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Doug Mellgren, Associated Press

Feb. 26, 2008 -- A "doomsday" seed vault built to protect millions of food crops from climate change, wars and natural disasters opened Tuesday deep within an Arctic mountain in the remote Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard.

"The The Svalbard Global Seed Vault is our insurance policy," Norway's Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg told delegates at the opening ceremony. "It is the Noah's Ark for securing biological diversity for future generations."

European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso and 2004 Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai of Kenya were among the dozens of guests who had bundled up for the ceremony inside the vault, about 425 feet deep inside a frozen mountain.

"This is a frozen Garden of Eden," Barroso said.

The vault will serve as a backup for hundreds of other seed banks worldwide. It has the capacity to store 4.5 million seed samples from around the world and shield them from man-made and natural disasters.

Dug into the permafrost of the mountain, it has been built to withstand an earthquake or a nuclear strike.
Norway owns the vault in Svalbard, a frigid archipelago about 620 miles from the North Pole.

It paid $9.1 million for construction, which took less than a year. Other countries can deposit seeds without charge and reserve the right to withdraw them upon need.

The operation is funded by the Global Crop Diversity Trust, which was founded by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization and Biodiversity International, a Rome-based research group.

"Crop diversity will soon prove to be our most potent and indispensable resource for addressing climate change, water and energy supply constraints, and for meeting the food needs of a growing population," said Cary Fowler, head of the Global Crop Diversity Trust.

Svalbard is cold, but giant air conditioning units have chilled the vault further to -0.4 Fahrenheit, a temperature at which experts say many seeds could last for 1,000 years.

Stoltenberg and Maathai delivered the first box of seeds to the vault during the opening ceremony--a container of rice seeds from 104 countries.

"This is unique. This is very visionary. It is a precaution for the future," Maathai, a Crop Diversity Trust board member, told The Associated Press after the ceremony.

The seeds are packed in silvery foil containers--as many as 500 in each sample--and placed on blue and orange metal shelves inside three 32-foot-by-88-foot storage chambers. Each vault can hold 1.5 million sample packages of all types of crop seeds, from carrots to wheat.

Construction leader Magnus Bredeli-Tveiten said the vault is designed to withstand earthquakes--successfully tested by a 6.2-magnitude temblor off Svalbard last week--and even a direct nuclear strike.

Many other seed banks are in less protected areas. For example, war wiped out seed banks in Iraq and Afghanistan, and one in the Philippines was flooded in the wake of a typhoon in 2006.

Larry O'Hanlon, Discovery News

March 31, 2008 -- A new report of tiny beads of meteor impact glass strewn high in Antarctica's Transantarctic Mountains may expand a debris field to a tenth of Earth's surface -- despite no sign of the crater which spewed out the molten rock 800,000 years ago.

The accidental discovery of the glass "microtektites" in the high mountains of Antarctica extends what's called the Australasian tektite strewn field south by nearly 2,000 miles (3,000 kilometers).

The microtektites were found while a team of researchers were searching the exposed rocks atop the Transantarctic Frontier Mountain for more pieces of an unrelated meteorite that disintegrated in the skies there long ago.

"The gradiometer kept on beeping at every fracture of the granitic bedrock surface," recalled Italian researcher Luigi Folco of the Museo Nazionale dell'Antartide, Università di Siena and the Italian Programma Nazionale delle Ricerche in Antartide.

A magnetic gradiometer detects minute changes in magnetic fields caused by rocks containing magnetic minerals. The most likely cause for the beeping was magnetic minerals in volcanic ash from one of the relatively recent volcanoes in the region.

"When we get back to the lab, to our great surprise, we found thousands of micrometeorite and cosmic spherules thus explaining the magnetic signal," Folco told Discovery News.

But they also found glass spheres 0.5 millimeter in diameter with a pale-yellow color, which is unusual for glassy cosmic spherules, which are the debris of meteors melting in Earth's atmosphere.

The chemical composition of the yellow spheres revealed them to be Earth rocks. That meant there was only one likely way they could have been created -- in the heat of an impact, which flung melted rock into space and then rained back down, cooling and solidifying into spheres while in free fall.

The discovery was written up and reported in the April issue of the journal Geology.

The analysis of the microtektites revealed they are similar enough in appearance, composition and age to represent the edges of the Australasian strewnfield, said Folco. That strewnfield already had been found to extend from the Indian Ocean to the Pacific.

"It's a pretty big strewn field," said tektite pioneer and professor emeritus Bill Glass of the University of Delaware.

Larger tektites from the impact have been found all over Australia and smaller microtektites have been extracted from the bottom of the Indian Ocean, he told Discovery News. But this is the first good evidence that the debris might have been flung even further, he explained.

"You'd think that something that big would be easy to find," said Glass. "It's a real puzzle."

The most likely location of the hidden crater is somewhere in Indochina, said Glass. One possibility is that the meteor struck down on what is the sea floor today. But 800,000 years ago, an ice age would have lowered the sea level and exposed the seafloor. Since then it could have been buried by marine sediments.

Randolph E. Schmid, Associated Press

Feb. 28, 2008 -- Those beautiful snowflakes drifting out of the sky may have a surprise inside--bacteria.

Most snow and rain forms in chilly conditions high in the sky and atmospheric scientists have long known that, under most conditions, the moisture needs something to cling to in order to condense.

Now, a new study shows a surprisingly large share of those so-called nucleators turn out to be bacteria that can affect plants.

"Bacteria are by far the most active ice nuclei in nature," said Brent C. Christner, an assistant professor of biological sciences at Louisiana State University.

Christner and colleagues sampled snow from Antarctica, France, Montana and the Yukon and they report their findings in Friday's edition of the journal Science.

In some samples as much as 85 percent of the nuclei were bacteria, Christner said in a telephone interview. The bacteria were most common in France, followed by Montana and the Yukon, and was even present to a lesser degree in Antarctica.

The most common bacteria found was Pseudomonas syringae, which can cause disease in several types of plants including tomatoes and beans.

The study found it in 20 samples of snow from around the world and subsequent research has also found it in summer rainfall in Louisiana.

The focus on Pseudomonas in the past has been to try and eliminate it, Christner said, but now that it turns out to be a major factor in encouraging snow and rain, he wonders if that is a good idea. Would elimination of this bacteria result in less rain or snow, or would it be replaced by other nuclei such as soot and dust?

"The question is, are they a good guy or a bad guy," he said, "and I don't have the answer to that."

What is clear is that Pseudomonas is effective at getting moisture in a cloud to condense, he pointed out. Killed bacteria are even used as an additive in snow making at ski resorts.

Which raises the question, Christner said, of whether planting crops known to be infected by Pseudomonas in areas experiencing drought might help increase precipitation there by adding more nuclei to the atmosphere.

It has been known that microbes and insects and algae blow around in the atmosphere, Christner added, "but the atmosphere has not been recognized as a place where things are active. That has been changing in the last decade. In a cloud you've got water, organic carbon," everything necessary to support a microorganism.

Virginia K. Walker, a biologist at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario, Canada, said other researchers have found bacteria serving as snow nuclei, but had not identified it as Pseudomonas.

"It's one of those great bacteria ... you can find them anywhere," said Walker, who was not part of the research team. "They are really interesting."

Charles Knight, a cloud physics expert at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo., wasn't surprised by the finding, however.

At relatively warm temperatures of just a few degrees below freezing, bacteria are "remarkably effective" at attracting ice formation, said Knight, who also was not part of the research group.

The study was supported by a Louisiana State University research grant.

In a second paper published online by Science, researchers report that the amount of dust blown into the tropical Pacific over the last half-million years has varied widely between warm and cold periods.

Dust also has important impacts on weather and climate ranging from serving as nuclei for rain to blocking some incoming radiation from the sun, and it also delivers minerals like iron that increase growth of plankton in ocean areas.

Cores of seafloor sediment were taken from locations across the tropical Pacific covering a period of 500,000 years.

Researchers led by Gisela Winckler of the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University found that dust deposited in the ocean peaked during cold periods and was less during warm periods. Using isotopes, the scientists traced the dust on the western side to Asia and that on the eastern side to South America.

They say the reasons for the change are complex but in general it tends to be windier in cold periods meaning more dust gets blown around.

They found that cold peaks occurred about every 100,000 years, with the last one at 20,000 years ago.

The research was supported by the National Science Foundation and the Earth Institute at Columbia University.

Larry O'Hanlon, Discovery News

March 11, 2008 -- One of the longest-running mysteries in the U.S. National Parks has been solved: The crater-like Upheaval Dome in Utah's Canyonlands National Park was caused by a meteor impact, say German researchers. 

For decades geologists have debated whether the picturesque "Sphinx of Geology," viewed by millions of park visitors, was created by a volcanic outburst, an eruption of salt or a meteor impact. Then a crucial clue was discovered: "shocked quartz," which can be created only by the intense pressures of a violent meteor impact. 

"This is great news because finally, after so many years of searching, the final clue that Upheaval Dome is an impact structure has been discovered," said impact crater researcher Christian Koeberl of the University of Vienna in Austria. "Their data are convincing."

The discovery was made by German researchers Elmar Buchner and Thomas Kenkmann, who published their findings in the March issue of the journal Geology. Surprisingly, the shocked grains of quartz were located not at the center of the crater, but off to one side, suggesting that the meteor struck the Earth at an angle. 

"Discovery of shock metamorphic a requirement to 'nail' the impact origin of a feature, and they have done it," Koeberl told Discovery News. 

In the 1930s, Upheaval Dome was interpreted as a volcanic feature by one geologist. Thirty years later, in the 1960s, another geologist proposed that it was the result of ancient sea salts buried under the rock. The salt, less dense than rock, rises up in the ground -- like a drop of oil rising up through water -- and buoys up the rock into a dome. 

The meteor impact idea wasn't officially taken up by any researchers until the 1980s, and remained inconclusive until now.

"The very controversial debate about Upheaval Dome's origin has lasted nearly a century, over the course of which extremely different hypotheses (gradualism versus catastrophism) have been proposed," report Buchner and Kenkmann. 

The debate has, in fact, reflected a historical divide of ideas in geology over those decades. 

On one hand there were the "gradualists" who adhered to the idea that just about everything we see on the planet today is the result of gradual processes still at work -- glaciers moving, rains falling, rivers flowing, etc. Gradualism was considered heretical when it was proposed by James Hutton in the late 18th century because it implies the Earth was tremendously older than some Biblical scholars had claimed. 

These Biblical scholars cited such catastrophes as Noah's flood to explain such geological oddities as marine fossils atop mountains. These early "catastrophists" tended to ignore evidence that went against their Biblical interpretation of the geological record. In other words, they weren't very scientific. 

As a result, geologists are trained to tread very carefully wherever extraordinary events are being called on to explain geological features. The trouble is, of course, there are some things like Upheaval Dome, which are, as we now know, genuine creations of extraordinary -- albeit non-Biblical -- catastrophic events.

Ray Lilley, Associated Press

March 21, 2008 -- Scientists who conducted the most comprehensive survey to date of New Zealand's Antarctic waters were surprised by the size of some specimens found, including jellyfish with 12-foot tentacles and 2-foot-wide starfish.

A 2,000-mile journey through the Ross Sea that ended Thursday has also potentially turned up several new species, including as many as eight new mollusks.

It's "exciting when you come across a new species," said Chris Jones, a fisheries scientist at the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. "All the fish people go nuts about that -- but you have to take it with a grain of salt."

The finds must still be reviewed by experts to determine if they are in fact new, said Stu Hanchet, a fisheries scientist at New Zealand's National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research.

But beyond the discovery of new species, scientists said the survey, the most comprehensive to date in the Ross Sea, turned up other surprises.

Hanchet singled out the discovery of "fields" of sea lilies that stretched for hundreds of yards across the ocean floor.

"Some of these big meadows of sea lilies I don't think anybody has seen before," Hanchet said.
Previously only small-scale scientific samplings have been staged in the Ross Sea.

The survey was part of the International Polar Year program involving 23 countries in 11 voyages to survey marine life and habitats around Antarctica. The program hopes to set benchmarks for determining the effects of global warming on Antarctica, researchers said.

Large sea spiders, jellyfish with 12-foot tentacles, huge sea snails and starfish the size of big food platters were found during a 50-day voyage, marine scientist Don Robertson said.

Cold temperatures, a small number of predators, high levels of oxygen in the sea water and even longevity could explain the size of some specimens, said Robertson, a scientist with NIWA.

Robertson added that of the 30,000 specimens collected, hundreds might turn out to be new species.

Stefano Schiaparelli, a mollusk specialist at Italy's National Antarctic Museum in Genoa, said he thought the find would yield at least eight new mollusks.

"This is a new brick in the wall of Antarctic knowledge," Schiaparelli said.

Associated Press

Feb. 20, 2008 -- Scientists investigating the icy waters of Antarctica said they have collected mysterious creatures including giant sea spiders and huge worms in the murky depths.

Australian experts taking part in an international program to take a census of marine life in the ocean at the far south of the world collected specimens from up to 6,500 feet beneath the surface, and said many may never have been seen before.

Some of the animals far under the sea grow to unusually large sizes, a phenomenon called gigantism that scientists still do not fully understand.

"Gigantism is very common in Antarctic waters," Martin Riddle, the Australian Antarctic Division scientist who led the expedition, said in a statement. "We have collected huge worms, giant crustaceans and sea spiders the size of dinner plates."

The French and Japanese ships sought specimens from the mid- and upper-level environment, while the Australian ship plumbed deeper waters with remote-controlled cameras.

"In some places every inch of the sea floor is covered in life," Riddle said. "In other places we can see deep scars and gouges where icebergs scour the sea floor as they pass by."

Among the bizarre-looking creatures the scientists spotted were tunicates, plankton-eating animals that resemble slender glass structures up to a yard tall "standing in fields like poppies," Riddle said.

Other animals were equally baffling.

"They had fins in various places, they had funny dangly bits around their mouths," Riddle told reporters. "They were all bottom dwellers so they were all evolved in different ways to live down on the sea bed in the dark. So many of them had very large eyes -- very strange looking fish."

Scientists are planning a follow-up expedition in 10 to 15 years to examine the effects of climate changes on the region's environment.

The specimens were being sent to universities and museums around the world for identification, tissue sampling and DNA studies.

"Not all of the creatures that we found could be identified and it is very likely that some new species will be recorded as a result of these voyages," said Graham Hosie, head of the census project.

The expedition is part of an ambitious international effort to map life forms in the Antarctic Ocean, also known as the Southern Ocean, and to study the impact of forces such as climate change on the undersea environment.

Three ships -- Aurora Australis from Australia, France's L'Astrolabe and Japan's Umitaka Maru -- returned recently from two months in the region as part of the Collaborative East Antarctic Marine Census. The work is part of a larger project to map the biodiversity of the world's oceans.

Seth Borentstein, Associated Press

Jan. 11, 2008 -- The deeper astronomers gaze into the cosmos, the more they find it's a bizarre and violent universe.  The research findings from this week's annual meeting of U.S. astronomers range from blue orphaned baby stars to menacing "rogue" black holes that roam our galaxy.

"It's an odd universe we live in," said Vanderbilt University astronomer Kelly Holley-Bockelmann. She presented her theory on rogue black holes at the American Astronomical Society's meeting in Austin, Texas, earlier this week.

It should be noted that she's not worried, and you shouldn't be either. The odds of one of these black holes swallowing up Earth or the sun or wreaking other havoc is somewhere around 1 in 10 quadrillion in any given year.

"This is the glory of the universe," added J. Craig Wheeler, president of the astronomy association. "What is odd and what is normal is changing."

Just five years ago, astronomers were gazing at a few thousand galaxies where stars formed in a bizarre and violent manner. Now the number is in the millions, thanks to more powerful telescopes and supercomputers to crunch the crucial numbers streaming in from space, said Wheeler, a University of Texas astronomer.

Scientists are finding that not only are they improving their understanding of the basic questions of the universe -- such as how did it all start and where is it all going -- they also keep stumbling upon unexpected, hard-to-explain cosmic quirks and the potential, but comfortably distant, dangers.

Much of what they keep finding plays out like a stellar version of a violent Quentin Tarantino movie. The violence surrounds and approaches Earth, even though our planet is safe and "in a pretty quiet neighborhood," said Wheeler, author of the book "Cosmic Catastrophes."

One example is an approaching gas cloud discussed at the meeting Friday. The cloud has a mass 1 million times that of the sun. It is 47 quadrillion miles away. But it's heading toward our Milky Way galaxy at 150 miles per second. And when it hits, there will be fireworks that form new stars and "really light up the neighborhood," said astronomer Jay Lockman at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in West Virginia.

But don't worry. It will hit a part of the Milky Way far from Earth and the biggest collision will be 40 million years in the future.

The giant cloud has been known for more than 40 years, but only now have scientists realized how fast it's moving. So fast, Lockman said, that "we can see it sort of plowing up a wave of galactic material in front of it."

When astronomers this week unveiled a giant map of mysterious dark matter in a super-cluster of galaxies, they explained that the violence of the cramped-together galaxies is so great that there is now an accepted vocabulary for various types of cosmic brutal behavior.

The gravitational force between the clashing galaxies can cause "slow strangulation," in which crucial gas is gradually removed from the victim galaxy. "Stripping" is a more violent process in which the larger galaxy rips gas from the smaller one. And then there's "harassment," which is a quick fly-by encounter, said astronomer Meghan Gray of the University of Nottingham in the United Kingdom.

Gray's presentation essentially showed the victims of galaxy-on-galaxy violence. She and her colleagues are trying to figure out the how the dirty deeds were done.

In the past few days, scientists have unveiled plenty to ooh and aah over:

Photos of "blue blobs" that astronomers figure are orphaned baby stars. They're called orphans because they were "born in the middle of nowhere" instead of within gas clouds, said Catholic University of America astronomer Duilia F. de Mello.

*A strange quadruplet of four hugging stars, which may eventually help astronomers understand better how stars form. 

*A young star surrounded by dust, that may eventually become a planet. It's nicknamed "the moth," because the interaction of star and dust are shaped like one. 

*A spiral galaxy with two pairs of arms spinning in opposite directions, like a double pinwheel. It defies what astronomers believe should happen. It is akin to one of those spinning-armed flamingo lawn ornaments, said astronomer Gene Byrd of the University of Alabama. 

*The equivalent of post-menopausal stars giving unlikely birth to new planets. Most planets form soon after a sun, but astronomers found two older stars, one at least 400 million years old, with new planets. 

"Intellectually and spiritually, if I can use that word with a lower case 's,' it's awe-inspiring," Wheeler said. "It's a great universe."

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