Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Amazon flow reversed by continental tilt

Amazon River Once Flowed Other Way
National Geographic News: The entire Amazon Basin, the world's largest river drainage system, once flowed in the opposite direction... Geologists in the United States and Brazil say the discovery that the river previously flowed east-to-west was accidental. The team was studying how swiftly sediment travels in the Amazon Basin from its headwaters in the Andes Mountains of Peru to the Atlantic Ocean...

'All the current indicators in the ancient sediments' -- including ripple marks and telltale mineral traces -- 'showed that the current, the river flow, was from the east to the west,' said study author Drew Coleman, a geologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill...

The Amazon was flowing west-to-east, as it does now, when the shift occurred. That reversal is 'almost certainly tied' to the breakup of the South American and African continents, which began about 130 million years ago, Coleman said. 'When that happened, the east coast [of South America] was uplifted -- and the whole river flowed the other way.'..

When the Andes Mountains started growing at about the end of the Cretaceous period (around 65 million years ago), the geologic tide began to shift again in favor of the Amazon's current west-to-east course... 'It flip-flopped pretty quickly,' he said, adding that the study reveals these shifts can occur on a 'continental scale.'... The study's findings highlight that 'the surface of the Earth is very transient.' [said] study co-author Russell Mapes, a UNC graduate student.
Image source here.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Oceans face 'mass extinction'

Oceans on brink of catastrophe
Marine life facing mass extinction 'within one human generation'
State of seas 'much worse than we thought' says global panel of scientists

The Indepedent: The world's oceans are faced with an unprecedented loss of species comparable to the great mass extinctions of prehistory, a major report suggests... The seas are degenerating far faster than anyone has predicted because of the cumulative impact of a number of severe individual stresses, ranging from climate warming and sea-water acidification, to widespread chemical pollution and gross overfishing.

The coming together of these factors is now threatening the marine environment with a catastrophe 'unprecedented in human history,' according to the report, from a panel of leading marine scientists brought together... by the International Programme on the State of the Ocean (IPSO) and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

The stark suggestion made by the panel is that the potential extinction of species, from large fish on one end of the scale to tiny corals at the other, is directly comparable to the five great mass extinctions in the geological record, during each of which much of the world's life died out... The panel of 27 scientists... also concluded:
  • The speed and rate of degeneration of the oceans is far faster than anyone has predicted;
  • Many of the negative impacts identified are greater than the worst predictions;
  • The first steps to globally significant extinction may have already begun.
BBC News: The findings are 'shocking,' said Alex Rogers, IPSO's scientific director...IPSO's immediate recommendations include:
  • Stopping exploitative fishing now, with special emphasis on the high seas where currently there is little effective regulation;
  • Mapping and then reducing the input of pollutants including plastics, agricultural fertilisers and human waste;
  • Making sharp reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.
Carbon dioxide levels are now so high, it says, that ways of pulling the gas out of the atmosphere need to be researched urgently -- but not using techniques, such as iron fertilisation, that lead to more CO2 entering the oceans. 'We have to bring down CO2 emissions to zero within about 20 years,' Professor Hoegh-Guildberg told BBC News. 'If we don't do that... we'll see a very different ocean.'
Image: millions of dead anchovies floating at a marina in Redondo Beach, California, in March; source here.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Atlantic fish stocks in 1900 and 2000

Plenty More Fish In The Sea?
What were the oceans like before over-fishing?

The Guardian: This image shows the biomass of popularly-eaten fish in the North Atlantic Ocean in 1900 and in 2000. Popularly eaten fish include bluefin tuna, cod, haddock, hake, halibut, herring, mackerel, pollock, salmon, sea trout, striped bass, sturgeon, turbot. Many of which are now vulnerable or endangered.

Dr. Villy Chistensen and his colleagues at the University of British Columbia used ecosystem models, underwater terrain maps, fish catch records and statistical analysis to render the biomass of Atlantic fish at various points this century (see the study here)... Professor Callum Roberts' harrowing book, The Unnatural History of the Sea... uses historical accounts of the ocean to depict the sheer fecundity of the sea in the times before industrialized fishing...

Each generation views the environment they remember from their youth as 'natural' and normal. Today that means our fishing policies and environmental activism is geared to restoring the oceans to the state we remember they were. That's considered the environmental baseline... This is a kind of collective social amnesia that allows over-exploitation to creep up and increase decade-by-decade.
Image source here.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

The world's states: failed to stable

The Failed States Index
A seventh annual collaboration between Foreign Policy and The Fund for Peace. Interactive maps here and here.

Most stable:
Finland 19.7
Norway 20.4
Sweden 22.8
Switzerland 23.2
Denmark 23.8
New Zealand 24.8
Ireland 25.3
Luxembourg 26.1
Austria 27.3
Canada 27.7
Australia 28.1
Netherlands 28.3

Monday, June 20, 2011

To CHAT with dolphins

Experts develop tools to talk to dolphins
The Independent: Off the Bahamas a dolphinologist and an artificial intelligence specialist thrown together on board The Stenella are this summer developing a piece of hi-tech gadgetry that will, if it works, fulfill the 1960's vision of talking to dolphins...

The Cetacean Hearing and Telemtry, or CHAT, interface... is an iPhone-sized device with two hydrophones attached and a unique one-handed keyboard... which, when combined, is designed to be worn around a diver's neck while swimming with wild dolphins. Inside this box is a processor that contains a complex algorithm or pattern detector that, it is hoped, will learn to identify the fundamental units of dolphin communication to enable humans to decode dolphin and then reply.

'CHAT is more more a potential interface than a translator as it is supplying us humans with an acoustic bridge to allow exchanges between two acoustic species,' says Dr Denise Herzing, of the Department of Biological and Psychological Sciences at Florida Atlantic University and founder of the Wild Dolphin Project... 'Most scientists create a system of communication and expect the dolphins -- especially those in captivity -- to learn it by using fish as a reward, but the dolphins are not empowered to use the system to request things from the humans.'...

With the summer a 'resounding success' so far for CHAT, Dr Herzing is confident that this only the start of a journey in two-way communication. After all, it 'would be nice if we'd had some practice with both etiquette and the ethics of interacting, as well as establishing some potential universal protocols.' Glimpses of which, she believes, she has seen already in the mimicry, imitation and synchrony dolphins have initiated to engage with humans.
Image source here.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Canadian immigrants #1 in assimilation

Manhattan Institute for Policy Research:

Jacob L. Vigdor, Adjunct Fellow: This report... introduces a series of comparisons among countries, using data from the United States and ten other countries drawn from the period 1999-2001. Although these international data are slightly dated, they are the most recent comparative data available, and few major changes are likely to have taken place since. The study's focus is the comparative progress individual ethnic groups, particularly immigrants from nations with predominantly Muslim populations, have made in the destination countries where they have chosen to reside...
  • Immigrants from Canada rank first in terms of overall assimilation, largely as a consequence of their high rate of naturalization...
  • Muslim immigrants, identified by data on religion in some nations and by country of birth in others, are most integrated in Canada...
Two facets of Canadian immigration policy may help explain the rapid integration of foreigners into Canadian society. First, the path to citizenship in Canada is short and easily traveled. Foreigners face a three-year residency requirement (it is five for legal permanent residents in the United States and as many as twelve in some European countries), and the nation has taken a liberal stance toward dual citizenship since 1977.

Second, Canadian immigration policy places a distinct emphasis on attracting skilled migrants. Thirty percent of foreign-born adults in Canada have college degrees, while the rate is 23 percent in the United States and 10 percent in Spain and Italy. Educational attainment is not a factor in the international version of the assimilation index, but the link between immigrants' level of education and their degree of assimilation is strong.

Full report, with graphs, is here.
Image source here.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Eating money

The Midas Touch
Stomachs Too Big to Fail?

Lewis H. Lapham, at TomDispatch (from the summer 'Food' issue of Lapham's Quarterly):

The history of food reaches across a span of four thousand years, during most of which time the global economy is agrarian. Prior to the twentieth century, the changes were relatively slow in coming. Humankind is the tenant of nature, food the measure of both humanity's wealth and wellbeing. The earliest metal currencies (the shekel, the talent, and mina) represent weights and units of grain. Allowing for cultural difference and regional availability, the human family sits down to meals made of what it finds in the forest or grows in the field, the tables set from one generation to the next in accordance with the changing of the seasons and the benevolence of Ashnan or Ceres.

The contract between humankind and nature remains in force for as long as it is understood which one is the tenant and which the landlord. Over the course of millennia human beings discover numerous ways of upgrading their lot -- cooking with fire, domesticating animals and plants, bringing the tomato from Mexico to Spain, pepper from Sumatra to Salem, constructing the chopstick, the seine net, and the salad fork -- but the world's population stays more or less in balance with the world's agriculture because the landlord is careful about matching supply and demand...

The contract between landlord and tenant doesn't come up for review until the seventeenth-century plantings of capitalist finance give rise to the Industrial Revolution. Human beings come to imagine that they hold the deed to nature, persuaded that if soundly managed as a commercial real-estate venture, the property can be made to recruit larger armies, gather more votes, yield more cash. Add to the mechanical staples (John Deere's cast-steel plow, Cyrus McCormick's reaper) the twentieth century's flavorings of laboratory science (chemical pesticides, synthetic gene sequences), and food becomes an industrial product subsumed into the body of a corporation.
Image source here.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Tagish Lake space rock holds seeds of life

B.C. meteorite suggests life on Earth came from space
Vancouver Sun: The space rock first made headlines in 2000, when it streaked across the northern skies and crashed to Earth along the B.C.-Yukon border... Now the rock is in the spotlight again, providing what scientists say are important new clues about the building blocks of life and how they formed in the early universe more than 4.6 billion years ago.

'What we are seeing are the ingredients of life,' said planetary geologist Christopher Herd at the University of Alberta. Herd and a team from NASA and several U.S. universities report in the journal Science that they have found several types of organic molecules of 'prebiotic importance' in fragments of the meteorite. And they say some of them were likely shaped by processes on their home asteroid billions of years ago.

This indicates that there may have been a 'Goldilocks window' when organic molecules formed on asteroids and may have seeded Earth and other newly formed planets with the chemical precursors for life to emerge...

The Tagish Lake meteorite is described as the most pristine ever recovered... Most meteorites that fall to Earth are made of nickel or iron. The Tagish Lake space rock is the much rarer carbonaceous chondite variety... The analysis turned up a dozen different amino acids, which are used to build proteins and other molecules common in cell walls... One also appears to contain evidence of amino acid synthesis on the asteroid. Herd said the best explanation he and his colleagues can come up with is that organic material was altered in parts of the asteroid by percolating water.
Image source here.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Ice melt in the northern Arctic islands

Ice Loss in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago

Earth Observatory: The maps above show ice loss from surface melting for the northern portion of the archipelago from 2004-2006 (left) and 2007-2009 (right). Blue indicates ice gain, and red indicates ice loss... The Canadian Arctic Archipelago generally receives little precipitation, and the amount of snowfall changes little from year to year. But the rate of snow and ice melting varies considerably, so changes in ice mass come largely from changes in summertime melt. During the 2004 to 2009 study period, the Canadian Arctic Archipelago experienced four of its five warmest years since 1960.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

'Huge swaths' of Canada inaccessible by 2050

Canada has 'more to lose that it realizes': global warming report on Arctic

Postmedia News: 'Canada is going to be feeling the harsh edge of the sword more strongly than other Arctic states,' says Scott Stephenson, lead author of the study that forecasts that the Northwest Passage will be the last Arctic shipping route to become ice free. It also predicts huge swaths of Canada's landscape will become inaccessible by road by mid-century.

The implications could be 'profoundly negative' for remote communities and mining, energy and timber operations that now depend on winter ice roads, says the study by researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles... published in the journal Nature Climate Change... 'This study would suggest that Canada has more to lose than it realizes,' [said] senior author Laurence Smith, a UCLA climate researcher...

Remote communities that rely on winter roads will have to rely more on air cargo, which will 'dramatically' increase the costs of food and supplies... The 400,000 square kilometres that Canada is projected to lose access to is a huge area 'with all kinds of untapped potential,' says Smith. While building permanent roads might be an option in some areas, the costs will be high... Temperatures are expected to keep climbing well beyond 2050, making more of Canada's soggy northern landscapes inaccessible by land vehicles.

Smith says 'the other surprise for Canada is that the Northwest Passage... is one of the coldest parts of the Arctic, where water circulation is not as 'dynamic' as other areas... 'It'll be one of the last places to open up,' says Smith. 'It will be easier to go over the North Pole than throug the Northwest Passage.' As for the projected loss of land access, Smith says 'there's not much you can do other than to get the world and yourselves to reduce carbon emissions.'
Image source here.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

The second mowing

Rachel Cusk, 'Aftermath' in Granta 115: The F Word:

Our history teacher, Mrs Lewis... gave great consideration to Offa of Mercia, in whose vision of a unified England the first thrust of male ambition can be detected. and whose massive earthwork, Offa's Dyke, still stands as a reminder that division is also an aspect of unification, that one way of defining what you are is to define what you are not. And indeed historians have never been able to agree on the question of whether the dyke was built to repel the Welsh or merely to mark the boundary. Mrs Lewis took an ambivalent attitude to Offa's power: this was the road to civilization, sure enough, but its cost was a loss of diversity, of the quiet kind of flourishing that goes on where things are not being built and goals driven towards...

For in a way, the Dark Ages were themselves a version of 'the new reality.' the broken pieces of the biggest plate of all, the Roman Empire. Some called it darkness, the aftermath of that megalomaniacal all-conquering unity, but not Mrs Lewis. She liked it, liked the untenanted wastes, liked the monasteries where creativity was quietly nurtured, liked the mystics and the visionaries, the early religious writings, liked the women who accrued stature in these formless inchoate centuries, liked the grass roots -- the personal level on which issues of justice and belief had now to be resolved, in the absence of that great administrative civilization.

The point was that this darkness -- call it what you will -- this darkness and disorganization were not mere negation, mere absence. They were both aftermath and prelude. The etymology of the word 'aftermath' is 'second mowing': a second crop of grass that is sown and reaped after the harvest is in. Civilization, order, meaning, belief: these were not sunlit peaks to be reached by a steady climb. They were built and then they fell, were built and fell again or were destroyed. The darkness, the disorganization that succeeded them had their own existence, their own integrity; were betrothed to civilization, as sleep is betrothed to activity. In the life of compartments lies the possibility of unity, just as unity contains the prospect of atomization. Better, in Mrs Lewis's view, to live the compartmentalized, disorganized life and feel the dark stirrings of creativity than to dwell in civilized unity, racked by the impulse to destroy.
Image source here.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

OECD: Canadians have 'better life'

Canadians trail only Aussies in quality of life: Study
Postmedia News: Canadians have a 'better life' than anyone in the western world except -- by a narrow margin -- Australians... The Better Life Initiative survey marked a major attempt by the Paris-based OECD [Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development], an economic and social policy think-tank funded by its members, to provide a broader measure of a country's success than gross domestic product...

The index compares the 34 countries in 11 areas -- housing, income, jobs, community, education, environment, governance, health, life satisfaction, safety and work-life balance. Canada ranked first in terms of access to affordable housing, second on 'life satisfaction,' and third on three categories -- safety, health and education.

Canada's worst score was in the area of governance, where it was near the middle of the pack. While 67 per cent of Canadians trust their political institutions, well above the OECD average of 56 per cent, voter turnout in national elections was around 60 per cent -- well below the 72 per cent average. The report, in a commentary on government transparency, noted that Canadians can't use the Internet or telephone to get information under Canada's access-to-information laws. 'In addition, there are no provisions for anonymity or protection from retaliation.'

In its breakout analysis for Canada, the OECD tossed in a poll result from 2008 that wasn't considered in Canada's overall ranking but may, according to an official, help explain why many in the country have 'better lives.' Roughly two-thirds of Canadians, or 66 per cent, 'reported having helped a stranger in the last month, the highest figure in the OECD' and well above the average of 46 per cent.
Image source here.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Watch the Earth move

VIDEO: Earth Rotating Under Very Large Telescopes

NASA: Most time lapse videos of the night sky show the stars and sky moving above a steady Earth. Here, however, the frames have been digitally rotated so that it is the stars that stay (approximately) steady, and the Earth that moves beneath them. The video shows the actual rotation of the Earth, called diurnal motion, in a clear and moving way, as if the camera were floating free in space.

The telescopes featured in the video are the Very Large Telescopes (VLT) in Chile, a group of four of the largest optical telescopes deployed anywhere in the world. A discerning observer... may also note the use of laser guide stars, zodiacal light, the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds, and fast-moving, sunlight-reflecting, Earth-orbiting satellites. The original video, on which the above sequences are based, can be found here.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Global Peace Index 2011: Canada #8

Canada jumped six places in this year's rankings whereas the US's overall score remained unchanged although its ranking improved from 85th to 82nd. Table of 23 indicators here.

1. Iceland
2. New Zealand
3. Japan
4. Denmark
5. Czech Republic
6. Austria
7. Finland
8. Canada
9. Norway
10. Slovenia