Wednesday, 11 November 2020

Climate Solutions are Possible!

This post is about an excellent climate modelling tool called En-ROADS,  developed by MIT and other organisations.  By using a "hands-on" approach, it allows individuals or groups to learn about those factors producing climate change and also how to best to address the climate crisis.  I haven't included any sample graphics - it's better if you explore the link above. You might start with the 3 minute video demo of how it works, then try running your own model.

This is what I like about En-ROADS:  

  • Tackling climate change is tricky. Leaving aside factors such as the influence of vested interests and biased media, climate modelling requires physical, economic and social models, with a high degree of interaction between the parameters. For example, given a price per ton on carbon, how will this affect CO2 emissions and then what is the impact on mean temperature over future decades?   How does this strategy compare to (say) a tax of coal?   En-ROADS actually answers these questions, plus a great deal more.  
  • Are the models accurate?  It's reassuring that En-ROADS has been compared to many other climate models and IPCC standard scenarios (called SSPs) - it seems to give quite consistent results.  There's a lot of good climate science behind the software, and it's being regularly updated. 
  • This tool is freely accessible to the public via a simple http web page.  With so many input and output parameters the user interface it critical.  En-ROADS provides a set of the most important adjustment levers (eg adjust how much of the transport system is electrified, assume a higher or lower population growth, adjust taxes on oil etc) then shows the resultant effect on mean temperature increase, compared to "business as usual".  However there's a wealth of other results that can be displayed, plus detailed settings that can be adjusted.  This degree of transparency and detailed modelling is wonderful - it's necessary to capture the complexity, but also might be daunting for casual users.   En-ROADS therefore suggests a guided approach eg in an interactive workshop format.  

Is En-ROADS perfect?  It's scope is already very broad, so it's not surprising that some aspects can not be included.  For example
  • A global, rather than regional, model is assumed so it represents a global mean of climate policies and their results.  Note some other tools on the Climate Interactive site look into various regional issues. 
  • In general, tipping points are hard to model, plus the interaction between these positive feedback loops.   Thus in some respects En-ROADS may be too optimistic, depending on the values of various assumptions used in the model.  At least En-ROADS provides useful information, plus references,  regarding its assumptions.  
  • En-ROADS predicts outcomes such as CO2 concentrations over time, sea level rise, mean temperature increase etc.  The "business as usual" path shows over 2 degrees temperature rise by mid century and about 4 degrees by 2100.  Of course 4 degrees will probably result in catastrophic outcomes for humanity.  At present it's too hard to model the effect of this on (say) GDP. 

En-ROADS allows users to explore climate mitigation strategies in order to understand drivers and discover the most promising approaches.   It's well designed and implemented, with a lot of detailed information if users want to explore specific areas.  It also includes many examples and includes a focus on equitable carbon-neutral transformations.  

En-ROADS suggests it's possible to avoid a climate disaster via a suitable mix of strategies.  However it's not easy to achieve (say) less than two degrees average temperature rise and there's certainly no single quick fix.  

Tuesday, 6 October 2020

Checking on the Bee Hive

Temperature, humidity and other parameters of bee hives can be measured and provide useful indications of hive status and health.   Here is one example of commercially-available equipment.   

So during the last year I've been monitoring our bee hive.  A Lora system sends telemetry from Arduino-based electronics next to the hive.  Over the last Spring and Summer the temperature regulation was extremely good - usually within one degree, whatever the weather.  During Winter the temperature was highly variable and we wondered if the hive was healthy.  The Adelaide plains are fairly easy for bees during colder months and in previous Winters we left the Super on the Brood Box, however this year we removed the Super and I added extra insulation.  Happily the bee hive looked OK during some physical inspections. 

Hive Temp at end of August 

We didn't need to worry.  The plot shows temperature near the middle of the Brood Box in green, plus external temperature in black, over a one week period. Towards the end of this period the variations seem to decrease and the average temperature is rising.  

Hive Temperature, start of September  

This graph follows directly from the previous.  (My simple plotting doesn't restart the day number partway through the plot, but it's the first week of September.) Amazingly the bees have begun to closely regulate the brood temperature!   From this research,  

Honeybee larvae and pupae are extremely stenothermic, i.e. they strongly depend on accurate regulation of brood nest temperature for proper development (33–36°C).

It seems remarkable that bees can do this.  As warm-blooded mammals we can regulate temperature pretty well. But the bees are doing this for their nursery area, using both active and passive methods.  Furthermore they can turn it on or off.  They don't waste energy in thermoregulation unless there are young bees to look after.  Spring is a busy time in the bee hive!   

Apart from temperature,  we've also looked at humidity in the hive. Thermistors are easy to insert into the hive compared to humidity sensors.  For a more novel experiment, I've tried to measure the level of hive activity.  Last year our hive swarmed a few times.  We managed to capture the swarms and donate them to worthy recipients, but swarming may not be ideal for the neighbours.  So it seems useful to at least know if the hive is more active than usual.  Others have used audio and even video processing methods.  I've tried sensing the bee motion in and out of the hive via light-level variations.    Light Dependent Resistors (LDRs) at either end of the hive entrance measure the instantaneous light levels, which change as bees walk by. The figure below shows typical results over 7 days.  

Hive Activity over one week

The upper plot shows the mean light level on a log scale.   LDRs have terrific dynamic range and during the dark periods (i.e. nights) they even pick up moon light!   The lower plot shows the normalised standard deviation over intervals of about 20 seconds.  The two sensors at each end of the entrance gives rise to blue and green plots, although the green is largely over-written.  You can see that bee activity varies quite a bit from day to day, as the weather changes.  Perhaps the next step will be a temperature compensated plot that provides alerts on unusual activity.  

The activity monitoring started in Winter but the LDRs had minimal protection and failed after a few months. Close inspection shows moisture ingress on the sensor surface.   The encapsulation of LDR devices probably varies considerably.  I'm hoping my current LDRs will last longer - each is encased in the end of a glass test tube to provide more protection. This image shows one end of the bridge over the hive entrance, before installation.  The upper surface sits next to the side of the hive.  

Wednesday, 1 July 2020

21cm Radio Astronomy

The image above shows recent results from our 2m dish in Prospect looking at the 21 cm Hydrogen signal (with star positions superimposed).  It's plotted in galactic coordinates and represents data collected over a few months.  Red indicates H1 moving away from us; blue is Doppler shifted to higher frequencies as the H1 moves towards us.  Leaving the dish in a fixed position for one day gives a curved track as the Earth rotates. (For example the almost circular tracks in the slightly-lower right side arose when the antenna was close to the South Celestial Pole.  The Pointers and Southern Cross can be clearly seen near zero latitude.)     We did a talk on this project recently for AREG

Wednesday, 8 January 2020

Sun Shades to Cool the Earth?


Given the present inadequate global response to reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, some people are considering geoengineering options to ameliorate the effects of the climate changes which we have begun to observe.  Many worry that deliberate intervention in the Earth's climate system is a bad idea since the unexpected effects could be dangerous and in addition the usual fossil fuel polluters might use this solution as a "get out of gaol" card.  The top priority should be drastic GHG reduction, but it seems prudent to explore the feasibility of geoengineering methods as backup.  Hence this page briefly reviews the idea of reducing global warming by a space-based approach of solar flux reduction.   See [1] or [2] for an introduction to geoengineering. 

Solar Flux Control 
The idea of controlling solar radiation to limit climate change effects is not new (e.g. see [3]).  Terrestrial methods of geoengineering may be cheaper, but this space-based approach has potential advantages:

  • once installed, it might be possible to adjust the attenuation fairly rapidly
  • it might offer some ability for varying the solar radiation depending on latitude.  
The figure below contains a simple 2D model of flux attenuator located near the L1 Lagrange point, a distance (L in the figure) about 1.5 million km from the Earth on the left hand side.  At this location the gravitational forces towards the Earth and the Sun are balanced, providing a pseudo-stable "parking spot".   The sun's disc is shown in the right;   it subtends an angle of about half a degree from the Earth.  We assume some type of mirror is used to block solar radiation that would otherwise fall on the Earth's surface.  (Other options such as a large thin Fresnel lens to disperse sunlight have also been proposed.)  

Fig 1:  2D Model of Solar Flux Control (not to scale) 

For realistic mirror dimensions, no part of the Earth would be fully in shadow from the mirror (i.e. the umbra doesn't extend to the earth).  An observer on Earth would not notice any change in the Sun, unless equipped with a pin-hole camera or similar. Assume that the mirror's position  can be adjusted in the vertical direction shown in Fig 1.  This allows some scope in varying the flux versus latitude on the Earth.   For example a simple evaluation using the 2D model above, with a 1000 km mirror, offset by 3000km, gives the Figure 2 reduction in flux versus position on the Earth.  In this example case the mirror is located "below" the Earth-Sun midpoint so for regions near the North Pole, no part of the Sun's disc is obstructed and the attenuation is zero.   

Fig. 2: Example of Solar Flux Reduction 
Previous studies of similar sun shades have concluded that only a few percent reduction in solar radiation might counter the GHG heating effects and have suggested mirrors of similar dimensions.  

Radiation will exert a force on the mirror (solar sails use this  effect) and for (say) a 1000 km square mirror this is large (e.g. almost 8 million Newtons). However this should not pose a major problem as the structure can be placed on the Sun side of the L1 Lagrange point such that the radiation force balances the net gravitational force.  Of course second-order effects would require an active positioning system, probably provided by many small thrusters.  

The main challenge appears to be manufacture and transport of the mirror(s).  For a mirror of 1 gram per square meter, the area mentioned above requires 1 million tonnes of mirror.  Fabrication on the Earth  doesn't appear to be likely given estimates of the total mass launched into space are considerably less.   Manufacture in space seems more promising but is probably a long term project compared to the time available.  For example the moon contains a large percentage of Aluminium that might form the bulk of the reflecting material.  Some asteroids could also provide useful raw materials, such as Nickel.  If significant amounts of Aluminium could be mined and smelted on the Lunar surface, it could be used to make very thin reflecting sheets (possibly unrolled and assembled at L1) together with structural elements required for the large fleet of positioning cubesats.  Presumably the required micro-electronic components could be made on Earth, with highly automated assembly of the cubesats on the Moon and possible launch via a Space Gun


Control of solar flux seems feasible but is a long term project.  All the more reason to make rapid cuts in our greenhouse gas emissions and avoid the need for these extreme measures.  

Sunday, 17 November 2019

Back to Python

This post was for year 6 and 7 students taking a short Python class in late 2019.

(For more Python, see an earlier blog post.)
Dec 3rd 

For the last lesson of this short course, let's draw a Christmas tree!  Without any graphics, we might just use the '*' symbol.   For example:

# almost a Xmas tree!! 
height = 10
for wid in range(1,10):
    print((height-wid)*' '+wid*'*') 

gives .... 
a very simple Xmas Tree

Can you understand how this program works?  Can you improve this code?  eg a better shape, add a tree trunk,  add a snowman! or snow!!  There might be a prize for the best solution.

Nov 25th
After the class today, hopefully everybody can run the Python Editor/Compiler app on their Chromebook and save files to their Google Drive - let us know if you can not do this!

Today we discussed summing integers from 1 to N in a "for loop" and we also showed the Maths trick that gives the formula N*(N+1)/2 as the summation result.   Lastly we looked at the bottom right-hand example in my handout from last week, that finds factors of a number.   eg

# find the factors of a number
num = 12
for j in range(2, num-1):
    if int(num/j) * j == num:
    print j, ' is a factor of ', num

2 is a factor of 12
3 is a factor of 12
4 is a factor of 12
6 is a factor of 12

The key statement here is the test that divides two numbers, chops off any remainder from the division, and then multiplies by the second number (the divisor) to check if the result is equal to what we started with!   If you don't follow this, just try it out, eg 



int(12/5)*5 == 12

Now, instead of using the test "int(num/j) * j == num",  how about using Python's % (remainder) operator?   For example:


OK - so try to change the code so that it uses a remainder test to check if the second number is a factor of the first number.  You might also edit the code so that it will give an extra message when there are no factors (i.e. variable "num" is a prime).   We will look at this in the next lesson.

Nov 18th
After further investigation, it seems that the best approach with Chromebooks might be to use the Python Compiler Editor app (which should now be installed on your laptops).

This app should allow Python 2 code to be edited and saved on your Google drive.  Initially you might start with a very simple program stored on my drive at this location:

From the menu items at the bottom of the app screen, try to open the file listed above (copy and paste the long address), or you might start a new file and copy the code from below.)   Try running the code - does it work?  Do you understand how it works?  Make some changes (e.g. can you use a "for" or "while" loop to repeat the last 4 statements many times?

# maths drill
import random

n1 = random.randint(1,10)
n2 = random.randint(1,10)
prod = n1 * n2
print(str(n1)+" * "+str(n2)+" = "+str(prod))

Save the final program on your own Google drive, using the SaveAs button.  Hopefully this approach will let you edit, run and save Python programs!

If the above works, here's nice homework problem.  Please write a program to add up all the (whole) numbers from 1 to 100 and print the result.  We will discuss this next week.

Dr Bill

Monday, 20 May 2019

Climate Change: Time to Act

Surprisingly, the dangers associated with Climate Change are still poorly appreciated by the general public. Some media outlets and internet sites continue to provide little (or biased) information on this topic. This post tries to very briefly clarify why we need to take urgent action and provides links to some reliable sources.

Carbon Diode Concentration, from ice-core records and recent observations. 
Greenhouse Effects

First, let's just look at the change in CO2 concentration, say during the last 1000 years.  The recent increase to over 400 parts per million is dramatic.  Increased concentrations of this (and other) greenhouse gases since the Industrial Revolution have resulted in average temperature increases of about 1.1 degrees C.  This rise continues at about 0.2 degrees per decade.  The IPCC has recommended trying to limit the temperature rise to 1.5 degrees.  

We are already observing the effects of climate change in rainfall patterns, extreme weather events, sea-level rise, forest fires, etc and these will obviously get worse at the greenhouse gas levels rise.  IPCC points out that the effects are significantly worse when the temperature rise reaches 2 degrees.  Their models indicate that a 45% reduction in emissions is required by 2030, (from 2010 levels), to limit warming to about 1.5 degrees, with net 0% emissions by 2050.  To limit the average rise to 2 degrees requires a 25% reduction in emissions by 2030, increasing to zero emissions by 2050.  Furthermore, the general climate models can not accurately predict various tipping points that may cause abrupt worsening of global warming effects. At present it seems that some indicators of climate change(e.g. reduction in Arctic ice cover)  are developing more rapidly than IPCC models predict.  Beyond 1.5 degrees it's increasingly difficult to predict the socio-economic effects of climate change, but they are likely to be dire.   

On the present trajectory, within one generation (about 20 years) we will reach the 1.5 degree limit.  A huge effort is required in many areas, including energy generation, transport, agriculture and manufacturing, to cut greenhouse gas emissions.  Even more effort is needed if we delay.  Solutions do exist!

To quote from a recent TAI report:  
Immediate and sustained action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is needed is to avoid the most dangerous climate impacts. The cost of action should not be exaggerated to try to distract from the large and increasing cost of inaction. 

Climate Science

I'm not a climate scientist but I understand the scientific method (e.g. my previous posts on this site).  Please understand that climate science uses exactly the same approach that characterises all our technical progress since ancient history.  Hence if (say) you use a smart phone and don't believe it works by magic, you should believe in climate science!

Useful Links 

Monday, 11 February 2019

Measuring Upper Atmosphere Radiation


Last Saturday AREG flew another high altitude balloon for the SHSSP19 program  As well as two imaging payloads using the Wenet downlink, this year we decided to measure ionising radiation during the balloon flight.  Cosmic radiation levels increase as we ascend from sea level, losing the protection of our atmosphere.  Cosmic rays (mainly high energy particles from our sun and beyond) and gamma rays (high energy photons) present significant hazards to humans (and electronics) in space.  Our experiment was designed to repeat measurements of charged particle distribution in the atmosphere first carried out by Georg Pfotzer in the 1930s.

We used two radiation detectors on the Horus-52 flight.  The RD2014 solid state (SS) detector uses a set of PIN diodes (plus amplifier and limiter) that are shielded from visible light but respond to high energy photons or particles.  This product has now been superseded  but the manufacturer has very similar modules.  A Geiger Muller tube was also used to measure ionising radiation.   This requires a high voltage power supply, but fortunately uses minimal power.


The GM schematic is a synthesis of various circuits from the web and was fairly easy to build.  An oscillator drives the transistor used in the charge pump.  The basic operation is easy to describe. Current starts to flow through the 10 mH inductor when the transistor is turned on.  But inductors don't like sudden changes in current.  The voltage across the inductor is proportional to the derivative of the current (V = L dI/dt), so when the transistor turns off we get a large voltage spike. This turns on the first diode and current flows into the high voltage capacitor.   A couple more diodes and capacitors make a voltage doubler.  Since the regulation of this power supply is poor, a series of zener diodes are used to stabilise the voltage (before doubling).  The voltage applied to the detector is a little over 450V.

The GM tube itself is filled with an inert gas and normally acts like a good insulator.  However a high energy particle or photon ionises some gas molecules and initiates a discharge from anode to cathode.  In our circuit this small current is amplified by a transistor and allows current to flow briefly from the (raspberry pi) 3V supply to flash a LED and drive a falling edge to an IO pin of the RPI, causing a interrupt.  The solid state detector output was connected to another GPIO pin of the RPI.

 The left hand figure shows the overall arrangement.  The "radiation" payload in the upper half of the figure communicates via WiFi with the Wenet payload in the lower half.  High energy particles detected by either of the sensors are counted by the radiation RPI zero. Cumulative counts are stored locally on the uSD card, and also downlinked in the Wenet telemetry stream (with the camera images).


Existing Wenet code, allowed a fairly simple python script to be used on the radiation payload to count interrupts and send the current count values each few seconds via a UDP packet.  The Wenet RPI was configured to act as a WiFi Access Point (AP), collecting these secondary payload packets for inclusion in the downlink telemetry within the amateur radio 70 cm band.   On the ground, the secondary packets can be readily extracted and stored for real-time processing and display.

The two payloads are separated by some metres on the balloon train so WiFi seemed like a good method for these boxes to communicate.  We only found late in the testing that the RPI AP software was not very reliable. In addition the Wenet RPI is already heavily loaded and the AP processing can cause the processor to overhead.  Some last-minute code (mainly from Mark, VK5QI) for AP suspension and restarting overcame these issues.


The final payload is shown on the right.  From the left, the GM tube, HT supply and RPI zero are mounted on a baseboard, with the RD2014 near the bottom edge.   Three Lithium AA cells provide power to a small up convertor, as the RD2014 needs to run at 5V and this also suits the RPI. All of this fits in a foam box to provide insulation.

The first figure below shows the results from data collected on the uSD card and recovered after Horus 52 had landed.  The blue and green plots are cumulative radiation counts from the GM tube and SS detectors respectively.  The GM tube is more sensitive (much larger number of counts), probably due to its larger area. 

Real-Time Radiation Counts versus Altitude
PostScript:    RadioLab has a podcast in May 2019 on how an election count in Belgium was increased by 4096 due to a bit flip caused by cosmic ray. 

To understand the variations in radiation during the flight, the plots on the right show counts each 2 minute period. It can be seen that the radiation levels  vary significantly during the flight.

To get the best picture of radiation versus altitude we can use data collected in real-time during the flight.   While the stored data in the payload didn't contain any altitude information, the ground station software stored altitude readings from the Wenet GPS, as it collected radiation data packets.  This allows the radiation counts per 120 seconds to be plotted versus altitude.  Now the characteristic "Pfotzer Maximum" can be seen more clearly around 15 to 20 km.