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Environmental Scientist

Journal Archives

Thresher Sharks Hunt with Huge Weaponised Tails

by Ed Yong
For most sharks, the front end is the dangerous bit. Thresher sharks are the exception. They’re deadly at both ends, because they’ve managed to weaponise their tails.

The top halves of their scythe-like tail fins are so huge that they can be as long as the rest of the shark. For around a century, people have been saying that the threshers lash out at their prey with these distended fins—hence the name. But no one had ever seen them do so in the wild.

In 2010, one team showed that they can lash out at tethered bait under controlled conditions. But Simon Oliver has done better. His team spent the summer of 2010 in the Philippines, watching and filming wild pelagic thresher sharks—the smallest of the three species—hunting large shoals of sardines. The videos are spectacular and unambiguous: threshers really do hunt with their tails.

“It was absolutely extraordinary,” says Oliver, who is founder of the Thresher Shark Research and Conservation Project and based at the University of Liverpool. “We always expected this but there’s never been any solid documented evidence. This is the first time the behaviour has been observed in the sharks’ natural environment, and we observed a lot of it.”

When I first read about thresher sharks as a kid, I imaged that they would swim towards its prey, bank sharply, and lash out sideways with their tails. Oliver’s team showed that the sharks do use sideways slaps, but rarely.



Deep oceans warming at an alarming rate

Larry O'Hanlon

Despite mixed signals from warming ocean surface waters, a new re-analysis of data from the depths suggests dramatic warming of the deep sea is under way because of anthropogenic climate change. The scientists report that the deep seas are taking in more heat than expected, which is taking some of the warming off the Earth’s surface, but it will not do so forever.

"Some of the heat (from human-caused global warming) is going into melting sea ice and heating the surface, but the bulk is going into the oceans,” said climate researcher Kevin Trenberth of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, a coauthor on a new research paper reporting on the deep ocean warming in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.

The study involved the bringing together of a diverse suite of data, ranging from satellite measurements of the surface waters to ship observations at all depths, instruments mounted on elephant seals, ARGO profilers (a large collection of small, drifting-robotic probes deployed worldwide), and data-gathering instruments moored in place. The data include temperature, salinity, depth, and altimetry of the ocean surface, going back decades.

Piecing together different kinds of data from different times and sometimes from sparse data sets was the key challenge, Trenberth explains, but that is the specialty of his coauthors at the European Center for Medium Range Weather Forecasts in the U.K



The most depressing graph I've seen in a while


Camilo Jose Vergara Receives National Humanities Medal (First Photographer to get Medal)

July 10, 2013
A New York-based documentarian who has dedicated his career to recording some of the poorest and most segregated communities in the United States became the first photographer to receive a National Humanities Medal from President Barack Obama at the White House today.

Camilo José Vergara was born in Chile but has spent decades traveling to the places most tourists try to avoid: Detroit, Camden, Oakland, East Los Angeles.

His goal, he said during an interview after the medal ceremony, is to record things.

"Things change, rapidly," he said, "and a lot is lost."

He photographs decaying buildings and crumbling old churches that others consider an eye-sore, returning again and again to the same site to record the structures as communities shift around them.

"I think of my images as bricks that, when placed in context with each other, reveal shapes and meanings within these often neglected urban communities," he wrote in a piece for Times magazine. "Through photography, I have become a builder of virtual cities."



Alien 'deep blue' planet discovered

An artist's impression of the blue planet, which is a gas giant. The same technique could be used to identify habitable worlds. Image: Nasa

The heavens are home to an alien world that shines a deep cobalt blue in a solar system far, far away from our own.

Astronomers used the ageing Hubble space telescope to determine the true hue of the distant world, the first time such a feat has been achieved for a planet that circles a star other than the sun.

Unlike the pale blue dot that harbours all known life in the cosmos, the "deep blue dot" is an inhospitable gas giant that lies 63 light years from Earth. On HD189733b, as the planet is named, the temperature soars to 1,000C and glassy hail whips through the air on hypersonic winds.

Though the planet is hostile to life as we know it, the same technique could be used to spot potentially habitable worlds, through changes in cloud cover and other features.

Frederic Pont at Exeter University observed the planet before, during, and after it passed behind its star. When the planet was on either side, the telescope collected light from the star along with light reflected from the planet's surface. But as the planet moved behind the star, the light it reflected was blocked out.



Teen's Joke 'Threat' Lands Him In Solitary; While Cop Saying He Wants To 'Kill' The First Lady Walks

by Tim Cushing
Wed, Jul 10th 2013 6:35am

In life, there are often (at minimum) two sets of rules -- one that applies to average people, and one that applies to those on a more rarefied plane. Our legislators do it all the time, enacting laws that they have little intention of following or carving out exceptions in those that already exist.

The law enforcement community is one of the worst offenders of the double standard. Unwritten rules protect bad cops and a nearly universal "hands off" policy ensures everything from minor traffic violations to drunk driving will be neatly swept under the rug.

Mike Riggs at Reason points out a particularly egregious application of the double standard. In recent months, a pair of teens have been arrested and arraigned on terrorism charges stemming from some ill-advised postings. Cameron D'Ambrosio, whose charges were ultimately dropped, was held without bail for two months as prosecutors pursued "communicating terrorist threat" charges. Justin Carter, a teen who made some unfortunate remarks during the course of some perfectly normal video game smack-talking, was arrested on March 27th and is still in jail.
For this transgression, Carter was not just investigated, but arrested. He's been in jail for months now, held on $500,000 bail. His attorney says he's been beaten several times and placed on suicide watch; suicide watch, in case you didn't know, translates to "placed naked in solitary confinement."

D'Ambrosio's "threat" was non-specific and more centered on bragging about his impending rap fame. The inclusion of the Boston Bombing and the White House into his boasting caught the attention of local law enforcement. Carter's smack talking mentioned shooting up a kindergarten, ending with indications he was joking. In both cases, there was context surrounding the comments and neither "threat" was targeted at any specific person or group of people.

Contrast these two cases with one involving a District of Columbia police officer.
D.C. Police Officer Christopher Picciano, "a 17-year veteran who was a member of the elite presidential motorcade detail," will be suspended without pay for a little over a month after joking about killing the first lady, threatening to go on a shooting spree, and calling Pres. Obama a communist.

No jail time. No terrorism charges. No trip to solitary confinement. No being held without bail. Here's a cop, who lives and works in DC, including working in close proximity with the president, who stated specifically he'd "wanted to kill" Michelle Obama, and yet, he walks away almost unscathed.


Parts installed “upside down” caused Russian rocket to explode last week

While America was looking forward to the July 4 holiday, the Russian space program was busy putting the final touches on its latest rocket launch. A Proton-M rocket carrying three satellites for the GLONASS navigation constellation (Russia's answer to GPS) launched on July 2, 2013, at 06:38:22 Moscow Time.

Just one problem: The rocket came crashing back down to Earth at 06:38:54—landing in a massive fireball. The crash marked another setback for the beleaguered Russian space program. There were fears that the massive quantity of propellant could leak, potentially creating a very toxic disaster for the local population. And there was no immediate explanation as to why the Proton-M failed so spectacularly, so fast.

But on Tuesday, Anatoly Zak reports on his own site, RussianSpaceWeb.com, that investigators have determined the culprit was the “critical angular velocity sensors, DUS, installed upside down.”

He writes:

Each of those sensors had an arrow that was suppose to point toward the top of the vehicle, however multiple sensors on the failed rocket were pointing downward instead. As a result, the flight control system was receiving wrong information about the position of the rocket and tried to "correct" it, causing the vehicle to swing wildly and, ultimately, crash. The paper trail led to a young technician responsible for the wrong assembly of the hardware, but also raised serious issues of quality control at the Proton's manufacturing plant, at the rocket's testing facility, and at the assembly building in Baikonur. It appeared that no visual control of the faulty installation had been conducted, while electrical checks had not detected the problem since all circuits had been working correctly.

Zak also added that Russian authorities have launched a criminal investigation.


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