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 on: Nov 24, 2015, 06:01 AM 
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CS Monitor

How declining snowpack threatens water supplies

A new study examines how far-reaching effects of diminished snowpack could be.

By Sebastien Malo, Reuters November 24, 2015   

Large swathes of the northern hemisphere, home to some 2 billion people, could suffer increasing water shortages due to shrinking snowpacks, researchers said on Thursday.

Data shows reduced snowpacks – the seasonal accumulation of snow – will likely imperil water supplies by 2060 in regions from California's farmlands to war-torn areas of the Middle East, according to a team of scientists in the United States and Europe.

In total, nearly a hundred water basins dependent on snow across the northern hemisphere run the chance of decline.

"Water managers in a lot of places may need to prepare for a world where the snow reservoir no longer exists," said Justin Mankin, the study's lead author and a researcher at Columbia University's Earth Institute in New York, in a statement.

Basins in northern and central California, the Ebro-Duero basin in Portugal, Spain and southern France and the Shatt al-Arab basin affecting much of the Middle East including Iraq and Syria count among those most sensitive to changes, the study shows.

In these areas, global warming is disrupting snow accumulation, which acts as a seasonal source of water when it melts, the researchers said.

Still, across most of North America, northern Europe, Russia, China and southeast Asia, rainfall is projected to continue meeting demand, according to the study published in the online journal Environmental Research Letters.

Earlier this year, amid a devastating drought in California, U.S. authorities reported that a dry, mild winter had left the country's Western mountain snowpack at record low levels.

World leaders will meet in Paris starting this month in a bid to agree on ways to reduce the effects of climate change.

(Reporting by Sebastien Malo, Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit

 on: Nov 24, 2015, 05:58 AM 
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CS Monitor

New research reveals rapid loss of massive Greenland glacier

The Zachariae Isstrom glacier is melting, and the results will have a significant global impact.

By Olivia Lowenberg, Staff November 24, 2015   

One of the largest glaciers in Greenland is melting.

Researchers from the University of California, Irvine (UCI) and the University of Kansas (KU) have determined that one of Greenland’s largest ice sheets, the Zachariae Isstrom glacier, is shedding ice at a rate of five billion tons per year. The glacier contains enough to raise global sea levels by eighteen inches. The findings are published in the current issue of Science.

The scientists used high-resolution bed topography and mapping to document changes in the glacier over a period of approximately 40 years. Using this technology, they determined that the glacier began melting much faster starting in the year 2000, and accelerating by 25 percent in 2012.
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The scientists attribute those changes to warming temperatures.

"Zachariae Isstrom is being hit from above and below," senior author Dr. Eric Rignot, Chancellor's Professor of Earth system science at UCI, said in a press release. "The top of the glacier is melting away as a result of decades of steadily increasing air temperatures, while its underside is compromised by currents carrying warmer ocean water, and the glacier is now breaking away into bits and pieces and retreating into deeper ground.”

The scientists also focused their studies on the “grounding line,” the dividing line between land and sea underneath a glacier. This is where the ice begins to float when a glacier starts to melt.

"The grounding line is a good place to determine thickness across the ice,” Dr. John Paden, associate scientist for the Center for Remote Sensing of Ice Sheets (CReSIS) said in a press release.

“The terminus of Zachariae Isstrom is now at the grounding line – the ocean is right up against the grounded part of the glacier," he added.

The researchers are interested in what impact this will have globally. For example, it is projected that small island countries such as Micronesia will be among the countries most impacted by global sea-level rise.    

"From a societal standpoint, the reason why there's so much focus on ice sheets is because predicted sea level rise will affect nearly every coastal country – the United States for sure, and low-lying countries with limited resources are likely to be the worst off … We study this to have an understanding of how soon things are likely to happen and to help us use our limited resources [to] mitigate the problem,” Dr. Paden said.

 on: Nov 24, 2015, 05:56 AM 
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CS Monitor

Scientists design liquid that could trap carbon emissions

The liquid may be able to capture notorious greenhouse gases like methane.

By Olivia Lowenberg, Staff November 24, 2015   

Researchers in Ireland have created a liquid that’s full of holes. And that’s a good thing.

Professor Stuart James, of Queen's University Belfast School of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering, explains in the press release that in the past, most man-made porous materials have been solids. This is one of the first porous liquids.

“Materials which contain permanent holes, or pores, are technologically important," he explained. "They are used for manufacturing a range of products from plastic bottles to petrol. However, until recently, these porous materials have been solids. What we have done is to design a special liquid from the 'bottom-up' - we designed the shapes of the molecules which make up the liquid so that the liquid could not fill up all the space.”

“We took these cage-like molecules, which have a hollow space inside that can be accessed through small windows, and dissolved them at very high concentration in a solvent whose molecules are too large to fit through the windows,” Professor James told the Royal Society of Chemistry. “In that way we created a liquid which has empty pores floating around in it.”

The holes in the liquid’s chemical structure allow it to form potential “cages” around carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases like methane. Because the EPA estimates that “the comparative impact of [methane] on climate change is more than 25 times greater than CO2 over a 100-year period,” there are profound implications for this porous liquid as a potential carbon-capture technology.

Capturing carbon dioxide can occur at any one of three different processes: before combustion, after combustion, or in a process called oxy-fuel combustion, where combustion takes place using pure oxygen instead of air. The scientists at the Queen’s University suggest that the porous liquid they created will be most effective for post-combustion carbon capture, where carbon can be captured as exhaust.

Other chemists suggest that the new liquid could have other uses as well.

“This material bears many advantages because it is a fluid and can for example be pumped through tubing and pipes. This may someday find technological applications in gas separation or transport,” Dr. Michael Mastalerz, professor of organic chemistry at Heidelberg University, explained to the Royal Society of Chemistry.

 on: Nov 24, 2015, 05:51 AM 
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CS Monitor

Small animals thrive after mass extinctions, say scientists

A new study suggests that mass extinction of ancient larger animals led to the dominance of tiny species.
By Beatrice Gitau, Staff November 24, 2015   

From blue whales to elephants, most of the world’s most massive species are facing extinction.

A new study of fish fossils suggests that when large vertebrates become extinct, evolution does not replace them for many years.

Researchers, after analyzing fish that lived about 350 million years ago, have concluded that a mass extinction known as the Hangenberg event caused large species to die off while smaller species survived.
Recommended: 14 animals declared extinct in the 21st century

"Rather than having this thriving ecosystem of large things, you may have one gigantic relict, but otherwise everything is the size of a sardine," said Lauren Sallan, an environmental scientist at the University of Pennsylvania, in a news release.

Her findings suggest that the smaller fish had a unique advantage over their larger counterparts: they breed much, much faster than their giant cousins.

"The end result is an ocean in which most sharks are less than a meter [three feet] and most fishes and tetrapods are less than 10 centimeters," or smaller than a grapefruit, said Dr. Sallen. "Yet these are the ancestors of everything that dominates from then on, including humans."

Paleontologists have long debated the changes in the body sizes of animals over time.

One theory, known as Cope's rule, says a species tends to enlarge over time to avoid predation and to become better hunters.

Another theory says that all things being equal, animals become larger in the presence of increased oxygen, or in colder climates.

Another idea, known as the Lilliput Effect, holds that after mass extinctions, there will inevitably be a temporary trend toward small body size. It’s named after a fictional island in the book “Gulliver’s Travels” that’s inhabited by tiny people.

Many scientists believe that we are on the brink of – if not in the midst of – a sixth mass extinction. This summer, scientists released a report indicating that humans are chiefly to blame for the mass extinction that is already underway.  

But these same scientists say that aggressive conservation efforts may yet stave off a true mass extinction. Humpback whales, for example, were recently recommended for removal from the endangered species list.

"This will require rapid, greatly intensified efforts to conserve already threatened species and to alleviate pressures on their populations – notably habitat loss, overexploitation for economic gain, and climate change," wrote the research team, including scientists from Stanford, Princeton, and Berkeley, in their report.

If the present extinction does eliminate the planet's largest animals, the new study suggests they will not be replaced any time soon.

"It doesn't matter what is eliminating the large fish or what is making ecosystems unstable," Sallan said. "These disturbances are shifting natural selection so that smaller, faster-reproducing fish are more likely to keep going, and it could take a really long time to get those bigger fish back in any sizable way."

 on: Nov 24, 2015, 05:49 AM 
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Pakistani farmer sues government to curb climate change
CS Monitor

Asghar Leghari says climate change is reducing crop yields and his community to poverty. 

By Story Hinckley, Staff November 16, 2015   

Asghar Leghari, a 25-year-old farmer from the Rahim Yar Khan District of Pakistan’s South Punjab region, is taking his government to court after water scarcity and temperature changes from climate change repeatedly destroyed his family’s crops.

Mr. Leghari is currently a law student in Lahore, but his family is part of a community of small-scale farmers who are facing poverty because of unpredictable weather shifts caused by climate change.

On August 31, Leghari filed a petition with the Lahore High Court claiming that the government of Pakistan failed to follow the objectives set in the country’s 2012 National Climate Change Policy, violating Leghari's fundamental rights by ignoring the impacts of climate change.

“My petition aimed to compel the concerned departments and ministries to take action and consider climate change and important issue before it is too late,” Leghari told Reuters.

Leghari argues that the government is obligated to follow through with its 2012 policies, which include “to ensure water security, food security and energy security of the country in the face of the challenges posed by climate change,” “to foster the development of appropriate economic incentives to encourage public and private sector investment in adaptation measures,” and “to promote conservation of natural resources and long term sustainability.”

But the farmer-turned-lawyer is not asking for financial compensation. Instead, he wants the government to take serious action on the problem of climate change, now.

“Direct relief would be insufficient in scope to compensate me or other farmers against future grievances,” he said. “Climate change is an issue that is here to stay if adequate measures are not taken.”

And while some skeptics initially equated his lawsuit to a quixotic campaign, albeit one supportive of windmills, one Pakistani farmer has proved individuals are capable of encouraging governments into action.
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After hearing Leghari’s argument, Judge Syed Mansoor Ali Shah agreed that climate change “is a defining challenge of our time…it is a clarion call for the protection of the fundamental rights of the citizens of Pakistan…like the right to life which includes the right to a healthy and clean environment and right to human dignity.”

The judge then ordered government ministries to explain before the court what progress has been made under the 2012 framework to tackle climate change.

The joint secretary of the Ministry of Climate Change admitted “by and large the response of various departments…has not been positive,” as representatives from a number of departments, including agriculture and forestry, were unable to show progress. Government representatives assured the court that 734 action points would be addressed, with 232 completed by 2016. 

“The judge is pushing the government departments to take action,” Hameed Naqi, director general of WWP-Pakiston, told Reuters. “The commission is a ray of hope for us.”

In 1950, Pakistan's government reported water availability in the country at 5,300 cubic meters per person per year, but by 2011 the government reports this figure has dropped to less than 1,000 cubic meters.

A 2013 study by the Notre Dame Global Adaptation Index, ranked Pakistan with low overall readiness, at 139th out of 184 countries. And Pakistan’s water score, the country’s vulnerability of fresh water supplies to climate change, was among the worst 15 of all 191 countries indexed.

The World Bank released a report earlier this month warns that more than 100 million people could fall into extreme poverty because of global warming, The Christian Science Monitor reported. Because climate change will have destructive effects on agriculture, crop production is expected to decrease by 5 percent through 2030, leaving millions of families – like Leghari’s – without food or money.

 on: Nov 24, 2015, 05:48 AM 
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CS Monitor

El Niño brings rare fish to US West Coast

Species normally found only in warmer waters descend on California. But is this the first time?

By Michael D. Regan, Staff November 24, 2015   

The warming of surface temperatures in the Pacific Ocean along California’s coast has drawn tropical fish rarely found in the area.

El Niño’s weather patterns are credited with the higher temperatures that are enticing vibrantly colored fish and other seldom-seen species to the region.

Hundreds of sightings have been documented by scientists and fisherman looking for the chance to pull in an uncommon haul.

Whale and hammerhead sharks, wahoo, and largemouth blenny have been seen from San Diego to San Francisco, as they follow the warm currents up from Mexico.

"Every tropical fish seems to have punched their tickets to Southern California," said Milton Love, a marine science researcher at the University of California, Santa Barbara, to Reuters.

In late October, two Puffer fish were discovered farther north in Monterey Bay, Calif., according to the San Francisco Chronicle. The conservation group Save Our Shores said the creatures are usually not found farther north than Mexico.

But this is not the first time such an occurrence has taken place.

In 1997, the Mako shark made an appearance along California’s central coast and extended up through the Pacific Northwest, and a marlin was captured along the Washington state coast. The waters were so warm that year that some Oregon surfers tossed aside wetsuits for shorts in the normally frigid waters.

In 2014, there were similar reports of tropical fish reaching the west coast of the United States.

The movement of warm water species north during an El Niño year is typical, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

In past El Niño years, warming waters and the appearance of new species not normally found have been documented as far north as Alaska, NOAA said. El Niño causes "physical and biological changes in our oceans that affect fish distribution."

Sea surface temperatures during an El Niño year are traditionally higher than usual in the west, reports NOAA, which also maps changes through systems of buoys.

California meteorologist Josh Rubenstein said there has been a 2-degree temperature change in Southern California because of El Niño, which has in the past caused significant rainfall in the area.

Josh Hunt, who charters boats in Los Angeles, said there have been a trove of new species thus far this year including blue and black marlins and wahoos.

"I mean that’s just unheard of basically," Mr. Hunt told KCBS-TV. "That’s really where it gets really crazy for this El Niño."

Phil Hasting, of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, told Reuters he nabbed his first sighting of a largemouth blenny fish over the summer in San Diego – a species usually seen in Mexico’s Baja California.

Los Angeles County’s Natural History Museum’s Rick Feeney, a fish expert, said he has encountered smaller, more colorful fish near San Diego, including the spotfin burfish.

"I’ve been fishing this bay all my life,” said Michael Franklin to Reuters, "and I’ve never seen anything like this."

 on: Nov 24, 2015, 05:46 AM 
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CS Monitor

In a warming world, more rain can mean less water

Countries 'may need to prepare for a world where the snow reservoir no longer exists,' researchers say, highlighting the challenges of both too much water and not enough.

By Molly Jackson, Staff November 24, 2015   

As California enters its fifth year of severe drought, and as the state pumps more and more groundwater up to the surface, Central Valley farmers watch their fields literally sinking.

They may not think they share much in common with rice growers in Bangladesh, or Sherpas in Tibet, but they are united by one common phenomenon: mountain snowmelt.

In a study published in Environmental Research Letters on Thursday, a team led by Columbia postdoctoral fellow Dr. Justin Mankin predicts just how, and how much, regions around the world will feel the impact of changing snowmelt as global warming frequently turns snow into rain, especially along the globe's major mountain chains.

Snowpacks on peaks from the Rockies to the Himalayas provide water to vast basin regions, particularly in the Northern Hemisphere: the researchers looked at data from over 400 areas, but just 97 of those house more than a quarter of the world's population. Those same 97 places have at least a two-thirds chance of losing water, thanks to changes in snowmelt.

It seems paradoxical: shouldn't more rain lead to more water? But scientists say it's all about timing.

When snowpack melts gradually, it tends to provide the most water right when people need it, during warmer weather. Quicker, more intense water flowing from mountainous areas could pose a challenge for countries to capture and store that water for use year round : major reservoirs, for example, are expensive. What's more, increased snowmelt can also lead to flooding.

For countries that can successfully channel that water, melting snowpacks may be a boon, at least temporarily. But long-term, the researchers warn, "Water managers in a lot of places may need to prepare for a world where the snow reservoir no longer exists," such as, potentially, the Rocky Mountains.

Whether melting snowpacks lead to more or less water varies by region, with 90 percent showing a likelihood of change; the difficulty is in predicting which kind, and, consequently, planning how to adapt to meet people's water needs.

"Both of those outcomes are entirely consistent with a world with global warming," Dr. Makin explained in a release from Columbia's Earth Institute.

Climate change's rising-sea scenarios worry many environmental scientists, but the consequences are also serious farther inland.

In 2013, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) published a study from the Potsdam Institute which estimated that a 2 degree Celcius temperature increase could throw 40 percent more people into "absolute water scarcity," leading to a host of problems beyond the obvious: health care, education, and business all take a hit when clean water is hard to find.

Security experts are also eyeing water levels, wondering if competition over scare resources will fuel violent conflicts. Another PNAS study even suggested that drought, which drove many rural Syrians into cities between 2006-2010, exacerbated the tensions that exploded into civil war in 2011.

Yoshihide Wada, who studies water resources at the Netherlands’ Utrecht University, suggests that smarter irrigation, water recycling, and crop changes may help water-scarce countries adapt to the new reality.

Those can be expensive investments. But skeptical or cash-strapped governments may be persuaded by a statistic from the World Health Organization: every dollar invested in safe water supplies returns $3 to $34, thanks to improved health, which increases attendance at school and on the job.

 on: Nov 24, 2015, 05:43 AM 
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CS Monitor

Two ancient teeth reveal clues about humanity's mysterious cousins

By sequencing DNA extracted from teeth of Denisovans, researchers have revealed new clues about the extinct humans.

By Eva Botkin-Kowacki, Staff writer November 24, 2015   

Before Homo sapiens ruled the Earth, other humans also roamed. Our famous extinct cousins, Neanderthals, once had cousins even closer to them: Denisovans.

The Denisovans are relative newcomers to the archeological family tree, being first identified only in 2008. All we know about comes from a few fossils unearthed in a single cave in southwestern Siberia, all of which so far have been dated about 50,000 years ago.

But a new DNA analysis of two teeth found in the cave suggests that Denisovans may have lived in the region some 60,000 years earlier than that.

The two teeth discovered in the Denisova Cave in Russia's Altai mountains are described and details hidden in their genome are revealed in a new paper published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“We got the first glimpse of genetic variation in Denisovans,” Svante Pääbo, director of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology and one of the study's authors, tells The Christian Science Monitor in an interview. “And it turns out that they have quite a bit variation, about as much as Neanderthals.”

The teeth came from two distinct individuals, and one is quite a bit older than the other.

“We can sort of see that by detecting missing mutations that one of them is much older than the others, and we see that because it hasn’t accumulated so many mutations,” explains Dr. Pääbo.

“And,” he says, “It is in fact in the order of 60,000 years older.”

If their residence was continuous between the lives of the two specimens, the Denisovans lived in southern Siberia some 110,000 years ago to around 50,000 years ago. If not, then they moved into the region in the Altai mountains at least twice.

“This also shows that this enigmatic group, Denisovans, were present over a long time here in the Altai mountains in southern Siberia,” Pääbo says.

In 2010, scientists sequenced the genome of a finger bone found in the Denisova cave two years earlier, revealing the Denisovans as a unique species for the first time.

“Neanderthals and Denisovans share a common ancestor with present day people in the order of 600,000 years,” says Pääbo. But Denisovans are more closely related to Neanderthals than to us.

“Using our best estimates, they share a common ancestor in the order of 400,000 years back with Neanderthals,” he says. “Together, then they are the closest extinct relatives of present-day people.”

“Denisovans are still very enigmatic, since we know so little about them,” says Pääbo. “So with these two teeth now we have a little bit of feeling for their dental morphology.”

“These teeth are very large and they lack specific features that are typical of modern humans and typical of Neanderthals,” he describes.

Pääbo hopes by describing the teeth in the new paper the researchers will help other scientists identify specimens from other locations as Denisovan. “We might find other Denisovans in other places thanks to this,” he says.

Previous research has shown that Denisovans mixed with ancestors of modern day humans living in Asia, particularly populations in the Pacific. Papua New Guineans and other islanders in Oceania have been found to have as much of 5 percent of their DNA contributed from these Denisovans, Pääbo says.

That suggests that Denisovans lived all over the region, he says, because “we don’t think the ancestors of Papuans were ever in Siberia. Rather we think Denisovans were somewhere in southeast Asia where then Papuan ancestors met them and mixed with them.”

Another study showed Denisovan genetics appearing in another modern population. Tibetans living at high elevations have a Denisovan trait to help them survive.

“They carry genetic adaptation to living where there is little oxygen and that adaptation comes from these Denisovans,” Pääbo says. “So the ancestors of these guys mixed with the Denisovans, picked up this thing that allows them to live at high altitudes, and that is really probably a big contributing factor to why there are such big populations in Tibet today.”

Pääbo says his work is about discovering human history. “This is finding out things we didn’t know about our history, about our closest evolutionary relatives, which are now extinct,” he says.

“In a way,” Pääbo says of sequencing the Denisovans’ genomes, “It’s not so different from making an archeological excavation in a cave. We make sort of an excavation in the genome and find out things about history.”

 on: Nov 24, 2015, 05:40 AM 
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CS Monitor

Why do so many Americans doubt climate change?

A Yale University survey showed one-fifth of Americans do not think climate change is real, even though there is a near-consensus among scientists that the problem exists. Where does the split come in?

By Michael D. Regan, Staff November 23, 2015   

As the world prepares for the start of a global warming summit in Paris next week, a Yale University study released in March shows one-fifth of the US populace does not believe climate change is taking place.

A survey conducted by researchers at the Yale University School of Forestry and Environmental Studies showed only 63 percent of Americans say climate change is happening, while 18 percent said it was not.

Perhaps more revealing, another public opinion poll released in 2014 by the Pew Research Center and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) showed a gap between what scientists believe about climate change compared to many Americans.

In the poll, only 50 percent of Americans believed human activity was causing global warming, significantly less than the 87 percent of scientists who did.

Henry Pollack, a retired professor of geophysics at the University of Michigan and a winner of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize, said rarely does the scientific community see a near-universal consensus like the one regarding the influence of humans on the Earth’s climate.

"It's a very strong scientific statement," Pollack said. "Seldom will you hear such agreement among scientists that we know the answer to something."

There is no single explanation for the fissure between what scientists believe and the general public; though some have said it is possible the issue is discussed too infrequently.

"One reason these numbers have been stable in recent years may be because most Americans are not hearing or talking about this issue,” one author wrote in the report. “Our survey finds, for example, that only 40 percent of the American public says they hear about global warming in the media at least once a month and only 19 percent hear about it at least once a week."

Others blamed the scientific community for insufficiently informing the public about evidence of climate change.

Pew Research conducted a similar poll in 2009, when the percentage of believers and doubters among the public and scientists was about equal to today's numbers.

Alan Leshner, chief executive officer of AAAS, said in the journal Science that scientists tend to inform the public about research on climate change via large forums rather than in smaller settings, where more specific questions could be answered.

"The way to do that is not to have big town hall meetings where everybody's lecturing but rather to meet in smaller groups and have sessions that go through this," he told Climate Wire. "I myself have frequently met with community clubs, religious groups, retirement communities and tried to have these kind of discussions as opposed to monologues."

Some researchers suggest industry-hired scientists and successful public relations campaigns by the coal and gas industry may be the reason many people don’t believe climate change is real, despite the fact a majority of scientist globally have backed the theory.

Pollack said this has been seen in the past, when corporations and the scientists they hired denied the effects of tobacco and toxic waste.

"There's been a deluge of misinformation that confuses the issue in the mind of the public,” he told Voice Newspapers.

 on: Nov 24, 2015, 05:38 AM 
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November 23, 2015

US, China set up space hotline to prevent satellites from causing chaos

by Shayne Jacopian
Red Orbit

I know when that hotline bling. In order to avoid a possible descent into madness, the United States and China have set up a direct link, or hotline, connecting Washington and Beijing, allowing both nations to share information about their respective space activities, The Verge reports.

Now, each nation’s space and military agencies can easily discuss “potential collisions, approaches, or tests” and avoid miscommunications that could lead to conflict.

Before the hotline, "we had to send notifications to the Chinese via their ministry of foreign affairs,” said a US assistant secretary of state.

“The chain would go from JSpOC [Joint Space Operations Center] to the Pentagon, to the State Department, to the US Embassy in Beijing, and then on to a contact there."

In that amount of time, two satellites could collide, so it’s good that either space agency can directly contact the other and quickly resolve any issues that arise in space.

Reminiscent of the “red telephone” set up between Moscow and Washington after the Cuban Missile Crisis, the hotline will “serve as a diplomatic safety valve” that can be used to avoid problems that could be solved with a little bit of friendly communication.

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