Stunning image of the earth

Blue Marble

A ‘Blue Marble’ image of the Earth taken from the VIIRS instrument aboard NASA’s most recently launched Earth-observing satellite – Suomi NPP. This composite image uses a number of swaths of the Earth’s surface taken on January 4, 2012. The NPP satellite was renamed ‘Suomi NPP’ on January 24, 2012 to honor the late Verner E. Suomi of the University of Wisconsin.

Suomi NPP is NASA’s next Earth-observing research satellite. It is the first of a new generation of satellites that will observe many facets of our changing Earth.

Suomi NPP is carrying five instruments on board. The biggest and most important instrument is The Visible/Infrared Imager Radiometer Suite or VIIRS.

for see the original image


The great Arctic oil race begins

Conservationists fear spills in icy waters as Norway awards oil-production licences.

“The race is on for positions in the new oil provinces.” That starting-gun quote was fired last week by Tim Dodson, executive vice-president of the Norwegian oil and gas company Statoil. The ‘new oil provinces’ are in the Arctic, which brims with untapped resources amounting to 90 billion barrels of oil, up to 50 trillion cubic metres of natural gas and 44 billion barrels of natural gas liquids, according to a 2008 estimate by the US Geological Survey. That’s about 13% of the world’s technically recoverable oil, and up to 30% of its gas — and most of it is offshore.

Oil companies see an opportunity to sate the world’s demand for fossil fuels. Green groups and many scientists, however, are horrified by the prospect of drilling and production in remote, often ice-choked waters, where spills would be harder to control and clean up than in warmer regions. Memories of the devastating environmental impact of the Exxon Valdez accident in 1989 in Alaska’s Prince William Sound are still all too fresh — like the oil that can still be found in the area’s beaches.

At last week’s Arctic Frontiers conference in Tromsø, Norway, the oil industry insisted that it will be cautious and responsible in extracting oil and gas in the region, and it rolled out an initiative to develop ways of coping with any accidents. Dodson told the meeting that “technology will be there to clean it up”.

Statoil already operates the world’s most northerly liquefied natural-gas production facility near Hammerfest, which draws gas equivalent to about 48,000 barrels of oil a day from the Snøhvit field in the Arctic waters off Norway. By 2020, the company hopes to extract one million barrels of oil equivalent a day from new wells in the Arctic. It is planning exploratory drilling later this year, for example, in the Skrugard and Havis gas fields that were discovered in the Barents Sea last year.

The Norwegian government is happy with Statoil’s bold plans. Norway is currently the world’s second-largest gas exporter, with production continuing to rise, but it is looking to the Arctic to offset a one-third decline in production at its oil fields farther south since 2000. “If we don’t invest, we might lose another third within the next decade,” says Ola Borten Moe, Norway’s minister of petroleum and energy.

On 17 January, Moe awarded 26 production licences for developed offshore oil areas in the Norwegian and Barents Sea to companies including Statoil, Total, ExxonMobil and ConocoPhillips. And the settlement in 2010 of a long-running row between Norway and Russia over their Arctic maritime boundary will allow more exploration in formerly disputed parts of the Barents Sea (see ‘Frozen fuels’). “There’s an ocean of new opportunities that we will grasp with both hands,” says Moe.

The resource rush is alarming critics. A group of 573 scientists, for example, wrote last week to US President Barack Obama, urging caution in authorizing new oil and gas activity in the Arctic Ocean north of Alaska. The open letter, coordinated by the Pew Environment Group, a conservation organization headquartered in Washington DC, argues that more research is needed to assess the potential impact on the region’s environment and ecosystems before going ahead with more drilling.

The industry holds that Arctic oil and gas development can be done in an environmentally sustainable manner despite the challenges. “We realize that there are huge issues when working in the cold and darkness and in the presence of sea ice in areas at great distance from any infrastructure,” says Joseph Mullin, a London-based programme manager at the International Association of Oil and Gas Producers. Mullin will oversee a four-year, US$20-million research programme to address those issues, launched at the Tromsø conference by nine major oil companies.

The initiative, which is open to academic collaborators, will include research on the environmental effects of Arctic oil spills, spill trajectory modelling and remote sensing, and oil recovery techniques in sea-ice areas. It will also test Arctic clean-up technologies in a number of controlled oil releases. “You’d like to have a variety of spill-response options in the tool box before you venture out there,” says Mullin.

The leading Russian oil and gas companies, Gazprom and Rosneft, have so far stayed clear of the initiative, adding to concerns about their compliance with national and international safety standards.

In December 2011, for example, at least 37 people were killed when an oil rig under contract to Gazprom capsized off Sakhalin Island in Russia’s Arctic Ocean, resulting in a fine for the company.

And according to Vladimir Chuprov, a Moscow-based energy expert who works for Greenpeace, emergency contingency plans for the Prirazlomnoye oil platform in the Russian Barents Sea, where commercial drilling is to start this year, have not been publicly released, despite being required by Russian regulators.

But even companies with better safety records should avoid the Arctic, say Chuprov and other environmentalists. “In our view no company is ready for offshore oil projects in the Arctic Ocean,” he says.

UK sets sights on gene therapy in eggs

Public consultation and safety assessment would pave the way for embryo manipulation to treat genetic diseases.

Britain has set out a road map towards the first clinical tests of reproductive techniques that combine parents’ genes with DNA from a third party. The approach raises ethical questions, but could spare children from inheriting some rare diseases, including forms of muscular dystrophy and neurodegenerative disorders that affect around 1 in 5,000 people.

These conditions are caused by defects in the mitochondria, the ‘power packs’ of the cell, which are inherited from a child’s mother through the egg. Experiments on primates, and with defective human eggs, have already shown that genetic material can be removed from an egg that has faulty mitochondria and transferred to a healthy donor ovum, leaving the flawed mitochondrial DNA behind. In principle, the resulting egg could then develop into a healthy child carrying both the parents’ nuclear genes and mitochondrial DNA from the donor. But the work amounts to genetic modification of embryos — which is currently illegal in the United Kingdom — and also involves destroying fertilized eggs.

On 19 January, the UK government’s Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) announced a public consultation on the process, the first step towards making it legal. Simultaneously, the country’s biggest biomedical charity, the Wellcome Trust, said that it would fund preclinical experiments to gauge the safety of the techniques. An independent bioethical review is also in progress. “It’s a wonderful example of how regulation should work, because it’s saying let’s see the science, let’s see the bioethics, let’s find out what the public thinks,” says Peter Braude, a reproductive biologist at King’s College London.

Two procedures are being developed: pronuclear transfer and maternal spindle transfer (seethe image above). US researchers have already used maternal spindle transfer to produce two healthy rhesus monkeys. Meanwhile, neurologist Douglass Turnbull of Newcastle University, UK, and his team have performed pronuclear transfer on defective human eggs, and found that normal development occurred in a small minority.

In 2011, Braude co-authored a report for the HFEA that concluded that the nuclear transfer procedures seem safe on the basis of current research. The report outlined several studies that it deemed “critical” before either procedure could be used to create a child. These include experiments on healthy human eggs, and proof that the pronuclear transfer technique can conceive healthy monkeys.

The Wellcome Trust has now awarded Turnbull £4.4 million (US$6.8 million), which his university has topped up with another £1.4 million, to perform the procedures on healthy human eggs. Turnbull and his team hope to determine whether the embryos can safely reach the 100-cell blastocyst stage, when implantation occurs. Yet they have no plans to test pronuclear transfer in monkeys, and it is unclear who would conduct such experiments.

Shoukhrat Mitalipov, a reproductive biologist at Oregon Health and Science University near Portland, who led the work on rhesus monkeys, says that his lab uses the maternal spindle transfer technique because it is easier to perform. Mitalipov has begun experiments on human eggs in a privately funded lab. Such work is barred from receiving federal funds because it involves the destruction of human embryos.

No scramble

Turnbull is agnostic about which, if any, procedure is likely to reach the clinic first. One technique may prove more efficient than the other, or may shuttle fewer mutant mitochondria to the donor egg. “We’ve got to be careful that this is not a race,” Turnbull says. Taking the technique beyond the lab would also require a change in the law. Nuclear transfer procedures are banned under the UK Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act, but the government could amend the law for procedures used to treat mitochondrial diseases.

Meanwhile, the Nuffield Council on Bioethics in London has begun an independent review of the procedures. Science writer Geoff Watts, chairman of the working group behind the review, believes that it will inform the government’s decision. It will consider issues such as whether the procedures should be used to conceive only males, who will not pass on any donor mitochondria to their children. The council says that it will deliver a report in the summer.

Braude worries that, outside the United Kingdom, “somebody will be a cowboy” and attempt the procedures without regulatory oversight. Yet government hurdles could prevent the techniques from being adopted quickly elsewhere. In Australia, for example, a government review in 2011 recommended continuing a ban on such techniques. In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration would be responsible for approving them. Such restrictions, combined with the US ban on federal funding of human embryo work, mean that the first clinical trials of nucleus-swapping procedures will almost certainly occur in the United Kingdom.

“We’ve moved to the stage where we think that the preliminary evidence is very supportive,” says Turnbull, “and we think it’s a very good idea that they consider this.”

NASA rees repeating La Niña hitting its peak

La Niña, “the diva of drought,” is peaking, increasing the odds that the Pacific Northwest will have more stormy weather this winter and spring, while the southwestern and southern United States will be dry.

Sea surface height data from NASA’s Jason-1 and -2 satellites show that the milder repeat of last year’s strong La Niña has recently intensified, as seen in the latest Jason-2 image of the Pacific Ocean, available at:

The image is based on the average of 10 days of data centered on Jan. 8, 2012. It depicts places where the Pacific sea surface height is higher than normal (due to warm water) as yellow and red, while places where the sea surface is lower than normal (due to cool water) are shown in blues and purples. Green indicates near-normal conditions. The height of the sea surface over a given area is an indicator of ocean temperature and other factors that influence climate.

This is the second consecutive year that the Jason altimetric satellites have measured lower-than-normal sea surface heights in the equatorial Pacific and unusually high sea surface heights in the western Pacific.

“Conditions are ripe for a stormy, wet winter in the Pacific Northwest and a dry, relatively rainless winter in Southern California, the Southwest and the southern tier of the United States,” says climatologist Bill Patzert of JPL. “After more than a decade of mostly dry years on the Colorado River watershed and in the American Southwest, and only two normal rain years in the past six years in Southern California, low water supplies are lurking. This La Niña could deepen the drought in the already parched Southwest and could also worsen conditions that have fueled recent deadly wildfires.”

NASA will continue to monitor this latest La Niña to see whether it has reached its expected winter peak or continues to strengthen. A repeat of La Niña ocean conditions from one year to the next is not uncommon: repeating La Niñas occurred most recently in 1973-74-75, 1998-99-2000 and in 2007-08-09. Repeating La Niñas most often follow an El Niño episode and are essentially the opposite of El Niño conditions. During a La Niña episode, trade winds are stronger than normal, and the cold water that normally exists along the coast of South America extends to the central equatorial Pacific.

La Niña episodes change global weather patterns and are associated with less moisture in the air over cooler ocean waters. This results in less rain along the coasts of North and South America and along the equator, and more rain in the far Western Pacific.

The comings and goings of El Niño and La Niña are part of a long-term, evolving state of global climate, for which measurements of sea surface height are a key indicator. Jason-1 is a joint effort between NASA and the French Space Agency, Centre National d’Études Spatiales (CNES). Jason-2 is a joint effort between NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, CNES and the European Organisation for the Exploitation of Meteorological Satellites (EUMETSAT). JPL manages the U.S. portion of both missions for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, Washington, D.C.

buff your brain

31 ways to get smarter in this 2012

  1. PLAY WORDS WITH FRIENDS- Alec Baldwin is onto some-thing. Research shows word puzzles can help reduce the risk of Alz-hei-mer’s and dementia, so don’t feel guilty whiling away time with the popular smartphone game. Just make sure to turn it off when you fly…
  2. EAT TURMERIC-A common spice in Indian and Thai curries, this gingerlike root contains curcumin, which may reduce the risk of dementia. Just be tidy: in India, it is also used as an orange-yellow dye.
  3. TAKE TAE KWON DO- Or dance. Or play squash. Look for an activity that raises your heart rate and requires a lot of coordination, says John J. Ratey, author of Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain. Even homebodies should be able to find a brain-boosting sport with interactive-game technologies like Microsoft Kinect and Nintendo Wii Fit.
  4. GET NEWS FROM AL JAZEERA- Don’t shut yourself out from new ideas. A 2009 study found that viewers of Al Jazeera English were more open-minded than people who got their news from CNN International and BBC World.
  5. TOSS YOUR SMARTPHONE- Like, in the garbage: constantly checking your email disrupts focus and saps pro- ductivity. And go offline from time to time by installing Freedom, Internet-blocking software that lets you concentrate on the task at hand.
  6. SLEEP A LOT- Take a nap, then get to bed early. Harvard research has shown your brain continues to process memories even after you’ve gone to sleep, so you can recall them better later.
  7.  DOWNLOAD THE TED APP-The world’s greatest minds gather annually at TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) conferences to explore the cutting edge of issues like brain mapping and prenatal intelligence. If you can’t attend, download the TED app for iOS and Android.
  8. GO TO A LITERARY FESTIVAL- Are Los Angeles, Wales, and Jaipur places you’ve always wanted to visit? Well, they all have major annual book festivals, so buy a ticket at the right time and learn a thing or two from big-shot authors like Tom Stoppard and Jennifer Egan as you travel.
  9. BUILD A MEMORY PALACE- A trick for quick recall: associate the thing you want to remember with a vivid image. You may not have the patience to build a “memory palace,” but at least get a sense of such techniques by reading Joshua Foer’s Moonwalking With Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything.
  10. LEARN A LENGUAGE- Mastering a second language gives a workout to your prefrontal cortex, which affects decision making and emotions. Enroll in a class, embed in deepest Sichuan province, or simply pick up Rosetta Stone software and teach yourself Latin.
  11. EAT DARK CHOCOLATE- It might not boost your IQ overnight, but dark chocolate is reported to have memory-improving flavonoids. And go ahead and pair it with a glass of red wine—another great flavonoid source.
  12. JOIN A KNITTING CIRCLE- Whip out the needles and make an awesome scarf. Refining motor ability can bolster cognitive skills. Plus—it’ll keep you warm this winter.
  13. WIPE THE SMILE OFF YOUR FACE- Experiments have shown that the simple act of frowning makes you more skeptical and analytic in your thinking.
  14. PLAY VIOLENT VIDEOGAMES- Yes, you read that right. Various studies have found that videogames quicken reactions, improve multitasking, and reduce hostile feelings after a stressful task. So check out one of this winter’s hot sellers—Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim or Batman: Arkham Asylum.
  15. FOLLOW THIS PEOPLE ON TWITTER- Nouriel Roubini (@Nouriel): Take in his economic genius—and friend him on Facebook to see photos of his playboy lifestyle. Jad Abumrad (@JadAbumrad): His show “Radiolab” is the smartest guide to science and philosophy on the airwaves.Colson Whitehead (@colsonwhitehead): The acclaimed novelist is just as insightful and funny in 140 characters.
  16. EAT YOUGURT-  Probiotics are good for your stomach, but studies on mice suggest they are good for your brain, too: mice who ate them handled anxiety better and showed increased activity in sections of the brain handling emotions and memory.
  17.  INSTALL SUPER MEMO-If you want to commit something to memory, the best time to recall it is the instant before you forget it. The flashcard program SuperMemo helps you catalog that important new data—and then reminds you to remember it at that perfect moment before it slips away.
  18. SEE A SHAKESPEARE PLAY- Reading the Bard has been shown to engage the brain more actively than most contemporary texts, but watching him can’t hurt either. This winter, go see Titus Andronicus in New York City or The Two Gentlemen of Verona in Washington, D.C.
  19. REFINE YOUR THINKING- The brain has two distinct modes of thought, according to Daniel Kahneman, author of Thinking, Fast and Slow. System 1 is fast and automatic; System 2 is slower and more effortful. Understand these two systems, Kahneman argues, and we may be able to detect our own lazy biases and make better choices.
  20. HYDRATE- Sure, every doctor and trainer tells you this, and we will too: dehydration forces the brain to work harder and may dampen its planning ability.
  21. CHECK OUT ITUNES U – Just because you don’t live in Princeton doesn’t mean you can’t audit an Ivy League course. Top-tier schools put their lectures online at iTunes U in everything from ancient philosophy to astrophysics.
  22. VISIT MoMa – Not only does it make you look smart, but viewing art has been shown to reduce stress, letting you focus on the things that really matter. This year’s must-see shows include Damien Hirst at the Tate Modern (April 4) and Cindy Sherman at MoMa (Feb. 26).
  23. PLAY AN INSTRUMENT- Strum chords, tickle the ivories, play a jug. Learning an instrument boosts IQ and increases activity in parts of the brain controlling memory and coordination.
  24. WRITE BY HAND- Remember what that feels like? Brain scans show that handwriting engages more sections of the brain than typing. Bonus brain boost: it’s easier to remember something once you’ve written it down on paper.
  25. THE POMODORO TECHNIQUE- This time-management method has nothing to do with pasta, but aims to make you productive using nothing more than a kitchen timer. Use it to help work in 25-minute blocks, taking a short break after each; the frequent rests aid mental agility.
  26. ZONE OUT- Let your mind wander. A string of studies suggests that zoning out, especially when you don’t consciously realize you’re doing it, allows the brain to work on important “big picture” thinking.
  27. DRINK COFFEE- And don’t just drink one cup: women who drank four cups of coffee a day were less likely to suffer depression than women who drank just one cup a week. Other studies have shown coffee to bolster short-term memory.
  28. DELAY GRATIFICATION- Studies have found that children who were able to resist a marshmallow placed in front of them turned out, years later, to have higher SAT scores than students who snatched it up. The more successful children didn’t necessarily have a natural gift for patience; they controlled their attention by focusing on something else, like singing a song.
  29. BECOME AN EXPERT- Master one task you really enjoy and your brain will perform more efficiently when you do it. Chess whizzes, for example, recognize patterns more quickly than amateurs. Expertise is not innate—practice, as the old saw goes, does make perfect.
  30. WRITE REVIEWS ONLINE- Anyone can be a critic on the Internet—and you should too. When you like or hate something, review it on Amazon, Yelp, whatever. Typing out your opinion will help you to better understand your own thinking.
  31. GET OUT OF TOWN- Life in a big city can drive you to distraction, writes science journalist Jonah Lehrer. Spending just a few minutes on a crowded street impairs memory and self-control, as your brain processes all the stimuli. So plan a weekend getaway: getting in touch with nature helps the brain to recover


bird flu

For “Nature” seems that scientists have created a form of the H5N1 avian flu virus that is transmissible between mammals, raising fears that it could trigger a human pandemic if it escapes from the lab – either through accidental release or as part of a bioterror attack. As debate rages over how much of the research should be published, and whether there is sufficient oversight of such work.


Global warming may trigger winter cooling

It seems counterintuitive, even ironic, that global warming could cause some regions to experience colder conditions. But a new study explains the Rube Goldberg-machine of climatic processes that can link warmer-than-average summers to harsh winter weather in some parts of the Northern Hemisphere.

In general, global average temperatures have been rising since the late 1800s, but the most rapid warming has occurred in the past 40 years. And average temperatures in the Arctic have been rising at nearly twice the global rate, says Judah Cohen, a climate modeler at the consulting firm Atmospheric and Environmental Research in Lexington, Massachusetts. Despite that trend, winters in the Northern Hemisphere have grown colder and more extreme in southern Canada, the eastern United States, and much of northern Eurasia, with England’s record-setting cold spell in December 2010 as a case in point.

A close look at climate data from 1988 through 2010, including the extent of land and sea respectively covered by snow and ice, helps explain how global warming drives regional cooling, Cohen and his colleagues report online today in Environmental Research Letters. In their study, the researchers combined climate and weather data from a variety of sources to estimate Eurasian snow cover, and then they speculated about how that factor might have influenced winter weather elsewhere in the Northern Hemisphere.

First, the strong warming in the Arctic in recent decades, among other factors, has triggered widespread melting of sea ice. More open water in the Arctic Ocean has led to more evaporation, which moisturizes the overlying atmosphere, the researchers say. Previous studies have linked warmer-than-average summer months to increased cloudiness over the ocean during the following autumn. That, in turn, triggers increased snow coverage in Siberia as winter approaches. As it turns out, the researchers found, snow cover in October has the largest effect on climate in subsequent months.

That’s because widespread autumn snow cover in Siberia strengthens a semipermanent high-pressure system called, appropriately enough, the Siberian high, which reinforces a climate phenomenon called the Arctic Oscillation and steers frigid air southward to midlatitude regions throughout the winter.

“This is completely plausible,” says Anne Nolin, a climate scientist at Oregon State University in Corvallis. The correlations between warm summers and cold winters that originally led the researchers to develop their idea don’t prove cause and effect, but analyzing these trends with climate models in future studies could help researchers bolster what Nolin calls “an interesting set of connections.”

“Northern Eurasia is the largest snow-covered landmass in the world each winter,” she notes. It only makes sense, she argues, that it would have a big influence on the Northern Hemisphere’s climate. Indeed, she adds, previous studies have noted the link between Siberian snow cover and climate in the northern Pacific.

The team’s analyses suggest that climate cycles such as the El Niño-Southern Oscillation, the Pacific Decadal Oscillation, and the Atlantic multidecadal oscillation can’t explain the regional cooling trends seen in the Northern Hemisphere during the past couple of decades as well as trends in Siberian snow cover do. If better accounts of autumn snow-cover variability are incorporated into climate models, scientists could provide more accurate winter-weather forecasts, the researchers contend