Russia launches giant Yamal gas project in the Arctic

Russia launches giant Yamal gas project in the Arctic

Andrea PALASCIANO
AFP

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Russia’s gigantic Yamal LNG plant in Arctic Siberia is one of the most ambitious such projects in the world
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Russia launches Friday its Yamal gas plant in Arctic Siberia, a gigantic project in one of the world’s most remote areas, as the region becomes more accessible due to climate change.

Russia’s privately owned gas producer Novatek has partnered with France’s Total and China’s CNPC at the helm of the project, which was scheduled to send its first shipment of liquefied natural gas (LNG) from the port of Sabetta on Friday.

The $27 billion site (23 billion euros) — one of the most ambitious in the world — is set to start with a production capacity of 5.5 million tonnes per year and increase this to 16.5 million tonnes by the start of 2019.

Yamal LNG, owned by Novatek (50.1 percent), Total (20 percent), China’s CNPC (20 percent) and the Silk Road Fund (9.9 percent) has had its share of financial and technical hurdles over the years.

While the Yamal peninsula has considerable hydrocarbon reserves, it is an isolated region in the Arctic circle, about 2,500 kilometres (1,550 miles) from Moscow and covered by ice for most of the year, where temperatures dip as low as -50 degrees Celsius (-58 degrees Fahrenheit).

Since its inception in late 2013, an airport and a port have had to be constructed for the project, as well as gas reservoirs and the LNG plant itself.

“Despite challenging operating conditions, Yamal LNG was delivered on time and on budget,” said Samuel Lussac, an oil and gas specialist at Wood Mackenzie. “That is unusual in the LNG industry.”

“Novatek, once a domestic gas supplier, becomes a global LNG player” with the project, he said. It will also boost Total’s existing strength in the LNG sector, where it is the second largest producer in the world.

Financing the project was tricky as US sanctions against Novatek made it impossible to borrow from Western banks. Eventually Chinese funds resolved the issue — a relief for Moscow, for whom the project has strategic importance.

With Yamal LNG, Russia hopes to demonstrate its capacity to exploit considerable Arctic reserves despite major technological challenges and intends to strengthen its market presence in Asia. Its main gas market is still Europe via several pipelines.

– Northern Passage –

Despite the project’s completion, Yamal LNG still faces risks, and the coming months will show “whether the plant can operate smoothly in the harsh Arctic environment”, Lussac said.

Transportation through the Northern Sea Route also remains undeveloped, and “its feasibility as a major LNG delivery route is unclear”, he said.

Russia wants the route to become a shorter, easier passage to coveted Asian markets and has built several massive icebreakers in recent years.

It is also hoped the project will contribute to understanding of how to navigate the Northern Route and “give more clarity into the potential development of the Arctic”, said Sberbank-CIB analyst Valery Nesterov.

The route along the northern coast of Siberia allows ships to cut the journey to Asian ports by 15 days compared with the conventional route through the Suez Canal, according to Total.

After beginning LNG production on Tuesday, the first cargo will be loaded Friday onto the tanker Christophe de Margerie, named after a former CEO of Total who died in an accident in a Moscow airport in 2014.

In August, the vessel became the first commercial gas tanker to traverse the Northern Route without assistance from an icebreaker.

After Yamal LNG, Novatek plans to develop a new giant project in the far north called Arctic-2 in the Kara Sea, with an output set to match that of Yamal.

Posted, but not written by, Louis Sheehan
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Big Bang … or Big Bounce?

A BEHEMOTH black hole has just been discovered at the dawn of time. It shouldn’t exist. And its presence challenges the idea the universe was created with a Big Bang.

 IT’S almost as far into space — and back in time — as we can see.

It’s a black hole.

A big one. Some 800 million times the mass of our own Sun.

It’s also so far away, it must have been chewing its way through the assemble gas clouds and early stars of the infant universe itself.

It shouldn’t exist.

It lived at a time shortly after clouds of energetic particles cooled into nitrogen gas, when the universe was only just inventing the idea of stars.

EXPLORE MORE: Can black holes prove the Big Bang didn’t happen?

It had reached its size just 690 million years after the point beyond which there is nothing. The most dominant scientific theory of recent years describes that point as the Big Bang — a spontaneous eruption of reality as we know it out of a quantum singularity.

But another idea has recently been gaining weight: that the universe goes through periodic expansions and contractions — resulting in a “Big Bounce”.

And the existence of early black holes has been predicted to be a key telltale as to whether or not the idea may be valid.

Artist’s conception of the discovery of the most-distant quasar known. It is surrounded by neutral hydrogen, indicating that it is from the period called the epoch of reionization, when the universe's first light sources turned on.

Artist’s conception of the discovery of the most-distant quasar known. It is surrounded by neutral hydrogen, indicating that it is from the period called the epoch of reionization, when the universe’s first light sources turned on.Source:Supplied

ULAS J1342+0928

The science journal Nature this week reports the discovery of a quasar — the brightest objects in space.

A quasar is believed to be the superheated plasma emitted as stars, gas clouds and interstellar rubble get ripped down to component particles as they swirl about a supermassive black hole’s event horizon.

It’s been designated ULAS J1342+0928.

This one is very big. To get to its size — 800 million times more mass than our Sun — it must have swallowed a lot of stuff.

But that’s not the most unusual thing.

Black holes are believed to form when a star over a certain size burns up all its fuel, and collapses in on itself. They become supermassive by merging with other black holes and devouring other stars.

It must have eaten an awful lot in a very short time (in astronomical terms) to get to that size.

As far as we understand it, the universe simply wasn’t old enough at that time to generate such a monster.

Or some other process must be behind its existence.

Instead of a Big Bang, where the universe flashed into existence out of quantum nothingness, the presence of supermassive black holes at the dawn of time may be a remnant of a previous universe that collapsed in on itself - and rebounded as our own.

Instead of a Big Bang, where the universe flashed into existence out of quantum nothingness, the presence of supermassive black holes at the dawn of time may be a remnant of a previous universe that collapsed in on itself – and rebounded as our own.Source:Supplied

BEYOND THE DAWN

Astronomers use a technique called redshift to measure an interstellar object’s age.

That’s how much light gets distorted into the red spectrum over time as it moves away from the viewer.

And everything in the universe is moving away from us.

Thus the theory of ‘inflation’ — that the universe is getting bigger.

Redshift defines time-space locations as units.

Before now, only one has been identified as further/older than redshift 7: ULAS J1120+0641 at a redshift of 7.09.

This one has a redshift of 7.54.

It’s a number that represents a universe aged only 690 million years old — just 5 per cent of its current age.

RELATED: Do black holes reverse time?

“Gathering all this mass in fewer than 690 million years is an enormous challenge for theories of supermassive black hole growth,” says the astronomer who discovered it, Carnegie Institution for Science researcher Eduardo Bañados.

So how could such a supermassive black hole — of a size that suggests it must be much, much older than 690 million years — get there?

Science loves a challenge.

Is it evidence of a Big Bounce, where black holes from a universe from beyond our dawn of time somehow survived the contraction and recoil that produced the one we live in?

While the Big Bounce theory may suddenly sound a bit better, there may yet be undiscovered events in the early universe that could cause the rupture of time and space that produces a black hole.

 

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Do black holes reverse time?

http://www.adelaidenow.com.au/news/special-features/in-depth/do-black-holes-reverse-time/news-story/5062b9de779c264aebbb9959fc18c1f8

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The black hole is 800 million times larger than our sun

A massive black hole may help scientists establish a better timeline for our universe

Scientists can now estimate when stars first began to light up the cosmic universe, thanks to the discovery of a supermassive black hole, NPR reports. The black hole is 800 million times larger than our sun, nestled inside a bright object called a quasar, which is an emanating light that took 13 billion years to reach Earth. The black hole formed only 690 million years after the Big Bang — aka, when the universe was just 5 percent of its current age, NPR writes. This behemoth black hole formed when stars were beginning to alter the cosmic universe by exposing objects to light. This is also around when elements on the periodic table, like hydrogen and helium, began to form. Using the black hole, scientists can now predict when stars began lighting up the universe within an accuracy of about 1 to 2 percent. A team led by Carnegie Observatories’ Eduardo Banados published the discovery Wednesday in the journal Nature. One scientist compared the team’s discovery to finding a needle in a haystack — a very large and old haystack. Read more about the study at Nature. Elianna Spitzer

 

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Germany’s insects are disappearing

Germany’s insects are disappearing

In just 3 decades, insect populations in German nature reserves have plummeted by more than 75%, according to a new study. The reasons for the decline aren’t clear, but the pattern is consistent over a swath of western and northern Germany, from the region around Bonn and Cologne to the countryside south of Berlin. For 27 years, members of the Krefeld Entomological Society near Dusseldorf have monitored flying insect populations—everything from parasitic wasps to hoverflies and wild bees—in dozens of nature reserves. In recent years, they noticed a steep decline in their catch, with biomass dropping by some 82% in the summer when insect populations peak. Their attempts to match the decline with changes in weather, landscapes, and plant coverage—in collaboration with scientists in the Netherlands and the United Kingdom—don’t explain the loss, they report today in PLOS ONE. The scientists speculate that intensive agriculture surrounding the nature reserves has played a role, but they don’t have data on factors such as pesticide use in neighboring fields. The decline is likely having wide-ranging effects on plants and other animals, such as insect-eating birds. The researchers say that better monitoring of these crucial, but overlooked, members of ecosystems is urgently needed.

Want to know more about Germany’s insect crash? Read an earlier feature that covers the topic here.

 

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The Most Distant Supermassive Black Hole Ever Discovered

The Most Distant Supermassive Black Hole Ever Discovered

The light from the hot gas surrounding the celestial object took more than 13 billion years to reach Earth.

Artist’s illustration of the most distant supermassive black hole ever discovered, which is part of a quasar from just 690 million years after the Big Bang
Artist’s illustration of the most distant supermassive black hole ever discovered, which is part of a quasar from just 690 million years after the Big BangRobin Dienel

Scientists searching for astronomical objects in the early universe, not long after the Big Bang, have made a record-breaking, two-for-one discovery.

Using ground-based telescopes, a team of astronomers have discovered the most distant supermassive black hole ever found. The black hole has a mass 800 million times greater than our sun, which earns it the “supermassive” classification reserved for giants like this. Astronomers can’t see the black hole, but they know it’s there because they can see something else: A flood of light around the black hole that can outshine an entire galaxy. This is called a quasar, and this particular quasar is the most distant one ever observed.

The light from the quasar took more than 13 billion years to reach Earth, showing us a picture of itself as it was when the universe was just 5 percent of its current age. Back then, the universe was “just” 690 million years old. The hot soup of particles that burst into existence during the Big Bang was cooling rapidly and expanding outward. The first stars were starting to turn on, and the first galaxies beginning to swirl into shape. Quasars from this time are incredibly faint compared to the nearest quasars, the light from some of which takes just 600 million light years to reach the Earth.

“It’s like finding the needle in a haystack,” said Eduardo Bañados, an astronomer at the Carnegie Institution for Science who led the international research team. Their double discovery is described in a study published Wednesday in Nature.

Black holes, mysterious as they are, are among the most recognizable astronomical phenomena in popular science. They’re pretty straightforward: Black holes are spots in space where the tug of gravity is so strong that not even light can escape. They gobble up gas and dust and anything that comes near, growing and growing in size. A supermassive black hole sits in the center of virtually all large galaxies, including the Milky Way. Astronomers can infer their existence by watching fast-moving stars hurtle around a seemingly empty, dark region.

Quasars, meanwhile, are a little trickier to understand, and you’d be forgiven for thinking they sound like something out of Star Trek. A quasar is, to put it simply, the product of a binge-eating black hole. A black hole consumes nearby gas and dust inside a galaxy with intense speed, and the violent feast generates a swirling disk of material around it as it feeds. The disk heats up to extreme temperatures on the order of 100,000 degrees Kelvin and glows brightly. The resulting light show is what we call a quasar, and what a light show it is.

“A quasar emits more light than an entire galaxy’s worth of stars, and it’s actually just a glowing disk of material that is the size of our solar system,” said Daniel Mortlock, an astrophysicist at Imperial College London and Stockholm University. In 2011, Mortlock and his colleagues reported their discovery of the most distant quasar found at the time.

The more material a black hole consumes, the bigger it becomes. Eventually, the black hole drains the surrounding area of material and has nothing to eat. The luminous disk around it shrinks and fades, and the quasar is extinguished. In this way, quasars—and the black holes that power them—are like volcanoes, erupting under one set of conditions and settling into dormancy under another.

Quasars were first detected in 1963 by the Dutch astronomer Maarten Schmidt with California’s Palomar Observatory. Astronomers thought these newly discovered points of light were stars because of their extreme brightness. But when they studied the spectrum of their light, they were stunned to find the “stars” were more than a billion light-years away. When light travels through space, it gets stretched thanks to the constant expansion of the universe. As it moves, it shifts toward redder, longer wavelengths. Astronomers can measure this “redshift” to figure out how long the light took to reach Earth, which indicates how far a certain object is. Schmidt and his fellow astronomers knew that for stars to appear so luminous to Earth from such great distances was impossible. They were dealing with completely new phenomena.

“They’re not something that anyone predicted at all,” Mortlock said. “Occasionally you get astronomical objects like [stars known as] brown dwarfs, where people had predicted that they would exist and waited for astronomy to find them. No one predicted anything like quasars. It’s one of those cases where our imaginations weren’t up to what nature turned out to provide.”

To find the latest record-breaking quasar, Bañados and his colleagues used computer algorithms to search through databases of large sky surveys. They selected points of light they suspected could turn out to be quasars and observed them with the telescopes at Las Campanas Observatory in Chile. One night in March of this year, they all gathered to look at the data, one quasar candidate at a time. Quasars, astronomers have found, are easily recognizable when raw data is plotted on a chart. The spectrum of a quasar—a plot of brightness against the wavelength of light—has a very distinctive shape. Features known as emission lines appear broad, rather than sharp, thanks to the Doppler effect, which means the object emitting the light it traveling at high speeds.

“These objects are so bright that basically in 10 minutes, I can know from the raw data if it’s a quasar or not,” Bañados said. They found a quasar in their search, and when they calculated its distance from Earth, they couldn’t believe what they’d found. The next day, Bañados started drafting proposals to get observation time on powerful telescopes around the world to further study this quasar.

From the data for the quasar, astronomers can infer the size of the black hole responsible for powering it. “To get a bright quasar like this, you have to build up a supermassive black hole,” Mortlock said.

Astronomers studied the galaxy where the black hole and its quasar reside using radio telescopes in the French Alps and New Mexico. They found that the galaxy, at a mere 690 million years, had “already formed an enormous amount of dust and heavy chemical elements. This means it must already have formed a large amount of stars.” Astronomers say they’ll need to rethink some existing models for the evolution of galaxies to explain how a young galaxy could accumulate so much matter so fast. The findings about the galaxy are published in a separatestudy in the Astrophysical Journal Letters.

Quasars are some of the best targets for studying the early universe. Like flashlights, they illuminate a cosmic time astronomers are still struggling to understand. The newly discovered quasar comes from a period in the universe’s history know as “the epoch of re-ionization,” when a mysterious source of radiation ionized hydrogen and transformed the gas in the universe from an indiscernible fog into something transparent. About this time, the first objects to radiate light also formed. The exact process, as well as which phenomenon happened first, remains poorly understood.

Mortlock said he feels some sense of ownership of the quasar he discovered, which is now the second-farthest ever spotted. To feel that way about an object billions of light-years away is “completely ridiculous,” he said with a laugh. “And it’s especially ridiculous because there was no way that the object we discovered was going to be the end of this process. As we get more data and observe larger areas of the sky and look more deeply, we’re always going to find more objects like this.”

Someday, Bañados’s discovery will be relegated to second place, too. “There must be more out there, especially fainter ones,” Bañados said. “I’m still searching for them.”

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Where have all the insects gone?

Posted, but not written by, Louis Sheehan

Where have all the insects gone?

Entomologists call it the windshield phenomenon. “If you talk to people, they have a gut feeling. They remember how insects used to smash on your windscreen,” says Wolfgang Wägele, director of the Leibniz Institute for Animal Biodiversity in Bonn, Germany. Today, drivers spend less time scraping and scrubbing. “I’m a very data-driven person,” says Scott Black, executive director of the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation in Portland, Oregon. “But it is a visceral reaction when you realize you don’t see that mess anymore.”

Some people argue that cars today are more aerodynamic and therefore less deadly to insects. But Black says his pride and joy as a teenager in Nebraska was his 1969 Ford Mustang Mach 1—with some pretty sleek lines. “I used to have to wash my car all the time. It was always covered with insects.” Lately, Martin Sorg, an entomologist here, has seen the opposite: “I drive a Land Rover, with the aerodynamics of a refrigerator, and these days it stays clean.”

Though observations about splattered bugs aren’t scientific, few reliable data exist on the fate of important insect species. Scientists have tracked alarming declines in domesticated honey bees, monarch butterflies, and lightning bugs. But few have paid attention to the moths, hover flies, beetles, and countless other insects that buzz and flitter through the warm months. “We have a pretty good track record of ignoring most noncharismatic species,” which most insects are, says Joe Nocera, an ecologist at the University of New Brunswick in Canada.

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Of the scant records that do exist, many come from amateur naturalists, whether butterfly collectors or bird watchers. Now, a new set of long-term data is coming to light, this time from a dedicated group of mostly amateur entomologists who have tracked insect abundance at more than 100 nature reserves in western Europe since the 1980s.

Over that time the group, the Krefeld Entomological Society, has seen the yearly insect catches fluctuate, as expected. But in 2013 they spotted something alarming. When they returned to one of their earliest trapping sites from 1989, the total mass of their catch had fallen by nearly 80%. Perhaps it was a particularly bad year, they thought, so they set up the traps again in 2014. The numbers were just as low. Through more direct comparisons, the group—which had preserved thousands of samples over 3 decades—found dramatic declines across more than a dozen other sites.

Hover flies, often mistaken for bees or wasps, are important pollinators. Their numbers have plummeted in nature reserves in Germany.

JEF MEUL/NIS/MINDEN PICTURES/NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CREATIVE

Such losses reverberate up the food chain. “If you’re an insect-eating bird living in that area, four-fifths of your food is gone in the last quarter-century, which is staggering,” says Dave Goulson, an ecologist at the University of Sussex in the United Kingdom, who is working with the Krefeld group to analyze and publish some of the data. “One almost hopes that it’s not representative—that it’s some strange artifact.”

No one knows how broadly representative the data are of trends elsewhere. But the specificity of the observations offers a unique window into the state of some of the planet’s less appreciated species. Germany’s “Red List” of endangered insects doesn’t look alarming at first glance, says Sorg, who curates the Krefeld society’s extensive collection of insect specimens. Few species are listed as extinct because they are still found in one or two sites. But that obscures the fact that many have disappeared from large areas where they were once common. Across Germany, only three bumble bee species have vanished, but the Krefeld region has lost more than half the two dozen bumble bee species that society members documented early in the 20th century.

Members of the Krefeld society have been observing, recording, and collecting insects from the region—and around the world—since 1905. Some of the roughly 50 members—including teachers, telecommunication technicians, and a book publisher—have become world experts on their favorite insects. Siegfried Cymorek, for instance, who was active in the society from the 1950s through the 1980s, never completed high school. He was drafted into the army as a teenager, and after the war he worked in the wood-protection division at a local chemical plant. But because of his extensive knowledge of wood-boring beetles, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich awarded him an honorary doctorate in 1979. Over the years, members have written more than 2000 publications on insect taxonomy, ecology, and behavior.

The society’s headquarters is a former school in the center of Krefeld, an industrial town on the banks of the Rhine that was once famous for producing silk. Disused classrooms store more than a million insect specimens individually pinned and named in display cases. Most were collected nearby, but some come from more exotic locales. Among them are those from the collection of a local priest, an active member in the 1940s and 1950s, who persuaded colleagues at mission stations around the world to send him specimens. (The society’s collection and archive are under historical preservation protection.)

Weighty disappearances

The mass of insects collected by monitoring traps in the Orbroicher Bruch nature reserve in northwest Germany dropped by 78% in 24 years.

(GRAPHIC) G. GRULLÓN/SCIENCE; (DATA) M. SORG ET AL., MITTEILUNGEN AUS DEM ENTOMOLOGISCHEN VEREIN KREFELD 1, 1–5 (2013) © 2013 ENTOMOLOGISCHER VEREIN KREFELD

Tens of millions more insects float in carefully labeled bottles of alcohol—the yield from the society’s monitoring projects in nature reserves around the region. The reserves, set aside for their local ecological value, are not pristine wilderness but “seminatural” habitats, such as former hay meadows, full of wildflowers, birds, small mammals—and insects. Some even include parts of agricultural fields, which farmers are free to farm with conventional methods. Heinz Schwan, a retired chemist and longtime society member who has weighed thousands of trap samples, says the society began collecting long-term records of insect abundance partly by chance. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, local authorities asked the group for help evaluating how different strategies for managing the reserves affected insect populations and diversity.

The members monitored each site only once every few years, but they set up identical insect traps in the same place each time to ensure clean comparisons. Because commercially available traps vary in ways that affect the catch, the group makes their own. Named for the Swedish entomologist René Malaise, who developed the basic design in the 1930s, each trap resembles a floating tent. Black mesh fabric forms the base, topped by a tent of white fabric and, at the summit, a collection container—a plastic jar with an opening into another jar of alcohol. Insects trapped in the fabric fly up to the jar, where the vapors gradually inebriate them and they fall into the alcohol. The traps collect mainly species that fly a meter or so above the ground. For people who worry that the traps themselves might deplete insect populations, Sorg notes that each trap catches just a few grams per day—equivalent to the daily diet of a shrew.

Sorg says society members saved all the samples because even in the 1980s they recognized that each represented a snapshot of potentially intriguing insect populations. “We found it fascinating—despite the fact that in 1982 the term ‘biodiversity’ barely existed,” he says. Many samples have not yet been sorted and cataloged—a painstaking labor of love done with tweezers and a microscope. Nor have the group’s full findings been published. But some of the data are emerging piecemeal in talks by society members and at a hearing at the German Bundestag, the national parliament, and they are unsettling.

Beyond the striking drop in overall insect biomass, the data point to losses in overlooked groups for which almost no one has kept records. In the Krefeld data, hover flies—important pollinators often mistaken for bees—show a particularly steep decline. In 1989, the group’s traps in one reserve collected 17,291 hover flies from 143 species. In 2014, at the same locations, they found only 2737 individuals from 104 species.

Since their initial findings in 2013, the group has installed more traps each year. Working with researchers at several universities, society members are looking for correlations with weather, changes in vegetation, and other factors. No simple cause has yet emerged. Even in reserves where plant diversity and abundance have improved, Sorg says, “the insect numbers still plunged.”

A weather station for biodiversity

Researchers in Germany hope to develop a set of automated sensors that will monitor the abundance and diversity of plants, animals, and fungi with the help of pattern recognition and DNA and chemical analysis.

1 Sky scannerDetecting birds, bats,and large insects5 Acoustic recorderDetecting birds,frogs, and insects6 Moth scannerDetecting night-flying insects7 Scent detectorDetecting plants,animals, and soil-dwelling organisms2 Pollen collectorDetecting plantsand fungal spores3 Malaise trapDetecting insects4 Camera trapDetecting ground-dwelling animals1273456

V.ALTOUNIAN/SCIENCE

Changes in land use surrounding the reserves are probably playing a role. “We’ve lost huge amounts of habitat, which has certainly contributed to all these declines,” Goulson says. “If we turn all the seminatural habitats to wheat and cornfields, then there will be virtually no life in those fields.” As fields expand and hedgerows disappear, the isolated islands of habitat left can support fewer species. Increased fertilizer on remaining grazing lands favors grasses over the diverse wildflowers that many insects prefer. And when development replaces countryside, streets and buildings generate light pollution that leads nocturnal insects astray and interrupts their mating.

Neonicotinoid pesticides, already implicated in the widespread crash of bee populations, are another prime suspect. Introduced in the 1980s, they are now the world’s most popular insecticides, initially viewed as relatively benign because they are often applied directly to seeds rather than sprayed. But because they are water soluble, they don’t stay put in the fields where they are used. Goulson and his colleagues reported in 2015 that nectar and pollen from wildflowers next to treated fields can have higher concentrations of neonicotinoids than the crop plants. Although initial safety studies showed that allowable levels of the compounds didn’t kill honey bees directly, they do affect the insects’ abilities to navigate and communicate, according to later research. Researchers found similar effects in wild solitary bees and bumble bees.

Less is known about how those chemicals affect other insects, but new studies of parasitoid wasps suggest those effects could be significant. Those solitary wasps play multiple roles in ecosystems—as pollinators, predators of other insects, and prey for larger animals. A team from the University of Regensburg in Germany reported in Scientific Reports in February that exposing the wasp Nasonia vitripennis to just 1 nanogram of one common neonicotinoid cut mating rates by more than half and decreased females’ ability to find hosts. “It’s as if the [exposed] insect is dead” from a population point of view because it can’t produce offspring, says Lars Krogmann, an entomologist at the Stuttgart Natural History Museum in Germany.

No one can prove that the pesticides are to blame for the decline, however. “There is no data on insecticide levels, especially in nature reserves,” Sorg says. The group has tried to find out what kinds of pesticides are used in fields near the reserves, but that has proved difficult, he says. “We simply don’t know what the drivers are” in the Krefeld data, Goulson says. “It’s not an experiment. It’s an observation of this massive decline. The data themselves are strong. Understanding it and knowing what to do about it is difficult.”

The Krefeld Entomological Society’s collections contain millions of insect specimens.

© ENTOMOLOGISCHER VEREIN KREFELD

The factors causing trouble for the hover flies, moths, and bumble bees in Germany are probably at work elsewhere, if clean windshields are any indication. Since 1968, scientists at Rothamsted Research, an agricultural research center in Harpenden, U.K., have operated a system of suction traps—12-meter-long suction tubes pointing skyward. Set up in fields to monitor agricultural pests, the traps capture all manner of insects that happen to fly over them; they are “effectively upside-down Hoovers running 24/7, continually sampling the air for migrating insects,” says James Bell, who heads the Rothamsted Insect Survey.

Between 1970 and 2002, the biomass caught in the traps in southern England did not decline significantly. Catches in southern Scotland, however, declined by more than two-thirds during the same period. Bell notes that overall numbers in Scotland were much higher at the start of the study. “It might be that much of the [insect] abundance in southern England had already been lost” by 1970, he says, after the dramatic postwar changes in agriculture and land use.

The stable catches in southern England are in part due to constant levels of pests such as aphids, which can thrive when their insect predators are removed. Such species can take advantage of a variety of environments, move large distances, and reproduce multiple times per year. Some can even benefit from pesticides because they reproduce quickly enough to develop resistance, whereas their predators decline. “So lots of insects will do great, but the insects that we love may not,” Black says.

Other, more visible creatures may be feeling the effects of the insect losses. Across North America and Europe, species of birds that eat flying insects, such as larks, swallows, and swifts, are in steep decline. Habitat loss certainly plays a role, Nocera says, “but the obvious factor that ties them all together is their diet.”

Some intriguing, although indirect, clues come from a rare ecological treasure: decades’ worth of stratified bird droppings. Nocera and his colleagues have been probing disused chimneys across Canada in which chimney swifts have built their nests for generations. From the droppings, he and his colleagues can reconstruct the diets of the birds, which eat almost exclusively insects caught on the wing.

The layers revealed a striking change in the birds’ diets in the 1940s, around the time DDT was introduced. The proportion of beetle remains dropped off, suggesting the birds were eating smaller insects—and getting fewer calories per catch. The proportion of beetle parts increased slightly again after DDT was banned in the 1970s but never reached its earlier levels. The lack of direct data on insect populations is frustrating, Nocera says. “It’s all correlative. We know that insect populations could have changed to create the population decline we have now. But we don’t have the data, and we never will, because we can’t go back in time.”

Sorg and Wägele agree. “We deeply regret that we did not set up more traps 20 or 30 years ago,” Sorg says. He and other Krefeld society members are now working with Wägele’s group to develop what they wish they had had earlier: a system of automated monitoring stations they hope will combine audio recordings, camera traps, pollen and spore filters, and automated insect traps into a “biodiversity weather station”. Instead of tedious manual analysis, they hope to use automated sequencing and genetic barcoding to analyze the insect samples. Such data could help pinpoint what is causing the decline—and where efforts to reverse it might work best.

Paying attention to what E. O. Wilson calls “the little things that run the world” is worthwhile, Sorg says. “We won’t exterminate all insects. That’s nonsense. Vertebrates would die out first. But we can cause massive damage to biodiversity—damage that harms us.”

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