Thursday, 31 December 2009

Johnald's Fantastical Daily Link Splurge

Johnald's Fantastical Daily Link Splurge

2009’s Sleepy Sun Finally Woke Up in December

Posted: 31 Dec 2009 06:00 AM PST


2009 will go down as the sun's third quietest year on record, outpaced only by 1913 and last year.

260 of the year's 365 days (72 percent) were sunspotless. 2008 saw 266 sunspotless days, while the sun had no spots on 311 of the days in 1913. It was only a very active December that kept 2009 from besting last year's mark.

Sunspot activity waves and wanes in a roughly 11-year cycle, so hitting solar minima isn't surprising. But what the numbers underscore is that we spent much of the year still in the midst of the deepest, longest solar minimum in a long time.

People keep their eyes on sunspots because their frequency and intensity is correlated with the overall level of solar activity. Changes in the sun's energy flows can seriously impact conditions on Earth and our immediate environment in space. While a particularly active sun can generate geomagnetic storms that damage satellites and electrical grid infrastructure, a sun as quiet as the one of the last few years could affect the Earth's climate, although not by much.

"If you want to understand all the drivers of Earth's atmospheric system, you have to understand how sunspots emerge and evolve," Matthias Rempel of NCAR's High Altitude Observator told for an earlier story.


The science of sunspots is still murky, despite new supercomputer simulations and theories about their formation. The sun remains filled with surprises.

It's been an erratic year for sunwatchers. At first, it appeared that 2009 might be even quieter than 2008. 87 percent of the days in the first three months of the year were sunspotless. In May, a big solar flare, the strongest of the new cycle, appeared to augur a return to normal for the sun. Then, August was nearly sunspotless. And in the final reversal, December has been far more active than the rest of the year.

Five regions on the sun were active at once on the 22nd, as seen above. Again assuming the current sunspot holds together until Thursday, there will have been at least one spot on 22 of the month's 31 days. Is the month's surge in activity a sign of things to come?

Tony Phillips, a NASA sky watcher who made the chart above and sketched the trend line, isn't quite ready to declare the solar minimum over.

"If the trend continues exactly as shown (prediction: it won't), sunspots will become a non-stop daily occurance no later than February 2011. Blank suns would cease and solar minimum would be over," Phillips wrote on "If the past two years have taught us anything, however, it is that the sun can be tricky and unpredictable. Stay tuned for surprises."

Image: 1. SOHO. 2.

See Also:

WiSci 2.0: Alexis Madrigal's Twitter, Google Reader feed, and green tech history research site; Wired Science on Twitter and Facebook.

NASA Narrows Robotic Missions to 3 Contenders

Posted: 30 Dec 2009 12:44 PM PST


NASA on Tuesday selected three finalists to be the agency's next cheap, robotic exploration mission. Depending on which wins, a probe will head for Venus, the moon, or a near-Earth object no later than 2018.

The latter two missions would include the return of samples, while the Venusian lander would test the planet's composition much like the Phoenix Lander did on Mars. The NASA anointing means that the teams proposing the excursions will have some money to make more detailed plans.

The winning mission will be the next in a series of explorations under the New Frontiers program. New Frontiers missions have to run under $650 million and be ready to launch relatively quickly. In this case, the final pick will be made in 2011 and will launch just seven years later.

While NASA personnel will be digging into the proposals to come up with the official decision, we'd like to know which proposal you like. Read up on the contenders, and vote in the poll afterwards.

Name: The Surface and Atmosphere Geochemical Explorer (SAGE)
Destination: Venus
Principal Investigator: Larry Esposito of the University of Colorado in Boulder
Plan: The SAGE mission would release a probe that would descend through Venus' thick atmosphere to its surface. There, it would dig into the crust and measure its composition, not unlike what the Phoenix Lander did on Mars.
Why: "Venus is like a twin sister of the Earth, and it's gone terribly bad," Esposito told Colorado Daily. Scientists want to know what happened.

Name: Origins Spectral Interpretation Resource Identification Security Regolith Explorer (Osiris-Rex)
Destination: A "primitive asteroid"
Principal Investigator: Michael Drake, of the University of Arizona in Tucson
Plan: Osiris-Rex would fly to a primitive asteroid, orbit it, and then land on it. After collecting two ounces of material, it would fly the samples back to Earth. It's a bit like Russia's planned Phobos-Grunt mission, which would return samples from a Martian moon. (Osiris is pictured above.)
Why: "A primary motivation for an asteroid sample return mission is the desire to both acquire samples with known geologic context and to return materials that are either unlikely to survive passage to Earth (e.g., friable, volatile-rich material) or would be compromised by terrestrial contamination upon their fall (e.g.,
extraterrestrial organics)." — according to a description of the mission plan [pdf]

Name: MoonRise
Destination: Aitken Basin, at the Moon's south pole
Principal Investigator: Bradley Jolliff, of Washington University in St. Louis
Plan: The mission would place a lander in a south polar lunar basin, where it would excavate about two pounds of lunar material. The samples would be returned to Earth.
Why: The area where MoonRise would dig is believed to be composed of rocks from the moon's mantle conveniently exposed by a massive meteorite strike. Understanding the interior of the moon could help explain a lot about the formation of the solar system.

Image: Osiris-Rex.

See Also:

WiSci 2.0: Alexis Madrigal's Twitter, Google Reader feed, and green tech history research site; Wired Science on Twitter and Facebook.

Wednesday, 30 December 2009

Johnald's Fantastical Daily Link Splurge

Johnald's Fantastical Daily Link Splurge

Sharks, Zombies, Weird Clouds: The Most Popular Stories of 2009

Posted: 30 Dec 2009 10:02 AM PST

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This has been Wired Science's most successful year, by far. We like to think this is the result of a combination of your excellent taste and our efforts to learn what you like to read.

We have often joked that the perfect Wired Science story is about robot sharks with lasers in space. While we haven't gotten a chance to write that one just yet, looking at this list of our most popular stories of the year, we've come pretty close. Golden-silk-spinning spiders, the mathematics of zombies and weird clouds were all among your favorites.

10. Mysterious, Glowing Clouds Appear Across America's Night Skies

Speaking of weird clouds, number 10 on our 2009 hit list is the mysterious appearance of noctilucent clouds in the night skies over the United States and Europe. These night-shining clouds typically form closer to the poles, but more frequent sightings in lower latitudes could be the result of human-caused climate change.

Image: The sky over Omaha on July 14, snapped by Mike Hollingshead at Extreme Instability

How Algal Biofuels Lost a Decade in the Race to Replace Oil

Posted: 29 Dec 2009 05:00 PM PST


For nearly 20 years, a government laboratory built a living, respiring library of carefully collected organisms in search of something that could grow quickly while producing something precious: oil.

But now that collection has largely been lost.

National Renewable Energy Laboratory scientists found and isolated around 3,000 species algae from construction ditches, seasonal desert ponds and briny mashes across the country in a major bioprospecting effort to find the best organisms to convert sunlight and carbon dioxide into fuel for cars.

Despite meager funding, the Aquatic Species Program (.pdf), initiated under President Jimmy Carter, laid the scientific foundation for making diesel-like fuel from the fat that microscopic algae accumulate in their cells. Fifty-one varieties were carefully characterized as potential high-value strains, but fewer than half of those remain.

"Just when they started to succeed is when the plug got pulled," said phycologist Jeff Johansen of John Carroll University, who collected algal strains for the program in the 1980s. "We were growing them in ponds and we were going to grow enough to have them made into a diesel fuel."

The program was part of the huge investment that Jimmy Carter made into alternative energy in the late 1970s. All kinds of research avenues were explored, but when the funding shriveled during later years, knowledge, experts and know-how were lost. The setback highlights the problems created by inconsistent funding for energy research. Now, President Obama has trumpeted the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, also known as the stimulus package, as the largest increase in scientific research funding in history. Scientists roundly applauded the billions of dollars that went into energy research, development and deployment. But what about when the stimulus money runs out in two years?

"One caution is that much of this has been funded with the stimulus package," said Ernie Moniz at a Google-hosted panel on energy in late November. "So, we're going to have to see what happens after these next two years, because what we need is not a drop, but a further increase in R&D commensurate with the task at hand."

And that's exactly what didn't happen in the last big energy R&D push.


From organism to oil

Turning pond scum into oil isn't easy, but as a hypothetical energy system, it's elegant. The theory is that algae will produce more burnable fuel on less land than regular crops, perhaps something like a thousand gallons of oil per acre instead of a few dozen from conventional plants. The food-versus-fuel debates that plague biofuels like corn-based ethanol would disappear. Plus, it's possible the algae could be engineered to make high-energy fuels suitable even for airplanes. It's these possibilities that sold the Carter administration's energy officials.

Phycologists, the people who study algae, discovered that under certain circumstances, some algae start cranking out far more oil than normal. Restrict their nutrients, and for some reason they start producing lots of oil. But they also stop growing. If the scientists could keep the algae multiplying and pull the "lipid trigger" anyway, they'd be in fat city. But their understanding of the biology was incomplete, and the task wasn't easy. It would take some time and effort to know if and when their the process would become cheap enough to compete with crude.

Another challenge was getting the algae to keep growing without injecting a lot of energy into the system. They installed large open ponds near Roswell, New Mexico, and began trying to produce tiny algae at oil tanker scales. It worked, but there were problems. Again, it would take some time and effort to know if and when everything would work together.

The program did not get time or the money to find out. By the time Bill Clinton took office, funding for the program had dwindled to a trickle, and in 1996, the Department of Energy abandoned the program to focus all its biofuel efforts on ethanol. A dark decade fell upon the field of algal biofuel. There wasn't even money available to take care of the algal collection that had been so painstakingly created.

In an effort to salvage some of the science, a few hundred strains of algae were sent to the University of Hawaii, but the refuge proved less than ideal. When a National Science Foundation grant ran out in 2004, it became difficult to continue the laborious work of maintaining the collection. The organisms sit in rows of test tubes living and reproducing. Every two months, they have to be transferred, "passaged," to a new nutrient-rich tube. Random genetic mutations can enter a population and lead to permanent genetic changes. The algae can die.

It's not exactly clear how it happened, but a review released earlier this year found that more than half the genetic legacy (.pdf) of the program had been lost. Only 23 of the 51 strains that were extensively studied during the program remain alive and extant. The losses to the rest of the algal cultures in the collection have been even worse.

"The really bloody shame is that of those 3,000, there are maybe 100 to 150 strains that remain at the University of Hawaii," said Al Darzins, who heads up the resurgent algal biofuels research program at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

The way R&D funding has been used in the United States has hurt the efficiency of the research. Programs that started during the late '70s and early '80s were stopped in the years of low energy prices that followed. Despite the best efforts of cash-strapped researchers, not everything can be preserved and recovered, frozen cryogenically while awaiting fresh funding.

Algae comes back

While the valuable NREL archive of algae biodiversity languished in a Hawaii basement, the world around it changed. Genetic and genomic research and understanding skyrocketed. Oil demand grew, particularly in massive developing countries like China, India and Indonesia. Oil usage outpaced new oil field finds. Interest in algae-based biofuels exploded. Venture capital and corporate money flowed back into the field. On January 2, 2008, oil hit $100 a barrel for the first time. Despite some ups-and-downs, the price of oil remains substantially higher than it was through much of the 1990s. As a result, more than 50 companies are now at work on some aspect of biofuel production from algae.

In the latest move, Exxon Mobil decided to invest $600 million into a joint venture with Craig Venter's Synthetic Genomics for research into next-gen algal fuels.

Over the past few years, Darzins has revived the program at NREL. They've been hard at work on the biology of microalgae. Graduate student Lee Elliott of the Colorado School of Mines has collected 500 new species in just the last year and a half. To a certain extent, the problems of maintaining a microorganismal library have been solved. Cryogenic freezing techniques were developed at the University of Texas UTEX Culture Collection of Algae. The NREL team has been able to freeze and then revive 91 percent of their microorganisms.

Despite the lost decade, algal oil makers are optimistic that they are about to ride a steep cost curve down to much, much cheaper biofuel. As they apply new biological knowledge and optimize growing algae, the cost will drop. And as they capture economies of scale, the costs will drop again. In the best-case scenario, when all is said and done, algal biofuel could cost $50 per barrel. But that won't happen anytime soon, and it could take a decade.

Or maybe it will remain expensive for a long, long time. There are some legitimate reasons to be skeptical of algal biofuel's potential for large-scale oil production.

So far, nobody has been able to make fuel from algae for a cost anywhere close to cheap, let alone competitive. Some researchers question whether any kind of energy-conversion process based on photosynthesis will ever play a major role in our transportation energy system. One life-cycle analysis found algal biofuels would not have a positive energy balance, in other words, you'd have to put more energy in than you would get out. The prominent startup GreenFuel, which grew out of Harvard and MIT research, went bust earlier this year after blowing through $70 million.

We just don't know how well algal biofuel production might work. It's true that the 18 years of research at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory yielded a lot of knowledge, but it resulted in nothing resembling a commercial product or process.

"The cultivation of microalgae for production of biofuels generally, and algal oils specifically, is not a near-term commercial prospect," John Benemann, an algae scientist who worked on the final report of the Aquatic Species Program, wrote in an e-mail to "Larger-scale algal biofuels production still requires considerable, long-term R&D."

So many questions, so little time

Just $25 million was invested over the life of the Aquatic Species Program, which is just 5.5 percent of the total money the DOE dedicated to biofuels over that time. Adjusted for inflation, the program's total budget in today's dollars was less than $100 million. To put this tiny number in oil industry context, Exxon Mobil made $142 million in profit each day of 2008.

"They came up with this idea and in four years, they almost demonstrated the technological feasibility, and then the funding fell out," said Johansen, the phycologist who collected algae for the program. "The maximum of funding was about $4 million a year. When I left, it was $800,000 a year. Now, there is all this biofuel work going on, and they are all going back to that public domain research. It kind of drives me crazy."

The neglect of the Aquatic Species Program and subsequent resurgence of algal biofuel interest is one of many examples that show that the lack of coherent, consistent energy policy has left the world's most oil-dependent nation scrambling in times of crisis.

Johansen even went so far as to say that "if the Reagan and Bush administrations had not ended" the growth of the algal biofuels program, our country would have algal biofuels now.

Even under far less optimistic scenarios, if the Aquatic Species Program had been fully funded from its start until now, there is no question that we'd know a lot more about the potential, and limitations, of algal biofuels.

Instead, we're left with some lessons learned, a partially missing library of microorganisms, and a lot of questions that investors and entrepreneurs want answered before the next oil price spike.

See Also:

WiSci 2.0: Alexis Madrigal's Twitter, Google Reader feed, and green tech history research site; Wired Science on Twitter and Facebook.

Space Probe Gets Halfway to Pluto in Record Time

Posted: 29 Dec 2009 12:15 PM PST


The fastest man-made object ever built, the Pluto-bound New Horizons probe, is now closer to the former planet than Earth, just a little under four years after its launch.

It's currently traveling at about 31,000 miles an hour and is located about 1.527 billion miles from Earth.

12-29-09_lg"Today, 29 Dec 2009, New Horizons crossed a milestone boundary– henceforth we're now closer to Pluto than to Earth. Go New Horizons!" the mission's controllers tweeted Tuesday.

The spacecraft will be the first to flyby Pluto, the planet or dwarf planet or plutoid, and on to the other objects lurking in the Kuiper Belt at the edge of the solar system.

While the craft is hibernating most of the time while it awaits its July 2015 rendezvous with Pluto, it was roused for a Jupiter flyby that yielded some gorgeously detailed images of that planet and its satellites.

Unlike an orbiter, much of the New Horizons action will come in an action-packed nine day period around July 14, 2015 when the craft approaches and then passe by Pluto. During that time, the probe will capture 4.5 gigabytes of data, which it will have to keep sending the four-and-a-half hours back home for months.

With its main mission accomplished, the craft will keep moving away from the sun, following in the extrasolar footsteps of the earlier Pioneer and Voyager missions, drifting ever farther away from us.

Instead of the plaques attached to the earlier ships, which presumably identify the spacecraft as artifacts of Earthly civilization, New Horizons carries a DVD inscribed with 450,000 names of supporters and some of the ashes of Clyde Tombaugh, who discovered Pluto in 1930.

See Also:

WiSci 2.0: Alexis Madrigal's Twitter, Google Reader feed, and green tech history research site; Wired Science on Twitter and Facebook.

Tuesday, 29 December 2009

Johnald's Fantastical Daily Link Splurge

Johnald's Fantastical Daily Link Splurge

Sublime Sand: Desert Dunes Seen From Space

Posted: 28 Dec 2009 05:00 PM PST

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Deserts are known for being desolate and lifeless, but they are also quite striking and beautiful, especially when seen from above. Different types of sand, topography, wind and climate combine to form a tremendous variety of landscapes. Shifting dunes are carved into an endless number of constantly changing shapes.

The images in this gallery, taken by orbiting astronauts and satellites, show some of the most beautiful, most haunting, biggest, rarest and most stunning desert vistas on Earth.

Algeria's Sand Sea

The Issaouane Erg covers almost 15,000 square miles in eastern Algeria. This sea of sand in the central Sahara desert has three different scales of dunes. Mega-dunes, also known as draas or whalebacks, form over hundreds of thousands of years and can be several hundred miles long. Mesoscale dunes form on top of the mega-dunes, and move on decade time scales. Smaller dunes form on and around the larger dunes. They are sculpted into different shapes by the wind, and are constantly shifting.

In the image above, captured by astronauts on the International Space Station in 2005, mesoscale dunes have been shaped into star dunes that look a bit like starfish and crescent dunes. In the image below, taken by astronauts on the ISS in 2006, the large, rolling shapes are mega-dunes. The smallest dunes show up as wrinkles alongside larger dunes.

Click on any of the gallery images for high-resolution versions.


Images: NASA

Collar Tech Tracks Wolf’s North Pole Treks

Posted: 28 Dec 2009 03:50 PM PST


During the 24-hour darkness of an arctic winter, a wolf pack's tough life continues. Battling temperatures that reach 70 degrees below zero, a pack travels hundreds of miles across the landscape. A collar affixed to a wolf named Brutus beams back their coordinates to U.S. Geological Survey researchers.

It would be impossible for humans to track the wolves in the brutal conditions, but the new satellite collar, which can communicate with GPS and Arcos satellites, is passing its first field test with flying colors.

"This year, we made a huge technological jump from notebook and pens to satellite collars because we wanted to find out what these arctic wolves do in winter," USGS biologist David Mech said in a press release. "How far must they travel to obtain enough food to make it to the Arctic spring, which doesn't happen until the next June?"

The data being returned by the collar is unprecedented. No one has ever collared a wolf within 1,000 miles of the Brutus' pack, Mech told

As it turns out, the wolves are covering a lot of ground, as can be seen in the map above. Now, the fjords visible in the summer image above have frozen and can be crossed on foot. In one trip, the wolf and his pack traveled 80 miles from Ellesmere Island to Axel Heiberg Island and back in just 84 hours. Just through November 30, Brutus has traveled 1,683 miles.

And that's just counting the point-to-point distance between locations they receive from the collar's transmitter. They only get the wolf's coordinates every 12 hours, so it's highly probable that the wolf has taken far more circuitous, longer paths through the snow.

"With the locations coming at 12-hour intervals we can't precisely say what Brutus was doing, but no doubt he was hunting and likely resting at times too," wrote Northwest Territories biologist Dean Cluff, who is working on the project with Mech, on the project's blog.

The wolves travel to find prey like muskoxen and Arctic hares, so the researchers expected them to be on the move, but they didn't know exactly how far they'd go or where. During the summer months, the pups can't travel with the pack, so the older wolves' movements are limited. They figured that as the babies grew up, they would be able to make longer treks and the pack's range would grow.

Now they know they were right, thanks to the wolf pack locations that periodically show up in Mech's inbox. The information satisfies his lifelong desire to solve the mystery of how these wolves survive when he can't be in the Arctic charting their movements.

"I've studied them for 25 years, 25 summers, but I've never known what they've done after I leave," Mech said in a podcast [mp3].

You can follow Brutus' travels through the USGS blog on the Arctic Wolves of Ellesmere Island and see photographs of the animals.


Images: USGS.

See Also:

WiSci 2.0: Alexis Madrigal's Twitter, Google Reader feed, and green tech history research site; Wired Science on Twitter and Facebook.

Famous San Francisco Sea Lions Abandon Their Pier 39 Post

Posted: 28 Dec 2009 12:31 PM PST


The blubbery sea lions at Pier 39, one of San Francisco's smelliest and most famous tourist attractions, are gone. During the last week of November, they left the wooden docks on which they've spent the last 20 years and no one knows if they'll be coming back.

"We have no idea where they moved on to or why," said Shelbi Stoudt, who manages a team that helps stranded animals in the San Francisco Bay from the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito, California.

The sea lions' disappearance is as strange as their initial colonization of the pier about 20 years ago, in late 1989. They just started showing up one day and as their numbers increased, their traditional hang out, Seal Rocks, became less populated. There are all sorts of theories about why the pier became a favorite haul-out spot for the sea lions, butno one knows for sure why the animals' behavior changed.

Stoudt averred that the officials at the Marine Mammal Center weren't worried about the animals' disappearance from their standard location. The sea lions are migratory animals, after all, and it's natural for them to move around.

So, even though no one has found them, "there really isn't a reason to be looking for them," Stoudt said.

The disappearance is unusual, though. The animals' numbers usually peak in late fall and many stick around during the winter months before heading south for the summer. According to the Marine Mammal Center's FAQ on the animals, "from late summer to late spring, 150 to 300 sea lions haul out here," though their numbers can run much higher.

This year saw a massive influx of sea lions. In fact, a Marine Mammal Center survey conducted in the fall found 1,585 mammals hauled out on the spot, an all-time high. Some of them invaded a neighboring area, the Hyde Street Pier, where they may have been scared away by an itinerant fisherman's dog.

Their disappearance drew the attention of San Franciscans like local blogger Gary Soup, who posted the photo above of the deserted docks on Twitter.The animals had become a major tourist and education locus on the otherwise highly commercial strip known as Fisherman's Wharf. The Marine Mammal Center sends docents to the area to answer questions about the creatures.

On the other hand, fishermen and others who work the waters of the Port of San Francisco have far less friendly relations with the animals. One recently told a local radio station, "They're cute when they're in here lying on the docks by Pier 39, but they're not too cute out in the ocean when they're stealing your livelihood."

It doesn't appear that local weather conditions could have influenced the animals. The weather in San Francisco has been normal, according to National Weather Service meteorologist Rick Canaepa. "It's pretty typical winter conditions," Canaepa said.

This is an El Niño year, but the local impacts of that warming of the Pacific have been moderate. "I don't know if that would be enough to make them change their minds and leave the area," he said.

The Mammal Center's Stoudt said they hadn't detected signs of something unusual going on with the fauna of the Bay, either.

While it's appealing to think that the animals may have just returned to their previous home at Seal Rocks, locals contacted by didn't think there had been much of a change in the sea lion population there.

"Nothing unusual has happened," said Jennifer Valencia, who takes reservations at the Cliff House, which overlooks the Rocks.

So, for now, no one knows where they've gone or whether they'll ever head back to their perch amid the clam chowder shops and street performers.

Image Composite: Left: flickr/wallyg. Right: Twitter/@GarySoup.

See Also:

WiSci 2.0: Alexis Madrigal's Twitter, Google Reader feed, and green tech history research site; Wired Science on Twitter and Facebook.

Friday, 25 December 2009

Johnald's Fantastical Daily Link Splurge

Johnald's Fantastical Daily Link Splurge

Warming Already Speeding Up Insect Breeding

Posted: 25 Dec 2009 02:00 AM PST


Summertime and the insect breeding is easy.

sciencenewsThat old song rings especially true for 44 species of moths and butterflies in Central Europe, according to an analysis by ecologist Florian Altermatt of the University of California, Davis. As the region has warmed since the 1980s, some of these species have added an extra generation during the summer for the first time on record in that location.

Among the 263 species already known to have a second or third generation there during toasty times, 190 have grown more likely to do so since 1980, Altermatt reports online December 22 in Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

Only a rough third or so of all the species Altermatt reviewed show the capacity to breed more than once a year. What warming is probably doing for them, he speculates, is jolting the insects' overwintering form into action early and also speeding up insect development. These head starts may allow time for a bonus generation before a non-temperature cue, atumnal day length, plays its role in shutting down insects for winter.

"From a pest perspective it's an important issue," says population ecologist Patrick Tobin based in Morgantown, W.Va., for the Forest Service Northern Research Station. Tobin has studied a warmth-related extra generation in a North American pest, the grape berry moth. He points out that an extra surge of attacking pests in the growing season means yet another headache, expense and round of damage for farmers.

Extra insect generations are important for ecosystems too, Tobin says, though predicting those ripples of consequences will be "extraordinarily complex." An additional generation of insects might boost a population of the predators that feed on them and thus make life tougher for the other species the predators attack. Or an extra annual generation of an endangered insect might give the species an extra push toward recovery.

When creatures manage an extra generation in a year, evolutionary processes happen faster, Altermatt says. Those species that do get an extra, successful generation win a little uptick in their chances of adapting. He's not predicting that the effect will be enough for species to cope with widespread habitat loss or climate change, but, he says, "It's maybe a little hope."

The possibility for climate-triggered extra generations hasn't gotten the research attention paid to other kinds of insecty side effects of global change, Tobin says. Insects expanding their ranges northward or upslope have been the focus of more work, in part because data aren't as scarce.

Especially rare are studies of many species over decades. Altermatt based his analyses on field work plus a review of all the museum records and publications of butterflies and moths collected within roughly 30 kilometers of Basel, Switzerland. In researching a book, Altermatt and three colleagues gleaned 182,664 records dating from 1818 to the present and describing a total of 1,117 species of butterfly. Altermatt mined the data for information about reactions to climate change.

A long-standing weather station in Basel let researchers check local temperatures for different time periods. Trends followed the recent pronounced warming in Central Europe. There, other researchers have said, mean annual temperature has increased some 1.5 degrees during the last three decades.

Altermatt compared insect records before and after that temperature upswing. For species with decent records, he looked for the numbers of butterflies and moths recorded by date. Peak numbers at a particular time gave him the rough date when a new generation was maturing. When he saw multiple peaks in a year, he noted multiple generations.

"I can't say if the generations were successful," he says. One peril of warming is that, when doing a little extra development, insects may not reach a winter-hardy phase.

Image: Common blue butterfly./ Flickr/SouthEastern_Star

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Thursday, 24 December 2009

Johnald's Fantastical Daily Link Splurge

Johnald's Fantastical Daily Link Splurge

Tidal Forces Trigger Tremors on San Andreas Fault

Posted: 24 Dec 2009 03:30 AM PST


The subtle changes in stress caused by tides in Earth's crust can trigger small, deep quakes along a seismically active portion of California's San Andreas fault, a new analysis suggests.

sciencenewsThe same forces of attraction that cause ocean tides also cause tides in Earth's rocks, says Amanda Thomas, a seismologist at the University of California, Berkeley. And although the continual variations in rock stress associated with those tides are minuscule, they apparently are big enough to trigger small tremors along some faults, Thomas and Berkeley colleagues Robert M. Nadeau and Roland Bürgmann report in the Dec. 24/31 Nature.

Evidence for the claim comes from earthquake data collected near Cholame, Calif., a tiny town near the southeastern end of a portion of the San Andreas fault where small, deep tremors are common. The study focused on a 110-kilometer-square area around the town where more than 1,700 minor quakes occurred between July 2001 and May 2008, Thomas says.

When analyzing these quakes, she and her colleagues found that the mini-temblors were much more likely to occur at times when tidal stresses tended to shear the fault in the direction that it normally breaks — that is, when the Pacific tectonic plate is being pulled to the north-northwest relative to the North American tectonic plate, which lies to the east of the fault. In a sense, the added stress on a fault poised to slip acts like the straw that breaks the camel's back.

When tidal stresses act in the other direction and therefore tend to relieve stress on the fault, the frequency of small quakes drops substantially.

The fault's extreme sensitivity to small changes in stress suggests that the deep portions of the fault where these small quakes occur is well lubricated, probably by water that is under exceedingly high pressure, the researchers suggest.

Previous studies bolster the notion that small changes in stress along faults can set off earthquakes. In December 2004, seismic waves spreading from the tsunami-spawning temblor that occurred off the west coast of Indonesia triggered a flurry of small quakes near Alaska's Mount Wrangell, a quarter of the way around the globe (SN: 8/27/05, p. 136).

Image: USGS

See Also:

Saturn’s Moons Are Cuter Than Sugar Plum Fairies

Posted: 24 Dec 2009 02:00 AM PST

We love Cassini more with every amazing image the intrepid spacecraft sends back from its travels, and this latest treat is no exception.

The Cassini imaging team has assembled images of some of Saturn's moons in action into this sequence, bringing another corner of the solar system to life for us. It's still unclear to us whether setting the video to Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker Suite adds to or subtracts from its appeal, but that's what the mute button is for.

Our only complaint is that Enceladus doesn't make an appearance, but we have a separate tribute to our favorite Saturnian moon planned, so stay tuned.


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Female Ducks’ Twisty Tracts Defend Against Screwy Males

Posted: 23 Dec 2009 10:55 AM PST


The first intimate duck videos show that it's mate and checkmate in the battle of the sexes.

sciencenewsHigh-speed cameras document that a male Muscovy duck can fully extend his 20-centimeter penis in a third of second, says evolutionary biologist Patricia Brennan of Yale University (Watch the researcher's video). That may be about all the time he has with a resisting female trying to escape him. Male Muscovy ducks rank among the waterfowl that often fail to take no for an answer.

Also on camera, duck handlers coaxed males to deploy into glass tubes instead of into females. The tubes featured bends and wrong-way spirals that kept the males from extending very far, Brennan and her colleagues report online Dec. 22 in Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

Real female ducks have such shapes, even spirals that squiggle in the direction opposite to male anatomy. And Brennan has proposed that a female duck refusing to relax the tension in all her complicated bits presents a challenge to an unwelcome male. For a mate she approves, though, a female Muscovy can ease the constrictions.

Even within the same species, what serves females well as far as number and frequency of mates may not be the best for males. In the case of Muscovy ducks, the males, like competitors in an arms race, have developed explosive extension, but females may be countering with resistant geometry.

The new videos support this idea of female resistance, Brennan says. The obstructive powers of internal tracts fit with the scenario that corkscrewy genitals in certain waterfowl evolved through sexual conflict, Brennan and her colleagues report.

This evidence for competing genitals could be a first for vertebrates. As far as he knows, says evolutionary biologist Locke Rowe of the University of Toronto, elaborate reproductive organs in waterfowl are the only evidence so far of sexual conflict driving coevolution of traits in vertebrates.

Biologists pay so much attention to reproductive organs not out of personal weirdness, Rowe says, but because "they're some of the most diverse traits known." Myriad forms suggest the organs evolve fast under the pressures of sexual selection. For example, baroque reproductive tracts might benefit female ducks by allowing them to choose only high-quality or high-compatibility sires for their young.

Females obviously have some way of resisting unwanted males, Brennan says. Studies of mallards, for example, show that, despite plenty of trying, unwelcome males end up siring only a few percent of a female's offspring.

Mallards and some other waterfowl are among the few birds that have any insertable sperm-delivery organ at all. Biologists have marveled at the spiraling extravagance of some waterfowl penises. But the female side of the picture didn't emerge until 2007, when Brennan uncovered comparable female elaboration. She also observed that species with more contentious sex lives, such as the mallards, tend to have more elaborate genitals in both sexes. In contrast, male Canada geese don't typically force copulations and have pretty uncomplicated organs.

To see how waterfowl use their organs, Brennan and her colleagues turned to a commercial poultry operation in California, where male Muscovy ducks have been trained to deposit sperm into tubes.

Brennan had used four sets of tubes representing what she thought would be easy or difficult geometries. The first time she tried to film males in action, she found that her camera wasn't fast enough.

With a camera that recorded 250 frames per second, Brennan got a first-of-its-kind view of male anatomy in action. When not in use, the male penis lies inside out. Lymph, not blood, powers the expansion.

Brennan filmed 56 occasions of male duck extension, either just in air or into one of the tubes. Males easily extended full length into both a straight tube or into one that curled in the same direction as the duck did. However, tubes that spiraled in the opposite direction or had a bend of 135 degrees stopped the male short of full length, Brennan says.

Males do ejaculate even without full extension, she discovered. What the bends and twists do then is prevent the sperm from getting very far into the reproductive tract, Brennan says. Thus a male forcing himself on a female would be less likely to sire young.

Image: me'nthedogs/Flickr

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7 Tipping Points That Could Transform Earth

Posted: 23 Dec 2009 09:40 AM PST


When the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issue its last report in 2007, environmental tipping points were a footnote. A troubling footnote, to be sure, but the science was relatively new and unsettled. Straightforward global warming was enough to worry about.

But when the IPCC meets in 2014, tipping points — or tipping elements, in academic vernacular — will get much more attention. Scientists still disagree about which planetary systems are extra-sensitive to climate shifts, but the possibility can't be ignored.

"The problem with tipping elements is that if any of them tips, it will be a real catastrophe. None of them are small," said Anders Levermann, a climate physicist at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany.

Levermann's article on potential disruptions of South Asia's monsoon cycles was featured in a series of tipping element research reviews, published December 8 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Also discussed were ocean circulation, polar icecaps, Amazon rainforests, seafloor methane deposits and a west African dustbowl. Each is stressed by rising planetary temperatures. Some are less likely than others to tip; some might not be able to tip at all. Ambiguities, probabilities a limited grasp of Earth's complex systems are inherent to the science. But if any tip, it will be an epic disaster.

Wired Sciencetakes you on a tour.

Image: Earth's Eastern and Western Hemispheres/NASA.



Polar Sea Ice

Dwindling Arctic sea ice and crumbling Antarctic ice sheets are now a common sight. Whether they signal an impending tip, with rapid melts causing Earth's seas to inundate heavily-populated coastal plains, is debated.

The process appears to accelerate itself: Warming ice melts, which exposes darker areas, causing local temperatures to rise further. But in the Arctic, another feedback may stabilize the ice, wrote Max Planck Institute meteorologist Dirk Notz in PNAS. Though most of the ice "will disappear during summer," much of it will re-freeze in the winter. Arctic sea ice loss "is likely to be reversible if the climate were to become cooler again."

But Notz is less optimistic about Antarctic sea ice, its undersides heated by eddying Southern Ocean currents. And the West Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets have shrunk suddenly at least twice in the last several million years, a behavior that's backed up by climate models. It's "well possible that a tipping point exists for a possible collapse" for those sheets, wrote Notz. It could "render the loss of ice sheets and the accompanying sea-level rise unstoppable beyond a certain amount of warming."

Image: NASA.



Amazon Rainforest

As one of Earth's great carbon sinks, the replacement of Amazon jungles with savannah or forest would drastically accelerate global warming.

On their own, rising temperatures and changing weather patterns would not trigger jungle dieback, wrote researchers led by Oxford University ecosystem scientist Yadvinder Malhi in PNAS. But deforestation combined with intensified dry seasons leaves forests vulnerable to fire, producing more weather-altering deforestation.

"The dieback of the forests of East Amazonia in the 21st century is far from inevitable but remains a distinct possiblity," they wrote.

Image: NASA.



Bodélé Depression, Chad

Winds whipping across the Bodélé, a 10,000 square mile Saharan plain covered by ancient lakebed sediments, carry 700,000 tons of dust into the atmosphere annually. It floats around the world, blocking sunlight and lowering temperatures in some regions, and causing rain and warming in others. Saharan dust influences Atlantic ecosystems, Caribbean coral reefs and the Amazon. Its full effects are unknown.

Small atmospheric changes "could profoundly alter the behavior of this feature," wrote Richard Washington, a specialist in African weather African weather specialist at Oxford University, and colleagues in PNAS.

At one point in the last 10,000 years, dust ceased to flow altogether from the Bodélé. That doesn't seem to be our problem. "Although subject to a great deal of uncertainty, some simulations of the 21st century indicate the potential for a substantial increase in dust production," wrote the researchers.

Image: NASA.