News in perspective
Upfront– ROB ATKINS/GETTY
THREATENED BY AN ANGRY SUN Our technologically dependent society could be brought to its knees the next time Earth is walloped by an extreme solar outburst. Intense outbursts of plasma from the sun, called coronal mass ejections, can create electromagnetic interference that plays havoc with technology. In 1989, one nasty blast knocked out the power grid in Quebec, Canada, for several hours. Future blasts could be much worse, according to a report by a US National Research Council committee led by Daniel Baker of the University of Colorado in Boulder, based on workshops held last year. The most powerful solar outburst on record happened in 1859. Then, it merely disrupted telegraph communication. If it happened today, it could cause lasting damage to power grids, with knock-on
effects on supplies of water, medicine and other necessities, the report says. Damaged transformers could be a particularly big problem. “If a large number were taken out it could take quite a while to replace them,” says Baker. “There’s not a lot of stock… and they have to be built to order.” Fortunately, there are ways to reduce the risk of catastrophe. Relatively cheap modifications could make transformer circuits up to 70 per cent less vulnerable to solar storm damage, the report says. One small mercy is that some scientists argue the sun is likely to enter a decades-long quieter period soon, during which big outbursts would be less likely (New Scientist, 10 January, p 11). However, this prediction is fraught with uncertainty.
Drug safety fears
30 to 74 (The New England Journal of Medicine, vol 360, p 231). Ray believes a perception that these drugs are safe has led to them being prescribed more. Meanwhile Clive Ballard at King’s College London and his colleagues have completed the first long-term study of the effect of antipsychotics on people with Alzheimer’s, who are given the drugs to reduce aggression and agitation. They found that prolonged use increases the risk of premature death, and recommend antipsychotics only as a last resort in people with Alzheimer’s (The Lancet Neurology, DOI: 10.1016/ S1474-4422(08)70295-3).
–Technology in the firing line–
THE rabbit population boom ravaging Macquarie Island, halfway between Australia and Antarctica, is providing an urgent reminder of why conservationists need to analyse all aspects of an eradication programme. A plan to save the island’s birds by ridding it of its 160 feral cats has gone disastrously wrong, with the rabbit population now at a whopping 130,000, up from just 4000 in 2000. Clearing up the world heritage site is expected to cost AU$24 million (US$16 million). “We need a culture change,” says ecologist Hugh Possingham of the University of Queensland in Brisbane. Environmentalists “are often averse to maths, and so avoid quantitative risk assessments”, he says.
“The rabbit population is now at a whopping 130,000, up from just 4000 in 2000” The rabbits have trashed the vegetation on 40 per cent of the island, according to an estimate by Dana Bergstrom of the Australian Antarctic Division in Tasmania and colleagues (Journal 4 | NewScientist | 17 January 2009
of Applied Ecology, vol 46, p 73). The Tasmanian Parks and Wildlife Service (TPWS), which eradicated the last cat in 2000, expected myxomatosis to limit rabbit numbers. But Bergstrom believes that had the TPWS “done their calculations” it could have avoided a population explosion. A spokesperson for TPWS, however, told New Scientist that it was a “conservation achievement” to remove one of the island’s main pests. It is now planning a rabbit and rodent eradication programme for next year. This time, TPWS says, it intends to conduct a quantitative risk assessment first. JANET JARMAN/CORBIS
FRESH fears have been raised over the safety of antipsychotic drugs. First-generation antipsychotics, which are mainly used to treat schizophrenia, mania or delusion disorder, are known to raise the risk of heart problems. Now Wayne Ray at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, and colleagues report that newer antipsychotics such as olanzapine, risperidone and quetiapine, which were thought to be safer than their older counterparts, also pose risks. The researchers found these drugs double the risk of sudden cardiac death among people aged
Tequila hangover THE benefits of a good name only stretch so far. A “geographical indication” (GI) that legally ties products like champagne and tequila to their place of origin and cultural heritage does not always help the region it sets out to protect. Sarah Bowen of North Carolina State University in Raleigh and her colleagues found that tying the making of tequila to the Jalisco region of Mexico has –Agave blues– made its production socially www.newscientist.com