Are deserts getting greener in Africa?

It has been assumed that global warming would cause an expansion of the world’s deserts, but now some scientists are predicting a contrary scenario in which water and life slowly reclaim these arid places…

The evidence is limited and definitive conclusions are impossible to reach but recent satellite pictures of North Africa seem to show areas of the Sahara in retreat. It could be that an increase in rainfall has caused this effect.

Farouk el-Baz, director of the Centre for Remote Sensing at Boston University, believes the Sahara is experiencing a shift from dryer to wetter conditions.

“It’s not greening yet. But the desert expands and shrinks in relation to the amount of energy that is received by the Earth from the Sun, and this over many thousands of years,” Mr el-Baz told the BBC World Service. “The heating of the Earth would result in more evaporation of the oceans, in turn resulting in more rainfall.”

Satellite images from the last 15 years do seem to show a recovery of vegetation in the Southern Sahara. The broader picture is reinforced by studies carried out in the Namib Desert in Namibia.

For the last few years there has been higher than average rainfall. This is a region with an average rainfall of just 12 millimetres per year – what scientists call “hyper-arid”. Scientists have been measuring rainfall here for the last 60 years.

Last year the local research centre, called Gobabeb, measured 80mm of rain.

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Bing dings Yahoo, nothing for Google to even notice

Interplanetary marketing by Microoft
Daylife/Reuters Pictures used by permission

Comscore’s June search engine numbers are out, and Microsoft’s Bing has moved the needle only slightly.

The totals:

* Google: 65% (unchanged)
* Yahoo: 19.6% (down from 20.1%)
* Bing: 8.4% (up from 8.0% for Live Search in May; Bing went live June 3)

Is that enough, with an initial blitz of free press and an expensive ad campaign — especially if your goal isn’t just to supplant Yahoo as a distant second-place runner to Google?

Citi analyst Mark Mahaney says in a research note we’ll need “three to four months” of data to see if we are witnessing a trend. But even if this is trend at this rate Bing won’t eclipse even Yahoo until August 2010 — another 14 months — assuming Google holds steady.

Send me a penny postcard if anything exciting happens [at Microsoft] in the meantime.

Building micro-bowls to capture carbon dioxide

The accidental discovery of a bowl-shaped molecule that pulls carbon dioxide out of the air suggests exciting new possibilities for dealing with global warming, including genetically engineering microbes to manufacture those CO2 “catchers,” a scientist from Maryland reports.

J. A. Tossell notes in the new study that another scientist discovered the molecule while doing research unrelated to global climate change. Carbon dioxide was collecting in the molecule, and the scientist realized that it was coming from air in the lab. Tossell recognized that these qualities might make it useful as an industrial absorbent for removing carbon dioxide.

Tossell’s new computer modeling studies found that the molecule might be well-suited for removing carbon dioxide directly from ambient air, in addition to its previously described potential use as an absorbent for CO2 from electric power plant and other smokestacks. “It is also conceivable that living organisms may be developed which are capable of emplacing structurally ion receptors within their cell membranes,” the report notes.

I like the idea of creating micro-critters from these molecules.

We could train them to migrate to high-pollution environments and clean up our mess without having to think or commit.

Windfarm site is sacred ground – screw everyone else!

Officials from two federally recognized Indian tribes say they are frustrated in their attempts to protect what they consider a sacred site from becoming part of an offshore wind farm…

Both the Mashpee Wampanoag and the Wampanoag of Gay Head (Aquinnah) have two main objections to the Cape Wind project:

* It would destroy a sacred site where ancestors fished, hunted and possibly were buried.
* It would obstruct their view of the horizon, thus interfering with their spiritual well-being.

In letters to federal officials, both the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) and the Mashpee Wampanoag are critical of the federally mandated consultation process and object to the final environmental impact statement…

“The Minerals Management Service continues to work in good faith with the American Indian tribes around Nantucket Sound during the Section 106 consultation process,” an agency spokesman said in a prepared statement. “It would be inappropriate and not in good faith to disclose the details of our communications while discussions are still ongoing…”

The tribes are particularly miffed that MMS officials canceled plans to attend the “Legend of Maushop” pageant scheduled for Saturday on Martha’s Vineyard. The oral history, passed down from generation to generation of Aquinnah Wampanoag, tells the story of how Maushop, the giant Wampanoag leader, walked to Noepe, the island known today as the Vineyard, she said…

Mark Rodgers declined to comment on specific issues raised by the tribes but did point out that no burial site has been detected in the area proposed for Cape Wind.

“There were no human artifacts found,” he said. “Just some matter that could have been remains of trees…”

Though Aquinnah is on the opposite side of the Vineyard from Nantucket Sound, both tribes consider an unobstructed view of the horizon essential to their spiritual well-being as “People of the First Light.”

Forgive my cynicism, for that’s what rules my analysis of this situation. I’ve been through beaucoup dialogues over cultural and religious hurt feelings over many decades. Unless we are all prepared to redress the just grievances of all First Nation people and turn over running the country to tribal councils – whatever remains is money, a slice of the pie, something to compensate superstition.

This is not worthy of support in a democratic republic founded on keeping religion separate from state.

Canadian doctors move to include euthanasia as appropriate care

With great caution, the Quebec College of Physicians is prepared to cross the line on the controversial debate over euthanasia and propose that it be included “as part of the appropriate care in certain particular circumstances.”

After examining the issue for three years, the College’s task force on ethics concluded that Quebec society has evolved to the point where it could tolerate euthanasia in specific circumstances. The task force’s recommendation will likely be part of a “reflection” document the College will release next fall, hoping that a public debate on the issue will pressure the federal government to eventually amend the criminal code.

“We are being very cautious in our approach,” said the College’s secretary, Yves Robert. “Avoiding the debate contributes to the general hypocrisy around this issue. To say that it doesn’t happen because it is illegal is completely stupid. … We have to stop hiding our head in the sand,” Dr. Robert said.

Anyone out there think Americans will stop hiding their collective heads in the sand? Will the bible-thumping crowd ever consider quality of life and death as something beyond their compendium of 14th Century rulebooks?

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Swine flu will be biggest pandemic ever warns WHO chief

Daylife/Getty Images used by permission

A year earlier, Margaret Chan had been a surprise candidate in a surprise election (the previous incumbent died halfway through his term), but she won with a clear majority to become the first Chinese national to run a major UN agency. A rule change in 2005 (the WHO no longer has to beg states for information about threats to global health, but can just demand it) also makes her the most powerful public health official in history.

Tiny in her orange jacket and neat little orange-brown Miu Miu mules, she wears that authority not lightly, exactly, but naturally: in an organisation famed for its bureaucratic circumlocutions, she is refreshingly direct. It’s a strength she’s aware of – “I have a reputation for being a straight-talker, I will tell them the story like it is” – but that makes it no less striking, or true…

Months later, on 11 June 2009, she found herself the first WHO chief in 41 years to stand before the world and announce that a new virus had reached pandemic proportions. Right up until the last minute, scientists were calling her up and warning her to be careful about raising the threat alert so high — but the strict definition of “pandemic” is a new disease spreading uncontrollably through numerous countries, and on that count her decision has been completely borne out. On 11 June, swine flu had been registered in 74 countries; when we meet in Geneva four weeks later, it has just been confirmed in 140 countries.

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Just fer all you iPhone fans in the Bible Belt…

A UK software developer has released a “purity ring” application for Apple’s iPhone. Users can take a purity pledge – a promise to refrain from sex until marriage – and then display a spinning purity ring graphic on the phone.

The application goes on sale at the official App Store for 99¢…

Kids are engaging with their phones in a way their parents never did, so this is a way of them showing they have taken the pledge.”

Started in the US, the Silver Ring Thing (SRT) is the organisation behind the purity ring symbol and was founded by Denny and Amy Pattyn in 1996. It was their response to what they saw as a worrying rise in the number of pregnancies among teenage girls…

While there are millions of people who have taken the purity pledge in the US, in Britain the figure is far smaller.

I wonder if they have a similar proportion of teenagers who lie to pacify their nutball parents – in the UK?