Friday, February 15, 2008

Pentagon to shoot down renegade spy satellite

Good news, everyone! Remember that Alien-infested, out of control satellite we told you about a few weeks ago? Well, the US government has finally put together a plan to avoid the civilization-decimating disaster that would have resulted from its impact with Earth: they're gonna blow it up. That's right -- US officials have confirmed that they're going to use modified SM-3 missiles fired from a cruiser and destroyer off the Northwest coast of Hawaii to take the thing out. The weapons have additional fuel and new software which will allow them to reach the object in orbit, thus blasting it to smithereens. The resulting impact will leave nothing but "space junk," which will endlessly pollute the galaxy until we're wiped out by a reverse "Big Bang" or doomsday device. You may now return to your overpriced latté.

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The guided missile cruiser USS Shiloh launches an SM-3 during a ballistic missile defense exercise. The ship is one of three that will use the same system to shoot down a spy satellite within weeks. (Photograph courtesy of the U.S. Navy)

The Pentagon today announced that a Navy warship has been tasked with shooting down a failing United States spy satellite that, if left alone, was expected to hit Earth within weeks.
n a joint news conference, NASA administrator Michael Griffith and Gen. James Cartwright, the No. 2 officer at the Defense Department, announced that an SM-3 missile, designed to hit inbound ballistic missiles, will be fired from a Navy cruiser or destroyer during the next month to obliterate the inbound spacecraft. The idea is to break apart the satellite to rid it of toxic fuel onboard by smashing its tank, which is the largest intact piece left. If successful, it would be the first direct U.S. test against a satellite since 1985, when an F-15 climbed to 80,000 ft. to fire a three-stage missile at a defunct solar-monitoring platform in low-Earth orbit.

A growing number of guided missile cruisers­ are fitted with Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense systems that are designed to track and destroy short- and medium-range ballistic missiles just outside Earth’s atmosphere. The powerful radars on board the ships that detect ballistic missiles can also spot satellites at low orbits. Reportedly, one of three cruisers will have a shot at the inbound satellite.

Several successful anti-ballistic mile tests have been conducted from the cruisers, most frequently from the USS Shiloh, but no test has the urgency or high profile as the impending satellite shoot-down. The SM-3, when fired vertically, can target a satellite as high as 310 miles. After the third stage of the rocket is spent, the kill vehicle finds the target with forward-looking infrared sensors and steers itself into the satellite. “What we’re talking about is a minor modification in software, from the Aegis system and the missile itself,” Cartwright said.

The Bush administration has made ballistic missile defense a priority, fielding various interceptors at bases in Alaska and on ships. Although the odds were in favor of the satellite crashing in the ocean and/or losing much of the sensitive equipment during a fiery reentry, the chance to use the ballistic defenses against a real-life target was likely considered too good to pass up.

The operation is reminiscent of last year’s strike by the Chinese military against one of its defunct spy satellites. However, the impact of the Chinese test produced a halo of space junk that remains in orbit. The U.S. Navy strike should only leave debris that will burn up harmlessly during reentry. Also, the Chinese test left debris that will last decades due to its higher orbit, Griffith said. The lower in orbit that the Navy can shoot down the satellite, the quicker debris gets pulled back in to the atmosphere. Griffith said the debris should be cleared out of Earth’s orbit within weeks.

The Chinese and U.S. tests are also similar in that both strikes use rockets (in China’s case, reportedly a four-stage rocket instead of the SM-3’s three stages) to take a non-explosive warhead into low-Earth orbit and steer it into the target. Ways to knock out satellites at high altitudes—like communications satellites soaring at over 20,000 miles—are more esoteric and largely untested. Most high-orbit methods would require weapons already launched into orbit.

The target spacecraft is reportedly a spy satellite that launched on a Delta II rocket at Vandenberg Air Force Base in December 2006, but failed within minutes after the launch. After a fiery reentry, tens of pounds of material would be left—posing a small but real risk of landing in a populated area. The likelihood of gathering usable intelligence from the crash is thought to be minimal, since its antennae and sensors would be among the most fragile components—and would not likely survive the heat of reentry. The craft’s fuel, however, is considered toxic. “[We want to] get rid of the hydrozine and have it land in the ocean,” Cartwright said. “That is the only thing that breaks it out and makes this different.”

That could be worrisome, because predicting exactly where the satellite will land has to wait until reentry begins. Cartwright and Griffith said NASA and the military could get a quadrant of the impact, but would not know the location of the impact until it was too late. “Nothing we can do makes it worse, and almost everything we do would make it better,” Griffith said.

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Guns in Space

What's the point of putting weapons in orbit?

China and Russia proposed a global ban on space-based arms Tuesday at the Conference on Disarmament. The treaty, which is unlikely to pass, does not cover ground-to-space missiles like the one China used to destroy its own aging weather satellite in January 2007. Why put weapons into orbit?

To protect your satellites and shoot down enemy missiles. Nearly all aspects of modern life are governed by satellite communication, from military positioning to surveillance to large parts of the entertainment and communications industries. As the Chinese demonstrated, bringing one down is as simple as calculating when it will be flying by and intercepting it with a rocket. The potential for strategic damage to military operations is so great that the U.S. Air Force conducts elaborate space war games, which include scenarios in which the United States loses satellite communication on the battlefield.

Placing nuclear weapons in space has been banned by international treaty since 1967, but the value of placing smaller arms in orbit has been debated ever since. In particular, the notion of using space-based weaponry to intercept ballistic missiles has been on the table since Sputnik, the first man-made object to reach orbit, went up 50 years ago.

In practice, an orbital missile-defense system would be very difficult to set up. Any object flying in low-Earth orbit takes about an hour and a half to make a full circle around the Earth. But a weapons-equipped satellite would have just a few minutes to intercept a nuclear missile on its way to the United States. That means you'd need hundreds of these orbiting weapons to ensure that one of them would be available in the right location at a given time. Researchers at the Union of Concerned Scientists, which opposes space-based weapons, estimate that upward of 1,000 satellite-weapons would be required to get that response time down to three minutes.

According to UCS figures, the United States currently has more than 400 satellites in space, roughly as many as the rest of the world combined. With the region around Earth's gravitational field already cluttered with orbiting debris, it would be difficult to add many more, expenses notwithstanding. Furthermore, the costs of placing a functioning weapon in space are enormous compared with the costs of bringing one down. A system that could attempt to intercept anti-satellite missiles fired from the ground would require a similar network of satellites that would be vulnerable to ground-based attacks.

The continued traction that the idea receives among political and military leaders is usually motivated by fears that the Earth's satellites are largely unprotected. Those on the other side argue that global dependence on satellites makes the prospect of a tit-for-tat orbital shootout extremely unlikely among space-faring nations. That's not to say that rogue nations or terrorists couldn't decide to target orbiting objects with a missile capable of reaching low-Earth orbit. But if they did, virtually all experts say, our best chance of intercepting it would be from here on Earth.

Got a question about today's news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Laura Grego and David Wright of the Union of Concerned Scientists and Michael Krepon of the Henry L. Stimson Center.

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Sex differences in the brain's serotonin system

A new thesis from he Swedish medical university Karolinska Institutet shows that the brain’s serotonin system differs between men and women. The scientists who conducted the study think that they have found one of the reasons why depression and chronic anxiety are more common in women than in men.

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Serotonin is a brain neurotransmitter that is critical to the development and treatment of depression and chronic anxiety, conditions that, for reasons still unknown, are much more common in women than in men. A research group at Karolinska Institutet has now shown using a PET scanner that women and men differ in terms of the number of binding sites for serotonin in certain parts of the brain.

Their results, which are to be presented in a doctoral thesis by Hristina Jovanovic at the end of February, show that women have a greater number of the most common serotonin receptors than men. They also show that women have lower levels of the protein that transports serotonin back into the nerve cells that secrete it. It is this protein that the most common antidepressants (SSRIs) block.

“We don’t know exactly what this means, but the results can help us understand why the occurrence of depression differs between the sexes and why men and women sometimes respond differently to treatment with antidepressant drugs,” says associate professor Anna-Lena Nordström, who led the study.

The group has also shown that the serotonin system in healthy women differs from that in women with serious premenstrual mental symptoms. These results suggest that the serotonin system in such women does not respond as flexibly to the hormone swings of the menstrual cycle as that in symptom-free women.

“These findings indicate that when developing antidepressants and anti-anxiety drugs, scientists should evaluate their effect on men and women separately, as well as their effects before and after menopause,” says Ms Nordström.

Source: Karolinska Institutet
» Next Article in Medicine & Health - Research: New findings show additional similarity between opiate and nicotine addiction

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Virus immunity 'created in lab'

Scientists have found a way to boost an organism's natural anti-virus defences - effectively making its cells immune to flu and other potential killers.

The process cannot be carried out in human cells - but it could potentially aid the development of effective new anti-viral therapies.

It works by stimulating production of the protein interferon, the cell's first line of defence against viruses.

The study, led by Canada's McGill University, appears in Nature.

If we might now have the means to develop a new therapy to fight flu, the potential is huge
Dr Nahum Sonenberg
McGill University

The varying forms of the flu virus have killed millions of people down the years, and scientists are concerned that the H5N1 strain of the virus, which currently is overwhelmingly a disease of birds, could mutate to pose a grave threat to human populations across the globe.

Other viruses, such as Sars, have also sparked global health alerts in recent years.

The researchers knocked out two key genes in mice that repress production of interferon.

Brakes off

With these genes out of action, the mouse cells produced much higher levels of interferon, which effectively blocked viruses from reproducing.

Tests on four viruses, including that responsible for flu, produced highly promising results.

Lead researcher Dr Nahum Sonenberg said: "People have been worried for years about potential new viral pandemics, such as avian influenzas.

"If we might now have the means to develop a new therapy to fight flu, the potential is huge."

It could be a double-edged sword
Professor John Oxford
Queen Mary College School of Medicine

Dr Mauro Costa-Mattioli, who also worked on the study, said: "In a sense, it is quite a simple story.

"When you get rid of the repressors, you are basically removing the brakes."

The researchers detected no abnormalities or negative side-effects resulting from enhanced interferon production in the mice.

They are optimistic that new drugs can be developed which target the same two key genes in humans.

Professor John Oxford, a virology expert at Queen Mary College School of Medicine, London, said the paper was impressive.

He said: "Boosting the innate immune system seems like a good idea - it has a huge practical application in theory."

But, citing the failed drug trials in North London two years ago which left several young men fighting for their lives, he added: "It could be a double-edged sword.

"You have to be jolly careful that you don't end up on Queer Street."

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Harvard's Faculty of Arts and Sciences goes Open Access

n recent years, the Open Access movement in academic publishing has been gathering steam, with the growth of open access journals such as PLoS and mandates from funding bodies such as the NIH that require authors to deposit copies of their work into open databases. Now that 800lb. gorilla of academe, Harvard University, has started to throw its weight behind the spread of Open Access publishing. Harvard's Faculty of Arts and Sciences has voted to require faculty to make copies of their research freely available through the Office of Scholarly Communications.

One of the great promises of the internet revolution has been the democratization of knowledge. Armed just with a computer and way of connecting to the internet, it is possible to find information on just about any topic known to humankind. In academia, the spread of the digital age has been most effective. Instead of having to spend hours in dusty stacks looking for the right volume of an obscure periodical, a few seconds using PubMed, Google Scholar, or any one of a number of databases will often yield up an electronic copy.

But electronic journal subscriptions are horrendously expensive, often costing hundreds or thousands of dollars a year for each title (and that's a discounted rate). Even the most well-endowed US institutions find these fees burdensome, but for foreign schools—especially those in less-developed nations—these journals remain out of reach.

The proposal(PDF), which was voted on yesterday, requires that faculty members "make available his or her scholarly articles and to exercise the copyright in those articles. In legal terms, the permission granted by each Faculty member is a nonexclusive, irrevocable, paid-up, worldwide license to exercise any and all rights under copyright relating to each of his or her scholarly articles, in any medium, and to authorize others to do the same, provided that the articles are not sold for a profit." Authors will be able to request an exemption in writing, but the default state will be for new research to be made available to all.

This move comes in advance of a law that comes into effect this year, requiring any recipients of NIH funding as of October 1, 2007 to submit an electronic copy of any publication to PubMed, and it is thought that this move by the Faculty of Arts and Sciences will lead the way for Harvard Medical School to do the same.

Not everyone is the biggest fan of Open Access publishing, it has to be said. Companies like Reed Elsevier see it as a massive threat to their bottom line, and many other smaller journals are often the primary source of income for the scientific societies that publish them. Despite these objections, the mood within the academy seems to be in favor of Open Access, and as more funding bodies across the world require their grant recipients to make their research Open Access, it doesn't seem to be going away any time soon.

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Prehistoric bats learned to fly before they could "see"

We all know the adage "you have to learn to walk before you run". But what about learning to see before you fly?

GALLERY: Bats without sonar - A close-up look
VIDEO: Radio-controlled flying bat (1 of 5)

It seems like a logical progression, but it's not the way things happened for bats, a recent study co-authored by the Royal Ontario Museum suggests.

Going 'batty' 52 million years ago

The 2003 unearthing of the most-primitive known bat species turns a previous notion of bat evolution on its head: the fossil of Onychonycteris finneyi suggests that bats learned to fly before they knew how to echolocate - the primary method of "seeing" for modern bats.

Yet it's not clear whether the remarkably well-preserved bat from Wyoming didn't "see" at all, or whether it would have relied on some other sense - perhaps actual eye-sight - to get around.

It's also not clear whether the bat would have spent most of its day awake or whether it was nocturnal, like the bats we're familiar with today, says Dr. Kevin Seymour, a Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) assistant curator of Vertebrate Palaeontology and a co-author of the study.

"We can't say how the bat got around, but we can say how it didn't," Dr. Seymour told "We need to find more fossils to figure out the first part."

The researchers also couldn't determine whether the preserved bat was male or female.

The team realized Onychonycteris finneyi was different when they noticed the species lacked the ear and throat features present in all living, echolocating bats today, and even other ancient species.

A different way of flying

The bats of 52 million years ago flew differently than the bats of today and looked vastly different.

Onychonycteris had claws on all five of its fingers, whereas modern bats have - at most - claws for only two digits on each hand. It also had longer hind legs, and shorter forearms, similar to those of climbing mammals that hang under branches (such as sloths or gibbons).

This palm-sized critter had broad, short wings that suggest the prehistoric bat couldn't fly as fast or as far as those that evolved later. Instead of flapping its wings continuously while flying it would likely have alternated flapping and gliding while in the air.

The physiology suggests that this species also didn't fly as much as modern bats do - perhaps just to get from tree to tree, spending most of their waking day just climbing or hanging.

"There has been much debate about how bats evolved, because there were no specimens to address this issue" says Dr. Seymour. "Now, the combination of features seen in this species finally gives us an answer: flying evolved first and echolocation must have evolved later."

Echolocation 101

Echolocation - also known as biosonar - is used by animals to navigate their environment and to search of food, among other things. It involves emitting high-pitched squeaks and then listening for the sound bouncing back, once it ricochets off an object.

This ability is one of the defining features of bats, but other animals (such as whales) are known to use it too.

The study is featured in the most recent issue of the journal Nature.
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Ear-Piercing Sirens Used to Drive Teens Away

LONDON (AP) — England's commissioner for children and a civil liberties group joined in on a campaign Tuesday to ban high-frequency devices intended to drive misbehaving children away from shops and other areas.

The so-called "Mosquito" device emits high-frequency noise which is audible — and annoying — to young ears, but generally not heard by people over 20.

"This device is a quick fix that does not tackle the root cause of the problem and it is indiscriminate," English Children's Commissioner Al Aynsley-Green said.

The campaigners claim that about 3,500 of the devices, made by a Welsh company, are in use.

Aynsley-Green said in an interview with British Broadcasting Corp. radio that the devices do not tackle the real problem, which is that children have no place to gather other than on the streets.

"I think it is a powerful symptom of what I call the malaise at the heart of our society," he said.

"I'm very concerned about what I see to be an emerging gap between the young and the old, the fears, the intolerance, even the hatred, of the older generation toward the young."

Shami Chakrabarti, director of the civil rights group Liberty, supported the campaign.

"Imagine the outcry if a device was introduced that caused blanket discomfort to people of one race or gender, rather than to our kids," Chakrabarti said. "The 'Mosquito' has no place in a country that values its children and seeks to instill them with dignity and respect."

The Mosquito's inventor, Howard Stapleton, has called for agreement about guidelines for using the devices.
"We tell shopkeepers to use it when they have a problem and I would be more than happy to introduce a contract which stipulates to shopkeepers how it can be used," Stapleton was quoted as telling the Western Mail newspaper.

"People talk about infringing human rights but what about the human rights of the shopkeeper who is seeing his business collapse because groups of unruly teenagers are driving away his customers?"

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Wiring Up DNA

Measuring the conductivity of DNA could provide a way to detect mutations.

Hot-wired: By placing a double-stranded DNA segment in a gap in a single-walled carbon nanotube, researchers have measured the electrical properties of the biological molecule. Since even a single mismatch in the DNA letters affects the conductivity of the segment, the system could eventually be the basis of chemical sensors to detect mutations in DNA.
Credit: Colin Nuckolls

By wiring up DNA between two carbon nanotubes, researchers have measured the molecule's ability to conduct electricity. Introducing just a single letter change can drastically alter the DNA's resistance, the researchers found, a phenomenon that they plan to exploit with a device that can rapidly screen DNA for disease-linked mutations.

Measuring the electrical properties of DNA has proved tricky because the molecule and its attachments to electrodes tend to be very fragile. But in the new study, Colin Nuckolls, a professor of chemistry at Columbia University, in New York, teamed up with Jacqueline Barton, a professor of chemistry at Caltech, in Pasadena, CA, who's an expert in DNA charge transport. Nuckolls's group had previously developed a method for securely hooking up biological molecules to single-walled carbon nanotubes, which act as the electrodes in a miniscule circuit.

The researchers used an etching process to slice a gap in a carbon nanotube; they created a carboxylic acid group on the nanotube at each end of the gap. They then reacted these groups with DNA strands whose ends had been tagged with amine groups, creating tough chemical amide links that bond together the nanotubes and DNA. The amide linkages are robust enough to withstand enormous electrical fields.

The team estimated that DNA strands of around 15 base pairs (around 6 nanometers) in length had a resistance roughly equivalent to that of a similar-sized piece of graphite. This is a finding that the researchers might have expected since the chemical base pairs that constitute DNA create a stack of aromatic rings similar to those in graphite.

"In my opinion, the results of this work will survive, in contrast to many other publications on this topic," says chemist Bernd Giese, of the University of Basel, Switzerland. Previous estimates of DNA's conductivity have varied dramatically, Giese says, partly because it was unclear if the delicate DNA or its connection to electrodes had become damaged by the high voltages used. "One thinks one has burned the DNA to charcoal," Giese says. "It's extremely complicated experimentally."

Barton and Nuckolls performed two tricks with their wired-up DNA. For their first, they introduced a restriction enzyme that bound and cut the DNA at a specific sequence. When severed, the current running through the DNA vanished. "It's a way of biochemically blowing a fuse," Nuckolls says. It also demonstratesthat the DNA keeps its native structure in the circuit; if it had not, the enzyme would not recognize and cut the molecule.

For their second trick, the researchers introduced a single base-pair mismatch into the DNA so that, for example, a C was paired up with an A (rather than its normal partner, G). This tweak boosted the molecule's resistance some 300-fold, probably because it distorts the double helical structure. They could do this easily by connecting only one of DNA's two strands into the circuit. The second strand - which can either be a perfect match to the first or contain a mismatch - can lift on or off.

Showing the electrical effect of such sequence mismatch and enzyme cutting is the real strength of the experiments, says Danny Porath, of Hebrew University, in Jerusalem, Israel, who has also measured current through DNA. "They play with the parameters and show that conductivity of DNA clearly depends on them, and that's beautiful," he says.

Nuckolls is now working to exploit this discovery to detect single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs), the one-letter variations in DNA that are linked to, for example, susceptibility to Alzheimer's, diabetes, and many other major diseases. Nuckolls hopes that his method can be used to identify SNPs more rapidly and with greater sensitivity than existing methods. In such a device, a reference strand of DNA is wired into the circuit and other strands allowed to pair up with it. If the second strand carries a different base at the position of the SNP, this would be enough to trigger a change in the current through a nanoscale circuit, just as the base-pair mismatch did. Nuckolls says that he is already working with electrical engineers to create a sensor that can slot into existing semiconductor chips, making it cheap and readily available. "It's one of our big focuses, and we're pretty close," he says.

The team is likely to have competition. Late last year, a group led by Wonbong Choi, of Florida International University, in Miami, reported that it had strung 80 base pairs of DNA between two carbon nanotubes and sent current through the DNA. Choi says that he is working to create a sensor that can rapidly reveal the presence of specific genetic sequences--such as the avian influenza virus--by looking at changes in current through the tiny circuit.

Barton, meanwhile, is intent on finding out whether the conductivity of DNA serves any biological purpose in the cell. She has evidence that proteins bound to DNA may detect DNA damage by changes in its electrical properties, perhaps triggering repair of the damage. "We think it's something nature takes advantage of," she says. "It's a radical idea, but I think as we get more and more evidence, the case will be built."

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Lake Mead could be dry by 2021

There is a 50 percent chance Lake Mead, a key source of water for millions of people in the southwestern United States, will be dry by 2021 if climate changes as expected and future water usage is not curtailed, according to a pair of researchers at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UC San Diego.

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Without Lake Mead and neighboring Lake Powell, the Colorado River system has no buffer to sustain the population of the Southwest through an unusually dry year, or worse, a sustained drought. In such an event, water deliveries would become highly unstable and variable, said research marine physicist Tim Barnett and climate scientist David Pierce.
Barnett and Pierce concluded that human demand, natural forces like evaporation, and human-induced climate change are creating a net deficit of nearly 1 million acre-feet of water per year from the Colorado River system that includes Lake Mead and Lake Powell. This amount of water can supply roughly 8 million people. Their analysis of Federal Bureau of Reclamation records of past water demand and calculations of scheduled water allocations and climate conditions indicate that the system could run dry even if mitigation measures now being proposed are implemented.

The paper, “When will Lake Mead go dry?,” has been accepted for publication in the peer-reviewed journal Water Resources Research, published by the American Geophysical Union (AGU).
“We were stunned at the magnitude of the problem and how fast it was coming at us,” said Barnett. “Make no mistake, this water problem is not a scientific abstraction, but rather one that will impact each and every one of us that live in the Southwest.”

“It’s likely to mean real changes to how we live and do business in this region,” Pierce added.

The Lake Mead/Lake Powell system includes the stretch of the Colorado River in northern Arizona. Aqueducts carry the water to Las Vegas, Los Angeles, San Diego, and other communities in the Southwest. Currently the system is only at half capacity because of a recent string of dry years, and the team estimates that the system has already entered an era of deficit.

“When expected changes due to global warming are included as well, currently scheduled depletions are simply not sustainable,” wrote Barnett and Pierce in the paper.

Barnett and Pierce note that a number of other studies in recent years have estimated that climate change will lead to reductions in runoff to the Colorado River system. Those analyses consistently forecast reductions of between 10 and 30 percent over the next 30 to 50 years, which could affect the water supply of between 12 and 36 million people.

The researchers estimated that there is a 10 percent chance that Lake Mead could be dry by 2014. They further predict that there is a 50 percent chance that reservoir levels will drop too low to allow hydroelectric power generation by 2017.

The researchers add that even if water agencies follow their current drought contingency plans, it might not be enough to counter natural forces, especially if the region enters a period of sustained drought and/or human-induced climate changes occur as currently predicted.

Barnett said that the researchers chose to go with conservative estimates of the situation in their analysis, though the water shortage is likely to be more dire in reality. The team based its findings on the premise that climate change effects only started in 2007, though most researchers consider human-caused changes in climate to have likely started decades earlier. They also based their river flow on averages over the past 100 years, even though it has dropped in recent decades. Over the past 500 years the average annual flow is even less.

“Today, we are at or beyond the sustainable limit of the Colorado system. The alternative to reasoned solutions to this coming water crisis is a major societal and economic disruption in the desert southwest; something that will affect each of us living in the region” the report concluded.

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'Genetic corridors' are next step to saving tigers

NEW YORK (FEBRUARY 13, 2008) – The Wildlife Conservation Society and the Panthera Foundation announced plans to establish a 5,000 mile-long “genetic corridor” from Bhutan to Burma that would allow tiger populations to roam freely across landscapes. The corridor, first announced at the United Nations on January 30th, would span eight countries and represent the largest block of tiger habitat left on earth.

Dr. Alan Rabinowitz, director of Science and Exploration Programs at the Wildlife Conservation Society, said that genetic corridors, where tigers can travel with less risk of inbreeding, are crucial for their long-term survival in Asia. The proposed corridor includes extensive areas of Bhutan, northeast India, Myanmar, Thailand and Malaysia, along with potential connectivity to Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. It has already been endorsed by the new King of Bhutan, his Majesty Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, who requested other heads of state to support similar efforts.
Rabinowitz, the co-director of Tigers Forever – a WCS/Panthera Foundation collaboration – made a clear request at the recent UN meeting that he and other tiger conservationists would be seeking additional approval and assistance from other heads of state.

“While Asia’s economic tigers are on the rise, wild tigers in Asia are in decline,” Rabinowitz said. “Much like the call-out for global agreements on banning tiger parts in trade, a similar cross-border initiative for genetic corridors is key to the survival of the tiger. Tiger range states need to work together, as tigers do not observe political borders nor do they require a visa or passport to travel where habitat and prey remain.”

Rabinowitz said corridors did not have to be pristine parkland but could in fact include agricultural areas, ranches, and other multi-use landscapes – just as long as tigers could use them to travel between wilderness areas.

“We’re not asking countries to set aside new parks to make this corridor a success,” Rabinowitz said. “This is more about changing regional zoning in tiger range states to allow tigers to move more freely between areas of good habitat.”

Twelve of 13 tiger range states were represented by ambassadors and delegates at the UN meeting. Other organizations working to save the tiger came out in force, including representatives from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation’s Save the Tiger Fund, Conservation International, Rare Conservation, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Actress Glenn Close was in attendance and spoke at the event.

Tigers Forever was launched in 2006 as a bold plan to grow tiger numbers by 50 percent at key sites over a ten year period. This increase is being achieved through collecting baseline data and long-term scientific monitoring of tigers, their prey, and their threats, to ensure that the goals can be met. Key threats are the direct killing of tigers, poaching of tiger prey, and habitat loss – all of which are being targeted and mitigated.

The meeting, hosted by UN Under-Secretary General Ambassador Joseph Verner Reed, was opened with a welcoming statement by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and marked the first time government, business, and conservationists have come together at the United Nations for the sake of conserving a single iconic species.

The Wildlife Conservation Society saves wildlife and wild places worldwide. We do so through science, global conservation, education and the management of the world's largest system of urban wildlife parks, led by the flagship Bronx Zoo. Together these activities change attitudes towards nature and help people imagine wildlife and humans living in harmony. WCS is committed to this mission because it is essential to the integrity of life on Earth.

Panthera saves in situ populations of the world’s 36 species of wild cats and the landscapes they inhabit in all regions of the world. We achieve this by collaborating with, supporting and fostering the world’s leading wild felid conservationists in conducting rigorous scientific research, planning and implementing conservation actions, and working with local, national and international stakeholders to advance wild cat conservation. Panthera believes that large, contiguous populations of wild cats are important indicators of intact functioning ecosystems, and that the focused protection of wild cats furthers the conservation of a large number of other species present in those ecosystems.

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GM's Bob Lutz: Global warming is a "total crock of sh*t"

According to D Magazine, at a private lunch, GM chairman Maximum Bob Lutz said global warming is a "total crock of shit." Bob adds "I'm a skeptic, not a denier. Having said that, my opinion doesn't matter." Speaking about the battery-driven Volt, Lutz said, "I'm motivated more by the desire to replace imported oil than by the CO2 [argument]." At the lunch Bob also said hybrids like the Prius make "make no economic sense" and the Volt is exciting for him because "it's the last thing anybody expected from GM." Don't hold back Bob, tell us what you really think.

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Environmentalism in 1666

Today we revisit Japan’s Edo period in the mid-1600s, a time of turmoil that resulted in an amazingly complex environmental policy that still influences our ideas on conservation today.

The Edo period began in 1603 when Tokugawa Ieyasu seized power and established the Tokugawa shogunate, with headquarters in the city of Edo. During this time the Tokugawa shoguns, or generals, effectively controlled the country, becoming even more powerful than the Emperor in Kyoto.

The period preceeding the beginning of the Edo period had been a time of growth both in terms of economics and population. By 1570, shortly before the Edo period began, Japan’s population had reached 10 million. This spike in population and the corresponding need for natural resources led to a serious environmental problem for Japan. For the first time, the country was faced with widespread deforestation.

Deforestation was not an entirely new phenomenon. As long ago as 600 A.D. there had been localized deforestation, most notably in the Kinai region, as wood was required for housing, war, or monuments. This didn’t become a serious environmental problem at first since Japan’s population was small and there were plenty of forests for use while the others were abandoned. In fact, many people at the time actually encouraged deforestation so they could use the newly cleared land for agriculture and created new growth forest products that were used for fertilizer, fuel, and animal feed.

When the population reached around 10 million, however, this system of forest exploitation became unsustainable. For about a century, beginning in the mid 1500s, timber harvests for use in ship-building, construction, and firewood ravaged the Japanese forests as Japan’s population ballooned.

In the mid 1600s, people started to notice the environmental issues that deforestation had wrought in Japan. Not only was it much harder to find decent timber, but soil erosion had become noticeable. Erosion in turn led to flooding, mudslides, and the silting up of rivers and streams.

In 1666, the country had reached a breaking point and the shogunate took action. They implemented a national plan to reduce logging and replace the forests. To begin with, one had to receive the approval of a high government official to harvest and use wood. In addition to that, the government began to encourage the planting of tree saplings and the study of forest management.

The plan was incredibly effective. By the early 1700s, Japan had a complex and successful system of forestry management in place. Villages applied their community approach to agriculture, which had made for successful rice harvests, to forestry management. In time, some of the world’s first tree plantations were created.

With the creation of trees as a form of controlled agriculture came far greater research and understanding into trees. Scholars and woodsmen developed new techniques to plant and care for tree species, many of which are still applied today.

While Japan’s forestry management system was effective, it was by no means fast. It took hundreds of years for the country to recover from the damage caused by exploitative use of their natural resources. The program was judged to come to a successful end only in the early 20th century. That’s something to think about with our own consumption of resources.

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Newsroom > WWF Press Release

WASHINGTON Laws protecting the critically endangered Sumatran Tiger have failed to prevent tiger body parts being openly sold in Indonesia, according to a TRAFFIC report launched today.

Tiger body parts—including canine teeth, claws, skin pieces, whiskers and bones—were on sale in 10 percent of the 326 retail outlets surveyed during 2006 in 28 cities and towns across Sumatra. Outlets included goldsmiths, souvenir and traditional Chinese medicine shops, and shops selling antique and precious stones.

The survey conservatively estimates that 23 tigers were killed to supply the products seen based on the number of canine teeth on sale.

“This is down from an estimate of 52 killed per year in 1999–2000,” said Julia Ng, program officer with TRAFFIC Southeast Asia and lead author on The Tiger Trade Revisited in Sumatra, Indonesia. “Sadly, the decline in availability appears to be due to the dwindling number of tigers left in the wild.”

All of TRAFFIC’s surveys have indicated that Medan, the capital of North Sumatra province, and Pancur Batu, a smaller town situated about nine miles away, are the main hubs for the trade of tiger parts.

Despite TRAFFIC providing authorities with details of traders involved it is not clear whether any serious enforcement action has been taken, apart from awareness-raising activities.

“Because of poor enforcement the Sumatran tiger is slipping through our fingers,” said Leigh Henry, program officer for TRAFFIC North America. “There are only about 400 Sumatran tigers left and such a small population can’t sustain this level of poaching. If enforcement and political will are not bolstered the Sumatran tiger will be wiped out just as the Javan and Bali tigers were.”

The report recommends that resources and efforts should concentrate on effective enforcement to combat the trade by arresting dealers and suppliers. Trade hotspots should be continually monitored and all intelligence be passed to the enforcement authorities for action. Those found guilty of trading in tigers and other protected wildlife should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.

“We have to deal with the trade. Currently we are facing many other crucial problems which, unfortunately, are causing the decline of Sumatran tiger populations,” explained Dr. Tonny Soehartono, director for biodiversity conservation, Ministry of Forestry of Republic of Indonesia. “We have been struggling with the issues of land use changes, habitat fragmentation, human–tiger conflicts and poverty in Sumatra. Land use changes and habitat fragmentation are driving the tiger closer to humans and thus creating human–tiger conflicts.”

As a recent show of commitment, the President of the Republic of Indonesia launched the Conservation Strategy and Action Plan of Sumatran Tiger 20072017 during the 2007 Climate Change Convention in Bali.

Sumatra's few remaining tigers are also under threat from rampant deforestation by the pulp and paper and palm oil industries. The combined threats of habitat loss and illegal trade—unless tackled immediately—will be the death knell for Indonesian tigers.

“The Sumatran tiger is already listed as Critically Endangered on IUCN’s Red List of Threatened Species, the highest category of threat before extinction in the wild,” said Jane Smart, head of IUCN’s Species Program. “We cannot afford to lose any more of these magnificent creatures.”

As Indonesia currently chairs the ASEAN-Wildlife Enforcement Network, TRAFFIC National Coordinator Dr. Ani Mardiastuti suggested the country, “demonstrate leadership to other ASEAN countries by taking action against illegal trade, including in tiger parts.”

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Recycle Your Spent CFLs

Although CFLs have many environmental benefits, they do contain a small amount of mercury, and so need to be disposed of properly. But what does one actually do?

CFLs contain up to 5 milligrams of mercury, which is quite a small amount; compare that to older home thermostats and mercury fever thermometers, which contain from 500 to 3,000 milligrams. But given that nearly 300 million CFLs were sold in the U.S. in 2007, according to the Wall Street Journal, it can still be a concern. In several states tossing CFLs in the trash is even illegal.

Take them to your community's hazardous waste collection site. If you don't know where that is, call town hall, or look up waste management or public works departments in the phone book. Sometimes you can drop off items at a location any time, while in other communities there are designated days when they accept waste.

Or, if that's not convenient or an option, go with Sylvania's RECYCLEPAK program. Order a consumer pak on Sylvania's website ($15, including shipping), fill up with about 12 burned out bulbs, attach the prepaid shipping label, and your retired CFLs will be responsibly recycled. Larger sizes and community packs also available.

Disposing of used CFLs might seem like a bit of a pain, especially if you have to pay, but note that the recycling cost amounts to just about 1% of the total amount of money you'll spend on a bulb in its lifetime, since energy use is the lion's share. Also note that if you do have a broken bulb, don't handle it with bare hands. Pick up the fragments with a paper towel, seal in a plastic bag, and take to a recycling center. Ventilate the room thoroughly to push out any mercury vapor.

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Parts of Nearly Extinct Tiger Openly Sold in Sumatra

Parts of the Sumatran tiger, a critically endangered species, are being openly sold in 10% of 326 retailers surveyed across the Indonesian island of Sumatra.
A Sumatran tiger caught on film in the wild. Image by Michael Lowe

Although there are laws in place to protect the tigers, a lack of enforcement has led to the widespread sale of the tigers’ body parts in gold and souvenir shops and as ingredients in traditional medicine. The study, conducted by wildlife trade monitoring organization Traffic, estimated that about 23 tigers were killed to provide the products they found for sale. There are thought to be less than 500 Sumatran tigers left in the wild.

The rare and exotic animal is on the World Conservation Union’s “red list” of the most endangered species in the world. The Sumatran tiger is the last wild tiger found in Indonesia after Javan and Bali tigers were driven extinct from habitat loss and hunting for parts.

A 1999-2000 study found about 50 tigers on sale in the same area, but experts believe the decline in animals for sale is not due to a reduced demand but a reflection of the growing seriousness of this particular environmental problem. Lead study author Julia Ng said: “Sadly, the decline in availability appears to be due to the dwindling number of tigers left in the wild. The Sumatran tiger population is estimated to be fewer than 400 to 500 individuals. It doesn’t take a mathematician to work out that the Sumatran tiger will disappear like the Javan and Bali tigers if the poaching and trade continues.”

The trade in tiger parts has long been part of local culture. The bones and genitals of the tiger are used in Chinese medicine, while teeth and claws are put in jewellery that allegedly bring good luck. Other parts are used in magical protection charms.

While the government acknowledged that more needs to be done about the environmental issue, a statement from Sumatran official seemed to suggest problem was not a top priority. Dr. Tonny Soehartono of the Indonesian forest ministry said: “We have to deal with the trade. Currently we are facing many other crucial problems which, unfortunately, are causing the decline of Sumatran Tiger populations. We have been struggling with the issues of land use changes, habitat fragmentation, human-tiger conflicts and poverty in Sumatra. Land use changes and habitat fragmentation are driving the tiger closer to humans and thus creating human-tiger conflicts.”

The land use changes he refers to are almost certainly the increasing spread of palm oil plantations in Indonesia, an environemntal problem the government of the country has demanded cash to address. This has become a growing environmental problem as demand for palm oil for use in biofuels and food increases. Palm oil plantations are becoming infamous for their attitude towards native animals and forest dwelling people. Habitat loss from the expansion of the plantations, as well as poaching by plantation employees, has been driving down the number of a variety of native species including the Sumatran tiger and the orangutan.

Info from Guardian, Telegraph and Reuters

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Solar + Hydrogen Power Interstate Rail coming to Michigan!

by Mahesh Basantani

What do you get when you combine the innovation of MagLev technology with solar power, hydrogen fuel, and a futuristic aesthetic? The Interstate Traveler Hydrogen Super Highway, or the Traveler- a ground-breaking solar powered, hydrogen-fueled, zero emission mass transit system that would carry everything from people to cars in sustainable style and carbon neutral function. The construction is set to begin this year, and would connect Ann Arbor and Detroit.

The highway is made up of a slew of systems called the rail conduit cluster and will provide a comprehensive integrated system of the public/private transit system and municipal infrastructure network. It would serve as public transport system AND distribute electricity, potable water, liquid waste, fiber optics, hydrogen, oxygen, and fuels.

The public transit component would combine high speed magnetically levitated (MagLev, which we’ve seen in wind turbines before) cars running on parallel magnetic rails, laminated solar cells, and the conduit cluster that would be used to distribute electricity, water, fuels, etc. (It has been projected that each mile of rail would produce about 844,800 watts of electricity per hour at peak time using the solar energy). As for fuel, hydrogen would be used in fuel cells, internal combustion engines, micro turbines and other energy conversion devices to generate power.

The entire conduit cluster operations would be managed by TCP/IP technology. The Traveler Stations would be built to provide easy access to the Interstate Highway, solutions to overcrowding, urban sprawl, public utility failures, traffic jams, car accidents, etc.

The Interstate Traveler Project is the brainchild of NEWTY Award recipient Justin Eric Sutton. The construction for the first phase would start in Michigan in 2008, and would link the cities of Ann Arbor and Detroit.

+ International Traveler

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Fertilizers, Animal Wastes Both Culprits in Gulf Dead Zone

Every year, beginning right about now, an area of the ocean the size of New Jersey dies at the mouth of the Mississippi.

A new USGS study shows that the Gulf of Mexico’s dead zone is caused mainly from corn and soy fertilizers and animal wastes running off of the seven states abutting the Mississippi, and also Indiana and Ohio along the Ohio River, which drains into the Mississippi.

Ocean dead zones are caused by extremely low oxygen levels in the water – a condition known as hypoxia. Hypoxic conditions develop where there is an excess of agricultural run-off, because of the high levels of nitrogen and phosphorous in fertilizer and manure.
Massive algal blooms occur where there is an abundance of these two nutrients. As the algae die and sink to the ocean floor, brigades of bacteria decompose it – sucking copious amounts of oxygen from the water, and creating a “dead zone” where no other organisms (save a few invasive species of jellyfish) can live.
Fertilizer is not currently viewed as a pollutant by the EPA, and farmers have no regulations on their release of it. Animal wastes from confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) are supposed to be contained in lagoons capable of handling up to a “25-year rain.” Of course, upon a 25-year rain (inevitable) a legal sewage fest flows straight into our rivers.
Interestingly, the USGS study found that phosphorous from manure is not just coming from CAFOs - range and pastured animals are contributing to over a third of the phosphorous pollution as well.
Seems the fisherfolk of the Gulf and the farmers of the Midwest might need to have a little throwdown over this Gulf Dead Zone. In the meantime, we can help by supporting rising initiatives for wetland restoration (which help remove pollutants) and regulations of fertilizer and animal waste run-off. And of course, by minimizing our consumption of industrial agricultural products - including soybeans and meat.
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Seen While Running: Eaten By Trees

The beauty of running are the things you pass by as you run along. You get to see things that you don’t notice as you drive by in a car. You may have run the same route 50 times but you find yourself seeing something different each time. I ran by a tree than had grown over a fence and it got me to thinking, there are probably some cool picture of things “swallowed” by trees. Here are some of the cooler ones I’ve found


Most policeman keep track of how long you’ve been parked in a spot by marking the tires with white chalk. This may be the only instance ever where they can measure the time by counting rings in a tree.

This must be what people are looking for when they are looking for a money tree. Instead of the normal throwing a penny into a fountain and making a wish, people hammer a penny into this log. I absolutely guarantee my wish starts off with a smashed finger on this one. I always have better luck with fountains anyway.


This proves that anything against a tree for a long period of time will be eaten by it. This wash basin was merely leaning against the tree and with time, the tree has grabbed it and lifted it up.


Another one of those, how frickin long has that motorcycle been there? This is definitely the best bike lock I’ve ever seen.


You know those neighbors that never take down their Christmas lights? This is what they’re trying to get to. Lights grown right into the tree. Just plug them in and the tree is ready to go. I see a future in this one. A “plug in” live tree


This is what they call a “live frame” It only takes about 10 years to make each one. The funny thing about this picture is that despite the fact that the tree has swallowed the sign, we still all know exactly what the sign says. Evidently the photographer didn’t.

More Funny Pictures Here

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Will Plug-In Hybrids Become the Standard?

Farmers are planting corn and soybeans like crazy, turning food crops into ethanol and biodiesel. Scientists are squeezing oil out of algae while others are trying to coax hydrogen into a fuel that is easy to produce and safe to use. Still other developers are touting the battery-operated electric car, and one company is building a car that runs on compressed air.

Which system will survive? Or will we have a mixture of E85’s, biodiesel, electric, air and hydrogen fueled vehicles cramming our highways and straining the fuel delivery system infrastructure? Eventually, according to the age-old theory that the fittest shall survive, one method of moving us from point “A” to point “B” will emerge, and some folks are betting on the plug-in hybrid.

Designing a battery that will store a lot of energy and handle power surges has been a real problem for automakers. The Lithium-Ion battery has shown it can do both, but engineers say rapid discharges can degrade the battery’s lifetime. One car company using Lithium-Ion batteries, Tesla Motors , has developed a high-performance, all electric roadster with a range of 200 miles or so. The price tag, around $90,000, give a take a few thousand, takes it out of the family car bracket.

Hybrid-electric vehicles combine a battery with an electric motor and a gasoline engine to propel the car. The engine, and energy regenerated during braking, keep the battery charged and the car moving.

Designing a practical plug-in hybrid is another story, and it’s all about the battery, or batteries. It takes more batteries for a plug-in, with substantially different capabilities, such as storing a lot of energy and providing quick acceleration, or discharge of energy when needed. In addition, these batteries need to be more compact, affordable and safe as they cycle through various uses.

Lithium-Ion batteries fill most of that bill, but their useful lifetime can be degraded by sudden sudden surges of power, and there still seems to be a lingering doubt as to their complete safety when overheated.

So how do we answer the need for quick power surges and large storage capacity? With capacitors, of course.

Actually, they’re called Ultracaps, the electrical equivalent of a shaken champagne bottle. The difference being they also recharge quickly, having 10 to 100 times the power density of typical batteries and only one-tenth the energy density.

In case you aren’t acquainted with capacitors, I’ll try to help. First of all, capacitors are used in every electronic circuit, in your computer, tv, radio, and cell phone to name a few.

How do they work? Take two separate strands of wire, and on the end of each, attach a flat piece of metal we’ll call a plate. In between these plates, place what is called a dielectric, or a material that will not pass electricity, and put all that into a material that holds it all together which is, in itself, a dielectric.

Now, hook one wire up to the positive side of a battery, the other to the negative side for just a second. A charge builds up on one plate only, and stays there until you put the two wires together, and the capacitor discharges in a flash. I wouldn’t try this with a huge power source, a 6 volt drycell should give you a small spark.

Increase the size and capacity of these capacitors and you have ultracaps, capable of providing an instant power thrust and literally recharging a second later. This, as they say, is a marriage made in heaven for plug-in hybrids.

A working example of this concept is the Extreme Hybrid which was rolled out at the Detroit auto show in January. The developer, AFS Trinity, is not an auto company. They took a Saturn vue hybrid and retrofitted the vehicle to achieve a 40 mile electric range before reverting to run efficiently on it’s gasoline engine like a normal hybrid. Gas mileage comes in at around 150 mpg.

The Extreme Hybrid site features several videos featuring the car. No, it isn’t ready for production yet, but the technology has been proven and this type of plug-in hybrid may become the standard for automotive transportation in the future.

You might say, but what about the gasoline? Will we still have to buy fossil fuels to run our small engines? Not likely, with the advances in biofuels, especially the promise of algae-derived fuels, the day may soon arrive when we won’t use gasoline at all.

What a concept.

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