2018’s Amazing Accomplishments in Climate Science

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Source: Maja Hitij / Getty Images

21. In The Netherlands, electric ships are hitting the water

We may be experiences an electric car renaissance, but if the world wants to get serious about combating greenhouse gas emissions, it needs to begin paying attention to the massive amounts of pollution emitted by the global cargo shipping fleet. These gigantic vessels are largely powered by diesel, but many are still the burning of bunker fuel, the sulfur-infused sediment of the oil refining process and one of the filthiest forms of fossil fuel.

According to the International Maritime Organization (IMO), cargo vessels make up as much as 3% of annual carbon emissions (a not-insignificant amount), and the European Parliament estimated in 2015 that this share could grow to 17% as other industries clean up their acts and global trade continues to grow. The industry is beginning to take notice. Earlier this year, The Netherlands deployed its second hybrid passenger ferry in Amsterdam, and a local manufacturer is currently building or deploying seven electric barges to replace diesel burning vessels in the country’s canal system.

Broadly speaking, manufacturers are under pressure by the IMO to phase out sulfur dioxide emissions. In April, the IMO, a United Nations agency, adopted a policy to cut emissions from vessels by 50% below 2008 levels by 2050.

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22. Researchers say the future of electric car batteries is in silicon

The development of better and more cost-effective, energy-dense, rechargeable batteries is the single most important factor in the development of electric vehicles and residential, commercial, and grid-level energy storage. Numerous companies are researching the use of silicon dioxide, the primary ingredient in sand and the second most abundant element on Earth after oxygen.

This month, Gene Berdichevsky, CEO of Sila Nanotechnologies, a California startup spun out of a laboratory at the Georgia Institute of Technology, announced the company has developed technology that can replace graphite with silicon while boosting range and energy capacity in next generation batteries.

Silicon is not only cheaper and far more abundant than graphite, but also it has a higher energy density and could replace graphite as part of battery anodes. Sila currently boasts BMW as a major customer and wants to have its technologies in over a million electric cars by 2025. Even if Sila does not succeed, many other engineers are working on using silicon as a cheaper, more efficient alternative to graphite.

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23. NASA sends a probe to the sun

At 3:31 a.m. on the morning of Aug. 10, humankind took another giant leap when NASA launched the Parker Solar Probe, an ambitious attempt to send a human-made object to its closet rendezvous the sun. Our star is the source of all known life in the solar system.

But the sun perpetually threatens to rain energetic particles that could disrupt radio communications, GPS tracking, and fry electrical grids. Past coronal mass ejections went unnoticed because they only impact newer electronic technologies. The last major solar eruption, which took place in 1859, sent a surge of electricity through telegraph wires, shocking operators and lighting paper on fire. The auroras created by the surge were seen as far south as Cuba. If a similar eruption happened today, it could grind global commerce to a halt and inflict major damage to electrical grids.

The solar probe’s main mission is to collect data on solar activity that will help earthlings to forecast major space weather events. The probe will come within 4 million miles of the sun’s surface, encountering “heat and radiation like no spacecraft before it,” according to NASA. (By comparison, the Earth remains an average of 93 million miles away from the sun’s surface.) In early November, the probe was within 15 million miles of the sun’s surface during its first orbit. If all goes as planned, the probe will circle the sun 24 times through 2025, relaying data each time it passes within transmission reach of Earth.

Source: EDF

24. Planned satellite to measure global human-caused methane emissions

Methane, a colorless, odorless gas, spills out from natural gas drilling sites and from livestock flatulence and is responsible for about 10% of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. It is also notoriously difficult to identify.

In 2015, a natural gas and methane leak in California’s San Fernando Valley lasted for months even though local residents reported a rotten smell originating from the mercaptan gas additive to the methane. In less populated areas, methane gas leaks from wells can go on indefinitely.

In April, the Environmental Defense Fund announced plans to develop and build a satellite that will identify and measure methane emissions worldwide. Finding the leaks would be the first step to plugging them. The project known as MethaneSAT has already raised $400 million, and work is well underway with the help of Harvard University and the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory. The preliminary launch date for MethaneSAT is late 2020 or early 2021.

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25. Jellyfish-like robot can squeeze into tight underwater spaces

It is cute and it is squishy and scientists are hoping it will help track how coral reefs respond to warming waters as temperatures rise worldwide. The “robo-jellyfish” is a softball-sized robot that can squeeze its way into tight spaces in reefs to measure salinity, temperature, and other pertinent information with the help of eight small, battery powered siphons on each of its eight tentacles.

As its name implies, it looks and moves like a jellyfish, and it can reach spaces that larger underwater drones cannot reach. Currently, the tiny drones have to be recovered manually to download the data they collect, but future versions will be able to transmit data electronically. The drones are cheap to build too: the prototypes cost about $200, a relative bargain in the world of data-collecting, waterproof drones. Like other robots, these robo-jellyfish were inspired by animals found in nature, helping to show that biological evolution is one of the best engineers.