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Author Topic: Pluto in Cap, the climate, ecology and environment topic  (Read 144241 times)
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« Reply #300 on: Feb 22, 2013, 08:19 AM »

02/21/2013 01:03 PM

Abyss of Uncertainty: Germany's Homemade Nuclear Waste Disaster

By Michael Fröhlingsdorf, Udo Ludwig and Alfred Weinzierl

Some 126,000 barrels of nuclear waste have been dumped in the Asse II salt mine over the last 50 years. German politicians are pushing for a law promising their removal. But the safety, technical and financial hurdles are enormous, and experts warn that removal is more dangerous than leaving them put.

It's hot and sticky 750 meters (2,500 feet) underground, and the air smells salty. Five men are standing in front of an oversized drill. They have donned orange overalls and are wearing bulky special shoes, yellow hard hats and safety glasses. They turn on the machine, and the rod assembly slowly eats its way into a gray wall.

For over seven months now, the team has been trying to drill a hole with a diameter of eight centimeters (three inches). They are attempting to reach one of the former excavation chambers of Asse II, an old salt and potash mine near the northern German town of Remlingen, in the northwestern German state of Lower Saxony. Behind a barrier 20 meters thick, thousands of drums filled with nuclear waste have been rotting away for over three decades.

It's dangerous work. Over the years, experts warn, explosive gases may have collected in underground cavities -- and one spark could trigger a disaster. Consequently, the drill head is only allowed to turn extremely slowly. After the machine has barely advanced another 10 centimeters, the men pull the drill pipe out of the hole and insert a probe. They thus manage to inch their way forward about 20 centimeters per shift.

The drilling ultimately aims to provide a glimpse of the first of 13 chambers filled with barrels of waste, and to provide information on the condition of these containers -- and on what measures need to be taken to remove them from the 100-year-old maze of tunnels.

It took two years to prepare this journey into the contaminated salt. Engineers had to redevelop measuring devices, design new machines and write computer programs. The men on the drilling team have volunteered for the job. They are working in a hermetically sealed space. To prevent any radioactive dust particles from reaching the rest of the mine, a constant vacuum is maintained here. There is special vinyl flooring that can be decontaminated, and the walls are lined with custom-made tiles.

German Environment Minister Peter Altmaier was on hand for the launch of the exploratory drilling on June 1, 2012. Since none of the available garb would fit him, two seamstresses had quickly sewn a white miner's outfit for the stout politician from Chancellor Angela Merkel's center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU). Then Altmaier pressed a red button in a neighboring tunnel to symbolically start the drill.

At that moment, Germany cast itself into one of the most technically ambitious, and thus most costly, ventures of its industrial history -- a bold, perhaps foolhardy, project that will consume at least €4 billion ($5.3 billion), but more likely somewhere between €5 billion and €10 billion. It's a decontamination project that will take 30 years, or longer. And no one can say with certainty whether it will ever be completed.

The initial stage has already revealed that the intended retrieval of the drums is an expedition into the unknown. The team has driven the drill pipe 35 meters into the salt, yet after a good seven months of work, they still haven't found the chamber with the stored radioactive waste. Geologists now believe that it has been missed by roughly 2.5 meters because the mountain has a life of its own and changes shape as the salt shifts from south to north.

'Never Been Done Before'

That's the basic situation at Asse: On the one hand, there are the engineers who want to plan everything, who have to plan everything, who are not allowed to endanger anyone, who have to adhere to the rules of the Atomic Energy Act, who have to implement the government's plans and who should take into consideration the concerns of local residents. And, on the other hand, there are the forces of nature at work in a mine that does whatever it wants.

Germany's Federal Office for Radiation Protection (BfS) has been responsible for Asse since 2009. This is an agency that was originally founded to monitor things such as the safety of workers in nuclear research facilities. In early 2010, the federal government ordered the BfS to assess whether the radioactive waste in the Asse mine can be retrieved. The agency estimated that it would take three years to prepare the project. Most recently, the BfS said it would need 10 years for the fact-finding phase alone.

The BfS still has no detailed concept for the retrieval, no timetable, no script that maps out the technical procedures. It's essentially a flight by the seat of the pants, and problems are encountered for which no solutions have been found anywhere in the world.

This is reminiscent of other large German infrastructure projects, in which everything during the construction phase turns out to be more difficult, time-consuming and expensive than anticipated. But the difference is that there are already plenty of underground railway stations, major international airports and concert halls around the globe. Removing nuclear waste from a flooding, collapsing salt mine, though, represents a unique challenge. "What we intend to do here has never been done before," says Jens Köhler, the technical director at Asse.

Massive Environmental Scandal

The decision to retrieve the drums was primarily motivated by politics. It was taken because politicians have a bad conscience about how they have treated their constituents. The public was originally informed that Asse was merely being used to "research" how radioactive waste reacts in a final repository. But then nuclear power plants, nuclear research facilities, the German military, medical institutions and industry used the old mine as a dump for all manner of contaminated waste. The federal government collected disposal fees, and for decades ministers in Bonn, Berlin and the nearby city of Hanover, the state capital, blithely disregarded the problem.

The public finally rebelled against this ignorance in 2007, when the former operator of the storage site, the Munich-based German Research Center for Environmental Health (HMGU), decided to flood the tunnels with a magnesium chloride solution. Local residents were afraid that filling the cavities could allow radioactive substances to seep into the drinking water supply. The concern was that contaminated water could reach the Elbe River and spread as far as Hamburg. Citizens' initiatives were formed, internal papers were leaked, an investigative committee pored through thousands of binders -- and it all resulted in the biggest environmental scandal in postwar German history. Now, all political parties firmly believe that the only acceptable message to local residents is the promise to retrieve the drums of radioactive waste.

Under the so-called grand coalition of the CDU and the left-leaning Social Democrats, which governed between 2005 and 2009, Sigmar Gabriel (SPD), who hails from this region, used his position as federal environment minister to push through a change in management -- transferring responsibility from the HMGU to the BfS -- and pledged that the waste would be retrieved. "Money will be no object," he said.

German politicians have even agreed to enshrine the retrieval of the Asse nuclear waste in Germany's Atomic Energy Act. This is intended to speed up the highly demanding and arduous licensing process currently required by this legislation. On Wednesday, there was a hearing before the Environmental Committee of the Bundestag, Germany's parliament, on the "Lex Asse," to be followed by the final semantic revisions. The Bundestag plans to pass the bill into law before Easter.

Consequently, there will be a great deal of talk, and many articles, about Lex Asse this week. Politicians will pat themselves on the back and praise the future. But this won't put an end to the debate over retrieval. The new law will perhaps give politicians some breathing room, and remove the issue of Assa from all the campaigning leading up to the general election scheduled for September.

But the debate will resurface with every additional delay, every cost overrun, every bit of geological bad news and every internal report that questions the project's chances of success or the logic of retrieving the nuclear waste. The people who live in Germany's northern Harz mountain range have grown edgy due to Asse's misuse as a nuclear waste repository, and they feel that they have been lied to and deceived. They also realize that many officials at the BfS, the Federal Environment Ministry and the licensing agencies think the retrieval project is absolutely insane.

Mountains of Red Tape
Which is the better solution? Gradually bringing the nuclear waste out of the mine or basically entombing the stuff underground? Jens Köhler, 47, is a mining engineer. He has built tunnels in the Alps, in China and in India, but he refuses to answer this question. The Asse boss says that he is doing the job that the politicians have given him -- and that job is to stabilize the mine so the waste can be removed.

Köhler exchanges the traditional German miners' greeting -- Glück auf! ("Good luck!") -- with everyone that he meets underground. When he hears a noise coming from the tunnel roof, he stops to listen: "Ahhh, my favorite sound," he says. The noise means that the "system is running," and that special concrete is being pumped into the dilapidated tunnels.

Indeed, in addition to having 126,000 drums filled with radioactive refuse, Asse's system of tunnels, which resembles the architecture of an anthill, is in danger of collapsing.

"This is a totally ramshackle construction," says Köhler. For decades, the tunnels were allowed to fall into decay because the facility was about to be closed. In order to at least get some forewarning of an impending collapse, engineers have installed a micro-seismic system, the first of its kind anywhere. Twenty-eight monitoring stations register even the minutest tremors in the mine. Even a dropped hammer will be caught by the sensors.

Last year, the "Spiral," a kind of serpentine road between the tunnels, collapsed. It's the "lifeblood" of the facility, explains Köhler. It took months to dig a new tunnel into the salt.

Köhler is in a race against time, and the engineer has no idea whether he can win it. Until now, though, Asse has primarily been a bureaucratic monster for him. "The approval processes are extremely demanding," Köhler says pointedly, referring to the nerve-racking red tape. Each new step in the work involves dozens of binders with permits, assessments and statements.

Some things have to be approved by the Environment Ministry of Lower Saxony, some by the state mining agency. And Altmaier's Federal Environment Ministry lords above it all as the supreme supervisory authority. Before the first test drilling could begin in mid-2012, it took two-and-a-half years and required 18,000 sheets of paper for licensing documents -- enough to make a stack as high as the mining tower at Asse.

Environmental Sensitivities

When it was decided to retrieve the 126,000 drums, the BfS made a video that demonstrated how easy the job would be: It showed how robots would collect the barrels, compress them or wrap them in foil, and then bring them up to the surface. The video claimed that the operation would be completed by 2025, at the latest.

Now, it's clear that it won't be possible to retrieve even a single drum during the current decade. The salvage operation will mainly require the construction of an additional system of tunnels -- basically a new mine next to the old one -- and this primarily presents a moral dilemma for environmentalists.

When workers began to clear a forest for the construction of a new mineshaft, they came across a pond where they discovered an egg mass of an amphibian that is on the list of critically endangered species in Lower Saxony. The agile frog (Rana dalmatina) is also on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species. Now, a plan is needed to save this population -- along with a rescue operation for the bulbs of rare flowers, such as the martagon lily and the spring snowflake.

The new mineshaft won't be operational before 2025. To make matters worse, there are still no plans for a packing facility or for an immense hangar in which up to 50,000 cubic meters (1.8 million cubic feet) of radioactive waste -- and just as much contaminated salt -- could be stored following retrieval.

Asse is a prime example of the emotional nature of environmental issues. The saltwater that has been permanently dripping into the mining galleries for the past 25 years is captured long before it comes in contact with the storage drums. There is actually no reason why the liquid couldn't be dumped into the North Sea, but water from Asse has an image problem. Nobody wants it -- unless they get something in return. Consequently, the pure saltwater is trucked over 100 kilometers (62 miles) to the former salt mine of Mariaglück, which is being flooded anyway. The owner of this mine, the K+S Group, has taken in roughly €1 million since 2009 in exchange for accepting the unproblematic water from Asse.

Hoodwinked for 40 Years

When Udo Dettmann, 40, looks out his window, he sees railroad tracks that pass directly by his house on the way to Asse. The tracks, where freight trains transporting salt from the mine rolled until 1964, play an important role in the life of this engineer. As a child, the overgrown rail corridor was a big playground for him, but today he also appreciates the railroad bed. "I can chain myself to the rails," he says "if they decide to ship the magnesium chloride for flooding Asse."

Dettmann is the chairman of the Asse II Coordination Group, placing him at the heart of all public protests. The people in the Coordination Group are neither professional protesters nor obstinate ideologues, and they don't automatically reject things that could be uncomfortable.

Dettmann's cousin used to work at Asse. It was seen as an attractive job. Back when the area was an isolated corner of West Germany, not far from the border with East Germany, many of the locals saw the research facility as their ticket to getting ahead. Asse offered jobs, growth and the promise of a brighter future. Children's birthdays could be celebrated with a guided underground tour of the mine, and the HMGU invited local politicians to Munich for Oktoberfest. And since nuclear waste doesn't stink, doesn't cloud the air and doesn't leave any visible traces, Dettmann says that they put any possible dangers "out of their minds" at the time.

It wasn't until someone attending a wedding talked about how water had rushed in and the mine was in danger of flooding that a group of local residents decided to inform themselves -- and finally realized "that we had been taken for a ride here for 40 years," says Dettmann.

Political Foot-Dragging
Even if the Bundestag passes the Lex Asse in March, the mistrust will remain. As Marcus Bosse, a local state parliamentarian with the SPD, puts it, there are "too many moles" in the key institutions who oppose retrieving the waste. Bosse believes a handful of officials and consultants have turned out to be foot-draggers. They are employees of the BfS and consultants for the Federal Environment Ministry -- and they have all spoken out in favor of flooding the mine.

Bosse sees the responsible department head at the Federal Environment Ministry, Gerald Hennenhöfer, as someone who is particularly determined to drag things out.

Hennenhöfer, a lawyer by trade, has a reputation for being not only the government's most experienced nuclear expert, but also an advocate of nuclear power. The ministerial director of Asse officially deigned to only say a few sober words: "We bear a heavy responsibility and feel obliged to the people in the region and their desire for retrieval," he said. At the same time, he added, the ministry will have to bear in mind all risks. "We are bound by law to do this," he concluded.

This éminence grise's degree of skepticism toward the intentions of Germany's politicians can be largely interpreted from instructions that were sent to the BfS in March 2010: Retrieval would only be the best solution "under certain circumstances," it said. It concluded that the BfS should "immediately" proceed with "measures for the secure storage of the radioactive waste in the subterranean cavities."

Among the local politicians throughout the Asse region, there are many who are calling for Hennenhöfer's resignation because he decides who gets appointed to all higher positions at the BfS. He also monitors the Asse operator and keeps the agency busy jumping through bureaucratic hoops. From December 2008 to December 2012, the ministry sent over 160 regulatory demands to the BfS in addition to all the requested reports.

Regardless of which politician one asks in the region -- the district administrator, the CDU state parliamentarian or his SPD colleague -- they are all shocked over the bureaucrats' apparent efforts to play for time. Dorothée Menzner, a member of the Bundestag Environment Committee for the far-left Left Party, has personally experienced this with Peter Hart from the department for nuclear supply and disposal at the Environment Ministry: "He rejected every proposal to speed up the retrieval," she says. "All he would say was: not possible, not possible. So I asked him to tell me what is possible."

Menzner stops short of saying that Environment Minister Altmaier has no intention of retrieving the Asse waste. But she certainly asks herself whether he can assert himself in his own ministry. "Much of the mind-set that resulted in extending the life spans of nuclear power plants over two years ago is still present," she says.

Suspicions of Back-Tracking

But perhaps the political failure is of an entirely different sort. Last year, one of the top people at the BfS quit the agency to work for the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) -- and he left with a bang: Michael Siemann, the project manager for the retrieval, said on television that a safe retrieval of the waste was, in his opinion, unrealistic for technical reasons. "Many people know this, but no one wants to say it," he noted, out of fear of bad press and incurring the wrath of the public. The geochemist said that, in view of the decrepit condition of the tunnels and the lack of robotic technology, he felt that there was neither the time nor the means to safely bring the waste aboveground. But, he added, politicians don't want to hear this.

Back in 2011, Siemann summarized the difficulties in an internal memo and recommended that the agency "already now make the professional and communicative preparations to abandon the 'retrieval' project."

To Dettmann, the protest coordinator, every statement like this, every complication, every delay serves as further evidence that "in reality, they don't want to take the stuff out." In fact, the activist and his like-minded friends are asking themselves where the loopholes in the new law are. With the aid of their legal counsel, they have carefully weighed and dissected the text. In a minor fit of paranoia, they are now even wondering whether the Lex Asse will pave the way for a legally airtight way of abandoning the retrieval. Indeed, the current draft law states that increased contamination when recovering the waste has to be weighed against the risks of leaving it underground.

Dettmann feels torn. They are finally getting their law -- but they just can't shake off their suspicions. The activist estimates that there's a 75 percent chance that Asse will one day be free of nuclear waste. "But if we stop here with our citizens' initiative," he says, "that figure will sink to zero percent."

Fighting Ignorance and Disinformation

These days, it isn't easy to work as a professor for medical physics and radiation protection. "After Fukushima, it was often unbearable to hear the nonsense that was disseminated about nuclear radiation, even by reputable television stations," says Joachim Breckow. As the president of the German-Swiss Radiation Protection Association (FS), an organization with over 1,400 members working in research, industry and government agencies, he is faced with a choice: Should he simply keep his mouth shut and marvel at so much misinformation and ignorance? Or should he try to educate the public?

Last fall, Breckow, 58, decided it was finally time to speak out. The topic was Asse. He urged Germany to put a stop to the concept of retrieval because, in his opinion, it is "probably not the best solution." This gave the citizens' initiatives yet another perceived enemy.

The professor has his office on the ninth floor of the THM University of Applied Sciences in Giessen, Hesse. Breckow says that using Asse as the nation's radioactive toilet has been "an absolutely appalling mess." As a result, he says that researchers and the nuclear industry -- but also radiation-protection experts -- have lost much of their credibility, and he concludes that this is precisely why they "finally must be honest." He says that it's time to go against the current "instead of simply swimming along."

Breckow argues that radiation-protection experts should help ensure that people's exposure is kept to an absolute minimum. But the biophysicist contends that the current planning by politicians will actually increase the risks.

He says that it is "simply naïve to believe" that machines alone could remove the nuclear waste from the mine. He adds that nuclear radiation would also be released during the transport and packaging of the rusting drums. Furthermore, he points out that a colossal intermediate storage area would have to be built, presumably the largest in Germany, and protected from airplane crashes and terrorist attacks. All of this could be avoided, he says, if at least a large proportion of the waste were simply left in the mine. He calls this the lesser of two evils.

Breckow says that, as a radiation-protection expert, he is not allowed to "play anything down," but he is allowed to make calculations and then give his recommendations. It's a matter of balancing everyone's interests, and it currently clearly weighs against retrieval.

The scientist makes the following calculation: Even in the case of "an uncontrollable influx of solvents" -- in other words, if Asse became completely flooded -- many decades in the future, the population would be subject to a maximum radiation exposure of 0.1 millisievert, which corresponds to 3 percent of the annual exposure from naturally occurring radiation. The local population would, at most, have to avoid drinking water from the area.

Anyone who is given a standard X-ray, Breckow explains, is exposed to roughly 0.5 millisievert -- or five times the annual "Asse dosage." Anyone who has themselves examined using computer tomography is exposed to 10 millisievert. To put it another way, anyone who lives for 100 years in the region surrounding a mine like Asse that is filling up with water would receive the same amount of radiation as from 20 conventional X-rays or one computer tomography during the course of their entire lifetime. Such comparisons are necessary, says Breckow, in order to "understand the radiation exposure."

Translated from the German by Paul Cohen

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« Reply #301 on: Feb 23, 2013, 07:04 AM »

02/22/2013 06:21 PM

Melting Permafrost: Scientists Warn of Dangers of Trapped Carbon

By Christoph Seidler

Research published Thursday in the journal Science says that even slightly warmer temperatures could start melting permafrost, which in turn threatens to trigger the release of huge amounts of greenhouse gases trapped in ice.

The frosty dungeon hides a dark secret. At least a quarter of the Northern Hemisphere's landmass is frozen and, like a vault, it holds 1,700 gigatonnes of carbon. This unimaginably high quantity of carbon comes from countless generations of creatures that have lived and died in the area over millions of years.

A portion of those dead plants and animals weren't decomposed by microorganisms because, at a certain point, it was simply too cold for that. But the permafrost is slowly melting. If large areas of ground underneath were to thaw one day, the bacterial decomposition process would pick up where it left off, releasing huge amounts of greenhouse gases. In total, permafrost contains twice as much carbon as what is currently billowing through the Earth's atmosphere.

If major portions of that carbon become released, the world's climate would suffer fatal consequences. For this reason, scientists have for some time now been asking the frightening question of just how strongly global warming affects permafrost areas. Using ingenious measuring methods, they are meticulously monitoring the fate of the planet. A new study, published in the professional journal Science on Thursday, suggests that it's possible that even slightly higher temperatures could thaw out significant portions of the region's permafrost areas.

A team of researchers led by Anton Vaks at the University of Oxford examined calcareous deposits from a total of six Siberian caves. Specifically, they looked at so called speleothems, which are mineral deposits -- including stalactites and stalagmites -- that form in limestone and other caves. "Speleothems only grow when rain and meltwater can seep through cracks into the caves," Vaks told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "And that process only occurs when temperatures are above the freezing point."

Precise Climate Records

Since water from the frozen earth can't reach cracks deep within the caves, the mineral deposits are precise records of the climate. In warmer times, the so-called interglacial periods, stalactites and stalagmites form. In colder phases, so called glacial periods, they don't. So there is a pattern similar to how tree rings can be used to tell their age.

A total of 36 speleothems were dated using the uranium-thorium method. Over time, uranium decays into thorium. The uranium isotopes dissolve in water that penetrates into the speleothems, while thorium does not and thus remains in the deposits.

Researchers can look back about 500,000 years in the past using this method. Speleothems in today's permafrost areas must have come from a significantly warmer period in which water was flowing. Vaks and his colleagues have been able to show that stalactites in the northern-most Lenskaya Ledyanaya Cave only grew in a very warm part of an interglacial period about 400,000 years ago.

At that time, average temperatures were about 1.5 degrees Celsius higher than they are today. Traces of this particularly warm period were also proven with pollen deposits and residue of algae found in the sediment of Elgygytgyn Lake, in northeastern Siberia, as well as from other sources of evidence. During this time, there were probably even numerous trees in southern Greenland.

On the Border

In periods with higher tempatures, the permafrost retreats further north. The Lenskaya Ledyanaya Cave lies at 40 degrees north latitude, in an area currently on the border of continuous permafrost. If the temperatures rise another one or two degrees, to approach something like what they were in the interglacial period 400,000 years ago, the situation would most likely look differently. "That is probably the threshold where continuous permafrost becomes vulnerable," says Vaks.

The research is "well-argued and conclusive, the data is great, and it's very diligent," says Hanno Meyer, at the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research (AWI) in Potsdam, outside Berlin. It was the first time that speleothems have been used to prove the changing areas of southern permafrost borders, he says.

Meyer also said the is currently little information about older warm periods in this region. However, he adds, the research method used by the Oxford University team is not appropriate for other permafrost landscapes because these areas have been frozen for longer than 500,000 years and are therefore too old for the dating method to measure.

The frozen earth varies in thickness from a couple of meters to 1.5 kilometers, depending on the area. And a large portion of the permafrost areas lie farther north than Vaks and his team have studied until now, with pieces even in the ocean floor. So what does this newly released research now mean for these areas in the high Arctic? "We understand that we must go further to the North," admits Vaks. Over the next two years, Vaks and his team will look for more northern caves -- and for speleothems that can be dated.

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« Reply #302 on: Feb 23, 2013, 07:09 AM »

At least six tanks leaking at nuclear waste site in Washington state

By Agence France-Presse
Friday, February 22, 2013 20:09 EST

At least six underground tanks containing nuclear waste in the northwestern US state of Washington are leaking, but there is no imminent threat to public health, a spokeswoman said Friday.

The US Energy Department told the state last week that one tank was leaking at the Hanford nuclear site, but Energy Secretary Steven Chu informed its governor Jay Inslee on Friday that more leaks had been discovered.

“Secretary Chu let him know today that there are actually more tanks they’ve discovered leaking, at least six, possibly more,” Inslee’s spokeswoman Jaime Smith told AFP, after the meeting between Inslee and Chu in Washington DC.

“At this point we don’t believe that there’s any imminent threat to public health. Of course we’re concerned, because we don’t have any information yet about the extent of the leak or how long they’ve been going on.”

Asked for details of the leaking material, she said: “It’s nuclear waste. Different tanks have slightly different kinds of waste that they’re holding. We’re not clear yet on exactly what has been leaking for how long.”

The Hanford nuclear site in the southwest of the US state was used to produce plutonium for the bomb that brought an end to World War II.

Output grew after 1945 to meet the challenges of the Cold War, but the last reactor closed down in 1987. Its website says: “Weapons production processes left solid and liquid wastes that posed a risk to the local environment.”

The ecological threat extends to the Columbia River, it added, noting that in 1989 US federal and Washington state authorities agreed a deal to clean up the Hanford Site.

The Washington governor’s spokeswoman said they hoped for more information about the leaking tanks soon.

“The Department of Energy has committed to try and get us more information pretty quickly, hopefully within the next week or so. So we should have more information soon,” she said.

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« Reply #303 on: Feb 25, 2013, 08:58 AM »

Scientists discover traces of lost mini-continent in the Indian Ocean

By Agence France-Presse
Sunday, February 24, 2013 13:43 EST

Scientists said Sunday they had found traces of a micro-continent hidden underneath the Indian Ocean island of Mauritius.

The slab, dubbed Mauritia, was probably formed around 61-83 million years ago after Madagascar split from India, but eventually broke up and became smothered by thick lava deposits, they said.

In a study published in the journal Nature Geoscience, scientists analysed beach sand on Mauritius that contained ancient zircons between 660 million and about two billion years old.

The minute chips of mineral were a remarkable find, as they were buried in sand formed only recently in geological terms — from nine-million-year-old volcanic rock.

“The zircon points to the existence of fragments of an ancient micro-continent beneath the island (Mauritius), pieces of which were brought to the surface by recent volcanic activity,” said a Nature statement.

The Indian Ocean floor may be littered with hidden land fragments that broke off as the once super-continent Pangea split up and formed the continents we know today, the paper suggests.

Pangea began to rift about 200 million years ago, yielding Gondwana in the south and Laurasia in the north.

Gondwana in turn split into Madagascar, Australia, Antarctica and India between 80 and 130 million years ago.

The new study suggests that Mauritia became detached when Madagascar and India split up.

The Seychelles, it adds, could be like Mauritia — another continental fragment that, however, is visible.

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« Reply #304 on: Feb 26, 2013, 08:41 AM »

Japanese whalers ram environmental activists’ ship in Antarctic waters

By Agence France-Presse
Tuesday, February 26, 2013 4:03 EST

Japanese whalers and militant conservationists have been involved in dangerous clashes in icy waters off Antarctica, with both sides accusing the other of ramming their vessels.

Veteran anti-whaling campaigner Paul Watson said the Japanese factory ship the Nisshin Maru rammed the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society’s much smaller vessel the Bob Barker in the incident on Monday.

But on its website, Japan’s Institute of Cetacean Research accused several Sea Shepherd boats of slamming into the Nisshin Maru as the vessel attempted to refuel with her supply tanker the Sun Laurel.

“It was five hours of intense confrontation,” Watson told AFP from on board the Sea Shepherd vessel the Steve Irwin.

“We took up our positions to block their approach to the (fuel tanker) Sun Laurel and they rammed the Bob Barker twice, causing considerable damage, and then they pushed it into the side of the Sun Laurel.”

Watson said the Japanese threw stun grenades and fired a water cannon at his boat and damaged another Sea Shepherd vessel, the Sam Simon, but there were no injuries to Sea Shepherd crew.

“It was extremely dangerous,” he said.

“I can’t tell you how intimidating it is to have a 12,000 tonne ship coming at you and trying to slam into the side of you.

“Their contention that we rammed them is just ludicrous. We would just bounce off them.”

The Institute of Cetacean Research said the Japanese vessels were “again subject to sabotage by the Sea Shepherd ships Steve Irwin, Bob Barker and Sam Simon”.

“During their obstruction to refuelling operations the Sea Shepherd vessels rammed into… the Nisshin Maru and the supply tanker,” it said.

“During the attack, the Nisshin Maru used her water pump as a preventive measure to make Sea Shepherd vessels refrain from further approaching, and repeatedly broadcasted a warning message to stop them.”

It said no crew on its side were injured but accused the Sea Shepherd campaigners of “extremely dangerous and foolhardy behaviour” that threatened the lives of those on board the vessels.

Japan’s fisheries agency separately issued a statement saying Sea Shepherd boats rammed the Japanese whaling ship when it was getting fuel.

The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society has chased the Japanese fleet hunting whales off Antarctica for several years in a bid to stop the animals being slaughtered.

The latest skirmish follows a similar incident in the remote Southern Ocean last week that prompted calls for Australia to intervene.

An official from Japan’s fisheries agency said Tokyo “has frequently requested that the Australian government take measures to prevent such incidents through various diplomatic routes”.

“We can’t disclose details of our requests including the timing because of diplomatic sensitivities,” he said.

Canberra is strongly opposed to whaling but prefers to press its case through the International Court of Justice.

“The court is the best place to resolve a serious disagreement between governments,” Environment Minister Tony Burke said Tuesday, adding that the court was getting closer to full hearings on the case.

“As I have said before there is nothing scientific about harpooning a whale, chopping it up and putting it on a plate.”

Japan says it conducts vital scientific research using a loophole in an international ban on whaling, but makes no secret of the fact that the mammals ultimately end up as food.

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« Reply #305 on: Feb 26, 2013, 08:44 AM »

Deepwater trial: US lawyers say BP ignored warnings on 'well from hell'

As 11 teams of lawyers deliver opening statements in trial over 2010 disaster, judge sets out a three-month timetable

Dominic Rushe in New Orleans   
The Guardian, Monday 25 February 2013 22.38 GMT   
The man in charge of BP's ill-fated Deepwater Horizon rig warned his boss that staff were operating in "chaos, paranoia and insanity" just days before a fatal blowout killed 11 men and caused the worst oil spill in US history, a New Orleans court heard on Monday.

In opening arguments Michael Underhill, the lawyer representing the US Department of Justice, said BP knew it was drilling a "well from hell" but that its managers refused to deviate from a "course of corporate recklessness" that ultimately led to the fatal blowout at the Gulf of Mexico well.

In a difficult day for BP, Underhill was followed by statements from BP's partners in the fatal rig, Transocean and Halliburton, who also slammed BP. The dead rig workers "put too much trust in BP and paid for that trust with their lives," said Transocean attorney Brad Brian.

The company was guilty of "willful misconduct," said Underhill. It had calculated it needed $7bn (£4.6bn) to pay shareholders their dividend and put immense pressure on staff to save money and drill faster in order to reach that target, he said. "A safety corner cut a day saved was a $1m saved for BP," said Underhill.

BP set out its defense in the afternoon. Attorney Mike Brock defended BP and its choice of partners. He said drilling was a "team sport" and that BP had chosen the best partners. He argued that the evidence showed BP was not "grossly negligent". Mistakes had been made and the rig's operators were collectivily responsible.

Brock said detractors were taking emails out of context and BP would present a fuller picture at trial. He pointed one email where John Guide, BP's manager of the Macondo well, said his team was "flying by the seat of their pants".

Far from being evidence of a breakdown in culture, Brock said the snippet was out of context. "This is a well site leader expressing frustration about logistical issues. It's not a well site safety issue," said Brock.

The civil trial began on Monday in courtroom 268 of the US district court in New Orleans after the apparent collapse of settlement talks over the weekend. This case is the first of two and will decide how this tragedy happened and who caused it to happen. A second will determine exactly how much oil was spilled. BP faces a potential fine of $17.6bn. The case will be decided by judge Carl Barbier.

Eleven teams of lawyers were in court Monday; three overspill rooms were set aside for them and another for the press and general public. Barbier set out a three-month timetable for the trial, although legal experts in court said settlement talks are continuing.

"The tragedy of this case," said Underhill, is that it was caused by failures that "didn't even amount to pocket change". He said that BP knew it was in difficulties and that tragedy could have been averted with "as little as a 10-second phone call" or "a 30-second walk down to the tool pusher".

Underhill cited an email that will be put into evidence later this week from BP's well team leader John Guy to David Sims, drilling and completions operations manager, in Houston just days before the 20 April 2010, disaster.

Underhill said the "extraordinary document … explains why 11 men needlessly lost their lives". On 17 April, Guy told Sims that BP's well site leaders "were at wits' end" and there was a "huge level of paranoia that was riding chaos". The well was proving impossible and they were "trying to make sense of all the insanity". "The operation is not going to succeed if we continue in this manner," he warned.

Sims responded that he was about to leave for dance practice. "I'll be back soon and we can talk. I'm dancing to the Village People," he wrote.

Underhill said BP would try to blame others including Halliburton, which made the cement meant to be used to seal the well as well as a precisely specified mud used for drilling. But BP bears the greatest responsibility, he said.

The fatal blowout came after a "negative pressure test" that – had it been performed correctly – would have saved lives and prevented millions of barrels of oil being poured into the Gulf, said Underhill. BP's explanation of what went wrong with the test was greeted with a reply from Pat O'Bryan, BP's vice-president responsible for drilling and well completions, consisting of 560 question marks. Brock said: "It was a mistake made by several men from two different companies".

Jim Roy, representing the bulk of businesses and individuals affected by the disaster, also tore into BP, Transocean, the rig's owner, and contractors Halliburton and Cameron in his statement.

The evidence will show BP had "a culture of cost cutting, profits over safety and taking high risks with conscious disregard for dire potential risks," said Roy.

BP had "actual knowledge it [Deepwater Horizon] should have been heading into a shipyard for repairs," he said.

"The evidence will prove that the Deepwater Horizon was unseaworthy as of April 20 2010 and had been for many month before and that BP and Transocean knew it."

He said evidence would show a systematic failure by Transocean's management to adequately train its crew and a catalogue of unheeded warnings. He said the company had a "'run it until it breaks' philosophy".
He said the evidence would show alarms were inhibited "in order to stop waking people up at night." Witnesses said that after the explosion there was "chaos and mayhem" on the bridge captain Curt Kuchta had a "deer-in-the-headlights looks," said Roy.

This disaster happened because of a "gross and extreme departure from the standard's of good oilfield practice" and "willful failure" of Transocean to give its crew adequate training, he said.

"The evidence will show the ultimate responsibility of this rests with the management of Transocean," said Roy. He said the evidence would show that Transocean's safety culture was broken and the company put saving money over safety.

Outside the court Steve Cochran, acting director of the Environmental Defense Fund, said: "We just hope that the trial ends with sufficient resources to restore the coast and a clear signal to every operator in the gulf that you can't cut corners and if you do, you'll pay a huge price."

Daniel Jacobs, professor at American University's Kogod School of Business, said: "I think it was very damning. This is a very grim story and if the plaintiffs produce the evidence that they say they are going to present, I think they have a strong case for gross negligence."

Jacobs, who was at the trial, has been following the case for years. He said the case would come down to proving "reckless indifference and greed". "BP must have concluded it has a better chance of getting a better deal from the judge than the Justice Department," he said.
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« Reply #306 on: Feb 26, 2013, 08:45 AM »

Elephant seals help scientists solve climate mystery

The animals, fitted with head sensors, have helped to provide data from the Antarctic's most inaccessible depths

Reuters, Tuesday 26 February 2013 12.22 GMT   

Elephant seals wearing head sensors and swimming deep beneath Antarctic ice have helped scientists better understand how the ocean's coldest, deepest waters are formed, providing vital clues to understanding its role in the world's climate.

The tagged seals, along with sophisticated satellite data and moorings in ocean canyons, all played a role in providing data from the extreme Antarctic environment, where observations are very rare and ships could not go, said researchers at the Antarctic Climate & Ecosystem CRC in Tasmania.

Scientists have long known of the existence of "Antarctic bottom water," a dense, deep layer of water near the ocean floor that has a significant impact on the movement of the world's oceans.

Three areas where this water is formed were known of, and the existence of a fourth suspected for decades, but the area was far too inaccessible, until now, thanks to the seals.

"The seals went to an area of the coastline that no ship was ever going to get to," said Guy Williams, ACE CRC sea ice specialist and co-author of the study.

"This is a particular form of Antarctic water called Antarctic bottom water production, one of the engines that drives ocean circulation," he told Reuters. "What we've done is found another piston in that engine."

Southern Ocean elephant seals are the largest of all seals, with males growing up to six meters long and weighing up to 4,000kg.

Twenty of the seals were deployed from Davis Station in east Antarctica in 2011 with a sensor, weighing about 100 to 200 grams, on their heads. Each of the sensors had a small satellite relay which transmitted data on a daily basis during the five to 10 minute intervals when the seals surfaced.

"We get four dives worth of data a day but they're actually doing up to 60 dives," he said.

"The elephant seals … went to the very source and found this very cold, very saline dense water in the middle of winter beneath a polynya, which is what we call an ice factory around the coast of Antarctica," Williams added.

Previous studies have shown that there are 50-year-long trends in the properties of the Antarctic bottom water, and Williams said the latest study will help better assess those changes, perhaps providing clues for climate change modeling.

"Several of the seals foraged on the continental slope as far down as 1,800 metres, punching through into a layer of this dense water cascading down the abyss," he said in a statement. "They gave us very rare and valuable wintertime measurements of this process."

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« Reply #307 on: Feb 26, 2013, 08:47 AM »

New study finds physical mechanism linking extreme weather to climate change

By Agence France-Presse
Monday, February 25, 2013 23:25 EST

Scientists said Monday they have identified a physical mechanism behind the extreme weather that has plagued many parts of the world in recent years — and that it is tied to climate change.

Since 2010, for example, the United States and Russia have each suffered scorching heat waves, while Pakistan saw unprecedented flooding.

Scientists from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) have traced the events to a disturbance in the air currents in the northern hemisphere, in a new study out Monday in the US Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“An important part of the global air motion in the mid-latitudes of the Earth normally takes the form of waves wandering around the planet, oscillating between the tropical and the Arctic regions,” lead author Vladimir Petoukhov said in a statement.

“During several recent extreme weather events, these planetary waves almost freeze in their tracks for weeks. So instead of bringing in cool air after having brought warm air in before, the heat just stays,” he said.

In an ecosystem ill-adapted to long periods of extreme heat, the stress can be disastrous, with high death tolls, forest fires, and agricultural losses.

For instance, during Russia’s 2010 heat wave — the worst in its recorded history — wildfires spread out of control, killing dozens of people, burning down thousands of houses and threatening military and nuclear installations.

Global warming, despite its name, is not uniform across the planet. At the poles the bump in temperatures — amplified by shrinking snow cover and ice — is greater than in the swathes between, the scientists explained.

This reduces the temperature differences between the Arctic and the middle latitudes, which affects the flow of air around the globe.

In addition, continents heat and cool more rapidly than large bodies of water, the scientists said.

These two factors “result in an unnatural pattern of the mid-latitude air flow, so that for extended periods the slow synoptic waves get trapped,” Petoukhov said.

Fellow author and PIK director Hans Joachim Schellnhuber cautioned that the 32-year period used in the study is too short for definitive conclusions.

“The suggested physical process increases the probability of weather extremes, but additional factors certainly play a role as well, including natural variability,” he added.

Nevertheless, he called the new research “quite a breakthrough,” that helps explain the relationship between the spate of weather extremes and climate change.

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« Reply #308 on: Feb 26, 2013, 09:37 AM »

The Christian Science Monitor

Little telescope to hunt big game: hard-to-see near-Earth asteroids

By Pete Spotts, Staff writer / February 25, 2013 at 7:36 pm EST

Efforts to discover near-Earth asteroids – including those that are potentially hazardous – received a potential boost Monday with the launch of the Canadian Space Agency's Near Earth Object Surveillance Satellite (NEOSSat).

Housed in a spacecraft the size of a large suitcase, the space telescope physically is a munchkin among behemoths. Its light-gathering mirror is only about 6 inches across.

But from its orbit nearly 500 miles above Earth, NEOSSat will be able to view faint near-Earth asteroids in a region of space that is tough for terrestrial telescopes to tackle.

The $25 million NEOSSat mission is one of seven satellites the Indian Space Agency lofted Monday aboard a single rocket launched from the Satish Dhawan Space Center, some 50 miles north of Chennal, on India's east coast.

Ground stations have made contact with NEOSSat, "and the basics are green," says Alan Hildebrand, a researcher at the University of Calgary in Alberta and the project's lead scientist.

To date, astronomers say they have discovered between 90 and 95 percent of the approximately 1,000 near-Earth asteroids estimated to be larger than half a mile across.

In 2005, Congress instructed NASA to hunt for smaller asteroids – setting a goal of finding 90 percent of near-Earth asteroids 500 feet wide and larger by 2020.

But as the Chelyabinsk asteroid demonstrated on Feb. 15, objects far smaller can inflict damage. At about 55 feet across, and with a mass estimated at 10,000 tons, the asteroid exploded high over the Ural mountains. The shock waves damaged an estimated 4,300 buildings and injured nearly 1,500 people.

With tens of millions of objects this size orbiting the sun, the recurrence rate for collisions with a Chelyabinsk-like object averages once every 100 years, according to Paul Chodas, with NASA's Near-Earth Objects Program Office at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

Of particular interest to NEOSSat's astronomers are two groups of asteroids, known as Atens and Atiras. Members of both groups started out as asteroids in the main asteroid belt, between Mars and Jupiter. But gravitational interactions or collisions slowed these asteroids down to begin their spiral in toward the sun.

The Atiras have orbits that fall entirely inside Earth's orbit. The Atens' orbits occasionally cross that of Earth. The region of space NEOSSat aims to explore lies between 45 and 55 degrees away from the sun, well inside Earth’s orbit, Dr. Hildebrand notes.

The time available for observing this region from Earth's surface lasts no more than about 30 minutes at a time, often less, Hildebrand says. The regions of interest are so close to the sun that observing time is limited by twilight and dawn.

The asteroids NEOSSat will hunt are incredibly faint, meaning long exposure times are needed for the cameras to pick them up. Several images must be taken to confirm that a suspected asteroid is moving against the background of stars.

From the ground, "one can do astrometric follow-ups in this brief interval of time," Hildebrand says of the observations needed to refine estimates of an asteroid's orbit. But prospects for success are slimmer for discovery efforts, he says.

In addition, ground-based efforts can be further degraded because telescopes will be peering through a relatively thick expanse of atmosphere as they try to observe activity in the regions of interest, adds Ed Tedesco, a researcher with the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, Ariz., who leads a team of US scientists collaborating with Canada on the project. Researchers from the University of Helsinki also are participating.

Given the distances involved, NEOSSat will be able to detect Atens or Atiras about 1,000 feet across or larger.

From a hazard standpoint, the Atens appear to be the more worrisome of the two groups NEOSSat will observe.

But Hildebrand adds that researchers think that Atens may represent only 10 to 15 percent of the total asteroid hazard.

NEOSSat's biggest contribution is likely to be a census of the Atiras, whose number, size range, and composition are not well-known. With orbits that fall entirely within the radius of Earth's orbit around the sun, the Atiras could represent the most likely targets for landing humans on asteroids or for mining these leftovers from the solar-system's formation some 4.5 billion years ago.

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« Reply #309 on: Feb 27, 2013, 09:22 AM »

Murder of environmentalist 'highlights Thailand's failure to protect activists'

Thai government condemned over 'fundamental failure' to protect activists following murder of Prajob Nao-opas   

Kate Hodal and agencies, Wednesday 27 February 2013 12.06 GMT   

An international rights group is pressing Thailand to investigate the recent murder of an environmentalist who exposed the dumping of toxic waste, and condemned the government's "fundamental failure" to protect activists fighting for social and environmental change in the kingdom.

Prajob Nao-opas, 43, was shot four times in broad daylight in Chacheongsao province, 20 miles east of Bangkok, after spending the past year fighting illegal toxic waste disposal by various industrial estates in the region.

"The cold-blooded killing of Prajob marks yet another example of the fundamental failure of Thai authorities to protect activists who risk their lives while defending their communities," said Human Rights Watch's Asia director, Brad Adams.

More than 30 human rights defenders and environmentalists have been killed in Thailand since 2001, Adams said, with suspects charged in fewer than one in five cases.

On Monday, Prajob was at a garage waiting for mechanics to finish work on his pickup truck when a gunman arrived at the scene, approached Prajob, fired four shots with an 11mm semi-automatic weapon and escaped. Prajob was rushed to hospital but died on the way.

Local police said the murder was the mark of a professional hitman and that it was likely Prajob's activism had made him a target, the Bangkok Post reported. Prajob's campaigning had made national headlines over the exposed waterways and farmland full of industrial runoff in Chacheongsao, where carcinogens had been found at levels 30 times their legal limit, according to the provincial health office.

Prajob had allegedly been warned by police in December that he might be in danger and in January purchased two pistols to protect himself. According to Human Rights Watch, he regularly reported that he was being shadowed by unknown men on motorcycles and in vehicles, including the same car that was allegedly used in his murder.

An official overseeing the toxic disposal in Chacheongsao told the Associated Press that Prajob's murder "only goes to show that the toxic waste dumping is a big issue that needs national and international attention, since there is likely something else the dumpers were trying to bury".

Pongin Intarakhao added that his agency, the department of special investigations, would continue to fight the dumping and that investigators had already pressed charges against a Thai man accused of overseeing toxic disposal.

But Adams warned that more needed to be done to bring the perpetrators to justice. "Police investigations have been characterised by half-hearted, inconsistent and inefficient police work, and an unwillingness to tackle questions of collusion between political influences and interests and these killings of activists," he said.
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« Reply #310 on: Mar 01, 2013, 07:23 AM »

World agriculture suffers from lack of wild bees

By Agence France-Presse
Thursday, February 28, 2013 16:36 EST

Falling numbers of wild bees and other pollinating insects are hurting global agriculture, a study released on Thursday found.

Managed populations of pollinators are less effective at fertilizing plants than wild ones, the researchers said, so the dearth of pollinating insects cannot be solved by simply introducing others.

“Adding more honey bees often does not fix this problem, but… increased service by wild insects would help,” said Lawrence Harder, a scientist with the University of Calgary in Canada, which led the study.

Pollinating insects usually live in natural or semi-natural habitats, such as the edges of forests, hedgerows or grasslands.

These habitats are gradually being lost as the land is cultivated for agriculture, but, as a result, the abundance and diversity of wild pollinators crucial for the crops’ success is declining.

The researchers analyzed 41 crop systems around the world, including fruits, seeds, nuts, and coffee to examine the impact of wild pollinators on crop pollination.

“Paradoxically, most common approaches to increase agricultural efficiency, such as cultivation of all available land and the use of pesticides, reduce the abundance and variety of wild insects that could increase production of these crops,” says Harder.

He said tomatoes, coffee and watermelon are among the key crops which are likely to suffer from the declining population of wild pollinators.

Most flowering crops need to receive pollen before making seeds and fruits, a process that is enhanced by insects — like bees, but also flies, butterflies and beetles — that visit flowers.

The research, which was published in the journal Science, was carried out by an international team of some 50 researchers, who collected data from 600 fields in 20 countries.

The study called for new efforts to conserve and restore the natural habitats of honey bees and wild insects.

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« Reply #311 on: Mar 01, 2013, 07:25 AM »

Scientists: Legalize horn sales to save endangered rhinoceroses

By Agence France-Presse
Thursday, February 28, 2013 16:38 EST

In order to save the perilously endangered rhinoceros, sales of its horns should be legalized, four leading environmental scientists said Thursday in the influential journal “Science.”

“As committed environmentalists we don’t like the idea of a legal trade any more than does the average member of the concerned public,” wrote lead author Duan Biggs of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Environmental Decisions (CEED) and University of Queensland.

“But we can see that we need to do something radically different to conserve Africa’s rhino,” he said.

Although there is a global ban on killing rhinoceroses and selling their horns, there is a fierce demand, mainly attributed to Asian consumers who use the ground up horn for traditional Chinese medicines.

Attempts to discourage the use of rhino horn have failed, the scientists said, and, without a legal avenue to obtain the ingredient, the black market has stepped in.

“Rhino horn is now worth more than gold,” the scientists noted, saying that a kilogram that cost $4,700 in 1993 would fetch around $65,000 in 2012.

Poachers, enticed by the high price tag, have swarmed, and “poaching in South Africa has, on average, more than doubled each year over the past 5 years.”

That has had a devastating impact on the already endangered species: the Western Black Rhino went extinct in 2011, and just 5,000 Black Rhinos and 20,000 White Rhinos remain.

But the scientists said the demand for rhino horn could be satisfied while keeping rhinoceros populations safe — by harvesting horns from rhinos who have died of natural causes or humanely shaving the horns of living animals.

In addition, “rhino farms” would require setting aside more savannah land, which would help conserve other species, and would provide a legal source of revenue for impoverished rural communities in southern Africa.

They liken their proposal to the legal trade in farmed crocodile skins, which has saved the endangered reptiles from over-hunting.

A similar proposal for the rhinoceros was rejected 20 years ago, but the scientists said now is the time to reconsider, at an upcoming conference on the convention that governs the international trade of endangered species (CITES).

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« Reply #312 on: Mar 01, 2013, 07:27 AM »

Impending European ban forces cosmetics giant Shiseido to ditch animal testing

By Agence France-Presse
Friday, March 1, 2013 7:25 EST

Japan’s Shiseido on Friday said it was mostly dropping animal-tested cosmetics, as the European Union gets set to finalise a sweeping ban on the sale of such products later this month.

But the company said exceptions to the policy meant it would still allow animal testing when that was the only way of proving the safety of products already being sold in the market, and in some countries where animal testing is legally required.

The policy, which starts from April, applies to all of the Tokyo-based cosmetic giant’s production sites, including those run by suppliers, it said.

“Our business partners that supply material to us will not rely on animal testing, while we will no longer outsource such testing to outside labs,” a Shiseido spokesman said.

The policy was officially adopted at a board meeting Thursday, he added.

Activists have for years pressured cosmetic firms and other companies that use animal testing to find alternatives to the practice, which they say is cruel and unnecessary.

Shiseido, which dropped animal testing at its own labs in 2011, sells into the key Europe market, which is getting set to complete a ban on the import and sale of animal-tested cosmetic products from later this month.

Shiseido said it could ensure the safety of its products through others means, including using data from past experiments, human volunteers and other kinds of testing.
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« Reply #313 on: Mar 01, 2013, 07:30 AM »

Scientists spot birth of giant planet

By Agence France-Presse
Thursday, February 28, 2013 20:55 EST

Astronomers using a powerful telescope in southern Chile said Thursday they have captured the first direct image of a protoplanet forming around another star, still embedded in thick gas and dust.

An international team of researchers said the disc of gas and dust surrounding the young star HD 100546, located 335 light years from Earth in the Milky Way galaxy, would be a gas giant similar to Jupiter.

“So far, planet formation has mostly been a topic tackled by computer simulations,” said lead scientist Sascha Quanz, an astronomer at Swiss university ETH Zurich.

“If our discovery is indeed a forming planet, then for the first time scientists will be able to study the planet formation process and the interaction of a forming planet and its natal environment empirically at a very early stage.”

The astronomers said several features of the image support the theory that giant planets grow by picking up gas and dust remaining after a star forms.

Scientists detected the protoplanet using a high-resolution camera linked to the European Southern Observatory’s telescope in Chile’s Atacama desert.

The ESO, a collaboration involving 15 mainly European countries, operates a number of high-powered telescopes in Chile, including the Very Large Telescope array (VLT), the world’s most advanced telescope.

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« Reply #314 on: Mar 01, 2013, 07:45 AM »

February 28, 2013

Study of Ice Age Bolsters Carbon and Warming Link


A meticulous new analysis of Antarctic ice suggests that the sharp warming that ended the last ice age occurred in lock step with increases of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, the latest of many indications that the gas is a powerful influence on the earth’s climate.

Previous research suggested that as the world began to emerge from the depths of the ice age about 20,000 years ago, warming in Antarctica preceded changes in the global carbon dioxide level by something like 800 years.

That relatively long gap led some climate-change contrarians to assert that rising carbon dioxide levels were essentially irrelevant to the earth’s temperature — a side effect of planetary warming, perhaps, but not the cause.

Mainstream climate scientists rejected that view and argued that carbon dioxide, while it certainly did not initiate the end of the ice age, played a vital role in the feedback loops that caused a substantial warming. Still, a long gap between initial increases of temperature and of carbon dioxide was somewhat difficult for the scientists to explain.

A wave of new research in the last few years has raised the likelihood that there was actually a small gap, if any.

The latest paper was led by Frédéric Parrenin of the University of Grenoble, in France, and is scheduled for publication on Friday in the journal Science. Using relatively new, high-precision chemical techniques, his group sought to reconstruct the exact timing of the events that ended the ice age.

Scientists have long known that ice ages are caused by variations in the earth’s orbit around the sun. When an intensification of sunlight initiates the end of an ice age, they believe, carbon dioxide is somehow flushed out of the ocean, causing a big amplification of the initial warming.

Since the 1980s, scientists have been collecting a climate record by extracting long cylinders of ice from the ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica, and from glaciers atop high mountains.

Air bubbles trapped in the ice give direct evidence of the past composition of the atmosphere. And subtle chemical variations in the ice itself give an indication of the local temperature at the time it was formed.

The trouble is that air does not get sealed in the ice until hundreds or even thousands of years after the snow has fallen, as it slowly gets buried and compressed.

That means the ice and the air bubbles trapped in it are not the same age, so it becomes tricky for scientists to put reconstructed atmospheric composition and reconstructed temperature onto a common time scale.

With its improved techniques, Dr. Parrenin’s group sought to clarify the dating of previously recovered ice cores from Antarctica. Instead of the 800-year lag between temperature and carbon dioxide increases found in some previous research, their work suggests that the lag as the ice age started to end was less than 200 years, and possibly there was no lag at all.

“Before, because of these wrong results of CO2 lagging temperature, people were interpreting it as a weak role for CO2 in the climate variation of the past,” Dr. Parrenin said.

Indeed, though most climate scientists have never seen the supposed gap as a major conceptual problem, it has been invoked repeatedly by American politicians who want to delay action on global warming.

In 2007, for example, former Vice President Al Gore was testifying to Congress about the science in his documentary “An Inconvenient Truth.” He came under attack by Representative Joe L. Barton, a Texas Republican.

“CO2 levels went up after the temperature rose,” Mr. Barton said, citing a scientific paper from 2001. “The temperature appears to drive CO2, not vice versa. On this point, Mr. Vice President, you’re not just off a little. You’re totally wrong.”

The emerging evidence suggests that Mr. Gore was right.

Richard B. Alley, a climate scientist at Pennsylvania State University who was not involved in the new work, said by e-mail that it essentially confirmed previous scientific understanding.

“What this does, again and more clearly than ever, is to show that the large temperature changes are tightly coupled to the large CO2 changes,” he said.

Dr. Parrenin’s paper is the third in recent years to suggest that the gap in the climate records between polar temperature and CO2, if it exists at all, is relatively small. And Jeremy Shakun, a visiting scholar at Harvard, pointed out in a paper last year that the timing of the temperature increase in Antarctica could not be assumed to be representative of the world as a whole. When he compiled a global temperature record for the end of the ice age, he found that increases of carbon dioxide came first, and rising temperatures came second.

The tight relationship in past climate between temperature and carbon dioxide is a major reason scientists have warned that modern society is running a big risk by burning CO2-producing fossil fuels.

The level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has jumped 41 percent since the Industrial Revolution began in the 18th century, and scientists fear it could double or triple unless stronger efforts are made to control emissions.

Even at the current concentration of the gas, the evidence suggests that increases in sea level of 25 feet or more may have already become inevitable, albeit over a long period.

“We’re just entering a new era in earth’s history,” Dr. Shakun said. “It will be an unrecognizable new planet in the future. I think the only question is, exactly how fast does that transformation happen?”

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