Stories tagged Forces of Nature


A mighty duke: and very powerful, although not a favorite at parties.
A mighty duke: and very powerful, although not a favorite at parties.Courtesy Albedo-ukr
San Antonio has made a deal with the duke. A particularly mighty duke, too, and one that has often been overlooked, despite this duke’s ability to deliver great power.


Illinois landscape, 300 million years ago: Late 19th Century illustration portraying a Carboniferous rainforest
Illinois landscape, 300 million years ago: Late 19th Century illustration portraying a Carboniferous rainforestCourtesy Mark Ryan
Last year, news came out about the discovery of a large fossil forest dating from 300 million years ago in a coal mine located in eastern Illinois. Now, five more prehistoric forests have been identified in the same region.

Central Illinois above the coal mine: The terrain and vegetation today is a far cry from how it looked 300 million years ago.
Central Illinois above the coal mine: The terrain and vegetation today is a far cry from how it looked 300 million years ago.Courtesy Illinois State Geological Survey
The remains of the ancient tropical rainforests cover a tremendous area – 36 square miles – and have been under study by scientists from the Smithsonian, the UK, and the Illinois State Geological Survey. A presentation given at the British Association Science Festival held in Liverpool this week detailed some of the highlights of this incredible find.

"Theses are the largest fossil forests found anywhere in the world at any point in geological time,” said Dr Howard Falcon-Lang a paleobotanist at the University of Bristol.

The prehistoric landscapes existed within only a few million years of each other – a short span geologically speaking – and are found stacked one upon the other. Segments of the forest fossilized in their original vertical position. At places, scientists can trace the original ground cover in well-preserved fossils.

Donning cap lamps, battery packs, and rock hammers Falcon-Lang and his colleagues rode an armored vehicle 250 feet beneath the Herrin coal seam in the Riola and Vermillion Grove coal mine. Once underground, the scientists took an incredible hike through a long-gone prehistoric fossil forest, illuminated only by lights on their caps.

Ancient tree trunk protruding from coal mine ceiling
Ancient tree trunk protruding from coal mine ceilingCourtesy Illinois State Geological Survey
“We walked for miles and miles along pitch-black passages with the fossil forest just above our heads,” Falcon-Lang said. "It's kind of an odd view looking at a forest bottom-up. You can actually see upright tree stumps that are pointed vertically up above your head with the roots coming down; and adjacent to those tree stumps you see all the litter.”

Fallen fossil tree in coal mine: Howard Falcon-Lang (University of Bristol) and John Nelson (Illinois State Geological Survey) mark off the width of a large fossil tree trunk lying just above the contact of the coal bed.
Fallen fossil tree in coal mine: Howard Falcon-Lang (University of Bristol) and John Nelson (Illinois State Geological Survey) mark off the width of a large fossil tree trunk lying just above the contact of the coal bed.Courtesy Illinois State Geological Survey
In some cases toppled trees – complete with crowns – and over 100 feet long were measured lying stretched out in the shale across the ceiling. For paleobotanists it presents a remarkable opportunity to actually stroll through a 300 million year-old ecological system as if taking a walk in the local woods today.

The reason for this unusual preservation is thought to be due to the prehistoric rain forest growing in an estuary near the Royal Center fault in Indiana, which caused the terrain to subside below sea level making it vulnerable to incidents of flooding and abrupt drowning. Geologists suspect earthquakes along the fault are the reason for the subsidence.

The soil that once supported these rainforests was later transformed into coal. Once this coal seam was mined from underground, the base of the fossilized forest was revealed encased in a shale matrix.

These tropical rain forests originally flourished during the Pennsylvania period (known as the Upper Carboniferous in Britain), back when the US Midwest was located near the equator. Forests of giant club moss trees and tree-sized horsetails came and went over a geologically short span of time. At the same time, major shifts in climate were taking place, alternating from cooler temperatures with large planetary ice caps to periods of extreme warming.

The episodes of climatic change coincide with changes in the forest ecology. Close study of the fossil vegetation show that several times the climatic stress pushed the rain forests into extinction, making way for skimpier fern growths to replace them.

Over the next five years Dr. Falcon-Lang’s team will search for reasons why this rainforest extinction took place. Understanding how the first rainforests responded to global warming could help shed light on how climatic change may affect present day rainforests.

Additional photos of the amazing fossil forest can be found here. But if you want to see some of the real thing, visit the coal-mining exhibit at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago where an actual slab of the gray roof shale is on display.

Illinois State Geological Survey story
University of Bristol story
BBC website story
Coal-mining info
More about the Carboniferous period


Thing of the past?: New studies show that the likelihood of a major eruption of Mount Vesuvius, like this computer image of the infamous blast of 79 A.D., are decreasing.
Thing of the past?: New studies show that the likelihood of a major eruption of Mount Vesuvius, like this computer image of the infamous blast of 79 A.D., are decreasing.Courtesy Wikipedia
About a year ago visitors at the Science Museum of Minnesota learned about the disaster that struck Pompeii, Italy, when Mount Vesuvius erupted, wiping out the city and a lot of its residents in the span of just about a day.

Today, about three million people are living within range of a Vesuvius eruption. But the good news from geologists is that they may be under lessened risk for a devastating eruption like the one that hit in 79 A.D.

A new study shows that the volcano’s magma reservoir has been rising up closer to the Earth’s surface over the past 20,000 years. At that higher level, the magma is likely to produce less violent eruptions.

That magma has actually moved quite a bit. Between the huge Pompeii-devastating eruption and another one in the year 472 A.D., the magma pool climbed about 2.5 miles toward Earth’s surface.

But that doesn’t mean people can sleep totally at peace in the volcano’s neighborhood, experts advise. Other factors also play into the severity of a volcano eruption, including tectonic plate shift and the deposit distribution of the magma, factors that weren’t part of this new study.


Okay, hold that pose: But we're going to want to try it without... without...  Forget it.
Okay, hold that pose: But we're going to want to try it without... without... Forget it.Courtesy NASA
And they didn’t just have sex; they actually reproduced, which turns out to be important for naked astronauts. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves, aren’t we?

No, we aren’t.

Tiny, naked astronauts were recently exposed to the vacuum environment, harsh temperatures, and dangerous radiation of space for a period of several days. The space travelers went into an almost entirely dormant state for the duration, slowing their metabolisms to .01% of their normal levels.

After they were brought back into the low-orbit space vessel, most of the astronauts were completely revived. (Some died. It was very sad.) Aside from enduring the vacuum of space, and the extreme temperatures outside of a space capsule, the astronauts’ ability to survive the radiation of space most surprised scientists. On the surface of earth, solar radiation (as you no doubt are aware) is strong enough to give us sunburn, and cause genetic damage to our skin cells (leading to skin cancer). The levels of radiation in space are 1,000 times higher, enough to sterilize an organism, yet the astronauts did fine with it, and were even able to successfully reproduce on their return to earth. Scientists hope to isolate whatever mechanism allowed the astronauts to repair the genetic damage they likely incurred while in space. Such research might be applied to radiation therapy techniques.

We salute you, tiny, naked challengers of the unknown.


Ask not...: It tolls for thee, bro, it tolls for thee.
Ask not...: It tolls for thee, bro, it tolls for thee.Courtesy carl.jones
Just messin’, y’all!

Only some of us will die on September 10th! And that’s only because we were going to die anyway. There will be sudden heart attacks, tragic car accidents, hilarious full-body prolapses, and possibly some mysterious cases of spontaneous combustion, and none of that will have anything to do with the Large Hadron Collider turning on on the tenth of September.

That’s right, everyone, you can stop holding your breath, and start crossing your fingers, because the LHC now has a date for its first proton collision.

Some people have raised concerns that turning on the LHC could lead to the destruction of the earth in one of several very sciencey ways. Other people have shouted down these jokers, however, because they are very, very, very probably wrong.

And if the world doesn’t end, well, we’ll probably learn all sorts of rad things about the nature of the universe. We might even get some visitors from the future. But I might put a larger bet on the destruction of the solar system (but, you know, fingers crossed).

So, Buzzketeers, on September 10, do your best to protect yourself from the everyday dangers of existence. Wrap your head in packing foam, fill your tummy with starch-based peanuts, and keep yourself wet and/or naked to prevent sparks catching in your clothing and hair, because you probably won’t want to miss what’s coming out of the LHC.


The East German Women's Swim Team: Members share a laugh between events at the 1952 Summer Games in Helsinki.
The East German Women's Swim Team: Members share a laugh between events at the 1952 Summer Games in Helsinki.Courtesy Mark Ryan
As athletes around the world gear up for the upcoming Beijing Olympics, officials in China are setting a sex-determination laboratory to confirm the gender of some of the competitors.

Despite objections by some medical ethicists that the tests are too intrusive, suspected “female” athletes will be checked for external appearance, genes, and hormones. Particular scrutiny will be given to women who are able to find the laboratory at the Peking Union Medical College Hospital without having to stop to ask directions.

The lab is a holdover from previous Olympics when questions were raised about the gender of several “female” athletes from some Soviet Bloc countries. From then on, every woman wanting to compete in the Games had to submit to a sex-evaluation screening that required them to walk naked in front of a committee of doctors. This was replaced in 1968 with chromosome tests. Blanket testing was eliminated in 1999, and now only “suspect” women – like those who leave the toilet seat up - will be tested.

“We must be ready to take on such cases should they arise,” said Arne Ljungqvist, chairman of the IOC’s medical commission. “Sometimes, fingers are pointed at particular female athletes, and in order to protect them, we have to be able to investigate it and clarify.”

Throughout its existence the mandatory testing program has never led to a single confirmed case of males impersonating females to gain an edge in the Games. Several cases of gender suspicion arose in Atlanta in 1996 when eight women failed to pass a genetic test, but they were cleared after it was determined they all suffered from a birth defect that presented no advantage other than being able to parallel park.

Prior to the tests, there’s only been one confirmed case of a male impersonating a female in the Games. In 1936, Hermann Ratjen was forced by the Nazis to compete as Dora Ratjen in the women’s high jump during the Berlin Olympics. He confessed to the subterfuge in 1956 but only after being confronted with rumors that he had been overheard telling a teammate a joke without botching the punch line.


NY Times story
Guardian story


Up up down down left right left right B A start!: or was it IDDQD? Yes! Infinite lives and ammo.
Up up down down left right left right B A start!: or was it IDDQD? Yes! Infinite lives and ammo.Courtesy bramblejungle
A single gene has been isolated in male fruit flies that seems to somehow make them skilled at videogames, Dungeons and Dragons (all versions), and Star Trek trivia.

Scientists are not yet able to fully explain this phenomenon, but they believe that the gene may govern a pheromone receptor, and causes it to block or misinterpret chemical signals normal fruit flies receive as stimuli towards good hygiene, snappy dressing, and social interaction.

So skilled are these fruit flies at games and trivia, they are able to actually beat games that don’t exist, and answer questions about Next Generation episodes that never made it to filming. Likewise, these flies have often been observed “rolling” for everyday actions and commenting derisively on the stats of peers.

Read all about it here, friends.


You deserve it Avis: Be careful though—it may be a trophy, but it really fires. Golden bullets.
You deserve it Avis: Be careful though—it may be a trophy, but it really fires. Golden bullets.Courtesy davidaugspurger
Rata a tat tat tat get yourself psyched a tat rat rat rat rat

The award goes to Avis Blakeslee of Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania!!

Yay! Yay! Yea!

Now, before we get into Avis’s specific accomplishments, let’s have a little background on the Sara Connor award itself.

A female-only award, meant to recognize the truly hardcore ladies out there, the Sara Connor award is, in fact, a precursor to the Otzi the Iceman Medal of Badassery. The OtIMoB, was created more than a decade after the SCA, under social pressure to acknowledge that men can also, on occasion, be pretty tough. But the Sara Connor is truly the original, and as deserving as the Otzi winners are, the Badassery medal is in a different—and frankly lower—league.

Originally the Sara Connor and Lt. Ellen Ripley Medal of Valor, the award was split after the selection committee could not agree on a recipient. Those members who would eventually form the Lt. Ripley Organization wanted to give the award to Margaret Thatcher, for eating the eyes out of a living goat, while the charter members of the Sara Connor board felt that an Argentinean woman who gave birth while clinging to the wing of an airborne Learjet was more deserving. The board members of the award parted ways amiably, although the Sara Connor Award has since received greater attention and respect, on account of widely held opinion that the Lt. Ripley Organization is simply unable to “keep it real.”

The Sara Connor Award is given regularly, but not necessarily every year. For example, in 1995, the SCA was given to Svetlana Kovach of the Ukraine after she removed her own cystic kidney using only a bottle of grain alcohol and a claw hammer (while trapped in a mineshaft, although this was only discovered after the ceremony—Ms. Kovach was tremendously modest), but in 1996 no suitable recipients were nominated. The award was given once again in 1997, posthumously, to Nozomi Chinen of Okinawa, who clawed her way out of a shark’s belly, and drowned fighting a second shark barehanded.

Avis Blakeslee, this year’s deserving recipient, is being recognized for an epic battle with a rabid fox in the garden of her farmhouse.

Although Ms. Blakeslee’s accomplishment is perhaps not as immediately impressive as those of past recipients (it pales in comparison even to 1999’s formidable runner up, a 15-year old Jordanian who slapped a mortar out of the air), extenuating circumstances must be considered. Again, the fox was rabid—and if you read last week’s post on the bat-pantsed Scotswoman (who is unlikely to receive a nomination), you’ll know that rabies is serious business. Paralysis, insanity, hydrophobia, etc; rabies is no cakewalk. The disease is no doubt what lead the fox to leave its habitat to attack an unsuspecting gardener. Ms. Blakeslee had never even seen a fox in person before, and believed the creature to be a small dog (before it went crazy on her). Another important factor here is Avis’s age: 77. Avis is a grandmother, and not used to fighting wild animals, and yet she wrasseled that pooch into submission, even after sustaining seven leg wounds, an arm wound, and severe blood loss. She then pinned the rabid fox to the ground, holding its jaws shut with one hand, until help arrived to dispatch the creature with a firearm. I have no doubt that, had Mavis a free arm, she would have simply driven a finger into the fox’s brain. As it was, however, she did her two-armed best and subdued the fox ultimate fighting style, until the cavalry came to do its own thing.

A job well done, Avis, a job well done. You’ve taught us all a little bit about what it means to be hardcore, and for that…we salute you.


Are we next?: No. Definitely not.
Are we next?: No. Definitely not.Courtesy NASA
Y’all know what “fratricide” is? It’s when a brother kills a brother. Or when a sister kills her brother. Or when a sister and a brother kill their brother. Any combination, really, involving a brother getting iced.

Well, it has happened on Jupiter. A little brother has been torn apart by his giant siblings. And by giant, I mean many times the size of earth.

The Great Red Spot is a huge hurricane-like storm on the surface of Jupiter. The storm has been spinning for several hundred years, and has a diameter about three times that of Earth. Also, it’s red.

The spot happens to have a couple of little brothers, too, named Red Spot Jr. (or Oval Ba, if you can’t get your head around having a little brother that’s your “Jr.”) and the Little Red Spot. Or, I should say, it had a couple of little brothers. Now it has a little brother, and some spare brother chunks. You see, Great Red Spot, and Red Spot Jr. tore Little Red Spot to shreds last week.

Officials are still baffled as to the motive, but what we know is this: LRS was strolling innocently through its neighborhood of Jupiter when it was ambushed from either side by GRS and RSJ. No weapons are thought to have been involved, ironically making the crime that much more brutal—the larger storms ripped their little brother apart with their own stormy hands, and when GRS and RSJ ran off, all that was left of LRS were sad little shreds.

The proximity of the incident has complicated investigation, to say the least, but I have my own theories. Red Spot Junior, as it happens, only recently earned its title—it was not until only two years ago that it actually turned red. I think that RSJ may have been long overdue to prove itself as a true red spot. Both intimidated and protected by its larger brother, RSJ was content to allow GRS to be the planet’s muscle. Over the months, however, I guess that RSJ’s desire to prove itself intensified, or that GRS tired of doing its little brother’s dirty work. Either way, the two larger spots turned their sites towards their small brother, always the “simplest” of the three. I think it’s very likely that GRS provided cover and just watched while RSJ did the butcher’s work, but the blood doesn’t stand out on its recently acquired coloring.

The red color of the spots, although no doubt symbolic of their bloodthirsty hearts, is not entirely understood. It’s thought that the color may come from material sucked from deep in the planet as the storms get stronger. Phosphorus-containing molecules, for instance would turn red when exposed to sunlight on the planet’s surface.

Astronomers the world over are reeling from the violent act.


Lighting a backfire
Lighting a backfireCourtesy LouAngeli2008

As fires continue to rage in the forests of California, I thought I would introduce you to some of the people trying to control them. Smokejumpers are the logical people to start with as they are usually the first on the ground.

Smokejumpers are the elite forces of the US forestry department. Many fires begin in locations inaccessible to the standard means of transportation (trucks, helicopters, or by foot). These firefighters arrive by plane and parachute into remote areas. Often their landing site is the top of a tree or a boulder field. Their kevlar suits provide some protection but their skill set includes tree climbing, practiced falling and general hardiness.

In the beginning, jumpers were required to be unmarried without dependents. They had to be a bit reckless to be able to agree to jump out of a plane into a fire area! Despite the inherent danger of jumping, there have been relatively few fatalities in their long history. Jumping began in the late 1930s as flight technology and airplanes became more sophisticated. During the war, many of the jumpers were conscientious objectors to WWII. In 1981 the first women were allowed into the program. Today there are 9 active bases in the West but they serve fires from Alaska to the North East.

The physical requirements... 7 pull ups, 25 push-ups, 45 sit-ups, and a 1.5 mile run completed in under 11 minutes---all done in one session with a 5 minute break between each activity. So, I am pretty much disqualified right off the bat with the pull ups and even if I were to manage, the running would definitely eliminate me. I view running as a self destructive behavior (who would put themselves through that? sorry El). You must also be mentally and emotionally stable--that is a requirement! A smokejumper’s pack often weighs upwards of 100 pounds...and you have no ride out, you must hike or hitchhike in (after landing) and out of the fire. To see a complete list of physical requirements (including height and weight) check out the West Yellowstone smokejumper website.

What they do : After landing and recovering their gear (which is dropped from the plane in (hopefully) a relatively similar location to where they land) the crew sets out towards the fire. They carry no water save for their thermoses. They control the fire by either creating a fireline/firebreak, a swath of land around the edge of the fire cleared of any brush or fuel that could feed the fire, or they light a backfire . Backfires act much like a fireline/firebreak in that they burn towards the oncoming fire. By doing so, they remove the fuel the fire needs to continue burning. Only if the jumpers are unable to contain the fire are reinforcements called to the scene. Jumpers direct helicopters to drop water on hot spots and systematically work their way through the burn site feeling the ground to make sure that there will be no flare-ups. They can leave when the fire is controlled or fresh firefighters take-over, often times many hours after they first jumped from the plane.

Be sure to check out the links below. Jumpers work from June-Oct so those of you looking for adventure with an extremely selective and tight-knit group, smokejumping could be for you.