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Environmental Scientist

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Watch desert dust cross the ocean as seen from space

Huge clouds of dust from the Sahara desert are blown across the Atlantic Ocean every year, creating massive plumes that can be seen from space. Now, for the first time, a NASA satellite has calculated how much of it ends up in the Amazon rainforest, which depends on the delivery to keep its soil fertile.

The glowing arcs above are slices of dust clouds in the atmosphere, imaged along lines of longitude. Between 2007 and 2013, the satellite, called CALIPSO, bounced lasers off the dust and analysed reflected light to find that about 27.7 million tons of dust reaches the Amazon basin every year.

Due to the region's high rainfall, phosphorus in the soil – which is essential for plant growth – is washed away by local rivers. But luckily, the Saharan delivery contains about the same amount of the lost element, replenishing its supply.

Close to 43 million tons of dust is carried even farther than the Amazon, settling over the Caribbean Sea.


Men have hands amputated and replaced with bionic ones

Bionic hands are go. Three men with serious nerve damage had their hands amputated and replaced by prosthetic ones that they can control with their minds.

The procedure, dubbed "bionic reconstruction", was carried out by Oskar Aszmann at the Medical University of Vienna, Austria.

The men had all suffered accidents which damaged the brachial plexus – the bundle of nerve fibres that runs from the spine to the hand. Despite attempted repairs to those nerves, the arm and hand remained paralysed.

"But still there are some nerve fibres present," says Aszmann. "The injury is so massive that there are only a few. This is just not enough to make the hand alive. They will never drive a hand, but they might drive a prosthetic hand."


Alaska Legalizes Recreational Marijuana, Prompting Sarah Palin’s Town To Ban Pot Brownies

On Tuesday, Alaska became the third state in the U.S to legalize the recreational use of marijuana. The law was passed in the November 2014 election, with 53.2 percent of Alaska voters approving the measure. It takes effect on Tuesday, February 24th.

Alaska joins Colorado and Washington State, becoming the third state to legalize recreational pot smoking. Colorado and Washington passed ballot measures legalizing marijuana in 2012. Voters in Washington D.C. and Oregon also passed legalization initiatives in November 2014. Oregon’s law will go into effect on July 1, 2015. The District of Columbia could see legal marijuana as early as Thursday, February 26, but because of wrangling between Congress and local officials, Washington D.C.’s status remains somewhat nebulous.

The new Alaska law permits residents to grow up to six marijuana plants and to share up to an ounce at a time with other individuals. It also allows private consumption of marijuana, which was already permitted by a 1975 State Supreme Court ruling, but the new measure erased ambiguity by overriding some laws that contradicted the Court’s ruling. Public consumption of pot is still prohibited, and anyone caught smoking marijuana in public could be subject to a 100 dollar fine.

Reacting to the law’s implementation, Alaska’s Alcoholic Beverage Control Board issued an emergency regulation Tuesday morning, to define a public place. The regulation stipulated that, for the purposes of marijuana consumption, a public place is defined as:

A place to which the public or a substantial group of persons has access and includes highways, transportation facilities, schools, places of amusement or business, parks, playgrounds, prisons, and hallways, lobbies, and other portions of apartment houses and hotels not constituting rooms or apartments designed for actual residence.

While Anchorage has permitted the operation of Cannabis Cafes, which would permit pot use inside, the small town of Wasilla scrambled to impose specific restrictions just hours before the law took effect. Wasilla is best known for its most famous resident, Sarah Palin, who was mayor of the city of approximately 8,000 residents, from 1996-2002.



Can't have MJ competing with the meth, ya know....

Are We Entering a New Period of Rapid Global Warming?

By: Bob Henson

Residents of New England may understandably look back at 2015 as the year of their never-ending winter. For the planet as a whole, though, this year could stand out most for putting to rest the “hiatus”— the 15-year slowdown in atmospheric warming that gained intense scrutiny by pundits, scientists, and the public. While interesting in its own right, the hiatus garnered far more attention than it deserved as a purported sign that future global warming would be much less than expected. The slowdown was preceded by almost 20 years of dramatic global temperature rise, and with 2014 having set a new global record high, there are signs that another decade-plus period of intensified atmospheric warming may be at our doorstep.

The most compelling argument for a renewed surge in global air temperature is rooted in the Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO). This index tracks the fingerprint of sea surface temperature (SST) across the Pacific north of 20°N. A closely related index, the Interdecadal Pacific Oscillation (IPO), covers a larger swath of the entire Pacific. Both the PDO and IPO capture back-and-forth swings in the geography of Pacific SSTs that affect the exchange of heat between ocean and atmosphere (see Figure 1). We’ll use PDO as shorthand for both indexes in the following discussion.

The PDO typically leans toward a positive or negative state for more than a decade at a time. The positive phase, which features warmer-than-average SSTs along the U.S. West Coast, was dominant from the mid-1970s to the late 1990s. The PDO then flipped to a negative phase between about 1999 and 2013, with cooler-than-average SSTs along the West Coast. Figure 2 shows that even when a particular mode is favored, the PDO can still flip back to its opposite mode for periods of a few months or so.

It’s not clear exactly what drives the PDO, but in some ways it can be viewed as a geographically expanded version of the SST patterns created by El Niño and La Niña, averaged over a longer time period. (See Figure 2.) It’s well-established that El Niño can raise global temperature for a few months by several tenths of a degree Celsius, as warm water spreads over the eastern tropical Pacific and mixes with the overlying atmosphere. Likewise, La Niña can act to pull down global average temperature, as cooler-than-average water extends further west than usual across the tropical Pacific. The PDO mirrors these trends, but over longer periods. When the PDO is positive, there are more El Niño and fewer La Niña events, and heat stored in the ocean tends to be spread across a larger surface area, allowing it to enter the atmosphere more easily. When the PDO is negative, SSTs are below average across a larger area, and global air temperatures tend to be lower.



Study: Killers are less likely to be executed if their victims are black

Black people are much more frequently executed for killing white people than white people are for killing black people, and capital punishment is rarely used at all victims when are black — especially when they're male.

That's according to a paper that's set to be published in the journal Politics, Groups, and Identities.

The researchers — Frank Baumgartner, Amanda Grigg, and Alisa Mastro —compared homicide victim data with data on the victims of every inmate executed in the US from 1976 through 2013 (that's 1,369 executions).

Here's some of what they say the data revealed:

While 47 percent of all homicide victims were black, blacks made up 17 percent of the victims of inmates who were executed.


Elizabeth Warren just revealed her next big fight

It's not unusual for Janet Yellen's regular monetary policy reports to focus on issues that have nothing to do with monetary policy. And going into her Tuesday appearance before the Senate Banking Committee, it seemed like the conservative "audit the Fed" movement would be a key subject of the hearing. But the harshest questioning was related to something else entirely — and came from Elizabeth Warren.
The senator unexpectedly took aim at Scott Alvarez, the Fed's general counsel — a powerful job that he's held since 2004, when Alan Greenspan was chair. Alvarez has criticized Dodd-Frank rules in the past, and his comments often seem to agree with Greenspan's famously pro-deregulation views. Warren is both one of Congress's strongest bank regulation advocates and one of its most clever political entrepreneurs — and it seems she's found her next big cause.

What exactly is Elizabeth Warren upset about?

Warren offered three major lines of attack on Alvarez, focused mostly on the idea that he is too weak on bank regulation.

Swaps pushout: Warren asked Yellen about Alvarez's criticism of the swaps pushout rule that was repealed in Congress' December government funding bill (also known as the "cromnibus") over Warren's strong objections. Alvarez had previously said of that rule, "You can tell that was written at 2:30 in the morning," as reported by Bloomberg News. "That needs to be, I think, revisited, just to make sense of it."

Rating agencies: Warren also took aim at Alvarez's views on restricting credit rating agencies, the ones that gave inflated ratings to bad mortgage-backed securities in the run-up to the financial crisis. Alvarez at one point said he thought Dodd-Frank's restrictions were "more constraining than I think is helpful," as The Week reported. Opponents, meanwhile, have said the rules weren't nearly tight enough.

Fed leaks: Warren pressed Yellen on a leak from the September 2012 Fed meeting, in which the Fed's monetary policy committee decided to undertake its QE3 program. Before the minutes came out, as ProPublica writes, an economic consulting firm, Medley Global Advisers, sent out a note saying the minutes would show disagreement among the committee members about QE3. The note also had "uncommon detail" about how the minutes were put together, as ProPublica writes. The minutes did betray disagreement, and Bernanke also afterward expressed worries about a leak. Alvarez was in charge of investigating the leak, but the results aren't public yet, and Warren expressed frustration at her difficulty in getting a briefing from Alvarez about the status of the investigation.



Poor Helpless, Pathetic, Limp Boehner!

By Greg Sargent February 25 at 9:22 AM

Later this morning, House Republicans will meet behind closed doors to decide whether to continue hurtling towards a shutdown of the Department of Homeland Security. They will discuss Mitch McConnell’s plan to hold two votes — one on funding DHS cleanly, and the other on rolling back President Obama’s executive deportation relief — and House conservatives will insist that GOP leaders must not decouple the two, because that would surrender DHS funding leverage as a tool to block Obama’s lawlessness.

We will then be told that John Boehner just can’t get clean DHS funding through the House. He just can’t do it! It would get conservatives very, very angry! Boehner doesn’t dare pass clean funding with the help of a lot of Democrats, because it would put his Speakership at risk! He can’t do anything. He’s helpless!

But we’ve seen this particular thriller a number of times already. Here’s how it always goes: We are told there’s no way Boehner would ever dare move must-pass legislation with a lot of Democrats. He’s stuck! Then pressure builds and builds, and Boehner does end up passing something with a lot of Democrats. Last I checked, he’s still Speaker.

We’re hearing that again today. Roll Call quotes several House conservatives hinting that Boehner had best refrain from passing any clean DHS funding, or his gavel is in doubt. Okay. But back in early 2013, the fiscal cliff deal, which allowed some high end Bush tax cuts to expire, passed the House with only 85 Republicans and 172 Democrats, and we were told Boehner’s Speakership was at risk. Similarly, in early 2014, Boehner allowed a clean debt ceiling increase to pass the House with only 28 Republicans voting for it, and we were again told his Speakership was at risk. Does anyone else notice a pattern here?


The remote Alaskan village that needs to be relocated due to climate change

KIVALINA, ALASKA — This tiny and isolated town of 400 cannot be reached by road. It lies on a fragile barrier island along the Chukchi Sea, 83 miles above the Arctic circle. And for generations, the Iñupiat people of the region have hunted gigantic bowhead whales from camps atop the sea ice that stretches out from the town’s icy shores.

But in recent years, climate change has thinned the ice so much that it has become too dangerous to hunt the whales. Soon, the U.S. government says, it may be too dangerous to live here at all, with less sea ice to protect the barrier island from powerful waves that wash across the village.

“Global warming has caused us so much problems,” said Joseph Swan, Sr., a Kivalina elder, at a town meeting last week. The ice “does not freeze like it used to. It used to be like 10 to 8 feet thick, way out in the ocean.”

The question now facing the town, the state of Alaska, and the nation is whether to move the people of Kivalina to a safer location nearby, either inland or further down the coast — and who would pay upwards of a hundred million dollars to do it. It’s a question already facing Kivalina and a handful of other native Alaskan villages, and in the coming decades could apply to numerous other towns along U.S. coastlines. Here, climate change is less a future threat and more a daily force, felt in drastic changes to weather, loss of traditional means of sustenance like whale hunting, and the literal vanishing of land.



World's rarest big cat could be making a comeback

Things are starting to look up for the rarest big cat on the planet: The critically endangered Amur leopard, which is indigenous to southeastern Russia and parts of northeastern China, has doubled in population since 2007, according to a new report by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).

Census data from Russia's Land of the Leopard National Park, which covers about 60 percent of the Amur leopard's habitat, puts the number of these wild cats at 57. That's up from the 30 leopards counted in the area in 2007, according to the WWF.

Eight to 12 additional cats were also counted in adjacent areas of China during the census, which means the total population of Amur leopards has, in fact, doubled in less than a decade.



Netanyahu Invites Arab Diplomats to His Big Speech—and Gets Rejected

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is refusing to meet with a group of ardently pro-Israel Democratic senators next week in Washington, but he very much wants to see the faces of Arab ambassadors in the audience during his controversial address to Congress.

Netanyahu's ambassador to the United States, Ron Dermer, has tried, without success, to recruit Arab ambassadors to come to his boss’s speech, e-mailing them personally to plead for their attendance. Dermer, who is not a trained diplomat, is the man who helped engineer the invitation to Netanyahu to speak to Congress in opposition to President Obama’s (so far theoretical) Iran nuclear deal.

Israeli sources tell me that Dermer in recent days has e-mailed at least two Arab ambassadors, those of Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates. He made the case in these e-mails that Sunni-majority Arab states and Israel have a common interest in thwarting a nuclear agreement with Shiite Iran—and that presenting a united and public front on Capitol Hill will help convince Congress to stop the Iran deal before it’s too late.

It is true that Israel and such countries as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Kuwait see Iran as an enemy, and believe that the Obama administration might be inadvertently (or, for the more conspiratorially minded, advertently) setting Iran on the path to nuclearization. It is also true that no Arab ambassador would allow himself to be used as a prop in Netanyahu’s controversial address, and I'm told that neither ambassador will be in attendance. (A related, subsidiary question is this: Just who from the diplomatic corps will actually attend the speech? Will any ambassador show up?)


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