Have you ever wanted to get involved in scientific research, but figured you weren't qualified? It turns out that scientists need help from people like you all over the world. Citizen science has been a popular pastime for nerdy types for quite a while, and now, online projects are connecting citizen scientists using social media.
What is citizen science, you ask? It takes many forms, but the ultimate goal is for normal folks like you and me to lend our time and abilities to scientists--to collect data, tag birds, photograph species--the list goes on. Amateurs help scientists by extending their observational reach--a network of 40 citizens all over the country can make more observations than 2-3 scientists in one location. They also help scientists by performing simple tasks that can be time-consuming but don't ultimately require specialized training.
Whether you're interested in plants, animals, climate, weather, pollution, or astronomy, there are plenty of ways to get involved--Cornell Lab of Ornithology's Citizen Science Central is a clearinghouse of citizen science projects. Some examples include:
You can even use your computer to model climate change. In these projects, it's important to follow directions from the scientists, to make sure your data and other contributions are usable. But no matter how you get involved, it's a great way to help develop a better understanding of the world around us, which helps pave the way for a better future.
Ever wanted to explore the ocean? Calm down, don't get out of your armchair, yet, Midwest. Thanks to Google Earth and researchers at Columbia University, you can take a sea cruise without leaving your pop or your Twitter account behind.
Why should you care about the oceans? Did you know that we have already consumed 90% of the population of large fish species in the ocean? That tiny plankton in the ocean provide 50-85% of the oxygen in the air we breathe? That ocean water is becoming more acidic from the same carbon dioxide emissions that warm our climate, thereby making it tough for some sea-life to survive?
Is a life without fish sticks really a life worth living?
Of course, you may not get all of that out of a spin on Google Earth, but exploring may well be the first step in your life-long romance with a crafty young cephalopod or a craggy-faced mid-ocean ridge. Plus, it's just darn cool.
Courtesy C-MOREHow would you like to be aboard a ship, circumnavigating the globe, collecting samples from the world’s ocean?
That’s exactly what Spanish oceanographers are doing on their Malaspina Expedition aboard the Research Vessel, R/V Hespérides. Scientists and crew left southern Spain in December, reached New Zealand in mid-April, and recently arrived in Hawai`i. The expedition's primary goals are to:
Courtesy C-MOREIn connection with the latter two goals, the Malaspina scientists met with their colleagues at the Center for Microbial Oceanography: Research and Education (C-MORE). The two groups of scientists are working together. "We can exchange data on the local effects, what's happening around the Hawaiian Islands, and they can tell us what's happening in the middle of the Pacific," said Dr. Dave Karl, University of Hawai`i oceanography professor and Director of C-MORE.
The Malaspina-C-MORE partnership is the kind of cooperation that can help solve environmental problems which stretch beyond an individual nation’s borders. The R/V Hespérides has now left Honolulu on its way to Panama and Colombia. From there, the scientists expect to complete their ocean sampling through the Atlantic Ocean and return to Spain by July. Buen viaje!
Courtesy NOAAWe often talk about the ocean ecosystem. And, indeed, there is really just one, world-wide ocean, since all oceans are connected. An Indian Ocean earthquake sends tsunami waves to distant coasts. Whitecaps look as white anywhere in the world. The ocean swirls in similar patterns.
However, oceanographers do find differences from place to place. For example, let’s take a closer look at the chemistry of two swirls, or gyres as they’re more properly called. Scientists have found a micro difference between the North Atlantic Gyre and the North Pacific Gyre. The Atlantic generally has really low levels of phosphorus, measurably lower than the North Pacific Gyre.
Courtesy modified from WikipediaPhosphorus is a very important element in living things. For example, it’s a necessary ingredient in ATP (adenosine tri-phosphate), the energy molecule used by all forms of life. Phosphorus is picked up from seawater by bacteria. All other marine life depends upon these bacteria, either directly or indirectly, for P. Therefore, if you’re bacteria living in the impoverished North Atlantic Gyre, you’d better be really good at getting phosphorus.
And they are!
Oceanographers at the Center for Microbial Oceanography: Research and Education (C-MORE) at the University of Hawai`i have made an important discovery. C-MORE scientists Sallie Chisholm, based at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and her former graduate student Maureen Coleman, now a scientist at the California Institute of Technology, have been studying two species of oceanic bacteria. Prochlorococcus is an autotrophic bacterium that photosynthesizes its own food; Pelagibacter, is a heterotrophic bacterium that consumes food molecules made by others.
Courtesy C-MOREDrs. Chisholm and Coleman took samples of these two kinds of bacteria from both the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean. The Atlantic samples were collected by the Bermuda Atlantic Time-Series (BATS) program. The Pacific samples were collected in the North Pacific Gyre (about 90 miles north of Honolulu) by the Hawai`i Ocean Time-Series (HOT) program. The scientists discovered surprising differences in the genetic code of the bacteria between the two locations:
Drs. Chisholm and Coleman have discovered important micro differences between bacteria of the same species in two oceanic gyres. Now we can better understand how these microbes are working to recycle an important nutrient beneath the whitecaps.
For some reason paleontology news this week seems to cover the whole sensory gamut. First off, there’s a new discovery in China of a Mesozoic mammal named Liaoconodon hui that adds more transitional evidence regarding the evolution of the reptilian lower jaw into the middle ear bones found in mammals. The research was done by paleontologists from the American Museum of Natural History and the Chinese Academy of Sciences.
The guys over at Witmer Lab write about being involved in a study of the evolution of olfaction from small theropod dinosaurs to modern birds. The olfactory bulb is the part of the brain that detects odor, and it seems some modern birds inherited a pretty good sense of smell from their dinosaurian ancestors. Here's some video about it from the Witmer Lab site.
In the seeing department Jennifer Viegas over at Discovery News has a slide show presentation (with text) about a new study appearing in Science that suggests some dinosaurs and other prehistoric reptiles were nocturnal. The study is based on the sceleral ring and larger eye sockets found in the fossil remains of some prehistoric animals. Larry Witmer also mentions the subject on his blog (it’s located below the olfaction post).
Touch and taste – the last two senses - are covered in a new study of lice evolution at the University of Illinois-Urbana, and with the discovery of a new, toothy dinosaur in New Mexico.
Kevin Johnson, an ornithologist at the UI-Urbana, proposes that since lice seem to specialize in the way they annoy their host animals, it’s likely that lice that cause today’s birds to nit-pick, scratch and preen, are descended from lice that pestered feathered dinosaurs. You can read about Johnson’s research here.
Courtesy Mark RyanLastly, Daemonosaurus chauliodus ("evil spirit reptile with outstanding teeth") is a new carnivorous dinosaur species found recently at Ghost Ranch in New Mexico. The buck-toothed theropod more-than-likely feasted on all the other creatures it shared its environment with 200 million years ago during the Triassic (yes, I know I’m probably stretching the taste sensory categorization here but I needed something). The discovery of Daemonosaurus in a block of Coelophysis remains is important because it alters scientific thought on the early history of carnivorous dinosaurs. The study was led by vertebrate paleontologist Hans-Dieter Sues of the Smithsonian and appears in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B. You can also read about it at Dinosaur Tracking.
Courtesy NASALife scientists study…well, life. They want to know everything about living things on planet Earth. One of the first things biologists want to know is who’s here. What kinds of plants and animals live in a forest? --or in a field? –or in the ocean?
If you’re an oceanographer who studies marine mammals, perhaps you’d go to sea on a ship with a good pair of binoculars and hunt for whales. As you focused your binoculars you’d be able to see different kinds of whale species. As you looked closer, for example at Humpback Whales, you'd see that each individual whale has a different black-white pattern on its tail. You might even take a biopsy, a small sample of whale flesh, and do a more detailed study of genetic differences among individual Humpbacks.
But what if you’re a microbial oceanographer? You sure can't use binocs to hunt for microbes! How can you study individual differences among tiny creatures that are only one-one-hundredth the width of a human hair? How do you hunt and capture single-celled bacteria, like Prochlorococcus, the most common bacterial species in the world’s ocean?
Courtesy C-MOREYoung scientists, Sebastien Rodrigue and Rex Malmstrom, at the Center for Microbial Oceanography: Research and Education (C-MORE) were doing research in Dr. Sallie Chisholm’s C-MORE lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology when they adapted a “laser-based micro-fluidic system” used commonly by medical researchers, for the study of marine bacteria. With this method they could put each individual tiny Prochlorococcus cell into its own little pool of seawater.
And then the excitement began.
Courtesy Dr. Anne Thompson, MITEven in scanning microscope photographs, each Prochlorococcus looks like just another teeny, tiny balloon; we can't see any individual differences. However, Sebastien and Rex used fast and inexpensive genetic methods and discovered an extraordinary variety of individual differences among Prochlorococcus. Of course the variety among these microbes doesn't have to do with tail patterns, like whales. Prochlorococcus vary in their method of getting nutrients, like iron, out of seawater.
So what? Why do we care?
We care A LOT because microbes like Prochlorococcus are operating at the nitty gritty level of cycling not only iron, but also other elements in the ocean. Like carbon. That's right, as in carbon dioxide accumulating in our atmosphere -- and ocean -- causing climate change and associated problems. The more we understand about individual differences among oceanic microbes, the more we'll understand how they influence and respond to changes in Earth's climate.
In the public media, the impacts of global warming have been less important than questioning its causes. And at any rate, reports on the impacts have alternately a catastrophic immediacy or an ambiguous, amorphous quality--the latter likely born out of caution due to the former's inaccuracy and tendency to undermine action. But there's room for a third approach--one of reasonability and inquiry.
And in fact, scientists' explorations go beyond the intangible models of earth covered in gradations of 5 colors, which represent average temperature change over the last century. Their work tests changes in the real world with real organisms. This field work generates data that can be used to test and improve the accuracy of the earth systems models we use to predict future change.
One such project is literally heating up wheat fields and spraying CO2 over them. The researchers want to find out how global warming and increasing concentrations of CO2 will impact crops. It turns out that plants will react to these changes differently in different latitudes and climes.
For example, plants in warmer climates might grow better earlier in the year only to take a dive once summer temperatures pass a certain range. Plants in cooler climates might thrive with warmer temperatures and increased CO2, whereas tropical plants might suffer from too much heat.
"There is a narrow latitudinal band that could make rising heat beneficial to growers, Kimball concluded. But farther south, especially in Mexico, the implications of the warming mean serious reductions in crop yields."
Courtesy Robert A. Rohde
The information gleaned in these plant studies is helping validate and improve existing models of vegetation so that the tools we need to make decisions about climate change are more accurate. One of the researchers in the article implies that we need a lot more of this validation than we do predictions right now. Even so, changes in reporting on climate change's impacts are often due less to increased uncertainty and more to increased information.
So it seems that rather than the impacts of climate change being universally good or bad, they're a little of both in different parts of the world. What can we do to improve communication in the media on this front?
And to take this a step further, given the varying environmental responses to global warming, it is ethical for one country to make decisions about climate change without consulting other countries?
Courtesy Miguel Tremblay
We've all been there. You're driving along, bobbing your head along to the music, when suddenly you hit a pothole and it feels like your suspension is coming apart. It's especially bad here in Minnesota, because our extreme winters take their toll on worn asphalt. What's a gal to do?
One possible solution is a better way to fix potholes. In Duluth, MN, MNDOT workers are experimenting with new ways to hot patch asphalt with recycled materials and microwaves. In wintertime, crews usually have to patch potholes temporarily until summer comes along and they can use hot asphalt to make a more permanent patch. By using a special microwave, they can make hot patches even in bitter cold temperatures, and the recycled materials make for less waste and pollution. The new fix is also faster and cheaper than current methods.
My friend Wendie pointed out some billboards that went up recently in the metro area to promote concrete as a pothole-free alternative. (Wendie also passed along a handful of the articles in this post--thanks, Wendie!)
On the Think Concrete website, there's loads of info about how concrete lasts longer and saves money. But the question on my mind is, "Which is better for the environment?"
A life cycle assessment comparing the environmental impacts of asphalt and steel-reinforced concrete was completed in 1998. It showed that while producing asphalt required more energy input, concrete required more ore and fertilizer inputs, and gave off more toxic emissions. On the other hand, asphalt was associated with higher levels of hazardous waste generation and management needs. The authors concluded that over the life of each material, the environmental impacts were roughly equal, but they also mentioned that asphalt was recycled more often than concrete, potentially turning the sustainability tide in its favor.
However, two separate studies have shown that concrete provides a better driving surface, decreasing the fuel needed to move a car down the road and thereby its emissions. (Both of the studies were completed in cooperation with cement associations, so throw some grains of salt in there). But there are other examples of concrete's environmental benefits.
And that's not all--there are some great innovations afoot with concrete. Some researchers are working to make cement with carbon absorbing properties, while others have found ways to make flexible concrete that heals itself, reducing the need for new materials and increasing safety.
Of course, there's also the pie-in-the-sky option: solar highways.
So there's this rumor running around that wind turbines kill birds, and it's true--they do. But are turbines the greatest threat birds face?
Courtesy Lionel Allorge
A number of things kill birds in the wild--predators (including cats and other birds), pollution, cars, windows, tall buildings, airplanes, and habitat loss are some examples. In suburban areas, cats may be the single greatest bird predator. A recent study in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. showed that cats were responsible for nearly 37% of gray catbird deaths--the number one cause of bird death.
Nationally, cats kill about 500 million birds per year, according to the American Bird Conservancy. By comparison, the US Fish and Wildlife Service states that wind turbines kill 440,000 birds per year--that's less than 1% of the number killed by cats. As wind farms sprout up across the US, expects turbines to kill over 1 million birds per year by 2030. Even so, that's a paltry sum compared to cats. So why all the hubbub about wind farms?
One reason may be that wind turbines are unnatural--people are fine with predators doing their thing, even if that thing is killing birds in the wild. By comparison, when human-made turbines kill birds, it makes us uncomfortable because it makes us responsible. But housecats and their feral cousins are certainly a human-related killer, too. They're not even native to North America.
Another potential reason is the NIMBY factor. NIMBY stands for "not in my back yard." It refers to situations where people reject a project, even if it's beneficial, because they don't want the negative consequences near their homes. NIMBY rears its head when people vote down a bus depot in their neighborhood, or when a group campaigns against a power plant near their homes.
Many such projects projects end up getting built in neighborhoods that don't complain--often in low-income neighborhoods, where people feel disengaged from the political process or don't have the time or money to spend fighting a project. Sometimes that's a good thing, if it's an important project and brings good things to the neighborhood. Other times it can lead to a concentration of polluting or otherwise nasty projects being built all in one place.
Courtesy Friedrich Tellberg
With wind turbines, many cite the birdie death toll, noise, and even appearance as reasons to cancel wind farm projects. But as technology improves, the turbines kill fewer birds and become quieter. New planning approaches site wind farms outside migratory paths so that birds are less likely to come into contact with them. They also place wind farms out to sea, or use designs that sit closer to the ground. There are really a ton of ideas blooming right now for wind power.
And as for the view, well, would you rather look at smog? Or cooling towers? I mean, power has to come from somewhere, and chances are it will involve building something.
But the cats, well…there isn't much you can do to improve them. (I know, I've tried teaching my cat to do the dishes, but she refuses to get her paws wet.) If you really want to help the birdies, perhaps the most effective method is to keep your kitties inside. I got mine a fake bird and she doesn't even know what she's missing.
It seems that there has been a bit of a kerfuffle about this paper in the Journal of Cosmo
Courtesy Microbial Diversity, Rolf Schauder and David Graham, © 1997logy, an online-only publication apparently known for publishing controversial points of view endorsing, among other things, the hypothesis that life began outside of the Earth. The paper in question, by NASA researcher Richard Hoover, discusses structures found in three meteorites that visually and chemically resemble bacteria. If these meteorites really contain bacteria whose origins are extraterrestrial (rather than plain old Earth bacteria that contaminated the meteorite samples), it's clear that Hoover has made the kind of discovery that will represent a revolution in scientific thinking.
But that's an awfully big "if". Critics suggest that contamination is vastly more likely (see a nice collection of comments here), and generally criticize the research, the publication, and various other facets of this story.
This whole affair can be read a number of ways: as an illustration of the rule of thumb that "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence"; as an example of the politics that sometimes surround scientific research and publication; or even as evidence that people have a way of seeing what they want to see given ambiguous evidence.
But despite all the criticism, I confess that anything suggesting the possibility of extraterrestrial life sets my little heart a-flutterin'. Very few ideas have the same power to catch the imagination as that of alien life: that something so impossible might actually be possible, that science fiction might have some truth, that our understanding of the universe might still be completely and profoundly overturned by something so simple as a few cells inside a space rock. Remember when NASA teased this story about a revolution in astrobiological thinking? I was on pins and needles for days, hoping that they were going to announce definitive evidence of alien life. And, admit it, when you saw this story's headline you were secretly hoping for the same thing...