Avian flu migrates west, a below-water city reveals itself and evolution wins again.

Avian Flu Has Wings

Italy discovered bird flu in a wild swan on Saturday, the same day the virus was found in Greek and Bulgarian swans. Italian health officials have announced emergency health measures designed to combat the spread of the virus. The measures include the establishment of protective zones around outbreak sites and extensive testing of local poultry. Greece, Bulgaria and Slovenia are implementing similar methods of containment. At the same time, a World Health Orgaanization-sanctioned lab in Indonesia confirmed that the deaths of two local women were caused by avian flu.

Germany also confirmed that two local swans have died from bird flu in a Baltic island north of mainland Germany. Austria found bird flu as well in two dead swans. These two countries, as well as Sweden and Denmark, are initiating some emergency measures, though Sweden and Denmark’s are only precautionary. Experts are advising Europeans not to panic, but also warn that bird migration this spring could carry the virus northwards.

Outbreaks of avian flu were announced last week in three states of Nigeria, the beginning of a potential crisis in public health due to the extreme poverty of the war-torn area. No human cases have been reported yet, but since 60% of Nigeria’s poultry handlers are farmers, the risk of human contamination is especially high.

Something Old, Something New, Something Blue

Charred human remains have been found at the site of the stake in Rouen, France, where Joan of Arc was burned, and forensic scientists are hoping to test their provenance. There is no way to determine whether or not the rib bone and scrap of skin belong to the martyred saint. Still, the scientists say they will use DNA testing and carbon dating to decide the gender and era of the burned person.

Darwin’s “warm little pond” theory regarding the beginning of life has been put in doubt after examination of volcanic areas of Russia and the US. Researchers probed hot volcanic waters for evidence that these conditions could permit the assembly of chemicals into living organisms, and found that none existed. Other theories for the genesis of life on Earth include organic molecules coming from outer space.

Researchers on a two-week dive found an underwater mountain in the Caribbean filled with new species of fish and vast areas of “seaweed cities.” The health of the area, the third biggest atoll in the world, is precarious, however, due to nearby oil tankers. Researchers are seeking to get the newly found territory, called the Saba Bank, designated a “Particularly Sensitive Sea Area” by the International Maritime Organization.

Putting Land Aside

The Brazilian President, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, created two new national parks in the Amazon rain forest this week and expanded another in order to protect an endangered area where the government is planning a highway project. All in all, the president placed 16 million acres under protection this week, bringing the protected areas of the Amazon to a total of 113 million acres.

A group of American conservation groups took legal action against the US government on behalf of Waterton Glacier Peace Park in Montana. According to their petition, the US is acting in violation of the UN World Heritage Convention of its emissions of greenhouse gases, which have depleted over 80% of Park’s famed glaciers. The action echoes earlier suits filed on behalf of national parks in the Himalayas and Peru.

Sustainable methods of agriculture are apparently not only ecologically desirable, but also economically beneficial to farmers in developing countries. Scientists looked at 280 cases in 57 underdeveloped countries and found that techniques like crop rotation and organic farming increased yields by an average of 79%. For example, the use of pesticides requires farmers to spend large amounts of their income on chemicals, and organic crops require less water to cultivate.

Is It Hot in Here?

Climatologists determined that the Earth is warmer now than it’s been in 1,200 years when a period of warming allowed Vikings to settle in Greenland and permitted the spread of forests across Russia. While some areas may have been warmer then, the researchers said, the overall temperature in the northern hemisphere is certainly higher now.

A study in England forsees sea levels rising as much as 11.4 meters by 3000 and drastically changing the UK’s shoreline, depending on the level of global action taken to reduce the use of fossil fuels. Under the best-case scenario, in which fossil fuel use is reduced to zero sometime between 2020 and 2200, the temperature would only rise 1.5 degrees and the sea level rise would be kept under a meter.

The Environmental Protection Agency announced on Wednesday that states will no longer be required to add 2% oxygenate to their gasoline. The new law eliminates a section of the 1990 Clean Air Act that required states with heavy smog in metropolitan areas to oxygenate their gas. The EPA says that gas refineries have new ways to create cleaner-burning fuel, without the pollutants in oxygenates such as ethanol.

In Lands Far Away

Toxic cane toads are causing epic ecological damage over huge stretches of territory in Australia, according to a report in the journal Nature. The amphibians were introduced to the continent in 1935 for pest control, but have evolved to travel about five times faster than their ancestors and are poisoning native animals including snakes, monitor lizards and mammal predators. There are no known means of controlling their spread.

So many whales are being caught under Japan’s allotted research program that whale meat has begun to be sold as pet food and in fast food restaurants. Commercial whaling has been internationally illegal since the 1980’s, but whale hunting is still permitted for scientific research, although most conservation groups condemn the practice. A group of 17 countries has mounted a diplomatic protest against Japan’s whaling activities.

Using the NASA spacecraft Cassini, reserchers are watching a giant storm on Saturn, with lightning bolts over 1,000 times stronger than on Earth. Cassini launched in 1997 and has taken seven years to reach Saturn. Researchers say that Saturn’s lightning storms may originate in the planet’s warm temperatures.

Following Up

Gerald Schatten, a collaborator of dishonored Korean stem cell researcher Hwang Woo-suk, has been cleared of research misconduct by a panel at his school, the University of Pittsburgh. The panel did find Schatten guilty of “research misbehavior” for not verifying more carefully a 2005 paper on stem cells that he coauthored with Hwang.

Steve Fossett completed the longest nonstop flight in aviation history on Saturday, traveling 26,389 miles in 78 hours, even though mechanical problems forced him to stop early. The problems included a failed generator, which forced him to put emergency procedures in place for landing, and a malfunction in the plane’s ventilation system halfway through the flight. Due to the ventilation system collapse, temperatures in his seven-foot cockpit rose to as high as 130 degrees over the second half of the trip.

Finally, a day after Darwin’s birthday on February 13th, the Ohio Board of Education voted 11 to 4 to strike down a 2002 policy requiring public schools to teach evolution from a critical perspective. Scientists are thrilled by the vote, which follows an analogous vote by the Dover Area School District in Pennsylvania this past December.

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Originally published February 17, 2006


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