Category: Environment

The Scientific Complexity in a Seemingly Simple Snowflake

By Daniel Tammet | January 21, 2014 12:19 pm

snowflakesOutside it is cold, cold — ten degrees below, give or take. I step out with my coat zipped up to my chin and my feet encased in heavy rubber boots. The glittering street is empty; the wool-gray sky is low. Under my scarf and gloves and thermals I can feel my pulse begin to make a racket. I do not care. I observe my breath. I wait.

A week before, not even a whole week, the roads showed black tire tracks and the trees’ bare branches stood clean against blue sky. Now Ottawa is buried in snow. My friends’ house is buried in snow. Chilling winds strafe the town. The sight of falling flakes makes me shiver; it fills the space in my head that is devoted to wonder. How beautiful they are, I think. How beautiful are all these sticky and shiny fragments. When will they stop? In an hour? A day? A week? A month? There is no telling. Nobody can second-guess the snow.

The neighbors have not seen its like in a generation, they tell me. Shovels in hand, they dig paths from their garage doors out to the road. The older men affect expressions both of nonchalance and annoyance, but their expressions soon come undone. Faint smiles form at the corners of their wind-chapped mouths. Granted, it is exhausting to trudge the snowy streets to the shops. Every leg muscle slips and tightens; every step forward seems to take an age.

When I return, my friends ask me to help them clear the roof. I wobble up a leaning ladder and lend a hand. A strangely cheerful sense of futility lightens our labor: in the morning, we know, the roof will shine bright white again. Hot under my onion layers of clothing, I carry a shirtful of perspiration back into the house. Wet socks unpeel like Band-Aids from my feet; the warm air smarts my skin. I wash and change my clothes.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: water

Georgia’s Own Doomsday Stonehenge Monument

By Guest Blogger | September 9, 2013 3:01 pm

By Jill Neimark

georgia guidestones

“Planned genocide has begun,” read the Facebook entry on one of the groups I browse daily. The link: a picture of five monoliths looming like an American Stonehenge over a lush and lonely hill in remote Elberton, Georgia. I was only an hour away at the time, and decided to visit them in person.

The nearly twenty-foot granite slabs, known as the Georgia Guidestones, have sparked controversy around the world – praised by Yoko Ono, defaced by conspiracy theorists, featured on the History Channel, and the subject of the conspiracy web series Guidestones. The monument – five upright stones topped by a capstone – weighs nearly 240,000 pounds and is inscribed in eight languages with ten instructions for humans post-apocalypse. Three decades after being erected, the monument’s true purpose is still being argued, and its quasi-commandments can seem either sincere or satanic.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Living World, Top Posts

Fracking Poses a Risk to Our Water Supply

By Guest Blogger | May 17, 2013 11:01 am

by Richard Schiffman

The recent boom in fracking has turned America into the Saudi Arabia of natural gas, almost overnight.

Proponents say that this burgeoning industry has ensured U.S. energy independence for years to come, and created a more climate-friendly alternative to dirtier-burning fuels like coal and gas. It has arguably also hastened the demise of the coal industry, as power plants switch in large numbers to the cheaper gas, resulting in U.S. CO2 emissions sinking to their lowest levels in nearly two decades. And with less smog-producing particulates and deadly mercury in the air, we can hope that respiratory illnesses like asthma may begin to decline.

But fracking poses its own risks. While our air has been getting cleaner, opponents argue that America’s water has been getting dirtier as the result of the hydraulic fracturing of shale. Fracking uses lots of water—up to seven million gallons for every well drilled—which is mixed together with sand and a witch’s brew of industrial chemicals, then blasted a mile into the earth to the shale formations where the natural gas is located. This high pressure stream shatters the rock and releases the gas, which geysers up to the surface to be recovered.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Top Posts

What’s Behind Bee Die-Off? U.S. and Europe Disagree

By Guest Blogger | May 7, 2013 2:16 pm

by Richard Schiffman

Bees are dying all over the world, and nobody is sure why it is happening. Up to 40 percent of U.S. beekeeper hives failed to survive the past winter, making this the worst season so far on record. In part this was the result of a mysterious and growing phenomenon called Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) in which bees fly off en masse and never return to their hive.

Agricultural production is beginning to take a hit from the loss of bees. In California’s Central Valley at the end of February, there weren’t enough commercially bred bees to pollinate all of the 800,000 acres of almond trees. Some desperate almond farmers actually flew in the precious insects from Australia to service their trees. Almonds aside, fully one out of every three bites of food that we eat were produced with the help of insect pollinators.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: bees, pesticides

Can We Predict When People Will Abandon the Jersey Shore?

By Guest Blogger | March 20, 2013 1:10 pm

By Dave Levitan

The Casino Pier Star Jet roller coaster submerged in the sea on January 13, 2013 in Seaside Heights, NJ. Courtesy Glynnis Jones / Shutterstock

Diamond City, North Carolina, is not actually a city, in that no one actually lives there. People did live there, though, back in 1899. That was when a major hurricane hit the community, on a small barrier island near Cape Hatteras. Homes were destroyed, animals were killed, and graves were uncovered or washed away in the storm according to a conservation group in the area. By 1902, all 500 residents in Diamond City had picked up and left.

Left, Rasmus Midgett sits on the wreckage of the Priscilla after the San Ciriaco Hurricane. Right, another ship driven ashore in the storm. Images courtesy State Archives of North Carolina.

The people there didn’t have computer climate models, or rapidly rising seas, or any understanding of increasing storm vulnerability; they just had a desire not to deal with what they assumed would be a constant problem. That problem, of course, is one that anyone living on the East Coast is confronting, especially with the waters of Hurricane Sandy still slowly receding from our coastal consciousness. The question is, when should people in New Jersey, Long Island, Maryland, and elsewhere start thinking about leaving behind their own versions of Diamond City?

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Top Posts

TED Day 3: Fixing the Planet

By Gemma Tarlach | February 28, 2013 1:52 pm

Taylor Wilson, nuclear scientist, at TED2013.

Spend a few minutes chatting with Taylor Wilson and three things will happen: You will feel old. You will feel dumb. You will feel like you’ve squandered your life.

Wilson, who first garnered fame as the kid who built a nuclear reactor in his Reno garage, told the crowd gathered to hear him Wednesday at TED2013 that he’s left his first love, fusion, for a fling.

“I’m really into fission now,” declared Wilson, still in his teens. “Is fission played out or is there something left to innovate there?”

Wilson’s fission flirtation has led him to develop a compact molten salt reactor that he says needs refueling only once every 30 years, and “loves to eat downblended uranium.” Because much of the reactor is buried and its uranium is not weapons-grade, Wilson added, it’s less vulnerable either to terrorist attack or misuse.

While his talk on Wednesday’s main stage in Long Beach was as polished as entrepreneurs three times his age, it was when I sat down with Wilson later in the day that I found myself thinking: I just hope he uses his powers for good.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Technology, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: Google, technology

Soil Microbes Invisibly Shape Biodiversity

By Guest Blogger | February 4, 2013 3:32 pm

Carrie Arnold is a freelance science writer in Virginia. She blogs about the science of eating disorders at www.edbites.com, and frequently covers microbiology topics for national magazines.

Conservationists like to think large. Whether it’s identifying hundreds of square miles of Himalayan highlands as a tiger corridor or creating massive marine preserves, these scientists are definitely thinking on the macro scale.

However a small but growing group of scientists are beginning to think smaller when it comes to conservation—much smaller. They have begun to study the microbes living in the soil, and their results are showing just how important microscopic life is in the macrobiotic world. A healthy, diverse population of soil microbes results in a healthy, diverse ecosystem. Changing an ecosystem also changes its microbes, scientists have found, and this may permanently scar the environment.

“Soil is not sterile,” said Noah Fierer, a microbiologist at the University of Colorado at Boulder. “These microbes are crucial to maintaining soil fertility.”

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: genetics, microbes, soil

First Evidence of Life in Antarctic Subglacial Lake

By Guest Blogger | January 29, 2013 9:40 am

Science journalist Douglas Fox is in Antarctica on assignment for DISCOVER Magazine as the WISSARD Embedded Journalist.

Microbiologists prepare the first samples from the lake.

The search continues for life in subglacial Lake Whillans, 2,600 feet below the surface of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet—but a thrilling preliminary result has detected signs of life.

At 6:20am on January 28, four people in sterile white Tyvek suits tended to a winch winding cable onto the drill platform. One person knocked frost off the cable as it emerged from the ice borehole a few feet below. The object of their attention finally rose into sight: a gray plastic vessel, as long as a baseball bat, filled with water from Lake Whillans, half a mile below.

The bottle was hurried into a 40-foot cargo container outfitted as a laboratory on skis. Some of the lake water was squirted into bottles of media in order to grow whatever microbes might inhabit the lake. Those cultures could require weeks to produce results. But one test has already produced an interesting preliminary finding. When lake water was viewed under a microscope, cells were seen: their tiny bodies glowed green in response to DNA-sensitive dye. It was the first evidence of life in an Antarctic subglacial lake.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Top Posts

Scientists First Glimpse Interior of an Antarctic Subglacial Lake

By Guest Blogger | January 27, 2013 1:06 pm

Science journalist Douglas Fox is in Antarctica on assignment for DISCOVER Magazine as the WISSARD Embedded Journalist.

Click to view photos from the drilling site.

Scientists have peered for the first time into the interior of a lake hidden beneath the Antarctic ice sheet. Subglacial Lake Whillans, located less than 400 miles from the South Pole, had sat isolated under the ice for hundreds of thousands of years—perhaps up to a million years. But over the last week a team of ice drillers has used a jet of hot water to melt a narrow hole into the lake through 2,600 feet of ice.

The WISSARD team celebrates successful deployment of the camera and probe down the 800-meter borehole.

Final confirmation that the lake had been reached unfolded inside a steel shipping container parked on the ice sheet on four massive skis. Seventeen people crowded into this mobile control room as a video camera was lowered into the borehole. All eyes were riveted to a computer monitor. A scene reminiscent of cosmic wormhole travel unfolded on it: the camera steered into the black void at the center of the screen; the smooth, round, undulating walls of ice-hole scrolled by on the edges.

Billowing clouds obscured the camera’s view in the lower reaches of the hole. Then, as the swirling silt settled, a fuzzy picture emerged: the camera lay on its side, its lens looking across a muddy brown bottom strewn with small rocks. Wisps of mud drifted above. The image, knitted in rows of grainy pixels, echoed the first pictures of the Martian surface, radioed back by the Viking lander almost 40 years ago.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Top Posts

Rain in the Arctic

By Guest Blogger | January 22, 2013 11:00 am

Tom Yulsman is co-director of the Center for Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado. His work has appeared in a variety of publications, including the New York Times, Washington Post, Climate Central, the Daily Climate and Audubon.

Courtesy NOAA

As cold temperatures swept into much of the United States on Monday, and wicked winter weather paralyzed much of Western Europe, the high temperature in Tromsø, Norway—above the Arctic Circle—topped out at nearly 40 degrees.

And it rained.

I know this for a fact, because I am here in Tromsø for the Arctic Frontiers conference, which ironically enough, is partly about climate change. The organizers handed out—yes, you guessed it—-umbrellas.

The long and short of the answer to what’s going on is, of course, complex—and not fully understood. What we take to be weird weather is certainly one of those things that happens from time to time. And in wintertime, one of the factors that can bring it on is a phenomenon known as the Arctic Oscillation.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Top Posts
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