Friday, March 17, 2006


Normally new rivers, seas and mountains are born in slow motion. The Afar Triangle near the Horn of Africa is another story. A new ocean is forming there with staggering speed -- at least by geological standards. Africa will eventually lose its horn.

Geologist Dereje Ayalew and his colleagues from Addis Ababa University were amazed -- and frightened. They had only just stepped out of their helicopter onto the desert plains of central Ethiopia when the ground began to shake under their feet. The pilot shouted for the scientists to get back to the helicopter. And then it happened: the Earth split open. Crevices began racing toward the researchers like a zipper opening up. After a few seconds, the ground stopped moving, and after they had recovered from their shock, Ayalew and his colleagues realized they had just witnessed history. For the first time ever, human beings were able to witness the first stages in the birth of an ocean.

Normally changes to our geological environment take place almost imperceptibly. A life time is too short to see rivers changing course, mountains rising skywards or valleys opening up. In north-eastern Africa's Afar Triangle, though, recent months have seen hundreds of crevices splitting the desert floor and the ground has slumped by as much as 100 meters (328 feet). At the same time, scientists have observed magma rising from deep below as it begins to form what will eventually become a basalt ocean floor. Geologically speaking, it won't be long until the Red Sea floods the region. The ocean that will then be born will split Africa apart.

The Afar Triangle, which cuts across Ethiopia, Eritrea and Djibouti, is the largest construction site on the planet. Three tectonic plates meet there with the African and Arabian plates drifting apart along two separate fault lines by one centimeter a year. A team of scientists working with Christophe Vigny of the Paris Laboratory of Geology reported on the phenomenon in a 2006 issue of the Journal of Geophysical Research. While the two plates move apart, the ground sinks to make room for the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden.

Bubbling magma and the smell of sulphur

A third crevice cuts south, splitting not far from Lake Victoria. One branch of the rift runs to the east, the other to the west of the lake. The two branches of this third crevice are moving apart by about one millimeter a year.

The dramatic event that Ayalew and his colleagues witnessed in the Afar Desert on Sept. 26, 2005 was the first visual proof of this process -- and it was followed by a week-long series of earthquakes. During the months that followed, hundreds of further crevices opened up in the ground, spreading across an area of 345 square miles. "The earth has not stopped moving since," geophysicist Tim Wright of the University of Oxford says. The ground is still splitting open and sinking, he says; small earthquakes are constantly shaking the region.

Scientists have made repeated trips to the area since the drama of last September. Locals have reported a number of new cracks opening in the ground, says geologist Cynthia Ebinger from the University of London, and during each visit, new crevices are discovered. Fumes as hot as 400 degrees Celsius (752 degrees Fahrenheit) shoot up from some of them; the sound of bubbling magma and the smell of sulphur rise from others. The larger crevices are dozens of meters deep and several hundred meters long. Traces of recent volcanic eruptions are also visible.

In a number of places, cracks have opened up beneath the thin layer of volcanic ash that covers the region. As there is no ash in the fissures, it's clear that they opened up after the volcanic eruptions, most of which took place at the end of September or in October, 2005. A number of locals who fled the eruptions have reported that a black cloud of ash -- spewed out of the Dabbahu volcano -- darkened the sky for three days.

Much more here


As the [U.K.] Government seeks to find a way to secure energy supplies for the future while reducing carbon emissions, nuclear power is back on the agenda. This has put the wind up the windfarm/renewable energy lobby and prompted the Sustainable Development Commission to launch another scare campaign. Despite its claim to be "balanced", and admission that nuclear power can generate large amounts of electricity with low CO2 emissions, the report radiates worst-case "what if?" arguments, throwing in every predictable point about unpredictable risks from accidents to terrorist attacks. Wouldn't it be more honest if it just said that it hates most technology, doesn't trust humanity and fears that the end of the world is nigh?

Most revealing is the commission's concern that "a new nuclear programme would give out the wrong signal to consumers". What the commission means is that booming new nuclear power stations might stop us believing that we need to cut our use of electricity and consume less of everything. For these people, "sustainability" means re-educating us to make do and mend and live more frugally, using global warming as a bogeyman to make the children behave. If the wheel was invented today, some of them would argue that we shouldn't use it because it might make kids obese.

Perhaps there is a good argument against building nuclear power stations. But try as they might, they have not come up with one. This should fill the authorities with confidence to explore the possible applications for nuclear science, from energy and transport to medicine, while finding new ways to cope with the waste.

New Labour has instead made a fuel rod for its own back by its spineless refusal to put the case for nuclear power. In an act of pre-emptive grovelling, it set up bodies such as the SDC under Jonathan Porritt, the green guru. Sir Jonathan might now claim that the SDC would have recommended nuclear if it were the best option. Yet last year he was already declaring in his "balanced" way that to proceed with any nuclear programme would be "foolish" and "a very serious own goal". The only own goal that the Government scored was giving him the authority to advise it in the first place.

Let open nuclear war commence, with the safety gloves off. If the Government seriously believes in the need for nuclear power as part of future energy supply, it should not knuckle under to the arguments of the Planet of the Apes lobby. It should nuke 'em.

More here

The Lancet Pricks Itself

By Henry I. Miller

The term "medical journals" elicits automatic respect from most people. Not from me: I read them. I've found the editors to be increasingly hubristic and anti-business; and even worse, not to know what they don't know. The British journal The Lancet is a case in point. Having previously erred by publishing an obviously flawed paper purportedly showing toxicity of gene-spliced potatoes, another containing wild and irresponsible (but damaging) speculation about the possible dangers of the insecticide DDT, and a commentary about a link between autism and vaccines that contain the preservative thimerosal, The Lancet again has gone off the deep end. This time the issue is the regulation of chemicals in Europe. (What this has to do with medicine isn't entirely clear, but it illustrates the expansive, do-gooder mindset of the editors.)

The Lancet's biases are unmistakable: Chemicals bad, regulation good. Therefore, REACH (Registration, Evaluation, and Authorization of Chemicals), the EU's sweeping plan, which The Lancet believes is "designed to reign in an industry that for decades had placed chemicals on the market with, at best, only irregular government oversight," is laudable; while any attempts to introduce rigorous scientific and economic analysis into regulation can only be the product of cynical, self-serving interference.

According to The Lancet, REACH was right on track until "European lawmakers met The Lobby. In what some European Commissioners say is the largest lobbying effort in the modern history of the EU, European and American chemical manufacturers orchestrated a multilayered and multipronged lobbying campaign that encompassed all the original 15 EU member states plus the 10 new ones, as well as countries outside the continent such as Japan, Mexico, and the USA."

In spite of the bad rap that lobbying has gotten recently on this side of the pond, however, all lobbying is neither negative nor motivated by special pleading. At its best, it is a means to educate policymakers about important and sometimes arcane issues.

The Lancet's sanguine view of REACH is demolished by the meticulously argued, "Europe's Global REACH," released last November by the Hayek Institute in Brussels. It concludes that REACH will harm Europe and its trade partners economically - without any convincing evidence of health or environmental benefits. REACH would extend to all chemicals produced in or imported into Europe the bogus "precautionary principle," which holds that if the evidence about a product, technology or activity is any way incomplete, it should be prohibited or at least stringently regulated.

Potential risks should be taken into consideration before proceeding with any new activity or product, to be sure, whether it is the siting of a power station or the introduction of a new flame retardant. But what is missing from precautionary calculus is an acknowledgment that even when technologies and products introduce new risks, most confer net benefits -- that is, their use reduces other, far more serious hazards. Vaccines have occasional side effects, for example, but they confer net benefits. The danger in the precautionary principle - which in concept is centuries old - is that it focuses exclusively on the risks - often purely hypothetical ones, at that - and diverts consumers and policymakers from seeking possible solutions to known, significant threats to human health. Its overall impacts may be overwhelmingly net-negative.

The costs of REACH's precautionary approach will be prodigious. The European Commission's own estimates range up to 5.2 billion Euros, but according to a study produced by the Nordic Council, the price tag could be as much as 28 billion Euros. This higher estimate includes both direct and indirect costs, and assumes that the latter may amount to as much as 2.5 times the former.

REACH's supporters maintain that businesses can absorb this high price tag easily, but the Hayek Institute analysis offers a very different view. Its author, public policy scholar Angela Logomasini, points out that cost estimates that are favorable to REACH are incomplete, fail to consider a host of direct costs, and often completely neglect the indirect costs.

Moreover, REACH's advocates ignore its disproportionately harsh impact on small businesses and businesses in the newer EU member nations. A study conducted by consulting firm KPMG on behalf of the European Commission concludes: "The heaviest burden will be on SMEs [small and mid-sized enterprises] which cannot consistently fulfill the REACH requirements and so it is predicted that most of them may face financial troubles, may be taken over by bigger ones, or even shut down."

These prospects should raise serious concerns for Europeans. Small and mid-sized firms represent more than 99 percent of EU businesses, and account for two-thirds of the jobs. The imposition of REACH will increase unemployment and diminish competition -- which will lead to less innovation and higher prices.

The Lancet's take on these monumental costs? "While EU regulation involves unpleasant upfront costs, it also provides predictability and efficiency." The Hayek Institute's analysis suggests that REACH will offer few predictable benefits to offset the potentially devastating costs. In a review of the benefits claimed for REACH, Logomasini shows that the "studies" that purport to demonstrate benefits depend more on unsupported assumptions and wishful thinking than on science or logic. The European Commission's only study of likely benefits from REACH, conducted by Risk and Policy Analysis Limited (RPA) in 2003, addresses occupational exposure to chemicals and attempts to estimate the extent to which REACH would reduce health problems among workers. However, it is based on sketchy, incomplete, and inconsistently collected data assembled from a handful of member governments that is of questionable relevance to REACH.

The RPA report explicitly assumes that problems related to currently known chemical causes will be addressed by existing laws, while REACH will prevent currently unknown health problems from chemicals. But if these cases are unknown, how can we know they are caused by chemicals or are even work-related? Obvious errors and insufficient documentation in the report only compound problems with the study, which makes no mention of having been peer reviewed.

REACH's presumed benefits are based on the assumption that testing chemicals, filing paperwork, and pursuing politically correct product bans will somehow reduce cancer rates. But as the Hayek Institute analysis makes clear, the vast majority of cancers are not related to chemicals. According to the World Health Organization, the major preventable causes are tobacco use, diet, and infections, which account for 75 percent of cancer cases worldwide. WHO bases these findings on a landmark study conducted by scientists Sir Richard Doll and Richard Peto, which concluded that all environmental pollution might amount to only as much as two percent of cancers.

In the interest of free markets and economic growth, we need global regulatory policies that make scientific sense and that encourage innovative research and development. But by promoting the precautionary principle, EU politicians are performing a disservice. The only winners will be the European regulators, who will enjoy additional power, and the anti-science activists who will have succeeded in erecting yet more barriers to the use of superior technologies and useful products.

The Lancet should narrow its focus and stick to what it does well, assuming that something in that category can be identified.



Can there be any more electrifying sight on television than a snow leopard careering down a near-perpendicular Himalayan mountain in pursuit of a deer calf? The leopard gains, the calf stumbles. Seized by the hindquarters, it wrests itself free in a last, desperate bid then cartwheels over a cliff into a fast-flowing river. Does it survive? We may never know.

This is nature red in tooth and claw, as seen on Sir David Attenborough's Planet Earth series. So gripped are we by the action that we may overlook the subtext: this is also nature under threat. The snow leopard is a rare creature that has never before been filmed like this. Hunted, trapped and pursued, its numbers have declined to fewer than 5,000. It is on the Red List of endangered species. As every conservation body worth its salt will assure you, where man intrudes, wild life is on the retreat.

It is a message that is applied not just to the Himalayas but to the hills and moorland of Britain. It bolsters the ethos and the coffers of impeccable organisations like the WWF, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, and government-sponsored bodies such as English Nature and its Scottish and Welsh equivalents. Their running theme, rarely challenged in public, is that, where wild birds and animals are in decline, the hand of man, whether farmer, landowner, forester or sportsman, can be detected. Intensive farming, commercial exploitation and leisure pursuits such as hunting or shooting have driven some species to the point of extinction. Unless these human activities can be reined in, goes the story, the future for wildlife is bleak.

It is a deeply flawed message - at best a half-truth, at worst a deliberate distortion. Past masters at selling it are the RSPB, which last week issued yet another grim account of persecution, this time in the Peak District, which is to be the subject of an adjournment debate in Westminster Hall today.

Peak Malpractice, as the report is titled, claims that birds of prey, such as goshawk, hen harrier and peregrine, are in steep decline because of "illegal persecution". "The scale of decline is shocking and to bird-of-prey experts, there is no natural explanation," an RSPB statement says. English Nature is blunter. It places the blame firmly at the door of grouse moor owners. "Areas where protected species have been affected coincide with driven grouse moors," it says. "These include some of the most important conservation sites in Europe."

You will find any number of similar stories on the RSPB's website. What you will not find are some very inconvenient facts, based not on propaganda but on science, which have been issued by the Game Conservancy Trust. Its own report, Nature's Gain, presents a very different picture. It shows that on land that is managed for shooting, whether moorland, woods or pasture, wildlife is thriving. Over the past ten years, on grouse moors, for instance, golden plovers, curlew (pictured) and lapwing, which are under threat in so many parts of England and Wales, have multiplied by up to five times. The merlin, Britain's smallest bird of prey, is twice as common on grouse moors as elsewhere. In the North Pennines area, which the RSPB complains about, curlew have increased by 18 times more than in the Berwyn Special Protection Area, which is managed as a bird reserve.

Pheasant shooting, widely condemned by conservationists, has done wonders for small birds such as robins, blackbirds and finches. The cultivation of woods and verges and the planting of game crops have resulted in wild bird numbers quadrupling in some areas. On one sample farm, in Leicestershire, where modern farming goes hand in hand with shooting, song birds, brown hares and harvest mice have shown dramatic improvement. The explanation is simple. In these places, nature is "managed " to encourage wildlife. Heather is burnt, which stimulates new growth. Vermin are controlled. Predators such as foxes and crows are kept down.

Contrast this with the RSPB's own lamentable record. On Langholm Moor, where the society, allied with Scottish Natural Heritage, presided over an experiment to withdraw all gamekeeping, the number of birds, including hen harriers, grouse, waders, and all songbirds, has crashed. It is now, to all intents and purposes, a desert area. On Lake Vyrnwy, a reservoir area in Mid-Wales managed by the RSPB, curlew, plover and lapwing have declined to near-zero. Black grouse, which once thrived, are being wiped out, not just by foxes, but, embarrassingly for the RSPB, by the goshawks that they so much favour. Data for other species, like stonechats and short-eared owls, are simply not recorded - perhaps because the results are so bad.

I wanted to know how the RSPB had done on Geltsdale, a former grouse moor in Cumberland that it has managed since the 1970s. The only current report available, however, is sketchy. There seem to be no hen harriers, despite their being a "target" species; there are reasonable results for stonechats and grasshopper warblers; some golden plover were recorded. Most of the report, though, is taken up with a list of alleged incidents involving the persecution of birds of prey in the 1990s by neighbouring estates.

I have no doubt that there are examples of gamekeepers who break the law. But they do far more for conservation than most of their critics. Organisations such as the RSPB would be well advised to form partnerships with them, rather than targeting them as persecutors. Man may indeed be part of the problem in the world's great wilderness areas but when it comes to the hills and moors of Britain, he is definitely part of the solution



Many people would like to be kind to others so Leftists exploit that with their nonsense about equality. Most people want a clean, green environment so Greenies exploit that by inventing all sorts of far-fetched threats to the environment. But for both, the real motive is to promote themselves as wiser and better than everyone else, truth regardless.

Global warming has taken the place of Communism as an absurdity that "liberals" will defend to the death regardless of the evidence showing its folly. Evidence never has mattered to real Leftists

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