Highlights from the Week's News

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The War in Israel Comes for U.S. Water Systems

December 03, 2023

Iran-Backed Hackers Attack U.S. Water Facilities

Last week, a computer that controls pressure at a municipal water system in the small town of Aliquippa, Pennsylvania shut down suddenly. A message then appeared on a monitor saying “Down with Israel” and that the utility had been hacked by a group called “Cyber Av3ngers.” Now, Aliquippa, a town of 15,000 residents about 30 miles northwest of Pittsburgh (where football legend Mike Ditka and composer Henry Mancini grew up), finds itself entangled in the Middle East war—a situation that has implications for all water providers.

Looking northeast along Franklin Avenue in Aliquippa, Pennsylvania  |  Credit: Nyttend/Creative Commons

Subsequently, the U.S. government issued an alert about hackers actively taking over computer equipment used by water and wastewater systems if they included software or components made by the Israeli company, Unitronics.

The hack was done by an anti-Israeli group backed by Iran, which, according to CBS News, has taken responsibility for a dozen attacks on water systems in Israel. Federal authorities confirmed that nearly ten water facilities in the U.S. had been breached by hackers where the same systems were used.

A joint statement by various federal agencies and the Israel National Cyber Directorate warned of continuing malicious activity against operational technology devices by a group affiliated with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. The situation has led to discussions at the White House National Security Council and investigations by the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security.

Bloomberg reports that since October 7, when the war between Hamas and Israel began, both sides have been carrying out cyberattacks. In Aliquippa, the facility was able to control its systems manually, and no customers were affected. According to CNN, the town intends to replace the equipment. 

Some Progress on Helping Poorer Countries at COP28

The COP28 climate summit opened last week in Dubai, and on the first day there was some progress. Delegates came to an agreement in principle to establish a historic loss and damage fund to help poorer countries cope with climate disasters.

UN Climate Change Conference COP28, Dubai, 30 November 2023  |  Credit: President Paul Kagame, Republic of Rwanda

The fund will be financed by rich nations whose industrial growth has resulted in global warming. It will compensate those who face the brunt of climate change including rising sea levels, floods, droughts, and intensifying storms. According to the Indian Express, the EU will initially pledge $275 million, the UAE $100 million, $17.5 million from the U.S., and $10 million from Japan.

The UN talks started just as recent data show that October was the hottest month on record, with the average temperature having reached about 1.2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Earth is on course to reach a catastrophic level of warming to about 3 degrees Celsius.

Among other developments at COP28, almost 120 governments pledged to triple renewable energy capacity by 2030. Also, more than 20 nations signed a declaration aiming to triple nuclear power capacity by 2050, with U.S. climate envoy John Kerry saying the world cannot achieve "net zero" emissions without some nuclear power.

The Biden administration announced a rule to sharply reduce methane pollutants from the oil and gas industry. Methane is about 80 times as potent a greenhouse gas as CO2. The U.S. also joined several countries in agreeing to phase out coal power plants.

In a separate development, the 50 largest oil producers in the world said that they had reached a new pact to voluntarily reduce methane emissions by up to 90 percent by the end of the decade. However, many environmental groups signed an open letter criticizing the effort, calling it greenwashing.

Having the talks in the oil-producing United Arab Emirates has been heavily criticized. Also, the country had reportedly planned to use the conference to strike oil and gas deals with 15 other nations.

Using a Succulent to Put an End to "Period Poverty"

Research has shown that an estimated 500 million people worldwide—women, girls, and transgender and nonbinary individuals—don’t have access to the products and hygiene facilities they need when menstruating—a situation known as “period poverty.”

People in Kenya pose with sisal leaves and the equipment they use to process the plant to make various products, including rope and twine.  |  Credit: Alex Odundu

In developing countries, a lack of access to period products can mean missed days at school or work, social isolation, and health risks. Even in wealthier nations, products can be expensive, and furthermore, the world is awash in plastic, so environmentally friendly options are needed along with access to water and sanitation.

A solution for developing countries may soon be at hand. Researchers at Stanford University have found a way to turn fibers from the sisal plant (Agave sisalana) into an absorbent material for menstrual pads. The sisal plant is a succulent in the agave family native to Central America but has been cultivated in parts of Africa and other regions. It can thrive in arid conditions, giving it an advantage over cotton, which is water-intensive and expensive.

Fibers from the five-foot-long sword-shaped sisal leaves have been used to make rope and twine but never for period products until now. The team developed a simple chemical process to remove the lignin in plant cells that provides structure to the leaves and then used a blender to break down the remaining fibers into a soft and airy fluff that can be put inside a pad.

Currently, they are testing biological materials to produce the porous top and waterproof bottom layers of a pad, so that end-to-end, local manufacturers could make menstrual products completely sourced from their own regions. The team has also started the “Plant Pad Consortium” to share their methods and allow affordable and sustainable pads to be made anywhere to end period poverty, period.

The study was published in the journal Communications Engineering.

Bottlenose Dolphins Have a Newly Discovered Shocking Sense

Dolphins. They’re smart, playful, have great vision, excellent hearing, and can echolocate. And now, according to new research, bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) have been quietly harboring a “super sense”—they have the ability to perceive electric fields.

A bottlenose dolphin named Donna waits for an electric stimulus inside an experimental apparatus.  |  Credit: Tim Hüttner PhD/Nuremberg Zoo, Research & Conservation

Bottlenose dolphins are born with whiskers on their long snouts, but they fall out after birth, leaving only dimples (so-called vibrissa pits) behind. Researchers at the Nuremberg Zoo and the University of Rostock in Germany noticed that the pits resembled ones that allow sharks to detect electric fields—a capability called electroreception—so the team devised an experiment to see if a pair of dolphins at that zoo could do the same. The two—Dolly and Donna—were trained to rest their heads on a metal bar and swim away if they sensed it was electrically charged. If they responded correctly—which they did—they were rewarded with fish.

So, what good does this super sense do for the animals? For one, it might explain the dolphins’ observed behavior of diving headfirst into seafloor sand and emerging with a fish to eat whose electric field it detected; a strategy called “crater feeding.” The researchers say electroreception might also help the animals detect Earth’s magnetic field and navigate.

Electroreception is found in fish and sharks as well as in mammals like the platypus. The finding makes the bottlenose the second dolphin to possess electroreception. In 2011, scientists found that the Guiana dolphin (Sotalia guianensis) can also detect electric fields.

Dolphins are clearly intelligent. They figured out long before we did that it makes “sense” to go electric.

The study was published in the Journal of Experimental Biology.