South Carolina teachers stand up for science, the shuttle may get a delayed lift-off and Africa could dry up.

Not Even in South Carolina

In a victory for South Carolina school children, the state’s Board of Education voted 10 to six against a proposal that would have amended its high school science curriculum to cast doubt on evolutionary theory. The rejected changes called for students to “critically analyze” evolution in their science classes, a measure that science teachers interpreted as a veiled attempt to teach creationism in public schools. The changes were proposed by the Education Oversight Committee, a panel composed of lawmakers, educators and parents—but no scientists.

Divers discovered an unusual new crustacean with pincers covered in “silky, blond fur” at a remote site in the South Pacific. The creature, which was found in waters more than a mile deep, resembles a hairy lobster and has been dubbed the “Yeti Crab.” It is so morphologically unique that scientist have assigned it to a newly created family, Kiwaida, from Kiwa, the goddess of crustaceans in Polynesian mythology. While scores of new marine species are discovered every year, it’s extremely rare to find an entirely new genus, let alone a new family.

Both 18-month-old infants and chimpanzees have the capacity to be altruistic, says a study published in Science. In the study, babies and chimps assisted researchers with small tasks even when they were given no reward for their behavior. This shared trait suggests that altruism is an instinctive response that could have evolved at least six million years ago in the common ancestor of chimps and humans.


Still Grounded?

NASA recently announced that it will resume shuttle launches in May, but the space agency’s plans may be delayed by newly-discovered problems with the shuttle’s fuel tank and robotic arm. Routine testing on the fuel tank of the space shuttle Discovery turned up unusual readings coming from one of the tank’s four sensors, while clumsy maintenance work was responsible for denting the spacecraft’s robotic arm. NASA officials say they would not be able to complete any major technical repairs by the proposed launch date, but for now, the full extent of the problem remains unclear.

A committee tasked with advising the federal government on its fleet of environmental satellites warned that mismanagement and under-funding have jeopardized the system of earth satellites intended to monitor natural disasters and weather patterns. The committee’s report argues that the consequences of neglecting our earth-observing satellites could be as sudden and devastating as the next major hurricane. NASA officials responded that their tight budget means making tough choices, yet their proposed budget for 2007 allocates nearly twice as much for developing future manned expeditions to the moon and Mars as it does to maintaining its entire fleet of environmental satellites.

One red spot apparently wasn’t enough for Jupiter, which has now grown a second, dubbed “Red Jr.” by NASA astronomers. The spots indicate storms in Jupiter’s cloud layer, but their dark red color is a mystery to scientists. The new spot, which is officially named Oval BA, has deepened in color from brown since December 2005.


Where in the World Is…

The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences published a study identifying where in the world mammal species face the greatest “latent risk” of extinction, defined as the potential for a rapid collapse towards extinction. Species living in areas that are heavily populated by humans actually have a lower latent risk—since they’ve already proven themselves somewhat resistant to the harm caused by humans. However, mammals in more remote areas could still suffer devastating decline with future human encroachment. Areas identified as most at risk included Sumatra, Borneo and other parts of Indonesia; the Canadian and Siberian forests; and the Patagonian coast.

Astronomers using a new computer model announced that the next sunspot cycle, expected to begin in late 2007, could be 30 to 50% more intense than the last one, which peaked in 2001 and caused communication blackouts all over the Pacific. Scientists are interested in modeling the sunspot cycles because they’re accurate indicators of when solar storms, which eject charged particles that disrupt radio transmissions, will be most severe. The findings were at odds with previous models, which forecasted milder sunspot cycles than in past years.

A 19-mile-wide crater made by an ancient meteorite has been found in the Egyptian desert this week by American researchers. The size of the crater may have, ironically, contributed to its long-lasting obscurity, along with a million years worth of erosion from wind and water.

The longlist of finalists for the 2006 Aventis Prize in popular science books was announced this week. Among the cream of the crop is previous winner Jared Diamond, an early favorite, who authored Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive. The winner will be awarded £10,000 on May 16th, following the selection of a six-book shortlist over the next weeks.


Taking the Government to the Mat

A coalition of states, cities and environmental groups petitioning the EPA to regulate greenhouse gas emissions appealed their case to the Supreme Court after a ruling against them last year in the US Court of Appeals for D.C. Circuit. The group, which includes the state of California, New York City and American Samoa, sued in an effort to force the agency to adopt regulatory measures on carbon dioxide. The EPA has acknowledged the deleterious effects of global warming, but argues that it is powerless to regulate emissions.

Nearly 6,000 biologists, including six National Medal of Science honorees, signed a petition requesting that the Senate keep intact the provisions of the Endangered Species Act. Last year, the House passed revisions to the act that would effectively weaken its enforcement, such as compensating property owners if development is halted by a protected species and putting an end to the “critical habitat” designation. Also, the law gives the power to the Secretary of the Interior to decide if scientific evidence is persuasive enough to enforce the law.

A federal district judge ruled that the Bush administration was in violation of a 1992 law intended to reduce dependence on foreign oil and greenhouse gas emissions. The Energy Policy Act, passed shortly after the first Gulf War, calls for the Department of Energy to draw up plans requiring private and municipal car fleets to replace 30% of their vehicles with cars running on alternative fuels. The Department has so far refused to impose any such restrictions, which led several environmental groups to file the suit last year.


I Miss the Rains Down in Africa

Global warming could shrink Africa’s water supply by 25% before the end of the century, according to research published in this week’s issue of Science. Semi-arid areas like southern Africa are especially vulnerable. The authors warn that water shortage could cause conflict between nations that share a river or other water supply.

A weather station has been installed in Nepal to measure the effect of climate change on glaciers in the Himalaya mountain range. Studies have already forewarned a .06° C increase in temperature per year, and a 30 to 60 meter glacial retreat, which began in 1989. The melting of the glaciers presents an immediate problem for dwellers in the Everest region, whose homes were threatened in 1985 by flooding when glacial lakes burst.

Finally, British and Norwegian oil companies announced plans to bury carbon dioxide emissions deep under the seabed of the North Sea. Carbon sequestration, as this practice is called, may be a partial solution to climate change, but critics say it only permits oil companies to further exploit tenuous oil resources since it forces oil to the surface. The plan is very expensive, estimated to cost between 1.2 to 1.5 billion dollars, and will require investment from governments in order to come to fruition.

Originally published March 10, 2006

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