Ancient birds may have had four wings, people don't understand nutritional labels, and the federal government blocks a document on climate change.

Birds of the Past, Mice for the Future

Ancestors to modern birds may have had four wings, says research released by a Canadian team this week. The feather-like structures on the legs of the dinosaur Archaeopteryx were previously thought to be just for insulation. But after close examination of fossils, paleobiologists at the University of Calgary now say the leg feathers have an aerodynamic structure that imply a role in flight.

Well-funded neuroscientists announced they have now mapped every cell in the mouse brain. The Allen Brain Atlas—backed by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen—will be available to any researcher, free of charge, on the Internet. Researchers say it may be helpful for figuring out the biological mechanisms of cancer and other diseases.

Support for Space

More than 60 percent of Americans support maintaining or increasing support for the national space program, according to a Gallup poll. The current goals of the program include completing the International Space Station and sending manned flights to the Moon, Mars, and beyond. Though NASA’s current budget is a mere 1 percent of the federal budget, and despite China’s expanding program, 69 percent of Americans believe the U.S. will maintain its status as the leader of space exploration.
Australia and Southern Africa beat out China, Brazil, and Argentina for the right to host the giant radio telescope that will be known as the SKA, the Square Kilometer Array. The SKA, which is being developed by scientists in 17 countries, is 50 times more powerful than any telescope in existence today. The final two prospective host countries met all the requirements for SKA, which include low levels of man-made radio signals, a good view of the southern sky, and stable ionospheric conditions. The telescope, a set of thousands of antennas spread over 3,000 kilometers, will gather sensitive information about the formation and development of the first stars and galaxies.

Nutritional Ignorance, Toxic Threats

Many people cannot read food nutritional labels properly, often because of poor math and reading skills, a new study reports. The most common mistakes made while interpreting the labels are improper calculations, misunderstandings of the serving size, and confusion over additional information on the labels. The inability to read food labels is particularly troublesome given the importance of diet to health, researchers said.

Measures proposed by the European Commission to limit the amount of particulate matter, or fine dust, in the air have been delayed. A decision by the European Parliament allows cities more time—through January 2010— to comply with existing limits on larger particles. Air pollution leads to more than 350,000 premature deaths in Europe each year and drains up to 9 percent of Europe’s GDP in health costs, said a spokesperson for the Greens party.

Beyond Oil

Scientists in China successfully tested an experimental fusion reactor on Sept. 28. The test was an important step in the path toward fusion, a potentially limitless source of energy that produces little radioactive waste. The facility is China’s answer to the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, or ITER, a seven-country collaborative fusion effort being built in France.

Richard Armitage, former U.S. deputy secretary of state, speculated that North Korea would not curb its nuclear program until the Bush administration left office. The U.S. can’t be “innovative and flexible” with North Korea while putting so much effort into Iraq, Afghanistan, and Iran, he said. Meanwhile, Iran’s nuclear program was in the spotlight this week when Russia agreed to ship fuel to an atomic power plant being built in Tehran.

Reflecting the recent drop in crude oil prices, Malaysian crude palm oil futures plunged by more than three percent, reaching their lowest levels in more than two months. But market analysts reassured investors, saying that in the long-term, growing demand for biofuels would drive palm oil prices higher in the next year. 

Energy companies coughed up nearly $14 billion to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management for leases, giving the agency rights to explore almost 1 million acres of the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, a land known for its Arctic wildlife. The sale price would have been higher if not for a federal judge’s earlier ruling that barred oil exploration in environmentally sensitive wetlands in the reserve.


Science of Warming

Pollution caused by human activity has caused the Earth to reach its warmest point in a million years, says a study published in this week’s PNAS. Climate researchers say the speed of the warming—0.6° C in the last 30 years—has left too little time for plants and animals to migrate to cooler areas.

The hole in the ozone layer over Antarctica is approaching record size. The cavity, which expands most dramatically between late August and October, may surpass its 2003 size&mdash10.8 million square miles— but will most likely not reach its largest-recorded magnitude—11 million square miles in 2000. Though ozone-depleting chemicals are now being regulated, enough of the chemicals persist in the atmosphere to continue damaging the layer.

Ecological economists presented new research to a forestry congress in Canada, valuing the forests in Alaska, Russia, the Nordic nations, and Canada at a combined $250 million. Forests provide long-term economic value, the researchers said, including acting as water and waste filters, providing habitats, storing greenhouse gases, and encouraging tourism.

Politics of Warming

An expert panel convened by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration was not allowed to publish a report suggesting that global warming is contributing to the strength and frequency of hurricanes, said a report in the journal Nature. Though the report, pulled by the Commerce Department in May, did not make any particular policy recommendations, it did present the conclusion that global warming has led to higher ocean temperatures that cause more intense hurricanes.

Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a law on Wednesday that set a statewide limit on greenhouse gas emissions in California. The law, the first of its kind, makes California a national leader in the fight against global warming. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced a partnership with fellow Republican Schwarzenegger to help address climate change, claiming the federal government is not doing enough.
Germany will make efforts to curb global warming a main priority of the G8 when it takes the presidency next year, said German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Merkel cited the need for the cooperation of the United States, the largest producer of greenhouse gases and the lone G8 member to refuse to ratify the Kyoto Protocol. Russia, which holds the G8 presidency this year, has placed little emphasis on climate change.

Originally published October 3, 2006

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