Oxygen was present in Earth’s atmosphere far earlier than previously thought

Previous models of the early Earth posited that the level of oxygen in the atmosphere was extremely low for the first two billion years of the planet’s history, over 100,000 times lower than the present level. Despite ephemeral increases in oxygen levels 2.7 to 2.6 billion years ago, oxygen remained sparse until the Great Oxidation Event about 2.3 billion years ago, when levels of free oxygen in the atmosphere swelled due to the rise of multicellular cyanobacteria not long before, in geological terms, which boasted more efficient metabolisms than their unicellular precursors.

However, a new study indicates that this picture of Earth’s greatest climatic revolution might be more complicated. The new research, led by Sean Crowe of the University of British Columbia, has revealed that oxygen began to build up in Earth’s atmosphere approximately 3 billion years ago, 700 million years prior to the Great Oxidation Event.

Crowe and colleagues from the University of Copenhagen investigated two geological layers in South Africa, both approximately 3 billion years old. The Nsuze paleosol is the most ancient preserved soil on Earth, and is sandwiched between volcanic rocks and sedimentary rocks that were deposited in the sea and river channels. The other geological unit examined was the Ijzermyn iron formation.

Crowe and team analyzed samples of the Nsuze paleosol and Ijzermyn iron formation to determine the ratios of chromium isotopes present in the rocks; isotopes are variants of an atomic element that differ in the number of neutrons in the nucleus. Chromium is an especially good indicator of atmospheric oxygen content in deep time because, as it is oxidized, the distribution of chromium isotopes in the environment changes. In the case of the Nsuze and Ijzermyn rocks, the researchers found higher proportions of a chromium isotope that results from oxidation. The team also found higher proportions of an isotope of uranium that also results from oxidation. The results indicate an interval of higher concentrations of atmospheric oxygen 3 billion years ago.

The new results from South Africa fill part of a gap in the geological record of oxygen concentration. Iron formations in Greenland indicate almost no atmospheric oxygen at 3.8 billion years ago. Prior to the aforementioned transient elevated oxygen levels 2.7 to 2.6 billion years ago, there was a gap in the record between 3.51 and 2.85 billion years ago. The new study points to another, older period of elevated oxygen approximately 3 billion years ago, in the middle of that gap.

“This study now suggests that the process began very early in Earth’s history, supporting a much greater antiquity for oxygen producing photosynthesis and aerobic life,” Crowe explained in a University of British Columbia press release.

The new study was published in the September 26 issue of the journal Nature.


Booker has comfortable lead over Lonegan

Newark’s Democratic Mayor Cory Booker leads conservative Republican Steve Lonegan by double digits in the race to represent New Jersey in the U.S. Senate, according to a new Quinnipiac University poll released Tuesday. The poll shows that 53 percent of likely voters favor Booker compared to 41 percent for Lonegan. The telephone survey, conducted Sept. 19 to 22, questioned 948 voters and had a margin of error of about three percentage points.

Although the race appears to have narrowed since a poll of registered voters conducted last month, pollster Maurice Carroll warned in a statement against comparing the two polls because the new survey involved likely voters, not registered voters. Carroll said while the election may not be “a blow-out,” he described Booker’s lead as “comfortable,” making him the likely winner in Virginia, where voters have not elected a Republican to the U.S. Senate since 1972.

Lonegan was quick to tout his apparent momentum in Tuesday’s survey, issuing a statement saying, “This poll reveals what my supporters already knew. New Jersey is not the hopelessly liberal state everyone thinks it is.”

Other polls, however, show Booker leading Lonegan by an even wider margin. A Stockton College poll released Monday has Booker leading by 26 percent and a Rutgers-Eagleton poll released a couple of weeks ago showed Booker with a hefty 35-point lead. And in the Republicans-will-never-learn category, the Quinnipiac poll shows that Booker owes his substantial lead to women voters who favor him over Lonegan by a whopping 60 to 34 percent.

The Quinnipiac survey indicates that 91 percent of Democrats support Booker, while 86 percent of Republicans favor Lonegan. Independents are essentially split, with 47 percent picking Booker and 44 percent choosing Lonegan.

Pollster Carroll speculated on the reason for the apparent tightening of the race in this latest poll, saying it could be the result of a recent spike in Newark’s violent crime as well as negative attention in the media regarding Booker’s business dealings. including his involvement in the start-up of a social media website. Booker has since severed ties with that venture.

The candidates will face off in a special election on Oct. 16. The winner will complete the term of Democratic Senator Frank Lautenberg, who died in June. The seat will come up for grabs again next year.


Pelosi set to introduce new immigration reform legislation

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has taken on the job of overseeing meetings in the House of Representatives that will hopefully lead to bipartisan support for a new immigration reform bill. According to sources close to Pelosi, the plan is to introduce legislation that combines the comprehensive bill that already passed the Senate Judiciary Committee in May, along with a bill to beef up border security from the House Homeland Security Committee.

The strategy was hatched at a meeting called by Pelosi last week that included some of the top Democrats in the House, as well as immigration reform advocate groups such as AFL-CIO, the Service Employees International Union, the National Council of La Raza, and America’s Voice. It is expected that the new bill will be publicly announced on October 5th, the National Day of Action, a grassroots movement aimed at pressuring Republicans to support immigration reform that provides a pathway to citizenship.

Immigration reform has been stalled since June, when the Senate passed a comprehensive bill that the GOP-lead House has failed to vote on. Many Democrats and immigration reform advocates were unhappy with the bill because they felt that too many concessions were made to win Republican support.

According to sources close to the House Democratic leadership, immigration reform is on the agenda when the House Democratic Caucus reconvenes on Wednesday. Both Democrats and Republicans are eager to come to an agreement on this touchy issue.

Beyond concerns that the bill will keep too many conservative concessions, such as increased border security and a 13 year path to citizenship, Democrats are also concerned that the plan spearheaded by Pelosi will hit a wall if House Republicans take issue with the bill. They think a better strategy would be to wait and see what House Republicans would propose, and react from there.

Democrats who believe that the fight for immigration reform has already dragged on long enough are supportive of Pelosi’s plan of action. Senator  Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said in an interview on Monday “her intention is to keep the House moving forward, which is a good thing.”


Turkey closes border crossing as Syria fighting continues

A militant rebel group affiliated with al-Qaeda has stormed and seized a town near the Turkish frontier, prompting Turkish officials to close a border crossing. The al-Qaeda-linked militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) have been battling a Western-backed Syrian rebel group, the Northern Storm Brigade, for control of the border. The captured town of Azaz is located on an important rebel supply route for food and building materials, as well as for humanitarian aid.

A Turkish official said that the Oncupinar border gate, located about three miles (five kilometers) from Azaz, had been closed for “security reasons,” according to a Reuters report. He also said there is still uncertainty about what is happening on the Syrian side and that all humanitarian assistance that normally passes through that gate has stopped.

The clashes began when Northern Storm fighters tried to stop ISIL rebels from abducting a German doctor in Azaz, according to Reuters. After ousting their opponents, the ISIL reportedly set up sniper positions on rooftops and started arresting pro-Western activists.

Northern Storm fighters were joined by members of the powerful al-Tawhid Brigade who came from Aleppo, Syria, to try to broker a ceasefire. The Tawhid Brigade is a division of the Syrian Islamic Liberation Front, a strong coalition of Islamist rebels who are fighting to overthrow the Bashar Assad regime. According to a Tawhid spokesman, negotiations for a ceasefire are currently underway.

The fighting highlighted the deep divisions between Syrian rebel groups as well as the strength of Islamic militant groups as compared to the more numerous but less experienced moderate forces. A second Turkish official told Reuters that his country finds the clashes worrisome.

“What we want is to see the various coalition groups put their house in order and focus on the struggle with the regime, because that is the real issue–the violence inflicted by the regime on the Syrian people,” the official said.

The seizure of Azaz, which puts an al-Qaeda-backed group in control of territory immediately adjacent to a NATO-aligned country, is likely to increase fears about the growing power of militant Islamist forces in rebellion against the Syrian government and their potential ability to overwhelm the more moderate rebel factions backed by the West.


Scientists estimate how long Earth’s habitability will last

Our Earth will not always be the hospitable pale blue marble that it is today. A team of astrobiologists at the University of East Anglia, led by Andrew Rushby, has calculated the habitable lifetimes for a number of planets in our solar system and exoplanets orbiting other stars.

The team set out to examine how long planets that orbit in their stars’ habitable zones would remain suitable for life; the habitable zone is the range of distances from its star in which a planet can sustain liquid water on its surface. Rushby and team based their estimates on the distance between a planet and its star and the temperatures at which liquid water can exist on a planet. They also incorporated stellar evolution models, which describe how stars, such as our Sun, change through their lifetimes.

Shortly after it formed, our Sun was only 70% as bright as it is now. Although the Sun has been stable, burning hydrogen in its core, for 4.5 billion years, its size and luminosity have been gradually increasing. When the Sun reaches an age of 6 billion years, it will be approximately 15% brighter than it is now. That gradual process of increasing size and intensity will continue until the Sun is about 10 billion years old, at which time it will have depleted its supply of hydrogen in its core. Eventually, the Sun will begin burning hydrogen in its outer layers and will swell to 100 times its current size, devouring Mercury and reducing Earth’s surface to an ocean of lava.

Rushby and colleagues determined that Earth will become uninhabitable to all forms of life long before the 10 billion-year-mark; instead Earth will become uninhabitable while the Sun is still undergoing its gradual increase in size and luminosity. Between 1.75 and 3.25 billion years from now, the Sun will have become so intense that all liquid water on Earth’s surface will evaporate, spelling doom for all life on the planet.

The team applied their method to eight other planets in addition to Earth. One of the subjects was exoplanet Kepler 22b, which will be habitable for a total of 4.3 to 6.1 billion years, possibly comparable to Earth. On the other hand, exoplanet Gliese 581d, which orbits a star with only a third the mass of our Sun, might be habitable for an astounding total of 42.4 to 54.7 billion years, ten times longer than the existence of our entire solar system. Interestingly, Mars will remain in the Sun’s habitable zone far longer than Earth – another six billion years.

Rushby and team’s research could help determine the likelihood that exoplanets might support life. The new research has been published in the journal Astrobiology.


Washington Navy Yard re-opens

Three days after a deadly shooting spree that killed 12 people and injured several others, the Washington Navy Yard re-opened on Thursday. All of the facilities are open, with the exception of building 197, where the majority of Monday’s violence took place. The building is currently being used by the FBI in its investigation.

Navy employees returning to work reported feeling out of place after the killings. Engineer Brooke Roberts told CBS news that it felt surreal, “You don’t think this sort of thing can happen to you at your workplace, so you’re just not prepared for it, regardless… It’s still not quite normal, and it probably won’t be for some time.”

A motive is still being sought for why gunman Aaron Alexis opened fire on Monday morning. Reports are emerging that Alexis suffered from paranoia, and had sought treatment at several VA hospitals on the east coast for insomnia and told doctors that he was hearing voices in his head.

Two messages were found carved into the shotgun that Alexis used during the rampage: “better off this way,” as well as “my elf weapon.” Investigators admit that they are unaware of their meaning at this time.

While staying at a hotel in Rhode Island in August, Alexis told police that he was being followed by several people, who were using microwave vibrations to affect his body and deprive him of sleep.

Alexis had access to the naval yard through a security credential via his employer Hewlett Packard, and recently had passed two background checks. Now Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel is calling for a thorough review of the DOD’s screening process. At a press conference at the Pengaton, Hagel said that the system failed. “When you go back in hindsight and look at all this, there were some red flags — of course there were, why they didn’t get picked up, why they didn’t get incorporated into the clearance process, what he was doing — those are all legitimate questions that we’re going to be dealing with.”

Alexis had been arrested for two previous gun violations and was discharged by the Navy in 2011. Speaking in her home in New York on Wednesday, Alexis’ mother Cathleen said she was heart broken and did not know why her son committed his crimes.


Russia angry over 'politicized' U.N. Syria report

Russia lashed out on Wednesday against the report released by United Nation’s weapon inspectors showing definitive proof that sarin gas was used in a chemical attack in Syria on August 21st. The report, released on Monday, drew the ire of Russian authorities, who called the report “politicized”.

Although the report released by the U.N. did not draw any conclusions about who the perpetrators of the attack were, the United States, Great Britain, and France were all quick to point out that the fact that rockets were definitively used in the attack would be a clear sign that Syria’s President Bashar Assad was behind the attack, and not one of the many groups of rebels current embroiled in the country’s civil war. Russia has rejected these claims, and in an interview with Russian news agency RIA, deputy foreign minister Sergei Ryabkov, they believe the U.N. report is to blame.

“We are disappointed, to put it mildly, about the approach taken by the UN secretariat and the UN inspectors, who prepared the report selectively and incompletely,” Ryabkov said, adding “Without receiving a full picture of what is happening here, it is impossible to call the nature of the conclusions reached by the UN experts … anything but politicized, preconceived and one-sided.”

Ryabkov also said that Russia has obtained evidence from Syria showing that rebels were behind the attack in a suburb of Damascus that left around 1,400 people dead. So far none of this evidence has been presented to the global community.

Russia, along with China, has been the strongest ally of Assad, supplying his regime weapons during the civil war, and blocking efforts at the U.N. Security Council by European nations and the U.S. to take action against Syria. Recently, Russia proposed a deal to round up and destroy Syria’s stockpile of chemical weapons. After working on the deal with the U.S., it was accepted by Syria, who has agreed to account for all of their chemical weapons, and turn them over for destruction by mid-2014.

There is currently a draft resolution in the Security Council that would have the U.N. enforce the U.S.-Russia deal to make sure that Syria complies fully. It is expected that there will be push back from Russia on this resolution.


John McCain responds to Putin op-ed

Last week the President of Russia Vladimir Putin took to the op-ed pages of the New York Times to send a message to Americans about Syria. In his column, Putin took issue with the idea of American exceptionalism and warned of the backlash that a strike by the United States might cause:

“The potential strike by the United States against Syria, despite strong opposition from many countries and major political and religious leaders, including the pope, will result in more innocent victims and escalation, potentially spreading the conflict far beyond Syria’s borders. A strike would increase violence and unleash a new wave of terrorism.”

Many people took issue with Putin’s message, especially in Congress. Democrat and head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Bob Menendez of New Jersey told CNN that reading it made him want to vomit. Speaker of the House John Boehner said that he was insulted. But the strongest criticism of the article came from Arizona Republican and failed Presidential hopeful John McCain, who mused that he would love to write a rebuttal for Pravda, the Communist Party organ newspaper in Russia.

McCain got his wish on Thursday when Pravda obliged him and printed the piece. McCain accused Putin of defending tyrants like Bashar al-Assad and wrote that Russia deserved better leadership than Putin has provided, telling Russians that “President Putin doesn’t believe in these values because he doesn’t believe in you. He doesn’t believe that human nature at liberty can rise above its weaknesses and build just, peaceful, prosperous societies. Or, at least, he doesn’t believe Russians can. So he rules by using those weaknesses, by corruption, repression and violence. He rules for himself, not you.”

The former KGB officer has been the de facto ruler of the former Communist nation since becoming President in the year 2000. He held that office for eight years, then served as Prime Minister for four while his successor Dmitry Medvedev was President, but it is widely perceived that the crucial decisions were still made by Putin. In March of last year Putin ran for President again, winning 63% of the popular vote, although widespread irregularities were reported by international observers.

Russia has been Syria’s greatest benefactor and has consistently blocked efforts in the United Nations Security Council to take military action against the regime.


Bidding begins as feds auction off Jesse Jackson Jr. memorabilia

The U.S. Marshals Service is holding an online auction Tuesday, September 17, of some of Jesse Jackson Jr.’s memorabilia in an attempt to pay for at least a portion of a money judgment against him, representing some $750,000 in campaign funds Jackson and his wife illegally spent. Both have been sentenced to prison terms.

Jesse Jackson Jr., whose taste apparently tended toward the ostentatious and extravagant, was a big pop music fan. Among the 13 items open to bidding are a guitar and album (“Blood on the Dance Floor”) autographed by Michael Jackson, a Bruce Lee autograph, and a red mink-trimmed cashmere cape, along with other glitzy threads and mementos of popular culture. According to prosecutors, Jackson spent tens of thousands of dollars in ill-gotten gain on other self-indulgent extravagances not included in the sale, including two mounted moose heads for his office.

One of the largest items of memorabilia to be sold is a guitar signed by both Michael Jackson and Eddie Van Halen. Next to Jackson’s autograph are scrawled the words, “Let Love Fall Like Rain.”

The 48-year-old Jackson pleaded guilty in February of illegally using campaign funds to pay for personal expenses. He was sentenced to two-and-a-half years in prison, where he is to report in November. His wife, Chicago Alderman Sandra Jackson, also was sentenced to a year in prison for knowingly filing false income tax returns.

Whatever money the auction generates will be subtracted from the $750,000 Jackson owes the government, according to a spokesperson for the U.S. Marshals Service. Jackson was required to forfeit the items now up for bidding as part of his plea deal.

The online auction, which is being run by the auction house Gaston & Sheehan, will run through Sept. 26.


U.N. confirms sarin gas attack in Syria

The reports of the United Nation’s weapon inspectors working to uncover whether or not there was a sarin gas attack last month in Syria have come in. According to reports, there is little doubt that sarin gas was used in the attack on August 21st outside of Damascus, although the report did not confirm whether or not the attack was perpetrated by the Syrian President Bashar Assad, or one of the many rebel factions fighting in the country’s blood civil war.

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon spoke about the report, and made it clear that the stance of the U.N. is that it is unequivocal that there was a sarin gas attack in Syria. “The results are overwhelming and indisputable,” Ban said. “Eighty-five percent of the blood samples tested positive for sarin. A majority of the environmental samples confirmed the use of sarin. A majority of the rockets or rocket fragments recovered were found to be carrying sarin.”

This confirms what the international community has long suspected. Although the report did not confirm whether or not the attacks can be traced back to Assad, many are pointing to the fact that it did confirm that the sarin gas was delivered using rockets as proof that Assad’s regime are the only ones who could have perpetrated the attack. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said that that evidence “confirms the position of those of us who have said the regime is guilty.”

The report came as little shock, as Syria recently publicly admitted for the first time that they possess a stockpile of chemical weapons, and are in talks with Russia and the United States to peacefully disarm themselves. However, Syria, as well as Russia, still maintain that the sarin attack was carried about by rebel fighters, not the government.

Besides conducting blood tests, environmental tests, and examining rocket fragments, the weapons testers also interviewed victims of the attack, as well as first responders and medical personal. The 38 page report did not estimate the number of people killed in the attack, but U.S. reports have estimated that number at over 1,400.

The report described bluntly the scene at the attack. “Survivors reported an attack with shelling, followed by the onset of a common range of symptoms, including shortness of breath, disorientation, rhino­rrhea (runny nose), eye irritation, blurred vision, nausea, vomiting, general weakness, and eventual loss of consciousness. Those who went to assist .?.?. described seeing a large number of individuals lying on the ground, many of whom were deceased or unconscious.”