Tag Archives: Puerto Rico

How a broken cable almost destroyed a thousand-foot telescope

The Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, one of the largest radio telescopes in the world, was severely damaged during a tropical storm, with problems starting from a broken cable.

This is just the latest in a string of recent misfortune that the telescope suffered in recent years.

A photo of the damages. Credit University of Central Florida

One of the auxiliary cables that helps support a metal platform in place above the observatory broke on August 10, triggering a 100-foot-long gash on the telescope’s reflector dish. The damage happened during the Tropical Storm Isaias, but it isn’t clear yet just how the damage occurred.

“We have a team of experts assessing the situation,” said Francisco Cordova, the director of the observatory, in a statement. “Our focus is assuring the safety of our staff, protecting the facilities and equipment, and restoring the facility to full operations as soon as possible.”

The break occurred early in the morning when the storm was kicking in, according to Cordova. When the three-inch cable fell it also damaged about six to eight panels in the Gregorian Dome and twisted the platform used to access the dome. The observatory is now closed pending an investigation.

The observatory is managed by the University of Central Florida and it began operating in 1963. Over the years, it has produced many scientific discoveries in the solar system and beyond, being considered one of the most powerful telescopes in the world at the time. It’s also where SETI, the search of extraterrestrial intelligence, began. Nowadays, Arecibo is used by scientists around the world to conduct research in the areas of atmospheric sciences, planetary sciences, radio astronomy and radar astronomy. It is also home to a team that runs the Planetary Radar Project supported by NASA’s Near-Earth Object Observations Program.

While the damage was shocking to everyone, it’s far from the first time that Arecibo had to deal with technical difficulties. Back in September 2017, Puerto Rico was severely hit by Hurricane Maria, which knocked power across the island for months. An antenna suspended over the observatory fell and punctured a dish. The hurricane came at a difficult time for the observatory. The National Science Foundation, which owns Arecibo, was already considering giving the observatory to someone else so it could focus on other projects. The foundation finally did an agreement with a group of three institutions to take over the operations.

Then, earthquakes hit the island in January of this year. The tremors were as strong as 6.4 magnitudes and it made it impossible to carry out observations, with no visitors allowed on-site. The dish wasn’t damaged but operations couldn’t be restarted until the tremors fully stopped.

Coronavirus in Puerto Rico — live updates, cases, and news

Coronavirus cases and fatalities in Puerto Rico

The number is based on confirmed diagnostic tests. It is very likely that the true number of COVID-19 cases is higher as many cases are asymptomatic.

New COVID-19 cases and fatalities per day in Puerto Rico

This is a good indicator of “flattening the curve” — when there is a steady decreasing trend, it is an indicator that the spread of the disease is slowing down.

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Puerto Rico braces for tropical storm Dorian

Tropical Storm Dorian is on track to slam the Caribbean, including Puerto Rico — an island still grappling with the devastation of Hurricane Maria. US President Donald Trump has already declared a state of emergency, with the national guard already in place.

Credit: Flickr

Dorian is considered a very compact storm, with tropical-storm-force winds, ranging from 39 mph to 73 mph, extending only 45 miles from the center. Dorian is expected to dump up to 10 inches of rain over the Windward Islands and up to 8 inches in Barbados and Dominica.

But it could also become a hurricane, according to meteorologists. Dorian is forecast to intensify into a hurricane after it passes the Windward Islands and moves into the Caribbean Sea. Dorian is the fourth named storm of this hurricane season, which is now on its peak.

Puerto Ricans are scrambling to stock up on supplies before Dorian approaches Wednesday evening. Rescue teams are also preparing for the storm. A team of over 200 people from nearly 30 different fire departments in South Florida were preparing for deployment to the Caribbean and Puerto Rico.

“We ask our citizens to stay calm, not speculate on the possibilities, stay informed from official news sources, take necessary precautions and to know that the PRNG is vigilant and ready to assist them if necessary,” said Maj. Gen. Jose J. Reyes from Puerto Rico National Guard.

Puerto Rico has struggled to recover from the back-to-back 2017 hurricanes that killed about 3,000 people just months after the territory filed for bankruptcy to restructure $120 billion of debt and pension obligations.

“Wow! Yet another big storm heading to Puerto Rico. Will it ever end?” Trump wrote on Twitter. Trump, who has been criticized for his administration’s response to the 2017 storms, has accused the island’s leaders of squandering billions in disaster relief aid.

Puerto Rico Governor Wanda Vazquez declared a state of emergency late on Monday. She said there would be about 360 shelters open across the island.

“I want everyone to feel calm,” she said. “Agency directors have prepared for the last two years. The experience of Maria has been a great lesson for everyone.”

“We are better prepared than when Hurricane Maria attacked our island,” she told a news conference.

Bromeliads on tree trunks in the Luquillo rainforest, Puero Rico. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

2°C warming in Puerto Rico caused 60-fold crash in insect population

Bromeliads on tree trunks in the Luquillo rainforest, Puero Rico. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Bromeliads on tree trunks in the Luquillo rainforest, Puerto Rico. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Since the mid-1970s, arthropod biomass in Puerto Rico’s tropical forests has declined by a factor of 60. Arthropods include insects, but also other invertebrates such as millipedes and sowbugs.

“Our results suggest that the effects of climate warming in tropical forests may be even greater than anticipated,” said Brad Lister lead author of the study and a faculty member in the Department of Biological Sciences at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. “The insect populations in the Luquillo forest are crashing, and once that begins the animals that eat the insects have insufficient food, which results in decreased reproduction and survivorship and consequent declines in abundance.”

Not enough climate action

Under the Paris Agreement, more than 190 nations pledged to lower their greenhouse gas emissions in order to avoid 2°C of warming compared to mid-19th-century levels. Although the increase might sound mild, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warns of severe consequences. To get an idea, even the difference between 1.5°C and 2°C of warming is to produce a global sea level rise of 10 cm, which would be devastating for many coastal areas. Furthermore, the likelihood of an iceless Arctic Ocean in the summer also increase 10 times from 1.5°C to 2°C. Most strikingly, coral reefs would decline by 70-90% with global warming of 1.5°C, whereas virtually all (> 99%) would be lost with 2°C, the IPCC authors of the Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C concluded recently.

The world is already 1°C warmer than pre-industrial levels, with devastating hurricanes in the US, record droughts in Cape Town and forest fires in the Arctic — so if we want to act, we should to so as urgently as possible.

But global warming is not uniform, with some parts of the world far warmers than others. For instance, the Arctic is warming faster than any other region on Earth and rapidly becoming a warmer, wetter, and more variable environment. Over the past 50 years, the Arctic’s temperature has risen at a rate more than twice the global average.

Puerto Rico’s tropical forests are also highly vulnerable, becoming a full 2°C warmer than they were only 40 years ago. In order to assess the effects of such a dramatic temperature elevation, researchers at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute studied data on arthropod abundance collected between 1976 and 2013 at three mid-elevation habitats in Puerto Rico’s protected Luquillo rainforest.

Based on arthropod samples collected in sticky traps on the ground and in the forest canopy, the biomass catch rates fell up to 60-fold between 1976 and 2013. Biomass collected at ground-level by sweep netting also declined by as much as 8-fold over the same period. Cold-blooded creatures living in tropical regions are particularly vulnerable to climate change because they’ve adapted to stable year-round temperatures.

Arthropods are the bottom of the food chain for many ecosystems. So it was no surprise to see that their decline simultaneously coincided with Luquillo’s insectivorous lizards, frogs, and birds.

Scientists estimate that planet’s tropical forests harbor two-thirds of all species. Given the dramatic collapse of Puerto Rico’s arthropods under just 2°C warming, the study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences highlights just how vulnerable tropical ecosystems can be.

“Limiting global warming to 1.5°C compared with 2°C would reduce challenging impacts on ecosystems, human health and well-being, making it easier to achieve the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals,” said Priyardarshi Shukla, Co-Chair of IPCC Working Group III.

It is still possible to keep global warming under 1.5°C. However, doing so will require an unprecedented change from behalf of all stakeholders — and all of us. Another IPCC report released last week concluded that the goals of the Paris Agreement, while a major step in the right direction, are not ambitious enough — according to current projections, we’ll reach 1.5C by 2030.

Send tesla.

Musk says Puerto Rico’s power grid could be built from the ground up with solar and battery packs

In the wake of two hurricanes, Puerto Rico’s power grid was blasted back to the stone age. In an effort to return power to the people who need it, Tesla has been shipping Powerwalls over to the island. Now, CEO Elon Musk says the company might rebuild the entire power grid, scaling up their battery-and-solar model to service the entire state.

Even before disaster hit, Puerto Rico wasn’t in the best place energy-wise — electricity rates were already quite high, at about US$0.20/kWh, and was drawn almost entirely from fossil fuels. Of course, this situation hardly improved after two hurricanes battered the island within weeks of one another. Change, however, begets opportunity. After it was pointed out that Puerto Rico’s destroyed grid offers the chance to build a new, better one, Tesla’s CEO Elon Musk wrote on Twitter:

Musk is referring to battery-and-solar projects Tesla recently deployed to other islands, such as Kauai (where the company installed a very impressive Powerpack) or the American Samoa (where they set up a battery and solar panel microgrid). These projects are meant to supply small populations, granted, but Musk always insisted they’re easily scalable and could potentially power larger islands, or entire continents.

Puerto Rico’s governor, Ricardo Rosselló, later offered to talk through the idea with Musk.

However, this renewable grid would not be immune to subsequent disasters. Puerto Rico would still use power lines to feed larger users, which can be snapped by a hurricane, to serve larger groups of users, and the generators themselves would also be quite vulnerable. Some of Puerto Rico’s previous wind and solar farms were badly damaged in the recent hurricanes, amplifying the island’s energy woes. However, Tesla’s grid would be harder to knock out completely. By relying on solar generation instead of fossil fuels, it can be spread throughout an area, improving the odds that at least some parts will remain online and that normal operations can be resumed more quickly in the event of a natural disaster.

Tesla is already making efforts to restart Puerto Rico’s grid. The company’s home battery pack, the Powerwall, is being shipped to Puerto Rico to allow homeowners with existing rooftop solar panels to connect to these battery packs instead of the power grid in order to power their homes — or even communities. It’s more of a patch than a fix, however. Local installers are often difficult to get a hold of, and some are charging up to $12,000 for a Powerwall and its installation. Tesla’s website says that the Powerwall and the supporting hardware costs $6,200, with a “typical installation cost ranges from $800 to $2,000.

Given the outrageous third-party costs involved here, it’s no surprise that locals are increasingly turning to car batteries and inverters, which are both highly inefficient and increasingly rare in Puerto Rico.

Overall, the plight of Puerto Rico offers a great opportunity for renewable energy to flex its muscles. However, we mustn’t forget that this situation impacts real people, with very real consequences. Action — any action — is needed, and sooner rather than later.