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Hiking an abandoned hydroelectric power plant at Niagara Falls

Geology Ph.D. student and volcano blogger Jessica Ball recently took a detour away from volcanoes and into the world of awesome abandoned industrial sites.

Have I mentioned that I LOVE awesome abandoned industrial sites?

Ball went hiking around the former site of the Schoellkopf Power Station—a hydroelectric plant that once turned the force of Niagara Falls into electricity.

The ruins of this power plant were the second station built on the site, and were completed in 1895. Both buildings were constructed by Jacob Schoellkopf, who had purchased a hydraulic canal, the land around it and the power rights in 1877. The plant eventually became part of the Niagara Falls Power Company in the early twentieth century. But by 1956, water that had been seeping through the rock in the gorge wall behind the plant had weakened it. On June 7th, workers noticed cracks in the rear wall of the plant, and at 5 that evening a catastrophic collapse destroyed more than 2/3 of the station. One man died, several had to be rescued from the Niagara River, and debris from the collapse made it as far as the Canadian side of the Gorge.

Before the collapse, the plant was generating 360,000 kilowatts of power for the city of Niagara Falls; afterward plants on the Canadian side picked up the slack, and the destroyed plant was later surpassed by redevelopment of the hydropower infrastructure in the area, including the construction of the Robert Moses Generating Station farther downstream.

Check out her photo-filled tour of the site at the Magma Cum Laude blog

Watch the Sun "burp"

Check out this great NASA video showing a coronal mass ejection—a burst of plasma thrown off the surface of the Sun—from several different perspectives. It happened on August 31 and it's really gorgeous. It's also rather huge, as far as these things go. Luckily, it wasn't pointed directly at Earth. Coronal mass ejections can affect our planet's magnetic field. There's a risk of large ones screwing with everything from our electric grid to radio waves.

Read more about coronal mass ejections on Wikipedia

Building an indoor hurricane at the University of Miami

This is how Hurricane Isaac looked on Tuesday, as it made landfall on America's Gulf Coast. If you've never been to the Gulf of Mexico, here is a key fact you should know: The water there is warm. While Pacific coastal waters might be in the 50s during August, and the central Atlantic coast is pulling temperatures in the 60s and 70s, the water in the Gulf of Mexico is well into the 80s.

And that makes a difference. We know that water temperature affects hurricane strength. But we don't understand the particulars of how or why at a detail level. To learn more about this (and other factors that make each hurricane an individual), researchers at the University of Miami are building a simulation machine. When it's complete, it will be a key tool in improving forecasts.

Peter Sollogub, Associate Principal at Cambridge Seven, says the hurricane simulator is comprised of three major components:
The first is a 1400-horsepower fan originally suited for things like ventilating mine shafts. To create its 150mph winds, it will draw energy from the campus's emergency generator system, which is typically used during power outages caused by storms.

The second part is a wave generator which pushes salt water using 12 different paddles. Those paddles, timed to move at different paces and rates, can create waves at various sizes, angles and frequency, creating anything from a calm, organized swell to sloppy chaotic seas.

The third aspect of the tank is the tank itself, which is six meters in width by 20 meters in length by two meters high. It's made of three-inch thick clear acrylic so that the conditions inside can be observed from all sides.

Read more about the hurricane simulator at Popular Science

Seed artists support marriage equality

I've written here before about seed art at the Minnesota State Fair. Every year, Minnesotans glue thousands of tiny seeds to heavy backing material to create some surprisingly elaborate examples of portraiture and political commentary. Oddly, given that this is folk art at a state fair in the Midwest, most of that political commentary is solidly liberal.

I wasn't able to make it to the Minnesota State Fair this year, but Minnesota Public Radio's Nikki Tundel was there. At least four different entries in this year's seed art competition feature marriage equality themes—responses to the coming election when Minnesotans will decide whether or not to enshrine discriminatory marriage laws into our state constitution. It's safe to say: Minnesota's seed artists want you to vote "No".

You can see all the marriage equality seed art at the MPR News Tumblr blog

Via the Stuff About Minneapolis blog, and Andrew Balfour

Testing out a Star Wars-style hover bike in the Mojave desert

I really, really hope that this is real and not another cruel hoax by Robert Zemeckis*.

Popular Science says it's legit, and that you wouldn't need any special training to drive the thing:

Brought to you by aerospace firm Aerofex, the bike runs on a pair of powerful fans. It picks up on instinctive movements people make while riding a bicycle or motorbike, then moves in the same way (except, you know, flying), meaning anyone can have a go at it. For safety reasons, they've tested it at 30 mph and 15 feet high, although earlier versions of it went as fast as a helicopter.

Read more at Popular Science

(*shakes fist in the air* ZEMECKIS!)

The desert that creates the rainforest

This is probably the most amazing thing I learned all weekend. The Amazon rainforest—with all its plant and animal life, and all its astounding biodiversity—could not exist as we know it without the patch of African desert pictured above.

The rainforest is amazing, but the soil it produces isn't very nutrient rich. All the minerals and nutrients that fertilize the rainforest have to come from someplace else. Specifically: Africa. Scientists have known for a while that this natural fertilizer is crossing the Atlantic in the form of dust storms, but science writer Colin Schultz ran across a 2006 paper in the journal Environmental Research Letters that not only produces evidence for a much larger trans-oceanic transfer of dust than was previously assumed ... it also pinpoints the exact (and astoundingly small) location where all the fertilizer in the Amazon is coming from.

The research paper, itself, is pleasantly readable, as far as these things go, so I'm going to quote directly from it. One quick note before I launch into this quote. The authors are measuring the mass of the dust in teragrams (or Tg). As you're trying to wrap your head around this, it might be helpful to know that 1 Tg = 1 million tons.

A total of 140 (± 40) Tg is deposited in the Atlantic ocean and 50 (± 15) Tg reach and fertilize the Amazon basin. This is four times an older estimate, explaining a paradox regarding the source of nutrients to the Amazon forest. Swap et al suggested that while the source for minerals and nutrients in the Amazon is the dust from Africa, it was estimated that only 13 Tg of dust per year actually arrive in the Amazon. However, they pointed out that 50 Tg are needed to balance the Amazon nutrient budget.

Here we show a remarkable arrangement in nature in which the mineral dust arriving at the Amazon basin from the Sahara actually originates from a single source of only ~ 0.5% of the size of the Amazon: the Bodélé depression. Located northeast of Lake Chad (17°N, 18°E) near the northern border of the Sahel, it is known to be the most vigorous source for dust over the entire globe.

Basically, these 2006 calculations account for all the fertilization needs of the Amazon, while previous calculations left a weird gap in between the amount of dust the rainforest needed and the amount the scientists thought was getting there.

Also: The place the dust is coming from is a single, highly specific region. As Alexis Madrigal pointed out at The Atlantic, we're talking about a patch of desert only 1/3 the size of Florida supplying the nutrient needs of a jungle that is roughly the same size as all 48 contiguous United States. Mind, blown.

Read the full research paper at Environmental Research Letters

Check out The Atlantic's write up on this, including a satellite photo of the dust storms in question.

Follow the guy who started it all—the very smart, very entertaining, and very tall Colin Schultz

Via Bart King

Google Street View goes to Kennedy Space Center

I don't know what the best words ever written in the English language are, but I'm willing to put "Top of Launch Pad 39A, Address is Approximate" up there on the short list.

Among the images you can now explore online with the click of your mouse are the space shuttle launch pad, Vehicle Assembly Building and Launch Firing Room #4. Gaze down from the top of the enormous launch pad, peer up at the towering ceiling of the Vehicle Assembly Building (taller than the Statue of Liberty) and get up close to one of the space shuttle’s main engines, which is powerful enough to generate 400,000 lbs of thrust. And even though they recently entered retirement, you can still get an up-close, immersive experience with two of the Space Shuttle Orbiters—the Atlantis and Endeavour.

I'm not sure when this went live, but it's seriously phenomenal. And it's part of a larger series of special Street View galleries with geeky appeal. There are sets for Antarctica (see Shackleton's shack!), historic Italy (wander around the Colosseum!), and UNESCO World Heritage Sites (includes Pompeii!). In general, discovering this could be a major time-suck for me, if I'm not careful.

See the NASA collection

Check out the other Street View Galleries

Science T-shirt is blunt, to the point

Have I mentioned how much I absolutely love geneticist (and occasional BoingBoing contributor) David Ng? The fact that he designs awesome T-shirts while procrastinating just seals the deal.

You can buy this T-shirt

How to: Build a living sea creature from spare parts

A couple of days ago, Rob told you about scientists who had built a "jellyfish" in the lab, using rat cells. Which is awesome. Naturally, it's not quite as awesome as it sounds, though.

The scientists haven't created life. Instead, they've built a little construct of cells and silicone. This construct—the medusoid—is interesting, in that, when you spark it with electricity, it moves in ways that are very similar to a juvenile jellyfish. But it's not actually an animal. It doesn't eat. It can't make more of itself. It needs that outside zap to move at all.

But despite all that it is not, the medusoid is a very cool first step towards doing some amazing things. At Scientific American, journalist Ferris Jabr looked at what the scientists have done, how living jellyfish work, and what it would take to build a for-real-real artificial jellyfish.

Whereas a real jellyfish generates electrical impulses to stimulate its muscle cells, a medusoid is entirely dependent on voltage generated by electrodes in its tank. Moon jellies have eight pacemaker cells scattered around the middle of their bodies (just about every jellyfish body part comes in multiples of four). Pacemaker cells keep the jellies’ muscles pulsating rhythmically. We have pacemaker cells in our hearts that do the same thing. So do rats. Janna Nawroth thinks it’s possible to weave pacemaker cells from a rat’s heart into the heart muscle tissue that makes up a medusoid, which might allow the artificial jellyfish to bob on its own, sans electrodes.

The upgrade would rely on a technique known as “co-culturing,” in which different types of cells are grown together. It’s often difficult enough to get one cell type to live happily in the lab, let alone a mixture of different kinds of cells. Think of them as high-maintenance houseplants that are fussy about their neighbors, withering if they do not like their circumstances. Although scientists have not yet mastered co-culturing, they have made impressive advances, cultivating little gardens of gut tissue and bacteria, for example, as well as epithelial cells and immune system cells.

Read the rest of the story at Scientific American

Pyura Chilensis, the living rock

This is not a geode. It's an animal. An apparently delicious animals with clear blood, whose body is accumulates surprisingly large amounts of a rare metal used to strengthen steel.

This is Pyura chilensis—an immobile ocean creature. Besides the other traits I mentioned, P. chilensis is also capable of both sexual and asexual reproduction. At the Running Ponies blog, Becky Crew explains the results of a 2005 study that detailed the creature's breeding habits for the first time.

The results showed that P. chilensis is born male, before becoming cosexual – having both male and female gonads – in its adolescence as it increased in size. The researchers also found that given the choice – that is, if situated around other individuals – these organisms prefer to breed via cross-fertilisation, writing, “Given that more events of natural egg spawning followed by successful settlement and metamorphosis were recorded in our paired specimens and in our manipulated cross trials … it appears that cross-fertilisation predominates in this species.”

Manríquez and Castilla also found that a greater number of fertilised eggs resulted from the paired specimens, which suggests that cross-fertilisation, or reproducing with another individual, predominates because it is more effective. This assumption was strengthened by the fact that individuals that had cross-fertilised before being put in isolation took at least two months before successfully producing offspring via selfing. However, they were careful to note that while cross-fertilisation was preferred, selfing did not produce inferior offspring. “No perceptible differences in fertilisation, settlement and metamorphosis success among self and outcross progeny were found,” they reported. This suggests that when stuck alone in the ocean, selfing provides an advantageous opportunity for loner P. chilensis individuals to still pass on their genes.

Read the rest of Becky Crew's post to learn more about Pyura chilensis

The perilous world of banana slug sex

Banana slugs are hermaphrodites. Every slug has both a penis (which pops out of a pore on its head, like you do) and a vagina. Or, rather, every slug should have a penis. The truth is that quite a few of them don't and the story behind that discrepancy is rather strange and horrifying. Since there's little I love more than strange and horrifying stories from nature, you get to hear all about it.

At The Last Word On Nothing, Cassandra Willyard tells the story of a nearly 100-year-old effort by scientists to understand why some banana slugs appear to be missing their penises, or have penises that are stunted. We have known since 1916 how those penises came to be missing. Willyard describes the situation, which you can also watch in action in the video above:

Banana slugs begin their mating with a few vicious love nips. Then the animals curl around each other, forming a bright yellow yin-yang symbol. Next, they insert their penises. (Remember, they both have one.) In some cases, one slug provides sperm and the other slug receives it. More often, the slugs swap sperm. Copulation can last many hours. Then, in most cases, the slugs withdraw and part ways.

Heath caught a couple of slugs in the act. He noted the biting and the insertion. And then Heath observed something puzzling. As the slugs were withdrawing their penises, “one of the animals turned its head and commenced to gnaw upon the walls of the organ,” Heath wrote. The biting was “unusually vigorous,” he added, “and within a very few minutes the penis was entirely severed.”

The confusing part is why the hell they do this to each other.

Willyard says the best idea so far is that the penis eating represents a sort of sperm competition—a way of ensuring that the slug you just mated with isn't going to get a shot at mating with anybody else. But that's really just an educated guess.

What I like best about this story (besides the shock and awe) is that it handily illustrates one of the difficulties inherent in scientific research. In many cases, it's quite easy to answer the question, "What happens?" A century ago, scientists could easily observe and document the penis-eating behavior. All it took was somebody with sufficient interest in the question that they were willing to spend time watching many, many examples of slug sex.

But the "Why" is sometimes trickier.

Read the full story at The Last Word On Nothing

Video courtesy University of California Santa Cruz graduate student Brooke Miller. See more of her work on banana slug sex.

Also included: Some fun with Latin vocabulary. Did you know that dolichophallus means "long penis"? You're welcome.

Via Ed Yong

The business end of a sea urchin

How's this for an amusing case of photographic mis-identification? Call it "Dueling Disgustingness". Last week, New Scientist posted this lovely image of a blue-spotted sea urchin, taken by nature photographer David Fleetham.

New Scientist identified the photo as depicting said sea urchin in the process of expelling its own guts out of its mouth. Which, gross, but okay. That's reasonable. A surprising number of underwater animals eat in this manner, using the acids in their guts to dissolve prey before they actually slurp it up as a slurry.

But, at the Echinoblog, Smithsonian invertebrate zoology researcher Christopher Mah makes a compelling case against New Scientist's interpretation. That's not actually the sea urchin's mouth, says Mah. In fact, it's the opposite. That's a (rare) photo of a sea urchin taking a dump.

Mah has a lot of good photos that make his case quite well. You should check them out. Then, join me in contemplating this thought: If Mah is right, doesn't sea urchin poop look a lot like Dippin' Dots?

The New Scientist blog post—featuring lots of cool info about sea urchins

Christopher Mah's analysis of the photo, explaining why he thinks it shows a pooping sea urchin, rather than one that is eating something.

David Fleetham's website—for more (less disgusting) photos of nature

Via Scicurious

Cod hat

Check out this cod piece. Author William Gibson found it in Masset, BC, Canada. The head of a 145-pound cod, meant to be worn as a great helm. Nothing intimidates your enemies quite like wearing the head of a fish on your head.

EDIT: Mr. Gibson emailed to say that the photo comes from a local bed and breakfast ... "That thing is in the very excellent Copper Beech House bed & breakfast in Masset, BC, run by the Canadian poet Susan Musgrave. We're here because Doug Coupland recommended it, and it's awesome."

How to: Experience Manhattanhenge

Step 1, naturally, is to be in Manhattan.

I'm in New York City today and Scientific American contributing editor Steven Ashley was kind enough to reminded me that my visit is coinciding with Manhattanhenge—a twice-a-year event when the sun lines up with Manhattan's street grid. This year, there will be a Manhattanhenge on May 29/30 and another on July 11/12.

You'll note that Manhattanhenge does not actually occur on the same day as the solstice—when the Sun is at the highest point in the sky and the length of the day begins to get either longer (winter solstice) or shorter (summer solstice). That's because Manhattan's grid is rotated 30 degrees east off of true north, writes Neil deGrasse Tyson on the Hayden Planetarium website. That's enough to make Manhattanhenge less astronomically accurate than Stonehenge. But it's still awfully nifty and is supposed to look really, really cool.

Tonight's event should start around 8:17 pm (Eastern time, of course). Here's Neil deGrasse Tyson's advice on getting a good view:

For best effect, position yourself as far east in Manhattan as possible. But ensure that when you look west across the avenues you can still see New Jersey. Clear cross streets include 14th, 23rd, 34th. 42nd, 57th, and several streets adjacent to them. The Empire State building and the Chrysler building render 34th street and 42nd streets especially striking vistas.

Note that any city crossed by a rectangular grid can identify days where the setting Sun aligns with their streets. But a closer look at such cities around the world shows them to be less than ideal for this purpose. Beyond the grid you need a clear view to the horizon, as Manhattan has across the Hudson River to New Jersey. And tall buildings that line the streets create a vertical channel to frame the setting Sun, creating a striking photographic opportunity.

Read the rest at the Hayden Planetarium website

Check out some reader-submitted photos of Manhattanhenge that Xeni posted last year.

Image: Manhattanhenge 2011 | The Commuter, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from 59949757@N06's photostream

The secret world of swamp mud

Earlier this week, I showed you how scientists can use a simple, hand-operated tool to collect stratified core samples of mud at the bottom of a swamp. The deeper the samples go down, the older the mud is—until, eventually, you're looking at 6000-year-old muck, the remains of a lake bed that filled in with sediment and became swamp.

The core samples are narrow logs, each 50 cm long. (In all honesty, they looked like less-colorful versions of the 3 pound gummi worm I ordered for my 30th birthday party last year.) For the most part, they're some variation on the shade of brown, with occasional streaks of red and burnt umber, until you get to the very bottom. There, the samples turn grey. Put a bit in your mouth, as I was encouraged to do by Harvard Forest director David Foster, and you'll taste clay and feel grit between your teeth.

That's all well and good. But what do you do with core samples once you have them? For this installment of Dispatches From Harvard Forest I'm going to leave the woods and head into the lab, to see what happens to the parts of the Forest that scientists take home.

Step one: Make dirt cupcakes

Read the rest

A practical use for volcanic lightning (besides metal album covers)

Here's a story that combines two favorite bits of volcano news into one interesting discovery. You know those great, freaky photos of volcanic lightning? (In case you don't, I've got one posted above.) Remember how the Icelandic volcanic eruptions totally screwed up everybody's airplane travel plans?

Apparently, studying volcanic lightning could lead to better eruption detection systems that could make it easier to predict how big a plume of ash off that volcano will be—knowledge that can help airlines and travelers be better prepared. At Nature, Richard Monastersky reports:

The researchers found that the amount of lightning correlated with the height of the plume, something they could not test using more limited data collected during an eruption at Alaska’s Mount St Augustine in 2006. This observation is important, says Behnke, because systems to monitor lightning could provide an estimate for the size of an eruption, which is not always easy to assess for remote volcanoes.

During a previous eruption at Mount Redoubt in 1989 and 1990, for example, the size of the plume wasn’t known and a plane nearly crashed after passing through the ash cloud and temporarily losing all power from its engines. Behnke and her colleagues suggest that VHF stations similar to the ones they installed at Mount Redoubt could be used to monitor volcanoes to give early warning of an eruption and an estimate of its size.

Read the rest at Nature.com

Via Graham Farmelo

Image: Oliver Spalt via CC

How to: Collect 6,000-year-old swamp mud

Photo:Eric Niiler

I spent last weekend in the Harvard Forest, participating in hands-on science experiments as part of the Marine Biological Laboratory's science journalism fellowship. The goal was to give us an inside look at what, exactly, scientists actually do. When you're reading a peer-reviewed scientific research paper, where did all that data come from?

Sometimes, it comes from a swamp.

On Saturday, we walked into the Forest's Blackgum Swamp to take core samples out of the muck. There was no standing water in this swamp, at least not when we visited. But I wouldn't call the ground "solid", either. Instead, it was more like a moss-covered sponge. With every step, the ground beneath me would sink and smoosh. In some of the lower patches, that meant a shoe-full of water. In other spots, it was just a disconcerting sensation.

Taking core samples involves a little machine that's like a cross between a shovel and a straw. Made of heavy, solid metal, it has an extendable handle on one end. At the other, there's a hollow, cylindrical chamber that can be opened and closed by turning the handle counterclockwise. You drive the chamber into the ground, turn the handle, and then pull it back out. Once everything is back on the surface, you can open the chamber and see a perfect cylinder of earth, pulled up from below. That cylinder is removed from the chamber, wrapped in plastic wrap, labeled, and put in a long wooden box. Then you do all of that again, in 50 centimeter increments, until you hit stone. We got to about 475 centimeters—15 feet deep. By that point, you'll have collected 1000s of years of layered sediment.

This is not as easy as it sounds.

Read the rest