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Explosions at Mount St Helens — For science!

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Later this month, scientists will set explosive charges on Mount St Helens as part of an effort to study the seismic geology of the Pacific Northwest.

Earth's largest volcano, Mauna Loa on Hawaii's Big Island, awakens from slumber

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After a peaceful nap three decades long, Mauna Loa seems to be stirring. "While there are no signs of impending eruption, the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory has recorded an increased level of seismic activity on the flanks and summit of Mauna Loa over the past 13 months," reports Big Island Now. "Four distinct earthquake swarms — clusters of earthquakes occurring closely in time and location — have occurred since March 2013."

Mauna Loa is "one of five volcanoes that form the Island of Hawaii in the U.S. state of Hawaiʻi in the Pacific Ocean, [and] the largest subaerial volcano in both mass and volume, historically considered the largest volcano on Earth."

From a Wired Science blog post by Erik Klemetti, assistant professor of Geosciences at Denison University.

As of right now, there is little evidence of deformation or increasing carbon dioxide or sulfur dioxide emissions from Mauna Loa — all key signs that an eruption might be about to start at a shield volcano like Mauna Loa. HVO also notes that the earthquake activity is much less intense now that it was in the years just prior to the 1984 activity. Remember, lava flows from Mauna Loa are definitely a hazard for people living between the volcano and Hilo and Hawaii has been preparing for the volcano’s awakening. Nothing is going on right now, but you can get quite a view from the webcams set up at the Mokuʻāweoweo summit area.

Check out the USGS report, and don't miss out on those webcams.

[photo: USGS; HT: @elakdawalla]

"Live Panorama of Mokuʻāweoweo Caldera from the Northwest Rim. 2014-06-18 09:40:30 (HST)." USGS.


"Live Panorama of Mokuʻāweoweo Caldera from the Northwest Rim. 2014-06-18 09:40:30 (HST)." USGS.

Hellish desert crater has been burning for 40 years

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The Darvaza gas crater, known to locals as "Door to Hell" or "Gates of Hell" is located in the Karakum Desert of central Turkmenistan (about 150 miles from the nation's capital).

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The Opal's Fire

Opals, a rainbow of fire locked in rock, are among the most wonderful of nature’s gifts. Maggie Koerth-Baker returns with the light truth about weird silica.

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Scientifically kinda-accurate Earth cake, with molten core of raspberry jam

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Behold the splendid "Earth Cake" baked and decorated by Redditor Clatence. "The cake is a mixture of chocolate and red velvet cake mixes," Clatence explains. The core is raspberry jam. Nicely done!

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Weird lights appearing before earthquakes

Sometimes before an earthquake, strange bright orbs and glows are seen in the sky, like the scene visible in this video clip captured a half hour before the 2008 quake in Sichuan, China. You might think these are related to the UFOs that cause the quakes, but new research not only suggests a natural cause but also raises the possibility that the phenomena could be an indicator that a quake is coming. The scientists from Quebec Ministry of Natural Resources and San Jose State University suggest that rocks under high stress deep underground release oxygen ions that eventually make their way to the surface, ionizing air pockets above ground and creating a light-emitting plasma.

“If you see visible lights in the sky, and you live in an earthquake-prone area, they might be an early-warning sign that an earthquake is approaching,” geologist Robert Thériault says.

More in Smithsonian: "Why Do Lights Sometimes Appear in the Sky During An Earthquake?"

Volcano blows smoke rings


Image: Tom Pfeiffer/Volcano Discovery

Sicily's Mount Etna volcano is currently erupting. The series of explosions began on October 26, but on November 11, the mountain did something rare and nifty. Over the course of several hours it blew out dozens of perfect smoke rings, each hundreds of feet in diameter, including the one pictured here.

It's not the first time Etna has done this. Nobody knows exactly how the rings form, but people have been photographing smoke rings coming from Etna since at least 1970. Volcanologist and tour guide Tom Pfeiffer took this picture, as well as several others that you can see at his Volcano Discovery website. He suspects that the smoke rings are formed when eruptions alter the shape of volcanic vents.

Why Google Maps is often wrong about your exact location

How does Google Maps account for plate tectonics? That's the seemingly simple question that led George Musser to unearth some fascinating facts about map-making, history, and the accuracy of modern GPS systems. Turns out, not only does the crust of the Earth, itself, move, but so do the locations of lines of latitude and longitude. Both those things contribute to small errors when your GPS tries to pinpoint exactly where you are.

A geophysicist answers your questions about earthquakes

Today at i09, geophysicist John Bellini will be answering your earthquake-related questions, starting at 12:30 Pacific time.

How Planet Earth got its (invisible) stripes

This image shows magnetic anomalies in the South Pacific — underwater lines where the crust of the Earth either matches up with the planet's overall magnetic polarity (reds and purples) or is completely reversed (blues). Invisible to the naked eye, these stripes run along all of Earth's ocean basins. We first noticed them in the 1950s and, at first, they were a giant mystery. Why would there be these distinct lines of magnetism, and why would the lines fluctuate in their polarity? As Chris Rowan explains at the Highly Allochthonous blog, the answer ended up being a key part of proving that chunks of the Earth's crust were moving away from each other.

Fred Vine and Drummond Matthews thought through the consequences of the hypothesis put forward by Harry Hess, that new oceanic crust was being continuously produced by the eruption of basalt at mid-ocean ridges. When combined with the facts that newly cooled basalt has a strong remanent magnetisation aligned with the ambient magnetic field, and that the Earth’s magnetic field reverses its polarity every million years or so. Vine and Matthews* argued that if seafloor spreading was indeed occurring at mid-ocean ridges, then linear positive and negative magnetic anomalies, formed from crust produced in normal and reversed polarity chrons, would form a symmetric pattern around the mid-ocean ridges, which is exactly what we see.

Massive canyon hidden below Greenland's ice

Scientists using radio waves to estimate the thickness of the ice sheet that covers Greenland found a canyon — more than 2600 feet deep and almost 500 miles long — buried under the ice. Longer than the Grand Canyon, the Greenland canyon hasn't ever been seen by humans. It was probably last completely uncovered 4 million years ago.

Field trip guide to Mount St. Helens

Geology blogger Dana Hunter is putting together some resources that will allow you to take yourself on a fantastic tour of America's most famous volcano. Includes maps, suggested background reading, and routes that will ensure you get to see the most interesting spots on the mountain — and learn stuff while doing it!

Astounding backstory behind XKCD's "Time"


A week ago, Randall Munroe finished "Time", XKCD's long, running, slow-updating, 3,000+ frame comic telling the story of two people who discover an impending superflood that would destroy their society. Randall's explained in detail what was going on there, from the geology of the thing (it's set millennia in the future, amid a civilization denied the ability to jumpstart itself by the paucity of remaining fossil fuels, and the flood is modelled on a real event that sealed off the Mediterranean Sea five million years ago) to the fictional language the upland culture speaks (designed by a linguist, and still mysterious).

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Geology demonstrated with help of kitten

A slope may look stable, but that doesn't mean it will always be stable. The same geologic material can, under certain circumstances, lose its strength and integrity. Here, a geologist demonstrates how this might happen with the help of a tired kitteh.

The Great Sahara Sea

In the 1870s, a French geographer proposed digging a canal from the Mediterranean to flood a low-lying part of the Sahara Desert. He pitched it as good for business and good for local environments, writes Ron Miller at i09. But I can't help but think of Plagues and Pleasures of the Salton Sea — a documentary about the development, culture, and slow, ongoing destruction of a salty, inland sea that accidentally formed in southern California in the first part of the 20th century.

"Definitive proof" of Mars water

Mars' landscape was formed by flowing water, and the proof is in the pebbles. [BBC]

Exploding things for science

Earlier this month, volcanologists blew 12 holes in an otherwise peaceful meadow in Ashford, New York. It's not that they had anything against the meadow, per se, it's just that it was a convenient place to do some real-world experiments in how explosions affect the Earth and what we can do to monitor and predict volcanic eruptions.

Did a volcanic eruption nearly kill off ancient humans?

Short answer: We don't know. What makes this story by Erin Wayman interesting is the way it carefully breaks down an almost Hollywood-ready narrative and finds the fascinating uncertainty lurking underneath. The truth is, uncertainty is cool. Because it means there's more stuff left to discover.

How to: Build a better sand castle

Geoscientist Matt Kuchta explains why wet sand makes a better castle than dry sand — and what you can do to make your sand fortress even more impenetrable. Hint: The secret ingredient is window screens.

What makes dry quicksand so deadly?

Dry quicksand was a mythical substance — normal-looking sand that could swallow you in a flash. That is, until 2004, when scientists made the stuff in a lab. (Mark told you about that development.)

In this video, geologist Matt Kuchta explains how dry quicksand is different from both wet quicksand and stable sand. Hint: Think "Jenga".

Instant gold

Under the right conditions, veins of gold can form in just a few tenths of a second, writes Richard Lovett at Nature News. The key is the massive changes in below-ground pressure that can accompany an earthquake. Under the right conditions, water vaporizes, leaving behind crystallized minerals.

Ancient forest off the coast of Alabama

Sixty feet under the Gulf of Mexico lie the remains of an 50,000-year-old forest. Diver and photographer Ben Raines took some amazing photos of the site and sent samples of the trees — which still look like trees — to the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory for radiocarbon dating. You can see sap in a cross-section of the wood and, when it's cut, Raines says it still smells like fresh cypress.

Sinkholes: Swallowing everything, including the kitchen sink

If you were horrifically fascinated (horrafinated?) by the sinkhole that swallowed Floridian Jeff Bush and his entire bedroom a week ago, you might be interested in some sinkhole science. The US Geological Survey says that sinkholes are a geologic thing. Certain areas of the country are more prone than others (which you probably knew already). But the formation of actual sinkholes in those sinkhole-prone environments can apparently be prompted by human activities, ranging from old mines that weaken the ground above them; to groundwater pumping that destabilizes the soil; to (get this) leaky faucets. The USGS does not say how many leaky faucets, or how bad a leak, it might take to trigger a sinkhole, but the basic idea is that saturating usually dry soil could cause it to shift, so you'd assume it would have to mean a lot of water leaking into the soil under the house.

The birth of a volcano

On February 20th, 1943, Dionisio Pulido watched as a crack in his farm field collapsed in on itself and began to vomit out ash, rock, and fire. The birth of Mexico's Parícutin volcano is a story I've heard before, but I really enjoyed Dana Hunter's two-part series on the occasion of its 70th volcanaversary. Her posts really get into the perspective of Pulido and other local residents in a way I haven't seen in other accounts, and she does an amazing job of giving you a sense of just how well-documented the birth of this volcano was and why that fact matters so much. Here's Part 1 and Part 2.

What we can learn about volcanic eruptions from the vehicles trapped in their path

The car in this photo was 13 kilometers northeast of Mount St. Helens when that volcano erupted on May 18, 1980. This photo was taken about a month later by researchers from the United States Geological Survey. At the Rosetta Stones blog, Dana Hunter has a really fascinating story — with more eerie photos — about why geologists would want to study totaled vehicles and what we can learn from machines that we can't learn from people.

The art and science of searching for water

The United States Geological Survey has an interesting FAQ report on dowsing — the practice of attempting to locate underground water with divining rods. It's got some interesting history and comparisons between dowsing and modern hydrology. The part on evidence for and against dowsing, though, is pretty sparse. If you want more on that, The Skeptic's Dictionary has some deeper analysis. The basic gist — what little research there has been suggests the successes of dowsing aren't any better than chance. (Via an interesting piece by Mary Brock at Skepchick about dowsing in the wine industry.)

Are these the remains of ancient worm holes?

Here's a weird, great geological feature I spotted yesterday while out hiking in rural Oklahoma. We were out in a flat, flat plan that was dotted with a few tall, angular sandstone mounds and narrow sandstone canyons carved out by erosion. This rock was sticking out of the side of one of the mounds. It was the only place we saw anything like these vertical, tube-like structures, which stretched from the ground up to probably about my shoulder.

When I posted this image on Twitter yesterday, several people suggested that the tubes might be skolithos — tube-shaped fossils that were probably made by some kind of ancient worm creature and turn up sometimes in sandstones. While the pictures on Wikipedia don't look very similar to what I saw, there are apparently lots of different forms these things (and similar tube fossils) can take.

Defeating earthquakes, and more free videos from the American Geophysical Union

Remember when you had to build a bridge out of popsicle sticks in high school science class? The goal was to construct the miniature bridge that could withstand the most physical stress. Your materials were just sticks and glue. So the real challenge was to find strong shapes.

On the day of testing, we all learned very quickly what those shapes were. Bridges built out of lots of squares collapsed almost instantly. Bridges built out of triangles made the finals.

This is a pretty basic lesson, but it's not one that the global construction industry has learned yet, says the US Geological Survey's Ross Stein. Last week at the meeting of the American Geophysical Union, he began a talk on "Defeating Earthquakes" by demonstrating the difference between the cube-centric structures we build all over the world and how much stronger those structures can be if you just add triangles in the corners. It's a powerful demonstration of how simply having the technology to solve a problem isn't enough. You have to get people to use it.

This whole video is worth watching and easy for laypeople to follow. And it's just one of a huge collection of lecture videos from AGU 2012 that are now available online. They cover everything from the chemistry of lighting to the geology of volcanoes to the effects of space storms and solar flares. Very cool stuff!

Math + Too Much Free Time =

Here is a detailed analysis of the amount of time it would take to ride a hypothetical elevator down through the Earth's core and back out the other side of the planet. Apparently, this has something to do with the remake of Total Recall. But it's interesting even if (like me) you have no intention of seeing that movie. (Via Rhett Allain)

The evolution of Creationism

One of the great mythologies of any kind of religious fundamentalist movement is that the beliefs of that movement, and the way they choose to interpret their scripture, represent some kind of true reflection of history. This is how things always were. It's the people who believe differently who changed.

But that's not necessarily true. Take fundamentalist Christianity. A few weeks ago, the Slacktivist blog had some excellent posts recently, documenting the fact that evangelicals were once pro-choice. Another great example comes from an article in the Geological Society of America Today — the magazine of the GSA.

Written by the University of Washington's David R. Montgomery, the piece traces the birth of modern Creationism and the way it has changed since the 19th century. In general, he writes, you can really think of Creationism as a response to geology — arising as a backlash against the rise of modern geology.

The roots of modern creationism run directly back to George McCready Price (1870–1963), an amateur geologist with no formal training. In a book designed to look like a geology textbook, Price (1923) asserted that there was no order to the fossil record. Rejecting the idea of fossil succession, he argued that the succession of organisms that geologists read in the fossil record was really just a mixed-up sampling of communities that lived in different parts of the antediluvian world. He considered the fossil record too incomplete to confidently reconstruct the past, citing the occasional discovery of animals thought to be extinct and known only from fossils.

Leading fundamentalists praised Price’s book, calling it a “great and monumental” work of an “up-to-date scientist”—“a masterpiece of real science” by one of “the world’s leading Geologists,” and “the sanest, clearest and most irrefutable presentation of the Science of Geology from the standpoint of Creation and the Deluge, ever to see the light of day” (Numbers, 1992, p. 98). But even some of Price’s most ardent supporters had questions about his new flood geology. In a 1924 review in the evangelical journal Bibliotheca Sacra, the editor credited Price with throwing “a wrench into the smooth running machinery of the evolutionary theory” butwondered why it was that when fossils were found in the wrong order, they were always in exactly the reverse of that predicted by geologists (Numbers, 1992, p. 95). How could strata have gotten flipped upside down after Noah’s Flood laid them down if the Bible did not mention subsequent catastrophes? Despite such qualms, fundamentalist proponents of flood geology were inclined to assess Price’s credibility by the conclusions he reached rather than the strength of his arguments or evidence.

Read the full article online

Image: David Montgomery's photo of Siccar Point, Scotland. Montgomery writes, "the contact between the gently inclined Devonian Old Red Sandstone and vertically dipping Silurian graywacke that established a compelling case for the vast scope of geologic time. The expanse of time required to uplift and erode the two mountain ranges that were the source for the sand in these deposits was unimaginable to [James] Hutton."

Via Cort Sims