Washington Post, By Chris Mooney, March 23
Welcome to this week’s installment of “Don’t Mess with Geophysics.”
Last week, we learned about the possible destabilization of the Totten Glacier of East Antarctica, which could unleash over 11 feet of sea level rise in coming centuries.
And now this week brings news of another potential mega-scale perturbation. According to a new study just out in Nature Climate Change by Stefan Rahmstorf of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and a group of co-authors, we’re now seeing a slowdown of the great ocean circulation that, among other planetary roles, helps to partly drive the Gulf Stream off the U.S. east coast. The consequences could be dire – including significant extra sea level rise for coastal cities like New York and Boston.
Australian scientists have uncovered what is believed to be the largest asteroid impact zone ever found on Earth, in central Australia.
ABC (AU), By Clarissa Thorpe, March 24
A team lead by Dr Andrew Glikson from the Australian National University (ANU) said two ancient craters found in central Australia were believed to have been caused by one meteorite that broke in two.
“They appear to be two large structures, with each of them approximately 200 kilometres,” Dr Glikson said.
“So together, jointly they would form a 400 kilometre structure which is the biggest we know of anywhere in the world.
“The consequences are that it could have caused a large mass extinction event at the time, but we still don’t know the age of this asteroid impact and we are still working on it.”
The Amazon rainforest is losing its ability to absorb carbon dioxide in the atmosphere as trees are dying, which could have negative implication on climate change across the globe.
A study led by the University of Leeds revealed that tree growth in the Amazon rainforest has declined by one-third since the 1980s and that the net uptake of carbon dioxide in the rainforest has dropped by half.
For the first time in history, carbon dioxide absorption by the Amazon rainforest has been surpassed by fossil fuel emissions in Latin America, the study found. Historically, the rainforest absorbed about 2 million tonnes of carbon dioxide each year.
Truthout, By William Rivers Pitt, March 8
Sen. James Inhofe, Republican of Oklahoma since 1994, took to the floor of the Senate the other day with a snowball in a bag. Because it was cold in Washington DC, he said, because there was snow on the ground, that proves climate change is a hoax. “In case we had forgotten,” he said, pulling the snowball from the sack, “because we keep hearing that 2014 has been the warmest year on record, I ask the chair, do you know what this is? It’s a snowball, just from outside here. It’s very, very cold out.” He went on to denounce what he called the “hysteria on global warming,” and then threw the snowball at the presiding officer.
James Inhofe – who believes snow in DC disproves climate change – is the chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works committee, because of course he is. He won with 57 percent of the vote in his last re-election campaign, because of course he did.
Sen. Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky since 1984, has been urging state officials all across the US to refuse to comply with the new EPA rule on carbon emissions that was championed by the Obama administration. The rule requires existing power plants to cut their carbon emissions by 30 percent, based on the 2005 requirements, by the year 2030. Senator McConnell is having none of it. “Think twice,” he said, “before submitting a state plan, which could lock you in to federal enforcement and expose you to lawsuits, when the administration is standing on shaky legal ground and when, without your support, it won’t be able to demonstrate the capacity to carry out such political extremism.”
Sydney Morning Herald, By Peter Hannam, March 6
Unusual warming of waters in the central equatorial Pacific has prompted the US government to declare an El Nino event and predict a better-than-even chance that it will linger through the middle of the year.
The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said the above-average sea-surface temperatures had exceeded key thresholds, triggering the declaration of the “long-anticipated” El Nino.
However, the location of the main warming – about 10 degrees west of the International Dateline rather than to the east – and its timing early in the year are puzzling climate experts looking for similar events.
“Climate scientists are monitoring this with amazement,” said Cai Wenju, a principal CSIRO research scientist who has published widely on the El Nino Southern Oscillation (ENSO) climate pattern. “We only understand what we have seen.”
As the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) gears up for its revamped second run, hurling particles together with more energy than ever before, physicists there are impatient. They want this next round of collisions to shake their discipline to its core.
BBC, By Jonathan Webb, March 4
“I can’t wait for the switch-on. We’ve been waiting since January 2013 to have our proton beams back,” says Tara Shears, a particle physics professor from the University of Liverpool.
Prof Shears is raising her voice over the occasional noise of fork-lift trucks and tools, as well as the constant hum of the huge experimental apparatus behind her: LHCb, one of four collision points spaced around the LHC’s 27km circumference.
New York Times, By John Noble Wilford, March 4
On the morning of Jan. 29, 2013, Chalachew Seyoum was climbing a remote hill in the Afar region of his native Ethiopia, his head bent, eyes focused on the loose sediment. The site, known as Ledi-Geraru, was rich in fossils. Soon enough, he spotted a telltale shape on the surface — a premolar, as it turned out. It was attached to a piece of a mandible, or lower jawbone. He collected other pieces of a left mandible, and five teeth in all.
Mr. Seyoum, a graduate student in paleoanthropology at Arizona State University, had made a discovery that vaulted evolutionary science over a barren stretch of fossil record between two million and three million years ago. This was a time when the human genus, Homo, was getting underway. The 2.8-million-year-old jawbone of a Homo habilis predates by at least 400,000 years any previously known Homo fossils.
More significant, scientists say, is that this H. habilis lived only 200,000 years after the last known evidence of its more apelike predecessors, Australopithecus afarensis, the species made famous by “Lucy,” whose skeleton was found in the 1970s at the nearby Ethiopian site of Hadar.
William H. Kimbel, director of the Institute of Human Origins at Arizona State, said the Ledi-Geraru jaw “helps narrow the evolutionary gap between Australopithecus and early Homo,” adding that it was an excellent “transitional fossil in a critical time period in human evolution.”
Salon.com, Joanna Rothkopf, March 3
Two bills are up for a vote in the House of Representatives on Tuesday, both of which could significantly impact the way the Environmental Protection Agency is allowed to use science to come up with regulations. The Secret Science Reform Act and the Science Advisory Board Reform Act both require the EPA to consider only publicly available, easily reproducible data when making policy recommendations. Scientific organizations and environmental groups, as well as a number of Democrats, disapprove of the bills, arguing that they favor industry over real science.
Over 50 scientific organizations spoke out in opposition to the Secret Science bill, noting that large-scale public health studies would be ineligible for consideration because large sample sizes could not be easily reproduced.
Quartz, By Lily Kuo, February 27
If you speak Mandarin, your brain works differently. That’s according to a recent study published in the Proceedings for the National Academy of Sciences. The report is the first to conclude that those who speak tonal languages like Mandarin exhibit a very different flow of information during speech comprehension, using both hemispheres of the brain rather than just the left, which has long been seen as the primary neurological region for processing language.
After analyzing brain imaging data from Mandarin and English speakers listening their respective languages, researchers from Peking University and other universities found that native Mandarin speakers and native English speakers both showed evidence of activity in the brain’s left hemisphere. But Mandarin speakers also saw activation in the right hemisphere, specifically in a region important for processing music, via pitch and tone, that has long been seen as largely unrelated to language comprehension.
Since at least the 1950s, researchers in the field of neurolinguistics have been questioning how languages influence perception, and physiological behavior. This latest study supports one emerging theory, connectionism, that maintains that some languages require interactions across the entire brain. The findings are important for better protecting language-related regions during brain surgery as well as understanding the “constitution of knowledge of language, as well as how it is acquired,” according to the study.
BBC, By Rebecca Morelle, February 24
Black rats may not have been to blame for numerous outbreaks of the bubonic plague across Europe, a study suggests.
Scientists believe repeat epidemics of the Black Death, which arrived in Europe in the mid-14th Century, instead trace back to gerbils from Asia.
Prof Nils Christian Stenseth, from the University of Oslo, said: “If we’re right, we’ll have to rewrite that part of history.”
The study is in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
And because this was a period when trade between the East and West was at a peak, the plague was most likely brought to Europe along the silk road, Prof Stenseth explained.
The Daily Mail (UK), By Will Stewart, February 23
Moscow – Four new mysterious giant craters have appeared in the Siberian permafrost in northern Russia, sparking fears that global warming may be causing gas to erupt from underground.
Scientists spotted the new holes, along with dozens of other smaller ones, in the same area as three other enormous craters that were spotted on the Yamal Peninsula last year.
The craters are thought to be caused by eruptions of methane gas from the permafrost as rising rising temperatures causes the frozen soil to melt.
‘We know now of seven craters in the Arctic area,’ Professor Bogoyavlensky told The Siberian Times.
‘Five are directly on the Yamal peninsula, one in Yamal Autonomous district, and one is on the north of the Krasnoyarsk region, near the Taimyr peninsula.
‘We have exact locations for only four of them.
‘The other three were spotted by reindeer herders.
‘But I am sure that there are more craters on Yamal, we just need to search for them. I would compare this with mushrooms.
‘When you find one mushroom, be sure there are few more around. I suppose there could be 20 to 30 craters more.’
The Siberian Times: Dozens of new craters suspected in northern Russia
Science Magazine, By Michael Balter, February 13
What do you call a male sibling? If you speak English, he is your “brother.” Greek? Call him “phrater.” Sanskrit, Latin, Old Irish? “Bhrater,” “frater,” or “brathir,” respectively. Ever since the mid-17th century, scholars have noted such similarities among the so-called Indo-European languages, which span the world and number more than 400 if dialects are included. Researchers agree that they can probably all be traced back to one ancestral language, called Proto-Indo-European (PIE). But for nearly 20 years, scholars have debated vehemently when and where PIE arose.
Two long-awaited studies, one described online this week in a preprint and another scheduled for publication later this month, have now used different methods to support one leading hypothesis: that PIE was first spoken by pastoral herders who lived in the vast steppe lands north of the Black Sea beginning about 6000 years ago. One study points out that these steppe land herders have left their genetic mark on most Europeans living today.
The studies’ conclusions emerge from state-of-the-art ancient DNA and linguistic analyses, but the debate over PIE’s origins is likely to continue. A rival hypothesis—that early farmers living in Anatolia (modern Turkey) about 8000 years ago were the original PIE speakers—is not ruled out by the new analyses, most agree. Although the steppe hypothesis has now received a major boost, “I would not say the Anatolian hypothesis has been killed,” says Carles Lalueza-Fox, a geneticist at Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona, Spain, who participated in neither of the new studies.
Up until the 1980s, variations of the steppe hypothesis held sway among most linguists and archaeologists tracking down Indo-European’s birthplace. Then in 1987, archaeologist Colin Renfrew of the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom proposed that PIE spread with farming from its origins in the Fertile Crescent of the Middle East, moving west into Europe and east further into Asia; over time the languages continued to spread and diversify into the many Indo-European languages we know today.
Climate change has advanced so rapidly that work must start on unproven technologies now, admits US National Academy of Science
The Guardian, By Suzanne Goldenberg, February 10
Climate change has advanced so rapidly that the time has come to look at options for a planetary-scale intervention, the National Academy of Science said on Tuesday.
The scientists were categorical that geoengineering should not be deployed now, and was too risky to ever be considered an alternative to cutting the greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change.
PhysOrg, By Lisa Zyga, February 9
The universe may have existed forever, according to a new model that applies quantum correction terms to complement Einstein’s theory of general relativity. The model may also account for dark matter and dark energy, resolving multiple problems at once.
The widely accepted age of the universe, as estimated by general relativity, is 13.8 billion years. In the beginning, everything in existence is thought to have occupied a single infinitely dense point, or singularity. Only after this point began to expand in a “Big Bang” did the universe officially begin.
Although the Big Bang singularity arises directly and unavoidably from the mathematics of general relativity, some scientists see it as problematic because the math can explain only what happened immediately after—not at or before—the singularity.
New study bolsters notion that memory is fragile and aggressive police interrogations don’t always serve justice.
The Toronto Star, By Sarah Barmak, February 8
Subject: “I remember the two cops. There were two. I know that for sure . . . I have a feeling, like, one was white, and one maybe Hispanic . . . I remember getting in trouble. And I had to like, tell them what I did. And why I did it, and where it happened . . . ”
Interviewer: “You remember yelling?”
Subject: “I feel like she called me a slut. And I got ticked off and threw a rock at her. And the reason why I threw a rock at her was because I couldn’t get close to her . . . ”
Interviewer: “So you threw a rock instead?”