The laughing-gas menace and other science news

Based on a few experiences in the dentist’s chair, I’d always ranked nitrous oxide pretty high on my list of favorite gasses, with an entertainment value far greater than oxygen or even helium. But I’m going to have to do some reordering now that researchers have declared nitrous oxide to be the greatest current threat to the Earth’s ozone layer. But wait, you say, wasn’t the big culprit in ozone depletion supposed to be those chlorofluorocarbons that were regulated back in the mid-’80s and phased out completely by 1996? Well, yes, during the years they were used, CFCs did thin the ozone layer worldwide by about 5 percent, scientists calculated, and since the ban, the ozone layer has been recovering.

But that recovery may be stalled by an increase in nitrous oxide emissions, produced when bacteria break down nitrogen in soil or water. Human activity generates about a third of the total produced, primarily through fertilizer use, farm animal waste and sewage treatment. At the time CFCs were banned, nitrous oxide wasn’t considered a significant enough threat to ozone to regulate, but according to new research by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the stuff is just as bad as the CFCs and maybe more damaging because annual emissions are 10 times as great as the CFC emissions at their peak. Oh, did I mention nitrous oxide is also a heat-trapping greenhouse gas? And here’s the kicker: In trying to fix one problem, we managed to make another problem worse. Nitrogen and chlorine compounds counteract each other’s effect on ozone to some degree, and with the CFCs being purged from the atmosphere, the nitrous oxide is 50 percent more damaging than it had been. That darned Law of Unintended Consequences.

Speaking of which … back in May, Britain’s national weather service, the Met Office, got itself a really big, really powerful supercomputer to help with forecasting and modeling the effects of climate change. Now a government assessment of the carbon footprint of more than 28,000 public buildings has found that, thanks to the massive power consumption of said supercomputer, the Met Office headquarters ranks as one of the least green buildings in the country. As Maurice Spurway, a Friends of the Earth spokesman, drily observed, “Life is full of ironies and I think this is one of those situations.”

Elsewhere in the wide world of science:

* In another step toward being able to build computing elements at an atomic scale, IBM scientists In Zurich, Switzerland, have, for the first time, captured an image of the chemical structure of an individual molecule with “unprecedented” resolution, using noncontact atomic force microscopy.

* You know how Tiger Woods always wears red for the final round of a tournament? Tiger is no fool. For reasons rooted deep in the unconscious mind, red is the color of winners.


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  • RedRat

    Well it is pretty clear what now must be done to restore the ozone layer: Wipe out all life on Earth. Maybe then the Friends of the Earth will be finally satisfied.