‘Bonehenge’: Stone Age structure of mammoth bones discovered in Russia

 

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A circular structure made of Stone Age mammoth bones may have been used for rituals or food storage

A J E Pryor

A prehistoric circle made almost entirely of mammoth bones has been found in Russia. The “bonehenge” was built near the peak of the last glacial period, but it isn’t clear why.

Stone Age people made many bone circles in eastern Europe and northern Asia in the last 22,000 years. One of the best-known sites is Kostenki 11, south of Voronezh in Russia. Two circles of mammoth bones were found there in 1951 and 1970, and have been studied …

Meet Carlo, an ancient reptile who had part of his face bitten off

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These giant marine reptiles from the dinosaur era had a nasty bite

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A giant marine reptile from the dinosaur era had part of its face bitten off, probably by another member of its species. The huge predator survived the attack, but it lost part of its jaw and developed a severe infection – both of which may have contributed to its ultimate demise.

“It’s direct evidence of a violent interaction between members of the same species,” says Dylan Bastiaans at the University of Zurich in Switzerland.

The animal was a mosasaur: one of several groups of reptiles …

Twice as many UK citizens worried about climate change as 3 years ago

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The number of UK citizens worried over climate change has doubled in 3 years

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The number of people in the UK worried about climate change has doubled in just three years, in the latest sign that extreme weather events, declarations of climate emergencies and street protests are changing public attitudes.

The research by Cardiff University and Climate Outreach also found that 23 per cent cited climate change as the top issue facing the UK over the next two decades, up from 2 per cent in 2016. Overall, climate change has climbed above other issues such as the economy to become the UK’s second most important future issue, second only to Brexit.

“With everything going on, you would think it would go up the priority list. But to be second after Brexit, is quite remarkable,” says Katharine Steentjes at Cardiff University in the UK, referring to last year’s political action, Extinction Rebellion protests and schoolchildren striking. The number of people who said they were very worried or extremely worried about climate was at 40 per cent, up from 19 per cent in 2016.

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The poll of 1401 people was conducted last October, when headlines were dominated by a parliamentary stalemate on Brexit, and it echoes other research. YouGov’s tracker of the three most important issues facing the UK today has an all-time high of 30 per cent of respondents listing environment, making it the third biggest issue after Brexit and health.

The new research today shows that while floods are still the top impact people in the UK are concerned about, hotter weather is an increasing worry. Nearly three quarters thought heatwaves were a fairly or very serious problem, up from just over a fifth in 2013.

The UK saw its hottest temperature ever last summer and was hit by a months-long heatwave in 2018 that was found to have been five times more likely because of climate change. Adam Corner at Climate Outreach in the UK, says heatwaves are significant, because floods hit hard but are often very localised, while heatwaves affect large numbers meaning many have a shared experience.

Scepticism over climate change was found to be very low, with only six per cent of respondents saying they did not believe the world’s climate is changing.

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First new seeds put into Svalbard’s upgraded doomsday vault

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The Svalbard Global Seed Vault is open for deposits after upgrades

Global Crop Diversity Trust

Hundreds of plant species around the world will be backed up today at a “doomsday vault” in the Arctic, the first deposit since an upgrade to futureproof the Norwegian facility against climate change.

The seeds of onions from Brazil, guar beans from central Asia and wildflowers in a meadow at Prince Charles’ home in the UK are among the species being safeguarded at the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, in a mountain cavern about 1200 kilometres from the North Pole.

Norwegian prime minister Erna Solberg will attend the mass deposit, the single biggest since the opening of the facility in 2008. “The deposit event is especially timely,” she said, because this is the year by which countries should have safeguarded the genetic diversity of crops to meet the UN goal of eliminating hunger by 2030.

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The vault is designed as the ultimate insurance policy for restoring crop diversity to smaller seed banks around the world after extreme weather, conflict and other events. The first withdrawal from the bank took place in 2015, to help conservationists who lost access to a major seed bank in Aleppo in the Syrian war.

However, recently the resilience of the vault itself has come under the spotlight. The permafrost on the island of Spitsbergen, in the Svalbard archipelago where the bank is located, means the seeds should stay frozen even if the -18°C cooling is hit by a power failure.

Yet in October 2016, the entrance tunnel to the facility was flooded due to a combination of heavy rainfall and permafrost melting. While the vault itself was untouched, that year the Arctic experienced record heat that scientists say was almost certainly due to human-made climate change.

The deposits mark the first time the vault has opened its doors to new seeds since a €20 million upgrade that includes a new waterproofed access tunnel, plus measures to prepare it for a world on track to be several degrees hotter by the century’s end.

Seed collectors from 36 banks around the world – eight for the first time – have brought seeds for accessions, as new samples entering the bank are known.

Among those who have made the flight north from Oslo to safeguard their farming future are the Cherokee Nation, the first US indigenous tribe to deposit seeds at the vault. Corn sacred to the Cherokee people, beans and a squash that can stay fresh for a year without refrigeration are among their crops being backed up.

The UK’s Kew Gardens is bringing 27 wild plant species from Prince Charles’ residence in the west of England. “It’s more urgent than ever that we act now to protect this diversity before it really is too late,” the prince said in a statement.

Around 60,000 new seed samples are being added to the vault, taking the total to more than a million. The Indian seed bank ICRISAT is bringing more than 2800 accessions, adding to the more than 110,000 it has already deposited.

Others, like the Julius Kühn Institute in Germany are bringing their first seeds, including the European crab apple (Malus sylvestris), a wild relative of domesticated apples. Seed banks from Morocco and South Korea are also making their first deliveries.

Hannes Dempewolf at the Crop Trust, one of the partners that runs the vault with the Norwegian government, says although today’s deposit takes the samples past the milestone of one million, Svalbard is “not just a number’s game” but is about prioritising unique species.

It is best practice to have a double backup of global seed banks, he says, both at the Svalbard vault and in other seed banks. Maintaining plant diversity is “incredibly important” for developing new, more productive crop varieties, he adds.

But increasingly, he says, seed banks are being called upon to help farmers adapt to a warming world too. “As we see the climate heating up and places looking for [crop] varieties to use in more challenging conditions, these seed banks are being more actively used.”

Safeguarding a diversity of crops is considered vital to humanity being able to feed itself as climate change takes hold.

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UK government refuses request to explain cost of hitting net zero

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Protesters have called for the UK to hit net-zero emissions

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The UK government has refused a request to explain why its estimated cost of reaching net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 is tens of billions of pounds more than its independent advisers found.

Last summer, shortly before the UK enshrined the net-zero target in law, a leaked letter from Phillip Hammond, the then chancellor, warned that the transition to a zero-carbon economy was likely to be “well in excess of a trillion pounds”.

Hammond’s letter cited analysis by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) that put the cost of meeting the 2050 goal at £70 billion a year. That was 40 per cent more than the £50 billion that the UK’s independent Committee on Climate Change (CCC) had arrived at. But unlike the CCC analysis, the letter supplied no evidence or methods to explain the significantly higher figure.

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New Scientist attempted to use freedom of information legislation to obtain the evidence supporting the bigger net-zero price tag, but BEIS declined to release the information. Following an appeal, the UK’s Information Commissioner’s Office last week ruled in favour of BEIS withholding the explanation.

BEIS told the ICO that releasing the evidence now could harm public understanding due to a lack of context. “There is real potential to distract the public debate away from the substantive environmental issue of climate change with cost estimates that are not properly contextualised,” the department said.

The refusal means Hammond’s £70 billion figure, provided without context, is the only information available to the public on the cost of the government hitting the net-zero target.

The Treasury plans to publish the government’s official net-zero cost review in November, the same month that the UK is hosting a major UN climate summit in Glasgow.

But it appears the ultimate cost could differ from the £70 billion figure, which Hammond had warned would mean less money being available for other areas of public spending. The ICO reported that BEIS is: “Currently completing and refining their analysis in the context of the new legislated target.”

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Record-breaking hot years look set to continue through the next decade

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There may be many record-breaking warm years on the horizon

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The recent streak of record-breaking hot years is set to continue throughout the next decade. It is likely that every year from 2019 to 2028 will be one of the ten warmest on record.

“After the last five years, we’ve really separated ourselves from the past,” says Anthony Arguez at NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information in Asheville, North Carolina. “It looks pretty likely that we’re going to have a whole lot of top ten years.”

Many recent years have been among the warmest on …

Tackling air pollution may accidentally trigger serious health issues

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Cleaning up dirty air might sometimes make things worse

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Cities tackling one major air pollutant risk inadvertently making things worse by fuelling the growth of another, potentially more harmful type of pollution.

Many urban areas around the world are in breach of World Health Organization guidelines on PM2.5, particulate matter with a maximum diameter of 2.5 micrometres. Vehicles are a common source of this kind of pollution.

But simply reducing levels of PM2.5 pollution may not improve the safety of urban air. A Chinese-US team has found that PM2.5 plays a key role in suppressing the formation of another type of pollution in built-up areas – “ultrafine particles”. These have a diameter of under 50 nanometres, and an emerging body of work has linked them to health concerns including birth defects.

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Complex chemistry

The new study shines a light on how ultrafine particles form in the real world. While most previous work on the subject has been lab-based, the researchers attempted to reflect the complex chemistry of city air with tests by a Beijing road, as well as within an enclosed chamber with a car running.

They found high concentrations of PM2.5 in polluted air suppress the formation of ultrafine particles. That’s because the larger particles capture the smaller ones as they form. The team also concluded the creation of the ultrafine particles is fuelled by another pollutant released by cars: volatile organic compounds (VOCs).

In other words, cities need to simultaneously cut PM2.5 and VOCs from cars, or risk unintentionally making ultrafine particle pollution worse. Failure to do both at the same time could be “ineffective and can even exacerbate this problem”, the researchers say.

“I’ve said before that great care is needed to avoid inadvertently worsening the situation by reducing the mass of airborne particulate matter, only to increase… the numbers and the toxicity of the ultrafine [particles] as a result,” says Barbara Maher at Lancaster University, UK, who wasn’t involved in the research.

Dropping diesel

This doesn’t mean cities with a PM2.5 problem should give up tackling it, she says. Alastair Lewis at the University of York, UK, echoes that. “I don’t think anything here fundamentally changes the imperative to reduce PM2.5 as a high policy priority,” he says.

Halting use of petrol and diesel entirely would cut both PM2.5 and the VOCs that may help ultrafine particles flourish. “Electric cars will definitely help,” says Renyi Zhang at Texas A&M University, part of the Chinese-US team. But electric models account for less than 0.5 per cent of the billion-plus vehicles on the world’s roads. They also still release some PM2.5s from tyres and brake pads.

Roy Harrison at the University of Birmingham, UK, says the balancing act of cutting PM2.5 without encouraging ultrafine particles is more of an issue for a city such as Delhi than London. That is because the Indian capital has much higher PM2.5 levels, while in the UK capital levels are much lower and therefore unlikely to have much effect upon ultrafine particle numbers. London’s air pollution problem is primarily with nitrogen dioxide, which Zhang’s research found had no bearing on ultrafine particles.

Journal reference: PNAS, DOI: pnas.201916366

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Albatrosses strapped with sensors help spy on illegal fishing boats

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A wandering albatross coasting over the sea

Image courtesy of Alexandre Corbeau

Birds carrying radar sensors have been used to spy on fishing boats, revealing a quarter of vessels in the Indian Ocean are operating illegally.

Globally, illegal fishing is estimated to cost £17.6 billion a year, but satellite monitoring can be costly, sometimes slow and can miss boats. An international team decided to give flight to a pioneering alternative: strapping sensors to 169 albatrosses and releasing them in the south of the Indian Ocean.

The birds can travel vast distances, are naturally attracted to fishing vessels and had sensors that could pick up the boats’ use of radar from around 30 kilometres away.

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Between December 2018 and June 2019, they detected a total of 353 fishing boats in the region. Of those operating in countries’ exclusive economic zones (EEZs), where vessels have to declare fishing, 25.8 per cent had their ‘Automatic Identification Systems’ – used for avoiding collisions and allowing authorities to track them – switched off. Such behaviour is often a sign of illegal fishing.

In international waters, fishing is not illegal but should be declared. There, the birds found 36.9 per cent of vessels had the system turned off.

Henri Weimerskirch at the French National Centre for Scientific Research says the success of the project shows it is a cheap form of surveillance that could complement satellite monitoring. “We have shown that it is possible,” he says.

The birds could even be used as part of enforcement efforts in conjunction with navies, because they relay data in real-time, he says.

But to direct them to spy on certain areas would require expert knowledge from ornithologists. And improvements in satellites may do away with the need for bird spies.

John Amos at SkyTruth in West Virginia, which uses satellites for environmental protection, says, “Fortunately for us, and the albatrosses, we soon won’t have to rely on wild animals to do our data collection work for us. Orbital technologies are rapidly improving and steadily closing the net on shady operators in the ocean.”

He is working with the Global Fishing Watch project to use satellite radar images to detect vessels that don’t broadcast their signal. Other satellite surveillance firms including Hawkeye 360 and UnseenLabs are also working to detect shipboard radar.

Journal reference: PNAS, DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1915499117

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CRISPR-edited chickens made resistant to a common virus

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Gene edited and virus resistant

Pavel Trefil

CRISPR genome editing has been used to make chickens resistant to a common virus. The approach could boost egg and meat production worldwide while improving welfare.

The altered chickens showed no signs of disease even when exposed to high doses of the avian leukosis virus (ALV). The virus is a problem for poultry farmers around the world, says Jiri Hejnar at the Czech Academy of Sciences.

Infected birds become ill, emaciated and depressed, and often develop tumours. The virus gets into cells by binding to a protein called chicken NHE-1 (chNHE-1). Hejnar’s team has previously shown that deleting three DNA letters from the chNHE-1 gene that makes this protein prevents ALV from infecting chicken cells.

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The challenge was to make this change in entire animals rather than just in a few cells. No strains of chickens naturally have this mutation, so it can’t be done by breeding alone. But genetically modifying chickens is more difficult than modifying other animals such as pigs.

The conventional method is to extract so-called primordial germ cells, alter them outside the body and then add the modified cells to embryos inside freshly laid eggs. This approach was used to create CRISPR chickens in 2016, but the success rate is extremely low.

In 2017, Hejnar developed a better method: using altered germ cells to restore semen production in sterilised cockerels. His team then went on to create a cockerel with sperm that have the precise deletion in the chNHE-1 gene.

By crossing its offspring, they have produced a flock of white leghorn chickens that have this deletion in both copies of the gene.

A company called Biopharm is now in discussion with poultry producers in Vietnam and China about introducing this change into commercial breeds. “It’s quite simple to do,” says Hejnar.

Hejnar also plans to use CRISPR to make chickens resistant to other viruses, such as bird flu. This would make us all safer: bird flu viruses sometime kill people and there are fears a mutant strain could cause a deadly global pandemic.

However, there is still opposition to GM foods in many countries. It remains to be seen whether consumers will find CRISPR chickens to their taste.

Journal reference: PNAS, DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1913827117

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Climate change-related injuries will kill thousands in the US

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Accidental deaths in the US from drowning and car crashes may rise as the climate warms

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The US is likely to see more than 2000 extra deaths a year from car accidents, suicide, drowning and other fatal injuries because of climate change, even if the world manages to hold temperature rises to the Paris climate deal’s target of 2°C.

Research on deaths due to climate change usually focuses on older people who might be at a higher risk of heart and lung problems. Many older people were among the estimated 35,000 people who died in the 2003 Europe heatwave. But a team led by Robbie Parks at Imperial College London has found one way in which rising temperatures will increase death rates among younger people.

The researchers examined government figures on the 6 million people who died after an injury between 1980 and 2017 in the US, excluding Hawaii and Alaska.

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Combining the data with monthly temperature spikes above the long-term average over the period, they found that in a future year that is anomalously hot by 1.5°C – the Paris accord’s toughest target – there will be 1601 extra deaths from injuries each year. If temperatures rise by the worst-case Paris goal of 2°C, the number climbs to 2135.

Car crashes

“Climate change as a health issue goes beyond the physical and goes to the behavioural and the mental,” says Parks, who says the projected increase in deaths isn’t insignificant.

Notably, the extra deaths would fall overwhelmingly – 84 per cent – on men, with most of them aged between 15 and 64. The biggest number of extra deaths would be related to transport, such as car crashes, followed by suicide. There will also be a smaller rise in deaths from drowning.

The study doesn’t show why younger men will be affected more, but it may be down to more reckless behaviour causing unintentional deaths such as drowning, says Parks.

The total number of extra deaths is relatively small: 2135 deaths equates to 1 per cent of all injury-related deaths in the US. But Parks says that the way the deaths fall on otherwise young and healthy men would have knock-on effects, including on the economy.

“It is concerning that most of these injury-related deaths are expected to occur among young adults,” says Francesca Dominici at Harvard University. Moreover, she expects there may be an even higher death toll when other factors are considered, such as accidental deaths linked to wildfires during heatwaves.

The risk of more deaths can be reduced by cutting carbon emissions and limiting future warming, and by public health efforts, such as targeting young men with campaigns about the risks of drowning, says Parks.

Journal reference: Nature Medicine, DOI: 10.1038/s41591-019-0721-y

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