Monday, July 20, 2020

What is at stake when an Arctic town hit record high temperature

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Charvi Trivedi

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What is at stake when an Arctic town hit record high temperature

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Global Views 360

Publication Date

July 20, 2020

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Mountain in Altai Republic, Siberia, Russian Federation

Mountain in Altai Republic, Siberia, Russian Federation | Source: Konstantin Dyadyun via Unsplash

The Russian Arctic region of Siberia has front row tickets to an approaching climate change rollercoaster ride as it experiences soaring temperatures.

The mercury climbed to 38⁰C (100.4F) in Verkhoyansk, Siberia in June 2020 creating the new record of highest temperature in the arctic region and beating Fort Yukon, Alaska, which recorded 37.8⁰C in June 1915. The forecast for the coming weeks was also a whopping 10⁰C higher than last year. This region is also known for experiencing the coldest temperatures, reaching as low as minus 60⁰C during winters.

Concerned scientists claim that the Arctic is heating with double the speed of global average. “Such heat-waves aren't necessarily new to Siberia, but that climate change is increasing their severity and length,” says Sergei Semyonov of the Yu. A. Izrael Institute of Global Climate and Ecology in Moscow.

The heat waves are occurring due to a ‘heat dome’ effect in the Arctic region. This phenomenon happens when the Air is pushed and compressed, creating a very high mass of air into one location. This heavy air prevents clouds from forming, keeping the weather sunny, and pushes warm temperatures down to the surface which creates a virtual dome in which heat is trapped for a long duration.

This has led to devastating consequences for the environment of the arctic region. The forest areas of Sakha Republic, Russian Federation are witnessing rampant Wildfires. In Siberia, a major diesel oil spill incident happened due to the melting of Permafrost and caused contamination in the Ambarnaya River.

Permafrost serves as a foundation for almost the entire Northern Hemisphere’s landmass and is also responsible for trapping twice the amount of carbon found in the atmosphere. This is a cause of concern, not only for the Arctic, but for the entire globe as it would amount to release of more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Global warming is further fuelling the increase in temperatures of the frigid regions. May 2020 was reportedly the warmest month, according to the climate report of Copernicus Climate Change Service. As a result, snow in these areas melted earlier than it was supposed to. In 2012 as well, around 97% of the ice sheets in Greenland turned to slush due to extensive warming and in 2016, the warm climate in Norway resulted in rainfall instead of snowfall.

From these observations, it would be fitting to state that our planet is undergoing ‘Polar Amplification’, meaning, quicker warming of the poles. Snow cover helps in reflecting the sunlight back in the atmosphere. However, with the gradual warming of Earth, the amount of snow is declining and more heat is being captured instead of being reflected. Melting of snow and icy bodies contributes to sea level rise, increasing the probability of floods in low lying coastal areas.

These events are indicative of the degrading health of our planet which to a large extent are caused by our reckless actions. If we persist with business as usual, the survival of the human race may be as endangered as that of the Siberian tigers.

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April 13, 2021 2:10 PM

Detecting The Ultra-High Energy Cosmic Rays With Smartphones

Smartphones have become the most commonplace objects in our daily lives. The unimaginable power that we hold in our hands is unrealized by most of us and, more importantly, untapped. Its creativity often gets misused but one can only hope that it’s fascinating abilities would be utilized. For example, did you know that the millions of phones around the globe can be connected to form a particle detector? The following article covers the CRAYFIS (Cosmic RAYs Found in Smartphones) phone-based application developed by the physicists from the University of California—Daniel Whiteson, Michael Mulhearn, and their team. CRAYFIS aims to take advantage of the large network of smartphones around the world and detect the cosmic or gamma rays bursts which enter the Earth’s atmosphere almost constantly.

What Are Cosmic Rays?

Cosmic rays are high velocity subatomic particles bombarding the Earth’s upper atmosphere continuously. Cosmic ray bursts have the highest energy compared to all forms of electro-magnetic radiation. When we say ultra-high energy particles (energy more than 1018^eV), we mean two million times more energetic than the ones that can be produced by the particle colliders on Earth.  These rays are thought to be more powerful than typical supernovae and can release trillions of times more energy than the Sun. They are also highly unpredictable as they can enter Earth’s atmosphere from any direction and the bursts can last for any period of time ranging from a few thousand seconds to several minutes.

Despite many theoretical hypotheses, the sources of these ultra-high energy cosmic rays are still a mystery to us even after many decades of their discovery. These rays were initially discovered in the 1960’s by the U.S. military when they were doing background checks for gamma rays after nuclear weapon testing. Cosmologists suggest that these bursts could be the result of super massive stars collapsing - leading to hypernova; or can be retraced to collisions of black holes with other black holes or neutron stars.

How Do We Detect Them?

When the high-energy particles collide with the Earth’s atmosphere, the air and the gas molecules cause them to break apart and create massive showers of relatively low-energy particles. Aurora borealis i.e., the Northern and the Southern lights are the lights that are emitted when these cosmic rays interact with the Earth’s magnetic field. Currently, these particles are hitting the Earth at a rate of about one per square meter per second. The showers get scattered to a radius of one or two kilometers consisting mostly of high-energy photons, electrons, positrons and muons. But the fact that these particles can hit the Earth anytime and anywhere is where the problem arises. Since the Earth has a massive area, it is not possible to place a detector everywhere and catch them at the exact moment.

Energetic charged particles known as cosmic rays hit our atmosphere, where they collide with air molecules to produce a shower of secondary particle | Source: CERN

Detecting such a shower requires a very big telescope, which logically means a network of individual particle detectors distributed over a mile or two-wide radius and connected to each other. The Pierre Auger Observatory in South America is the only such arrangement where 1,600 particle detectors have been scattered on 3,000 square kilometers of land. But the construction cost of the same was about $100 million. Yet, only a few cosmic ray particles could be detected using this arrangement. How do we spread this network around the Earth?

In addition to being cost-effective, such a setup must also be feasible. The Earth’s surface cannot possibly be dotted with particle detectors which cost huge fortunes. This is where smartphones come into the picture.

Detecting The Particles Using Smartphones

Smartphones are the most appropriate devices required to solve the problem. They have planet wide coverage, are affordable by most people and are being actively used by more than 1.5 billion users around the planet. Individually, these devices are low and inefficient; but a considerably dense network of such devices can give us a chance to detect cosmic ray showers belonging to the highest energy range.

Previous research has shown that smartphones have the capability of detecting ionizing radiation. The camera is the most sensitive part of the smartphone and is just the device required to meet our expectations. A CMOS (Complementary Metal Oxide Semiconductor) device is present in the camera- in which silicon photodiode pixels produce electron-hole pairs when struck by visible photons (when photons are detected by the CMOS device, it leaves traces of weakly activated pixels). The incoming rays are also laced with other noises and interference from the surroundings.  Although these devices are made to detect visible light, they still have the capability of detecting higher-energy photons and also low-ionizing particles such as the muons.

A screenshot from the app which shows the exposure time, the events- the number of particles recorded and other properties

To avoid normal light, the CRAYFIS application is to be run during nighttime with the camera facing down. As the phone processor runs the application it collects data from its surroundings using a camera as its detector element. The megapixel images (i.e., the incoming particles) are scanned at a speed of 5 to 15 frames per second, depending on the frame-processing speed of the device. Scientists expect that signals from the cosmic rays would occur rarely, i.e., around one in 500 frames. Also, there is the job of removing background data. An algorithm was created to tune the incoming particle shower by setting a threshold frequency at around 0.1 frames per second. Frames containing pixels above the threshold are stored and passed to the second stage which examines the stored frames, saving only the pixels above a second, lower threshold.

The CRAYFIS app is designed to run when the phone is not being used and when it is connected to a power source. The actual performance would be widely affected by the geometry of the smartphone’s camera and the conditions in which the data is being collected. Further, once the application is installed and is in the operating mode, no participation is required from the user, which is required to achieve wide-scale participation. When a Wifi connection is available the collected data would be uploaded to the central server so that it could be interpreted.

There is much complicated math used to trace back the information collected from the application. The most important parameters for the app are the local density of incoming particles, the detection area of the phone and the particle identification efficiency. These parameters are used to find the mean number of candidates (photons or muons) being detected. Further, the probability that a phone will detect no candidates or the probability that a phone will detect one or more candidates is given by Poisson distribution. The density of the shower is directly proportional to the incident particle energy with a distribution in x and y sensitive to the direction in which the particle came from. An Unbinned Likelihood (it is the probability of obtaining a certain data- in this case the distribution of the cosmic rays including their energy and direction, the obtained data is arranged into bins which are very, very small) analysis is used to determine the incident particle energy and direction. To eliminate background interference, a benchmark requirement has been set that at least 5 phones must detect and register a hit to be considered as a candidate.

It is impossible to express just how mind-blowing this innovation is. As the days pass, Science and Technology around us keep on surprising us and challenge us to rack our brains for more and more unique ways to deal with complex problems. The CRAYFIS app is simply beautiful and it would be a dream-come-true to the scientists if the project works out and we are able to detect these high energy, super intimidating cosmic rays with smartphones from our backyard.

Further Reading

The paper by Daniel Whiteson and team can be found here.

An exciting book “We Have No Idea” by Daniel Whiteson and cartoonist Jorge Cham can be found here.

The CRAYFIS app can be found here.

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