Sunday, November 30, 2014

Climate talks open as world heats up

UN climate negotiators are meeting in Peru to try to advance talks on a new global agreement.

One hundred and niney-five nations have committed to finalising a new climate pact in Paris by the end of 2015.

The process has been boosted by recent developments, including a joint announcement on cutting carbon by the US and China.

The two weeks of discussions start amid record-breaking global temperatures for the year to date.

According to the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (Noaa), the global average temperature over land and ocean from January to October was the hottest since records began in 1880.

There is likely to be plenty of heat at the UN meeting as well, as long standing divisions between rich and poor could, once again, hinder progress.

Delegates will try to finalise the key negotiating texts that will form the basis of the Paris deal.

Forward momentum

They will attempt to build on the this year's positive momentum that has seen a new political engagement with the process.

I think the countries 'true colours' will start to come out a bit. That's useful for the public to know'

In September, millions of people took to the streets of cities all over the world in a demonstration of popular support for a new approach.

Days later, 125 world leaders attended a meeting called by the UN secretary general, where they re-affirmed their commitments to tackle the problem through a new global agreement.

The chances of that happening were increased by November's announcement from the US and China, with the Chinese signalling that their emissions would peak around 2030.

The European Union also contributed to the positive mood by agreeing climate targets for 2030.

There has also been good news on climate finance. The UN's Green Climate Fund (GCF) secured over $9bn in commitments at a recent pledging conference in Berlin.

Now in Lima, the negotiating teams will try to boost these advances and maintain a momentum that will survive to Paris. But observers say there are many 'formidable challenges' ahead.

'Ultimately this is not a problem that can be solved by just the US, China, and the EU,' said Paul Bledsoe, senior climate fellow with the German Marshall Fund of the US.

'There's a whole series of countries - Canada, Australia, Japan, Russia, South Africa, Brazil and Indonesia - who have not made commitments (to cut emissions) and we don't know yet how robust their commitments are.'

Form and function

One key element of the puzzle that needs to be resolved in Peru is the scale of 'intended nationally determined contributions' (INDC).

By the end of March next year, all countries are expected to announce the level of their efforts to cut carbon as part of the Paris deal.

But, as yet, there is no agreement on what should be included or excluded from these INDC statements.

'Developed countries want a narrow scope for those guidelines, but developing countries are pushing for finance and adaption in them,' said Liz Gallagher from the think-tank E3G, and a long-time observer of the UN talks process.

'That seems to be a tactical move to make sure that finance and adaptation get more political attention than in the past - for me that's where the big tensions in Lima will be.'

As well as the INDC discussion, there will be strong debate about what needs to be included in the final text. Parties are likely to clash over the long-term goal of any new agreement and its legal shape.

Many countries, including the US, have signalled that they will be unable to enter a legally binding deal on emissions cuts.

There will also be pressure for countries to come up with significant contributions in the period up to 2020 when a new deal is likely to come into force.

There are concerns that the scale of division between the interests of richer and poorer countries could lead to stalemate.

'I believe the developing countries need to be careful who they allow to speak as their leadership,' said Paul Bledsoe.

'I don't believe that petrol states like Saudi Arabia or Venezuela are the appropriate leaders for the interests of less rich countries, most of whom do not have fossil resources.

'It is important that the great majority of developing countries who don't have fossil resources don't get gamed by those who do.'

Many attendees believe that the concerns about temperatures, and the engagement of political leaders, as demonstrated in recent months, will be positive for the process.

'I think, this top-down pressure will force countries to think they can't always retreat to their old school lines,' said Liz Gallagher.

'Whether that will be positive or negative, I think that disruption to the negotiation dynamic is helpful at this stage.

'I think the countries' 'true colours' will start to come out a bit. That's useful for the public to know.'

Follow Matt on Twitter @mattmcgrathbbc.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Graphene promise for body armour

The 'wonder material' graphene could be used to make bulletproof armour.

US researchers carried out miniature ballistic tests by firing tiny silica spheres at sheets of graphene.

In Science magazine, they report that atom-thick layers of this material can be stronger than steel when it comes to absorbing impacts.

Graphene consists of a sheet of single atoms arranged in a honeycomb structure.

It is thin, strong, flexible and electrically conductive, and has the potential to transform electronics as well as other technologies.

Jae-Hwang Lee from the University of Massachusetts in Amherst and colleagues used lasers to observe the silica 'microbullets' as they penetrated sheets of graphene between 10 and 100 layers thick.

They compared the kinetic energy of the spheres before and after they pierced the graphene sheets.

Observations using an electron microscope revealed that graphene dissipates energy by stretching into a cone shape and then cracking in various directions.

The mini-ballistic tests showed that grapheme's extraordinary strength, elasticity and stiffness allowed it to absorb between eight and 10 times the impacts that steel can withstand.

However, the way in which graphene sheets responded to the microbullet also resulted in a wider impact hole - which could be a potential disadvantage.

Jae-Hwang Lee's team proposes that combining graphene with one or more additional materials to form a composite could prevent the cracking and solve this problem.

In 2010, Manchester University, UK, researchers Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov shared the Nobel Prize in Physics for their discovery of graphene.

They published details of their advance in the academic journal Science in 2004.

Another study published in Nature this week revealed that graphene sheets allow proton particles to pass through them, a property that could improve the efficiency of hydrogen fuel cells.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Bear back in Chernobyl after century

Scientists have captured what is believed to be the first photographic evidence of brown bears within the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone (CEZ).

Camera traps, used by a project assessing radioactive exposure impacts on wildlife, recorded the images.

Brown bears had not been seen in the area for more than a century, although there had been signs of their presence.

The exclusion zone was set up after an explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine in April 1986.

'Our Ukrainian colleague, Sergey Gashchak, had several of his camera traps running in one of our central areas over the past few months in order to start to get a feel for what (wildlife) was there,' explained project leader Mike Wood from the University of Salford.

He told BBC News that data retrieved from one of the cameras in October contained images of a brown bear.

'There have been suggestions that they have existed there previously but, as far as we know, no-one has got photographic evidence of one being present on the Ukrainian side of the exclusion zone,' Dr Wood said.

'We are basically working on the assumption that as you move people out of the equation and human pressure and disturbance is removed, then any animals that have a corridor into the exclusion zone find they are suddenly away from the pressures and dangers presented by people.'

Following the April 1986 explosion - described as the world's worst nuclear power plant accident - more than 110,000 were moved from their homes as a 30km-radius exclusion zone was established around the damaged nuclear reactor.

In the subsequent years, the area has provided a valuable source of data for scientific research into the impact of radioactive contamination.

Dr Wood's team's project is part of a five-year research programme called Transfer, Exposure, Effects (Tree), which will aim to 'reduce uncertainty in estimating the risk to humans and wildlife associated with exposure to radioactivity and to reduce unnecessary conservatism in risk calculations'. Most of the fieldwork will be carried out within the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone.

'We have our models to predict radiation exposure but it does it in a very crude way - an average over a very large area - but we know that animals interact with the environment in different ways,' observed Dr Wood.

'They have habitat preferences, certain ones will want to be closer to a river while others will want to be in deep forest. When you have patchy contamination across an area, those habitat preferences and food preferences will actually change the way in which the animals are interacting with the contamination.'

In order to get a comprehensive overview of what species are found in the CEZ, the team has identified three different areas: high, medium and low contamination.

Each area has a radius of 5km, containing 84 randomly generated locations where the cameras will be deployed. At any one time, 14 cameras will operating in each area.

The team will focus its attention on larger mammals, explained Dr Wood: 'As you can imagine, a lot of the areas within the exclusion zone are very overgrown.

(Wild)life inside the exclusion zone

  • The Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant Zone of Alienation covers an area of 2,600 square-kilometres

  • Before the 1986 accident, the area was home to an estimated 120,000 people

  • There is an ongoing debate among the scientific community regarding the impact of radioactive contamination on the area's flora and fauna

'What we have to do when we are setting up these cameras is that we have got to clear the area a bit to make it possible to get photographs of passing animals.

'If you did not cut back the grass then you would never see the hares or foxes passing through the area, for example.

'It is also necessary to make sure there are no tree branches that could be blown into the camera's trigger point as it could set the camera off and store a lot of false images and fill memory cards.

Dr Wood and the team will continue to operate remote camera traps in the CEZ as part of the first stage of the project until late 2015.

'Once we have completed this particular stage of the study, looking at what animals are there and in what density, we are then going to be selecting one particular species to target for a trapping and collaring campaign,' he said.

'We will be fitting collars with GPS to these animals, and also dose-measurement technology so that we are then able to track movement over the course of a year through the exclusion zone and get a real measurement of the exact radiation exposure that these animals get.

'This opens up the opportunity for us to not only test of models of how well we can predict radiation exposure but opens up the opportunity to do some very direct studies on the results between the field radiation exposure and radiation effects.'

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Risk from extreme weather rises

Climate change and population growth will hugely increase the risk to people from extreme weather, a report says.

The Royal Society warns that the risk of heatwaves to an ageing population will rise about ten-fold by 2090 if greenhouse gases continue to rise.

They estimate the risk to individuals from floods will rise more than four-fold and the drought risk will treble.

The report's lead author Prof Georgina Mace said: 'This problem is not just about to come... it's here already.'

She told BBC News: 'We have to get the mindset that with climate change and population increase we are living in an ever-changing world - and we need much better planning if we hope to cope.'

The report says governments have not grasped the risk of booming populations in coastal cities as sea level rises and extreme events become more severe.

'People are increasingly living in the wrong places, and it's likely that extreme events will be more common,' Prof Mace says.

'For most hazards, population increase contributes at least as much as climate change - sometimes more. We are making ourselves more vulnerable whilst making the climate more extreme.

'It is impossible for us to avoid the worst and most unexpected events. But it is not impossible to be prepared for an ever-changing world. We must organise ourselves right away.'

The report's team said the UK was comparatively resilient to extreme events - but still vulnerable because of the high density of people living in areas at risk.

The report advises all levels of society to prepare - from strategic planning at an international and national level to local schemes by citizens to tackle floods or heatwaves.

Its scenarios are based on the assumption that the world stays on the current trajectory of emissions, which the authors assume will increase temperature by 2.6-4.8C around 2090. It assumes a population of nine billion.

They say they have built upon earlier work by calculating the effects of climate change coupled with population trends. They warn that the effects of extremes will be exacerbated by the increase in elderly people, who are least able to cope with hot weather.

Urbanisation will make the issue worse by creating 'heat islands' where roads and buildings absorb heat from the sun. As well as building homes insulated against the cold, we must also ensure they can be properly ventilated in the summer, the report says.

The authors say cutting greenhouse gas emissions is essential. But they argue that governments will also need to adapt to future climatic shifts driven by climate change.

They suggest threats could be tackled through a dual approach. The simplest and cheapest way of tempering heatwaves, they say, is to maintain existing green space. Other low-cost options are planting new trees, encouraging green roofs, or painting roofs white to reflect the sun.

The authors say air conditioners are the most effective way of keeping cool - but they are costly, they dump heat into city streets and their use exacerbates climate change.

Flooding is another priority area, the report says. It finds that large-scale engineering solutions like sea walls offer the most effective protection to coastal flooding - but they are expensive, and when they fail the results can be disastrous.

The ideal solution, the authors think, may be a combination of 'hard' engineering solutions like dykes matched with 'soft' solutions like protecting wetlands to hold water and allow it to seep into the ground.

A scheme at Pickering in Yorkshire previously featured by BBC News is held as an example. The report concludes more research is needed to measure the effectiveness of these ecosystem solutions.

It insists that governments should carefully prioritise their spending. They should protect major infrastructure like electricity generation because of its knock-on effect on the broader economy. They should expect some lower-priority defences to fail from time to time, then work to minimise the consequences of that failure .

The authors identify excess heat as another potential threat to economies and agriculture if temperatures climb too high for outdoor workers.

They examine projected rises in the 'wet bulb' index used by the US Army and others to measure the temperature felt when the skin is wet and exposed to moving air.

Some areas may experience many weeks when outdoor activity is heavily restricted, they fear - although the trend of agricultural labour loss may be offset through the century as more and more people move to cities.

It puts a figure on those at greatest overall risk: populations in poor countries make up only 11% of those exposed to hazards but account for 53% of the disaster deaths.

Some economists argue this shows that poor nations should increase their economies by burning cheap fossil fuels because that will allow them to spend more later on disaster protection.

The authors also call for reform of the financial system to take into account the exposure of assets to extreme events.

They say: 'Unless risks are accurately evaluated and reported, companies will have limited incentives to reduce them. And valuations and investment decisions will continue to be poorly informed.'

One author, Rowan Douglas, from the Willis Research Network, said he suspected this might be the most significant contribution of the report.

The authors want organisations to report their maximum probable losses due to extreme events, based on a 1% chance of the event on any given year.

'The 1% stress test is not as extreme as it might sound - it implies a 10% chance of an organization being affected once a decade,' they say.

They say decisions made over the next few decades as the world builds vast urban areas will be key to the resilience of people by the end of the century.

Follow Roger on Twitter.

UK team's data bonanza from comet

UK Researchers received 'rich' data from the Philae lander just before its power died.

Scientists say they may have detected what might be complex carbon compounds on the surface of the comet the craft landed on two weeks ago.

The results are from the Ptolemy instrument which is a miniaturised on-board laboratory.

The detection of carbon supports a view that comets may have brought key chemicals to Earth to kick start life.

'Start Quote

Now we have some data and now it's: Wow! This is what scientists do this stuff for'

End Quote Prof Ian Wright Open University

The team leader Prof Ian Wright has told BBC News: 'We can say with absolute certainty that we saw a very large signal of what are basically organic (carbon) compounds.

'There is a rich signal there. It is not simple, it is not like there are two compounds, there is clearly a lot of things there - a lot of peaks. Sometimes a complicated compound can give a lot of peaks.'

The 'peaks' refer to the graph produced by the Ptolemy instrument of the different molecules it has detected. The result in line with initial observations made by a similar German led instrument on Philae.

In an exclusive interview with BBC News Prof Wright explained that Ptolemy had gathered huge amounts of scientific data. Normally a quiet understated man, he was marginally better at containing his enthusiasm than his co-worker and wife Prof Monica Grady, who jumped for and then wept with joy and relief when Philae landed.

Prof Wright told me: 'I am as excited now as I was a couple of weeks ago. It's tremendous!'

'For years I've been giving public lectures about what we plan to do. Now we have some data and now it's: Wow! This is what scientists do this stuff for.'

Much of the data gathered by Ptolemy was collected on the fly. Shortly after the Rosetta spacecraft was activated in January, Prof Wright and his team saw the opportunity to analyse the comet's tail as the spacecraft approached.

'It is not something we had planned to do but it became obvious that it was something we could do.'

The early data suggests that the composition of the gases changed as the spacecraft got closer to the comet.

Prof Wright also explained that Philae's bouncy landing suited his experiment. Among Ptolemy's capabilities is to analyse gases and particles around it and so it was pre-programmed to sniff its environment shortly after landing.

Pictures show that the first landing created a dust cloud visible from space, providing Ptolemy with a feast of data.

But Philae's bouncy landing and eventual resting place in the shade meant that it would not be able to recharge its solar powered batteries. The Ptolemy team had a few hours to rethink their scientific programme and upload a much curtailed set of experiments to their instruments.

Fuelled by the drama of the landing and feeling the weight of history on their shoulders all the various Philae instrument teams spent the night feverishly working to make the best use of the precious few days of operating life that the lander had left.

The hardest moment for the Philae team faced was the decision to abandon plans to analyse a material drilled from underneath the comet's surface. Overall, programme managers deemed that there was only sufficient battery power to drill for one sample rather than two as was originally planned. A collective decision was made that it should be analysed by the German led 'COSAC' instrument rather than Ptolemy.

It is unclear whether the drill successfully managed to get a sample into COSAC.

But mission planners did grant the UK team Philae's last ounce of strength to heat Ptolemy's oven to 200C to heat up all the debris that had collected inside the instrument and analyse the gases that came off.

Prof Wright confirms that this experiment was successfully carried out and the results could give an indication of the composition of the carbon and nitrogen on the comet. These results could help piece together what happened in the early years of the Solar System when planets were forming.

The team wishes that Ptolemy could have carried out its full mission, but Prof Wright says that he and his team are delighted with the results they have obtained and that there is a possibility that there might be more to come when the comet Philae lies dormant on gets closer to the Sun.

'If you ask me whether we have done all we could have done the answer is 'no'. But I remain optimistic that the thing may come back to life and we will get the chance to do those things,' he said.

Watson to sell Nobel Prize for DNA

Prof James Watson is to auction off the Nobel Prize medal he won for the discovery of the structure of DNA.

The auctioneer says the medal is the first to be auctioned by a living recipient and could fetch between $2.5m (£1.6m) and $3.5m (£2.2m).

The 1962 prize was awarded to Watson, Maurice Wilkins and Francis Crick, with each receiving a gold medal.

The auction includes papers belonging to Watson, including handwritten notes for his acceptance speech.

Christie's estimates these at between $300,000 (£190,000) and $400,000 (£254,000)

The discovery of the structure of DNA - which encodes the instruction booklet for building a living organism - was made by Watson and Crick, using experimental data that had been gathered by Maurice Wilkins and Rosalind Franklin.

Prof Watson said part of the proceeds would go to the University of Chicago, Clare College at Cambridge University, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, Long Island Land Trust and other charities.

Francis Crick's Nobel medal sold for $2.2m last year. He died in 2004.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Museum fossils are new dino species

A new species of horned dinosaur has been identified from fossils held in a Canadian museum for 75 years.

The fossils had previously been classified as belonging to a different dinosaur group.

But Nick Longrich, from the University of Bath, found they closely resembled a dinosaur from the south-west US.

He says the remains represent a new species of the dinosaur Pentaceratops - a smaller cousin of the familiar horned plant-eater Triceratops.

Details of the research have been published in the journal Cretaceous Research.

'Undiscovered dinosaurs'

The paper contains a formal description of the animal including its new name - Pentaceratops aquilonius.

It was a buffalo-sized plant eater that lived from about 75 million years ago.

Dr Longrich also studied another horned dinosaur held within the museum's collection.

'Start Quote

The total dinosaur diversity must have been extraordinarily high'

End Quote Dr Nick Longrich University of Bath

He believes it is a new species of Kosmoceratops, a dinosaur with an ornate skull previously found at sites in Utah.

'We thought we had discovered most of the species, but it seems there are many undiscovered dinosaurs left,' Dr Longrich explained.

'The total dinosaur diversity must have been extraordinarily high. We've really only just scratched the surface.'

The dinosaurs lived in western North America at the end of the Cretaceous Period.

Dr Longrich believes that although distinct northern and southern provinces existed, there was exchange between them.

Dinosaurs would spread from one part of the continent to the other, then diverge to form new species.

Competition between the different species then prevented the dinosaurs from moving between the northern and southern regions.

Climate fixes 'could harm billions'

Schemes to tackle climate change could prove disastrous for billions of people, but might be required for the good of the planet, scientists say.

That is the conclusion of a new set of studies into what's become known as geo-engineering.

This is the so far unproven science of intervening in the climate to bring down temperatures.

These projects work by, for example, shading the Earth from the Sun or soaking up carbon dioxide.

Ideas include aircraft spraying out sulphur particles at high altitude to mimic the cooling effect of volcanoes or using artificial 'trees' to absorb CO2.

Long regarded as the most bizarre of all solutions for global warming, ideas for geo-engineering have come in for more scrutiny in recent years as international efforts to limit carbon emissions have failed.

Now three combined research projects, led by teams from the universities of Leeds, Bristol and Oxford, have explored the implications in more detail.

The central conclusion, according to Dr Matt Watson of Bristol University, is that the issues surrounding geo-engineering - how it might work, the effects it might have and the potential downsides - are 'really really complicated'.

'We don't like the idea but we're more convinced than ever that we have to research it,' he said.

'Personally I find this stuff terrifying but we have to compare it to doing nothing, to business-as-usual leading us to a world with a 4C rise.'

The studies used computer models to simulate the possible implications of different technologies - with a major focus on ideas for making the deserts, seas and clouds more reflective so that incoming solar radiation does not reach the surface.

One simulation imagined sea-going vessels spraying dense plumes of particles into the air to try to alter the clouds. But the model found that this would be far less effective than once thought.

Another explored the option of injecting sulphate aerosols into the air above the Arctic in an effort to reverse the decline of sea-ice.

A key finding was that none of the simulations managed to keep the world's temperature at the level experienced between 1986-2005 - suggesting that any effort would have to be maintained for years.

More alarming for the researchers were the potential implications for rainfall patterns.

Although all the simulations showed that blocking the Sun's rays - or solar radiation management, as it is called - did reduce the global temperature, the models revealed profound changes to precipitation including disrupting the Indian Monsoon.

Prof Piers Forster of Leeds University said: 'We have found that between 1.2 and 4.1 billion people could be adversely affected by changes in rainfall patterns.

'The most striking example of a downside would be the complete drying-out of the Sahel region of Africa - that would be very difficult to adapt to for those substantial populations - and that happens across all the scenarios.'

Despite the risk of catastrophic side-effects from geo-engineering, the study authors believe that research should continue just in case runaway warming leaves no other options.

Prof Forster said: 'If we were in a really desperate situation, trying to cool the temps for a 10-20 year time period, there could be some merit in those circumstances in introducing solar radiation management to give you a 10-20 year time period.'

Lack of knowledge

According to Prof Steve Rayner of Oxford University, it is easier to devise the technology than to understand its effects or how its use should be governed.

'If you were just thinking of the capability of putting sulphate aerosols in the atmosphere, that you could do in less than two decades - whether you would know it was smart to do it in less than two decades is another question.

'We don't know enough - we have a few islands of knowledge in a sea of ignorance and it's absolutely worth knowing more. There is the potential that some of these technologies may be part of a broader tool kit of ways in which we can better manage climate change.

'People decry solar radiation management as a band-aid but band-aids can be useful for healing.'

Geo-engineering has long been one of the most controversial aspects of the debate about solutions to climate change and few experiments have been conducted in the field.

One of the largest, known as Lohafex, was an Indian-German experiment in 2009 which involved dumping six tonnes of an iron solution into the South Atlantic to encourage plankton to bloom - trapping carbon which would then be sent to the seabed when the organisms died. Results showed limited success.

Another proposal for the trial flight of a balloon in Britain, as part of geo-engineering research for the SPICE project, attracted stiff opposition from environmental groups and was cancelled.

It would have been the precursor to a test of a technique for pumping sulphate aerosols into the atmosphere in an effort to bounce solar radiation back into space and cool the planet.

Stone age axe found with wood handle

Archaeologists in Denmark have uncovered an incredibly rare find: a stone age axe held within its wooden handle.

The 5,500-year-old Neolithic axe was found during archaeological surveys ahead of a multi-billion euro tunnel project.

The axe seems to have been jammed into what was once the seabed, perhaps as part of a ritual offering.

The lack of oxygen in the clay ground helped preserve the wooden handle.

The find was made in Rodbyhavn on the Danish island of Lolland, which is to be connected to the German island of Fehmarn via the tunnel link.

'Finding a hafted [handle-bearing] axe as well preserved as this one is quite amazing,' said Soren Anker Sorensen, an archaeologist at the Museum Lolland-Falster in Denmark.

Archaeologists have found other similarly well preserved organic material in the area during their excavations.

These include upright wooden stakes, a paddle, bows and other axe shafts.

Axes were vital tools for Stone Age people, who used them for working wood. However, they also played an important role during the introduction of farming to Europe, when the majority of the land was covered by dense forests.

The archaeologists suggest that the Neolithic communities of south Lolland may have been using the coast as an offering area.

Earlier this month, archaeologists working on the Fehmarn Belt Tunnel scheme announced that they had uncovered 5,000-year-old footprints along the edge of an ancient fish trap excavated at Rodbyhavn.

Gravity map traces ocean circulation

Scientists have produced what they say is the most accurate space view yet of global ocean currents and the speed at which they move.

The information has been drawn from a range of satellites, but in particular from the European Space Agency's Goce mission.

This platform, which operated from 2009 to 2013, made ultra-precise measurements of Earth's gravity.

It has detailed the role this force plays in driving ocean circulation.

The new model - presented at a Goce conference at the Unesco HQ in Paris, France - will be of fundamental importance to climate modellers, because it is the mass movement of water that helps to transport heat around the globe.

Goce carried instrumentation capable of sensing very subtle changes in Earth's gravitational tug.

This pull varies ever so slightly from place to place because of the uneven distribution of mass inside the planet.

Scientists used these observations to construct what is called a 'geoid', which essentially describes the 'level surface' on an idealised world.

It is the shape the oceans would adopt if there were no winds, no currents and no tides to disturb them.

By comparing this geoid with measurements of sea-surface height made by other spacecraft, researchers can see where water has become piled up.

And it is water's desire always to 'run downhill' that is a major feature underpinning the direction and speed of currents - although atmospheric winds and the Earth's rotation are of course critical partners in the overall picture.

Clearly visible in the map at the top of this page are the Agulhas Current flowing down the African coast; the Gulf Stream running across the Atlantic; the Kuroshio Current that sweeps south of Japan and out into the North Pacific; as well as the Antarctic Circumpolar Current, and the system of currents that hug the Equator. In places, these great trains of water move in excess of 1m per second.

The new Goce model of ocean circulation has been checked and integrated with the point measurements from drifting buoys. This has helped capture some of the smaller-scale features in the currents that lie beyond the capabilities of satellites, even one making as highly resolved observations as the Esa mission.

'Goce has really made a breakthrough for the estimation of ocean currents,' said Marie-Helene Rio from the Italian National Research Council's Institute of Atmospheric Sciences and Climate.

'The mission objective in terms of geoid [measurement] has been achieved at 1-2cm accuracy at 100km resolution, and in terms of ocean currents this translates into an error that is less than 4cm/s.'

Scientists can now add in additional data collected about sea temperature to calculate the amount of energy the oceans move around the Earth.

Computer models that try to forecast future climate behaviour have to incorporate such details if they are to run more realistic simulations.

The 5th International Goce User Workshop this week will be looking at the many other applications that came out of the satellite's mission.

Mapping gravity variations can yield information about ice mass loss in the Antarctic, and the deep Earth movements that give rise to great quakes.

Goce was dubbed the 'Ferrari of space' because of its sleek looks and the fact that it was assembled in Italy.

When operational, it was the lowest flying scientific satellite in the sky, making observations an altitude of just 224km during its late phases.

This allowed the spacecraft to better sense the tiny gravity variations, but meant it had to constantly thrust an electric engine to stay aloft.

When the xenon fuel for this engine was exhausted in November 2013, Goce succumbed to the force it had been sent up to study and fell back to Earth.

Eyewitnesses saw surviving debris fall into the South Atlantic, just off the tip of South America, south of the Falkland Islands. and follow me on Twitter: @BBCAmos

Brain's dementia weak spot found

The brain has a weak spot for Alzheimer's disease and schizophrenia, according to UK scientists who have pinpointed the region using scans.

The brain area involved develops late in adolescence and degenerates early during ageing.

At the moment, it is difficult for doctors to predict which people might develop either condition.

The findings, in the journal PNAS, hint at a potential way to diagnose those at risk earlier, experts say.

Although they caution that 'much more research is needed into how to bring these exciting discoveries into the clinic'.

'Start Quote

Early doctors called schizophrenia 'premature dementia' but until now we had no clear evidence that the same parts of the brain might be associated with two such different diseases'

End Quote Prof Hugh Perry of the MRC

The Medical Research Council team who carried out the study did MRI brain scans on 484 healthy volunteers aged between eight and 85 years.

They looked at how the brain naturally changes as people age.

The images revealed a common pattern - the parts of the brain that were the last to develop were also the first to show signs of age-related decline.

These brain regions - a network of nerve cells or grey matter - co-ordinate 'high order' information coming from the different senses, such as sight and sound.

When the researchers looked at scans of patients with Alzheimer's disease and scans of patients with schizophrenia they found the same brain regions were affected.

The findings fit with what other experts have suspected - that although distinct, Alzheimer's and schizophrenia are linked.

Prof Hugh Perry of the MRC said: 'Early doctors called schizophrenia 'premature dementia' but until now we had no clear evidence that the same parts of the brain might be associated with two such different diseases. This large-scale and detailed study provides an important, and previously missing, link between development, ageing and disease processes in the brain.

'It raises important issues about possible genetic and environmental factors that may occur in early life and then have lifelong consequences. The more we can find out about these very difficult disorders, the closer we will come to helping sufferers and their families.'

Dr Michael Bloomfield of University College London said: 'Schizophrenia can be potentially devastating but at the moment it's very difficult to predict with certainty who is going to have a good prognosis and who might have a poor one.

'This study brings us a step closer to being able to make this prediction, so patients could in the future receive better targeted treatments.'

Armed with this new knowledge, it may also be possible to understand how to prevent the brain changes before they occur, he said

Monday, November 24, 2014

Urban farming helps feed the world

Urban agriculture is playing an increasingly important role in global food security, a study has suggested.

Researchers, using satellite data, found that agricultural activities within 20km of urban areas occupy an area equivalent to the 28-nation EU.

The international team of scientists says the results should challenge the focus on rural areas of agricultural research and development work.

The findings appear in the journal Environmental Research Letters.

'This is the first study to document the global scale of food production in and around urban settings,' explained co-author Pay Drechsel, a researcher for the International Water Management Institute (IWMI).

'There were people talking about urban agriculture but we never knew details. How did it compare with other farming systems? This assessment showed us that it was much larger than we expected.'

The team acknowledged that the study could actually be conservative, as it focused on urban areas with populations of 50,000 or greater.

Urban world

Dr Drechsel said that when urban farming was compared with other (ie rural) farming systems, the results were surprising. For example, the total area of rice farming in South Asia was smaller in rural areas than in urban locations.

Likewise, total maize production in sub-Saharan Africa was not as large as the area under cultivation in urban areas.

UN data shows that more than 50% of the world's population now lives in urban areas, which could explain the changing landscape of global agriculture.

'We could say that the table is moving closer to the farm,' observed Dr Drechsel.

'The most interesting factor when we look at India is that we could map the whole country as urban or peri-urban because there are so many towns and cities.'

He added: 'This has so many consequences in terms of what cities do to their environment because they are sucking out water but giving back polluted waste.'

Using Ghana as an example, Dr Drechsel said that the majority of vegetable farmers irrigated their crops with polluted water. In Accra, it is estimated that up to 10% of household wastewater was indirectly recycled by urban farms.

'These farms are now recycling more wastewater than local treatment plants,' he observed.

Lead author Anne Thebo from the University of California, Berkeley, said the study was 'an important first step towards better understanding urban crop production at the global and regional scales'.

She added: 'In particular, by including farmlands in areas just outside of cities we can begin to see what these croplands really mean for urban water management and food production.'

Dr Drechsel explained that there was a marked difference in attitudes between the developed world and developing nations when it came to urban agriculture.

'In the North, we consider agricultural activities in cities as something positive,' he told BBC News.

'We think it is really useful and there are many models as to how we could better integrate agriculture into cities.

'Yet in the South, it is considered to be an oxymoron - farming and cities have nothing in common and they would like to get all of the farming out of the cities.'

He explained that it was important to foster a greater level of integration between agricultural and urban development policies.

'This is not happening in large parts of the developing world because the urban sprawl is happening far too quickly. The legislative, administrative infrastructure is unable to keep pace.'

Polar sub gauges sea ice thickness

A novel autonomous sub has acquired the first detailed, high-resolution 3D maps of Antarctic sea ice.

Released from a ship, the vehicle criss-crossed the underside of the floes, using upward-looking sonar to measure their shape.

The researchers involved in the project tell the journal Nature Geoscience that the thickness of the pack ice was greater than they had been anticipated.

But they also caution against making generalisations from limited sampling.

Antarctic sea ice at its peak extent can cover 20 million square km; the research team on the other hand looked at just six small boxes some 500m along the square.

Nonetheless, the UK/US/Australia group got its proof-of-principle Autonomous Underwater Vehicle (AUV) into previously hard-to-reach places.

The hope is that this early demonstration will lead in the future to more effective means of assessing the volume of marine ice circling the White Continent.

This topic has become one of the most interesting questions in climate science in recent years as its trend line grows in the face of a warming planet.

Deep-winter sea ice in Antarctica now stands at an all-time high, as measured in the modern satellite record - and researchers are trying to work out why it has not followed the sharp decline seen in the Arctic.

'Antarctic sea has been kind of the poor sister,' says Jeremy Wilkinson from the British Antarctic Survey.

'A lot of effort has gone into measuring Arctic sea ice, and we're only now just scratching the surface of Antarctic sea ice, especially in respect to thickness,' he told BBC News.

'We want to understand how it is changing and how that integrates with climate and ecosystem changes.

'It's only by bringing all the processes together that we will be able to model them and say what's going on in the Antarctic.'

The AUV, known as SeaBED, was developed at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) in the US.

It is about 2m in length, weighs nearly 200km, and sports a twin-hull design that gives it enhanced stability.

SeaBed was released in the Antarctic spring seasons of 2010 and 2012 to sample ice thickness in six locations that included the Peninsula region, where floe extent has been declining of late, and off Wilkes Land, in the east of the continent, where the area of frozen water has been spreading.

The sub autonomously went about its business, tracking a 'lawnmower pattern' under the ice for several hours before returning to the launch ship for recovery.

That in itself is quite an achievement.

'Here's the hard part; the ice floes that we want to map are all moving,' explains WHOI's Hanumant Singh.

'What you do is place transponders in the ice so that the sub can move relative to those and produce a map that is consistent.

'The other big problem is that the ice will close up. In the six to eight hours that it takes to do one of these missions, the ice conditions change dramatically, and the hole you dropped the AUV in may have gone by the time the survey's finished.

'You then just have to hope that a new hole has opened up next to your ship, which has itself by then also moved.'

The researchers found that, on average, the thickness of the ice beneath sea level was 1.4 to 5.5m, with the thickest sea ice measured at 16m.

They also encountered a lot of highly deformed ice, where one block had ridden over another, increasing the overall draft.

Antarctic sea ice measurements in the past have largely been limited to shipboard observations and drill holes - both of which are likely to bias to thinner ice (a ship's captain prefers to drive a vessel through the thinnest packs to avoid getting stuck).

A more global assessment would use satellites but these have difficulty working in the Antarctic because of the deep snow drifts that can accumulate on top of the floes.

These will hide the true shape of the ice and if the weight of the snow is substantial may even press the floes into the water column.

But Dr Wilkinson is hopeful that this and future sub studies will enable researchers to tease apart such details, to allow satellites to better gauge what they see below them.

'What we can do is take what these subs are showing us and then develop the algorithms that can be used by satellites to get a better synoptic scale,' he told BBC News.

'Another approach is to use longer-range AUVs that can give you a couple of hundred km [along the square] and go after the key areas that are changing, and to monitor those over time,' said Dr Wilkinson.

WHOI continues to develop its sub technology. It plans next to deploy a torpedo-like vehicle that can move faster and cover much wider sampling areas.

'The vehicle that he have now is relatively inexpensive at half a million dollars, but we'd like to get that down to maybe $100,000-150,000, so that when we lose a vehicle - and you will at some point lose one - we won't cry too much. We can't be afraid to lose vehicles because we think this data is so important,' said Dr Singh. and follow me on Twitter: @BBCAmos

Peru probes 500 sea lion deaths

Peru is investigating the deaths of some 500 sea lions found on a beach on its northern coastline.

The local governor has accused fishermen of poisoning the mammals, which usually come close to the shore looking for food.

But Peruvian environmental police are looking into other possible causes for the deaths, including disease and the accidental ingestion of plastic.

The rotting corpses were found on Anconcillo beach in the Ancash region.

Agents said the bodies were of young as well as old animals, the official Andina news agency reported.

They were considered a health hazard and quickly removed from the beach, which lies some 400km (250 miles) north of the capital, Lima.

Earlier this month, a similar incident happened further north, in the Piura region, where the bodies of nearly 200 sea lions, dolphins, turtles and pelicans washed ashore.

Officials are still investigating the causes of those deaths.

In 2012, hundreds of dolphins were found dead along a stretch of Peruvian coastline.

Environmental group Orca blamed the deaths on the noise and pressure waves caused by explosions it linked to oil exploration in the area.

But a government report by the Maritime Institute (Imarpe) ruled out oil exploration, or infection by a virus or bacteria, as triggers for the deaths of the dolphins.

The report said natural causes were to blame.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Fish and chips 'harming' eider ducks

Eider ducks in Northumberland's coastal areas are being harmed by people feeding them fish and chips, a wildlife expert has warned.

Chris Watson says people living or visiting the area often wrongly believe eiders are tame as they are 'friendly'.

He told BBC Radio Four's Broadcasting House the sea birds may seem to enjoy the food but it damages their eggs.

The Northumberland coast is recognised as a haven for wild birds, including colonies of eiders.

Mr Watson, whose work as a nature sound recordist includes documentaries with Sir David Attenborough, said: 'Normally eider ducks eat shellfish not fish and chips - [which is] lacking calcium so the eggs are failing.

'There's a problem because they are such attractive, friendly birds to feed, and yet the food that we are giving them - bread and things like that - is actually causing a dietary problem.'

The RSPB says eiders are the UK's heaviest heaviest ducks and the fastest flying. As well as the Northumberland coast, they are resident off Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Embrace the arts, engineers told

Engineering needs to emphasise its creative side to encourage more young people to take it up as a career, says a leading member of the profession.

Engineers should embrace the arts, Sir John O'Reilly, a fellow of the Institution of Engineering and Technology, argued in a lecture.

About 59% of engineering companies in the IET's 2014 survey feared skill shortages could threaten business.

'There is nothing as creative as engineering,' Sir John told BBC News.

He says science, technology, engineering and mathematics - often known as 'Stem' subjects, are vital for a modern knowledge economy.

But there is a massive shortfall in the number of recruits - with a recent study by the Royal Academy of Engineering saying the UK needs to increase by as much as 50% the number of Stem graduates it produces.


Delivering this year's Mountbatten Lecture at the Royal Institution, Sir John argued that engineers should recognise the role of the arts in their work - among other benefits, this could attract more people into the profession.

The lecture, Full Steam Ahead for Growth, advocated adoption of a wider acronym - Steam, or science, technology, engineering, arts and maths.

Engineers should embrace the arts as being key to creativity and an important component of innovation, crucial to creating new products and boosting future competitiveness, he argued.

'Engineering and technology is an increasingly diverse and creative domain,' said Sir John.

Some university engineering departments already collaborated with art schools to develop understanding, he told BBC News.

In particular he mentioned Cranfield University's Centre for Creative Competitive Design and Imperial College's work with the Royal College of Art.

The two sets of people could work well together and more emphasis on the creative side of engineering could improve the success of products, he said.

'Aesthetics is part of it,' he told BBC News, adding that Apple's iPod was not the first digital media player, nor the only one that worked - but it came to dominate the market 'because it was nice to have'.

Sir John said he was not suggesting universities started requiring A-level art from engineering applicants - the key subjects for admission would continue to be maths and the sciences. But an emphasis on creative skills would help 'broaden the pool and attract more people in'.

The IET's skills survey raised concerns not only about the number of recruits to engineering, but about the diversity of the workforce, with only 6% being women.

A report last week by the Wise campaign to promote women in science and engineering found too many young women felt engineering was 'not for people like me'.

Wise director Helen Wollaston commented: 'People who are creative and imaginative are good at working out how to improve products, making them more useful and attractive to customers.

'Advertising for people with these characteristics would be a good way to attract more girls and women into science, technology and engineering.'

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Climate fund receives $9.3bn pledge

Thirty nations meeting in Berlin have pledged £6bn ($9.3bn) for a fund to help developing countries cut emissions and prepare for climate change.

The South Korea-based Green Climate Fund aims to help nations invest in clean energy and green technology.

It is also designed to help them build up defences against rising seas and worsening storms, floods and droughts.

Rich nations previously vowed that by 2020, developing countries would get $100bn (£64bn) a year from such a fund.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Geckos inspire 'Spider-Man' gloves

The way geckos climb has inspired a device that allowed a 70kg man to scale a glass wall like Spider-Man.

Much research has gone into trying to unlock the clever way that little geckos climb.

But trying to use gecko adhesion to work at larger scales - such as on a human hand - without any loss of performance has proven difficult.

The hand-sized silicone pads created by a team at Stanford University keep their adhesive strength at all sizes.

They employ the same attractive and repulsive forces between molecules - known as van der Waals forces - that geckos use.

Although the forces are very weak, the effect is multiplied across the many tiny hairs that cover the toes of a gecko, allowing them to stick firmly to surfaces.

Along the same lines, the Stanford team created tiny tiles called microwedges to harness van der Waals forces. They were able to produce a dry adhesive even more efficient than that of the gecko.

In tests, the 70kg (11 stone) climber successfully scaled a 3.6m-high vertical glass wall using 140 sq cm silicone pads in each hand.

The climber tested the adhesive hundreds of times on the wall without failure.

Earlier this year, America's Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa) demonstrated another climbing device which allowed a person to scale a sheer glass wall.

However, the exact details of their climbing method remain classified.

This latest effort was also a collaboration with Darpa. The agency's Z-Man programme aims to develop biologically-inspired climbing aids for soldiers without the need for ropes and ladders.

The team at Stanford have published their findings in the Royal Society journal Interface.

Court puts more heat on diesels

The UK government will come under renewed pressure to cut pollution from diesel vehicles following the latest ruling in a battle over clean air.

Nitrogen dioxide in cities is illegally high and the European Court of Justice ruled judges must force ministers to clean up the air as soon as possible.

The pollutant comes almost entirely from diesel vehicles.

The group that brought the case says the government now has no choice but to restrict diesel emissions.

They say that could force ministers to order a major retrofit of pollution controls on buses and lorries; ban diesel cars from cities; and install new technology to ensure that diesel cars comply with the emissions data from manufacturers.

It's estimated that 29,000 people die early from air pollution in the UK. The government is supposed to have cleaned up nitrogen dioxide pollution in cities by 2015 - but has been proposing to achieve the goal by 2030.

Alan Andrews, ClientEarth lawyer, said: 'This ruling is a big victory for the millions of people who want to live healthy lives in the UK's towns and cities. This will force the government to finally take this issue seriously and come up with an urgent plan to rid our towns and cities of cancer-causing diesel fumes.

'The government has done next to nothing to try to achieve the target of cleaning up the pollution by 2015. The UK Supreme Court will now set a standard that the government must achieve - and that will mean the government driving down diesel emissions.'

Environmentalists are celebrating the European court victory but it causes major political problems for the government. For many years politicians have encouraged drivers to buy diesel cars because they produce fewer climate-changing CO2 emissions.

Friends of the Earth urges ministers to respond by introducing low-emission and congestion charging zones; Scrapping road-building plans, and designing communities with key amenities within easy walking and cycling distance.

The chair of the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) Joan Walley MP said: 'We have been warning the government for four years that it must tackle the public health crisis caused by heavy traffic in our towns and cities. Instead of taking action to save lives and protect people, ministers have complacently carried on with business as usual and put off serious efforts to deal with the problem.

'It is not acceptable for ministers who live in leafy suburbs to tell people living next to busy roads in towns and cities that they have to wait until 2030 to breath clean air. Today's ruling will force the government to prioritise the issue of air quality in all decisions on transport policy and infrastructure.'

ClientEarth's legal case refers to 16 zones where NO2 limits are being breached. West Midlands, Greater Manchester, West Yorkshire, Teesside, The Potteries, Kingston Upon Hull, Southampton, Glasgow, Eastern England, South East England, East Midlands, North West & Merseyside, Yorkshire & Humberside, West Midlands, North East England and Greater London.

The case may be complicated by a review from the new president of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker of pollution laws, which are causing a big problem for many member states.

Follow Roger on Twitter.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

UK 'to lead moon landing in 10 years'

A British-led consortium has outlined its plans to land a robotic probe on the Moon in 10 years' time.

Its aim is to raise £500m for the project from donations by the public.

In return, donors would be able to have photos, text and their DNA included in a time capsule which will be buried under the lunar surface.

'Start Quote

The project's long term legacy will be a new way of funding space exploration'

End Quote David Iron Founder, Lunar Missions Ltd

Lunar Mission One aims to survey the Moon's south pole to see if a human base can be set up in the future.

The plan has received the endorsement of a host of well-known scientists and organisations. These include Prof Brian Cox, the Astronomer Royal Lord Rees, and Prof Monica Grady of the Open University.

David Iron, who is leading the project, said he was setting up the initiative because governments were increasingly finding it difficult to fund space missions.

'Anyone in the world will be able to get involved for as little as just a few pounds. Lunar Mission One will make a huge contribution to our understanding of the origins of our planet and the Moon,' he said.


The team hope to raise £600,000, using the international crowd funding web service Kickstarter, in the next four weeks to fund the initial phase of the project.

For the next four years, funds will be received through contributions from the public, who will be able to buy digital storage space on the lander for their own personal text messages, pictures, music and videos. They will also be able to pay for an immortality of sorts by sending up a strand of their hair, which the project team claim could survive for one billion years.

The cost of a short message will be a few pounds, a compressed photo will be a few tens of pounds while a short compressed video will be about £200. The cost of sending a hair sample will be around £50.

'Start Quote

I really hope that it has the same effect as Rosetta that so gripped the world'

End Quote Prof Monica Grady Open University

The lander will also contain a public digital archive of human history and science which will be compiled as a legacy which will survive even if our species becomes extinct.

Mr Iron believes the fact that people will have a stake in the mission will make it all the more engaging.

'The project's long-term legacy will be a new way of funding space exploration,' he told BBC News.

'Rather than just watching the mission, people can be directly involved, not just through funding but helping to make key decisions such as the selection of the landing site or what should be included in the public archive.'

All the money raised by the project will go to funding the mission, and any money left over will be put into a charitable trust whose proceeds will be spent on future space exploration. Mr Iron described it as 'a Wellcome Trust for space exploration'.

The mission will also have a scientific component. The aim is to drill and analyse a sample from underneath the lunar surface, something which has never been done before.

A key aim of the project is to educate and inspire a new generation to become engaged in science in the same way that the Apollo Moon landings did in the 1960s and 70s, and as indeed the Rosetta landing did just last week.

'I really hope that it has the same effect as Rosetta that so gripped the world,' said Prof Monica Grady, of the Open University, whose sheer enthusiasm and joy at Philae's landing was caught on BBC News.

Follow Pallab on Twitter

Sun boosts UK lightning strikes

The number of lightning strikes across the UK has been significantly affected by solar activity, according to new research.

Scientists say the Sun's magnetic field is bending the Earth's own field, increasing our exposure to cosmic rays.

These rays are believed to increase the number of thunderclouds and trigger lightning bolts in some locations.

Over five years, the UK experienced 50% more strikes when the Earth's magnetic field was affected by the Sun.

Fields of influence

The manner is which lightning bolts are triggered has long puzzled scientists as the air is known to be a good insulator of electricity.

Something else needs to come into play to conduct the electrical charges built up in thunder clouds down to the ground.

Since the 1990s, researchers have speculated that the magnetic activity of the Sun could be linked to lightning on Earth.

Current theories hold that high energy particles called galactic cosmic rays provide the necessary link that lets the current flow into a lightning bolt.

This latest work suggests that the orientation of the Sun's magnetic field is playing a significant role in the number of strikes.

The researchers believe the field is like a bar magnet, so as our star spins around sometimes the field points towards the Earth and sometimes away.

'What we found was there is significantly more lightning in the UK when the field is pointing towards the Sun than when its pointing away which was surprising,' said Dr Matt Owens from the University of Reading, the lead author on the study.

'What we think is happening is that the Sun's magnetic field is pulling or pushing on the Earth's field and that's letting energetic charged particles down into the atmosphere at different locations and the idea is that these actually trigger lightning.'

'For lightning, you need a thin conducting channel like a wire, and galactic cosmic rays can provide this thin column of ionisation in the atmosphere.'

The researchers found that over a five year period between 2001 and 2006, the UK experienced a 50% increase in thunder and lightning rates when the solar magnetic field was pointed away from the Earth.

In Summer, the rates were higher, with an almost doubling of lightning strikes in July compared to when the magnetic field was pointing in the other direction.

Because of good quality records, the scientists confined their work to the UK. They believe that the same effect is playing out over the globe but with different results, so while lightning might increase over Britain, it may have decreased over Canada or Siberia.

Lightning forecast

While the researchers admit that the mechanics of how cosmic rays might trigger lightning is still a theory, they believe that their discovery of an association with the movements of the Sun's magnetic fields, could lead to better predictions of thunder and lightning events.

As the nature of the Sun's magnetic fields are well known, meteorologists could incorporate this information into weather forecasts.

'It has real implications,' said Dr Owens,

'If you can get a weather forecast good to a week ahead then yes I think we could say something about lightning rates a week ahead as well.'

Recent research has also focussed on how climate change is likely to increase the amount of lightning strikes around the world. Dr Owens believes that the mechanism that his study identifies still holds, regardless of the temperature.

'If you heat up the atmosphere you've got more convection, more water vapour, you get more thunderclouds,' he said.

'If you've got more thunderclouds, you get more lighting but I still think the triggering of that lightning could be dependant upon the Sun and its magnetic field.'

The researchers now want to extend their work to look at longer historical records to see if the correlation still stands.

According to Dr Owens, some scientists are keen to take a more 'Benjamin Franklin' approach to prove the theory.

'The fundamental lightning triggering experiments are difficult to do in the lab and difficult to measure in situ,' he said.

'Some of my colleagues have been trying to launch charge sensors on balloons, through thunder clouds - it makes our health and safety officers sweat!'

The study has been published in the journal Environmental Research Letters.

Follow Matt on Twitter @mattmcgrathbbc.

Organic molecules detected on comet

The Philae lander has detected organic molecules on the surface of its comet, scientists have confirmed.

The carbon-containing 'organics' are the basis of all life on Earth and could give clues to the kinds of building blocks delivered to Earth early on in its history.

The compounds were picked up by a German-built instrument designed to 'sniff' the comet's thin atmosphere.

Philae touched down on the Comet 67P on 12 November after a 10-year journey.

Russia satellite can chase in space

Russia may be testing a satellite capable of chasing down other orbiting spacecraft, observers say.

Such technology could be used for a wide variety of uses, including to repair malfunctioning spacecraft, but also to destroy or disable them.

The Kosmos 2499 satellite separated from and then chased down the upper part of the rocket used to launch it.

The Russian mission follows similar on-orbit tests this year carried out by the US and China.

Kosmos 2499 was launched on 25 December 2013 as part of a seemingly routine mission to add new Rodnik communications satellites to an existing constellation.

Previous Rodnik launches had carried a trio of spacecraft, but on this occasion a fourth object was released into orbit.

The US military initially classified the object as debris, but in May 2014, the Russian government told the United Nations that the launch had sent four satellites into orbit instead of three.

In the meantime, satellite observers had seen the object using engines to perform a series of unusual manoeuvres in space that changed its orbit.

These manoeuvres culminated on 9 November with a close approach to part of the rocket that originally launched the satellite into orbit.

According to satellite observer Robert Christy, who has been recording the satellite's movements, Kosmos 2499 appears to have got to within a few tens of metres of the inactive Briz-KM rocket stage.

Close encounters

'I think this mission is a test, and you test these things with your own satellites, because if you do it with other peoples' they get upset. The Americans don't want bits of Russian hardware sitting alongside their satellites,' Mr Christy told BBC News.

Mr Christy says he predicted this in August, tweeting 'Cosmos 2499 - Maybe an inspector satellite? Its most probable target is the Briz-KM that launched it.'

A satellite inspector is designed to sneak up on another satellite and photograph it or eavesdrop on its communications. But the same technology could also potentially be used to disable spacecraft - an anti-satellite weapon.

However, explicit testing of such weapons in space is prohibited by international treaties.

'The point is that each side sees the other can do it,' said Mr Christy.

But the potential uses of such technology are not solely hostile - it could also be valuable to civilian satellite operators, allowing them to extend the lifetime of high-value assets in space through servicing, re-fuelling or repair on-orbit.

Though the mastery of such systems is highly desirable, it has proven extremely difficult in the past, with several failures.

Artificial intelligence

This year, both America and China have carried out tests similar to that carried out by Moscow.

On 28 July, the US Air Force launched an experimental satellite called ANGELS (short for Automated Navigation and Guidance Experiment for Local Space).

It was designed to manoeuvre around the upper stage of the Delta 4 rocket that had launched it into orbit with increasing degrees of automation and independence from human controllers on the ground. Sophisticated artificial intelligence systems are needed for such tasks.

The Chinese Shijian 15 satellite seems to be undertaking a similar task to that of Kosmos 2499. Launched on 19 July 2013, it has repeatedly approached and shadowed Shijian 7, an older Chinese satellite.

'The original satellite made some slight orbit adjustments, and then the other one copied them - keeping the distance the same. That suggests to me it's a test of rendezvous or chasing equipment. The satellite is probably self-controlling: if the target moves, it moves,' said Mr Christy.

'The idea of the station-keeping is that if you're chasing my satellite, when you get near, I'll move it. So you've got to move at the same rate to catch up.'

Intriguingly, another spacecraft launched on the same rocket as Shijian 15 may have used a robotic arm to release and then recapture a smaller companion satellite.

Such systems could potentially be used to disable spacecraft belonging to another state, but Mr Christy says China could be testing technology to be used by its space station, which is also set to use a robotic arm to grab modules in orbit.

Follow Paul on Twitter.

Europe signs on to Orion venture

The European Space Agency and Airbus have signed a contract that will see the aerospace giant build the 'back end' of America's new manned spaceship.

The US intends to use its Orion capsule to send astronauts to an asteroid and eventually to Mars.

The vehicle needs a propulsion unit to push it through space and to carry the humans' air and water.

European industry has been tasked with constructing this 'service module' for an initial test flight in late 2017.

The hope, however, is that this will become a long-term relationship in which every Orion mission is supported by Esa/Airbus hardware.

Officials from the European Space Agency and the manufacturer signed the contract, valued at 390 million euros (£310m/$490m), in Berlin, witnessed by representatives from the German federal government, the German space agency, Nasa and US industry.

The design for the service module borrows heavily from the unmanned cargo truck Europe has been running to the space station in recent years called the Automated Transfer Vehicle.

At one time, Europe thought of adapting the truck into a human transportation system of its own, but baulked at the costs.

Nonetheless, the performance and reliability of the ATV has mas made it an ideal template for Orion's service module.

'Let me be very clear - if Europe had not done ATV, the US would not have invited Europe to do the service module for them,' said Bart Reijnen, the head of orbital systems and space exploration at Airbus Defence and Space.

'If we had not done ATV, we would have started with a much lower technology readiness level, which would have meant spending more money and taking a longer schedule.'

The propulsion unit will be manufactured principally in Bremen, with components brought in from across the rest of Europe.

As with the ATV, it will have a number of thrusters, but the main one will be an old space shuttle engine - one the orbiter used to use to make manoeuvres once in space.

'The service module is a key element of the Orion vehicle. In fact, we talk about the crew module and the service module making up the Orion vehicle,' Kirk Shireman, the deputy director of Nasa's Johnson Space Center in Houston told BBC News.

America will pay nothing for the service module because it is being given as payment in kind to cover costs Europe will incur at the International Space Station from 2018 through 2020.

It is part of a barter agreement - something that has become standard practice over the 16-year history of the ISS.

And it is the prospect of the ISS being extended well into the next decade and the need for Europe to offset its future 'subscription payments' that may see Airbus supply many more service modules.

Although the 2017 maiden outing for the European hardware will be unmanned, the mission that follows will carry astronauts - probably on a trip around the Moon.

'It is of course my wish to have a European astronaut - a man or a woman - onboard the Orion capsule sometime in the next decade,' said Thomas Reiter, Esa's human spaceflight director.

'I don't think it is too far-fetched to believe that with this path we have now opened, we will get flight opportunities.'

The Orion capsule - a conical ship reminiscent of the Apollo capsules, although larger and far more sophisticated - is being built by Lockheed Martin.

A stripped down article will make a test flight next month, to check certain design features meet their specification.

The key technology being demonstrated is the shield that protects the ship from the immense heat generated on re-entry into the Earth's atmosphere.

The December mission will only venture about 5,000km from Earth and, again, because this is still early days in the programme, will not have humans aboard - only cameras and sensors.

Neither will it use the Space Launch System rocket that is being developed specially for it. That will not be ready until the 2017 flight that debuts European service module.

So, instead, next month's voyage will begin on a Delta IV Heavy, which is normally used to launch America's national security payloads, such as its spy satellites.

'This will be a huge event,' said Lockheed Martin programme manager Michael Hawes.

'I really believe that when we look back in 15 or 20 years, when people are on Mars, we'll be able to say it all started here with this December test flight,' he told BBC News. and follow me on Twitter: @BBCAmos

Monday, November 17, 2014

Culling to begin at bird flu farm

A cull of 6,000 ducks is due to start following a confirmed case of bird flu at a breeding farm in East Yorkshire.

A six-mile (10km) exclusion zone has been paced around the farm in the village of Nafferton, within which the movement of all poultry is banned.

The flu strain has been identified as the H5 virus but not the H5N1 strain which can be deadly to humans.

Environment Secretary Liz Truss told the Commons the risk to public health was very low.

Good bio-security

Defra's Animal and Plant Health Agency said culling of the livestock was expected to last all day.

Chief Veterinary Officer Nigel Gibbens said the farm had good bio-security in place so the risk of spread was 'probably quite low'.

The European Commission said the outbreak was likely to be linked to migratory birds - possibly swans - heading south for winter, and to cases in the Netherlands at the weekend and Germany earlier in the month.

The transport of poultry and eggs has been banned throughout the Netherlands after an outbreak of the H5N8 bird flu strain was confirmed at a chicken farm in the central province of Utrecht.

The commission said the 'information available indicates that the H5 virus in the UK is probably identical to the H5N8... virus found in the Netherlands and in Germany'.

Officials say the H5N8 strain is very dangerous for bird life and could potentially spread to humans, although people can only be infected through very close contact with affected birds.

'Crossing my fingers''

Prof John Oxford, emeritus professor of virology at the University of London, said the risk to humans was not a major concern.

He said: 'There've been outbreaks of this infection in Korea and south-east Asia over the last year. There's been an outbreak in Germany, now an outbreak in Holland, now an outbreak in England.

'In no case, in none of those countries, involving many hundreds of thousands of birds, has there been any serious human infection so I think we can quite safely say why should England be any different, and be a little relaxed about it.'

Farmer John Wright, who has more than 1,000 turkeys 20 miles from the affected farm, said he was hopeful the outbreak could be contained.

He told the BBC: 'I'm just crossing my fingers and hoping it's just an isolated outbreak as others have been in the past, and that the government will keep on top of the job and do a good job as they have done in the past.

'Of course we're worried; we always are when somebody mentions bird flu, it puts a bit of a fear through you, but I'm sure that it'll be contained and everything will blow over. I'm just hoping anyway.'

Protective overalls

A private vet reported a possible case of bird flu at the Nafferton farm on Friday morning and the disease was confirmed the following day.

On Monday, specialists dressed in blue protective overalls and face masks could be seen on the farm.

Parish council chairman Gary Lavis said concern was raised about a week ago when egg production began dropping and the number of birds dying increased.

In her statement to MPs, Ms Truss said 'immediate and robust action' was being taken to control the outbreak and prevent any potential spread of infection.

'Importantly, the chief medical officer and Public Health England have confirmed the risk to public health is very low,' she said.

'The Food Standards Agency have said it does not pose a risk for food safety for UK consumers. The chicken and turkey people eat continues to be safe.'

The case is the first in the UK since 2008 when chickens on a farm in Banbury, Oxfordshire, tested positive for bird flu.

Wildlife crime wanted list released

The public is being asked to provide information on the locations of nine fugitives suspected of serious environmental crimes.

The appeal, from Interpol, is part of an effort to track down individuals involved in illegal fishing, logging and wildlife trafficking.

The trade in wildlife crime is said to be worth around $213bn per annum, according to the UN.

This is the first time that individuals have been targeted.

Investigators from 21 countries gathered at Interpol's headquarters in France in October to share information on suspects involved in a range of crimes involving the environment.

Called Operation Infra Terra, the agency is now asking for assistance from the public in tracking down nine key suspects.

'Even the smallest detail, which you might think is insignificant, has the potential to break a case wide open when combined with other evidence the police already have,' said Ioannis Kokkinis, from Interpol.

'Sometimes all it takes is a fresh pair of eyes to bring new momentum to an investigation and provide the missing clue which will help locate these wanted individuals, some of whom have been evading justice for years,' he added.

Criminal kingpins

One of those named is Feisal Mohammed Ali, alleged to be the leader of an ivory smuggling ring in Kenya.

He is being sought in connection with the seizure of 314 ivory pieces, weighing well over two tonnes in Mombasa in June.

Others on the list include Ahmed Kamran who was charged with an attempt to smuggle over 100 live animals, including giraffes and impalas, to Qatar on a military plane.

  • Four of the fugitives wanted by Interpol.

  • Clockwise from top left: Adriano Jacobone, wanted for kidnapping and carrying firearms;

  • Ariel Bustamante Sanchez, wanted for illegal tuna fishing in Costa Rica;

  • Feisal Mohamed Ali, wanted for smuggling more than two tonnes of ivory;

  • Nicolaas Duindam, wanted for his role in a criminal organization trafficking wildlife from Brazil

Ariel Bustamante Sanchez is alleged to have been involved in illegal tuna fishing in protected waters off Costa Rica.

The move has been welcomed by Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites). They are concerned not just with the impact of environmental crime on species but also with the effect on political stability.

'Countries are increasingly treating wildlife crime as a serious offence, and we will leave no stone unturned to locate and arrest these criminals to ensure that they are brought to justice,' said Ben Janse van Rensburg from Cites.

'The public can play a crucial role in this collective effort, they our eyes and ears on the ground. Their support can help ensure that the offenders face the full might of the law and are punished appropriately.'

Member of the public who have any information on the possible location of the fugitives can use this form to contact Interpol. Information can also be given anonymously to any national crime stoppers programme.

Follow Matt on Twitter @mattmcgrathbbc.

Camera sees Philae's hairy landing

High-resolution pictures have now been released of the Philae probe in the act of landing on Comet 67P last Wednesday.

They were acquired by the Narrow Angle Camera on the Rosetta satellite, which had dropped the little robot towards the surface of the 'ice mountain.'

The images are presented as a mosaic covering the half-hour or so around the 'first touchdown' - the probe then bounced to a stop about 1km away.

Philae lost battery power on Friday and is no longer communicating with Earth.

But European Space Agency controllers have not given up hope of hearing from the plucky robot again - if it can somehow get enough light on to its solar panels to recharge its systems.

Getting a precise fix on its location, to then photograph its present predicament would provide a better idea of whether this is likely to happen.

The new NAC images will certainly help in this respect because they show the direction the lander took as it bounced away.

At the weekend, Esa presented some fascinating views of the first touchdown taken by Rosetta's navigation cameras, but the Osiris NAC system has substantially better resolution.

The mosaic is produced by the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research, which operates Osiris.

It details Philae's descent, and the impact mark it leaves on 67P's surface. You then see the 100kg probe heading away on its initial bounce.

This rebound reached hundreds of metres above the comet and lasted almost two hours.

When Philae came back down, it made another small leap, which took it into a high-walled trap.

Telemetry and pictures from the robot itself indicate this location is covered in deep shadow for most of 67P's day.

As a consequence, Philae receives insufficient solar power to re-boot and form a radio link to the orbiting Rosetta spacecraft.

Esa cannot be sure the robot will ever come back to life, but even if it does not the agency says it is 'hugely happy' with what was achieved in the 60 hours following landing.

The probe managed to complete more than 80% of its planned primary science campaign on the surface.

This data was pulled off the robot just before its sagging energy reserved dropped it into sleep mode.

Little of the results have so far been released by the various instrument teams. The one major exception is MUPUS.

This sensor package from the German space agency's Institute for Planetary Research deployed a thermometer on the end of a hammer.

It retrieved a number of temperature profiles but broke as it tried to burrow its way into the comet's subsurface.

Scientists say this shows the icy material underlying 67P's dust covering to be far harder than anyone anticipated - having the tensile strength of some rocks.

It also helps explain why Philae bounced so high on that first touchdown.

The 4km-wide comet has little gravity, so when key landing systems designed to hold the robot down failed at the crucial moment - the probe would have been relying on thick, soft, compressive layers to absorb its impact.

However much dust it did encounter at that moment, it clearly was not enough to prevent Philae making its giant rebound.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Bird flu case at Yorkshire duck farm

Pictures show comet probe 'bounce'

Images of the Philae probe moments after its initial touchdown have been published by the European Space Agency.

There was a nerve-wracking wait after the solar-powered Philae lander bounced a mile back into space following its first contact with comet 67P.

It successfully landed a few minutes later, over half a mile away from its intended spot.

Now the European Space Agency reports pictures of the tool on its rebound have been identified.

The photographs were unveiled on the Esa's Rosetta Blog, showing a few pale pixels - thought to be Philae - accompanied by a dark patch, which experts conclude is its shadow.

Observers from the agency's flight dynamics team spent hours analysing and reviewing the footage before their conclusion was made public.

Philae has been returning pictures and other data to earth via the Rosetta satellite, but until now scientists have not had access to images of the probe itself after landing.

The difficult landing damaged the craft and its current location means the battery that powers it may not be able to recharge.

It is currently in stand-by mode after running out of power but before that happened engineers attempted to maximise the possibility of recharging its power supply by sending a command to reposition the lander.

This involved raising Philae by 4cm and rotating its main housing by 35% in order to ensure the largest solar panel catches the most light.

Prof Mark McCaughrean, Esa's senior scientific adviser, has described the agency as 'hugely happy' with the information relayed by Philae so far.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Philae comet lander back in contact

The Philae lander has re-established radio contact with its orbiting Rosetta satellite and is sending data from the surface of the Comet 67P.

It ends a tense wait for the European Space Agency (Esa), amid fears that the lander's battery was about to die.

Scientists will be most keen to see if the probe has managed to get a surface sample of the comet with its drill.

Philae descended to 67P on Wednesday - the first time such a feat has been achieved.

The probe has been sending pictures and other scientific data ever since, relayed by the Rosetta satellite.

'Stable comms w/ @Philae now reestablished - telemetry & science data are flowing from the surface' of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko,' Esa posted on its Twitter feed late on Friday GMT.

After 'bouncing' on landing, it is not known precisely where on the comet the robot is located, but the pictures it has returned indicate it is in the shadow of a cliff.

The limited sunlight means the robot's solar panels cannot keep the battery systems properly topped up.

Engineers doubt Philae in its current position can stay powered beyond Saturday.

The dwindling energy reserves prompted the mission team to deploy the drill on Friday.

Although the activity was among Philae's key objectives, it was also regarded as being highly risky, because the torque on the tool could destabilise the delicately placed lander. But Esa felt that the closing power window made that risk worthwhile.

The first good news to emerge from the latest radio contact is that Philae appears to have suffered no major disruption from the drilling. And the instrument onboard the probe that was due to receive the first sample, Cosac, is feeding science data to Earth.

Philae lander begins drill attempt

The Philae lander is drilling into the surface of comet 67/P, amid fears that its battery may die in hours.

Researchers at ESA say the instrument is being deployed to its maximum extent despite the risk of toppling the lander.

Scientists hope they will also be able to capture some samples for analysis in the robot's onboard laboratories.

Two other instruments were deployed overnight including a thermometer to take the comet's temperature.

The team may not know until tonight how successful these manoeuvres have been.

Stephan Ulamec, Philae lander manager said: 'The drill has been active today, whether it will sample and will succeed in bringing these samples to ovens we shall know this evening.

'This will be very very exciting because we are not sure whether the batteries still have enough energy so we can transmit the data this evening.'

The team is still not sure where on the surface the probe came to rest after bouncing upon landing on Wednesday.

Scientists have been examining radio transmissions between the orbiter and the lander to see if they can triangulate a position.

This work has now produced a 'circle of uncertainty' within which Philae almost certainly lies.

Follow-up imagery by Rosetta should now find the little craft, says Paolo Ferri, the head of mission operations at the European Space Agency.