Bracing for the big one

The map is uncannily similar to today’s: a spray of black dots showing the recorded sightings of a foul grey haze spreading across Europe, from Helsinki to Naples, from Heligoland to Majorca, and reaching eventually to Aleppo and Damascus – all of it caused by clouds of ash from an immense volcano erupting far across the sea in Iceland.But this was a map made from data collected in 1783. The volcano was called Laki, it erupted for eight dismal months without cease, ruined crops, lowered temperatures and drastically altered the weather. It killed 9000 people, drenched European forests in acid rain, caused skin lesions in children and the deaths of millions of cattle. And, by one account, it was a contributing factor (because of the hunger-inducing famines) to the outbreak six years later of the French revolution.Great volcanoes have a habit of prompting profound changes to the world – much greater in extent than the most savage of earthquakes and tsunamis, even though the immediate lethality of the latter is invariably much more cruel. Though ground-shaking events are generally fairly local in extent, their potential for killing can be terrific: 250,000 died after the Tangshan earthquake in China in 1975 and a similar number died in the Indian ocean tsunami of 2004. Volcanoes seem by contrast relatively benign: the accumulated total number of deaths in all of the great volcanoes of the past 300 years has probably not exceeded a quarter of a million: the total number of casualties from a hundred of the biggest recent eruptions has been no more than those from a single giant earthquake.But there is a significant difference. Earthquakes, once done, are done. Volcanoes, however, often trigger long-term and long-distance ill-effects, which generally far outweigh their immediate rain of death and destruction. Emanations of particles from the tiniest pinprick in the Earth’s crust, once lifted high into the skies by an explosive eruption, can wind themselves sinuously and menacingly around the planet, and leave all kinds of devastation in their train. They can disrupt and pollute and poison; they can darken skies and cause devastating changes in the weather; they can bring about the abrupt end to the existence of entire populations of animals and people.Earthquakes and tsunamis have never been known to cause extinctions but volcanoes and asteroid collisions have done so repeatedly – and since the Earth is still peppered with scores of thousands of volcanoes ever yearning to erupt, they and the dramatic long-term effects of their eruptions are in fact far more frequent, far more decisive, and far greater than those that are triggered by any other natural phenomenon on the planet.It is worth remembering that ours is a world essentially made from and by volcanoes. They are creatures that will continue to do their business over the aeons, quite careless of the fate of the myriad varieties of life that teems beneath them and on their flanks. Including, of course, ours.There is perhaps no better recent example of the havoc that a big eruption can cause than that which followed the explosive destruction of Mount Toba, in northern Sumatra, 72,000-74,000 years ago (which, in geological time, is very recent indeed). The relics of this mountain today are no more than a very large and beautiful lake, 100 kilometres long and 800 metres deep – the caldera left behind by what is by most reckonings the largest volcanic explosion known to have occurred on the planet in the past 25 million years.On the widely used volcanic explosivity index (VEI), Toba is thought to have been an eight – meaning that in the unusually flamboyant official language of vulcanology it was a super-plinian type eruption with mega-colossal characteristics (Iceland’s Eyjafjallajokull is by contrast listed as a strombolian type, with its characteristic regarded as merely gentle, and having a probable VEI rating of just two).About 2800 cubic kilometres of rock were instantly vaporised by the super-eruptive blast of Toba, all of which was hurled scores of thousands of metres into the air. This is what did the lasting damage, just as Iceland’s high-altitude rock-dust did in Europe. But while we merely suffered a large number of inconvenienced people and a weakening of the balance sheets of some airlines, the effect on the post-Toban world was catastrophic: as a result of the thick ash clouds the world’s ambient temperature plummeted, perhaps by as much as 5 degrees – and the cooling and the howling wave of deforestation and deaths of billions of animals and plants caused a sudden culling of the human population of the time, reducing it to maybe as few as 5000 people, perhaps 1000 breeding pairs. Many anthropologists believe that the event caused a sudden evolutionary bottleneck, with genetic implications that linger to this day. Put more crudely, humanity was nearly wiped out by Toba, and only by the merest hair’s breadth did our ancestors of 72,000 years ago manage to cling on and bequeath to us our existence.Mercifully, from humanity’s point of view, there have been very few Tobas known in history. They are probably so large that they reach the upper limit of the kind of eruptions that can physically occur on Earth – one VEI-8 event occurs only every 100,000 years or so. Yet of those known to have occurred, two have taken place in Britain (mainly because Britain has such a vast variety of geology, with almost every age of rock known in the world found somewhere between Cape Wrath and Dover). They are comfortingly ancient: both – the volcano that created Scafell in the Lake District, and the other that gave us Glen Coe in the Western Highlands – took place more than 400 million years ago.But others of the 47 known VEI-8 volcanoes are more alarmingly recent. Taupo in New Zealand erupted with mega-colossal force some 22,500 years ago. The newer of the great eruptions that helped form the mountains of today’s Yellowstone National Park in the United States took place just 640,000 years ago, and all the current signs – from such phenomena as the rhythmic slow rising and falling of the bed of the Yellowstone River, as if some giant creature is breathing far below – suggest another eruption is coming soon. When it does, it will be an American Armageddon: all of the north and west of the continent, from Vancouver to Oklahoma City, will be rendered uninhabitable, buried under scores of metres of ash. (I mentioned this once in a talk to a group of lunching ladies in Kansas City, soothing their apparent disquiet by adding that by ”soon” I was speaking in geologic time, and that meant about 250,000 years, by which time all humankind would be extinct. A woman in the front row exploded with a choleric and incredulous rage: ”What?” she said. ”Even Americans will be extinct?”)Ratcheting down the scale a couple of notches, to the only slightly less gigantic eruptions that are classified as VEI-7 and VEI-6, and a host of more familiar eruptions come into view. These include Santorini, the Aegean volcano whose destruction around 4000 years ago may have triggered the collapse of the Minoan civilisation; Laki, the 1783 Icelandic volcano mentioned above, and which most obviously parallels today’s events at Eyjafjallajokull; the Javan volcano of Krakatoa, which erupted so infamously in August 1883; and the rather more profoundly world-affecting eruption of 1815, also in the Dutch East Indies, of the huge stratovolcano on Sumbawa Island, known as Tambora. Each of these had massive effects, and all were global in their extent.Tambora is the most notorious, not least because it was so immense: almost 170 cubic kilometres of pulverised Sumbawan rock were hurled into the sky, which darkened, cooled and polluted a world that, unlike in Toba’s day, was already well populated and widely civilised. The consequences ranged from the dire – a lowering of temperature that caused frosts in Italy in June and snows in the US in July, and the failure of crops in immense swathes across Europe and the Americas – to the ludicrous: Irish migrants, promised better weather in New England, found it on landing to be every bit as grim as the Connemara and Cork they had left, and so either went home, or pressed on in hope to California.Krakatoa’s immediate aftermath was dominated initially by dramatic physical effects – a series of tsunamis that were measured as far away as Portland Bill and Biarritz, a detonation that was clearly heard (like naval gunfire, said the local police officer) 5000 kilometres away on Rodriguez Island, and a year’s worth of awe-inspiring evening beauty as the sky lit up with dazzling colours.There was an important legacy to Krakatoa’s eruption not shared by the other giant volcanoes of the time. Close mapping of the spread of the 1883 sunsets showed them girdling the Earth in a curious set of spirals, the stratospheric aerosols evidently being borne around the world on high-altitude winds that no one at the time knew existed. An atmospheric scientist in Hawaii mapped them and decided to call the air current the equatorial smoke stream. It later became, more elegantly and economically, the jet stream. There has to be some irony that the jet stream that drove this month’s Icelandic dust so dangerously over Britain and mainland Europe is a phenomenon that was first discovered as a direct consequence of the study of Krakatoa.And yet, of all the consequences of the truly great volcanoes of the past, the phenomenon of mass extinctions of life must surely be the most profound and world-changing of all. Between two and five major extinction events occur in the world every million years or so. Humans have not been privileged to observe one of them – hardly surprisingly, since they would probably occur so slowly as to be barely noticeable. However, with painstaking care, palaeontological evidence is being amassed to link sudden and catastrophic changes in world climate, changes that promote such extinction crises, with the known major eruptions of the past, and with what are known as flood basalt events (such as those that have been triggered specifically in the past by eruptions of Eyjafjallajokull and her neighbouring volcano in Iceland, Katla, which is itself well overdue for an eruption). It is a study that opens up a fascinating speculative possibility.For what if the kind of event that we have seen this month, and which caused such commercial inconvenience, is in fact not just a minor volcanic hiccup, but the beginning of an event that causes in time a mass extinction of some form of earthbound life? And, since we know from the history books that the massive eruption of Santorini once had the power to destroy one proud part of human society, what if the extinction we might be beginning to see turns out to be what will one day surely occur, and that is the extinction of us?Guardian News & MediaSimon Winchester is a journalist and author of Krakatoa: The Day The World Exploded.
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America’s gaping hole: thousands queue up for free medical care

LOS ANGELES: They began arriving before dawn on a cold, misty morning, people of all ages lining up by the hundreds, some in wheelchairs, others hobbling on crutches, many of them missing teeth, all of them seeking the same thing: free medical care.It was a scene that could have been playing out in a Third World country or perhaps some place like post-hurricane New Orleans. But it was unfolding in Los Angeles on Tuesday, and the hundreds who showed up were mainly working people without health insurance.Kenny Gillett, 47, a welder, had not seen a doctor for two years, since losing his job and insurance when his employer went broke.Adriana Valenzuela, a self-employed and uninsured beautician, brought an eight-year-old son with a mouthful of cavities. Frank Carodine, 57, in a wheelchair, said he had lost parts of both legs to diabetes, which was now ravaging his right eye. He needed glasses. ”I’ve got coverage for my diabetes, I go to a clinic, but it doesn’t cover eye exams,” he said.Outside in the cold, several hundred people, some balancing toddlers on their hips, waited for their turn to enter the Los Angeles Sports Arena. Inside were hundreds of volunteer doctors, dentists, acupuncturists, chiropractors and other professionals, all brought together by a Tennessee non-profit group, Remote Area Medical.On this first day of the seven-day clinic, Maria Shriver, the wife of the Governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, visited and said she was humbled by the scope of the volunteer effort.”What you’re seeing is a lot of Middle America here,” said RAM’s flamboyant founder, Stan Brock. ”Healthcare in this country is a privilege of the well-to-do and the well-insured.” At last year’s clinic 6000 were treated. More were expected this time.Jesse Serna, 51, a disabled warehouse worker, was waiting to get an aching tooth fixed.Referring to national healthcare reform, he said: ”We need it badly. We send people overseas when there’s a disaster. This is a disaster right here.”Associated Press, Los Angeles Times
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India accuses one of its diplomats of spying for Pakistan

ISLAMABAD: The Indian government has accused one of its own diplomats of handing secrets to Pakistan’s notorious Inter-Services Intelligence agency.The Indian Foreign Office said on Tuesday that Madhuri Gupta, 53, a second secretary at its high commission in Islamabad, had been charged with espionage.Ms Gupta, who had worked in the press and information section for three years, was arrested on Friday after being called back to New Delhi on the pretext of discussing a regional summit in Bhutan this week. She was charged in court on Monday.”We have reasons to believe an official in the Indian high commission in Pakistan has been passing information to Pakistani intelligence officials,” said Vishnu Prakash, a spokesman for India’s Ministry of External Affairs. ”The official is co-operating with our investigations and inquiries.”The Press Trust of India reported that the head of India’s intelligence agency research and analysis wing in Islamabad was also under investigation.Indian officials did not elaborate on the nature of the secrets allegedly stolen by the junior diplomat. But the revelation is a big embarrassment for India’s diplomatic service on the eve of the Bhutan summit, where peace talks between the nuclear-armed rivals are high on the agenda.The arrest was not expected to derail a meeting between Pakistan’s Prime Minister, Yusuf Raza Gilani, and his Indian counterpart, Manmohan Singh, due to take place today. But it may dampen expectations of a resumption of peace talks, which collapsed after the 2008 Mumbai attacks in which more than 170 people were killed.India blames Lashkar-e-Taiba, a militant group with historical ties to the ISI, for the atrocity, accusing ”state elements” of orchestrating the carnage.The two countries, which have fought three wars, have a history of skulduggery and periodically engage in tit-for-tat expulsions of diplomats, usually at times of political or military tension.But it is rare for a diplomat to be accused of spying and analysts were divided on the political significance. Some felt it was unlikely to damage relations because the accused is an Indian national; others saw it as an ominous sign for an early resumption of peace talks.Guardian News & Media
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Brown sorry his mate Bradshaw was booted – but he is still looking to crush the Swans

IT WAS the question Jonathan Brown knew would come, but that didn’t make it easier to answer.Brown was sitting face to face – albeit via video-conference link – with Daniel Bradshaw. The pair are former teammates, spent a decade together – most of it alongside each other in the Lions’ forward line – played together in 140 games, including three grand finals, and won two flags. But more significantly the pair, who both grew up in country Victoria before heading to Brisbane, were, and still are, good mates.The mateship remained but everything else changed last October when Bradshaw, a valued servant for 14 seasons with the Lions, was offered as trade bait to Carlton for Brendan Fevola. That deal wasn’t done but the damage was. A gutted Bradshaw walked away from the club, and eventually landed at the Swans, while Brisbane snared Fevola.It didn’t take long for the Sydney media to ask Brown whether he thought the Lions made the right move getting Fevola at Bradshaw’s expense. ”You open up with a good one there,” Brown said. ”I’m not comfortable to answer that, mate.”Then followed five seconds of awkward silence, while everyone waited to see if he would elaborate.”At the end of the day both clubs have benefited from it,” he said. ”Who’s there and who’s not, we can argue about that all day long and footy fans will argue about that, but both players are playing well for both clubs.”Braddy is a close mate of mine so it’s just … at the end of the day I’m just happy he’s playing good footy.”Quizzed on whether it was one of his tougher moments hearing Bradshaw was leaving, Brown said he had no doubt, but that is football.”It’s always disappointing to see a great player go and a great mate go, but players play and management manages, so we go along with the decisions that have been made,” said Brown, who said he was a definite starter for the SCG clash between the Swans and the Lions after battling a ”sore stomach” last week.”That’s the business of football unfortunately. I obviously can’t really comment about too much because I’m still at the same footy club.”Bradshaw has made it clear he’s moved on from the decision made by his former club and its coach – his premiership-winning teammate Michael Voss.He feels ”somewhere down the track we’ll be able to work it out”, but realises like Brown that player movement is part of football.”I don’t want to spend too much energy worrying about it,” Bradshaw said. ”It’s fair to say I’m over it now. I’ve moved on and it’s not something I think about any more, but I’d be lying if I said I wouldn’t be a little bit nervous heading into Saturday.”We [he and Brown] haven’t really spoken too much about it [what went on]. I’m not really looking back, I’m more about looking forward, and not worrying about what happened six or seven months ago.”Bradshaw said he would ”catch up” with a few former teammates after Saturday’s game, but the coach? ”No, I don’t think so,” he said.Bradshaw said he was ”obviously very keen to do well,” but winning was what mattered.”I wouldn’t want to play well and we lose,” he said. ”If I don’t kick a goal and we still end up in front I’ll be a happy man.”
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Clarke grateful teammates were there for him in his hour of need

Australia’s Test captain-in-waiting, Michael Clarke, has defended his decision to return from the New Zealand tour to end his engagement to Lara Bingle.Clarke said he was unable to focus on playing at the time, and needed to end the personal drama. In the face of criticism that his leaving jeopardised his suitability for the captaincy, he returned to the tour and scored a match-winning century.”I [decided] to go home because I thought that was in the best interests of myself and the team,” he said. ”I wasn’t in a position to perform the way I need to perform at the highest level, so with the support of family, friends and my teammates I made that decision.”And with the help of the same people I [decided to] come back, and I was in a better position to … get some runs.”Ricky [Ponting] and all the players gave me the freedom to make my choice and I feel, at the time, I made the right choice. I believe I made the right choice to go home, and the right choice to come back when I did. I don’t want to go too much into my personal life, but people go through these things. I’m very lucky I had the freedom to go home and then come back.”That was part of the reward in scoring runs – it was great for me personally but it was also a bit of a thank you to my teammates.”While former Australian cricketer Glenn McGrath recently stage-managed the announcement of his new relationship in a bid to limit the invasion of his privacy by the media, Clarke said he was in a different situation. ”Everybody makes their own decisions. For me, it’s about accepting that it’s not just about what I do on the field but off the field as well.”I’ll try throughout the rest of my life to keep as much of my personal life as personal as possible, with the understanding – I don’t know why – but people want to hear about it.”It’s a wonderful feeling to know you’ve got family and friends that you can trust 100 per cent through good times, through tough times. It’s something I’ve always been proud of, my closeness to my friends, to my family, and to my teammates.”Clarke admitted he still cared what critics thought of him, after fans and former players reacted to his decision to abandon the tour because of personal problems. ”I read it; people are entitled to their opinion,” he said. ”I can’t change their opinions. I felt at the time that I made the right decision for me personally, but also for the team.”People are going to say what they like and have their opinion and I respect that opinion. That’s the way it is. I still care that other people think. But what I’ve learnt is the acceptance that people get paid for a comment, to sell papers, to sell magazines. So accept and make sure you do what you need to do to perform in your next game.”There is little scope for Clarke to lead a sheltered existence and he realises the scrutiny on his next relationship will be as severe, if not more so, than on his former engagement to Bingle.”I hope not, but I think it will be, and I’ll continue to try to keep as much of my personal life personal, but I accept that if somebody gets a photo of me they’re going to write about me, I have to accept that,” Clarke said.”I would have liked [the break-up] to be more personal. I think it’s a part of what professional sportsmen do these days – it’s not just about what you do on the field, it’s off the field as well. We’re seeing that more and more every day. People are interested in what you’re doing off the field, a lot of the stuff you can’t control.”It’s about understanding and respecting that the media have a job to do; they’re trying to sell newspapers, magazines [and] channels are fighting for who is watching what.”No doubt there are times when I’d love my personal life to stay very personal, but there are parts you can’t control.”Clarke also said that when Andrew Symonds was sacked last year and sent home from the World Twenty20 tournament in England, he learnt a lesson about the importance of the team over the individual.”It gave me experience about leadership and that you make decisions that are in the best interests of the team; Ricky has taught me that,” Clarke said.”It is never personal – being in a leadership role, it’s about trying to do the best thing for the team and sometimes you’ve got to make a hard call. But if it’s in the best interest of the team, you make that call.”That is one thing Punter [Ponting] has always done, and has always shown in any team I’ve played with – the team comes first.”
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Storm’s loss may be Broncos’ gain

BRISBANE will set their sights on luring one of the Storm’s four stars north if Broncos centre Israel Folau signs today for Super rugby franchise Melbourne Rebels.The Rebels are almost certain to today announce Folau as their latest signing, with the 21-year-old to tell his NRL club Brisbane he will not be triggering a two-year option to remain in Queensland. His offer to switch codes is about $600,000 a season, not the $1 million figure reported this week, and includes about $100,000 in top-up funding from the Australian Rugby Union.However, Folau’s decision to become the latest in a succession of high-profile converts to the 15-a-side game is likely to bring grave ramifications for his representative aspirations this season, with Australian and Queensland officials last night indicating he would be overlooked for selection for the May 7 Test against New Zealand and then the State of Origin series if he agrees to join the Rebels. It would also leave the Broncos, already operating about $300,000 under the salary cap due to the departures of Joel Clinton (to England) and PJ Marsh, who was forced into premature retirement last month by a neck injury, on the hunt for a replacement with plenty to spend.Brisbane continue to negotiate with former Broncos Petero Civoniceva and Ben Hannant but chief executive Bruno Cullen conceded yesterday they would be on the look-out for another star if Folau walked. Storm quartet Cameron Smith, Billy Slater, Greg Inglis and Cooper Cronk would be on their list, with at least one likely to leave Melbourne in the wake of the salary cap fiasco.”Israel going would mean we’re perhaps one marquee player short,” Cullen said. ”But we wouldn’t be acting like vultures about it. We’d give plenty of space to think about what they’re going to do and when they’ve done that we certainly might be in the market for one of them. Melbourne players are generally all signed to contracts, though. Everyone is forgetting that – no one is allowed to talk to them before November this year.”Cullen said he anticipated a final decision by Folau today. He has been told the Rebels’ total offer to Folau exceeds $1m.”It’s just a matter of him saying yes or no to the option,” he said. ”When someone gets thrown that amount of money at them it has to be a tough decision to say no. But … he’s very positive about liking league and wanting to play for the Broncos.”Brisbane captain Darren Lockyer said a Storm player would be an ideal replacement in a back line that also lost Karmichael Hunt last year. ”If Israel does leave, there’ll be some money to go and buy someone,” Lockyer said. ”A lot of those Storm boys are from Brisbane.”The Rebels’ interest in Folau was revealed by the Herald on March 18. The franchise, until last week run by ex-Storm chief Brian Waldron, has secured an appealing roster including England’s Danny Cipriani and former Wallabies captain Stirling Mortlock.Folau’s decision is understood to be based around lifestyle as much as money. The Herald believes he stands to earn just over $600,000 a season with the Rebels, with the ARU providing $100,000 to top up a base salary of $140,000. The rest of his income would comprise third-party payments, which are understood to total about $250,000, and match payments of $6000 for every Super 15 game.He could also earn $12,000 per Test if selected by the Wallabies.
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Sunnis describe torture by Iraqi guards at secret Baghdad prison

BAGHDAD: Iraqi men were raped, electrocuted and beaten in a ”secret prison” in Baghdad, Human Rights Watch said in a harrowing report reminiscent of the abuses at Abu Ghraib.The organisation interviewed 42 men who had recently been transferred from a jail where they say the brutality took place to another prison in Baghdad, after details of misconduct were passed to the government.Human Rights Watch described the prisoners’ accounts of abuse as ”credible and consistent”, and said there must be an independent and impartial investigation. It called for prosecutions at the highest level.”The horror we found suggests torture was the norm in Muthanna,” the watchdog’s deputy Middle East director, Joe Stork, said, referring to the west Baghdad prison where the men were held until recently.”The government needs to prosecute all those responsible for this systematic brutality.”The men held at the prison were Sunni Arabs from the northern province of Nineveh, who were arrested between September and December last year, the report said yesterday.The existence of the jail has caused alarm for the Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, whose officials said it was shut two weeks ago after the Los Angeles Times reported the abuse allegations.Human Rights Watch said Iraqi prison guards hung blindfolded prisoners upside down during interrogations, then kicked, whipped and beat them before placing a dirty plastic bag over their heads’ to cut off their air supply.When prisoners passed out, they were awoken by electric shocks to their genitals or other parts of the body, the report said.The detainees, who were interviewed at the Al-Rusafa detention centre in Baghdad on Monday, said that interrogators and security officials sodomised some men with broomsticks and pistol barrels.In other developments, Iraq has delayed until next week a ruling on whether nine winning candidates in the parliamentary election held on March 7 will be disqualified, an official said, in another hold-up for the country’s political process.Agence France-Presse
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Climate scientists seek trees of knowledge

THEY trekked for a fortnight through Nepal to reach a hemlock tree that had survived for more than 1000 years. In the snows of Japan they cut wood cores from ancient spruce and in the mountains of Vietnam they sought out centuries-old po mu trees.The challenge in northern Australia was to find old cypress pines that had not been chopped down by farmers for fence posts.This 15-year project, sampling wood from thousands of trees at more than 300 sites from Siberia to Indonesia, and Pakistan to Japan, has allowed a history of the Asian monsoon rains to be reconstructed for the first time.The annual tree rings – a natural record of wet and dry years – have revealed unprecedented details of devastating droughts that have shaken civilisations during the past 1000 years. One dry spell may have played a powerful role in the 1644 fall of China’s Ming dynasty, according to the researchers, led by Edward Cook, of Columbia University in the United States.Their analysis has narrowed the drought down to a three-year period, from 1638 to 1641. It was particularly severe in north-eastern China, which suggests it could have influenced a rebellion of peasants that hastened the demise of the dynasty in Beijing more than 350 years ago.Nearly half the world’s population relies on the monsoon rains in Asia for water to drink and to cultivate their crops. Yet scientists cannot simulate this vital weather pattern well in their climate models, which makes it difficult to predict what will happen as the globe continues to warm.Reliable instrumental records of rainfall and temperature only go back to about 1950, which is why the researchers turned to the trees. ”This reconstruction gives climate modellers an enormous data set that may produce some deep insights into the causes of Asian monsoon variability,” says Dr Cook, whose team’s study is published in the journal Science.An Australian tree-ring specialist, Patrick Baker, of Monash University, says the research is ”hugely important”. With so many people dependent on the rains, it provides a picture of weather events that have had a big impact on societies in the past and which could occur in future.”It says, over the past 1000 years, these are the extremes. And it’s very reasonable to ask, ‘Are we prepared for this?’,” he says.Not many tree species in the tropics have clearly defined annual growth rings. To identify an Australian tree with rings that reflect rainfall, Dr Baker searched through the CSIRO’s vast collection of woods in Melbourne, where he hit upon the cypress pine, Callitris intratropica.While a lot of trees in the north of Australia are rotted by termites, cypress pines are resistant to their attack. This made finding large, long-lived ones a challenge. ”The problem is the older ranchers and cattle farmers used them for fence posts,” he says.With colleagues, however, he has been able to track down some pines up to 160 years old in the Northern Territory, and help reconstruct a record of monsoon activity over this period.In Asia, a severe failure of monsoon rains between 1756 to 1768 is not documented in historical records, but it is obvious in the ancient teak trees of Thailand and the cypress trees of Vietnam. The story they tell appears to confirm suspicions of historians that climate must have played a role in the simultaneous collapse at that time of kingdoms in Thailand, Vietnam and Burma.Another drought that hit in 1790 to 1796, causing famines in India, had an impact as far away as Mexico, where the drying up of a large lake led to disputes over the land that emerged.In a study published last month, members of the team, along with University of Sydney researchers Professor Roland Fletcher and Dr Daniel Penny, also used tree ring data to suggest climate was a factor in the demise of the Khmer empire in Cambodia nearly 600 years ago.
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British politicians castigated for plans that don’t add up

LONDON: The three main political parties contesting Britain’s election on May 6 are facing increasing scrutiny of their spending plans and have been accused by one of the nation’s most respected economic think tanks of fudging on the scale of planned cuts.As the Labour Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, the Conservative leader, David Cameron, and the new star on the political stage, the Liberal Democrat leader, Nick Clegg, prepare for tonight’s final television debate on the economy, all three have been excoriated by the Institute for Fiscal Studies, an influential independent policy body.The public has been well prepared for a period of austerity but, says the institute, which prepared an analysis of the three parties’ plans to slash Britain’s £163 billion ($271 billion) deficit, the real pain has not been properly explained.The institute described as ”vague” the three parties’ plans to slash between £30 billion and £40 billion from the budget in the coming year and said none had gone ”anywhere near” what will be needed to meet its debt reduction pledges and timetables.Each party has promised cuts that reflect its own philosophical bent, with Labour protecting front-line services – nurses, police and teachers – and proposing a rise in national insurance tax rise to plug the hole and the Conservatives proposing cuts in public service ”waste” to ensure no tax rises. The Liberal Democrats have promised big cuts of £47 billion, but only 23 per cent have so far been identified.Anxiety about Britain’s economic future was highlighted as news spread that Greece’s credit rating had been ”junked” by the international agency Standard & Poors. The London sharemarket suffered its biggest drop since the beginning of the year.The rising sense of financial and political uncertainty was reflected in reports in the Financial Times that the Conservatives were exploring a deal with Unionist politicians in Northern Ireland and with Welsh nationalists in an effort to avoid Liberal Democrat demands for electoral reform.Senior Conservatives are bitterly against moves to change the first-past-the-post voting system for some form of proportional representation, which they fear would entrench smaller parties such as the Liberal Democrats.Mr Clegg was enjoying a second week of strong opinion polls, and on Tuesday finally caught the attention of conservative newspapers, which had studiously ignored his party.In an interview with The Times, Mr Clegg said that he harboured the notion of becoming prime minister and that his party had stolen the mantle of the progressive centre left from Labour.”I think we have won the progressive argument in this election. Of course, not in terms of numbers of seats, and we’ll see on May 6 whether it’s numbers of votes. But intellectually, the assertion that the progressive cause is a Liberal one, not a statist Labour one.”The big choice, he told The Times, is between ”two competing pitches for change”: the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats. ”I think more … people in the Labour Party are coming to appreciate that. That’s why the big choice now, if not psephologically but intellectually, this is now a two-horse race between the Conservative Party and the Lib Dems.”
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Hartigan calls Waldron chief rat of rort

News Ltd chief executive John Hartigan has called disgraced former Melbourne Storm CEO Brian Waldron the “chief rat” of the NRL club’s salary cap rorting.Hartigan was in Melbourne on Tuesday to address the Storm players and staff in the wake of the scandal which has rocked the News Limited-owned club and the competition as a whole.”We’ll go forward, we’ve got an inquiry in place which we have a lot of trust in,” said Hartigan.”We’ll root out the bad eggs and we’ll go from there.”Waldron – who quit the Storm several months ago to join new Super Rugby franchise the Melbourne Rebels before being forced to resign – broke his silence on the salary cap scandal late on Monday.Waldron claimed he told NRL boss David Gallop several years ago that there needed to be an amnesty period to allow the many clubs he believed were abusing the salary cap to come forward without fear of punishment.Waldron also said he was prepared to tell News Corp chairman and CEO Rupert Murdoch the exact nature of the company’s $66 million investment in the Storm dating back to its entry into the NRL in 1998.”I suggest he goes to the police and tells them because I’d be very interested,” responded Hartigan.”I want the truth to come out and that’s the furthest from the truth.”One thing needs to be purely understood here – we’ve got an inquiry in place and presumably it’ll come out.”Everyone is suggesting ‘why didn’t we pick it up through the books of the Storm?'”I think you’ve got to understand that the majority of these payments came through third party guarantees.”Now these guarantees were something between player-managers and side letters which were held at the home of one of the officials.”I’m all for exacting audits, but truly it’s very difficult to find that out when they’re being held on the side at a person’s house.”Acting CEO Matt Hanson was one of two senior Storm officials dumped by the club’s owners last week following revelations that Melbourne had exceeded the salary cap by a total of $1.7 million over several years.But Hartigan stood by his claim that Waldron was the chief instigator of the widespread breaches.”I said something last Thursday, he’s the architect of this whole badness in this club,” said Hartigan.”And I also suggested at another level that there were rats in the ranks.”I think it’s quite simple, if you draw a line between both of those comments I think it leads to the chief rat, and I have no question or doubt that it’s him.”Melbourne were stripped of the 2007 and 2009 premierships, fined heavily and banned from earning any competition points in 2010 for the salary cap breaches.Hartigan understood why the players might want to contest some of the sanctions, but he said News Ltd would not provide support or funding for any such appeals.AAP
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