Today's "Planet Earth Report" --World's Billionaires Hunt for Alien Life, Volcano Planet, Lost Sub Mystery
December 21 2017: Today's links to headline stories from around the world on the threats, opportunities, and dangers facing our fragile planet --along with an occasional dash of humor, popular culture, and an intriguing conspiracy theory or two.
Tens of thousands of people have evacuated their land in Bali as the nearby volcano Mount Agung angrily spits ash and its magma rises. Many Balinese hold the mountain sacred and accept its occasional outbursts as moral admonishments whereas geologists consider this activity a routine part of Earth’s behavior. But scientists have found another force—climate change—affects the frequency of eruptions. Now a new study shows even relatively minor climate variations may have such an influence. If they are right, today’s global warming could mean more and bigger volcanic eruptions in the future.
Throughout its history Earth has gone through periods of massive natural climate change such as entering and leaving ice ages. Scientists have noted volcanic eruptions tended to increase as glaciers melted. In a recent study published in Geology researchers looked at smaller-scale changes in glacial coverage to see if these incremental differences had any effect.
The scientists focused on eruptions in Iceland about 5,500 to 4,500 years ago. During that period Earth’s climate cooled and glaciers grew, but there was no full-blown ice age. To reconstruct a timeline of volcanic activity, the researchers examined the Icelandic eruption record as well as a record of the ash that fell in Europe during those Icelandic eruptions, which ultimately settled into microscopic layers in the continent’s peat bogs and lakes, study author Graeme Swindles says. He and his colleagues matched these layers to specific Icelandic volcanoes then developed a detailed timeline of increases and decreases in eruptions.
When the scientists compared the volcanic record with glacial coverage, they found the number of eruptions indeed dropped significantly as the climate cooled and ice expanded. “There’s a big change in the record in the mid-Holocene [epoch], where we see no volcanic ash in Europe and very little in Iceland,” says Swindles, an associate professor of Earth system dynamics at the University of Leeds. “This seems to overlap with a time where there’s cold climate conditions, which would have favored glacial advance in Iceland.” He says his team observed an approximately 600-year lag between when glaciers advanced and volcanic activity diminished. “That’s because it takes a long time to grow ice masses,” he explains.
The last few years demonstrate that extraterrestrial research has finally moved into the mainstream — and money is pouring in fast.
Aside from a strange blip in the 1950s and early 1960s, the search for extraterrestrial life has primarily taken place at society’s fringes. Public figures have not historically risked their reputations advocating the search for alien life. And within the scientific community, the subject was largely (and understandably) sidelined until recent years, when telescopes that could detect new planets and instruments that found the ingredients for life on other worlds allowed serious-minded researchers to pass the laugh test.
As a result, the last decade has seen a surge of interest in extraterrestrial research within the scientific community that has seized the public imagination. For example, the recent discovery of water on Mars immediately raised serious hopes from serious people we might find Martians. Every announcement that scientists have found another potentially habitable exoplanet (which includes the nearest exoplanet to Earth) causes days of clamor on the internet.
But finding aliens isn’t just about tracking extraterrestrials or the re-jiggering of existential thought that might entail. Discovering an alien species could bolster hopes for the long-term survival of humans off-planet. Extraterrestrial life doesn’t need to present us with new technologies to help us become a multiplanetary species; presenting proof positive that life can survive in space will get the job done. If — and when — that happens, billionaires will have found the biggest untapped market in the cosmos.
The Tesla Model 3 is on its way to the general public, and new drone footage captured Wednesday shows how the automaker is kicking production into high gear. Elon Musk’s $35,000 car, which launched this July, brings the company’s electric vehicle technology to a wider audience thanks to a lower price. Drone footage of Tesla’s Fremont, California, plant shows the work in action.
“Flew over the Model 3 buffer visible from the freeway,” said Reddit user darksoldier360, who uploaded the drone footage to YouTube. “Also flew over the Model S/X buffer at the back of the factory. Rail line is torn up/not in service […] Also there is a yard with some prototypes or training vehicles or something under wraps and out in the open in one of the shots.”
Tesla has been working hard to get the Model 3 out of a stage Musk refers to as “production hell.” While the company overall produced around 26,150 cars in the third quarter of 2017, the company has a lofty goal of ramping up to a rate of 10,000 cars per week at some point next year. However, Tesla’s plan to produce 100 Model 3 vehicles in August, followed by 1,500 in September, hit a speed bump when it only produced 260 in September. In October, Musk shared a video of the production robots moving at one tenth of their maximum speed.
As sea ice grows shockingly low and late, Utqiagvik’s record warmth stymies algorithms. When federal climate scientists set about making their usual monthly tally of data from weather stations around the country in December, one station was glaringly missing: Utqiavik (formerly Barrow), Alaska, the northernmost community in the U.S.
After some digging the scientists found that month upon month of exceptionally warm temperatures had caused their automated quality-control checks to flag the data as suspicious. Basically, the computer algorithm they were using thought the warming over the past year was too rapid to be real.
But it turned out to be very real—and a stark example of the broader warming happening across the Arctic, where temperatures are rising at twice the global average. Through September 30, this year was the Arctic’s second warmest on record (behind only 2016), according to the 2017 Arctic Report Card, released this month by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The unrelenting temperature rise and accompanying downward spiral of sea ice—which in turn amplifies that warming—“confirm that the Arctic shows no sign of returning” to its reliably frozen former state, Jeremy Mathis, director of NOAA’s Arctic Research Program, said at a press conference.
"It accelerated like nothing I’ve ever seen." But what did they actually see? Since the Pentagon confirmed the existence of a top-secret UFO-hunting program, internet denizens have been trying to piece together the puzzle of this cheap X-Files reboot, starring Harry Reid and Robert Bigelow, apparently.
In a follow-up to the big story, the New York Times published a first-hand account of two Navy airmen who claim to have seen a rapidly accelerating, flying object they couldn’t explain, one night back in 2004 while flying Navy F/A-18F fighter jets near San Diego.
“It accelerated like nothing I’ve ever seen,” Commander David Fravor told the Times of what he thought was a flying object in the sky. Some of what they saw has been published in a video that the Pentagon’s UFO search division studied for research, or, whatever.
But an astronomer tells Inverse what the airman more likely saw that night:
“Typically, the explanation is that the thing they are looking at is much closer or much farther than they thought, or is a reflection of some kind,” Jonathan McDowell, astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, tells Inverse.
It took years for ex-Facebook and Google bosses to criticize what they had created – but they seem to have had a collective change of heart. Perhaps it’s because they now have children of their own. For an industry that prides itself on innovation, Silicon Valley loves to conform. The herd mentality can be seen everywhere, from tech executives’ collective commitment to wearing wool slippers in public to the spectacle of Facebook, Google and Twitter sheepishly echoing one another’s testimony at a series of congressional hearings in October.
In recent months, a new trend has emerged among the tech elite: publicly bashing the companies that made them enormously wealthy. Sean Parker and Chamath Palihapitiya, both former Facebook executives, made headlines recently with sharp critiques of their former employers’ addictive qualities and damage to society. The pair joined a growing chorus of disenchanted techies, including the Facebook engineer who invented the Like button, the former Google ethicist Tristan Harris, and the designer who came up with the “pull to refresh” mechanism used by Twitter.
“I wake up in cold sweats every so often thinking: what did we bring to the world?” said Tony Fadell, the founder of Nest and one of the key architects of the iPod, at a conference in June. “Did we really bring a nuclear bomb with information that can – like we see with fake news – blow up people’s brains and reprogram them?”
The election of Donald Trump was “a big slap in the face” for people at Facebook, said Antonio Garcia-Martinez, a former Facebook product manager. To most Facebook employees, Garcia-Martinez said, “Trump is the incarnation of Satan. The fact that they helped Satan get elected does dog a lot of people.”
In this undated image provided by the Australian Department of Defense, survey data forms the image of the Australian submarine HMAS AE1 off the coast of the Papua New Guinea island of New Britain. One of Australia's oldest naval mysteries has been solved after the discovery of the wreck of the country's first submarine more than 103 years after its disappearance in World War I. (Australian Department of Defense via AP)
One of Australia's oldest naval mysteries has been solved after the discovery of the wreck of the country's first submarine more than 103 years after its disappearance in World War I. The AE1 vanished off the New Guinean island of New Britain on September 14, 1914, with 35 crew aboard from Australia, New Zealand and Britain.
It was the first Allied submarine loss of the war and the first wartime loss for the Royal Australian Navy, yet the exact reason for its sinking remains unclear.
No fewer than 12 fruitless hunts for the sub had been carried out over the past several decades, but Australian Defense Minister Marise Payne said Thursday it was located more than 300 meters (984 feet) below the surface in a search using a Dutch-owned survey vessel that started only last week.
While the reasons for the submarine's sinking remain unclear, Payne said the Australian government was now trying to contact descendants of those killed on board.
One of the world’s foremost experts on the subject of flying saucers doesn’t believe in alien abduction, little green men, or government cover-ups one bit. Instead, author and saucer aficionado Jack Womack is interested in the people who believe that they’ve seen UFOs. He’s so fascinated by these true believers, in fact, that he’s collected nearly every single book — some of which there were only handful of copies printed — by authors who claim to have seen flying saucers.
“I can study TB without catching it, preferably, and I can be a student of the Bible without being a Christian,” Womack says, explaining his intense interest in these claims without actually believing any of them. “I collected these books because they gave me the same kind of escapism kicks other people get from reading science fiction, or my friends get from writing it.”
Over the course of several decades, he amassed a vast collection of UFO books, so many in fact, that his collection is now referred to as a library. Last month, a selection of Womack’s vintage books were on display at the Milk art gallery in New York City, ahead of his new book’s launch, cheekily titled …Flying Saucers Are Real!
Womack begins his book by chronicling the publication of Richard Shaver’s story “I Remember Lemuria!” in a March 1945 issue of Amazing Stories. Shaver’s story of alien creatures dwelling in caverns below the Earth is notable because it was sent to Amazing Stories as non-fiction, and rewritten by an editor named Ray Palmer for publication. As such, a story which many UFO or alien conspiracy theorists would consider to be “true” was the work of a desperate fiction editor retooling a letter from a madman. But if the Shaver stories were the beginning of UFOs crossing over into science fiction, when was the start of journalists writing about them?
Big tech firms have gone from pushing for open-internet protections to being powerful enough not to need them.
The most recent chapter in the debate over net neutrality has been, like previous chapters, cacophonous. One notable difference this time around, though, was the relative quiet of many large tech companies. In previous years, these firms had been outspoken about the issue. What changed?
Netflix’s net-neutrality journey is an illuminating example. In 2014, Reed Hastings, the company’s CEO, issued a strongly worded warning about oppressive “internet tolls” that could threaten the web’s status as a “platform for progress.” His company had recently tussled with Comcast (ultimately agreeing to pay the cable company to get data for its streaming videos to customers smoothly) and Hastings felt a need to take a stand in favor of net neutrality. In advance of a 2015 Federal Communications Commission vote on the issue that went as Netflix hoped, the company’s representatives reportedly contacted or visited FCC officials more than a dozen times.
In the time between then and last week—when the FCC voted to undo its 2015 regulations—something, apparently, had changed. “We think net neutrality is incredibly important,” Hastings said at a tech conference in late May, but went on to say that it’s “not narrowly important to us because we’re big enough to get the deals we want.” The “deals” he was referring to are the ones theoretically opened up by the repeal of net neutrality—they’re the fees that internet-service providers (like Comcast) could ask for from, well, just about anyone (like Netflix), in exchange for speeding their data along. Netflix did submit two filings to the FCC in the run-up to last week’s vote, but the commission didn’t have any record of lobbying visits on the company’s behalf during that time, according to Bloomberg.