Author: earthling

Academic symposium on the challenges and opportunities to help forge a more sustainable planet

NASA astronaut Dr. Jessica Meir
Photo courtesy NASA

“We have to work together to truly preserve our planet for the future,”
says Jewish-American trailblazer.

WATCH: Jessica Meir’s full speech at the 2021 TAU Board of Governors Meeting:

NASA astronaut Dr. Jessica Meir on Thursday addressed Tel Aviv University’s 2021 Board of Governors Meeting, discussing her missions to space, life under extreme environmental conditions, and the relationship between her research and combating climate change.

Meir, who is also a marine biologist and physiologist, delivered her remarks by live broadcast at the Yehiel Ben-Zvi Academic Symposium, entitled “Between Climate Change, Space Research and Life under Extreme Conditions,” held on the TAU campus. This year’s symposium topic highlights TAU’s prioritization of climate change research. As part of this campus-wide effort, TAU recently launched the Center for Climate Change Action.

Meir, the fourth Jewish woman and 15th Jewish person ever to travel to space, was born to a Swedish mother and an Israeli father, who grew up in Tel Aviv. During her virtual presentation to the symposium, Meir spoke of her connection to Israel and displayed several images of the country captured from outer space. “Israel is a very important part of me,” she said, also mentioning the personal items she brought to the International Space Station including an Israeli flag, Hanukkah socks bearing Stars of David and menorahs, along with a commemorative coin honoring late Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon. Meir has celebrated her Jewish identity and ties to Israel on her widely followed social media accounts.

“We take a lot of photographs from the space station which can be used by scientists on the ground to see things like our changing planet,” said Meir from her current station in Houston, Texas. “By looking at things like the retreat of glaciers from the space station, at the same vantage point from which we’ve looked at for decades, scientists can make measurements and understand what’s going on with the ever-pressing battle with climate change.”

Answering a question from the crowd, Meir elaborated on the impact of space research on climate change.

“I’ve been an avid environmentalist since well before I got to space, and I assumed it would resonate even more loudly [once there]—and it really did,” said Meir. “You cannot avoid seeing how fragile it is, how special it is, and how we need to protect it. You don’t see borders from space, at least the ones we’ve imposed upon ourselves. We have to do what we can and work together to truly preserve our planet for the future.”

“Addressing the diverse challenges of climate change will require more than national policy.

It will require unprecedented collaboration across sectors and regions. It will also require joint, advanced research and studies. Space technologies can help in tackling major climate problems.”

In 2013, NASA selected Meir to join its highly selective astronaut program. During her first space mission in 2019, Meir and fellow NASA astronaut Christina Koch made history when they completed the first all-woman spacewalk. Meir has to date participated in three space missions and spent a total of 205 days in space. Among her many honors, Time Magazine named Meir as one of the 100 Most Influential People of 2020.

“I want to dedicate this talk and our time today to the crew of the Space Shuttle Columbia, and, of course, Ilan Ramon, the first Israeli in space who was part of this mission,” she said of the tragic 2003 accident in which all seven crew members perished.

In addition to Meir, Israel’s Minister of Environmental Protection and TAU alumna Tamar Zandberg spoke at the symposium.

“Addressing the diverse challenges of climate change will require more than national policy,” she said. “It will require unprecedented collaboration across sectors and regions. It will also require joint, advanced research and studies. Space technologies can help in tackling major climate problems.”

TAU Rector Prof. Mark Shtaif chaired the symposium that was moderated by Prof. Colin Price, Head of the Environmental Studies Department, Porter School of the Environment and Earth Sciences. The symposium is held in memory of Yehiel Ben-Zvi, a former TAU Vice President.

“There are many challenges, but also many opportunities to help us forge a more sustainable planet and have a cleaner, more just world for our children and grandchildren,” said Price. He explained that Tel Aviv University’s strides in combining space research and climate research include the multidisciplinary advances at TAU’s Center for Nano-Satellites and New Space, the Minerva Dead Sea Research Center, and the Center for Climate Change Action. As part of TAU’s national and global contributions, he added that the University will work with Eytan Stibbe, who is slated to become the second Israeli to travel to space next year.

TAU professors Dr. Ram Fishman, School of Social and Policy Studies, and Dr. Vered Blass, Porter School of the Environment and Earth Studies, concluded the symposium. They respectively spoke about tracking the effects of climate change on low income populations, and assessing the impact of new technologies on sustainability. They also explored the impact of COVID-19 on the environment.

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Using Plants to Clean up Polluted Soils

Soil contamination has become a key ecological issue, threatening the wellbeing of the environment and humans health. Dr. Michal Gruntman, a TAU researcher, is working on the use of plants to clean up polluted soils, while also targeting plants that have a negative impact on the environment.

 As a senior lecturer at the Porter School’s Department of Environmental Studies and the School of Plant Sciences and Food Security, Dr. Gruntman recognizes soil as a finite, irreplaceable resource neglected at our peril. She is studying the unique ability of certain plant species to accumulate high concentrations of heavy metals in their above-ground tissues, and the way these plants can be used for the cleanup of heavy-metal contaminated soil.

 Her research focuses on the application of a natural plant hormone as a way to enhance metal uptake in sunflowers, which can have major implications on the optimization of natural clean-up practices of certain plants. At the same time, Michal has become an expert on the ecology of invasive plants, which contribute to biodiversity losses.

 Researchers like Dr. Gruntman are central to  what TAU is all about.
This is why they need your support.

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A Greener and Safer Future

Graduates of TAU’s School of Mechanical Engineering present innovative projects.

Just like every year, graduates of the School of Mechanical Engineering of The Iby and Aladar Fleischman Faculty of Engineering recently presented the projects they have been working on throughout their final year of studying towards their degree. A lot of ground was covered, with one project promising those suffering from nightmares after trauma to sleep peacefully, another offering a robot capable of disinfecting aircrafts from viruses, and other teams have developed drones designed and developed to transport defibrillators and first aid kits through areas that are either difficult or downright impossible to access from the ground. Seeing these original ideas makes it clear how the faculty’s motto is befitting for those who enter (and perhaps even more so for those who exit) its gates: “Those who fall in love with a problem are the ones who will find a solution to it.”

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Ancient Tools Reveal Earth’s Magnetic Field

While the essence and origins of the Earth’s magnetic field have remained largely unresolved, it is known to be connected to various phenomena in the atmosphere and the planet’s ecological system, including – possibly – having a certain impact on climate. Its weakened state, therefore, is a cause for concern among climate and environmental researchers. Albert Einstein included the planet’s magnetic field among ‘the five greatest mysteries of modern physics’, and our questions are many: Does it fluctuate naturally? Are we humans to blame for its current state? If the magnetic field does impact the climate, is its weakened state reversible?

In order to open a peephole into this great riddle, an international study, led by TAU’s Prof. Erez Ben-Yosef of the Jacob M. Alkow Department of Archaeology and Ancient Near Eastern Cultures was carried out. The study revealed characteristics of Earth’s magnetic field that prevailed in the Middle East from 10,000 to 8,000 years ago, and gives rise to hope.

A Great Mystery of Modern Physics

At present time, our knowledge about the planet’s magnetic field is limited to a few basic facts: It is generated about 3,000 km below the earth’s surface; it protects the planet from continued bombardment by cosmic radiation and thus allows life as we know it to exist; it is volatile and its strength and direction are constantly shifting.

Instruments for measuring the strength of the Earth’s magnetic field were only invented 200 years ago. In order to obtain findings from earlier periods, scientists have turned to archaeological and geological materials that store geomagnetic information when heated to high temperatures. Geological samples only provide scientists with a date range of a thousand of years at best, and while ceramic artifacts can be dated more precisely, their maximal range is up to 8,500 years ago, when they were invented.

Pioneering Burnt Flints for Data Extraction

Prof. Ben-Yosef’s team overcame this constraint by using, for the first time, burnt flints from prehistoric sites dating to the Neolithic period – about 10,000 to 8,000 years ago. “Working with this material extends the research possibilities tens of thousands of years back, as humans used flint tools for a very long period of time prior to the invention of ceramics,” he explains. After enough information is collected about the changes in the geomagnetic field over the course of time, the team will be able to use it in order to date archaeological remains

Materials used in the current study came from four archaeological sites in Wadi Feinan (Jordan). Overall, the researchers examined 129 items found at the excavations to reconstruct the magnetic field from this time period. The research team included Prof. Lisa Tauxe, head of the Paleomagnetic Laboratory at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, in collaboration with other researchers from the University of California San Diego, the Istituto Nazionale di Geofisica e Vulcanologia, Rome and from Jordan.

Burnt flints and ceramics used to reconstruct the strength of the ancient geomagnetic field

A Promising Pattern

The researchers were able to detect patterns that may help us understand the behavior of the magnetic field and its environmental impact today: “Since the time scientists began to measure the magnetic field less than 200 years ago, we have observed a continuous decrease in the field’s strength. This fact gives rise to a concern that we could completely lose the magnetic field that protects us against cosmic radiation and therefore, is essential to the existence of life on Earth,” explains Prof. Tauxe.

“The findings of our study can be reassuring: This has already happened in the past. Approximately 7,600 years ago, the strength of the magnetic field was even lower than today, but within approximately 600 years, it gained strength and again rose to high levels.” Apparently, all hope is not lost.

Excavations in Tel Tifdan/ Wadi Fidan. Photo courtesy of Thomas E. Levy

The research was carried out with the support of the US-Israel Binational Science Foundation, which encourages academic collaborations between universities in Israel and in the US. The researchers note that in this case, the collaboration was particularly essential to the success of the study because it is based on a tight integration of methods from the fields of archaeology Unvand geophysics, and the obtained results are notably relevant to both of these disciplines. The research findings were published in the latest issue of the Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

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The Unique Ability of Seahorses

A short-snouted seahorse clinging to coral in the Red Sea
Courtesy of Gil Koplovitz

Among the Ocean’s Slowest Swimmers, Seahorses Snag Prey at Exceptional Speed. 

Seahorses are considered particularly poor swimmers. However, despite being relatively slow, they are adept at preying on small, quick-moving animals. 

In a new study conducted at Tel Aviv University, researchers have succeeded in characterizing the incredible preying capability of seahorses, discovering that they can move their head up at the incredible speed of 0.002 seconds. The rapid head movement is accompanied by a powerful flow of water that snags their prey right into the seahorse’s mouth.

Prof. Roi Holzman


“… . The big question applies to the evolution of the spring mechanism, how it was formed and when it developed…”

The study was led by Prof. Roi Holzman and the doctoral student Corrine Jacobs of the School of Zoology at the George S. Wise Faculty of Life Sciences and the Steinhardt Museum of Natural History at Tel Aviv University, and was conducted at the Interuniversity Institute for Marine Sciences in Eilat. The study was published in the Journal of Experimental Biology.

The researchers explain that seahorses are fish that possess unique properties such as male ‘pregnancy’, square tail vertebrae, and of course the unique eating system. For most of the day, seahorses are anchored with their tail to seaweeds or corals with their head tilted downward, close to their body. However, when they detect prey passing over them, they lift their head at incredible speed and catch it. According to Prof. Holzman, while preying, seahorses turn their body into a kind of spring: using their back muscles, they stretch an elastic tendon, and use their neck bones as a ‘trigger’, just like a crossbow. The result is faster than even the fastest muscle contraction found anywhere in the animal world.

However, until now it was not clear how the spring-loaded mechanism enabled seahorses to actually eat. Just as anyone who tries to remove a fly from a cup of tea knows, water is a viscous medium and the fish needs to open its mouth to create a flow that draws the prey in. But how do seahorses coordinate snagging in prey with their head movement?

In their recent study, researchers from Tel Aviv University succeeded in characterizing and quantifying seahorse movement by photographing their attack at a speed of 4,000 images per second, and using a laser system for imaging water flows. This measurement showed that the ‘crossbow’ system serves two purposes: facilitating head movement and generating high velocity suction currents – 10 times faster than those of similar-sized fish. These advantages enable seahorses to catch particularly elusive prey.

Courtesy of Ori Galili


The new measurements also help shed light on the ecology of various species of seahorses, distinguished from each other by the length of their noses. “Our study shows that the speed of head movement and suction currents are determined by the length of a seahorse’s nose”, Prof. Holzman added. “From the evolutionary aspect, seahorses must choose between a short nose for strong suction and moderate head raising, or a long nose for rapid head raising and weaker suction currents. This choice, of course, corresponds to the available diet: long-nosed species catch smaller, quicker animals whereas short-nosed species catch heavier, more ponderous ones.”

According to Prof. Holzman, seahorses are not the only instance of the impressive spring mechanism. Actually, seahorses are counted among the family of fish bearing the appropriate scientific name Misfit Fish, including species such as alligator pipefish, shrimpfish, and cornetfish or flutemouths.

“These fish are called that because of their odd shape which enables stretching their body into a spring. The big question applies to the evolution of the spring mechanism, how it was formed and when it developed. I hope our recent study will lead to further studies designed to help solve the riddle of spring fish”.

Link to the article

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Predicting Forest Fires with Smart Phones

Canadians have seen how devastating wildfires can be. This year alone, more fires have burned in B.C. than ever before. There is no more time to wait, we must act now to find innovative and creative solutions to climate change. The work of students and faculty at TAU’s Porter School of the Environment and Earth Sciences, are leading the way in addressing environmental threats to our planet.

PhD student Hofit Shachaf’s study is an example of a real solution that can have real impact.  Hofit found a unique way to identify and warn people about conditions that help cause wildfires. She showed how a smartphone’s built-in sensors – that measure environmental factors such as humidity, temperature, atmospheric pressure and magnetic field – can be used to predict forest fires. 

Her research, based on data collected over a period of four years from roughly 40,000 smartphones worldwide, can be helpful in identifying areas susceptible to such devastating blazes made worse by climate change.

LINK to her work:

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Fighting Pollution With Seaweed

Coastal seaweed farms can help fight environmental damage.

Nitrogen is a common fertilizer for agriculture, but it comes with an environmental and financial price tag. Once nitrogen reaches the ocean, it disperses randomly, damaging various ecosystems. As a result, the state local authorities spend a great deal of money on reducing nitrogen concentrations in water, including in the Mediterranean Sea.

A new study by Tel Aviv University and University of California, Berkeley suggests that establishing seaweed farms in areas where freshwater rivers or streams meet the oceans, or so-called “river estuaries”, significantly reduces nitrogen concentrations and prevents pollution in marine environments.


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Diminishing at the Edges

TAU study reveals: overfishing severely harms marine protected areas around the world

A new study by Tel Aviv University reveals significant ecological damage to many marine protected areas (MPAs) around the world. A strong “edge effect” was observed, resulting in a 60% reduction in the fish population living on their outer edges (1-1.5 km), compared to the core areas. The “edge effect” significantly diminishes the effective size of those areas, and largely stems from human pressures, first and foremost overfishing at their borders.

Marine protected areas were designed to preserve marine ecosystems, and help to conserve and restore fish populations and marine invertebrates whose numbers are increasingly dwindling due to overfishing. The effectiveness of the protected areas has been proven in thousands of studies conducted worldwide. At the same time, most studies sample only their “inside” and “outside”, and there still is a knowledge gap about what happens in the space between their core and areas around them that are open for fishing.

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He’s Bringing Plastic Back

TAU alumnus Tal Cohen and his company “Plastic Back” converts plastic waste back to its original form.

We use plastic in almost every aspect of our lives. It is cheap in production, durable and can be reused multiple times. The problem is, though, that 350M tons of plastic waste is produced annually, out of which only 8% is recycled. To counter the environmental hazard, laws and regulations, are implemented towards reducing landfill and increasing recycling. The EU has pledged to reduce landfilling to 10% of its current capacity by 2030. We spoke with Tal Cohen, a TAU alumnus with an MBA from the Coller School of Management and founder of a startup company called “Plastic Back”, who may have found the perfect solution.

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We Are Part of the Problem and the Solution

Tel Aviv University launches first-of-its-kind multidisciplinary research hub on climate change.

Tel Aviv University last week launched the multidisciplinary Center for Climate Change Action, with the aim of finding solutions to the global crisis. The new Center, the first of its kind in Israel, will operate under the auspices of the Porter School of the Environment and Earth Sciences, and will investigate the subject from all angles, drawing on the knowledge and resources of all faculties on campus. The Center will collaborate with partners from industry, academia and government, in Israel and abroad, in an effort to develop technological solutions, raise public awareness, promote environmental legislation and policy, and more.

The initiative was launched by researchers from various disciplines, among them Prof. Colin Price and Dr. Orli Ronen from the University’s Department of Environmental Studies, Prof. Marcelo Sternberg from the School of Plant Sciences and Food Security, Prof. Dan Rabinowitz from the Gershon H. Gordon Faculty of Social Sciences and others.

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