Earth ChangesS


Brits lack grit to deal with cold spell

A national shortage of grit is putting lives at risk on Britain's snow covered roads, the country' biggest motoring organisation warned yesterday.

Britain Jan 2009 Snow
© Reuters Snow: cold could kill tens of thousands of elderly people, council leaders have claimed

The AA said many roads were turning into "death traps" and warned that the country faced a dangerous "road safety crisis".

With weather forecasters predicting another five days of freezing temperatures and snow, the AA called on the Government to step in and ask European countries to provide emergency supplies of salt.

Around 40,000 tonnes are already on the way from Spain. Critics said the grit shortage had proved Britain was woefully unprepared for the extended cold snap.

The Daily Telegraph disclosed two days ago that some councils would run out of salt by the weekend.

Several have now either run out or have such low stock levels that very few roads are being gritted. In some areas less than 20 per cent of roads have been treated.


Britain faces winter weekend from hell as fresh snowfall causes travel chaos

Britain suffered a fifth day of transport chaos today as heavy snow forced thousands of schools to close again as roads were blocked, trains cancelled and airports shut.

Giant falling sheets of ice on the Severn crossings joining England and Wales smashed car windscreens this morning, prompting both bridges to be closed.

Hundreds of drivers in Devon had to be rescued after becoming stranded during the blizzards overnight and today, and many roads were still closed or impassable.

The AA was receiving more than 250 breakdown calls every 15 minutes. It said its staff will have handled 70,000 call-outs in the past five days by tonight.


Blackouts, bushfires and deaths feared in Australian scorcher

Sydney is expected to set a record tomorrow: the most consecutive days above 40 degrees since records began in 1939. With that comes the risk of blackouts, bushfires and deaths among the city's sick and elderly.

Mortality rates rise by 1 per cent for every degree temperatures rise above 20, according to an analysis of patterns in Sydney for the federal Department of Health and Ageing.

Yesterday, temperatures in western Sydney topped 41 degrees. They will reach 42 today and 44 tomorrow.


Smoke blankets Sydney

Sweltering summer conditions in Sydney have been made alarmingly worse by choking smoke from a bushfire on the NSW Central Coast.

Smoke from a blaze that has destroyed more than 180ha near Lake Macquarie has been blown south by the northerly winds that have brought hot and dry conditions to much of the state.

The fire broke out near Catherine Hill Bay on Friday afternoon and is expected to double in size, says the Rural Fire Service (RFS).

"Because we have a northerly wind, that actually blew right down into the Sydney basin late last (Friday) night and has put up a huge amount of smoke," RFS spokeswoman Rebel Talbert told AAP.


Solomons declares floods disaster

Solomon islands map
The Solomon Islands has declared a national disaster after heavy rain and flooding killed at least nine people.

Emergency workers say nine more people are missing on Guadalcanal island, and dozens have been evacuated from there and nearby Savo island.

Officials say they fear the death toll could rise as an estimated 1,800 people need urgent help.

The government has appealed for international assistance, with France and Australia promising emergency aid.


Microbe Survives in Ocean's Deepest Realm

Pompeii Worm
© University of DelawareThe Pompeii worm, the most heat-tolerant animal on Earth, lives in the deep ocean at super-heated hydrothermal vents.
The genome of a marine bacterium living 2,500 meters below the ocean's surface is providing clues to how life adapts in extreme environments, according to a paper published Feb. 6, 2009, in the journal PLoS Genetics.

The research focused on the bacterium Nautilia profundicola, a microbe that survives near deep-sea hydrothermal vents. It was found in a fleece-like lining on the backs of Pompeii worms, a type of tubeworm that lives at hydrothermal vents, and in bacterial mats on the surfaces of the vents' chimney structures.

One gene, called rgy, allows the bacterium to manufacture a protein called reverse gyrase when it encounters extremely hot fluids from the Earth's interior released from the sea floor.


1709: The Year That Europe Froze

© The Art Archive / Querini Stampalia Foundation Venice / Gianni Dagli OrtiPart of a lagoon which froze over in 1708, Venice, Italy, by Gabriele Bella (1733-99)

People across Europe awoke on 6 January 1709 to find the temperature had plummeted. A three-week freeze was followed by a brief thaw - and then the mercury plunged again and stayed there. From Scandinavia in the north to Italy in the south, and from Czechoslovakia in the east to the west coast of France, everything turned to ice. The sea froze. Lakes and rivers froze, and the soil froze to a depth of a metre or more. Livestock died from cold in their barns, chicken's combs froze and fell off, trees exploded and travellers froze to death on the roads. It was the coldest winter in 500 years.

In England, they called the winter of 1709 the Great Frost. In France it entered legend as Le Grand Hiver, three months of deadly cold that ushered in a year of famine and food riots. In Scandinavia the Baltic froze so thoroughly that people could walk across the ice as late as April. In Switzerland hungry wolves crept into villages. Venetians skidded across their frozen lagoon, while off Italy's west coast, sailors aboard English men-of-war died from the cold. "I believe the Frost was greater (if not more universal also) than any other within the Memory of Man," wrote William Derham, one of England's most meticulous meteorological observers. He was right. Three hundred years on, it holds the record as the coldest European winter of the past half-millennium.

Cowboy Hat

Cows With Names Make More Milk

Dairy cows face a lot of pressure. Every day, month after month, a lactating cow is expected to let down her milk under the expectant eyes of a farmer whose bottom line depends on how much it he can squeeze out.

Now, new research suggests a gentle way to get more milk out of anxious mama-cow: Stroke her, ask about her day, and call her Elsa, Rose, or Lady Moo. Cows with names produce up to five percent more milk, according to a study published in January in the journal Anthrozoos.

It's not the name itself that makes a dairy cow more productive, said cattle behaviorist Catherine Douglas, of Newcastle University in the United Kingdom. Rather, a cow with a name is likely to be more relaxed than if she were treated as just another number.


Antarctic patents strain goals of shared science

Rothera Base, - Fifty years into a treaty demanding all scientific findings on Antarctica be freely shared, governments are trying to end a dispute over a surge in company patents on life in the continent.

An increasing number of companies developing new products through biological discovery or "bioprospecting" are trying to file patents on Antarctic organisms or molecules for items from cosmetics to medicines, putting new strains on the treaty.

"Biology is going through a revolution ... it's a tricky situation," Jose Retamales, head of the Chilean Antarctic Institute, said of the lack of clear rules for prospecting for animals and plants on the continent.


Parasitic Butterflies Dupe Hosts with Ant Music

© Jeremy ThomasCaterpillar inside a red ant nest, being fed regurgitations by a worker ant.
Though they wouldn't win much applause at a karaoke lounge, the infant forms of blue butterflies can belt out a convincing cover version of a tune favoured by red ants - which show their appreciation by protecting and feeding the butterfly larvae.

Researchers have found that the larvae and pupae of Maculinea rebeli - a parasitic butterfly native to western Europe, though threatened with extinction - impersonate red ants so faithfully that worker ants worship them as if they were queens, caring for the developing caterpillar even at the expense of their own lives.