Do people choose pain over boredom?


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empty roomHow would you cope with 15 minutes in an empty room?

People are unhappy in their own company and some prefer painful experiences to their own thoughts, a new study claims.

In one test, nearly half the subjects gave themselves mild electric shocks during 15 minutes of quiet time.

The findings, which came from shutting people away with no distractions and then quizzing them, have attracted criticism from some other researchers.

The contentious paper, in the journal Science, argues we are not very good at enjoyable, recreational thought.

Prof Timothy Wilson, who led the research at the University of Virginia, US, said: “Our study participants consistently demonstrated that they would rather have something to do than to have nothing other than their thoughts for even a fairly brief period of time.”

This might not be a surprise if you are easily bored, or have ever picked at a painful scab in a quiet moment.

In fact, other researchers in the field have said the findings are overstated.

But the authors write that the question of whether people enjoy “just thinking” has been overlooked in psychological research.

Voluntary shocks

Their work began with several trials involving university students, who were shut in a small room with blank walls and asked to sit at a table “entertaining themselves with their own thoughts”.

After six, 12 or 15 minutes, they were asked whether the time was enjoyable and whether it was difficult to concentrate. On average, their answers were near the middle of a nine-point scale or worse.

To show that this was not a problem arising from the poky laboratory room, or a character flaw unique to flighty students, other experiments required a wider pool of volunteers, aged up to 77, to complete a similar test at home, sitting at a computer. Unpoliced in their own homes, many of them “cheated” by checking their phones or listening to music.

A control group was asked to find an external distraction, alone, like watching TV or browsing the internet, and they had a much better time than those left to try to daydream.

Finally, Prof Wilson’s team did the electric shock experiment to try to find out if quiet, solo thinking was unpleasant enough that people would actually prefer something nasty to happen. Sure enough, 18 of 42 people, more of them men than women, chose to give themselves at least one mild shock on the ankle when left alone for 15 minutes.

“It was kind of like a severe static shock, it was not a huge jolt, but it was a little painful,” Prof Wilson told the BBC’s Naked Scientists programme. “They seem to want to shock themselves out of boredom, so to speak.”

boredomParticipants who did the task at home tended to “cheat” and look at their phones or listen to music

These were all people who had experienced the same shock already and declared that, if given $5, they would part with some of it in order not to be zapped again. People who didn’t think they’d pay to avoid the shock were excluded – as was one man who pushed the button 190 times.

“I’m not sure what was up with him,” Prof Wilson said.

Some UK researchers have questioned aspects of the study, including the level of shock delivered, which was higher for men than women (based on early results in which women rated shocks as more painful) but was not varied between individuals. They point to the fact that individual pain thresholds vary widely, and that hypothetical payments can exaggerate people’s answers.

Sense of purpose

Prof Wilson says he isn’t declaring humans incapable of contemplation. “I don’t want to exaggerate this. I do think that all of us, in our daily lives, do find our minds wandering to pleasant topics or thinking about something we’re looking forward to. I think what’s hard… is doing this on the spot.”

Prof Ivo Vlaev, a behavioural psychologist at Warwick University and Imperial College, London, thinks the findings are “very interesting” but the electric shocks could be over-emphasised.

“The bottom line is that they felt miserable,” he told BBC News. “Research has shown that happiness is not only about experiencing pleasure. You need a sense of meaning and purpose – which you lack in these conditions. And when you have a task to do, you do have that sense – even if it’s a simple task.”

Dr Chris Chambers, a senior research fellow at Cardiff University’s School of Psychology, was less impressed with the results.

“This is essentially a study showing that people don’t like to be bored,” he told BBC News. “How this could take up 11 experiments in a major scientific journal is a little mystifying.

“The most interesting aspect to the study is that their research subjects preferred to give themselves electric shocks rather than experience boredom. Perhaps the subjects simply did it to stay awake, and having now read the author’s paper from beginning to end I can understand their plight.”

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Academics ‘Yes’ vote research fears


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Scientist with beakerThe academics claim Scotland does well under the existing system of research funding

Medical and scientific research across the UK would suffer if Scotland votes for independence, according to the heads of three academic institutions.

The claim was made by the presidents of the Royal Society, the British Academy and the Academy of Medical Sciences.

Sir Paul Nurse, Lord Stern and Sir John Tooke said scientific collaboration would be damaged by a “Yes” vote.

The Scottish government said links would continue under independence, with plans for a common research area.

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We have a Scottish government committed to funding research, to free access to universities for residents and to attracting international students”

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Professor Bryan MacGregor
Academics for Yes spokesman

In a joint letter to The Times newspaper, the three academics also claimed that maintaining existing levels of research in Scotland would cost Scottish taxpayers more should the country leave the UK.

They wrote: “Scotland has long done particularly well through its access to UK research funding.

“If it turns out that an independent Scotland has to form its own science and research budget, maintaining these levels of research spending would cost the Scottish taxpayer significantly more.”

They went on to state that the strong links and collaborations which exist across the UK “would be put at risk”, with any new system aiming to restore these links “likely to be expensive and bureaucratic”.

The presidents wrote: “We believe that if separation were to occur, research not only in Scotland but also the rest of the UK would suffer.

“However, research in Scotland would be more vulnerable and there could be significant reductions in range, capacity and critical mass.”

International collaborations

However Academics for Yes, a pro-independence group which comprises 60 academics from Scottish universities, said a “Yes” vote would protect the country’s universities and allow research priorities to be determined.

Its spokesman, Professor Bryan MacGregor from the University of Aberdeen, said: “On the one hand, we have the UK and England contexts of cuts in research and science funding, high student fees with unsustainable loan funding, an immigration policy that is preventing and deterring international student recruitment and the possibility of an exit from the EU and its research funding.

“And, on the other, we have a Scottish government committed to funding research, to free access to universities for residents and to attracting international students.

“People may be unaware of the existing scope of international collaboration in the funding of research, not least between the UK and Ireland which have a number of agreements through the research councils, as does the UK and several other countries. And other countries do likewise.

“The European Research Council allocates billions of Euros according to quality of the research, and there are international collaborations such as CERN. Scottish independence would not make any difference to such activities.”

‘Grave concerns’

Earlier this year a group of 14 clinical academics and scientists put their names to an open letter raising “grave concerns that the country does not sleepwalk into a situation that jeopardises its present success in the highly-competitive arena of biomedical research”.

But the Scottish government, which currently provides about a third of research funds, has argued there is no reason why the current UK-wide structure for funding could not continue post-independence.

In a recent paper on the future of higher education research it argued that independence would give Scottish universities more opportunities for global collaboration and promotion.

Responding to The Times letter, a Scottish government spokesman said: “The Scottish government has already shown our commitment to research through increased investment since 2007 and we will continue to support research in an independent Scotland providing levels of public investment in university research which enable our universities to remain internationally competitive.

“With independence it will continue to be in the interest of both Scotland and the UK to collaborate as part of a single research area.

“Scotland currently contributes substantially to UK Research Councils’ funding through its share of UK tax receipts and, with independence, we will negotiate with the UK government a fair funding formula for Scotland’s contribution.

“We will also ensure there is no adverse funding impact from Scotland’s transition to independence and, indeed, believe that independence will bring opportunities for increased research funding through wider collaborations with partners in Europe and beyond, facilitated by our greater presence and profile on the world stage.”

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Upgrade for European light source


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Pinhole cameraAll manner of objects and materials can be put in the X-ray beam to reveal intricate detail

One of Europe’s premier scientific research laboratories is to go through a major upgrade.

The improvements to the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF) will cost some 150m euros (£120m) and take until 2022 to complete fully.

ESRF is essentially a giant X-ray machine, capable of determining the structure of objects and materials at the atomic and molecular scale.

The 850m accelerator ring used to prime these bright X-rays will be replaced.

The scale of the work involved means the facility in Grenoble, France, will have to close for almost two years – from 2018-2020.

But when complete, say officials, the ESRF will be near the physical limits for a “third generation light source” of its size, maintaining Europe’s competitiveness at the head of synchrotron science.

“The machine today is the same one that we opened with,” said Dr Harald Reichert, the ESRF’s director of research.

“But improvements here and there, and regular maintenance, mean it is now a factor of 10,000 times more brilliant than what we started operating with in 1992,” he told BBC News.

“To get even more ‘horsepower’, we now need to replace it, and if we do that we can get up to a factor of 1,000 times more radiation, depending on the energies and applications required.”

The ESRF produces its X-rays by firing electrons around its 850m circumference, magnetised ring.

As the super-fast electrons bend around this doughnut, they lose a small part of their energy in the form X-rays, which are then funnelled down “beamlines” to penetrate targets positioned in experimental cabins, or “hutches”.

The applications for synchrotron science are legion, including the study of biological systems, the probing of fundamental physics, and doing applied chemistry. Archaeologists and palaeontologists will even put their artefacts in the machine.

Next-generation drugs, novel plastics, new ways to prepare and preserve the foods we eat – the advances all come from understanding how atoms and molecules interact. Synchrotrons allow scientists to see this detail.

Storage ringThe big improvements will come from replacing the accelerator ring

ESRF is currently coming towards the end of an initial refurbishment programme, started in 2009 and costing 167m euros, which renewed a lot of equipment.

Certain enhancements to the accelerator also brought an increase in brightness and a greater stability in the X-ray beam.

But the forthcoming replacement of the accelerator ring, taking advantage of the latest magnet designs, known as undulators, will raise the intensity still further.

Key improvements will also enable experiments that rely on finer time-resolution. This would allow scientists to see better molecular systems in action, capturing events that occur in just millionths of a second. An example would be protein behaviour – imaging the “worker” molecules in cells as they perform their functions.

Just over 100m euros of the total upgrade budget will be reserved for the new accelerator ring. A further 20m will go to four new beamlines, and roughly 20m will be spent on an instrumentation programme.

“You can imagine that if we get a new machine with the performance it will have, the data rates we will get out will be just mind-boggling,” said Dr Reichert.

“If we don’t improve on that side as well, we’ll have a machine that spits out so much data no-one can deal with it. So we’ll have an instrumentation programme that will include computing to allow us to take full advantage of the improvements.”

The latest upgrade will be paid for partly out of ESRF’s operational budget, but mostly with new capital from its full and associate member states.

The UK has a 10% shareholding in the light source; France and Germany have a 27.5% and 24% shareholding respectively.

ESRFGrenoble science: The synchrotron was built in the foothills of the French Alps and follow me on Twitter: @BBCAmos

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Web users in Hawaii invaders hunt


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Aerial image of an Australian fern tree in native forest, HawaiiThe invasive non-native Australian fern tree stands out against the canopy of the native forest species

US conservationists and a satellite imagery company have teamed up to use the power of crowdsourcing to halt the spread of destructive invasive plants.

Species such as the Australian tree fern are using up vital water supplies within native forests on Hawaii, home to unique species found nowhere else.

So far, more than 5,000 people have visited the website.

To date, each pixel of the images of the forest has been scrutinised by web users at least 50 times.

“From a biodiversity viewpoint, it is very important that we protect forest resources,” explained Trea Menard, director of forest conservation for the US-based The Nature Conservancy (TNC).

“Unfortunately, we have lost a lot of our forests,” he told BBC News.

“For example, only about 27% of the forest remains on Kauai and that is an important forest because it is the biodiversity cradle for Hawaii as it is the oldest island.

Threatened habitat

“The native forest is extremely unique. About 90% of the plants and animals that evolved here do not occur anywhere else in the world, which means they are endemic to Hawaii.

“If they are lost from Hawaii, they are pretty much lost to the planet.”

The invasive plants are dramatically reducing the volume of fresh water available for native species.

The Australian tree fern is able to penetrate remote areas of the native forest because it is dispersed via spores carried by the wind, making it difficult to be tracked and located on the ground.

In order to overcome this obstacle, TNC has teamed up with satellite imaging firm DigitalGlobe to call on web users to scan and spot the invasive species in images posted on the web.

The images, provided by Resources Mapping, are aerial photos providing 1cm per pixel.

Luke Barrington, senior manager for DigitalGlobe’s crowdsourcing platform, said the high-quality, natural colour images had enabled web users to identify the invasive species.

He explained: “The connectivity of billions of people online is transforming the way that the globe solves global problems. Millions of people are coming together to solve a problem.”

The campaign has been running since June and each pixel of the images available has been accessed by at least 50 users, providing a built-in level of quality control.

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Wild chimp language translated


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Chimps playing (c) Cat Hobaiter

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Dr Catherine Hobaiter from the University of St Andrews explains her findings and translates one of the chimps’ gestures

Researchers say they have translated the meaning of gestures that wild chimpanzees use to communicate.

They say wild chimps communicate 19 specific messages to one another with a “lexicon” of 66 gestures.

The scientists discovered this by following and filming communities of chimps in Uganda, and examining more than 5,000 incidents of these meaningful exchanges.

The research is published in the journal Current Biology.

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There’s another species out there that is meaningful in its communication”

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Dr Catherine Hobaiter
University of St Andrews

Dr Catherine Hobaiter, who led the research, said that this was the only form of intentional communication to be recorded in the animal kingdom.

Only humans and chimps, she said, had a system of communication where they deliberately sent a message to another individual.

“That’s what’s so amazing about chimp gestures,” she told BBC News. “They’re the only thing that looks like human language in that respect.”

Shout or signal?

Although previous research has revealed that apes and monkeys can understand complex information from another animal’s call, the animals do not appear to use their voices intentionally to communicate messages.

Chimps in Uganda (c) Cat HobaiterChimps will check to see if they have the attention of the animal with which they wish to communicate

This was a crucial difference between calls and gestures, Dr Hobaiter said.

“It’s a bit like if you pick up a hot cup of coffee and you scream and blow on your fingers,” she said.

“I can understand from that that the coffee was hot, but you didn’t necessarily intend to communicate that to me.”

Subtle signals

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Chimp with baby

We are still missing a lot of the information contained in their gestures and actions”

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Dr Susanne Shultz
University of Manchester

Some of the chimps’ gestures, the researchers say, are unambiguous – used consistently to convey one meaning.

Leaf clipping, for example, where a chimp very obviously takes small bites from leaves is used only to elicit sexual attention.

Many others, though, appear to be ambiguous. A grab, for example, is used for: “Stop that,” “Climb on me,” and “Move away.”

Although many are very subtle, some of the footage captured by the researchers shows very clearly what the chimps mean to convey.

In one clip, a mother presents her foot to her whimpering offspring, signalling: “Climb on me.” The youngster immediately jumps on to its mother’s back and they travel off together.

“The big message [from this study] is that there is another species out there that is meaningful in its communication, so that’s not unique to humans,” said Dr Hobaiter.

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Communication experts

Siamang hanging in a tree

How do siamang couples declare their love?

See a baby dolphin locate its mum from her calls

Take a lesson in apes’ expressions

“I don’t think we’re quite as set apart as we would perhaps like to think we are.

“But then chimps are more closely related to us than they are to the rest of the great apes, so it makes sense that we are incredibly similar to them in many ways.”

Dr Susanne Shultz, an evolutionary biologist from the University of Manchester, said the study was commendable in seeking to fill the gaps in our knowledge of the evolution of human language. But, she added, the results were “a little disappointing”.

“The vagueness of the gesture meanings suggest either that the chimps have little to communicate, or we are still missing a lot of the information contained in their gestures and actions,” she said.

“Moreover, the meanings seem to not go beyond what other less sophisticated animals convey with non-verbal communication.

“So, it seems the gulf remains.”

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Wastewater ‘triggers US quake surge’


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oil rigAs the oil and gas industry has expanded in parts of the US, so have the number of earthquakes

Massive injections of wastewater from the oil and gas industry are likely to have triggered a sharp rise in earthquakes in the state of Oklahoma.

Researchers say there has been a forty-fold increase in the rate of quakes in the US state between 2008-13.

The scientists found that the disposal of water in four high-volume wells could be responsible for a swarm of tremors up to 35km away.

Their research has been published in the journal, Science.

Sudden swarm

There has been increasing evidence of links between the process of oil and gas extraction and earthquakes in states like Arkansas, Texas, Ohio and Oklahoma in recent years.

Continue reading the main story

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If a fault is close to failure, the amount that the pressure is going up at these locations in our model is enough to push them over the edge”

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Dr Katie Keranen
Cornell University

In 2011, a small number of people were injured and 14 houses were destroyed in the town of Prague, Oklahoma by a 5.7 tremor.

Investigators linked it to the injection of wastewater from the oil industry.

The US Geological Survey (USGS) has also reported on the question of seismicity induced by wastewater disposal.

This new research goes further, linking a large swarm of Oklahoma tremors with a number of specific water wells, distantly located.

More than 2,500 earthquakes greater than magnitude 3.0 have occurred around the small town of Jones since 2008. This represents about 20% of the total in the central and western US in this period.

quakesThere has been a significant increase in the number of tremors in central Oklahoma since 2008

Researchers have now linked this increase to a near doubling in the volumes of wastewater disposed of in the central Oklahoma region between 2004 and 2008.

Water is never far away in the energy extraction process. It is used not just for hydraulic fracturing, but also to squeeze more oil out of conventional wells.

Large amounts of naturally occurring water are often released with the oil and gas – and this briny liquid needs to be separated from the fuels, using a method called “dewatering”.

“There is a high ratio of water to oil,” said the study’s lead author Dr Katie Keranen from Cornell University.

“It differs for each well. The typical nationwide ratio is five to one. We’re seeing much higher ratios, in the hundreds, at the beginning of the well.”

According to Dr Bill Ellsworth from the USGS, the high price of oil has driven this water-based approach. But the law says that drinking water has to be protected from the salty flow.

“As part of the business model, you have to be able to dispose of these very large volumes of saline water. You can’t treat it; you can’t put it into the rivers. So, you have to inject it underground.”

Pressure points

Four of the biggest of these wells in Oklahoma have been pumping around 4 million barrels of water a month to a depth of 3.5km beneath the surface.

To determine the impact of this water, the scientists developed a model that could calculate the way the underground wave of pressure from these wells spread out.

By comparing this to seismic data from the Jones cluster, it was concluded that the injection of wastewater is “likely responsible” for the swarm.

“It is possible that pressure looks to have risen in the places where the earthquakes are occurring,” said Dr Keranen.

“That pressure increase is what we see in natural triggering. So, if a fault is close to failure, the amount that the pressure is going up at these locations in our model is enough to push them over the edge.”

The four wells that are the subject of the study are owned by a company called New Dominion. It insists that it operates its wells (named Sweetheart, Chambers, Flower Power and Deep Throat) safely and within permitted parameters.

“The company notes the author did not consult with New Dominion’s geologist and engineers to determine whether her premises are in any way correct,” the company said in a statement.

“At best, these incorrect assumptions are irresponsible.”

Bigger triggers

The authors say that they are uncertain about the potential for the large-scale disposal of wastewater to trigger events of larger magnitude.

They point to an incident in 2010 when an earthquake ruptured a portion of a 7km long fault. If the entire fault had gone, the authors write, it could have led to a magnitude 6.0 tremor.

“We often see more larger earthquakes when we see a lot of smaller ones,” said Dr Keranen.

“But this is new situation with induced seismicity and we still have a lot of questions that we are trying to address.”

This view is echoed by Dr Bill Ellsworth from USGS.

“There are thousands of these wells in the US, so only a few appear to be problematic. The difficulties can be avoided but we need to know more about the process so we can give proper guidance to the authorities.”

Follow Matt on Twitter @mattmcgrathbbc.

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Rival ‘inflation’ teams to share data


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South Pole Telescope facilityThe BICEP2 telescope studied a small patch of sky in detail above the South Pole

Scientists on rival projects looking for evidence that the early Universe underwent a super-expansion are in discussion about working together.

The negotiations between the US-led BICEP2 group and Europe’s Planck Collaboration are at an early stage.

BICEP2 announced in March that its South Pole telescope had found good evidence for “cosmic inflation”.

But to be sure, it needs the best data on factors that confound its research – data that Planck has been compiling.

If the two teams come to an arrangement, it is more likely they will hammer down the uncertainties.

“We’re still discussing the details but the idea is to exchange data between the two teams and eventually come out with a joint paper,” Dr Jan Tauber, the project scientist on the European Space Agency’s Planck satellite, told BBC News.

This paper, hopefully, would be published towards the end of the year, he added.

Foreground dust

The question of whether the BICEP2 team did, or did not, identify a signal on the sky for inflation has gripped the science world for weeks.

The group used an extremely sensitive detector in its Antarctic telescope to study light coming to Earth from the very edge of the observable Universe – the famous Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB) radiation.

Planck artist impressionThe Planck satellite was launched in 2009 to map the Cosmic Microwave Background

BICEP2 looked for swirls in the polarisation of the light.

This pattern in the CMB’s directional quality is a fundamental prediction of inflation – the idea that there was an ultra-rapid expansion of space just fractions of a second after the Big Bang.

The twists, known as B-modes, are an imprint of the waves of gravitational energy that would have accompanied the violent growth spurt.

But this primordial signal – if it exists – is expected to be extremely delicate, and a number of independent scientists have expressed doubts about the American team’s finding. And the BICEP2 researchers themselves lowered their confidence in the detection when they formally published their work in a Physical Review Letters paper last month.

At issue is the role played by foreground dust in our galaxy.

Nearby spinning grains can produce an identical polarisation pattern, and this effect must be removed to get an unambiguous view of the primordial, background signal.

The BICEP2 team used every piece of dust information it could source on the part of the sky it was observing above Antarctica.

What it lacked, however, was access to the dust data being compiled by the Planck space telescope, which has mapped the microwave sky at many more frequencies than BICEP2.

This allows it to more easily characterise the dust and discern its confounding effects.

DustPlanck released dust information close to the galactic plane in May

In May, the Planck Collaboration published dust polarisation information gathered close to the galaxy’s centre – where the grains are most abundant.

In a few weeks’ time, the Planck team plans to release further information detailing galactic dust in high latitude regions, including the narrow patch of the southern sky examined by BICEP2.

And then, in late October, the Planck Collaboration is expected to say something about whether it can detect primordial B-modes.

As Dr Tauber explained, Planck’s approach to the problem is a different one to BICEP2′s.

“Planck’s constraints on primordial B-modes will come from looking at the whole sky with relatively low sensitivity as compared to BICEP2,” he said.

“But because we can look at the whole sky, it makes up for some of that [lower sensitivity] at least. On the other hand, we have to deal with the foregrounds – we can’t ignore them at all.

“At the same time, we will work together with BICEP2 so that we can contribute our data to improve the overall assessment of foregrounds and the Cosmic Microwave Background.

“We hope to start working with them very soon, and if all goes well then we can maybe publish in the same timeframe as our main result [at the end of October].” and follow me on Twitter: @BBCAmos

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Study maps fracking methane risk


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Fracking test site at Barton MossNo definitive distance for separation between shale and aquifers has been set

A major study into the potential of fracking to contaminate drinking water with methane has been published.

The British Geological Survey and the Environment Agency have mapped where key aquifers in England and Wales coincide with locations of shale.

The research reveals this occurs under nearly half of the area containing the principal natural stores of water.

The risk of methane being released into drinking water has long been one of the most sensitive questions over fracking.

Sealed wells

The study highlights where the rock layers may be too close to the aquifers for fracking to go ahead.

It finds that the Bowland Shale in northern England – the first to be investigated for shale gas potential – runs below no fewer than six major aquifers.

However, the study also says that almost all of this geological formation – 92% of it – is at least 800m below the water-bearing rocks.

Industry officials have always argued that a separation of that size between a shale layer and an aquifer should make any contamination virtually impossible.

They say that wells are sealed with steel and concrete as they pass through water-bearing rocks and that any fissures created by fracking far below would be highly unlikely to spread through hundreds of metres of rock.

Cross-section from the BGS of The Weald basin

Environmentalists say that the processes of drilling and of fracturing rock inherently carry the risk of polluting a vital resource.

Analysis of the Weald Basin in southern England shows that the uppermost layer of oil-bearing shale is at least 650m below a major aquifer.

Dr John Bloomfield, of the British Geological Survey, said the maps could serve as a guide for regulators and planners.

“We’ve identified areas where aquifers are in relatively close proximity to shale units and any developments would have to be looked at particularly carefully,” he said.

“It’s no surprise that the same system of sedimentation that produces shale also produces limestone which is excellent for storing water.”

Ruled off-limits

Aquifers such as the Oolite, which runs from Yorkshire through the East Midlands to the south coast of England, are often in direct contact with a shale layer.

Interactive maps showing the relative proximity of shale layers and aquifers are available on the British Geological Survey website.

So far, no definitive distance for separation between shale and aquifers has been set but a limit of 400m has been suggested because water from below that depth is rarely considered drinkable.

In some areas, shale layers rise closer to the surface – and the assumption is that these would be ruled off-limits.

The Environment Agency says it will not allow developments to go ahead if they are too close to supplies of drinking water.

Meanwhile, the BGS has carried out a survey of methane in drinking water in all areas of the country where fracking may happen.

Low levels of the gas occur either naturally – from bacterial activity – or from manmade sources such as landfill sites.

Dr Rob Ward, director of groundwater science at the BGS, said the aim was to provide a baseline understanding before any fracking starts.

“In the United States, they didn’t carry out a baseline survey before the industry took place and that has resulted in controversy and uncertainty about the source of methane in drinking water,” he said.

“We now have a window of opportunity to collect data on methane before any industry goes ahead. If we see increases in methane in groundwater which may be attributed to shale gas, we’ll be able to spot those.”

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EU plans tough new rules on waste


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rubbishThe UK may have to curb the amount of rubbish being sent to landfill sites like this one

The UK will have to divert a significant amount of waste away from landfill under new EU proposals on recycling.

The Commission wants to see 70% of municipal rubbish and 80% of packaging recycled by 2030.

They also want a ban on burying recyclable waste in landfill by 2025.

According to the Environment Commissioner, the new targets will create more than half a million jobs across the Union.

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The new 70% target is extremely ambitious for the UK”

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Nigel Mattravers
Institution of Civil Engineers

The proposals form part of an EU initiative termed the “circular economy“, described as an alternative to the traditional approach to resources of make, use and dispose.

Circle of money

Part of the plans would try to reduce the amount of “downcycling” where valuable products are recycled as lower priced materials, such as expensive writing paper coming back as cheaper cardboard.

“If we want to compete we have to get the most out of our resources, and that means recycling them back into productive use, not burying them in landfills as waste,” said Environment Commissioner Janez Potocnik.

recycled broomsSixty percent of plastics will have to be recycled by 2030 under the proposals

“Moving to a circular economy is not only possible, it is profitable, but that does not mean it will happen without the right policies.”

“The 2030 targets that we propose are about taking action today to accelerate the transition to a circular economy and exploiting the business and job opportunities it offers.”

The new plans build on existing regulations that require councils around the UK to recycle half their waste by 2020.

According to figures published by the government last November, 43.2% of waste in England was being recycled in 2012/13

These figures have grown rapidly over the past decade but the rate of growth seems to have stalled since 2010.

Some observers believe that going beyond the 2020 target will be a significant challenge.

“The new 70% target is extremely ambitious for the UK given the momentum behind the current 2020 goal of 50% recycling has flat lined, and meeting it will require strategic leadership and coordination,” said Nigel Mattravers from the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE).

The Chartered Institution of Wastes Management (CIWM) welcomed the moves as “ambitions and far-reaching,” and argued that the UK could actually meet the new targets.

foodThe EU proposals are for food waste to be cut by 30% by 2030

“We should be able to do it,” said Steve Lee, chief executive of CIWM.

“Wales is already on course and Scotland and Northern Ireland have strong plans to do so. England should be no different but much clearer and co-ordinated policy and communications from the government, plus support for local authorities who are vital to this task, will be needed.”

The plans will need to be debated by members of the European parliament and by governments before they come into force.

A spokesman for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) suggested that the UK sees the extra costs involved in the plans as a critical factor.

“We think the Commission’s proposals may have underplayed the potential costs to business, householders and local authorities and will want to consider the impacts fully before we respond.

“While we support efforts to reduce waste, we need to ensure that any new legislation would meet our priorities to protect the environment, incentivise growth and avoid unnecessary burdens.”

Follow Matt on Twitter @mattmcgrathbbc.

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New plan ‘needed to stop cattle TB’


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New research suggests that the spread of TB in cattle can only be controlled if more radical measures are adopted.

Culling of entire herds, more testing and cattle vaccination are needed to reverse the spread of the disease.

The lead researcher has told BBC News that the study also confirms research that shows culling badgers will at best slightly slow down rather than stop the epidemic.

The results have been published in the journal Nature.

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Even if you could cull large numbers of badgers it is predicted to have a relatively small impact on the number of TB cases in cattle.”

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Prof Matt Keeling
Warwick University

Prof Matt Keeling of Warwick University, who led the research, told BBC News that computer projections showed that the current measures adopted by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) are unlikely to reverse the spread of TB in cattle.

“Our feeling is that we are going to see a continued increase of 10% per cent a year into the foreseeable future,” he said.

Lord Krebs, who developed much of the scientific underpinning to assess the effectiveness of culling badgers to control the spread of TB in cattle said that the study’s conclusions “give further support to the view that culling badgers is not an effective strategy for controlling bovine (cattle) TB”.

“Instead, the emphasis should be on stopping cattle-to-cattle transmission. It is to be hoped that Defra takes on board this latest piece of scientific evidence when they formulate their policy for the future,” he added.

Defra said it could not accept the paper’s findings because it “does not investigate the full range of ways in which TB could spread”. A spokesman said a whole herd slaughter when an infection was discovered would mean killing up to a quarter of a million animals, most of which would not be infected.

The Farming Minister George Eustice said: “What this paper proposes would finish off the cattle and dairy industry in this country.”

BadgerCulling badgers will have a small impact on controlling the spread of TB in cattle

That was a view echoed by the department’s chief scientific adviser Prof Ian Boyd. He said that whole herd culling “would probably result in a rapid decline in the cattle industry in areas where TB occurs”.

He added though that he believed the study backed Defra’s current TB control strategy which, he said, is “designed to cope with complex and diverse routes of infection.”

Prof Keeling and his co-author, Ellen Brooks-Pollock from Cambridge University, said that Mr Eustice and Prof Boyd had misunderstood the point of the study.

In a joint statement they said: “Whole herd culling was investigated as one extreme but was never put forward as a viable policy option.”

Firm figures

The aim of the study, they say, is to give Defra some firm figures with which to begin a new cost benefit analysis. This would assess whether any of the approaches, or a combination of them, might be worth trying.

For example, a combination of whole herd culling in hotspots where there is frequent TB infection combined with vaccination, as well as more testing and individual culling might be enough to bring about a reversal in the spread of TB.

Defra is trying to stop the spread of the disease by testing cattle in infected areas and culling only those that are found to be infected. In addition, herds that have had a case of TB cannot be transported from their farm until two further tests have shown them to be free of TB.

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What this paper proposes would finish off the cattle and dairy industry in this country ”

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George Eustice
Farming Minister

The problem is that the current test often does not pick up animals that are in the early stages of infection. This is why the disease continues to advance slowly but inexorably, devastating the livelihoods of dairy farmers as it spreads across the country.

Last year, approximately 30,000 animals were killed, with testing, slaughter and compensation estimated to have cost the taxpayer about £100m per year.

It is for this reason that Defra began two pilot studies last year to assess whether it could cull enough badgers humanely and safely to help curb the disease. TB-infected badgers are thought to be one of the ways the disease is spread to cattle.

An independent analysis for Defra judged that the pilots had failed to kill enough badgers to have any impact on TB infection and that an excess of badgers took too long to die. The department hopes to improve the effectiveness and humaneness of the culls going forward and roll the badger cull policy out to more TB infected areas.

Prof Keeling and his team created a detailed computer model to mimic the observed spread and assess the effect of more radical control measures. The researchers found that only three would have any significant effect.

Real impact

The model was not able to specifically look at the impact of culling badgers, because there is not enough information about their location, infection and movement. However, the team included an all-encompassing factor to represent infection from environmental effects which includes wildlife.

“Even if you could cull humanely and effectively large numbers of badgers, it is predicted to have a relatively small impact on controlling the number of TB cases in cattle,” Prof Keeling told BBC News.

“At best, the reduction in cases would be limited,” he said. Prof Keeling’s finding is in line with the assessment made by a large scale study carried out in the 1990s known as the Randomised Badger Culling Trial.

But stepping up culling of potentially infected cattle would have a dramatic impact, according to Prof Keeling’s model.

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No one has ever said culling badgers alone will eradicate bovine TB”

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Minette Batters
Deputy President, National Farmers Union

If the entire herd is culled once an infection is found, rather than just the animals testing positive for TB, the number of infected cattle across the country could be reduced by more than four-fifths in six years. The disadvantage of this approach though is that there would be mass slaughter of animals in the early years.

This would have a devastating effect on the livestock industry and the cost of compensating farmers could be up to £900m in the first year, estimates Prof Keeling.

Another effective option is to test cattle for TB more often. The model suggests that, had there been just one extra round of tests on each farm in 2005, the number of TB cases would have been cut by nearly a quarter by 2010. The downside of this approach is that testing is expensive and initially this strategy would identify more cases, making it appear that TB was increasing which might be politically embarrassing.

Defra has introduced more testing since the study was carried out but, according to Prof Keeling, it is likely that the effect of the new tests will be to slightly slow the advance of TB in cattle rather than stop or reverse it.

“We expect the additional testing to have brought about a slight decline in the rate of increase, but it does look like we need to start thinking a bit wider about how we are going to reverse the spread of this infection and bring it under control,” he told BBC News.

The third approach is to vaccinate cattle, which might stall, though not reverse, the increase in TB cases. The disadvantage of this approach is that current regulations forbid the sale of vaccinated cattle.

The National Farmers Union’s deputy president Minette Batters said: “No one has ever said culling badgers alone will eradicate bovine TB but we believe wildlife control in areas where TB is endemic along with cattle testing, strengthened cattle movement controls, vaccination of both badgers and cattle when available and where appropriate, and improved biosecurity must be an essential part of any eradication strategy if we are ever going to get rid of this terrible disease.”

Dominic Dyer, chief executive of the Badger Trust and a policy advisor to campaigners Care for the Wild, said: “It is now time for the government to call an immediate halt to all future badger culls and to move its focus to the gaping holes in its cattle management policy, which this report shows has allowed TB in cattle to spread.”

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