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This article is from The Spark, MIT Technology Review’s weekly climate newsletter. To receive it in your inbox every Wednesday, sign up here

I’m ready for summer, but if this year is anything like last year, it’s going to be a doozy. In fact, the summer of 2023 in the Northern Hemisphere was the hottest in over 2,000 years, according to a new study released this week. 

If you’ve been following the headlines, you probably already know that last year was a hot one. But I was gobsmacked by this paper’s title when it came across my desk. The warmest in 2,000 years—how do we even know that?

There weren’t exactly thermometers around in the year 1, so scientists have to get creative when it comes to comparing our climate today with that of centuries, or even millennia, ago. Here’s how our world stacks up against the climate of the past, how we know, and why it matters for our future.

Today, there are thousands and thousands of weather stations around the globe, tracking the temperature from Death Valley to Mount Everest. So there’s plenty of data to show that 2023 was, in a word, a scorcher. 

Daily global ocean temperatures were the warmest ever recorded for over a year straight. Levels of sea ice hit new lows. And of course, the year saw the highest global average temperatures since record-keeping began in 1850.  

But scientists decided to look even further back into the past for a year that could compare to our current temperatures. To do so, they turned to trees, which can act as low-tech weather stations.

The concentric rings inside a tree are evidence of the plant’s yearly growth cycles. Lighter colors correspond to quick growth over the spring and summer, while the darker rings correspond to the fall and winter. Count the pairs of light and dark rings, and you can tell how many years a tree has lived. 

Trees tend to grow faster during warm, wet years and slower during colder ones. So scientists can not only count the rings but measure their thickness, and use that as a gauge for how warm any particular year was. They also look at factors like density and track different chemical signatures found inside the wood. You don’t even need to cut down a tree to get its help with climatic studies—you can just drill out a small cylinder from the tree’s center, called a core, and study the patterns.

The oldest living trees allow us to peek a few centuries into the past. Beyond that, it’s a matter of cross-referencing the patterns on dead trees with living ones, extending the record back in time like putting a puzzle together.

It’s taken several decades of work and hundreds of scientists to develop the records that researchers used for this new paper, said Max Torbenson, one of the authors of the study, on a press call. There are over 10,000 trees from nine regions across the Northern Hemisphere represented, allowing the researchers to draw conclusions about individual years over the past two millennia. The year 246 CE once held the crown for the warmest summer in the Northern Hemisphere in the last 2,000 years. But 25 of the last 28 years have beat that record, Torbenson says, and 2023’s summer tops them all. 

These conclusions are limited to the Northern Hemisphere, since there are only a few tree ring records from the Southern Hemisphere, says Jan Esper, lead author of the new study. And using tree rings doesn’t work very well for the tropics because seasons look different there, he adds. Since there’s no winter, there’s usually not as reliable an alternating pattern in tropical tree rings, though some trees do have annual rings that track the wet and dry periods of the year. 

Paleoclimatologists, who study ancient climates, can use other methods to get a general idea of what the climate looked like even earlier—tens of thousands to millions of years ago.

The biggest difference between the new study using tree rings and methods of looking back further into the past is the precision. Scientists can, with reasonable certainty, use tree rings to draw conclusions about individual years in the Northern Hemisphere (536 CE was the coldest, for instance, likely because of volcanic activity). Any information from further back than the past couple of thousand years will be more of a general trend than a specific data point representing a single year. But those records can still be very useful. 

The oldest glaciers on the planet are at least a million years old, and scientists can drill down into the ice for samples. By examining the ratio of gases like oxygen, carbon dioxide, and nitrogen inside these ice cores, researchers can figure out the temperature of the time corresponding to the layers in the glacier. The oldest continuous ice-core record, which was collected in Antarctica, goes back about 800,000 years. 

Researchers can use fossils to look even further back

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By: Casey Crownhart
Title: Last summer was the hottest in 2,000 years. Here’s how we know.
Sourced From: www.technologyreview.com/2024/05/16/1092507/tree-rings-climate-data/
Published Date: Thu, 16 May 2024 08:00:00 +0000

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The return of pneumatic tubes

2CTK80D scaled

Pneumatic tubes were touted as something that would revolutionize the world. In science fiction, they were envisioned as a fundamental part of the future—even in dystopias like George Orwell’s 1984, where the main character, Winston Smith, sits in a room peppered with pneumatic tubes that spit out orders for him to alter previously published news stories and historical records to fit the ruling party’s changing narrative.

Doctor holding pneumatic tube carrier while standing in pharmacy
Abandoned by most industries at midcentury, pneumatic tube systems have become ubiquitous in hospitals.ALAMY

In real life, the tubes were expected to transform several industries in the late 19th century through the mid-20th. “The possibilities of compressed air are not fully realized in this country,” declared an 1890 article in the New York Tribune. “The pneumatic tube system of communication is, of course, in use in many of the downtown stores, in newspaper offices […] but there exists a great deal of ignorance about the use of compressed air, even among engineering experts.”

Pneumatic tube technology involves moving a cylindrical carrier or capsule through a series of tubes with the aid of a blower that pushes or pulls it into motion. For a while, the United States took up the systems with gusto. Retail stores and banks were especially interested in their potential to move money more efficiently: “Besides this saving of time to the customer the store is relieved of all the annoying bustle and confusion of boys running for cash on the various retail floors,” one 1882 article in the Boston Globe reported. The benefit to the owner, of course, was reduced labor costs, with tube manufacturers claiming that stores would see a return on their investment within a year.

“The motto of the company is to substitute machines for men and for children as carriers, in every possible way,” a 1914 Boston Globe article said about Lamson Service, one of the largest proprietors of tubes at the time, adding, “[President] Emeritus Charles W. Eliot of Harvard says: ‘No man should be employed at a task which a machine can perform,’ and the Lamson Company supplements that statement by this: ‘Because it doesn’t pay.’”

By 1912, Lamson had over 60,000 customers globally in sectors including retail, banks, insurance offices, courtrooms, libraries, hotels, and industrial plants. The postal service in cities such as Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, and New York also used tubes to deliver the mail, with at least 45 miles of Lamson tubing in place by 1912.

On the transportation front, New York City’s first attempt at a subway system, in 1870, also ran on a pneumatic system, and the idea of using tubes to move people continues to beguile innovators to this day. (See Elon Musk’s largely abandoned Hyperloop concept of the 2010s.)

But by the mid to late 20th century, use of the technology had largely fallen by the wayside. It had become cheaper to transport mail by truck than by tube, and as transactions moved to credit cards, there was less demand to make change for cash payments. Electrical rail won out over compressed air, paper records and files disappeared in the wake of digitization, and tubes at bank drive-throughs started being replaced by ATMs, while only a fraction of pharmacies used them for their own such services. Pneumatic tube technology became virtually obsolete.

Except in hospitals.

“A pneumatic tube system today for a new hospital that’s being built is ubiquitous. It’s like putting a washing machine or a central AC system in a new home. It just makes too much sense to not do it,” says Cory Kwarta, CEO of Swisslog Healthcare, a corporation that—under its TransLogic company—has provided pneumatic tube systems in health-care facilities for over 50 years. And while the sophistication of these systems has changed over time, the fundamental technology of using pneumatic force to move a capsule from one destination to another has remained the same.

By the turn of the 20th century,

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By: Vanessa Armstrong
Title: The return of pneumatic tubes
Sourced From: www.technologyreview.com/2024/06/19/1093446/pneumatic-tubes-hospitals/
Published Date: Wed, 19 Jun 2024 09:00:00 +0000

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The Download: video-generating AI, and Meta’s voice cloning watermarks

This is today’s edition of The Download our weekday newsletter that provides a daily dose of what’s going on in the world of technology

I tested out a buzzy new text-to-video AI model from China

You may not be familiar with Kuaishou, but this Chinese company just hit a major milestone: It’s released the first ever text-to-video generative AI model that’s freely available for the public to test.

The short-video platform, which has over 600 million active users, announced the new tool, called Kling, on June 6. Like OpenAI’s Sora model, Kling is able to generate videos up to two minutes long from prompts.

But unlike Sora, which still remains inaccessible to the public four months after OpenAI debuted it, Kling has already started letting people try the model themselves. Zeyi Yang, our China reporter, has been putting it through its paces. Here’s what he made of it.

This story is from China Report, our weekly newsletter covering tech in China. Sign up to receive it in your inbox every Tuesday.

Meta has created a way to watermark AI-generated speech

The news: Meta has created a system that can embed hidden signals, known as watermarks, in AI-generated audio clips, which could help in detecting AI-generated content online.

Why it matters: The tool, called AudioSeal, is the first that can pinpoint which bits of audio in, for example, a full hour-long podcast might have been generated by AI. It could help to tackle the growing problem of misinformation and scams using voice cloning tools. Read the full story.

—Melissa Heikkilä

The return of pneumatic tubes

Pneumatic tubes were once touted as something that would revolutionize the world. In science fiction, they were envisioned as a fundamental part of the future—even in dystopias like George Orwell’s 1984, where they help to deliver orders for the main character, Winston Smith, in his job rewriting history to fit the ruling party’s changing narrative. 

In real life, the tubes were expected to transform several industries in the late 19th century through the mid-20th. The technology involves moving a cylindrical carrier or capsule through a series of tubes with the aid of a blower that pushes or pulls it into motion, and for a while, the United States took up the systems with gusto.

But by the mid to late 20th century, use of the technology had largely fallen by the wayside, and pneumatic tube technology became virtually obsolete. Except in hospitals. Read the full story.

—Vanessa Armstrong

This story is from the forthcoming print issue of MIT Technology Review, which explores the theme of Play. It’s set to go live on Wednesday June 26, so if you don’t already, subscribe now to get a copy when it lands.

The must-reads

I’ve combed the internet to find you today’s most fun/important/scary/fascinating stories about technology.

1 Nvidia has become the world’s most valuable company 
Leapfrogging Microsoft and Apple thanks to the AI boom. (BBC)
Nvidia’s meteoric rise echoes the dot com boom. (WSJ $)
CEO Jensen Huang is now one of the richest people in the world. (Forbes)
The firm is worth more than China’s entire agricultural industry. (NY Mag $)
What’s next in chips. (MIT Technology Review)

2 TikTok is introducing AI avatars for ads
Which seems like a slippery slope. (404 Media)
India’s farmers are getting their news from AI news anchors. (Bloomberg $)
Deepfakes of Chinese influencers are livestreaming 24/7. (MIT Technology Review)

3 Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft will stay in space for a little longer
Officials need to troubleshoot some issues before it can head back to Earth. (WP $)

4STEM students are refusing to work at Amazon and Google
Until the companies end their involvement with Project Nimbus. (Wired $)

5 Google isn’t what it used to be
But is Reddit really a viable alternative? (WSJ $)
Why Google’s AI Overviews gets things wrong. (MIT Technology Review)

6 A security bug allows anyone to impersonate Microsoft corporate email accounts
It’s making it harder to spot phishing attacks. (TechCrunch)

7 How deep sea exploration has changed since the Titan disaster
Robots are taking humans’ place to plumb the depths. (NYT $)
Meet the divers trying to figure out how deep humans can go. (MIT Technology Review)

8 How the free streaming service Tubi took over the US
Its secret weapon? Old movies.(The Guardian)

9 A new AI video tool instantly started ripping off Disney
Raising some serious questions about what the model had been trained on. (The Verge)
What’s next for generative video. (MIT Technology Review)

10 Apple appears to have paused work on the next Vision Pro
Things aren’t looking too bright for the high-end headset. (The Information $)
These minuscule pixels are poised to take augmented reality by

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By: Rhiannon Williams
Title: The Download: video-generating AI, and Meta’s voice cloning watermarks
Sourced From: www.technologyreview.com/2024/06/19/1094041/the-download-video-generating-ai-and-metas-voice-cloning-watermarks/
Published Date: Wed, 19 Jun 2024 12:10:00 +0000

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Scaling green hydrogen technology for the future

Thyssenkrupp Nucera green

Unlike conventional energy sources, green hydrogen offers a way to store and transfer energy without emitting harmful pollutants, positioning it as essential to a sustainable and net-zero future. By converting electrical power from renewable sources into green hydrogen, these low-carbon-intensity energy storage systems can release clean, efficient power on demand through combustion engines or fuel cells. When produced emission-free, hydrogen can decarbonize some of the most challenging industrial sectors, such as steel and cement production, industrial processes, and maritime transport.

Thyssenkrupp Nucera green hydrogen 1200px 1

“Green hydrogen is the key driver to advance decarbonization,” says Dr. Christoph Noeres, head of green hydrogen at global electrolysis specialist thyssenkrupp nucera. This promising low-carbon-intensity technology has the potential to transform entire industries by providing a clean, renewable fuel source, moving us toward a greener world aligned with industry climate goals.

ccelerating production of green hydrogen

Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe, and its availability is key to its appeal as a clean energy source. However, hydrogen does not occur naturally in its pure form; it is always bound to other elements in compounds like water (H2O). Pure hydrogen is extracted and isolated from water through an energy-intensive process called conventional electrolysis.

Hydrogen is typically produced today via steam-methane reforming, in which high-temperature steam is used to produce hydrogen from natural gas. Emissions produced by this process have implications for hydrogen’s overall carbon footprint: worldwide hydrogen production is currently responsible for as many CO2 emissions as the United Kingdom and Indonesia combined.

A solution lies in green hydrogen—hydrogen produced using electrolysis powered by renewable sources. This unlocks the benefits of hydrogen without the dirty fuels. Unfortunately, very little hydrogen is currently powered by renewables: less than 1% came from non-fossil fuel sources in 2022.

A massive scale-up is underway. According to McKinsey, an estimated 130 to 345 gigawatts (GW) of electrolyzer capacity will be necessary to meet the green hydrogen demand by 2030, with 246 GW of this capacity already announced. This stands in stark contrast to the current installed base of just 1.1 GW. Notably, to ensure that green hydrogen constitutes at least 14% of total energy consumption by 2050, a target that the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) estimates is required to meet climate goals, 5,500 GW of cumulative installed electrolyzer capacity will be required.

However, scaling up green hydrogen production to these levels requires overcoming cost and infrastructure constraints. Becoming cost-competitive means improving and standardizing the technology, harnessing the scale efficiencies of larger projects, and encouraging government action to create market incentives. Moreover, the expansion of renewable energy in regions with significant solar, hydro, or wind energy potential is another crucial factor in lowering renewable power prices and, consequently, the costs of green hydrogen.

Electrolysis innovation

While electrolysis technologies have existed for decades, scaling them up to meet the demand for clean energy will be essential. Alkaline Water Electrolysis (AWE), the most dominant and developed electrolysis method, is poised for this transition. It has been utilized for decades, demonstrating efficiency and reliability in the chemical industry. Moreover, it is more cost effective than other electrolysis technologies and is well suited to be run directly with fluctuating renewable power input. Especially for large-scale applications, AWE demonstrates significant advantages in terms of investment and operating costs. “Transferring small-scale manufacturing and optimizing it towards mass manufacturing will need a high level of investment across the industry,” says Noeres.

Industries that already practice electrolysis, as well as those that already use hydrogen, such as fertilizer production, are well poised for conversion to green hydrogen. For example, thyssenkrupp nucera benefits from a decades-long heritage using electrolyzer technology in the

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By: MIT Technology Review Insights
Title: Scaling green hydrogen technology for the future
Sourced From: www.technologyreview.com/2024/06/18/1092956/scaling-green-hydrogen-technology-for-the-future/
Published Date: Tue, 18 Jun 2024 14:00:00 +0000

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