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News Bytes of the Week—Warmest year revised

Space shuttle fix nixed, decapitated walruses and more…

Whoops! NASA off by decades on hottest year
Hank Aaron wasn't the only one to lose his record last week amid swirling controversy. Climate scientists seemed unprepared for (or perhaps just blasé about) the media backlash after a correction to a NASA analysis stripped 1998 of its title as the hottest year on record in the U.S. That dubious honor was rightly returned to 1934, the year the infamous dust bowl devastated the Midwest. Climate data dabbler Steven McIntyre of Toronto, formerly a mining executive with the Northwest Exploration Company, Ltd., alerted agency scientists of the error after spotting it earlier this month while sifting through recent NASA records of temperature anomalies. Apparently a NASA team overestimated the average 1998 temps by 0.06 degree Fahrenheit, making 1934 the new hottest year title holder by a slim 0.04-degree margin. The correction caused a veritable heat wave of excitement among conservative commentators, but NASA researchers brushed it off, noting that average global temperatures are still on an unprecedented upswing. (NASA update; Steven McIntyre's blog)

Space shuttle damaged but able
Shades of the Columbia space shuttle disaster loomed this week as NASA weighed whether to order a tricky mid-orbit repair of a small gouge in the underbelly of the shuttle Endeavor, spotted while docking with the International Space Station on Aug. 10. But late this week the agency announced it would not attempt to patch the deep 3.5-inch-by-two-inch gash, caused by a baseball-size piece of foam that broke loose from a fuel pipe bracket and ricocheted into the craft 53 seconds into liftoff. NASA officials told the Associated Press that the tear does not pose a major threat to the shuttle but might require extensive patching after the spacecraft returns to Earth. (AP)

Head of the (space) class
In brighter shuttle news, teacher-astronaut Barbara Morgan, 55, taught her first space lesson early this week to students at the Discovery Center of Idaho in Boise, less than 100 miles from the school she taught at before reentering astronaut training in 1998 (aka the former hottest year). Some highlights: Morgan picked up a fellow astronaut in each hand and the crew squirted globules of red space drink into the cabin to demonstrate the effects of weightlessness. (NASA video)

Surge in military suicides
Newly released U.S. Army data reports an alarming increase in suicides among active duty soldiers. According to the Army, the suicide rate among recruits reached its highest level in 26 years of record keeping, climbing to 17.3 per 100,000 recruits last year from 12.8 per 100,000 in 2005. Of the 99 soldiers who took their own lives in 2006, 30 were posted in war zones (Afghanistan and Iraq). The total number of Army suicides peaked at 102 in 1991 during the Gulf War. (AP; Army News Service)

Collapse of ancient Angkor
The ancient city of Angkor was far larger than previously believed and may have fallen victim to its own success by succumbing to ecological strains including deforestation and topsoil depletion, according to a study in this week's online edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA. Using a combination of ground-based radar, airborne photography and other data, researchers discovered that the civilization around the Angkor Wat temple in Cambodia sprawled across nearly 1,200 square kilometers (465 square miles) and was linked by a complex irrigation system that may have served as many as a million people, making it the world's largest preindustrial metropolis between the ninth and 14th centuries before its demise, the authors report. (PNAS; University of Sydney)

Abortion pill shows no risk for future pregnancies
A new study of 12,000 Danish women found that taking the so-called abortion pill did not up the risk of future miscarriage or tubal pregnancy any more than did more common surgical abortions. Women opt for drugs—a tablet of mifepristone followed by misoprostol pills a day or two later—in an estimated 8 to 10 percent of the 1.3 million abortions every year in the U.S., but the long-term effects of the drugs on later pregnancies were not documented until now, according to the report in The New England Journal of Medicine. (AP; NEJM)

Bye-bye, birdies?
An international conservation group hopes to raise $37.8 million over the next five years to save 189 endangered species of birds. U.K.-based BirdLife International is asking companies and groups to donate the funds to increase awareness and protection of feathered friends such as Cambodia's Bengal florican and the Belding's yellowtail in Mexico. (AP; BirdLife International)

What's Mandarin for "big brother"?
Officials in the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen, near Hong Kong, plan to install 20,000 police surveillance cameras equipped with American-financed face recognition software on local streets, the New York Times reports. The technology is set to debut by month's end in the port city, home to 12.4 million, many of whom will be required to carry special residency cards storing, among other things, an individual's name, address, religion, police record, personal reproductive history and landlord's phone number. The Chinese government has ordered large cities across the country to issue the cards to 150 million new denizens who do not have permanent residency. (New York Times)

I am the (headless) walrus
Investigators are scratching their heads over a puzzling spate of headless walruses that have washed up in recent weeks in western Alaska. Federal wildlife authorities have counted 79 of the decapitated beasts along a 40-mile stretch of beaches on Norton Sound. Although headless walrus corpses are not unheard of, they have not been found in such huge numbers in at least the past decade, raising suspicion, the Anchorage Daily News reports, that poachers after their valuable ivory tusks are behind the deaths. (Anchorage Daily News)

FDA warns against cough meds for toddlers
The Food and Drug Administration this week warned parents never to give over-the-counter cold and cough medicines to children younger than two years old without a doctor's say-so. The agency has appointed an advisory committee to meet mid-October to probe the effects of the popular drugs, which have been linked to hundreds of overdoses and several deaths in infants. (FDA)

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