March 21, 2008

Can't Bear it any Longer: Senate wants answers

Posted: 10:28 AM ET

Scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey predict that two thirds of the world’s polar bears will disappear in the next 50 years because of declines in Arctic sea ice.

But those dire findings don't seem to be lighting any fires under those making decisions about how to protect the majestic animals. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was required to finalize its decision to list the polar bear as a threatened species by January 9 of this year.

As CNN reported earlier this week, Fish and Wildlife Director Dale Hall admitted his agency had missed the deadline, in an effort he said, to be thorough. That was January 17.
Now the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works wants some answers.
Senator Barbara Boxer, (D-CA) who chairs that committee, is requesting that Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne (Hall's boss) appear at a hearing next month to answer questions about the continued delay.

"It is time for the Interior Secretary to answer questions about the administration's continued foot-dragging on the polar bear listing. Secretary Kempthorne must explain to the American people why his department has failed to follow the law and why they still haven't issued a final decision to protect the polar bear," Boxer said in a statement from the committee.

Will Kempthorne show up? In an e-mail, his press secretary told CNN: "The Secretary has a great deal of respect for Senator Boxer. We will respond to the Senator's request in a timely manner."

Perhaps complicating polar bear habitat issues, Interior officials have moved forward on approval of $2.7 billion in oil and gas leases in the Chukchi Sea. That area between Alaska and Siberia is home to about twenty percent of the planet's polar bears.

–Marsha Walton, Producer, CNN Science and Technology

Filed under: environment

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March 20, 2008

Underground ocean on Saturn's moon Titan

Posted: 04:01 PM ET

NASA's Cassini spacecraft has made yet another stunning find during its tour of Saturn and its moons...evidence of an underground ocean of water and ammonia on Titan.

Cassini image of Saturn’s A and F rings along with the tiny moon Epimetheus and the giant moon Titan. Source: NASA/JPL/Space Science Inst.

The new data was gathered using Cassini's Synthetic Aperture Radar during 19 flybys of Titan since late 2005. The spacecraft's optical cameras don't work so well with Titan because the moon actually has a thick atmosphere and appears constantly shrouded in a smoggy haze. But the radar can penetrate through that, and scientists were able to map out the location of 50 "landmarks" like lakes, canyons and mountains.

There is just one problem: the landmarks appear to be shifting around, sometimes by as much as 19 miles from their expected location.

What could explain it? Writing in the journal Science, Cassini scientists say the most plausible answer is that the icy crust of the moon is moving around on top of an internal ocean.

A decade ago, scientists working with the Galileo spacecraft on its mission to the Jupiter system concluded from magnetic field data that the moon Europa also harbors a salty ocean under its ice sheets. They think Europa's ocean could be as close as 4.7 miles to the surface. The Cassini folks think Titan's ocean is deeper down, 62 miles beneath the ice and ground.

Of course, where there is water, astrobiologists will be interested in looking for life Titan almost certainly just bumped up a few notches in their estimation.

Cassini deployed a probe called Huygens that actually landed on Titan back in 2005, sending back these remarkable pictures from the surface. Titan has long fascinated planetary scientists because of its high concentration of organic chemicals like methane and ethane. They say conditions there are similar in many ways to those on Earth billions of years ago, before life began here. Study of Titan could better help researchers understand how the early Earth evolved.

–Kate Tobin, Senior Producer, CNN Science & Technology

Filed under: NASA • Saturn • Space • Titan

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To the Batplane!

Posted: 10:55 AM ET

A robotic spy plane currently under development would be perfect for Batman – that is, if he were smaller than a paper clip.

Source: Eric Maslowski, research computer specialist in the University of Michigan 3D Lab

Researchers sponsored by the U.S. Army are not designing this small bat-like aircraft to have passengers. Instead, the six-inch-long plane will direct itself, collecting information in urban combat zones and sending signals to soldiers through radio, the University of Michigan News Service said.

Dubbed "the bat," this small autonomous aircraft would incorporate a navigation system and a tiny low-power radar to get around in the dark. Soldiers could get real-time information from the little robot as it perches on a building, for example.

The Army is joining forces with industry and academia to make the concept for the vehicle a reality. Each of four designated research centers has the mission of developing a different bat-like subsystem of the little robot.

Researchers at the University of Michigan, which received a $10 million Army grant for the project, say they expect to develop an autonomous navigation system 1,000 times smaller and more energy efficient than mechanisms currently in use. This would allow the plane to move by itself, without a third party directing it. They also expect to develop a communication system 10 times smaller than current technologies.

Live bats find their way around by generating sounds and using the echoes from those sounds to determine their distance relative to objects, as well as the size and direction of objects. This navigation system is called echolocation.

The robotic plane will also have auditory sensitivity, using small microphones to gather sound waves from different directions, that will enable sophisticated navigation in the dark. But this bat is not blind – researchers also envision the little aircraft to have stereo vision through small cameras.

The bat may also be able to determine whether there’s nuclear radiation or poisonous gas around, using special sensors.

–Elizabeth Landau, Associate Producer,

Filed under: Animals • robotics

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March 19, 2008

Life on other planets?

Posted: 02:08 PM ET

Scientists working with the Hubble Space Telescope have identified large quantities of the organic chemical methane as well as water on a planet orbiting a distant star.

Artist's Rendering. Source: NASA, ESA, and G. Bacon (STScI)

Now that in-and-of-itself is not proof that life exists there. In fact, researchers say it almost certainly DOESN'T because the planet is orbiting very close to its "sun" and it therefore is much too hot (1700 degrees Fahrenheit) to support life.

But the new findings, published in this week's edition of the journal "Nature," do show that orbiting telescopes like Hubble and it's yet-to-be-launched successor called the James Webb Space Telescope can detect organic chemicals on far-off worlds. And on some of those (one in a thousand? million? billion?) the conditions may be right to support life.

Will we ever find one? Impossible to say. But the tools are there to begin the search.

The Jupiter-sized planet in question is called HD189733b, and is orbiting a star about 63 light years away from our solar system in the constellation Vulpecula.

Astronomers have found nearly 300 of these so-called "extrasolar" planets since the first one was confirmed in 1995. NASA has drawn up plans for space-based telescopes like the Terrestrial Planet Finder and the Space Interferometry Mission to specifically search for Earth-like planets outside our solar system. At this point, both of those programs have been postponed indefinitely due to budget issues.

–Kate Tobin, Senior Producer, CNN Science & Technology

Filed under: Astrobiology • extrasolar planets • Space

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March 18, 2008

The Arctic on Thin Ice

Posted: 02:11 PM ET

Scientists grabbed headlines last fall when they announced that arctic sea ice cover plummeted to all-time record summertime lows in 2007 – raising the scary spectre that global warming may be pushing some frozen parts of our planet beyond the ability to bounce back.

Source: Getty Images

Now new satellite data from NASA and the National Snow and Ice Center at the University of Colorado at Boulder indicate the ice cover has returned to pre-2007 levels over the winter, which was colder than in recent years. Even so, the overall trend is negative. The current sea ice extent is still below the long-term average by about 250,000 square miles, an area almost the size of the state of Texas. And since 1996 it has been decreasing at a rate of 10.7% per decade.

Prospects for the future are also grave. That's because the ratio of older, thicker "perennial" ice that never melts to younger, thinner "seasonal" ice that melts and refreezes every year is shifting dramatically. Back in 1985, more than half of all arctic sea ice was of the hardy perennial type - 4 to 6 feet thick. Today, the extent of perennial ice has dropped precipitously - nearly 70% of all sea ice is seasonal.

How much of the sea ice will melt this summer? Scientists say it is hard to tell, because what happens any given year is highly dependent on specific weather events. But the clear overall trend is toward reduced extent of increasingly thinner ice.

–Kate Tobin, Senior Producer, CNN Science & Technology

Filed under: Uncategorized

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Get Your Game On – 03.18.08

Posted: 02:05 PM ET

Calling in sick the day after St. Patrick's Day? Shame on you. But if you're playing hooky, you might as well have some fun...

Rainbow Six: Vegas 2 (Ubisoft)

The long-awaited follow up to the award winning first-person shooter is out and critics are buzzing. Once again, players find themselves on the trail of terrorists bent on destroying Las Vegas, but while the location is the same, your team of Rainbow Six operatives is entirely new. Revered just as much for its game play as for its storyline (thanks to the involvement of novelist Tom Clancy), players will finally learn how the story ends in "Vegas 2."Fans of the game who have long felt it was at its best in multi-player mode, will now find that the developers at Ubisoft has worked to make big improvements to its single player co-op modes. (Rated M for Mature; 360 and PS3)

Sega Superstars Tennis (Sega)

Think of this as a somewhere in between Super Smash Brothers and Sega's Virtua Tennis series. More than a dozen characters from the Sega universe, from Sonic and Tails to lesser known folk such as Amiga and Super Monkey Ball face off in head-to-head tennis matches. The locations and courts represent nearly every corner of the Sega-verse – and offer up a few surprising in-game challenges along with easy to play tennis action. (Rated E for Everyone; 360, PS3, Wii and DS)


Metal Gear Solid: Essentials Collection (Konami)

We've touched on this before, but it's worth mentioning again. The complete Metal Gear Solid series to date has been collected in this special edition for fans of the series to either get caught up or get re-acquainted with the adventures of Snake ahead of the release of the much-anticipated "Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots." With a release date for that title set for June 18th, you have exactly three months to prepare. Good luck, soldier.

- Matt West, CNN Entertainment Producer

Filed under: Games • Gaming

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The tale of the tape, gecko-style

Posted: 09:16 AM ET

For all you geckophiles out there who may still be basking in the gecko-fix we gave you last week at the page on the topic of gecko bandages, you may be interested to know there is more gecko-news this week.

Source: Getty Images

Geckos, of course, are known as some of the most sure-footed climbers in the animal kingdom...with hairy toes that can stick and unstick themselves to a surface in just milliseconds, making it possible to run 15 body lengths up a vertical incline in 1 second flat. Fast, yes...and stable too. But what happens if he misses a step?

Publishing in this week's edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers from the University of California, Berkeley shot high-speed film of geckos running up a vertical climbing surface that had been outfitted with a slippery patch. Slow motion playback clearly shows that when the gecko looses his footing, he instantaneously swings his tail into action - tapping it down like a fifth leg to stabilize himself. In extreme cases, he even plants it like a kickstand to give himself a chance to recover.

What if he should fall? It turns out geckos are like cats...they always land on their feet. The tail comes into play there, too...the gecko rotates it in midair until he rights his body in time to glide to a graceful landing.

So what are the practical implications of this research? Engineers are already putting it to work, designing gecko-inspired climbing robots that are programmed to put their tails to good use.

–Kate Tobin, Senior Producer, CNN Science & Technology

Filed under: Animals • Geckos

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March 17, 2008

Tire piles not so high anymore

Posted: 10:49 AM ET

When you think about discarded tires, you probably think of huge mounds of unwanted rubber, serving as mosquito motels and home to never-ending tire fires.

Source: Getty Images

Well, according to the Rubber Manufacturers Association, that's not as much of a problem as it used to be.

As I was gathering information for our Powdered Tires story, I spoke with Mike Blumenthal, senior technical director for the Rubber Manufacturers Association. He told me that there's been a metamorphosis in tire re-use over the past 17 years, and that the industry is still evolving at a rapid pace. He said in 1990 more than ONE BILLION tires lay neglected in tire dumps, but today that number is down to fewer than 188 million. That's remarkable, especially considering that we manufacture more tires now than in 1990.

Entrepreneurs are striving to find all sorts of uses for discarded tires. Blumenthal said the most popular market is for fuel. Tires burn like coal, except cleaner and hotter. But the fastest-growing use is for making products like belts and hoses and for mulch and cover for playgrounds and sports fields. I recently tested out a playground covered with rubber chips. Wish they'd had that when I was a kid – would have saved me a lot of bumps and bruises.

If you want to do your part in reducing the number of tires being discarded, The Rubber Manufacturers Association recommends the following:

  1. Purchase longer-tread life tires
  2. Rotate tires every 5,000-8,000 miles
  3. Once a month or before every long trip, check to make sure tires are inflated to recommended air pressure levels
  4. Balance tires when rotating them

The RMA has a lot of other useful and interesting facts at

Got to go now – time to rotate my tires.

Diane Hawkins-Cox

Senior Producer, CNN Science and Technology Unit

Filed under: environment • recycling • Tires

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March 15, 2008

A Front-row seat for viewing tornado damage

Posted: 12:35 PM ET

I am a weather producer here at CNN and today has been one wild ride!  My day started about 12 hours ago when friends of mine called me to see what was going on in Atlanta.  They were at the SEC Men's Championship Basketball tournament in the Georgia Dome when they heard loud noises from outside and saw the precariously-hanging scoreboard and scaffolds swaying from the ceiling.  I had no idea there was anything going on and laughed at them a little, knowing my roommate there was terrified of thunderstorms.  To my amazement, there was indeed a tornado warning for the metro Atlanta area at around 9:40PM Friday night.  I gave them my synopsis of what they could expect, and so began my Saturday. 

As I tuned in to coverage of the storm, I was amazed to see anchor Don Lemon standing in the middle of DOWNTOWN Atlanta with debris scattered about.  Shards of glass, pieces of signs and rooftops, and tree branches littered the streets surrounding the CNN Center and Centennial Olympic Park.  Windows had been blown out all over the city, including the Omni Hotel and various other high rises, and the whole thing seemed like a dream.  Thousands of visitors, in town for a number of events taking place this weekend, were forced out of their hotel rooms and into the lobbies and streets, attempting to make sense of what had just happened and trying to decide where they were going to spend the long night.  Flooding was reported at the Georgia World Congress Center - an immense convention hall across the street from CNN  Inside the CNN Center as a piece of the rooftop had been ripped away, allowing rainfall to spill into the atrium.  This really was like a movie…

After only about 1 hour of sleep, I awoke to continued coverage of the “possible” tornado and eventually made my way towards Atlanta from my home in Athens, GA.  When I came close enough to see the skyline, it looked the same as it always did…serene and beautiful.  However, as I arrived in the downtown area, my mouth dropped when I saw the extent of the damage.  I was shocked to see trash, glass, and twisted metal everywhere.  As I walked through the roadblocks on Centennial Olympic Park, I took pictures on my cell phone and was careful to not walk underneath anything that might fall at the lightest gust of wind.  The scene inside the CNN Center was shocking as well, with water still being mopped from the floors of the atrium

This was the first time I had ever seen an area affected by a tornado, nevertheless within a major metropolitan area.  The weather is still wreaking havoc across northern Alabama and Georgia, with another line that affected the metro Atlanta area later in the morning, and more severe weather is expected again later in the afternoon.  The damage that the Newsroom received has caused many to move to CNN International as the THIRD line of storms pass through the city.  The biggest threat for the downtown areas is the glass and other debris being turned into projectiles as the wind picks them up and hurls them into the air.  Well, I suppose I need to go now….we’re being rushed to CNN International until the storm passes.  But have no fear…. Chad Myers–the Mayor–is here!

Sarah Dillingham, CNN Weather Producer

Filed under: Uncategorized

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Severe weather comes to CNN

Posted: 12:22 PM ET

  Yikes.  Talk about a role reversal.  Often, we scramble to get out in the field to report on severe weather - at some risk and hardship.  (Full disclosure:  I'm the Management Guy who usually stays behind and approves the travel expense reports.)

 Friday night, the severe weather made a house call at CNN.  The storm, pegged by the National Weather Service as an EF-2 tornado,  descended upon downtown Atlanta, putting a scare into attendees at two major sporting events and a major exposition.  At least twenty homes were destroyed near downtown.  And the evening staff in the CNN Newsroom and had an interesting time, to say the least.

CNN anchors and reporters who were nearby went into the drill:   Report for work when there's news.  Don Lemon reported from the debris-strewn street outside the CNN Center, near Centennial Olympic Park.  Rob Marciano manned the Weather Center - about twenty feet away from where a newly-minted hole in the roof had drenched desks and computers.  Veronica de la Cruz checked on casualties at Atlanta's largest downtown hospital.   And, with a touch of supreme irony, Cal Perry, fresh from his Day Job as CNN's Baghdad Bureau Chief, reported on destroyed homes and buildings on the streets of Atlanta.

As they sort through the damage, several things mark this as an extraordinary storm.  Maybe not a huge one, but:

An EF-2 tornado, reportedly on the ground for up to six miles, tore through a central city.  It passed over two arenas with a combined 30 to 40 thousand people inside, then over office buildings, restaurants, hotels, and neighborhoods.   No one died.

Despite a few nervous moments as college basketball fans watched tons of catwalks, cables, and a massive scoreboard sway back and forth, the teflon-covered fabric roof of the Georgia Dome held.  A tip of the hat to some unnamed engineers and architects is in order.

It's the first time ever that Mother Nature has gone Downtown in Atlanta.  One of the most badly damaged places is the ill-starred Fulton Cotton Mill Lofts.  The unoccupied top floors collapsed in part of the Lofts, about a mile east of downtown.  The historic buildings were also the site of a spectacular 1999 fire and a dramatic helicopter rescue.

 Peter Dykstra  Executive Producer, Science-Tech & Weather

Filed under: Uncategorized

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