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Miles Traer and Michael C. Osborne's Posts

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Are humans really the planet’s top dogs? Geologists will make the final call

bulldog-earth-ball-cropBy now you’ve probably heard of the Anthropocene. Pin it on climate change, ocean acidification, mass extinction, resource depletion, global population, landscape transformation, or any other holy fuck hockey-stick graph: The point is that the stable environmental conditions of the Holocene -- the geologic epoch we've known and loved -- no longer apply.

The Anthropocene is more than just a fanciful notion held by those who believe homo sapiens has gone totally berserk. Bigwig geologists are taking the idea super seriously. In fact, members of the International Commission on Stratigraphy -- the masters of the official geologic timetable -- have organized a group of scientists and experts to consider formal adoption of the Anthropocene. The basic task of the Anthropocene Working Group is to try to imagine what the rock record will look like a million years in the future, and to figure out whether we humans will have a lasting enough impact to truly merit an epoch all our own.

To get a peek behind the curtain, the Generation Anthropocene producers recently sat down with four members of the Anthropocene Working Group: Jan Zalasiewicz, the group’s convener; Mike Ellis, head of climate change science at the British Geological Survey; Mark Williams, a paleobiologist at the University of Leicester; and Davor Vidas, an international lawyer and expert on the Law of the Sea.

Read more: Climate & Energy

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No Venus envy here: Earth’s evil twin shows us the climate change endgame

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Imagine Earth with toxic air, stifling heat, no water, and no signs of life -- sort of like Los Angeles. This is a world laid bare by massive and catastrophic climate change, and believe it or not, it isn't science fiction. It’s our neighbor, Venus, and it’s more similar to Earth than you might want to believe.

Venus and Earth have a lot in common: They’re practically the same size, they’re made up of basically the same stuff, and early in the life of our solar system they were nearly identical, right down to oceans and moderate atmospheres. But then climate change arrived on Venus -- the same processes that are playing out on our planet today with rising carbon dioxide and an increasing greenhouse effect -- and transformed the planet into an uninhabitable, 900-degree-F wasteland swathed in clouds of sulfuric acid.

“It’s almost as if you had a twin study -- you take these identical twins and give them different experiences in life and see how they grow up,” says David Grinspoon, an astrobiologist with the Denver Museum of Nature & Science and the NASA-sponsored astrobiology chair at the Library of Congress’s John W. Kluge Center.

Read more: Climate & Energy

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Earthshaking news from Mars, teaser edition

When the Voyager spacecraft left Earth in 1977, it carried music in case it was ever encountered by aliens. If extraterrestrial beings have found it and downloaded its contents onto their iPods, they’re now listening to Mozart, Beethoven, and Chuck Berry, among others. When the Curiosity rover landed on Mars earlier this year, it beamed back will.i.am -- and imagine, some people actually question our technological advances!

So what, exactly, is Curiosity doing out there? And what have we found so far? I recently sat down with Ken Herkenhoff, a planetary geologist for the U.S. Geological Survey and co-leader of the ChemCam team for Curiosity. ChemCam is that piece of technology that lasers rocks so we can learn what they’re made of. I talked with Herkenhoff about the rover itself, the gadgets on board, and the dicey “seven minutes of terror” involving the rocket-powered “sky crane” that lowered the rover to the Martian surface.

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Fracking and the road to a clean energy future

Photo by Shutterstock.

Those giant steel towers rising all across the United States -- they aren’t sucking oil from the ground. They’re pumping water into it, building enough pressure to break the rock and release 10-million-year-old fossil fuel. This is hydraulic fracturing, better known as fracking, and fighting it has become the cause célèbre of filmmakers, politicians, movie stars, and activists.

For good reason: The Environmental Protection Agency has found that fracking chemicals can contaminate drinking water supplies, gas companies have laid waste to rural landscapes, fracking can release methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere, and scattershot state and federal regulations allow drillers to keep the ingredients of their chemical cocktails secret. Fracking has even been linked to earthquakes.

Given all this, I’d be willing to bet a large part of my small salary that one of the following statements elicits a strong protest from those fighting the good fight against fracking. Ready? Here we go:

Read more: Climate & Energy

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The Anthropocene explained, game-show style [AUDIO]

In 2000, Nobel Prize-winning chemist Paul Crutzen suggested that humans have had such profound and far-reaching impacts on the planet that we have ushered in a new geologic age – the Age of Man, or, as Crutzen called it, the Anthropocene. The idea has been bouncing around the halls of academia ever since, and in the last few years, it has jumped from the ivory tower into popular literature and a few geek-tastic conversations over beer. The notion that humans now run this joint seems to have struck a chord.

Just getting up to speed? The team from the Generation Anthropocene podcast at Stanford University sat down in the recording studio and tried to explain everything in five short minutes. (It ended up taking seven, but who’s counting?) Just for fun, they did it game-show style.

Read more: Climate & Energy