The Amazon rain forest suffered a spike in deforestation in June, Brazilian researchers announced Tuesday, raising fears about the stability of recent progress in protecting Earth's largest tropical rain forest. Illegal logging razed more than 120 square miles of the Amazon in June, a 17 percent increase from the same month last year, according to researchers with Brazil's National Institute for Space Research.

Brazil has more than 2 million square miles of jungle and forests, mostly in the Amazon River Basin, and less than one-third of that is under government protection, the AFP reports. The rest is either privately or ambiguously owned, and the widespread destruction of rain forest for cattle ranching and soybean farming has helped make Brazil one of the top greenhouse gases emitters worldwide, even though the country is less industrialized than fellow emissions leaders like the U.S. and China. Brazil pledged to reduce Amazon deforestation by 80 percent over the next decade at the 2009 U.N. climate change summit in Copenhagen — a pledge that seemed at risk earlier this year when deforestation unexpectedly spiked in March and April, the AP reports. The Brazilian government responded by setting up a crisis committee to fight illegal logging, and deforestation dropped by about 44 percent in May.

The Amazon's overall deforestation problem has improved substantially since 2004, when it peaked at 10,000 square miles per year, the AFP reports. It fell to about 2,500 square miles in 2010, thanks largely to a new satellite-based tracking system the government uses to monitor tree cover. But on top of June's deforestation spike, the Amazon has been roiled this year by a wave of killings — five rain forest activists were recently murdered within a month, and police are also investigating the fatal shooting of a farmer in the Amazon state of Para last month. Such deaths have become common as farmers, peasants and environmentalists clash with illegal loggers and cattle ranchers over land in the Amazon — more than 1,500 rural activists have been killed during the last two decades in clashes over land and logging, according to Brazil's Pastoral Land Commission.

(Sources: Agence France-Presse, Associated Press, Al Jazeera English)


As the U.S. continues to roast under a weeks-long "heat dome," the insufferable weather is even making nighttime miserably hot, CNN reports. In Dallas, Texas, for example — where the daytime temperature has been over 100 degrees Fahrenheit for 33 straight days — it was 99 degrees at midnight last night. Oklahoma City was also 86 degrees at 12 a.m., according to National Weather Service data, while Kansas City, Mo., was 87.

Not only can that make it hard to sleep, but such extreme nighttime temperatures can also make it harder for people's bodies to cool down enough overnight to prepare them for the next day's sweltering heat. Prolonged heat exposure makes the body more prone to health problems, and dozens of heat-related deaths have already been reported across the Plains, Midwest and Eastern Seaboard this summer. Texas is among the hardest-hit states by this heat wave, and it was the scene of the latest fatality blamed on heat, a 55-year-old assistant football coach who died Monday in Plano after collapsing during the first practice of the season. The Collin County Medical Examiner ruled that the coach died from heat exposure associated with heat disease, CNN reports.

Heat advisories and warnings have been issued for parts of at least 17 states, although the worst effects are still in the central U.S., which is also suffering from a historic drought. About 18 percent of the Lower 48 states are currently experiencing extreme or exceptional drought conditions, according to the National Drought Mitigation Center, and an arborist in Tulsa, Okla., tells CNN that silver maples and other trees are dying across the city due to the brutal heat. In eight states (Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, New Mexico, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Texas), at least 85 percent of all land area is facing drought conditions, the NDMC reports.

(Sources: CNN, Blooomberg News, AP)


NASA is two days away from launching its Juno probe to Jupiter, a 400 million-mile mission aimed at uncovering the gas giant's long-hidden secrets, Space.com reports. The spacecraft is scheduled to launch at 11:34 a.m. on Friday, taking off from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. NASA officials predict a 70 percent chance that fair weather will allow the launch to proceed as scheduled.

It will take about five years for Juno to reach Jupiter, but its journey has been making nearly as much news this week as its destination. That's because, as the AP reports, Juno is an especially "green" spacecraft, poised to become the most distant space probe to be fueled entirely by solar power. Its three wings are each 29 feet long and 9 feet wide, covered in solar panels that will provide 400 watts of power once Juno reaches Jupiter, which is located nearly 500 million miles from the sun. (By comparison, the panels would generate 35 times as much energy on Earth, thanks to its much sunnier location in the solar system.) NASA engineers opted for solar over nuclear power not for the publicity, but because plutonium generators weren't available when the project began, astrophysicist Scott Bolton tells the AP. "It's nice to be green, but it wasn't because we were afraid of the plutonium," Bolton says.

The windmill-shaped Juno is also part of NASA's much-anticpiated post-shuttle era, as the agency transitions into deeper-space exploration following the retirement of its 30-year shuttle program earlier this year. In addition to Juno, NASA plans to launch twin space probes to Earth's moon next month, both of which will also be powered by solar panels. But a new rover that will be sent to Mars in November — a Jeep-sized vehicle named Curiosity — will be powered by more than 10 pounds of plutonium.

(Sources: Space.com, AP)


The "universe" was named for its presumed coverage of everything that exists, but according to a new study in the journal Physical Review D, evidence is starting to suggest that our universe is just one of many, all located within "bubbles" of space and time, the BBC reports. The idea of such a "multiverse" has become popular in modern physics, but it has been difficult to test scientifically — largely because everyone trying to test it is stuck in the same universe.

The theory of a multiverse suggests that hordes of bubble universes are constantly fading into and out of existence, with the space among them always expanding. That means two universes are inevitably out of one another's reach, but according to cosmologists at the University College of London, universes that form adjacent to ours may leave a distinctive signature in a faint glow known as the "cosmic microwave background," or CMB. The CMB was left behind by our own universe's formation, and the researchers have devised a way to find these disc-shaped signatures in it using a computer program that reduces the chance of false positives. As reported in their new study, the computer program found four regions of the CMB that seem likely to be signs of bubbles universes, with such universes reportedly offering an explanation that's 10 times more probable than the standard theory, the BBC reports. 

"I'd heard about this 'multiverse' for years and years, and I never took it seriously because I thought it's not testable," lead author Hiranya Peiris tells the BBC. "I was just amazed by the idea that you can test for all these other universes out there — it's just mind-blowing." Still, she adds, the four regions are "not at a high statistical significance," and more data will be needed to prove the existence of a multiverse. "Finding just four patches is not necessarily going to give you a good probability on the full sky," she says. "That's not statistically strong enough to either rule it out or to say that there is a collision."

(Source: BBC News)


First crop-dusting by aircraft is conducted, Pulitzer-winning report on ocean health is published, and more.

Russell McLendon

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Photo (land cleared for cattle ranching in Para, Brazil): ZUMA Press

Photo (Texas sunset on June 5, 2011): Denise Mattox/Flickr

Image (illustration of Juno in front of Jupiter): NASA

Image (visual data of the cosmic microwave background): NASA 

Russell McLendon ( @russmclendon ) writes about humans and other wildlife.

Daily Briefing: Wed. 8/3/2011
Amazon damage rises, heat wave roasts U.S., new proof of 'multiverse,' and more.