Pandemic offers scientists unprecedented chance to ‘hear’ oceans as they once were

By Maurice Tamman

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Eleven years ago, environmental scientist Jesse Ausubel dreamed aloud in a commencement speech: What if scientists could record the sounds of the ocean in the days before propeller-driven ships and boats spanned the globe?

They would listen to chit-chat between blue whales hundreds of miles apart. They would record the familiar chirps and clicks among a pod of dolphins. And they would do so without the cacophony of humankind – and develop a better understanding of how that undersea racket has affected sea life.

It was a flight of fancy, more aspirational and inspirational than a plan.

At first, Ausubel says, he (very fancifully) suggested a year of a “quiet ocean,” during which shipping would come to a halt, or at least slowdown. Then a month. And finally, just a few hours.

As far-fetched as even that was, a small fraternity of about 100 similarly curious scientists picked up on his vision. In 2015, they published a plan of how to conduct the International Quiet Ocean Experiment, should the opportunity ever present itself.

When the COVID-19 pandemic sparked an extreme economic slowdown in March, sending cruise ships to port and oil tankers to anchor, they mobilized. Last month, they finished cobbling together an array of 130 underwater hydrophone listening stations around the world – including six stations that had been set up to monitor underwater nuclear tests.

“Well, we’re not excited that COVID happened, but we’re happy to be able to take advantage of the scientific opportunity,” says Peter Tyack, a professor of marine mammal biology at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland and one of the early instigators. “It would have just been impossible any other way.”

Tyack says the recordings should give scientists a never-before glimpse of the ocean with little human interference. It’s a bit like looking at the night sky if most of the world’s lights were turned off.

He says some research suggests large whales have adapted to man-made noises by raising their voices and their pitch. He speculates that many species also have moved to quieter regions of the world so they can find food, and one another, more easily.

Generally, the group will be looking to see if the whales and other sea mammals adapt to the quieter oceans by lowering their volume, communicating more efficiently or shifting their habitat.

Some of the project’s listening posts are connected to land via cables, but many of them are not and the recordings have to be retrieved by ships. Now that economies around the world are reopening, the quiet oceans group has started gathering the soundscape data.

It won’t be until the end of the year, however, that the researchers will have cleaned up the recordings and can compare them to previous years for changes in human and animal noise alike.

The focus of the serendipitous project is on the so-called SOFAR (Sound Fixing and Ranging) channel, a naturally occurring ocean stratum in which sound can travel long distances.

It’s where large baleen and fin whales sing for a lover or join in a friendly chorus. But it’s also where the human racket from fishing boats, tankers and motorboats, as well as oil rigs and wind turbines, gets trapped and then propagated around the world.

Sound waves travel farther and faster in water than in the air. That’s especially true of the bass notes of a whale’s song, the low grinding of a ship’s shaft, even the rumble of a nuclear explosion. Those sounds can travel hundreds or even thousands of miles, bending around the planet by bouncing up and down in the SOFAR channel, a kilometer-deep band of water.

The 130 recording stations used by the researchers are a hodgepodge of locations and sensitivity in that channel. Part of the planning process includes identifying and recruiting partners who operate listening stations run by governments, universities, environmental groups and other agencies.

The humblest station is four kilometers off the Spanish coast and operated by the Polytechnic University of Barcelona. It records sound up to 10 kilometers away. At the other extreme are six stations, each with multiple hydrophones, operated by the Vienna-based Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty Organization. Those stations can not only pinpoint underwater nuclear explosions anywhere on the planet, but also eavesdrop on whales an ocean away.

Ausubel, the director of the Program for the Human Environment at New York’s Rockefeller University, says he and his fellow dreamers were ready, even if their plan seemed unrealistic.

“We spent a lot of time planning: How would you try to set up this kind of study, even though we realized that it wasn’t really practical?”

But the plan, Ausubel says, anticipated moments of opportunity such as an extreme weather event, not a pandemic.

“Immediately after a hurricane or a typhoon, it’s very quiet for a day or two because of the fear of large waves or storms,” he says. “Fishermen don’t go out to sea; shipping routes are changed; oil and gas platforms may be shut down.”

Amid the pandemic and the lockdowns that ensued, major ports in the Northeast of the United States, such as Boston, Philadelphia, New York and Baltimore, saw a nearly 50% drop in ship and boating traffic in April compared to the same month in 2019, according to MarineTraffic, a ship-tracking firm.

Large European ports, such as Lisbon, Antwerp, Le Havre and Rotterdam, saw about a 25% drop in the same month, the firm said.

“I think there’ll be some variability in different places, which is quite important to test this,” Tyack says. “It isn’t really a controlled experiment, so it’s better to have 50 different sites, some of which noise is much lower and some of which it isn’t, to be able to look at the impact of the reduction.”

Still, Ausubel says he already sees anecdotal evidence that marine mammals are changing their behavior.

“There have been observations near Vancouver of orcas coming closer to the city than was customary, and off Scotland,” he says.

Orcas, dolphins and humpback whales, which communicate using high-frequency sounds that don’t travel particularly far, often congregate in shallower waters. They may have moved closer to once-busy ports and harbors, he speculated.

The group hopes to publish a paper this summer that gathers anecdotal reports of changes observed in recent months. At the end of the year, a group led by Tyack will report how much the volume went down. And finally, next year, the researchers aim to publish a full analysis of how the reduction in sound changed the behavior of marine mammals and other marine life.

“What did the pre-industrial ocean sound like,” Tyack says, “and how are marine ecosystems going to respond to that?”

(Reporting by Maurice Tamman, editing by Kari Howard)

Study panning anti-malaria drug Trump took against COVID faces new questions

By Michael Erman

NEW YORK (Reuters) – British medical journal the Lancet on Tuesday said it had concerns about data behind an influential article that found hydroxychloroquine increased the risk of death in COVID-19 patients, a conclusion that undercut scientific interest in the medicine championed by U.S. President Donald Trump.

Hydroxychloroquine – which has anti-inflammatory and antiviral properties – inhibited the coronavirus in laboratory experiments but has not been proven effective in humans, particularly in placebo-controlled, randomized clinical trials considered the gold standard for data.

The debate has become highly politicized, and many scientists have voiced concern.

Nearly 150 doctors signed an open letter to the Lancet last week calling the article’s conclusions into question and asking to make public the peer review comments that preceded publication.

“This is not some sideshow or minor issue,” said Dr. Walid Gellad, a professor at University of Pittsburgh’s medical school, who was not a signatory of the letter but has been critical of the study.

“We’re in an unprecedented pandemic. We’ve organized these enormous clinical trials to figure out if something works. And this study stopped or paused a couple of those trials, and changed the narrative around a drug that no one knows if it works or not,” he said.

The observational study published in the Lancet on May 22 looked at 96,000 hospitalized COVID-19 patients, some treated with the decades-old malaria drug that Trump said he took and has urged others to use.

Several clinical trials were put on hold after the study was published.

The study, using data provided by healthcare data analytics firm Surgisphere, was not a traditional clinical trial that would have compared hydroxychloroquine to a placebo or other medicine.

The Lancet’s editors said in a note that serious scientific questions about the study were brought to their attention and an independent audit of the data has already been commissioned.

Surgisphere said in a statement that the audit “will bring further transparency to our work (and) further highlight the quality of our work.”

Earlier on Tuesday, the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) said it was concerned about the quality of the data behind a different study it published in May that also used data from Surgisphere and had the same lead author.

Dr. Mandeep Mehra, the lead author and a professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School, defended the use of the Surgisphere dataset as an intermediary step until clinical data is available.

“I eagerly await word from the independent audits, the results of which will inform any further action,” Mehra said in a statement after the Lancet note.

The World Health Organization (WHO) suspended hydroxychloroquine’s use in a large trial on COVID-19 patients after the Lancet study. Following the WHO trial suspension, the governments of France, Italy and Belgium halted the use of hydroxychloroquine for COVID-19 patients.

Among the critics of the study to sign the letter last week were several academics from the University of Oxford and Mahidol Oxford Tropical Medicine Research Unit (MORU) in Bangkok, which had been conducting the global “COPCOV” trial of hydroxychloroquine as a treatment of COVID-19.

The trial was paused last week, after the Lancet article.

In March, Trump, with little scientific evidence, said hydroxychloroquine used in combination with the antibiotic azithromycin had “a real chance to be one of the biggest game-changers in the history of medicine.” He later said he took the drugs preventively after two people who worked at the White House were diagnosed with COVID-19.

Trump and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro discussed a joint research effort on using hydroxychloroquine as both a prophylaxis and treatment for the coronavirus, the White House said on Tuesday.

(Reporting by Michael Erman; additional reporting by Alistair Smout, Editing by Bill Berkrot, Peter Henderson and Tom Brown)

Italy may be on wrong path in fighting coronavirus contagion: scientist

Italy may be on wrong path in fighting coronavirus contagion: scientist
By Stefano Bernabei

ROME (Reuters) – Italy’s measures to halt coronavirus contagion do not seem to be working and it should change its strategy by setting up centers to separate people with suspected symptoms from their families, a prominent Italian scientist said on Monday.

Italy, which has suffered the world’s highest death toll from coronavirus, has been in nationwide lockdown for about three weeks, but in the last three days new infections have continued at between 5,000 and 6,000 per day.

The highest daily death toll since the outbreak began on Feb. 21 was registered on Friday, with 919 fatalities, and the tally was only slightly lower in the following two days.

Andrea Crisanti, professor of microbiology at Padua University, said in an interview with Radio Capital that many of these new cases are probably people who are being infected by fellow family members at home.

Crisanti said that instead of telling people with mild symptoms to self-isolate at home, the authorities should have set up centers to separate them from their families, as was done in China where the epidemic originated in December.

“Is someone posing the problem of why, despite all these restrictive measures, we are still seeing infections? Are they asking if all these people who are sick at home are infecting other members of their family?” he said.

“In our opinion, the infections are happening at home.”

Crisanti helped coordinate the coronavirus response in Italy’s affluent northeastern region of Veneto, where blanket testing was introduced at the start of Italy’s outbreak in the second half of February.

That helped identify cases and limit contagion much more successfully than in the neighboring Lombardy region where only people with severe symptoms are tested, and only in hospitals.

Lombardy has since been hit with 6,360 registered coronavirus deaths, far more than any other Italian region, whereas Veneto has recorded just 392 fatalities. However, the Lombardy outbreak was much bigger from the outset.

Crisanti argued that a similar approach to the one carried out in Veneto should now be conducted nationwide.

“We need to be much more aggressive in identifying people who are sick at home,” he said.

“We need to go to their homes, test them, test their family members, their friends and neighbors, and all the people who test positive should be taken, if they are well enough, to accommodation centers outside their homes.”

Angelo Borrelli, head of the Civil Protection Agency, said the ongoing rate of contagion and deaths did not mean the national government’s measures were ineffective.

“Without these measures we would be seeing far worse numbers and our health service would be in a far more dramatic state,” Borrelli told reporters at the weekend.

(Writing by Gavin Jones; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

‘Seeing the unseeable’: Scientists reveal first photo of black hole

The first ever photo a black hole, taken using a global network of telescopes, conducted by the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) project, to gain insight into celestial objects with gravitational fields so strong no matter or light can escape, is shown in this handout photo released April 10, 2019. Event Horizon Telescope (EHT)/National Science Foundation/Handout via REUTERS

By Will Dunham

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Using a global network of telescopes to see “the unseeable,” an international scientific team on Wednesday announced a milestone in astrophysics – the first-ever photo of a black hole – in an achievement that validated a pillar of science put forward by Albert Einstein more than a century ago.

Black holes are monstrous celestial entities exerting gravitational fields so vicious that no matter or light can escape. The photo of the black hole at the center of Messier 87, or M87, a massive galaxy in the relatively nearby Virgo galaxy cluster, shows a glowing ring of red, yellow and white surrounding a dark center.

The research was conducted by the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) project, an international collaboration begun in 2012 to try to directly observe the immediate environment of a black hole using a global network of Earth-based telescopes. The announcement was made in simultaneous news conferences in Washington, Brussels, Santiago, Shanghai, Taipei and Tokyo.

The team’s observations strongly validated the theory of general relativity proposed in 1915 by Einstein, the famed theoretical physicist, to explain the laws of gravity and their relation to other natural forces.

“We have achieved something presumed to be impossible just a generation ago,” said astrophysicist Sheperd Doeleman, director of the Event Horizon Telescope at the Center for Astrophysics, Harvard & Smithsonian.

Doeleman said the research “verifies Einstein’s theory of gravity in this most extreme laboratory.”

Black holes, phenomenally dense celestial entities, are extraordinarily difficult to observe by their very nature despite their great mass. A black hole’s event horizon is the point of no return beyond which anything – stars, planets, gas, dust and all forms of electromagnetic radiation – gets swallowed into oblivion.

The black hole observed by the scientific team resides about 54 million light-years from Earth. A light year is the distance light travels in a year, 5.9 trillion miles (9.5 trillion km). This black hole is an almost-unimaginable 6.5 billion times the mass of the Sun.

“This is a huge day in astrophysics,” said U.S. National Science Foundation Director France Córdova. “We’re seeing the unseeable.”

“It did bring tears to my eyes, Córdova added.

RING OF LIGHT

The fact that black holes do not allow light to escape makes viewing them difficult. The scientists look for a ring of light – hot disrupted matter and radiation circling at tremendous speed at the edge of the event horizon – around a region of darkness representing the actual black hole. This is known as the black hole’s shadow or silhouette.

The scientists said Einstein’s theory predicted the shape of the shadow would be almost a perfect circle – as it turned out to be.

Astrophysicist Dimitrios Psaltis of the University of Arizona, the EHT project scientist, said, “The size and shape of the shadow matches the precise predictions of Einstein’s general theory of relativity, increasing our confidence in this century-old theory.”

“Imaging a black hole is just the beginning of our effort to develop new tools that will enable us to interpret the massively complex data that nature gives us,” Psaltis added.

“Science fiction has become science fact,” University of Arizona astronomy professor Daniel Marrone said.

The project’s researchers obtained the first data in April 2017 using radio telescopes in the U.S. states of Arizona and Hawaii as well as in Mexico, Chile, Spain and Antarctica. Since then, telescopes in France and Greenland have been added to the global network. The global network has essentially created a planet-sized observational dish.

The project also targeted another black hole – Sagittarius A* is situated at the center of our own Milky Way galaxy – but did not announce any pictures of that one, though scientists expressed optimism about getting such an image. Sagittarius A* possesses 4 million times the mass of our sun and is located 26,000 light-years from Earth.

(Reporting by Will Dunham; Editing by Sandra Maler and Paul Simao)

Exclusive: Chief U.S. spy catcher says China using LinkedIn to recruit Americans

Small toy figures are seen between displayed U.S. flag and Linkedin logo in this illustration picture, August 30, 2018. To match Exclusive LINKEDIN-CHINA/ESPIONAGE REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration

By Warren Strobel and Jonathan Landay

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States’ top spy catcher said Chinese espionage agencies are using fake LinkedIn accounts to try to recruit Americans with access to government and commercial secrets, and the company should shut them down.

William Evanina, the U.S. counter-intelligence chief, told Reuters in an interview that intelligence and law enforcement officials have told LinkedIn, owned by Microsoft Corp., about China’s “super aggressive” efforts on the site.

He said the Chinese campaign includes contacting thousands of LinkedIn members at a time, but he declined to say how many fake accounts U.S. intelligence had discovered, how many Americans may have been contacted and how much success China has had in the recruitment drive.

German and British authorities have previously warned their citizens that Beijing is using LinkedIn to try to recruit them as spies. But this is the first time a U.S. official has publicly discussed the challenge in the United States and indicated it is a bigger problem than previously known.

Evanina said LinkedIn should look at copying the response of Twitter, Google and Facebook, which have all purged fake accounts allegedly linked to Iranian and Russian intelligence agencies.

“I recently saw that Twitter is cancelling, I don’t know, millions of fake accounts, and our request would be maybe LinkedIn could go ahead and be part of that,” said Evanina, who heads the U.S. National Counter-Intelligence and Security Center.

It is highly unusual for a senior U.S. intelligence official to single out an American-owned company by name and publicly recommend it take action. LinkedIn boasts 562 million users in more than 200 counties and territories, including 149 million U.S. members.

Evanina did not, however, say whether he was frustrated by LinkedIn’s response or whether he believes it has done enough.

LinkedIn’s head of trust and safety, Paul Rockwell, confirmed the company had been talking to U.S. law enforcement agencies about Chinese espionage efforts. Earlier this month, LinkedIn said it had taken down “less than 40” fake accounts whose users were attempting to contact LinkedIn members associated with unidentified political organizations. Rockwell did not say whether those were Chinese accounts.

“We are doing everything we can to identify and stop this activity,” Rockwell told Reuters. “We’ve never waited for requests to act and actively identify bad actors and remove bad accounts using information we uncover and intelligence from a variety of sources including government agencies.”

Rockwell declined to provide numbers of fake accounts associated with Chinese intelligence agencies. He said the company takes “very prompt action to restrict accounts and mitigate and stop any essential damage that can happen” but gave no details.

LinkedIn “is a victim here,” Evanina said. “I think the cautionary tale … is, ‘You are going to be like Facebook. Do you want to be where Facebook was this past spring with congressional testimony, right?'” he said, referring to lawmakers’ questioning of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg on Russia’s use of Facebook to meddle in the 2016 U.S. elections.

China’s foreign ministry disputed Evanina’s allegations.

“We do not know what evidence the relevant U.S. officials you cite have to reach this conclusion. What they say is complete nonsense and has ulterior motives,” the ministry said in a statement.

EX-CIA OFFICER ENSNARED

Evanina said he was speaking out in part because of the case of Kevin Mallory, a retired CIA officer convicted in June of conspiring to commit espionage for China.

A fluent Mandarin speaker, Mallory was struggling financially when he was contacted via a LinkedIn message in February 2017 by a Chinese national posing as a headhunter, according to court records and trial evidence.

The individual, using the name Richard Yang, arranged a telephone call between Mallory and a man claiming to work at a Shanghai think tank.

During two subsequent trips to Shanghai, Mallory agreed to sell U.S. defense secrets – sent over a special cellular device he was given – even though he assessed his Chinese contacts to be intelligence officers, according to the U.S. government’s case against him. He is due to be sentenced in September and could face life in prison.

While Russia, Iran, North Korea and other nations also use LinkedIn and other platforms to identify recruitment targets, the U.S. intelligence officials said China is the most prolific and poses the biggest threat.

U.S. officials said China’s Ministry of State Security has “co-optees” – individuals who are not employed by intelligence agencies but work with them – set up fake accounts to approach potential recruits.

They said the targets include experts in fields such as supercomputing, nuclear energy, nanotechnology, semi-conductors, stealth technology, health care, hybrid grains, seeds and green energy.

Chinese intelligence uses bribery or phony business propositions in its recruitment efforts. Academics and scientists, for example, are offered payment for scholarly or professional papers and, in some cases, are later asked or pressured to pass on U.S. government or commercial secrets.

Some of those who set up fake accounts have been linked to IP addresses associated with Chinese intelligence agencies, while others have been set up by bogus companies, including some that purport to be in the executive recruiting business, said a senior U.S. intelligence official, who requested anonymity in order to discuss the matter.

The official said “some correlation” has been found between Americans targeted through LinkedIn and data hacked from the Office of Personnel Management, a U.S. government agency, in attacks in 2014 and 2015.

The hackers stole sensitive private information, such as addresses, financial and medical records, employment history and fingerprints, of more than 22 million Americans who had undergone background checks for security clearances.

The United States identified China as the leading suspect in the massive hacking, an assertion China’s foreign ministry at the time dismissed as `absurd logic.`

 

UNPARALLELED SPYING EFFORT

About 70 percent of China’s overall espionage is aimed at the U.S. private sector, rather than the government, said Joshua Skule, the head of the FBI’s intelligence division, which is charged with countering foreign espionage in the United States.

“They are conducting economic espionage at a rate that is unparalleled in our history,” he said.

Evanina said five current and former U.S. officials – including Mallory – have been charged with or convicted of spying for China in the past two and a half years.

He indicated that additional cases of suspected espionage for China by U.S. citizens are being investigated, but declined to provide details.

U.S. intelligence services are alerting current and former officials to the threat and telling them what security measures they can take to protect themselves.

Some current and former officials post significant details about their government work history online – even sometimes naming classified intelligence units that the government does not publicly acknowledge.

LinkedIn “is a very good site,” Evanina said. “But it makes for a great venue for foreign adversaries to target not only individuals in the government, formers, former CIA folks, but academics, scientists, engineers, anything they want. It’s the ultimate playground for collection.”

(Reporting by Warren Strobel and Jonathan Landay; Additional reporting by John Walcott; Editing by Kieran Murray and Ross Colvin)

Study cites longer dry spells as fueling U.S. wildfires

FILE PHOTO - A general view of the aftermath from the Holy fire, in McVicker Canyon, California, U.S., August 11, 2018 in this still image from social media obtained on August 12, 2018. CARLA HARPER/via REUTERS

By Laura Zuckerman

PINEDALE, Wyo. (Reuters) – Less rain and longer droughts are the major cause behind larger and more intense wildfires in the U.S. West, not higher temperatures and early snowmelt as previously thought, according to research released on Monday.

The findings by the U.S. Forest Service and University of Montana could help scientists better predict the severity of fire seasons, said the study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The study comes as tens of thousands of firefighters battle more than 100 blazes that have charred more than 1.9 million acres (770,000 hectares) in the Western United States. California is marking one of the most destructive fire seasons on record.

The researchers compared snowmelt timing and warming summer temperatures to fluctuations in the amount and distribution of summer rains on lands scorched by wildfires and determined that the latter were drivers.

Lack of summer rain and the extended duration of droughts foster warmer, drier air during fire seasons, leading to more surface heating, which, in turn, sucks moisture from trees, shrubs, and vegetation, the study found.

“This new information can help us better monitor changing conditions before the fire season to ensure that areas are prepared for increased wildfire potential,” Matt Jolly, USDA Forest Service research ecologist and co-author of the study, said in a statement. “Further, it may improve our ability to predict fire season severity.”

The research also comes amid heated public debate ignited by high-ranking officials within the Trump administration about the cause of California’s wildfires, which have killed at least 11 people, destroyed homes and forced the evacuation of tens of thousands of people.

The administration has alternately rejected or downplayed the role of climate change in the worsening wildfire picture. After recently visiting some of California’s major fire zones, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke blamed “gross mismanagement of forests” because of timber harvest restrictions that he said were supported by “environmental terrorist groups.”

Authorities in California have reported an increase in large, explosive and swiftly spreading wildfires over a longer, virtually year-round fire season.

Fire officials say that trend has been fueled by several years of drought-stricken vegetation and stoked by frequent and persistent bouts of erratic winds and triple-digit temperatures, in keeping with scientists’ forecasts of changing climate conditions.

Ninety-five percent of wildfires are human-caused, from campfires left unattended to careless smoking, to sparks from vehicles and improperly maintained power lines, fire managers say.

(Reporting by Laura Zuckerman; Additional reporting by Steve Gorman; Editing by Bill Tarrant and Peter Cooney)

Scientists confirm Einstein’s supermassive black hole theory

Communication Lab in Kiel Germany, released on July 12, 2018. Courtesy DESY, Science Communication Lab/Handout via REUTERS

BERLIN (Reuters) – A team of international scientists observing a star in the Milky Way have for the first time confirmed Einstein’s predictions of what happens to the motion of a star passing close to a supermassive black hole.

Einstein’s 100-year-old general theory of relativity predicted that light from stars would be stretched to longer wavelengths by the extreme gravitational field of a black hole, and the star would appear redder, an effect known as gravitational redshift.

“This was the first time we could test directly Einstein’s theory of general relativity near a supermassive black hole,” Frank Eisenhauer, senior astronomer at the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics, told journalists.

“At the time of Einstein, he could not think or dream of what we are showing today,” he said.

A team of scientists at the European Southern Observatory started monitoring the central area of the Milky Way using its Very Large Telescope to observe the motion of stars near the supermassive black hole 26 years ago.

The black hole is 26,000 light years away from Earth and has a mass 4 million times that of the Sun.

The scientists selected one star, S2, to follow. With an orbit of 16 years, they knew it would return close to the black hole in 2018.

Over 20 years, the accuracy of their instruments has improved and so in May 2018, they were able to take extremely precise measurements in conjunction with scientists from around the world.

This showed the star’s orbital velocity increasing to more than 25 million kph (15.5 million mph) as it approached the black hole.

The star’s wavelength stretched as it sought to escape the gravitational pull of the supermassive black hole, shifting its appearance from blue to red, Odele Straub from the Paris Observatory said.

The scientists now hope to observe other theories of black hole physics, she said.

“This is the first step on a long road that the team has done over many years and which we hope to continue in the next years,” MPE’s Reinhard Genzel, who led the international team, said.

(Reporting by Victoria Bryan, editing by David Evans)

Scientists defy ‘force of nature’ to unlock secrets of Hawaii volcano

A USGS geologist making observations of the fissure 8 lava channel at sunset is pictured in this July 3, 2018 fisheye lens handout photograph near the Kilauea volcano eruption in Hawaii, U.S. USGS/Handout via REUTERS

By Terray Sylvester and Jolyn Rosa

PAHOA, Hawaii (Reuters) – Dressed in heavy cotton, a helmet and respirator, Jessica Ball worked the night shift monitoring “fissure 8,” which has been spewing fountains of lava as high as a 15-story building from a slope on Hawaii’s Kilauea volcano.

The lava poured into a channel oozing toward the Pacific Ocean several miles away. In the eerie orange nightscape in the abandoned community of Leilani Estates, it looked like it was flowing toward the scientist, but that was an optical illusion, Ball said.

Kelly Wooten, a geologist and volcanologist at Hawaiian Volcano Observatory (HVO) is downloading radiometer data on rim of Halema‘uma‘u Crater in Kilauea Volcano, Hawaii, U.S., December 19, 2008. Picture taken on December 19, 2008. Courtesy USGS/Handout via REUTERS

Kelly Wooten, a geologist and volcanologist at Hawaiian Volcano Observatory (HVO) is downloading radiometer data on rim of Halema‘uma‘u Crater in Kilauea Volcano, Hawaii, U.S., December 19, 2008. Picture taken on December 19, 2008. Courtesy USGS/Handout via REUTERS

“The volcano is doing what it wants to. … We’re reminded what it’s like to deal with the force of nature,” said Ball, a geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey.

Scientists have been in the field measuring the eruptions 24 hours a day, seven days a week since Kilauea first exploded more than two months ago. They are a mix of USGS staff, University of Hawaii researchers and trained volunteers working six-to-eight-hour shifts in teams of two to five.

They avoid synthetics because they melt in the intense heat and wear gloves to protect their hands from sharp volcanic rock and glass. Helmets protect against falling lava stones, and respirators ward off sulfur gases.

This is not a job for the faint hearted. Geologists have died studying active volcanoes. David Alexander Johnston, a USGS volcanologist was killed by the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens in Washington state. In 1991, American volcanologist Harry Glicken and his French colleagues Katia and Maurice Krafft were killed while conducting avalanche research on Mount Unzen in Japan.

Ball, a graduate of the State University of New York at Buffalo, located in upstate New York near the Canadian border, compared Kilauea’s eruptions to Niagara Falls.

“It gives you the same feeling of power and force,” she said.

A geologist is collecting sample of molten lava from 2011 Kamoamoa eruption, at Kilauea Volcano, Hawaii, U.S., March 6, 2011. Picture taken on March 6, 2011. Courtesy USGS/Handout via REUTERS

A geologist is collecting sample of molten lava from 2011 Kamoamoa eruption, at Kilauea Volcano, Hawaii, U.S., March 6, 2011. Picture taken on March 6, 2011. Courtesy USGS/Handout via REUTERS

WORTH THE RISKS

Kilauea, which has been erupting almost continuously since 1983, is one of the world’s most closely monitored volcanoes, largely from the now-abandoned Hawaiian Volcano Observatory at the summit. But the latest eruption is one of Kilauea’s biggest and could prove to be a bonanza for scientists.

Ball and the USGS teams are studying how the magma – molten rock from the earth’s crust – tracks through a network of tubes under the volcano in what is known as the “Lower East Rift Zone,” before ripping open ground fissures and spouting fountains of lava.

They are trying to discover what warning signs may exist for future eruptions to better protect the Big Island’s communities, she said.

Fissure 8 is one of 22 around Kilauea that have destroyed over 1,000 structures and forced 2,000 people to evacuate. They are what make this volcanic eruption a rare event, Ball said.

“They’re common for Kilauea on a geologic time scale, but in a human time scale it’s sort of a career event,” she said.

Meanwhile, the summit is erupting almost every day with steam or ash, said Janet Snyder, spokeswoman for the County of Hawaii, where Kilauea is located.

Scientists had thought the steam explosions resulted from lava at the summit dropping down the volcano’s throat into groundwater. This was based on Kilauea’s 1924 eruption, to which the current one is most often compared.

But the explosions this time have released lots of sulfur dioxide gas, which means magma is involved, said Michael Poland, scientist-in-charge at Yellowstone Volcano Observatory, one of many volcanologists seconded to Kilauea.

“So we have already made a conceptual leap, leading us to believe it was different from what we had understood,” he said.

Poland and other scientists pulled equipment and archives out of the abandoned observatory at the volcano summit after hundreds of small eruption-induced quakes damaged the structure, and have decamped to the University of Hawaii in Hilo on the Big Island.

The archives included photos, seismic records and samples, some 100 or more years old, Poland said. “These materials are invaluable to someone who says, ‘I have this new idea, and I want to test it using past data.'”Now the second longest Kilauea eruption on record, surpassed only by one in 1955, this eruption offers far better research opportunities than previous events, Ball said.

“We’ve got much better instruments and we’ve got longer to collect the data,” she said.

(Reporting by Terray Sylvester and Jolyn Rosa; writing by Bill Tarrant; Editing by Leslie Adler)

Developing nations to study ways to dim sunshine, slow warming

FILE PHOTO: Smoke from the Wallow Wildfire billows over the White Mountains as the sun sets in Springerville, Arizona, U.S., June 8, 2011. REUTERS/Joshua Lott/File Photo

By Alister Doyle

OSLO (Reuters) – Scientists in developing nations plan to step up research into dimming sunshine to curb climate change, hoping to judge if a man-made chemical sunshade would be less risky than a harmful rise in global temperatures.

Research into “solar geo-engineering”, which would mimic big volcanic eruptions that can cool the Earth by masking the sun with a veil of ash, is now dominated by rich nations and universities such as Harvard and Oxford.

Twelve scholars, from countries including Bangladesh, Brazil, China, Ethiopia, India, Jamaica and Thailand, wrote in the journal Nature on Wednesday that the poor were most vulnerable to global warming and should be more involved.

“Developing countries must lead on solar geo-engineering research,” they wrote in a commentary.

“The overall idea (of solar geo-engineering) is pretty crazy but it is gradually taking root in the world of research,” lead author Atiq Rahman, head of the Bangladesh Centre for Advanced Studies, told Reuters by telephone.

The solar geo-engineering studies may be helped by a new $400,000 research project, the Solar Radiation Management Governance Initiative (SRMGI), which is issuing a first call for scientists to apply for finance this week.

The SRMGI is financed by the Open Philanthropy Project, a foundation backed by Dustin Moskovitz, a co-founder of Facebook, and his wife, Cari Tuna, the scientists wrote.

The fund could help scientists in developing nations study regional impacts of solar geo-engineering such as on droughts, floods or monsoons, said Andy Parker, a co-author and project director of the SRMGI.

Rahman said the academics were not taking sides about whether geo-engineering would work. Among proposed ideas, planes might spray clouds of reflective sulfur particles high in the Earth’s atmosphere.

“The technique is controversial, and rightly so. It is too early to know what its effects would be: it could be very helpful or very harmful,” they wrote.

A U.N. panel of climate experts, in a leaked draft of a report about global warming due for publication in October, is skeptical about solar geo-engineering, saying it may be “economically, socially and institutionally infeasible.”

Among risks, the draft obtained by Reuters says it might disrupt weather patterns, could be hard to stop once started, and might discourage countries from making a promised switch from fossil fuels to cleaner energies.

Still, Rahman said most developed nations had “abysmally failed” so far in their pledges to cut greenhouse gas emissions, making radical options to limit warming more attractive.

The world is set for a warming of three degrees Celsius (5.7 Fahrenheit) or more above pre-industrial times, he said, far above a goal of keeping a rise in temperatures “well below” 2C (3.6F) under the 2015 Paris Agreement among almost 200 nations.

(Reporting By Alister Doyle; Editing by Richard Balmforth)

In first, scientists detect gravitational waves and light from star collision

An artist’s illustration of two merging neutron stars. The rippling space-time grid represents gravitational waves that travel out from the collision, while the narrow beams show the bursts of gamma rays that are shot out just seconds after the gravitational waves.

By Scott Malone

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. (Reuters) – Scientists in the United States and Europe have for the first time detected gravitational waves, the ripples in space and time predicted by Albert Einstein, at the same time as light from the same cosmic event, according to research published on Monday.

The waves, caused by the collision of two neutron stars some 130 million years ago, were first detected in August in the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatories, known as LIGO, in Washington state and Louisiana as well as at a third detector, named Virgo in Italy.

Two seconds later, observatories on earth and in space detected a burst of light in the form of gamma rays from the same path of the southern sky, which analysis showed likely to be from the same source.

Less than two years have passed since scientists working at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the California Institute of Technology first detected gravitational waves coming off two black holes.

The gravitational waves had been predicted by Einstein in 1916, as an outgrowth of his groundbreaking general theory of relativity, which depicted gravity as a distortion of space and time triggered by the presence of matter.

Three U.S. scientists who made that discovery were awarded the Nobel prize in physics earlier this month.

The findings published on Monday help confirm Einstein’s theory, said the researchers, whose work was published in Physical Review Letters.

“From informing detailed models of the inner workings of neutron stars and the emissions they produce, to more fundamental physics such as general relativity, this event is just so rich,” said MIT senior research scientist David Shoemaker. “It is a gift that will keep on giving.”

The LIGO instruments work in unison and use lasers to detect remarkably small vibrations from gravitational waves as they pass through the earth.

Previously, scientists could only study space by observing electromagnetic waves such as radio waves, visible light, infrared light, X-rays and gamma rays. Those waves encounter interference as they travel across the universe, but gravitational waves do not, meaning they offer a wealth of additional information.

The colliding neutron stars were smaller than the black holes that LIGO previously detected.

Black holes are so dense that not even photons of light can escape their gravity. Neutron stars are relatively small, about the size of a city, the compact remains of a larger star that died.

The National Science Foundation, an independent agency of the U.S. government, provided about $1.1 billion in funding for the LIGO research over 40 years.

 

(Reporting by Scott Malone; Editing by Peter Cooney)