Last month, a flock of trumpeter swans alighted on the wetlands of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon, repeating an annual ritual that dates back centuries. But for the first time in 80 years, biologists were not there to count them.
The annual winter bird count, which dates back to 1935, provides key data on multiple species for a national migratory bird monitoring program. Biologists and volunteers count ibis, sandhill cranes, horned larks and other birds that stop at the refuge – an oasis in the high desert of the Great Basin.
But this year, the only people inside the refuge at the start of bird-counting season were a small group of armed militants. Instead of counting birds, refuge scientists are counting days. Monday marks the 38th day of the occupation, orchestrated by ranchers and others angered by a five-year prison sentence handed to local cattlemen Steven and Dwight Hammond for arson – and, more broadly, federal oversight of cattle grazing on public lands. Last week, 11 of the occupiers were arrested while traveling to a meeting, including the movement’s ringleader, Ammon Bundy. Another man, Arizona rancher Robert “LaVoy” Finicum, was killed by local law enforcement. But four holdouts remain at the refuge, and the site remains closed. Read More
The world was literally shaken before news broke that North Korea detonated what leaders in the Hermit Kingdom claimed was a hydrogen bomb Tuesday morning local time.
Officials and experts around the world quickly cast doubt on that claim, as the amount of energy produced by the explosion was likely too small to be that of a hydrogen bomb. Instead, early evidence suggests North Korea may have instead detonated a boosted-fission bomb, which produces a smaller explosive yield. It will likely take several more days to determine what kind of nuclear device Pyongyang actually detonated. Read More
I led the team of researchers that discovered that Stonehenge was most likely to have been originally built in Pembrokeshire, Wales, before it was taken apart and transported some 180 miles to Wiltshire, England. It may sound like an impossible task without modern technology, but it wouldn’t have been the first time prehistoric Europeans managed to move a monument.
Archaeologists are increasingly discovering megaliths across the continent – albeit a small number so far – that were previously put up in earlier monuments. Read More
Three weeks and three days before Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans 10 years ago, a paper of mine appeared in the scientific journal Nature showing that North Atlantic hurricane power was strongly correlated with the temperature of the tropical Atlantic during hurricane season, and that both had been increasing rapidly over the previous 30 years or so. It attributed these increases to a combination of natural climate oscillations and to global warming.
Had Katrina not occurred, this paper and another by an independent team would merely have contributed to the slowly accumulating literature on the relationship between climate and hurricanes.
Instead, the two papers inspired a media firestorm, polarizing popular opinion and, to some extent, scientists themselves, on whether global warming was in some way responsible for Katrina. While the firestorm was mostly destructive, benefiting only the media, it had a silver lining in inspiring a much more concerted effort by atmospheric and climate scientists to understand how hurricanes influence and are influenced by climate.
We have learned much in the intervening years.
Researchers have known for some time that the food and drink we all consume contains arsenic.
Should we be concerned? Aren’t we protected by federal regulations? Actually, no – we are not. In the US, as in many countries, the government regulates the concentration of arsenic in drinking water, but does not regulate the concentration of arsenic in any other drink or food. We have a mercury-in-food regulation; why don’t we have an arsenic-in-food regulation?
One important difference is that all of the compounds of mercury we find in food are equally toxic. This is not the case for arsenic. Although we normally think of arsenic compounds as potentially harmful, most of the arsenic we eat is harmless. Seafood, which contains by far the highest concentrations of arsenic, delivers it as arsenobetaine, an organic chemical containing arsenic that is innocuous to us humans.
How then should arsenic in food be regulated? To do that well, we need to develop better ways to determine the amounts of arsenic and other chemicals in our foods.
Volcanic eruptions produce some stunning scenes, the eruption of the Calbuco volcano in Chile being one recent example. Calbuco fits the stereotypical image of a volcano: a large, angry mountain rising up into the sky, the same kind of volcano as Mount St. Helens or Mount Fuji. But some of the world’s most powerful volcanoes – and the second most common – are hidden from sight and can unexpectedly detonate with the force of a nuclear bomb.
Maar volcanoes are strange: they are often invisible for much of their life, before suddenly appearing in enormous explosions. They give no warning of their impending destruction. When they do erupt in a cataclysm of fire and noise, they do not rise above the ground, but instead leave a hole similar to large meteorite impact craters.
The 1886 eruption of Rotomahana on the north island of New Zealand was one such eruption. With the only warning coming from a small, insignificant earthquake in the region beforehand, a maar volcano-forming eruption suddenly occurred overnight. The resulting heat blasts and descending hot ash and lava bombs killed at least 150 people.
Gold is a modern expression of love, and every Valentine’s Day thousands of shoppers browse boutique windows full of the stuff. Over 90 countries mine the gold that is fashioned into jewelry, with China currently topping the exporter tables (though as illegal exports are rampant in some countries, exact figures are hard to pin down).
South American countries are also major gold producers, particularly Perú, which ranks variously fifth or sixth worldwide. A global gold rush over the last decade has seen a boom in South American mining. But this has led to a specific problem — it is now financially viable to extract gold deposits from areas which were previously unprofitable, such as under tropical forests, resulting in growing damage to one of the planet’s most vulnerable ecosystems.
It’s being called a starship Enterprise for the water, and not merely for its futuristic shape. SeaOrbiter, designed by French architect Jacques Rougerie, is envisioned as a high-tech moving laboratory, carrying scientists on long treks through an environment not inherently friendly to human life.
At the moment, the craft is still on the drawing board. Construction is planned to begin later this year, and if funding allows, to be completed in 2016. Initial funding has been provided by the French government, several companies, and a crowd-funding campaign.
When operational, the craft is intended to be a sort of Swiss Army knife of aquatic research. Designers say it will hunt for underwater archaeological remains and new life forms, investigate ocean chemistry, and map vast swathes of the ocean floor while providing unprecedented capability for sending aquanauts continually on deep dives.
But its concepts borrow heavily from a different kind of exploration in recent human history: space exploration. And though it may physically resemble the Enterprise, there’s a more useful comparison closer to home in the International Space Station (ISS). Like the ISS, SeaOrbiter will advance basic science. Like the ISS, technology developed for the ship will improve everyday technology here on land. And finally, like the ISS, SeaOrbiter will allow humans to live long-term in an environment never before possible – effectively expanding human colonization to new places.
This article was originally published on The Conversation.
The Earth seems to have been smoking a lot recently. Volcanoes are currently erupting in Iceland, Hawaii, Indonesia and Mexico. Others, in the Philippines and Papua New Guinea, erupted recently but seem to have calmed down. Many of these have threatened homes and forced evacuations. But among their less-endangered spectators, these eruptions may have raised a question: Is there such a thing as a season for volcanic eruptions?
Surprisingly, this may be a possibility. While volcanoes may not have “seasons” as we know them, scientists have started to discern intriguing patterns in their activity.
Elvis Kisimir is a moon-faced and soft-spoken 31-year-old Maasai with a fondness for lions. That makes him the odd man out in the East African tribe of pastoralists whose conflict with the big cats is legendary.
But Elvis has a vision for the future that’s every bit as large as the history that precedes him. That vision is the Living Wall project — an effort to radically change not just his peoples’ interactions with lions but the very way they think of the animals, which are now critically endangered in the region.
“This work is my life now,” he told me. “I want this area to be an example for the world of a functioning, healthy ecosystem where both people and wildlife live in harmony together.”
The Maasai are perhaps best known for their coming-of-age ritual in which young morani warriors venture into the bush draped in bright red waistcloths, armed only with spears, to kill a lion as a traditional test of manhood. Nowadays, however, this practice is on the wane. Maasai adolescents — like their peers elsewhere in Africa — tend to be more adept with soccer balls and video games than they are with spears and the ancient art of tracking carnivores through the open bush.
That was certainly true of the young Elvis. Aside from occasionally hearing their roars at night, he had little contact with lions growing up in a village on Tanzania’s Maasai Steppe. His first encounter with the king of beasts came from a video about their social life, which his tour-guide father brought home with him one day.
It was not exactly a case of love at first sight. The big cats appeared scary and alien, a relic of the wild Africa that Elvis and his Christian forebears (his grandfather was one of the first Maasai to be baptized) had presumably left behind them.
Still, his curiosity was aroused. When Elvis asked his Maasai elders about lions, they spoke of the respect with which the species was regarded in their culture: though they were hunted, at the same time lions were deeply admired as embodiments of independence, courage, canny intelligence and majestic strength.