July 16, 2014

"Beauty is pain" never held so true. If drought projections are accurate, replacing your grass with a rock garden is more than worth it.     Photo: bobiwankanobi/ThinkStock

Californians Don't Understand Drought

State will impose emergency bans on wasteful practices in August

If the grass is always greener on the other side of your California street, don't worry—your neighbors have it coming. The Golden State approved its first drought-period emergency rule yesterday requiring cities throughout California to enforce restrictions on outdoor watering, based on statistics suggesting current bans aren't buffering the three-year water shortage that's put 80 percent of the state in drought conditions.

The ban, adopted by the State Water Resources Control Board, is expected to take effect August 1

"Not everybody in California understands how bad this drought is … and how bad it could be," board chairwoman Felicia Marcus said in an interview with the Associated Press. "There are communities in danger of running out of water all over the state."

Instead of stipulating that cities cut water use by specific percentages, the emergency rule directs agencies to ban wasteful practices like outdoor watering that results in runoff, using hoses without shutoff nozzles, and using drinking water in fountains that don't recirculate. Local agencies and water districts have the power to fine water wasters up to $500 per day. Fined but still not inclined to turn off your Bellagio-grade waterworks? Get ready for a $10,000 fine.

Many cities already penalize wasteful aesthetic watering, especially in Southern Calfornia, but most cities rely on voluntary conservation, and existing bans haven't discouraged water use as successfully as authorities had hoped. In January, Governor Jerry Brown called for a 20 percent drop in water use, but June statistics show only a 5 percent drop to date. The regions fighting drought best include those that rely on the Colorado and Sacramento Rivers

A state board survey found that urban water use increased 1 percent in May over a three-year average of water use in the same month; coastal Southern Californian use jumped 8 percent.

In addition to umbrella bans on certain activities, the state suggests municipalities restrict outdoor irrigation to two days a week or fewer. 

Although the state focused primarily on residential water use, the rule specifically mentions excluding water used for agriculture from the ban. Estimates suggest that 80 percent of all water used in California goes to the agricultural sector.

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If scientists are successful, you may never again feel like this fellow.     Photo: Sean Kelly/Flickr

Sobriety Drug: Never Be Drunk Again

Scientists on track to prevent intoxication

A report this week in the Journal of Neuroscience describes an experiment conducted at the University of Texas at Austin that could potentially lead to new drugs to help those suffering from alcohol withdrawal. The research might also eventually yield a James Bond–style tonic that could prevent people from getting drunk even after imbibing copious amounts of alcohol.

This development comes from an experiment conducted on roundworms. Neuroscientists inserted a modified human alcohol target—a neuronal channel known as the BK channel that regulates important functions such as your respiratory tract and bladder—into a number of Caenorhabditis elegans to create a kind of "mutant worm" that proved impervious to the effects of alcohol. (Yes, "normal" worms can get drunk.)

"This is the first example of altering a human alcohol target to prevent intoxication in an animal," said Jon Pierce-Shimomura, an assistant professor at the university and a co-author of the study.

"We got pretty lucky and found a way to make the channel insensitive to alcohol without affecting its normal function," he said.

You don't have to be a neurological whiz to know that it's a long way from the nervous centers of C. elegans to the human brain, but these findings have given rise to optimism. Mice are likely the next test subjects in this foray into mutant animal intoxication. We will keep you posted.

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The Yamal Peninsula's terrain looks otherworldly from a bird's-eye view—or an alien's-eye view.     Photo: Wikimedia/Google CC

Colossal Mystery Crater Appears in Russia

Has scientists saying, "What on (or off) earth?" as theories surface

A massive crater has appeared on Russia's remote Yamal Peninsula, and scientists have no idea where it came from.

According to the Telegraph, helicopter pilots discovered the crater while flying above barren tundra and documented the hole—which appears to be about 260 feet wide—on YouTube.

The crater is big enough to have earned the nickname "the hole at the end of the world." Freshly upturned soil around the rim indicates its recent creation, but no one knows exactly how it was formed.

Initial assumptions that a meteor strike caused the crater have been dismissed, as a meteor crash large enough to create this hole would have been noticed by locals or detected by radar. Suggestions of an underground gas explosion seem the most believable, considering similar naturally occurring phenomena in the recent past.

When gas deposits, salt, and ice accumulate, natural explosions just happen. But until scientists can test the site, all we can do is speculate. "It will take an initial analysis of water, soil, air," said a representative of the Research Center of the Arctic in an Interfax Ural story. "They will look at what it is—actually."

Because in this day and age, anything on YouTube could be a hoax.

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NASA's James Webb Space Telescope will leave Earth in 2018 and search for chemical fingerprints that would indicate life on other planets.     Photo: NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center/Flickr

NASA: We'll Find Aliens Within 20 Years

And that's a "conservative" estimate

This might surprise people who've given up on the chance an extraterrestrial encounter within their lifetimes: A panel of NASA scientists says we should find alien life within 20 years. And that's a "conservative" estimate.

As former astronaut and NASA administrator Charles Bolden said, most people working in the space industry realize that the sheer limitlessness of space means we're probably not the only life-forms around—even if we've never found any evidence. But as technology improves, we can search for life a lot more efficiently.

Thanks to the Kepler Space Telescope, launched in 2009, scientists have found that in our galaxy alone, there's probably at least one planet circling every star. The NASA panel is making such a bold statement partly because we're making huge new discoveries at an astounding rate.

"We already know that our galaxy has at least 100 billion planets, and we didn't know that five years ago," said Matt Mountain, director of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Maryland. As NASA releases additional, more powerful telescopes, we only increase our chances of discovering a life-supporting planet.

The panel says it's looking for ways that mere space enthusiasts can get involved in the search. Until then, if you have 90 minutes to bask in the wonders of the universe, you can watch the entire discussion with NASA's space experts right now:

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