Category Archives: Science and Environment

TOP STORIES, Science and Environment

Call to ban killer robots in wars”:


This is not about terminator robots but “conventional weapons systems with autonomy”

A group of scientists has called for a ban on the development of weapons controlled by artificial intelligence (AI).

It says that autonomous weapons may malfunction in unpredictable ways and kill innocent people.

Ethics experts also argue that it is a moral step too far for AI systems to kill without any human intervention.

The comments were made at the American Association for the Advancement of Science meetingin Washington DC.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) is one of the 89 non-governmental organisations from 50 countries that have formed the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, to press for an international treaty.

Among those leading efforts for the worldwide ban is HRW’s Mary Wareham.

“We are not talking about walking, talking terminator robots that are about to take over the world; what we are concerned about is much more imminent: conventional weapons systems with autonomy,” she told BBC News.

“They are beginning to creep in. Drones are the obvious example, but there are also military aircraft that take off, fly and land on their own; robotic sentries that can identify movement. These are precursors to autonomous weapons.”

Ryan Gariepy, chief technological officer at Clearpath Robotics, backs the ban proposal.

His company takes military contracts, but it has denounced AI systems for warfare and stated that it would not develop them.

“When they fail, they fail in unpredictable ways,” he told BBC News.

“As advanced as we are, the state of AI is really limited by image recognition. It is good but does not have the detail or context to be judge, jury and executioner on a battlefield.

“An autonomous system cannot make a decision to kill or not to kill in a vacuum. The de-facto decision has been made thousands of miles away by developers, programmers and scientists who have no conception of the situation the weapon is deployed in.”

According to Peter Asaro, of the New School in New York, such a scenario raises issues of legal liability if the system makes an unlawful killing.

“The delegation of authority to kill to a machine is not justified and a violation of human rights because machines are not moral agents and so cannot be responsible for making decisions of life and death.

“So it may well be that the people who made the autonomous weapon are responsible.”

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Pangolins: Rare insight into world’s most trafficked mammal”:


A study is being conducted by conservationists from Chester Zoo

The secret life of the world’s most trafficked mammal, the pangolin, has been caught on camera in Africa.

Footage gives a rare insight into the behaviour of the giant pangolin, the largest of all the scaly animals.

Observed by remote-operated cameras, a baby takes a ride on its mother’s back, while an adult climbs a tree.

Scientists are releasing the footage to highlight the plight of the animals, which are being pushed to extinction by illegal hunting for scales and meat.

Large numbers of their scales have been seized this month alone, including Malaysia’s biggest-ever interception of smuggled pangolin products.

The images and video clips of giant pangolins, one of four species in Africa, were taken at Uganda’s Ziwa sanctuary, where the animals live alongside protected rhinos and are safe from poaching.

Stuart Nixon of Chester Zoo’s Africa Field Programme said much of their behaviour has never been recorded before.

“We know so little about this species, almost everything we’re picking up on camera traps this year as a behaviour is a new thing,” he told BBC News.

The giant pangolin: The largest of the eight pangolin species
The giant pangolin: The largest of the eight species
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Pangolins

  • Sometimes called scaly anteaters, they are the only mammals in the world to be covered in protective scales
  • Their scales are made of keratin, the same material found in human fingernails
  • Pangolins lap up ants and termites with their long sticky tongues
  • There are four species in Africa -the African white-bellied pangolin, giant ground pangolin, ground pangolin and black-bellied pangolin
  • The giant pangolin, found in the rainforests and grasslands of equatorial Africa, is the biggest, measuring up to 1.8m long and weighing up to 75lbs.
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The pangolin is said to be the most widely trafficked mammal in the world.

Its scales are in high demand in Asia for use in traditional Chinese medicine, despite there being no medical benefit for their use, while its meat is considered a delicacy in some countries.

This week, authorities in Malaysia seized more than 27 tonnes of pangolins and their scales – believed to be worth at least £1.6m – on Borneo, in the biggest such haul in the country.

Pangolins are regarded as a delicacy in some countries
They are regarded as a delicacy in some countries

The wildlife monitoring group Traffic said police had discovered two big pangolin-processing facilities stocked with thousands of boxes of meat in the eastern state of Sabah.

“It is hoped that comprehensive investigations can lead to unmasking the syndicate and networks operating from the state and beyond,” said Kanitha Krishnasamy, Traffic’s director in Southeast Asia.

The discovery comes just days after 10 tonnes of scales were intercepted in Vietnam, Hong Kong and Uganda.

Scientists say the plight of the animals looks bleak, and they have no idea how many are left in the wild.

Pangolin scales intercepted on Borneo
Pangolin scales intercepted on Borneo

Stuart Nixon, who is working in collaboration with the Uganda Wildlife Authority and the Rhino Fund Uganda on the project, said they are encountered so rarely in the wild that there is not enough data to allow a decent estimate.

A study is under way to survey and monitor giant pangolins at the site as the first step towards identifying their strongholds.

“This species is literally being wiped out, it’s being obliterated across central Africa, there’s no doubt about that,” he added. “Trying to get people engaged and to care about pangolins is really the key step.”

Sam Mwandha of the Uganda Wildlife Authority added: “These rare glimpses into the lives of giant pangolins are very exciting for those of us dedicated to protecting Uganda’s rich wildlife and challenges us to ensure that we protect and conserve this highly threatened species for future generations.”

Endurance: Search for Shackleton’s lost ship begins.”


Antarctic scientists seeking to locate the wreck of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s lost ship, the Endurance, have arrived at the search site.

The team broke through thick pack ice on Sunday to reach the vessel’s last known position in the Weddell Sea.

Robotic submersibles will now spend the next few days scouring the ocean floor for the maritime icon.

Shackleton and his crew had to abandon Endurance in 1915 when it was crushed by sea ice and sank in 3,000m of water.

Their escape across the frozen floes on foot and in lifeboats is an extraordinary story that has resonated down through the years – and makes the wooden polar yacht perhaps the most sought-after of all undiscovered wrecks.

The British-led Weddell Sea Expedition has given itself five days to find the sunken remains.

Operating from the South African ice-breaker, the SA Agulhas II, the team’s plan is to put down an autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) to map the seafloor for anomalies.

A wide box has been designated, and the robot, equipped with side-scan sonar, will run back and forth across this search zone like a lawnmower. Its first dive will last 45 hours.

the SA Agulhas II
The SA Agulhas II will have to keep holes in the sea-ice open to operate the subs

There will be no attempt to retrieve artefacts should the Endurance be found. The intention only is to make a 3D model of the wreck site.

The search will be challenging because of the sea ice at the surface. The Agulhas will have to periodically shift its hull to maintain open holes in the floes, through which to launch and recover AUVs.

Frank Worsley (Scott Polar Research Institute, University of Cambridge, with permission )
Frank Worsley used his sextant to record the position of the sinking

Scientists are extremely confident they are in the right place to find Endurance.

Shackleton’s skipper, Frank Worsely, was a very skilled navigator and used a sextant and chronometer to calculate the precise co-ordinates of the Endurance sinking – 68°39’30.0″ South and 52°26’30.0″ West.

The ship is almost certainly within a few nautical miles of this point – and there is every chance it is in reasonable condition.

The organisms that normally consume sunken wooden vessels do not thrive in the cold waters of the Antarctic, so even though the Endurance was broken when it went down, its timbers are most probably well preserved on the ocean floor.

Map
The Agulhas made good progress to the search site last week after picking up supplies

Just getting to the search site is a remarkable effort. The Agulhas has had to fight its way through ice that has thickened over several years.

Unlike Shackleton, however, the Weddell Sea Expedition team has been assisted by satellite ice charts, which make picking a way through the floes a lot easier.

The significance of the moment was not lost on the expedition’s marine archaeologist, Mensun Bound: “We are the first people here since Shackleton and his men!” he was quoted as saying.

Endurance
If it’s found, no attempt will be made to raise artefacts

Climate change: World heading for warmest decade, says Met Office”:


The world is in the middle of what is likely to be the warmest 10 years since records began in 1850, say scientists.

The Met Office is forecasting that temperatures for each of the next five years are likely to be 1C or more above pre-industrial levels.

In the next five years there’s also a chance we’ll see a year in which the average global temperature rise could be greater than 1.5C.

That’s seen as a critical threshold for climate change.

If the data matches the forecast, then the decade from 2014-2023 will be the warmest in more than 150 years of record keeping.

Will the forecast temperature rises bust the Paris climate agreement?

The Met Office says that 2015 was the first year in which the global annual average surface temperature reached 1C above the pre-industrial level, which is generally taken to mean the temperatures between 1850 and 1900.

Each year since then, the global average has hovered close to or above the 1C mark. Now, the Met Office says that trend is likely to continue or increase over the next five years.

Warmest decade infographic

“We’ve just made this year’s forecasts and they go out to 2023 and what they suggest is rapid warming globally,” Prof Adam Scaife, head of long term forecasting at the Met Office, told BBC News.

“By looking at individual years in that forecast we can now see for the first time, there is a risk of a temporary, and I repeat temporary, exceedance of the all-important 1.5C threshold level set out in the Paris climate agreement.”

Last October, UN scientists published a special report on the long-term impacts of a temperature rise of 1.5C.

They concluded that it would take a massive carbon cutting effort to keep the world from tipping over the limit by 2030. The Met Office analysis now says there’s a 10% chance of this happening within the next five years.

“It’s the first time the forecasts have shown a significant risk of exceedance – it is only temporary. We are talking about individual years fluctuating above the 1.5 degree level,” said Prof Scaife.

“But the fact that that can happen now due to a combination of general warming and the fluctuations due to things like El Niño events in the next few years does mean we are getting close to that threshold.”

Met office graphic
Temperature data for the five major global climate databases

How confident is the Met Office of its prediction?

The Met Office says it has a 90% confidence limit in the forecasts for the years ahead.

It says that from 2019 to 2023, we will see temperatures ranging from 1.03C to 1,57C above the 1850-1900 level, with enhanced warming over much of the globe, especially over areas like the Arctic.

The research team says it is pretty certain in its predictions because of its past experience. The team’s previous forecast, made in 2013, predicted the rapid rate of warming that’s been observed over the past five years. It even predicted some of the lesser known details such as the patch of cooling seen in the North Atlantic and the cooler spots in the Southern Ocean.

If the observations over the next five years match the forecasts, then the decade between 2014 and 2023 will be the warmest in more than 150 years of records.

What about other climate agencies?

The Met Office forecast comes as a number of agencies publish their full analysis of temperature data from 2018, showing it to be the fourth warmest since records began in 1850.

The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) has published an analysis of five major international datasets showing that the 20 warmest years on record have been in the past 22.

“Temperatures are only part of the story. Extreme and high impact weather affected many countries and millions of people, with devastating repercussions for economies and ecosystems in 2018,” said WMO Secretary-General Petteri Taalas.

hot city

“Many of the extreme weather events are consistent with what we expect from a changing climate. This is a reality we need to face up to. Greenhouse gas emission reduction and climate adaptation measures should be a top global priority,” he said.

Other researchers in the field said the new forecast for the next five years was in line with expectations, given the record level of CO2 pumped into the atmosphere in 2018.

“The forecast from the Met Office is, unfortunately, no surprise,” said Dr Anna Jones, an atmospheric chemist at the British Antarctic Survey.

“Temperatures averaged across the globe are at a record all-time high, and have been for a number of years. They are driven predominantly by rising concentrations of greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide, that result from our continued use of fossil fuels.

“Until we reduce greenhouse gas emissions, we can expect to see upward trends in global averaged temperatures.”

Shark on UK plates highlights trade in endangered species…


Spiny dogfish shark landed in Indonesia

Meat from endangered sharks is finding its way on to the British menu, according to a study.

DNA tests show that shark products destined for restaurants include two species vulnerable to extinction.

Consumers may be unaware what shark they are eating – and whether it is from a sustainable population, British scientists say.

The UK is playing a continuing role in the “damaging trade in endangered shark species”, they say.

One of the two threatened sharks identified – the scalloped hammerhead – is subject to international restrictions.

University of Exeter researchers say, despite the small number of samples studied, they have demonstrated the sale of threatened sharks, highlighting the global nature of the damaging trade in endangered species.

“The discovery of scalloped hammerheads in shark fins that were destined to be sold in the UK highlights how widespread the sale of these endangered species really is,” Dr Andrew Griffiths told BBC News.

Shark fins
Shark fins: The species is indistinguishable

The research, reported in the journal Scientific Reports , examined both shark fins destined for restaurants and shark steaks sold in fishmongers and chip shops.

It found that Squalus acanthias (spiny dogfish) , a small shark classed vulnerable to extinction, globally – and, for one population in the north-east Atlantic, endangered, was the main shark being sold at chip shops, under the generic name huss, rock, rock salmon or rock eel.

The shark was probably imported from areas where stocks are sustainable, and generic names are permitted – but the scientists say it is difficult for customers to tell exactly what type of shark they are eating and where it comes from.

“It’s almost impossible for consumers to know what they are buying,” said Catherine Hobbs, also of the University of Exeter.

“People might think they’re getting a sustainably sourced product when they’re actually buying a threatened species.”

The scalloped hammerhead shark was identified among 10 shark fins imported for the UK restaurant trade. The fins are often used to make soup, a celebratory dish in some Asian cuisines.

How do we know that sharks are ending up on the British dinner plate?

Once shark meat is processed, it is difficult to tell which species it comes from. Therefore, the scientists carried out DNA tests to see what was entering the human food chain.

They gathered more than 100 samples from chip shops and supermarkets in southern England. They also looked at dried shark fins imported into the UK.

A type of DNA analysis, known as DNA bar-coding, gave an insight into the shark species on sale.

A fragment of DNA can be matched with an online database known as the bar-code of life to identify the animal.

What did the study find?

Of the 78 samples on sale at chips shops in 2016 and 2017, about 90% came from the spiny dogfish.

Landing this shark is generally not permitted under EU rules, although that on sale was probably sourced from more sustainable stocks elsewhere, then imported and frozen, the scientists say.

The spiny dogfish
The spiny dogfish is at threat due to overfishing

Of the 39 fresh and frozen samples obtained from fishmongers, about half were assigned toMustelus asterias (starry smooth hound) , a type of hound-shark. This shark is judged of least concern in terms of extinction risk.

The Sphyrna lewini (scalloped hammerhead)was found in three of 10 dried shark fins on sale in the UK. These may have been imported and stored before international restrictions came into force in 2014.

This shark, which is not found in UK waters, is targeted for its fins and is in decline.

Where is shark meat eaten?

Shark meat is eaten across the world and has been part of the human diet for centuries.

But between 2000 and 2011, global imports of sharks, skates, rays and other cartilaginous fishes rose by 42%, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

The international trade in 12 species is regulated because of concern over extinction risks.

But there is debate among scientists over which – if any – sharks can be regarded as sustainable and harvested for food.

“Sharks are inherently more vulnerable to overfishing because they don’t produce many eggs and they take a long time to reach maturity – to be able to produce offspring,” said Dr Griffiths.

Follow Helen on Twitter .

Oscars 2019: The Favourite and Roma lead nominations


By mr ben rory

Olivia Colman’s period comedy-drama The Favourite and Netflix’s black-and-white epic Roma lead this year’s Oscar race, with 10 nominations each.

The other contenders include A Star Is Born andVice with eight each, followed by Black Pantherwith seven.

Black Panther is the first superhero movie to be nominated for best picture.

Colman is among the British acting nominees, alongside her co-star Rachel Weisz andChristian Bale for Vice.

Black Panther
Black Panther’s nominations include best picture, best song and best costume design

Films with the most nominations:

  • 10 – The Favourite, Roma
  • 8 – A Star Is Born, Vice
  • 7 – Black Panther
  • 6 – BlacKkKlansman
  • 5 – Bohemian Rhapsody, Green Book
  • 4 – First Man, Mary Poppins Returns
Yalitza Aparicio in Roma
Newcomer Yalitza Aparicio is up for best actress for playing a Mexican maid in Roma

Colman’s strongest competition in the best actress category is likely to come from Glenn Close , who is odds-on favourite to win her first Academy Award for The Wife after six previous nominations, according to bookmakers,

Yalitza Aparicio is nominated for her first screen role, as the Mexican maid in Roma. The film has also given Netflix its first ever best picture nomination.

The best actress category also includes Melissa McCarthy for Can You Ever Forgive Me? andLady Gaga for A Star Is Born.

Gaga’s co-star Bradley Cooper is nominated in the best actor category, but the frontrunners for that statuette are two men who earned acclaim for portraying real-life public figures.

Rami Malek won rave reviews for playing Queen singer Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody , while Bale transformed into former US Vice-President Dick Cheney with the help of prosthetics in Vice.

Richard E Grant and Melissa McCarthy in Can You Ever Forgive Me?
Richard E Grant stars with Melissa McCarthy in Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Richard E Grant has received his first ever Oscar nomination, for best supporting actor for his role in the film Can You Ever Forgive Me?

The Withnail & I star was among the first 2019 nominees to be announced, alongsideMahershala Ali Adam Driver Sam Elliott andSam Rockwell .

Weisz is up for best supporting actress, as areAmy Adams Marina de Tavira Regina Kingand Emma Stone .

The ceremony will take place on 24 February.

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Analysis by BBC Reality Check

It’s been a pretty good year for diversity in Oscar nominations by the standards of the last decade.

Chart showing ethnic diversity in Oscar nominations

In the four acting categories, there were five nominees from ethnic minorities (out of 20 possible nominations) – second only to the seven nominees in 2017.

There are also two best director nominees from ethnic minorities in Spike Lee and Alfonso Cuaron, the first time that has happened since 2014.

But still no sign of gender balance in the directing category – all five nominees this year are men.

There have only been two female nominees for best director in the last decade: Greta Gerwig, for Lady Bird last year, and Kathryn Bigelow, who won the Oscar for the Hurt Locker in 2010.

Golden Globes 2019: Red carpet in pictures


Science and Environment

Stars of film and TV gathered in Los Angeles on Sunday night for the 76th annual Golden Globes – the first major ceremony of the 2019 awards season.

Here are some of the best photos from the red carpet.

Phoebe Waller Bridge, Sandra Oh and Jodie Comer
GETTY IMAGES Be afraid. In fact, be terrified. Jodie Comer (right), who plays ruthless assassin Villanelle in TV drama Killing Eve, poses with her co-star Sandra Oh (centre) and Phoebe Waller-Bridge,  who adapted the series for the small screen
GETTY IMAGESAndy Samberg and Joanna Newsom
Sandra Oh is co-hosting the ceremony with Brooklyn Nine-Nine star Andy Samberg, who arrived on the red carpet with wife Joanna Newsom
GETTY IMAGESLady Gaga
Lady Gaga, who is the favourite to take home best actress (drama) for A Star Is Born, wore a lavender strapless gown with voluminous sleeves
GETTY IMAGESNicholas Hoult and Olivia Colman
The Favourite stars Nicholas Hoult and Olivia Colman appeared together on the red carpet. Appropriately, Colman is one of the favourites to take home an acting prize tonight
GETTY IMAGESJamie Lee Curtis
Halloween’s Jamie Lee Curtis broke box office records this year, scoring the biggest opening weekend ever for a film with a female lead actress over 55
GETTY IMAGESMolly Sims, Darren Criss and Heidi Klum
Florals were a popular choice on the red carpet – and not just with the women. Left-right: Molly Sims, Darren Criss and Heidi Klum
GETTY IMAGESGolden Globe ambassador Isan Elba (R), actor Idris Elba and his fiance Sabrina Dhowre
Idris Elba (centre) with his daughter Isan (right), one of this year’s Golden Globe ambassadors, and his fiance Sabrina Dhowre
GETTY IMAGESEmily Blunt, Glenn Close, Janelle Monae, Penelope Cruz
Left-right: Emily Blunt, Glenn Close, Janelle Monae and Penelope Cruz
GETTY IMAGESJameela Jamil
Jameela Jamil, the British star of The Good Place, looks glamorous on the red carpet, right? You’d never know she was wearing jeans under her dress to protect herself from the cold weather, as she revealed in a video posted on social media en route to the ceremony
JON KOPALOFFRosamund Pike
Among the British nominees is Rosamund Pike, who’s nominated for her portrayal of journalist Marie Colvin in A Private War
GETTY IMAGESGemma Chan (left) and Constance Wu
Gemma Chan (left) and Constance Wu appeared in Crazy Rich Asians – one of the biggest box office hits of the last year – which has two nominations
GTEJim Carrey and Ginger Gonzaga
Jim Carrey is nominated for his role in TV comedy Kidding, in which he stars alongside Ginger Gonzaga
GETTY IMAGESRegina King and Amy Adams
Regina King and Amy Adams are up against each other in two different categories – best supporting film actress and best TV limited series actress
FRAZER HARRISONBlack Panther stars Ryan Coogler, Danai Gurira, Michael B. Jordan, and Lupita Nyong'o
Black Panther stars Ryan Coogler, Danai Gurira, Michael B. Jordan, and Lupita Nyong’o
GETTY IMAGESBradley Cooper and Irina Shayk
Bradley Cooper, who directed and appeared in A Star Is Born, made a rare red carpet appearance with his partner, Russian supermodel Irina Shayk
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Nasa’s New Horizons: ‘Snowman’ shape of distant Ultima Thule revealed


By Jonathan Amos BBC Science Correspondent

Science and Environment


NASA/JHU-APL/SWRIThe "snowman"

The “snowman” completes a full rotation every 15 hours

The ice world known as Ultima Thule has finally been revealed.

A new picture returned from Nasa’s New Horizons spacecraft shows the little world to be two objects joined together – to give a look like a “snowman”.

The US probe’s images acquired as it approached Ultima hinted at the possibility of a double body, but the first detailed picture from Tuesday’s close flyby confirms it.

New Horizons encountered Ultima 6.5 billion km from Earth.

The event set a record for the most distant ever exploration of a Solar System object. The previous mark was also set by New Horizons when it flew past the dwarf planet Pluto in 2015.

But icy Ultima is 1.5 billion km further out.

It orbits the Sun in a region of the Solar System known as the Kuiper belt – a collection of debris and dwarf planets.

There are hundreds of thousands of Kuiper members like Ultima, and their frigid state almost certainly holds clues to how all planetary bodies came into being some 4.6 billion years ago.

The mission team thinks the two spheres that make up this particular object probably joined right at the beginning, or very shortly after.

The scientists have decided to call the larger lobe “Ultima”, and the smaller lobe “Thule”. The volume ratio is three to one.

Jeff Moore, a New Horizons co-investigator from Nasa’s Ames Research Center, said the pair would have come together at very low speed, at maybe 2-3km/h. He joked: “If you had a collision with another car at those speeds you may not even bother to fill out the insurance forms.”

NASA/JHU-APL/SWRIBrightness variations
Overall, Ultima Thule is dark, but there is quite a bit of brightness variation
NASA/JHU-APL/SWRIColour
One of the probe’s instruments recorded the colour (L) which has been laid over the high-resolution B&W image (C) to produce a combination (R)

The new data from Nasa’s spacecraft also shows just how dark the object is. Its brightest areas reflect just 13% of the light falling on them; the darkest, just 6%. That’s similar to potting soil, said Cathy Olkin, the mission’s deputy project scientist.

It has a tinge of colour, however. “We had a rough colour from Hubble but now we can definitely say that Ultima Thule is red,” added colleague Carly Howett.

“Our current theory as to why Ultima Thule is red is the irradiation of exotic ices.” Essentially, its surface has been “burnt” over the eons by the high-energy cosmic rays and X-rays that flood space.

NASA/JHU-APL/SWRIJubilation
The New Horizons team is celebrating an extraordinary achievement

Principal Investigator Alan Stern paid tribute to the skill of his team in acquiring the image as New Horizons flew past the object at 3,500km at closest approach.

The probe had to target Ultima very precisely to be sure of getting it centre-frame in the view of the cameras and other instruments onboard.

“[Ultima’s] only really the size of something like Washington DC, and it’s about as reflective as garden variety dirt, and it’s illuminated by a Sun that’s 1,900 times fainter than it is outside on a sunny day here on the Earth. We were basically chasing it down in the dark at 32,000mph (51,000km/h) and all that had to happen just right,” he said.

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Less than 1% of all the data gathered by New Horizons during the flyby has been downlinked to Earth. The slow data-rates from the Kuiper belt mean it will be fully 20 months before all the information is pulled off the spacecraft.

NASA/JHU-APL/SWRIThe "snowman"
New Horizons profile

What’s so special about the Kuiper belt?

Several factors make Ultima Thule, and the domain in which it moves, so interesting to scientists.

One is that the Sun is so dim in this region that temperatures are down near 30-40 degrees above absolute zero – the lower end of the temperature scale and the coldest atoms and molecules can possibly get. As a result, chemical reactions have essentially stalled. This means Ultima is in such a deep freeze that it is probably perfectly preserved in the state in which it formed.

Another factor is that Ultima is small (about 33km in the longest dimension), and this means it doesn’t have the type of “geological engine” that in larger objects will rework their composition.

And a third factor is just the nature of the environment. It’s very sedate in the Kuiper belt.

Unlike in the inner Solar System, there are probably very few collisions between objects. The Kuiper belt hasn’t been stirred up.

New Horizons’ Principal Investigator Alan Stern said: “Everything that we’re going to learn about Ultima – from its composition to its geology, to how it was originally assembled, whether it has satellites and an atmosphere, and that kind of thing – is going to teach us about the original formation conditions in the Solar System that all the other objects we’ve gone out and orbited, flown by and landed on can’t tell us because they’re either large and evolve, or they are warm. Ultima is unique.”

Solar System
Presentational white space

What does New Horizons do next?

First, the scientists must work on the Ultima data, but they will also ask Nasa to fund a further extension to the mission.

The hope is that the course of the spacecraft can be altered slightly to visit at least one more Kuiper belt object sometime in the next decade.

New Horizons should have just enough fuel reserves to be able to do this. Critically, it should also have sufficient electrical reserves to keep operating its instruments into the 2030s.

The longevity of New Horizon’s plutonium battery may even allow it to record its exit from the Solar System.

The two 1970s Voyager missions have both now left the heliosphere – the bubble of gas blown off our Sun (one definition of the Solar System’s domain). Voyager 2 only recently did it, in November.

And in case you were wondering, New Horizons will never match the Voyagers in terms of distance travelled from Earth. Although New Horizons was the fastest spacecraft ever launched in 2006, it continues to lose ground to the older missions. The reason: the Voyagers got a gravitational speed boost when they passed the outer planets. Voyager-1 is now moving at almost 17km/s; New Horizons is moving at 14km/s.

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The BBC’s Sky At Night programme will broadcast a special episode on the flyby on Sunday 13 January on BBC Four at 22:30 GMT. Presenter Chris Lintottwill review the event and discuss some of the new science to emerge from the encounter with the New Horizons team.

Jonathan.Amos-INTERNET@bbc.co.uk and follow me on Twitter: @BBCAmos

Science & Environment Matt McGrathEnvironment correspondent


Science and Environment

Trump

Image copyrightGETTY IMAGES
Image captionPresident Trump referred to temperature rises as he announced his intention to pull the US out of the Paris climate pact

President Trump’s announcement a year ago that he was withdrawing the US from the Paris climate agreement may have been the best and worst thing that could have happened to the deal, at the same time.

“The most important piece of good news, and it wasn’t a foregone conclusion, is that other countries have stayed in and doubled down on their general determination not to walk away, not to let the US ‘cancel’ the agreement,” said former US climate envoy Todd Stern, speaking at a meeting organised by the World Resources Institute in Washington this week.

Read full article


coal

Image copyrightGETTY IMAGES
Image captionThe Trump White House is determined to revive the fortunes of US coal at all costs

In California and the western US, wildfires made more likely by climate change, continue to rage in the vineyards and forests.

In President Trump’s Washington, a bonfire of climate regulations is also burning brightly.

Read full article


Hurricane MariaNASA
The swirling edges of Hurricane Maria seen from space as it slammed into Puerto Rico

The succession of intense and deadly tropical cyclones that have barrelled across the Atlantic in recent weeks have left many people wondering if a threshold of some sort has been crossed. Is this chain of hurricanes evidence of some significant new frontier in our changing climate?

The answer is mostly no, but with worrying undertones of yes.

Read full article


harveyGETTY IMAGES

The intensity of rain in the Houston area is being linked to rising global temperatures

When it comes to the causes of Hurricane Harvey, climate change is not a smoking gun.

However, there are a few spent cartridge cases marked global warming in the immediate vicinity.

Read full article


Donald TrumpEPA
President Trump went on the attack over what he sees as a bad deal for the US

President Trump’s statement is a very clear repudiation of the Paris climate agreement and international efforts to fund climate mitigation and adaptation in poorer countries.

In many ways it is far worse than many observers had expected.

Read full articleThe world’s not laughing, Donald, it’s crying


Fragile future for US nuclear power

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The Three Mile Island nuclear installation is set to close 40 years after a partial meltdown

No one died, there were no direct health impacts, but the Three Mile Island (TMI) nuclear accident burned so deeply into the US psyche that it has helped limit the future use of the power source across America.

A major factor in turning the accident into a “disaster” was timing. Just 12 days before the 1979 accident that saw a partial core meltdown at one of the two reactors at the Pennsylvania plant, The China Syndrome was released in cinemas across the US.

Read full articleFragile future for US nuclear power

Don’t tell the President: US team lauded at climate talks

Assailed by “enemies” on all sides, the most “unfairly” treated politician in the history of ever has at least had the consolation of knowing that his emissaries to the latest UN climate talks just finished in Bonn have followed his dictum to the letter. Or have they?

The new White House, in case you missed it, takes a very different view on climate change to a majority of countries in the world.

Read full articleDon’t tell the President: US team lauded at climate talks


SOS Ivanka! Can ‘first daughter’ save Paris climate deal?

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UN climate negotiators hope Ivanka Trump will heed their pleas on the Paris climate accord

Among the diplomats meeting here in Bonn, there’s a recognition that the person who’s really key to the future progress of climate talks is not in Germany but in the White House some 6,500km (4,000 miles) away.

It’s not you Mr Trump, it’s your official first daughter!

Read full articleSOS Ivanka! Can ‘first daughter’ save Paris climate deal?

Trump makes major change to US climate change narrative

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Coal fired power plants like this one faced restrictions under President Obama

“This is, I think, one of the most historic attacks on climate and environmental action that the US has ever seen,” said Liz Perera from the Sierra Club.

Her words are certain to cheer Trump supporters everywhere.

Read full articleTrump makes major change to US climate change narrative

Groundhog day for a keystone cop-out?

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Sections of the pipeline prepared but not yet used for Keystone XL

According to Donald Trump, the Keystone XL will be an “incredible pipeline”, but could it be that the official signing of the permit in the Oval Office will be the high point for this long-winded process?

Let’s look at some of the issues that might see TransCanada, the company behind the project, eventually walk away.

Read full articleGroundhog day for a keystone cop-out?

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Members of the local community have planted thousands of mangrove trees to help fight rising tides

“We’re not spending money on climate change any more,” said Mick Mulvaney, the White House budget director.

“We consider that to be a waste of your money to go out and do that.”

Read full articleTrump’s ‘drain the swamp’ budget to hit swamp dwellers

Oil change? Fossil fuel advocate to run State department

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Rex Tillerson is set to become Secretary of State in the Trump administration

Good news for environmental campaigners: President-elect Trump has finally nominated someone to his cabinet who actually believes in climate change science.

The bad news for those same campaigners is that this true believer happens to be CEO of Exxon Mobil, and also sees fossil fuels as critical to humanity’s survival.

Read full articleOil change? Fossil fuel advocate to run State department

Trump nominee to rekindle climate battle?

Oklahoma’s attorney general Scott Pruitt has been nominated to head the EPA

The nomination of Oklahoma attorney general Scott Pruitt to be the next head of the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has two important ramifications.

The first is a clear signal from the incoming Trump administration that environmental regulations, especially as they apply to the production of energy, are set for fundamental reform.

Read full articleTrump nominee to rekindle climate battle?

Trump: The best thing ever for climate change?

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On the campaign trail Mr Trump repeatedly called for the renegotiation of the Paris Climate Agreement

Since the US election result, there has been consternation among climate campaigners and many environment ministers, especially those attending the annual Conference of the Parties (COP) in Marrakech.

The fear, and fury of the green response to Donald Trump is understandable.

Read full articleTrump: The best thing ever for climate change?

The environmental costs of Heathrow expansion

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There are environmental concerns about noise, air pollution and climate change

Significant questions about the environmental impacts of Heathrow’s new runway remain unanswered in the wake of the government’s announcement.

Opponents say that the expansion will make air quality and noise pollution much worse.

Read full articleThe environmental costs of Heathrow expansion

Are celebs the best hope for saving endangered species?

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Can the influence of celebrities really achieve a breakthrough in reducing demand for endangered species?

As the Cites meeting in Johannesburg ends, Matt McGrath asks whether celebrities are having a bigger impact on saving species than the international body tasked with regulating the trade in threatened animals and plants.

The poor old peregrine falcon must feel like a total loser at this point.

Read full articleAre celebs the best hope for saving endangered species?

CITES species meeting: ‘The only game in town’

Nile crocodilePASCAL GOETGHELUCK/SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY
Poster boy: Between the 1940s and 1970s, the Nile crocodile suffered from over-zealous hunting

A big hand for the Nile Crocodile, the poster animal for the argument that regulated international trade can save endangered species.

Though perhaps a gentle round of applause from a suitable distance might be a tad more appropriate.

Read full articleCITES species meeting: ‘The only game in town’

Exxon: An inconvenient truth

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An ice sculpture suggests Exxon knew about the science of climate change but failed to act

In the hot and humid conditions of downtown Dallas, the #Exxonknew ice sculpture – erected by environmental campaigners to suggest the company had known about the science of climate change but had failed to act – did not last too long.

And the activists were hoping the same thing would happen to Exxon, a company that has fended off efforts to make it toe the line on climate change for a quarter of a century.

Read full articleExxon: An inconvenient truth

First big test for Paris climate deal

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and French President Hollande join in the celebrations

Do you remember the day we saved the world?

When COP President Laurent Fabius smacked down his gavel on December 12, it signalled that agreement had been reached at the UN climate conference in Paris on one of the world’s most intractable environmental and economic problems.

Read full articleFirst big test for Paris climate deal

Can ‘pay as you glow’ solve Malawi’s power crisis?

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This canal feeds a small-scale hydro scheme in the village of Bondo, Malawi that powers 250 homes

Two months ago, Bill Gates reminded us of a stunning bit of information.

The amount of electricity per person in sub-Saharan Africa is lower today (excluding South Africa) than it was 30 years ago.

Read full articleCan ‘pay as you glow’ solve Malawi’s power crisis?

Trump team kicks the Clean Power Plan into the long grass

Madagascar pochard: World’s rarest bird gets new home


By Victoria GillScience reporter, BBC News

Science & Environment


Conservationists hope to save a species of duck called the Madagascar pochard from extinction.
Conservationists hope to save a species of duck called the Madagascar pochard from extinction.

The rarest bird in the world – a species of duck called the Madagascar pochard – has been given a new home in time for the new year.

An international team of researchers released 21 of the birds at a lake in the north of Madagascar.

It is a step towards the recovery of a species that just over a decade ago was thought to be extinct.

Rescuing the species could also be a first step in protecting Madagascar’s threatened wetlands .

Why is this species under such threat?

When it wasn’t seen for 15 years, the Madagascar pochard was believed to have been wiped out completely. Then a tiny group of the birds was rediscovered in 2006 at one remote lake.

These were the last 25 Madagascar pochards on the planet.

Pochard in captivity
The captive-bred pochards are now settling in to their new home

Wetland habitats in the country have been so polluted and damaged that these few remaining birds had been forced into this last untouched area.

But, as Rob Shaw, head of conservation programmes at the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust (WWT) explained to BBC News, they were only “clinging on to existence in a place not really suited to them”.

Their last pristine refuge was too deep and too cold for the pochards to thrive.

“The threats that they face across the rest of Madagascar – and why they’ve been wiped out so extensively – are vast,” explained Rob Shaw.

“They range from sedimentation, invasive species, pollution, poor agricultural practises – a whole suite of problems that create the perfect storm making it very difficult for a species like the Madagascar pochard to survive.”

How has the species been rescued?

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Breeding the ducks in captivity has been key

In a painstaking effort – it has taken more than a decade of work. The international team, which included WWT, Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, The Peregrine Fund and the Government of Madagascar, rescued a clutch of pochard eggs and raised them in captivity.

Lake Sofia and floating aviaries (c) WWT
Floating aviaries have been installed at Lake Sofia to protect the ducks

They then scoured Madagascar for the best site to bring the captive-bred birds back to the wild, settling on Lake Sofia in the north of the country.

The team has worked closely with the local communities around the lake that rely on its water, fish and plants, as WWT’s Nigel Jarrett explained: “It takes a village to raise a child, so the old African proverb goes – but in this case it has taken a village to raise a duck. We have been preparing for this moment for over a decade.

“Working with local communities to solve the issues which were driving this bird to extinction has been essential to giving the pochard a chance of survival.”

The team hopes that making this reintroduction a success – and bringing back a bird that was on the very brink of extinction – will provide a powerful example, not just for how to save the most threatened species but how communities can support both people and wildlife in such valuable habitats, even in areas of significant poverty.

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