Light Pollution Masks the Milky Way for a Third of the World’s Population

Stargazers from around the globe gathered at the Grand Canyon this week to gander upon our galaxy’s grandeur. The national park is hosting its annual star party, an eight-night event inviting the public to observe the heavens free from blinding city lights and street lamps. “As the sky gets darker after sunset you start to notice something on the eastern horizon that at first you think are storm clouds,” said John Barentine, an astronomer and program manager at the International Dark-Sky Association, a nonprofit group that raises awareness to light pollution. “Then as it gets darker you realize they aren’t clouds in our atmosphere, but they are glowing clouds of stars.” What he and thousands of visitors witnessed was a sight hidden to many: The Milky Way. “One third of humanity cannot see the Milky Way,” said Fabio Falchi a researcher from the nonprofit organization the Light Pollution Science and Technology Institute in Italy. “It is the first time in human history that we have lost the direct contact with the night sky.” Mr. Falchi and a cohort of dark-night knights have spent the last year creating an interactive world atlas that shows the global effect of artificial light on how most of us see the sky after the sun sets. They released the map to the public on Friday in the journal Science Advances. The new atlas is an improved version of their original one, which was released in 2001. The color-coded map, using data collected by the Suomi NPP satellite, quantifies the brightness of the night sky across the world, ranging from dark, pristine views like that...

The Value and Gaps in a Big San Francisco Clean-Energy Conclave

Around San Francisco through the rest of this week, government ministers, investors, engineers, climate campaigners and wonks of all stripes will be discussing ways to provide the energy necessary to sustain human progress without overheating the climate. This is a huge challenge (watch the late great Nobelist Richard Smalley) and a long march, no matter how much one shouts “urgency.” Are such meetings worth the carbon combustion it took for hundreds of participants to get to the Bay Area? Over all, I’d say yes, just as was the case last week with the United Nations Environment Assembly meeting on sustainable development that I attended in Nairobi. The value is less in proclamations and joint statement than in creating and sustaining conduits for sharing and shaping ideas, as I explained here in the Nairobi context. A “super wicked” problem like the climate/energy challenge will inevitably have no universal solution applicable everywhere. But discourse can clarify what works where – whether it’s a new financial instrument fostering solar panel deployment or a new battery design. So what’s happening in San Francisco? The main event is the seventh “Clean Energy Ministerial” – the latest in a series of annual intergovernmental meetings largely shaped by the Obama administration but built on a Bush-era template – the “major economies” meetings on energy and climate. The clean energy meeting brings together top energy officials and other representatives from 23 countries and the European Commission and attracts all manner of interested parties (some paying $10,000 a table to be at certain events). The top American official at the conference, secretary of energy Ernest Moniz, explained the strategy this way...

NASA’s global air quality map shows we have the power to reduce pollution

A 10-year study conducted by NASA scientists using satellite technology to track pollutants in the atmosphere has shown localised human efforts to improve air quality can have a remarkable impact – as well as revealing areas where emissions have worsened in the past decade. The scientists monitored nitrogen dioxide levels in regions encompassing 195 cities around the globe between 2005 to 2014, creating high-resolution air quality trend maps that highlight which cities and countries are improving their air quality and which ones aren’t. “These changes in air quality patterns aren’t random,” said Bryan Duncan, an atmospheric scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Centre. “When governments step in and say we’re going to build something here or we’re going to regulate this pollutant, you see the impact in the data.” Nitrogen dioxide (NO2) is a toxic yellow-brown gas that’s emitted from cars and industrial infrastructure such as power plants, largely through the burning of fossil fuels. It contributes to the formation of the smog that hangs over urban environments, which constitutes a major respiratory pollutant. NASA tracked the emissions using its Aura satellite, which carries a Dutch-Finnish Ozone Monitoring Instrument on board that can detect nitrogen dioxide in addition to other airborne chemicals and pollutants. The equipment let the scientists see year-to-year movements in nitrogen dioxide levels around the world. To help them make sense of the changing data, they compared the NO2 readings for localised regions with information such as the area’s emission control regulations and urban growth. What’s amazing about the trend maps is how quickly the level of the pollutant can change from year to year. In...

Delhi has banned half the cars on its roads to combat dangerous pollution

Just weeks after Beijing declared its first red alert status and initiated emergency restrictions to combat dangerous smog levels, another of the world’s most polluted capitals has implemented similar measures. Delhi, the capital territory of India, has embarked upon a two-week trial designed to halve the number of privately owned cars on public roads. Under the scheme, four-wheeled vehicles with registration plates ending in odd numbers are prohibited from driving on even dates of the month, and vice versa. The prohibition began last Friday, but authorities were particularly concerned about what would happen this Monday, as millions of workers returned to work after the New Year weekend. “There were doubts about what would happen when all the offices opened,” said Delhi Transport Minister Gopal Rai, as reported by Atish Patel at BBC News. “We are glad that people are following the rules.” Under the plan, privately owned cars banned from driving on a particular day must stay off the roads between 8am and 8pm daily, except on Sundays. The scheme will stay in effect until January 15, but already Delhi’s government is reporting early success in terms of air quality levels. “The first results of ambient air data collected by mobile units of the Delhi Pollution Control Committee on 24 locations across Delhi on the New Year Day show an encouraging trend of reduction in air pollution in both PM2.5 and PM10 categories,” a government release stated. “The implementation of the plying of four-wheeled vehicles on an odd-even basis was received with warmth by the residents of the national capital on the first day, and results of the ambient...

Denmark just installed environmentally friendly traffic lights that give priority to bikes and buses

  You might not think much about it during your daily commute, but the timings of traffic lights play a big role in how quickly you get from A to B, and in the Danish capital of Copenhagen, authorities have shifted things in favor of buses and bicycles. Their new programmable, ‘smart’ traffic lights are now giving automatic priority to these more environmentally friendly modes of transport. It’s officially called the Intelligent Transport Systems Action Plan, and the aim is obvious: making your journey quicker if you’re on public transport or a bike. If the local government can tempt more people out of their cars, they’ll be well on their way to meeting their target of making Copenhagen a carbon-neutral city by 2025. All the installed lights will be connected to the Web, collecting and analyzing data and feeding it back to a central dashboard. An upgrade is well overdue too. The existing traffic lights have been in place for 35 years, and they’re about to be replaced by 380 intelligent signals across the metropolis. It’s part of a 47 million kroner (about US$7 million) overhaul that should benefit car passengers as well, because of smoother traffic flow – just not as much as bus travellers or cyclists. Bus passengers should see a 5 to 20 percent reduction in their travel times, according to city officials, while cyclists can expect to complete their journeys 10 percent quicker, on average. What’s more, Copenhagen buses are going to be reporting back their position to the main grid, so the lights know where each vehicle is and can make adjustments accordingly (if your...

This award-winning underground ‘skyscraper’ would sink Central Park

We often marvel at ultra-tall skyscrapers and think of them as a feat of engineering and a symbol of human ingenuity, but if the winner of the 2016 eVolo Skyscraper Competition has anything to say about it, the future of skyscrapers could lie underground, not in the clouds. In a move that goes directly against the word “skyscraper”, a team of architects recently designed an underground megastructure, dubbed New York Horizon, that would sink Central Park and surround the walls of the newly created pit with a building. Basically, Central Park would live inside a gigantic hole in the middle of Manhattan with a structure wrapping around its sides, giving residents of the building a unique view of the park from behind reflective glass. According to the team, the design is meant to reverse the relationship between landscapes and architecture. While buildings generally skew the natural landscape, the new design would effectively disappear into it, an idea that is furthered by the use of reflective glass that would make the park look infinite to those in traditional buildings looking in from above. As the architects put it: “The 1000-feet tall [304 metres], 100-feet deep [30 metres] mega-structure provides a total floor area of 7 square miles [1.6 km], which is about 80 times greater than the Empire State Building. Wrapping all four sides of the new Central Park. This system breaks the traditional perception of large-scale skyscrapers without taking valuable ground area of Manhattan.” The general idea would be to excavate Central Park and relocate the soil to neighbourhoods (although what these neighbourhoods would then do with this soil...