Courtesy WikipediaYou know, today is Buzz contributor Thor's birthday. I'm not sure how old he is, but I think we're pretty close in age. He may be a little younger than I am. Whatever. It doesn't matter. But if he's like me, he's not just celebrating his birthday, he's complaining about it. Complaining that he just keeps getting older and older. Yeah, yeah, I know. You’re thinking: “Well, isn’t getting older better than the alternative?” Okay, I suppose it is. And I think Thor would agree. But for some life forms, it’s way, way better.
You can see what I mean over at the NOVA website's interesting interactive that goes through a list of several oldest living creatures on Earth. You’ll see that we humans get the short end of the stick, mortality-wise. Our oldest, verified member lived to be 122 years old. She was a French woman named Jeanne Calment who attributed her long existence to eating lots of chocolate and olive oil. From our normal four-score average perspective, it’s not a bad record, but it doesn’t hold a candle to some of our fungal or botanical co-habitants. Some of those have lived for thousands of years. There’s even a genus of water-borne, microscopic creatures known as Hydra that, due to its regenerative capabilities, may have achieved immortality, although all the votes aren’t in on that feat yet.
My personal favorites, however, are the bacterial spores trapped in salt crystals that have been revived and estimated to be about 250 millions of years old! That means they were living back when some Triassic archosaurs were trying to kick-start the Age of Reptiles. They also add credence to the theory that life on Earth may have originated from bacteria-bearing meteor impacts from outer space.
Okay, so it looks like, in the general scheme of things, we humans aren’t that impressive in the long-life department. But it doesn’t bother me too much - and again I'm guessing Thor feels the same way - because with Jeanne Calment’s record of 122 years it could mean we haven’t even reached middle age yet. Happy birthday, Thor!
You think you’re safe from the dangers of the wild just because you live in a city? This video will change your view. It was shot by a guy named Craig Kuberski, who lives within the city limits of St. Paul, MN. I know some of you were hoping you'd get to see a rogue cougar or bear mauling innocent urbanites or eating their pets, but that’s not the case here. It’s just a couple of bucks on the town and in a rut trying to catch some city girls' attention.
Rutting period is the mating season for many ruminants, (i.e. mammals like moose, caribou, bison, and deer). The rut is set-off by the shortening of daylight hours during autumn and in the case of white-tail deer (Odocoileus virginianus - which I’m pretty sure these are) can last for one to three months. During that time, male deer get all goofy and twitterpated, rubbing their antlers against trees, rolling in the dirt or mud, or battling each other – as seen in this video. Rutting season is the best time to hunt for them, and the easiest time to hit them with your car, although I don’t advise you do the latter.
As you may notice, Mr. Kubinski posted two buck fever videos on YouTube. I’ve only used the second here because it’s the better of the two, focus-wise, But if you’d also like to watch Part I, there you have it. KARE 11 also ran a story on it.
Courtesy Paige Shoemaker
Next time you look at the clouds, shake your fist and yell at those jerks for making our lives difficult. You might look crazy, but somebody needs to tell those fools.
While it's relatively easy to model temperature changes over the last century thanks to detailed records, clouds are more tricky to understand because we don't have a similar history of cloud observations, and also because they are ornery. So in order to understand how clouds work, scientists are building a body of evidence to model cloud behavior and help show how clouds will impact our weather as well as our climate in the future. I believe they also plan to show those clouds who is the boss of them.
Like a child running loose in a toy store, hurricanes have always been difficult to predict because they can unexpectedly change direction. This confounds plans for evacuation, leading some people to leave areas that are never hit, leading others to stay put and potentially face nasty weather because they don't trust the meteorologist, and leading meteorologists to keep Advil in business. But since the 90s, our ability to predict where hurricanes will make landfall has become twice as accurate. This new prescience is due to the development and use of more accurate models of how clouds work, which is in turn due to better understanding of cloud dynamics and faster computers. How about that, punk clouds?
Intensity, however, remains elusive to model. (Shh, don't let them know we have a weakness!)
"While we pride ourselves that the track forecast is getting better and better, we remain humbled by the uncertainties of the science we don't yet understand," Schott said. "This is not an algebra question where there's only one right answer."
Despite being a "forecasting nightmare," Earl ended up hitting about where it was predicted to go. This means that the right people have been evacuated to avoid injury and fatality. That's right, stick your tail between your legs, Earl.
Connecting to climate
Short-term events such as hurricanes and other storms are difficult to predict, but climate change is a whole other world of uncertainty--again, thanks to those uncouth clouds. Climate scientists are developing new tools, such as satellite technologies that show how much light different cloud types reflect and models that demonstrate localized cloud processes. These approaches look specifically at certain groups of clouds and their patterns of change to add detail to older, larger models that look at climate over larger scales.
Courtesy Nic McPhee
The problem with the older models is that they have a low resolution that doesn't accurately represent clouds because the clouds are smaller than they can show. Think of it like Google maps--at the beginning, you're looking at the entire planet, or a whole continent--this is similar to older, low-res climate models. The new models are like zooming in on a city--you can see bus stops, restaurants, and highways. But you have to zoom out to see how these small pieces relate to the larger surroundings. In a similar way, the new high-res models are helping to inform older models--this type of work is called multiscale modeling.
Researchers at the Center for Multiscale Modeling of Atmospheric Processes (CMMAP) are developing this exact type of model. You can read about their advances here. This work is important because it brings insight into questions about whether clouds will reflect or trap more sunlight, which can have a big impact on the rate of global warming. It also helps us understand whether geoengineering projects that alter clouds will really have the intended effect. Plus it's just one more way we can pwn clouds.
Courtesy wvs (Sam Javanrouh)In a paper delivered at the 240th National Meeting of the American Chemical Society in Boston, a researcher envisioned a time in the not-too-distant future when houses and buildings outfitted with the proper equipment would be able gather electric energy stored in humidity in the atmosphere that could be used to fill a community’s electrical needs.
The concept isn’t new; electrical wunderkind Nikola Tesla had a similar idea more than a century ago.
Science has long sought the answer to how electricity builds up and discharges in the atmosphere, and whether the moisture in the atmosphere could even hold an electrical charge. But Fernando Galembeck, a professor at Brazil’s University of Campinas, claims he and his research team have successfully shown that it can, and by using special metal conduits to collect that electricity, it could allow homeowners and building managers to gather and store the electricity as an alternative energy source.
”Just as solar energy could free some households from paying electric bills, this promising new energy source could have a similar effect,” Galembeck said. He terms the new method “hygroelectricity” which means “humidity electricity”. Galembeck's research could also add to our understanding of how thunderstorms form.
In their laboratory experiments, Galembeck’s research team created a simulated atmosphere densely saturated with water (humidity), which they seeded with silica and aluminum phosphate, two chemical compounds commonly found in air. As water droplets formed around the tiny, airborne chemical substances, the researchers noticed the silica took on a negative charge while the aluminum phosphate droplets held a positive charge. The charged water vapor readily condenses upon contact with surfaces such as a cold can of soda or beer, and on the windows of air-conditioned buildings or vehicles. In the process, energy is transferred onto the contact surface.
“This was clear evidence that water in the atmosphere can accumulate electrical charges and transfer them to other materials it comes in contact with,” Galembeck said.
Just as solar panels convert energy from sunlight into a usable power source, the researchers think water vapor in the atmosphere could someday be harvested for its hygroelectric energy. The rooftops of buildings in regions of high humidity and thunderstorm activity could someday be fitted with special hygroelectric panels that would absorb the charges built up in the humid atmosphere and funnel the energy to where it can be utilized, and at the same time reduce the risk of lightning forming and discharging. The technology would be best suited to regions of high humidity, such as the tropics or the eastern and southeastern U.S.
Thunderstorm over Lake Harriet in Minneapolis; Could this be a new source of energy for the Upper Midwest?
Courtesy Mark RyanThe meteor that created the Chicxulub Crater in Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula may have not been the only one responsible for the extinction of non-avian dinosaurs 65 million years ago. "Fern spike" evidence in another similarly-aged crater found in the Ukraine indicates at least two large impacts took place within a few thousand years of each other. Concentrations of fern spores are commonly found in the mud that fills in impact craters. The Boltysh Crater contains two layers of spores within three feet of each other, indicating not one but two impacts.
"We interpret this second layer as the aftermath of the Chicxulub impact", said Simon Kelley, co-author of the study, and professor of Isotope Geochemistry at the Open University.
Both the Chicxulub and Boltysh bolide events could have been part of a meteor shower that hit Earth at the end of the Cretaceous. The study appears in the journal Geology.
Courtesy Mark RyanLast week, Lake Superior, which is bordered by Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Ontario, Canada, recorded its highest average surface temperature ever, a balmy 68.3°F. People seeking relief from a very hot summer have been flocking to the shores and beaches and actually swimming in the lake! That is so unlike the Lake Superior I remember growing up in Duluth. Sure, we liked to spend a day on the sand beaches of Park Point or lounging on the rocky outcrops along the North Shore but swimming was usually not an option. On average, Lake Superior’s overall temperature is barely above freezing (39 °F), and back then it seemed you couldn’t even wade in ankle-deep without having your breath sucked out of your lungs and thinking your feet had fallen off. Standing knee-deep in the water for even a short time was unbearable and a true test of endurance. And for guys, going any further was just plain crazy, unless you wanted verifiable (and excruciating) proof of Costanza’sTheory of Shrinkage.
Those hell-bent among us would sometimes make a mad suicide dash across the burning sands and actually dive into the frigid waters only to set off the mammalian diving reflex and cause their vital organs to start to shut down. Their only hope was if the lifeguards were watching and were properly certified in CPR.
Temperature ranges on Superior have been recorded for more than three decades. In recent years, the normal average surface temperature for Lake Superior during the month of August has been only 55°, so this dramatic rise in the average is unusual. As expected, many people are quick to point a finger at global warming as the cause for the rise. That’s not a bad guess considering the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) just proclaimed the year 2010 as the hottest on record, globally.
But physicist Jay Austin at the University of Minnesota-Duluth’s Large Lake Observatory has been closely tracking the lake’s surface temperatures, and predicted the record high back in July. He says the warm water this summer is at least partially due to a recent El Niño event that had an unusual effect on the lake this past winter.
“2009 was a very strong El Niño year,” Austin said. “And that El Niño year led to a year at least on Superior where there was very little ice.”
That lack of ice led to a quicker and earlier warm up of Lake Superior’s surface waters. The other Great Lakes showed similar increases in their average warm temperatures as well. Although ice usually forms on the lake surface during the winter months, Lake Superior rarely freezes over completely. The last time was in 1979.
The following video illustrates the contrast between last winter and the one prior to that. Each day on their Coast Watch website, NOAA posts 3 or 4 photographs taken by a satellite in geosynchronous orbit above Lake Superior. Early in 2009 I began collecting the images regularly thinking they could come in handy for a future Buzz story such as this. From March 2009 to May 2010 I collected something like 1100 satellite photos. Edited together, they make for an interesting time-lapse video that illustrates the weather patterns over the big lake from one winter to the next. At the start of the video (March 2009) ice-cover is apparent over much of the lake and can be seen building then melting away as the spring thaw brings warmer temperatures. But later in the video, as summer passes into fall and fall into winter, no ice appears at all over the expanse of the lake’s surface. Other than that I don’t know how informative the time-lapse ended up being but it’s certainly interesting to watch, particularly the wind and cloud patterns seen flowing off the lake starting in late January 2010.
"This year is just tremendously anomalous," Austin said. "This year ranks up there with the warmest water we have ever seen, and the warming trend appears to be going on in all of the Great Lakes."
The big question is what effect these warmer temperatures have on the lake’s ecology? Austin admits it’s hard to say.
"Fish have a specific range of temperatures in which they like to spawn," he said. "It may be that for some fish this very warm year is going to be great for them, but for others, like trout which are a very cold-adapted fish, it's not going to be great."
One problem for the trout could be that scourge of the Great Lakes, the jawless sea lamprey. Lampreys are invasive parasites and attach themselves to lake trout and live off their blood. It’s unknown what changes, if any, the warmer waters will have on their life-cycle. They may lay eggs faster and in larger quantities, increasing their populations, and their impact on the trout species.
Lake Superior has probably passed through its peak time for temperature this summer so more than likely the 68.3°F record will stand for the rest of the year. If you want to keep track you can go to the Michigan Sea Grant website where you can follow all the Great Lakes’ daily surface temperatures. But who knows? This summer may not be the height of the 30-year warming trend. Let’s see what next year has in store.
Personally, I’m concerned these warm water temperatures will spoil us. Being able to endure extremely cold temperatures is a Minnesota tradition, and helps build character. It makes you tough and able to withstand all sorts of adversity as well as the harshest of elements. Which brings to mind the time when my wife (then girlfriend) and I were in Glacier National Park and decided to go for a swim in St. Mary’s Lake. There were only a few other people goofy enough to be swimming in the glacial lake at the same time. It didn’t surprise us to learn they were all from Minnesota.
We were so proud of ourselves.
Courtesy FundyAlong with wind and solar, harvesting power from tidal forces comes up a lot in discussions of alternative energy sources.
Was that a horrible sentence? I think it was. What I meant to say is this: we can generate electricity from tides, and lots of it. "Tidal power" is often brought up alongside solar power and wind power, but while I can easily picture windmills and solar panels, I'm not always sure what sort of device we'd use to harness the power in the tides.
This sort of device! For those of you too afraid to click on a strange link (who knows... I could be linking to an image like this!), the article depicts something that looks sort of like a thick, stubby windmill, with blades on its front and back. It's a tidal turbine, and at 74 feet tall and 130 tons it's the world's largest. It should be able to supply electricity to about 1,000 households. Pretty impressive.
Tidal turbines, apparently, are so productive because water is so much denser than water, and so it takes a lot more energy to move it. An ocean current moving at 5 knots (that's a little shy of 6 miles per hour, for the landlubbers) has more kinetic energy, for example, than wind moving at over 217 miles per hour.
At least according to that article, the United States and Great Britain each have enough tidal resources (areas where this kind of generator could be installed) to supply about 15% of their energy needs.
More info on the tidal turbine, which I am calling "the Kraken," because it's big, underwater, and will occupy your mind for only a very short time.
Courtesy Public domainA massive chunk of ice - 100 square miles of it – broke away from Greenland’s Petermann Glacier last week. The ice island is about 500 feet thick and contains enough fresh water to supply our entire nation’s tap water demands for 4 months and then some.
Just what the free-floating slab of ice will do next is anyone’s guess. Some scientist, such as Andreas Muenchow, a professor of ocean science and engineering at the University of Delaware are concerned it could get wedged in by actual islands dotting the Nares Strait between Greenland and Canada and jam up shipping lanes there.
"The newly born ice island may become land-fast, block the channel, or it may break into smaller pieces as it is propelled south by the prevailing ocean currents,” Muenchow said. “From there, it will likely follow along the coasts of Baffin Island and Labrador, to reach the Atlantic within the next two years."
A similar, huge slab of ice broke away from Greenland’s Ward Hunt Ice Shelf in 1962, and pieces of it became stuck in channel islands in the Nares Strait which is located about 600 miles south of the North Pole.
Muenchow has been keeping a watchful eye on the Petermann Glacier for the past several years and said he was expecting a calving to take place because the ice shelf had been growing. However, he wasn’t expecting one so large.
Although recent trends show a rise in global temperatures, Muenchow stops short of blaming the ice slab on climate change. "Nobody can claim this was caused by global warming. On the other hand nobody can claim that it wasn't," he said.
The Petermann Glacier is an ice shelf situated in northern Greenland covering an area of about 40 miles. The new ice island amounts to about twenty-five percent of the ice sheet. The following video from last summer shows why scientists were expecting last week’s event.
Courtesy Mark RyanA recent study published in the journal Palaios raises new questions about the role of bacteria in the process of fossilization of bone material. In tests simulating rapid burial and groundwater percolation, researchers Joseph Daniel and Karen Chin set up four different groundwater environments where chunks of bone were placed in river sand and water, laden with calcium carbonate, was allowed to flow through it for three months. In one test the environment was left untreated allowing for bacteria in the sediment to grow naturally. In two other tests the simulated environment was sterilized using antiseptics that either reduced or eliminated completely the naturally growing bacteria. For the fourth test, Chin and Daniel washed and treated the sediment with bleach then reseeded it with the natural bacteria.
The samples were monitored closely, and after just one week, the scientists noticed mineral precipitants had already begun to attach sand grains to the bone fragments in both the nonsterile tests, but saw no change in the sterile environment samples.
After three months, the results showed that the cubes of bone soaked in the natural, untreated environment had begun to show signs of permineralization, and some of the bacteria even showed early signs of lithification. As before, the fragments in the sterile environment were unchanged and appeared as fresh as new bone.
This is pretty amazing, because I was always under the impression that in order to become a fossil, the remains of an animal had to be buried rather quickly so as to remove them from the destructive elements of nature. But it looks like some of nature’s tiniest elements are necessary to the process.
This study could also help explain how, after 68 million years, organic material managed to remain essentially unchanged (or actually less-permineralized) deep inside the fossilized femur of a Tyrannosaurus rex, such as that discovered a few years back by paleontologist Mary Schweitzer (Read about it here).
Karen Chin, by the way, specializes in the study of fossil feces (coprolites), and participated in a 2001 study also published in Palaios documenting the role of bacteria in the fossilization of herbivore dinosaur droppings.
Courtesy ASPEX Corporation
Courtesy ASPEX CorporationLast December Joe made a post about a company that offered to provide free scanning electron microscope images (in this case a backscatter scanning electron microscope or BSEM) of whatever people sent in (within reason I suppose). I took the ASPEX Corporation up on its offer and mailed in some of the clay I had collected from the K-Pg boundary I visited last spring in southern Colorado. The K-Pg boundary, as most of you should know by now, marks the end of the Cretaceous period and the beginning of the Paleogene period. It used to be called the K-T boundary for Cretaceous-Tertiary but the term “Tertiary” has fallen into disfavor. Anyway, some 65 million years ago something wiped out all the non-avian dinosaurs, and left a tidy 1-inch layer of iridium-rich clay in several locations worldwide for geologists to puzzle over. Iridium is a rare-earth element (atomic number 77) but is fairly common in asteroids, meteorites, and other such extra-terrestrial space objects, so eventually, scientists came to the conclusion that such high amounts of iridium had to be from an extraterrestrial impact, and sure enough, an impact crater just the right size and age was eventually uncovered off the Yucatan Peninsula near Chicxulub, Mexico. (There’s been many years of discussion about the cause of the dinosaurs’ demise but just last month a committee of highly scientific mucky-mucks officially declared that the Chicxulub asteroid was the guilty culprit.)
Courtesy ASPEX Corporation
Courtesy ASPEX CorporationIn Colorado, I found evidence of the Chicxulub impact about 10 miles west of Trinidad, Colorado. The outcrop at the Madrid East site on the way to Long Canyon is probably one of the better-defined exposures of the K-Pg boundary and is easily accessible off the main highway. A distinctive 1-inch layer of ashen gray clay can be seen sandwiched between two layers of coal – a 2-inch layer above and a 16 inch layer below - and the sequence is capped by massive Paleogene sandstone. While there, I scraped out a sample of the whitish clay to bring home.
Anyway, when Joe mentioned the free SEM scan I sent ASPEX some of the clay I’d collected hoping the scan might reveal some evidence of high iridium content, and of shocked quartz and glass spherules, telltale signs of an impact. Once sent, I promptly forgot about it until recently when a reply showed up in my mailbox.
Courtesy Mark RyanThe results weren’t quite what I was hoping to see, but I did learn something. The images sent back don’t show much – at least not in the way of iridium, shocked quartz, etc. But the chemical analysis shows the clay layer (yellow arrow in photo) is indeed mostly just that - clay, or more specifically aluminum silicate hydroxide better known as kaolinite (it also contained some titanium, potassium, and iron). Kaolinitic clay is thought to result from the altering of volcanic ash beds in acidic coal swamps, but in this case it’s the result of a doomsday shroud of impact material interacting with a coal swamp. The kaolinite is the one-inch white stripe in the photo and is the layer I sampled. Unfortunately, the analysis from ASPEX shows no signs of an iridium anomaly, and here’s why:
The iridium I’ve since learned isn’t actually concentrated in the clay layer itself but in the 2 layers directly above it (red arrows in photo): that is the impact layer (smectite - blue arrow in photo), and the 2-inch coal layer directly above that. I was under the incorrect assumption the iridium was in the clay layer itself since that layer is what seems to mark the K-Pg boundary at least in the Raton Basin in southern Colorado.
My problem is I’m only an amateur geologist so I tend to operate on limited knowledge. Once the results of the scan showed up, I did do some further research and discovered much more information than I had when I visited the site last year. I was at the right place and was able to identify the boundary layer, I just didn’t have all the facts. But at least I’ve learned something from my mistake, so it turns out not to be such a bad thing. And now you’ve learned something, too.
ASPEX Send Us Your Sample page (I’m not sure they’re still doing it)
More about the K-Pg extinction impact
USGS K-Pg in the Raton Basin info site
Universe Today K-Pg boundary info
Buzz post on dinosaur extinction