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Lava planets, dead zones, spider legs and more!

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outerspace.jpgA massive winter snowstorm, three canceled flights and 232 emails later, I finally have a few minutes to write about the recent AAAS meeting in D.C.

If you're a science geek (or in my case, a Star Wars nerd), then AAAS is a must-go event. In between the press briefings, poster sessions and endless reception appetizers, I managed to attend a few of the presentations. Here are some of the highlights:

1) By 2050 nearly all of the large, predatory fish will be gone from the ocean.

I wrote about this in a previous blog entry, but it's worth repeating since the sheer possibility of this happening is astounding.

2) Scientists don't think the media is doing a good job covering climate change. The media doesn't think scientists are doing a good job communicating about climate change.

Somewhat surprising for an academic conference, this session actually got a bit testy. Andy Revkin did a nice job recently summarizing the discussion on his Dot Earth blog. The takeaway for me: the media is doing a pretty good job lately, but most scientists need to continue to hone their communications skills.

3) Kepler 10b is an Earth-like planet with lava oceans.

Who says science isn't cool?! After hearing about all the doom and gloom here on Earth, I needed a break, so I dropped in on a session focused on frontiers in astronomy.

Kepler 10b is a distant planet in a galaxy far, far away with a surface temperature of 3500 degrees Fahrenheit. By comparison, molten lava is 1800 degrees F.

Sounds like something straight out of an episode of Star Trek!

4) Is nitrogen the next carbon?

This session focused on the good (food production), the bad (smog) and ugly (dead zones) of nitrogen. It's a complex topic, though, because nitrogen has in part fueled green revolutions around the world. I was surprised to learn that the average use in the U.S. is 100kg per hectare, whereas in Africa the number is closer to eight.

The takeaway: we need to use nitrogen to feed the planet, but we also need to do so more wisely.

5) We could learn a thing or two from nature.

During a session focused on biologically-inspired design, I learned that studying eagles could help us design energy-efficient airplanes with retractable wings and better understanding the extremely sensitive hair cells on spiders could lead to breakthroughs in sensor technology.

6) Where did all the oil go?

NOAA's Jane Lubchenco reported that nearly all of the oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill has dispersed, but we still don't know the long-term impacts to marine ecosystems. I was also surprised to learn that the total spill - approximately 5 million barrels - was equivalent to 18 times the Exxon Valdez. Perhaps most shocking, though, is how quickly the story has faded from the public discourse on energy.

The AP's Seth Borenstein recently reported on the spill's impact to the Gulf seafloor.

7) The world's population is approaching 7 billion, and then 9 billion by 2050... or maybe 9.5 billion... or is it 11 billion?

No one really knows, but the comment that stood out for me during this session actually came from IonE's Jon Foley.

"Maybe we're asking the wrong question. Instead of asking 'what's the Earth's carrying capacity,' perhaps we should be asking why we already can't feed a billion people today without serious consequences for the environment?"

As the Word Wildlife Federation's Jason Clay concluded, "If we don't get the food question right, population numbers won't matter. We can turn off the lights and go home."

Sounds like it's time to continue the search for solutions!

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  of the Institute on the Environment/University of Minnesota.