The Week That Was
September 4, 1999


Gotta send men to Mars.  Right?  NO, just send them to Deimos, the outer Martian moon.  They can do more from there, at less risk and less cost  and therefore much sooner.  Don’t believe it?  Click on the “Ph-D project.”   Then try your hand at estimating the costs and benefits yourself and e-mail back your numbers.


A breathless press release from UNEP (the UN Environmental Program) and its nobly styled Multilateral Fund for the Implementation of the Montreal Protocol: Another $57 million has gone to 36 developing nations to assist them in phasing out CFCs.  [Since the Fund’s inception in 1990, the Fund has donated $973 million.]  As for results, our story about business practices in India provides what may be a general pattern.  Certainly, there has been no abatement in black-market operations and smuggling of Freons.

Meanwhile, there is a much bigger fund underway, in line with the Kyoto Protocol, to assist LDCs in phasing out fossil fuels.  Good luck, fellas!


The Lancet (vol. 353, pp.2111-1115, June 19,1999), famed British medical journal, reports on cancer incidence after treatment with radioactivity.  Seems that incidence goes down not up, undercutting the “linear-no-threshold “ (LNT) hypothesis and supporting “Hormesis” (which means that a little poison is good for you).  We seem to accept it for vitamins and for minerals like selenium, why not for radiation?  Anyway, over a period of 40 years, 7417 patients were treated with radio-iodine for hyperthyroidism.  In the follow-up, 634 cancer diagnoses were made, compared to an expected number of 761.  The relative risk of cancer mortality also decreased, (observed 448, versus 499 expected).  This new result adds to the growing number of studies that show no effects, or even positive benefits [Yes, we know that’s redundant] from small doses of radiation.  For more on hormesis, see the SEPP web.


Our associate there reports on a national meeting on how NZ should deal with the Kyoto Protocol.  Environment minister Simon Upton stressed scientific uncertainty (we wish our politicians would take note).  Leading scientific academic Chris deFreitas provided chapter and verse, tearing apart the Greenies.  Eileen Claussen of the Pew Center (for environmental misinformation) in Washington was scheduled to speak but didn’t show.  Altogether, a black day for Kyoto.

AND NOW A LITTLE SCIENCE:  (from the USDA Agricultural Research Service 8/12/99)

High CO2  Boosts Soil "Glue" Levels

ARS Researchers, examining the potential effects of elevated levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) on soil structure, have found that CO2 triggers the production of a protein from soil-borne fungi that enhance soil's ability to absorb the greenhouse gas.

The protein, named glomalin, was discovered by ARS soil scientist Sara Wright.  Wright is one of the authors of the ARS study, which appears in the August 12 issue of the journal Nature.  Wright says glomalin may be the "glue" that holds soil together.  What's more, the protein may prove effective in sequestering CO2 from the atmosphere.

The researchers, led by Mattias Rillig of the Carnegie Institution of Washington, examined three California ecosystems, including two California grasslands and a chaparral.  They found that glomalin levels and soil stability both increased when CO2 was added to the ecosystems artificially.  As CO2 increased, so did the amount of CO2 absorbed by plant roots.  This, in turn, created more food for the fungi, allowing for increased production of glomalin. 

Glomalin acts to hold soil particles together and improve soil structure, which enhances the passage of water and air through the soil and increases plant yields.  Improved soil structure also helps the soil retain carbon.

The researchers said farmers could boost glomalin production by avoiding plowing or growing cover crops year round, where possible.  Contact: Sara Wright, ARS Soil Microbial Systems Laboratory, phone 301-504-8156, fax 301-504- 8370, e-mail


A new computer model argues that carbon absorption by the US from land management is only about 10 to 30 % of fossil fuel emissions.  You will recall that a research paper by Fan et al  indicated that carbon absorption by trees and soils might actually exceed emissions from North America.  The new results from the group at the Woods Hole Research Center (not to be confused with the prestigious Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute) are based on estimates of how land was used between 1700 and the present, the rates at which land were cleared for agriculture, abandoned, harvested for timber, etc.  But the model did not consider carbon sequestered by agricultural and forest soils.  Fan’s group, on the other hand, relied on actual measurement of carbon dioxide from 63 ocean sampling stations, not just on a computer model. They have defended their conclusions against other attacks that were based on calculations.

[Ref:  Houghton, R A, J L Hackler and K T Lawrence. The U.S. Carbon Budget: Contributions from Land-Use Change. Science 285, 574-578, 1999]

The issue is of more than academic significance.  If indeed the North American carbon sink exceeds the rate of emission, then the Kyoto agreement becomes irrelevant for the United States and Canada.  Wouldn’t that be nice?


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