Hail is not unheard of in severe summertime thunderstorms. And yet you definitely don’t expect a city in southwestern Mexico to be completely buried under multiple feet of ice in late June. “Incongruous” is a word that readily comes to mind!
Methane is often produced by living things, and it doesn’t persist long in atmospheres because it is quickly broken down by solar radiation. Yet satellites and rovers have periodically detected surges in atmospheric methane concentration on Mars, raising the question: where is that gas coming from?
Methane gas periodically wafts into the atmosphere of Mars; that notion, once considered implausible and perplexing, is now widely accepted by planetary scientists. […]
The presence of methane is significant because the gas decays quickly. Calculations indicate that sunlight and chemical reactions in the thin Martian atmosphere would break up the molecules within a few hundred years, so any methane detected must have been created recently.
It might have been created by a geological process known as serpentinization, which requires both heat and liquid water. Or it could be a product of life — specifically methanogens, microbes that release methane as a waste product. Methanogens thrive in places lacking oxygen, such as rocks deep underground and the digestive tracts of animals.
Even if the source of the methane turns out to be geological, the hydrothermal systems that produce the emissions would still be prime locations to search for signs of life.
Nature’s marvels are boundless, and one of its most visually disturbing is a certain blood-red cascade found in Victoria Land, East Antarctica (aptly named “Blood Falls“). Fortunately for the squeamish, it’s not actually blood:
Blood Falls is an outflow of an iron oxide-tainted plume of saltwater, flowing from the tongue of Taylor Glacier onto the ice-covered surface of West Lake Bonney in the Taylor Valley of the McMurdo Dry Valleys in Victoria Land, East Antarctica.
Iron-rich hypersaline water sporadically emerges from small fissures in the ice cascades. The saltwater source is a subglacial pool of unknown size overlain by about 400 metres (1,300 ft) of ice several kilometers from its tiny outlet at Blood Falls.
The reddish deposit was found in 1911 by the Australian geologist Griffith Taylor, who first explored the valley that bears his name. The Antarctica pioneers first attributed the red color to red algae, but later it was proven to be due to iron oxides.
Surely a sight to see! Given the remote location of Blood Falls, though, it’s unlikely to appeal as a tourist destination to any but the hardiest and most well-heeled of travelers.
But what is the most common vertebrate species on the planet? And how many of them are there?
The answer, it turns out, is the humble bristlemouth fish (Latin family name Gonostomatidae), and it numbers in the Hundreds. Of. Trillions. (And possibly, according to some estimates, in the quadrillions.)4 An unassuming family of fishes, the bristlemouths range in size from 1 to 11 inches5 and prefer the mid-ocean depths of about 0.5 to 1 mile down.6
Bottlenose dolphins are social animals. Just as wolves live in packs, dolphins live in pods of generally 10-30 individuals (although groups of 50 or even 60 are not uncommon1). Researchers studying Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins, however, have been documenting substantial increases in pod sizes off the coast of South Africa. From 2008 to 2016, pod size in the area increased from an average of 18 animals per group to an average of 76.2 On top of this, some of the largest pods ever reported have been observed in the area — with sightings of as many as 600 dolphins in a single group.
“neither season nor behavior had a significant effect on mean group size at both sites. Similarly environmental variables such as the depth and substrate type also had no influence on group size. It remains unclear which ecological drivers, such as predation risk and food availability, are leading to the large groups observed in this area, and further research on abundance and distribution of both predators and prey is necessary.”
Check out some video footage of a superpod, below:
“We’ve never seen anything like this before.” That’s how University of Hawaii astronomer Rob Weryk described the unknown object hurtling through our solar system.1 An object a quarter of a mile long and moving startlingly fast – faster than any comet or asteroid seen before, about 55 miles per second. An object with an open-ended trajectory – meaning that it came from somewhere outside our solar system. The first such object ever observed.
Scientists named the mysterious visitor ‘Oumuamua, meaning “a messenger from afar arriving first” in Hawaiian.2 Intriguing not only due to its origin but also its properties – besides its unusual size, shape, and trajectory, the object has no comet tail and shows no trace of water ice, suggesting that it may be composed entirely of solid rock or even metal – astronomers are turning additional eyes on ‘Oumuamua to test some unsettling hypotheses. After all, given the characteristics of this unusual visitor, who can’t but wonder: is it more than just an asteroid? While likely formed by natural processes, astronomers are thus far at a loss as to what could produce the object’s unusual shape. Is it possible, however distantly, that ‘Oumuamua might be some sort of artifact? According to Harvard University astronomer Avi Loeb, ‘Oumuamua has the optimal design… of a vessel meant to travel through space.3
That’s a proposition that a research initiative called Breakthrough Listen hopes to test. Breakthrough Listen, per their website, is a “$100 million program of astronomical observations in search of evidence of intelligent life beyond Earth” and “by far the most comprehensive, intensive and sensitive search ever undertaken for artificial radio and optical signals.” From NPR:
“The possibility that this object is, in fact, an artificial object — that it is a spaceship, essentially — is a remote possibility,” Andrew Siemion, a member of the initiative and director of Berkeley’s Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence Research Center, told The Washington Post on Monday.
[…T]hey’ll be checking on that hypothesis by scanning the object for possible artificial transmitters through a radio telescope at West Virginia’s Green Bank Observatory.
As unlikely as this possibility may be, it certainly seems worth looking into. Before our extrasolar visitor leaves our system just as quickly as it entered, bound for distant reaches that for now we can only dream of.
Here’s a fascinating development I will present without much additional commentary besides saying: this is the sort of science that really makes it seem as though the future is upon us! (And, incidentally, the sort that I argue will have hugely disruptive consequences for our society a few decades down the line.)
From The New York Times:
[T]wo neuroscientists at the University of Rochester say they have managed to introduce information directly into the premotor cortex of monkeys. The researchers published the results of the experiment on Thursday in the journal Neuron.
Although the research is preliminary, carried out in just two monkeys, the researchers speculated that further research might lead to brain implants for people with strokes.
See the full article here; the scientific results are available here.
terrestrial arthropod (and thought to represent the upper size limit for land-dwelling creatures supported by exoskeletons), coconut crabs can grow to more than 3 feet in length. They can climb trees and crack coconuts. Their claws are as strong as a lion’s jaws. They can live for up to 60 years. And now, researchers have evidence that their diet isn’t limited to fruits, nuts, and scavenged carrion: they sometimes engage in predation, as well.
It has long been known that the crabs will feed on meat, when they encounter it; in a 2007 experiment, coconut crabs made short work of a small pig carcass, quickly stripping its flesh and scattering the bones. Persistent rumors suggest that a dead or wounded Amelia Earhart may have suffered a similar fate. Researchers now have direct evidence, though, that coconut crabs will not only consume dead animals they come across, they will sometimes go on the hunt themselves.
This Washington Post article describes researchers’ encounters with coconut crabs that have hunted (and fed on) seabirds:
[N]ow, finally, we have video evidence that the crabs — thousands strong on one island — can scale trees and hunt full-grown birds in their nests.
[…] After about a month on the island [in the Chagos archipelago], in February of 2016, [Dartmouth biologist Mark Laidre] investigated a giant crab’s underground lair. “Deep inside the crab’s burrow was the carcass of a nearly full-grown red-footed booby,” he wrote. This was Laidre’s first sign that the stories might be true, that giant crabs really were hunting birds. He had his proof a month later.
“In the middle of the night,” Laidre wrote, “I observed a coconut crab attack and kill an adult red-footed booby.”
You can see some footage from this encounter in the video below.
A massive, 30,000 square mile hole has just opened up in the Antarctic ice. (For reference, that’s roughly the size of the state of Maine, the surface of Lake Superior, or the entire nation of Belgium.) A hole such as this — an area of open water surrounded by sea ice — is called a polynya. This particular polynya is located in the Weddell Sea, and while its appearance is puzzling, it is not unprecedented: a similar hole was observed in the region in the 1970s. Precisely what led to the formation of the Weddell Sea polynya is unknown. A typical polynya forms close to open water; this one, however, is “deep in the ice pack” and thus “must have formed through other processes that aren’t understood.”1
While scientific data on the 1970s Weddell Sea polynya is limited to a few photographs taken by early satellites, technological advances since that time offer researchers greater ability to study — and perhaps understand — the hole’s recurrence. As to precisely what caused this hole to open up, I have my own theory:
An enormous black blotch known as a “coronal hole” has been spotted spreading across the sun. Coronal holes, according to Wikipedia, are “areas where the Sun’s corona is darker, and colder, and has lower-density plasma than average because there is lower energy and gas levels.” These holes can allow high-density plasma to escape to space, which can disrupt satellite communications here on Earth.
The size and number of coronal holes peak and wane with the solar cycle, which spans 11 years.
The most recent coronal hole of a similar size opened in 2012, and was the “precursor to an extremely powerful solar storm, the most powerful one in 150 years.” That storm was considered a near-miss for Earth: according to Daniel Baker, from the University of Colorado’s Laboratory of Atmospheric and Space Physics, “If it had hit, we would still be picking up the pieces.”