The elusive harp sponge dwells nearly two miles below the surface of the ocean, far deeper than humans are able to explore. No one even knew they existed before scientists off California’s Monterey Bay used a remote control vehicle to spy on the meat-eating sponge from afar. Their findings, published Oct. 18 in Invertebrate Biology, reveal the secrets of this slow-motion hunter.
Flares have been washing up on beaches for a long time:
an AP news item from February 23, 1993
Last week, several small stones in the pocket of a California woman’s shorts exploded into flame, leaving her with third-degree burns. The stones came from a beach at San Onofre State Beach in San Diego, which she’d visited earlier in the day.
The story caused a sensation, as media discussed what could make rocks catch on fire. By Friday, California environmental health officials had an answer, or at least part of one: two of the rocks were covered in phosphorus, an element that’s known for igniting into a fierce white flame when it’s exposed to air. Near as they can tell, as long as the rocks were wet with seawater, the phosphorus didn’t ignite, but after they’d dried out in the woman’s pockets over the course of the day, the phosphorus reacted explosively.
But how did the rocks get covered with phosphorus? Though the substance is mined and used in fertilizers, it isn’t very common in in the natural world in its explosive form, called white phosphorus. White phosphorous does, however, have a long history of production by militaries, who use it in flares. Unexploded military flares, presumably dropped by aircraft, have been known to wash up on beaches: Just last year flares washed up on a beach a half-hour’s drive from San Onofre. NBC reported that those flares were from military exercises going on off the coast.
California birds are getting slightly bigger, according to a study published in Global Change Biology in which researchers measured and weighed 33,000 birds over the past 40 years. The increases were small, but significant: in the last 25 years robins have grown 0.2 ounces in mass and 1/8th of an inch in wing length, for example. But the finding runs counter to the only other long-term study measuring avian size in North America, which found that birds in Pennsylvania have shrunk slightly over recent decades. And it seems to disagree with other recent suggestions that animals may shrink in a warming world: Bergmann’s rule holds that animals generally get bigger as they get farther away from the equator, because larger animals are better able to retain heat.
Fresh shark fins drying on sidewalk in Hong Kong. Credit: cloneofsnake / flickr
On Friday, California governor Jerry Brown signed into law a bill outlawing the trade in shark fins, making it illegal for them to be imported, possessed, or distributed in the state. Chinese chefs were angered by the decision, since the fins are the prime ingredient in shark fin soup, a prized and expensive delicacy (although most Chinese voters in California support the ban… and so does retired NBA player Yao Ming). Other parts of shark meat are not highly valued, though, so most sharks caught are “finned” and thrown back into the ocean, where they slowly bleed to death. As many as 73 million sharks are killed each year, most for this purpose, and shark populations around the world are in serious decline—perhaps 30 percent of shark species are endangered.
Perhaps you’ve heard the saying, “We’re not running out of oil. We’re running out of easy oil.” One place where oil is hard (and heavy) is below the Californian ground, where extractors must blast the sludgy petroleum with steam to get it flowing. Most such operations use natural gas to make the steam, but one startup has turned to an unusual partner for oil mining—solar energy—to try to make the business more efficient.
How? Greenhouses full of mirrors.
GlassPoint, a company based in Fremont, California, wants to use solar thermal energy to cook up some steam. Unlike photovoltaic solar, which converts the sun’s radiation directly into electricity, solar thermal projects trap and focus the sun’s heat. Those projects typically involve using the heat to turn turbines and create electricity, but this design is simpler.
GlassPoint’s system is cheaper because it doesn’t need the turbines, and because it has redesigned its mirrors and pipes to pump out steam that’s 250 °C to 300 °C (whereas the steam required to drive turbines must be 350 °C to 400 °C). [Technology Review]
The state of our forests is troubled, but maybe on the mend.
The United Nations, as part of its effort to brand 2011 the International Year of Forests, released an assessment this week about forest extent, and quality, all around the world. First, the good news: Forest destruction is slowing down, according to assistant director general Eduardo Rojas-Briales of the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization.
The 4.032 billion hectares (9.9 billion acres) of forests in the world in 2010 is down from an estimated 4.085 billion in 2000, said the FAO. But the speed at which which trees are being cut down is slowing from 8.3 million hectares a year in 1990-2000 to 5.2 million in the past decade. “There are evident signs that we could arrive at a balance in a few years,” said Rojas-Briales, adding that the deforestation rate was 50 million hectares a year 30 years ago. [AFP]
Asian countries have achieved particularly impressive results, with many adding to their total of forested territory.
“China has increased its forest by three million hectares (30,000 sq km) per year – no country has ever done anything like this before, it’s an enormous contribution,” said … Rojas-Briales. “But we can also highlight the case of Vietnam, a small and densely populated country that’s implemented very smart and comprehensive forest reform – or India, which has not controlled its population as China has and where standards of living are even lower. Nevertheless India has achieved a modest growth of its forest area.” [BBC News]
But the world is not out of the woods, so to speak, in bringing back the forest health of old.
Renewable energy, information technology, and many other industries are in a political and economic bind—they require the obscure periodic table denizens called rare earth metals, and nearly all the world’s supply of those elements comes from China. But now, for the first time in years, rare earth elements will be mined at an American site. The mining company Molycorp says it has the permits in hand to reopen a mine in Mountain Pass, California, that could soon meet much of the U.S. demand for these elements.
The materials that come out of Mountain Pass will be used to make high-strength magnets necessary for electric vehicle engines, wind turbines, and a variety of other high-tech products. However, the U.S. possesses neither the technology nor the licensing to manufacture the neodymium-iron-boron alloy necessary for their production. As such, Molycorp has partnered with Japanese firm Hitachi Metals to manufacture the magnets in the United States. [Popular Science]
After its projected 2012 opening, the Molycorp mine should produce about 20,000 tons of material per year, the company says. Right now the world’s demand stands at about 125,000 tons per year, and Technology Review reports that this number could jump to 225,000 in five years. China has a stranglehold on the rare earth market, meaning political maelstroms could disrupt the supply.
Cap-and-trade is coming to California. The market-based system intended to cut greenhouse gas emissions is the key part of the Golden State’s effort, set into law four years ago, to cut its emissions to 1990 levels by 2020. Yesterday the California Air Resources Board finally approved the complex set of rules, which will go into effect in 2012.
Power plants, refineries and other industrial facilities that emit carbon dioxide and can’t cut their emissions by the required amount will be able to obtain pollution allowances from the state or buy them from other emitters with excess allowances. [Wall Street Journal]
Cap-and-trade is widespread in Europe, but California‘s plan would be the first large-scale, legally mandated version of this idea to get going in the United States.
“We’re inventing this,” said Mary Nichols, chairwoman of the state’s air quality board. “There is still going to be quite a bit of action needed before it becomes operational.” She said California is trying to “fill the vacuum created by the failure of Congress to pass any kind of climate or energy legislation for many years now.” [USA Today]
The science world is abuzz with news of a strange new life form found in California’s Mono Lake: Researchers report that they’ve discovered a bacterium that can not only thrive in an arsenic-rich environment, it can actually use that arsenic to build its DNA. If the researchers, who published their findings in Science, are correct, then they’ve found a form of life unlike anything we’ve ever seen before.
As you might expect, DISCOVER’s blogs offered plenty of coverage of this exciting news.
At The Loom, Carl Zimmer writes: “Scientists have found a form of life that they claim bends the rules for life as we know it. But they didn’t need to go to another planet to find it. They just had to go to California.”
At Bad Astronomy, Phil Plait explains exactly how the bacteria can make use of arsenic to build their DNA. A few days ago, Phil also took NASA to task for its press release promising news of “an astrobiology finding that will impact the search for evidence of extraterrestrial life,” which fueled wild speculation on whether NASA had found little green men in the solar system.
At Not Exactly Rocket Science, Ed Yong debunks a few of the more breathless accounts. The bacteria do not “belong to a second branch of life on Earth…. They aren’t a parallel branch of life; they’re very much part of the same tree that the rest of us belong to. That doesn’t, however, make them any less extraordinary.”
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80beats: Arsenic-Eating Bacteria May Resemble Early Life on Primordial Earth
DISCOVER: Renewed Hope for Life on the Red Planet