Earthweek: A Diary of the Planet 3.8

Cross-Species Virus
Two new viruses similar to AIDS, detected in some African
hunters, may have jumped into the human population from other
Cross-Species Virus

Two new viruses similar to AIDS, detected in some African hunters, may have jumped into the human population from other primates. Walid Hemeine of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told a health conference in Boston that the new retroviruses turned up among people who regularly hunt monkeys for “bush meat” in Cameroon, and in those who handled the dead animals. Closely related types of these viruses cause leukemia, as well as inflammatory and neurological diseases. “Because HIV originated as a cross-species infection from a non-human primate virus, the question was how much cross-species retrovirus infections are occurring and what are the consequences of these infections,” said Hemeine.

Natural Ozone Hole

An international research team announced it has discovered that last spring’s huge increase in the ozone hole over northern latitudes may have been largely due to natural causes, and not entirely from human use of ozone-depleting chemicals. According to the team, lead by Cora Randall of the University of Colorado at Boulder, the decline in Earth’s protective ozone layer in the spring of 2004 was in part due to solar storms and stratospheric weather. Writing in Geophysical Research Letters, Randall said the strongest polar stratospheric vortex winds on record pulled down ozone-depleting nitrogen oxide gasses from the edge of space, thinning the ozone layer. Some of those gasses were formed when Earth’s uppermost atmosphere was bombarded with energetic particles from the massive solar storms of October-November 2003.


Scientists in Hawaii warned residents downwind of Kilauea Volcano they may face an increased health risk from exposure to high levels of sulfur dioxide and airborne particles from the volcano’s ongoing eruption. Researchers from Oregon State University and the University of Hawaii said excessive sulfur dioxide gas can cause bronchial irritation or asthma attacks in people vulnerable to respiratory ailments.

n The northernmost active volcano on Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula sent a plume of ash soaring high over the geologically active region, and westward to the Okhotsk Sea.

Cyclone Percy

The fourth tropical cyclone to batter the Cook Islands during February passed directly over some northern members of the island chain. Damage from Cyclone Percy was widespread on Pukapuka and neighboring Nassau, but no fatalities were reported. The Category 4 storm passed near the atoll of Palmerston late in the week, and the islands’ 50 inhabitants were told to shelter as far away from the shoreline as possible.


A wide area of eastern Indonesia and northern Australia was rocked by a powerful temblor centered beneath the Banda Sea. The quake occurred far too deep beneath the seabed to produce a tsunami.

n Earth movements were also felt in the Sumatra aftershock zone, Bali, New Zealand’s North Island, Taiwan, northeastern Japan, eastern Afghanistan, southwest Pakistan, central Iran, central Peru, northern Arizona and along the New York-Quebec border.

Cod Decline

Using data from thousands of fishermen’s dusty logbooks, University of New Hampshire researchers have documented a 96 percent decline in the number of cod off Nova Scotia since 1852. Decades of overfishing since World War II in the once-teeming waters off Atlantic Canada and New England caused the precipitous decline in cod stocks, forcing U.S. and Canadian officials to halt cod fishing for extended periods of time. “It shows that we really have massively overexploited those early resources. It also gives us a much clearer picture of what the productivity of the ocean used to be,” said researcher Andy Rosenberg. He and his colleague Jeff Bolster hope their findings will allow fishery officials to make sound decisions for the future of cod fishing in the region.

Songs of the Fittest

A British bird expert has found evidence that male birds with the most complex and extravagant songs are more successful fathers than their less musically talented rivals. It’s been known that female birds show a preference for males with the greatest song repertoires, but the new research may indicate why that talent is preferred. Ornithologist Jane M. Reid and fellow researchers studied a population of song sparrows on British Columbia’s Mandarte Island. They found that male sparrows with the greatest singing ability contributed more offspring and grand-offspring to the breeding population. This was due to those males living longer and rearing more hatched chicks to independence.

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