Saturday, December 27, 2008

Himalayan villagers on global warming frontline

Himalayan villagers on global warming frontline

by Sam Taylor

KYANGJIN GOMPA, Nepal (AFP) – Standing in the Himalayan valley of Langtang, Rinjin Dorje Lama remembers where he used to play as a child in the 1960s.

"When I was a kid, it was a lot longer," said Lama, pointing at the Lirung glacier surrounded by snowy peaks on Nepal's northern border with Tibet.

"We used to play on the glacier, and it came right down to the monastery, but now it's about two kilometres (1.2 miles) further back."

Temperatures in the Himalayas are rising by around 0.06 degrees Celsius (0.108 Fahrenheit) annually, according to a long-term study by the Nepalese department of hydrology.

The rate is far above the global average given last year by the UN's senior scientists, who said surface temperatures have risen by a total of 0.74 degrees C over the past 100 years.

"I don't really understand why the glacier has gone so far back, but I am told it's due to global warming," said Lama, whose weather-beaten face makes him look older than his 57 years.

Lama has witnessed other changes in the roadless valley, 60 kilometres (40 miles) northwest of Kathmandu, where sure-footed ponies remain the quickest form of transport.

"I feel that the sun is getting stronger, and in the past there used to be a lot more snow in winter. We used to get up to two metres in the winter, and it would stay for weeks. Last winter we only had two centimetres."

On top of unpredictable weather, other dangers are increasing in Nepal's mountains because of climate change.

As the meltwater flows off the glacier, lakes begin to form and grow.

When the pressure becomes too great, the lake walls burst and release millions of cubic tonnes of water that can wash away people, villages and arable land.

Researchers at the Nepal-based International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) have said five major glacial lake floods have hit Nepal since 1970, as well as at least two in Tibet and one in Bhutan.

Ang Tsering Sherpa, who grew up in Nepal's Everest region, has observed the growth of one glacial lake with growing concern.

"A small pond first appeared close to the Imja glacier in about 1962," said Sherpa, who owns a trekking and expedition company in Kathmandu.

Last year, a research team from Japan measured the Imja lake as being 1.7 kilometres long, 900 metres wide and 92 metres deep.

"If that lake bursts, it will be like a tsunami," said Sherpa, who estimates that the Imja glacier has been retreating at a rate of 60 metres per year.

"Imagine the damage that will be caused by a lake emptying within minutes into a well-inhabited valley. The loss of life will be huge."

The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) calculates there are 2,000 glacial lakes forming in Nepal and around 20 are in danger of bursting.

Mountain dwellers are seeing at first hand the effects of global warming, but the changing climate will eventually have dire consequences for a much wider section of Asia's population.

Himalayan snow and ice is a massive freshwater reserve that feeds nine of Asia's major waterways, including the Indus, Ganges and Yellow rivers.

"In the long term, water scarcity will become a big problem," said Sandeep Chamling Rai, WWF climate change officer.

"There will eventually be a tipping point where the amount of water from the glaciers is hugely reduced, which will result in loss of water resources for people downstream who rely on these Himalayan-fed rivers."

The ICIMOD said in August that climate change posed a serious threat to essential water resources in the Himalayans, putting the livelihoods of 1.3 billion people at risk.

Studies say much of the blame is due to the "Asia brown cloud" spewed from tailpipes, factory chimneys and power plants -- as well as forests and fields that are burned for agriculture, and wood and dung burned for fuel.

Back in the Langtang Valley, where around 700 people and 4,000 yaks live, Lama can only watch as the ice and snow retreat from around his home.

"I am very worried, but what can we do. We are not contributing to global warming but we feel its effects. I am scared there will be no snow and ice in these mountains within the next 15 years."

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First U.S. Offshore Wind Project Gains DEP Approval

cape%20wind%20nantucket.jpgThe U.S. wind industry has been a world leader, installing an impressive 5,244 megawatts in 2007. The U.S. offshore wind industry is another story, with no offshore wind farms yet developed. The tides may be changing however 4.7 miles off the coast of Cape Cod in Nantucket Bay.

The Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) helped moved this proposed wind farm forward by approving the undersea cable that would transmit the generated power from 130 turbines to land.

In a letter notifying Cape Wind of their decision, a DEP official wrote, “the Department determines that the proposed project serves a proper public interest which provides greater public benefit than detriment to the public’s rights in said tidelands”.

cape%20power%20plant.jpegDevelopers of the $1 billion project are still waiting on a composite state and local permit, as well as federal approvals by the U.S. Coast Guard, Department of the Interior and the Federal Aviation Administration, said Mark Rogers, a spokesman for Cape Wind Associates LLC.

The project would power 75% of the electricity that Cape Cod, Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket Island use under average wind levels. This would displace electricity from the controversial Cape Power Plant, which runs off of oil and natural gas.

The proposed wind farm has been the source of great controversy. One of the greatest concerns is that the 247 foot turbines may be visible from upscale beach homes and could hurt the tourism industry.

Cape Winds expects the permitting process to be complete by March, 2009. If developed, Cape Wind would be the first offshore wind farm in the U.S. As of 2007, there were 1165 megawatts of offshore wind generating capacity globally. Denmark and the U.K. have been the global leaders of this industry, followed by Sweden and the Netherlands.

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The 10 Biggest Cleantech Disappointments of 2008


There was a lot to cheer about in the cleantech sector in 2008: record investment levels, a U.S. president-elect that supports clean power, and the extension of tax credits for renewables. But there were a lot of missed opportunities this year, too, as markets crashed, fundings were delayed and technologies hit hurdles. Below, the biggest cleantech disappointments of 2008 (next up, The 10 Biggest Cleantech Wins in 2008):

1) Tesla Hits A Wall: The embodiment of the future of electric vehicles discovered how expensive it is to make them. In 2008 the startup started to run low on cash — reportedly at one point as little as $9 million — and was forced to do layoffs and delay the production of its second-generation vehicle, the Model S. Now the company is relying on a loan guarantee from the Department of Energy, which could be risky.

2) EEStor Delays Some More: We were waiting for mid-2008, then late 2008 to see more details — a prototype perhaps — or even initial production of secretive energy storage EEStor’s technology. But alas, the startup and its partner say the big unveiling won’t come till 2009. We’ll see.

3) T. Boone Derailed: Oil baron turned wind power advocate T. Boone Pickens used his $58 million PR campaign this year to create a lot of hope and support for clean power. Then the economy tanked. Pickens told us that the debt markets in particular took the wind out of his sails.

4) Wave Power Plan Gets Washed Away: Canadian company Finavera Renewables saw its plans to install a 2MW wave power project in California waters wash out to sea when the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) denied its application. Finavera had been planning to work with California utility PG&E on what would have been the first commercial wave energy contract in the U.S. The CPUC said the wave power plan was neither viable or economical.

5) The Clean Coal Lobby Gets Dirty: A report from the think tank the Center for American Progress finds coal companies have only spent $3.5 billion over the past several years investing in R&D for carbon capture and sequestration, the most promising technology for reducing emissions from coal power — just 1/17th of the coal industry’s profits in 2007 alone, according to the group. Meanwhile the industry’s been increasingly claiming coal is cleaning up its act — and upping lobbying efforts in support of regulations to protect it. According to Open Secret, the amount of money spent by the coal mining lobby jumped to $12.67 million in 2008, while the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, which is made up of coal and power companies, spent $8.49 million.

6) Corn Ethanol Industry Still Asking for Aid: Corn-based ethanol companies had a rough year: Corn prices spiked, the industry faced political and public backlash, and margins on ethanol narrowed, forcing companies like VeraSun to file for bankrupcy. Most recently, the corn ethanol lobby asked for $1 billion in short-term credit from the government and as much as $50 billion in loan guarantees. The lobby claims it’s not a bailout, but the industry isn’t sustainable — enough already.

7) GM Still Featuring Bob Lutz: The U.S. automaker with one of the most promising electric cars in the pipeline is still employing an exec that publicly disputes the carbon theory of global warming. GM has managed to convince the government it needs a bailout, which requires it to prove it can be financially viable and meet current emissions laws — perhaps it should take the inspection opportunity to do some housecleaning in the C-level suite?

8) UK Wind Plans Blowing Away: The UK looks to be facing an uphill climb when it comes to meeting its wind power targets. The government has a plan to supply a third of its electricity from wind by 2020, but both Royal Dutch Shell and BP have pulled their offshore wind projects investments in the region as reports suggest the goal is far too aggressive. Meanwhile the British Wind Energy Association, an industry trade group, has cut the CO2 reduction calculations for the UK wind plan in half after talks with the UK’s Advertising Standards Authority, which enforces rules on claims in advertisements.

9) It’s Gonna Be A Lot Harder Than We Thought: Beyond problems with wind power, scientists and politicians have realized that meeting existing carbon reduction goals won’t be enough. The research, from the University of Colorado at Boulder and McGill University in Montreal, says plainly: “Stabilization is a more daunting challenge than many realize and requires a radical ‘decarbonization’ of energy systems.” The conclusion: More regulations boosting research and development for clean technology is needed.

10) The Current Administration: The need for more cleantech R&D brings us to the last point — the current U.S. government has consistently ignored the urgency of climate change and failed to invest appropriately to deliver cleantech innovations. The incoming administration’s commitment to a modestly aggressive plan — $150 billion over 10 years in clean power — is making that strikingly clear.

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Faster Climate Change Feared

Washington Post Staff Writer

Ice sheets in the Antarctic and Greenland, above, are losing 48 cubic miles per year, pushing up sea level worldwide. (By John Mcconnico -- Associated Press)

The United States faces the possibility of much more rapid climate change by the end of the century than previous studies have suggested, according to a new report led by the U.S. Geological Survey.

The survey -- which was commissioned by the U.S. Climate Change Science Program and issued this month -- expands on the 2007 findings of the United Nations Intergovernment Panel on Climate Change. Looking at factors such as rapid sea ice loss in the Arctic and prolonged drought in the Southwest, the new assessment suggests that earlier projections may have underestimated the climatic shifts that could take place by 2100.

However, the assessment also suggests that some other feared effects of global warming are not likely to occur by the end of the century, such as an abrupt release of methane from the seabed and permafrost or a shutdown of the Atlantic Ocean circulation system that brings warm water north and colder water south. But the report projects an amount of potential sea level rise during that period that may be greater than what other researchers have anticipated, as well as a shift to a more arid climate pattern in the Southwest by mid-century.

Thirty-two scientists from federal and non-federal institutions contributed to the report, which took nearly two years to complete. The Climate Change Science Program, which was established in 1990, coordinates the climate research of 13 different federal agencies.

Tom Armstrong, senior adviser for global change programs at USGS, said the report "shows how quickly the information is advancing" on potential climate shifts. The prospect of abrupt climate change, he said, "is one of those things that keeps people up at night, because it's a low-probability but high-risk scenario. It's unlikely to happen in our lifetimes, but if it were to occur, it would be life-changing."

In one of the report's most worrisome findings, the agency estimates that in light of recent ice sheet melting, global sea level rise could be as much as four feet by 2100. The IPCC had projected a sea level rise of no more than 1.5 feet by that time, but satellite data over the past two years show the world's major ice sheets are melting much more rapidly than previously thought. The Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets are now losing an average of 48 cubic miles of ice a year, equivalent to twice the amount of ice that exists in the Alps.

Konrad Steffen, who directs the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences at the University of Colorado at Boulder and was lead author on the report's chapter on ice sheets, said the models the IPCC used did not factor in some of the dynamics that scientists now understand about ice sheet melting. Among other things, Steffen and his collaborators have identified a process of "lubrication," in which warmer ocean water gets in underneath coastal ice sheets and accelerates melting.

"This has to be put into models," said Steffen, who organized a conference last summer in St. Petersburg, Russia, as part of an effort to develop more sophisticated ice sheet models. "What we predicted is sea level rise will be higher, but I have to be honest, we cannot model it for 2100 yet."

Still, Armstrong said the report "does take a step forward from where the IPCC was," especially in terms of ice sheet melting.

Scientists also looked at the prospect of prolonged drought over the next 100 years. They said it is impossible to determine yet whether human activity is responsible for the drought the Southwestern United States has experienced over the past decade, but every indication suggests the region will become consistently drier in the next several decades. Richard Seager, a senior research scientist at Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, said that nearly all of the 24 computer models the group surveyed project the same climatic conditions for the North American Southwest, which includes Mexico.

"If the models are correct, it will transition in the coming years and decades to a more arid climate, and that transition is already underway," Seager said, adding that such conditions would probably include prolonged droughts lasting more than a decade.

The current models cover broad swaths of landscape, and Seager said scientists need to work on developing versions that can make projections on a much smaller scale. "That's what the water managers out there really need," he said. Current models "don't give them the hard numbers they need."

Armstrong said the need for "downscaled models" is one of the challenges facing the federal government, along with better coordination among agencies on the issue of climate change. When it comes to abrupt climate shifts, he said, "We need to be prepared to deal with it in terms of policymaking, keeping in mind it's a low-probability, high-risk scenario. That said, there are really no policies in place to deal with abrupt climate change."

Richard Moss, who directed the Climate Change Science Program's coordination office between 2000 and 2006 and now serves as vice president and managing director for climate change at the World Wildlife Fund-U.S., welcomed the new report but called it "way overdue."

"There is finally a greater flow of climate science from the administration," Moss said, noting that the report was originally scheduled to come out in the summer of 2007. "It really is showing the potential for abrupt climate change is real."

The report is reassuring, however, on the prospects for some potentially drastic effects -- such as a huge release of methane, a potent heat-trapping gas, that is now locked deep in the seabed and underneath the Arctic permafrost. That is unlikely to occur in the near future, the scientists said.

"It's unlikely that we're going to see an abrupt change in methane over the next hundred years, but we should worry about it over a longer time frame," said Ed Brook, the lead author of the methane chapter and a geosciences professor at Oregon State University. "All of these places where methane is stored are vulnerable to leaking."

By the end the century, Brook said, the amount of methane escaping from natural sources such as the Arctic tundra and waterlogged soils in warmer regions "could possibly double," but that would still be less than the current level of human-generated methane emissions. Over the course of the next thousand years, he added, methane hydrates stored deep in the seabed could be released: "Once you start melting there, you can't really take it back."

In the near term, Brook said, more precise monitoring of methane levels worldwide would give researchers a better sense of the risk of a bigger atmospheric release. "We don't know exactly how much methane is coming out all over the world," he said. "That's why monitoring is important."

While predictions remain uncertain, Steffen said cutting emissions linked to global warming represents one of the best strategies for averting catastrophic changes.

"We have to act very fast, by understanding better and by reducing our greenhouse gas emissions, because it's a large-scale experiment that can get out of hand," Steffen said. "So we don't want that to happen."

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Penguins gather in Antarctica

By Murray Wardrop

Emperor Penguin chicks face a fight for survival in their Antarctic home with temperatures plunging to -76F (-60C) and winds over 100mph.
Adult Emperor Penguins lean over a large, healthy chick they have raised. Snow Hill Island, Antarctica. Photo: Barcroft Media

The young penguins on Snow Hill Island, Antarctica, only began moulting their juvenile grey plumage within the last two months but must prepare themselves for a bitter winter ahead.

But the chicks will now have to hunt for themselves when they get hungry because their parents stop feeding them at this time of year, so they become more independent.

By assembling in colonies, and huddling together, they can keep warm by rotating which of them stand in the centre of the group.

The emperor penguin is the largest of all penguins, easily recognised by its black cap, blue-grey neck, orange ear-patches and bills, and yellow breasts.

Recent research has projected that an increase in temperature of two degrees would kill off half the emperor penguin colonies in Antarctica as their ice pack habitat melted away.

The US government faced criticism from wildlife campaigners earlier this month after not including the emperor penguin among a list of seven species to be given protected status.

The US Fish and Wildlife Service said there was insufficient evidence to list the emperor as threatened at present, citing uncertainty over climate change predictions.

Assembling at the breeding colonies early in winter, shortly after the sea ice has formed, emperor penguins breed during the perpetual darkness of the Antarctic winter, in March and April.

Gathering together near a solid iceberg, the female lays a single egg that she passes over to the male, who incubates the egg until it hatches.

The females return to the colonies seven to eight weeks after laying to relieve their mates and tend to the newly-hatched chicks.

By midsummer, the fledglings are independent and will be ready to breed in as little as four years.

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White Christmas In Antarctica

Clearing the camp of dry Antarctic snow. The dry Antarctic snow also blows in on the wind and drifts up against the tents. (Credit: ESA)

The idea of a white Christmas may seem magical for many of us, but spare a thought for a team of scientists forgoing the festive season to take part in a novel campaign being carried out in one of the most inhospitable regions on Earth to support ESA's CryoSat mission.

German scientists from the Technical University of Dresden and the Alfred Wegener Institute are spending up to four months venturing out onto the vast frozen reaches of what is known as the 'blue ice' region near the Russian Novo airbase in Dronning Maud Land in Antarctica. The aim is to take very accurate measurements of the surface topography, both from the air and on the ground to contribute to the validation programme for CryoSat-2.

With diminishing ice cover fast becoming a reality, ESA's CryoSat-2 mission has been designed to measure the exact rate of change in the thickness of both ice floating in the oceans and ice sheets on land. To measure the thickness of relatively thin sea ice as well as survey the surface of ice sheets that are kilometres thick requires specialised instrumentation and data processing methods. To achieve this, CryoSat-2, which will launch towards the end of 2009, carries an innovative radar altimeter called the Synthetic Aperture Interferometric Radar Altimeter-2 (SIRAL-2).

Unlike most other glaciers or ice caps in polar regions, the Antarctic blue ice region in the Schirmacher Oasis is unique in that it is characterised by a sheet of hard glistening polished ice, completely devoid of snow. It is this unusual icy surface with its lack of overlying snow that makes it particularly useful for determining the accuracy of the altimeter on board CryoSat.

"The blue ice region is a unique area for CryoSat calibration and validation," says Professor Reinhard Dietrich from the University of Dresden who is managing the project for the University. "Because the surface is essentially polished ice, the CryoSat radar signal from space will be reflected directly by the surface, without penetrating into the snow. This will give us a much-improved understanding of the accuracy of the CryoSat surface-height measurement, which is critical for making estimates of change in the total mass of ice caps through the altimeter measurements."

Currently, a party composed of two scientists from the Technical University of Dresden – Axel Ruelke and Franziska Kube – are out on the ice, painstakingly taking surface-height measurements using sophisticated GPS equipment towed by snowmobiles. This allows them to measure surface height variations down to centimetre accuracy. The team of two has been taking measurements since 10 November and hope to complete their first traverse across the region by Christmas. If all goes well, the team will finish the whole set of measurements by February 2009 and then head back to Germany via Cape Town, South Africa, to start with the detailed analysis of the precious data they collected. In addition to ESA, the German Space Agency DLR is also supporting the analysis.

In parallel to the efforts on the ground, the Alfred Wegner Institute (AWI) will be flying their POLAR5 aircraft across the blue ice site – starting just before Christmas and finishing before the New Year. From the plane, the AWI team will collect laser and radar height measurements along the very same tracks as the ground team. To do this they are using ESA's Airborne Synthetic Aperture and Interferometric Radar Altimeter System (ASIRAS), which simulates the measurements CryoSat.

By comparing the ground measurements with data from the airborne instruments the team will be have a better estimate of the accuracy of the measurements that the CryoSat altimeter will soon make from space.

"This campaign represents the very first ESA CryoSat campaign in the Antarctic," says Malcolm Davidson, ESA CryoSat Validation Manager. "The Antarctic 2008 campaign in the blue ice region will help us better understand how CryoSat radar signals interact with the ice surface and, ultimately, help prepare for the critical accuracy assessments required for the CryoSat mission once it is launched. I would like to thank the campaign team for their efforts and DLR for their financial support to the scientists."

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How kangaroo burgers could save the planet

by Bijal Trivedi

A cow called Metana is the center of an experiment led by Argentine Institute of Farmer Technology to reduce the methane released by cow flatulence. Methane adds to the greenhouse effect, which causes global warming (Image: Redux / Eyevine)

A cow called Metana is the center of an experiment led by Argentine Institute of Farmer Technology to reduce the methane released by cow flatulence. Methane adds to the greenhouse effect, which causes global warming (Image: Redux / Eyevine)

COWS, sheep and goats may seem like innocent victims of humanity's appetite for meat, but when it comes to climate change they have a dark secret. Forget cars, planes or even power stations, some of the world's worst greenhouse gas emitters wander idly across rolling pastures chewing the cud, oblivious to the fact that their continuous belching (and to a lesser degree, farting) is warming the planet.

Take New Zealand, where 34.2 million sheep, 9.7 million cattle, 1.4 million deer and 155,000 goats emit 48 per cent of the country's greenhouse gases in the form of methane and nitrous oxide. Worldwide, livestock burps are responsible for 18 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions - more than produced from all forms of transport combined. Methane accounts for the bulk of ruminant green house gas emissions, one tonne of the gas has 25 times the global warming potential of the equivalent amount of carbon dioxide.

Livestock are responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions than all forms of transport combined

Rising populations and incomes are expected to double the global demand for meat and milk from 229 to 465 million tonnes and 580 to 1043 million tonnes, respectively, by 2050. This will almost double the amount of greenhouse gases produced by livestock, dwarfing attempts to cut emissions elsewhere. Apart from all of us turning to a vegetarian diet, can anything be done to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from livestock?

Several ideas have been proposed to raise animals that are kinder to the environment. In New Zealand, researchers are testing different diets, food additives, vaccines and drug therapies, as well as breeding low-methane animals. One Australian team has even suggested we wean ourselves from cattle and sheep altogether and eat kangaroo instead - they do not emit methane.

Concern for the climate isn't the only factor driving the research. Eight per cent of the energy expended by a ruminant's metabolism goes on producing methane. If livestock stopped making this gas, the energy saved could be diverted into making more meat.

So why do ruminants give off so much methane? It's all down to their stomachs. Sheep and cattle have a pregastric stomach, or rumen, where microbes digest plant matter and produce hydrogen, carbon dioxide and fatty acids. The fatty acids are a useful source of energy to aid animal growth, but the hydrogen and carbon dioxide are not. This is where microorganisms called methanogens come in: they have co-evolved with the animal to consume the carbon dioxide and hydrogen, producing methane. In return, the methanogens gain a home and a food source.

This cosy relationship is now in the cross hairs. In June, researchers from the Pastoral Greenhouse Gas Research Consortium in New Zealand - a group dedicated to reducing methane emissions from livestock - announced they had decoded the genetic sequence of Methanobrevibacter ruminantium, one of 20 or so species of methane-producing microbes in sheep and cow stomachs. They are hoping to discover a genetic hallmark for all methanogens, says Graeme Attwood, a microbiologist at the New Zealand based AgResearch and leader of the consortium's genome-sequencing project. Such methanogen-specific genes might provide a targeted way to knock out these microbes without harming the hundreds of other beneficial species in the rumen. The researchers think the hydrogen and carbon dioxide left behind that would have been digested by methanogens would then be consumed by other microbes, such as acetogens which dominate marsupial guts and are present in smaller numbers in ruminant guts, to produce the nutrient acetate, making the animals healthier too.

Going live

While analysing the genes, Attwood and his colleagues discovered the recipe for an enzyme that they believe breaks open chemical bonds unique to the methanogen cell wall. The enzyme originally belonged to a virus that infected the methanogen long ago, becoming incorporated into the microbes' genome as it evolved. Attwood's team has manufactured the enzyme and shown that it kills methanogens in vitro. "It's very exciting," says Attwood. Within the next six months, Attwood and his colleagues plan to test the enzyme in live animals.

The genome sequence is also being used to identify proteins that sit on the outer surface of M. ruminantium - the immune system can easily identify these proteins, making them ideal candidates for vaccines. Vaccinating animals against M. ruminantium has many benefits, not least that it is cheap to produce and could be given several times a year to livestock grazing in pastures.

This is not the first time an anti-methanogen vaccine has been tried. Four years ago, scientists in Australia developed an anti-methanogen vaccine that lowered methane production in sheep by almost 8 per cent compared with those that did not receive it. But the vaccine did not work in sheep from New Zealand, says Bryce Buddle, who leads the methanogen vaccine project at AgResearch. He says that this is probably because the methanogen strains in sheep from New Zealand and Australia are different.

Still, it was proof that a vaccine could work. Buddle is now testing a more sophisticated vaccine made from a mix of surface and intracellular M. ruminantium proteins. Though the mechanism of action is unclear, early lab tests have shown that the antibodies triggered in response to the vaccine can decrease methane production. He expects to test the vaccine in live animals within three years. Ultimately, he hopes that vaccinating cattle and sheep will decrease methane emissions by 20 to 30 per cent.

For animals that are kept mainly in sheds and not allowed to graze, methane emissions could be further reduced by changing their diet. Ermias Kebreab and his colleagues at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, Canada, have shown that grass-fed cattle typically produce 20 per cent more methane than those fed a mixture of grass and corn. Kebreab says that the addition of unsaturated fats like coconut and sunflower oil to their food could curb methane emissions by a further 20 per cent. The unsaturated oils serve as a sink for the hydrogen in the animal's gut - absorbing it before the methanogens can consume it - and produce hydrogenated fats which the animal can then store or digest for energy. Sunflower oil, for example, can lower methane by 21 per cent in cattle fed a high corn diet. The caveat to this approach, says Kebreab, is that the oils cannot exceed more than 5 per cent of the animal's total diet or it will stop eating the enriched food.

Legumes such as clover can also help to reduce methane levels in burps. The key seems to be the high level of tannins in the clover, says Jamie Newbold, an animal scientist at Aberystwyth University in the UK. Tannins, which give red wine its colour, are thought to slow the growth of methanogens, thus curbing methane production.

Legumes such as clover can help reduce methane levels in cow burps

Earlier this year, Newbold reported that a plant extract from garlic, called allicin, could dramatically lower methane output by between 25 and 50 per cent. While this would benefit the climate, nobody has yet tested whether it would affect the flavour of the milk and meat from these animals.

Athol Klieve, a microbiologist at the Department of Primary Industries and Fisheries in Brisbane, Australia, thinks it might be possible to cut cows and sheep methane emissions completely. He has just completed a census of microbes inhabiting the gut of the eastern grey and red kangaroos and has identified three distinct species of acetogens in the forestomach of kangaroos. Acetogens are also present in cattle and sheep, so he is now exploring whether the acetogens in ruminants can out-compete the methanogens and become the dominant species in the gut, as they are in the kangaroo.

All of these approaches will take a long time to develop, though, and when it comes to climate change, time is not on our side. "If livestock populations rise as projected then high-tech solutions [such as vaccines and feed additives] are just fiddling around at the edges," says Peter Smith, who studies how climate change impacts soil and agriculture at University of Aberdeen, UK. "If people ate less meat, there would be fewer animals, and less methane would be emitted." Tom Wirth, at the US Environmental Protection Agency, thinks chemicals added to the feed could cause problems with the animal's digestion, and he wonders whether consumers would want to eat an animal that had been injected with a methanogen vaccine.

There is a simpler alternative. Two Australian biologists say there is a sure-fire way to reduce methane emissions without resorting to complex biotechnology: cut the number of cattle and sheep being reared and meet the demand for meat with marsupials. Kangaroos produce barely any methane (see diagram) as their dominant gut flora are acetogens, not methanogens. These convert the hydrogen into acetate, a fatty acid that can also be used by cattle as an energy source. George Wilson and Melanie Edwards, based at Australian Wildlife Services in Canberra, have calculated that replacing a third of Australia's sheep and cattle with kangaroos would slash cattle emissions and reduce the nation's entire greenhouse gas output by 3 per cent. "It's not a completely wacky idea," says Wilson. "All [Australian] supermarkets already carry kangaroo meat on the shelf. It is a AU$250 million industry." Kangaroo burger anyone?

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Full of powerful wind? Bury it in the ground for later

By Glenn Fleishman

A not-so-new notion is gaining traction for storing power generated at nonpeak times: compress regular air into underground chambers, then retrieve it later to spin turbines.

Wind power can be generated any time the wind is blowing at the same cost day and night. Because there's no efficient way to store power when it's generated but not needed, utilities and wind-power farms around the world are already having to slough off power as wind-based generation scales to something beyond scattered projects.

The New York Times blogs about a variety of efforts focused on using the excess electricity from some wind systems to compress air into sealed underground chambers, such as those left behind from various kinds of pumping and mining operations. The compressed air has potential energy that can be released later.

The current generation of compressed air energy storage (CAES) systems have to burn natural gas to heat the compressed air before the air can be used to turn turbines and recapture a good fraction of the energy used in compression. Future CAES plants are planned that skip the natural-gas input, shunting waste head from compression into the decompression process.

Certain parts of the world are better suited to using CAES for energy storage. In Ontario, the Toronto Star reported a few days ago that there are 50,000 wells in the province of which just 2,000 are still in use. Some of these wells are used for a different kind of stored energy: compressed natural gas, pumped and held until demand requires its release. Others could be used to store compressed air.

The comments on the Times blog entry are particularly interesting, with the author of a significant paper on the technology chiming in, along with a wind industry representative named Michael Goggin. Goggin wrote that storage is unnecessary because other types of generation can be shut down on demand in favor of wind—water can be held behind a dam for later release or natural gas held in pipes for later burning.

But that's surprisingly idealistic. In the real world, the cheapest power is used first. If wind power is generated during nonpeak times, less money is paid for it, even with the subsidies in effect in many countries to encourage wind generation. Goggin's scenario works only if the costs are the same among different forms of generation, or a single utility owns the various forms of generation and chooses a more-expensive method to obtain carbon credits or meet greenhouse gas emission goals.

This view also requires that transmission systems are capable of moving wind power at nonpeak times precisely to where it's best needed. As Sandia National Laboratories researcher Georgianne Peek said (in a press release about an Iowa CAES project) in June 2008, "The wind blows in some areas when electricity is not needed or where the transmission system can't accept all of the energy."

If wind power can be offset from nonpeak to peak times, then it becomes more viable, and thus sees greater use. This could balance green-power principles (more wind generation) with market motivations (lowest cost).

While batteries can also be used to store energy, they are expensive to make, use hazardous and toxic metals and compounds, and can't hold energy for very long. They're useful in specific situations, like home storage and backup with solar systems. Peak shifting, in which power generation is used during off hours to be reclaimed in some form during more expensive daytime uses, involves everything from next-generation flywheels to making ice power air conditioning during the day to providing incentives and for future electric-car owners to charge their cars primarily overnight.

Original here