Courtesy NOAAWhen I woke up this morning and checked the NOAA flood forecast for the downtown Saint Paul station it was at 19.7 feet above the normal stage. Yikes, the forecast still keeps going up. The river is predicted to crest on March 24th (next Wednesday).
Other flood related resources from my morning browsing:
The StarTribune visits the NOAA, National Weather Service Weather Forecast Office, in Chanhassen, MN. The scientists at NOAA explain what's different about this year's snow melt...complete with some classic Minnesota accents.
Check out what downtown Saint Paul looked like in the 2001 Mississippi River flood. So far, no one's predicting this year's food will be as bad as that historic spring melt, when the river crested at 23.67 feet.
And, for purely nostalgic purposes, here's a pic of Minnesota Governor Karl Rolvaag (he's in front of the guy with a bag on his head), President Lyndon Johnson, and Senator Walter Mondale (looking quite dashing back in the day) standing dangerously close to the river in the really bad 1965 Mississippi river flood. The river crested at 26 feet that year.
Check out our full feature on the 2010 Mississippi River flooding.
Courtesy Mark RyanThe Minnesota Science Olympiad State Competition for Division-B (junior high and middle school) students was held this past weekend at the University of St. Thomas campus in St. Paul, MN. The annual competition gives burgeoning scientists a chance to show off the knowledge, compete against each other and win some medals, too. Categories span across various disciplines, including ornithology, ecology, meteorology, paleontology, astronomy, anatomy, robotics, geology, and aeronautics.
Courtesy Mark RyanParticipants demonstrated scientific principles in several competitions. Team-constructed catapults launched projectiles in the Trajectory contest. The Wright Stuff gave future aeronautical engineers a chance to test their theories of flight dynamics using airplanes built of wood, paper, glue and rubber bands. The Shock Value category dealt with aspects of electricity, and precision built electrical cars were run through their courses in the Battery Buggy meet. But actually I never saw any of it. I was busy elsewhere.
Courtesy Mark RyanMrs. R (my wife) knows Brandi Hansmeyer, one of the division directors for the Science Olympiad in Minnesota, and I was enlisted to be the substitute coordinator/judge for the Fossils event on Saturday morning. What this entailed was setting up a classroom with fossil specimens and such, collecting tickets, distributing answer sheets to the teams, and timing their sessions (3 minutes) at each of the 15 stations. Most stations involved 3 or 4 questions that kids had to answer about a particular fossil, such as its classification, origins, etc. Participants were allowed to refer to binder notes or reference books they brought with them, which was a good thing, because to tell you the truth it was by no means an easy test. But as one of the organizers told me, the difficulty helps bring the cream to the top. Even so, most if not all of kids I saw showed lots of enthusiasm and a serious interest in science regardless of their level of knowledge.
Courtesy Mark RyanAfterwards, Mrs. R and I quickly graded the tests and ranked them by score then rushed them to the main tabulator for the award ceremony that afternoon. Bronze, silver, and gold medals are presented to each of the winning team members for individual events, and plaques and trophies are presented to the school teams with the most overall points. This coming weekend the senior high division will hold its Science Olympiads Competition, also at St. Thomas. Winners from both divisions get to compete in the national competition held later this spring at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. It’s a nice prize for all their dedication and hard work in the previous year.
Courtesy Nino BarbieriA recent article in the Journal of Archaeological Science reminded me of the importance of the Scientific Method Often we hear new and exciting scientific theories that seem plausible, especially if these ideas are presented in prestigious journals. However, the beauty of the Scientific Method is its verifiability, whether or not the data can be recreated through repetitive testing (If we truly believed everything the first time, our budding young scientists would have nothing to do!)
Michael Campana from the University of Cambridge and colleagues from across the UK and Ireland recently ran a sequence of DNA tests on 18th and 19th century parchments made from animal skins in order to reveal the complexities of ancient parchment analysis. Parchment is one of the most valuable archaeological and historical artifacts that can be used to understand not only language and history, but DNA testing on it can reveal clues to animal population studies, animal husbandry, different historical animal breeds, and provenance (where the animal or skins originated from). In the case of the Dead Sea Scrolls, DNA testing on the parchment could reveal what type of animal was used and possibly where it came from, providing additional data for questions regarding who wrote the scrolls.
Campana and colleagues analyzed both mitochondrial and autosomal genetic data using stable isotope, genetic, phylogenetic and ion beam analysis. All samples were considered to be well preserved and ideal samples for accurate testing. All but one parchment produced multiple DNA sequences that matched several different species including cow, goat, sheep, and even human. In other words, a parchment assumed to be made from one individual of one species, gave conflicting results as more than one species or more than one individual. Of course it can be assumed the parchment was not made of human skin and therefore human genetic data must have came from handling and processing of the parchment, but parchments can also be contaminated in long-term storage or contact with each other. Testing results can also be skewed by glues and inks or other preparatory treatments used to improve the surface. All of these factors need to be considered when testing truly ancient parchment like the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Previous DNA test results from 2001 and 1996 on the Dead Sea Scrolls produced results pointing to a single species, either ibex (Capra ibex) or domestic goat. While these results may indeed be correct, the likelihood that the results were so exact, when testing such as Campana's and colleagues on better preserved and more recent parchment were so complex, questions the accuracy of the earlier DNA testing. Of course we must not forget, precious artifacts like the Dead Sea Scrolls can not be needlessly dissected to offer unlimited samples for DNA testing labs. But as, Campana states, “Improving our understanding of parchment's DNA content would allow us to develop a predictive model for sampling of historic manuscripts.”
So the messages for today, bravo for the Scientific Method and go see the Dead Sea Scrolls at the Science Museum! Learn the science, archaeology, history and more that surround these amazing artifacts. Ask questions like: did the scroll writers choose ibex for some scrolls over goat because they thought these documents were so special or was ibex as readily available as any other animal species? Did the handling of the scrolls by shepherds who supposedly found them contaminate the actual scroll DNA with sheep, human or goat DNA? What can DNA testing tell us about other ancient artifacts? As long as there are unanswered questions, no matter how small, there will be a need for scientific investigation; which is good news for our future scientists!
Courtesy Eadweard Muybridge
Scientists who study animal behavior have always had their work cut out for them. For one thing, animal behavior is complex, often involving tiny movements that are not visible to the naked eye. When studying the behavior of animals in groups, this can become even more complicated. Where do you begin to look for patterns? How do you make sense of what you see?
Another difficultly of studying animal behavior comes in designing research tools and experiments that don't interfere with the animal's natural environment. If you've ever tried to walk up to a bird or a squirrel, you know how hard it can be to get close enough to take a good look. The slightest movement or sound, even smells that humans can't smell, can put animals on edge, which might alter the way that they behave.
Over the years, recording equipment and new technologies have made it possible to study animal behavior in new ways. From the invention of photography, which allowed researchers to "freeze" animals and then to set those images in motion, studying how animals move - to newer kinds of imaging techniques that allow today's scientists to observe animal behavior in difficult situations, studying imperceptible changes in their bodies and brains as they move.
This article from The Scientist magazine details how a few researchers have overcome obstacles to studying animal behavior, including the story of a researcher who uses infrared heat-sensing cameras to study the flight trajectories of bats in Brazil. Using ordinary cameras, the necessary lights would disturb the natural behavior of the bats, but infrared cameras give researchers a glimpse of how a very large group of bats behaves at night.
This technology can also be used to study the collective group behavior of other creatures, from very large elephants, to butterflies. Check out the video below to see what bat researchers in Brazil saw when they put these cameras inside a cave.
If you know about Google Earth, you've probably used this satellite tool at least once. If you're like most people (myself included), your first impulse was to search for your own rooftop, then to zoom out, looking around your neighborhood or town to see what you could recognize. It's amazing the the detail you can see from your own computer!
It's not surprising that at least a few people across the globe have found ingenious ways to harness this technology for good. When the first photos of Earth were taken from space in the last century, it changed the perspective of everyday people and inspired movements to protect the planet and its natural systems. What kinds of world-changing movements will this new technology inspire in the years to come?
Below is a quick round-up from the folks at Google of some cool projects that already use Google Earth technology. Can you think of any other ways that this tool might be used for good in your community or around the world? If so, you can submit your idea or story to Google and they might feature it on their website.
Environmental researchers have used Google Earth and Maps to track the movement of an 'island' of garbage twice the size of the state of Texas as it floats across the surface of the ocean. Project Kaisei researchers have experimented with converting plastic particles from this island into diesel, and hope to eventually power their research vessels with this fuel, creating fully sustainable expeditions. Check out the project's website
Save the Elephants
Founder of Save the Elephants, Dr. Douglas-Hamilton has worked to protect elephants in Mali from poachers and other threats. He now uses Google Earth to track elephants on a map and has been able to save many animals' lives, rescuing trapped elephants and helping animals suffering from the effects of local drought and climate change.
Borneo Orangutan Survival
The number of Orangutans in the wild today is decreasing at a staggering pace largely because of the destruction of their rainforest habitats. Willie Smits and the Borneo Orangutan Survival Organization have used Google Earth as a platform to enable everyone to participate in their reforestation project by viewing and adopting forest acreage in the Samboja Lestari region.
Chief Almir and the Surui
Since he first observed the illegal logging of his tribe's territory with Google Earth in an internet cafe several years ago, Chief Almir Surui has worked to raise awareness about this issue. Most recently members of the Google Earth Outreach team traveled to the Amazon to teach the Surui how mobile devices can be used to capture photos of illegal logging activity.
Appalachian Voices, a grassroots environmental group in North Carolina, has educated millions of people, including policy-makers and legislators, about this destructive mining process by flying users over the 470 mine sites in the Appalachian mountains with Google Earth. The organization also has a layer in Google Earth dedicated to these efforts.
More information about these stories, including videos, can be found here
When you visit a doctor, he or she usually uses a medical device to measure your vital signs, such as heart rate, blood pressure and temperature. The doc might also draw some blood to test in the laboratory for its biochemical composition. Environmental scientists do similar activities to determine the health of an estuary. But an estuary is huge in comparison to a human being; getting enough data to draw meaningful conclusions can be challenging.
Here’s where LOBO, CMOP’s Land/Ocean Biogeochemical Observatory, comes in. WET Labs, Inc. senior research scientist Andrew Barnard, Ph.D. and CMOP researcher Joe Needoba, Ph.D. have teamed up to develop innovative methods to collect high quality, long-term data sets to improve scientific understanding of the vital signs of the Columbia River estuary.
Traditionally, any effort to monitor the “biogeochemistry” of a body of water requires scientists to board a ship, collect water samples, transport them back to a lab, and then measure the nutrients in the water. These trips are expensive and time-consuming and yet they only provide a “snapshot” of the estuary’s biogeochemical vital signs at the time of the shipboard sampling trip. Barnard and Needoba decided to approach the problem by utilizing an oceanographic monitoring platform made by Satlantic and customizing it with enhanced capabilities and improved water quality sensors.
LOBO is a water quality monitoring device that takes hourly measurements of nitrate, salinity, temperature, chlorophyll, turbidity, conductivity, depth, dissolved oxygen, oxygen saturation, and colored dissolved organic matter (CDOM).
LOBO is part of the Science and Technology University Research Network (SATURN), an end-to-end coastal margin observatory at CMOP. The data will provide the center with a better understanding of the ecosystem and composition of the water in the Columbia River and its estuary.
“What we are trying to do is establish a monitoring system that allow us to gain an understanding of the variability of the water quality, not only every hour but over weeks, months, and years,” said Needoba. “What this will tell us is how the estuary is behaving and responding to various forcing factors.”
LOBO is currently located in the Lower Columbia River and uses cellular telemetry to relay data every hour to a web site. The web interface lets anyone with and internet connection who is interested graph and download an individual variable or multiple variables, on a single day or over multiple days.
The LOBO system will serve as an important biogeochemical data node within CMOP. “What we are doing in the Columbia River estuary is part of a larger project within CMOP to provide a framework of water quality measurements to scientists studying the estuary and coastal ocean,“ said Needoba.
The next step is to use the upcoming CMOP research cruises to verify that the data from the LOBO mooring is representative of the estuary as a whole. Needoba plans to use future research cruises to study the variability associated with different regions of the estuary and ensure that the aspects of the water quality his team measures in one specific site can be extrapolated to the entire estuary.
Barnard and his group at WET Labs, Inc. intend to expand the LOBO's biogeochemical monitoring capabilities by adding a new sensor to measurement dissolved phosphate in the water. “We will use our latest and greatest technology to create better capabilities for long term measurements and monitoring,” said Barnard.
What would you do with a grain of sand, salty water, a baby seed, and a blow of hot air?
Create a regeneration of life: POOF. This year calls for hotter, brighter, and drier times – and the more, the better.
The Sahara Forest Project
Courtesy Courtesy Sahara Forest Project is utilizing arid landscapes such as deserts across the world, direct sunlight, and saltwater in hopes for a change from the global climate crisis.
The project is essentially a gigantic greenhouse. It uses hot desert air and cool seawater to make fresh water for growing crops, solar energy to generate power, planting trees to capture greenhouse gases and restore natural forest canopy, and algae pools to offer renewable biomass fuels. The ultimate goal is to replicate nature in reforestation and revegetation by using desert land to aid in the production of food, water, energy, and new jobs you and your coconscious can feel good about.
The mission is created by scientists, engineers, and research experts from Exploration Architecture, Seawater Greenhouse, Max Fordham Consulting Engineers and the Bellona Foundation. The final proposal was presented at the United Nations Climate Conference in Copenhagen in 2009, and is under construction for 2010 across multiple demonstration centers. The Sahara Forest Project was also chosen out of 300 projects for presentation at The Clinton Global Initiative. So far these magnificent designs are anticipated to build demonstration facilities in arid regions ranging from the United States to Australia, Africa, and the Middle East.
Threats on the stability of our ecosystems, natural resources, and human survival for generations to come have pushed science harder than ever. Here are some of the environmental crises we face:
• Freshwater shortage
• Climbing greenhouse gas emissions
• Non-renewable energy decay
• Non-sustainable food production
• Biomass fuel for non-renewable (i.e. fossil fuels) energy shortages
A Connection to Minnesotans
The University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment is tackling a much related and pressing climate issue of our time: “The Global Crisis in Agriculture.” The agriculture crisis investigates solutions for population growth, food consumption, energy costs, and biomass production. The Institute’s top researchers, faculty, and students are calling for collaboration and communication initiatives across all sectors – from agribusinesses to experts, students to farmers, policy makers to you.
The Institute’s magazine Momentum, published three times a year at the University of Minnesota, holds articles on emerging research being held at the Institute, as well as interconnected studies from scientists and experts. In the latest issue for fall 2009, the Institute addresses the big question: how do we feed a growing population at the expense of future human survival? It all boils down to the impact we humans have on our natural resources. Perhaps the Sahara project sheds some light.
Here’s how it works:
Seawater to freshwater:
Greenhouses use hot desert air and saltwater to create freshwater. The process mimics a natural process. Sun-cooked seawater evaporates, cools to form clouds, and then falls as precipitation:
1) Hot, bone-dry air goes into the greenhouse.
2) It is first cooled and dampened by seawater.
(This moist air nourishes crops growing inside the greenhouse)
3) The air then passes through an evaporator, where sun-roasted saltwater flows. The warm, wet air meets a series of tubes containing cool seawater, it evaporates into fresh water squeezes as droplets on the outsides of the tubes and can be stored.
Greenhouse Gas Emission Reduction:
Engineers plan for only 10 to 15 percent of the moist air in the “seawater to freshwater” period gets condensed into fresh water. The rest goes outside to water surrounding, planted trees.
Solar Power Energy:
1) Mirrors are constructed to focus sunlight on water pipes and boilers.
2) The intense sunlight creates superhot vapor inside the pipes that can power conventional steam turbines to generate electricity.
3) Any excess power will be used in local communities.
Courtesy National Geographic
Algae Ponds into Biomass Fuel:
1) Open saltwater ponds cultivate algae through photosynthesis.
2) The algae's fat oils are then be harvested as energy-rich biomass fuel.
Courtesy Courtesy National GeographicPlus, the foundation’s engineers and creator stress that this biomass-based fuel from the center's photonic energy would be potentially easy to export. (Unlike current biomass fuel production, the great science predicament is how to mobilize and store the biofuels). What has been created is a micro-climate that is nourishing for food and biomass production.
Sustaining Local Communities:
The Sahara Forest Project is also necessitating the use of local community. The project would rely on local people to maintain the complexes.
Altogether, it's a pretty huge deal. Of course there are apprehensions and counter-perspectives. Some say this will be very limiting. Others advocate for the fact that at least we're thinking of new alternatives. It's sustainable. It's restorative. What harm can come from this?
You can also find additional articles about the Sahara Forest Project on their website, National Geographic, Bellona Foundation, or simply by Google search.
Courtesy Walters Art MuseumThe Dead Sea Scrolls have been radiocarbon dated two different times since they were discovered (excludiing the test on a piece of linen associated with the scrolls in the 1950’s by Willard Libby(the guy who invented the radiocarbon dating method)) by the Zurich Institute of Technology (1990) and the University of Arizona (1994). From these tests, researchers concluded that the scrolls are roughly 2,000 years old. However, scientists now think they can take “roughly” out of the picture, and provide more precise dates for the origins of the scrolls.
How would they do this? Is there a brand new method used for dating ancient objects?! Umm…no. Scientists will still use carbon-14 dating, but they found that a good ol’ scrub before the dating process provides better results (that usually holds true for people, too). I don’t mean that they’ll use soap and water (that would probably not be a good idea), but rather a chemical to remove plant residue. What happened was that in order to unroll the scrolls and spread them out without pulverizing them, researchers treated the scrolls with plant oil. This oil is thought to have interfered with the carbon-14 dating.
But now, after more than ten years of lab work, archaeochemist Kaare Lund Rasmussen and his team of researchers have developed a chemical that will remove the plant oil without harming the scrolls themselves. With this residue gone, the Dead Sea Scrolls can be more precisely dated, and history can be more accurately written (if you subscribe to the “accuracy” of history). At this point, there has been no new round of tests on the scrolls, and it’s unclear when that will take place.
Courtesy Lord JimWhat makes human beings so special? How did we evolve into an agriculture-developing, city-building, history-making, world-changing species that can live on every continent and even in outer space?
Scientists have been asking questions about our evolutionary trajectory and human "uniqueness" for as long as there's been science - and guess what? We still don't know the answer! Some of our best theories are explored by anthropologists in the PBS television series The Human Spark, airing throughout the month and also online at the PBS website. If you're curious, you might want to watch, but don't do it on an empty stomach! Many of the theories that anthropologists have developed to explain how we became human involve food.
That food and evolution would go hand in hand is not really surprising, since food is necessary to survival and an important and dynamic part of our environment. Did a search for nutritious plants and animals lead our ancestors to new environments, causing our species to adapt and change? Did hunting and eating meat mean the evolution of new physical characteristics? How has agriculture changed our environment and species over time? How will present and future foods change what it means to be human in the future?
Some evolutionary theories involving food look not just at what we ate, but how we ate it - namely the invention of fire and the use of heat to cook food. Think about it: our Hominid ancestors needed calories in order to develop into the big-brained humans we all know and love. How did they do it? And what did this mean for human evolution?
Sure, eating meat was an important dietary step, but cooking root vegetables can transform hard-to-chew or even poisonous plant parts into nutritious food that can be consumed out of season. With cooking, environments that would otherwise provide few nutritious options suddenly become bountiful. This change in diet may also have led to changes in body size and shape - even social structures! Large teeth and jaws were less desirable once food could be more easily chewed, and delaying the gratification of food until it could be cooked may also have meant that our species had to develop new social skills.
Those social skills - the same ones that mean you and I can now share a burger or beer without fighting each other for scraps - may be one of many "sparks" that makes us human.
If you live in the Twin Cities, you can meet an anthropologist and here how he thinks food impacted human evolution by attending tonight's Cafe Scientifique program in Minneapolis.
WaveLengths, the award-winning public television program from Arizona Public Media updates viewers on what was once the most talked-about experiment in the world--the Biosphere 2 in Oracle, Arizona.
"WaveLengths: Planet in a Bottle" revisits the famous life sciences laboratory to learn about the research currently being conducted inside, and exactly how it can help find answers to environmental questions arising in the new millennium. This new episode of WaveLengths includes research and work televised for the very first time.
"WaveLengths: Planet in a Bottle" premieres Monday, January 18 at 6:30pm on PBS-HD Channel 6.Segments include: