The Daily Visionary: Tuesday, December 11, 2018

British PM Theresa May delays Parliament’s Brexit vote citing ‘significant’ rejection


Prime Minister of the United Kingdom (U.K.) Theresa May postponed a parliamentary vote on her Brexit deal, delayed as late as January 21, 2019, telling the House of Commons, “If we went ahead and held the vote tomorrow the deal would be rejected by a significant margin … We will therefore defer the vote scheduled for tomorrow and not proceed to divide the House at this time,” and adding that she was confident it was the right deal. The government will now advance contingency planning for a no-deal Brexit when it is due to leave on March 29, 2019.


PM May insisted "it is not possible to give a date" for when the delayed vote would happen, suggesting she is obliged under current British legislation to hold it by January 21st. However, House of Commons officials argue that that obligation no longer applies, meaning she could hold the vote as late as March 28, 2019.


PM May’s decision to halt the vote came hours after the European Court of Justice stated in an emergency judgment that the U.K. could revoke its Article 50 formal divorce notice with no penalty. She said she would now go back to the European Union (E.U.) and seek reassurances over the so-called Irish backstop, which is meant to ensure no return to a hard border with Ireland as a result of Brexit but is seen by many on all sides in Parliament as leaving Britain’s Northern Ireland province within the E.U.’s economic and regulatory orbit.


After a meeting with counterparts in Brussels, Germany’s Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said there were no possibilities to amend Britain’s 585-page withdrawal deal, saying “I cannot see at the moment what could be changed ... We have an agreement ... supported by both sides. We want an orderly Brexit.” European Council President Donald Tusk said the backstop would not be renegotiated and that time is running out for a negotiated settlement, as he announced he would convene a Council meeting this Thursday.


PM May claimed other E.U. leaders were open to a discussion about the backstop, but few in Parliament were convinced. Deputy leader Nigel Dodds of the Northern Irish party, which props up May’s minority government, said, “Please, prime minister, really do start listening and come back with changes to the withdrawal agreement or it will be voted down.


Brexiteer MP Jacob Rees-Mogg said, "We cannot continue like this. The Prime Minister must either govern or quit." The leader of Britain’s opposition Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, said Britain no longer had “a functioning government” and called on PM May to “make way” for a Labour government. The Scottish nationalists and the Liberal Democrats both said they would support a vote of no confidence in PM May’s government.


China launches a lunar probe to explore the dark side of the moon


Chang’e-4, which includes a lander and rover, lifted off early Saturday morning from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center in southwest China’s Sichuan Province to explore the moon that always faces away from Earth, known as the ‘dark side of the moon’. After a journey of almost four weeks, Chang’e-4 is set to land on the Aitken Basin of the south pole region, one of the largest and deepest impact craters in the Solar System at around 2,500 kilometers in diameter and 12 kilometers deep.


Executive Director of the Chang’e-4 project, Zhang He, said, “The soft landing and exploration of the far side, which has never been done before, will result in first-hand information about the terrain and lunar soil components and other scientific data. It will help enrich our understanding of the moon and the universe.


The dark side of the moon has a clean electromagnetic environment, according to Zou Yongliao, head of the moon and deep-space exploration department under the Chinese Academy of Sciences, which makes it an ideal place for the study of low-frequency radio. According to the China National Space Administration, the probe includes the first lunar low-frequency radio astronomy experiment.


Astronomers believe the research will lead to new discoveries about solar eruptions, star formation and how galaxies evolve. The probe will also study the environment of the moon’s dark side, including landforms, mineral composition, surface structure, and radiation conditions.


The country’s first lunar probe, Chang’e-1, was launched in 2007, making China the fifth country to develop and launch a lunar probe on its own. Chang’e-2, launched in 2010, created a full lunar map with a resolution of 7 meters, as well as images of the Sinus Iridum, or the Bay of Rainbows, with a resolution of 1.5 meters, showing the details of the proposed landing site of Chang’e-3. Chang’e-3, launched in 2013, was the first Chinese spacecraft to soft-land on and explore an extraterrestrial object.

Photo Credit: Nathan Denette, Candian Press

Photo Credit: Nathan Denette, Candian Press


Ontario denied an equalization payment after losing its have-not status for the first time in a decade


For the first time in a decade Ontario will not receive an equalization transfer from Ottawa, according to Finance Minister Vic Fedeli, who said the province contributed CDN $8 billion into equalization and urged the federal government to review the equalization program.


Canada’s provincial finance ministers are currently meeting in Ottawa for the second of the bi-annual meetings, where federal Finance Minister Bill Morneau released the money Ottawa will transfer to the provinces and territories in 2019 – 2020, including nearly CAD $20 billion in equalization transfer payments.


These equalization payments are up CAD $880 million from the current year, split among five “have-not” provinces: Quebec, Manitoba, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, and New Brunswick. Since the 2008 recession, Ontario was on the “have-not province” list. Quebec will be getting more than CAD $13 billion, an increase of nearly CAD $1.4 billion.


Ontario’s government was aware it would not be qualifying this year for equalization and Minister Fedeli said it’s further proof of why the equalization program needs an overhaul, when Ontario will contribute CAD $8 billion into equalization and give Ottawa CAD $12.9 billion more in taxes than it will receive from federal spending, he said. Other “have provinces” Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Newfoundland have also called for changes to the formula. Minister Morneau said the formula was renewed earlier this year for a five-year period after extensive discussions from his department but he knows the formula will be raised at the table.


Hybrids of the deadly Japanese delicacy pufferfish linked to climate change


Pufferfish, or fugu, are a Japanese delicacy that can kill a person who ingests it within hours if it is not prepared properly. The Japanese have eaten fugu for thousands of years, and after it was outlawed by Toyotomi Hideyoshi, the samurai general who unified Japan in the 16th century, peasants continued to eat it in secret and died in multitudes. The ban on fugu was lifted after World War II following years of petitioning by fugu fans. Despite its deadly nature, the fish has an almost comical face and, with its puffed cheeks and open mouth, looks as though it’s perpetually surprised to be so sought after for special occasions.

A kilogram fetches as much as 30,000 yen at Japanese fish markets, and in the December holiday season a luxury fishmonger in Tokyo can sell up to USD $88,000 worth of the fugu on any given day. Earlier this year, a supermarket in western Japan accidentally sold five packets of fugu without its poisonous liver removed the town used its missile alert system to warn residents. Now, fishermen are discovering an unprecedented number of hybrid species in their catch as seas surrounding the archipelago, particularly off the northeastern coast, are experiencing some of the fastest rates of ocean warming in the world. With pufferfish heading north to seek cooler waters, sibling species of the fish have begun to inter-breed, triggering a sudden increase in the number of hybrid fish.


Of approximately fifty species of fugu around Japan, twenty-two of them are approved as edible by the government. Chefs and fish butchers handling pufferfish are specially trained and licensed to remove its liver and reproductive organs, which contain tetrodotoxin, a potent neurotoxin. Confusingly, the location of the deadly neurotoxin differs in certain types of pufferfish; it can sometimes be found in its skin or muscle, as well as its reproductive organs. Hybrids are as dangerous than regular fugu and difficult to distinguish from established species. To avoid accidental poisonings, Japan prohibits their sale and distribution, but with the rise of these unclassifiable hybrids, fishermen and fish traders are discarding a sizable share of their catch.


Associate professor at the National Fisheries University Hiroshi Takahashi first noticed the increase in hybrid pufferfish six years ago when he started receiving calls from a scientific facility on the northeastern coast of Japan’s main island that had buckets of fugu it couldn’t identify. In the fall of 2012, nearly 40 percent of fugu caught in the area were unidentifiable, compared to less than 1 percent studied previously. “It wasn’t one out of a thousand as it had been in the past; this was on a completely different scale,” he says. To an untrained eye, hybrids are barely discernible. Even veterans in the industry say it’s nearly impossible to tell apart “quarters,” or second-generation offspring of hybrid fish. At the end of June, more than 20 percent of pufferfish caught in a single day off the Pacific coast of Miyagi prefecture, 460 kilometers northeast of Tokyo, were hybrids.


Scientists identify vast underground ecosystem containing billions of micro-organisms


Researchers at the Deep Carbon Observatory say the diversity of the ecosystem below the Earth’s surface is twice the size of world’s oceans and bears comparison to the Amazon or the Galápagos Islands. Unlike those places, the underground environment is still largely pristine because people have yet to probe most of the subsurface. Despite extreme heat, no light, minuscule nutrition and intense pressure, scientists estimate this subterranean biosphere is teeming with between 15 billion and 23 billion tonnes of micro-organisms, hundreds of times the combined weight of every human on the planet.


The researchers said their discoveries were made possible by two technical advances: drills that can penetrate far deeper below the Earth’s crust, and improvements in microscopes that allow life to be detected at increasingly minute levels. The scientists have been trying to find a lower limit beyond which life cannot exist, but the deeper they dig the more life they find. There is a temperature maximum – currently 122 degrees Celsius – but the researchers believe this record will be broken if they keep exploring and developing more sophisticated instruments.


Associate professor at the University of Tennessee Karen Lloyd said, “It’s like finding a whole new reservoir of life on Earth. We are discovering new types of life all the time. So much of life is within the Earth rather than on top of it.” The team combines 1,200 scientists from 52 countries in disciplines ranging from geology and microbiology to chemistry and physics and a year prior to the conclusion of their ten-year study, they will present an amalgamation of findings to date before the American Geophysical Union’s annual meeting opens this week.


Ms. Lloyd added, “The strangest thing for me is that some organisms can exist for millennia. They are metabolically active but in stasis, with less energy than we thought possible of supporting life.” Samples were taken from boreholes more than 5 kilometres deep and undersea drilling sites to construct models of the ecosystem and estimate how much living carbon it might contain. The results suggest 70 percent of Earth’s bacteria and archaea exist in the subsurface. One organism found 2.5 kilometers below the surface has been buried for millions of years and may not rely at all on energy from the sun. Instead, the methanogen has found a way to create methane in this low energy environment, which it may not use to reproduce or divide, but to replace or repair broken parts.


Rick Colwell, a microbial ecologist at Oregon State University, said the timescales of subterranean life were completely different, where some microorganisms have been alive for thousands of years, barely moving except with shifts in the tectonic plates, earthquakes, or eruptions. “We humans orientate towards relatively rapid processes – diurnal cycles based on the sun, or lunar cycles based on the moon – but these organisms are part of slow, persistent cycles on geological timescales,” he said.


Underworld biospheres vary depending on geology and geography. Their combined size is estimated to be more than 2 billion cubic kilometres, but this could be expanded further in the future.

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