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How do algae react to the warming of the Arctic Ocean? How is it affecting wildlife in the fjords? To find answers, researchers rely heavily on divers who brave the icy waters to gather samples.

"Without them, we wouldn't be able to successfully complete our projects," admits Cornelia Buchholz, a marine biologist who is working at Ny-Alesund on Spitsbergen, the largest island of the Svalbard archipelago in the heart of the Norwegian Arctic.

Until the start of the 1960s, this town -- the northernmost permanent human settlement in the world -- was populated by coal miners.

Today it is entirely dedicated to science.

Between mid-April and the end of August when the sun never sets, dozens of researchers stay there.

The site, which boasts exceptional facilities despite its extreme location just a thousand kilometres (600 miles) from the North Pole, has a unique window on climate change, the effects of which are far more pronounced in the Arctic region.

 

 

Under water at Ny-Alesund, rising sea temperatures have already led to the appearance of new species of krill (small crustaceans) and fish, such as Atlantic cod and mackerel.

"The scientists give us a sort of 'shopping list'," explains Max Schwanitz, 52, a diver who has been working since 1994 at the French-German research station.

"For example, they tell us the type, the size and the quantity of algae they want and from what depth."

At the end of July, the surface temperature of the water was between three and seven degrees Celsius (37 to 45 degrees Fahrenheit) in the fjord. But earlier in the season, they were entering waters of less than two degrees Celsius.

"Salt water freezes less easily than fresh water, at around minus 2.6 degrees C here," he explains, and diving under the ice is rare here.

Working with him are two students, Mauritz Halbach, 24, and Anke Bender, 29. Together they form the only diving team at Ny-Alesund.

"Obviously, the temperature is on the extreme side for diving in here," explains Halbach, student at Oldenbourg in northeastern Germany.

"When visibility is very bad or the currents are strong, the dives themselves can also be extreme," he says.

- Hands: the Achilles' heel -

 

 

 

 

Residents of the remote Arctic settlement of Ny-Alesund never lock their homes -- happy to sacrifice privacy for the option of barging through the nearest door if a polar bear attacks.

The research centre, formerly a coal mining town, is perched on the Norwegian island of Spitsbergen, which is also home to a sizeable polar bear community in one of the most extreme landscapes on Earth.

The northernmost permanent human settlement, Ny-Alesund hosts about 150 scientists, researchers and technicians during the Arctic summer, dwindling to a handful of caretakers in the colder months.

New arrivals are swiftly initiated into the dos and don'ts of life in close quarters with a formidable predator.

"If you see a bear, just enter any building and call the caretaker. His number is marked on every telephone," Katherin Lang, head of the Franco-German Awipev institute -- one of several research bases -- tells newcomers.

Two days earlier, two female bears and their two cubs were spotted just four kilometres (2.5 miles) from the base, feeding on a stranded walrus.

"It is forbidden to go in that direction, even if you have a gun," said Lang -- a warning that is echoed in notices put up in the cafeteria.

- Always take a gun -

 

 

Encounters between humans and polar bears on Norway's stunning Svalbard archipelago, of which Spitsbergen is the largest island, are rare.

In March this year, one attacked a sleeping Czech tourist, causing injuries to his face and arm before fellow campers shot the animal dead.

Every new arrival at Ny-Alesund must learn to shoot if they wish to leave the base.

The most important message: "always be vigilant; bears could be anywhere and they are unpredictable," Sebastien Barrault, the scientific advisor of a Norwegian company running logistics at the site.

"A gun is your passport for leaving the town," he said.

Svalbard is roughly one-and-a-half times the size of Switzerland, and home to some 3,000 polar bears -- outnumbering the 2,500-odd human inhabitants.

There are some 20-25,000 polar bears left on Earth, and the species is listed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature as "vulnerable" -- meaning it faces a high risk of extinction in the wild.

 

 

A surgeon on the job is five times more likely to repeat a request when music is playing in the operating theatre, says a study casting doubt on the wisdom of this common practice.

“Music in the operating theatre can interfere with team communication, but is seldom recognized as a potential safety hazard,” said the study, published on Wednesday in the Journal of Advanced Nursing.

More than 50 percent of surgical operations are performed against a backdrop of music overall, though the figure varies by country, the researchers reported. In Britain, the rate is 72 percent.

Music has a long history in the operating theatre. A hundred years ago, a pioneering surgeon in England hired musicians to soothe the jangled nerves of patients undergoing anaesthesia before going under the knife.

Gradually, however, the intended audience shifted from the patients to health professionals.

Popular television series such as Scrubs and Nip & Tuck often showed doctors taking in tunes while wielded a scalpel. Today, many theatre suites have in-built music systems.

Some surgeons say they play music to reduce stress, block out white noise, or enhance concentration during procedures.

But the efficacy, and possible drawbacks, of music in the operating bloc have rarely been challenged.

To investigate further, Sharon-Marie Weldon, a senior researcher at Imperial College London, and colleagues filmed 20 operations in Britain over a six month period, some with music and some without.

 

 

The world's first ever ant map showing the distribution of the tiny industrious creature around the globe was launched Thursday by the University of Hong Kong in a bid to shed more light on the insect world.

The colourful interactive online map (antmaps.org), which took four years to complete, displays the geographic locations of nearly 15,000 types of ant with the Australian state of Queensland home to the highest number of native species at more than 1,400.

"(Insects are) one of the main groups we need to focus on when we talk about biodiversity," Benoit Guenard, one of the co-founders of the map, said.

"Ants are very important in most ecosystems," Guenard added, as they cycle soil nutrients and help in seed dispersal.

"They are one of the best studied groups of insect."

'Antmaps', a joint project between HKU and the Okinawa Institute of Sciences and Technology, also differentiates ants which are native to a region and species which were imported.

Guenard, a professor at HKU's school of biological sciences, said the map would provide an important record of insect life around the world and would aid research and wildlife conservation.

 

 

 

 

Technology to drain heat-trapping CO2 from the atmosphere may slow global warming, but will not reverse climate damage to the ocean on any meaningful timescale, according to research published Monday.

At the same time, a second study reported, even the most aggressive timetable for reducing greenhouse-gas emissions will need a big boost from largely untested carbon removal schemes to cap warming to two degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels.

Above that threshold, say scientists, the risk of climate calamity rises sharply. Earth is currently on a 4 C (7.2 F) trajectory.

Both studies, coming months before 195 nations meet in Paris in a bid to forge a climate pact, conclude that deep, swift cuts in carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions are crucial.

Planetary-scale technical fixes -- sometimes called geo-engineering -- have often been invoked as a fallback solution in the fight against climate change.

But with CO2 emissions still rising, along with the global thermostat, many scientists are starting to take a hard look at which ones might be feasible.

Research has shown that extracting massive quantities of CO2 from the atmosphere, through intensive reforestation programmes or carbon-scrubbing technology, would in theory help cool the planet.

But up to now, little was known about the long-term potential for these measures for restoring oceans rendered overly acidic after two centuries of absorbing CO2.

Increased acidification has already ravaged coral, and several kinds of micro-organisms essential to the ocean food chain, with impacts going all the way up to humans.

Scientists led by Sabine Mathesius of the GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research in Kiel, Germany used computer models to test different carbon-reduction scenarios, looking in each case at the impact on acidity, water temperatures and oxygen levels.

If humanity waited a century before sucking massive amounts of CO2 out of the atmosphere, they concluded, it would still take centuries, maybe even a thousand years, before the ocean would catch up.

In the meantime, they researchers say, corals will have disappeared, many marine species will have gone extinct and the ocean would be rife with dead spots.

"We show that in a business-as-usual scenario, even massive deployment of CO2 removal schemes cannot reverse the substantial impacts on the marine environment -- at least not within many centuries," Mathesius said.

 

 

Scientists said Wednesday they had taken a key step towards stem cell therapy for rare mitochondrial disorders, passed on from mother to child.

They "corrected" harmful mitochondria in skin cells taken from patients to create healthy, pluripotent stem cells -- versatile cells which can differentiate into any tissue cells in the body, the team reported.

"This breakthrough... sets the stage for replacing diseased tissue in patients and opens the door to a world of regenerative medicine where doctors are able to treat human diseases that are currently incurable," said a statement from the Oregon Health & Science University, whose scientists took part in the study.

Mitochondria are the tiny powerhouses found in most cells in the body, turning sugar and oxygen into energy.

But DNA mutations heritable through the maternal line can cause them to malfunction, affecting anything from vision or hearing to muscle, heart and brain function.

About 1,000 to 4,000 children are born with mitochondrial diseases every year in the United States alone, and there is no effective treatment.

"To families with a loved one born with a mitochondrial disease waiting for a cure, today we can say that a cure is on the horizon," said Shoukhrat Mitalipov, who co-authored the study in the journal Nature.

 

 

 

If left unchecked, global warming will cause irreversible damage to marine life in the world's oceans, forcing fish to search for cooler waters and destroying valuable coral reefs, an international study said Thursday.

Keeping global average temperatures within two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial temperatures is the only way to stave off the worst effects of climate change on the Earth's oceans, which provide 90 percent of the planet's habitable space, said the study in the journal Science.

The findings are based on the Ocean 2015 Initiative, which examined the latest studies on how climate change is projected to affect oceans, marine life and hundreds of billions of dollars in goods and services they provide each year.

"All the species and services we get from the ocean will be impacted," said co-author William Cheung, associate professor at the University of British Columbia.

The team considered a business-as-usual scenario, and compared that to the effect of introducing big cuts in carbon dioxide emissions in order to keep temperature rise below two degrees Celsius by 2100, as outlined by the Copenhagen accord.

"The condition of the future ocean depends on the amount of carbon emitted in the coming decades," said the study.

"Immediate and substantial reduction of CO2 emissions is required in order to prevent the massive and effectively irreversible impacts on ocean ecosystems and their services that are projected" with business-as-usual scenarios.

Unless changes are made, "fish will migrate away from their current habitats 65 percent faster, resulting in changes to biodiversity and ecosystem functions," said the study, led by Jean-Pierre Gattuso of the French National Center for Scientific Research.

Over time, the ocean will become less capable of absorbing carbon emissions from the burning of fossil fuels.

Such pollution leads to rising acidification and harms marine life.

Sea level rise, loss of oxygen in the waters and disease are also top threats linked to pollution.

 

 

 

 

Dogs do not like people who are mean to their owners, Japanese researchers said Friday, and will refuse food offered by people who have snubbed their master.

The findings reveal that canines have the capacity to co-operate socially -- a characteristic found in a relatively small number of species, including humans and some other primates.

Researchers led by Kazuo Fujita, a professor of comparative cognition at Kyoto University, tested three groups of 18 dogs using role plays in which their owners needed to open a box.

In all three groups, the owner was accompanied by two people whom the dog did not know.

In the first group, the owner sought assistance from one of the other people, who actively refused to help.

In the second group, the owner asked for, and received, help from one person. In both groups, the third person was neutral and not involved in either helping or refusing to help.

Neither person interacted with the dog's owner in the control -- third -- group.

 

 

 

 

The US space agency plans to try out the largest parachute ever deployed Wednesday during a flying saucer launch that will test new technologies for landing on Mars.

The test flight of the flying saucer, known as the Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator, will be broadcast live on NASA's website beginning at 1:30 pm (1730 GMT).

Since the atmosphere on Mars is so thin, any parachute that helps a heavy, fast-moving spacecraft touch down needs to be extra strong.

The US space agency figured out how to do this decades ago, beginning with the Viking mission which put two landers on Mars in 1976.

But with the goal of sending humans to Mars in the 2030s, the agency is now testing a more advanced, new generation of parachute technology, known as the Supersonic Ringsail Parachute, that could allow even heavier spacecraft -- the kind that may have humans and months of food and supplies on board -- to land softly.

"We want to see if the chute can successfully deploy and decelerate the test vehicle while it is in supersonic flight," NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory said in a statement.

The test vehicle weighs 6,808 pounds (3,088 kilograms), or about twice the weight of the kind of robotic rover spacecraft NASA is currently capable of landing safely on Mars.

 

The parachute, described by NASA JPL as "the largest parachute ever deployed," is 100 feet (30 meters) in diameter.

The goal is for the chute to "slow the entry vehicle from Mach 2 to subsonic speeds," NASA said.

The test will involve sending the saucer, an inner-tube shaped decelerator and parachute to an altitude of 120,000 feet (37 kilometers) over the Pacific Ocean with the help of a giant balloon.

 

 

 

A combination of two drugs has shown promise toward improving the health of people with the most common form of the incurable lung disease known as cystic fibrosis, researchers said Sunday.

Patients treated with two medications -- lumacaftor and ivacaftor -- saw "significant" gains in their ability to breathe and fewer lung infections than those taking a placebo, according to the results of two international clinical trials published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

The randomized controlled trials included 1,108 people, age 12 and older, who were treated for six months.

"These groundbreaking findings will benefit around 15,000 patients in US alone," said Susanna McColley, one of the study's authors and a professor of pediatrics at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine.

About 75,000 people in Europe, North America and Australia suffer from cystic fibrosis, which is caused by genetic mutations.

Although there are different mutations associated with the disease, the most common is when people have two copies of the F508del mutation, which is seen in about half of all CF patients.

The disease causes the body to overproduce thick mucus that leads to chronic lung infections and pancreatic problems.

The median, or midpoint, predicted survival for people with the F508del mutation is 37 years in the United States.

Ivacaftor, known by the brand name Kalydeco, in 2012 became the first drug of its kind ever approved by the US Food and Drug Administration after studies showed it helped improve the health of people with a more rare genetic mutation for CF that affects about four percent of all patients.

The other drug in the combination, lumacaftor, is also made by Vertex Pharmaceuticals, and has yet to be approved by regulators.

Vertex announced earlier this week that an FDA advisory panel voted 12-1 to approve the two-drug combination, known by the brand name Orkambi.