Tuesday, December 30, 2008


...and I thought vacations were supposed to be relaxing.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

SpaceX Gets $1.6 Billion NASA Contract

NASA announced Tuesday it awarded two International Space Station (ISS) freight contracts totaling 3.5 billion dollars to private space launch companies SpaceX and Orbital Sciences Corporation (OSC).

NASA made a 1.9-billion-dollar order for eight launches to the OSC and contracted 12 flights to SpaceX for 1.6 billion dollars, said Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA associate Administrator for Space Operations.

The first SpaceX launch is scheduled for December 2010, and the first OSC launch is set to take place in October 2011.

NewSpace takes a step forward.

From SpaceX's website:

NASA today announced its selection of the SpaceX Falcon 9 launch vehicle and Dragon spacecraft for the International Space Station (ISS) Cargo Resupply Services (CRS) contract award. The contract is for a guaranteed minimum of 20,000 kg to be carried to the International Space Station. The firm contracted value is $1.6 billion and NASA may elect to order additional missions for a cumulative total contract value of up to $3.1 billion.

“The SpaceX team is honored to have been selected by NASA as the winner of the Cargo Resupply Services contract,” said Elon Musk, CEO and CTO, SpaceX. “This is a tremendous responsibility, given the swiftly approaching retirement of the Space Shuttle and the significant future needs of the Space Station. This also demonstrates the success of the NASA COTS program, which has opened a new era for NASA in US Commercial spaceflight.”

Under the CRS contract, SpaceX will deliver pressurized and unpressurized cargo to the ISS, and return cargo back to Earth. Cargo may include both NASA and NASA-sponsored payloads requiring a pressurized or unpressurized environment. SpaceX will provide the necessary services, test hardware and software, and mission-specific elements to integrate cargo with the Dragon delivery capsule.

Most impressive.

Mars Storm WOW!

Russian Bulava Fails Most Recent Test

Russia's new sea-based ballistic missile has failed in a test launch for the fifth time, signaling serious trouble with the highly advertised key future component of the nation's nuclear forces.

The Bulava "self-destructed and exploded in the air" after a launch from the Dmitry Donskoy nuclear submarine beneath surface of the White Sea, said Navy spokesman Capt. Igor Dygalo.

Russia has been making an aggressive effort in recent years to upgrade its missile forces after years of post-Soviet underfunding and a lack of testing.

The Kremlin has hailed the missile as capable of penetrating any prospective missile defenses.

Washington's plan to deploy a ballistic missile defense system in Eastern Europe has sparked increasingly belligerent comments from the Kremlin and the Russian military, who say it will undermine the nation's security.

The Bulava is reportedly designed to have a maximum range of about 6,200 miles (10,000 kilometers) and carry six individually targeted nuclear warheads. It is expected to equip three new Borei-class nuclear submarines that are under construction.

"This is a serious blow to Russia's military plans to deploy the Borei submarines," said independent military analyst Pavel Felgenhauer. "The failure delays (Bulava's) production and deployment indefinitely."

Russian news agencies said that Tuesday's test was the fifth failure out of 10 launches since 2004. During the last successful test in late November it hit test targets on the Kamchatka Peninsula, some 4,000 miles (5,500 kilometers) to the east of the launch site in less than 15 minutes after the launch.

All tech has teething problems. Whether or not the Russians can overcome this one. Well, I have my opinions.

Thank You, Noel! (a small reading update)

(a ruined Yucatecan hacienda)

The First Book

I finished two books. The first was the gem, which I have thank Noel Maurer for pointing me to some time ago and now I finally read. That would be the Caste War of the Yucatan. Wow. This was one of the most sordid and viciously nasty things I've read about. It's fascinating in a massive multiethnic train wreck sort of way. The Ladino[1] meltdown and self-serving in the face of potential annihilation is fascinating: cornered , starving rats attacking each other came to mind. The Mayan Cruzob was interesting, if depressing, and it really, really sounds superficially like the Zapatista Army of National Liberation is its descendant with its struggle in Chiapas. Is this really a new struggle or the same song, different generation[2]?

Its What-if

There was a What-if that was pretty blatant in the history. When the Mexicans declared independence, the Yucatecans, meaning the Ladino side, declared themselves independent. They flailed around looking for help when the Mayans were eating their lunch. They offered to be annexed by the United States, British Empire, and even others. Eventually, the went back to being part of Mexico. What-if they had stuck to their guns and tried to stay independent. I suspect that the Ladinos in the short term will do worse, a lot worse, but Merida and Campeche will stay standing. In the end, the Maya were undone by disease, poor soil, and, ultimately, technology. If the Ladinos had held out until the 1880s on their own while the Cruzob was effectively another state, they would have been able to march in the repeaters and gatling guns that would have been affordable by then.

However, there was no way that the Yucatecans could have projected that those technologies would crop up, but given their stubbornness I could see them hanging on all the same. Alternately, there might have been a partition had the British finally decided that they were best served by having a Mayan buffer state. Or three. OTOH, if the Brits don't extend their protection, and probably won't, to the Mayans, my bet is that sisal will eventually win the war for the Ladinos before the turn of the last century.

My guess after that is that the Yucatecan economy booms under the monocrop of sisal and then when it gets supplanted by synthetics that the economy tanks rather badly. Tourism will revive it to some extent, but IDK if it'd match the previous income levels or not. Once the economy falters, given its timing, could we see a Mayan insurgency under the guise of communism and supported by the USSR. That means that US gets involved with guns and dinero. It gets bloody and unpleasant in ways that make both sides look nasty, I suspect, because memories of the Caste War and Cruzob are still present.

Would it discredit both sides when genocide is perpetuated? Probably not. Mao got away with a frak load and people in certain circles still venerate him (oy). There are still numbers of communists all over the place. Having a vicious little war, even in our backyard, probably won't be noticed. Americans are just too insular and, unfortunately, many groups see what they want to see rather than take a step back and look again.

By the current day, I bet the Republic of the Yucatan has a few coastal cities that are beautiful and very tourist-y. Cancun doesn't exist as it does now, but may still in some form. The economy outside of that is probably not doing so well. There's still a minor insurgency that is pretty much petty banditry after the collapse of the USSR. However, from my POV, one of the great travesties of it will be that the study of the Maya will have been set back decades. :(

As for its effect on Mexican history, I bet its great, but IDK how much. Noel? It's effect outside of Mexico...well, probably not much.

Further SFnal-Related Thoughts

A thought that crossed my mind was why are the SF writers wasting their time rehashing Roman or Byzantine history. Belisarius was kewl, but now rather tired. The Caste War is the perfect bit of history to coopt into a story. Admittedly, it'd be a depressing, nasty bit of a story, but framed right it might be an interesting one. Obviously, it has to be written by an American, right, James? Vicious nasty and ending in whatever the rebellious Campbellian group finally fades away in the ultimate inconsequential form. It almost writes itself if set in the asteroid field.
"You're Chinese, right?" I agreed simply because I didn't want to confuse the matter and distract him. "The Chinese promised us drones. Drones and zero-g battle armour. The treaty is still in effect. We lost contact with their agents 40 years ago. " I had come to study the Asteroidal Class War, but found myself being asked to renew it. I had to find a way to extract myself without ending my interview with General Mason.

Human history is huge. Need we keep mining the same, tired events?

The Second Book

I also read Scalzi's Last Colony. I wasn't as impressed with it. It was a good read, but I think he conveniently forgot some of his own mythology. It's a good bit of escapism though.

The Third Book, started

United States and Canada: Ambivalent Allies. Sheesh, all the excited stuff happened early on in the history of our two countries. I'm about a quarter done. More later.

1. I thought that was reserved for Jewish groups in Latin countries, but it seems my education in the matter is lacking. Nelson uses the term to describe the Euro-Yucatecan and their allies in the war.

2. I am pretty sure that I am embarrassing myself by writing the previous, but, hey, if you don't ask the stupid question, the stupid stays with you.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Transgenic Plants Key to Ethanol Production

Plants, genetically modified to ease the breaking down of their woody material, could be the key to a cheaper and greener way of making ethanol, according to researchers who add that the approach could also help turn agricultural waste into food for livestock.

Lignin, a major component of woody plant material,, is woven in with cellulose and provides plants with the strength to withstand strong gusts of wind and microbial attack. However, this protective barrier or "plastic wall" also makes it harder to gain access to the cellulose.

"There is lots of energy-rich cellulose locked away in wood," said John Carlson, professor of molecular genetics, Penn State. "But separating this energy from the wood to make ethanol is a costly process requiring high amounts of heat and caustic chemicals. Moreover, fungal enzymes that attack lignin are not yet widely available, still in the development stage, and not very efficient in breaking up lignin."

Researchers have previously tried to get around the problem by genetically decreasing the lignin content in plants. However, this can lead to a variety of problems -- limp plants unable to stay upright, and plants more susceptible to pests.

"Trying to engineer trees without lignin is like trying to engineer boneless chicken," said Ming Tien, professor of biochemistry, Penn State. "It just doesn't make sense."

Carlson, Tien and postdoctoral associate Haiying Liang use a different genetic approach. Instead of decreasing the lignin content, they are trying to modify the connections in lignin, without compromising either the biosynthesis of lignin or the structural rigidity of the plant.

The Penn State geneticists and biochemists took a gene from beans and engineered it into a poplar tree. This gene produces a protein that inserts itself between two lignin molecules when the lignin polymer is created.

"Now we have a lignin polymer with a protein stuck in between," explained Carlson, who, along with Tien and Liang, has filed a provisional patent on the approach. "When that occurs, it creates a type of lignin that is not much different in terms of strength than normal lignin, but we can break open the lignin polymer by using enzymes that attack proteins rather than enzymes that attack lignin."


The genetic modification does not appear to weaken the plants, and the transformation may have turned them into more efficient sources of ethanol.

MMmm. Lignin strikes again!

A Quantum Cascade Laser Breakthrough?

A Princeton-led team of researchers has discovered an entirely new mechanism for making common electronic materials emit laser beams. The finding could lead to lasers that operate more efficiently and at higher temperatures than existing devices, and find applications in environmental monitoring and medical diagnostics.

"This discovery provides a new insight into the physics of lasers," said Claire Gmachl, who led the study. Gmachl, an electrical engineer, is the director of the Mid-Infrared Technologies for Health and the Environment (MIRTHE) center. The phenomenon was discovered in a type of device called quantum cascade laser, in which an electric current flowing through a specially designed material produces a laser beam. Gmachl's group discovered that a quantum cascade laser they had built generated a second beam with very unusual properties, including the need for less electrical power than the conventional beam. "If we can turn off the conventional beam, we will end up with a better laser, which makes more efficient use of electrical power," said Gmachl.

The team that conducted the study includes Gmachl's graduate student Kale Franz, who built the laser that revealed the new phenomenon, and Stefan Menzel, a graduate student from the University of Sheffield, UK, who unearthed the unique properties of the phenomenon during an internship at Princeton University last summer. The study was published online in Nature Photonics on Dec. 14.

Why The Soviet Union Didn't Build an Internet (of its own)

InterNyet: Why the Soviet Union Did Not Build a Nationwide Computer Network

Glerovitch, Slava. "InterNyet: Why the Soviet Union Did Not Build a Nationwide Computer Network." History and Technology 24:4 (December 2008): 335 - 350.

ABSTRACT: This article examines several Soviet initiatives to develop a national computer network as the technological basis for an automated information system for the management of the national economy in the 1960s-1970s. It explores the mechanism by which these proposals were circulated, debated, and revised in the maze of Party and government agencies. The article examines the role of different groups - cybernetics enthusiasts, mathematical economists, computer specialists, government bureaucrats, and liberal economists - in promoting, criticizing, and reshaping the concept of a national computer network. The author focuses on the political dimension of seemingly technical proposals, the relationship between information and power, and the transformative role of users of computer technology.

If anyone has access, this one looks like it'd be interesting to read and so if you could forward the paper...

Friday, December 19, 2008

Firm Awarded Spaceport America Construction Contract

The New Mexico Spaceport Authority has selected Gerald Martin Construction Management of Albuquerque to oversee construction of the state's spaceport north of Las Cruces.

Spaceport officials said Thursday that Gerald Martin's team will include specialists familiar with aviation facilities, fire and emergency medical services facilities and aeronautics and rocket facilities.

Anyone dealt with them before?

HPC Wire's Best and Worst of 2008

Petaflops supercomputing dominated much of the HPC news in 2008, but the year also witnessed the rise of GPU-accelerated computing and the fall of Linux Networx.

Hit Headlines are:

1. Parallel Programming Put on the Front Burner.
2. Cray Puts Intel Inside
3. The Petaflops Era Begins
4. GPU Computing Builds Its Case
5. Personal Supercomputing Redux [WB: ARGH!]
6. Startups Defy Economic Gravity

Miss Headlines:

1. Linux Networx Goes Belly Up
2. U.S. Science Funding Hits a Political Wall
3. SGI: Same as It Ever Was
4. Quantitative Financial Models Tank

For details go read.

Synthetic Biology Blooming in the Bay Area

The promise of synthetic biology — key to developing inexpensive biofuels, whipping up computer-generated foods or unleashing tumor-targeted drugs — is driving scientists to set up a sort of biological parts production shop in the Bay Area.

The pet project of Stanford University associate professor and “synbio” wunderkind Drew Endy, the so-called Biofab would be the world’s first facility for producing standardized life forms that could be used as platforms for more complex systems.

That could become a lightning rod for researchers — drawing together work at Stanford, the University of California, Berkeley and UCSF — and for companies wanting to buy reliable, ready-to-use synthesized genes, gene controllers and other biological parts and systems.

In the end, backers say, the Biofab could speed biotech innovation and efficiency, much like standardized, off-the-shelf parts fed the growth of the semiconductor industry.


The facility could cost $5 million to $20 million annually, Keasling said, and initially operate with 20 people. Biofab leaders are talking with biotech landlords in San Francisco’s Mission Bay biotech enclave, along the Peninsula and in the East Bay, hoping to snag a sliver of the roughly 2 million square feet of biotech space on the market today.

“What’s important is showing that this sort of thing is possible with the first fab,” Keasling said, “and we want that to happen in the Bay Area.”

The Biofab would be an offshoot of the Synthetic Biology Engineering Research Center, or SynBERC. That program is run by the California Institute for Quantitative Biosciences, or QB3, and funded by a $16 million, five-year grant from the National Science Foundation.

The idea capitalizes on the Bay Area’s dominance in the growing synthetic biology field.

More news.

With luck, Emeryville will snag this one too.

If you are wondering what synthetic biology is look here.

More Nasty News For Russia

Russia would come under crippling financial pressure and may need to raise money externally if oil languishes at an average of $30 a barrel over the next two years, the World Bank predicted Friday.

The bleak scenario would mark a rapid unraveling of Russia's oil-fueled economic gains over the past eight years, during which time the government has paid down most of its foreign debt and built up a vast stockpile of international reserves.

"If oil prices in 2009 and 2010 average $30 a barrel, that would be a nightmare scenario for a global economy," Zeljko Bogetic, the World Bank's chief economist in Russia told investors on Friday. "The pressures on the current account and public finances in Russia would quickly rise to a point where the financing constraint would become so sharp that it's possible even to envisage Russia's return from a creditor to international organizations to a borrower."

At $50 a barrel, Russia could drain much of its reserve funds and run budgetary deficits, but would not face a "meltdown" scenario, Bogetic said.

Drop 1991 and 1998 into a blender and...

Actually, I've been told $35 is probably the bottom of the barrel for oil prices, but we'll see. I'm not an expert there. Or most places. I am just able to do most things a little better than average.

Edward Hugh has more on Russia's economic status.

Hummingbird Passes a Mile Stone

One of Boeing's A160T Hummingbird UAVs has just passed an important milestone for the high-performance helicopter, exercising its two-speed transmission in flight and changing rotor speeds. This is something that no other helicopter has ever done, and that no other helicopter is designed to do, and is crucial to exploiting the design's potential.

Go here and here.

As I said about the X-47B being the single most important fighter/fixed wing project, the Hummingbird is definitely that for the rotary wing craft. Just behind it would be the tilt rotor C-130 replacement.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Theropod Dads: Polygynist and Great Paternal Instincts

Sure, they're polygamous, but male emus and several other ground-dwelling birds also are devoted dads, serving as the sole incubators and caregivers to oversized broods from multiple mothers. It is rare behavior, but research described in the Dec. 19 Science found that it runs in this avian family, all the way back to its dinosaur ancestors.

Scientists had long wondered about the origins of polygamy and paternal care patterns among modern-day Paleognathes -- an ancient avian lineage that branched off soon after birds evolved from dinosaurs and includes ostriches, emus and tinamous. No such reproductive behavior exists among the vast majority of other vertebrates. Males contribute to parental care in less than 5 percent of mammal and non-avian reptile species, and while more than 90 percent of bird species co-parent to some degree, it is only among the Paleognathes that both polygamy and paternal care rule.

Now, in a groundbreaking paper ("Avian Paternal Care Had Dinosaur Origin"), paleobiologist Gregory M. Erickson of The Florida State University and researchers from three other institutions connect the evolutionary dots linking the polygamous, paternal reproductive patterns of extant (living) birds to the behavior of their extinct dinosaur kin.

"In those cases where adult dinosaurs have been found on top of nests, we found that the volume or mass of the egg clutch (total number of eggs in the nest) is very large relative to the size of the nesting animals," Erickson said. "This suggests multiple females contributed the eggs and the male guarded them. Notably, the ratio of egg volumes to the nesting animal's size is consistent with those in living birds where the male is the sole or primary nest attendant."

The researchers now had their link from the theropod dinosaurs (omnivores and carnivores that walked on two hind legs with bird-like feet) to the polygamy and nesting scenarios exhibited by their avian descendants, according to David Varricchio of Montana State, the study's principal investigator.

But to test the theory, Varricchio needed to determine the sex of the brooding dinosaurs whose bones have been found atop those communal nests.

For that, he turned to Erickson at Florida State, a renowned expert in dinosaur paleobiology.

Erickson examined the bone microstructure of tibiae (shin bones), femora (thigh bones) and metatarsus (ankle bones) from oviraptorids and deinonychosaurs (Jurrasic Park "raptors") -- small theropod dinosaurs whose adult skeletons have been repeatedly discovered in brooding postures atop nests containing dozens of large eggs.

The key was what he didn't find in the bones: They showed no signs whatsoever of the maternal and reproductively associated microscopic features common to living non-Paleognath bird groups, extinct non-avian dinosaurs or living reptiles.

"I found no evidence of medullary bone (the extra bone laid down by breeding female birds and dinosaurs to make eggs) or extensive bone resorbtion (the means by which female reptiles such as crocodiles acquire mineral salts to make eggs)," Erickson said. "This is consistent with the brooding dinosaurs being males."

Thus, the researchers had confirmation that the dinosaurs found in nests with large egg clutches were polygamistic males and the source of the peculiar avian behavior.

Moreover, those brooding dinosaurs were fathers -- and today's emus, rheas and tinamous owe their paternal care model to them.

Also see here and here.

(*mutters* polygynist puffins)

What does this do to the theropods as monitor lizards for behavior, Zach?

Viruses Exacerbated the Little Ice Age

The power of viruses is well documented in human history. Swarms of little viral Davids have repeatedly laid low the great Goliaths of human civilization, most famously in the devastating pandemics that swept the New World during European conquest and settlement.

In recent years, there has been growing evidence for the hypothesis that the effect of the pandemics in the Americas wasn't confined to killing indigenous peoples. Global climate appears to have been altered as well.

Stanford University researchers have conducted a comprehensive analysis of data detailing the amount of charcoal contained in soils and lake sediments at the sites of both pre-Columbian population centers in the Americas and in sparsely populated surrounding regions. They concluded that reforestation of agricultural lands-abandoned as the population collapsed-pulled so much carbon out of the atmosphere that it helped trigger a period of global cooling, at its most intense from approximately 1500 to 1750, known as the Little Ice Age.

"We estimate that the amount of carbon sequestered in the growing forests was about 10 to 50 percent of the total carbon that would have needed to come out of the atmosphere and oceans at that time to account for the observed changes in carbon dioxide concentrations," said Richard Nevle, visiting scholar in the Department of Geological and Environmental Sciences at Stanford. Nevle and Dennis Bird, professor in geological and environmental sciences, presented their study at the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union on Dec. 17, 2008.

Nevle and Bird synthesized published data from charcoal records from 15 sediment cores extracted from lakes, soil samples from 17 population centers and 18 sites from the surrounding areas in Central and South America. They examined samples dating back 5,000 years.

What they found was a record of slowly increasing charcoal deposits, indicating increasing burning of forestland to convert it to cropland, as agricultural practices spread among the human population-until around 500 years ago: At that point, there was a precipitous drop in the amount of charcoal in the samples, coinciding with the precipitous drop in the human population in the Americas.

To verify their results, they checked their fire histories based on the charcoal data against records of carbon dioxide concentrations and carbon isotope ratios that were available.

"We looked at ice cores and tropical sponge records, which give us reliable proxies for the carbon isotope composition of atmospheric carbon dioxide. And it jumped out at us right away," Nevle said. "We saw a conspicuous increase in the isotope ratio of heavy carbon to light carbon. That gave us a sense that maybe we were looking at the right thing, because that is exactly what you would expect from reforestation."

On the heels of that last presentation stating that mankind has been effecting the climate at least as far back as the thousands of years ago because of the large scale rice production and clearing of Europe's forests, there's another new paper stating that the wipe-out of the native cultures in NorAm allowed the forests to reclaim vast regions prior to the European settlement of those areas. This sequestered a lot of carbon and exacerbated the Little Ice Age by allowing for more cooling.

I have to admit that this plays to my prejudices. I have long wondered if the Little Ice Age was really the kick-off of the next glacial cycle and we interrupted it with our contributions to the atmospheric changes over the last century or so. It seems that it was more than merely that. The arrival of the Spanish to the New World made the Little Ice Age worse and then, possibly, the Little Ice Age was shortened or possibly ended by the Industrial Revolution.

Now, the various solar minimums like the Maunder Minimum were possibly one of the overt drivers of the Little Ice Age, but, on the other hand, based on what others have said that our orbital position and whatnot, we ought to have ended or be ending the interglacial. Obviously, we're not and mankind is almost certainly the reason.

Now, a speculative comment: I have to wonder about the adaption of Homo erectus and fire as to whether or not there were couplings between the hypothesized use of fire to clear forest for our ancestors to hunt more and climate changes during the Pleistocene. Wouldn't that be a kicker if the interglacials were correlated to habitat changes brought on by hominids pre modern man.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Our Darren Finds New Friends in the Sahara

Paleontologists claim they have unearthed a new type of pterosaur and a previously unknown sauropod dinosaur in the Sahara Desert.

The probable pterosaur was identified by a large fragment of beak from the giant flying reptile, and the probable sauropod, an herbivore, was represented by a long bone measuring more than a yard long, indicating an animal nearly 65 feet (20 meters) in length. Now extinct, both would have lived almost 100 million years ago.

The fossils were found in southeast Morocco, near the Algerian border, during a month-long expedition.

"Finding two specimens in one expedition is remarkable, especially as both might well represent completely new species," said University College Dublin graduate student Nizar Ibrahim, who led the expedition and was accompanied by Moroccan scientists Samir Zouhri and Lahssen Baidder as well as University of Portsmouth researchers Darren Naish, Robert Loveridge, David Martill and Richard Hing.

Ibrahim will undertake a detailed analysis of the sauropod bone, which he and Martill expect is a new species and genus of sauropod. He will also examine the pterosaur remains, which are particularly uncommon because their bones, optimized for flight, were light and flimsy and seldom well-preserved.

There's Darren's trip! I waited a few days for a good article to come out before posting this one. A sauropod and a pterosaur. kewl!

Looks like the critters in question are Albian in age but might be Cenomanian.

Human Climate Influence Goes Back Thousands of Years

he common wisdom is that the invention of the steam engine and the advent of the coal-fueled industrial age marked the beginning of human influence on global climate.

But gathering physical evidence, backed by powerful simulations on the world's most advanced computer climate models, is reshaping that view and lending strong support to the radical idea that human-induced climate change began not 200 years ago, but thousands of years ago with the onset of large-scale agriculture in Asia and extensive deforestation in Europe.

What's more, according to the same computer simulations, the cumulative effect of thousands of years of human influence on climate is preventing the world from entering a new glacial age, altering a clockwork rhythm of periodic cooling of the planet that extends back more than a million years.

"This challenges the paradigm that things began changing with the Industrial Revolution," says Stephen Vavrus, a climatologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison's Center for Climatic Research and the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies. "If you think about even a small rate of increase over a long period of time, it becomes important."

Addressing scientists here today (Dec. 17) at a meeting of the American Geophysical Union, Vavrus and colleagues John Kutzbach and Gwenaëlle Philippon provided detailed evidence in support of a controversial idea first put forward by climatologist William F. Ruddiman of the University of Virginia. That idea, debated for the past several years by climate scientists, holds that the introduction of large-scale rice agriculture in Asia, coupled with extensive deforestation in Europe began to alter world climate by pumping significant amounts of greenhouse gases — methane from terraced rice paddies and carbon dioxide from burning forests — into the atmosphere. In turn, a warmer atmosphere heated the oceans making them much less efficient storehouses of carbon dioxide and reinforcing global warming.

That one-two punch, say Kutzbach and Vavrus, was enough to set human-induced climate change in motion.

"No one disputes the large rate of increase in greenhouse gases with the Industrial Revolution," Kutzbach notes. "The large-scale burning of coal for industry has swamped everything else" in the record.

But looking farther back in time, using climatic archives such as 850,000-year-old ice core records from Antarctica, scientists are teasing out evidence of past greenhouse gases in the form of fossil air trapped in the ice. That ancient air, say Vavrus and Kutzbach, contains the unmistakable signature of increased levels of atmospheric methane and carbon dioxide beginning thousands of years before the industrial age.

"Between 5,000 and 8,000 years ago, both methane and carbon dioxide started an upward trend, unlike during previous interglacial periods," explains Kutzbach. Indeed, Ruddiman has shown that during the latter stages of six previous interglacials, greenhouse gases trended downward, not upward. Thus, the accumulation of greenhouse gases over the past few thousands of years, the Wisconsin-Virginia team argue, is very likely forestalling the onset of a new glacial cycle, such as have occurred at regular 100,000-year intervals during the last million years. Each glacial period has been paced by regular and predictable changes in the orbit of the Earth known as Milankovitch cycles, a mechanism thought to kick start glacial cycles.

"We're at a very favorable state right now for increased glaciation," says Kutzbach. "Nature is favoring it at this time in orbital cycles, and if humans weren't in the picture it would probably be happening today."

Deforestation of Europe and large scale rice production saved us!

it's interesting that we ought to be going into a glacial cycle if these guys are right and also fits with past studies that we were headed that way too.

Austroraptor Rendition and More Details

Between 16.5 to 21 feet long and lived around the Maastrichtian-Campanian Boundary. The head, neck, back, and feet were preserved (why the short arm comments?) and was a member of the unenlagiines. It definitely looks as though the raptor lineage was diversifying all the way out to the end of the Cretaceous.

Climate Changes Happening Faster Than Expected

A report released today at the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union provides new insights on the potential for abrupt climate change and the effects it could have on the United States, identifying key concerns that include faster-than-expected loss of sea ice, rising sea levels and a possibly permanent state of drought in the American Southwest.

The analysis is one of 21 of its type developed by a number of academic and government agency researchers for the U.S. Climate Change Science Program. The work incorporates the latest scientific data more than any previous reports, experts say, including the 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

While concluding that some projections of the impact of climate change have actually been too conservative – as in the case of glacier and ice sheets that are moving and decaying faster than predicted – others may not pose as immediate a threat as some scenarios had projected, such as the rapid releases of methane or dramatic shifts in the ocean current patterns that help keep Europe warm.

"We simulate the future changes with our climate models, but those models have not always incorporated some of our latest data and observations," said Peter Clark, a professor of geosciences at Oregon State University and a lead author on the report. "We now have data on glaciers moving faster, ice shelves collapsing and other climate trends emerging that allow us to improve the accuracy of some of our future projections."

Some of the changes that now appear both more immediate and more certain, the report concludes, are rapid changes at the edges of the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets, loss of sea ice that exceeds projections by earlier models, and hydroclimatic changes over North America and the global subtropics that will likely intensify and persist due to future greenhouse warming.

"Our report finds that drying is likely to extend poleward into the American West, increasing the likelihood of severe and persistent drought there in the future," Clark said. "If the models are accurate, it appears this has already begun. The possibility that the Southwest may be entering a permanent drought state is not yet widely appreciated."

Climate change, experts say, has happened repeatedly in Earth's history and is generally believed to be very slow and take place over hundreds or thousands of years. However, at times in the past, climate has also changed surprisingly quickly, on the order of decades.


* Recent rapid changes at the edges of the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets show acceleration of flow and thinning, with the speed of some glaciers more than doubling. These "changes in ice dynamics can occur far more rapidly than previously suspected," the report said, and are not reflected in current climate models.

* Inclusion of these changes in models will cause sea level rises that "substantially exceed" levels now projected for the end of this century, which are about two feet – but data are still inadequate to specify an exact level of rise.

* Subtropical areas around the world, including the American West, are likely to become more arid in the future due to global warming, with an increasing likelihood of severe and persistent drought. These are "among the greatest natural hazards facing the United States and the globe today," the report stated, and if models are correct, this has already begun.

* The strength of "AMOC" ocean circulation patterns that help give Europe a much warmer climate than it would otherwise have may weaken by about 25-30 percent during this century due to greenhouse gas increases, but will probably not collapse altogether – although that possibility cannot be entirely excluded.

* Climate change will accelerate the emissions of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, from both hydrate sources and wetlands, and they quite likely will double within a century – but a dramatic, potentially catastrophic release is very unlikely.

Mixed news there. This is the NeoOligocene crowd, btw.

Russian News: No Crisis Here!

Russia's foreign-exchange reserves have been now been declining very rapidly since mid August, and as the money goes so does the faith that the large stock of reserves the country built up during the boom times would be sufficient to see them through any downturn in energy prices. As the money leaves, so it seems does the decade of economic growth and stability which they symbolised. Indeed so rapid has been the decline that Russia's international reserves, which are the third-biggest after those of China and Japan, have now fallen $161 billion, or 27% percent, since 8 August last, and decreased by $17.9 billion to $437 billion in the week to 5 December. Investors have now pulled $211 billion out of the country since August, according to estimates by BNP Paribas.

Read about the economic news at Global Economy Matters. It's pretty dire.

However, if you are Russian, don't write about it, because...

When a Russian sociologist wrote a newspaper column last month suggesting the global financial crisis could cause social unrest, the state media watchdog advised the paper not to spread extremist sentiments.

"This is censorship," said Yevgeny Gontmakher, the author of the column and the head of the Academy of Science's Social Policy Center. "The situation in the country is changing; you can no longer utter the word 'crisis'."

The financial crisis is presenting Russia's ruling elite with the most serious challenge to its power in a decade. The Kremlin has responded by offering a bailout package and economic stimulus measures between them worth over $200 billion.

But journalists and critics say the Kremlin has deployed another weapon too: using its grip on the media to try to prevent ordinary people from finding out how bad things really are.

It comes from the top, via the meetings the top editors have with the government and the Kremlin," said the reporter, asking not to be named because he feared he could lose his job if he spoke publicly on the issue.

"The reasoning is to prevent panic from spreading inside Russia. We can still report on the crisis but we have to be very careful of how we term things, so it is a way of reporting rather than an outright ban."

At the end of last week Russia's chief macroeconomic planner was overruled by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin after saying Russia was already in a recession. Within hours, Putin told a different story, trumpeting growth of around 6 percent for 2008 and predicting Russia would weather the financial storm.

More here.

However, one of the saddest parts of teh article is...

One senior foreign exchange trader in Moscow said he did not want to comment on the central bank's efforts to support the falling rouble because if he did, it would add to the bad news surrounding the currency.

"I am a Russian patriot and I would not like that," he said.

Speaking the truth is now unpatriotic. *sighs* Where did this meme come from? It's present here too.

To make matters worse, don't criticize the government, comrade!

A new law drafted by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's Cabinet would allow authorities to label any government critic a traitor — a move that leading rights activists condemned Wednesday as a chilling reminder of the times under Soviet dictator Josef Stalin.

The draft extends the definition of treason from breaching Russia's external security to damaging the nation's constitutional order, sovereignty or territorial integrity. That would essentially let authorities interpret any act against the interests of the state as treason — a crime prosecutable by up to 20 years in prison.
More here.

Better start praying that oil prices stay low. Really low. For a long, long time.

Austroraptor Cabazai, a Short Armed Dromaeosaurid

An unusual raptor dinosaur found in Argentina is the largest of its kind found so far in the Southern Hemisphere, with awkwardly short arms that made it resemble a Tyrannosaurus, researchers reported on Tuesday.

The creature would have weighed 368 kg (800 pounds) and been nearly 5 meters (15 feet) long when it hunted in what is now Patagonia 100 million to 65 million years ago, the researchers said.

The discovery sheds light on the evolution of dromaeosaurids, birdlike dinosaurs that ran on two legs and are considered by many to have been the most intelligent of the dinosaurs.

Fernando Novas of the Museo Argentino des Ciencias Naturales and colleagues named the newly discovered species Austroraptor cabazai -- from austral in reference to southern South America, and raptor meaning thief. The cabazai honors the late Alberto Cabaza, founder of the Museo Municipal de Lamarque, whose researchers also helped in the work.

Holy Parallel Evolution In Action, batman!

No renditions, sorry, folks.

Update: rendition found and put here.

SpacePort America News

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The New Mexico Spaceport Authority (NMSA) received its launch license for vertical and horizontal launch from the Federal Aviation Administration’s Associate Administrator for Commercial Space Transportation (FAA/AST). This is a critical step to moving forward with Spaceport America, the nation’s first purpose-built commercial spaceport. The FAA/AST has issued Spaceport America a license for vertical and horizontal launches, after providing the Environmental Impact Study (EIS) Record of Decision (ROD) which was needed for construction to begin.|

“These two governmental approvals are the next steps along the road to a fully operational commercial spaceport,” said NMSA Executive Director Steven Landeene. The New Mexico State Legislature set certain requirements for spaceport funding, which included the formation of a local tax district, the issuance of an FAA EIS record of decision and launch site license, and a signed lease agreement with an anchor tenant. “We are on track to begin construction in the first quarter of 2009, and have our facility completed as quickly as possible,” he said. The NMSA is expected to have a signed lease agreement with Virgin Galactic later this month.

“It’s an important day for New Mexico and the nation as Spaceport America now adds to the United States’ launch infrastructure,” said Daniela Glick, Chair of the NMSA Board. Southern New Mexico’s Spaceport America is positioned to become the nation’s leading commercial spaceport facility. There have been several commercial launches for various clients from the site since April 2007, with more launches planned. Roadwork to the spaceport is underway, and the architectural firm of URS/Foster + Partners is completing their final design for the terminal and hangar facility.

Just an update.

Watch the skies, Jason. Keep watching the skies!

Killer Zones of the Continental US

X-47B Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicle Complete

Read about it here and here.

This is probably one of the single most important aircraft program that the US has at the moment. More than the F-22 (which we really ought to buy more of) or the F-25 [ed: oops] F-35 (less of). The UCAV future is nigh on here. The Predator demonstrated that.

No, Really! Hobbits are Another Homo species

University of Minnesota anthropology professor Kieran McNulty (along with colleague Karen Baab of Stony Brook University in New York) has made an important contribution toward solving one of the greatest paleoanthropological mysteries in recent history -- that fossilized skeletons resembling a mythical "hobbit" creature represent an entirely new species in humanity's evolutionary chain.

Discovered on the Indonesian island of Flores in 2003, controversy has surrounded the fossilized hominid skeletons of the so-called "hobbit people," or Homo floresiensis ever since. Experts are still debating whether the 18,000-year-old remains merely belong to a diminutive population of modern-day humans (with one individual exhibiting "microcephaly," an abnormally small head) or represent a previously unrecognized branch in humanity's family tree.

Using 3D modeling methods, McNulty and his fellow researchers compared the cranial features of this real-life "hobbit" to those of a simulated fossil human (of similar stature) to determine whether or not such a species was distinct from modern humans.

"[Homo floresiensis] is the most exciting discovery in probably the last 50 years," said McNulty. "The specimens have skulls that resemble something that died a million years earlier, and other body parts reminiscent of our three-million-year-old human ancestors, yet they lived until very recently -- contemporaries with modern humans."

Comparing the simulation to the original Flores skull discovered in 2003, McNulty and Baab were able to demonstrate conclusively that the original "hobbit" skull fits the expectations for a small fossil hominin species and not a modern human. Their study was published online this month in the Journal of Human Evolution.

The cranial structure of the fossilized skull, says the study, clearly places it in humanity's genus Homo, even though it would be smaller in both body and brain size than any other member. The results of the study suggest that the theorized "hobbit" species may have undergone a process of size reduction after branching off from Homo erectus (one of modern day humanity's distant ancestors) or even something more primitive.

"We have shown with this study that the process of size reduction applied to fossil hominins accounts for many features seen in the fossil skull from Flores," McNulty said. "It becomes much more difficult, therefore, to defend the hypothesis that the preserved skull is a modern human who simply suffered from an extremely rare disorder.

Another salvo!

Meet LUCA!

An evolutionary geneticist from the Université de Montréal, together with researchers from the French cities of Lyon and Montpellier, have published a ground-breaking study that characterizes the common ancestor of all life on earth, LUCA (Last Universal Common Ancestor). Their findings, presented in a recent issue of Nature, show that the 3.8-billion-year-old organism was not the creature usually imagined.

The study changes ideas of early life on Earth. "It is generally believed that LUCA was a heat-loving or hyperthermophilic organism. A bit like one of those weird organisms living in the hot vents along the continental ridges deep in the oceans today (above 90 degrees Celsius)," says Nicolas Lartillot, the study's co-author and a bio-informatics professor at the Université de Montréal. "However, our data suggests that LUCA was actually sensitive to warmer temperatures and lived in a climate below 50 degrees."

The research team compared genetic information from modern organisms to characterize the ancient ancestor of all life on earth. "Our research is much like studying the etymology of modern languages so as to reveal fundamental things about their evolution," says professor Lartillot. "We identified common genetic traits between animals, plant, bacteria, and used them to create a tree of life with branches representing separate species. These all stemmed from the same trunk – LUCA, the genetic makeup that we then further characterized."


Picture's of an amoeba, btw, not LUCA.

Amanda Seeks a Scholarship

Amanda of Self-Designed Student is seeking to go to school full time. She needs scholarships and you can help her get one by clicking vote below.

Vote early! Vote often!

Monday, December 15, 2008

Two Superplumes Have Fixed Positions for 200 Million Years

Two giant plumes of hot rock deep within the earth are linked to the plate motions that shape the continents, researchers have found.

The two superplumes, one beneath Hawaii and the other beneath Africa, have likely existed for at least 200 million years, explained Wendy Panero, assistant professor of earth sciences at Ohio State University.

The giant plumes -- or "superpiles" as Panero calls them -- rise from the bottom of Earth's mantle, just above our planet's core. Each is larger than the continental United States. And each is surrounded by a wall of plates from Earth's crust that have sunk into the mantle.

She and her colleagues reported their findings at the American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco.

Computer models have connected the piles to the sunken former plates, but it's currently unclear which one spawned the other, Panero said. Plates sink into the mantle as part of the normal processes that shape the continents. But which came first, the piles or the plates, the researchers simply do not know.

"Do these superpiles organize plate motions, or do plate motions organize the superpiles? I don't know if it's truly a chicken-or-egg kind of question, but the locations of the two piles do seem to be related to where the continents are today, and where the last supercontinent would have been 200 million years ago," she said.

That supercontinent was Pangea, and its breakup eventually led to the seven continents we know today.

Scientists first proposed the existence of the superpiles more than a decade ago. Earthquakes offer an opportunity to study them, since they slow the seismic waves that pass through them. Scientists combine the seismic data with what they know about Earth's interior to create computer models and learn more.

But to date, the seismic images have created a mystery: they suggest that the superpiles have remained in the same locations, unchanged for hundreds of millions of years.

"That's a problem," Panero said. "We know that the rest of the mantle is always moving. So why are the piles still there?"

Hot rock constantly migrates from the base of the mantle up to the crust, she explained. Hot portions of the mantle rise, and cool portions fall. Continental plates emerge, then sink back into the earth.

But the presence of the superpiles and the location of subducted plates suggest that the two superpiles have likely remained fixed to the Earth's core while the rest of the mantle has churned around them for millions of years.

Holy Unexpected Geomechanicism, Batman!

The idea that two plumes could be fixed for that long while the plates have drifted so much is pretty amazing.

Earliest Spider Web in Amber

The tiny tangled threads of the world's oldest spider web have been found encased in a prehistoric piece of amber, a British scientist said Monday.

Oxford University paleobiologist Martin Brasier said the 140-million-year-old webbing provides evidence that arachnids had been ensnaring their prey in silky nets since the dinosaur age. He also said the strands were linked to each other in the roughly circular pattern familiar to gardeners the world over.

"You can match the details of the spider's web with the spider's web in my garden," Brasier said.

The web was found in a small piece of amber picked up by an amateur fossil-hunter scouring the beaches on England's south coast about two years ago, Brasier said. A microscope revealed the existence of tiny threads about 1 millimeter (1/20th of an inch) long amid bits of burnt sap and fossilized vegetable matter.

While not as dramatic as a fully preserved net of spider silk, the minuscule strands show that spiders had been spinning circle-shaped webs well into prehistory, according to Simon Braddy, a University of Bristol paleobiologist uninvolved with the find.

"It's not a striking, perfect web," Braddy said. "(But) this seems to confirm that spiders were building orb webs back in the early Cretaceous" — the geological term for the period of time between 145.5 and 65.5 million years ago when dinosaurs and small mammals shared the earth.

140 MYA puts it on the Valanginian-Berriasian boundary more or less.

Greenland's Glacier Melt Continues to Accelerate

Researchers watching the loss of ice flowing out from the giant island of Greenland say that the amount of ice lost this summer is nearly three times what was lost one year ago.


The research team has been monitoring satellite images of Greenland to gauge just how much ice flows from landlocked glaciers towards the ocean to form floating ice shelves. Eventually, large pieces of these ice shelves will break off into the sea, speeding up the flow of more glacial ice to add to the shelves.

Warming of the climate around Greenland is believed to have added to the increased flow of ice outward from the mainland via these huge glaciers.

Using daily images from instruments called MODIS (Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer) aboard two of NASA's satellites, Box and his team are able to monitor changes in 32 of the largest glaciers along Greenland's coast.

They determined that during the summer of 2006-2007, the floating ice shelves at the seaward end of those glaciers had diminished by 24.29 square miles (62.9 square kilometers. But one year later -- the summer of 2007-2008 – the ice loss had nearly tripled to nearly 71 square miles (183.8 square kilometers). Much of this additional loss is from a single large floating ice tongue called the Petermann glacier

Late this summer, the Ohio State researchers were able to watch as a massive 11-square-mile (29-square kilometer) chunk broke off from the tongue of the massive Petermann Glacier in Northern Greenland. At the time, they also noted that a massive crack further up the ice shelf suggested an even larger piece of ice would soon crack off.

Box said that some findings may have confused the public's views of what is happening around Greenland. "For example, we know that snowfall rates have increased recently in this region," he said, "but that hasn't been enough to compensate for the increased melt rate of the ice that we're seeing now."

I have a global warming post coming. It's a monster and continues to grow. IMNSHO, we're really underestimating the sea level rise from Greenland and Antarctica's melt.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Dino Sinuses Hint at Endothermy?

The Paranasal Air Sinuses of Predatory and Armored Dinosaurs (Archosauria: Theropoda and Ankylosauria) and Their Contribution to Cephalic Structure

Lawrence M. Witmer *, Ryan C. Ridgely

Department of Biomedical Sciences, College of Osteopathic Medicine, Ohio University, Athens, Ohio
email: Lawrence M. Witmer (witmerL@ohio.edu)

*Correspondence to Lawrence M. Witmer, Department of Biomedical Sciences, College of Osteopathic Medicine, Ohio University, Athens, OH 45701
Fax: 740-593-2400

Funded by:
National Science Foundation; Grant Number: NSF BSR-9112070, NSF IBN-9601174, NSF IBN-0343744, NSF IOB-0517257
Ohio University College of Osteopathic Medicine

The paranasal air sinuses and nasal cavities were studied along with other cephalic spaces (brain cavity, paratympanic sinuses) in certain dinosaurs via CT scanning and 3D visualization to document the anatomy and examine the contribution of the sinuses to the morphological organization of the head as a whole. Two representatives each of two dinosaur clades are compared: the theropod saurischians Majungasaurus and Tyrannosaurus and the ankylosaurian ornithischians Panoplosaurus and Euoplocephalus. Their extant archosaurian outgroups, birds and crocodilians (exemplified by ostrich and alligator), display a diversity of paranasal sinuses, yet they share only a single homologous antorbital sinus, which in birds has an important subsidiary diverticulum, the suborbital sinus. Both of the theropods had a large antorbital sinus that pneumatized many of the facial and palatal bones as well as a birdlike suborbital sinus. Given that the suborbital sinus interleaves with jaw muscles, the paranasal sinuses of at least some theropods (including birds) were actively ventilated rather than being dead-air spaces. Although many ankylosaurians have been thought to have had extensive paranasal sinuses, most of the snout is instead (and surprisingly) often occupied by a highly convoluted airway. Digital segmentation, coupled with 3D visualization and analysis, allows the positions of the sinuses to be viewed in place within both the skull and the head and then measured volumetrically. These quantitative data allow the first reliable estimates of dinosaur head mass and an assessment of the potential savings in mass afforded by the sinuses.

So far the above only occurs in endotherms...in part also for heat exchange. hmmmm...

Couldn't resist the pix. There are more with the paper!

Nat Geo has a page too. So does Paleoblog.

Gerrothorax pulcherrimus, the Wrongly Hinged

A peculiar amphibian that was clad in bony armor prowled warm lakes 210 million years ago, catching fish and other tasty snacks with one of the most unusual bites in the history of life on Earth.

The creature called Gerrothorax pulcherrimus, which lived alongside some of the early dinosaurs, opened its mouth not by dropping its lower jaw, as other vertebrate animals do.

Instead, it lifted back the top of its head in a way that looked a lot like lifting the lid of a toilet seat.

"It's weird. It's the ugliest animal in the world," Harvard University's Farish Jenkins, one of the scientists who describe the mechanics of its bite in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, said in a telephone interview on Friday.

"You almost can't imagine holding your jaws still and lifting your head back to take a bite," Jenkins said.

"There are some vertebrates that will lift their heads slightly or the upper jaws (when they bite). Some salamanders do it slightly. Some fish do it slightly. But no animal is known to have done it this extensively," Jenkins added.

The scientists think Gerrothorax lurked at the bottom of a lake, then with a sudden movement of the skull created a mouth gape that entrapped any fish unfortunate enough to swim by.

Gerrothorax measured about 3 feet (1 meter) long and was stoutly protected by bony body armor reminiscent of chain mail. It had a very flat body and very flat head, short, stubby limbs and well-developed gills, Jenkins added.

Its jaws were lined with sharp teeth. And the roof of its mouth was studded with large fangs to keep any slippery fish from escaping its chomp.

With a special adaptation of the joint between its skull and first neck vertebra, Gerrothorax could raise its head relative to its lower jaw by as much as 50 degrees, giving it the wide gape necessary to swallow its prey.

Gerrothorax is one of a group of odd amphibians called plagiosaurs with no modern descendants that vanished along with numerous other species 200 million years ago in a mass extinction at the end of the Triassic Period. Its fossils were found in the Fleming Fjord Formation of east Greenland.

kewl. Someone hinged them wrong in their tetrapod improvement project.

A Brit's New Paper

Julia has a new paper. Woo!

The Modified Gap Excess Ratio (GER*) and the Stratigraphic Congruence of Dinosaur Phylogenies
Matthew A. Wills, Paul M. Barrett & Julia F. Heathcote
Systematic Biology, Volume 57, Issue 6 December 2008 , pages 891 - 904
DOI: 10.1080/10635150802570809

Swiped the cladogram from the ceratopsians...

Late Cretaceous Polar Marine Ecosystem

Life in a temperate Polar sea: a unique taphonomic window on the structure of a Late Cretaceous Arctic marine ecosystem

Karen Chin1, 2, *, John Bloch3, Arthur Sweet4, Justin Tweet1, Jaelyn Eberle1, 2, Stephen Cumbaa5, Jakub Witkowski6 & David Harwood7

1Department of Geological Sciences, University of Colorado, Boulder, CO 80309, USA
2Museum of Natural History, University of Colorado, Boulder, CO 80309, USA
3Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, NM 87131, USA
4Geological Survey of Canada, Natural Resources Canada, Calgary, Alberta, Canada T2L 2A7
5Research Services, Canadian Museum of Nature, Ottawa, Ont., Canada K1P 6P4
6Palaeontology Section, Warsaw University, 00-927 Warszawa, Poland
7Department of Geosciences, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Lincoln, NE 68588, USA

*Author and address for correspondence: Department of Geological Sciences, University of Colorado, Boulder, CO 80309, USA karen.chin@colorado.edu

Received 11 June 2008; Accepted 28 July 2008; Published online 19 August 2008


As the earth faces a warming climate, the rock record reminds us that comparable climatic scenarios have occurred before. In the Late Cretaceous, Arctic marine organisms were not subject to frigid temperatures but still contended with seasonal extremes in photoperiod. Here, we describe an unusual fossil assemblage from Devon Island, Arctic Canada, that offers a snapshot of a ca 75Myr ago marine palaeoecosystem adapted to such conditions. Thick siliceous biogenic sediments and glaucony sands reveal remarkably persistent high primary productivity along a high-latitude Late Cretaceous coastline. Abundant fossil faeces demonstrate that this planktonic bounty supported benthic invertebrates and large, possibly seasonal, vertebrates in short food chains. These ancient organisms filled trophic roles comparable to those of extant Arctic species, but there were fundamental differences in resource dynamics. Whereas most of the modern Arctic is oligotrophic and structured by resources from melting sea ice, we suggest that forested terrestrial landscapes helped support the ancient marine community through high levels of terrigenous organic input.

ie the Polar Sea was a great big brown water ecosystem. Or at least boosted by one. I'd love to comment more, but can't.

Climate Change of 13 Million Years Ago Impacted Oceans

Researchers have discovered that the ocean's chemical makeup is less stable and more greatly affected by climate change than previously believed. The researchers report in the December 12, 2008 issue of Science* that during a time of climate change 13 million years ago the chemical makeup of the oceans changed dramatically. The researchers warn that the chemical composition of the ocean today could be similarly affected by climate changes now underway – with potentially far-reaching consequences for marine ecosystems.

"As CO2 increases and weather patterns shift, the chemical composition of our rivers will change, and this will affect the oceans," says co-author Ken Caldeira of the Carnegie Institution's Department of Global Ecology. "This will change the amount of calcium and other elements in ocean salts."

The research team, which included Caldeira, Elizabeth M. Griffith and Adina Paytan of the University of California, Santa Cruz, plus two other colleagues, studied core samples of deep oceanic sediment recovered from the Pacific Ocean Basin. By analyzing the calcium isotopes in grains of the mineral barite in different layers, they determined that between 13 and 8 million years ago the ocean's calcium levels shifted dramatically. The shift corresponds to the growth of the Antarctic ice sheets during the same time interval. Because of the huge volume of water that became locked up in the ice cap, sea level also dropped.

"The climate got colder, ice sheets expanded, sea level dropped, and the intensity, type, and extent of weathering on land changed," explains Griffith.

"This caused changes in ocean circulation and in the amount and composition of what rivers delivered to the ocean," adds Paytan. "This in turn impacted the biology and chemistry of the ocean."

Calcium-bearing rocks such as limestone are the largest storehouse of carbon in the Earth's carbon cycle because they are primarily made up of calcium carbonate. "The ocean's calcium cycle is closely linked to atmospheric carbon dioxide and the processes that control seawater's acidity," says Caldeira.

No time for commentary.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Europa Has Turbulent Seas?

Locked under ice, the hidden oceans of Europa, one of Jupiter's moons, may be tumultuous rather than placid, a new study says.

Such oceanic unrest translates into a higher potential for life.

Robert Tyler, an oceanographer from the University of Washington, has used computer simulations to show that Jupiter's effects on its moon Europa may work differently than scientists once thought.

Rather than just stressing the moon's solid parts—squeezing its rocks and flexing a global shell of ice—Jupiter's relentless tugging may also generate huge planetary waves in Europa's submerged ocean.

These waves could be the primary vehicles for distributing energy, as heat, across Europa. The new theory counters a widely held impression that Europa's ocean is calm.

"Suddenly, now our whole conception has to be one of very energetic oceans sloshing around under this ice," Tyler said.

"I consider the specific case of Europa, but the general results apply equally to other moons with suspected oceans," he wrote in his paper, which appears in the journal Nature this week. Those moons include Jupiter's Callisto and Ganymede, along with Saturn's Enceladus and Titan.