The yellow spots represent icy areas.
Ice? On the planet closest to the Sun? You heard right: Mercury’s northern pole may have craters containing frozen water.
The evidence, presented in three papers published last week in Science, comes from several sources. The Mercury Laser Altimeter, an instrument on the Mercury space probe, MESSENGER, helps scientists map the topography of the planet by firing lasers at its surface and recording the time it takes for the light to return. The instrument also records the intensity of the return beams, and the bright spots reflecting off Mercury’s surface suggest the presence of ice. Read More
The outline of Lake Vostok beneath the ice, as seen from space.
Last week, as Russian scientists neared the end of two decades of drilling to reach Lake Vostok, an ancient Antarctic lake buried beneath miles of ice that hasn’t seen light in 20 million years, people around the world waited with bated breath for news. Yesterday the Russian state-run news agency announced that on Sunday, the drill had reached water, apparently the lake surface. Today, the project leader clarified that they need to verify that the water the drill struck was actually Lake Vostok. New Scientist has a tidy explanation of why it’s not necessarily obvious if you’ve hit a massive underground lake:
[Hitting water] suggests the lake has been breached, but the team are now checking the level of water in the borehole and readings from pressure sensors to confirm that the water did come from the lake and not a pocket of water in the ice above the lake. Ice temperatures rise as you go deeper into the ice sheet, and approach melting point just above the lake, so the fact that the team hit liquid water doesn’t necessarily mean they’ve reached the lake.
A naled, or aufeis, in the flesh. Er, ice.
It sounds like science fiction, but, like so many science fiction-ish ideas in the age of radical adaption to climate change, it’s real: Mongolia is launching a $750,000 geoengineering project to freeze vast quantities of the Tuul River in order to cool its capital city of Ulan Bataar during the sweltering summer, and to provide drinking water as the ice melts, as well. While specifics about exactly how the cooling will work are scarce, details about the freezing process are not, as it will mimic a natural process that already occurs on rivers in the north.
[Originally published 9/16] Greenland glaciers have had a hard time of it lately, what with all the warming and disintegrating, and in their latest edition, the folks at the Times Comprehensive Atlas of the World have decided to illustrate the island’s new look: as you can see above, lots and lots less white. The warming has even created a new island off the east coast: look closely just under the “Gr” in “Greenland Sea,” and you can see the words “Uunartoq Qeqertoq (Warming I.)”
If we are looking at a radically reshaped world in the next hundred years or more, maybe atlases will have to be more like dictionaries from here on out, recording the dynamic nature of their subject matter.
[Update 9/19: Scientists at the UK’s Scott Polar Institute have written a letter to the Times saying that the image above is inaccurate; less ice has melted in the last 15 years than the atlas’s image shows. The atlas’s publishers, HarperCollins, respond that they created the image using data from the US National Snow and Ice Data Center, and that it represents not only changes due to warming but also “much more accurate data and in-depth research” than had previously been available. Regardless of the causes, however, the image doesn’t resemble current satellite images, the Scott Polar group says. Check out a comparison of the images here. What do you think?]
Wow! Most of those dots are not stars: they are actual snowballs, frozen matter that has been ejected by the comet itself! They range in size from a few centimeters to a few dozen across, so they really are about the size of snowballs you’d use in a snowball fight… or to make a snowman. But I wouldn’t recommend it: a lot of that material is not frozen water, it’s actually frozen carbon dioxide, or dry ice.
Find out what else we’ve learned about Hartley 2 and see more photos at Bad Astronomy.
Bad Astronomy: Amazing Close-Ups of Comet Hartley 2!
80beats: Holy Hartley 2! What to Know About NASA’s Comet Flyby
80beats: Video: Comet Caught Crashing into the Sun
80beats: Spacecraft-Collected Comet Dust Reveals Surprises From the Solar System’s Boondocks
Bad Astronomy: Ten Things You Don’t Know About Comets
Image: NASA / JPL-Caltech / UMD
“Return to previous Arctic conditions is unlikely.” That’s the understated conclusion from this year’s Arctic Report Card, which found that air temperatures will continue rising and ice will continue melting in the Arctic as global warming continues to take its toll on the region. The annual report was prepared by 69 researchers in eight countries, and was issued by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
What goes on in the Arctic doesn’t stay in the Arctic. The researchers note that conditions in the Arctic can affect global weather, and point to the huge snowstorms that hit the American northeast and mid-Atlantic states last winter as an example.
“Normally the cold air is bottled up in the Arctic,” said Jim Overland of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory in Seattle. But last December and February, winds that normally blow west to east across the Arctic were instead bringing the colder air south to the Mid-Atlantic, he said. “As we lose more sea ice it’s a paradox that warming in the atmosphere can create more of these winter storms,” Overland said at a news briefing. [Washington Post]
The origin of life is surely one of the most important questions in biology. How did inanimate molecules give rise to the “endless forms most beautiful” that we see today, and where did this event happen? Some of the most popular theories suggest that life began in a hellish setting, in rocky undersea vents that churn out superheated water from deep within the earth. But a new paper suggests an alternative backdrop, and one that seems like the polar opposite (pun intended) of the hot vents –ice.
Like the vents, frozen fields of ice seem like counter-intuitive locations for the origin of life – they’re hardly a hospitable environment today. But according to James Attwater form the University of Cambridge, ice has the right properties to fuel the rise of “replicator” molecules, which can make copies of themselves, change and evolve.
Read the rest of this post at Not Exactly Rocket Science. And for more about the possibly frigid origins of life—and the implications of that for finding life beyond Earth—check out the DISCOVER feature “Did Life Evolve in Ice?”
More Related Content:
Not Exactly Rocket Science: Tree Or Ring: The Origin of Complex Cells
80beats: Earth Raised up Its Magnetic Shield Early, Protecting Water and Emerging Life
80beats: Dust Collected From Comet Contains a Key Ingredient of Life
Image: Wikimedia Commons
Scientists have suggested for years now that the effects of a warming planet won’t show up in a uniform fashion across the globe—different locations won’t see glaciers retreat or sea levels rise at the same rate. Some places are particularly confusing because they show signs that seem backward to one’s expectations for a hotter Earth. One of the those confusing outliers for climatologists has been the sea ice off Antarctica.
While the amount of sea ice in the Arctic has been trending downward, Antarctic sea ice has actually expanded even as the area has warmed (and as ice shelves collapsed on the continent). This week, in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Jiping Liu and Judith Curry put forth an explanation for this paradox. But, they say, the ice growth probably won’t continue.
Water, water (or ice) everywhere—that’s the refrain this year. This week we covered the study declaring that the moon was home to perhaps 100 times more water than previously thought, and it was just two months ago that sky-watchers spotted the first frosty asteroid out in the Asteroid Belt. Now, in a study in Nature, a team of astronomers says they’ve found another icy surprise in our solar system: a bright shiny object way out in the Kuiper Belt.
The Kuiper Belt is that mess of objects orbiting the sun out beyond Neptune, but not as far as the Oort Cloud (once-proud Pluto is a Kuiper Belt object). There are plenty of icy bodies out there, including Pluto. But what doesn’t make sense about this one, KBO 55636, is how it stayed so pristine after a billion years of floating alone. MIT’s James Elliot, who led the study, says the object’s albedo, or reflectivity, is striking:
“That turned out to be very high, almost 90 percent… That’s consistent with it having a very highly reflective surface like water ice.” The finding was surprising because such old, distant bodies tend to have weathered, dull surfaces. “Objects orbiting that far out in space get generally darkened by accumulating dust… We don’t have an explanation for how it could stay so pristine” [Space.com].
There are millions of asteroids in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, but yesterday attention focused on just one. According to a couple of studies in Nature, a large asteroid called 24 Themis is rife with water ice and organic molecules, and the researchers say that it could be more evidence that the water so precious to life on Earth came to our planet on board such rocks.
Two research teams took infrared images of 24 Themis, which is about 120 miles in diameter and was discovered in 1853. This asteroid has an extensive but thin frosty coating. It is likely replenished by an extensive reservoir of frozen water deep inside rock once thought to be dry and desolate [AP].
The team, led by Humberto Campins, says finding so much ice on the surface was a surprise; at the asteroid’s distance from the sun—3.2 astronomical units (AU), or just more than three times further than the Earth—exposed ice has a “relatively short lifetime,” the scientists write. As a result, the idea of a below-surface reservoir seems likely. (Icy comets aren’t nearly so close to the sun on average; Halley’s comet can come within .6 AU of the sun, but then retreats to a farthest distance of more than 35 AU.)