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“Below 1%”: The Monarch Butterfly Is Approaching Total and Irreversible Extinction

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The monarch butterfly, the majestic black-and-orange pollinator that once covered winter trees like leaves from the Baja California Peninsula up to California’s Central Coast, is facing a sharp population decline that could spell its irreversible doom.

According to a new survey conducted by the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, the iconic North American butterfly, which migrates thousands of miles across the continent on an annual basis, is now hovering inches away from extinction.

In 1980, the monarch butterfly population reached about 4.5 million. By the mid-2000s, the count dropped to barely 100,000 and last year, the number of western monarchs fell to a staggering 28,429a 99.4 percent decline that Xerces Society conservation biologist Emma Pelton described to the San Francisco Chronicle as “this other order of magnitude drop.”

“It’s mind-boggling. We’re now down below 1 percent of the historic population,” Pelton explained to the Chronicle.

Continuing, the biologist explained that the death of the monarch species could have a knock-on effect on other insects such as bees and insectivorous bird species:

“It is very apt to say this is a canary in a coal mine for a lot of our native pollinators … There’s a tight link in a loss of insects and our songbirds, which rely on insects. We have declines in songbirds, and I think that links directly to declines in insects.”

By now, the process of extinction could prove inexorable, plunging the monarch into an “extinction vortex” wherein the species will be unable to replenish its numbers through its natural reproductive process.

The cause of the monarch’s steep and rapid decline has forced biologists to look for answers as to why the die-off has occurred. A variety of factors could be involved, all of which are tied to human economic activities ranging from logging and sprawling urbanization to pesticide and herbicide use on industrial corn and soybean crops as well as the plowing of the monarch’s milkweed habitat along the route by which it migrates.

The Xerces Society conducted the survey on Thanksgiving Day with the aid of hundreds of volunteers who counted butterflies in about 300 locations across California, a method by which the conservationist group has maintained a record of the monarch populations over the course of decades.

Scientists have suggested that since the mid-20th century, when radioactive fallout from above-ground nuclear weapons tests began to spread across the globe and human impacts on the environment began to rapidly accelerate, the earth entered a new epoch whereby human society became the primary geological force whose actions determine the future of the entire Earth system.

Dubbed the Anthropocene – a combination of the Greek word anthropos (“human”) and kainos (“new”) – the modern epoch is the first truly man-made geological period in the Earth’s history. It has also entailed mass extinctions of plants and animals alike.

Whether humankind still maintains the ability to shape our ecological environment for the better remains an open question, but the mass demise of the monarch butterfly and innumerable other species suggests that the precious time within which we can steer the Earth in a radically different direction on a system-wide level is fast running out.

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News

Chinese Military Satellite Smashed by Russian Rocket in “Major Confirmed Orbital Collision”

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In an incident that is likely illustrative of things to come, Chinese military satellite 1-02 was smashed after it appears to have collided into the debris from a disintegrating Russian rocket.

The collision, which occurred earlier this year, shows the increasing danger of space junk such as satellite parts and other miscellaneous jetsam littering the Earth’s orbit. An estimated 8,000 metric tons of space debris pose the risk of destroying functional equipment such as weather forecasting systems, telecoms and GPS systems – and even manned space travel missions – if the problem isn’t reined in.

The fate of the Chinese satellite was uncovered by Harvard astrophysicist and satellite tracker Jonathan McDowell.

The breakup of Yunhai 1-02 was initially reported by the U.S. Space Force’s 18th Space Control Squadron (18SPCS). However, it wasn’t until recently that McDowell found out what caused the breakup.

The astrophysicist soon found that it was destroyed by space junk that originated from a Russian Zenit-2 rocket that had launched a spy satellite in 1996. On Aug. 14, McDowell found a strange entry in a database on Space-Track.org: “Collided with satellite.”

 “This is a new kind of comment entry — haven’t seen such a comment for any other satellites before,” McDowell tweeted.

“A quick analysis of the TLEs show that Yunhai 1-02 (44547) and [the debris object] passed within 1 km of each other (so within the uncertainty of the TLEs) at 0741 UTC Mar 18, exactly when 18SPCS reports Yunhai broke up,” he added, noting that this “looks to be the first major confirmed orbital collision in a decade.”

However, the Yunhai satellite still remains functional and is transmitting radio signals, notes Space.com.

The incident shows the growing likelihood of such collisions in the high-traffic, littered near-Earth orbital zone.

“Collisions are proportional to the square of the number of things in orbit,” McDowell explained. “That is to say, if you have 10 times as many satellites, you’re going to get 100 times as many collisions.”

He added: “So, as the traffic density goes up, collisions are going to go from being a minor constituent of the space junk problem to being the major constituent. That’s just math.”

A worst-case scenario of such collisions is known as the “Kessler Syndrome,” and describes the possibility of one collision setting in motion a chain of collisions. Such a disaster was the premise of the 2013 film “Gravity.”

One hopes that things don’t reach that point.

In the meantime, however, there have been a number of initiatives meant to tackle the growing problem of space debris, such as the ELSA-d spacecraft launched in a demonstration mission earlier this year.

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News

Boston Dynamics Drops New Video Of 5-Foot Atlas Humanoid Robot Effortlessly Doing Parkour

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Robot maker Boston Dynamics has released new video of its two-legged Atlas robot effortlessly completing a parkour obstacle course, offering a new display of its humanoid machines’ unsettling repertoire.

In the video, a pair of Atlas robots can be seen leaping over large gaps, vaulting beams, and even performing backflips. The robot can even be seen jumping over a board while using its arm to remain steady.

While the display seems like anything but “free” running – as the original developers of parkour had envisioned – the routine does seem like an impressive, if terrifying, display of effective coding that took months to perfect, according to the Hyundai-owned robotics firm.

“It’s not the robot just magically deciding to do parkour, it’s kind of a choreographed routine, much like a skateboard video or a parkour video,” said Atlas control lead Benjamin Stephens.

See for yourself:

Unlike its robotic dog Spot, which controversially hit New York City streets last year before being pulled, Atlas isn’t a production robot. Instead, it’s a research model meant to see how far the limits of robotics can be pushed.

In the past, Boston Dynamics has displayed the robot’s feats with videos of Atlas jogging and even busting out some cool dance moves.

Team lead Scott Kuindersma said in a statement that in about two decades, we can expect to coexist with robots that move “with grace, reliability, and work alongside humans to enrich our lives.”

Until then, some of us will continue to reserve our right to feel a bit queasy about the prospect of people being chased down by these skilled free-running (and dancing) machines.

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Environment

South Korean Toilet Turns Poo Into Green Energy and Pays Its Users Digital Cash

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What if your morning #2 not only powered your stove to cook your eggs, but also allowed you to pay for your coffee and pastry on the way to class?

It seems like an absurd question, but one university in South Korea has invented a toilet that allows human excrement to not only be used for clean power, but also dumps a bit of digital currency into your wallet that can be exchanged for some fruit or cup noodles at the campus canteen, reports Reuters.

The BeeVi toilet – short for Bee-Vision – was designed by urban and environmental engineering professor Cho Jae-weon of the Ulsan National Institute of Science and Technology (UNIST), and is meant to not only save resources but also reward students for their feces.

The toilet is designed to first deliver your excrement into a special underground tank, reducing water use, before microorganisms break the waste down into methane, a clean source of energy that can power the numerous appliances that dorm life requires.

“If we think out of the box, feces has precious value to make energy and manure,” Cho explained. “I have put this value into ecological circulation.”

The toilet can transform approximately a pound of solid human waste – roughly the average amount people poop per day – into some 50 liters of methane gas, said Cho. That’s about enough to generate half a kilowatt hour of electricity, enough to transport a student throughout campus for some of their school day.

Cho has even devised a special virtual currency for the BeeVi toilet called Ggool, or honey in Korean. Users of the toilet can expect to earn 10 Ggool per day, covering some of the many expenses students rack up on campus every day.

Students have given the new system glowing reviews, and don’t even mind discussing their bodily functions at lunchtime – even expressing their hopes to use their fecal credits to purchase books.

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