believed the sky was actually spitting out blood. Nowadays, we have the technology to analyse the composition of blood rain so we no longer have to jump to any crazy conclusions, but scientists are only just figuring out how and why it occurs. And now a new study has put forward an explanation for a recent incident in Zamora, a city in northwestern Spain.

The people of Zamora and several nearby villages noticed blood rain falling from the sky late last year: was it chemical pollution? Was it some kind of deliberate sabotage? Was it a sign from God? A concerned resident sent a sample of collected rainwater to scientists at Spain’s University of Salamanca to see if they could come up with any answers. And now the results are in.

The researchers say a freshwater green microalgae called Haematococcus pluvialis is to blame – this microalgae is capable of producing a red carotene pigment called astaxanthin when in a state of stress, perhaps caused by getting caught up in a rain-cloud.

That matches up with previous studies of blood rain, one of which found the microalgae  to be the cause of an incident in Kerala in India– different kinds of microalgae, but the same root cause.

AstaxanthinAstaxanthin in H. pluvialis. Credit: Frank Fox/Wikimedia

What’s less clear is how these microalgae spores are travelling. H. pluvialis is not native to Zamora or any of the neighbouring regions, and before the Kerala incident, T. annulata was thought to only exist in Austria – a long way from India. So now the researchers have to figure out exactly how these mysterious microorganisms are making their way across the globe.

Hitching a ride on global wind currents would be a good bet, but so far researchers have been unable to find any concrete proof of this. The researchers identified a prevailing current that could’ve carried the microalgae out from North America to Spain, but have yet to pinpoint the exact source. Their work has been published in the Spanish Royal Society of Natural History Journal.

In the meantime, there’s no cause for panic if you’re caught in a blood rain shower: H. pluvialis is non-toxic and is often used as a food source for salmon and trout to give them a more pinkish hue. Indeed, motorcycle company Yamaha recently used the microalgae to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from its factories.

blood prainsBlood rain puddle from Zamora. Credit: Joaquín Pérez

Source: Scientists have found a (partial) explanation for the ‘blood rain’ in Spain

Scientists have found a (partial) explanation for the ‘blood rain’ in Spain




A map of temperature anomalies during October. Red shows the biggest deviation from the standard (temperatures recorded between 1951 and 1980).

If you’ve been wondering why your coats stayed in the closet and your heater remained off for the first part of fall, wonder no more. This October was the warmest on record. Ever.

Last month beat out all the other Octobers to get the title of hottest Octobersince record-keeping began in the late 1800’s. It was also the highest deviation from ‘normal’ global temperatures. Those temperatures were recorded between 1951 and 1980, and are averaged to get a general baseline. The data comes from NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, which looks at temperature changes over long periods of time (decades as opposed to days).

If it sounds like a familiar story, that’s because it is. Last winter was one of the warmest on record, even with all the snow. 2014 and 2012 were also record-breaking years, and with the addition of October to its already hot lineup, 2015 is likely to surpass both.

Extreme heat is now 4 times more likely than it was before the industrial revolution, and that shows no signs of stopping.



First map of Earth’s hidden groundwater reserves shows we’re using them too quickly

Modern-groundwater-map-printx_1024.jpgAn international team of hydrologists has come up with the best estimate yet for Earth’s total supply of groundwater, saying that nearly 23 million cubic kilometers of groundwater is contained in hidden reserves under the surface of the planet. And while that might sound like a lot, it’s not enough to sustain us if we keep consuming it as fast as we are right now.

The study suggests that less than 6 percent of groundwater in the upper 2 kilometers of the Earth’s landmass is renewable within a human lifetime. That statistic is concerning, not only because the uppermost water is what we can access for drinking, but also because the lengthy renewal cycle is slower than our consumption habits.

“This has never been known before,” said lead researcher Tom Gleeson of the University of Victoria in Canada. “We already know that water levels in lots of aquifers are dropping. We’re using our groundwater resources too fast – faster than they’re being renewed.”

To come up with their global groundwater map, the researchers compiled multiple data-sets, including data from almost a million watersheds and more than 40,000 groundwater models. Of the nearly 23 million cubic kilometers of total groundwater on the planet, approximately 0.35 million cubic kilometers is younger than 50 years old.

The distinction between young and old groundwater is important. Young (or modern) groundwater lies closer to the surface and is more likely to be drinkable. In comparison, older groundwater – which can date as far back as millions of years – lies deeper in Earth’s landmass, and may contain arsenic or uranium. It’s often stagnant and saltier than seawater, and as such, is only usually suitable for agricultural or industrial purposes.

Young groundwater’s proximity to the surface means it’s easier for us to access it and also easier to renew with fresh rainwater – but it’s also more readily exposed to human contamination and more vulnerable to environmental risks like climate change.

The researchers’ map reveals that most of Earth’s groundwater reserves are stored in tropical and mountain regions, including the Amazon Basin, the Congo, Indonesia, and in North and Central America. Arid regions, as one might presume to be the case, don’t have as much water underground.

“Intuitively, we expect drier areas to have less modern groundwater and more humid areas to have more, but before this study, all we had was intuition,“ said one of the team, Kevin Befus, who is now with the United States Geological Survey. ”Now, we have a quantitative estimate that we compared to geochemical observations.”

The researchers hope their findings, published in Nature Geoscience, will help water managers, policy developers, and scientists to better manage Earth’s remaining groundwater in more sustainable ways. In the meantime, Gleeson will be leading a new study, designed to track depletion rates on a global scale.

“Since we now know how much groundwater is being depleted and how much there is, we will be able to estimate how long until we run out,” he said.

Source: First map of Earth’s hidden groundwater reserves shows we’re using them too quickly

First map of Earth’s hidden groundwater reserves shows we’re using them too quickly

Here’s how 139 countries could run on 100% wind, solar, and hydro power by 2050

The world could be powered almost entirely by clean, renewable energy sources in the space of a few decades, and two engineers in the US say they’ve have figured out exactly how it can be done.

Blueprints for 139 countries around the world, including the US, Japan, and Australia, break down exactly how many wind turbines, solar farms, hydroelectric dams, and other facilities are required to cover each nation’s personal, business, industry, agriculture, and transport power needs, and how much it would cost. They’ll be presented to leaders of 195 nations at the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP 21) in Paris, starting on November 30, where a binding and universal agreement on climate will be set.

The people there are just not aware of what’s possible,” one of the researchers, Mark Jacobson, a civil and environmental engineer at Stanford University, told Mark Fischetti at Scientific American. Jacobson has been granted two opportunities to speak at the conference, which will run from November 30 to December 11, and plans to get on-on-one time with as many world leaders as possible during that time with his colleague, engineer Mark Delucchi from the University of California, Davis.

The purpose of the blueprints is to show that 100 percent renewable energy isn’t just a green pipe dream – it’s technically and economically feasible. And it won’t only save countries a significant amount of cash – Jacobson and Delucchi have figured out how many jobs it could create and lives it could save, and it’s a whole lot.

As Fischetti reports for Scientific American, if all 139 countries followed their plans for permanently ditching fossil fuels, it would open up 24 million construction jobs and 26.5 million operational jobs, each with a 35-year lifespan, which more than covers the 28.4 million jobs that would be lost in collapsed fossil fuel industries.

The change would also lead to considerably cleaner air, which the engineers have estimated will prevent the 3.3 to 4.6 million premature deaths that occur every year due to atmospheric pollution. Right now, these deaths cost around 3 percent of the global GDP to mitigate.

And that’s not the only saving that a fossil fuel-free world can bring. Wind is now the cheapest source of electricity in the US, costing around half as much as natural gas – and that’s unsubsidised. And the cost of solar is not far behind.

As Ramez Naam reports over at Energy Post, if the technology continues to grow in efficiency at the current rate, by the time solar capacity triples to 600GW – predicted by around 2020 or 2021 – the unsubsidised price for solar power will be roughly 4.5 cents per kWh in places that get a lot of sunlight, such as the the US southwest, the Middle East, and Australia. For moderately sunny places, such as India and China, this price will hit 6.5 cent per kWh.

Not bad, when you consider coal-fired electricity can cost anywhere from 6.6 to 15.1 cents per kWh and it’s 6 to 8 cents for natural gas. And that’s not including all the associated health costs mentioned above.

“People who are trying to prevent this change would argue that it’s too expensive, or there’s just not enough power, or they try to say that it’s unreliable, that it will take too much land area or resources,” Jacobson told Adele Peters at Fast Company. “What this shows is that all these claims are mythical.”

The timeline states that countries could stop building new natural gas, coal, and nuclear plants, by 2020 and all gas-fired home appliances would be shifted to electric. Over the next five years, governments and industry leaders could work on getting large ships, trains, and buses off fossil fuels to run on electric power instead, followed by all cars and trucks over the next five years. By 2050, everything that currently guzzles fossil fuels could feasibly be switched over to renewable power sources.

Of course, not everyone is convinced, says Fischetti, reporting that the plans “have been heralded as transformational, and criticised as starry eyed or even nutty”, but the beauty of what Jacobson and Delucchi have put together is that everything is there for you to read through and analyse yourself, so you can make up your own mind.

Source: Here’s how 139 countries could run on 100% wind, solar, and hydro power by 2050

Here’s how 139 countries could run on 100% wind, solar, and hydro power by 2050

How the Sun stole Mars’ atmosphere

The solar wind has made Mars a cold desert, and a tougher environment for would-be colonists. Alan Duffy explains the latest research.


Four billion years ago, Mars and Earth were like twins. Water flowed on the Martian surface beneath an atmosphere rich in carbon dioxide, oxygen, methane and water vapour. Today the Martian atmosphere is vanishingly thin, just a hundredth the density of Earth’s, and its surface water has disappeared.

Where did it all go? To find out NASA sent MAVEN – the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution spacecraft – all decked out with sensitive new instruments. It’s been orbiting the planet since last September and this November it finally answered the riddle. The solar wind blew away the Martian atmosphere. This result was the highlight of a landslide of papers published in November using data collected by MAVEN – four inScience and 40 in Geophysical Research Letters.

The first hints water used to flow on Mars came from NASA’s Viking missions in the 1970s. The orbiters beamed back pictures of valleys that looked like they’d been carved by ancient rivers. More recent landers showed fossilised ripples of lakebeds and streams known as mudstone. And just in September, instruments on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter detected the signatures of hydrated salts streaking down crater edges. The briny residue showed water may still be found occasionally on the surface of Mars. But it’s a drop in the ocean compared to the bodies of water that resided in the ancient lakes some four billion years ago.

Billions of years ago when the Red Planet was young, it appears to have had a thick atmosphere that was warm enough to support oceans of liquid water – a critical ingredient for life. This animation shows what Mars might have looked like at the time, before transitioning to the dusty red planet we see today.

So where did the water go? Some thought it was locked away in subsurface ice deposits. And as for the atmosphere, carbon dioxide and other gases might have chemically reacted with rocks over hundreds of millions of years, and become locked away inside Mars’ geology – similar to the way carbon dioxide in Earth’s atmosphere can get locked away as limestone.

The other possibility was that both had been lost to space: first the atmosphere, then the water, which in the thin air would simply have evaporated away. If this theory was right, the real question was, why did the atmosphere vanish in the first place? It shouldn’t have: Mars’ gravity, a third of Earth’s, is sufficiently strong to keep its atmosphere.

“Like the theft of a few coins from a cash register every day,

the loss becomes significant over time”

First off, MAVEN established that the Martian atmosphere was indeed vanishing into space. Dipping in and out of the Red Planet’s upper atmosphere, it detected wisps of ionised air escaping at the rate of about 100 grams each second. “Like the theft of a few coins from a cash register every day, the loss becomes significant over time,” says Bruce Jakosky, MAVEN principal investigator at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

MAVEN was also present when a solar storm hit Mars in March 2015.

The rate of atmospheric loss increased up to 20-fold when the storm struck. The storm was the result of a coronal mass ejection by the Sun, which hurled billions of tonnes of superhot material into space. Unlike the constant, steady stream of particles of the solar wind, these events are far more energetic and damaging. With each direct hit, more of the Martian atmosphere is lost.

The Sun had been caught in the act of planetary vandalism. MAVEN’s data showed the long suspected culprit, the solar wind (and its sometime partner in crime, solar storms), was easily capable of removing an atmosphere. While the Sun is still at work shearing away the Martian atmosphere today, four billion years ago a youthful Sun was even more tempestuous with storms that were more frequent and powerful than those of today.

So why was Earth spared this fate? Our planet is blessed with a magnetic shield that deflects the charged solar particles; Mars is not. A magnetic shield is created by a churning liquid iron core, which Earth has. Mars once had a molten core too but around four billion years ago, it cooled and solidified. Just why we have been spared this fate is not entirely understood – perhaps it is simply because Mars is smaller and lost heat more quickly. The same fate undoubtedly awaits Earth too, but not for many millions (if not billions) of years yet.

Without a liquid iron core, Mars’ magnetic field faded away. The solar wind then ripped away most of the atmosphere, leaving the oceans to evaporate into space. But the removal of its atmosphere would have taken place over a few hundred million years, so any life that existed had time to adapt to living underground; the Sun’s ultraviolet radiation would be fatal to life on the surface.

For the first time, NASA’s MAVEN spacecraft has observed the solar winds in action stripping away Mars’ atmosphere. This video shows a simulation of the solar wind striking Mars, then adds a colourful overlay of Mars’ atmosphere being removed (the new measurements taken by MAVEN).

This is good news for scientists hoping to find life on Mars, but bad news for human colonists.

Some had hoped the gases that made up the atmosphere might still be present beneath the surface, awaiting our arrival to unlock all that carbon dioxide, begin to grow plants and terraform the Red Planet. Not so: at least as far as the atmosphere goes, colonisers will need to bring their own.

Source: How the Sun stole Mars’ atmosphere

How the Sun stole Mars’ atmosphere

New Principles to Help Accelerate the Growing Global Momentum for Carbon Pricing

  • New report shows the number of implemented or planned carbon pricing schemes around the world has almost doubled since 2012, with existing schemes now worth about $50 billion.
  • About 40 nations and 23 cities, states or regions are using a carbon price. This represents the equivalent of about 7 billion tons of carbon dioxide, or 12 percent of annual global greenhouse gas emissions.
  • And new report lays out six key principles to put a price on carbon – the FASTER principles – for putting a price on carbon based on economic principles and experience of what is already working around the world

The spotlight is on New York now with the upcoming United Nations meeting on the new Sustainable Development Goals, Climate Week New York, and in about two months, global leaders will meet again in Paris for COP 21.

The decisions made in New York and Paris will set the course for development for years to come. But while these are top level, pivotal meetings, actors around the world are not waiting for a global agreement to act. They are already putting a price on carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions to drive clean investment. This includes the private sector. And we’ve seen companies from the oil and gas industry – calling for widespread carbon pricing. Today, over 400 businesses worldwide are using an internal price on carbon to guide their investments.

” The world needs to find effective ways to reduce carbon pollution. We must design the best ways to price carbon in order to help cut pollution, improve people’s health, and provide governments with a pool of funds to drive investment in a cleaner future and to protect poor people. “

Jim Yong Kim

World Bank Group President


Around the world, about 40 national and 23 city, states and regions are using carbon pricing schemes, like emissions trading systems (ETS) or carbon taxes. These represent about 7 billion tons of carbon dioxide, or 12% of global greenhouse emissions, a threefold increase over the past decade.

To help countries navigate the waters, the World Bank Group, together with the OECDand with input from the IMF, also released a report today on the FASTER Principles, which helps governments and business develop efficient and cost-effective instruments to put a price on the social costs of emissions.

The FASTER principles are: F for fairness; A for alignment of policies and objectives; S for stability and predictability; T for transparency; E for efficiency and cost-effectiveness and R for reliability and environmental integrity.

With COP21 fast approaching, the need for meaningful carbon policies is more important than ever. Carbon pricing is central to the quest for a cost-effective transition towards zero net emissions in the second half of the century. These principles will help governments to incorporate carbon pricing as a key part of their policy toolkit,” said Angel Gurría, Secretary-General of the OECD.

The research draws on over a decade of experiences with carbon pricing initiatives around the world, such as emissions trading systems and taxes in places like the European Union, British Columbia, Denmark, Sweden, and the United Kingdom. It points to what’s been learnt to date: well-designed carbon pricing schemes are a powerful and flexible tool that can cut emissions that cause climate change and if adequately designed and implemented can play a key role in enhancing innovation and smoothing the transition to a prosperous, low-carbon global economy.

“Carbon pricing is effective in reducing emissions that cause climate change, is straightforward to administer, can raise valuable revenues for broader fiscal reforms, and can help address local pollution as well as global climate change. We welcome the opportunity to continue collaborating with the World Bank, OECD, and others on this critical policy tool,” said Christine Lagarde, Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund.

There is growing momentum: Since 2012, the number of implemented or scheduled carbon pricing instruments nearly doubled, from 20 to 38, and they are now worth about $50 billion. This progress is described in a new report, launched by the World Bank and Ecofys called the State and Trends of Carbon Pricing 2015 report.

Some examples:  

  • Last year, Chile approved a national carbon tax to start in 2017.
  • In January of this year, the Republic of Korea launched an ambitious carbon market.
  • Today, the EU ETS is the largest carbon instrument in terms of value, followed by the trading systems in Korea and California.
  • Ontario, Canada’s most populous province, announced in April that it is joining California and Quebec’s emissions trading systems. And the EU and South Korea announced plans this week to explore linkage between their emissions trading systems.
  • The US and China – the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitters – host the two largest national carbon pricing initiatives in terms of volume covered, driven by initiatives in their states and provinces. In China, the carbon initiatives cover the equivalent of 1 billion tons of CO2, while in the US, they cover the equivalent of 0.5 billion tons of CO2.
  • China, which already has seven pilot carbon markets operating in major cities and provinces, announced plans to launch a national system in 2016.

And it was just announced on Wednesday last week that more than two dozen cities in China and the US are making new pledges to lower emissions. This is welcome news. But the ambition and coverage of pricing needs to accelerate significantly for the world to meet international climate goals. Overall, these experiences with carbon pricing show little negative impact on economic growth but have a significant impact on energy intensity and diversification (or “greening”) of the energy mix.

There have been concerns that carbon pricing will affect international competitiveness of some industries and lead them to move production, or even whole factories, to other countries or jurisdictions where emission costs are lower, a phenomenon called “carbon leakage”. The report notes that ex-post analysis of the EU ETS, the biggest cap-and-trade system in place today, shows that so far, the carbon leakage has not materialized on any significant scale.

In the future, the risk of carbon leakage is real as long as carbon price signals are strong and differ significantly between jurisdictions. Also, this risk tends to only affect a limited number of exposed sectors and can be effectively mitigated through policy design.

The State and Trends report also discusses the enormous savings that can be made through – cooperation between countries. Compared to domestic action alone, cooperation and linking of carbon pricing instruments across borders could significantly lower the cost of achieving a 2°C stabilization goal, because countries have more flexibility in choosing who undertakes emission reductions, and who pays for them.

Analysing several studies made over the years, the State and Trends report shows that this cooperation can mobilize resources and transfers between countries and investors, and result in net annual flows of financial resources of up to $400 billion by 2030 and up to $2.2 trillion by 2050.

The report also says that carbon prices that converge have a positive impact on competitiveness by favouring more efficient and cleaner sectors, leading to a more efficient economy.

Source: New Principles to Help Accelerate the Growing Global Momentum for Carbon Pricing

New Principles to Help Accelerate the Growing Global Momentum for Carbon Pricing