What’s the Best Way to Save Electricity & Decarbonize My Home?


An apartment complex in New York.

Photo: Timothy A. Clary/AFP (Getty Images)

Welcome to Burning Questions, a series where Earther answers the most common asks we get on how to address climate change. Many people want to do something, anything to help address the climate crisis. We answer your questions about how to help change your life—and the systems that will save us.

If you want to clean up the planet, there’s no better place to start than in your own home. Roughly 38% of all carbon pollution is tied to buildings.

Bad news, yes. But the bright side is, there is no shortage of tactics to clean up those emissions and doing so will save us money and make our homes more comfortable places to live. There are two big buckets to draw from when it comes to reducing how much buildings pollute: improving efficiency and electrifying everything. An increasing number of states and cities are making it easier to do both those things, trade unions are hopping on board, and some utilities are even coming around to the idea that yes, it’s a good business decision to not burn down the planet.

Better Energy Efficiency Is the Easiest First Step

If you want to make the biggest dent in your home energy bills, the answer is efficiency. It might not be as exciting as, say, putting a wind turbine in your backyard or a wall of batteries in your apartment building’s basement. But improving how efficiently homes use electricity and resources is crucial right now given our continued reliance on fossil fuels.

“Energy efficiency is more invisible than some of the other solutions, but it really is crucial for decarbonization,” said Rachel Gold, the head of the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy’s utilities program. She pointed to a recent International Energy Agency report on how we could limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit), a goal laid out in the Paris Agreement. While everyone—including this very outlet—made hay out of the need to end oil and gas exploration and renewable energy ramp up, the report also contains a message on energy efficiency: The world must do energy efficiency retrofits at “three times the average of the last two decades.”

ACEEE’s own research has found upgrading water heaters and furnaces to more efficient versions offers major carbon cuts. So, too, can adding insulation and plugging leaks where air can seep in or out. Doing so comes with added comfort by cutting down on drafty spots.

Those are relatively costly upgrades for a homeowner and require professional installers. But even smaller actions can add up, like more efficient showerheads. Yes, even the much-mocked changing your lightbulbs to LED bulbs is among those actions. In fact, ACEEE’s recommendations for improving energy efficiency standards includes light bulbs near the top of that list along with the aforementioned big-ticket items.

“Choices that you can make in your home really do matter,” Gold said, “and matter not just for yourself, but also because when you make efficient choices in your home and then talk about it with your neighbors and your friends, it really does influence them.”

Other less costly upgrades include things like smart thermostats that can further help with efficiency, though those can come with security and privacy concerns. In Texas, utilities raised some residents’ smart thermostats during a heat wave to conserve electricity, so if you go that route, read the fine print. But these devices and other appliances that can connect to the internet and stay abreast of electricity rates could provide savings while using less energy.

“There’s all sorts of cool stuff that we can bring into that picture like flexible demands [where] your water heater is going to know that it’s windy in the middle of the night and use that time to heat up the water so that it’s ready to go when you want to take a shower in the morning,” said Mike Henchen, a principal at the Rocky Mountain Institute who’s working on building decarbonization.

Electrifying Everything Makes Sense, Too

It’s exceeding strange that we keep poison detectors in our homes to ensure our appliances don’t kill us. Carbon monoxide is the most immediate public health danger of gas-powered stoves, water heaters, furnaces, and other appliances. But those appliances are also frying the planet by emitting carbon dioxide and methane, an even more potent greenhouse gas. That’s why we can’t just improve-efficiency our way out of cleaning up our homes.

“[It’s] yes and,” Henchen said. “Whatever energy we’re still going to use—which is still going to be a lot—we need to understand how that energy is being produced.”

Getting natural gas out of homes by installing a heat pump that efficiently handles heating, cooling, and water heating, is a surefire way to reduce your household’s carbon footprint, save money, and also not risk death by explosion or carbon monoxide poisoning. (Induction stoves are a good option, too.) These can be expensive upgrades upfront, though they’ll save money in the long run. A growing number of states and utilities offer rebate programs and incentives to install heat pumps, though, which can help bring that cost down.

Advocate for Policies So Everyone Can Enjoy the Good Life

Even those rebate programs aren’t enough to bring down costs or make more comfortable, decarbonized homes available to all. The programs there are for low-income residents—notably, the incredibly acronymed Weather Assistance Program (WAP)—are underfunded and have long waiting lists. Henchen pointed to a report by the Green and Healthy Homes Initiative that shows only 35,000 households get weatherized a year through the program while there are 40 million that qualify.

Remember, we need to triple the rate of efficiency upgrades to meet the Paris Agreement target. That means expanding access to efficiency and electrification for all, particularly since economically disadvantaged households spend quadruple the amount of their income on utility bills as well-off ones.

So, by all means, install your heat pump and swap in your LED lightbulbs. But, as Henchen noted, “there’s a big need for public investment and housing upgrades.” For WAP alone, the Green and Healthy Homes Initiative calls for $423 billion in sustained funding for the program. That would help meet people’s needs, create jobs, and bring costs down. So, too, would proposals such as a Green New Deal for Public Housing that would address the $70 billion backlog in repairs. Both Gold and Henchen also mentioned local legislation with requirements for landlords to improve efficiency that would benefit the third of us who rent our homes or apartments.

If you don’t want to be the only one enjoying a carbon-free house, then pick one of those fights—or find another since there’s no shortage. And don’t forget to talk with your neighbors, friends, and family while you’re at it.


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Russian Space Junk Likely Hit Chinese Satellite Yunhai 1-02


A spectacular view of Earth from low Earth orbit.

A spectacular view of Earth from low Earth orbit.
Image: NASA

The mysterious breakdown of the Yunhai 1-02 satellite in March has likely been solved. The discarded remnants of an old Russian rocket appear to have smashed into the Chinese satellite, in what is an ominous sign of things to come in our increasingly cluttered low Earth orbit.

On March 22, 2021, the 18th Space Control Squadron of the U.S. Space Force published a surprising tweet announcing the breakup of Yunhai 1-02—a Chinese military satellite launched in September 2019. The breakup had occurred four days earlier, and it wasn’t immediately clear as to why this satellite, at less than two years old, should suddenly experience such a calamitous malfunction. In its tweet, the Space Force squadron said its “analysis is ongoing” and that it would track the 21 newly created pieces of debris.

This sort of thing is not without precedent. Satellites do get wrecked in orbit, though it happens very rarely. Back in 2016, for example, Japan’s Hitomi satellite spun out of control owing to human errors and crummy software; the satellite spun wildly out of control, causing it to break up. Frighteningly, a similar scenario could’ve played out on the International Space Station a few weeks ago, when Russia’s Nauka module began to fire its thrusters shortly after docking.

Another possibility is that the Yunhai 1-02 satellite was deliberately shot down. China did exactly this in 2007 with an anti-satellite (ASAT) weapon, shooting down a defunct weather satellite. The incident created hundreds of pieces of debris and considerable international angst. India did a similar thing in 2019—an incident that likewise resulted in a dangerous debris field in low Earth orbit.

A collision with space junk could explain the demise of Yunhai 1-02, and again, a precedent also exists for this sort of scenario. In 2009, the Iridium 33 communications satellite smashed into Kosmos-2251, a defunct Russian military communications satellite. NASA described the incident as being the “most severe accidental fragmentation on record,” as the collision produced more than 1,800 pieces of debris larger than 4 inches (10 cm).

Some crafty sleuthing from Jonathan McDowell, a researcher at Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, suggests something similar happened to Yunhai 1-02, in which a chunk of space junk slammed into the Chinese satellite. While scanning through the Space-Track.org catalog (which contains data from the 18th Space Control Squadron), McDowell noticed an odd note about orbital debris object 1996-051Q (48078). The debris object was described as having “collided with a satellite.”

“This is a new kind of comment entry—haven’t seen such a comment for any other satellites before,” wrote McDowell in a tweet published on Sunday, August 15. Diving deeper, the astrophysicist identified the debris object as being a remnant of a Russian Zenit-2 rocket, which delivered the Tselina-2 electronic intelligence satellite to orbit in 1996.

An obvious candidate for the affected satellite was Yunhai-1-02, which turned out to be the case. A quick analysis of the data showed that Yunhai 1-02 and the Russian space junk passed to within 0.6 miles (1 km) of each other on March 18, and “exactly when 18SPCS reports Yunhai broke up,” McDowell tweeted. To which he added: “37 debris objects have been cataloged so far from the breakup—there are likely to be more.” He describes the incident as the “first major confirmed orbital collision in a decade,” referencing the aforementioned smash-up in 2009. Despite the collision, Yunhai 1-02, though no longer in use, is still making orbital adjustments, which suggests the collision wasn’t completely catastrophic, said McDowell.

I reached out to McDowell to learn more about the offending Russian space junk, the nature of the collision, and what should happen next.

The size of debris object 48078 is not known, but it’s likely somewhere from 2 to 12 inches (5 to 30 centimeters) wide, McDowell said. He explained that in-space collision involving a small object of this size will damage a satellite, “but not destroy it completely.” Small objects are increasingly appearing in orbit, “so we expect more incidents like this, and indeed we have been seeing about one a year.”

I’ve covered some close-calls in the last several years, including an incident involving two defunct satellites: the joint NASA-Netherlands Infrared Astronomical Satellite (IRAS) and the the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory’s GGSE-4 satellite, which launched in the late 1960s. And back in June, an errant chunk of space junk pierced a hole in Canadarm2, a robotic arm currently in service on the ISS.

The space junk problem “is real,” said McDowell, “and as the number of satellites increases we should expect many more like this as well as increasing numbers of the rarer but more serious debris events.” The Space Force will continue to monitor and catalog the debris that came from this event, but McDowell says we may never get official confirmation of this apparent collision. As for Yunhai 1-02’s unexpected movements, “it’s possible that it is just tracking mistakes,” he said.

An uncomfortable amount of space junk circles Earth. Estimates from the European Space Agency suggest 900,000 objects from 0.4 to 4 inches (1 to 10 cm) and 34,000 objects larger than 4 inches (10 cm) are currently in Earth orbit.

A major concern is that debris might trigger a Kessler Syndrome, which is akin to a snowball that increasingly gets bigger as it tumbles down a maintain. Upsettingly, the debris caused by this latest collision could go on hit other objects in space, resulting in an even larger debris field. A hypothetical cascade could conceivably destroy troves of satellites, which would be very bad and make low Earth orbit inaccessible. The time has come for us to better regulate space and clean up our junk.


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People Are Stealing Water in California for Illegal Weed Farms


A bud of Maui Afghooey medical marijuana is displayed at the PureLife Alternative Wellness Center on July 27, 2012 in Los Angeles, California.

Photo: Frederic J. Brow (Getty Images)

Cannabis needs water to grow, but water is scarce in California right now. The state is experiencing a record-breaking megadrought which has been exacerbated by this summer’s extreme heat. Some weed growers are resorting to stealing water to make sure they have enough to tend to their farms.

Water theft is nothing new in California. Back during a major drought in 2014, someone stole 20,000 gallons of water from an elementary school, while others hit up fire stations and tapped into neighborhood hydrants in the middle of the night.

But a recent CalMatters investigation found that across the state, water thievery has soared to record levels. This year, residents have reported water theft to state authorities at twice the rate they had a decade ago. In northern Los Angeles County’s Antelope Valley, demand rose to three and half times normal. Up the coast in Mendocino County and Sonoma County, thieves have compromised the already depleted waterways of the Russian River.

California’s water shortage is endangering all kinds of crops, so it stands to reason that growers of all kinds could be behind these covert water operations. But the most common reason for this theft, experts believe, is keeping illegal weed farms healthy. While legal farmers and ranchers can get their water through traditional channels, those operating in secret don’t have that option.

“We are absolutely seeing more aggressive water-stealing by marijuana cultivators,” Lieutenant John Nores, head of the Fish and Wildlife’s Marijuana Enforcement Team, told NBC Bay Area. “Water is getting much more limited with the drought.”

Despite some California officials’ claims to the contrary, cannabis isn’t an especially thirsty crop. When grown legally, it requires about the same amount of water as tomatoes and about 33 times less water than almonds, the authors of a recent study found. But with so many illegal operations around the state—officials estimate that there are up to 4,000 unlawful pot farms in Nevada County alone—this activity can still make a huge dent in water supplies. In the last two years, the Fish and Wildlife’s Marijuana Enforcement Team said, unlicensed pot growers have stolen 1.2 billion gallons of water across the state, or the equivalent of 2,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools.

Officials have made some attempts to address all of this water theft. In Nevada County, investigators are cracking down, issuing cannabis search warrants in an attempt to find the culprits. In Antelope Valley earlier this year, the Los Angeles County Fire Department ordered the removal of 100 fire hydrants after so much water was clandestinely taken from hydrants that the resulting low water pressure hindered firefighting operations this past March. And last week, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors also greenlit a resolution to petition state lawmakers to give them the authority to prosecute water theft, especially during severely dry periods. With climate change increasing the odds of more extreme drought in the state and across the West, it’s important that officials do all they can to conserve water resources.

Perhaps another way to crack down on illegal water theft would be to work to bring more illicit grow operations into the legal market. As the Los Angeles Times editorial board wrote this week, when the state of California made growing weed legal in 2016, they didn’t make it very easy for legitimate growers to get their operations licensed. But aiding more farms in that process could mean a greater percentage of them are subject to state regulations, including regulations on water use. Weed growers could also adopt other, less environmentally damaging forms of growing than current indoor grow ops that dominate the industry.


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Raging Oregon Wildfire Threatens California’s Power Grid


Image for article titled Raging Oregon Wildfire Threatens California's Already Beleaguered Power Grid

Photo: Mario Tama (Getty Images)

A raging wildfire in Oregon has doubled in size to 120 squares miles (roughly 311 square kilometers) within 24 hours and now threatens vital transmission lines that carry power to California’s already beleaguered energy grid, the Associated Press reports. It’s one of dozens of blazes scorching the West Coast amid a triple-digit heat wave.

This latest threat to California’s grid—the Bootleg Fire—sparked in southern Oregon earlier this week before strong winds pushed the flames toward Path 66, a corridor of three parallel 500 kilovolt power lines that connect the two states’ energy grids, CBS SF Bay Area reports. Containment remains at 0%, according to a Saturday update from the Oregon State Fire Marshal’s Office.

The Bootleg Fire exploded from 61 square miles (about 158 square kilometers) on Friday to 120 squares miles (about 311 square kilometers) on Saturday, NBC-affiliate KGW8 reports. The blaze has prompted mandatory evacuations and is threatening about 3,000 homes and structures, Oregon State Fire Marshal’s office told the outlet.

As the fire quickly grew out of control Friday evening, California Gov. Gavin Newsom sent out an emergency proclamation to “alleviate the heat-induced demands” already stressing the grid to its limits. The order waived permits for the use of backup power generation and called on residents and businesses to conserve energy during high-demand hours on Friday.

The energy crisis continued to get worse over the weekend. The California Independent System Operator, which runs California’s bulk electricity grid, issued a grid warning for Saturday evening as it predicted a potential energy shortfall. The state has lost 5,500 megawatts of power as a result of the Bootleg Fire’s impact, California ISO CEO Elliot Mainzer said in a press conference on Saturday.

“That is a significant fraction of the state’s power supply,” Maizer said, according to the Los Angeles Times.

That may even be an understatement. For context, in 2020 the agency declared a Stage 3 emergency for the first time in about 20 years after the unexpected loss of a 470 megawatt power plant along with the loss of nearly 1,000 megawatts from wind power.

Firefighters in Oregon are also working to contain the Jack Fire raging in Douglas County, which has grown to more than 14 square miles (37.7 square kilometers) and is 10% contained as of Saturday, according to an OSFM update. In Northern California, two lightning-caused fires continued to rage over 45 miles (72.4 kilometers) north of Lake Tahoe over the weekend. One of the fires has grown so fast so quickly that it’s generating its own lightning—because that’s apparently a thing that can happen! 

Soaring temperatures and widespread drought conditions have further exacerbated firefighting efforts. On Friday, Death Valley National Park in California hit 130 degrees Fahrenheit (54.4 degrees Celsius), one of the hottest temperatures ever reliably recorded on Earth.

More than 1,200 firefighters in California are being aided by aircraft to douse the flames. The air is so dry that some of the water dropped by these planes has evaporated before reaching the ground, state fire information officer Lisa Cox told AP.

“We’re expecting more of the same the day after and the day after and the day after,” Cox said.


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1,500 Tern Eggs Abandoned After Rogue Drone Crash Scares Birds


Illustration for article titled Frightened Terns Abandon 1,500 Eggs After a Rogue Drone Crash-Landed on Nesting Island

Photo: Mohammed Al-Shaikh (Getty Images)

Roughly 1,500 elegant tern eggs were abandoned at a southern California nesting island after a rogue drone crash-landed and scared off thousands of birds, the Orange County Register and New York Times reported this week.

Two drones were flown illegally over the Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve, a stretch of protected coastal wetlands in Southern California, on May 13, according to the Register. When one of the drones went down on the reserve’s largest nesting island, several thousand terns fled their ground nests, fearing an attack from predators.

Around this time each year, the island would be covered with terns preparing for their eggs to hatch. But there won’t be any hatchlings this year; instead, the island is littered with eggshells.

Environmental scientist and reserve manager Melissa Loebl said it’s the largest-scale abandonment of eggs the coastal site has ever seen, the Register reports. The elegant tern, which is classified as a near-threatened species, is among roughly 800 species of plants and animals that rely on the reserve as a critical habitat.

In an interview with the Times, Loebl called the scene “awful to see.”

“In my 20 years of working with wildlife and in the field, I have never seen such devastation,” she said. “My gut is wrenching.”

California Department of Fish and Wildlife officer Nicholas Molsberry told the Times that no one has come to claim the drone in the three weeks since it crashed. He added that he’s seeking a search warrant to allow him to review its memory card and hopefully trace it back to whoever was operating the drone that day. If a suspect is found, authorities plan to pursue misdemeanor criminal charges related to the needless destruction of eggs or nests, the harassment of wildlife, and the use of a drone in a closed ecological reserve, according to the outlet.

Speaking with the Register, Molsberry said drone activity has become a huge headache for the reserve, which is more frequently targeted than other state lands in Orange County because of its highly visible nesting areas.

“It’s ironic,” he said. “Drone owners are attracted by the nesting colonies of birds, and then their actions destroy it.”

Besides drones, the wetlands have also been increasingly disturbed by off-leash dogs and bikes, both of which are prohibited. With mass closures due to the coronavirus pandemic driving more people to explore the outdoors, the Bolsa Chica reserve saw its visitor count jump from 60,000 in 2019 to 100,000 in 2020, according to the Orange County Register.

Loebl told the Times that while California law prohibits drones within the reserve, she hopes this disaster will prompt the Federal Aviation Administration to issue a federal rule against operating drones in the area.


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China’s ‘Zhurong’ Rover Is About to Land on Mars


Artist’s impression of the Tianwen-1 lander.

Artist’s impression of the Tianwen-1 lander.
Image: Xinhua

Later today, China will attempt to become just the second country to successfully deploy a probe on Mars. Here’s what we know about this historic mission and how China will attempt to overcome its own “seven minutes of terror.”

After months of waiting, the cat is finally out of the bag. China’s secretive space agency had been tight-lipped about the timing of the landing, but Ye Peijian, a member of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, disclosed the information during a lecture in Beijing yesterday, saying the new rover will reach the Martian surface on Saturday, May 15 at 7:11 a.m. local time (Friday, May 14 at 7:11 p.m. EDT/ 11:11 p.m. UTC).

The China National Space Administration (CNSA) doesn’t typically provide live broadcasts of its space-based activities, so we’ll just have to wait for its official confirmation shortly after the time of the expected landing.

Launched in July 2020, China’s Tianwen-1 probe reached the Red Planet on February 24, where it’s been orbiting ever since. The probe, which also deployed an orbiter, is now set to dispatch a lander carrying the six-wheeled rover.

Protected by a heat shield, the lander will hit the Martian atmosphere at speeds reaching 2.5 miles per second (4 km/s), followed by “seven minutes of terror”—a phase when mission controllers cannot react quickly enough given the tremendous distance involved (it takes radio signals nearly 18 minutes to reach Mars).

The lander will “employ two reliable technologies—a laser range finder to work out where it is relative to Martian terrain and a microwave sensor to determine its speed more accurately,” Deep Bandivadekar, a PhD candidate at the University of Strathclyde, explained in a post published at The Conversation. “These will be used for navigational correction during its parachuted descent phase. During the powered descent phase at the end, optical and Lidar imaging will assist in hazard detection.”

Depiction of the Zhurong rover and its instruments.

Depiction of the Zhurong rover and its instruments.
Image: Zou Yongliao et al., 2021/Advances in Space Research

After landing in Utopia Planitia, the craft will deploy a ramp, which the 530-pound (240 kg) rover will use to reach the surface. The Zhurong Mars rover, whose name translates to “fire god,” will spend the next three months using its various scientific instruments to study the Martian regolith, rocks, geology, and atmosphere. The rover will also search for signs of subsurface water ice. This is now the second mission to Utopia Planitia, the previous being NASA’s Viking Lander 2 in 1976.

Should the landing be successful, China will be just the second country to land a functioning probe on Mars, the United States being the other. Some might quibble, and include the Soviet Mars 3 lander, which performed a soft landing on Mars in 1971 (the very first soft landing on Mars, to give them credit), but it managed to transmit data for a mere two minutes before permanently shutting down (the probe managed to send a single gray image with no details). A total of nine NASA missions have reached the Martian surface since 1976. The European Space Agency tried to land a rover as part of its 2016 ExoMars mission, but the Schiaparelli lander crashed due to a software error.

Along with NASA’s Perseverance rover and the UAE’s Hope probe, the Tianwen-1 mission is one of three missions to reach Mars this year. If successful, Zhurong will join Perseverance (along with its helicopter), the Curiosity rover, and the stationary InSight probe in conducting science on the Martian surface.

More: Five things to know about UAE’s first mission to Mars.


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Why Real Estate and Housing Prices in California Continue to Rise | Lee O'hanian

California is facing a housing shortage as the median price of real estate exceeded 700,000 thousand dollars for the first time in the state’s history in 2020.
My guest today is Lee Ohanian. He is a professor of economics at UCLA and senior fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution.
Today he discusses the root cause of California’s housing shortage and the high cost of real estate.
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NASA Generates Oxygen on Mars, Setting Stage for Crewed Missions


Artist’s conception of human habitats on Mars.

Artist’s conception of human habitats on Mars.
Image: NASA

NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter has captured much of the world’s attention, but an amazing new experiment, in which the Perseverance rover produced a tiny amount of oxygen, is equally deserving of praise.

On April 20, the MOXIE device on Perseverance produced roughly 5 grams of oxygen. That’s a tiny step for NASA and its rover, but a potentially huge leap for humanity and our aspirations on Mars. This small amount of oxygen—extracted from the carbon dioxide-rich Martian atmosphere—is only enough to sustain an astronaut for about five minutes, but it’s the principle of the experiment that matters. This technology demonstration shows that it’s possible to produce oxygen on Mars, a necessary requirement for sustainably working on and departing the Red Planet.

So while Ingenuity is the first human-built device to achieve powered flight on an alien world, MOXIE, or Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment, is the first human-built device to generate oxygen on another world. Both experiments are big deals, as both tests are bringing Mars closer to our reach.

MOXIE being loaded onto the Perseverance rover.

MOXIE being loaded onto the Perseverance rover.
Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Indeed, the success of this test means it might actually be possible to produce breathable oxygen directly on Mars, and just as importantly, it also means astronauts might also be able to produce rocket propellant for the journey home.

Sure, we could organize cargo missions, in which giant tanks of oxygen are transported to Mars in advance, but the associated costs and time to achieve this would be enormous. A crew of four would require about one metric ton of oxygen to sustain them on Mars for a full year, but the story is strikingly different when considering how much oxygen is needed to power rockets for launch.

“Someday we hope to send people to Mars, but they will have to take an awful lot of stuff with them,” Michael Hecht, the principal investigator of the MOXIE project, explained in an email. “The single biggest thing will be a huge tank of oxygen, about 25 tonnes of it.”

Yikes—that converts to approximately 55,100 pounds, or 25,000 kg.

Some of this oxygen will be for the astronauts to breathe, but the “bulk of it” will be used for the rocket “to take the crew off the planet and start them on their journey home again,” Hecht said.

Hence the importance of the MOXIE experiment. Should we be capable of making that oxygen on Mars, it would “save a lot of money, time, and complexity,” said Hecht, but it’s a “challenging new technology that we can only really test properly if we actually do it on Mars,” and that’s “what MOXIE is for, even though it’s a very small scale model.”

Animated cut-away of MOXIE.

The words “Mars” and “oxygen” don’t often appear together, as the Martian atmosphere consists of 96% carbon dioxide. MOXIE works by separating oxygen from carbon dioxide, leaving carbon monoxide as the waste product.

“MOXIE uses electrical energy to take carbon dioxide molecules, CO2, and separate them into two other types of molecule, carbon monoxide (CO) and oxygen (O2),” Hecht explained. “It uses a technology called electrolysis that is very similar to a fuel cell, except that a fuel cell goes the other way—it starts with fuel and oxygen and combines them to get electrical energy out.”

To perform the experiment, MOXIE had to work like an oven, reaching temperatures as high as 1,470 degrees Fahrenheit (800 degrees Celsius). The toaster-sized machine was designed to tolerate this heat, featuring 3D-printed nickel alloy components to heat and cool the gases flowing through the device, along with an aerogel to trap the heat inside. MOXIE’s gold-plated shell protected Perseverance rover from the heat during the inaugural test. The device takes about two hours to warm up, but once it’s running, MOXIE should be able to generate up to 10 grams of oxygen per hour.

Whether the device would work properly on Mars was an open question until the test was actually performed. A poor result would have appeared as a “significant degradation of performance compared to how it worked in the lab two years ago, before we bolted it into the rover to start the sequence of events that took us here today,” said Hecht. But the first run was “absolutely perfect,” he said—a promising result that suggests “we can develop and test a much larger version on Earth and expect it to work just as well on Mars.”

When asked what surprised him most about the first test, Hecht said it was the identical performance compared to tests done on Earth.

“At home, if I were to just put something in a closet for two years and take it out again, I would be surprised if it worked perfectly,” he said. “For MOXIE, we’ve subjected it to all kinds of torture, running it through heating cycles, blasting it off from Earth, leaving it in the vacuum of space, plunging through an atmosphere, exploding all sorts of deployment devices around it, and finally running it in harsh conditions on another planet—and it was completely unfazed by all this!”

The initial test of MOXIE was primarily done to make sure the device survived its trip to Mars. The team is planning to extract oxygen on at least nine more occasions, which they’ll do over the course of the next Martian year, which is nearly two years on Earth. The tests will be done in phases—the first to assess MOXIE’s functionality, followed by experiments done in varying atmospheric conditions (e.g. day versus night), and the final phase to explore different modes of operation, such as running the experiments at multiple temperatures.

The Perseverance rover landed in Jezero Crater on February 18, which was just 62 days ago. The early returns have been encouraging, with Ingenuity and now MOXIE succeeding in their respective missions, and with more tests still to go. The Mars 2020 mission is already an undeniable success, regardless of what happens next.

More: Abigail Allwood’s Hunt for Alien Fossils on Mars Has Begun


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Grim Colorado River Shows Future of Water Restrictions Is Here


A bathtub ring of light minerals shows the high water line near Hoover Dam on Lake Mead.

A bathtub ring of light minerals shows the high water line near Hoover Dam on Lake Mead.
Photo: John Locher (AP)

The West is dry and getting drier. Federal officials said this week that a major source of water for the Southwest could face some of its first official water restrictions later this year if water levels keep dropping.

New projections issued by the Bureau of Reclamation predict that the water levels in Lake Powell and Lake Mead, two manmade reservoirs along the Colorado River, will reach historically low levels in the coming months. The water level at Lake Mead is sitting at just 39%, while Lake Powell is at 36%. The government predicts that Lake Mead’s water level will fall below 1,075 feet (328 meters) by June, the level which triggers official government water shortage procedures for the seven states that get their water from the Colorado River.

The Colorado River is the West’s most important water source, suppling Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming with freshwater for drinking and agriculture. It also serves communities in Mexico as well. More than 40 million people and millions of acres of farmland rely on the river.

“For decades now [the river] hasn’t been running as much as they’d like for the water use, and there’s a number of reasons for that,” Richard Seager, a climate scientist at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University, said. Natural variability in weather patterns, including a La Niña event last winter and a dry summer season in 2020 that saw reduced precipitation across the region, was partially responsible for the low levels, Seager said. The river, Seager explained, has also historically suffered from overallocation that has only become more and more exacerbated. “Everything in the river is already allocated for use, and as the population goes up, there’s more pressure,” Seager said.

Then, of course, there’s climate change. The region the river runs through is in the midst of a historic megadrought, likely brought on partly by climate change. Rising temperatures have cut into snowpack that serves as crucial sources of water for the river and exacerbated drought conditions by increasing water evaporation. A study published last year found that for each 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit (1 degree Celsius) of warming in the basin’s region, the river’s flow could decrease by as much as 10% and could be down by as much as 30% by midcentury.

Water distribution from the river relies on a set of interim guidelines created in 2007, which were intended to dictate how the water supply should be managed for a new, warming world. But soon after the guidelines were drafted, the West was plunged into a decade of serious drought. Regulators knew they had to act, and in 2019, the states reached a contingency agreement that would cut back on water deliveries to certain regions, dictated by Lake Mead reaching certain levels. The first tier of cuts was triggered in the summer of 2019 after Lake Mead reached 1,090 feet (332 meters), with Arizona and Nevada implementing their first cutbacks. (Those cuts were relatively minor, as both states had already been working to scale back their water use voluntarily.)

Officials say that preparation measures being undertaken in states would probably mean that consumers won’t directly feel the impacts of the next round of cuts, should the lake cross the 1,075-foot threshold. But farms in central Arizona, which are first in line to cut their water share under the drought contingency plan, could see serious reductions as an important water delivery system in the state would see its water supply cut by one-third by next year.

“We’ll have to lay off employees,” Dan Thelander, a farmer in the region, told CNN of the possible cuts, saying that he may have to leave up to 40% of his land fallow. “We won’t be buying as many seeds or fertilizer or tractors, and so we’ll just have to scale down and operate a smaller farm. And so, yes, it’ll hurt a lot.”

And it’s not just agriculture that could be affected by low water levels. The water in Lake Mead also serves to power the Hoover Dam, which generates enough hydropower to serve 1.3 million people each year in Nevada, Arizona, and California. Less water in the lake, however, could mean less electricity generated by the turbines in the dam. While a dam manager told the AP that the government has been making changes to the turbines to prepare for them to function with less water, the lowering levels in the lake will probably mean that there will be less hydropower from the dam in the future.

There’s always a chance that a wetter spring or other favorable weather could reverse course and pump water levels back up to prevent restrictions from happening this time, but the odds aren’t looking good for that. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration forecast for the next three months—already the start of the dry season for the West—are likely to be even drier than normal. Drought, meanwhile, is forecast to linger in the river basin and could even worsen. This latest drama on the river is, undoubtedly, a signal for its long-term future.

“All the climate change projections say there will be less water in the river,” said Seager. “Dealing with these things now is always sort of good planning for what’s going to come. The region is going to have to adapt to having less water available.”


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The Last Two Giraffes Are Rescued From a Vanishing Kenyan Island


One of nine giraffes to be floated off the vanishing island.

One of nine giraffes to be floated off the vanishing island.
Image: Save Giraffes Now

A mother and calf are the last of nine endangered giraffes to be transported to Kenya’s mainland as rising waters threaten their home island in Lake Baringo.

Using a custom-built barge, eight females and one male have been successfully rescued from the island, according to an emailed statement from Save Giraffes Now. The daring rescue—which took 15 months of planning and work—involved the Ruko Community Conservancy, the Northern Rangelands Trust, and Kenya Wildlife Service, in addition to the Dallas-based Save Giraffes Now.

Rescued giraffes at the conservancy.

Rescued giraffes at the conservancy.
Image: Save the Giraffes

As few as 2,100 Rothschild’s giraffes exist in Africa, of which just 800 live in Kenya. A subspecies of Northern giraffe, these critically endangered animals once inhabited the entire Western Rift Valley in Kenya and Uganda, but loss of habitat and poaching has significantly reduced their numbers.

Water levels in Lake Baringo have been rising for quite some time, but the situation began to worsen last year, prompting the relocation effort. Rising waters are flooding homes and businesses along the lake, while making life precarious for a small population of giraffes living on the island. Ruko rangers had been bringing food to the island, but this was eventually deemed an implausible solution for the long term. In addition to the expense involved, it was feared that the lack of food would lead to disease and the deteriorating health of the animals.

To make the rescue happen, the conservationists built the barge, dubbed the “GiRaft,” and set aside a 4,400-acre sanctuary located within the Ruko Conservancy. After Kenya Wildlife Service gave its approval, the first giraffe, named Asiwa, was floated off the island in December 2020. The barge rests atop 60 empty drums, and the sides are reinforced to prevent the lanky animals from falling overboard.

Each giraffe was acclimated to the barge beforehand, a task accomplished by providing them with generous amounts of treats in the form of acacia leaves, seeds pods, mangos. The food was placed on the barge and repeated daily until the giraffes were comfortable getting onto the barge of their own accord. A small boat pulls the barge and its long-necked passengers on the one-mile journey to the mainland.

The barge with a Rothschild’s giraffe onboard.

The barge with a Rothschild’s giraffe onboard.
Image: Save the Giraffes

The final floating involved Ngarikoni and her daughter Noelle, who was born in December. More precautions were needed to transport the duo owing to the tender age of the young giraffe.

“We felt a great sense of urgency to complete this rescue,” David O’Connor, president of Save Giraffes Now, said in the statement. “With giraffe undergoing a silent extinction, every one we can protect matters, making this rescue an important step in supporting the survival of this species.”

With the giraffes relocated, conservationists are now hoping to populate the park with more Rothschild’s giraffes sourced from other regions in Kenya, in order to reinvigorate the gene pool. Eventually, and assuming all goes well, the giraffes will be released into the Greater Rift Valley ecosystem. Meanwhile, revenue generated from the resulting tourism will be allocated to the conservancy and to the local community to pay for healthcare and education.

Seems like a good deal for everyone, given an unfortunate situation.


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