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Straight ahead on "Our World," the climate-change debate heats up in 2006, mysterious ice worms face extinction with the Arctic's meltdown and we celebrate the twin robots' extended stay on Mars.
SQUYRES: "Well, believe it or not, it's the second anniversary of Spirit's landing on Mars. These rovers were expected to last for 90 days, and it has been two years now."
Exploration and discovery continues on the red planet… that and the latest health news. Hi! I'm Rosanne Skirble, sitting in for the vacationing Art Chimes. Welcome to VOA's science and technology magazine, "Our World."
SKIRBLE: Two-thousand-five will go down in the history books as the planet's hottest year on record, following a decades-long rise in average global temperatures. Arctic sea ice has shrunk by 40 percent since the late 1970s, and last year, warmer ocean water contributed to a record number of storms in the Atlantic. Will these trends continue in 2006? Just ahead … some expert opinion about the prospects for climate change … and the international response.
TEXT: The Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change went into effect early last year with a commitment from 38 industrialized nations that by the year 2012 they would reduce climate-warming greenhouse gas emissions more than 5 percent below their 1990 levels.
The United States rejected the treaty because it says trying to achieve such emission reductions would harm the U.S. economy, and that the treaty fails to require emission reduction targets from major polluters in developing countries like China or India.
The U.S. did agree to non-binding climate talks after meeting last month in Montreal, Canada, where delegates from many countries had gathered to discuss the future of climate change policies after the Kyoto pact expires in 2012.
The Bush Administration has favored a voluntary approach to addressing global warming, a position long favored by industry. Jonathan Lash with the World Resources Institute believes private companies are beginning to see the virtue of clear and consistent government rules for counteracting climate
LASH: "For the first time a number of companies (are) saying publicly what many of us have heard them say privately which is they would like for the federal government to define the rules. If people are making long-term decisions, they want to know what it is going to cost them to deal with carbon in the future. I don't think that voluntary agreements do that. If we go on with the voluntary there will be some 1400 new coal fired power plants built. At that point it doesn't matter that we get serious (over global warming), it is too late."
Mr. Lash says election politics may force some Congressional action on climate change. However, he expects the most aggressive initiatives to come from state and local governments.
LASH: "I believe the count of cities that have made climate commitments is now up to 194. Twenty-eight states have climate action plans. Governor Schwarzenegger last June announced a program for California. It puts California on a path toward 80 percent reductions by 2050 and makes commitments in the near-enough-term so that it will have some bearing not only on future governors,
but on the decisions that are made now in California."
Not everyone believes such government mandates ensure an effective response to global warming. Patrick Michael with the Cato Institute - a public policy group that promotes limited government - doubts that California's progressive policies will have a major impact on the global climate picture.
MICHAELS: "california can issue all the standards it wants. California had a mandate to have all the vehicles on the road to be non-polluting, meaning electric vehicles by the year 2000. The technology simply wasn't there. Just because you say you are going to do something doesn't mean that you are going to do it. Interesting enough, the northeastern states that were entering into a much-vaunted compact have just seen two states defect, and the reason they said, 'No, we are not doing this,' is because this will cause us economic problems and it really doesn't do much about (global) warming. That seems to be the (political) wave of the future."
But another wave of the future, notes Jonathan Lash of the World Resources Institute, is renewable energy resources like solar, wind, biomass and geothermal. Mr. Lash believes renewables are becoming more financially attractive as the global demand for energy continues to grow.
LASH: "People are increasingly concluding that we simply are not going to solve problems of price and security through more drilling in the United States, and that renewables have become a financially and technically viable option. So, I suspect that 2006 is going to be the year of renewables."
MICHAELS: "I don't think so. That is repetition of a prediction that has been made year after year."
Patrick Michaels with the Cato Institute.
MICHAELS: "Renewables are not going to do it. They are not going to supply a major portion of the energy stream of any industrialized nation."
TEXT: Instead, Mr. Michaels advocates a technological fix.
MICHAELS: "We produce a constant dollar of goods and services in the United States now with only about 60 percent of the energy that we did 35 years ago. That is a remarkable increase in relative efficiency. That didn't happen because of global warming. It happened because people wanted to be efficient, because efficiency tends to save money. That is going to continue. I would argue that technology 100 years from now is liable to be so different and more efficient relative to today. I can't tell you what it is going to be, but the way to get there is to allow for investment and technological development."
TEXT: Whether it's the government or the market guiding our response to the challenge of global warming, Jonathan Lash of the World Resources Institute expects 2006 will see a steady stream of new climate-friendly products, not only for industry, but also for private citizens, looking for everything from alternative-fuel cars and trucks to more energy-efficient ways to heat and cool
SKIRBLE: The melting Arctic ice cap means a loss of habitat for many Northern animals - most famously, polar bears. Less famously, ice worms. These mysterious little creatures live on glaciers and thrive at the freezing point. That has NASA, the U-S space agency, very interested, because the worms could provide clues to how life could exist on colder planets. But - as Ashley Gross reports from Alaska - they'll have to hurry and study them before the glaciers disappear.
GROSS: On a recent rainy morning, Roman Dial tromps out to Byron Glacier south of Anchorage, on the hunt for ice worms. The Alaska Pacific University biology professor says there's not much chance of finding any, because the worms hide inside the glacier ice during the day. They don't drill their way to the surface until the sun sets.
DIAL: "When they all start bubbling up right about twilight, they look like little pinheads coming up to the snow, little black dots, then they squeeze up and emerge out of the snow and start crawling around."
GROSS: But today he's in luck. Maybe because the sky is overcast, some two and a half centimeter-long worms are still wriggling across the blue ice. Professor Dial chips away at the ice and puts chunks into an insulated jar. Then he carefully slides one worm after another into the jar, which he'll send to his fellow researcher, Dan Shain of Rutgers University. Professor Dial says there are lots of unsolved mysteries about these creatures.
DIAL: "Here's a very little one. That one's about a quarter of an inch or three-eighths of an inch. It's definitely a young one. Nobody has seen any eggs yet of these guys or actually seen how they reproduce and I don't think anyone really knows how long they live. Like that little baby I just picked up, I don't think anybody's certain how old that might be, whether it's from this year or
last year or ten years ago."
GROSS: But scientists are beginning to unlock one of the biggest mysteries about ice worms - how they survive at such frigid temperatures. Professor Shain of Rutgers has discovered something unique about ice worm physiology that enables them to endure the cold better than humans.
SHAIN: "If we jump into a cold lake, our energy levels are rapidly depleted and pretty soon we can't move and we die. If we were to throw them in a very cold pool of water, even well below zero, as they approach their freezing point, their energy levels go the other way. They just keep getting more and more energy, the colder they get."
GROSS: That adaptation caught the attention of the U.S. space agency, which recently awarded Professor Shain more than 200 thousand dollars for worm research. NASA astrobiologist Michael New says there's an extra-terrestrial reason for their interest. Europa, one of the large moons of Jupiter, has what looks to be an ice-encrusted ocean, which could harbor life. Michael New says it's too complicated to send a probe to Europa, so the next best thing is earth-bound research in a similar environment.
NEW: "If we're interested in looking for life on ice-enshrouded worlds, then understanding how life on earth has evolved and adapted to living under those conditions is an important thing for NASA to know."
GROSS: It's part of NASA's research into extremophiles - organisms that live in extreme conditions ranging from the boiling hot springs of Yellowstone National Park to hydrothermal vents at the bottom of the ocean.
NEW: "We try to understand the distribution and extent of life on the earth in order to inform our ability to look for life elsewhere."
GROSS: Back at Byron Glacier, Roman Dial has just found a patch of snow where ice worms appear to be thriving.
DIAL: "Look at here's a little nest of them. Three, four, five, six of them right within an inch of each other."
GROSS: But their future is precarious. This patch of snow is no longer connected to the glacier and is rapidly melting. Professor Dial says Byron Glacier -- like much ice worm habitat -- has shrunk dramatically in just one year. A warming Arctic could be the ice worms' undoing.
DIAL: "Potentially, somewhere, ice worms might be able to adapt to this sort of situation and live in the rocks and maybe evolve back to something that's not an ice worm. You know, it's possible, but I think this idea that these are worms that only live on ice means that once the ice is gone, the ice worms will be gone."
GROSS: So this creature, adapted to live in a frozen world, must now adapt to the thaw. Or, like the polar bear, face possible extinction. For Our World, I'm Ashley Gross in Anchorage, Alaska.
SKIRBLE: It has been two years since a pair of U.S. robotic rovers landed on Mars to begin a search for water. The expectation was that they'd roam for about three months and then quit working, because of the red planet's extremely rugged conditions. But to the surprise of everyone involved, the robots continue operating and adding to our understanding of the red planet. VOA's David McAlary brings us up to date on the exploits of the two American rovers named Spirit and Opportunity.
McALARY: Spirit reached the surface of Mars by parachute on January 3, 2004 and Opportunity touched down the same way on the opposite side of the planet three weeks later. Since then, the six-wheeled rovers have traveled about 11 kilometers, analyzing soil and rock for signs of water, evidence that Mars might have been hospitable to life.
No one is more astonished at their longevity than Cornell University geologist Steven Squyres, the mission's principal investigator.
SQUYRES: "Well, believe it or not, it's the second anniversary of Spirit's landing on Mars. These rovers were expected to last for 90 days and it has been two years now."
McALARY: The U.S. space agency NASA thought that the planet's extremely frigid temperatures and dusty atmosphere would keep their lives short. The dust was expected to build up on their solar panels, limiting their ability to recharge their batteries from the sun's energy. But luckily, whirlwinds blew the dust away several times, extending their lives.
The mission's major finding came early -- within the first 90 days. If the rovers had worked only that long, NASA's key objective would have been satisfied. The Opportunity rover found chemical evidence in bedrock that a shallow salt water sea existed at some time in Mars' past. Spirit drilled into
volcanic rocks and found minerals suggesting they had been carried by water and collected in the lava's tiny pores as it hardened.
Opportunity's finding has recently been challenged by researchers who say that the chemical signatures it found in the bedrock could be explained by volcanic ash as well as water.
While that debate continues, the robots keep finding new variations of bedrock in the different areas they are exploring. Steven Squyres says the geological information they have collected has increased evidence about ancient martian environments, including wet conditions possibly suitable for simple life forms.
SQUYRES: "During the first 90 days of Spirit's mission, we were on flat lava plains and everything was the same. But as a result of lasting so long, we have been able to explore a place called Columbia Hills, and for the last 400 and some odd days, we have been exploring in those hills. Every time we turn a corner, every time we go over a ridge, it seems like there is something new. All that diversity, all those discoveries were really enabled by the extraordinarily long life of the rover."
McALARY: The Cornell University geologist says that the composition and texture of six types of rock the rovers have inspected suggest that Mars was once a hot, violent place with volcanic explosions. He says water was around, perhaps in hot springs in some cases and trace amounts in others.
The rovers have had some minor problems while making their discoveries. One of Spirit's front wheels would not turn in 2004 until engineers began driving it in reverse. Opportunity's mechanical arm failed to extend last November because of a stalled motor, but technicians were able to fix it.
Despite these hitches, Mr. Squyres says the twin robots endure. David McAlary, VOA News, Washington
And now this health news:
A new study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provides the first comprehensive look at the presence in the U.S. population of Staphylococcus aureus -- including a potentially dangerous strain of the common bacterium.
Matthew Kuehnert is the lead author.
KUEHNERT: "Put quite simply the reason why we did the study is that it had never been done before on a national scale. ... We found that staph aureus lives in the nasal passages of 90 million (people in this country,) or almost a third of all Americans."
The study - published in the Journal of Infectious Diseases - also finds that 2 million Americans carry an especially dangerous strain of the germ: methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus. MRSA is a major problem in hospitals and has recently emerged outside medical institutions.
Matthew Kuehnert says understanding the ecology and diversity of staph can lead to better treatment.
KUEHNERT: "For instance, research into vaccines, colonization, eradication and infection control measures. Because as we are learning not all staph aureus (are) alike. So to target all staph aureus in the same way would be not an efficient approach."
But not everyone who is exposed necessarily gets sick.
KUEHNERT: "That is absolutely right. But there may be some isolates that cause disease more frequently."
MRSA is no more contagious than other staph infections, although the antibiotic resistant strains are far more difficult to treat.
Matthew Kuehnert says the prevalence of staph also differs among various segments of the population.
KUEHNERT: "Those that were young school-age children were most likely to have staph aureus in their nose and then that prevalence decreased over increasing age. But there were also differences in race and ethnicity."
MRSA was highest among women and those older than 60. Community associated MRSA was most common among young African Americans. Mr. Kuehnert says the spread of staph infections can be reduced by simple hand washing. He also advises less use of antibiotics, to prevent development of new drug resistant strains of bacteria. And he says that when antibiotics are prescribed, the patient must take the full course.
A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association finds that exposure to air pollutants increases the risk of heart disease. Researchers at Mt. Sinai Medical School exposed laboratory mice to airborne pollutants over a course of six months.
Lead investigator Sanjay Rajagopalan says fine-particle pollutants - about half the size of a single red blood cell -impaired heart muscle tone, caused swelling of blood vessels and promoted fatty build up in arteries.
RAJAGOPALAN: "What we found was that the mice that were exposed to high level of particulate pollution, who were also concurrently consuming a high fat diet, remarkably had a forty percent increase in the thickness of the plaque compared to the animals that were eating high fat diets, but being exposed to clean air."
The study exposed the mice to levels of pollutants similar to those considered safe under national air quality standards set by the U.S. Environment Protection Agency. Sanjay Rajagopalan says the results suggest particle pollution is more dangerous to our hearts and circulatory systems than previously known.
RAJAGOPALAN: "And at the end of the day, I think that if we identify specific pathways and specific constituents of particles that are responsible for atherosclerosis, then that will be a huge 'to do' (event) because then obviously it could potentially lead to the revision of these national air quality standards that we have through the EPA."
Mr. Rajagopalan says the next step is to determine what level of air pollution is safe for public health.
A few squares of dark chocolate could cut the risk of serious heart disease. Researches at the University Hospital in Zurich studied a group of smokers who showed early signs of heart disease. The smokers consumed 40 grams of dark chocolate and shortly after showed improved artery function.
CORTI: "The improvement of the vessel function is probably the consequence of the high cocoa content of the chocolate."
Lead author Roberto Corti says the chocolate contained 74 percent cocoa solids. Dark chocolate is also rich in antioxidants, which, like wine, tea and berries, help prevent damage to the heart. But, Dr. Corti warns too much chocolate could increase other cardiovascular risk factors like elevating blood
sugar levels, body fat and body weight.
His advice to smokers is…
CORTI: "To stop smoking. This is the most important advice."
White chocolate showed no beneficial effects. The study was published in the journal Heart.
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And that's our program for this week. Rob Sivak is our editor. Our technical director is Eva Nenicka. I'm Rosanne Skirble. Join us online at voanews.com/ourworld or on your radio next week at this same time with Art Chimes as we explore the latest in science and technology on Our World.