07/14/2017

A New Iceberg The Size of Delaware, Peering Into Jupiter’s Red Spot, And A Quantum Photon Entanglement

7:31 minutes

Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS/Jason Major

Sometime between July 10 and 12, the scrutinized Larsen C ice shelf finally cracked completely, shedding a Delaware-sized chunk into the waters off Antarctica. Nick Stockton, a science reporter for Wired, explains how the massive new iceberg fits into the climate change picture, and discusses the long-term outlook for Antarctic ice cover.

Plus, NASA’s Juno mission delivers a never-before-seen close-up of Jupiter’s Great Red Spot, and other short subjects in science.

Segment Guests

Nick Stockton

Nick Stockton is a science reporter at Wired, based in San Francisco, California.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. If you’ve been paying attention to the conversation around climate change, you may have heard of a little place called the Larsen Sea ice shelf.

It’s a thick sheet of ice stuck to the coast of Antarctica. And until recently, it was cracking, threatening to spill an iceberg the size of Delaware into the sea, and now it has finally happened. And that iceberg– it’s a big one. It weighs more than a trillion metric tons, one of the largest on record.

Here to explain the implications for climate change– plus other short subjects in science– is Nick Stockton, science reporter for WIRED in San Francisco. Welcome to Science Friday.

NICK STOCKTON: Hello, sir, how are you?

IRA FLATOW: Nice to have you back. I was worried about the Larsen sea shelf– an iceberg the size of Delaware. Should we be afraid that Antarctica is coming apart?

NICK STOCKTON: Potentially. This calving iceberg itself– this ice berg that’s calved itself– is not going to be too much problem. It is a naturally-occurring process. So scientists aren’t actually linking this calving to climate change. This ice shelf was connected to the continental ice, but it was already floating. And it broke off due to the accumulation of snow and ice.

And so what they’re mostly worried about is that this might cause the rest of the ice sheet to break up– the Larsen sea ice shelf to break apart. And that would be the big problem, because that would free up continental ice from Antarctica to also fall off into the ocean and melt.

IRA FLATOW: How much could this contribute to sea level rise, all this ice floating out there?

NICK STOCKTON: Well, this particular iceberg– pretty negligible. Even though it’s gigantic– as you mentioned, about the size of Delaware– it was already floating. So any volume that it was going to add to the ocean was mostly already there. The rest of the ice breaking, up, same story. It’s already floating.

But the stuff behind it– the stuff on the western side of Antarctica– the worst-case scenario of that melting would add about 13 feet of sea level rise. But that would take about several centuries for all that to melt and add to the volume.

IRA FLATOW: So they’re saying we don’t know if this one is connected to global warming, but we can’t rule it out.

NICK STOCKTON: We can’t rule it out. And what we do know is that the formation of a new ice shelf would be connected to global warming, because, of course, warmer temperatures make it harder for ice to accumulate.

IRA FLATOW: All right, let’s move up next to Elon Musk’s plan to save Australia with– batteries?

NICK STOCKTON: Right, yeah. Elon Musk– so Australia, if anybody been– I don’t know if people have been paying attention to Australia, but Australia put itself into a bind, energy-wise. It’d relied on natural gas to provide electricity, but had exported too much natural gas, because that’s a hot commodity.

And when their hot, hot summers came along– which is last winter for us, but summertime for them– the air conditioning– everybody trying to keep cool for those 100 degree plus days put them into deficit. And they had to do rolling brownouts to keep the power on. So Elon Musk caught wind of that, tweeted out that you could solve their energy crisis in 100 days or less with a gigantic battery, or else it’s free.

IRA FLATOW: So he’s going to build a giant battery there?

NICK STOCKTON: Right. So this week, him and the Austrian government finally signed a contract. They had to get over some kind of bureaucratic MacGuffins there. And now he has about 100 days to build this battery.

IRA FLATOW: How big does it have to be?

NICK STOCKTON: Well, he promised it to be more than 100 megawatts, which is pretty big. A contributor at WIRED actually estimated how much energy that would produce, calculating what you could do with energy. He could lift an aircraft carrier seven hundred feet out of the ocean with a battery this size.

IRA FLATOW: All right, and so how hard is it for him to make a battery that big?

NICK STOCKTON: Well, that’s proprietary secret. But what we do know from the outside is that linking together all these lithium ion cores together is pretty dangerous. As everybody remembers from the hover board incidence, putting lithium ion batteries too close together, or wiring them together imperfectly, you can start a fire or an explosion. So that’s the engineering challenge here.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, we’ll be talking a little bit later about new battery technology. But I want to move on to this next one, because this one really dazzled me a bit. We have been following this story for years. It involves a photon, a satellite, and some quantum physics– an entangled particle. Describe what they did there.

NICK STOCKTON: Yeah, so this came out of China. And China’s been working really hard on quantum entanglement. And what that means is you take quantum particles– in this case, photons, which are light particles– and tie them together using quantum mechanics so that their states are– if one particle changes its state, it affects the other particle’s state as well.

And in this case, what they’re doing is you actually monitor the state. And so, as anybody who’s familiar with Schrodinger’s cat knows, that if you try to measure the state of a particle, it automatically changes the state of that particle. And in the case of quantum entanglement, it’ll change the state of any particle that’s entangled to it.

So what the Chinese scientists did is they sent a couple photons up on a satellite, and then they had the satellite emit these photons across a big area. And then they measured the state of these photons. And as they measured the state of the photons, they saw that the other photons that they were entangled to were able to change.

And so again, the big breakthrough with this was the emitting of the photon from the satellite. This was– over 750 miles they were emitted. And photons over that distance have a tendency to break down, so this is a pretty big breakthrough.

IRA FLATOW: And some of the headlines were saying erroneously that they had teleported an object into space, right? That’s really not what they did.

NICK STOCKTON: No, not even at all. This is quantum states. This is information only.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, it’s tough to get your head around it. So they entangled these particles, sent their fellow sisters into space, and then found out that it works from 700– you know, 700 miles away. They have done this on the earth, but this is the first time in space.

Lastly, a cool new view of Jupiter. This is really cool. Tell us about that, please.

NICK STOCKTON: Yeah, so Juno is a spacecraft that NASA launched to monitor Jupiter, and this week it returned sights of Jupiter’s great, red spot, which is one of the most famous sights in the solar system. And it’s been continually observed since 1830, but it’s believed to be at least 350 years old.

And in addition to being one of the most famous sights, it’s also one of the solar system’s greatest mysteries, because nobody really knows how it started or why it persists.

IRA FLATOW: And it’s been there for hundreds of years, as long as we’ve looked at Jupiter, right?

NICK STOCKTON: Right, yeah. And so this kind of observation– scientists are hoping to learn more about what caused it and why it persists. And some of the observation they found so far is that it’s dome shaped, and it towers over the surrounding cloud systems– pretty big.

IRA FLATOW: Wow, that is spooky, yeah, right. We’ve got two spooky actions at a distance here, today. Thank you very much, Nick, for taking the time to be with us today.

NICK STOCKTON: Thank you, Ira. Have a nice weekend.

IRA FLATOW: You, too. Nick Stockton– science reporter at WIRED.

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About Christie Taylor

Christie Taylor is an associate producer for Science Friday. Her day involves diligent research, too many phone calls for an introvert, and asking scientists if they happen to have an audio recording of their research findings.

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