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for January, 2009.
Last Wednesday January 29 4pm (Pacific Standard Time) hundreds of dolphins were seen swimming inside the far end of Marina Del Rey, California; the largest man made marina in the world. Boat owners and other spectators has never seen this many dolphins gathering in one place in southern California but as people were flocking in amazement and taking pictures, Doug a marine enthusiast says; “Some things not right here!”; soon enough the amazement turned into sympathy.
Dolphins are known to be very sociable mammals but their behavior last Wednesday suggested otherwise; dolphins were bumping to each other, hitting boats, seemed disoriented, digging into the sand and mixing the sand in the water. People began to realize that these dolphins were in distress trying to find a safe spot in the water as if trying to hide from an unseen predator. Dolphins were seen all the way inside the E Basin of the marina which is 2miles in from the marina’s break waters, not typical in dolphins. Doug says that the dolphins seems like they were trying to find solace inside the marina.
The volunteer Coast Guard arrived on their rubber boat after concern citizens called it in, but Officers only took eyewitnesses statements and couldn’t offer an explanation.
Marina Del Rey in the sea side of Los Angeles, California
Today I thought we’d take a little tour through the wonderful world of technology. We’ll amble through water walls, do a little relaxing and find out when noise is a good thing. So let’s go see what those wonderful zany scientists have dreamed up lately.
THIS PICTURE IS ALL WET
An MIT-designed building with walls made entirely of water made headlines in Europe last summer at the Zaragoza World Expo in Spain. The Digital Water Pavilion was selected as Time magazine’s "Best invention of the Year" in the field of architecture when its plans were unveiled, and was the first of its kind. It illustrates the potential of digital architecture to create spaces that dynamically adjust to people and conditions.
"Water has long been recognized as one of the most dynamic and engaging elements of urban public space," commented William J. Mitchell, head of MIT’s Design Laboratory and former dean of architecture at MIT. "For centuries, architects have shaped and directed it by means of channels and pipes, nozzles, valves, and pumps."
The ‘water building’ combines sensor technology, embedded intelligence, networking, computer-controlled pumps and valves and other new technologies open up the exciting possibility of urban-scale, precisely controlled, highly interactive water.
The "water walls" that make up the structure are generated by high-speed computer controlled solenoid valves. They can be programmed to take varying shapes, to display patterns, images and text, and to respond dynamically to input from sensors.
"This capability enables architects to challenge many traditional ideas about architectural form," says Mitchell. "Doors, for example, need not have fixed locations. When you walk up to them, water walls can open like the Red Sea for Moses, and then seamlessly close behind you."
The inventors say the concept of digital water is like a large scale inkjet printer: The opening and closing of valves, at high frequency, produces a curtain of falling water — a pattern of pixels created from air and water instead of illuminated points on a screen. The entire surface becomes a one-bit deep digital display that continuously scrolls downward.
All the pavilion walls are made of digital water, along with vertical partitions on the edge of the roof and inside it. The only solid element of the pavilion is the roof — a high-tech, 15-foot thick moveable structure covered by water. The roof rests on moveable pistons and moves up and down depending on wind conditions. It can also be lowered to the ground, at which point the building disappears altogether.
The building contains 3,000 digitally controlled solenoid valves, several dozen pumps, 12 hydraulic stainless steel piston and a digital control system based on open source software. The water used is fully recycled; some of it is lost because of evaporation, but it is supplemented by rainfall at the pavilion’s site.
The MIT-designed Digital Water Pavillion, featuring water walls that can be programmed to display patterns and images at the Zaragoza World Expo in Spain. (Credit: Photo / Carlos Muntadas)
Wow, water walls! What will they think of next? Well, is your job stressful? Relatives getting you down? Read on!
English psychology professor Richard Wiseman has designed and constructed a large-scale multi-media space that aims to calm even the most stressed out of minds. He constructed a room at the de Havilland campus of the University of Hertfordshire where groups of up to ten visitors at a time were invited to lie on soft matting and rest their head on lavender-scented pillows. In each fifteen minute session, people will be bathed in a calming glade-like green light, listen to a specially composed soothing soundtrack, and look at a completely clear artificial blue sky.
“The pace of modern-day life, credit crunch, and financial crisis is making many people feel very stressed and so we have created this space to help them relax”, noted Professor Wiseman.
“Research suggests that the subdued green light enhances the production of dopamine in the brain and provide a calming sensation. In addition, the artificial blue sky helps create a mild form of sensory deprivation that will help them turn their attention inward and distract them away from daily stress.”
The music was written by music professor Tim Blinko and features a solo soprano voice, chosen for the soothing properties of the human voice, a Tibetan singing bowl, used in meditation and a string ensemble.
And in case you are wondering if you’re a candidate for Professor Wiseman’s room, just answer these questions. Four or more ‘yes’ responses suggest that it might be time to take your foot off the accelerator and slow down.
1) Do you seem to glance at your watch more than others?
2) When someone takes too long to get to the point, do you feel like hurrying them along?
3) Are you often the first person to finish at mealtimes?
4) When walking along a street, do you often feel frustrated because you are stuck behind others?
5) Would you become irritable if you sit for an hour without doing anything?
6) Do you walk out of restaurants or shops if you encounter even a short queue?
7) If you are caught in slow-moving traffic, do you seem to get more annoyed than other drivers?
Since we probably won’t be able to head for Professor Wiseman’s room, here are some tips he gives to combat stress:
1) Head for the ranch. Research shows that spending around thirty minutes in green and quiet surroundings will make you feel significantly more relaxed.
2) Listen to soothing music. Listening to Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, a relaxation tape, or nature sounds lowers your blood pressure.
3) Carry out a relaxation exercise. Starting at your toes and working upwards, spend a few moments slowly tensing, and then releasing, the muscles of each part of your body.
4) Spend time with friends. Being with people you like helps distract you from anxious thoughts and lifts your mood.
5) Help others. Research shows that even carrying out a small act of kindness, such as making a donation to charity, helps improve your mood and decreases stress.
6) Accept what you can’t change. There is no point dwelling on the past, or thinking about what can’t be altered. Instead, focus on how you can create a better future.
7) Smile more. Don’t take life too seriously, and improve your ability to cope with stressful situations by seeing the funny side of whatever happens.
Use lavender. Research shows that most people find the smell of lavender especially relaxing, and that it also helps them get a good night’s sleep.
9) Hit the gym. Exercise promotes the production of endorphins, which, in turn, make you feel better about yourself and become more relaxed.
10) Look at the sky. If it is a nice day, lie on the grass, look up at a clear sky, and allow positive thoughts and images to drift through your mind.
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The World’s most relaxing room. (Credit: Image courtesy of University of Hertfordshire)
So, now that we’re all relaxed, let’s move on to some stress inducers again. You know and I know that the world is running out of oil. The gas-burning automobile will certainly be a distant memory for our adult grandchildren and possibly our adult children.
The first transition to more eco-friendly vehicles will certainly be hybrid cars. There are hybrid cars on the road today. But they do have some interesting problems. For one thing, they seem to be a little hard on pedestrians.
HONK IF YOU’RE HYBRID
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out one problem with hybrid and electric cars. They’re too quiet. They don’t make the noises pedestrians and bicyclists are used to hearing as a vehicle approaches them on the street or at an intersection. In a recent study, researchers examined people’s preferences for sounds that could be added to quiet vehicles to make them easier to detect.
Though the safety of quiet vehicles can be a problem for everyone, it’s of real concern to the National Federation for the Blind, which has called for quiet vehicles to emit a continuous sound. The authors also suggest that older individuals with diminished sensory and motor skills should be considered as solutions are developed.
The scientists evaluated the responses of 24 college-age participants to six categories of sounds that could be added to quiet vehicles: engine, horn, hum, siren, whistle, and white noise. Three variations of each type of sound were tested. Unsurprisingly, the participants rated automotive engine sounds the highest, followed by white noise and hum.
Automakers have continually worked to refine passenger vehicle power trains to be smoother and quieter but now find themselves faced with demands to make their quiet vehicles louder. Noise pollution caused by adding sounds to these vehicles could be limited by the use of a "smart" system that would change the level of emitted sound depending on the levels of noise emitted by other cars and background noise. These systems would turn themselves off if the vehicle produces adequate sound on its own.
At least one automaker, Lotus Engineering, has attempted to address the quiet hybrid issue. The company introduced "Safe and Sound," which mimics the sound of an internal combustion engine and operates when the vehicle is in electric-only mode.
The authors note that their research is also applicable to silent-engine vehicles such as electric golf carts, bicycles, wheelchairs, and Segways, which have all caused injuries in the past because of their quiet operation.
We certainly need quiet to relax, but to little noise can obviously be a bad thing!
THE STORY OF A SMELLY MOLECULE
A story surfaced last week that could be one of the most important stories of the century. It was overshadowed (and perhaps rightly so) by war and inaugurations and quickly disappeared, but for us science geeks, it caused heads to pop up and point into the wind. We were sniffing for the faint traces of methane. Why? Because methane has been discovered in the atmosphere of Mars. So, why is that news?
Methane (aka CH4) is a very simple gas with a distinctive odor that’s a common component of sewer gas (which gives you some idea that the odor probably does not recall your mind to roses). The C in the chemical formula tells you that it contains the element carbon and it is one of the ‘organic chemicals’.
Carbon loves to bind with other chemicals and methane which has only one carbon is inherently unstable. Methane gas quickly combines with almost any other compound it runs across and become something else.
Because of this rapid combing feature, free methane gas is rare or absent in any atmosphere. And here’s the really important part. As far as we know now (and that is a pretty big caveat), free methane gas can be produced by only two methods. The first is by geologic processes.
Volcanic seeps and eruptions can produce it. There are huge underground reservoirs of ‘natural gas’ on planet Earth. Natural gas consists of methane, ethane, pentane, hexane and many, many other ‘anes’ which are simply chains of carbon molecules with hydrogens stuck on. Atmospheric methane is easily detected around any sort of geologic activity.
Since the planet Mars is the proud possessor of the biggest volcano in the solar system (Olympus Mons: 13 MILES tall) it seems only logical that there would be an incredible amount of methane, sulfur, dust, rocks and all the other indications of volcanic eruptions. Not true, of course; Mars is a ‘dead’ world geologically.
We have orbiting robots around Mars just as we do around Earth. The Mars orbiters do have a unique advantage over their Earth counterparts; they can see the surface of the whole planet whilst the Earth robots can only see 30% of the land on Earth. The Mars robots haven’t seen any trace of volcanic activity. They’ve seen huge landslides and tiny dust devils and melting and thawing ice, but no volcanic activity. And active volcanoes are pretty hard to hide (except on Earth, where most of the planet’s active volcanoes are underwater).
Small gas seeps wouldn’t really be visible to the orbiting eyes and they are a possible source of the atmospheric methane that we’ve recently detected (which was detected, by the way, by telescopes located on top of Earth’s biggest volcano, the island of Hawaii). So the methane could be coming from geologic sources.
But there’s another source of atmosphere methane that’s even more intriguing. You produce methane every day of your life. It’s a common by-product of the bacterial metabolic processes that digest your food for you. Cows produce methane, your dog produces methane, it is produced in abundance by teen-aged boys who find it a great source of humor. Everything that eats produces methane as a result of that eating. Methane production, in short, is a sign of LIFE.
The methane in the atmosphere of Mars could mean, without question, that there’s some kind of life on a ‘dead and lifeless’ planet. There’s not much methane in Mars’ atmosphere, unlike Earth, where cows produce it by the metric ton. There’s not a whole lot of whatever is making it. Small gas seeps fit the bill as could subsurface bacteria that survive the intense Martian cold and thin atmosphere by living underground.
Kids who come to the Planetarium ask me all the time “Miss, is there life anywhere else in the solar system?” I used to tell them that there were only two places where life-as-we-know-it could survive. The atmosphere of Jupiter (still a viable option but there are no plans that I know of on the drawing board to go and check) and Europa, one of the moons of Jupiter. There is one other very viable candidate that I’ll talk about next; and now, I’ll be proud to add Mars.
If there is life on Mars, it’s probably not any more complicated than a bacterium, but those bacteria could tell us volumes of information about the origins of life on our own planet. Do the Martian bacteria have DNA? Are they just like our bacteria or radically different? Did Martian life take a space ride deep inside a rock blasted from the Martian surface by a meteor impact and wind up here on Earth? Are we all Martians? Science is full of surprises and all you have to do is wait for the answers.
Besides carbon, the other requirement for life-as-we-know-it is liquid water. Those underground bacteria could easily have access to water on Mars in the form of ice which their internal heat could melt or there could be liquid water below the ice, just as there is in Antarctica.
Liquid water is a comparative rarity in the solar system. There’s literally tons of water, but most of it is ice. Until very recently the only place we knew of with lots of liquid water is Earth. But those roaming robots have shown us that there are at least two other places out there that probably have more liquid water than Earth, much more.
One of them is Europa, the ice moon that circles Jupiter. When we sent robots to orbit Jupiter, we discovered that Europa wobbles as it orbits Jupiter. You can tell if an egg is hard-boiled by spinning it. A hard-boiled egg is a solid body inside and it spins just like a top. A raw egg has liquid inside it and that liquid has two different densities. A raw egg won’t spin; the liquid inside brings it to a quick halt.
The fact that Europa wobbles implies that there’s liquid inside. Since the surface of Europa is frozen water ice, the implication is that the inside of Europa is filled with liquid water with a rock core at the center. Europa probably has a liquid water ocean that’s around 20 miles deep. Europa is about the size of our moon and may contain more liquid water than the seas of Earth.
Today we can only hypothesize about the seas of Europa, but there is another moon that we know a little more about. We have a robot called Cassini in orbit around the planet Saturn and it’s discovered something very interesting about the brightest little moon in the solar system.
The moon’s name is Enceladus, and we’ve known for a long time that the surface had to be made of something very reflective. The surface of Enceladus is solidly frozen water ice and it’s as reflective as new-fallen snow. And Enceladus also wobbles as it goes around Saturn.
Then Cassini found something really interesting. There were what the team called ‘tiger stripes’ at Cassini’s south pole. A closer look during one of Cassini’s scheduled fly-bys of Enceladus revealed these ‘tiger stripes’ were huge cracks in the ice.
Then they discovered something REALLY interesting. Liquid water was erupting from these cracks. We don’t have to infer from the wobble that Enceladus contains liquid water, we KNOW it does.
According to a recent press release from the Cassini team:
New carefully targeted pictures reveal exquisite details in the prominent south polar "tiger stripe" fractures from which the jets emanate. The images show the fractures are about 300 meters (980 feet) deep, with V-shaped inner walls. The outer flanks of some of the fractures show extensive deposits of fine material. Finely fractured terrain littered with blocks of ice tens of meters in size and larger (the size of small houses) surround the fractures.
One highly anticipated result of this flyby was finding the location within the fractures from which the jets blast icy particles, water vapor and trace organics into space. Scientists are now studying the nature and intensity of this process on Enceladus, and its effects on surrounding terr
Did you notice something very interesting in that second paragraph? If you’re a science geek like me, one phrase stands out like it was in boldface type and red letters. The phrase is “trace organics”.
As a scientist said who studies the moon Europa: “Do you really think you can have a liquid water ocean for five billion years and NOT have life in it?”
Are we alone? More and more evidence is giving us the answer “Probably not!”
The ‘tiger stripes’ on Saturn’s ice moon Enceladus. (Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute)
I thought I’d cover some medical topics today since that folder is beginning to bulge. There’s new statistics out that predict that soon cancer will become the number one killer so we’ll start with two articles that could be very important to you.
Researchers have recently discovered that a commonly used chemotherapy drug causes healthy brain cells to die off long after treatment has ended and may be one of the underlying causes of "chemobrain" a condition that many cancer patients experience. Chemobrain can cause patients to lose cognitive skills.
Researchers from the University of Rochester Medical Center (URMC) and Harvard Medical School have linked the widely used chemotherapy drug 5-fluorouracil (5-FU) to a progressing collapse of populations of stem cells and their progeny in the central nervous system. The drug apparently causes global disruption of the myelin-forming cells that are essential for normal neuronal function. The researchers say they are now beginning to understand and define the molecular mechanisms behind the cognitive difficulties that linger and worsen in a significant number of cancer patients.
Cancer patients have long complained of chemotherapy side effects like short-term memory loss and, in extreme cases, seizures, vision loss, and even dementia. Until very recently, these side effects were often dismissed as the byproduct of fatigue, depression, and anxiety related to cancer diagnosis and treatment. Now a growing body of evidence has documented the scope of these conditions, collectively referred to as chemobrain.
Virtually all cancer survivors experience short-term memory loss and difficulty concentrating during and shortly after treatment. A study two years ago by researchers with the James P. Wilmot Cancer Center at the University of Rochester showed that upwards of 82% of breast cancer patients reported that they suffer from some form of cognitive impairment.
While these effects tend to wear off over time, some patients, particularly those who have high doses of chemotherapy drugs, continue to experience the cognitive side effects long after treatment has stopped and the drugs are no longer in their systems. For example, a recent study estimates that somewhere between 15 and 20 percent of the nation’s 2.4 million female breast cancer survivors have lingering cognitive problems years after treatment. Another study showed that 50 percent of women had not recovered their previous level of cognitive function one year after treatment.
Two years ago, researchers showed that three common chemotherapy drugs used to treat a wide range of cancers were more toxic to healthy brain cells than the cancer cells they were intended to treat. While these experiments were among the first to establish a biological basis for the acute onset of chemo brain, they did not explain the lingering impact that many patients experience.
In the current research, scientists exposed both individual cell populations and mice to doses of 5-fluorouracil (5-FU) in amounts comparable to those used in cancer patients. 5-FU belongs to a class of drugs called antimetabolites that block cell division. Antimetabolites have been used in cancer treatment for more than 40 years. These drugs are often administered in a "cocktail" with other chemotherapy drugs, and they are currently used to treat breast, ovarian, stomach, colon, pancreatic and other forms of cancer.
The researchers discovered that months after exposure, specific kinds of nerve cells called oligodendrocytes were so damaged that after 6 months the cells had all but disappeared in the mice.
Oligodendrocytes play an important role in the central nervous system and are responsible for producing myelin, the fatty substance that, like insulation on electrical wires, coats nerve cells and enables signals between cells to be transmitted rapidly and efficiently. The myelin membranes are constantly being turned over, and without a healthy population of oligodendrocytes, the membranes can’t be renewed and eventually break down, resulting in a disruption of normal impulse transmission between nerve cells.
The scientists point out that not all cancer patients experience these cognitive difficulties, and determining why some patients are more vulnerable may be an important step in developing new ways to prevent these side effects. We may be working to prevent the side effects, but is there help for those who suffer from the ravages of chemotherapy now?
Cancer patients have complained for years about the mental fog known as chemobrain. Now in animal studies at West Virginia University (WVU), researchers have discovered that injections of N-acetyl cysteine (NAC), an antioxidant, can prevent the memory loss that breast cancer chemotherapy drugs sometimes induce. NAC is a modified form of the dietary amino acid cysteine.
In the WVU researchers’ study, rats were given the commonly used chemotherapy drugs adriamycin and cyclophosphamide. When on the drugs, rats that were trained to prefer a light room to a dark room forgot their training.
“When animals are treated with chemotherapy drugs, they lose memory,” said Gregory Konat, Ph.D., professor of neurobiology and anatomy at WVU. “When we add NAC during treatment, they don’t lose memory.”
Jame Abraham, M.D., director of the Comprehensive Breast Cancer Program at WVU’s Mary Babb Randolph Cancer Center, said as “chemobrain” entered the national lexicon, many patients expressed frustration about doctors not taking the complaints seriously.
“In the past, there was a lot of ignorance among doctors about chemo-induced cognitive problems,” Dr. Abraham said. “In some patients, problems can persist for up to two years.”
The WVU authors say as many as 40 percent of cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy complain of symptoms such as severe memory loss and attention deficits. Previously, scientists suspected the cancer, rather than chemo drugs, might be the cause.
Earlier this year, Dr. Abraham’s team of researchers used MRI scans to document the extent of changes to the brain in women who received chemotherapy for breast cancer. Now the connection between drugs and memory loss is clear, and a potential remedy is suggested as well.
“At this point, we have no evidence to say that NAC is safe in patients who are getting chemotherapy,” Abraham said. “We need more studies to confirm the role of NAC in patients.”
Of course, there’s no mention of 5 FU (an appropriate acronym if I ever saw one!) in the previous article. Clearly, many cancer patients are literally being given a choice of dying smart or living stupid. Here’s hoping that the research that makes the cure better than the disease is carried out as fast as the research on the disease!
Cancer isn’t the only disease facing us here in the Marianas. Because we have such a high percentage of smokers, all the ills wrought by that particular addiction are taking a heavy toll on our populations. But a new study shows that something that also isn’t very common here may be the very thing to prevent some of those tobacco-induced diseases.
COPING WITH COPD
Although most of us have heard of lung cancer, there’s yet another acronym that represents a disease many of us are unfamiliar with. The acronym is COPD and it stands for Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease. It may not be very well known, but it stands a really good chance of killing you, especially if you’re a heavy smoker. COPD is the fourth-leading cause of death in the U.S. and affects more than 16 million Americans.
Recent research from Johns Hopkins Medical School, shows that a class of antioxidants (called NRFP) are key components of the lung’s defense system against inflammato
ry injury. A deficit in these antioxidants is linked to the severity of COPD in smokers.
In this study, researchers examined tissue samples from the lungs of smokers with and without COPD to determine if there were differences in the measured levels of these antioxidants. Previous research had revealed that if the antioxidant wasn’t able to work, mice exposed to cigarette smoke developed severe emphysema. The researchers found that the lungs from patients with COPD had significantly less antioxidants than the lungs from patients without COPD
So how do you get significant amounts of this antioxidant? Well, you’ll be thrilled to death about one method and probably not so happy with the other. No, it doesn’t involve expense drugs or time consuming treatments. To elevate your body’s level of NRFP, you just need to eat your veggies. Specifically, your broccoli, because broccoli contains a compound called sulforapane that prevents the degradation of NFRP.
So . . . your mom never made you eat your veggies and you hate broccoli? Sulforapane is also found in something you eat a lot more of. Wasabi. However, since that sashimi may contain high levels of mercury, you might want to learn to love your vegetables after all.
Fighting cancer, fighting chemobrain, fighting lung disease.
Welcome to The Deep science and technology column where we cover topics from the deep sea to deep space and beyond. Visit our website at www.thedeepradioshow.com
As many of you know, in addition to writing The Deep column I’m also the Star Lady. And in my capacity as Planetarium Director, I’d like to invite you to the UOG Planetarium this Thursday, Friday or Saturday for the Planetarium show “Winter Skies” which tells you all about the things you can find in Guam’s lovely dry-season skies. The doors open at 6:00 p.m. and the show starts at 6:30 p.m.
After “Winter Skies” we’ll have “Quality Time with the Star Lady” where I answer your space-related questions until it gets dark enough that we can go outside and try to find some the sky objects in the real sky (I call it “The BIG Planetarium!). So join us this weekend for “Winter Skies” and remember the show is FREE!
As we all struggle to get back into the daily grind after the holidays, I thought I’d share some news items about Mother Earth: specifically about her geology.
One of the things you learn when you study space and the Earth is that while we humans live our lives in minutes, days and years, the average human life span is not even a blink of the eye in recorded time (see my article Time Is (As) Money.) When I talk about a ‘recent event’, I’m probably talking about last year or perhaps something that happened in the 1990’s. When a geologist talks about something that happened recently, the event could have occurred a hundred thousand year ago.
Last week, I talked about a research team that was examining the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. The first cores drilled there pointed the way to one of the most dramatic discoveries of the 20th century. The Mid-Atlantic Ridge is a long chain of volcanoes that are constantly active. The molten rock flows down the mountainside and eventually hardens. This astounding flow is pushing the Americas away from Europe and Africa and eventually, the Atlantic will be wider than the Pacific.
Earth has a large magnetic field, which is generated by a big core of molten iron at the Earth’s center. When the scientists examined their cores from the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, they discovered something really interesting. The rocks contained iron, just as they expected, but some of the magnetized rock didn’t point north; it pointed south. When they mapped the pole reversals with their distance from the spreading center (the active volcanoes) they constructed a map of pole reversals frozen in the rock layers.
Earth’s poles have ‘flipped’ at least 400 times over the last 180 million years. The time intervals between the ‘flips’ vary wildly from 50,000 years to 40 million years. The ‘average’ interval is about 500,000 years.
The most recent reversal occurred about 780,000 years ago. This is longer than ‘average’ (but nowhere near 40 million years) and scientists have found some clues that we may indeed be at the beginning of another pole reversal.
Scientists have recently discovered a shallow core field in the Earth’s magnetism. They believe the shallow core field may play a role in determining whether the main field polarity flips while weakened or whether it recovers its strength without reversing. Current evidence suggests we are now approaching one of these transitional states because the main magnetic field is relatively weak and rapidly decreasing, he says. While the last polarity reversal occurred several hundred thousand years ago, the next might come within only a few thousand years.
Right now, historic records show that the strength of the magnetic field is declining very rapidly. Anomalous magnetic ‘poles’ have formed in widely separated spots from Brazil to Siberia. We all know that a compass doesn’t point to due north, it points to ‘magnetic north’. And the pole wanders. In the 1700’s, it was in southern Canada. It’s now in northern Canada and is drifting towards Siberia at an accelerating rate. The pole was moving about 6 miles per year at the beginning of the 20th century, but the drift rate was 25 miles a year in 2003. It is also unknown if the drift will continue to accelerate.
The researchers say that if current trends continue, in 1,500 years Earth’s magnetic field will be as weak as it’s ever been and the poles will probably reverse. We certainly won’t see reversal, and neither will our grandchildren. Fifteen hundred years is a very long time for humans, but the blink of an eye for geologic history.
FINDING THE HOT SPOTS
Of course, the Mid-Atlantic Ridge isn’t the only spot for undersea volcanoes. There are other ‘hot spots’ where a plume erupts from the mantle and causes a chain of volcanoes as the sea floor drifts above it. The most famous example of this is the Hawaiian Islands. The island chain extends over thousands of miles including eroded seamounts that are below the surface of the water. The Hawaiian chain even records a right angle turn in the spreading direction millions of years ago. But Hawaii isn’t the only island chain created by a hot spot. New research shows that the Samoan Islands were created in the same way.
A new study that determines Samoa is indeed on the path of a geologic “hotspot” trail is adding fuel to a vigorous scientific debate over the origins of volcano chains – especially in the Pacific Ocean. Some scientist think they are created by hot spots, others advocate the idea that the world’s 50,000 seamounts – most of which have never been explored – may have been formed due to plate tectonic forces that locally have put the Pacific plate under stress and extension. Oregon State University marine geologist Anthony Koppers says there’s room for both theories.
“There are areas, including Samoa, where a clear linear age progression of the islands or seamounts indicates a hotspot trail, and there are areas where alternative theories make more sense,” Koppers said. “The whole debate underscores the need for more research, because these are fundamental questions about the processes that formed, and continue to form, the Earth’s crust.”
Samoa has been an enigma among scientists because the ages determined from sampled lava don’t seem to line up in a linear fashion with the movement of plates. Some scientists took that to indicate that the creation of the islands was related to magma seeping up through cracks in the seafloor in stressed fracture zones.
In their study, funded by the National Science Foundation, Koppers’ team found that previous age determination studies of the Samoan islands focused on land that had risen above sea level and was much “younger” geologically than older rocks at the base of the seamounts.
Samoa is close to the Tonga Trench, Koppers said, where the Pacific plate submerges beneath another tectonic plate and bends sharply. “The resulting stress on the plate complicates the volcanic processes,” he said.
“As we get better data sets, we’ll gain a clearer understanding of the processes that are shaping the planet,” Koppers said. “Until those models are refined, we’ll have to collect data and evaluate each seamount trail on a case-by-case basis.”
A narrow strait (just left of center) separates the two triangle-shaped islands of Ofu (left) and Olosega (right) in eastern Samoa. The islands are formed by two eroded, coalescing basaltic shield volcanoes. (Credit: Peter Craig, 1995 / U.S. National Park Service)
HE BIG ONE
One thing that can happen when undersea volcanoes erupt is a tsunami. We all remember the incredible devastation all along the Indian Ocean coastline only four years ago. A line of massive boulders on the western shore of the island of Tonga may be evidence of a volcano-triggered tsunami that makes the Boxing Day tsunami look puny. These seven coral boulders are up to 30 feet high and weigh up to 3.5 million pounds and they’re located 300 to 1,300 feet from the coast. The house-sized boulders were likely flung ashore by a wave rivaling the tsunami generated by the 1883 eruption of Krakatoa in Indonesia, which is estimated to have been 115 feet high.
These giant coral rocks did not form at their present location on Tongatapu, Tonga’s main island. Because the island is flat, the boulders could not have rolled downhill from elsewhere. The boulders are made of the same reef material found just offshore, which is quite distinct from the island’s volcanic soil. In fact, satellite photos show a clear break in the reef opposite one of the biggest boulders. And some of the boulders’ coral animals are oriented upside down or sideways instead of toward the sun, as they are on the reef.
The boulders are such an unusual part of the Tongan landscape that tales of their origins appear in local folklore. According to one legend, the god Maui hurled the boulders ashore in an attempt to kill a giant man-eating fowl.
Of course, we’re luck here on Guam. A tsunami is an ocean-deep wave that must enter shallow water to have the run-up necessary to cause massive on-shore destruction. If you’ve ever looked at a topographic map of the water around Guam, you’ll realize that there is NO shallow water to act as a run-up for a tsunami. We have lots of things to worry about here, but tsunamis aren’t one of them.
Cruise on over to the Deep Website at www.thedeepradioshow.com to learn more about tsunamis on Guam and many other topics. Enjoy!
Jim is, above all, a passionate eco-humanitarian who has developed his own science talk-radio show to inform The DEEP’s listeners about such newsy topics as global warming, shark-finning and reef protection as well as to explore earth’s many underwater and space mysteries.
sailing 12,000 miles and visiting five countries Jim is back here, ready to explore the depths of the ocean to the deepest frontier, space MORE>>
Lady Pam Eastlick is an expert in both the stars
and seas as a graduate of the University of Guam Marine
Lab and the Director of the UOG Planetarium.