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 51 
 on: Jan 19, 2017, 06:22 AM 
Started by Rad - Last post by Rad
On climate change, Trump nominees try having it both ways

Cabinet candidates aren't calling climate change a 'hoax,' but they're taking on climate science by emphasizing a lack of modeling precision and disagreements among scientists.   

Zack Colman
CS Monitor   

January 19, 2017 Washington—The people poised to handle the federal government’s environmental portfolio appear to be trying to have it both ways on climate change: They are denying that it’s a “hoax,” but they are questioning the ability to measure humanity’s contribution with “precision.”

At first blush, the comments appear to be a departure from President-elect Donald Trump’s comment that climate change is a China-made fiction. In that way, Mr. Trump’s picks to head the Environmental Protection Agency, the Interior Department, and the State Department have sounded more aligned with the scientific consensus that humans are driving climate change.

But they’re not actually embracing that conclusion.

Instead, they’re pointing to models that show some variation on emissions, temperature, and sea-level rise projections and amplifying those small disagreements to discredit or sow doubt about the widely held conclusion that humans are driving emissions higher and raising temperatures, largely from burning fossil fuels.

To most climate scientists, the comments are “deliberately misleading,” says Susan Joy Hassol, director of Climate Communication. 

The nominees’ statements point to Republicans’ struggle to oppose climate science without dismissing it entirely, she and others say.

In 2014, GOP lawmakers attempted to deflect questions by saying, “I’m not a scientist.” A year later, all but one Republican senator supported a resolution that climate change was “not a hoax,” but they added that “climate has always been changing.”

This year’s congressional hearings are “a return to the George W. Bush administration,” which often delayed action on the grounds that the science was uncertain and ordered more studies on the issue, says Ms. Hassol.

“There is no disagreement among any legitimate scientist on that question,” she adds.

Points of confusion

Scott Pruitt, the Republican Oklahoma attorney general whom Trump tapped to lead the EPA, said in his Wednesday confirmation hearing that climate change is “caused by human activity in some manner. I believe the ability to measure with precision is subject to more debate.”

That came one day after Interior nominee Rep. Ryan Zinke (R) of Montana, told a Senate panel during his confirmation hearing that the “climate is changing, man is influencing it — I think where there is debate" is how much.

And last week, ex-ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson, the top choice to lead the State Department and United States climate diplomacy, said “we cannot predict with precision” the effects of climate change and that the science behind connectivity to extreme weather events is “not conclusive.” He added, however, that “doesn’t mean that we should do nothing."

Admittedly, climate models are complex and can differ on many fine points around timing and degree of changes. And since they are predicting well into the future, they are inherently imprecise.

That can give rise to confusion among the public, scientists say.

“Models can give rather different answers because they were intended for different purposes. It does mean that it takes experts to properly interpret results, and casual observers and politicians can easily be led astray,” says Kevin Trenberth, a senior climate scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo., in an email.

But emphasizing those differences can be a red herring.

“This line tends to ignore the certainties that climate change is happening and it is caused by humans, and we argue about details,” says Dr. Trenberth. “It can be used as a mask to say we will do nothing.”

Scientists, Trenberth notes, often emphasize the uncertainties – like the effect climate change will have on precipitation – since that’s where more research and improved modeling is needed. But for policymakers to zero in on those uncertainties as a defense of inaction can be dangerous.

Mr. Pruitt, the EPA nominee, did commit to regulating carbon dioxide emissions if confirmed. But his questioning of how much humans contribute to a warmer planet may translate into a light regulatory touch.

Senate Democrats haven’t elicited particularly detailed views from Trump’s Cabinet picks during the hearings. What the candidates have offered feeds misinformation that hinders action, Hassol argues.

“At this point confusion may be as dangerous as contrarianism and delay as insidious as denial,” she says.
Shifts in public opinion

The hearings come at a time when the World Meteorological Organization confirmed that 2016 was the hottest year on record – the third year in a row that global temperatures have set a record.

Moreover, Americans are increasingly concerned about the issue, according to a survey released Wednesday.

While climate change is still a polarizing topic, the survey by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication and the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication shows a record number of Americans – 19 percent – say they are “very worried” about global warming. Some 61 percent are “somewhat” or “very” worried.

Seven in 10 Americans believe global warming is happening (compared with 13 percent who say it is not happening), and the proportion of Americans who are either “extremely” or “very sure” global warming is happening is 45 percent, the highest proportion since the survey began in 2008.

Says Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale program: The polarization around climate change “is beginning to shift.”

 52 
 on: Jan 19, 2017, 06:20 AM 
Started by Rad - Last post by Rad
Heating up: Earth breaks record for hottest year, for the third time in a row

Last year was the third year in a row to shatter global heat records, a trend that scientists say shows 'big changes' are already underway.

Patrick Reilly
CS Monitor 

January 18, 2017 —After 12 months of heat waves, wildfires, and severe storms around the world, it’s official: 2016 was the warmest year on record.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) announced Wednesday that Earth’s average surface temperature last year was 58.69 degrees F., the highest since worldwide record-keeping began in 1880. This also makes 2016 the third year of record-setting warmth in a row, a finding that NASA confirmed using a different method.

In scientists’ view, this three-in-a-row trend makes the 2016 data especially significant. Years of record warmth were once anomalies. Now, many argue, they signal a shift: Human burning of fossil fuels is pushing Earth’s climate into warmer territory.

“A single warm year is something of a curiosity,” Deke Arndt, NOAA’s chief of global climate monitoring, told The New York Times. “It’s really the trend, and the fact that we’re punching at the ceiling every year now, that is the real indicator that we’re undergoing big changes.”

Scientists attribute these “big changes” primarily to human emissions of greenhouse gases. Gavin Schmidt, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute of Space Studies, says that 12 percent of last year’s record heat was caused by the cyclical El Niño phenomenon, while the rest likely originated with burning of fossil fuels.

A warmer climate made itself felt worldwide last year. According to Dr. Schmidt, the Arctic stayed “enormously warm.” Near the Equator, India set a temperature record on May 19, with the town of Phalodi reaching a sweltering 123.8 degrees Fahrenheit, according to The New York Times.

In addition to higher temperatures, 2016 saw several natural disasters, ranging from wildfires in Alberta, Canada, to hurricane Matthew in the Caribbean, that scientists predict will become more common as the atmosphere retains more heat.

Rising temperatures are also taking their toll on the world’s oceans. In September, The Christian Science Monitor reported:

“The ocean has played a disproportionate role in mitigating the effects of human caused climate change, but increasingly extreme storms, bleaching coral, and massive fish die-offs are indications that the oceans can't take much more.”

The latest bleak news on climate change comes three months after the Paris Climate Accord, in which 125 nations agreed to lower greenhouse gas emissions enough to keep global temperatures from rising more than 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, went into effect.

Last May, when early temperature data suggested that 2016 was on track to break another round of global temperatures, the Monitor reported that current warming trends could make it difficult to avoid hitting that 1.5-degree mark.

Many observers argue that the degree to which the climate warms in coming decades depends on political will to limit greenhouse gas emissions. With Donald Trump, an outspoken skeptic of climate change, about to take office as US president, some see little leadership on climate change for the next four years.

But other observers predict that even President-elect Trump will soon feel the heat. Mark Maslin, professor of climatology at University College London, told Reuters that “the hottest year on record is such a clear warning siren that even President-elect Trump cannot ignore.”

 53 
 on: Jan 19, 2017, 06:17 AM 
Started by Rad - Last post by Rad
The Decent Of Evil: Repiglicans

Endangered Species Act: get ready for big changes, says GOP

Republican lawmakers are preparing to roll back the influence of the Endangered Species Act, arguing that the law is an unnecessary hindrance to economic development.   

Gretel Kauffman
CS Monitor   

January 18, 2017 —The Endangered Species Act may soon be, well, endangered.

As President-elect Donald Trump prepares to take office, Republicans are reportedly getting ready to roll back the influence of the Endangered Species Act after contending for years that the law curbs economic development under the guise of conservation. Under the Obama administration, GOP lawmakers sponsored dozens of measures aimed at weakening the act, nearly all of which were blocked by Democrats and the White House or lawsuits from environmentalists. But now, as the United States enters an era of Republican control in both Congress and the White House, opponents of the ESA may get their way.

"It has never been used for the rehabilitation of species. It's been used for control of the land," said House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob Bishop, who "would love to invalidate" the law, as reported by the Associated Press. "We've missed the entire purpose of the Endangered Species Act. It has been hijacked."

In its 44 years of existence, the law has been criticized for hindering drilling, logging, and other activities while enabling prolonged legal battles over certain species. It prohibits the hunting of wolves, angering farmers in a number of states who say the wild animals attack their livestock. And protection efforts for species including the Canada lynx, the lesser prairie chicken, and the salmon have hindered logging projects, oil and gas development, and efforts to reallocate water in California.

In response, GOP lawmakers have proposed reforms including placing limits on lawsuits that have been used to maintain protections and force decisions on some species, and introducing a cap on how many species can be protected while giving states more input on the matter.

But environmentalists say Endangered Species Act has played a vital role in the survival of many of the more than 1,600 plants and animals currently protected by the law. As Eva Botkin-Kowacki reported for The Christian Science Monitor in October:

    Species are going extinct about 1,000 times faster than if humans weren’t part of the equation, according to Stuart Pimm’s 2014 research published in the journal Science. As such, many scientists now proclaim that Earth is experiencing its sixth great extinction.

    "I hate that we concentrate on all the gloom and despair," says Dr. Pimm, a conservation ecologist at Duke University, bemoaning his own research. "I think the story is that we are now becoming very successful at finding solutions. We’re learning how to do this craft we call conservation."

    And the numbers suggest that he’s right.

    Under the Obama administration, 28 endangered or threatened species have recovered sufficiently to be removed from the endangered species list – more than under all other administrations combined since the Endangered Species Act (ESA) became law in 1973, according to the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

Decisions for dozens of species, such as the Pacific walrus and the North American wolverine, are set to take place this year. Many of these species could face increased risk if Republican reforms are implemented, experts say.

"There's a lot of evidence that some species are conservation-reliant," J.B. Ruhl, a law professor at Vanderbilt University, told the AP. Political fights over some species have taken decades to resolve, he added, because recovering them from "the brink of extinction is a lot harder than we thought."

 54 
 on: Jan 19, 2017, 06:16 AM 
Started by Rad - Last post by Rad
The Decent Of Evil: Repiglicans

Endangered Species Act: get ready for big changes, says GOP

Republican lawmakers are preparing to roll back the influence of the Endangered Species Act, arguing that the law is an unnecessary hindrance to economic development.   

Gretel Kauffman
CS Monitor   

January 18, 2017 —The Endangered Species Act may soon be, well, endangered.

As President-elect Donald Trump prepares to take office, Republicans are reportedly getting ready to roll back the influence of the Endangered Species Act after contending for years that the law curbs economic development under the guise of conservation. Under the Obama administration, GOP lawmakers sponsored dozens of measures aimed at weakening the act, nearly all of which were blocked by Democrats and the White House or lawsuits from environmentalists. But now, as the United States enters an era of Republican control in both Congress and the White House, opponents of the ESA may get their way.

"It has never been used for the rehabilitation of species. It's been used for control of the land," said House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob Bishop, who "would love to invalidate" the law, as reported by the Associated Press. "We've missed the entire purpose of the Endangered Species Act. It has been hijacked."

In its 44 years of existence, the law has been criticized for hindering drilling, logging, and other activities while enabling prolonged legal battles over certain species. It prohibits the hunting of wolves, angering farmers in a number of states who say the wild animals attack their livestock. And protection efforts for species including the Canada lynx, the lesser prairie chicken, and the salmon have hindered logging projects, oil and gas development, and efforts to reallocate water in California.

In response, GOP lawmakers have proposed reforms including placing limits on lawsuits that have been used to maintain protections and force decisions on some species, and introducing a cap on how many species can be protected while giving states more input on the matter.

But environmentalists say Endangered Species Act has played a vital role in the survival of many of the more than 1,600 plants and animals currently protected by the law. As Eva Botkin-Kowacki reported for The Christian Science Monitor in October:

    Species are going extinct about 1,000 times faster than if humans weren’t part of the equation, according to Stuart Pimm’s 2014 research published in the journal Science. As such, many scientists now proclaim that Earth is experiencing its sixth great extinction.

    "I hate that we concentrate on all the gloom and despair," says Dr. Pimm, a conservation ecologist at Duke University, bemoaning his own research. "I think the story is that we are now becoming very successful at finding solutions. We’re learning how to do this craft we call conservation."

    And the numbers suggest that he’s right.

    Under the Obama administration, 28 endangered or threatened species have recovered sufficiently to be removed from the endangered species list – more than under all other administrations combined since the Endangered Species Act (ESA) became law in 1973, according to the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

Decisions for dozens of species, such as the Pacific walrus and the North American wolverine, are set to take place this year. Many of these species could face increased risk if Republican reforms are implemented, experts say.

"There's a lot of evidence that some species are conservation-reliant," J.B. Ruhl, a law professor at Vanderbilt University, told the AP. Political fights over some species have taken decades to resolve, he added, because recovering them from "the brink of extinction is a lot harder than we thought."

 55 
 on: Jan 19, 2017, 06:12 AM 
Started by Rad - Last post by Rad
CS Monitor

How lowly termites save grasslands for lions, elephants, and people

New research shows how termite mounds aerate the soil, helping to buffer grassland from the effects of climate change and slow the pace of desertification.

By Pete Spotts, Staff writer
1/19/2017

Mound-building termites in Africa have the potential to buffer climate-sensitive grasslands there from the regional effects of global warming, at least for a while, according to a new study. In the process, the landscape above the colonies could well serve as the center of action for rebuilding vegetation following drought.

This relationship between colonies of the tiny bugs and their broader environment is likely to hold well beyond Africa to parts of Australia and South America, according to the researchers conducting the study.

That could be encouraging news for people who live in the world's arid or semi-arid savannas and grasslands. These make up less than 40 percent of the Earth's land area and support more than 38 percent of the world's population, the researchers note.

The study, published on line Thursday by the journal Science, underscores the role biological interactions can have in tempering the effects of climate change, notes Robert Pringle, an ecologist at Princeton University in New Jersey, and a member of the team that conducted the study.

It also highlights the importance to the health of an ecosystem of so-called cryptic creatures that do their work largely out of sight and so are largely out of mind.

In this case, these termites live in mounds that are hard to see, unless you know what to look for, and they do their work at night – modifying the soil in several ways that benefit plants with effects that can outlast the existence of the colony doing the work.

"If you pulled out the termites from the system, you'd get a dramatic decrease in its ability to support large populations of charismatic wildlife," Dr. Pringle says, referring to the animals that inhabit the continent's savannas and grasslands – as well as wall calendars, coffee-table books, and conservation-campaign handouts.

The discovery of this buffering role for termite mounds emerged from research into regular patterns of vegetation that can appear as grasslands dry out and teeter on the edge of a catastrophic shift to desert.

Scientists have noted self-organizing patterns of vegetation in landscapes for decades. Over the past 15 years, ecosystem modelers have shown that such lands dotted with islands of vegetation reach that state in stages, each with its distinct pattern of plant distribution. Those patterns are based on increased competition among plants for dwindling water supplies.

As seen from satellites, regularly space dots separated by bare soil appeared to represent the final stage before the system tips to desert.

The results, used in conjunction with satellite images of vegetation cover, suggested that the patterns could be used to steer conservation efforts toward the areas teetering on the brink of collapse.

In the meantime, Pringle and colleagues in the United States and Kenya had been studying a mound-covered area within the Mpala Research Centre in central Kenya with an eye toward gauging the effects the termite colonies individually and collectively could be having on biological activity above ground.

The mounds are hard to spot. They rise only about 1-1/2 feet above the surrounding surface, but typically measure about 65 feet across and are separated from neighboring mounds by anywhere from 65 to 400 feet.

The team found that the termites were in effect aerating the soil, allowing rainwater to reach deep into the mounds. They were changing the soil's texture. And they were loading it with nutrients. Nitrogen levels were 70 percent higher and phosphorus levels were 84 percent higher than in soils beyond the mounds. That turned the mounds into hot spots for plant growth. And the regular spacing between the mounds meant that collectively the mounds were enhancing plant growth and biodiversity over the full range of the mound field.

Enter Corina Tarnita, a Princeton University colleague with a background in modeling ecological systems, an eye for patterns, and the lead author on the paper in Science describing the study.

She noted a similarity between the landscape dotted with plant-rich termite mounds and the satellite images of landscapes dotted with the last vestiges of savanna – same patterns, but different mechanisms generating them.

Using a model that deals with plant competition for water in the "here comes the desert" scenario and adding representations of termite influence on soils and nutrients, she demonstrated that "plant islands" built by each of the two mechanisms could coexist in the same location. But they grow to different scales. Plant assemblages on mounds dominated the area but were interspersed with far smaller bunches of plants battling for water – bunches so small that, unlike the mounds, they can't be seen by satellite. This matched the mix that Pringle and Dr. Tarnita saw during a trip to the mounds. 

This diversity of process translated into a more robust ecosystem, with the mounds serving as the centers for slowing the effects of an oncoming drought or speeding recovery from a drought just ended.

What remains to be determined is how well the termite communities themselves respond to climate change.

Still, "even if individual colonies blink out in a given location, the concentrated nutrients, the altered soils, the tunnels and shafts -- those mounds will take years to decades to erode," Pringle says. "Productivity on the mounds themselves is going to persist, even in the short-term absence of termites maintaining the mound itself."

And termites can repopulate abandoned mounds.

Aside from demonstrating the buffering influence of the mounds, the study also highlights the importance of telling the difference between a landscape truly on the verge of going desert and a healthy one dotted with termite mounds. One doesn't want to send the conservation corps to the wrong location.

Satellite observations may help if the mounds give off a different spectral signature than comparably sized patched of plants in a region on the verge of becoming desert, Pringle says. That difference, if it exists, has yet to be demonstrated.

For now, the results suggest that hiking boots on the ground will still be important in distinguishing between the two.

 56 
 on: Jan 19, 2017, 06:11 AM 
Started by Rad - Last post by Rad
CS Monitor

How lowly termites save grasslands for lions, elephants, and people

New research shows how termite mounds aerate the soil, helping to buffer grassland from the effects of climate change and slow the pace of desertification.

By Pete Spotts, Staff writer
1/19/2017

Mound-building termites in Africa have the potential to buffer climate-sensitive grasslands there from the regional effects of global warming, at least for a while, according to a new study. In the process, the landscape above the colonies could well serve as the center of action for rebuilding vegetation following drought.

This relationship between colonies of the tiny bugs and their broader environment is likely to hold well beyond Africa to parts of Australia and South America, according to the researchers conducting the study.

That could be encouraging news for people who live in the world's arid or semi-arid savannas and grasslands. These make up less than 40 percent of the Earth's land area and support more than 38 percent of the world's population, the researchers note.

The study, published on line Thursday by the journal Science, underscores the role biological interactions can have in tempering the effects of climate change, notes Robert Pringle, an ecologist at Princeton University in New Jersey, and a member of the team that conducted the study.

It also highlights the importance to the health of an ecosystem of so-called cryptic creatures that do their work largely out of sight and so are largely out of mind.

In this case, these termites live in mounds that are hard to see, unless you know what to look for, and they do their work at night – modifying the soil in several ways that benefit plants with effects that can outlast the existence of the colony doing the work.

"If you pulled out the termites from the system, you'd get a dramatic decrease in its ability to support large populations of charismatic wildlife," Dr. Pringle says, referring to the animals that inhabit the continent's savannas and grasslands – as well as wall calendars, coffee-table books, and conservation-campaign handouts.

The discovery of this buffering role for termite mounds emerged from research into regular patterns of vegetation that can appear as grasslands dry out and teeter on the edge of a catastrophic shift to desert.

Scientists have noted self-organizing patterns of vegetation in landscapes for decades. Over the past 15 years, ecosystem modelers have shown that such lands dotted with islands of vegetation reach that state in stages, each with its distinct pattern of plant distribution. Those patterns are based on increased competition among plants for dwindling water supplies.

As seen from satellites, regularly space dots separated by bare soil appeared to represent the final stage before the system tips to desert.

The results, used in conjunction with satellite images of vegetation cover, suggested that the patterns could be used to steer conservation efforts toward the areas teetering on the brink of collapse.

In the meantime, Pringle and colleagues in the United States and Kenya had been studying a mound-covered area within the Mpala Research Centre in central Kenya with an eye toward gauging the effects the termite colonies individually and collectively could be having on biological activity above ground.

The mounds are hard to spot. They rise only about 1-1/2 feet above the surrounding surface, but typically measure about 65 feet across and are separated from neighboring mounds by anywhere from 65 to 400 feet.

The team found that the termites were in effect aerating the soil, allowing rainwater to reach deep into the mounds. They were changing the soil's texture. And they were loading it with nutrients. Nitrogen levels were 70 percent higher and phosphorus levels were 84 percent higher than in soils beyond the mounds. That turned the mounds into hot spots for plant growth. And the regular spacing between the mounds meant that collectively the mounds were enhancing plant growth and biodiversity over the full range of the mound field.

Enter Corina Tarnita, a Princeton University colleague with a background in modeling ecological systems, an eye for patterns, and the lead author on the paper in Science describing the study.

She noted a similarity between the landscape dotted with plant-rich termite mounds and the satellite images of landscapes dotted with the last vestiges of savanna – same patterns, but different mechanisms generating them.

Using a model that deals with plant competition for water in the "here comes the desert" scenario and adding representations of termite influence on soils and nutrients, she demonstrated that "plant islands" built by each of the two mechanisms could coexist in the same location. But they grow to different scales. Plant assemblages on mounds dominated the area but were interspersed with far smaller bunches of plants battling for water – bunches so small that, unlike the mounds, they can't be seen by satellite. This matched the mix that Pringle and Dr. Tarnita saw during a trip to the mounds. 

This diversity of process translated into a more robust ecosystem, with the mounds serving as the centers for slowing the effects of an oncoming drought or speeding recovery from a drought just ended.

What remains to be determined is how well the termite communities themselves respond to climate change.

Still, "even if individual colonies blink out in a given location, the concentrated nutrients, the altered soils, the tunnels and shafts -- those mounds will take years to decades to erode," Pringle says. "Productivity on the mounds themselves is going to persist, even in the short-term absence of termites maintaining the mound itself."

And termites can repopulate abandoned mounds.

Aside from demonstrating the buffering influence of the mounds, the study also highlights the importance of telling the difference between a landscape truly on the verge of going desert and a healthy one dotted with termite mounds. One doesn't want to send the conservation corps to the wrong location.

Satellite observations may help if the mounds give off a different spectral signature than comparably sized patched of plants in a region on the verge of becoming desert, Pringle says. That difference, if it exists, has yet to be demonstrated.

For now, the results suggest that hiking boots on the ground will still be important in distinguishing between the two.

 57 
 on: Jan 19, 2017, 06:09 AM 
Started by Rad - Last post by Rad
CS Monitor

Snakes on a higher plane: reptilian flight secrets revealed

How do the reptile world's best fliers pull it off without wings? Hint: it's in the ribs.

By Fabien Tepper, Staff writer
1/19/2017

Once upon a time in prehistory, some gifted contortionist of a snake sucked in its tummy, spread its ribs, and soared to reproductive success.

The nimblest of that creature's five descendant species now flies through the forests of southeast Asia, and is known to humans as Chrysopelea paradisi, or the Paradise Flying Snake. But unlike most of the animal kingdom's fliers – such as birds, bats, and flying squirrels – these reptiles neither flap nor coast. Nothing on their body resembles a wing.

Instead, the typically tubular animals press their midsections into a roughly triangular shape as they fling themselves into the air, propelling themselves forward with fishy, side-to-side undulations. According to National Geographic, they can travel up to 300 feet through the air this way. So how do they do it?

The unusual shape they assume turns out to have strange aerodynamic properties, a team of biomechanists has found.

Like flying snakes, airplanes also stay aloft with the help of triangle-like shapes; air travels more quickly across an airplane wing's diagonal top than it does across its flat bottom, weakening the relative air pressure on top, and creating the wonder of lift. But those wings are thin, long, and relatively light; there's no thin part on a snake.

Paradise Flying Snakes, while launching themselves from a tree, rearrange their ribs to create a flat, somewhat concave surface along their bellies, with the rest of their bodies creating the rounded top of a triangle, in cross section.

To understand what this shape does for them, Researchers at Virginia Tech University isolated it from the snake's other dimensions and its undulating motion, by 3D printing a stiff, uniform rod with the same cross-sectional shape.

Studying the behavior of this shape in a water tunnel, they found that it is uniquely good at gathering lift, even when its flight begins with a near-vertical plummeting motion. This is significant for snakes, because their best efforts to fling themselves away from trees aren't particularly strong.

Jake Socha, a co-author of the study who has been studying Paradise Flying Snakes for over a decade, says they commonly embark at a precipitous 60 degree angle to the ground. But, he says, by the time they land (usually on another tree), they have gathered enough lift to move almost horizontally – he has seen them land while moving at an angle as flat as 13 degrees to the ground.

Why do these snakes bother flying when the rest of the world's serpents are content to slither? Scientists haven't yet answered that.

"They are not gliding through the air to hunt," says Dr. Socha. "Their prey items tend to glide better than they do, anyway. We don't know why they use it in the wild, to tell you the truth, but it's probably for escape from predators, or for fast, effective travel between trees."

Meanwhile, the growing understanding of their aerodynamics may have biomimetic applications in the human world.

"One is micro-air vehicles – vehicles that travel through the air that are small, like insects," says Socha. "The other cool thing might be, if you were to make a snake robot that could crawl and climb and slither, and get through rubble, and also soar." Could future disaster relief efforts enlist robo-serpents? "That's what I'd like to see," says Socha.

 58 
 on: Jan 19, 2017, 06:07 AM 
Started by Rad - Last post by Rad
Climate change putting penguin chicks at risk, scientists say

A 27-year study of Magellanic penguins found that heavy rain thought to be prompted by climate change is taking its toll on penguin chicks.

By Laura Poppick, LiveScience Staff Writer
1/19/2017
   
Penguin-chick mortality rates have increased in recent years off the coast of Argentina — a trend scientists attribute to climate change and expect to worsen throughout the century, a new study finds.

From 1983 through 2010, researchers based at the University of Washington in Seattle monitored a colony of roughly 400,000 Magellanic penguins living halfway up the coast of Argentina on a peninsula called Punta Tombo. Each year, the researchers visited penguin nests once or twice a day from mid-September through late February to assess the overall status of the colony and the health of the chicks once they hatched in late November or early December.

The resulting data set provides one of the longest-ever records of a single penguin colony. It revealed that starvation and predation were the most common and consistent chick killers over the years, but that hypothermia was the leading cause of death during years with heavy rainstorms, which became more prevalent throughout the study period — a trend that is consistent with climate models projecting the effects of climate change in the region.

Facing extremes

Young chicks between 9 and 23 days old were particularly vulnerable to hypothermia, as they were too young to have fully grown their waterproof plumage but already too big to seek shelter under their parents' bodies, the team reports today (Jan. 29) in the journal PLOS ONE.

"They have to have waterproof feathers to survive," study co-author Dee Boersma told LiveScience. "If chicks don't have waterproof plumage, they are going to die as soon as they end up in the water."

Extreme heat — another component of climate change expected to worsen throughout the century — also challenged chicks' temperature-regulation systems and resulted in deaths, though not as many as hypothermia did, the team reports.

David Ainley, a senior wildlife ecologist at ecological consulting firm H.T. Harvey & Associates who studies Antarctic penguin colonies, says that, aside from giving Magellanic chicks the chills, rain can also damage the burrows that they live in during their early days.

"I think that [penguin] pairs that have good burrows probably wouldn't suffer much of an effect, but it might be harder for pairs that have not competed successfully for where to make their burrow," Ainley, who was not involved in this study, told LiveScience. "Shallow burrows, or no burrow at all — those would be the ones that are most affected by rain."
Climate-change connection

The team noted that not all rainstorms killed the chicks. Of the 233 storms that occurred over the course of the study period, only 16 resulted in chick deaths. Still, the researchers pointed out that the types of heavy storms that did result in mortalities are projected to become more frequent, with some climate models predicting an increase in extreme precipitation in the Southern Hemisphere summer by 40 to 70 percent between 2076 and 2100, compared with that seen between 1951 and 1976.

Though the researchers only analyzed a single Magellanic colony in the study, they expect that colonies of the same species elsewhere along the coasts of Chile and Argentina likely react similarly to changes in weather patterns.

Wayne Trivelpiece, an Antarctic penguin researcher with the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration's Southwest Fisheries Science Center, based in La Jolla, Calif., agrees that climate change is a serious threat to these and other penguin populations around the world. He has spent nearly the past 40 years studying penguins in Antarctica, and said he has also seen a decline in populations that he feels comfortable attributing to the indirect effects of climate change.

"I don't think it is a real stretch to make that kind of connection," Trivelpiece told LiveScience. "But the actual hard evidence will come many decades down the road."

 59 
 on: Jan 19, 2017, 06:04 AM 
Started by Rad - Last post by Rad
Mystery of huge underwater 'crop circles' solved

Mysterious underwater rings of eelgrass, off the coast of Denmark, are the result of poison, biologists say. The rings weren't created by fairies, bombs, or visiting aliens, say researchers.

By Megan Gannon, Livescience.com
1/19/2017
   
They're not the work of World War II bombs or aliens or fairies. Instead, mysterious underwater rings spotted off the coast of Denmark are the result of poison, biologists say.

Striking rings of green eelgrass — some of them up to 49 feet (15 meters) wide — can occasionally be spotted in the clear Baltic water off the coast of Denmark's island of Møn. The formations were captured in tourist photos in 2008 and again in 2011, sparking the type of speculation that's usually reserved for crop circles.

But biologists Marianne Holmer from University of Southern Denmark and Jens Borum from University of Copenhagen assure that the circles have "nothing to do with either bomb craters or landing marks for aliens."

"Nor with fairies, who in the old days got the blame for similar phenomena on land, the fairy rings in lawns being a well known example," Holmer and Borum said in a statement today (Jan. 30).

The biologists concluded that the rings formed because of the radiating pattern in which the eelgrass grows — and dies when exposed to toxins. In the mud around the eelgrass, the scientists detected high levels of sulfide, a substance that's poisonous to eelgrass and can build up naturally in a chalky seabed like the one off Møn (or unnaturally when agricultural pollutants enter an ecosystem).

"Most mud gets washed away from the barren, chalky seabed, but like trees trap soil on an exposed hillside, eelgrass plants trap the mud," Holmer and Borum explained. "And therefore there will be a high concentration of sulfide-rich mud among the eelgrass plants."

Though it might resemble a type of seaweed, eelgrass is actually a flowering plant. And when it grows, it expands outward in all directions, creating circle-shaped colonies. While healthy adult eelgrass plants seem to be able to withstand the sulfide in their environment, the old plants at the heart of the colonies drop dead, the researchers said.

"The result is an exceptional circular shape, where only the rim of the circle survives — like fairy rings in a lawn," Holmer and Borum added.

Fairy rings in a lawn are typically blamed on the outward growth of fungi, but other fairy circles on land have long puzzled scientists. A famous example can be found in the desert grasslands of Namibia in southern Africa, where researchers have offered up a wide range of explanations for the vast field of circular patches, from ants and termites to gas seeps and resource competition.

The explanation for the eelgrass fair rings is detailed in this month's edition of the journal Marine Biology.

 60 
 on: Jan 19, 2017, 06:01 AM 
Started by Rad - Last post by Rad
What is creating Namibia's mysterious fairy circles?

Two dueling models have sought to explain the formation of the strange, barren circles in southern Africa. New research presents a different idea.
 
Eva Botkin-Kowacki
CS Monitor 

January 18, 2017 —Barren circles dot the dry grasslands across about 1,500 miles of the Namib Desert stretching down the southwestern coast of Africa, emerging, growing, shrinking, and disappearing in lifetimes of 30 to 60 years. The empty patches are accentuated by a rim of particularly tall grasses that ring the circles, which range from 6 feet to 115 feet wide.

The fairy circles, as the strange bare soil spots are called, have long puzzled scientists. Although they look a bit like imprints left by massive raindrops, impacting meteors, or as legend would have it, the feet of gods, researchers suspect the pattern may form as a result of a more systematic natural process. But just what that process might be has been the subject of much debate.

Explaining this enigmatic pattern could help researchers figure out if there is some sort of universal principle behind these and other strange natural vegetation patterns.

Two dominant explanations have emerged. Some researchers blame regularly spaced social insect colonies, like sand termites, munching their way through the grasses until they reach some sort of barrier, perhaps a competing colony. By eating the roots of grasses, the termites create a sandy patch that is well-engineered to better capture the little rain that falls in the deserted region, say proponents of the theory.

Others argue that, instead, it's the plants that are competing with each other for water and other resources that create the barren circles. Grasses with deeper roots drain water from the patches, making it impossible for other plants to survive there. As a result, the plants self-organize into the regularly spaced circles.

Scientists in both camps have largely focused on each model separately. But new research suggests that both mechanisms might be involved.

According to a model described Wednesday in the journal Nature, both termites and vegetation, as well as the ways they interact, are needed to explain the fairy circles.

The researchers behind this coupled model are mathematicians, not biologists. They used the two models to simulate what sort of vegetation patterns would arise from each separately and together. Then, they compared their simulated pattern with images of the real fairy circles that dot the Namib Desert and, they say, it was a match: a large-scale hexagonal pattern.

Not only that, but the team spotted a smaller-scale pattern in the grasses around the fairy circles. Regularly spaced clumps of grass also created their own regular pattern. And, the researchers write, "that cannot be explained by either mechanism in isolation. These multi-scale patterns and other emergent properties, such as enhanced resistance to and recovery from drought, instead arise from dynamic interactions in our theoretical framework, which couples both mechanisms."

Norbert Jürgens, a botanist who championed the termite colony model with a paper published in 2013 and who was a peer reviewer of the new Nature paper, is "very pleased to see this publication because it's fully supporting the conceptual model that I proposed."

Dr. Jürgens, a professor at the University of Hamburg in Germany, says in a phone interview with The Christian Science Monitor that he agrees "both processes play a role, and both models can jointly explain nature." But, he says, the problem with the scale-dependent feedback model, as the plant-focused model is called, is that it assumes the vegetation can control patterning on such a vast scale. Sure, one plant can have a significant impact on its neighbor's access to water and nutrients, but he isn't so sure this neighborly relationship could create such a well-defined pattern across hundreds of miles.
Courtesy of Jen Guyton   | Caption   

Stephan Getzin, a theoretical ecologist at the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research - UFZ in Leipzig, Germany, whose own research suggests the scale-dependent feedback model is the right one, isn't so convinced by this new paper.

"An integrative model would allow for accounting for the presence of both, sand termites and self-organization," he writes in an email to the Monitor. "However, the authors use a model where the gap pattern of fairy circles solely emerges due to insect activity and colony establishment."

"Termites, especially the sand termite, are feeding preferentially on dead grass which suffered from drought," Dr. Getzin explains. So water depletion is a necessary prerequisite that could be influencing the pattern of where these fairy circles are popping up, he says. "We need to focus our research on those fairy circles that develop without the presence of termites because this will give us a clearer picture of the underlying processes without blurring or superimposing effects from termites."

Although the Namibian fairy circles are the most well-known, the same kind of strange pattern was spotted in Australia in 2016. And this could be a curveball for the insect model as Getzin, who studied the Australian fairy circles, told the Atlantic at the time that there was no sign of the termites there.

Walter Tschinkel, an entomologist and professor emeritus at Florida State University who was not part of this new research, warns against being too wedded to any of these theoretical or conceptual models without more experimental or field evidence. "If people are going to draw conclusions about the causes of fairy circles, then those conclusions can be drawn only from experimental work," he says in a phone interview with the Monitor.

"The termites that they propose are part of this mechanism that they modeled, are not termites at all. They're mathematical models," Dr. Tschinkel says. As such, he suggests manipulating the fairy circles to see just how sand termites might behave in that setting.

Nichole Barger, an aridlands ecologist at the University of Colorado whose research focuses on the vegetation self-organization theory, agrees that "there are still remaining questions with the social insect model and whether the Psammotermes termites [sand termites] actually behaves in nature the way it behaves in the model."

"The assumption of the model is the presence of a termite nest in every fairy circle," she writes in an email to the Monitor. "But no empirical evidence was presented of nest presence for the fairy circle sites in Namibia. Until the presence of the termite nests are confirmed with field data, it is speculation that fairy circles are formed by these termites."

Jürgens, however, would beg to differ. In his 2013 paper, Jürgens wrote that he did indeed investigate the soils in hundreds of fairy circles. And sure enough, he reported, sand termites (Psammotermes allocerus) were present in most of those sites.

But, he admitted in the paper, "Although these associations suggest a causal role for P. allocerus, it is possible that they may instead merely reflect the colonization of FCs [fairy circles] by the termites. However, sand termites were found even in the initial state of new FCs, that is, before the water accumulation has begun and the perennial grass belt has developed. Careful assessment of 24 newly formed FCs at Giribesvlakte in Namibia in March 2012 revealed the presence of P. allocerus in all of them. In these youngest FCs, the dying grass plants were damaged only at the roots, associated with underground galleries of P. allocerus ... No other organism has been observed foraging on the grass of young FCs."

The mathematicians behind the new, combined model didn't set out to explain only the fairy circles. Instead, they used them as a case study for other strange, self-organized regular vegetation patterns across the world. The idea was that there might be some sort of universal conditions that lead to the fairy circles, tiger bush, North American Mima mounds, Brazilian murundus, and South African heuweltjies, among others.

Dr. Barger agrees. "Fairy circles and their striking patterns are an entry into understanding the beauty of pattern formation in nature," she says. "There are a large number examples of vegetation patterns such as stripes, spots, and labyrinths from arid regions around the world, but it’s the circles that really capture people’s attention."

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