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Science Scoops


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 http://pasadena.wr.usgs.gov/step/ 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.

Dirt Bombs?

If you thought the previous scoop was alarming, get this: Dust clouds blown in from the African Sahara may carry infectious organisms across the ocean to foreign soils!

That’s right. Eugene Shinn, a geologist at the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) in St. Petersburg, Florida, has been arguing just that point for years, but his fellow scientists weren’t listening until February 11, 2001. On that day, an enormous cloud of dust whipped out of the Sahara Desert, moved north across the Atlantic, and, two days later, reached the United Kingdom. It was no coincidence, Shinn says, that within days of the dust’s arrival, counties across the United Kingdom began reporting simultaneous outbreaks of foot-and-mouth disease — a viral sickness of livestock!

Satellite view of a dust cloud over the Atlantic Ocean.
Satellite view of a dust cloud over the Atlantic Ocean.
(Courtesy NASA)

The fact is, wind blows more than a billion tons of dust around the planet every year. And it looks like that girdle of dust is growing larger as the years progress. That increase may be due, in part, to the 30-year drought occurring in northern Africa, the draining of the Aral Sea in Central Asia, and the drying of Lake Chad in Africa. Another problem is poor farming practice across the globe, which dries out the soil and creates dust beds that are polluted with pesticides and laced with diseases from human and animal waste.

Since the February 11, 2001, incident, Shinn’s theory that dust storms can spread disease is gaining acceptance. In fact, Ginger Garrison of the USGS believes that there is a direct link between bacteria-caused coral diseases and African dust storm activity. And outbreaks of foot-and-mouth disease in South Korea last year just happened to follow large dust storms blowing in from Mongolia and China.

Other organizations are now joining the USGS in tracking global dust. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, for instance, has just opened a station in California to track Asian dust as it passes over the United States.

Wait. . .what are you thinking? What about the SARS virus? Do you think that SARS could cross the ocean in a dust storm? Well, so far all investigations indicate that person-to-person contact is the only way SARS has spread.

What about bioterrorism? Could something like anthrax make the trip in dust blown across the sea from Africa to the United States? Well, Shinn believes so. In fact, he recently completed a terrorism risk assessment for the United States. The result: Dust clouds are nothing to sneeze at; those blown in from the Sahara could be considered, in effect, a very dirty bomb!

Weather Forecast for June 2263
by Nick D’Alto

Talk about long-range forecasts! What will the weather look like 50, 100, even 200 years from now? Incredibly, Japan’s Earth Simulator, the world’s largest and fastest supercomputer, is answering that question right now.

Earth Simulator does it by turning weather patterns, from the number of sunny days each year to the intensity of a monster tornado, into billions of bytes of information. Built by NEC of Tokyo, this megacomputer is larger than a football field. It’s also unbelievably fast, performing more calculations in just one second (over 35 trillion!) than there are stars in our galaxy. That awesome power can output uncanny models of future climate.

Will ozone depletion and greenhouse gases alter Earth’s climate in the 23rd century? Could coastal cities disappear beneath rising oceans, as global warming melts the polar ice caps? Like a "time machine," Earth Simulator can model these future scenarios with unprecedented accuracy, helping researchers track how today’s environmental problems — from pollution to fluorocarbons — can affect tomorrow.

But this marvel isn’t just a "crystal ball" for predicting the distant future. Scientists are already using it to keep some of Japan’s major cities safe from the threat of typhoons (tropical storms) that strike their coastlines each year.

Surprisingly, the weather wizard employs a computational strategy called vector processing — a technology once believed to be obsolete. Now, though, its blazing speed promises advances in almost every science, including tracking the movements of the Earth’s crust to anticipate earthquakes, testing drugs inside a "virtual body" in the race to cure AIDS, and — to help officials protect cities from terrorism — even simulating the spread of biological weapons such as smallpox.

Journey to the Center of the Earth

If you think that it’s difficult for us to explore space or the depths of Earth’s oceans, imagine trying to send a probe to the center of the Earth!

Sound impossible?

Well, Dave Stevenson (professor of planetary science at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena) believes that he can blow the door wide open on such a task — by setting off a small nuclear explosion.

Don’t laugh — even though that’s what Stevenson says he expects you to do.

Seriously, Stevenson believes that he has devised (at least on paper) a way to send a probe to the center of the Earth. His recipe for success calls for creating a crack in the Earth several hundred meters in length and depth and about 30 centimeters wide; the crack would be created with a nuclear bomb. Next, he would place a probe about the size of a grapefruit in a pool of molten iron — about 100,000 to several million tons of it. The instant the crack opened, the entire volume of iron (with the probe) would be dropped in, completely filling the open space. Nature would take over from there.

Through the sheer force of its weight, the iron would continue to fall (due to gravity), and create a continuing crack that would open all the way to the planet’s core, about 3,000 kilometers below. The action would be like a volcano in reverse.

Of course, the probe would have to be made of a material that could withstand the great pressures and temperatures along the way. It would also be instrumented for data collection that would be relayed to Earth’s surface.

For now, Stevenson’s plan is just a thought experiment, but it just might work. If it did, we could learn some astonishing things. Although some scientists say that the concept is "wildly optimistic" and "vague," they also concede that Stevenson is "exactly right about the knowledge that could be gained." He puts the cost of such a project at about $10 billion.

It’s a wild idea, yes. But it gets the creative juices flowing because it challenges scientists to consider ways to use existing technologies to explore new "worlds." Your challenge, for now, is to dream up a name for the probe. What would you call it? Send your suggestions to: "Going Down," ODYSSEY, 30 Grove St., Suite C, Peterborough, NH 03458.

Toys Invade New England!

In you were on the coast of New England in July you might have witnessed a bizarre spectacle: an invasion of bleached and battered ducks, beavers, turtles, and frogs!

Don’t fear, this is not some rebellious uprising of the world’s animals. It is, however, a story about one of the most incredible trans-Arctic journeys ever made . . . by an armada of floating bathtub toys!

That’s right, the weird adventure began 11 years ago after 29,000 toys fell from a storm-tossed container ship en route from China to Seattle, Washington. Fortunately, Curtis Ebbesmeyer (a retired oceanographer living in Seattle) tracked the toys’ progress by noting where duckies washed ashore along the way.

The ship-tossed toys entered the water in the Pacific Ocean near where the 45th parallel meets the international date line. The "critters" then floated along the Alaska coast, reaching the Bering Strait by 1995 and Iceland five years later. By 2001 they had floated to the area in the north Atlantic where the Titanic sank. From there some toys kept going westward, others turned and headed toward Europe. Then in July 2003 Ebbesmeyer broke the news: he expected hundreds of toys to beach themselves any day along the New England coast.

Ebbesmeyer believes the toys’ journey will be a useful tool in teaching oceanography, shedding light on the way surface currents behave. They are also a sobering reminder that about 10,000 containers fall off cargo ships each year, creating all manner of flotsam and jetsam. "When trash goes into the ocean, it doesn’t disappear," Ebbesmeyer said. "It just goes somewhere else."

Snow Quakes?

Got a lot of snow in your backyard? Well, if you live in an earthquake-prone region . . . watch out, because melting snow could trigger earthquakes! At least that what one Japanese geophysicist believes.

Kosuke Heki (National Astronomical Observatory in Mitake) arrives at that conclusion after sifting through earthquake records dating back nearly 1,500 years. He found a trend: in regions that receive regular winter snowfall, large earthquakes (greater than magnitude 7) were three times as likely to occur in the spring. (I guess after the spring has sprung.) The idea is that the weight of snow piling up during winter can exert pressure on earthquake faults. When the snow melts, the unloading releases the pressure, making the fault more likely to shift suddenly.

Anyway, "It’s an interesting idea," says geophysicist Ian Main (Edinburgh University in Scotland). But he is not convinced the effect would be strong enough to trigger quakes. Heki is pursuing his idea, however, to see if it holds true in other parts of the world. His next stop is Iceland, which has good historical records, plenty of snow, and frequent earthquakes. Question: Does Iceland have a spring?

Lightning News a Shocker!

Question: Which part of the world is struck most by lightning? Answer: Tropical Brazil.

Fine. But new research has also shown that Brazil is the country that suffers the highest death toll and most serious economic damage from electric thunderstorms. That’s not fine.

Osmar Pinto, a researcher at the Brazilian Institute for Space Studies, says that recent satellite data have shown that lightning strikes Brazil 70 million times per year — that’s between two and three electric discharges per second, or double the amount of lightning strikes in the entire United States — which is approximately the same size as Brazil.

Such sky drama does not go unnoticed on the ground. Pinto’s research has shown that 70 percent of the frequent power blackouts that occur across Brazil result from lightning. Thunderbolts are also responsible for up to $200 million in annual damage to power and telecommunications lines, as well as to other structures and properties.

Most shocking, however, is that lightning strikes are responsible for roughly 100 deaths in the country each year. That’s about 10 percent of all lightning-related deaths in the world.

Pinto believes that by using satellites to map the areas most frequently hit by lightning, it may be possible to help protect power and telecommunications lines in the most-affected regions, and — perhaps — to save lives.

Arctic Ozone on Slow Recovery Track

The ozone layer that protects life on Earth may not be recovering from the damage it has suffered over the Arctic region as quickly as scientists previously thought. It turns out that more clouds than expected have been forming high above the North Pole, causing additional ozone loss in the sky over the Arctic. That condition will "provide a ‘double-whammy’ to stratospheric ozone," said Dr. Phil DeCola, Atmospheric Chemistry Program Manager at NASA Headquarters, Washington, DC. "It provides the surfaces that convert benign forms of chlorine into reactive, ozone-destroying forms, and they remove nitrogen compounds that act to moderate the destructive impact of chlorine," he said.

For the study, researchers used data from NASA’s Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite to analyze cloud data from both the north and south polar regions. What they found from the satellite was that polar stratospheric clouds currently last twice as long in the Antarctic as compared to the Arctic. Their calculations show that by 2010 the Arctic may become more "Antarctic-like" — if Arctic temperatures drop further by about 37 to 39 degrees Fahrenheit (about 3 to 4 degrees Celsius).

More than a decade ago, scientists determined that human-made chlorine and bromine compounds cause most ozone depletion. Manufacturers made the chlorine compounds, chloroflourocarbons or "CFCs," for use as refrigerants, aerosol sprays, solvents and foam-blowing agents. Manufacture of CFCs ceased in 1996 in signatory countries under the terms of the Montreal Protocol and its amendments. The Montreal Protocol bans CFC emissions. As a result, the chlorine concentration in the upper atmosphere is already starting to decline.

Dominoes and Earthquakes

Ever hear of the Domino Effect? That’s when one event triggers another similar event, which triggers another similar event, and so on down the line. Apparently, the Earth has been playing dominoes along certain earthquake fault lines — such as the one that caused major catastrophic damage in Turkey in August 1999.

Turkey is a large chunk of land that happens to lie between two massive crustal plates – one to the north (Europe), the other to the south (Arabia). These two massive plates are slowly moving toward one another, putting the squeeze on Turkey. When the squeezing pressure builds to a certain critical level, Turkey suddenly "shoots" out to the side and an earthquake occurs. Ever squeeze a watermelon seed between your fingers? Think of what happens to the seed. That’s what happens periodically to Turkey.

Scientists now believe that the horrifying earthquake in Turkey in August 1999, which claimed some 30,000 lives, was only the latest in a series of earthquakes that have been occurring along the Anatolian Fault — a 1,200-kilometer-long crack running east to west across the northern part of the country. This fault has produced major earthquakes that have progressively marched westward since 1939. Each tremor along the fault triggers the next earthquake. Each earthquake relieves stress in one region along the fault and adds stress to a neighboring part of the fault, triggering a domino effect along the fault line.

Ross Stein of the U. S. Geological Survey says that 9 out of 10 large recorded earthquakes on this Turkish fault occurred where previous shocks had increased stress. This research does not help to predict when the next earthquake will strike Turkey, but it will help scientists model how past earthquakes raise or lower risks in regions that have similar fault lines such as the one in Turkey. And California is one of those regions!

Early Bloomers Are in Heat

Global warming may alter when flowers bloom. That news comes from two British naturalists – Alastair Fitter (University of York) and his father, Richard Fitter – who have analyzed 47 years worth of data (collected by the elder Fitter) on several hundred plant species at one location in England. Their half-century survey shows that, on average, 385 plant species blossomed 4.5 days earlier over the past decade than they did between 1954 and 1990. It’s the strongest biological signal yet of climatic change.

Their records show that, since the 1960s, the mean temperatures for January, February, and March in England have increased by 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s a big enough change to affect when some temperature-sensitive plants will bloom. The problem is that not all plants appear to be affected in the same way – or at all. That doesn’t sound like a big deal until you realize these new early bloomers get a head start on claiming territory and nutrients from other plants that are not affected by the temperature change. The white dead nettle, for instance, now blooms 55 days earlier than it did three decades ago. Left unchecked, the white dead nettle could gradually kill off other species of plants that would have otherwise competed with it for space and soil nutrients. The Fritters fear that such a situation could have "profound ecosystem and evolutionary consequences."

Earthquakes in the Sky!

You bet . . . but it has little to do with thunder. It might sound strange but a rain shower may have more in common with an earthquake than you think. The fact is both processes obey similar statistical rules.

Don’t believe it? Okay, let’s look at earthquakes, which occur when two of earth’s Castel plates press against, or suddenly slip past one another. How often a quake of a certain intensity occurs (its frequency) depends on what’s called a "power law." For instance, a quake 10 times as strong as another should occur a tenth as often.

How does rain fit into the picture? Well, when Kim Christensen and his colleagues at the Imperial College, London, studied rain showers occurring along the Baltic coastline, they found a surprising relationship. When they plotted the amount of rain falling in showers against their frequency, the graph followed a power law similar to the one governing earthquakes.

How can that be? When two Castel plates collide, tension builds up in the form of stored energy, until a critical threshold is reached, beyond which the energy is released in the form of an earthquake. Similarly in the atmosphere, solar energy is stored in the form of evaporated water and is released when the clouds become over saturated.

This research might one day help atmospheric physicists improve models of the Earth’s climate. And though the power law cannot predict when an event of a particular size will occur, it does foreshadow the likelihood of extreme events in the future. This should help utility companies manage water supplies, and insurance companies prepare for future weather damage claims.

Earth’s Central Pip

Well, not only are computer chips and the portions of our French fries getting smaller nowadays, but so is the center of the Earth! We have known about Earth’s core only since 1936. It had been there all along; but we just had no way to "see" it — only indirect ways to deduce its presence. We learned of the possibility of a core only by analyzing the way seismic waves (caused by an earthquake or earth vibration) move through the Earth after an earthquake. (Imagine trying to figure out what’s inside a baseball just by tapping your finger on the ball’s surface.)

Cross-section of the earth's core
Cross-section of the earth’s core
Courtesy of the Proceedings of The National Academy of Sciences

Now some pretty amazing research has given scientists their first detailed glimpse of the inside of our planet. Miaki Ishii and Adam M. Dziewonski of Harvard University analyzed data, collected between 1964 and 1994, from more than 300,000 seismic events. They measured the path of the waves as they traveled from the epicenter of each earthquake — the point on the Earth’s surface directly above the focus of an earthquake — to seismographic stations located around the world. The process was sort of like performing a CAT scan on the planet!

Their research showed that the Earth’s core has a region that they dubbed the "innermost inner core," the radius — the distance from the center of a circle to any point on its circumference (outside edge) — of which is some 300 kilometers (about half the size of the inner core itself). The existence of a core within a core, the researchers say, could mean that Earth’s core did not form all at once, but rather developed in stages. By placing more seismometers around the globe, or at the bottom of the ocean, they conclude, it might be possible to conduct a more detailed study of the very center of the Earth.

Great Balls of Fire!

And here’s some more hot news in the tornado research front — all the way from New Zealand. Chemical engineer John Abrahamson and his former student Peter Coleman have create in the laboratory a fireball inside a mini-tornado. Now, this may sound weird, because, first, of all, you would think that the wind inside a tornado would blow out a fire. Second of all, why in the world would anyone want to do that?

Well, perhaps you have heard about the mysterious ball lightning. Ball lightning is a weird ball of fire that appears out of thin air during severe weather. It can descend from the sky during lightning storms, land on the ground, roll, and burn a path across the earth. Sometimes ball lightning can disappear with a loud explosion.

And there may be truth to the tales. Abrahamson and Coleman note that ball lightning was reportedly seen in a twister that struck Dorset in Britain in 1989. To see if tornadoes can spawn ball lightning, the researchers built a circular chamber about a meter wide. Slats at the base allowed air to enter at various angles and an extraction fan pulled air upwards from above. This created a tornado measuring a mere 10 centimeters wide. Liquefied petroleum gas was then introduced through a pipe and was ignited with a spark plug.

And the results? Believe it or not, the mini-tornado produced a fireball. Abrahamson concludes that if a natural tornado swept up fuel from the ground, and if something like a lightning strike or power line ignited it, this could form ball lightning. The experiment could even explain some UFOs. "Some pictures of supposed UFOs I’ve seen," Coleman says, "look like classic fireballs."

An Icy Grave

In March 2000, one of the largest icebergs ever recorded broke away from Antarctica’s Ross Ice Shelf south of New Zealand. Designated Iceberg B-15, this massive ice orphan was 290 kilometers (180 miles) long and 35 kilometers (22 miles) wide — almost the same size as Massachusetts. By May 2000, however, it had fractured into two main icebergs: Iceberg B-15A and Iceberg B-15B. Iceberg B-15A, the largest piece, measured about 15 stories above the water and was 145 kilometers (90 miles) long and 30 kilometers (18 miles) wide. Now, it looks like B-15A’s time is drawing to an end.

Shortly after the berg broke free of its parent ice shelf, Douglas MacAyeal (University of Chicago) and other Antarctic researchers placed automated weather stations on the drifting ice. These stations transmitted data that helped the researchers keep track of wind speed and the iceberg’s position. MacAyeal, who has also flown to and landed on B-15A, is not too optimistic about the iceberg’s "health," saying that it is "ripe" for a breakup.

MacAyeal blames a smaller — though impressive — iceberg, C-16, for the larger berg’s deterioration. Presently, C-16 is grinding into B-15A with a force equal to 4,000 pounds per square inch. If the two bergs continue to grind together in such a manner, MacAyeal says, B-15A will fracture and break apart. Indeed, MacAyeal suspects that come the Southern Hemisphere summer, B-15A will have crumbled into pieces and drifted northward away from the Ross Ice Shelf. Meanwhile, MacAyeal says that he and other scientists will be observing for the first time a cycle in which portions of the Ross Ice Shelf break off and fall into the sea as giant icebergs.

If You’re Afraid of Lightning, Don’t Live in Houston, or . . .

From June to August each year – the peak of the thunderstorm season – Houston, Texas, is hit by an average of 1,700 bolts of lightning a month – only areas in Florida are hit worse. The question is . . . why?

Well, if you believe Richard Orville (Texas A&M University), "Somehow 4.5 million people are having a major effect on the meteorology of Houston." He and his lightning researchers came to that conclusion after surveying lightning-hit data from a 1995 survey of 16 Midwestern U.S. cities. They discovered that the number of lightning strikes appear to be related to city size or air pollution.

As far as Houston is concerned, the researchers believe that the heat of the city itself creates strong patterns thunderstorm activity, which leads to intense lightning storms. But now consider the small city of Lake Charles, Louisiana, just east of Houston. Lightning strikes there reached levels as high as Houston’s, but there is no large city there to fuel the thunderheads. So what gives?

According to a report in Science News, the one thing that the two cities share is major air pollution sources, including petroleum refineries. Renyi Zhang, an atmospheric chemist at Texas A&M, says that air pollution particles could boost lightning! "Particle collisions," Zhang says "act just like rubbing your hand through your hair to separate electric charge." So air pollution, cities, and thunderclouds, all add up to one thing — more lightning.

In The Dark

I hate to do it, but it’s unavoidable. This next news item is about . . . guess what? Yes, yet another catastrophe. Let’s blame the heightened sunspot activity, because the published news is full of catastrophes. The latest one is that something catastrophic occurred on earth 1,500 years ago that may have led to the Dark Ages and coincided with the end of the Roman Empire and the death of King Arthur — all that — says Mike Baillie, of Queen’s University in Belfast, Ireland.

Baillie says the global environment changed dramatically around 540 AD, and you can see the signs clearly in tree rings from around the world. What makes this discovery important is that it is not recorded anywhere. So that makes it a new — actually old — catastrophe. "It was a catastrophic environmental downturn that shows up in trees all over the world," Baillie said.

What caused the event? Baillie believes it was bombardment of cometary debris. As further evidence, he points to 13th-century myths that refer to a comet in Gaul around 540 A.D. when the sky seemed to be on fire, according to Baillie. Hmmm. Well, that sounds convincing . . . if you know nothing about the sky. But, you’ve got to ask yourself, What are the chances that a comet could be in the sky at the same time an Aurora Borealis ("fire" in the sky) is visible. Or what about the cahnces of a comet and a volcanic eruption simulataneously? Or how about a comet and a great fire whose light is reflecting off the sky? And the answer is, pretty good to all of them.

But Baillie won’t budge on his extratrrestrial origin for the tree ring changes. "I am calling for a debate by scientists and historians on how to approach the evidence for catastrophic events of this kind, which were previously not known to have taken place," he says.

It Isn’t Always Best to Share!

Environmental monitoring stations atop the nearly 4,200-meter-high summit of Hawaii’s Mauna Loa volcano are showing that air pollution can be more than a local phenomenon.

That’s right. The sensitive instruments have found traces of arsenic, copper, and zinc lofted into the atmosphere from smelting factories in China, thousands of kilometers distant! When industrial pollution first showed up at Mauna Loa a few years ago, scientists were startled. Now, after intense study, they know that the pollution that dirties the world’s largest cities affects the whole planet.

"It turns out that Hawaii is more like a suburb of Beijing," says atmospheric scientist Thomas Cahill (University of California, Davis) — as is the West Coast of the United States.

But China is not the only culprit. Europe, for instance, gets the brunt of chemical air pollution from the United States, and similar situations occur around the globe. Every industrialized country is creating air pollution that, in turn, is affecting other distant countries.

The fact is, large storms can hoist a plume of particles high enough to hook up with the jet stream — a high-speed, meandering wind current, generally moving from a westerly direction at speeds often exceeding 400 kilometers per hour at altitudes of 15 to 25 kilometers.

Once high enough, dust from the Sahara Desert or smoke from raging forest fires in the southwest can easily travel halfway across the globe. "We live in a small world," Cahill says. "We breathe each other’s air." This is one case where, if we want to make a global change, we will have to act locally.

Kilimanjaro Snowcap May Melt Soon

When Ernest Hemingway wrote his famous short story, "The Snows of Kilimanjaro," in 1938, he probably never considered that the snows might one day disappear. But if scientists are correct, the snows atop the 5,895-meter (19,340-foot) African mountain could disappear between 2015 and 2020.

What’s truly alarming is that recent surveys from satellites and ice core samples show that the mountain has been snowcapped for nearly the last 12,000 years! The snows were deposited during an intense wet period in Earth’s history. But according to a research team led by Lonnie G. Thompson (Ohio State University), that wet period actually ended 4,000 years ago, when Africa and other parts of the world slipped into a severe drought. What could cause such a change? The possibilities include volcanic eruptions, a meteor impact, or natural global warming, Thompson says.

There’s more. Today, the mountain’s snows are melting at an extremely alarming rate — by 80 percent in just the past century. And a temperature rise, measured at about minus 17 degrees Celsius (one degree Fahrenheit) since 2000, is fast eroding the mountain’s 45-meter-high (150-foot) ice blocks. While Douglas Hardy, head of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, group that’s studying Kilimanjaro’s weather, notes that human-caused climate change is at least partly responsible for the melting, he does say that other, presently unknown factors also could be involved. Although the melting could be caused by natural climate changes, Thompson remains cautious: "To me, it’s a warning that we should be careful of how far we want to push the system."

The diminishing ice already has reduced the amount of water that supplies Tanzanian villages and hospitals. The government also fears that a snowless Kilimanjaro would ruin the area’s robust tourist industry. Some 20,000 tourists visit the mountain every year, making tourism Tanzania’s main source of income.

Life in the Clouds

Got your head in the clouds? Well, you might want to get it out. Believe it or not, the fluffy puffs of aerial cotton floating overhead may be a bacteria metropolis. Yes, these microorganisms can live and grow in clouds — at least that’s what Austrian scientists believe. (I wonder what the traffic is like up there . . . ) "We were astonished to find actively growing bacteria," says Birgitt Sattler (University of Innsbruck). "The relatively clean and cold atmosphere of high altitudes was not regarded as a suitable place for bacterial growth."

But bacteria do thrive there. Water droplets collected at a station in the Austrian Alps showed that each milliliter of meltwater (water resulting from melting ice and snow) contained around 1,500 unidentified bacteria, but they were definitely alive and well. What’s more, they almost certainly reproduced inside the cloud. "We have so far just proved that there is life up there and that it can reproduce," Sattler says. "Now we want to know who is up there." The bacteria is probably blown up into a cloud from the earth’s surface, where they must be able to survive subzero temperatures, intense ultraviolet radiation, and limited nutrients. Identifying them will reveal whether they originate from plants, surface water, or soils. Sattler also plans to find out what they are living on, and what they are producing. Meanwhile, atmospheric chemist Daniel Jacob of Harvard University believes that the bacteria could be driving the production of ozone, and therefore affecting the environment and the climate.

So, next time raindrops keep falling on your head, be sure to go home and shower and scrub . . . Hey, wait a minute. Doesn’t shower water originate from the clouds?

Oklahoma Tornado Sets Record With Winds

The killer "F-5" tornado that ripped through Oklahoma last May had wind speeds measuring 318 miles per hour, the highest ever recorded on Earth! The "F" stands for the late Tetsuya Fujita, who designed the tornado intensity scale. F-5 tornadoes (the strongest documented) can lift houses off their frames, toss large cars and trucks like toys, and rip the bark from trees. Fortunately, researchers were able to observe the Oklahoma storm system for 8 minutes before the tornado formed, then for the first 6 minutes of the tornado’s life. The researchers hope to use this data to shed light on the way in which violent thunderstorms brew tornadoes, which, in turn, can help us to better predict their occurrences and hopefully save lives.

Recycling Rocks

While Earthlings are busy recycling paper and aluminum cans, the Earth is slowly (very slowly) recycling rocks. At least that’s what’s happening with the syrupy lava being erupted from Hawaii’s volcanoes. French and U. S. scientists have recently discovered that Hawaiian lava contains traces of sediments that settled onto the ocean floor 3 billion years ago.

How did those surface sediments get into the lava? The crust underneath the Pacific Ocean is a moving plate of rock (like a raft). This plate drifts several centimeters per year toward the northwest, until its leading edge collides with another crustal raft near the Aleutian Islands — a rugged volcanic-island chain off southwest Alaska, separating the Bering Strait from the Pacific Ocean. The collision forces the ocean plate to dip beneath the continental plate. From there, the ocean plate sinks into Earth’s mantle — the layer of the Earth between the crust and the core – where it heats up and melts. The recent sediment findings now suggest that newly melted material makes its way all the way to the bottom of Earth’s mantle before it rises again to the surface in the plume of hot rock that feeds Hawaii’s volcanoes. When the volcanoes erupt, they spew out this recycled rock.

The new findings have certainly caused a "stir" (pun intended) in the scientific community. Most scientists agree with the findings that the Hawaiian lavas contain recycled rock. But not all of them believe that the evidence necessarily tells us where the recycled rocks come from.

And . . . Reflections of Earth’s Climate

Wondering how earth’s climate may be changing over the years? Well, how about keeping an eye on the moon?

Yup. That’s what researchers did in the late 1920s, and that’s what Philip R. Goode (New Jersey Institute of Technology) and his colleagues did more recently. Actually, Goode and his team are not directly watching the moon. Instead, they’re watching sunlight that has been reflected off the earth and onto the moon’s bright side, which just happens to be in shadow, a phenomenon called "earthshine." You see earthshine best when the moon is in a crescent phase; it’s the "old moon in the new moon’s arms." In essence, the scientists are using the moon as a mirror, one that will reflect changes in earth’s atmosphere.

Here’s how it works. The amount of sunlight our planet bounces back into space reflects how much cloud, atmospheric dust, and snow is covering the earth. Any radiation not being reflected is being absorbed. This means that if the earth isn’t being as reflective as normal, earth’s climate must be getting warmer.

As reported in Sky & Telescope magazine, Goode says that on average the earth reflects 30 percent of the sunlight hitting it. But recently our planet seems to be a bit brighter than it was in 1994-95. What does this mean? Is the earth getting colder? Well, stay tuned, because the earthshine measurements will have to continue for many more years before the researchers can draw any conclusions.

Secrets of the Ice Continent

NASA and the Canadian Space Agency have released the first-ever high-resolution map of the mysterious frozen continent, Antarctica. Most of the vast, barren continent lies under a thick mantle of ice. So the continent has been largely an uncharted oasis — particularly its eastern interior, where few humans have explored.

Now that situation has changed, thanks to RADARSAT — a NASA-launched Canadian satellite. Recently, scientists have stitched together more than 4,000 RADARSAT radar images from space and created a map revealing the secret world beneath the ice. The map shows large rivers of ice, volcanoes, mega snow dunes, and several freshwater lakes. Buried beneath thousands of meters of ice and snow, these dramatic features are invisible to those standing on the ice continent’s surface.

How detailed are the maps? Enough to show a research bungalow on an iceberg! The most amazing feature, however, is the twisted streams of ice draining into the ocean. Ice streams are vast rivers of channeled ice that move with speeds of up to 1,000 meters per year. "We’ve recently used RADARSAT and other satellite data," says glacier scientist Kenneth Jezek (Ohio State University), "to estimate that one ice stream system sends over 19 cubic miles of ice to the sea every year — an amount equivalent to burying Washington, DC, in 1,700 feet of ice every 12 months."

NASA’s study of the Antarctic is part of the agency’s Earth Science Enterprise, a dedicated effort to better understand how natural and human-induced changes affect our Earth’s environmental system.

Sighing Mountains

Take a deep breath. See how your chest expands? Now breathe out. See how your chest deflates? Well the surface of a volcano swells and collapses in much the same way, and these movements may help scientists better predict eruptions.

Howard Zebker, an associate professor of geophysics and electrical engineering at Stanford University, and his colleagues have used satellites to image volcanoes over the last 10 years and to document how they change shape. What they found was that the actual surface of a volcano slowly expands and collapses in what seems like great, heaving sighs. The magnitude of these mountainous sighs is really tiny — we’re talking changes of only several centimeters to several meters.

Of course, the volcanoes aren’t really breathing. What’s really happening is that molten rock rising up from the Earth’s interior is either filling, or emptying from, a volcano’s magma chamber – a storage reservoir beneath its cone. As molten rock enters the chamber, the chamber walls swell, which exerts pressure on the surface of the volcano, which also swells. When molten rock leaves the chamber, the chamber walls contract, as does the volcano’s surface.

By monitoring these changes, scientists believe that they can learn how to better predict volcanic activity. To create better predictions, however, scientists must first obtain more detailed and more frequent measurements of these volcanic sighs.

Sigh . . . What I mean is the scientists don’t really fully understand why molten rock flows in and out of these chambers in the first place. So, until they do, well, they may never fully understand why volcanoes heave-ho or blow.

Thinking Globally and Acting Locally

Environmental monitoring stations atop the nearly 14,000-foot-high summit of Hawaii’s Mauna Loa volcano are showing that air pollution can be more than a local phenomenon. The sensitive instruments are finding traces of arsenic, copper and zinc lofted into the atmosphere from smelting factories in China, thousands of miles away. When industrial pollution first showed up at Mauna Loa a few years ago, scientists were startled. Now, after intense study, they know that the pollution that dirties the world’s largest cities affects the whole Earth. The pollution happens on a small scale but the implications are global.

"It turns out Hawaii is more like a suburb of Beijing," said atmospheric scientist Thomas Cahill (University of California, Davis) – as is the West Coast of the United States. But China is not the only culprit. Europe, for instance, gets the brunt of chemical air pollution from the United States, and likewise down the line. Every industrialized country is creating air pollution, which, in turn, is affecting some other country.

The fact is, large storms can hoist a plume of particles high enough to hook up with the jet stream. Once high enough, dust from the Sahara or smoke from big fires can easily travel halfway across the globe.

"We live in a small world. We breathe each other’s air," said Cahill.

War of the Roses

We’ve all smelled it — that fresh aroma of raw earth rising up from a garden after a summer rain. But as pleasing as that smell is to us, it’s the smell of war. . .to a microbe!

That’s right. The smell we love to sniff after a summer shower is really an invisible cloud of some pretty "poisonous" chemicals released by soil-dwelling bacteria fighting for territory. The microbes use the gas as a biological weapon, to keep competitors away. David Bodanis, author of The Secret Family (Simon & Schuster, 1997), says that the smell is always there, but it simply becomes more noticeable to humans in the increased humidity after a rain.

And there’s more to that sweet smell of a humid summer day. Shrubs, Bodanis says, "send an odoriferous alcohol upward to spotlight the point where they’re being attacked by caterpillars or other gnawing insects." The odor, however, is not intended to gas out the leaf munchers. No, it’s a chemical message aimed at wasps, to attract them to the caterpillars, the wasp’s prey.

More of the aroma of summer comes from flowers planted too closely together, Bodanis says. Plants do not take such crowding lightly. To battle their neighbors, plants send hydrogen cyanide from their roots into the soil to annihilate encroachers. Rosebushes, too, are not averse to killing. They send out gases that try to counterattack fungi.

Yes, Bodanis warns us, it’s a jungle out there, and we’re blind to it. But we can sniff out the danger.

Warming Warning!

You’re a leaf. You’re hanging around with your buddies on a branch, and the Sun has been beating down on you each day for weeks. Now think of all that ultraviolet radiation burning into your "fleshy" parts. That’s a definite "Ouch!", because too much light can reduce the efficiency of photosynthesis and damage leaves.

But not to worry. Biologists in Sweden have recently discovered that leaves can warn each other against sunburn! The researchers discovered this biological wonder in the lab. After taking some shade-loving plants and exposing a third of their leaves to high-intensity light, the scientists discovered something akin to chemical warfare going on. In fact, both the exposed and shaded leaves produced a chemical defense to light. When a leaf bakes too long in the Sun, it sends out an alarm in the form of hydrogen peroxide, which spreads throughout the entire plant and warns the other leaves to produce their chemical sunscreens. The results are the first evidence that plants use systemic warning signals to protect themselves against overexposure to sunlight, as they do against other forms of injury.

What’s in Vesuvius’ Belly?

Lava! And lots of it! That’s right. According to a team of European researchers, a giant pool of magma (what lava is called when it is underground) lies beneath Mt. Vesuvius, the volcano that buried the Roman cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum in A.D. 79. The molten reservoir is at least 390 square kilometers in size and lies 8 km below the surface, under some of the most scenic coastline in Italy. It stretches from the nearby Apennine Mountains to the Phlegraean Fields — the series of volcanic structures upon which the city of Naples is built. "It was really unexpected for the reservoir to be that size — so very wide and large," says Paolo Gasparini (University of Naples), the lead researcher.

The scientists determined the size of the molten pool by setting off a series of explosions in the earth and then monitoring the seismic signals — a technique called seismic tomography. The echoes they got back from their explosions were used to build a three-dimensional picture — sort of like the way sonar (underwater sound wave technology) is used to map the topography of the ocean floors. The researchers hope to watch for seismic clues that should provide a tip-off before the next eruption, which could happen at any time.

Meanwhile, Italian archaeologists have also discovered one of the world’s best-preserved prehistoric villages, a "Bronze Age Pompeii" buried in volcanic ash near that Roman city. The ancient settlement was overwhelmed by volcanic debris when Mount Vesuvius erupted around 1800 B.C., smothering the village near present-day Nola in southern Italy many centuries before Pompeii suffered the same fate.

The World Is Such a Smashing Place!

Ever wonder what the world will be like 250 million years from now? No?

Well, I’ll tell you. Africa is going to smash into Europe as Australia migrates north to merge with Asia. Meanwhile, the Atlantic Ocean will probably widen for a while before it reverses course and later disappears.

It’s long been said that the key to the present is the past. Now it also appears that the key to the future lies in the past. We know that 250 million years ago the landmasses of earth were clustered into one supercontinent called Pangaea. But something happened to the earth during the Triassic Period (220 million years ago). Pangaea cracked apart like an eggshell. Molten rock upwelling from beneath the surface began erupting along enormous fissures, and, inch by inch, year by year, the crust ripped apart. Eventually, seaways separated the new continental areas, which slowly drifted apart as the semimolten sea of earth’s interior churned. That creeping process is what we now call plate tectonics.

Using geological clues to investigate past migrations of the continents, Christopher Scotese, a geologist at the University of Texas at Arlington, has made an educated "guesstimate" of how the continents are going to move hundreds of millions of years into the future. And guess what? What goes around comes around – meaning that in the next 250 million years, the present-day continents will slowly converge once again to form a megacontinent: Pangaea Ultima.

The problem is that beyond about 50 million years into the future, prediction becomes more difficult. Scotese says it’s like trying to predict where you’re going to be in an hour, which you can pretty much plan, but if something happens — say there’s an accident — you’re going to have to change your plans. "We don’t really know the future, obviously," Scotese says. "All we can do is make predictions of how plate motions will continue, what new things might happen, and where it will all end up. It’s all pretty much fantasy to start with. But it’s a fun exercise to think about what might happen."