Wednesday, December 31, 2014

New frog 'gives birth to tadpoles'

Nasa to hack 'amnesiac' Mars rover

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Monday, December 29, 2014

Fingerprint 'cloned from photos'

Rising sea to claim 7,000 properties

Record 2014 freeze for parts of UK

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Monday, December 22, 2014

Scientists attack student exit plan

Tiger trade from Burma to China up

Friday, December 19, 2014

Antarctic science archive unlocked

LA River's flood role is 'paramount'

3D printer makes tool in space

Stem cell scandal scientist resigns

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Birds fled 'day before' US tornadoes

New record depth for deepest fish

Shrink ship bubbles ‘for climate fix’

Carbon mission returns global maps

Bats 'showing signs of recovery'

Badger cull fails to meet target

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

'Vast store' of world's oldest water

Festival lights viewed from space

Philae comet landing 'all a blur'

Sentinel tracks continued Napa slip

Ministers unveil science strategy

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

California's water woes quantified

Squirrels are 'climate culprit'

Methane 'belches' detected on Mars

Race on to save rare white rhino

Cosmic bangs 'common on Earth'

Scientists have shed light on a mysterious phenomenon that occurs in thunderstorms.

They have discovered that gamma-ray bursts - the most powerful explosions of energy in the Universe - are far more common on Earth than was thought.

Data from Nasa's Fermi satellite shows that all storms produce the blasts and an estimated 1,100 occur each day.

The findings were presented at the American Geophysical Union's Fall Meeting.

Until recently, it was thought that gamma-ray bursts were only found in deep space.

'Start Quote

These are big, monster bursts of gamma rays, and one would think these must be monster storms producing them - but that's not the case'

End Quote Prof Joseph Dwyer University of New Hampshire

The pulses of high-energy light are hurled out when giant stars explode or black holes or neutron stars merge.

But in the 1990s, scientists found that these events also occur in the Earth's atmosphere during storms, although it was thought they were rare.

Now, new research has revealed that almost every type of storm - no matter what its strength - produces these invisible explosions.

The Fermi space telescope measured the outbursts rising up and out of the atmosphere, while lightning arrays down on Earth helped scientists to pinpoint the types of storms that were producing them.

Prof Joseph Dwyer, from the University of New Hampshire in the US, told the BBC: 'These are big, monster bursts of gamma rays, and one would think these must be monster storms producing them.

'But that's not the case. Even boring-looking, garden-variety, little storms can produce these.

'Any kind of storm seems to produce these terrestrial gamma-ray flashes.'

Based on the satellite data, scientists estimate that 1,100 of these outbursts occur each day, although the number may be greater because the satellites cannot detect every event.

In more research presented at AGU, scientists looked at another high-energy event associated with storms: X-rays.

By undertaking the highly risky endeavour of flying a plane through a thunderstorm, researchers from the Netherlands and France confirmed that lightning was indeed producing X-rays.

'The X-rays coming from the lightning could act as the seed for the terrestrial gamma ray flashes,' added Prof Dwyer.

Scientists do not believe gamma-ray bursts pose a danger to planes - as pilots avoid thunderstorms.

Even if a flight was caught by one, the mechanics would not be affected, said Prof Dwyer.

However, passengers and cabin crew would be exposed to a higher than usual dose of radiation.

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Monday, December 15, 2014

Life from 'deepest drill' revealed

Life uncovered by the deepest-ever marine drilling expedition has been analysed by scientists.

The International Ocean Discovery Program (IODP) found microbes living 2,400m beneath the seabed off Japan.

The tiny, single-celled organisms survive in this harsh environment on a low-calorie diet of hydrocarbon compounds and have a very slow metabolism.

The findings are being presented at the America Geophysical Union Fall Meeting.

Elizabeth Trembath-Reichert, from the California Institute of Technology, who is part of the team that carried out the research, said: 'We keep looking for life, and we keep finding it, and it keeps surprising us as to what it appears to be capable of.'

The IODP Expedition 337 took place in 2012 off the coast of Japan's Shimokita Peninsula in the northwestern Pacific.

From the Chikyu ship, a monster drill was set down more than 1,000m (3,000ft) beneath the waves, where it penetrated a record-breaking 2,446m (8,024ft) of rock under the seafloor.

Sluggish ways

Samples were taken from the ancient coal bed system that lies at this depth, and were returned to the ship for analysis.

The team found that microbes, despite having no light, no oxygen, barely any water and very limited nutrients, thrived in the cores.

To find out more about how this life from the 'deep biosphere' survives, the researchers set up a series of experiments in which they fed the little, spherical organisms different compounds.

Dr Trembath-Reichert said: 'We chose these coal beds because we knew there was carbon, and we knew that this carbon was about as tasty to eat, when it comes to coal, as you could get for microbes.

'The thought was that while there are some microbes that can eat compounds in coal directly, there may be smaller organic compounds - methane and other types of hydrocarbons - sourced from the coal that the microbes could eat as well.'

The experiments revealed that the microbes were indeed dining on these methyl compounds.

The tests also showed that the organisms lived life in the slow lane, with an extremely sluggish metabolism.

They seem to use as little energy as possible to get by.

Other worlds

The researchers are now trying to work out if there are lots of different kinds of microbes living in the coal beds or whether there is one type that dominates.

They also want to find out how the microbes got there in the first place.

'Were these microbes just in a swamp, and loving life in a swamp, because there is all sorts of carbon available, oxygen, organic matter... and then that gets buried?' pondered Dr Trembath-Reichert.

'It could be that they didn't get a chance to escape - they couldn't exactly walk out. So is it that they were there to begin with and then they could maintain life?

'Or were they like microbes that were able to travel down to those depths from the surface?'

The discovery of vast ecosystems of microbes deeper and deeper underground is causing scientists to reassess the role that these organisms play in the carbon cycle.

Because these organisms take in hydrocarbons and expel methane, a greenhouse gas, as a waste product, they may be having a greater impact on the system that governs the Earth's climate than was previously thought.

The findings also have implications for the hunt for life on other planets.

If life can survive in the most extreme conditions on Earth, perhaps it has found a way to cope with harsh environments elsewhere in the cosmos.

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Peat is Amazon's carbon superstore

The most dense store of carbon in Amazonia is not above ground in trees but below ground in peatlands, a study has calculated.

An international team of researchers said their work, which uses satellite data and field measurements, provides the 'most accurate estimates to date'.

Protecting these landscapes is vital if efforts to curb climate change are to be successful, they added.

The findings appear in the journal Environmental Research Letters.

Writing in the paper, the scientists observed: 'This investigation provides the most accurate estimates to date of the carbon stock of an area that is the largest peatland complex in the Neotropics.'

They said it also confirmed 'the status of the [Pastaza-Marañón foreland basin in north-west Peru] as the most carbon-dense landscape in Amanozia'.

'We expected to find these peatlands but what was more of surprise was how extensive they were, and how much this relatively small area contributed to Peru's carbon stock,' explained co-author Freddie Draper from the University of Leeds.

The 120,000 sq km basin accounts for just about 3% of the Peruvian Amazon, yet it stores almost 50% of its carbon stock, which equates to about three billion tonnes.

Deep peat

Mr Draper told BBC News that the team used a new approach to produce their figures: 'We used quite a novel method, combining a lot of field data - for about 24 months, we measured how deep the peat was, how dense it was and how much of it was carbon.

'That measured how much carbon was in the ground, and then we estimated how much carbon was in the trees.

'Probably the most novel part, because the study covered such a large area, we used different satellite products (radar and images) to identify where these peatlands were.'

The team said that the basin remains 'almost entirely intact', but threats are increasing.

'Maintaining intact peatlands is crucial for them to continue to act as a carbon sink by continuing to form peat and contribute fully to regional habitat and species diversity,' explained co-author Katy Roucoux from the University of St Andrews.

Dr Roucoux told BBC News that scientists are still learning about the contribution these landscapes make to the global carbon cycle.

'An important issue is the extent to which the peatland ecosystems are continuing to lock up and store carbon as peat today. It certainly looks as though they are as the environmental conditions are right, ie water-logged.'

She added: 'Our ongoing work in this area also concerns the processes of peat accumulation: what controls the species make up of the peatland ecosystems and under what vegetational, environmental and climatic conditions peat forms, in order to identify their sensitivity to future environmental changes resulting from climatic and/or land use change.'

The findings have been published shortly after the conclusion of international climate negotiations in Peru's capital city, Lima.

The talks - scheduled to concluded on Friday - continued into the weekend, as delegates struggled to reach agreement over a framework for setting national carbon budget pledges to be submitted to the next UN climate summit in Paris next year.

'Following the recently agreed Lima Call for Climate Action at COP20 and in the run-up to COP21 in Paris next year, there is a strong onus on countries to produce ambitious plans to reduce carbon emissions,' explained fellow co-author Tim Baker from the University of Leeds.

'For a carbon-rich country such as Peru, understanding where carbon is stored and developing policies to protect those ecosystems is an important part of this process.'

The paper's findings, Dr Baker added, suggest that the peatlands must become a conservation and research priority.

'Undoubtedly more work needs to be done to protect these areas effectively, as the major national park in the region - Pacaya Samiria - does not cover the most carbon dense vegetation, nor the broad diversity of forest types in this area.'

Rare northern white rhino dies in US

A northern white rhinoceros has died at the San Diego Zoo in California, leaving only five in the entire world.

Angalifu, a male thought to be 44 years old, is said to have died of old age.

One of the critically endangered species remains at the California facility, while another resides in a Czech Republic zoo and three remain in a Kenyan preserve.

The rhinos have been hunted by poachers to near extinction for their valuable horns, used in dagger handles.

'Angalifu's death is a tremendous loss to all of us,' San Diego Zoo safari park curator Randy Rieches wrote in a statement.

Earlier attempts to mate Angalifu with the zoo's other northern white rhino, Nola, were unsuccessful.

Meanwhile, preservationists at the Kenyan preserve have acknowledged their one male and two female rhinos will not reproduce naturally.

In vitro fertilisation efforts will now reportedly be undertaken to keep the species from extinction.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Alcatraz escapees 'may have survived'

Three inmates who famously escaped from the US island prison Alcatraz had a small chance of making it to land alive - but the odds were stacked against them, a new study suggests.

In 1962, the prisoners absconded using a raft, and were never seen again.

A novel computer model now indicates that if they set off right at midnight, they could have made landfall.

But if they left in the hours either side, it is very likely they died in the cold waters of San Francisco Bay.

The study was carried out by scientists at Delft University and the research institute Deltares, both in the Netherlands, and is being presented this week at the American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting, which is hosted in the California city.

This prison break - dramatized by Clint Eastwood in the film Escape from Alcatraz - is one of the most daring and intricate escapes ever attempted.

Three bank robbers - Clarence Anglin, John Anglin and Frank Morris - spent months digging an escape tunnel out of their concrete cells using sharpened spoons.

On the night of 11 June 1962, they left dummy heads, fashioned out of soap, toilet paper and hair, in their beds, and crawled out of the 'escape-proof' prison.

At the water's edge, it is thought they made an inflatable raft out of raincoats and entered San Francisco Bay, at some point between 2000 and 0200, according to FBI files.

Despite an intense search effort, the men were never found. Whether they survived and made landfall or died after entering the water remains a mystery.

Now, a Dutch team of scientists has attempted to shed light on what happened.

Dr Rolf Hut said: 'My colleague, Olivier Hoes, was working on a hydraulic model, called 3Di, which is a collaboration between different Dutch companies, agencies and universities.

'It is a high-performance hydraulic model for simulating the movement of water bodies in deltas and bays.

'He was using that to simulate the movement of water in the San Francisco Bay area, and I thought we could try to re-analyse what happened back in 1962.'

The team used historical tidal data from the night of the escape in the computer model.

Fedor Baart, a simulation specialist at Deltares, explained: 'We didn't know exactly when the inmates launched their boats, or their precise starting point, and so we decided to release 50 [virtual] boats every 30 minutes between 2000 and 0400, from a range of possible escape spots at Alcatraz to see where they would end up.

'We added a paddling effect to the boats, as we assumed the prisoners would paddle as they got closer to land.'

With the help of the virtual vessels, the researchers found that if the prisoners had escaped in the hours before midnight, they would have almost certainly perished.

Dr Hut said: 'In the worst-case scenario, where paddling was ineffective, the outgoing tide would have swept them out to the ocean and they would have died of hypothermia. For sure.

'The San Francisco Bay area has one of the strongest tidal currents going under the Golden Gate Bridge.'

But if they entered the water later, after 1am, the tide would have reversed, taking the escapees on a different course.

Dr Hut explained: 'They would have been pushed back into the Bay. And then depending on which way they were paddling, they would have been sent into the north bay - towards Berkeley and the mouth of the Sacramento River - or pushed south towards Oakland, past Treasure Island.

'In both cases they would have spent so much time in the water, they probably would have died of hypothermia, or they would have been picked up by the police because sunrise was at 0600.'

However, the team found one small window where survival would have been possible.

If the trio had left at midnight and had paddled hard to the north, then the strong currents could have worked in their favour.

'If they hit it exactly at midnight, the beautiful thing is that we see that they would have been sucked out towards the Golden Gate Bridge,' Dr Hut told BBC News.

'But the moment they were close to the Golden Gate would have been the moment the tide reverses.

'And that would give them a moment of slack tide, in which they could have reached marine headlands in the northern site of the Golden Gate Bridge.'

The team has produced visualisations that show a 'worst case scenario', in which the prisoners do not paddle, and a 'best case scenario', in which they paddle northwards at a speed of 25cm per second.

Outside factors

The model also predicted that any debris from the raft would have floated back into the bay, towards Angel Island, which is where the FBI found a paddle and some personal belongings.

The team points out that the model cannot prove exactly what happened, but it does help to assess what scenarios are most plausible.

'We're just exploring possibilities within the scope of what we can calculate,' said Dr Hut.

'When doing historical research, there is a chance that there is an event not in the feasibility of your model: maybe they had a friend with a boat?

'We are only exploring whether it was possible for them to make landfall, with no additional help or other events taking place.'

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Arctic sea ice volume holds up

Arctic sea ice may be more resilient than many observers recognise.

While global warming seems to have set the polar north on a path to floe-free summers, the latest data from Europe's Cryosat mission suggests it may take a while yet to reach those conditions.

The spacecraft observed 7,500 cu km of ice cover in October when the Arctic traditionally starts its post-summer freeze-up.

This was only slightly down on 2013 when 8,800 cu km were recorded.

Two cool summers in a row have now allowed the pack to increase and then hold on to a good deal of its volume.

And while the ice is still much reduced compared with the 20,000 cu km that used to stick around in the Octobers of the early 1980s, there is no evidence to indicate a collapse is imminent.

'What we see is the volume going down and down, but then, because of a relatively cool summer, coming back up to form a new high stand,' said Rachel Tilling from the UK's Nerc Centre for Polar Observation and Modelling (CPOM) at University College London (UCL).

'So, what may be occurring here is a decline that looks a bit like a sawtooth, where we can lose volume but then recover some of it if there happens to be a shorter melt season one year,' she told BBC News.

The British researcher is presenting her work this week at the American Geophysical Union's Fall Meeting in San Francisco.

Cryosat is the European Space Agency's (Esa) dedicated polar monitoring platform.

It was sent up with a sophisticated radar system that enables scientists to work out the thickness of the sea ice covering the Arctic Ocean.

In the three years following its launch in 2010, the satellite saw a steady decline in autumn volume at the end of the summer melt.

The deep lows in this short series were 5,300 and 5,400 cubic km in 2011 and 2012, respectively. But then came the bounce back, with colder weather over the following two years resetting the minimum.

Indeed, Cryosat's five-year October average now shows pretty stable volume - even modest growth (2014 is 12% above the five year-average).

Cryosat's view of sea-ice thickness

What Tilling and colleagues see in the data is a very strong link between autumn thickness and the degree of melting in a year.

'You might think, for example, that wind conditions would be important because they can pile the ice up and make it less susceptible to melting, while at the same time exposing more water to freeze,' the University College London researcher explained.

'But we've looked at this and other factors, and by far the highest correlation is with temperature-driven melting.'

Long term that looks bad for the Arctic because average temperatures are climbing.

However, the Cryosat team cautions against extrapolating limited observations to predict future trends in Arctic sea ice.

Far more data is required, over a much longer period of time.

Cryosat: Delivering operational services

  • Point measurements of sea-ice thickness collected in the past month

  • Bright white area denotes sea-ice extent at the start (9 November)

  • Light grey shows the increase in extent by the end (8 December)

  • Information is useful for maritime and other actors in the Arctic

Scientists would like this information to be acquired by Cryosat.

But the Esa mission is currently categorised as a one-off scientific venture with no planned successor.

And although it has funding until 2017 and fuel reserves to work even longer, there is always the risk it could suffer a major mechanical failure.

That is why Tilling and colleagues are using AGU to start a conversation about a follow-on mission.

The obvious solution would be for the European Commission to pick up the new satellite as part of its Copernicus programme.

This is a fleet of Esa-developed Earth-observing spacecraft known as the Sentinels, which are being rolled out over the next few years.

But to be included in this group, Cryosat would have to demonstrate its utility in delivering operational services - not just climate data. And that is what scientists now aim to do over the course of the next few months by delivering products such as ice maps for ship navigation.

'It's estimated that economic growth in the Arctic region will be worth $100bn over the next two decades,' said CPOM director Prof Andy Shepherd from Leeds University and UCL.

'Now that Cryosat can deliver near real-time observations of sea-ice thickness that agree to within 1% of the climate-quality measurements, which are not rapid enough for operational purposes, Arctic nations will be able to make sure that any future maritime activities are done with safety and care.'

Satellite altimetry: How to measure sea-ice volume

  • Cryosat's radar has the resolution to see the Arctic's floes and leads

  • Some 7/8 of the ice tends to sit below the waterline - the draft

  • The aim is to measure the freeboard - the ice part above the waterline

  • Knowing this 1/8th figure allows Cryosat to work out sea-ice thickness

  • The thickness multiplied by the area of ice cover produces a volume

  • Volume - not area - is the best guide to the status of Arctic sea ice

  • Cryosat's measurement technique works in autumn, winter and spring

  • Melt ponds on the ice make a mid-summer assessment very difficult and follow me on Twitter: @BBCAmos

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Climate deal reached in Lima talks

Climate talks 'facing breakdown'

The head of the US delegation at UN climate talks has warned of a 'major breakdown' in the process if negotiators fail to come to an agreement at a meeting in Lima, Peru.

Talks remain deadlocked by divisions between rich and poor countries over the scale and scope of plans to tackle global warming.

The talks were due to have concluded on Friday but have now overrun.

Disagreements abound over a key building block of a new global treaty.

That element, known as Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) in the jargon of the meeting, is seen as a major step as developed nations are due to make pledges on how they'll tackle climate change by the end of March next year.

The countries came to Peru to work out the details of what those pledges would entail.

It has not been smooth sailing.

The big emitters like the US and EU want these pledges to be focussed mainly on cutting carbon - and they want to include emerging economies such as India and China.

Developing countries object strongly to any attempts to bring them into the fold - and they argue that the pledges of the rich must include substantial finance for the poor.

According to US climate envoy Todd Stern, the deadlock on this and other issues threatens the chances of a new global deal next year.

'Failing to produce the decision before us will be seen as a major breakdown, and will deal a serious blow to the confidence of the parties and others as we approach Paris. And indeed to the hope of a Paris agreement,' he said.

Two-tiered system

The President of the meeting, Manuel Pulgar-Vidal, attempted to move things forward by producing new draft texts during the day.

Developing countries were not impressed. They argued that the new text went too far in watering down a key element of the climate convention signed in 1992, the idea of common but differentiated responsibility (CBDR).

This in effect divided the world between richer countries who have had to take on carbon cutting burdens and poorer countries who have no obligations.

Lima climate talks

  • Conference scheduled to run from 1 to 12 December, attended by 195 countries

  • Negotiations aim to advance the outline text of an agreement on climate change, to be finalised in Paris by the end of 2015

  • Progress on approving the text has been slow

  • Countries are divided over whether developing countries should take on obligations to cut emissions

  • The talks come amid some of the hottest global average temperatures ever on record

The developed say the world is very different now than in 1992 with more than half the world's emissions coming from the emerging economies. But many of the delegates here rejected the idea of change.

'Many of you colonised us so we started from very different points...this you must appreciate,' said a delegate from Malaysia, who was strongly arguing for a retention.

'There is a world out there which is different to your world,' he warned the parties.

Ten-minute meetings

Some of the negotiators believed that the president had gone too far in cutting out some of the elements that they believe are crucial to those most affected by climate change. They argued that language on finance and loss and damage had been weakened or removed.

'If you are submitting yourself for circumcision', warned Singapore's environment minister, Vivian Balakrishnan, 'be very sure it doesn't become an amputation.'

Many felt that a group of countries called the Like-Minded Developing Countries (LMDC), which includes China, India, Saudi Arabia and Venezuela, were the key hold outs against a compromise.

'Three quarters of the people in there are happy with the deal,' said one delegate, gesturing to the hall where countries are gathered. 'It's the like-minded group who are holding it up.'

The president of the meeting has held a series of ten minute meetings with all the parties and it is expected that a new or amended text will be presented for a final decision over the next few hours.

The worry is that to secure wide support, the document will be significantly weakened, with negative implications for a treaty in Paris.

Follow Matt on Twitter: @mattmcgrathbbc

Friday, December 12, 2014

Even in colour, Comet 67P is grey

The first colour image from the Rosetta spacecraft shows that Comet 67P is even more dark and monochrome than expected.

Despite being carefully assembled from three images taken with red, green and blue filters, the shot still looks effectively black-and-white.

It comes from the Osiris camera, which is on board the orbiting craft that last month made history by dropping a lander onto the comet's surface.

The Osiris team says 67P is 'as black as coal' and surprisingly uniform.

The image was released by the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research, which leads the consortium behind the camera.

'We like to refer to Osiris as the eyes of Rosetta,' said the instrument's principal investigator Dr Holger Sierks.

But the camera is unlike human eyes, and so the colour image had to be produced by combining three separate shots.

This was no easy task. Rosetta is constantly moving and the comet beneath is spinning, so various changes in angle had to be accounted for.

The result is an image that looks remarkably similar to previous, greyscale views of 67P.

'As it turns out, 67P looks dark grey, in reality almost as black as coal,' Dr Sierks said.

By the time the image is brightened enough for us to see the comet's features, it looks much lighter grey - but not what anyone would call colourful.

Using observations from the ground, scientists had already observed that Comet 67P, like many other small bodies in our Solar System, appeared to be grey 'on average'.

But the new results reveal that it seems to be this dark, coal colour all over - with little variation.

That suggests that its surface composition is fairly uniform and shows no sign of ice patches, which would appear bluish.

The comet's ice is presumably hidden below its dusty, boulder-strewn surface.

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Top 10 physics breakthroughs listed

Landing on a comet, nuclear fusion with lasers and a tractor beam are among the 10 physics breakthroughs of 2014, as chosen by a leading science magazine.

The Philae spacecraft's touchdown on comet 67P was named as the year's most significant advance by Physics World.

It was singled out for its 'fundamental importance to space science'.

The first detection of neutrino particles from the main reaction that powers the Sun and a new holographic memory device also made the shortlist.

Dr Hamish Johnston, editor of, said: 'As well as looking forward to the fascinating science... we also acknowledge the technological tour de force of chasing a comet for 10 years and then placing an advanced laboratory on its surface.'

Philae landed on its quarry on 12 November, following a seven-hour descent to 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.

Of the runners-up, Dr Johnston explained that each 'represents an important step forward made by a team of creative and talented researchers'.

In no particular order, the nine other breakthroughs chosen by Physics World are:

Light on the cosmic web (January): Researchers used the radiation emitted by a quasar as a 'cosmic flashlight' to illuminate the hidden tendrils of dark matter that underlie the visible Universe.

Neutrinos from the Sun (August): The Borexino experiment in Italy detected neutrino particles from the main nuclear reaction that powers the Sun. The number of neutrinos it saw agrees with theories, suggesting we do understand what's going on inside our parent star.

Laser fusion milestone (February): Scientists at the National Ignition Facility (NIF) in California made a breakthrough in the long road to self-sustaining fusion when they managed to get more energy out of fusion reactions than was deposited in the fuel by NIF's powerful laser.

Acoustic tractor beam (May): Once the preserve of science fiction, tractor beams are now a reality - at least in the lab. Physicists built a device that can pull objects by firing sound waves at them. The beam could have medical uses, such as manipulating objects within the body.

Supernovas in the lab (June): The Vulcan Laser Facility in Oxfordshire was used to recreate miniature star explosions, offering a window into some of the most powerful and unpredictable events in the cosmos.

Electron magnetism (June): Researchers in Israel were the first to measure the extremely weak magnetic interaction between two separate electron particles.

A better fibre for images (March): Scientists in the US used a physical effect called Anderson Localisation to develop a better optical fibre for transmitting images.

Holographic memory (February): American and Russian physicists built a new type of holographic memory device that stores data in the form of magnetic 'bits'.

Quantum compression: (September): The ability to compress quantum information was demonstrated for the first time by physicists in Canada and Japan.

Lima talks: Old divisions surface

Despite an impassioned appeal from US Secretary of State John Kerry, climate talks in Lima entered their final day with long-running issues still dividing the parties.

Mr Kerry told the negotiators that the world was 'still on a course leading to tragedy'.

An ambitious deal he said was 'not an option, it is an urgent necessity'.

But ongoing battles are threatening to limit any progress in the Peruvian capital.

Many developed countries want to see a change in the way the nations are classified in the UN process.

Until now, the rich have been obliged to take on commitments to cut emissions while the poor have not.

Countries like the US now say that the old divisions are outdated and want everyone to take on some form of obligation.

In his speech, Mr Kerry reinforced this idea. No country should have a 'free pass' anymore.

'I know this is difficult for developing nations. We have to remember that today more than half of emissions are coming from developing nations, so it is imperative that they act too.'

But this approach is being resisted by a number of countries, including China and many others, who want adhere to the idea of 'common but differentiated responsibilities'.

Some countries are suspicious that the text being developed here in Lima is an attempt to get round the concept of differentiation, which is embedded in 1992's UN framework convention on climate change.

The issue has become critical as the chairs of the talks introduced a new draft text that many felt watered down the original commitment.

A large group of developing nations known as the G77 objected.

'This whole exercise is not meant to rewrite the convention, this is a firm basic position of the G77,' said Ambassador Antonio Marcondes from Brazil.

'We stand behind the differentiation, we stand behind 'common but differentiated responsibilities', these are issues we hold very strong and these are definite red lines.'

Another key battle was over the initial commitments that countries are expected to make by the end of March next year.

Known in the jargon of the UN talks as the 'intended nationally determined contributions' or INDCs, rich and poor are still divided over what should be part of this package.

The developed want to restrict them to carbon cuts. The developing want them to include finance for adaptation.

Long night ahead

A further argument is over the idea that there must be some sort of review process before a new deal is signed.

It would essentially be an effort to ratchet up ambition by comparing and contrasting what countries had promised in the run up to Paris.

The idea, called an 'ex-ante review', is seen as very important by some, especially the European Union.

But developing countries including India are dead set against it.

They say it is an issue of sovereignty. Outside parties, they argue, should not have the power to review what countries commit to by themselves.

'We favour a transparent presentation of country issues, but we think that an ex-ante review next year would be an unnecessary effort,' said Ambassador Marcondes.

'It would detract from the main goal of reaching Paris with a new agreement.'

These divisions are all variants of long-running splits between richer and poorer nations that have existed in the UN talks for 20 years.

The climate debate has often been neutered by the depth of these differences. It had been hoped that the positive signals from the US, China and the European Union before the meeting would help bridge the gaps, but trust is still short on the ground.

The President of the meeting, Manuel Pulgar-Vidal from Peru, urged the parties to move forward as he indicated that through-the-night talks would be needed.

'We will not accept to leave Lima with empty hands,' he told delegates.

'Help us, help me.... We can deal with this problem and we can send a strong signal. Don't leave me alone, we can work together. It won't be me that thanks you, it will be the world.'

Earlier this week, Mr Pulgar-Vidal had said that he was looking forward to drinking a pisco sour with the delegations at 6pm on Friday when the talks are officially set to close.

Few believe that the deadline will be met.

Mr Pulgar-Vidal may well be sipping his drink alone.

Follow Matt on Twitter: @mattmcgrathbbc

Anti-pollution laws at risk in EU

The EU may scrap plans for legislation on air pollution and waste in a drive to boost the economy, according to a leaked document seen by BBC News.

In its draft workplan, the European Commission says the priorities are creating jobs, reducing public debt and increasing industrial competitiveness.

It says citizens do not want Europe interfering in issues that can be solved nationally.

Environmentalists are appalled, saying green issues require EU-level action.

Dirty air is the prime cause of premature death in Europe and the current air quality legislation seeks to establish a national emissions ceiling directive for six toxic pollutants.

Eleven governments have written to the Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, urging him to keep the directive on track. And the Commission's plans for a substantial revision of the legislation will be opposed next week by some MEPs.

But the fate of the legislative plan to recycle 70% of municipal waste and 80% of packaging by 2030 is more uncertain.

The UK waste industry says the nation would still be sending all its waste to landfill if the EU had not stepped into a 'policy vacuum'. The previous Commission aspired to create a 'circular economy' - a modern society in which people live in harmony with the Earth, creating jobs through clean technology and recycling materials.

But Mr Juncker has already signalled that he will not waste time on proposals that won't fly - and the Commission's workplan says member states cannot agree on the recycling ambitions.

Global pressures

Environmentalists are in a rearguard battle. They think Europe's relatively tight environmental standards have given manufacturers a global lead in efficient products. But the lobby group Business Europe has argued that overzealous rules are making firms uncompetitive on the global stage.

Already the EU is treading more gingerly in its climate change leadership, and the helm of the European Council has been taken by Donald Tusk, who championed coal while prime minister of Poland (and also won admiration for keeping Poland's economy afloat in the recession).

Industrialists have also been pushing for a relaxation of rules protecting wildlife areas from new development, and they have secured a review of the Birds and Habitats directives, to see if they are fit for purpose. That review will report its findings in 2016.

Green thinkers persuaded the previous European Commission to put sustainable development at the core of its ambition. It is clear that across Europe's green landscape the perspective has changed - how far remains to be seen.

Follow Roger @rharrabin

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Selfie-help for conservation areas

Images uploaded to social media websites hold valuable data that could be used to help protect or manage natural spaces, a study has suggested.

Geotagged images provided a precise location of where the photo was taken and how people were interacting with the environment, it added.

This data could be collated to provide information that could help inform the management of ecosystems.

The findings were outlined at a science meeting in Lille, France, on Thursday.

The details were outlined at the joint annual meeting of the British Ecological Society and Société Française d'Ecologie by Daniel Richards from the National University of Singapore.

Speaking before his presentation, he told BBC News: 'I think a lot of us have not realised the resources that are available.

'It could be that the researchers do not use social media themselves or they are not aware of its potential but I think it definitely will become more popular.'

Conservation in cyberspace

Dr Richards explained why he and his colleagues felt it was important to develop a research tool that could harness the power of social media.

'I am interested in how we can use this big concept of ecosystem service - the things that nature does for us - and how we can apply that to real, day-to-day environmental management,' he said.

'One of the problems of doing that at the moment is that some ecosystem services, such as cultural aspects - including recreational and educational, are harder to assess than carbon (sequestration) or biodiversity where you can go out and count something.

'We wanted to try to create an indicator... that you can quickly and easily get information on a very small scale on the use people get from a habitat.'

In order to do that, Dr Richards and his team used the Flickr website that allows people to upload and share their photos.

He observed: 'Flickr lets you search by area so we focused on the mangrove reserves (in Singapore) we were interested in.

'We identified about 250 images for each mangrove reserve and went through them one by one. We had a team to look at each image to categorise them according to what was the main part of the photograph.

'Was it an animal? Was it a landscape? Or was it social - people taking selfies, etc?'

The team found that each reserve, depending on its function, seemed to influence what category of photo people took at the site.

'One of the reserves, which was a bird reserve, had 60% animal photographs, whereas some of the other - the more tourist-friendly - there were a lot more social photos or landscape photos and less of the wildlife,' Dr Richards explained.

He added that the results of the study did provide information that could be used by reserve managers in their land management strategies.

'One of the things that was interesting was that there was a boardwalk at one of the reserve sites.

'These boardwalks are sometimes created to allow people to get closer to the animals but we found that most of the photographs of animals were not from this area.

So if you were looking after this boardwalk, you might be interested in why that was the case. Was it because there were not any animals around the boardwalk and people scare them off?

'It could be that a lot of the animals in this area are small crabs and fish, and people might not be aware of them so if you put up some signs or information then it might help people,' Dr Richards said.

'It raises new questions that could allow you to go out and do an ecological survey to get to the bottom of this.'

Will Kerry strike gold in Lima?

The US secretary of state John Kerry will arrive in Lima today to push forward global climate negotiations, taking place in the city.

Mr Kerry is the most senior American official to attend the talks since President Obama went to Copenhagen in 2009 - an event that didn't end particularly well.

The Secretary of State has long been the most engaged American politician on the issue of climate and environment and his attendance at these UN negotiations is being seen as further evidence that the US is determined to make up for the failures of Copenhagen in 2009 and deliver a strong agreement in Paris next year.

For once, the US is not being seen as the Great Satan of CO2.

Thanks to their joint initiative with China, the two countries are taking a bow as leaders of the fight against rising temperatures.

The change in atmosphere could be seen on the poker face of US special climate envoy Todd Stern, who in recent days has been a veritable ray of sunshine.

The way he sees it, the deal that is being negotiated here - and will likely be signed in Paris - is a truly historic event.

'We are trying to do an agreement that is intended to last for decades. This is supposed to be not an agreement that we come back and renegotiate every five years, but an agreement that establishes a stable and durable structure.'

Here in Lima, the parties are trying to get the 'elements' of a deal together, which essentially means a chunky negotiating text with plenty of options still on the table.

One of the ideas that's getting a lot of attention from environmental activists is the aim to have zero emissions by 2050.

This item is still alive in the draft text and has support from a large number of developing countries. Green groups believe that the politicians are heeding the message from the streets.

'The public call for 100% clean energy has gone mainstream, and finally leaders are starting to respond with ambitious targets,' said Iain Keith from Avaaz.

But the idea is not popular with the boys from the black stuff, the countries who make their living from oil and coal.

'The zero-emissions concept - or let's knock fossils fuels out of the picture without clear technology diffusion and solid international cooperation programmes - does not help the process,' said Saudi Arabia's chief negotiator in Lima, Khalid Abuleif.

'I do not think this is realistic when two billion people do not have access to energy,' he added, a tad sniffily.

While arguments about the long term goal are unlikely to be settled by Mr Kerry, his presence might increase the pressure on the countries that are dragging their heels on their commitments.

India has been noticeably silent on the idea that it might peak its emissions at a specified date in the future.

The Indians are said to be feeling a bit bruised after their great ally, China, seems to have sided with the US.

Perhaps they are waiting for the kind of in-depth love and attention the US lavished on China to get them to move forward?

Don't hold your breath says Mr Stern.

'We don't have that kind of process going on with India,' he told reporters.

Another challenge for Mr Kerry will be the need to try and usher some recalcitrant countries to join the party - especially Australia.

The Lucky Country has been vilified here for its stance on climate change.

'Since the Abbott government came in, it has replaced Australia's comprehensive climate legislation with a regime where emissions are now set to increase substantially, against decreasing trends in the US,' said Bill Hare, from the Climate Analytics think-tank.

'Many in the government are denying the yeti-scale footprint of climate change impacts being felt by people from one end of the country to the other.'

The Australians have surprised many attendees by making a $160m contribution to the Green Climate Fund.

According to foreign minister Julie Bishop, it was part of Australia's 'commitment to play our part in the global response to climate change'.

But money doesn't seem to buy friends here in Lima. Green groups have given the country their mocking 'fossil of the day' award several times during this conference of the parties.

Mr Kerry will have his work cut out.

Follow Matt on Twitter.

Spider-style sensor for vibrations

By copying the design of an organ found in spiders' legs, engineers in South Korea have built a sensor that can detect miniscule vibrations.

It works because the vibrations open and close cracks in a very thin layer of platinum, changing its conductivity.

A similar slit-based system is found inside the joints of some spiders.

The team reports in the journal Nature that when they stick their sensor to the neck or wrist, it can read out what someone says - or their pulse.

Speaking to BBC News, Prof Mansoo Choi said the project began two years ago, when one of his colleagues at Seoul National University read a paper in the same journal.

It described how a particular species of wandering spider communicates with potential mates, metres away on the same plant, by scratching the leaves and 'hearing' the vibrations.

The organ in the spiders' legs that detects these incredibly faint vibrations is made up of a series of slits. It is called the 'lyriform organ' because the slits vary in length, like the strings of a lyre.

'We tried to mimic the cracked shape of the organ,' Prof Choi said.

To do so, they placed a very thin layer of the metal platinum on top of a flexible polymer, and bent it.

They had to use just the right thickness of platinum, and bend it in just the right way, to get a pattern of parallel cracks that would act as a vibration sensor.

'Initially we failed many times,' said Prof Choi.

'It took several months... but finally we found out how we could make a controlled crack formation.'

When they applied electricity to the platinum layer, they found they could read out the frequency and the size of vibrations they delivered to the sensor, because the cracks were changing the metal's resistance as they opened and closed.

Crucially, the edges of the cracks in the platinum were rather rough, forming jagged lines when viewed through a microscope. If they were perfectly straight, all the current would stop at once and the sensor would simply be 'on' or 'off'.

But with their slightly jagged edges, the cracks became very sensitive, allowing varying levels of current to pass through as the polymer underneath bent with the vibrations.

To test it further, the researchers simulated the tiny vibrations of a ladybird's wings - a gentle wiggle of just 14 micrometres (0.014mm). Their sensor was up to the task.

When they placed it on a violin, the sensor could distinguish between the different notes being played. It could also read out a subject's pulse if strapped to their wrist, and even allowed the team to tell the difference between spoken words when it was placed on someone's neck.

'When you speak, if you touch your neck - it's vibrating. Our sensor is capable of detecting vibrations like that, very precisely,' Prof Choi explained.

The team has patented their design and is working on improving it further - in particular, making it more durable and using cheaper metals than platinum.

The lead author of the Nature paper that first caught the Korean team's attention was Prof Peter Fratzl, from the Max Planck Institute of Colloids and Interfaces in Potsdam, Germany.

He has written a commentary on the new paper, saying that the device's practical applications are impressive, but noting that it is still nowhere near as precise as the spidey-sense that inspired it.

Prof Fratzl told the Nature Podcast: 'The vibration sensor of the spider combines a number of exquisite properties. It's extremely sensitive but it's also extremely discriminatory.

'There's a lot of room to improve on what [they] are doing technically, before we can even compare it to what the spider sensor is actually capable of.'

Follow Jonathan on Twitter

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Comets 'not source of Earth's water'

Scientists have dealt a blow to the theory that most water on Earth came from comets.

Results from the Rosetta mission, which made history by landing on comet 67P in November, shows the water on the icy mass is unlike that on our planet.

The results are published in the journal Science.

The authors conclude it is more likely that the water came from asteroids, but other scientists say more data is needed before comets can be ruled out.

Since August, the Rosetta probe has been orbiting Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, and on 12 November its lander, Philae, made a historic touchdown on the comet's surface.

Although the robot's batteries ran out soon after setting down, it gathered a wealth of scientific data, and the Rosetta 'mothership' continues to analyse the icy rock.

This unprecedented, close-up look at a comet is helping scientists to answer the fundamental question of whether a bombardment of these icy space rocks brought water to Earth billions of years ago.

But the latest findings, gathered by the Rosina instrument, which consists of two mass spectrometers that 'sniff' the gas that streams off the surface of comet 67P, suggests this may not be the case.

Water on Earth has a distinctive signature. While the vast majority of liquid on our planet is made up of hydrogen and oxygen atoms, very occasionally a hydrogen atom will be replaced with a deuterium atom.

On Earth, for every 10,000 water molecules, three deuterium atoms can be found. This water has the same physical properties as H2O, but it is heavier in mass.

Prof Kathrin Altwegg, from the University of Bern in Switzerland, who is Rosina's principal investigator, said: 'This ratio between heavy and light water is very characteristic. You cannot easily change it and it stays for a long time.

'If we compare the water in comets with the water we have on Earth, we can definitely say if the water on Earth is compatible with the water on comets.'

The team found that there was far more heavy water on comet 67P than on Earth.

Prof Altwegg told BBC Radio 4's Inside Science programme: 'It is the highest-ever measured ratio of heavy water relative to light water in the Solar System.

'It is more than three times higher than on the Earth, which means that this kind of comet could not have brought water to the Earth.'

This finding adds to other studies that have analysed water on different types of comets.

Previous research found that water held in a class of comets that originated in the Oort Cloud - a region of space that makes up the outer reaches of our Solar System - also have a different signature to water on Earth.

However, only two comets from the Kuiper-belt, an area that extends to just beyond Neptune, have been analysed: comet 67P and another comet called Hartley 2.

While these new findings show that the water on 67P is very different to water on Earth, observational studies from the Herschel Space telescope have previously revealed that the water on Hartley 2 appears to be exactly the same as the water in our planet's oceans.

However, Prof Altwegg believes that Kuiper Belt comets did not bring water to Earth.

She said: 'The conclusion here is that in the reservoir of the Kuiper Belt we have very diverse comets that probably came from different regions of the early Solar System.

'We have light water in some comets and very heavy water in other comets. We have to assume the mixture of all these comets is something that is heavier than what we have on Earth, so this probably rules out Kuiper Belt comets as the source of terrestrial water.'

Instead, she thinks that asteroids - dense, rocky objects that formed closer to the Sun than comets - seeded our oceans.

She said: 'We know already something about the characteristic of asteroids by studying meteorites, which are pieces of asteroids - and the characteristics of asteroids are very much like our water.

'They are also much closer to the Earth so it is more likely that they hit the Earth than the very distant comets, which are beyond Neptune.'

However, some researchers say it is too early to rule out the comet theory and more data is needed.

Prof Alan Fitzsimmons, from the Astrophysics Research Centre at Queen's University Belfast, said: 'There is no arguing with this exquisite measurement, it shows the true value of going to a comet and doing your science there.

'The problem is that if you take the few Kuiper-belt comets now measured and average them, you don't get Earth's water.

'We don't know how you'd just hit Earth with high deuterium-to-hydrogen comets and not low deuterium-hydrogen comets. So more data are important, and specifically we now need to take a really close look at the icy asteroids and main-belt comets between Mars and Jupiter.'

Prof Monica Grady said that the team's conclusions could be 'jumping the gun a bit'.

She said: 'The measurements that have been made by Rosina are of the gas that has come from the surface of the comet. The amount of hydrogen relative to deuterium changes as the gas escapes from the surface.

'This is why other instruments on the lander were going to make complementary measurements of the ice on the surface. We are going to have to wait to see what comes from COSAC and Ptolemy [Rosetta instruments] before we can say any more.'

But Dr Conel Alexander, from the Carnegie Institution of Washington in the US, said that while it was 'dangerous to be too strident about one's conclusions based on only two data points', he said that asteroids did seem to be the best candidates for supplying Earth's water.

He said: 'From meteorites, spectroscopic measurements of asteroids and even the fairly recent discovery of a few 'asteroidal comets', some types of asteroid contain quite a bit of 'water' in clay minerals and possibly in ice.'

Follow Rebecca on Twitter

You can hear more about this story on Inside Science at 1630 on 11 December on BBC Radio 4

Greenpeace apologises for Nazca stunt

Greenpeace has apologised for any 'moral offence' it has caused, after a publicity stunt on the ancient Nazca lines in Peru.

Activists from the organisation placed a banner next to a figure of a hummingbird, carved more than 1,500 years ago.

They were hoping to increase pressure on UN negotiators currently meeting in Lima.

The Peruvian government said it would prosecute the activists who took part.

The ancient depictions of animals, including a monkey and a hummingbird that are etched into the arid plain of Southern Peru are a vital part of the county's heritage.

Visits to the site are closely supervised - ministers and presidents have to seek special permission and special footwear to tread on the fragile ground where the 1,500 year old lines are cut.

Earlier this week 20 Greenpeace activists from seven countries unfurled a protest banner very close to the location of the lines.

'Slap in the face'

'With our message from the Nazca lines, we expect politicians to understand the legacy we need to leave for future generations,' said one of the activists, Mauro Fernandez, on a video produced by the organisation.

'It is not a legacy of climate crisis.'

Unfortunately, according to the Peruvian authorities, the legacy of the stunt was damage to the ancient site.

They say the green group entered a strictly prohibited area and left footprints. The government is asking for the identities of those involved and threatening prosecution and six years in prison for the offenders.

'It's a true slap in the face at everything Peruvians consider sacred,'' Deputy Culture Minister Luis Jaime Castillo said, speaking to news agencies.

Greenpeace have now issued a carefully worded apology, saying they are deeply concerned about any 'moral offence' and stating that they will speak to the authorities and explain what really happened.

'The peaceful protest by Greenpeace in the area of the Nazca lines was to demonstrate the impacts of climate change and honour the historical legacy of this town who learned to live with the environment without affecting it,' said Dr Henry Carhuatocto from the group.

Follow Matt on Twitter @mattmcgrathbbc.

Bishops call for end to fossil fuels

Catholic bishops from around the world are calling for an end to fossil fuel use and increased efforts to secure a global climate treaty.

Catholics, they say, should engage with the process leading to a proposed new deal to be signed in Paris next year.

The statement is the first time that senior church figures from every continent have issued such a call.

Negotiators in Lima are currently trying to advance the outline text of an agreement at UN-led talks.

With 1.2bn people worldwide calling themselves Catholic, the church has considerable potential to influence public debate on any issue.

On climate change, some bishops have previously called for rapid decarbonisation and argued for moves to protect the most vulnerable.

But this is first time that such a global collection of senior priests have made such a call.

In their statement, the bishops say they want a 'deepening of the discourse at the COP20 in Lima, to ensure concrete decisions are taken at COP21 to overcome the climate challenge and to set us on new sustainable pathways'.

Monsignor Salvador Piñeiro García-Calderón, Archbishop of Ayacucho, and president of the Peruvian Bishops' Conference, said: 'We bishops from Africa, Asia, Latin America and Europe have engaged in intense dialogue on the issue of climate change, because we can see it's the poorest people who are impacted the most, despite the fact they've contributed the least to causing it.

'They're the ones who respect the planet, the Earth, the soil, the water and the rainforests.

'As the church, we see and feel an obligation for us to protect creation and to challenge the misuse of nature. We felt this joint statement had to come now because Lima is a milestone on the way to Paris, and Paris has to deliver a binding agreement.'

The bishops argue that nations should aim to keep the rise in global temperatures below 1.5C.

This goes further than the current position of many negotiators who say that 2 degrees represents the threshold for dangerous climate change.

The bishops say this is necessary 'in order to protect frontline communities suffering from the impacts of climate change, such as those in the Pacific Islands and in the coastal regions.'

As well as calling for the phasing in of 100% renewable energy, there is a strong focus on finance for adaptation in the statement.

The Bishops say that solving the climate challenge with a new treaty will be a key step towards a new economic approach.

'In viewing objectively the destructive effects of a financial and economic order based on the primacy of the market and profit, which has failed to put the human being and the common good at the heart of the economy, one must recognise the systemic failures of this order and the need for a new financial and economic order.'

Ministers from around the world have joined their negotiators in Peru in an effort to drive forward the talks process. While the atmosphere has been positive, little progress has been made.

Environmental activists are planning a large scale demonstration in the centre of Lima on Wednesday in an effort to increase pressure on negotiators.

US Secretary of State John Kerry arrives in Lima on Thursday, the first time a senior US politician has attended the talks since President Obama went to Copenhagen in 2009.

Follow Matt on Twitter.

Poor 'need help' with energy bills

Poor families in the UK will need more help to pay for heating their homes as energy bills rise, government advisors have warned.

The Committee on Climate Change (CCC) said subsidies for clean energy will add an extra 36p per day onto household bills by 2030.

Many poor households will also need more support with insulation and clean heating, the committee added.

Energy-intensive industries will also need continued help, the CCC said.

A government spokesman said that investing in energy efficiency is the best way to reduce long term bills - and that thanks to government policies, bills are an estimated £90 lower this year than they would otherwise have been.

But the CCC said the chancellor, George Osborne, had cut total investment in energy efficiency from £1.4bn to £800m.

Insulation costs

Ed Matthew, a spokesman for the fuel poverty campaign The Energy Bill Revolution, which strongly supports the CCC report, told BBC News:

'The situation is crazy. Insulation offers by far better value for money than road-building, yet we have just seen £100bn announced for infrastructure without a penny for insulation.

'We can't load the whole cost of insulation on to bills -many people just can't afford it,' he added.

This is the CCC's third report into the impact of low-carbon policies - the so-called green taxes that have been heavily criticised in parts of the media.

The report said household bills increased by 75% from 2004 to 2013, compared with general inflation of 23%.

But the CCC maintained the principal factor was the price of gas - and that 80% of the bill increase was not related to low-carbon policies.

It found that policies to support cleaner electricity added £45 to an average £1,140 bill in 2013.

A further £55 per household helped to pay for 200,000 new boilers and heating controls, and supported the insulation of almost 200,000 homes.

The committee said 40% of the insulation measures benefitted low-income and/or fuel poor families - a figure fuel poverty campaigners say is too low.

The report estimated that by 2030, people would be paying about £130 a year extra for subsidising clean energy and helping the fuel poor.

It said that is a small fraction of the total £1,305 dual fuel bill expected for the average household at that date.

'Capitalism will find a way'

The committee added that future costs are inherently uncertain - but it believed many of the price rises it projected are avoidable if people reduce energy consumption in their own homes.

Its new chief executive, Matthew Bell, said the whole price rise for clean energy could be offset by installing LED bulbs in a home.

'It's rational for people to save energy as bills go up - and there are many ways for people to do so, but we haven't counted that in our calculations' he said.

The committee's chairman said future efficiency improvements to household appliances like fridges and vacuum cleaners would also help to keep down bills.

'If there is a demand for pushing down costs, capitalism and good regulation will find a way,' said John Gummer.

But he said poor households and energy-intensive industries would need continued support - although he added that government support to these industries up to 2020 had been 'rather generous'.

The report found that for commercial and industrial users, bills are likely to rise due to low-carbon policies by between 9% and 17% from 2013 to 2020; and a further 12-25% to 2030.

Energy costs currently represent just 0.5% of commercial sector costs and around 2% in the industrial sector.

That means if prices are passed on to consumers, the impact will be small: approximately 1p to every £10 spent in the commercial sector, and 6p for every £10 spent on manufactured goods.

The CCC said energy-intensive industries will need continued government support to prevent them from migrating to places where clean energy policies are less strict - so-called carbon leakage.

But it said further measures won't be needed until 2020.

The committee said by 2030 it expects most electricity to come from low-carbon sources; energy prices and bills should then fall as support payments start to expire and new technologies get cheaper.

A government spokesman said: 'Our policies are designed to keep the lights on, reduce polluting emissions and cut energy use at the lowest possible cost to gas and electricity customers.

'That's why we have installed energy efficiency measures through schemes like ECO and Green Deal to over 819,000 homes and a further 600,000 homes are set to benefit by 2017.'

DNA scientist to get back sold Nobel

Russia's richest man has revealed that he bought US scientist James Watson's Nobel Prize gold medal, and intends to return it to him.

Steel and telecoms tycoon Alisher Usmanov said Mr Watson 'deserved' the medal, and that he was 'distressed' the scientist had felt forced to sell it.

The medal, awarded in 1962 for the discovery of the structure of DNA, sold for $4.8m (£3m) at auction.

The medal was the first Nobel Prize to be put on sale by a living recipient.

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

Mr Watson, 86, has said he planned to donate part of the proceeds to charities and to support scientific research.

In an interview with the Financial Times recently, Mr Watson said he had been made to feel like an 'unperson' since a Sunday Times interview seven years ago in which he linked race to intelligence.

Mr Usmanov said in a statement that he was the anonymous telephone bidder who bought the medal at a Christie's auction last week.

'In my opinion, a situation in which an outstanding scientist has to sell a medal recognising his achievements is unacceptable,' he added.

'James Watson is one of the greatest biologists in the history of mankind and his award for the discovery of DNA structure must belong to him.'

Mr Usmanov, said by Forbes magazine to be worth $15.8bn, is a major shareholder in Arsenal football club and was named Britain's wealthiest man in the Sunday Times rich list for 2013.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Clay composites modelled in computer

Scientists in London have constructed a computer model that predicts the useful, physical properties of clay composites from their atomic make-up.

Clay-polymer composites can be very strong, stiff and light, making them useful in components for cars and aeroplanes.

But they are usually developed by a costly process of trial and error.

The researchers say their 'virtual lab' system could help take the guess-work out of making such new materials.

Their study is published in the journal Advanced Materials.

Composites that are made by mixing molecules of a polymer, such as nylon, with flaky layers of clay, can have properties that are very different from the separate ingredients.

Predicting those properties can be difficult - even when the molecular structure of the ingredients is well understood.

'Some of the most obvious things about the world around us are harder to extract than you'd think - even though we've had an atomic theory of matter for at least 120 years by now,' said Prof Peter Coveney, whose team at University College London (UCL) conducted the research.

According to Prof Coveney, that difficulty in extrapolating from small properties (forces between atoms and molecules) to large ones (like hardness, density and conductivity) has held up the development of applications for exciting new materials - like superconductors, or graphene.

'Quite often the modern-era Nobel Prizes are awarded to discoveries of interesting molecules, which are supposed to then have lots of interesting applications,' he told BBC News.

'But the actual delivery of those applications can take an awfully long time.'

Prof Coveney and his team have set about tackling the problem using a process called 'multiscale modelling'.

This technique, whose pioneers were awarded last year's Nobel Prize for chemistry, combines rules about tiny interactions - single atoms and electrons, at the quantum level - with an understanding of how larger chunks of matter interact.

It allowed the UCL researchers to test different combinations of polymers and clay molecules, without having to actually make all the composites in the lab.

'Without modelling you'd have to be doing lots of different experiments,' Prof Coveney said.

For example sheets of clay, about five atoms thick, can spread out within the composite, or be stacked like a deck of cards.

The first, spread-out type of structure was discovered by Toyota in the 1980s. Simply by trying out different mixtures of polymers and clay, the car company eventually produced - and patented - the first 'nanocomposites'.

The latter structure, with polymer molecules acting like mortar between tiny, flat bricks of clay, is more tough and durable and is found in natural materials like mother-of-pearl.

Prof Coveney says his research can help reveal what ingredients and conditions produce these different configurations.

His team tried several combinations and then checked that the results of their model matched the known properties of real composites.

'Now we've got a virtual laboratory - a simulation environment that can tell you a lot of detail about why there are so many variations in the products you could form, based on these different chemistries,' Prof Coveney said.

He believes that the work could be extended to model things like the industrial production of graphene.

'There's almost a race on to show that graphene's not only interesting because of its molecular nature, but has actual practical applications.

'That requires the same sorts of issues to be addressed as in the clays - what happens if I have a larger quantity of the material? Will it still have interesting properties?'

Prof Adrian Mulholland from the University of Bristol uses multiscale modelling to study biological interactions, like how drugs affect the proteins in our bodies.

He told the BBC the new study was a useful contribution to a 'very active area'.

The field is important for studying and improving many processes in industry and medicine, Prof Mulholland explained - as highlighted by the Nobel award in 2013.

'It's an idea whose time has come,' he said.

Follow Jonathan on Twitter

Mars rover 'solves mountain riddle'

Scientists working on Nasa's Curiosity rover think they can now explain why there is a huge mountain at the robot's landing site in Mars's Gale Crater.

They believe it is the remains of sediments laid down in successive lakes that filled the deep bowl, probably over tens of millions of years.

Only later did winds dig out an encircling plain to expose the 5km-high peak we see today.

If true, this has major implications for past climates on the Red Planet.

It implies the world had to have been far warmer and wetter in its first two billion years than many people had previously recognised.

Ancient Mars, says the Curiosity team, must have enjoyed a vigorous global hydrological cycle, involving rains or snows, to maintain such humid conditions.

One tantalising consequence of this is the possibility that the planet may even have featured an ocean somewhere on its surface.

'If we have a long-standing lake for millions of years, the atmospheric humidity practically requires a standing body of water like an ocean to keep Gale from evaporating,' said Dr Ashwin Vasavada, the Curiosity deputy project scientist.

For decades, researchers have speculated that the northern lowlands could have held a large sea in Mars' early history. The latest Curiosity results are sure to re-ignite interest in that idea.

Craters like Gale often feature central mounds that are created as the ground rebounds after a bowl-forming impact from an asteroid or comet.

But Mount Sharp is far too big to be explained in this way.

Curiosity's revelation follows from over a year's geological observations as it drove south towards the big peak from its 2012 landing site, out on the crater's plain.

In that time, the robot saw abundant banded sediments that were very obviously deposited by ancient rivers.

And the further south Curiosity rolled, the clearer it became that this fluvial activity ended in deltas and static lakes at the bowl's centre.

But the critical tell-tale was the inclination of these sediment beds, which the rover could see all dipped down towards the mountain, even as it climbed to higher and higher ground.

'We always see this same systematic pattern, which is quite intriguing,' observed mission scientist Prof Sanjeev Gupta from Imperial College London, UK.

What this suggests is that water was running downhill from the crater rim towards Gale's centre where it would have pooled.

Over millions of years, the sediment raining out of this static body of water would have built the layers of rock - stack upon stack - that now make up Mount Sharp.

The peak stands proud today, says the team, because subsequent wind erosion has had many hundreds of millions of years to remove material between the crater perimeter and what is now the edge of the mountain.

Curiosity project scientist Prof John Grotzinger saluted the rover's careful field work.

The mystery of Mount Sharp, he argued, could only have been solved by a robot on the ground - not by satellite observations.

'There is no way to have recognised this from orbit,' he told reporters.

'All that driving we did really paid off for science. It didn't just get us to Mount Sharp - it gave us the context to appreciate Mount Sharp.'

There are still many outstanding questions.

The research team needs to understand better how persistent the water might have been through time; the activity that built the mountain could have been quite episodic.

And the notion that Mars was a lot warmer in the past is at odds with current climate models for that time.

'Even with a thicker atmosphere of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases like water, sulphur dioxide or hydrogen, it's difficult in models to raise global temperatures enough. But unless you do so, any liquid water would quickly freeze,' explained Dr Vasavada.

The team hopes to answer some of these questions in the coming months and years as Curiosity climbs the mountain and studies its different rock layers. and follow me on Twitter: @BBCAmos

Monday, December 8, 2014

Scientists focus on urban wellbeing

A global scientific research programme has been launched in China to examine the unintended consequences of urban policies on human health and wellbeing.

The Urban Health & Wellbeing Programme aims to better understand what makes a 'healthy urban environment'.

People living in cities face a number of health risks, such as air pollution.

The majority of people now live in towns and cities and the global urban population is growing by an estimated one million people each week.

The launch of the programme comes amid a growing body of research that links urbanisation with growing health risks.

Growing pains

'Historically, a lot of the focus in health has been on rural health,' explained Prof Anthony Capon, director of the UN University's International Institute for Global Health, based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

But since 2008, more people live in towns and cities than rural areas. Currently, an estimated 3.9bn people live in urban areas.

This total is projected to increase to in excess of six billion people by the middle of this century.

Prof Capon told BBC News: 'When we take an overview, urban areas are very important determinates of health.

'The way we live on a day-to-day basis in cities affects our health in so many ways, whether it is the air that we breath, or the fact that many people in cities around the world are very sedentary (sitting at a desk in an office or sitting in a car to get to and from work) - and many people are also eating very unhealthy foods.

'We are facing global epidemics of non-communicable diseases - heart disease, diabetes and so on - and mental health problems. We are also seeing the health impact of climate change, such as heat-stress in cities and changes in the distribution of infectious vector-borne diseases.'

But he added that the programme offered hope: 'Now that most people live within cities, we have got the opportunity to rethink the way that we live in cities and the way we plan and develop cities.

'The essence of this programme is about scientists working with urban decision makers. It is about identifying problems together, and how we might better understand those problems and developing better ways of responding to rapid urban population growth. Much of it is happening in low- to middle-income countries and that is why the United Nations is particularly concerned about the issue.

'I think the key is understanding that cities are really about people. We are attracted to cities for economic, educational and social opportunities. When we live in cities, they need to work for us. It is not just about the economic efficiencies of these cities.'

Balancing act

Commenting on the establishment of the programme, Dr Franz Gatzweiler of the International Council for Science (ICSU) said: 'One of the questions we need to address in this programme is: 'How many health risks are people willing to take for the benefits that come with urban lives?'

'Citizens and policymakers need to be able to make that decision and become active agents of urban change.'

The consortium behind the Urban Health and Wellbeing Programme, which will provide a hub for 'interdisciplinary scientific knowledge', include the International Council for Science, the InterAcademy Medical Panel and the United Nations University.

The programme's secretariat will be hosted by the Chinese Academy of Sciences' Institute of Urban Environment in Xiamen, China.

Legal climate deal 'not necessary'

A legally-binding international treaty may not be the best way to tackle climate change.

Leading economist Lord Nicholas Stern said that a commitment to sustainable development was more important than a binding deal that 'lacked credibility'.

He was speaking in Lima, Peru, where negotiators from 194 countries are heading into a second week of UN talks.

They hope to agree a text that would form the basis of new global compact, to be signed in Paris next year.

Many developing countries support a legally binding deal that would be structured in a similar way to the Kyoto Protocol, signed back in 1997.

'Serious mistake'

One key element of that agreement was that countries faced sanctions if they failed in their commitments to cut carbon.

According to Lord Stern, a deal in Paris would work better if it steered away from this format.

'Some may fear that commitments that are not internationally legally-binding may lack credibility,' he said.

'That, in my view, is a serious mistake. The sanctions available under the Kyoto Protocol, for example, were notionally legally-binding but were simply not credible and failed to guarantee domestic implementation of commitments.'

In Lima, negotiators are trying to hammer out the format that mitigation efforts should take. By the end of March next year countries have to declare their hands, but they have yet to formalize what will be included in these commitments and what will not.

Lord Stern believes that grounding the process in the laws and promises that countries undertake by themselves is a better model for a deal than a top-down process like Kyoto.

'It will be enforceable and deliverable through the arrangements and laws in the countries themselves.

'That way you will get stronger ambition as countries won't be tempted to be hesitant about some type of international sanction.'

While the European Union has stated that it is committed to legally binding mitigation targets, other countries have sought different formats.

According to US special envoy on climate change, Todd Stern, the US is unhappy with the prospect of a legally binding deal, knowing that getting it ratified in the Senate would be an uphill battle.

'Proposals that would involve, in effect, a kind of designated burden-sharing on how reductions should be split up among countries of the world has extremely little chance of political viability,' he said, speaking to reporters last month.

'Countries are not going to buy into that.'

Over the next week here in Lima, negotiators will try to make progress on the format of a deal. For observers such as Mohamed Adow from Christian Aid, any agreement must has some legal teeth.

'The UN multilateral system works best with clear rules,' he told BBC News.

'To ensure that the pledges included in the Paris deal are implemented on the ground, countries need to trust each other. Having at least some legally binding rules to the Paris agreement is the best way to make sure countries will hold each other accountable.'

Regardless of whether the deal ultimately is legally binding or not, Lord Stern believes that a focus on equity and sustainable development is the most important element, and one that would win strong support from developing countries.

'It means that the richer people have the bigger responsibilities but I think that speaking strongly about development and reducing poverty is a much better way to search for an equitable agreement.'

Follow Matt on Twitter: @mattmcgrathbbc.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Goals defined for UK's Lunar mission

Scientists have set out the detailed scientific goals of a proposed UK-led mission to the Moon.

Its principal aim is to survey the Lunar South pole to learn more about the geology of the Moon and see if a human base can be set up in the future.

It will also drill 100 metres below the surface and also assess whether it is feasible to have observatories on the far side of the Moon.

Details of the Lunar Mission One programme was announced last month.

Its backers hope to raise the bulk of the £500m needed for the project from public donations. In return, donors will be able to send messages, pictures and even hair samples which will be buried under the lunar surface.

However its organisers say that the mission also has a serious scientific purpose. Although there have been more than 50 expeditions to the Moon including six landings by Apollo astronauts there is still much to learn, according to Prof Ian Crawford, who is one of Lunar Mission One's principle scientific advisers.

'Until recently the European Space Agency had plans for a a lunar lander (which has since been scrapped) and the science case for Lunar Mission One is quite similar,' he told BBC News. 'In addition, we propose to have a drill so there will be new science too'.

In particular there have been no missions to the Moon's south pole, which is particularly interesting because it is the site of the deepest known impact crater in our Solar System, around 12km deep. It's thought that it might contain rocks from tens of km below the surface and even part of the lunar mantle dug up by an impact more than four billion years ago.

The site is in effect a portal into the Moon's interior and its distant past.

The deepest samples that have been obtained are from three metres below the surface, by Apollo 17 Astronauts Gene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt in 1972.

Lunar mission One aims to drill up to 100 metres below the surface of a site which is already thought to have material thrown up by a giant impact billions of years ago from several kilometres below the surface.

The study of the rock by the spacecraft's on board laboratory should give a unique insight into what happened during the early days of the formation of the Moon, and in particular what happened when it was torn away from the proto-Earth by a collision with another, now destroyed world called Theia when the planets of the Solar System had just formed.

It will also give an indication of the depth to which water might be present. Current studies have suggested that it is in surface soils near the pole - but it will need to be found much deeper if there is to be enough to support a human base. The analysis will also search for traces of organic (carbon) compounds which might have been reached the Moon by bombardment by meteorites.

Lunar Mission One will test the feasibility of using the site as a radio observatory. The virtue of the South pole is that it sometimes faces away from the Earth and so is shielded from the hubbub of our planet's constant broadcast transmissions.

Astronomers have long wondered whether an observatory on the far side of the Moon would be worthwhile. Such a telescope would be ideal for detecting signals of some of the earliest galaxies to form - currently a blind spot in astronomy.

Follow Pallab on Twitter

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Seals filmed at night for first time

Pioneering filming techniques are set to be used to capture a record-breaking seal colony in north Norfolk for the new season of the BBC's Winterwatch.

Military-grade thermal imaging will be used for the first time to film thousands of seals on the Blakeney Point National Trust reserve at night.

Producer Bill Markham said the technology allowed for 'an intimate view' that was previously impossible.

More than 1,756 pups have been born at the reserve so far this winter.

The number has already broken the 2013-14 season total of 1,566 with at least another two of months of pupping still to go.

An additional 700 pups have been born further around the coast cat Horsey.

'In peak pupping season there can be up to 45 pups born a night but we don't really know what goes on under the cover of darkness so we're bringing our thermal imaging camera to Blakeney Point to see what's going on,' said Mr Markham.

'The technology allows us to use this thermal imaging camera as a wildlife camera with such high definition we can zoom in and film wildlife with that intimate view we didn't used to get with the old thermal imaging system.'

Ajay Tegala, one of the National Trust rangers responsible for counting the seals twice a week, said: 'We have never looked at the rookery at night before, so whatever is captured will be of great interest and contribute to our knowledge and understanding of these fascinating mammals.

'The bulls develop a harem of up to six cows, based on their age, strength and fighting ability... and the seals mate again soon after giving birth.'

'Illicit nookie'

For the first three weeks the white-coated pups will stay with their mothers feeding on milk.

Over this time they will triple in weight before moulting to reveal their distinguishing grey marks and waterproof coat for the first time.

Mr Markham added: 'The dominant males will fight off other males to keep the harem to themselves for mating - but if another male isn't big and strong he might try to sneak in.

'In the daytime he might get spotted. My guess is at night time this might happen more frequently so there might be a bit of illicit nookie in the sand dunes which we might pick up on camera.'

Winterwatch returns to BBC Two on Monday 19 January

Friday, December 5, 2014

Orion spaceship makes splashdown

The US space agency's new Orion crew capsule has completed its maiden, unmanned voyage with a splashdown in the Pacific Ocean off Mexico.

Drone video sighted the ship descending gently on its parachutes, shortly before it hit the water.

US Navy support vessels are on station to capture the floating capsule with the help of divers.

Orion is designed eventually to take humans beyond the space station, to destinations such as the Moon and Mars.

Its brief 4.5-hour flight was intended to test its critical technologies, like the heat shield and those parachutes.

Orion was launched on a Delta IV-Heavy rocket from Cape Canaveral in Florida at 07:05 local time (12:05 GMT).

The orange-coloured triple booster was quickly lost in cloud after clearing the pad but headed effortlessly east out over the Atlantic for a two-lap circuit of the Earth.

It was on the second of those two orbits that the Delta's upper-stage took Orion up to an altitude of 6,000km, to set up a fast fall back to the planet.

The capsule was expected to attain speeds close to 30,000km/h as it entered the atmosphere, with pressing air likely have generated temperatures on the ship's underside of up to 2,000C.

This was one of the key aims of the mission - to see how Orion's thermal protection systems would perform.

Engineers will know more when the capsule is recovered and returned to land for inspection.

Orion is reminiscent of the Apollo command ships that took men to the Moon in the 60s and 70s, only bigger and with cutting-edge systems.

It is being developed alongside a powerful new rocket that will have its own debut in 2017 or 2018.

Together, they will form the core capabilities needed to send humans beyond the International Space Station.

Friday's mission is but one small step in a very long development programme.

Unable to call upon the financial resources of the Apollo era, Nasa is instead having to take a patient path.

Even if today it had a fully functioning Orion, with its dedicated rocket, the US space agency would not be able to mount a mission to another planetary body because the technologies to carry out surfaces operations have not been produced yet, and it could be the 2030s before we see them all - certainly, to do a Mars mission.

To go to the Red Planet would require transfer vehicles, habitation modules, and effective supply and communication chains. And fundamental to the outcome of the whole venture would be a descent/ascent solution that enabled people to get down safely to the surface and then get back up again to make the journey home.

Nasa's chief scientist Ellen Stofan told the BBC: 'We have all these technologies mapped out and we're asking, 'what is the most sustainable path we can get on?' And when I say 'we', I don't just mean the United States because it's not just Nasa that's thinking about this; it's all the space agencies around the world.'

To that end, the Europe has been asked to provide the 'back end' for all future Orion capsules.

This service module is principally the propulsion unit that drives Orion through space.

Nasa says it is open to similar contributions from other partners as well.

Nonetheless, some commentators, like the respected historian John Logsdon, are worried that the policy as laid out cannot continue in its current guise.

'The first Orion launch with a crew aboard is 2020/21, and then nothing very firmly is defined after that, although of course Nasa has plans. That's too slow-paced to keep the launch teams sharp, to keep everyone engaged. It's driven by the lack of money, not the technical barriers,' he said.

But there is no doubting the enthusiasm within Nasa for the Orion project.

Rex Waldheim flew on the very last shuttle mission in 2011, and is now assisting the design of the capsule's interior systems.

He told BBC News: 'The people that are actually going to fly in Orion - I just can't imagine the thrill they're going to have when they sit here at the Kennedy Space Centre atop the rocket, ready to go to the Moon or to Mars or an asteroid - these incredible destinations. It's just going to be spectacular.'