Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Image of the Day Gallery

Sunset on Mars

On May 19, 2005, NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Spirit captured this stunning view as the Sun sank below the rim of Gusev crater on Mars. This Panoramic Camera mosaic was taken around 6:07 in the evening of the rover's 489th Martian day, or sol.

Sunset and twilight images are occasionally acquired by the science team to determine how high into the atmosphere the Martian dust extends, and to look for dust or ice clouds. Other images have shown that the twilight glow remains visible, but increasingly fainter, for up to two hours before sunrise or after sunset. The long Martian twilight (compared to Earth's) is caused by sunlight scattered around to the night side of the planet by abundant high altitude dust. Similar long twilights or extra-colorful sunrises and sunsets sometimes occur on Earth when tiny dust grains that are erupted from powerful volcanoes scatter light high in the atmosphere.

Image Credit: NASA/JPL/Texas A&M/Cornell

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NASA Eyes Launch Pad Damage for Next Shuttle Flight

HOUSTON - When the space shuttle Discovery lifted off Saturday, it left some serious destruction in its wake.

NASA inspectors found damage of an "unprecedented" magnitude at Discovery's Florida launch site, said LeRoy Cain, chair of NASA's mission management team, at a briefing here at the Johnson Space Center.

Strewn all over the seaside Launch Pad 39A area at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., inspectors found bricks and mortar from the trench designed to catch the flames that shoot out beneath the shuttle when it launches. The debris flew as far as the perimeter fence 1,500 feet (457 meters) away from the pad.

NASA officials say they are unsure what caused the destruction, the level of which has been unseen in previous launches, but they have already assembled an investigation team to look into the issue further.

"We'll go figure out what caused this much damage and we'll fix it," Cain said.

In addition to being unusual, the pad damage is somewhat worrying because NASA has only two shuttle launch pads and both must be in working order for its next planned mission, the STS-125 flight to overhaul the Hubble Space Telescope, to launch in October as planned. Unlike current shuttle flights to the International Space Station, where astronauts can take refuge if their spacecraft is damaged until a new one can be launched, the mission to Hubble has no such safe haven. So instead, NASA needs a second shuttle on a second launch pad to serve as a rescue ship.

For STS-125, NASA plans to prepare a primary shuttle to launch from Pad 39A, as well as a backup rescue shuttle that would be ready to launch from its other pad, 39B, if needed.

So giving up on Pad 39A completely is not an option, Cain said. "We need both launch pads, so that's not a negotiable term at this point."

Switching to Pad 39B as the primary launch pad would also present issues, as this site is currently being readied for use in NASA's next manned spaceflight endeavor, the Constellation program. Ground crews have already begun converting Pad 39B from a shuttle launch site to the liftoff pad for the Ares I rocket, the booster intended to carry the capsule-based shuttle successor Orion to space.

The last time this pad was used for a shuttle launch was on Dec. 9, 2006, for the liftoff of Discovery's STS-116 mission.

"If our plan were to go launch again off of Pad B, there would be things we would be doing that we are not doing and have not been doing," Cain said. To switch would, he said, cause "some aches and pains."

Both launch pads date back to the days of the Apollo program in the 1960s, so it's possible that the site is just getting old, NASA officials said. It will take more investigation to determine the reason for the destruction, they added.

Despite the puzzling nature of the issue, Cain said he cannot foresee it causing a delay to either of the two remaining shuttle flights scheduled for 2008. The shuttle Atlantis is slated to launch toward Hubble on Oct. 8, with its sister ship Endeavour to follow on Nov. 10 on a space station-bound flight.

"I have no reason to believe that we'll delay the mission in October," he said. "I'm completely confident that we'll be able to put the necessary repairs in place."

Though the damage may raise questions about future missions, it should not have any effect on the shuttle currently flying. Mission managers do not believe any of the flying wreckage hit Discovery as it was launching to cause harm to the craft.

"We have seen nothing of any of this debris coming back to the vehicle," Cain said. "From the standpoint of the ongoing mission, it's not going to be a concern for us."

Meanwhile, Discovery's current STS-124 mission to the space station is going well. Commanded by veteran shuttle flyer Mark Kelly, the shuttle arrived at the station on Monday to begin about 10 days of joint work to install a new Japanese laboratory the size of a large tour bus, fix the orbiting lab's space toilet and swap out one member of the station's three-man crew.

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China and the arms race in space

Outside scrutiny of China has, understandably, been muted in the weeks following the Sichuan earthquake. But a new battle of strength between Asia's emerging superpower and the US is fast emerging - in the skies.

In comments reported this week, Chinese military bigwigs have warned that an arms race in space is "unstoppable".

China served notice of its capabilities in January when it used a ballistic missile to shoot down one of its own defunct satellites. The US is widely assumed to have parallel technology.

A new book issued by the state-run China Arms Control and Disarmament Association, dissected by Reuters, warns that this was only the start.

The buildup of weaponry in orbit "is already unstoppable", Wu Tianfu, of the 2nd Artillery Corps command college, which controls China's nuclear weaponry, says in the book.

Strategic confrontation in outer space is difficult to avoid. The development of outer space forces shows signs that a space arms race to seize the commanding heights is emerging.

Beijing remains officially set on drawing up secure multinational regulations to avoid a space arms race, but is clearly hedging its bets - something Washington is only too aware of.

Last month, Brigadier General Jeffrey Horne, from the US Strategic Command, told a congessional advisory group that China was "aggressively" developing its ability to shoot down satellites, technology he predicted could be used in a future showdown over Taiwan. The US in turn must "proactively protect our space capabilities", he insisted.

So that's that, it seems. The next time you think you see a shooting star in the heavens, it might be worth a second look.

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Can a Drunk Person Fly the Space Shuttle?

Discover sends an intoxicated investigator to find out...

by LeeAundra Temescu

It’s 7:47 in the evening. I’m sitting in my apartment, getting wasted, and I’m about to fly the space shuttle. Fortunately for NASA (and anyone who lives near Cape Canaveral), it’s a virtual shuttle.

When most people heard about the recent report suggesting that astronauts have flown under the influence, I’m sure they worried about NASA’s culture, the procedures of spaceflight, and the idea of putting multibillion-dollar pieces of hardware into the hands of boozehounds. Not me: My first thought was “How sober do you need to be to fly the shuttle, anyway?” We’ve sent dogs, monkeys, spiders, and even fruit flies into space, so how hard can it be?

Armed with champagne, a Breathalyzer, my trusty drinking buddy/­copilot Marya Glur, and the most realistic computer simulation of the space shuttle we could find, I set out to find the answer.

Half an hour before we strapped ourselves in, metaphorically speaking, we downed a bottle of Pierre Peters Brut 1998. We chose champagne, not just to pad our expense account but because the carbon dioxide in the bubbles facilitates the absorption of alcohol into the bloodstream, producing impairment much more quickly than other forms of booze. Honest.

I blow into the Breathalyzer. My blood alcohol concentration (BAC) is .03. According to the handy-dandy leaflet that came with the Breathalyzer, a BAC of .03 means “no loss of coordination, slight euphoria, and loss of shyness. Depressant effects are not apparent.”

This would probably be the case even in orbit. David Robertson, director of the Vanderbilt Center for Space Physiology and Medicine at Vanderbilt University, speculates that while there are no experimental data, he would not anticipate any significant difference in the absorption of alcohol into the body in space.

Confident that my physiological state is now not materially different from that of an astronaut who had knocked back a few, Marya and I begin the simulation. It begins 1 hour and 39 minutes before liftoff and ends at “negative return”—the point at which the mission can no longer be aborted without going into space, some 4 minutes after launch. Copilot Marya calls out instructions from the prelaunch checklist. “Set XMIT ICOM to VOX/VOX. Set both A/G, A/A, and ICOM to T/R,” and so on. There are hundreds of switches, spread over multiple panels located left, right, center, overhead, and aft. And they don’t all just turn on and off—some have a midswitch position.

It takes some concentration, but at two minutes to launch, I set “APU AUTO SHUTDOWN 1/2/3” to “INHIBIT” and wait for liftoff. From this point on, there’s nothing to do; mission control does the heavy lifting. We have liftoff, and there’s still nothing to do but check some displays until we reach negative return and halt the simulation.

I take a BAC reading. The launch procedure was so long, my level dropped to .02. More drink is clearly required. The champagne is gone, so in honor of our mission, Marya and I mix Tang cocktails. Tang and vodka is appalling, and we can hardly get it down. Tang and rum? Unspeakably awful. But these failed attempts at mixology do manage to get my BAC up to .08. I am now legally drunk in all 50 states. We reset the simulation and start again.

An hour and 43 minutes later, Marya and I turn to each other, horrified. Here we are, safely at negative return, but this time running through the checklist was much easier and faster, despite our being significantly drunker. Apparently repetition trumps inebriation.

More Tang cocktails. Soon I am registering a BAC of .14: “Gross motor impairment and lack of physical control. Blurred vision and major loss of balance. Euphoria is reduced, and dysphoria is beginning to appear.” Roger that—I am no longer having fun. But science must prevail, so we restart once more. This time the letters are swimming before my eyes, and Marya has to repeat several of the commands. We have liftoff, but it’s not pretty.

My BAC has now reached .20. We try one more time, and suffering from what Marya calls space sickness, I fail to complete the simulation. My experiment is over: You don’t have to be stone-cold sober to fly the shuttle. In fact, you can be downright wasted. Or can you?

Former space shuttle commander Rick Searfoss bursts my champagne bubble. Searfoss piloted two shuttle missions and commanded a third. He agrees the launch sequence is simple. “A monkey could do it” if—and this is a big if—nothing goes wrong. The official NASA launch checklist is 225 pages long. The checklist I used was nine pages. The difference is over 200 pages of abort procedures. Searfoss estimates that only about 5 percent of a commander’s launch training is running through normal sequences—the rest of the time is spent learning how to cope with emergencies. My computer simulation, as detailed as it was, didn’t throw any curveballs, while in Searfoss’s training, “you die in the simulator all the time.” I also wasn’t wearing a heavy space suit with bulky gloves. Flipping an overhead switch in such a suit requires a great deal more effort and coordination than running a mouse around a computer screen.

Conclusion: We do not want our astronauts drinking. Just as important, I never want to see another Tang cocktail as long as I live.

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Most babies born to first-cousins are healthy

WA scientists are challenging the myth that inbreeding always leads to unhealthy babies.

The highly contentious, often-tabooed practice has in the past been linked to deformities such as heart disease, mental retardation, deafness and even blindness.

Australian research published in 2001 showed that babies born to first-cousins are nearly three times more likely to have serious birth defects.

But Professor Alan Bittles, an adjunct professor at the Centre for Comparative Genomics at Murdoch University, who has spent 30 years researching the topic says most children born to first-cousins are healthy.

In WA, about 500 marriages are between first-cousins.

“In Western culture there is a general belief that first cousin marriages lead to negative genetic outcomes, yet a large majority of children born to first cousins are healthy,” he said.

Prof Bittles reviewed 48 studies from 11 countries and found that the risks of birth defects rose from about 2 per cent in the general population to 4 per cent in consanguineous or same blood couples.

He found that only 1.2 per cent suffered higher infant mortality rates, a find similar to another review from 2002 that suggested first-cousin children are less than 3 per cent more likely to have genetic deformities.

The issue has sparked a major medical debate with some researchers and politicians claiming inbreeding between first-cousins in UK has led to a rise in rare recessive disorders – many of them fatal.

Prof. Bittles was the lead speaker at the Royal Society of Medicine in East London this week where these divisions were hotly disputed.

Speakers at the event argued that warnings on the negative genetic consequences of such unions should be as prominent as alcohol and tobacco cautions.

Einstein and Darwin married their first-cousins, so did Jerry Lee Lewis and Jessie James and according to Prof. Bittles about 500 West Australians have followed suit.

First-cousin marriages are also a common tradition in countries such as Pakistan, south Asia and the Middle East.

Muslim doctors at the East London debate agreed with Prof. Bittles and suggested the risk of birth defects is only 4 per cent higher for parents who are closely related – making it ‘not likely’ there will be a genetic problem.

“There is widespread misconception that these marriages rare,” Prof. Bittles said.

“In reality there are over 1000 million people worldwide that live in regions where 20 – 50 per cent of marriages are between blood relatives.”

Prof. Bittles believes as more migrants move into Australian communities there will be a greater incidence of first-cousin marriages.

Given the large numbers of cousin marriages Prof. Bittles is calling for more in-depth health-based studies on the issue.

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Bayer MaterialScience works on polymers for robotics

To help meet the growing demand for partner and service robots, Bayer MaterialScience AG has established a global Robotics working group for polymers development.

In the future we will all have a completely new type of partner, one who really will lend a helping hand when it comes to the housework. According to statistics from the International Federation of Robotics, the number of robots diligently completing chores in private households worldwide will have increased from two million in 2004 to nine million by the end of 2008. And this growth is set to accelerate. Two trends in particular are responsible for this development - the aging of the population, which means there are fewer people available to act as carers, and the change in our lifestyles. The number of both one-person households and life partnerships where both partners work is on the increase. What’s more, as our working lives get increasingly busy, it is our housework that suffers.

To help meet the growing demand for partner and service robots, Bayer MaterialScience AG has established a global "Robotics" working group. "Our work in the field of robotics focuses primarily on high-tech functionalized polymer materials. These materials offer outstanding development potential for new material solutions that open up completely new opportunities and dimensions in the design and construction of robots," explains Dr. Andrea Maier-Richter, a specialist in the New Business section of Bayer MaterialScience that is tasked with identifying new markets and business opportunities.

Tidy up? My robot’s done it already! The wrinkle-free polyurethane skin for service robots from Bayer MaterialScience.

Tidy up? My robot’s done it already! The wrinkle-free polyurethane skin for service robots from Bayer MaterialScience. View High resolution image. photo: Bayer MaterialScience AG

Shown in photo, to cover the external moving parts of the robot, Bayer MaterialScience has developed a polyurethane-based elastic skin that is designed to be similar to human skin.

The company is already working with key partners in the robotics sector on several projects. One such project is the current version of the Care-O-bot*, a service robot designed by the Fraunhofer Institute for Manufacturing Engineering and Automation IPA (Fraunhofer IPA) in Stuttgart. The arm and grabber of the robot have been developed by SCHUNK GmbH & Co. KG, which is based in Lauffen am Neckar, Germany. Care-O-bot is able to move among people safely and reliably and can complete simple transport tasks in the home.

A particular challenge laid down by the Fraunhofer IPA was that the outer casing should be designed so that as few wrinkles as possible are formed when the robot is in motion. The solution was a brand new combination of materials, for which Bayer MaterialScience has lodged a patent application. The new combination consists of the ultra light and highly flexible polyurethane foam HyperNova* coated with the polyurethane dispersion frothed foam Impranil*, which forms the thin, continuous outer skin. Although extremely flexible, this composite material is also very strong and resistant to cleaning agents and everyday chemicals. It also has an extremely attractive look and feel. The new material combination is based on the modular principle and can be customized in terms of thickness, density, surface texture and color.

Functionalized polymer materials - a diverse range of application options There are numerous potential applications for intelligent functionalized polymer materials in robotics. The more lightweight a robot is, the lower its energy consumption and therefore the longer its batteries last before they need to be recharged. As a result, lightweight construction with plastics plays a key role in robotics. For example, Baytubes* carbon nanotubes from Bayer MaterialScience can be used to improve the stiffness and strength of thermoplastics and polyurethane systems, which can then be made into housing sections and heavy-duty micromechanical components.

Baytubes can also be used to make plastics electrically conductive, which would for example allow the artificial plastic skin of a robot to exhibit sensory capabilities. One truly visionary development goal is to use polymers that can be electrically activated as artificial muscles: "We have acquired extensive know-how about the requirements and needs of robot manufacturers and developers. This in turn has enabled us to derive a number of approaches as to how our plastics should function," explains Maier-Richter.

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A survivor in Greenland: A novel bacterial species is found trapped in 120,000-year-old ice

A team of Penn State scientists has discovered a new ultra-small species of bacteria that has survived for more than 120,000 years within the ice of a Greenland glacier at a depth of nearly two miles. The microorganism's ability to persist in this low-temperature, high-pressure, reduced-oxygen, and nutrient-poor habitat makes it particularly useful for studying how life, in general, can survive in a variety of extreme environments on Earth and possibly elsewhere in the solar system. The work will be presented by Jennifer Loveland-Curtze, a senior research associate in the laboratory led by Jean Brenchley, Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at Penn State, at the 108th American Society for Microbiology General Meeting in Boston, Massachusetts on 3 June 2008 at 10:30 a.m. (Extreme Environments-I, poster N-156).

Extruding a core: Scientists extrude the core from its barrel with the utmost care. Any butyl acetate on the core surface is carefully cleaned off before sawing the ice into...
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This new species is among the ubiquitous, yet mysterious, ultra-small bacteria, which are so tiny that the cells are able to pass through microbiological filters. In fact, some species have been found living in the ultra-purified water used for dialysis. "Ultra-small cells could be unknown contaminants in media and medical solutions that are thought to have been sterilized using filters," said Loveland-Curtze.

The ultra-small size of the new species could be one explanation for why it was able to survive for so long in the Greenland glacier. Called Chryseobacterium greenlandensis, the species is related genetically to certain bacteria found in fish, marine mud, and the roots of some plants. The organism is one of only about 10 scientifically described new species originating from polar ice and glaciers.

To study the bacterium in the laboratory, the research team, which also includes Senior Research Associate Vanya Miteva, filtered the cells from melted ice and incubated them in the cold in low-nutrient, oxygen-free solutions. The scientists then characterized the genetic, physiological, biochemical, and structural features of the species. The team hopes that its studies of this species, as well as others living in the Greenland glacier, will reveal more about how cells survive and how they may alter their biochemistry and physiology over time. "Microbes comprise up to one-third or more of the Earth's biomass, yet fewer than 8,000 microbes have been described out of the approximately 3,000,000 that are presumed to exist," said Loveland-Curtze. "The description of this one species is a significant step in the overall endeavor to discover, cultivate, and use the special features held by these organisms."

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The Science of Sarcasm (Not That You Care)

There was nothing very interesting in Katherine P. Rankin’s study of sarcasm — at least, nothing worth your important time. All she did was use an M.R.I. to find the place in the brain where the ability to detect sarcasm resides. But then, you probably already knew it was in the right parahippocampal gyrus.

What you may not have realized is that perceiving sarcasm, the smirking put-down that buries its barb by stating the opposite, requires a nifty mental trick that lies at the heart of social relations: figuring out what others are thinking. Those who lose the ability, whether through a head injury or the frontotemporal dementias afflicting the patients in Dr. Rankin’s study, just do not get it when someone says during a hurricane, “Nice weather we’re having.”

“A lot of the social cognition we take for granted and learn through childhood, the ability to appreciate that someone else is being ironic or sarcastic or angry — the so-called theory of mind that allows us to get inside someone else’s head — is characteristically lost very early in the course of frontotemporal dementia,” said Dr. Bradley F. Boeve, a behavioral neurologist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.

“It’s very disturbing for family members, but neurologists haven’t had good tools for measuring it,” he went on. “That’s why I found this study by Kate Rankin and her group so fascinating.”

Dr. Rankin, a neuropsychologist and assistant professor in the Memory and Aging Center at the University of California, San Francisco, used an innovative test developed in 2002, the Awareness of Social Inference Test, or Tasit. It incorporates videotaped examples of exchanges in which a person’s words seem straightforward enough on paper, but are delivered in a sarcastic style so ridiculously obvious to the able-brained that they seem lifted from a sitcom.

“I was testing people’s ability to detect sarcasm based entirely on paralinguistic cues, the manner of expression,” Dr. Rankin said.

In one videotaped exchange, a man walks into the room of a colleague named Ruth to tell her that he cannot take a class of hers that he had previously promised to take. “Don’t be silly, you shouldn’t feel bad about it,” she replies, hitting the kind of high and low registers of a voice usually reserved for talking to toddlers. “I know you’re busy — it probably wasn’t fair to expect you to squeeze it in,” she says, her lips curled in derision.

Although people with mild Alzheimer’s disease perceived the sarcasm as well as anyone, it went over the heads of many of those with semantic dementia, a progressive brain disease in which people forget words and their meanings.

“You would think that because they lose language, they would pay close attention to the paralinguistic elements of the communication,” Dr. Rankin said.

To her surprise, though, the magnetic resonance scans revealed that the part of the brain lost among those who failed to perceive sarcasm was not in the left hemisphere of the brain, which specializes in language and social interactions, but in a part of the right hemisphere previously identified as important only to detecting contextual background changes in visual tests.

“The right parahippocampal gyrus must be involved in detecting more than just visual context — it perceives social context as well,” Dr. Rankin said.

The discovery fits with an increasingly nuanced view of the right hemisphere’s role, said Dr. Anjan Chatterjee, an associate professor in the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of Pennsylvania.

“The left hemisphere does language in the narrow sense, understanding of individual words and sentences,” Dr. Chatterjee said. “But it’s now thought that the appreciation of humor and language that is not literal, puns and jokes, requires the right hemisphere.”

Dr. Boeve, at the Mayo Clinic, said that beyond the curiosity factor of mapping the cognitive tasks of the brain’s ridges and furrows, the study offered hope that a test like Tasit could help in the diagnosis of frontotemporal dementia.

“These people normally do perfectly well on traditional neuropsychological tests early in the course of their disease,” he said. “The family will say the person has changed dramatically, but even neurologists will often just shrug them off as having a midlife crisis.”

Short of giving such a test, he said, the best way to diagnose such problems is by talking with family members about how the person has changed over time.

After a presentation of her findings at the American Academy of Neurology’s annual meeting in April, Dr. Rankin was asked whether even those with intact brains might have differences in brain areas that explain how well they pick up on sarcasm.

“We all have strengths and weaknesses in our cognitive abilities, including our ability to detect social cues,” she said. “There may be volume-based differences in certain regions that explain variations in all sorts of cognitive abilities.”

So is it possible that Jon Stewart, who wields sarcasm like a machete on “The Daily Show,” has an unusually large right parahippocampal gyrus?

“His is probably just normal,” Dr. Rankin said. “The right parahippocampal gyrus is involved in detecting sarcasm, not being sarcastic.”

But, she quickly added, “I bet Jon Stewart has a huge right frontal lobe; that’s where the sense of humor is detected on M.R.I.”

A spokesman for Mr. Stewart said he would have no comment — not that a big-shot television star like Jon Stewart would care about the size of his neuroanatomy.

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Finding out what the big bang and ink jets have in common

ESF workshop tackles the mathematics of singularities

It often turns out there is more to commonplace everyday events than meets the eye. The folding of paper, or fall of water droplets from a tap, are two such events, both of which involve the creation of singularities requiring sophisticated mathematical techniques to describe, analyse and predict. On the positive side, there is much in common between many such singular events across the whole range of scales, from microscopic interactions to the very formation of the universe itself during the Big Bang. In the past these seemingly unconnected events involving singularities have tended to be studied in isolation by different scientists with relatively little interaction or exchange of ideas between them.

Singularities occur at a point of cut off, or sudden change, within a physical system, as in formation of cracks, lightning strikes, creation of ink drops in printers, and the breaking of a cup when it drops. Improved understanding of the underlying mathematics would have many benefits, for example in making materials of all kinds that are more resistant to cracking or breaking. A recent workshop organised by the European Science Foundation (ESF) represented one of the first attempts to unify the field of singularities by bringing together experts in the different fields of application from astronomy to nanoscience, to develop common mathematical approaches.

“Singularities represent a subject that cuts across disciplines and specializations, such as experimental physics, theoretical physics, and rigorous mathematical proofs,” noted the workshop’s convenor Jens Eggers. “This workshop very much reflected this fact, as we had speakers from very different backgrounds.”

The workshop confirmed that most if not all singular events in the universe, ranging from microscopic cracks to the Big Bang, share one important property known as self-similarity. This means that under magnification the event looks almost the same. For example a crack in a piece of plastic exhibits the same jagged structure when magnified say 100 times. This enables common mathematical approaches to be applied.

However it is also true that the “devil lies in the detail” when it comes to comparing different types of singularity. In other words different systems might have some common features such as self-similarity, but also unique aspects that require specialised study. One aim of the workshop therefore was to identify the common methods that could be applied as a foundation for more detailed specific study of a particular type of singularity.

This was reflected in the wide range of systems discussed. One such system, dealing with cracks in structures or rock formations, was presented by Jay Fineberg from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He talked about new experiments involving gels, allowing the structure of the crack to be determined in great detail down to very small microscopic dimensions, yielding some unexpected findings. “In particular, the structure of a crack is often more complicated than anticipated. Instead of one single crack path, the crack splits and has many small side branches, which appear to have complicated, if not fractal, structure,” said Eggers. Fractal structure here means much the same as self-similarity, involving a geometrical pattern that looks unchanged under magnification or reduction.

Another example of everyday relevance concerned the singularities of crumpling in paper, presented by Tom Witten from the James Franck Institute in Chicago. A crumpled piece of paper comprises many ridges and tips, which defy easy analysis. As Eggers noted, there are many unanswered questions even in describing each individual cone-shaped tip. Yet understanding the underlying mathematics would not just help understand what happens when we crumple up a piece of paper to throw away, but also other physical systems involving ridges and tips, such as the folding of proteins during their manufacture in biological cells.

One question might be what the connection is between singularity theory, and catastrophe theory, which came to prominence in the 1970s, initially developed by French mathematician René Thom and then expanded by UK mathematician Erik Zeeman. In fact catastrophe theory is a sub-branch of singularity theory, dealing with events within physical space-time, such as collisions between wave fronts, as Eggers pointed out. “In that case, a problem that takes place in all of space can be reduced to a problem that takes place along certain lines (caustics), which can be classified according to catastrophe theory,” said Eggers. However this simplification cannot be applied to all singularity problems.

The workshop was though highly successful in investigating the common features that do pertain across different fields of singularity, and prepared the ground for further research programmes with greater cross-pollination of ideas than has occurred previously.

The ESF workshop Singularities In Mechanics: Description And Formation, was held in Paris during January 2008.

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Cost of Solar Panels Expected To Plummet

Solar photovoltaics have their challenges, from shortages of silicon to the sheer cost of purchasing and installing solar panels, but a new report from the Prometheus Institute says that both these problems will be addressed over the next few years, leading to cheaper solar and an abundance of capacity to produce.

Based on their research, Travis Bradford, president of the Institute, says that prices for traditional silicon-based panels should fall from $3.66 per watt (2007 figures) to $2.14 per watt in 2010, and more impressively, thin-film PV should go to $1.81 per watt from $2.96. When coal, currently the least expensive source of power, is around $2.10 per watt to generate*, the expected drop in price for solar will make it far more competative.

Any news that solar is becoming more affordable is great as it will encourage more individuals to install them at home, and businesses to do likewise, either to offset their electricity consumption or installing them in a for-profit initiative. The report, however, also highlights an interesting figure - and companies who are currently building silicon-producing facilities that will come online in the next couple of years, should pay attention: The current global production capacity for silicon and thin-film panels is around 3.14 gigawatts, but will hit 12.36 gigawatts in 2010. That's an increase of just under 400%, an enormous amount that is sure to be welcomed by the environmental community.The demand, however, is only expected to be 6.76 gigawatts, up from 2.94 gigawatts in 2007, leaving over 5 gigawatts of unused capacity. Hopefully this will drive prices further down, resulting in greater demand, but this may have already been reflected in the statistics.

The reason for the drop in prices is due to the expected hike in silicon production, a shortage of which is currently being felt. It is expected that silicon availability will quadruple to 125,302 tons by 2012, providing a massive oversupply of the material to the industry. Thin-film manufacturers who use no silicon will not be affected by this overabundance, however they will have to compete with the dropping prices of conventional panels, hence the drop in price.

It may also, though this is probably wishful thinking, push governments to start offering more incentives to those who install solar in a bid to use up the remaining capacity and financially support their manufacturers who by this point will be a very large industry, employing tens of thousands of people.

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White House Newsflash: Global Warming VERY LIKELY Caused by Human

Since 1990, every four years the US government has been required to issue a “scientific” report on climate change and its effects on the economy, environment, and public health. In typical George W. Bush cavalier cowboy style, the 2004 deadline for this report was ignored and the government was sued by green groups. Finally, the long awaited report was four years late, and get this:

…most of the recent global warming is very likely due to human generated increases in greenhouse gas concentrations.

Very likely caused by humans-now that’s a definitive statement on climate change! Once again the US government has failed to make a clearcut connection between humans and climate change.

Why do we need our government to make an absolute statement that humans are to blame for climate change?

Without such a strong statement linking the human causes and effects of global warming, we are impotent to pass real legislation and regulations that will drastically curb greenhouse gases now! We can’t wait four more years for the next report to come out to say, “Yea, we are screwed and entirely to blame.” A definitive statement by the US government would end the silly debate about global warming that has distracted us from taking action beyond individual citizens. As Rick Piltz, director of Climate Science Watch at the nonprofit Government Accountability Project, stated, “It’s important the government go on record honestly acknowledging this stuff.”

Why would the US government not want to make the connection between climate change and human actions absolute?

The climate science behind the report is not new, and neither is the White House spin. The “Scientific Assesment of the Effects of Global Change on the United States,” report states:

Finally, climate change is very likely to accentuate the disparities already evident in the American health care system. Many of the expected health effects are likely to fall disproportionately on the poor, the elderly, the disabled and the uninsured.

Yet have no fear Americans! White House associate science director Sharon Hays declined to characterize the findings as bad, in a teleconference with reporters. That’s right, increased heat-related deaths and water shortages are not all bad. So what is not negative in the report: The doubt that humans are solely to blame. Now that’s something to celebrate!

I don’t know why the US government cannot admit human blame for climate change. It reminds me of my six-year-old daughter saying she did not drop ice cream on the floor, when she was the only one eating ice cream. Does the government fear it will get in trouble like my daughter and have to clean it up if it admits blame? Would such an admission open up even more litigation opportunities for the states, as well as for individuals to sue polluting corporations? Well, have no fear Americans, our president won’t even read this report. George Bush has already vowed to veto the Lieberman-Warner Climate Security Act before the Senate even debates the bill, because it will hurt the US economy. Oh yea, blazing wildfires, pestilence, and famine won’t hurt the economy at all.

It didn’t take Mean Joe Green four years to create a political cartoon on the climate change report). Although I disagree with Joe’s idea that the report is entirely “realistic”, given that it does not take a definitive stance on the human causes of climate change, at least the doom and gloom predictions of severe weather, water shortages, heat waves, etc. ring true. As biologist Thomas Lovejoy says of the climate report, “It basically says the America we’ve known we can no longer count on.” It’s a good thing Republicans live on another planet; they’re going to need it.

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China’s Emerging Environmental Movement

Quietly and somewhat surprisingly, green groups are cropping up throughout China and are starting to have an impact. In the first in a series on Chinese environmentalists, journalist Christina Larson visits with Zhao Zhong, who is leading the fight to save the Yellow River.

by christina larson

The northern route of the old Silk Road winds through a golden desert region of western China once renowned for its rugged beauty. But in many cities and villages along the route today, the view is far less picturesque: black plumes rising from smokestacks, mountains of trash massed along streambeds, and drainage pipes seeping untreated sewage into canals and rivers. In some areas, the streams are too badly polluted “even for cows to drink,” as one villager in western Gansu province told me, and so clean water must be brought in by truck.

China today is struggling with unprecedented environmental challenges. Ninety percent of the country’s cities have contaminated groundwater. An estimated 750,000 people die prematurely each year from diseases triggered by air and water pollution. The United Nations predicts that by 2010, degraded water and soil in China will create 50 million “environmental refugees,” who will be forced to move from their homelands in search of potable water and arable farmland. The country’s current environmental crisis is looming as a humanitarian one.

The Silk Road crosses the Yellow River, the northern of China’s two great rivers, at Lanzhou, a city that recent decades have transformed from a remote trading post into a hub for petrochemical plants in northwest China. In the past two years, three industrial accidents at local factories have turned the great river an ominous red, and a recent report found that in some places the river is now 10 percent sewage.

This disquieting reality is why, one snowy morning last winter, I drove along the course of the Yellow River with Zhao Zhong, an energetic 26-year-old grassroots environmentalist from Lanzhou. Four years ago, he founded the city’s first citizen environmental group, “Green Camel Bell”; for the past two years, he has been using GPS equipment (borrowed from a local university) to map the locations of factories that dump waste into the Yellow River.

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Zhao Zhong
Christina Larson
Zhao Zhong, 26, founded Green Camel Bell when he moved to Lanzhou four years ago.

Green Camel Bell is one of approximately 3,000 grassroots environmental groups active in China today. These groups occupy a relatively unique, and fragile, place in the country’s political landscape. Even as China’s authoritarian government jails activists advocating such causes as human rights and Tibetan independence, the authorities have tolerated, albeit with troubling restrictions, the development of grassroots environmental organizations across China.

The country’s first legal nonprofit group, founded in 1994, was the environmental organization Friends of Nature. Today green groups constitute the largest and most developed sector of the country’s nascent civil society. Activists like Zhao Zhong are on the leading edge of both environmental campaigns and a remarkable evolution in how people in China think about watchdogs, the public sphere, and government accountability.

Zhao, like most Chinese environmentalists I met, tends to focus on the practical, not the philosophical. When I asked him what he thought about living in Lanzhou — and transformations across China today — he seemed surprised by the question. “I do not like it or not like it. It is where I live,” he said. Then he added, “I will do what I can.”

I first met Zhao after an epic plane flight from northeastern China to Lanzhou. During a nine-hour plane ride, with a transfer in Inner Mongolia, I had watched snow-covered mountains turn to green valleys, and finally to golden sand dunes. The staggering vastness and variety of China’s geography defies comparison with most national landscapes.

It was long past sunset when I called him from the Lanzhou airport. But Zhao, no stranger to late nights, insisted it wasn’t too late to show me his new office. Around 11 p. m. he greeted me at the door of Green Camel Bell’s headquarters: a humble two-room apartment on the rundown western side of town. The group had purchased it the previous year with a start-up grant, for about $20,000. The room had bare light bulbs and austere concrete floors, but as Zhao pointed out, it was a hearty advance from the days when his staffers had to work from their bedrooms. It wasn’t fancy, but it was theirs.

A giant hand-drawn map of Lanzhou showing the Yellow River and nearby factories hung on one wall; a whiteboard with names and assigned tasks was mounted on another. The office’s few bookcases were crammed with volumes on environmental science, geology, and the history of the region. Around one table, over a late take-out dinner, a group of 20-something staffers and volunteers was discussing the environmental curriculum they were teaching in local primary schools.

Zhao Zhong and his colleagues represent a new breed in China: idealistic young people. Control over one’s personal future is a new concept in China. “Ten or twenty years ago, students would graduate and simply be allocated to a job,” explains Jane Pierini, executive director of PeopleLink, a group in Beijing that helps domestic nonprofits build organizational capacity. Factories would determine where you worked, when you could travel, and even whether you were allocated to single or married housing. “Everything was set, even the time when one could marry.”

But in recent decades, with the advent of Deng Xiaoping’s “Open Door” policy and the gradual dismantling of the state-controlled economy, new choices exist for young Chinese with adequate education. Each of Green Camel Bell’s members share in a dream their parents could not have imagined: They can purchase an office, hold meetings, distribute informational pamphlets, and organize public activities, albeit confined by certain legal restrictions. “Civil society is now a phrase people in China are beginning to understand,” Pierini says.

Many civic-minded young people in China gravitate toward environmentalism — in part because the country’s environmental problems are so severe, and in part because the government has over the last decade passed laws that afford green groups a relatively unique degree of autonomy to operate. Some green NGO leaders are even consulted by government officials and praised by the state-controlled media. Almost unheard of two decades ago, student environmental groups are today multiplying quickly on college campuses, with several hundred now operating nationwide.

Green Camel Bell grew out of a group Zhao founded in college called Green Anhui. An avid hiker who frequently sports a well-worn Northface knockoff jacket, Zhao told me that he had become worried that “the mountains were dying” in his native province because of polluted rivers and clear-cut forests.

After college, he took a job as a nuclear engineer and researcher in Lanzhou, a city the World Resources Institute once named the most polluted in the world. In addition to the sludge in the Yellow River, factory smoke makes lung disease a leading cause of death in Lanzhou (just breathing the city air is equivalent to smoking a pack of cigarettes a day).

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Gansu River
Christina Larson
Zhao's group marks the locations of waste pipes such as these using GPS.

In 2004, Zhao founded Green Camel Bell; “camel bell” refers to the Silk Road caravans that once traversed the region. With a series of small start-up grants from San Francisco-based Global Greengrants Fund, he was later able to hire a skeleton staff and purchase office space. To date, the group’s activities have included organizing trash clean-up campaigns, teaching environmental seminars in local schools, and now, somewhat more controversially, monitoring local factories’ pollution records.

What all these undertakings share in common is the task of collecting and disseminating information. “China needs public participation to solve its environmental problems,” says Ma Jun, a leading environmentalist in Beijing and the author of China’s Water Crisis, a book many have likened to Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in its impact on the nation’s environmental consciousness. “The first step is access to environmental information. Without information, there can be no meaningful public involvement.”

Three years ago, Ma founded a Beijing-based nonprofit called the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, and today he is working with grassroots groups across China, including Green Camel Bell, to track down data on regional air and water pollution. Recent laws in China have made more environmental data available to the public than ever before, though a broad exception exists for anything deemed a “state secret.”

In 2006, Ma launched China’s first online public database of water-quality information, followed by a similar online database for air pollution. These sets of data revealed, not surprisingly, that polluting factories are often in blatant violation of Chinese law. Ma says he hopes to generate new forms of citizen pressure to ensure greater compliance with China’s environmental regulations.

In many Chinese cities, public attitudes towards the environment are evolving as rapidly as new skyscrapers are rising. In a 2007 poll by the Pew Forum’s Global Attitudes Project, 70 percent of Chinese respondents named “environmental problems” as the “top global threat” in the world today. (That represents the highest percentage for any country surveyed except South Korea, which happens to get most of its air pollution from China.)

This is a transitional moment for China. For three decades, its government has passed increasingly strict environmental laws, but the expectation that these regulations would be upheld is still novel. It remains an open question to what degree the Chinese government, wary of having its record challenged, will continue to expand the political space afforded to green civil society. And although the authorities condone citizen environmental education campaigns, tensions flare when independent researchers question plans in which the government has already invested resources and political capital, such as massive dam and water-diversion projects.

Wary of nationwide campaigns, Beijing forbids green groups from establishing branch chapters and collecting dues from a national membership. This means most groups scrape by on limited grant money, borrowed equipment, and the goodwill of volunteers. Only recently did Zhao draw any salary for his work at Green Camel Bell, which enabled him to quit his day job as a nuclear researcher and devote himself to the group full-time.

Yet Zhao and other pioneering activists may play an important role in determining whether China meets the environmental targets it sets for itself in the future. That’s not just China’s concern; it’s also the rest of the world’s.

Today many outside observers wonder whether Beijing will at some point commit to capping greenhouse gas emissions. But even if China’s government accepts emission targets, that won’t mean much unless there is also the political will and the capacity to convert those goals into reality. That’s why our collective fate rests at least in part on the future success of Zhao Zhong and his scrappy colleagues.

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Greenies also Techies

green-techie.jpgThe environmental movement is one that has, lately, received a rather large amount of attention. This is not solely because of the contention about whether the global warming is as a result of man-made greenhouse gases, but because of its subsequent timing with a revolution on the internet.

New research from Mediamark Research and Intelligence has released the results of a study, based on interviews conducted with approximately 26,000 US adults, that suggests those 2% of people who are self-described “Green Advocates” are also among the most tech savvy.

Over the past few years, as the environmental movement has grown online, so has a new wave of “journalism”. I quote that word because there are some journalists out there who will resent the opinion that they are lobbed in a group with, say, me. However there are, at the moment, three groups of people that are, sadly, often misrepresented as only two; and this is where the problem occurs.

In fact, in time, it will once again revert back to two groups, but for the moment we have traditional journalists, web journalists, and bloggers. We at Green Options are not bloggers, we are web journalists, but we often get tagged as bloggers, those 13 year old boys in their parents basement decrying to the world that their parents don’t understand them.

My point is though that with this revolution in reporting, thanks to the internet, coupled with a group of people who are technologically savvy, the environmental movement has grown.

“Although they tend to be a relatively older group, Green Advocates are more likely to embrace technology than the other Green consumer segments, as well as than the adult population as a whole,” said Anne Marie Kelly, Vice President of Marketing and Strategic Planning at MRI. “They are opinion leaders who research and read product reviews before buying new technology. And they are 65% more likely to give technology product advice about what they’ve learned to others.”

Sadly, hidden beneath this wonderful linkage between technology and environmental advocacy, is the fact that according to the MRI study, 46.4% of Americans are “UnGreen”, while another 10.6% are only “Green at the Supermarket” and 18.2% “Green in Theory”.

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NANO VENT-SKIN: CO2 Filtering Solar Micro-turbines!

There’s nothing like a towering wind turbine to inspire NIMBY sentiment from neighbors and city councils alike. Enter a striking new alternative energy concept by Mexican-born Agustin Otegui, who works with economies of a much smaller scale. He has conceived of a next-gen Nano Vent-Skin that sheathes structures in a shimmering solar weave studded with micro-turbines. The concept takes advantage of a structure’s maximum available surface space, and its modular composition allows it to retrofit our old buildings instead of pouring resources into new ones. Plus, the stunning superstructure incorporates micro-organisms to soak up C02.
n the past we’ve covered approaches to alternative energy that seek to synthesize solar with wind. It’s an exciting area to watch as technology improves and processes are streamlined, and Ostegui’s concept charts some innovative new territory.

The Nano Vent-Skin is a zero-emission material that takes a tri-partite approach towards energy efficiency. First, it soaks up sunlight via a photovoltaic layer, and transfers energy via nano-wires to storage units at the end of each panel. Second, its tiny turbines employ “polarized organisms” to create chemical reactions, generating power each time the turbine makes contact with the structure. Third, the organisms present in the inner skin of each turbine soak up C02.

At the core of the technology is an elaborate system of bio-engineered micro organisms which “have not been genetically altered; they work as a trained colony where each member has a specific task in this symbiotic process.” Ostegui even has plans for the system to be self-healing: “Every panel has a sensor on each corner with a material reservoir. When one of the turbines has a failure or breaks, a signal is sent through the nano-wires to the central system and building material (microorganisms) is sent through the central tube in order to regenerate this area with a self assembly process.”

Ostegui’s NVS may reside at the far end of future-forward thinking for now, but it presents some exciting concepts that may surface as science and technology work together to converge our existing energy systems.

+ Nano Vent-Skin

Via TreeHugger

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Super Efficient Floating Wind Turbines from Magenn

Wind turbines at ground level produce at a rate of 20-25%, but when placed at altitudes from 600-1000 feet, energy output can double. Ottawa-based Magenn Power is in the prototype stages of the world’s first floating wind turbine. The Magenn Air Rotor System or MARS is a stationary blimp kept afloat with helium and tethered into place on an electrical grid. Centrifugal blades on the MARS can generate up to several megawatts of clean, renewable energy at a price well below our current grounded wind turbines.

While we’ve been intrigued by other forms of lofty renewable energy systems, MARS stands out for its seemingly low-impact presence and highly mobile capabilities. Eventually the company hopes to use MARS in remote locations for camping or cabins, in developing countries with little rural access to electricity, and for emergency disaster relief. For now, Magenn is focused on viability and testing the prototype.

+ Magenn Power

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10 Deepest Lakes on Earth

Image via Flickr User Sniggity

Have you ever swam out in a deep lake and not been able to see the bottom? All you can feel is the freezing cold water beneath your feet, all you see is darkness extending to infinity.

There is nothing wrong with being afraid of deep water even if you’re the best swimmer in the world, but when you add some fantasy to the story and consider the legends and mysteries that lie underneath the murky depths, fear can eat you alive.

As with any lake, depths fluctuate with climate and in particular rainfall. Notwithstanding this, today we’ll explore the top ten deepest lakes in the world and the stories and legends behind them.

10. Lake Matano

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With a tectonic origin and located in South Sulawesi in Indonesia, Lake Matano is an important freshwater resource in the area and the country’s deepest lake, with a maximum depth of 1936 feet. It drains from Patea River and later flows through a waterfall into Lake Mahalona (the Malili Lakes).

Lake Matana is famous for its extremely clear waters and the many endemic fish species which have arisen from a single ancestor diversified over time.

9. Crater Lake

Image by 1 With a violent volcanic past, the caldera lake in the Crater Lake National Park, Oregon, is a place of immeasurable beauty. Surrounding cliffs of up to two thousand feet high, two small islands and spectacular blue water, make this “outdoor laboratory” the perfect place for photographers.

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Crater lake is the deepest lake in the United States with a maximum depth of 1949 feet. It may also have one of the purest water, in North America, (in terms of absence of pollutants) thanks to the generous amounts of winter snow that supplies it with water.

It was created when Mount Mazama (12,000 feet high) collapsed 7,700 years ago following a large eruption, but the legend has more details. The Klamath Indian tribe talks about a raging war between Llao, the spirit of the Below-World who lived in Mount Mazama, and Skell the spirit of the Above-World.

Llao felt in love with Loha, daughter of the Klamath Indian chief, but got rejected and decided to punish humans with the curse of fire. Skell came in to help and after a long battle he managed to defeat Llao, whom he imprisoned deep down into the Under-World, collapsing the top of the Mount Mazama over. At last he wanted peace and decided to cover the pit with magnificent blue water.

8. Great Slave Lake

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Also known as the Grand lac des Esclaves after the Slavey North American Indians, it covers 11,000 sq miles in the Northwest Territories of Canada and goes down to 2,015 feet which makes it the deepest lake in North America. Because of the low temperatures in the area, for about eight months of the year, the lake is at least partially frozen, while during winter, the ice is so thick that trailer trucks can pass through.

There is currently no physical evidence to suggest that an unidentified large creature is living in the Great Slave Lake, but many people traveling to the lake have said otherwise. Some talk about a large hump in the water, usually mistaken for a rock until it submerges, or an alligator-like body, with a head like that of a pike.

From his house, a Roman Catholic priest even saw a large dragon-headed creature that rose six to eight feet above the water and moved rapidly on the shores of the lake. The creature was subsequently named Ol’Slavey.

7. Issyk Kul Lake

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In the Republic of Kyrgyzstan, the northern Tian Shan mountains, Issyk Kul is an endorheic saline water lake that was supposed to be an ancient metropolis, 2,500 years ago. The average water depth is 1,000 feet while the deepest point goes down to 2,192 feet.

According to the legend, during pre-Islamic times, the king of the Ossounes had donkey’s ears. He managed to hide them however, by killing all his barbers to make sure the secret wouldn’t leak out, yet one day, one of the barbers escaped and yelled the secret into a well and left it uncovered, which caused water to rise and flood the kingdom.

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It would be interesting to explore the truths behind this story, as archaeological finds indicated the presence of an advanced ancient civilization where the the Issyk Kul lake is currently located.

6. Lake Malawi

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Also known as Lake Nyasa, Lake Malawi is the most southern lake in the East African Rift valley system, located between Malawi, Mozambique, and Tanzania. At 2,316 feet deep, it’s the second deepest lake in Africa and thanks to the tropical waters it has more fish species than any other lake on Earth.

Researchers have studied sediments from core samples of Lake Malawi, which revealed that 100,000 years ago, water levels dropped to about 2,000 feet, turning the land around the lake into semi-desert and arid scrubland habitat. According to some, this may be why early man fled from Africa to colonize other parts of the world.

5. O’Higgins/San Martín Lake

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Located in Patagonia, between the Aysén Region and the Santa Cruz Province, the lake is called O’Higgins in Chile and San Martin in Argentina. It is the deepest lake in the Americas with a maximum depth of 2,742 feet (measured near the O’Higgins Glacier). The lake is very irregular consisting of eight well-defined arms with milky light-blue water coming from the suspended rock flour.

The lake is named after South American heroes José de San Martín of Argentina and Bernardo O’Higgins of Chile, who fought together for the liberation of Chile.

4. Lake Vostok

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Out of the 140 sub-glacial lakes on earth, Vostok is the largest and the deepest, with a maximum depth of 2,950 feet. Beneath Russia’s Vostok Station, 13,000 feet under the surface of the central Antarctic ice sheet, may be the most unspoiled lake on Earth. British and Russian scientists only discovered it in 1996.

The average water temperature is -3 °C and the reason why it is still liquid below freezing is the high pressure from the weight of the ice above it.

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Scientists also discovered that the ice core may be 420,000 years old, meaning that the lake could have been sealed for over 500,000 years and the water beneath could be doubly as old.

So far there isn’t any proof of life in LakeVostok. Notwithstanding this, in case there are species living beneath the murky depths, they are most likely to have evolved special features in order to survive the lake’s oxygen-rich environment.3. Caspian Sea

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Between the southern areas of the Russian Federation and northern Iran, lies the largest enclosed body of water on Earth. It’s an endorheic lake with salty water (salinity of approximately 1.2%) that was landlocked due to continental drift 5.5 million years ago. An ancient remnant of the Tethys Ocean, (just like the Black Sea or the Mediterranean Sea) it is the third deepest lake in the world going down to 3,363 feet.

Fauna in the Caspian basin is very rich: great numbers of sturgeon (that’s where you get the great caviar), the Caspian seal and some fish endemic to the Caspian Sea like the Kkturn (Caspian white fish), Caspian roach, Caspian bream and an array of rare species of salmon only to be found in that area.

The Caspian Sea is very rich in energy resources like oil and gas deposits, which have been tapped since the 10th century. These days, the oil in the Caspian basin is supposed to be worth $12 trillion.

2. Tanganyika Lake

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Divided between Burundi, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (45%), Tanzania (41%) and Zambia, Tanganyika is the deepest fresh water lake in Africa and the second in the world with a maximum depth of 4,823 feet. The lake was “mistakenly” discovered in 1858 by two British explorers, Richard Burton and John Speke, in their quest to find the Nile’s source.mage by 1

A recent story on National Georgraphic talks about a cold-blooded serial killer on the shores of Lake Tanganyika. Called Gustave, it was a 20 feet long crocodile that weighted 2,000 pounds and was responsible for killing hundreds of people.

1. Lake Baikal

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Also known as the “blue eye of Siberia”, lake Baikal is located in Southern Siberia near R near the Russo-Mongolian border. Famous for being the deepest lake in the world with a maximum depth of 5,369 feet it holds a volume of water larger than that of all the great lakes combined.

Lake Baikal is a great eco-system where more than 1,700 species of flora and fauna live; two thirds of them only to be found here. Completely surrounded by steep mountains and dense forests, the lake has an estimated age of 25-30 million years, making it one of the most ancient lakes in geological history.

However, this enormous water formation may harbor a mystery of immense proportions: a gigantic animal, either of sturgeon-like appearance or a rogue sea serpent; Baikal’s very own Loch Ness Monster. No one can tell for sure if the legend is true or not, but the creature exists in people’s minds and haunts their thoughts.

If you know of any other deep lakes worth exploring, please drop us a line in the comments.

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Geo-Engineering for a Tailor-Made Planet

Tropical Storm NargisGeo-Engineering is “the deliberate modification of Earth’s environment on a large scale “to suit human needs and promote habitability”‘ (via Wikipedia). Until recently it was the stuff of science fiction, a god-like power regulated to unseen aliens or super-futuristic societies. Occasionally planetary catastrophe also ensued.

Yet with climate change and global warming sparking alarm across the globe, some scientists have started to explore the possibility of altering the natural environment on a global scale. Several strategies are outlined below:More...

There are other proposed methods, of course, so consider these as an introduction only. It’s important to note that geo-engineering scientists do not propose this as solutions to global warming, but as emergency measures to avert large-scale human suffering. The only reason it has been suggested that we consider implementing these strategies in the near future is because, in the view of Dr. Paul Crutzen, “there is little reason to be optimistic.” He was referring to current international political efforts to reduce greenhouse gasses.

Of course there is controversy and plenty of people who disagree with implementing geo-engineering. Scientifically, there’s the problem of data; we simply don’t know enough about these huge natural systems to safely manipulate them. There’s also the consequences we are certain about: in most cases, the benefits and detrimental effects will be unevenly distributed across the planet. While one part of the world prospers under cooler climes, another would have their problems compounded.

Who can make that decision? What are the ethics? What would be the social, economic, and cultural implications of upheaval, conflict, and/or refugees in the areas that benefit? Even if we do manage to (partially) improve the weather, the social impact across the globe could negate the benefits. Geo-engineering (but not necessarily geo-engineers) assumes that humans being can and should manipulate the planet to improve their lot, but many people have pointed out that we must still change our habits and lifestyles regardless. Whether we attempt geo-engineering or not, we must still invest in renewable resources.

one meeeeeeellion dollars!Geo-engineers propose this as an “emergency only” measure, but in my opinion, using it with even the best intentions could set a dangerous precedent. Global warming is an unintended form of geo-engineering; is it wise to fight fire with fire? Is it ethical to combat one “evil” with something slightly “less evil”? Could any nation, organization, or individual with enough money hijack the globe by using, or threatening to use, geo-engineering against the populous?

Technology will play a critical role in combating and adapting to climate change, but at some point we will have to limit ourselves. Where should we draw the line, and who will decide? Many critics of geo-engineering agree that we should spend our energy and resources on a solution to the problem, not just to treat the symptoms. There is no fast or simple fix; if we intend to live well for the long haul, we’ll just have to adapt to the limitation of our planet - or expand onto another.

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