April 19, 2013
Last year, to celebrate the 42nd Earth Day, we took a look at 10 of the most surprising, disheartening, and exciting things we’d learned about our home planet in the previous year—a list that included discoveries about the role pesticides play in bee colony collapses, the various environmental stresses faced by the world’s oceans and the millions of unknown species are still out in the environment, waiting to be found.
This year, in time for Earth Day on Monday, we’ve done it again, putting together another list of 10 notable discoveries made by scientists since Earth Day 2012—a list that ranges from specific topics (a species of plant, a group of catfish) to broad (the core of planet Earth), and from the alarming (the consequences of climate change) to the awe-inspiring (Earth’s place in the universe).
1. Trash is accumulating everywhere, even in Antarctica. As we’ve explored the most remote stretches of the planet, we’ve consistently left behind a trail of one supply in particular: garbage. Even in Antarctica, a February study found (PDF), abandoned field huts and piles of trash are mounting. Meanwhile, in the fall, a new research expedition went to study the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, counting nearly 70,000 pieces of garbage over the course of a month at sea.
2. Climate change could erode the ozone layer. Until recently, atmospheric scientists viewed climate change and the disintegration of the ozone layer as entirely distinct problems. Then, in July, Harvard researcher Jim Anderson (who won a Smithsonian Ingenuity Award for his work) led a team that published the troubling finding that the two might be linked. Some warm summer storms, they discovered, can pull moisture up into the stratosphere, an atmospheric layer 6 miles up. Through a chain of chemical reactions, this moisture can lead to the disintegration of ozone, which is crucial for protecting us from ultraviolet (UV) radiation. Climate change, unfortunately, is projected to cause more of these sorts of storms.
3. This flower lives on exactly two cliffs in Spain. In September, Spanish scientists told us about one of the most astounding survival stories in the plant kingdom: Borderea chouardii, an extremely rare flowering plant that is found on only two adjacent cliffs in the Pyrenees. The species is believed to be a relic of the Tertiary Period, which ended more than 2 million years ago, and relies on several different local ant species to spread pollen between its two local populations.
4. Some catfish have learned to kill pigeons. In December, a group of French scientists revealed a phenomenon they’d carefully been observing over the previous year: a group of catfish in Southwestern France had learned how to leap onto shore, briefly strand themselves, and swim back into the water to consume their prey. With more than 2,000,000 Youtube views so far, this is clearly one of the year’s most widely enjoyed scientific discoveries.
5. Fracking for natural gas can trigger moderate earthquakes. Scientists have known for a while that whenever oil and gas are extracted from the ground at a large scale, seismic activity can be induced. Over the past few years, evidence has mounted that injecting water, sand and chemicals into bedrock to cause gas and oil to flow upward—a practice commonly known as fracking—can cause earthquakes by lubricating pre-existing faults in the ground. Initially, scientists found correlations between fracking sites and the number of small earthquakes in particular areas. Then, in March, other researchers found evidence that a medium-sized 2011 earthquake in Oklahoma(which registered a 5.7 on the moment magnitude scale) was likely caused by injecting wastewater into wells to extract oil.
6. Our planet’s inner core is more complicated than we thought. Despite decades of research, new data on the iron and nickel ball 3,100 miles beneath our feet continue to upset our assumptions about just how the earth’s core operates. A paper published last May showed that iron in the outer parts of the inner core is losing heat much more quickly than previously estimated
, suggesting that it might hold more radioactive energy than we’d assumed, or that novel and unknown chemical interactions are occurring. Ideas for directly probing the core are widely regarded as pipe dreams, so our only options remains studying it from afar, largely by monitoring seismic waves.
7. The world’s most intense natural color comes from an African fruit. When a team of researchers looked closely at the blue berries of Pollia condensata, a wild plant that grows in East Africa, they found something unexpected: it uses an uncommon structural coloration method to produce the most intense natural color ever measured. Instead of pigments, the fruit’s brilliant blue results from nanoscale-size cellulose strands layered in twisting shapes, which which interact with each other to scatter light in all directions.
8. Climate change will let ships cruise across the North Pole. Climate change is sure to create countless problems for many people around the world, but one specific group is likely to see a significant benefit from it: international shipping companies. A study published last month found that rising temperatures make it probable that during summertime, reinforced ice-breaking ships will be able to sail directly across the North Pole—an area currently covered by up to 65 feet of ice—by the year 2040. This dramatic shift will shorten shipping routes from North America and Europe to Asia.
9. One bacteria species conducts electricity. In October, a group of Danish researchers revealed that the seafloor mud of Aarhus’ harbor was coursing with electricity due to an unlikely source: mutlicellular bacteria that behave like tiny electrical cables. The organisms, the team found, built structures that traveled several centimeters down into the sediment and conduct measurable levels of electricity. The researchers speculate that this seemingly strange behavior is a byproduct of the way of the bacteria harvests energy from the nutrients buried in the soil.
10. Our Earth isn’t alone. Okay, this one might not technically be a discovery about Earth, but over the past year we have learned a tremendous amount about what our Earth isn’t: the only habitable planet in the visible universe. The pace of exoplanet detection has accelerated rapidly, with a total of 866 planets in other solar systems discovered so far. As our methods have become more refined, we’ve been able to detect smaller and smaller planets, and just yesterday, scientists finally discovered a pair of distant planets in the habitable zone of their stars that are relatively close in size to Earth, making it more likely than ever that we might have spied an alien planet that actually supports life.
April 18, 2013
If you weren’t on the East Coast during Hurricane Sandy, you likely experienced the disaster through electronic means: TV, radio, the internet or phone calls. As people across the country tracked the storm by listening to information broadcast through electromagnetic waves, a different kind of wave, produced by the storm itself, was traveling beneath their feet.
Keith Koper and Oner Sufri, a pair of geologists at the University of Utah, recently determined that the crashing of massive waves against Long Island, New York and New Jersey—as well as waves hitting each other offshore—generated measurable seismic waves across much of the U.S., as far away as Seattle. As Sufri will explain in presenting the team’s preliminary findings today during the Seismological Society of America‘s annual meeting, they analyzed data from a nationwide network of seismometers to track microseisms, faint tremors that spread through the earth as a result of the storm waves’ force.
The team constructed a video (below) of the readings coming from 428 seismometers over the course of a few days before and after the storm hit. Initially, as it traveled up roughly parallel to the East Coast , readings remained relatively stable. Then, “as the storm turned west-northwest,” Sufri said in a press statement, “the seismometers lit up.” Skip to about 40 seconds into the video to see the most dramatic seismic shift as the storm hooks toward shore:
The microseisms shown in the video differ from the waves generated by earthquakes. The latter arrive suddenly, in distinct waves, while the microseisms that resulted from Sandy arrived continuously over time, more like a subtle background vibration. That makes converting these waves to the moment magnitude scale used to measure earthquakes somewhat complicated, but Koper says that if the energy from these microseisms was compressed into a single wave, it would register as a 2 or 3 on the scale, comparable to a minor earthquake that can be felt by a few people but causes no damage to buildings.
The seismic activity peaked when Sandy changed direction, the researchers say, triggering a sudden increase in the number of waves running into each other offshore. These created massive standing waves, which sent significant amounts of pressure into the seafloor bottom, shaking the ground.
It’s not uncommon for events other than earthquakes to generate seismic waves—Hurricane Katrina produced shaking that was felt in California, landslides are known to have distinct seismic signatures and the meteor that crashed in Russia in February produced waves as well. One of the reasons the readings from Sandy scientifically interesting, though, is the potential that this type of analysis could someday be used to track a storm in real-time, as a supplement to satellite data.
That possibility is enabled by the fact that a seismometer detects seismic motion in three directions: vertical (up-and-down shaking) as well as North-South and East-West movement. So, for example, if most of the shaking detected by a seismometer in one location is oriented North-South, it indicates that the source of the seismic energy (in this case, a storm) is located either North or South of the device, rather than East or West.
A nationwide network of seismometers—such as Earthscope, the system that was used for this research and is currently still being expanded—could eventually provide the capacity to pinpoint the center of a storm. “If you have enough seismometers, you can get enough data to get arrows to point at the source,” Koper said.
Satellites, of course, can already locate a hurricane’s eye and limbs. But locating the energetic center of the storm and combining it with satellite observations of the storm’s extent could eventually enable scientists to measure the energy being released by a hurricane in real-time, as the storm evolves. Currently, the Saffir-Simpson scale is used to quantify hurricanes, but there are several criticisms of it—it’s solely based on wind speed, so it overlooks the overall size of a storm and the amount of precipitation in produces. Including the raw seismic energy released by a storm could be a way of improving future hurricane classification schemes.
The prospect of seismometers (instruments typically used to detect earthquakes) being employed to supplement satellites in tracking storms is also interesting because of a recent trend in the exact opposite direction. Last month, a satellite data was used for the first time to detect an earthquake by picking up extremely low pitched sound waves that traveled from the epicenter through outer space. The fields of meteorology and geology, it seems, are quickly coming together, reflecting the real-world interaction between the Earth and the atmosphere that surrounds it.
March 29, 2013
If you were to hit the seafloor and continue to travel down, you’d run into an ecosystem unlike any other on earth. Beneath several hundred meters of seafloor sediment is the Earth’s crust: thick layers of lava rock running with cracks that cover around 70% of the planet’s surface. Seawater flows through the cracks, and this system of rock-bound rivulets is enormous: it’s the largest aquifer on earth, containing 4% of global ocean volume, says Mark Lever, an ecologist who studies anaerobic (no-oxygen) carbon cycling at Aarhus University in Denmark.
The sub-seafloor crust may also be the largest ecosystem on earth, according to a new study by Lever, published this month in Science. For seven years, he incubated 3.5 million-year old basalt rock collected from 565 meters below the ocean floor–the depth of nearly two stacked Eiffel towers–and found living microbes. These microbes live far away from the thriving bacterial communities at mid-ocean ridges, and survive by slowly churning sulfur and other minerals into energy.
But just how big is this chemically-fueled ecosystem that survives entirely without oxygen? If the results from his sample, collected from below the seafloor off the coast of Washington state, are similar to those found across the planet, then diverse microbial communities could survive throughout the ocean’s crust, covering two-thirds of the earth’s surface and potentially going miles deep.
The sub-seafloor crust has plenty of space and energy-rich minerals–a welcoming potential habitat for a large microbial community–“but we have no idea what the ecosystem looks like,” says Julie Huber, a microbial oceanographer at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. “Mark’s evidence would point to it being a very different world.”
Microbes that get their energy from minerals, rather than from sunlight, are far from rare. The most well known of these so-called chemoautotrophic or chemosynthetic bacteria are those found at hydrothermal vents in the deep sea. Some of these bacteria live symbiotically with giant tubeworms, mussels and clams, providing chemically-produced energy to these larger organisms as they “breathe” the sulfur-rich water erupting from the vent–not unlike how plants convert sunlight into energy at the surface. Chemosynthetic microbes are also found in the rotting and oxygen-poor muck of salt marshes, mangroves and seagrass beds—“any place you’ve got stinky black mud, you can have chemoautotrophy,” says Chuck Fisher, a deep-sea biologist at Pennsylvania State University in College Park.
But what makes Lever’s sub-seafloor microbes different is that they don’t use any oxygen at all. The symbiotic bacteria at hydrothermal vents are often described as “life without sunlight,” but they still rely on sunlight indirectly by using sun-produced oxygen in the chemical reaction to generate energy. Chemosynthetic microbes in salt marshes feed on decomposing plants and animals, which got their energy from sunlight. Even deep-sea sediment is accumulated from an assortment of dead animals, plants, microbes and fecal pellets that relies on light energy.
The oceanic crust microbes, on the other hand, rely entirely on
non-oxygen-containing molecules derived from rock and completely removed from photosynthesis, such as sulfate, carbon dioxide and hydrogen. “In that sense it’s a parallel universe, in that it runs on a different type of energy,” says Lever. These molecules provide a lot less energy than oxygen, creating a sort of microbial slow food movement. So instead of dividing and growing quickly like many oxygen-based bacteria, Fisher suspects that microbes in the Earth’s crust may divide once every hundred or thousand years.
But just because they’re slow doesn’t mean they’re uncommon. “There are lots of data that there is a large, very productive biosphere under the surface,” says Fisher.
In addition, microbial population sizes in different areas of the crust may vary greatly, Huber notes. Through her studies on the fluid found between the cracks in the crust, she says that in some areas the fluid contains about the same number of microbes as standard deep-sea water collected at ocean depths of 4,000 meters (2.5 miles): around 10,000 microbial cells per milliliter. In other regions, such as at the Juan de Fuca Ridge in the Pacific Ocean where Lever found his microbes, there are fewer cells, around 8,000 microbes per milliliter. And in other regions, such as in non-oxygenated fluid deep in hydrothermal vents, there can be around 10 times more.
It’s not just the number of microbes that vary depending on location–it’s possible that different microbial species are found in different types of crust. “Different types of rock and different types of chemistry should result in different types of microbes,” says Andreas Teske, a deep-sea microbial ecologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and co-author on Lever’s paper. The Juan de Fuca Ridge is a relatively hot area bursting with new rock, which tends to be made of more reactive minerals and thus able to provide more energy. Other parts of the crust are older, composed of different minerals, and cooler. And, in some regions, oxygenated water reaches down to the cracks.
It’s this infiltrating seawater that keeps this sub-seafloor ecosystem from existing on a completely separate plane from our oxygenated one. “The crust plays a significant role in influencing the chemical composition of the ocean and the atmosphere, ultimately influencing [nutrient] cycles on earth,” says Lever. Some of the compounds created by oceanic crust microbes from rock are water soluble, and will eventually enter the ocean. Sulfur, for example, is present in magma—but after the microbes use it for energy, it’s converted to sulfate. Then it dissolves and becomes an important nutrient in the ocean food chain.
Lever’s find of a microbial community in the crust could catalyze the scientific community to answer these questions. For example, what kinds of microbes are found where, do they interact through interconnected cracks in the rock, and what role do they play in mineral and nutrient cycling? In some ways, it’s very basic exploratory work. “A lot of what we do on the seafloor is similar to what we’re doing on Mars right now,” says Huber. “Controlling [NASA’s Mars Rover] Curiosity is very similar to operating an ROV under the ocean.”
March 27, 2013
Imagine a 100-million-ton mass of rock, soil, mud and trees sliding off a mountain 30 miles from a major city, and no one knowing that it happened until days later.
Such was the case after Typhoon Morakot hit Taiwan in 2009, dumping around 100 inches of rain in the southern regions of the island over the course of 24 hours. Known as the Xiaolin landslide, named for the village it hit and obliterated, the thick carpet of debris it left behind smothered 400 people and clogged a nearby river. Though only an hour’s drive outside of the crowded city of Tainan, officials didn’t know about the landslide for two days.
“To be that close and not know that something catastrophic had happened is just amazing,” notes Colin Stark, a geomorphologist at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory (LDEO). But now, “seismology allows us to report on such events in real time.” Research published last week in Science by Stark and lead author Göran Ekström, an LDEO seismologist, show that scientists armed with data from the Global Seismographic Network can not only pinpoint where a large landslide occurred, but also can reveal how fast the churning mass traveled, how long it ran out, its orientation within the landscape and how much material moved.
All this can be done remotely, without visiting the landslide. Moreover, it can be done quickly, in stark contrast to the more tedious methods typically used to estimate characteristics of a landslide. In the past, scientists had to wait for reports of a landslide to filter back to them, and once alerted they searched for photos and satellite images of the slide. If they could, they coordinated trips to the landslide tongue—well after the event—to estimate the mass of disturbed rock.
But the new method puts landslide detection and characterization in line with how scientists currently track earthquakes from afar. Just as seismometers tremble when energy from a strong quake hits their locations, allowing seismologists to determine the precise location, depth and direction of rupture as well as the amount of energy released during the quake and the type of fault tectonic plates slid along, these same seismometers move during a landslide. The shaking isn’t the frenetic twitches typically seen in seismographs of earthquakes or explosions—the signatures are long and sinuous.
Ekström and colleagues have spent many years combing through reams of seismic data in search of unusual signatures that can’t be traced to typical earthquakes. Previously, their work on seismic signatures in tectonically dead Greenland classified a new type of shaking, called “glacial earthquakes.” But the genesis of the recent research on landslides can be traced back to Typhoon Morakot.
After the storm hit Taiwan, Ekström noticed something strange on global seismic charts—their wiggles indicated that a cluster of events, each with shaking exceeding a magnitude 5 earthquake, had occurred somewhere on the island. “Initially, no other agency had detected or located the four events that we had found, so it seemed very likely that we had detected something special,” Ekström explained. A few days later, news reports of landslides—including the monster that swept through Xiaolin—began to pour in, confirming what the scientists hypothesized about the events’ source.
Equipped with seismic data from the Xiaolin landslide, the authors developed a computer algorithm to search for telltale seismic signatures of large landslides in past records and as they happened. After collecting information from the 29 largest landslides that occurred around the world between 1980 and 2012, Ekström and Stark began to deconstruct seismic wave energies and amplitudes to learn more about each.
The guiding principles behind their method can be traced to Newton’s third law of motion: for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. “For instance, when rock falls off a mountainside, the peak is suddenly lighter,” explains Sid Perkins of ScienceNOW. The mountain “springs upward and away from the falling rock, generating initial ground motions that reveal the size of the landslide as well as its direction of travel.”
Looking across all their analyses, Ekström and Stark find that, regardless of whether the landslide was triggered by an erupting volcano or a scarp saturated with rainwater, landslide characteristics are governed by the length of the mountainside that broke off to start the landslide. This consistency hints at hitherto elusive broad principles that guide landslide behavior, which will help scientists to better assess future hazards and risk from failing slopes.
For those who study landslides, the paper is seminal for another reason. David Petley, a professor at the U.K.’s Durham University, writes in his blog that “we now have a technique that allows large landslides to be automatically detected. Given that these tend to occur in very remote areas, they often go unreported.”
Petley, who studies landslide dynamics, wrote a companion piece to Ekström’s and Stark’s paper, also published in Science, that provides a bit of perspective to the new results. He notes that “the technique currently overdetects large, fast landslides by an order of magnitude, requiring considerable work, for example, with satellite imagery to filter out the false-positive events. Nevertheless, it opens the way to a true global catalog of rock avalanches that will advance understanding of the dynamics of high mountain areas. It may also enable the real-time detection of large, valley-blocking landslides, providing a warning system for vulnerable communities downstream.”
The insight gained by Ekström’s and Stark’s method is readily seen in a striking example of a landslide that occurred in northern Pakistan in 2010. Satellite images of debris flow, which is spread on the flanks of the Siachen Glacier, suggest that the event was triggered by one, maybe two episodes of slope failure. However, Ekström and Stark show that the debris slid from seven large landslides over the course of a few days.
“People rarely see large landslides happen; they typically only see the aftereffects,” Ekström notes. But thanks to him and his co-author, scientists around the world can now quickly get a first glance.
January 3, 2013
Last year, noted meteorite collector Jay Piatek traveled to Morocco and bought a single stone, less than a pound in weight, that had been discovered in the country some time earlier. When he passed it on to researchers at the University of New Mexico to perform a mineral analysis, they found something unexpected.
The meteor seemed to have originated on Mars, but the rock’s composition didn’t exactly match any of the well-studied meteorites from there found previously. When the researchers compared it to data from soil and rock samples obtained by Curiosity and other recent Martian rovers, though, they realized that rather than originating in the planet’s mantle, as the others had, it appeared to have come from the Martian crust.
Most intriguingly, when they analyzed the basaltic breccia rock even more closely, they discovered it contained a large quantity of water molecules locked in its crystalline structure. While previous studies of Martian meteorites have suggested the presence of water on the red planet, this sample’s analysis, published today in Science, revealed that it contained 10 times more water than any Martian meteorite examined before.
The discovery of the water molecules in the rock at concentrations of 6000 parts per million could indicate the presence of liquid water sometime during Mars’ history. “The high water content could mean there was an interaction of the rocks with surface water either from volcanic magma, or from fluids from impacting comets during that time,” study co-author Andrew Steele of the Carnegie Institute said in a statement.
Apart from the presence of water, the researchers say that information they’ve gleaned over the course of a year-long analysis of the meteor—the first ever linked to the Martian crust—could significantly impact our understanding of the planet’s geology as a whole. The meteorite is primarily composed of chunks of basalt cemented together, indicating that it formed from rapidly cooling lava, likely on the planet’s crust. While we’ve found meteorites from the Moon that match this composition, we haven’t seen anything like it from Mars previously.
Already, the researchers determined that the specimen is roughly 2.1 billion years-old, formed during Mars’ Amazonian epoch, a time period from which we had no previous rock samples. “It is the richest Martian meteorite geochemically,” Steele said. “Further analyses are bound to unleash more surprises.”