October 17 – Play Ball!

Today’s factismal: The first earthquake to be shown live on television happened in 1989.

You may have heard that there is a 72% chance that there will be a large earthquake near San Francisco sometime in the next thirty years. And that there is an  85% chance of a large earthquake on the San Andreas fault sometime in the next ten years. Experts think that it could cause as many as 1,800 deaths and as much as $200 billion in damage. But how can we know how much damage an earthquake will do? Simple – we know because we saw one happen, live on TV.

It was a balmy October evening in San Francisco. The Giants were competing with the Oakland A’s for the pennant, and the two teams were warming up in preparation for game three. As the television sports casters searched for something to add a little local color to the broadcast, they were given the greatest exclusive in history: an earthquake struck the area. And not some piddly little 4.0; this was a 6.9 Mb earthquake! As the anchors tried to describe what was happening, the world saw buildings shake, highways fall, and homes crumble into rubble.

A section of the collapsed highway (Image courtesy USGS)

A section of the collapsed highway
(Image courtesy USGS)

Amazingly, there were only 63 people killed in the earthquake (the 1905 temblor was about 30 times stronger and killed 3,000 people). Most of these happened in Oakland where a double-decker highway collapsed on itself. Interestingly, many credit the baseball game for the low fatality count. Because many people had left work early in order to watch the game, the highways were relatively uncrowded which meant that fewer people were hurt.

California is almost certain to have another large earthquake in the next three decades (Image courtesy SCEC)

California is almost certain to have another large earthquake in the next three decades
(Image courtesy SCEC)

But what is even more amazing is that the danger isn’t over. There is a 99.7% chance that some part of California will have another earthquake at least as powerful as this one in the next thirty years. So we know when the next big on will happen (soon); what we don’t know is where. And that’s where you can help. The USGS and Stanford University are developing a new type of distributed seismometer that uses the accelerometers in tablets, smartphones, and computers to provide more complete coverage of earthquakes; the data that this Quake Catcher Network gathers will then help them to narrow down when we can expect the next big one. If you’d like to take part, head over to:
http://qcn.stanford.edu/

September 21 – The Heat Is On

Today’s factismal: This summer was the warmest since we started keeping records in 1880. The previous record-holder was last summer.

If you think that it was just too darn hot outside this summer, you aren’t alone. Meteorologically speaking, this summer (June, July, and August) was the warmest that we’ve ever recorded. Even more interesting is that the previous record holder was last summer. And even more interesting than that is that we’ve had fifteen months in a row of record warm temperatures, globally speaking. And even more interesting than that is the last time we had a global average temperature that was below average was back in December of 1984 – 32 years ago! And the last time we had a year that was cooler than average was in 1976 – 40 years ago!

The average global temperature has risen quite a bit in the past 136 years (Data courtesy NDC)

The average global temperature has risen quite a bit in the past 136 years; the blue line is the 20th century average global temperature
(Data courtesy NDC)

So why are we getting warmer? It is no secret; as a matter of fact, this very thing was predicted back in 1896 based on a discovery made in 1859. It is the CO2 that we are adding to the atmosphere. CO2 happens to block some of the “heat radiation” given off by the Earth. This is reabsorbed by the atmosphere, raising its temperature slightly. (Think of it as being like the interest given to you by a bank. You give them a dollar and every year they give you four cents more as interest. Over time, that interest builds up and so does your bank account.) Of course, lots of other factors come into play when you are talking about a planet , so the temperature change isn’t instantaneous and it has some wiggles in it. But overall, the pattern is clear: increasing CO2 increases temperature and changes climate.

The change from the 20th century average temperature. Blues are colder than average; oranges and reads are warmer than average. (Image courtesy NOAA)

The change from the 20th century average temperature. Blues are colder than average; oranges and reads are warmer than average.
(Image courtesy NOAA)

As a citizen scientist, there are two sets of things you can do. The first is to reduce the amount of energy you use; a nice benefit of this is that you also save money. For example, making sure that your tires are properly inflated will save you the equivalent of $0.10 per gallon and save the US the equivalent of 1.2 billion gallons of oil. Adding a layer of insulation to your water heater (like that blanket on your bed) will save you about $30 per year and save the US another 500 million gallons of oil. There are plenty of other way you can save money while saving the planet. But if you still want to do more, why not help record the changes that global warming is bringing to your neighborhood? Join the Citizen Weather Observer Program and help them monitor how temperatures, weather, and other things are changing. To learn more, head to:
http://www.wxqa.com/

 

September 15 – My Beautiful Balloon

Today’s factismal: The world’s first weather balloon was launched 112 years ago today.

Meteorologists in St. Louis, Missouri, have something to celebrate today. More than a century ago, they launched the very first weather balloon intended for use in weather reporting. Though scientists had been launching balloons with scientific instruments since 1896, this was the first balloon intended to be used specifically for predicting the weather. The balloon carried a recording thermometer and a pressure gauge in a small package that was recovered after the balloon burst in the stratosphere. Today, the National Weather Service launches balloons from 92 sites in the USA; they are just part of the more than 900 sites that launch twice a day (morning and evening) to get information.

Launching a weather balloon during World War II (Image courtesy NOAA)

Launching a weather balloon during World War II
(Image courtesy NOAA)

So why would they bother? Simply because we knew then as we know now that it isn’t enough to measure the temperature and pressure and other weather factors in just one place; if you want an accurate prediction of what is going to happen next, you need lots of data that goes up through the atmosphere as well as across the globe. And balloons do that! They can rise as far as 20 miles before they pop, and they will fly up to 125 miles away. Each year, some 75,000 instrument packages are sent up in weather balloons. And thanks to WiFi, we are getting more data than ever from them.

A modern weather balloon launch (Image courtesy NOAA)

A modern weather balloon launch
(Image courtesy NOAA)

But that’s still not enough to make the meteorologists happy. (That’s a meteorologist for you – always raining on our parade!) They want more data – and that’s where you come in! They have set up a group to record temperature, pressure, and (most importantly) precipitation. Known as CoCoRAHS, these folks feed valuable information to the meteorologists who use it to make better weather predictions. To learn more, float on over to:
http://www.cocorahs.org/

 

August 24 – Tembling In Fear

Today’s factismal: An earthquake is called a temblor by the folks who study them.

The past 24 hours has been very interesting. In that time we’ve seen a Mb 6.8 earthquake in Burma, a Mb 6.2 temblor in Italy, and a Mb 6.0 event in Indonesia.

A comparison of the energy released by the big earthquakes we've had in the past day

A comparison of the energy released by the big earthquakes we’ve had in the past day

Though we still don’t know what the damage from these events will be, most experts expect it to be a few hundred dead in each case because the areas that were affected are mostly un-reinforced masonry buildings. that do not hold up well in an earthquake. Now, the typical lay reader is probably thinking “I should donate to the relief funds” and the typical lay reader would be right. Getting supplies and shelter to those in the disaster areas will definitely help more people survive. But the typical lay reader is probably also thinking “Gosh, three biggies in one day – there has to be something going on” and the typical lay reader would be wrong.

The past week's temblors (Image courtesy USGS)

The past days’s large temblors
(Image courtesy USGS)

The typical lay reader is wrong because there are earthquakes every day. Lots of them. On a typical day, there are about 4,000 earthquakes. Now most of those events are very small; they tend to be Mb 1 or Mb 2. But every year there are 134 or so events with a magnitude between 6 and 7. So on average we would expect to see an earthquake this large about once every three days. And since earthquakes happen at random, the odds of seeing three events in any given 24 hour period are not that bad – about 1 in 27. In other words, we should expect to have a replay of today’s events about once a month or so. Fortunately, most of the Earth is empty ocean so most of those replays take place far, far away from any people.

One year of earthquakes across the world. (Image courtesy the USGS)

One year of earthquakes across the world. (Image courtesy the USGS)

We get earthquakes because the Earth is hot inside. That heat creates motion in the mantle that geology wonks call convection. And the motion of the mantle drives motion of the Earth’s crust, breaking it into large rigid sections called plates. As the plates collide to form mountain ranges or scrape alongside in transform zones, they release energy as earthquakes. For Burma, the plates that are colliding are the India plate and the Eurasian plate and the mountains that are being built are the Himalayas. For Italy, the plates that are colliding are the Nubia plate and the European plate and the mountains that are being built are the Apennines. And for Indonesia, the plates that are colliding are the Australia plate and the India plate and the mountains that are being built are Indonesia. And though the temblors cause a lot of damage and deaths they also give us a chance to learn more about how to make the next one less dangerous.

The different layers of the Earth. Only the outer core is molten; everything else s solid!

The different layers of the Earth. Only the outer core is molten; everything else is solid!

You see, after each earthquake, people who felt it have gone to the Did You Feel It? page and told the USGS what they felt. That helped the geophysicists to determine which parts of the world are most susceptible to earthquake damage which tells  first responders where we need to improve building codes and emergency response.

The results of Did You Feel It? for the past decade (Image courtesy USGS)

The results of Did You Feel It? for the past decade
(Image courtesy USGS)

If you’d like to help, participating is easy. The next time you feel an earthquake, go over to Did You Feel It? and let them know what you felt. Then sit back and enjoy the knowledge that you’ve just helped make us all a little bit safer.

July 22 – Too Darn Cold

Today’s factismal: The lowest recorded naturally occurring temperature on Earth was 128.6 °F below zero; it happened at Vostok Station in Antarctica in 1983.

Right now, most of North America is in the grip of a record-setting heat wave. Forget frying eggs on the sidewalk; right now, the chickens are laying the eggs already fried. (Then again, they do that all the time in Colorado.) And odds are you’re thinking about a trip to someplace cool. In that case, may I suggest lovely Lake Vostok?

A cross section of the ice above Lake Vostok and a map showing where the Pole of Cold is (Image courtesy Nicolle Rager-Fuller / NSF)

A cross section of the ice above Lake Vostok and a map showing where the Pole of Cold is
(Image courtesy Nicolle Rager-Fuller / NSF)

Located in Antarctica’s “Pole of Cold” (yep, there’s a pole for everything), Lake Vostok is home to a research station located on the thick ice on top of the lake. How thick is the ice? Let’s put it this way: the research station sits on the ice more than two miles above sea level but the lake’s surface is 1/3 of a mile below sea level. All of that ice is there for a reason. Because Vostok Station is located in the middle of Antarctica, cold temperatures are just a fact of life. And those cold temperatures allow ice to build and build and build over hundreds of thousands of years; the ice over Lake Vostok represents more than 400,000 years of snowfall and gives climatologists an incredibly detailed look into the past. Of course, that assumes that they can survive the present.  In 1983, Vostok Station in Antarctica recorded an air temperature of 128.6 °F below zero.

The monthly average high and low temperatures for Vostok Station, Antarctica (Brr!)

The monthly average high and low temperatures for Vostok Station, Antarctica (Brr!)

Exciting as all of that ice is (think of the snow cones!), it is actually the least interesting thing about Lake Vostok. The most interesting thins is that all of that ice has sealed off the lake for some 15 million years, which means that it is possible that it is host to fish and other critters that have evolved separately from those everywhere else or (and here’s the exciting part) it may have completely new critters that will tell us if we might find life elsewhere in the Solar System.

The two sides of Europa, one of Jupiter's ice-covered moons (Image courtesy NASA)

The two sides of Europa, one of Jupiter’s ice-covered moons that may have life like that at the bottom of Lake Vostok
(Image courtesy NASA)

About three years ago, scientists did manage to drill into the lake and a second drill hole was completed last year. There have been some indications that they did discover lots and lots of critters but the question of how new they are is still undecided. (Read: lots of biologists are arguing about it.) What is known for sure is that it is amazing that anything could actually live in a lake that is in perpetual darkness, under a pressure equal to 350 atmospheres, and is so full of oxygen and nitrogen that the water would bubble if it were brought to the surface. And the other thing that is known for sure is that once the critters from Lake Vostok are identified, they’ll make their way into the Encyclopedia of Life. It is a free on-line resource that lists every known animal, plant, protist, or politician (wait; I’ve just been informed that politicians are not considered to be life forms). If you’d like to check it out, look here:
http://eol.org/

June 8 – Deep Blue

Today’s factismal: It is World Oceans Day – go hug a whale!

Today is World Oceans Day, an international celebration of all things briny. And as my part of the celebration, I present ten fast facts about the ocean and the critters that live in it:

"The Big Blue Marble" (Image courtesy NASA)

“The Big Blue Marble”
(Image courtesy NASA)

1. The oceans cover 70% of the Earth’s surface but only make up .023% of the Earth’s mass. Looked at from space, Earth is clearly not an earthy planet; it is a watery one. You could fit all seven continents into the areas covered by the oceans twice over and still have room left over for a few islands of your own. But the ocean is actually just a thin skin on the outside of the Earth. It is thinner than the skin of an apple but just as important.

Four tiny plankton; the largest is about the size of a grain of rice (Image courtesy John R. Dolan, NOAA)

Four tiny plankton; the largest is about the size of a grain of rice
(Image courtesy John R. Dolan, NOAA)

2. At least 90% of Earth’s life lives in the ocean! Being an air-breathing, formerly brachiating land-dweller, I tend to focus on things that are like me: chimpanzees, cats, and even earthworms. But it turns out that things that are like me are very rare indeed in the grand scheme of life on Earth. Instead, most of the life on Earth dwells in the ocean; somewhere between 90% and 99.7% of all life on earth likes its environment to be very wet indeed. And though the ocean holds the world’s largest creatures, mot of that life is in the form of tiny little organisms known as plankton. These tiny wonders are smaller than a grain of rice and yet they are responsible for most of the life on Earth.

A sea bird caught in a tangled net off Canada (My camera)

A sea bird caught in a tangled net off Canada
(My camera)

3. Scientists  estimate that there are more than five trillion pieces of plastic trash in the ocean; that plastic trash weighs some 269,000 tons or about as much as 1,350 blue whales! That trash ranges in size from small beads used in “exfoliating” scrubs and body washes to giant fishing nets used to catch tuna and cod. The plastic trash can grab onto other stuff floating in the ocean to form “plastiglomerates” that dirty up our shorelines and threaten the habitats of sea creatures worldwide!

Cloudy water offshore Australia (My camera)

Cloudy water offshore Australia
(My camera)

4. All of that trash has helped to make the ocean 40% cloudier in the past fifty years.  That means that less light makes it through to small critters known as phytoplankton. As a result, there are fewer and smaller phytoplankton . And that means a decrease in both the amount of CO2 taken up and the number of fish that grow up.

Seagrass provides a home for many fish (My camera)

Seagrass provides a home for many fish
(My camera)

5. Seagrass in the ocean absorbs more CO2 than all of the rainforests on land combined. Seagrass lives in shallow water where it uses the abundant sunlight and nutrients to grow rapidly. And that rapid growth means that it also stores CO2 rapidly; some biologists estimate that seagrass absorbs more than twice as much CO2 per square foot than a rainforest would. All told, seagrass absorbs about 1/8th of the CO2 that goes into the ocean, making it one of the world’s greatest tools for fighting climate change and species loss.

The first rediscovered ceolacanth next to a picture of its discoverer (Image courtesy South African Institute for Aquatic Biology)

The first rediscovered ceolacanth next to a picture of its discoverer
(Image courtesy South African Institute for Aquatic Biology)

6. The most critically endangered animals on Earth lives in the ocean. Perhaps the most famous “living fossil” in the world, the coelacanth was discovered by accident at a fish market in Indonesia. Unfortunately, though the coelacanth has survived more than 400 million years, it may not last another century. That’s because it is frequently caught by accident as the local fishermen angle for oilfish. And it is because the coelacanth appears to be highly local for an ocean-dwelling fish; it is only found off of the east coast of African and near the island of Sulawesi in Indonesia. Thanks to the high bycatch and limited distribution, the numbers of coelacanths have dropped to the point that both known species are considered to be endangered, making the coelacanth the most endangered animal in the world.

Wilma at peak strength (Image courtesy NASA)

Wilma at peak strength
(Image courtesy NASA)

7. The strongest storms on Earth start over the ocean. Every year, there are hurricanes in the ocean (though the ones in the Pacific part are typically called “typhoons”, they are the same type of storm). And every year, those storms do millions of dollars in damage and kill hundreds of people. But the most intense storm ever recorded happened in 2005 when Hurricane Wilma formed. At her worst, Wilma had an eyewall just two miles across (the smallest known) and peak winds of 185 mph! Those factors combined to give Wilma the lowest known pressure of any hurricane at just 882 mbar; to put that in perspective, remember that normal air pressure at sea level is 1013 mbar.  Wilma killed at least 62 people (mostly through flooding and landslides) and caused $29 billion dollars in damage.

Gill damage allows us to see the filter pads (Image courtesy ECOCEAN Whale Shark Photo-identification Library)

Gill damage allows us to see the filter pads
(Image courtesy ECOCEAN Whale Shark Photo-identification Library)

8. The world’s largest fish eats plankton and gives live birth. At 32 ft long and 20,000 lbs heavy the whale shark is the largest living fish. They can dive to 4,200 ft in search of food, which is mainly plankton and small fish. But the most amazing thing about the whale shark is how it gives birth. Once the female mates, she produces baby sharks (known as pups) at a steady pace by fertilizing the eggs one by one and allowing them to hatch inside her body before giving birth in a process known as ovoviviparity (“egg live birth”). And what a process it is! A female whale shark caught off of Taiwan in 1995 had 304 pups inside, at stages ranging from just-fertilized to “ready to pop out”.

A blue whale call (Image courtesy NOAA)

A blue whale call
(Image courtesy NOAA)

9. The blue whale is the largest and loudest animal on the planet.  This mighty master of the ocean will call out to other blue whales with a cry that crosses the ocean. It sound is so loud that any fish nearby are stunned and may even be killed by the pressure wave it generates. The cry of the blue whale is used for echolocation, but it may have other uses such as long-distance communication and self-defense.

A scallop meets a lobster (Image courtesy NOAA)

A scallop meets a lobster
(Image courtesy NOAA)

10. Every year, more than one billion scallops off of New England are caught for food. But this wouldn’t have happened without the Sustainable Fisheries Act of 1996. In 1990, the annual scallop harvest had dropped to dangerous levels. Using data from fishermen, NOAA lobbied for stronger control of New England waters and Congress granted it to them. Thanks to their work, the number of scallops has grown by ten times, allowing for a larger and more sustainable harvest every year.

And now that you know everything there is to know about the ocean, go out and celebrate World Oceans Day – go hug a whale!

May 18 – Pop Life

Today’s factismal: There have been over 1,200 earthquakes under Mount St Helens since 2010.

If you’ve been reading the news (or Facebook), you’ve probably heard that there has been a recent swarm of about 20 earthquakes under Mount St Helens. And that can be sort of scary because thirty-six years ago today, Mount St Helens reminded us of just how powerful nature can be when it erupted some 4 billion cubic yards of rock. The eruption tore off most of the top of the mountain by noon, shrinking it from  9,677 ft tall to 8,363 ft and spread ash across fifteen states. The forest was blasted away for 17 miles from the northern side and the Columbia River shipping channel 70 miles away was blocked by the largest landslide in recorded history. And yet, thanks to the work of the vulcanologists on the scene, only 57 people lost their lives in the eruption.

The eruption was actually fairly small as such things go (Image courtesy USGS)

The eruption was actually fairly small as such things go
(Image courtesy USGS)

But will the mountain erupt again? If you ask a geologist, the answer is both yes and no. Because Mount St Helens is on an active subduction zone, we know that it will keep getting fed magma so it will definitely erupt sometime. But because we’ve seen similar swarms for the past decade, it is unlikely that Mount St Helens will erupt any time soon. There have been more than 1,200 earthquakes since 2010; that works out to be about ten per month. So getting twenty in two weeks isn’t that unusual. And because the recent swarm is about the same place that previous swarms have been, it is unlikely that the events are due to large amounts of magma moving around; indeed, they could have been caused by magma cooling and contracting which would reduce the chances of an eruption!

The location of earthquakes over the past decade show that the recent swarm isn't that unusual (Image courtesy the Pacific Seismometer Network)

The location of earthquakes over the past decade show that the recent swarm isn’t that unusual
(Image courtesy the Pacific Northwest Seismometer Network)

Scientists have been monitoring the volcano for years, starting well before the 1980 eruption. They monitor the earthquakes associated with magma movement  with a number of seismometers and have flown over the volcano repeatedly to capture images of changes in the mountain slopes; they have also put instruments into place to measure the tilting of the ground and its temperature. This information allowed them to predict when the volcano would erupt in 1980 and continues to help us understand what will happen next.

Mount St. Helens is just one of many, many volcanoes on the Pacific coast (Image courtesy USGS)

Mount St Helens is just one of many, many volcanoes on the Pacific coast
(Image courtesy USGS)

That information is important because most people forget is that Mount St Helens isn’t the only volcano in the Cascades range. There are over 100 volcanoes stretching from California to British Columbia. All of them are caused by the subduction of the Juan de Fuca and Gordo plates under the North American plate; this is also what has created the Cascades mountains and the large number of large earthquakes in the region. And it is that motion that tells us that someday (geologically) soon, one of them will erupt just as Mount St Helens did.

California's earthquakes and Washington's volcanoes have the same cause (Image courtesy USGS)

California’s earthquakes and Washington’s volcanoes have the same cause
(Image courtesy USGS)

If you’d like to help scientists learn more about volcanoes and predict the next eruption, then why not join NetQuakes? You’ll keep a seismometer in your home and help monitor earthquakes and volcanic eruptions!
http://earthquake.usgs.gov/monitoring/netquakes/