Posts Tagged ‘wildlife’

Chimpanzee language: Communication gestures translated



By Victoria Gill
Science reporter, BBC News

Chimps will check to see if they have the attention of the animal with which they wish to communicate

Researchers say they have translated the meaning of gestures that wild chimpanzees use to communicate.

They say wild chimps communicate 19 specific messages to one another with a “lexicon” of 66 gestures.

The scientists discovered this by following and filming communities of chimps in Uganda, and examining more than 5,000 incidents of these meaningful exchanges.

The research is published in the journal Current Biology.

Dr Catherine Hobaiter, who led the research, said that this was the only form of intentional communication to be recorded in the animal kingdom.

Only humans and chimps, she said, had a system of communication where they deliberately sent a message to another individual.

“That’s what’s so amazing about chimp gestures,” she told BBC News.

“They’re the only thing that looks like human language in that respect.”

Shout or signal?

Although previous research has revealed that apes and monkeys can understand complex information from another animal’s call, the animals do not appear to use their voices intentionally to communicate messages.

This was a crucial difference between calls and gestures, Dr Hobaiter said.

“It’s a bit like if you pick up a hot cup of coffee and you scream and blow on your fingers,” she said.

“I can understand from that that the coffee was hot, but you didn’t necessarily intend to communicate that to me.”

Subtle signals
Some of the chimps’ gestures, the researchers say, are unambiguous – used consistently to convey one meaning.

Leaf clipping, for example, where a chimp very obviously takes small bites from leaves is used only to elicit sexual attention.

Many others, though, appear to be ambiguous. A grab, for example, is used for: “Stop that,” “Climb on me,” and “Move away.”

Although many are very subtle, some of the footage captured by the researchers shows very clearly what the chimps mean to convey.

In one clip, a mother presents her foot to her whimpering offspring, signalling: “Climb on me.” The youngster immediately jumps on to its mother’s back and they travel off together.

“The big message [from this study] is that there is another species out there that is meaningful in its communication, so that’s not unique to humans,” said Dr Hobaiter.

“I don’t think we’re quite as set apart as we would perhaps like to think we are.

“But then chimps are more closely related to us than they are to the rest of the great apes, so it makes sense that we are incredibly similar to them in many ways.”

Dr Susanne Shultz, an evolutionary biologist from the University of Manchester, said the study was commendable in seeking to fill the gaps in our knowledge of the evolution of human language. But, she added, the results were “a little disappointing”.

“The vagueness of the gesture meanings suggest either that the chimps have little to communicate, or we are still missing a lot of the information contained in their gestures and actions,” she said.

“Moreover, the meanings seem to not go beyond what other less sophisticated animals convey with non-verbal communication.

“So, it seems the gulf remains.”

Web users join hunt for Hawaii tree invaders


By Mark Kinver
Environment reporter, BBC News

The invasive non-native Australian fern tree stands out against the canopy of the native forest species

US conservationists and a satellite imagery company have teamed up to use the power of crowdsourcing to halt the spread of destructive invasive plants.

Species such as the Australian tree fern are using up vital water supplies within native forests on Hawaii, home to unique species found nowhere else.

So far, more than 5,000 people have visited the website.

To date, each pixel of the images of the forest has been scrutinised by web users at least 50 times.

“From a biodiversity viewpoint, it is very important that we protect forest resources,” explained Trea Menard, director of forest conservation for the US-based The Nature Conservancy (TNC).

“Unfortunately, we have lost a lot of our forests,” he told BBC News.

“For example, only about 27% of the forest remains on Kauai and that is an important forest because it is the biodiversity cradle for Hawaii as it is the oldest island.

Threatened habitat
“The native forest is extremely unique. About 90% of the plants and animals that evolved here do not occur anywhere else in the world, which means they are endemic to Hawaii.

“If they are lost from Hawaii, they are pretty much lost to the planet.”

The invasive plants are dramatically reducing the volume of fresh water available for native species.

The Australian tree fern is able to penetrate remote areas of the native forest because it is dispersed via spores carried by the wind, making it difficult to be tracked and located on the ground.

In order to overcome this obstacle, TNC has teamed up with satellite imaging firm DigitalGlobe to call on web users to scan and spot the invasive species in images posted on the web.

The images, provided by Resources Mapping, are aerial photos providing 1cm per pixel.

Luke Barrington, senior manager for DigitalGlobe’s crowdsourcing platform, said the high-quality, natural colour images had enabled web users to identify the invasive species.

He explained: “The connectivity of billions of people online is transforming the way that the globe solves global problems. Millions of people are coming together to solve a problem.”

The campaign has been running since June and each pixel of the images available has been accessed by at least 50 users, providing a built-in level of quality control.

Here’s a 9 minute clip from our documentary Hawaii – Isles of Extinction. This clip looks at the impact of introduced plant species.

Here’s the full 50 minute documentary Hawaii – Isles of Extinction which looks at the much wider issue of Hawaii’s dwindling endemic flora and fauna.

‘Immediate protection’ needed for Pitcairn’s marine bounty



By Matt McGrath
Environment correspondent, BBC News

Grouper fish on Oeno Atoll followed divers for two hours

Researchers say that “immediate protection” is required for the waters around the remote Pitcairn Islands in the Pacific, home to one of the world’s rarest and most valuable collections of marine species.

The waters have “unique global value that is irreplaceable” says the report, from an international team of scientists.

They’ve carried out the first underwater surveys of the deep and shallow waters around the islands, best known for their connection to the mutiny on the Royal Navy ship, Bounty, in the 18th century.

Some of the mutineers settled on Pitcairn and around 50 of their descendents still live there, governed as a British overseas territory.

The four islands in the group lie halfway between New Zealand and South America.

They are said to be further from a continent than any other inhabited island.

The extremely remote location has prevented prior scientific exploration of the unsullied waters.

“It is a treasure trove of marine species,” Dr Enric Sala told BBC News.

“People know about the mutiny on the Bounty but the true bounty of the Pitcairn’s is underwater.”

The scientists found healthy coral reefs and an abundance of fish, around half of them not found anywhere else in the world.

A fish seen near Henderson Island, the largest of the Pitcairn group

A key indicator of the water’s good state were the number of top predators like sharks that the scientists recorded. They accounted for over half of the biomass at Ducie Atoll, one of the least disturbed locations.

Perhaps the most significant discovery was down to the purity of the water. The scientists found a type of coralline algae living deeper than anywhere else on earth.

“It lives at 382m that’s more than 100m deeper than the previous record, because of the clarity of the water,” said Dr Sala.

“It also allows coral reefs to grow to depths that are incredible elsewhere, we found well developed reefs between 75 and 100m below the surface.”

The remoteness of the islands has been critical in preserving the waters but the scientists saw some evidence of the encroachment of illegal shark fishing, carried out by foreign fleets.

A voracious, toothy predator, the titan triggerfish, being cleaned by a tiny wrasse

They argue that plans to turn the islands into one of the world’s biggest marine reserves should go ahead as soon as is practicable.

The islanders have voted in favour of this approach and a plan has been submitted to the UK government to create a 836,000 sq km protected zone around the islands.

The plan is still being considered by the UK, but it has been boosted in recent weeks with the announcement that the United States is to declare a huge reserve around the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument.

The scientists say the time is right for the Pitcairns to follow suit.

“These islands are like a time machine, that allow us to get back hundreds of years to see what we have lost,” said Dr Sala.

“But we can also to determine what we want for the future.”

Their report is published in the journal, PLOS One.

Researchers develop cheaper way of making solar cells




By Pallab Ghosh
Science correspondent, BBC News

Researchers have developed a new manufacturing method which could bring down the cost of making a type of solar cell.

A team at Liverpool University has found a way of replacing the toxic element in the process with a material found in bath salts.

The scientists say that this could have a “massive, unexpected cost benefit”.

The research has been published in the Journal Nature and unveiled at the ESOF conference in Copenhagen.

Dr Jon Major explains how the simple new technique could dramatically reduce the cost of solar energy

Dr Jon Major, who led the research said that his team’s work might be the development that brings the cost down to the level of fossil fuel,” he told BBC News.More than 90% of the solar cells are made from silicon. Around 7% are made from a material called cadmium telluride. The cadmium telluride cells are thinner than silicon and these are popular because they are also lighter and cheaper.

Toxic ingredient
They have the drawback that a toxic chemical, cadmium chloride, is needed to manufacture them. Cadmium chloride is also expensive.

A significant proportion of the manufacturing cost of cadmium telluride cells is to protect the workforce from toxins and to dispose of contaminated waste products safely, according to the research team.

Dr Major discovered that a cheaper, non-toxic alternative, magnesium chloride, could be used instead of the toxic compound and work just as well.

Solar cells being made. No need for a protective mask

Magnesium chloride is completely safe. It is used to make tofu and is found in bath salts. It also extracted from sea water and so is a small fraction of the price of cadmium chloride.

Dr Major’s boss, Prof Ken Durose, who is the director of the Stephenson Institute for Renewable Energy at Liverpool University, believes that his colleague’s discovery has the potential to transform the economics of solar energy.

“One of the big challenges with solar energy is to make it cheap enough to compete with conventional power generation,” he told BBC News.

“Solar will progressively get cheaper until it will become more and more feasible for solar power to be produced from solar electricity farms.”

Comparing the relative costs of different energy technologies is extremely difficult because they are so different and the results are contentious.

But when pressed, Prof Durose made his best guess to assess the potential impact of the new technique, stressing that his figures were rough and ready and contained assumptions that could and probably would be challenged.

Cost debate
That said, he estimated that the cost of electricity produced from current cadmium telluride technology is very approximately 10 pence per unit, significantly higher than the 8.25 pence per unit for electricity produced from gas.

But he thought that the benefits of cheaper materials and the cost saving from not having to deal with toxic materials could bring the cost of cadmium telluride cells to 8.2 pence per unit – lower than gas.

However, Dr Nigel Mason of PV Consulting believes that the researchers are being very optimistic in their assessment of the impact their development will have on the price of solar energy.

“The development is great for the environmental management and safety of the production process but the cost of cadmium chloride material and dealing with its safe disposal is a relatively small fraction of production cost,” he told BBC News.

A key factor is that tellurium is one of the rarest elements on Earth so there would not be enough of the chemical to make enough solar cells if the technology took off, according to Dr Mason.

But Dr Major believes that solar energy could eventually meet the world’s energy needs.

“There is enough sunlight that falls on the Earth every hour to generate enough electricity for the planet for a year,” he said.

“The way solar is progressing it will just be a matter of time before it becomes competitive with fossil fuels and eventually replace them.”

Climate change is driving the hunt for better and cheaper forms of energy. If we don’t find an alternative scientists say life on earth will never be the same again. We are already seeing unprecedented changes in our weather patterns. Hotter than ever summers and terrifying storms.

This clip Storm Front and Climate Change takes a look at the science of climate change and the future weather patterns we could be looking at.

The US has seen continuing declines of honeybee populations

US sets up honey bee loss task force

The US has seen continuing declines of honeybee populations

The US has seen continuing declines of honeybee populations

The White House has set up a taskforce to tackle the decline of honey bees.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the agriculture department will lead the effort, which includes $8m (£4.7m) for new honey bee habitats.

Bee populations saw a 23% decline last winter, a trend blamed on the loss of genetic diversity, exposure to certain pesticides and other factors.

A quarter of the food Americans eat, including apples, carrots and avocados, relies on pollination.

Honey bees add more than $15bn in value to US agricultural crops, according to the White House.

The decline in bee populations is also blamed on the loss of natural forage and inadequate diets, mite infestations and diseases.

There has also been an increase in a condition called colony collapse disorder (CCD) in which there is a rapid, unexpected and catastrophic loss of bees in a hive.

But other North American pollinators, like the monarch butterfly, have seen decreases in their populations as well.



Some environmental groups have criticised the president for not acting more directly, including taking action against neonicotinoids, a class of pesticides linked to bee deaths.

“The administration should prevent the release and use of these toxic pesticides until determined safe,” Friends of the Earth president Erich Pica told Reuters.

In the plan announced on Friday, Mr Obama directed the EPA and the agriculture department to lead a government-wide task force to develop a strategy within six months to fight bee and other pollinator declines.

Also announced on Friday was funding for farmers and ranchers in five states – Michigan, Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wisconsin – who establish new habitats for honey bee populations.


Bees are the most important pollinators. However they are also being used to detect illegal substances such as explosives and drugs. Find out more by watching this video from our TV series Animal X Natural Mystery Unit.


Badgers: Ministers ‘wilfully’ ignoring science advice



By Pallab Ghosh
Science correspondent, BBC News

A senior government adviser has described coalition plans to change the way the pilot badger culls are assessed as “an abuse” of the scientific method.

Prof Timothy Coulson is concerned the government is considering a less reliable way of assessing humaneness in the cull and numbers of badgers killed.

He is also concerned that it will scrap independent oversight.

It would also make it impossible to assess whether recommendations to improve the cull have worked.
Writing in Animal Ecology in Focus, Prof Coulson says that ministers must be “wilfully” ignoring the concerns of its own scientists.

“I am tempted to speculate that the government no longer wants to know whether the pilots are effective or humane,” he says in his article. “They just want to cull badgers, regardless of whether the population or humaneness consequences can be assessed.”

He added: “And I fear we may hear that the second year is a success once it is over.”

Prof Coulson told BBC News that he considered culling to be an “easy option” to make it look as if the government was trying to solve the spread of TB in cattle when it could actually make the problem worse if it failed to kill enough badgers.

“If culling worked I’d be fully supportive of them rolling it out, but all the evidence is that it does not,” he told BBC News.

Prof Coulson, from the University of Oxford, is an internationally respected population biologist and was a member of the Independent Expert Panel (IEP) that assessed the effectiveness, safety and humanness of two pilot badger culls in Somerset and Gloucestershire last year.

Protesters have questioned the rationale for the cull

A spokesman for the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), which is running the pilot culls, said: “We will continue to monitor the effectiveness and humaneness of the badger culls closely to assess the impact of the improvements we are making following the IEP’s recommendations.”

“We are currently assessing the best and most cost-effective methods of doing this,” she added. “Scientific evidence such as the findings of the IEP will always play an integral role in developing our approach to dealing with bovine TB, which includes strengthening cattle movement controls and developing vaccines for cattle and badgers.”

However, Prof Coulson said that Defra ministers were not listening to the advice of their own scientists.

He told BBC News: “Government agencies are stuffed full of very competent scientists. Presumably the concerns that they must have raised are being wilfully ignored by government. I wonder why?

“I suspect the government no longer wants to know the answer to whether their ongoing pilot culls will deliver the required outcome.”

Prof Rosie Woodroffe, of the Zoological Society of London, works closely with government employed scientists on the science of the badger cull. She told BBC News that she has “little doubt” that some scientists in Defra and other government agencies will be concerned that these culls will be ineffective and inhumane.

“I don’t know whether policymakers are not listening to their own scientists, or simply not seeking their own scientists’ views on what has become such a political issue.”

Defra authorised two pilot culls over a four year period in Somerset and Gloucestershire last to see whether licensed marksmen could kill 70% of the badger population in the pilot areas, the number required to reduce the spread of TB in cattle. Defra agreed to independent oversight of the culls by the IEP. BBC News revealed earlier this year that the IEP concluded that the trials were ineffective and raised concerns about the number of badgers that died slowly after being shot by marksmen.

On the basis of that advice, Defra decided not to extend the culls to other parts of England as it had originally hoped – though the two pilot trials will continue for three more years as they are required to do under the culling licence issued by Natural England.

But Defra has decided not to continue with the independent oversight provided by the IEP. The department is also considering changing the method for assessing the number of badgers killed, citing cost as the reason.

Cost question
The method used last year involved analysing the genetic code of badgers in the cull area before the cull and then analysing the code of the badgers that were killed. Prof Coulson said this gave an accurate assessment of the proportion of badgers killed.

Instead, the BBC understands that Defra is considering two alternative approaches to monitor the culls. One of these is based on data from the companies that carried out the cull, but the IEP had little faith in these data, was critical of them in its report and did not use them.

The second method is based on a computer model which has not been validated for the two cull areas. The IEP was also critical of this in minutes of its meetings.

Prof Coulson has told BBC News that the “genotyping” work is not an expensive method and whatever method is used instead will be much less accurate. Genotyping costs around a £15-20 per badger and so the cost of doing the work should run into a few tens of thousands of pounds at most.

“A cynic might speculate that (the change in method) is because following best animal ecology practice might lead to conclusions at odds with what the government seems unjustifiably determined to do,” he said.

“In addition to changing the protocols, there is to be no more independent oversight of the ongoing culls. So who will oversee the analysis of data and the interpretation of results? The same folks that have decided to change the protocols half way through the experiment?”

The IEP made recommendations to improve humaneness which the government has accepted. The success or otherwise of these recommendations will also be hard to assess, according to Prof Coulson, because he believes the data on humaneness are not going to be collected from autopsies of badgers to assess how they were killed as was done last year.

Prof Woodroffe says that it won’t be possible to compare last year’s figures with the next set if the method used to count the badgers that have been killed is changed.

“Ministers and farmers are hoping that this year’s pilots will be more effective than last year’s. To give policymakers, farmers and the public confidence in the outcome of the pilots, it’s essential that the same methods are used consistently,” she said.

Prof Coulson added that changing the way in which the experiment was assessed was “an abuse of the scientific method”.

“‘If the methods Defra are thought to be considering are used in place of those applied last year, it would be like starting a surgical procedure with a scalpel and forceps and finishing it with a garden spade and axe,” he said.

Speaking on BBC Radio 4′s World At One programme, the farming minister George Eustice said that Prof Coulson was “completely wrong”.

“There are two separate things and I think he is confusing these two items, One is the monitoring and evaluation and last year we had 300 visits from (government) vets, compliance visits from Natural England and we carried out over 150 post mortems (of badger carcasses). That was the raw data that was collected,” he said.

“Then there was the separate thing which is what the IEP did and that was really to give us advice on how we should treat the data we had. It was a one off project. They have given us advice on how we should treat that data and their work is over.”

Brazil’s logging sector is full of crooks – and the Amazon is paying the price


From Posted by Richardg – 7 May 2014 at 3:05pm


Logging in the Amazon Picture Rodrigo Baleira

The Brazilian government has made several attempts to take control of logging in the Amazon. But despite high-profile crackdowns, the trade in illegal timber is vast and growing.

Pará state is the largest timber producer and exporter in the Brazilian Amazon. It is where a lot of the Amazon timber available in the UK comes from. Yet an estimated 78% of logging in Pará is illegal.

In neighbouring Mato Grosso, the second largest timber producer and exporter, 54% of logging is believed to be illegal. And the situation is the same in other states too. According to the former head of the Brazilian National Forest Service, 60% of logging in the Amazon is illegal.

The government tried to regulate the industry and stem the trade in illegal timber. But the systems it designed to keep an eye on the loggers have been corrupted. Instead of keeping illegal timber out of the marketplace, criminals are exploiting loopholes to create false paper trails.

Wrapped in this fake paperwork, it’s almost impossible to tell legal and illegal timber apart.

The Brazilian environmental police, IBAMA, has been taking the fight to the sawmills at the heart of the racket. A successful raid gets headlines, and might seize a few truckloads of timber – but the problem is so much bigger than that.

IBAMA estimates that in Maranhão and Pará states alone almost 500,000 m³ of lumber had fraudulent documents last year – enough to fill 14,000 trucks.

Amidst this criminality, just one thing is crystal clear. When you buy timber from the Amazon, you’re taking a massive risk – and the timber that you get may well be illegal.

Original article from

Here’s a short video of some of the beautiful animals of the Amazon.

If you’ve got more time here’s a full length documentary about the mini monkeys of Brazil. From our TV series Before It’s Too Late.

The Animals of Chernobyl

From The New York Times

Biologist Timothy Mousseau has been studying the lasting effects of radiation on the animals and plants of Chernobyl, Ukraine.

His findings are concerning, though predictable.  Mousseau has discovered that the area is taking longer to recover than thought, which is having a devastating effect on the area’s biodiversity. It seems there are fewer than 50% of species of animals, plants and insects than previously.

There is a marked decrease in spiders and insects as well as a high level of deformities.

The biologist says there are few birds and many have deformed beaks. They are not coping well with the higher levels of radio activity.

There’s a similar story of the flora. Trees for example have a marked change in colour in their rings, since 1986.

This 5 minute clip is from the New York Times look at Timothy Mousseau’s work at Chernobyl.


Unesco warns Australia over Great Barrier Reef

The Great Barrier Reef is the world’s largest coral structure and home to rich marine life

Unesco has threatened to list the Great Barrier Reef as a World Heritage in Danger site, amid controversy over a plan to dump dredged sediment.

Reef authorities granted permission for the dumping in January as part of a project to create one of the world’s biggest coal ports.

But scientists have warned that the sediment could smother or poison coral.

Unesco said given “significant threats” to the reef, it should be considered for inclusion on the danger list.

The Great Barrier Reef is the world’s largest coral structure, rich in marine life. It stretches for more than 2,600km (1,680 miles) along Australia’s eastern coast.

‘Other alternatives’
The dumping is part of a major development that would allow several companies to export coal reserves from the Galilee Basin area through the Abbot Point port.

Abbot Point lies south of Townsville on the Queensland coast.

Late last year, the government approved an application for the coal terminal to be expanded. The dredging is needed to allow ships into the port.

The approved disposal site for the dredged sediment is located approximately 25km (16 miles) east-north-east of the port, inside the marine park.

The disposal operation would be “subject to strict environmental conditions”, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority said when it approved the plan.

But the plan remains highly controversial.

In its report, Unesco said that the Abbot Point dumping plan was “noted with concern”.

“Indeed, this was approved, despite an indication that less impacting disposal alternatives may exist,” the report pointed out.

More widely, it said that a long-term plan for sustainable development due to be completed by Australia by 2015 had to result in “concrete and consistent management measures sufficiently robust to ensure the overall conservation” of the reef.

In particular, it had to address major drivers of reef decline “such as water quality and climate change, and the need to constrain coastal development and associated activities”.

“Given the range of significant threats affecting the property and the conflicting information about the effectiveness of recent decisions and draft policies, significant concern remains regarding the long-term deterioration of key aspects of… [the reef] and the completion of work to tackle short- and long-term threats,” it said.

In the absence of “substantial progress”, Unesco should consider putting the reef on the endangered list at a summit to be held in 2015, the report said.

Australia’s Environment Minister Greg Hunt pointed out that the report highlighted progress in a number of areas, including water quality.

The approval of the Abbot Point development “was subject to rigorous environmental assessment”, he said in a statement.

Queensland’s Environment Minister Andrew Powell, meanwhile, said he was confident that ongoing work would mean the reef was not listed as endangered.

“We are committed to protecting the reef, we can continue to operate sensible, environmentally responsible ports adjacent to the reef,” the Australian Broadcasting Corporation quoted him as saying.

Take a 3 minute break and enjoy some beautiful underwater pictures from the reefs around Australia.

Swarm ‘delivers on magnetic promise’

By Jonathan Amos
Science correspondent, BBC News, Vienna

The lack of any colour in this graphic indicates Swarm’s model of the global field is already very good

Europe’s Swarm mission to measure the Earth’s magnetic field in unprecedented detail is achieving impressive levels of performance, scientists say.

Even though the trio of satellites were only launched in November, they are already sensing the global field to a precision that took previous ventures years of data-gathering.

Engineers recently finished all their main commissioning tasks.

They have now put the Swarm constellation in full science mode.

The hope is that the satellites can operate together for perhaps 10 years.

Certainly, their fuel situation is extremely positive thanks to a very accurate orbit insertion by the launch rocket.

“We are on our way; we have very good measurements and we are ready to start accumulating all the data that will provide excellent models for the way the magnetic field is generated by our planet,” said Dr Rune Floberghagen.

The global field is made up of several components, including the magnetism retained in crustal rocks

The European Space Agency mission manager was providing an update here in Vienna at the European Geosciences Union General Assembly.

Earth’s magnetic field is worthy of study because it is the vital shield that protects the planet from all the charged particles streaming off the Sun.

Without it, those particles would strip away the atmosphere, just as they have done at Mars.

Investigating the magnetic field also has direct practical benefits, such as improving the reliability of satellite navigation systems which can be affected by magnetic and electrical conditions high in the atmosphere.

Swarm’s three identical satellites are equipped with a variety of instruments – the key ones being state-of-the-art magnetometers that measure the strength and the direction of the field.

Two of the spacecraft, known as Alpha and Charlie, are currently flying in tandem at an altitude of 462km, and will descend over time.

The third platform, Bravo, has been raised to 510km. A drift has also been initiated that will separate B’s orbital plane from that of A and C during the course of the next few years.

This geometry will enable Swarm to see the field in three dimensions, and to better gauge its variations in time and space.

It will mean the different components in the field can also be teased apart – from the dominant contribution coming from the iron dynamo in the planet’s outer core to the very subtle magnetism generated by the movement of our salt-water oceans.

Describing these features in detail will take a while, but as an early benchmark the science team has assembled a model of the global field. It is based on just a few months of magnetometer data gathered in the post-launch commissioning phase.

And it shows that Swarm is providing more or less the same signal as a decade of data from the German predecessor mission known as Champ.

This is illustrated in the image at the top of this page.

“It shows the difference between the Swarm model and the Champ model. And what you see is the model error. Ideally, it should be white all over,” explained Prof Nils Olsen from the Technical University of Denmark.

The fact that the models are in such good agreement so soon was enormously encouraging, he told BBC News.

Engineers are still working a few niggles, which is not unexpected at this stage of a new mission.

For example, a back-up magnetometer on the Charlie platform has failed, perhaps damaged by the intense shaking experienced during launch.

Fully working primary instrumentation means this should not present a problem. But as a precaution, Charlie will now fly in the lower tandem pairing rather than as the lone high satellite, which was originally going to be its role.

Engineers also have some unexpected noise in their data. It is a very small signal but the team told the EGU meeting that they intended to get on top of the issue.

The interference in the magnetic data seems to come and go as the satellites move in and out of sunlight. It is possible that a component inside the spacecraft is evolving its own inherent field as temperatures change.

“It is not so much heating as differential heating that we think may be the problem,” said Prof Olsen.

“It seems on occasions that the Sun is producing some shadows because of features on the spacecraft, and this produces a thermal gradient.

“That’s our current working hypothesis, but I am confident we’ll solve this issue.”

Swarm satellite construction (EADS Astrium)

Magnetic “noise” from the satellites’ own components has to be understood

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