Pluto is out, irrigation is in, and the ozone layer is slowly recovering.

Bon Voyage, Pluto

Members of the International Astronomical Union have passed a resolution defining the word “planet.” Now, Pluto no longer qualifies. According to the new definition, a planet must orbit the sun, have achieved a nearly round shape, and have cleared its neighborhood of other objects. The resolution created a new category of “dwarf planet,” which includes bodies that fulfill the first two criteria but not the third. This new category is currently made up of Pluto, the asteroid Ceres, and 2003 UB313, the object also known as Xena, which caused this whole hubbub.

A new study slated for publication in Astrophysical Journal Letters reports the most direct evidence to date for the existence of dark matter in the universe. A team of scientists observed the aftermath of the collision of two galaxy clusters. After the collision, much of the clusters’ mass existed outside the region of visible matter, where they had predicted dark matter would be located. This is the first time scientists have been able to study dark matter that has separated from ordinary matter.

A leading scientist with the Chinese Research Institute of Space Technology has announced that China and Russia are planning a joint mission to Mars to collect samples from the red planet. They also plan to land on one of its satellites. News of the mission, which will begin with a launch in 2009, comes a month after China announced its plans to begin deep space exploration.


Reproductive Rights and Lefts

More than seven years after it was first approved for prescription use, Plan B has been approved by the Food and Drug Administration for over-the-counter purchase by women 18 years and older, the agency announced Thursday. Women under the age of 18 will still have to have a prescription for the drug more commonly known as the “morning-after pill.” In the spring of 2003, Duramed, a subsidiary of Barr Pharmaceuticals and the developer of Plan B, filed the first application for the pill to be moved to over-the-counter status. A final approval decision was delayed several times in the past three years due to fierce political battles regarding the pill’s possible effects on teen sexual behavior.

Researchers at the biotech company Advanced Cell Technology reported in this week’s issue of Nature that they have developed a technique for harvesting embryonic stem cells without destroying embryos, seemingly eliminating the main sticking point in the heated battle over the technology. The scientists removed a single cell from an embryo very early in its development, allowing them to create a new stem cell line as well as set the embryo on a path to full maturity. But stem cell opponents have already responded to the new technique, saying that the fight is still on. Richard Doerflinger of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops told the Associated Press that the process “raises more ethical questions than it answers.”


Water for Food and Fuel

Today, one out of every three people in the world is affected by water scarcity, says a report released by the Comprehensive Assessment of Water Management in Agriculture. In places with shortages, water is either overused or cannot be accessed because of a lack of appropriate infrastructure, the report states. But Asit Bitwas, head of the Third World Centre for Water Management in Mexico City, said “there is no shortage of water in the world, but there is a crisis management of water supplies.” Bitwas argues that developing nations should focus on fixing leaks and improving maintenance systems instead of building expensive dams and diverting rivers.

Water will become increasingly scarce as demands for food and biofuel increase worldwide between now and 2050, a new International Water Management Institute report says. The world’s increasing food needs and growing interest in turning crops into biofuels will require more water to be used for irrigation, the Aug. 21st report said. Irrigation already accounts for 74 percent of human water use.

Oil that spilled in Lebanon after an Israeli air strike has now sunk into the seabed and could take as long as a year to clean up, Greenpeace Mediterranean said on Aug. 22nd. Between 11,000 and 16,500 tons of oil leaked from a Lebanese power plant when Israeli forces bombed it last month. As much as 93 miles of the Lebanese coast could be contaminated. Experts say the oil leak could have environmental consequences on par with those of the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster in Alaska’s Prince William Sound. 
Next month, energy companies will begin scouting for oil and gas in eight million acres of previously off-limits Alaskan wilderness. The National Petroleum Reserve, created in 1923 to provide a backup stockpile for the U.S. Military and the place where the scouting will take place, is estimated to contain between 5.9 and 13.2 billion barrels of oil—enough to satisfy U.S. needs for one to two years at current rates of consumption.


Factories Flake Out on Pollution Controls

Fraud in project approval is to blame for China’s rise in pollution, according to Zhou Shengxian, director of the State Environmental Protection Administration. Many projects passed environmental assessments without fulfilling the necessary criteria, he said. According to Zhou, in some counties only 30 percent of projects using coal-burning power were checked for pollution control compliance before receiving construction licenses, and almost 50 percent failed to carry out emission-control procedures. China currently emits the world’s highest level of sulfur dioxide, which comes from coal-burning power stations and causes acid rain.

An appeals court in Chicago ruled that the Environmental Protection Agency has considerable authority to force industrial plants to reduce the amount of air pollution they create. In a suit filed by the EPA against Cinergy Corp. in 1999, the court ruled that Cinergy should have installed pollution controls and that the company should have applied for a federal permit when it modernized its plants to prolong their operation.

The earth’s ozone layer is on the road to recovery, but not as fast as experts had hoped, the World Meteorological Organization and the U.N. Environmental Programme (UNEP) reported last Friday. By 2049, the ozone layer should be back to pre-1980 levels over areas in Europe, North America, Asia, southern Australasia, Latin America, and Africa, the agencies said. This date is five years later than was predicted in 2002. Achim Steiner, executive director of UNEP, said the delayed recovery serves as a warning that efforts to phase out harmful chemicals must be accelerated.


Still in Storms’ Paths

Hurricanes much worse than Katrina—in terms of strength, property destroyed, and lives lost—are a certainty, says Max Mayfield, director of the U.S. National Hurricane Center. Fifty million people living in coastal counties from Texas to Maine are at risk of what Mayfield describes as a “mega-disaster,” yet less than half have plans for dealing with such a catastrophe. “I don’t know whether that’s going to be this year or five years from now or a hundred years from now. But as long as we continue to develop the coastline like we are, we’re setting up for disaster,” Mayfield said.

The Army Corps of Engineers has restored the levees of New Orleans to pre-Katrina conditions, but warns, “There’s still a huge amount of risk in that part of the country for a levee system.” While the Corps’ chief engineer discounted the possibility that New Orleans’ levees might fail, he also admitted that some of the fixes to the system are temporary rather than permanent.

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Originally published August 28, 2006

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