Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Venus Revealed: Probe Discovers Extraordinary Weather System of the Morning Star

Venus_hemi_left Slowly but surely scientists are unraveling an incredible picture of our Solar System with each planet vastly differing from the next, but all featuring it’s own unique and mysterious beauty. The tan highland area in the center of the image left is called Aphrodite Terra, while the faint green circle to the lower right is a deep canyon named Artemis Chasma.

Named after the Roman goddess of love and beauty, Venus is also known as the “morning star” and “evening star” since it is visible at dawn and dusk to the naked eye, appearing as a bright, white disk from Earth. However, closer up, the planet’s cloudy atmosphere creates a process similar to “urban smog over cities.”

Venus is often called Earth's twin as the two planets are close in size, but that's where the similarity ends. The massive clouds that cover Venus create a greenhouse effect that keeps the planet at a sizzling 864°F. Now Venus Express has revealed our “twin” planet to be extraordinarily fast changing 'global weather' on an extremely large scale. Bright hazes can appear in a matter of days that reach from the south pole to the low southern latitudes and then quickly disappear. Venus’ bizarre weather patterns—unlike anything on Earth—has given scientists new mysteries to solve.

At visable wavelengths of light, the cloudy planet appears serene. All of that changes, however, when scientists switch to the ultraviolet, which reveals an exciting, and mysterious dynamic nature. Ever-changing stripes mark the planet, indicating regions where solar ultraviolet radiation is either absorbed or reflected, respectively.

Venus Express has seen some amazing things while monitoring the behavior of the planet’s atmosphere with its Venus Monitoring Camera (VMC). VMC has captured a series of images showing the development of the bright southern haze. Within days, the high-altitude veil continually brightened and dimmed, moving towards equatorial latitudes and back towards the pole again.

Such global weather suggests that unknown dynamical, chemical and microphysical processes are fast at work on the planet. During these episodes, the brightness of the southern polar latitudes increased by about a third and faded just as quickly.

“This bright haze layer is made of sulphuric acid,” says Dmitri Titov, at the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research in Germany. That composition suggests the existence of a formation process.

At 70 km and below, Venus’s carbon dioxide-rich atmosphere contains small amounts of water vapor and gaseous sulphur dioxide. normally buried in the cloud layer that blocks our view of the surface.

However, as atmospheric process lifts these molecules high up above the cloud tops, they are exposed to solar ultraviolet radiation. This breaks the molecules, making them highly reactive. The fragments find each other and combine quickly to form sulphuric acid particles, creating the think haze.

“The process is a bit similar to what happens with urban smog over cities,” says Titov.

What causes the water vapour and sulphur dioxide to well up in the first place? The team does not know yet. Titov says that it is likely some kind of internal dynamical process in the planet’s atmosphere, but the influence of solar activity has not been ruled out.

The dark markings, especially, remain one of the biggest mysteries of Venus’s atmosphere. They are caused by some kind of chemical species, absorbing solar ultraviolet radiation. However, planetary scientists do not yet know the identity of the chemical involved, but are eager to unlock the mystery as they continue to probe the mysteries of the “morning star”.

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Researchers Grow Heart

How it happened: The catastrophic flood that cooled the Earth

PARIS (AFP) - Canadian geologists say they can shed light on how a vast lake, trapped under the ice sheet that once smothered much of North America, drained into the sea, an event that cooled Earth's climate for hundreds of years.

During the last ice age, the Laurentide Ice Sheet once covered most of Canada and parts of the northern United States with a frozen crust that in some places was three kilometres (two miles) thick.

As the temperature gradually rose some 10,000 years ago, the ice receded, gouging out the hollows that would be called the Great Lakes.

Beneath the ice's thinning surface, an extraordinary mass of water built up -- the glacial lake Agassiz-Ojibway, a body so vast that it covered parts of Manitoba, Saskatchewan, North Dakota, Ontario and Minnesota.

And then, around 8,200 years ago, Agassiz-Ojibway massively drained, sending a flow of water into the Hudson Strait and into the Labrador Sea that was 15 times greater than the present discharge of the Amazon River.

By some estimates, sea levels rose 14 metres (45 feet) as a result.

How the great flood was unleashed has been a matter of debate.

Some experts suggest an ice dam was smashed down, or the gushing water spewed out over the top of the icy lid.

Quebec researchers Patrick Lajeunesse and Guillaume Saint-Onge believe, though, that the outburst happened under the ice sheet, rather than above it or through it.

In a study appearing on Sunday in the journal Nature Geoscience, the pair describe how they criss-crossed Hudson Bay on a research vessel, using sonar to scan more than 10,500 kilometres (6,000 miles) to get a picture of the bay floor.

In the south of the bay, they found lines of deep waves in the sandy bed, stretching more than 900 kilometres (562 miles) in length and some 1.7 metres (5.5 feet) deep.

These are signs that the bay's floor, protected by the mighty lid of ice, was swept by a mighty current many years ago but has been still ever since, they say.

In the west of the bay, they found curious marks in the shape of parabolas twisting around to the northeast.

The arcs were chiselled as much as three metres (10 feet) into the sea bed and found at depths of between 80 and 205 metres (260 and 666 feet).

The duo believe that this part of the bay had icebergs that were swept by the massive current.

The bergs' jagged tips were trapped in the sea bed and acted like a pivot. As the icebergs swung around, other protruding tips ripped arc-like tracks on the bay floor.

Also presented as evidence are deep submarine channels and deposits of red sediment that stretch from land west of Hudson Bay right across the northwestern floor of the bay itself -- both point to a current that swept all before it.

"Laurentide ice was lifted buoyantly, enabling the flood to traverse southern Hudson Bay under the ice sheet," the study suggests.

Previous work suggests the flood was so huge that it affected climate around the world.

The influx of freshwater into the North Atlantic reduced ocean salinity so much that this braked the transport of heat flowing from the tropics to temperate regions.

Temperatures dropped by more than three degrees Celsius (5.4 degrees Fahrenheit) in Western Europe for 200-400 years -- a mini-Ice Age in itself.

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How the atmospheres of Mars and Venus are affected by carbon monoxide

New atmospheric modeling on Mars and Venus could have implications for Earth

Modelling of the Earth's atmosphere has acquired economic importance due to its use in the prediction of ozone depletion and in measuring the impact of global warming. Now, researchers, writing in the online open access journal PMC Physics B have found that the rate at which electrons lose energy to carbon monoxide is greater than that to carbon dioxide at higher levels in the atmospheres of both Mars and Venus. This finding contributes to the body of knowledge required for modelling of the atmospheres of Mars and Venus, which in turn provides an opportunity to validate the techniques used in modelling of more complicated atmospheres such as that of Earth.

Solar energy is both absorbed in atmospheres and eventually emitted to space by processes at the atomic level. These complicated processes need to be parameterised so that huge numbers of individual interactions can be included in models. Modelling of the atmospheres of other planets is useful because the techniques can be developed and tested on different environments, which are not complicated by biological or human activity.

Researchers investigated the process in which free electrons in the atmospheres of Mars and Venus produce vibrational excitation of carbon monoxide. The electrons have a spread of energies and each energy has a different probability of producing excitation. They calculate this process in detail to produce a parameter called the electron energy transfer rate, which is rate at which energy is transferred from electrons to carbon monoxide at a particular electron temperature. Applying this parameter they discovered that the rate at which electrons lose energy to carbon monoxide is greater than that to carbon dioxide at higher levels in the atmospheres of both Mars and Venus.

Author Laurence Campbell from Flinders University, Australia said “The process of validating models of the atmospheres of Mars and Venus would be expected to contribute to the modelling techniques used for the Earth’s atmosphere” He went on to comment on the new journal “We’re delighted to have our article published in PMC Physics B. Editor-in-Chief Professor Stephen Buckman has an outstanding reputation and we are truly excited to support the journal and the open access movement.”

Speaking of this first article published in PMC Physics B, PhysMath Central's Chris Leonard said "We're very proud to have this high-quality research freely available to all via our open access journals. The broad scope of this journal will hopefully bring this work to the attention of researchers in adjacent fields and lead to a more complete picture of atomic processes in global warming."

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Temperature Monitors Report Widescale Global Cooling

Twelve-month long drop in world temperatures wipes out a century of warming

Over the past year, anecdotal evidence for a cooling planet has exploded. China has its coldest winter in 100 years. Baghdad sees its first snow in all recorded history. North America has the most snowcover in 50 years, with places like Wisconsin the highest since record-keeping began. Record levels of Antarctic sea ice, record cold in Minnesota, Texas, Florida, Mexico, Australia, Iran, Greece, South Africa, Greenland, Argentina, Chile -- the list goes on and on.

No more than anecdotal evidence, to be sure. But now, that evidence has been supplanted by hard scientific fact. All four major global temperature tracking outlets (Hadley, NASA's GISS, UAH, RSS) have released updated data. All show that over the past year, global temperatures have dropped precipitously.

A compiled list of all the sources can be seen here. The total amount of cooling ranges from 0.65C up to 0.75C -- a value large enough to wipe out nearly all the warming recorded over the past 100 years. All in one year's time. For all four sources, it's the single fastest temperature change ever recorded, either up or down.

Scientists quoted in a past DailyTech article link the cooling to reduced solar activity which they claim is a much larger driver of climate change than man-made greenhouse gases. The dramatic cooling seen in just 12 months time seems to bear that out. While the data doesn't itself disprove that carbon dioxide is acting to warm the planet, it does demonstrate clearly that more powerful factors are now cooling it.

Let's hope those factors stop fast. Cold is more damaging than heat. The mean temperature of the planet is about 54 degrees. Humans -- and most of the crops and animals we depend on -- prefer a temperature closer to 70.

Historically, the warm periods such as the Medieval Climate Optimum were beneficial for civilization. Corresponding cooling events such as the Little Ice Age, though, were uniformly bad news.

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7 Clever-but-Questionable Eco-Power Innovations

It is all too easy to get excited about the next big sustainable technology for saving energy or producing non-polluting power - and forget the flaws in many of these ideas. Some of the best projects show smart out-of-the-box thinking but lack feasibility or, in some cases, might do more harm than good. While these ideas may not work at least scientists, politicians and other innovators are beginning to explore alternatives.

Biofuel has been a buzzward in green political circles for a long time, but are biofuels truly a sustainable solution? Many argue that they are not. Land used in the production of biofuels often replaces much-needed farmland or is cut out of important ecosystems around the world. In short: the big picture for biofuels does not look bright given the vast natural resources that are required to produce them in the first place.

Fusion Power is that fabled cheap-and-clean energy source that always seems to be just on the horizon and out of reach. How many times in the past decades have we heard that this sustainable technology is just a few more years away? Sure, it might be true this time, but there’s no way to say. Some argue though that the mood (and venture capital) is shifting, but is it worthwhile putting so many resources toward something that is anything but a sure bet?

Artificial Islands have been a conceptual idea for ecological power generation for over a decade. The basic idea: use wind, wave and solar power in ideal offshore locations to produce onshore power. The latest idea: use thermal variation to generate power. The problem: setting up and maintaining these offshore islands could be cost and energy prohibitive, a common problem with new technologies.

Plug-In Hybrids are one proposed solution to transportation fuel in a world where soybeans, biofuels and other renewable/sustainable energy sources are competing to be the next be the next big thing. Batteries are the big limiting factor here because they have to not only store a great deal of energy but also be able to output energy at variable intensity in order to sustain both normal use and a range of acceleration rates.

Zero-Pollution Cars have been proposed that would keep rather than exhaust carbon which would then be recycled into usable fuel at a conversion facility. The trick, of course, is converting said non-exhaust on-site within the vehicle itself before it is transported back to a central location. Beyond that, the technology for converting the fuel back is feasible but its redistribution would require extensive and energy-consuming networks.

Gravity Powered devices (such as lamps) sound like a great idea, but no energy is free and the scalability of this concept is questionable. The basic idea: a weight is raised then generates power for hours as it works its way down the body of the lamp. A neat idea on a small scale that could save some energy but may not have many applications beyond more localized novelty and concept devices that still take quite a bit of energy to create.

A 15-Year Light Source that requires no recharges sounds great - at first anyway. It seems that this GloPaint innovation will last a long time as promised but leftover materials are of questionable toxicity so there is still waste to be considered - just fifteen years later. This may help replace emergency lighting in the short term but still isn’t a long term solution.

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Human Shadows on the Seas

INTERLOPERS TAKE HOLD Invaders like Pacific oysters, left, and the comb jelly, right, have squeezed out native species in some seas. More Photos >

In 1980, after college, I joined the crew of a sailboat partway through a circumnavigation of the globe. Becalmed and roasting one day during a 21-day crossing of the western Indian Ocean, several of us dived over the side. Within a few swimming strokes, the bobbing hull seemed a toy over my shoulder as I glanced back through my diving mask. Below me, my shadow and the boat’s dwindled to the vanishing point in the two-mile-deep water. Human activity seemed nothing when set against the sea itself.

Just a few weeks later, on an uninhabited island in a remote part of the Red Sea, I was proved wrong. The shore above the tide line was covered with old light bulbs, apparently tossed from the endless parade of ships over the years.

Now scientists are building the first worldwide portrait of such dispersed human impacts on the oceans, revealing a planet-spanning mix of depleted resources, degraded ecosystems and disruptive biological blending as species are moved around the globe by accident and intent.

A paper in the Feb. 15 issue of the journal Science is the first effort to map 17 kinds of human ocean impacts like organic pollution, including agricultural runoff and sewage; damage from bottom-scraping trawls; and intensive traditional fishing along coral reefs.

About 40 percent of ocean areas are strongly affected, and just 4 percent pristine, according to the review. Polar seas are in the pristine category, but poised for change. Some human impacts are familiar, like damage to coral reefs and mangrove forests through direct actions like construction and subtler ones like the loss of certain fish that shape ecosystems.

Others were a surprise, said Benjamin S. Halpern, the lead author and a scientist at the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis in Santa Barbara, Calif. He said continental shelves and slopes proved to be the most heavily affected areas, particularly along densely populated coasts.

The most widespread human fingerprint is a slow drop in the pH of surface waters around the world as a portion of the billions of tons of carbon dioxide added to the atmosphere from fuel and forest burning each year is absorbed in water, where it forms carbonic acid.

That progressive shift in ocean chemistry could eventually disrupt shell-forming plankton and reef-building species, particularly where other impacts, including rising temperatures from human-caused global warming, create simultaneous stresses, many marine biologists say.

“I study this stuff all the time and didn’t expect the impacts to be as pervasive as we found,” Dr. Halpern said.

The review provides a baseline necessary for tracking further shifts, he said. It also identifies some unanticipated trouble spots, similar to terrestrial biodiversity “hot spots” that environmental groups have identified over the years.

Such an analysis is long overdue, many marine biologists said in interviews. People’s conservation concerns have mainly focused on land, even though the seas cover two-thirds of the planet and are a vital source of food and pleasure.

Sylvia Earle, an oceanographer and National Geographic Society “explorer in residence,” said people care only about what they know. A big question now is whether such surveys are providing too little knowledge, too late.

“We learned more about the nature of the ocean in the latter part of the 20th century than during all preceding human history,” Dr. Earle said. “But we also lost more.”

A separate mapping effort published this month focused on introduced invasive species and found that 84 percent of the world’s coastal waters were affected, with Arctic waters next in line as shipping there grows in a warming world.

More than half the introduced species that take hold are having deleterious effects, said Jennifer Molnar, a conservation scientist at the Nature Conservancy who led that study, which was published in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment.

The House of Representatives is considering legislation aimed at tightening controls on the ballast water that stabilizes freighters when they are not full. Ballast water and organisms clinging to hulls and anchors have been the source of many costly marine invasions, including the introduction of zebra mussels to American waters and the comb jelly, a small jellyfish, to the Black Sea.

That species exploded after its accidental introduction in 1993, vacuuming up plankton until it made up 90 percent of the sea’s life by weight, causing fisheries to collapse. Its population there has since crashed, partly because of the arrival of a species of jellyfish that eats the established invader.

In May, invasive species will be a significant subject at the meeting of the world’s nations to assess the progress of the Convention on Biological Diversity.

Even as efforts to gauge human effects intensify, other scientists are simply trying to survey marine species large and small, an enormous task given how little is known about the oceans.

The hub for this work is the Census of Marine Life, a 10-year project initiated under the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation that is scheduled to produce a first synthesis report on marine species in 2010.

More than 2,000 scientists from 81 countries have chipped in, said Michael Feldman of the Consortium for Ocean Leadership, a group in Washington running the global project.

Since 2003, the project has discovered more than 5,300 species, Mr. Feldman said, adding: “We’ve only been able to formally describe a few hundred so far. They’re still discovering things at a rate we don’t even know what to do with.”

There is a growing sense of urgency among marine researchers in cataloging what is there, what is being threatened and what is already a fading memory.

Recent books, including “The Unnatural History of the Sea” by the marine scientist Callum Roberts, have painted vivid portraits of how much more abundant marine resources were a few generations ago, a situation well known to anyone who has worked in a fishery.

In the 1970s, I worked summers for the Rhode Island marine fisheries agency. At one point, I was tagging lobsters as part of an effort to find ways to revive depleted populations. A crusty old custodian in the laboratory, Jim Pimentel, reminisced about how different things had been a few decades earlier.

“We used lobsters for cod bait,” Mr. Pimentel said.

Looking ahead, Jane Lubchenco, a marine biologist at Oregon State University, said a wide array of efforts is required to sustain productive, if altered, seas. Among the needed steps, Dr. Lubchenco said, are expanding protected marine areas and curbing pollution, including carbon dioxide.

“We cannot go back in time to some past system,” Dr. Lubchenco said. “But we can protect and restore the functioning of today’s ecosystems so they can be as healthy, productive and resilient as possible.”

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Sharp Developing Home Solar Power Batteries

Store Your Electricity for When the Sun "Don't Shine"

It calls to mind the old jokes about solar-powered flashlights (and the related screened door for your submarine), but it's surprising to discover that many small-scale solar power systems actually don't have batteries. That means they can only generate electricity when the sun is shining, obviously, and therefore can't provide for the typical home's 12kwh daily power requirements (unless you go all Abraham Lincoln at night).

Not surprisingly, enterprising off-the-gridders have been rigging up battery systems for years to get around this problem, but now Sharp Corp, Daiwa House Industry Co. and Dai Nippon Printing Co. have announced a plan to work together to commercialize a storage battery for household solar power systems as early as 2009, reports Asia Pulse.

The companies are working on a lithium ion battery that can store up to 18kwh of power. It's currently being developed under a joint venture between Daiwa House and Dai Nippon Printing, and Sharp will buy in as an equal partner next month by purchasing 600 million yen ($5US.59 million) in new shares. The three reportedly plan to issue additional shares in autumn.

The venture is expected to build a 15 billion yen factory in Kawasaki.

Edward Morrill, a solar installer who has worked in Southern California and Arizona, says he is looking forward to what the companies develop -- if they can make the price right. He says batteries have always been a problem with solar installations, whether that's for RV, home or other systems. "We were all aware that various super batteries were being developed, yet we had to waste our money on crappy kinds," says Morrill.

Super batteries and cheap inverters will make solar power fun in the future; now it's still a big investment," he says.

Gary Schmitz, a spokesperson for the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Colorado, says these new batteries are likely to have limited, rather than broad, application. "Most homeowners don't want to use batteries," he says. That's because most who install solar panels are still attached to the grid, and can often take advantage of net metering, meaning when they produce more electricity then they need it feeds back into the system (earning them credits from their utilities).

It's true that net metering is currently governed by state and isn't available everywhere, but Schmitz says homeowners would have to carefully look at the economics to see if batteries (which tend to be expensive) might make sense. More likely, Schmitz says better batteries will be a boon to those who truly live off the grid, and will eventually be vital for the next generation of electric vehicles.

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World’s Largest Solar Power Plant Coming to Arizona in 2011

he lucky sunny state of Arizona is about to become home to the world’s largest Solar Plant! Thanks to a just-announced contract between Abengoa Solar and Arizona Public Service Company (APS), the enormous solar plant called Solana will power up to 70,000 homes, and will be the first example in the country of a major utility getting the majority of its energy from solar. The 1900 acre plant will be completed by 2011 – IF AND ONLY IF Congress renews the clean energy tax credit that’s set to expire at the end of 2008.

This could be a momentous environmental energy venture for the US, so now is the time to get political — we should not let this amazingly positive opportunity slip through the cracks!

The Arizona solar power plant has been named Solana, which means “a sunny place” in Spanish, and will be located 70 miles southwest of Phoenix, near Gila Bend, and cover 1,900 acres. The capacity of the power plant has been projected at 280 megawatts — a capacity which could power 70,000 homes and create 1,500 jobs. The electricity generated by the plant will be sold to APS to the tune of around $4 billion for over next 30 years.

Solana will make use of Abengoa Solar‘s Concentrating Solar Power (CSP) technology, which is based on solar radiation concentration to generate steam or hot air, which is used by an electric plant to run steam turbines.
The CSP technology uses three different approaches to concentrate solar rays: tower technology, parabolic trough technology, and dish Stirling technology. The Solana power plant would primarily employ parabolic trough technology.

Abengoa Solar is presently operating the world’s first commercial CSP solar tower plant in Spain - which we wrote about last year. This new enormoust solar power plant could be a huge boon for renewable energy, the environment, and the local economy with all the new jobs it will create. But there’s one catch- this week the house will be voting on the renewal of a clean energy bill which would shift about $18 billion in tax breaks from oil companies to renewable energy. Essentially, Abengoa’s ambitious solar plan hinges on the passing of this bill. The current clean energy tax credit will expire at the end of 2008, which would effectively make Solana impossible if it did. So while Solana would be a huge step in the right direction for our society, the fate of its realization lies in the hands of policy makers this week.

+ Abengoa Solar

Via BusinessWire
via SolveClimate

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Pythons could squeeze lower third of USA

By Elizabeth Weise, USA TODAY
As climate change warms the nation, giant Burmese pythons could colonize one-third of the USA, from San Francisco across the Southwest, Texas and the South and up north along the Virginia coast, according to U.S. Geological Survey maps released Wednesday.

The pythons can be 20 feet long and 250 pounds. They are highly adaptable to new environments.

Two federal agencies — the USGS and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service — are investigating the range of nine invasive snakes in Florida, concerned about the danger they now pose to endangered species. The agencies are collecting data to aid in the control of these populations.

They examined Burmese pythons first and, based on where they live in Asia, estimated where they might live here. One map shows where the pythons could live today, an area that expands when scientists use global warming models for 2100.

"We were surprised by the map. It was bigger than we thought it was going to be," says Gordon Rodda, zoologist and lead project researcher. "They are moving northward, there's no question."

Burmese pythons were introduced to the USA as part of the pet trade. The first specimens in the wild were discovered in the mid-1990s in the Florida Everglades, released by owners who no longer wanted them, says Skip Snow, a wildlife biologist with the National Parks Service in the Everglades.

By 2003, there was evidence the snakes had established breeding colonies in the wild. Florida began regulating their sale and ownership Jan. 1.

If federal officials had to worry only about Florida, it would be "decades" before the pythons move into other states, Rodda says. But people keep dumping pythons they don't want into the wild. "We just learned about some that had been released in Arkansas," he says.

The Burmese python is not poisonous and not considered a danger to humans. Attacks on humans have involved pet owners who mishandle and misfeed the snakes, Snow says. In Florida, they eat bobcats, deer, alligators, raccoons, cats, rats, rabbits, muskrats, possum, mice, ducks, egrets, herons and song birds. They grab with their mouth to anchor the prey, then coil around the animal and crush it to death before eating it whole.

If you see one, don't attempt to engage it. Leave the area, note the location and notify the authorities.

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Space Cuisine in the 21st Century

For astronauts spending months in space, the smallest touch of home can make a big difference.

Kimchi. Image by Nagyman

So when South Korea’s first astronaut Ko San boards the International Space Station this April he’ll be bringing along a hefty supply of kimchi, the national dish of his native country.

While bringing a cherished food on a long journey might seem like a simple act, taking kimchi into space required millions of dollars in research and years of work. Canning kimchi is simple, that’s been done for decades. Earthbound kimchi doesn’t have to deal with things like cosmic rays.

In your average comic book, being exposed to cosmic rays is generally a good thing. If this space mission were a comic book, Ko gobbling some space ray infected kimchi would probably turn him into a superhero while his Russian colleagues might become powerful supervillains.

Scientists, however, felt that Ko was far more likely to get cancer than superpowers if his kimchi was affected by crazy space radiation. Part of the issue is how kimchi is made. The dish is essentially fermented cabbage with spices. To make the dish, the cabbage has to ferment slowly for a certain amount of time. Scientists were worried that radiation in space could affect that fermentation process.

Lee Ju-woon of the Korean Atomic Energy Research Institute began working on the project in 2003 using his mother’s own kimchi. Lee said: “The key was how to make a bacteria-free kimchi while retaining its unique taste, color and texture.” The microbes that aid in the fermentation process had to be made safe in case they were adversely affected by space radiation.

The development team recently managed to find a way to make the product safe. They used radiation to kill the bacteria, which made the food much safer while still tasting much the same. They did, however, find a way to reduce the smell of the dish. Kimchi is extremely pungent, which might bother the other astronauts in such an enclosed space.

The development of the cosmic kimchi could help the country’s kimchi industry as a whole. The dish has a very short shelf life because of all the variables involved in fermentation. This has meant kimchi is not shipped outside the country in great quantities. The space kimchi scientists were able to make a version that lasted much longer, meaning South Korean kimchi could start popping up all over the world.

As a kid growing up in Virginia, I spent at least one field trip a year in Washington and a fair amount of time at the National Air and Space Museum. That museum sells a dehydrated sugar and milk product known as astronaut ice cream. It is disgusting. I’ve had kimchi many times before, and it strikes me as the type of product that will not be improved by turning it into a space food. That being said, I’m willing to withhold judgment until I actually eat this food. So if anyone knows where I can get hold of some authentic South Korean space kimchi, please let me know. I think it could be time for Environmental Graffiti’s first food article.

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Pentagon Confirms Satellite Shooting Success

The Pentagon said its analysis of spy satellite debris shows that last week's shootdown was successful in hitting the spacecraft's fuel tank and destroying the hazardous chemical.The dead satellite was shot out of orbit last Wednesday night following the space shuttle Atlantis' return to Earth."By all accounts this was a successful mission. From the debris analysis, we have a high degree of confidence the satellite's fuel tank was destroyed and the hydrazine has been dissipated," said Gen. James E. Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. "The successful satellite engagement was truly a collaborative effort from across the U.S. government, the armed forces, industry and academia working together to reduce the risk to human life."

Pentagon officials said Wednesday night that the USS Lake Erie fired a single modified tactical Standard Missile-3, hitting the satellite approximately 133 nautical miles over the Pacific Ocean as it traveled in space at more than 17,000 mph.The fuel tank contained about 1,000 pounds of hydrazine, a hazardous fuel that could pose a danger to people if it landed in a populated area, U.S. officials said. Although the odds of that were small even if the Pentagon had chosen not to try to shoot down the satellite, it was determined that it was worth trying to eliminate even that small chance.The satellite was falling back to Earth after becoming faulty shortly after it was launched in 2006.

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Rusty Worms in the Brain

Iron is vital to human life; for example, it is a component of hemoglobin, the substance that makes our blood red and supplies our cells with oxygen. However, iron can also cause heavy damage; it is thought that iron deposits in the brain contribute to certain forms of neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinsons’s, Huntington’ s, and Alzhiemer’s.

A malfunction of the blood transporter transferrin may be to blame. A team led by Peter J. Sadler at the University of Warwick (Coventry, UK) and Sandeep Verma of the Indian Institute of Technology (Kanpur, India) has now been able to show that transferrin can clump together to form wormlike fibrils. As reported in the journal Angewandte Chemie, this process releases rustlike iron particles.

Within the body, iron is present in the form of iron ions with a threefold positive charge (Fe3+) and must always be well “wrapped” to prevent it from reacting with proteins and causing damage. In blood plasma, iron is carried in the “pockets” of the iron transport protein transferrin. It only gets unwrapped once it is inside special cellular organelles.

But things can go wrong in this system, as Sadler and his colleagues have now proven. The researchers deposited iron-loaded human transferrin onto various surfaces under conditions that emulate those in living organisms. By using microscopy and electron microscopy, the researchers showed that the proteins aggregate into long wormlike fibrils. These “worms” have a regular striped pattern; the narrow dark stripes contain something similar to rust. “Within the fibrils, the iron ions are no longer properly enclosed;” explains Sadler, “instead, they aggregate into periodically arranged nanocrystals whose structure seems to be very similar to the iron oxide mineral lepidocrocite”.

The researchers suspect that in certain forms of neurodegenerative disease, iron deposits may form in a similar fashion in the brain. Such iron crystals are highly reactive and could lead to the formation of toxic free radicals, which attack and destroy nerve cells. If this assumption can be verified in vivo, agents that hinder the aggregation of transferrin may be the foundation for a new family of drugs.

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Electron Filmed for First Time

Scientists have filmed an electron in motion for the first time, using a new technique that will allow researchers to study the tiny particle's movements directly.

Previously it was impossible to photograph electrons because of their extreme speediness, so scientists had to rely on more indirect methods. These methods could only measure the effect of an electron's movement, whereas the new technique can capture the entire event.

Extremely short flashes of light are necessary to capture an electron in motion. A technology developed within the last few years can generate short pulses of intense laser light, called attosecond pulses, to get the job done.

"It takes about 150 attoseconds for an electron to circle the nucleus of an atom. An attosecond is 10^-18 seconds long, or, expressed in another way: an attosecond is related to a second as a second is related to the age of the universe," said Johan Mauritsson of Lund University in Sweden.

Using another laser, scientists can guide the motion of the electron to capture a collision between an electron and an atom on film.

The length of the film Mauritsson and his colleagues made corresponds to a single oscillation of a wave of light . The speed of the event has been slowed down for human eyes. The results are detailed in the latest issue of the journal Physical Review Letters.

Mauritsson says the technique could also be used to study what happens in an atom when an electron leaves its shell.

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Ars takes on the Advancement of Science

Last week's annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science was unlike just about any other scientific meeting or trade show. Most other gatherings target a specialized audience; a few keynotes cover the big picture, then smaller sessions (and sometimes booths on the show floor) provide a focused view for those who care about the details. None of that was true about the AAAS meeting. Nearly every session focused big-picture issues and the audience, as indicated by the meeting's title, "Science and Technology from a Global Perspective," was nothing less than the entire planet.

This was made clear in countless ways, including an opening talk by Rwanda's President Paul Kagame. The AAAS also made sure that the message got out to the world; over 20 percent of the attendees were press, and scientists were given many opportunities to interact with them. Most talks were targeted so that even nonspecialists—both the press and researchers in other fields—could follow them. Even the show floor was designed to appeal to an audience with a broad range of science sophistication.

Specific sessions focused on a variety of global concerns. First and foremost of these was climate change, where the current thinking on the relative role of human and natural influences was discussed in detail. Even if you doubt the scientists that tell you the sun isn't responsible for the recent rise in temperatures, a second session reminded everyone that dumping lots of carbon into the atmosphere could have drastic consequences for life in the oceans. Stay tuned, as we have notes from sessions covering one potential solution for energy sustainability, biofuels.

Other panels discussed the global integration of the scientific community, as projects such as large telescopes, big physics, and genome sequencing have all gone international. Since physics went this direction first, the lessons from their large-scale collaborations were presented as a way of informing current and future efforts. Unfortunately, these collaborations may increasingly leave the US out. Examples such as elimination of funding for the ITER fusion reactor and the International Linear Collider are suggesting that the US is simply an unreliable partner for long-term collaborations.

Not all the news was grim, though. International efforts still rule space exploration, allowing NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory to provide a triumphal recap of the golden age of robotic exploration. One of the successes highlighted was the joint US-EU Cassini/Huygens mission to Saturn. A separate panel looked back on all 50 years of the space age, and considered what they meant for humanity's future in space.

The future for space exploration and all science will continue to require them to engage the public's imagination and thirst for progress. Here, there were silver linings amidst the gray clouds; Fermi Lab's work on the International Linear Collider, despite its cancellation, demonstrated that the public can care deeply about the esoteric world of high energy physics when they're suitably engaged. But scientists need to know how to engage the public, as discussed in a session on how the public assesses the credibility of scientific information. Other discussions of public engagement took place during the meeting, and should appear shortly.

Overall, the meeting covered a tremendous amount of ground, from the basic science to how the public perceives it, on topics of truly global significance. It was like a Davos meeting filled with the people who tell the actual Davos attendees what's important.

To check out all existing coverage and watch for more from the meeting, use Ars' tag system to find the content.

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MIT Fights for Clean Power With Holy Grail of Fusion in Reach

In the first part of a week-long series at the breakthrough university, our resident geek looks down the belly of extreme machines with forces some 100,000 times stronger than the Earth's—and forecasts the future of efficient energy.
CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — This is what a fusion lab is supposed to be like. As I walk in, a woman’s voice is on the speakers, counting down from ten. Banks of chairs face banks of computer monitors, where data is literally streaming across application windows that are pulsing, multi-colored and reassuringly complex. And at the head of the control room is a massive projection showing a diagram of the fusion chamber nearby—a top-down view of the donut-shaped, concrete-lined structure that’s about to fill with superheated ionized gas, or plasma. On the same wall is looped footage of the last “shot,” a brief attempt to harness that plasma, and make fusion a little more feasible. The countdown is over, and there’s a sound straight out of sci-fi—a high tone coupled with a deep, resonating hum. On a tiny, black-and-white monitor mounted on the ceiling, a one-second flash ripples across the screen. A sign lights up over the door leading to the chamber, indicating that the oxygen is too low for anyone to approach without breathing gear, and the clock starts again. Next shot in 15 minutes.

MIT’s Plasma Science and Fusion Center (PSFC) is about as Hollywood-worthy as science gets. The stakes, after all, could hardly be higher. If fusion can be perfected, it could mean a golden age for power production, with systems providing all of the benefits of nuclear reactors—but none of the drawbacks. Fusion is, to some extent, the exact opposite of fission: Instead of splitting atoms, fusion combines them, creating larger atoms and releasing a massive amount of energy in the process. Despite the high temperatures often associated with plasma, fusion is a relatively stable reaction, generating little to no radioactive waste. Even in a worst-case scenario, there’s no chance of a fusion reactor turning into a catastrophe on the scale of Three-Mile Island or Chernobyl. “Fission can run away,” says Miklos Porkolab, director of the PSFC. “Fusion can only fizzle.” Since there’s no chain reaction at work, the biggest danger associated with fusion is a temperature collapse. And even if the materials lining the chamber were to suddenly give way due to sabotage or terrorism, the introduction of debris into the plasma cloud would actually smother the process at an even faster rate. Fusion is fragile, difficult to maintain, and ultimately its own worst enemy. But it is not dangerous.

That quality makes it utterly useless as a weapon, Porkolab explains, which is why the federal government decided to declassify its fusion research 50 years ago and make the results public. That was effectively the birth of open, academic fusion in the United States. So a half-century into this quest for one of science’s holy grails, are we any closer to grace?

The answer, not surprisingly, is mixed. Here at MIT, the fusion center’s primary research tool is the Alcator C-MOD, the largest university-run fusion reactor in the world, and one of only three “tokamaks” in the country. Tokamaks are reactors that use magnetic fields to control the flow of plasma. Extreme machines like the C-MOD, which has the most powerful magnetic fields of any tokamak (and some 100,000 times stronger than the Earth’s) have enhanced our understanding of fusion. But a truly efficient reaction, with more energy released than poured in, is still decades away.

The problem, Porkolab says, is turbulence. To increase the chances of a fusion reaction, a cloud of plasma must be incredibly hot and dense. As the atoms become more closely packed and excited, the natural tendency for nuclei to repel each other can be overcome. C-MOD uses microwaves to heat the ionized gas, and magnets to shape it, building up pressure within the plasma. But as any meteorologist can tell you, juggling temperature and pressure is a recipe for bad weather. “We have our own storms, inside the plasma, just like in the atmosphere,” Porkolab says. Temperature gradients within the plasma can lead to eddies, and the more unstable the cloud becomes, the more heat it loses. When the temperature gets low enough, the reaction dies. Plasma turbulence, in other words, is the biggest obstacle to fusion, limiting current reactors to brief pulses and preventing the kind of long-term reaction necessary for true power production.

That's why, when the next countdown begins in the control room, and I try to catch the real-time flash of the plasma shot on that tiny ceiling-mounted monitor, it’s gone before my camera can even focus. The replay starts to loop on the main screen—a slightly misleading bit of pyrotechnics, since the visible light released by the shot is generated at the edges of the plasma donut, where temperatures are at their lowest, and where fusion is not likely to occur. And while it’s possible that C-MOD’s pulses could one day last longer than seconds, this particular tokamak won’t reach the promised land. In many ways, C-MOD’s most important job is to pave the way for a reactor 10 times its size, called ITER.
The product of an international collaboration, ITER will be the world’s largest tokamak, and according to MIT’s Porkolab, it will be capable of pulses as long as 8 minutes, generating up to 500 MW of power (the most powerful tokamak, Britain’s JET, tops out between 10 and 20 MW). The jointly developed reactor will have roughly the same shape as C-MOD, but with 1000 times more volume in its chamber, and radio-frequency arrays operating at much higher frequencies. The goal for ITER is a self-sustaining reaction, where the plasma cloud remains stable and intact for long periods. For that to happen, scientists like Porkolab are using supercomputers to more precisely model plasma turbulence, and to develop novel methods of avoiding it. One technique is to go beyond simply surrounding the cloud with magnetic fields and slice it into cross-sections, creating layers that flow alongside each other, similar to the titanic superheated clouds on Jupiter. This process can break up the eddies that lead to instabilities, and create a more sustainable environment for fusion.

But even ITER, which is scheduled to be built within 8 to 10 years, is intended as a research facility—not as an answer to our current energy dilemma. It might produce an overall surplus of energy, but it won’t be cost-effective production. For that, Porkolab estimates we’ll have to wait for ITER to show results, possibly in the 2020s, and then wait another decade or so while demo reactors are built. That means we’d see economically feasible fusion power by 2035, at the earliest, and increasingly efficient commercial reactors somewhere in the middle of the century.

Even that protracted timeline now appears optimistic. Since 2006, when seven member countries committed to the ITER’s $14.6 billion budget, federal funding for scientific research in the United States appears to have bottomed out. The U.S. agreed to pay 9.1 percent of the project’s total cost—but of the $160 million contribution planned for this year, Congress has approved just $10.7 million. “I’m laying off twelve ITER engineers,” Porkolab says, “and I can’t even get them severance pay.”

The C-MOD reactor is also limited by shrinking science funds. With more financial support, it could operate for 24 weeks out of the year. “Progress is very slow. We’re only running about half the time,” Porkolab admits. The work is likely to slow even further because of nationwide cuts to high-energy physics programs; such cuts have already led to 200 layoffs at Fermilab, a Dept. of Energy-funded particle accelerator in Illinois. If belts are in need of tightening, it might seem reasonable to limit research that appears to be wandering on the fringes. But when the primary goal of fusion is a revolution in clean energy, and the rest of the world is preparing to take a historic step in that direction, scientists fear it’s a particularly dangerous time to limit C-MOD and effectively pull out of ITER.

But even if C-MOD never reaches its full research potential, there’s more than one way to cook a plasma donut and scientists are also working feverishly on those. I leave C-MOD’s eerily perfect control room, with its starship-computer voice and distant, periodic generator rumble, for an entirely different set of pop-culture associations. Deeper, more subterranean, is a three-story-tall jumble of stainless steel—a mad scientist’s vision called the Levitating Dipole eXperiment, or LDX. Through grates in the floor, I can see researchers in hardhats weaving among the cables on the level below. In this reactor, the process of fusion confinement is complicated even further—a superconducting ring is lowered into the center of the chamber, where it levitates within the plasma. The resulting magnetic field is closer to the kind of field produced by planets like Jupiter. This project, which is a collaboration between MIT and Columbia University, is currently the only fusion experiment in the United States that uses the same kind of superconducting magnets that ITER will use. The project achieved a successful levitation this past November; unfortunately, there will be no levitation today, no plasma ignitions or ominous countdowns. For the LDX, glimpses of plasma—and the holy grail within—are few and far between

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Coal states push 'next-generation' clean fuel

But others want evidence carbon can be captured

Governors pushing alternative energy development are not shying from coal, a major culprit in global warming but also a homegrown energy source and an economic lifeline for many states.

Leaders of coal-rich states say clean-coal technology is a must. Governors from states without coal want more evidence the technology works.

"There's no doubt there's a tension and there's no doubt there is very rapidly growing public opposition to coal," said Gov. Jim Doyle, D-Wis. His state relies heavily on coal for power although Wisconsin does not produce coal.

Energy tops the agenda at the governors' annual winter meeting. The group's new clean energy initiative seeks to promote renewable fuels such as ethanol and biodiesel and to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

"Next-generation coal is going to need to continue to be part of our energy future for this country," said GOP Gov. Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota, chairman of the National Governors' Association, on Saturday.

"It is abundant, it is available, it is Americanized in the sense that we control the supply. We would be incomplete and doing a disservice to the debate and the ultimate policy direction that we're going to take if we don't envision coal being part of that."

Next-generation coal typically refers to capturing and somehow sequestering or storing the carbon that coal produces. It also envisions reducing or eliminating emissions as coal is burned.

Pawlenty has embraced renewable fuels such as corn-based ethanol and conservation, but he also promotes clean-coal technology.

Such technology is a rallying cry for many coal-producing states. They say it is possible to continue relying on the fossil fuel while minimizing its impact on the environment.

Gov. Ed Rendell, D-Pa., envisions an economic turnaround if clean-coal technology takes off.

"Coal states would be back in business big time, and the economies would flourish," said Rendell, the association's vice chairman.

Gov. John Baldacci, D-Maine, needs to hear more before he would include clean-coal technology among the promising energy ideas for the country. His state promotes renewable energy produced through wind, solar and even tides.

"You have to deal with the coal states, but I don't think you want them doing more of what they're doing until they change what they're doing and make it truly the next generation," he said. "Not just say clean-coal technology, but really do clean-coal technology."

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Rat Invasions Causing Seabird Decline Worldwide

Invasive rats on ocean islands are threatening the survival of many of the world's seabirds, according to a new report. The global analysis found that non-native rats have been observed preying on roughly a quarter of all seabird species, often with disastrous consequences. (See photos of rat-seabird conflict.)

The voracious rodents attack bird nesting colonies, eating eggs, chicks, and sometimes even adult birds.

Now 102 of 328 recognized seabird species are considered threatened or endangered by the World Conservation Union, with predation by invasive species ranking among the top dangers.

"Seabirds are important ecological actors in the oceans and on islands, but 30 percent of all seabirds are at risk of extinction," said study co-author Bernie Tershy of the University of California, Santa Cruz.

"Invasive rats are likely the single largest threat to seabirds," said Tershy, also a former grantee of the National Geographic Conservation Trust. (The National Geographic Society owns National Geographic News.)

Smaller seabird species and those that nest in burrows or rock crevices are particularly at risk, the study said.

That group includes storm-petrels, auklets, murrelets, and shearwaters, according to lead author Holly Jones of Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut.

"Rats can have a larger impact on entire seabird populations in species with adults that are small enough to prey on," Jones said.

"Burrow- and crevice-nesting seabirds share the same underground habitat [as rats], which makes a predation encounter more likely."

Oh, Rats!

Traveling with humans as ship stowaways, three rats species native to Europe and Asia have become established on about 90 percent of the world's major islands and island chains, experts say. In many cases the original invasions occurred centuries ago.

The Pacific rat first reached New Zealand, Hawaii, and many South Pacific islands on the canoes of early Polynesian voyagers, and Roman ships helped spread the black rat and brown rat throughout the Mediterranean.

Many seabird species considered vulnerable to rats have been showing local or global declines for decades and have now reached perilously low numbers, according to the researchers.

On rodent-infested islands, seabird breeding colonies often persist only on isolated rock outcrops that remain inaccessible to rats.

The researchers present their findings in the February edition of the journal Conservation Biology.

No Escape

Even some large species, such as the Laysan albatross, have proven vulnerable to the invaders.

"Because most seabirds evolved in the absence of any [land-based] predators, many have no evolutionary adaptation to avoid predation by rats," Yale University's Jones said.

The birds also have a hard time shifting their breeding locations to different islands to escape danger.

"Many seabirds are [genetically] programmed to return to breed where they were born," Jones noted.

Alan Saunders directs the Cooperative Islands Initiative at the University of Auckland in New Zealand. He was not part of the new study.

"No species is safe when rats arrive," Saunders said.

"Island ecosystems are especially vulnerable to induced change, and more extinctions have taken place on islands than anywhere else."

In addition to seabirds, he noted, invasive rats have caused extinctions of many native land birds, reptiles, frogs, and even plants.

"By consuming fruit, seeds, and flowers, rats can change the structure and composition of forests, and alter the entire ecology of islands."

Good Riddance to Rats

On Anacapa Island, part of California's Channel Islands National Park, breeding populations of the rare Xantus's murrelet and ashy storm-petrel had been decimated by black rats that were introduced prior to 1940.

But a successful restoration initiative between 2001 and 2002, which focused removing all non-native rodents using biodegradable poisons, has turned things around.

"Since rat eradication, [seabird] numbers seem to be increasing," Jones said.

(See a photo of Santa Cruz Island in the national park.)

Effective rat-removal techniques have also been pioneered in New Zealand, where more than a hundred previously infested islands are now rat-free.

While eradication projects such have been opposed by some animal rights activists, conservationists say rat removal is the only way some seabirds and other island species can survive.

"The eradication of invasive species from islands, especially rodents, has heralded a new era in conservation management globally," said the University of Auckland's Saunders.

"Spectacular ecological responses have been measured following rat eradications."

(Related news: "Canada Province Rat-Free for 50 Years" [March 31, 2003].)

Experts agree the new study should help conservation managers in different parts of the world prioritize islands for rat eradication and protect the seabird species most at risk.

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Doomsday Seed Bank Opens This Week

Arctic Vault Will Preserve Crops Threatened By Global Warming and Disasters Both Man-made and Natural

The Arctic doomsday seed vault will open this week, according to the Press Association.

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault is the world's insurance policy on a host of threats that could destroy important crops, from global warming and war to natural disasters like drought, flood and wildfire.

The vault's initial repository will include 250,000 varieties (10 million seeds) from "virtually every country in the world," according to the Association.

"All that can be seen of the vault outside the mountain is a concrete wedge, inside which a (410-foot) tunnel goes deep into the hillside, ending in three vaults with airlocked doors, keypad entry, stone and plastic-impregnated concrete walls," the Association reports. "The air has been cooled to between -18C and -20C, but Norwegian meteorologists have calculated that without power, the vaults would still be below freezing 200 years from now under the worst climate change scenario."

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Antarctic marine life threatened by crab invasion

Shell-crushing crabs cannot survive in cold water but rising temperatures will make Antarctic waters habitable

An army of shell-crushing crabs is poised to invade parts of the Antarctic Ocean that were off limits to the crustaceans for millions of years because of the intensely cold water.

Scientists believe that, as global warming causes sea temperatures in the region to rise, the unique shallow-water habitat of the Antarctic Peninsula will be transformed by the mass arrival of killer crabs.

Crabs are one of the top predators of the seabed but their enforced absence from the cold waters of the Antarctic has created an unusual community of shelled creatures that could disappear once the crabs invade, scientists said yesterday.

"The crabs are on the doorstep," said Sven Thatje of the National Oceanography Centre at Southampton University.

"Rapidly rising sea temperatures off the Antarctic Peninsula are creating conditions that favour the return of shell-crushing predators after an absence of tens of millions of years," Dr Thatje told the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Sea-surface temperatures off the western Antarctic Peninsula have risen by 1C over the past 50 years, more than double the global average.

"Crab populations have already become established in deeper, slightly warmer waters. It is only a matter of time before they expand to shallow Antarctic habitats and radically alter community structure," he said.

Marine life on the Antarctic seabed is a rare combination of giant sea spiders, marine pillbugs and bottom-dwelling fish with antifreeze in their bloodstream to prevent them from freezing solid.

In the absence of crabs and other fast-moving predators, such as sharks and rays, the main seabed predators are slow-moving sea stars and giant, floppy ribbon worms. "Crabs cannot flush magnesium out of their blood, so when they are already moving slowly because of the cold, the magnesium makes them pass out and die," Dr Thatje said.

Clams, snails and other animals with hard skeletons have evolved into rare forms that are part of an unusual food web.

"Antarctic marine communities look like primeval communities from hundreds of millions of years ago because modern predators such as crabs and fish are missing," said Rich Aronson of the Dauphin Island Sea Laboratory in Alabama. An invasion of crabs could completely change the habitat, and "that would be a tragic loss for biodiversity in one of the last truly wild places on earth".

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