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Monday, January 5, 2009

Obama is Dead Serious About Quickly Going Back to the Moon: Great News for NASA Fanboys

Posted by Michael Pinto

New NASA capsule Orion resembles Apollo

The most recent NASA soap opera started with administrator Michael Griffin giving the incoming Obama transition team a hard time — coming from an engineering background Griffin’s fear was that the Obama administration was going to gut the new moon rocket program. To be fair to Griffin the program was way over budget (so it looked like a good target) and early in the campaign trail Obama sent mixed signals on his support for manned exploration. The latest chapter was Griffin’s wife sending out a sad email pleading his case to keep his job (despite the fact that he is a Bush administration employee).

As a NASA fanboy I admit that I was fearing the worst: But now the good news is that it turns out that Obama is dead serious about not only going back to the moon, but trying to beat China. This story just came out on Friday when the press leaned that Obama was going to tear down the wall between NASA and the Pentagon. At first I sort of winced at the idea of watering down NASA’s mission — but it made me realize that Obama was dead serious about manned spaceflight a cause that I fully approve.

The International Space Station

Now don’t get me wrong: I’m a big fan of international efforts — in fact the International Space Station couldn’t exist without the support of Europe and Russia (and so many other nations). However the last time space exploration was sexy was the 60s during the space race — and ironically the communists proved that competition is a good thing. The result of the space race was that within less than twenty years you got to watch the first satellite go into orbit and then just a short time later (in the big picture) you see man on the moon.

But sadly after the Apollo program manned space exploration has been stuck in time. Thanks to Hubble we’ve discovered more planets in the last ten years than the last thousand, but there’s something very cool about humans getting off this damn rock. In fact Stephen Hawking believes critical for humans to move off of planet Earth if we’re to survive as a species in the long term. But sadly since the 70s we haven’t done anything except to go into orbit and create a better version of Skylab.

Shenzhou 7

Having a new space race is good because not only will it bring NASA back, but it will also encourage China (and maybe India!) to accelerate their space programs. My hope is that not only can this happen quickly within the next few years — but that it might get the world serious about going to Mars. In fact my hope is that a return to the moon would be what it was advertised to be: The first serious step in a Mars exploration program.

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Does this perihelion make my Sun look fat?

If you’ve been staring at the Sun lately, then you may have noticed it looks a wee bit bigger today than it did a few days ago. That’s not because the UV light from the Sun is frying your retina; it’s actually true. Today is perihelion, the time when the Earth is closest to the Sun in its orbit.



Sitting here on this whirling blob of mud, we actually go around the Sun in an ellipse, not a circle. It’s almost a circle, though. The deviation of an ellipse from perfect circelness is called the eccentricity, and runs from 0 (a true circle) to 1 (which would actually be a parabola, kind of like a circle stretched out infinitely to one side). The formula for eccentricity is pretty simple:


Ellipse diagram with eccentricity formula

The a in the equation is the semimajor axis of the ellipse, or half the long dimension. b is the semiminor axis — half the short width. For a circle, a = b, so the equation works out to 0 as it should. As the ellipse gets more oval, a gets bigger and b gets smaller, and the eccentricity approaches the value of 1.

For the Earth’s orbit, the eccentricity is a miniscule 0.0167, meaning that a and b are pretty close to being the same value. The semimajor axis of the Earth is about 149,598,000 kilometers (93 million miles). Using the value of the eccentricity and plugging it into the equation, the semiminor axis of the Earth is about 149,577,000 km.

So you might think that the Earth gets as far as 149,598,000 km from the Sun, and as close as 149,577,000, a difference of about 21,000 kilometers (13,000 miles). But that’s not correct!

That would be true if the Sun sat at the center of the Earth’s orbital ellipse. It doesn’t. Ellipses are funny when you’re talking gravity and orbits; the more massive object (the Sun) sits at the focus of the less massive object’s (the Earth’s) elliptical orbit. The focus is not really the center, it’s offset from the center by the distance (a2 - b2)1/2. Here’s our diagram again with the focus labeled:


Ellipse with focus labeled

Plugging and chugging in our values for a and b, we get the Sun being 2.5 million km (1.6 million miles) from the center of the Earth’s orbit. That means the farthest we can get from the Sun is the semimajor axis a plus the distance of the focus from the center: 149,598,000 + 2,500,000 = (roughly) 152,000,000 km (94.4 million miles).

The closest we can get is the semimajor axis minus the focus distance = 149,598,000 - 2,500,000 = (roughly) 147,000,000 km (91.3 million miles). Note I’m not trying to be hugely accurate here; I just want an idea of these numbers.

So over the course of the year, the Earth ranges from about 147 million km from the Sun at its closest to about 152 million km, a difference of about 5 million km (3 million miles), or a difference of a little over 3%.

When the Earth is precisely at the point in its orbit closest to the Sun, that’s perihelion. That happened today, January 4, 2009 at 15:00 UT (10:00 a.m. Eastern time). Aphelion, when we’re farthest away, won’t be until July 4.

What does this mean? Well, that translates directly into a 3% change in the apparent size of the Sun in the sky over the year. Honestly? You’d never notice, staring at the Sun or not. You’d need a telescope and careful measurements to see the difference.

Temperature? In fact, yeah, when we’re at perihelion the Earth gets a little more light and heat from the Sun, and less at aphelion. Yet here in the northern hemisphere we’re in the dead of winter. Obviously, the distance of the Earth from the Sun doesn’t affect the seasons very much. Why not? Well, that’s a whole ‘nuther story.

But for now, enjoy our solar proximity. Over the next six months we’ll pull away from our nearest star, and then in July we’ll reach the apex of our orbit, and the dance starts all over again.

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Military Hoping Chat Bots Will Replace Deployed Parents


The U.S. Department of Defense is looking to develop virtual parents to comfort children when moms and dads on active duty aren't available to talk.

In a solicitation for proposals posted on the department's Small Business Innovation Research Web site, the military says it's seeking to "develop a highly interactive PC- or Web-based application to allow family members to verbally interact with 'virtual' renditions of deployed Service Members."

"The child should be able to have a simulated conversation with a parent about generic, everyday topics," the solicitation says. "For instance, a child may get a response from saying, 'I love you,' or 'I miss you,' or 'Good night mommy/daddy.' This is a technologically challenging application because it relies on the ability to have convincing voice-recognition, artificial intelligence, and the ability to easily and inexpensively develop a customized application tailored to a specific parent."

While Skype or similar technologies might seem like a more cost-effective and immediately available solution, Defense rejects that possibility, noting in a Q&A posted below the solicitation that the purpose of the project is to help children cope with the absence of a parent when Internet and phone communication are not an option.

In a blog post, Catherine Caldwell-Harris, associate professor of psychology at Boston University, suggests the project would make a "great background-story for a dystopian novel."

"I confess I am skeptical of the utility of an artificial intelligence program which mimics parental dialogue," she wrote. "Is there any evidence that children age 3-5 will understand that the avatar on the screen is supposed to be their parent? I wouldn't envy the job of a mother who has to train her 3-year-old to comprehend this."

In a phone interview, Caldwell-Harris added, "You can rapidly speculate on how this could be very damaging for children."

At the same time, she tempered her skepticism, saying that there are clearly potential uses for artificial intelligence that deserve further research funding, like real-time language translation or using avatars to teach foreign languages.

"There is a place for AI [research] dollars," she said. "But I think this was a project that didn't get thought out very well."

"The actual solicitation doesn't seem strongly grounded in any behavioral science," she added, noting that the proposal seemed to have been put together by someone who Googled a few supportive articles.

"If the military is genuinely interested in helping military families, why don't they just provide more money for social services that we already know work?" she said.

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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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New transplant hope as lung is 'repaired' and given to patient

By Jo Macfarlane

Surgeons have for the first time repaired an injured donor lung and transplanted it into a patient.

The lung did not meet strict quality standards and would normally have been discarded. But, using a new technique, doctors kept it ‘alive’ and repaired it with a combination of drugs and stem cells.

Lungs are usually removed from patients who die of brain injuries. But because the brain releases inflammatory enzymes when it shuts down, only about 15 per cent are viable for transplant.

X-Ray: Doctors have for the first time repaired an injured donor lung and transplanted it into a patient

X-Ray: Doctors have for the first time repaired an injured donor lung and transplanted it into a patient

These healthy organs are then cooled and are usable for about six to eight hours.

Under the new procedure, the lungs are transferred to a protective chamber and connected to ventilators and filters, which allow an oxygen-carrying solution to flow through them.

The temperature of the lungs is increased over 30 minutes until it reaches 37C (99F), at which point they can be preserved for between 12 and 18 hours, allowing doctors to assess the quality of the organ and treat it accordingly.

The lungs also partially use their own regenerative powers to heal in the same way they would inside the body.

The system was developed in Toronto, Canada. Lead researcher Shaf Keshavjee said: ‘This will be a significant improvement in the utilisation, and quality of organs.

'It has applications for all organs, and transplantation will become more like blood banks, with organs tested and then stored.’

The technique has been successfully used in four transplants.

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It’s Survival of the Weak and Scrawny

By Lily Huang

Some of the most iconic photographs of Teddy Roosevelt, one of the first conservationists in American politics, show the president posing companionably with the prizes of his trophy hunts. An elephant felled in Africa in 1909 points its tusks skyward; a Cape buffalo, crowned with horns in the shape of a handlebar mustache, slumps in a Kenyan swamp. In North America, he stalked deer, pronghorn antelope, bighorn sheep and elk, which he called "lordly game" for their majestic antlers. What's remarkable about these photographs is not that they depict a hunter who was also naturalist John Muir's staunchest political ally. It's that just 100 years after his expeditions, many of the kind of magnificent trophies he routinely captured are becoming rare.

Elk still range across parts of North America, but every hunting season brings a greater challenge to find the sought-after bull with a towering spread of antlers. Africa and Asia still have elephants, but Roosevelt would have regarded most of them as freaks, because they don't have tusks. Researchers describe what's happening as none other than the selection process that Darwin made famous: the fittest of a species survive to reproduce and pass along their traits to succeeding generations, while the traits of the unfit gradually disappear. Selective hunting—picking out individuals with the best horns or antlers, or the largest piece of hide—works in reverse: the evolutionary loser is not the small and defenseless, but the biggest and best-equipped to win mates or fend off attackers.

When hunting is severe enough to outstrip other threats to survival, the unsought, middling individuals make out better than the alpha animals, and the species changes. "Survival of the fittest" is still the rule, but the "fit" begin to look unlike what you might expect. And looks aren't the only things changing: behavior adapts too, from how hunted animals act to how they reproduce. There's nothing wrong with a species getting molded over time by new kinds of risk. But some experts believe problems arise when these changes make no evolutionary sense.

Ram Mountain in Alberta, Canada, is home to a population of bighorn sheep, whose most vulnerable individuals are males with thick, curving horns that give them a regal, Princess Leia look. In the course of 30 years of study, biologist Marco Festa-Bianchet of the University of Sherbrooke in Quebec found a roughly 25 percent decline in the size of these horns, and both male and female sheep getting smaller. There's no mystery on Ram Mountain: male sheep with big horns tend to be larger and produce larger offspring. During the fall rut, or breeding season, these alpha rams mate more than any other males, by winning fights or thwarting other males' access to their ewes. Their success, however, is contingent upon their surviving the two-month hunting season just before the rut, and in a strange way, they're competing against their horns. Around the age of 4, their horn size makes them legal game—several years before their reproductive peak. That means smaller-horned males get far more opportunity to mate.

Other species are shrinking, too. Australia's red kangaroo has become noticeably smaller as poachers target the largest animals for leather. The phenomenon has been most apparent in harvested fish: since fishing nets began capturing only fish of sufficient size in the 1980s, the Atlantic cod and salmon, several flounders and the northern pike have all propagated in miniature.

So what if fish or kangaroos are smaller? If being smaller is safer, this might be a successful adaptation for a hunted species. After all, " 'fitness' is relative and transitory," says Columbia University biologist Don Melnick, meaning that Darwinian natural selection has nothing to do with what's good or bad, or the way things should be. Tusks used to make elephants fitter, as a weapon or a tool in foraging—until ivory became a precious commodity and having tusks got you killed. Then tuskless elephants, products of a genetic fluke, became the more consistent breeders and grew from around 2 percent among African elephants to more than 38 percent in one Zambian population, and 98 percent in a South African one. In Asia, where female elephants don't have tusks to begin with, the proportion of tuskless elephants has more than doubled, to more than 90 percent in Sri Lanka. But there's a cost to not having tusks. Tusked elephants, like the old dominant males on Ram Mountain, were "genetically 'better' individuals," says Festa-Bianchet. "When you take them systematically out of the population for several years, you end up leaving essentially a bunch of losers doing the breeding."

"Losers" tend not to be very good breeders, meaning that this demographic shift ultimately threatens the viability of a species. Researchers also worry that the surviving animals are left with a narrower gene pool. In highly controlled environments, a species with frighteningly little genetic diversity can persist—think of the extremes of domesticated animals like thoroughbred horses or commercial chickens—but in real ecosystems changes are unpredictable. Artificially selecting animals in the wild—in effect, breeding them—is "a very risky game," says Columbia's Melnick. "It's highly likely to result in the end of a species."

At present, researchers' alarm about these trends are based on theories that are hard to prove. To make scientific claims about the effects of hunting on the evolution of a species, researchers like Melnick would need thorough data from animal populations that lived at least several decades ago, which rarely exist. Evolution, it turns out, is a difficult beast to study in real time because it is the product of so many factors—changes in climate, habitat and food supply, as well as gene frequencies—and because it occurs so slowly. Researchers began tracking sheep on Ram Mountain in the early 1970s, corralling the entire population every year to make measurements and trace genealogies. "You cannot really just go out and take data and look for a trend," says Festa-Bianchet. "Even if you find a trend it can be due to environmental changes, to changes in density. You're really trying to tease out the genetic part of the change."

The time scale is one reason that most wildlife departments managing hunting harvests simply count the heads each year and decide how many to let hunters bag without thinking about genes. The most popular method of regulating hunting—restricting legal game to males with a minimum antler size—results in populations overrun with females and inferior males, which is ultimately no service to hunters. "The hunters wish for animals with large antlers and large horns, and yet their actions are making that harder to achieve," says Richard Harris, a conservation biologist in Montana. As a hunter, Harris knows that the outcome of this trend will satisfy no one, the Teddy Roosevelts of the next generation least of all.

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Green Algae Bloom Process Could Stop Global Warming

Stonehenge was 'giant concert venue'

Stonehenge was 'giant concert venue'
An academic from Huddersfield University believes the standing stones had the right acoustics to amplify certain sounds Photo: GETTY IMAGES

The monument has baffled archaeologists who have argued for decades over the stone circle's 5,000-year history but academic Rupert Till believes he has solved the riddle by suggesting it may have been used for ancient raves.

Mr Till, an expert in acoustics and music technology at Huddersfield University, West Yorks., believes the standing stones had the ideal acoustics to amplify a "repetitive trance rhythm".

The original Stonehenge probably had a "very pleasant, almost concert-like acoustic" that our ancestors slowly perfected over many generations

Because Stonehenge itself is partially collapsed, Dr Till, from York, North Yorks., used a computer model to conduct experiments in sound.

The most exciting discoveries came when he and colleague Dr Bruno Fazenda visited a full-size concrete replica of Stonehenge, with all the original stones intact, which was built as a war memorial by American road builder Sam Hill at Maryhill in Washington state.

lthough the replica has not previously gained any attention from archaeologists studying the original site, it was ideal for Dr Till's work.

He said: "We were able to get some interesting results when we visited the replica by using computer-based acoustic analysis software, a 3D soundfield microphone, a dodecahedronic speaker, and a huge bass speaker from a PA company.

"By comparing results from paper calculations, computer simulations based on digital models, and results from the concrete Stonehenge copy, we were able to come up with some of these theories about the uses of Stonehenge.

"We have also been able to reproduce the sound of someone speaking or clapping in Stonehenge 5,000 years ago.

"The most interesting thing is we managed to get the whole space (at Maryhill) to resonate, almost like a wine glass will ring if you run a finger round it.

"While that was happening a simple drum beat sounded incredibly dramatic. The space had real character; it felt that we had gone somewhere special."

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The people on the bus are ... of diverse personalities

By Stephen Adams

London double-decker bus - The people on the bus are ... of diverse personalities
Which personality type are you? Research suggests your seat preference on a double-decker could indicate what sort of character you have

Forward-minded people tend to sit at the front of the top deck, according to Dr Tom Fawcett of Salford University, the independent-minded in the middle and those with a rebellious streak at the rear.

He came to his conclusions after watching people on hour-long bus trips between Bolton and Manchester.

His research would appear to indicate that companies which spend large amounts on psychometric tests to ensure they recruit the right people are wasting their money.

All they need to do is jump onto public transport.

Dr Fawcett, a lecturer on mental toughness who has helped train Olympic athletes, said there were definite patterns in people's behaviour depending on where they sat.

He said: "With something as habitual as getting on a bus people may find it surprising that their choice of seat can actually reveal aspects of their personality."

He concluded that bus passengers fell into seven distinct groups.

Those at the front on the top deck are generally forward thinkers and those at the back are rebellious types who do not like their personal space being invaded, he found.

Sitting in the middle are independent thinkers - usually younger to middle-aged passengers more likely to read a newspaper or listen to a personal music player.

On the bottom deck at the front tend to be gregarious meeters-and-greeters while those in the middle are "strong communicators". Travellers who automatically head for the rear downstairs are said to be risk-takers who like to sit on elevated seats because it makes them feel important.

He defined a final group as chameleons - travellers who do not care where they sit because they feel they can fit in anywhere.

He did not say what happened to forward thinkers on a single-decker bus - presumably they wait for a double-decker.

Dr Fawcett said the study was an "observational" one.

He said: "It was carried out as an observational survey - we noted people's body language and whether there was any interaction with other passengers, if they were sociable or withdrawn or even anti-social."

Buses have long been thought of as vehicles for social observation and not only a means of getting from A to B.

The 19th century journalist Walter Bagehot, who edited The Economist, coined the phrase "the bald-headed man at the back of the Clapham omnibus" to describe a normal Londoner.

The phrase was later used in legal cases to describe what a hypothetical, reasonably intelligent, middle-of-the-road person might think.

Later Loelia Ponsonby, the third wife of the Second Duke of Westminster, stigmatised those who have to use them by saying that "a man who, beyond the age of 30, finds himself on a bus can count himself as a failure."

Political legend wrongly attributed the quotation to Lady Thatcher.

Despite the subsequent damage to their reputation, our affection for these mobile communities remains strong, to the exasperation of the likes of motoring journalist Jeremy Clarkson.

Boris Johnson's nostalgic election pledge to bring back the traditional Routemaster models in a modern form, and banish Ken Livingstone's bendy-buses "to an airport in Scandivania", arguably helped him become mayor of London.

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Scientists discover true love

SCIENTISTS have discovered true love. Brain scans have proved that a small number of couples can respond with as much passion after 20 years as most people exhibit only in the first flush of love.

The findings overturn the conventional view that love and sexual desire peak at the start of a relationship and then decline as the years pass.

A team from Stony Brook University in New York scanned the brains of couples who had been together for 20 years and compared them with those of new lovers. They found that about one in 10 of the mature couples exhibited the same chemical reactions when shown photographs of their loved ones as people commonly do in the early stages of a relationship.

Previous research suggested that the first stages of romantic love, a rollercoaster ride of mood swings and obsessions that psychologists call limerence, start to fade within 15 months. After 10 years the chemical tide has ebbed away.

The scans of some of the long-term couples, however, revealed that elements of limerence mature, enabling them to enjoy what a new report calls “intensive companionship and sexual liveliness”.

The researchers nicknamed the couples “swans” because they have similar mental “love maps” to animals that mate for life such as swans, voles and grey foxes.

The reactions of the swans to pictures of their beloved were identified on MRI brain scans as a burst of pleasure-producing dopamine more commonly seen in couples who are gripped in the first flush of lust.

“The findings go against the traditional view of romance – that it drops off sharply in the first decade – but we are sure it’s real,” said Arthur Aron, a psychologist at Stony Brook.

Previous research had laid out the “fracture points” in relationships as 12-15 months, three years and the infamous seven-year itch.

Aron said when he first interviewed people claiming they were still in love after an average of 21 years he thought they were fooling themselves: “But this is what the brain scans tell us and people can’t fake that.”

One pair of Aron’s swans are Billy and Michelle Jordon who, 18 years after they met, still make their friends envious. The couple, who live in Newport Beach, California, hold hands all the time. “It comes very naturally,” said Michelle, 59.

Lisa Baber, 40, and her husband David, 46, from Bristol, say they still feel the same frisson as when they got together 17 years ago.

“He was crazy and so exciting, he whisked me off my feet,” said Lisa. “That excitement is very much alive. We make sure our lives are always changing.”

Other couples who have kept their passion include Tony and Cherie Blair and Michael and Shakira Caine. Michael Howard, the former Tory leader, and his wife Sandra have been together for more than 30 years.

Aron said he and his wife Elaine, both 64, have a strong relationship but were a little jealous of the swans. “Their relationships are intense and sexually active, too, without many of the downsides of first love,” he said last week.

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Car Key Jams Teen Drivers' Cell Phones

University of Utah engineers developed a new Key2SafeDriving system to prevent teenagers from using cell phones while driving and to reduce cell phone use by adult motorists. Each driver of a car would have their own special key. When the key is extended from the wireless device (sample shown at left), the device sends a signal that displays a stop sign on the cell phone (right) and prevents it from being used to make calls or send text messages. For adult drivers, the system prevents texting and allows calls only on hands-free cell phones. Parents can control the system from a computer. Here, the screen displays safety scores collected by the system based not only on cell phone use, but on driving speed and traffic violations tracked by Global Positioning System satellites. (Credit: Image courtesy of University of Utah)

University of Utah researchers have developed an automobile ignition key that prevents teenagers from talking on cell phones or sending text messages while driving.

The university has obtained provisional patents and licensed the invention – Key2SafeDriving – to a private company that hopes to see it on the market within six months at a cost of less than $50 per key plus a yet-undetermined monthly service fee.

"The key to safe driving is to avoid distraction," says Xuesong Zhou, an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering who co-invented the system with Wally Curry, a University of Utah graduate now practicing medicine in Hays, Kan. "We want to provide a simple, cost-effective solution to improve driving safety."

Zhou notes that "at any given time, about 6 percent of travelers on the road are talking on a cell phone while driving. Also at any given time, 10 percent of teenagers who are driving are talking or texting." Studies have shown drivers using cell phones are about four times more likely to get in a crash than other drivers.

"As a parent, you want to improve driving safety for your teenagers," he says. "You also want to reduce your insurance costs for your teen drivers. Using our system you can prove that teen drivers are not talking while driving, which can significantly reduce the risk of getting into a car accident."

If things go as planned, the Key2SafeDriving system won’t be sold directly to consumers by a manufacturer, but instead the technology may be licensed to cell phone service providers to include in their service plans, says Ronn Hartman, managing partner of Accendo LC. The Kaysville, Utah, company provides early stage business consulting and "seed funding." It has licensed the Key2SafeDriving technology from the University of Utah and is working to manufacture and commercialize it.

Hartman envisions gaining automobile and insurance industry backing so that Key2SafeDriving data on cell phone use (or non-use) while driving can be compiled into a “safety score” and sent monthly to insurance companies, which then would provide discounts to motorists with good scores. The score also could include data recorded via Global Positioning System (GPS) satellites on the driver’s speeding, rapid braking or running of lights, which are calculated by comparing the driver’s position with a database of maps, speed limits, stop lights and so on.

How Key2SafeDriving Works

The system includes a device that encloses a car key – one for each teen driver or family member. The device connects wirelessly with each key user’s cell phone via either Bluetooth or RFID (radio-frequency identification) technologies.

To turn on the engine, the driver must either slide the key out or push a button to release it. Then the device sends a signal to the driver’s cell phone, placing it in "driving mode" and displaying a "stop" sign on the phone's display screen.

While in driving mode, teen drivers cannot use their cell phones to talk or send text messages, except for calling 911 or other numbers pre-approved by the parents – most likely the parents' own cell numbers.

Incoming calls and texts are automatically answered with a message saying, "I am driving now. I will call you later when I arrive at the destination safely."

When the engine is turned off, the driver slides the key back into the device, which sends a "car stopped" signal to the cell phone, returning it to normal communication mode.

The device can't be "tricked" by turning the phone off and on again because the phone will receive the "driving mode" signal whenever the car key is extended.

Adult drivers cannot text or use a handheld cell phone, but the Key2SafeDriving system does allow them to talk using a hands-free cell phone – even though studies by University of Utah psychologists indicate hands-free phones are just as distracting as handheld phones.

Curry agrees that driving while talking on any cell phone "is not safe," but he says the inventors have to face the practical issue of whether adults would buy a product to completely block their cell phone use while driving.

Limiting some cell calls by adults "is a step in the right direction," he says.

Zhou says the goal for adults is to improve safety by encouraging them to reduce the time they spend talking while driving. The encouragement could come in the form of insurance discounts by insurers, who would receive monthly scores from Key2SafeDriving showing how well an adult driver avoided talking while driving.

An Invention is Born

The new invention began with Curry, a Salt Lake City native who graduated from the University of Utah with an accounting degree and premedical training in 1993. He returned from the Medical College of Wisconsin for his surgical residency in urology at University Hospital during 1998-2003. He now is a urologist in Hays, Kan.

His concern with driving-while-talking began because, as a doctor, "the hospital is calling me all the time on my cell phone when I’m driving."

One day while driving home, he saw a teenage girl texting while driving, making him worry about his 12- and 14-year-old daughters, who are approaching driving age.

"I thought, this is crazy, there has got to be something to stop this, because not only is she putting people at risk, but so was I," Curry says. "It struck me pretty hard that something should be done."

Curry's initial idea was a GPS system to detect a moving cell phone and disable it when it moved at driving speeds. Meanwhile, someone else developed a similar system based on the same idea. But it cannot distinguish if the cell phone user is driving a car or is a passenger in a moving car, bus or train – a problem overcome by Key2SafeDriving.

In early 2008, Curry called Larry Reaveley, a civil engineering professor at the University of Utah, who suggested Curry contact Zhou, a specialist in "intelligent" transportation systems. Zhou and Curry then came up with the idea of blocking cell phone usage via a vehicle ignition key.

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Lead for car batteries poisons an African town

Local residents use railroad tracks to cross a heavily flooded area where car battery recycling was done until neighborhood children started dying of lead poisoning.

THIAROYE SUR MER, Senegal - First, it took the animals. Goats fell silent and refused to stand up. Chickens died in handfuls, then en masse. Street dogs disappeared.

Then it took the children. Toddlers stopped talking and their legs gave out. Women birthed stillborns. Infants withered and died. Some said the houses were cursed. Others said the families were cursed.

The mysterious illness killed 18 children in this town on the fringes of Dakar, Senegal's capital, before anyone in the outside world noticed. When they did — when the TV news aired parents' angry pleas for an investigation, when the doctors ordered more tests, when the West sent health experts — they did not find malaria, or polio or AIDS, or any of the diseases that kill the poor of Africa.

They found lead.

The dirt here is laced with lead left over from years of extracting it from old car batteries. So when the price of lead quadrupled over five years, residents started digging up the earth to get at it. The World Health Organization says the area is still severely contaminated, 10 months after a government cleanup.

The tragedy of Thiaroye Sur Mer gives a glimpse at how the globalization of a modern tool — the car battery — can wreak havoc in the developing world.

As the demand for cars has increased, especially in China and India, so has the demand for lead-acid car batteries. About 70 percent of the lead manufactured worldwide goes into car batteries, which are also used to power TVs and cell phones in some areas.

Waves of lead poisoning
Both the manufacturing and the recycling of these batteries has moved mostly to the Third World. Between 2005 and 2006, four waves of lead poisoning involving batteries were reported in China. And in the Vietnamese village of Dong Mai, lead smelting left 500 people with chronic illnesses and 25 children with brain damage before the government shut it down three years ago, according to San Francisco-based OK International, which works on environmental standards for battery manufacturing.

Thiaroye Sur Mer is a town of 100,000 where yearly rains leave people wading through knee-deep water inside their cement-block houses. A train track bisects the town and daily trains speed through just a few steps from homes. The ocean used to supply a livelihood, but fishing hasn't been good the past few years. Young men have increasingly taken to trying to sneak into Europe aboard large canoes with outboard motors.

For years, the town's blacksmiths extracted lead from car batteries and remolded it into weights for fishing nets. It's a dangerous, messy process in which workers crack open the batteries with a hatchet and pull small pieces of lead out of skin-burning acid. The work left the dirt of Thiaroye dense with small lead particles.

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Then the price of lead climbed, and traders from India came and asked about the dirt. They offered to buy bits of lead by the bag for 60 cents a kilogram, says Coumba Diaw, a middle-aged mother of two.

So Diaw dug up the dirt with a shovel and carried bags of it back to her house. There, she sat outside and separated out the lead with a sifter. It took just an hour of sifting to make what she did in a day of selling vegetables at the market. She kept her two daughters nearby as she worked.

Women all over the neighborhood did the same, creating dust clouds of lead.

Then sicknesses started. The deaths came, one after another, over the five months from October 2007 through March 2008.

Killer Batteries
Rebecca Blackwell / AP
Demba Diaw, a 31-year-old teacher, holds a picture of his 4-year-old daughter who died from lead poisoning.

At first, people thought it was malaria or tuberculosis. Doctors at the local health clinic kept seeing the same symptoms with no response to treatment and started running more tests.

That's when Demba Diaw's 4-year-old daughter died. First she got a bad fever. Then she started vomiting. Diaw, a 31-year-old teacher at an Islamic school, thought it was malaria and took her to the hospital. The next day she was dead.

"The doctors couldn't say what she died of," says Diaw. His voice rises as he talks, and he spits out the words. He shows a picture of his daughter that he carries with him, and the plastic casing of a lead battery.

Diaw started talking to other parents whose children had the same symptoms. They were spending more money each day for more lab tests but not getting any answers. So he called the local media and held a news conference to demand an investigation.

At about the same time, the hospital confirmed lead poisoning. The World Health Organization was called in.

Tests ordered
The government ran blood tests on relatives of the dead children. Their mothers and siblings were found to have lead levels of 1,000 micrograms per liter. Just 100 micrograms per liter is enough to impair brain development in children.

A block from Diaw's house, the illness struck his niece, two-year-old Raminatou, the child Coumba Diaw carried on her back.

"It started with a fever. Her skin was hot. She would tremble and her eyes would roll back. She would drool. Her legs would splay out. She cried all the time," says Coumba Diaw. She speaks without emotion, recounting the events as if it all happened to someone else.

Diaw rushed her daughter to the hospital. Now that they knew the problem, they saved Raminatou.

The cleanup started in March, but was not extensive, residents say. On a side street in Thiaroye Sur Mer, a man points out a pile of sacks full of lead pellets that have sat against a wall for months through the rainy season. He says someone ditched the sacks there when they heard the lead was dangerous, and they were missed by the cleanup operation.

About 950 people have been continuously exposed to lead dust in the neighborhood, and many children show signs of neurological damage, according to WHO. The sifting tossed lead particles into the air where people could inhale it.

Regulation and oversight
In richer countries, recycling of lead batteries is regulated. Most U.S. states require anyone who sells lead-acid batteries to collect spent ones and ship them to recycling plants licensed and regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency. Europe has similar oversight.

Image: Lead poisoning
Rebecca Blackwell / AP
Demba Diaw holds up lead extracted from a spent car battery as he explains how lead pollution killed his 4-year-old daughter in September.

"It's when you get to Third World countries where you don't have regulations or attempts to control the movement of this product that you see these kind of tragedies occurring," says Maurice Desmarais, executive director of Battery Council International, a U.S.-based trade group.

Although North America and Europe continue to be the world's biggest buyers of cars, fewer and fewer car batteries are made there. Manufacturing has moved where labor is cheaper and environmental protections regulations are more lenient, or at least more leniently enforced.

"There's not a developing country where this isn't happening," says Perry Gottesfeld, of OK International.

Most in Thiaroye say they will never go back to sifting dirt for lead. But some still don't believe it is dangerous.

Mohamadou Diagne, a scrap metal trader, says he hasn't bought any lead since the poisonings became known. But he says he grew up cracking open batteries for lead, and he hasn't been poisoned. He has not had his blood tested for lead.

"My father is 75. He's never had any problems," he says.

Poisoned earth
An Indian buyer about a half-mile away from the town still has a large yard full of battery casings and sacks of lead pellets. The company used to buy some of the lead dug up in Thiaroye.

Image: Lead poisoning
Rebecca Blackwell / AP
A 6-year-old boy suffering from neurological impairment due to lead poisoning is attached by a cord to his hospital bed as he undergoes long-term detoxification at a hospital in Thiaroye, Senegal, on Sept. 9.

Workers there confirm that they ship the lead and batteries out of the country but won't give further details. The owner declined a number of requests for an interview.

The government has stripped the top layer of dirt from the roads with earthmovers and is paying the hospital bills of anyone sickened by the lead. That's at least 55 children to start, and likely more once the testing is finished.

The World Health Organization says there's still so much lead in the ground that the area is toxic. The government wants to relocate the entire neighborhood. But Demba Diaw says the government just wants to profit from the lead in their earth, and Coumba says this is her only home.

Like many other families, the Diaws are too poor and too rooted to move. So they will stay where the lead poisons the earth.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press.

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Pill link to infertile men, says Vatican

THE contraceptive pill is polluting the environment and is in part responsible for male infertility, a report in the Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano said on Saturday.

The pill "has for some years had devastating effects on the environment by releasing tonnes of hormones into nature" through female urine, said Pedro Jose Maria Simon Castellvi, president of the International Federation of Catholic Medical Associations, in the report.

"We have sufficient evidence to state that a non-negligible cause of male infertility in the West is the environmental pollution caused by the pill," he said.

The article was promptly dismissed by several organisations.

"Once metabolised, the hormones contained in oral contraceptives no longer have any of the characteristic effects of feminine hormones," said Gianbenedetto Melis, vice-president of a contraceptive research association.

Hormones in the pill, such as oestrogen, "are present everywhere … in plastic, in disinfectants, in meat that we eat," said Flavia Franconi, of the Society of Italian Pharmacology.

In October, Pope Benedict XVI reaffirmed the Roman Catholic Church's condemnation of artificial birth control.

Contraception "means negating the intimate truth of conjugal love, with which the divine gift (of life) is communicated" the leader of the world's 1.1 billion Roman Catholics wrote on the 40th anniversary of a papal encyclical on the topic.

An encyclical is a letter usually treating some aspect of Catholic doctrine and issued occasionally by the pope.

The landmark document, with a translated title in English of On the Regulation of Birth, was published at a time when the development of the pill was giving new sexual freedom to women across the world.

Millions of Catholics distanced themselves from Rome as a result.

AFP

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The carbon footprint of nuclear war

Duncan Clark Posted by Duncan Clark

Almost 700m tonnes of CO2 would be released into the Earth's atmosphere by even the smallest nuclear conflict, according to a US study that compares the environmental costs of developing various power sources

A yellow and black pattern shows full (black) and additional space (yellow) at the temporar storage of High level radioactive nuclear waste at Sellafield nuclear plant

Nuclear waste stored at Sellafield. One of the side-effects of developing nuclear power is the risk of war, the report warns. Photograph: AFP

Just when you might have thought it was ethically sound to unleash a nuclear attack on a nearby city, along comes a pesky scientist and points out that atomic warfare is bad for the climate. According to a new paper in the journal Energy & Environmental Science, even a very limited nuclear exchange, using just a thousandth of the weaponry of a full-scale nuclear war, would cause up to 690m tonnes of CO2 to enter the atmosphere – more than UK's annual total.

The upside (kind of) is that the conflict would also generate as much as 313m tonnes of soot. This would stop a great deal of sunlight reaching the earth, creating a significant regional cooling effect in the short and medium terms – just like when a major volcano erupts. Ultimately, though, the CO2 would win out and crank up global temperatures an extra few notches.

The paper's author, Mark Z Jacobson, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford University, calculated the emissions of such a conflict by totting up the burn rate and carbon content of the fabric of our cities. "Materials have the following carbon contents: plastics, 38–92%; tyres and other rubbers, 59–91%; synthetic fibres, 63–86%; woody biomass, 41–45%; charcoal, 71%; asphalt, 80%; steel, 0.05–2%. We approximate roughly the carbon content of all combustible material in a city as 40–60%."

But why would a Stanford engineer bother calculating such a thing? Given that the nuclear exchange would also kill up to 17 million people, who's going to be thinking about the impact on global warming?

The purpose of the paper is to compare the total human and environmental costs of a wide range of different power sources, from solar and wind to nuclear and biofuels. One of the side-effects of nuclear power, the report argues, is an increased risk of nuclear war: "Because the production of nuclear weapons material is occurring only in countries that have developed civilian nuclear energy programs, the risk of a limited nuclear exchange between countries or the detonation of a nuclear device by terrorists has increased due to the dissemination of nuclear energy facilities worldwide."

"As such," Jacobson continues, "it is a valid exercise to estimate the potential number of immediate deaths and carbon emissions due to the burning of buildings and infrastructure associated with the proliferation of nuclear energy facilities and the resulting proliferation of nuclear weapons … Although concern at the time of an explosion will be the deaths and not carbon emissions, policy makers today must weigh all the potential future risks of mortality and carbon emissions when comparing energy sources."

I'm not a huge fan of nuclear energy, and I agree that a large roll-out of atomic power must on some level increase the likelihood of nuclear terrorism or war. However, it does strike me as faintly absurd to try and quantify this risk – particularly the way Jacobson does it. Here's how he crunches the numbers:

"If one nuclear exchange as described above occurs over the next 30 years, the net carbon emissions due to nuclear weapons proliferation caused by the expansion of nuclear energy worldwide would be 1.1–4.1g CO2 per kWh, where the energy generation assumed is the annual 2005 generation for nuclear power multiplied by the number of year being considered."

In other words, if nuclear power leads one exchange of fifty 15 kilotonne nuclear devices over 30 years, then that equates to 4.1 grams of extra CO2 for each kilowatt of nuclear energy produced. Why, you might ask, has Jacobson chosen one exchange, 50 nuclear war heads and 30 years? Good question. Those figures, as far as I can tell, are entirely arbitrary, and as such I'm rather surprised that the Royal Society for Chemistry are prepared to publish them in their journal.

Putting those doubts to one side for a moment, it's interesting to note that nuclear looks very bad in the report even if you ignore the warfare component of the carbon footprint. Far more serious (by a factor of 15 to 25) is nuclear's opportunity cost: the emissions savings lost during the decades of planning and building of each nuclear station. Once again, however, there's no explanation about how these figures are calculated, so it's hard to know whether they're valid.

Either way, nuclear doesn't come out as badly as first- or second-generation biofuels. These, the author remarks, are "ranked lowest overall and with respect to climate, air pollution, land use, wildlife damage, and chemical waste," and may actually "worsen climate and air pollution" relative to fossil fuels. Carbon capture and storage also gets a thumbs down. By contrast, wind, solar and marine energy score well on the wide-ranging criteria, which include carbon emissions, land demands and even thermal pollution.

As the first study to compare energy sources in so many different ways, the report is both interesting and welcome. Unfortunately, it's unlikely to make much of an impact – not just because there's no mention of the economics of each energy source, but because the half-baked quantification of nuclear war's climate impact makes the whole study seem somewhat unconvincing.

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Coffee Beans As The Next Great Auto Fuel?

Posted by Samuel R. Avro

Not only will the fuel be cheap, but the exhaust will also produce the wonderful aroma of coffee.

Scientists at the University of Nevada, Reno, researching the prospect of extracting oil from used coffee grounds report that the process is not that difficult. The cheap and environmentally friendly biofuel is abundant enough to potentially manufacture several hundred million gallons a year to power cars and trucks.

The idea was formed by accident says the chief researcher. “I had left my coffee out one night, and the next morning, I noticed that there was a kind of oil around the edge of the cup,” Mano Misra, a professor of engineering said. “Every cup of coffee has it. I decided to do some tests on the oil.”

The analysis proved that the grounds contained roughly 10 to 15 percent oil by weight. The researchers then extracted the oil with standard chemistry techniques and converted it to biodiesel.

For the study, the team collected leftover grounds of espressos, cappuccinos and other coffee preparations from the Starbucks coffee chain.

Being that the process is not particularly energy intensive, the researchers estimated that biodiesel could be produced for about a dollar a gallon.

According to the Department of Agriculture, the world’s coffee production is more than 7.2 million tons per year.

The study was first reported toward the end of last year in The Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry.

Fill 'er up with an unleaded cappuccino?

The resulting coffee-based fuel –which smells like java– is more stable than traditional biodiesel due to coffee’s high antioxidant content, according to the researchers.

“We have found that biodiesel created from spent coffee grounds is stable over a longer period of time than other forms of biodiesel that have been created from feed stocks such as soy and corn,” Misra said. “Biodiesel from spent coffee grounds is a low-cost ‘green’ form of fuel that shows a significant reduction of carbon dioxide emission. It’s an excellent source for biodiesel.”

One hurdle, Dr. Misra said, is in the organized collection of the spent beans. Therefore, the researchers plan on setting up a pilot operation this year using waste from a local bulk roaster.

It won’t be a complete fix for reducing America’s dependence on oil, but it can be a help while at the same time providing a nice aroma for those in the vicinity. The researchers report that the exhaust actually smells like coffee.

“It won’t solve the world’s energy problem,” Dr. Misra said of his work. “But our objective is to take waste material and convert it to fuel.”

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Coral growth in decline at Great Barrier Reef

Image: Corals in Great Barrier Reef
Jurgen Freund / Freund Factory
These massive porites corals at the Great Barrier Reef are hundreds of years old. The corals are like trees in that each year a new band is laid down in their skeletons that record their environmental histories.

By Miguel Llanos

The rate at which corals absorb calcium from seawater to calcify their hard skeletons — and thus grow — has declined dramatically in the last two decades and signs point to manmade greenhouse gas emissions as the culprit, according to a study of samples from Australia's Great Barrier Reef.

Researchers with the Australian Institute of Marine Science looked at the skeletal records of porites corals collected over the years at 69 reefs along the 1,600-mile-long Great Barrier Reef. Those corals, some 400 years old, showed that calcification declined by 13 percent between 1990 and 2005.

"The data suggest that such a severe and sudden decline in calcification is unprecedented in at least the past 400 years," the researchers stated in the study, published in the peer-reviewed journal Science.

A reef expert not involved in the study described it as "very important." In a commentary posted on newsvine.com for msnbc.com, John Bruno added that "the findings are frankly pretty scary."

"Slower growth might not seem like a big problem, but reef scientists are concerned that this will exacerbate the impacts of other threats to coral reefs," said Bruno, an associate professor of marine ecology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "For example, it will slow the vertical growth of corals, making it harder for them to keep up with rising sea levels.

"It could also slow recovery from other disturbances such as coral bleaching episodes and destructive storms," Bruno added. Bleaching occurs when corals expel the organisms living inside that create the colors found on reefs.

The study's authors themselves wrote that "precipitous changes in the biodiversity and productivity of the world's oceans may be imminent" given how central coral reefs are to marine ecosystems.

Changes tracked via skeletal rings
The researchers sampled porites coral, which can grow over centuries into massive boulders. Porites also lay down annual growth rings, making it possible to compare specific years to water temperature records and other data.

Several potential causes were ruled out by the researchers, among them sewage and other runoff since many samples were originally far from the coast. Disease was also ruled out because the samples were all from corals that had been healthy.

That, they wrote, left "two most likely" factors, both tied to carbon dioxide emissions: warming sea temperatures and more acidic oceans as CO2 raises the pH levels of the seas.

The researchers noted that their findings confirm lab experiments and computer models predicting negative impacts of rising carbon dioxide on corals.

"If temperature and carbonate saturation are responsible for the observed changes, then similar changes are likely to be detected in the growth records from other regions and from other calcifying organisms," they warned.

How fast can coral adapt?
Bruno noted that "we will almost certainly see this problem grow over the next few centuries" due to greenhouse gas emissions. "The only questions are by how much, how quickly corals can acclimate to climate change and what the broader impacts will be."

Image: Coral reef
Jurgen Freund / Freund Factory
The skeletons of corals provide habitat for tens of thousands of species associated with reefs.

Bleaching has also been tied to warming waters, and adds to the pressure on corals. The Great Barrier Reef saw severe bleaching in 1998 and 2002 — the two hottest summers on record there — and officials warned that the northern end of the reef could see severe bleaching again over the next few months during the Southern Hemisphere's summer.

Bruno warned that while corals are not widely visible their role is critical. "Corals create the physical structure that thousands of other species depend on," he said. "They play a role analogous to trees that create forests. When corals die, so do the fish and invertebrate animals that live on reefs."

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Many delta islands may be lost

Kelly Zito, Chronicle Staff Writer

Two decades ago, water breached a levee on Tyler Island, 8,800 acres along the northeastern edge of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, wiping out crops, damaging buildings and nearly destroying the Mello family's farming business. Steve Mello worries the same thing may happen again - with the approval of state policymakers who are considering whether to save some islands if increasingly fragile levees fail. It's a familiar scenario for Mello, who has heard proposals in the past to flood the land in the name of restoring a sensitive ecosystem that also serves as the hub of California's water supply.

"I feel like a lamb surrounded by wolves, and every time you turn to deal with one, another one is nipping at you," said Mello, who farms about 2,500 acres of alfalfa, corn, pears, potatoes and wheat.

Fewer structures have been more critical to California's development than the 1,100 miles of earthen levees that help funnel water through the 1,300-square-mile confluence of the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers. That water, mostly runoff from mountain snowpack, flows through a web of channels to mammoth pumps in the southern delta, sending billions of gallons of water to 25 million Californians.

But the levees are in trouble, experts say. Rising seas, earthquakes, subsiding land and floods pose dire threats on top of the escalating repair costs to the state. Rather than allowing nature to decide when and how the levees give way, many researchers and policymakers say, California should manage the inevitable reshaping of the delta by deciding which levees to repair after a disaster.

No rules exist yet. But beginning this year, government, scientists, planners, environmentalists and water agencies will attempt to reconcile their views on the barriers that have defined the delta for so long.

"The delta is two or three different places," said Will Travis, executive director of the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission. "From the perspective of the environmentalists, the delta is a piece of geography like San Francisco Bay or Yosemite that is near and dear. For water users, the delta is really a broad, leaky ditch and the water has to get from one side of delta through south side of delta."

Levee failures common

Over the last 100 years, delta levees failed 166 times and all but three were restored. In the next century, according to a recent, influential report by the Public Policy Institute of California, the average island at the core of the delta has a 99 percent chance of being inundated by levee failure.

The study concluded that as many as 19 islands in the delta's central area should not be repaired, depending on whether their property value includes land, structures and equipment. Many of those islands have infrastructure that includes railroads, bridges, aqueducts and energy facilities. As many as a dozen should be repaired, according to UC Davis scientists who wrote the report, while 11 are undetermined.

Tyler Island, where land and assets are worth about $126 million, may not be worth saving, they say.

The 2004 flooding of one island - Jones Tract - provided a stark example of the analysis that should go into a decision on any island, the experts say. A levee along the western side of the island collapsed, resulting in six months of repairs and pumping that cost $90 million, including $60 million in tax funds. The island's land was valued at $42 million, while assets on the island were worth about $500 million.

The cost of buttressing all delta levees to widely used standards runs into the billions.

"The delta means a lot of things, but what it doesn't mean (is) that all levees that presently exist must continue to exist and be maintained at taxpayers' expense without regard for benefit, difficulty or rationality of doing so," said Phil Isenberg, chairman of the governor's Delta Vision Blue Ribbon Task Force, a panel tasked with developing a sustainable delta management plan.

Sinking land biggest risk

A colossal earthquake, a 100-year rainstorm and the forecast of a 4 1/2-foot rise in the sea level by 2100: Each poses threats to the delta's levees, many of which sit below the level prescribed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

But scientists say one weakness compounds all of those calamities: land subsidence.

In the 150 years since some of the levees were first carved out using horse-drawn dredgers, the land protected by the levees has sunk dramatically - pushing some of it 25 feet below sea level. Scientists say such differences are putting huge stress on the levees, raising the possibility of breaks or seepage. Fears grew after the catastrophic collapse of New Orleans' levees after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

A drive around Tyler Island shows that some of Mello's fields sit near the island's average elevation of 9 feet below sea level. But Mello, whose family first bought land on Tyler in 1968, believes most delta islands are not as vulnerable as some experts suggest. The lowest subsidence occurs at the center of most islands, not up against the levees, Mello said, and farmers who cultivate two-thirds of the delta's 740,000 acres are using techniques to prevent erosion. Those include less-intensive farming, less burning to level land and growing fewer crops like white asparagus, which turned the topsoil "to flour," Mello said.

In addition, reclamation districts are spending millions to upgrade their levees, including about $6 million in the last eight years to raise 7 miles of levees on Tyler Island by about a foot. "I believe many of these farms, if not all of them, can be farmed indefinitely," Mello said.

He said forcing or allowing the levees to dissolve poses other major dangers, including the release of mercury accumulated in the levees during the region's strip-mining days. While environmentalists say creating tidal marshes and open water could boost important fish and plant populations, Mello and others say islands act as buffers for each other.

"There are difficulties finding one of the major islands you could flood and leave flooded without having a domino effect," said Tom Zuckerman, a retired Stockton water lawyer who now works with the Central Delta Water Agency. "You won't just lose one island; you'll lose the adjacent ones downwind."

Scenarios for the future

The debate over the delta levees will take on new urgency in the coming years as the state grapples with how to fix a water system plagued by leaky plumbing, booming demand and concerns over ecological damage.

A controversial proposal to construct a so-called peripheral canal - which would route water from the Sacramento River around the delta to pumps in the south - dovetails with the idea to let some delta islands return to marsh or open water. In such a scenario, any increase in salty water from the broader bay-delta estuary wouldn't affect the fresh Sacramento water streaming through the separate canal.

But many of the 6,000 people who live in the delta's interior say that option doesn't recognize important transportation lines, historic communities, schools, Victorian hotels, sought-after recreational activities and family farms.

Today's delta is a far cry from the tidal marsh that pre-dated modern development or the early operations of the Gold Rush. Many experts agree the delta's mix of islands and waterways has harmed native fish and plants that depended on the ebb and flow between river and bay.

Radical change is coming, they argue, whether forced by man or nature.

"With the delta, the natural systems are very dynamic and changing rapidly now," Travis said. "It's hard to have a political, legal, regulatory system that embraces that kind of change. It's hard, but we need to make some decisions."

After working for two years away from the ranch, Mello's son Gary, 22, came back to drive combines, work on irrigation systems and learn the intricacies of accounting. Mello, 53, hopes the island survives long enough for the next generation to take over.

"I'm trying to make sure it evolves and passes to them as a viable business," Mello said. "I think they're pulling the plug way too early."

Which levees should be saved?

Researchers at UC Davis say it may not make financial sense to save all of the at-risk Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta levees. Map, Page A6

E-mail Kelly Zito at kzito@sfchronicle.com.

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Offsets in the Air in San Francisco

Plane
Purchasing offsets for the carbon emissions associated with this will soon be easy at San Francisco International Airport, but how to know what’s really being accomplished? (Photo: Associated Press)

This spring, travelers entering San Francisco International Airport will see a new type of kiosk at check-in — one offering carbon offsets for those who wish to counter the greenhouse-gas emissions from their trip. It will be the first time that an airport will be peddling offsets, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.

Details — such as how exactly the offsets will reduce carbon emissions — are as yet vague. According to The Chronicle, the airport has partnered with 3Degrees, an offsets firm based in San Francisco that invests in clean-energy and carbon-reduction projects. The airport is supplying the kiosks and putting $163,000 into the program — and while the prices from are yet to be determined, a 3Degrees official told The Chronicle that offsetting a trip to Europe now costs around $36.

Many airlines, most recently Virgin America, have already begun selling offsets of their own. Virgin recently promised that it would soon give customers the opportunity to buy offsets while in flight, via the seat-back system.

With all these air offsets in the works and many questions raised about their effectiveness (not least by the Federal Trade Commission), I contacted Michael Wara, an expert in this area and an assistant professor at Stanford Law School. He said travelers should be asking plenty of questions about the offsets.

“Joe or Jane Q. Public wants to be as sure as possible that (1) said gas would have been emitted without their purchase (2) that said gas was in fact not emitted, and (3) that this certified non-event has not been sold to more than once,” Mr. Wara said in an e-mail message.

How to do that? Mr. Wara recommended making sure that the seller uses an approved voluntary offset methodology, and that a reputable third party verifier is used to certify the project and its accompanying emissions reduction. He also said the offsets ought to be registered after they have been sold, with guarantees that they will not be used again.

“If it were me,” Mr. Wara said, “I’d take a look at my frequent flier account once a year, add up the miles, do the math with an online calculator to go from miles flown to carbon emitted.” Mr. Ware said he would then seek out a reputable offset provider from whom he could obtain detailed information on how his purchase was actually generating a climate benefit.

“That way I could be sure of what I was getting,” he said.

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