Largest known underwater cave on Earth discovered in Mexico; holds clues to Mayan civilization

A scuba diver looks at an animal skull at Sac Aktun underwater cave system during exploration as part of the Gran Acuifero Maya Project near Tulum, in Quintana Roo state, Mexico February 12, 2014. (Jan Arild Aaserud/Courtesy Gran Acuifero Maya Project [GAM]/Handout via REUTERS)

team of experts in Mexico has discovered two linked underwater caverns that are more than 4,000 years old and form the largest known such cave on earth.

The discovery of the cave system, which stretches 215 miles, could hold valuable information about the ancient Mayan population, which inhabited parts of Mexico, the Yucatan Peninsula, and Guatemala, among other areas in the region.

The cave holds hundreds of Mayan relics, according to Guillermo de Anda, the director of the Gran Acuifero Maya team, which is part of Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History. De Anda told Reuters that the caves are certain to shed light on how the Mayan civilization evolved.

500 YEARS LATER, SCIENTISTS THINK THEY’VE
SOLVED GERM MYSTERY THAT NEARLY WIPED OUT MEXICAN POPULATION

Without a doubt, it’s the most important submerged archaeological site in the world.

– Guillermo de Anda, director of Gran Acuifero Maya team

“Without a doubt, it’s the most important submerged archaeological site in the world,” de Anda said, according to Mexico Daily News.

Scuba divers tour an authorized area of Sac Aktun underwater cave system as part of the Gran Acuifero Maya Project near Tulum, in Quintana Roo state, Mexico January 24, 2014. Picture taken January 24, 2014. Herbert Mayrl/Courtesy Gran Acuifero Maya Project (GAM)/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. - RC1CBC5D9FD0

Scuba divers tour an authorized area of Sac Aktun underwater cave system as part of the Gran Acuifero Maya Project near Tulum, in Quintana Roo state, Mexico January 24, 2014. (Herbert Mayrl/Courtesy Gran Acuifero Maya Project [GAM]/Handout via REUTERS)

The linked caves are Sac Actun and Dos Ojos.

“It allows us to appreciate much more clearly how the rituals, the pilgrimage sites and ultimately the great pre-Hispanic settlements that we know emerged,” de Anda told Reuters.

Some caves had important religious meaning to the Maya.

A scuba diver measures the length of Sac Aktun underwater cave system as part of the Gran Acuifero Maya Project near Tulum, in Quintana Roo state, Mexico January 24, 2014. Picture taken January 24, 2014. Herbert Mayrl/Courtesy Gran Acuifero Maya Project (GAM)/Handout via REUTERS     ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. - RC1D03DB6AC0

A scuba diver measures the length of Sac Aktun underwater cave system as part of the Gran Acuifero Maya Project near Tulum, in Quintana Roo state, Mexico Jan. 24, 2014. (Herbert Mayrl/Courtesy Gran Acuifero Maya Project [GAM]/Handout via REUTERS)

“We’ve recorded more than 100 archaeological elements: the remains of extinct fauna, early humans, Mayan archaeology, ceramics and Mayan graves,” de Anda is quoted as saying in the Mexico Daily News. “It’s also very significant that this discovery enables us to see the possible patterns of past settlement. From the Pleistocene through to the ancient Mayans and up to the colonial era, they developed parallel to this enormous flooded fresh-water cave.”

The discovery caps nearly a year of intense exploration in the area.

ARCHAEOLOGISTS FIND TUNNEL THAT MAY EMULATE
UNDERWORLD

As exciting and significant as the finding is, it may be only part of something even larger, de Anda believes.

There may be, for instance, other cave systems that are linked to Sac Actun, which means “White Cave” in the Yucatec Maya language.

Alligator fights python on Florida golf course

An alligator and a Burmese python engaged in a cold-blooded battle to the death last week in Florida.

An alligator and a Burmese python were locked in a cold-blooded battle to the death as a crowd watched in shock at a golf course in Naples, Fla., last week.

Richard Nadler spotted the gator entwined with the large snake just outside the 10th hole at The Golf Club at Fiddler’s Creek. Both creatures were perfectly still, but it appeared the gator had the head of the snake in its mouth.

“The alligator seems to have the upper hand,” Nadler commented after sharing pictures of the hair-raising scene on Facebook.

Carolyn Maxim, who also came across the sight, agreed with Nadler’s prediction.

“It’s like a zoo here!!!!” Maxim posted on Facebook. “Looks like he got one of those big pythons.”

A Burmese python, which can grow up to 26 feet long and weigh up to 200 pounds, uses its crushing grip to squeeze large mammals, birds and reptiles to death. In Florida, the average size of a Burmese python is 8 to 10 feet, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC).

In comparison, female alligators in Florida typically measure below 10 feet in length, but males can grow much larger, the FWC reports. Gators are opportunistic feeders, hunting for prey that are easily accessible.

Wildlife officials said they can’t draw a conclusion from photos alone – but if they had to pick a side, they’d be “team alligator.”

“Which species is ultimately the prey or predator will vary from (sic) situation depending on a variety of factors including the overall size of each animal,” Brian Norris, public information officer with the FWC, told Fox News. “However we are encouraged by the prospect of a native Florida alligator consuming an invasive Burmese python.”

Burmese pythons are not native to Florida and pose a significant risk to native wildlife and the ecosystem, Norris explained.

“But both of these animals are large predators and the FWC recommends keeping a safe distance from either species,” Norris advised.

ISS: Japanese astronaut Norishige Kanai worried by growth spurt

Members of the International Space Station expedition 54/55, Norishige Kanai (L) of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), Roscosmos cosmonaut Anton Shkaplerov (C), and Nasa astronaut Scott Tingle (R) before the launch of the Soyuz MS-07 spacecraft at the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on 17 December 2017

A Japanese astronaut who is living on the International Space Station says he has grown 9cm (3.5in) since arriving there just over three weeks ago.

Norishige Kanai wrote on social media he was worried he would not fit into the seat of the Russian Soyuz vehicle that is due to bring him home in June.

Astronauts grow an average of between two and five centimetres in space.

This is because of the absence of gravity which allows the vertebrae in their spines to spread apart.

Mr Kanai tweeted: “Good morning, everybody. I have a major announcement today. We had our bodies measured after reaching space, and wow, wow, wow, I had actually grown by as much as 9cm!

“I grew like some plant in just three weeks. Nothing like this since high school. I’m a bit worried whether I’ll fit in the Soyuz seat when I go back.”

The Soyuz spacecraft which takes the astronauts from and to Earth has a limit on seating height. If crew members become too tall, it could pose a problem.

Astronauts can grow while in space and return to a normal height when they go back to Earth.

“Nine centimetres is a lot, but it is possible, knowing that every human body is different,” Libby Jackson of the UK Space Agency told BBC News.

“You do get taller in space as your spine drifts apart, usually by about two to five centimetres.

“There’s a range of growth for different people, and everybody responds differently.”

This is the first space mission for the Japanese astronaut who was previously a diving medical officer with the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force.

El Nino’s long reach to Antarctic ice

Getz Ice Shelf.

Antarctica may be thousands of kilometres from the central Pacific but events there can have a significant effect on the White Continent’s ice.

Scientists have shown how ice shelves – the floating fronts of marine-terminating glaciers – respond to the El Niño phenomenon.

The warming of tropical eastern Pacific seawaters will lead to a change in wind patterns in the polar south.

This promotes snowfall on the shelves, and also melting of their undersides.

These are competing processes, of course. One adds mass; one takes it away.

However, the net outcome is a loss, say scientists. The reason? The ice removed from underneath the floating slabs has a higher density than the fluffy new snow at the surface.

It is another example of the complexity researchers need to grasp as they try to gauge how Antarctica will react to a warming world.

Although much of the continent is relatively static in its behaviour at the moment, it is losing ice in the west, especially in the Amundsen Sea sector, where glaciers are thinning and accelerating.

The ice being shed in this region – many tens of billions of tonnes a year – adds to global sea-level rise.

Dr Fernando Paolo, from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, and colleagues report their work in the journal Nature Geoscience.

They analysed more than two decades of satellite radar measurements of ice shelves. The spacecraft have continuously tracked the height of the shelves since 1994.

Once the scientists had removed the long-term negative trend, they found a variable signal that could be tied to the El Niño/Southern Oscillation (ENSO).

This oscillation famously sees surface waters in the eastern tropical Pacific seesaw between warmer than average conditions (El Niño) and cooler than average phases (La Niña).

ENSO is recognised to have global influence, altering patterns of rainfall and drought, for example. And in the southern polar region, it appears to influence atmospheric pressure fields.

One in particular, referred to as the Amundsen Sea Low, governs both regional winds and ocean circulation.

During an El Niño, this fosters higher snowfall rates on shelves, raising their height, but it also pulls more warm water up from the deep which can get under the shelves and melt them.

The combined effect leads to a loss in mass of the shelves. In a big El Niño phase, like the one in 1997/98, this reduction can be equivalent in scale to that stemming from the ongoing, long-term negative thinning trend.

“That means for a short period of time you are adding the two together. And that’s key information to put into computer models if you want to properly represent the dynamics of these systems,” explained Dr Paolo, who has now moved to the US space agency.

In La Niña years, the reverse happens: less snowfall, but also less melting on the shelves’ undersides. This works briefly to slow the ongoing, long-term negative trend.

“Before this we knew that ENSO should affect Antarctica – that it should affect the ocean and the atmosphere around the continent. But this is the first time we’ve detected that signal on the ice shelves themselves,” said Scripps co-author Prof Helen Fricker.

The study shows the value of ongoing satellite measurements in polar regions. Because there can be several years between El Niño events, a single satellite may catch only a couple of occurrences during its operational life.

An unbroken series of satellites is therefore required to capture the big picture.

The European Space Agency (Esa) has managed to do this with its radar satellites ERS-1, ERS-2, Envisat and Cryosat – although that may not be the case for much longer as Cryosat is ageing and any replacement is unlikely to be available until the mid-2020s.

Nasa has not done as well as Esa. It has a allowed a gap to develop between its satellite laser missions, which make very similar observations to radar over the Antarctic and the Arctic.

A major Earth observation report called the “Decadal Survey” was delivered last week through the US National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine

The authors said it was “critical” that a satellite capability was maintained to measure ice elevation in the polar regions by either Europe or America.

Space science work recognised in New Year Honours

Artwork: Cassini is running the narrow gap between the top of the planet's atmosphere and the rings

A leading member of the Cassini mission to Saturn, which ended spectacularly in September 2017, has been recognised in the New Year Honours list.

Prof Michele Dougherty from Imperial College, London, has become a Commander of the Order of the British Empire.

Helen Sharman, the first Briton in space, joins the Order of St Michael and St George, for services to education in science and technology.

Overall, science recipients make up about 3% of the list.

  • Barry Gibb, Ringo Starr and Darcey Bussell head honours list
  • AI chief Demis Hassabis becomes a CBE

A professor of Space Physics at Imperial, Michele Dougherty was a key member of the Cassini mission over the 20 years since it launched in 1997.

Cassini was a hugely successful venture, discovering active, icy plumes on Saturn’s moon Enceladus, as well putting a lander on another moon, Titan.

The mission ended when the probe was deliberately crashed into Saturn’s atmosphere.

Helen Sharman was made an OBE in 1993 after her trip to space onboard a Soyuz spacecraft in 1991.

She has now been elevated to be a Companion of the Order of St Michael and St George, for her long-standing commitment to educational outreach in science and technology.

Another well known researcher in science and health, Prof Robin Lovell-Badge, is made a CBE for his work in genetics, stem cell research and the public understanding of science. He is a senior group leader at the Francis Crick Institute.

Also on the New Year list is volcanologist Prof Steve Sparks, from the University of Bristol, who receives a knighthood. Prof Sparks is a leading expert in this field whose work has helped improve the ability to forecast deadly eruptions.

In 2015, he was a winner of the Vetlesen Prize, sometimes described as the Nobel prize for earth sciences.

Prof Christl Donnelly, from Imperial College, becomes a CBE for her services to epidemiology and the control of infectious diseases. Prof Donnelly is well known for her work in relation to bovine TB, and on the effectiveness of badger culling and cattle vaccination as ways of controlling the disease.

Another to receive a CBE is Dr Demis Hassabis, the co-founder and chief executive officer of DeepMind, a world leading company in artificial intelligence research. The firm’s computer programme defeated a human Go player in 2016, in what was seen as a landmark moment for the development of AI.

Earlier this month, the software beat other programmes in chess within hours of teaching itself the game from scratch.

Others recognised include Prof Karen Holford, the deputy vice chancellor of Cardiff University for services to engineering and for the advancement of women in science and engineering.

Scan technique reveals secret writing in mummy cases

Mummy case

Researchers in London have developed scanning techniques that show what is written on the papyrus that mummy cases are made from.

These are the decorated boxes into which the wrapped body of the deceased was placed before it was put in a tomb.

They are made from scraps of papyrus which were used by ancient Egyptians for shopping lists or tax returns.

The technology is giving historians a new insight into everyday life in ancient Egypt.

The hieroglyphics found on the walls of the tombs of the Pharaohs show how the rich and powerful wanted to be portrayed. It was the propaganda of its time.

The new technique gives Egyptologists access to the real story of Ancient Egypt, according to Prof Adam Gibson of University College London, who led the project.

“Because the waste papyrus was used to make prestige objects, they have been preserved for 2,000 years,” he said.

“And so these masks constitute one of the best libraries we have of waste papyrus that would otherwise have been thrown away so it includes information about these individual people about their everyday lives”

The scraps of papyrus are more than 2,000 years old. The writing on them is often obscured by the paste and plaster that holds the mummy cases together. But researchers can see what is underneath by scanning them with different kinds of light which makes the inks glow.

One of the first successes of the new technique was on a mummy case kept at a museum at Chiddingstone castle in Kent. The researchers discovered writing on the footplate that was not visible to the naked eye.

The scan revealed a name – “Irethorru” – a common name in Egypt, the David or Stephen of its time, which meant: “the eye of Horus is against my enemies”.

Until now, the only way to see what was written on them was to destroy these precious objects – leaving Egyptologists with a dilemma. Do they destroy them? Or do they leave them untouched, leaving the stories within them untold?

Now, researchers have developed a scanning technique that leaves the cases intact but allows historians to read what is on the papyrus. According to Dr Kathryn Piquette, of University College London, Egyptologists such as her now have the best of both worlds.

“I’m really horrified when we see these precious objects being destroyed to get to the text. It’s a crime. They are finite resources and we now have a technology to both preserve those beautiful objects and also look inside them to understand the way Egyptians lived through their documentary evidence – and the things they wrote down and the things that were important to them.”

UK faces build-up of plastic waste

The UK’s recycling industry says it doesn’t know how to cope with a Chinese ban on imports of plastic waste.

Britain has been shipping up to 500,000 tonnes of plastic for recycling in China every year, but now the trade has been stopped.

At the moment the UK cannot deal with much of that waste, says the UK Recycling Association.

Its chief executive, Simon Ellin, told the BBC he had no idea how the problem would be solved in the short term.

“It’s a huge blow for us… a game-changer for our industry,” he said. “We’ve relied on China so long for our waste… 55% of paper, 25% plus of plastics.

“We simply don’t have the markets in the UK. It’s going to mean big changes in our industry.”

China has introduced the ban from this month on “foreign garbage” as part of a move to upgrade its industries.

Other Asian nations will take some of the plastic, but there will still be a lot left.

Environment Secretary Michael Gove has admitted that he was slow to spot the problem coming.

The UK organisation Recoup, which recycles plastics, said the imports ban would lead to stock-piling of plastic waste and a move towards incineration and landfill.

Peter Fleming, from the Local Government Association, told the BBC: “Clearly there’s a part to play for incineration but not all parts of the country have incinerators.

Plastic bottles at recycling plant

“It’s a challenge – but mostly in the short term… and we will cope. In the longer term we need a much more intelligent waste strategy.”

Any move towards burning more plastic waste, though, would be met with fierce resistance from environmental groups.

‘Wrong answer’

Louise Edge, from Greenpeace, told the BBC: “The government has got us into this mess by continually putting off decisions and passing the buck.

“Incineration is the wrong answer – it’s a high-carbon non-renewable form of generating electricity. It also creates toxic chemicals and heavy metals.

“If you build incinerators it creates a market for the next 20 years for single-use plastics, which is the very thing we need to be reducing right now.”

The government is consulting with industry over a tax on single-use plastics and a deposit scheme for bottles.

Reduce and simplify

Mr Gove told the BBC his long-term goals were to reduce the amount of plastic in the economy overall, reduce the number of different plastics, simplify local authority rules so people can easily judge what’s recyclable and what isn’t as well as increase the rate of recycling.

The UK must, he said, “stop off-shoring its dirt”.

The Commons Environmental Audit Committee said Britain should introduce a sliding scale tax on plastic packaging with the hardest to recycle being charge most and the easiest to recycle being charged least.

There is broad agreement over much of that agenda, but it is not yet clear how the UK will achieve that long-term goal – or how it will solve its short-term China crisis.

A science news preview of 2018

A science news preview of 2018

From next steps in the commercial space revolution to a rocket-powered supercar, there’s much to look forward to in 2018.

World in motion

2018 will see a raft of space missions that highlight the international nature of present-day space exploration. First up is Chandrayaan 2, India’s follow-up to its groundbreaking lunar mission launched in 2008.

While its predecessor was an orbiter, Chandrayaan 2 will comprise an orbiter, lander and rover developed by the country’s space agency, ISRO. The mission is currently slated to launch on a GSLV rocket from Satish Dhawan Space Centre in Andhra Pradesh around March.

In May, Nasa will launch its Insight spacecraft to Mars. Insight will use a sophisticated suite of instruments to probe deep beneath the surface of the Red Planet, looking for clues to how it formed. It will also listen for “marsquakes” which could shed light on the planet’s internal structure.

In July, the Japanese space agency’s (Jaxa) Hayabusa 2 spacecraft will arrive at its target, the asteroid 162173 Ryugu, in an effort to return samples of this space rock to Earth. Its predecessor, Hayabusa, captured the world’s imagination when, in 2005, it reached asteroid Itokawa.

Although that mission suffered some mishaps, it managed to return to Earth with some tiny specks of asteroid material – enough for scientists to get information from.

Engineers have made several improvements for Hayabusa 2, which aims to build on its pioneering predecessor by returning even more asteroid material and successfully deploying several small landers to Ryugu’s surface.

Japan won’t be the only country to visit an asteroid next year. Nasa’s Osiris-Rex spacecraft, launched in 2016, is due to rendezvous with the object known as 101955 Bennu in August. Osiris-Rex will also aims to collect a sample of soil and rock and get it back to our planet for analysis.

Finally, Europe and Japan could despatch a mission to explore the first planet from the Sun: Mercury. The mission, Bepi Colombo, will seek to deepen and extend the knowledge gained at Mercury by the US space agency’s recent Messenger spacecraft.

BepiColombo consists of two spacecraft launched on one rocket; the mission will carry out detailed mapping and investigate the planet’s magnetic field. Scientists hope to shed light on key questions, such as why Mercury seems to consist of a large iron core with just a thin shell of silicate rocks on the outside.

Commercial space race

2018 should be the year Elon Musk’s private launch company SpaceX lofts one of the most powerful rockets ever built: the Falcon Heavy.

In December, Mr Musk tweeted tantalising photos of the huge vehicle under assembly at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The heavy-lift rocket consists of two of the company’s existing Falcon 9 boosters strapped to a central core stage. The 70m-long leviathan has been designed to launch payloads up to 57 metric tonnes into space, allowing SpaceX to move into new satellite launch markets and – eventually – loft astronauts beyond Earth orbit.

Private firms could also take significant steps towards their goal of transporting crews to the International Space Station (ISS) – but it’s always possible the schedule could slip to 2019.

Under current plans, SpaceX and aerospace giant Boeing would perform the first crewed launches from US soil since Nasa’s space shuttle was retired in July 2011. Since then, the US has been reliant on Russia’s Soyuz launcher for transporting crew to the ISS – something that has rankled many who work in the American spaceflight sector.

Both companies plan to test their launch systems, performing uncrewed demonstrations in the first instance to gather engineering data. Then, they are expected to launch astronauts in the vehicles. But with the lives of Nasa astronauts at stake on a brand new launch system, nobody will be taking any chances – so delays are not out of the question.

But successful tests (whenever they happen) should lead to both systems being human-certified by the US space agency, allowing SpaceX and Boeing to begin fulfilling contracts to transport astronauts to the space station.

These craft should later be joined by Nasa’s own launch system – the long-awaited (and expensive) Orion capsule and SLS rocket, which will be used to send people beyond low-Earth orbit. If everything proceeds to plan, Orion could be launched on an uncrewed test flight in 2019 and a launch with astronauts in 2021.

Need for speed

After several schedule slips, the UK’s Bloodhound car should step up its assault on the land speed record in the autumn.

Powered by a rocket bolted to a Eurofighter-Typhoon jet engine, the car was put through its paces on the runway at Newquay airport in 2017. That was “slow speed” testing – at just 200mph (320km/h).

Next, the team aims to exceed 500mph (800km/h) on South Africa’s Hakskeen Pan this coming October.

That’s still short of the existing world land speed record (763mph/1,228km/h), but it ought to provide the necessary engineering data to push the car to ever higher speeds in 2019 and 2020.

AI early diagnosis could save heart and cancer patients

Sir John Bell

Researchers at an Oxford hospital have developed artificial intelligence (AI) that can diagnose scans for heart disease and lung cancer.

The systems will save billions of pounds by enabling the diseases to be picked up much earlier.

The heart disease technology will start to be available to NHS hospitals for free this summer.

The government’s healthcare tsar, Sir John Bell, has told BBC News that AI could “save the NHS”.

“There is about £2.2bn spent on pathology services in the NHS. You may be able to reduce that by 50%. AI may be the thing that saves the NHS,” he said.

Recommendation

Currently cardiologists can tell from the timing of the heartbeat in scans if there is a problem. But even the best doctors get it wrong in one in five cases. Patients are either sent home and have a heart attack or they undergo an unnecessary operation.

An artificial intelligence system developed at the John Radcliffe Hospital diagnoses heart scans much more accurately. It can pick up details in the scans that doctors can’t see.

It then gives a recommendation – positive – which means that it believes that there is a risk of the patient having a heart attack

The system has been tested in clinical trials in six cardiology units. The results are due to be published this year in a peer-reviewed journal after they have been checked by experts, but Prof Paul Leeson, a cardiologist who developed the system, says that the data indicates that the system has greatly outperformed his fellow heart specialists.

If confirmed, it will be available for free to NHS hospitals across the country.

“As cardiologists, we accept that we don’t always get it right at the moment. But now there is a possibility that way may be able to do better.”

The results from the clinical trials indicate that the system can do a lot better than consultants. There are 60,000 heart scans carried out each year and 12,000 of these are misdiagnosed.

This is estimated to cost the NHS £600m in unnecessary operations and the treatment of people who had heart attacks following an all-clear scan.

The trial results suggest that the AI system could save the NHS more than £300m a year.

The system, called Ultromics, was trained to identify potential problems by being fed the scans of 1,000 patients who Prof Leeson had treated over the past seven years, along with information about whether they went on to have heart problems.

Another AI system is looking for signs of lung cancer. It searches for large clumps of cells called nodules. Doctors can’t tell whether these clumps are harmless or will go on to become cancerous and so patients go on to have several more scans to see how the nodules develop.

However, clinical trials have shown that this AI system can rule out the harmless cases – saving the NHS money and patients several months of anxiety. And it can also diagnose lung cancer much earlier.

The system is also being commercialised by a start-up company called Optellium. Its chief science and technology officer, Dr Timor Kadir, says that trials of the system in Manchester suggest that more than 4,000 lung cancer patients a year could be diagnosed much earlier and so have a much greater chance of survival.

“Rather than focus on cost savings, within a resource-constrained system such as the NHS, we’re really looking at how to offer better healthcare to more people for the same proportion of GDP. This is the potential of AI in the UK.”

Dr Kadir estimates that the lung cancer diagnosis system could save £10bn if it was adopted in the US and the European Union.