Stories tagged Earth and Space Science


Last week oil company passengers flying in a helicopter spotted and videotaped a mysterious crater located in a remote area of northern Siberia. The crater which measures 80-100 meters across, seems to have appeared over night. Authorities have puzzled over its origin, and once the video appeared on-line, wild speculations flared up across the Internet regarding its origin. Did a meteorite create it? Is it the site of a crashed alien spaceship? Could it be another Tunguska event? Or a sinkhole? Or simply the result from a huge release of natural gas?

A group of Russian scientists from Russia's Academy of Science and the State Scientific Center of Arctic Research finally reached the extremely isolated location on the appropriately named Yamal peninsula (Yamal means "end of the world"). The peninsula is home to reindeer and indigenous reindeer herders but sets atop a vast natural gas reservoir which means a gas belch might be the most likely cause. One of the scientists, Anna Kurchatova from the Sub-Arctic Scientific Research Centre, speculates that climate change and warming climate may be causing the permafrost in the area to melt and become unstable, and in the process popping like a Champagne cork under the high underground pressures. But the researchers won't jump to any conclusion; they've been busy examining the sudden phenomenon, scaling its walls, measuring its dimensions, and collecting water and soil samples. Satellite images will also be examined to see if the exact time of origin has been captured by orbiting cameras.

It will be interesting to see what their study reveals. I'm going with the internal forces theory - some sort of fiery gas burp probably caused it. In the meantime, the scientists have also been taking lots of photographs at the site, which can be viewed on the Siberian Times website.

Siberian Times story
Geology Page story


Indication of massive injury on Allosaurus foot bones: ; University of Wyoming Geological Museum, Laramie, WY.
Indication of massive injury on Allosaurus foot bones: ; University of Wyoming Geological Museum, Laramie, WY.Courtesy Mark Ryan
British paleontologist Phil Manning from Manchester University has been using 21st century technology to study prehistoric injuries on dinosaur bones.

Cathartes aura: archosaurian descendent of Allosaurus.
Cathartes aura: archosaurian descendent of Allosaurus.Courtesy Mark Ryan
Manning and his team of researchers employed a particle accelerator called a synchrotron rapid scanning X-ray fluorescence (SRS-XRF) to analyze and compare the chemical compositions of both healed and healthy bone of a 150 million-year-old Allosaurus fragilis, and those of a modern turkey vulture (Cathartes aura). Both animals are members of a group known as archosaurs that includes pterosaurs, and alligators and other crocodilians. The SRS-XRF directed intense beams of light ten billion times brighter than our sun onto areas of fossilized dinosaur bone that showed signs of injuries (pathologies) and healing that had occurred while the creature was alive. The same instrument was used previously to analyze the remains of both Archaeopteryx and Green River Formation fossils, revealing organic traces not detectible in visible light.

In the current study. thin sections made from the toe bones of Allosaurus fragilis unearthed from the Cleveland-Lloyd quarry in Utah were prepared at a Temple University facility in Pennsylvania, and then sent to the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource in California for scanning. The Allosaurus sample was also analyzed at the Diamond Light Source (DLS) in Oxford, England.

During the analysis, a suite of trace-metal enzymes - copper, zinc, and strontium- all integral to the process of healing bone were detected. Copper plays a role in the strengthening the structure of collagen, zinc aids in ossification (the creation of new bone material), while strontium inhibits the break-down of bone cells. Enzymes composed from the same three elements are used for growth and repair in our own bones.
Normally when a bone suffers some kind of trauma, such as a fracture, the body repairs it by rebuilding new bone in much the same way it did when the skeleton first formed. Manning's fossil bone sections exhibited chemical ghosts of these essential elements in elevated amounts in the injured bone section than seen in the healthy bone surrounding it.

Allosaurus: ; University of Wyoming Geological Museum, Laramie, WY.
Allosaurus: ; University of Wyoming Geological Museum, Laramie, WY.Courtesy Mark Ryan
“It seems dinosaurs evolved a splendid suite of defense mechanisms to help regulate the healing and repair of injuries," Manning said. "It is quite possible you've got a reptilian-style repair mechanism combined with elevated metabolism, like that you'd find in alligators and birds respectively. So you've got a double whammy in a good way. If you suffer massive trauma, you've got the perfect set-up to survive it."

The SRS-XRF provides scientists with a superior method in analyzing and comparing the chemical processes involved with bone-building and healing that weren't discernible in the older histological examination methods used in studying thin sections, and could lead to further knowledge of how not only dinosaur bones - but our own - grow and repair themselves.

“The chemistry of life leaves clues throughout our bodies in the course of our lives that can help us diagnose, treat and heal a multitude of modern-day ailments. It’s remarkable that the very same chemistry that initiates the healing of bone in humans also seems to have followed a similar pathway in dinosaurs,” Manning said.

The study was published in a recent issue of the Journal of the Royal Society Interface.

Science News story
Mother Nature Network story
Planet Earth Online story
Phil Manning research profile


Why not dig a dinosaur this summer?
Why not dig a dinosaur this summer?Courtesy Mark Ryan
After exploring the Ultimate Dinosaurs exhibit here at the Science Museum of Minnesota, you might say to yourself, "Gee, I wish I could be on one of those swell dinosaur digs."

Of course, the movies and other media have created the impression that working on a dinosaur dig is a romantic and thrilling endeavor full of excitement and constant discovery. In reality, it most likely involves long, sweaty hours with a shovel, removing tons of overburden, walking for miles and finding nothing or lying in the dirt, under a boiling hot sun, carefully uncovering crumbling fossil bones or wrapping them in a sticky concoction of burlap strips dipped in plaster. Afterwards you get to help lift several 3/4-ton blocks of encased bones and rock onto the back of a flatbed truck. If it happens to rain during your time in the field, you'll spend hours, maybe days, stuck inside a humid tent getting to know all about Larry from Cedar Rapids' chronic hip pain, and eating hard tack. Sounds like a blast, doesn't it?

So, if you're still interested, then you'll be happy to learn that there are lots of opportunities available out there to join an actual dinosaur dig. Here's a list of several organizations that will be more than happy to let you pay them to do their manual labor for them. Most are located out West where conditions and rock exposures are most ideal for dinosaur fossils but some digs originate with a museum or fossil related organizations in the East or Midwest.

Now that I think of it, it does sound like a blast. And who knows? Maybe, if you're lucky enough, you'll stumble upon something completely unknown like a Haplocanthosaurus skull or even the next, great "largest dinosaur ever found" (there seems to be a new one each month).

io9 story

Additional Digs
(PLEASE NOTE: Neither I nor the Science Museum of Minnesota endorse the above or following field trips. The links are offered only as a service. Readers are responsible in ascertaining that each organization listed is reputable before sending any money for deposit or downpayment.)
Judith River Dinosaur Institute
Baisch’s Dinosaur Digs, LLC
ZRS Fossils Field Trip
Frommer's suggested digs
Paleo World Research Foundation
Wild West Vacations & Travel
The Hideout in Shell, Wyoming
Prehisoric Planet
And for all the homebodies out there.


A boy and his dye - Alex Rudine at Portland State University
A boy and his dye - Alex Rudine at Portland State UniversityCourtesy OMSI
Dye-sensitized solar cell ready to be tested
Dye-sensitized solar cell ready to be testedCourtesy OMSI
Did you know that you can make small solar cells out of things like berries, tea, and doughnuts – yum! Berries and teas have dyes (organic molecules that absorb light) that give them color. Instead of using berries, there are researchers synthesizing dyes to use in solar cells. These solar cells are called dye-sensitized solar cells - DSSC for short. DSSCs convert sunlight energy into electrical energy. They work like this. Love that Scottish accent!

Most commercial solar panels are made with silicon because silicon absorbs much of the light spectrum in sunlight. Silicon solar cells absorb a wider range of the light spectrum than DSSCs currently do. The best silicon solar cells are about 20% efficient. The best DSSCs are about 11% efficient. Why use dyes instead of silicon to make solar cells? Dyes are much cheaper and less resource intensive to make. Most silicon cells are made from purified single-crystal silicon. About 40% of the crystal is lost as it is sliced into thin wafers.

I recently met scientists at Portland State University (PSU) in Portland, Oregon who are working on making dye-sensitized solar cells more efficient. Alex Rudine has been manipulating porphyrin dyes to get them to absorb more of the light spectrum. The advantage of using porphyrins is that they absorb light well and their structure is versatile and relatively easy to manipulate.

In a DSSC, as sunlight hits the dye, an electron is excited and moves to an electron acceptor. An electron flows from the electron donor to fill the hole, creating an electrical current. One of the challenges of DSSCs is that a wet solution of iodide is the typical medium for the electron donor. There are labs working on synthesizing a solid state medium. Carl Wamser’s lab at PSU in Portland, Oregon is one of those. They have synthesized a porphyrin with a nanofiber structure with a very high surface area. A high surface area means there are more places where the energy conversion can happen.

One of the things limiting more wide-spread use of solar energy is the higher set-up costs of solar panels compared to fossils fuels. If researchers can develop a commercially successful DSSC, it would be a cheaper, more sustainable source of solar energy. Unlike burning fossil fuels which releases heat-trapping gases, solar is a clean energy source that doesn’t contribute to global warming. Enough sunlight falls on the Earth in one hour that if we could collect it, we could power for one year all the machines on Earth. That’s an amazing amount of potential clean energy we could tap into.

Researchers at PSU also have a pretty cool experiment running that combines silicon photovoltaic panels with green roofs. Click here to find out more.

Sources and Links

To read this article click here:
Walter, Michael G. and Carl C. Wamser. Synthesis and characterization of electropolymerized nanostructured aminophenylporphyrin films. Journal of Physical Chemistry C 2010: 114, 7563 -7574.

To read this article click here:
Walter, Michael G., Alexander B. Rudine, and Carl C. Wamser. Porphyrins and phthalocyanines in solar photovoltaic cells. Journal of Porphyrins and Phthalocyanines 2010; 14: 759 -792.


Plastiglomerates: Characteristics of the two types of plastiglomerate. (A) In situ plastiglomerate wherein molten plastic is adhered to the surface of a basalt flow. Field book is 18 cm long. (B) Clastic plastiglomerate containing molten plastic and basalt and coral fragments. (C) Plastic amygdales in a basalt flow. (D) Large in situ plastiglomerate fragment. Adhered molten plastic was found 15 cm below the surface. Note the protected vegetated location.
Plastiglomerates: Characteristics of the two types of plastiglomerate. (A) In situ plastiglomerate wherein molten plastic is adhered to the surface of a basalt flow. Field book is 18 cm long. (B) Clastic plastiglomerate containing molten plastic and basalt and coral fragments. (C) Plastic amygdales in a basalt flow. (D) Large in situ plastiglomerate fragment. Adhered molten plastic was found 15 cm below the surface. Note the protected vegetated location.Courtesy Patricia L. Corcoran
Geologists have always considered rocks to be plastic because they are often reformed, remelted, and reshaped by tectonic forces such as heat and pressure. But now, earth scientists have declared a new type of rock they're calling plastiglomerates. It's a composition of volcanic rock and actual plastic, or a clump of rock, sand, coral and seashells all held together by a mass of melted plastic derived from human debris.

Considering we humans have been generating heaps of plastic waste since the middle of the last century (and enough to wrap up our entire planet in plastic) it's no wonder some of it has managed to find its way into the rock cycle. It's only surprising that it took us this long to notice it.

Chunks of plastiglomerate were found recently at a beach in Hawaii. Patricia Corcoran, a geologist from the University of Western Ontario, and Charles Moore, captain of the research vessel Alguita discovered plastiglomerates at 21 different sites they surveyed on Kamilo Beach located on the southern tip of the Big Island of Hawaii. Their study appears in the latest issue of GSA Today.

Kamilo Beach on the Big Island of Hawaii: the red dot marks beach's approximate location.
Kamilo Beach on the Big Island of Hawaii: the red dot marks beach's approximate location.Courtesy NASA
Kamilo Beach is an isolated location that, due to ocean currents and trade winds, and its location, has long been a magnet for plastic and other trash floating on the Pacific. In the distant past, native Hawaiians collected wood from Kamilo that had floated in from the Pacific Northwest to make dugout canoes. There's no easy access to the beach - it's usually void of beach-goers and takes a two hour four-wheel drive over a jagged lava field just to reach it. But each year, 15 to 20 tons of all sorts of floating plastic - from toothbrushes to water bottles to toy green army men - pile up on the rocks and sand of Kamilo. It's not the only place of course, plastic debris has been found in different areas of ocean bottom around the world. It's not surprising that some of it ends up joined with other elements to form the new rock.

Plastiglomerates are thought to have formed probably from plastic melted in beach campfires or in lava flows, which aren't unusual on the Big Island. In the distant future, as plastic gets further buried under layers of future sedimentation or lava flows, it will likely become even more incorporated, melting and re-melting under extreme heat or pressure and filling in cracks and crevasses in the country rock much like minerals such as quartz and pyrite have done in the past. Tens or hundreds of thousands of years from now, future geologists will no doubt be able to use these traces as markers for the Anthropocene era, the name gradually gaining acceptance to describe humanity's post-agricultural or industrial time on the planet.

Science (AAAS) story
LiveScience story


Early dinosaur hyperbole: New York newspaper from December, 1898
Early dinosaur hyperbole: New York newspaper from December, 1898Courtesy Public domain
The Internet has been all a-buzz lately about the largest dinosaur - EVER - being discovered in Argentina. The beast is massive - equal to 14 elephants and as long as two tractor trailers! The story's accompanying photo (several, in fact) often shows an adult man laid out next to a gigantic titanosaur femur. Pretty impressive, at least at first. But the problem I had was finding out some idea of how long the bone was or how tall the man was. It's all relative, of course. It reminds of one of my favorite W. C. Fields scenes is in the movie YOU CAN'T CHEAT AN HONEST MAN where he plays a carnival barker at a sideshow touting the World's Largest Midget and the World's Smallest Giant, and featuring two guys of average height.

Giant dinosaur bone = giant guy: Evidently, Bill Reed was a big, big man
Giant dinosaur bone = giant guy: Evidently, Bill Reed was a big, big manCourtesy Public domain
This kind of hyperbole has been around ever since dinosaurs were first discovered. If the bone pictured in the 1898 New York Advertiser article is as large as the caption claims, then the man standing next to it, William Harlow Reed, is eight feet tall as well(!) - an equally if not more impressive story that the newspaper obviously overlooked.

It should be noted that the sensational discovery was the catalyst for steel magnate Andrew Carnegie to spend lots of money to get himself his own dinosaur (Diplodocus carnegiei) in 1899. It wasn't quite as large as the one that inspired his quest but casts of Carnegie's dinosaur were given to various foreign heads of states, helping spread dinosaur fever to the world.

BBC story
Geo Scienze blog (in Spanish)
CNN story
Everything Dinosaur blog
Sauropod Vertebrate Picture of the Week


Pterodactylus ancestor discovered
Pterodactylus ancestor discoveredCourtesy Mark Ryan
Over in China, out of one of the richest hunting grounds for new and unusual dinosaur-era fossils, the earliest known member in the family of flying reptiles known as pterosaurs has been described in a paper published in Current Biology.

Named Kryptodrakon progenitor, the ancestral pterodactyloid was discovered in mudstones in the highly fossiliferous Shishugou Formation of northwest China by a team of international paleontologists.

The flying reptile's name essentially means "first-born hidden serpent", the genus name Kryptodrakon referring to the popular martial arts film, "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" which was filmed near the location where the fossil was discovered in the Chinese autonomous region known as Xinjiang.

Sporting a wingspan of some 4.5 feet, Kryptodrakon lived in a floodplain environment during the Middle-Upper Jurassic period, about 163 million years ago. Descendents of the newly-discovered pterodactyloid would evolve into much larger flying reptiles such as the giant, Cessna-sized Quetzacoatlus found in Late Cretaceous sediments in Texas. Pterosaurs were not dinosaurs but share a common ancestor with them.

The research increases our knowledge of pterosaur development and was led by Brian Andres from the University of South Florida (USF), James Clark of George Washington Columbia College of Arts and Sciences, and Xu Xing of the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

Science Daily story
Pterosaur page
Paper in Current Biology


Charlie Matsch: the Minnesota geologist and professor emeritus (right) explains Duluth geology to GSA field trip participants in 2011.
Charlie Matsch: the Minnesota geologist and professor emeritus (right) explains Duluth geology to GSA field trip participants in 2011.Courtesy Mark Ryan
I was saddened to hear of the death of Charlie Matsch, a well-known geologist, author, and highly-regarded professor emeritus at the University of Minnesota-Duluth. According to his obituary, Matsch was born in 1930, and graduated with a degree in geology from the University of Maine, and Master of Science degree from the University of Minnesota. After a stint as a petroleum geologist in Midland, Texas, Matsch acquired his Ph.D from the University of Wisconsin, then joined the Geology Department at UMD where he served as teacher and mentor to both undergraduate and graduate students, until he retired from teaching in 2001. Matsch helped co-write the classic book, Minnesota Geology, with geologist Richard Ojakangas (my geology instructor when I attended UMD).

I met Charlie Matsch only once, back in the autumn of 2011, as part of a Geological Society of America field trip in Duluth. The GSA was holding their annual meeting in Minnesota that year, and I was fortunate enough to attend with a media pass. Besides entry into the conference, the pass also gave me the opportunity to sign up for a field trip to Duluth. The excursion was comprised of a half day on Lake Superior aboard the research vessel, Blue Heron, and a half day with Charlie Matsch exploring some of Duluth's geological highlights.

Charlie was very pleasant, open, and easy going. In the course of our conversation, it came up that several years before I had written a history of Duluth's parks and boulevards, and that one of my favorites was Seven Bridges Road, a local and historic parkway running up the western branch of the Lester River, not far from where I grew up. Charlie's eyes lit up. He said Seven Bridges Road was one of his favorite places in Duluth.

During his segment of the field trip, you could tell Charlie was really passionate about geology as he explained the dark gabbro intrusion outcropping on top of the hill near Duluth's landmark Enger Tower, or the black sand sedimentary layers interlaced between basalt flows along Lake Superior's shoreline.

At the Deeps: Geologist Charlie Matsch (center in green cap) explains the geological events that formed the natural popular swimming hole seen in the background.
At the Deeps: Geologist Charlie Matsch (center in green cap) explains the geological events that formed the natural popular swimming hole seen in the background.Courtesy Mark Ryan
Between those stops, Charlie took us up to one of my favorite spots in Lester Park to see a spectacular waterfall that has carved a beautiful, natural swimming hole out of the billion year old basalt flows that make up much of Duluth's rocky bluffs (along with the aforementioned gabbro). The idyllic setting, known as "The Deeps", was one of my hangouts while growing up in Duluth. Not surprisingly, it's located just off Seven Bridges Road.

Charlie's research focused on Minnesota geology, and the effects of the ice age in the Midwest. It's no surprise to learn that Charlie Matsch passing occurred April 18 while he was attending the annual Geological Sciences Banquet and Awards Ceremony, an event he never missed.

A celebration of Professor Matsch's life will be held 6pm-9pm, May 9, at the Tweed Museum of Art at UMD in Duluth.

Duluth News Tribune obiturary
UMD biography


Tiktaalik roseae: Field Museum of Natural History
Tiktaalik roseae: Field Museum of Natural HistoryCourtesy Eduard Solà via Wikipedia
If you missed last week's PBS broadcast of Your Inner Fish, the documentary based on paleontologist-anatomist Neil Shubin's book by the same name, you have another chance to catch up on the first of three segments on the web. It's an excellent opening segment of the 3-part series, but is only available (for free!) right here through April 23, 2014.

The series deals with Shubin's search for the connections we all have with our fishy and reptilian ancestors. His discovery of the remarkable transitional fossil named Tiktaalik roseae on Ellesmere Island in the Canadian Arctic has added great evidence of our ties with our distant piscean relatives. The flat-headed, 375 million year-old Tiktaalik possessed the exact features - such as both lungs and gills, a wrist and neck - that you'd hope to find in a transitional form between swimming fish and land-walking tetrapods.

The next episode, titled Your Inner Reptile airs Wednesday, April 16th on your local PBS station. It's on here in the Twin Cities at 9pm but check your local listing for times in your area.

In the meantime, watch the first episode, and read about some of the reaction to Shubin's find here, here, and here.

University of Chicago Tiktaalik roseae page


Kilauea at night: a massive magma chamber has been detected beneath the volcano's East Rift Zone.
Kilauea at night: a massive magma chamber has been detected beneath the volcano's East Rift Zone.Courtesy Mark Ryan
Researchers from the University of Miami Rosentiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science have detected a new, massive magma chamber beneath Kilauea, the most active volcano in the world.

By analyzing seismic waves that traveled through the volcano, scientists from the school's geology and geophysics departments have been able to piece together a 3-dimensional velocity model of what's taking place deep below the volcano's caldera.

"It was known before that Kilauea had small, shallow magma chambers," said Guoqing Lin, lead author of the study. "This study is the first geophysical observation that large magma chambers exist in the deep oceanic crust below."

Located in oceanic crust between 5 and 6.8 miles beneath the volcano's East Rift Zone, the new chamber has been determined to be several kilometers in diameter. The seismic data also revealed that it's lava is composed of a slushy mixture of about 10 percent magma and 90 percent crystal.

According to co-author and professor of geology and geophysics, Falk Amelung, the information is useful in understanding magma bodies and a high priority for the researchers because of the possible hazards created by the volcano.

"Kilauea volcano produces many small earthquakes and paying particular attention to new seismic activity near this body will help us to better understand where future lava eruptions will come from," he said.
Kilauea has been active for more than 30 years and is located in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park on the Big Island of Hawaii.

The paper appeared in a recent edition of the journal Geology.

Science News story
LiveScience story
2007 video of Kilauea erupting
More about Kilauea