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. Read the rest

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. Read the rest

How to: Build a better sand castle

Why build a normal, weak sand castle, when you could have a defensible sand fortress?

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". Read the rest

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. Read the rest

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. Read the rest

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. Read the rest

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. Read the rest

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. Read the rest

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.) Read the rest

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. Read the rest

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

What construction crews could learn from your high school science class, and more great earth science videos.

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) Read the rest

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.

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When geology meets meteorology

Dust from the Sahara desert could leave Sweden soaked in red "blood rain" this weekend. (Via Kevin Zelnio) Read the rest

Russia reveals large deposit of "extra-hard" diamonds in asteroid crater

The Russian news agency ITAR-TASS reports that the government has declassified a large deposit of diamonds, located in a meteorite crater formed 35 million years ago. The unique composition of these "extraterrestrial gemstones" could make them uniquely valuable for the technology industry:

According to Academician Pokhilenko, "the value of impact diamonds is added by their unusual abrasive features and large grain size." "This expands significantly the scope of their industrial use and makes them more valuable for industrial purposes / in metalworking, in production of efficient semiconductors, etc./," he said. In addition, as yet, impact diamonds with similar specifications have not been discovered anywhere else in the world. Thus, experts speak about their extraterrestrial origin and claim that Russia becomes a monopoly owner of unlimited supplies of this unique raw material, which is of highly demand in advanced technologies. Scientists forecast, this raw material reserves "would be enough for the entire world for 3.000 years." Use of these minerals in the manufacturing industry is capable of a technical revolution.
The diamonds are described as "extra-hard." #thatswhatshesaid Read the rest

Volcano killed thousands of British people in the 13th century

In the 1990s, archaeologists found a mass grave in London, filled with more than 10,000 skeletons. There have been plenty of things over the centuries that could wipe out tons of Londoners en-masse—the Black Death, famine, fires, you name it. But this grave has turned out to be filled with victims of a far more unlikely natural disaster. Scientists now think those people were killed by a volcano.

Not a volcano in England, of course. But a massive eruption thousands of miles away.

Scientific evidence – including radiocarbon dating of the bones and geological data from across the globe – shows for the first time that mass fatalities in the 13th century were caused by one of the largest volcanic eruptions of the past 10,000 years.

Such was the size of the eruption that its sulphurous gases would have released a stratospheric aerosol veil or dry fog that blocked out sunlight, altered atmospheric circulation patterns and cooled the Earth's surface. It caused crops to wither, bringing famine, pestilence and death.

Mass deaths required capacious burial pits, as recorded in contemporary accounts. In 1258, a monk reported: "The north wind prevailed for several months… scarcely a small rare flower or shooting germ appeared, whence the hope of harvest was uncertain... Innumerable multitudes of poor people died, and their bodies were found lying all about swollen from want… Nor did those who had homes dare to harbour the sick and dying, for fear of infection… The pestilence was immense – insufferable; it attacked the poor particularly.

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