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How iCRAG’s research will form the bedrock of our green future

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Sam Cox takes a look inside the iCRAG research centre to find out how people can continue to extract what we need from the Earth without destroying it.

People move quickly. They live, work and adapt. Rocks, of course, are much slower. Continents will shift and their plants and weather systems will change. But, compared to their human inhabitants, such changes are nearly imperceptible. Years of research and study have proven the Earth isn’t quite so still.

In 2018, Greta Thunberg first appeared in the media spotlight, marking a new era of fresh voices in a decades-old battle. Carrying the mantel of Rachel Carson and the environmental movement, she represents the continuation of a debate that is influenced both by science and public opinion.

It is this interaction that is the core of iCRAG, the Science Foundation Ireland research centre for applied geosciences, which in February 2021 received €28m in SFI funding for the next five years.

For the rock-steady nature of the Earth and its components, it might seem strange that the conversation is so fraught. The minerals, ores and materials that form our Earth, that build our structures and run our machines are both protected and utilised in a balance that isn’t easy to reconcile. Environmental conservation doesn’t always equal preservation, as green energy relies on rare metals from the Earth that may be necessary to extract.

The interaction of these, both in their acquirement and in their use, goes on to influence our entire Earth system. As water flows through mountains and into the streams and rivers that feed our oceans, distant geographical areas become connected in all of their elements. What we put in and what we take out shifts the system’s balance, forcing it to seek a new equilibrium.

Explained in such terms, geology rockets in importance. Talk about the need for clean water and the public listens. Describe the lithium batteries for the future phones and electric cars that can fuel Elon Musk’s dreams, and investment flows. But mention the lithosphere, the atmosphere, the biosphere and any other geology-heavy terms, and the conversation often shuts down. iCRAG is about keeping that conversation going.

Out of the ashes, a carbon capture solution arises

Hosted by University College Dublin, iCRAG’s location on a small island may seem a disadvantage in becoming a major global contributor in research. Its size, however, has proven advantageous. ‘Small enough to test, big enough to prove,’ is the phrase repeated time and again.

The use of analogues means that areas of research in Ireland can be applied to Africa and North America. Why travel to inaccessible heights to measure the weathering of silicates when the Wicklow Mountains offer the opportunity – small enough to test, but big enough to prove.

This is what palaeobotanist Prof Jennifer McElwain, a principal investigator at iCRAG, hopes to do. Using fossilised plants, McElwain reconstructs the history of the gases in the atmosphere. By looking at the chemical composition of these plants, she tracks the course of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere over millions of years. At iCRAG, she hopes to combine different fields in order to create geoengineering solutions for the climate crisis.

Enhanced chemical weathering involves utilising a process that naturally occurs over hundreds of thousands of years. When rainwater falls, the bare rock is chemically worn down. This leads to calcium and magnesium silicates going into streams, flowing down into rivers and, eventually, the ocean. When this water reaches the ocean, the silicates are replaced by carbon, resulting in a carbon trap and the reduction of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

McElwain and her team hope to replicate this process by adding volcanic ash to crops. As lime is often added to Irish soils, ash could be used to achieve similar results. These crops would break down the silicates, run off into the water and speed up the trapping of carbon. Crop health improves. The climate improves. No large expenses are needed. It is straightforward and effective – at least as a concept.

“We have the theory, but we need to do the experiments and to work out what plants and what level of ash is needed, and how deep to bury the ash,” said McElwain. “We need to work out what combination that will give the maximum amount of carbon taken out of the atmosphere.”

And so, a geochemist, a hydrologist, a plant physiologist and a social scientist walk into a lab. Based near the docks of Dublin, they have six climate control chambers towering three metres high. The chambers are filled with soil and ash. Instruments are fed through to monitor the chemical balance, and measure how different compositions interact with the plants on trial.

‘If we come up with a geoengineering solution, ethically, we may not want to go ahead with it’
– PROF JENNIFER MCELWAIN

Any climate in the world can be brought into the lab inside of these chambers. How plants fare in the American Badlands can be compared to the Irish grasslands. Even the conditions of Mars could be imitated. There is complete control of day-night cycles, heat and humidity. Researchers can investigate how to create the optimum carbon trap. They can observe what the silicates are doing and how ash is affecting the process.

Once these results are in, the team will move to experimental field plots, constantly checking in with both the science and the social side. What are the farming practices currently in place? How would this science impact these practices? Measuring the presence of magnesium in the run-off isn’t enough – the central question is what that magnesium run-off would mean for the land and its people.

Long before the construction of McElwain’s towering climate chambers, she travelled to Sicily in order to see the volcanic ash in its resting place – tales of 2,000-year-old lava versus its older 20,000-year-old sibling. Nestled into this volcanic rock are the plants and ash that could be key to the climate crisis.

“You can read things in a book, but I keep drawing on having been in Sicily with a volcanologist. I’ll read about a particular plant family and my mind will immediately think of seeing that plant on the most extreme slopes of [Mount] Etna, exposed to sulphur and bare ash, no soil. And I’m thinking, my goodness, that plant family – how does it do that? How does it concentrate different heavy metals? How does it survive?”

She added: “I should say first off, the most important step is we stop burning fossil fuels and move towards green energy technology. That is number one, and if we come up with a geoengineering solution, ethically we may not want to go ahead with it.” This may seem like a contradiction given the time, effort and resources put into the work, but it emphases how iCRAG refutes an ivory tower model of science and strives to know how their solutions will affect the real world and its inhabitants.

Marrying the social to the science

Difficult questions like these are the reason Prof Murray Hitzman leads iCRAG. While he would go on to demonstrate a worldwide array of both academic and industry experience in geology,. Hitzman’s initial qualification was a bachelor’s degree in geology and anthropology from Dartmouth College in 1976. His studies of minerals were secondary to his fascination with culture and its evolution. In an effort to go to Guatemala on an underfunded anthropology study, Hitzman agreed to a more readily resourced geology field trip in the same area. And so he studied both – finding more integration and relevance than he expected.

This social science origin is central to iCRAG’s now-core philosophy. The use of minerals and their extraction from the ground has a massive impact on a society and its development. Since its foundation, iCRAG has been reimagined as a group that could lead the way in decarbonisation – a “non-trivial exercise” said Hitzman.

“Most people just think about the energy side, and that’s really complicated. But of all the materials that are needed … we have to rebuild the buildings to make them energy efficient. We have to redo our fleets of transportation to make them run on new types of energy. All these things, the amount of materials we’ll need, is astounding. How do we do that without screwing up the planet? It’s difficult but it’s doable.”

Hitzman described the “perfect electrochemistry” of cobalt that can’t be matched by any of its peers. What was once thought of as an unwanted by-product can now be harnessed to pave the way for renewable energy. His descriptions of sulphur-eating bacteria and their behavioural habits are filled with a deep passion and resonance with his work. Conveying this to politicians and policy-makers is difficult, but he highlighted the importance of bringing this science to life.

Engaging with the Earth

One such example in Ireland is underwater acoustic research. While we may think of Ireland as a landmass, the national border stretches far into the ocean. To map this, a big gun is used to make an airblast (“a big ‘pop’ underwater”) that puts pressure on the bottom of the ocean. This goes into the earth and bounces around. These bounces are measured, and the seabed is mapped.

While these blasts cannot be heard on the surface, there was concern about what the process would do to marine life. The effect of loud acoustics on populations of porpoises, whales and fish was outside the remit of geologists, so iCRAG hired marine biologists to investigate, leading the research to be paused until more is known. Stratification caused by temperature and salinity meant that the sound moves at different velocities. Not only that, but just like on the Earth’s surface, the bottom of the ocean has canyons and mountains and topography. And just as they would above sea level, these valleys echo underwater.

New problems require novel solutions. Rather than disrupting wildlife using traditional methods in the field, iCRAG has instead used the natural sounds of the earth to create similar maps.

As seismic activities and ocean waves generate vibrations, the researchers hone into this ‘heartbeat of the planet’ using sensors in a titanium pressure tube. These sensors are designed to float to the water’s surface once their deployment is finished, allowing them to be collected without disturbing sea life. Named with the help of Irish schoolchildren as part of a public engagement programme, sensors such as Allód, Quakey and Wilson return to the researchers with minimal waste and zero wildlife interference – tapping into the natural world without disrupting it.

‘Science without buy-in from society is meaningless’
– PROF MURRAY HITZMAN

On referencing Annals of the Former World, the Pulitzer Prize-winning work of John McPhee on the geology of North America, Hitzman lights up. He says the author has done colossal amounts for bringing geology to life for the lay public. The idea of preservation versus conservation, and how to extract resources that are necessary for helping the global environment, is central to McPhee’s writings on environmentalist David Brower.

McPhee brought a spark to the topic and a human consideration that Hitzman has integrated into his own approach. Rocks move slowly and people move quickly, but the job of the iCRAG director is to anticipate both and adjust accordingly.

He said, “Science without buy-in from society is meaningless. You have to marry the social science, the psychology and how people behave with the scientific knowledge.” Sometimes, this entails naming titanium ocean sensors in the classroom to bring the research to life. Other times it involves merging ancient resources like volcanic ash with modern farming practice.

All of the work, however, involves recognising the Earth is far from inert and, using geological science, we can meet the needs of both the planet and all those who inhabit it.

By Sam Cox

Sam Cox was named the science and technology winner in the 2020 National Student Media Awards (Smedias). This award category is sponsored by Science Foundation Ireland and includes a €1,000 bursary to support and encourage up-and-coming science and technology journalism.

The 2021 Smedias are now open for entries. The deadline for applications is 15 April 2021.

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North Korea made ‘$400m’ in cryptocurrency heists last year • The Register

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In brief Thieves operating for the North Korean government made off with almost $400m in digicash last year in a concerted attack to steal and launder as much currency as they could.

A report from blockchain biz Chainalysis found that attackers were going after investment houses and currency exchanges in a bid to purloin funds and send them back to the Glorious Leader’s coffers. They then use mixing software to make masses of micropayments to new wallets, before consolidating them all again into a new account and moving the funds.

Bitcoin used to be a top target but Ether is now the most stolen currency, say the researchers, accounting for 58 per cent of the funds filched. Bitcoin accounted for just 20 per cent, a fall of more than 50 per cent since 2019 – although part of the reason might be that they are now so valuable people are taking more care with them.

“These behaviors paint a portrait of a nation that supports cryptocurrency-enabled crime on a massive scale,” the report finds. “Systematic and sophisticated, North Korea’s government — be it through the Lazarus Group or its other criminal syndicates — has cemented itself as an advanced persistent threat to the cryptocurrency industry in 2021.”

Football fans furious after FIFA 22 after top players’ accounts taken over

Electronic Arts (EA) has confirmed that some of the top players of the FIFA 22 football (soccer in Freedom Language) game have had their accounts taken over after it dropped the ball.

“Through our initial investigation we can confirm that a number of accounts have been compromised via phishing techniques,” EA said in a statement.

“Utilizing threats and other ‘social engineering’ methods, individuals acting maliciously were able to exploit human error within our customer experience team and bypass two-factor authentication to gain access to player accounts.”

In response EA says that it has strengthened its account verification process and is training up staff to be on the lookout for behavior that indicates someone is playing foul. It says this will take time and may lead to support delays, but asks fans not to show it the red card.

US government warns of Russia and Iranian online intrusion, makes tools public

It has been a busy week for those monitoring government hacking threats, beginning with a warning from the FBI, NSA and CISA about Russian state online spies are breaking into US systems, followed by a report from US Cyber Command on Iranian online foes.

The Russians are targeting US government, energy and infrastructure companies, the first advisory warns, and are using advanced tactics to do so. The key protection is frequent logging and examination of network activity, but also watch for unexpected equipment activity like unplanned reboots, and multiple failed login attempts on accounts, they advise.

Not to be outdone, US Cyber Command released a report into an online gang called MuddyWater, which the agency says operates under the auspices of the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence and Security. It’s primarily an intelligence collection group and had been targeting other Middle Eastern states, but is now expanding operations in the US and Western Europe.

MuddyWater specialize in using open-source tools and side-loading DLLs, and they also are adept at using tunneling to shield their activities. VirusTotal have been informed and you can get the full details here.

Texans hit by QR code phishing campaign

Residents of the Lone Star state have been under sustained attack from a QR code phishing scam using traffic meters that is designed to harvest credit card information.

Police in Austin, Houston and San Antonio have warned that persons unknown are attaching fake QR codes to parking meters that redirect users to a carefully crafted phishing site. When the meter user tries to pay for their parking that are simply handing over their card information to the criminals.

What makes this form of attack particularly odd is that none of the cities targeted actually use QR codes on their meters. “We’ve talked to industry professionals who have warned us about using QR codes, and that’s why we do not utilize QR codes on our infrastructure at all,” Austin Parking Enterprise Manager Jason Redfern told Fox 7.

Still using WordPress? Plugin vulns rose 142 per cent last year

WordPress is a very popular platform but security isn’t one of its strengths, as a review of its progress in 2021 has shown.

Research by Risk Based Security found that last year the number of vulnerabilities found in WordPress plugins shot up 142 per cent, 77 per cent of them contained known public exploits and 73 per cent were remotely exploitable. While the average rating for flaws using the Common Vulnerability Scoring System was 5.5 there are still some very nasty issues out there that need to be addressed.

“There are over 58,000 free plugins for download, with tens of thousands more available for purchase,” the report warns. “Unfortunately, few of them are designed with security in mind, so one vulnerability could potentially affect millions of users.”

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Space missions to watch out for in 2022

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Monica Grady of the Open University looks at plans for a rocket system destined for the moon and a new rover beginning its journey to Mars.

Click here to visit The Conversation.

A version of this article was originally published by The Conversation (CC BY-ND 4.0)

Astronomers ended 2021 on a high with the launch on 25 December of the James Webb Space Telescope, a joint mission between the European Space Agency, NASA and the Canadian Space Agency. It was a relief to hear that the precision drives that opened up the complex sunshield, which is about the size of a tennis court, worked perfectly.

The telescope is now on the way to its destination, 1.5m kilometres away from Earth, where it will begin a series of tests once it arrives in late January. If the mission goes to plan, we can expect to start receiving images from the telescope in mid-2022.

But what else lies in store for space science this year? Here are a few missions to watch out for.

Moon missions

NASA’s Artemis programme to send human astronauts back to the moon in 2024 should get underway in 2022. The last astronauts to step foot on the moon in 1972 made it there on a Saturn V rocket.

Now NASA has created a new generation of rockets, the Space Launch System (SLS), which will be tested for the first time in March with the launch of the Artemis 1 mission. This will be a three-week-long, uncrewed test flight of the Orion spacecraft, which will include a flyby 100km above the surface of the moon.

Part of a spacecraft is lifted into a testing chamber in a large room, with the NASA logo and a poster about moon exploration in the background.

NASA’s Orion spacecraft is lifted into a thermal cage for testing. Image: NASA/Marvin Smith

Eventually, the SLS will transport astronauts to the Lunar Gateway, the next-generation international space station that will be positioned in orbit around the moon and act as a way station for missions to the surface.

The moon will also be targeted by other space agencies in 2022. South Korea is hoping to launch its first lunar mission, the Korea Pathfinder Lunar Orbiter, from Cape Canaveral in August. Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, plans to launch Luna 25 to the moon’s south pole in July – over 45 years since Luna 24 returned almost 200g of lunar soil in August 1976.

Psyche asteroid

Mid-2022 will be a busy time for space exploration, as NASA will also launch its Psyche asteroid mission. Psyche, which is orbiting the sun between Mars and Jupiter, is an M-class asteroid, made of metal, so it’s similar to the core of the Earth.

We’ve never been close to an M-class asteroid before, nor have we been able to study the core of the Earth because it’s too deep down, so once this mission arrives in 2026 it should give us a whole new understanding of asteroid and planetary processes.

DART mission

Not long after Psyche’s journey begins, the DART mission, which launched in November 2021, should arrive at its destination in late September.

DART – which stands for the double asteroid redirection test – is heading to asteroid Didymos and its moonlet Dimorphos. The goal is to test what technology it would take to save the Earth from an incoming asteroid in future. DART will deliberately crash into the smaller of the two bodies, Dimorphos, to move its orbit a little bit closer to Didymos, the larger one. This could give valuable insights into how to shift any asteroid on a collision course with Earth in the future.

ExoMars

2021 was a busy year for Mars missions with NASA’s Perseverance rover and the Chinese Zhurong rover, both of which continue to send back incredible images and data from the surface of the Red Planet.

In September 2022, the European Space Agency is due to launch the next part of its ExoMars mission in collaboration with Roscosmos. The first part of the mission, ExoMars 2016, sent a Trace Gas Orbiter to orbit around Mars in late 2016.

ExoMars 2022 plans to send a Mars rover, the Rosalind Franklin, to the Martian surface to look for signs of past life. If the launch goes to plan, we’ll have to wait until 2023 for ExoMars to arrive and for the rover to start roaming the surface.

All in all, 2022 is looking to be a very exciting and fruitful time for space exploration.

The Conversation

By Monica Grady

Monica Grady is professor of planetary and space sciences at the Open University.

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‘You may feel your cortisol levels declining’: why Siri should be an Irish man | Life and style

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Inside my iPhone is a cornucopia of Irish men.

“It’s currently clear and 25 degrees,” Colin Farrell replies when I ask him the weather.

“A 7.45am alarm is now off,” says Michael Fassbender when I beg him for some extra sleep.

“Here’s what I found on Google,” Domnhall Gleeson cheerily answers when I screech: “I have spilt coffee all over my stovetop – how to clean white shirt and kitchen bench?” I feel like he is negging me – or playing hard to get, perhaps.

Changing my iPhone’s Siri voice to that of an Irish man has been an exercise in self-soothing. Generic American register begone; now I have a generic Irish lilt – or, if I suspend my disbelief hard enough, the rapturous musings of Colin, Michael, Domnhall, or Jamie Dornan, Cillian Murphy and Kenneth Branagh.

Niall Horan was (obviously) my preferred One Direction member as a boyband-crazy teen. As everyone swooned for Paul Mescal and his chain-sporting ways last year, I finally felt vindicated. Good old Pauly had been telling me the forecast for years.

Of course, being Irish is not the only virtue of these men. They also have great faces – which you, too, can conjure up at a moment’s notice by navigating the labyrinth of settings on your phone. The payoff is well worth it; with each gentle instruction from your personal Irish smooth-talker, you may feel your cortisol levels declining. (Your doctor may disagree.)

There are more tangible psychological ramifications to be found: a 2019 study by the United Nations revealed that the female voices of digital assistants – like Siri and Alexa – were entrenching gender stereotypes. “The speech of most voice assistants … sends a signal that women are obliging, docile and eager-to-please helpers,” the study found.

By altering your Siri’s voice setting, you are training your brain to unlearn the coded biases within its subconscious – or at least that’s what you can tell yourself.

No more women doing your bidding. Just make Ronan Keating do it instead.

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