This Week’s “Planet Earth Report” — NASA ‘Trumped’ to Google’s Sidewalk Labs and UFO Project ‘Blue Book’ TV Series (WATCH Video)




This week's link to 14 headline articles around the world on the threats, opportunities, and dangers facing our fragile planet –along with an occasional dash of humor, popular culture, and an intriguing conspiracy or two.

Earth's Real 'Gates of Hell' –'It’s like something out of a science fiction film.'


A-burning-natural-gas-field-in-derweze-turkmenistan (1)

Deep in the Karakum desert is a place so metal that hordes of camel spiders routinely plunge to their deaths into a pit of fire. These unknowing souls are drawn to the flames of the Darvaza gas crater, a blazing pit in Turkmenistan that’s more commonly known as The Gates of Hell. This portal also lures hundreds of tourists every year. After all, what says “vacation” like a remote hellmouth?

There’s no official record of how the Gates of Hell emerged, but the most widely accepted story is that in 1971, when Turkmenistan was a part of the Soviet Union, geologists operating a drilling rig accidentally drilled into a pocket of natural gas. The site caved in, exposing a large crater that began to spew out toxic, methane-infused gas.

Hoping to burn the natural gas away and prevent an environmental catastrophe, the geologists set the craters aflame — and the Gates of Hell haven’t stopped burning since.

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Explorers Find Passage to Earth’s Dark Age




Geochemical signals from deep inside Earth are beginning to shed light on the planet’s first 50 million years, a formative period long viewed as inaccessible to science. In August, the geologist Matt Jackson left California with his wife and 4-year-old daughter for the fjords of northwest Iceland, where they camped as he roamed the outcrops and scree slopes by day in search of little olive-green stones called olivine.

A sunny young professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, with a uniform of pearl-snap shirts and well-utilized cargo shorts, Jackson knew all the best hunting grounds, having first explored the Icelandic fjords two years ago. Following sketchy field notes handed down by earlier geologists, he covered 10 or 15 miles a day, past countless sheep and the occasional farmer. “Their whole lives they’ve lived in these beautiful fjords,” he said. “They look up to these black, layered rocks, and I tell them that each one of those is a different volcanic eruption with a lava flow. It blows their minds!” He laughed. “It blows my mind even more that they never realized it!”

The olivine erupted to Earth’s surface in those very lava flows between 10 and 17 million years ago. Jackson, like many geologists, believes that the source of the eruptions was the Iceland plume, a hypothetical upwelling of solid rock that may rise, like the globules in a lava lamp, from deep inside Earth. The plume, if it exists, would now underlie the active volcanoes of central Iceland. In the past, it would have surfaced here at the fjords, back in the days when here was there — before the puzzle-piece of Earth’s crust upon which Iceland lies scraped to the northwest.

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An Interstellar Dust Lane Could Trigger Mass Extnction Event




We think of outer space as distant and unreachable, but in fact events out in the cosmos may have helped and hindered the evolution of life on Earth. We are here by the skin of our teeth. Evolution could well have turned out differently, and the fact that it did not may well be down to freak, chance events. Life on Earth has faced a string of accidents, weird situations and outright catastrophes, from sudden ice ages to collisions with asteroids – and it is how life responded to these contingencies that ultimately led to us.

If that is so, we can only understand the story of life by taking the broadest possible view. Organisms are shaped by their environments, and those environments are shaped in turn by huge geological forces like volcanoes and ice sheets, and by the shifting climate.

But we should cast the net even wider. What if these great forces were influenced by even greater forces from the wider Universe? Might cosmic events in our Solar System and even our galaxy have also played roles? Do we literally have to thank our stars that we are here?

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Project Blue Book Video –Allen Hynek & The Murky History of UFO Research



With his long and villainous run on Game of Thrones now over, Irish actor Aiden Gillen is turning his considerable talents toward playing one of the more polarizing scientists in the murky history of UFO research. Deadline reports that Gillen has been cast in the lead role of J. Allen Hynek for History's upcoming scripted series Blue Book. The 10-episode series is executive produced by Robert Zemeckis (Contact) and will chronicle the secret Air Force investigations into UFO phenomena of the 1950s and '60s.



Project Blue Book was the third and longest-lived of three consecutive UFO investigations conducted by the Air Force, officially lasting from 1952 through 1969. It was preceded by Project Sign (1947–1949) and Project Grudge (1949–1952), and Hynek, already established as a brilliant astronomer in his own right, was recruited as a scientific advisor on all three.

What makes Hynek so interesting is that his outlook gradually changed over time: initially a skeptic about the existence and origin of UFOs — and specifically hired by the Air Force to act as a "debunker," to use his own description — Hynek eventually became convinced that the steady stream of sightings and unexplained phenomena could not be explained away as things like weather balloons, satellites or swamp gas.

By the time Blue Book came into existence, Hynek — while careful not to say definitively that UFOs did exist and were of extra-terrestrial origin — was arguing that the field required serious study, a position that put him at odds with many fellow scientists and the U.S. military.



Hynek grew increasingly disenchanted with Blue Book during his tenure on the investigation, criticizing the Air Force's research methods and general indifference to the subject. Blue Book was shut down in 1969 having officially determined that UFOs were not a threat to national security and were not of extra-terrestrial origin — a conclusion that Hynek hinted was already pre-ordained.


The 'GEOSTORM' Conspiracy




What caused a devastating back-to-back string of hurricanes and natural disasters across the United States? If you ask conspiracy theorists on the internet, some will point you to a former U.S. military ionospheric research facility in Alaska. The problem with such a far-fetched theory is that the Fairbanks research facility is now operated by the University of Alaska, and it cannot physically accomplish what conspiracy theorists accuse.


Of course, that does not keep individuals from claiming the High-Frequency Active Auroral Research Program (HAARP) manipulates the environment, changes weather patterns and ultimately brings hurricanes that kill and injure hundreds of people.

HAARP is a former military facility capable of sending low-frequency waves into the ionosphere, which is a region of Earth's upper atmosphere. Bob McCoy, Geophysical Institute director for the University of Alaska, said the transmitter served as a powerful Department of Defense radio until the military decided they no longer needed it and gifted it to the University of Alaska.

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"The New Files Will Fuel Conspiracy Theories" –Reporter Who Witnessed JFK and Oswald Deaths




Hugh Aynesworth, a reporter for The Dallas Morning News, was watching the presidential motorcade downtown when he heard the shots that killed President John F. Kennedy on Nov. 22, 1963 . Since then, much of his career has been devoted to investigating the events of that day.

Over the years, Aynesworth figures he's explored dozens, maybe hundreds, of different conspiracy theories about the assassination. His work will continue on Thursday when the government releases the latest batch of files kept classified for 54 years.

One thing's for certain: The new information won't put an end to the conspiracy theories, said Aynesworth, who is firmly in the camp that only one shooter, Lee Harvey Oswald, was responsible for Kennedy's murder. "What will come out of this is something that should have come out years and years ago," said Aynesworth, 86, who lives in Dallas.

He expects the files to produce more information about how much the CIA and FBI knew about Oswald before the assassination. In particular, the files could reveal how much the CIA knew about a trip Oswald made to Mexico City a month or so before the assassination. "There's been a lot of speculation over the years about Oswald's trip to Mexico," said Aynesworth. While there, Oswald met with Cubans and Russians, he said.

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The Man Who Discovered Earth’s Tectonic Plates




Grand ideas have a way of turning up in unusual settings, far from an office or a chalkboard. Months ago, Quanta Magazine set out to photograph some of the world’s most accomplished scientists and mathematicians in their favorite places to think, tinker and create. This series explores the role of cherished spaces — public or private, spare or crowded, inside or out — in clearing a path to inspiration.

In 1967, Jason Morgan discovered the theory of plate tectonics — the idea that rigid plates pave the Earth’s surface, moving relative to one another with the continents and oceans in tow. That January, sitting in his office at Princeton University, Morgan read a new article in Science by the geologist H. William Menard, who had mapped long cracks called “fracture zones” on the Pacific Ocean floor. “I instantly saw the pattern that all the fracture zones had a common pole that they were concentric about,” Morgan, 81, told Quanta in an email. “They had all been formed with a rotation about the same pole.”

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Strange Ocean Buzzing Linked to Massive Deep Sea Migration



The world’s largest migration may be responsible for the vexing hum of the oceans. The low-frequency melodic buzzing has puzzled scientists all over the world for years. Now, University of California San Diego Assistant Research Biologist Simone Baumann-Pickering has posited a theory: The daily migration of marine life from the deep, dark mesopelagic ocean up to the more comfortable and abundant epipelagic zone is responsible for the noise.

Apparently, just as the fish are setting off on the steep climb to the ocean’s surface, they give off a sound “as if you’re sitting on an airplane and it’s humming, buzzing,” Baumann-Pickering told NPR. Then, they do it again as the sun rises as they begin to sink back down into the deep.

Baumann-Pickering, in a study collaboration with David Checkley (Scripps Institution of Oceanography) and David Demer (Southwest Fisheries Science Center, NOAA), has been listening to the sounds of the deep ocean with hydrophones, special microphones equipped to hear what is going on deep beneath the surface. It’s the same technology used to listen in on the chatter between humpback whales, but the scope of the conversation Pickering has picked up dwarfs even the most massive whale parties.

The so-called Diel Vertical Migration brings as much as 10 billion metric tons of marine life out of the shadows of the dark ocean, where they spend the day in relative safety, to search for food, making it the largest migration of vertebrates in the world. Baumann-Pickering has been studying the sounds of the Pacific, but the daily migration is a staple of all the world’s oceans.

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NASA Trumped –"Pick for NASA Chief Doesn’t Understand Science"




Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-Okla.) doesn’t “believe” in climate science — now there’s bipartisan pushback against him. Say what you will about President Trump, but when it comes to his federal nominees, the man is remarkably consistent: He has a secretary of education who detests public education, a secretary of the interior who hates public lands, a housing and urban development secretary who despises public housing, and a labor secretary who "has a lifetime of anti-union and anti-worker positions," according to professor Eric Loomis.

Not a man to break a streak, the president has nominated Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R.-Okla) for National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) chief, despite Bridenstine's misunderstanding of the fundamental premises of science; in particular, climate science, the study of which is one of NASA's main functions.




When discussing climate change, Bridenstine uses a tactic perfected by the tobacco industry; specifically, the sowing of doubt to obscure science. The tobacco industry internally adopted the slogan "doubt is our greatest ally" in its efforts to hide that its products were killing thousands, which it achieved through sloganeering and PR statements honed to suggest it was unclear if the science was conclusive about tobacco's effects. In the same vein, Bridenstine once said that the climate “has always changed,” and noted “periods of time long before the internal combustion engine when the Earth was much warmer than it is today.”

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Google's Sidewalk Labs –Wants to Run Cities Without Being Elected



A new initiative will see Alphabet – the parent company of Google – take charge of redeveloping a waterfront district in Toronto. ‘If the Toronto development goes as planned, it will be one of the largest examples of a smart city project in North America.’

Alphabet, the parent company of Google, does not suffer from a lack of ambition. Its subsidiaries are tackling topics ranging from autonomous vehicles to smart homes, artificial intelligence to biotech life extension. So perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise that Alphabet has decided it will plan, build, and run a city, too – well, part of a city. It’s a bit more surprising that a major city is happily handing Alphabet a neighborhood of prime real estate to call their own.


The project announced last week is a partnership between Sidewalk Labs, an Alphabet subsidiary focused on urban technology, and Toronto. Sidewalk Labs will be in charge of redeveloping a waterfront district called Quaysid

According to reports, this initiative will “include at least 3.3m square feet of residential, office and commercial space, including a new headquarters for Google Canada, in a district that would be a test bed for the combination of technology and urbanism”.

With this district, Alphabet will have its own “urban living laboratory” where it can experiment with new smart systems and planning techniques. It can study how these systems and techniques work in the real world and how people are affected.

Urban labs like this are on trend right now. There are examples around the world of cities, often in partnership with companies, developing or deeming a district a test-bed for technologies like self-driving cars. Indeed, this is not even Sidewalk Lab’s first project. It is also involved in the redevelopment of Hudson Yards in New York City.

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How Kathmandu's Streets Went Quiet




Many predicted the Nepali capital’s ban on vehicle horns would be ignored. But six months on, the streets are peaceful – in a city without a single traffic light. When the authorities in Kathmandu outlawed the use of vehicle horns in April, the start of the Nepali year, many expected the ban would go the way of most new year’s resolutions and be quickly forgotten.

But six months later, the streets of the capital remain remarkably quiet. In a city where a horn was widely used as a substitute for a brake, Kathmandu’s drivers appear to have kicked their noisy habit for good.

“To mark the new year we wanted to give something new to the people of Kathmandu,” said Mingmar Lama, the head of the traffic police at the time the ban was introduced. “The horn is a symbol of being uncivilised. We wanted to show the world how civilised we are in Kathmandu.”

The ban is now being introduced in other parts of the country, including the tourist hot spot Pokhara.

“We received a lot of complaints about horn pollution. Everyone felt that in recent years it had become excessive,” said Kedar Nath Sharma, the chief district officer for Kathmandu. “It was not just the view of one person or community; we all felt the same. It was discussed in every tea shop.”

Sharma credits the success of the policy to consultation with all stakeholders, a “massive” information campaign and flexibility over implementation. “Also, there was nothing to spend and no investment needed – it was just a change in behavior,” he added.

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Is It Possible to Predict the Next Pandemic?




Large initiatives are underway to pinpoint the next big viral threats—but some virologists believe the task is too hard. It’s been two years since an epidemic of Zika began in Brazil, three since the largest Ebola outbreak in history erupted in West Africa, eight since a pandemic of H1N1 flu swept the world, and almost a hundred since a different H1N1 flu pandemic killed 50 million people worldwide. Those viruses were all known, but no one knew when or where they’d trigger epidemics. Other diseases, like SARS, MERS, and HIV, emerged out of the blue.

Sick of being perpetually caught off guard, some scientists want to fully catalogue all viral threats, and predict which are likely to cause tomorrow’s outbreaks. The PREDICT project has been doing that for 8 years; with $100 million in funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development, they’ve discovered nearly 1,000 new viruses. The Global Virome Project is even more ambitious. Proposed in 2016, and still existing in concept only, it aims to find and sequence almost all the viruses in birds and mammals that could potentially spill over into humans.

The GVP estimates that around half a million such viruses exist, and finding them would cost $3.4 billion. With that hefty price tag would come security. In lofty language, the project promises to switch the world “from responding to outbreaks to proactively preparing for them” and to “mark the beginning of the end of the Pandemic Era.”

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The Video Game That Could Shape the Future of War



The U.S. Army is developing a new way to test technologies and tactics—but first they have to get tens of thousands of soldiers to play it. As far as video games go, Operation Overmatch is rather unremarkable. Players command military vehicles in eight-on-eight matches against the backdrop of rendered cityscapes—a common setup of games that sometimes have the added advantage of hundreds of millions of dollars in development budgets. Overmatch does have something unique, though: its mission. The game’s developers believe it will change how the U.S. Army fights wars.


Overmatch’s players are nearly all soldiers in real life. As they develop tactics around futuristic weapons and use them in digital battle against peers, the game monitors their actions. Each shot fired and decision made, in addition to messages the players write in private forums, is a bit of information soaked up with a frequency not found in actual combat, or even in high-powered simulations without a wide network of players. The data is logged, sorted, and then analyzed, using insights from sports and commercial video games. Overmatch’s team hopes this data will inform the Army’s decisions about which technologies to purchase and how to develop tactics using them, all with the aim of building a more forward-thinking, prepared force.

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