Literally dig deeper into the earth surface and discover what is lying right under your feet.
I was not even a thought in the 1970s, but I've heard it was a pretty good time to be a rock. People took you as their pets, and I'll bet Professor Lawrence Edwards had a couple Pet Rocks back in the day.
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons
You see, Edwards is an isotope geochemist, which sounds just about as awesome as it is: he studies the teeny tiny radioactive elements in rocks. These elements help Edwards date rocks. No, that doesn't mean he wines and dines them. Quite the opposite! Edwards developed a sneaky way to figure out how old they are (and let me tell you, nobody wants to be reminded of their age when they're hundreds of thousands of years old).
Edwards' method is similar to carbon-14 dating, only way better. In certain kinds of rocks, Edwards can date rocks as old as 500,000 years compared to carbon-14's measly 50,000 years. That's a whole order of magnitude older! Here's how Edwards' method works: Scientists know that half of any quantity of uranium decays into thorium every 245,500 years. Edwards uses a mass spectrometer to measure the ratio of two radioactive elements -- uranium and thorium. Then, Edwards compares the present ratio of uranium to thorium to what scientists would expect from the half-life decay and bada-bing, bada-boom! Simply genius.
Why am I getting all hyped up over some old rocks? Because they're helping us learn more about ourselves and the tenuous place we hold in this world. For example, Edwards has used his super-special method to trace the strength of monsoon seasons in China. Turns out weak monsoon seasons correlate with the fall of several historical dynasties, and strong monsoons correlate with climatic warming in Europe. Edwards calls this work,
"the best-dated climate record covering this time period."
While browsing through some recent science stories, I came across this article about a gigantic boulder unleashed by the unpronounceable Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajokull that erupted earlier this year. The rock stands over 50 feet tall and is estimated to weigh about 1000 tons! That is one big chunk of stone! There's a photo of it, with an explanation of how the impressive boulder came to rest where the photographer shot it.
Courtesy NASA/JPL/University of ArizonaAn National Geographic website article says the next rover mission to the planet Mars could conceivably find the fossilized remains of life that once lived there. Data from the Opportunity and Spirit rover missions found evidence of surface deposits and flowing water on the Red Planet, and sedimentary rock outcrops laid down by water in the past. Other indications suggest a vast ocean once covered the planet. Whether the planet's thin atmosphere or hostile surface environment could sustain life is unknown. But with all these signs of water, the possibility of finding signs of past life increases. A new study led by J. Alexis Palmero Rodriguez of the Planetary Science Institute theorizes that water on Mars may have been stable beneath the surface for billions of years - long enough for life to develop. And the subsurface may have seeped up through cracks in the crust and left behind deposits on the surface, and possibly fossil remains of life. Palmero and his colleagues hope a future rover mission will focus on the northern regions of the planet where fossils may be found.
The Associated Press reports that Mt. Merapi on the island of Java is pouring tons of hot ash, dust and smoke into the air in a massive eruption today. The volcano, one of world's most active, is located in the Ring of Fire, an area high in volcanic and seismic activity due to the extreme forces of plate tectonics that occur around the Pacific Ocean basin.
Merapi began erupting last week and has forced tens of thousands of villagers to evacuate the area. So far, the eruptions have killed nearly 40 people and burned several others, causing authorities to expand the danger zone from a 6-mile to 9-mile radius. Several flights in and out of local airports have been canceled due to the ash cloud. The recent eruption is the largest so far, and scientists think things could get worse.
To give you an idea of what's involved, here's a video showing a pyroclastic flow from an eruption last year on Mt. Merapi. From the looks of it, it's not something you want to try to outrun.
Courtesy Mark RyanIn keeping with both this week's celebration of Earth Science, and this year's Blog Action Day 2010 theme of all things watery, here's an educational web page titled Water Science for Schools created by the United States Geological Survey. The site covers topics like water basics, the water cycle, and water quality. It also has links to an ocean of water-related information.
Courtesy Mark RyanToday is National Fossil Day! It’s a day set aside to raise and promote public awareness of the educational and scientific value of fossils found on public lands and elsewhere - and the importance of preserving them for future study. The day is co-sponsored by the National Park Service and the American Geological Institute, and is the first of what organizers hope will be an annual day of fossil appreciation.
Several national parks, museums, and professional organizations throughout the country are celebrating by hosting special events. Check here for national park activities, or check your favorite local museum’s website for NFD events in your area.
The Science Museum of Minnesota will have a slightly belated celebration of the day this coming Saturday (October 16) from 1pm-4pm with special fossil activities taking place in several galleries, including a first glimpse at the new mammoth skull that’s been under preparation in the paleo lab. The skull will be out on the floor in the Dinosaur and Fossils gallery.
Since the weather’s been so nice here in the Twin Cities area, I celebrated the day the best way I know how: by going fossil hunting. One of my favorite spots to collect is near the town of Cannon Falls, located about a forty-minute drive from my house in Minneapolis. I tossed my rock hammer, bags and other collecting implements (i.e. something to kneel on) into the backseat of my car and headed southeast.
Courtesy Mark RyanThere are three or four locations in the Cannon Falls area where I like to collect. One of them is quite well known, and has been used by students of all ages for fossil field trips (I first visited it in the 1970s as part of a paleontology class I took at the University of Minnesota). The site outcrops along Goodhue county road 25 at the crest of a hill just a couple miles out of town. It looks like any other road ditch, but it’s one of the best fossil sites in the state.
Courtesy Mark RyanThe fossils found there are the remains of ancient marine life that lived on the bottom of a shallow sea that covered much of southern Minnesota during the Ordovician period about 450 million years ago. The fauna includes bryozoans (both branches and gumdrop-shaped prasopora), gastropods, horn coral, brachiopods, Cheerio-shaped crinoid stem segments, trilobites and cephalopods. In the Twin Cities the same fossil-bearing strata, known as the Decorah shale, can be found all along the upper banks of the Mississippi river. Ninety feet of the fossiliferous Decorah is exposed in the quarries at Lilydale Regional Park across from downtown St. Paul. Lilydale has been a popular collecting site for many years but access to it involves buying a permit, strenuous climbing, and sometimes precarious perching to get at the fossils. (The St. Paul parks department has closed Lilydale for the rest of the 2010 season due to flooding).
In Cannon Falls collecting couldn’t be easier. The topography is essentially flat and the fossils are mostly weathered out of their matrix, making for easy pickings.
Courtesy Mark RyanI split a couple hours of collecting between two different locations: the roadside along CR25, and another site my brother and I learned about on a previous collecting trip from a curious local farmer who had stopped to ask what the heck we were doing in the ditch. I’m not ready to disclose the location of this other site just yet. But I will say it has yielded some very fine specimens in the two years I’ve been collecting there. As you can see by the photos, those few hours spent at Cannon Falls paid off well. Recent heavy rains had brought forth a whole new crop of fossils, making it one of the better field excursions I’ve made to the area in several months. It was a great way to celebrate National Fossil Day.
Courtesy Mark RyanI also celebrated another way by entering a piece in the National Fossil Day art contest. I’m happy to report that I won Third Place in my age bracket (19 & above) with my Digging Fossils graphic (see photo). You can view all the winning entries at the National Fossil Day website.
Courtesy Mark RyanThis week is officially Earth Science Week, a week-long celebration and appreciation of the earth sciences. Sponsored by the American Geological Institute, Earth Science Week runs through this coming Saturday, October 16. You can check the site for events and other information. Also, this week, the Carnegie Museum of Natural History is hosting the 70th Annual Meeting of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology in Pittsburgh. The event runs through tomorrow (Oct. 13), which also happens to be National Fossil Day. The Science Museum in Minnesota will be holding its own celebration of National Fossil Day later on Saturday October 16. Fossil-related activities will be taking place throughout the museum, including a new mammoth skull in the Dinosaurs and Fossils gallery. Come down to see some great fossils, get questions answered, or to learn about fossil collecting sites in the Twin Cities area. So get out there. Do some rock hunting, enjoy your regional geology, learn about rocks and fossils at your local museum, or dig up your own fossils at your favorite collecting site (legally, of course). Whatever you do, this week's a great time to celebrate the earth sciences.
You’d probably say, “Huh?? Hold on, what is geothermal energy anyway, and how does it work?”
Geothermal is heat from deep inside the earth. Because heat is a form of energy, it can be captured and used to heat buildings or make electricity. There are three basic ways geothermal power plants work:
(Click here for great diagrams of each of these geothermal energy production methods.)
“And what about carbon sequestration too? What’s that and how does it work?”
Courtesy Department of Energy
Carbon sequestration includes carbon (usually in the form of carbon dioxide, CO2) capture, separation, transportation, and storage or reuse. Plants, which “breathe” CO2, naturally sequester carbon, but people have found ways to do it artificially too. When fossil fuels are burned to power your car or heat your home, they emit CO2, a greenhouse gas partially responsible for global climate change. It is possible to capture those emissions, separate the bad CO2, and transport it somewhere for storage or beneficial reuse. CO2 can be stored in under the Earth’s surface or, according to Martin Saar’s research, used in geothermal energy production.
Alright. We’re back to Professor Saar’s research. Ready to know just how he plans to sequester carbon in geothermal energy production?
It’s a simple idea, really, now that you know about geothermal energy and carbon sequestration. Prof. Saar says geothermal energy can be made even greener by replacing water with CO2 as the medium carrying heat from deep within the earth to the surface for electricity generation. In this way, waste CO2 can be sequestered and put to beneficial use! As a bonus, CO2 is even more efficient than water at transferring heat.
But don’t take my word for it. Come hear Professor Martin Saar’s lecture, CO2 – Use It Or Lose It!, yourself during the Institute on the Environment’s Frontiers on the Environment lecture series, Wednesday, October 27, 2010 from noon-1pm.
Frontiers in the Environment is free and open to the public with no registration required! The lectures are held in the Institute on the Environment’s Seminar Room (Rm. 380) of the Vocational-Technical Education Building on the St. Paul campus (map).
Courtesy Mark RyanNext month October 13th has been designated National Fossil Day. A joint effort by the National Park Service (NPS) and several organizations, it will be part of National Earth Science Week that runs October 10-16. According to the NPS website National Fossil Day will be “a celebration organized by the National Park Service to promote public awareness and stewardship of fossils, as well as to foster a greater appreciation of their scientific and educational values.”
Organizers also hope to put focus on the importance of science-based management of fossils found on public lands, promote awareness of those resources, and encourage the paleontology community to get involved in public outreach programs throughout the country.
The day’s planned activities include a live celebration on the National Mall in Washington, D. C., where you’ll be able to listen to talks by paleontologists, watch actual fossils being prepped in the Smithsonian’s Natural History Museum’s paleo lab, join in a fossil scavenger hunt, have your own fossils identified, and even learn how to become a junior paleontologist. It’s all free and open to the public. Park rangers will also be present. On the other side of the country the day will also mark the opening of the Trail of Time at Grand Canyon National Park. The nearly 3-mile geological timeline trail will highlight canyon vistas and the vast time spans on display in the rock record there.
Also, check here for other activities elsewhere in the country. If none of those work for you, there are several ways you can still get involved. One is to participate in the Fossil Day Art Contest or download a Junior Paleontologist Activity Booklet (available here) and have some fun with that. I have to admit I’m a little disappointed to learn it’s only for ages 5-12. But another good idea is to just go out fossil hunting in your own area that day (Minnesota info here). It’s a lot of fun and a nice way to enjoy a beautiful day outside and dig around in the dirt. Plus you just never know what you’ll find. Maybe it will be this year's big discovery.