That’s sheep farts to you and me, and apparently it’s a major problem. There are over one billion sheep in the world. They spend their day, standing in the meadow, gamboling playfully, watching Sam, the big shaggy cartoon sheep dog, foil the ingenious but inevitably futile efforts of Ralph, the wolf who looks suspiciously like a coyote.
And eating. Grass is what sheep eat. Unfortunately, they can’t digest it. Instead, they have little tiny microbes in their stomachs (four stomachs per sheep) that break down the plant fiber for them.
Unfortunately, microbes are rude little creatures, emitting methane gas with every mouthful and nary an “excuse me” to be heard. The methane builds up inside the ovine until it escapes in the form of sheep farts. (And, seriously, if you ever have a chance to write an essay that can justifiably include the phrase “sheep farts,” then you should seize the opportunity and use the term just as often as you possibly can.)
Anyway, the methane (a.k.a. sheep farts) gets into the atmosphere where, some would have it, it will trap heat and warm the globe and eventually destroy civilization as we know it. This may or may not be a bad thing, but I personally would hate to see my home destroyed just because of sheep farts.
Fortunately some researchers in New Zealand have come to our rescue. These plucky kiwis are tackling the sheep fart menace head-on, trying to develop a vaccination that will improve the microbes’ table manners. An anxious world holds its breath – partly in anticipation of the coming breakthrough in sheep fart technology, but mostly in response to the sheep farts themselves.
Another dismal post about the dismal science.
Today, we look at The Copenhagen Consensus. A group of economists are presented with a thought experiment: let’s say you had $75 billion to spend on solving one of the world’s problems – how would you allocate your funds?
Economists, being the dismal people that they are, take no account of what is “moral” or “right” or what “ought” to be done. They just try to figure out where you get the biggest bang for your buck. Their answer? Micronutirents for kids. Providing vitamin A and zinc to 80 percent of the 140 million children who lack them would provide almost $17 in health benefits for every dollar invested.
Other items in the top ten:
The majority of the most-efficient solutions deal with health, thus proving the old saying, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
The least-efficient proposal was a plan to mitigate global warming. Nobel Prize-winning economist Thomas Schelling noted that that spending $75 billion on cutting greenhouses gases would achieve almost nothing. In fact, the climate change analysis presented to the panel found that spending $800 billion until 2100 would yield just $685 billion in climate change benefits.
Economist Richard Nordhaus, in his book A Question of Balance: Weighing the Options on Global Warming Policies, draws a similar conclusion. Projects to massively reduce greenhouse gases end up costing more than they deliver—in some cases, many trillions of dollars more. OTOH, investing in alternative energy (wind, solar, etc.) and bio-engineering can produce great results for the amount spent on them.
The economists at Copenhagen felt funding research and development of low-carbon energy technologies was worthwhile, and ranked it 14th out of the 30 proposals they considered.
Other items at the bottom of the priorities list are proposals to reduce air pollution by cutting emissions from diesel vehicles; a tobacco tax; improved stoves to reduce indoor air pollution; and extending microfinance. These are not necessarily bad ideas. It’s just that other proposals provide more bang for the 75 billion bucks.
Fuel cells are sometimes promoted as a clean energy alternative. They work by combining hydrogen and oxygen to create water, with some left over energy that can then be turned into electricity. The only waste products from a fuel cell are water and heat.
So, while the fuel cell doesn’t pollute, the process of making the fuel for it does. (Though that could change if a hydrogen plant could be designed to run on wind, solar or other clean energy.)
Well, probably neither. But ethanol – a type of fuel made from plants – has been causing a lot of controversy lately. We’ve talked about this here before.
Many people like ethanol. As the price of gasoline rises, ethanol becomes an economical alternative. We can grow it at home, and not have to buy it from foreign countries who may or may not be our friends. And using it as fuel does not add any extra carbon into the atmosphere.
The problem is, most ethanol today is made from food crops, like corn. The more food we turn into ethanol, the less there is to eat. This puts pressure on food prices, as do droughts and growing populations. Food riots have broken out in several countries, and some people are beginning to rethink the push toward ethanol.
However, not everybody sees this as gloom-and-doom. Here's a spirited defense of biofuels.
Dennis Avery, Director of the Center for Global Food Issues, argues that the push for ethanol is hurting the movement toward sustainable farming.
However, blogger Austin Bay argues that, while rising demand for ethanol is a factor in food prices, it is far from the only one, or even the most important.
A scientific convention right here in Minneapolis agrees, noting that the problem isn’t biofuel per se, but the use of food crops to make biofuel. If we used non-food crops, we would relieve some pressure on food prices. Furthermore, non-food crops like native prairie grass actually make better ethanol than corn does!
Ronald Bailey, science correspondent for Reason magazine, notes the effect of ethanol on food prices, and makes some suggestions for reversing the trend.
Scientists in Tennessee are working on just that, using switchgrass to make ethanol. Meanwhile, researchers at the University of Massachusetts are making progress towards turning switchgrass straight into “green gasoline” – a substance chemically identical to gasoline (unlike ethanol, which has some important differences.)
(We’ve discussed switchgrass on Science Buzz before.)
Researchers in Texas are working to make ethanol from sweet sorghum. This would reduce the need to use corn, but sorghum is used in syrup and other sweeteners, so it really wouldn’t solve the food-into-fuel problem.
A prominent federal meteorologist has reversed his stance on global warming’s role in the recent increase in hurricanes. Tom Knutson, a researcher for the NOAA fluid dynamics lab in Princeton, has published a new paper in the journal Nature Geoscience predicting that Atlantic hurricanes will decrease by 18 percent by century’s end.
The new study is already brewing up a storm of its own because Knutson has complained in the past of being censored by the Bush administration for his previous views of climate change’s adverse effect on weather. Not surprisingly other researchers contend Knutson’s new computer models are flawed. Read the full story here.
Courtesy Glenn WilliamsIs there a more overlooked creature of the animal kingdom than the narwhal? Granted, it lives in the frosty waters of the Arctic Ocean and has a twisted, mean-looking tusk, but why don’t we give the narwhal more love?
Global climate change researchers are taking note of the odd sea beast. They’ve categorized the narwhal as being the sea creature most at risk from global warming changes. The pronouncement was made following in-depth analysis of how potential environmental problems that could affect the 11 marine animals that live year-round in the Artic region.
Polar bears, which have been generally considered the most “at-risk” animals from global warming, came in second place in the rankings.
Right now there are actually a lot more narwhals in the Arctic region (50,000 to 80,000) than polar bears (20,000). But researchers feel the overall impacts of global warming could have a quicker, more devastating impact on narwhals.
What’s the difference? Adaptability. Polar bears are able to gather food either by swimming or roaming land. As ice sheets diminish, they can forage for food on land.
Narwhals, on the other hand, are highly specialized creatures. A main feeding practice is diving to depths of 6,000 feet to feed on halibut. They live in areas with 99-percent ice cover. If that ice area diminishes, predators like orcas and polar bears will have easier access to getting to narwhals. And warming waters could send the narwhal’s favorite food of halibut to non-icy areas as well.
Following narwhals and polar bears as the most at-risk Arctic animals were the hooded seal, bowhead whale and walrus. Least at-risk are ringed seals and bearded seals according to the study.
Courtesy narwhal.infoBTW: Here’s a little more general information about narwhals:
• They don’t use their tusks for hunting. Males do have “duels” with each other using the tusks to establish dominance. Male tusks can grow up to be 10 feet long. Females grow a much smaller tusk. The tusks are also twisted in a corkscrew fashion.
• An adult narwhal can measure to around 25 feet in length. Males can weigh up to 3,500 pounds while females are about 2,200 pounds.
• The animals also exclusively hunt under thick ice sheets.
• Inuit legends has it that the narwhal was created when a woman holding onto a harpoon had been pulled into the ocean and twisted around the harpoon. The submerged woman was wrapped around a beluga whale on the other end of the harpoon, and that is how the narwhal was created.
In 2005, Dr. Kerry Emmanuel, a climate scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, published a paper claiming there was a link between rising global temperatures and increases in hurricane strength.
This year, Dr. Emmanuel has published another paper in which he reconsiders the evidence. He found that the models used to predict hurricane activity were not matching up with what was happening in the real world. The link between hurricanes and global warming may not be as strong as originally suspected, or may not exist at all.
This is precisely how science is supposed to work – examining evidence, coming up with theories to explain the evidence, testing those theories, and adjusting the theories if necessary.
In another three years, Emmanual may write another paper showing that he was right the first time. Or that the whole hurricane-warming link is a dead end. Or perhaps some other conclusion. But the important thing is to keep looking, and to report honestly what you find.
As economist John Keynes famously said, “When the facts change, I change my mind.” A good approach to any debate.
Courtesy VivaAntarcticaAs Americans, I’m sure we call all agree that regicide is awesome. I mean, we don’t generally participate in it, but we appreciate it. And, say what you will of the French, they have a sympathetic tradition, which makes the alarmist tone of recent findings out of the French Academy of Sciences somewhat surprising: it seems that the guillotine blade of global warming is slowly descending toward the gilded necks of the king penguins.
Despite what we might wish, though, the king penguins are not actually being decapitated. The French (and Norwegian) research team, in fact, began to notice a strong correlation between ocean temperatures, and king penguin breeding success. It makes sense when you think about it—monarchies have always been vulnerable to breeding issues.
Tracking a portion of the 2 million strong population of king penguins on the Crozet Islands, the researchers observed that the penguins were having to travel further and further from their colonies to forage for food (usually between 300 and 600 km, and sometimes as far as 2000 km). The reason for this, scientists believe, is that many marine organisms prosper only at lower ocean temperatures, and king penguins—living at the top of the food chain—depend on these organisms for sustenance. As the waters near their islands warm, nearby food becomes scarce, and the less food the penguins can bring back to their chicks, the smaller their chance of survival becomes. According to the team’s model, an increase in just .26 degrees Celsius will lead to a 9 percent decrease in king penguins’ survival rate.
Bad news if you’re a penguin. Or if you’re into penguins. Or… Maybe I do understand why the French are so nervous about the decline of king penguins—after all, who would better understand what would probably take their place.
Courtesy Kjetil BjørnsrudI think this got lost in all the hoopla about the NCAA basketball tournament, but Al Gore was on 60 Minutes last Sunday to unveil his latest crusade, one that could be more devastating to life on Earth than the global climate change crisis he’s been raising awareness of in recent years.
The former vice president used the highly-rated TV show to be the inaugural event of his effort to raise public awareness of the growing gravity crisis on the planet. Three independent studies conducted in the U.S., Great Britain and South Africa have confirmed a strange but deep side effect to global warming. Increased temperatures on Earth are diminishing its gravitational fields. Projections foresee that at the current pace, Earth could have 25 percent less gravity in the next 10 years.
The new studies confirm that increases in carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere are causing chemical reaction with heavy metals in the top layer of Earth’s crust that are shielding gravity’s pull from deeper in Earth’s core. And the real scary fact is that these chemical reactions are progressing at a geometric rate. While they’re still negligible today, each year they increase by a factor of 10.
If the current pace continues over the next 50 years, researchers calculate that gravity will become extinct, just like many forms of animal and plant life of the past. Along with his continued efforts to reduce the growing carbon dioxide emissions that are contributing to global warming, Gore is offering some other gravity loss solutions.
“If everyone digs five or six 12-foot deep holes in their backyard, we might be able to create easier paths for gravity to get back to Earth’s surface and counteract the impacts of these devastating chemical reactions,” he said.
“Stop and really think about the gravity of this situation for a second,” Gore implored viewers on 60 Minutes. “Even with just 25 percent less gravity on our planet, our everyday lifestyles will be hugely impacted. We predict that all small animals under 10 pounds will be drifting through the air with little control. Mothers will have to tie down their infants in their cribs at night to keep them from floating around the house.”
Other significant problems that could arise if global gravity loss is not reversed, Gore added. They include prolonged autumns due to a slower release of leaves from trees, decreased income for the sky-diving and bungee-jumping businesses and a rapid increase in world records for sporting events involving jumping, leaping or throwing.
Current Vice President Dick Cheney, contacted by 60 Minutes for the administration’s reaction to global gravity loss, was much more optimistic. “Right off the top of my head, I can see a couple upsides to gravity loss,” Cheney said. “First off, less gravity will make everything weigh less. That should take care of the U.S. obesity problem. Second, this should be welcome news for the ailing airline industry, as it will be able to save a lot of money on fuel costs as planes will be able to take off a lot easier.”
Commenting at the end of the 60 Minutes episode, columnist Andy Rooney was all laughs on the topic. “Don’t you just hate it when you’ve made it this far through a blog entry and haven’t realized it is an April Fool’s Day trick?” he asked. “But here are some great links about the history of April Fool’s Day, 100 of the greatest April Fool’s pranks ever pulled off and some of the worst ever conceived.”
Courtesy Antony PranataFor those of us requiring a refresher, smallpox is an infection caused by the viruses variola major and variola minor, and is spread by coughing, sneezing, and transmission of bodily fluids. Extremely virulent, it has been found that smallpox infection can result from the inhalation of fewer than 10 viral particles. About one third of the people who contract v. major die, and those who survive often suffer from scarring, limb deformities, and blindness. Over the course of the 20th century alone, it is estimated that smallpox was responsible for at least 300 million deaths (possibly as many as 500 million) across the world.
Since as early as 1000 BC, people have attempted to combat the virus through inoculation, initially though methods like rubbing smallpox pus into skin lesions, or by inhaling ground up smallpox scabs (don’t judge—who here hasn’t snorted a scab or two in their day?). These techniques, called “variolation”, did in fact greatly reduce the mortality rate of those infected with smallpox, but it wasn’t until almost 1800 before the first true smallpox vaccination was created. Thanks to successful vaccination campaigns since then, in 1979 smallpox was announced to be, well, gone—it is the only human infectious disease that has been completely eradicated from nature.
So now we can go about our lives, playing Frisbee, painting by numbers, handling dead bodies, and squeezing pustules, with no fear of this horrible disease.
Though natural infections no longer occur, the smallpox virus itself is kind of a tenacious little creature, occasionally surviving for considerable lengths of time outside of a living body—a British construction worker, for instance, contracted the disease while demolishing a building that formerly housed smallpox victims, and Dutch researchers have found a living virus in a 13-year-old scab. The virus also tends to persist quite well when frozen, which brings us to the global warming issue.
When Europeans brought the disease to the Americas, native populations were devastated—smallpox killed them by the millions. Smallpox’s effect on Arctic groups was similar, and burying the bodies of victims in permafrost may have allowed for extremely long-term survival of the variola viruses.
This wouldn’t be a concern, except recently permafrost has shown itself to be a little less permanent than we’re used to. Global warming—which seems to be occurring more rapidly in the arctic—is thawing the permafrost, and exposing bodies that have been buried and preserved for hundreds of years. That some of these bodies very likely contain the smallpox virus has some people worried. A single encounter with the wrong corpse as it emerges from the permafrost could potentially result in an outbreak, and, having had no previous exposure to the virus, most of us would fare no better than the Native Americans did 400 years ago.
Not all knickers are twisted here, however. Some believe that the gradual thawing caused by global warming will actually reduce the chances of smallpox infection. The virus usually can’t survive being in a thawed body for more than a few days, so most infected bodies will lose their virulence before anyone is likely to encounter them. This depends on the type of permafrost, though—dry permafrost (as opposed to ice-rich permafrost) preserves bodies better, and would increase the chance of viral transmission, so never say never. And I never do.