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Tuesday, October 31, 2006

U-M to lead another NASA comet mission

NASA announced today that it has accepted the University of Maryland proposal to send the Deep Impact spacecraft on an extended mission to get a close-up look at Comet Boethin.

The University of Maryland-led team that produced the spectacular Deep Impact mission, which smashed an impactor into Comet Tempel 1 in July, 2005, hopes new information gathered from Comet Boethin will help coalesce the vast array of new cometary information into solid ideas about the nature of comets, how they formed and evolved and if they have played a role in the emergence of life on Earth.

“As we try to interpret the larger meaning for all comets of our results from Deep Impact at Tempel 1, we have realized more and more how important is the variation from comet to comet,” said Deep Impact leader and University of Maryland astronomer Michael A'Hearn.

“Deep Impact's flyby spacecraft and payload are still healthy. We propose to direct the spacecraft for a flyby of Comet Boethin in December, 2008, to investigate whether the results found at Comet Tempel 1 are unique or are also found on other comets,” said A’Hearn.

"This mission is a very cost effective way to provide new results that can be directly compared to the landmark Deep Impact findings as well as with the results of Deep Space 1 and Stardust and the earlier results from the numerous missions to Comet Halley.”

Mission DIXI::

The proposed new mission is called DIXI., which stands for Deep Impact eXtended Investigation. DIXI will use the surviving Deep Impact spacecraft and its three working instruments (two color cameras and an IR spectrometer).

Comet Boethin is now inbound to the sun from its most distant point that is nearly out to the orbit of Saturn, A’Hearn says. “At encounter, Comet Boethin will be just outside Earth’s orbit, closer to the sun than was Tempel 1 (at the orbit of Mars) but about the same distance from Earth.”

Like Deep Impact, DIXI will be a partnership between the University of Maryland, NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), and Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corporation.

"One of the great surprises of comet explorations has been the wide diversity among the different cometary surfaces imaged to date," said A'Hearn, who will be principal investigator for DIXI. “Even on Tempel 1, the comet we've imaged the best, there is shocking variability in its surface. The comet's different surface types clearly have undergone different histories.

A'Hearn says the data obtained from DIXI will also will help scientists determine which characteristics of comet structure and composition are primordial, reflecting conditions and processes that existed 4.5 billion years ago when the solar system formed, and which are the result of evolutionary forces (heating and cooling, impacts, etc.) that have acted on comets since that time.

"Data from comets can help us to better understand the origin of the solar system, as well as what role, if any, comets may have played in the emergence of life on Earth," said Jessica Sunshine, a member of the Deep Impact science team, who will be deputy principal investigator on DIXI. "However, we first must know which cometary characteristics are due to evolution and which are primordial."

Deep Impact Surprises::

Deep Impact was the first large scale experiment ever conducted on a comet. The Deep Impact flyby spacecraft made many surprising discoveries on approach to Comet Tempel 1. These include an extremely fluffy composition that largely insulates the interior from heat experienced by the surface; frequent, natural outbursts; major differences in the distribution of carbon dioxide and water; craters and other surprising geological features; demonstration that the ice below the surface must be evaporating (subliming) to water vapor, and the first detection of ice (a very small amount) on a cometary nucleus.

"Since half the discoveries at Tempel 1 were from the flyby data taken before impact, DIXI can return half the science of Deep Impact for much less than 10 percent of the cost of Deep Impact," A’Hearn said. “From the point of view of cost effective science, an extended mission such as DIXI is unbeatable."

Greener News Room


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3:07 PM

Vampire Weed, not the killer plant from "Little Shop of Horrors

It's not the killer plant from "Little Shop of Horrors," it's real, and it doesn't wait around to be fed. Researchers have discovered that a predatory weed has a creepy trick -- it hunts down victims by their smell. This ScienCentral News video has more.

A Tricky Parasite

The dodder weed may look stringy and small, but don't let that trick you. It's also known as "strangleweed" for the way it wraps around other plants. "Dodder is a parasitic plant. Many people have seen them because they look like a spaghetti mess, and you see them in yards and field and crop systems," Penn State chemical ecologist Consuelo De Moraes says. For the California tomato crop alone, dodder causes more than $4 million of damage a year according to researchers at the University of California, Davis.

De Moraes has been working with the weed, which attaches to its host plant "like a leech that will attach to the plant and then suck the nutrients out. But as a parasitic plant, you don't want to kill your host plant ... what you want to do is maintain that plant alive," she says. If that sounds more like a "vampire weed," consider that it's also practically immortal.

"Dodder is a very difficult pest to control," De Moraes says. "The reason for that is that it attaches to the host plant, and it makes it very hard to kill the weed plant without killing the host."

"There are really no reliable ways to control this weed, short of using a flamethrower," fellow researcher Justin Runyon says. Dodder can reduce agricultural productivity and can render a seed crop unmarketable since it's hard to separate it from its host plant.

Working with Mark Mescher, Runyon and De Moraes studied how the weed finds its prey. As they published in the journal Science, they found that dodder seedlings of the Cuscuta pentagona species can target a tomato plant and grow towards it 80 percent of the time. Previously, researchers thought that the weed grew randomly until it found another plant. De Moraes' lab suspects that the weed is using chemical signals to pinpoint its meal.

In another experiment, the Penn State researchers found that the dodder weed can make choices. "If you give wheat to [dodder] but not anything else, they will grow towards wheat, because it's better to have something than nothing," De Moraes says. "If they have an option between tomato and wheat, they will grow towards the tomato."

"Here we have a plant that's moving, it's acting, it's searching for a prey, you could say, much the same way as we think animals do," Runyon says.

But to confirm whether the weed was using chemical signals or other types of clues, the researchers placed the weed in a controlled environment. Physically separating the weed from the other plants, the researchers placed the dodder seedling in the middle of two plastic pipes, each leading to a plastic box containing a plant. Without being able to respond to colors or other visual signals to figure out where to go, the seedling was still able to grow towards the scent of the delectable meal. One experiment had a real tomato plant in one box, and a tomato plant made out of felt fabric in the other.

The researchers also isolated tomato plant odors to test if the dodder weed would grow towards them. "Plants produce and emit these small chemicals that are picked up and carried in the air, and these are called volatiles. If you've ever been around someone mowing the lawn, that fresh cut lawn smell, those are volatiles," Runyon says. We even use volatiles for chemical signals of our own -- as ingredients for commercial perfumes.

When the researchers isolated tomato plant volatiles and smeared them on the piece of rubber, dodder tried to attack that. Seventy-three percent of the seedlings headed toward the piece of rubber with tomato chemicals compared to a plain piece of rubber. While the dodder weed doesn't have a nose, De Moraes theorizes that the weed has special receptors that can detect those chemicals. "They don't have any leaves," she says, "we believe that they have receptors that perceive the smell of those airborne chemicals and then they are growing towards the host plant."

But dodder's sniffing skills can be turned against it. The researchers isolated a chemical in wheat that repels dodder. This could lead to new ways of fighting the weed. "So some of the findings from this study can generate some new ideas how to deal with these pest species," De Moraes says.

De Moraes says we shouldn't underestimate the complexity of plants. "We have this sense that plants are static," she says, "that they're not doing anything. But really ... watching those plants you get this incredible sense of animal-like behavior, and you have to appreciate how sophisticated some of those interactions are."

Runyon, Mescher, and De Moraes published their findings in the September 29, 2006 issue of Science. Their study was funded by the David and Lucille Packard Foundation and the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation.

by Victor Limjoco
Greener News Room
ScienCentral News

keywords:: Vampire Plant Parasite Predatory Weed Chemical Nutrient Strangleweed

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11:04 AM

Monday, October 30, 2006

Bats, more than just another pretty face

Dr. Tigga Kingston of Texas Tech University is conducting one of the most intensive studies of bat assemblages in the world, deep in Malaysia’s ancient rainforest. Earthwatch volunteers assisting Kingston gain new perspectives on the environment and the crucial role of these flying mammals in tropical ecology.

Most people view bats as disagreeable things that go bump in the night, but there is much more to these small, winged mammals. Earthwatch volunteers from around the world are traveling to Malaysia to explore the world of bats in the rich, lowland rainforest of Krau Wildlife Reserve.

“This 30-million-year-old rainforest is a bat paradise,” said Dr. Tigga Kingston, assistant professor of biology at Texas Tech University and principal investigator of Earthwatch’s Malaysian Bat Conservation project. “It is home to the greatest diversity of insect-eating bats in the world, with at least 60 species. When the fruit-eating bats are included, the species list tops 71 bats.”

For four years, Earthwatch teams have been helping Kingston monitor bats in Krau Wildlife Reserve, using “harp” traps to capture the flying mammals and banding them for further study. Not only do volunteers gain a rare chance to explore parts of this ancient rainforest that are off-limits to tourists, they find a unique perspective on how important bats are.

“For me and the other volunteers on my expedition, this was an amazing opportunity to work with these animals up close,” said volunteer Ed Barker. “Bats are incredibly delicate, voracious insect eaters, with a highly sophisticated ability to move through the jungle. Helping to understand what role they play in forest ecosystems was really rewarding.”

Kingston recently summarized her four years of trapping at the 36th Annual North American Symposium on Bat Research, in Wilmington, NC, October 18-21. She reported nearly 16,000 bat captures at five sites, probably one the most intensive studies of bat “assemblages” in the world, including 38 species in six families.

Bat assemblages generally include all the bats in a given area. Kingston reported that bat assemblages in Krau Wildlife Reserve vary drastically from one site to another, and from one time to another. This finding poses new challenges for scientists studying the evolution of bats, as well as those trying to conserve bat populations in the face of deforestation and other threats.

Not only are bats a key component of Malaysian biodiversity, they also provide valuable pollination and seed dispersal services and do a booming business in insect removal. Kingston’s continued efforts will help local resource managers better manage this ancient rainforest, and the diversity of animals it supports.

“Earthwatch volunteers have been vital to the success of the project on so many levels,” said Kingston. “Not only does their labor make a major contribution to the somewhat arduous art of bat-catching, but their enthusiasm, curiosity, and appreciation buoys up the whole research team.”

Earthwatch teams will return to Malaysia to help Dr. Kingston in March, April, and July 2007. For more information about Earthwatch’s Malaysian Bat Conservation project, go to http://www.earthwatch.org/expeditions/kingston.html

Earthwatch Institute is a global volunteer organization that supports scientific field research by offering members of the public unique opportunities to work alongside leading field scientists and researchers. Earthwatch’s mission is to engage people worldwide in scientific field research and education to promote the understanding and action necessary for a sustainable environment. The year 2006 marks Earthwatch’s 35th anniversary. http://www.earthwatch.org

Be sure to watch A Year on Earth, a two-part special to debut on Discovery Kids Channel on December 3 and 10 and on Discovery HD on December 17. A Year on Earth chronicles the adventures of three American teens who join Dr. Tigga Kingston in Malaysia and several other Earthwatch research projects around the world. Together, they discover how ordinary people can make a difference in the most pressing environmental issues of our time.

Greener News Room


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2:13 PM

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Last stand for choice in Mississippi

In Jackson, Mississippi, a red state in the heart of the bible belt, the battle over abortion was kicked into high gear when an eight day anti-abortion demonstration ensued in the state's capital this past summer. On one side: activists fighting to save the last abortion clinic in the state. On the other: Operation Save America trying to shut it down.

On this edition, with mid-term elections upon us, Making Contact's Sarah Olson takes a closer look at the Mississippi women fighting for reproductive justice as they try to save the one remaining abortion clinic in the state. Pictured left to right: Michelle Colón, President of Jackson NOW, with NOW activists Felicia Brown and Tyffine Jones at the Mississippi Statehouse.


Pastor Flip Benham, director, Operation Save America; Adam Tenant, Operation Save America; McCoy Faulkner, women's organizations and abortion clinics security officer and retired cop; Betty Thompson, counselor and administrator, Jackson Women's Health Organization; Michelle Colón, president, National Organization for Women Jackson Area; Shannon Reace, Mississippi Reproductive Freedom Coalition HIV/AIDS advocate; Norma McCorvey, lead plaintiff in Roe v. Wade, but now anti-abortion activist; Kim Ghandy, president, National Organization for Women (NOW); Jenni Smith, Unity Mississippi; Shauna Davie, Jackson State University student.

Senior Producer/Host: Tena Rubio.
Freelance Producer: Sarah Olson.

For more information::

Jackson Women's Health Organization
2903 North State Street
Jackson, MS 39216

National Women's Health Organization
3613 Haworth Drive
Raleigh, NC 27609

National Organization for Women (NOW)
1100 H Street NW, 3rd floor
Washington, D.C. 20005
202-628-8669 (628-8NOW)

Feminist Majority Foundation
1600 Wilson Boulevard, Suite 801
Arlington, VA 22209

National Abortion Federation
1755 Massachusetts Avenue, NW, Suite 600
Washington, DC 20036
202-667-5881; naf@prochoice.org

Guttmacher Institute
120 Wall Street, 21st Floor
New York, NY 10005

ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project

Mississippi Reproductive Freedom Project
ACLU of Jackson, Mississippi
601-355-6464; missrfp@yahoo.com

Unity Mississippi
P.O. Box 4212
Jackson, MS 39296

Greener Magazine and NRP

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8:22 AM

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Why the squeeze on fruit juice?

A glass of fruit juice has long been thought of as a healthy daily habit. Recently, people have been confused about how much juice to drink, partly because of the natural sweet taste of fruit juice. Parents should be confident serving their children appropriate amounts of 100 percent fruit juice.

Drinking a glass of 100 percent fruit juice has long been thought of as a healthy daily habit for both adults and children—right up there with brushing your teeth and eating your vegetables. Recently, however, people have been confused about juice—how much to drink, how much to serve their children—partly because of the natural sweet taste of fruit juice. According to Theresa Nicklas, professor of pediatrics with Baylor College of Medicine, who has conducted research on juice consumption among children, parents should be confident serving their children appropriate amounts of 100 percent fruit juice.

Appropriate amounts would be in the range of 4-6 ounces of 100 percent juice daily for children 1-6 years old, and from 8-12 ounces daily for older children from ages 7-18. While an American Academy of Pediatrics policy statement on juice recommends limiting the amount of juice that children consume to these amounts, it also acknowledges that a serving of 100 percent fruit juice can play a role in the daily diets of children.

Here are a few other fruitful points about juice, from the Juice Products Association:

Aren’t whole fruits a better source of nutrients than juice?
Not necessarily. The U.S. Dietary Guidelines recommend that a majority of consumers’ daily fruit servings come from whole fruit, but adults and children are notorious under-consumers of fruit. A serving of fruit juice is a convenient way to help meet the recommended servings of fruit. Fruit juices also provide substantial contributions of several nutrients in higher amounts in the diet than do whole fruits, including vitamin C, folate and potassium. In addition, 100 percent fruit juice contains many naturally occurring phytonutrients that contribute to good health.

Doesn’t juice have a lot of sugar and calories?
No. Juice has a similar sugar profile to fruit. The way nutritionists look at foods and beverages is in terms of “nutrient density” – or the amount of vitamins and nutrients the food provides for its calories. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans acknowledge the role 100 percent fruit juice can play in the diet. The new USDA food pyramid includes guidelines for incorporating 100 percent juice as a fruit serving.

Doesn’t juice make children fat?
No. The majority of research conducted on 100 percent fruit juice consumption in children does not show a connection to weight. As a child nutrition researcher, Dr. Nicklas states that there are many factors associated with childhood obesity that are very poorly understood and more research is needed regarding diet and also lifestyle and activity levels.

Dr. Nicklas’ latest study, published in the October issue of Pediatrics, evaluated data collected over time on a national sample of preschool children. Her research determined that consumption of 100 percent juice was not associated with body mass index (an indicator of overweight) among preschoolers. The analysis done by Nicklas and her colleagues was based on the largest, ongoing government database on food consumption (NHANES - National Health and Nutritional Examination Survey).

The latest information about 100 percent fruit juice and how it fits into a healthy diet for children is available at http://www.fruitjuicefacts.org.

Greener News Room


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1:49 PM

Thursday, October 26, 2006

This Halloween, think green

Consumers are expected to spend $3.12 billion on candy, costumes and other Halloween goodies this year, according to a survey conducted by BIGresearch for the National Retail Federation. That's a big pile of candy corn. It's also a lot of crumpled candy wrappers, paper party props and plastic political masks in the trash the very next day. So this Halloween, why not think green?

Putting together a green Halloween is as easy as an orange and black one. Here are a few tips to get you started:

1. E-mail party invites rather than snail-mail them. Free e-mail greetings abound online. "Talking" and/or "dancing" ghosts, ghouls, mummies and more are there for the taking at cyber card shops postcards.org/postcards, greetingsdepot.com and e-cards.com. The best pumpkin card patch this year has to be castlemountains.com, which features 96 animated cards, some with short plots or story lines. Witches on brooms warn revelers not to drink and drive. Party invites come with electronic pumpkin piñata games.

For retro-themed parties, consider vintage postcards at Penny Postcards or Antique Halloween postcards. There's no flash but the illustrations are spectacular.

2. Serve healthy and seasonal foods. The options are endless. Remember pumpkins are not just decorative items. The tender meat of the seasonal gourd can be pureed for soups, mashed for pies or spiced up for a main entrée, such as an Indian curry. Healthy recipes for all things pumpkin are posted at Vegweb, from vegetarian pumpkin chili to "Stroke of Midnight" pumpkin bread. Recipes for the sweet squash are also plentiful at epicurious.com/recipes. Serious home chefs might consider whipping up some pumpkin pesto or pumpkin flan with pumpkin seed praline.

Apples also are at their best this time of year. So make use of the crunchy fruit. Fill party bowls with several varieties of fresh apples, from tart Pippins to sweet Spartans. Serve cider hot or cold. Bake a few apples for healthy, tasty dessert.

3. Buy pumpkins, apples and other seasonal items from a farmer's market. Produce bought at farmers' market will not only taste better but saves energy. "Most foods in the United States travel an average of 1,300 miles before reaching us, burning large amounts of fossil fuels," according to the Web site for the National Town Meeting for a Sustainable America held in Detroit in 1999. Buying produce directly from the farmer also cuts out the "middleman" and increases the farmers cut or share of the profits. (To learn more, see "Ten things you can do to support a sustainable food system")

Consumers in the Northeast can seek out apples with the seal of approval from Core Values Northeast (CVN), a partnership between apple farmers in the Northeast and Mothers & Others for a Livable Planet, a non-profit consumer advocacy group, which promotes "apples of superior taste and quality while maintaining healthy, ecologically balanced growing environments." The Web site lists stores in New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont, Maine, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania and New Jersey, which carry apples with the CVN eco-label.

4. Make use of all pumpkin parts. After carving a pumpkin, make sure to save the seeds. Bake them and serve them to party guests or feed them to our fine feathered friends, the birds. There's no problem putting pumpkin seeds out for birds, wet or dry, confirms Dr. Ellen Dierenfeld, a nutritionist at the Saint Louis Zoo, which accepts pumpkin donations after Halloween to feed to the animals as a seasonal treat.

If possible, bury or compost the carcass. Check out pumpkin the burial rituals at pumpkin craving 101, to "lay your pumpkin to rest with love and dignity."

5. Use re-usable plates, cups, utensils, napkins and tablecloths. Paper party goods can be expensive and just add more clutter to our nation's landfills. Look for re-usable party props at house ware shops and dollar stores. The best deal I found online was a 12-piece set of plastic orange utensils at crateandbarrel.com for 75 cents, reduced from $2.95.

Pottery Barn Kids also has a delightful collection of Halloween-themed dinnerware and linens, now on sale. The festive tablecloths, which feature smiling pumpkins along its edge, come in two sizes. The small tablecloth sells for $23.99, reduced from $35. The large cloth costs $30.99, marked down $45. A set of four matching napkins and placemats are available for $9.99 and $19.99 respectively. The dinnerware set — now $26.99, reduced from $39 — contains four melamine plates, four bowls and four acrylic tumblers.

6. Make your own costume or buy one at a second-hand shop. An old sheet still makes a great ghost. Just make sure that the sheet cost less than a commercial ghost costume. Many boomers also have some hippie clothes stashed somewhere. Find them and let your teenager be a part of the Woodstock generation without living through all that rain and mud!

Can't find anything suitable in the house? Use Goodwill's online store locator to find a thrift store near you or shop at the online auction. This year, Goodwill not only organized merchandise into a special Halloween section but also offers up some creative costumes ideas made from second-hand garb.

7. Give out healthy treats. Finding nutritional treats has to be one of Halloween's challenges. But with some serious thought, it can be done. Some ideas that come to mind include:

Hand out individual microwave popcorn packs. Newman's Own Organic has three varieties of organic popcorn — butter, light butter and no butter/no salt.

Pick up some honey sticks or fruit leather at health food stores or tea shops. Stash tea sells honey sticks in bulk at its Web site. Each $7 pack contains 35 sticks. Fruit leather is available in bulk at Stretch Island Fruit Leather.

There's also plenty of healthy candy bars on the market these days. Sundrops, a fun treat made by nspiredfoods.com/sunspire.html, is billed as "a natural alternative to M&Ms." The candy-coated chocolate drops are pricey at about 89 cents a bag but they look like and almost taste like the real thing without having the artificial colors, flavors or preservatives.

8. Instead of using paper or plastic disposable bags to collect treats, use or buy a recyclable bag. Be creative. Make use of old straw baskets or an old metal pot with a handle. Exceptionally cute "commercial" totes are available this year at cyber party shop plumparty.com. The felt totes, priced from $6 to $12, also can be used as party bowls.

9. Teach your children well. Teach them not to litter. Tell them pumpkin jokes. My favorites culled from the Web include: What's the ratio of a pumpkin's circumference to its diameter? Pumpkin Pi How do you mend a broken Jack-O-Lantern? With a pumpkin patch What is a pumpkin's favorite sport? Squash.

10. Experience nature. Visit a pumpkin farm. Pick fresh apples. Talk a long walk outside. Look up at the sky. Notice the moon. Remember, it's Halloween.

Teri Goldberg

Keywords:: Halloween green sustainable free safe

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10:33 AM

Monday, October 23, 2006

Plutonium or greenhouse gases? Weighing the energy options

Can nuclear energy save us from global warming? Perhaps, but the tradeoffs involved are sobering: thousands of metric tons of nuclear waste generated each year and a greatly increased risk of nuclear weapons proliferation or diversion of nuclear material into terrorists' hands.

So concludes University of Michigan professor Rodney Ewing, who has analyzed just how much nuclear power would need to be produced to significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions worldwide, and the implications of the associated increase in nuclear power plants. Ewing will present his findings Oct. 23 as the Michel T. Halbouty Distinguished Lecturer at the annual meeting of the Geological Society of America in Philadelphia.

"Usually when people talk about nuclear power as a solution for global warming, the issues of nuclear waste and weapons proliferation are footnotes in the discussion," said Ewing, who is the Donald R. Peacor Collegiate Professor and Chair in the U-M Department of Geological Sciences and also has faculty appointments in the departments of Nuclear Engineering & Radiological Sciences and Materials Science & Engineering. "I think we have to find a way to consider the complete picture when choosing among energy sources."

In an effort to capture that complete picture, Ewing compared carbon-based fossil fuels with nuclear power, considering not only the technologies involved but also the environmental impacts. Similar comparisons have been made between different energy-producing systems, "but in the case of nuclear power, such an analysis is difficult because there are different types of nuclear reactors and there is not a single nuclear fuel cycle, but rather many variants, with different strategies for reprocessing and disposing of nuclear wastes," Ewing said.

His presentation, which considers various fuel cycles, shows that nuclear power generation would need to increase by a factor of three to ten over current levels to have a significant impact on greenhouse gas emissions. "We currently have 400-plus nuclear reactors operating worldwide, and we would need something like 3,500 nuclear power plants," Ewing said.

Developing the necessary nuclear technologies and building the additional power plants is an enormous undertaking that probably would take longer than the 50 years that experts say we have in which to come up with solutions to global warming, Ewing said.

Even if they could be built and brought online quickly, that many power plants would generate tens of thousands of metric tons of additional nuclear waste annually. "The amount that would be created each year would be equal to the present capacity anticipated at the repository at Yucca Mountain," Ewing said, referring to the proposed disposal site in Nevada that has been under study for more than two decades. Ewing recently co-edited a book, "Uncertainty Underground," that reviews uncertainties in the analysis of the long-term performance of the Yucca Mountain repository.

Plutonium created as a byproduct of nuclear power generation also is a concern because of its potential for use in nuclear weapons.

"Not everyone thinks this way, but I consider the explosion of a nuclear weapon to be a pretty large environmental impact with global implications," Ewing said. "A typical nuclear weapon will kill many, many hundreds of thousands of people, and the global impact would be comparable to something like Chernobyl in the spread of fallout."

So the real question, said Ewing, is: "Plutonium versus carbon---which would you rather have as your problem? I don't have the answer, but the points I'm raising are ones I think people need to be considering."

For more information:

Rodney Ewing: http://www.ns.umich.edu/htdocs/public/experts/ExpDisplay.php?beginswith=Ewing&SubmitButton=Search

Geological Society of America: http://www.geosociety.org/

Michel T. Halbouty Distinguished Lecturer: http://www.geosociety.org/aboutus/awards/halbouty.htm

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11:00 AM

Friday, October 20, 2006

Asia's odd-ball antelope get collared

A group of scientists led by the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) working in Mongolia’s windswept Gobi Desert recently fitted high-tech GPS (Global Positioning System) collars on eight saiga antelope in an effort to help protect one of Asia’s most bizarre-looking – and endangered – large mammals.

Standing just under two feet at the shoulder and weighing about 50 pounds, the most striking feature of the saiga is its large nose, or proboscis, similar to a tapir. The function of this unusual nose is not clear, but it may serve to warm or filter air during Mongolia’s frigid winters and notorious dust storms.

Today saiga numbers have plummeted by 95 percent from an estimated one million animals just 15 years ago, due to poaching for Chinese medicines and competition with livestock. In an effort to safeguard remaining populations, WCS, along with the Mongolian Academy of Sciences and support from the National Geographic Society, have embarked on this study to better understand the needs of these unusual ungulates and how best to protect them.

“The GPS collars will provide information on movements of saigas across this dazzling but arid landscape so that a more comprehensive conservation strategy can be developed to assure the persistence of this little known species” said WCS research scientist Kim Berger, a co-director of the study.

Saigas still occur in pockets of Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kalmykia, Kazakhstan, and Mongolia, but the genetically unique subspecies found only in Mongolia numbers perhaps less than 2,000. Ten thousand years ago saigas roamed from the northern Yukon and Alaska to England, but the species was lost from North America and Britain as climate and vegetation shifted. With the collapse of the Soviet Empire, unregulated hunting resulted in the recent startling decrease in saiga numbers.

“Although Mongolia faces stiff conservation challenges as it transitions to a free-market economy, the saiga can easily emerge as a success story with a little scientific input and support for local communities” offers Joel Berger, project co-director and Senior Scientist with the Wildlife Conservation Society.

“We must take immediate actions to protect habitat and stop and poaching for saiga horns, while improving the conditions and resources of park rangers who are spending their valuable time to protect this unique species,” said Lhagva Lkhagvasuren of the Mongolian Academy of Sciences “Otherwise, we will have only an empty steppe and deserts with no any saiga. Future generations will never forgive us for our carelessness.”

Greener News Room

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9:50 PM

Thursday, October 12, 2006

GREENER NEWS BRIEFS :: October 12, 2006


Farmers in Africa are at last reclaiming the desert, and turning the barren wasteland of the Sahel region, on the edge of the Sahara, into productive farmland. Tree planting has led to the re-greening of as much as 3 million hectares of land in Niger, enabling some 250,000 hectares to be farmed again. Where 20 years ago there was barely a tree, there are now between 50 and 100 per hectare.


Solar sailing is about to hit big time. The concept of harnessing the ocean’s abundant wind and sun to power any modern boat began ten years ago. The first solar sailing ferry with moveable solar wings has been operating in Sydney for six years now, and its designer has just won a contract to build another in San Francisco.


Darwin’s iconic islands, the Galapagos, are under threat from two sides. The unique biodiversity of the Galapagos is already under attack from rats, goats and other alien species. Now hoards of tourists descending on the islands, including the imminent arrival of cruise ships, could further disturb the environment. The chances are they’ll bring more invasive species, together with the passengers’ sewage waste and diseases.


It just got more complicated for expectant mothers weighing up the benefits and risks of eating fish. Although fish contains omega-3 fatty acids which can beneficial to babies, it can also contain mercury, which causes neurological damage to the fetus. Now a study of pregnant women in Michigan has found that mercury could pose yet another risk: premature birth.


Venezuela’s president, Hugo Chávez, has secured backing from South America’s other main leaders to construct the world’s biggest oil pipeline, 10,000 kilometres long. Chávez says the pipeline will solve South America’s growing energy crisis. Environmentalists on the other hand are worried about the huge volume of forest that would need to be cleared, as well as the devastating impact that an oil spill might have.


Cosmic rays, the high-energy subatomic particles that tear through space at near light speed, may not be so powerful after all. A new analysis of results from a cosmic ray detector in Utah, detected a sharp cut-off in the energy spectrum of cosmic rays. This is in stark contrast to a Japanese experiment that previously reported particles with bafflingly higher energies.


A computer program could help spot forged paintings. The program analyses artwork to spot an artist’s unique use of colour and brushwork, and has already been trained on Van Gogh’s paintings. Researchers in the Netherlands say their system can also help date paintings by a particular artist.


If tomorrow dawns without humans and Nature is left once again to reclaim the planet, the sad fact is that the outlook starts to get a whole lot better. The air would become clear of pollutants, roads and buildings would crumble, fields would return to forest and prairie land, and threatened biodiversity would recover. All things considered, 100,000 years from now almost every trace of our present domination will have vanished – save for a few peculiar fossils and souvenirs.


Researchers in Japan are experimenting with their latest and strangest humanoid robot - and this is the first of its kind that can actually pass for human in appearance. Researchers hope that if their androids are convincingly human-like they could serve as “controls” to study human behaviour.


You don’t have to be at death’s door to have a near-death experience (NDE), as many as 40 per cent of us could be primed to see the light. Some scientists say falling levels of oxygen in the brain could trigger vivid illusions, but explanations are impossible to test. According to a neurophysiologist in Lexington, US, the experience is little more than a dream-like state brought on by stress and a common sleep disorder.


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10:38 AM

Friday, October 06, 2006

University team to build a self-driving Car for city streets

A team of Cornell University students and faculty will receive up to $1 million in Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) funding to develop a vehicle capable of driving itself on city streets. The vehicle will compete in the DARPA Urban Challenge in November 2007.

Last year, the goal was to build a vehicle that could drive itself, without human intervention, across 132 miles of desert with unpaved roads, ditches, berms, sandy ground, standing water, rocks and boulders, narrow underpasses, construction equipment, concrete safety rails, power line towers, barbed wire fences and cattle guards.

Compared with this year, that was a piece of cake.

The new DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) Urban Challenge, leading up to a competition in November 2007, is to build a car that can drive itself on city streets, obeying traffic laws, stopping at stop signs, navigating traffic circles and dealing with other vehicles.

DARPA will give a team of Cornell students and faculty up to $1 million to try. Based on an initial proposal from the team, DARPA has selected Cornell as one of 11 "Track A" participants (out of more than 60 applicants) that will receive advance funding to develop their vehicles. Other teams are expected to compete in the final event -- a competition that will require autonomous ground vehicles to execute simulated military supply missions safely and effectively while in a mock city environment. DARPA is the research and development agency for the U.S. Department of Defense. Its long-range goal in sponsoring the challenges is to develop robotic vehicles that can carry out dangerous missions without endangering humans.

"Technologically it's a leap above the other [challenge]," said Ephrahim Garcia, associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering (M&AE) and one of four faculty members advising the team. "If you look at the literature on robotic vehicles, it mostly stops at static obstacle avoidance. The specification for this is the California Driving Manual. Think of every detail you do when you drive, and imagine how you would program that."

The team has settled on a Chevrolet Tahoe SUV as the basic vehicle, but "the key really is the smarts on board," said Mark Campbell, associate professor of M&AE and another faculty adviser. A big part of the challenge, he says, is collecting an immense amount of information from video cameras, radar, lidar (light detection and ranging) and GPS (global positioning satellite) signals, and processing that information quickly into a perceptive model of the environment around the vehicle.

"You have a large object coming into view. How do you tell it's a car or a bus and not a rock?" Campbell said. "How big is it, how fast is it moving, what could it possibly do when you get close? You build a probabilistic model and then you can plan your actions." A probabilistic model, he explained, will not only show what's happening but also make predictions about what will happen next. That information then passes to an artificial intelligence system that will send commands to the vehicle's controls.

The DARPA funding will make a big difference, Garcia said, noting that last year's team had to build everything from scratch. "It was an amazing feat that these kids in a matter of weeks were able to automate a vehicle," he said. The money, he explained, will allow the team to contract out the physical construction of such things as the vehicle steering and brake controls, allowing the students to concentrate on sensor fusion and programming the vehicle's intelligence.

The Cornell team of 15 students includes six members of the team that suffered a frustrating defeat in the last DARPA challenge. Although their car had performed exceptionally well in qualifying events, a software weakness combined with an unforeseen action by one of the competition umpires knocked it out of the final competition after only nine miles.

But "Last year we had technically one of the best vehicles there," said Brian Schimpf '06, one of the leaders of the new team, who delayed his graduation in order to participate in this year's competition. "I think they realized that, and our proposal showed that we had done the research, that we knew what we were talking about."

"It's not often that students get a chance for redemption," Garcia said.

Dan Huttenolocher, the John P. and Rilla Neafsey Professor of Computing, Information Science and Business, is a third faculty adviser, and the team receives additional support from Bart Selman, professor of computer science, and from Mark Psiaki, professor, and Hod Lipson, assistant professor, of M&AE.

Greener Newsroom ::


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