Climate-heating greenhouse gases at record levels, says UN

The main greenhouse gas emissions driving climate change have all reached record levels, the UN’s meteorology experts have reported.

Carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide are now far above pre-industrial levels, with no sign of a reversal of the upward trend, a World Meteorological Organization report says.

“The last time the Earth experienced a comparable concentration of CO2 was 3-5m years ago, when the temperature was 2-3C warmer and sea level was 10-20 metres higher than now,” said the WMO secretary general, Petteri Taalas.

“The science is clear. Without rapid cuts in CO2 and other greenhouse gases, climate change will have increasingly destructive and irreversible impacts on life on Earth. The window of opportunity for action is almost closed.”

Levels of CO2 rose to a global average of 405.5 parts per million in the atmosphere in 2017 – almost 50% higher than before the industrial revolution.

Levels of methane, a potent greenhouse gas responsible for about 17% of global warming are now 2.5 times higher than pre-industrial times owing to emissions from cattle, rice paddies and leaks from oil and gas wells.

Nitrous oxide, which also warms the planet and destroys the Earth’s protective ozone layer, is now over 20% higher than pre-industrial levels. About 40% of N2O comes from human activities including soil degradation, fertiliser use and industry.

The WMO also highlighted the discovery of illicit production of CFC-11, a banned chemical that also both warms the planet and destroys ozone. Investigations indicate that at least some of the production is in China.

In October the world’s scientists said global warming of even 1.5C would have severe consequences for humanity. International climate agreements had for two decades set 2C as a limit.

“Every fraction of a degree of global warming matters, and so does every part per million of greenhouse gases,” said the WMO deputy secretary general, Elena Manaenkova. “CO2 remains in the atmosphere for hundreds of years and in the oceans for even longer. There is currently no magic wand to remove all the excess CO2 from the atmosphere.”

Prof Corinne Le Quéré, of the University of East Anglia, said she was not surprised by the new record levels of greenhouse gases. “But I am very concerned that all three gases most responsible for climate change are rising upwards unabated. It seems the urgency and extent of the actions needed to address climate change have not sunk in.

“Low-carbon technologies like wind, solar, and electric transport need to become mainstream, with old-fashioned polluting fossils pushed out rapidly.”

Efforts to cut emissions are increasing and on Wednesday the UN’s climate change body published a report on the commitments made in 2018. It found 9,000 cities in 128 countries were taking action, along with 240 states and regions in 40 countries and more than 6,000 businesses in 120 countries.

Patricia Espinosa, head of the UN framework convention on climate change, said: “On one hand, greenhouse gas emissions have yet to peak and countries struggle to maintain the concentrated attention and effort needed for a successful response to climate change. On the other hand, climate action is occurring, it is increasing and there is a will to do more. I highlight this because falling into despair and hopelessness is a danger equal to complacency, none of which we can afford.”

To predict the future, the brain uses two clocks

That moment when you step on the gas pedal a split second before the light changes, or when you tap your toes even before the first piano note of Camila Cabello's "Havana" is struck. That's anticipatory timing.

One type relies on memories from past experiences. The other on rhythm. Both are critical to our ability to navigate and enjoy the world.

New University of California, Berkeley, research shows the neural networks supporting each of these timekeepers are split between two different parts of the brain, depending on the task at hand.

"Whether it's sports, music, speech or even allocating attention, our study suggests that timing is not a unified process, but that there are two distinct ways in which we make temporal predictions and these depend on different parts of the brain," said study lead author Assaf Breska, a postdoctoral researcher in neuroscience at UC Berkeley.

The findings, published online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal, offer a new perspective on how humans calculate when to make a move.

"Together, these brain systems allow us to not just exist in the moment, but to also actively anticipate the future," said study senior author Richard Ivry, a UC Berkeley neuroscientist.

Breska and Ivry studied the anticipatory timing strengths and deficits of people with Parkinson's disease and people with cerebellar degeneration.

They connected rhythmic timing to the basal ganglia, and interval timing -- an internal timer based largely on our memory of prior experiences -- to the cerebellum. Both are primal brain regions associated with movement and cognition.

Moreover, their results suggest that if one of these neural clocks is misfiring, the other could theoretically step in.

"Our study identifies not only the anticipatory contexts in which these neurological patients are impaired, but also the contexts in which they have no difficulty, suggesting we could modify their environments to make it easier for them to interact with the world in face of their symptoms," Breska said.

Non-pharmaceutical fixes for neurological timing deficits could include brain-training computer games and smartphone apps, deep brain stimulation and environmental design modifications, he said.

To arrive at their conclusion, Breska and Ivry compared how well Parkinson's and cerebellar degeneration patients used timing or "temporal" cues to focus their attention.

Both groups viewed sequences of red, white and green squares as they flashed by at varying speeds on a computer screen, and pushed a button the moment they saw the green square. The white squares alerted them that the green square was coming up.

In one sequence, the red, white and green squares followed a steady rhythm, and the cerebellar degeneration patients responded well to these rhythmic cues.

In another, the colored squares followed a more complex pattern, with differing intervals between the red and green squares. This sequence was easier for the Parkinson's patients to follow, and succeed at.

"We show that patients with cerebellar degeneration are impaired in using non-rhythmic temporal cues while patients with basal ganglia degeneration associated with Parkinson's disease are impaired in using rhythmic cues," Ivry said.

Ultimately, the results confirm that the brain uses two different mechanisms for anticipatory timing, challenging theories that a single brain system handles all our timing needs, researchers said.

"Our results suggest at least two different ways in which the brain has evolved to anticipate the future," said Breska.

"A rhythm-based system is sensitive to periodic events in the world such as is inherent in speech and music," he added. "And an interval system provides a more general anticipatory ability, sensitive to temporal regularities even in the absence of a rhythmic signal."

Story Source:

Materials provided by University of California - Berkeley. Original written by Yasmin Anwar. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.

Music improves social communication in autistic children

Engaging in musical activities such as singing and playing instruments in one-on-one therapy can improve autistic children's social communication skills, improve their family's quality of life, as well as increase brain connectivity in key networks, according to researchers at Université de Montréal and McGill University.

The link between autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and music dates back to the first description of autism, more than 70 years ago, when almost half of those with the disorder were said to possess "perfect pitch." Since then, there have been many anecdotes about the profound impact music can have on individuals with ASD, yet little strong evidence of its therapeutic benefits.

To get a clearer picture, researchers from UdeM's International Laboratory for Brain, Music and Sound (BRAMS) and McGill's School of Communication Sciences and Disorders (SCSD) enlisted 51 children with ASD, ages 6 to 12, to participate in a clinical trial involving three months of a music-based intervention.

First, the parents completed questionnaires about their child's social communication skills and their family's quality of life, as well as their child's symptom severity. The children underwent MRI scans to establish a baseline of brain activity.

Children were then randomly assigned to two groups: one involving music and the other not. Each session lasted 45 minutes and was conducted at Westmount Music Therapy.

In the music group, the kids sang and played different musical instruments, working with a therapist to engage in a reciprocal interaction. The control group worked with the same therapist and also engaged in reciprocal play, without any musical activities.

Following the sessions, parents of children in the music group reported significant improvements in their children's communication skills and family quality life, beyond those reported for the control group. Parents of children in both groups did not report reductions in autism severity.

"These findings are exciting and hold much promise for autism intervention," said Megha Sharda, a postdoctoral fellow at Université de Montréal and lead author of the new research, published in Translational Psychiatry.

Data collected from the MRI scans suggest that improved communications skills in children who underwent the music intervention could be a result of increased connectivity between auditory and motor regions of the brain, and decreased connectivity between auditory and visual regions, which are commonly observed to be over-connected in people with autism.

Sharda explains that optimal connectivity between these regions is crucial for integrating sensory stimuli in our environment and are essential for social interaction. For example, when we are communicating with another person, we need to pay attention to what they are saying, plan ahead to know when it is our turn to speak and ignore irrelevant noise. For people with autism, this can often be a challenge.

This is the first clinical trial to show that music intervention for school-age children with autism can lead to improvements in both communication and brain connectivity, and provides a possible neuroscientific explanation for improvements in communication.

"The universal appeal of music makes it globally applicable and can be implemented with relatively few resources on a large scale in multiple settings such as home and school," said Aparna Nadig, an associate professor at McGill's SCSD and co-senior author of the study with Krista Hyde, an associate professor of psychology at UdeM.

"Remarkably, our results were observed after only eight to 12 weekly sessions," said Hyde. "We'll need to replicate these results with multiple therapists with different degrees of training to evaluate whether the effects persist in larger, real-world settings," she said.

"Importantly, our study, as well as a recent large-scale clinical trial on music intervention, did not find changes with respect to autism symptoms themselves," Sharda added. "This may be because we do not have a tool sensitive enough to directly measure changes in social interaction behaviors." The team is currently developing tools to assess if the improvements in communications skills can also be observed through direct observation of the interaction between child and therapist.

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Materials provided by University of Montreal. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.


After Indonesia's Tsunami-Earthquake Disaster, Scientists Look For Cause

Jakarta: Almost a week after a quake-tsunami wreaked devastation in central Indonesia, scientists are zeroing in on what they believe caused the highly unusual natural disaster.

The 7.5 magnitude earthquake hit off Sulawesi island Friday and sent destructive waves charging into the coast, reducing buildings in Palu to rubble and sweeping people to their deaths.

The city was not regarded as being at high-risk of a tsunami and was left grossly unprepared for the catastrophe, which has so far claimed more than 1,400 lives with hundreds more injured and missing. 

Now experts are piecing together the unlikely chain of events which laid waste to Palu.

The quake was a sideways -- rather than vertical -- movement of tectonic plates, seen as unlikely to generate a tsunami.

p3lkbr6"It's very unlikely the earthquake alone could generate a tsunami of that size", tsunami experts have said. 

But after sifting through mounds of data, scientists believe that the powerful tremor occurred over the vast length of a fault line, triggering underwater landslides that caused the tidal waves.

"This is an earthquake that is not the standard mechanism to generate a tsunami," Costas Synolakis, director of the University of Southern California's Tsunami Research Center, told AFP.


"It's fairly rare."

When the monster waves did roll in, their force was intensified as they rushed down a narrow bay into Palu.

In recent years Sumatra has been the main focus of authorities' concern when it comes to tsunamis as Aceh, on the island's northern tip, was devastated by a deadly quake-triggered tsunami in 2004. 

Officials fear another major quake and tsunami are inevitable at some point on the highly volatile fault line off the island's west coast, meaning there was greater vigilance towards the threat than in Sulawesi.

Apart from a handful of tsunami experts, few seemed worried that the fault line that cut through Palu would produce a tsunami, particularly as it is what is known as a "strike-slip" fault, where tectonic plates move sideways. 

In the Aceh tsunami and the majority of others, destructive waves were generated by a violent upward thrust of the Earth's crust, not a sideways movement.

But such was the force of the quake off Sulawesi and the aftershocks that followed, one or more underwater landslides are believed to have occurred that displaced huge quantities of water and sent waves barrelling into the coast.

'Have to learn from this'

"There is reasonable confidence that this tsunami was triggered at least partially by a landslide," Adam Switzer, a tsunami expert from Nanyang Technological University's Earth Observatory of Singapore, told AFP.

"It's very unlikely the earthquake alone could generate a tsunami of that size."

Even before the tsunami hit, the quake and the aftershocks that followed caused widespread devastation along the Sulawesi coast, with many buildings left in ruins and huge cracks ripped in roads. 

But with officials not expecting such a catastrophic event in the area, Palu seemed ill-prepared. 

A tsunami alert was issued at the national level when the quake hit but was lifted soon afterwards and it is not clear if there was an effective mechanism to relay the warning to people on the ground in Sulawesi. 

And the city's tide-monitoring station, which could have detected the destructive waves, was broken on the day, authorities have admitted.

But while many in Indonesia were surprised that the disaster hit Palu, scientists say there are other examples of such quakes. 

Of about 35 tsunamis documented since 1992, four are believed to have been caused by quake-triggered undersea landslides, but none were in Indonesia, according to Synolakis.

Despite the criticism that authorities were unprepared, seismologists have been more forgiving -- they say the chain of events was so complicated it would have been hard for even advanced warning systems to detect the tsunami.

"This is something the automated systems could not really anticipate," Synolakis said. 

Switzer said and his colleagues were working flat out to figure out exactly what happened, and it would likely be a long process.

"We really need to make sure that we understand this event, because we have to learn from this," he said.

Scientists Look to Jupiter, Saturn's Moon Titan for Global Warming Insight

By analyzing methane in the skies of Jupiter and Saturn's moon Titan, scientists are now pinpointing what effects this global warming gas is having on Earth, a new study finds.

Greenhouse gases warm the planet by trapping heat from the sun. The greenhouse gas that most often makes news is the carbon dioxide generated in great amounts by the burning of fossil fuels. However, methane is an even more potent greenhouse gas, pound for pound capable of warming the planet more than 25 times more than carbon dioxide over the span of a century, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

In the new study, researchers focused on the most poorly understood aspect of the role of methane in global warming — how much short-wavelength solar radiation it absorbs. Previous estimates from the IPCC regarding the effects of increased methane emissions on global climate omitted the impact of shortwave absorption. [Photographic Proof of Climate Change: Time-Lapse Images of Retreating Glaciers]

Recent climate models are designed to account for shortwave absorption of methane. However, their accuracy is limited by uncertainties in how well methane absorbs shortwave radiation. Whereas the carbon dioxide molecule has a relatively simple linear shape, methane has a more complex tetrahedral shape, and the way it responds to light is also complicated — too much so to pin down in the lab.

Instead, scientists examine the atmospheres of Jupiter and Saturn's largest moon Titan, which both have "at least a thousand times greater concentration of methane than Earth's atmosphere," study co-author Dan Feldman, a climate scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley, California, told Space.com. As such, these celestial bodies can serve as "natural laboratories" for investigating sunlight's effects on methane, he explained.

The scientists analyzed data of Titan from the European Space Agency's Huygens probe, which landed on the big moon in January 2005, and of Jupiter from NASA's Hubble Space Telescope. This helped pinpoint how methane absorbs various short wavelengths of sunlight, data the researchers plugged into climate models of Earth.

The scientists found the global warming effects of methane are likely not uniform on Earth, but vary over the planet's surface. For instance, since deserts near the equator have bright, exposed surfaces that reflect light upward, shortwave absorption is 10 times stronger over regions such as the Sahara desert and the Arabian Peninsula than elsewhere on Earth, Feldman said.

In addition, the presence of clouds can increase methane-shortwave absorption by nearly threefold. The researchers noted these effects west of southern Africa and the Americas, and with the cloud systems in the Intertropical Convergence Zone near the equator. 

"We can really nail down the methane greenhouse effect on Earth based on observations of Jupiter and Titan," Feldman said.

These findings support previous climate models regarding methane's effects on global warming. The researchers said their work could help advance climate-change mitigation strategies by clarifying the risks different regions across the world face.

The scientists detailed their findings online Wednesday (Sept. 26) in the journal Science Advances.

19 Quakes Rock Ring of Fire in 24 Hours

“The ring is a huge geological feature and the primary source of major earthquakes and volcanoes in the world,” van der Pluijm said.

The Ring of Fire was rocked by 19 earthquakes in 24 hours. Two of the seismic disturbances registered more than 5 on the Richter scale. Experts predict more than 100 quakes measuring between 6 to 6.9 range for 2018; the figure currently stands at 75.

RELATED: At Least 69 Earthquakes Hit Ring of Fire in 48 Hours

“It’s worth remembering that one magnitude 6.5 earthquake releases the same amount of energy as 30 magnitude-5.5 earthquakes,” Ben van der Pluijm, a geologist at the University of Michigan. “So, having 20 magnitude-5.5 EQs is the same as having one magnitude 6.3.”

Two earthquakes struck off the coast of the Greek island of Crete, the United States Geological Survey (USGS) said. The quakes, measuring 4.5 and 4.4 in magnitude, occurred four minutes apart. The first 53 kilometers south-west of Tympakion and the other 55 kilometers from Tympakion.

Major tremors over the last day included a 5.8-magnitude quake which struck 30 miles east-southeast of the Solomon Islands and another 5.5-magnitude hitting 31 miles east-northeast of Fiji’s Ndoi Island, according to the USGS.

“On a yearly basis we have roughly 1500 magnitude 5-5.9 earthquakes around the world,” van der Pluijm told Express. “So far we are at roughly 1100 for 2018. So from a tectonic energy standpoint, we are expecting a lot more earthquakes in the magnitude 5-7 range, and maybe half a dozen more magnitude 7-plus in 2018.”

The dreaded Ring of Fire stretches a total of 25,000 miles from New Zealand to the tip of South America in a horseshoe shape.

“The ring is a huge geological feature and the primary source of major earthquakes and volcanoes in the world,” van der Pluijm said. “For example, Japan is in the Ring of Fire and Japan is basically one giant volcano.”

Late last month, 25 quakes were recorded in a 24-hour period, including one measuring 7.1 off the coast of New Caledonia in the South Pacific. At one point, some 69 earthquakes reportedly struck the ring over a 48-hour period.

Hidden newsprint, painting found beneath Pablo Picasso artwork

WASHINGTON: Scientists have peered into the thick layers of Spanish artist Pablo Picasso's famous Blue Period painting, unveiling a page from a 1902 French newspaper and traces of another artwork.

Researchers from National Gallery of Art in the US conducted hyperspectral infrared imaging of Picasso's Mother and Child by the Sea - a painting in the collection of the Pola Museum of Art in Japan.

The analysis revealed portions of printed text in French similar to newsprint.

Using the readable text, Keiko Imai, chief curator, Pola Museum of Art, was able to identify the source of the text as an issue of the French daily newspaper Le Journal published on January 18, 1902.

While the reason for the presence of newsprint in the paint layers is a mystery, the discovery is significant for Picasso scholars due to the proximity of the date to the artist's move from Paris to Barcelona.

The study also provided more information about a prior paint composition seen in the X-radiograph.

The infrared images also show another earlier signature by the artist in the opposite orientation.

"I was surprised and fascinated by this finding in a painting I have always admired at our museum.

We were able to officially confirm that Mother and Child by the Seawas painted after the date of the newspaper article used on the canvas," said Imai.

"We routinely focus our cameras on a sheet of paper with printed text prior to placing the painting on the easel," said John Delaney, senior imaging scientist, National Gallery of Art.

"To verify we were in good focus, we pointed the camera first at the face of the mother and to my surprise immediately saw newspaper text in her face!" said Delaney.

"The presence of a paper interleaf begins to make sense of the fine wrinkling in the surface texture and the gentle undulations observed in several areas over the surface," said Sandra Webster-Cook, senior paintings conservator, Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) in Canada.

"It suggests that the paper does not perfectly conform to the underlying paint surface," said Webster-Cook.

"What is exciting about this finding is that the sheet from Le Journal that Keiko Imai has identified offers Picasso scholars a firm date before which the seated woman in the composition underneath was painted," she said.

"The January 18, 1902 date of the paper interleaf is also of interest, as it is known Picasso returned to Barcelona from Paris sometime in early January 1902," she said.

Picasso is commonly known to have reused canvases and often integrated elements of previous compositions into his subsequent works.

Indications of earlier compositions are often visible on the painting's surface, and can be linked to distinctive crackle patterns, different paint colours visible through cracks and abrasion or at the edges of works, and the texture of dried impasto formed from previous paint layers that do not correspond to the painting's final composition.

  • Published in Culture

Reduced energy from the sun might occur by mid-century: Now scientists know by how much

The Sun might emit less radiation by mid-century, giving planet Earth a chance to warm a bit more slowly but not halt the trend of human-induced climate change.

The cooldown would be the result of what scientists call a grand minimum, a periodic event during which the Sun's magnetism diminishes, sunspots form infrequently, and less ultraviolet radiation makes it to the surface of the planet. Scientists believe that the event is triggered at irregular intervals by random fluctuations related to the Sun's magnetic field.

Scientists have used reconstructions based on geological and historical data to attribute a cold period in Europe in the mid-17th Century to such an event, named the "Maunder Minimum." Temperatures were low enough to freeze the Thames River on a regular basis and freeze the Baltic Sea to such an extent that a Swedish army was able to invade Denmark in 1658 on foot by marching across the sea ice.

A team of scientists led by research physicist Dan Lubin at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego has created for the first time an estimate of how much dimmer the Sun should be when the next minimum takes place.

There is a well-known 11-year cycle in which the Sun's ultraviolet radiation peaks and declines as a result of sunspot activity. During a grand minimum, Lubin estimates that ultraviolet radiation diminishes an additional seven percent beyond the lowest point of that cycle. His team's study, "Ultraviolet Flux Decrease Under a Grand Minimum from IUE Short-wavelength Observation of Solar Analogs," appears in the publication Astrophysical Journal Letters and was funded by the state of California.

"Now we have a benchmark from which we can perform better climate model simulations," Lubin said. "We can therefore have a better idea of how changes in solar UV radiation affect climate change."

Lubin and colleagues David Tytler and Carl Melis of UC San Diego's Center for Astrophysics and Space Sciences arrived at their estimate of a grand minimum's intensity by reviewing nearly 20 years of data gathered by the International Ultraviolet Explorer satellite mission. They compared radiation from stars that are analogous to the Sun and identified those that were experiencing minima.

The reduced energy from the Sun sets into motion a sequence of events on Earth beginning with a thinning of the stratospheric ozone layer. That thinning in turn changes the temperature structure of the stratosphere, which then changes the dynamics of the lower atmosphere, especially wind and weather patterns. The cooling is not uniform. While areas of Europe chilled during the Maunder Minimum, other areas such as Alaska and southern Greenland warmed correspondingly.

Lubin and other scientists predict a significant probability of a near-future grand minimum because the downward sunspot pattern in recent solar cycles resembles the run-ups to past grand minimum events.

Despite how much the Maunder Minimum might have affected Earth the last time, Lubin said that an upcoming event would not stop the current trend of planetary warming but might slow it somewhat. The cooling effect of a grand minimum is only a fraction of the warming effect caused by the increasing concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. After hundreds of thousands of years of CO2 levels never exceeding 300 parts per million in air, the concentration of the greenhouse gas is now over 400 parts per million, continuing a rise that began with the Industrial Revolution. Other researchers have used computer models to estimate what an event similar to a Maunder Minimum, if it were to occur in coming decades, might mean for our current climate, which is now rapidly warming.

One such study looked at the climate consequences of a future Maunder Minimum-type grand solar minimum, assuming a total solar irradiance reduced by 0.25 percent over a 50-year period from 2020 to 2070. The study found that after the initial decrease of solar radiation in 2020, globally averaged surface air temperature cooled by up to several tenths of a degree Celsius. By the end of the simulated grand solar minimum, however, the warming in the model with the simulated Maunder Minimum had nearly caught up to the reference simulation. Thus, a main conclusion of the study is that "a future grand solar minimum could slow down but not stop global warming."

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