EARTHWEEK: Humans continuing to evolve

October 24, 2009

Humans are continuing to evolve despite advances in medicine that some believed were sheltering the species from the forces of natural selection, according to a study.

Research sponsored by the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center in Durham, N.C., examined data taken during a 60-year study of more than 2,000 North American women. They analyzed traits important to human health and the effects these traits had on their children over the participants’ life spans.

Writing in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the team says it was able to estimate the strength of those traits in natural selection and predict how each might evolve in the future. They say that the descendants of the women will be slightly shorter and heavier, have lower blood pressure and cholesterol, will have their first child at a younger age and reach menopause later in life.


Disaster shift

The Kenya Meteorological Society announced that the season of “short rains” has arrived, finally ending a protracted drought. But the country’s chief meteorologist warned that El Niño will soon dominate East African weather and possibly unleash disastrous flooding across a region where millions of people are still going hungry due to the drought. “El Niño is yet to come, and the current situation can only get worse,” Samuel Mwangi told a regional forum on disaster preparedness. Elisabeth Byrs, spokeswoman for the U.N.’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, said: “El Niño could create … extremely serious floods in the Horn of Africa with mudslides, destruction to crops, and illnesses linked to water.”


Euro fireball

The twilight sky in parts of northern Europe was illuminated for a few brief seconds on Oct. 13 by an exploding fireball. The disintegrating meteor created a sonic boom followed by low rumbles that rattled windows across the region. Amateur photographer Robert Mikaelyan had the presence of mind to capture a few remarkable images of the meteor as it broke into pieces. Theo Jurriens, of the Kapteyn Astronomical Institute at the University of Groningen, said a fireball of such size and brightness is likely to be seen somewhere in the world only once every 20 to 30 years.


South seas rumblings

Geologists in the South Pacific island nation of Vanuatu raised the alert status for the volcano on Gaua due to a surge in activity over the past two weeks. Some living near rumbling Mount Garat report ash has been falling on their crops and the smell of sulfur is strong in the air. Gaua residents have been warned that rivers flowing down the flanks of the volcano may contain hazardous material and that there is a potential for mudslides.


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