Today's "Planet Earth Report" --Mount Saint Helens is Acting Wacky, Earth is Being Observed, Tech Innovations in 2018
January 4, 2018. Links to today's 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. Today's coverage includes China's New Silk Road, 10 Tech Innovations for 2018, Cryptocurrencies -Something’s Gotta Give in 2018 , and the Threatening Bomb Cyclone.
Black smoke and ash drift skyward as Mount St. Helens above erupts, sending a mushroom-shaped cloud more than 16,000 feet into the atmosphere on Sunday morning, March 30, 1980. Mount Rainier, Washington's highest mountain, can be seen in the background.
Early today (Jan. 3), at least 17 earthquakes hit near the active volcano in Washington state, in rapid succession between 12:30am and 6:28am US Pacific time. The first and strongest registered a magnitude of 3.9 on the Richter scale, according to the Pacific Northwest Seismic Network.
Last month, University of Washington seismologists logged more than 80 quakes, a huge increase over the average 17 per month.
Fourteen years ago in Bremen, Germany, astronomer Seth Shostak gave a lecture that included a wager. “I bet everybody in the audience a cup of Starbucks that we would find E.T. within two dozen years,” he told a new audience in October. You don't have to be a Klaatu-level math whiz to calculate that Shostak has 10 years left before he'd have to shell out for a lot of tall drips. I'm talking about the coffee.
tain View, Calif. SETI stands for “Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence,” of course, as the millions who have loaned out their home computer time for the SETI@home project know. He mentioned the wager at a session on the current state of the search for any signs of alien intelligence at the World Conference of Science Journalists in the San Francisco Bay Area. The SETI conversation in question took place on the University of California, Berkeley, campus. No protesters or extraterrestrials attended. Probably.
“To have some reasonable chance of success,” Shostak said, “you'd have to look at at least a million star systems.” Which may be possible within the coffee challenge's time parameter, thanks to $100 million from Russian physicist and entrepreneur Yuri Milner in 2015 to establish what is called Breakthrough Listen—an effort to use multiple radio and optical telescopes to survey the million stars closest to us. (It recently came out that in 2015 Milner had invested in a start-up co-owned by Donald Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who is a senior White House adviser. Perhaps Milner's SETI funding represented his realization that looking for intelligent life in outer space was a better bet.)
Unless some big problems with blockchain technologies are solved, the hype that defined 2017 could quickly evaporate.
In 2017 we were told that blockchain technology and cryptocurrencies were going to save the world, disrupting just about anything with a digital fingerprint. But we saw very few tangible examples that justified the hype. In 2018, many of the intriguing pitches we heard will still be around, only now the challenge is going to be finding a way to deliver real products and services. Here are some of the biggest issues that members of the blockchain world will have to work through if the new year is going to realize the potential that was so highly touted in the last.
Bitcoin’s civil war: The higher Bitcoin transaction fees rise—a function of soaring demand bumping up against the currency’s transaction-processing capacity—the stronger the tension grows between two camps of Bitcoin devotees. On one side are those in favor of addressing the currency’s capacity bottleneck by doubling the size of transaction “blocks” recorded on the blockchain. On the other are traditionalists loyal to the core developers, the small group in charge of maintaining Bitcoin’s software.
Entrepreneurs and others who argue for expansion are eager for Bitcoin to evolve into a mainstream payment method. The fight was supposed to come to a head in November, but a planned “hard fork” was postponed. The outcome of the battle could very well decide the future of the world’s first cryptocurrency.
From AI-powered hacking to tampering with voting systems, here are some of the big risks on our radar screen.
Hackers are constantly finding new targets and refining the tools they use to break through cyberdefenses. The following are some significant threats to look out for this year.
The cyberattack on the Equifax credit reporting agency in 2017, which led to the theft of Social Security numbers, birth dates, and other data on almost half the U.S. population, was a stark reminder that hackers are thinking big when it comes to targets. Other companies that hold lots of sensitive information will be in their sights in 2018. Marc Goodman, a security expert and the author of Future Crimes, thinks data brokers who hold information about things such as people’s personal Web browsing habits will be especially popular targets.
“These companies are unregulated, and when one leaks, all hell will break loose,” he says.
The past 12 months have seen a plague of ransomware attacks, with targets including Britain’s National Health Service, San Francisco’s light-rail network, and big companies such as FedEx. Ransomware is a relatively simple form of malware that breaches defenses and locks down computer files using strong encryption. Hackers then demand money in exchange for digital keys to unlock the data. Victims will often pay, especially if the material encrypted hasn’t been backed up.
By Geoffrey A. Fowler
Is the outlook for technology in 2018 exciting — or slightly terrifying? Flip a coin. You’d be right either way. As I look into my crystal ball at what new technologies are most likely to shape our lives in the next 12 months, I see science-fiction dreams coming to life: glasses that mix reality and imagination, an electric car in my driveway and gadgets that charge without plugs.
But coming out of a year where most Americans were hacked and Silicon Valley got scolded by Congress, there’s plenty to worry about. How many ways will artificial intelligence make decisions without us? And how long should we remain panicked about cybersecurity lapses?
Five reasons to be excited
1) Tesla moves the car forward
Whether you’re an Elon Musk skeptic or true believer, it’s hard to deny the Tesla Model 3 has generated iPhone-level buzz about electric cars. Since this “affordable luxury” $35,000-and-up sedan was unveiled in 2016, roughly 450,000 people have preordered one. Now if only Tesla could make them. Significant manufacturing issues keep pushing back the Model 3 delivery timeline, but there’s a good chance you’ll see some on the road in 2018. What’s the big deal? Tesla is forcing all car companies to act more like consumer tech companies, pushing into electric and making standard such capabilities as accident prevention and connectivity. My favorite Model 3 idea: It comes with the cameras, sensors and computing power it needs to eventually allow the car to drive itself.
2) The HomePod gets Apple talking
Hey Siri, glad you’re finally joining the house party. First introduced in summer 2017 and then delayed, the $350 HomePod is Apple’s first talking speaker. For people who buy Apple everything, the HomePod has the potential to tie together music, the TV and the smart home in a way that the iPhone alone hasn’t. But there are huge doubts: Apple missed two holiday seasons that ushered competing Amazon Echo and Google Home products into many homes. Apple has mostly been touting the HomePod’s sound quality, but in my experience many people can’t actually tell the difference — or at least aren’t willing to pay extra for it.
China is investing billions in building pathways to Europe, Central Asia, and the Middle East. The Silk Road was established during the Han dynasty, beginning around 130 B.C. Markets and trading posts were strung along a loose skein of thoroughfares that ran from the Greco-Roman metropolis of Antioch, across the Syrian desert, through modern-day Iraq and Iran, to the former Chinese capital of Xian, streamlining the transport of livestock and grain, medicine and science. In 2013, President Xi Jinping announced that the Silk Road would be reborn as the Belt and Road Initiative, the most ambitious infrastructure project the world has ever known—and the most expensive. Its expected cost is more than a trillion dollars. When complete, the Belt and Road will connect, by China’s accounting, sixty-five per cent of the world’s population and thirty per cent of global G.D.P. So far, sixty-eight countries have signed on.
If bridges, pipelines, and railroads are the arteries of the modern world, then China is positioning itself as the beating heart. Since 2013, it has loaned about forty billion dollars a year to developing countries, according to David Dollar, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. Some analysts worry that China is delivering the money without the World Bank’s required protections for the environment and for people uprooted by major infrastructure projects. Nevertheless, Lee Hsien Loong, the Prime Minister of Singapore, said that he and other leaders in the region embrace the benefits.
“The Chinese are going to grow their influence,” he said, at a recent session of the Council on Foreign Relations. “And this is one coherent framework within which the Asian countries—Central Asian, Southeast Asian, South Asian—can participate in this.”
Scientists have found large increases in snow accumulation in a vast region of eastern Antarctica, a trend that, if it continues or becomes more widespread, could lessen the ice sheet’s contribution to sea level rise and mitigate one of the most feared consequences of climate change.
The study, conducted by scientists from NASA and several other institutions, examined snowfall in western Queen Maud Land, an area due south of the southern tip of Africa that is warming rapidly and contains 7 percent of Antarctica’s ice.
Based on a more than 500-foot-long ice core extracted from the thick sheet and containing a snowfall record dating back 2,000 years, the researchers found snow accumulation levels had been rising since around 1900. And the increase is most marked in recent decades, up through the year 2010. It’s a finding that aligns with the notion that climate change, by increasing the atmosphere’s retention of water vapor, is increasing precipitation.
“We know very robustly that the present day is not anything like we’ve seen in the past essentially 2,000 years” for snowfall, said Brooke Medley, a NASA research scientist who was the lead author of the study in the journal Geophysical Research Letters. “It’s receiving much more precipitation.”
New England is nervously awaiting heavy snow and strong winds as “Winter Storm Grayson” barrels up the U.S. Atlantic coast. Already, the storm has hit regions not accustomed to severe winter weather—Florida, Georgia, Virginia and the Carolinas—with a mixture of snow and rain, according to news reports. This is no typical winter storm—meteorologists have been predicting Grayson will soon turn into a particularly intense system called a “bomb cyclone.” Scientific American spoke with Jeff Masters, director of meteorology and co-founder of Weather Underground, about the science behind the powerful winter storm hitting the eastern U.S.
A bomb cyclone is a low-pressure system that intensifies very rapidly—you have to have a fall in pressure of at least 24 millibars in 24 hours to qualify as a “bomb cyclone,” or “bombogenesis,” event. When a storm has its pressure rapidly fall like that, it’s going to drive stronger winds, because winds try and blow to equalize differences in pressure. The atmosphere doesn’t like to have different pressures, so what will happen is the wind will flow from high pressure to low pressure to try and balance out the difference.
A sampler of the most widespread rumors and hoaxes that characterized the year in which the fringe became the mainstream. The year 2017 saw conspiracy theories continue their migration from street-corner shouting to mainstream popular culture: the theories were everywhere, spouted by everyone, and were about everything. A rapper tried to crowdsource a satellite to prove the Earth was flat, new files pertaining to the Kennedy assassination were released over five decades later, and no less than the President of the United States spent Thanksgiving weekend tweeting a conspiracy theory chart that tied the Pope, organ harvesting, and a secret space program together.
To better evaluate what truly leapt off social media and had the most mainstream impact, we looked at some of the conspiracy theories and rumors seemed to move the most readers from hurricanes to Obama's Secret Government.
The truth, whatever it is, is out there.