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►  NASA probe reveals power plants pollute more than volcanoes

Climate change isn’t all that difficult to understand. A British scientist proved shortly before the American civil war that carbon dioxide absorbs heat, and a Swedish chemist doodled out the first equations involving fossil-fuel emissions before the 20th century even began.

What was difficult to separate out, however, was identifying the human-driven signal within the noise of the vast, messy, and natural climate system. We know that what we burn ends up in the atmosphere, driving up the Earth’s planetary fever. At least at first it does. What happens to CO2 after that? Sure, some of it can remain in the atmosphere for hundreds of years. But much of it-on average half of annual global emissions-leaves the atmosphere for greener pastures, literally, or for the ocean, which is ultimately the biosphere’s biggest carbon repository.

So what happens to all the carbon we burn after we burn it? How does it know where to go? A three-year-old NASA mission has given researchers a huge hand in tracking how CO2 pours out of industrial sources, in and out of land, seas, and the atmosphere. The net picture is a geologically abrupt flushing out, by burning and warming, of carbon that’s been trapped underground for up to many millions of years.

NASA’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 (OCO-2) is the subject of five studies in the journal Science published Thursday. They provide new details into these critical flows around the world: how shifting patterns in weather-altering tropical Pacific Ocean temperatures-El Nino conditions-can change the pace of the global CO2 rise; where CO2 travels after leaving specific sources, such as metropolitan Los Angeles or a volcano on Vanuatu; and how change in plant photosynthesis-now visible from space-is responding to the increasing amount of carbon that vegetation is sucking out of the air.

The satellite, launched in July 2014, may represent NASA’s most nuanced instance of wordplay: “O=C=O” is itself a chemical diagram of the CO2 molecule, and the abbreviation of this “eye in the sky,“ OCO, is a homophone for the word “eye” in several languages. The mission orbiting the Earth complements a global network of almost 150 greenhouse gas monitors on the ground which give scientists an ever-more detailed look at the atmosphere’s composition. OCO-3 will be fitted onto the International Space Station in the next few years, providing west-east measurements to complement OCO-2’s polar orbit. (OCO-1 was destroyed in a post-launch accident.)

The instruments on OCO-2 analyze the atmosphere from an altitude of about 440 miles. The satellite’s tools, which were built to take kilometer-scale, sequential geographic snapshots, can also image specific features on the ground. One of the five studies analyzed CO2 above a southern Pacific volcano and metropolitan Los Angeles.

Cities are responsible for more than 70 percent of humanity’s CO2 emissions, but ground-based monitoring has been insufficient to provide targeted data. The satellite, however, not only discerns pollution differences between cities and rural areas, but those within cities as well, tools that may prove keenly useful to local policymakers trying to understand their own CO2 burden.

OCO-2 has also gone a long way toward dispelling a pervasive myth about carbon emissions-the one where climate change-deniers point to volcanoes as the key source of greenhouse gases rather than man. There are about 450 “passive” volcanoes around the world that continuously emit carbon dioxide, but there’s not enough funding to measure all of them from the ground. Having an orbiting monitor helps scientists predict eruptions and better understand the relationship between CO2 off-gassing and volcanic activity.

OCO-2 carbon-mapped the Yasur volcano in the island nation of Vanuatu, and discovered that, by comparison, power plants in many cases are larger sources of CO2 than passive volcanoes.

“The highest emitters [among] the volcanoes are equal or superseded by about 70 fossil fuel power plants on Earth,“ says Florian Schwandner of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, lead author of a paper on regional-monitoring of carbon emissions. “What that shows us is that volcanoes are likely not a significant source of CO2.“

Volcanoes give off about 540 megatons of carbon dioxide a year, compared with up to 38,200 megatons from humanity. The study says that not only are large, persistent volcanoes outgunned by any of several dozen power plants, but those plants “themselves are dwarfed by megacity emissions.“

The overall idea behind the research was to better understand how humanity is changing the Earth. Think of the planet as a flooding basement: scientists in charge of OCO-2 are trying to figure out where the water is coming from and flowing to. That information in turn could inform policymakers interested in stopping the leak in time. About 25 percent of human emissions is absorbed by land. Another 25 percent is absorbed by the oceans, which as CO2 emissions have accelerated, is changing the chemical conditions there perhaps faster than at anytime in the last 300 million years.

The other half-on average-stays in the atmosphere. A longstanding mystery among Earth scientists is the different rates at which air, sea, and land absorb carbon dioxide. In the atmosphere, it’s been increasing at a steady, annual pace of about 2 parts CO2 for every million parts of air. But the amount that the sea and land sop up can vary from 20 percent to 80 percent in any particular year.

OCO-2’s scientific mission happened to coincide with the development of a monstrous El Nino, which dried out Australia, Central America, and the southern Amazon, while wreaking precipitative havoc elsewhere. Dryness means more carbon dioxide for the atmosphere-particularly when forests burn, as they did in Indonesia in 2015, and are doing in Northern California now.

As predicted at the time, a carbon gush in 2016 tipped the global atmosphere permanently above the symbolic threshold of 400 parts CO2 per million bits of air. What the researchers learned from OCO-2 is that the gush, driven by El Nino, would have been even greater if the Pacific Ocean itself hadn’t absorbed more CO2 than usual.

As it stands, the variability helped push the rate of atmospheric CO2 growth that year 50 percent higher, to about 3 ppm. It could have been much, much worse.Abhishek Chatterjee, a research scientist at the University Space Research Association who’s stationed at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, is the lead author of one of the two El Nino papers in Science.

He put the role of the oceans quite simply, calling them “one of the largest sinks for released carbon dioxide.“ As industrial emissions continue and warming itself begins to squeeze CO2 from land and sea, OCO-2 and similar projects will help scientists better understand just how much room is left.


►  Researchers sound alarm over Antarctic penguin chick deaths

Almost the entire cohort of chicks from an Adelie penguin colony in the eastern Antarctic was wiped out by starvation last summer in what scientists say is only the second such incident in over 40 years.

Researchers said Sunday the mass die-off occurred because unusually large amounts of sea ice forced penguin parents to travel farther in search of food for their young. By the time they returned, only two out of thousands of chicks had survived.

“Not only did the chick starve but the partner (who stayed behind) also had to endure a long fast,” said Yan Ropert-Coudert, a marine ecologist with the French science agency CNRS.

Ropert-Coudert, who leads the study of seabirds at the Dumont D’Urville Antarctic research station, said the Adelie colony there numbers about 18,000 pairs who have been monitored since the 1960s. A similar breeding loss was observed for the first time in the 2013/2014.

“It is unusual because of the size of the population concerned,” he said in an email to The Associated Press. “Zero breeding success years have been noted before elsewhere, but never for colonies of this size.”

Sea ice extent in the polar regions varies each year, but climate change has made the fluctuation more extreme.

The environmental group WWF, which supported the research, urged governments meeting in Hobart, Australia, this week to approve a new marine protection area off East Antarctica. Rod Downie, head of polar programs for the group’s British branch, said the impact of losing thousands of chicks was dramatic for an otherwise hardy species such as Adelie penguins.

“It’s more like ‘Tarantino does Happy Feet’, with dead penguin chicks strewn across a beach in Adelie Land,” he said.

Ropert-Coudert said creating a protection zone in the D’Urville Sea-Mertz region, where the colony is located, wouldn’t prevent larger-than-usual sea ice, but it might ease the pressure on penguins from tourism and over-fishing.

Science and Technology

The Free Press WV

►  Twitter turns over ‘handles’ of 201 Russia-linked accounts

Twitter has handed over to Senate investigators the profile names, or “handles,” of 201 accounts linked to Russian attempts at influencing the 2016 presidential election. The company has stepped up its efforts to cooperate with investigators after it was criticized for not taking congressional probes seriously enough.

The handover occurred this week, according to a person familiar with the matter who was not authorized to speak publicly about it.

What remains unclear is whether posts associated with those accounts have been deleted from Twitter’s servers. Politico reported on Friday that the company had deleted the tweets in line with its privacy policy. Twitter had no comment on that report.

The company’s policy calls for removing tweets that a user deletes on their own. But that policy also states that some tweets can survive the process. For instance, retweets of deleted tweets will remain live if the retweeter added a comment. Twitter also can’t remove tweets that have been temporarily stored, or “cached,” by services such as Google or reposted on other sites.

Twitter might be able to recover some information about any deleted tweets, according to another person familiar with the situation who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the investigation. That person added that the company is working with investigators to find information that’s useful.

The account handles previously hadn’t been submitted in part due to legal privacy issues, the person said.

Twitter is set to appear November 1 before the Senate intelligence committee at a public hearing. Both Facebook and Google have been invited to testify at the same hearing.

Twitter previously uncovered the accounts linked to Russia’s Internet Research Agency — a notorious “troll farm” known for pushing out pro-Russian positions via fake accounts — by using information provided by Facebook, which found 470 Russia-linked pages or accounts. After looking for patterns linking those accounts and pages to accounts on its service, Twitter said it had suspended 22 accounts that pushed divisive social or political issues during the 2016 campaign. It found another 179 related or linked accounts and took action against those that violated its spam rules.

The company enforces an anti-spam policy against bots and human users that exhibit unusual behavior. Such flags include having multiple accounts repeatedly retweet the same posts or having multiple accounts follow or block other users.

After Twitter’s initial closed-door briefing with the Senate committee late last month, Virginia Senator Mark Warner — the top Democrat on the committee — called the company’s findings “frankly inadequate ” and “derivative” of Facebook’s work.


►  Facebook takes on food delivery, challenges Uber and others

Several online services already offer food delivery, but that doesn’t mean Facebook won’t jump on board anyway.

The social-media giant says ordering food for takeout or delivery is complicated. It promises to help save time by bringing existing food-delivery services into its app and partnering with some restaurants directly.

Of course, using Facebook to order food might prompt users to spend more time perusing their news feeds — and seeing ads.

U.S. Facebook users can order from local restaurants and big chains.

Most people who order food already have accounts set up with individual restaurants and delivery apps, however. Facebook will have to persuade them to start the process inside its app instead of using GrubHub, UberEats, Amazon or niche delivery services like Caviar.

Science and Technology

The Free Press WV

►  Facebook’s Sandberg favors release of Russia-linked ads

A top Facebook executive says ads linked to Russia trying to influence the U.S. presidential election should “absolutely” be released to the public, along with information on whom the ads were targeting.

Previously, Facebook declined to make the ads public. While Facebook’s chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg, now favors the release, she didn’t say Thursday when the company would do so.

The company disclosed last month that it found ads linked to fake accounts — likely run from Russia — that sought to influence the election. Facebook says these ads focused on divisive political issues, such as immigration and gun rights, in an apparent attempt to sow discord among the U.S. population. The ads included promoted events and amplified posts that show up in users’ news feeds.

Facebook has turned over the ads — and information on how they were targeted, such as by geography or to people with a certain political affiliation — to congressional investigators. Congress is also investigating Russia-linked ads on Twitter and Google.

In an interview with the news site Axios on Thursday, Sandberg said Facebook has the responsibility to prevent the kind of abuse that occurred on its service during the election. She said Facebook hopes to “set a new standard in transparency in advertising.”

But she also said that had the ads been linked to legitimate, rather than fake, Facebook accounts, “most of them would have been allowed to run.” While the company prohibits certain content such as hate speech, it does not want to prevent free expression, she said.

“The thing about free expression is that when you allow free expression, you allow free expression,” Sandberg said.

The move comes as critics and lawmakers are increasingly calling for the regulation of Facebook and other internet giants.

Sandberg is meeting with elected officials in Washington this week ahead of a House hearing at which executives from Facebook, Twitter and Google are expected to testify. Sandberg is no stranger to Washington. Before her time at Google and later Facebook, she worked for Larry Summers, the treasury secretary under President Bill Clinton.

Sandberg said Facebook didn’t catch these ads earlier because it was focused on other threats, such as hacking. Facebook, she said, does owe America an apology.

“What we really owe the American people is determination” to do “everything we can” to defend against threats and foreign interference, Sandberg said.

Sandberg didn’t say whether she believes Facebook played a role in electing Donald Trump as president, as critics have said it did by allowing the spread of fake news on its service.

She said only that the role Facebook plays in elections “go beyond any one campaign, any one country.”

Facebook’s CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, has backtracked from calling the idea of Facebook’s influence on the election “pretty crazy.”

Later Thursday, Sandberg met privately with members of the Congressional Black Caucus, where she was pressed on what the company is doing in response to its discovery that many of the ads pushed by Russian-linked accounts were aimed at sowing racial discord.

A member of Congress who viewed about 70 of the roughly 3,000 ads told The Associated Press that they were meant to stir up strong emotions on all sides. Some of the ads showed white police officers beating black people, said the member, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the ads aren’t yet public.

Representative Cedric Richmond, a Democrat from Louisiana who chairs the caucus, said that 95 percent of the 3,000 ads were placed on Facebook itself, while the remaining five percent were on Instagram.

Besides discussing election meddling, the members also pushed for Facebook to improve diversity in its workforce, particularly in its upper management. Representative Cedric Richmond, a Louisiana Democrat who chairs the caucus, said Sandberg promised to appoint an African-American to the board, a move the caucus and other activists have been pushing for years. Facebook has eight board members, all white. Two, including Sandberg, are women.


►  Border Patrol tests camera-toting balloon

The U.S. Border Patrol is considering a surveillance balloon that can be quickly moved to spot illegal activity, part of an effort to see if more eyes in the sky translate to fewer illegal crossings.

Agents in Texas recently finished a 30-day trial of the camera-toting, helium-filled balloon made by Drone Aviation Holding Corp., a small startup that named former Border Patrol chief David Aguilar to its board of directors in January. The 3-year-old, money-losing company gave Aguilar options that may prove lucrative if it gets more orders for its proprietary model.

The trial comes as agents test hand-launched drones, which are relatively inexpensive but hampered by short battery life and weight limits. The Border Patrol has also used six large tethered balloons in Texas since 2012, acquired from the Defense Department.

Donald Trump has pledged to add 5,000 agents, but hiring has been slow. If drones and balloons are deployed more widely, fewer agents may be needed.

The new balloon - called Winch Aerostat Small Platform, or WASP - drew the Border Patrol’s interest largely to save money. The company says one costs $800,000 plus about $350,000 a year to operate, depending on how often it’s moved. By contrast, operating the current fleet of six large balloons costs $33 million a year, according to U.S. Representative Henry Cuellar, a Texas Democrat.

The Border Patrol, in response to questions from The Associated Press, said Thursday it was evaluating results of the trial. The agency hadn’t previously disclosed the trial, but the AP learned details from Aguilar, Cuellar and head of the agents’ union Brandon Judd.

Agents began experimenting with the WASP August 21 at the Border Patrol’s Rio Grande City station and with a mobile response team in Rio Grande Valley, the busiest corridor for illegal crossings.

Cuellar, who was briefed on the trial during a visit last month, said the agency’s top official in the region was “very complimentary” of the technology.

The balloons can be assembled and deployed by two or three agents in less than an hour and remain aloft while tethered to a moving vehicle. The large balloons, controlled remotely from trailers, can take days to assemble, require more than twice the crew and are almost never moved.

The WASP also may perform better in strong winds, which Aguilar said was evident as Hurricane Harvey hit nearby. Drone Aviation says it can handle gusts up to 45 mph (72 kph).

On the flip side, the balloons can’t carry as much equipment. One U.S. official familiar with the technology said their cameras scanned 4 or 5 miles (8 kilometers). The larger models, with their heavier gear, can peer about 20 miles (32 kilometers). The official spoke on condition of anonymity because the Border Patrol hadn’t publicly discussed the balloons.

Judd, president of the National Border Patrol Council, said it would “be a great piece of equipment for us.” The official said a decision was expected within months.

Aguilar appears ideally suited to make the company’s case. He was Border Patrol chief from 2005 to 2010 and retired from government in 2013 after stints as deputy and acting commissioner of its parent agency, Customs and Border Protection. He discusses border issues at conferences and in congressional hearings.

Drone Aviation pays Aguilar $24,000 a year and granted options to buy 50,000 shares for $2.90 apiece in January 2018 and 50,000 in January 2019 at the same price. The stock rose 8 cents, or 8.1 percent, to $1.07 Thursday in over-the-counter trading.

The company, backed by billionaire investor Phillip Frost, posted a loss of $8.5 million on revenues of $1.5 million last year. It employs 24 people at its Jacksonville Florida, headquarters, according to a presentation for investors in January.

The investor presentation touted Aguilar’s key relationships to drive growth.

Companies often recruit former officials to their boards and executive suites to help pitch their former agencies. Defense contractors are stacked with former Pentagon officials.

Such arrangements, while widespread and legal, rile some critics of corporate influence on government.

“It does raise issues for people about whether there’s kind of an inside track, a revolving door, between government and the private sector,” said Lawrence Noble, general counsel for The Campaign Legal Center, a watchdog group in Washington.

Aguilar, who joined the Border Patrol in 1978 and climbed the ranks, is a principal at Global Security and Innovative Strategies, a Washington consulting firm that includes a former Secret Service director and a former Homeland Security Department chief of staff. He said Drone Aviation approached him, and he made introductions to the Border Patrol after becoming convinced the aircraft would help.

Aguilar said it’s healthy for the military and law enforcement agencies to rely on former officials in the private sector.

“This was an assessment, an evaluation, a comparison,” he said. “Now it’s up to the government to get to where they want to go, need to go, or not.”

Science and Technology

The Free Press WV

►  Could cyberattacks knock out lights in the U.S.? Not so easil

Hackers likely linked to the North Korean government targeted a U.S. electricity company late last month, according to a security firm that says it detected and stopped the attacks.

John Hultquist, director of intelligence analysis for FireEye, said Wednesday that phishing emails were sent on September 22 to executives at the energy company, which he declined to identify. The attacks didn’t threaten critical infrastructure.

It’s the latest evidence of cyberespionage from various government-backed hackers targeting U.S. energy utilities, though experts say such attacks are often more about creating a psychological effect.

COULD IT HAPPEN HERE?

Concerns about hackers causing blackouts have grown since cyberattacks in Ukraine temporarily crippled its power grid in 2015 and 2016.

But a “zombie apocalypse” scenario is unlikely in the United States, said Joe Slowik of Fulton, Maryland-based security firm Dragos, which has researched the attacks on the Ukrainian grid.

“As a realistic scenario, it’s very faint,” he said. But, Slowik said, “somebody who is motivated and lucky enough” could cause significant harm.

ISOLATING CONTROLS

It’s easier to hack into emails and a front-end computer system than tap into industrial controls. That’s why, in theory, most energy companies isolate their regular workplace networks from high-security control rooms.

The nuclear power industry, for good reason, is considered to be the best at such security practices. But some smaller and locally focused electricity providers fall short in creating an impenetrable wall around industrial controls, often referred to as an air gap.

“There’s always some sort of a bridge, whether it’s a human being in their sneakers, or a wireless connection,” said Michael Daly, the chief technology officer for cybersecurity and missions at defense contractor Raytheon, based in Waltham, Massachusetts. “There’s no such thing as a totally air-gapped system.”

GEOGRAPHY HELPS

One thing protecting the U.S. electricity grid from a large-scale outage is that it’s segmented by region. Another thing is military might: Nation-state actors know that crossing the line from routine, long-term surveillance to a true attack on the grid could merit a powerful response.

Neither of those means those protecting critical infrastructure are doing enough.

“There are many reasons to target smart grids,” said Daly. “Nation-states can learn a lot by watching power usage.”

Or they could lay in wait, he said, with the aim of one day pulling the trigger and targeting a grid’s customers by slowing down power or cutting it off completely.

The latest attempted intrusion spotted by Milpitas, California-based FireEye was notable for its boldness, said Hultquist: The malefactors didn’t seem worried about being discovered.

That’s a sign that even if foreign governments aren’t yet interested, or capable, of turning out the lights in New York or Los Angeles, they might at least want to signal that they’re thinking about it. Or they might be laying contingency plans to cause disruption in case of conflict.


►  Facebook gets real about broadening virtual reality’s appeal

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg seems to be realizing a sobering reality about virtual reality: His company’s Oculus headsets that send people into artificial worlds are too expensive and confining to appeal to the masses.

Zuckerberg on Wednesday revealed how Facebook intends to address that problem, unveiling a stand-alone headset that won’t require plugging in a smartphone or a cord tethering it to a personal computer like the Oculus Rift headset does.

“I am more committed than ever to the future of virtual reality,” Zuckerberg reassured a crowd of computer programmers gathered in San Jose, California, for Oculus’ annual conference.

Facebook’s new headset, called Oculus Go, will cost $199 when it hits the market next year. That’s a big drop from the Rift, which originally sold for $599 and required a PC costing at least $500 to become immersed in virtual reality, or VR.

Recent discounts lowered the Rift’s price to $399 at various times during the summer, a markdown Oculus now says will be permanent.

“The strategy for Facebook is to make the onboarding to VR as easy and inexpensive as possible,” said Gartner analyst Brian Blau. “And $199 is an inexpensive entry for a lot of people who are just starting out in VR. The problem is you will be spending that money on a device that only does VR and nothing else.”

Facebook didn’t provide any details on how the Oculus Go will work, but said it will include built-in headphones for audio and have a LCD display.

The Oculus Go will straddle the market between the Rift and the Samsung Gear, a $129 headset that runs on some of Samsung’s higher-priced phones. It will be able to run the same VR as the Samsung Gear, leading Blau to conclude the Go will rely on the same Android operating system as the Gear and likely include similar processors as Samsung phones.

The Gear competes against other headsets, such as Google’s $99 Daydream View, that require a smartphone. Google is also working on a stand-alone headset that won’t require a phone, but hasn’t specified when that device will be released or how much it will cost.

Zuckerberg promised the Oculus Go will be “the most accessible VR experience ever,” and help realize his new goal of having 1 billion people dwelling in virtual reality at some point in the future.

Facebook and other major technology companies such as Google and Microsoft that are betting on VR have a long way to go.

About 16 million head-mounted display devices were shipped in 2016, a number expected to rise to 22 million this year, according to the research firm Gartner Inc. Those figures include headsets for what is known as augmented reality.

Zuckerberg, though, remains convinced that VR will evolve into a technology that reshapes the way people interact and experience life, much like Facebook’s social networks and smartphones already have. His visions carry weight, largely because Facebook now has more than 2 billion users and plays an influential role in how people communicate.

But VR so far has been embraced mostly by video game lovers, despite Facebook’s efforts to bring the technology into the mainstream since buying Oculus for $2 billion three years ago.

Facebook has shaken up Oculus management team since then in a series of moves that included the departure of founder Palmer Luckey earlier this year.

Former Google executive Hugo Barra now oversees Facebook’s VR operations.

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