Archive for January 7, 2008

Scientists find keys to what could make bird flu a human pandemic.

Scientists have identified a key mechanism necessary for bird flu to morph from a rare but deadly infection into a pandemic that could kill millions of people.

MIT scientists reported in Sunday’s issue of Nature Biotechnology that the shape of certain cells in the virus could be key to allowing it to easily pass from human to human. In birds, the shape of cells in the virus match the shape of sugars in the animals’ respiratory tracts, allowing the infection to easily latch onto the animals. In humans, those shapes don’t match up — but if the virus morphed so they did, it could lead to a pandemic.

“We’re like a sitting duck, waiting for an H5N1 virus that can attach to us,” said Richard Cummings, an Emory University biochemist and influenza cell specialist who did not participate in the study. “This research moves us to the point where we can start anticipating what might happen.”

Since its 1997 outbreak in Hong Kong, H5N1 avian influenza has spread rapidly around the world — first in poultry, then in wild birds. It’s killed millions of fowl in 66 countries, most since 2003. But it has yet to become a common human killer. What H5N1 lacks in human infectiousness, however, it makes up for in lethality: of 348 people in 14 countries infected by H5N1 since 2003, 216 died.

The virus is constantly evolving. Each infected bird population is a giant petri dish of potential mutations. If H5N1 learns to spread among people as well as it spreads in birds, the consequences could be catastrophic. A 1918 influenza pandemic killed 50 million people, and outbreaks in 1957 and 1968 killed another three million.

With H5N1, humans have so far benefited from the differences between cells in our noses and throats and those of birds — but that could change. With the MIT scientists’ discovery, doctors can monitor H5N1 strains for early evidence of human virulence. They may also make precisely targeted vaccines and drugs in advance of outbreaks.

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As some of you know, I’ve been following this for some time.  I’m a poultry enthusiast, and my pastures are filled with ducks and chickens of various breeds and sizes.  According to the research, children have more of the receptors that the H5N1 virus prefers in their upper airways than adults, and this may be why they are more susceptible to and less likely to recover from the infection.  I continue to follow the increasing spread of the disease among birds and poultry and wonder how concerned I should be because the grandchildren’s first request is always to feed the chickens.  

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A Happy 4th!

mars3.jpgNASA’S Mars Exploration Rover Spirit captured this westward view from atop a low plateau where it spent the closing months of 2007.

With its daily solar-energy supply shrinking as Martian summer turned to fall, Spirit drove to the northern edge of the plateau called “Home Plate” for a favorable winter haven. The rover reached that northward-tilting site in December, in time for the fourth Earth-year anniversary of its landing on Mars. Spirit reached Mars on Jan. 4, 2004, Universal Time (Jan. 3, 2004, PST).

This panorama covers a scene spanning left to right from southwest to northeast. The western edge of Home Plate is in the foreground, generally lighter in tone than the more distant parts of the scene. A rock-dotted hill in the middle distance across the left third of the image is “Tsiolkovski Ridge,” about 30 meters or 100 feet from the edge of Home Plate and about that same distance across. A bump on the horizon above the left edge of Tsiolkovski Ridge is “Grissom Hill,” about 8 kilometers or 5 miles away. At right, the highest point of the horizon is “Husband Hill,” to the north and about 800 meters or half a mile away.

Spirit was perched near the western edge of Home Plate when it used its panoramic camera (Pancam) to take the images used in this view. This view combines separate images taken through Pancam filters centered on wavelengths of 753 nanometers, 535 nanometers and 432 nanometers and is presented in a false-color stretch to bring out subtle color differences in the scene.

I’ve looked out upon beautiful scenery like that before….I was hiking in Arizona at the time, though.  I don’t know about y’all, but I would love to explore that landscape.

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Brrrrrr! Where did all the global warming go?

THE STARK headline appeared just over a year ago. “2007 to be ‘warmest on record,’ ” BBC News reported on Jan. 4, 2007. Citing experts in the British government’s Meteorological Office, the story announced that “the world is likely to experience the warmest year on record in 2007,” surpassing the all-time high reached in 1998.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the planetary hot flash: Much of the planet grew bitterly cold.
In South America, for example, the start of winter last year was one of the coldest ever observed. According to Eugenio Hackbart, chief meteorologist of the MetSul Weather Center in Brazil, “a brutal cold wave brought record low temperatures, widespread frost, snow, and major energy disruption.” In Buenos Aires, it snowed for the first time in 89 years, while in Peru the cold was so intense that hundreds of people died and the government declared a state of emergency in 14 of the country’s 24 provinces. In August, Chile’s agriculture minister lamented “the toughest winter we have seen in the past 50 years,” which caused losses of at least $200 million in destroyed crops and livestock.

Latin Americans weren’t the only ones shivering.

University of Oklahoma geophysicist David Deming, a specialist in temperature and heat flow, notes in the Washington Times that “unexpected bitter cold swept the entire Southern Hemisphere in 2007.” Johannesburg experienced its first significant snowfall in a quarter-century. Australia had its coldest ever June. New Zealand’s vineyards lost much of their 2007 harvest when spring temperatures dropped to record lows.

Closer to home, 44.5 inches of snow fell in New Hampshire last month, breaking the previous record of 43 inches, set in 1876. And the Canadian government is forecasting the coldest winter in 15 years.

Now all of these may be short-lived weather anomalies, mere blips in the path of the global climatic warming that Al Gore and a host of alarmists proclaim the deadliest threat we face. But what if the frigid conditions that have caused so much distress in recent months signal an impending era of global cooling?

“Stock up on fur coats and felt boots!” advises Oleg Sorokhtin, a fellow of the Russian Academy of Natural Sciences and senior scientist at Moscow’s Shirshov Institute of Oceanography. “The latest data . . . say that earth has passed the peak of its warmer period, and a fairly cold spell will set in quite soon, by 2012.”

Sorokhtin dismisses the conventional global warming theory that greenhouse gases, especially human-emitted carbon dioxide, is causing the earth to grow hotter. Like a number of other scientists, he points to solar activity – sunspots and solar flares, which wax and wane over time – as having the greatest effect on climate.

“Carbon dioxide is not to blame for global climate change,” Sorokhtin writes in an essay for Novosti. “Solar activity is many times more powerful than the energy produced by the whole of humankind.” In a recent paper for the Danish National Space Center, physicists Henrik Svensmark and Eigil Friis-Christensen concur: “The sun . . . appears to be the main forcing agent in global climate change,” they write.

Given the number of worldwide cold events, it is no surprise that 2007 didn’t turn out to be the warmest ever. In fact, 2007’s global temperature was essentially the same as that in 2006 – and 2005, and 2004, and every year back to 2001. The record set in 1998 has not been surpassed. For nearly a decade now, there has been no global warming. Even though atmospheric carbon dioxide continues to accumulate – it’s up about 4 percent since 1998 – the global mean temperature has remained flat. That raises some obvious questions about the theory that CO2 is the cause of climate change.

Yet so relentlessly has the alarmist scenario been hyped, and so disdainfully have dissenting views been dismissed, that millions of people assume Gore must be right when he insists: “The debate in the scientific community is over.”

But it isn’t. Just last month, more than 100 scientists signed a strongly worded open letter pointing out that climate change is a well-known natural phenomenon, and that adapting to it is far more sensible than attempting to prevent it. Because slashing carbon dioxide emissions means retarding economic development, they warned, “the current UN approach of CO2 reduction is likely to increase human suffering from future climate change rather than to decrease it.”

Climate science isn’t a religion, and those who dispute its leading theory are not heretics. Much remains to be learned about how and why climate changes, and there is neither virtue nor wisdom in an emotional rush to counter global warming – especially if what’s coming is a global Big Chill.

Source: The Boston Globe.

Indeed. We’ve enjoyed a warm spell for the past few years, but many sunspot experts believe it may be over. Whether we’re entering a cooling or warming phase will depend mainly on solar cycle 24 which began January 4, 2007.

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