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Friday, May 16, 2008


Herds of sea cucumbers on the move, fields of sea squirts and forests of glass sponges. These were just some of the fantastic sights scientists captured on an underwater expedition to a remote region of Antarctica.

Marine biologists made a unique inventory of lifeforms on a part of the seabed that had been sealed off for thousands of years by massive ice shelves before they suddenly broke up. Waves of colonising plants and animals quickly moved in to exploit the new habitat which had opened up after a region of ice a third of the size of Belgium had disappeared and let in daylight and oxygen.

"This is virgin geography," said Gauthier Chapelle of the International Polar Foundation in Brussels. "If we don't find out what this area is like now after the collapse of the shelf, and what species are there, we won't know in 20 years' what has changed, and how global warming has altered the marine ecosystem."

More than 50 scientists from 14 countries spent 10 weeks making the first comprehensive biological survey of the seabed underneath the Larsen A and Larsen B ice shelves, which disintegrated in 1995 and 2002 respectively.

They collected specimens of an estimated 1,000 species, including 15 shrimp-like amphipods that are probably new to science, including one 4-inch specimen that is the biggest of its kind. They also found four species of coral-like organisms called cnidarians, one of which was a new type of sea anemone, found living on the back of a sea snail's shell.

A remotely controlled submersible took pictures of animals called glass sponges, growing in dense patches in the Larsen A area. By the Larsen B ice shelf, fast-growing gelatinous sea squirts moved in.

"These ice shelves collapsed due to regional warming," said Dr Julian Gutt, who led the expedition from the Alfred Wegener Institute in Bremen, Germany.

"For the first time, we have the opportunity to study life in such an area. The break-up of these ice shelves opened up huge, near-pristine portions of the ocean floor, sealed off from above for at least 5,000 years and possibly up to 12,000 years in the case of Larsen B."

Another surprise finding was the ability of deep-sea lilies - along with their relatives, the sea cucumbers and sea urchins - to adapt to the relative shallows of the Larsen seabed. Normally, these lilies are found at depths of 2,000 metres.

The scientists also saw minke whales and rare beaked whales moving close to the edge of the pack ice that had been exposed by the lost ice shelves, said Dr Meike Scheidat, a German scientist on the team.

"It was surprising how fast such a new habitat was used and colonised by minke whales in considerable densities. They indicate that the ecosystem in the water column changed considerably."

One overwhelming conclusion from the expedition was that the marine ecosystem was in a state of flux after the changes in the space of just 10 years. "The collapse of the Larsen shelves may tell us about impacts of climate-induced changes on marine biodiversity and the functioning of the ecosystem," Dr Gutt said. "Until now, scientists have glimpsed life under Antarctica's ice shelves only through drill holes. We were in the unique position to sample wherever we wanted in the marine ecosystem considered one of the least disturbed by humankind anywhere on the planet."

The Larsen shelves were attached to the Antarctic peninsula, one of the fastest-warming regions, with temperatures 2.5C higher than 60 years ago. Since 1974, some 13,500sq km of ice shelves, which are attached to the mainland but float on the sea, have disintegrated in the Antarctic peninsula. Scientists fear more ice-shelf disintegration could lead to the rapid loss of glaciers and ice sheets from the continental mainland, and a consequent rise in global sea levels.

Dr Gutt said one question the scientists wanted to answer is whether the massive movements of ice was detrimental to the life-forms on the seabed. "During the disintegration of the shelves, many icebergs calved, and the question arises whether grounding icebergs only devastate life at the sea floor or whether such disturbance contributes to a high biodiversity.

"Iceberg disturbance was much more obvious north of the Larsen A and B areas where icebergs typically run aground. At depths of 100 metres, we saw fresh ice scour-marks everywhere and early stages of marine life recolonisation but no mature community. At about 200m, we discovered a mosaic of life in different stages of recolonisation."

The scientists also found small clusters of dead clamshells littering a dark area of the seabed which was probably the site of a mineral-rich "cold seep", spewing methane and sulphide, which had fertilised the region then petered out and starved the surrounding life-forms.

Global Research Articles by Steve Connor


Monday, May 05, 2008

Lightning, Thunder & TV

As I noted recently, forget the debate and deliberations over recession. We’re in one, just by virtue that suspicion of recession gives people pause and they slow their spending. The truth is this: by the time we get data, we’re in the next quarter and reacting to prior data. And remember this: 100% of the information you have is from the past, yet 100% of the value of the decisions you make and actions you take (based on that data) lies in the future—which is, as yet, unknown.

Biology, physics and astronomy offer analogies for reflection. Light travels faster than sound. About five times faster. We first see the lightning bolt dance followed by the thunder clap’s applause. And there’s information in the silence—as the duration of delay gives us rough information as to the distance from downpours. Count the seconds between flash and boom and divide by 5 and it’s roughly how far in miles the lightning struck. (And remember at any time there are 2,000 thunderstorms happening somewhere on the earth, each producing over 100 lightning strikes a second—that’s over 8 million lightning bolts every day).

Our brain processes sights quicker than sounds yet we’re still always reacting visually to the (nearer) past. When we see, we see light bouncing off an object. Yet split milliseconds pass between the lightning bolts of light striking our eye and the maelstrom of neural activity that processes it. We are observing the past.

Consider the sun. Light travels at about 186,300 miles per second. A beam of light from the sun takes about 480 seconds or 8 minutes to reach Earth. Our closest star, Alpha Centauri is 4.35 light years away (how far light travels in one year). If we saddled up and rode that light beam it would take 4.35 years to reach the star. So when we see it, we see the past: the star as it was 4.35 years ago. Shakespeare might’ve been remiss to know his star-crossed lovers were wishing upon a future by looking upon the past.

There are two things young kids need to have: first, the right heroes and second, a deep desire to learn. The former can help inspire the latter. But there’s no replacement for either.

According to Science magazine, nearly half of Americans cannot name a “role model” scientist, living or dead. And only 11% can come up with the name of a living one.

Scientists are not seen as role models. When asked who today's youth look to as role models, most named an entertainer (31%), athlete (19%) or parent (17%). But when asked about science role models, 44% could not identify one.

When they can name someone, Bill Gates and Al Gore are the most cited—6% of the sample—the same percentage as Albert Einstein. Al Gore as scientist! Talk about availability bias.

There’s also a study (from Pew Research) that found for every 5 hours of US cable TV news, only 1 minute is devoted to science. Over 10 minutes are spent on celebrity news and nearly 30 minutes on crime. Here are the stats:

In the average five hours of cable news:

* 35 minutes about campaigns and elections
* 36 minutes about the debate over U.S. foreign policy
* 26 minutes or more of crime
* 12 minutes of accidents and disasters
* 10 minutes of celebrity and entertainment

On the other hand, one would have seen:

* 1 minute and 25 seconds about the environment
* 1 minute and 22 seconds about education
* 1 minute about science and technology
* 3 minutes and 34 seconds about the economy
* 3 minutes and 46 seconds about health and health care

Think about this! We spend 10 times more attention celebrating celebrities than inspiring a new generation of innovators and entrepreneurs.

Other studies suggest our national high-school graduation rate is worsening. I’m sure the statistics are debatable but I continue to observe (anecdotally) this troubling trend. If you’ve got 100 students in a school and only 60 graduate, what happens to the other 40? Do they have your trust to manage your money? Would you give them your tax dollars to make national decisions on your behalf? Would you get in an airplane designed by their hands? If this trend continues, the rank of the skill-less swell and the future intellectual deficit widens. We’ve just sold off another piece of our future.

And that means more people with less competitive education, less differentiated skills, less money (for the absence of both) and less opportunity. Think of it like this: in a competitive game with one of the best home field advantages in the world, a growing number of players on-deck seem to be mediocre and ill-equipped to compete. If our home team is weak, we’ll need to import players with star talent. Who would’ve thought a 7-foot-6 Chinese player would be the tallest player in the NBA and the center of the Houston Rockets. Or that a Japanese player would be an all-star on the Yankees. Why won’t the CEOs, scientists and entrepreneurs of the future be the same?

Remember this: if we don’t value something, someone else will. Communist Russia and China tried to hold all as equal—but one group was clearly more equal than others: the scientists. They were always held in high esteem, whereas US scientists have not been and I see a rising trend of US scientists increasingly consulting for foreign companies. Again: if we don’t value something, someone else will.

What I worry about is this: we celebrate those that make noise (and divert our attention like a cymbal-clapping simian) instead of those that make cures (scientists). We divert our attention and our time to a nation of performers, models and “adults” who compete to see if they are smarter than fifth graders.

To spend four hours being entertained is to spend 25% of your waking life and your day staring at flickering radiation that tickles your visual cortex. Don’t get me wrong: I love TV and I watch a lot of it. But I read deeply and widely. And I’m competitive. I love playing sports, but tire of watching them. Years ago I calculated that while my primate peers watched 6-8 hours of football on Sundays, and another 6-8 hours of basketball during the week, I could be learning something they weren’t. They were celebrating the competitive talents of others—I wanted to develop my own. I was a bigger fan of my own future (and my own future family) than I was of the all-star (and his family) on TV who could bounce a ball better or run in tights faster.

The most valuable investment you can make is in yourself. To trade learning or creating something new today for idle (or Idol) entertainment tonight will have consequences you feel tomorrow. In this, tequila shots and TV shows share something. The monarchy of centuries past sat imbibing on food and drink while being entertained by jesters. We’re all kings now. And a future dethroning for many of us will surely, but should not, come as a surprise.

We hyperbolically discount the future, a vestige of our evolutionary ancestors. We choose $100 today over $110 tomorrow (yet $110 a year and one day from now over $100 a year from now). And in so doing, we push up the value of the trivial, the wasteful, the bacchanal, and the debauched; and we devalue and discard the long-term patient diligent and highly contributory.

In education, most prescriptions look at the supply side: more teachers, more school supplies. I believe it’s a demand problem and kids need to want to learn, like they need to want to eat healthy foods. Putting more apples in front of them doesn’t make them pick apples over candy.

Too often we act on symptoms and mistake effects for causes. Consider the anecdote of the man by the river. He sees a girl floating by yelling for help. He jumps in and saves her. Minutes later, another girl goes by. The man jumps in again, saving the second girl and then another passes by. It turns out some villain is throwing girls off a bridge up the river. The man fixed the symptoms but not the root problem.

by Josh Wolfe