Monday, February 18, 2013

THE UN BRACES FOR STORMY SPACE WEATHER - Forecasters say solar maximum is due in 2013. To prepare, the United Nations is taking steps to organize an international response to stormy space weather.
In 1958, the UN General Assembly "recognizing the common interest of mankind in furthering the peaceful use of outer space ... and desiring to avoid the extension of present national rivalries into this new field...." established the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS). COPUOS became a forum for development of laws and treaties governing space-related activities. Moreover, it set the stage for international cooperation on problems that no one nation could handle alone.
As the years went by, COPUOS membership ballooned from 18 to 74 nations, while items such as space debris, near-Earth asteroids, space-based disaster management, and global navigation were added to the committee's regular agenda. At each annual meeting in Vienna, Austria, COPUOS members confer about these issues, which present some key challenge or peril to the whole planet. This year, a new item is on the agenda: space weather.
"This is a significant development. By adding space weather to the regular agenda of the COPUOS Science and Technical Subcommittee, the UN is recognizing solar activity as a concern on par with orbital debris and close-approaching asteroids." Space weather is the outer-space equivalent of weather on Earth. Instead of wind, rain and snow, however, space has radiation storms, the solar wind, flares and coronal mass ejections. The source of space weather is the sun, and although solar storms are launched 93 million miles from Earth, they can make themselves felt on our planet.
"Strong solar storms can knock out power, disable satellites, and scramble GPS. It's a global problem made worse by increasing worldwide reliance on sensitive electronic technologies." This week, members of the Science and Technical Subcommittee heard about some of the potential economic impacts of space weather. For instance, modern oil and gas drilling frequently involve directional drilling to tap oil and gas reservoirs deep in the Earth. This drilling technique depends on accurate positioning using global navigation systems. Drill heads could go awry, however, if the sun interferes with GPS reception.
Solar energetic particles at the magnetic poles can force the re-routing of international airline flights resulting in delays and increased fuel consumption. Ground induced currents generated by magnetic storms can damage transformers and increase corrosion in critical energy pipelines. Permanent damage to the Salem New Jersey Nuclear Plant GSU Transformer was caused by the severe geomagnetic storm of March 13, 1989.
"Space weather is a significant natural hazard that requires global preparedness. This new agenda item links space science and space technology for the benefit of all humankind." The elevation of space weather on COPUOS’s agenda coincides with the 10th anniversary of the International Living With a Star Program on Feb. 14. The program is an ad hoc group of nations that got together in 2003 to lay the groundwork for worldwide cooperation in the study of space weather. The UN will help take their efforts to the next level.
A key problem that the UN can help solve is a gap -- many gaps, actually -- in storm coverage around our planet. When a solar storm sweeps past Earth, waves of ionization ripple through Earth’s upper atmosphere, electric currents flow through the topsoil, and the whole planet's magnetic field begins to shake. A NASA-funded study by the National Academy of Sciences lays out the economic consequences of severe space weather. "These are global phenomena, so we need to be able to monitor them all around the world."
Industrialized countries tend to have an abundance of monitoring stations. They can keep track of local magnetism, ground currents, and ionization, and provide the data to researchers. Developing countries are where the gaps are, particularly at low latitudes around Earth's magnetic equator. With assistance from the UN, researchers may be able to extend sensor networks into regions where it was once politically unfeasible.
Space weather might play a role in Earth’s climate, too. For example, the Maunder minimum, a 70-year period almost devoid of sunspots in the late 17th to early 18th century, coincided with prolonged, very cold winters in the northern hemisphere. Researchers are increasingly convinced that variations in solar activity have regional effects on climate and weather that pay no attention to national boundaries, and thus can only be studied in meaningful detail by international consortia. Now that space weather has been elevated to a permanent place on the COPUOS agenda, it will be a matter of regular conversation among UN diplomats, scientists and emergency planners.

**Grow things, make things,
be kind, and have fun. Fall in love often
even if it is with the same person over and over again.**
Bridget McAlonan

Live Seismograms - Worldwide (update every 30 minutes)

This morning -

Yesterday -
2/17/13 -

A 5.0 magnitude earthquake struck the northern areas of Pakistan, including the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata), early on Sunday. People rushed out of their houses in panic after the tremors were felt.

Italy shaken by 4.8 magnitude earthquake - The shaking was reportedly felt from Rome to Naples, with the epicenter occurring near the towns of Sora and Isola del Liri. In May 2012, a 5.8-magnitude earthquake struck northern Italy and caused several deaths and hundreds of injuries. The region is earthquake prone and that an earthquake 5.0 magnitude or larger can do "considerable damage".
Over 300 people were killed in 2009 earthquake in L'Aquila, which is located in central Italy. An Italian court has just convicted four more people in connection with the quake, this time for "shoddy" work associated with the collapse of a university building where several people died after the devastating 2009 quake.

How to Repel an Earthquake - Want to protect buildings from earthquakes? Turn the surrounding ground into Swiss cheese.
Scientists have for the first time shown that a grid of holes in the ground can act as a kind of seismic wall, a development that could lead to technologies that a development that could lead to technologies that protect buildings from the dangerous tremors of earthquakes. "It's very cool stuff. It's a step toward manipulating seismic waves and done in a genius way."
For more than a decade, scientists have been manipulating electromagnetic waves with metamaterials - assemblages of conductors and insulators patterned at length scales shorter than the waves themselves. Metamaterials can change the speed and direction of the waves in bizarre ways, and researchers have used them to funnel light around objects in the first generation of invisibility cloaks. The successes of those experiments raise another question: Can researchers also manipulate the nonelectromagnetic seismic waves set in motion by an earthquake? Computer models imagining a larger metamaterial seemed to suggest they could. But the new work is the first to put a seismic wave cloak to the test.
The scientists created their jumbo-sized metamaterial in August 2012 by drilling holes in a thick bed of silt and clay near the city of Grenoble in the French Alps. The cylindrical holes stretched down about 5 meters into the earth, but were also skinny, only 32 centimeters wide. They were arranged in a rectangular grid of three rows of 10 holes each. The holes changed the density and stiffness of the earth and, thus, the speed and direction of vibrations rippling through the ground, forming a seismic metamaterial. The scientists then shook the earth on one side of the grid using a vibrating soil-compacting machine that they had placed underground. That machine created 50 seismic surface waves per second with a wavelength of 1.56 meters — about the same as the distance between the holes, though shorter than typical wavelengths from earthquakes.
Sensors placed throughout the site showed that the waves couldn't get past the grid of holes, bouncing off of it instead. The waves just barely got by the second row of holes and couldn't even touch the third row, leaving the ground on the other side unshaken. The large scale of the experiment really stands out. "What this group is reporting, I think that is a pretty important step."
However, the work is not yet the earth-shaking advance that will render earthquakes harmless. The new experiment is "exciting" but it does not address the complexities of the interactions between temblors and buildings. For example, at the experiment site the waves had to navigate only fine silty clay, whereas a real earthquake's seismic waves would run through a broad variety of rock, influencing their strength and direction. "I think there's great potential, but we don't have a complete answer for [protecting buildings] yet."

Volcano Webcams

Volcano location could be greenhouse-icehouse key - A new study finds the real estate mantra "location, location, location" may also explain one of Earth's enduring climate mysteries. The study suggests that Earth's repeated flip-flopping between greenhouse and icehouse states over the past 500 million years may have been driven by the episodic flare-up of volcanoes at key locations where enormous amounts of carbon dioxide are poised for release into the atmosphere.
"We found that Earth's continents serve as enormous 'carbonate capacitors'. Continents store massive amounts of carbon dioxide in sedimentary carbonates like limestone and marble, and it appears that these reservoirs are tapped from time to time by volcanoes, which release large amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere." As much as 44 percent of carbonates by weight is carbon dioxide. Under most circumstances that carbon stays locked inside Earth's rigid continental crust.
"One process that can release carbon dioxide from these carbonates is interaction with magma. But that rarely happens on Earth today because most volcanoes are located on island arcs, tectonic plate boundaries that don't contain continental crust." Earth's climate continually cycles between greenhouse and icehouse states, which each last on timescales of 10 million to 100 million years. Icehouse states -- like the one Earth has been in for the past 50 million years -- are marked by ice at the poles and periods of glacial activity. By contrast, the warmer greenhouse states are marked by increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and by an ice-free surface, even at the poles. The last greenhouse period lasted about 50 million to 70 million years and spanned the late Cretaceous, when dinosaurs roamed, and the early Paleogene, when mammals began to diversify.
The planet's greenhouse-icehouse oscillations are a natural consequence of plate tectonics. Tectonic activity drives an episodic flare-up of volcanoes along continental arcs, particularly during periods when oceans are forming and continents are breaking apart. The continental arc volcanoes that arise during these periods are located on the edges of continents, and the magma that rises through the volcanoes releases enormous quantities of carbon dioxide as it passes through layers of carbonates in the continental crust.
The study breaks with conventional theories about greenhouse and icehouse periods. "The standard view of the greenhouse state is that you draw carbon dioxide from the deep Earth interior by a combination of more activity along the mid-ocean ridges -- where tectonic plates spread -- and massive breakouts of lava called 'large igneous provinces.' Though both of these would produce more carbon dioxide, it is not clear if these processes alone could sustain the atmospheric carbon dioxide that we find in the fossil record during past greenhouses."
"93.5 million years ago there was a mass extinction of deepwater organisms that coincided with a global marine anoxic event -- that is, the deep oceans became starved of oxygen...93 million years ago was a very interesting time for North America. There was a huge flare-up of volcanism along the western margin of North America, and the peak of all this activity was 93 million years ago... I decided to look at whether the flare-up in volcanic activity that helped create the Sierra Nevada Mountains may also have affected Earth's climate."
Though the idea in the GeoSpheres study is still a theory, it has some advantages over more established theories because it can explain how the same basic set of geophysical conditions could produce and sustain a greenhouse or an icehouse for many millions of years. "The length of subduction zones and the number of arc volcanoes globally don't have to change. But the nature of the arcs themselves, whether they are continental or oceanic, does change. It is in the continental-arc stage that CO2 is released from an ever-growing reservoir of carbonates within the continents."

No tropical storms.


Scientists have discovered fragments of the meteor that spectacularly plunged over Russia's Ural Mountains creating a shockwave that injured 1200 people and damaged thousands of homes. The giant piece of space rock streaked over the city of Chelyabinsk in central Russia on Friday with the force of 30 of the nuclear bombs dropped on the Japanese city of Hiroshima during World War II. It exploded a few dozen kilometres above Earth but its pieces were widely believed to have scattered over large swathes of the industrial region.
Recovery workers scouring a small lake where at least some of the fragments were believed to have fallen were unable to discover anything in their initial search. But progress was made when members of the Russian Academy of Sciences, who conducted chemical tests on some unusual rocks on Sunday, concluded that they had come from outer space. ''We confirm that the particles of a substance found by our expedition near Lake Chebarkul really do have the composition of a meteorite." The rock was composed in part of metallic iron as well as chrysolite and sulfite.
The meteor's shockwave blew out the windows of nearly 5000 buildings and left 40 people - including three children - recovering in hospital on Sunday with cuts and more serious injuries. About 24,000 emergency workers and volunteers were busy replacing smashed windows over the weekend in time for the resumption of school and work. But the elusive meteorites have generated interest as well. Russian space debris hunters have posted ads on websites offering as much as 300,000 rubles ($A9,760) for an authentic piece of the latest space rock to hit the planet.
Treasure hunters are flocking to Russia to collect fragments of the meteor with reports that pieces of the space rock could be worth more than $100,000. Locals and fortune hunters are rushing to the region to chance their luck at finding a chunk of space rock. "A relatively small piece is worth maybe a few hundred dollars, but a large chunk can be up to $100,000 or even more. I expect people to be out there with metal detectors all over the place. They might even come in from Moscow to search." "The web is awash with people saying they want to buy this stuff. Maybe this thing was not that bad after all if a few of us make some money out of it."
One Russian buyer is offering 500,000 roubles ($25,000) for a single rock. The trick is finding the right chunk of rock. Size matters but what it is made from may matter more. Even small pieces may be worth a small fortune if they have the right composition. "The most common is called a stony-iron, and it's made up of minerals that are pretty common on Earth, so a small piece might be worth 20 bucks. But the composition can tell you something about where it came from, so if it has a composition that suggests it likely came from Mars the value goes through the roof."
Last year a 1.9kg chunk of moon rock called Dar al Gani 1058 found in Libya in 1998 sold at auction in the United States for $330,000. A 161kg meteorite found in Argentina sold for on eBay for $93,000 in 2006. "The first thing to do is check to see if it's magnetic. It's not a guarantee, but most of them are." Russian authorities, however, are not so keen on the idea of tourists searching for meteors. They want people to stay away from the fragments until they have been tested by scientists in Moscow. (photos)


New virus hits 12 globally; new British case - A fourth person in Britain has contracted a potentially fatal SARS-like virus which was unknown in humans until a few months ago, but health officials said on Friday the risk to the population remained very low.
Confirming the third British case this week of infection the new virus - known as novel coronavirus, or NCoV - the Health Protection Agency said the patient was one of a cluster of three in the same family. This latest case brings the total number of confirmed cases globally to 12, of which four have been diagnosed in Britain. Of the total, five have died. Most of the infected lived or had recently been in the Middle East.
NCoV was identified when the World Health Organization (WHO) issued an international alert in September 2012 saying a virus previously unknown in humans had infected a Qatari man in Britain who had recently been in Saudi Arabia. The virus belongs to the same family as SARS, or Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome - a coronavirus that emerged in China in 2002 and killed about a tenth of the 8,000 people it infected worldwide. Symptoms common to both viruses include severe respiratory illness, fever, coughing and breathing difficulties.
The other two patients from the same family were being treated in intensive care units in separate hospitals in northern and central England. The third case in the cluster was mild. "The patient ... is recovering from a mild respiratory illness and is currently well." Despite this, the HPA was advising the patient to self-isolate and limit contact with other people. Health officials are currently following up other household members.
Coronaviruses are typically spread like other respiratory infections such as flu, travelling in airborne droplets when an infected person coughs or sneezes. "We would like to emphasize that the risk associated with novel coronavirus to the general UK population remains very low." When a second case in this cluster was found on Wednesday, a senior lecturer in respiratory medicine at Britain's University of Southampton, said that if NCoV turned out to be like the previous SARS outbreak, it may prove quite slow to spread from one human to another.
"But it's early days to make any definite statements because viruses can change and mutate very rapidly, so what is right today may be wrong tomorrow." Among the 12 laboratory-confirmed cases of NCoV to date, five are in Saudi Arabia, with three deaths; two are in Jordan, where both patients died; four are in Britain, where three are receiving treatment and the latest one is described as well; and one was in Germany in a patient from Qatar who has since been discharged from medical care.