Monday, August 20, 2007

Why Desalination Doesn't Work (Yet)

Source: World Bank, 2007. The Most Arid Region in the World. With an average of only 1,383 cubic meters of renewable water resources per person per year in 2006, the MENA region falls far below the global average of 8,462. Environmental problems resulting from water issues cost MENA countries between 0.5 and 2.5 percent of GDP every year. People and economies also suffer from the consequences of droughts, floods and water-related public health issues. The region has responded to these water challenges with some of the best hydraulic engineers in the world, who have pioneered sophisticated irrigation and drainage systems as well as cutting edge desalinization technologies.

Why Desalination Doesn't Work (Yet)

By Michael Schirber, Special to LiveScience
posted: 25 June 2007 08:49 am ET

With water fast becoming a hot commodity, especially in drought-prone regions with burgeoning populations, an obvious solution is to take the salt out of seawater. Desalination technology has been around for thousands of years, after all. Even Aristotle worked on the problem.

Tantalizing as desalinated water might sound, the energy costs have made it rather unpalatable.

"Until recently, seawater desalination was a very expensive water source solution," said Gary Crisp, an engineer for the Water Corporation of Western Australia.

Drinking seawater straight is a bad idea because your body must expel the salt by urinating more water than it actually gains. Seawater contains roughly 130 grams of salt per gallon. Desalination can reduce salt levels to below 2 grams per gallon, which is the limit for safe human consumption.

Currently, between 10 and 13 billion gallons of water are desalinated worldwide per day. That's only about 0.2 percent of global water consumption, but the number is increasing.

"There is significant growth in desalination capacity throughout the world, and it is anticipated to continue for sometime," says Stephen Gray of Victoria University.

Gray has been chosen to lead a new research program in Australia—where many regions lack fresh water supplies—to improve the efficiency of desalination plants.

Aristotle's efforts

Back in the 4th century B.C., Aristotle imagined using successive filters to remove the salt from seawater.

But the first actual practice of desalination involved collecting the freshwater steam from boiling saltwater. Around 200 A.D., sailors began desalinating seawater with simple boilers on their ships.

The energy required for this distillation process today makes it prohibitively expensive on a large scale. A lot of the current market for so-called "thermal desalination" has therefore been in oil-rich, water-poor countries in the Middle East.

Since the 1950s, researchers have been developing membranes that could filter out salt, similar to what Aristotle originally envisioned. Presently, this membrane technique, sometimes called "reverse osmosis," requires one-fourth of the energy and costs half of the price of distilling saltwater.

"In the last ten years, seawater reverse-osmosis has matured into a viable alternative to thermal desalination," Crisp says.

Energy is key

But even with membranes, large amounts of energy are needed to generate the high pressure that forces the water through the filter. Current methods require about 14 kilowatt-hours of energy to produce 1,000 gallons of desalinated seawater.

A typical American uses 80 to 100 gallons of water a day, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. The entire country consumes about 323 billion gallons per day of surface water and another 84.5 billion gallons of ground water.

If half of this water came from desalination, the United States would need more than 100 extra electric power plants, each with a gigawatt of capacity.

Depending on local energy prices, 1,000 gallons of desalinated seawater can cost around $3 or $4. Although that might not seem like much, it is still cheaper in many places to pump water out of the ground or import it from somewhere else.

But the price difference will undoubtedly narrow, especially in regions that could experience more intense droughts owing to climate change.

Water use has been growing twice as fast as population growth, causing more and more communities to suffer water shortages. The demand for freshwater supplies will drive prices higher, making desalination increasingly attractive.

Brainstorming on membranes

The number of desalination plants worldwide has grown to more than 15,000, and efforts continue to make them more affordable.

Last month, Australia's largest scientific research agency joined with nine major universities in a membrane research program to reduce desalination energy costs, as well as maintenance costs associated with gunk sticking to membranes and fouling them up.

"Lowering the energy required for desalination and the fouling propensity of membranes are the two biggest challenges facing desalination," Gray says.

A team of diverse researchers will try to tackle these problems by developing new types of membrane materials. The goal is to cut in half the energy required for desalination.

"We would hope to have something available within the next 10 years," Gray said.

Global Warming: How Do Scientists Know They're Not Wrong?


Global Warming: How Do Scientists Know They're Not Wrong?

By Andrea Thompson, LiveScience Staff Writer
posted: 16 July 2007 09:34 am ET

From catastrophic sea level rise to jarring changes in local weather, humanity faces a potentially dangerous threat from the changes our own pollution has wrought on Earth’s climate. But since nothing in science can ever be proven with 100 percent certainty, how is it that scientists can be so sure that we are the cause of global warming?

For years, there has been clear scientific consensus that Earth’s climate is heating up and that humans are the culprits behind the trend, says Naomi Oreskes, a historian of science at the University of California, San Diego.

A few years ago, she evaluated 928 scientific papers that dealt with global climate change and found that none disagreed about human-generated global warming. The results of her analysis were published in a 2004 essay in the journal Science.

And the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the National Academy of Sciences and numerous other noted scientific organizations have issued statements that unequivocally endorse the idea of global warming and attribute it to human activities.

“We’re confident about what’s going on,” said climate scientist Gavin Schmidt of NASA’s Goddard Institute of Space Science in New York.

But even if there is a consensus, how can scientists be so confident about a trend playing out over dozens of years in the grand scheme of the Earth's existence? How do they know they didn’t miss something, or that there is not some other explanation for the world’s warming? After all, there was once a scientific consensus that the Earth was flat. How can scientists prove their position?

Best predictor wins

Contrary to popular parlance, science can never truly “prove” a theory. Science simply arrives at the best explanation of how the world works. Global warming can no more be “proven” than the theory of continental drift, the theory of evolution or the concept that germs carry diseases.

“All science is fallible,” Oreskes told LiveScience. “Climate science shouldn’t be expected to stand up to some fantasy standard that no science can live up to.”

Instead, a variety of methods and standards are used to evaluate the viability of different scientific explanations and theories. One such standard is how well a theory predicts the outcome of an event, and climate change theory has proven to be a strong predictor.

The effects of putting massive amounts of carbon dioxide in the air were predicted as long ago as the early 20th century by Swedish chemist Svante Arrhenius.

Noted oceanographer Roger Revelle’s 1957 predictions that carbon dioxide would build up in the atmosphere and cause noticeable changes by the year 2000 have been borne out by numerous studies, as has Princeton climatologist Suki Manabe’s 1980 prediction that the Earth’s poles would be first to see the effects of global warming.

Also in the 1980s, NASA climatologist James Hansen predicted with high accuracy what the global average temperature would be in 30 years time (now the present day).

Hansen's model predictions are “a shining example of a successful prediction in climate science,” said climatologist Michael Mann of Pennsylvania State University.

Schmidt says that predictions by those who doubted global warming have failed to come true.

“Why don’t you trust a psychic? Because their predictions are wrong,” he told LiveScience. “The credibility goes to the side that gets these predictions right.”

Mounting evidence

Besides their successful predictions, climate scientists have been assembling a “body of evidence that has been growing significantly with each year,” Mann said.

Data from tree rings, ice cores and coral reefs taken with instrumental observations of air and ocean temperatures, sea ice melt and greenhouse gas concentrations have all emerged in support of climate change theory.

“There are 20 different lines of evidence that the planet is warming,” and the same goes for evidence that greenhouse gases are increasing in the atmosphere, Schmidt said. “All of these things are very incontrovertible.”

But skeptics have often raised the question of whether these observations and effects attributed to global warming may in fact be explained by natural variation or changes in solar radiation hitting the Earth.

Hurricane expert William Gray, of Colorado State University, told Discover magazine in a 2005 interview, "I'm not disputing that there has been global warming. There was a lot of global warming in the 1930s and '40s, and then there was a slight global cooling from the middle '40s to the early '70s. And there has been warming since the middle '70s, especially in the last 10 years. But this is natural, due to ocean circulation changes and other factors. It is not human induced.”

Isaac Newton had something to say about all this: In his seminal “Principia Mathematica,” he noted that if separate data sets are best explained by one theory or idea, that explanation is most likely the true explanation.

And studies have overwhelmingly shown that climate change scenarios in which greenhouse gases emitted from human activities cause global warming best explain the observed changes in Earth’s climate, Mann said—models that use only natural variation can’t account for the significant warming that has occurred in the last few decades.

Mythic ice age

One argument commonly used to cast doubt on the idea of global warming is the supposed predictions of an impending ice age by scientists in the 1970s. One might say: First the Earth was supposed to be getting colder; now scientists say it’s getting hotter—how can we trust scientists if they’re predictions are so wishy-washy?

Because the first prediction was never actually made. Rather, it’s something of an urban climate myth.

Mann says that this myth started from a “tiny grain of truth around which so much distortion and misinformation has been placed.”

Scientists were well aware of the warming that could be caused by increasing greenhouse gases, both Mann and Schmidt explained, but in the decades preceding the 1970s, aerosols, or air pollution, had been steadily increasing. These tiny particles tended to have a cooling effect in the atmosphere, and at the time, scientists were unsure who would win the climate-changing battle, aerosols or greenhouse gases.

“It was unclear what direction the climate was going,” Mann said.

But several popular media, such as Newsweek, ran articles that exaggerated what scientists had said about the potential of aerosols to cool the Earth.

But the battle is now over, and greenhouse gases have won.

“Human society has made a clear decision as to which direction [the climate] is going to go,” Mann said.

Future predictions

One of the remaining skeptics, is MIT meteorologist Richard Lindzen. While he acknowledges the trends of rising temperatures and greenhouse gases, Lindzen expressed his doubt on man’s culpability in the case and casts doubt on the dire predictions made by some climate models, in an April 2006 editorial for The Wall Street Journal.

“What the public fails to grasp is that the claims neither constitute support for alarm nor establish man's responsibility for the small amount of warming that has occurred,” Lindzen wrote.

To be sure, there is a certain degree of uncertainty involved in modeling and predicting future changes in the climate, but “you don’t need to have a climate model to know that climate change is a problem,” Oreskes said.

Climate scientists have clearly met the burden of proof with the mounting evidence they’ve assembled and the strong predictive power of global warming theory, Oreskes said-- global warming is something to pay attention to.

Schmidt agrees. “All of these little things just reinforce the big picture,” he said. “And the big picture is very worrying.”

Water Discovered to Flow Like Molasses

Water Discovered to Flow Like Molasses

By Ben Mauk, Special to LiveScience
posted: 11 May 2007 08:58 am ET

The Taoist poet Lao Tse famously wrote that water exemplifies the highest good, benefiting all and flowing easily without effort. While this makes for a lovely metaphor, there's more to H20 than is dreamt of in Lao Tse's philosophies.

Researchers at Georgia Institute of Technology have found that, at the molecular level, water exhibits viscous, even solid-like properties.

When molecules of water are forced to move through a small gap between two solid surfaces, the substance's viscosity increases by a factor of 1,000 to 10,000, approaching that of molasses.

"In this small space between surfaces, the water, which is usually very fluid, organizes itself into a new state in which well-defined layers of molecules form," said Uzi Landmann, director of the Center for Computational Materials Science at Georgia Tech, in a phone interview with Live Science.

Layering refers to a structural phenomenon in which molecules form strata between which there is very little molecular exchange. Water molecules can move about fluidly within a single layer, but not between layers. This vertical structure resembles that found in solid substances.

Landmann directed the team of physicists that simulated the experiment and predicted the layering effect. Georgia Tech experimental physicist Elisa Riedo led the team that performed the actual experiments. Together they found that the simulation predictions matched the experimental results.

The experiment observed the properties visualized in the simulation by measuring the force required to push the solid walls together. Riedo found that the force oscillates predictably, becoming largest at the point when a layer of particles is squeezed out.

Riedo and Landmann's results stand at odds with long-held beliefs about water.

"The literature almost uniformly said that water doesn't layer," said Landmann. "Without direct evidence it was inferred that water would behave differently from those liquids that do."

Previously, experiments had not measured the force directly but rather had deduced it from other properties, since techniques at the time did not allow scientists to probe the one nanometer region required to observe the effect.

The layering phenomenon has been known for about 25 years. Hexadecanes (molecule chains of 16 carbon atoms) exhibit layering properties. These are featured in many common liquids, but not in water.

Applications for the findings can be found in fields ranging from pharmaceuticals to nanotechnology. The newfound viscosity of water suggests a cheap method for lubricating very narrow regions. Water was long thought too fluid to be useful for this purpose.

But it is not merely a matter of application, insists Landmann. "The question of the nature of materials on the small scale is itself fascinating."

On that point even Lao Tse agrees: "Magnify the small, increase the few."

Scientists Make Water Run Uphill

By Corey Binns, Special to LiveScience
posted: 29 March 2006 06:46 am ET

Toss water on a hot pan and it sizzles and evaporates. Toss water on a really hot pan, and the water beads up and starts roaming around.

Now, turn your hot pan into a hot small staircase and watch the water climb the stairs.

Researchers did just that, taking an everyday sighting in the kitchen to a new level in the lab.

How it works

If a pan's really hot, the water starts to evaporate before it even touches the surface. The evaporating water, in the airy form of a water-vapor cushion, holds the droplet above the pan. With moves as smooth as Fred Astaire, the droplet glides around on air.

When scientists heated a piece of brass with saw-tooth ridges-a thing that looks like a ratchet-water drops traveled quickly and in one direction: up.

[See the video. Credit: Heiner Linke, University of Oregon]

"The drop rides along on the vapor like a boat on a river," said physicist Heiner Linke from the University of Oregon. "The vapor is generated between the droplet and the ratchet's surface in a narrow gap, about the width of a human hair. The vapor needs a way to get out of there, and it's going to take the easiest way out. There's always going to be one direction in which it's easier to get out."


Watch the Full Video

A liquid drop placed on a hot ratchet moves uphill. Credit: Heiner Linke, University of Oregon

The escaping vapor pulls the droplet along in the same direction.

The research is scheduled to be published in the April 14 issue of the journal Physical Review Letters.

Potential use

The traveling drops could prove helpful in cases where scientists need to cool something down with water or another liquid. Tiny air conditioners are used to cook microchips in laptop computers. But the cooling system itself requires extra energy, which creates more heat.

With the newfound trick, drops could potentially pump themselves, using heat that's already there. "Pumps that don't use moving parts are simpler to make, cheaper and live longer," Linke pointed out.

If the droplet pumps prove strong enough, Linke said they could be cooling computers in about six years.

In the meantime, schoolteachers have a new trick for the classroom.

Timeline: The Frightening Future of Earth

Timeline: The Frightening Future of Earth

By Andrea Thompson, and Ker Than
posted: 19 April 2007 08:32 am ET

Our planet's prospects for environmental stability are bleaker than ever with the approach of this year's Earth Day, April 22. Global warming is widely accepted as a reality by scientists and even by previously doubtful government and industrial leaders. And according to a recent report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), there is a 90 percent likelihood that humans are contributing to the change.

The international panel of scientists predicts the global average temperature could increase by 2 to 11 degrees Fahrenheit by 2100 and that sea levels could rise by up to 2 feet.

Scientists have even speculated that a slight increase in Earth's rotation rate could result, along with other changes. Glaciers, already receding, will disappear. Epic floods will hit some areas while intense drought will strike others. Humans will face widespread water shortages. Famine and disease will increase. Earth's landscape will transform radically, with a quarter of plants and animals at risk of extinction.

While putting specific dates on these traumatic potential events is challenging, this timeline paints the big picture and details Earth's future based on several recent studies and the longer scientific version of the IPCC report, which was made available to LiveScience.


More of the world's population now lives in cities than in rural areas, changing patterns of land use. The world population surpasses 6.6 billion. (Peter Crane, Royal Botanic Gardens, UK, Science; UN World Urbanization Prospectus: The 2003 Revision; U.S. Census Bureau)


Global oil production peaks sometime between 2008 and 2018, according to a model by one Swedish physicist. Others say this turning point, known as "Hubbert's Peak," won't occur until after 2020. Once Hubbert's Peak is reached, global oil production will begin an irreversible decline, possibly triggering a global recession, food shortages and conflict between nations over dwindling oil supplies. (doctoral dissertation of Frederik Robelius, University of Uppsala, Sweden; report by Robert Hirsch of the Science Applications International Corporation)


Flash floods will very likely increase across all parts of Europe. (IPCC)

Less rainfall could reduce agriculture yields by up to 50 percent in some parts of the world. (IPCC)

World population will reach 7.6 billion people. (U.S. Census Bureau)


Diarrhea-related diseases will likely increase by up to 5 percent in low-income parts of the world. (IPCC)

Up to 18 percent of the world's coral reefs will likely be lost as a result of climate change and other environmental stresses. In Asian coastal waters, the coral loss could reach 30 percent. (IPCC)

World population will reach 8.3 billion people. (U.S. Census Bureau)

Warming temperatures will cause temperate glaciers on equatorial mountains in Africa to disappear. (Richard Taylor, University College London, Geophysical Research Letters:)

In developing countries, the urban population will more than double to about 4 billion people, packing more people onto a given city's land area. The urban populations of developed countries may also increase by as much as 20 percent. (World Bank: The Dynamics of Global Urban Expansion)


The Arctic Sea could be ice-free in the summer, and winter ice depth may shrink drastically. Other scientists say the region will still have summer ice up to 2060 and 2105. (Marika Holland, NCAR, Geophysical Research Letters)


Small alpine glaciers will very likely disappear completely, and large glaciers will shrink by 30 to 70 percent. Austrian scientist Roland Psenner of the University of Innsbruck says this is a conservative estimate, and the small alpine glaciers could be gone as soon as 2037. (IPCC)

In Australia, there will likely be an additional 3,200 to 5,200 heat-related deaths per year. The hardest hit will be people over the age of 65. An extra 500 to 1,000 people will die of heat-related deaths in New York City per year. In the United Kingdom, the opposite will occur, and cold-related deaths will outpace heat-related ones. (IPCC)

World population reaches 9.4 billion people. (U.S. Census Bureau)

Crop yields could increase by up to 20 percent in East and Southeast Asia, while decreasing by up to 30 percent in Central and South Asia. Similar shifts in crop yields could occur on other continents. (IPCC)

As biodiversity hotspots are more threatened, a quarter of the world's plant and vertebrate animal species could face extinction. (Jay Malcolm, University of Toronto, Conservation Biology)


As glaciers disappear and areas affected by drought increase, electricity production for the world's existing hydropower stations will decrease. Hardest hit will be Europe, where hydropower potential is expected to decline on average by 6 percent; around the Mediterranean, the decrease could be up to 50 percent. (IPCC)

Warmer, drier conditions will lead to more frequent and longer droughts, as well as longer fire-seasons, increased fire risks, and more frequent heat waves, especially in Mediterranean regions. (IPCC)


While some parts of the world dry out, others will be inundated. Scientists predict up to 20 percent of the world's populations live in river basins likely to be affected by increased flood hazards. Up to 100 million people could experience coastal flooding each year. Most at risk are densely populated and low-lying areas that are less able to adapt to rising sea levels and areas which already face other challenges such as tropical storms. (IPCC)

Coastal population could balloon to 5 billion people, up from 1.2 billion in 1990. (IPCC)

Between 1.1 and 3.2 billion people will experience water shortages and up to 600 million will go hungry. (IPCC)

Sea levels could rise around New York City by more than three feet, potentially flooding the Rockaways, Coney Island, much of southern Brooklyn and Queens, portions of Long Island City, Astoria, Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, Queens, lower Manhattan and eastern Staten Island from Great Kills Harbor north to the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. (NASA GISS)


The risk of dengue fever from climate change is estimated to increase to 3.5 billion people. (IPCC)


A combination of global warming and other factors will push many ecosystems to the limit, forcing them to exceed their natural ability to adapt to climate change. (IPCC)

Atmospheric carbon dioxide levels will be much higher than anytime during the past 650,000 years. (IPCC)

Ocean pH levels will very likely decrease by as much as 0.5 pH units, the lowest it's been in the last 20 million years. The ability of marine organisms such as corals, crabs and oysters to form shells or exoskeletons could be impaired. (IPCC)

Thawing permafrost and other factors will make Earth's land a net source of carbon emissions, meaning it will emit more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than it absorbs. (IPCC)

Roughly 20 to 30 percent of species assessed as of 2007 could be extinct by 2100 if global mean temperatures exceed 2 to 3 degrees of pre-industrial levels. (IPCC)

New climate zones appear on up to 39 percent of the world's land surface, radically transforming the planet. (Jack Williams, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences)

A quarter of all species of plants and land animals-more than a million total-could be driven to extinction. The IPCC reports warn that current "conservation practices are generally ill-prepared for climate change and effective adaptation responses are likely to be costly to implement." (IPCC)

Increased droughts could significantly reduce moisture levels in the American Southwest, northern Mexico and possibly parts of Europe, Africa and the Middle East, effectively recreating the "Dust Bowl" environments of the 1930s in the United States. (Richard Seager, Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory, Science)


An Earth day will be 0.12 milliseconds shorter, as rising temperatures cause oceans to expand away from the equator and toward the poles, one model predicts. One reason water will be shifted toward the poles is most of the expansion will take place in the North Atlantic Ocean, near the North Pole. The poles are closer to the Earth's axis of rotation, so having more mass there should speed up the planet's rotation. (Felix Landerer, Max Planck Institute for Meteorology, Geophysical Research Letters)

Fossil Hunter Condemns Lucy Tour of U.S.

The framed hominid fossil "Lucy," is seen at a exhibition at the Ethiopian Natural History Museum in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa, Tuesday, Oct. 24, 2006. The 3.2 million-year-old Lucy skeleton has left Ethiopia for a tour of the United States _ a trip that some say is simply too risky for one of the world's most famous fossils. Credit: AP Photo/Les Neuhaus

Fossil Hunter Condemns Lucy Tour of U.S.

By Khaled Kazziha, Associated Press
posted: 11 August 2007 01:35 pm ET

NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) -- One of the world's leading paleontologists denounced Ethiopia's decision to send the Lucy skeleton on a six-year tour of the United States, warning Friday that the 3.2 million-year-old fossil will likely be damaged no matter how careful its handlers are.
The skeleton was quietly flown out of Ethiopia earlier this week for the U.S. tour.
Paleontologist Richard Leakey joined other experts in criticizing what some see as a gamble with one of the world's most famous fossils. The Smithsonian Institution also has objected to the tour, and the secretive manner in which the remains were sent abroad has raised eyebrows in Ethiopia, where Lucy has been displayed to the public only twice.
"It's a form of prostitution, it's gross exploitation of the ancestors of humanity and it should not be permitted,'' Leakey told The Associated Press in an interview at his office in Nairobi.
Ethiopian officials could not immediately be reached for comment, but have said proceeds from the tour would be used to upgrade museums in one of the world's poorest countries.
Dirk Van Tuerenhout, the curator of anthropology at the Houston Museum of Natural Science, where Lucy will be on display from Aug. 31 to April 20, said his museum would treat the relic with "the greatest respect and sense of protection -- something we in the museum world do all the time.''
"On the one hand, I would say we definitely share the concern that people have to safeguard fossils like Lucy, or for that matter any other fossils,'' Van Tuerenhout said. "Where we part company, in a sense, is the decision that was made to allow her to travel.''
He emphasized the decision to allow Lucy to travel abroad was made by the Ethiopian government, and that Houston was honored by its selection.
Van Tuerenhout also noted the exhibit's story line was broader than just Lucy and offers other educational aspects.
"We are definitely going to be able, with Lucy's presence, to tell the story of Ethiopia -- not only the prehistoric part, but also the historic part,'' he said. "This is one of those exhibits that covers quite a lot of history.''
Lucy, the fossilized partial skeleton of what was once a 3 1/2-foot-tall adult of an ape-man species, was discovered in 1974 in the remote, desert-like Afar region in northeastern Ethiopia. Lucy is classified as an Australopithecus afarensis, which lived in Africa between about 3 million to 4 million years ago, and is the earliest known hominid.
The State Department approved the exhibit for temporary importation into the U.S., saying that display of Lucy and the other artifacts is in the national interest because of their "cultural significance.''
Stops beyond Houston have yet to be finalized, but Ethiopian officials have said they include New York, Denver and Chicago.
Leakey said the skeleton will almost certainly get damaged.
"These specimens will get damaged no matter how careful you are and every time she is moved there is a risk,'' he said. "A specimen that is that precious and unique shouldn't be exposed to the threats of damage by travel.''
He also said keeping Lucy in Ethiopia would lure tourists to the country.
"The point is, what is the benefit of taking one of the most iconic examples of the human story from Africa to parade it around in second-level museums in the United States?'' he said.
Leakey is one of the world's most renowned paleontologists. His team unearthed the bones of Turkana Boy -- the most complete skeleton of a prehistoric human ever found -- in the desolate, far northern reaches of Kenya in 1984.
He is also a conservationist credited with helping end the slaughter of elephants in Kenya during the 1980s.

Associated Press Writer John Peretto contributed to this story from Houston.

Glimpse of Time Before Big Bang Possible

Glimpse of Time Before Big Bang Possible

By Charles Q. Choi, Special to LiveScience
posted: 01 July 2007 01:15 pm ET

It may be possible to glimpse before the supposed beginning of time into the universe prior to the Big Bang, researchers now say.

Unfortunately, any such picture will always be fuzzy at best due to a kind of "cosmic forgetfulness."

The Big Bang is often thought as the start of everything, including time, making any questions about what happened during it or beforehand nonsensical. Recently scientists have instead suggested the Big Bang might have just been the explosive beginning of the current era of the universe, hinting at a mysterious past.

To see how far into history one might gaze, theoretical physicist Martin Bojowald at Pennsylvania State University ran calculations based on loop quantum gravity, one of a number of competing theories seeking to explain how the underlying structure of the universe works.

Past research suggested the Big Bang was preceded by infinite energies and space-time warping where existing scientific theories break down, making it impossible to peer beforehand. The new findings suggest that although the levels of energy and space-time warping before the Big Bang were both incredibly high, they were finite.

Scientists could spot clues in the present day of what the cosmos looked like previously. If evidence of the past persisted after the Big Bang, its influence could be spotted in astronomical observations and computational models, Bojowald explained.

However, Bojowald also figures some knowledge of the past was irrevocably lost. For instance, the sheer size of the present universe would suppress precise knowledge of how the universe changed in size before the Big Bang, he said.

"It came as a big surprise that some properties of the universe before the Big Bang may have only such a weak influence on current observations that they are practically undetermined," Bojowald said of findings detailed online July 1 in the journal Nature Physics.

One implication of this "cosmic forgetfulness," as Bojowald calls it, is that history does not repeat itself-the fundamental properties of the current era of the universe are different from the last, Bojowald explained. "It's as if the universe forgot some of its properties and acquired new properties independent of what it had before," he told

"The eternal recurrence of absolutely identical universes would seem to be prevented by the apparent existence of an intrinsic cosmic forgetfulness," he added.

These findings differ from a cyclic model of the cosmos from cosmologist Paul Steinhardt at Princeton and theoretical physicist Neil Turok at Cambridge, which envisions an infinite series of Big Bangs preceding our universe caused by additional membranes or "branes" of reality perpetually colliding and bouncing off each other. Steinhardt said he felt Bojowald's calculations were concrete, but needed further elaboration to include the interplay of different kinds of matter and radiation.

Cosmologist Carlo Rovelli at the Center of Theoretical Physics in Marseilles, France, found it "remarkable" that the new work could delve past the Big Bang. He added the work had to lead to predictions that could be compared to cosmological observations "in order to become credible."

Puzzle of Hot Young Stars Solved

The Taurus Molecular Cloud in the infrared, revealing the vast star-forming regions nearest to Earth. The cloud contains over 400 young stars. Credits: Five College Radio Astronomy Observatory/Gopal Narayanan/Mark Heyer

Puzzle of Hot Young Stars Solved

By Dave Mosher, Staff Writer
posted: 14 August 2007 06:05 am ET

Most newborn stars are gluttons, feeding on afterbirth of dust and gas long after igniting.
Although this accreting activity doubles stellar surface temperatures by burning up the material, it mysteriously softens the emission of high-energy X-rays.
"Accreting stars have three times less X-ray emission than non-accreting stars, which seems unusual," said Kevin Briggs, an astrophysicist at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, Switzerland.
Now Briggs and several teams of researchers have discovered why some stars' X-ray profiles are so thin: The nebulous surroundings of a young star absorb the extra energy produced by falling into it.
The discovery gives astronomers a better glimpse into the early stages of stellar life.
Burning filters
Briggs explained that dust and gas surrounding young stars act like light filters on a camera, where gas absorbs X-rays and dust absorbs visible light.
Yet if both materials surrounding energetic young stars are very dense--and soak up most of the energy they create--Briggs said the team wondered why the stars weren't fainter.
The filters, it turns out, burn.
"The dust is heated so much by the radiation from the star, that it is vaporized before it can fall on the star," said Manuel Guedel, also an astrophysicist at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology.
As the dust and gas still waiting to be eaten by the young stars vaporizes, Briggs explained, they glow like hot plasma and mimic the appearance of a star's surface.
Shocking creation
Briggs said repetitive "shocks" of energy create young stars' X-rays, and that there are two recipes to make them.
The first type of shock is produced when gas and dust falls into a star and slams into its surface at nearly 671,000 mph (1,080,000 kph). "The impact against the star's surface can produce the high-energy shock," Briggs said.
The second type of X-ray shock in young stars is produced by gas and dust jettisoned away from a star's poles.
"It happens when fast-moving material catches up to slow-moving material and collides," Briggs said. But nature leans toward variety with its shocking young stars. "What we actually see is both types in these stars," he said.
Because stellar meals of gas and dust absorb most young stars' X-ray outputs, the teams think the few X-rays that can be detected originate from shocks emitted from the stars' jets.
"This emission must come from outside the accretion streams," Guedel said. The teams looked at 400 young stars in the constellation Taurus to uncover their findings, which are detailed in a recent issue of the journal Astronomy and Astrophysics.

Women Hardwired to Like Pink, Study Suggests

Photographer: Jack Hollingsworth, Jupiter Images

Women Hardwired to Like Pink, Study Suggests

By Charles Q. Choi, Special to LiveScience
posted: 20 August 2007 12:48 pm ET

Women may be biologically hardwired to prefer pink, or at least redder colors than men do, research now reveals.

The findings are some of the first conclusive evidence to support the long-held notion that men and women differ when it comes to their favorite colors.

Scientists had student volunteers select, as rapidly as possible, their preferred color from among a series of paired, colored rectangles displayed on a computer screen. The universal favorite color for all people apparently is blue, they found.

In addition, female color preferences tended "slightly away from blue towards red, which tends to make pinks and lilacs the most preferred colors in comparison with others," said researcher Anya Hurlbert, director of the Institute of Neuroscience at Newcastle University in England. Males tend to prefer green more than red, she added.

To see whether sex differences in color preference depend more on nature than nurture, the researchers tested 37 Chinese volunteers in addition to the other 171 white British participants. The results among Chinese volunteers were similar, Hurlbert said. She and colleague Yazhu Ling detailed their findings in the August 21 issue of the journal Current Biology.

"These are the first hints there may be some biological basis for color preferences," said Caltech cognitive neuroscientist Shinsuke Shimojo, who did not participate in this study. "I don't think this finding alone is sufficient to convince everyone, but I like their careful experimentation, and it opens up possibilities for further research."

Many differences are known to exist between the sexes when it comes to other visual abilities. For instance, females are better at visually searching for things and often use richer terminology when naming colors, while males are better at imagining what objects that get swiveled around look like.

Hurlbert told LiveScience she became interested in possible biological roots for sex differences in color preferences "partly because I was so struck by my daughter's desire for all things pink." She also recalled noticing a pink and lilac aisle at a drugstore, "a feminine hygiene and body products aisle, juxtaposed with a men’s deodorant and shaving cream aisle, which was dark browns and greens. Were marketers pandering to an innate preference? Why did they assume that girls liked pink?"

The reason women apparently prefer reddish colors might go back to humanity's ancient hunter-gatherer days on the savanna, when women—the primary gatherers—would have benefited from the ability to hone in on ripe fruits. Women might also have become focused on the reddening or blanching of faces often linked with mood as part of caregiver roles. "Culture may exploit and compound this natural female preference," Hurlbert said.

Future research should collect more data across cultures to see how true these findings hold, Shimojo said. Hurlbert and her colleagues also plan to modify their test for use in young babies, whose color preferences naturally should be less influenced by culture than adults. In addition, they will test if other factors influence color preferences, including age, personality and menstrual cycle.

to why there was a universal preference for blue, "I can only speculate," Hurlbert said. "Going back to our savanna days, we would have a natural preference for a clear blue sky, because it signaled good weather. Clear blue also signals a good water source."

Water projects 'need more research'

Water projects 'need more research'

Carol Campbell
20 August 2007
Source: SciDev.Net

International water development projects are suffering because not enough money is being spent on basic scientific research and monitoring, a group of water experts has said.
This accusation — made specifically about projects supported by the Global Environment Facility (GEF), an independent organisation that helps developing countries fund environmental protection projects — was made during World Water Week (13–17 August).
"A lot of water programmes funded by the GEF are not successful because they are not based on sound research and monitoring," Johann Augustyn, chief director of the South African government's Research: Antarctica and Islands project, told SciDev.Net.
"It’s a chicken and egg situation with the GEF," said Larry Hutchings, a specialist with the South African Marine and Coastal Management Programme. "Money is available for management programmes but not for research or monitoring."
Neville Sweijd, director of Namibia's Benguela Environment Fisheries Interaction and Training Programme, said the GEF's rigid boundary between research and development projects was counterproductive.
"On an issue like climate change, for instance, it is not enough to only promote development projects that are aimed at adaptation and mitigation. There has to be focus on research too," he said.
Over the last five years, the GEF has contributed much of its funding to development projects such as the Benguela Current Large Marine Ecosystem Programme, a project to help Angola, Namibia and South Africa jointly manage valuable fish stocks and monitor invasive species and pollution.
Although these projects have been labelled a success, "some of the resources allocated to these projects should go to research," said Augustyn.
The GEF's funds come from donor countries, which in 2006 pledged US$3.13 billion to fund operations over the next four years.
"The GEF controls a huge amount of the global resources dedicated to environmental work, they need to look at the problems scientists in developing nations are facing," said marine scientist Larry Hutchings.
In response to the scientists’ criticisms, GEF spokesman Christian Severin said that the organisation limited its role to "goal oriented research".

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Maps help manage Zambian water resources
UN hunger targets may increase water burden
Think small for water management, say scientists
South African fisheries urged to keep it simple
Science secures the fish supply in Sri Lanka

Africa needs better data to combat global warming

*Data gathering in Botswana

Africa needs better data to combat global warming

1 August 2007

Effective adaptation strategies will require reliable scientific data both on the nature of climate change and on its potential impact.
It is now widely accepted that despite developing countries' lack of responsibility for human-induced global warming, they are likely to be hardest hit, and that the hardest hit of all will be African countries.
Given their relatively low level of carbon emissions, there is little African countries can do to reduce the scale of the problems they are likely to face — that must be primarily the responsibility of the developed world. But there are practices that can, and indeed must, be pursued to mitigate the impact of climate change, in areas from food production to public health.
Recent years have seen increasing attention paid to adaptation strategies. Talking about adaptation is no longer seen as a political excuse for not taking stronger action to reduce emissions; it is now generally accepted as an essential component of virtually all areas of development assistance.
Yet there remains a danger that the complexity of successful adaptation strategies will be underestimated. Success will require more than judicious application of traditional small-scale farming techniques — however flexibly they may have responded in the past to changing weather conditions — or wider distribution of conventional medicines.
Adaptation strategies will require detailed knowledge of the changes that climate change is likely to produce, both regionally and, especially, nationally.
One of the biggest challenges African countries now face, in common with the rest of the developing world, is building the capacity to generate a proper scientific understanding of these changes, particularly if countries are to take ownership of and be fully effective in their responses to these changes.
Low priority
A set of articles published this week on the SciDev.Net website highlights, among other issues, key areas in which more data is required if adaptation strategies are to succeed. For example, Suad Sulamain, a health specialist in the Sudan, describes the need for reliable data on social and environmental factors that influence malaria transmission (see How is climate change shifting Africa's malaria map?).
As Sulamain points out, collecting such data is essential both nationally and regionally if successful measures are to be taken to contain the expected spread of malaria in Africa in the next few years. International health agencies need to provide the support for data collection. At the same time, African researchers need to develop the skills required not only to collect and analyse the data, but also to interpret its significance for health policymakers.
The same is true for meteorological data. As many African governments are discovering, global climate models may be able to provide a broad-brush picture of the likely challenges. But they are of limited value in predicting the specific difficulties a particular country is likely to face — information that is essential if an appropriate response is to be developed and implemented.
Building regional models of climate change requires the maintenance of accurate weather records over long periods. Regretfully, and with a few welcome exceptions, many African countries still give low priority to the collection of such data.
There have even been allegations that in some cases where this data has been collected, government agencies have been reluctant to share it openly with scientists because of its potential commercial value.
Yet without such data the accuracy of local climate forecasts will inevitably be undermined, as will the effectiveness of subsequent adaptation strategies.
Again, if the international community is genuinely committed to enabling Africa to develop a long-term, sustainable response to climate change, enhancing the ability of the continent's researchers to collect and share relevant data should be a high priority.
Urgent challenge
Advocates of adaptation strategies are entirely correct to emphasise that strategies need to be built from the bottom upwards. New farming or public health practices will not be adopted unless communities accept and understand that it is in their own interest to do so — just as African countries cannot be expected to adopt strategies to reduce their carbon emissions unless they are convinced that the strategies will not detract from their economic growth.
But that is no reason for failing to take a more scientific approach to adaptation. It is misleading to claim, as a group of major Northern environmental organisations did in a report last year, that building on the existing ability of communities to cope with climate change is "a greater and more urgent challenge" than improved weather forecasting.
Both are needed. Similarly, there is some truth in the allegation of environmentalists that certain countries, notably the United States and Australia, have been promoting technological responses to climate change as an alternative to adopting unpopular political measures, such as imposing carbon emission caps on their industries.
Nevertheless, science-based technologies also have an important role to play in effective adaptation strategies. The challenge is simultaneously to develop these techniques and to implement ways of ensuring their wide dissemination and adoption, to blend the technical and the political, not advocate one at the expense of the other.

David Dickson
Director, SciDev.Net

SPOTLIGHT on Climate Change in sub-Saharan Africa

HIV 'launches two-pronged attack on brain'

Cloudy Areas Around Brain's Center Represent Cells Lost to NeuroAIDS. University of Rochester Medical Center.

HIV 'launches two-pronged attack on brain'
The brain cannot regenerate in HIV-associated dementia
Jia Hepeng and Li Jiao
17 August 2007
Source: SciDev.Net

[BEIJING] Scientists have identified a way that HIV causes dementia, which could help in developing drugs to treat the disorder.
The study was published this week (16 August) in the journal Cell Stem Cell.
HIV infection can cause difficulties in memory and learning in patients with advanced disease, a condition known as HIV-associated dementia.
Anti-retroviral drugs are not entirely effective in protecting patients from developing the condition because the drugs cannot successfully reach the brain.
"The brain therefore is a protected reservoir of HIV," says Stuart Lipton from the California-based Burnham Institute for Medical Research.
Lipton and colleagues found that besides killing neural cells, the HIV virus also inhibits the ability of brain cells to regenerate.
Using mice, Lipton and colleagues found that a viral protein called HIV/gp120 prevents 'unprogrammed' brain cells — stem cells — called adult neural progenitor cells, from developing into new brain cells, thus preventing the brain from repairing itself.
The viral protein does this by activating a brain enzyme — p38 MAPK — that blocks brain stem cells from dividing.
Lipton said that a drug that blocks this enzyme could have potential for treating and preventing HIV-associated dementia.
Lu Hongzhou, deputy director of Shanghai Public Health Centre, says now that the Chinese government offers free anti-retroviral treatment to AIDS patients, they live longer and the problem of HIV-associated dementia has become more apparent.
"Previously, many doctors were not aware of the HIV-associated dementia disease, and now, with these kind of studies, doctors can better understand the mechanism of the disease," Lu told SciDev.Net.
Liu Zhe, director of the Nerve Signal Imitation Laboratory at the Beijing Institute for Psychological Medicine, adds that the study might be used by doctors to distinguish different kinds of dementia and to understand the degree of neural diseases.
"But there is a long way before it could be put into clinical practice," Liu told SciDev.Net.

Link to full paper in Cell Stem Cell
Reference: Cell Stem Cell 1, 230 (2007)

Related SciDev.Net articles:
HIV dementia a challenge to developing countries

South African scientists welcome Malawi on board

Malawian farmers will benefit from South African science. Photo Credit: USAid

South African scientists welcome Malawi on board

Charles Mkoka
17 August 2007
Source: SciDev.Net

[LILONGWE] Researchers from South Africa and Malawi met in Lilongwe today (17 August) to kick-start a new cooperation agreement on science and technology.
The one-day meeting follows the signing of an agreement last Monday (13 August) by Malawi's deputy minister of higher education, science and technology, Richard Msowoya, and the South African minister of science and technology, Mosibudi Mangena.
Collaboration between the two countries should help Malawi to "understand and adapt to global technologies", thereby accelerating economic growth and reducing poverty, said Msowoya in a statement released by the government.
"We have opened a new chapter for the two countries," Septitsitane Mokoeuwe, deputy director of African cooperation at South Africa's department of science and technology, told SciDev.Net. "Researchers will develop a plan of action and highlight the possible areas of cooperation in human sciences, crop science and biosciences.''
In the week leading up to the meeting, a delegation of researchers and representatives from South Africa's National Advisory Council on Innovation toured research institutes in Malawi. These included institutions for aquaculture, agricultural and crop-science, research, and the Agricultural Research and Extension Trust, which introduces new technologies to farmers. The aim was to pave the way for future collaboration between South African and Malawian scientists.
Alic Kafasalire, a scientist at the University of Malawi, said that the agreement was timely because South Africa is a developed nation that can share its scientific experience with Malawi.
It should help technological development in Malawi, he said, for example by staff exchange between South African universities and the planned Lilongwe University of Science and Technology, where expertise and syllabuses could be shared.
The initiative will also mean that Malawi can ask South Africa's advice on how best to disseminate agricultural information to rural communities to benefit crop cultivation and animal husbandry.

Related SciDev.Net articles:
Pan-African parliament scheduled to talk science
Africa-wide facility to fund science takes shape

Africa must commit to biosecurity measures

Africa needs its own agenda on biosecurity issues

Africa must commit to biosecurity measures

Chandré Gould, Thomas Egwang and Brian Rappert
16 August 2007
Source: SciDev.Net

The threat of biotechnology misuse has implications for the development of science and technology in Africa, argue Chandre Gould and colleagues.
Recent African Union summits have identified science and technology as key future drivers for development, and increased investment is being welcomed by African leaders — particularly in areas such as biotechnology.
But the growth of the biotechnology industry internationally has raised some important concerns about biological safety issues (see Agri-biotech in Africa: Safety first?).
'Biosecurity' policies are therefore being actively pursued in some countries to mitigate the deliberate destructive use of biological agents, knowledge and techniques.
Today, this sense of biosecurity extends beyond conditions in research laboratories to cover the potential dual use — for good and bad — of applications arising from the new knowledge and techniques emerging from research.
International supervision
It is crucial to assess the security implications of scientific innovations, but this is not a straightforward matter.
One reason is that Western governments, most notably the United States, are deeply concerned with the bioterror threat. Although there have been only a handful of bioterrorism attacks in recent decades, the capability to inflict them is proliferating.
This focus on bioterrorism in international discussions has arguably come at the expense of tightening constraints on the development of state programmes. There is no guarantee that states, particularly those that are isolated and existentially threatened, may not see biological weapons as a valuable item in their arsenal.
The biological defence programme in the United States has shown that the risk of accidental escape of potential biological warfare agents goes up as the number of facilities working with them increases. Indeed, it could be argued that state biodefence programmes should be subject to a great deal more international supervision.
Biosecurity has gained importance in many countries in Europe, North America and elsewhere, and networks, funders and suppliers from these areas are fundamental to the growth of the African biotechnology industry. African research partners and recipients of funds will therefore have to demonstrate their commitment to biosecurity by implementing measures for the secure handling of biological agents.
Public dialogue
But policy responses adopted elsewhere are likely to be inappropriate for many situations in Africa, not least because of the difference in the quality of public infrastructure.
In this mix of concerns, one thing is clear: engagement by scientific communities is a prerequisite for a productive response. For Africans to engage effectively in biosecurity debates at a national and international level, it is important to raise awareness about dual use research and biosecurity among African scientists, ethicists, social scientists, policy makers, the media and the public.
That way, Africa can develop its own biosecurity agenda and policies aligned with its own concerns. The cue should not come from Europe or the United States.
With this in mind, we ran seven biosecurity workshops in Kenya and Uganda in May–June 2007. The two countries are emerging biotech nations that are not yet properly engaged in international biosecurity policy deliberations.
The aim was to inform African stakeholders about the general biosecurity debate and the communication, supervision, review and funding of dual use research findings.
Many participants agreed that scientists should initiate a public dialogue about these issues and that such research should be supervised.
Stronger African voice
Although some African states, most notably South Africa, have been active contributors to the Biological and Toxins Weapons Convention (BTWC), a stronger and more coherent African position on regulatory issues is needed.
Not only would this provide an African voice on biosecurity issues, but it would strengthen the negotiating position of those states wishing to place sharing of development, knowledge and technology firmly on the agenda.
A critical mass of African stakeholders who can effectively represent the continent at the BTWC and other international forums must be developed, together with policy responses.
Whether or not African states are threatened by bioterrorism (or state biological weapons programmes) is immaterial: cutting out biotech misuse is in the interests of all Africans and is a responsibility of the African scientific community.
The development of biosecurity mechanisms that neither compromise research nor pose an unbearable financial burden on those responsible for their implementation is crucial.
This strategy would reduce the risk of misuse and mitigate the damage to African scientific development that could result if products, technology or knowledge were to be used for destructive purposes.
Chandré Gould is a research associate at the South Africa-based Centre for Conflict Resolution; Thomas Egwang is chief executive officer of Uganda Media for Health and director general of Med Biotech Laboratories, in Kampala, Uganda; and Brian Rappert is associate professor of science, technology and public affairs at the University of Exeter, United Kingdom.
The authors would like to make clear that the workshops mentioned in the article were funded by a grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

Infighting plagues East African cable project

Kenya and South Africa face off: David Were (centre), Kenya’s deputy minister of communication, and Ivy Matsepe-Casaburri (right) at a press conference last year. M&G

Infighting plagues East African cable project
East African business will benefit from better cable access
16 August 2007
Source: Mail and Guardian Online

Political squabbles are dogging Africa's plans for undersea communications cables, reports Lloyd Gedye in the Mail and Guardian Online.
The continent needs new undersea data cables to improve bandwidth for broadband communications.
But the planned East African Submarine System (EASSy) could be split into four competing projects due to political infighting.
The South African and Kenyan governments have argued over whether EASSy should be controlled by the private sector, or an open access system — approved by the New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD) —where investors and non-investors are given international bandwidth access at the same price.
The result is that both have announced projects outside of the EASSy initiative: Kenya's US$110 million East African Marine System and the South Africa-led NEPAD Broadband Infrastructure Network.
EASSy could still be the first system operational. But while the two governments jostle to gain the support of African governments, another private initiative, Seacom, could beat them to it.
Meanwhile, the existing West African SAT-3 cable is rapidly running out of capacity and accused of charging exorbitant costs for bandwidth, so any delays to EASSy could be disastrous for African businesses.

No Eassy walk to cable freedom
Lloyd Gedye
23 July 2007 11:59
Africa’s east coast could go from having no undersea broadband cables to four. The planned East Africa Submarine System (Eassy), touted as the solution for the bandwidth-starved continent, has been plagued by political squabbles that have resulted in it splintering into four mooted cable projects.
The conflict between the South African and Kenyan governments has led to both announcing new cable projects outside the Eassy initiative, followed by the announcement of a private sector cable, Seacom, being rolled out by Sithe.
It is not surprising that African governments are trying to control the Eassy cable project, with the SAT-3 cable that runs down the west coast of Africa causing such a headache.
The consortium that controls the SAT-3 cable has exploited the lack of competition by charging exorbitant costs for international bandwidth, which has had a massive impact on the cost of doing business in Africa.
Complicating matters are the shortages of fibre optic cable and the ships that lay the cable, due to the large number of new fibre projects being laid in the Pacific.
The cable saga has festered for a year now and has been characterised by accusations and counter-accusations. With so many interested parties jockeying for position, the Mail & Guardian had to speak to a wide range of role-players who did not want to be named.
The Kenyan government was the first to throw a spanner in the Eassy works when it announced it was planning its own cable, The East African Marine System (Teams). The $110-million Teams cable is planned to run north from Kenya to Port Sudan. Kenya’s neighboring countries Burundi, Rwanda, Uganda and Tanzania have joined the Teams initiative.
The sticking point for the Kenyans is the South African government’s insistence that the Eassy project be driven through the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (Nepad) and that it adhere to the principles laid out in the Nepad broadband infrastructure protocol.
It appears Nepad is concerned about the structure of an open access model, insisting that investors and non-investors be given access to international bandwidth under the same conditions and at the same price.
Kenya argues that the administrative and financing structures of Eassy give too much control to governments, while it prefers a private-sector controlled model.
One analyst, who refused to be named, says the key problem is Dr Henry Chasia of Nepad’s e-Africa Commission, who crafted the Nepad protocol and is being obstinate about amending it.
“Several countries signed on the understanding that the protocol would subsequently be amended and are now heartily pissed off,” the analyst says. “One country [Zambia] signed, but the president subsequently sacked the minister. The Kenyans also see the way the protocol functions as giving the South Africans the whip hand over the whole thing.”
The analyst says that the latter is exacerbated by the fact that Chasia is married to the director general of the South African department of communications, Lyndall Shope-Mafole, and this means that he is tied so closely to the South Africans that there is little difference between the two of them.
Shope-Mafole says the fact that she might have a relationship with Chasia is not important. “I don’t see any conflict.”
The analyst says: “The e-Africa Commission is talking as if it has a separate project to Eassy. This is bollocks as it has not got the money, the expertise to commission the project or the will to complete it ahead of Seacom, Teams and Eassy.”
“Therefore, its ‘project’ will die on the vine and subsequently become one of those embarrassing things that no one can talk about,” the analyst says.
Erik Osiakwan, from the association of African internet service providers, says there is a perception that the Nepad cable is being driven by the South African government against the interests of Telkom South Africa, which is a major part of the Eassy cable.
Shope-Mafole says the Nepad cable is a partnership and is not being driven by the South Africans alone. “If you want to partner with us, you can, but don’t tell us how to do things,” Shope-Mafole says. “We are implementing Nepad’s protocol.”
Sources close to the Eassy secretariat have insinuated that the South African government is putting pressure on the South African telcos investing in the cable to withhold their funds. Shope-Mafole denies this claim.
South Africa is trying to get the majority of the original 23 countries that agreed to the Eassy project to sign the Nepad protocol. So far, only 12 have signed, with most still to get the protocol ratified by their parliaments.
Although the Eassy cable is set to go ahead, resistance to South Africa’s insistence that the process be driven through Nepad has led to an announcement of another cable project, The Nepad Broadband Infrastructure Network (NBIN).
This R300-million cable is said to be tied down by multi-government bureaucracy and, of all the mooted cables, analysts are predicting it will be the last to come online.
Presently, it looks as if the original $235-million Eassy cable could be the first to come online, with expectations that it will be ready for commercial operations in the fourth quarter of 2008.
The Eassy consortium signed a contract with French company Alcatel Lucent Submarine Networks in March 2007 and has concluded interconnection agreements with three cable systems to carry traffic to Africa, Europe and Asia.
Shope-Mafole insists that the contract signed with Alcatel Lucent is outside the policy framework set by the South African government.
“We were not happy with the South African companies that signed,” says Shope-Mafole, who has said openly that the communications department will use the South African government’s board influence at Telkom to stop it from going ahead with the contract.
Vodacom’s chief operating officer, Pieter Uys, told the M&G that the mobile giant has doubts about the business model being touted by the South African government.
Uys says the SAT-3 cable that runs down the west coast of Africa is running out of capacity and the delays to the Eassy cable could prove disastrous. “We desperately need international bandwidth in South Africa,” he says.
The private sector cable Seacom has entered the race. It is being driven by Sithe Global, a power plant constructor and operator, which is 80% owned by Blackstone, the United States private equity group.
Some analysts predict that while the squabbling continues, Seacom could come in the backdoor. Sithe’s Brian Herlihy was unavailable to elaborate on the Seacom cable project due to deadline constraints.
Numerous attempts to contact Chasia for comment were unsuccessful.

Climate change devastating wildlife in East Africa

Climate change devastating wildlife in East Africa
Climate change is affecting the behaviour of wildlife
Kennedy Abwao
17 August 2007
Source: SciDev.Net

The Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) says climate change is to blame for increasing conflicts between humans and wildlife across East Africa, and is heightening the risk that animal diseases will spread.
The Biodiversity Research Unit of the KWS warns in its annual report — released last week (10 August) — that unless urgent strategies are developed to counter the effects of climate change, management of wildlife could suffer irreparably.
Researchers at the unit say climate change is to blame for rivers drying up and species migrating to new habitats, causing changes in ecosystems.
This has led to animals, such as lions, killing domestic animals like sheep and goats in villages near the animal parks. Villagers have also complained of elephants, rhinos and buffalo destroying food crops as they wander away from the parks in search of food and water.
The researchers add that these events are compromising the eradication of rinderpest — a viral infection of cattle, sheep and goats — ahead of a 2010 global elimination target.
Julius Kipngetich, director-general of the KWS, said the organisation is ill-prepared to deal with the impacts of climate change.
"This is an area where we need more scientific help," Kipngetich told SciDev.Net.
The KWS says climate change and ecological disturbances could have caused a recent increase in deaths in wildlife populations from infectious diseases. Birds and mammals have been the worst affected, with climate change blamed for the sudden mass death of flamingos around Lake Nakuru in central Kenya last year.
The KWS initially suspected bird flu, but 493 samples proved negative for H5N1 avian influenza.
According to the report, Kenya's 66 animal parks are all experiencing changes in animal disease patterns. The authors call for better disease surveillance strategies to determine the ecological factors fuelling the disease spread, as well as implementing a mass animal vaccination programme.
KWS says it is aware of the climate change risks and has spent US$42,000 in implementing decisions made at UN conferences on climate change to avert its effects and to stem biodiversity loss.

Hordes of Zebras, Elephants Moved to Restock Kenya Park

A zebra charges Kenya Wildlife Service rangers at a ranch west of Nairobi on July 30, 2007. The rangers are relocating some 2,000 animals, including hundreds of zebra and impala, from this ranch and two other locations to Meru National Park, which has been devastated by poaching. Photograph by Boniface Mwangi/Reuters

Hordes of Zebras, Elephants Moved to Restock Kenya Park
Alexis Okeowo in Nairobi, Kenya
for National Geographic News
August 17, 2007

Kenya has begun a great migration of 2,000 animals to a popular game park devastated by crime and poaching, wildlife officials have announced.
In the 1970s Meru National Park, located in central Kenya, was "overrun" by bandits and poachers, leading to a drastic loss of wildlife, the officials said.
Now the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) is wrapping up a campaign begun in 2001 to repopulate the wildlife of the 1,930-square-mile (5,000-square-kilometer) park.
"We want to make Meru National Park an exclusive park for high-end tourists where they can experience total wilderness," KWS spokesperson Paul Udoto said.
A variety of animals, including zebras and elephants, are being taken from better stocked reserves, where they will be rounded up and loaded into crates.
"The animals are being moved from two ranches and a national park because we realized those areas are overstocked," Utodo said.
The six-week-long relocation is the final push in the effort to restore Meru, which may be best known as the setting for the book and 1966 film Born Free, about an orphaned lion cub.
"We want to reclaim that historical significance," Udoto said.
Great Migration
The relocation of hundreds of impalas and zebras has been underway for the past two weeks, Udoto said.
Elephants will be transported next month, he added.
The animals are being taken in several shifts for the 250-mile (400-kilometer) drive.
"We move them by road; we put them in special transportation crates," said Francis Gakuya, director of veterinary services for KWS and head of logistics for the relocation.
Each shies being moved. One crate can hold 10 zebras or 25 impalas, for example.
So far, 517 animals have been moved without incident, Gakuya said.
"We haven't come across any problems yet," he said, adding that his team takes "a lot of precautions."
At least one veterinarian rides on each truck in case the animals become restless. Gakuya said that when more than one male of a species is in a crate, particularly if they are impalas or zebras, they tend to fight, in which case, tranquilizers are used.
"You just calm them and move them," he said.
Conservation Efforts
Apart from the influx of new wildlife, Meru National Park has undergone extensive renovations, such as new roads and airstrips and a bolstered ranger force.
But the animals are necessary to restore the park's ecosystem, said Josphat Ngonyo, director of the Kenya-based nonprofit African Network for Animal Welfare.
"Moving animals from where they're many to where they're less is a solution we'd propose," he said.
The reintroduction may also help offset the ecological imbalance of the park, which currently has a disproportionate number of carnivores compared to herbivores.
The relocation is not the first in Kenya. Species such as elephants have been moved long distances for conservation purposes in the past, Ngonyo pointed out.
He acknowledged that such moves usually come with challenges. Some animals may die in the process, for example, and local communities that live near the affected areas may not be involved in decision-making.
But in order to finally restore Meru, Ngonyo said, the drive is a "wise use of resources."
Once all animals have been moved, KWS officials said that it will work to ensure that Meru National Park will not be harmed by bandits and poachers again.
"If any poachers come in, we will be ready for them. That is why we are confident of moving these animals in a single go," Udoto said.

Congo Gorilla Killings Fueled by Illegal Charcoal Trade

Rangers at Congo's Virunga National Park destroy a charcoal oven operating illegally in the park. Rangers and conservationists say the burgeoning illicit charcoal trade inside the park has fueled several recent attacks on Virunga's rare mountain gorillas and the rangers who protect them. Photograph courtesy Paulin Ngobobo, WildlifeDirect

Congo Gorilla Killings Fueled by Illegal Charcoal Trade
Stefan Lovgren in Virunga National Park, Democratic Republic of the Congo
for National Geographic News
August 16, 2007

In a steady trickle teenage boys push their way down a dusty road to the bustling city of Goma, their bicycles buckling under the weight of 100-pound (45-kilogram) sacks of charcoal, or makala as it's known here.
The boys are part of an illegal trade that may pose the biggest threat to one of the most pristine places on the planet, the Democratic Republic of the Congo's Virunga National Park.
The park's dense forest is rapidly being depleted of its trees to satisfy the almost insatiable demand here for charcoal, which is used for cooking and heating by the millions of people living in this troubled region.
The lucrative charcoal trade is not only wreaking havoc on the park but also on its most famous inhabitants, the rare mountain gorillas.
Conservationists believe last month's execution of four mountain gorillas inside the park was carried out by people associated with the charcoal trade who want the park unprotected.
"The gorillas have become a hindrance for the charcoal trade," said Emmanuel de Merode, director of WildlifeDirect, a conservation group based in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Kenya that supports the park rangers working in Virunga.
"There's a very strong incentive for these people to kill the gorillas."
(Editor's note, August 17: Since this story was filed on August 16, rangers announced on their blog that one more gorilla has been found dead as a result of the July attack; her infant is still missing and presumed dead, bringing the total to six.)
Rwanda Connection
Situated on the country's eastern border, with Rwanda and Uganda to the east, Virunga is Africa's oldest national park and boasts the highest biodiversity on the continent (see Africa map).
More than half of the world's 700 remaining mountain gorillas are found in Virunga.
But the park has been torn apart over the years by a procession of armed groups—from ragtag rebel militias to foreign armies—fighting over its natural riches.
"The last 15 years of Congo's history have been defined by the illegal exploitation of natural resources," de Merode said. "The charcoal trade definitely fits into that reality."
He estimates that the charcoal trade in Goma, a city of 500,000 people, alone is worth 30 million U.S. dollars (see Congo map).
"When you talk about charcoal, people think of this mom-and-pop, small-scale business, but it's not that at all," de Merode said. "It's a massive industry."
Much of the trade is connected to neighboring Rwanda, which has maintained a strong influence in eastern Congo ever since its troops drove out militiamen hiding here after the 1994 Rwandan genocide.
In contrast, Congo's central government, based in Kinshasa more than 1,000 miles (1,600 kilometers) west, has little political say over what goes on in the eastern part of its territory.
In 2004 Rwanda passed a law banning the production of charcoal within its borders.
That has put enormous pressure on the country to find charcoal for its nine million people somewhere else, de Merode said.
"Rwanda is unsustainable in terms of natural resources within its own borders, so it has to look to the outside," he said.
"What's happened is that there's only one real source of charcoal for Rwanda, and that's Virunga National Park."
Corruption Charges
The charcoal is mostly made inside the forest by small-scale producers, Virunga rangers say.
After a tree is cut down, the large branches are used to build a makeshift dome, which is covered with mud and set on fire. The mud makes the wood burn more strongly and form charcoal, a process that takes a couple of days.
The producers are organized into local associations, which de Merode and other sources working in the area claim are controlled by Congolese military officials. The officials exact a tax on both the charcoal's production and its transportation, the sources claim.
A strong military presence is clearly visible in and around Virunga National Park, with soldiers manning frequent roadblocks and mingling with villagers.
The soldiers have reportedly not received paychecks in years, and rangers say some may turn to the charcoal trade and other illegal activities to support themselves and their families.
"The military is put in the park because of the armed bandits that operate there, but they're not paid, so they start making charcoal instead," said Virunga ranger Paulin Ngobobo, in his office in Goma.
Ngobobo has been in charge of Virunga's southern sector, where the gorillas live, for just over a year.
"We'll get a report from a military commander saying we cannot patrol the park for a certain time because of military maneuvers, but what they're actually doing is cutting down trees and poaching," he said.
A military official in Kinshasa, who did not want to be identified, admitted that military personnel in eastern Congo operate in large part independently from the government.
Other political observers say they believe the involvement in the charcoal trade by military officials stationed in eastern Congo is probably done without Kinshasa's approval.
Ranger Beaten by Poachers
Confronting the people in the trade is a dangerous business, as Ngobobo has repeatedly learned.
Earlier this year, while lecturing villagers about the threats of the charcoal industry to Virunga, Ngobobo was arrested by military officials, stripped of his shirt, and flogged in front of the crowd, he said.
In addition to such alleged reprisals, Ngobobo also faces challenges in convincing local villagers to shun the charcoal business.
"Everyone is making money off this trade," he said.
"The population is very poor. It's impossible for them to see the value of the park. They see it as another obstacle."
Ngobobo also has to battle what he says are some corrupt officials within the park service, who are allegedly involved in the charcoal trade as well.
It's a problem Ngobobo refers to as "internal poaching."
"Most of the park officials risk their lives to protect the park, [but] there are some people in the park service who are in collaboration with the military and the poachers," he said.
Shortly after Ngobobo posted an article on WildlifeDirect's blog on the illegal charcoal trade, he was arrested and placed in the custody of a military tribunal in Goma for two days on charges of negligence.
According to court documents, Ngobobo has been accused of neglect in the death of a Chinese tourist who fell into a nearby volcano. He is also charged with furnishing false information about the charcoal trade and obstructing the investigation into the gorilla killings.
Ngobobo says the charges are politically motivated, brought against him by officials involved in the charcoal trade who want to see him removed.
In a telephone interview with National Geographic News, Ngobobo's former supervisor, Honore Mashagiru, dismissed those allegations.
"People say things, but where's the proof?" he said. "It's not true. It's not true."
Mashagiru said Ngobobo has become the target of the charcoal traders because "he has not communicated well with the community about the issue."
Ngobobo is still facing court charges and must report daily to the tribunal.
Meanwhile, Norbert Mushenzi, a park service director who has been in charge of the northern sector of Virunga, has been assigned to Ngobobo's post to protect the gorillas.
In recent days, Mushenzi, who also has a history of speaking out against the charcoal traders, and his rangers have detained about 50 women whom they caught making charcoal in the park.
"Act of Sabotage"
Both Ngobobo and de Merode are convinced that the execution of the gorillas last month is linked to the charcoal trade.
"None of the gorillas was cut up, and there was a baby still on one of the mothers," de Merode said.
"In the history of gorilla conservation, there's never been incidents like these where a group is attacked not for meat or baby gorillas."
(Read related story: "Mountain Gorillas Eaten by Congolese Rebels" [January 19, 2007].)
A baby gorilla can fetch thousands of dollars on the illegal wildlife market, he added.
The mass execution was also identical to the killing of a female gorilla 8.7 miles (14 kilometers) away on June 8.
"In terms of the whole build-up over the last year, it's a very strong case for it being planned and being vindictive," de Merode said.
"We believe this was an act of sabotage by the people in the charcoal business who want to see the gorillas dead."
De Merode says the Rwandan authorities should seek to clamp down on the charcoal trade, which he believes would lead to greater protection for the mountain gorillas.
"I'm not saying the Rwandans are responsible for killing the gorillas, but they can help resolve the problem," he said.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Hyenas Encourage Sex With Strangers to Prevent Incest

Hyenas Encourage Sex With Strangers to Prevent Incest
James Owen
for National Geographic News
August 15, 2007

Female hyenas avoid incestuous mating by encouraging male relatives to look elsewhere for sex, new research shows.
The females use their dominant status in hyena society to spurn males in their clan, thereby avoiding the risk of inbreeding, the study suggests.
This tactic has never been demonstrated before in mammals but may be widespread among other species that live in groups, the scientists added.
The ten-year study was based on eight groups, or clans, of spotted hyenas living in Ngorongoro Crater, the world's largest intact volcanic caldera, in Tanzania.
A team led by Oliver Höner at the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research in Berlin, Germany, investigated the dispersal of male hyenas using DNA samples and field observations of more than 400 individuals.
The findings, reported in the latest issue of the journal Nature, indicate that young female hyenas prefer mating with males that immigrate from other clans, or with males that were born after they were.
Older females were also found to mate with immigrants, favoring those that had courted them for several years.
As a result of these preferences, 89 percent of young males left their clans to take their sexual exploits elsewhere, the researchers found.
Höner said this pattern is the result of females following an instinctual mating rule that prevents incestuous encounters.
"This rule requires males to have entered the group after the females were born," he said.
"The older females also have an additional rule: They don't particularly like new, young males that they don't know well," Höner added.
Pseudo Penis
Inbred offspring are vulnerable to disease and other handicaps and are less likely to survive than normal young.
It's especially in the female's interests to avoid inbreeding, the team argues, because female spotted hyenas give their offspring exceptionally lengthy care, lasting 15 to 18 months.
Males, on the other hand, are largely absent fathers.
"Females invest so much more in their young," Höner said. "If males breed with a close relative, they don't lose very much because they have other females they can produce offspring with."
However, male hyenas have no choice but to go along with the mating preferences of the socially dominant females, whose bizarre genitalia make forced sex almost impossible.
"Females have a pseudo penis—an enlarged clitoris—which points forward," Höner explained.
"This makes it difficult for the male to mate. He has to balance precariously and needs the full cooperation of the female."
Female Power
Despite this peculiarity, female mate choice may help explain male dispersal patterns seen in many other mammals, the study team said.
"In the vast majority of mammals the typical pattern is that males disperse and females stay, or that males disperse over a greater distance than females," Höner said.
"We think that in many group-living mammals where females have a choice of different mates, it's very difficult for females to recognize their fathers," he added.
"The female mate choice we found here is likely to play an important role in other species," Höner said, primates included.
Laurent Lehmann of Stanford University commented that the female mate choice rule proposed by the study team "is very simple and very plausible, and so might apply to other social or nonsocial mammals as well."
But, he added, the extent to which the rule explains "the level of male sex-biased dispersal in natural populations [of other species] is not yet clear."
Spotted hyena expert Kay Holekamp from Michigan State University said the new research probably could only have been conducted in Ngorongoro Crater, "where so many clans live in close proximity to one another and where visibility for observers is excellent."
Holekamp added that the study "supports a hypothesis many of us have favored for many years—that female mate choice is all-important in this species."