Saturday, January 3, 2009

Diamonds Linked to Quick Cooling Eons Ago


University of Oregon

Scientists found microscopic diamonds in the black layer of rock at Murray Springs in Arizona.

At least once in Earth’s history, global warming ended quickly, and scientists have long wondered why.

Now researchers are reporting that the abrupt cooling — which took place about 12,900 years ago, just as the planet was emerging from an ice age — may have been caused by one or more meteors that slammed into North America.

That could explain the extinction of mammoths, saber-tooth tigers and maybe even the first human inhabitants of the Americas, the scientists report in Friday’s issue of the journal Science.

The hypothesis has been regarded skeptically, but its advocates now report perhaps more convincing residue of impact: a thin layer of microscopic diamonds found in rocks across America and in Europe.

“We’re up over 30 sites, as far west as offshore California, as far east as Germany,” said Allen West, a retired geology consultant who is one of the scientists working on the research.

The meteors would have been smaller than the six-mile-wide meteor that struck the Yucatán peninsula 65 million years ago and led to the mass extinctions of the dinosaurs. The killing effects of the hypothesized bombardment 12,900 years ago would have been more subtle.

Climatologists believe that the direct cause of the 1,300-year cold spell, known as the Younger Dryas, was a sudden rush of fresh water from a giant lake in central Canada to the North Atlantic.

Usually a surface current of warm water flows northward in the Atlantic toward Greenland and Europe, then cools and sinks, returning south in the deep ocean. But the fresh water, which is less dense, blocked the sinking of the cold, salty water in the North Atlantic, disrupting the currents.

That sudden change in plumbing has long been known, but what caused it has never been satisfactorily explained.

The authors of the paper in Science say it was meteors.

At each site the scientists looked at, the diamond layer in the rocks correlates to the date of the hypothesized impact. Within the layer, the scientists report finding a multitude of diamond particles, all encased within carbon spheres. “We’ve yet to find a single diamond above it,” Dr. West said. “We’ve yet to find a single diamond below it.”

Perhaps more telling, the scientists reported last month at a meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco, the carbon atoms inside some of the diamonds are lined up in a hexagonal crystal pattern instead of the usual cubic structure. The hexagonal diamonds, formed by extraordinary heat and pressure, have been found only at impact craters and within meteorites and cannot be formed in forest fires or volcanic eruptions, Dr. West said.

Last year the scientists presented other evidence of an impact, including elevated levels of the element iridium.

At least some skeptics are not convinced. “The whole thing still does not make sense, and there are lots of contradictions,” said Christian Koeberl, a professor of geological sciences at the University of Vienna in Austria.

His chief reservation is that there is no crater. “A body of this size does not just blow up without a trace in the atmosphere,” Dr. Koeberl said. “Physics won’t have it.”

Proponents have suggested that the meteor hit an ice sheet a couple of miles thick or that there was a series of smaller objects that exploded in the air. But Dr. Koeberl said something hitting an ice sheet would still generate a hole in the ground underneath, and he questioned whether smaller impacts or air explosions would produce the shock waves needed to make diamonds.

An impact should also have left remnants of melted rocks and shocked minerals, Dr. Koeberl said.

But if true, the hypothesis could explain the disappearance of ice age mammals like mammoths and argue against the alternative idea that the animals were hunted to extinction by humans.

It might also help explain the disappearance of the Clovis people, a culture named after a distinctive arrow point discovered in a mammoth skeleton in Clovis, N.M., who are believed to have arrived in the Americas more than 13,000 years ago.

Douglas J. Kennett, a University of Oregon archaeologist who is the lead author of the Science paper, said no Clovis points or bones of the extinct animals had been found above the diamond layer. “It seems those two things synchronously end,” he said.

Dr. Kennett said there also appeared to be a gap of several centuries between the disappearance of the Clovis and the resettlement by other people.

Gary Huss, a scientist at the University of Hawaii, Manoa, who was one of the early reviewers of the paper in Science, said though the scientists had not proved their case, they had offered enough evidence that the idea warranted a closer look by others.

“They have a hypothesis that explains several things that hard to explain any other way,” Dr. Huss said. “Diamonds are less convincing by themselves, but they strengthen their case considerably.”

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NASA chief's wife to Obama: Don't fire my husband

By SETH BORENSTEIN , AP Science Writer in Space & Earth science / Space Exploration


In this Wednesday, March 26, 2008 file photo, NASA administrator Michael Griffin, speaks to reporters at a news conference after space shuttle Endeavour landed at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla. Late on Christmas Eve, one last wish was sent, by e-mail: Please let NASA Administrator Michael Griffin keep his job. It was from his wife. There are other efforts, too, by those close to Griffin, and their lobbying on his behalf to President-elect Barack Obama is unusually bold, even for ego-heavy Washington. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

(AP) -- Late on Christmas Eve, one last wish was sent, by e-mail: Please let NASA Administrator Michael Griffin keep his job. It was from his wife. Rebecca Griffin, who works in marketing, sent her message with the subject line "Campaign for Mike" to friends and family. It asked them to sign an online petition to President-elect Barack Obama "to consider keeping Mike Griffin on as NASA Administrator."

She wrote, "Yes, once again I am embarrassing my husband by reaching out to our friends and 'imposing' on them.... And if this is inappropriate, I'm sorry."

The petition drive, which said the President George W. Bush appointee "has brought a sense of order and purpose to the U.S. space agency," was organized by Scott "Doc" Horowitz of Park City, Utah, an ex-astronaut and former NASA associate administrator.

A cash-strapped NASA last week also sent - by priority mail costing $6.75 a package - copies of a new NASA book called "Leadership in Space: Selected Speeches of NASA Administrator Michael Griffin, May 2005-October 2008."

And just before the presidential election, Griffin sent a letter to Obama saying, "I am deeply grateful to you, personally, for your leadership" on the vote to allow NASA to use Russian spaceships.

Efforts by those close to Griffin lobbying on his behalf are unusually bold, even for ego-heavy Washington. Past efforts on behalf of job hopefuls have been more behind-the-scenes so plausible deniability can be maintained.

"It sounds like the only thing left is to stencil Mike Griffin on the side of shuttle," joked Paul Light, a professor of public policy and a presidential transition expert at New York University. "I've never heard of a campaign to keep one's job that goes beyond the edge of private discussion. ... Maybe he should be texting next."

David Goldston, a former chief of staff for the House Science Committee and a lecturer on science policy at Harvard University, said, "This kind of public campaigning to keep a job is unusual and usually tends to backfire in new administrations."

Griffin's press secretary, David Mould, said that Griffin is not campaigning to keep his job and figures that Obama will name a new NASA chief. However, Griffin would be "honored" to be asked to stay on the job.

"A lot of people seem to like and support Mike and think he's doing a good job," Mould said. He said he couldn't speak for the administrator's wife and she did not answer an e-mail from The Associated Press.

As for Griffin's book of speeches, it was a natural for the NASA history office and coincides with the end of the presidential term, Mould said. NASA printed 2,500 books at a cost of $57,000 with the ability to produce more, NASA spokeswoman Sonja Alexander said.

NASA did not publish a book of collected speeches for Griffin's two predecessors, said spokeswoman Ashley Edwards. The agency did produce a compact disk of speeches by Dan Goldin, NASA's longest-serving boss, just before he left in 2001.

Griffin, a rocket scientist who holds seven degrees, has been on the job since 2005. His background is strikingly different from his predecessor Sean O'Keefe, a former budget office official. Griffin oversaw the successful return to space flight two years after the 2003 Columbia tragedy when seven astronauts were killed.

He's used his scientific smarts in making hands-on crucial decisions about shuttle flights, but he's ruffled feathers with some of his choices involving the design of next-generation spacecraft for a return to the moon. Some engineers both inside and outside of NASA question the whole concept of the new spacecraft, which Griffin calls "Apollo on steroids."

Petition-drive organizer Horowitz, who used to be in charge of NASA's return-to-the-moon program that is Griffin's signature project, said Griffin had nothing to do with the petition effort.

"This is other people campaigning for him," Horowitz said. "There's a lot of things people should change, but the NASA administrator isn't one of them."

Several hundred people have signed the online petition, including astronaut Mike Fincke who e-mailed his signature from the international space station. Some of the signatures are false names and some are anonymous. Horowitz said he has removed the names of people who added comments saying Griffin should NOT be kept on.

Horowitz's effort also spurred a "remove Mike Griffin" counter-petition, which has just a few dozen signatures, mostly anonymous and personal, including some nasty comments. A few criticized the new space vehicle design.

Only a few weeks ago, Griffin had a public disagreement with Obama's NASA transition chief, Lori Garver, a former NASA associate administrator, about the transition team's efforts to get more information. The dispute wasn't too heated and voices weren't raised, said Smithsonian scholar John Logsdon, who was holding a book signing for his latest volume on space history when Griffin and Garver had their spat.

That conversation led some in the tight-knit space community to speculate that Griffin figured he would not be kept on. Garver has not been available for comment, and Griffin's spokesmen say he is not available until after the new year.

Former NASA Deputy Administrator Hans Mark, who recommended Griffin to the Bush administration, said Griffin and his friends are handling this wrong.

"Mike ought to play it the way (retained Defense Secretary) Bob Gates is playing it, which is to shut up," Mark said.

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Genes give Africans a better sense of taste

by Ewen Callaway

(Image: Krzysztof Miller/Gazeta/Agence Vu)

(Image: Krzysztof Miller/Gazeta/Agence Vu)

Some put forward France's decadent sauces or Spain's creative tapas as evidence of Europeans' delicate taste for food, while Asian gourmands would sing the praises of sushi.

But they might all be wrong. New research suggests that Africans have more sensitive palettes than Europeans and Asians – at least for bitter tastes.

A survey of numerous African populations in Kenya and Cameroon found a striking amount of diversity in a gene responsible for sensing bitter tastes.

"If they have more genetic diversity, there's more variation in their ability to taste," says Sarah Tishkoff, a geneticist at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, who presented the findings at a recent conference.

Europeans and Asians typically have only one of two forms of a gene called TAS2R38, which detects a bitter-tasting compound called PTC and similar chemicals in vegetables such as broccoli and Brussels sprouts.

The gene makes the difference between people tasting a weak dilution of the compound or not, with little nuance in between.

Taste test

To see how Africans stack up, Tishkoff and colleague Michael Campbell offered a wide range of dilutions of PTC to different populations of pastoralists and hunter-gatherers in Kenya and Cameroon.

"They keep tasting it until they make a yucky face and spit it out," she says.

As a whole, Kenyans and Cameroonians sensed subtler gradients in the concentration than Europeans, they found. The Africans' TAS2R38 genes also contained far more variation than is found in the rest of the world.

This could be because heterogeneity offered an evolutionary benefit to populations of Africans at some point in history. "Maybe it was because there were certain plants that were beneficial to eat, but they were also bitter," Tishkoff says. A greater sensitivity to bitter compounds may have helped in detecting the best plants.

However, the compounds that cause bitter tastes can be thyroid-damaging, notes Paul Breslin, a neuroscientist at Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia. If you have a healthy thyroid you want to eat these things because they're packed with vitamins, he says.

Seafood benefits

A diet high in iodine – common in coastal-dwelling people – protects against such thyroid damage, but, iodine intake typically drops off the further people live from the ocean. So bitter-sensitive genes could help these people avoid toxic veggies, Breslin speculates.

Tishkoff wonders why, then, Europeans lost some the ability to sense bitterness. Different diets and evolutionary forces offer one explanation, she says.

Their lack of bitter taste diversity could also be due to a paucity of genetic variation in the small number of African migrants that became ancestors to the Europeans. In general, sub-Saharan Africans boast more genetic diversity than people native to Europe and other continents.

Avoiding potentially toxic plants might not be the only reason for diversity in bitter taste genes, says Theodore Schurr, an anthropologist at the University of Pennsylvania, who was not involved in the study.

His team found lots of variation in bitter taste genes in a Siberian population that has historically eaten few vegetables.

"We're surprised at the amount of diversity we see there," he says. "We're trying to figure out what this means."

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The sum of human emotion

Man doing maths
Anger, relief and disappointment - that's what sums can do
Tears, tantrums and murder. Far from being a cold and rational exercise, maths can provoke the full range of human emotions, explains Professor Ian Stewart.

In these days when wearing your heart on your sleeve is seen as qualifying you to be a true human being, rather than some robotic control freak, scientists and mathematicians are often viewed as being far too rational to be truly human.

Especially mathematicians, who spend all their days doing boring sums in some remote world of the intellect.

Some news, guys: it's not true.

Not just that we don't spend our time doing sums, but also we possess entirely normal human emotions - and express them.

Agreed, mathematicians are seldom seen bursting into tears or shouting in the streets, but that's mostly because mathematicians are seldom seen. Or, more to the point, seldom noticed, because there are hundreds of thousands of mathematically qualified people in British society, working in a huge range of jobs.

Shouting matches

And it's true that the way mathematics is usually presented strips out the emotional element - but the same goes for banking, architecture, whatever.

Anyone who has ever been to a mathematics conference, or sat in a mathematics department common room, notices very quickly that not only are mathematicians emotionally committed to their subject, but the emotions often run high. Shouting matches are not unusual.

The only time mathematics has driven me to tears was when I was 10

There is an important difference, however: when two mathematicians are arguing at the tops of their voices, eventually one of them says: "Oops, sorry, I've just seen why you're right." And the two are once more the best of friends and go off to the pub together.

One of the great emotional TV moments for mathematics was John Lynch's wonderful programme about Andrew Wiles's solution to Fermat's Last Theorem, a famous problem that had baffled mathematicians for 350 years.

Relating how his epoch-making solution very nearly collapsed because of a logical error, Wiles is on the verge of tears. The entire programme shows how committed mathematicians are to their research; how solving a problem becomes a kind of personal quest.

Dorothy Parker once said that the movie actress Katharine Hepburn ran "the gamut of emotions from A to B". Mathematicians may not quite manage A to Z, but they get a good way into the alphabet - joy, sadness, a sense of beauty, anger, relief, worry, disappointment.

Maths lecture on the BBC
Hold back the tears

Even a casual glance at the lives of some of the subject's greats should dispel the notion of mathematicians as ultra-rational calculating machines. Leopold Kronecker's dislike of Georg Cantor's new theory of infinite numbers drove Cantor to a nervous breakdown.

Évariste Galois combined dramatic work on the equation of the fifth degree with even more dramatic involvement in French revolutionary politics, culminating in a duel over a woman in which he was killed.

David Hilbert was incandescent with rage when Kurt Gödel drove a coach and horses through his massive programme to put all of mathematics on sound logical foundations. This was no surprise: Hilbert had devoted years to the project, and had made what seemed to be a lot of progress. Then it all came tumbling down.

The only time mathematics has driven me to tears was when I was 10. There's a lot of evidence that people understand maths much more easily when it is formulated in a social context.

Abstract puzzles involving cards with letters on one side and numbers on the other baffle most of us, but the same question can be instantly obvious when posed in terms of under-age drinking in a pub.

Quite a few psychologists now think that the rational mind cannot exist without an underlying emotional mind

My problem was the exact opposite: I was being asked to solve question of the type: "When Fred is half as old as Emily was when Arthur was born, how many dogs does it take to change a light bulb in three days?"

Write it as algebra, and I could solve it at the drop of a hat. But I was having real problems turning the social story into symbols.

My subject has, however, driven me to the use of distinctly strong language when my beautiful solution that I have been working on for weeks turns out to be riddled with holes.

The emotion of frustration is very familiar to any research mathematician, being the normal state of affairs about 99% of the time. The deep emotion of joy when a solution finally presents itself makes all of the frustration endurable.

Beautiful sunset

There can even be humour in mathematics, and I'm not referring to jokes: the actual maths may be genuinely funny. For example a breakthrough in my current research relies upon dividing both sides of an equation by zero. Ordinarily this is a no-go area, leading to nonsense.

But in my particular problem, you can sensibly divide by zero provided you start not with zero alone, but by two zeros multiplied together. I laughed out loud when I saw how it worked. Mind you, I don't expect you to be equally amused - you have to be emotionally involved in the problem, and frustrated by not being allowed to do what you want, to find it funny.

The word 'calculating' has several meanings

Quite a few psychologists now think that the rational mind cannot exist without an underlying emotional mind. You have to be committed to being rational. Only then can you override your fervent desire for certain things to be true, and accept that they're not.

What makes us human is not raw emotion: we share that with many animals. More refined emotion, such as a feeling of awe at a beautiful sunset, is another matter.

But to me, the real essence of humanity is to experience emotions, but not to let them take over completely if that's a bad idea.

Professor Ian Stewart is author of Taming the Infinite: The Story of Mathematics, published by Quercus

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17 molecules that changed the world

by Amy Bullen


A history of killing pain: First used in the 5th century, aspirin is the most widely used drug in the world, with more than 100 billion tablets consumed annually.

SYDNEY: All molecules are not created equal. Some have saved billions of lives, wreaked environmental havoc or made the world a more colourful place. Here's our selection of those that have changed the course of human history.

When British microbiologist Alexander Fleming stumbled upon penicillin in 1928, he couldn't have imagined the impact it would have on modern medicine. Fleming noticed that Petri dishes with mould on them grew no bacteria, and in doing so discovered the first antibiotic. Before penicillin came into widespread use in the 1940s, wounds and diseases like syphilis were killers; antibiotics have since saved an estimated 200 million lives.

Salt paved the way for modern civilisation; it was used to preserve vegetables and meat as long as 4,000 years ago. This gave our ancestors the freedom to store food for hard times, travel long distances and live in harsh climates. Salt is also an important ingredient in the production of chemicals, soap and paper. Sodium chloride is in such high demand that in 2006 alone, 240 million tonnes were produced.

As the key ingredient in gunpowder, potassium nitrate allowed humans to propel bullets from guns and, in doing so, changed the face of warfare. Today, there are more than 500 million handguns in circulation, causing at least 1,000 deaths every day. The formula for gunpowder was likely discovered in the 8th century, although it wasn't until the 13th century that it was first used in canons.

Aspirin is the most widely used drug in the world, with more than 100 billion tablets consumed annually. The active component, willow bark, was used as a folk remedy as long ago as the 5th century BC. But it wasn't until 1897 that German chemist Felix Hoffman managed to synthesise aspirin in a pure and stable form, making it one of the earliest synthetic drugs. Aspirin is now taken for a huge variety of afflictions, from fever and arthritis to the prevention of heart attacks, stroke and dementia.

It's hard to imagine how life might have smelled for the human race prior to the invention of soap. More fastidious hygiene has also been important for stemming the spread of disease. Sodium stearate, the active ingredient in soap, works its magic by helping oil to dissolve in water. According to the United Nations Children's Fund, hand washing with soap prevents up to 1.4 million deaths per year through acute respiratory infections.

In 1954 the first silicon transistor initiated what has become a A$160 billion global market in semiconductors. Silicon is a key component of computer chips and circuits and it's estimated that there are currently more than one billion computers in use worldwide. Silicon is also used in solar cells, waterproofing treatments and seals, explosives and breast implants.

Natural rubber has been gathered from the sap of plants for centuries. But rubber only began to be used widely after 1839, when Charles Goodyear found a way to make it strong, durable and elastic. In 1931 U.S. chemist Elmer Bolton developed a synthetic version, and in 2005 we produced 21 million tonnes, with tyres and tubes accounting for 56 per cent of consumption. Other applications include gloves, rubber bands and balloons. Even some rockets and missiles are powered by synthetic, rubber-based fuels.

As the principal component in glass, silicon dioxide was used as early as 5000 BC. All the panes of glass in the world today cover about four billion square metres. Glass has also been essential for test tubes, telescopes, microscopes, mirrors and camera lenses.

By far the most popular plastic, polyethylene is used in grocery bags, artificial joints and plastic bottles. It's even found in chewing gum. In fact, polyethylene is so ubiquitous that it's hard to imagine life without it. But in 1933 when English chemists Eric Fawcett and Reginald Gibson discovered it, they thought of it as nothing more than a waste product. Over 70 years later, more than 60 million tonnes of polyethylene are made each year; but there is a downside, as much of it ends up in landfill where it takes hundreds of years to degrade.

DDT — C14H9Cl5
In the 1950s and 1960s, DDT was used to eliminate malaria from Europe and North America in a program that, according to the World Health Organisation, saved an estimated 25 million lives. However, as early as the 1940s scientists had begun expressing concern over hazards associated with the use of DDT, and extensive research has since implicated the organochlorine insecticide in the poisoning of humans, animals and the environment. As a result, its use has been banned or restricted in many countries.

A potent painkiller, morphine was first isolated by German pharmacist Friedrich Sertürner in 1804. To this day, it remains the most important drug used to minimise suffering in terminally ill patients, particularly cancer sufferers. No other drug is as long-lasting and effective at managing severe pain. Despite this, 80 per cent of the world's population has access to just six per cent of the world's supply. Morphine is more widely distributed as the active ingredient in the illicit drug heroin, with an industry estimated at nearly A$100 billion annually.

In the early 20th century, the world's growing population couldn't find enough ammonia to fertilise all its crops. Due to the discovery of a technique to mass-produce ammonia, called the Haber process, an estimated two billion people are not starving today. We produce 100 million tonnes of ammonia for fertiliser each year, but it is also an important ingredient in explosives.

Iron accounts for at least 90 per cent of metal production. Without it we wouldn't have powerlines or oil refineries. Iron is a key component of cars, trains, planes, ships, fridges, dishwashers and computers. As a chemical it's also used in insecticides, water purification, sewage treatment and the production of ammonia. Iron was first smelted 3,500 years ago, but it wasn't until English engineer Henry Bessemer's invention in 1856 of an inexpensive way to mass-produce steel from iron that its use skyrocketed. In 2007 alone, 1,900 million tonnes of iron ore were produced, with 98 per cent of that used to make steel.

If your head is swimming, you're seeing double and suddenly finding everyone attractive, chances are that ethanol is to blame. Worldwide, about two billion people enjoy ethanol, the intoxicant in alcohol. The average Australian, for example, drinks about 10 L of pure alcohol each year. Historians suspect that it was accidentally discovered when our ancestors' grain stores were drenched with rain and fermented by the Sun. The liquor reduces inhibitions, alters moods, impairs judgement and boosts sexual desire. Alcohol consumption is the third largest risk factor for disease in developed countries.

A country's production of sulphuric acid is a good indication of its industrial might, because at some stage nearly every manufactured good comes into contact with this highly corrosive stuff. It's used in mining, steel production, oil refining and chemical synthesis, and in the manufacture of fertilisers, detergents and plastics. No wonder it's nicknamed "the king of chemicals". Sulphuric acid was discovered in the 8th century, but it only became economically viable in 1746, when English chemist John Roebuck developed a way to produce it in bulk. In 2005 world production of sulphuric acid was estimated at 193 million tonnes.

As the principal component of the pill, progestin allowed women to separate sex from procreation, giving them unprecedented freedom and control over their lives. First synthesised in 1951 by Austrian Carl Djerassi, progestin stops ovulation by imitating the hormone progesterone. Between 1965 and 1995 global fertility rates fell from 4.9 to 2.8 children per woman, largely due to the pill. Today, more than 70 million women around the world use this oral contraceptive.

Scottish chemist Joseph Black discovered and isolated this potent greenhouse gas in the 1750s. At that time, man-made CO2 emissions were about three million tonnes per year. But by 2005, emissions from fossil fuels alone were 7.9 billion tonnes, with another 1.5 billion tonnes caused by forest clearing. Carbon dioxide is the second most important greenhouse gas (after water vapour), trapping heat in our atmosphere and increasing global temperatures via the greenhouse effect. Emissions continue to climb, so unless there's a drastic turnaround, expect the sea level rises, extreme weather events and mass extinctions associated with a rapidly warming globe.

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Gems Point to Comet as Answer to Ancient Riddle

Nanodiamonds, such as these in the black layer of sediment at the Murray Springs archaeological site in Arizona, may explain the extinction of large animals, the disappearance of the Clovis culture and the climate change of an epoch known as the Younger Dryas.
Nanodiamonds, such as these in the black layer of sediment at the Murray Springs archaeological site in Arizona, may explain the extinction of large animals, the disappearance of the Clovis culture and the climate change of an epoch known as the Younger Dryas. (Courtesy Of University Of Oregon)

Washington Post Staff Writer

Something dramatic happened about 12,900 years ago, and the continent of North America was never the same. A thriving culture of Paleo-Americans, known as the Clovis people, vanished seemingly overnight. Gone, too, were most of the largest animals: horses, camels, lions, mammoths, mastodons, saber-toothed cats, ground sloths and giant armadillos.

Scientists have long blamed climate change for the extinctions, for it was 12,900 years ago that the planet's emergence from the Ice Age came to a halt, reverting to glacial conditions for 1,500 years, an epoch known as the Younger Dryas.

In just the last few years, there has arisen a controversial scientific hypothesis to explain this chain of events, and it involves an extraterrestrial calamity: a comet, broken into fragments, turning the sky ablaze, sending a shock wave across the landscape and scorching forests, creatures, people and anything exposed to the heavenly fire.

Now the proponents of this apocalyptic scenario say they have found a new line of evidence: nanodiamonds. They say they have found these tiny structures across North America in sediments from 12,900 years ago, and they argue that the diamonds had to have been formed by a high-temperature, high-pressure event, such as a cometary impact.

"This is a big idea," said Douglas J. Kennett, an archaeologist at the University of Oregon and the lead author of a paper on the Younger Dryas impact hypothesis published today in the journal Science.

The hypothesis has been hotly contested, as would be expected for a catastrophic tale that, so far, lacks anything as compelling as a crater. Nor are there signs of deformation in rock debris that is a signature of the massive impact that, 65 million years ago, apparently wiped out the dinosaurs.

But Kennett and his colleagues say that they have found these diamonds at the layer of sediment that marks the start of the Younger Dryas. They are not found above or below that layer.

These diamonds are measured in nanometers -- mere billionths of meters -- and one of them would not suffice for an engagement ring unless the recipient had an extremely small finger. Indeed, these diamonds are visible only with the aid of the most advanced microscopes.

The wide distribution of the nanodiamonds could be a sign that the comet broke into pieces in space and that the fragments burned up explosively over a broad area of North America. The heat and pressure from the event transformed carbon on the planet's surface into the tiny diamonds, the scientists said.

"Imagine these fireballs exploding in the air. A Clovis hunter standing and looking at these things would have seen a canopy of fire as these things came in and exploded," said Allen West, a geophysicist and one of the paper's co-authors. "There would have been no sound. There would have been massive explosions. Brilliant light, brighter than the sun. There would have been radiant heat -- it would have been capable, at the very least, of giving him serious burns and, at the maximum, of incinerating him."

The hypothesis of a catastrophic impact at the start of the Younger Dryas has incited abundant skepticism in the scientific community. NASA space scientist David Morrison, an expert on impacts, said he doubts that a comet could have broken up in the manner proposed by the Kennett group.

"They talk rather blithely about a comet disintegrating in the atmosphere," Morrison said. Referring to the nanodiamonds, he said: "They may have discovered something absolutely marvelous and unexplained. But the impact hypothesis just doesn't make sense."

Morrison posed several questions: "What size impact does it take to produce diamonds? What size crater would that be? Where is it? If it hit in the ocean, would it have had the same effect? These are all questions one can ask."

Kennett's father and co-author, James Kennett, an earth scientist at the University of California at Santa Barbara who has devoted much of his career to studying the Younger Dryas, said: "I think it's totally reasonable that there should be skeptics. What we're arguing is that this impact hypothesis explains three major things that have been enigmatic and not particularly resolvable."

Those three things are the extinction of the megafauna, the disappearance of the Clovis culture and the climate change of the Younger Dryas. The general thought has been that climate change played a key role in wiping out the large animals and perhaps undermining the Clovis people, though some scientists have argued that the animals were hunted to extinction (the Pleistocene overkill hypothesis). But the fossil record has been puzzling, for many species of megafauna had survived multiple ice ages until the cool spell of the Younger Dryas.

For decades, scientists have believed that meltwater at the end of the ice ages formed a huge lake in central North America, known to scientists as Lake Agassiz. At some point, the water from that lake may have surged into the North Atlantic and shut down the dominant ocean current that brought warmer water toward higher latitudes. That, in turn, could have created a long-term climate change.

The impact scenario incorporates the meltwater scenario. The scientists say that the impact could have destabilized and melted the edges of the ice sheet resting on the northern tier of the continent. An impact would also have created a short-term environmental disaster. Dust from the impact and soot from continent-spanning wildfires could have risen into the atmosphere, blocked sunlight and dramatically hampered plant growth. With vast portions of the landscape burned, large animals requiring a great deal of food may have died off, even if they had survived the initial catastrophe.

The younger Kennett acknowledged that work must be done to firm up the claim: "It's a hypothesis. . . . Basically, there's a suite of data that suggest that something like this occurred, but it still needs to be tested."

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How Crabs Find Their Way Home

By Adam Marcus


A new study shows how fiddler crabs find their way home.

Path integration may not be as widely known as the American Express card, but you'd better not leave the house without it. After all, path integration is the ability of animals, including humans, to return home from somewhere else.

How animals keep their bearings on hunting trips is somewhat of a mystery. Celestial navigation and electromagnetic fields help ants, honeybees, birds and sea turtles keep track of directions. More puzzling: how animals measure distances. A new study has found the first direct evidence that fiddler crabs monitor their travels by tracking their strides.

The obvious explanation for how fiddler crabs chart their path home is that they simply count their steps heading away from their burrow. But, well, that doesn't measure up. "If they took steps that were all the same size, and had that ingrained in their brain, they would convert distance into a number of steps," says senior study author John Layne, a biologist at the University of Cincinnati. "In fact, that’s not what they do."

Using a high-speed, high-definition video camera, Layne and his student, Michael Walls, observed fiddler crabs walking across both mud and a sheet of slippery plastic. "We were able to measure every step by every leg of every animal in this experiment, and since these are eight-legged animals, that's a lot," Layne says. Their findings: that crabs took short steps while moseying and longer strides when running.

Even small missteps confused the crabs dramatically. When allowed to run home, crabs that didn't cross the plastic sheet travelled far enough to reach their burrows. Those that slipped on the material came up well short of that distance. The more they slipped, the farther from their burrow they stopped.

To Layne, the results, set to be published next month in Current Biology, indicate that fiddler crabs perform sophisticated math whenever they leave home. "We think they're summing steps," he says. They know how many strides they've taken and the length of each, and that magic number gives them their distance from home.

The next step, says Layne, is to determine what, exactly, crabs are doing when they sum their strides. One possibility is that sensors called proprioceptors in the animals' legs somehow tally both the number and length of their strides. Other options, he says, are that the brain itself is counting its outgoing commands to move the legs or even that the crabs can measure their own energy expenditure over distance.

"The fiddler crab paper is a beautiful example of what the great ethologist [and Nobelist] Nikolaas Tinbergen called 'physiology without breaking the skin,'" says Fred Dyer, chair of zoology at Michigan State University in East Lansing. “It illustrates how behavioral evidence—careful measurements of what the whole animal does—can provide clues about the computations being carried out in the animal’s brain. Such evidence is indispensable because of the difficulty of observing neuronal computations directly."

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Canada's forests, once huge help on greenhouse gases, now contribute to climate change

Canada's threatened forests

Forestry officials in British Colombia used a controlled fire to check the spread of a devastating infestation by the mountain pine beetle. (Reuters photo by Andy Clark / August 8, 2005)

VANCOUVER — As relentlessly bad as the news about global warming seems to be, with ice at the poles melting faster than scientists had predicted and world temperatures rising higher than expected, there was at least a reservoir of hope stored here in Canada's vast forests.

The country's 1.2 million square miles of trees have been dubbed the "lungs of the planet" by ecologists because they account for more than 7 percent of Earth's total forest lands. They could always be depended upon to suck in vast quantities of carbon dioxide, naturally cleansing the world of much of the harmful heat-trapping gas.

But not anymore.

In an alarming yet little-noticed series of recent studies, scientists have concluded that Canada's precious forests, stressed from damage caused by global warming, insect infestations and persistent fires, have crossed an ominous line and are now pumping out more climate-changing carbon dioxide than they are sequestering.

Worse yet, the experts predict that Canada's forests will remain net carbon sources, as opposed to carbon storage "sinks," until at least 2022, and possibly much longer.

"We are seeing a significant distortion of the natural trend," said Werner Kurz, senior research scientist at the Canadian Forest Service and the leading expert on carbon cycles in the nation's forests. "Since 1999, and especially in the last five years, the forests have shifted from being a carbon sink to a carbon source."

Translation: Earth's lungs have come down with emphysema. Canada's forests are no longer our friends.

So serious is the problem that Canada's federal government effectively wrote off the nation's forests in 2007 as officials submitted their plans to abide by the international Kyoto Protocol, which obligates participating governments to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.

Under the Kyoto agreement, governments are permitted to count forest lands as credits, or offsets, when calculating their national carbon emissions. But Canadian officials, aware of the scientific studies showing that their forests actually are emitting excess carbon, quietly omitted the forest lands from their Kyoto compliance calculations.

"The forecast analysis prepared for the government ... indicates there is a probability that forests would constitute a net source of greenhouse gas emissions," a Canadian Environment Ministry spokesman told the Montreal Gazette.

Canadian officials say global warming is causing the crisis in their forests. Inexorably rising temperatures are slowly drying out forest lands, leaving trees more susceptible to fires, which release huge amounts of carbon into the atmosphere.

Higher temperatures also are accelerating the spread of a deadly pest known as the mountain pine beetle, which has devastated pine forests across British Columbia and is threatening vital timber in the neighboring province of Alberta. More than 50,000 square miles of British Columbia's pine forest have been stricken so far with the telltale markers of death: needles that turn bright red before falling off the tree.

Bitter cold Canadian winters used to kill off much of the pine beetle population each year, naturally keeping it in check. But the milder winters of recent years have allowed the insect to proliferate.

"That's what's causing some of our forests to switch from a carbon sink position to a source position," said Jim Snetsinger, British Columbia's chief forester. "Once those infested trees are killed by the pine beetle, they are no longer sequestering carbon—they are giving it off."

Snetsinger noted that eventually, over the course of a generation, some of the dying forests will begin to regenerate and once again begin storing more carbon than they release. But for the foreseeable future, experts say, their models show that Canada's forests will stay stuck in a vicious global-warming cycle, both succumbing to the effects of climate change and, as they decay and release more carbon, helping to accelerate it.

That grim reality is stoking a new debate over commercial logging, one of Canada's biggest industries.

Environmentalists contend that the extreme stresses on Canada's forests, particularly the old-growth northern forest, mean that logging ought to be sharply curtailed to preserve the remaining trees—and the carbon stored within them—for as long as possible.

Moreover, they argue that the disruptive process of logging releases even more carbon stored in the forest peat, threatening to set off what they describe as a virtual "carbon bomb"—the estimated 186 billion tons of carbon stored in Canada's forests, which is equivalent to 27 years worth of global carbon emissions from the burning of fossil fuels.

"There's only one thing which hauls all that carbon out of the forest, and that's logging," said Merran Smith, director of the climate program at the environmental group ForestEthics. "What we need to do is maintain as much biodiversity as we can, so we are prepared to adapt as temperatures change, so we have resilience."

But Kurz and other government scientists contend that a logging moratorium is no solution to the global warming problem and would in fact increase carbon emissions over the long term.

That's because, they argue, essential wood products for construction, furniture and other uses would have to be replaced with other man-made materials, such as plastic, steel or concrete, which require the burning of even more fossil fuels—and therefore carbon emissions—during their manufacturing process.

"It's not as simple as saying, 'Log less and therefore have more carbon sequestered in the forests,' " Kurz said. "That is true, but if in order to do that you have more fossil fuel emitted elsewhere, your impact on the climate may be negative."

Instead, some scientists argue for more extensive logging of the remaining commercial forests so that older forest stands, which are most vulnerable to insect infestations and have nearly reached their carbon-storage capacity, can be replanted with younger trees that will take in even more carbon during their growing years.

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Rainforest's chewing gum tappers go organic to get out of a sticky situation

Jo Tuckman in Calakmul

Porfirio Baños takes the measure of the chicozapote tree that he is about to tap for its resin. He winds a rope around himself and the tall, straight trunk that stretches towards a glimpse of sky through the foliage above. He starts to climb.

"I started following my dad around the rainforest when I was 10 and working when I was 12," the 50-year-old says as he cuts through the bark with a razor-sharp machete. A bright white sap called chicle runs down the wound in the wood, prompting a smile. "I am a chiclero to my core."

The location is remote, the practice old, the tools rudimentary, and the chances to chat with spider monkeys high. But this is no world apart. Men like Baños were at the root of one of the great consumer phenomena of our time: chewing gum.

Produced only in the jungle that straddles the southern part of Mexico's Yucatán peninsula, northern Guatemala and Belize, chicle was the basis of chewing gum, from the little balls first sold in New York 140 years ago to the sticks included in GI rations during the second world war. Then in the 1950s came synthetic substitutes that shrank the industry to a shadow of its former self.


But just as it was beginning to look as if the chicle industry would fade away altogether, Mexico's chicleros may be on the threshold of a comeback: they are about to launch their own brand of certified organic chewing gum, which is expected to go on sale shortly in Waitrose.

A bonus of the new gum for Britain's local authorities is that it will be biodegradable and start to break down almost immediately after use, potentially saving councils millions in pavement cleaning bills.

The epic tale of chicle goes back to 1869 when a Mexican general called Antonio López de Santa Anna was living in exile on Staten Island trying to raise money. He enlisted a local inventor called Thomas Adams to test out his idea that chicle, long chewed by Mexican soldiers in unprocessed form, could be transformed into a lucrative rubber substitute.

When vulcanisation failed the general moved on, but Adams, left with a tonne of the stuff to shift, came up with what turned out to be a brilliant idea. He added sugar and flavouring, and chewing gum was born. Within a few decades the sap once used by the ancient Maya to clean their teeth had become a symbol of modernity. Michael Redclift, author of Chicle: Fortunes of Taste, calls it "the American product for the American century".

Alfonso Valdez caught the tail end of the chicle fever that invaded the still largely virgin jungle during the boom years. "The chiclero camps were like small towns and there were dances every weekend," the 69-year-old says, reminiscing about the communities accessible only by small plane and lots of walking. "Nobody dared leave before the season was over, and if they tried to walk out alone we would find their torn-up clothes and assume they'd been eaten by a jaguar." Valdez now runs a much more modest camp at the end of a logging track on the edge of the Calakmul rainforest reserve where Baños and another nine veteran chicleros have lived since July and will stay until February.

The job itself has changed little, with each chiclero fanning out into the forest at dawn alone and earning according to how much chicle they bring back to camp at night.

The price for the raw material is too low to attract local youths who prefer to look for dishwashing jobs in Cancún or New York. These may be the last of the chicleros.

The administrators of the chiclero co-operative developed Chicza Rainforest Gum as a last-ditch attempt to save the industry. They struck a deal with Waitrose last year, they say, after touting their product around European organic food fairs. They hope it will be in 100 stores early next year.

Waitrose says it is excited about the product. "We are extremely interested in the Chicza chewing gum," said confectionery buyer Matthew Jones. "It is a great product that is organic and sustainable so we are very excited about its potential in our stores."

Valdez, an ageing chain-smoking toothless charmer who says he has fathered 42 children, is optimistic despite the global recession: chewing gum was one of the few consumer goods to thrive in the Depression. There is the added incentive that it eventually turns to dust. The annual bill for cleaning pavements of gum in the UK is more than £150m.

Chicza's packaging, meanwhile, pushes the new gum as a saviour of a rainforest in danger. The chicleros see preserving the forest as part of their job. "We don't kill the trees like farmers do when they clear land to grow corn or graze cattle," says Roberto Aguilar, 60. "We leave a wound, it's true, but eight years after it is healed and producing chicle again."

Deadly fears

But these workers of the jungle do harbour two fears, and harbour them deeply: the poisonous snakes whose bite kills in hours, and the slip of a machete that can cut the rope holding them above ground. All have lost friends and family to both.

"He just said: 'I'm finished, look after yourselves'," Baños says, recalling his father's last words at the foot of the chicozapote tree he fell from six years ago. The hardened old chiclero allows himself a moment of pathos - but then he's off again, looking for another tree to climb.

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Fishermen Make Mad Dash For Dungeness Crab

by Richard Harris

The moon hangs over the harbor at 4 a.m. in Crescent City, Calif., and a soft foghorn sounds in the distance as boats head out to sea to catch delectable Dungeness crabs.

This isn't just a quaint early-morning tradition. It's a race to catch all the crabs before other crabbers get to them first.

Dungeness crabs are not only a winter treat; they are also the most valuable catch on the West Coast. More than 400 boats ply the waves in the early winter and lay their crab pots off the coast of California, Oregon and Washington.

Brett Fahning is one of those crab fishermen. Fahning is a baby-faced 35 and sports a goatee. And despite this morning's flurry of activity, this port is a mere shadow of what it was decades ago. Two-thirds of California's commercial fishermen have abandoned their businesses in the past 15 years.

But Dungeness crab is one bright success story. The rules for keeping this fishery healthy are simple. Fishermen catch only large male crabs, and only in a defined season.

"It's just like a no-brainer sustainable fishery; it always has been," Fahning says.

An Arms Race

Natural cycles make the crab populations boom and bust, but biologists say fishing is not a threat to the crabs. That's true even though there is an absolute frenzy when the season first opens.

"It's kind of a derby fishery," he says, noting that 80 percent of the crabs are caught in the first two weeks of the season.

There are only so many crabs, and they get scooped up fast during the bonanza days. After that, it's slim pickings. So there's a race to grab them before they're gone.

And more fishermen are joining the derby every year, meaning fewer crabs per vessel. Boats that once caught other species are now turning to Dungeness crabs. That includes vessels that used to go out for salmon, until that fishery collapsed a few years ago.

"More guys are focusing on Dungeness crab and investing [in] Dungeness crab — meaning they're buying more pots, more gear, upgrading their boats," Fahning says.

It's become an arms race to catch crab. And as a result, economist Steve Hackett at nearby Humboldt State University says, there's a huge over-investment in the crab fishery. There are something like 170,000 crab pots off California, about three times as many as you'd need to catch all the crabs in a season. Those excesses also make crabbing less profitable.

The race for crab is also dangerous. It's the deadliest fishery on the West Coast, with fatalities just about every year. Fahning says some fishermen are just too anxious to get in on the early days of the race, weather be damned.

"I mean, I know the kind of boat I have here — it's an old wood boat. I'm obviously not going to go and fish in conditions that I shouldn't be fishing in. And you just have to use your head and be safe, and a lot of times guys don't do that," he says.

Captains also sometimes fall asleep at the ends of their long days and run up into the rocks.

So safety and money issues have led crab fishermen to establish a task force to find ways to make their business more rational. A rational season would also mean more fresh crab. Right now, with the huge burst at the beginning of the season, most gets frozen.

Pulling Up Crabs

Fahning slows the Rogue, his 58-foot-long fishing boat, as he arrives at his first string of crab pots. He has about 450 in the water, and the crew needs to start pulling them well before dawn if they have any hope of harvesting all their crabs today.

Standing on deck behind the wheelhouse, Bobby Kissinger uses a winch to pull up a crab pot. It takes just a few seconds to bring the cage up through 120 feet of water. The crew scoops out a couple of writhing crabs. They're brown, glistening crustaceans, about 2 pounds apiece. The crew tosses them into a bin, rebaits the trap and tosses it overboard.

They'll do that more than 400 times today, Kissinger says. "Yeah, we get in a zone and we stay there for 12 to 18 hours."

As soon as one pot is done, the boat is up to the next buoy. Kissinger and his deckmate Andy Allen have their timing down to the second. Allen says most important is Kissinger's control over the winch, which keeps the 100-pound crab pots from flying out of control.

"Everything's riding on that hand," Allen says. "If his hand slips, makes the wrong move, then we're dead men."

Pot after pot comes onboard. There are five crabs in one, a dozen in another. Some contain nothing but giant starfish.

Fahning watches the action from the wheelhouse. He's a transplant from Wisconsin, educated as an oceanographer but hooked on the business — and sport — of fishing. As each crab pot comes up, he eyes it eagerly, to gauge his luck.

This is a slow season for crabs, but, he says, "I think it's going to pan out OK. It's not going to be a disaster."

Slowing The Race

Fishermen could potentially make life easier for the entire crab industry if they could find ways to slow their expensive and dangerous arms race.

"There have been suggestions of making it a daylight fishery only — no lights are allowed, you can only go fishing during the day," Fahning says.

Another idea is to limit the number of crab pots allowed in the water. He is not wild about either idea.

"I don't think its fair to try and equalize, to socialize the industry," he says.

The truth is that he likes the risks and rewards of the crab business, and he's attracted by the degree of independence life on the sea provides him.

"Really, it'd be pretty hard for me to go back and get a real job after this," he says with a laugh."There's the romantic part of it, too, but I think it's just mostly the independence; the romanticism kind of wears off a little bit after a while."

And it's that independent streak, found in so many fishermen, that will make it tough for the crab fishery to agree on any changes.

Finally, around 7:30 p.m. , the Rogue ties up again in Crescent City with 4,000 pounds of crab in its hold. The crew members go their separate ways, but they will return in about eight hours and once again race out to their pots.

Radio story produced by Jessica Goldstein.

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7 Cleantech Stories of 2008 that will Change Everything

Written by Hank Green

It can sometimes be a little unclear (especially first day of a new year) how the previous year changed the world. No one guessed in 1946 that the Magnetron Spencer Percy was developing for use in a RADAR system (and that subsequently melted a candy bar in his pocket) would one day become the microwave oven. But I like to think that we can make some pretty good guesses about which of this year's innovations are going to be with us, and changing our world, for a good long time.

Here's my list of the top ten clean tech innovations of 2008.

Light Antennas
You know how you can capture and produce radio waves with antennas? Well, what if you could built an antenna so small, it could capture and emit light? The first large array of these nano-antennas was produced this year, and the possibilities for them are endless. They may become efficient light sources, efficient solar panels, or simple ways to transfer energy we feel as heat into energy that we don't feel at all, making them a kind of passive climate control system.

President Barack Obama
Maybe not an innovation in the traditional sense, though, I like to think that it took some innovative thinking to get this man elected president. But President Obama's Administration has already grown to include clean technology advocates and researchers, and carries with it promises of green collar jobs, carbon markets, and restored protections for many of our imperiled ecosystems.

EEStor Begins to Emerge
The power storage company, EEstor, which we're still not 100% sure isn't full of crap did finally begin to tell us some things about their miraculous-sounding power storage technology. If true, vehicles could have batteries lighter than gas tanks, that could charge in five minutes and would never degrade. These ceramic "electrical energy storage units" have not yet seen the light of day (or independent verification) but they do already have contracts with Lockheed Martin and plans to deliver their first unit to an electric car company shortly.

The Gas Crunch
Hey...remember back when gas was freaking ridiculously expensive? Well, while the market may not (the Ford F-150 is, once again, America's most popular vehicle) the innovations that poured into the market to try and help consumers deal with high gas prices will not go away. Better hybrid systems, more efficient engines, massive investments in biofuels, the re-emergence of diesel in America were all direct implications of skyrocketing gas prices.

Solar at Grid Parity
The cost of delivering electrons to the grid has gone up a little bit in the past year, and the cost of delivering electrons to the grid using solar power has dropped dramatically. The first solar electrons costing roughly the same amount as natural gas electrons were produced this year. There's no reason to think that this trend will end, as natural gas gets more expensive, and solar systems get more efficient. In fact, one company is already promising solar power at the same price as coal!

Project Better Place Expands Wildly
While I'm still not 100% sure that Better Place, with it's many battery swapping stations, cell phone-like payment plans and "one sized battery fits all" platform makes the most sense, they have managed to get a lot of governments to bite. California, Hawaii, Australia and Denmark have all signed deals with Agassi's gigantically ambitious electric car program. It could all become extremely passe if EEStor's technology pans out. But otherwise it's one of the few solutions that will work now, instead of waiting for battery technology to catch up with our goals as car drivers.

Pickens Counterbalances Gore with a Real Vision
We've tired of Al Gore. The love affair was great while it lasted, but he's been attacked from too many angles to really latch onto his message anymore. But what about an ultra-conservative, Texas oil man? Now that's the kind of champion clean technology needs! And not only does he provide a different perspective, he provides a clear plan for how he wants to change our energy future. And while it might be a plan that would make him one of the richest people in the world, it's also actually a pretty good plan.

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Times Square bash left about 40 tons of trash

NEW YORK (AP) — One million revelers packed into Times Square plus a ton of confetti and countless noisemakers equals a whole lot of garbage — about 40 tons, according to the city Department of Sanitation.

Cleanup crews hit the streets shortly after midnight Thursday following the 2009 ball drop. Sanitation spokesman Keith Mellis said 163 people worked until 8 a.m. to sweep up the party trash, and a new shift started at 11 a.m. to tidy the area.

Because of the wind — nearly 25 mph gusts throughout the city — the department wasn't quite sure how much trash was strewn about, but Mellis expected a little more than last year's 40 tons. The Times Square Alliance, which puts on the event, said about 1 million people attended.

The biggest cleanup challenge is shooing away the massive crowd so crews can being work, Sanitation Commissioner John J. Doherty said.

"It takes a while," he said. "Last night was a windy night. There's probably confetti as far as the East River."

Mayor Michael Bloomberg was out early Thursday praising the department's work and expressing optimism about 2009 despite the economic gloom of 2008.

"There were an awful lot of good things that took place in 2008," he said. "Fewer people went to bed hungry, fewer people slept without a roof over their head, democracy continues to work in this country."

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.

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6 Factors Shaping the Renewable Energy Industry in 2008


Many industries experienced turbulence this year and renewable energy was no exception. 2008 was really a mixed bag for the industry, with lots of good and bad news.

1. High Energy Prices
Natural gas and oil reached record highs in July, 2008. This impacts the price of energy overall and make renewable energy more favorable. The return on investment for a solar power plant for example is shorter when considering the cost of the electricity generated from natural gas.

2. Toppling Energy Prices
After peaking in July, the price of oil and natural gas have since plummeted. This has made it harder to finance renewable energy projects.

3. The Credit Crunch
It is not just hard to secure a mortgage. Homeowners wishing to pay for a solar system using a home equity loan may have been denied. Even billionaire, T. Boone Pickens hasn't been able to finance his enormous wind farm in Texas.

4. Extension of the Federal Tax Credit
After numerous near misses, the investment tax credit that encourages residential and commercial renewable energy projects passed. It removed the $2000 cap on the tax credit for residential systems and extends the incentive to utilities. This 30% tax credit was originally created in 2005 and has now been extended through 2016.

Although this incentive doesn't have a direct impact on renewable energy in 2008 because the law take effect in 2009, the indirect impact cannot be over emphasized. The existence of an 8 year incentives give stability to an industry that has seen many undulations.

5. Election of Obama
By 2025, Obama would like 25% of U.S. electricity to be generated from clean, renewable sources including wind, solar and geothermal. He calls for $150 billion to be invested over 10 years in clean energy and infrastructure to support it.

6. Fluctuating Commodity Prices
Renewable energy systems rely on raw materials, such as silicon, copper, and steel. Many of these materials have spiked in price in recent years, but some prices have started declining. The silicon shortage caused by a spike in solar panel production may be ending and the cost of copper has started falling.

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Chinese Planning World's Largest Solar Project

Written by Hank Green

Planned solar projects in the U.S. seemed to be one-upping each other throughout 2008, ending with the enormous planned 500 MW facility in San Luis Obispo CA. But now the Chinese are in on the game and, surprise, they're even bigger...planning a solar project twice as large as any currently planned, with a capacity of a full gigawatt.

The project is planned for the Qaidam Basin, a large, sunny desert and The China Technology Development Corporation just signed a deal with local officials to start working on the project.

The project will use only photovoltaic cells (no solar thermal) though it looks like some of the solar cells will be silicon, and others will be thin film. Unfortunately, there's no word on who'll be supplying the panels, but we assume it will be one of the several Chinese companies currently producing solar panels. We also assume that they're using both thin-film and crystalline cells because there would be no other way to get that many solar panels together.

The first phase of the project will bring 30 megawatts of solar power to China, costing roughly $150M and beginning construction in 2009. Whether or not the next phases will be completed, we imagine, depend on the success of this first installation.

This is, of course, fantastic news. Compared to the scale of other solar projects, this is truly massive. Unfortunately, compared to the scale of fossil fuel projects in China, it's minuscule. China reportedly added around 90 gigawatts of coal-fired power in 2006 alone.

This, my a small step on a very long road.

Via Venturebeat and Earth2Tech

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