Bridges Across Deep Sea Trenches

Seafloor “Bridges” Found to Span Earth’s Deepest Trench

Crystal Gammon, OurAmazingPlanet Contributor
Date: 29 December 2011 Time: 12:34 PM ET

Mariana Trench
Areas of the Mariana Trench that were mapped.
CREDIT: James Gardner

The Mariana Trench, located in the Pacific Ocean off the eastern coasts of Japan and the Philippines — at a depth of around 6.8 miles (11 kilometers) below sea level — is famous for being the deepest point on the planet’s surface.

Now, to add to the Mariana Trench’s fame, marine geophysicists recently mapped a set of surprising seafloor features nearby. At least four underwater “bridges” span the depths of the trench, where the Pacific Plate dives under the Philippine Plate.

“It wasn’t common knowledge that these bridges occurred at all,” said James Gardner, a marine geophysicist at the University of New Hampshire who found the structures. “This is really the first time they’ve been mapped in any detail.”

Bridging the trench

As the Pacific and Philippine tectonic plates converge, they carry seamounts (mountains on the ocean floor that don’t reach the water’s surface) and other underwater features with them toward the trench itself. Some of these plow into other structures on the opposite side of the trench — in a sort of slow-motion seamount collision — or into the trench wall itself.

The result is an underwater “bridge” that stretches across the Mariana Trench. Gardner and a colleague found four of these structures, some rising as high as 6,600 feet (2,000 meters) above the trench and measuring up to 47 miles (75 km) long.

The largest of the four, Dutton Ridge, was mapped in low resolution in the 1980s, but scientists hadn’t noticed any other similar structures in the area. Because the seafloor in the region is riddled with seamounts, guyots (flat-topped seamounts) and other features — many of them part of the Magellan Seamount chain — Gardner suspected he could find other bridges.

“As the Pacific Plate gets thrust down underneath the Philippine Plate, it wouldn’t be totally unexpected that you’d find these things bridging across the trench and being accreted to the inner wall,” Gardner told OurAmazingPlanet.

Using a multibeam echosounder (a tool that uses sonar to measure the topography of the ocean floor in detail), Gardner and a colleague mapped a large swath of the ocean floor surrounding the trench. They presented their findings at the December meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco.

Deep, cold and creeping slowly

What the bridges mean for the ocean floor and its occupants is unclear, Gardner said.

“I would certainly expect Dutton Ridge and the others to have different fauna and flora than the trench floor, because they stand about 2 kilometers [1.2 miles] higher,” Gardner said. “But the extreme depth would make it hard to monitor the biology or seafloor currents in the area.”

In fact, the pressure at the bottom of the Mariana Trench is more than eight tons per square inch, and water temperatures hover just above freezing, making it a challenging environment for researchers and sea life alike.

The long-term fate of the bridges is also unknown, Gardner said.

Dutton Ridge, the northernmost of the four bridges, has settled in over the Mariana Trench and seems to be “choking” the plate boundary for now, Gardner said. He also found evidence suggesting that the trench may have already swallowed up other similar bridges.

Whether and when Dutton Ridge and the other three bridges will plunge to the same end isn’t clear. And with the Pacific and Philippine plates creeping steadily toward each other at a rate of less than an inch (2 cm) per year, we aren’t likely to find out anytime soon.


Monsters, Doomsday, & UFO’s for 2012

Monsters and UFOs to Watch For in 2012

Benjamin Radford, Life’s Little Mysteries Contributor
Date: 28 December 2011 Time: 07:56 PM

The Flying Saucer movie poster
Promotional poster for the 1950 film ‘The Flying Saucer.’
CREDIT: Colonial Productions

2011 was a year of weird news, and sitting on the cusp of 2012, it’s time to look back on the odd year that was — as well as look ahead to a year that promises a new level of strangeness.

Monster sightings in 2011: Researchers looking in Siberia for the yeti — the Asian version of North America’s Bigfoot — claimed in October to have found “indisputable proof” of the long-sought mystery beast. The Russian team, which included several American scientists, located some odd footprints, as well as some gray hairs in a cave. About a month later, a member of the expedition, biologist John Bindernagel, claimed his group found even more evidence, including nests and shelters made of tree branches twisted together. However, another member of the same group reported finding evidence of hoaxing and branded the whole expedition a publicity stunt.

2011 was also the year that the mystery of the chupacabra, the Hispanic vampire beast, was solved, after some 15 years of mystery. DNA testing on dead “chupacabras” found in Texas and elsewhere revealed them to be mostly dogs and coyotes afflicted with mange, and the legendary creature’s origin was traced back to a 1995 monster movie instead of any real-life encounter.

Monsters to look for in 2012: Will the yeti footprints and hair samples finally reveal the truth? If the claims made by the Russian expedition are not hype or hoax, then perhaps the world will finally get definitive proof of the long-rumored creature. Surely after so many decades of ambiguous sightings and searches, hard evidence of Bigfoot or the yeti is long overdue. As for the chupacabra, people in North America and elsewhere will continue to find mangy dogs and coyotes and assume the unfortunate beasties are chupacabras.

Doomsday predictions made in 2011: The year began on an ominous note when fundamentalist Harold Camping, leader of the ministry Family Radio Worldwide, concluded after careful study of the Bible that the world would end May 21. The announcement made national news, and concerned many believers. Camping and his followers were embarrassed when May 21 came and went without a hitch, and he eventually admitted there must have been a miscalculation somewhere. Camping moved the date back a few months, concluding that October was the real month Armageddon would begin. That doomsday date came and went, as well, and the only thing destroyed was Camping’s credibility.

Doomsdays to prepare for in 2012: The upcoming year is certain to bring more concerns about doomsdays and apocalypse — not necessarily from Bible-thumping evangelicals but (supposedly) from the ancient Mayans, whose calendar “ends” next year. Some New Agers think the world will end along with the end of the Mayan calendar cycle; others believe a new age of global peace and harmony will emerge. For other groups, the concern isn’t so much the calendar date but a collision between Earth and the mysterious (and nonexistent) planet Niburu. Of course, people have been predicting doomsdays for millennia, and while nary one has come to pass, one day, sooner or later, the prognosticators will be right.

UFOs and aliens spotted in 2011: The summer of 2011 was an especially busy period for UFO sightings, according to an organization that tracks such reports. The Mutual UFO Network noted that sightings in some states more than doubled their usual numbers. The group could not explain the apparent increase, saying that it could be real, or possibly just a computer error.

As the reports of sightings soared, so did the lights in the skies. In early October more than a dozen strange lights were seen over the northern Utah city of Washington Terrace just after 11:30 p.m. They emitted a strange, fiery glow as they headed north at an estimated speed of about 70 mph, according to one eyewitness. The lights puzzled the public and police and had the UFO community buzzing. Finally, students at the local Bonneville High School admitted they had launched 16 lit Chinese lanterns that night; the lanterns had been reported as UFOs.

Even close-up views of alien spaceships proved to be of something else. That was the case of a “flying saucer” spotted being hauled down a main street in a Kansas town; it turned out to be a (comparatively mundane) military spy plane.

UFOs and aliens to look out for in 2012: There’s some reason to believe UFO sightings will continue at the same rate, or even increase, through 2012. UFO reports historically occur in clusters or “flaps.” And reports could be on the rise because more and more people carry cellphones with built-in cameras, making it easier than ever to report a potential sighting.

A few sightings tend to encourage even more sightings. Will extraterrestrials finally make their presence clearly known, landing on the White House lawn or staying still long enough to get some clear, sharp photos or videos? That’s been the hope and promise of UFO believers for decades now.


New Solar Flares

ACTIVE SUNSPOT: New sunspot 1389 is crackling with M-class solar flares. NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory recorded this extreme UV flash from the active region at 2151 UT on Dec. 29th:

Although the sunspot is not directly facing Earth, its flares can affect our planet. X-rays and UV radiation from yesterday’s flares created waves of ionization in the upper atmosphere, altering the propagation of radio waves. The phenomenon was particularly strong over Europe where radio amateurs using low frequency receivers detected sudden ionospheric disturbances (“SIDs“) above Ireland and Italy. Student groups who wish to detect solar flares in this way can ask about obtaining a SID monitor from Stanford University.

NOAA forecasters estimate a 40% chance of more M-flares during the next 24 hours. There’s also a 5% chance of X-flares



New Island Created by Jebel Zubair Volcano

Surtseyan eruption along the coast of Yemen forms a new island – Today eruption cloud + stain !

Last update: December 30, 2011 at 3:07 pm by By

Jorgen Aabech, a Norvegian volcano enthusiast writing already a long time in his blog, wrote us an email on  December 20 to attract our attention on a probably new eruption of the Jebel Zubair volcano, which is an island formation on the territory of Yemen. Jorgen asked us if we had any mention of earthquakes in the area, which was negative.
When looking at the Modis Terra and Aqua satellite picture on December 20, we saw indeed a very small cloud in the island area, but nothing important to us.  We also followed the Sat24 weather satellite pictures for a while to eventually detect heat on their Infrared images, but also this was negative.  This whole eruption, actually found by the scanning of Jorgen Aalbach (if we are right), was almost forgotten until NASA’s Earth Observatory published a far better satellite picture showing more detail of the eruption. Just like during the Eritrea Nabro eruption, satellite images are the only source in this part of the world (in other words, these countries have other concerns than following an active volcano area all the time)

Update December 30
– NASA Modis Aqua satellite picture is showing more activity today. The quality of the Satellite images differs because of indirect circumstances like high cloud, etc (visual image)


Update December 29 (all other info below).
– As you can see on the picture above, the eruption is still ongoing (white cloud and blue stain)
– It is a pity that nobody was around to make beautiful pictures from this Surtseyan eruption (not too late though – to all nature photographers : take your backpack and travel to Yemen (do not forget to hire some armed guards as the country has still a lot of armed rebels and as almost everyone carries a knife and a gun).

NASA MODIS Aqua December 29 satellite picture showing eruption cloud and stain – courtsey NASA

– The Yemen times, a local Yemenite newspaper (who does not mention the creation of a new island) wrote the following :
The Monitoring Center for the Study of Earthquakes and Volcanoes has reported the presence of light volcanic activity on one of the unpopulated islands of ‘Jabal Al-Zubair’ archipelago, 120 km northwest of Hodeida Governorate. Jamal Sha’alan, the manager of the center said that initial indications are that the volcanic eruption was light and will not pose a threat to marine navigation. Saleh Al-Maflahi, the assistant manager of the center, also confirmed that initial indications of the volcanic eruption are reassuring, saying that the centre has commissioned technical experts to travel to the site of the volcano to conduct studies. The team has installed a seismic monitoring station there to alert them to seismic activity that may be the precursor to volcanic activity, according to Al-Maflahi. “The volcanic activity and rising smoke was witnessed by some visitors,” he said, adding that a good deal of seismic activity had recently taken place. He said that the results of a survey of the area’s volcanic history showed that Jabal Al-Zubair is an active volcanic site, and that it witnessed volcanic activity 187 years ago. In September 2007, a volcano on Jabal Al-Tair Island – 20 km southwest of Al-Zubair and 140 kilometers off Yemen’s western coastline – caused the death of eight Yemeni soldiers in addition to injuring others stationed at a military base. Read the complete article here

Distance from the new created island to “Rugged Island”, part of the Zubair volcano group

The text below is courtesy Jorgen Aabech and a few other sources which are referred to if used

December 19 – Jorgen Aabech wrote in his blog :
A possible eruption occurred at Az Zubair archipelago on 19th December 2011. Fishermen from Salif port city in the west of Yemen reported seeing an eruption with red lava rising to a height of 30 m. This was the first eruption the fisherman can recall from the area. Satellite images showed raised sulphur dioxide emissions close to the volcano on the following day.
On December 19 the NASA Aura/OMI SO² satellite captured a picture that revealed a strong SO² cloud column. This satellite is of great importance to detect remote located volcanoes.

Aura/OMI NASA SO2 satellite image from the December 19 2011 Zubair
 volcano group Surtseyan eruptionAura/OMI NASA SO2 satellite image from the December 19 2011 Zubair volcano group Surtseyan eruption

Surtseyan eruption in Yemen - Image courtesy vulkaner.noSurtseyan eruption in Yemen – Image courtesy

December 20 – Jorgen Aabech Update (based on what he also read in Erik Klemetti Wired corner)
It seems like there is a lot of confusion about exactly where the eruption is taking place. A number of sources put the eruption at Jebel Zubair, another island volcano that is part of an archipelago that last erupted in 1824. Jebel Zubair is just to the south of Jebel at Tair, so looking at the OMI map and the new MODIS image found by Eruptions reader Kirby that looks to have a small plume (see above), it is more likely Jebel Zubair. However, there is still not a lot of information out there on this eruption.

December 22 – Jorgen Aabech
On 19 December a SO2 cloud was detected in an OMI satellite image. MODIS imagery from 20 December shows a plume rising from a submarine eruption about 1.5 km SW of Haycock and N of Rugged (near the N end of the Az-Zubair island group), and about 12 km NE of Jebel Zubair island.
A bathymetric sketch map made in 1973 indicates a water depth of about 100 m in that area.

Yemen TV showed an unstable and bad colored report in their news. We cannot trace whether this report is from this eruption, but it was published as it on You Tube.  It is however hard to believe that the December 19 eruption (no other SO2 traces on the satellite maps) have build the island in only a week. A possibility is that the eruption had started a lot earlier in his submarine phase.

December 28 – Smithsonian Institution Global Volcanism program writes :
An eruption from the northern part of the Zubair Group continued during 21-27 December. MODIS imagery from NASA’s satellites on 22 December showed a plume, possibly containing ash, rising from what was thought to be a submarine eruption. Imagery acquired on 23 December from the Advanced Land Imager (ALI) on NASA’s EO-1 satellite showed a new island at the location with a plume rising from it, roughly 500 m N of Rugged Island and more than 500 m in diameter. The island was not present in a similar image acquired on 24 October 2007.

December 28 – NASA Earth Observatory – Proof of a new island
The Picture combination below from NASA Earth Observatory shows the birth of the new island. The cloud picture was acquired by the Advanced Land Imager (ALI) on NASA’s Earth Observing-1 (EO-1) satellite. A thick plume rises from the island, dark near the bottom and light near the top, perhaps a mixture of volcanic ash and water vapor.

NASA Earth Observatory shows the birth of the new Zubair volcano 
group islandNASA Earth Observatory shows the birth of the new Zubair volcano group island

for more information and updates, go to:

Siberian Earthquake

Very strong shallow and dangerous earthquake in Siberia – severe shaking reported

Last update: December 28, 2011 at 12:34 am by By 

Earthquake overview : A very strong earthquake (M 6.5 to M 7.0 following different sources) happened in the South Western part of Siberia. The epicenter was located in a sparsely populated wilderness area at a distance of 120 km from Kyzyl, a city with 109,000 inhabitants and the capital of the Tuva Republic.

“I have Felt it” Reports –> see below + Let us know “how you have felt this earthquake”
To read the full story as it happened, we advise our readers to start at the lower part of the page (earthquake data).

Keep this page open or return regularly as we will be back with more details when they become available

Landscape in the greater epicenter area – Panoramio image courtesy Roman Petrov


Update 28/12 – 00:34 UTC
Overview of the reported magnitudes and depth from the seismological agencies reporting worldwide earthquakes :
RAS (RUS) – M 6.5 @ 10 km
USGS (USA) – M 6.6 @ 6.9 km
EMSC (Europe) – M 6.5 @ 10 km
GEOFON (Germany) – M 6.6 @ 10 km
CEN (China) – M 7.0 @ 10 km

Update 28/12 – 00:13 UTC
RAS (Russian Academy of sciences) has reported 3 aftershocks of 4.6 @ 10km; 4.3 @ 10 km and 4.9 @ 15 km

Update 28/12 – 00:13 UTC :  RT (English broadcasting) is reporting that Mr. Shoigu has said that themagnitude was raised to 9.5We do not believe this report. The Minister mentioned the number as MSK (almost equivalent to MMI and on a scale from 0-12).  A 9.5 magnitude at this shallow depth would have been totally destructive and damaging far beyond the epicenter. Kyzul suffered light to moderate shaking. As a result there might be some cracks in houses, but Kyzil (said to be at ca 100 km from the epicenter) had no severe damage or devastation.

Update  23:55  UTC : During the night, specialized rescue personnel from other areas have been transported to Kyzyl. They will leave as soon as possible to the epicenter area to assess the situation. The emergency minister was saying that many people had their second home in the greater epicenter area.  Having visited Siberia before i (Armand) know for sure that these houses are in 99% of the cases 1 level houses. Being the Siberian winter (freezing temperature at the moment is -20 to -30 °C) people will not be in these houses in great numbers. Our estimate is that there might be damage at these houses, but that apart of some accidental dead, the toll will be acceptable. This estimate is based upon the epicenter of USGS and the population numbers of GDACS ‘see below). Let us hope that we are right.

Update : The earthquake in Siberia is estimated at 9.5 MSK, according to Emergency Situations Minister Sergei Shoigu.
Description IX MSK : Destructive – General panic. People may be forcibly thrown to the ground. Waves are seen on soft ground. Substandard structures collapse. Substantial damage to well-constructed structures. Underground pipelines ruptured. Ground fracturing, widespread landslides.

Update :  Magnitudes and focal depth are reported in different numbers by the different sources. Magnitude goes from 6.5 until 7.0. Focal depth ranges from 45 km to 6.9 km !

Update : The picture looks almost romantic, but bear in mind the people have to stay outside during the night at temperatures of -26 °C ! Luckily no fresh snow. Snow is however still on the streets. This is Siberia !

Update : MSK scale : The Medvedev-Sponheuer-Karnik scale is somewhat similar to the Modified Mercalli (MM) scale used in the United States. The MSK scale has 12 intensity degrees expressed in Roman numerals. The description of 8 MSK is as follows : Damaging / Many people find it difficult to stand, even outdoors. Furniture may be overturned. Waves may be seen on very soft ground. Older structures partially collapse or sustain considerable damage. Large cracks and fissures opening up, rockfalls. (source Wikipedia)

Update : 8 MSK at the epicentre according to RAS. Only 5 MSK at Kyzyl meaning that there is likely only minor damage.
In Novosibirsk, the intensity of the earthquake was to be 1.6 points. “This is the calculated data, while data from seismic stations, which
should fix the surface waves has been reported. As soon as they arrive and are processed, there will be more accurate, more likely, the strength of earthquakes will increase,” – said the RAS. According to Director of Geophysical Service (TOS), Siberian Branch of RAS Victor Seleznev, the epicenter of the earthquake was located in the upper Yenisei River east of the city of Kyzyl, in the area of Academician Obruchev. The scientist said that the shaking in Krasnoyarsk was 3-4 MSK, at the epicenter – 8 MSK.
(ER : 8 MSK means that there will be likely damage in the epicentral area – epicenter area damage has not been reported yet)

Update : According to the MOE, the epicenter of the earthquake was located 120 kilometers east of Kyzyl(Tuva). (ER : USGS reported the earthquake epicenter at 96 km from Kyzyl)

Update : According to preliminary data, there has been no deaths or destruction reported after the earthquake in Siberia , told RIA Novosti by telephone a representative of the Siberian Regional Emergency Center.

Update : Video from people having to spend the night outside their houses at a temperature of at least -20°C

Update : Residents of Tomsk, Krasnoyarsk and Khakassia felt the quake. The apartments had swaying chandeliers and furniture moving. People fled their homes. However, users of the Internet in their microblogs
reported outage of cellular communication in the area. Meanwhile it is reported that the earthquake in Siberia had no effect on the power plant there. (ER : these cities are several hundred km from the epicenter).

for more and updates, go to:

Holiday Thoughts fr/Neale Donald Walsch

The Reunion of God & Humanity

Neale Donald Walsch
a message from Neale Donald Walsch

The transformation of Humanity’s downfall into Humanity’s upliftment may be achieved through a simple reversal of thinking. It is a shift from Separation Theology to Unity Spirituality. It is the reunion of God and Humanity.

It is easier to experience Reunion with God on an individual basis than it is collectively. That is because it takes a great deal more energy to alter Collective Consciousness than it does to alter Individual Consciousness.

Yet Collective Consciousness can be altered when the alteration of Individual Consciousness reaches critical mass. When sufficient individual energies are lifted, the entire mass is elevated to a new level.

The work of Conscious Evolution, therefore, is the work of changing consciousness at the individual level. This follows directly from the Third Illusion of Humans, given to us inCommunion with God, which is that Disunity Exists. When we attempt to change others we are implicitly affirming this illusion, which is why such efforts are invariably wasted. We can only change the One of Us That Is, and the aspect of the One of Us That Is which is most present to us is our experience of self. Therefore, when we change ourselves we change the world. That is why every effort to do so is critical.

Every individual undertaking, every individual thought, word, or action which leads to the transformation of the Self and to the lifting of any other being, is of extraordinary importance. It is not necessary to move mountains to move mountains. It is necessary only to move pebbles.

We must become People of the Pebbles. We must do our work on a person-to-person basis. Then we shall move mountains. Then the mightiest obstacles shall crumble, and the way shall be made clear.

So let us undertake to deeply understand on an individual level (and then to demonstrate on an individual level) how and why it is possible for The Divine to want nothing for Itself, and to seek only to distribute.

We begin by coming to clarity on who and what The Divine is.

The Divine is Everything. All that is seen and all that is unseen is The Divine. All that is known and unknown is The Divine. All that is experienced and unexperienced is The Divine. All that is here and all that is not here, all that is now and all that is forever, all that is limited and all that is unlimited is The Divine. All that is comprehensible and all that is incomprehensible is The Divine.

There is nothing that Is that is not The Divine.

Divinity is everywhere at once, and thus, it is nowhere in particular. Divinity is NOWHERE. Divinity is NOW/HERE.

All of this has been given to us in Conversations with God. None of this is new. It has been given to us a thousand times before Conversations with God. It has been given to us a thousand times since. Indeed, in every moment of every day, through a thousand individual manifestations of Itself, is Divinity revealing Itself. Yet we do not see. Or we see, but do not believe.

We do not believe the evidence of our own eyes. We do not hear the truth in the sounds of silence.

Yet, for those who have ears to hear, listen. And Watch. Observe. Observe the Self. Watch over your Self.

Look at what you are doing on this day. Are you spending most of your energy gathering, or giving? And if you are giving, are you giving in order to gather? Do you do the work you do in order for it to pay off for you? And what, exactly, is the payoff? What are you gathering?

Hugs and Love,

P.S. The thoughts above come from The Holy Experience, a full-length book that you may download for free at Simply click on the Free Resources icon.


Incoming CME — 12/28

CME TARGETS MARS, EARTH: New sunspot 1387 erupted during the late hours of Christmas Day, producing an M4-class flare and hurling a CME toward Earth and Mars. Click to view an animated forecast track prepared by analysts at the Goddard Space Weather Lab:

The CME is expected to deliver a glancing blow to Earth’s magnetic field on Dec. 28th at 1200 UT and a direct hit to the planet Mars on Dec. 30th at 1800 UT. Using onboard radiation sensors, NASA’s Curiosity rover might be able to sense the CMEwhen it passes the rover’s spacecraft en route to Mars. Here on Earth, NOAA forecasters estimate a 30-to-40% chance of geomagnetic storms on Dec. 28th when the CME and an incoming solar wind stream (unrelated to the CME) could arrive in quick succession. High-latitude sky watchers should be alert for auroras on Wednesday night. 

UPDATE: The chances of a geomagnetic storm on Dec. 28th improved today when a second CME left the sun, this one even more squarely directed toward Earth. Ananimated forecast track shows the cloud reaching our planet on Dec. 28th at 20:22 UT.


Soyuz Rocket Re-entry

Meteor sighting caught on video proves to be re-entry from Soyuz

Published on December 25, 2011 2:05 pm PT
– By TWS Staff Reporter
– Edited by Staff Editor

( – Another failed launch from Russia as the Soyuz-2.1B rocket crashed into Siberia. The failure did not go silent, many witnessed the rocket and satellite burning up over Germany.

The sighting was seen on Saturday, prompting some to call it Santa Claus, being it was Christmas Eve. However, the sighting over Southwestern Germany was just a re-entry.

“The ball observed … above Belgium, The Netherlands, France and Germany was the return of the last stage of the Soyuz rocket launcher,” Belgium’s Royal Observatory said yesterday.

A video posted on the internet (below) shows how spectacular some of these re-entries are. To catch one you have to be in the right place and at the right time.

The video is below …


Mutant H5N1 — Why?

Killer-Flu Debate: Should Mutant H5N1 Have Been Created?

Wynne Parry, LiveScience Senior Writer
Date: 23 December 2011 Time: 10:11 AM ET
chickens, bird flu research, controversy
Controversial new research found a way to make bird flu spread easily among mammals.

News of two separate research projects that altered the bird-flu virus so it could potentially spread between humans has some experts asking: Should this research have been done at all?

Other scientists, however, are defending the projects as important progress in understanding how the virus, called H5N1, could adapt to cause a devastating pandemic.

“I wouldn’t do it,” said W. Ian Lipkin, director of the Center for Infection and Immunity at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health. “I think it is one thing to study the pathology of an organism to try to understand ways in which you can reduce the risk to humankind or animals by doing basic research. … This isn’t the case [here]; this virus doesn’t transmit readily to humans.”

Others argue that the two projects addressed questions crucial to averting a global tragedy: Could H5N1 mutate into a form that could spread between humans? And, if so, how

“The bottom line is science has been advanced by this, we know something about the virus that we didn’t know before,” Thomas Daniels, an associate research scientist and co-director of the Vector Ecology Laboratory at Fordham University, told LiveScience. “It could be it’s going to be very, very useful down the road, but right now we have to proceed with caution.”

An unusual exception

The details of the studies aren’t available yet, in fact, the U.S. National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) has asked the researcher and the journals considering publishing their work to withhold details that could provide a blueprint for those seeking to do harm.

In science, experiments and their results are shared so others can reproduce them and advance the field, but this case seems to merit special consideration. Half a dozen scientists interviewed for this article supported withholding details, such as the specific genetic changes in the altered viruses.

Bird flu basics

The bird flu is deadly for birds, only rarely infecting humans who catch it directly from the birds. But when people do catch it the results are often deadly –- since November 2003, nearly 600 human infections have been reported globally, and approximately 60 percent of those have been fatal, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

One of the two groups to have created a more transmissible form of the virus, led by Ron Fouchier from Erasmus Medical Center in the Netherlands, developed a form of H5N1 that ferrets, which are mammals like us, could catch from one another even though they were not in physical contact. In other words, the infection became airborne, according to reports based on Fouchier’s presentation at a meeting in Malta in September.

The other study, led by Yoshihiro Kawaoka at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and the University of Tokyo, also produced a more highly transmissible form of the virus using ferrets, although more details were not available.

A dangerous undertaking

Publishing the specifics of these projects would be the second mistake; the first was conducting these experiments, write biosecurity experts, led by Thomas Ingelsby, CEO and director of the Center for Biosecurity at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.

This work was conducted by internationally respected scientists working under top-of-the-line biosafety conditions, but “the risk of a person accidentally becoming infected and starting an outbreak with this new strain is low. But it is not zero,” they write in an editorial published on Dec. 15 in the journal Biosecurity and Bioterrorism: Biodefense Strategy, Practice, and Science.They cite the accidental release of an influence strain from a lab in 1977. [Predicting the Next Major Virus]

The potential benefits, such as screening viruses for similar changes or developing a pandemic-preventing vaccine based on the engineered strain, are uncertain and do not outweigh the risks, they write.

Preparing for a crisis

Others say the work isn’t risking catastrophe; it may help prevent one.

“It should not have been done if the final goal is to show you can make a deadly virus,” said Dr. Andrea Gambotto, an associate professor at the University of Pittsburgh, School of Medicine, and director of the university’s Vector Core Facility. “In this case, the goal is different; the goal is to try to predict what can happen, how a virus can mutate.”

Vaccines and antiviral medications effective against H5N1 exist, but these were designed to fight off a virus that has not fully adapted to humans. So, it’s not clear how they would fare against a strain that has made the evolutionary jump and can spread among humans as the Fouchier’s did among ferrets, he said.

The altered viruses developed by Fouchier’s and Kawaoka’s research might give researchers a better idea of how to prepare, Gambotto said.

Vaccine developers could test the existing vaccines against the lab strains to get at least some idea of how effective they might be against the mutant virus. If they don’t prevent infection, then developers know they’ll need something else in order to have a running start, he said.

“By the time we start seeing the first people dying, isolate a virus, generate a vaccine, it is probably one year or eight months if everything goes smoothly,” he said. “But that eight months can be deadly for humanity.”

A wake-up call

The demonstration that bird flu can be coaxed into spreading easily among mammals is a wake-up call to the world that has been tuning out a potential pandemic, Robert Webster, a virologist at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, told LiveScience.

“The virus has been around for 15 years since it appeared in Hong Kong and it first got a lot of attention, then less, and less. Even though it has [caused] 600 cases in humans and killed about 60 percent of people, people were starting to say this is an aberration, so let’s move on to worry about bigger problems,” Webster said. “These two papers make it clear this can happen.”

In comparison, the flu pandemic of 1918 killed about 2.5 percent of the people it infected.

“People are saying the scientists were irresponsible for doing this; it was not an irresponsible thing to do,” Webster said. “These scientists are the leading scientists in the world in influenza and they made a huge contribution.”