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News Bytes of the Week—Airline safety data down in flames

The end of continental drift, U.K. chokes on its own vomit and more…

NASA dares anyone to examine airline safety data
This week's awkward NASA news: The space agency released survey data from interviews with airline and other pilots that it said last year would reveal safety problems severe enough to damage the airline industry. Unfortunately for safety watchdogs, the responses, collected from nearly 26,000 airline pilots and 5,000 general aviation pilots between April 2001 and December 2004, were scrambled and redacted—to preserve the anonymity of respondents and their employers, NASA said—as well as published as documents rather than spreadsheets, which would have allowed others to sift the information for trends. NASA Administrator Michael Griffin told reporters the data was of no interest to the public—and anyway the agency didn't have the funds to continue the project. So there. (NASA, New York Times)

Plate tectonics may bump, grind to halt
If you thought the continents were slow-moving today—they drift a few centimeters a year, or at roughly the same rate that fingernails grow—just wait 350 million years. Trends in plate tectonics, the slow shuffling of the continent-size pieces that make up Earth's crust, imply that the Americas and Eurasia will collide at approximately that time, thereby zipping shut the Pacific Ocean. Writing in the journal Science, researchers point out that such closure would eliminate most of Earth's crustal subduction zones, where one continental plate slides underneath another, which they say could bring plate tectonics to a grinding halt. Indeed, it may have happened in the past: A pause in continental drift would trap the planet's heat, and they point to increasing evidence that Earth has shed less heat over its history than you might expect if there was uninterrupted jostling. (Science)

Arctic thaw: blame the air up there
Offering much-needed fodder for climate change skeptics, a new study finds that a perfectly natural (as in not man-made) process has contributed to the nearly doubled melt rate of Arctic ice in recent decades. The usual suspect in Arctic warming or "amplification" is a feedback cycle in which CO2-driven global warming leaves less snow and ice to reflect away the sun's energy, which boosts local surface temperatures and accelerates melting. Now Stockholm University researchers, publishing in Nature, report that between the years 1979 and 2001, the Arctic air that showed the most summer heating was actually a few miles above sea level—beyond the probable reach of snow and ice feedbacks. Instead they attribute the excess high-altitude warmth to energy shed by annual ocean currents coming in from the south, which they say combined with man-made warming to push accelerated climate change in the Arctic. (Nature; Associated Press)

Hobbit gene?
Researchers speculate that a gene responsible for a rare variety of dwarfism might also explain the stature of the three-foot-tall human fossil unearthed in Indonesia in 2004, referred to as LB1 or the "Hobbit." People with microcephalic osteodysplastic primordial dwarfism type II (MOPD II) grow only about three feet (one meter) tall and have small heads (average circumference of 16 inches, or 40 centimeters) but almost normal brain structure and intelligence. A group reports in Science that each of 25 MOPD II individuals in its sample bore two inactive copies of PCNT, which is involved in separating the chromosomes during cell division. The researchers say the finding might inform the debate over whether the Hobbit represents a distinct species or a vertically challenged modern human. (Science)

I say, what's with all this vomiting?
The BBC reports that more than 100 hospital wards across the U.K. have closed their doors to new patients to prevent the spread of norovirus, also known as winter vomiting disease, the incidence of which among Britons has reached a five-year high since early December. Norovirus is not considered particularly dangerous—although it surely creates a spot of bother for the janitorial staff mucking about in the upchuck. On a personal note, "News Bytes" is happy to know that closing hospitals can prevent disease. If only it would tame those annoying antibiotic-resistant superbugs. (BBC)

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