Curiosity Hits Silica Jackpot; Sleep Aid & Strokes; Freshwater Supply Threatened

Posted December 18th, 2015 at 4:27 pm (UTC-4)
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NASA's Curiosity Mars rover shows the "Marias Pass" area where a lower and older geological unit of mudstone -- the pale zone in the center of the image -- lies in contact with an overlying geological unit of sandstone. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)

NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover shows the “Marias Pass” area where a lower and older geological unit of mudstone — the pale zone in the center of the image — lies in contact with an overlying geological unit of sandstone. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)

NASA’s Curiosity Mars Rover Finds Plenty of Silica

As they reviewed data gathered by the Mars Rover, scientists found that some rocks in Gale Crater contained the chemical compound silica.  In fact they say it’s a very high amount of the compound.

According to the researchers, silica is actually a combination of silicon and oxygen. On Earth we normally see the compound as quartz. But it can also be found in a number of other minerals.

Albert Yen, a Curiosity science team member at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, says two geological processes that can increase the concentration of silica involves water. Knowing which of the two processes took place will allow scientists to learn more about the ancient wet environments of Mars.

The extinction of large animals from tropical forests could make climate change worse. New research published in Science Advances reveals that a decline in fruit-eating animals such as large primates, tapirs and toucans could have a knock-on effect for tree species. (Pedro Jordano)

The extinction of large animals from tropical forests could make climate change worse. New research published in Science Advances reveals that a decline in fruit-eating animals such as large primates, tapirs and toucans could have a knock-on effect for tree species. (Pedro Jordano)

Climate Change Could Worsen if Large Animals Become Extinct

An international team of researchers has found that climate change could worsen if large fruit eating animals, living in tropical forests, should become extinct.

After eating its fruit, the animals are known to scatter the seeds of large tree species in their waste material.

The researchers say birds and large mammals are responsible for almost all dispersal of the seeds for large plants such as trees.

These trees help counter climate change by capturing and storing a good amount carbon dioxide before it has a chance to escape into the atmosphere.

So if the large animals are taken from an ecosystem the researchers say it could lead to a loss in hardwood trees, which means more CO2, a primary greenhouse gas, winds up in the atmosphere.

According to the researchers, a number of large vertebrate species are currently being threatened by issues such as hunting, illegal trade and habitat loss.

Ambien (Zolpidem) tablets (Entheta/Wikimedia Commons)

Ambien (Zolpidem) tablets (Entheta/Wikimedia Commons)

Sleeping Aid Speeds Stroke Recovery Time in Mice

Stanford University School of Medicine scientists have found that mice, who had suffered strokes, recovered much faster if they were given low doses of a popular drug that helps treat insomnia.

A stroke occurs when the brain’s blood supply gets disrupted.

According to the researchers, initial brain damage caused by a stroke usually takes place within a couple of hours after the blood flow is interrupted and then continues to spread until the brain starts to rewire itself.

So far, there’s no known drug therapy that can help patients with their recovery once a stroke has occurred.

The researchers induced strokes in mice and then gave them low doses of Zolpidem, popularly known as Ambien.

They found the drug helped enhance a type of brain cell signaling activity, which dramatically improved the mice’s rate of recovery from stroke.

The researchers cautioned that their study results will first need to be independently duplicated by others before clinical trials can begin.

A combination of satellite data and ground measurements, such as from instrumented buoys like this one in Lake Tahoe on the California/Nevada border, were used to provide a comprehensive view of changing lake temperatures worldwide. The buoy measures the water temperature from above and below. (Limnotech)

A combination of satellite data and ground measurements, such as from instrumented buoys like this one in Lake Tahoe on the California/Nevada border, were used to provide a comprehensive view of changing lake temperatures worldwide. The buoy measures the water temperature from above and below. (Limnotech)

Study: Climate Change Threatens Earth’s Freshwater Supply

A new study that examined more than half of Earth’s freshwater supply finds climate change is quickly warming the world’s lakes, which is seen as a threat to the supply of freshwater and its ecosystems.

Researchers analyzed more than 25 years of data that includes both satellite and ground measurements of some 235 lakes located throughout six continents.  They found that our planet’s lakes are warming by .34 degrees Celsius every ten years.

While the noted temperature increase may seem small and insignificant, the scientists say it’s bigger than the warming rate of either the ocean or the atmosphere.

They say water temperature can affect the health and sustainability of our ecosystems.

They add that when there’s such a quick and wide shift away from normal lake temperatures the life forms it hosts could change radically and even disappear.

The study’s lead author Catherine O’Reilly from Illinois State University says that the results of the study suggest that large changes in our lakes are not only unavoidable, but are probably already happening.

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.

A Blast of Gamma Rays from Halfway Across the Universe Detected

Posted December 16th, 2015 at 1:38 pm (UTC-4)
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This artist's conception shows a blazar – the core of an active galaxy powered by a supermassive black hole. (M. Weiss/CfA)

This artist’s conception shows a blazar – the core of an active galaxy powered by a supermassive black hole. (M. Weiss/CfA)

Back in April 2015, a surge of high-powered gamma rays from half-way across the universe crashed into Earth’s atmosphere.

But, according to the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the burst of gamma rays didn’t put any of us in danger and produced no noticeable effects since the high-energy rays are blocked by Earth’s atmosphere.

Astronomers, using space and ground based telescopes found that this burst of powerful emissions came from a unique and active galaxy 7.6 billion light years from Earth.

The galaxy, known as PKS 1441+25, is actually a rare, compact and very bright mass of energy and light called a blazar.

The blazar’s twin powerful and opposite directed jets of plasma are driven at near light speed by a supermassive black hole located in the center of the galaxy.

As a black hole sucks in a variety of matter, such as dust, gas and even a star, it forms a surrounding high-energy accretion disk of elementary particles such as photons, electrons and positrons.

Friction is generated as these subatomic particles, from the accretion disk, gets pulled into the black hole’s point of no return (event horizon).  The friction heats tiny bits of material into a plasma.  The plasma combines with the black hole’s revolving magnetic field to form the blazar’s jets.

While scientists are still arguing over the exact processes that generate the gamma-ray emissions from the jets, the researchers say their findings will provide valuable clues.

April’s gamma ray burst was observed and studied over a number of different wavelengths with telescopes such as NASA’s Fermi Gamma Ray and Swift space telescopes and the Very Energetic Radiation Imaging Telescope Array System (VERITAS) in Arizona.

The astronomers said their multi-wavelength observations of this rare phenomena provided them with valuable insight into where such gamma rays are produced, the various physical processes that occur near the black hole, as well as a unique look into the distant galaxy.

The researchers figured that the region where the burst of gamma rays originated is probably about five light years from the black hole, which is much further than they expected.

They also found that the size of the gamma ray emitting region was around a third of a light year across, which was bigger than what is normally observed in an active galaxy.

The astronomer’s findings will be published in Astrophysical Journal Letters, which are currently available online.

NASA Goddard Video Explains Distant Blazar and Blast of Gamma Rays
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.

How to Avoid Getting Lost While Living at the South Pole

Posted December 15th, 2015 at 1:14 pm (UTC-4)
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A vast, empty landscape  surrounds the Atmospheric Research Observatory (ARO) at the South Pole. The upwind side of the station (left) is the clean air sector. (Photo by Hunter Davis)

A vast, empty landscape surrounds the Atmospheric Research Observatory (ARO) at the South Pole. The upwind side of the station (left) is the clean air sector. (Photo by Hunter Davis)

Cardinal directions become meaningless at the South Pole.

There is no east, west or south. You are at the bottom of the world. Any direction you move is north. This makes certain tasks complicated, like giving someone directions to a building they have never been to before, or trying to describe which way the wind is blowing.

SOUTH POLE JOURNAL
Refael Klein is blogging about his experiences as he spends a year working and living at the South Pole. Read his earlier posts here.

To overcome these difficulties, and to lend some type of geospatial acumen to everyday life, the station has developed a “Grid System.”

The South Pole is our origin, and north, south, east and west emanate from its center. It’s like living on a giant sheet of graph paper. The world may be round, but its flat here, at least when it comes to not getting lost.

A quarter-mile grid north-east from the Pole, sits the Atmospheric Research Observatory (ARO), a National Science Foundation facility. The rectangular, seaweed-green building is two stories tall and sits atop an elevated steel foundation anchored into the ice below. From afar, it looks like an artist’s rendering of a moon base that you may have seen in an old edition of a science magazine.

NOAA shares space at the Atmospheric Research Observatory (ARO) with research projects from NASA, international research institutions, and universities. (Photo by Hunter Davis)

NOAA shares space at the Atmospheric Research Observatory (ARO) with research projects from NASA, international research institutions, and universities. (Photo by Hunter Davis)

ARO's rooftop is home to NOAA's suite of solar radiation equipment. (Photo by Hunter Davis)

ARO’s rooftop is home to NOAA’s suite of solar radiation equipment. (Photo by Hunter Davis)

ARO was built in 1997, dedicated in 1998, and since then has been continuously pummeled by the harsh Antarctic weather. As a tall, artificial structure on an otherwise flat, featureless plane, it has become a windbreak for blowing snow.

Massive drifts pile up each year around the station, and each summer it takes a bulldozer a few hours to clear a drivable path to the building’s cargo deck. Despite our best efforts to keep ARO above the snow, Mother Nature is ultimately winning. Plans are being made to raise the building a few feet higher and, rumor has it, the “big lift” might take place as soon as next year.

During white out conditions, personnel follow flag lines between the main building and and ARO. (Photo by Hunter Davis)

During white out conditions, personnel follow flag lines between the main building and the ARO. (Photo by Hunter Davis)

NOAA’s Global Monitoring Division’s (GMD) South Pole Baseline Observatory is ARO’s main occupant. The rooftop is home to our solar radiation instruments and the two main floors of the facility are filled with experiments studying carbon dioxide, ozone, (both surface and stratospheric), ozone depleting substances, and particulates in the air.

The goal of all these projects, and for GMD as a whole, is to measure the global background levels of key substances that affect climate change. To accomplish this, the building and our air sampling towers have been located upwind of the rest of Amundson Scott Station, and the region upwind of us has been defined as the Clean Air Sector; no vehicle or foot traffic allowed.

It’s an endless expanse of windswept ice cap, cut off from any direct anthropogenic (human made) source of pollution, making the air we sample the cleanest air on earth, and the data we collect representative of our entire planet.

Wind blows clean for us 90 percent of the year. I take advantage of its consistency as much as I can, and frequently find myself standing on top of ARO’s roof — face into the frozen breeze — gazing towards the horizon.

It’s a barren landscape everywhere you look, not unlike the view you would have if you were floating on a ship in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. When the sun is behind you, the wind-carved ice looks like foam-capped waves and every time you breathe you expect to taste salt.

 

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

Refael Klein
Refael Klein, a Lieutenant Junior Grade in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Commissioned Officer Corps (NOAA Corps), blogs about his experiences as he spends one year working and living in the South Pole.

Virginia Tech Researchers Learn How a Dog Drinks Water

Posted December 14th, 2015 at 3:13 pm (UTC-4)
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Have you ever watched a dog drink water and wondered how he was able to quench his thirst from what appeared to be some rather sloppy and haphazard actions?

Well, it turns out the parched pooches know exactly what they’re doing, and according to a new study by researchers at Virginia Tech, they’re actually executing some rather precise, high-speed movements that boosts their ability to obtain needed fluids.

Cats or dogs have had to develop their own unique way to drink fluids since neither of them have a full set of cheeks and can’t create suction, like humans and other animals such as elephants and horses.

As they lap the water they’re actually moving their tongues very quickly so that they can build up inertia that forces the water up and into their mouths.

To reach their findings, the Virginia Tech researchers filmed 19 dogs of various sizes and breeds as they drank water and conducted various laboratory simulations to measure tongue motion and the amounts of water that was consumed.

Based on the data from these experiments, they even created a model that simulated the mechanics of a dog drinking water.

They also drew upon similar studies of cats.

Graduate student Sean Gart (left) and Sunghwan “Sunny” Jung, an associate professor of biomedical engineering and mechanics at Virginia Tech, make adjustments in front of a machine they used to simulate the mechanics of how dogs drink water. (John Pastor/Virginia Tech)

Graduate student Sean Gart (left) and Sunghwan “Sunny” Jung, an associate professor of biomedical engineering and mechanics at Virginia Tech, make adjustments in front of a machine they used to simulate the mechanics of how dogs drink water. (John Pastor/Virginia Tech)

The researchers said that since the mouths of both canines and felines are structured in nearly the same way, they expected to find that both would drink water in the same way.

However their studies showed each family of animals has their own unique drinking methods.

“We know cats and dogs are quite different in terms of behavior and character,” said Sunghwan “Sunny” Jung, a study author and an associate professor of biomedical engineering and mechanics at Virginia Tech. “But before we did fundamental studies of how these animals drink fluids, our guess was dogs and cats drink about the same way.  Instead we found out that dogs drink quite differently than cats,” he said.

The researchers noted that dogs need to move their tongues faster than cats to get a drink of water.

Dogs must quickly plunge their tongues into and out of the water to drink while cats use a much smoother action and merely skim the surface of the water to do so.

“Cats tend be viewed as neater, dogs are messier, but dogs really have to accelerate their tongues to exploit the fluid dynamics of the water column,” said researcher Sean Gart, a Virginia Tech graduate student.

The researcher’s findings have just been published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Take a look at Virginia Tech’s video of a dog drinking water.

Virginia Tech: Dog drinking water from VirginiaTech on Vimeo.

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.

Bright Spots on Ceres; Sorry No Alien Structure; New Lie-Detector

Posted December 10th, 2015 at 5:00 pm (UTC-4)
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New image of Ceres' Occator crater with mysterious bright spots take by NASA's Dawn spacecraft (NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA/PSI)

New image of Ceres’ Occator crater with mysterious bright spots take by NASA’s Dawn spacecraft (NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA/PSI)

Scientists Learn More about Dwarf Planet Ceres

Scientists think they may know what’s behind the mysterious bright spots on the Ceres and where the dwarf planet may have originated.

Studying data gathered by NASA’S Dawn spacecraft the researchers outlined their findings in a pair of new studies published in the journal Nature.

In one study, researchers found evidence that the bright spots are deposits of a salt called hexahydrite.

Since the bright spots are found, mostly in craters, spread throughout the surface of Ceres, the researchers suggest that the dwarf planet has a subsurface layer that contains briny water-ice.

Researchers writing in the second study examined the composition of Ceres and found that it contains ammonia-rich clays.

Finding this material has the scientists thinking that Ceres may have either originated or formed with material from the outer solar system and not its current location in the asteroid belt.

An orbiting swarm of dusty comet fragments are a possible explanation for the unusual light signal of KIC 8462852. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

An orbiting swarm of dusty comet fragments are a possible explanation for the unusual light signal of KIC 8462852. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Mysterious Star Dimming Not an Alien Structure

A couple of months ago, the Internet buzzed with the rumor that a massive structure built by an advanced civilization of extraterrestrials might be orbiting a star located nearly 15-hundred light years from Earth.

Erratic dimming of a star known as KIC 8462852 has baffled astronomers since its September discovery by citizen scientists.

SETI International researchers at the Boquete Optical SETI Observatory in Panama searched for laser pulses from the star, but anyone hoping for evidence of ET will be disappointed.  SETI International says that they did not find any evidence of an advanced civilization beaming intentional laser signals toward Earth.

A periodically dimming star is often seen as an indication of an exoplanet, but the dimming pattern around the new found star was sporadic and irregular.

Some astronomers think that comet fragments in elliptical orbit around the star might be the cause of the strange behavior.

University of Michigan Researchers Develop New Lie Detector

A team of researchers from the University of Michigan has built a prototype of a new lie detector with unique lie-detecting software based on “real-world” data.

The team used a set of 120 video clips taken from media coverage of actual trials to develop the software.

The University of Michigan team’s prototype lie-detector examines a subject’s words and gestures.

And unlike a traditional polygraph that requires a number of physical connections to the person being questioned, the prototype doesn’t need to touch the subject in order to work.

The researchers say the new software allows them to identify several ‘tells,’ or clues that people are lying.

They found that liars tend to move their hands more, look their questioners in the face and tried to sound more convincing than those telling the truth.

After experimenting with the new software, the developers say they were able to correctly identify people who were being deceptive as much as 75 percent of the time.

Japanese Space Agency Gets Venus Probe into Orbit

Nearly five years ago, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency’s Venus Climate Orbiter “Akatsuki” was supposed to go into orbit around Venus.

Instead, the space probe was orbiting the sun until December 7th, when agency engineers fired its attitude control thrusters for 20 minutes to put it into an elliptical orbit around Venus.

The Akatsuki will fly within 400 kilometers of Venus at its closest orbital point, or periapsis, and 440,000 kilometers at its furthest point, or apoapsis.

The spacecraft is equipped with six instruments that will allow mission scientists to study Venusian climate factors such as stratification of the atmosphere, atmospheric dynamics, and cloud physics.

The scientific gear includes a 1 and 2-micron camera, Lightning and Airglow Camera, Ultra-Stable Oscillator, Ultraviolet Imager and a Longwave IR camera.

The Japanese space agency also reports the spacecraft is in good health and they expect to start regular operations of the Akatsuki next April.

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.

My Cramped, Precarious Flight to the South Pole

Posted December 8th, 2015 at 3:00 pm (UTC-4)
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Cramped conditions inside the main cabin of the LC-130 en route to the South Pole. (Photo by Refael Klein)

Cramped conditions inside the main cabin of the LC-130 en route to the South Pole. (Photo by Refael Klein)

After a two-hour delay, due to engine troubles, we finally boarded our south-bound flight to the Amundson-Scott Station — the U.S. scientific research station at the Geographic South Pole, the southernmost place on the planet.

SOUTH POLE JOURNAL
Refael Klein is blogging about his experiences as he spends a year working and living at the South Pole. Read his earlier posts here.

The LC-130 was about half the size of the C-17 we flew in on from Christchurch, and had fewer windows — only two at the front and two at the back. It was dimly lit. An 8-foot wall of cargo lined the cabin fore to aft. The 36 of us — scientists, engineers and tradesmen — bound for the South Pole, sat in two double rows, parallel to the cargo, knees interlocked like the teeth of a zipper.

The plane took off at 1100 (11 a.m.), using skis instead of wheels. Roaring motors drowned out any lingering concerns of mechanical issues, and people began making themselves comfortable, opening books, popping on headphones and unwrapping sandwiches. I took off my large, red down jacket, and tried to nap. Five hours later — pending good weather — we would touch down at our destination.

Two hours into the flight, suffering from stiff legs, I decided to visit the crew on the flight deck. It was a crystal-clear day with miles of visibility in every direction. Below us stretched the Transantarctic Mountain range and Beardmore Glacier.

A view of the Beardmore Glacier, and the Polar ice cap beyond. (Photo by Refael Klein)

A view of the Beardmore Glacier, and the Polar ice cap beyond. (Photo by Refael Klein)

The Beardmore extends from the Ross Sea to the Polar Ice Cap, and “has crevasses big enough that we could land our plane inside of them,” or said the air craft commander. During British explorer Robert Scott’s expedition to the South Pole in the early 1900s, his team followed the Beardmore along its entire length. From 26,000 feet up, it was hard to imagine that anyone could navigate such complex terrain.

Weather in Antarctica is bad, and arguably, the worst of it is found at the South Pole. Planes can only land between the end of October and the beginning of February, when temps are above minus 50 degrees Celsius (minus 58 Fahrenheit). Below minus 50, the hydraulic systems begin to freeze and the plane, if it chooses to land, will never take off again.

Every flight that leaves from McMurdo Station, the logistics hub of the U.S. Antarctic program, for Amundson-Scott Station, flies towards its destination for at least two hours. If, after those two hours, the visibility degrades or the temps drop too low, the plane turns around and returns to McMurdo. Sometimes this happens minutes from landing.

The flight deck of the C-130 as it heads to The Amundsen–Scott South Pole Station in Geographic South Pole, the southernmost place on Earth. (Photo by Refael Klein)

The flight deck of the C-130 as it heads towards Amundson-Scott South Pole Station. All NSF flights to Antarctica are operated by the New York National Guard. (Photo by Refael Klein)

Early season flights, which are notorious for being unsuccessful, are colloquially known as “boomerangs”. The guy sitting across from me boomeranged twice last year, and the guy sitting to his left had boomeranged at least once for each of the 10 years he’d worked on the continent.

The temperature was minus 48 Celsius (minus 55 Fahrenheit) at the Pole when I visited the flight deck at the two-hour mark. I kept my fingers crossed that it wouldn’t get any colder.

By the grace of some divine element, the temperature remained steady and we landed without incident on the 2 mile-long, ice runway at the South Pole.

As the plane glided to a stop, I changed into my extreme cold weather gear: a pair of insulated Carhartts and the large red down jacket that I had been using as a pillow. I pulled my black, wool balaclava around my face and strapped on my ski goggles so that not an inch of skin was showing.

“Wind-chill of minus 86 degrees (minus 65 Celsius),” announces a crew member over the intercom, and I, and all of the other passengers, begin to frantically dig through our carry-ons for more clothing.

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

 

Refael Klein
Refael Klein, a Lieutenant Junior Grade in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Commissioned Officer Corps (NOAA Corps), blogs about his experiences as he spends one year working and living in the South Pole.

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)
3 comments

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, a Lieutenant Junior Grade in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Commissioned Officer Corps (NOAA Corps), blogs about his experiences as he spends one year working and living in the South Pole.