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Update March 2018

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Update by Natrakorn Paewsoongnern
Science & Nature

March 17, 2018 - March 23, 2018

Science Says: European art scene began with Neanderthals

This undated image provided by João Zilhão in February 2018 shows perforated shells found in sediments in the Cueva de los Aviones near Cartagena, Spain. The artifacts date to between 115,000 and 120,000 years ago. New discoveries in some Spanish caves give the strongest evidence yet that Neanderthals created art. (João Zilhão via AP)

Malcolm Ritter

New York (AP) - From the murky depths of Spanish caves comes a surprising insight: Neanderthals created art.

That’s been proposed before, but experts say two new studies finally give convincing evidence that our evolutionary cousins had the brainpower to make artistic works and use symbols.

The key finding: New age estimates that show paintings on cave walls and decorated seashells in Spain were created long before our species entered Europe. So there’s no way Homo sapiens could have made them or influenced Neanderthals to merely copy their artwork.

Until now, most scientists thought all cave paintings were the work of our species. But the new work concludes that some previously known paintings - an array of lines, some disks and the outline of a hand - were rendered about 20,000 years before H. sapiens moved into Europe.

That’s a surprise that “constitutes a major breakthrough in the field of human evolution studies,” said Wil Roebroeks of Leiden University in the Netherlands, an expert on Neanderthals who didn’t participate in the new work.

Now, he said in an email, Neanderthal “ownership of some cave art is a fact.”

The second study provided evidence that Neanderthals used pigments and piercings to modify shells some 115,000 years ago, which is far earlier than similar artifacts are associated with H. sapiens anywhere. That shows Neanderthals “were quite capable of inventing the ornaments themselves,” said Paola Villa of the University of Colorado Museum in Boulder, who also didn’t participate in the new work.

Neanderthals lived in Europe and Asia before disappearing about 40,000 years ago, around the time H. sapiens moved into Europe from Africa.

The research, released Thursday by the journals Science and Science Advances, focused on determining the ages of previously known artifacts.

One team of European researchers concentrated on painted artwork in three caves in northern, southern and west-central Spain. They carefully removed tiny bits of rocky crust that had formed on the artwork surfaces and analyzed them in a lab. Results indicated artwork from all three were around 65,000 years old, much older than the arrival of H. sapiens in Europe, which occurred some 45,000 to 40,000 years ago.

The artwork is rudimentary, but a study author, Dirk Hoffmann of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, said it’s symbolic. One work is a collection of lines that look like a ladder, and others include red dots and disks on curtain-like rock formations. Another is a stenciled outline of a hand, made by spewing pigment over a hand held against the wall, Hoffmann said.

Making the hand stencil involves so many steps, including preparation of the pigment, that it’s clearly a deliberate creation, he and other authors wrote in the paper. What’s more, a number of hand stencils seem to have been placed with care rather than randomly, so they are certainly “meaningful symbols,” the authors wrote.

The other study sought to find the age of shells that had been colored and punctured in another cave, in southeast Spain. Previous studies had estimated an age of 45,000 to 50,000 years old, too young to rule out a link to H. sapiens.

For the new work, researchers analyzed rock that had formed above where the shells had been found.

Results indicated the shells were around 115,000 years old. That is some 20,000 to 40,000 years older than comparable artifacts in Africa or western Asia that are attributed to H. sapiens. The finding shows Neanderthals shared symbolic thinking with H. sapiens, and suggests the two species were “indistinguishable” in terms of overall mental ability, the researchers wrote.

Nobody knows what the shells symbolized. Maybe they indicated membership in a group like a clan, said Joao Zilhao of the Catalan Institution for Research and Advanced Studies in Barcelona, Spain, who did the study with Hoffmann and others.

Not all experts were convinced by the studies. Harold Dibble, an archaeologist at the University of Pennsylvania who studies Neanderthal behavior, wondered if the shell color and holes could have occurred naturally. And he said he’d like to see the dating in the cave art paper confirmed by another lab.

Warren Sharp of the Berkeley Geochronology Center in California, an expert on the dating technique used in both papers, said he found the results of both studies to be “very solid.”

They show “we are not the only ones capable of ‘modern’ behavior,” he wrote in an email.

Update March 10, 2018 - March 16, 2018

Satellites show warming is accelerating sea level rise

In this Oct. 30, 2012 file photo, the intersection of 8th Street and Atlantic Avenue is flooded in Ocean City, N.J., after the storm surge from Superstorm Sandy flooded much of the town. New satellite research shows that global warming is making seas rise at an ever increasing rate. (AP Photo/Mel Evans, File)

Seth Borenstein

Washington (AP) - Melting ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica are speeding up the already fast pace of sea level rise, new satellite research shows.

At the current rate, the world’s oceans on average will be at least 2 feet (61 centimeters) higher by the end of the century compared to today, according to researchers who publish the Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences.

Sea level rise is caused by warming of the ocean and melting from glaciers and ice sheets. The research, based on 25 years of satellite data, shows that pace has quickened, mainly from the melting of massive ice sheets. It confirms scientists’ computer simulations and is in line with predictions from the United Nations, which releases regular climate change reports.

“It’s a big deal” because the projected sea level rise is a conservative estimate and it is likely to be higher, said lead author Steve Nerem of the University of Colorado.

Outside scientists said even small changes in sea levels can lead to flooding and erosion.

“Any flooding concerns that coastal communities have for 2100 may occur over the next few decades,” Oregon State University coastal flooding expert Katy Serafin said in an email.

Of the 3 inches (7.5 centimeters) of sea level rise in the past quarter century, about 55 percent is from warmer water expanding, and the rest is from melting ice.

But the process is accelerating, and more than three-quarters of that acceleration since 1993 is due to melting ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica, the study shows.

Like weather and climate, there are two factors in sea level rise: year-to-year small rises and falls that are caused by natural events and larger long-term rising trends that are linked to man-made climate change. Nerem’s team removed the natural effects of the 1991 Mt. Pinatubo eruption that temporarily chilled Earth and the climate phenomena El Nino and La Nina, and found the accelerating trend.

Sea level rise, more than temperature, is a better gauge of climate change in action, said Anny Cazenave, director of Earth science at the International Space Science Institute in France, who edited the study. Cazenave is one of the pioneers of space-based sea level research.

Global sea levels were stable for about 3,000 years until the 20th century when they rose and then accelerated due to global warming caused by the burning of coal, oil and natural gas, said climate scientist Stefan Rahmstorf of the Potsdam Institute in Germany, who wasn’t part of the study.

Two feet of sea level rise by the end of the century “would have big effects on places like Miami and New Orleans, but I don’t still view that as catastrophic” because those cities can survive - at great expense - that amount of rising seas under normal situations, Nerem said.

But when a storm hits like 2012’s Superstorm Sandy, sea level rise on top of storm surge can lead to record-setting damages, researchers said.

Some scientists at the American Geophysical Union meeting last year said Antarctica may be melting faster than predicted by Monday’s study.

Greenland has caused three times more sea level rise than Antarctica so far, but ice melt on the southern continent is responsible for more of the acceleration.

“Antarctica seems less stable than we thought a few years ago,” Rutgers climate scientist Robert Kopp said.

Update March 3, 2018 - March 9, 2018

Trump aims for moon, pulls back on space station, telescopes

FILE - In this Dec. 12, 2006, file photo, made available by NASA, astronaut Robert L. Curbeam Jr., left, and European Space Agency astronaut Christer Fuglesang, participate in a spacewalk during construction of the International Space Station. Under President Donald Trump’s 2019 proposed budget released, Monday, Feb. 12, 2018, U.S. government funding for the space station would cease by 2025. (NASA via AP, File)

Marcia Dunn & Seth Borenstein

Cape Canaveral, Fla. (AP) - The Trump administration wants NASA out of the International Space Station by 2025, and private businesses running the place instead.

Under President Donald Trump’s 2019 proposed budget released Monday, U.S. government funding for the space station would end by 2025. The government would set aside $150 million to encourage commercial development and use future savings to aim for the moon.

Many space experts and legislators are expressing concern. Sen. Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat who rocketed into orbit in 1986, said “turning off the lights and walking away from our sole outpost in space” makes no sense.

Retired NASA historian and Smithsonian curator Roger Launius notes that any such move will affect all the other countries involved in the space station; Russia is a major player, as is Europe, Japan and Canada.

NASA has spent close to $100 billion on the orbiting outpost since the 1990s. The first piece was launched in 1998, and the complex was essentially completed with the retirement of NASA’s space shuttles in 2011.

MIT astronautics professor Dava Newman, who was the deputy NASA chief under Barack Obama, called the space station “the cornerstone of space exploration today” but said the Trump administration’s proposal makes sense because it is doing long-term planning.

The president proposes shifting large chunks of money from the space station, satellites studying a warming Earth and a major space telescope toward a multi-year $10.4 billion exploration plan aimed at returning astronauts to the moon in about five or six years.

“We’re building capability for the eventual human exploration of deep space and the moon is a stepping stone,” NASA’s acting chief financial officer Andrew Hunter said in a Monday news conference.

The president’s budget proposal, including NASA’s portion, was obsolete even before it was made public, but it provides a view into the administration’s priorities. Congress earlier this month passed a spending package that set limits through the end of the next budget year.

The same budget proposal proposes to pull the plug on WFIRST, a space telescope mission that NASA said is “designed to settle essential questions in the areas of dark energy, exoplanets, and infrared astrophysics.”

And for the second straight year, the Trump administration proposes killing five missions that study Earth, especially its climate and the effects of carbon dioxide. The president also plans to end education programs in the space agency.

Private businesses already have a hand in the space station project. The end of the shuttle program prompted NASA to turn over supply runs to the commercial sector. SpaceX and Orbital ATK have been making deliveries since 2012, and Sierra Nevada Corp. will begin making shipments with its crew-less mini shuttles in a few years.

SpaceX and Boeing, meanwhile, are developing crew capsules to fly astronauts to and from the space station within the next year. These commercial flights will represent the first astronaut launches from U.S. soil since NASA’s shuttles stopped flying.

A complete transfer to the commercial sector is a different matter, however. Mike Suffredini, a former space station program manager for NASA who now runs Axiom Space in Houston and aims to establish the world’s first commercial space station cautioned that the U.S. government needs to have a direct hand in the International Space Station until it comes down. No company would accept the liabilities and risks associated with the station, he said, if the sprawling complex went out of control and came crashing down.

His company’s plan is to attach its own compartments to the existing International Space Station and, once the decision is made to dismantle the complex, detach its segment and continue orbiting on its own.

Altogether, the administration’s proposed budget, along with an addendum, seeks to increase NASA’s budget slightly to $19.9 billion.

While the budget plan said it places renewed support on returning humans to the moon, followed by human expeditions to Mars and elsewhere, no precise timeline and few details are provided. The supersize Space Launch System rocket being built by NASA to send astronauts beyond low-Earth orbit - along with its Orion crew capsule - would get $3.7 billion under this budget. A test launch of this system would remain on track for 2020, with a first crewed launch around the moon three years later, according to budget details.

In an agency-wide address, NASA’s acting administrator Robert Lightfoot said it was a “very exciting” budget with lots of potential, despite some hard decisions. Among them: the proposed end of WFIRST, a telescope with 100 times the field of view of the Hubble Space Telescope. WFIRST was a mission that the National Academies of Science listed as the decade’s No. 1 priority for future NASA astrophysics missions.

The WFIRST telescope’s cost estimates have ballooned to $3.6 billion and Hunter said it just got too expensive.



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HEADLINES [click on headline to view story]

Science Says: European art scene began with Neanderthals

Satellites show warming is accelerating sea level rise

Trump aims for moon, pulls back on space station, telescopes


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