Germany isn't just making international news this week with its bean sprouts — the world is also abuzz over the country's ambitious plans to shut down all of its nuclear reactors within 11 years, a reaction to the ongoing nuclear crisis in Japan. Most Germans support this shift from atomic energy, which currently supplies about a quarter of their electricity, but as the Washington Post and Der Spiegel both report, the quest to fill that void could cause some new friction. That's because, as German Chancellor Angela Merkel recently told parliament, fossil fuels are first in line to replace fission, at least in the short term.

"If we want to quickly get out of nuclear power and into renewable energy, we need fossil-fuel power plants," Merkel said. "There is no way around." Stephan Kohler, head of the German Energy Agency, tells Der Spiegel that the phaseout of nuclear power will likely offer a boost for coal consumption. "Large energy companies are now turning more to cheap lignite [brown coal] to replace atomic energy and less to natural gas, which is more efficient but also more expensive," Kohler says. Coal has a higher carbon content than natural gas, but both are much bigger contributors to global warming than the carbon-free emissions from a nuclear reactor, meaning Germany faces an uphill battle in both phasing out nuclear power and slashing its CO2 emissions. The country still hopes to cut its emissions 40 percent by 2020, relative to 1990 levels, but according to a study from the German Federal Environment Agency, current measures "will only result in an emissions reduction of 30 to 33 percent." And not only could the removal of nuclear power worsen this emissions problem, but it could also raise electricity bills, especially as Berlin invests more in developing alternative power sources. "This phaseout of nuclear energy is not going to be free," a former economics minister for Merkel tells Der Spiegel.

Still, Germany's leadership amid global nuclear anxiety could prove decisive, some experts tell the Washington Post. "It's going to be a bit of a make-or-break experiment, which everyone is watching extremely carefully on a global basis," says David Baldock, executive director of the Institute for European Environmental Policy. "It's quite brave." And if it succeeds, Germany could become a worldwide leader in renewable energy technology, building on its already-extensive investments in solar power. "If they really push the phaseout, there will be a positive fallout in the sense of vastly accelerated research and development, because Germans will clearly make a big contribution," says the Brooking Institution's Charles Ebinger, although he adds that there's "no question" emissions will rise, and says Germany may be rushing things too much. "To try to do it in a decade is not very wise," he says.

(Sources: Washington Post, Der Spiegel)


Tornadoes and severe thunderstorms have dominated U.S. weather coverage this spring, but as USA Today reports, the ongoing Arizona wildfires highlight another meteorological mess: widespread droughts stretching from the Southwest to the Gulf Coast. Drought conditions officially extend from Arizona all the way east to Florida, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, with Louisiana (100 percent in drought), Texas (96 percent) and New Mexico (94 percent) hit the hardest. Parts of southeastern Florida are also gripped by "exceptional drought," killing off crops and plunging Lake Okeechobee to historically low levels.  

Meanwhile, wildfires have burned nearly 4 million acres across the U.S. this year, USA Today reports, more than double the average for mid-June and the highest total acreage burned in the past decade. Parched areas of Florida have been plagued by fires for months, but much of the focus lately has been on Arizona, where the relentless Wallow Fire (pictured above) continues to defy firefighters' efforts to contain it. More than 3,000 firefighters from around the country are currently battling the blaze, which has scorched almost 400,000 acres in eastern Arizona, yet as of Friday it's only 5 percent contained. The fire began on May 29, from what authorities suspect was an abandoned campfire in Arizona's White Mountains, and has forced thousands of people to flee their homes in several cities, including Springerville, Eagar and Greer. It has already grown into the second-largest wildfire ever recorded in Arizona.

Winds in eastern Arizona died down slightly Thursday, the Los Angeles Times reports, giving firefighters some much-needed relief. Strong gusts had been helping fuel the fire and whip it into a frenzy, keeping it at "zero percent containment" for more than a week. But light winds are now expected until Saturday afternoon, offering a brief window in which the tables might turn, at least a little. Residents of two towns may be able to return to their homes Saturday, the Times reports, but the giant inferno is still expanding into other areas — as of Thursday, it had reportedly moved within half a mile of the New Mexico border. "If we only had one problem area, we'd be able to knock it out," a spokesman for the firefighting effort tells the Times.

(Sources: USA Today, Los Angeles Times)


Life on Earth may have gotten its sea legs in outer space, setting the stage for sentience while clinging to ancient asteroids, according to a new study in the journal Science. This is based on the latest analysis of fragments from a 13-foot-wide meteorite that crashed into British Columbia 11 years ago, TIME reports, and it could have huge implications for our understanding of how life on Earth originated.

The building blocks of life are hardly rare or even unique to Earth — known as hydrocarbons, they're basically just hydrogen and carbon. Along with oxygen and nitrogen, two other key components, they're plentiful throughout the universe. "There's no doubt from astronomical observations that we can see organic compounds out there in space," says University of Alberta geologist and mineralogist Christopher Herd, lead author of the new paper. "You can also cook them up on Earth." Yet turning hydrocarbons into life isn't a simple process, since the elements must be processed into more complex compounds like amino acids, monocarboxylic acids and kerogen. Traces of these prebiotic substances have been found on meteor samples before, TIME points out, so Herd and his colleagues weren't too surprised to find them on remnants of the British Columbia meteorite. They were taken aback, however, when they found all the materials in various stages of development, all the way from simple start to complex finish. It was almost like finding the blueprints for life on Earth — and finding them on something that didn't come from Earth.

"There was this linear correlation from one stage to the next to the next," Herd says. "We saw the organic materials through five different stages of sophistication." While still in space, the meteor seems to have been acting as a sort of incubator, TIME explains, cooking up more and more elaborate organic cocktails as it careened through the cosmos. If a similar meteorite crashed into an early Earth billions of years ago, it could have at least added some key ingredients to the beginnings of biology. "Not too hot, not too cold, just right," Herd tells LiveScience, describing conditions on the space rock. "And not too much water alteration and not too little. ... If you take that material and deliver it to the early Earth, then you deliver what you need for life."

(Sources: TIME, LiveScience)


The panda has become an indelible icon for wildlife conservation, thanks to a WWF logo that has long been associated with campaigns to protect nature. But it inevitably evokes more sympathy for its fellow land-based animals than for fish, whales, clams and crabs. And as Wired reports, a group of researchers is now proposing that a second animal should be elevated to a panda-like status to symbolize the plight of the world's marine life. The panda of the sea, they say, should be the giant squid.

Led by Spanish scientist Angel Guerraa, the researchers have penned a research paper nominating the giant squid as ambassador of the seas, and they offer two main reasons for their decision. For one, the big, charismatic animals fascinate the public, a characteristic that could potentially help them rival the panda's marketability. But they also have a tentacle in several different oceanic crises, giving them "sea cred" among hard-luck ocean dwellers. They're on the front lines of overfishing, for example, since nearly a third of all giant-squid records began when one was caught by a deep-sea trawler, a problem that has only increased in recent decades. They're also heavily affected by ocean pollution, since their long lifespans give them extra time to soak up more toxins and their diet offers plenty of chances to consume other contaminated animals. Beachings of giant squids have also been linked to underwater noise pollution, Wired points out, namely geological surveys that use compressed-air guns to generate low-frequency sounds.

But perhaps the broadest ecological threat to giant squids, like many ocean animals, is climate change. Squids and other cephalopods are at risk from ocean acidification due to calcium carbonate structures inside their bodies, a material that dissolves readily in acidic conditions. Giant squid also inhabit colder regions of the ocean, due to their energy and oxygen requirements, and warmer waters could eventually squeeze them out. It may be tough for people to embrace a giant squid as readily as a furry mammal like a panda, but Guerraa and the other researchers figure it's worth a shot.

(Sources: Wired, ScienceDirect)

Russell McLendon

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Photo (nuclear power plant in Germany): Matthias Hensel/Flickr

Photo (roadblock near Arizona fire line on June 8): ZUMA Press

Photo (meteor streaking against night sky): NASA

Photo (giant squid): National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

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

Weekend Briefing 6/10/2011
Can Germany nix nukes? Did meteors spark life? Is squid the new panda? Will wildfires in Arizona cease?