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The Town Where Wireless Signals Are Illegal

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Shhh! The scientists are listening to space!

Green Bank, West Virginia, is a tech-savvy teenager’s nightmare. In this tiny town in Pocahontas County—population 143, as of the last census—wireless signals are illegal. No cell phones. No WiFi. No Bluetooth. No electronic transmitters at all. Recently, a store even had to remove their automatic doors because they caused too much interference.

The remote town is smack in the center of the National Radio Quiet Zone, a 13,000 square mile stretch of land designated by the FCC to protect two government radio telescopes from man-made interference. The rules, though, are most strict in Green Bank’s neck of the woods. So strict, actually, that someone roves the streets listening for verboten wireless signals.

It’s necessary, though. The town is home to the Green Bank Telescope, the largest steerable radio telescope in the world—and arguably our most powerful link to the cosmos. Scientists there listen to radio energy that has journeyed light years, unlocking secrets about how the stars and galaxies formed. A rogue radio signal could prevent potential discoveries, discoveries that could answer big questions about how the universe ticks.

Green Bank, West Virginia: A Visitors Guide

In Green Bank, finding cell phone service is the only thing harder than finding another human. A flip of the radio dial won’t reward you, either—it’s all a steady whoosh of white noise. If you’re lucky, though, you may catch a faint flicker of the only AM broadcasting from the area, hosted by the Allegheny Mountain Radio Network.

First responders are the only residents allowed to use communication radios, although they’re limited to short-distance CB radios. If you get lost, one pay phone is there to rescue you—a pay phone, mind you, that people actually use. And you can search the web there, too, but you’ll have to get used to the grating ping of a dial-up modem again. (Although some homes have ethernet, it’s generally not worth it for companies to bring in anything faster.)

Surprisingly, a ban on all things wireless hasn’t driven residents away; it’s actually drawn people all across the United States to settle down. Sufferers of electromagnetic hypersensitivity—a disease supposedly caused by wireless signals, but dismissed by the scientific community—have moved into the electronic dead space.

If you're in Green Bank and desperately need to update social media, you’re in luck: Recently, engineers at AT&T brought cellular connectivity to the Snowshoe Mountain Ski Resort, which lies in the center of the quiet zone. Doing this was no easy task, because they needed to get the radio wave interference down to extremely low levels. In a post on AT&T’s website, the director of the site, Dr. Karen O’Neil, explained the problems involved. To get approval, AT&T installed 180 antennas around the resort and 3 miles of fiberoptic cable so that the signals don’t need to travel very far. Which is good, because they also had to lower the power—according to O’Neil, your phone ordinarily emits 500 milliwatts when you’re using it. But if you’re skiing the slopes, that goes down automatically to less than a milliwatt.

A version of this story appeared in 2013; it has been updated to add new information.

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Health
Growing Up With Headphones May Not Damage Kids’ Hearing
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A study published in the American Medical Association's JAMA Otolaryngology-Head & Neck Surgery finds no increase in child and adolescent hearing loss despite a rise in headphone and earbud use.

"Hearing impairment in children is a major public health burden given its impact on early speech and language development, and subsequently on academic and workforce performance later in life," the authors write. "Even mild levels of hearing loss have been found to negatively affect educational outcomes and social functioning."

As portable music players continue to grow in popularity, parents, doctors, and researchers have begun to worry that all the music pouring directly into kids' ears could be damaging their health. It seems a reasonable enough concern, and some studies on American kids' hearing have identified more hearing loss.

To take a closer look, researchers at the University of California-San Francisco analyzed data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), collected from 1988 to 2010. They reviewed records from 7036 kids and teens between the ages of 12 and 19, checking each participant's hearing tests against their exposure to noise.

As expected, the authors write, they did find a gradual increase in headphone use and other "recreational noise exposure." And they did see an uptick in hearing loss from 1988 to 2008 from 17 percent to 22.5 percent. But after that, the trend seemed to reverse, sinking all the way down to 15.2 percent—lower than 1988 levels. They also found no significant relationship between noise exposure and hearing loss.

The results were not uniform; some groups of kids were worse off than others. Participants who identified as nonwhite, and those of lower socioeconomic status, were more likely to have hearing problems, but the researchers can't say for sure why that is. "Ongoing monitoring of hearing loss in this population is necessary," they write, "to elucidate long-term trends and identify targets for intervention."

Before you go wild blasting music, we should mention that this study has some major limitations. Hearing loss and other data points were not measured the same way through the entire data collection period. Participants had to self-report things like hearing loss and health care use—elements that are routinely under-reported in surveys. As with just about any health research, more studies are still needed to confirm these findings.

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Weather Watch
NASA Figures Out Why When It Rains, It (Sometimes) Drizzles
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What’s the difference between drizzle and rain? It has to do with updrafts, according to new research by NASA scientists into the previously unexplained phenomenon of why drizzle occurs where it does.

The answer, published in the Quarterly Journal of the Royal Meteorological Society, could help improve how weather and climate models treat rainfall, making predictions more accurate.

Previously, climate researchers thought that drizzle could be explained by the presence of aerosols in the atmosphere. The microscopic particles are present in greater quantities over land than over the ocean, and by that logic, there should be more drizzle over land than over the ocean. But that's not the case, as Hanii Takahashi and her colleagues at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory found. Instead, whether or not rain becomes full droplets or stays as a fine drizzle depends on updrafts—a warm current of air that rises from the ground.

Stronger updrafts keep drizzle droplets (which are four times smaller than a raindrop) floating inside a cloud longer, allowing them to grow into full-sized rain drops that fall to the ground in the splatters we all know and love. In weaker updrafts, though, the precipitation falls before the drops form, as that light drizzle. That explains why it drizzles more over the ocean than over land—because updrafts are weaker over the ocean. A low-lying cloud over the ocean is more likely to produce drizzle than a low-lying cloud over land, which will probably produce rain.

This could have an impact on climate modeling as well as short-term weather forecasts. Current models make it difficult to model future surface temperatures of the Earth while still maintaining accurate projections about the amount of precipitation. Right now, most models that project realistic surface temperatures predict an unrealistic amount of drizzle in the future, according to a NASA statement. This finding could bring those predictions back down to a more realistic level.

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