Monday, November 3, 2008

Strange Portal Connects Earth to Sun

By Jeanna Bryner, Senior Writer

Like giant, cosmic chutes between the Earth and sun, magnetic portals open up every eight minutes or so to connect our planet with its host star.

Once the portals open, loads of high-energy particles can travel the 93 million miles (150 million km) through the conduit during its brief opening, space scientists say.

Called a flux transfer event, or FTE, such cosmic connections not only exist but are possibly twice as common as anyone ever imagined, according to space scientists who attended the 2008 Plasma Workshop in Huntsville, Ala., last week.

"Ten years ago I was pretty sure they didn't exist, but now the evidence is incontrovertible," said David Sibeck, an astrophysicist at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland.

Dynamic bursts

Researchers have long known that the Earth and sun must be connected. For instance, particles from the sun are constantly whisked away via the solar wind and often follow magnetic field lines that connect the sun's atmosphere with terra firma. The field lines allow particles to penetrate Earth's magnetosphere, the magnetic bubble that surrounds our planet.

"We used to think the connection was permanent and that solar wind could trickle into the near-Earth environment anytime the wind was active," Sibeck said. "We were wrong. The connections are not steady at all. They are often brief, bursty and very dynamic."

Several speakers at the workshop outlined the formation of a flux transfer event. One idea is that on the side of Earth facing the sun, our magnetic field presses against the sun's magnetic field. And about every eight minutes, the two fields briefly reconnect, forming a portal through which particles can flow. The portal takes the form of a magnetic cylinder about as wide as Earth.

Sibeck said to think of the FTE as a giant rolling pin that lies flat along the boundary between the Earth's and sun's magnetic fields. (He noted the rolling pin would have to be malleable so it could pierce through both magnetic fields while lying flat.)

"These FTEs kind of look like roller pins, and they form as little blob roller pins at the tip of the magnetosphere facing the sun," Sibeck told "They can't decide which way they're going to slide around the Earth, so they grow there into big roller pins and then they take off and sort of spirally roll along [Earth's magnetosphere] like you're pounding out dough."

More than one FTE can form at once, he said, and they stay open for about 15 to 20 minutes.

More to learn

In order to measure such FTEs, spacecraft must not only catch them forming but also be on either end of the magnetic structures (either lengthwise or widthwise). In fact, the European Space Agency's fleet of four Cluster spacecraft and NASA's five THEMIS probes have flown through and surrounded these cylinders, measuring their dimensions and sensing the particles that shoot through, Sibeck said. While these measurements have nailed down the width of an FTE, the length is still uncertain though one measurement put it at up to five Earth radii. One Earth radius is about 4,000 miles (6,400 kilometers).

Astrophysicist Jimmy Raeder of the University of New Hampshire used those measurements to develop computer simulations of the portals. He found the cylindrical portals tend to form above Earth's equator and then in December, the FTEs would roll over the North Pole. In July, they roll over the South Pole.

Sibeck thinks the events occur twice as often as previously thought, proposing two types of flux transfer events — active and passive.

When the magnetic cylinders are active, they allow particles to flow through rather easily, forming important conduits of energy for Earth's magnetosphere, Sibeck said. When passive, the cylinders have more resistance to transiting particles. The internal structure of a passive cylinder makes it tougher for particles and magnetic fields to flow through. Sibeck has calculated the properties of passive FTEs and hopes he and his colleagues will hunt for signs of them in data collected with THEMIS and Cluster.

The space scientists at the workshop still want to figure out why the portals form every eight minutes and how magnetic fields inside the cylinders twist and coil.

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Good Night, Sweet Phoenix

By Nivair H. Gabriel

Five months ago, it landed on the Martian surface — and into our hearts. It gave us soil analysis data, photos of the sky from the red planet, and even hope of extraterrestrial life. Now, with its power deteriorating, its sunlight exposure shrinking, and Martian temperatures dropping to almost -100°C, the Phoenix lander's time may be up. Project manager Barry Goldstein admitted "we're towards the end," and Phoenix even bid us a fond goodbye on its Twitter page. But that's the charm of robots; they never truly die. Phoenix might not literally rise from the ashes, but you can make sure its spirit never leaves you.

Pictured above in all of its youthful glory, this hardworking machine has more than paid its dues. Originally, the Phoenix mission was supposed to last just 90 days. It has fulfilled that goal and then some, remaining in operation for 125 sols (that's 128 days for you Earthlings). Its funding was extended to last through mid-November; during their attempts to squeeze out more time from the lander, mission engineers came up against vicious Martian weather — and the trouble began.

On Tuesday, NASA announced that they planned a gradual shutdown of four of Phoenix's heaters. This was an effort to keep the camera and basic meteorological data collection running for as long as possible; with the frequent dust storms and the changing seasons at the polar landing site, Phoenix hasn't been able to collect much solar power. Mission engineers tried to send commands to the lander, only to find that Phoenix (its battery power almost gone) had entered its safe mode. It was hours more of waiting before Phoenix woke up and communication returned.

As of Thursday, engineers are still assessing the lander's condition, but Goldstein pointed out that "when the vehicle is in its last days, it will go through [safe] mode erratically. There's nothing we can do about it." Those last days have no doubt arrived.

If you're feeling choked up with sentiment, you should let some of it out at Wired, where they're having an Phoenix epitaph contest with official mission gear for prizes. And you can spend a couple of hours in memoriam, flipping through all the fascinating images that the intrepid lander has collected in its five months of life. A farewell bonfire wouldn't be out of place, either.

Phoenix itself does not despair at its demise — check out this optimistic update from the NASA-operated Twitter page:

Take care of that beautiful blue marble out there in space, our home planet. I'll be keeping an eye from here. Space exploration FTW!

Space exploration FTW, indeed.

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The Man Who Could Turn Anyone into a Torturer in Minutes

By Annalee Newitz

Using just the authority of his lab coat and actors paid to scream, Yale psychology researcher Stanley Milgram turned dozens of ordinary people into torturers and murderers. Or at least, that's what his research subjects believed. Now a new radio documentary (free online) takes you inside Milgram's torture chamber.

In the 1960s, Milgram conducted an infamous set of experiments where he said he was running pain tests. He asked Yale locals to come to his lab to participate in an experiment, and when they arrived they were told they'd "assist" him by using a machine (a prop) to shock his "test subjects" (the actors) until they screamed and in some cases pretended to die. Of course the real test subjects were the people running the fake shock machine, and he was really studying authoritarianism.

Milgram wanted to find out how easy it would be for a regular person to torture somebody else if ordered to do it by an authority figure. What he discovered horrified him — and his unwitting test subjects. Nearly every single person who came into Milgram's lab was willing to torture or kill a person when ordered to do it by Milgram. Only a very few people refused. Many of them protested, but did it when Milgram insisted he was a doctor and knew what he was doing.

Many of his test subjects claimed they'd been traumatized, while for others it became a life-changing experience that inspired them to go into human rights work. Milgram's research is partly what inspired U.S. universities to create committees devoted to oversight of research done on human subjects. Now BoingBoing points us to a new radio documentary where ABC Radio International's Gina Perry tracked down some of Milgram's research subjects/victims and talked to them about their experiences. It's free online!

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Internet sex makes you sad, anxious?

By Jonathan M. Gitlin

Although now overtaken by social networking sites as the most visited places on the web, pornography sites remain well-trafficked. But spending too much time online in the pursuit of carnal pleasure might have serious implications for your mental health, according to researchers in Australia.

The work, presented at a meeting in Australia last month, finds a link between clinical depression and an online sex life. 1,325 men from the US and Australia were surveyed about their Internet sex habits, which might include trolling for porn, participating in online chats, or doing things with webcams. They were also asked questions designed to elucidate the respondents' state of mental health with regards to depression.

A significant percentage (27 percent) of those surveyed displayed moderate to severe depression, with similar numbers suffering from anxiety (30 percent) and stress (35 percent). Marcus Squirrell, a PhD student at Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne, Australia, and the author of the study, found a correlation between the severity of depression and the amount of time spent engaged in online sexual activity.

However, before you toss that bottle of Xanax, remember that correlation does not always imply causation. Is the reliance on online sex responsible for the depression and anxiety, a symptom of those feelings, or a relief mechanism? It's certainly possible that underlying psychological issues in the users' lives are driving them to reliance on online sex.

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Study links teen pregnancy to sexy TV shows

By Andrew Stern

CHICAGO (Reuters) - Exposure to some forms of entertainment is a corrupting influence on children, leading teens who watch sexy programs into early pregnancies and children who play violent video games to adopt aggressive behavior, researchers said on Monday.

Researchers at the RAND research organization said their three-year study was the first to link viewing of racy television programing with risky sexual behavior by teens.

"Our findings suggest that television may play a significant role in the high rates of teenage pregnancy in the United States," said Anita Chandra, a behavioral scientist who led the research at RAND, a nonprofit research organization.

"We're not saying we're establishing causation, but we are saying this is one factor that we were able to prospectively link to the teen pregnancy outcome," Chandra said in a phone interview.

The researchers recruited adolescents aged 12 to 17 and surveyed them three times between 2001 and 2004, asking about television viewing habits, sexual behavior and pregnancy.

In findings that covered 718 teenagers, there were 91 pregnancies. The top 10th of adolescents who watched the most sexy programing were at double the risk of becoming pregnant or causing a pregnancy compared to the 10th who watched the fewest such programs, according to the study published in the journal Pediatrics.

The study focused on 23 free and cable television programs popular among teenagers including situation comedies, dramas, reality programs and animated shows. Comedies had the most sexual content and reality programs the least.

"The television content we see very rarely highlights the negative aspects of sex or the risks and responsibilities," Chandra said. "So if teens are getting any information about sex they're rarely getting information about pregnancy or sexually transmitted diseases."


Teen pregnancy rates in the United States have declined sharply since 1991 but remain high compared to other industrialized nations. Nearly 1 million girls aged 15 to 19 years old become pregnant yearly, or about 20 percent of sexually active females in that age group. Most of the pregnancies were unplanned, the report said.

Young mothers are more likely to quit school, require public assistance and live in poverty, it said.

"Television is just one part of a teenager's media diet that helps to influence their behavior. We should also look at the roles that magazines, the Internet and music play in teens' reproductive health," Chandra said, acknowledging still other factors can influence teen sex habits.

Living in a two-parent family reduced the chances of a teen getting pregnant or causing a pregnancy. Black teenagers, and those with discipline problems, had higher risks.

The report suggested broadcasters provide more realistic portrayals of the consequences of sex and that parents limit their children's access to sexually explicit programing.

A second study in the journal added to existing evidence that youths who play violent video games -- a worldwide trend with American children averaging 13 hours of video gaming a week -- led to increased physically aggressive behavior.

Researchers from the United States and Japan evaluated more than 1,200 Japanese youths and 364 Americans between 9 and 18 years old and found a "significant risk factor for later physically aggressive behavior ... across very different cultures."

Aggressiveness in children is also associated with violence later on, according to the study by researchers from Iowa State University in Ames, the National Institute on Media and the Family in Minneapolis and Ochanomizu University and Keio University in Tokyo.

(Editing by Todd Eastham)

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Caught on film: The treadmill running shrimp which has become an instant internet sensation

By Daily Mail Reporter

A super-fit shrimp has become a massive internet hit after learning to run on a treadmill as part of a unique science experiment.

Scientists discovered the shrimp's need for speed after it was placed on a home-made exercise machine in a tank of water to see how far it would travel for food.

Scientists were amazed with the results which showed the crustacean could jog at speeds of 66ft per minute and go on for three hours before needing a rest.

Running shrimp

Scientists placed a shrimp on an underwater treadmill to see how far it would run for food

The bizarre experiment was filmed and later released onto the internet.

It has now caused huge waves around the world with more than one million logging on to YouTube to watch the jogging shellfish.

Some fans have even put music to it such as the Benny Hill theme tune or Chariots of Fire.

Professor David Scholnick, of the Pacific University in Oregon, was one of the scientists who carried out the experiment.

He said the project involved putting a sick shrimp on the treadmill first because they wanted to probe how diseases impact their performance.

Watch the video here:

He added: 'We videoed the shrimp so we could compare the performance of a sick and healthy shrimp.

'The healthy shrimp ran and swam at treadmill speeds of up to 20 metres per minute for hours with little indication of fatigue.

'The situation is much more critical for a sick crustacean where a decrease in performance may mean the difference between life and death.

'Shrimp dealing with an infection is less active and limited in its ability to migrate, find food, and avoid being eaten.

'As far as I know this is the first time that shrimp have been exercised on a treadmill and it was amazing to see how well they performed.'

Running shrimp

Video of the crustacean, which reached speeds of 66ft per minute, became an instant internet hit

Prof Scholnick said he was surprised that the four inch long shrimp featured in his video has become so popular.

He said: 'Soon after the study someone leaked it on to the internet and it suddenly took off from there.

'So many people have logged on to see it which I suppose is kind of funny - I guess people are fascinated.

'I guess people find the prospect of watching a shrimp exercise on a treadmill amazing.'

And justifying the unusual research, the professor added: 'These studies will give us a better idea of how marine animals can perform in their native habitat when faced with increasing pathogens and immunological challenges.'

Running shrimp

The shrimp managed to run for three hours without stopping

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Biologists Discover Motor Protein That Rewinds DNA

The enzyme HARP "rewinds" sections of the double-stranded DNA molecule that become unwound, like the tangled ribbons from a cassette tape in DNA "bubbles" that prevent critical genes from being expressed. (Credit: James Kadonaga, UCSD)

Two biologists at the University of California, San Diego have discovered the first of a new class of cellular motor proteins that “rewind” sections of the double-stranded DNA molecule that become unwound, like the tangled ribbons from a cassette tape, in “bubbles” that prevent critical genes from being expressed.

“When your DNA gets stuck in the unwound position, your cells are in big trouble, and in humans, that ultimately leads to death” said Jim Kadonaga, a professor of biology at UCSD who headed the study. “What we discovered is the enzyme that fixes this problem.”

The discovery represents the first time scientists have identified a motor protein specifically designed to prevent the accumulation of bubbles of unwound DNA, which occurs when DNA strands become improperly unwound in certain locations along the molecule.

The UCSD researchers’ findings, detailed in the October 31 issue of Science, are also important because they provide biomedical scientists with a greater understanding of the molecular mechanisms that lead to a rare genetic disorder called Schimke immuno-osseous dysplasia. The discovery will eventually allow medical researchers to design future treatments for this devastating genetic disorder, which causes strokes, congestive heart failure, kidney failure and death in young children.

“We knew this particular protein caused this disease before we started the study,” said Kadonaga. “That’s why we investigated it. We just didn’t know what it did.”

What this protein, called HARP for HepA-related protein, did astounded Kadonaga and Timur Yusufzai, a postdoctoral fellow working in his laboratory. The two molecular biologists initially discovered that this motor protein burns energy in the same way as enzymes called helicases and, like helicases, attached to the dividing sections of DNA. But while helicases use their energy to separate two annealed nucleic acid strands—such as two strands of DNA, two strands of RNA or the strands of a RNA-DNA hybrid— the scientists found to their surprise that this protein did the opposite; that is, it rewinds sections of defective DNA and thus seals the two strands together again.

As a consequence, the UCSD biologists termed their new enzyme activity an “annealing helicase.”

“We didn’t even consider the idea of annealing helicases before this study started,” said Kadonaga. “It didn’t occur to us that such enzymes even existed. In fact, we never knew until now what happened to DNA when it got stuck in the unwound position.”

Now scientists who study the action of helicases on DNA and RNA have an entirely new class of proteins to investigate.

“This will open up a whole new area of study,” said Kadonaga. “There are very few enzymes known that alter DNA structure. And we’ve discovered an entirely new one. This was not expected to happen in the year 2008. We should have found them all by now.”

“I believe it’s going to go beyond DNA. Just as there are DNA-DNA helicases, there are RNA-DNA helicases and RNA-RNA helicases. So it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to foresee that there are probably going to be RNA-DNA annealing helicases and RNA-RNA annealing helicases. The field potentially can be fairly large. And as more and more people discover additional annealing helicases, this field will expand.”

Kadonaga and Yusufzai are already searching for more annealing helicases, but they also plan to continue their studies of HARP.

“First, what we want to do is find more of these proteins, so we’re looking for more right now,” said Kadonaga. “We also want to see what other specific processes are affected by this particular protein, HARP, in the cell.”

The project was supported by a grant from the National Institutes of Health.

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Physics the Next President Needs to Know

By Alexis Madriga

Physics may be the furthest thing from the minds of the presidential candidates right now, but a solid grasp of the science behind some of the latest headlines will be critical for the winner.

Physics has a history of intersecting with politics in ways both large and small, from the creation of the atomic bomb to nuclear meltdowns to terrorist methods. And now, with more specialized, high-tech issues to tackle than ever before, it is increasingly important that world leaders have an understanding of the underlying scientific concepts.

But that’s not necessarily the case, says UC Berkeley physicist Richard Muller, author of the book Physics for Future Presidents. For example, he argues that some terrorist threats, like dirty bombs, are overrated, while others, the low-tech stuff like natural gas bombs, receive little attention.

"I do not have a sense from the campaigns that the candidates really know this stuff," Muller told "And I don’t expect them to. In the past, it’s been the secret knowledge of the scientists who say, 'Pick me as your science adviser, and I’ll tell you what to do."

But Muller wants to change that with his non-partisan take on issues like global warming, energy, nuclear weapons, and space. He demurred on who he wants to see elected, or thinks will be. All that matters to him is that whoever wins brings the right approach to their policy decisions.

"What you have to do is give the president a knowledge base, so they can make knowledge-based decisions." Muller said. "I say those things that I hope will be heard."

In this Q & A, Muller discusses dirty bombs, space robotics and clean coal.

Mullerbestphoto_5 Do either one of the candidates have the book?

Muller: I know it is within arm’s length for each of them. I’ve gotten it to people who are close to them and see the candidates regularly. The people who have it really like the book, too. They will give it to the winner after the election.

Wired: How likely is it that either one of the candidates will take the time to understand physics, or any other scientific discipline?

Muller: It depends on how strong the recommendation they get is. This is a subject that is central for what they’ll be doing. They know the world is high tech and that their policy decisions will have a high tech component.

I tried to write a book with the voice that would address them at the level of providing knowledge. . . I don’t want to give them my opinions. At the end of every part of the book, I have two pages of advice. But mostly I wanted to inform them to the level where they can make informed decisions. They have to understand the threat of terrorism, what’s going on with global warming.

In my book, I did that in a way that’s clear. I’ve never found anybody who has said, “I didn’t understand that.” Never have I said anything that is unintelligible to an educated person whether they are an English major or a lawyer.

Wired: If you could sit the candidates down and make them understand the physics of three issues, what would they be?

Muller: Let’s begin with terrorism. In terrorism, the fact is that gasoline has enormous energy. It has 15 times the energy of TNT. What that means to me is that a likely terrorist attack is going to be like the World Trade Center where the damage was done by the fuel not the planes. Beware of the low tech.

In space, the glory of the last 40 years for NASA has been in robotics. Most scientists dread the thought that they have to have their instruments on a manned flight. For the extra cost of putting them on a manned flight, they could build 2 robots, the instrument itself and a backup.

Let’s do as much robotics as possible before sending humans.

Wired: Is it just the cost of manned operations that is the problem?

Muller: No, most instruments work better when there are not humans walking around and shaking them. But it’s also the cost that it has to be so utterly safe for humans.

Wired: And the third physics issue for presidents?

Muller: Global warming. There is a consensus that global warming is real. There has not been much so far, but it’s going to get much, much worse. The thing I would tell the president is that the global warming, according to the global consensus — that’s the IPCC scientists, who won the Nobel Prize — the global warming of the future is going to come from the developing world. It’s the exploding economies of China and India and Asia that are going to be responsible for the CO2.

This causes a political problem because they are poor and have a low standard of living and shouldn’t have to pay for emissions cuts.

So, the only way this is going to work is that we pay the expense of them cutting back. If all we do is set an example, the example we’ll have set is that once you’re a wealthy nation, you can cut back on CO2. If that’s the example, they will wait until they are wealthy and then they’ll cut back and it’ll be too late.

Of course, if either one of the candidates said, we have to send $100 billion to China, they’d lose. But after the election maybe they can talk about that.

Doing feel-good things in the U.S. is fine. Going to biofuels is good for energy independence. Going to solar and nuclear is also good for energy independence and also good for global warming. But the U.S. is going to contribute less than 1 degree of warming to future warming. The future is primarily going to come from China. Their economy is growing at 10 percent a year. And their carbon footprint is growing even faster, 10 or 12 percent per year. The developing world is taking off.

The OECD countries [a group of wealthier nations] are now contributing much less than one-half of the carbon dioxide. The non-OECD countries are growing and growing in their energy use. And we have to be happy about that. It’s a good thing because it means their standard of living is getting better. It’s even a good thing for population control to have people who are happy and healthy.

Wired: Of the technologies to mitigate global warming, which do you think is most important?

Muller: Clean coal is probably the most important. The public doesn’t understand about clean coal. They think it’s an oxymoron. But coal is so abundant in China and India and it is so cheap that we have to capture the CO2 and pump it underground.

But some geologists and other scientists have questioned whether carbon dioxide sequestration might be too difficult.

Muller: It’s difficult in the same way that the Apollo mission was difficult. I think there are technological solutions to all the problems that sequestration presents.

But also, if you are going to be technologically pessimistic about clean coal, you also have to be technologically pessimistic on solar, on wind, on batteries, and on other solutions.

The problems of coal are relatively straightforward. Sure, there will be problems. But beware of a bias towards some technologies over others.

Wired: But not all technologies advance at the same rate, so there could be reasons for supporting one type of technology over another.

Muller: Of course. The IPPC made a major study of sequestration. One issue was, if we do the sequestration, will it work? We’re talking about burying it in deep brines under land. The thing is we’ll know within a few years whether it will work. We need to try it very rapidly, so if it’s not going to work, we’ll know right away.

And there are wonderful other things going on. Wind is expanding very rapidly. Batteries are being developed. And batteries are really the hope for reducing emissions from automobiles, but they are not here yet. The Tesla roadster has 1000 pounds of expensive batteries. It’s nice to establish the name of the Tesla but these batteries are notorious for their calendar life. We really have to get cheaper batteries and batteries that can be recharged more often. There is a lot more work that has to be done in batteries. And in the meantime, those of us who are wealthy can drive Teslas.

This is I think what people forget. If you’re going to spend a billion dollars, you can do it far more effectively in China to cut back their emissions than you can to buy some expensive technology in the United States.

Wired: Let’s get back to the fun questions. You present a scenario on your website that you are the president and a terrorist has planted a dirty bomb in midtown Manhattan, but let’s say it’s in Chicago.

Muller: Well, the key issue with a dirty bomb is that it is extremely difficult to make a dirty bomb that will leave any bodies. . . The main effect is cancer, not radiation illness.

The president needs to educate the public about radioactivity to let them know that when the dirty bomb spreads, in the worst parts of the city, the cancer rate is probably 20 percent and it might go up to 21 percent. You multiply it out over a lot of people, and that’s how you get a large number of deaths. And what people are scared of is a large number of deaths, but they will not be observed. They will be lost in the statistical noise. The president needs to inform the public that radioactivity is not as frightening as it might seem. Personally I’d rather see a dirty bomb than another 9/11.

Jose Padilla, the street thug, he was going to make a dirty bomb for al Qaeda. I cover this in my book that it came out during the deposition that they said, “Forget the dirty bomb, rent several apartments in Chicago and explode them with natural gas.”

What scares me is that that shows that al Qaeda understands the limitations of the dirty bomb much better than we do. We classify them as a weapon of mass destruction and that’s the wrong scale.

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7 Environmental Problems That Are Worse Than We Thought

With as much attention as the environment has been getting lately, you’d think that we’d be further along in our fight to preserve the world’s species, resources and the beautiful diversity of nature. Unfortunately, things aren’t nearly that rosy. In fact, many of the environmental problems that have received the most public attention are even worse than we thought – from destruction in the rain forest to melting glaciers in the Arctic. We’ve got a lot of work to do.

7. Mammal Extinction

Image via National Wildlife Federation

One in four mammals is threatened with extinction. That’s 25%, a huge number that will totally change the ecology of every corner of the earth. We could see thousands of species die out in our lifetime, and the rate of habitat loss and hunting in crucial areas like Southeast Asia, Central Africa and Central and South America is growing so rapidly, these animals barely have a chance.

If you think the extinction of an animal like the beautiful Iberian Lynx is no big deal, and wouldn’t have that much of an effect on the planet, think again. Not only would we be losing – mostly due to our own disregard for our surroundings – so much of the awe-inspiring diversity of nature, mass extinctions like this would cause a serious imbalance in the world’s food chain. When a predator disappears, the prey will multiply. When prey dies out, the predator will see its ranks decrease as well. Many people fail to realize just how interconnected all species on this planet really are.

6. The Ocean Dead Zones

Image via NASA

In oceans around the world, there are eerie areas that are devoid of nearly all life. These ‘dead zones’ are characterized by a lack of oxygen, and they’re caused by excess nitrogen from farm fertilizers, emissions from vehicles and factories, and sewage. The number of dead zones has been growing fast - since the 1960’s, the number of dead zones has doubled every 10 years. They range in size from under a square mile to 45,000 square miles, and the most infamous one of all is in the Gulf of Mexico, a product of toxic sludge that flows down the Mississippi from farms in the Midwest. These ‘hypoxic’ zones now cover an area roughly the size of Oregon.

Spanish researches recently found that many species die off at oxygen levels well above the current definition of ‘uninhabitable’, suggesting that the extent of dead zones in coastal areas that support fishing is much worse than previously thought. Robert Diaz, a Virginia Institute of Marine Science biologist, said “Everything is pointing towards a more desperate situation in all aquatic systems, freshwater and marine. That’s pretty clear. People should be worried, all over the world.”

As if that weren’t bad enough, global warming will likely aggravate the problem. A rise in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will change rainfall patterns, which could create an increase in runoff from rivers into the seas in many areas.

5. Collapsing Fish Stock

Image via Pew Environment Group

Millions of people across the world depend upon fish as a major staple in their diet. As such, commercial fishermen have been pulling such a huge quantity of fish from the oceans that we’re heading toward a global collapse of all species currently fished – possibly as soon as the year 2048. Like large-scale mammal extinction, the collapse of fish species would have a major impact on the world’s ecosystems.

It’s not too late – yet – if overfishing and other threats to fish populations are reduced as soon as possible. Marine systems are still biologically diverse, but catastrophic loss of fish species is close at hand. 29 percent of species have been fished so heavily or have been so affected by pollution that they’re down to 10 percent of their previous population levels. If we continue the way we are fishing today, there will be a 100 percent collapse by mid-century, so we’ve got to turn this around fast.

4. Destruction of the Rain Forest

Image via Encyclopedia Britannica

‘Saving the rain forest’ has been at the forefront of the environmental movement for decades, yet here we are facing huge losses in the Amazon all the same. You might have thought that, with all the attention the rain forest has gotten, it wouldn’t need so much saving anymore – but unfortunately, global warming and deforestation mean that half of the Amazon rain forest will likely be destroyed or severely damaged by 2030.

The World Wildlife Fund concluded this summer that agriculture, drought, fire, logging and livestock ranching will cause major damage to 55 percent of the Amazon rain forest in the next 22 years. Another 4 percent will see damage due to reduced rainfall, courtesy of global warming. These factors will destroy up to 80 percent of the rain forest’s wildlife. Losing 60 percent of the rain forest would accelerate global warming and affect rainfall in places as far away as India. Massive destruction to the rain forest would have a domino effect on the rest of the world.

The WWF says that the ‘point of no return’, from which recovery will be impossible, is only 15 to 25 years away.

3. Polar Sea Ice Loss

Image via National Snow and Ice Data Center

Polar sea ice is melting at an unprecedented rate, and it’s not showing any signs of slowing down. It’s perhaps the most dramatic, startling visual evidence of global warming, and it’s got scientists rushing to figure out just how big of an effect the melting is going to have on the rest of the world.

British researchers said last week that the thickness of sea ice in the Arctic decreased dramatically last winter for the first time since records began in the early 1990s. The research showed a significant loss in thickness on the northern ice cap after the record loss of ice during the summer of 2007.

Scientific American warns that “human fingerprints have been detected” on both the Arctic and Antarctic regions. Antarctica had previously appeared to be the only continent on the planet where humanity’s impact on climate change hadn’t been observed. The collapse of the Larsen B and Wilkins ice shelves in the Antarctic Peninsula shows just how fast the region is warming.

2. CO2 Levels in the Atmosphere

Image via Visible Earth

The aforementioned polar sea ice loss is yet another sinister sign of carbon dioxide levels building up in the atmosphere – the main force behind global warming. Greenhouse gas emissions caused by our modern way of life – vehicles, power plants, factories, giant livestock farms – will bring devastating climate change within decades if they stay at today’s levels.

Average temperatures could increase by as much as 12 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century if emissions continue to rise, a figure that would easily make the world virtually uninhabitable for humans. A global temperature rise of just 7.2 degrees Fahrenheit would cause a catastrophic domino effect, bringing weather extremes that would result in food and water shortages and destructive floods.

The most recent report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change represents “the final nail in the coffin” of climate change denial, representing the most authoritative picture to date that global warming is caused by human activity. According to the panel, we must make a swift and significant switch to clean, efficient and renewable energy technologies in order to prevent the worst-case scenario.

1. Population Explosion

Image via Wikimedia Commons

Whether we like to admit it or not, our very own rapidly multiplying presence on this planet is the biggest environmental problem there is, and it’s getting bigger by the minute. We voraciously consume resources, pollute the air and water, tear down natural habitats, introduce species into areas where they don’t belong and destroy ecosystems to the point of causing millions of species to become endangered and, all too often, go extinct.

It took nearly all of human history – from the first days of man on earth until the early 1800’s – to reach a global population of 1 billion. In just 200 years, we’ve managed to reach 6.5 billion. That means the population has grown more since 1950 than in the previous four million years. We’re adding roughly 74 million people to the planet every year, a scary figure that will probably continue to increase. All of those mouths will need to be fed. All of those bodies will need clean water and a place to sleep. All of the new communities created to house those people will continue to encroach upon the natural world.

All seven environmental problems detailed above are very serious, and we’ve got to start treating them that way. We may not have easy solutions, but the fact is, we simply can’t continue living our lives as if everything is peachy. These problems aren’t going to magically solve themselves. We should have begun acting generations ago, but we can’t go back in time, and that means we have to step up our efforts. If we want to keep this planet a healthy place for humans to live – for our grandchildren to enjoy – it’s time to buckle down and do everything in our power to reverse the damage we’ve done.

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Study: Climate change at poles man-made

For millions of years, Antarctica, the frozen continent at the southern end of the planet, has been encased in a gigantic sheet of ice. Recently, the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) satellite has been taking sensitive measurements of the gravity for the entire Earth, including Antarctica. Recent analysis of GRACE data indicate that the Antarctic ice sheet might have lost enough mass to cause the worlds' oceans to rise about .05 inches, on the average, from between 2002 and 2005. The picture was taken on the Riiser-Larsen ice shelf in December 1995. (UPI Photo/NASA/GRACE team/DLR/Ben Holt Sr.)

Temperature increases in Antarctica and the Arctic region are the result of man-made emissions of greenhouse gases, researchers in England have concluded.

The Independent reported Saturday that the study, published in the journal Nature Geoscience, marks the first time scientists have been able to prove a link between climate changes in both polar regions and human activities.

"We're able for the first time to directly attribute warming in both the Arctic and the Antarctic to human influences on the climate," said Nathan Gillett of the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia, who led the study.

The findings run counter to the 2007 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which found that Antarctica was the only continent where the human impact on the climate had not been observed.

"For a long time, climate scientists have known that Arctic areas would be expected to warm most strongly because of feedback mechanisms, but the results from this work demonstrate the part man has already played in the significant warming that we've observed in both polar regions," said Peter Stott of the Met Office Hadley Center, who took part in the modeling analysis.

© 2008 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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Free the Natanz Two

As we’ve seen before, birds are the innocent victims in humankind’s push for nuclear power. Regular readers will know about the freezers at the Sellafield nuclear plant in the UK that are stuffed with seagulls shot by sharpshooters because the birds are radioactive after swimming in contaminated water.

pigeonsThe latest victims, it seems, are two pigeons arrested in Iran for espionage:

Iranian security forces have arrested two pigeons suspected of spying on one of the country's nuclear facilities. The birds were captured near the heavily-bunkered underground uranium enrichment plant in Natanz.

What fate awaits them at the hands of their Iranian captors? Are the pigeons willing conspirators or were they brainwashed by western intelligence agencies? Did the Natanz Two sell their services (we hope they amount of corn they were paid was worth it) or were they perhaps blackmailed by the CIA (their wives and kids being held against their will in a secret facility)? Either way, it’s a black day for pigeonkind.

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Solar Cells Set New Performance Mark

By LiveScience Staff

Researchers have announced a solar energy breakthrough that could lead to its more widespread use with their achievement of the highest efficiency ever for one type of solar cells.

The photovoltaic cells, called dye-sensitized solar cells or Gräztel cells, could expand the use of solar energy for homes, businesses and beyond, the researchers say.

Gräztel cells are cheaper to make than standard silicon-based solar cells, but until now they have had serious drawbacks. They have not been efficient enough at converting light into electricity, and their performance dropped after relatively short exposures to sunlight.

The research, conducted by Peng Wang of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and colleagues, including Michael Gräztel of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, inventor of this type of cell in 1991, involves photovoltaic cells composed of titanium dioxide and powerful light-harvesting dyes.

The team used a new type of ruthenium-based dye to help boost the solar cells' light-harvesting ability. The new cells showed efficiencies as high as 10 percent, a record for this type of solar cell (efficiency is the ratio of useful energy delivered by a system to the energy initially supplied). Most silicon-based solar cells have efficiencies of around 12 percent. But manufacturing silicon is not cheap. The current cost of electricity from silicon-based solar panels for houses or businesses is 25 cents to 40 cents per kilowatt-hour, roughly triple what most people pay their utility company.

Organic solar cells, another up-and-comer, typically convert only 3 percent of incoming sunlight into electricity.

The new cells also showed greater stability at high temperatures than previous formulas, retaining more than 90 percent of their initial output after 1,000 hours in full sunlight. Gräztel cells can also be made into flexible sheets or coatings.

The research will be detailed in the Nov. 13 issue of the Journal of Physical Chemistry C, a publication of the American Chemical Society.

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