Much of the American Southwest has been in drought conditions for more than a decade—harsher in some places than the dry spell that caused the Dust Bowl of the 1930's. Until recently, however, California had largely been spared. That changed when an air mass dubbed the Ridiculously Resilient Ridge appeared over the Pacific in the winter of 2013—an event Daniel Swain, lead author on the study and weather blogger, says is likely the result of human activity.
The Golden State usually has clearly defined wet and dry seasons. In the summer, hardly any water falls and sunlight bathes the coast. When winter comes and much of the country lies under a frozen blanket, Californians await rainstorms that roll in on the jet stream from the Pacific to water their plants and fill their reservoirs. That atmospheric current is vital to the health of California. Without it, the state is vulnerable to crop failures, forest fires, and water scarcity. Researchers peg agricultural cost of the current drought at $2.2 billion and 17,000 seasonal and part time jobs--and that's just for 2014.
Here's where the Ridiculously Resilient Ridge (RRR) comes in. Swain tells Popular Science that the high pressure air mass blocks low pressure, water-carrying storms from reaching the coast. "The ridge is sort of like a big boulder sitting in a very narrow stream," he says. Similarly, the mass is shunting away low pressure storm systems that normally carry water to California, often driving them away from the West Coast altogether and up into the Arctic.
Ridges have appeared before, but the RRR is bizarre in how long it has held on. In Earth's shifting atmosphere, air masses usually last for periods of hours or days. The RRR showed up more days than it didn't in Winter 2013. Then it did something extraordinary: it lasted into a second winter.
"This is a really rare event," said environmental scientist Noah Diffenbaugh, another researcher on the report. Such a multi-seasonal formation is unprecedented in the climate record.
Swain and his colleagues studied the drought using a model that combines data about global air circulation patterns, greenhouse gas emissions, ice loss, and precipitation. The model allows the researchers to compare real world conditions to projections of a world without all the heat-trapping gunk humans have pumped into the air, and it showed that human-produced greenhouse gasses made the appearance of the Ridiculously Resilient Ridge at least three times more likely.
As for what Californians can expect this winter, Swain doesn't have an answer. "We're comparing today to what might have been," he explains.
Whether the Ridge will return for a third go-around in the 2015 rainy season is still a mystery, but the implications are clear.
With the havok of drought and 2014 so far being the warmest Californian year on record, "Already we're seeing that we're in a different climate regime," Diffenbaugh says.
With the recent retirement of the Space Shuttle program in 2011, NASA has been in desperate need of some space taxis -- vehicles designed to transport astronauts to and from the International Space Station. For the past three years, the space agency has had to rely on Russia’s Soyuz rocket to fulfill this need, which hasn't been cheap or ideal.
But rather than build these spacecraft in house, NASA decided to outsource the problem, soliciting private American companies to come up with their own designs for ferrying NASA astronauts to lower Earth orbit. SpaceX, Boeing, and Sierra Nevada Corporation were the three top contenders for the coveted contract, and on September 16, NASA announced it would fund both SpaceX and Boeing’s designs. The two companies received a combined sum of $6.8 billion to build, test, and operate their own space taxis, which will hopefully be transporting astronauts by 2017.
While the decision was mostly met with enthusiasm and praise from experts, not everyone was so pleased with the big announcement – notably, the “loser” of the competition, the Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC). Their Dream Chaser vehicle, which many experts thought was on par with SpaceX’s Dragon V2 capsule and Boeing’s CST-100, was overlooked for inclusion in the program. And they’re not letting it go without a fight.
On Friday, SNC filed a formal bid protest with the Government Accountability Office over NASA’s decision, claiming that one of the newly awarded contracts would “result in a substantial increased cost to the public despite near equivalent technical and past performance scores.” SNC says that extra cost will be upwards of $900 million, to be exact. The press release also calls into question NASA’s rationale for making their choices, which has been somewhat of a mystery. The space agency said it would publish an official Source Selection document, detailing how the decision was made, but a date for that release hasn't been set.
As of now, all we know is that when NASA solicited proposals for CCtCap, they placed a lot of emphasis on safety, reliability of the vehicles, and cost-effectiveness. SNC claims that their Dream Chaser fulfills the requirements of the first two criteria, but that the company can build and operate their vehicle for cheaper than one of the contract winners’ vehicles. “SNC’s Dream Chaser proposal was the second lowest priced proposal in the CCtCap competition,” the press release claims. “SNC’s proposal also achieved mission suitability scores comparable to the other two proposals.”It depends on how passionate NASA is about whether or not it made the right decision.
In order to make an official protest with the GAO, companies must either be challenging the solicitation or the reward of a government contract. Most disputes are in regards to the latter situation, and when that’s the case, the protesting company must write in detail all the reasons their proposal was better.
SNC has already listed out their grievances, so the ball is in NASA’s court now. According to the GAO, NASA has to “answer” SNC’s claim within the next 30 days. That means for the next month, NASA is required to put together all of the documents that are relevant to the selection decision that they made. Those documents include their original solicitation document, which lays out all the ground rules and priorities that they valued for the program, as well as its secretive Source Selection document.
“All of those documents will be provided to us and to SNC and probably to the two winning companies that will intervene,” Ralph White, the head of the GAO’s bid protest division, tells Popular Science. “I would imagine both Boeing and SpaceX will participate in the protest process,” though they are not involved just yet.
Once SNC gets those documents, the company has an additional 10 days to respond and file its comments on the report. After that, all sorts of things can happen. The protest could get amended, the GAO could conduct an alternative dispute resolution (somewhat like an out-of-court settlement), or the office could ultimately act as a referee, hearing both sides of the argument and ruling in favor of SNC or NASA. If that happens, the GAO is legally required to have a decision within 100 days of the protest being filed, which is January 5.
However, White says the chances of the GAO actually having to make a decision are low. He notes that about four out of five protests are usually dismissed, “meaning a lot of agencies pull the plug on the protest instead of continuing to litigate it," he says. It's usually the case that the defending company will acknowledge one of the protestor's complaints and fix the problem rather than fight it.
So really, it depends on how passionate NASA is about whether or not it made the right decision. And unless NASA and SNC figure out an alternative solution outside of the protest process, it’s possible that NASA will be forced to choose Dream Chaser over one of the other contract winners. That burden of proof, however, relies on SNC. Essentially, the company has to prove that its vehicle not only meets the criteria of the original solicitation, but that that Dream Chaser is a better option than what was picked. And as White noted, it seems unlikely that Boeing and SpaceX will want to let that happen.
Unlike the teardrop-shaped design of the Dragon V2 and CST-100, the Dream Chaser has an appearance similar to a miniature Space Shuttle, having been based off NASA’s HL-20 spaceplane concept. SNC claims the design provides the Dream Chaser with “a wider range of capabilities and value including preserving the heritage of the space shuttle program through its design as a piloted, reusable, lifting-body spacecraft.”
“We speculate that these are behaviors that evolved in trees, and the bats, basically, can’t tell the difference between wind turbines and trees,” says Cryan, the lead author of the study. “Bats have been around for billions of years and there’s nothing in their history to prepare them for something that looks like a tree, yet isn’t a tree, and has ‘branches’ that are moving.”
Making the cut-in threshold higher should result in fewer of the slow-moving turbines that the bats confuse for trees. It’s a strategy that’s already been undertaken at some wind farms where endangered bats have been found dead. For example, in cases where a turbine usually starts spinning when the wind reaches 13 feet per second, then increasing its cut-in threshold to16 feet per second has reduced fatalities.
Although Cryan and his colleagues did not undertake a formal prescription in the published paper, he recommends further study of the cut-in threshold strategy for protecting tree-roosting bats. Other mitigation strategies include chasing bats away with acoustic devices, or tracking the bats and automatically disengaging the turbines as they go by.
Inspecting a ship’s cargo is a dull, tedious, time-consuming task. So a pair of researchers at MIT, including graduate student Sampriti Bhattacharyya and her advisor Harry Asada, created a small robot that resembles a squished foam ball to inspect ship cargo quickly, cheaply, and silently. They presented their findings earlier this month at the International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems.
Named EVIE, for Ellipsoidal Vehicle for Inspection and Exploration, the robot can swim as fast as three feet per minute. EVIE uses six jets to move underwater, with an algorithm determining which jets pump water and when. The half of the body that doesn’t house the jets is watertight and sealed, protecting EVIE’s controls, a battery that lasts for up to 40 minutes, an antenna, and inertial sensors.EVIE's Two Halves Courtesy of the researchers
EVIE will inspect ships using an ultrasound scanner. The watertight half of the robot has a flat panel, so the robot can cozy up to the hull of a ship, and two of the robot’s six jets are directly opposite the panel, allowing it to stay in place against the hull. The current prototype lacks ultrasound, but the working version will use ultrasound to peer into cargo holds, possibly finding the panels and false doors used by smugglers for illegal transport.
In future practice, swarms of EVIE-bots might collectively inspect ships in port, swimming and scanning underwater as a team. Bhattacharyya hopes to get the price of a functioning inspection gadget down to around $600, so that the swarms are cheap enough to be useful.EVIE On A Table Courtesy of the researchers
Human-computer interaction is a fast-growing field of study that examines questions like how people feel about robots, or what people choose to click first when they visit a webpage. With some clever setups, researchers are even able to investigate scenarios aren't quite technologically possible, such as how people react to a robot that begs not to be put away. The results of human-computer interaction studies can be fascinating, even if some of them are not applicable to everyday life… yet.
Now, a new conference is looking to throw yet another participant in the mix. The Association for Computing Machinery plans to host a conference this year about animal-human-computer interaction research. Possible study topics include prototype systems allowing animals to interact with computers, and programs that improve non-human animals' quality of life.
The new conference has already gathered research paper submissions. A review committee is deciding which papers to include. The conference will be part of a larger gathering this November, about computer entertainment technologies.
We eagerly await the list of studies scientists will present at the International Congress on Animal Human Computer Interaction. Meanwhile, here are some animal-computer tools that we've seen over the past decade:
In 2012, researchers created a touchscreen game that humans are able to play with pigs remotely.
There are numerous studies investigating whether researchers who work with mice and rats can replace traditional tests of learning, such as mazes, with touchscreen-based tests. Studies with monkeys and apes already often use touchscreens to test what the primates have learned.
There are lots of apps for pet dogs and cats, but your (and Fluffy's) mileage with them may vary.
The common denominator here is the touchscreen, which animals can tap with their noses, paw pads, and fingertips much more easily than they could manage keyboards and computer mice. One thing we'd love to see next is other ways for animals to interact with technology, perhaps by making noises or non-touch gestures that are natural to them. Oink recognition, anyone?
Below, frogs are enthralled by worms on an iPhone:
Like many people, Val Shute likes playing video games. But while she's gaming, she doesn't exactly think about the same things the average person does.
For example, Shute loved playing the video game Portal 2 when it came out in 2011. "I was really just entranced by it," she tells Popular Science. "While I was playing it, I was thinking, I'm really engaging in all sorts of problem-solving." So she decided she wanted to conduct a study on the game.
Shute researches the psychology of education at Florida State University. She and two other researchers designed and ran a study comparing Portal 2 with Lumosity, a popular brain-training game that's sold as a brain workout. After eight hours' worth of play, Portal 2 players showed more improvement in a few different standard cognitive skill tests than Lumosity players, Shute and her colleagues found. Additionally, in no test did Lumosity players show more improvement than Portal 2 players."If entertainment games actually do a better job than games designed for neuroplasticity, what that suggests is that we are clearly missing something important about neuroplasticity."
"Portal 2 kicks Lumosity's ass," Shute says.
To be sure, the duration of the study was short. Surely both Lumosity and Portal 2 fans would spend more than a couple of days playing their chosen games. Who knows what their outcomes would be then? Still, the Florida State study is notable because it may be the first to compare a sophisticated, commercially available "entertainment" video game with a commercially available brain-training game, says C. Shawn Green, a psychologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who studies video games. Green wasn't involved in Shute's work.
Shute's study isn't enough to say that Portal 2 is better for the brain than Lumosity is. But it does bring up an interesting problem.
"If entertainment games actually do a better job than games designed for neuroplasticity," Green says, "what that suggests is that we are clearly missing something important about neuroplasticity." "Neuroplasticity" is the idea that the brain, particularly the adult brain, is able to grow and change with training, learning, and playing.
The new study jibes with previous research that has found that many video games, designed to entertain, can have positive effects on the brain, while not all commercial products sold as improving cognition work as advertised.
"Have we actually found the active ingredients for neuroplasticity, or are these commercial games sort of better?" Green asks, rhetorically.
Meanwhile, Shute does have one small hope for her study: That it encourages other scientists studying the cognitive benefits of video games to use more rigorous controls. Often, video-game studies compare sophisticated, well-designed games with something simple, like Solitaire or Tetris, Shute explains. That's not a fair comparison because study volunteers will already expect not to improve their brains with Solitaire, while they may expect to improve playing a more sophisticated game. "The more conservative approach is to have something equally as plausible and equally as active," Shute says. Well-known brain-training games, like Lumosity, fit the bill.
Shute and her colleagues published their work in the journal Computers & Education.