Thursday, December 19, 2013

New Report Calls for Attention to Abrupt Impacts From Climate Change, Emphasizes Need for Early Warning System

WASHINGTON -- Climate change has increased concern over possible large and rapid changes in the physical climate system, which includes the Earth's atmosphere, land surfaces, and oceans. Some of these changes could occur within a few decades or even years, leaving little time for society and ecosystems to adapt. A new report from the National Research Council extends this idea of abrupt climate change, stating that even steady, gradual change in the physical climate system can have abrupt impacts elsewhere -- in human infrastructure and ecosystems for example -- if critical thresholds are crossed. The report calls for the development of an early warning system that could help society better anticipate sudden changes and emerging impacts.

"Research has helped us begin to distinguish more imminent threats from those that are less likely to happen this century," said James W.C. White, professor of geological sciences at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and chair of the committee that wrote the report. "Evaluating climate changes and impacts in terms of their potential magnitude and the likelihood they will occur will help policymakers and communities make informed decisions about how to prepare for or adapt to them."

But even changes in the physical climate system that happen gradually over many decades or centuries can cause abrupt ecological or socio-economic change once a "tipping point" is reached, the report adds. For example, relatively slow global sea-level rise could directly affect local infrastructure such as roads, airports, pipelines, or subway systems if a sea wall or levee is breached. And slight increases in ocean acidity or surface temperatures could cross thresholds beyond which many species cannot survive, leading to rapid and irreversible changes in ecosystems that contribute to further extinction events.

Further scientific research and enhanced monitoring of the climate, ecosystems, and social systems may be able to provide information that a tipping point is imminent, allowing time for adaptation or possibly mitigation, or that a tipping point has recently occurred, the report says.

"Right now we don't know what many of these thresholds are," White said. "But with better information, we will be able to anticipate some major changes before they occur and help reduce the potential consequences." The report identifies several research needs, such as identifying keystone species whose population decline due to an abrupt change would have cascading effects on ecosystems and ultimately on human provisions such as food supply.

If society hopes to anticipate tipping points in natural and human systems, an early warning system for abrupt changes needs to be developed, the report says. An effective system would need to include careful and vigilant monitoring, taking advantage of existing land and satellite systems and modifying them if necessary, or designing and implementing new systems when feasible. It would also need to be flexible and adaptive, regularly conducting and alternating between data collection, model testing and improvement, and model predictions that suggest future data needs.

The study was sponsored by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, National Science Foundation, U.S. intelligence community, and the National Academies. The National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, Institute of Medicine, and National Research Council make up the National Academies. For more information, visit

New Salt Compounds Challenge the Foundation of Chemistry

Dec. 19, 2013 — All good research breaks new ground, but rarely does the research unearth truths that challenge the foundation of a science. That's what Artem R. Oganov has done, and the professor of theoretical crystallography in the Department of Geosciences will have his work published in the Dec. 20, 2013 issue of the journal Science.

The paper, titled "Unexpected stable stoichiometries of sodium chlorides," documents his predictions about, and experiments in, compressing sodium chloride -- rock salt -- to form new compounds. These compounds validate his methodology for predicting the properties of objects -- a methodology now used worldwide for computational material discovery -- and hold the promise of novel materials and applications.

"I think this work is the beginning of a revolution in chemistry," Oganov says. "We found, at low pressures achievable in the lab, perfectly stable compounds that contradict the classical rules of chemistry. If you apply the rather modest pressure of 200,000 atmospheres -- for comparison purposes, the pressure at the center of the Earth is 3.6 million atmospheres -- everything we know from chemistry textbooks falls apart."

Standard chemistry textbooks say that sodium and chlorine have very different electronegativities, and thus must form an ionic compound with a well-defined composition. Sodium's charge is +1, chlorine's charge is -1; sodium will give away an electron, chlorine wants to take an electron. According to chemistry texts and common sense, the only possible combination of these atoms in a compound is 1:1 -- rock salt, or NaCl.

"We found crazy compounds that violate textbook rules -- NaCl3, NaCl7, Na3Cl2, Na2Cl, and Na3Cl," says Weiwei Zhang, the lead author and visiting scholar at the Oganov lab and Stony Brook's Center for Materials by Design, directed by Oganov. "These compounds are thermodynamically stable and, once made, remain indefinitely; nothing will make them fall apart. Classical chemistry forbids their very existence. Classical chemistry also says atoms try to fulfill the octet rule -- elements gain or lose electrons to attain an electron configuration of the nearest noble gas, with complete outer electron shells that make them very stable. Well, here that rule is not satisfied."

This opens all kinds of possibilities. Oganov posited that, if you mix NaCl with metallic sodium, compress in a diamond anvil cell, and heat, you will get sodium-rich compounds like Na3Cl. He likewise theorized that, if you take NaCl, mix it with pure chlorine, and compress and heat, you will get chlorine-rich compounds such as NaCl3. This is exactly what was seen in the experiments, which were performed by the team of Alexander F. Goncharov of Carnegie Institution of Washington, confirming Oganov's predictions. "When you change the theoretical underpinnings of chemistry, that's a big deal," Goncharov says. "But what it also means is that we can make new materials with exotic properties."

Among the compounds Oganov and his team created are two-dimensional metals, where electricity is conducted along the layers of the structure. "One of these materials -- Na3Cl -- has a fascinating structure," he says. "It is [composed of] layers of NaCl and layers of pure sodium. The NaCl layers act as insulators; the pure sodium layers conduct electricity. Systems with two-dimensional electrical conductivity have attracted a lot of interest."

Like much of science, Oganov's pursuit began with curiosity -- and obstinacy.

"For a long time, this idea was haunting me -- when a chemistry textbook says that a certain compound is impossible, what does it really mean, impossible? Because I can, on the computer, place atoms in certain positions and in certain proportions. Then I can compute the energy. 'Impossible' really means that the energy is going to be high. So how high is it going to be? And is there any way to bring that energy down, and make these compounds stable?"

To Oganov, impossible didn't mean something absolute. "The rules of chemistry are not like mathematical theorems, which cannot be broken," he says. "The rules of chemistry can be broken, because impossible only means 'softly' impossible! You just need to find conditions where these rules no longer hold."

Oganov's team harnessed their own energy to bring the research to fruition. "We have a fantastic team," he says. "The theoretical work was done here at Stony Brook; the experimental work took place at the Geophysical Laboratory in the Carnegie Institution of Washington."

Additionally, Oganov's team utilized the NSF-funded Extreme Science and Engineering Discovery Environment (XSEDE) by running USPEX code -- the world-leading code for crystal structure prediction -- on Stampede, a supercomputer at the Texas Advanced Computing Center at the University of Texas at Austin. USPEX was developed by Oganov's lab and he estimates over 1,500 researchers use it worldwide.

His discovery may have application in the planetary sciences, where high-pressure phenomena abound. It may explain results of other experiments, where researchers compressed materials and got puzzling results. His computational methodology and structure-prediction algorithms will help researchers predict material combinations and structures that exhibit desired properties and levels of stability.

"We have learned an important lesson -- that even in well-defined systems, like sodium chloride, you can find totally new chemistry, and totally new and very exciting materials," Oganov says. "It's like discovering a new continent; now we need to map the land. Current rules cannot cope with this new chemistry. We need to invent something that will."

Original article posted at:

Monday, December 16, 2013

Base Degrees on What We Know, Not How Long We Spent in a Classroom

What does a college degree really tell employers about how much an applicant knows? In the 21st Century global economy do we need a better signal than the existing standard, the college degree. Featured on Linkedin, Jeff Selingo suggests that more colleges shift from measuring learning based on how much time students spend in a classroom to a system based on how much they actually know. Sounds like he is in step with the AAEES approach for demonstrating mastery of a subject through rigorous examinations administered by individuals who are practitioners and thought leaders.

The entire article can be seen at:

Huge Reserves of Fresh Water Lie Beneath the Ocean Floor

Scientists in Australia have report the discovery of huge freshwater reserves preserved in aquifers under the world's oceans. The team's research is described in a paper published in the December 5th issue of Nature.

The entire article can be see at: