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Environmental Scientist

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First Maps from Carbon-Monitoring Satellite Show Global CO2 Levels

December 19, 2014 |By Richard Monastersky and Nature magazine

OCO-2 aims to measure atmospheric CO2 levels with enough precision to help pin down how human activities and natural systems are emitting and absorbing the greenhouse gas.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA’s carbon-monitoring satellite has passed its post-launch checks and is beaming high-quality data back to Earth. But getting to this point required some last-minute adjustments: after the Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 (OCO-2) launched in July, the agency had to overcome a key design problem with the spacecraft that had gone unnoticed in a decade of planning.

News of the satellite’s status came on December 18 briefing at the American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco, California, where OCO-2 scientists released the first images from the probe. “The results and the promise of this mission are quite amazing,” said Annmarie Eldering, deputy project scientist for OCO-2 at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California.

The data from OCO-2—which maps the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere as it circles the globe—is a long time coming. Scientists and engineers on the project have ridden an emotional roller coaster: in 2009, a rocket failure doomed the Orbiting Carbon Observatory, their first attempt at a carbon-mapping probe.


Coal Ash Is Not Hazardous Waste under U.S. Agency Rules

By Jonathan Kaminsky

Dec 19 (Reuters) - The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued rules on Friday labeling coal ash, a byproduct of coal-based power production containing toxic materials such as arsenic and lead, as non-hazardous waste.

The label means that states, and not the EPA, will be the primary enforcers of the new rules, which will require the closure of some coal ash holding ponds leaking contaminants into surrounding water.

"This rule is a huge step forward in our effort to protect communities from coal ash storage impoundment failures as well as the improper management and disposal of coal ash in general," said EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, speaking on a conference call with reporters.

The agency first proposed rules governing coal ash storage in 2010, in the wake of a massive spill at a ruptured holding pond in Tennessee that has cost more than $1 billion to clean up.


Scientists have developed a monkey-english translator

By Joshua A. Krisch

There is a mystery on Tiwai Island. A large wildlife sanctuary in Sierra Leone, the island is home to pygmy hippopotamuses, hundreds of bird species and several species of primates, including Campbell’s monkeys. These monkeys communicate via an advanced language that primatologists and linguists have been studying for decades. Over time, experts nearly cracked the code behind monkey vocabulary.

And then came krak. In the Ivory Coast’s Tai Forest Campbell’s monkeys (Cercopithecus campbelli) use the term krak to indicate that a leopard is nearby and the term hok to warn of an eagle circling overheard. Primatologists indexed their monkey lexicon accordingly. But on Tiwai Island they found that those same monkeys used krak as a general alarm call—one that, occasionally, even referred to eagles.

“Why on Earth were they producing krak when they heard an eagle,” asks co-author Philippe Schlenker, a linguist at France’s National Center for Scientific Research and professor at New York University. “For some reason krak, which is a leopard in the Tai Forest, seems to be recycled as a general alarm call on Tiwai Island.”

In a paper published in the November 28 Linguistics and Philosophy Schlenker and his team applied logic and human linguistics to crack the krak code. Their findings imply that some monkey dialects can be just as sophisticated as human language.



The Myth of the Megalith


Baalbek, Lebanon, is the site of one of the most mysterious ruins of the Roman Empire, a monumental two-thousand-year-old temple to Jupiter that sits atop three thousand-ton stone blocks. (The pillars of Stonehenge weigh about a fortieth of that.) The blocks originated in a nearby limestone quarry, where a team from the German Archaeological Institute, in partnership with Jeanine Abdul Massih, of Lebanese University, recently discovered what they are calling the largest stone block from antiquity, weighing one thousand six hundred and fifty tons and matching those that support the temple. Its provenance is more shadowy than one might expect of a three-million-pound megalith. Nobody seems to know on whose orders it was cut, or why, or how it came to be abandoned.

Baalbek is named for Baal, the Phoenician deity, although the Romans knew the site by its Greek name, Heliopolis. The historian Dell Upton has noted the unusual lack of documentation regarding who might have commissioned, paid for, or designed the temple. For Upton, the site is a metaphor for the role of imaginative distortion in architectural history. In the absence of concrete information, he writes, Baalbek has become “a very accommodating screen upon which to project strikingly varied stories.” There are many local legends about the origin of the temple: Cain built it to hide from the wrath of God; giants built it, at Nimrod’s command, and it came to be called the Tower of Babel; Solomon built it, with djinns’ assistance, as a palace for the Queen of Sheba. (It is said that the reason some blocks were left in the quarry is that the djinns went on strike.)

Testimony to Baalbek’s flummoxing properties can be found in the 1860 diary of the Scottish traveller David Urquhart, whose mental capacities were “paralyzed” by “the impossibility of any solution.” Urquhart devotes several pages to the “riddles” posed by the giant stones—“so enormous, as to shut out every other thought, and yet to fill the mind only with trouble.” What, for example, was the point of cutting such enormous rocks? And why do it out there in the middle of nowhere, instead of in a capital or a port? Why were there no other sites that looked like Baalbek? And why had the work been abandoned midway? Urquhart concludes that the temple must have been built by contemporaries of Noah, using the same technological prowess that enabled the construction of the ark. Work was halted because of the flood, which swept away all the similar sites, leaving the enigma of Baalbek alone on the face of the earth.

Scholars today like to laugh at Urquhart, particularly at his alleged belief that mastodons transported the stones. (I didn’t see any reference to mastodons in his diary.) But archaeologists are still trying to solve the riddles that he posed. Margarete van Ess, a professor from the German Archaeological Institute, told me that the purpose of the investigation that turned up the new stone block was precisely to ascertain how the three temple blocks were transported, and why two others like them were left in the quarry. (One of these previously discovered megaliths, known as the Hajjar al-Hibla, or Stone of the Pregnant Woman, turned out to have a crack that would have impeded its transport.)



The US spent more to 'reconstruct' Afghanistan than it did to rebuild Europe under the Marshall Plan

As the U.S. continues its troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, it’s worth taking a look at how much the nation has spent on aid–and how effective it has (or hasn’t) been.

Certainly, the numbers are high. A July quarterly report (PDF) released by special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction John F. Sopko declared that in passing $104 billion mark ”the United States will have committed more funds to reconstruct Afghanistan, in inflation-adjusted terms, than it spent on 16 European countries after World War II under the Marshall Plan.” It is safe to say that the $103.4 billion current-day dollars spent on the Marshall Plan led to better nation building, and critics were quick to malign much of the spending in Afghanistan as ill-conceived and poorly managed.

But as this Reuters graphic makes clear, a number of social and economic indicators describe an marked improvement quality of life in Afghanistan. Against the most recent numbers, Afghan life expectancy has jumped by 5 years since 2002 and total GDP has quintupled. In 2011, the number of children who died before the age of five was less than 40 percent of the 2003 figure, and the number of women dying in child birth was almost one-fifth the 2002 rate. Doctors per 1,000 people have tripled; access to reliable electricity has better than quadrupled; school enrollment has better than octupled; and high school enrollment has tripled.

In the long wars triggered by the 9/11 attacks, making people’s lives tangibly better beats torture every time, and the Taliban massacre of scores of Pakistani school children this week can’t be winning hearts and minds in the region. The war in Afghanistan has taken more than 3,400 U.S. and Coalition lives, with over 20,000 wounded, at a price tag of almost $1 trillion. It is important to recognize that some good has come from those costs.


U.S. ends TARP with $15.3 billion profit

Source: CNN

The U.S. government essentially closed the books on TARP with a $15.3 billion profit.

Treasury sold its remaining shares Friday in Ally Financial, its last remaining major stake from the $426 billion bailout of banks and the U.S. auto industry.

The Troubled Asset Relief Program was passed in 2008, in the wake of Lehman Brothers' bankruptcy, as the nation's financial system was on the verge of collapse and economists feared another Great Depression. At the height of the bailout, Treasury owned a significant stake in all of the major U.S. banks, such as Citigroup (C) and Bank of America (BAC), two of the nation's Big Three automakers -- General Motors (GM) and Chrysler Group (FCAM) -- as well as one of its largest insurers, AIG (AIG).

But with the sale of the Ally (ALLY) stock, Treasury now only holds stakes in 35 small community banks.

Read more: http://money.cnn.com/2014/12/19/news/companies/government-bailouts-end/

Families flee out-of-control natural-gas leak at eastern Ohio fracking well

About 25 families in eastern Ohio have been unable to live in their houses for the past three days because of a natural-gas leak at a fracking well that crews cannot stop.

Bethany McCorkle, a spokeswoman for the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, the state agency that regulates oil and gas, said crews lost control of the Monroe County well on Saturday.

Families were evacuated from about 25 houses within a 1.5-mile radius of the well, located near the Ohio River about 160 miles east of Columbus.

The well is not on fire, but the gas could be explosive. “There’s still a steady stream of natural gas coming from the wellhead,” McCorkle said yesterday.



Quantum physics just got less complicated

Here's a nice surprise: quantum physics is less complicated than we thought. An international team of researchers has proved that two peculiar features of the quantum world previously considered distinct are different manifestations of the same thing. The result is published 19 December in Nature Communications.

Patrick Coles, Jedrzej Kaniewski, and Stephanie Wehner made the breakthrough while at the Centre for Quantum Technologies at the National University of Singapore. They found that 'wave-particle duality' is simply the quantum 'uncertainty principle' in disguise, reducing two mysteries to one.

"The connection between uncertainty and wave-particle duality comes out very naturally when you consider them as questions about what information you can gain about a system. Our result highlights the power of thinking about physics from the perspective of information," says Wehner, who is now an Associate Professor at QuTech at the Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands.

The discovery deepens our understanding of quantum physics and could prompt ideas for new applications of wave-particle duality.



Birds sensed imminent tornadoes, and escaped the day before, study finds

They may be tiny little songbirds, but U.S. researchers have discovered that golden-winged warblers are also keen weather predictors that know when to fly the coop when a dangerous storm is about to descend.

Writing in the journal Current Biology, the scientists say they made their finding by accident last April, as they were testing a new way to track the songbirds. Warblers weigh slightly more than a loonie and the researchers were trying out a new lightweight geolocator placed on the backs of 20 of the birds.

Nine of the birds kept the geolocators on as they migrated thousands of kilometres from South America to their breeding grounds in eastern Tennessee. But the researchers were puzzled when the geolocators revealed that the birds had suddenly taken a detour and headed back south.

About a day later, a huge supercell storm system moved in, spawning 84 tornadoes. In all, 35 people were killed in the devastating storms.
The evacuation saved the warblers, which were able to return to the breeding ground after the storm passed.

Read more: http://www.ctvnews.ca/sci-tech/birds-sensed-imminent-tornadoes-and-escaped-the-day-before-study-finds-1.2155508

The lack of any official condemnation for CIA torture ensures it will happen again

The details shocked. Shackled prisoners were treated like cattle, watched by their CIA interrogators. Testimony from one observer stated that men blindfolded and tied “were made to run down a steep hill, at the bottom of which were three throws of concertina barbed wire. The first row would hit them across the knees and they would plunge head first into the second and third rows of wire”.

This wasn’t CIA torture after the September 11 attacks, exposed in detail in a recent Senate report, but the Phoenix programme, instituted by the CIA and US, Australian and South Vietnamese militaries in Vietnam between 1965 and 1972 to “neutralise” the Vietcong. The result was more than 60,000 people tortured and killed. No senior politicians, generals or decision-makers were prosecuted for these crimes. A culture of immunity, despite occasional media and public outrage, thrived across the US.

Questioned before a US House operations subcommittee in the late 1960s to investigate widespread Phoenix-inspired torture, future CIA head William Colby used language that sounds familiar today. It’s just the official enemy that has changed. The “collateral damage” was justified, he said. Phoenix was “an essential part of the war effort … designed to protect the Vietnamese people from terrorism.”

In 2007, decades after its cessation, the CIA was still worried that the public felt Phoenix was an “unlawful and immoral assassination programme targeting civilians.” Instead, they claimed, it was “pacification and rural security programmes”.


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