Scientists discover Google Earth, illegal trade in rare species thrives and it always rains on Titan.

Global Warming May Cause Natural Disasters, May Not

A prominent scientist from the U.S. National Hurricane Center this month fired the latest volley in the debate over whether global warming is increasing the intensity of hurricanes. In an article in the journal Science, researcher Chris Landsea attributes the perceived increase in strong storms to technological advancements that have improved forecasters’ ability to recognize a hurricane’s power. When President Bush visited the Hurricane Center this week, Landsea told him that there was “not a consensus” linking hurricane intensity and global warming, though the researcher does believe climate change is occurring.

A Swiss-led study on Alpine permafrost has reinforced suspicion that global warming will cause natural disasters in the Alps. If the permafrost—the frozen soil that helps hold the colossal peaks together—melts, the Swiss government worries there could be an increase in rock falls and mudslides, threatening villages and tourists. Global warming could also lead to changing weather patterns, retreating glaciers and increased flooding, according to the study.

Britain and California announced an agreement to reduce greenhouse gases together by exploring the possibility of an emissions trading program. “The environmental and economic consequences of climate change and our dependency on fossil fuels compel both California and the United Kingdom to commit to urgent action,” said a joint statement from both governments. A spokesman from the British Consulate-General in Los Angeles explicitly stated that the move is in no way intended to sidestep President Bush on the global warming issue.

A rapidly growing population in Spain is making it difficult for the European nation to meet its Kyoto Protocol-mandated goals for energy use reduction. Spain’s population jumped from 40 million in 1997 to 44.3 million in 2006, an increase on a scale that no other developed nation has had to contend with, a Spanish official said. Non-localized sources of carbon dioxide, such as homes and vehicles, account for 60% of Spain’s emissions and make the country the worst performer among the Kyoto Protocol signatories. In an attempt to control carbon dioxide emissions from houses, the Spanish government recently approved building specifications that require new homes to be more energy efficient and come equipped with rooftop solar panels.

Google Earth, a global search program replete with images of nearly the entire planet, is becoming increasingly popular among scientists, according to German news sources. Researchers are using Google Earth to help with tasks ranging from ice sheet tracking to volcano monitoring, Der Spiegel reported earlier this month. “Google Earth offers globally available data in a very straightforward manner,” said Klaus Greve of the Geographic Institute at the University of Bonn.


The Brain’s Own Reality Show

A breakthrough in microscope technology known as two-photon microscopy has allowed MIT scientists to observe real-time changes in individual mouse neurons as they respond to an environment. Never before have researchers been able to see the brains of live subjects with such fine resolution. The discovery could “offer unparalleled advantages in understanding pathological processes in real time, leading to potential new drugs and treatments for a host of neurological diseases and mental disorders,” said Nobel laureate Susumu Tonegawa, a co-author of the study, which appeared in the July 28 issue of Cell.

Global illegal trade in wild animals and plants exceeds $10 billion a year, making it the third highest source of illicit income after trade in drugs and guns, a conservation group said at a closed-door Chinese wildlife conference. Protected plants and animal parts are still sold in many Chinese cities and rural districts, despite punishments that could exceed 10 years of jail time.

Not Yet Time to Pack for Mars

New research indicates that, contrary to the dreams of many a science fiction writer, Mars cannot support life, as we know it. A study led by Sushil Atreya of the University of Michigan, shows that Martian dust devils and storms augment chemical processes that create hydrogen peroxide in the atmosphere. The hydrogen peroxide then condenses and snows down on the surface of the planet, producing oxidants that would sweep away organic material there. “As a consequence, any nascent life (microorganisms, for example) or even prebiotic molecules would find it hard to get a foothold on the surface of Mars,” said Atreya.

According to the nation’s space agency, a Russian rocket carrying 18 national and foreign mini-satellites crashed in Kazakhstan as a result of an emergency shutdown of the rocket’s first stage engine. The rocket was a converted intercontinental ballistic missile called a Dnepr. No casualties or environmental damage have been reported yet, though the exact location of the crash is still unknown.

Titan, Saturn’s largest moon, can add another item to its list of Earth-like features: rain. A probe that landed on the moon found evidence that liquid methane constantly drizzles onto Titan’s surface, NASA scientists announced. While the total yearly accumulation of rain is only about 2 inches per year—about the same amount that falls annually in California’s Death Valley—the precipitation is near constant, which could account for Titan’s wet appearance. On Titan, methane exists as a liquid, instead of a gas as it does on Earth, because of the moon’s average temperature (-300° F).

The Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, criticized NASA in a recent report on the space agency’s strategy for acquiring a space shuttle replacement. The report recommended that Congress limit appropriations for the agency’s project to plan and design the new Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV). “NASA’s acquisition strategy for the CEV places the project at risk of cost overruns, schedule delays and performance shortfalls, because it commits the government to a long-term product development effort before establishing a sound business case,” the report says.


Israel Spills Lebanon’s Oil; U.S. Cleans Up Its Own

Lebanon’s coast is covered in 10,000 to 30,000 tons of oil that leaked into the Mediterranean Sea after an Israeli bombing run on a power plant, said Lebanon’s Environment Ministry. The spill could cost as much as $50 million to clean up, according to Yacoub al-Sarraf, the nation’s environment minister. Lebanon has never handled a spill of this magnitude and lacks the expertise and tools to deal with it, he said.

The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has expressed interest in developing a biofuel capable of replacing its traditional military aviation fuel. Jet fuel requires a very high energy density and must work in temperatures as low as 50° F; currently available biofuels do not meet these requirements. In late July, DARPA held a forum in Colorado for organizations interested in proposing plans and ideas for creating the new fuel.

On Aug. 3, Shell launched the world’s biggest gas-to-liquid project, which will process gas into clean oil products, in Qatar. The plant, originally slated to cost $6 billion, will cost $10 billion due to rising labor and material costs, the Qatari Energy Minister said. Demand for clean fuels is growing as emissions standards become more stringent.

Concerned about becoming dependent on foreign oil and the effects of fossil fuels on the environment, China is pursuing improved energy efficiency. The National Development and Reform Commission, the body charged with setting energy policy, held a top-level meeting on July 26 to discuss its goal: a 20% cut in energy use per unit of national income by 2010. Though many of China’s regional governments and large firms have pledged their support to the goal, the nation’s energy use is still increasing faster than its skyrocketing gross domestic product.

Until Britain buries the nuclear waste from its 23 nuclear plants, it will need a “robust” temporary storage facility, said a study conducted by the Committee on Radioactive Waste Management released on July 31. The report was commissioned by the government as part of an effort to dispose of the approximately 470,000 cubic meters of radioactive waste, which are currently stored in pools of water in the plants. According to Nirex, a nuclear waste disposal company, the best long-term storage option for the spent nuclear fuel rods is to bury them deep underground.

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Originally published August 4, 2006

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