From fluffy pillows to concrete: The uses of captured CO2

Woman sleeping in bed

Carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions are contributing to global warming, so could technologies removing some of the gas from the atmosphere help slow the process?

When you tuck yourself into bed tonight – curling up on your memory foam mattress and fluffy pillows – consider this: you could be helping to reduce climate change.

This is because CO2 can now be captured from the air and stored in a range of everyday items in your home and on the street.

It can be used to make plastics for a whole host of things: the insulation in your fridge-freezer; the paint on your car; the soles of your shoes; and the binding of that new book you haven’t read yet.

Even the concrete your street is made of could contain captured CO2.

UK-based Econic Technologies has invented a way of encouraging CO2 – a typically unreactive gas – to react with the petrochemical raw materials used in the making of many plastics.

In this catalysed form, the CO2 can make up to 50% of the ingredients needed for making plastic. And recycling existing CO2 in this way reduces the amount of new CO2 emissions usually resulting from the process.

“Our aim is that by 2026, the technology will be used to make at least 30% of the polyols [the units making up plastic] made globally, and that would reduce CO2 emission by 3.5 million tonnes each year,” explains Rowena Sellens, chief executive of Econic Technologies.

“This is equivalent to taking more than two million cars off the road.”

CarbonCure's Robert NivenImage copyrightCARBONCURE
Image captionCarbonCure’s Robert Niven thinks his firm’s concrete is far more environmentally friendly

The company is currently working with partners in industry to introduce its technology to market.

Canadian company CarbonCure Technologies is recycling CO2 and putting it into concrete.

CarbonCure takes waste CO2 from industrial emitters – such as fertiliser producers – and injects controlled doses of the liquid gas directly into the concrete truck or mixer.

The reaction that takes place creates calcium carbonate particles that become permanently bound within the concrete – and make the concrete up to 20% stronger.

Today, CarbonCure’s technology is installed in more than 60 concrete plants across Canada and the US, supplying hundreds of construction projects.

Another company, Carbon Engineering, captures CO2 and uses it to make diesel and jet fuel. While Carbon Clean Solutions, in the Indian port of Tuticorin, captures CO2 from a coal-fired power plant and turns it into soda ash (sodium carbonate), an ingredient in fertilisers, synthetic detergents and dyes.

But will such carbon capture efforts really make much difference?

Simply put, levels of “greenhouse gases” – CO2, methane and nitrous oxide are the main ones – have been rising rapidly because we’ve been burning fossil fuels – coal, oil and gas – to make electricity and power our transportation, amongst other human activities.

Pile of plastic rubbish in front of forestImage copyrightGETTY IMAGES
Image captionShould we be reducing the amount of CO2 used in making plastics, or simply using less plastic?

At the 2015 Paris climate conference, 195 countries agreed to try to keep global temperatures to within 2C of pre-industrial times by reducing emissions.

But to achieve this target by 2030, the world needs to cut emissions – CO2 accounts for about 70% – by 12 to 14 gigatonnes per year, says John Christensen, director of a partnership between the UN Environment Programme and the Technical University of Denmark.

A gigatonne is a billion tonnes.

Econic, by contrast, hopes that by 2026, its technology will be responsible for reducing CO2 emissions by 3.5 million tonnes each year.

And CarbonCure has demonstrated that its technology can help a typical medium-sized concrete producer reduce CO2 emissions by 900 tonnes a year. Globally, the concrete industry could reduce CO2 emissions by more than 700 million tonnes a year, the company believes.

“It’s great to have these options coming up,” says Mr Christensen, “but there’s no silver bullet, no single solution.”

Doug Parr in front of windfarmImage copyrightASHLEY COOPER
Image captionGreenpeace’s Doug Parr thinks renewable energy is a better way to reduce CO2 emissions

Environmentalists are also concerned that such carbon capture technologies merely delay the fundamental shift society needs to make to become a low-carbon economy. A plastics factory producing less CO2 is still environmentally unfriendly, the argument goes.

“Research into new technologies and approaches that can help reduce carbon emissions is vital, but it must not become an excuse to delay action on tackling the root of the problem – our dependence on fossil fuels,” says Doug Parr, chief scientist at Greenpeace UK.

“A process that appears to reduce emissions or increase efficiency can lock us into maintaining industries that could be replaced with much greener options.”

In addition, Mr Christensen points out that these carbon capture technologies tend to be very costly because they are so small-scale.

Condom-detecting fingerprint test ‘set for court use

Fingerprint technology which can detect the brand of hair gel used by a suspect or whether they have handled a condom could soon be admissible in court.

The technique uses a form of mass spectrometry to detect traces of various substances within a fingerprint.

It can provide “diverse information” about a suspect, including any alcohol or drug use, researchers have said.

The Home Office said it could be “only months” before it is used in casework.

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Teams from Sheffield Hallam University have been working with West Yorkshire Police to pilot the technique.

Project lead Dr Simona Francese said the technology had been used to detect blood in a 30-year-old print, meaning it could be used in cold case reviews.

“I would want to see this technology in high-profile cases such as murder or rape. It’s very sophisticated, it’s expensive but it’s worthwhile,” she added.


How does mass spectrometry work?

Fingerprint image
Image captionDifferent particles from a fingerprint can be analysed to give more information about a person
  • The analytical technique is used to find traces of substances on or within the ridges of the fingerprint
  • It works by vaporising the sample and then firing it through an electric and magnetic field inside a vacuum
  • Particles of different mass behave differently under these conditions, which means the team at Sheffield Hallam University can identify molecules found within the print
  • The information available using this technique is diverse. For example, by looking at the proteins found in the print scientists can tell if the person is male or female

Researchers have been working with West Yorkshire Police to test the technology since 2012.

Dr Francese said: “When you think about what a fingerprint is, it’s nothing else but sweat and sweat is a biological matrix.

“It contains molecules from within your body but also molecules that you have just contaminated your fingertips with, so the amount of information there potentially to retrieve is huge.”

Dr Simona Francese
Image captionDr Simona Francese wants mass spectrometry to be used in high-profile court cases

Neil Denison, acting director of Yorkshire and the Humber Regional Scientific Support at West Yorkshire Police, said: “We’re very, very keen to keep up with criminals quite frankly, and this is one way that we can do that.

“It confirms our hopes because that’s what this work is about. It’s about looking to the future, fingerprints have been pretty dormant for 80 or 90 years but in the future we are hopeful that we’ll be able to get more useful intelligence from fingerprints that will help us in the prevention and detection of crime.”


What can we tell about a person by using mass spectrometry?

  • Their sex
  • Whether the person has touched blood and whether it is from a human or animal
  • Whether they have taken drugs. Cocaine, THC (the chemical in marijuana and cannabis), heroin, amphetamine and other drugs can be detected.
  • Whether a strand of hair is present on the fingerprint
  • If there are traces of cleaning products or cosmetics
  • Whether the person has touched condom lubricants, even determining the brand
  • What food and drink has been consumed (such as garlic and caffeine)

The Home Office has invested £80,000 in the project, with senior technical specialist Stephen Bleay writing a blueprint for all police forces in the UK to use.

He said: “There’s a lot of scientific work going on, with Sheffield Hallam University and West Yorkshire Police visiting crime scenes looking at how this technique could fit in with the work flow of collecting conventional forensic evidence and other types of evidence, such as DNA and fibres.

“I think it’s fairly close to bottoming out all the questions that could be raised in court.

“It’s possible this is only months away from being used on casework.”

Martin Holleran, senior lecturer in policing studies at York St John University, said this was a “great opportunity” for criminal investigations.

“Fingerprinting has only been around since the early 1900s. Since then you have the Edmond Locard theory of every crime leaves a trace, and this kind of builds on that,” he said.

North Korea ‘hackers steal US-South Korea war plans’

Hackers from North Korea are reported to have stolen a large cache of military documents from South Korea, including a plan to assassinate North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un.

Rhee Cheol-hee, a South Korean lawmaker, said the information was from his country’s defence ministry.

The compromised documents include wartime contingency plans drawn up by the US and South Korea.

They also include reports to the allies’ senior commanders.

The South Korean defence ministry has so far refused to comment about the allegation.

Plans for the South’s special forces were reportedly accessed, along with information on significant power plants and military facilities in the South.

Mr Rhee belongs to South Korea’s ruling party, and sits on its parliament’s defence committee. He said some 235 gigabytes of military documents had been stolen from the Defence Integrated Data Centre, and that 80% of them have yet to be identified.

The hack took place in September last year. In May, South Korea said a large amount of data had been stolen and that North Korea may have instigated the cyber attack – but gave no details of what was taken.

North Korea denied the claim.

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South Korea’s Yonhap news agency reports that Seoul has been subject to a barrage of cyber attacks by its communist neighbour in recent years, with many targeting government websites and facilities.

The isolated state is believed to have specially-trained hackers based overseas, including in China.

North Korea has accused South Korea of “fabricating” the claims.

News that Pyongyang is likely to have accessed the Seoul-Washington plans for all-out war in the Koreas will do nothing to soothe tensions between the US and North Korea.

The two nations have been at verbal loggerheads over the North’s nuclear activities, with the US pressing for a halt to missile tests and Pyongyang vowing to continue them.

Donald Trump and Kim Jong-unImage copyrightREUTERS
Image captionThe US president and his North Korean counterpart are at loggerheads over Pyongyang’s nuclear programme

The North recently claimed to have successfully tested a miniaturised hydrogen bomb, which could be loaded onto a long-range missile.

In a speech at the UN in September, US President Donald Trump threatened to destroy North Korea if it menaced the US or its allies, and said its leader “is on a suicide mission”.

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Mr Kim responded with a rare statement, vowing to “tame the mentally deranged US dotard with fire”.

Mr Trump’s latest comment took the form of a cryptic tweet at the weekend, where he warned that “only one thing will work” in dealing with North Korea, after years of talks had proved fruitless. He did not elaborate further.

Nokia kills off Ozo high-end virtual reality cameras

Ozo

Nokia is winding down its high-end virtual reality camera division.

The Ozo and its follow-up the Ozo+ had been marketed to professionals as being able to capture the “highest quality” 360-degree footage possible, and had been used by Disney among others.

But despite a recent price cut, the Finnish firm indicated that sales had been weaker than expected.

One expert said it reflected the fact that public appetite for VR content was still very limited.

In a statement, Nokia said it now planned to dedicate its efforts to developing smart health products instead, and would leave it to others to build on its work in VR.

“The slower-than-expected development of the VR market means that Nokia Technologies plans to reduce investments and focus more on technology licensing opportunities,” it said.

“The unit aims to halt development of further versions of the Ozo camera and hardware, while maintaining commitments to existing customers.”

OzoImage copyrightNOKIA
Image captionThe camera’s price restricted its audience almost solely to professionals

It added that 310 jobs were being cut as a consequence, affecting posts in Finland, the UK and US.

Helicopter shots

The original Ozo was first unveiled in July 2015. The handheld device featured eight cameras and the same number of microphones in order to capture both spherical video and spatial sound.

It initially had a $60,000 (£45,500) price tag, bringing it in line with the kind of other cameras commonly used for Hollywood movies and TV commercials.

Disney was one of the early adopters, using the equipment to create interactive behind-the-scenes footage for its Jungle Book film.

It was also used by London-based production house Alchemy VR for a forthcoming natural history documentary about the Galapagos Islands. The company’s head of production welcomed the possibilities that its relatively small size opened up.

OzoImage copyrightNOKIA
Image captionNokia brought out a second-generation product earlier this year at a lower price than the original

“The Ozo is probably the simplest camera in the world to use,” Ian Syder told the TVTechGlobal news site.

“It’s really changed the way we do VR. Suddenly, the riskier shots are possible – you can put it on a motorised dolly [cart], or strap it to a helicopter.”

However, others were more critical.

The UK-based production house SpeedVR warned clients that the file sizes which the camera created were huge, and that it struggled with scenes featuring shadows or highlights.

“For around a tenth of the price you can get higher quality elsewhere,” it blogged last year.

In April, Nokia announced a follow-up system – the Ozo+ – promising better dynamic range and sharper, cleaner images to address clients’ criticisms.

OzoImage copyrightNOKIA
Image captionThe amount of storage required and processing time involved add to the costs of using Ozo

It went on sale for $45,000 but was discounted to $25,000 five months later.

“The Ozo has clearly been a much smaller niche product than Nokia anticipated,” commented Ben Wood from the CCS Insight tech consultancy.

“The challenge was that this was extremely early stage technology and users often found it took a long time to process the content.

“And unfortunately, 360-degree content and virtual reality more broadly have not taken off as quickly as many in the industry had hoped – despite the support of platforms including Facebook and YouTube.”

Can we make fashion greener?

Milan fashion week

We continue to buy new clothes at an incredible rate. How can manufacturers reduce fashion’s environmental footprint?

According to the Valuing Our Clothes report analysing the contents of British wardrobes by the Waste Resources Action Programme (WRAP), we purchased 1,130,000 tonnes of new clothing last year in the UK.

Meanwhile, an estimated £30bn worth of our clothing hangs about gathering dust because we simply don’t have time to wear it all or don’t really like what we’re buying.

This is the epoch of “fast fashion” – a rapid production system that promises quick turnaround of trends and low prices, with a supply chain that snakes through some of the lowest wage economies on Earth.

Fast fashion brands dominate not just high streets, but our wardrobes and represent the three trillion dollar global fashion industry’s greatest success story. But at what cost?

The environmental footprint of today’s fashion industry is extraordinary, making it one of the top five most polluting industries on earth, alongside the petrochemical industry.

Many fashion industry insiders are seriously worried, not necessarily because they fret over greenhouse gases caused by the supply chain, but because there is now so much over-supply of fashion that it’s becoming difficult to have a successful season – particularly as we now have 50 seasons rather than the traditional two of spring/summer and autumn/winter.

Some commentators refer to today’s relentless cycle as a “supermarket of style”.

Cause for optimism?

But according to fashion theory, there are 101 steps to producing a garment from processes such as dyeing and finishing to pressing the garment ready for retail.

If you’re a pessimist that’s 101 chances to introduce pollution, exploitation and planetary degradation. If however you’re an optimist, that’s 101 opportunities to take the impact out of fashion!

So for a new episode of BBC Radio 4’s Costing the Earth, I travelled to Milan Fashion week to meet some disruptors (and definitely optimists) who believe we are on the cusp of a green revolution that can turn the industry around.

At the Green Carpet Fashion Awards Italia, that took place at the famous La Scala opera theatre during Milan Fashion Week it was difficult not to be blinded by the super star wattage pacing the deliberately “green” carpet (manufactured from old fishing nets and carpets).

Green carpet awardsImage copyrightANNE-MARIE BULLOCK
Image captionThe Green Carpet Fashion Awards honour disruptors who try to reduce fashion’s environmental footprint
HallImage copyrightECO AGE
Image captionThe awards were held in the magnificent La Scala opera house

But among the stars – Gisele Bundchen, Naomi Campbell, Colin Firth, Giorgio Armani were all in attendance – were a number of eco innovation show stoppers.

One model wore an eye catching dress made from apple leather and creating by emerging designer, Matje Benedetti who explained how waste apple pulp from the apple industry is mixed with polyurethane to develop the fibre.

The inclusion of ecological innovative fibres at this level – awards on the night also went to Orange Fibre, a company spinning yarn from citrus waste – points to serious investment in revolutionary new materials.

Silky skills

Case and point is provided by New York biotech start-up Modern Meadows. Here biologists work alongside creative director, Suzanne Lee and fermentation engineers to bio-fabricate leather in the laboratory.

This research and development promises a future where cows will not be required for a handbag and where fashion design intersects with biology.

Silk spinningImage copyrightGETTY IMAGES
Image captionSome in the fashion industry are looking at other options for producing fabrics

Meanwhile, Californian start up Bolt Threads has raised millions of dollars to bring its brewed spider silk to market (Stella McCartney has designed with the material) and fashion entrepreneur Miroslava Duma recently launched a $50 million fund and accelerator dedicated to bringing new sustainable fibres and fabrics to market.

In many ways this fibre revolution is long overdue. The fashion industry, for all its claims of being cutting edge, is remarkably conservative when it comes to fabrics. Humanity is almost exclusive clothed in polyester and cotton fibres, both of which have shocking environmental profiles.

This also means that the last significant innovation in materials was polyester, circa 1943!

3D printing

But what we’re also seeing here are levels of and investment in disruptive technology and innovation that have previously been applied to the technology and transport sector, applied to fashion. This is potentially a game changer.

However, we do still need to address the issue of our own over consumption, an area where we’ve made little headway.

But there’s innovation here too: designer Danit Peleg 3D prints her collections and thinks in the foreseeable future we will be able to effectively design out shopping for fashion by 3D printing to order.

It’s another innovation to get excited by and a disruption that could represent an enormous gift to the biosphere given the impact of our consumption. But I’d have to concede it’s early days for all of this innovation.

Gisele BundchenImage copyrightREUTERS
Image captionThe evening was attended by a host of stars of the fashion industry

So amid such headline-grabbing, tech-fuelled disruption is there a more immediate, human, low-tech answer right in front of us?

Psychologist Professor Carolyn Mair has observed that we’re inclined to keep stuff circulating in our wardrobe to which we’ve attached a strong personal narrative.

Mair told me about her favourite example: “a pair of lucky pants”. Many people secretly own a pair to which they attach talismanic significance and they have huge longevity!

Behaviours like these can turn fashion green. WRAP research shows that extending the life of clothes by an extra nine months of active use, in the UK, reduces the carbon, water and waste impacts of that garment by around 20-30%.

Standby then for a wardrobe future where you’ll be able to access cutting edge bio-fabricated novel material that’s been 3D printed in a pair of very lucky pants. That’s what I call fashion forward.

Siberian blue robin excites bird watchers in Orkney

Siberian blue robin

Bird watchers have been left in a bit of a flap after the rare arrival of an off-track adult Siberian blue robin in North Ronaldsay.

It is believed to be the first adult male of the breed in the UK, although juveniles have been seen before.

The bird should be spending the winter in Indonesia, but is thought to have been blown off course by bad weather.

The distinctive robin was helped out of a derelict house, and the sighting has sparked wide interest.

One of the people who spotted and helped free it, Lewis Hooper, told BBC Scotland the bird was way off track.

He said: “We hadn’t really seen much and were heading back to our bikes when something flitted across.

“We weren’t sure what it was so we chased it a little bit, it kept flitting away and suddenly it flitted into a derelict house.

“It was flitting against the window and couldn’t get out.”

The experienced group managed to catch it by hand.

‘Pretty perky’

Mr Hooper explained: “We thought we were best to go in and get it in case it hurt itself.

“It wasn’t in bad condition at all, it was pretty perky.

“It should be wintering in west Indonesia, so it’s quite a way off.

“The weather has been all over the place so who knows where it has been.”

The bird was first seen on Sunday, and was spotted again on Monday, but has not been seen since.

“People were coming from all over”, Mr Hooper added.

British mission to giant A-68 berg approved

A-68 berg

UK scientists will lead an international expedition to the huge new iceberg that recently calved in the Antarctic.

A-68, which covers an area of almost 6,000 sq km, broke away in July.

Researchers are keen to investigate the seafloor uncovered by the trillion-tonne block of ice. Previous such ventures have discovered new species.

The British Antarctic Survey has won funding to visit the berg and its calving zone in February next year.

It will use the Royal Research Ship James Clark Ross.

Iceberg size

BAS cautions, however, that the final green-light will depend on the berg’s position at the time and the state of sea-ice in the area.

A-68 will need to be well clear of the Larsen Ice Shelf from which it calved, and any marine floes on top of the water will have to be sufficiently thin to allow the JCR access.

“It’s fantastic news to have won approval,” BAS marine biologist Dr Katrin Linse, who will lead the cruise, told BBC News.

“Antarctic vessels are normally booked out years in advance and for our funders, Nerc, to give us the opportunity on this urgency grant to go this coming season is brilliant.”

The drifting berg, one of the biggest ever recorded in the Antarctic, is exposing seafloor that probably has not been free of ice cover for 120,000 years – during the peak of the last warm phase in Earth’s history known as the Eemian.

The area has already gained protected status from the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR). This gives scientists priority access and keeps commercial fishing at bay for a minimum of two years, but in all likelihood 10 years.

“We don’t really know what we’ll find; that’s what’s so exciting,” says Dr Linse. “This unknown biodiversity has been covered by shelf ice for thousands of years. It’s had no sunlight and therefore it has had no food coming in through phytoplankton.”

Past experience, though, tells the scientists they should encounter animals similar to those seen in the Antarctic deep sea – organisms that also live far away from sunlight many hundreds, even thousands, of metres down.

These include particular types of sea cucumber, starfish, bivalves and sponges, some of which have become carnivores in the absence of a phytoplankton food supply.

JCRImage copyrightBAS
Image captionLuckily, the JCR was already scheduled to be in the region

The research cruise will take samples through the water column and from the bottom sediments.

The intention is to establish a baseline from which to assess future change, as organisms that would not normally live under ice start to move in.

These “pioneers”, such as large glass sponges, are expected to have begun their colonisation by the time the German research ship Polarstern visits the area in February/March 2019.

This cruise is led from the Alfred Wegener Institute in Bremerhaven but its members will also be on the JCR and vice versa.

IcebergImage copyrightCOPERNICUS SENTINEL 3 DATA/@SIMON_RP84
Image captionThe Sentinel 3 satellite obtained this view through the cloud on Sunday, 1 October

At present, satellite images are used to monitor the berg’s position, but with the region now emerging from the austral winter it is only a matter of time before an aircraft is sent to film the ice block.

BAS intends to do this in early 2018.

“We’ll pass the berg in the JCR, certainly, but we can’t take samples off it because you never know how stable the sides are going to be,” Dr Linse added.

“We’d like to get some footage from the air and will have some drones onboard to do that.”

A-68 has been calculated to have an average thickness of about 190m, but there are places where the draft is around 210m. This means there will be some ice walls standing above the water line that may be roughly 30m high.

New evidence on how birds took to the air

Feathered dinosaur

New fossil evidence has pushed back a key step in the evolution of bird flight by millions of years.

Skeletal changes that helped birds take to the air happened 120 million years ago, during the hey day of dinosaurs, according to a specimen from China.

Features such as fused bones were thought to be present only in relatively advanced birds, living just before the dinosaurs went extinct.

A strong, rigid skeleton is part of the blueprint of modern birds.

The bird, Pterygornis dapingfangensi, lived in north-eastern China during the Early Cretaceous.

It is only the second of its kind to be discovered and is exquisitely preserved.

The find ”pushed back the date for these birds’ features by over 40 million years,” said co-researcher, Min Wang from the Institute of Vertebrate Palaeontology and Palaeoanthropology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing.

One of the requirements of all flying machines is a structure that is both strong and lightweight.

To achieve this in birds meant changes to the basic body plan of most back-boned animals.

During the course of bird evolution, some of the vertebrae and bones of the pelvic girdle fused together, as did some finger and leg bones.

And many tail, finger, and leg bones were lost.

FossilImage copyrightW. GAO
Image captionThe fossil dates back 120 million years

The specimen is the oldest known bird fossil with fully fused hands and pelvic girdles, said Dr Steve Brusatte of the University of Edinburgh, who reviewed the scientific paper, published in the journal PNAS.

”These are fundamental features of the modern bird blueprint, and are integral to giving birds the strength and rigidity needed to fly,” he explained.

”There seems to have been a lot of experimentation among early birds, with different species trying out different ways of making their skeletons stronger and better able to withstand the rigours of flight.”

Mass extinctions ‘offer cautionary tale’

Lystrosaurus, an early relative of mammals

Mass extinctions have the potential to guide modern conservation efforts, say scientists.

A study confirms the idea that upheavals of the geological past caused a drastic loss of biodiversity.

”Disaster faunas” dominated by a small number of widespread, newly-evolving species prevailed for millions of years.

Researchers warn that a sixth mass extinction is underway, which is predicted to have similar effects.

”These common trends observed in the fossil record have the potential to inform modern conservation efforts, given that the current biodiversity crisis is acknowledged as representing another mass extinction event,” say the experts.

Their work is published in the journal Nature Communications.

Supercontinent

The study analysed long-term changes in biodiversity in the supercontinent Pangaea, which incorporated almost all of the land masses on Earth.

The scientists traced the history of almost 900 animal species living between about 260 million and 175 million years ago.

This period witnessed two mass extinctions and the origins of mammals, dinosaurs, crocodiles and turtles.

The mass extinction about 252 million years ago was the largest in the Earth’s history, in which 70% of land-living animals went extinct.

One of the most common animals around this time was Lystrosaurus, an early relative of mammals, which lived in what is now Russia, China, India, Africa and Antarctica.

Fossils suggest the land-dwelling, plant-eating vertebrate dominated the Earth after many other animals went extinct.

After each mass extinction, animal communities across the globe were more similar than before, with short-lived species – so-called “disaster fauna” – becoming widespread.

“Much like in history, the past offers cautionary tales and context for our ongoing future,” said lead researcher David Button of the University of Birmingham.

”The lesson from the past is that mass extinctions have big impacts beyond just species loss.”

Scientists have warned that a sixth mass extinction in Earth’s history is underway as wildlife is lost to habitat destruction, overhunting, pollution, climate change and invasive species.

Satellites spy Antarctic ‘upside-down ice canyon’

Graphic

Scientists have identified a way in which the effects of Antarctic melting can be enhanced.

Their new satellite observations of the Dotson Ice Shelf show its losses, far from being even, are actually focused on a long, narrow sector.

In places, this has cut an inverted canyon through more than half the thickness of the shelf structure.

If the melting continued unabated, it would break Dotson in 40-50 years, not the 200 years currently projected.

“That is unlikely to happen because the ice will respond in some way to the imbalance,” said Noel Gourmelen, from the University of Edinburgh, UK.

“It’s possible the area of thinning could widen or the flow of ice could change. Both would affect the rate at which the channel forms.

“But the important point here is that Dotson is not a flat slab and it can be much thinner in places than we think it is and much closer to a stage where it might experience major change.”

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Dr Gourmelen’s new study, published in Geophysical Research Letters, uses the European Space Agency’s Cryosat and Sentinel-1 spacecraft to make a detailed examination of the thickness and movement of Dotson.

The 70km by 40km ice shelf is the floating projection of two glaciers, Kohler and Smith. As they stream off the west of Antarctica, their fronts lift up and join together, pushing out over the Amundsen Sea.

The shelf acts as a buttress to the ice behind. If Dotson were not present, Kohler and Smith would flow much faster, dumping more of their mass in the ocean, contributing to sea-level rise.

Satellites have long tracked the behaviour of the shelf, but in Cryosat in particular researchers now have an altimeter instrument that is able to retrieve much higher-resolution elevation information than ever before.

Larsen C Ice ShelfImage copyrightNOEL GOURMELEN
Image captionIce shelves are the floating protrusions of glaciers flowing off the continent

Taking the period of its observations from 2010-2016, Dr Gourmelen’s team can see that Dotson’s surface is lowering on average by about 26cm per year, which suggests the roughly 400m-thick shelf as a whole is thinning by about 2.5m per year.

But Cryosat’s sharper vision also reveals that this thinning is concentrated at a surface depression that is roughly 5km wide and 60km long.

It extends from the point where the glacier ice starts to float as it comes off the land, all the way out to the front edge of the shelf where icebergs are calved into the ocean.

What the team is able to show is that this surface depression corresponds to an incised canyon on the underside of the shelf.

The average width of this inverted gorge is 10-15km wide but it cuts up into the shelf by as much as 200m in places. The Edinburgh-led group says all the evidence suggests warm water from the deep ocean around Antarctica has got under the shelf to melt out the canyon.

“We say warm; it’s 0.6-0.7 degrees,” explains Dr Gourmelen. “It makes its way into the cavity under the shelf along a trough to the grounding line, and then it starts to rotate clockwise and rises. And it comes out on the west side. That’s where we see the thinning and the basal melt.”

Cryosat artist's impressionImage copyrightESA
Image captionArtist’s impression: Cryosat, with its radar altimeter, was launched into orbit in 2010

This export of fresh melt-water from the underside of the shelf carries with it a lot of iron from rocks scraped from the continent, and drives strong growth in plankton and other biological activity in front of Dotson.

Just a simple forward projection using the pattern and rates of thinning observed by Cryosat and Sentinel-1 in this study would lead to complete melt-through of Dotson’s front in 20 or so years, and its rear in about 40 years.

That is on the order of 170 years earlier than Dotson would thin to zero using the ice-shelf-averaged thinning rate. But as previously stated – the shelf is not a static structure and it will react to the formation of the canyon.

“An ice shelf can be a complicated thing,” says co-author Prof Andy Shepherd from Leeds University and principal scientific adviser on the Cryosat mission.

“As you thin them it reduces the traction on the feeding glaciers, allowing those glaciers to speed up; and as they speed up, they should put more ice into the ice shelf so that it thickens again. It is supposed to be a stabilising effect.”

Prof Shepherd said a new high-resolution swath mode used by Cryosat at Dotson was now being deployed elsewhere around Antarctica to look for more patterns of enhanced thinning on other ice shelves.