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US science cuts pay for war – and we all suffer

US science cuts pay for war – and we all suffer – opinion – 26 July 2011 – New Scientist.

Osama bin Laden may be dead, but the horrendous cost of pursuing the “war on terror” may give his followers cause for celebration

WHEN Osama bin Laden was killed earlier this year, many commentators saw it as a turning point in the war on terror. However, a host of measures suggest that bin Laden’s goal – to strike a long-lasting blow to the system of government of the US and to the health and well-being of its citizens – may have been achieved.

Last month, the Eisenhower Research Project at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, released a report entitled “Costs of War“, which estimates the cumulative cost of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to be up to $4 trillion.

What has this vast amount of money achieved? Both Iraq and Afghanistan continue to rank low in political freedom, warlords continue to control much of Afghanistan, and gender and ethnic segregation in Iraq are now worse than they were before 2001.

At the same time, the US economy is in trouble. Unless the country’s debt ceiling is raised by 2 August, the US will default on several of its major financial commitments. Many of the key programmes that contribute to the quality of life of most Americans are under threat.

From a scientific perspective, the appropriations bills now before Congress suggest that the US’s dire fiscal straits will inflict long-term damage to its technical leadership.

The House of Representative’s Committee on Science, Space and Technology has recommended cancelling the James Webb Space Telescope, the successor to the fabulously successful Hubble Space Telescope, because of a cost overrun of $1.6 billion. If this project is cancelled, once Hubble reaches the end of its working life in 2014 we will lose our chance to witness the first moment in cosmic history when the sky lit up with stars, less than a billion years after the big bang.

Beyond the direct loss to science, we need to ask what the next generation of bright minds will lose. The remarkable images captured by Hubble have inspired a generation of people to dream about the universe and its myriad possibilities, and have doubtless inspired youngsters to consider a career in science.

For those of a more practical bent, funding for energy efficiency and renewables could be cut by a whopping 27.3 per cent. It is hard to imagine an applied research programme that is more relevant and important to the health and security of our society.

Cutting that funding is likely to have economic consequences too. In this highly competitive world, the country that leads the research and development in these areas will gain a huge advantage. One only has to consider the fraction of the US’s gross domestic product that resulted from R&D a generation or two ago into technologies ranging from the transistor to the microchip.

If, as a consequence of a decade of unprecedented military spending, we are prepared to give up our grandest intellectual dreams while at the same time cutting efforts to solve the chief technological challenges we face, have we not lost far more than we may have we won?

Lawrence Krauss is director of the Origins Project at Arizona State University in Tempe. His most recent book, Quantum Man: Richard Feynman’s life in science was published in March (W. W. Norton & Co)

Cruise ship sinks in Russia with 182 aboard

Cruise ship sinks in Russia with 182 aboard – CNN.com.

Moscow (CNN) — A cruise ship carrying 182 people sank in Russia’s Volga River on Sunday, leaving at least one person dead and large numbers missing, emergency officials said.

The ship, the Bulgaria, sank with about 2 p.m. (6 a.m. ET) with 125 passengers and a crew of 57 aboard, Russia’s Emergency Situations Ministry reported. A total of 84 people had been rescued Sunday evening, the ministry said.

The state-run news agency RIA Novosti reported that police have opened a criminal investigation into allegations of safety violations aboard the vessel. One woman was confirmed dead and 88 remained missing, RIA Novosti said.

The agency said double-deck cruise ship went down near the village of Syukeyevo, in the Russian republic of Tatarstan. Russian officials said two ships and two helicopters responded to the incident, about 50 miles south of the city of Kazan — about 450 miles east of Moscow.

In all, 22 rescue units including 80 people were involved in the operation, RIA Novosti reported.

Many missing as Russian boat Bulgaria sinks on Volga

More than 110 people are missing after a tourist boat sank on the Volga River in Russia, officials say.

They say one person was confirmed dead and dozens were rescued after the boat sank in the republic of Tatarstan, about 750km (450 miles) east of Moscow.

More than 180 passengers and crew were believed to be on the Bulgaria, which was sailing from the town of Bulgar to the regional capital, Kazan.

The cause of the accident is not clear. A rescue operation is continuing.

The search and rescue effort will continue throughout the night, but hopes of finding survivors are fading, says the BBC’s Steve Rosenberg in Moscow.

Miles from shore

The Bulgaria – a 55-five year old vessel which is believed to be owned by a local tourism company – was on a two-day cruise when it came into difficulty at about 1400 on Sunday, sinking within minutes, says our correspondent.

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It sank several kilometres from the shore near the village of Sukeyevo, about 80km south of Kazan.

While dozens of people were rescued by another pleasure boat that was passing nearby, more than 110 are still missing.

Relatives of those on board have gathered at a port in Kazan waiting for news of their loved ones.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has ordered an investigation into the incident.

The Volga, a wide river, is popular with cruise boats at this time of the year, says our correspondent.

 

Boat sinks off Sudan kills 197 migrants

BBC News – Boat sinks off Sudan ‘killing 197 migrants’.

About 200 people drowned in the Red Sea when a boat carrying migrants to Saudi Arabia sank off Sudan’s coast after catching fire, Sudanese media says.

Only three people have been rescued, according to the Sudanese Media Centre (SMC), a state-linked news agency.

A governing party official told the BBC he believed the passengers were Somalis likely to be fleeing the drought.

The Red Sea is a well-known trafficking route for migrants wanting to reach Saudi Arabia and Yemen.

Arrested

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The boat had set sail from Sudan’s Red Sea State, about 150km (about 90 miles) south of Port Sudan, near the border with Eritrea.

A senior official at Sudan’s Ministry of Information, Rabbie Abdellatti, told the BBC he believed that most or all of those on board were Somalis.

Mr Abdellatti linked the case to the food crisis in the Horn of Africa, which is affecting an estimated 12 million people

It is the worst drought in 60 years. Its effects have been compounded by the violence in Somalia, which has been racked by constant war for more than 20 years – its last functioning national government was toppled in 1991.

On Wednesday, the UN refugee agency said it estimated that a quarter of Somalis are either displaced within the country or living outside as refugees.

Four Yemenis who allegedly owned the boat that sank in the Red Sea have been arrested in Port Sudan state, the SMC reports.

The vessel had been at sea for four hours before catching fire – it is not known what caused the blaze.

Local authorities had foiled an attempt to smuggle 247 other people from Somalia, Chad, Nigeria and Eritrea across the sea, the SMC said.

The BBC’s James Copnall in Sudan’s capital, Khartoum, says thousands of migrants cross the Red Sea every year, but the journey is a dangerous one.

Smugglers often use boats that are not seaworthy.

Muslim migrants from around the region often attempt to make their way into Saudi Arabia, where it is relatively easy to find work, our reporter says.

Christian migrants from Eritrea tend to make their way overland to Egypt and Israel, and then sometimes on to Europe.

Climate change may alter conditions for growth of oak trees in Basque woodlands

Climate change may alter conditions for growth of oak trees in Basque woodlands.

ScienceDaily (July 8, 2011) — Neiker-Tecnalia has carried out a study on trends in the future distribution of habitats of Basque woodlands, pointing out that climate change may alter the conditions necessary for the growth of a tree as representative of the Basque lands as the oak.

The research was undertaken on the basis of the most pessimistic and severe scenarios for conditions of climate change in the future and claims that for 2080, the oak woods of the Basque Country would undergo a significant or almost total reduction of their habitat, given that, in our territory, wooded areas will not meet the variables of temperature and humidity necessary for their development. Neiker-Tecnalia experts consider that this study illustrates the tendency towards the ‘Mediterraneanisation” of woods in Euskadi.

The technological centre is analysing this possible impact of climate change on the distribution of the habitat of forestry species, within the K-Egokitzen and Adaptaclima projects, financed by the Basque Government and the European Union (Interreg IVB SUDOE) respectively. One of the end goals of both projects involved drawing up methodologies in order to help understand how the forestry habitats will be in a short and a long term. In the conclusions from the Neiker-Tecnalia specialists, it is seen that the oak will find favourable conditions for its development in increasingly higher latitudes as time passes.

Based on the results, and assuming the capacity for dispersion of the oak allows it, it is conceivable that it may be a tendency for migration of oak woods towards the north of Europe. Nevertheless, they would keep its own natural habitat in the Basque Country until 2080, a time when it has been predicted they would undergo a significant or almost total reduction of the species´ habitat. This phenomenon could result in the oak by that year, while still having a great adaptative capacity to the predicted climate change, meeting with a threshold of conditions in which it cannot maintain its population.

The study shows that the oak would lose out potential habitat to make way for other Mediterranean species, such as the cork. Other trees, such as the pyrenean oak, present in the Basque territory, would maintain their populations as they are adapted to the climatic conditions of the Mediterranean region.

The predictions for the cork provide one of the clearest examples of the ‘Mediterraneanisation’ of the Atlantic part of the Iberian Península. Despite being a typically Mediterranean species, in Euskadi could be adecuate conditions for their development throughout the eighties of this century.

Those conclusions do not mean that Mediterranean species will substitute the species that nowadays exist in the Basque Country, since, this study has been carried out using statistical models whose results do not show where the species will be found, but where similar relation of current climate conditions for the species will be given in the future. Besides, the real distribution of one species is determined by an infinite number of factors that statistical models do not take into consideration, such as species competition, dispersion ability or the adaptation ability to climate changes.

To undertake the research on trends in the evolution of the habitat, scientists took into account a total of 19 bioclimatic variables, amongst which were the annual mean temperature, the maximum temperature of the hottest quarter, minimum temperature of the coldest, annual precipitation and the rainfall in the wettest and driest quarters. The conclusions, thus, of this research, should be complemented in the future with new variables which, as with the bioclimatic ones, affect the distribution of tree species.

High-speed trading algorithms place markets at risk

One Per Cent: High-speed trading algorithms place markets at risk.

Jacob Aron, technology reporter

Computers that buy and sell shares in a fraction of a second are in danger of destabilising stock markets around the world says Andrew Haldane, executive director for financial stability at the Bank of England. Speaking last night at the International Economic Association in Beijing, China, Haldane said that High Frequency Trading (HFT) firms were in a “race to zero” that could increase market volatility.

HFT algorithms can execute an order in just a few hundred microseconds, rapidly trading shares back and forth in order to quickly eke out profits from minor differences on the various exchanges. These trades are so fast that the physical location of the computers executing them becomes vital – even being a few hundred kilometres away from the exchange could mean missing out. It’s commerce far removed from any ordinary experience, as Haldane illustrated with an every day example: “If supermarkets ran HFT programmes, the average household could complete its shopping for a lifetime in under a second.”

Now it seems this lightning-fast trading could come at a cost. Haldane blamed HFT for causing the “Flash Crash” which occurred on US markets last year, with the Dow Jones losing $1 trillion in just half an hour. The event was marked by trading oddities such as management consulting firm Accenture shares falling from $40 to $0.01, while auction house Sotheby’s rose from $34 to $99,999.99 – the lowest and highest values permitted by HFT algorithms.

Haldane said that the latest research shows that while HFT increases liquidity when markets are functioning normally, it has the opposite effect during more troubled times. He also built on work by Benoit Mandelbrot, the mathematician famous for inventing the word “fractal” for patterns with self-similarity. Mandelbrot showed that stock trading can also display fractal behaviour, and Haldane last night said that HFT algorithms cramming more and more trades into this fractal structure could lead to the kind of pricing abnormalities seen during the Flash Crash.

The solution? Introduce new rules to limit the speed of HFT. “Flash Crashes, like car crashes, may be more severe the greater the velocity,” said Haldane. “Grit in the wheels, like grit on the roads, could help forestall the next crash.”

Tropical Storm Arlene kills 17 in Mexico

Tropical Storm Arlene kills 17 in Mexico – CNN.com.

 

Chickens walk on the roof of a house destroyed by a mudslide in Xalapa, Mexico, on Friday.
Chickens walk on the roof of a house destroyed by a mudslide in Xalapa, Mexico, on Friday.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • 12-year-old electrocuted is youngest victim
  • Death toll expected to rise as other incidents are investigated
  • Arlene is the first named storm of the Atlantic hurricane season

(CNN) — At least 17 people throughout Mexico have died and thousands of others have been affected since Thursday as a result of Tropical Storm Arlene, a Mexican official said Monday.

The youngest victim was 12-year-old Uriel Escobar, who was electrocuted Friday after touching a downed power line, said Juan Carlos Orantes, the director of emergencies with the country’s civil protection agency.

“He died in the hospital after being transported. He was accompanied by his grandfather when he died,” Orantes said.

The death toll was expected to rise as investigators worked to confirm other incidents in the state of Oaxaca, Orantes said.

The victims ranged in age from 12 to 65 years old.

“We are expecting still more intense storms; however, we’ve had a brief stoppage for now,” Orantes said.

In Veracruz, Alfredo Garcia, 21, was found dead in his car after it was overcome by floodwaters. In the same state, Damien Islas died while trying to save a group of people from a collapsing house, Orantes said.

The dead include five from Hidalgo, two from the state of Tamaulipas, another two in Guerrero, three more in Veracruz and three in San Luis Potosi.

Tropical Storm Arlene is the first named storm of the Atlantic hurricane season.

12,000 Return after Los Alamos Evacuation Order Lifted

Los Alamos Evacuation Order Lifted; 12,000 Return : NPR.

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July 3, 2011

A smattering of summer rain gave a boost to firefighters battling a huge forest fire near Los Alamos, the desert birthplace of the atomic bomb, giving authorities enough confidence to allow about 12,000 people to return home for the first time in nearly a week.

Residents rolled into town Sunday morning, honking their horns and waving to firefighters as the word got out that the roadblocks were lifted and the narrow two-lane highway cut into the side of a mesa leading to Los Alamos was open. They had fled en masse Monday as the fast-moving fire approached the city and its nuclear laboratory.

“It’s scary, but all of the resources here this time, they were ready. They did a magnificent job,” said Michael Shields, eyes tearing up as he returned home to his apartment in the heart of the town.

The town was last evacuated because of the 2000 Cerro Grande fire. That time, residents returned to a town that had lost 200 homes, several businesses and had to cope with damaged utilities and other county enterprises. This time around, residents were returning to a town that is completely intact, although the fire destroyed 63 homes west of town.

Meanwhile, hundreds of employees of the Los Alamos National Laboratory were returning to prepare operations and thousands of experiments for the scientists and technicians who were forced to evacuate days ago. Among the work put on hold were experiments using two supercomputers and studies on extending the life of 1960s-era nuclear bombs.

Employees were checking filters in air handling systems to ensure they weren’t affected by smoke and restarting computer systems shut down when the lab closed.

“Once we start operation phases for the laboratory, it will take about two days to bring everyone back and have the laboratory fully operational,” Lab Director Charles McMillan said.

An aircraft monitoring the area near Los Alamos has picked up no sign of unusual radiation levels, New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez announced Sunday. She said flights by a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency plane in the past week showed radiation levels are the same as they were before the fire.

Although the threat to Los Alamos and the nation’s premier nuclear research lab had passed, the mammoth wildfire raging in northern New Mexico was still threatening sacred sites of American Indian tribes.

Hundreds of firefighters were working Sunday to contain the 189-square-mile fire as it burned through a canyon on the Santa Clara Pueblo reservation and threatened other pueblos on the Pajarito Plateau.

The area, a stretch of mesas that run more than 15 miles west of Santa Fe, N.M., includes Los Alamos and the nuclear laboratory.

Authorities said the fire, burning for eight days Sunday, has been fueled by an exceptionally dry season in the Southwest and erratic winds.

Crews have managed to keep the fire in Los Alamos Canyon several miles upslope from the federal laboratory, boosting confidence that it no longer posed an immediate threat to the facility or the nearby town. Crews were helped by rain Saturday afternoon that slowed the fire.

“Hopefully we’ll get two to three more days like this and we’ll be fine,” operations chief Jayson Coil said.

The blaze, the largest ever in the state of New Mexico, reached the Santa Clara Pueblo’s watershed in the canyon this week, damaging the area that the tribe considers its birthplace and scorching 20 square miles of tribal forest. Fire operations chief Jerome Macdonald said it was within miles of the centuries-old Puye Cliff Dwellings, a national historic landmark.

Tribes were worried that cabins, pueblos and watersheds could be destroyed.

“We were also praying on our knees, we were asking the Creator in our cultural way to please forgive us, ‘What have we done?'” Santa Clara Pueblo Gov. Walter Dasheno said. “Bring moisture so that the Mother Fire can be stopped. But that was not meant to be.”

About 2,800 tribe members live in a dusty village nestled in New Mexico’s high desert, near the mouth of Santa Clara Canyon where aspen and blue spruce forests provide relief from the dry desert and ponds provide water for irrigation. The canyon is north of the town of Los Alamos.

Pueblo Fire Chief Mel Tafoya said it was unclear whether cabins in the canyon or the ponds survived the blaze. Members of the state’s congressional delegation have promised federal help for the tribe pending a damage assessment.

The tribe also worried that 1.5 million trees planted after the 2000 fire have been destroyed, and called for emergency federal relief.

To Santa Clara’s south, Cochiti Pueblo was also worried about damage to ground cover affecting its watershed.

Archaeological sites at the northern end of the blaze at Bandelier National Monument hold great significance to area tribes. About half of the park has burned, Bandelier superintendent Jason Lott said.

Yellowstone River Oil Spill Environmental Damage Still A big Question

Teams Gauge Yellowstone River Oil Spill : NPR.

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July 3, 2011

Teams of federal and state workers fanned out Sunday along Montana’s famed Yellowstone River to gauge the environmental damage from a ruptured Exxon Mobil pipeline that spewed tens of thousands of gallons of crude oil into the waterway.

The break near Billings, in south-central Montana, fouled the riverbank and forced municipalities and irrigation districts to close intakes.

An Environmental Protection Agency spokeswoman Sonya Pennock said an unspecified amount of oil could be seen some 40 miles downriver during a fly-over Sunday, and there were other reports of oil as far as 100 miles away near the town of Hysham.

But an Exxon Mobil Corp. executive said shoreline damage appeared to be limited to the Yellowstone between Laurel and Billings, which includes about 20 miles of river.

Exxon Mobil Pipeline Co. President Gary Pruessing said company observers flying over the river had seen “very little soiling” beyond Billings, and that the oil appeared to be evaporating and dissipating into the river as the flooded Yellowstone carries it downstream.

A representative of the Montana Disaster and Emergency Services Division said the company’s claim was reasonable but had not been independently verified.

State officials on Saturday had reported a 25-mile long slick headed downstream toward the Yellowstone’s confluence with the Missouri River, just across the Montana border in North Dakota. An estimated 1,000 barrels, or 42,000 gallons, spilled Saturday before the flow from the damaged pipeline was stopped.

“My guess is that as fast as that water is moving, it’s probably dissipating pretty quick,” said DES public assistance officer Tim Thennis.

Exxon Mobil also revealed Sunday that the 12-inch pipeline had been temporarily shut down in May because of concerns over the rising waters on the Yellowstone. Pruessing said the company decided to restart the line a day later after examining its safety record and deciding the risk of failure was low.

The company and government officials have speculated that high waters in recent weeks may have scoured the river bottom and exposed the pipeline to debris that could have damaged the pipe. The state has received record rainfall in the last month and also has a huge snowpack in the mountains that is melting, which has resulted in widespread flooding.

“We are very curious about what may have happened at the bottom of the river. We don’t have that yet,” Pruessing said.

An EPA representative said only a small fraction of the spilled oil is likely to be recovered.

Agency on-scene coordinator Steve Way said fast flows along the flooding river were spreading the oil over a large area, making it harder to capture. But Way said that also could reduce damage to wildlife and cropland along the river.
Crews were putting absorbent material along short stretches of the river in Billings and near Laurel, but there were no attempts at capturing oil farther out in the river. In some areas, oil flowed underneath booms and continued downstream.

Up to 100 emergency response workers from Exxon Mobil and its contractors were due on the scene by late Sunday. Pruessing said they would remain there until the cleanup is complete.

But property owners along the river were growing frustrated with the response, particularly in agricultural areas where crops and pastures for grazing were at risk. The Yellowstone river is also popular among fishermen, though areas further upriver from the spill are more heavily trafficked.

Billings-area goat rancher Alexis Bonogofsky said the flooding Yellowstone brought the oil into her summer pastures — pollution she’s not sure what to do with. Bonogofsky said she had been unable to get answers through either government authorities or Exxon Mobil.

“My place is covered with oil,” she said. “I would like a list that says ‘this is what’s in crude oil.’ … I called a million times yesterday and got no response.”

The 20-year-old pipeline was last inspected in 2009 using a robotic device that travels through the line looking for corrosion, dents or other problems, Pruessing said. Soundings to determine the pipeline’s depth were taken in December, and at the time, the line appeared to be 5 to 8 feet below the riverbed, he said.

“It was completely in line with all regulatory requirements,” he said.

Pipeline control room workers first became aware of a problem with the line when pressure readings dropped early Saturday morning. Pruessing said workers began shutting down the line within six minutes, although it was unclear how long that process took.

The estimated 42,000 gallons spilled was a small fraction of that in major accidents; 11 million gallons were spilled in Alaska’s Exxon Valdez disaster in 1989, for example. But officials said the pristine nature of the Yellowstone, along with its turbulent waters and riverside communities, were likely to make for unique challenges as cleanup and damage assessment progressed.

Swift water hinders Yellowstone River oil spill cleanup

Swift water hinders Yellowstone River oil spill cleanup – CNN.com.

The leaked oil floats in pools caused by recent flooding around the Yellowstone River.

The leaked oil floats in pools caused by recent flooding around the Yellowstone River.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: “Milky brown” residue spotted in Yellowstone River
  • The underwater pipeline breach was discovered late Friday
  • Exxon estimates the leak at 750-1,000 barrels

(CNN) — High water and a swift current has helped break up an oil spill that dumped hundreds of barrels of crude into Montana’s Yellowstone River over the weekend, local officials said Sunday.

ExxonMobil said between 750 to 1,000 barrels (32,000 to 42,000 gallons) of oil escaped late Friday when a pipeline ruptured beneath the river near Billings. Some of the of the oil has washed ashore or formed pools of “milky brown” residue in river eddies, Yellowstone County Sheriff Mike Linder said.

But Linder and Duane Winslow, the county’s emergency services director, said flooding has made it harder to track and clean up the mess. The Yellowstone was running above flood stage over the weekend, sweeping brush and logs into the river, and had a 5- to 7-mph current Sunday.

“It’s too dangerous to do anything on the river, to put out any sort of boats or anything,” Winslow said. “So people will be working from the shores rather than out in the middle of the river.”

Crude oil leaks into Yellowstone River

The spill was discovered late Friday night near Laurel, west of Billings and about 100 miles downstream from Yellowstone National Park. The pipeline feeds an ExxonMobil refinery in Billings, and the company said it had shut down the line within minutes.

“We will stay with the cleanup until it is complete, and we sincerely apologize to the people of Montana for any inconvenience the incident is creating,” Gary Pruessing, the president of ExxonMobil’s pipeline subsidiary, said in a statement issued Sunday.

There were no reports of wildlife being endangered by the spill, Tim Thennis, who is leading the response for the Montana’s Disaster Emergency Services agency, said Sunday.

The spill forced the evacuation of more than 200 nearby residents after it was discovered Friday night, but they were allowed to return Saturday morning. Laurel rancher Lloyd Webber said the spill left a “pretty heavy” smell of oil hanging over the area Friday night as he and his wife left their home.

“We went to the Perkins in Billings and drank coffee for two or three hours, then went back,” said Webber, who lives about a half-mile from the river.

The Yellowstone is one of the tributaries of the Missouri River, which it joins in neighboring North Dakota. Thennis said state agencies, the federal Environmental Protection Agency and ExxonMobil are working together to clean up the spill.