AmeriScan: March 28, 2003

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NASA Observatory Captures Images of Adolescent Universe

COLLEGE PARK, Maryland, March 28, 2003 (ENS) - Scientists now have a snapshot of the "adolescent universe" from five billion years ago, when its web of galaxy chains and voids first emerged.

This new observation adds to a rapidly growing collection of new insights into the formation of the universe, according to Yuxuan Yang, who coordinated the analysis of the images from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's (NASA) Chandra X-Ray Observatory.

"Piece by piece, we are assembling a photo album of the universe through the ages," said Yang, a doctorate candidate at the University of Maryland, College Park. "Last month we saw a picture of the infant universe taken with the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe. Now we can add a snapshot of its adolescence."

Launched in July 1999 the Chandra X-Ray Observatory is the most sophisticated X-Ray observatory ever built. It is the largest satellite ever launched by a U.S. space shuttle.

By tracing a specific patch of sky within Ursa Major, the constellation that holds the Big Dipper, scientists used Chandra to gather the observation of the chaotic adolescent universe, when distant and massive galaxies were clustered together under the gravitational attraction of dark matter.

The new evidence of active galaxies, seven times denser than previously detected, provides the "clearest picture yet" at the early structure of the universe, according to Richard Mushotzky of NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, who led the observation.

The research team said the observation provides a map of the distribution of dark matter, which comprises 85 percent of all matter. Dark matter does not shine like ordinary matter made of atoms, the team explained, and galaxies are attracted to its gravitational potential.

They described galaxies and intergalactic gas strung "like pearls on unseen filaments of dark matter."

The galaxies seen with Chandra were either dim or altogether undetectable with optical and radio telescopes, perhaps because these instruments can not penetrate dust and gas.

"We are seeing the universe during its formative years," said Mushotzky. "This is billions of years after galaxies were born, during a period when the universe began to take on the trappings of an adult."

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Report Says Weather Tools Should Be More Readily Available

WASHINGTON, DC, March 28, 2003 (ENS) - A new report from the National Academies of Science finds that the tremendous advances in technology to predict the weather are often slow to be adopted by, or may never reach, those who could use them.

Given the cost of research satellites and weather and climate services, as well as the increasing role of space-based sensors, greater attention should be paid to accelerating the rate of return on research investments, according to the committee that produced the new report "Satellites Observations of the Earth's Environment: Accelerating the Transition of Research to Operations."

The committee says that as much as $4 trillion of the $10 trillion U.S. economy is affected by weather and climate events each year, and better forecasting has helped protect people and property. This has helped increase the demand for improved climate data and forecasts, the committee reported.

But there is a historic gap in transferring research results that has been caused by insufficient long term planning, cultural and organizational issues, lack of scientific understanding and inadequate resources.

The committee recommends a tighter partnership between the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). NASA is largely responsible for developing satellites to observe Earth systems, and NOAA is responsible for operating meteorological satellites and disseminating information gained from them.

The partnership between the two has produced some good results, but not "always in a timely fashion."

The committee believes a joint office should be established to plan, coordinate, and support the transitioning of NASA research to NOAA operations. It could evaluate and assess potential benefits from each Earth science research mission and develop a flexible strategic plan for transferring the mission's research results to operations.

Increased financial and human resources are also needed to facilitate transferring new technologies from research to practical use, the committee said.

The study was funded by NOAA on behalf of both NOAA and NASA.

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Huge Reductions in CO2 Emissions Could Be Needed by 2050

CHAMPAIGN, Illinois, March 28, 2003 (ENS) - A study published in today's issue of the journal "Science" suggests that huge reductions in carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions will be required by the middle of this century, even if climate sensitivity to C02 is on the low end of the accepted range.

"To reduce carbon dioxide emissions and avoid dangerous interference with the climate system, we must switch to alternative, carbon-free energy sources," said Atul Jain, a professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a coauthor of the study.

The research team examined the accepted range of climate sensitivity, which is the global mean temperature change that would result from doubling the amount of C02 in the atmosphere. The accepted range is between 1.5 degrees and 4.5 degrees Celsius.

Jain and his colleagues constructed stabilization pathways that led to a two degree Celsius warming by 2150 and calculated the allowable CO2 levels for each pathway.

"To achieve stabilization at a two degree Celsius warming, we would need to bring the equivalent of a large carbon-emission-free power plant into production somewhere in the world every day for the next 50 years," Jain said.

If climate sensitivity is at the high end of the range, according to the researchers, then by the end of this century nearly all of humanity's power will have to come from non CO2 emitting sources in order to stabilize the climate.

The authors warned that the non C02 emitting technologies required for such a dramatic shift in energy production do not exist. They suggest that given the difficulty in establishing markets for new energy technologies, work on these technologies needs to commence.

"We must begin replacing fossil fuels with alternative energy technologies that support economic growth and equity," Jain said.

The study was funded by the U.S. Department of Energy.

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Yellowstone Snowmobile Fight Revs Up

WASHINGTON, DC, March 28, 2003 (ENS) - The battle over snowmobiles in Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks took another turn this week, with the Bush administration issuing its final decision to allow snowmobiling in the parks.

This was followed by another legal challenged by a coalition of environmentalists and animal rights organizations determined to prevent the Bush administration from reversing a January 2001 decision to phase out the use of snowmobiles in the parks.

The Fund for Animals, Bluewater Network, Ecology Center, and several individuals filed an appeal with the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia this week.

"This new decision will continue to devastate Yellowstone and its unique wildlife including bison, elk, grizzly bears, gray wolves, and bald eagles - and will cost millions of tax dollars for law enforcement and monitoring of snowmobile impacts," said Michael Markarian, president of The Fund for Animals. "American taxpayers should not have to foot the bill for turning our first and foremost national park into a national playground."

But Park Service officials praised the decision, which does impose restrictions on snowmobile use. It bans the old, two stroke snowmobiles in favor of newer, quieter and less polluting models, requires guides in order to protect wildlife and sets daily limits for the number of snowmobiles allowed in the parks.

Some environmentalists see no room for middle ground on the issue. Markarian contends the noise and pollution from the machines is destroying the air and threatening the health of the parks' wildlife and park rangers. Carbon monoxide levels in Yellowstone have exceeded federal standards in times of heavy snowmobile use.

The previous Park Service decision, issued in the last days of President Bill Clinton's administration, found the health and environmental impact of snowmobile use in the park merited phasing out their use.

"This decision shows yet again President Bush's willingness to place the snowmobile industry's profits ahead of protecting national parks," said Sean Smith, Bluewater Network Public Lands Director and former Yellowstone ranger.

"It is deplorable and wrong that the President would ignore overwhelming public opinion, relevant federal law, and conclusive scientific research and sell out our national heritage this way. The courts will now have to step in and force the administration's snowmobile management back into compliance with the law."

The decision must go through a rulemaking process before it becomes final. There is a bipartisan bill in the House of Representatives that would implement the Clinton-era rule.

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Energy Group Rolls Out Fuel Economy Campaign

WASHINGTON, DC, March 28, 2003 (ENS) - The Alliance to Save Energy is urging Americans to demand major American automakers increase fuel economy in an effort to decrease the nation's growing dependence on foreign oil. The organization said that 5,000 Americans signed on to the Web campaign at within its first 24 hours.

The organization credits Ford, General Motors and DaimlerChrysler for announcing they will soon introduce hybrid electric vehicles, but wants people to join its campaign to pressure the automakers into fulfilling their promises.

"With cars and light trucks accounting for more than 40 percent of U.S. oil consumption, the Big Three automakers are uniquely positioned to help break our nation's deadly oil dependence," said David M. Nemtzow, president of the Alliance, a coalition of prominent business, government, environmental and consumers leaders who promote energy efficiency.

The Alliance is asking Americans to commit to reducing their own personal use of oil.

"For too long, our nation has been dangerously dependent on foreign oil, leaving our economy and our national security hostage to the whims of other, often hostile, nations," Nemtzow said.

The Drive for America campaign, he said, allows the United States to declare that "we will no longer tolerate being a nation of oil junkies."

The campaign cites growing oil imports, rising gas prices and their impact on national security interests. The U.S. imports more than half its oil from abroad, a figure the Alliance says could grow to two-thirds by 2025 if a new policy is not pursued.

"America can significantly increase the gas mileage of its cars, trucks, and SUVs by employing current and emerging automotive technologies such as hybrid electric vehicles," said Alliance Director of Policy Kara Saul Rinaldi. "This campaign tells America's automakers that Americans want more efficient vehicles and demand a change in our gluttonous oil consumption."

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Researchers Report New Insights Into World's Biggest Fungus

OTTAWA, Ontario, March 28, 2003 (ENS) - U.S. and Canadian researchers say that the world's biggest fungus, discovered in Oregon's Blue Mountains in 2001, is challenging traditional notions of what constitutes an individual.

The underground Amarillaria ostoyae fungus covers an area of some 9.65 square kilometers and is estimated to be between 2,000 and 8,500 years old.

"It is one organism that began as a microscopic spore and then grew vegetatively, like a plant," says Dr. Catherine Parks, a research plant pathologist with the U.S. Forest Service and coordinator of the research team. "From a broad scientific view, it challenges what we think of as an individual organism."

In a new paper published in the April 2003 issue of the Canadian Journal of Forest Research, Parks and her research partners describe how they determined the fungus is a single organism and the potential implication for forest management.

Armillaria ostoyae is a tree killing fungus that causes Armillaria root disease, which spreads along tree roots and through the forest soil. The disease kills trees in many U.S. and Canadian forests. It harms or destroys some 3.8 million cubic meters of potential lumber annually in British Columbia.

Researchers mapped the range of the fungus and confirmed its genetic identity by collecting samples from different points in the forest and observing the reactions as they were grown together on Petri dishes, Parks explained.

"The technique is actually very simple, and makes use of this fungus' own ability to distinguish one individual from another," she said.

"If you could take away the soil and look at it, it is just one big heap of fungus with all of these filaments that go out under the surface," Parks explained. "The fact that an organism like this has been growing in the forest for thousands of years really expands our view of the forest ecosystem and how it functions."

The findings undermine the past belief that humans worsened the spread of Armillaria root disease by suppressing forest fires that are part of the natural cycle of renewal, the researchers reported.

The fungus is a natural participant in the forest cycle, Parks explained, and is often present in areas with little visible tree damage.

This has implications for selected cutting and for decisions by forest managers about what species to focus on during planting and harvesting.

"After you cut an infected tree, the entire root system can be colonized by the fungus, which then increases the disease potential around that area," Parks said. "When planting, they may want to introduce less susceptible trees - such as western larch, western white pine, and ponderosa pine - and harvest the more susceptible trees during thinning."

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Legal Challenge to U.S. Hemp Ban

SAN FRANCISCO, California March 28, 2003 (ENS) - Last week the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) issued its final rule on hemp foods, banning the sale of all hemp food products by April 21, 2003. The Hemp Industry Association and several hemp food and cosmetic manufacturers have petitioned the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit to block the DEA rule.

The organizations contend that the final rule is "virtually identical" to a DEA interpretative rule issued in October 2001 that was never enacted because of a stay issued by the Ninth Circuit in March 2002.

"The DEA's charade of supposedly protecting the public from safe and nutritious hemp food is finally going to end," according to David Bronner, chairman of the Hemp Industry Association's Food and Oil Committee.

"The hemp industry is optimistic that the court will ultimately invalidate the DEA's rule, as one of the prime criteria in granting the Stay was whether the hemp industry is likely to ultimately prevail on the merits of the case," Bronner said.

According to the industry, hemp foods has grown from $1 million to $6 million annual retail sales. Hemp seeds are a source of protein and have the highest content of essential fatty acids of any oil in nature.

Hemp seed is exempted from the Controlled Substances Act because it only contains trace amounts of the active ingredient in marijuana. Poppy seeds, which have trace amounts of opiates, are similarly exempted.

The DEA's decision to ban hemp foods is based on the concern that a flourishing hemp industry could provide cover for illegal cultivation of marijuana. But it seems to have little public support - some 115,000 public comments were submitted to the DEA against the ban.

The United States is the only major industrialized country that prohibits the growing and processing of industrial hemp.

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Scientists Identify 34 Million Year Old Toothcomb Primate

DURHAM, North Carolina, March 28, 2003 (ENS) - Researchers have discovered the earliest fossil evidence for one of the three major lines of primates. A small collection of teeth and jaw fragments collected on a 2001 expedition to the Egyptian desert offers evidence that the ancestors of bushbabies and lorises appeared during the Eocene epoch between 34 million to 55 million years ago, at least twice as early as previous fossils had shown.

The fossils represent the oldest known "toothcombed prosimians," a group that also includes the lemurs of Madagascar. Anthropoids, which include monkeys, apes, and humans, and tarsiers are the other two primate groups.

"Researchers have gathered large numbers of Eocene prosimian fossils from around the world, but none of the most ancient of these fossils had toothcombs," said coauthor Elwyn Simons, director of the Duke Primate Center Division of Fossil Primates. "The oldest toothcomb prosimians, until now, were from 17- to 20-million-year-old sites in east Africa."

The findings were published in the March 27 issue of "Nature."

The teeth provide evidence that the primates belong to two groups, according to the scientists. One is a primitive bushbaby and the other is a loris-like species, which is a gangly slow moving primate found in the forests of central Africa and south Asia. Bushbabies are small nocturnal leaping animals, ranging from the size of chipmunks to opossums, currently found in sub-Saharan Africa.

"The early evolutionary history of these toothcombed primates has long been the most mysterious phase of early primate evolution," said coauthor Erick Seiffert, a graduate student in Duke's Department of Biological Anthropology and Anatomy.

"Finally, after over a century of paleontological work in Africa, fossils have been found that shed important light on this issue," Seiffert explained.

Comparative studies of the genes of living animals by Yale molecular biologist Anne Yoder suggested that toothcombed prosimians had split off from other primates earlier than expected, Simons said.

"What is exciting about this find is that even after some thirty-nine years of searching this area, we had no idea that such creatures would be discovered," he said.

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