Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Science Tuesday Three-Pack: Lost World in Indonesia. Headless Sphinx Found in Italy. New Evidence for Global Warming?

Okay folks, we have a lot of ground to cover on what was a productive session of web surfing. Below, for your inspection, are three science stories that should provide plenty of ice-breaking lines at your next party.

First up is a story about a "Lost World" that a group of scientists stumbled upon in a remote part of Indonesia:

Lost World Uncovered in Indonesia

JAKARTA, Indonesia - Soon after scientists landed by helicopter in the mist-shrouded mountains of one of Indonesia's most remote provinces, they stumbled on a primitive egg-laying mammal that simply allowed itself to be picked up and brought to their field camp.

Describing a "Lost World" — apparently never visited by humans — members of the team said Tuesday they also saw large mammals that have been hunted to near-extinction elsewhere and discovered dozens of exotic new species of frogs, butterflies and palms.

"We've only scratched the surface," said Bruce Beehler, a co-leader of the month-long trip to the Foja Mountains, an area in the eastern province of Papua with roughly 2 million acres of pristine tropical forest. "There was not a single trail, no sign of civilization, no sign of even local communities ever having been there," he told The Associated Press in a telephone interview from Washington, D.C.

Two headmen from the Kwerba and Papasena tribes, the customary landowners of the mountain range, accompanied the expedition, and "they were as astounded as we were at how isolated it was," Beehler said. "As far as they knew, neither of their clans had ever been to the area."

The scientists said they discovered 20 frog species — including a microhylid frog less than a half-inch long — four new butterfly species, and at least five new types of palms. Among their most memorable experiences were their encounters with the Long-beaked Echidna, members of the primitive egg-laying group of mammals called the Monotremes, which twice allowed themselves to be picked up and brought to the scientists' camp for observation.

Beehler attributed the lack of fear displayed by the long-snouted spine-covered Echidnas (pronounced eh-KID-na) to the fact that they probably had never come into contact with humans. But other animals, like the Golden-mantled Tree Kangaroo, an arboreal jungle-dweller previously thought to have been hunted to near-extinction, were much more shy, he said, and quickly disappeared into the dense forest after being spotted.

Though the scientists' findings will have to be published in scientific journals and reviewed by peers before being officially classified as new species, other environmentalists said the discoveries were hardly surprising in a country renowned for its rich biodiversity. "There are many species that have not been identified" in Indonesia, said Chairul Saleh of the World Wildlife Fund, which has made hundreds of its own discoveries in the sprawling archipelago in the last 10 years.

Papua, the scene of a decades-long separatist rebellion that has killed an estimated 100,000 people, is one of Indonesia's most remote regions geographically and politically, and access by foreigners is tightly restricted. The scientists said they needed six permits before they could legally visit the mountains located on the western side of New Guinea island.

Stephen Richards of the South Australia Museum in Adelaide said he and other team members got a glimpse of what the island "was like 50,000 years ago, because there's been no hunting, no impact of transport or anything like that."

Full Story

Imagine the reactions these scientists had when they realized what they had found. Just imagine what else we can find in similarly remote, or overlooked regions of this weird, wonderful planet. Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster, your time is running out!

Up next is a story from Italy where a headless sphinx and a huge staircase were unearthed in a dig at the villa of the Roman Emperor Hadrian:

Headless Sphinx Found in Italy

TIVOLI, Italy - Archaeologists who have been digging for more than a year at the villa of Roman Emperor Hadrian in Tivoli have unearthed a monumental staircase, a statue of an athlete and what appears to be a headless sphinx.

The findings were presented Tuesday by government officials who described the discoveries as extremely important for understanding the layout of the ruins. The staircase is believed to be the original entrance to the villa, which was built for Hadrian in the 2nd century A.D.

Full Story

The Sphinx, a legacy of ancient Egypt, just goes to show how much influence that culture had on the world. The Romans were famous for assimilating the icons of other peoples' faiths, so to find a sphinx in an emperor's villa isn't such a strange thing.

Batting third is a story about the unseasonably warm January we experienced in most of the United States. Yes, even here, in traditionally frozen New England, we've had a handful of days that saw temperatures reach the mid-50s and low 60s. I'm sure the Republicans reading this will just dismiss this as more "weird science" stuff:

Evidence of Global Warming?

WASHINGTON - Recording the warmest January on record allowed Americans to save on their heating, but like all good things, last month's mildness seems to have been too good to last. The country's average temperature for the month was 39.5 degrees Fahrenheit, 8.5 degrees above average for January, the National Climatic Data Center said Tuesday. The old record for January warmth was 37.3 degrees set in 1953.

On the other hand, while much of the United States was basking in warm weather, parts of Europe and Asia were being battered by bitter cold. Climate details for the rest of the world for January are expected to be available next week.

During the month the jet stream, a strong high-altitude wind that guides weather fronts from west to east, stayed unusually far to the north, keeping the coldest air in Canada and Alaska, the agency said. Keeping that cold air to the north allowed mild Pacific air to moderate temperatures across the contiguous states, leading to the warm conditions.

However, the jet stream is now sliding into a more typical winter pattern, according to the Climate Prediction Center. The February outlook calls for below-normal temperatures in the mid-Atlantic, the Southeast and intermountain West, and above-normal temperatures in the Southwest, the northern Plains and Alaska. Both centers are part of the government's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The records go back to 1895 when detailed climate records began being collected. During January, none of the 48 contiguous states had below-average temperatures — and 15 states in the northern Plains, Great Lakes and Midwest had record high temperatures for the month. More than 74 percent of the country was classified as "much above normal" when compared to the 1961-1990 climate normal. The Climate Data Center said that only twice since 1895 has more than 74 percent of the nation had a much above-normal temperature — March 1910 and November 1999.

Full Story

Is it just a coincidence that 1999 was the latest year in which we experienced above-average winter temperatures? Maybe, but then again, maybe not. One thing is certain, we haven't begun to take such a possibility that the planet is warming due to heavy human activity seriously. The clock is ticking...

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