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Tara’s incredible journey February 29, 2008

Posted by eyegillian in arctic, environment, explore, global warming, life, nature, science, technology, world.
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Tara returned to her home in Lorient, France, this past Saturday after having spent more than 500 days drifting across the High Arctic. The specially equipped schooner travelled almost 4,000 kilometres with the pack ice across the Arctic Ocean as scientists on board fed climate change data to 48 European laboratories.

Her voyage began in September 2006, when an icebreaker helped position the schooner north of Siberia. The rounded reinforced aluminum hull of the 116-foot Tara allowed her to remain frozen safely from the extreme pressures applied by the pack-ice. During her journey, Tara got as close as 160 km to the North Pole. When a pool of water formed around Tara on Jan. 20, 2008, Tara’s captain started her engines and started pushed between sheets of shifting ice on the way out to open water and home.

The expedition, organized by the Damocles climate change research program in the context of the International Polar Year, was designed to study the relationship between sea ice coverage, atmospheric conditions, the circulation of Arctic Ocean waters, and the impact changes may have on the natural system and the human activities that depend on it.

The expedition was a wonderful example of eco-responsibility. For energy, Tara had electric generators supplemented by two wind turbines placed on the ice and a dozen solar panels. All unnecessary plastics were eliminated; iron, glass and organic waste was placed in a hole maintained in the pack ice; paper products were burned; a small amount of waste was stored to be disposed of on Tara’s return home; and toilets were set up on the ice so as not to contaminate the environment — part of this organic waste will remain frozen in the ice as it drifts to the Greenland Sea, where it will be gradually released into the warmer waters and broken down by natural processes.

Scientists onboard Tara monitored the ocean, the atmosphere and the ice. Last year, measurements revealed the springtime collapse of surface ozone in the Arctic for the first time. Scientists also discovered dramatic evidence of climate change in the year-round ice, which is only one-metre thick in places. The polar ice surface has diminished between 8 and 10% in the past 30 years, and the pack ice has lost 45% of its thickness during the same time

A floating laboratory like Tara may now be the only way to safely study conditions in the Arctic because of the shrinking pack ice. Clearly, many cultures and creatures depending on ice for survival are at risk; it’s no wonder there are so many problems with polar bears travelling inland to search for food. Warming in the north will help shipping and resource extraction, but at what price? Canada needs to do more than state its sovereignty over the northern passage. All the countries which border the Arctic Ocean will need to work together to ensure that this sensitive environment is protected.

Click here to hear the sound of ice pressing on Tara’s hull.

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Related Links:
Tara Expedition homepage
Tara breaks free
Damocles homepage


Cosmic rays and the nature of solidity February 28, 2008

Posted by eyegillian in energy, learn, nature, science, space.
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cosmic raysWhen I visited the Ontario Science Centre recently, I became fascinated by the Cloud Chamber. I sat mesmerized, watching as particles zipped around like invisible jets, leaving quickly vanishing vapour trails behind. It was tough to get a photo that shows those ephemeral paths!

Here’s how it works: Cosmic rays are part of the natural radiation we are exposed to here on earth. As these radioactive particles pass through the air they collide with air molecules, detaching an electron from atom after atom, and leave behind a trail of ions. The ions are air molecules that have either lost an electron (leaving them with a positive charge) or picked up the freed electrons (giving them a negative charge). The cloud chamber contains super-saturated alcohol vapour, which clings in tiny drops to these ions to mark the trail.

Cosmic rays come mostly from protons in outer space. They continually bombard the earth and stream through everything that we would consider to be “solid”, including our bodies. We can’t see cosmic rays directly, but we can see the result of the rays’ interaction with the atmosphere in the display of the aurora borealis and aurora australis, for example.

When a cosmic ray enters the earth’s atmosphere, it collides with a nitrogen or oxygen atom in the air, creating a chain reaction which breaks apart the atoms and results in a shower of particles. Most of these particles have very low energy and decay or are absorbed into the atmosphere. The only particles that reach the ground are either very energetic or relatively stable. One such particle is the muon, a high-energy heavier version of the electron. At sea level, the flow of high-energy muons is about six muons per square inch per minute.

Now I’m not trying to assert any scientific thesis here; I’m sure any physicist could write ad infinitum about all these radioactive particles and the differences between electrons, ions, muons, protons, pions, etc. As a curious non-scientist, however, what I find particularly fascinating is the fact that a) there are so many types of “radiation” that are passing through our bodies every day; and b) that we are so permeable.

As I read about this phenomenon, some of what I learned in long-ago science classes comes back to me, how all the so-called solid objects which make up our world are not actually solid at all, but made up of a bunch of bouncing atoms. This brings a new kind of “seeing” to my observations of nature. And being actually able to “see” these speeding particles is a bonus; it somehow makes them a lot more real than anything in a school textbook.

particle trails

Photos by Seeing Is

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Related Links:
Build your own Cloud Chamber
Cosmic Extremes — a pdf pamphlet on cosmic rays
Cosmic Rays: A possible source

Can you read me now? February 27, 2008

Posted by eyegillian in communication, diversity, explore, language, learn, life, world.
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One of the challenges of writing is communication. Yes, really. How can I express my feeling of delight or frustration, triumph or sadness and make it compelling to a reader? It’s one thing to info drop — to include a newsy nugget, a factoid, a whisper of petty rumour — but as I reader I want more substance. Why should I stop to read this or look at that or think about this issue? I want you to care about what I care about, so communication is crucial.

The other challenge is that of words. I love words. I enjoy finding exactly the right word to express what I want to say. But I also realize that those of you who have come to English as a second (or third) language might thinkblog readability test I use too many words. So I checked out my blog reading level and found, with mixed feelings, that my writing is not particularly accessible.

So now I’m in a quandary. I believe in clear speaking, and I often rail against government documents which seem intended to obfuscate rather than to communicate. Yet I am loath to simplify my language because I need to write to please myself first, and I have enough ego to like the sound of my own voice.

Now, I suppose there are ways


to make my writing


more interesting


and draw a wider


demographic of


readers. Or I could try the

Brittany Spears

celebrity route by name

Harrison Ford

dropping and mentioning

Angelina Jolie

lots of juicy

Daniel Day-Lewis


As fun as that would be, I have to admit that others are doing that job much better than I could ever imagine.

Besides, what grabs my attention isn’t fashion or fleeting stardom — I’d rather read about a new species of animal or a new idea, a technological challenge or a social solution, an analysis of a big-picture situation or a glimpse into a small but significant corner of the world. My goal is to share a bit of information along with my interest and concern and delight, so I will do whatever I can to make sure that language doesn’t get in the way.

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Related Links:
On Words and Meaning
The Limits of Clear Language

From fossil fuels to far-out energy February 26, 2008

Posted by eyegillian in Canada, energy, environment, explore, life, nature, science, space, technology, world.
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Oil derrickOne of the biggest issues right now — arguably bigger than even global warming — is energy: specifically, spiralling energy consumption in the face of depleting supply. In Canada, total energy consumption grew by 20.3% between 1980 and 1997, and we consumed five times the world average in terms of energy use, using an annual equivalent of 6.19 tonnes of oil per capita. (Source)

The energy strain has resulted in black-outs around the world, including the 12 hours or more that much of the northeastern U.S. and Ontario were out of power in August 2003, and massive blackouts that surged across much of western Europe in November 2006.

Meanwhile, world energy demand has been predicted to rise 45% by 2030 by which time oil production will fall by half — which is either a good or bad thing, depending on whether you’re selling the energy — although some claim that the earth will never run out of oil as long as there is new technology to help get at the hard-to-reach supplies.

While world powers jockey for control of the oil-rich Middle East, there is increased pressure in North America for new oil and gas sources in wilderness areas, such as the environmentally sensitive Chukchi Sea, which lies above the Arctic Circle between Alaska and Russia. On Feb. 1, 2008, a coalition of native Alaskans and conservation goups filed a lawsuit to stop the drilling in the environmentally sensitive area, but there will surely be more oil rushes to get at the huge reserves said to be in the North. 

But all is not lost. Last week, NASA announced that Saturn’s orange moon Titan has hundreds of times more liquid hydrocarbons than all the known oil and natural gas reserves on Earth. NASA’s Cassini spacecraft has mapped about 20 percent of Titan’s surface with radar, discovering lakes and seas which are estimated to contain more hydrocarbon liquid than Earth’s oil and gas reserves, and dunes that contain a volume of organics several hundred times larger than Earth’s coal reserves.

Steven Hobbs (Brisbane, Queensland, Australia)Ah, yes… Titan. Now that potential mining bonanza should be a challenge to technology. Let’s see, only -179 degrees Celcius. An environment of liquid methane and ethane and a mix of complex organic molecules called tholins. Titan is only about 50% larger than the moon, and it took the Cassini probe seven years to get there. Well, but I’d bet the job would pay an astronomical salary. Anyone up for it?

On the other hand, maybe we should start to think about Plan B, just in case we don’t get to Titan before our fossil fuels run out, just in case the story about endless energy reserves turns out to be a pipe dream.

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Related Links:
NASA: Titan’s Surface Organics Surpass Oil Reserves on Earth”
Titan Oil Reserves
Blackouts around the world
Times: “Energy crisis cannot be solved by renewables”
Guardian: “Steep decline in oil production…”