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Catching a cold from Kyoto (date 01/12/01)

Up until now the factors that determine the quotas and emissions levels for carbon dioxide under the Kyoto Protocol have depended on making assumptions about variations in carbon dioxide based on GDP. However, Eric Neumayer from the London School of Economics has analysed the emissions of 160 countries over the period from 1960 to 1989. He believes that factors such as winter cold, summer heat, the transportation costs involved in energy production and the availability of fossil fuels and alternative, renewable energy sources are also important in determining acceptable emissions levels. Whereas 76% of variation was found to be because of differences in income levels these additional, geographical factors could also account for 7% of the variation between countries. In countries with extreme climates the difference is significant. Russia's emissions per capita would be six times those of Ethiopia if these factors were included. Kyoto Protocol targets were set for political rather than scientific reasons and it seems unlikely that targets will be altered to take account for this new study.

Source: New Scientist (1/12/01)

Cleaner Paints (date 01/12/01)

Considering the amount of sea-traffic there is nowadays it is not surprising that a significant amount of pollution in the sea comes from the protective paints that are used to coat the hulls of ships. A team of scientists at the Hanover School of Veterinary Medicine have discovered a potentially green alternative, a solution that involves an understanding of the microscopic structure of a pilot whale's skin. Using cryo-scanning electron microscopy to analyse freeze-dried samples of the skin they were able to demonstrate why the whale skin is so good at repelling unwanted visitors. The whale's keep their skin clean by secreting a rubber-like gel from pores into troughs that lie between tiny "nanoridges". This gel may prevent tiny organisms such as diatoms and bacteria from gaining a foothold on the surface of the whale. As a result of this repulsion larger creatures like mollusc larvae cannot colonise the skin. This may be useful for the whales as it would cut down the amount of energy required for swimming. By using a polymer matrix and silica crystals the scientists hope to replicate the effect. Such a material could provide the coating for paintwork on ships. Gradually over time the whole structure would be self-polishing and would wear away in the sea-water. Such a substance would be vastly preferable to present toxic anti-fouling paints which persist in the environment for many years and damage marine life.

Source: New Scientist (1/12/01)

Eco No-no in The Netherlands (date 25/10/01)

Many projects that look into more environmentally-friendly ways of farming may prove to be fruitless. David Kleijn, a Dutch scientist at Wageningen Agricultural University has been investigating a 20-year old scheme in which Dutch farmers were paid subsidies to delay their spring mowing of grass fields until July. The rationale was to encourage birds to nest and hatch in time for their fledgelings to leave the nest in safety. Unfortunately it appears that, in a comparison of normal and eco-managed field sites, there was no positive effect on bird species diversity. Quite the opposite in fact. It was discovered that the birds preferred to nest on the normal sites. It seems that the late mowing conditions meant that there was less of a need to apply nitrogen fertiliser onto the soil, which in turn reduced the population of earthworms at the eco-managed sites. Birds naturally avoided these fields because there was less to eat. However, all is not doom and gloom. In a scheme instituted in Devon, England farmers who were paid to leave stubble on their fields over winter generated an 83% rise in the numbers of the endangered cirl bunting when compared to the numbers on surrounding fields.

Source: New Scientist (25/10/01)

Winning Oscar (date 6/10/01)

Novel mini environmentally-friendly fuel cells that rely on plankton as their power source have been developed at the US Naval Research Laboratory. The Ocean Sediment Carbon Aerobic Reactor or OSCAR for short, utilises a natural potential difference that exists between the layer of sediment on the sea-bed and the sea-water above that is created by different types of plankton. Plankton release energy when they use oxygen to break down molecules in the water or sediment as fuel for their own metabolism. However, deeper down in the sediment there is no oxygen so the plankton that live there have to rely on a different set of reactions for their livelihood. These two different reactions create a potential difference caused by a difference in the negatively-charged electrons released in each reaction. To take advantage of this the scientists placed one electrode in the sediment and one in the sea-water. Electrons will flow from one electrode to the other, thus generating a current and hence electrical power. Even though this biological battery produces only 50 milliwatts of power per square meter of electrodes the cell has an effectively unlimited lifespan since the sediment is constantly being flushed of its old dead plankton and replaced with new organisms. It is hoped that these new "batteries" will replace fuel cells presently used to power oceanographic sensors, which need to be replaced relatively frequently.

Source: New Scientist (6/10/01)

Pinatubo (date 15/09/01)

Attempts to drain the lake in the crater of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines failed. A channel was dug to encourage the water in the dangerously full lake to flow down to a safe location. The local village of Botolan was evacuated of its 40,000 inhabitants. However, the water was still flowing out at a slower rate than it was flowing in from heavy rain storms. Engineers working on the project believe that a breach of the crater wall remains a possibility even though government officials are claiming the operation was a success.

Source: New Scientist

Tsunamis (date 11/09/01)

Wave experts fron University College London and the University of California have predicted that if a volcano on the island of La Palma in the Canary Islands collapses a series of tidal waves, about 100km apart, could spread out and affect all coastal regions of the North Atlantic. By the time such waves reach the Eastern seaboard of the USA the waves could be as much as 50m high. Thankfully, such an event is not predicted to happen for a long time yet, but the scientists have been able to model the possible effects of such waves and such information may prove useful in predicting the devastation caused by earthquakes.

Source: New Scientist

Buoyant whales (date 11/09/01)

A team of biologists at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusettes has confirmed previously anecdotal evidence that Atlantic right whales float more easily than other species of whale. By tagging the whales with acoustic devices they were able to track the right whales during dives. Whereas other species could only reach a few tens of metres below the surface before sinking, the right whales were able to reach the surface. The scientists believe that this results in the right whales being less manouevreable near the surface.

Source: New Scientist

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