"All the World's a Stage We Pass Through" R. Ayana

Thursday 30 June 2016

Climate Change Ruins Food: Rising CO2 is reducing nutritional value of food, impacting ecosystems


Climate Change Ruins Food
Rising CO2 is reducing nutritional value of food, impacting ecosystems

Women harvest rice in Nepal. An estimated two billion people are already deficient in dietary zinc and iron, an aspect of malnutrition that has been termed “hidden hunger”. Some researchers think that shifts in nutritional content in major crops as a consequence of increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide could lead to more people being at risk of mineral deficiencies. Photo courtesy of the International Rice Research Institute on Flickr under a CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 license.



 Women harvest rice in Nepal. An estimated two billion people are already deficient in dietary zinc and iron, an aspect of malnutrition that has been termed “hidden hunger”. Some researchers think that shifts in nutritional content in major crops as a consequence of increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide could lead to more people being at risk of mineral deficiencies. 
Photo courtesy of the International Rice Research Institute on Flickr under a CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 license.




Heightened atmospheric CO2 levels are cutting the proportions of protein and other vital nutrients in plants, impacting crops, people, pollinators and ecosystems.


Rice fields in Kashmir, India. Staple crops such as rice and wheat are forecast to become less nutritious as a result of increasing carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere. Photo courtesy of sandeepachetan.com travel photography on Flickr under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license
Rice fields in Kashmir, India. Staple crops such as rice and wheat are forecast to become less nutritious as a result of increasing carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere. 
Photo courtesy of sandeepachetan.com travel photography on Flickr under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license


  • As CO2 levels rise, so do carbohydrates in plants, increasing food’s sugar content. While carbon-enriched plants grow bigger, scientists are finding that they contain proportionately less protein and nutrients such as zinc, magnesium and calcium.
  • A meta-analysis of 7,761 observations of 130 plant species found that overall mineral concentrations in plants declined by about 8 percent in response to elevated CO2 levels — 25 minerals decreased, including iron, zinc, potassium and magnesium.
  • New research found that as atmospheric CO2 rose from preindustrial to near current levels, the protein content in goldenrod pollen fell by 30 percent. Bees and other pollinators rely heavily on goldenrod as protein-rich food for overwintering. The loss of pollinators could devastate many of the world’s food crops.
  • Research into the correlation between CO2 concentrations and the nutrient content of food is in its early stages. More study is urgently needed to determine how crops and ecosystems will be altered as fossil fuels are burned, plus mitigation strategies.


Among the myriad impacts climate change is having on the world, one in particular may come as a surprise: heightened atmospheric CO2 levels might be adversely affecting the nutritional quality of the food you eat. As carbon dioxide in the atmosphere continues to increase, you could end up eating more sugar and less of important minerals such as zinc, magnesium and calcium — without even realizing it. Those effects could also be reverberating up the food chain and altering ecosystems in as yet poorly understood ways.

For plants, a rise in atmospheric carbon dioxide actually boosts productivity by stimulating photosynthesis. They make more carbohydrate and grow larger — seemingly a good thing. But because other nutrients don’t increase and can’t keep pace with the augmented carbohydrate, this potential boon to our food supply isn’t all that it seems: plants end up having a higher carbohydrate to protein ratio, and relatively lower concentrations of minerals.

Put simply: atmospheric carbon dioxide acts as a sort of fertilizer to grow bigger, leafier plants, but those larger broccolis and lettuces actually contain less nutritional value per portion than their predecessors grown in the preindustrial, pre-fossil fuel world.

And that could be a problem for the world’s already malnourished people, for bees seeking protein-rich pollen so they can safely overwinter, and for ecosystems that could be thrown out of balance by changes in plant nutrition.

The human implications of these ongoing changes to our food supply came under the spotlight in April when the US Global Change Research Program (USGCRP) published a major report on the impact of climate change on human health. One of its key findings was that rising carbon dioxide will reduce the nutritional quality of food.

Allison Crimmins, of the US Environmental Protection Agency, and a lead author of the food safety chapter in the USGCRP report, told Mongabay about some of the ways in which this is likely to be felt around the world: “In certain developing countries, reduced nutritional value of foods will aggravate existing protein deficiencies, particularly in children. In the US and other developed countries however, dietary protein deficiencies are uncommon. In those cases, an increased ratio of carbohydrates and fewer essential minerals — essentially more starchy and more sugary foods — could potentially contribute to or exacerbate existing chronic dietary deficiencies or obesity risks, though how big a role this impact would play on a person’s overall nutrition remains uncertain.”


Deciphering the CO2 / plant nutrition relationship


In a 2014 study that informed the USGCRP report, researcher Irakli Loladze, of the Bryan College of Health Sciences, described the projected increase in dietary starch and carbohydrate as comparable to adding a “spoonful of sugars” to each 100 grams (3.5 ounces) of dry plant matter. When we’re being told not to eat more than a few teaspoons-worth of sugar per day, this sounds like a lot.

What will be the consequences, Loladze asks, if this additional sugar intake is unavoidable and lifelong? How, for example, might that extra daily suger exacerbate the health problems of the 25 million Americans, 98.4 million Chinese, and 65 million Indians who are part of the growing global diabetes epidemic? And how might those health impacts escalate as atmospheric carbon levels rise annually through the 21st century?

Loladze’s meta-study — which examined thousands of observations of plants grown under high carbon dioxide conditions — was an attempt to prove a theoretical prediction he made back in 2002. We’ve known for decades that plants grown under high carbon dioxide conditions have reduced protein concentrations, and the mechanism behind that change is fairly well understood: more carbohydrate dilutes the protein within the leaf. In addition, increased CO2 changes the rate of transpiration — the uptake of water through the roots and evaporation through the leaves — and affects the amount of nutrients plants draw from the soil. However, higher rates of photosynthesis have different effects on different minerals.


Wheat. Carbon dioxide promotes plant growth by boosting photosynthesis and carbohydrate production in the plant. But other nutrients don’t keep pace with this increase, resulting in higher carbohydrate to protein ratios, and lower concentrations of minerals. These shifts in nutritional quality could have implications for human health around the world. Photo courtesy of Žarko Šušnjar on Flickr, under a CC BY-SA 2.0 license
Wheat. Carbon dioxide promotes plant growth by boosting photosynthesis and carbohydrate production in the plant. But other nutrients don’t keep pace with this increase, resulting in higher carbohydrate to protein ratios, and lower concentrations of minerals. These shifts in nutritional quality could have implications for human health around the world. Photo courtesy of Žarko Šušnjar on Flickr, under a CC BY-SA 2.0 license


A theory known as ecological stoichiometry — which examines the balance of chemical elements in living systems — led Loladze to reason that minerals should also be affected by a proportional increase in carbohydrate synthesis and the associated knock-on effects this has on plant metabolism. But although a few studies supported his hypothesis in the early 2000s, the evidence was limited.

“There was considerable opposition to my idea,” Loladze told Mongabay. “The stoichiometric theory [upon which I based my argument] was not well known back then. Being a mathematician, I was viewed by some plant experts as an outsider with simplistic arguments that would not pan out in the real world.”

No one would fund the large-scale research effort Loladze needed to investigate his prediction further. Lacking backing and unemployed, he remained determined to test his theory with data. “With no money and no academic affiliation, the only way to get data was to compile [findings] from the existing literature,” he said.

Meanwhile, scientists around the world were increasingly studying the CO2 nutrient effects that interested Loladze, but their results were perplexing: while increases in atmospheric carbon decreased plant mineral concentrations in some studies, minerals increased in others, or showed no significant change

Loladze combined the data from numerous studies — that together had highly variable results — into one large meta-analysis, and he found a clear signal in the noise. A decade after he began work, he proved his prediction to be correct: when he collated the results of 7,761 observations of 130 plant species, he found that overall mineral concentrations in plant tissues declined by around 8 percent in response to elevated carbon dioxide levels. In all, 25 minerals were found to decrease, including iron, zinc, potassium and magnesium.


Tussock moth caterpillars feeding on leaves. Plants and the insects that feed on them form the basis of most terrestrial ecosystems, so nutritional shifts caused by rising atmospheric carbon dioxide levels will likely have impacts that extend up the food chain, but as ecosystems are so complex, it’s difficult to predict exactly how those changes will play out over time. Photo courtesy of Bjorn Watland on Flickr under a CC BY-SA 2.0 license
Tussock moth caterpillars feeding on leaves. Plants and the insects that feed on them form the basis of most terrestrial ecosystems, so nutritional shifts caused by rising atmospheric carbon dioxide levels will likely have impacts that extend up the food chain, but as ecosystems are so complex, it’s difficult to predict exactly how those changes will play out over time. Photo courtesy of Bjorn Watland on Flickr under a CC BY-SA 2.0 license


“One important aspect of Loladze’s study is its emphasis on trace elements, like zinc,” James Elser, of Arizona State University, and a proponent of the ecological stoichiometry theory on which Loladze based his work, told Mongabay. “These are often neglected in considerations of plant nutrition but agronomists and others are increasingly aware of the importance of these trace elements [not only] in limiting crop production, but also in human health and are now provisioning them in fertilizers.”

At the same time Loladze was looking at all available data on the nutrient responses of plants, Samuel Myers of Harvard University was also trying to pinpoint the impact of carbon dioxide on plant mineral content.

Whereas Loladze included data on wild as well as food crop species, and non-edible tissues as well as edible, Myers focused specifically on zinc and iron in six food crops. His research team grew the crops under different atmospheric CO2 conditions, and found a similar pattern: both zinc and iron declined by about 5-10 percent in wheat, rice, soybeans, and field peas when grown in a high carbon dioxide setting.


On the trail of trace elements and “hidden hunger”


Although a more consistent picture is now emerging of what happens to plant nutrients as carbon dioxide levels rise, it’s still not clear exactly how serious a problem this will be for people’s health.

Minor changes in mineral concentrations are unlikely to affect people already consuming more than sufficient quantities for good health, like many in the industrialized world. And if edible plants grow larger under higher carbon dioxide, then simply eating more may compensate for the reduced mineral concentration, though this could have consequences in terms of extra calories consumed.


Goldenrod in Virginia, USA. This is an essential late season source of food for bees, but a recent study found that with rising carbon dioxide levels, the nutritional quality of its pollen is decreasing. This could affect bee survival over the winter. Pollinators such as bees play a crucial part in our food supply. Photo courtesy of Bridget Leyendecker on Flickr under a CC BY 2.0 license.Goldenrod in Virginia, USA. This is an essential late season source of food for bees, but a recent study found that with rising carbon dioxide levels, the nutritional quality of its pollen is decreasing. This could affect bee survival over the winter. Pollinators such as bees play a crucial part in our food supply. Photo courtesy of Bridget Leyendecker on Flickr under a CC BY 2.0 license.


This picture changes markedly in the developing world. Deficiencies in micronutrients are globally common there, with an estimated 2 billion people lacking in dietary zinc and iron — a serious problem long recognized by the United Nations. As the USGCRP report stated, “Globally, chronic dietary deficiencies of micronutrients such as vitamin A, iron, iodine, and zinc contribute to “hidden hunger,” in which the consequences of the micronutrient insufficiency may not be immediate­ly visible or easily observed. This type of micro­nutrient deficiency constitutes one of the world’s leading health risk factors and adversely affects metabolism, the immune system, cognitive devel­opment and maturation — particularly in children.” The report also noted that around 40 percent of people in the US are likely consuming less than the average daily requirement of calcium and magnesium.

Given the current prevalence of “hidden hunger” some experts expect that rising CO2 levels and corresponding declines in plant nutrition could have a major impact on the health of those already suffering from, or at risk of, malnutrition — with developing nations in Africa and Asia likely to be the hardest hit.

But more research is needed to quantify potential impacts. Studies such as those done by Loladze and Myers have so far only looked at the plants themselves, and not the food products that arise from them, cautions Elser. This “doesn’t necessarily represent the nutritional contents of the foods at the point of consumption, once they have been processed and prepared. So, the ultimate nutritional impact of the CO2 effect requires more investigation.”

“I agree that the conclusions in both [studies] are somewhat alarming, but they should be taken for what they are — just a couple of papers making estimations of potential impact that need to be verified by agroecology, climate, types of foods, etc,” Patrick Webb, Professor of Nutrition at Tufts University, told Mongabay. “And remember that over the [20th century] time-frames the [studies] refer to, there is a rapid expansion of bio-fortified cropping (non-GMO) and a surge in processed food consumption globally, much of which is micrononutrient fortified. I only say this to point out that these papers don’t lead to a conclusion that ‘we’re going to run out of nutrients!’ Simply, that we need to be wary of these kinds of potentially negative impacts of GHGs [greenhouse gases] even on our food supply, and such impacts are bound to be greater in some places than others.”


Native bees, wasps, butterflies, moths, flies and other wild pollinators are vital to the world’s agriculture and to ecosystems. No one knows for certain how rising carbon dioxide levels and corresponding falling protein levels in plants will impact these species long term. Image by Edward Sanders courtesy of the Biodiversity Heritage LibraryNative bees, wasps, butterflies, moths, flies and other wild pollinators are vital to the world’s agriculture and to ecosystems. No one knows for certain how rising carbon dioxide levels and corresponding falling protein and mineral levels in plants will impact these species long term. Image by Edward Sanders courtesy of the Biodiversity Heritage Library


“[T]he issues are being discussed among international agriculture researchers, certainly,” continued Webb, who is also Director for USAID’s Feed the Future Nutrition Innovation Lab. “The challenge… is to document the pace of change [in plant nutritional value] for different regions of the world, for different kinds of crops. Only then will we know what kinds of policy changes need to be [put] in place to respond to what is happening (or not happening) at a scale significant enough to warrant action.”

Last year Myers and his colleagues looked at what projected declines in crop zinc content could mean for people in 188 countries. They found that under predicted increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide, 138 million more people would be at risk of zinc deficiency by 2050, largely concentrated in Africa and South Asia.

“The effect we have identified highlights an issue of social justice,” Myers and his co-authors wrote. “The wealthy world’s CO2 emissions are putting the poor in harm’s way.”

While the problem can theoretically be solved by identifying the regions and populations most at risk from hidden hunger, and then focusing mitigations such as mineral fortification programs there, logistical hurdles will likely prevent fortified foods from reaching everyone who need them, now and into the future, Loladze points out in his 2014 paper. Another option is to explore crop cultivars for selective breeding that may be less susceptible to nutrient declines under higher carbon dioxide levels.

Loladze also urges more research, asserting that a greater understanding of exactly how nutrient declines occur could be an important step in responding to their effects. “Elucidating the relative role of each mechanism — dilution [of nutrients] by carbohydrates, reduced transpiration, altered demands for nutrients and so on — and linking them to genomic changes will help us to develop mitigation strategies.”


Food chain and ecosystem changes


While the full impact on human health of hidden hunger is still being investigated, we’re not the only ones likely to be affected: as plants form the basis of most terrestrial ecosystems “changes in plant based nutrition will extend up to all feeding organisms as part of the food chain,” Lewis Ziska of the US Department of Agriculture told Mongabay.

“Generally this means that the vegetation [in a CO2 enriched environment] is of poorer quality for the animals consuming it — insect herbivores, deer, etc,” Elser explained. “However, this is not necessarily always the case. For example, lower nitrogen content in grass [a consequence of the carbohydrate dilution effect] has been shown to favor the success of locusts.”


A worker bee in a honeycomb. The serious decline of protein in goldenrod, an important fall crop that sustains North American bees through the winter, could be harming these pollinators, but more study is needed to separate out this particular dietary stressor from other major stressors including chemical pesticide use. How CO2 levels are impacting other pollen-providing plants and pollinators around the world has not been studied. Photo by Richard Bartz, Munich Makro Freak & Beemaster Hubert Seibring licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license
A worker bee in a honeycomb. The serious decline of protein in goldenrod, an important fall crop that sustains North American bees through the winter, could be harming these pollinators, but more study is needed to separate out this particular dietary stressor from other major stressors including chemical pesticide use. How CO2 levels are impacting other pollen-providing plants and pollinators around the world has not been studied. Photo by Richard Bartz, Munich Makro Freak & Beemaster Hubert Seibring licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license


Studies have shown that some insect herbivores can compensate for the less nutrient rich plants found in high CO2 environments by eating more, but their growth, development, and reproduction can be affected, Loladze said. Crop damage may also be higher if insects need to consume greater plant quantities to survive. Some laboratory studies have shown that even with compensatory feeding to make up for deficiencies, insects are more likely to starve to death, or could end up consuming damaging quantities of toxic compounds. In the wild, generalist species may respond by switching plant hosts, and over time evolutionary responses could be expected too.

Another ecosystem outcome is the lower nutrient content found in dead leaves, Elser added. “This can slow down the cycling of nutrients in soil and thus impact subsequent productivity of the grassland or forest.”

Research just published by Ziska and his colleagues illustrates another important way CO2 induced nutritional changes are likely impacting wild ecosystems and human food crops. His team examined Smithsonian National Museum specimens of the flowering plant goldenrod collected between 1824 and 2014, to see how pollen quality changed as atmospheric carbon dioxide levels rose — they saw a high correlation. As carbon dioxide concentrations rose from preindustrial levels of 280 parts per million to near current levels of 398 parts per million, the protein content in the most recent pollen samples fell by 30 percent. The greatest protein drop was seen between 1960 and 2014, when atmospheric CO2 levels rose most dramatically.


US Department of Agriculture Agricultural Research Service entomologist Dr. Jeff Pettis examines a bee colony in McFarland, CA in 2014. Bees are one of nature’s many pollinators and are crucial to the production for fruits and vegetables —including apples, squash and almonds. Honeybees are responsible for pollinating approximately $15 billion worth of US crops annually. Their disappearance would have massive repercussions for our food supply. Photo by David Kosling / USDA.
US Department of Agriculture Agricultural Research Service entomologist Dr. Jeff Pettis examines a bee colony in McFarland, CA in 2014. Bees are one of nature’s many pollinators and are crucial to the production for fruits and vegetables —including apples, squash and almonds. Honeybees are responsible for pollinating approximately $15 billion worth of US crops annually. Their disappearance would have massive repercussions for our food supply. Photo by David Kosling / USDA.


The team also ran a two-year experiment that grew goldenrod under an equivalent range of carbon dioxide concentrations, as well as at levels that are predicted for the coming decades. They observed similar protein declines.

Myers described these findings as “really fascinating,” and explained their significance: “This is important because goldenrod is one of the most ubiquitous late-blooming plants that provides fodder for bees before they overwinter.” Ziska and colleagues say that goldenrod is recognized as being “essential to native bee and honey bee health and winter survival”.

Not only is this likely to directly impact bee populations, “It is reasonable in the case of pollinators to suggest that reduced nutrition will increase vulnerability to other stressors; these other stressors could include things like neonics [pesticides] and/or invasives such as Varroa destructor [parasitic mites],” Ziska said. The loss of pollinators worldwide would drastically impact the many insect pollinated foods we enjoy today ranging from apples to oranges, almonds to cashews, cabbages to broccoli, coffee to tomatoes and blueberries.

“We are starting to design some experiments to see what these changes in protein content might mean for bee behavior and their effectiveness as pollinators,” Myers said. Research Myers and colleagues published last year quantified the role that pollinators play in ensuring human health via food nutrition. Their study concluded that without pollinators as many as 1.4 million additional people would die each year due to non-communicable diseases and micronutrient deficiencies.


The urgent need for research


The complexity of natural systems, and the numerous confounding factors that affect human health and animal health, make it difficult to foresee exactly how CO2 impacts on the food chain will play out for people or ecosystems. Mitigation strategies may be successful to a degree, once we know what we’re up against. Even better would be to rapidly cut fossil fuel emissions, making sure that long-term carbon dioxide increase predictions don’t materialize.

“The impact on the nutrition of our food is a direct effect of rising greenhouse gas emissions, so it is vital that we reduce these emissions,” Crimmins said. “Taking action on climate change now and reducing the world’s greenhouse gas emissions is not just an environmental imperative; it is crucial for protecting public health.”

“Bottom line is that humanity is operating like a monkey in a rocket ship,” Myers concluded. “We used to be passengers with all the other living creatures on the planet but we have climbed up into the cockpit and taken control. Now we are pushing buttons and flipping levers and rapidly changing most of the biophysical conditions on the planet with really very little idea what the consequences will be for our own health and wellbeing or that of the rest of the biosphere. Undoubtedly, there will be many more surprises along the way.”


A dwarf honey bee (Apis florea). The study of the impacts of carbon dioxide levels on plant nutrition has barely begun to be studied. As CO2 levels rise we are moving into uncharted territory. Photo by Gideon Pisanty (Gidip) licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license


A dwarf honey bee (Apis florea). The impacts of carbon dioxide levels on plant nutrition has barely begun to be studied. As CO2 levels rise we are moving into uncharted territory. Photo by Gideon Pisanty (Gidip) licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license




Citations


DeLucia, E.H., Nabity, P.D., Zavala, J.A., and Berenbaum, M.R. (2012) Climate Change: Resetting Plant-Insect Interactions. Plant Physiology 160: 1677-1685
Loladze, I. (2002) Rising atmospheric CO2 and human nutrition: toward globally imbalanced plant stoichiometry? Trends in Ecology and Evolution 17: 457-461
Loladze, I. (2014) Hidden shift of the ionome of plants exposed to elevated CO2 depletes minerals at the base of human nutrition. eLife 3:e02245. DOI: 10.7554/eLife.02245
Müller, C., Elliott, J., and Levermann, A. (2014) Fertilizing hidden hunger. Nature Climate Change 4: 540-541
Myers, S.S., Zanobetti, A., Kloog, I. et.al. (2014). Increasing CO2 threatens human nutrition. Nature 510: 139-142
Myers, S.S., Wessells, K.R., Kloog, I., Zanobetti, A., and Schwartz, J. (2015) Effect of increased concentrations of atmospheric carbon dioxide on the global threat of zinc deficiency: a modelling study. Lancet Global Health 3: e639-e645
Smith, M.R., Singh, G.M., Mozaffarian, D., and Myers, S.S. (2015) Effects of decreases of animal pollinators on human nutrition and global health: a modelling analysis. The Lancet 386: 1964-1972
Ziska, L., Crimmins, A., Auclair, A., DeGrasse, S., Garofalo, J.F., Khan, A.S., Loladze, I., Pérez de León, A.A., A. Showler, J. Thurston, and I. Walls, (2016) Ch. 7: Food Safety, Nutrition, and Distribution. The Impacts of Climate Change on Human Health in the United States: A Scientific Assessment. U.S. Global Change Research Program, Washington, DC, 189–216. http://dx.doi.org/10.7930/J0ZP4417
Ziska, L.H., Pettis, J.S., Edwards, J., Hancock, J.E., Tomecek, M.B., Clark, A., Dukes, J.S., Loladze, I. and Polley, H.W. (2016) Rising atmospheric CO2 is reducing the protein concentration of a floral pollen source essential for North American bees. Proc. R. Soc. B. 283: 20160414
Article published by Glenn Scherer




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Wednesday 29 June 2016

Earth Regularly Trashed by Comets


Earth Regularly Trashed by Comets
Giant comets could pose danger to life on Earth

http://www.galactic.to/rune/venus3.jpg


A team of astronomers from Armagh Observatory and the University of Buckingham report that the discovery of hundreds of giant comets in the outer planetary system over the last two decades means that these objects pose a much greater hazard to life than asteroids.

The team, made up of Professors Bill Napier and Duncan Steel of the University of Buckingham, Professor Mark Bailey of Armagh Observatory, and Dr David Asher, also at Armagh, publish their review of recent research in the December issue of Astronomy & Geophysics (A&G), the journal of the Royal Astronomical Society.


Phoebe2 smallBecause they are so distant from the Earth, Centaurs appear as pinpricks of light in even the largest telescopes. Saturn's 200-km moon Phoebe, depicted in this image, seems likely to be a Centaur that was captured by that planet's gravity at some time in the past. Until spacecraft are sent to visit other Centaurs, our best idea of what they look like comes from images like this one, obtained by the Cassini space probe orbiting Saturn. 

NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, having flown past Pluto six months ago, has been targeted to conduct an approach to a 45-km wide trans-Neptunian object at the end of 2018. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute. Click for a full size image 


 
The giant comets, termed centaurs, move on unstable orbits crossing the paths of the massive outer planets Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. The planetary gravitational fields can occasionally deflect these objects in towards the Earth.

Centaurs are typically 50 to 100 kilometres across, or larger, and a single such body contains more mass than the entire population of Earth-crossing asteroids found to date. Calculations of the rate at which centaurs enter the inner solar system indicate that one will be deflected onto a path crossing the Earth’s orbit about once every 40,000 to 100,000 years. Whilst in near-Earth space they are expected to disintegrate into dust and larger fragments, flooding the inner solar system with cometary debris and making impacts on our planet inevitable.

Known severe upsets of the terrestrial environment and interruptions in the progress of ancient civilisations, together with our growing knowledge of interplanetary matter in near-Earth space, indicate the arrival of a centaur around 30,000 years ago. This giant comet would have strewn the inner planetary system with debris ranging in size from dust all the way up to lumps several kilometres across.  

Specific episodes of environmental upheaval around 10,800 BCE and 2,300 BCE, identified by geologists and palaeontologists, are also consistent with this new understanding of cometary populations. Some of the greatest mass extinctions in the distant past, for example the death of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago, may similarly be associated with this giant comet hypothesis.

Professor Napier comments: "In the last three decades we have invested a lot of effort in tracking and analysing the risk of a collision between the Earth and an asteroid. Our work suggests we need to look beyond our immediate neighbourhood too, and look out beyond the orbit of Jupiter to find centaurs. If we are right, then these distant comets could be a serious hazard, and it’s time to understand them better."

The researchers have also uncovered evidence from disparate fields of science in support of their model. For example, the ages of the sub-millimetre craters identified in lunar rocks returned in the Apollo program are almost all younger than 30,000 years, indicating a vast enhancement in the amount of dust in the inner Solar system since then.


OuterSS 3 small

The outer solar system as we now recognise it. At the centre of the map is the Sun, and close to it the tiny orbits of the terrestrial planets (Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars). Moving outwards and shown in bright blue are the near-circular paths of the giant planets: Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. The orbit of Pluto is shown in white. Staying perpetually beyond Neptune are the trans-Neptunian objects (TNOs), in yellow: seventeen TNO orbits are shown here, with the total discovered population at present being over 1,500. Shown in red are the orbits of 22 Centaurs (out of about 400 known objects), and these are essentially giant comets (most are 50-100 km in size, but some are several hundred km in diameter). Because the Centaurs cross the paths of the major planets, their orbits are unstable: some will eventually be ejected from the solar system, but others will be thrown onto trajectories bringing them inwards, therefore posing a danger to civilisation and life on Earth. Credit: Duncan Steel.

Click for a full size image


Dr David Asher / Professor Mark Bailey
Armagh Observatory
Northern Ireland
Tel: +44 (0)28 3752 2928
dja@arm.ac.uk / meb@arm.ac.uk
http://star.arm.ac.uk

Professor Bill Napier
University of Buckingham
Tel (Ireland):  +353 87361 8376
bill_napier121@hotmail.com

Professor Duncan Steel
University of Buckingham
Tel (New Zealand): +64 4889 0241
tma1@duncansteel.com







Falling meteor may have changed the course of Christianity

The biblical prequel to Chelyabinsk

 

The biblical prequel to Chelyabinsk

(Image: Zuccari, Federico (1540/3-1609): Conversion of St Paul, 1563. Rome, San Marcello al Corso. © 2015. DeAgostini Picture Library/Scala, Florence)

 


The early evangelist Paul became a Christian because of a dazzling light on the road to Damascus, but one astronomer thinks it was an exploding meteor


NEARLY two thousand years ago, a man named Saul had an experience that changed his life, and possibly yours as well. According to Acts of the Apostles, the fifth book of the biblical New Testament, Saul was on the road to Damascus, Syria, when he saw a bright light in the sky, was blinded and heard the voice of Jesus. Changing his name to Paul, he became a major figure in the spread of Christianity.

William Hartmann, co-founder of the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, Arizona, has a different explanation for what happened to Paul. He says the biblical descriptions of Paul’s experience closely match accounts of the fireball meteor seen above Chelyabinsk, Russia, in 2013.

Hartmann has detailed his argument in the journal Meteoritics & Planetary Science (doi.org/3vn). He analyses three accounts of Paul’s journey, thought to have taken place around AD 35. The first is a third-person description of the event, thought to be the work of one of Jesus’s disciples, Luke. The other two quote what Paul is said to have subsequently told others.

“Everything they are describing in those three accounts in the book of Acts are exactly the sequence you see with a fireball,” Hartmann says. “If that first-century document had been anything other than part of the Bible, that would have been a straightforward story.”

But the Bible is not just any ancient text. Paul’s Damascene conversion and subsequent missionary journeys around the Mediterranean helped build Christianity into the religion it is today. If his conversion was indeed as Hartmann explains it, then a random space rock has played a major role in determining the course of history (see “Christianity minus Paul“).

That’s not as strange as it sounds. A large asteroid impact helped kill off the dinosaurs, paving the way for mammals to dominate the Earth. So why couldn’t a meteor influence the evolution of our beliefs?

“If a large asteroid impact helped kill the dinosaurs, why couldn’t one influence the evolution of beliefs?”

“It’s well recorded that extraterrestrial impacts have helped to shape the evolution of life on this planet,” says Bill Cooke, head of NASA’s Meteoroid Environment Office in Huntsville, Alabama. “If it was a Chelyabinsk fireball that was responsible for Paul’s conversion, then obviously that had a great impact on the growth of Christianity.”

Hartmann’s argument is possible now because of the quality of observations of the Chelyabinsk incident. The 2013 meteor is the most well-documented example of larger impacts that occur perhaps only once in 100 years. Before 2013, the 1908 blast in Tunguska, also in Russia, was the best example, but it left just a scattering of seismic data, millions of flattened trees and some eyewitness accounts. With Chelyabinsk, there is a clear scientific argument to be made, says Hartmann. “We have observational data that match what we see in this first-century account.”


Falling meteor may have changed the course of Christianity

Shaping history’s arc: the Chelyabinsk meteor (Image: RIA NovostiI/SPL)


The most obvious similarity is the bright light in the sky, “brighter than the sun, shining round me”, according to Paul. That’s in line with video from Chelyabinsk showing a light, estimated to be around three times as bright as the sun, that created quickly moving shadows as it streaked across the sky.

After witnessing the light, Paul and his companions fell to the ground. Hartmann says they may have been knocked over when the meteor exploded in the sky and generated a shock wave. At Chelyabinsk, the shock wave destroyed thousands of windows and knocked people off their feet.

Paul then heard the voice of Jesus asking why Paul, an anti-Christian zealot to begin with, was persecuting him. The three biblical accounts differ over whether his companions also heard this voice, or a meaningless noise. Chelyabinsk produced a thunderous, explosive sound.

Paul was also blinded, with one account blaming the brightness of the light. A few days later, “something like scales fell from his eye and he regained his sight”. Our common idiom for suddenly understanding something stems from this description, but Hartmann says the phrase can be read literally. He suggests that Paul was suffering from photokeratitis, a temporary blindness caused by intense ultraviolet radiation.

“It’s basically a bit of sunburn on the cornea of the eye. Once that begins to heal, it flakes off,” says Hartmann. “This can be a perfectly literal statement for someone in the first century who doesn’t really understand what’s happening.” The UV radiation at Chelyabinsk was strong enough to cause sunburn, skin peeling and temporary blindness.

Raj Das-Bhaumik of Moorfields Eye Hospital in London says the condition is common among welders whose eyes are exposed to bright sparks, but the symptoms aren’t exactly as Hartmann is suggesting. “You wouldn’t expect bits of the eye to fall off; I’ve not come across that at all,” he says. It’s possible that the thin skin of the eyelids could burn and peel off, he says, but that is unlikely to happen in isolation. “If this were a meteorite, I’m sure you’d have other damage as well.”

Mark Bailey of Armagh Observatory in the UK, who previously identified a Tunguska-like event in Brazil in the 1930s, says it’s worth analysing old texts for clues to ancient impacts – bearing in mind that accounts are shaped by what people knew at the time. “Sometimes that doesn’t make sense to us, but it does make sense if you can reinterpret it.” What does he think of Hartmann’s argument? “He does a very detailed analysis,” says Bailey.

“I would label it as informed speculation – Bill Hartmann is an excellent author,” says Cooke. “But like so many other things in the ancient past there is no real concrete evidence, no smoking gun.” And with no other accounts from the time to draw on, there is little additional evidence to confirm or disprove the idea.

A search for meteorites in and around Syria could prove fruitful – Chelyabinsk left small chunks all over the region – but even that would be inconclusive. “If a meteorite is discovered in modern Syria in the future, the first thing to test would be how long it’s been on the Earth and whether it could potentially be associated with such a recent fall,” says Bailey. But even with our best techniques, dating such a rock to the nearest hundred years would be difficult.

Even so, Hartmann believes we need to think seriously about the implications of his idea. “My goal is not to discredit anything that anybody wants to believe in,” he says. “But if the spread of a major religion was motivated by misunderstanding a fireball, that’s something we human beings ought to understand about ourselves.”

 

Christianity minus Paul

 

IF A falling meteor did inspire Paul’s conversion to Christianity (see main story), that makes a random event hugely important in the history of humanity. What if Paul hadn’t seen the fireball?

“Some scholars call Paul the second founder of Christianity,” says Justin Meggitt, a religious historian at the University of Cambridge. At the time, Christianity was a small offshoot of Judaism, but Paul helped preach a version of it that broke with Jewish law.

Paul wasn’t the only first-century missionary, and without him Christianity would probably still have separated from Judaism and spread around the world, says Meggitt. But Paul’s teachings have endured through the ages, and their absence would be felt.

“People’s interpretation of Paul is absolutely fundamental to some of the central figures of Christianity,” says Meggitt. For example, Martin Luther, who started the Protestant Reformation in 1517, was heavily inspired by Paul’s letters.

Specific predictions about how Christianity and world events would have unfolded without Paul’s influence are hard to make, says Meggitt, but “Christianity probably would be very different without him”.




For more information about cometary catastrophes see http://nexusilluminati.blogspot.com/search/label/comet%20venus  
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