On science blogs this week: Old & New

ON EGYPT, OLD AND NEW. Mohammed Yahia, a Cairo science journalist and editor at the new journal Nature Middle East came back online at the blog House of Wisdom yesterday (Feb 3) after a hiatus of several days when the Egyptian government shut down the Internet.

He reported that Cairo's Egyptian Antiquities Museum appears to be safe, for the moment at least, protected by the military and anti-government protesters. When the anti-protest thugs arrived on horses and camelback Wednesday, the area around the Museum was firebombed for several hours by pro-Mubarak forces. But the Museum and its contents were not harmed. Yahia says a fire truck is now stationed in the Museum courtyard. He has shot and posted a video.

House of Wisdom also contains reposts of Egypt-related stories from Nature News.

Yahia also did brief interviews with 3 Egyptian scientists who were among the Cairo demonstrators. His piece was cross-posted to Nature's Great Beyond.

Also at the Great Beyond, Ewen Callaway has posted on looting of the Egyptian Deserts Gene Bank, a seed and plant collection in the North Sinai region.

At The Last Word on Nothing, Heather Pringle describes the frustrations of trying to find out about the fates of Egyptian antiquities. Even if the museums are guarded rigorously, she says, archaeological sites are vulnerable, and it appears that at least some have been looted. She provides links to two Facebook newsfeeds she thinks are providing trustworthy information.

On Tuesday, Discover's 80Beats rounded up snippets of news coverage related to Egyptian antiquities, reporting that last week looters had entered the museum, decapitating two statues and damaging a number of artifacts. Several of the items were gilded wood, so the looters were assumed to be looking for gold.

The looting also sharpened the debate over whether Egyptian artifacts now in institutions in the US and Europe would be safe if returned to Egypt as Egyptian officials have demanded. At Thoughts from Kansas, Joshua Rosenau wonders about the implications of the recent appointment of the most prominent demander, Zahi Hawass, to the post of Minister of Antiquities. In her Last Word on Nothing post, Heather Pringle notes:

I’ve long supported the repatriation movement, but the recent events in Egypt have given me pause for thought–a long hard thought.

Time for a science interlude. At Science in Seconds, Brit Trogen seized the opportunity presented by Egyptian antiquities in the news to engage in some pedagogy about how mummies are prepared — and studied.

FOOD PRICES, CLIMATE CHANGE, AND MOBILE PHONES. At SciAm's Observations, David Biello asks whether high food prices, especially the price of wheat, provoked the Egyptian protests.

At Dot Earth, Andrew Revkin thinks other factors may be more important than food prices or even his beloved global warming, although the latter may help drive food prices up. He attributes the upheaval in Egypt and elsewhere mostly to "the explosive growth in the use of mobile phones in developing countries."

And posts graphs to prove it. In Egypt, half the population had phone subscriptions in 2008, up from nothing ten years before. In Tunisia, the growth has been even more remarkable, from none late in the '90s to well over 80% of the population in 2008. (And note that those figures are more than 2 years old.) One estimate puts the 2010 worldwide total at 5.3 billion mobile phone subscriptions, nearly 3 out of 4 of them in developing countries. Says Revkin:

Inflation comes and goes. Heat waves and floods come and go (more frequently with warming, sure). But there’s something new and fundamentally different going on, it seems...Combine that with humanity’s urban rush and you can get concentrated, collaborative, coordinated consequential action.

ON SNOW, OLD AND NEW. Ah, climate change and global warming. A hot topic even in the middle of what Stephen Leahy calls The Great Groundhog Day Storm He also calls it the worst winter storm in 60 years. Supersnow has hit 30 states and Canada and affected 100 million people. Leahy states flatly:

Climate change is certainly playing a role in this massive storm.

Yes, he explains, warmer global temperatures mean, paradoxically, more snow. That's because warmth increases snow's raw material, atmospheric water vapor (currently by 4%). This brief post contains links to other posts where he makes his arguments about current weather patterns in detail.

So, what's the real story? Are these storms related to climate change? Or are they simply weather in all its lovable variety? Knight Science Journalism Tracker Charlie Petit reminds us (as he does frequently) that this pretty important question is as unsettled as weather itself.

Meantime Climate Progress tracks tropical cyclone Yasi as it sweeps into already flooded Queensland, and Joe Romm is in no doubt about the villain there either. Both floods and cyclone, he asserts, are due to the warmest sea temperature on record.

Anthony Watts, whose blog Watts Up With That? expresses, uh, skepticism about global warming, has posted photos of current Chicago snow showing how similar they are are to photos shot there after the big storm of 1967. Many approving comments continue the theme. The hed asks "Chicago snow 2011 and 1967 – global warming then too?" That's presumably intended as a horse laugh, but isn't the answer an unembarrassed yes? The idea being that human behavior started to affect climate beginning with the Industrial Revolution?

In Chicago, they had 2 feet.

In Chicago, they had 2 feet.

Enough of climate politics. Let's look at pretty pictures — pretty, that is, if you are far enough away not to have to worry about digging your car out of a snowbank. On a satellite, for instance. At Wired Science, Dave Mosher presents a still pic that, as he points out, brilliantly illustrates the wire-service cliche about being blanketed by snow. And at Bad Astronomy, Phil Plait brings us a NASA-NOAA video of the storm, complete with alternating streaks of night and day between Jan 31 and Feb 2.

If your pix are up close and personal, at the Guardian's Environment Blog Edward Parker explains why the light and weather conditions in February are perfect for the nature photography he calls green shoots — although this month much of it will be in black and white.

And here's some actual science related to the storms. Bioephemera's Jessica Palmer passes along info from Science for Citizens on a crowdsourced science project based at the University of Waterloo. You, too, can be a scientist. All you have to do is measure your snow depth and then tweet your data. Science for Citizens doesn't seem uncertain about the climate vs. weather question; it says the snow measurements will help scientists track climate change.

At AK's Rambling Thoughts, the thoughts ramble into thundersnow. What is thundersnow besides a TV weatherperson's delight? Why does it happen? The post includes several explanatory refs — and a challenge to science writers. It points out that the mechanism(s) for creating lightning with or without snow are still unknown, although articles for general audiences fail to mention that.

This points up a general defect in science reporting: the fact that the public is being kept pretty much in the dark regarding how much isn't really known for sure in science.

MICROBES MAKE IT SNOW.I didn't know this; did you? Microbes make it snow. Microbial Modus, a soil microbiologist, explains.

The atmosphere is full of microbes. Lots of them can nucleate ice; that is, they make a protein that helps ice crystals form on their surfaces, and the crystals protect them from freezing. She reports how researchers in Colorado recently established that the bugs increase with humidity and may even make more ice-nucleating protein as humidity steps up. Which leads me to wonder if increases in ice-nucleating bacteria might help create the snow that Leahy says results from water vapor increases.

Microbial Modus points out that the more human population grows, the more soil gets disturbed, which flings more dust, soil, fungi, and bacteria into the air — and some of them fall back to Earth encased in snow. She notes:

[M]uch as I love to blame global warming for more extreme weather events, we don’t have to connect a whole lot of dots to be able to believe that atmospheric microorganisms may be playing a role as well.

Best of luck to the Egyptian people, we could all learn a thing or two from them.