Games consoles reveal the supercomputer within

February 16, 2008

WHEN Todd Martínez broke his son’s Sony PlayStation he didn’t realise this would change the course of his career as a theoretical chemist. Having dutifully bought a PlayStation 2 as a replacement, he was browsing through the games console’s technical specification when he realised it might have another use. “I noticed that the architecture looked a lot like high-performance supercomputers I had seen before,” he says. “That’s when I thought about getting one for myself.”

Six years on and Martínez has persuaded the supercomputing centre at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, to buy eight computers each driven by two of the specialised chips that are at the heart of Sony’s PlayStation 3 console. Together with his student Benjamin Levine he is using them to simulate the interactions between the electrons in atoms. Scaled up over entire molecules, the results could pave the way to predicting how a protein will interact with a drug.

Martínez and Levine are not the only researchers who have turned to gaming hardware to do their number crunching. That’s because the kinds of calculations required to produce the mouth-wateringly realistic graphics now seen in high-end video games are similar to those used by chemists and physicists as they simulate the interactions between particles in systems ranging in scale from the molecular to the astronomical. Rotating, enlarging or reflecting an object from one frame to the next in a game, for example, requires a technique called matrix multiplication. Modelling the interactions between thousands of electrons in a molecule calls for similar techniques.

Such simulations are usually carried out on a supercomputer, but time on these machines is expensive and in short supply. By comparison, games consoles are cheap and easily available, and they come with the added bonus of some innovative hardware. For example, the Wii, made by Nintendo, has a motion-tracking remote control unit that is far cheaper than a comparable device would be if researchers had to build it from scratch.

One key advance is the ease with which scientists can now program games consoles for their own purposes. Although consoles do a great job of rendering images, games programs don’t require software to save data once it has been used to render the image. Scientists, by contrast, need to be able to store the results of the calculations they have fed into their machines.

Things started to get easier in 2002, when demand from computer enthusiasts who wanted to use their PlayStations as fully fledged desktop machines prompted Sony to release software that allowed the PlayStation 2 to run the Linux operating system. That allowed scientists to reprogram the consoles to run their calculations. Then in 2006 came the big breakthrough, with the launch by IBM, Sony and Toshiba of the Cell chip that now drives Sony’s PlayStation 3 (see Timeline). With one central processor and eight “servant” processors (New Scientist, 19 February 2005, p 23), it is vastly more powerful than the PS2 chip, and was designed from day 1 to run Linux.

The release of the Cell has accelerated  research into black holes by Gaurav Khanna, an astrophysicist at the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth. He has strung together 16 PS3 consoles to calculate the properties of the gravity waves that are expected to be produced when two black holes merge. Meanwhile, a collaboration between IBM and the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, is using the Cell’s ability to render high-resolution video graphics to do the same with data gathered by MRI and other medical scanning techniques. The aim is to make diagnosis easier and faster – by using the images to determine whether a tumour has grown or shrunk, for example.

Other researchers are pushing for even more speed. One of Martínez’s students, Ivan Ufimtsev, is experimenting with the NVIDIA GeForce 8800 GTX graphical processing unit (GPU) for PCs, which was released in November 2006. The GPU has 128 processors – compared to the Cell’s eight – and when slotted into a PC, helps turn it into a high-quality gaming engine. To start with, these cards were hard to program, just like the PS2 without the Linux add-on, but NVIDIA soon cottoned on to the sales opportunities that scientists like Martínez could offer for its product. In February 2007 it released the Compute Unified Device Architecture, a software package that allows the C programming language to be used to program the GPUs.

The results were staggering. When Martínez used it to simulate the repulsion between two electrons in an atom, he found that the calculation ran 130 times faster than it did on an ordinary desktop computer (Journal of Chemical Theory and Computation, DOI: 10.1021/ct700268q). He is now calculating the energy of the electrons in 1000 atoms, which add up to the size of a small protein. “We can now do the things we were killing ourselves to do,” he says.

Martínez predicts that it will soon be possible to use the GPU to predict more accurately which drug molecules will most strongly interact with a protein and how they will react, which could revolutionise pharmaceutical research. Similarly, Koji Yasuda at Nagoya University in Japan reported in a paper published this month (Journal of Computational Chemistry, vol 29, p 334) that he used the same GPU to map the electron energies in two molecules: the anti-cancer drug paclitaxel and the cyclic peptide valinomycin.

Games hardware still isn’t perfect for science. The Cell’s eight processors and the NVIDIA GPUs are forced to round decimal numbers to seven decimal places. As numbers are repeatedly multiplied together, this small error becomes magnified. In a game, the result might be nothing more serious than a car appearing slightly closer to a wall than it should, but in research such inaccuracies can be show-stoppers.

It’s not just the chips that researchers can usefully borrow from gaming hardware. Take the Wii’s hand-held remote control, which contains an accelerometer that can sense in which direction it is being moved, and how vigorously. It transmits this information via a Bluetooth link to the console, where it is used to adjust the graphics to respond to the player’s movements in real time.
Monitoring Parkinson’s

The device recently grabbed attention as a tool for surgeons to improve their technique (New Scientist, 19 January, p 24). Meanwhile, neurologist Thomas Davis at the Vanderbilt Medical Center in Nashville, Tennessee, is using it to measure movement deficiencies in Parkinson’s patients. By attaching up to four Wii remotes to different limbs, Davis captures data for tremor, speed and smoothness of movement, and gait. This data is then sent via the Bluetooth link to a laptop running software that allows Davis to assess quantitatively how well a patient can move. Davis hopes this can be used in clinical trials for Parkinson’s drugs to replace the scoring scales now used, which are based on a doctor observing a patient’s condition.

Others are using the console to assess the progress of patients who have had a stroke or a head injury by monitoring their performance as they play Wii games. Johnny Chung Lee at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, is using the Wii remote as a virtual reality research tool. As the wearer’s head moves, the Wii tracks it and displays images dependent on where the wearer is looking. Meanwhile, a team at the University of Valladolid in Spain hopes to use the Wii remote to rotate and manipulate ultrasound images more intuitively.

Computer gamers have always hankered after the latest console or PC hardware to run ever more realistic-looking games. Now scientists are lining up right beside them.

From issue 2643 of New Scientist magazine, 16 February 2008, page 26-27

And not an xbox360 in sight….

Some News…

December 15, 2007

Top 11 Warmest Years On Record Have All Been In Last 13 Years

ScienceDaily (Dec. 13, 2007) — The decade of 1998-2007 is the warmest on record, according to data sources obtained by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO). The global mean surface temperature for 2007 is currently estimated at 0.41°C/0.74°F above the 1961-1990 annual average of 14.00°C/57.20°F.


The University of East Anglia and the Met Office’s Hadley Centre have released preliminary global temperature figures for 2007, which show the top 11 warmest years all occurring in the last 13 years. The provisional global figure for 2007 using data from January to November, currently places the year as the seventh warmest on records dating back to 1850.
Other remarkable global climatic events recorded so far in 2007 include record-low Arctic sea ice extent, which led to first recorded opening of the Canadian Northwest Passage; the relatively small Antarctic Ozone Hole; development of La Niña in the central and eastern Equatorial Pacific; and devastating floods, drought and storms in many places around the world.
The preliminary information for 2007 is based on climate data up to the end of November from networks of land-based weather stations, ships and buoys, as well as satellites. The data are continually collected and disseminated by the National Meteorological and Hydrological Services (NMHS) of WMO’s 188 Members and several collaborating research institutions. Final updates and figures for 2007 will be published in March 2008 in the annual WMO brochure for the Statement on the Status of the Global Climate.
WMO’s global temperature analyses are based on two different sources. One is the combined dataset maintained by both the Hadley Centre of the UK Meteorological Office, and the Climatic Research Unit, University of East Anglia, UK, which at this stage ranked 2007 as the seventh warmest on record. The other dataset is maintained by the US Department of Commerce’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which indicated that 2007 is likely to be the fifth warmest on record.
Since the start of the 20th century, the global average surface temperature has risen by 0.74°C. But this rise has not been continuous. The linear warming trend over the last 50 years (0.13°C per decade) is nearly twice that for the last 100 years.
According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 4th Assessment (Synthesis) Report, 2007, “warming of the climate system is unequivocal, as is now evident from observations of increases in global average air and ocean temperatures, widespread melting of snow and ice, and rising global average sea level.”
2007 global temperatures have been averaged separately for both hemispheres. Surface temperatures for the northern hemisphere are likely to be the second warmest on record, at 0.63°C above the 30-year mean (1961-90) of 14.6°C/58.3°F. The southern hemisphere temperature is 0.20°C higher than the 30-year average of 13.4°C/56.1°F, making it the ninth warmest in the instrumental record since 1850.
January 2007 was the warmest January in the global average temperature record at 12.7°C/54.9°F, compared to the 1961-1990 January long-term average of 12.1°C/53.8°F.
Regional temperature anomalies
2007 started with record breaking temperature anomalies throughout the world. In parts of Europe, winter and spring ranked amongst the warmest ever recorded, with anomalies of more than 4°C above the long-term monthly averages for January and April.
Extreme high temperatures occurred in much of Western Australia from early January to early March, with February temperatures more than 5°C above average.
Two extreme heat waves affected south-eastern Europe in June and July, breaking previous records with daily maximum temperatures exceeding 40°C/104°F in some locations, including up to 45°C/113°F in Bulgaria. Dozens of people died and fire-fighters battled blazes devastating thousands of hectares of land. A severe heat wave occurred across the southern United States of America during much of August with more than 50 deaths attributed to excessive heat. August to September 2007 was extremely warm in parts of Japan, setting a new national record of absolute maximum temperature of 40.9°/105.6°F on 16 August.
In contrast, Australia recorded its coldest ever June with the mean temperature dropping to 1.5°C below normal. South America experienced an unusually cold winter (June-August), bringing winds, blizzards and rare snowfall to various provinces with temperatures falling to -22°C/-7.6°F in Argentina and -18°C/-0.4°F in Chile in early July.
Prolonged drought
Across North America, severe to extreme drought was present across large parts of the western U.S. and Upper Midwest, including southern Ontario/Canada, for much of 2007.  More than three-quarters of the Southeast U.S. was in drought from mid-summer into December, but heavy rainfall led to an end of drought in the southern Plains.
In Australia, while conditions were not as severely dry as in 2006, long term drought meant water resources remained extremely low in many areas. Below average rainfall over the densely populated and agricultural regions resulted in significant crop and stock losses, as well as water restrictions in most major cities.
China experienced its worst drought in a decade, affecting nearly 40 million hectares of farmland. Tens of millions of people suffered from water restrictions.
Flooding and intense storms
Flooding affected many African countries in 2007. In February, Mozambique experienced its worst flooding in six years, killing dozens, destroying thousands of homes and flooding 80,000 hectares of crops in the Zambezi valley.
In Sudan, torrential rains caused flash floods in many areas in June/July, affecting over 410,000 people, including 200,000 left homeless. The strong southwesterly monsoon resulted in one of the heaviest July-September rainfall periods, triggering widespread flash floods affecting several countries in West Africa, Central Africa and parts of the Greater Horn of Africa. Some 1.5 million people were affected and hundreds of thousands homes destroyed.
In Bolivia, flooding in January-February affected nearly 200,000 people and 70,000 hectares of cropland. Strong storms brought heavy rain that caused extreme flooding in the littoral region of Argentina in late March/early April. In early May, Uruguay was hit by its worst flooding since 1959, with heavy rain producing floods that affected more than 110,000 people and severely damaged crops and buildings. Triggered by storms, massive flooding in Mexico in early November destroyed the homes of half a million people and seriously affected the country’s oil industry.
In Indonesia, massive flooding on Java in early February killed dozens and covered half of the city of Jakarta by up to 3.7 metres of water. Heavy rains in June ravaged areas across southern China, with flooding and landslides affecting over 13.5 million people and killing more than 120. Monsoon-related extreme rainfall events caused the worst flooding in years in parts of South Asia. About 25 million people were affected in the region, especially in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal. Thousands lost their lives. However, rainfall during the Indian summer monsoon season (June-September) for India was, generally, near normal (105% of the long-term average), but with marked differences in the distribution of rainfall in space and time.
A powerful storm system, Kyrill, affected much of northern Europe during 17-18 January 2007 with torrential rains and winds gusting up to 170km/h. There were at least 47 deaths across the region, with disruptions in electric supply affecting tens of thousands during the storm.
England and Wales recorded its wettest May-July period since records began in 1766, receiving 406 mm of rain compared to the previous record of 349 mm in 1789. Extensive flooding in the region killed nine and caused more than US$6 billion in damages.
Development of La Niña
The brief El Niño event of late 2006 quickly dissipated in January 2007, and La Niña conditions became well established across the central and eastern Equatorial Pacific in the latter half of 2007.
In addition to La Niña, unusual sea surface temperature patterns with cooler than normal values across the north of Australia to the Indian Ocean, and warmer than normal values in the Western Indian Ocean, were recorded. These are believed to have modified the usual La Niña impacts in certain regions around the world.
The current La Niña is expected to continue into the first quarter of 2008 at least.
Devastating tropical cyclones
Twenty-four named tropical storms developed in the North-West Pacific during 2007, below the annual average of 27. Fourteen storms were classified as typhoons, equalling the annual average. Tropical cyclones affected millions in south-east Asia, with typhoons Pabuk, Krosa, Lekima and tropical storms like Peipah among the severest.
During the 2007 Atlantic Hurricane season, 14 named storms occurred, compared to the annual average of 12, with 6 being classified as hurricanes, equalling the average. For the first time since 1886, two category 5 hurricanes (Dean and Felix) made landfall in the same season.
In February, due to tropical cyclone Gamède, a new worldwide rainfall record was set in French La Reunion with 3,929 mm measured within three days.
In June, cyclone Gonu made landfall in Oman, affecting more than 20,000 people and killing 50, before reaching the Islamic Republic of Iran. There is no record of a tropical cyclone hitting Iran since 1945.
On 15 November, tropical cyclone Sidr made landfall in Bangladesh, generating winds of up to 240 km/h and torrential rains. More than 8.5 million people were affected and over 3,000 died. Nearly 1.5 million houses were damaged or destroyed. Often hit by cyclones, Bangladesh has developed a network of cyclone shelters and a storm early-warning system, which significantly reduced casualties.
Australia’s 2006/2007 tropical season was unusually quiet, with only five tropical cyclones recorded, equalling the lowest number observed since at least 1943-44.
Relatively small Antarctic ozone hole
The 2007 Antarctic ozone hole was relatively small due to mild stratosphere winter temperatures. Since 1998, only the 2002 and 2004 ozone holes were smaller. In 2007, the ozone hole reached a maximum of 25 million square kms in mid-September, compared to 29 million square kms in the record years of 2000 and 2006. The ozone mass deficit reached 28 megatonnes on 23 September, compared to more than 40 megatonnes in the record year of 2006.
Record-low Arctic sea ice extent opened the Northwest Passage
Following the Arctic sea ice melt season, which ends annually in September at the end of the northern summer, the average “sea ice extent” was 4.28 million square kms, the lowest on record. The “sea ice extent” at September 2007 was 39% below the long-term 1979-2000 average, and 23% below the previous record set just two years ago in September 2005.For the first time in recorded history, the disappearance of ice across parts of the Arctic opened the Canadian Northwest Passage for about five weeks starting 11 August. Nearly 100 voyages in normally ice-blocked waters sailed without the threat of ice. The September rate of sea ice decline since 1979 is now approximately 10% per decade, or 72,000 square kms per year.
Sea level rise continues
The sea level continued to rise at rates substantially above the average for the 20th century of about 1.7 mm per year. Measurements show that the 2007 global averaged sea level is about 20 cm higher than the 1870 estimate. Modern satellite measurements show that since 1993 global averaged sea level has been rising at about 3 mm per year.
Global 10 Warmest Years Mean Global temperature (°C) (anomaly with respect to 1961-1990)
1998 0.52
2005 0.48
2003 0.46
2002 0.46
2004 0.43
2006 0.42
2007(Jan-Nov) 0.41
2001 0.40
1997 0.36
1995 0.28
UK 10 Warmest Years Mean UK Temperature (°C) (anomaly with respect to 1971-2000)
2006 +1.15
2007 (Jan to 10th Dec) + 1.10
2003 + 0.92
2004 + 0.89
2002 + 0.89
2005 + 0.87
1990 + 0.83
1997 + 0.82
1949 + 0.80
1999 + 0.78
Adapted from materials provided by World Meteorological Organization.


More fuel for the metaphorical fire.

PS3 one ups Xbox 360 with its DivX support

The Xbox 360 may have beaten Sony to to the punch with regards to supporting the DivX format but it seems that the PS3 will have the last laugh on the matter. First of all, unlike the Xbox 360, the PS3 is DivX certified meaning it will get full DivX functionality. This even allows for developers to utilize the solid form of compression for various in-game cut scenes.


Last month, DivX announced that the PS3 will soon support DivX, and, this month, Gizmodo met with the company, which shared some interesting details on the big move.

First of all, unlike the Xbox 360, the PS3 is DivX certified. While Microsoft’s console can only playback some DivX files, the PS3 will get full DivX functionality. This includes the ability for game developers to use the very efficient compression format for in-game cut-scenes.

This means DivX video cut scenes will reduce stress on the machine, theoretically allowing for better load times, less power consumption, and less heat output.

News Source: Blorge

Hurrah!  Well ok, I’m not a PS3 fanboy per say, but I do own one.  So in the interests of keeping the inter console wars fresh…. Hurrah!

Some Science

December 12, 2007

The best of science, the worst of creationism

In 2000, a popular school textbook called Biology reluctantly dropped it’s prime example of evolution in action – industrial melanism in the peppered moth. Nothing in evolutionary biology had forced the change. The decision was entirely political,made in response to creationist attacks.

The loss of the peppered moth was a blow to science education in the US, as it is one of the easiest to understand examples of evolution by natural selection. So it is heartening to hear that biologists are fighting back. Thanks to their efforts, evidence that the moth is an example of evolution in action is more robust than ever.

This tawdry tale reveals much of what is good about science – and rotten about creationism. Creationists went gunning for the moth after a scientific disagreement over the fine detail of a seminal experiment done in the 1950s. They used the debate to portray the science behind industrial melanism as hopelessly flawed, if not fraudulent.

In response, one scientist patiently redid the experiment – it took him seven years. It is hard to think of another system of thought that is so stringently self-critical and self-correcting.

In science, everything is provisional . There are no preordained answers and fresh ideas are always welcome, so long as their proponents are happy for them to be tested.

That is not how creationists work. They already know the answer. They seek only evidence that confirms their conclusion, and distort or ignore the rest. Such an unreasoned approach is worthless. Creationists will keep trying to undermine the theory of evolution.

All science can do is continue, with dignity, to stick to it’s guns. As with the peppered moth, the best testable explanation will win out.

Conspiracy? Not in China

There’s no stopping a good conspiracy theory. For over 30 years, NASA has faced allegations that it faked the moon landings, and now it is the turn of the Chinese.

In October, the Chinese spacecraft Chang’e 1 entered lunar orbit, and last week the country released its first image of the lunar surface. Within hours of the picture’s release the internet rumour mill leapt into action on various Chinese blogs and forums, casting doubt on it’s validity and saying it bore an uncanny resemblance to a picture released by NASA in 2005.

The Chinese space agency replied that the pictures are similar because they are of the same part of the moon. NASA’s experience with conspiracy theories suggests that denying the rumour will only serve to keep it running. Ouying Ziyuan, chief scientist for the lunar probe, more or less guaranteed this by adding: “There is absolutely no forgery.”


Our solar future

In theory, solving the world’s energy problems should be pretty straightforward. Locate a piece of sun-drenched land about half the size of Texas, find a way to capture just 20 per cent of the solar energy that falls there and bingo – problem solved. You have enough power to replace the world’s entire energy needs using the cleanest, most renewable resource there is.

Can it really be that easy? For years, supporters of solar power have heralded every new technological breakthrough as a revolution in the making. Yet time and again it has failed to materialise, largely because the technology was too expensive and inefficient and, unlike alternatives such as nuclear and wind power, no substantial subsidies were available to kick-start a mass transition to solar energy. This time things are different. Aconfluence of political will, economic pressure and technological advances suggests that we are on the brink of an era of solar power.

The prospect of relying on the sun for all our power demands – conservatively estimated at 15 terawatts in 2005 – is finally becoming realistic thanks to the rising price of fossil fuels, an almost universal acceptance of the damage they cause, plus mushrooming investment in the development of solar cells and steady advances in their efficiency. The tried-and-tested method of using the heat of the sun to generate electricity is already hitting the big time but the really big breakthroughs are happening to photovoltaic (PV) cells.

Ever since the first PV cell was created by Bell Labs in 1954, the efficiency with which a cell can convert light into electricity has been the technology’s Achilles’ heel. The problem is rooted in the way PV cells work. At the heart of every PV cell is a semiconducting material, which when struck by a photon liberates an electron. This can be guided by a conductor into a circuit, leaving behind a “hole” which is filled by another electron from the other end of the circuit, creating an electric current.

Photons from the sun arrive at the semiconductor sporting many different energies, not all of which will liberate an electron. Each semiconducting material material has a characteristic “band gap” – an energy value which photons must exceed if they are to dislodge the semiconductor’s electrons. If the photons are too weak they pass through the material, and if they are too energetic then only part of their energy is converted to electricity, the rest into heat. Some are just right, and the closer the photons are to matching the band gap, the greater the efficiency of the PV cell.

Bell Labs discovered that silicon, which is cheap and easy to produce, has one of the best band gaps for the spectrum of photon energies in sunlight. Even so, their first cell had an efficiency of only 6 per cent. For a long time improvements were piecemeal, inching up to the mid-teens at best, and at a cost only military and space exploration programmes could afford. The past decade has seen a sea change as inexpensive cells with an efficiency of 20 per cent have become a commercial reality, while in the lab efficiencies are leaping forward still further.

Last year, Allen Barnett and colleagues at the university of Delaware, Newark, set a new record with a design that achieved 42.8 per cent energy conversion efficiency. Barnett says 50 per cent efficiency on a commercial scale is now within reach. Such designs, married to modern manufacturing techniques, mean costs are falling fast too.

As a result, in parts of Japan, California and Italy, where the retail price of electricity is among the world’s highest, the cost of solar-generated electricity is now close to, and in some cases matches, that of electricity generated from natural gas and nuclear power, says Michael Rogol, a solar industry analyst with Photon Consulting, based in Aachen, Germany. For example, in the US the average price of conventionally generated electricity is around 10 cents per kilowatt-hour. The cost of solar-generated electricity has fallen to roughly double that. This has created a booming market for PV cells – now growing by around 35 per cent annually – and private investors are starting to take a serious interest. The value of stocks in companies whose business focuses primarily on solar power has grown from $40 billion in January 2006 to more than $140 billion today, making solar power the fastest-growing sector in the global marketplace.

George W. Bush has acknowledged this new dawn, setting aside $168 million of federal funds for the Solar America Initiative, a research programme that aims to make the cost of PV technology competitive with other energy technologies in the US by 2015. Rogol thinks Bush’s target is achievable. He says the cost of manufacturing PV equipment has fallen to the point where, in some places, PV-generated electricity could already be produced for less than conventional electricity. Manufacturing PV cells at $1 per watt of generating capacity and the cost should be competitive everywhere.

Perhaps surprisingly, given its less than cloudless skies, one of the countries leading the solar revolution is Germany. In November 2003, amid rising oil and gas prices and growing concern over global warming, its parliament agreed a “feed-in-tariff” programme, which guarantees a market for solar power. Anyone who produces electricity from solar power can sell it to the national grid for between €0.45 and €0.57 per kilowatt-hour, which is almost three times what consumers pay for their electricity, roughly €0.19 per kilowatt-hour. Germany’s power-generating companies are required by law to pay this premium which is guaranteed until 2024. This guarantee has spurred enterprising individuals to invest in solar panels, confident of earning back the cost of their systems.

Source:  New Scientist

Bali draft says all nations must join climate fight

December 9, 2007

By Alister Doyle and Gerard Wynn

NUSA DUA, Indonesia (Reuters) – All nations must do more to fight climate change, and rich countries must make deep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions to avoid the worst impacts, a draft proposal at United Nations talks said on Saturday.

The four-page draft, written by delegates from Indonesia, Australia and South Africa as an unofficial guide for delegates from 190 nations at the December 3-14 talks, said developing nations should at least brake rising emissions as part of a new pact.

It said there was “unequivocal scientific evidence” that “preventing the worst impacts of climate change will require (developed nations) to reduce emissions in a range of 25-40 percent below 1990 levels by 2020.”

The draft is the first outline of the possible goals of talks on a new global deal to replace the Kyoto Protocol, which binds just 36 developed nations to cut emissions of greenhouse gases by 5 percent below 1990 levels by 2008-12.

“Current efforts … will not deliver the required emissions reductions,” according to the text, obtained by Reuters, that lays out a plan for averting ever more droughts, floods, heatwaves and rising seas.

“The challenge of climate change calls for effective participation by all countries,” it said. The United States is outside the Kyoto pact and developing nations led by China and India have no 2012 goals for limiting emissions.

Echoing conclusions this year by the U.N. climate panel, it said global emissions of greenhouse gases would have to “peak in the next 10 to 15 years and be reduced to very low levels, well below half of levels in 2000 by 2050.”

The draft lays out three options for how to proceed after Bali — ranging from non-binding talks over the next two years to a deadline for adopting a new global pact at a U.N. meeting in Copenhagen in late 2009.

Rich nations should consider ways to step up efforts to curb emissions of greenhouse gases by setting “quantified national emission objectives”, the draft says.

Poor countries should take “national mitigation actions … that limit the growth of, or reduce, emissions,” it says. It adds that “social development and poverty eradication are the first and overriding priorities” for poor nations.

Delegates will report back on Monday with reactions.

Earlier, trade ministers from 12 nations met for the first time on the sidelines of a U.N. climate conference, opening a new front in the global warming battle.

Their two-day discussions ending on Sunday focus on easing tariffs on climate-friendly goods to spur a “green” economy. About 20 finance ministers will join the fringes of the Bali meeting on Monday and Tuesday.

“Climate change solutions open up important opportunities for jobs and trade,” Australian Trade Minister Simon Crean told reporters. Ministers at the trade meeting included those from the United States, Australia, Brazil and India.

Differences over who should take the blame for, and do most to curb, emissions threatened to deadlock the main talks. Canada and Australia joined Japan on Saturday in calling for commitments from some developing countries.

But developing nations would find it “inconceivable” to accept binding targets now, said the U.N.’s climate change chief Yvo de Boer. An alliance of 43 small island states urged even tougher action to fight climate change, saying they risked being washed off the map by rising seas.

Outside the conference centre, Balinese dancers used sticks to burst black balloons labelled “CO2”, the main greenhouse gas.

— For Reuters latest environment blogs click on:

(Reporting by Gerard Wynn and Alister Doyle, Editing by Tim Pearce)

Just do it….

Germany Commits to Steep CO2 Cuts

December 7, 2007

The plan is forecast to cost Germany, Europe’s top polluter, $45.5 billion (that’s about what the U.S. spends on the Iraq war every seven months).

Germany yesterday sent a strong message to the 10,000 delegates discussing global warming in Bali: Change is possible, and we’re going to get started.

The German cabinet agreed to a 36% reduction in carbon dioxide emissions, below 1990 levels, by 2020 through improvements in energy efficiency, better building insulation and investments in new renewable energy sources. (A report released last week found the U.S. could make a similar, or even steeper reduction, mostly by investing in energy efficiency; the report was produced by both environmentalists and leaders of industry, including major utilities and energy companies.)

Other notable news out of Bali, where the United Nations is convening an important meeting designed to produce a roadmap for reducing greenhouse gas emissions past 2012, when the Kyoto Protocol expires:

  • Because 16 of the 36 nations that ratified the Kyoto Protocol have failed to meet the targets set out for them, many are looking to buy carbon offsets, according to Reuters. That is drawing ire, even as most nations are focused on the future.
  • China is pushing for a new world fund that rich nations would contribute to, and developing nations would draw from, according to Reuters. It would pay for renewable and clean energy technology projects.
  • Yvo de Boer, the executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, urged nations to boost spending on so-called “adaptation,” according to China’s state-run media, because long-lived carbon in the atmosphere makes many effects from global warming inevitable.
  • After ratifying the Kyoto Protocol, Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd called on the United States — now, the only industrialized nation that is holding out — to follow suit, according to Asia Pulse. De Boer said Australia’s action sends a powerful message.
  • The United States, Canada and Japan are throwing up repeated roadblocks to even small steps on global warming, like setting up a working group to discuss the transfer of technology from rich to poor nations, Friends of Earth has said, according to Deutsche Presse-Agentur.
  • Harlan Watson, a U.S. envoy, was quoted in Asia Pulse, however, as saying that the United States wants to support adaptation, mitigation, transfer of technology and funding, and possibly a mechanism for preserving forests in Indonesia and other developing countries. One roadblock to transferring technology from rich to poor nations is that the technology isn’t owned by the government, but the private sector, according to Watson.
  • The leaders of Pacific Islands warned the delegates that their nations would be swamped if nothing is done to stop sea-level rise due to global warming, according to the Australia Broadcasting Corporation. The Global Governance Project will recommend creating an international fund to resettle “climate refugees,” according to the New Zealand Herald.
  • Japan pledged to give $10 million to preserve forests through a World Bank program designed to combat global warming, according to Asia Pulse.
  • China is warming to the idea of binding emissions reductions, according to The Australian Financial Review.

So long, and thanks for all the fish

September 16, 2007

Yangtze River Dolphin

If the Yangtze river dolphin isn’t quite extinct yet, it soon will be. Conservationist Mark Carwardine tells the tale of its last daysThe first time I went in search of the Yangtze river dolphin, or baiji, was in 1988 with Douglas Adams, author of ‘The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy’, as part of a year spent travelling the world in search of endangered species for a book and radio series called ‘Last Chance to See’. We explored a small part of the Yangtze, which runs for 6380 kilometres through the heart of China.

We were overwhelmed by the dolphins phonomenally high profile in CHina. We drank Baiji beer and Baijicola, stayed in the Baiji Hotel and used Lipotes vexillifer toilet paper. We even came across Baiji weighing scales and Baiji fertiliser. It was the aquatic equivalent of the giant panda.

Unfortunately, though, we failed to see a single dolphin in the wild. We weren’t surprised – the Yangtze river is vast and the dolphins were notoriously hard to see, surfacing briefly without a splash.

Douglas and I did meet Qi-Qi (pronounced chee-chee), a beautiful bluish-grey dolphin with a long, narrow, slightly upturned beak, a low triangular dorsal fin, broad flippers and tiny eyes. Qi-Qi was just a year old when he was injured by fishing hooks in 1980 and taken into captivity to be nursed back to health. He was kept at the Institute of Hydrobiology in Wuhan for 22 years, where he taught scientists much about his disappearing species until his sad death on 14 July 2002. He reminded me of Martha, the last of the passenger pigeons, who died in Cincinnati Zoo in 1914.

I’ve been back several times since that first visit and, to my eternal regret, never did encounter a wild free Yangtze river dolphin. Now I never shall. The Yangtze river dolphin, Lipotes vexillifer, is the first cetacean to be driven to extinction by human activity.

Last month a Chinese man captured video footage of what might have been a lone baiji, boosting hopes that there might be a few survivors. Of course, that is a possibility, though the validity of the distant, poor-quality video has been questioned by experts. However, any hope of capturing a breeding pair has all but vanished, and the continued deterioration of the Yangtze ecosystem means that without human intervention the dolphins have no chance of survival. The species is functionally extinct, even if it is not actually extinct.

This is no ordinary extinction. We have lost large mammal species before, most recently the Caribbean monk seal, Monachus tropicalis, which was hunted to extinction in the 1950’s. The Yangtze river dolphin, however, was especially remarkable because it was the sole member of a distinct mammal family, the Lipotidae. It diverged from other cetaceans more than 20 million years ago, so its disappearance represents the end of a much longer branch of the evolutionary tree than most extinctions.

It’s a shocking tragedy. It’s also downright inexcusable. We had plenty of warning that the dolphin was in serious trouble – more than 20 years, no less – yet we failed to provide it with adequate protection. Accidental deaths due to fishing and shipping, over fishing, the rapid deterioration of the Yangtze river, an outrageous lack of funds, ineffective project management and incessant bickering between the Chinese authorities and western scientists sealed its fate a long time ago.

Even before it vanished, surprisingly little was known about the baiji. It wasn’t brought to the attention of western scientists until 1916, when a lone individual was killed by an American missionary’s son and taken back to the US. Another 40 years passed before scientists in China began to study the species.

An exclusively freshwater dolphin, unique to China, the Yangtze river dolphin once lived along a 1700-kilometre stretch of the middle and lower reaches of the Yangtze river, from the magnificent Three Gorges region all the way to the river mouth. It also lived in two vast lakes connected to the Yangtze, Dongting and Poyang, and, until the 1950s, in the Qiantang, a river a few hundred kilometres to the south of the Yangtze.

The baiji was active during the day, typically living in small groups of three or four individuals, and apparently resting at night in areas where the current was slow. It fed mainly on fish, using its long beak to probe into the muddy riverbed around water confluences and sandbars with large eddies. It was a slow breeder, the females giving birth to a single calf once every two years.

Yangtze river dolphins had little need to see in the turbid waters of their riverine home, where viability can drop to about 12 centimetres in late summer. They could distinguish objects placed on the surface, so their eyes were functional – but only just. Instead, they used a highly developed sense of echolocatio, like other dolphins, to find their food and to navigate.

The species is mentioned in Chinese literature dating back 2200 years and Guo Pu (AD 276-324), a scholar of the Jin dynasty, described the river as “teeming” with dolphins. Revered as the “Goddess of the Yangtze”, according to legend the baiji was the reincarnation of a princess who had refused to marry a man she did not love and was drowned by her father for shaming the family. Fishermen believed its appearance was a friendly warning of an impending storm and that anyone who hurt one would come to a tragic end. Until recently, this superstition helped protect the animal.

All that changed during the Great Leap Forward in the late 1950s. The dolphin’s respected status was suddenly denounced and, instead of being revered, it was hunted for its flesh and skin. A factory was even established to make handbags and gloves out of dolphin skin, though it did not last long as the animals quickly became scarce.

Even after the hunting ended, fishing – the main killer of porpoises, dolphins and whales worldwide – took a heavy toll. The dolphins liked to feed exactly where fishermen set their gill nets and fyke nets, resulting in many being caught accidentally, and drowned. At least half of all known dolphin deaths in the 1970s and 1980s were caused by rolling hooks – lines of hooks up to a kilometre long – and other fishing gear. Electro fishing – applying a current to water – accounted for 40 per cent of deaths during the 1990s. Rolling hooks and electrofishing are illegal, but still common.

Blinded and deafened

Indeed, the dolphin couldn’t have picked a worse place to live. The Yangtze river basin is home to an astonishing tenth of the human population. Accessible to ocean-going vessels up to 1000 kilometres from the sea, the Yangtze is one of the busiest rivers in the world. A 2006 survey counted 19,830 large ships – more than one per 100 metres of river surveyed – and 1175 +fishing vessels. Not only did collisions with boats and propellers kill many dolphins, the roar of the ships’ engines both ‘blinded’ and deafened them, making echolocation and communication with other dolphins near impossible.

There was also less food for the dolphins. Catches have plummeted to a fifth of what they were in the 1950s due to over fishing and other problems. With industrialisation and the spread of modern agricultural practices, ever more pollution pours into the river each year. The natural banks of the river have been dredged and reinforced with concrete along much of its length to prevent flooding, yet flood plains are crucial for the reproduction of many riverine fishes.

Then there is the Three Gorges Dam, the largest hydroelectric dam ever built, which has dramatically changed water levels, stratification, currents and sandbanks. Smaller dams along other parts of the river fragmented dolphin popualtions, blocked migration and made important feeding and breeding areas inaccessible.

From as many as 5000 or 6000 dolphins in the 1950s, the population shrank to 400 by around 1980, 200 to 300 by 1985, fewer than 100 in 1990 and just 13 by 1998. The warning signs don’t get more obvious than that. The last authenticated sightings were of a stranded pregnant female found in 2001 and a live animal photographed in 2002. There have also been four unconfirmed reports since then, including the indistinct video filmed in August. And that’s it. There hasn’t been a confirmed sighting for years.

The last organised search was an intensive six-week expedition for 6 November to 13 December 2006 (Biology Letters, DOI:10.1098/rsbl.2007.0292). The survey, by researchers from China, Japan, the US, Switzerland and the UK, used two vessels operating independantly. Covering the entire historical range of the species, they twice scanned the 1669 kilometres of the river with binoculars and listened for telltale squeaks and whistles with high-tech hydrophones. All to no avail.

Importantly, both vessels counted the same number – around 400 – of Yangtze finless porpoises (Neophocaena phocaenoides asiaaeorientalis), a freshwater subspecies unique to the river. This suggests that the scientists really did see everything there was to see, so their failure to find any evidence of Yangtze river dolphins strongly implies that there were none to find. This week the World Conservation Union (IUCN) will change the species’ status from “critically endangered” to “critically endangered (possibly extinct)”.

The original aim of the survey was not to sound the death knell but to rescue any surviving dolphins and translocate them from the river to a 21-kilometre long, 2 kilometre wide oxbow lake in Hubei province, called Tian’ezhou. It has healthy fish stocks and is already home to a small popualtion of about 25 finless porpoises, introduced in 1990. Conditions would almost certainly have suited the dolphins, and the plan was to establish an intensive breeding programme. Ecotourism could have generated much-needed revenue for its upkeep.

It was a good plan, but it was 20 years too late. The idea of moving individuals to a safe reserve was first mooted in the mid-1980s and had been consistently advocated ever since. Douglas Adams and I went to visit one potential reserve, near Tongling, during our visit in 1988. In the 1990s, six capture attempts were made, but with little success. A female was finally caught and relocated to Tian’ezhou in 1995, but she was found dead seven months later, entangled in the escape-prevention nets at the outlet of the reserve.

All along, efforts were hampered by disputes among conservationists, scientists and the Chinese authorities about whether this was the best approach. Admittedly, it would have been an expensive strategy. it required boats to capture the dolphins, helicopters to transfer them, holding pens and veterinary staff to care for them before they could be released into the semi-natural reserve, a proper inventory – and management – of fish stocks, and round-the-clock protection. But the dolphins should have been a conservation priority, so why wasn’t the money forthcoming?

If only everyone had agreed on a recovery programme 20 years ago, when establishing a semi-natural population was still a viable proposition, the outcome could have been very different. Even in the shadow of China’s economic boom and burgeoning population, the baiji could have been saved. Ultimately, it was as much a victim of incompetence, indecision and apathy as it was of environmental deterioration.

In response to the dolphin’s obvious decline, the Chinese government did give it official protection in 1975, making the deliberate catching or killing of a dolphin a punishable offence. It also declared the animal a “national treasure”. In 1992, it set aside five protected areas along roughly 350 kilometres of the Yangtze river and established five baiji protection stations, each with two observers and a small motor boatm to conduct daily patrols, make observations and investigate illegal fishing. In 2001 fishing was banned in parts of the river between April 1 and 30 June.

It all looked good on paper, but it was too little too late and lacked the resources and coordination to work. The patrol boats were old and too slow to catch illegal fishermen, for example, and the laws were poorly enforced.

Meanwhile, international conservation organisations kept calling for action. While some did make a positive contribution to conservation efforts, many didn’t. Others withdrew their support because of the enormitiy of the challenge and the dwindling sense of optimism for the baiji’s chance of survival. It turns my stomach to read their official statements expressing ‘shock’ and ‘dismay’ at the loss of the species, when they were too slow, too cautious and too downright inept to do anything constructive. Despite all their workshops, conventions and meetings on the Yangtze river dolphin, conservation organisations must shoulder a large part of the blame for its demise.

Will we learn any lessons from the loss of the baiji? It’s an important question, because there are other endangered species in the river that could disappear soon unless immediate action is taken. These include the Asian softshell turtle, Chinese alligator, and the smooth-coated otter, as well as the fast-declining Yangtze finless porpoise.

In other parts of the world, we barely have time to mourn the baiji before worrying about two of its closest relatives: the Indus river dolphin, with around 1000 remaining in Pakistan; and the Ganges river dolphin, of which a few thousand remain in western India, Bangladesh, Nepal and Bhutan. They face remarkably similar threats to their vanished Chinese relative, and their fate could be exactly the same.

How loud, and for how long, do the alarm bells have to ring before we take decisive action? If we can’t save an appealing and charismatic dolphin – one that has lived on Earth for more than 20 million years – what can we save. Mark Carwardine New Scientist #2621

That last paragraph rings so true.

How loud and for how long do the alarm bells have to ring……?

And really, in this depressing ecological age, what can we save?