Science News Roundup: 5/1/12

We’ve got a mix of good news and bad this week. Global warming sucks, but new water sources in Africa may provide some measure of protection for its people. Lots of species may be in danger, but did you know some species of sharks glow in the dark? I didn’t! There’s also some cool news for Doctor Who fans. Plus, bonus pic of every Persephoneer’s favorite smexy scientist!

In good news for the less coordinated among us, researchers have developed a new coating that protects cotton from stains. Here’s hoping it turns out to be comfy, because I could definitely use the protection!

Enormous aquifers have been found underlying most of the continent of Africa, with some of the highest concentrations found deep below the arid Sahara. This discovery could help protect Africans against droughts due to climate change. Scientists have yet to figure out the best way to access it in a sustainable fashion; small-scale drilling seems to be a safer option since large-scale drilling could deplete the water supply much faster than it can be replaced, leading to further shortages in the future.

Map of Africa showing amount of water in underlying aquifers
Drill, baby, drill!

Measuring the ratio of a specific carbon isotope may enable scientists to determine whether carbon dioxide is from natural sources or from the burning of fossil fuels. Carbon-14 decays over thousands of years, so there is little to none found in fossil fuels and it therefore isn’t present in the CO2 released when they are burned.

While some glaciers such as those in the Karakoram are doing just fine, glaciers are on average out of balance and losing mass worldwide. More ice is melting each year than is replenished by snowfall in the following winter, leading to gradual shrinking of the ice in the Alps and other regions. Fortunately, so far the areas with the most retreat don’t have much ice to begin with and therefore won’t cause too much rise in sea levels.

In more environmental news, global climate change seems to be speeding up the water cycle, which may lead to more extreme weather. Warmer temperatures lead to higher rates of evaporation which leads to stronger storms and more rainfall. Just what we needed. The research is in preliminary stages so the full impact is not yet known, but if initial estimates bear out, it’s gonna suck.

Researchers have made a breakthrough in figuring out how birds navigate using the earth’s magnetic field. The pigeons that were studied have a cluster of brain cells that can detect the strength and direction of magnetic fields, acting like a compass integrated into their brains. Further study is needed to figure out exactly how that compass allows them to follow migratory paths, but it’s thought that they store a map in their hippocampus, which is where memories of locations are stored.

A hen in Sri Lanka gave birth to a live chick after incubating the egg inside her body. The chick was born after hatching internally, and is none the worse for wear. Sadly, the mother didn’t fare as well and died of internal injuries.

A cow in California has tested positive for mad cow disease. Fortunately it’s a dairy cow and the disease isn’t transmitted though milk, so no need to panic.

Some populations of koalas are being listed as vulnerable under Australian environmental law. In many parts of the country koalas are thriving, but their numbers are dropping at a precipitous rate in Queensland, New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory, mostly due to habitat loss, disease, and dangers from increased human populations such as dog attacks and being hit by cars. With this new protection come funds to research koala habitats to try to find ways to better protect them.

Baby koala gripping tree branch
OMG look at the baby koala! Image courtesy Erik Veland via Wikimedia Commons

24 new species of skinks have been identified in the Caribbean. Some were identified from museum species and may already be extinct in the wild, and many others are close to extinction, largely due to mongoose brought in by farmers to kill rats on sugarcane plantations.

Reef shark populations are on the decline in the Pacific, with numbers dropping by as much as 90% around populated islands. Sad.

In happier shark news, researchers are studying the tiny smalleye pygmy sharks to determine the origin of bioluminescence in sharks. Apparently more than 10% of sharks have the ability to glow, either to disguise their silhouettes against the brighter sky above or in some cases, to communicate in dark water. Cool!

Bioluminescent lantern shark as seen from below.

The sonic screwdriver is one step closer to reality. Hooray! Researchers invented a device that uses ultrasound waves to move and rotate objects, which could lead to advances in medical procedures that use ultrasound instead of incisions. (I’m not sure how a writer for the BBC thinks his name is “Doctor Who” and no one there managed to catch it in editing. Y’all make the show! /nerd)

Last but not least, the Enterprise arrived in New York on Friday to be displayed at the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum. Which led to this awesomeness:

Photo of Neil deGrasse Tyson and Leonard Nimoy

By [E] Hillary

Hillary is a giant nerd and former Mathlete. She once read large swaths of "Why Evolution is True" and a geology book aloud to her infant daughter, in the hopes of a) instilling a love of science in her from a very young age and b) boring her to sleep. After escaping the wilds of Waco, Texas and spending the next decade in NYC, she currently lives in upstate New York, where she misses being able to get decent pizza and Chinese takeout delivered to her house. She lost on Jeopardy.

19 replies on “Science News Roundup: 5/1/12”

Thank you for feeding my NdGT addiction.  I appreciate it.

Also, I could accept the usage of Doctor Who if it were referring to the show’s creation and use of the sonic screwdriver.  However, using that phraseology under a photo of my (new) favorite Doctor (David Tennant) is definitely incorrect.

I’m thinking you can answer a question for me. I have heard some people say that the Earth may run out of water sometime in the future (As in, “The next world war will be fought over water rights,” type of thing). Where does it go? It seems to me that one way or another, water used will evaporate or go back to the ground, and so it will turn into rain or find its way to something like the underground aquifers. This is probably a silly question, but I have never been able to figure it out, unless we are losing water by burying people in coffins instead of the ground.

If I remember correctly, it’s less ‘access to water’ and more ‘access to *fresh* water’. There’s a bunch of fairly useless (for human consumption) water all over the place, but we need desalinisation plants to actually access it, and they’re expensive and not particularly efficient.

Alex is right about the salt water; it’s an expensive pain in the ass to make ocean water drinkable. A lot of areas depend on melting snow to fill the rivers; if it’s too warm to snow in the mountains everybody downstream goes thirsty. Lots of water is diverted for agricultural irrigation or for industrial purposes and in some cases is then too contaminated to drink. Changing weather patterns mean some areas that used to get lots of rain don’t get as much anymore. Rivers and lakes can become contaminated with bacteria and make people sick, so without treatment plant the water isn’t usable. And in some cases people flat-out horde water supplies. There are a lot of different variables, unfortunately, and most of the solutions are expensive.

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