The new year in a large portion of the United States may have gotten off to a cold start, but down under, quite the opposite has been true. Temperatures have been soaring in Australia—so much so that the Australian Bureau of Meteorology has had to add new colors to its temperature forecast map, reports the Sydney Morning Herald. Its previous temperature range had been capped at 50 degrees—or 122 degrees F.
The excavation at Spitalfields
The churchyard at St. Mary’s in Spitalfields, London, was the final resting place for more than 10,000 people in medieval times. But among the run-of-the-mill gravesites, archaeologists with the Museum of London Archaeology have found, were 175 mass graves, containing the closely packed bodies of thousands of men, women, and children. What happened to these people? The answer, it turns out, could be decidedly unusual.
The team’s first thought was the obvious: the Black Death, which ravaged England starting in 1347. But once the bodies in the mass graves were carbon dated, it was clear that they had died a hundred years before the first plague-carrying flea came to Britain: around 1250. “As soon as we got the radiocarbon dates back, we knew that couldn’t possibly be the case. There had to be some other event,” says Natasha Powers, the head of osteology at the Museum of London Archaeology.
Even ignoring the wildfires and drought this season, the sweltering heat itself is proclaiming this an intense summer. And unusually hot summers are becoming not so unusual, according to a new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Researchers averaged the summer and winter temperatures for multiple locations across the globe during the years from 1951 to 1980, establishing a baseline for each season. Then they measured how much the temperature varied from this average over the years. They found an increasing number of anomalies in the past 30 years. We no longer have equal odds of the summer temperatures being unusually hot, or unusually cool. Instead, as the researchers phrase it, we are dealing with loaded dice: we are now much more likely to have a hot summer than an average or cool one. And hot temperatures have become both more frequent and more intense. In the time period from which the researchers drew their average, less than one percent of land on Earth suffered from extreme hotter-than-usual temperatures (more than three standard deviations above the average) at any one time. Now, these temperature hotspots cover 10 percent of the land.
Have you noticed that it’s been hotter than usual lately? Your answer might reveal your ideology.
Now, it’s old news that American acceptance of global climate change is closely linked to political affiliation: As of 2011, 77 percent of Democrats thought the Earth was getting warmer, but only 43 percent of Republicans agreed. We also already knew that when it gets hotter, more people of both affiliations say the Earth is warming.
But it isn’t necessarily a one-way street. A new study flips it around: Researchers have found that ideology can skew how people perceive local temperature trends. In other words, your answer to “Has it been hotter lately?” can reveal whether you’re an individualist or more community oriented.
Thank god for air friction. Without it, falling rain would smack into our heads at hundreds of miles per hour. But friction works both ways—falling raindrops also slow down the movement of air molecules in the atmosphere. A new paper in Science calculated that raindrops dissipate as much kinetic energy from the atmosphere as air turbulence. Granted, at 1.8 watts per square meter and 0.75% of the atmosphere’s total kinetic energy, that’s not very much. What’s surprising is that rain drops are pulling more than their weight, as they make up only 0.01% of the atmosphere’s mass.
Researchers calculated the kinetic energy dissipated by a single raindrop and put it together with precipitation rates around the world. Since satellite precipitation data also show the height from which rain started falling, the researchers could plug how far raindrops fell into their energy calculations. It all adds up across the whole globe: the researchers estimate the total rate of energy dissipation from rainfall to be 1015 Watts. That’s a lot of energy, but still unlikely to affect major weather phenomena like hurricanes or tornados.
[via Nature News]
Image via Shutterstock
Antarctic lake, ho! Nearly twenty years ago Russian scientists began drilling through the over two miles of ice above Lake Vostok, a gigantic underground lake in Antarctica that hasn’t seen the surface in 20 million years. The pristine lake was reached last week, prompting a flurry of discussion among scientists and members of the media about how the Russian team could keep from contaminating it and whether unusual microbial life would be found there. Kept warm and liquid by heat from the center of the Earth, Lake Vostok, the largest in a chain of about 200 underground (or under-ice) lakes, is similar to the oceans supposed to exist below the surface on moons Enceladus and Europa, which makes this an exciting time to be an astrobiologist. Or, really, anyone interested in the origins of life.
It can be hard to reconstruct in your head the long, drawn-out process of reaching the lake when poring over the recent news stories on this topic. But a nice graphic put together by Nature News gives a blow-by-blow: In 1990, scientists began drilling at Vostok Station, the Russians’ Antarctic base, returning every summer to continue the task. At first they were drilling to remove ice cores that would provide data on climate, but by the mid-1990s, scientists had realized that a huge lake was deep below the surface. To protect the lake from contamination by the drilling fluids, which include kerosene, the team agreed they would melt the last bit of ice using a thermal probe instead of the drill (we don’t know yet if they did in fact follow the plan). As they got deeper into the ice, the drill became stuck, but trying another route met with success on February 5th.
[via Nature News]
Image courtesy of Nature News, created from Lukin, V. & Bulat, S. Geophys. Monogr. Ser. 192, 187–197 (2011).
Hookworms are longer-lived than viruses and bacteria;
they could have had a more significant effect on human evolution.
Humans live in all sorts of places—high deserts, tropical lowlands, frigid tundra. Over the millennia, you’d expect each population’s assortment of genes to evolve to reflect the demands and dangers of its home environment: those who live in the deserts would possess genes for extra skin pigments to help keep their tender integument from burning (like African peoples), and those who live in sub-zero climes much of the year would have genes that keep them well-insulated in fat (like the Inuit). But what if factors other than climate, like the food available nearby or the viruses, bacteria, and parasites native to the area, also had an effect on various human populations’ genetic toolkits?
It’s a fascinating question, but, given that we have to reconstruct all this supposed evolution from the current state of modern genomes, finding an answer isn’t easy. A recent paper takes an important first step by looking for correlations between 500,000 different genetic markers and certain environmental characteristics, like humidity, temperature, the local diet, and the prevalence of parasites and other pathogens.
A new study published in the Journal of Climate claims that painting rooftops white—a method championed by energy secretary Steven Chu and others to combat climate change—only minimally reduces local cooling, and actually causes a slight increase in overall global warming.
Scientists have often wondered how woolly mammoths survived and thrived in the frigid climes of the far north in Earth’s last ice age. The hemoglobin in elephant (and human) blood cannot easily transfer oxygen to other cells in the body at low temperatures. Instead, the blood’s hemoglobin holds onto its oxygen in icy extremities and the tissue eventually dies; that’s the main reason we get frostbite. There must, then, have been something special about mammoth hemoglobin.
The Laki fissure’s eruption in Iceland was behind tens of thousands of deaths in the 1780s.
What’s the News: Iceland’s busy volcanoes have caused their share of air traffic snafus in Europe lately, but they have the potential to be deadly, not just inconvenient. A new model examining how air quality would change should the volcanoes erupt as spectacularly as they occasionally have in the past suggests that increased particulates in the air could kill more than 140,000 people in Europe in the year following the eruption.