Tag: earth science

Thousands of 13th-Century Londoners May Have Been Killed By A Distant Volcano

By Veronique Greenwood | August 9, 2012 12:40 pm

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.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Health & Medicine

Study: Americas + Europe + Asia Will Form Amasia, a Supercontinent in the Arctic

By Sarah Zhang | February 9, 2012 4:08 pm

Geological analysis suggest the current-day continents we know and love will drift together, forming a new supercontinent like ones that existed many millions of years ago. What’s not certain is where that supercontinent will be. The authors of a new Nature study suggest that the next supercontinent, dubbed Amasia, will join together up in the Arctic. Antarctica, though, would stay by its lonesome in the south.

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Following in Scott's Footsteps: Measuring the Magnetic Pole

By Veronique Greenwood | December 28, 2011 3:41 pm

spacing is important
The peripatetic magnetic south pole.

A hundred years after Robert Scott‘s disastrous mission to the South Pole, a pair of Kiwi scientists are traveling to his observation hut today to continue the work he began there: tracking the Earth’s magnetic field. Since 1957, New Zealand has measured the field at Scott’s base every five years, accruing data that, along with measurements from other, more comfortable sites around the world, helps maintain the model used by NATO and nations’ defense departments for navigation.

The planet’s magnetic field needs tracking because it is shifting: the magnetic south pole has been traveling northwestward at a rate of 6 to 9 miles a year for the past century. (The geographic South Pole is somewhere altogether different.) This shift occurs because the mass of molten metal that makes up the Earth’s outer core is in a constant state of turmoil, and the  the poles could veer off in another direction at any time. Intriguing, the magnetic field has also been getting weaker since the 1800s. But whether that means the poles will flip at some point in the future—it’s happened before!—or whether it will start getting stronger again very soon is a mystery.

[via Nature News]

Image courtesy of NOAA


Buried Mangrove Forests Protect Buildings Above From Earthquakes

By Joseph Castro | June 13, 2011 1:45 pm

Haiti National PalaceThe National Palace in Port-au-Prince
after the 2010 Haiti earthquake

What’s the News: To dampen structural vibrations from earthquakes, engineers often place a flexible layer of rubber bearings in between buildings and the soil. Now, scientists are learning that Mother Nature uses a similar technique. A research team has found that a buried layer of mangrove in the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe absorbs earthquake energy, shielding the above ground from soil liquefaction. This discovery could be exploited to help protect new buildings in the Caribbean islands.

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Are Seismologists Responsible for People's Deaths in an Earthquake?

By Veronique Greenwood | May 27, 2011 10:08 am

Destruction in L’Aquila, in the seismically active area of Abruzzi.

What’s the News: No one can predict earthquakes. But six seismologists and a government official are being tried for manslaughter in the deaths of more than 300 people in the 2009 tremblor in L’Aquila, Italy. The city’s public prosecutor says the scientists downplayed the possibility of a quake to an extent that townsfolk did not take precautions that could have saved their lives. A judge has just set the trial to begin on September 20.

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Rash of Earthquakes—in Maine!—Brought to You by the Last Ice Age

By Patrick Morgan | May 11, 2011 8:42 am

What’s the News: When residents living on the central coast of Maine experienced nearly 30 small earthquakes in early May, some phoned their local authorities to report gunshots and unexpected blasting. That’s because Maine lies far from any active faults and rarely experiences more than two earthquakes a year.  Measuring less than 2 on the Richter scale, these small tremors were actually vestiges of the most recent Ice Age.

As mile-high slabs of ice plowed their way across most of North America 25,000 years ago, they compressed Earth’s crust hundreds of feet, and ever since the ice melted away around 14,000 years ago, the land beneath our feet has been decompressing, much like a (very slow-moving) bed springs back to an equilibrium position when you get up in the morning. “The crust of the Earth is constantly moving,” Maine’s Bureau of Geology director Robert Marvinney told Wired. “We just don’t think about it that way, because it seems stable during our lifetimes.”

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Is the Planet in a Period of "Megaquakes," or Just a String of Bad Luck?

By Valerie Ross | April 18, 2011 3:22 pm

earthquakeA house decimated by the 2010 earthquake in Chile.

What’s the News: Enormous earthquakes are rare; there have been only seven quakes with a magnitude 8.8 or above since the start of the 20th century. Of those seven quakes, three of them have happened in the past seven years: off the coasts of Indonesia in 2004, Chile in 2010, and Japan last month. Some researchers think this earthquake cluster marks the start of a period of megaquakes, while others believe that the earthquake cluster is simply a statistical fluke, with these unusually massive quakes just happening to occur within a short amount of time, according to recent analyses (PDF) of Earth’s earthquake history presented at the Seismological Society of America’s annual meeting last week.

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Ingenious Geological Sleuthing Reveals the Shapes of Ancient Mountains

By Valerie Ross | April 2, 2011 11:46 am

Fiordland National Park
Fiordland National Park in New Zealand, the location of the study

What’s the News: Researchers have mapped out the detailed geological history of a 300-square-mile chunk of New Zealand, from 2.5 million years ago to the present day. The study showed how glaciers carved out the area’s distinctive valleys using a little-known technique called thermochronometry, which involves shooting proton beams onto rocks and making note of what happens—along with some impressive analytical skills.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Physics & Math

Why New Zealand's Earthquake Was So Deadly

By Andrew Moseman | February 22, 2011 10:24 am

At least 65 people died in an earthquake that struck New Zealand’s second-largest city, Christchurch, yesterday. As the city digs out from the rubble created by the magnitude 6.3 quake, some there are worried the death toll could climb into the hundreds. And as seismologists unravel the details, it’s becoming clear why this quake was so much deadlier than previous seismic events in New Zealand.

Photographs and video from Christchurch, a metropolitan area of nearly 400,000 residents, showed people running through the streets, landslides pouring rocks and debris into suburban streets and extensive damage to buildings. Witnesses told of watching the spire of the iconic Christchurch Cathedral come crashing down during an aftershock. One witness called it “the most frightening thing of my entire life,” and television footage showed a person clinging to a window in the cathedral’s steeple. [The New York Times]

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Thwarted Drillers Leave Antarctic Lake, and Leave Controversy Behind

By Patrick Morgan | February 10, 2011 5:42 pm

Antarctica’s Lake Vostok–and its potential scientific findings–remains cut off from the outside world for yet another year. Russian scientists spent the Antarctic summer drilling towards the water in the frozen-over Antarctic lake, but plummeting temperatures forced them to leave earlier this week, as their airplane’s hydraulic fluid was in danger of freezing.

The Russians may have flown off, but they left some controversy behind. To keep the 12,300-foot-deep borehole from filling with ice the researchers loaded it full of kerosene, and some Antarctic experts are worried that the chemicals will contaminate an otherwise pristine place.

The 6,200-square-mile lake is important for scientists because the iced-over waters have been isolated for over 14 million years. Biologists are excited to see whether it holds ancient microbes; climatologists are interested in the record held in its sediments; and geologists want to learn how such an isolated sub-glacial lake forms. And despite this year’s setback, researchers are surprisingly unfazed:

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