Health & Science

Pollution arrives on winds from China; A mystery on Mars; Happier people stay healthier; Old trees bulking up

Pollution arrives on winds from China

Along with goods for U.S. markets, China’s booming factories are exporting pollution that fouls the air over the Western U.S., a new study has found. “We’ve outsourced our manufacturing and much of our pollution, but some of it is blowing back across the Pacific to haunt us,” University of California, Irvine, earth scientist Steven Davis tells The Telegraph (U.K.). The study determined that Chinese emissions—blown toward the U.S. by powerful westerly winds—contribute as much as a quarter of the sulfate pollution on the West Coast, and inflict on Los Angeles at least one extra day a year of smog exceeding federal ozone limits. Researchers used computer modeling to calculate the impact of emissions from 42 industry sectors. Black carbon, which has been linked to asthma, cancer, emphysema, and heart and lung diseases, is of particular concern since it doesn’t easily wash out of the atmosphere and can travel long distances. “This is a reminder to us that a significant percentage of China’s emissions of traditional pollutants and greenhouse gas emissions are connected to the products we buy and use every day in the U.S.,” said UCLA law professor Alex Wang.

A mystery on Mars

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Space scientists are trying to figure out how a strange rock shaped like a jelly doughnut suddenly appeared on Mars’s surface, in full view of the rover Opportunity’s camera. NASA scientists noticed the rock when reviewing images taken by Opportunity as it explored Endeavor Crater. One shot depicted an empty patch of ruddy ground, but the next shot of the same location 12 Martian days later showed the mysterious rock, which scientists described as being roughly the size and shape of a jelly doughnut, largely white with a dark red depression in the center. Its arrival generated two theories: that the rock had landed there after being displaced by a nearby meteorite impact or, more likely, that it was kicked up and turned over by Opportunity’s wheels. Either way, the rover’s Microscopic Imager was able to analyze a rock surface that appeared not to have been exposed to the atmosphere for billions of years, and found its composition to be very high in sulfur, magnesium, and manganese. “It is clearly a rock,” NASA investigator Steve Squyres tells The New York Times. “We’re completely confused, and we’re having a wonderful time.”

Happier people stay healthier

Happiness may be a key to staying healthy in old age. A new long-term study involving nearly 3,200 people ages 60 and older found that those who enjoy life are better able to handle physical activities such as eating, getting dressed, and showering; they even walk faster. By contrast, the unhappiest people were about 80 percent more likely to have trouble with the routines of daily living. “This is not because the happier people are in better health, or richer, or have more healthy lifestyles at the outset, since even when we take these factors into account, the relationship persists,” Dr. Andrew Steptoe of University College London tells The Telegraph (U.K.). To quantify study participants’ contentment, researchers asked them to rate how much they agreed with statements such as “I enjoy the things that I do” and “I enjoy being in the company of others.” They then interviewed participants to assess their difficulty in negotiating daily activities. Over the eight years of the study, only 4 percent of people who enjoyed life the most developed problems in handling daily activities, compared with 17 percent of those who showed the least enjoyment.

Old trees bulking up

Upending the long-held assumption that trees lose their vigor with age, a new study has determined that trees grow more quickly the older they get, packing on girth even after they stop gaining height. That means that senior trees do more than their younger counterparts to capture carbon dioxide from the air and store it as carbon in their wood—a fact that researchers say could make preserving old-growth forests an even more worthwhile strategy for combating climate change. “It’s as if, on your favorite sports team, you find out the star players are a bunch of 90-year-olds,” Nate Stephenson of the U.S. Geological Survey tells The study drew on up to 80 years of data from roughly 670,000 trees across 403 species on six continents. Researchers underscored that the extraordinary growth was not limited to known fast growers like the giant sequoia and the Australian mountain ash, commonly known as eucalyptus. Rather, growth rates increased with age in 97 percent of tropical and temperate trees, with the largest trees putting on more than 1,300 pounds per year. “In human terms, it is as if our growth just keeps accelerating after adolescence,” Stephenson says.

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