Nature is taking back Chernobyl.
Three decades after a flawed nuclear reactor spewed radioactive material over 200 towns and villages across the borders of Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia, trees grow through abandoned houses, owls hoot from rafters, and boar nest in old barns.
A handful of scientists study this ecosystem firsthand. Last year, a collaboration of American, Belarusian, and English researchers published the first study finding that large mammals are likely doing better than they were before the accident. Populations rebounded and grew, even in the first years after the disaster. Today, numbers of elk, deer, and wild boar are comparable to those in regional reserves. Read More
In 1874, Milwaukee was swelling with immigrants. The city’s population had more than septupled in less than thirty years, and German immigrants to the area had established the largest concentration of a single ethnic group anywhere in America. In response to this exponential growth, the Common Council decided that 13th Street would have to be expanded – and the new street would have to run through the German Protestant Cemetery in the city’s Second Ward. The Common Council ordered the cemetery owners to relocate the bodies within 30 days.
Since I’m standing in a partially excavated lot in the middle of downtown Milwaukee in August of 2015, with 13th Street to my back and gravesites all around me, it’s pretty obvious that relocation never happened.
The graves were uncovered during construction for an addition to the Guest House homeless shelter, which occupies the lot to the south of the cemetery site. In June of 2014, construction of a rainwater-harvesting pavilion for the shelter’s urban garden just across 13th Street uncovered two burials. Based on those finds and information from the Wisconsin Historical Society that an unmarked cemetery may be in the vicinity, and in accordance with Wisconsin statutes, the Guest House had an archeological monitor on site when construction began, in case any further burials were uncovered.
“I think it took all of 20 minutes,” Dr. Patricia Richards says wryly.
The climax of my trip to Svalbard may have already taken place with Friday’s spectacular total solar eclipse, but that didn’t mean the adventure was over. We still had one full day left before having to return to Oslo, and I got to spend it doing particularly Svalbard-y things.
First up, I went ice caving in the morning. A group of about 15 of us rode up to a nearby glacier in a bumpy old army transport vehicle (“It’s built for safety, not comfort,” the tour guide warned us), and descended down into its depths. They provided us metal cleats for our boots and headlamp helmets, and soon we were climbing down ladders and sliding down icy paths with nothing but ropes and each other to steady us.
The pathway we wended down formed when rushing water carved it out in the summer months, only to freeze anew in winter. This means that every year it’s a different path, a different cave to explore with different sights and destinations. In fact, last year they couldn’t offer this trip because the cave that formed was too unsafe for travelers.
Among other things, we spotted a variety of ices and stones, frozen stalactites and stalagmites, a variety of formations we nicknamed handlebars, chandeliers and curtains, and even a chunk of decades-old Styrofoam that had washed down into depths of the cavern. Even here, miles away from any settlements in a pristine cave, mankind’s trash made an appearance. The best part was the air down there was a by-now-comfortable freezing, much warmer than the outside air temperature. As we descended and climbed, some of us actually had to take off our winter gear because we were working up such a sweat!
In a word, this morning’s solar eclipse was perfect.
As part of Discover‘s partnership with TravelQuest International, I’ve been here in snowy Svalbard for the last few days — an amazing journey full of reindeer, answering questions and snow.
And now, my first-ever solar eclipse.
We had to get up early to catch an 8 a.m. bus (many of us still jet-lagged) and it was ridiculously cold (-4 degrees Fahrenheit, down to -13 during totality, when things got dark), but even still, the eclipse was just perfect from our site about 4 miles south of Longyearbyen. It looked like someone had Photoshopped the sky to make it look brighter, crisper, and more surreal than should be possible in real life. And, as I hear is always the case, it was over much too quickly.
Even seasoned eclipse-chasers, folks who have eight or 10 or more under their belt, all said this year’s Svalbard eclipse will be the one to beat. The conditions were superb. The air was crystal clear, so the sun and moon’s edges were sharp lines, making the famous “diamond ring” patterns appear bright and razor-edged. The extreme northern latitude (our observing site was above 78° N) meant the sun hung low in the sky, framing it perfectly in a gap in the mountains and even adding the illusion of greater size that occurs when the moon or sun are near the horizon.
And with the east and west directions being almost entirely snowy plains, we could see not just the approaching darkness, but also the elusive shadow bands rippling on the flat white ground.
This is the third is a series of three posts from researchers’ expedition to northern Norway. Read others in the series here.
As fieldwork drew to a close last week off the northern tip of Norway, stormy seas flattened to a silvery smoothness and hungry fulmars swam about our fishing boat waiting for juicy leftovers. All we had to offer, though, were dead shells.
The team of scientists I accompanied had still not achieved one of its prize goals: the discovery of live, deep-water clams of a very special kind. The confidence we brought at the beginning of the week was wearing thin. Dead shells dredged from 600-foot depths proved our prey were tantalizingly close, but elusive. For days we had successfully collected living samples in 50-foot waters, but the Arctica islandica clam, the oldest living multicellular animal in the world, is at the extreme reach of its range where the North Atlantic meets the Arctic.
We needed live clams, and we needed them from the deepest possible waters at the edge of the continental shelf. Data gleaned from annual growth increments in shells at those depths reflect pure Gulf Stream waters (North Atlantic Current) where Atlantic current meets the Barents Sea, a critical intersection in the Arctic climate system. With this information the scientists on our team can reconstruct the triggers of ancient climate shifts and compare them to the present, as Arctic temperatures rise at twice the global average and sea ice dwindles to historic lows.
This is the second is a series of three posts from researchers’ expedition to northern Norway. Read others in the series here.
Fieldwork anywhere in the world is risky business, no less so here at the island of Ingøya off the north tip of Norway, where Arctic storms can blow up out of nowhere and prevent scientists from going to sea for days at a time.
After arriving Monday evening in a wash of golden sunlight that poured like honey across the green tundra, our team of scientists has watched weather steadily worsen. It was a non-issue on land, where we battled wind and cold with layers of wool and Gore-Tex, but another story at sea, where waves and huge swells can toss you overboard into frigid waters.
Despite three days of productive shoreline work, paleoclimatologist Al Wanamaker of Iowa State University has grown antsy waiting to sail far off shore. There sits the mother lode: Arctica islandica clams never before collected this far north nor this deep, at 71 degrees latitude and up to 600-foot depths. If Wanamaker scores, he’ll have a solid basis for tracking the climate impact of the northward-flowing Gulf Stream (North Atlantic Current), free of the influence of the freshwater runoff in coastal currents.
This is the first is a series of three posts from researchers’ expedition to northern Norway. Read others in the series here.
This past Sunday, as I was setting sail with a team of scientists aboard a coastal steamer bound from Tromsø, Norway, to a tiny island near the northernmost tip of the country, paleoclimatologist Al Wanamaker surprised me with a bit of news.
“I guess you heard about our Ming nightmare,” he had said as brisk Arctic winds chiselled white caps across the frigid seas before us. We had only met by email up till then and he wanted to broach this sensitive subject in person. At the center of the storm was a tiny clam: Arctica islandica, or the “Ming clam.” In 2007, Wanamaker and colleagues at Bangor University discovered it was the world’s longest living non-colonial animal.
After that discovery, “I was shaking in my boots when I walked out of the lab,” says Wanamaker. “Before I knew it, friends were calling me from all over the world.” But then things changed. “When others realized we had to kill individuals to date them, everything went haywire and headlines changed to ‘Scientist kills world’s oldest living animal.‘ It was a nightmare. There were even crazy stories about me clubbing and shucking them overboard. It took some coverage from National Geographic and other good journalists to set the record straight.”
Wanamaker and I were on the same page. We both wanted to focus on the science and get any distractions out of the way. The straight dope is that, if there’s one amazingly old Arctica islandica, there are many others happily living nearby. And where we’re headed, the coastal ocean is teeming with them.
Strewn across the dusty ground is the wreckage of a wetland forest that suddenly wilted and died 215 million years ago. Paul Olsen gestures at the broken lumps of white, red, and black quartz scattered about. “You see how it looks ropey?” he asks. He holds up a piece. “It looks like someone took little pieces of rope, snipped them up, and laid them down.”
Olsen believes that these scattered rocks mark the moment of a mass extinction that wiped out many species across North America. He would like to identify the calamity that triggered this extinction. But as I stand beside him in the midday sun, I’m unable to see the subtle clues that his trained eye perceives so easily. As I look at the rocks all about, I simply don’t see the ropey, cylindrical shapes that he’s talking about.
Olsen is a white-haired paleontologist with the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in New York. He’s brought me to this mysterious spot in the Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona — not the famous part of the park dotted with petrified logs two feet across, but instead a part that most tourists never glance at. The water-eroded badlands surrounding us are striped in pale, anemic layers of beige, pink, and white clay that doesn’t support more than a few clumps of grass. The ground is bare aside from thousands of quartz lumps lying around.
After staring at the rocks for 10 minutes, something in my brain finally clicks into place — like one of those brain teasers where you stare at a grid of dots without focusing, and suddenly out pops the shape of a spaceship or cartoon character. I realize in an instant that most of these rocks really are shaped like cylinders — some of them squished, some branched, some bent, some of them stuck together — but most of them, inescapably, cylinders. These rocks hold a great mystery, says Olsen.
Two weeks ago the HI-SEAS mission ended and the crew stepped beyond the dome into the morning sun. For the first time in four months, we were able to walk outside, unencumbered by spacesuit simulators. My crewmates talked about a newly recognized visual crispness they saw. Pebbles underfoot and distant mountains seemed to pop, they told me. I can’t say I saw this phenomenon. But I was acutely aware of the cool breeze against my skin.
We were greeted by reporters, held a brief question-and-answer session, and were treated to a buffet of fresh fruits and vegetables. There were breads, donuts, and egg casseroles too, but I couldn’t stop eating carrots and celery. Their crunch in my mouth was addictive. The next couple of days were spent in “debrief” mode, where we talked about the mission with Kim Binsted, one of the principal investigators on the project. Then the crew scattered for vacation and travel back home.
This is the sixteenth in a series of reports from the HI-SEAS simulated Mars mission. Read others in the series here.
On Tuesday, the HI-SEAS crew will step outside our habitat unprotected by mock spacesuits for the first time in four months. The breeze will kiss our cheeks, fresh air will fill our noses and lungs, and if the weather holds, bright light from the sun will shine into our eyes. We’ll have arrived back on Earth.
But an interesting thing has happened in the build-up to our reentry. Paradoxically, some of our conversations have veered away from Earth, and even past Mars. We’ve discussed what it would take to build, operate and live on a starship, the kind of craft that steers toward neighbor suns, all the while sustaining generations of people for tens or hundreds of years.