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Immortality, Inc. – Chip Walter


Immortality, Inc.

Renegade Science, Silicon Valley Billions, and the Quest to Live Forever

Chip Walter

Genre: Science & Nature

Price: $12.99

Publish Date: January 7, 2020

Publisher: National Geographic Society

Seller: Penguin Random House LLC

This gripping narrative explores today's scientific pursuit of immortality, with exclusive visits inside Silicon Valley labs and interviews with the visionaries who believe we will soon crack into the aging process and cure death. We live in an age when billionaires are betting their fortunes on laboratory advances to prove aging unnecessary and death a disease that can be cured. Researchers are delving into the mysteries of stem cells and the human genome, discovering what it means to grow old and how to keep those processes from happening. This isn't science fiction; it's real, it's serious, and it's on track to revolutionize our definitions of life and mortality. In Immortality, Inc., veteran science journalist Chip Walter gains exclusive access to the champions of this radical cause, delivering a book that brings together for the first time the visions of molecular biologist and Apple chairman Arthur Levinson, genomics entrepreneur Craig Venter, futurist Ray Kurzweil, rejuvenation trailblazer Aubrey de Grey, and stem cell expert Robert Hariri. Along the way, Walter weaves in fascinating conversations about life, death, aging, and the future of the human race.

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Immortality, Inc. – Chip Walter

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Wildfire smoke is a silent killer — and climate change is making it worse

As the Kincade Fire burned through some 80,000 acres in Northern California, Ismael Barcenas, felt his lungs burning and “knots in [his] throat.” Barcenas, a farmhand at a vineyard in Santa Rosa, has asthma but kept showing up to work and choking through the smoke. After a few days, Barcenas left the county for cleaner air and checked into a hotel.

With strong gusts of wind blowing east, smoke from the Kincade Fire spread all the way to Sacramento last week, about 60 miles from where Barcenas works. There, Michal Borton, a student at Cosumnes River College, found it difficult to breathe as a well-ventilated chemistry lab let smoke in. Borton ended up leaving in the middle of the class.

Several hundred miles south near Long Beach in Southern California, Demetria Maldonado called in sick from her job as an aide for students with special needs. Smoke from the Getty and Castlewood fires had her coughing all day.

Monster fires in California have killed at least three people so far and burned tens of thousands of acres over the last couple of weeks. At least five fires are burning in the state; the Kincade Fire — which began two weeks ago — is still just 88 percent contained. The blazes have closed schools and businesses, forced hundreds of thousands of people to evacuate, and left behind charred rubble where entire communities once stood.

The effects have also been felt by people out of the path of the fires. Smoke from the Kincade Fire hung over the Bay Area for days, resulting in school closures and a “Spare the Air” alert — a call to avoid driving in order to reduce pollution. In Oakland, Fresno, Visalia and other cities, local public health officials have reported “unhealthy” and “very unhealthy” levels of air pollution and asked residents to stay indoors as much as possible.

Of primary concern is particulate matter, specifically PM2.5 — fine particles of soot and dust that are about 30 times smaller in diameter than a strand of human hair. They can burrow their way deep into the lungs, causing asthma and cancer. As wildfires burn through towns, spurred on by a warmer and drier climate, that soot and dust also picks up toxic chemicals from burning buildings.

“Things like lead or other toxins can attach on to that particular matter,” said Mary Prunicki, a pollution biologist at Stanford University. “When that’s inhaled, these other heavy metals or toxic pollutants hitchhike on the PM2.5.”

Researchers expect that particulate matter from wildfires will rise dramatically in the Western U.S. as the planet warms. One study estimates that between 2046 and 2051, wildfire-related PM2.5 levels will likely increase by 160 percent on average if temperatures continue to rise. Northern California, the Pacific Northwest, and forests in the northern Rocky Mountains will experience the worst of it, the researchers concluded.

Hotter and longer fires, especially those burning through towns with plastic and chemical materials, may also mean more toxic particulate matter, Prunicki said. “It may make things combust that otherwise wouldn’t, and when that’s put into the air, it can attach on to the particulate matter.”

Barcenas, the farmworker, has been working at the same vineyard for over two decades but said that the fires this year had him reaching for his inhaler more often than when blazes swept Northern California in 2017 and 2018. Leaving the county means missing work and less money for his family. “To me the worst thing about this fire is I’ve been without work for six days, and now four more days,” he said. “In the last fire, I was out only for one day.” He fears that if the fires continue like this, year after year, it could shutter farms in the region and put him out of work.

Barcenas and other asthma sufferers who’ve struggled to breathe the last couple of weeks may discover new health problems months from now. Researchers have found that wildfire smoke can trigger cardiovascular and respiratory illnesses months after the initial exposure, sometimes leading to premature deaths.

One study found that smoke from the Camp and Woolsey fires in California last year contributed to the premature deaths of as many as 1,400 people. That’s excluding the 88 people who died during the fires. A separate analysis last year by Reveal, a nonprofit news organization, concluded that in the months after the 2017 Tubbs Fire in Northern California that left at least 22 dead and burned about 37,000 acres, emergency rooms saw a 20 percent increase in visits by patients for cardiovascular diseases.

That spike in health problems is felt most acutely by the young, elderly, and people of color — in part a function of where they live. When researchers looked at Medicare hospital admission data between 2004 and 2009 for the Western United States, they found that more than 70 percent of black patients were exposed to more than one smoke wave, compared to just 56 percent of white patients. Overall, black residents in the West had a higher risk of hospital admissions as a result of respiratory illnesses.

A lot about wildfire smoke and public health remains unknown. Though many people wear masks as a protective measure, research on their effectiveness is scant, Prunicki said. It’s a question that she and a colleague are hoping to tackle along with looking into whether air purifiers can help people avoid breathing difficulties and other illnesses.

“There’s very little data when you try to guide people on who should be putting on masks,” said Prunicki. “That just makes it hard to make recommendations on what people should do because there’s not research to back it up.”

People also have different levels of comfort with masks. While Maldonado, the special education aide in Southern California, said that using a mask and putting a scarf across her mouth helped her breathe better, Borton, the college student, said that he found wearing a mask suffocating. He relied instead on two daily medications for asthma. “If I wear a mask, then I’m mostly just breathing in the air that I breathed out,” he said. “I just have to suffer through it.”

Jorge Rodriguez contributed reporting to this article.

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Wildfire smoke is a silent killer — and climate change is making it worse

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Is red meat bad for you? Climate change sure is.

Everyone knows that eating lots of red meat is bad for your health. Doctors and public health experts have been advising us to cut down on the hamburgers and steaks for years and years. And people listened: Red meat consumption in the United States has been on the decline for the better part of a decade. But the evidence behind that advice might not be as solid as we thought, according to a controversial analysis released on Monday.

An international coalition of researchers assessed pretty much every single quality study and randomized trial that looked at connections between red meat, cancer, and death. The researchers used a stricter method for evaluating the evidence than is usually used for nutrition, a notoriously tricky topic to study. In the end, they weren’t convinced that reducing red meat consumption is beneficial to the individual, because the methodology behind the studies they assessed was so flawed it was impossible to come to a sound conclusion.

The analysis has prompted quite a bit of disagreement in the nutritional community, with other nutritionists and doctors calling it “perplexing” and “nutritional nihilism.” But you know what scientists agree is bad for your health? Climate change. Rising temperatures will lead to a spike in heat-related deaths and illnesses, like heat stroke and hyperthermia, and exacerbate chronic conditions like diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Changing weather patterns associated with warming affect pollutants like ground-level ozone, which can cause emphysema, a chronic lung disease that can be deadly.

In all the uproar over whether or not red meat is healthy for individuals, the big picture of what greenhouse gas emissions mean for all of us is getting overlooked. Agriculture is a big slice of America’s emissions pie, representing 9 percent of total emissions in 2017. Cows, unfortunately, are part of the problem, because they emit large amounts of methane, a potent greenhouse gas. Beef is 20 times more land- and greenhouse gas-intensive than beans, for example.

So if you do decide to fire up the grill and stack up on T-bones tonight to celebrate the new research, just know that you’re not getting a free pass. More beef means more methane. And a big ol’ spike in methane emissions from beef production is pretty much the last thing we need right now, seeing as we’re on track to warm the planet a crispy 3.5 degrees C above preindustrial levels by the end of the century.

But the good news is that cutting down on red meat can have big payoffs from an environmental standpoint. Between 2005 and 2014, a 19 percent decline in American beef consumption led to a 10 percent decrease in diet-related carbon emissions.

And as for the question of whether eating red meat is OK for your personal health, we’ll leave that one to the experts to duke out.

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Is red meat bad for you? Climate change sure is.

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Scientists are baffled by a giant spike in this greenhouse gas (it’s not CO2)

The unexpected culprit that could throw a wrench in the world’s efforts to stop climate change? Runaway methane levels. Researchers monitoring air samples have noticed an alarming observation: Methane levels are on the rise and no one’s quite sure why.

NOAA’s Earth System Research Laboratory scientists have been analyzing air samples since 1983. Once a week, metal flasks containing air from around the world at different elevations find their way to the Boulder, Colorado, lab. The scientists look at 55 greenhouse gases, including methane and its more-famous climate villain, CO2.

You might know methane as the stuff of cow farts, natural gas, and landfills. It’s also an incredibly potent greenhouse gas, absorbing heat 25 times more effectively than CO2. While the rise of carbon dioxide has been stealing the spotlight as of late, methane levels have also been on the incline.

Methane levels, not surprisingly, have been steadily rising since the Industrial Revolution. Things picked up in 1980 and soon after, the NOAA scientists began consistently measuring methane. Levels were high but flattened out by the turn of the millenium. So when levels began to increase at a rapid rate in 2007, and then even faster in 2014, scientists were baffled. No one’s best guesses came close to predicting current methane levels of around 1,867 parts per billion as of 2018. This means studies evaluating the effects of climate change and action plans to address them, like the Paris Climate Agreement, may be based on downplayed climate crisis forecasts.

Methane levels from 1950 to present. 2° Institute

So what’s the big deal? Carbon dioxide emissions are relatively well understood and can be tracked to various human activities like transportation and electricity, which means policies can be enacted to target and lower emissions. Pinning down the source of methane, on the other hand, is a little more complicated.

“The really fascinating thing about methane,” Lori Bruhwiler, a NOAA research scientist, told Undark, “is the fact that almost everything we humans do has an effect on the methane budget, from producing food to producing fuel to disposing of waste.”

As if things weren’t complicated enough, a study published in AGU100 distinguished microbe-produced methane from fossil fuel methane — historically the more abundant one — and found that “natural” methane had taken the lead. This unexpected result might explain the upticks in methane levels that do not seem correlated with human activity. Of course, it could also be any number of human-made causes, including warming temperatures freeing up the gas and more frequent floods amplifying the methane output of wetlands.

Natural methane or not, this finding doesn’t exonerate anyone. The study’s authors made that clear in their concluding remarks.

“If the increased methane burden is driven by increased emissions from natural sources,” they wrote, “and if this is a climate feedback—the warming feeding the warming—then there is urgency to reduce anthropogenic emissions, which we can control.”

Curbing methane could be a powerful tool in our upcoming climate fight. Since the greenhouse gas is relatively short lived, only around 12 years, versus the 20 to 200 years of CO2, and is more effective at trapping heat than carbon dioxide, addressing methane emissions could be effective as a short-term climate remediation tool. The first step? Bringing more attention to methane so we can figure out where it comes from and nip it in the bud.

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Scientists are baffled by a giant spike in this greenhouse gas (it’s not CO2)

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Study: Climate change makes rich countries richer and poor ones poorer

It’s not just capitalism that’s making the rich richer and the poor poorer: Climate change is exacerbating the trend worldwide. The economic gap between the richest and poorest nations, in terms of per capita income, is now about 25 percent larger than it would have been without human-caused climate change, according to a new study from Stanford University.

“Our results show that most of the poorest countries on Earth are considerably poorer than they would have been without global warming,” climate scientist Noah Diffenbaugh, lead author of the study, said in a statement. Meanwhile, to add insult to injury, some rich countries have actually benefited economically from global warming.

Between 1961 and 2010, warming temperatures have significantly slowed economic growth in tropical countries like India and Nigeria, while aiding economic growth in cooler countries like Canada and the U.K., according to the study, which was published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on Monday.

“The historical data clearly show that crops are more productive, people are healthier, and we are more productive at work when temperatures are neither too hot nor too cold,” said study co-author Marshall Burke, a Stanford assistant professor of Earth system science, in a press release. “This means that in cold countries, a little bit of warming can help. The opposite is true in places that are already hot.”

While it’s been well-documented that low-income communities bear the brunt of flooding, famine, and other climate change-related horrors, this study endeavors to show the big picture of which countries win and which lose out as a result of global warming.

The researchers drew on several previous studies, analyzing annual temperature changes over 50 years and 165 countries’ economic growth data to estimate how the shifting climate has affected growth. The U.S. was middle of the road: Climate change dragged down its GDP by just 0.2 percent from 1961 to 2010.

Sudan was the biggest loser, so to speak. The researchers estimated that the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) is 36 percent smaller today because of global warming. India closely followed, with a 31 percent loss, and Nigeria, with a 29 percent blow.

Norway was the big winner: Researchers estimated that its current GDP is 34 percent higher because of climate change. Canada’s is 32 percent higher, and in recent years, Russia’s has also seen a boost due to warming.

The numbers the study produced are stark, shocking even (India’s GDP could have grown by almost third more over the past half-century, if not for climate change!?). And they don’t represent outliers in the data. The Stanford researchers drew these estimates of climate change’s economic effects from a wide range of projections — 20,000 versions per country, to be precise.

“For most countries, whether global warming has helped or hurt economic growth is pretty certain,” Burke said.

Tropical countries truly got the short end of the stick. They tend to contribute far less to greenhouse gas emissions than more economically well-off nations.  And, according to Burke, “There’s essentially no uncertainty that they’ve been harmed.”

The economic loss some countries faced “is on par with the decline in economic output seen in the U.S. during the Great Depression,” Burke said. “It’s a huge loss compared to where these countries would have been otherwise.”

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Study: Climate change makes rich countries richer and poor ones poorer

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There’s been a mysterious rise in ozone-destroying emissions

Thought the ozone layer was safe? Think again.

CFC-11 is an ozone-depleting chemical whose phase out agreed upon in the ’80s and has been under an international ban since 2010. That’s why National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration researchers were surprised to discover it’s increased in the atmosphere by 25 percent since 2012. A research letter published Wednesday in the journal Nature takes a look at the possible causes for the spike.

“I’ve been making these measurements for more than 30 years, and this is the most surprising thing I’ve seen,” the paper’s lead author, Stephen Montzka, told The Washington Post’s Chris Mooney.

The 1987 Montreal Protocol phased out ozone-damaging chemicals like CFC-11 worldwide. And thanks to the agreement, we’ve avoided a total ozone layer collapse by mid-century. 

Almost no CFC-11 has been been produced since 2006 — or so we thought. The study’s results suggest that someone’s breaking the rules of the agreement. Researchers suspect the spike in the ozone damaging chemical is coming from somewhere in eastern Asia. 

The ultimate impact on the ozone depends on how quickly the culprit is found and stopped. The Guardian reports that if these emissions are left unchecked, it could tack an extra decade onto restoration of the all-important ozone layer, which protects the earth from the sun’s damaging UV radiation.

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There’s been a mysterious rise in ozone-destroying emissions

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One-third of forests aren’t growing back after wildfires.

Forests in the American West are having a harder time recovering from wildfires because of (what else?) climate change, according to new research published in Ecology Letters.

Researchers measured the growth of seedlings in 1,500 wildfire-scorched areas in Colorado, Wyoming, Washington, Idaho, and Montana. Across the board, they found “significant decreases” in tree regeneration, a benchmark for forest resilience. In one-third of the sites, researchers found zero seedlings.

The warmest, driest forests were hit especially hard.

“Seedlings are more sensitive to warm, dry conditions than mature trees, so if the right conditions don’t exist within a few years following a wildfire, tree seedlings may not establish,” said Philip Higuera, a coauthor of the study.

Earlier this month, a separate study found that ponderosa pine and pinyon forests in the West are becoming less resilient due to droughts and warmer temperatures. Researchers told the New York Times that as trees disappear, some forests could shift to entirely different ecosystems, like grasslands or shrublands.

You’d think the rapid reconfiguration of entire ecosystems would really light a fire under us to deal with climate change, wouldn’t you?

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One-third of forests aren’t growing back after wildfires.

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The U.N. climate talks have a gender gap. Women plan to fix it.

Nearly two months after Hurricane Maria, public health researchers in Puerto Rico are limited by the same lack of power, clean water, and infrastructure they are there to study.

Puerto Rico–born José Cordero is one such scientist. In the journal Nature, he describes leading a team through the devastated landscape to collect data on how drinking water contamination affects pregnant women. The scientists have to hurry to finish their work everyday, before night falls across the largely powerless island. Limited telephone access makes it difficult to get in touch with subjects.

Cordero’s project started six years ago to focus on water pollution and pre-term births, but this year’s hurricane has changed both the focus and the level of difficulty of the work. Other researchers have been hampered by hospitals that can’t administer routine tests and hurricane-damaged equipment, making it difficult to collect data on how air and water pollution are affecting health.

Still, Cordero’s team has managed to contact several hundred woman and collect samples of groundwater and tap water from homes near flooded Superfund sites. As he told Nature: “The kind of work we’re doing … has to be done now, because a few years from now, it’s too late.”

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The U.N. climate talks have a gender gap. Women plan to fix it.

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Researchers took on Exxon’s dare to prove it misled the public about climate change

This story was originally published by Mother Jones and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

Two years ago, Inside Climate News and L.A. Times investigations found that while ExxonMobil internally acknowledged that climate change is human-made and serious, it publicly manufactured doubt about the science. Exxon has been trying unsuccessfully to smother this slow-burning PR crisis ever since, arguing the findings were “deliberately cherry picked statements.” But the company’s problems have grown to include probes of its business practices by the New York and Massachusetts attorneys general and the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Now, science historian Naomi Oreskes and Harvard researcher Geoffrey Supran have published the first peer-reviewed, comprehensive analysis of Exxon’s climate communications that adds more heft to these charges. Exxon dared the public to “read all of these documents and make up your own mind,” in a company blog post in 2015. The new paper, “Assessing ExxonMobil’s Climate Change Communications,” in the journal Environmental Research Letters, takes up the challenge. Oreskes and Supran systematically analyze nearly 40 years of Exxon’s scientific research, reports, internal documents, and advertisements, and find a deep disconnect between how the company directly communicated climate change and its internal memos and scientific studies.

“The issue of taking things out of context or cherry-picking data is an important one, and one all historians and journalists deal with,” Oreskes tells Mother Jones. “When ExxonMobil accuses journalists of cherry-picking, there is a way we can address that. There are analyses we can do to avoid these issues. Well, if you think the LA Times is cherry-picking [examples], we’ll look at all of them. Nobody can say we are selecting things out of context.”

Their content analysis examines how 187 company documents treated climate change from 1977 through 2014. Researchers found that of the documents that address the causes of climate change, 83 percent of its peer-reviewed scientific literature and 80 percent of its internal documents said it was real and human-made, while the opposite was true of the ads. The researchers analyzed ads published in the New York Times between 1989 and 2004. In those ads, 81 percent expressed doubt about the scientific consensus, tending to emphasize the “uncertainty” and “knowledge gap,” while just 12 percent affirmed the science.

The same pattern holds for how Exxon has addressed the seriousness of the consequences of climate change. Downplaying the impacts is another tactic climate deniers tend to use to call for more delays in implementing policies that curb fossil fuel use. Sixty percent of Exxon’s peer-reviewed papers and 53 percent of its internal documents acknowledge serious impacts — a 1982 internal document lists flooding and sea-level rise and a 2002 paper lists coral reef bleaching and the disintegration of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet among them — but Exxon’s ads were more likely to claim, “The sky is not falling.”

Oreskes and Supran write that Exxon “contributed quietly to the science and loudly to raising doubts about it.”

This distinction is important, argues Supran. “Exxon’s response to the allegations from journalists and investigators was a kind of gloss or straw man,” he says. “They were contributing to climate science. The problem was the company still had a much louder doubt-promoting position in public. It was the discrepancy that confused people.”

Exxon did not return a request for comment on the study before publication, but in the past it has dismissed similar criticisms by pointing to its decades of promoting climate science research, which the paper does not dispute.

Of course, Exxon’s media strategy has shifted over time, and the company adopted a more uniform position where executives acknowledged climate change is human-made when it became untenable to say otherwise. Oreskes and Supran also included one issue that’s caused more recent trouble for the industry than its advertising campaigns. There’s intense debate over what are known as “stranded assets,” a term used to describe assets that have become anachronisms when faced with new business realities. In this case, it is the serious risk that Exxon’s business model is overvalued and incompatible with the world taking serious action to limit global warming. Two dozen of the company’s publications and internal documents acknowledged stranded assets, but it is not mentioned in any of the ads through 2004.

Shareholders actually sued Exxon last fall over stranded assets, claiming the company was aware it would not be able to extract all its fossil fuel reserves but its public statements dismissing the risks were “materially false and misleading.” And shareholders have stepped up the pressure in other ways, too: This May, two-thirds of shareholders voted to force the company to publish an annual report on its climate impacts. The moment was a rare defiance of Exxon’s management, which opposed the report, and maybe a step toward more transparency.

Oreskes, who’s written extensively about industry campaigns to undermine scientific findings, says that Exxon’s message inevitably changes over time as it adapts to new circumstances and old positions become discredited. But Exxon is still following the same general playbook. “They are promoting a different kind of doubt,” she says. “It’s a doubt that says, ‘There’s climate change, but we have to still use fossil fuels because there’s no alternative.’” But, Oreskes adds, there are alternatives.

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Researchers took on Exxon’s dare to prove it misled the public about climate change

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Court says pipelines — not Exxon — are to blame for a major oil spill.

That’s all kinds of scary. If there’s one place on Earth that would be the worst possible spot for a giant volcanic chain, it’s beneath West Antarctica. Turns out, it’s not a great situation to have a bunch of volcanoes underneath a huge ice sheet.

In a discovery announced earlier this week, a team of researchers discovered dozens of them across a 2,200-mile swath of the frozen continent. Antarctica, if you’re listening, please stop scaring us.

The study that led to the discovery was conceived of by an undergraduate student at the University of Edinburgh, Max Van Wyk de Vries. With a team of researchers, he used radar to look under the ice for evidence of cone-shaped mountains that had disturbed the ice around them. They found 91 previously unknown volcanoes. “We were amazed,” Robert Bingham, one of the study’s authors, told the Guardian.

The worry is that, as in Iceland and Alaska, two regions of active volcanism that were ice-covered until relatively recently, a warming climate could help these Antarctic volcanoes spring to life soon. In a worst-case scenario, the melting ice could release pressure on the volcanoes and trigger eruptions, further destabilizing the ice sheet.

“The big question is: how active are these volcanoes? That is something we need to determine as quickly as possible,” Bingham said.


Court says pipelines — not Exxon — are to blame for a major oil spill.

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