August 21, 2008

Scientists: U.S. not prepared for severe weather, climate change

Posted: 09:30 AM ET

Heavyweights in the scientific community are not waiting until the November election.

Tornadoes are forming at a record setting pace this year. This twister touched down near Hebron, Nebraska in 2004. Photo by Bob Henson, UCAR

They are warning the next residents of the White House and Congress that the U.S. needs to just about double its budget on weather and climate change research, research they say impacts everything from health and safety to transportation and national security.

Scientists cannot fully understand or deal with the impacts of climate change without the proper political leadership, and without funding for scientific observation and computing. That was the message from the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, the American Meteorological Society, and the Weather Coalition in a teleconference with reporters today.

In a document aimed at the next crop of political leaders, the scientists said "Science is key to understanding these impacts, but weather and climate research and operations budgets have been flat or declining for years due to the budget wars in Washington."

John Snow, co-chair of the Weather Coalition and dean of the College of Atmospheric and Geographic Sciences at the University of Oklahoma, said there may have been a lot of good intentions in Washington in recent years, "But the reality is they've been unable to deliver."

"The science budget has barely been keeping up with inflation, and in some cases has suffered actual cuts," said Snow.

The National Science Foundation got a 2% increase, not keeping up with inflation, and the weather and climate research got 0%, effectively a strong cut," he said.

The scientists are making five recommendations they say will improve the country's resilience to severe weather and climate change:

Observations: Fully fund the earth observing system from satellite and ground-based instruments.
Computing: Greatly increase computer power available for weather and climate research and predictions.
Research and Modeling: Support a research program in earth sciences to advance understanding of weather and climate and their impact on society.
Societal Relevance: Support education, training and communication efforts for the maximum benefit of society.
Leadership and Management: Implement effective leadership to ensure that these investments are done in the best interest of the nation.

The price tag? The group says lawmakers will need to add about $9 billion to the current $10 billion that is budgeted over the next five years.

Whether it is hurricanes, tornadoes, fires, floods, snow, or drought, 75% of natural disasters around the world are triggered by weather and climate. That translates to billions of dollars in weather related losses every year in the United States.

"What we have put forward in the transition document is what we think is needed to prepare the nation for climate change, to be able to continue to improve our knowledge," said Jack Fellows, vice president of the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research.

"Frankly, we think this is one of the most pressing problems facing humankind, but it just happens to be on a longer scale than a lot of problems our country faces," said Fellows.

The other five organizations that wrote the document are the American Geophysical Union, the Consortium of Universities for the Advancement of Hydrologic Science, the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges, the Consortium for Ocean Leadership, and the Alliance for Earth Observations.

Marsha Walton, CNN Science and Technology Producer

Filed under: climate change • environment • Weather

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August 20, 2008

Get Your Game On

Posted: 02:50 PM ET

This kicks off a regular series of video-blog posts about new developments in the world of video games. The posts accompany, "Get Your Game On," a weekly video-gaming segment on

The hugely popular game, "Madden 09."

This week,'s Poppy Harlow explores how the booming video-game industry seems unaffected by the sputtering U.S. economy (watch video here). Games are still selling briskly at prices ranging from $50 to $150 - and that's not even including the consoles.

And thanks to such monster hits as "Grand Theft Auto IV," the stocks of big video-game companies are mostly performing well on the NASDAQ. Overall, gaming stocks have bounced this year, despite the overall decline for the NASDAQ and other major U.S. averages. Maybe something for investors out there to consider?


Filed under: Games

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Tropics thunder in the Atlantic and Pacific

Posted: 09:50 AM ET

The National Hurricane Center's forecast track for Tropical Storm Fay, as of 8am Wednesday.

The National Hurricane Center's forecast track for Tropical Storm Fay, as of 8am Wednesday.

As the odd, unpredictable path of Tropical Storm Fay crossed Florida and entered the Atlantic, a potentially more dangerous storm zeroed in on the Phillippines.

Typhoon Nuri tore through the northern Phillippines today with sustained winds of 87mph. The storm could impact Taiwan or the Chinese mainland later in the week. Nuri is the twelfth typhoon to hit the Phillippines this year (about 20 is a typical year). A June storm killed over 500 in the island nation.

In the Atlantic, Tropical Storm Fay crossed Florida and as of 9am Wednesday is headed offshore near Cape Canaveral. Defying the norm, Fay actually strengthened as it crossed the soggy land of south Florida and the Everglades, but it seems to have weakened near the Atlantic Coast. Concerns that Fay would increase to hurricane force as it re-enters the warm waters of the Atlantic have lessened. The official National Hurricane Center track still has Fay making another turn westward, coming ashore somewhere between Jacksonville and Daytona Beach. Forecasters say Fay will be a major rainmaker for North Florida, the Panhandle, and South Georgia in the next several days.

It looks like Jacksonville will continue its extraordinarily lucky record of dodging major hurricane damage. Hurricane Dora in 1964 was the last storm to score a direct hit on the city. Luckier still is Savannah, GA, a few hours' drive up the coast. Savannah hasn't experience major hurricane damage for over a century.

Peter Dykstra Executive Producer CNN Science and Technology

Filed under: hurricanes • Severe weather • Weather

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August 18, 2008

Why CNN covers things like this Bigfoot nonsense

Posted: 12:16 PM ET

There's been a tremendous response from CNN Readers and Viewers on our reporting on Mr. Bigfoot.  As you may discern from the subtle hints in the title of this blog as well as other reporting on our website and on CNN TV, we're not buying it.  But we are reporting it.  And from the top of the organization to the bottom, we're comfortable with that, because that's what we're supposed to do.

Bigfoot "hunter" Tom Biscardi displays photographic "evidence" of the mythical creature's existence. IAN SHERR/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

There have been many comments on this blog about how CNN should be "ashamed" for acknowledging this story.  There have also been many others critical from the other side.  Some say we should wait till the scientific verdict is in; others have already stamped Bigfoot's passport and declared all of this to be real.  Others have labelled CNN as "lazy" for not going out and finding Bigfoot for ourselves.    A special thanks goes out to the several people who took the time to write and complain that CNN was wasting their time.

I've had a great time reading through the (mostly) very smart comments from all sides on this.  Thanks.  Even to those of you who've declared me an "idiot" for my extreme skepticism about the tribe of Bigfeet that live one menacing Georgia Congressional District away from me, my children, and my pets. Here are a couple of facts about this story that I hope will clarify what CNN's role in this story is:

1) CNN is responsible to make its own decisions on what news is, but we're also beholden to report on what our audience is interested in.   In the six-month life of this blog, Bigfoot has gotten more page-views and comments than all but two of the 250-plus stories we've reported.   It would be irresponsible to impose a blackout on reporting this, given the demonstrably strong interest in the story.  It would be just as irresponsible, given the track record on reports of the finding of previously undiscovered mythic beasts in the wilderness, to report in a way that makes this seem like it's a reality. 

I have no problem sharing with you, on this blog, my personal impressions:  The Bigfoot "discovery" is a crock.  But we have an obligation to report the facts as they come out, for the benefit of a public that clearly cares about this, for whatever reasons. 

2) For those who think we've been a bit tough on the seven-foot-seven, 500-pound fella and his human handlers, it's important to acknowledge that a heavily-publicized announcement just took place with no firm evidence whatsover presented.  The impresario who ran the show has a track record of promoting at least one past proven hoax, and the two discoverers had, to put it very charitably, a very tough time accounting for themselves.  All this on top of a century-long history of phony-but-lucrative sightings of Fierce Creatures.  Many commenters have indignantly reported that Bigfeet have been spotted in nearly every one of the United States.  None have mentioned that anyone, anywhere, has produced a single Bigfoot bone, or shred of flesh.  Elvis sightings have as much forensic evidence.  That's where the evidence starts.  For all practical purposes, including the legacy of proven hoaxes, the evidence, or lack thereof, pretty much doesn't end.

CNN has reported on this story in a way that gives strong weight to the likelihood that Bigfoot is as real as mermaids and leprechauns because that's what the preponderance of evidence says.   Those of you who agree or disagree are welcome to voice your opinions here.  Thanks.

Peter Dykstra  Executive Producer   CNN Science Tech & Weather

Filed under: Animals • Hoaxes • myths

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August 15, 2008

Bigfoot's First Press Conference

Posted: 04:18 PM ET

I just watched the coming-out party for Bigfoot at a news conference in Palo Alto, California. Bigfoot did not attend. The participants included a publicist; veteran Bigfoot hunter Tom Biscardi; and the two alleged discoverers of a Bigfoot carcass in the state of Georgia - prison guard Rick Dyer and police officer Matthew Whitton.

Biscardi showed a photo of the tongue and teeth of Bigfoot (as one blog commenter pointed out, Bigfoot obviously practiced awesome dental hygiene!) and an indiscernible photo of another Bigfoot said to be alive and walking away from the camera. That's it. They released a purported DNA result, although it was uncertain if the DNA info was supposed to be compared to other primates (it certainly couldn't be compared to other Bigfoot - or is it Bigfeet?).

Audio quality for the press conference was poor; there was no explanation of why the announcement would be made thousands of miles away from Bigfoot's location (he's in a freezer, somewhere here in the Atlanta area), but there was an assertion that access to Bigfoot would be very selective.

Biscardi, the professional Bigfoot hunter, did most of the talking. He promised to involve credentialed scientists, and dropped the name of Richard Klein, a Stanford University anthropologist. Dr. Klein was conveniently out of town, even though the press conference was held down the block from Stanford. I've left him a message inquiring if he's really involved with this.

The whole affair had a familiar ring to it:

Nearly six years ago, there was a media frenzy around the reports of the first cloned human. "Eve" was born the day after Christmas, fortuitously appearing during a dependably slow news week. Who unveiled that fantastic development? A cultish group called the Raelians, who believe that space aliens created life on earth, and who said a second cloned baby was on the way. But after a barrage of skeptical questions and a refusal by the Raelians to show us the baby or allow outside inspection (citing respect for privacy - not exactly a logical follow-up step if you've just held multiple press conferences), the Raelians disappeared. So did talk of a second baby, and the first baby hasn't been seen to this day.

The Bigfoot hunters, Biscardi, Dyer, and Whitton, certainly aren't cultists. Whitton and Dyer seemed like nice Georgia boys. But they're following a time-honored tradition of hucksterism, for which there's a voracious public appetite.

Okay, boys. Show us the proof. Let the experts establish the proof, and the stage is yours. Otherwise, put a sock in it, and go hide in the woods. Maybe you'll grow into a legend.

Peter Dykstra Executive Producer CNN Science & Technology

Filed under: Animals • Hoaxes • myths • sarcasm

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Bigfoot discovered! Large, historic bridge for sale.....

Posted: 10:05 AM ET

On Friday at 3pm ET, a press conference in Palo Alto, California will announce the discovery of the body of Bigfoot.

I got the press release, and quickly checked eBay to see if the Brooklyn Bridge was for sale again.

But let's play along for a minute, and drive a bit of web traffic to the Searching for Bigfoot website. Bigfoot was discovered in north Georgia (the U.S. state, not the besieged former Soviet Republic). He stood seven feet, seven inches tall, weighed over 500 pounds, and yes, he was a he.

The Searching for Bigfoot site belongs to Tom Biscardi, a veteran bigfoot tracker. But it was two relative newcomers - a local cop on longterm leave, and a former prison guard, who found Bigfoot right here in Georgia. They have a website too, and you can not only learn more about Bigfoot, but you can buy a Bigfoot T-shirt, a Bigfoot coffee mug, or, for up to $5,000, a guided expedition to the place where Bigfoot was found.

Unlike the intrepid Bigfoot hunters, who have been on the job for years, I'm new to the facts and specifics of all this. So as a journalist, it would be unseemly for me to spout off an opinion on what I think of all this. For that, you'll just have to read my mind.

Of course this is far from the first cottage industry to spring from shady sightings of mystical, mythical beasts. There's a dinosaur that's been hanging out in a lake (a loch, actually) in Scotland. Hanging out for over a hundred years in a relatively small, intensely well-watched and photographed loch. But Nessie, with its presumably walnut-sized brain, has been smart enough to snatch tourist dollars and escape undetected for a long, long time. Click on this link if you want to make travel reservations and grab a Scottish bed & breakfast.

Kenneth Wilson, a gynecologist and amateur dinosaur hunter, snapped this picture of the Loch Ness Monster in 1934

Kenneth Wilson, a gynecologist and amateur dinosaur hunter, released this picture, purportedly of the Loch Ness Monster, in 1934. It was later admitted to be a hoax. The photo was snapped by Wilson's friend, Ian Wetherell.

Then there's Sasquatch. It's normally presumed to hang out in the Pacific Northwest, although there was a Sasquatch sighting in Ontario last month. This big fella also has a web following, with Sasquatch merchandise a part of the overall plan.

Nepal's more enduring version of Bigfoot is the Yeti. There's a site that even has a page of Yeti humor for your Yeti-related speaking engagements. Be advised that most of the jokes are Abominable.

Mexico can offer the Chupacabra (translation: "Goat Sucker"). It's a hairless, dog-sized night prowler blamed for mysterious livestock killings. A chupacabra head was recovered in Texas last year. Upon further review, it turned out to be a coyote with a bad case of mange.

In my native New Jersey we had the Jersey Devil, a mystical creature that prowled the Pine Barrens. We named our pro hockey team after them.

All this exists (or not) in the animal kingdom, but let's not forget that years after their alleged deaths, Elvis and Tupac Shakur are also still routinely sighted.

What the moral of this blog? There's a slightly charming, mostly sad tendency for people to abandon science and reason while they fall for romantic or scary mythology, and there's a vibrant business existing to separate those people from their money. Many politicians, Professional Wrestling promoters, faith healers, and Nigerian email scammers have made a handsome living off this.

Anyway, they're presenting "DNA Evidence" at Bigfoot's coming out party. If any of this convinces any credible scientist anywhere, I'd be happy to eat a big plate of crow. Or chupacabra.

Let us know what you think about all this. Thanks!

Peter Dykstra Executive Producer CNN Science and Tech

Filed under: Animals • myths • sarcasm

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August 13, 2008

The Pacific "toilet bowl that never flushes"

Posted: 12:48 PM ET

You've heard about it - that huge floating mass of garbage in the Pacific Ocean.

This odd looking vessel is raising awareness about the toxic plastic soup in the Pacific Ocean. Photo courtesy Algalita Marine Research Foundation

Depending on whose sister's brother-in-law you believe, this trash heap is as big as (pick one):

The continental United States

The correct answer: no one is exactly sure.

While the story may sound as far-fetched as reports of hundreds of alligators wandering the New York City sewer system, unfortunately, the great Pacific Garbage Heap tale is true.

What's difficult for most of us land-based creatures to understand is that this is not one solid mass of junk that can be photographed by satellites or tracked with remote cameras. No scientist can say, with precision, "It is 450 square miles and weighs a hundred million tons." It's more like an enormous, amorphous, nasty soup that stretches for hundreds of miles.

"Discarded fishing nets are the noodles; bottles, buoys and all kinds of larger items are the vegetables and meat, and basically the entire Pacific is this broth of plastic soup," said Anna Cummins, education adviser at the Algalita Marine Research Foundation in Long Beach, California. The non-profit foundation has studied plastic marine debris in the North Pacific for the past decade.

Cummins is one of the coordinators of an Algalita project to educate consumers about how trash, especially plastic, is fouling the marine ecosystem.

Her colleagues Marcus Eriksen and Joel Paschal are in the midst of a voyage from California to Hawaii on a boat made of 15,000 plastic bottles and parts of a Cessna 310. Their mission is to raise awareness about the plastic that's killing marine life up and down the food chain. Both are experienced sailors, though in far more traditional sailing craft.

To quote the JunkRaft blog:

"The North Pacific Gyre is a clockwise rotating mass of water roughly twice the size of the U.S. where currents and winds slow down. It's like a toilet bowl that never flushes."

You can follow their journey, which began June 1 from the Long Beach Aquarium, at

Eriksen is a science educator, weather expert, and Marine veteran of the 1991 Gulf War.

Paschal is a filmmaker who previously worked for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration studying marine debris. He is chronicling the JUNK voyage for a documentary.

"We want to gently educate about the problem, and get consumers to move toward re-usables, " said Cummins.

The plastic junk comes from all over the world, primarily Asia, Europe, and the United States.

The detritus has been found in fish as small as an inch long. And when dead seabirds such as the albatross were necropsied, scientists sometimes found more than half their stomach contents was human trash-from bottle caps to plastic pen caps to fishing bobbers. Plastic that never degrades also kills turtles and whales.

"The best solution now is to try to prevent the problem from getting any worse," said Cummins. "It's hard to conceptualize how to fix it. Logistically, it would be like sifting the Sahara Desert."

The sailors expect to arrive in Hawaii sometime late this month.

So, any ideas from the brains of our astute blog readers? How would you fix this? Outlaw single use plastic items? Push for plastics that biodegrade? Put a litter cop on every ocean-going vessel? Teach your kids to respect the planet?

- Marsha Walton, CNN Science and Technology Producer

Filed under: environment • Oceans

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August 12, 2008

Love spicy food? Thank the bugs

Posted: 10:03 AM ET

Ever wonder why chili peppers are hot, and why some are hotter than others? Well, new research shows the credit goes to insects and microbes.


Researchers at the University of Washington, along with colleagues from Florida and Bolivia, found that some peppers develop that heat to fight a seed-eating fungus that attacks through holes made by insects. The chili doesn't want the fungus to consume the seeds; it much prefers that birds cozy up to the seed smorgasboard. When birds eat seeds, they disperse them, allowing them to sprout. When fungi chow down, the seed just dies.

So why don't birds object to the spiciness? The researchers say the birds' physiology is not designed to sense the burn.

The scientists studied chili peppers across 1,000 square miles in Bolivia. They found that plants in areas with more of the seed-destroying fungus produced more capsaicin, the substance that gives the peppers their heat.

Another interesting tidbit from the researchers - the capsaicin could be the reason humans starting eating the painful fruit in the first place. Lead author Joshua Tewksbury says back before there was refrigeration, people probably used the peppers when they found that spicy stews were less likely to make them sick.

The study was published this week by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Diane Hawkins-Cox, Senior Producer, CNN Sci-Tech Unit

Filed under: science

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August 11, 2008

Orion launch date slips to September 2014

Posted: 04:54 PM ET

In a set-back to NASA's efforts to fly the successor to the space shuttle sooner rather than later, the space agency announced a launch slip Monday for Orion, the next generation manned spacecraft currently under development.

Ares V rocket launches as part of the Constellation Program. Source: NASA

"September 2014 is when we are saying we will launch the first crew on the Orion," said program manager Jeff Hanley during a conference call to brief reporters on the delay.

Cost concerns are at the root of the slip – as well as giving themselves wiggle room to deal with the unforeseen technical problems that will inevitably crop up.

"It's the unknown unknowns that we have to hedge against," said Hanley. "Having some number of months of schedule flexibility to meet our commitment, in addition to having some number of months of cost - dollars - flexibility, is key to keeping ourselves in a healthy posture."

NASA officials plan to wrap up assembly of the International Space Station and retire the space shuttle fleet in 2010, freeing up money to build and fly the new spacecraft. Sometimes called "Apollo on steroids," Orion is designed to ferry astronauts to and from the ISS, and eventually to the moon. Unlike the space shuttle, which lands like an airplane, Orion is a capsule that will parachute to a landing at Edwards Air Force Base in California.

The new September 2014 date is actually a self-imposed, internal deadline for NASA - the true commitment date for the first flight as set by Congress is March 2015. NASA managers were hoping to fly the new vehicle much sooner than that to keep the gap between the last shuttle flight and the first Orion flight to a minimum. Most recently, September 2013 was NASA's goal. But program managers now admit that target date is unachievable.

"As we looked at the plan we had for Sept. 2013 against the available dollars it became clear to us that we needed to adjust our schedules," said Hanley.

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

Filed under: Constellation Program • NASA • Orion • Space

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All over but the napping

Posted: 12:55 PM ET

Well... here we are. We made it back to Atlanta in (mostly) one piece after a two-week journey I'll never forget. This morning my colleague Brian Hardy and I did a little recap video interview with Live which you can see here.  We also have an iPhone review (it never left my side) that we'll put up a little later.


I have a lot of cables to untangle.

Four-thousand miles later - and many gallons of bio and regular diesel - I  would call this road trip a success.  It wasn't perfect - but we talked to a lot of people, saw a lot of things and learned a good deal about biodiesel fuel and long-distance travel.

Now I have about two tons of gear to sort through and put back in its rightful place (versus the various bags, bins and cubbies I stuffed it into).

Oh yeah - and the sleeping - there will be lots of sleeping.

Thanks for followin' us...

- Cody McCloy, signing off

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Filed under: environment • Road trip

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