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Study: Guy Fawkes bonfires aren’t a factor in ice formation in clouds



Enlarge / “Remember, remember the fifth of November”: a 1997 Bonfire Night in Skinningrove, North Yorkshire, England, commemorating Guy Fawkes and The Conspiracy of the Powders plot to blow up the English Parliament and King James I.

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Tonight, people in Great Britain will celebrate Guy Fawkes Day with bonfires and elaborate fireworks displays across the country, which is why it’s also known as Bonfire Night. The downside of the festivities is that the combination temporarily pours a lot of extra particulates into the air. This is known to have an adverse effect on visibility, but scientists also suspected that elevated levels of soot that accumulates from the annual bonfires could contribute to creating ice in clouds. According to a new paper published in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Atmosphere, this doesn’t seem to be the case.

For those not familiar with this British celebration, Guy Fawkes was a member of the infamous Gunpowder Plot of 1605, whose Catholic members conspired to blow up the British House of Lords in an attempt to assassinate the Protestant King James I. Fawkes was caught guarding the cache of explosives, and the public celebrated the king’s survival by lighting bonfires. Fawkes and his fellow conspirators were executed the following January. Just days before the executions, Parliament passed the Observance of 5th November Act (aka the “Thanksgiving Act”), making the day an annual celebration.

Originally marked by extreme anti-Catholic sentiment, the nature of the celebrations evolved over the centuries. It eventually became common practice to burn Guy Fawkes in effigy—a practice memorably depicted in the climax of a season 3 episode of the BBC’s Sherlock Holmes series (“The Empty Hearse”), in which Holmes and Watson foil a modern-day plot to finish what the Gunpowder Plot had started.

Science weighs in

This is not the first study to investigate the potential adverse impacts of Bonfire Night. A 2015 study by scientists at the University of Birmingham, led by Francis Pope, examined how all that extra smoke and debris in the air impacts visibility. They chose Nottingham for their study because it had nearby monitoring stations: one to monitor visibility and the other to monitor air pollutants. They used datasets tracking weather and air pollution over a 13-year period (2000-2012) and looked for any marked decreases in visibility coinciding with Bonfire Night.

The results: on average, there was a 25-percent reduction in visibility associated with Guy Fawkes Night. And in urban locations like Nottingham, where the denser population translates into more bonfires per capita, they found as much as a 60-percent reduction in visibility.

It’s quite natural for ice to form in clouds, but a high concentration of pollutants—dust, fungus, or bacteria, for instance—can give rise to supercooled water droplets that cause clouds to freeze. That, in turn, could have significant implications for the climate, according to Benjamin Murray of the University of Leeds, a co-author of the new study, possibly providing a buffer of sorts against rising CO2 levels—or, alternatively, amplifying those effects.

A 1904 Italian advertisement for Liebig's Meat Extract depicting a Guy Fawkes Day celebration.
Enlarge / A 1904 Italian advertisement for Liebig’s Meat Extract depicting a Guy Fawkes Day celebration.

Fototeca Gilardi/Getty Images

“Clouds which contain a mixture of ice and supercooled water probably buffer the effects of CO2, but the amount of buffering is highly uncertain and in part depends on cloud processes like ice formation on aerosol particles,” Murray told Ars. “It is the response of clouds to warming that is one of the major uncertainties to our projections of how much the planet will warm for a given amount of CO2 emitted by humans. Hence, we need to understand cloud processes, like ice formation on aerosol particles, in order to improve our predictions.”

The Guy Fawkes bonfires are typically set with fuels like waste wood—often containing preservatives and paints, depending on where it was salvaged—garden waste (branches, leaves, plant stems, etc.), and old newspapers and cardboard, as well as the occasional plastic or rubber items. The resulting “combustion aerosol” can even be seen from space. Murray and his colleagues hypothesized that, given those higher levels of aerosols, they should be able to detect more ice-nucleating particle concentrations in the atmosphere during Bonfire Night.

The particles produced on Bonfire Night are probably not important for making ice in clouds.”

“Ice nucleating particles have a dramatic impact on the properties of cold clouds, but our knowledge of which aerosol particle types make effective ice nucleating particles is in its infancy,” said Murray. “Before doing these experiments, we simply did not know if the types of aerosol particles produced on Bonfire Night (soot being an important type) nucleated ice under conditions relevant for an important class of cloud containing supercooled liquid water.”

But after pulling all-nighters in November 2016 and November 2017—sampling aerosol concentrations from the balcony of the Leeds University School of Earth and Environmental building—that’s not what they found. “Despite seeing massive increases in soot and other aerosol particle concentrations, we did not observe a change in the ice nucleating particle concentrations,” said Murray. “This showed us that the particles produced on bonfire night are probably not important for making ice in clouds.”

Pope et al. suggested that brief annual exposure to the bonfires shouldn’t result in too many seriously adverse health effects in human beings. (It can, however, be risky for late-night drivers heading home after a long night of celebrating, given the reduced visibility—especially in highly humid conditions.) By contrast, Murray and his colleagues emphasized that even though it doesn’t contribute to ice nucleation, Bonfire Night remains a major pollution event. “The soot will impact climate in different ways and also has negative implications for human health,” said Murray. That’s unlikely to keep the people of Great Britain from celebrating a centuries-old tradition, however.

DOI: Journal of Geophysical Research: Atmosphere, 2020. 10.1029/2020JD032938  (About DOIs).

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The 2020 Atlantic hurricane season is finally over. What should we make of it?



Enlarge / All of 2020’s tropical storms and hurricanes in a single image.


Monday was the last “official” day of the Atlantic hurricane season, drawing down the curtain on what has been a frenetic year for storms forming in the Atlantic Ocean, Gulf of Mexico, and Caribbean Sea.

The top-line numbers are staggering: there were a total of 30 tropical storms and hurricanes, surpassing the previous record of 28 set in the year 2005. For only the second time, forecasters at the National Hurricane Center in Miami ran out of names and had to resort to using the Greek alphabet.

Of all those storms, 12 made landfall in the United States, obliterating the previous record of nine landfalling tropical storms or hurricanes set in 1916. The state of Louisiana alone experienced five landfalls. At least part of the state fell under coastal watches or warnings for tropical activity for a total of 474 hours this summer and fall. And Laura became the strongest hurricane to make landfall in the Pelican State since 1856.

Not all records broken

By some measures, however, this season was not all that extraordinary. Perhaps the best measurement of a season’s overall activity is not the number of named storms but rather its “accumulated cyclone energy,” or ACE, which sums up the intensity and duration of storms. So a weak, short-lived tropical storm counts for almost nothing, whereas a major, long-lived hurricane will quickly rack up dozens of points.

The ACE value for the 2020 Atlantic season to date is 179.8—and another weak tropical or subtropical storm could still form. This is notably higher than the climatological norm for ACE values (about 104), but it would not quite make the top 10 busiest Atlantic seasons on record, which is paced by the 1933 and 2005 seasons.

In terms of estimated damages, this season has been far from a record-breaker as well. So far, damages across the Atlantic basin are estimated at $37 billion. This is substantially less than the devastating 2017 season that included hurricanes Harvey and Irma and totaled more than $300 billion. It is also less than 2005, which featured Katrina, Rita, Wilma, and other storms topping $200 billion. One factor in 2020 was that most of the biggest storms missed heavily populated areas.

Also, the hyperactive Atlantic basin stands out amidst the other basins where tropical activity typically occurs, including the northeastern and northwestern Pacific Ocean, which were much quieter than normal this year. Overall, in 2020, the Northern Hemisphere is seeing an ACE value about 20 percent below normal levels for a calendar year.

Legacy of 2020

Perhaps the biggest legacy of this Atlantic hurricane season is the disturbing trend of tropical storms rapidly developing into strong hurricanes. This “rapid intensification” occurs when a storm’s maximum sustained winds increase by 35mph or more within the period of 24 hours, and it was observed in 10 storms this year.

Moreover, three late season storms—Delta, Eta, and Iota—increased their speeds by 100mph or more in 36 hours or less. Iota, which slammed into Nicaragua on November 17, was the latest Category 5 hurricane on record in the Atlantic.

Some recent studies, including a paper published by Nature Communications in 2019, have found that climate change has goosed intensification. The study observed, for the strongest storms, that rate of intensification over a 24-hour period increased by about 3 to 4 mph per decade from 1982 through 2009. Storms that strengthen more quickly, especially near landfall, leave coastal residents and emergency planners with less time and information to make vital preparations and calls for evacuation.

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Arecibo radio telescope’s massive instrument platform has collapsed



The immense instrument platform and the large collection of cables that supported it, all of which are now gone.

On Monday night, the enormous instrument platform that hung over the Arecibo radio telescope’s big dish collapsed due to the failure of the remaining cables supporting it. The risk of this sort of failure was the key motivation behind the National Science Foundation’s recent decision to shut down the observatory, as the potential for collapse made any attempt to repair the battered scope too dangerous for the people who would do the repairs.

Right now, details are sparse. The NSF has confirmed the collapse and says it will provide more information once it’s confirmed. A Twitter account from a user from Puerto Rico shared an image that shows the support towers that used to hold the cables that suspended the instrument platform over the dish, now with nothing but empty space between them.

The immense weight of the platform undoubtedly caused significant damage to the disk below. The huge metal cables that had supported it would likely have spread the damage well beyond where the platform landed. It’s safe to say that there is very little left of the instrument that’s in any shape to repair.

It’s precisely this sort of catastrophic event that motivated the NSF to shut down the instrument, a decision made less than two weeks ago. The separate failures of two cables earlier in the year suggested that the support system was in a fragile state, and the risks of another cable snapping in the vicinity of any human inspectors made even evaluating the strength of the remaining cables unacceptably risky. It’s difficult to describe the danger posed by the sudden release of tension in a metal cable that’s well over a hundred meters long and several centimeters thick.

With inspection considered too risky, repair and refurbishment were completely out of the question. The NSF took a lot of criticism from fans of the telescope in response to its decision, but the collapse both justifies the original decision and obviates the possibility of any alternatives, as more recent images indicate that portions of the support towers came down as well.

The resistance the NSF faced was understandable. The instrument played an important role in scientific history and was still being used when funding was available, as it provided some capabilities that were difficult to replicate elsewhere. It also played a role as the most important scientific facility in Puerto Rico, drawing scientists from elsewhere who engaged with the local research community and helped inspire students on the island to go into science. And beyond all that, it was iconic—until recently, there was nothing else like it, which made it a feature in popular culture and extended its draw well beyond the island where it was located.

Lots of its fans were sad to contemplate its end and held out hope that some other future could be possible for it. With yesterday’s collapse, the focus will have to shift to whether there’s a way to use its site for something that appropriately honors its legacy.

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Russian spaceport officials are being sacked left and right



Vladimir Putin, center, and Dmitry Rogozin, far right, tour Russia’s new Vostochny Cosmodrome in October 2015.


The controversial leader of Russia’s space enterprises, Dmitry Rogozin, has continued a spree of firings that have seen many of the nation’s top spaceport officials fired, arrested, or both.

Most recently, on November 27, Russian media reported that Rogozin fired the leader of the Center for Exploitation of Ground-Based Space Infrastructure, which administers all of Russia’s spaceports. Andrei Okhlopkov, the leader of this Roscosmos subsidiary, had previously faced a reprimand from Rogozin for “repeated shortcomings in his work.” The spaceport organization has more than 12,000 employees.

Earlier this month, Rogozin also fired Vladimir Zhuk, chief engineer of the center that administers Russian spaceports. According to Russian media reports, Zhuk was then arrested for abusing his authority in signing off on water supply contracts.

Both of these officials were working to bring Russia’s newest spaceport, Vostochny, in the far eastern region of the country, up to its full capacity. In an article titled “At Vostochny A Day Never Goes By Without Someone Going to Jail,” The Kommersant newspaper reported that Zhuk knew that water supply networks for the Vostochny spaceport were not completed when he authorized their payment. (This article was translated for Ars by Rob Mitchell).

Construction project drags on

Several other key officials connected with the Vostochny Cosmodrome—under development since 2011 and intended to reduce Russia’s reliance on the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan—have also been recently let go. These include Vostochny head Evgeny Rogoz (fired and under house arrest), Vostochny Director Roman Bobkov (fired and arrested), and Defense Ministry Inspector General Dmitriy Fomintsev (arrested).

Construction of the spaceport has been riven with corruption, often through embezzlement, and overall cost estimates of the facility have increased to more than $7.5 billion. Of the planned seven launch pads, just one is operational. A Soyuz-2 rocket first launched from this “Site 1S” in April 2016. A second pad, “Site 1A,” may see the launch of an Angara rocket next year.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has been critical of delays at Vostochny, most recently in 2019, citing concerns about corruption. It is not clear whether the latest round of firings is related to a recent meeting Putin had with Rogozin to go over the country’s space affairs. It seems that by firing and arresting his subordinates, Rogozin has so far been able to shirk the blame for the Vostochny troubles onto other officials.

Nevertheless, his time may be coming. Rogozin is no stranger to corruption concerns, and Roscosmos is facing serious financial challenges. Not only is Russia no longer receiving large payments from NASA for Soyuz seats to carry its astronauts to the International Space Station, but funding from United Launch Alliance for the RD-180 rocket engine will also be ending within a few years. And there are serious questions about whether Russia’s next-generation Angara rocket will be able to compete with SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket for commercial launches.

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