Thirty-five years ago, a scientist named John H. Mercer issued a warning. By then it was already becoming clear that human emissions would warm the earth, and Dr. Mercer had begun thinking deeply about the consequences.
His paper, in the journal Nature, was titled “West Antarctic Ice Sheet and CO2 Greenhouse Effect: A Threat of Disaster.” In it, Dr. Mercer pointed out the unusual topography of the ice sheet sitting over the western part of Antarctica. Much of it is below sea level, in a sort of bowl, and he said that a climatic warming could cause the whole thing to degrade rapidly on a geologic time scale, leading to a possible rise in sea level of 16 feet.
While it is clear by now that we are in the early stages of what is likely to be a substantial rise in sea level, we still do not know if Dr. Mercer was right about a dangerous instability that could cause that rise to happen rapidly, in geologic time. We may be getting closer to figuring that out.
An intriguing new paper comes from Michael J. O’Leary of Curtin University in Australia and five colleagues scattered around the world. Dr. O’Leary has spent more than a decade exploring the remote western coast of Australia, considered one of the best places in the world to study sea levels of the past.
The paper, published July 28 in Nature Geoscience, focuses on a warm period in the earth’s history that preceded the most recent ice age. In that epoch, sometimes called the Eemian, the planetary temperature was similar to levels we may see in coming decades as a result of human emissions, so it is considered a possible indicator of things to come.
Examining elevated fossil beaches and coral reefs along more than a thousand miles of coast, Dr. O’Leary’s group confirmed something we pretty much already knew. In the warmer world of the Eemian, sea level stabilized for several thousand years at about 10 to 12 feet above modern sea level.
The interesting part is what happened after that. Dr. O’Leary’s group found what they consider to be compelling evidence that near the end of the Eemian, sea level jumped by another 17 feet or so, to settle at close to 30 feet above the modern level, before beginning to fall as the ice age set in.
In an interview, Dr. O’Leary told me he was confident that the 17-foot jump happened in less than a thousand years — how much less, he cannot be sure.
This finding is something of a vindication for one member of the team, a North Carolina field geologist, Paul J. Hearty. He had argued for decades that the rock record suggested a jump of this sort, but only recently have measurement and modeling techniques reached the level of precision needed to nail the case.
We have to see if their results withstand critical scrutiny. A sea-level scientist not involved in the work, Andrea Dutton of the University of Florida, said the paper had failed to disclose enough detailed information about the field sites to allow her to judge the overall conclusion. But if the work does hold up, the implications are profound. The only possible explanation for such a large, rapid jump in sea level is the catastrophic collapse of a polar ice sheet, on either Greenland or Antarctica.
Dr. O’Leary is not prepared to say which; figuring that out is the group’s next project. But a 17-foot rise in less than a thousand years, a geologic instant, has to mean that one or both ice sheets contain some instability that can be set off by a warmer climate.
That, of course, augurs poorly for humans. Scientists at Stanford calculated recently that human emissions are causing the climate to change many times faster than at any point since the dinosaurs died out. We are pushing the climate system so hard that, if the ice sheets do have a threshold of some kind, we stand a good chance of exceeding it.
Another recent paper, by Anders Levermann of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany and a half-dozen colleagues, implies that even if emissions were to stop tomorrow, we have probably locked in several feet of sea level rise over the long term.
Benjamin Strauss and his colleagues at Climate Central, an independent group of scientists and journalists in Princeton that reports climate research, translated the Levermann results into graphical form, and showed the difference it could make if we launched an aggressive program to control emissions. By 2100, their calculations suggest, continuing on our current path would mean locking in a long-term sea level rise of 23 feet, but aggressive emission cuts could limit that to seven feet.
If you are the mayor of Miami or of a beach town in New Jersey, you may be asking yourself: Exactly how long is all this going to take to play out?
On that crucial point, alas, our science is still nearly blind. Scientists can look at the rocks and see indisputable evidence of jumps in sea level, and they can associate those with relatively modest increases in global temperature. But the nature of the evidence is such that it is hard to tell the difference between something that happened in a thousand years and something that happened in a hundred.
On the human time scale, of course, that is all the difference in the world. If sea level is going to rise by, say, 30 feet over several thousand years, that is quite a lot of time to adjust — to pull back from the beaches, to reinforce major cities, and to develop technologies to help us cope.
But if sea level is capable of rising several feet per century, as Dr. O’Leary’s paper would seem to imply and as many other scientists believe, then babies being born now could live to see the early stages of a global calamity.
Implementing the first pieces of a redesigned site
At State of the Map US, Saman Bemel Benrud presented a vision for a ground-up redesign of the OpenStreetMap website. His proposal introduced concepts for strengthening community aspects of the site, improved the on-boarding experience for new users, and defined a more logical information architecture, making the relationship between the community, data, and map layers of the site clearer.
At the sprint days following the conference, OSM contributors began to work on parts of this vision. A desire to strengthen the collaborative features of the site had emerged as a theme of the conference, and several contributors began to implement features to allow communities to form around specific regions, features, or interests. Meanwhile, Tom, Saman, and I began to work on reworking the existing map UI on OpenStreetMap.org’s main page, with an eye toward paving the way for bigger changes.
Mockup of Saman’s design presentation, recently deployed map UI
Having heads down
Our focus right now is on incremental, clearly actionable improvements. Our goals are to improve the overall impression of the website and project for people arriving on OpenStreetMap.org for the first time, make it easier for new users to sign up, and provide better guidance for beginning contributors:
Clean up forms
A new map UI
Improve sign up experience
A cleaner organization of the front page
Update attribution page
In the last couple of weeks, working with other contributors and the maintainer of OpenStreetMap.org, Tom Hughes, we have made great progress.
First, we helped do a ground up clean up of all form elements on OpenStreetMap.org, creating a sensible styling for all form elements, revisiting button positioning across the board resulting in a much cleaner look and feel. These improvements are now deployed to OpenStreetMap.org.
Second, we refactored and consolidated the map user interface. This pull request, was deployed just last Friday, and discussion is underway on followup changes. These changes consolidate interaction with the map into a tool box on the right hand side. Where before the map key, map navigation UI elements, layer switcher and sharing controls were spread out in all four corners of the map, they are now consolidated in the top right. This change results in a cleaner look and feel and frees up space for other uses.
The new map UI toolbar unites map navigation, map sharing, map key, creating notes and layer switching.
The layer selector of the new map UI.
Right now work are going on a welcome landing page for new users. This is part of improving the sign up experience on OpenStreetMap, designed to help anyone get started mapping. It’s not intended as a comprehensive guide, but more like the page you’d want to send someone to before they crack open an editor.
The proposed welcome page to help newcomers start mapping.
Further priorities include:
- A cleaner organization of the front page
- A better jumping off point for help
The magical Marauder’s Map that can reveal people’s locations, imagined by JK Rowling in her Harry Potter novels, is fast becoming reality as cartography undergoes radical changes that are altering people’s sense of time and place. The explosion in smartphones means Google Maps, which comes pre-installed on Android devices (and is favoured by many Apple iOS users), has nearly replaced the trusty Ordnance Survey as the go-to map.
People are now glued to the screen in the palm of their hand, guided around their urban environment by a GPS cursor. And with individuals increasingly using these devices to share their locations, a new social layer is forming over maps.
It may seem as though the digital generation is at risk of growing up devoid of map-reading skills, and instances of spontaneity, serendipity or just getting lost are disappearing. But this technology means people are engaging with maps in new ways that enthusiasts say strengthens their sense of place and aids discovery.
“If I travel to a new city, I can look at maps people have created to see where I can go for a run, or find something to do that I wouldn’t have known about otherwise,” says Eric Gundersen, founder of Mapbox, a start-up that creates maps and data visualisations from data generated collaboratively. In a speech at SXSW Interactive festival this year, Foursquare co-founder and chief executive Dennis Crowley said social maps will mean the end of scraps of paper scribbled with names of bars and restaurants. His vision is to create a real-life Marauder’s Map, where people will be able to locate their friends, based on where they have been “checking in” on the app.
Beyond using maps to enhance their social lives, people are creating their own maps and databases, in a movement called open-source mapping. In a similar way to Wikipedia, open-source maps are online databases built by volunteers, relying on community moderation as quality control. The largest of these is OpenStreetMap, founded in 2004 in the UK, around the same time Google launched its first online map. While most maps have legal or technical restrictions, the aim of OpenStreetMap is to make map data free, so it can be used in more creative, productive ways.
The number of people around the world collaborating on the project has swelled in recent years, with more than 1,000 volunteers updating the map every day, and one million registered users in total. This amounts to 21 million miles of data charted around the world. The growth of open-source mapping has also given rise to an explosion in other map-related online communities, meet-ups and start-ups (both MapBox and Foursquare’s software is powered by OpenStreetMap).
While it has been suggested that OpenStreetMap is a significant disruptive force for proprietary map providers – like Wikipedia was to Encyclopedia Britannica – these priority services are also looking at ways to tap into this movement and explore how geographical data is shared online. After a public campaign three years ago, the Ordnance Survey opened up 11 sets of map data for the public to use for free. Now it is seeing significant uptake, with more than 800 people downloading data sets every week.
Ordnance Survey is also exploring community mapping to serve its database, which needs to be constantly updated as physical landscapes change. For example, the Government-owned agency is trialling a scheme to get local authorities to provide it with location data, since they will be most up-to-date.
Accuracy, however, remains a consideration. “For open-source mapping you are dependent on the goodwill of people and if it is a rainy day, people might not feel like going out. Our surveyors have to go out whenever,” says Peter ter Haar at Ordnance Survey. Google is also looking to capitalise on this trend, with its recent purchase of collaborative traffic map-making app Waze, which it bought for a predicted $1.1bn (although the deal is being probed by the US antitrust regulator).
But the growing popularity of mapping runs deeper than technological advancement, says Andrew Hudson-Smith, director and reader in digital urban systems at the Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis at University College London. “It’s a cultural movement that people want to be part of because it has no central role. There is a realisation that geography ties up all these systems. With location you can pull together everything in one place and that helps us make sense of how the world works.” He explains that in a city, for example, it will be possible to overlay data, such as flight paths, traffic routes and local transportation to give people a view that charts live changes.
As more people turn to map-making to help them connect to their environment, the future of maps will continue to become more complex.
By 2020, it is predicted that 50 billion devices will be connected to the internet, meaning everyday objects will be located and mapped. Alongside this will be the upshot in adoption of wearable technology, such as smartwatches or Google Glass, which puts a voice-activated computer display and high-definition video camera at the user’s eye level.
While maps can be viewed on the glass’s lens, the technology could allow users to record their daily activity using an inbuilt camera, meaning connections and memories to a place will be logged. Google Glass is yet to reach consumers, but as it moves into the mainstream, this reality is not far off. Apps such as Nike+ and Move It! which use GPS to track the user’s running or walking route and speed, are already doing this.
“I love the fact that we can replay time and walk through places with a rich history, such as London, and capture time that in a hundred years people will be able to replay,” says Hudson-Smith.
But location sharing for many is too personal, creepy and, in certain circumstances, dangerous. And the recent news about the National Security Agency’s widespread internet surveillance programme, shines light on concerns that we are blindly walking into a surveillance society. With the huge amount of data being produced by individuals everyday, this is an inescapable fact.
As the physical and digital worlds move ever closer, maps will become live entities. Magical maps may sound creepy, but for aficionados the opportunity to connect with their geographies in new ways will be vast.
How to make a map your own
Uses OpenStreetMap to create map visualisations, with in-house designers and cartographers to improve the data quality.
Allows users to overlay personal stories on maps.
Dubbed an Instagram service for maps, it uses OpenStreetMap data to let users create unique data visualisations
A database where the community can upload different sounds from cities around the world, overlay them on a map and access an online-sound archive.
Google Map Maker
A more basic tool, but allows users to overlay personal details over Google Maps and share them.
This traffic and navigation app, recently purchased by Google, is created by a community that contribute to a live online map showing traffic hotspots.
As global climate change becomes more evident, NASA’s satellite program for studying and monitoring our home planet becomes increasingly important. There are two key areas toward which NASA satellite measurements can contribute:
1. Monitoring changes in the Earth’s climate. Global climate change occurs slowly relative to weather and even to the change of seasons throughout the year. Changes known to be related to global climate change–increased atmospheric carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases (including water vapor), sea level rise, and the melting of Arctic sea ice and the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets–are so gradual that it takes many years, even decades, to characterize and quantify them.
Given that satellite missions typically last on the order of three to 10 years, NASA often needs to consider launching copies of some instruments, as current versions age and fail. Continuity in our satellite observations is important for maintaining long records of key climate indicators, such as those listed above. Having long and continuous records of these is critical for monitoring the effects of climate change, helping determine how we can best adapt to them, and assessing whether measures to limit its effects are working as expected.
2. Improving our understanding of global climate change key processes. Simply monitoring some of the climate change indicators listed above doesn’t provide enough information for scientists to fully understand and characterize the problem and consequences.
For example, only observing sea level rise doesn’t illuminate all the key processes that might be involved in determining the rate at which it is rising; these include sea level rise, the melting of ice sheets and glaciers, warming of the ocean, the continents’ and shorelines’ slow response to ice sheet melting and sea level rise, etc. Similarly, it is critical to understand how water vapor and clouds respond to climate change, as these help determine the amount of future temperature warming that might be expected to result from increasing the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
Knowing “how the Earth’s climate works” is vital to making projections of future warming and the associated impacts using very sophisticated computer models of the Earth’s climate. For such projections to be useful, they have to accurately represent the Earth’s climate system.
Thus, some of NASA’s satellite program focuses on developing new observations to illuminate how the Earth’s climate system works and to reduce uncertainties in global models used for climate projection.
The above is from Dr. Duane Waliser, who specializes in climate dynamics and modeling. He is the chief scientist of JPL’s Earth Science and Technology Directorate and an adjunct professor in the Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences Department at UCLA.
Wonder where on Earth to collect space rocks? Stay at home. The map above shows every meteorite strike known to fall on earthly terrain. And from the looks of it, the United States is prime collecting grounds.
Why these hotspots? It is likely that no one particular place is more susceptible to a meteorite strike than another. What is more likely is that the identified locations are in areas where people know to look for meteorites, having either seen a meteor streak through the sky or finding one with the knowledge that not all rocks on Earth originated here.
Plotting the landscape of digital information
The 17th Century, particularly in The Netherlands, is considered the Golden Age of maps. The Dutch were spanning the globe for trade and their maps and atlases became lavish and colorful works of art depicting mysterious worlds encountered by explorers.
Fast forward to the 21st Century and with the ubiquity of GPS devices, navigational maps have more or less gone the way of the horse and buggy. But maps themselves are seeing a renaissance as the landscape of digital information needs plotting.
Andy Woodruff, a cartographer with Axis Maps, primarily makes Web-based, interactive maps, much like the ones found on his website Bostonography says we’re experiencing a boom thanks to revolutionary advances in digital mapping tools and software.
“Technology has allowed people to see what people like us always knew: that geography is endlessly fascinating and hugely important in our lives,” Woodruff told Discovery News.
There’s nothing quite like poring over a great map, so click through our collection and get a glimpse of how today’s digital cartographers are indeed ‘pushing it further.’
A team at the British Antarctic Survey working with NASA pulled together decades of data to show us a virtual map without all the ice and snow. For the first time, the continent’s bare topography is revealed.
The Bedmap2 is a new virtual map created from substantial amounts of data that included recent measurements from airborne missions as well as satellites. The project, led by British Antarctic Survey scientist Peter Fretwell, relied on NASA’s Operation IceBridge, which has recorded Antarctica’s surface elevations, ice shelf limits and ice thickness. The new map led to some unexpected discoveries about the southernmost continent.
Not only is the volume of ice in Antarctica 4.6 percent greater than previously thought but the deepest point turns out to be under Byrd Glacier — about 1,300 feet deeper than the spot that had been called the deepest, according to research Fretwell and his colleagues recently published in the scientific journal The Cryosphere (PDF).
The Bedmap2 could also help humanity in the future. Study co-author Hamish Pritchard pointed out that understanding the actual height and thickness of the ice as well as the landscape underneath will be fundamental to modelling the ice sheet. ”Knowing how much the sea will rise is of global importance, and these maps are a step towards that goal,” he told the British Antarctic Survey.
Over at NASA, interactive images show how the continent currently appears, and using a slider you can see the Bedmap2 topography below. There’s also a feature comparing the original Bedmap from 10 years ago with the newest one. Visualizing what’s below the frozen landscape is impressive, as long as it doesn’t end up being a snapshot of our planet’s shirtless future.
Image: Antarctica’s underlying topography in the Bedmap2. Credit: NASA Goddard’s Scientific Visualization Studio.
Every ton of carbon dioxide we emit this year will cost the world $35 in health problems, wildfires, loss of agricultural productivity, and other disasters, according to the U.S. government. It had computed $21 a ton in 2010.
The value, known as the social cost of carbon – and which can equal the carbon tax — will rise for every additional ton of carbon dioxide we emit. It will be $43 in 2020 and $71 in 2050.
The world emitted 34 billion tons of carbon dioxide in 2011.
The U.S. government routinely uses social cost when designing regulations such as fuel efficiency standards for cars. The value is calculated by the Interagency Working Group on Social Cost of Carbon, composed of 12 government agencies, and was released on May 31.
A price for carbon is needed because we are shortsighted and are best at dealing with immediate problems. But the effects of climate change are not immediate. The extreme weather and high temperatures we are experiencing now are the result of the past emissions, and our present emissions will affect us decades into the future.
Most of us will not live through the worst of it. So, how much is it worth to the average American today to lessen climate change for future generations? It is an ethical question that gets worked out by economists.
Some of them disagree quite vehemently with the government’s calculations. Economists have redone the calculations and found that the actual social cost could be up to 12 times as large as the government’s 2010 estimate.
The government has increased social cost value to $35 this year because it has better knowledge of climate change effects, including sea level dynamics and the economic effects of sea level rise.
IMAGE: A dragonfly trapped in tar sands exposed in a road cutting north of Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada, the center of the tar sands industry. The tar sands is the world’s largest industrial project and the most environmentally destructive. Carbon emissions from the tar sands is fueling climate change.
scientists who have employed no fewer than 11 separate climate models to study the decades ahead.
“Floods are among the most major climate-related disasters,” writes Yukiko Hirabayashi of The University of Tokyo and lead author of a paper in the June 9 issue of the journal Nature Climate Change. “In the past decade, reported annual losses from floods have reached tens of billions of U.S. dollars and thousands of people were killed each year.”
This, and the fact that the primary worldwide organization that studies such things–the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)–has pointed out the need for better projections of river flooding, served as motivation for the new study.
What the researchers found was an increase in the frequency of flooding rivers in Southeast Asia, Peninsular India, eastern Africa and the northern half of the Andes. At the same time, river flood frequencies will drop in parts of northern and Eastern Europe, Anatolia, Central Asia, central North America and southern South America.
In terms of the number of people exposed to flood risks, they found that depends on the temperatures to which things heat up. With a 2-degree Celsius rise in temperature, about 27 million people will be exposed to more floods. With a 4 degrees C warming the exposure rises to 62 million and at 6 degrees C it is up to 93 million people.
The climate models were also used to study the outlets of some river basins. There they saw the frequency of floods increasing during the twenty-first century in just about every selected rivers in South Asia, Southeast Asia, Oceania, Africa and Northeast Eurasia. They also predict that what were considered 100-year floods in the 20th century will occur every 10 to 50 years in the 21st century.
“This is very important and useful information, and shows that policy makers should take climate change into account when developing adaptation strategies,” said flood researcher Brenden Jongman of VU University of Amsterdam. “Also, the analysis of changes in flood frequency on a global scale is very important – this shows that in many developing countries the frequency of extreme events might be increasing.”
While the latest IPCC report still states that ‘global warming might lead to higher flood frequencies and intensities, Jongman explained, this work finally puts real numbers on the flooding.