Illinois Public Media News
(With additional reporting from Illinois Public Radio)
Archaeologists have hard evidence that humans lived in North America much earlier than previously thought, and an Illinois researcher played a key role in nailing down the dates.
The earliest North Americans were long thought to be the Clovis people. Now archaeologists have dug up stone tools and debris from underneath a Clovis site in central Texas. The findings were discovered by researchers led by Michael R. Waters of Texas A&M University.
It was "like finding the Holy Grail," Waters said in a telephone interview. To find what appears to be a large open-air campsite "is really gratifying. Lucky and gratifying."
The trove of 15,528 artifacts included chipping debris from working stones and 56 tools such as blades, scrapers and choppers. The archaeologists sent samples to Steven Forman's lab at the University of Illinois at Chicago, where he determined when the sediment around the objects was last exposed to sunlight.
The artifacts turn out to be about 15,000 years old - from millennia before the Clovis people. It's not the first evidence of cultures older than Clovis, but Forman says it may be the strongest.
"It appears to be that this might be kind of watershed piece of science in which people say, yes, there is really compelling evidence for pre-Clovis occupation in North America," Forman said. "It's no longer a red herring."
The small tools were "a mobile tool kit," Waters said, and of the type that could have led to the later development of the fluted points that trademark Clovis technology.
While there are other pre-Clovis sites across the country, Waters said the new find included significantly more artifacts than the others.
Anthropologist Tom D. Dillehay of Vanderbilt University, who was not part of the research team, said he is concerned that the separation of layers at the site "appears not to be as clear as the authors would have us believe."
University of Oregon archaeologist Dennis L. Jenkins said he was also initially skeptical of the find, commenting "it would have been a hard sell" from many other researchers.
Jenkins, who three years ago reported discovery of 14,000-year-old evidence of human DNA in a cave in Oregon, said he was concerned that settling or rodents had mixed up the specimens in Texas.
But, he said, Waters' team had done "incredible, meticulous scientific work." "I believe he's made the case," he said.
Jenkins said he would have preferred carbon-dating of the specimens, but that couldn't be done because there was no organic material to be tested in the newly found layer.
Steven L. Forman, of the University of Illinois, Chicago, a co-author of the paper, said the team used luminescence dating which can determine when the material was last exposed to light. They took samples by hammering black, sealed copper pipe into the layers. In a separate paper in the journal, researchers report evidence of early humans in south India more than a million years ago.
Researchers discovered more than 3,500 quartzite tools of the distinct Acheulian design used by the earliest humans in Africa starting more than 1.5 million years ago. They dated the tools to at least 1.07 million years old and some possibly 1.51 million years old.
The discovery at a site called Attirampakkam in the Kortallayar river basin helps anthropologists understand the spread of ancient people from Africa into Asia. Leading the research team was Shanti Pappu of the Sharma Centre for Heritage Education in Tamil Nadu, India.
The find is unprecedented for archaeological studies in India, said archaeologist Michael Petraglia of the University of Oxford, England, who was not part of the research team.
He said it could mean that early humans migrated out of Africa earlier than the oft-cited 1.4 million years ago, carrying the tools to southern Asia.
"The suggestion that this occurred at around 1.5 million years ago is simply staggering," he said.
The new find will likely overturn the history of ancient humans in North America. The results are out in the journal Science.
(Photo courtesy of Michael R. Waters/The Associated Press)
University of Illinois trustees have put off action on an Urbana campus wind turbine for at least three months, but speakers on both sides of the issue told trustees at their meeting in Springfield Wednesday they would prefer a quick decision.
For civil engineering student Amy Allen, the decision should be "yes". Allen, who is also president of Students for Environmental Concerns on the Urbana campus, told trustees that any further delay would just run up the cost for the wind turbine --- and perhaps kill the project entirely. She wants trustees to approve the wind turbine for its original site at South Farms.
"Re-siting the turbine and seeking an extension would kill the project," Allen said. "We ask that you approve the wind turbine at the next meeting of the board of trustees in June, or abandon it entirely, instead of consigning it to death by a thousand cuts."
But abandonment would be just fine for U of I faculty member Steven Platt. He told trustees that even if a site is found that won't disturb nearby homeowners, wind turbines are no longer on the cutting edge of energy technology.
"There are hundreds of large turbines in Illinois, thousands across the country," Platt said. "The time, if ever there was one, to erect what will amount to be a five-million-dollar symbol is long in the past."
A U of I board of trustees committee has decided to give the wind turbine project further study --- it could come up at the board's next meeting on June 9th in Chicago.
The Dewitt County Board meets Thursday night at 7 PM to consider public reaction over a measure by the Peoria Disposal Company to store a chemical substance in the Clinton Landfill known as polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs.
The Clinton Landfill is owned by Area Disposal of Peoria, and in 2007 the landfill applied for permits with the Illinois and United States Environmental Protection Agency to store the toxins. The state branch of the EPA has already granted the landfill a permit, and U.S. EPA issued a draft permit.
While the U.S. EPA considers granting an official permit, the agency will hear comments on April 13 at Clinton High School about the public's response to putting toxins in the landfill. A report commissioned by the Dewitt County Board finds storing PCBs would present "a significant long-term threat" to groundwater resources in DeWitt County.
The county board may vote to present that information to the EPA during the public hearing next month. But Board Chair Melonie Tilley says that may not happen because of an agreement with Peoria Disposal stating that the board would not take a stance to "oppose or support" issuing a federal permit to the landfill.
That doesn't sit well with DeWitt resident George Wissmiller, who heads the environmental group, WATCH. Wissmiller says he does not want to see toxins stored in the landfill.
"It's going to be separated from the Mahomet Aquifer by three sheets of plastic, three feet of clay, and then an unknown number of feet of soil of unknown composition," Wissmiller explained. "All the studies I've ever seen have said that that protection will eventually fail."
Wissmiller said the DeWitt County Board has stayed neutral on the landfill PCB issue, and that sending the report to the federal EPA hearing would be a notable step for them.
The EPA banned most uses of PCBs in 1979, but they are extraordinarily persistent and can remain in the environment for a long time.
As Japanese officials scramble to stabilize nuclear reactors following last week's earthquake and tsunami, the focus has also shifted on the safety of nuclear power plants in the United States.
James Stubbins, head of nuclear engineering at the U of I, said of Illinois' 11 reactors, six are boiling water reactors similar to ones affected by the devastation in Japan. One is about 40 miles away from Urbana in Clinton. Stubbins said there is no reason to be concerned about the stability of these reactors because it is unlikely they will be faced with a tsunami, like the one in Japan.
"When we understand better what happened in Japan," Stubbins said. "We'll assess what really led to the problems and upgrade systems where necessary or upgrade methodologies where necessary to ensure that similar kinds of things can't happen here."
Stubbins said because the Clinton reactor is younger than those affected by the tsunami, it has a more up to date safety system in place.
In a recent New York Times editorial, David Lochbaum of the Union of Concerned Scientists writes that the primary challenge for the Japanese reactors was losing their normal and back-up power supplies.
"The reactors were designed to cope with this situation for only eight hours, assuming that normal or back-up power would be restored within that time," Lochbaum said. "But the accident failed to follow that script, leading to serious problems cooling the reactor cores."
Lochbaum said "the one-two punch" from an earthquake and tsunami disabled numerous emergency systems.
According to Lochbaum, most reactors in the U.S. are designed to cope with power outages lasting only four hours. He said following the situation in Japan, measures should be taken to increase the chances of restoring power within the "assumed time period or providing better cooling options when that time runs out."
He noted that the incident in Japan is a reminder of the need to revisit emergency plans to make sure people are protected when a disaster hits.
A team of researchers from the University of Illinois will be going to Japan next week to survey the devastation caused by Friday's magnitude 8.9 earthquake and tsunami.
Doctoral candidate Hussam Mahmoud with the U of I's Mid-America Earthquake Center said one thing to learn from the world's 5th largest earthquake since 1900 will be how to better retrofit buildings. He said damage to newer structures will reveal flaws in design codes. But Mahmoud said Japan had already improved from prior designs, learning from the 1995 magnitude 7.2 quake near the city of Kobe that claimed more than 6,000 lives.
"Then we can see exactly what are the weak points we have in all design codes," Mahmoud said. "And the design really are no different in any countries of the world. What they have in Japan for design and the codes that we also have here, there's a lot of dissemation of information, there might be slight differences, but we're pretty much doing the same thing."
But Mahmoud said the tsunami and many fires associated with this earthquake make it very hard to assess the total loss of life, damage, and economic impact.
He said the information coming from his team's research in Japan will be distributed to thousands of agencies worldwide studying seismic activity.
(With additional reporting from Illinois Public Radio)
The decision to pick Morgan County over three competing sites to host an underground carbon dioxide storage facility was a close one, according to FutureGen Alliance CEO Ken Humphreys.
The site --- announced by the FutureGen Alliance on Monday --- will store carbon dioxide produced at FutureGen's power plant in Meredosia, retrofitted with experimental low-emissions coal burning technology.
Humphreys said Morgan County's geology, and its proximity to the power plant made it a front-runner over competing sites in Christian, Douglas and Fayette counties.
"Any one of these four sites could be, would be amenable to storing the 39 million tons of CO2 from Meredosia," Humphreys said. "If one were to look at possibly expanding the storage site, there might be more differences."
But Humphreys said at this point it is premature to look at expanding the pipeline, adding that major construction should begin within a couple of years.
The site will be located about 30 miles away from the power plant North of Interstate 72 and west of Interstate Highway 123 on the eastern edge of Morgan County. FutureGen officials say this is not a pin pointed spot for the site, additional evaluations will have to be completed. The FutureGen project is expected to bring in 1,000 jobs to downstate Illinois and another thousand jobs for suppliers across the state.
U.S. Senator Dick Durbin said plans by FutureGen to store carbon dioxide in Morgan County should give the area an economic boost.
"Bringing together all the components of FutureGen 2.0 will be a boost for Morgan County and result in thousands of good-paying jobs," Durbin said. "As host of the storage site, Morgan County will be on the map as a leader in clean coal research and technology attracting visitors from around the world."
While politicians and the business community cheer FutureGen's selection of Morgan County as the storage site, not everyone in the county is pleased with the decision. Andy Davenport owns farmland near FutureGen's selected area. When talks first started on where to put the leftover carbon dioxide he circulated a petition and got more than 300 people to sign. He said for a sparsely populated area, those numbers show people closest to the site do not want it.
"It's just very frustrating to be to have the people's voices ignored that own the land and live on the land out here," Davenport said. "We're going to be the ones that take the risk on this project, not the people in Jacksonville."
Davenport said the farmland he has owned for more than 30 years could be overtaken if the storage facility expands. He also said he is concerned about any environmental impact if the carbon dioxide leaks.
Meanwhile, this is strike two for Douglas County, which earlier lost out on its bid to host the original version of FutureGen.
But Brian Moody of Tuscola Economic Development in Douglas County says the work they did on their site proposal will help them compete for similar sequestration projects expected to come in the future.
"We've got a couple of those that look like they're going to be underway in Illinois," Moody said. "There's a project at ADM already. So we'll kind of wait and see what companies continue to look at the area. And again, I think we have a lot of the information that will spare them a lot of work in their site selection processes."
The U.S. Energy Department is committed to paying most of the cost of the $1.3 billion FutureGen project. The next step for FutureGen is an Energy Department environmental review, including comments from the public.
Some bumblebee populations in the United States are dropping at an alarming rate, and University of Illinois researchers are investigating the potential causes.
There are 50 species of bumblebees in North America. Researchers examined eight of them, and discovered that in the last 20 years, half of the species declined in relative abundance by as much as 96 percent and experienced a reduction in geographic range by as much as 87 percent.
The researchers compared historical data from 73,000 museum records dating back to the late 1800s with recent U.S. national surveys of more than 16,000 specimens from about 400 sites.
U of I entomologist Sydney Cameron, the lead author of the three-year study, said the rate of decline marks an important finding because bumble bees play important roles in the country's food production.
"That certainly could impact the efficiency of our food production for many crops, such as cranberries, blueberries, tomatoes," Cameron said. "Bumble bees are especially good pollinators of these types of crops."
Cameron said the bumblebees with significant population declines have a lower genetic diversity than bumblebees with healthier populations. She also said it has been hypothesized that North American queen bees may have brought a parasite, known as Nosema bombi, back to the United States from Europe after being raised in the rearing facilities of native bumble bees. However, she said it is unknown if these factors contributed to some species dying out.
"No one's pointing a finger at anyone," she said. "We're just trying to figure out where the Nosema that we're finding in our North American bees came from."
Scientists last year looked at another phenomenon affecting honeybees called "colony collapse" in which large numbers of a hive's worker bees disappear. Research suggests a fungus and virus may be to blame.
The reason for the population decline among the honeybees is still being determined. It may have something to do with climate change, disease, or even low genetic diversity, according to some researchers. But Cameron noted that it is too early to jump to any conclusions.
The report was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
(Photo courtesy of Johanna James-Heinz)
An Indiana University faculty member says he has learned to accept that earthquakes can take place in unexpected places.
But Geological Sciences Professor Michael Hamburger said there is a little known 10-mile area in Central Indiana called the Sharpsville fault, and believes that is where Thursday morning's magnitude 3.8 quake originated. The tremor located just north of Indianapolis was felt in four other states, including Illinois, but there were no injuries and very little damage was reported. Hamburger said pinpointing a source for the quake will take some time.
"One of the distinct problems is that earthquakes tend to happen fairly deep in the earth's crust, and the fractures that we see at the surface are quite superficial," Hamburger said. "They're mostly in sedimentary layers and we really need to do some imaging of the deeper architecture of the earth's crust in order to figure our what are the structures that are causing these earthquakes."
Hamburger said earthquakes in isolated places are not that unusual, and they are felt over a large area, citing the magnitude 5.2 Wabash Valley quake from April of 2008, when Illinois and at least 16 other states felt the impact. The majority of heavy activity comes from the Wabash Valley and New Madrid Seismic Zones.
Hamburger said he has heard only minor damage reports coming out of Indiana, including some of cracked pavement, but no structural damage. Despite the lack of earthquakes in Indiana, Hamburger said there are quake-resistant design codes for all of the state's public buildings.
Type 2 diabetes - the kind related to obesity and an unhealthy diet - gets a lot of attention these days. But there's another, less common, form of the disease - type 1 - that can also lead to life-threatening complications. Reporter Véronique LaCapra went behind the scenes at a St. Louis hospital, for the transplant operation that got one woman off dialysis, and made her diabetes-free.
(Photo by Véronique LaCapra)
A misconception about African elephants can be put to rest.
Researchers from the University of Illinois, Harvard University, and the University of York discovered that there are actually two species of African elephants, rather than one. The DNA of African elephants was compared with the extinct American mastodon and wooly mammoth.
"Experimentally, we had a major challenge to extract DNA sequences from two fossils - mammoths and mastodons - and line them up with DNA from modern elephants over hundreds of sections of the genome," said research scientist Nadin Rohland of the Department of Genetics at the Harvard Medical School.
African forest elephants are smaller, but have a greater genetic diversity compared to African savanna elephants, according to University of Illinois animal sciences professor Alfred Roca. Roca said the African forest elephants make up about one tenth of the country's elephant population. He said these mammals could face extinction unless there is more of a concentration dedicated to preserving their existence.
"In the forest of Central Africa and certainly in the forest of West Africa, the protection is limited in some countries, and in many cases you have a lot of organized gangs of poachers that are coming in," Roca said. "Really the focus has to be on protecting the forest elephant."
Roca said the evolutionary differences between the mammals are about as old as the split between humans and chimpanzees. He added that it is likely climate change in Africa five million years ago led to their creation.
This research was funded by the Max Planck Society and by a Burroughs Wellcome Career Development Award in Biomedical Science.
(Photo courtesy of Mark Turner/flickr)
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