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Science Scoops


Black, Oozing, Gushing Disaster! The Oil Has Stopped!

Finally, some good news in the dire Gulf of Mexico oil spill disaster. On July 16, as this issue went to press, for the first time in 88 days, oil gushing into the Gulf stopped when a 75-ton metal stack of lines and valves was lowered onto the well successfully capping it. Officials said the successful capping would likely speed up payment of claims from a $20 billion fund set up by British Petroleum (BP) — the company responsible for the disaster — to compensate residents and businesses for their losses due to the spill.

Everything started with an explosion and fire that killed 11 people on April 20, 2010 at Deepwater Horizon, an offshore drilling platform. Basically, a drilling platform is like a gigantic raft attached to a pipe that sucks up oil from beneath the ocean floor. Two days after the explosion, the platform sank, breaking off from the pipe. The open pipe started spewing oil into the ocean at estimates from 25 to 100,000 barrels a day. The oil beneath Earth’s surface is under a lot of pressure, and when the rock that holds it down is punctured, it spews up and out easily. Imagine squeezing a water balloon, then having a friend poke a tiny hole in the squeezed part. Water would gush out until it was gone. Fortunately, BP has found a way to close off the pipe, at least temporarily.

As the oil spread for almost three months, it destroyed wildlife and ruined businesses like fishing and tourism. This wasn’t just an oil spill; it was an environmental disaster! Independent teams of scientists who analyzed video of the plume of oil estimated that at least two Olympic-sized swimming pools full of oil gushed into the sea daily for almost three months! At that rate, oil began reaching the shores of the southern Atlantic coast of America in June.

BP tried several different approaches to stop the spill and clean it up. They burned off some of the oil at the surface and set out miles of containment booms— large floats on the surface of the ocean that acted like fences to keep the spill in one place. They also used chemicals called dispersants to break up the oil. BP even tried a “top kill” that involved clogging up the well at the ocean floor with specially formulated drilling mud, but the well just squirted the mud right back out again. They also tried putting various caps on the broken pipe, in the hope of either bottling up the oil inside the well machinery, or capturing it and funneling it to the surface, before the successful cap stopped the flow in mid-July. Stay tuned.

Tell us your story! Have you seen oil washing up on shore? What do you think we should do about this disaster? Send your ideas to [email protected] or write to: OIL SPILL, ODYSSEY, 30 Grove Street, Peterborough, NH 03458.

For more on the spill, its containment, and plans for the area’s recovery, see our January 2011 issue, “Oil Spill!: Catastrophic Science.”

Plume — A spray of materials released from a single source

Planes, Steer Clear! Eyjafjallajökull Is Here!

Okay, let’s pronounce it together: Eyjafjallajökull (AY-ya-fyat-la-yo-kult). Got it? This volcano beneath a glacier in Iceland spewed huge clouds of ash into the air for several days in mid-April 2010, causing floods, stunning sunsets, and tens of thousands of frustrated travelers. For almost a week, it was simply too dangerous for planes to fly through the air around Northern Europe. Volcanic ash is made of tiny particles of rocks, glass, and sand that can easily get sucked into jet engines, scratching parts or jamming them up. All those canceled flights cost airlines millions of dollars.

People in Iceland dealt with the worst of the disaster, though. The volcanic activity melted ice and caused flooding and evacuations. “Because of the ash, people are being advised to wear a mask if they go outside and to keep windows shut. The threat to livestock is great — they breathe in the ash, it settles in their lungs, and after a while they just cannot breathe and [they] die,” Iceland resident Gina Christie told BBC news.

The volcano is just doing what it’s done for hundreds of years. The last time Eyjafjallajökull blew its icy top, in 1821, it kept erupting off and on until 1823! This year’s eruption is somewhat similar. As Bill Burton of the United States Geological Survey’s volcano hazards program explained to the New York Times, “The past is the key to the present. So if the other eruption lasted for two years, this one might as well.” We hope not!

Tell us! Did the Icelandic volcano interrupt your life somehow? Did you get stuck in Europe? What happened? Send your true story to [email protected] or write to: VOLCANO STORIES, ODYSSEY, 30 Grove Street, Suite C, Peterborough, NH 03458. Artwork:

Earth Rocks. . .and Rolls

You didn’t feel the Earth shaking on February 27, 2010 unless you happened to be in Chile. But the sudden violence of an earthquake there affected more than just the victims’ lives. The quake altered the balance and spin of the Earth itself. “The Chilean quake shifted enough material to change the mass balance of our entire planet,” says Richard Gross of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California.

Earthquakes aren’t the only thing that can mess with Earth’s balance or spin. Wind and tides affect the planet’s spin by much more than the Chilean earthquake, which only shortened your day by a completely unnoticeable 1.26 microseconds. And Earth’s mass balance is always changing as ice melts and continents shift. But mass changes usually happen slowly, not quickly!

Chile’s disaster was a thrust earthquake, meaning that one crustal plate suddenly slid beneath another, carrying tons of rock and dirt closer to the core of the Earth. To envision what this means, imagine a figure skater spinning on ice. If she pulls in her arms, she speeds up. If she pulls in only one hand, she speeds up a little and has to change her balance slightly.

The Earth already isn’t perfectly balanced — there is more land in the northern hemisphere and more water in the southern. So the planet always wobbles as it spins. You can test this effect with a toy top, which has more mass at the top than the bottom. The top of the top traces out a circle as it spins — the center of that circle is the figure axis. The sudden motion of so much mass beneath Chile moved Earth’s figure axis by about three inches, a change that normally would take as much as a year! So far, these amounts are just estimates. Gross is hard at work trying to measure the actual effect by analyzing Global Positioning system (GPS) signals.

Do three inches really matter when we’re talking about a whole planet? Gross explains, “The antennas we use to track a spacecraft en route to Mars and elsewhere are located on Earth. If our tracking platform shifts, we need to know about it!”

Crustal plates — Blocks of the rocky crust of the Earth that move horizontally relative to one another

Ocean in Bloom

Okay, who swirled aqua paint into the sea? Actually, the artist is the Earth itself — those beautiful teal swirls are a totally natural occurrence. And here’s the really cool part: They’re alive! Just one liter of that colorful seawater may contain over a billion phytoplankton cells. These miniature plants suck carbon dioxide out of the sea, helping to combat global warming. NASA’s Aqua satellite snapped this photo in Barents Sea off the coast of northwestern Russia in August 2009. This far north, sunlight is scarce for most of the year. But when the Sun comes out in the summer, explosions of phytoplankton growth are common. That electric blue color comes from the scales of calcium that coat some species of phytoplankton, and the green is chlorophyll. Various phytoplankton species in different stages of growth and decay can color the sea with dark blues, browns, greens, or even reds!

Mysterious Space Blob

When the universe was just a baby, there emerged a giant blob of gas big enough to encompass 40 million Suns, with a length comparable to half of our Milky Way disc. Now astronomers are scratching their heads and wondering, what in the world (or universe) is this blob, exactly? They have a few theories: Maybe a supermassive black hole at its center powered the huge gas cloud. Or maybe the blob formed when two young galaxies merged. It could even be “super wind” caused by the formation of lots of stars.

The team of researchers who discovered the blob thought the large, glowing spot in their telescope images had to be a mistake. “We hesitated to spend our precious telescope time by taking spectra of this weird candidate. We never believed that this bright and large source was a real distant object,” said Masami Ouchi of the Observatories of the Carnegie Institution for Science in California. But they tried anyway, and surprise! The spectra revealed that the blob was 12.9 billion light-years away. Since the farther you look out into space means the farther you are looking back in time, Ouchi realized he was looking at a gigantic object that formed only 800 million years after the Big Bang. It is the largest object ever found in such an early period in the history of the universe! “I have never imagined that such a large object could exist at this early stage of the universe’s history,” Ouchi said.

Ouchi’s team named the blob Himiko after a legendary Japanese queen. For now, Himiko can be categorized as an extended Lyman-alpha blob, which is a huge blob of gas with spectra on the Lyman-alpha emissions line.

But team member Alan Dressler (also of Carnegie) points out that “this object is, to this point, one-of-a-kind. It makes it very hard to fit it into the prevailing model of how normal galaxies were assembled. On the other hand, that’s what makes it interesting.”

Coral Reefs in Danger

Even if you’ve never been scuba diving off a tropical island, you’ve probably seen images of brilliantly colored fish flashing past underwater castles of lacy coral. Reefs are delicate ecosystems, and climate change may spell doom for one of nature’s most beautiful creations.

As ocean temperatures warm up, more coral reefs are falling victim to bleaching — a response to stress where the symbiosis between living coral and the algae that helps it survive breaks down — leaving ghostly white skeletons behind. But it’s not just the warming part of global warming that’s a problem. Some of the CO2 that humans release into the air mixes into the ocean — which is a good thing for the climate, but a danger for delicately balanced ocean ecosystems because that extra CO2 makes the sea a tiny bit more acidic with every passing year.

The change is small, but it’s enough to make life difficult for creatures that make structures out of calcium carbonate, such as coral. (Snails, clams, and oysters also use calcium carbonate to make their shells.) Ove Hoegh-Guldberg of the University of Queensland in Australia worries that the combination of ocean temperature and chemistry changes is very bad news. “Under these conditions coral reefs are likely to dwindle into insignificance; they’ll be reduced to rubble.”

Right now, there are about 380 parts per million (ppm) of CO2 in Earth’s atmosphere. Even being optimistic about people’s ability to slow down the greenhouse effect, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says that number could rise to 550 ppm by 2100!

A world with that much CO2 floating around in the air and water would “not necessarily be a world we particularly like,” says Hoegh-Guldberg. Coral would become extinct, along with many of the fish that call coral home. If we don’t do anything about controlling carbon emissions and protecting coral reefs now, he warns, we’ll be left with only “slimy rocks!”

It Came From the Swamps!

In horror stories, swamps are home to slimy, sucking mud, tangled, foot-grabbing roots, and deadly, man-eating monsters. But there’s something even scarier locked away deep in the muck. . .carbon dioxide! You’re not scared? You shouldn’t be, at least not yet. Not unless all the carbon dioxide stored in the worlds’ peat bogs starts escaping. Peat bogs are swampy places found in northern regions of the world. The cold and wet conditions in a peat bog help keep organic matter, like dead plants and animals, from decaying — and all that dead organic stuff contains lots of carbon, safely stored away in the depths of the swamp.

But global warming could unleash this hidden horror. Climate modeling by evolutionary biologist Paul R. Moorcroft of Harvard University in Massachusetts shows that as global warming increases the temperature of peat bog regions, the water level in peat bogs could drop, leaving tons of organic matter high and dry. Suddenly exposed to Sun and air, this matter would slowly decay, releasing CO2 into the atmosphere.

There are about 200 to 450 billion metric tons of carbon hidden away in all the peat bogs of the world. It would take people 65 years of burning oil, coal, and other fossil fuels at the current rate to release that much CO2. So let’s hope the swamps keep their deep, dark secrets hidden!

A Little Seed in a Big City

Life between the cracks of a city sidewalk isn’t easy for a mother weed. Feet, cars, pollution, and miles of concrete make it difficult for her flying flower seed babies to find a new place to call home. The Crepis sancta plant has evolved a clever, but risky, solution: Keep the kids close by.

The yellow Crepis sancta flower makes two kinds of seeds. One has feathery tufts like the fuzz you blow off a dandelion, and the other has only a tough, heavy shell. The feathered seeds fly away from the mother plant, spreading the plant population far and wide. But in a city, most of these adventurous seeds will land on concrete, roofs, or roadways, and die. Their weighted brothers and sisters land on the ground near the mother plant, and have a much better chance of survival in the same crack in the sidewalk or bit of dirt at the base of a city tree where their family grew up. Pierre-Olivier Cheptou and his colleagues at the Center for Functional and Evolutionary Ecology in Montpellier, France, studied Crepis sancta plants taken from the countryside and from their center’s home city. Back in the laboratory greenhouse, the country plants made many more light, feathered seeds than their city relatives. The city plants had evolved to keep their seeds close to home! Cheptou’s team estimates this change took place over only 5 to 10 years. That’s pretty fast for evolution!

But dispersing, or spreading out a population, is important for a species’ survival. Keeping all your seeds in one spot of dirt is like having all your eggs in one basket! A frustrated gardener could decide to rid her apartment building’s front steps of a healthy population of Crepis sancta, and without seeds floating on the breeze somewhere, that would be it for that hapless flower family. What’s a little seed in a big city to do?

Heat Islands
February 2009

It’s a hot summer afternoon, and you’re barefoot. Would you rather walk along a paved road, a sidewalk, or a grassy lawn?

If you don’t want to fry the bottoms of your feet, the grass is the best bet. Plants contain and evaporate moisture, which keeps the air around them cooler, while hard, dark surfaces like asphalt just soak up the Sun and light ones like concrete reflect heat back into the air.

Now imagine a city full of roads, sidewalks, and buildings. Lots and lots of hard surfaces sunbathing all day long, either soaking in or reflecting back heat, with very few plants to help cool the stifling hot air. And then there’s all the extra heat from car engines, stoves, clothes dryers, and all that other clattering machinery.

It shouldn’t be a surprise, then, that on summer days, a city can be as much as seven degrees hotter than the surrounding countryside. The fancy name for this effect is the “Urban Heat Island.” Thank goodness we have air conditioners, right? Well, these appliances may cool the air inside, but they blow hot air outside and suck up lots of electricity! On broiling hot days, AC puts a huge strain on a city’s power grid, sometimes pushing it into the blackout danger zone.

Anything that could bring a city’s temperature down a degree or two would save lots of energy. The obvious solution is, you guessed it, more green stuff! Planting more trees and creating gardens on rooftops (see “Cool Roofs”) could help cool off a sweltering city.

What about global warming? Urban heat islands are not a result of worldwide climate changes. A research team led by David Lister, climate scientist at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England, looked at 26 years of data from weather stations at two spots in London, and one in Rothamsted, a rural English town. Due to global warming, the temperature increased almost exactly the same amount in both places—the city was just several degrees hotter the whole time. In places like China where new cities are growing quickly, however, temperature is increasing much more sharply in newly urbanized areas as the effects of global warming combine with the extra heat from all those roads and rooftops.

Two years ago, NASA took satellite images of the New York City heat island, showing the places with warm temperatures in blue, hot in pink, and super hot in white (see first image). The second image shows the places with the most vegetation in dark green. Comparing the two shows that those plants were certainly doing their job!

At Your Next Funeral, Wear Green!
September 2008

Eco-friendly green is the new color of business, energy, and politics, so why not death? Over two million Americans die every year, and each death is one more casket (or cremation). Buried bodies are usually preserved with embalming fluid, which contains dangerous chemicals, and cremation releases carbon monoxide and even mercury (from dental fillings) into the atmosphere. Each year in America “we bury enough embalming fluid to fill eight Olympic-size swimming pools, enough metal to build the Golden Gate Bridge, and there is so much reinforced concrete in burial vaults that we could build a two-lane highway from New York to Detroit,” Joe Sehee, Director of the Green Burial Council, told National Public Radio in a December 2007 report.

A “green” burial is simple. The deceased gets preserved in a cooler or with dry ice, then wrapped in a shroud or placed in a biodegradable casket. The grave is not reinforced, and often the only marker is a flat stone, a tree, or nothing more than GPS coordinates! Some “green” cemeteries look just like an open field. There’s another benefit to a “green” funeral besides helping the environment — it saves money! Traditional procedures cost an average of $6,500, not counting cemetery costs like gravestones and land. That’s about three times more expensive than going green.

People have been burying valuable stuff along with their loved ones for thousands of years. Remember all the treasure in the pyramids? Perhaps it’s time to stop throwing precious resources into the ground, and start letting bodies decompose on their own. If gravestones go out of style, though, you may want to watch where you walk. You won’t know who might be buried under your feet!

Cremation— Incineration of a corpse

Shroud— A cloth used to wrap a body for burial
March 2008

Cave of Wonders

Imagine creeping through the dark, a thousand feet below Naica Mountain in the Chihuahuan desert in Mexico. Suddenly, you stumble forward and find yourself in a room filled with sparkling crystals as long as school buses and as heavy as small herds of elephants. And you aren’t dreaming, either! Two miners excavating a tunnel in this desert in northern Mexico discovered the Cave of Crystals in 2000. Photographer and explorer Richard D. Fisher describes his visit to the cave at “Some exist in great masses of spikes and almost float in [the] air,” he says. “These crystals seem to defy gravity.”

The crystals are stunningly beautiful, but you may not want to take a field trip to view them any time soon. When it was first discovered the temperature in the cave was around 136 degrees Fahrenheit (F) with 100 percent humidity! A human being could only survive in the cave for about ten minutes before literally baking to death. “I was so excited while photographing the crystals,” says Fisher, “that I really had to focus and concentrate intensely on getting back out the door.”

In April 2007, geologist Juan Manuel García-Ruiz and a team of researchers announced that they had solved the mystery of how the crystals grew to such astonishing sizes. The key is that constant, blistering heat supplied by magma vents, and the fact that the cave used to be filled with water. The 136 degrees F temperature just happens to be the point at which the mineral anhydrite dissolves into gypsum. As long as the temperature in the cave stayed just below 136 degrees F, deposits of the soft mineral gypsum formed very, very slowly from molecules in the water. Molecule by molecule, the giants grew. Those crystals are hundreds of thousands of years old!

The Industrias Penoles mining company that discovered the cave now constantly pumps out all of that mineral rich water so people can go in to view the crystals. An article in National Geographic magazine posed the question: Should we continue to pump water to keep the cave available so future generations may admire the crystals? Or should we stop pumping and return the scenario to its natural origin, allowing the crystals to grow larger?

What do you think? Should people be allowed in to view the crystals, even if this means disturbing the perfect conditions that allowed them to grow? Or should we leave them alone to keep growing? Send your response to “Cool Crystal Cave,” ODYSSEY, 30 Grove Street, Suite C, Peterborough, NH 03458. Or email it to [email protected].

Magma vents — Openings in Earth’s crust through which hot, liquid rock (magma) flows

Feb. 2008
Credit: illustration by Mike Phillips
Straws, Storms, and Salps

Deep below the surface of the ocean lurks a layer of cold, nutrient-rich water. What would happen if scientists built millions of huge straws to suck up this water and spit it out at the surface? Maybe the measure would halt global warming. Maybe it would prevent hurricanes. Or maybe messing with the delicate balance of the ocean’s ecosystem would cause even more problems.

Phil Kithil, CEO of Atmocean, Inc., in New Mexico, originally invented the wave-driven ocean upwelling system to solve the problem of CO2, which is the main cause of global warming. “The CO2 that comes out of tailpipes and out of smokestacks, most of it ends up in the ocean,” said Kithil in a presentation at the Private Equity XIX: 2007 National Venture Forum in June. He hopes to boost the ocean’s natural ability to sequester CO2 using a creature that looks like a blob of clear jelly: the salp.

“The salp is an ocean critter, a miracle of nature, which eats algae and excretes carbon pellets,” Kithil says. Salp poop is solid CO2, and if it sinks all the way to the bottom of the ocean without getting eaten, then it can’t get back out into the atmosphere. Kithil’s upwelling system, which runs itself using wave power, would bring extra nutrients to the surface of the ocean, helping lots of algae grow and boosting the salp population. More salps mean more salp poop, and less carbon dioxide to warm up our world and change our climate.

What does all this have to do with storms? Well, hurricanes love warm ocean water. Hot, moist air at the surface of the sea makes storms more intense. After pumping for a day, one straw can lower the ocean’s surface temperature by seven degrees over a radius of about 500 feet, according to Kalil and a recent article in Popular Science magazine. This may be enough to reduce hurricane wind speeds.

But don’t count on Kithil’s giant straws being the last straw for global warming and storms just yet. Atmocean would have to install millions of straws, costing billions of dollars, all over the world’s oceans to make any difference. All those giant tubes could get in the way of ships, and the cycling of water from the depths could disturb ocean life. If you’d like to see how they work, there’s an animated illustration of the Atmocean system at:

What do you think? Could salps and straws save our atmosphere? Write to Straw-Strewn Seas, ODYSSEY, 30 Grove Street, Suite C, Peterborough, NH 03458. Or email your response to [email protected]. We’ll publish some of your responses in a future issue.

Sequester — To remove and store or to set apart

Singing Volcanoes

All volcanoes shake and rattle when they erupt. Now Italian researchers are on a roll to convert the low-frequency seismic rumblings into musical scores. Why? In an effort to help predict eruptions.

You see, volcanic eruptions are usually preceded by a particular pattern of visual seismic signals that appear on a computer screen. By converting these patterns into audible music, scientists may be able to hear an eruption before it occurs. The idea is that once the volcano starts to sing its eruption “songs,” scientists can then alert government officials who, in turn, can alert people living in villages near the volcano. Although their studies have not been perfected, scientists have already made a concerto from the underground activities of Italy’s Mount Etna, and they are now trying to record the seismic voice within the Tungurahua volcano in Ecuador.

Italian volcano researchers have also, for the first time, watched magma (molten rock) move through a volcano before it erupts. The new technique, called seismic tomography, may make eruption predictions more accurate. Once again, scientists used Italy’s Mount Etna as the subject. After positioning 45 seismic stations around the volcano, they recorded more than 2,500 earthquakes during an 18-month period, which included one unusually violent eruption in 2002.

As seismologist Domenico Patanè of Italy’s National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology in Catania, Sicily, told National Geographic News, the seismic waves from such earthquakes can be used to produce detailed three-dimensional snapshots of molten rock moving within the volcano — much like a medical CAT scan would provide; a CAT (computerized axial tomography) scan is method of combining images from multiple X-rays under the control of a computer to produce cross-sectional or three-dimensional pictures of the internal organs, which can be used to identify abnormalities.

To date, only two snapshots have been taken, but they plan to take more in the future. By placing these snapshots together, scientists hope to watch a movie of the molten rock moving into the volcano and up to the surface. Watching this movie will allow them to see how molten rock behaves before an eruption, making predictions of any violent behavior more predictable.

A Biologist’s Delight: Desert Varnish with a Side of Blueberries

By Barbara David

Early in 2006, four women, including two biologists, packed up their bags, said good-bye to their families, and headed off to spend two weeks on Mars.

Well, not exactly.

Their location: The Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS) in Utah’s desert, which sure does look like the Red Planet.

Miles from the nearest town, the Mars Society’s MDRS features a crew habitat, greenhouse, and astronomical observatory. The site is surrounded by weird geology, including strange, mushroom-shape, rock formations. Astrobiologist Penny Boston, biologist Shannon Rupert, and their crew went there to study rocks and life in extreme environments. They studied Mars-like geology and biology to determine what might someday survive on the real Mars.

The site has been described as “magnificent desolation” and is nearly plantless. The crew discovered two phenomena there that are uniquely related to exploring Mars. The first, a thin, dark, shiny layer on many rock surfaces, was labeled “desert varnish.” It is produced by microorganisms that convert metal compounds, such as iron and manganese, into mineral coatings, a biological process — rather than a chemical one, as researchers had previously thought.

Scientists have observed similar rock coatings on Mars both from orbit and from the Mars rovers. Could this mean that there is microbial life on Mars? Whether the Martian coatings are the result of life remains to be seen, and research at the MDRS site will play a major role in finding out.

The crew also discovered tiny, round, sandstone balls, called “concretions.” Mars rover scientists have also found similar formations that they call “blueberries.” On Earth, these concretions could be the result of microbes that cause minerals to precipitate, gluing the sandstone particles together with calcium carbonate. In Penny Boston’s lab at New Mexico Technical University, scientists are trying to reproduce these concretions both with and without the aid of biology to see if life plays a role in their formation.

Later this year, a 12-year-old girl from The Netherlands will be a member of an MDRS crew that will continue studies of this unusual environment. Watch for her report in “Kids Can. . .Do Amazing Science” in a future issue of ODYSSEY.

To see Crew Science Mission Objectives, go to:

Tambora: A New Pompeii!

On April 10, 1815, Tambora, a volcano on Sumbawa Island in Indonesia, erupted with a power four times greater than that of Indonesia’s Krakatau in 1883. The eruptive gases entered Earth’s stratosphere and soon circled the globe, diminishing the Sun’s warming rays. In 1816, by which time temperatures worldwide had plummeted, many nations experienced a “year without a summer.”

But that was not the worst of it. Tambora’s eruption claimed 117,000 lives. It also buried the tiny “kingdom” of Tambora on the volcano’s western flank under 10 feet of volcanic debris, leaving only four of its estimated 10,000 residents alive. Now a team of U.S. and Indonesian researchers, led by University of Rhode Island volcanologist Haraldur Sigurdsson, believe that they have unearthed the lost civilization of Tambora.

Using ground-penetrating radar, they recently found the remains of a thatch house and pottery in sediment that dates to the 1815 eruption. Sigurdsson’s team also found the charred skeleton of a woman who was most likely in her kitchen; a metal machete and a melted glass bottle lay nearby. The remains of another person were found just outside what was probably the front door.

“The explosion wiped out the language. That’s how big it was,” Sigurdsson says. “But we’re trying to get these people to speak again, by digging.”

Wider Tropics? Shifting Sands?

Speaking about global climate change and changing temperatures, get this. According to the journal Science, satellite temperature readings of Earth’s atmosphere over the past 26 years indicate that the tropical zone may be getting wider. As a result, Earth’s storm-steering jet streams may be being shoved toward the poles.

The Tropics may have, in fact, already widened by about 140 miles. Such belt stretching could explain recent droughts and other unusually dry conditions in the American Southwest and Mediterranean Europe. But they said they couldn’t yet tell if the changes are being triggered by natural climate swings or by human activity contributing to global warming.

If the tropics are getting fatter and the jet streams are being pushed toward the poles, then Thomas Reichler, an assistant professor of meteorology at the University of Utah says that subtropical deserts may be expanding into heavily populated mid-latitude regions.

And John Wallace, a professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Washington, warns that if the jet streams move another 2 to 3 degrees poleward in this century, we should expect reduced winter snows in regions such as southern Europe, including the Alps, and southern Australia.

Singing Icebergs

Considering scientists’ fears that Earth’s polar icebergs are melting, is it any wonder that these giant ice cubes are singing the blues?

It’s true! Vera Schlindwein and her colleagues from the German Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research recently announced in Science magazine that they have found a singing iceberg. At the time of discovery (between July and November 2002), the researchers weren’t expecting to be crooned to by ice. In fact, they were trying to record earthquakes and crustal movements on the Ekstroem ice shelf on Antarctica’s South Atlantic coast.

Actually, the scientists heard nothing, because the iceberg was singing at a frequency of around 0.5 hertz, which is too low to be heard by humans. But they did record the icy songs on their instruments. When the scientists played the songs at higher speeds, the iceberg sounded like a swarm of bees or an orchestra warming up.

Where does ice gets its voice? Tracking the signal, the scientists discovered that a 31-mile-long and 12-mile-wide iceberg had collided with an underwater peninsula and was slowly scraping around it. “Once the iceberg stuck fast on the seabed, it was like a rock in a river,” Schlindwein says. “The water pushes through its crevasses and tunnels at high pressure and the iceberg starts singing.” The tune, she says, even has its own melody, going up and down just like a real song. Kind of sends shivers up and down your spine, doesn’t it?

A Pollution Solution?

Shenandoah National Park in northern Virginia draws about 1.3 million visitors a year. And what a wonder it is to explore its roughly 200,000 acres of land. In the summer months, especially, visitors are left, well, let’s say, breathless. . .but not because of the views.

Scoops Photo
In November 2005, a National Geographic news report noted that environmentalist groups in 2004 had rated Shenandoah the third-most polluted national park. Shenandoah’s biggest problem: old, coal-burning power plants in West Virginia and the Ohio River Valley, whose smog apparently reduces visibility, increases asthma attacks, and causes damage to vegetation. On particularly bad air days, visibility at Shenandoah may drop to less than a mile.

Enough bad news. Now the good news: It looks as though the environmentalist groups were off in their timing when they decided to pick on Shenandoah. Obviously, they were aghast when, in 1998, ozone levels hit unhealthful levels in the park 22 times that summer — the most in a decade. Ozone, the main pollutant in smog, is highest during warm months, when people flock to the park. But the park had just one high-ozone day in 2004 — and none in 2005. Why the sudden change? In part, the credit goes to new pollution controls on power plants and factories that took effect in the spring of 2004. Emissions plummeted because of federally required cleanups.

So, is Shenandoah healthy again? That depends. Are you an optimist or a pessimist? Bill Hayden, a spokesperson for the state Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), told National Geographic that his department is optimistic. But Gordon Olson, the park’s natural-resources branch chief, said that while cuts in emissions are “probably helping the situation” at Shenandoah, he doesn’t know whether this will last. If the weather gets exceedingly hot and dry, the park might suffer more summers with bad-air days in the double digits. Dan Salkovitz, a DEQ meteorologist, is wedged in the middle. While he hopes that the park will continue to have clean-air summers, he acknowledges that it’s too early to say that the smog is gone for good, adding, “You never try to outsmart Mother Nature.”

The question is, What’s your outlook? Do you believe that the government’s measure to help reduce toxic emissions from power plants in the area will help Shenandoah National Park in the future, or is touting such efforts a waste of breath? Send your thoughts to “Clear the Air,” c/o ODYSSEY, 30 Grove St., Suite C, Peterborough, NH 03458.

Air Pollution: It’s to Die For!

Here’s a depressing thought. But first, you’d better take a deep breath. No. . .wait! If you live in Haywood County, NC, hold that breath.

Did you know that the suicide rate in Haywood County jumped from 11.8 per 100,000 residents between 1990 and 1996 to 21.1 per 100,000 from 1997 to 2002? That’s a rate nearly twice the state average. What’s going on? Well, if you believe Richard H. Weisler, a psychiatrist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Medicine, the increase in suicides may be related to emission by-products streaming from local paper mills. He voiced that opinion during the 2005 U.S. Psychiatric and Mental Health Congress in Las Vegas, NV.

Weisler believes that the suicide spike coincides with a change in the local mills’ operations. These mills now clean wastewater using a process that releases stinky chemicals such as hydrogen sulfide (which smells like rotting eggs) into the air. Animal studies have shown, Weisler says, that continual exposure to abnormally high levels of hydrogen sulfide can alter brain chemicals and cause, among other things, depression, nervousness, and dementia.

Although more data is needed for any conclusions to be drawn, Weisler’s findings are eerily similar to those presented at the 2004 session of the same congress regarding higher suicide rates in Salisbury, NC.

Further support can be found in a 2000 review of the health effects of hydrogen sulfide, commissioned through the Alberta (Canada) environment department, which concluded that repeated exposure to the gas “may result in cumulative effects on many organ systems, such as [those of] the brain, lungs, and heart.” The challenge now is for scientists to conclude what levels of exposure pose a health risk to the general population and sensitive individuals.

True Blue

Why is the sea blue? The most common answer is that it reflects the sky. And while that’s true to a point — the sea can also be gray on cloudy days — did you know that the sea also has a hue of its own?

Well, it does. And not only is that a bit of clever trivia, but more important, it is a key to the ocean’s health.

Thanks to satellite imagery of our “blue” planet, a group of NASA and university scientists has figured out how to measure the hue and brightness of the oceans. You see, the sea’s color is determined by the amount of phytoplankton in it. Phytoplankton are the ocean’s basic biological building blocks. These microscopic, single-celled plants exhale life-giving oxygen and are consumed as food by zooplankton (microscopic animals) and small fish, which, in turn, are eaten by larger fish.

Phytoplankton are so numerous that their collective weight would be more than that of all the trees and shrubs and other terrestrial plants. Seawater changes from blue to green as the abundance of phytoplankton increases. This is because phytoplankton, like other plants, shed chlorophyll from their cells. Researchers are now using color to determine the overall health of the oceans. Unlike when you get seasick and turn green, when the ocean turns green, it’s feeling pretty good.

Alas, NASA and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) scientists have studied two decades’ worth of satellite imagery and noted a troubling decline of phytoplankton. Part of the problem is that the tiny plants are not growing as fast as they used to. Phytoplankton stop growing when they are stressed by changes in temperature, light, or nutrients. More studies have to be made before any conclusions can be drawn.

Whole Lot o’ Shakin’ Goin’ On! — Part 1

Live in California? Want to know if an earthquake has a good possibility of occurring?

Well, the answer may be just a mouse click away.

Thanks to the United States Geological Survey (USGS), any California resident who fears a strong earthquake can now go to a USGS Web site that calculates the probability of such an event occurring at a specific location in the state.

Think of it as a weather map for earthquakes. Everyone knows, for instance, that a 60 percent chance of rain today does not mean that it will definitely rain. The same goes for the earthquake forecast: If there’s a 60 percent percent chance of a large earthquake occurring in Los Angeles today, that does not mean that one will occur — just that it’s probable that one might happen.

The Web site is updated hourly and calculates over a 24-hour period. It displays real-time, color-coded maps. Areas shaded in red represent a high chance of strong shaking within the next 24 hours (less than a 1 in 10 chance), while those in blue represent a very remote chance — say, more than 1 in a million. Actually, the forecast will probably be most useful after a strong earthquake has caused significant damage. As USGS scientist Matthew Gerstenberger explains, since aftershocks are likely in those situations, residents can log online and check for the possibility of more jolting in their area.

One more thing: The program, Gerstenberger says, is not meant to predict when the “Big One” will occur, nor serve as a warning signal for residents to evacuate. But it should give people time to prepare for any emergency.

Whole Lot o’ Shakin’ Goin’ On! — Part 2

One thing leads to another. That’s the way it is with earthquakes.

Take the December 2004 earthquake in Sumatra. That event was the most powerful in more than 40 years. The earthquake triggered a tsunami (an earthquake-generated tidal wave) that claimed more than 176,000 lives in 11 countries and left tens of thousands of people missing.

The Sumatra quake was also the first of its size to be measured and studied by a new network of digital instruments that records earthquake activity around the world.

So, what did we learn? The power of the great Sumatra quake can be summed up in two words: Earth-shattering.

Thorne Lay, director of the Institute of Geophysics and Planetary Physics at the University of California, Santa Cruz, says that the quake caused a ground movement of as much as 0.4 inch everywhere on Earth’s surface! A group of earthquake researchers led by Jeffrey Park (Yale University) said that the earthquake caused the Earth to ring like a bell, at intervals of about 17 minutes — and the shuddering continued for weeks after the event!

“This is really a watershed event,” Lay says. “We’ve never had such comprehensive data for a great earthquake because we didn’t have the instrumentation to gather it 40 years ago.”

Return of the Death Tide!

Like Seafood? Live on the New England Coast? Well, you’d better eat up before this fall. Yes, the ominous red tide — a toxic algal bloom absorbed by shellfish, making them unsafe to eats — that devastated your region last spring may be on the return!

Don Anderson, a red tide expert from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution on Cape Cod, says that a new surge of the red menace could strike New England, from MAine to Buzzards Bay as early as next month!

The Red tide has already cost shellfishermen about $2.7 million in lost income, this year. And if the bloom returns, that number could rise as high as $7 million,. And though scientists expect the red tide won’t be extremely toxic or persistent, you might just want to take it easy for a while. Anderson says that if history means anything, the tide will be back for at least the next few years.

Here’s the Poop!

Imagine. All this time we’ve been so worried about the contamination of Earth’s waters by industrial waste and other sources human-induced water pollution. But dig this latest scoop. Canadian pollution researcher Jules Blais (University of Ottawa) and his cohorts found a new major source of chemical contamination in the Arctic — bird droppings!

Yes these pigeons of the frozen air are fouling up the pristine Arctic by adding their waste to the environment. After studying several ponds below the cliffs at Cape Vera on Devon Island in the Canadian Arctic, the scientists reported that a colony of northern fulmars that nest on the cliffs, have dropped a bomb on pollution studies.

Blais calls it the boomerang effect. “Our study,” he says, “shows that sea birds, which feed in the ocean but then come back to land, are returning not only with food for their young but with contaminants as well. The contaminants accumulate in their bodies and are released on land.” (Well, that’s a nice way to put it.)

What’s the affect of bird droppings in the arctic? The research team found that it is 60 times that of any human-induced pollutants, such as mercury and DDT.

But here’s the interesting catch. You might say, “Quick! Get rid of the birds!” (Ah! Don’t you just love it when the solution to one problem is to literally “kill” another.) The fact is, if the seabirds were to disappear the whole ecosystem would disappear.

What to do? What to do?

Return of the Death Tide!

Like Seafood? Live on the New England Coast? Well, you’d better eat up before this fall. Yes, the ominous red tide — a toxic algal bloom absorbed by shellfish, making them unsafe to eats — that devastated your region last spring may be on the return!

Don Anderson, a red tide expert from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution on Cape Cod, says that a new surge of the red menace could strike New England, from MAine to Buzzards Bay as early as next month!

The Red tide has already cost shellfishermen about $2.7 million in lost income, this year. And if the bloom returns, that number could rise as high as $7 million,. And though scientists expect the red tide won’t be extremely toxic or persistent, you might just want to take it easy for a while. Anderson says that if history means anything, the tide will be back for at least the next few years.

Sea Reveals its True Colors

Why is the sea blue? The most common answer is that it reflects the sky. And while that’s true, did you also know the sea has a hue of its own?

Well, it does. And not only is that a bit of clever trivia but, more importantly, it is a key to the ocean’s health.

Thanks to satellite imagery of our “blue” planet, a group of NASA and university scientists have figured how to measure the hue and brightness of the oceans. You see, the sea’s color is determined by the amount of phytoplankton in it. Phytoplankton are the ocean’s basic biological building block. These microscopic single-celled plants exhale life-giving oxygen and are consumed as food by zooplankton (microscopic animals) and small fish, which, in turn, are eaten by larger fish.

Phytoplankton are so numerous that their collective weight would be more than all of the trees and shrubs and other terrestrial plants. Seawater changes from blue to green as the abundance of phytoplankton increases (that’s because, phytoplankton, like other plants, shed chlorophyll from their cells). And researchers have used this color to determine the overall health of the ocean. Unlike when you get seasick, when the ocean turns green, it’s feeling pretty good.

Alas, NASA and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientists have studied two decades worth of satellite imagery and noted a troubling decline of phytoplankton. Part of the problem is that they are not growing as fast as they used to. Phytoplankton quit growing when stressed by changes in temperature, light, or nutrients. More studies have to be made, though, any conclusions can be made.

Mount St. Helens Stinks!

The April issue of ODYSSEY was devoted entirely to Mount St. Helens, to prepare you for the 25th anniversary this month of the big blast, which occurred on May 18th, 1980. Since that issue went to print, the volcano has continued to make national headline news.

Tectonic Uplift near Sumatra

This just in! Mount St. Helens volcano is now Washington State’s top polluter. That’s right. Since shortly after the volcano began erupting in early October, it has been leaking 50 to 250 tons of sulfur dioxide per day! Compare that to the state’s top industrial polluter — a coal-fired power plant that churns out 27 tons of sulfur dioxide per day. In fact, the peak amount of sulfur dioxide exhaled by Mount St. Helens is more than double the amount from all the state’s industries combined.

What’s an environmentally friendly person to do?

Nothing. “You can’t put a cork in it,” says Greg Nothstein of the Washington Energy Policy Office. Fortunately, the area immediately surrounding the volcano is sparsely populated, so there have been few complaints about the smelly gas, which can cause acid rain and smog and irritate the eyes, nose, and lungs. Of course, Mount St. Helens is just one volcanic polluter. If you add up all the sulfur dioxide emissions exhaled from volcanoes around the world, you get a staggering figure: about 15 million tons per year. But that’s a mere 2 percent of the 200 million tons per year produced by power plants and other human activities. Now, that really stinks!

Speaking of Mount St. Helens. . .

At first, scientists were having a hard time trying to name that growth, or wart, or blister, or lobe. . .that new thingamajig that was growing (and continues to grow) inside the throat of Mount St. Helens. One researcher referred to it as “an uplift,” for instance, before most scientists agreed that it was a “dome.” Now that scientists are in agreement, they’ve begun to mull over what to name the dome.

One scientist was nearly laughed out of the room when he proposed that the dome, which is now larger than an aircraft carrier, be called the 21st Century Dome. It would probably be more appropriate to give the new feature a Native American name, since American Indians in the region refer to the mountain as Loo-Wit Lat-kla or Louwala-Clough, meaning “fire mountain” or “smoking mountain.”

The problem is that any new feature on an active part of a volcano has a lifetime that is usually very short. In fact, scientists have assigned hundreds of unofficial names to geographic features on Mount St. Helens, many of which were destroyed during subsequent volcanic eruptions. Indeed, the new dome has grown so quickly — almost four cubic yards every second — that it has bulldozed a 600-foot-thick glacier out of its way. If this rapid growth rate continues, there is a growing risk of a dome collapse that could trigger a major eruption.

But believe it or not, there’s a seven-member board ready to approve official names in the state. Whether or not the dome gets an official name, who knows? Meanwhile, we’d like to offer you an unofficial chance to come up with a meaningful moniker. Send your suggestions to “Name That Dome,” ODYSSEY, 30 Grove St., Suite C, Peterborough, NH 03458.

Sixth Sense?

Just one hour before shallow earthquakes began to unceasingly shake Mount St. Helens last September, Rita Tarrant, a waitress in Cougar, WA, heard deer and elk crashing through the brush on her property. The animals, she said, were running away from the mountain.

Rabbits were on the run, too. Tarrant wondered if these animals knew something that she didn’t. And Tarrant wasn’t alone in her thinking.

Carolyn Johnson, who lives on the Toutle River, 27 miles from the volcano, said that the 20-odd deer that graze on her property seem super alert to the moods of the mountain. She claims that the deer disappear every time the mountain puts out a good-size puff of smoke. Other residents around the mountain were seeing and sensing the same things.

Do animals have a sixth sense about earthquakes and eruptions? Despite documented cases of unusual animal behavior prior to seismic activity, no studies have been conclusive, according to scientists at the USGS. On the other side of the coin, researchers in Japan are beginning to wonder whether animal behavior can be used to forecast earthquakes.

If our four-legged friends were aware of the Mount St. Helens’s recent tremors, state game agents in the region aren’t buying it. They say there’s more to what’s going on here than meets the eye. “The problem isn’t seismic sensitivities,” says Dick Ford, director of Weyerhaeuser’s Forest Learning Center near the crater, “but instead, starvation.” Trees planted since the 1980 eruption have grown tall enough to shade out light, killing the grasses elk and deer love to eat. So the animals are constantly on the move.

As for the claims of animal sensitivities recorded during the May 1980 eruption, Ford notes that the animals might have been running scared — in circles, trying to figure out which way to go. But, he adds, they weren’t that good as eruption forecasters because 1,500 elk, 5,000 black-tail deer, 300 black bears, and 25 cougars died in the disaster. Then again, even if the animals did forecast the eruption, they had only seconds to escape before that mighty blast. Or maybe the animals just couldn’t find an escape route.

Make sense? Let us know what you think. Do animals know when a volcano’s going to blow? Send your thoughts to “Sixth Sense,” ODYSSEY, 30 Grove St., Suite C, Peterborough, NH 03458. We’ll publish some of your responses in a future issue.

Eruptions Can Be a Gas!

Will Mount St. Helens erupt explosively again? Well, British volcanologist Jon Blundy (Bristol University, Bristol) says that the answer may be in the volcano’s breath.

After studying the gases released during the May 18, 1980, eruption and those that followed, Blundy and doctoral student Kim Berlo concluded that the volcano has two reservoirs of molten rock beneath its surface. One is about four miles deep, while the other is half as close. They now believe that there is a link between the storage depth of magma (molten rock) beneath a volcano and the explosiveness of an eruption. If their analysis is correct, the May 18, 1980, explosive eruption came from gas expelled from both the deep and shallow magma reservoirs. The later, gentler, dome-building eruptions, which continued until 1986, came exclusively from molten rock trapped inside the shallow magma reservoir.

Where is the gas from the most recent series of eruptions at Mount St. Helens coming from? Since the activity has not been very explosive, you would guess that the eruption had its roots in the shallow magma reservoir. But if another, more explosive event occurs, it may be driven by gaseous forces deeper within the Earth. Time will tell.

Volcano Woes

Mount St. Helens is one of dozens of volcanoes monitored by USGS scientists. And while the volcano is also the most thoroughly “wired” mountain in the Cascade Range — meaning that scientists are “plugged in” to its every shiver and burp — they still had to scramble to install equipment, recharge batteries, and repair damaged gear when the mountain returned to life last autumn.

If you think that’s a bad situation, it’s worse at other volcanoes in the United States. According to the Smithsonian Institution, 172 U.S. volcanoes have been active within the past 10,000 years, and many have erupted within the past 200 years, sometimes repeatedly. Jim Quick, director of the USGS, says that for lack of funds, more than a third of our nation’s “truly dangerous” volcanoes lack even a seismometer — a device that detects earthquakes or earth vibrations for detecting signs of an impending eruption.

This lack of equipment at the sites, Quick fears, is putting people in the surrounding communities at risk. He also fears that it’s putting his own scientists at risk. Quick points his finger at about 70 volcanoes that he feels pose a threat to people or property on the ground or aircraft overhead. Twenty-five of these dangerous volcanoes have no monitoring equipment. Why? Because they are in remote areas, such as Alaska. While these volcanoes are not near populated regions, they do sit below major airline flight paths.

Installing equipment and assigning staff to each unmonitored volcano would cost about $1 million to $2 million. This would more than double the USGS volcano hazard program’s annual budget. The question is, Do you believe that USGS scientists should get the government funding they need? Do you fear the consequences of not having these volcanoes wired? Let us know by sending your comments to “Unplugged,” ODYSSEY, 30 Grove St., Suite C, Peterborough, NH 03458.

Mount St. Helens from Space

In October 2004, Mount St. Helens roared back to life, spewing steam and ash and growing its lava dome. Astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS) had a bird’s-eye view of this stupendous activity. During their multiple daily passes over the erupting volcano, the ISS crew took an impressive series of images.

Give up?

Mt. St. Helens on Oct. 13, 2004 — just days after it experienced a series of eruptions.

This image shows the volcano on Oct. 13, 2004 — just days after it experienced a series of eruptions. It was taken with a Kodak 760C digital camera, with a 400 mm lens. What you see are two white steam plumes rising from the dome and wafting off to the south. The dome is a rounded mound of rock nestled inside the crater — the result of a cataclysmic 1980 eruption and landslide failure of the northern flank of the volcano. This event caused a lateral blast, which devastated an area extending12.4 miles to the north. It also raised the bed level of Spirit Lake by 197 feet. A grayish plain just north of the crater is mainly composed of pyroclastic and mudflow deposits from the 1980 eruption.

Today the lava dome continues to grow, but no significant changes have been made to the surrounding area. A few mudflows and some minor ash deposits have occurred close to the cone, but these were only minor events. The volcano is still being intensively monitored by United States Geological Survey (USGS) scientists, because more explosive eruptions are still a possibility. (See “It’s Alive. . .Again!,” p. 6.)

The Next Ice Age: On Hold?

Hmmm. In these days when everyone is worried about global warming, it might come as a bit of a surprise that some scientists have been busy predicting the next ice age. In fact, apparently, it’s overdue. You see, we’ve been enjoying about 12,000 years of no ice age activity, which is about 2,000 years longer than at least one interglacial period.

But a new ice core retrieved from central Antarctica has given us a rare glimpse of climate change over the past 740,000 years. After analyzing the waxing and waning of eight ice ages, researchers have announced some good news: The next ice age has been placed on hold. So wipe your brow and put your Gortex gear back in the closet. It appears that the current interglacial period is expected to last 28,000 years, which means that we still have about 15,000 years left to watch TV. Whew!

Unsolved Mystery: "Fairy Circles"

They are found only along the western coastal fringes of the Namib Desert in southern Africa. They are easy to spot: circles of bare sandy soil 30 feet in diameter and surrounded by unusually tall grasses. The grasses stand out because they are the only vegetation of the desert. The phenomena are called "fairy circles," and no one yet knows how they form.

Over the last three decades and more, researchers have become interested in the circles and tried to explain their origins. They have come up with three main causal theories: termites, radioactive soil, and toxic debris left in the soil by Euphorbia damarana, the poisonous milkbush plant.

Now South African researchers have dismissed all three theories. "They still remain a mystery," says Gretel van Rooyen, a botanist at the University of Pretoria, who headed the team conducting the study. According to a news item in New Scientist magazine, the radioactive soil theory was easily dismissed after van Rooyen sent samples to the South African Bureau of Standards to be tested for radioactivity; the results were all negative.

To check out the poisonous plant idea, van Rooyen’s team grew milkbush plants in the lab and found that they had no effect on the grasses in the native soil. They could not have formed the circles. What about termites? Well, the popular belief was that termites perhaps were eating all the seeds on the fairy circles and leaving nothing that would grow. But there’s only one problem: There are no termites in the soil! "We dug trenches up to two meters deep," van Rooyen says, "but found no signs or remains of them."

So, where does that leave us? Well, we’ve come — forgive the pun — full circle.

Van Rooyen is now following up on the possibility that toxic elements are somehow deposited in the circles. "But even if we find them, determining how they came to be there is the next problem," she says. The question is: Do you believe in fairies?

New Underwater Volcano Discovered

If you think we have mapped the Earth in its entirety, think again. Eugene Domack of Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y., and his fellow researchers were returning from a study of a collapsed ice shelf off the coast of Antarctica when their vessel, the Lawrence M. Gould, passed directly over a previously unknown underwater volcano.

The volcano is in an area known as Antarctic Sound, at the northernmost tip of Antarctica. There is no previous scientific record of active volcanoes in the region where the new peak was discovered. The volcano is located on the continental shelf, in the vicinity of a deep trough carved out by glaciers passing across the sea floor. The discovery does, however, help to explain historical reports by mariners who noticed discolored water in the area. The fact is, material from underwater volcanoes is known to cause discoloration in water over them.

Using a video recorder, the researchers discovered that while the submarine peak was colonized by life, none was found on dark rock around the volcano itself, indicating that lava had flowed fairly recently. In addition, dredges recovered fresh volcanic rock. And temperature probes detected heating of seawater by geothermal vents.

The volcano rises 2,300 feet above the sea floor and extends to within roughly 900 feet of the ocean surface. The question is, if it continues to erupt, how soon will it be before we have a new land mass to map on Earth?

Scientists Turn Down the Heat

Are you someone who likes to blame the oil and gas industries for global warming? Well, sit down, because you may not like this new, albeit controversial, news.

According to a report in New Scientist magazine, "oil and gas will run out too fast for doomsday global warming scenarios to materialize."

In other words, all of Earth’s oil and gas reserves will be burnt before there is enough carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to cause the most horrific scenarios envisioned by global warming proponents — namely scorching temperatures and melting polar caps.

In fact, geologists Kjell Aleklett, Anders Sivertsson, and Colin Campbell (Uppsala University in Uppsala, Sweden) predict that Earth’s oil supplies could be fully consumed as early as 2010; and our gas supplies, they say, will evaporate shortly after that.

But Nebojsa Nakicenovic, an energy economist at the University of Vienna in Austria, believes that the Swedish geologists are being too conservative in their estimates of Earth’s gas and oil supplies. Not only that, he warns, but "there’s a huge amount of coal underground that could be exploited."

Burning coal would be worse for the environment than burning oil or gas. Coal produces more CO2 for each unit of energy, as well as releases large amounts of particulates — a separate particle — into the atmosphere. If we do ultimately replace oil and gas with coal, Aleklett admits that the global warming doomsday scenarios would come true. Switching from oil to coal, he says, would be disastrous.

Stratospheric Memory!

We’ve all done it. . .tried to forecast the weather by looking at the clouds. Indeed, even meteorologists primarily analyze conditions in the troposphere — the lowest layer of the atmosphere, where clouds and storms appear — to predict the weather. Soon, however, they may be setting their sights a little higher.

Mark P. Baldwin, senior research scientist at NorthWest Research Associates in Bellevue, WA, says that the key to long-term (weeks to months) weather prediction may be found in the stratosphere — the atmospheric layer just above where commercial airplanes fly. Scientists used to think that the stratosphere is mostly free and clear of weather. Baldwin and his team, however, discovered that significant changes in the troposphere can cause subtle changes in the stratosphere — namely, that they can strengthen or weaken stratospheric wind circulation. And that change will, in turn, affect our weather about 25 days later.

Once the winds in the lower stratosphere become unusually strong or weak, they tend to stay that way for at least a month. And that, Baldwin says, is the key to understanding how the stratosphere can affect our weather. Changes in the stratosphere eventually feed back to the troposphere weeks later through a mechanism dubbed "stratospheric memory."

The scientists now hope to explore further the interaction between the two layers, which they don’t yet fully understand. Knowing that the stratosphere plays this role could be helpful in predicting weather patterns well beyond the 7- to 10-day limit of current weather prediction models. In addition to forecasting the weather, the authors hope that these insights will lead to improved models for tracking global warming, ozone depletion, and the effects of volcanic eruptions.

Killer Dust!

It comes from Africa. It travels thousands of miles. And when it gets here, it kills huge numbers of fish, shellfish, marine animals, and birds. It can even cause sickness in humans.

What is "it"? "It" is Saharan dust clouds. In the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of West Florida, windblown Saharan dust ultimately falls every year.

In a NASA-funded study, graduate student Jason Lenes (University of South Florida’s College of Marine Science) and his colleagues used data from an imager aboard the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Polar Orbiting Environmental Satellites, as well as ground-based measurements, to track large dust clouds leaving Africa.

It turns out that storm activity in the Sahara Desert region generates clouds of dust that originate from fine particles in the arid topsoil, which contains iron. Easterly trade winds carry the dust across the Atlantic Ocean and into the Gulf of Mexico, where they are deposited. Once the Saharan dust is deposited, it fertilizes the water with iron, setting off blooms of red toxic algae commonly referred to as "red tides."

The blooms are huge. In Lenes’s study, they formed in an 8,100-square-mile (20,979-sq.-km) region between Tampa Bay and Fort Myers, Florida. Around the Gulf of Mexico, millions of fish and hundreds of manatees have reportedly died in a single red tide bloom. And humans who swim in the Gulf during a red tide, or those who eat shellfish affected by it, can suffer severe ailments.

By using satellites to monitor the dispersal of Saharan dust and the onset of blooms, Lenes believes he may soon be able to forecast red tides. "If you could predict when a red tide is coming, you could close beaches and fisheries ahead of time," he says.

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