News this Week

Science  04 Sep 2015:
Vol. 349, Issue 6252, pp. 1030

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  1. This week's section

    Obama calls for more icebreakers

    U.S. President Barack Obama at the Conference on Global Leadership in the Arctic: Cooperation, Innovation, Engagement and Resilience, or GLACIER.


    The Obama administration wants to build a new heavy-duty icebreaker 2 years faster than planned. But even completing it in 2020 will still leave the United States four icebreakers short of what experts say is needed to cover the nation's anticipated needs in the Arctic and Antarctic. On Tuesday, President Barack Obama announced the accelerated schedule in opening remarks to a Department of State–hosted climate change conference, calling on the world's nations to take urgent action on climate change. The U.S. Coast Guard currently has only two active icebreakers—the 40-year-old heavy icebreaker Polar Star and the medium research icebreaker Healy—and a report earlier this year to the Coast Guard cited the need for three heavy-duty and three medium-duty ships; funding for the construction of new icebreakers has been stalled for years in Congress. The conference amplified U.S. priorities for the Arctic Council, an intergovernmental forum that it is chairing from 2015 to 2017, including climate change, stewardship of the Arctic Ocean, and the economic plight of native communities.

    Pluto probe picks follow-on target

    Artist's rendering of New Horizons soaring past a Kuiper belt object.


    New Horizons, the NASA spacecraft that in July swooped past the dwarf planet Pluto, has picked another world to explore in 2019. The object, called 2014 MU69, is 45 kilometers across; it is 10 times larger than a typical comet, but 100 times smaller than Pluto. It resides in the Kuiper belt, a distant region beyond Neptune where thousands of worlds of dust and ice orbit the sun. Scientists want to study a small Kuiper belt object because the objects, deep-frozen for billions of years, may hold clues to the formation of the solar system. 2014 MU69 is the smaller of two viable candidates found by the Hubble Space Telescope in a dedicated search last year, but getting there will use up less fuel. The New Horizons team will begin steering toward the object later this year.

    3,000,000,000,000—Number of trees on Earth—eight times as many as previous estimates—according to a study that models tree density at the scale of a square kilometer based on a combination of satellite imagery and forest inventory data (Nature).

    Around the world


    China adopts new stem cell rules

    Chinese stem cell scientists may now have a legal way to move forward with new clinical trials, on hold in the country since January 2012. That was when China's Ministry of Health imposed a temporary moratorium in an effort to clamp down on unproven therapies. The new rules, announced last month, require informed consent from patients, “sufficient” animal testing, and the use of stem cell lines approved by the newly named National Health and Family Planning Commission. The regulations also require that all clinical studies take place at authorized hospitals, which aren't allowed to advertise their services or charge patients. This last requirement could introduce some restraint into China's flourishing “grey market” in stem cell therapy, but critics worry that the rules—which don't lay out any punishment for violators—don't go far enough.

    New Delhi

    India eliminates neonatal tetanus

    The World Health Organization officially confirmed last week that India has eliminated maternal and neonatal tetanus (MNT). Elimination means reducing the incidence of the disease to less than one case per 1000 live births in every district in the country; just a few decades ago, India was reporting 150,000 to 200,000 neonatal tetanus cases each year, and tetanus was responsible for 15% of the neonatal deaths in the country. India's health officials credit the elimination to a countrywide immunization push and an increase in the numbers of children born in the hospital. There are 22 countries remaining that have yet to eliminate MNT.

    Ndrova Island, Papua New Guinea

    Fuzzy nautilus spotted

    Nautilus pompilius (left) and Allonautilus scrobiculatus (right).


    For the first time in nearly 30 years, scientists have observed the “crusty nautilus,” also known as Allonautilus scrobiculatus. A. scrobiculatus is a cousin of the famous chambered nautilus, but instead of being smooth, its shell is covered with tiny hairs. The creature was discovered in 1984 but has rarely been seen since. Researchers rediscovered it this summer as they studied nautiluses—relatives of octopuses and squid—in waters 150 to 400 meters deep. Hoping to determine whether A. scrobiculatus still existed—and, if so, to collect the first videos and DNA samples of them—the team lured nautiluses to a cage filled with fish and chicken bait and filmed them with a deep-water camera. They also tracked the movements of four A. scrobiculatus by attaching small acoustic transmitters to their shells.

    Bonn, Germany

    Climate pledges fall short

    With fewer than 100 days remaining before 195 nations are scheduled to gather in Paris to finalize a new global deal to curb climate change, just 56 countries have submitted their pledges to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to the United Nations. That tally came as diplomats gathered in Bonn this week for a penultimate negotiating session before the Paris meeting. Although the pledges come from countries responsible for some 60% of current emissions, U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon on 26 August expressed frustration with the pace of the talks at a meeting in France. “We don't have time to waste,” he said. In a bid to speed things up, he has reportedly invited world leaders to discuss the climate pact at a 27 September meeting in New York City.


    Hubris and Fukushima

    The widespread assumption that a major accident “was simply unthinkable” led to the multiple meltdowns at Japan's Fukushima nuclear power plant after the earthquake and tsunami that struck northeastern Japan on 11 March 2011, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency's final report on the incident. The report, released this week, says that although there are still uncertainties about the health effects of radioactive contamination from the stricken reactors, a rise in childhood thyroid cancer cases is unlikely. The 200-page report and five accompanying technical volumes are intended to provide lessons for nuclear plant operators, regulators, and governments worldwide. “There can be no grounds for complacency,” the report warns, because many of the safety shortcomings “were not unique to Japan.”