Gore and Bush trade barbs over Gore's new movie, there's a pill for reawakening the comatose and we're keeping our fingers crossed that Discovery may soon launch.

Earth is Warming…

It’s election 2000 redux: with Al Gore’s new global warming film, An Inconvenient Truth, opening in US theaters this week, the former “next president of the United States,” as he likes to call himself, and the real president are again clanging their swords. Asked if he would watch Gore’s film, Bush said, “Doubt it.” Gore responded with an offer to show up at the White House any time, bearing his slide show or his documentary, to discuss the issue in person.

NOAA announced its predictions for the 2006 hurricane season, saying it expects an “above normal” year with 13-16 named storms. Of these storms, the agency says it expects four to be hurricanes of category 3 or above, double the yearly average of prior seasons in recorded history. The official start of the hurricane season along the East Coast is June 1, and it lasts until the end of November.

With experts calling the coming hurricane season potentially worse than last year’s, oil prices have jumped 70 cents per barrel in New York and made similar leaps elsewhere. Economists anticipate that demand for oil will rise sharply over the summer, when as many as four major hurricanes could hit the United States. Oil prices had been slowly lowering in the US, following a meteoric rise after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita ravaged the Gulf Coast, with its many oil facilities, almost a year ago.

Inspiration for Finding New Ways to Reduce Carbon Emissions

The Sierra Club sued the federal government over its new, tougher gas mileage requirements for SUVs and pickups, charging that the new regulations don’t go far enough. US law mandates that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration set fuel standards at the “maximum feasible level,” something the Sierra Club claims the government has failed to do. The group joins 10 states and other environmental organizations in challenging the new standards.

Seven nations, including the US, Russia and China, signed an agreement in Brussels to fund the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, to be built in southern France. Participants in the project hope that the undertaking will result in the first usable fission reactor, providing a cheaper, safer and cleaner energy source for the future. The 10 billion euro ($12.8 billion) project will be the second most expensive joint scientific project ever, after the International Space Station.

Following an American nuclear power initiative announced in February, Canada and Australia, two major producers of uranium, have agreed to combine forces to protect their interests in commercial dealings with America. Together, Canada and Australia own almost half of the world’s uranium reserves. The two governments also discussed joining international treaties to limit the production of greenhouse gases, such as the Asia-Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate.

Researchers Bring Back the Dead, Get Sued

When researchers in South Africa gave the drug Zolpidem to people thought to be in permanent vegetative states, the patients revived and in some cases were able to carry on conversations with relatives until they returned to unresponsiveness after a few hours. The scientists are still trying to figure out just how the pill had such startling results, but they believe it works by temporarily retriggering dormant nerve cells around damaged portions of the brain.

A germ research lab slated for construction in a residential neighborhood of Boston is meeting legal resistance from local groups, who claim in a lawsuit that the National Institutes of Health failed to properly assess the environmental and bioterrorism risks surrounding the project. Boston University, which plans to use the lab to study infectious diseases like Ebola, claims that the public health risks are minimal.

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Bird Flu’s Spreading…to Humans?

Testing for avian flu in wild birds has begun in Alaska, as scientists follow migration patterns in order to anticipate future breakouts of the virus. Millions of dollars in federal money will go towards studying about 15,000 birds in species known to be vulnerable to avian flu. The virus still has yet to mutate into a form transmissible from human to human, but the carnage among bird populations, slaughtered to prevent the spread of the disease, has been monumental.

A lab in Wisconsin has begun tracking birds migrating across the Canada-US border for signs of bird flu, hoping to catch signs of the disease early on before it can spread too widely. The disease has already spread through Asia, Africa and Europe, and its expansion into America seems likely, although the long-term public health effects are still unknown.

The death of seven family members in Sumatra from avian flu infection has WHO officials worried, since they have so far been unable to find any evidence of diseased poultry in the area. Although a WHO spokesman cautioned that there is no indication that the H5N1 virus mutated to allow human-to-human transmission, the organization is taking the threat very seriously. The deaths in Sumatra were the largest cluster of human cases yet reported, and WHO investigators are currently mounting a major inquiry into the circumstances of the infections.

Tigers Bounce Back; Woodpeckers Still M.I.A.

A small army of birdwatchers and volunteers failed to confirm the existence of the Ivory Billed Woodpecker, the second such failure in as many years. Over 100 eager participants scoured the woodlands of eastern Arkansas for evidence of the bird, which was thought to be extinct until reports emerged in 2004 that it had been sighted. Clear cutting to make way for agriculture in the early part of the 20th century destroyed most of the woodpecker’s native habitat, and it was assumed to be extinct since the 1920s.

The extremely rare Siberian tiger will get a slight population boost this year, as Chinese officials announced over 100 anticipated births at the Manchurian Tiger Park over the next 12 months. Fewer than 400 Siberian tigers are thought to survive in the wild, as human encroachment and poaching have devastated their numbers. Weighing in at up to 600 pounds, these extremely endangered cats are the largest of all tiger species.

A mystery in evolution was cleared up this week: the genetic pathway by which whales went from being four-legged land mammals to being limbless sea mammals. Researchers examined the embryonic development of dolphins, which briefly sprout hind legs during gestation, to find the particular set of genes responsible for morphing sea mammals into sleek legless wonders.

Ozone Holes Shrink As the Jet Stream Migrates

A team of Japanese scientists sees good news for the ozone hole over Antarctica: they expect it to begin contracting around 2020 and to disappear as early as 2050. Their predictions are based on a series of computer simulations run at the National Institute for Environmental Studies near Tokyo. Although chlorofluorocarbon levels have been declining since the 1990s, many old air conditioning and refrigeration systems continue to leak these ozone-depleting chemicals into the atmosphere, causing some scientists to doubt that the ozone problem will be solved as soon as the Japanese researchers claim.

The jet streams that warm Earth’s waterways are moving toward the poles, leading to a possible expansion of the hot zone around the equator, say scientists at the University of Washington. The scientists could not say whether the shift was due to global warming, but did suggest outcomes such as the growth of the Sahara Desert a few hundred miles north and south, and a reduction in winter precipitation in some areas, including southern Europe.

A large team of researchers has just released a penultimate, 700-page draft of their findings on the New Orleans levee system and its collapse during Hurricane Katrina last summer. The research was sponsored by the National Science Foundation, and should lead to better strategies for anticipating future storms, not only in New Orleans but also in other American cities located near levees.

Discovery to Launch, We Think

Space shuttle Discovery was trotted out to the launch pad on Friday in anticipation of a lift-off between July 1st and July 19th. The mission has been delayed by technical malfunctions, and engineers are still performing safety tests on the vehicle, in hopes of preventing a disaster like the explosion of the Columbia space shuttle. The transporting of Discovery from the Vehicle Assembly building to the launch pad, a four-mile distance, took almost eight hours.

A powerful new telescope will be built on a mountaintop in Chile that should allow astronomers to survey the entire visible sky every three days. The site was chosen after scientists mounted a global search for optimal atmospheric conditions for the telescope, which will continuously sweep the sky, to record changes and shifts in astronomical objects. The project is expected to begin construction sometime in 2009 and be completed by 2012.

Although spacecraft may never reach the Earth-like planets orbiting distant stars, scientists expect that advances in telescope technology will allow them to look for life on these worlds without actually going there. NASA scientists are seeking funding for the Terrestrial Planet Finder mission—two orbiting observatories that would scan other planets for faint but telling indications of life, such as the presence of water and gases like oxygen and methane. The European Union is currently considering a similar project known as Darwin.

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Originally published May 26, 2006


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