June 20, 2008

Giving Louisiana wetlands a fighting chance

Posted: 09:57 AM ET

Hurricanes Katrina and Rita stole more than 200 square miles of coastal wetlands from Louisiana. Over the past 80 years, hurricanes and the human harnessing of the Mississippi River have destroyed enough marshland to cover the state of Delaware.

Can it ever come back?

Louisiana coastal scientists are pumping in sand to restore barrier islands damaged by hurricanes (CNN)

This week Louisiana adopted a plan that will make $224 million available for coastal restoration projects. It's part of a "Master Plan" to protect people, business, and wildlife habitat from coastal loss– while at the same time strengthening hurricane protection.

"New Orleans is an interesting place to be now. It is dawning on the community that the cavalry is not going to show up with the big answers," said Mark Davis, director of the Institute on Water Resources Law and Policy at Tulane University Law School.

Davis said the post-Katrina realization that government did not have all the answers has prompted some energetic self- sufficiency.

"The healthiest part of this is the desire for honest information, honest answers, and that's from business and civic organizations as well as the most grass roots neighborhood organizations," he said. "The strength right now of this community is that it is optimistic."

The "Master Plan," adopted by The Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority (CPRA), was written by scientists and engineers. But it had to consider the needs of the science community, conservation groups, the oil, gas, shipping, and fishing industries, not to mention boatloads of politicians. (CPRA of Louisiana was established in 2005, according to its mission statement, "to speak with one clear voice for the future of Louisiana's coast.")

Davis said he is excited by the really creative people who have come to New Orleans. "This is the place to be to do good," he said. And if they are successful, other coastal communities may then learn about everything from insurance issues, to sea level rise from global warming, to land use planning.

One key to bringing the delta back to life is to allow the sediments and nutrients flowing down the Mississippi River to recharge the state's wetlands and barrier islands.

"We have to give the coastal wetlands a fighting chance," said Professor Denise Reed, an expert on coastal marshes at the University of New Orleans.

"That we have such extensive wetlands is testament to their strength," said Reed, who has been working on the development of restoration plans for coastal Louisiana for the past five years.

Reed says humans have put the Mississippi River in a "straitjacket" with levees and other alterations, preventing it from building up land.

One recent action that may help the Mississippi return to its role as a nurturer of the marshes and estuaries is the impending closing of the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet. Known as "Mr. Go," the 1960s Army Corps of Engineers project to improve ship navigation has been blamed for speeding up the loss of wetlands, and even for amplifying the effects of the storm surge from Hurricane Katrina.

While a rebirth of the wetlands could take decades, Davis said there is plenty that can be done now. "You can begin to make people safer sooner if you make sure you're not building in harms way; and not encouraging building techniques that are more vulnerable to storm risk."

Marsha Walton, CNN science and technology producer

Filed under: environment

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June 18, 2008

Reading up on hurricanes

Posted: 10:24 AM ET

Here are a few of my favorite books on hurricanes for your summer reading pleasure. You might want to crack one of these open on the beach - assuming the beach isn't being evacuated for a hurricane.  None of these are new releases, but they're all keepers.

"Path of Destruction: The Devastation of New Orleans and the Coming Age of Superstorms," by Mark Schleifstein and John McQuaid. These two journalists from the New Orleans Times-Picayune probably did their most important reporting on Hurricane Katrina more than two years before the storm wiped out much of their city. While they do an outstanding job of chronicling the way that the disaster was managed - and mis-managed, Schleifstein and McQuaid wrote an extensive series for their paper in 2002. "Washing Away" served as a full preview of what Katrina would do two years later.

"Storm World: Hurricanes, Politics, and the Battle Over Global Warming" by Chris Mooney stakes out the sides in one of the most active scientific debates in climate science. Was Katrina and the rest of the hellacious 2005 hurricane season a herald of global warming? Or part of a natural cycle? Mooney looks beyond the ideological polemics and profiles the scientists on both side.

"The Great Hurricane of 1938" by Cherie Burns is a quick, compelling read on what a killer storm can do to the Northeast. The '38 storm tore through Long Island and Connecticut, wiped out a sandspit resort community in Rhode Island, then sent a wall of water through the streets of Providence, killing 700 along the way. Some say we're overdue for another one - and this book may be the blueprint.

And the one, unlike "The Perfect Storm," that is still waiting to be made into a major motion picture: "Isaac's Storm," Erik Larson's recounting of the 1900 hurricane that leveled Galveston, Texas and claimed over 6,000 lives. Larson's tale of the utter chaos and misery in the wake of the storm is made even sadder by the backwardness of the U.S. Weather Bureau, which ignored storm warnings posted by the Cuban weather service.

Peter Dykstra Executive Producer CNN Science, Tech & Weather

Filed under: books • hurricanes • Severe weather • Weather

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June 14, 2008

Discovery is home

Posted: 11:20 AM ET

Discovery glided to a perfect landing under blue skies at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida today.    Commander Mark Kelly put her down right on the center line of Runway 15 at the Shuttle Landing Facility, wrapping up a 5,332,723 million mile journey that began on May 31.  During their two week visit to space, they installed the main component of the Japanese Kibo Laboratory onto the orbiting outpost.

This was:

-the 123rd shuttle flight

-the 35th flight of Discovery

-the 26th shuttle mission to the International Space Station

-the 10th post post-Columbia mission

-The 98th post-Challenger mission

-There will be 10 more missions before the fleet is retired in 2010

Mark your calendars for the next shuttle mission, currently targeted to launch October 8.  Astronauts will pay a final visit to the Hubble Space Telescope to switch out stabiizing gyroscopes and install  some new instruments that will hopefully keep the Hubble operational into the next decade.

–Kate Tobin, Sr. Producer, CNN Science & Tech

Filed under: NASA • Space

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"Go" for Deorbit Burn

Posted: 09:48 AM ET

Discovery will be coming home to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida at 11:15am Eastern time this morning.

Entry Flight Director Richard Jones has just given the "go for deorbit burn" call...meaning the Discovery astronauts will fire the engines at 10:10am Eastern this morning to slow the the spacecraft for atmospheric re-entry.  The approach path will bring it over the Pacific Ocean, the Yucatan Penninsula, the Gulf of Mexico, Naples, Florida, Lake Okechobee, and then into the KSC region.  The plan is for Commander Kelly to land on Runway 15 at the Shuttle Landing Facility.  Miles O'Brien talked to Kelly about it, and, all things being equal, Kelly prefers that runway.   That approach involves a series of left turns, which provide the pilot with better visibility coming in.

Miles will be covering the landing live on CNN starting about 11:10am - tune in and join us!

–Kate Tobin, Sr. Producer, CNN Science & Tech


Filed under: NASA • Space

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June 13, 2008

Phoenix soils itself

Posted: 05:48 PM ET

Scientists running the Phoenix Mars Lander mission are starting to sift through new data being sent back to earth from soil samples the craft has scooped from the Martian surface. At a briefing today, mission managers said they're getting twice the amount of data as they expected.

Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona/Texas A&M University/SSV

They're especially excited by the "bright material" exposed on the Martian surface as the Phoenix scooped up soil.

The image at right shows the material in two trenches dug by the scoop (the trench on the left is dubbed "Dodo" and the one on the right is "Goldilocks"). The material appears to be ice, but some scientists say it could be a salt layer. Over the next few days, they'll start scraping off samples of the "bright material "and placing them in the Phoenix's Thermal and Evolved-Gas Analyzer (TEGA) and microscope to determine the answer.

The soil sample scooped from "Goldilocks" was sprinkled into TEGA for analysis. (The sample itself was nicknamed "Baby Bear" - I'm sensing a theme here.) It yielded the first microscopic images of Martian soil sent back by Phoenix. The image below and to the right is the first soil sample studied aboard a Mars lander since the Viking missions of the 1970s, and it's the highest resolution image ever seen of Martian soil. It shows the soil sprinkled on a silicone substrate. Closer examination reveals particles with a green tinge, possibly indicating the mineral olivine.

Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona

Mission managers say they'll have more detailed analyses of the soil from TEGA next week.

Diane Hawkins-Cox, senior producer, CNN Sci-Tech Unit

Filed under: Mars • NASA • Space

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June 12, 2008

Squids and octopods beware: Contaminants now in your world

Posted: 09:22 AM ET

Fire retardants in deep sea squids?

Marine scientists now have evidence that a whole range of chemical contaminants have found their way to the deepest and most remote parts of the ocean.

The cockatoo squid is one species impacted by contamination. It’s found in deep waters off New England. Photo by Michael Vecchione, NOAA

"Most people think the deep sea is so far away that humans don't affect it," said Michael Vecchione, a cephalopod biologist at NOAA Fisheries' National Systematics Laboratory.

Cephalopods include octopods, squids, cuttlefishes and nautiluses. The toxic chemicals that Vecchione and colleagues from the Virginia Institute of Marine Science found are a rogues gallery of scary initials: PCBs, TBTs, BDEs, and DDT* among them. Scientists classify all of them as POPs, or persistent organic pollutants. It means they don't break down, and stay in the environment... pretty much forever.

It's not yet clear what level of these chemicals could harm or kill these deep sea creatures.

"Some of them had surprisingly high levels," said Vecchione. And because these marine animals are, ok, odd in their physical structure, Vecchione said they simply don't have the ability to get rid of the chemicals once they are inside their bodies.

One reason for the study was to find out more about how these contaminants go up and down the food chain. Deep sea squids and octopods are the main food source for some of the most iconic marine mammals: beaked, sperm, killer, and beluga whales; narwhals, dolphins and porpoises. Other marine scientists have found these POP chemicals in the blubber and tissue of both whales and fish.

From the NOAA ship Delaware II the researchers used nets to collect animals from depths of 3,300-6,600 feet. The researchers analyzed 22 specimens collected in an area of the Atlantic Ocean called Bear Sea Mount, off the coast of New England.

"Contamination of the deep sea food web is happening, and it is a real concern," said Vecchione.

Vecchione has also conducted Arctic and Antarctic marine biology research.

So how did he get into the octopus and squid world?

"They're weird. The environment is alien. It is so different from what we are used to, I find it personally fascinating," said Vecchione. His study will be published in the journal Marine Pollution Bulletin.

*You knew there was going to be a test:
PCB: polychlorinated biphenyl, compounds used to insulate electrical transformers, also used in paints and adhesives. PCB production was banned in the U.S. in the 1970s.
TBT: tributyltin, a compound used as a paint on boat hulls to stop marine creatures from clinging to them. Regulated since late 1980s, extremely toxic to sea life.
BDE: brominated diphenyl ethers, used as flame retardants in plastics, furniture and electronics. Still debate about health concerns; banned in some states and the European Union.
DDT: dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, a pesticide banned in the U.S. in the 1970s, still used in some countries to control malaria.

Marsha Walton, CNN science and technology producer

Filed under: Animals • environment

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June 11, 2008

Breaking News: Tornado slams into Boy Scout Camp

Posted: 11:30 PM ET

From CNN Meteorologist Chad Myers:

Tornadoes touched down tonight in 4 states MN, IA, NE and KS.  So far, 35 separates reports of tornado damage have been reported.  The most serious touched down north of Little Sioux, Iowa.  A boy scout camp was hit as 93 boy scouts and 25 leaders took cover from the storm.  Officials say 30-40 were injured and 4 were killed.  This was a large tornado hidden in the rain.  Warnings were issued for the storm in time, but the camp is in a very rural area. Storms will continue throughout the night.

Filed under: Uncategorized

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iPhone 3G not so cheap after all

Posted: 12:31 PM ET

My initial excitement over the cheaper, faster iPhone quickly faded when I learned that the new low price is somewhat deceptive.

While the price seems to have dropped, do the math before you go the iPhone 3G route.

While it’s true that the device itself will cost $199, actually using the thing would become a significant monthly expense. In fact, the AT&T press release states that data plans for consumers will be available for $30 per month, in addition to voice plans starting at $39.99 per month. Bottom line: $69.99 per month if you're going to use both internet and voice features. That's a $10-per-month increase from the iPhone plans that have been in effect since last July. Business customers will have to pay even more: $45 per month on top of the voice plan.

Again, AT&T is the only carrier you can use with the iPhone 3G, and you must sign up for a two-year contract. And don't forget these prices don't include tax.

Let's think about this: would you rather get an iPhone now for $399 and pay $59.99 per month, or wait until July and pay $199 for the iPhone 3G with the $69.99 per month plan?

After two years, you will have spent $1838.76 on the slower, more expensive iPhone with the cheaper plan - and $1878.76 on the cheaper, faster iPhone with the more expensive plan. At the end of the day, the iPhone 3G is actually $40 more expensive. Regardless of the $200 price drop on the product itself, each iPhone customer is paying more than $1800 in usage fees. And that's a lot of money no matter how you look at it.

The bottom line is that the total price for owning and using an iPhone for two years isn't going to change much at all with the new iPhone 3G.

Why is this happening? Apparently AT&T and Apple have changed their business relationship so that they don't share revenue anymore. The cost of the device itself is getting subsidized, and the cost of the monthly plan is going up.

–Elizabeth Landau, Associate Producer,

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Filed under: Internet

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June 10, 2008

iThink iDream of iPhone 3G

Posted: 09:02 AM ET

When the iPhone frenzy first began last summer, a lot of people like me held back, vowing to wait for Apple to reduce the price and make the technology even better.

Apple CEO Steve Jobs announced the next generation of iPhones Monday at a conference in San Francisco.

Now, says Apple CEO Steve Jobs, that day will soon come. Not only will the minimum price tag come down to $199, but the next generation of iPhones will have 3G technology.

What’s that, you say? As CNET explains, 3G brings wireless broadband data services to your cellphone, meaning you can surf the internet at very high speeds. Apple's Web site says the iPhone will use HSDPA (High-Speed Downlink Packet Access) protocol to download data over UMTS (Universal Mobile Telecommunications System) networks. The bottom line is that it will seamlessly switch between networks to get data as fast as possible.

But are we really ready to shell out the $199 for this better-than-ever iPhone?

If you had an incredibly powerful slender little friend in your pocket that could check your e-mail, locate your precise position in the world, call anyone you wanted and cue up your favorite songs, you would play with it a lot. A LOT.

In fact, you’d want to play with it so much that you might stop paying attention to conversations with your friends and family because you’d constantly want to check your e-mail or verify a fact that someone just mentioned. Trivia nights would be particularly torturous, as you could just find out the answers in seconds. You might feel like a perpetually-distracted teenager. Gadgets like these tend to bring out the perpetually-distracted teenager in us all, especially those of us who weren’t teenagers very long ago.

Yet, this could be a great purchase for those of us without cars who commute on trains and buses, and wouldn’t have to worry about keeping our eyes on the road while we surf the Web. And don’t forget that $199, after all, is merely three-and-a-half tanks of gas these days. The iPhone could thus take your mind anywhere you want to go when the bus is definitely not going anywhere soon. When put like that, it does seem like an amazing investment.

I’m also intrigued by the new iPhone's applications, such as the mobile blogging software. Apple will also launch a nifty music program for the iPhone - Moo Cow Music's Band - that allows you to compose music with multiple instrument sounds on the go. That concept alone makes musicians' mouths drool. At last, we won't be restricted to playing "Mary Had a Little Lamb" with touch-tone phone numbers.

Still, remember that the iPhone is still only compatible with AT&T, meaning those of you who have other networks will have to abandon your plans. This isn’t an issue for me –- my original 2001 Nokia brick was hooked up to AT&T before it was Cingular and then became AT&T again! –- but all of you with other carriers may have some paperwork and contractual fees to deal with. Consider also that Samsung is apparently coming out with a 3G phone hooked up to Sprint. Check out this comparison of upcoming 3G phones.

So, as long as you're willing to use it responsibly and do that AT&T thing, getting the new iPhone 3G seems like a pretty good idea. But that might mean thousands of people camping out in front of Apple stores who also think it's a good idea. Ugh, this could be complicated. But afterwards tracking flights, finding a restaurant, and looking up the names of the pandas at Zoo Atlanta will be so, so simple.

–Elizabeth Landau, Associate Producer,

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Filed under: Internet

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June 4, 2008

SciTech summer reading list

Posted: 03:51 PM ET

Reading fantastic fiction in the summer can be fun, but sometimes even more exciting stories come from truths about nature itself. Here are some books that will make you think in new ways and inspire those essential "You're not going to believe this" moments at cocktail parties.

New for 2008

Physics of the Impossible: A Scientific Exploration into the World of Phasers, Force Fields, Teleportation, and Time Travel
by Michio Kaku

The word on nerdy streets is that this book is highly accessible look at all kinds of things that sound impossible, like time travel and teleportation.

Bang! The Complete History of the Universe
by Brian May, Patrick Moore, and Chris Lintott

Brian May acquired his fame so far as the founding guitarist of the band Queen, but now he’s got a Ph.D. in astrophysics. In this book, he and co-authors rock with the origins of the universe.

My Stroke of Insight
by Jill Bolte Taylor

Taylor, a brain scientist, details her battle with her brain, and the insights she gleaned from recovery from a stroke.

In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto
by Michael Pollan

Calling all omnivores: You may think you’re heating healthily, but Pollan’s dissection of the American diet may surprise you.

Old favorites

Godel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid
by Douglas Hofstadter

This is one of those rare books that makes us think, “Wow, the world is so much more beautiful and complicated than I thought.” That is because Hofstadter interweaves concepts from mathematics, art, music, computer science, biology, and philosophy in amazing new ways. Though the book was published in 1979, the essential questions and insights he brings up about the nature of consciousness and the possibilities for artificial intelligence are still extremely relevant. Hofstadter has also written a follow-up book called I Am a Strange Loop.

The Hot Zone
by Richard Preston

There’s nothing like reading about the way ebola liquefies internal organs while you’re sipping lemonade on the beach. Preston isn’t afraid to get into the gory details of how a strain of this deadly virus came to the United States.

The Elegant Universe
by Brian Greene

Also the subject of a PBS special, this is a terrific introduction to the world of superstring theory. Basically, physicists in this camp speculate that miniscule vibrating loops called strings constitute the entire universe, and that they exist in 10 or more dimensions. Greene has since written Fabric of the Cosmos to touch on similar themes. These topics do get complicated, so be prepared to add terms like branes and Calabi-Yau manifolds to your vocabulary.

Chaos: Making a New Science
by James Gleick

The death of meteorologist Edward Lorenz in April makes this classic book on chaos theory especially timely. Lorenz constructed weather models that led him to a concept known as the butterfly effect. This relates to those pretty pictures called fractals. Soon you’ll be singing the Mandelbrot Set song.

–Elizabeth Landau, Associate Producer,

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Filed under: Physics • Scientists

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Are you a gadgethead? Do you spend hours a day online? Or are you just curious about how technology impacts your life? In this digital age, it's increasingly important to be fluent, or at least familiar, with the big tech trends. From gadgets to Google, smartphones to social media, this blog will help keep you informed.

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