Earthweek: A Diary of the Planet

By Steve Newman




+118° Akjoujt, Mauritania



Week Ending August 2, 2013

The Speed of Death

Greenhouse Decay

Researchers have discovered a process in which death spreads throughout living creatures, including humans, and are working on ways to slow it down. The death wave, or death fluorescence, has been observed as a glowing blue color within worms, spreading predictably from cell to cell until the entire creature is dead. The source of the blue hue is a compound called anthranilic acid. “It’s like a blue grim reaper, tracking death as it spreads throughout the organism until all life is extinguished,” said study coauthor David Gems, from University College London’s Healthy Aging Institute. While the study focused on worms because they are the smallest and most simple forms of animals, the biological process of cellular death observed in them is believed to be similar to that in humans. Gems says the discovery could lead to new medications or techniques that could eventually slow the aging process and postpone death, as well as delay most age-related diseases.

Microplastic Pollution

Tropical Cyclones

Scientists are skimming the waters of the North American Great Lakes this summer to see how pervasive a pollutant known as “microplastic” has become. The waterway’s ecosystems have already suffered other manmade ravages, such as invasive mussels brought in by shipping, industrial pollution and agricultural runoff that can trigger blooms of toxic algae. Increasing amounts of tiny plastic particles have been found in the water and lakebeds that are, in part, what is left when plastic bottles and other items break down over time. But many of the particles are abrasive “microbeads” used in personal care products like body washes and toothpaste. Earlier studies indicated Lake Erie is the most affected, since it receives outflow from lakes Superior, Michigan and Huron to the north. But new research finds Lake Ontario is at least as contaminated.

Meltdown Legacy

-111° Vostok, Antarctica


Finding Home

The operators of Japan’s crippled Fukushima nuclear power plant concede that highly radioactive groundwater has leaked into the Pacific from beneath the oceanside facility, leading to fears of contamination of marine life. Tokyo Electric Power Co. says it believes the groundwater is being fed by water in trenches around the reactors, which contain high levels of tritium, cesium, strontium and other unnamed substances. This is occurring more than two years after the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami disaster that led to the plant’s reactor meltdowns.

Rising amounts of atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) from the burning of fossil fuels are having a catastrophic, decaying effect on some marine life, according to new research. Scientists from Scotland’s University of St. Andrews say the increased acidity in the oceans due to more CO2 in the air is causing something comparable to tooth decay for tiny organisms known as foraminifera, or forams. The drop in ocean pH is reducing the number and sizes of these shells, with many becoming deformed, making it far more difficult for the creatures to feed. And since they are at the base of the ocean food chain, scientists fear losses in the foram population could affect far larger marine life.


Parts of Hawaii were soaked by the remnants of Tropical Storm Flossie, which weakened to a depression just before skirting the island chain. • Hurricane Gil formed briefly over the eastern Pacific Ocean. • China’s island province of Hainan and northern Vietnam were drenched by Tropical Storm Jebi. Moderate aftershocks continued to rattle nerves around the New Zealand capital of Wellington more than a week after a 6.5 magnitude jolt damaged buildings in the city. • Earth movements were also felt in eastern Afghanistan, northern Greece, the Hawaiian island of Oahu and northern Oklahoma.

Homing pigeons appear to have a mental “map” that allows them to navigate through unfamiliar territory, according to a new study. Scientists have long believed that either such a mental map or an innate ability to reduce the difference between their current location and home gives them their extraordinary navigational skills. To find out which is true, University of Zurich doctoral student Nicole Blaser first trained pigeons by not feeding them at home. She then set up a remote feeding station where half the birds were allowed to eat all they wanted while the other half were kept hungry. Then, all the birds were taken to a third station, where obstacles kept the birds from having any visual clues on how to get home or to the feeding station. When released, the fed birds flew directly home while the hungry birds flew straight to the feeding station. Blaser concludes that this means the birds have a type of map in their heads and also have cognitive capabilities.
Distributed by: Universal Uclick © MMXIII Earth Environment Service

Sign up to vote on this title
UsefulNot useful