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Sunday, October 26, 2008

No Surface Ice Found in Moon Crater

By HENRY FOUNTAIN

For years, scientists have wondered whether there might be water ice on the Moon’s surface. The question is of more than academic interest, because ice could be used by a future Moon base to produce oxygen to breathe and hydrogen to fuel spacecraft.

Since almost all of the Moon is exposed to sunlight, ice could exist only in the few areas that are in permanent shadow — the inside walls and floors of certain craters near the poles. One candidate is Shackleton crater, which is about 13 miles in diameter and 2.5 miles deep.

But images taken by a Japanese spacecraft throw hot water on the idea that Shackleton might have surface ice. Since parts of the crater are in permanent shadow, the images relied for illumination on sunlight glancing off the walls on the opposite side.

In an analysis of the images published in Science, Junichi Haruyama of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency and colleagues report that the area is certainly cold enough to harbor ice, but that the reflectance indicates there is only soil on the surface. If ice does exist there, they say, it is probably mixed in small concentrations with the soil.

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Dimming down: How the brainpower of today's 14-year-olds has slipped 'radically' in just one generation

By Laura Clark

Bright teenagers are a disappearing breed, an alarming new study has revealed.

The intellectual ability of the country's cleverest youngsters has declined radically, almost certainly due to the rise of TV and computer games and over-testing in schools.

The 'high-level thinking' skills of 14-year-olds are now on a par with those of 12-year-olds in 1976.

The findings contradict national results which have shown a growth in top grades in SATs at 14, GCSEs and A-levels.

Teenager

The intelligence of Britain's youth is being dumbed down, which experts say is down to television and video games. Posed by model

But Michael Shayer, the professor of applied psychology who led the study, believes that is the result of exam standards 'edging down'.

His team of researchers at London's King's College tested 800 13 and 14-year-olds and compared the results with a similar exercise in 1976.


The tests were intended to measure understanding of abstract scientific concepts such as volume, density, quantity and weight, which set pupils up for success not only in maths and science but also in English and history.

mahood cartoon

One test asked pupils to study a pendulum swinging on a string and investigate the factors that cause it to change speed. A second involved weights on a beam.

In the pendulum test, average achievement was much the same as in 1976.

But the proportion of teenagers reaching top grades, demanding a 'higher level of thinking', slumped dramatically.

Just over one in ten were at that level, down from one in four in 1976.

In the second test, assessing mathematical thinking skills, just one in 20 pupils were achieving the high grades - down from one in five in 1976.

Professor Shayer said: 'The pendulum test does not require any knowledge of science at all.

'It looks at how people can deal with complex information and sort it out for themselves.'

He believes most of the downturn has occurred over the last ten to 15 years.

It may have been hastened by the introduction of national curriculum testing and accompanying targets, which have cut the time available for teaching which develops more advanced skills.

Critics say schools concentrate instead on drilling children for the tests.

'The moment you introduce targets, people will find the most economical strategies to achieve them,' said Professor Shayer.

Television

A study found the high-level thinking skills of 14-year-olds are now on par with a 12-year-old in 1976. Posed by models

'In the case of education, I'm sure this has had an effect on driving schools away from developing higher levels of understanding.'

He added that while the numeracy hour in primary schools appears to have led to some gains, it has 'squeezed out a lot of things teachers might otherwise be doing'.

Professor Shayer believes the decline in brainpower is also linked to changes in children's leisure activities.

The advent of multi-channel TV has encouraged passive viewing while computer games, particularly for boys, are feared to have supplanted time spent playing with tools, gadgets and other mechanisms.

Professor Shayer warned that without the development of higher-order thinking skills,
the future supply of scientists will be compromised.

'We don't even have enough scientists now,' he said.

Previous research by Professor Shayer has shown that 11-year-olds' grasp of concepts such as volume, density, quantity and weight appears to have declined over the last 30 years.

Their mental abilities were up to three years behind youngsters tested in in 1975.

His latest findings, due to appear in the British Journal of Educational Psychology, come in the wake of a report by Dr Aric Sigman which linked the decline in intellectual ability to a shift away from art and craft skills in both schools and the home.

damning dossier


Dr Sigman said practical activities such as building models and sandcastles, making dens, using tools, playing with building blocks, knitting, sewing and woodwork were being neglected.

Yet they helped develop vital skills such as understanding dimension, volume and density.

Earlier this month the Government bowed to mounting pressure and scrapped SATs for 14-year-olds.

Ministers have also created an independent exams watchdog and promised a return to traditional, open-ended questions at A-level plus a new A* grade to mark out the brightest students.

A spokesman for the Department for Children said last night: 'Good teachers do not need to teach to the test and there is no evidence that such practice is widespread.

'We have already taken steps to reduce the testing burden, but targets and testing are integral features of any work to drive up standards.'

Last month an Ofsted report said millions of teenagers were finishing compulsory education with a weak grasp of maths because half of the country's schools fail to teach the subject as well as they could.

Inspectors said teachers were increasingly drilling pupils to pass exams instead of encouraging them to understand crucial concepts.

The report said: 'It is of vital importance to shift from a narrow emphasis towards a focus on pupils' mathematical understanding.'

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Australia scientists say bees can count to four

SYDNEY (Reuters) - Researchers have discovered that honey bees can count to four, a report said here on Sunday.

A researcher from the University of Queensland put five markers inside a tunnel and placed nectar in one of them, Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) radio reported.

Honey bees placed in the tunnel flew to the marker with the food, and would still fly to the same marker stripe when the food was removed.

"We find that if you train them to the third stripe, they will look subsequently in the third stripe," researcher Mandyam Srinivasan said.

"If you train them to the fourth stripe, they will look the fourth stripe and so on. But their ability to count seems to go only up to four. They can't count beyond four.

"The more we look at these creatures that have a brain the size of a sesame seed, the more astonished we are. They really have a lot of the capacities that we so-called higher human beings possess."

The research was carried out jointly with Swedish researcher Marie Dacke.

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Smuggled clues hint at 2,000-year-old lost tribe

By Manny Mogato

Image: Confiscated antiquities













Archaeologists say the discovery of 22 sacks of broken anthropomorphic pottery could lead to a long lost local tribe that existed around 2,000 years ago.

MANILA - When Philippine police confiscated 22 bags of broken pottery from antiquity smugglers near an area where Muslim rebels operated, little did they know that they may have uncovered the remnants of a long-lost tribe.

Now, experts at the National Museum in the capital Manila are studying the burial urns from a tribe that lived in the Philippines over 2,000 years ago, in what could be a major archaeological discovery.

"The pottery has human faces that show emotions," Eusebio Dizon, head of the archaeological unit at the National Museum, told Reuters.

Dizon said that pictures of people on the shards might mean the tribe that used the vessels had different origins from the known indigenous tribes in the Philippines.

"The Manobos, Tirurays and B'laans tribes that have survived over time do not bury their dead in painted anthropomorphic (human form) jars. So, we have no idea what kind of people are behind these unique burial jars," Dizon said.

A U.S.-trained archaeologist, Dizon spent several years in the 1990s excavating in a cave in Sarangani province on Mindanao after he was tipped off by treasure hunters about rare anthropomorphic, or human form, pottery in the area. Carbon dating tests showed the jars to be from about 5 BC.

He said the latest pottery find could be much older because of the cruder method used in the pottery as well as the human forms on the jars. But, further studies are needed to establish the real origins of the latest finds, he added.

"We have no idea where these artifacts come from because the people who were trying to smuggle them out from the area could not tell us where exactly they found those materials. But, I am sure the materials are not fake."

Rene Miguel Dominguez, governor of Sarangani province, said they were told the latest pottery was found near Palembang town, a coastal area in the adjacent Sultan Kudarat province where Muslim rebels are very active.

Rare and unique
Archaeologists have uncovered late stone-age weapons, pottery and other artifacts in digs in the region.

"(But) Anthropomorphic pottery is seldom seen in this part of the world," Dizon said.

Angel Bautista, head of the National Museum's cultural property division, said the government wanted the new discovery to be declared a "national treasure," but further investigations were needed to establish provenance.

Dizon said it was important for archaeology experts to inspect the places where the pottery was found and examine the "primary data" that might reveal valuable information about what could be one of the earliest sites of human habitation in the country.

However, the museum lacked the resources to embark on a major exploration in an area where there has been sporadic fighting between troops and the country's largest Islamic rebel group.

Dominguez said some areas where the pottery was suspected to have been found were controlled by Muslim rebels that demand huge sums of money to allow further archaeological exploration work.

"These pottery pieces are part of our pre-historic history and the government must do everything to protect the site where these materials were found," he said.

Apart from rebels and lawless groups active in the areas, archaeologists may have to race against antiquity dealers and treasure hunters as the artifacts could fetch millions of pesos on the black market.

"We could learn more about our past from this pottery, but first we need to preserve and protect the areas from where these materials have been found," he added.

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Internet 'speeds up decision making and brain function'

By Aislinn Simpson

Internet user, Internet 'speeds up decision making and brain function'
Researchers believe that our brains could evolve over the long term with the increased use of technology Photo: AFP/GETTY IMAGES

A study of the use of areas of the brain during different activities found that it is markedly more active when carrying out an internet search than when reading a book.

The stimulation was concentrated in the frontal, temporal and cingulate areas, which control visual imagery, decision-making and memory.

The areas associated with abstract thinking and empathy showed virtually no increase in stimulation.

The study's authors say it shows how our brains could evolve over the long term with the increased use of technology.

But while the internet brings benefits for the brain, they warned against its overuse, which could come at the expense of other brain functions linked to human interaction.

Previous studies have warned that too much computer use could be responsible for increasing levels of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).

Dr Gary Small, director of the memory and ageing research centre at the University of California, Los Angeles, said: "Young people are growing up immersed in this technology and their brains are more malleable, more plastic and changing than with older brains," he said.

"The next generation, as (Charles) Darwin suggests, will adapt to this environment. Those who become really good at technology will have a survival advantage - they will have a higher level of economic success and their progeny will be better off."

The brains of 24 volunteers between the ages of 55 and 76 were scanned for the study.

Participants were told to perform web searches and read books while undergoing functional magnetic resonance imaging scans, which record the blood flow to areas of the brain during cognitive tasks.

The study found that those searching the web generated considerably more brain activity than those reading books.

"A simple, everyday task like searching the web appears to enhance brain circuitry in older adults, demonstrating that our brains are sensitive and can continue to learn as we grow older," Dr Small said.

"The study results are encouraging, that emerging computerized technologies may have physiological effects and potential benefits for middle-aged and older adults.

"Internet searching engages complicated brain activity, which may help exercise and improve brain function."

The findings are expanded in Dr Small's book, iBrain: Surviving the Technological Alteration of the Modern Mind, and are published in the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry.

However, not everyone agreed with the findings. Igor Aleksander, emeritus professor of neural systems engineering at Imperial College London, said: "It may be that by using the internet you stimulate different parts of the brain. However, it would be difficult to show this could not be achieved through other situations."

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Hawaiian Cave Reveals Ancient Secrets

By David A. Burney and Lida Pigott Burney

The Makauwahi Cave in Hawaii may be the richest fossil site in the entire Pacific Island region, loaded with bird and fish bones and ancient Polynesian artifacts. Credit: Alec Burney

From the moment we saw it, we knew the place held many great secrets. We had been looking for new fossil sites on the south side of the Hawaiian island of Kauai in 1992 with our colleagues, Helen F. James and Storrs L. Olson of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., along with their children, Travis and Sydney, and our own, Mara and Alec.

And what we found was a cave — once a Pleistocene dune field, and later a sinkhole with pickling-jar powers — that may be the richest fossil site in the Hawaiian Islands, perhaps in the entire Pacific Island region.

Sixteen years after our discovery, we have excavated seeds, pollen, Polynesian artifacts, thousands of bird and fish bones, and more from this half-acre pile of sediments spanning many millennia. The site has yielded up some of the island's long-kept secrets, telling of a time when the largest land animals here were flightless waterfowl, such as the turtle-jawed moa nalo (Chelychelynechen quassus). Moreover, it documents the great changes that occurred when first Polynesians, and later Europeans, Americans, and Asians, arrived with boatloads of invasive alien species.

The first boats began arriving roughly a thousand years ago, kicking off the first of three stages of extinction on Kauai. In the first stage, Polynesians probably overhunted the large flightless birds, while introduced rats, chickens, and small pigs disrupted their remaining nests. Later, but before Captain Cook arrived in 1778, the agriculture of a growing Hawaiian population wiped out more species. Finally, Europeans arrived and brought goats and other livestock that finished the job.

In 2000 we learned the long-lost nineteenth-century name of the cave, Makauwahi, thanks to a local archaeologist, William K. "Pila" Kikuchi, who recovered the name from an essay written by a high school student more than a century ago. It means something like "smoke eye." That may have been in reference to Keahikuni, a mid-nineteenth-century native diviner who read the future in spirals of smoke rising from the sinkhole.

The story struck a resonant chord, as we had begun thinking about Makauwahi Cave as a preserver of the future at least as much as the past. In 2004, we were granted a lease on the cave property, including the surrounding seventeen acres of dunes, wetlands, and abandoned farmland, by the owners, Grove Farm Company. Using the fossils as a guide, we set out to suppress plants introduced in the last two centuries and to favor those that evolved here or were brought from other Pacific islands by the first human inhabitants.

The most unusual patch of land is on several acres of weedy thicket formerly used for cane and corn farming. After only three years of rehabilitation, nearly a hundred species of native and Polynesian trees, shrubs, and ground covers are now thriving. Planted by volunteers, including some of the same folks who helped us sift the fossils from the cave sediments, and the eager assistance of hundreds of schoolchildren from all over Kauai, the new forest has flourished beyond all expectations.

Thousands of acres of abandoned farmland throughout the Hawaiian Islands could grow native plants just as well as this!

Unfortunately, many of the animals that disappeared from Kauai were unique to the island. But even if we can't have giant, flightless waterfowl, we can make the area more attractive to the surviving species of birds, animals, and insects that are indigenous to the island. In this way and others, we'd like to think we can be a little like old Keahikuni the Diviner in telling the future. Here at Makauwahi, which has given us such a powerful sense of the past, we can find a better future for an island world that was nearly lost.

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UK Atheist Advertising Campaign Begins; It's a Blow For Equal Time On the Sides of London Buses

A novel advertising campaign underway in the United Kingdom reads "There's probably no God. Now, stop worrying and enjoy your life." Residents will see it on the sides of buses, and perhaps, based on the amount of funding rolling in, on posters, and elsewhere. The campaign is sponsored by people interested in encouraging atheist and freethought; writer Ariane Sherine suggested the idea last year. Read more about the campaign here.

I have to say that I'm of two minds concerning this campaign if it were tried here. On one hand, I'm all for engaging the debate. At least in the U.S., religious messages seem to be everywhere, and atheist and agnostic messages, well, not so much. Despite conservative Christian clamor that Christians are "persecuted" in this country, I fail to see any signs that such a thing is true. Most people claim to be Christians, most people claim to go to church, at least on the Christian holidays. Consider the flap over whether Senator Obama is a Christian or not. He says that he is, and we have no reason to doubt him, any more than we have reason to doubt what Senator McCain says about his faith, but the controversy just won't go away. A gentle reminder that some people, by some estimates, as much as 15-16 percent of the U.S. population is atheist, agnostic or "unaffiliated," and that these beliefs and belief systems are protected by the First Amendment, just like those of the Religious Right (which seems to forget this fact, every so often), would be welcome.

On the other, I'm not certain that I particularly want to be urged, on a city bus, or a city park bench, to buy ideas like peanut butter. But I can avert my eyes (Cohen v. California). Nor do I relish the idea of open ideological warfare, which might be the outcome of this kind of advertising, though it's better than real warfare, which we're seeing in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. Quite honestly, could people successfully take out these kinds of ads in some parts of the U.S. in the kind of ideological climate we have now, and have had for some time? I think not, but perhaps things are changing. This country does tend to seek balance, does tend eventually to seek the middle, so perhaps they are.

Legally, could an atheist or agnostic group purchase advertising space on city buses for a campaign like the one in the U.K.? It depends on whether the city considers its buses public forums. If it does, as does Madison, Wisconsin, then I would think that if it accepts ads from, say, the local Catholic and Methodist and Unitarian churches urging people to come and worship, it would have a difficult time rejecting ads from a freethinking group urging people to consult their Hitchins or Dawkins. (Note that I don't have any indication that Madison has accepted any such ads from any religious group). If a city hasn't so designated its buses, then the city will have (or should have) set up standards by which it decides to accept ads, and it can accept or reject ads based on suitability, public policy, etc. But it would still need to be consistent in its acceptance of these ads, and it would need to give notice of these standards.

In spite of this doctrine, though, I really do think anyone who would try to buy advertising space for such a message on city buses in a city that had designated its buses public forums would have an uphill battle, simply because of the existing prejudice against atheists, agnostics and "unaffiliated" folks. As many as the U.S. electorate still won't vote for someone for President who doesn't attend church or says he or she doesn't believe in a supernatural being. If a city bus carried such a message the incumbents in office might find themselves in real jeopardy of being tossed out of office come election day. Sad. And to tell the truth, I think that people with an extreme religious or ideological message of another sort would also have trouble (think a sect that practices polygamy, for example). As far as I'm concerned, that's not the way it's supposed to work. I would hope that we could discuss these ideas calmly and dispassionately, like adults. But some of us don't. We yell, and shout insults, some of us from the pulpit, and condemn those who don't worship as we do, secure in the belief that the other person is going to the other place (which isn't the one we would choose for ourselves, if it exists). What a comfort.

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One man's garbage becomes another's power plant


By DAVID PORTER, Associated Press Writer David Porter, Associated Press Writer

KEARNY, N.J. – Standing atop the 400-acre 1-E landfill, you get a panoramic view of the Meadowlands sports complex to the north and the New York City skyline to the east. You're also standing on a critical part of New Jersey's, and the nation's, energy future.

Decades' worth of household trash, construction waste and assorted refuse buried in the landfill are providing electricity to thousands of homes.

"It's like you're buying back your own garbage, but in a different form," said Tom Marturano, director of solid waste and natural resources for the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission, which owns and operates the 1-E site.

The Kearny site is among 21 landfills in New Jersey where methane gas produced by decomposing garbage is used as fuel to generate electricity, according to the state Board of Public Utilities.

That is almost as many as in the state of Texas and more than the combined number in Georgia, Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas and Oklahoma.

Nationwide, the federal Environmental Protection Agency counts 455 landfills that use their methane to generate electricity and has targeted more than 500 others as potential candidates through its Landfill Methane Outreach Program.

One of New Jersey's leading environmentalists envisions the state's landfills someday making more use of the sites by installing wind and solar power to supplement methane.

"We see landfills as potential New Age energy plants because you can combine all three and create a steady source of power — and not everybody wants a windmill in their backyard," said Jeff Tittel, executive director of the New Jersey chapter of the Sierra Club.

Marturano cautioned that adding wind farms might take awhile because landfill surfaces are constantly shifting, but the Meadowlands Commission already has plans to install 20 acres of solar panels on the southern side of the 1-E landfill.

Gov. Jon S. Corzine's Energy Master Plan touts landfill methane gas as one of the key renewable energy sources that the state hopes will combine to supply 30 percent of New Jersey's electricity by 2020. According to the plan, New Jerseyans produce 6.7 pounds of trash per day, 50 percent more than the national average.

While wind and solar power are in their relative infancy in New Jersey — Corzine recently announced the state's first offshore wind power project — landfills in the state have been collecting methane gas and using it as fuel to generate electricity for more than two decades.

Mike Winka, director of the Board of Public Utilities' clean energy office, said new landfills in New Jersey are required to be designed to accommodate methane gas collection.

Existing landfills can produce methane long after they've been shut down.

For example, the freshest garbage in the Kingsland landfill, adjacent to 1-E, dates to 1987, according to Marturano. That means the half-eaten Big Mac you threw away near the end of the Reagan administration may be helping to light your neighbor's home today.

Marturano estimates the 1-E landfill can keep collecting methane for 20 more years or so. He said the energy produced by the four landfills in the Meadowlands district powers about 25,000 homes.

The Edgeboro landfill in East Brunswick, operated by the Middlesex County Utilities Authority, has been collecting methane since 2001 and currently generates about 13 megawatts of electricity, enough for about 13,000 homes for a year, according to Public Service Electric and Gas, the state's largest utility.

The Middlesex County agency uses the electricity generated by the Edgeboro landfill's methane to power the county's wastewater treatment plant in Sayreville. Last year, that saved the authority about $3 million, according to executive director Rich Fitamant.

Methane gas is produced by micro-organisms that feed on organic matter in trash. The bacteria are not picky eaters and have adapted to feasting on wood, cardboard or plastic if food waste isn't available.

"It's evolution on a fast track," Marturano said.

Long tubes with perforated bases are drilled down into a landfill to collect the methane gas, which then is used as fuel to drive generators. Inactive landfills like 1-E are capped, usually with a plastic or rubber covering that prevents excess gas from escaping.

"People used to think of the landfills as wasted space," Marturano said. "But we're turning them from the juvenile delinquents of the district into productive members of society."

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2 greenhouse gases on the rise worry scientists

By Seth Borenstein, Associated Press




















Scripps geoscientists Ray Weiss, left, and Jens Muehle in San Diego, Calif., stand amid collection cylinders used to collect air samples from a variety of locations around the world. Weiss and Muehle led a study that found that the greenhouse gas nitrogen trifluoride, used in the manufacture of flat-panel monitors, escapes to the atmosphere at levels much higher than previously assumed. Two major and potent greenhouse gases are building in the atmosphere, raising an unexpected new threat for accelerating global warming, new studies show. The gases are methane and nitrogen trifluoride, and their levels are building faster than expected.

WASHINGTON — Carbon dioxide is not the only greenhouse gas that worries climate scientists. Airborne levels of two other potent gases — one from ancient plants, the other from flat-panel screen technology — are on the rise, too.

And that has scientists wondering about accelerated global warming.

The gases are methane and nitrogen trifluoride. Both pale in comparison to the global warming effects of carbon dioxide, produced by the burning of coal, oil and other fossil fuels. In the past couple of years, however, these other two gases have been on the rise, according to two new studies. The increase is not accounted for in predictions for future global warming and comes as a nasty surprise to climate watchers.

Methane is by far the bigger worry. It is considered the No. 2 greenhouse gas based on the amount of warming it causes and the amount in the atmosphere. The total effect of methane on global warming is about one-third that of man-made carbon dioxide.

Methane comes from landfills, natural gas, coal mining, animal waste and decaying plants. But it is the decaying plants that worry scientists most. That is because thousands of years ago billions of tons of methane were created by decaying Arctic plants. It lies frozen in permafrost wetlands and trapped in the ocean floor. As the Arctic warms, the worry is that this methane will be freed and worsen warming. Scientists have been trying to figure out how they would know if this process is starting.

It still is early, and the data are far from conclusive, but scientists say they fear that what they are seeing could be the start of the release of the Arctic methane.

After almost eight years of stability, atmospheric methane levels, measured every 40 minutes by monitors near remote coastal cliffs, suddenly started rising in 2006. The amount of methane in the air has jumped by nearly 28 million tons (25.4 million metric tons) from June 2006 to October 2007. There is now more than 5.6 billion tons (5.1 billion metric tons) of methane in the air.

"If it's sustained, it's bad news," said Ron Prinn, an atmospheric scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of MIT atmospheric scientist Ron Prinn, lead author of the methane study. "This is a heads up. We're seeing smoke. It remains to be seen whether this is the fire we're really worried about.

"Whenever methane increases, you are accelerating climate change."

The study will be published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters Oct. 31.

By contrast, nitrogen trifluoride has been considered such a small problem that it generally has been ignored. The gas is used as a cleaning agent during the manufacture of liquid crystal display television and computer monitors and for thin-film solar panels.

Earlier efforts to determine how much nitrogen trifluoride is in the air dramatically underestimated the amounts, said Ray Weiss, a geochemistry professor with Scripps Institution of Oceanography in California and lead author on a nitrogen trifluoride paper. It is set to be published in Geophysical Research Letters in November.

Nitrogen trifluoride levels in the air, measured in parts per trillion, have quadrupled in the last decade and increased 30-fold since 1978, according to Weiss, who is also a co-author of the methane paper.

It contributes only 0.04% of the global warming effect that man-made carbon dioxide does from the burning of fossil fuels.

Nitrogen trifluoride is one of the more potent gases, thousands of times stronger at trapping heat than carbon dioxide. Methane is more than 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide on a per molecule basis. Carbon dioxide remains the most important gas because of its huge levels and rapid growth.

Still, methane and the potential of future increases is a worry, Weiss and others say.

Its recent increase coincides with anecdotal evidence of more methane being released in the shallow parts of the Arctic Ocean. A scientific survey in late summer found methane levels in the east Siberian Sea up to 10,000 times higher than normal, said Orjan Gustafsson, an environmental scientist at Stockholm University in Sweden, who has just returned from the six-week survey.

Prinn's data are consistent with the early results of "whole fields of methane bubbles" that Gustafsson said he found last month.

The highest methane level increases were seen in monitoring stations in Alert, Canada, which with recent anecdotal evidence points to plants in permafrost thawing and decaying.

Stanford University environmental scientist Stephen Schneider cautioned that the recent increase is new, and "it is pretty hard to be very confident of any trend or big story yet on methane."

Methane levels have kept scientists guessing for the past decade. They were on the rise until about 1997, then soared in 1998 and then leveled off until jumping again in 2006.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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Zero Emission Motors Unveils Volt Electric Scooter

Volt electric scooter
Zero Emission Motors’ Volt electric scooter

If you’re looking for an inexpensive electric scooter tailor-made for city driving, then the new Volt electric scooter from Zero Emission Motors might be just the ticket for you. The new Volt electric scooter (named just like the newly-announced electric car, but unlike the car, available today) is a new electric scooter just released by our friends over at Zero Emission Motors - we got the opportunity to meet Adam Maoz, president of the company, a couple of weeks back at the Kick Gas festival in San Diego, and got to see the Volt in person.

The Volt electric scooter is a mid-range electric scooter product that straddles the gap between low-power electric scooters (<>

The Volt electric scooter is driven by a 1500 watt / 48 Volt motor and can propel you at speeds up to 30 mph for up to 30 miles per charge. We like the 1500 Watt motor because it provides enough power to get you up hills without slowing down too much, and will also provide good acceleration when you need it.

Volt electric scooter
Details on the Volt electric scooter

The Volt electric scooter features all the trimmings you would expect from a scooter in this range - mirrors, headlights, taillights, blinkers and brake lights, keyed start, a horn, and an under-seat storage compartment and glove box. An odometer is included to let you know how far you’ve traveled, and a speedometer is also provided. A battery indicator is also provided to let you know how much charge you have left. The battery pack is lead-acid, and takes about 8 hours or so to fully charge using the included battery charger, which you can plug in to any wall outlet. It costs about $0.10 for a full charge, which means $10 of electricity will get you about 3000 miles worth of travel. Try that with gasoline.

The Volt is capable of seating up to two people at a time - its weight limit is 500 lbs. And at $1,495 plus $150 shipping, we think this e-scooter gives a you lot for the price. The Volt electric scooter is available today from Zero Emission Motors.

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Scientists Fixing Hubble Contend With Antiquated Computers

NASA scientists trying to find out what went wrong during last week's repair of the Hubble Space Telescope find themselves dealing with 486 processors and other outdated computer technology. But sometimes, mission managers say, simple is good when you're out in space—as long as you know how to talk to decades-old computers.

MIT Energy Storage Discovery Could Lead to ‘Unlimited’ Solar Power

Scientists dismayed by vanishing of 7 whales

SEATTLE, Washington (AP) -- Seven Puget Sound killer whales are missing and feared dead in what could be the biggest decline among the sound's orcas in nearly a decade, say scientists who carefully track the endangered animals.

A female orca, or killer whale, travels with her baby in waters off Washington state.

A female orca, or killer whale, travels with her baby in waters off Washington state.

"This is a disaster," Ken Balcomb, a senior scientist at the Center for Whale Research on San Juan Island, said Friday. "The population drop is worse than the stock market."

While the official census won't be completed until December, the number of live "southern resident" orcas now stands at 83.

Among those missing since last year's count are the nearly century-old leader of one of the three southern resident pods, and two young females who recently bore calves.

The loss of the seven whales, Balcomb said, would be the biggest decline among the Puget Sound orcas since 1999, when the center also tracked a decline of seven whales.

Low numbers of chinook salmon, a prime food for these whales, may be a factor in the unusual number of deaths this year, Balcomb said.

"It was a bad salmon year and that's not good for the whales," he said. "Everybody considers these wonderful creatures, but we really have to pay attention to the food supply."

The three pods, or families, that frequent western Washington's inland marine waters -- the J, K, and L pods -- are genetically and behaviorally distinct from other killer whales. The sounds they make are considered a unique dialect, they mate only among themselves, eat salmon rather than marine mammals and show a unique attachment to the region.

The population reached 140 or more in the last century, but their numbers have fluctuated in recent decades. They were listed as endangered in 2005.

"We may be in the beginning of another decline in the population," said Howard Garrett, director of the Orca Network, a nonprofit education and advocacy group.

He said the whales seem to be having a harder time finding chinook salmon.

The whales recently have been traveling over greater distances than usual, suggesting they may be ranging farther for food, said Brad Hanson, a wildlife biologist with the National Marine Fisheries Service.

Lack of food may be a concern, but it's too early to know the reason for the unusual number of presumed deaths, he said.

Pollution and a decline in prey are believed to be the whales' biggest threats, although stress from whale-watching tour boats and underwater sonar tests by the Navy also have been concerns. In the late 1960s and early '70s, the population fell as dozens were captured for marine parks.

The whales were making an apparent comeback in recent years, reaching 90 in number in 2005, "but it's been a downhill trend now for three years," Balcomb said.

Among those missing are two female whales of reproductive age, both of which recently produced calves. One of those calves, L-111, is missing, while the other, J-39, is not.

It's not unusual to lose older or younger whales, but losing two females in reproductive prime is "a bit of a concern" since they typically have a high survival rate, Hanson said.

One female whale, known to scientists as L-67, had the potential for two or three more calves, Hanson said.

She was the mother of "Luna," a juvenile killer whale from Washington waters that made headlines in 2001 when he became separated from his pod and turned up in Nootka Sound, off the west coast of Canada's Vancouver Island. A killer whale believed to be Luna died in Nootka Sound in 2006 when it was hit by the propeller of a large tugboat.

L-67 showed clear signs of emaciation -- a depression behind her blow hole -- before she disappeared in September, Hanson said.

"It definitely shows that she was not eating," he said, but it's unclear why. Researchers are performing tests on samples they collected from her weeks before she disappeared.

Others missing, according to the center, include K-7, the 98-year-old matriarch of K-pod, and L-101, a 6-year-old male who is a brother of "Luna."

The count also includes a calf, J-43, that was born in November but is believed to have not survived the winter.

The whale census may increase if baby orcas are born this fall. And there's a slim chance the whales may reappear elsewhere, as "Luna" did, Hanson said.

But Balcomb said: "We've been monitoring. They're just gone."

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Australia bans word 'drought' as too upsetting for farmers

By Bonnie Malkin in Sydney

The group also warned farmers to get used to the lack of rain because dry conditions are expected to continue.

"Words like drought ... have negative connotations for farm families," a report by the Drought Policy Review Expert Social Panel found.

"There needs to be a new national approach to living with dryness, as we prefer to call it, rather than dealing with drought."

The country is currently in the grip of "the big dry" - a drought which has lasted seven years so far and is crippling the farming sector.

The report into the social effects of the drought found it had eroded farming communities and forced families apart. The weather conditions were also a major cause of depression among farmers, it found.

Panel member Lesley Young said the the research revealed the drought did not just affect men.

Women had been forced off farms to earn extra income, and often took the children with them, breaking up families, she said.

Small towns were also suffering, the report found.

Local sporting teams in rural communities had been affected because residents were so depressed that they no longer had the will to join in.

Several small towns no longer had enough people to form a team because "people could no longer justify both the cost and the time away from the farm".

More than 1,000 farmers and their families turned out to talk to the panel about how the drought had affected them.

Panel chairman Peter Kenny said it was obvious that the enduring dryness made life very hard for farming communities.

"We wonder why people have got so much pressure on them out there and they are blowing their brains out and there is a lot of them doing that," he told the Australian newspaper.

"It is clear that drought is having an impact on the wellbeing of farming families and rural communities."

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