Friday, April 23, 2010

Iceland Watches Katla Closely

The world has been severely impacted by the March 2010 eruption of glacial volcano Eyjafjallakokull. Flights coming in and out of Europe were halted for one week due to drifting volcanic ash and dust that made for potentially dangerous flying conditions. Recently most flights have been resumed, but the threat of an eruption still exists, and attention has been diverted to Katla, a neighboring volcano with a repeated history of even more violent eruptions.

Katla peaks at 1512 meters and is located east of the smaller glacier Eyjafjallajokull. It is also partially covered by the Myrdalsjokull glacier with an area of 595 km². The major concern for geophysicists is that the recent eruption will trigger an even more powerful eruption of Katla, which has been the historical trend. Eyjafjallojokull has blown 3 times in the past thousand years, in 920AD, in 1616, and between 1821 and 1823. Each time it set off Katla.

The volcano normally erupts every 40-80 years and its last eruption was in 1918, shown in the photograph above, which was sold at an auction to Bjornsog Toggle. Following the 2010 eruption Icelandic President Olafur Grimsson released a statement "the time for Katla to erupt is coming close... we [Iceland] have prepared... it is high time for European governments and airline authorities all over the world to start planning for the eventual Katla eruption".

Eruptions like this put our small world into perspective. One volcano erupts and it can have an enormous impact on the rest of the world. For example, consider Iceland's worst modern time eruption in 1783 when the Laki volcano blew. The lava shot 1.4 km into the air and more than 120 million tonnes of sulphur dioxide was released into the atmosphere, which would transform the world. The results included Britain's notorious "sand summer", creating havoc with harvests in France, and changing the climate so dramatically that New Jersey recorded its largest snowfall and Egypt experienced one of its most enduring droughts. For now we can only wait and hope for the best...

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

SDO Satellite Views Sun

NASA has just released the first images from a new satellite which serves the purpose of predicting disruptive solar storms. The satellite was launched on February 11th and according to chief scientist Dean Pesnell, it has already disproved at least one theory, although he didn't give any more information.

The Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) satellite has three instrument packages to measure atmospheric and space physics. During its 5 year mission it will examine the sun's magnetic field and also provide better explanations for the sun's role in Earth's climate and atmospheric chemistry.

A multiwavelength extreme UV image of the sun taken at the end of March is shown above. False colors trace the temperatures of different gases, red being relatively cool (107,500 F) and blue/green being hotter (1.8 million F). Below you can see a video taken by the SDO which shows the solar prominence eruption on March 30, 2010 (Credit: NASA/Goddard). The video loops through one viewpoint, then zooms out and gives you a wider perspective.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

First Oxygen-Free Animal Discovered

It has been common knowledge that only viruses and single-celled microbes can live without oxygen long-term. However, research teams recently discovered 3 new species of multicellular animals that lived normally in the oxygen-free depths of the Mediterranean Sea.

Team leader Roberto Danovaro said in a statement, "Our results indicate that the animals we recovered were alive. Some, in fact, also contained eggs." The animals shown in the image above resemble tiny jellyfish - each measuring less than a millimeter across - and somehow the manage to thrive in the extremely salty seafloor environment. The findings of their research was published in the April 6th issue of BMC Biology.

Humans and most other organisms use structures called mitochondria which uses oxygen to convert nutrients into energy molecules (ATP). These new creatures have modified mitochondria called hydrogenosomes that can produce ATP without using oxygen.

The study also "has strong implications for the search for life in the universe," said Abel Mendez, an astrobiologist at the University of Puerto Rico at Arecibo. Perhaps Europa, one of Jupiter's icy moons might have a subsurface ocean of cold, salty, oxygen-free environments, similar to that where these animals were discovered.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Cassini Captures First Space Lightning Video

The Cassini spacecraft has managed to capture a series of images showing lightning flashes on the night side of Saturn. Astronomers put these images together and were able to construct the first ever video of lightning strikes on another planet. But that's not at all. NASA researchers also extracted the radio waves that the lightning bolts gave off, and were able to add a soundtrack to the movie.

"This is the first time we have the visible lightning flash together with the radio data," said Georg Fischer, a radio and plasma wave scientist at the Space Research Institute in Graz, Austria.

The difficulty with seeing lightning on Saturn is the visual obstruction caused by the planet's rings which reflect sunlight and obscure the flashed from storms on the surface. The first images capturing lightning on Saturn were taken in August 2009 during a storm that lasted from January to October of that year. The images used for the video were much brighter and were taken during a later storm in November 2009. The areas lit by the lightning flashes are approximately 300 km in diameter. The 11 second clip below (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI/University of Iowa) is the first time humanity has ever captured video footage of lightning storms on another planet:

Futuristic Lightbulbs

What you're looking at might be a glimpse into the future of the lightbulb industry. General Electric has released this new and improved lightbulb system with intricate fins and flares, rather than the boring old 'bulb' shape. These new $40 - $50 bulbs don't just look cool; consider them to be an investment. These bulbs last an impressive 17 years when used four hours per day, and they emit light in all directions (hence the flares), rather than just being focused on one spot. However, most important of all, they are very efficient, only using 9 watts to give off the same amount of light as a 40 watt incandescent bulb. Moreover, there is no mercury or other toxins found in these bulbs. The GE Energy Smart LED bulbs are not available on the market yet, but expect to see them on the shelves of your hardware stores sometime within the next year.

Great Pacific Garbage Patch

Also known as the Pacific Trash Vortex, this massive accumulation of marine litter (mostly plastic) is located in the central North Pacific Ocean, approximately between 135 to 155W and 35 to 42N. The exact size of this floating island of garbage is unknown, although estimates range from the size of the state of Texas to one larger than the continental United States. Although the existence of this garbage buildup was predicted in a 1988 NOAA publication, its actual confirmed discovery did not come until 1997 when Charles Moore came across it after the Transpac sailing race. Oceanographers were alerted and gave the region the title "Eastern Garbage Patch" (EGP).

Marine debris has been amalgamating all over the world's oceans, and it is assumed that the Great Pacific Garbage Patch formed by the similar mechanisms: oceanic currents. The garbage patch is located in a seemingly stationary region of the North Pacific Ocean located in the middle of many strong currents. It draws in waste materials from across the entire ocean, including coastal waters off Japan and North America. As debris becomes trapped in the currents, the floating plastic is gradually moved towards the center by wind-driven surface currents. Moore's description of the patch as a massive accumulation of plastic is slightly misleading. The process of disintegration means that the plastic particles in most of the patch are actually too small to be seen. In a 2001 study, researchers found concentrations of plastics to be 334,721 pieces per km squared, with a mean mass of 11.27 lbs per km squared.

As the plastic is disintegrating into smaller and smaller particles, many of them are sinking deep into the ocean and affecting many levels of the food web. These small pieces of toxic-filled plastic have been known to be consumed by jellyfish, which are then eaten by larger fish. Some of the long-lasting larger pieces of plastics are consumed by marine birds and animals, including sea turtles and the albatross.

The initial cleanup steps are now underway as groups are taking samples and attempting to raise awareness of the issue. Make no mistake though, irreversible damage has already been done. Cleaning up the plastic will be a costly and difficult endeavor, one which might be thwarted by a buildup of more plastics likely to be occurring at a faster rate.