SciTech Now Episode 228

We explore the warming Arctic through its bird population, learn how snowflakes form and why they have 6 sides, check out state-of-the-art care for our wounded veterans at the Center for the Intrepid at Fort Sam Houston in Texas, and see how drones are modernizing the farming industry.


Coming up... the warming Arctic.

The Arctic region is known to be one of the regions of the world that's warming more quickly and to a larger extent than many other places.

It's possible some species will be winners and some species are going to be losers.

Why snowflakes have six sides.

This is what water molecules do -- they arrange themselves the same way as these oranges, and they grow from each one of these sides and create branches, and so that's how we get a snowflake.

High-tech help for our heroes.

This is the CAREN system, and it's a computer-assisted rehabilitation environment.

It's a 300-degree dome.

And finally, taking farming to new heights.

Drones are -- They're a thing of the future.

It's all about efficiency.

It's a lot faster to fly a drone over a field than it is to walk 1,250 acres of corn.

It's all ahead.

Funding for this program is made possible by...

Hello. I'm Hari Sreenivasan.

Welcome to 'SciTech Now,' our weekly program bringing you the latest breakthroughs in science, technology, and innovation.

Let's get started.

The Arctic is one of the regions in the world where the impact of climate change is both amplified and understudied.

In our next story, we follow researchers in northern Alaska who are racing to understand how this changing environment is impacting the breeding and migration of Arctic birds.

Here's a look.



Oh, wow.

I've got several birds already.

Not much slips through Helen Chmura's net.

So close, little bird.

Today's catch is the Gambel's white-crowned sparrow.

You might have seen this in your backyard in the wintertime.

It's a really common backyard bird-feeder bird.

But in the summers, these birds fly north to raise their young here in extreme northern Alaska.

This bird is only about a month old.

You don't normally think of life being assembled that quickly.

[ Chuckles ] He was caught at about 10:00 a.m.

Chmura is a PhD student at the University of California -- Davis.

I'm gonna do a few basic measures of body size.

First, we're gonna do the skull, which is just from the back of the neck to the tip of the beak.

She spends her summers studying at Toolik Field Station in the Alaskan Arctic.

You can kind of actually just peer through the skin to actually see its internal organs.

She's part of a team that's trying to understand how climate change is impacting the breeding and migration of arctic birds.

There's a lot of research from bird populations in other parts of the world that show that, with climate change, birds aren't having their babies at the right time of year anymore.

But relatively little research has been done within the Arctic Circle, where the impacts of climate change are amplified.

The Arctic region is known to be one of the regions of the world that's warming more quickly and to a larger extent than many other places.

And this could possibly have a great impact on many wildlife species that live up here.

It's possible some species will be winners and some species are going to be losers.

The white-crowned sparrow could be among the lucky ones.

All right.

It's time to go.

They build their nests at the base of shrubs, and as the Arctic warms, the shrubs are moving farther north, overtaking the grassy tundra.

That means more habitat for the sparrows.

In fact, we think that our data suggest that there has been a range expansion, so more Gambel's white-crowned sparrows breeding further and further north than we've ever seen them before.

But there are many more unknowns.

Could extreme temperature fluctuations create conditions that are lethal to young birds?

Could seasonal shifts reduce the number of insects they rely on for food?

The questions are hard enough to answer for one species, and they're just a piece of the larger puzzle.

That's why dozens of Arctic researchers come to Toolik each year.

They're gathering the critical data to get a clearer picture of the warming Arctic.

We have been working now in this area since 1975, and only because we have been working here so long do we really see the effects of climate change -- whereas if we came in for two or three years and then left, we'd miss the story completely.

For some researchers, the story they're unraveling is about how this unique ecosystem is transforming, while others...

8.77. George Kling, are trying to figure out how these regional changes could have worldwide impacts.

Historically, the Arctic hasn't played a large role in global climate change.

However, the soils in the Arctic, that had been frozen for thousands of years, contain about twice as much carbon as there is now in the atmosphere.

As the Arctic warms, the frozen ground beneath the surface melts -- sometimes in dramatic fashion.

The soil on top just collapses down, and that collapse causes a landslide, and that landslide then moves a lot of carbon into lakes and streams and exposes it to the surface.

Kling and his team are tracking that carbon as it moves into lakes and streams.

That carbon is released back up to the atmosphere in surprisingly large amounts.

That carbon is very quickly mixed around the world in the atmosphere, and if it increases the CO2 concentrations, that will cause more warming.

More warming will cause more thaw of the frozen soils.

So there's a positive feedback.

And one of the real questions that scientists have is, how much will this acceleration of global warming be caused by the Arctic?

The Arctic is one of the world's last frontiers.

But in the battle to understand climate change, it's the front line.

And what these researchers find may provide a clearer view of the future.

I think people deserve to know 'What might it be like?'

And then they can make decisions on 'How do I prepare for the warmer climate that we're going to have in the future world?'


Ainissa Ramirez is a scientist, author, and a self-proclaimed science evangelist.

She's calling for big changes in science education and just launched a new podcast series, called 'Science Underground.'

Here to discuss one of her podcast episodes, called 'Why Snowflakes Have Six Sides,' is Ainissa Ramirez.

Basic question.

[ Chuckles ]

But I never really thought about it until now.

What are the props here?

And how does this help explain this answer?

Well, when we are in school, we usually have props that look like this.

We draw snowflakes that look like that, and that's actually scientifically correct.

It has six sides.

And if you want to know the answer, you have to go to the grocery store, over to the produce section.

Look at the oranges.


You look at how oranges are arranged, you'll see that each orange is touching six other oranges.

If I were to draw a line around this, it would be a hexagon.

And this is what water molecules do -- they arrange themselves the same way as these oranges, and they grow from each one of these sides and create branches.

And so that's how we get a snowflake.

What's the advantage?

Why do they want to touch six other molecules?

Well, this is how you can have the most number of neighbors, so you can have the most number of bonds.

So this is sort of like the atomic level of what's going on.

In order for atoms to have the most number of nearest neighbors, this hexagonal arrangement is one of the ways to do it.

So, but if the oranges were smaller -- let's say they were golf balls -- couldn't you have 18 neighbors or 27 neighbors?

No, it ends up that it scales.

So if I went down to, you know, BBs or if I went up to bowling balls, it would still be six.

That's called the closest way that you can compact something.

And how exactly -- You know, when we think about snowflakes' being created, explain that for me.

When those water molecules are touching these neighbors, what's happening?

Well, it all starts with a piece of dust or a piece of ice.

And water molecules in their vapor form collect on this piece of dust, and they start to arrange themselves, and they want to make sure that they're the closest packed, so they create this hexagonal array.

So at the center of every snowflake is dust?

Is a piece of dust.

Every time you put your tongue out, you're actually -- that piece of dust -- it's like, 'Mmm. Yummy.'

How many water droplets?

You said a hundred --

100,000 water droplets makes one snowflake.

And how do we know that?

It's been proven.

[ Laughs ]

There's a gentleman in Caltech, Ken Libbrecht, and he helped me out and he told me about the math of how -- It takes a lot of water molecules to make a snowflake, and so it takes about 100,000 water droplets to do that.

Okay. When I think of a droplet, I'm thinking of what comes out of an eye dropper.

That's right. That's right.

100,000 of those?

100,000, 'cause you have to remember, a liquid has water molecules moving around, and they're not densely packed.

But in a solid, like in a snowflake, everything's as packed as it could be.

It's sort of like being in the subway in New York rush hour.

There's no other space.

However, a liquid is sort of like being on the subway, 2:00 on a Saturday.

Not too much -- Not too many atoms around there.

So that's the difference between a liquid and a solid.

It's much more closely packed, so you have many more water molecules hanging out.

So 100,000 water droplets per snowflake, and --

It's mind-blowing.

The blizzard -- That's -- I don't know what even, jillions of water droplets?


So it ends up that it's about an inch of rain equals about a foot of snow.


So, you know, next time you see rain, just be grateful it's not snow, 'cause that could be a foot of snow.

So that can just give you a sense of how many water droplets are in liquid and how many water droplets are in a solid.

So, is there a greater implication, I guess, to scientific research when they went after this quest to figure out how a snowflake forms?


Why would they do this?

Why would they do this?

What were they hoping to learn?

Well, snowflakes are crystals, and that's interesting to everyone because crystals are inside your cellphone.

The semiconductors are crystals, so if we know about crystals in a snowflake, the lessons kind of parallel to a snowflake in a cellphone.

So a snowflake is a crystal just like a ruby or a diamond.

And so the calculations wasn't -- It wasn't like someone was crazy and they said, 'I'm just gonna figure out a snowflake.'

[ Laughs ]

It is that that information translates to so many other technologies as well.

Okay. So it might be from the diamond department that someone...

That's right.

It's probably a crystal grower.

There's people who grow different types of crystals on a very pure scale, and you can learn a lot about properties 'cause a crystal is sort of like the purest material, and so you can learn a lot of physics and a lot of material science that's going on.

And then it wasn't too hard to make a calculation for what a snowflake -- what it takes to make a snowflake.

All right. Ainissa Ramirez, science evangelist, thanks so much for joining us.

Thank you.


Fearless, dauntless, bold -- all words that could describe the women and men who are treated and work at the Center for the Intrepid at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas.

Through a team of various physicians, the center provides patients with state-of-the-art amputee care, helping them to return to their highest physical, psychological, and emotional selves.

Here's the story.


The most severely wounded servicewomen and -men are brought to the Center for the Intrepid for rehabilitation.

[ Sirens wail ] First Lieutenant John Arroyo was hit in his throat and shoulder during a shooting spree by a fellow serviceman at Fort Hood on April 2, 2014.

Everybody that saw me knew that they had witnessed a miracle.

They knew that the man that they had -- were treating should have been dead.

He was told he would never be able to talk again or use his arm, but he proved everyone wrong.


My recovery has been just nothing but miraculous, and since that time, being at the Center for the Intrepid is nothing more than miraculous also.


The Center for the Intrepid is an outpatient rehabilitation center which opened in January of 2007.

♪♪ It was donated by the generous 600,000 Americans, and they donated money to the Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund.

Lots of things going on in the building on any given day.

So, besides our main mission of rehabilitation of our most severely wounded service members, one of our other missions is research.

♪♪ This is our Military Performance Lab, that we have done in the last four years over $40 million of research.

In this lab, patient movement is analyzed using 34 motion-capture cameras installed around the room.

♪♪ And down the hall, a virtual-reality rehabilitation program so advanced, there are only three in the world.

This is the CAREN system, and it's a computer-assisted rehabilitation environment.

It's a 300-degree dome.

So, short of a door, they're pretty much enclosed inside this virtual environment.

So, you see that the treadmill is tipping there, and a patient who has a right-leg amputation -- or, as they say, above-the-knee amputation -- he's learning to walk, and then he's also learning to deal with the adjustments of the ground changing underneath him.


As part of their rehabilitation, many patients will need to be fitted with one or more prosthetics, an area that's had tremendous advancements in the last few years.

We do all of our work here.

We do virtually all of our fabrication here in-house.

A couple of things that have really made advancements -- It's all microprocessor controlled, so it's all Bluetooth enabled.

We can use laptops, and there are apps, also.

Users can actually program themselves, do some of their own adjustments now.

For someone who has severe ankle pain or has lost function in their ankle, they don't have push-off, this gives artificial push-off.

Even though it looks the simplest, it's one of the primary developments here in the last five years.

This gives the function back.

Some of the new technologies that we've been using, in addition to new prosthetics, is a way of actually enhancing the way that people walk around.

One of those technologies is a Segway.

When someone is using a prosthetic, it takes a lot of energy to walk long distances.

Segway -- They can stand, be at eye level, and talk with us instead of being talked down to in a wheelchair.

But it frees a patient up, getting them out of their wheelchairs quicker and longer and making their quality of life much better.

Another innovation is a recent adaptation to a standing regular Segway.

It's called an Ally Chair, placed on a very complicated seat platform.

With this, Noel is able to drive his Segway just with body weight.

We do the best we can in terms of getting somebody's function back to where they want to be.

All those medics and surgeons and leaders, they all made the right decisions, and they put me in the hands of world-renowned physicians in the number-one facility.

And because of that, I have a quality of life today.

During its first year of operation alone, more than 28,000 patients visited the Center for the Intrepid.


Hi. My name is Kat Alexander.

I'm the CEO and founder of Siren.

We offer a line of protective accessories for women that contain a powerful 114-decibel alarm that can be activated instantly to overwhelm and disorient an attacker and attract help.

And we're actually developing some secondary products that are Bluetooth enabled and a universal alarm module with various applications.

One night when I was walking home from my college town, I was taking a shortcut, and out of nowhere, a man cut across my path and started walking towards me, and I panicked, and I realized that I had no way to protect myself in that instant.

I didn't want to fight back -- I didn't want to escalate the situation.

And I found myself wishing I had some way to create a loud noise to both attract attention and drive him from me.

And I was wearing a ring from my grandmother that I found myself sort of nervously twisting, and when I got home that night, I called my father, who's an incredible engineer and product designer, and said, 'Is there any way that we can create miniaturized alarm technology to hide within jewelry, specifically within a ring?'

And he thought it was fascinating, and we started developing the product together, and it became Siren.

You simply rotate the top of the ring counterclockwise.

Locks into position, and then you have a brief delay so that you could either cancel the process if it's erroneous, or it enters full alarm mode.

And it runs for a program duration, or it could be manually shut off.

And since the alarm is acoustically designed to project the sound outward and away from the wearer for maximum effectiveness, you simply just extend your hand towards the intended target so that they feel the full force of the alarm.

We have been contacted by people that have felt like it's changed their daily life and it is something that gives them a sense of security.


Agriculture may be one of civilization's earliest innovations, but today drones and infrared technology are making farming a thing of the future.

Where farmers once had to walk the lengths of their fields to look for pests, disease, and water damage, drones are helping farmers monitor their crops from new heights.

[ Whirring ]

I was -- I was a non-family employee, became a partner, married Debbie Forbes, which her father, Fred, owned Forbes Farm.

We just merged these two farms three years ago.

So we currently milk 1,200 cows and farm 2,500 acres.

[ Equipment beeping ] I'm the crop manager here.

I plant the corn, plant the grass.

We have five employees that help in the field.

Dennis is a great customer of ours.

He started out by having some of the basic GPS on his machines.

I came aboard about four years ago and really got -- really educated him more, really got the most out of the technology, and he sees the value of it when he's out there in the field.

Technology is becoming a regular piece of farming -- whether it becomes tillage, planting, spraying, harvest, there are different pieces of technology that can be used throughout the entire cropping season.

This is just another tool that the farmers can kind of put in the toolbox to help them be proactive against their crops so they can be ahead of any outbreaks of pests, they can spot any water damage, compaction, really look at the field as a whole instead of walking in a few rows and just taking a look around to see, 'Okay, this looks pretty good here.'

Maybe it's good here, but he can't see the outbreak of aphids on the other side of the field there.

The drones will integrate right with his current GPS systems on the farm and be able to make prescriptions there in the wintertime to be able to stay ahead of things.

Drones are -- They're a thing of the future.

It's all about efficiency.

It's a lot faster to fly a drone over a field than it is to walk 1,250 acres of corn.

It's impossible to walk it all.

You can fly it and see it in one day.

Well, during the growing season, after the corn or any other crop gets above the ground and starts to be emergent, we can start to use this technology.

What we're gonna do is we're gonna sit in our office, and we're gonna go pull up on the computer program that comes with -- We're gonna lay out a route.

Where do we want this to fly?

And it will autopilot.

We're gonna take it out to the field.

We're gonna turn it on.

We're gonna hit 'Go.'

It's gonna take off.

It's gonna fly a route over the cornfield, taking pictures every two seconds.

On the drone, it comes with an infrared camera and a visual-eye camera, okay?

They're both taking pictures at the same time.

Now, what I can do is mesh those together -- is what's gonna give me the shader.

I can then take these images, download them into the software, and stitch it to one large picture.

Anything that's gonna show up as green, it's gonna be a healthy crop -- it's good photosynthesis.

Anything that shows up with yellow, you're getting some light reflected back.

You've got some bare ground.

You have some stress.

Red -- you've got a real problem.

So, after you take this information, you can look at it.

You can go out there and spot-check, look exactly where these problems are.

You can take the drone and zoom right down on top of it.

Is it an insect problem?

Is it water?

Is it compaction?

You can make a proactive plan after that to try to get ahead of the problem before it becomes a permanent yield handicap.

Some of the things that we found with the drones are drainage issues, lack of nutrients, disease in the corn.

This is really difficult for a lot of customers to actually take a hold of and grasp.

A lot of farmers don't want the computer to tell them what to do.

'A computer's not gonna tell me how to farm.

It's not gonna tell me how to drive a tractor.'

They have to really take a look and see where their deficiencies are.

Where can they save some money from their wastes, from their costs right now?

When I can take this technology, show up to somebody's farm who's on the fence, and show them what they're missing, what -- 'Here's where we can save money -- here's where you're losing money' -- put a dollar sign onto it, that's the key right there to really getting guys to take this.

If you can say, 'In 18 months, you're gonna pay back your entire investment into this system,' boy, that doesn't really hold them back very much from making the purchase.

The corn is actually better than I thought it was gonna be.

It was so wet early on, we were pretty worried.

All the new technology is making farming easier.

You know, we have auto-steer on tractors.

We push a button.

It steers itself for us.

You got drones.

You got yield monitors on the chopper that can actually map the different yields, lay it over maps for soil type and... No, technology is a great thing for the dairy industry.

That's how we can produce... That's how we're gonna feed the world.

I think in about five years, you're gonna see this is a regular technology on a lot of your larger farms -- both your dairies and your crop farms.

There's a place for these in orchards and your niche crops, your vegetables, where you've got more of a higher commodity per capita.

Within 10 years, you're gonna see a lot of ASPs, ag service providers, coming out and doing this as a service.

You know, possibly Caz Equipment as one of them.

This doesn't -- This is not a job to me.

This is -- I don't look at this as a job.

I come here.

I get scheduled days off, but I actually come here most times on my days off.

This is -- I enjoy doing this.

And it's not a job to me.

It's a lifestyle.

And that wraps it up for this time.

For more on science, technology, and innovation, visit our website, check us out on Facebook and Instagram, and join the conversation on Twitter.

You can also subscribe to our YouTube channel.

Until next time, I'm Hari Sreenivasan.

Thanks for watching.

Funding for this program is made possible by...