New Report Predicts Possible Dip in Global CO2 Emissions

Posted December 7th, 2015 at 3:24 pm (UTC-4)
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An international collaboration of scientists, in a new report, predicts the percentage of global carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels may actually dip slightly in 2015 compared to 2014 levels.

“In 2014, global CO2 emissions from burning fossil fuels grew by just 0.6 percent,” said the report’s lead author Rob Jackson, a professor of Earth System Science at California’s Stanford University in a press release. “This year we expect total emissions to flatten or drop slightly, despite strong growth in gross domestic product worldwide.”

The researchers noted that the projected 2015 CO2 levels are an estimate and an actual annual level won’t be reported until all final numbers are provided.

The scientists conducted the research on behalf of the Global Carbon Project, an organization that provides regular examinations of the global carbon cycle.

The possible decrease in fossil fuel CO2 emissions in 2015, along with the slight increase in levels in 2014, are contrary to levels posted previously when annual levels rose between 2% and 3% each year, said the researchers.

They also reported that any previous slowdown on annual CO2 emissions also happened to coincide during a time of global economic difficulties. This new possible dip in levels could mark the first time such a drop took place during a period of improved global economic growth.

According to the report, China emitted 27% of the world’s carbon dioxide in 2014. The U.S. had a 15.5 % CO2 emission rate, followed by the European Union with 9.5% and India with 7.2 %.

“Decreased coal use in China was largely responsible for the decline in global CO2 emissions,” said report co-author Corinne Le Quéré of the UK’s University of East Anglia. “After a decade of rapid growth, China’s emissions rate slowed to 1.2 percent in 2014 and is expected to drop by 3.9 percent in 2015.”

The researchers said any continued slow growth of annual CO2 output will depend on the use of coal in China and in other countries, and if more renewable sources such as hydro, nuclear, wind, and solar are used to produce energy.

“But even if we reach peak global emissions within a decade or two, we’ll still be emitting massive amounts of CO2 from burning fossil fuels,” said Jackson.

In order to stabilize the world’s climate, he also said the emissions will need to be reduced to near zero.

“Reaching zero emissions will require long-term commitments from countries attending the climate meeting in Paris this week and beyond,” Jackson said.

Rick Pantaleo
Rick Pantaleo maintains the Science World blog and writes stories for VOA’s web and radio on a variety of science, technology and health topics. He also occasionally appears on various VOA programs to talk about the latest scientific news. Rick joined VOA in 1992 after a 20 year career in commercial broadcasting.

‘Medieval Warm Period’ May Not Have Been Global Climate Event

Posted December 4th, 2015 at 2:00 pm (UTC-4)
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Greenland and possibly neighboring Baffin Island was settled by the Norse during what has been assumed to be a temporary warm period. They disappeared in the 1400s. Southern Greenland’s Hvalsey church is the best preserved Viking ruin. (Wikimedia Commons)

Greenland and possibly neighboring Baffin Island was settled by the Norse during what has been assumed to be a temporary warm period. They disappeared in the 1400s. Southern Greenland’s Hvalsey church is the best preserved Viking ruin. (Wikimedia Commons)

Some of those who argue against human causation of climate change often point to a number of Earth’s past climatic events and periods such as the ‘Medieval Warm Period’ and the ‘Little Ice Age’ as examples that climate change can be the result of natural and not necessarily anthropogenic in origin.

But now a new study published in the journal ‘Science Advances’ suggests the ‘Medieval Warm Period’ or ‘Medieval Climate Anomaly’, a time of unusually warm weather between 900 and 1300, may not have been the global event that had been thought.

The researchers examined a popular theory that the period’s warm weather allowed the Norse to settle Greenland in 10th century and live there until the mid-15th century when the icy conditions of the following ‘Little Ice Age’ may have driven them away.

But, the new study suggests clues left by old glaciers show Greenland’s climate was already quite cold when the people from Norway, Iceland and Denmark arrived.

“If the Vikings traveled to Greenland when it was cool, it’s a stretch to say deteriorating climate drove them out,” said said lead author Nicolás Young, a glacial geologist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in a press release.

Studying Beryllium 10 isotopes in boulders left in Greenland by 1,000 years of glacial movement, the researchers found the rocks were deposited by advancing glaciers between 975 and 1275 when the Norse had arrived and settled there.

The researchers say this evidence strongly implies it was just as cold when the Norse arrived as when they left.

“It’s becoming clearer that the Medieval Warm Period was patchy, not global,” said Young.

Geologist Jason Briner, from the University at Buffalo  samples a boulder left by a glacier on Baffin Island, around the time of early Viking settlement. Measurements of chemical isotopes within the rock suggest settlers in neighboring Greenland faced cold weather. (Nicolás Young)

Geologist Jason Briner, from the University at Buffalo, samples a boulder left by a glacier on Baffin Island, around the time of early Viking settlement. Measurements of chemical isotopes within the rock suggest settlers in neighboring Greenland faced cold weather. (Nicolás Young)

Young says he considers the concept of the warm period as something more ‘Eurocentric‘ than global in nature because the best known weather observations made during that time were done in Europe.  He suggests the climate at that time might not have been the same in other parts of the world.

Recent research has found evidence that areas of the world such as parts of central Eurasia and northwestern North America, may actually have cooled off during that time.

The researchers say their new study may also help verify some recent notions that what was considered to be the ‘Medieval Warming Period’ was actually just an extended positive phase of an irregular climatic cycle known as the North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO).

They say a positive phase of the NAO would have brought warm air to Europe and Iceland, which would have raised temperatures there, while at the same time making regions such as southwest Greenland colder, by pulling in more air from the Arctic.

Rick Pantaleo
Rick Pantaleo maintains the Science World blog and writes stories for VOA’s web and radio on a variety of science, technology and health topics. He also occasionally appears on various VOA programs to talk about the latest scientific news. Rick joined VOA in 1992 after a 20 year career in commercial broadcasting.

Coffee Delays Diabetes; Dinosaur Tracks Found; Exiled Exoplanet

Posted December 2nd, 2015 at 6:35 pm (UTC-4)
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A cup of coffee on a bean background (Public Domain)

A cup of coffee on a bean background (Public Domain)

Coffee May Prevent Onset of Type 2 Diabetes

A new Danish study finds that drinking between three and four cups of coffee a day can reduce the onset of type 2 or early onset diabetes.

Researchers from Denmark’s Aarhus University Hospital say two compounds found in coffee, cafestol and caffeic acid, can help prevent diabetes.

Scientists had thought caffeine was the key ingredient that helped avert this now common and increasingly widespread illness, but recent research has shown it only provided a small effect.

People who develop type 2 diabetes have higher than normal blood glucose or sugar levels due to a decreased ability to properly use insulin, a hormone produced by the pancreas that keeps those levels under control.

Type 2 diabetes can lead to serious health problems such as blindness, nerve damage as well as increased risk of heart and kidney disease.

Writing in the American Chemical Society’s Journal of Natural Products, the scientists say their findings could lead to new medications that prevent and treat the disease.

Tracks were made by sauropod dinosaurs on the Scottish Isle of Skye 170 million years ago. (Steve Brusatte)

Sauropod dinosaur tracks on the Isle of Skye. (Steve Brusatte)

Scottish Paleontologists Find Huge Collection of Dinosaur Tracks

Paleontologists have recently discovered one of the biggest collection of dinosaur tracks on the Isle of Skye in Scotland.

Made by some of biggest land animals to ever walk the earth, the assortment of tracks include hundreds of footprints made by Sauropod dinosaurs, the giant plant-eating ancestors of the brontosaurus and diplodocus.

The dinosaur tracks, which are thought to be around 170 million years old, were found by the scientists in layers of rock, which they say was once the bottom of a shallow, salt water lagoon.

Based on the size of the footprints, one as large as 70 cm in diameter, the researchers determined that the dinosaurs probably grew to at least 15 meters in length and weighed more than 10 metric tons.

The discovery of the Skye dinosaur tracks along with findings made in other parts of the world suggest that the animals, who were thought to be mostly land-dwellers, actually spent much of their life along coastal areas in shallow water.

The star HD 106906 and the planet HD 106906 b, with Neptune's orbit for comparison (Vanessa Bailey/Creative Commons)

The star HD 106906 and the planet HD 106906 b, with Neptune’s orbit for comparison (Vanessa Bailey/Creative Commons)

Exoplanet May Have Been Exiled to Outer Reaches of its Solar System

Astronomers say an exoplanet found orbiting its star at an incredibly great distance may have been booted from its original closer location in a way similar to what some think took place in our own solar system’s early history.

Studying images from the Gemini Planet Imager and Hubble Space Telescope, the astronomers noticed a possible ring of debris around the planet and an oddly shaped comet belt in its solar system.

The scientists said both of these anomalies suggest a violent gravitational disturbance may have been behind the exoplanet’s exile to a location some sixteen times the distance between Pluto and the Sun.

The powerful disturbance is thought to have been possibly caused by another massive planet or a passing star that upset the solar system’s inner planets.

A study released by Canadian researchers in November suggested we may have had an additional gas giant in our solar system around 4 billion years ago until Jupiter pushed it out.

Homo erectus, a long-extinct hominid species, may have enjoyed peaches much like those we eat today. (Rebecca Wilf)

Homo erectus, a long-extinct hominid species, may have enjoyed peaches much like those we eat today. (Rebecca Wilf)

Peaches Have Been Enjoyed Long Before Modern Humans Arrived

To many of us, there’s nothing quite as refreshing as biting into a nice, ripe, juicy peach.

According to a new study by US and Chinese scientists, peaches have been enjoyed by our ancient ancestors long before the arrival of modern humans.

Eight well-preserved fossilized peach pits from more than two and half million years were found for the first time in southwest China.

Peaches are thought to have originated in China.

The researchers say the ancient peach pits appear to be nearly identical to those from modern peach.

Published in the journal Scientific Reports, the study suggests peaches evolved through natural selection long before modern humans domesticated the fruit.

While new and larger sized varieties have been developed over the years, the study shows animals and ultimately early hominids ate the ancient wild peaches and played important role in its evolution.

After comparing the ancient peach pits with their modern counterparts, the scientists estimated the late Pliocene epoch fruit was approximately 5 cm in diameter.

Rick Pantaleo
Rick Pantaleo maintains the Science World blog and writes stories for VOA’s web and radio on a variety of science, technology and health topics. He also occasionally appears on various VOA programs to talk about the latest scientific news. Rick joined VOA in 1992 after a 20 year career in commercial broadcasting.

What Happened When I Landed in Antarctica

Posted December 1st, 2015 at 11:29 am (UTC-4)
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The pressure ridges (ice formations) below Observation Hill, a 754-foot hill adjacent to McMurdo Station in Antarctica. (Photo by Refael Klein)

The pressure ridges (ice formations) below Observation Hill, a 754-foot hill adjacent to McMurdo Station in Antarctica. (Photo by Refael Klein)

It was early afternoon when our plane, an LC-130 operated by the New York National Guard, began its descent towards the ice runway at McMurdo Station, the logistics hub of the U.S. Antarctic Program.

Last I heard, ground temperatures were minus 31 Celsius (minus 25 Fahrenheit). In the next half hour, the plane would land and I’d leave the relative comfort of the temperature-controlled passenger cabin and walk into the coldest cold I’d ever experienced.

I watched the other passengers dig through their carry-ons and layer up, and tried to get an Idea of how I should dress. Images of me walking off the plane and being paralyzed by the chill ran through my head. It would be like jumping into a frozen lake; I’d exit the aircraft, lose control of my body in one enormous freezing shock, tumble to the ground, and drown in embarrassment.

McMurdo is the largest base on Antarctica.  Populations can reach over 1,000 during the summer months. (Photo by Refael Klein)

McMurdo is the largest base on Antarctica. Populations can reach over 1,000 during the summer months. (Photo by Refael Klein)

I put on everything I brought: two pairs of long underwear (tops and bottoms), a fleece, two down jackets, a balaclava, a ski hat, two pairs of gloves, and a pair ski goggles.

It got real hot, real quickly, and by the time the plane landed, the cold was no longer my adversary, it was my salvation.

With my feet firmly planted on the Ross Ice Shelf, I took off a jacket, removed my balaclava and replaced my goggles with a pair of sun glasses. The cool breeze swept over me and I relished it like a tall glass of lemonade on a hot August day in Washington, D.C..

About 30 meters (100 feet) away, five, red, 10-passenger vans were parked and idling. They’d be our ride to McMurdo.

Of the three American bases in Antarctica, McMurdo, on Ross Island, is the largest. It has been continuously occupied since the 1950s, first by the U.S. military, mainly the navy, and then by the National Science Foundation (NSF).

In the 1960s, the navy built a nuclear power plant below Observation Hill to meet the station’s energy needs. A decade later, with the Antarctic treaty in place, NSF administrators replaced navy staff officers and the plant was decommissioned and replaced with diesel electric generators.

A view of Mt. Erebus from the McMurdo Skiway (airstrip), on the Ross Ice Shelf. (Photo by Refael Klein)

A view of Mt. Erebus from the McMurdo Skiway (airstrip), on the Ross Ice Shelf. (Photo by Refael Klein)

This time of year, McMurdo sees 24 hours of sunlight. It is perpetually three in the afternoon or 10 in the morning, depending on your perspective.

The sea ice is 1.5 meters (5 feet) thick and, except for the occasional tidal crack, there is no view of the open ocean, which sits 112 kilometers (70 miles) away. In two months, when the sea ice breaks up, the station will become a naturalist’s dream where killer whales, penguins and seabirds will abound. For now, there are only seals.

The oldest seal on the island is partially eaten and frozen to the ground beneath the wrap-around awning at Scott’s Hut. Robert Falcon Scott was the captain of the second expedition to reach the geographic South Pole.

Scott's Hut, which housed the second expedition to reach the geographic South Pole, still stands after more than 100 years. (Photo by Refael Klein)

Scott’s Hut, which housed the second expedition to reach the geographic South Pole, still stands after more than 100 years. (Photo by Refael Klein)

He lived with his crew on Ross Island for two years, surviving off of canned biscuits and seal meat cooked over blubber stoves. The expedition, sans the South Pole party — all of whom died on their return journey — left Antarctica in 1913.

Despite its age, the original hut still stands. It’s in near-perfect repair, and if you peek through the windows, you can see shelves of neatly stacked, 100-year-old canned goods left behind by the expedition.

A beautiful, almost eerie, glow creeps in and around McMurdo throughout the day. Although one may think it’s the remnants of the old nuclear power plant, it’s in fact the combined effect of snow, clouds and glaciers reflecting light in all directions.

No feature glows more intensely than Mt. Erebus, the southernmost active volcano in the world, and the most dominant feature on Ross Island.

It’s an impressive sight to behold and, as you look over the Ross Sea and watch its glacial tongue creep across the frozen ocean, you momentarily forget the biting cold and extreme isolation. The vastness of the landscape is mesmerizing. Wind tears over rock and ice. Sirens call from distant mountain passes.

It takes one’s full strength to hold on to reality, and not be carried into the wilderness.

 

Look for Refael Klein’s weekly blogs from the South Pole here on Science World.

Refael Klein
Refael Klein is a Lieutenant Junior Grade in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Commissioned Officer Corps (NOAA Corps). He's contributing to Science World during his year-long assignment working and living in the South Pole.

November 2015 Science Images

Posted November 30th, 2015 at 5:05 pm (UTC-4)
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A visitor tries the flight simulator ‘Birdly’ at the exhibition "Animated Wonderworlds" at Zurich’s Museum for Design, 11/17/15. Birdly simulates the flight of a red kite over New York City, controlled by the entire body of the user. The flight simulator was developed by scientists at Zurich University of the Arts. (Reuters)

A visitor tries the flight simulator ‘Birdly’ at the exhibition “Animated Wonderworlds” at Zurich’s Museum for Design, 11/17/15. Birdly simulates the flight of a red kite over New York City, controlled by the entire body of the user. The flight simulator was developed by scientists at Zurich University of the Arts. (Reuters)

Technicians inside a clean room at NASA's Langley Research Center, in Virginia, prepare the Stratospheric Aerosol and Gas Experiment III (SAGE III) instrument for shipment to NASA's Kennedy Space Center on 11/24/15. The ozone and aerosol-measuring instrument is set for a March 2016 launch to the International Space Station.  (NASA)

Technicians inside a clean room at NASA’s Langley Research Center, in Virginia, prepare the Stratospheric Aerosol and Gas Experiment III (SAGE III) instrument for shipment to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center on 11/24/15. The ozone and aerosol-measuring instrument is set for a March 2016 launch to the International Space Station. (NASA)

Archaeologists work at a recently discovered tomb of the Ichma prehispanic culture in Lima's Huaca Pucllana ceremonial complex at Miraflores district in Lima, 11/26/15. The tomb is estimated to be more than 600 years old, archeologists said on a press release. (Reuters)

Archaeologists work at a recently discovered tomb of the Ichma prehispanic culture in Lima’s Huaca Pucllana ceremonial complex at Miraflores district in Lima, 11/26/15. The tomb is estimated to be more than 600 years old, archaeologists said on a press release. (Reuters)

The European Space Agency’s European Service Module arrived in Cleveland during 11/15 and was transported to NASA Glenn’s Plum Brook Station for testing in the Space Power Facility in 2016. (NASA)

The European Space Agency’s European Service Module arrived in Cleveland during 11/15 and was transported to NASA Glenn’s Plum Brook Station for testing in the Space Power Facility in 2016. (NASA)

Here’s an 11/26/15 photo of the 500-metre aperture spherical telescope named FAST under construction in the Guizhou province of China. The telescope, which will be the world's largest, will be put in use by Sept. 2016, according to local media. (Reuters)

Here’s an 11/26/15 photo of the 500-metre aperture spherical telescope named FAST under construction in the Guizhou province of China. The telescope, which will be the world’s largest, will be put in use by Sept. 2016, according to local media. (Reuters)

In this photo released  11/4/15 by the European Southern Observatory, engineers from Onsala Space Observatory's Group for Advanced Receiver Development are seen here examining the top part of the Swedish-ESO PI receiver for APEX (SEPIA) before its installation at on the Atacama Pathfinder Experiment (APEX) telescope in Chile. (ESO/Sascha Krause)

In this photo released 11/4/15 by the European Southern Observatory, engineers from Onsala Space Observatory’s Group for Advanced Receiver Development are seen here examining the top part of the Swedish-ESO PI receiver for APEX (SEPIA) before its installation at on the Atacama Pathfinder Experiment (APEX) telescope in Chile. (ESO/Sascha Krause)

Inna Nosikova exits a mock-up spaceship after an eight-day simulated flight to the moon, in Moscow, Russia, on 11/6/15. Nosikova and her five female colleagues climbed into a grounded space capsule to imitate a lunar flight and test the effects of confinement and stress that come with space travel. (AP)

Inna Nosikova exits a mock-up spaceship after an eight-day simulated flight to the moon, in Moscow, Russia, on 11/6/15. Nosikova and her five female colleagues climbed into a grounded space capsule to imitate a lunar flight and test the effects of confinement and stress that come with space travel. (AP)

David Wolff, a research scientist with NASA, opens the door to a mobile workspace on a hilltop near Moclips, Washington on 11/6/15. Wolff and other scientists measured raindrops and snowdrops in one of the wettest spots in the US.  Scientists are attempting to validate, on the ground, how well global satellites measure precipitation from space. (AP)

David Wolff, a research scientist with NASA, opens the door to a mobile workspace on a hilltop near Moclips, Washington on 11/6/15. Wolff and other scientists measured raindrops and snowdrops in one of the wettest spots in the US. Scientists are attempting to validate, on the ground, how well global satellites measure precipitation from space. (AP)

After sitting behind the sun for nearly a year NASA’s Solar and Terrestrial Relations Observatory Ahead, or STEREO-A, resumed its normal science operations on 11/17/15.  This is an image of the sun taken with the Extreme Ultraviolet Imager aboard STEREO-A. This image shows the sun in wavelengths of 195 angstroms, which are typically colorized in green. (NASA/STEREO)

After sitting behind the sun for nearly a year NASA’s Solar and Terrestrial Relations Observatory Ahead, or STEREO-A, resumed its normal science operations on 11/17/15. This is an image of the sun taken with the Extreme Ultraviolet Imager aboard STEREO-A. This image shows the sun in wavelengths of 195 angstroms, which are typically colorized in green. (NASA/STEREO)

In a photo released 11/24/15, NASA tests a new spacesuit developed for the Orion spacecraft. The space agency’s engineers used a mockup of Orion’s cabin in the aircraft to evaluate how astronauts can get into their seats during various operational scenarios, perform tasks at different suit pressures, and to test seat hardware. (NASA)

In a photo released 11/24/15, NASA tests a new spacesuit developed for the Orion spacecraft. The space agency’s engineers used a mockup of Orion’s cabin in the aircraft to evaluate how astronauts can get into their seats during various operational scenarios, perform tasks at different suit pressures, and to test seat hardware. (NASA)

Researchers measured the wind speed flowing around exoplanet HD 189733b with data gathered by The HARPS high-resolution spectrograph at the European Southern Observatory’s La Silla 3.6m telescope in Chile. (ESO)

Researchers measured the wind speed flowing around exoplanet HD 189733b with data gathered by The HARPS high-resolution spectrograph at the European Southern Observatory’s La Silla 3.6m telescope in Chile. (ESO)

Rick Pantaleo
Rick Pantaleo maintains the Science World blog and writes stories for VOA’s web and radio on a variety of science, technology and health topics. He also occasionally appears on various VOA programs to talk about the latest scientific news. Rick joined VOA in 1992 after a 20 year career in commercial broadcasting.

Scientists Observe Rare Black Hole Event

Posted November 27th, 2015 at 4:00 pm (UTC-4)
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Artist impression of a black hole consuming a star that has been torn apart by the black hole’s strong gravity. As a result of this massive “meal” the black hole begins to launch a powerful jet that can be detected with radio telescopes. (NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center/Swift)

Artist impression of a black hole consuming a star that has been torn apart by the black hole’s strong gravity. As a result of this massive “meal” the black hole begins to launch a powerful jet that can be detected with radio telescopes. (NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center/Swift)

For many here in the United States, today, Friday 11/27/15 is something called Black Friday. It’s unofficially considered to be the first shopping day of the Christmas season and many Americans mark it by heading out to shopping centers and stores in droves in hopes of finding bargains.

NASA is marking the day too; only they’re calling it Black Hole Friday.

It’s an annual event the space agency has set aside for the past three years to post photos and provide the public with information about black holes on their websites, Facebook and Twitter feeds.  They even have a special hashtag for the event – #BlackHoleFriday.

Just in time for Black Hole Friday, in a new study published in the journal Science, an international team of physicists say they have made the first observations of a supermassive black hole devouring a star, while at the same time spitting a bit of it back out in the form of a high-speed flare that’s moving matter at nearly the speed of light.

According to Dr. James Miller-Jones, an astrophysicist at Australia’s International Center for Radio Astronomy Research and a member of the research team, the energy produced by the plasma jets in this event is about the entire energy output of the Sun over 10 million years.

Artist’s conception of a star being drawn toward a black hole and destroyed (left), and the black hole later emitting a “jet” of plasma composed of debris left from the star’s destruction. Modified from an original image by Amadeo Bachar.

Artist’s conception of a star being drawn toward a black hole and destroyed (left), and the black hole later emitting a “jet” of plasma composed of debris left from the star’s destruction. Modified from an original image by Amadeo Bachar.

“It’s the first time we see everything from the stellar destruction followed by the launch of a conical outflow, also called a jet, and we watched it unfold over several months,” said team-leader Sjoert van Velzen, a Hubble fellow at Johns Hopkins University in Maryland in a press release.

The study tracked the doomed star over several months as it traveled along its normal path and then be pulled in by the tremendous gravity of the black hole.

The team’s study backs up a theory made earlier by astrophysicists who predicted that when huge amounts of gas, or in this particular instance an entire star, are crammed into a black hole, a fast-moving jet of plasma (flare) can burst from near the black hole’s event horizon or rim.

This rare event is taking place in a galaxy named PGC 043234 that is only 300 million light years away. That’s considered to be a relatively close distance to Earth which the scientists said helped them make their observations.

“The consumption of the star is still going on, and we can still observe it using NASA’s Swift satellite, said van Velzen in an email to Science World. “It will likely take a very long time — hundreds of years — to consume all of the stellar debris that remained bound to the black hole. But the most spectacular part is over now,” he said.

The team said that while the black hole they observed is considered to be super massive, which ranks it among the largest of black holes, this one was fairly light with a mass of about a million times that of our sun. Supermassive black holes can have masses that are billions times more than the sun.

The star being pulled into the black hole was described as being close to the same size as our own sun.

The high-speed flare was named ASASSN-14li by the All-Sky Automated Survey for Supernovae or ASAS-SN scientific team who first observed it last December (2014).

Rick Pantaleo
Rick Pantaleo maintains the Science World blog and writes stories for VOA’s web and radio on a variety of science, technology and health topics. He also occasionally appears on various VOA programs to talk about the latest scientific news. Rick joined VOA in 1992 after a 20 year career in commercial broadcasting.

Phobos May Shatter; Study: Poles Won’t Flip; Webb Space Telescope

Posted November 25th, 2015 at 4:00 pm (UTC-4)
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Color image of Martian moon Phobos (NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona)

Color image of Martian moon Phobos (NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona)

Mars May Shatter its Largest Moon

Scientists in California have found that the largest moon of Mars, Phobos, is slowly inching closer to Mars.

They predict that once the gravity of Mars finally overpowers Phobos, in about 20 to 40 million years, the moon will probably be shredded to bits.

The scientists from the University of California, Berkley explain that since Phobos is in such fragile condition, the closer it gets to the Red Planet, it will begin to break up instead of crashing into Mars intact.

While some of the moon’s largest remains will probably smash into Mars, most of the smaller bits and pieces are expected spread out above the planet, where they will circle it like the rings of Saturn.

After millions of years of orbiting the planet, the researchers say Phobos’ remains will eventually fall to the surface of Mars, much like our meteor showers on Earth.

Artist's illustration of the shape and function of the Earth's magnetic field that protects us from harmful cosmic radiation (NASA)

Artist’s illustration of the shape and function of the Earth’s magnetic field that protects us from harmful cosmic radiation (NASA)

Earth May Not Flip Magnetic Poles After All

A number of scientists say that Earth’s magnetic fields have been quickly losing strength over the past 100 years or so.

Recent research suggests that because of this, Earth is on the verge of flipping its magnetic poles.

But a new study finds that the field’s strength is merely returning to normal after reaching rather unusually high levels.

Columbia University’s Dennis Kent, the study’s co-author, says while Earth’s magnetic field may be rapidly weakening, it’s not lower than the long-term average.

He also suggests that after weakening to a point, the fields may again increase in intensity.

Earth’s magnetic field has flipped a number of times throughout its 4.5 billion year history.

The last time that happened, about 786,000 years ago, scientists say it took only about 100 years of diminishing field strength to do so.

NASA says that fossil records show that past field changes had no major effect on living creatures.

Vocal Tone Predicts Relationship Success or Failure

A new study from the University of Southern California finds that when couples converse it isn’t the words they say but their tone of voice that can predict whether their relationship will improve or worsen.

The USC team fed a number of recorded conversations between a hundred couples during marriage therapy sessions into a computer running a newly developed algorithm.

The system makes its predictions based on various acoustical properties of the couple’s voices.

After comparing the computer results with a two year follow up study, the researchers found that their new program had a 79 percent accuracy rate of forecasting the success or failure of the relationships.

They say that their algorithm was even more successful at predicting couple’s relationships than those made by relationship experts during the original marriage therapy sessions.

The USC team plans to improve their algorithm by incorporating other factors such as verbal and non-verbal language.

An engineer at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center worked to install the first flight mirror onto the telescope structure at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. (NASA/Chris Gunn)

An engineer at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center worked to install the first flight mirror onto the telescope structure at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.
(NASA/Chris Gunn)

Important Step Taken in Webb Space Telescope Construction

NASA has taken an important step in completing construction of the James Webb Space Telescope it hopes to launch in 2018.

Recently engineers and technicians at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland used a robotic arm to successfully install the first of the new space telescope’s 18 flight mirrors.

NASA says that the mirror segments are made of an ultra-lightweight material called beryllium and is coated with a thin layer of gold.

Once all the mirror segments are installed, sometime early next year, they will work together as one 6.5 meter mirror.

After the space telescope launched, NASA says that the 18 mirror segments will unfold and adjust to shape.

The mirror along with other state of the art technologies that have been developed for the new space telescope will allow scientists to study the first stars and galaxies created after the Big Bang and play an important role in searching for possible life on distant exoplanets.

Rick Pantaleo
Rick Pantaleo maintains the Science World blog and writes stories for VOA’s web and radio on a variety of science, technology and health topics. He also occasionally appears on various VOA programs to talk about the latest scientific news. Rick joined VOA in 1992 after a 20 year career in commercial broadcasting.

En Route to South Pole, Witnessing New Zealand’s Artful Destruction

Posted November 24th, 2015 at 12:15 pm (UTC-4)
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Art and destruction in Christchurch, New Zealand. (Photo by Refael Klein)

Art and destruction in Christchurch, New Zealand. (Photo by Refael Klein)

It takes 21 hours of flying to reach Christchurch, New Zealand from Denver, Colorado.

That’s a lot of time in a small seat, and no matter how many laps you make through the aisles, or how frequently you stretch your back, you walk off the plane with sore a body and a head that is throbbing like an inflated balloon

As I’ve learned from my experiences on long ship voyages, it is imperative, upon arrival in a new port, to seek out a libation, be it coffee, booze, or some other epicurean delight.

After a massive earthquake 4 years ago, Christchuch, New Zealand, is becoming a visual arts capital. (Photo by Refael Klein)

After a massive earthquake 4 years ago, Christchuch, New Zealand, is becoming a visual arts capital. (Photo by Refael Klein)

So, from the international airport, to taxi stand, to the Pavillions Hotel, I begin my journey downtown in search of something that will provide me with a level of enjoyment equivalent to the magnitude of discomfort experienced during my trans-Pacific flight.

A 2-mile walk from the hotel, I find CBD, a speakeasy-esque bar, run by a young Cook Islander who holds the distinction of being one of the top mixologists in the country.

Four years ago, Christchurch was hit by a massive earthquake, a 6.3 on the Richter Scale. Two-thirds of the city was destroyed and the devastation is still apparent today in the buildings with crumbling facades and empty gravel lots filled with twisted rebar and broken concrete pylons.

Despite the destruction, rebuilding efforts are well underway — I counted six cranes from my first-floor hotel room window — although, ultimately, it will be years before everything returns to “normal.”

A broken urban landscape and depreciated rents have meant an influx of creatives and artists. The city has embraced the trend and is becoming a visual arts capital.

Money has been poured into public art, and abandoned lots and buildings have been loaned to emerging artists for use as super-sized canvases and pop-up sites for sculptural installations.

The result is a massive post-apocalyptic Storm King, curated with such perfection that one has trouble distinguishing between what is art and what is destruction.

Shipping containers used both for art and rebuilding in Christchurch, New Zealand. (Photo by Refael Klein)

Shipping containers used both for art and rebuilding in Christchurch, New Zealand. (Photo by Refael Klein)

Outside CBD, the streets are quiet. Everyone is out of town for the Labor Day weekend and those who are still in the city are home watching the New Zealand versus Australia rugby game.

With only a few pedestrians in sight, I feel as if I’m wandering through the National Gallery after closing. Just me, the wind and the graffiti. It is so quiet, I can hear my thoughts echoing off the sidewalk. I’m witnessing the rebirth of a city, a moment in time that is too mundane for locals to see, and that few tourists will ever experience.

CBD is good and the bartender takes me on a tour of some of New Zealand’s best micro-distilleries. He is also kind enough to give me a list or his favorite area restaurants and bars. You can learn a lot about a food scene by scouring blogs and websites (which I did), but nothing is better than local, “industry” knowledge.

On this particular evening, the “industry” steers me six blocks east to 27 Steps, dutifully named for the 27-step staircase that takes you from an unassuming foyer to a nicely-adorned restaurant with 40 seats. The food is good and, suffice it to say, will provide me with fond memories when I find myself knee-deep in canned fruit and frozen veggies.

Look for Refael Klein’s weekly blogs from the South Pole here on Science World.

Refael Klein
Refael Klein is a Lieutenant Junior Grade in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Commissioned Officer Corps (NOAA Corps). He's contributing to Science World during his year-long assignment working and living in the South Pole.

Study: Ancient Forests Fueled Early Climate Change

Posted November 23rd, 2015 at 5:30 pm (UTC-4)
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Reconstructed drawing of fossil forest in Svalbard (Cardiff University)

Reconstructed drawing of fossil forest in Svalbard (Cardiff University)

A pair of scientists from the United Kingdom have found a fossilized tropical forest complete with tree stumps of one of Earth’s first forests in Svalbard, a Norwegian archipelago located between Norway and the North Pole.

They also say that primitive forests such as the one they found may be one of the reasons for an extraordinary climatic event nearly 400 million years ago.

The researchers, Chris Berry of Cardiff University, Wales and John Marshall of England’s Southampton University have dated this ancient forest and found it to about 380 million years old.

Back then, during the Devonian period what is now known as Norway was located near the equator, where high temperatures and large amounts of rain created ideal growing conditions for large forest trees.

It wasn’t until later after periods of continental drift that Norway eventually moved from the equator to its current icy location.

Scientists say that until the large trees that formed the ancient forests started to sprout up, vegetation on Earth mostly consisted of small plants, no taller than a meter high.

“These fossil forests shows us what the vegetation and landscape were like on the equator 380 million years ago, as the first trees were beginning to appear on the Earth,” said Berry in a University of Cardiff press release.

Animation of the continental rifting of Pangaea (USGS)

Animation of continental drift (USGS)

Between about 420 and 360 million years ago, scientists said that there was a significant drop in the levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide.  Before the decrease, CO2 levels were said to be about 15 time more than today.

That huge reduction in the level of CO2 also happened to coincide with the growth and spread of these very first forests, whose trees sucked the gas from the air to create food and tissue through the process of photosynthesis.

Scientists say that the large drop in atmospheric CO2 was also responsible for a remarkable reduction in Earth’s temperatures to levels that are similar to those we have today.

“The evolution of tree-sized vegetation is the most likely cause of this dramatic drop in carbon dioxide because the plants were absorbing carbon dioxide through photosynthesis to build their tissues, and also through the process of forming soils,” Berry said.

The UK research duo say most of the trees that made up the ancient fossil forest were lycopods, a species that reproduced by spreading spores produced in cones at their stem tips.

They also found that the primitive forest was extremely dense, with very small gaps, around 20cm, between each of the trees, which were probably around 4 meters high.

The pair’s findings were published in the journal Geology.

Rick Pantaleo
Rick Pantaleo maintains the Science World blog and writes stories for VOA’s web and radio on a variety of science, technology and health topics. He also occasionally appears on various VOA programs to talk about the latest scientific news. Rick joined VOA in 1992 after a 20 year career in commercial broadcasting.

Earth’s Atmosphere Got Its Oxygen in Periodic Bursts Over a 100 Million Year Period

Posted November 20th, 2015 at 5:11 pm (UTC-4)
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A view of Earth's atmosphere at sunset as seen by the International Space Station Expedition 23 crew in 2010. Colors here roughly denote the various layers of the atmosphere. (NASA)

A view of Earth’s atmosphere at sunset as seen by the International Space Station Expedition 23 crew in 2010. Colors here roughly denote the various layers of the atmosphere. (NASA)

For about the first 2.1 billion years of Earth’s history, its atmosphere didn’t have enough oxygen to support complex life.

Scientists believe that Earth’s first atmosphere,formed after its creation, was probably made up of hydrogen and helium. Then as a result of volcanic eruptions that spewed gases from Earth’s interior, in a process known as “outgassing”, a secondary atmosphere became filled with those such as carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, ammonia and water vapor.

Then about 2.3 to 2.5 billion years ago, during the Proterozoic Eon, blue/green algae called cyanobacteria, living in Earth’s shallow oceans, began emitting enough oxygen through photosynthesis to create the permanently oxygenated atmosphere that keeps us alive today.

Researchers from five North American universities have collaborated on a study that found the process in fully oxidizing the atmosphere didn’t happen suddenly, but instead took place in scattered bursts over an approximately 100-million-year period in what has become known as the Great Oxidation Event.

It may look like mere pond scum to you but this is cyanbacteria or blue/green algae which provided, through photosynthesis, enough oxygen to create the permanently oxygenated atmosphere that keeps us alive today. (Lamiot/Creative Commons)

It may look like mere pond scum to you but this is cyanbacteria or blue/green algae which helped provide, through photosynthesis, enough oxygen to create the permanently oxygenated atmosphere that keeps us alive today. (Lamiot/Creative Commons)

“The onset of Earth’s surface oxygenation was likely a complex process characterized by multiple whiffs of oxygen until a tipping point was crossed,” said one of the study’s authors, Brian Kendall from Canada’s University of Waterloo in a university press release. “Until now, we haven’t been able to tell whether oxygen concentrations 2.5 billion years ago were stable or not. These new data provide a much more conclusive answer to that question,” he said.

Prior to these large bursts of oxygen from the cyanobacteria, scientists say most of the oxygen that had been produced by early microbial life was simply chemically captured by materials such as dissolved iron or organic matter before having the chance to escape into the atmosphere.

But O2 began to collect in the atmosphere after these oxygen sinks filled up and couldn’t absorb any more.

The researchers were able to make their findings after discovering certain chemicals in black shale that had been deposited in the seafloor of an ancient ocean in West Australia.

The elements that provided the link to the researcher’s findings are osmium, molybdenum and rhenium. They are produced by a reaction of oxygen with land-based sulfide minerals.  The scientists say that after the chemicals are produced they then make their way into rivers, which flow into oceans and are eventually deposited on the sea floor.

The research collaborators from Canada’s Universities of Alberta and Waterloo along with Arizona State University, University of California Riverside, and Georgia Institute of Technology, all in the U.S., published their findings in the journal Science Advances.

Rick Pantaleo
Rick Pantaleo maintains the Science World blog and writes stories for VOA’s web and radio on a variety of science, technology and health topics. He also occasionally appears on various VOA programs to talk about the latest scientific news. Rick joined VOA in 1992 after a 20 year career in commercial broadcasting.