USC Viterbi research to streamline robot delivery

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USC Viterbi Research to Streamline our Robot Delivery Future

USC Viterbi Research to Streamline our Robot Delivery Future

A new study into optimized symbiotic vehicles for use in warehouses and for robot deliveries has been funded by Toyota’s University Research Program.

John Carlsson can’t wait for a future where robots roam the streets, seamlessly darting back and forth from larger delivery vehicles to bring us our food, goods, mail, and medicine at lightning speed. A future where automation can help make the world more accessible for people with mobility issues, with fewer vehicles clogging our roads on time-consuming errands that add to the carbon footprints of cities.

Carlsson, the Kellner Family Early Career Chair and associate professor of industrial and systems engineering, has just been awarded $200,000 to develop optimization techniques to help make this bold new future possible, with Toyota’s Raymond Corporation announcing him as one of just three recipients in their University Research Program. Over the next year, he will design a framework to show how fleets of “helper vehicles” such as automated ground-based robots or aerial drones can work quickly and effectively in tandem with a larger delivery vehicle in settings such as automated warehouses, or for deliveries in urban centers.

It’s a system that he calls “symbiotic vehicle routing.”

“Imagine in Africa we see a hippo with a bird sitting on it, picking off food and cleaning its teeth — there’s a big lumbering thing, and then a tiny, little thing helping it out. They’re both benefiting from each other,” Carlsson said. “Symbiosis is a good biological metaphor for what we’re doing — showing how big things are good at some things and small things are good at others.”

Carlsson and his team will first examine how this can be applied in a warehouse setting, an area where he has previously worked on optimization solutions to allow automated robots to navigate effectively around the aisles of massive unmanned warehouses. Carlsson’s prior research led to his induction as an Edelman Laureate by the Institute for Operations Research and the Management Sciences (INFORMS).

“There have been a lot of cool developments in warehouse research in the last 20 years because we have AI that can keep track of where everything is, and there is so much data available. This offers a whole new way of thinking about how you can move things around,” Carlsson said.

“In a symbiotic system, you could have a big forklift driving around alongside little robots on the ground that carrying individual items and dropping them where they need to go,” he said.

Carlsson and his research team will be using an algorithm to enable the symbiotic routing system in which a large host vehicle in a warehouse can move an entire rack shelf while being assisted by a fleet of automated guided vehicles (AGV) “helpers” that pick individual items. The algorithm, which has already been designed, will be harnessed by the team in real-world experiments to find the most effective routes between the host and the helpers.

The symbiotic approach would speed up the processing of goods and free up storage space, offering customers the potential of same-day delivery of goods, which could be useful for urgent deliveries of medication, such as insulin.

“If the big vehicle is capable of handing things off to the small thing, we want to know how much we can benefit — the dollar amount, the time amount,” Carlsson said. “Can we go from overnight to same-day delivery?”

The team will also be examining the potential of harnessing these fully automated systems in city settings, for direct-to-customer deliveries.

Delivery robots are already starting to emerge in cities for short-distance local errands, often piloted by a remote operator who steers the vehicle with the aid of cameras. Residents of urban centers like downtown Los Angeles and San Francisco may have already stumbled across these friendly local bots wheeling about town delivering their goods. Swiss Post has similarly introduced small autonomous vehicles to deliver mail to communities in Switzerland.

“People have built the hardware. We have some version of this technology already, but as far as using them efficiently and the actual optimization of these systems — that’s very uncharted territory,” Carlsson said.

In Carlsson’s vision, these fleets of smaller “sidekick” robots, drones, or small vehicles could work with a delivery van, such as Amazon’s vans, to quickly offload goods and deliver them locally, allowing the van to continue its journey. He said that optimized symbiotic routing does not necessarily mean that the helper robot fleet is working for the one host vehicle.

“Maybe you have a robot that picks up a package from van number one, and then it drops it off, and then it goes to van number two,” Carlsson said. “It makes a lot of sense to do things that way, because a robot is just moving along the sidewalks not cruising along a highway. Your robot may pick up a package from a van and drop it off, but by the time the robot is free again, that van is in another part of town.”

Carlsson said he believed there would be a future where symbiotic vehicles were an important part of everyday life, and his project’s goal in the first instance was to determine whether these systems could be helpful and workable.

“We’ve proven it from a theoretical perspective, but this is going to be much more simulation-driven and much more algorithmic,” Carlsson said. “We want to have more than just the mathematical proof of this. We want to know; does it actually work?”

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Yellowstone flooding underscores environmental pressures facing U.S. national parks

America’s national parks are in crisis, and the environmental disaster unfolding at Yellowstone National Park is the latest example of extreme weather driven by climate change battering parkland.

Glacier National Park in Montana is also experiencing severe flooding, in addition to the severe diminishment of the park’s 26 named glaciers — some by as much as 80%.

The unpredictability caused by climate change adds a further challenge as predictive models become increasingly irrelevant, causing delays in planning and resource allocation.

The U.S. national parks are a passion for Douglas Noble, associate dean for academic affairs at the USC School of Architecture. He credits a childhood spent visiting the parks as a Boy Scout for cultivating his love of America’s wilderness. This spring, he and faculty across USC introduced a new interdisciplinary course, “An Exploration of America’s National Parks,” that centers on how humans interact with the national parks. We spoke with Noble about the flooding at Yellowstone, how climate change affects our national parks and his favorite national park.

What does the situation with Yellowstone flooding tell us about how climate change is affecting the national parks system?

The climate conditions are really troubling. It’s not so much that it’s warmer — people will say, “Oh, it’s only 2 degrees warmer, what possible harm could that cause?” First off, 2 degrees centigrade is a big jump. It also changes the kind of things that can live or adapt to be there. It also changes migratory patterns. Water access in some places will dry up, and the lifeforms that lived where a tiny creek or pond used to be can no longer survive.

Yellowstone is a water-based place. Old Faithful, for instance: If you visit, there’s a chalkboard that says how often it will erupt — usually around 55-65 minutes — and they’re usually accurate to within a minute. But what happens when the conditions have changed? If there’s more water? What if there’s less? What has been a fairly predictable phenomenon now becomes an unknown. Maybe it erupts twice as often, or maybe it stops altogether. That’s all to say we no longer can entirely know what’s going to happen because the conditions have changed.

What is the impact of this unpredictability?

If you know what’s going to happen in a climate, whether it’s hot or cold, then you can make confident personnel and resource decisions to maintain the parks. There are impacts on tourism and agriculture — you know that based off predictive weather models that the last frost will take place after such-and-such date. If suddenly it’s less predictable, there might be another frost later in the season, it could be warmer, it stops raining sooner or it might rain a lot harder. I’m a lot happier when things are just like last year — even if last year there was a week in the summer where it was too hot in L.A. — because I know that if we do the same as last year, we know how it works and we know what the impact is going to be.

In what other ways is climate change affecting the national parks?

Not long ago the biggest challenges were wildfires and, again, it goes back to climate change. Part of it was direct impacts — the fires wiping out vast chunks of forests — but it also affected the management strategies in place. Now we look back and say, “OK, maybe that was not a great strategy putting out all fires” because the amount of debris and dead stuff piled up. Where there had been a fire here and there to clear that debris, once we began putting out every single fire the amount of dead stuff really begins to pile up. Now when it catches fire, instead of 1,000 little fires, you get a really big one and the really big ones act a lot differently.

Glacier National Park has a rough idea when the last glacier will finally melt down. They can tell you how many there used to be just a few years ago, and how many there are now — the number is fewer and they’re smaller. In some cases, a lot smaller and they keep shrinking. How much longer do they have? It’s decades, not centuries.

What’s your favorite national park?

I always answer that question by saying that it changes every time someone asks. There are 63 that many people think of as the so-called “regular” national parks, and almost 450 National Park [Service] units, including national battlefield parks, national historic sites, national monuments and others. Some are like Yellowstone that are large, and then there are others where something culturally important took place. I’m going to Joshua Tree this weekend, so maybe that is my favorite today. Climate change is being felt there, too. There are a small number of oases in the park — one of the most famous is the Oasis of Mara, which has been used by civilizations for millennia. There are six oases in a park nearly the size of Rhode Island, so these are rare treasures. Now the water table has fallen so much that the Oasis of Mara would die without human intervention. We’re keeping it alive in the hopes that things will change for the better.

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How Dad inspired me: Professors reflect on their fathers’ influence

This story was first published on June 17, 2016

Father’s Day is a time our thoughts turn to the unique relationship we enjoyed with them as children and the ways they helped make us who we are today. We asked seven USC faculty members to share how their dads helped shape and inspire their academic careers.


I have my father to thank for my problem-solving skills, and for a determination to get things done and never give up until I am satisfied.

Laura Baker

Laura Baker, professor of psychology, remembers her father, John P. Baker.

“As long as I can remember, my focus in life has been on figuring out how things work — including people’s behavior. I have to attribute this, at least in part, to my father, who was a civil engineer and a handyman extraordinaire.

“Early memories include having Dad help me with math homework and visiting his civil engineering office, where I was fascinated by the rooms full of computers, whirring tape decks — and yes, punch card machines — that filled an entire air-conditioned floor of the high-rise building where he worked. There were plenty of opportunities to figure things out on my own, growing up in a house with seven other siblings.

“My father also remodeled his home with his own hands and came to Los Angeles to help me and my husband restore a little Victorian house near USC. As my own research in behavioral genetics shows, Dad’s influence was undoubtedly a combination of genes and environment. Regardless of the etiology, I have my father to thank for my problem-solving skills, and for a determination to get things done and never give up until I am satisfied.”


We share more than a name, and I’m ever grateful for all of it.

William Deverell

William Deverell, professor of history, chair of history and director of the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West, remembers his father, William F. Deverell Sr.

“My father, for whom I am named, is a retired orthopedic surgeon who spent the first 20 years of his medical career as an officer in the United States Air Force. Growing up a military brat, I’ve learned since boyhood, is a little strange and outside the borders of more conventional, civilian life. But my sister and I knew nothing else, so it seemed entirely normal to us.

“I grew up in houses on Air Force bases in Japan, California and Colorado. They shared a certain “base housing” exterior sameness, even drabness. On the inside, they shared books. Packed bookcases: medical texts, of course (The Journal of Bone and Joint Surgery by the dozens), travel books, biographies, Great American novels and, always, history.

“My father has always been drawn to history, and he is deeply well-read. His books called to me as a kid, and my constant borrowing of them no doubt shaped my life and my thinking for the better. I went off to college thinking I wanted to be a surgeon; I left college knowing I wanted to be a history professor. In no small way, that journey is motivated by the imprint of a father’s curiosity on a son. We share more than a name, and I’m ever grateful for all of it.”


As a second-grader in a Catholic school in Cleveland, Ohio, I stood up and spoke out against a teacher who said that only Catholics would go to heaven.

The Rev. James Heft

The Rev. James Heft, Alton M. Brooks Professor of Religion, remembers his father, Berl Ramsey Heft, a farmer and warehouse manager.

“My father was a Protestant; I was raised Catholic, the faith of my mother. For the first 36 years of his life, my dad was a farmer; I’ve spent my life in cities. My father never went past the eighth grade; I got a PhD. My dad didn’t go to church with me and the rest of the family that often; we went every Sunday and more. My father was 5 foot 8 inches tall; I am 6 foot 5. So, how did my father influence my career as an academic and a Catholic priest?

“Though my father was not Catholic, he was a loving and good man. As a child, I never doubted that he would go to heaven, and as a second-grader in a Catholic school in Cleveland, Ohio, I stood up and spoke out against a teacher who said that only Catholics would go to heaven.

“Though he had little formal education, he was bright, very bright, and verbally quick. He told great stories. He supported the private education of my four siblings and me. I guess you could say that for much of his life he was deeply spiritual then, but not so religious — ahead of his time.

“He influenced me profoundly even though we might seem to have been very different. Towards the end of his life, shortly after I had told my family what I wanted to do with my life, he became a Catholic. Perhaps I influenced him a little, too.”


When my marriage failed and my world unraveled, my dad said two things that righted me: ‘I understand you baby’ and ‘Forgive yourself because God does.’

Lanita Jacobs

Lanita Jacobs, associate professor of anthropology and American studies and ethnicity, celebrates her stepfather, Jackie L. Stewart Sr., a retired machinist and church pastor.

“I was in the sixth grade when my dad entered my life. He’d recently found God and fell hard for my mom. I eyed him warily; I didn’t know what to make of this recently converted preacher and single father of five. Soon, his and my family merged and I inherited four sisters, a brother and a new dad — and two more sisters as our family steadily grew. We were a black Brady Bunch with no Alice; I sulked to the point of disrespect.

“Then, I grew to love him. I knew it when, five months into blended familyhood, I dreamt my new dad had died. I remember waking up in a panic and searching to find and hug him. He said, ‘Don’t worry about it Nita. I’m still here.’

“My dad has held me many times since. When my marriage failed and my world unraveled, my dad said two things that righted me: ‘I understand you baby’ and ‘Forgive yourself because God does.’ He saw me in my vulnerability (priceless), loved me, and inspires my classes on the fraught subject of black love and respectability.

“My dad didn’t graduate high school. In the past five years, he’s earned his BA and later MA at a seminary. I didn’t make it to his most recent graduation for reasons I can’t defend. When I apologized for my absence, he replied, ‘That’s OK. I know you love me.’ And I do. I do. I do. I do.”


To this day, I always begin writing with the aim that the result would be something he would want to read, and the best thing is, he always does.

Megan Luke

Megan Luke, assistant professor of art history, on her father, Richard Luke.

“My dad is my first and most avid reader. He reads everything I write (he even read my doctoral dissertation!), and he always understands just what I am trying to do with any given text. My father is a sculptor, a builder and an architect, so he has a high tolerance for art history, but he’s also a passionate self-taught reader of literature and philosophy — and poetry is what he likes reading best. At key moments in my studies, he would introduce me to a writer or an artist and I, in turn, would take up the challenge to write about them.

“Once, when I was in high school, I asked him to read a paper I had written for English class on one of his favorite poets, William Bronk, and he read it as he would a text by any ‘real’ writer. It was the first time my words had received such a demanding audience, and I vividly remember that being the moment when I realized the responsibility that comes with writing — a responsibility to write well and with conviction. To this day, I always begin writing with the aim that the result would be something he would want to read, and the best thing is, he always does.”


When I accompanied him to the Soviet Union in the early 1970s, and he tried to give out copies of a paper analyzing anti-Soviet jokes, his colleagues were afraid to accept it.

Alison Dundes Renteln

Alison Dundes Renteln, professor of political science, anthropology, public policy and law, pays tribute to her late father, Alan Dundes, a professor of anthropology and folklore at the University of California, Berkeley.

“My father was a professor for more than 40 years. From him I learned the great joy of exploring libraries, conducting interdisciplinary research, and mentoring students. I also saw the benefits of belonging to a vibrant intellectual community.

“It is important, he often said, to pursue a career one enjoys. He certainly loved his work. A Freudian folklorist, he believed that the psychoanalytic approach, making the unconscious conscious, could enable us to change our ways.

“Some of the data my father analyzed was difficult, dangerous and unpleasant. But he was strongly opposed to censorship and considered no topic taboo. When I accompanied him to the Soviet Union in the early 1970s, and he tried to give out copies of a paper analyzing anti-Soviet jokes, his colleagues were afraid to accept it. This experience sparked my interest in political freedom and human rights, topics on which I continue to focus.

“My father shared his research with influential people to try to contribute to social change. He corresponded, for example, with President Bill Clinton about military policy banning gays and lesbians. From my father, I learned the importance of identifying ethnocentric attitudes, so we can be more compassionate and accepting of people who come from diverse backgrounds. My own research on the legal protection of cultural traditions reflects a commitment to this value. Inspired by my father, I encourage students to reconsider their tacit assumptions, appreciate different points of view, and empower them to use their research to make the world a better place.”


My dad told me he loved me, but for him that love was not a just a feeling; it was a mission.

Robert Shrum

Robert Shrum, Carmen H. and Louis Warschaw Chair in Practical Politics and professor of the practice of political science, pays tribute to his father, Clarence Shrum.

“My parents were part of the great westward migration of the 1950s. They left behind a place where my father’s family had lived for nearly two centuries and brought my 6-year-old sister, Barbara, and me — I was 8 — to the better life of the new America that was California, with its booming growth and perpetual sunshine.

“But there was another reason for the move: No one in my father’s family had ever gone to college and he was determined that Barbara and I would. My mother taught me to read before kindergarten. My father worried that we wouldn’t have a chance to go to the best schools from a small coal town in Western Pennsylvania. So he drove us across the continent in his 1948 Chevy in search of education.

“He and my mom always found the money for the books I yearned to buy — and then for my tuition at Loyola High School. They put off buying a house until I graduated from Georgetown.

“My father — and the wife he adored — made it their life’s work to lift our lives. My dad told me he loved me, but for him that love was not a just a feeling; it was a mission. And he was quietly proud in his 90s of what his children had done — and though he never said it, what he had done for us.”

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A new use for platinum: Improving the quality of water

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Going Platinum: A Non-Toxic Catalyst for Clean, Re-Usable Water

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Going Platinum: A Non-Toxic Catalyst for Clean, Re-Usable Water
Learn how USC researchers identified a new treatment for harmful chemicals in wastewater.

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Platinum has set a new “gold standard” in jewelry, and now it’s about to upscale the quality of your water.

As wastewater treatment for potable – drinkable – reuse becomes a more viable and popular option to address water shortages, the question of what harmful byproducts might form in treatment and how to address them looms large. One group of these chemicals, aldehydes, are known to stubbornly persist through treatment. Toxic to humans, aldehydes will be at the top of the list of regulated byproducts in forthcoming reuse regulations, USC researchers believe, and require sustainable methodology to be removed from our drinking water.

In research published in Environmental Science & Technology, USC Viterbi School of Engineering researchers introduce platinum to help clean even the most stubborn toxins from wastewater. Platinum, the same metal used in catalytic converters to clean up air pollutants in car exhaust, can serve as a catalyst, said Dan McCurry, assistant professor in civil and environmental engineering, speeding up oxidation to transform once-toxic aldehydes into harmless carboxylic acids.

When wastewater is recycled, McCurry said, the resulting water is “very pure, but not 100 percent pure. There’s still a tiny amount of organic carbon detectable and these carbon atoms could be attached to molecules that are very toxic or completely innocent.” This has perplexed people for years, he said, particularly because the carbon is able to make it through so many treatment layers and barriers.

A study conducted by UC Berkeley researcher David Sedlak revealed that “one-third to one half” of these molecules are present in the form of aldehydes, McCurry said. Aldehydes are chemical compounds characterized by a carbon atom that shares a double bond with an oxygen atom, a single bond with a hydrogen atom, and a single bond with another atom or group of atoms. They are also generally toxic to humans, meaning that their long-term consumption could result in a variety of chronic and life-threatening illnesses such as cancer.

Catalytic oxidation of organic pollutants in water, without electrochemistry, addition of electron-accepting oxidant chemicals, or photochemistry, has not been sustainably demonstrated to date, McCurry said. Until now.
A Solution for an Upcoming Problem

McCurry recalled learning about oxidants used for synthesizing molecules in an organic chemistry course he took while he was a graduate student at Stanford University. “The TA was going through a list of oxidants used by synthetic chemists and platinum catalysts caught my eye. Not only is it one of the few oxidants that is non-toxic, but it can utilize the oxygen in water to catalyze a reaction abiotically (without the use of microbes).”

“It was really exciting to me,” McCurry said, “because it’s always been frustrating in water treatment that water is full of oxygen, but it doesn’t really do anything.”

There are about eight milligrams per liter of dissolved oxygen in water, McCurry said. While it’s a potent oxidant from a thermodynamic perspective, McCurry said, the reaction is slow. With platinum, the process speeds up. For a while, McCurry and his team of researchers used platinum to oxidize different pharmaceuticals as a matter of experimentation.

“We knew we could oxidize certain things, but we didn’t have a clear application in mind for this catalyst,” McCurry said. Ultimately, their hope was to find an impactful application for their work. Eventually, after a year of experimenting, the idea came to him while riding his bike home from Stanford’s campus. “What if we could use platinum in water treatment to oxidize contaminants?” he said. “It would happen essentially for free, and because the oxygen is already in the water, it’s the closest you could get to a chemical-free oxidation.”

McCurry acknowledges that platinum is expensive, but also notes that the cost, like for a car’s catalytic converter, is relative. “Your car probably has between one and 10 grams of platinum in it. The amount isn’t trivial. If it’s cheap enough to put in a Honda Civic, it’s probably cheap enough to put in a water treatment plant,” McCurry said.

The breakthrough, McCurry said, is not as relevant for most existing water reuse plants, as many of them favor “indirect potable reuse.” This is where, after all the water treatment and recycling processes are complete, water is pumped back into the ground–so they are essentially creating new groundwater. “Once they are in the ground, it’s likely some microbe will eat the aldehydes and the water will be cleaned that way,” he said.

“But more and more people are talking about direct potable reuse,” he said, “where we are talking about a closed water loop where water goes from the wastewater treatment plant to the reuse plant and then either to a drinking water plant or directly into the distribution system into homes and businesses.”

In these cases, aldehydes could potentially reach consumers, McCurry said. While they are currently unregulated, McCurry suspects that the presence of aldehydes in recycled wastewater will soon attract regulatory attention. “This is the problem we didn’t realize we had a solution for, but now we know, this catalyst, which we had been using to oxidize random pharmaceuticals for fun, works great on oxidizing aldehydes–and would allow for direct potable reuse water to meet future regulatory guidelines and safety standards,” he said.

The team did a preliminary experiment using platinum in batch reactors on a few gallons of water. The experiments were successful, but McCurry says for this to catch on at a mass production level, additional research would need to be done regarding how long the catalyst remains active. The team is looking into how to potentially regenerate the catalyst, as well. McCurry says it will also be important to test the system with dirtier water, which can foul up the catalyst and make it less effective.

The process, for which the team has a patent pending, will look to be more sustainable than alternative methods which might require introduction of additional chemicals and energy, McCurry said.

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Willingness to give away money among older adults linked to cognitive profile of early Alzheimer’s

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Willingness to give away money among older adults linked to cognitive profile of early Alzheimer’s disease

A new study from the Keck School of Medicine of USC, one of the first to test the relationship using real money, showed participants who gave away more money scored significantly lower on cognitive tests known to be sensitive to Alzheimer’s disease than those who gave less.
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To help protect older adults from financial exploitation, researchers are working to understand who is most at risk. New findings from the Keck School of Medicine of USC, published this week in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, suggest that willingness to give away money could be linked to the earliest stages of Alzheimer’s disease.

Sixty-seven older adults who did not have dementia or cognitive impairment completed a laboratory task where they decided whether to give money to an anonymous person or keep it for themselves. They also completed a series of cognitive tests, such as word and story recall. Those who gave away more money performed worse on the cognitive assessments known to be sensitive to Alzheimer’s disease.

“Our goal is to understand why some older adults might be more susceptible than others to scam, fraud or financial exploitation,” said the study’s senior author, Duke Han, PhD, director of neuropsychology in the Department of Family Medicine and a professor of family medicine, neurology, psychology and gerontology at the Keck School of Medicine. “Trouble handling money is thought to be one of the early signs of Alzheimer’s disease, and this finding supports that notion.”

Earlier research that tested the link between altruism and cognition relied on self-report measures, such as asking older adults whether they would be willing to give money in certain scenarios. The present study used real money to examine the link.

“To our knowledge, this is the first study to explore the relationship using a behavioral economics paradigm, meaning a scenario where participants had to make decisions about giving or keeping actual money,” said Gali H. Weissberger, PhD, a senior lecturer in the Interdisciplinary Department of Social Sciences at Bar-Ilan University in Israel and first author of the study.

Giving and cognition

The researchers recruited 67 adults for the study, with an average age of 69. They collected data about participant demographics and controlled for the effects of age, sex and education level in the final analysis. Participants were excluded from the study if they met criteria for dementia or cognitive impairment.

In the lab, each participant was told they had been paired with an anonymous person who was completing the study online. They were then given $10 and instructed to allocate it however they wished, in $1 increments, between themselves and the anonymous person.

The older adults in the study also completed a series of neuropsychological tests, including several that are commonly used to help diagnose Alzheimer’s disease in its early stages. The tests included story and word recall tasks where participants are asked to remember information after a short delay; a category fluency test that involves listing words on a specific topic; and several other cognitive assessments.

Participants who gave more away scored significantly lower on the neuropsychological tests known to be sensitive to early Alzheimer’s disease. There were no significant performance differences on other neuropsychological tests.

Clarifying the link

More research is needed to confirm the nature of the relationship between financial altruism and cognitive health in older adults, including with larger and more representative samples. Future studies could also collect both behavioral and self-report data on financial altruism to better understand participants’ motivations for giving.

Han, Weissberger and their colleagues are now collecting data for a longitudinal study using the same giving task, which could help determine whether some older adults are becoming more altruistic over time.

“If a person is experiencing some kind of change in their altruistic behavior, that might indicate that changes are also happening in the brain,” Weissberger said.

Clarifying these details about the link between altruism and cognition could ultimately improve screening for Alzheimer’s disease and help people protect their loved ones from financial exploitation. It can also help researchers distinguish between what represents healthy giving behavior versus something that could signify underlying problems.

“The last thing we would want is for people to think that financial altruism among older adults is a bad thing,” Han said. “It can certainly be a deliberate and positive use of a person’s money.”

About this study

The study’s other authors are Laura Mosqueda, Annie L. Nguyen and Aaron C. Lim from the Department of Family Medicine, Keck School of Medicine of USC; Laura Fenton from the Department of Psychology, USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences; and Anya Samek from the Department of Economics, University of California San Diego.

This work was supported by the National Institutes of Health [R01AG068166, T32AG000037] and the Elder Justice Foundation.

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Altruism or Alzheimer’s? New @KECKSchool_USC study links willingness to give away money in older adults to early signs of #Alzheimer’s disease.

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Is there an upside to today’s high gasoline prices?

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The Upside of High Gasoline Prices (Yes, they do exist)
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Pulling up to the pump these days requires a major financial commitment, what with the national average price of gasoline at close to $5 per gallon – and over $6 in California. But while higher gas prices take a bigger bite out of everyone’s wallet, do they have any advantages?

The USC Price Office of Communication turned to Marlon Boarnet, incoming director of the METRANS Transportation Consortium at USC, for the answer. Boarnet is an expert on urban economics, urban growth patterns, transportation and land use, and has served on the National Research Council committee that authored “Driving and the Built Environment.”

Question: Is the true cost of using gasoline – including the cost to our environment – reflected in what we pay for it?

We can pretty confidently say that gas at the pump, even at current prices, underestimates environmental costs. Users can put fuel in their car, generate greenhouse gas emissions, air pollution, and traffic congestion, and not pay at all for the potential harm. No one is paying for that environmental harm, which means that we are incentivizing people to use more gasoline than is environmentally sustainable.

Question: If all the external costs are not reflected in the price of gasoline, is it still a bargain at $6 a gallon?

Motor fuel is currently too cheap in that it does not reflect environmental costs. Does that mean $6 is a bargain? Only if we accept that the bargain comes paired with 122-degree days across much of India, California wildfires that burn a million acres, and persistent western U.S. droughts. That doesn’t sound like a good deal to me.

Question: The International Monetary Fund estimates that subsidies to fossil fuel companies amounted to $5.9 trillion in 2020, the vast majority of which were the result of not having to pay for environmental damage. But wouldn’t gas prices skyrocket if those subsidies were removed?

Withdrawing subsidies from fossil fuels and incorporating carbon fees to charge for the environmental damage created by fossil fuels would cause prices to increase. The questions are how much and how quickly?

One problem with gasoline prices is that they are extremely volatile. Gasoline prices moved both up and down by at least 10%, within the year, every year but one since 2012. Had I tracked fuel prices from 2000 to 2012, I would have found the same price volatility.

Extreme price volatility makes it difficult for consumers to plan. Every time gas prices rise, consumers don’t have incentives to buy a more fuel-efficient car. That’s because experience has taught that with each price rise, a price decline will soon follow.

A measured, long-term approach to increasing gas prices would encourage car companies to build more fuel-efficient vehicles while providing incentives for people to buy those cars.

No one – I hope – is suggesting that we double the price of gasoline tomorrow. But the federal gasoline tax has been fixed at 18.4 cents per gallon since 1994, with no adjustment for inflation. If, starting in 1994, we had indexed the gas tax for inflation and then increased that gas tax an additional 5 percent per year, the gas tax would be almost a dollar per gallon today. That change, phased in smoothly over decades, would be gradual enough that consumers and car makers could adapt, while providing a good start toward incorporating the environmental costs of fuel consumption.

A few years of gas tax increases that mirror the low-end of price increases that consumers have seen since 2012 (and even much earlier) would quickly put us on the right path.

Question: Even with gasoline at its current prices, L.A. freeways are still clogged with traffic. How expensive would gas have to be for there to be a noticeable and sustained decrease in traffic as more people either stayed home or used public transportation?

Raising gasoline prices, by itself, is not a way to get people to stop driving. When gas prices go up, most people cannot stop driving because they have no other way to get around. Even if we doubled the price of gasoline, the best research shows that people would reduce driving by about 5% in the near-term.

This means that urban planners and policymakers must get better about providing options that go beyond cars. If Los Angeles had more buses that arrived every 10 minutes, with street lanes dedicated to buses so that they are not stuck in traffic, and bike lanes that are safe and inviting, people would have options when fuel prices rise.

There is a policy lesson here. Economists often favor what are called externality taxes – increasing the price of polluting activities, like driving, by doing things like raising the cost of gasoline. In contrast, planners often favor using urban design and non-automobile transportation to encourage people to shift from the car.

That either/or formulation has not served us well. To combat climate change and build livable cities, the choice is not picking one or the other, price regulation or good urban planning. It must be both.

1. https://www.cnbc.com/2022/05/18/climate-change-made-india-heatwave-100x-more-likely-uk-met-office.html; https://www.fire.ca.gov/media/4jandlhh/top20_acres.pdf, https://theconversation.com/grim-2022-drought-outlook-for-western-us-offers-warnings-for-the-future-as-climate-change-brings-a-hotter-thirstier-atmosphere-182640.

2. U.S. Energy Information Administration, https://www.eia.gov/dnav/pet/hist/LeafHandler.ashx?n=pet&s=emm_epm0_pte_nus_dpg&f=m.

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Gas prices are skyrocketing. But is there a silver lining? (Via Shutterstock)
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Groundbreaking study shows substantial differences in brain structure in people with anorexia

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Groundbreaking study shows substantial differences in brain structure in people with anorexia

New findings from the largest study to date by an international group of neuroscience experts show significant reductions in grey matter in people with anorexia nervosa.
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Eating disorders are often misunderstood as lifestyle choices gone awry or oversimplified as the unfortunate result of societal pressures. These misconceptions obscure the fact that eating disorders are serious and potentially fatal mental illnesses that can be treated effectively with early intervention. Mortality rates for people with eating disorders are high compared to other mental illnesses, particularly for those with anorexia nervosa, a condition characterized by a severe restriction of food intake and an abnormally low body weight. People with anorexia can literally starve themselves, causing severe and potentially fatal medical complications. The second leading cause of death for people with anorexia is suicide.

Now, a groundbreaking new study by a global team of researchers led by the Keck School of Medicine of USC’s Mark and Mary Stevens Neuroimaging and Informatics Institute (Stevens INI) has revealed that individuals with anorexia demonstrate notable reductions in three critical measures of the brain: cortical thickness, subcortical volumes, and cortical surface area. These reductions are between two and four times larger than the abnormalities in brain size and shape of individuals with other mental illnesses. Reductions in brain size are particularly concerning, as they may imply the destruction of brain cells or the connections between them.

Equipped with these results, the research team is calling attention to the pressing need for prompt treatment to help people with anorexia avoid long-term, structural brain changes, which could lead to a variety of additional medical issues. Anorexia can be successfully treated with healthy weight gain and cognitive behavioral therapy. Ongoing work by the same group shows that successful treatment can have a positive impact on brain structure.

“By comparing nearly 2,000 pre-existing brain scans for people with anorexia, people in recovery and healthy controls, we found that for people in recovery from anorexia, reductions in brain structure were less severe,” says Paul M. Thompson, PhD, associate director of the Stevens INI. “This implies that early treatment and support can help the brain to repair itself.”

In addition to researchers from the Stevens INI, the research team includes neuroscientists from the Technical University in Dresden, Germany; the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, New York; University of Bath, UK; and King’s College London. The researchers came together under the ENIGMA Eating Disorders working group (ENIGMA-ED), a part of the ENIGMA Consortium, co-founded and led by Thompson. ENIGMA is an international effort to bring together researchers in imaging genomics, neurology, and psychiatry, to understand the link between brain structure, function and mental health.

Through advances in neuroimaging, researchers are gaining a better understanding of the link between serious mental health disorders and brain abnormalities. By demonstrating the effects of anorexia on brain structure, ENIGMA-ED has underscored the severity of the condition and the need for early intervention, while paving the way for the development of more effective treatments.

“The international scale of this work is extraordinary. Because scientists from twenty-two centers worldwide pooled their brain scans together, we were able to create the most detailed picture to date of how anorexia affects the brain, “says Thompson, professor of ophthalmology, neurology, psychiatry and the behavioral sciences, radiology, pediatrics and engineering. “The brain changes in anorexia were more severe than in any other psychiatric condition we have studied. Effects of treatments and interventions can now be evaluated, using these new brain maps as a reference.”

“This study exemplifies why the work at the Stevens INI is so essential,” says INI Director and longtime colleague of Thompson, Arthur W. Toga, PhD. “The goal of the ENIGMA Consortium is to bring researchers together from around the world so that we can combine existing data samples and really improve our power to examine the brain and detect the subtle brain alterations associated with a given illness. At the Stevens INI we apply this goal to all our large-scale studies. We are committed to participating in large studies with diverse research cohorts and sharing data to advance the entire scientific community.”

Access the full study ‘Brain Structure in Acutely Underweight and Partially Weight-Restored Individuals with Anorexia Nervosa – A Coordinated Analysis by the ENIGMA Eating Disorders Working Group’ published in the Journal Biological Psychiatry. Other USC co-authors contributing to the study include Neda Jahanshad, PhD, associate professor of neurology and biomedical engineering, and Sophia Thomopoulos, BS, consortium manager for the ENIGMA study.

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Discovery of significant reductions in the brain structure of anorexia nervosa patients by a @KECKSchool_USC study reinforces the urgent need for early intervention and treatment of the mental illness.
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Brain Shrinkage in Anorexia: Compiled from worldwide brain scans in the largest study to date, these brain maps show (in warmer colors) brain regions with gray matter deficits–abnormal tissue reductions–in anorexia. Deficits are less strong in partially-w
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Is recycled wastewater the answer to California’s water shortage?

An exceptional drought season means California enters the summer under mandatory water use restrictions for the first time since 2015. Increasingly light snowfall sends less fresh water to be treated and distributed as fully drinkable water, making new methods of purifying water a vital priority. In fact, nearly 60% of the state is suffering from “extreme drought” conditions, according to the National Integrated Drought Information System.

Enter Dan McCurry, assistant professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering. McCurry is an environmental engineer who specializes in wastewater reuse and drinking-water treatment. We spoke with him about the water restrictions, the different types of wastewater and whether he meets the new state requirements for personal water use.

What is environmental engineering?

Environmental engineering is somewhat confusingly named. People tend to think that it involves building habitats for the spotted owl or something like that. Really the main goal is to control and remediate environmental pollution for ecological and human health reasons, and primarily the latter. It used to be called sanitary engineering until the 1960s, when they realized they had a marketing problem because that term sounds gross.

What do you research?

Environmental engineering is primarily split between air and water researchers — I work on the water side. My research is specifically about water reuse and the process that we use to take treated wastewater and turn it into something that is usable as a drinking water source. I study the chemicals in wastewater and how they interact with our treatment processes. These include all kinds of things like industrial solvents and stuff that gets flushed down the drain, like pharmaceuticals. Two-thirds of my research is focused on how well those chemicals are removed during the treatment process and understanding the chemical mechanisms of that. And the other third of my research is on developing new treatment technologies that might be able to get rid of some of those chemicals more efficiently or in a better way.

How does recycling wastewater work?

If you imagine a river going past a city, raw water comes in and is turned into tap water. We take water out of a river or the ground — or in the case of Los Angeles, we actually import it from hundreds of miles away — and treat it to make tap water and send it to people’s homes and businesses. It then becomes sewage and is treated as wastewater — it’s not clean enough to drink but it’s safe to discharge back into the river. With water reuse, we’re trying to close that loop by taking the treated wastewater and running it through a third plant and turn that into a new source for drinking water.

How is recycled wastewater used?

There are three flavors of water reuse — non-potable reuse, indirect potable reuse and direct potable reuse. Non-potable reuse is just recycling water to use on things like grass or golf courses, and also crop irrigation and industrial purposes — places where the water quality doesn’t bother people very much. You see this all over the place in Southern California. Anytime you see a purple pipe on the side of the freeway or in a median, that indicates that it’s using recycled water.

When you put water into the ground, it’s assumed you are getting a bit of treatment for free from nature.

Dan McCurry, USC Viterbi water researcher

Moving into potable reuse, the overwhelming majority of reused wastewater is being used for indirect use. The treatment plant in Orange County is a good example of this — once it’s recycled, it’s put into what is called an environmental buffer or environmental barrier. What that means 99% of the time is that the treated water is injected back into the ground where it essentially becomes new groundwater. It’s considered lower risk than direct potable use because when you put water into the ground, it’s assumed you are getting a bit of treatment for free from nature. Anything we missed with engineered processes will hopefully get filtered out by the ground.

OK, but what about water we can drink?

Direct potable use means closing the loop fully: Water coming out of the recycling process is run directly to the drinking water plant or refills a reservoir. Imagine something like a plant recycling water and then pumping it up to reservoirs like Castaic Lake or Pyramid Lake in the mountains north of L.A. There’s a lot of excitement about direct potable reuse, but right now it’s not legal in California but should be soon. The bar is much higher for direct use reuse because you sacrifice the filtration given by the environment. The good thing is that it ends up being a bit cheaper because you’re not pumping water out of the ground, which consumes an enormous amount of energy.

How close are we to having this technology available widely?

The short answer is we’re already there. There’s a couple dozen full-scale water reuse plants around the world and we have the biggest one in the world in Fountain Valley in Orange County. When fully operational, it will be able to process 100 to 130 million gallons per day — it is able to process 100% of Orange County’s reclaimable wastewater into water suitable for indirect potable reuse.

What impact will the new water restrictions have?

This isn’t a one-time thing. The water use restrictions are needed, but we’re kidding ourselves if we think that a short-term fix will solve the problem. There was a big call for voluntary water usage cuts followed by a conservation mandate during the last drought in 2015, and it worked, but only for a year and then water use went right back up. It’s the kind of thing you can get people to do for a little bit but then they get sick of it. In the long term, we need to produce more reliable local sources of water.

Are you following the restrictions?

I was looking at my water bill the other day because I’ve been interviewed by the media a few times recently and wanted to make sure I’m not using more than I should. Thankfully, I am already using less than the future restricted amount. In fact, we ripped out most of our backyard when we got our house about a year and a half ago, replacing most of it with native plants and leaving a little 10-by-10 patch of grass for the dog to roll around in. That’s to say your yard doesn’t need to be a barren wasteland — you can have a bit of green landscaping and still easily comply with the restrictions as long as you’re sensible about it.

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In good company: Paul Daniel Dapkus joins Einstein, Curie and Viterbi as Franklin Medal recipient

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In Good Company: Paul Daniel Dapkus Joins Einstein, Curie and Viterbi as Winners of Franklin Medal

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In Good Company: Paul Daniel Dapkus Joins Einstein, Curie and Viterbi as Winners of Franklin Medal
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On May 5th, Paul Daniel Dapkus, Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Electrical Engineering, Chemical Engineering and Materials Science, and Physics and Astronomy, received the Franklin Institute’s 2022 Benjamin Franklin Medal in Electrical Engineering, jointly with Russell D. Dupuis, Steve W. Chaddick Endowed Chair in Electro-Optics, of Georgia Institute of Technology,

He joins previous honorees, including Marie Curie, Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein, Stephen Hawking, Jane Goodall, and Bill Gates.

Dapkus and Dupuis were honored for their pioneering work in the development of metalorganic chemical vapor deposition (MOCVD) technology and subsequent contributions to compound semiconductor materials and devices. The process they developed directly enabled the advent of the lighting, energy, and communications technologies on which our modern world relies.

“Dan Dapkus joins a very distinguished group of USC faculty, that includes Andrew Viterbi, the school’s namesake, and the late Sol Golomb, who have received the same award in the past,” said USC Viterbi Dean Yannis Yortsos. “Through his work, Dan has fundamentally contributed to the electronics and photonics revolution in the several previous decades, that has powered technology to the unprecedented high levels it is today. We are proud to have had Dan as our faculty colleague for all the many years he served at USC, where he contributed his knowledge and ingenuity to advance science and technology for the benefit of all humanity.”

The materials Dapkus works with are, like silicon, semiconductors. However, unlike the silicon traditionally used for electronic chip manufacturing, these compound semiconductors are not naturally occurring materials. Instead, they are synthesized as thin layers on a suitable substrate. The MOCVD process enables this synthesis to occur with exquisite control and on a manufacturing scale. While Dapkus and Dupuis were not the first to create these materials by MOCVD, they quickly realized MOCVD’s potential and were the first to apply it in new and impactful ways.

This innovative process directly enables technologies such as LEDs, solar cells, and components for fiber optics. This technology’s contribution to lighting efficiency specifically cannot be understated. LED lighting is 10 times more energy efficient than incandescent bulbs and four times more efficient than fluorescent lighting. Simply put, Dapkus’ innovations have directly contributed to a massive reduction in energy consumption across the world. In fact, a full quarter of all the energy used in the modern world goes to lighting. Similarly, virtually all of the photonic components that make up the infrastructure of our optical communications systems are manufactured by MOCVD, many using device designs that Dapkus pioneered.

Praise for Dapkus came readily from fellow researchers and colleagues. “The technology Dan and Russ pioneered lowers the energy cost of lighting and greatly reduces the consumption of fossil fuels and the rate of increase of global warming,” said Bahram Nabet, professor of electrical engineering at Drexel University and chairman of the committee that chose Dapkus and Dupuis for the honor. “It was a pleasure to work on this case and recognize the scientists whose life’s work has had such impactful contributions to human society.”

“Professor Dapkus demonstrated an advantage of MOCVD to grow III-V compound-based devices compared to molecular beam epitaxy and liquid phase epitaxy in 1977 for the first time. Since his demonstration, many people all over the world including me have joined MOCVD growth. Without his contributions, I could never invent blue LEDs and laser diodes in the 1990s using the MOCVD,” said Shuji Nakamura, 2014 Nobel laureate in physics and professor of materials and electrical and computer engineering at UC Santa Barabara.

Dapkus is the author of more than 500 publications and earned his B.S., M.S., and Ph.D. degrees in physics from the University of Illinois in 1966, 1967, and 1970. Among his 50 USC Ph.D. students are many photonics leaders in academia and industry.

This award adds to a long list of accolades for one of USC Viterbi’s most distinguished researchers. He has received several awards for innovations in photonic materials and devices, including the IEEE Jun-Ichi Nishizawa Medal, the John Tyndall Award, the IEEE David Sarnoff Award, Heinrich Welker Award of the ISCS, the Nick Holonyak, Jr. Award of OSA, the IEEE Photonics Society Engineering Achievement Award, the SPIE Technology Achievement Award and was an IEEE Photonics Society Distinguished Lecturer. Dapkus is a Member of the U.S. National Academy of Engineering and the National Academy of Inventors and a Fellow of the IEEE, APS, Optica and AAAS. He was a co-founder of E2O and T-Networks, startup companies in the optical communications industry.

“Being chosen as the 2022 Benjamin Franklin Medal Laureate in Electrical Engineering is truly humbling. In addition to the many great scientists who have been honored by the Franklin Institute over its long history, my doctoral thesis advisor, Nick Holonyak, Jr. and two USC communications pioneers, Andrew Viterbi and Sol Golomb, all were awarded this same medal,” said Dapkus. “Adding my name to such a list is both a profound personal and professional honor.”

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What is ‘committed warming’? A climate scientist explains why global warming can continue long after emissions end

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What is ‘committed warming’? A climate scientist explains why global warming can continue long after emissions end

Because of humans, the concentration of planet-warming carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is now 50% higher than before the industrial era and these gases are raising Earth’s temperature.
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By now, few people question the reality that humans are altering Earth’s climate. The real question is: How quickly can we halt, even reverse, the damage?

Part of the answer to this question lies in the concept of “committed warming,” also known as “pipeline warming.”

It refers to future increases in global temperatures that will be caused by greenhouse gases that have already been emitted. In other words, if the clean energy transition happened overnight, how much warming would still ensue?

Earth’s energy budget is out of balance

Humans cause global warming when their activities emit greenhouse gases, which trap heat in the lower atmosphere, preventing it from escaping out to space.

Before people began burning fossil fuels to power factories and vehicles and raising methane-emitting cattle in nearly every arable region, Earth’s energy budget was roughly in balance. About the same amount of energy was coming in from the Sun as was leaving.

Today, rising carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere are more than 50% higher than they were at the dawn of the industrial age, and they’re trapping more of that energy.

 

Earth’s delicate energy balance. California Academy of Sciences.

Those carbon dioxide emissions, together with other greenhouse gases such as methane, and offset by some aspects of aerosol air pollution, are trapping energy equivalent to the detonation of five Hiroshima-style atomic bombs per second.

With more energy coming in than leaving, Earth’s thermal energy increases, raising the temperature of land, oceans and air and melting ice.

Warming in the pipeline

The effects of tampering with Earth’s energy balance take time to show up. Think of what happens when you turn the hot water faucet all the way up on a cold winter day: The pipes are full of cold water, so it takes time for the warm water to get to you – hence the term “pipeline warming.” The warming hasn’t been felt yet, but it is in the pipeline.

There are three major reasons Earth’s climate is expected to continue warming after emissions stop.

First, the leading contributors to global warming – carbon dioxide and methane – linger in the atmosphere for a long time: about 10 years on average for methane, and a whopping 400 years for carbon dioxide, with some molecules sticking around for up to millennia. So, turning off emissions doesn’t translate into instant reductions in the amount of these heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere.

 

Second, part of this warming has been offset by man-made emissions of another form of pollution: sulfate aerosols, tiny particles emitted by fossil fuel burning, that reflect sunlight out to space. Over the past century, this global dimming has been masking the warming effect of greenhouse emissions. But these and other man-made aerosols also harm human health and the biosphere. Removing those and short-lived greenhouse gases translates to a few tenths of a degree of additional warming over about a decade, before reaching a new equilibrium.

Finally, Earth’s climate takes time to adjust to any change in energy balance. About two-thirds of Earth’s surface is made of water, sometimes very deep water, which is slow to take up the excess carbon and heat. So far, over 91% of the heat added by human activities, and about a quarter of the excess carbon, have gone into the oceans. While land-dwellers may be grateful for this buffer, the extra heat contributes to sea level rise through thermal expansion and also marine heat waves, while the extra carbon makes the ocean more corrosive to many shelled organisms, which can disrupt the ocean food chain.

 

Earth’s surface temperature, driven by the imbalance of radiant energy at the top of the atmosphere, and modulated by the enormous thermal inertia of its oceans, is still playing catch up with its biggest control knob: carbon dioxide concentration.

How much warming?

So, how much committed warming are we in for? There isn’t a clear answer.

The world has already warmed more than 1.1 degrees Celsius (2 F) compared to pre-industrial levels. Nations worldwide agreed in 2015 to try to prevent the global average from rising more than 1.5?C (2.7 F) to limit the damage, but the world has been slow to react.

Determining the amount of warming ahead is complicated. Several recent studies use climate models to estimate future warming. A study of 18 Earth system models found that when emissions were cut off, some continued warming for decades to hundreds of years, while others began cooling quickly. Another study, published in June 2022, found a 42% chance that the world is already committed to 1.5 degrees.

The amount of warming matters because the dangerous consequences of global warming don’t simply rise in proportion to global temperature; they typically increase exponentially, particularly for food production at risk from heat, drought and storms.

Further, Earth has tipping points that could trigger irreversible changes to fragile parts of the Earth system, like glaciers or ecosystems. We won’t necessarily know right away when the planet has passed a tipping point, because those changes are often slow to show up. This and other climate-sensitive systems are the basis for the precautionary principle of limiting warming under 2?C (3.6 F), and preferably, 1.5?C.

The heart of the climate problem, embedded in this idea of committed warming, is that there are long delays between changes in human behavior and changes in the climate. While the precise amount of committed warming is still a matter of some contention, evidence shows the safest route forward is to urgently transition to a carbon-free, more equitable economy that generates far less greenhouse gas emissions.The Conversation

Julien Emile-Geay, Associate Professor of Earth Sciences, USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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