Environmental scientists jump on Google Earth by puy10969



    Environmental scientists jump on Google Earth
    THE BRITISH Geological            available global mapping
    Survey is leading the             software. At a meeting in
    geological surveys of more        Cambridge in April, organised by
    than 55 nations to create the     Jon Blower from NERC’s Earth
    first global digital geological   Systems Science Centre,
    map. The project, known as        researchers discussed how the
    OneGeology, is a searchable       scientific community can use
    website containing geological     these systems.
    maps for the entire planet,          Jon illustrated the power of
    initially at a scale of           the technology by superimposing
    1:1,000,000.                      an animation of the track of
       The team will make             Hurricane Katrina onto an
    OneGeology available through      animation of sea surface
    Google Earth and other            temperatures in the Caribbean
    browsers. The initiative will     and Atlantic.
    start producing results by           He said, ‘A key capability of
    mid-2008 and grow steadily as     these systems is their ability to
    more countries pool               clearly show diverse data from
    information.                      different providers. This reveals   Antarctic Survey already use the       www.onegeology.org
       Geologists are not the only    new information that would          system to display live information
    environmental scientists to       otherwise have been hidden.’        on ships, buoys and tagged
    see the potential for freely         Researchers at the British       penguins.

Bird-ringing                          Monsoon variability targeted by researchers
stresses birds out

                                                                                                                                                        Jon Arnold Images/Alamy
BIRD-RINGING techniques used
to track wild birds can cause
stress and lead to erratic
behaviour, according to
research at Cardiff University.
   Following release, many birds
temporarily stopped foraging for
food in their usual locations and
failed to return to their nests for
several hours. During these long
absences nest temperature fell,
leading to slower embryo
   NERC Fellow Rob Thomas
said, ‘It’s important to consider                                                            India needs to know if the rain will continue to fall.
these effects in the design of
ethical and scientifically
rigorous field experiments.’          A UK-INDIA partnership has          in Pune, will also aim to apply          The awards total £5 million
   Rob is now working with the        successfully secured funds for a    those predictions at local and         and involve five institutes in India
British Trust for Ornithology to      four-year project to rapidly        regional levels.                       as well as the University of East
develop this research and to          develop improved ways of               The research, which is one of       Anglia, the European Centre for
revise regulations for bird           predicting monsoon variability on   six awards from the UK-India           Medium-Range Weather
ringers.                              timescales of weeks to decades.     Education and Research                 Forecasts, the Hadley Centre and
                                      The team based in the UK at the     Initiative (UKIERI), will be           the University of Reading.
thomasrj@cardiff.ac.uk                Walker Institute, University of     achieved through a series of
                                      Reading, and in India at the        exchange visits, workshops and         www.reading.ac.uk/about/news
                                      Institute of Tropical Meteorology   PhD studentships.                      andevents/releases/PR383.asp

2          Planet Earth • Summer 2007

                                  To save a mockingbird
                                                                                                            Overcoming hurdles
                                  A NEW scheme to re-introduce             Conservation biologists Steve
                                  the Galapagos mockingbird,            Ewing from the University of        SCIENTISTS working on a           University of Oxford and John
                                  which is on the verge of              Glasgow and Lukas Keller, now       satellite instrument that was     Gille of the University of
                                  extinction, began in March. The       at the Zoologisches Museum,         at one point almost given up      Colorado have painstakingly
                                  project will use techniques           Zürich and colleagues want to       as a lost cause have              developed new algorithms to
                                  developed from a recent NERC-         maximise genetic diversity of the   announced that they are now       maximise the data retrieved
                                  funded project to reduce              mockingbird populations to          receiving high-quality data on    from HIRDLS.
                                  inbreeding in the Mauritius           improve survival rates.             atmospheric temperatures             'We spent half a year trying
                                  kestrel, which has helped bring          Lukas said, ‘We started in       and chemical composition.         to clear the obstruction before
                                  the species back from the brink       March with a workshop in the           In July 2004, NASA             we started looking at how we
                                  of extinction.                        Galapagos. We will begin moving     successfully launched the         could use what we had got,’
                                     Only four species of               mockingbirds in 2009.’              Earth observation satellite       said John Barnett.
                                  mockingbird are left on the              ‘I am convinced if we had not    Aura to examine atmospheric          ‘We radically changed the
                                  Galapagos. One species is             done the work on kestrel            composition in unprecedented      way the optical beam moved
                                  endangered. It has already gone       inbreeding we would not have        detail. The success was           and got NASA to tilt the
                                  extinct on the main island and        credentials to do the Galapagos     overshadowed in the UK by         spacecraft to give us special
                                  there are less than 200 birds left    project.’                           the silence from one of Aura's    calibration data. Fortunately
                                  on two smaller islands.                                                   four instruments – the joint      the rest of the instrument
                                                                                                            NERC/NASA-funded High             works even better than
Tom Vezo/Nature Picture Library

                                                              Under threat: the Galapagos mockingbird.
                                                                                                            Resolution Dynamics Limb          planned, and this was a big
                                                                                                            Sounder (HIRDLS). The             help.’
                                                                                                            instrument was due to                Now, even with 80 percent
                                                                                                            measure atmospheric               of the optical beam still
                                                                                                            composition, including ozone      blacked-out, in one day the
                                                                                                            and particulates.                 team can retrieve data from
                                                                                                               During the launch a piece      nearly all of the world.
                                                                                                            of protective plastic film had       NERC’s British Atmospheric
                                                                                                            torn free and lodged over the     Data Centre will distribute data
                                                                                                            instrument's only optical         in the UK.
                                                                                                            beam, reducing visibility to
                                                                                                            just 20 percent.                  Dr John Barnett
                                                                                                               Since the launch, scientists   j.barnett1@physics.ox.ac.uk
                                                                                                            led by John Barnett from the

                                  Small but perfectly formed
                                  IN TERMS of nanomaterials,            environments.
                                  small is turning out to be quite         The work is part of the
                                  beautiful from a commercial,          ongoing Environmental
                                  medical and environmental             Nanoscience Initiative. The first
                                  viewpoint. But do the enhanced        results from the initiative are
                                  properties of nanomaterials           reported on page ten.
                                  mean enhanced risks to the               The second International
                                  environment and human health?         Conference on Environmental
                                     NERC, in collaboration with        Effects of Nanomaterials will be
                                  Defra and the Environment             held on 24-25 September at the
                                  Agency, announced in May              Natural History Museum (See
                                  approximately ten exploratory         www.sebiology.org).
                                  grants to investigate the
                                  environmental fate, behaviour         www.nerc.ac.uk/research/progr
                                  and effects of nanomaterials in       ammes/nanoscience
                                  terrestrial, aquatic and marine

                                                                                                                                       Planet Earth • Summer 2007                3

                                                                                                                     Carbon offsetting                      show that the excessive damage
                                               Dinosaur extinction not                                               could fund
                                                                                                                                                            was caused by the close proximity
                                                                                                                                                            of the earthquake’s epicentre to
                                               responsible for present-day                                           peatland                               Folkestone. The instruments

                                               mammals                                                               regeneration                           showed that the epicentre was
                                                                                                                                                            adjacent to the town at a depth of
                                                                                                                                                            just two kilometres.
                                                                                  existing fossil records and new    THE PEATLANDS of England and              Historical records show that
                                               A NEW discovery rewrites our
                                                                                  molecular analyses.                Wales could store up to 41,000         earthquakes in or near the Dover
                                               understanding of how we
                                                                                     Andy Purvis from Imperial       tonnes of carbon per year, if they     Straits struck in 1950, 1776, 1580
                                               evolved on this planet. The
                                                                                  College London explains, ‘Our      were in pristine condition. But        and 1382.
                                               ancestors of all mammals on
                                                                                  research has shown that for        erosion and damage mean that              The last earthquake felt by
                                               Earth diversified as a result of
                                                                                  the first ten or fifteen million   the peat is actually releasing         residents in Folkestone was
                                               a global warming, according to
                                                                                  years after the dinosaurs were     carbon into the atmosphere at a        actually a Dutch earthquake, with
                                               research reported in Nature by
                                                                                  wiped out, present day             rate of 381,000 tonnes a year,         an epicentre near Maastricht, in
                                               scientists from Imperial
                                                                                  mammals kept a very low            according to researchers on the        1992.
                                               College London and the
                                                                                  profile, while other types of      Rural Economy and Land Use
                                               Zoological Society of London. It
                                                                                  mammals were running the           (RELU) programme.                      www.earthquakes.bgs.ac.uk
                                               contradicts the previously
                                                                                  show. It looks like a later bout      The cause of the release is the
                                               accepted theory that a mass
                                                                                  of global warming may have         vast system of drainage ditches
                                               extinction event, that wiped out
                                                                                  kick-started today's diversity –   dug across the uplands during the
                                               the dinosaurs 65 million years
                                               ago, prompted the rapid rise of    not the death of the dinosaurs.’   1950s. This was an unsuccessful        Orchid’s little
                                               the mammals that we see
                                                                                                                     attempt to increase land               helpers
                                                                                  'The delayed rise of present-      productivity. Scientists say that if
                                                                                  day mammals', Nature, 29           these could be blocked then peat
                                                 The research team has been                                                                                 NEW RESEARCH demonstrates
                                                                                  March 2007.                        would form again.
                                               working for over a decade to                                                                                 why some orchids are notoriously
                                                                                                                        Analysts at Defra suggest that
                                               compile a ‘tree of life’ from                                                                                difficult to cultivate from seed –
                                                                                                                     the cost of blocking one hectare
                                                                                                                                                            they need specific fungi to help
                                                                                                                     of peat drains is about £188. RELU
                                                                                                                                                            them grow. Scientists have
D. Van Ravenswaay /Science Photo Library

                                                                                                                     researchers have hit on the idea
                                                Why are we here? The mystery deepens.                                                                       known for a long time that fungi
                                                                                                                     of working with a carbon
                                                                                                                                                            play a vital role helping orchids
                                                                                                                     offsetting company that would
                                                                                                                                                            germinate, but until now, they
                                                                                                                     allow consumers to offset their
                                                                                                                                                            knew very little about how they
                                                                                                                     carbon footprint by paying for
                                                                                                                                                            helped the adult plant.
                                                                                                                     upland regeneration.
                                                                                                                                                               Duncan Cameron and his
                                                                                                                                                            colleagues from the University of
                                                                                                                     Anne Liddon
                                                                                                                                                            Sheffield, have shown that the
                                                                                                                                                            adult green orchid, creeping
                                                                                                                                                            lady’s tresses (Goodyera repens),
                                                                                                                                                            takes up nitrogen and
                                                                                                                     Folkestone                             phosphorus, two nutrients for
                                                                                                                     Earthquake                             essential growth, from fungi living
                                                                                                                                                            close to or within its roots. In
                                                                                                                     THE LEVEL of damage caused by          return, the plant gives up some of
                                                                                                                     the earthquake which shook             its carbon as sugars.
                                                                                                                     Folkestone and the rest of Kent           Duncan said, ‘We introduced
                                                                                                                     on 28 April has rarely been            radioactive phosphorus which
                                                                                                                     exceeded in the last few hundred       could be traced and quantified as
                                                                                                                     years, according to scientists at      it moved between the plant and
                                                                                                                     the British Geological Survey          fungus, which confirmed for the
                                                                                                                     (BGS). But the geologists add that     first time this mutualistic
                                                                                                                     the earthquake was by no means         behaviour.’
                                                                                                                     unusual in the UK: earthquakes of
                                                                                                                     a similar magnitude usually strike     ‘Mycorrhizal Acquisition of
                                                                                                                     somewhere on land or offshore          Inorganic Phosphorus by the
                                                                                                                     every five years.                      Green-leaved Terrestrial Orchid
                                                                                                                        BGS geologists used the UK          Goodyera repens’, Annals of
                                                                                                                     seismic monitoring network to          Botany, 1-4, 2007.

                                           4           Planet Earth • Summer 2007

                                                                   Major carbon sink now releasing CO2
Evidence of climate driving
                                                                   STRONGER winds over the              climate models predict that this
evolution and ecology                                              Southern Ocean caused by             kind of feedback will continue and
                                                                   increasing greenhouse gases          intensify during this century. The
                                                                   and ozone depletion have led to      Earth’s carbon sinks – of which
                                                                   a release of carbon dioxide from     the Southern Ocean accounts for
                                                                   the ocean into the atmosphere.       15 percent – absorb about half of
                                                                   The research is the first            all human carbon emissions. With
                                                                   evidence that recent climate         the Southern Ocean reaching its
                                                                   change has weakened one of           saturation point more CO2 will stay
                                                                   the Earth’s natural carbon sinks.    in our atmosphere.’
                                                                      Lead author Corinne Le Quéré         Stronger winds churn up the
                                                                   from the British Antarctic Survey    ocean bringing more dissolved
                                                                   and the University of East Anglia    carbon to the surface.
                                                                   said, ‘We can say climate                ‘Saturations of the Southern
                                                                   change itself is responsible for     Ocean CO2 sink due to recent
                                                                   the saturation of the Southern       climate change.’ Science,
                                                                   Ocean sink. This is serious. All     18 May.

                                                                   Still learning from Archimedes
                                                                   GRACEFUL, simple, underwater         crossing oceans.
                                                                   gliders are providing researchers       In 2007 the team from the
                                                                   with excellent data on deep          National Oceanography Centre,
                                                                   convection in the Mediterranean.     Southampton deployed three
                                                                      Underwater gliders combine        gliders in the Gulf of Lion. They
                                                                   high-tech design with buoyancy       used satellite communication
RELATIVELY minor                                                   principles first put forward by      systems during the three-month
                                larger animals. This could
environmental influences,                                          Archimedes in 250BC. They sink       project to adapt the glider
                                significantly affect the
such as one harsh winter,                                          slowly, but their shape forces       mission as conditions changed.
                                population dynamics of the
can force evolution in animal                                      them to slip forward through the        Oceanographer David Smeed
                                Soay sheep overall’.
populations and rapidly                                            water as they fall. A change in      said, ‘We can control where the
                                   The research, reported in
change population sizes.                                           volume plus a tilt backwards and     gliders go from my office in
                                Science, has shown that
   Scientists studying Soay                                        the machine travels upwards on       Southampton. We are combining
                                population change is affected
sheep in the Outer Hebrides                                        a gentle incline through the         measurements from the gliders
                                by body size, and that body
noticed that in years with                                         water column. Sea gliders can        with models of convection to
                                size, in turn, is affected by a
long, cold winters the sheep                                       use these simple manoeuvres to       gain a better understanding of
                                number of factors including
population grew fastest                                            travel great distances, even         mixing in the ocean.’
                                genetics, climate, and the
when there were many large      availability of food. The
individuals within the          scientists have linked together,
population.                     for the first time, the big
   Tim Coulson from Imperial    ecological picture with the
College London explained,       genetic make-up of individual
‘Data shows that in the 1980s   animals.
big sheep were genetically
favoured in this population     Dr Tim Coulson
because big sheep had more      t.coulson@imperial.ac.uk
chance of surviving the
harsh winters.’                 ‘The Evolutionary Demography
   ‘But, as the climate         of Ecological Change: Linking
changes and the Soay sheep      Trait Variation and Population
are not subject to such tough   Growth’, Science, 16 March
winters, there will be          2007.
reduced natural selection for
                                                                                                   Gliders deployed in the Mediterranean.

                                                                                                 Planet Earth • Summer 2007                 5

                                                                            Journey to the centre of the Earth
    Calculating the Olympics’

                                                                                                                                                         Roger Searle
    carbon footprint
    THE BRITISH Geological Survey        compare the impact of using
    and the University of Leeds          different methods of transport
    have been awarded a grant to         from a range of likely quarries.   Recovering samples from a gap
    investigate some of the              This information will help to      in the Earth’s crust.
    environmental impacts of             identify potential problems
    building the 2012 Olympic Park.      with infrastructure and
       Andrew Bloodworth, the            encourage suppliers to use
    programme co-ordinator said,         more sustainable options such
    'Such an enormous                    as rail and barge rather than
    construction project will            relying on roads.
    probably call upon resources            A PhD studentship is
    from quarries right across the       available. Please visit this
    UK and we need to see how            website for more details.
    this will effect the environment.’   www.geog.leeds.ac.uk/resear
       Using carbon footprint            ch/csap/topics/bigfeet.html
    calculations, the team will

Hunting warm, resting cool
DOGFISH have a hunting
strategy that helps them save
energy. These and other sharks
that live on the ocean floor hunt
in warm, shallow waters where
there is plenty of food, but move
to deeper, cooler water to rest
and digest their prey.
   David Sims from the Marine
Biological Association said,
‘We’ve noticed other marine
species rest in deeper waters
but this tends to be a means of                                             ONE of the world's most              worked extremely well, allowing
hiding from their predators.                                                advanced research ships has          us to sample and map the
Benthic sharks have little to fear                                          just completed her maiden            seafloor with an unprecedented
from predation so we knew there                                             voyage to investigate a huge         precision. This is probably the
had to be another reason.’                                                  ‘wound’ in the Earth's crust.        first area where the mantle has
   Some sharks are cold-blooded                                                The James Cook, returned on       been observed extensively on the
and the temperature of the water                                            17 April from an expedition to the   seafloor.’
can control their metabolic rate                                            Mid Atlantic Ridge, a massive           The team includes scientists
with warmer temperatures                                                    underwater volcanic mountain         from the National Oceanography
leading to an increase in energy                                            range. Tectonic plates at the        Centre in Southampton, Cardiff
expenditure. The scientists                                                 ridge move away from each            University, Durham University, the
calculated that resting in the                                              other and usually the gap fills      British Geological Survey, and the
cooler waters enables these                                                 with hot, molten rock rising from    universities of Houston, Paris and
sharks to save their energy by                                              the mantle to form the Earth's       Wyoming. They are now
six percent.                                                                crust. But at the location the       analysing the data to reveal new
                                                                            scientists visited, much of the      insights into how the oceanic
‘Hunt warm, rest cool:                                                      melt seems to be missing and         plates are formed. Planet Earth
bioenergetic strategy underlying                                            the mantle is exposed on the         will be reporting the findings later
diel vertical migration of a                                                seabed.                              in the year.
benthic shark’, Journal of Animal                                              Roger Searle, who led the            Visit the official cruise website:
Ecology, Vol 75.                                                            expedition said, ‘The new ship       www.classroomatsea.net

6           Planet Earth • Summer 2007

Ocean circulation ‘short-circuit’ discovered                                                                    In brief
COLD WATERS rise from the                                                                                       Space race
depths an order of magnitude                                                                                    A new Earth observation
faster than predicted, in some                                                                                  centre launched in May will
parts of the Southern Ocean,                                                                                    boost the UK’s position in the
according to oceanographers                                                                                     global space industry. The
tracking helium ejected by                                                                                      Centre for Earth Observation
submarine volcanoes.                                                                                            and Instrumentation (CEOI)
   The research reported in                                                                                     will ensure scientists in the
Nature gives new insights into                                                                                  UK have the instruments and
the global ocean circulation,                                                                                   technologies they need to
which has a central role in the                                                                                 research global environ-
climate system. The work                                                                                        mental change from space.
suggests that the giant, often                                                                                  The centre, a collaboration
sluggish overturning circulation                                                                                between NERC and the
driven by winds and tides occurs                                                                                Department for Trade and
in bursts in the Southern Ocean.                                                                                Industry, will be led by Mick
The team led by Alberto Naveira                                                                                 Johnson.
Garabato from the National
Oceanography Centre,                 measure the rates of mixing and     the overturning circulation in the     Living with Environmental
Southampton discovered a             upwelling over an area spanning     upper kilometre of the ocean as        Change
‘short-circuit’ in a region above    one tenth of the Antarctic          being independent of that in the       The UK’s main funders of
rough, mountainous seafloor,         Circumpolar Current (ACC), the      abyss. Our observations show           environmental science
where deep waters upwell             world’s most powerful current.      that the two are very much             intend launching the Living
rapidly and seem to bypass the          Traces of helium dissolve in     intertwined in the Southern            with Environmental Change
slow circulation.                    the deep sea. A plume of this       Ocean, and that this has               programme this autumn. The
   ‘It seems much of the deep        marked water travels down the       substantial implications for how       new initiative, which aims to
water upwelling in the Southern      coast of Chile. It is injected at   we represent the ocean in              provide solutions to environ-
Ocean takes place from the tip of    depth into the ACC on the Pacific   climate models’, added Alberto.        mental change as well as
South America – Drake passage        side of Cape Horn. It then             Climate change researchers          help the UK to capitalise on
– to just south of the Falklands,    streams through into the Atlantic   will use this information to           emerging opportunities, will
and that it drives strong vertical   with the ACC, where it spreads      improve the way climate models         be the largest single
mixing between the upper and         out. The team measured this         represent ocean circulation.           programme NERC has
lower layers of the ocean,’ said     spread to deduce the                                                       helped coordinate. See
Alberto.                             overturning circulation ‘short-     ‘Short-circuiting of the               Leader page 1.
   The helium tracer from            circuit.’                           overturning circulation in the         www.nerc.ac.uk/research/
underwater volcanoes in the             ‘For many years,                 Antarctic Circumpolar Current’,        programmes/lwec
Pacific allowed the team to          oceanographers have regarded        Nature, Vol 447, 10 May 2007.
                                                                                                                Blockbuster Antarctic
                                                                                                                exhibition launched
                                                                                                                Have you got what is takes
Virus causes coral bleaching                                                                                    to be an ice cadet in the
                                                                                                                most remote place on Earth?
A VIRUS that kills algae on coral    triggered by warmer waters. But        The work shows that viruses         The British Antarctic Survey
reefs may be causing                 the underlying cause of coral       play an important role in coral        and the Natural History
widespread bleaching,                bleaching and the mechanisms        reef dynamics.                         Museum launched Ice
according to scientists at           involved remained largely                                                  Station Antarctica on 25
Plymouth Marine Laboratory and       unknown until now.                  Dr Willie Wilson                       May. The blockbuster family
the University of Plymouth.             Willie Wilson said, ‘The virus   whw@pml.ac.uk                          exhibition will give children
   The virus, which kills tiny       is latent in the algae. It only                                            the experience of living and
symbiotic algae essential for the    starts to infect the symbiotic      ‘Characterisation of a Latent          working on the coldest
survival of corals, could explain    algae when the coral is stressed    Virus-like Infection of Symbiotic      continent. It remains at the
the bleaching now reported in        by temperature or UV light. It      Zooxanthellae’. Applied and            museum until April 2008
over 50 countries and across         provides a plausible explanation    Environmental Microbiology,            before embarking on a world
three oceans.                        for some of the rapid bleaching     May 2007.                              tour. www.nhm.ac.uk
   Coral bleaching is usually        we see in coral reefs.’

                                                                                                        Planet Earth • Summer 2007               7

                                                                                            Drought                               will be to see if this metabolic
                       World's fourth largest lake                                          resistance:
                                                                                                                                  limitation occurs in other C4
                       shrinks by two-thirds                                                challenging the
                                                                                            textbooks                             ‘Drought constraints on C4
Hedi Oberhaensli

                                                                                                                                  photsynthesis: stomatal and
                                                                                            MAIZE and sugar cane, two of          metabolic limitations in C3 and C4
                                                                                            the world's most important food       subspecies of Alloteropsis
                                                                                            plants, might be more at risk from    semialata’, Journal of
                                                                                            drought than previously thought.      Experimental Botany, Vol 58,
                                                                                               Plants have evolved two            April 2007.
                                                                                            mechanisms to take up carbon
                                                                                            from carbon dioxide (CO2). The
                                                                                            most popular method is known as
                                                                                            C3; but maize and sugar cane use      Next Sumatran
                                                                                            the less popular C4. Hot weather      tsunami likely to
                       IN LESS than 50 years the Aral     lake's fish species and a loss    can be a problem for C3 plants,
                       Sea, which straddles the           of more than 250 species of       which include rice, wheat and         be less severe
                       border between Kazakhstan          plankton.                         potatoes. They photosynthesize
                       and Uzbekistan, has shrunk by         A recently constructed dam     by absorbing carbon dioxide           NEW research indicates that it is
                       two-thirds.                        is helping to halt the            through their stomata (pores in       very likely another large
                          Researchers from NERC's         regression of the smaller         the leaves), but open stomata         earthquake, possibly as large as
                       Isotope Geoscience                 Northern Aral but the decline     can allow more water to               the Boxing Day 2004 earthquake
                       Laboratory and University          of the Southern Aral continues    evaporate. Textbooks say that C4      (magnitude 9.2), will strike the
                       College London (UCL) blame         unabated.                         plants have an advantage in           coast of Sumatra within a
                       human activity for the decline,       UCL researcher Patrick         these conditions because they         lifetime, but the subsequent
                       which has now turned the           Austin said, ‘The Aral Sea is     have a pump which takes in CO2        tsunami could be much less
                       former sea into two large          often in the news due to the      whilst their stomata are partially    severe than in 2004.
                       lakes, the Northern Aral and       dramatic decline in lake levels   closed – maintaining a high rate          A team of scientists, led by
                       the Southern Aral. The change      since the early 1960s. This has   of photosynthesis.                    John McCloskey from the
                       is largely due to the former       resulted in an ecological and        However, research on the           University of Ulster, simulated
                       Soviet Union diverting two         humanitarian disaster. Through    grass Alloteropsis semialata, the     100 different earthquakes off the
                       rivers that feed the lake, the     our investigations, we were       only species with both C3 and C4      coast of Sumatra and then
                       Amu Darya and the Syr Darya,       able to work out that             types, adds a new twist to this       calculated the likely tsunami
                       for irrigation.                    regressions happened in the       story.                                wave heights. The research
                          The researchers, who            recent past and were due to a        Paper author Brad Ripley, from     revealed that only 20 percent of
                       collaborated with Kazan State      combination of climate change     Rhodes University said,               the modelled earthquakes
                       University and the University of   and human activity, notably, on   ‘surprisingly, the C4 form lost its   produced waves greater than
                       Nottingham, say humans as far      one occasion, the destruction     photosynthetic advantage during       five metres at the vulnerable
                       back as Genghis Khan and the       of irrigation systems by          severe drought because of             coastal cities of Padang and
                       White Huns have had a              Genghis Khan and the              metabolic limitations in its CO2      Bengkulu. In 2004, a wave 30
                       negative affect on the lake but    Mongols in 1221.’                 pump. This gives us a clue as to      metres high hit the north-west
                       the more recent changes have          The Aral Sea was once the      why the abundance of C4 grasses       coast of Sumatra. The team also
                       led to a 90 percent drop in the    world's fourth largest lake.      seems to decline in arid              discovered that the time it takes
                                                                                            environments despite their high       for a tsunami to reach these
                                                                                            water efficiency.’                    vulnerable coastal areas is about
                                                                                               If this response turns up in all   30 minutes, irrespective of the
                                                                                            C4 species, it could have huge        size of the earthquake.
                                                                                            implications for the environment          John said, ‘With a population
                                                                                            and crop management. For              in excess of one million living on
                                                                                            example, scientists are currently     western Sumatra's low coastal
                                                                                            exploring techniques to introduce     plains, it's very important that
                                                                                            C4 photosynthesis into rice – a C3    communities prepare for a future
                                                                                            plant – in the hope of increasing     tsunami. A half hour warning
                                                                                            yields in dry areas.                  could give people a bit of time to
                                                                                               But it may not be time to          move to higher ground or at least
                                                                                            rewrite the textbooks just yet; the   to higher parts of buildings.’
                                                                                            next step for the research team

                   8           Planet Earth • Summer 2007

                  War veterans test negative for depleted uranium                                                                     In brief
                  TESTS designed to detect              These tests were designed to           been exposed to depleted
                                                                                                                                     Brazil visit
                  depleted uranium in the urine         estimate the maximum level of          uranium.’
                                                                                                                                     Centre for Ecology &
                  samples of Gulf War veterans          DU exposure to veterans up to 15          The BGS and University of
                                                                                                                                     Hydrology (CEH) director Pat
                  even after 15 years have shown        years ago. None of the 464 urine       Leicester team also conducted
                                                                                                                                     Nutthall joined the
                  no evidence of contamination.         samples tested positive for            another study around a depleted
                                                                                                                                     government’s chief scientific
                     Researchers at NERC's              exposure to DU, though the             uranium munitions factory in
                                                                                                                                     advisor Sir David King in
                  Isotope Geosciences Laboratory,       extent of any initial exposure of      Albany, New York State.
                                                                                                                                     Brazil for the launch of the
                  based at the British Geological       those tested was unknown.                 'It has been more than 20
                                                                                                                                     UK-Brazil Year of Science.
                  Survey (BGS) and Royal                   Head of NERC’s Isotope              years since DU contaminated the
                                                                                                                                     The small scientific
                  Holloway University of London, in     Geosciences Laboratory                 land around the site yet we could
                                                                                                                                     delegation want to identify
                  conjunction with the Depleted         Professor Randall Parrish said,        clearly detect it in a significant
                                                                                                                                     opportunities for UK-Brazil
                  Uranium Oversight Board,              ‘To my knowledge these were            proportion of the urine samples
                                                                                                                                     research, in particular
                  developed a very sensitive test       the first tests of this kind to have   of the people we tested,' said
                                                                                                                                     projects investigating the
                  to detect traces of depleted          been carried out.                      Randy.
                                                                                                                                     economic valuation of rainfall
                  uranium (DU) in urine from               ‘The tests were voluntary.             The findings of the veterans'
                                                                                                                                     generated by the Amazon
                  soldiers involved in the 1991 Gulf    Anyone who wanted to put               study were published earlier this
                                                                                                                                     rainforest and biodiversity
                  War and the Balkans conflicts.        themselves forward for testing         year as the Depleted Uranium
                                                                                                                                     data collection and
                  The work also included the            could do so, provided they could       Oversight Board's final report.
                  testing of a smaller control          show that they had been in
                  population for comparison.            situations where they could have
                                                                                                                                     Reserves protect corals
                                                                                                                                     Researchers working on one
                                                                                                                                     of the largest marine reserves
                  Females attracted to healthy eaters                                          Coolest band on                       in the Caribbean have
                                                                                               planet play Live                      reported that when fish, such

                                                                                               Earth                                 as parrotfish, were protected
                                                                                                                                     from fishermen the number of
                                                                                               FORGET drug-addled almost-ran         young corals doubled. The
                                                                                               Pete Doherty and his band             team, funded by NERC and
                                                                                               Babyshambles, the coolest             the National Oceanic &
                                                                                               group on the planet is the British    Atmospheric Administration
                                                                                               Antarctic Survey’s house band         in the US, showed that
                                                                                               Nunatak. The 5-piece indie rock       grazing parrotfish kept
                                                                                               outfit based at the Rothera           seaweed at bay allowing
                                                                                               research station on the West          growing room for the coral.
                                                                                               Antarctic Peninsula will perform
                                                                                               in front of a TV audience of two      New life found in icy depths
                                                                                               billion at the Live Earth concert     Carnivorous sponges, free-
                  FEMALE fish are attracted to          away from their health promoting
                                                                                               on 7 July. Other acts confirmed       swimming worms,
                  males who have eaten                  role. So by trying to look as good,
                                                                                               in the line-up include Madonna        crustaceans, and molluscs
                  antioxidants, according to new        they aged faster.
                                                                                               and the Red Hot Chilli Peppers.       are some of the hundreds of
                  research. Male sticklebacks eat           One of the researchers,
                                                                                                  The Nunatak gig, broadcast         new species discovered by
                  brightly coloured carotenoids         Thomas Pike, said, ‘It seems that
                                                                                               live from Antarctica, will mean all   researchers in the ocean
                  which contain a pigment that          females can tell if males haven't
                                                                                               seven continents will be involved     around Antarctica. British
                  gives fish an attractive red throat   eaten many carotenoids, even if
                                                                                               in the event organised by former      Antarctic Survey marine
                  during the breeding season.           they do look quite red. They
                                                                                               US Vice President Al Gore.            biologist Katrin Linse said,
                  Carotenoids are also natural          probably found these males less
                                                                                                  Though the global audience         ‘What was once thought to be
                  antioxidants which slow down          attractive because they were
                                                                                               for the gig will be enormous, the     a featureless abyss is in fact
                  the rate of aging and support a       more likely to die before they had
                                                                                               band will actually only play in       a dynamic, variable and
                  healthy immune system.                finished looking after their
                                                                                               front of 17 of their wintering        biologically rich environment.’
                     Researchers from the               young.’
                  Universities of Glasgow and                                                  colleagues. The concerts, to
                                                                                               raise awareness of the climate        ‘First insights into the
                  Exeter discovered that males          ‘Carotenoids, oxidative stress
                                                                                               change issue, will feature over       biodiversity and
                  who ate fewer carotenoids still       and female mating preference
                                                                                               100 of the world’s top musical        biogeography of the Southern
                  tried to produce a bright red         for longer-lived males’,
                                                                                               acts.                                 Ocean deep sea’, Nature,
                  throat, but could only do so by       Proceedings. Biological
                                                                                               www.liveearth.org                     16 May.
                  diverting these antioxidants          Sciences, 2007.

                                                                                                                              Planet Earth • Summer 2007              9

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