Snowstorms in China… what about global warming?

Snow blankets a forest in China | Image: National Geographic

Beautiful yet deadly. China’s worst snow in 50 years has already killed more than 65 people and delayed hundreds of thousands who wanted to get back for their only holiday of the year, the Lunar New Year. But it has also created beautiful scenes like the one above – evidence of the extraordinary power of nature to both kill and amaze.

The obvious question is “I thought the climate was getting hotter – why so much snow?” Climate change is a highly complex process, and ‘global warming’ can sometimes be a misleading term for this. (Click here for an interactive map of global warming effects)

One of the most noticeable effects of global warming will be more extreme weather – think of 2007: the California wildfires, the worst flooding in England since the 18th century, the water shortage in the southern US… it’s rapidly becoming clear that we ourselves will be the ones affected as the effects of climate change unfold before our eyes.

So although this individual storm in China is probably not climate change-related, events like this are likely to become far more common throughout this century. Hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, wildfires – even without wanting to be too much of a scaremonger, I think it’s safe to say we’re in for one wild century.

Just some of the hundreds of thousands who have been trapped by the snowstorms | Image: National Geographic

The asteroid that almost hit Earth

The asteroid 2007 TU24 | Image: NASA / JPL NASA scientists have now managed to get images of 2007 TU24, the asteroid that came pretty close to hitting Earth on January 29 (see my previous post for more explanation and a star map).  It’s not an amazing photo, but it’s still quite fascinating anyway if you think about it..

So what would we do if an asteroid actually was on a collision course with Earth? Would we send some bombs up to blast it into tiny pieces, like they do in Hollywood? Well probably not in reality. The less romantic, but more likely, solution would be to give the asteroid lots of gentle nudges over a long period of time, to divert its path so that it avoided our planet.

However, if it was not discovered until the last moment, bombs would probably remain the only possibility.

Satellite hurtling down to Earth

Skylab,which fell to Earth uncontrolled in 1979 | Image: BBC NewsRain, snow, maybe hail… it’s very rare for anything to come out of the sky and hit you really hard on the head. But the U.S. government now admits that there is a new and dangerous possibility: a bus-sized spy satellite that is currently hurtling back to Earth, completely uncontrolled. It is due to hit us late February/early March. (Click here for a fascinating video explainer)

The problem is that because it died before anyone had time to safely direct it back to Earth, no-one has a clue where it’s going to land. So it could technically land right in the middle of New York City.

However, dangerous as it may sound, the chances of actually being hit by satellite debris are less than one in a trillion – compare that to one in 1.4 million for getting struck by lightning, and it’s doesn’t sound so scary after all. In fact, back in 1979 the 78-ton Skylab Space Station fell uncontrolled back to Earth, and it landed safely in the Indian Ocean. Think of the Challenger Shuttle disaster – there was far more debris there.

Planet Earth | Image: CNN / Getty ImagesWhat would the risks be apart from being knocked unconscious? Well, the satellite does contain hydrazine, a rocket fuel toxic to anyone who comes into contact with it. But that’s basically it.

Should we be scared? The scaremongers may say yes, but of course the sensible answer is no. Even ignoring the 75% of our planet that is ocean, there are still 57,500,000 square miles of land it could touch down on as well. Don’t lose too much sleep over it.

Artificial life created for the first time

The M. genitalium bacteria | Image: BBC News Life’s so complex that only a civilization far more advanced than our own could ever produce it artificially, right?

Wrong. Scientists at the J. Craig Venter Institute in Rockville, Maryland have successfully created the full genome for a species of bacteria, completely from scratch, the first time ever that life on our planet has been created by artificial means. Even though it was only a bacteria, with what is thought to be one of the shortest genetic codes around, it still contained an amazing 582,970 base pairs, each of which had to be arranged in exactly the right order for the code to be correct.

How is this possible? A big problem scientists had is that you can join a few base pairs together fine (32,000 is the longest ever achieved), but any more and they start to break apart. The solution was to create 101 smaller chains (each containing 5000-7000 pairs), and then join them all together using enzymes.The steps to creating artificial chromosomes, which can them be joined to make genes | Image: BBC News

So what implications is this going to have? For the moment at least, scientists have no intention whatsoever to create mini-zombies to terrorize and kill us all. However, artificial life forms could be in widespread use in as little as a decade or two, removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and producing clean fuels, two things our planet is in desperate need of.

I am strongly in favor of amazing progress like this, but I know that many people say it is ‘playing God’, and there are also questions about where research like this stops – what’s to stop this technology being used for biological warfare, or for some sick professor’s dream of aliens wandering the streets… I’d be really interested to hear your views – post your comments below.

Italy’s crashing into Croatia

The Adriatic Sea

Italy, home of coffee, art and… tectonic plate collisions. What!?

A new fault has been discovered on the edge of the tectonic plate Italy sits on, making it slowly sliding over the plate that Croatia and other members of the Balkan Peninsula lie on. The result: Italy is gradually getting closer and closer to Croatia, effectively closing up the Adriatic sea.

So what exactly is a tectonic plate? Imagine if the Earth was just one big ocean, full of icebergs. These icebergs (tectonic plates) float around, sometimes colliding, sliding past each other, or moving apart. Italy, together with the rest of Europe, is on the Eurasian ‘iceberg’, and Croatia lies on the smaller South Adria ‘iceberg’. The Eurasian iceberg is creeping over the Adria iceberg, pushing it down.

The Adriatic Sea | Image: National GeographicThis is causing the area where the two meet – the Adriatic Sea – to get smaller and smaller (although only 0.16 inches/0.4 cm a year), ultimately meaning Italy will crash into Croatia – though not for a projected 50-70 million years.

More relevant to us today are the possible short-term consequences. Scientists used to think this area was geologically inactive; now that they have been proven wrong, it raises the issue that earthquakes and tsunamis are much more likely than previously thought.

Earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanoes… there’s much more to Italy than coffee and art.

Asteroid heading toward Earth

Asteroid 253 Mathilde (not the one headed toward Earth) | Image: Wikipedia An asteroid is currently headed toward Earth, getting closest just next week… though fortunately for us the chance of collision is virtually zero. It may be up to 2000ft long, which would be pretty catastrophic for us if it was to hit, but it is expected to pass no nearer than 1.4 times the distance from the Earth to the Moon.

If an asteroid was to hit our planet, not only would the surrounding area be devastated, but the Sun would be blocked for months by all the dust blown up, and much of life on Earth would perish, similar to what is thought to have happened 65 million years ago when the dinosaurs became extinct.

This asteroid should apparently be visible through a medium-sized telescope – click here for the star map.

Making black… blacker

Carbon Nanotubes | Image: BBC NewsHow black is black? As dark as the sky in the middle of the night? As dark as being locked in a room with no windows and no lights? Scientists at Rice University in Houston, Texas, claim to have made something even blacker than that, or anything ever produced before. Just 0.045% of light is reflected, which makes it the darkest material ever created.

The obvious first question is, why? What’s the point in making something really dark, other than to give the professor who did it a few minutes of fame? The big answer is solar energy, because the more energy a solar panel can absorb, the more efficient it will be. As renewable energy is set to become widely used in the 21st century, this could potentially be world-changing if it convinces more people to give up the oil addiction.

So how on Earth did they do it? By using something which is becomingly increasingly important in technology: carbon nanotubes, which are basically tiny rings of carbon atoms. By using carbon, one of the least reflective elements in existence, and by arranging it so it was all jumbled up to reduce reflection even more, only a tiny amount of the light bounced back.

Tennis rackets are already being made stronger by nanotechnology | Image: BBC NewsWatch out for nanotechnology, not just for scientific experiments like this, but for widespread use in our everyday lives over the next few years. Tennis rackets with nanoparticles built in to strengthen them, clothes with nanobots built in, microscopic machines flowing through our bodies to monitor health… they’re not so far in the future as you’d think. Click here for examples of how they are being used already. It’s really cool!