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  • richardmitnick 1:46 pm on February 17, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: Blending aviation and birds to bolster climate change records, Heather Wilson, Smithsonian, This Biologist Defies Gravity (and Glass Ceilings) to Document the Effects of Climate Change,   

    From Smithsonian: Women in STEM – “This Biologist Defies Gravity (and Glass Ceilings) to Document the Effects of Climate Change” Heather Wilson 


    Living in the Anthropocene

    February 16, 2017
    Kristen A. Schmitt

    As one of five American women in this role, Heather Wilson blends aviation and birds to bolster climate change records.

    Wilson works to band waterfowl in the summer to help track the birds. Hunters that harvest banded birds will report their harvest to state wildlife officials. (Courtesy Heather Wilson)

    Flying low across the Alaskan threshold, Heather Wilson counts ducks. She swoops her Amphibious Cessna 206 plane over waterfowl breeding grounds, keeping her eyes peeled for their colorful plumage. Cruising at a constant 150’ and navigating around mountain ranges, along coastlines and across the Alaskan bush, Wilson is performing one of the most critical tasks necessary for monitoring waterfowl: aerial surveys.

    These days it’s hard not to notice the vast changes taking over Alaska. In December 2016, temperatures soared to record highs, causing lakes to shrink, sea ice to erode and shrubs instead of lichen to spread across the tundra. The winter warm-up has been wreaking havoc on the ecosystems that support key native species like caribou, walruses and polar bears. “All Alaskans are seeing and feeling it,” says Wilson.

    Unlike most Alaskans, though, Wilson has had a front row seat on this profound transformation. As a pilot-biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Division of Migratory Bird Management (FWS-DMBM), Wilson has been documenting the effects of climate change on birds in this change-prone region for nine years. “We see more subtle changes, like the advance of species northward and into areas we’ve never seen before: moose on the northern coastal fringes, previously ‘southern-only’ bird species showing up in the Arctic,” she says.

    Being a pilot-biologist allows her to merge two longtime passions: aviation and birds. “The concept of flying the plane and being the biologist counting the animals out the window is not what most folks think of when they envision a pilot,” says Wilson, who is one of just five American women in this role. Wilson’s current position is field project leader in Region 7, which covers all of Alaska; her route includes the Arctic Coastal Plain, the Yukon Delta and the Alaskan Peninsula.

    Many of the surveys Wilson flies have been flown for decades. Having that wealth of historical data allows researchers to examine patterns that species and landscapes may be undergoing. For example, pilot-biologists discovered the wintering grounds of Spectacled eiders, an Arctic sea duck, after a swift decline based upon aerial survey data. Once scientists put satellite transmitters on a few nesting ducks , they were able to track own the entire population on several large polynyas, or areas of open water surrounded by ice, in the Bering Sea.

    Wilson flies her Amphibious Cessna 206 over an icy Alaskan gorge. (Heather Wilson)

    These kinds of waterfowl aerial surveys have been an integral part of wildlife management since they were initiated in the 1930s. However, the surveys weren’t consistently flown until 1947, following the end of World War II. That’s when FWS was able to hire military-trained pilots who already had wildlife or conservation experience as the first pilot-biologists. Now, with over 50 years of historical data, the waterfowl surveys help scientists understand how much has changed across the national landscape.

    The state government also uses this data each year to determine hunting regulations and policies. Those regulations “are linked to the population status of each individual species,” says Julian Fischer, FWS-DMBM’s supervisory wildlife biologist for Region 7 and Wilson’s manager. Based upon the tallies in each “flyway,” which is the ring of states that make up a migratory path of birds, each state then sets the number of birds of each species that hunters are allowed to harvest annually.

    “It’s not just population information that we’re getting,” says Sarah Yates, a fellow pilot-biologist with FWS who befriended Wilson during a pilot training session in Maine years ago. “Because they are such longstanding surveys … you can get information about climate change and how that might be affecting the distribution of waterfowl species. It’s been huge in developing management programs for waterfowl.”

    Climate cues are crucial to annual bird survival. “Temperature, snow melt and green up” all help predict when it’s time to nest, says Wilson. Without them, the probability of increased mortality among nestlings is likely. Birds with the longest migration will most likely feel these effects most. “Birds are highly mobile so they can take advantage of changing resources more easily than many other animals,” she says, “but only to a certain extent.”

    This weather shift has even altered when waterfowl surveys are conducted, since breeding season now begins earlier due to the birds’ earlier arrival to the breeding grounds. “Those species that are flexible enough to adjust their timing of migration to best match the timing of the landscape are showing up to breeding grounds well ahead of historic schedules,” says Wilson.

    Fischer notes birds have adapted gradually and matched their breeding time to the changing climate. “Waterfowl typically initiate nest building as soon as their nesting habitat is clear of snow and ice,” he says, adding that this is also when plenty of food is available. “With an advance in nesting initiation date, it is reasonable to assume that the birds are responding to a changing climate.”

    Positive news for now—but Wilson warns that the real danger lies in the future. “Population increases could lead to other problems, like increased competition among species or ecological traps if climate change results in more erratic, less predictable weather and habitat effects,” she says.

    Chris Dau, a retired FWS pilot-biologist, and Wilson wear the coast-guard style immersion suits as they prepare for a long water crossing during one of the last winter waterfowl surveys of the year. (Heather Wilson)

    Wilson is now taking the lead of the mid-winter survey of Brant geese to document the increase in the over-wintering population and the overall increase of birds on northern nesting sites in general. While geese seem to be faring well so far under the shift in weather, this is one of the first species to show a population responding to climate change through the increased number of geese overwintering in Alaska. “We know that many of the Brant overwintering in Alaska are coming from Arctic-breeding colonies, where warming temperatures have resulted in increased habitat availability,” says Wilson.

    For Wilson, being a pilot-biologist is “unbelievably satisfying.” But although she always had an interest in aviation and birds, she never realized the two could fit together until she met Russ Oates, a FWS-DMBM supervisor, while she was completing her PhD field work in Fairbanks, Alaska. “I always thought learning to fly was for someone who was rich or in the military,” says Wilson. Her conversations with Oates convinced her to try it out and, soon, she was hooked.

    Still, the path wasn’t easy. To become a pilot-biologist with the FWS Migratory Bird Program, candidates must have a Bachelor’s degree in biological sciences or natural resources; most also have a Master’s or PhD. (Wilson has all three.) Pilot-biologists must also have a commercial pilot’s certificate with instrument flight privileges, which entails a minimum of 500 hours of flight time.

    While she didn’t have flight experience before her move to Alaska for graduate school, Wilson had already obtained her pilot’s license and required flight hours by the time she met Oates, who then put her on any aerial survey he could, giving her a taste of what her future would become.

    Wilson’s path is similar to those of her fellow female pilot-biologists. Like Wilson, Kara Hilwig, a pilot-biologist for FWS’s Togiak National Wildlife Refuge in southwest Alaska, didn’t have flight experience prior to her interest in the job. Instead, she was drawn to the idea of Alaska’s wildness and spent time building up her flight hours after over 20 years in field biology.

    It took her more than six years to gain enough flight experience to qualify for her current position. “This unique job becomes part of your personal identity,” says Hilwig. “You’re passionate about the biology, you’re passionate about the flying, you’re passionate about the learning.”

    Wilson says that for her, her time in the air is more than just work. “Beyond being a scientist, I want to be able to tell my kids that we faced climate change head-on,” she says. “That we were strong enough to see it for what it was, and we tried our best to understand it, and do something about it.”

    See the full article here .

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  • richardmitnick 2:11 pm on February 3, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , Gondwana, Mauritius a continent?, , Smithsonian   

    From Smithsonian: “Researchers Think They’ve Found a Mini Continent in the Indian Ocean” 


    February 2, 2017
    Jason Daley

    The beautiful Mauritius island may be hiding a chunk of continent. (Sapsiwai via iStock)

    About 200 million years ago, the supercontinent of Gondwana—essentially an an agglomeration of Africa, South America, India, Australia and Antarctica—began slowly ripping apart into the continents recognizable today. But a new study suggests that Gondwana spun out another continent that is now lost beneath the Indian Ocean.

    Assemblage of continents, which constitute Gondwana. Image Credit: Griem (2007)

    As Alice Klein reports for New Scientist, researchers studying the earth’s crust found that parts of the Indian Ocean’s seafloor had slightly stronger gravitaitonal fields, suggesting that the crust might be thicker there.

    The island of Mauritius exhibited this extra oomph, which led Lewis Ashwal, a geologist at the University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa, and his colleagues to propose that the island was sitting atop a sunken chunk of continent.

    The researchers studied the geology of the island and rocks spewed out during periods of ancient volcanism. One particular mineral they were looking for are zircons, tough minerals that contains bits of uranium and thorium. The mineral can last billions of years and geologists can use these to acurately date rocks.

    The search paid off. The researchers recovered zircons as old as 3 billion years, Ashwal says in a press release. But the island rocks are no older than 9 million years old. The researchers argue that the old rock is evidence that the island is sitting on a much older crust that was once part of a continent. The zircons are remnants of this much older rock and were likely pushed up by volcanic activity. They published their results in the journal Nature Communications.

    According to Paul Hetzel at Seeker, researchers had previously discovered zircons on Mauritius’ beaches, but were unable to rule out the possibility that they were brought there by the ocean. The new finding confirms that the zircon comes from the island itself.

    Mauritia was likely a small continent, about a quarter the size of Madagascar, reports Klein. As the Indian plate and the Madagascar plate pulled apart, it stretched and broke up the small continent, spreading chunks of it across the Indian Ocean.

    One of the 3-billion-year-old zircon crystals discovered on Mauritius (Wits University )

    “According to the new results, this break-up did not involve a simple splitting of the ancient super-continent of Gondwana, but rather, a complex splintering took place with fragments of continental crust of variable sizes left adrift within the evolving Indian Ocean basin,” Ashwal says in the press release [phys.org].

    Klein reports that other islands in the Indian Ocean, including Cargados Carajos, Laccadive and the Chagos islands might also exist on top of fragments of the continent now dubbed Mauritia.

    Surprisingly, this may not be the only lost continent out there. In 2015, researchers at the University of Oslo found evidence that Iceland may sit on top of a sunken slice of crust. And in 2011, researchers found evidence that a micro-continent has existed off the coast of Scotland for about a million years.

    See the full article here .

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  • richardmitnick 9:29 am on January 13, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , New Hubble Image Captures the Collision of Two Galaxies, Smithsonian   

    From Smithsonian: “New Hubble Image Captures the Collision of Two Galaxies” 


    A beautiful look at a violent event

    NASA/ESA Hubble

    January 12, 2017
    Danny Lewis

    More than a billion light years away from Earth, two galaxies are locked in a slow-motion collision, throwing countless stars out of whack and whirling about the void of deep space.

    This week, NASA shared a new album of images recently taken by the Hubble spacecraft—one of which captures this slow galactic collision, Christine Lunsford reports for Space.com. Known as IRAS 14348-1447, this whirling object appears to be just a glittery smudge of star stuff.

    IRAS 14348-1447 http://inspirehep.net/record/1226780/plots

    “This doomed duo approached one another too closely in the past, gravity causing them to affect and tug at each other and slowly, destructively, merge into one,” NASA says in a statement.

    The two galaxies forming IRAS 14348-1447 are packed with gas, meaning that it has plenty of fuel to feed the massive emissions radiating from the event—enough to qualify it as an ultraluminous infrared galaxy, Brooks Hays reports for United Press International. In fact, nearly 95 percent of the energy emitted is in the far-IR range, Hays reports. The energy released by these gases also contributes to the object’s swirling appearance, as wisps of gas spiral out from the collision’s epicenter.

    “It is one of the most gas-rich examples known of an ultraluminous infrared galaxy, a class of cosmic objects that shine characteristically—and incredibly—brightly in the infrared part of the spectrum,” NASA says in a statement.

    While witnessing two galaxies collide in such great detail is a fascinating sight, it’s not a rarity in the cosmos. Galaxies collide all the time, with larger ones consuming smaller ones and incorporating new stars into their makeup. While galaxies are often destroyed in the process, these collisions can also fuel the creation of new stars, though that comes at a cost of depleting gas reserves, Matt Williams reports for Universe Today. In fact, this is the same fate our own Milky Way will face billions of years from now, when it eventually collides with the ever-nearing Andromeda Galaxy.

    NAOJ Milky Way merger with Andromeda
    Depiction of Milky Way merger with Andromeda. NAOJ.

    These collisions are dramatic, but it’s unlikely that individual stars are smashing together. Though galaxies may look solid from afar, stars, planets and other matter is so distantly distributed within them that they more often than not simply glide past each other, Williams reports. But even from this distance, the drama of watching two galaxies collide is undeniable.

    See the full article here .

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  • richardmitnick 7:05 am on January 7, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: An Iceberg Larger Than Rhode Island Is Poised to Break From Antarctica, , , Smithsonian   

    From Smithsonian: “An Iceberg Larger Than Rhode Island Is Poised to Break From Antarctica” 


    January 6, 2017
    Danny Lewis

    A wide view of the rift in Larsen C as seen on November 10, 2016. The crack has since lengthened by about 12 miles. (John Sonntag/NASA)

    For years, scientists have watched as an enormous crack along Antarctica’s northernmost ice shelf has slowly grown wider and wider. But in the last few weeks, it suddenly grew by nearly 11 miles—and its break from the ice shelf could trigger a large-scale breakup of the frozen expanse.

    According to the United Kingdom-based Project MIDAS, which has spent years surveying the ice shelf, a 2,000-square-mile chunk of ice is hanging on by just a thread. If the crack continues to grow at its current rate, the ice shelf could collapse in just a matter of months, forming one of the largest icebergs ever recorded, George Dvorsky reports for Gizmodo.

    “If it doesn’t go in the next few months, I’ll be amazed,” Swansea University researcher and Project MIDAS leader Adrian Luckman tells Matt McGrath for the BBC. “[I]t’s so close to calving that I think it’s inevitable.”

    A map showing the crack’s path and when it has made significant leaps forward. (Project MIDAS)

    Since 2011, the crack separating the ice from the rest of the shelf has grown by about 50 miles and widened by more than 1,000 feet, Chris Mooney reports for The Washington Post. “When it calves, the Larsen C Ice Shelf will lose more than 10 percent of its area,” Project MIDAS writes in a statement. “This event will fundamentally change the landscape of the Antarctic Peninsula.”

    This is the third section of the Larsen ice shelf to face collapse in the last few decades. The first section, known as Larsen A, collapsed in 1995, and Larsen B suddenly followed suit in 2002. Since then, researchers have watched the growing crack along Larsen C with trepidation, Mooney reports. Now that the crack appears to be gaining ground with increasing speed, it could mean the ocean will soon gain an iceberg—or, rather, ice island—larger than Rhode Island.

    “I think the iceberg will calve soon,” Daniela Jansen, a researcher with Germany’s Alfred Wegener Institute who works with Project MIDAS, tells Mooney. “The jumps of the rift tip occurred in shorter time intervals the longer the rift got. This is probably due to the longer ‘lever’ for the forces acting to advance the rift, such as the up and down of the tides or strong winds towards the sea. Whether it will be months or maybe next year, I don’t know.”

    While it’s impossible to say when Larsen C will fall into the ocean, it’s likely that maps of Antarctica may soon need revision.

    Read more: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/antarctica-about-spawn-one-largest-icebergs-recorded-history-180961720/#GzS5XFuK2IoroVj4.99
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    See the full article here .

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  • richardmitnick 12:33 pm on December 13, 2016 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: Case Western Reserve University, Magneto-Optical Detector (MOD), , Smithsonian, This Device Could Revolutionize How Malaria Is Detected Around the World   

    From Smithsonian: “This Device Could Revolutionize How Malaria Is Detected Around the World” 


    December 12, 2016
    Randy Rieland

    The Magneto-Optical Detector (MOD) combines magnets and laser light to determine, in less than a minute, if a drop of blood contains malaria parasites.
    (Case Western Reserve University)

    It’s a medical breakthrough story that begins with a long line.

    Brian Grimberg was working at a clinic in Papua New Guinea, watching in frustration as the queue of people hoping to get tested for malaria stretched out the door. It took almost an hour to analyze each person’s blood. Clearly, they wouldn’t get to everyone.

    There had to be a better way, he thought.

    That led to conversations with Robert Brown, who, like Grimberg, is a researcher at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. Brown is a physics professor there, while Grimberg is an assistant professor of international health at Case Western’s School of Medicine, but they ended up collaborating on a research project that resulted in a device that could revolutionize how malaria is detected and treated around the world.

    “We tried a lot of ideas,” says Grimberg, “but the last one is both the cheapest and the most effective.”

    A few magnets and a laser

    What they and their team—including senior researcher Robert Deissler and mechanical designer Richard Bihary—invented is called a Magneto-Optical Detector (MOD), and it combines magnets and laser light to determine, in less than a minute, if a drop of blood contains malaria parasites.

    Grimberg knew that infected blood is more magnetic than healthy blood. As the parasites consume red blood cells, they leave behind a byproduct called hemozoin that contains iron particles. Could that, he wondered, be the key to helping scientists quickly and more accurately identify blood with malaria?

    So he started working with Brown, whose department has been researching magnetic fields for many years. That was back in 2009, and, as with much scientific research, they tested a number of approaches that didn’t pan out. Then, they discovered the missing component: laser light.

    Because of the iron in the parasites’ waste, the researchers could use magnets to manipulate the tiny crystals and rotate them. And when they were aligned a certain way, the blood absorbed a laser’s light, whereas the beam easily passed through a sample from a healthy person.

    The team continued to refine their invention and now have an instrument that’s not only much faster in detecting malaria than existing methods, but it’s also portable and very cheap—two crucial qualities when you’re working in remote villages. Each test costs only about a dollar, which is roughly 50 percent less than those relying on a microscope. The MOD itself, not much bigger than a shoebox, costs about $500 to make.

    “A long time ago, we came to the conclusion that if we create a device that could detect everything, but cost $100,000, it was basically useless,” Grimberg notes. “If you can’t move it around and go out and help people, nobody’s going to buy it. We wanted it to be great, but it also had to be realistic.”

    Still a killer

    While malaria is no longer a major public health threat in most developed countries, it remains a devastating disease in as many as 100 countries, with half the world’s population at risk. According to the World Health Organization, it’s responsible for more than 400,000 deaths a year, including many young children.

    Grimberg believes a big reason the disease remains so persistent is that the focus has been on eradicating mosquitoes that spread it, rather than on humans who have become infected. The pests aren’t born with the parasite. They simply transmit it from human carriers—many who don’t even know they’re sick—to other people.

    He points out that it has always been much easier to go after the mosquitoes by spraying pesticides over fields and swamps or inside houses, rather than identifying and treating all the human carriers. But the insects have largely adapted and now tend to stay outside sprayed houses, he says. To Grimberg, a more effective approach would be to test whole communities.

    “With the device we’ve developed we can, for the first time, go into villages and screen everybody and be able to tell people, ‘You have a little bit of malaria and we want to get you treated,” Grimberg says. “We’d be eliminating that reservoir of the disease, so you can have as many mosquitoes as you want and they wouldn’t be able to transmit malaria.”

    The MOD is already being tested in the field in Kenya and Peru, and beginning next month, it will be used to screen three entire villages in Kenya. All malaria carriers will be identified and treated, and the results will then be compared to similar villages where the device isn’t used.

    It’s hard to say when the device could be widely used to fight malaria. A big step was taken last spring when Hemex Health, an Oregon firm focused on global health issues, purchased the license for the technology. But there’s still much testing to be done, and Grimberg knows he will have to do a lot of demos in field clinics to convince health officials of its efficacy.

    “There’s always some resistance to a new approach,” he acknowledges. “But the speed of our device is really the key. If you want to eliminate malaria, you need to be able to find that last infected person. And that’s hard to do right now.”

    Their work on the MOD, however, has already earned notable public recognition. This fall, they received a Patents for Humanity Award from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, and in November were honored at a ceremony in the White House. The team has applied for a patent for the device.

    But the two lead researchers take as much satisfaction in how well their long collaboration has worked. Grimberg points out that Brown’s knowledge and background with magnetic fields allowed them to explore a number of different ideas before they had one concrete enough to apply for a grant. And Brown says the MOD project has led to research into new applications of magnetic crystals in other diseases.

    “It’s been a wonderful story about basic research in a university and its ability to apply it to a lot of things,” he says. “What’s great is that we sit here working on basic things and from time to time, they can be applied to solving big problems in society. That’s a wonderful thing for us.”

    See the full article here .

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  • richardmitnick 8:32 pm on October 18, 2016 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , Smithsonian, , Uranus May Have Been Hiding Two Moons   

    From Smithsonian: “Uranus May Have Been Hiding Two Moons” 


    October 18, 2016
    Jason Daley


    A recent Hubble Space Telescope view reveals Uranus surrounded by its four major rings and by 10 of its known satellites. The new moons would be between 2.5 and 8.6 miles (4 and 14 kilometres) in diameter, if they did exist

    In 1986, when the Voyager 2 probe flew past Uranus, it detected ten previously undiscovered moons orbiting the blue-green gas giant.

    NASA Voyager 2
    NASA Voyager 2

    Uranus’ moon total currently stands at 27, but if analysis by planetary scientists at the University of Idaho, Moscow, is correct, Voyager missed two moons during its historic fly-by, reports Ken Croswell at New Scientist.

    Reexamining the Voyager data, planetary scientists Rob Chancia and Matthew Hedman noticed that two of Uranus’ rings, Alpha and Beta, had a wavy pattern. Previously scientists observed similar ripples with the rings caused by two of the planet’s other moons, Cordelia and Ophelia. The gravity of these two moons and the couple other dozen orbs zipping around the planet, force the space dust and particles into narrow rings.

    Researchers believe these latest wobbly rings have a similar source: another two moons around Uranus. Their research will appear in the Astronomical Journal.

    “These moons are pretty tiny,” Chancia tells Croswell. In fact, if they exist they are between 2.5 and 8.5 miles across. The moons are so small that even if Voyager 2’s cameras did pick them up, they were probably just considered background noise, reports Charlotte England at The Independent. Even so, as Croswell points out, two of Saturn’s moons are even smaller.

    Based on the colors of Uranus’s other moons, the new satellites are probably also dark in color. “Not only are Uranus’s rings dark, so are most of the little satellites that are in that region,” Hedman tells Croswell.

    Confirming the moons would require using the Hubble Space Telescope to survey the area. In fact, in 2005, Mark Showalter of the SETI Institute discovered several rings and two new moons around Uranus, which were named Mab and Cupid, using Voyager data and Hubble images.

    “The new discoveries demonstrate that Uranus has a youthful and dynamic system of rings and moons,” Showalter said at the time. Showalter tells Croswell that he and his colleagues will be examining Hubble data looking at Uranus in the coming months, which may help confirm the new moons.

    If the moons don’t show up during that survey, the final option is waiting for a probe to visit the distant planets. While there are no firm plans to send an orbiter to explore the area, last year NASA asked the science community to think about the types of robotic orbiters needed to visit Neptune and Uranus—the only two planets in the solar system that have not been orbited by probes. If NASA does green light a mission, it likely won’t get off the ground until the late 2020s or early 2030s.

    See the full article here .

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  • richardmitnick 7:37 pm on October 13, 2016 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , Smithsonian,   

    From Smithsonian: “Predicting Chaos: New Sensors Sniff Out Volcanic Eruptions Before They Happen” 


    October 13, 2016
    Laura Poppick

    Mount Etna, Italy, erupts at night. (Alessandro Aiuppa, University of Palermo, Italy)

    Volcanoes have blindsided humans for millennia, leaving entire cities at the whim of their devastating eruptions. But compared to other forms of natural disaster, volcanoes actually offer a variety of quiet clues leading up to their destruction. Now, new developments in volcano monitoring systems allow scientists to sniff out, forecast and plan for eruptions with more precision than ever before.

    “We are now able to put really precise instruments on volcanoes to monitor the types of gases that are emitted, and that gives us a clue as to where magma is in the system,” says Marie Edmonds, a volcanologist at the University of Cambridge who has been working amongst fuming volcanoes for about 15 years. “We can see trends in the data relating to eruptions that are just about to happen.”

    Edmonds is part of an international group called the Deep Carbon Observatory that is working to place newly developed gas sensors on 15 of the 150 most active volcanoes on Earth by 2019, to improve their capacity to forecast different types of eruptions worldwide. Last week the Deep Carbon Observatory released an interactive visualization, supported in part by the Smithsonian Institution’s Global Volcanism Program, that allows the public to watch visualizations of historic volcanic data evolve through time.

    The visualization also lets viewers follow along as new sensors are deployed. These sensors continuously measure carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide and water vapor fuming out of volcanoes, and are placed within large boxes and buried underground with antennae on the surface. In recent years, advancements in electronics have made them more precise and affordable, allowing scientists to use them more prevalently around he world.

    Yet placing these sensors on top of active volcanoes isn’t without risk. Researchers must wear reflective suits to protect their skin from excess heat, and gas masks to protect their lungs from getting singed by corrosive gases—sometimes after hiking long distances through remote regions to reach a site. But Edmond says the potential good such work can do for populations at risk makes the more dangerous parts of the job worthwhile.

    “It’s brilliant to know that you are doing something to actually help people,” says Edmonds. “You do think about what you’re doing because it is sometimes dangerous, but I really do enjoy it.”

    Volcanologist Tobias Fischer of the University of New Mexico hikes down the steep crater wall of the vigorously degassing Gareloi volcano in the Western Aleutian Islands to collect a volcanic gas sample. (Taryn Lopez, University of Alaska Fairbanks)

    In the past month, researchers from Edmonds’ team attached one of their sensors on a drone and measured emissions from a remote volcano in Papau New Guinea over a short period of time, demonstrating another recently-developed technique used to collect snapshots of volcanic activity. When collected over a range of different types of volcanoes, these snapshots help scientists better understand the complexities of the activities leading up to an eruption. (What drones can’t do, however, is take long-term measurements.)

    Gas sensors help forecast eruptions because, as magma rises up, the resulting release of pressure overhead uncorks gases dissolved within the magma. Carbon dioxide billows out relatively early on and, as magma slithers higher up, sulfur dioxide begins to fume out. Researchers use the ratio of these two gases to determine how close the magma is getting to the earth’s surface, and how imminent an eruption may be.

    As magma rises, it also pushes through rock in the crust and causes tiny earthquakes not usually felt by humans above, but detectable with sensitive seismic equipment. Edmonds’ team often pairs gas sensors with seismic stations and uses the data in tandem to study volcanoes

    Robin Matoza, a researcher at the University of California at Santa Barbara who is not involved in Edmond’s research, agrees that technological advancements in recent years have drastically improved researchers’ ability to understand the inner workings of volcanoes and the behaviors leading up to eruptions. In places where his team once had just a few seismic stations, they can have now installed 10 or more due to the smaller size and increasing affordability of the technology. The ability to compute the collected data has also improved in recent years, Matoza says.

    “Now we are easily able to store years worth of seismic data just on a small flash drive,” says Matoza, who studies seismic signals released by volcanoes prior to eruptions. “So we can easily query that large data and learn more about the processes contained in it.”

    To supplement gas and seismic information on a broader scale, researchers use satellites to study eruptions from above. Volcanologists at the Alaska Volcano Observatory in Anchorage and Fairbanks collect this suite of gas, seismic and satellite data to on a regular basis, monitoring roughly 25 volcanoes across the state and offer early warnings to residents.

    For example, they released a series of warnings in the months leading up to the 2009 eruption of Mount Redbout, about 110 miles (180 km) southwest of Anchorage. They also work closely with the Federal Aviation Administration to help detect aviation hazards during eruptions.

    Over time, the researchers agree that satellites will become increasingly useful in collecting data over large regions. But at the moment, satellites are less precise and not as reliable as the other tools, in part because they don’t collect data as rapidly and don’t function well during cloudy weather.

    “You can have a satellite pass over a volcano and it can be obscured by clouds,” says Matt Haney, a volcanologist at the Alaska Volcanic Observatory. “I imagine in the future there will be new satellites that are launched that will be even more powerful.”

    Despite the challenges of this work, Edmonds says it can be easier to forecast volcanic eruptions than some other hazards because of the array of warning signs preceding eruptions compared to certain earthquakes and other abrupt disasters. And while the researchers may not be able to forecast to the exact day or hour that an eruption will occur yet, rapidly advancing technology is moving them in that direction.

    “The more instruments and the more sensors just contribute to our toolbox,” says Edmonds. “We are one step closer.”

    See the full article here .

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  • richardmitnick 9:49 am on October 9, 2016 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , Global Volcanism Program, Smithsonian,   

    From Smithsonian: “How Earthquakes and Volcanoes Reveal the Beating Heart of the Planet” 


    October 6, 2016
    Rachel E. Gross

    Your face looks fine. Trust me. But if you zoom in and take a time-lapse, you’ll see a landscape in motion: zits erupting, pore-craters forming, ridges of skin stretching apart and squashing together as you smile and frown. Similarly, the Earth outside your window might appear quiet. But that’s because you’re looking at a tiny slice in time and space. Expand your view and you’ll see plates shift, earthquakes ripple and volcanoes erupt along tectonic boundaries. The world snaps, crackles and tears asunder. Nothing stays the same.

    To illustrate these dynamic patterns, the Smithsonian Institution’s Global Volcanism Program, hosted within the National Museum of Natural History, has created a time-lapse animation of the world’s earthquakes, eruptions and emissions since 1960. Drawing from the first compiled database of sulfur emissions dating to 1978, the animations show how the seemingly random activity of volcanoes and earthquakes form consistent global patterns over time. Understanding those patterns gives researchers insight into how these dramatic events are entwined with the inner workings of our planet.

    Earthquakes and volcanoes can conjure up images of widespread destruction. But for those who study Earth’s deepest reaches, like Elizabeth Cottrell, a research geologist at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History and director of the Global Volcanism Program, volcanoes are also “windows to the interior.” Their activity and emissions provide a taste of what’s inside, helping researchers to untangle the composition and history of the planet’s core. That’s crucial, because we still don’t know exactly what the inside of our planet is made of. We need to understand the interior if we are to disentangle the global carbon cycle, the chemical flux that influences our planet’s past and future.

    We know a lot about carbon, the element that forms the chemical backbone of life, in our crust and oceans. We know far less about it in Earth’s core and mantle. It’s so far proved challenging to sample the Earth’s mantle, which extends up to 1,800 miles below the surface. This means that Earth’s interior plays a huge—and mysterious—role in the global carbon cycle. The interior contains perhaps 90 percent of our planet’s carbon, bound up in pure forms like graphite or diamonds. Gleaning the movements of this elusive deep-earth carbon has been called “one of the most vexing problems” in our quest to understand the global carbon cycle.

    Fortunately, we have volcanoes. As a planetary geologist, Cottrell thinks of these magma-makers as a “sample delivery system” that gives us a peek into the planet’s core. “Earthquakes and eruptions are the heartbeat of the planet,” she says. The emissions from these events, which have influenced global climate, are the planet’s respiration. (Worldwide, volcanoes release about 180 to 440 million tons of carbon dioxide.) By studying the chemistry of lava and the makeup of volcanic gases, Cottrell and others can get an idea of what lies within—like studying human burps to figure out what’s in your stomach.

    Volcanoes belch out about mostly water vapor in the form of steam, along with carbon dioxide and some sulfur (by contrast, humans breathe out about 16 percent oxygen, 4 percent CO2 and 79 percent nitrogen). Understanding the “normal” levels of these volcano emissions would help scientists determine what the baseline is—and thus, how drastically human activity is impacting it. Yet pinning down those emissions is a tricky business. Collecting volcanic gas is downright dangerous, requiring researchers to get up close and personal to hot, pressurized emissions. When it erupts from the mantle, molten lava is a searing 1000 to 1300 degrees Celsius.

    No wonder scientists would rather read gas signatures in the atmosphere using satellites from space. Unfortunately, that technique also has its problems. In the past three centuries, anthropogenic emissions from sources like factory farming and burning fossil fuels have drastically overtaken the emissions from volcanoes—meaning that volcanic CO2 gets lost in the background noise. As a workaround, scientists use sulfur, which is easier to measure from space, as a proxy for carbon. In the past decade, technological advancements have also made us possible to tease apart some of these emissions.

    “Global satellite monitoring of volcanoes will transform our understanding of gas fluxes from Earth’s interior to exterior in the coming decade,” says Cottrell, who has been working along with Michigan Tech researcher Simon Carn and data manager Ed Venzke to incorporate volcanic emissions into the Smithsonian database since 2012.

    In the visualization above, you can see earthquakes and volcanic eruptions not just as individual events, but as indicators of those regions of frenzied activity in Earth’s crust where plates push up against each other and are torn asunder. The key is timescale. By zooming out to the past 50 years, you can see that volcanoes aren’t merely catastrophic blips, but a steady pattern: the living heartbeat of a dynamic planet. “When we look on a long timescale, we see the constant pulse of the planet,” says Cottrell, who recommends watching the animation with the sound on to get the full effect. It is a “constant unrelenting beat punctuated by periods of high and low activity.”

    Zoom in again, and you can see how volcanoes link us all on a very personal level. Every time you breathe, you inhale volcanic gas, which rapidly mixes with the atmosphere and diffuses. By knowing when and where recent volcanic eruptions have occurred, you can even pinpoint the volcano that flavored your last inhalation. Now that’s intimate.

    See the full article here .

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  • richardmitnick 11:09 am on October 1, 2016 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , MeyGen, Smithsonian, Tidal arrays   

    From Smithsonian: “Inside the World’s First Large-Scale Effort to Harness Tidal Energy” 


    September 29, 2016
    Maya Wei-Haas


    Next month, the UK-based company MeyGen will install four underwater turbines off the coast of Scotland

    Tidal arrays are like the younger sibling of windmills—a bit smaller and slower spinning than their wind-loving brethren. But unlike windmills, they operate under many feet of water, spinning in the predictable movement of the ocean’s tides.

    Over the course of the last decade, a handful of companies have taken individual tidal turbines for a successful spin. But the next wave of tidal energy is about to break. Recently, the UK-based tidal energy company MeyGen unveiled its plans for the world’s first multi-turbine tidal energy field.

    The company is starting with a test of four turbines that will soon be deployed in the churning waters of the Inner Sound in Pentland Firth, Scotland. If the test goes swimmingly, they plan to deploy well over a hundred more over the next decade that would generate up to 398 megawatts of electricity—powering roughly 175,000 homes in Scotland.

    One of the four turbines comes from Atlantis, a tidal power technology company headquartered in Edinburgh, Scotland, and the three others were developed by Glasgow-based Andritz Hydro Hammerfest. The devices stand some 85 feet tall, about the height of a five story house, and sport three blades that spin with a diameter spanning nearly 60 feet. While smaller than windmills, the turbines are still quite heavy, each weighing in at 65 tons—roughly the same as six African bush elephants.

    The array will likely hit the water this October, says Cameron Smith, project development director of Atlantis Resources. The turbines have already been shipped to the site and undergone testing on shore. “All we need now is an appropriate tidal window and weather window and we’ll be installing,” he says. Engineers assemble the turbine bases on land, and then, with a crane, lift them from a barge and lower them to the sea floor. Once submerged, each will have at least 26 feet of clearance at the lowest tides.

    The turbine stands some 85 feet tall (MeyGen)

    Tidal turbines have many advantages over other renewables, explains Andreas Uihlein, scientific project officer at the European Commission. First, the turbines are submerged underwater, completely out of sight.

    Though some people revel in the beauty of solar or windmill farms, many consider them eyesores. The Block Island offshore windmill farm, the first of its kind in the United States, met largely broad appeal when it was installed this summer, because of its small size and promise to replace the island’s diesel generators. But the distaste for wind farms was abundantly clear with the uproar surrounding the 130-turbine Cape Wind project off of Martha’s Vineyard. So the positioning of the giant turbines well below the cresting waves is considered a plus.

    The tidal turbines also generate a predictable supply of power. Unlike wind or solar that rely on the whims of the weather, researchers can actually calculate the tidal pull and the amount of energy these systems will generate. Though the power isn’t a constant supply, ebbing and flowing through the day, its predictability lessens the need to store large energy reserves.

    The systems will also help with local employment. “There’s the potential to generate 5,300 full-time equivalent jobs over the next three or four years,” says Smith. “I’m hugely proud that 43 percent of this first phase was manufactured using local supply chain.” Many of these new jobs require the same skills as the oil and gas industry, which means that this fledgling industry provides a new home for talented labor.

    Pentland Firth’s Inner Sound and the individually deployed turbines have undergone extensive monitoring, showing few environmental impacts. Noise levels for turbines already churning away are well below a level that would cause damage, according to MeyGen’s environmental impact analysis. The biggest concern would be collisions with the marine mammals—particularly the harbor seal, whose populations have plummeted in recent years. But no collisions have yet been observed for the single turbine installations, according to a recent report from Annex IV, the body established by the International Energy Association Ocean Energy Systems to examine the environmental impacts of marine renewable energy.

    It seems almost too good to be true.

    That is because, of course, the story doesn’t end there. “There’s always trade offs in energy generation. You could take every one of those statements and put an asterisk next to it,” says Brian Polagye, co-director of the Northwest National Marine Renewable Energy Center, a collaboration between the University of Washington, Oregon State University and the University of Alaska Fairbanks with the goal of advancing the commercialization of marine energy technology.

    Though initial tests showed no environmental impact, even minor influences will become magnified as the company increases the number of turbines in the field. And, as the Annex IV report notes, most of the research has been focused on measuring the amount of noise the turbines generate, but few have identified how this level of noise could actually affect the behavior of marine animals. Though the noise levels are low, the sound could still interfere with animal communication, navigation or detection of prey.

    There is also much still unknown about the durability of the turbines. Their placement underwater keeps them out of sight, but the corrosive marine environment could slowly eat away at the devices. They also suffer constant mechanical stress, buffeted about in the currents.

    Though many companies have deployed individual units, none have been in the ocean for very long. Marine Current Turbines installed the first tidal turbine in Northern Ireland’s Strangford Lough in 2008. Now in its eighth year, this 1.2 MW spinner, composed of two separate turbines attached to a center platform, has been feeding the grid since its installation.

    “The big challenge for almost every company is going to be, how are you going to do this at a cost that competes with other sources of energy?” says Polagye.

    As a new industry, tidal energy has had its fair share of setbacks, with several companies, including the Ireland-based Wavebob Ltd., folding after failing to secure funding. But with improved designs, MeyGen and others are spinning their way back up to the top. Their long-term success relies in part on the government support for development and installation, explains Polagye.

    The United Kingdom government works on what’s known as “market-pull mechanisms,” explains Polagye. In this system, the government pays the difference between the cost of the renewable energy and that of standard electricity. This system pulls the new companies into the market, allowing them to compete with the big dogs of energy. The United States government, however, uses push mechanisms, supplying grants for development but little help competing with other energy sources. In order for these systems to have a future in the U.S. market, says Polagye, the government needs to develop similar pull mechanisms for energy.

    Though tidal currents aren’t strong enough along every coast to host one of these spinners, there are still many spots around the world with potential. In order for a site to be worthwhile, they must have some type of geographic restriction, like straits and fjords. This narrowing of the flowpath increases the speed of the water movement in the retreating or advancing tides, and therefore increases the energy recovered from the site.

    “If you look at a map of the world and show all the [potential turbine] sites to scale, they’d look really tiny—you probably would have trouble seeing them,” says Polagye. “But if you were to aggregate them all together, you’d probably end up with a few hundred gigawatts of energy.” And though the world will likely never run completely on tidal energy, a few hundred gigawatts is nothing to shake your iPhone at. To put that amount in perspective, since 400 MW is expected to power 175,000 homes, one gigawatt could power roughly 500,000 homes.

    A 2015 report from the European Commission’s Joint Research Center suggests that by 2018, there will be about 40 MW of tidal and 26 MW of wave energy undergoing installation. While tidal energy takes advantage of the tides, wave energy harnesses the energy from churning waves. Still in its early days of development, researchers are exploring different ways to do this—from long floating structures that “ride” the waves to massive bobbing buoys. Though wave energy lags behind tidal, according to the report, it has a global potential 30 times that of tidal energy, due to the large number of potential sites for deployment around the globe.

    Where the field of tidal turbines will go in the next couple decades is a bit of a mystery.

    “A lot of that depends on MeyGen,” says Polagye. “The turbine has to operate well and it has to not kill seals. If they do that, they’re definitely on a good trajectory.”

    See the full article here .

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  • richardmitnick 5:36 pm on September 12, 2016 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: and There May Be More to Come, , , Oklahoma Just Had Its Biggest Quake Ever, Smithsonian   

    From Smithsonian: “Oklahoma Just Had Its Biggest Quake Ever, and There May Be More to Come” 


    September 12, 2016
    Erin Blakemore

    The magnitude 5.8 earthquake that struck Pawnee, Oklahoma, on Sept. 3 is officially the state’s largest on record. Geologists believe that activities related to oil and gas extraction in the state have triggered a quake swarm in the seismically active region. (Public Domain)

    When a magnitude 5.5 earthquake roiled El Reno, Oklahoma, on April 9, 1952, workers paused in shock to see their cash registers jittering, desks quivering and typewriters swaying. Then they evacuated in a state of panic. Though only one person was injured in the temblor, the event was rare and troubling.

    But when an earthquake that clocked in at magnitude 5.8 roiled Oklahoma on Sept. 3, sending tremors to neighboring states and cracking old buildings near its epicenter, it came as no surprise. These days, earthquakes are a routine part of life in the seismically active state. Since 2009, it’s become an unlikely earthquake hotspot, experiencing more magnitude 3.0 and higher quakes than California in both 2014 and 2015. But why?

    Jeremy Boak, who directs the Oklahoma Geological Survey, thinks he has the answer—oil and gas extraction in the state. The phenomenon is called “induced seismicity,” and it’s become a buzzword in a state that depends on oil and gas for much of its revenue (approximately one in four Oklahomans works in oil and gas.) But oil extraction in the state leads to something else: wastewater that is disposed of deep in the ground and may be the source of the recent quake swarm.

    Oklahoma has always been seismically active. The OGS has recorded quakes since 1882, but they definitely weren’t the region’s first. Boak explains that a paleoearthquake of at least a magnitude 7 is thought to have occurred about 1,300 years ago—one of many in the region, which lies in the New Madrid Fault Zone. It’s the eastern United States’ most active seismic area, but unlike faults like, say, the San Andreas Fault, the faults are tucked beneath hundreds of feet of soft layers of river soils. Bigger quakes can shake the New Madrid, as in 1811 when a Missouri quake set off mass chaos in the area. But the 1952 quake was one of just a few larger temblors. In fact, by 1962, only 59 Oklahoma earthquakes total had ever been recorded.
    Now, however, the story is different. As Oklahoman oil production has risen, so have the number of earthquakes. Around 2009, Boak tells Smithsonian.com, “most faults in the central part of the U.S. were very close to critical stress. They were kind of ready to go.”

    Though the word “fracking” might cross your mind when you hear about human-induced quakes, the practice doesn’t seem to be linked to the majority of the manmade quakes in Oklahoma. Hydraulic fracturing pumps a controversial cocktail of water and chemicals into geologic formations to crack the shale rock deep inside the earth, yielding more oil and gas. But the Oklahoma Geological Survey ties most of the manmade quakes in the state to wastewater disposal wells. Those wells, filled with pressurized byproducts of oil extraction, can set off an earthquake.

    Humans have been accidentally triggering quakes for decades. As the U.S. Department of Energy explains, oil production in California in the 1930s induced a series of earthquakes due to a kind of geologic collapse triggered by removing too much oil without balancing the pressure out with water. Modern water injection has a different purpose—to get rid of the millions of gallons of saltwater that gush up to the surface along with oil and gas. The water is not only useless because of its high salt content, it’s also expensive to get rid of. So oil producers simply inject it back into the earth again.

    That might not be an issue with small-scale oil production, but we’re talking a lot of water. “Ten, 20, I’ve even heard 50 barrels of water per barrel of oil,” says Boak. And then there’s Oklahoma’s unique geologic landscape. “In certain formations you can put it back down underground and use it to drive more oil into your producing wells, but [Oklahoma’s] wells are already wet,” Boak explains.

    So the water is injected into a deep zone known as the Arbuckle formation, which has become a kind of underground disposal area for the oil and gas industry. This layer of rock—Oklahoma’s deepest sedimentary layer—is beneath the area where oil and gas is extracted, so it has not been studied as much. What is known is that the porous rock takes up lots of water and has kept accepting water over the last half-century, so it’s become the layer of choice for oil companies with water to get rid of.

    Despite mounting evidence that wastewater disposal linked to oil and gas is causing the quakes, scientists still aren’t exactly sure what happens to the water once it gets into the Arbuckle. Does it drain into the basement rock beneath? Does something else happen to it? Do the faults causing the earthquakes even extend all the way down into the Arbuckle? It simply isn’t clear, says Boak.

    “We have no proof that there is a communication pathway down,” he admits. But something seems to be happening in the Arbuckle—and Boak’s organization currently thinks that faults are slowly pressurized with water, then spurred to seismic activity when pressure rises above a certain level.

    That pressure has translated into a veritable pressure cooker for Oklahoma residents, who have experienced property damage and the unsteady feeling of seemingly constant earthquakes since the seismic surge. Insurance rates have risen 300 percent or more since 2009. About 20 percent of Oklahomans now have earthquake insurance, but given that such insurance usually only covers catastrophic damage, it’s not much of a comfort.

    For Angela Spotts, enough was finally enough on October 10, 2015, when a 4.5 magnitude earthquake struck about 20 miles away from her home in Stillwater. “October 10 was truly a defining moment,” she tells Smithsonian.com. “[My husband and I] both looked at each other and went ‘wow, I don’t want to live like this anymore.’” Spotts, who spent years fighting both wastewater disposal and fracking in Oklahoma, says that the stress from ongoing quakes was a major factor in her decision to move to Colorado, where she now owns and operates a small hotel. She accuses the state of colluding with the oil and gas industry and dragging their feet on helping real Oklahomans deal with the new instability of the earth below.

    After years of inaction, Oklahoma is finally cracking down manmade quakes. The state’s oil and gas regulator, the Oklahoma Corporation Commission, avoided action on Arbuckle wells for years. But recently, it’s shown signs of finally taking the quake problem seriously—largely after earthquakes rattled the homes of elected officials. The Commission has released several response plans, has adopted a “traffic light” system for permitting disposal wells, adopted stricter monitoring and reporting rules and regulated how deep water can be injected. It took years of lawsuits and community organizing by people like Spotts to get the issue on the legislative radar.

    Chad Warmington, president of the Oklahoma Oil & Gas Association, tells Smithsonian.com that the oil and gas industry is working closely with regulators and geologists to help prevent manmade quakes. “I’m pretty pleased with the outcome,” he says. “We’ve made a very honest effort to really figure out what is going on and what we can do to impact the seismicity outbreak in the state.” He says that association members have borne the brunt of the regulatory cleanup, providing proprietary data to geologists and cutting back production. Indeed, some producers like SandRidge Energy, which fought hard against the restrictions, have since declared bankruptcy.

    “The restrictions have done exactly what they wanted them to do,” said Warmington. “It’s reduced earthquakes, it’s reduced production and it’s driven the oil and gas industry elsewhere.”

    While Boak says that earthquakes have dropped off since 2014, when the strictest regulations were introduced, he notes that much of the reduction was likely driven by declines in oil prices. But both agree that if oil prices rise again, producers will still be forced to dispose of less water, which will likely affect future quakes.

    For Spotts, that simply isn’t good enough. “Why should one group of people have to take it just because we live in the wrong place?” she says. “It’s manmade and they’re taking advantage of us.”

    “The water has to go somewhere,” counters Warmington. “Until they come up with a way to dispose of it that’s cheaper, it’s going to be a severely limiting factor.”

    After last weekend’s quake, 37 wells remain shut down by the state as a precautionary measure. But will the problem simply drift to another state as Oklahoma gets tougher on oil and gas wastewater disposal? We may soon find out: The U.S. Geological Survey has tied spikes in earthquakes in states like Kansas, Ohio, Texas and Arkansas to the practice and says that some seven million people live in a place that could experience a damaging, manmade earthquake this year. Unlike Oklahoma, Kansas has limited how much wastewater may be injected as opposed to how deep it may go. To truly cut the number of earthquakes created by humans, the answer may not lie in how much water is disposed of, but whether water is disposed of at all.

    See the full article here .

    Please help promote STEM in your local schools.

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    Smithsonian magazine and Smithsonian.com place a Smithsonian lens on the world, looking at the topics and subject matters researched, studied and exhibited by the Smithsonian Institution — science, history, art, popular culture and innovation — and chronicling them every day for our diverse readership.

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