Friday, October 3, 2008

Sunspots Are Fewest Since 1954, but Significance Is Unclear



An image taken on Sept. 27, 2008, shows a solar disk completely unmarked by sunspots.

The Sun has been strangely unblemished this year. On more than 200 days so far this year, no sunspots were spotted. That makes the Sun blanker this year than in any year since 1954, when it was spotless for 241 days.

The Sun goes through a regular 11-year cycle, and it is now emerging from the quietest part of the cycle, or solar minimum. But even for this phase it has been unusually quiet, with little roiling of the magnetic fields that induce sunspots.

“It’s starting with a murmur,” said David H. Hathaway, a solar physicist at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala.

As of Thursday, the 276th day of the year, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Space Weather Prediction Center in Boulder, Colo., had counted 205 days without a sunspot.

In another sign of solar quiescence, scientists reported last month that the solar wind, a rush of charged particles continually spewed from the Sun at a million miles an hour, had diminished to its lowest level in 50 years.

Scientists are not sure why this minimum has been especially minimal, and the episode is even playing into the global warming debate. Some wonder if this could be the start of an extended period of solar indolence that would more than offset the warming effect of human-made carbon dioxide emissions. From the middle of the 17th century to the early 18th, a period known as the Maunder Minimum, sunspots were extremely rare, and the reduced activity coincided with lower temperatures in what is known as the Little Ice Age.

Compared to the Maunder Minimum, the current pace of sunspots “makes it look like we’re having a feast, not a famine,” Dr. Hathaway said.

Scientists expect that sunspot activity will pick up in the coming months, but exactly what will happen next is open to debate. Dr. Hathaway had predicted two years ago, based on the Sun’s behavior near the end of the last cycle, that the maximum this time would be ferocious.

“I’m getting worried about that prediction now,” he said. “Normally, big cycles start early, and by doing that, they cut short the previous cycle. This one hasn’t done that.”

But many of the other competing predictions — more than 50 over all — pointed to a quieter-than-average cycle. “They do kind of go all over the map,” said Douglas Biesecker, a physicist at the Space Weather Prediction Center who led an international panel that reviewed predictions.

The solar wind is another piece of the puzzle. David J. McComas of the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio and one of the researchers who analyzed data from the Ulysses Sun-watching spacecraft, said that the strength of the solar wind seemed to be in a long-term decline. The pressure exerted by the solar wind particles during the current minimum is about a quarter weaker than during the last solar minimum, Dr. McComas said.

Dr. McComas said scientists were still trying to figure out how all the data fits together.

“There are a number of researchers who predict the next solar cycle,” he said. “There are also a number of investment counselors who predict the future of the stock market.”

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'Space elevator' would take humans into orbit

By Mike Steere

LONDON, England (CNN) -- A new space race is officially under way, and this one should have the sci-fi geeks salivating.

Lift to space: This is a Nasa interpretation of what a space elevator may look like.

Lift to space: This is a NASA interpretation of what a space elevator may look like.

The project is a "space elevator," and some experts now believe that the concept is well within the bounds of possibility -- maybe even within our lifetimes.

A conference discussing developments in space elevator concepts is being held in Japan in November, and hundreds of engineers and scientists from Asia, Europe and the Americas are working to design the only lift that will take you directly to the one hundred-thousandth floor.

Despite these developments, you could be excused for thinking it all sounds a little far-fetched.

Indeed, if successfully built, the space elevator would be an unprecedented feat of human engineering.

A cable anchored to the Earth's surface, reaching tens of thousands of kilometers into space, balanced with a counterweight attached at the other end is the basic design for the elevator.

It is thought that inertia -- the physics theory stating that matter retains its velocity along a straight line so long as it is not acted upon by an external force -- will cause the cable to stay stretched taut, allowing the elevator to sit in geostationary orbit.

The cable would extend into the sky, eventually reaching a satellite docking station orbiting in space.

Engineers hope the elevator will transport people and objects into space, and there have even been suggestions that it could be used to dispose of nuclear waste. Another proposed idea is to use the elevator to place solar panels in space to provide power for homes on Earth.

If it sounds like the stuff of fiction, maybe that's because it once was.

In 1979, Arthur C. Clarke's novel "The Fountains of Paradise" brought the idea of a space elevator to a mass audience. Charles Sheffield's "The Web Between the Worlds" also featured the building of a space elevator.

But, jump out of the storybooks and fast-forward nearly three decades, and Japanese scientists at the Japan Space Elevator Association are working seriously on the space-elevator project.

Association spokesman Akira Tsuchida said his organization was working with U.S.-based Spaceward Foundation and a European organization based in Luxembourg to develop an elevator design.

The Liftport Group in the U.S. is also working on developing a design, and in total it's believed that more than 300 scientists and engineers are engaged in such work around the globe.

NASA is holding a $4 million Space Elevator Challenge to encourage designs for a successful space elevator.

Tsuchida said the technology driving the race to build the first space elevator is the quickly developing material carbon nanotube. It is lightweight and has a tensile strength 180 times stronger than that of a steel cable. Currently, it is the only material with the potential to be strong enough to use to manufacture elevator cable, according to Tsuchida.

"At present we have a tether which is made of carbon nanotube, and has one-third or one-quarter of the strength required to make a space elevator. We expect that we will have strong enough cable in the 2020s or 2030s," Tsuchida said.

He said the most likely method of powering the elevator would be through the carbon nanotube cable.

So, what are the major logistical issues keeping the space elevator from being anything more than a dream at present?

Massachusetts Institute of Technology aeronautics and astronautics Professor Jeff Hoffman said that designing the carbon nanotube appeared to be the biggest obstacle.

"We are now on the verge of having material that has the strength to span the 30,000 km ... but we don't have the ability to make long cable out of the carbon nanotubes at the moment." he said. "Although I'm confident that within a reasonable amount of time we will be able to do this."

Tsuchida said that one of the biggest challenges will be acquiring funding to move the projects forward. At present, there is no financial backing for the space elevator project, and all of the Japanese group's 100-plus members maintain other jobs to earn a living.

"Because we don't have a material which has enough strength to construct space elevator yet, it is difficult to change people's mind so they believe that it can be real," he said.

Hoffman feels that international dialogue needs to be encouaraged on the issue. He said a number of legal considerations also would have to be taken into account.

"This is not something one nation or one company can do. There needs to be a worldwide approach," he said.

Other difficulties for space-elevator projects include how to build the base for the elevator, how to design it and where to set up the operation.

Tsuchida said some possible locations for an elevator include the South China Sea, western Australia and the Galapagos Islands in the Pacific Ocean. He said all of those locations usually avoided typhoons, which could pose a threat to the safety of an elevator.

"As the base of space elevator will be located on geosynchronous orbit, [the] space elevator ground station should be located near the equator," he said.

Although the Japanese association has set a time frame of the 2030s to get a space elevator under construction -- and developments are moving quickly -- Hoffman acknowledges that it could be a little further away than that.

"I don't know if it's going to be in our lifetime or if it's 100 or 200 years away, but it's near enough that we can contemplate how it will work."

Building a space elevator is a matter of when, not if, said Hoffman, who believes that it will herald a major new period in human history.

"It will be revolutionary for human technology, and not just for space travel. That's why so many people are pursuing it," he said. "This is what it will take to turn humans into a space-bearing species."

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NASA Spacecraft Finds the Sun is Not a Perfect Sphere

In this diagram the suns oblateness has been magnified 10000 times for easy visibility. The blue curve traces the suns shape averaged over a three month period. The black asterisked curve traces a shorter 10-day average. The wiggles in the 10-day cur ...
In this diagram, the sun's oblateness has been magnified 10,000 times for easy visibility. The blue curve traces the sun's shape averaged over a three month period. The black asterisked curve traces a shorter 10-day average. The "wiggles" in the 10-day curve are real, caused by strong magnetic ridges in the vicinity of sunspots.(NASA Goddard Space Flight Center) -- Scientists using NASA’s RHESSI spacecraft have measured the roundness of the sun with unprecedented precision. They find that it is not a perfect sphere. During years of high solar activity the sun develops a thin “cantaloupe skin” that significantly increases its apparent oblateness: the sun’s equatorial radius becomes slightly larger than its polar radius. Their results appear the Oct. 2nd edition of Science Express.

“The sun is the biggest and therefore smoothest object in the solar system, perfect at the 0.001% level because of its extremely strong gravity,” says study co-author Hugh Hudson of UC Berkeley. “Measuring its exact shape is no easy task.”
The team accomplished the task by analyzing data from the Reuven Ramaty High-Energy Solar Spectroscopic Imager, RHESSI for short, an x-ray/gamma-ray space telescope launched in 2002 on a mission to study solar flares. Although RHESSI was never intended to measure the roundness of the sun, it has turned out ideal for the purpose. RHESSI observes the solar disk through a narrow slit and spins at 15 rpm. The spacecraft’s rapid rotation and high data sampling rate (necessary to catch fast solar flares) make it possible for investigators to trace the shape of the sun with systematic errors much less than any previous study. Their technique is particularly sensitive to small differences in polar vs. equatorial radius or “oblateness.”

“We have found that the surface of the sun has rough structure: bright ridges arranged in a network pattern, as on the surface of a cantaloupe but much more subtle,” describes Hudson. During active phases of the solar cycle, these ridges emerge around the sun’s equator, brightening and fattening the “stellar waist.” At the time of RHESSI’s measurements in 2004, ridges increased the sun’s apparent equatorial radius by an angle of 10.77 +- 0.44 milli-arcseconds, or about the same as the width of a human hair viewed one mile away.

“That may sound like a very small angle, but it is in fact significant,” says Alexei Pevtsov, RHESSI Program Scientist at NASA Headquarters. Tiny departures from perfect roundness can, for example, affect the sun’s gravitational pull on Mercury and skew tests of Einstein’s theory of relativity that depend on careful measurements of the inner planet’s orbit. Small bulges are also telltale signs of hidden motions inside the sun. For instance, if the sun had a rapidly rotating core left over from early stages of star formation, and if that core were tilted with respect to its outer layers, the result would be surface bulging. “RHESSI’s precision measurements place severe constraints on any such models.”
The “cantaloupe ridges” are magnetic in nature. They outline giant, bubbling convection cells on the surface of the sun called “supergranules.” Supergranules are like bubbles in a pot of boiling water amplified to the scale of a star; on the sun they measure some 30,000 km across (twice as wide as Earth) and are made of seething hot magnetized plasma. Magnetic fields at the center of these bubbles are swept out to the edge where they form ridges of magnetism. The ridges are most prominent during years around Solar Max when the sun’s inner dynamo “revs up” to produce the strongest magnetic fields. Solar physicists have known about supergranules and the magnetic network they produce for many years, but only now has RHESSI revealed their unexpected connection to the sun’s oblateness.

“When we subtract the effect of the magnetic network, we get a ‘true’ measure of the sun’s shape resulting from gravitational forces and motions alone,” says Hudson. “The corrected oblateness of the non-magnetic sun is 8.01 +- 0.14 milli arcseconds, near the value expected from simple rotation.”

Further analysis of RHESSI oblateness data may help researchers detect a long-sought type of seismic wave echoing through the interior of the sun: the gravitational oscillation or “g-mode.” Detecting g-modes would open a new frontier in solar physics—the study of the sun’s internal core.

The paper reporting these results, “A large excess in apparent solar oblateness due to surface magnetism,” was authored by Martin Fivian, Hugh Hudson, Robert Lin and Jabran Zahid, and appears in the Oct. 2nd issue of Science Express.

Provided by NASA, by Dr. Tony Phillips

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NASA At 50 -- Five Of Their Weirdest Astronauts

Today is NASA’s 50th anniversary. It is also almost 40 years since the organization’s signature acheivement, but hey, Kurt Cobain peaked early too.

Almost 500 people have been trained as astronauts in NASA’s lifetime. And they haven’t all been the clean-cut, strong-jawed John Glenn types.

Here are five astronauts who didn’t fit the mold:

5. Jim Irwin. Irwin walked the moon, one of only a dozen men who can make that claim. And then he went kinda nuts.

Okay, he didn’t go “nuts” unless you think that obsessing about Noah’s Ark to the point that you lead countless expeditions up Mount Ararat in Turkey is, well, nutty. Irwin never found the Ark. He also never went on another mission after Apollo 15, because crew members had carried almost 400 stamps aboard that they planned to sell after splashdown. NASA tut-tutted and brought the hammer down.

4. Alan Bean. Another moonwalker, Bean also spent two months in Skylab, the cramped precursor to the International Space Station. He is also an artist.

The trouble is, he’s not exactly the world’s most exciting artist. He’s been painting the same scene over and over for years while collectors gobble them up.

Go ahead – tell me the difference between “The American” and “Apollo, an Explorer-Artist’s Vision.”

Bean’s style could perhaps best be described as “Dogs Playing Poker, Except With Astronauts.”

Don’t worry, though, he’s figured out how to make the things sell. He claims that he’s saved moon dust from his astronaut suit and sprinkles it in his paint; he also uses his space hammer to add “texture” to his work.

3. Edgar Mitchell. He, along with Alan Shepard, holds the record for most time spent walking on the moon – a little over nine hours. But, as we’ve noted before, Mitchell has since gone far beyond where sane men go.

He’s a deep believer in psychic phenomena, including ESP, “remote healing” (he claims he was cured of kidney cancer by someone sending brainwaves over long distances) and aliens.

Not aliens as in the guys doing his lawn, but aliens as in Roswell, Area 51 and all that. He’s given a series of interviews charging that the U.S. government has long covered up the story of alien visits. NASA had to give out an official statement earlier this year saying “Dr. Mitchell is a great American,” but there’s no alien cover-up.

Mitchell, of course, is a great American. If you go strictly by entertainment value.

2. Buzz Aldrin. Two men landed on the moon on the Apollo 11 mission. Their lives since could hardly have been more different. Neil Armstrong began teaching engineering at the University of Cincinnati, all but refusing to do interviews; Buzz Aldrin began a fanatical effort to get in front of every TV camera and reporter he could.

Aldrin famously lobbied hard to be named the first man out of the Eagle, to the point where NASA officials had to tell him to stow it. Armstrong calmly went about his business and has never exploited the publicity opportunities people were begging him to take.

Aldrin famously appeared on The Simpsons; he’s also appeared on The Ali G Show, in a cameo on the TV movie Apollo 11, the cop show NUMB3RS and Punky Brewster.

He claims to have made his peace with being the second guy on the moon, but we're not buying it.



-- Richard Connelly

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Branson’s Virgin spaceships to gather climate data

Posted by AndyMcCue

OK, while the nerdy sci-fi fan in Greenbang loves the idea of a Jetson’s style future where we all get round by jetpack or hop into our personal space vehicles for a short inter-galactic holiday, it seems completely environmentally irresponsible to be encouraging more space travel by developing the concept of space tourism in these times of climate change.

The aviation industry is already one of the world’s biggest CO2 emitters and the idea of spending billions on commercial spaceships appears just bonkers.

One of the pioneers of commercial space travel is Richard Branson with his Virgin Galactic vehicles that will take passengers on sub-orbital flights 68 miles above the earth - just outside earth’s ‘boundary’ with space. Of course Virgin claims that, because of a range of innovations, Virgin Galactic will be operating an “environmentally-benign” space launch system.

But something genuinely good for the environment may now come out of all this following a deal with the National Oceanic and Atmosphere Administration (NOAA) to use Virgin Galactic vehicles to fly science instruments onboard the manned space vehicles to provide data on atmospheric composition that will help increase understanding of climate change science.

Retired Navy Vice Admiral Conrad C Lautenbacher Jr, under secretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere and NOAA administrator, said:

“We need data and observations to understand how our climate changes. This affords us a new and unique opportunity to gather samples and measurements at much higher altitudes that we can usually achieve.”

If you are interested in booking a flight on Virgin Galactic, btw, it’ll set you back $200,000, and a minimum deposit of $20,000.

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Spermicide Coke, stale chips research wins Ig Nobels


By Maggie Fox, Health and Science Editor

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A researcher who figured out that Coke explodes sperm and scientists who discovered that people will happily eat stale chips if they crunch loudly enough won alternative "Ig Nobel" prizes Thursday.

Other winners included physicists who found out that anything that can tangle, will tangle and a team of biologists who ascertained that dog fleas jump farther than cat fleas.

The Ig Nobels honor real research, but are meant as a funny alternative to next week's deadly serious Nobel prizes for medicine, chemistry, physics, economics, literature and peace.

Awarded by the editors of the Annals of Improbable Research, a scientific humor magazine, the prizes are based on published research, some intended to be humorous but often not. Usually the "honored" researchers go along with the joke.

Deborah Anderson of Boston University Medical Center and colleagues were awarded the chemistry prize for a 1985 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine that found Coca-Cola kills sperm.

She said she was serious in testing the soft drink because women were using it in a douche as a contraceptive and, later, to try to protect themselves from the AIDS virus.

"It definitely wouldn't work as a contraceptive because sperm swims so fast," Anderson said. But Coke made with sugar quickly kills sperm, she said, probably because sperm soak it up. "The sperm just kind of explode," she said in a telephone interview.

It kills the AIDS virus too, she said.

The Ig Nobel committee made up a "nutrition prize" to go to Massimiliano Zampini of the University of Trento, Italy and Charles Spence of Britain's Oxford University, who tricked people into thinking they were eating fresh potato chips by playing them loud, crunching sounds when they bit one.

The biology prize goes to a French team that found dog fleas can jump higher than cat fleas, while the medicine prize was awarded to a team at Duke University in North Carolina who showed that high-priced placebos work better than cheap fake medicine.

Dorian Raymer of the Scripps Institution in San Diego and a colleague won the physics prize for demonstrating mathematically why hair or a ball of string will inevitably tangle itself in knots.

The peace prize was given to the Swiss Federal Ethics Committee on Non-Human Biotechnology for adopting the legal principle that plants have moral standing and dignity. There is a website explaining this: here

A team at The University of Sao Paulo in Brazil won a special archaeology prize for showing how an armadillo can mess up an archaeological dig.

The economics prize went to researchers at the University of New Mexico who learned that a professional lap dancer earns bigger tips when she is most fertile, while David Sims of Cass Business School in London won the literature prize "for his lovingly written study 'You Bastard: A Narrative Exploration of the Experience of Indignation within Organizations'," the committee said.

Past winners include the creator of the plastic pink flamingo, a researcher who recorded a mallard duck sodomizing a dead drake and a doctor who cured hiccups by applying digital rectal massage.

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Animal Instincts: Main Street Seeks Revenge on Wall Street

By Robert Roy Britt and Jeanna Bryner

Protesters march outside of the U.S Treasury building in protest of the proposed Wall Street bailouts, Friday Sept. 26, 2008, in Washington. Credit: AP Photo / Jacquelyn Martin.

The outrage expressed by many so-called Main Street folks over the proposed Wall Street bailout is based on more than a sense of injustice.

It's about revenge, a basic animal instinct shared by humans, chimpanzees and even blue-footed boobies.

And Washington politicians would be wise to listen up and stick some get-back-at-'em clauses into the bailout bill if they hope to get the support of the average American, says one behavioral economist who studies these things.

In phone calls made by constituents to politicians, as well as e-mails to news organizations and other media, the public has expressed a preference for a package that helps consumers and homeowners without assisting fat cats on Wall Street. In fact, a Pew Research Center survey conducted Sept. 27 through Sept. 29 found that nearly 70 percent of Americans say they feel angry about the government's plan, and half admit they are scared.

President Bush and other leaders who support the bailout warn, however, that if financial institutions are not propped up quickly and significantly with public money, the average American will pay the price.

Bring it on, many people seem to be saying.

Dan Ariely would agree.

"People are willing to lose money to get those people [on Wall Street] to suffer" because the corporate financial leaders have violated a social contract, says Ariely, a behavioral economist at Duke University. "We need to include revenge in the bill."

The bill should also include a code of punishment for exacting revenge for future financial misdeeds, Ariely said last night on "Marketplace," a radio program produced and distributed by American Public Media.

However, psychologist David Schroeder of the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, doesn't think revenge is technically the right word for what the public seeks, because it implies an urge to make others suffer at whatever cost. The public wants retribution, he says, for what is seen as a violation of the rules of the game, one they put their trust in.

"Retribution involves a punitive component," Schroeder said, "and we're hoping that's going to deter these people from doing it again and we'll get them to abide by the rules in the future."

Trust games

Ariely's analysis is rooted in studies he and others have done involving trust games.

They work something like this: Two individuals are each given $10. The first participant can give his partner the money, and when doing so that $10 quadruples into $40, meaning the partner now has 50 bucks. Why would you just give away money? It has to do with trust, because then the partner has the choice of either splitting the money with the giver or taking it all for himself. Many players do give away their money and end up getting the split amount back, Ariely said.

But not everyone is so trustworthy and reciprocating. So the game has a revenge twist. The giver can choose to use his own money to get back at the other player for not sharing the $50. For every $1 out of the giver's pocket, the greedy player takes a hit of $2.

"The first thing that is surprising is that people actually take revenge [even though] revenge is costly," Ariely said. "You just gave away 10 dollars, and now you're willing to invest even more to make me miserable."

Aaaah! revenge

It turns out revenge can be pleasurable. Ariely referred to a group of Swiss researchers who have found that when players take revenge, the same part of the brain normally triggered by reward lights up.

It's no surprise that humans love revenge. Other research has shown that people feel satisfaction when someone they dislike suffers, and interestingly, men in particular are found to enjoy physical vengeance.

Even chimps are vengeful, a study last year found. The primates become "exploding black balls of rage" when food is stolen, said a scientist involved in the study. Other primates are known to seek revenge against relatives of an attacker. Studies have shown that revenge is in fact widespread among animals, from birds of the Galapagos, called blue-footed boobies, to elephant seals.

Revenge on Wall Street

The same emotional process, Ariely said, is happening around the nation's current financial crisis.

"People feel that Wall Street has betrayed our social trust," Ariely told LiveScience. "In some sense they've walked off with our 50 dollars. Actually it's more than 50 dollars. And now the question is — how do we feel about it? And the truth is we feel really angry. Because of that, we're willing to take revenge."

He added, "It means that all of us are willing to lose money in order for those 'bastards on Wall Street' — I'm just using a general expression — to suffer even more."

And so in order for the public to support a bailout for Wall Street, and the thinking goes, for the bill to pass through Congress, revenge must be incorporated, Ariely said.

"In some sense, it's in [the public's] best interest to have the bailout, but they really want somebody to pay for it," Ariely said. "So we are all going to lose for these guys to lose more."

Two types of revenge could give the bill a swifter passage.

Retroactive revenge would make the CEOs and other higher-ups at banks suffer. For instance the bill could include something like, "if we bail out the banks, we are going to take all the stock options of the people in the bank," Ariely said.

Future revenge would mean "creating more general legislation that will ensure that in the future if people misbehave we will punish them," he added.

Schroeder thinks the bailout plan just needs to be framed in a different way. That's because the public seeks a sense of fairness. Right now, he said, the everyday person views the recipients as people who are already making lots and lots of money, so it's not fair they should be "bailed out."

"I think the retribution side probably got into play because they [the government] talked about it as a bailout — 'We're going to help the people who were cheaters,'" Schroeder said. "If they had talked about this instead as sort of a loan package," the public may have reacted more positively.

Social animals

In addition to the "feel good" factor, revenge can serve as a means of maintaining social order, particularly in times or under conditions when it seems like policing and government regulations are non-existent.

Ariely gives the example of someone taking your donkey, way back when. The rational solution would be to figure out how long it would take to get back the donkey and whether it's worth it. If it took a month to chase the thief down but a week to work enough to buy another donkey, the revenge would be too costly.

"What if I will chase you to the ends of the world to get my donkey back? And I not only will take my donkey, I will take your donkey and your sister's donkey and so on," Ariely said. If word gets out that you'd carry out such revenge, others would steer clear of your donkeys in the future.

"In an odd way, revenge is very useful in getting people to behave well," Ariely said.

So perhaps it's not surprising that humans, one of the most social of animals, would show such a penchant for enacting revenge, he said.

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Could Quotas Keep Fish on the Menu?

A fresh catch of halibut is prepared for market on a dock in Homer, Alaska
A fresh catch of halibut is prepared for market on a dock in Homer, Alaska

Giving a man a fish — not teaching him how to do it — may actually be a better way to preserve the world's dwindling fish stocks, according to a new study published in Science on Sept. 19. Scientists and fishermen have known for years that global fish populations are in bad shape. According to one bleak 2006 study, all of the world's major commercial fisheries could collapse by 2048 because of overfishing and loss of habitat. Now a team of economists and biologists say they know one way to prevent the loss of this crucial resource in global waters: more quotas.

In the past, fishing quotas — or the government allotments of set amounts of fish to private parties — have not always won over the hearts of seafarers. But looking at more than 11,000 fisheries worldwide, researchers led by scientists from the University of California, Santa Barbara, found that countries that had effectively privatized their fish stock by doling out quotas to individual fishermen were half as likely to experience a collapse as those that did not. "The idea is that by securing access for individuals or select groups for a long period of time, they have an incentive to steward the resources," explains the study's lead author, Christopher Costello, a resource economist at U.C. Santa Barbara. "If they overharvest or destroy habitat today, they will have a less vibrant stock in the future, and thus lower future profits."

According to Costello, fisheries, or areas where a certain kind of fish is caught, represent a textbook example of a tragedy of the commons — the classic economics metaphor for a shared resource that is ruined because of competition between users. Giving fishermen catch shares — also known as Individual Fishing Quotas (IFQs) — doesn't dampen competition for fish, but manages it by essentially making fishermen stakeholders in a fishery. Costello explains that IFQs, which can be bought, sold or traded just like stocks, discourage overfishing by giving fishermen a vested interest in preserving the future health of the resource.

Despite growing evidence of their effectiveness, catch-share programs are still a relative rarity. Only 121 of the more than 11,000 fisheries Costello and his team studied were using the system. But Gunnar Knapp, an economist at the University of Alaska, says the idea of privatizing fish is catching on as fishermen realize that it may be the best way to protect fish — and their own jobs.

Take Alaska's halibut fishery, which began a catch-share program in 1995. At the time, the halibut season had become a 48-hour scramble to catch the most fish allowed by law, according to Linda Behnken, director of the Alaska Longline Fishermen's Association and a commercial fisherman in Sitka since 1982. "No matter what the weather was, everyone with a line and hook was going out," says Behnken. "And this is Alaska. The weather gets bad here. Boats went down. Lives were lost." Things got even worse when the fishermen all returned with their catches at the same time, flooding the market and driving down the profits they were risking their lives to secure.

Since the introduction of catch shares, however, Alaska's halibut season has gone from one or two short days to nine months. Fishermen are also less likely to risk bad weather, pushing fatalities down 15%. And because the market is no longer flooded with halibut one week out of the entire year, the price of fish has increased fourfold. "IFQs have made fishing safer," Behnken says. "And it's better for the resource."

But as evidenced by the handful of countries that practice them, catch-share programs remain controversial. In New Zealand, where they've been in place for decades, fishermen complain that the practice leads to unfair consolidation: as large companies buy and amass quotas, smaller operators can't compete with the low prices those big firms can afford to set because they're selling more. Others have raised concerns about the privatization of what has traditionally been considered a public resource. But Knapp says the biggest problem with fish quotas is figuring out how to allocate them fairly in the first place. "It's analogous to open range land that you divide up and give to ranchers," Knapp says. "If you come back in 10 years and ask the ranchers how they feel about it, they're going to think it's great. The people who didn't get any land won't be so happy."

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Clean Energy 2030: Google's plan to save the planet

By Jonathan M. Gitlin

The twin pressures of climate change and the reliance on imported oil from politically unstable regions of the globe both point to a need to transform the way that the US sources, generates, and uses power. To that end, the search engine giant Google (which is developing itself some impressive green credentials) has issued a plan, Clean Energy 2030, that lays out a possible future for the energy and transportation sectors that promises to cut CO2 emissions, reduce dependence on foreign fuel imports, and save the economy billions over the next 22 years.
he Google plan is nothing if not ambitious. To begin with, Google proposes a massive push toward energy efficiency, which will reduce electricity demand to 2008 levels (accounting for around 1,000 terawatt hours/year. It also calls for a complete cessation of oil and coal for power generation (currently, coal provides around half of the electricity used in the US). Taking up the slack would be wind, solar, and geothermal power generation.

Wind power would grow from a current 16GW to 350GW, solar from 1GW to 250GW, and geothermal from 2.9GW to 80GW. These would be concentrated in the Great Plains, the southwest, and in offshore wind farms, placing power generation near population centers where energy consumption is highest.

Google's plan to transform US power generation by 2030

With regard to transportation, the report proposes almost logarithmic growth in plug-in hybrids, from 100,000 sales in 2010 to nearly 4 million by 2020, finally reaching 22 million by 2030. Coupled with measures to remove older, more-polluting, less-efficient cars from the roads, and an increase in fleet efficiency from 20 mpg now to 45 mpg in 2030, this would see a reduction in transportation-derived CO2 emissions of nearly 40 percent.

The overall effect of these proposed changes would be a reduction in annual US carbon emissions from a current 6 Gt/year to 3 Gt/year, which would take us halfway to the IPCC's 2050 CO2 target. Google also claims that implementation of this plan would realize significant savings to the economy in the range of $1 trillion over 22 years, coupled with the creation of more than a million new jobs building and operating wind turbines, solar panels, and associated fields.

The question of whether these are realistic aims probably depends upon the amount of political will to wean the nation off fossil fuels and toward renewable energy. Not that there aren't good arguments in favor of this being made from both ends of the political spectrum; Former CIA director and current McCain policy advisor James Woolsey gave a memorable and interesting talk on just this subject earlier this year, framing the need to move away from fossil fuel dependence in terms of national security rather than with an ecological bent, but it would be naïve to think that such measures wouldn't face opposition from entrenched business interests. The proposed shift away from fossil fuels will be vital though, should we wish to mitigate the more severe aspects of climate change.

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7 Hurdles to Electronics Recycling

by Sarah Lozanova

If you are like most people, you have an old computer stuffed away in the back of your closet or an obsolete TV gathering dust in the corner of your garage. In many parts of the country, electronics recycling centers are few and far between and community-recycling drives are only offered once in a blue moon, if at all.

A staggering 400 million units of electronic waste are scrapped in the United States each year (International Association of Electronics Recyclers), and this trend is likely to continue, as there are always more gadgets to be had. Add to this the fact that electronics tend to become obsolete rather quickly, and you can see we have a growing e-waste problem.

“The electronics waste stream is growing at five times the rate of any other waste stream,” said Matthew Coz, VP of Growth and Commodity Sales for Waste Management Recycle America. “The product life cycles are shrinking. We are constantly creating more of that waste.”

Electronics recycling is the best way to respond to the issue in the short-term. It decreases the need to mine raw materials and keeps hazardous waste out of landfills. Recycling reduces greenhouse gas emissions and can create thousands of jobs. But the unfortunate truth is that only 12.5% of electronics are currently being collected for recycling, according to a 2005 EPA report. Of that quantity, much of it is not being safely handled.

With that said, there are numerous obstacles that need to be simultaneously addressed to bring about significant progress in the area of electronics recycling. The good news is that those obstacles are not insurmountable.

Improper Handling of Electronic Recycling

Not all electronic recycling programs are created equal, so it is important to exercise care when handing over those dusty, obsolete electronics. Although some recycling programs recycled nearly 100% of a given item, there is some truth to the stories about whole electronic items being shipped to developing countries where they are not properly handled or child labor practices may exacerbate health risks.

While some materials can be salvaged, often the remaining components are not safely handled. Electronics can contain large amounts of heavy metals such as lead and mercury, which can wreak havoc on the environment. Some of the main threats are air pollution from incineration or water contamination as hazardous materials break down and enter both surface water as well as groundwater supplies.

Such issues make effective legislation very important. In the meantime, the Basal Action Network has created an electronics recyclers pledge of true stewardship with a rigorous criteria for sustainable and socially just recycling practices (


Although the European Union has had e-waste policies in effect since 2003, the U.S. lacks a coordinated national policy. Because of this lack in federal leadership, many individual states have taken the problem into their own hands by establishing state-level electronic waste programs.

“What has happened thus far is a state by state approach,” said Matthew Coz. “Right now there are roughly 19 states and NYC with e-waste legislation or a disposal ban on electronics. There are another 24 states with pending legislation.”

Policy can mandate responsible handling practices and restrict items from being dumped or improperly handled overseas. Having policy with some teeth can offer guidance to this fledgling industry and help establish much-needed infrastructure.

Infrastructure to Handle Growing Waste Stream

The transition from having 12.5% of electronics recycled to having the majority recycled will require a strong infrastructure, far beyond what is currently in place.

“We need facilities to be able to turn old plastics or old circuit boards into reusable materials that manufacturers can use,” said Garth Hickle, Director of Product Stewardship for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. “We are doing really well in the first tier of demanufacturing [electronics] into components, but we could use some more investment in the next step, like handling more value added processes such as plastics,” added Hickle.

Convenient Electronic Recycling

One of the easiest ways to engage consumers is by creating a network of convenient electronics recycling programs.

To wit, Sony and Waste Management Recycle America have recently teamed up to create a national electronics-recycling program, with drop-off sites in every state. Their goal is to have electronics recycling center within 20 miles of 95% of the U.S. population.

“We’re trying to make recycling as easy as it is to purchase,” said Doug Smith, Director of Environment for Sony Electronics. “Every pound we sell we want to take back and recycle a pound.”

“The reality is, the real solution comes when we have a couple thousand of these [drop-off] locations,” said Matthew Coz. “There is really a mosaic that needs to be built. We have to have other avenues besides just drop-off points.”

Other viable solutions for recycling of e-waste could include mail-in programs, community recycling drives, and retailer take-back programs. Although retailers have helped many European countries achieve high recycling rates, they have traditionally had little involvement in U.S. recycling efforts. Best Buy however recently started offering a free electronics-recycling program at 117 stores across the country.

Convenient recycling options also help reduce the environmental impact of transporting electronics. “If you have to get into your car and drive 60 miles to recycle a DVD player, from a carbon footprint perspective that is probably not a great solution,” said Matthew Coz.

Making Electronic Recycling Lucrative

In an ideal world, electronics will be recycled because of the economic benefits and that is true to some extent today.

“There are some valuable materials in electronics, such as aluminum and copper,” said Garth Hickle. “Given the global commodity prices for those materials, there really is some economic benefit to recycling. Oil is currently priced at $147 a barrel, making plastics in some products more valuable.”

If the cost of metals and plastics increase, the recycling market will benefit. As the scale of recycling programs expands, the costs associated with recycling will diminish. Advances in product design will make recycling easier and more cost effective. Improving the recycling infrastructure will decrease the need to transport materials long distances and provide more uses for recycled materials.

Manufacturer Responsibility and Product Design

Designing electronics that can be easily recycled will be a breath of fresh air to recyclers and will make recycling more lucrative. This can be achieved by placing responsibility on the producer (manufacturers and importers).

“If manufacturers are responsible for recycling, there is a defined incentive both from a liability and financial perspective for them to make sure those products can be more easily and thus more cheaply recycled,” said Garth Hickle.

Product design is an area that can be greatly improved, especially when considering the reuse of product components. Reducing the use of hazardous materials and producing electronics that can be easily dismantled is one method of accomplishing this. Using fewer plastic resins and the use of screws instead of glue for example helps streamline the recycling process.

Ultimately, recycling is not a long-term solution to the ever-increasing e-waste stream and a paradigm shift is needed. Remanufacturing is one such example and involves making today’s gadget using yesterday’s parts. Such products come with enhancements over the old product and a fresh warranty. For example, a paper tray in a copy machine being manufactured today can have a paper tray that is compatible with models from previous years. The paper trays in good condition from recycled copy machines can be reused instead of recycled. Xerox Europe has been very successful at doing this and diverted 170 million pounds of waste from landfills in 2007 alone.

Remanufacturing is the best-case scenario because it saves both energy and raw materials, beyond what recycling can offer. Although cost savings to the manufacturer can be significant, it does require considerable attention in the design of a product and it is more labor intensive to dismantle rather than recycle electronic appliances. Remanufacturing is usually best suited for products that are not evolving so quickly, such as vacuum cleaners rather than flat screen TVs or cell phones.

Collaboration and Partnerships

All hands are needed on deck to tackle the issue of electronic waste. Alliances among companies and organizations in various industries are helpful. Sony and Waste Management formed a partnership and a national electronics-recycling program where nearly 100% of a given product is recycled - a program that would have been very difficult for one company to create alone.

Corporations purchasing large quantities of computers can work with the manufacturer to ensure that the products will be safely recycled or refurbished at the end of product life. Community and church groups can host recycling drives, while schools can educate students on the importance of recycling. Refurbishers offer a great service by avoiding the need to recycle items, while decreasing the need for new gadgets. Goodwill and other thrift stores have done this effectively for years.

The scope, urgency, and complexity of the situation demands an assortment of solutions and approaches. The most effective advances depend on companies, organizations, and local governments coming together to create convenient ways for individuals to recycle their electronic waste.

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Offshore Wind To Supply 15% of Rhode Island Electricity

Rhode Island took a step toward reaching its goal of providing 15% of its electricity from wind power, when it awarded Deepwater Wind the contract to build a $1 billion+ offshore wind farm.

Rhode Island Gov. Donald Carcieri touted the project's potential to bring "green collar" jobs to the state, and position it as a leader in an emerging clean energy technology. Indeed, part of the deal includes a provision that the company build a $1.5 billion manufacturing plant in Rhode Island that promises 800 jobs at an average annual salary of $60 million.

While wind power produces only 1% of U.S. electricity today, some estimate it could produce as much as 20% by 2030. And, coupled with conservation -- the largest single untapped source of future energy -- wind can be an important piece of the American energy puzzle in a low-carbon future.

Rhode Island is among the states to have set a renewable energy portfolio mandate that 20% of electricity come from renewable sources by 2020. Federal lawmakers have resisted a similar national mandate, though setting that priority surely contributed to the viability of Rhode Island's offshore wind project. Barack Obama's energy plan includes a mandate that utilities generate 25% of electricity from renewable sources by 2025. John McCain has offshore oil as a centerpiece of his energy plan, and his support for renewable energy sources is largely rhetorical and shorter on specifics.