There's oil all over Alaska, global warming has progressed past its tipping point and a lost rat resurfaces.

Another Spill, Get the Drill

Over a quarter of a million gallons of crude oil leaked from a corroded pipeline causing the largest oil spill ever to hit Alaska’s Northern Slope. Although the spill is meager compared with the 11 million gallons dumped by the Exxon Valdez in 1989, environmental groups say it illustrated the continued costs of expanding oil production in the Alaskan tundra.

In a 51-49 vote, the US Senate passed a budget resolution that included a last minute addition to allow drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The resolution will now go to vote in the House, where it faces stiff resistance from the two dozen moderate Republicans who have already signed a petition against the drilling amendment. Last year, Senator Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) launched a similar effort, which passed in the Senate only to be blocked by the house.

Failed policies and a lack of resources have severely undermined efforts to bring clean drinking water to the nearly 20% of the world’s population who suffer without it, according to the new UN Water Development Report. Rapid urbanization and changes in climate patterns have made it difficult to improve drinking water, and the report calls on local governments to contribute more resources and energy into tackling the problem. The report also warns that the world is unlikely to meet its goal of reducing the number of people dependant on unsafe water sources by half before 2015.

The European Parliament approved a resolution that calls for sharp reductions in the amount of mercury produced and exported by member countries. Responding to warnings by the scientific community that increased mercury levels in the environment can harm brain development in the womb, the Parliament voted to eliminate mercury exports by 2008 and to drastically reduce mercury emissions from coal power plants.


Sacked Launch

New technical problems have delayed the launching of NASA space shuttle Discovery until at least July. A faulty fuel tank sensor is the latest glitch on the space shuttle, after a strip of foam detached from the fuel tank last July, providing an initial delay. The new window for the launch date is July 1st to July 19th.

Astronomers discovered a massive new planet in a distant star system using a new technique called microlensing. As the planet moves between the Earth and background stars, its gravitational pull subtly warps light rays from distant stars, causing a shift in brightness that can be detected by telescopes. Scientists believe the plant, which is about 13 times the size of the Earth, is barren, rocky and extremely cold, but they remain hopeful that one such “extra-solar” planet—a planet outside our solar system—may support life.

NASA’s Cassini spacecraft spotted and analyzed what could be water geysers on Saturn’s moon Enceladus, sparking conjecture that this moon could support life. Scientists also discovered that Enceladus has a relatively warm south pole and an atmosphere—other hints that primitive organisms could exist there. (To read more about this story, click here.)

NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter reached the Red Plant and successfully entered orbit this week. This phase of its mission, when the satellite first passes behind the planet and is out of radio contact, is especially dangerous: Two of the last four orbiters sent to Mars failed to survive the final approach. The latest satellite is equipped with sophisticated camera and climate monitoring sensors that will allow scientists to study the planet in unprecedented detail.

Analyzing data from its recent Stardust satellite mission, NASA scientists discovered that although comets spend most of their time in the solar system’s coldest edges, they were formed billions of years ago in its hot, gaseous center, where temperatures exceeded 1,000° C. Although astronomers now have a clue as to where comets formed, it remains unclear exactly what launched the comets into the cold, faraway Kuiper Belt that surrounds the solar system.


There’s No Going Back

The World Resources Institute, a nonpartisan environmental think tank, issued a report warning that global warming has reached a tipping point, where the damage already done to the climate system is now irreversible. Even if greenhouse gas emissions were to cease today, the “thermal inertia” caused by the amount of gas already pumped into the atmosphere would continue to raise temperatures.

Climate scientists at NOAA recorded the highest ever concentrations of carbon dioxide in the air. This comes after one of the largest increases on record last year. The amount of CO2 in the air now stands at 381 ppm, more than 100 ppm above pre-industrial levels. The agency’s chief carbon analyst warned that increased public awareness of the dangers of global warming have done little to slow the accelerating rate of CO2 emissions.

A US assessment of Afghanistan’s natural resources has turned up 18 times the oil and three times the natural gas sources previously assumed. The US Geological Survey and Afghanistan’s Ministry of Mines and Industry located a potential 1.6 billion barrels of oil in the Afghan-Tajik Basin and 15.7 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in the Amu Darya Basin. Afghanistan currently imports most of its energy.

This past winter has been the warmest on record in Canada, and the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency said it would investigate whether global climate change was the cause. Temperatures across Canada were 3.9° F above average. In America, this winter was the 5th warmest on record.


Proving the Theory of Inflation

Physicists presented evidence at a press conference held at Princeton University this week, proving that the universe underwent an explosive growth immediately following the Big Bang. Scientists identified subtle variations in the brightness of the faint background radiation still lingering 300,000 years after the universe formed. Their findings support the 20-year-old theory of inflation. According to inflation, in the first trillion-trillionth of a second after the big bang, the universe expanded from the size of a marble to a volume larger than all of observable space.

This week, scientists working at Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque heated up a set of charged particles to two billion degrees Kelvin, higher than the temperature at the center of a star. The accomplishment could lead to smaller and cheaper nuclear fusion plants, since it requires less input energy for higher temperatures than existing processes do.

Shannon Babb, an 18-year-old high school student in Utah, won the Intel Science Talent Search this week for her project on minimizing pollution run-off in her town’s river. She was awarded a $100,000 college scholarship. The Intel competition has run for 65 years, and six Nobel Prize winners have won in the past.


All Hail, the Return of the Lost Rotten

A rodent that appears to be half-rat, half-squirrel has re-emerged in Laos, despite assumptions that it had been extinct for 11 million years. The animal had been familiar to scientists via the fossil record but hadn’t been rediscovered until last spring, when biologists mistakenly announced it as a new species.

A Chinese frog has been found to communicate with ultrasound as well as audible noise. Scientists speculate that the frog evolved ultrasound in order to be heard over the loud water torrents near which it makes its habitat. This frog is the first amphibian known to make use of this high frequency communication.

Finally, scientists at MIT restored sight in blind hamsters by injecting them with synthetically produced nanoparticles, peptide chains a mere 5 nm long. When given to hamsters with severed optic nerves, the peptides entered the brain and began arranging themselves into a scaffolding of nanofibers across the gap of the severed nerve, causing the neural tissue to reconnect. The technology may eventually be used to help repair tissue damage in stroke victims and those suffering traumatic brain injuries.

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Originally published March 17, 2006

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