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How a hi-tech search for Genghis Khan is helping polar bears | Endangered species

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Genghis Khan got his dying wish: despite attempts by archaeologists and scientists to find the Mongolian ruler’s final resting place, the location remains a secret 800 years after his death. The search for his tomb, though, has inspired an innovative project that could help protect polar bears.

“I randomly tuned into the radio one night and heard an expert talking about the use of synthetic aperture radar [SAR] to look for Genghis Khan’s tomb,” says Tom Smith, associate professor in plant and wildlife sciences at Brigham Young University (BYU) in Utah. “They were using SAR to penetrate layers of forest canopy in upper Mongolia, looking for the ruins of a burial structure.”

Talking to engineers, including BYU’s Dr David Long, Smith learned that SAR is used by the military to detect enemy camps, tanks and vehicles hidden beneath camouflage and is being studied as a potential tool for finding avalanche survivors. He and the team at Polar Bears International (PBI) had been looking for a technology to detect polar bear dens. “It was very serendipitous that I heard that broadcast,” says Smith.

Researchers in a specially adapted plane search for simulated bear dens in a study in Utah.
Researchers search for simulated polar bear dens in a specially adapted plane, in a study in Utah. Photograph: Kt Miller/Polar Bears International

Successful pilot tests using SAR to find simulated polar bear dens took place in Alaska’s Prudhoe Bay in 2014 and 2015. The project was resurrected with trials in March 2021 on a snowy mountain plateau in Utah’s Manti-La Sal national forest. A SAR device was fitted to a Cessna O-2A Skymaster that flew 3,000ft (900 metres) over PBI researchers and BYU students digging dens a metre under the snow. With a lack of polar bears in Utah, students crawled inside to act as targets, or laid out simulated bears made from cardboard and tinfoil.

Building dens is a critical period for polar bears. For months, vulnerable cubs rely on their mother’s milk and the safety of the den to survive. As polar bears are driven further inland by receding sea ice, denning areas and oil and gas activity increasingly overlap. Disturbances can push fearful mothers to abandon their dens. The chances of survival for the weak and undeveloped cubs prematurely out on the snow and ice, are drastically reduced.

With fewer than 26,000 polar bears thought to be left globally and an estimated decline of 40% in some populations, such as the southern Beaufort Sea, every den and bear counts.

Getting reliable data on denning sites is vital. “The Arctic national wildlife refuge is the perfect example,” says BJ Kirschhoffer, PBI’s director of field operations, who led the latest tests in Utah. “Industry wants to go in and pump oil. If we have a tool that definitively says exactly where polar bear dens are, that means keeping people away from those places. If we want bears, we need baby bears, so we’ve got to protect those dens.”

SAR detects objects by sending pulses of radio waves; sensors pick up the echo or “bounce” to map an area. The aim is to find the right frequency, a sweet spot, that can penetrate snow but still detect a bear.

The current technology for detecting dens, forward-looking infrared (FLIR), which detects heat, is less than 50% effective. Smith likens it to a “divining rod”.

Polar bear cubs looking out of a den in Wapusk national park near Churchill, in Manitoba province, Canada.
Polar bear cubs looking out of a den in Wapusk national park near Churchill, in Manitoba province, Canada. Photograph: Thorsten Milse/Alamy

SAR gives a wider sweep and radar data provides specific locations, rather than just an image. It works in adverse conditions, whereas wind, snow, ice and fog can render FLIR useless. “We’d spend days out on the tundra at 40 degrees below zero, looking where FLIR said there was a den and there was nothing,” Smith says. “We had a very personal stake in finding better technology.”

Recent SAR tests look promising – the radar could see the students and simulated bears. Next, the technology is likely to be tested on real polar bear dens in Canada or Norway.

There are also hopes it could soon be possible to do polar bear surveys from satellites in space. “A satellite going over the Arctic, giving an idea of polar bear numbers and movements, would be transformative,” says Geoff York, PBI’s senior director of conservation. “Radar engineers we work with at BYU say the technology exists. In the next decade, we could see that shift. It would be a massive gamechanger.”

A ‘burr tag’ designed to stick to a bear’s fur as an alternative to using collars, ear tags or implants to track polar bears.
A ‘burr tag’ designed to stick to a bear’s fur as an alternative to using collars, ear tags or implants to track polar bears. Photograph: Polar Bears International

Other projects to monitor polar bear movements across the Arctic include “burr on fur” temporary tracking devices. PBI has worked with 3M, the company behind Post-it notes, to develop small bioplastic triangles with coiled bristles that stick to a polar bear’s fur, like a burr, along with a medical-grade adhesive. Burrs are smaller and easier to attach than collars, and less invasive than ear tags or implants, which require surgery. They can cope with extreme cold, snow, ice, saltwater and a polar bear’s rough lifestyle. By the time the polar bear moults and the tag comes off with its hair, the data has already been collected via satellite.

Tags were applied to five wild bears in western Hudson Bay, in Canada’s Manitoba province in November 2020, with plans to tag more, possibly in Greenland and Nunavut, northern Canada, when Covid restrictions allow. “Being able to monitor polar bears matters a lot,” says York. “Historically, we only have movement data from female polar bears, as radio collars slip off adult males’ thicker necks. We don’t know how adult males or sub-adults use habitats. As sea ice changes in the Arctic, we need a better understanding of what’s using which habitat, so we can model the potential impacts.”

Technology to understand what goes on inside dens has also improved from the days of researchers sitting out on the ice to watch the bears. PBI uses remote-controlled cameras fixed outside dens and is working with an artificial-intelligence specialist at San Diego zoo to produce cameras that can detect targets and follow their movement. “To argue that someone’s disturbed a polar bear den, you need to know what normal denning behaviour is,” says Kirschhoffer. “The more we know, the more we can protect polar bears.”

PBI also trialled an early-warning radar system last year in Churchill, Manitoba. “Human and polar bear conflict is a growing issue around the Arctic,” says York. “As sea ice melts more quickly, polar bears spend longer times ashore and come closer to communities. It’s happening in Russia, Canada … Bears have attacked people or damaged property. But in polar bear-human conflict, it’s the polar bear that often loses its life.”

A polar bear and her cub off Svalbard, Norway. Polar bears are driven farther inland as global heating melts sea ice faster, increasing the chances of conflict with humans.
A polar bear and her cub off Svalbard, Norway. Polar bears are driven farther inland as global heating melts sea ice faster, increasing the chances of conflict with humans. Photograph: Kt Miller/Polar Bears International

The SpotterRF compact surveillance radar system is used by the US military to warn of enemy intruders, drones and vehicles. “It’s highly mobile and detects everything around you at 360 degrees,” says York. “If there’s any movement, it tells you where it is and tracks it. Anything we can do to keep polar bears and people safe is a good move. The tech’s great because it’s 24/7 and sees through darkness, snow and fog.”

The early-warning radar system is ready to be used to monitor polar bears, with Norway’s Svalbard archipelago or Churchill likely options. It sends an alert to a person, so they could issue a warning. But there are also plans to use the radar to trigger a deterrent, such as strobe lighting or a noise, to steer bears away.

The system’s most interesting innovation is artificial intelligence. “We’ve focused on training radar detection’s AI,” says York. “From all these things we’re detecting, what’s a person? What’s a tundra buggy? What’s grass blowing? What’s a polar bear? It’s not using imagery. It’s using quantitative data from the radar to determine what’s what. Over the season, we had 130 polar bear targets and it got us accuracies in the high 90-percentile range.”

Researchers set up a camera to monitor a den. Artificial intelligence is now used to find a bear among all the images captured.
Researchers set up a camera to monitor a den. Artificial intelligence is now used to find bears among all the images captured. Photograph: Kt Miller/Polar Bears International

AI’s potential is exciting conservationists. “With tech, we’re able to gather massive amounts of information, but how do we find the data we want? How do you filter it to make sure it doesn’t care about snowmobiles, but you see the one polar bear that walks across the screen?” says Kirschhoffer. “AI’s the key to all that stuff, for radar, SAR and cameras. AI can give us more ‘intelligent’ data.”

These are desperate measures for desperate times. “If we were doing our jobs collectively and caring for our planet, there wouldn’t need to be all these hi-tech solutions,” admits York.

Two-thirds of the world’s polar bears could be lost by the end of the century. Disappearing sea ice, caused by the climate crisis, is their greatest threat. “All the tech tools we’re using are stopgaps to help protect the animals we have,” says Kirschhoffer.

“But ultimately the solution isn’t any of this tech; it’s getting people to change their behaviour, to live more sustainably and reduce their carbon footprint, and maybe pushing tech to find more efficient ways to live on this planet. That’s the tech we need most: carbon capture, more efficiencies, electric cars, whatever reduces our impact on the planet.”

PBI’s BJ Kirschhoffer at an Alaska den study.
A PBI den study in Alaska. ‘If we want bears in future, we need baby bears, so we’ve got to protect those dens,’ says BJ Kirschhoffer. Photograph: Polar Bears International

Whether we will be able to change our behaviour and how much we will rely on tech solutions to help tackle the climate crisis is hard to predict. “Covid’s been an interesting example,” says Kirschhoffer. “Who would’ve thought you can crank out a vaccine in a year to solve Covid? I have great faith we can solve the climate problem. We just need to buckle down and make it happen.”

Find more age of extinction coverage here, and follow our biodiversity reporters Phoebe Weston and Patrick Greenfield on Twitter for all the latest news and features



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Google becomes latest tech firm to delay reopening as Delta variant spreads | Google

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Google has backtracked on plans to welcome most workers back to its sprawling campus in September, becoming the latest Silicon Valley company to delay reopening amid a surge in Covid cases.

The company announced Wednesday it is postponing a return to the office until mid-October and rolling out a policy that will eventually require everyone who returns in person to be vaccinated.

The decision sees Google join Apple and Netflix in postponing calling employees back to the office due to concerns about the highly transmissible Delta variant, which now accounts for more than 80% of new cases in the US. Twitter also halted reopening plans and closed offices last week due to the Delta variant.

In an email to Google’s more than 130,000 employees worldwide, chief executive officer Sundar Pichai said the company is now aiming to have most of its workforce back to its offices beginning 18 October instead of its previous target date of 1 September.

Google’s delay also affects tens of thousands of contractors who Google intends to continue to pay while access to its campuses remains limited.

“This extension will allow us time to ramp back into work while providing flexibility for those who need it,” Pichai wrote. This marks the third time Google has pushed back the date for fully reopening its offices.

Pichai said that once offices are fully reopened, everyone working there will have to be vaccinated. The requirement will be first imposed at Google’s headquarters in Mountain View, California, and other US offices, before being extended to the more than 40 other countries where Google operates.

Facebook announced a similar policy on Wednesday, saying it will make vaccines mandatory for US employees who work in offices. Apple is reportedly also considering requiring vaccines.

“This is the stuff that needs to be done, because otherwise we are endangering workers and their families,” said Dr Leana Wen, a public health professor at George Washington University and a former health commissioner for the city of Baltimore. “It is not fair to parents to be expected to come back to work and sit shoulder-to-shoulder with unvaccinated people who could be carrying a potentially deadly virus.”

Because children under the age of 12 aren’t currently eligible to be vaccinated, parents can bring the virus home to them from the office if they are around unvaccinated colleagues, Wen said.

The delays from these companies could influence other major employers to take similar precautions, given that the technology industry has been at the forefront of the shift to remote work triggered by the spread of Covid-19.

Even before the World Health Organization declared a pandemic in March 2020, Google, Apple and many other prominent tech firms had been telling their employees to work from home. Many others in the tech industry have decided to let employees do their jobs from remote locations permanently.

Google’s decision to require employees working in the office to be vaccinated comes on the heels of similar moves affecting hundreds of thousands government workers in California and New York as part of stepped-up measures to fight the delta variant. Joe Biden is expected to announce a mandate that all federal government workers be vaccinated.

The rapid rise in cases during the past month has prompted more public health officials to urge stricter measures to help overcome vaccine skepticism and misinformation.

While other major technology companies may follow suit now that Google and Facebook have taken stands on vaccines, employers in other industries still may be reluctant, predicted Brian Kropp, chief of research for the research firm Gartner. Less than 10% of employers have said they intend to require all employees to be vaccinated, based on periodic surveys by Gartner.

“Google is seen as being such a different kind of company that I think it’s going to take one or two more big employers to do something similar in terms of becoming a game changer,” Kropp said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report

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Privacy proves elusive in Google’s Privacy Sandbox • The Register

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Google’s effort to build a “Privacy Sandbox” – a set of technologies for delivering personalized ads online without the tracking problems presented by cookie-based advertising – continues to struggle with its promise of privacy.

The Privacy Sandbox consists of a set of web technology proposals with bird-themed names intended to aim interest-based ads at groups rather than individuals.

Much of this ad-related data processing is intended to occur within the browsers of internet users, to keep personal information from being spirited away to remote servers where it might be misused.

So, simply put, the aim is to ensure decisions made on which ads you’ll see, based on your interests, take place in your browser rather than in some backend systems processing your data.

Google launched the initiative in 2019 after competing browser makers began blocking third-party cookies – the traditional way to deliver targeted ads and track internet users – and government regulators around the globe began tightening privacy rules.

The ad biz initially hoped that it would be able to develop a replacement for cookie-based ad targeting by the end of 2021.

But after last month concluding the trial of its flawed FLoC – Federated Learning of Cohorts – to send the spec back for further refinement and pushing back its timeline for replacing third-party cookies with Privacy Sandbox specs, Google now acknowledges that its purportedly privacy-protective remarketing proposal FLEDGE – First Locally-Executed Decision over Groups Experiment – also needs a tweak to prevent the technology from being used to track people online.

On Wednesday, John Mooring, senior software engineer at Microsoft, opened an issue in the GitHub repository for Turtledove (now known as FLEDGE) to describe a conceptual attack that would allow someone to craft code on webpages to use FLEDGE to track people across different websites.

That runs contrary to its very purpose. FLEDGE is supposed to enable remarketing – for example, a web store using a visitor’s interest in a book to present an ad for that book on a third-party website – without tracking the visitor through a personal identifier.

Michael Kleber, the Google mathematician overseeing the construction of Privacy Sandbox specs, acknowledged that the sample code could be abused to create an identifier in situations where there’s no ad competition.

“This is indeed the natural fingerprinting concern associated with the one-bit leak, which FLEDGE will need to protect against in some way,” he said, suggesting technical interventions and abuse detection as possible paths to resolve the privacy leak. “We certainly need some approach to this problem before the removal of third-party cookies in Chrome.”

In an email to The Register, Dr Lukasz Olejnik, independent privacy researcher and consultant, emphasized the need to ensure that the Privacy Sandbox does not leak from the outset.

It will all be futile if the candidates for replacements are not having an adequate privacy level on their own

“Among the goals of Privacy Sandbox is to make advertising more civilized, specifically privacy-proofed,” said Olejnik. “To achieve this overarching goal, plenty of changes must be introduced. But it will all be futile if the candidates for replacements are not having an adequate privacy level on their own. This is why the APIs would need to be really well designed, and specifications crystal-clear, considering broad privacy threat models.”

The problem as Olejnik sees it is that the privacy characteristics of the technology being proposed are not yet well understood. And given the timeline for this technology and revenue that depends on it – the global digital ad spend this year is expected to reach $455bn – he argues data privacy leaks need to be identified in advance so they can be adequately dealt with.

“This particular risk – the so-called one-bit leak issue – has been known since 2020,” Olejnik said. “I expect that a solution to this problem will be found in the fusion of API design (i.e. Turtledove and Fenced Frames), implementation level, and the auditing manner – active search for potential misuses.

“But this particular issue indeed looks serious – a new and claimed privacy-friendly solution should not be introduced while being aware of such a design issue. In this sense, it’s a show-stopper, but one that is hopefully possible to duly address in time.” ®

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Government plans €10m in funding for green and digital business projects

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The Government and Enterprise Ireland are providing two funds to regional Irish businesses in a bid to help them transition to a greener, digital economy.

The Government has today (29 July ) announced it will provide €10m in funding through Enterprise Ireland to projects supporting digitalisation and the transition to a green economy.

The Regional Enterprise Transition Scheme, worth €9.5m, will provide grant funding to regional and community-based projects focused on helping enterprises to adapt to the changing economic landscape due to Covid-19 and Brexit.

Leo Clancy, CEO, Enterprise Ireland said: “The Regional Enterprise Transition Scheme is aimed at supporting regional development and the regional business eco-system, helping to create and sustain jobs in the regions impacted by Covid-19.”

Grants of up to €1.8m or 80pc of project cost are available to businesses. The projects should aim to address the impact of Covid-19 and improve the capability and competitiveness of regional enterprises.

The call for the Regional Enterprise Transition Scheme will close on 8 September 2021. The successful projects will be announced in October and all funding will be provided to the successful applicants before the end of the year.

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A separate funding scheme, the €500,000 Feasibility Study fund, will provide financial support to early-stage regional enterprise development projects.

Launching the funding schemes, Minister of State for Trade Promotion, Digital and Company Regulation, Robert Troy TD said the funds would “help stimulate transformational regional projects to support enterprises embrace the opportunities of digitalisation, the green economy as well as navigate the changed landscape arising from Covid-19.”

Minister of State for Business, Employment and Retail, Damien English TD commented at the launch that the funds would help “build Covid-19 and Brexit resilience and enable applicants to support enterprises and SMEs to respond to recent economic and market challenges which also includes the transition to a low carbon economy, digital transformation and smart specialisation.”

The Feasibility Fund is open to new projects, with grants available of up to €50,000 or 50pc of project cost and will allow promoters to test their project concept and deliver virtual or site-based solutions to their target audience.

Applications for the Feasibility Fund close on 1st October 2021.

For more information and details on how to apply for the funds, see here and here.

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