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CSIRO, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 3.0

Scientists Collect the First Entries For a Library of Ice

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CSIRO, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 3.0

Glacier experts have begun the first phase of a plan to carry ice from the top of the Alps to the bottom of the world. On August 15, a team of 10 researchers will collect the very first samples on the treacherous Mont Blanc massif for a brand-new international ice library housed in an Antarctic cave. 

The Protecting Ice Memory project aims to preserve the rich information contained in our planet’s swiftly disappearing ice. To those that can read them, mountain glaciers are incredible repositories of data points on long-term changes in temperature, as well as concentrations of gases and pollutants. But as they melt, their histories go with them. So researchers are planning to take enormous, cylindrical samples called ice cores from as many mountaintops as they can, and shelve them in the still-frozen Antarctic.

It’s an idea similar to, and inspired by, the so-called Doomsday Seed Vault, a stronghold of hundreds of thousands of seeds that could help restore agricultural supplies in the event of a global food crisis. The seed vault and its precious contents are well protected, buried 390 feet under the icy ground of a remote island in the Norwegian Arctic. 

Leaders of the Protecting Ice Memory project are equally concerned about keeping their samples safe, although the threat in this case is global warming. They say that the 426-foot-long ice cores will be passed across the globe through “a strict cold chain” until they reach the French- and Italian-run Concordia Station in Antarctica. The samples’ final destination is a -65°F snow cave that project partner Institut de Recherche pour le Développement (IRD) calls “the most reliable and natural freezer in the world.” 

In addition to Italy and France, the project has found support and interest in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Brazil, the United States, Russia, China, Nepal, and Canada.

Carlo Barbante is the project’s Italian leader. "Our generation of scientists, which bears witness to global warming, has a particular responsibility to future generations," he said in the IRD press statement. "That is why we will be donating these ice samples from the world's most fragile glaciers to the scientific community of the decades and centuries to come, when these glaciers will have disappeared or lost their data quality."

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11-Year-Old Creates a Better Way to Test for Lead in Water
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In the wake of the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, a Colorado middle schooler has invented a better way to test lead levels in water, as The Cut reports.

Gitanjali Rao, an 11-year-old seventh grader in Lone Tree, Colorado just won the 2017 Discovery Education 3M Young Scientist Challenge, taking home $25,000 for the water-quality testing device she invented, called Tethys.

Rao was inspired to create the device after watching Flint's water crisis unfold over the last few years. In 2014, after the city of Flint cut costs by switching water sources used for its tap water and failed to treat it properly, lead levels in the city's water skyrocketed. By 2015, researchers testing the water found that 40 percent of homes in the city had elevated lead levels in their water, and recommended the state declare Flint's water unsafe for drinking or cooking. In December of that year, the city declared a state of emergency. Researchers have found that the lead-poisoned water resulted in a "horrifyingly large" impact on fetal death rates as well as leading to a Legionnaires' disease outbreak that killed 12 people.

A close-up of the Tethys device

Rao's parents are engineers, and she watched them as they tried to test the lead in their own house, experiencing firsthand how complicated it could be. She spotted news of a cutting-edge technology for detecting hazardous substances on MIT's engineering department website (which she checks regularly just to see "if there's anything new," as ABC News reports) then set to work creating Tethys. The device works with carbon nanotube sensors to detect lead levels faster than other current techniques, sending the results to a smartphone app.

As one of 10 finalists for the Young Scientist Challenge, Rao spent the summer working with a 3M scientist to refine her device, then presented the prototype to a panel of judges from 3M and schools across the country.

The contamination crisis in Flint is still ongoing, and Rao's invention could have a significant impact. In March 2017, Flint officials cautioned that it could be as long as two more years until the city's tap water will be safe enough to drink without filtering. The state of Michigan now plans to replace water pipes leading to 18,000 households by 2020. Until then, residents using water filters could use a device like Tethys to make sure the water they're drinking is safe. Rao plans to put most of the $25,000 prize money back into her project with the hopes of making the device commercially available.

[h/t The Cut]

All images by Andy King, courtesy of the Discovery Education 3M Young Scientist Challenge.

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Switzerland Flushes $1.8 Million in Gold Down the Sewer Every Year
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Switzerland has some pretty valuable sewer systems. As Bloomberg reports, scientists have discovered around $1.8 million worth of gold in the country's wastewater, along with $1.7 million worth of silver.

Scientists at the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology examined sewage sludge and effluents, or discharged liquid waste, from 64 water treatment plants and major Swiss rivers. They did this to assess the concentrations of various trace elements, which are "increasingly widely used in the high-tech and medical sectors," the scientists explained in a press statement. "While the ultimate fate of the various elements has been little studied to date, a large proportion is known to enter wastewater."

The study, which was recently published online in the journal Environmental Science & Technology, revealed that around 94 pounds of gold makes its way through Switzerland's sewage system each year, along with 6600 pounds of silver and high concentrations of rare metals like gadolinium and niobium. For the most part, these metals don't harm the environment, researchers say.

With gold and silver quite literally flowing through their sewers, is there any way that Switzerland could turn their wastewater into wealth? Scientists are skeptical: "The recovery of metals from wastewater or sludge is scarcely worthwhile at present, either financially or in terms of the amounts which could be extracted," the release explains.

However, in the southern canton of Ticino, which is home to several gold refineries, the "concentrations of gold in sewage sludge are sufficiently high for recovery to be potentially worthwhile," they conclude.

Switzerland is famous for its chocolate, watches, and mountains, but it's also home to major gold refineries. On average, around 70 percent of the world's gold passes through Switzerland every year—and judging from the looks of it, much of it goes down the drain. As for the sewer silver, it's a byproduct of the chemical and pharmaceutical industry, which is a cornerstone of Switzerland's economy.

[h/t Bloomberg]


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