Boing Boing 

When geology meets meteorology

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

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

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. In London alone 15,000 of the poor perished; in England and elsewhere thousands died."

The really interesting bit: Nobody is sure yet where that volcanic eruption actually happened.

Read the rest of the story in The Guardian

Via Cort Sims

Image: Eruption, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from tjt195's photostream

Google unveils Street View imagery from Antarctica, including South Pole Telescope, Shackleton sites

Photo: Cape Royds Adélie Penguin Rookery. (Google Street View)

Today, Google is launching access to a new collection of hi-res imagery from the Antarctic. In this post are some examples of those stunning vistas, shared with Boing Boing courtesy of Google. Alex Starns, Technical Program Manager for the Street View team, writes:

Back in September 2010, we launched the first Street View imagery of the Antarctic, enabling people from more habitable lands to see penguins in Antarctica for the first time. Today we’re bringing you additional panoramic imagery of historic Antarctic locations that you can view from the comfort of your homes. We’ll be posting this special collection to our World Wonders site, where you can learn more about the history of South Pole exploration.

With the help of the Polar Geospatial Center at the University of Minnesota and the New Zealand Antarctic Heritage Trust, we’ve added 360-imagery of many important spots, inside and out, such as the South Pole Telescope, Shackleton's hut, Scott’s hut, Cape Royds Adélie Penguin Rookery and the Ceremonial South Pole.

More about the project here. And more images below!

Photo: The Ceremonial South Pole. (Google Street View)

Read the rest

Vote for your favorite "Earth as Art" satellite photo, in U.S. Geological Survey poll

Today is the final day for voting in the USGS "Earth as Art" image project. To celebrate the 40th Anniversary of the Landsat Program on July 23, 2012, the federal agency seeks your help in selecting the 5 coolest images from more than 120 scenes.

For 40 years Landsat satellites have been acquiring images of the land cover of the planet. The satellites have given us spectacular views of mountains, valleys, coastal areas, islands, volcanic fields, forests, and patterns on the landscape. By highlighting some of those features and creatively crafting the colors we have developed a series of "Earth as Art" perspectives that reveal the artistic side of Landsat. The Top 5 "Earth as Art" images will be announced on July 23 in Washington, D.C., at a special event commemorating the launch of the first Landsat satellite.

Vote here, by end of day today.

Image above, from the Landsat collection: Akpatok Island lies in Ungava Bay in northern Quebec, Canada. Accessible only by air, Akpatok Island rises out of the water as sheer cliffs that soar 500 to 800 feet (150 to 243m) above the sea surface. The island is an important sanctuary for cliff-nesting seabirds. Numerous ice floes around the island attract walrus and whales, making Akpatok a traditional hunting ground for native Inuit people.

(Thanks, Miles O'Brien!)

Diamonds do not come from coal

Okay, maybe I'm an idiot, but this is one of those facts I'd missed until recently. Despite the impression you may have gotten from grade school and/or old Superman cartoons, diamonds are probably not lumps of coal that just got compressed real good—at least, not in exactly the way you might imagine.

Diamonds are made out of carbon, but the best evidence suggests that they form far more deeply down in the Earth than coal does. Instead of coal being smushed into diamonds, imagine something more like those "grow crystals out of Borax and water" experiments you did in grade school. Only, in this case, the experiment is performed in the fiery depths of Hell, as very un-coal-like atoms of carbon are compressed and heated deep in the Earth's mantle until they start to bond together and grow into a crystalline structure.

Once the crystals are formed, they get to the surface of the Earth via volcanic eruptions.

The really interesting thing about all of this is that it's one of those ideas that's very hard to verify. Diamonds form at a depth we can't go observe directly. All we have to work with is indirect evidence. Because of that, nobody knows exactly where the necessary carbon to make diamonds comes from. This is why the "diamonds are coal" story exists. Some scientists think the carbon is stuff that's existed in the Earth since this planet was formed. Others think it might be coming from terrestrial carbon that got shifted down to the lower levels via plate subduction—although, even then, we're talking about carbon, but not necessarily coal. It could be a combination of both. Either way, the mental image of smushed coal doesn't quite work.

Read the American Museum of Natural History's explanation of where diamonds come from

Read an interview about diamonds with the curator of the U.S. National Gem and Mineral Collection

Thanks to a story written by Geology.com's Hobart King for busting the myth and inspiring to me to read a little more on this

Image: Diamonds, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from kimberlyeternal's photostream

Fracking and earthquakes: The real risk is injecting liquid underground

The National Research Council published a report today, reviewing and analyzing peer-reviewed literature, federal and state documents, data requested from private companies, and more ...

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Scientists risk their lives to sample volcanic lava

There are few things quite as tense as watching one volcanologist mutter, "Oh my god. He's crazy. He's crazy," while watching another volcanologist scramble around the edge of a caldera.

It only gets more tense when you realize that the volcano in question is Nyiragongo in the Democratic Republic of the Congo—which has some of the fastest-moving lava flows ever recorded. The key feature of Nyiragongo is that lake of lava in the center of the crater that you see in the video. In January 1977, the lava lake was 2000 feet deep. When the volcano erupted later that month, the lake emptied dry in less than an hour. Lava was clocked at 40 mph.

Video clip from the BBC's "Journey to the Center of the Planet"

More about the program this came from.

Via EstudandoGeologia and Chris Rowan

Dispatches from Harvard Forest

I'm currently attending the Marine Biological Laboratory's 10-day science journalism fellowship. As part of that, I get to do some hands-on science experiments and get a better perspective on how the work of science is done and how data is collected.

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How past land use affects the current landscape

Do you see how the ground level is higher on the left-hand side of this photo? To the right of the stone wall, the ground distinctly drops by a foot or more.

That wall is more than 200 years old. It marks the border between what was once a plowed field (on the left) and grazing pasture (on the right). Today, this site is woodland—part of the Harvard Forest, the most-studied forest in the world. But for generations, this land was farmed by Jonathan Sanderson and his descendants. And, even two centuries later, you can still see the way different uses of the land changed the land.

For instance, the ground level is higher on the left because plowed fields erode more easily. This site is on a slight slope. Water runs downhill, toward the right hand corner of the photo. As it did that, it carried bits of plowed field along with it—sediment that washed up against the stone wall and stayed there. Over many years, the effect changed the level of the land.

This isn't necessarily a catastrophic thing. But it is change. I spent last weekend in the Harvard Forest, participating in science in a hands-on way as part of the Marine Biological Laboratory's science journalism fellowship. One of the things I learned during my stint in the forest: The past ain't past. History is recorded in geology and ecology as surely as it's recorded in books. Very cool stuff!

Geology geeks: Time for a shopping spree

The United States Geological Survey is having a great big spring sale, with lots of maps, charts, and publications—some of them mid-century vintage—discounted to $1. Yes, $1. At that price, you can't afford to not own entirely too many USGS maps. (Via Travis Weller)

The Driftless Area: Wisconsin's strange geology

Image: The Baraboo Range, a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike (2.0) image from crisp_air's photostream

On Wednesday, I traveled to Madison, Wisconsin, to give a talk based on my book, Before the Lights Go Out.

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Russian City Always On the Watch Against Being Sucked Into the Earth

That's the headline in the New York Times. Really, what more do I need to say?

Beautiful photo of a volcanic eruption

Volcano Tungurahua in Ecuador erupts about every 90 years—it's a schedule the mountain has kept for 1300 years. This photo was taken by Patrick Taschler in 2006. (Via Astronomy Photo of the Day and Alexandra Witze)

Tales of a great Pacific Coast earthquake passed down in legend

Last year, the Eastern coast of Japan was struck by a massive 9.0 earthquake and tsunami. Since that happened, you've heard researchers talk about how it was not the first time that region had experienced an earthquake that large. Although the 2011 Tohoku earthquake has been called the biggest earthquake in Japan's recorded history, that's really only describing the relatively short history of scientifically measured earthquakes. The Japanese have kept written records, describing earthquakes that sound as though they could have been every bit as destructive. And those records date back 1600 years.

But written records aren't the only way of preserving local memories, or warning future generations about the destructive power of the Earth.

Geologic evidence shows that North America's Pacific Coast has experienced earthquakes on the scale of the Tohoku earthquake. (In fact, the Pacific Northwest is probably due for one of these large quakes. It's not an "if", but a "when".) The last time it happened, nobody in the area was keeping written documents. Instead, the story of a massive earthquake and a devastating tsunami—which probably occurred around the year 1700—have become a part of oral storytelling traditions. Ruth Ludwin, a seismologist at the University of Washington, has been collecting these stories since the early 1990s.

"There was a shaking, jumping up and trembling of the earth beneath, and a rolling up of the great waters."

So says an ancient tale told to generations of Quilleute and Hoh Indians. Variations of this saga of an epic battle between the Thunderbird and the Whale are found among Pacific Northwest Tribes from Vancouver Island to Oregon's Tillamook tribe.

The Whale was a monster, killing other whales and depriving the people of meat and oil. The Thunderbird, a benevolent supernatural being, saw from its home high in the mountains that the people were starving. The great bird soared out over the coastal waters, then plunged into the ocean and seized the Whale.

A struggle ensued first in the water, the tribal tale says. "The waters receded and rose again. Many canoes came down in trees and were destroyed and numerous lives were lost."

The Thunderbird eventually succeeds in lifting the evil Whale out of the ocean, carrying it "high into the air (and then) dropping it to the land surface at Beaver prairie. Then at this place there was another great battle."

"A picture began to emerge that looked a lot like what you'd expect from a major quake," she said. One tribe even had what sounds like an explanation for aftershocks, noting Whale had a son, Subbus, who took Thunderbird several more days to locate and kill. The earth-rumbling struggle persisted, but eventually Subbus was subdued.

"I can't say for certain this was the 1700 event, but it sure sounds like it," Ludwin said. "You hear the same story from tribes all along the coast."

Read more about how Ruth Ludwin connected the story of the Whale and the Thunderbird to the 1700 Pacific Coast earthquake.

Image: Simulation from a U.S. Geological Survey research report, showing how the 1700 Cascadia earthquake might have created a tsunami that reached Japan. Written documents in Japan describe a tsunami from that year with no "parent" earthquake. Cascadia might be the source of the so-called "orphan" tsunami. You can read the full paper online.

The only U.S. rare earth metals mine

Kyle Wiens of iFixit reports on his visit to Molycorp Mountain Pass, the last rare earth metals mine in America. [The Atlantic, via The Verge]

Volcano creates new island in the Red Sea

A month ago, one of these islands didn't exist.

On December 13, fishermen in the Red Sea reported volcanic eruptions shooting lava into the air. Just ten days later, the new island was visible. Volcanic island formation is one of those natural phenomena that most of us have known about since grade school. And yet, it never becomes not awesome. Smithsonian has a Q&A with volcanologists (still one of the most awesome jobs), that explains some of what's going on. Even if you already know the general basics, the specifics of this particular island are pretty neat.

The “new” volcano, of which you can see the very top, has probably been erupting episodically underwater for thousands of years. While its above-surface dimensions are roughly 1,739 feet east-to-west and 2,329 feet north-to-south we know the larger submerged shield it sits on is about 12.5 miles across—an edifice whose age is unknown, but the Red Sea may have begun spreading apart about 34 million years ago and the shield volcano could thus be tens of millions of years in the making.

... Keep in mind that this whole region has had many volcanic eruptions in the last five years. In 2007, for example, a sudden eruption on the nearby Island Jebel at Tair killed a number of soldiers stationed there. The process of plate tectonics seems to be going on a little faster, at a quickened rate in this area. Why? We don’t know. The general public needs to be reminded that volcanologists are often in the dark about these processes.

How To: Build a geologic time spiral cake

For Christmas, some Oxford geologists built an amazing cake based on the geologic time spiral—a way of visually representing the order and flora/fauna of the different stages of deep history.

It's a pretty damn epic cake. It's creation involved 32 eggs, 3 kg of marzipan, 7 people, and 30 hours of labor.

Video Link

Via Evidence Matters

Climate change and earthquakes: It's complicated

In the wake of the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami last March, I started seeing a lot of headlines like this:

"Does climate change mean more tsunamis?"

"Did climate change cause the Japanese earthquake?

Read the rest