Scientists may have just solved a riddle about Antarctica — and you’re not going to like the answer

It’s one of the great — and unresolved — debates of Antarctic science.

In 1984, a team of researchers from Ohio State University reported on a surprising fossil find: More than a mile above sea level, in Antarctica’s freezing and far inland Transantarctic mountain range, fossilized deposits of tiny marine organisms called diatoms were found in rock layers dated to the Pliocene era, some 2 to 5 million years ago. But how did they get all the way up there? Diatoms, ubiquitous marine microorganisms whose tiny shells coat the ocean floor when they die, don’t show up in high mountain rocks unless something rather dramatic happened long ago to get them there.

So began the debate over this rock formation, dubbed the “Sirius Group” after Mount Sirius, one of the range’s many peaks. It was between the “dynamicists”— who argued that the enormous ice sheet of East Antarctica had dramatically collapsed in the Pliocene, bringing the ocean far closer in to the Transantarctic range, and that subsequent upthrusts of the Earth and re-advances of glaciers had then delivered the diatoms from the seafloor to great heights — and the so-called “stabilists.” To the contrary, these scientists argued, the ice sheet had stayed intact, but powerful winds had swept the diatoms all the way from the distant sea surface into the mountains.

“It became very much split into two camps,” remembers Reed Scherer, an Antarctic researcher at Northern Illinois University. “It got really nasty.” Some researchers even tried to resolve matters by suggesting that a meteorite, and subsequent cataclysms, could account for the odd fossil locations.

But the decades have given way to new research tools and new perspectives. And Scherer has now paired up with two researchers behind what is arguably the hottest (and most troubling) new computer simulation of how Antarctica’s ice behaves in order to revisit the tale of those pesky diatoms. Their solution, published Tuesday in Nature Communications, isn’t good news — for it suggests that large parts of East Antarctica can indeed collapse in conditions not too dissimilar from those we’re creating today with all of our greenhouse gas emissions.

If we steer the Earth back to those Pliocene-type conditions — when sea levels are believed to have been radically higher around the globe — oddly located diatoms will be the least of our problems.

The new study is co-authored by Rob DeConto of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and David Pollard of Penn State University, who recently published a new ice sheet model of Antarctica that predicts the ice continent can raise sea levels by nearly a meter on its own during this century. They reached this result by adding several new dynamic ice collapse processes to glacial models that, in the past, had been slow to melt East Antarctica even in quite warm conditions — simultaneously lending weight to the views of the stabilists in the debate over the Sirius fossils, while also seeming to suggest that we needn’t worry about truly radical sea-level rise from Antarctica.

The result is that in the Pliocene — and especially the mid-Pliocene warm period, when atmospheric carbon dioxide was at about the level where it is now, 400 parts per million, but global temperatures were 1 or 2 degrees warmer than at present — the model not only collapses the entirety of West Antarctica (driving some 10 feet of global sea-level rise) but also shows the oceans eating substantially into key parts of East Antarctica. In particular, the multi-kilometer thick ice that currently fills the extremely deep Aurora and Wilkes basins of the eastern ice sheet retreats inland for hundreds of miles — which would have driven global seas to a much higher level than caused by a West Antarctic collapse alone.

Here’s a figure from the study, showing as much:

Not only is this the world we could be headed to if global warming continues, but it’s a world that can throw diatoms up into the Transantarctic Mountains, the new study argues. Here’s how that would work.

At first, in the wake of ice retreats in the Aurora and Wilkes basins, what would be left behind are ocean bays filled with life — and many, many diatoms. But Scherer and his colleagues do not believe that winds simply scooped them out of the water and hurled them to the mountains — living, wet diatoms suspended in water would have been too heavy to travel so far, Scherer says.

So instead, the study postulates another development. After a few thousand years of seas filled with happy diatoms, dying and lining the ocean floor in front of the remnant glaciers of the Wilkes and Aurora basins, the once submerged Earth would slowly rebound in some spots (a process sometimes called “isostatic uplift” or “postglacial rebound”). This would create an archipelago of islands, new landmasses free to rise to the surface now that so much ice has sloughed off their backs.

These islands, then, were the source of the diatoms, the study postulates.

The computer model “did show the ice retreated along the margins of East Antarctica, and isostatic uplift would then expose these areas that become new seaways, and with it would have been highly productive for plankton,” says Scherer. “So you would have been accumulating massive numbers of diatoms across this new basin, and with the loss of the ice, the land flexed upward, became exposed to winds, and the wind carried them to the mountains.”

Scherer notes that his new scenario doesn’t really proclaim either the dynamicists or the stabilists the victors. His view is clearly reliant on a substantial amount of dynamics, but it also doesn’t show the East Antarctica ice retreated nearly as far back as earlier proposals. Nor does it use glacial processes to move the deposited diatoms. Rather, it borrows the stabilist idea of wind-blown transport, albeit only after ice has retreated and land has risen in its wake.

Commenting on this new compromise proposal Monday, one Antarctic researcher praised the work as representing an advance on old ways of thinking. “The paper is a great example of how much [paleo]climate modelling has improved in the last decade[s], particularly in the last few years,” said Simone Galeotti, an Antarctic researcher at the Università degli Studi di Urbino in Italy, by email.

The research also earned praise from David Harwood, one of the original ‘dynamicists’ and now a professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

“This paper’s integration of climate, ice sheet, and atmospheric models provides interesting new perspective on potential source regions for the Antarctic, marine Pliocene diatoms present in glacial sediments of the Transantarctic Mountains, from interior basins of East Antarctica,” said Harwood in an emailed statement. “Their origin from deglaciated, exposed, rebounded marine basin floors in the Aurora and Wilkes basins is plausible, and the new model-derived wind patterns support their trajectory toward the [Transantarctic Mountains].”

But beyond solving the riddle of the Sirius deposits in the Transantarctic Mountains, the new study speaks to the present moment. After all, the warm Pliocene, with its much higher seas, is one of the key past eras that scientists regularly look to for an analogue for where we are currently driving the planet with our greenhouse gases.

And thus, the new work suggests that if we keep pushing the system, we’ll not only have to worry about the loss of Greenland’s and West Antarctica’s ice, but also major losses from the biggest ice sheet of them all, East Antarctica.

Scherer, DeConto, and Pollard also have a fourth author on the study, the noted Penn State glaciologist Richard Alley, who has become more and more outspoken of late about his concerns that the world’s great ice sheets could be unstable. In a media statement accompanying the study’s release, Alley had this to say:

This is another piece of a jigsaw puzzle that the community is rapidly putting together, and which appears to show that the ice sheets are more sensitive to warming than we had hoped. If humans continue to warm the climate, we are likely to commit to large and perhaps rapid sea-level rise that could be very costly. No one piece of the puzzle shows this, but as they fit together, the picture is becoming clearer.

In other words, solving this key scientific problem from Antarctica’s past turns out to immediately raise major concerns about its future.

“We have now reached a point where atmospheric CO2 levels are as high as that during the Pliocene, 400 ppm, when geological evidence and new model results suggest substantial retreat of the EAIS [East Antarctic Ice Sheet] margin into interior basins. These perspectives bear fundamentally on predictions of future EAIS behavior,” said Harwood by email.

Granted, on a scientific and individual level, there’s also the satisfaction of finally being able to unify quite a lot of information into an explanation that fits the data and also matches our growing present day understanding of Antarctic vulnerability.

“Personally, I find the story rather cathartic, because it does explain the observations, I think, in a much better way than had been done before,” says Scherer.


Jeff Bezos names big next rocket New Glenn

Amazon boss Jeff Bezos has revealed further details of the big, reusable rocket he has been developing inside his Blue Origin space company.

The New Glenn, as it will be called, is designed to launch satellites and people from Cape Canaveral in Florida, the entrepreneur says.

The vehicle will come in two configurations, with the biggest standing more than 95m (313ft) tall.

Mr Bezos aims for a first launch before the end of the decade.

Blue Origin has shown impressive progress recently on its much smaller, sub orbital-rocket and capsule system known as New Shepard.

This has flown five times over the Texas desert, with the booster returning to Earth safely on the last four occasions.

But Mr Bezos has always spoken of his desire to build a much more capable vehicle - and the New Glenn is it.

Named after the first American to orbit the planet - John Glenn - the 7m-wide (23ft) rocket will be powered at its base by seven engines burning liquid methane and liquid oxygen.

This is envisaged to produce a thrust of 17.1 megaNewtons (3.85 million pounds force) at lift-off. By way of comparison, Europe's Ariane 5 rocket produces 13 megaNewtons from its main liquid-fuelled core-stage engine and two sold-fuelled solid motors.

As with the New Shepard booster, the New Glenn's main stage would come back to Earth to make a controlled landing after its mission.

The New Glenn's first stage would be topped with a second stage, and, if needed, by a third stage.

Both of these additional segments would be powered by a single engine burning liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen - the same engine as powers the New Shepard now.

The full configuration would be required to send payloads beyond low-Earth orbit.

A year ago Mr Bezos announced that he was leasing the historic Launch Complex 36 at Cape Canaveral, which was used by the rockets that despatched some of the first inter-planetary probes. Manufacturing facilities were also to be set up in the area.

In a statement on Monday, the Amazon boss said: "Our vision is millions of people living and working in space, and New Glenn is a very important step."

And then, tantalisingly, he added: "It won't be the last of course. Up next on our drawing board: New Armstrong. But that's a story for the future."

The entrepreneur is gradually ramping up his space activities.

The same methane engine, the BE-4, to be used on the New Glenn is currently in competition to power another rocket operated by the Boeing and Lockheed Martin joint venture - United Launch Alliance.

This rocket, to be called the Vulcan, would be the successor to the vehicles that are presently used by Nasa and the US Air Force to launch most of America's science and national security missions.

Blue Origin continues work on its New Shepard system, which is expected to be used in due course for tourist flights and for micro-gravity experiments.

The next launch is scheduled in a few weeks, when an emergency abort will be practised.

This procedure will see the capsule separated from its booster early in the flight to simulate a problem.

It is the type of test engineers carry out to prove a spacecraft is safe to carry people.

Scientists Find 3.7 Billion-Year-Old Fossil, Oldest Yet

Scientists have found what they think is the oldest fossil on Earth, a remnant of life from 3.7 billion years ago when Earth's skies were orange and its oceans green.

In a newly melted part of Greenland, Australian scientists found the leftover structure from a community of microbes that lived on an ancient seafloor, according to a study in Wednesday's journal Nature .

The discovery shows life may have formed quicker and easier than once thought, about half a billion years after Earth formed . And that may also give hope for life forming elsewhere, such as Mars, said study co-author Martin VanKranendonk of the University of New South Wales and director of the Australian Center for Astrobiology.

"It gives us an idea how our planet evolved and how life gained a foothold," VanKranendonk said.

Scientists had thought it would take at least half a billion years for life to form after the molten Earth started to cool a bit, but this shows it could have happened quicker, he said. That's because the newly found fossil is far too complex to have developed soon after the planet's first life forms, he said.

In an outcrop of rocks that used to be covered with ice and snow which melted after an exceptionally warm spring, the Australian team found stromatolites, which are intricately layered microscopic layered structures that are often produced by a community of microbes. The stromatolites were about .4 to 1.6 inches high (1 to 4 centimeters).

It "is like the house left behind made by the microbes," VanKranendonk said.

Scientists used the layers of ash from volcanoes and tiny zircon with uranium and lead to date this back 3.7 billion years ago, using a standard dating method, VanKranendonk said.

"It would have been a very different world. It would have had black continents, a green ocean with orange skies," he said. The land was likely black because the cooling lava had no plants, while large amounts of iron made the oceans green. Because the atmosphere had very little oxygen and oxygen is what makes the sky blue, its predominant color would have been orange, he said.

The dating seems about right, said Abigail Allwood , a NASA astrobiologist who found the previous oldest fossil, from 3.48 billion years ago, in Australia. But Allwood said she is not completely convinced that what VanKranendonk's team found once was alive. She said the evidence wasn't conclusive enough that it was life and not a geologic quirk.

"It would be nice to have more evidence, but in these rocks that's a lot to ask," Allwood said in an email.

Zika vaccine trials begin – but fears remain over virus’s impact

There’s finally some progress in the fight against Zika. A vaccine is being given to 160 people in Zika-hit Puerto Rico, and a preliminary study has identified two existing drugs that seem to protect human brain cells from the virus.

The vaccine, developed by Inovio Pharmaceuticals, contains a synthetic DNA fragment similar to one in the virus itself. The company hopes that people who receive it will develop immune protection against Zika.

The two drugs that might be useful as a treatment came from an analysis of thousands of compounds, including some drugs that are used to treat other conditions. Zika seems to target cells that make new neurons in the brain and stop them from working properly. This is thought to cause the horrendous brain defects seen in some babies born with the virus, and could also put infected adults at risk of memory and mood disorders.

A team of researchers from the US and China identified one drug – currently in clinical trials for liver diseases – that protects brain cells from damage, and 10 others that stop Zika from replicating, one of which is an already-approved drug used to treat worm infections. A combination of two compounds could be an effective Zika treatment, say the authors, who hope to start testing in animals soon.


But we are still some way off having treatments ready for use on the ground, says Edwin Trevathan, a paediatric neurologist at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, who advises the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on Zika. “Even if the vaccine development moves as quickly as we’d like, realistically it will be a year before we have something we can use to protect people,” he says.

Transmission cases

The development is welcome after a couple of weeks of bad news. Last Friday, the CDC described the first known case of Zika transmission from a man who had shown no symptoms of illness to his sexual partner, a couple of weeks after he returned from the Dominican Republic. The news came days after a finding that Zika had remained in an Italian man’s semen for six months after a trip to Haiti – around three times longer than previously seen in people.

At the same time, doctors and scientists are warning that the effects of Zika could be worse than thought, and may not affect some babies for several years, when it could impact their brain development. “It could affect parts of the brain that don’t manifest their function until the age of 2, 4 or 6,” says Travathan. “Sadly, I suspect that many of us who take care of children will see the effects of Zika for a long time. This is a problem that may have been dramatically underestimated.”

Until we have vaccines and treatments, efforts are under way to stem infections and the spread of Zika-infected mosquitoes. Last Friday, the US Food and Drug Administration recommended testing for Zika virus in all donated blood before it is used. The organisation has also fast-tracked the approval of a commercially available Zika diagnosis kit.

The CDC has set aside $6.8 million to fund public awareness, diagnosis and mosquito surveillance – although this is only a fraction of the $1.9 billion that the Obama administration has requested from Congress. And new polls suggest that most people living in Florida support the release of genetically modified mosquitoes that could help stem the spread of the virus.

Deep-Earth tremor detected by Japanese scientists

Deep-Earth tremor — A group of Japanese seismologists were able to detect for the first time a seismic wave (S) of a deep-earth tremor and to determine that it was due to a powerful storm on the other side of the Earth, according to the journal Science on Thursday.

This discovery could help experts better understand the internal structure of the Earth and to improve early detection of earthquakes and ocean storms.

The storm causing this deep-earth tremor occurred in the North Atlantic between Iceland and Greenland. It was presented by the scientists  as a “weather bomb” and the waves pounded the ocean floor to the point of producing some the deep-earth tremors. These tremors are what were detected by Japanese scientists.

They used seismic equipment placed at the bottom of the ocean, which are typically used to measure the erosion of the Earth’s crust during earthquakes. And for the first time they detected these deep-earth tremors known as secondary seismic wave name (S).

Other major waves, known as primary waves (P) are detected much more easily during earthquakes and also during hurricanes.

S-waves are slower and propagate only through rocks, not in liquids.

Using more than 200 stations operated by the National Research Institute for Earth Science and Disaster Prevention, in the district of Chugoku, Japan, the researchers Kiwamu Nishida and Ryota Takagi “detected not only P-waves micro-earthquakes triggered by a severe and distant storm in the north Atlantic, but also  S waves,” notes the study.

“This is the first time that scientists were able to observe the S wave of a micro-earthquake,” the study continues.

This discovery “gives seismologists a new tool with which to study the deep structure of the Earth”, wrote in an article in support of this study Gerstoft Peter and Peter Bromirski, of the University of California, San Diego.

New vaccines under development

Cuba's Biotechnology Industry Group and BioCubaFarma are researching the potential of new vaccines, including a quadrivalent formula for dengue.

Institutions affiliated with Cuba's Biotechnology Industry Group and BioCubaFarma are working on the search for new vaccines, with some showing positive signs of security and effectiveness in preclinical and clinical trials.

A promising 7-valent conjugate vaccine to protect against pneumococcus is being studied by specialists at the Molecular Chemistry Center; along with several against tuberculosis, whose principal researchers are based at the Finlay Institute; as well as a quadrivalent formula for dengue being investigated at the Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology Center.

Given the innovative nature of these advances, the developers of the three vaccines were awarded National Academy of Science prizes in 2015.

Also in the final stages of clinical trials is a cholera vaccine, on which the Finaly Institute, the Scientific Research National Center, and BioCubaFarma are working jointly.

BioCubaFarma currently produces 10 of the 13 vaccines used in Cuba's national vaccination program, an effort which has eliminated nine diseases and has kept five others under control with very low rates of infection.

One of the most significant impacts of the country's vaccination program has been the control of hepatitis B. No severe cases in children under five years of age have appeared in the country since 1999, and none in those under 15 since 2006. An appreciable reduction in liver cancer is also attributed to control of the hepatitis B virus.

War machine: Robots to replace soldiers in future, says Russian military’s tech chief

Future warfare will see sophisticated combat robots fighting on land, in the air, at sea and in outer space, the head of Russia’s military hi-tech body has said, adding that the days of conventional soldiers on the battlefield are numbered.

“I see a greater robotization [of war], in fact, future warfare will involve operators and machines, not soldiers shooting at each other on the battlefield,” Lieutenant General Andrey Grigoriev, head of the Advanced Research Foundation (ARF) – viewed as Russia’s analogue of DARPA – told RIA Novosti in an interview on Wednesday.

He noted that future warfare will be determined by unmanned combat systems: “It would be powerful robot units fighting on land, in the air, at sea as well as underwater and in outer space.”

“They would be integrated into large comprehensive reconnaissance-strike systems,” Grigoriev added.

“The soldier would gradually turn into an operator and be removed from the battlefield,” he stressed.

Last October, the United Instrument Manufacturing Corporation (UIMC) said it had developed the Unicum software package, which is capable of powering a group of up to 10 robotic systems. It can distribute ‘roles’ among robots, choose a ‘commander’ of the robotic task force and assign a combat mission to each individual machine.

Humans, however, will still play a role on the battlefield until robotized warfare becomes reality, Grigoriev stressed. While work on Russia’s infantry combat system Ratnik 2 is underway, the AFR is already looking for a next-generation upgrade.

The Legionnaire, a new project, would involve brand-new firearms, communications systems as well as enhanced protection from bullets and shrapnel, allowing an infantryman “to feel comfortable in any environment.”

Military cyborg biker presented to Putin

Last year, Russia unveiled a constellation of sophisticated robots armed with machine guns, automatic cannons, grenade launchers and non-lethal equipment. Russia’s latest main battle tank, the T-14 Armata, will also get robotized features which are likely to make it the deadliest unmanned ground vehicle (UGV) ever known.

In June last year, Grigoriev also told reporters that Russia was developing a cyborg “resembling a human in appearance” and designed to operate in hostile environments. The humanoid will learn how to run, jump, overcome obstacles and even ride a motorbike, he announced.

In March of this year, Uran-6 mine-cleaning robots were used by Russian bomb disposal units deployed to the Syrian city of Palmyra on a de-mining mission. The robots were said to be capable of carrying out controlled explosions or destroying explosive devices they encounter.

  • Published in World

Leonardo DiCaprio wants his L.A. friends to fly halfway across the world to fight global warming

In an attempt to save the planet from climate change, Leonardo DiCaprio has found himself in hot water.

The Oscar-winning actor is hosting an exclusive gala in St. Tropez to raise money to stop global warming — and is asking his celebrity guests to fly halfway around the world to attend.

Many are criticizing DiCaprio’s event, arguing that flying from Los Angeles, where many guests live, to the south of France is not environmentally friendly, as private jets in particular leave a serious carbon footprint.

Hollywood elites including Kate Hudson, Scarlett Johansson, Robert De Niro and Kevin Spacey are expected to be among the 500 guests, alongside wealthy philanthropists and business tycoons.

Danny Harvey, a professor who specializes in global warming and energy efficiency at the University of Toronto, said that while airplanes can be harmful, the outcome of the fundraiser may be worth traveling to Europe.

“OK, there’s some C02 emissions, but what are the benefits of this one event? Maybe the benefits outweigh it,” Harvey said.

The event — The Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation Annual Gala To Fund Climate and Biodiversity Projects — reportedly raised US$40 million last year, and this year’s July 20 fundraiser aims to help fund research and project grants for climate change.

The Daily Mail reported that tables at the gala’s dinner range from US$77,000 to US$160,000.

“If (guests) want to have the lowest impact, they should go economy class in a big commercial airline on a non-stop flight,” Harvey said.

“Private jets might be harder to justify, unless everyone is going in the same jet.”

Gideon Forman, a climate change policy analyst at the David Suzuki Foundation, echoed Harvey’s stance, and said traveling in the day has less impact than flying at night.

“If this is the only way to do it, and this is a crucial climate meeting, that would be some reason to go ahead, because the climate issue is so pressing,” Forman said.

“You can also buy carbon offsets…that’s another thing the participants can do.”

  • Published in World
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