Imagine lying on a green hill watching the clouds go by on a beautiful day. The clouds you’re probably thinking of are cumulous clouds, the ones that resemble fluffy balls of cotton wool. They seem innocent enough. But they can grow into the more formidable cumulonimbus, the storm cloud. These are the monsters that produce thunder and lightning. They are powerful, destructive and intensely mysterious. They may also be getting a lot more common, which makes understanding their workings – and their effects on the human world, including how we construct buildings or power lines – more important than ever.
Today’s silicon solar panels are an industry standard, but these rigid, heavy blocks may be shunted aside by plastic rivals – lightweight, flexible solar panels that could be printed and stuck onto buildings or placed in windows or cars, turning light into electricity in locations inaccessible to their heavier cousins.
Storing power generated by strong winds or bright sunshine by turning it into liquid fuel such as methanol can help to ensure green energy does not go to waste, without having to rely on batteries.
The pandemic left a visible imprint on car, bus and bicycle use – and at its height brought about cleaner city air – but it also disrupted another, less obvious but highly polluting sector: freight transport. Coronavirus plunged millions of planes, trucks, trains and ships into a massive experiment, disrupting supply chains as national borders closed and industries shut down. Researchers and industry are now looking to see if any of the changes will stick.
Aggressive tiger mosquitoes capable of spreading debilitating tropical diseases such as dengue and Zika are spreading through Europe, but scientists hope it may be possible to control these biting pests with a form of insect birth control and drones.
Mountains release the same amount of carbon each year as volcanoes – about 100 megatons – and yet we know very little about the process. Understanding these emissions could tell us more about their effects on climate, both in the past and the future.
Food fraudsters have found myriad ways to trick shoppers – from cheap horsemeat sold as beef to conventional apples labelled as organic. But new rapid testing and tracing technologies may help turn the tables on food crime.
Scientists are studying past conditions to understand which corals migrated to deeper waters.
A lack of knowledge about thunderstorms means we could be overengineering our tallest buildings.
Dr Kate Rychert studies ocean plate structures.