Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Because I Have a Friend in Wales

Snow at Westonbirt Arboretum, Gloucestershire. The cold spell is giving way to heavy rain. Photo courtesy: Matt Cardy/Getty Images via guardian.co.uk

More than 200 flood alerts are in place across the UK as heavy rain has mixed with melting snow.

There have been more reports of flooding in south Wales overnight as the downpours replace almost two weeks of snow. Norfolk police have reported flooding caused by melting snow and ice, which has closed a number of roads in the area.

Wales, central England, and the south-west will be the worst-hit areas, with at least 2.5 cm (1 in) of rain expected by mid-morning, while the rest of the UK can expect around 1.3 cm.

Rising temperatures of up to 12C have sparked a rapid thaw of the snow and ice which has built up in the recent cold snap, exacerbating potential flooding problems. The Environment Agency has issued 30 flood warnings urging people to take immediate action against predicted flooding, in the Midlands, the west of England, central England and Wales. A further 218 flood warnings are in place across England, Scotland and Wales affecting all but the east of England and north of Scotland.

Chris Burton, a forecaster for MeteoGroup, the weather division of the Press Association, said the heavy rain would return on Monday along with the risk of flooding, as the surface water and river levels build up before an unsettled week.

Around 18 buildings flooded in various locations across Wales on Friday night, including two houses in Solva, Pembrokeshire, and two in Dolgellau, north Wales.

The latest heavy snow storms left hundreds of people stranded for hours on motorways in the north of England. The M6 was blocked in both directions between junctions 25 and 27 in Lancashire when a sudden burst of more than a foot of snow brought drivers to a standstill from around 8.30 pm, the Highways Agency said. Many became stuck along the stretch of motorway between Wigan and Standish after struggling to make it up inclines in the treacherous conditions, while a number of accidents including jack-knifed lorries also blocked lanes.

Mountain rescue workers were drafted in to help with rescue operations and check on the condition of drivers stranded by the snow. A diabetic man was taken to Royal Blackburn hospital after falling ill, while an ambulance taking a female patient to Royal Preston hospital had to be dug out of the snow by Bowland Pennine mountain rescue team.

Phil O'Brien, team leader of Bowland Pennine mountain rescue, said: "It was potentially a very serious situation. The Highways Agency managed to get people moving at about 4.30 to 5 am]. There were hundreds of cars stuck but most people seemed in good spirits."

Some of the stranded drivers passed the time by having snowball fights and building snowmen, while others abandoned their cars completely.

David Cameron took to Twitter on Saturday to express his sympathy for those caught up in the snow.

He tweeted: "Huge sympathy for those affected by heavy #uksnow. Govt working closely with transport operators to minimise impact on everyone."

A family had to be evacuated when the gable end of their house collapsed, apparently under the weight of fresh snow in Barnsley, South Yorkshire.

The death toll during the recent cold snap, which is in double figures, is thought to have risen further as it was feared a man in his 30s or 40s might have frozen to death after going missing in woodland.

His body was found on Thursday night after four friends went to Newmarket police station in Suffolk reporting that he had not been seen for four days. The men had been searching for him and found him dead in a wooded area. The death is being treated as unexplained, but one theory is that he succumbed to the freezing temperatures.

A father died when his car skidded into a river just before his wife's vehicle also plunged into the icy water. David Cox, 42, was taking his 11-year-old daughter Tess to school when their Toyota Aygo left the path and crashed into the river Wye in Derbyshire.

The children and their mother managed to get out of the cars and safely to shore but Cox was unable to escape.

Other casualties of the cold spell include the postman John Bircham, 57, who collapsed soon after he was towed out of a snowdrift in Dulverton, Somerset, and Bernadette Lee, 25, who was found collapsed in the snow in Deal, Kent, following a night out.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Brazil to Conduct a Tree Census

A deforested area of rainforest along the border of the Xingu river in northern Brazil. Photo courtesy: Antonio Scorza/AFP/Getty Images via guardian.co.uk

The Brazilian government is to launch a four-year tree census of the Amazon to improve understanding of the impacts of deforestation, climate change and conservation efforts.

The study will also help to assess the potential value of the biodiversity under the canopy and the growth of human settlements in the Amazon region, which is home to a number of fast-expanding cities, as well as uncontacted indigenous tribes.

The cataloguing operation will be the most detailed study for 40 years – a period in which the world's greatest forest has come under unprecedented pressure from farmers, loggers and drought.

The environment ministry said the inventory "will allow us to have a broad panorama of the quality and the conditions in the forest cover".

Improvements in satellite monitoring technology have already provided a wealth of data about the degradation of the Amazon.

Last week, Nasa released figures showing that an area twice the size of California continues to suffer from a mega-drought, which began eight years ago. Nasa said this may be the first sign that the Amazon is suffering major consequences from climate change.

The Brazilian government also uses a sophisticated satellite system to co-ordinate its actions against illegal forest clearance. The environment ministry says this has slowed deforestation and pushed Brazil halfway towards its Copenhagen commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 36% by 2020.

However, there are limits to what can be analysed from above, particularly when it comes to the quality of the forest and the biodiversity below the canopy.

"We are going to come to know the rainforest from within," said forestry minister, Antonio Carlos Hummel.

With the results expected to be released year by year, the environment minister, Izabella Teixeira, said the government would have more information on which to base its future strategies of conservation and extraction of economic value.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Who Says Kids Can't Help Change The World

Photo courtesy: © My ReCycler

At an age when most youngsters are just beginning to get acquainted with the world they've inherited, 10-year-old Vanis Buckholz was already thinking of ways he could help make it a better one for others -- and grown-ups have taken notice.

After learning about the importance of recycling on Earth Day at his elementary school a few years back, Vanis began to to notice how much reusable stuff people were throwing away every day, and decided to try to make a difference. So, at the ripe young age of 7, he became one of the nation's youngest eco-entrepreneurs, launching his very own recycling business to serve his hometown of Corona del Mar, California -- thus, "My ReCycler" was born.

"The idea for my business name came from 'cycling' and riding my scooter around town picking up trash on our beach, streets and parks then hauling it home to recycle," says Vanis. "My mom and dad taught me to never pollute so picking up trash was something we always did but now it's a part of the business."

After three years in business, My ReCycler has expanded with the help of his family, friends, and folks from throughout the region -- and a trailer attached to his bike to collect his customer's recyclables. In fact, nowadays his trips to the recycling center are by the truckload.

© My ReCycler

But if all that wasn't remarkable enough for such an ambitious youngster, Vanis then decided to donate a portion of the recycling profits Project Hope Alliance, an organization that provides outreach to homeless and underprivileged kids.

"It’s so easy to do nothing. But it’s really good to do something! I always tell my new customers that “every little bit matters”. Even ONE bottle helps. I love my job. I’m a very lucky kid but there’s a lot of kids who don’t have much luck."

"Project Hope Alliance is both amazed and humbled by the contributions and support given by Vanis to our organization," says Executive Director Jennifer Friend. "With his support we are educating and empowering homeless children in Orange County to end the cycle of poverty. Thank you Vanis for being a shining example of hope in action"

Vanis recently spoke before city council meeting, where he was lauded by Newport Beach Mayor Keith Curry: "Newport Beach is the home of some great entrepreneurs. The one tonight is particularly young, but I think is a very outstanding entrepreneur."


Sunday, October 28, 2012

80,000-Year-Old Quaking Aspen Grove

Photo courtesy: scottks1

The oldest living organism in the world is 80,000 years old and clones itself. Known as Pando, and nicknamed The Trembling Giant, this organism is a single grove of Quaking Aspen trees in Utah. Aspens trees are so glorious particularly on windy nights. Before the aspen grove across the street was sacrificed for even more condos, I would sit on my balcony on windy nights enjoying the sight and sound of the aspens. My neighbours don't make the same viewing as my aspens did.

Photo courtesy: Will Scullin

The grove is aptly-named Pando, which is Latin for "I spread" -- and spread it does. The grove is actually a single clonal colony of a male Quaking Aspen. Simply put, it is essentially one massive root system that began life an estimated 80,000 years ago. The root system currently has somewhere around 47,000 stems that create the grove of trees that keep the root system going.

Photo courtesy: scottks1

Pando is not only considered the oldest living organism but also possibly the heaviest. The colony has spread over about 106 acres and experts think in all it weighs about 6,600 short tons. However, some experts think that chunks of the root system have died off leaving parts of the colony separated, making it effectively more than one organism. And other less-studied clonal colonies of aspen may be contenders for the title of heaviest.

Photo courtesy: ZionNPS

Pando exists in part because frequent fires have kept conifers out of the area, and because a shift to a semi-arid climate has kept other aspen seedlings from taking root. This has left plenty of space for the ancient root system of Pando to spread and thrive. The fact that Pando is one giant organism wasn't discovered until the 1970s, by Burton V. Barnes of the University of Michigan. Currently, experts are worried that a range of factors are threatening the life of this ancient organism.

Photo courtesy: Will Scullin

While Pando's estimated age of 80,000 years may be staggering, even more amazing is the possibility that experts have underestimated its age. Because the age of the organism cannot be determined through tree rings (the average age of the stems being around 130 years), many factors such as the history and climate of the local environment over millennia. Taking different factors into account, some experts think that Pando could be closer to 1 million years old! There is a lot of debate and speculation around Pando, but one thing is certain: this organism is mind-blowing.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Beijing's Smog Crisis





Li Feifan discusses his 40-minute documentary Future Armageddon, screened on Chinese TV via guardian.co.uk

In the news lately has been the extraordinarily bad conditions of Beijing's air, or as some are calling it, "airpocalypse". The city recently went way, way, way off the charts for air pollution and officials are now looking at how to reign in the causes of such incredible pollution.

The Guardian reports, "One week after that chart-busting Saturday, Beijing proposed new measures to combat pollution, including increased fines for excessive vehicle emissions and factory shutdowns on particularly bad days. But experts say the sheer scale and diversity of the pollution's underlying causes means that Beijing residents may not be able to breathe freely for decades."

One resident, Li Feifan, hopes to bring the issues directly to the public view with a new 40-minute documentary showing the flat-out frightening conditions of air within the city. He is hoping a visual presentation of the damage being done will spur residents to change their ways.

A baby is given nebuliser therapy at Beijing Children's Hospital as the capital is hit by record-breaking air pollution. Photograph: Li Wen/Xinhua Press/Corbis via guardian.co.uk

Record-breaking pollution in Beijing and other environmental problems in China are the result of unchecked government power, one of the country's former top environment officials has said.

On 12 January, Beijing's pollution hit a nauseating 755 on a US Environmental Protection Agency-designed 0-500 scale. Below 25 is considered the safe daily level by the World Health Organisation. Stores sold out of anti-pollution face masks, flights were delayed and hospital respiratory wards were overrun with coughing patients. Internet users called it the "airpocalypse".

"I have to admit that governments have done far from enough to rein in the wild pursuit of economic growth, and failed to avoid some of the worst pollution scenarios we, as policymakers, had predicted," Qu Geping, a top environmental protection administrator from 1987 to 1993, told the South China Morning Post.

Qu said that Chinese authorities could have pre-empted the crisis by adhering to a 1983 policy "stipulating that economic and urban construction should synchronise with environmental protection". Yet they haven't, and the country's air, water and soil continue to deteriorate. "Why was the strategy never properly implemented?" he said. "I think it is because there was no supervision of governments. It is because the power is still above the law."

One week after that chart-busting Saturday, Beijing proposed new measures to combat pollution, including increased fines for excessive vehicle emissions and factory shutdowns on particularly bad days. But experts say the sheer scale and diversity of the pollution's underlying causes means that Beijing residents may not be able to breathe freely for decades.

Deborah Seligsohn, an expert on China's environment at the University of California, San Diego, said that there is no silver bullet for the country's air pollution. The underlying causes are dynamic and diverse: power plants, small factories, automobile emissions, rampant construction, farmers burning coal for heat. "One of the things about the air quality in Beijing is that it varies a lot more than it used to," she said.

Beijing's air quality fluctuates with the weather – a strong wind from the north can blow the smog to sea, she said, while south-eastern winds trap the air against a nearby mountain range, drowning the city in a pea-soup haze.

The Guardian writes, "Li Feifan discusses his 40-minute documentary Future Armageddon, screened on Chinese TV this week. It features multiple images of the same city skyline submerged in different levels of smog. Li spent two months filming in the city, including earlier this month when pollution levels were 30 to 45 times above the recommended safety levels."

Air pollution isn't only bad in Beijing. A NASA chart revealing poor air quality across the middle east and Asia.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Microsoft Trying to Reduce Natural Ecosystems to a Software Program

Photo courtesy: anoldent/CC BY-SA 2.0

Researchers and programmers have come up with modeling software for all kinds of complex systems, including modeling how the earth's systems may alter with climate change. But what has yet to be modeled is a deeply complex natural ecosystem from soil microbes and fungi all the way up to apex predators and giant trees. Just wrapping one's head around the scope of such a task is exhausting, and yet the knowledge that could be gained by creating such modeling software would be invaluable, and would help make smart policy changes regarding conservation. Which is why Microsoft is giving it a go. In fact, climate change models have been so successful, it's no wonder researchers are interested in using the same sort of system for biodiversity.

Drew Purves, head of Microsoft’s Computational Ecology and Environmental Science Group (CEES) and his colleagues at Microsoft Research in Cambridge, United Kingdom, are working with the United Nations Environment Programme World Conservation Monitoring Center (UNEP-WCMC) to create software that will accurately model a natural ecosystem -- or as they put it, a general ecosystem model (GEM).

Microsoft's Green Blog states, "Building a GEM is challenging — but not impossible. Microsoft Research and the UNEP-WCMC have spent the past two years developing a prototype GEM for terrestrial and marine ecosystems. The prototype is dubbed the Madingley Model, and is built on top of another hugely ambitious project that the group just finished, modeling the global carbon cycle. With this as starting point, they set out to model all animal life too: herbivores, omnivores, and carnivores, of all sizes, on land in the sea."

The major challenge facing the project is, obviously, the need for as much data as possible. To make a GEM work, large-scale global collection of ecological data is needed. After all, how are we to model an ecosystem if we don't know much about how the ecosystem functions or even what organisms exist within it. The challenge needs to be met with the collaboration of all the governments around the world. If enough data can be collected and software devised to use the data for accurate modeling, then scientists would have an incredibly powerful new tool for illustrating how policy choices would affect ecosystems.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Quail Mothers Capable of Camouflaging Eggs

When it comes to camouflage, ground-nesting Japanese quail are experts. Mother quail know the patterning of their own eggs and choose laying spots to hide them best. Photo courtesy: Lovell et al., Current Biology via ouramazingplanet.com

Quail eggs are like fingerprints, a new study suggests.

The creamy blue-and-brown speckled eggs, splashed like a toddler's art project, vary among birds but are consistently patterned for individuals.

What's more, in a laboratory experiment, quail camouflaged their eggs according to their personal pattern, picking lighter sand for less-speckled eggs and darker sand for eggs with more brown splotches. What surprised researchers was the discovery that quail changed their approach to camouflage as their eggs got darker.

"It's as if they knew the characteristics of their own eggs and chose the best substrate with which to lay them," said George Lovell, lead study author and an expert on animal camouflage at Abertay University and the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.

Sitting at the bottom of the food chain, with a spot on just about every predator's dinner menu, quail and their eggs need good hiding places.

In the experiment, quail could lay clutches in sand with white, yellow, red or black hues. Researchers photographed each spot where the quail laid eggs and each location they ignored. The images revealed whether quail moms picked the sand color that offered the most camouflage. "They did really, really well," Lovell told OurAmazingPlanet.

Japanese quail choose between two camouflage strategies to hide their eggs. Photo courtesy: Lovell et al., Current Biology via ouramazingplanet.com

More than 50 percent of the time, quail chose the sand color offering the best or second-best protection for their own egg pattern, the study found. The findings appear in the journal Current Biology.

"The amazing thing is this change in strategy for the different eggs," Lovell said.

Quail with the creamiest egg colors picked white or yellow sand. This strategy, called background matching, aims to hide the eggs by blending into a similarly-colored background.

Quail with darker, more splotchy eggs conceal their eggs not by matching a background color, but by trying to break up the egg's outline through its color pattern, an approach called disruptive coloration. The same strategy the military uses in its camouflage patterning, the egg splotches disrupt its own outline with the colors and patterns on its shell, Lovell explained.

"What the spots seem to be doing it making a predator think an egg is different from an egg shape," he said.

Quail egg camouflaged with dark splotches. Photo courtesy: Lovell et al., Current Biology via ouramazingplanet.com

Cream-colored camouflaged quail egg. Photo courtesy: Lovell et al., Current Biology via ouramazingplanet.com

The quail were raised in captivity at the University of Glasgow in Scotland, and had seen their eggs before the experiment started.

"It's possible that they learn the patterning through seeing eggs that they've laid," Lovell said. "In the wild, there is some evidence that birds are often less successful with their first clutch of eggs. It may be that at that point in time, they're not able to select the best place to lay their eggs."

Scientists think birds use patterning on eggs for camouflage, but the darker colors may also help strengthen weak spots or regulate temperature, Lovell said.

The shell color comes from two pigments: blue-green biliverdin and red-brown protoporphyrin, which are both breakdown products of hemoglobin (the oxygen-carrying protein found in the red blood cells of all vertebrates).

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Man Outsources Job to China

This is not Bob. Photo courtesy: Yahoo!News

A Verizon case study recently revealed that some people will go to great lengths in order to be able to watch cat videos all day.

We first heard about it on TNW.

The study documents the scam of a developer, who is referred to as Bob. He worked at a "critical infrastructure" company in the U.S. and started outsourcing his work to China underneath his company's nose, and would only pay those people less than one fifth of his six-figure salary.

Here's how it was possible.

Bob's company had started letting employees work remotely from home on certain days, so it set up a VPN concentrator to facilitate that. The company implemented two-factor authentication for the connection, with the second factor being a physical, rotating token RSA key fob. So all Bob had to do was send the key over to China via FedEx.

The company eventually noticed strange activity in its VPN logs, so it asked Verizon for some help understanding what was going on. The logs showed that Bob was logged in from Shenyang, China, even though he was sitting at his desk.

The company initially thought there was some kind of malware routing traffic from an internal connection in China, and then back to the U.S.

But Verizon investigators quickly noticed a major red flag. The VPN connection wasn't new and had been active for at least six months.

So they zeroed in on Bob himself, and took a forensic image of Bob's computer to recover as many files as possible and check for signs of malware.

What they ended up finding were hundreds of PDF invoices from a third-party contractor in Shenyang, China.

A look at his browsing history revealed what his typical work day consisted of:

• 9:00 a.m. – Arrive and surf Reddit for a couple of hours. Watch cat videos.
• 11:30 a.m. – Take lunch.
• 1:00 p.m. – Ebay time.
• 2:00 – ish p.m. Facebook updates – LinkedIn.
• 4:30 p.m. – End of day update e-mail to management.
• 5:00 p.m. – Go home.

So while workers in China were doing Bob's job for him, Bob was sitting back, relaxing, watching cat videos, and earning "several hundred thousand dollars" a year.

BTW, for those who think this was a good idea - Bob is now looking for other career opportunities.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Desert Tortoises Can Hear Better Underwater

This is a specimen of the new species, Morafka's Desert Tortoise (Gopherus morafkai), from Tiburon Island, Sonora, Mexico. Photo courtesy: Taylor Edwards via OurAmazingPlanet.com

Desert tortoises, as their name suggests, don't encounter many large bodies of water. But surprisingly, all turtles, even desert tortoises, can hear better underwater, recent research finds.

"If a desert tortoise decided to stick its head underwater, it could hear better," said Katie Willis, a University of Maryland doctoral student and co-author of a study published online this week in the journal PLoS ONE.

The findings shed light on the evolution of turtles, suggesting they all share an aquatic ancestor, the researchers said.

Willis and her co-authors took MRI and CT scans of the inner ears of many different species of turtles. They calculated that in every case these relatively large, air-filled sacks inside the skull resonated, or vibrated, more powerfully underwater, where sound waves travel more quickly than in air.

This process of hearing starts when sound waves vibrate the ear drum, which in turtles is flush with the outside of the head, Willis told OurAmazingPlanet. When the sound waves are at the right frequency, or pitch, they cause the inner ear to resonate and vibrate, aiding hearing, she said. This allows animals to better hear fainter sounds.

After taking measurements of the turtles' inner ears, the team found that all of them closely resembled those of aquatic turtles; the ratio between the size of the skull and the size of the inner ear remained about the same, she said.

This observation, along with the team's resonance calculations, suggests that all turtles evolved from a common ancestor that lived in the water, she said.

"This strongly points to an aquatic origin for all turtles," Willis said. This has been a controversial topic, with some fossil evidence suggesting turtles have terrestrial origins.

She said the study should help better understand how hearing works in turtles and other animals, and where to place turtles in the evolutionary tree. It supports the hypothesis that turtles are more closely related to crocodiles and birds than to all other reptiles, contrary to previous theories.

Land turtles hear via sound vibrating their ear drums. Apparently it works well enough that evolution hasn't selected for a more specialized inner ear cavity, she said, a case of so-called neutral selection. Willis summed it up: "If it ain't broke, don’t fix it."

Monday, October 22, 2012

New Problem For Canadian Government Regarding New Polymer Money

CBC/CBC - On the right side of the new $20 bill is what some experts say is a Norway maple leaf, not a Canadian maple leaf via Yahoo!News

Some botanists are shaking their heads at the new polymer bills because they say the money features a maple leaf from Norway, and not Canada, although that's not how the Bank of Canada sees it.

The Norway maple came to North America in the 18th century, imported by a Philadelphia merchant and peddled as a garden adornment. But lately it has been turning up in all kinds of places, including the official logos of Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ont., and the FIFA under-20 World Cup of Soccer.

The Canadian Television Fund and the Alliance of Natural History Museums of Canada have also made maple leaf errors, according to botanists.

Sean Blaney, senior botanist of the Atlantic Canada Conservation Data Centre, said he never expected to see the Norway maple leaf on a $20 bill.

"It's a species that's invasive in Eastern Canada and is displacing some of our native species, and it's probably not an appropriate species to be putting on our native currency," Blaney told CBC News.

The Bank of Canada, which makes the banknotes, denied the bills include a Norway maple leaf. A spokesperson said the leaf is a stylized blend of different Canadian maple species.

But Blaney argued it looks nothing like any of the 10 maples native to Canada.

"It seems a bit like an after-the-fact explanation to me. The bottom line is that, the image on the bill looks exactly like a Norway maple, however it was derived," he said.

University of Ottawa Prof. Julian Starr, also a research scientist at the Canadian Museum of Nature, specializes in plant identification and classification.

He has been consulted by the Royal Canadian Mint about the botanical accuracy of its coins, but he was not shown this maple leaf.

"This could not be confused with a native species of Canada," said Starr. "It basically looks like a Norway maple."

There are 400 million bank notes already in circulation, including $20, $50 and $100 bills. There are plans to print another 1.2 billion more bank notes, including $5 and $10 bills.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

World's Beach Resorts Under Threat From Rising Ocean Levels

Beach at Cancun, Mexico. Photo courtesy: Cancun beach photo via Shutterstock

Whether they're playgrounds for the rich and famous or havens for retirees, the world's best beach resorts may disappear despite efforts to protect them against sea level rise.

That's the prediction of coastal expert Andrew Cooper, a professor at the University of Ulster in Ireland, who said that the usual way of replenishing a beach, by adding sand to it, will not keep up with the sea's rapid rise.

"A key attractor in most of the world's examples of coastal resort cities has been the presence of an adjacent beach," Cooper said in a statement. "Some well-known examples are Benidorm, Torremolinos (Spain); Cannes (France); West Palm Beach, Fla.; Atlantic City, N.J, Myrtle Beach, S.C., Virginia Beach, Va.; Cancun (Mexico); and the most rapidly developed of all coastal resort cities, Dubai (United Arab Emirates). In all of these resorts the challenge is to preserve the real estate behind the beach and still save the beaches, which are being pushed landwards by rising sea level."

Erosion at Palm Beach on Australia's Gold Coast. Photo courtesy: University of Ulster

Cooper said most resorts combat ongoing sea level rise with beach nourishment — adding sand to replace that eroded by the encroaching ocean. But holding the world's best beaches stationary during an expected 3-foot (1 meter) sea level rise in the next 100 years would require massive inputs of sand, Cooper said.

"Beach resort cities are mostly artificial creations on the shoreline that rely on beach nourishment to sustain them and on their reputation for a clean and safe environment. To maintain this during rapid sea level rise will be near impossible," he said.

Erecting protective concrete walls won't give the beaches room to move inland and will ultimately lead to beaches getting squeezed out as sea level rises, he said. When the rising water reaches a protective wall between the beach and the developed land behind it, the beach is drowned.

"There are a lot of issues with beach nourishment — not least the cost — but beach nourishment would not be needed if developments were properly planned in the first place, to give beaches room to move," Cooper said.

Based on a recent study of Australia's Gold Coast, the problem involves a lack of planning and poor short-term fixes, Cooper said. Uncertainty regarding how high the sea will rise compounds the problem, as do climate change skeptics and the lack of political will to plan for future climate scenarios, he said.

The study appears in the August 2012 issue of the journal Ocean & Coastal Management.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Dingoes May Have Come to Australia From India

About 4,000 years ago, Australia was no longer connected to the mainland as it had been during the ice age. The immigrants thus crossed the ocean, arriving by boat and possibly carrying dingoes to the island continent.
Photo courtesy: Gunter Senft/MPI for Psycholinguistics via LiveScience.com


Indians migrating to Australia more than 4,000 years ago may have introduced dingoes to the island continent, along with novel stone tools and new ways to remove toxins from edible plants, researchers say.

Australia was thought to have remained largely isolated from the rest of the world between its initial colonization about 40,000 years ago by the ancestors of aboriginal Australians and the arrival of Europeans in the late 1800s.

"Outside Africa, aboriginal Australians are the oldest continuous population in the world," said researcher Irina Pugach, a molecular anthropologist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany.

Still,researchers had not really explored the genetic history of Australians in great enough detail to address this question.

"The extent of isolation of aboriginal Australia has been debated for a long time," Pugach told LiveScience. "The Australian archaeological record documents some changes that occur in Australia around 4,000 years ago, which could have been potentially, but not necessarily, brought in from the outside."

To find out more, the researchers analyzed DNA from 344 people, including aboriginal Australians, highlanders of Papua New Guinea, Southeast Asian islanders, Indians, Nigerians, individuals of European descent living in Utah and Han Chinese from Beijing.

The scientists found a common origin for populations from Australia, New Guinea and the Mamanwa, a group from the Philippines. The researchers estimate these groups split from one another about 36,000 years ago. This supports ideas that the groups descended from an ancient southwards migration out of Africa.

The researchers also detected substantial gene flow from Indian populations into Australia about 4,230 years ago. Scientists estimate this Indian genetic influence appears in about 10 percent of the aboriginal Australian populations they analyzed.

At about the same time, the dingo first appears in the Australian fossil record, an animal that most closely resembles Indian dogs.

In addition, at about that time, "archaeologists describe a sudden shift in stone tool technologies, with new implements known as the Small Tool Tradition appearing for the first time" in Australia, Pugach said. These represented stone tools that were smaller and more finely worked than before, she explained.

A female dingo, Queensland, Australia. Research shows that although dingos are no longer domesticated, they still retain the ability to read human gestures. Photo courtesy: Bradley Smith via LiveScience.com

Moreover, at about that time, new techniques for altering dangerous plants to make them edible also appeared in Australia. For instance, while plants known as cycads can be toxic, soaking or fermenting their kernels can remove the poisons.

"Aboriginal Australians use the fruits of these plants as an important food source despite them being highly toxic," Pugach said.

The researchers caution the migration "may not have actually been from India, but from some population somewhere else that subsequently no longer exists, but whose closest living relative — at least, among populations we examined — are Dravidian-speakers from southern India," Pugach said.

The researchers also emphasized they are not claiming some Indian group members are the ancestors of aboriginal Australians. "The migration happened about 4,000 years ago. By that time, people [had] lived in Australia for more than 40,000 years," Pugach said.

It remains uncertain why this migration might have taken place more than 4,000 years ago. Environmental changes might be one cause, "although I don't know of any significant environmental changes then," Pugach said. Then again, it could "simply be wanderlust. Humans have always liked to migrate, and don't seem to need a reason to want to do so."

Future research can analyze additional Australian populations to see how widespread this Indian influence might actually be.

The scientists detailed their findings online Jan. 14 in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Recycling, Reusing, Reducing and Repurposing



Those liquid soap dispenser pump bottles are great in the laundry room. If you aren't going to refill with some more hand soap, fill it with liquid laundry detergent instead. Keep it in the laundry area for spraying an extra bit of detergent on any stains you have. Just put one pump's worth on the stain, rub it in with your fingers; and, wash as usual.

Use an old toothbrush to pretreat those deep-down, stubborn grass stains or any other stubborn stain. Place a small amount of liquid detergent on the stain and work in with the toothbrush.

Toothbrushes make excellent scubbers for those hard-to-clean areas such as where the sink meets the counter.

Going away for awhile? Here's a great idea. Leave all your important information - where you'll be, emergency telephone numbers and the like - in that old picture frame you have kicking about. Hang it in a place the pet/house sitter can be sure to see it - above the telephone, for example.

Got an old plastic milk crate? Boy, are they great! They have so many uses. Here's just one. Keep the stuff you store in your car's trunk - motor oil, windshield wiper fluid, ice scrapers, whathaveyou - together, organized and easy to find.

A small dab of vodka or gin on an insect bite will stop the itch dead in its tracks.

Did You Know That?


A trait that distinguishes sea horses from other creatures is that the males are impregnated instead of the females. The female lays her eggs in the male's "birthing pouch", where they gestate, then hatch about 21 days later.

If someone says they looked in every nook and cranny, they are using old words with origins in Scotland. Nook meant a corner while cranny was another word for crevice.

The song, "Edelweiss" is one of the famous songs from the 1965 movie, "The Sound of Music". This was the last song ever written by lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II.

A Komatik is a traditional Inuit sled used for transporting heavy supplies for short distances over the snowy terrain of the far north. Traditionally pulled by a dog team, today it is usually pulled by a snowmobile.

Like the Inuit of northern Canada and the Maori of New Zealand, there is an indigenous group of people of northern Sweden, Norway, Finland and parts of northwest Russia. They are called the Sami.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

The Los Roques Curse?

The sea between Los Roques and Venezuela is becoming as infamous as the Bermuda Triangle. Photo courtesy: Carloscastilla | Dreamstime via LiveScience.com

The disappearance last week of the airplane carrying Italian fashion mogul Vittorio Missoni and five others across the Caribbean Sea has been blamed on everything from mechanical failure to kidnapping by drug smugglers.

Now, a new theory has emerged: The airplane and its passengers fell victim to the "Los Roques Curse," a phenomenon that some have likened to the Bermuda Triangle, according to the British newspaper The Guardian.

The plane was traveling the 87 miles (140 kilometers) from the island resort of Los Roques (an archipelago consisting of hundreds of islands) to Caracas, Venezuela, on Friday when it disappeared over the open sea, according to ABC News. Since the 1990s, at least 15 other aircraft have reported emergencies, crashed or disappeared in the same area, according to The Guardian.

In 2008, 14 people died when a plane making the same journey from Los Roques disappeared. No wreckage was ever found, and only one body was recovered, according to VolarenVenezuela, a website on civil aviation in Venezuela.

Some have claimed that disappearances like these result from massive releases of methane gas from the seafloor. Others have suggested, with no evidence, the cause may be aliens from outer space living beneath the waves, or souls from the lost underwater civilization of Atlantis.

But like the Bermuda Triangle — the stretch of open ocean between Bermuda, South Florida and Puerto Rico infamous for mysterious disappearances of ships and planes — people with less superstitious minds believe there's a rational explanation.

The Bermuda Triangle is heavily traveled, and, proportionally, sees no more disappearances than any other area. The region also produces unpredictable tropical storms, and the Gulf Stream is particularly fast and turbulent in that area.

"There's always some explanation for these things, even if it takes many years to uncover the answer," Nick Wall, editor of Pilot, told the Guardian. "Pilots prefer to concentrate on the things that genuinely will help them live longer, such as fuel gauges, weather reports and engine inspections … it is too early to know for sure what caused this latest incident."

Other mysterious water worlds linked with doom are the so-called Michigan Triangle in Lake Michigan and the Sargasso Sea. Several ships have been found drifting sans any crew through the calm Sargasso Sea. And, legend has it that in 1840, after sailing through the Sargasso Sea, the French merchant ship "Rosalie" was discovered with its sails set but without any crew members on board. The Michigan Triangle has been blamed for the mysterious disappearances of ship crews and entire aircraft. Another, the Devil's Sea (also called the Pacific Bermuda Triangle) sits in the Pacific around Miyake Island, south of Tokyo. Ancient legends have it dragons lived off the coast of Japan there, also giving the area the "Dragon's Triangle" moniker.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

New Colours Added to Weather Chart to Display Australia's Heat Wave

Image courtesy: Australia's Bureau of Meteorology/Public Domain

It's official, 2012 was a record year for heat in the US, and 2013 is already turning out to be historic for Australia, a country that is used to extreme heat, but nothing quite like what they're getting now. A "dome of heat" has settled over the country and caused record-breaking temperatures; so much so that the Australian Bureau of Meteorology actually had to add a new color to its weather maps to show the hottest parts of the country (it's purple, as you can see above). This extends the range up to 54 degrees celsius (129.2 fahrenheit)! This is significantly above the all-time record temperature of 50.7 degrees celsius reached on January 2, 1960 at Oodnadatta Airport in South Australia. On a personal level, I don't handle heat very well; and, these types of temperatures would kill me - literally.

Image courtesy: Australia's Bureau of Meteorology/Public Domain

This second map is the forecast for January 17th, 2013. As you can see, the purple spot is predicted to go away, but the temperatures are still extremely elevated (remember these are celsius degrees, so Fahrenheit, the darker spots are forecast to get around 115F).

The Sydney Morning Herald describes the records that have been broken so far and those that could fall:
And the country has set a new national average maximum of 40.33 degrees on Monday, beating the previous record - set on December 21, 1972 - by a "sizeable margin" of 0.16 degrees, Dr Jones said, adding that the figures are preliminary.

"Today is actually shaping up to be hotter - and it could be a record by a similar margin," he said.
Another record to be smashed on Monday was Australia's mean temperature. The country averaged 32.23, easily eclipsing the previous record - set on December 21, 1972 - of 31.86 degrees. Just 0.13 degrees separated the previous four highest mean temperatures, underscoring how far above average the day was.

The scorching temperatures could last into the weekend and beyond, Dr Jones said, potentially breaking the country's all-time high of 50.7 degrees.
It's not clear when the "dome of heat" will subside, but this could be a preview of the kind of extreme weather events that climate change could bring us with increasing frequency.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Drought Gives Rise to New Crime

The round hay bales used on larger farms. Photo courtesy: Flickr/CC BY 2.0

Economics 101 says that, all else being equal, when the supply of something goes down, the price should go up. That's exactly what has been happening with hay in drought and wildfire-afflicted areas of the United States. In fact, many aren't ready to fork out the extra cash, or they simply can't locate a seller, because there's been a big resurgence of hay bale thefts. "Sheriffs in rural counties in Colorado, Oklahoma, Nebraska and Kansas say the spike in hay thefts is part of a broader rise in agricultural crime," writes the New York Times. It's not the most heinous crime out there by a long shot, but it affects the lives of many farmers and it's a symptom of the kind of extreme weather we've been experiencing. And on a warming planet, we should expect more...

The results of haying season. Photo courtesy: Flickr/CC BY 2.0
California’s farmers have grappled recently with growing thefts of grapes, beehives and avocados, and sheriffs say high prices of scrap metal have made agricultural machinery — whether it works or not — an appealing target. Dubious online merchants are selling feed to farmers but never delivering. On the range, wire fences are being clipped to allow interloping herds to poach grazing land.

Most thieves make off with less than a ton of hay — about $200 to $300 worth, depending on the quality. But on Labor Day in Wellington, Colo., thieves hot-wired a front-end loader and stole enough hay from Conrad T. Swanson’s ranch to fill the flatbed trailer of a semi. (source)
In some areas it's serious enough that a sheriff in Tillman County, Okla., put a GPS-tracking device in a bale in a field particularly prone to thefts. The trick actually worked and the thieves were caught red-handed, but it's not exactly practical to track all hay bales with GPS, so until then, farmers will have to hope for a more cooperative weather.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Japan Wants to Renege on Promise to Phase Out Nuclear Reactors

The Fukushima accident sent radioactive materials into the ocean and atmosphere, contaminated the food and water supply, and forced the evacuation of 160,000 residents. Photograph: KeystoneUSA-ZUMA / Rex Features via guardian.co.uk

Almost two years after the triple meltdown at Fukushima Daiichi power plant sent shockwaves around the world, Japan's government is attempting to resell the nuclear dream to a traumatised public.

Japan appeared to have ended its addiction to nuclear power when the previous centre-left government pledged last year to phase out all of the country's 50 working reactors by 2040.

The announcement marked a dramatic shift from pre-Fukushima plans to increase Japan's dependence on nuclear from 30% to 50% by 2030. For the emboldened anti-nuclear lobby, it heralded the start of an unprecedented shift towards renewable energy.

But the return to office last month of the conservative Liberal Democratic party (LDP) under Shinzo Abe effectively killed off the idea of a non-nuclear Japan. It was no coincidence that within days of the LDP victory, Tepco, the firm that operates Fukushima Daiichi, saw a dramatic rise in its share price – but nowhere near the level it was before the accident.

The new government has announced a review of the nuclear phaseout, adding that reactors would be restarted if they passed safety tests, and it refused to rule out the construction of new ones.

Critics of the phaseout have pointed to the economic and environmental costs of Japan's dependence on expensive oil and gas imports since it took all but two of its nuclear reactors offline in the wake of the Fukushima accident.

Japan's trade minister, Toshimitsu Motegi, warned that the government would not allow its plans to revive the economy to be derailed by a commitment to going non-nuclear. "We need to reconsider the previous administration's policy that aimed to make zero nuclear power possible by the 2030s," he said.

It could take months – perhaps years – before a significant number of reactors are switched back on. And while anti-nuclear candidates performed abysmally in last month's general election, the public remains sceptical about industry promises to mend its ways after decades of collusion with regulators and pro-nuclear politicians.

But those concerns are unlikely to hold much sway with the LDP, which helped develop Japan's "nuclear village" – the web of power utilities, bureaucrats and MPs who peddled the nuclear dream and shunned rigorous regulation.

As Abe said soon after becoming prime minister: "A strong economy is the source of energy for Japan. Without regaining a strong economy, there is no future for Japan." If he gets his way, that future will include a role for nuclear power.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Scientists Give New Alerts Regarding Global Warming

Clearing up in the aftermath of superstorm Sandy. Photograph: John Moore/Getty via guardian.co.uk

Global warming is already having a major impact on life in America, a report by US government scientists has warned. The draft version of the US National Climate Assessment reveals that increasing storm surges, floods, melting glaciers and permafrost, and intensifying droughts are having a profound effect on the lives of Americans.

"Corn producers in Iowa, oyster growers in Washington state and maple syrup producers have observed changes in their local climate that are outside of their experience," states the report.

Health services, water supplies, farming and transport are already being strained, the assessment adds. Months after superstorm Sandy battered the east coast, causing billions of dollars of damage, the report concludes that severe weather disruption is going to be commonplace in coming years. Nor do the authors flinch from naming the culprit. "Global warming is due primarily to human activities, predominantly the burning of fossil fuels," it states.

The uncompromising language of the report, and the stark picture that its authors have painted of the likely effects of global warming, have profound implications for the rest of the world.

If the world's greatest economy is already feeling the strain of global warming, and is fearful of its future impact, then other nations face a very worrying future as temperatures continue to rise as more and more greenhouse gases are pumped into the atmosphere.

"The report makes for sobering reading," said Professor Chris Rapley, of University College London. "Most people in the UK and US accept human-induced climate change is happening but respond by focusing attention elsewhere. We dismiss the effects of climate change as 'not here', 'not now', 'not me' and 'not clear'.

"This compelling new assessment by the US experts challenges all four comforting assumptions. The message is clear: now is the time to act!"

Bob Ward, of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment, at the London School of Economics, said: "For those outside the US, this report carries a brutal message because it shows that even the world's leading economy cannot simply adapt to the impacts of climate change. The problem clearly needs concerted international action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to avoid the worst potential consequences."

The national climate assessment, written by a team of 240 scientists, is required every four years by US law. The first was written in 2000, though no report was issued while George W Bush was president. The next came out in 2009. The latest is only a draft version and will be revised after comments by other scientists and the public.

However, observers have noted that the 2013 version is far more uncompromising in its language. "The bluntness reflects the increasing confidence we have in the science and day-to-day realities of climate change," said one of its authors, Katharine Hayhoe, director of the Climate Science Centre at Texas Tech University.

The report highlights, among other things, that 13 American airports have runways that could be inundated by rising sea levels, and that billions of dollars will be needed to repair Alaskan roads, pipelines, sewer systems, buildings and airports where melting permafrosts are disrupting the landscape. These are problems that will not just affect the US. They will be repeated across the planet.

Environmental groups are now hoping that the report will revitalise the debate over climate change in the US and stimulate the administration of Barack Obama into taking action over an issue that has been put on the backburner. "There is so much that is already happening today," said Hayhoe. "This is no longer a future issue. It's an issue that is staring us in the face today."

Saturday, October 13, 2012

2,000 Year-Old Treasure Discovered in Black Sea Fortress

Among the discoveries from the hoards were gold rings with carved gemstones. They've been buried for nearly 2,000 years and a coin has apparently become stuck to this piece. Photo courtesy Russian-Ukrainian Archaeological Artezian Expedition via Yahoo!News

Residents of a town under siege by the Roman army about 2,000 years ago buried two hoards of treasure in the town's citadel — treasure recently excavated by archaeologists.

More than 200 coins, mainly bronze, were found along with "various items of gold, silver and bronze jewelry and glass vessels" inside an ancient fortress within the Artezian settlement in the Crimea (in Ukraine), the researchers wrote in the most recent edition of the journal Ancient Civilizations from Scythia to Siberia.

"The fortress had been besieged. Wealthy people from the settlement and the neighborhood had tried to hide there from the Romans. They had buried their hoards inside the citadel," Nikolaï Vinokurov, a professor at Moscow State Pedagogical University, explained.

Artezian, which covered an area of at least 3.2 acres (1.3 hectares) and also had a necropolis (a cemetery), was part of the Bosporus Kingdom. At the time, the kingdom's fate was torn between two brothers — Mithridates VIII, who sought independence from Rome, and his younger brother, Cotys I, who was in favor of keeping the kingdom a client state of the growing empire. Rome sent an army to support Cotys, establishing him in the Bosporan capital and torching settlements controlled by Mithridates, including Artezian.

People huddled in the fortress for protection as the Romans attacked, but Vinokurov said they knew they were doomed. "We can say that these hoards were funeral sacrifices. It was obvious for the people that they were going to die shortly," he wrote in an email to LiveScience. The siege and fall of the fortress occurred in AD 45.

Curiously, each hoard included exactly 55 coins minted by Mithridates VIII. "This is possibly just a simple coincidence, or perhaps these were equal sums received by the owners of these caskets from the supporters of Mithridates," the team wrote in its paper.

Researchers working at the site of Artezian in the Crimea (Ukraine) have discovered two hoards of buried treasure (one hoard shown here) dating to A.D. 45, a time when the people of the citadel were under siege by the Roman army. Here, two silver anklets, beads, numerous coins and a white, glass flask with a two-headed face, one side serious and the other happy. Photo courtesy Russian-Ukrainian Archaeological Artezian Expedition via Yahoo!News

Vinokurov's team, including a number of volunteers, has been exploring Artezian since 1989 and has found that the people of the settlement followed a culture that was distinctly Greek. The population's ethnicity was mixed, Vinokurov wrote, "but their culture was pure Greek. They spoke Greek language, had Greek school; the architecture and fortification were Greek as well. They were Hellenes by culture but not that pure by blood."

Greeks are known to have created colonies on the Black Sea centuries earlier, intermarrying with the Crimeans. The customs and art forms they introduced appear to have persisted through the ages despite being practiced nearly 600 miles (1,000 kilometers) from Greece itself.

This Greek influence can be seen in the treasures the people of Artezian buried. Among them is a silver brooch engraved with an image of Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love, and gold rings with gems engraved with images of Nemesis and Tyche, both Greek deities.

One of the hoards shown from a distance. Originally the treasures would have been inside wooden caskets that have since decomposed. Photo courtesy Russian-Ukrainian Archaeological Artezian Expedition via Yahoo!News

When archaeologists excavated other portions of the torched site they found more evidence of a Greek lifestyle.

"In the burnt level of the early citadel, many fragmentary small terra cotta figures were found depicting Demeter, Cora, Cybele, Aphrodite with a dolphin, Psyche and Eros, a maiden with gifts, Hermes, Attis, foot soldiers and warriors on horseback, semi-naked youths," the researchers wrote in their paper, adding fragments of a miniature oinochoai (a form of Greek pottery) and small jugs for libations also were found.

All this was torched by the Romans and later rebuilt by Cotys I, who had been successfully enthroned by Rome. However the treasures of the earlier inhabitants remained undiscovered beneath the surface, a testament to a desperate stand against the growing power of Rome.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Concord, Mass. Bans Plastic Single-Serving Water Bottles

Photo courtesy: Flickr

Back in 2010, TreeHugger wrote about efforts by citizens of Concord, Mass., to ban the use of plastic water bottles in their city: The effort was lead by Jean Hill, an 82-year old activist, who lobbied neighbors and officials alike on the consequences of plastic bottles filling landfills and polluting local waters.

"All these discarded bottles are damaging our planet, causing clumps of garbage in the oceans that hurt fish, and are creating more pollution on our streets," said Hill.

It has taken a few years for the ban to take effect, but as of January 1st 2013, Concord became among the first U.S. communities to ban single-serving plastic water bottles.

Photo courtesy: Flickr

Water bottles might seem like a small thing, but according to Ban the Bottle:

"It takes 17 million barrels of oil per year to make all the plastic water bottles used in the U.S. alone. That's enough oil to fuel 1.3 million cars for a year." Their website also states: "In 2007, Americans consumed over 50 billion single-serve bottles of water. With a recycling rate of only 23%, over 38 billion bottles end up in landfills."

And it's not like bottled water is a good deal for your wallet either:

"The recommended eight glasses of water a day, at U.S. tap rates equals about $.49 per year; that same amount of bottled water is about $1,400."

The ban isn't exactly 1920s' prohibition, though. Stores will only be fined up to $50 for violating the ban and there an exemption for emergencies. So no government agents busting doors and trying to find the hidden stash of water bottles. But as a way to raise awareness and because most people follow the rules, it should be very effective and significantly reduce the number of single-use plastic bottles in circulation in the area (kind of like how even small 5-cent taxes on disposable plastic bags reduce their use tremendously).



Hopefully this is the beginning of a larger movement that will return bottled water to what it should have stayed: An emergency thing, when you really need water but can't get it any other way. It's ridiculous that it has become an everyday thing for so many people that have access to perfectly fine water for a fraction of the price from their tap (and there are so many great filtering systems out there for those who want to make extra sure -- though it's not like bottled water can't be contaminated either).

Our colleagues at MNN (Mother Nature Network) have more on this story: With new bylaw, Concord opens the floodgates for bottled water bans.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

If a Newly-Discovered Planet Has Life, Should We Try Communicating With Them?

This artist's illustration represents the variety of planets being detected by NASA's Kepler spacecraft. Photo via: Yahoo!News

The term 'Earth-like' has seen a lot of use in the past couple of years, as various telescopes locate more and more planets orbiting other stars, but a new discovery announced at the 221st American Astronomical Society meeting truly deserves the title.

This newly-discovered world is only 1.5 times the size of Earth (a so-called 'super-Earth'), its year is 242 days long, and it orbits within the habitable zone of a star very similar to our own Sun, which means that it most certainly has liquid water. Now, that's not a perfect match to our world, but compared to the other planets discovered so far, it's a near-twin.

The planet's name, for now, is KOI-172.02 (Kepler Object of Interest). Once its existence can be confirmed by a ground-based telescope, it will be renamed, possibly based on the (as-of-yet-unreleased) name of its parent star.

"This was very exciting because it's our first habitable-zone super Earth around a Sun-type star," said Natalia Batalha, a co-investigator for NASA's Kepler Space Telescope mission.

"It's a big deal," said astrophysicist Mario Livio, who works at the Space Telescope Science Institute, according to Space.com. "It's definitely a good candidate for life."

Given that astronomers had only just predicted that they would find a truly Earth-like planet sometime this year, this is a spectacular find. I'm really looking forward to this being confirmed so that we can learn more about its composition and, more importantly (to some), its distance from us.

Sure, we're a long ways off from figuring out any kind of practical interstellar travel, but just think about it: if it turns out to be only a short distance away from us (relatively speaking), and further examination shows that it has a very good chance of having life, think of the potential for sending a message there! There's risks involved with that, certainly, but there has been some suggestion that game-theory and the "prisoner's dilemma" scenario offer some key insight into this — that we should take the risk to send out messages (although only a few, and very selectively), because the potential benefits far outweighs the risks involved.

This will all depend on where this planet is, though — it could be hundreds of light years away. However, if it was only 10 light years away, or maybe 20, it could be worth the risk. It would take years to receive any reply — if a reply was ever to come — but the rewards of hearing that reply would be incredible. Perhaps collaborating with an alien species could give us insights into the universe that change our thinking and bring about the technological advances that would take us to the stars. Or, maybe it would just be enough to know that we're not alone and that we have some galactic pen-pals to exchange letters with.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

An Idea Whose Time Has Come!

All photos courtesy: © Studio Roosegaarde

TreeHugger has already told us about how infrastructure designers in the Netherlands have decided that the country's highways need a major high-tech makeover and now those ideas are becoming reality. The Netherlands will start experimenting with photoluminescent paint on roads that charges in sunlight and then glows at night to denote lanes, traffic markers and even cold weather conditions.

The Smart Highway concept was designed by Studio Roosegaarde and infrastructure management group Heijmans. It won Best Future Concept at the Dutch Design Awards, but where concepts like these usually end there, this one is actually getting implemented this year.

The glow-in-the-dark paint at the center of the new roadway design is made with photo-luminising powder that will replace road markings. After being exposed to sunlight throughout the day, it then provides 10 hours of glow at night.

“It’s like the glow in the dark paint you and I had when we were children,” the designer behind the concept, Daan Roosegaarde, explained to Wired UK, “but we teamed up with a paint manufacturer and pushed the development. Now, it’s almost radioactive”.

The typical traffic markings will be painted on the roads, but the idea also includes plans for special painted snowflakes that will glow when temperatures drop and conditions could be icy. As a test of concept, a stretch of highway in the province of Branbant will be coated with the special weather-indicating paint in mid-2013.

The paint is just one part of the Smart Highway concept though. It also calls for some other smart road features, a couple we've covered before, like induction priority lanes that would charge electric vehicles as they drive over the road, interactive lights that switch on as cars pass and wind-powered lights that are planned to implemented in the next five years.

If you want to feel jealous of the Netherlands, you can watch a video of the concept below.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Earthbag Homes for Post-Earthquake Haiti


All photos courtesy: konbit shelter

Coverage of Haiti's 2010 earthquake disaster may have dwindled in the news, but rebuilding efforts are still slowly continuing, running the gamut from shelters made from tires, shipping containers and recycled plastic bottles -- each with their advantages and disadvantages.

But that's not all; besides these methods, the superadobe "earthbag" building technique is also being used. Originally developed by architect Nader Khalili and Cal-Earth, the practice involves layering long fabric or plastic tubes or bags filled with sand, clay, water and fibrous material like sticks, straw, and/or manure to create a domed compression structure that is resistant to earthquakes, hurricanes, floods and fire.

Organizations like Konbit Shelter ("konbit" means communal effort in Creole) are partnering international artists, builders, architects, and engineers with local artisans and builders to create durable and low-tech earthbag structures that can be tailored to fit each community's needs:
This system of building provides an easily replicable model, which can be built without using specialized construction machinery and can be participated in by the men and women of any community. Utilizing 90% earth, and only 10% cement, these structures are stronger than the now common cinder block and concrete slab construction. The technique also uses little to no wood, an invaluable asset in timber-depleted Haiti.

Timber is not the only thing that is difficult to obtain; even the process of finding suitable polypropylene bagging for earthbag building in Haiti was a bit of a headache, as one of Konbit Shelter's members chronicles in a post about one of their local suppliers.

Despite all the hurdles, Konbit Shelter recently completed a community center in the village of Bigones in 2011 (seen above), and from the looks of the photos showing the building process on Konbit's blog, it was an inspiring cooperative effort for all involved, not to mention the lovely structure that was ultimately created.


One of the supports for the main windows was made from welded oil drums -- a beautiful example of adaptive reuse.



Thanks to a successful Kickstarter campaign raising over $30,000, they're returning this January to build another house; keep track of the upcoming details on Konbit Shelter's site and blog.