New York Times: The average temperature in the US in 2012 reached 55.3 °F, a full degree above the previous high set in 1998. According to a count kept by Guy Walton of the Weather Channel, 34 008 record daily highs were set at weather stations across the US, versus only 6664 record lows. As recently as the 1970s, says Walton, the ratio of record highs to record lows was nearly 1:1. Despite the startling jump in average temperature in the US, it is believed that globally it will only be the eighth or ninth warmest year thanks to a general cooling from the La Niña effect. If 2012 does make the top 10, all 10 of the warmest average years will have occurred in the past 15. The warmth in the US began with a warmer-than-average winter that led to a severe heat wave in March. That heat wave contributed to drought conditions in the summer that affected 61% of the US. And 11 severe weather events, including hurricanes Isaac and Sandy and the band of storms that introduced the term derecho to much of the nation, caused more than $1 billion in damages.
BBC: The first comet orbiting a star other than the Sun was found in 1987, and only three other such comets had been found since. But at the 221st American Astronomical Society meeting, the number of known exocomets nearly tripled with the announcement that seven more have been discovered. Brian Welsh and Sharon Montgomery of Clarion University used the McDonald Observatory in Texas to identify the comets based on the tiny changes in light reflected by the tails as the comets orbited their stars. Many comets are believed to come from debris clouds that orbit well away from parent stars. For the debris to leave the cloud and become a comet, it has to be pulled into an elliptical orbit by a planet or other large body. Because of that, the first exocomet led to the discovery of a planet orbiting the same star. Understanding the relationship between comets and planets and their parent stars will help astronomers better explain solar system formation and dynamics.
Science: When it was discovered that the formation of wrinkles on wet fingers is triggered by nerve signals, neuroscientists proposed that the grooves help us grip wet objects. Tom Smulders of Newcastle University in the UK and his colleagues believe they’ve confirmed that hypothesis. The researchers compared the ability of test subjects to perform manual dexterity tasks with wrinkled and nonwrinkled hands on both wet and dry objects. They found that wrinkled hands gave a 12% speed increase over smooth hands with wet objects, but no benefit when handling dry objects. Their research mirrors similar tests by other researchers, though none of the experiments examine how wrinkles improve grip. Other than channeling water, which prevents hydroplaning, wrinkling may also increase contact surface area or contribute to loss of oil on the skin. And it also isn’t clear whether wrinkling evolved to provide a benefit in gripping, or whether it is just a biomechanical quirk. Smulder says that further experiments may also reveal downsides to long-term wrinkling, or whether wrinkling of the feet and toes provides a benefit when walking on wet surfaces.
New Scientist: Since 1999 the US International Traffic in Arms Regulations has regulated satellites and related technology as munitions. Known as ITAR, the law severely limited the ability of American satellite companies to sell their products internationally. On 3 January, President Obama signed a revision to the law that allows for the export of Earth-orbiting satellites and associated technology except to some countries, including China, Iran, and North Korea. ITAR will also now allow foreign students at US universities to have access to technical documents from US aerospace companies. However, it still restricts technology such as crew capsules and long-distance spacecraft. That could hamper international efforts to develop spacecraft for exploring asteroids or other planets.