Welcome to The Deep science and technology column where we cover topics from the deep sea to deep space and beyond.
Greetings! Well, this week the technology file is bulging, so hang on for a jaunt into the wonderful worlds of music and building construction. And if that’s not a wonderful juxtaposition, I don’t know what is!
A Violin Sweetly Singing
Everyone knows the name Stradivarius, but everyone may not realize why that name is famous. Antonio Stradivari was, quite simply, the maker of the best violins in the world. And this is still true even though he lived in the 1600’s.
Musicians and scientists have tried for centuries to discover what gives a Stradivarius violin its astoundingly beautiful sound. Some new research has been done that may not only explain it, but give some insights on how to reproduce it.
Joseph Nagyvary, a professor emeritus of biochemistry at Texas A&M University, has been working to solve the Stradivarius mystery for 34 years and he is confident he has succeeded. Dr. Nagyvary first theorized in 1976 that chemicals used on the instruments, not just the wood and the construction, are responsible for the distinctive sound of these violins.
His controversial theory has now received definitive experimental support through collaboration with Renald Guillemette, director of the electron microprobe laboratory in the Department of Geology and Geophysics, and Clifford Spiegelman, professor of statistics, both Texas A&M faculty members.
Dr. Nagyvary assumed that the wood Stradivari used was aggressively treated with chemicals and the chemicals were what created the sound. He got very small wood samples from restorers working on Stradivarius violins (“no easy trick and it took a lot of begging to get them,” he adds). The results of the preliminary analysis, suggested that the wood was treated with unidentified chemicals. In the present study, the researchers burned the wood slivers to ash, the only way to obtain accurate readings for the chemical elements they contained.
They found numerous chemicals in the wood, among them borax, fluorides, chromium and iron salts. The presence of these chemicals points to a collaboration between the violinmakers and the druggists of the time. Stradivari would have treated the wood with chemicals to keep worms from eating his precious violins.
Antonio Stradivari (1644–1737) made about 1,200 violins in his lifetime and sold them only to the very rich, primarily the royalty. Today, there are about 600 Stradivarius violins remaining and they are valued at up to $5 million each.
Dr. Nagyvary, a native of Hungary who learned to play the violin by using an instrument that once belonged to Albert Einstein, has wondered for decades how Stradivari, with his rudimentary education and no scientific training, could have produced musical instruments with such an unequaled sound. He believes the current findings will be of great interest to art historians and musical instrument makers around the world and could change the process of how fine violins are made.
What makes a Stradivarius’ violin sound different from other violins? (Credit: iStockphoto/José Carlos Pires Pereira)
But there are other theories about the cause of the beautiful sound of the instruments created by the old masters. Read on.
There was a music contest last year that none of us heard about. And it occurred at a conference on forest husbandry, (science talk for “How to Manage Your Trees”). Not a noted venue for a music contest.
A gentleman named Francis Schwarze who is a researcher for the Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Testing and Research played his ‘biotech violin’ in a head to head contest with a Stradivarius and he won!
1 September 2009 was the day of reckoning for Schwarze and Swiss violin maker Michael Rhonheimer. The violin they created used wood treated with a specially selected fungus and they played it in a blind test against a violin made in 1711 by the master violinmaker Antonio Stradivari.
In the test, the British violinist Matthew Trusler played five different instruments behind a curtain, so the audience didn’t know which one was being played. One of the violins Trusler played was his own Stradivarius, worth two million dollars. The other four were all made by Rhonheimer. The wood of two of them was treated with the fungus and the other two were made of untreated wood.
A jury of experts, together with the conference participants, judged the tone quality of the violins. The top vote getter was ‘Opus 58’ one of the treated violins. Trusler’s Stradivarius was rated second, but most of the people who voted for ‘Opus 58’ thought it was the Stradivarius. Opus 58 had been treated with fungus for the longest time, nine months.
Judging the tone quality of a musical instrument in a blind test is, of course, an extremely subjective matter, since it is a question of pleasing the human senses. Since the beginning of the 19th century violins made by Stradivari have been compared to instruments made by others in blind tests, including one organized by the BBC in 1974. In that test, the world famous violinists Isaac Stern and Pinchas Zukerman and the English violin dealer Charles Beare were challenged to distinguish a Stradivarius made in 1725, two other instruments made in 1739 and 1846 and a modern instrument made by the English master violin maker Roland Praill. The result was rather sobering – none of the experts could correctly identify more than two of the four instruments, and in fact two of the jurors thought that the modern instrument was actually the Stradivarius.
Many experts feel the success of the “fungus violin” in the current contest represents a revolution in the field of classical music because talented young musicians will be able to afford a violin with the same tonal quality as an impossibly expensive Stradivarius. Fungal growth changes the cell structure of the wood, reducing its density and simultaneously increasing its homogeneity. The experts believe that a violin made of wood treated with the fungus has a warmer, more rounded sound.
The five instruments played during the test. Visually, there is very little difference between them.
Chemicals or fungus? It makes a difference in the world of music! And now we’ll turn our attention to more mundane things. Building construction! And our first consideration is a building material we’re all familiar with. Cement!
Cementing it all together
In the 2,000 or so years since the Roman Empire employed a naturally occurring form of cement to build a vast system of concrete aqueducts and other big building projects (think Coliseum), researchers have analyzed the molecular structure of natural materials and created entirely new building materials like steel, which has a well-documented crystalline structure at the atomic scale.
Oddly enough, the molecular structure of
cement hydrate — the paste that forms and quickly hardens when cement powder is mixed with water — has eluded all attempts at decoding, despite the fact that concrete is the most prevalent man-made material on earth and the focus of a multibillion-dollar industry.
Scientists long believed that at the atomic level, cement (or calcium-silica-hydrate) resembled the rare mineral tobermorite, which has an ordered geometry consisting of layers of infinitely long chains of three-armed silica molecules (called silica tetrahedra) interspersed with neat layers of calcium oxide.
But a research team from MIT has discovered that the calcium-silica-hydrate in cement isn’t really a crystal. It’s a hybrid that shares some characteristics with crystals and some with the amorphous structure of frozen liquids, like glass or ice.
At the atomic scale, tobermorite has horizontal layers of triangles interspersed with layers of stripes. But a two-dimensional look at cement hydrate shows layers of triangles with every third, sixth or ninth triangle turned up or down along the horizontal axis and reaching into the layer of calcium oxide above or below.
And it is in these messy areas – where breaks in the silica tetrahedra create small voids in the corresponding layers of calcium oxide – that water molecules attach, giving cement its robust quality. The flaws in the otherwise regular geometric structure provide some give to the building material at the atomic scale that transfers up to the macro scale. When under stress, cement has the flexibility to stretch or compress just a little, rather than snapping.
And since most of our houses here in the Marianas are built with cement and concrete, it’s a very good thing, given all our earthquakes that it has that little bit of flexibility!
Concrete being poured from a cement truck chute on a new sidewalk construction project. (Credit: iStockphoto/Mike Clarke)
And now a little story about a pig. Specifically one of the three little pigs, the last one. You remember, the one that made his house not of cement but straw . . . .
I’ll Huff and I’ll Puff and . . . . .
The cement industry is a major Earth pollutant. The manufacture of cement is responsible for about 5 percent of all carbon dioxide emissions worldwide, and new emission standards proposed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency could push the cement industry to the developing world.
Researchers are trying to come up with a way to reduce that carbon footprint and scientists at the University of Bath in England have made a house that could do that. It’s made of straw.
Well, it’s actually made of pre-fabricated straw-bale and hemp panels and strangely enough, has fire resistance as good as houses built of conventional building materials.
The scientists tested one of the pre-fabricated panels, for fire safety by exposing it to temperatures over 1000°C. To reach the required standard the panel had to withstand the heat for more than 30 minutes. Over two hours later — four times as long as required — the panel had still not failed.
The straw house will be monitored for a year to assess its insulating properties, humidity levels, air tightness and sound insulation qualities to assess the performance of straw and hemp as building materials.
Straw is a very good insulator and the house has reduced heating bills of up to 85% compared to a house of similar size made from conventional materials. In addition, straw is an ideal environmentally-friendly building material because it is renewable and is a by-product of existing farming production. Because the plant that becomes straw absorbs carbon dioxide as it grows, buildings made from it have a very low carbon footprint.
A house made of straw? One wonders how it would stand up to the ‘huff and puff’ of a typhoon.
BaleHaus at Bath is constructed from straw bale prefabricated panels and has a very low carbon footprint. (Credit: Image by Modcell — www.modcell.co.uk)
Welcome to The Deep science and technology column where we cover topics from the deep sea to deep space and beyond.
Water. When you live on an island, you’re surrounded by it and you tend to take it for granted. But there have been years when more people drowned than died in car wrecks here on Guam and I have always maintained that all beaches should have signs posted on them that say, “Mama Ocean does not forgive.”
We all must have water, we’re walking bags of the stuff and water has long been THE limiting factor of space exploration. It has for years cost about $10,000 a pound to put anything in low Earth orbit (LEO). You can quickly figure how much it would cost to put you in orbit.
But the figures quoted by the Russians to put tourists into LEO are in the multiple millions. Why? Because you have to eat in space, and most importantly you must drink and water weighs eight pounds a gallon. Every human on Earth consumes roughly five gallons of water every day. No, you don’t drink that much, but you water your lawn, eat meat from animals that drank water, eat fruits and vegetables that had to have water to grow and you go to the bathroom.
Although the bathrooms in space are different, space exploration and most importantly colonization, requires those five gallons of water every single day for every single person on the trip. Let’s see, that’s $80,000 for every gallon of water boosted into space and $400,000 for one day’s water ration for everybody involved. No wonder the Russians want all that money!!
That’s why the new water reclamation system on the International Space Station is so important and why scientists have been SO interested in trying to locate water on the Moon. If you can find water where you’re going, you don’t have to take so much with you.
As I’ve mentioned before, the Moon has a very harsh environment. It gets up to +250 degrees in the daytime and to –250 degrees at night. If you make your colonies underground, the average temperature is zero, which helps things out as far as easily making an Earth-normal environment, but doesn’t help you at all with the water requirements.
Now most people think that the Earth is the only place in the solar system with water, but that’s not true. Water is made from two elements, oxygen and hydrogen. Oxygen is fairly common in the solar system although its state as a free gas is found only on Earth because oxygen combines with almost everything and free oxygen has to be continually generated.
Hydrogen is THE most common element in the universe, not just the solar system. Probably somewhere between 98 and 99 percent of ALL the atoms in the universe are hydrogen which should give you some idea of how rare the rest of the elements truly are.
Water, it turns out is very common in our solar system, but virtually all water exists in the form of ice. And not just ice-as-we-know-it. Water is a very malleable molecule and there are at least 15 forms of solid water; some of them are not ice at all, but what we would call rocks. Earth is one of the few places in the solar system (but not the only one) that has the right temperatures to support lots of liquid water.
The Moon has no atmosphere and that 500-degree temperature range mentioned earlier virtually guarantees that when the Sun shines on the lunar surface, the +250 degree heat boils all the water off into space. The Moon is as dry as . . . well, anywhere where there is NO water. And despite the old ‘dark side of the Moon’ legend, the Sun does shine everywhere on the Moon. Well, almost everywhere.
The Moon rotates virtually straight up and that means that the area around both poles would be strange worlds indeed. The Earth rotates tilted and that means that the north pole gets sunlight half the year and darkness half the year. Ditto the south pole.
If you’re a billiard ball and you spin straight up and down, you’d see the Sun endlessly circle your horizon at each pole; but the Moon is not a billiard ball. It’s a big hunk of rock that’s been battered by other rocks for 4 or 5 billion years. One of the largest craters in the solar system is located at the Moon’s south pole.
Hmmmm . . . . big deep hole . . . that would be a place where literally, the Sun don’t shine. And if the Sun never shines there and that big deep hole happened to be made by a comet (read ‘great big iceberg’) then at the bottom of that hole, there could be . . . . water ice.
And it’s apparently true. Three different spacecraft have independently confirmed the presence of water on the Moon. Not only is there water at the poles, there are hydroxyl ions over the entire surface. Scientist still don’t know how those survive the heat of the Sun, but ice on the Moon means that you don’t have to take all your water with you at $400,000 per human per day. Even recycling can’t keep the cost down that much. Water on the Moon makes lunar colonization possible.
But what about beyond? You have to take your water with you when you go to the Moon, but the trip would last, at most two days. If you want to explore further; say travel to Mars, you’re looking at a six-month journey minimum. Go ahead; figure out how much that costs at $400,000 per human per day. Of course, recycling would be the norm, and we know how to do it, but what happens once you get to Mars and want to settle there?
I’ve always been amused by the frequent stories about how we’ve recently discovered that there’s WATER on Mars. We’ve known there’s water on Mars since at least the mid-1800’s. Mars has ice caps, and the one at the north pole is made mostly of water ice. The one at the south pole is made mostly of frozen carbon dioxide or dry ice which should make you readers with experience with dry ice realize just how cold it is on Mars.
But as near as we could tell, water on Mars was basically confined to the polar regions which severely limits the location of your colony. Mars does spin tilted and has definite seasons. Living near the north pole so you could harvest the water introduces a whole new world of risks.
But we know more about the surface of Mars than we do about the surface of the Earth because we’ve put several increasingly sophisticated satellites in orbit around the Red Planet. (And why do we know more about Mars than Earth? Most of the land on Earth is covered by that liquid water stuff and orbiting satellites can’t see it!)
These satellites have been orbiting Mars for years and comparing current data with the old pictures has revealed some interesting things. In a report in the journal Science, NASA says that its Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has spotted ice in the bottom of five new Martian craters that were made by meteor impacts. And these craters aren’t at the poles; they’re in the middle latitudes. And they’re small and shallow, which means the water isn’t very deep below the surface.
Above: A fresh crater on Mars photographed on Oct. 18, 2008, and again on Jan. 14, 2009, by Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter’s HiRISE camera. The crater is about 15 feet wide and 4 feet deep.
So far, the MRO camera team has found bright ice exposed at five Martian sites with new craters that one and half to eight feet deep. None of the craters existed in earlier images of the same sites. The bright patches of exposed ice darkened within weeks as the ice vaporized into the thin Martian atmosphere.
Right: The patch of ice exposed at this late-2008 crater was large enough for the orbiter’s spectrometers to take readings and confirm that it is water.
An image taken by the MRO on 10 August 2008, showed a new crater that appeared after an image of the same ground was taken 67 days earlier. The opportunity to study such a fresh impact site prompted a look by the orbiter’s higher resolution camera on 12 September 2009, confirming a cluster of small craters.
The bright material at that site didn’t cover enough area for the MRO’s spectrometer to determine what it was made from. But the team quickly discovered another crater with a much larger area of bright material.
Above: This map shows five locations where fresh impact craters have excavated water ice from just beneath the surface of Mars (sites 1 through 5) and the Viking Lander 2 landing site (VL2), in the context of color coding to indicate estimated depth to ice.
The ice exposed by these fresh impacts suggests that NASA’s Viking Lander 2, digging into mid-latitude Mars in 1976, might have struck ice if it had dug only 4 inches deeper. The Viking 2 mission, which consisted of an orbiter and a lander, was launched in September 1975 and became one of the first two space probes to land successfully on the Martian surface. The Viking 1 and 2 landers also conducted on-the-spot biological tests for life on another planet. The results of some of those tests have never been adequately explained.
What if the Viking 2 arm had dug that extra four inches and revealed unmistakable evidence that there is life on Mars? Would we be there already? Probably. But we’ll get there eventually, and water, water everywhere will certainly help us make the trip!
Welcome to The Deep science and technology column where we cover topics from the deep sea to deep space and beyond.
We truly live in a miraculous age so I thought a little trip through the technology files might be in order. There’ve been many articles about how the Internet is changing the face of scientific research because it makes sharing ideas and processes so much easier. But there are other technologies that are also having an impact on basic research as outlined in this first tale of science.
SMILE FOR THE CAMERA
When I was doing research for my master’s degree, I remember spending most of a short trip through Hawaii in the university library madly copying resources that weren’t available here on Guam. It took a chunk out of my limited budget and there were things that I wanted to buy in Hawaii that I had to forego because they would have put me over my weight limit. Paper is heavy, you know.
I did my research a little too early, it seems because Christopher Gennari, an Assistant Professor of History at Camden County College in Blackwood, New Jersey devised a marvelous scheme to avoid my dilemma. Read on.
Mr. Gennari was doing research on Swedish military history and the reign of the Swedish king Charles X who lived in the seventeenth century. He decided to visit the Riksarkivet in Stockholm, Sweden.
"As a US university student I was constrained by factors of time, space, income and, unexpectedly, source material," Gennari says, "I only had the income and free time to support living in Sweden for about a month. Travel space restrictions on transatlantic flights limited my ability to perform massive photocopying; the sheer bulk weight (not to mention cost) of hundreds of photocopied pages made for a daunting endeavor." (Hmmm. Sounds familiar!) With this in mind, he planned to make very specific use of the Riksarkivet materials, reading only highly relevant letters and documents in the archives.
Unfortunately, Mr. Gennari ran into an unexpected obstacle. The manuscripts were incredibly difficult to read. "The 17th century handwriting was difficult to read, it was narrow, close together, and in many cases nearly the entire page is filled with script making it difficult to know where a sentence finished or began." The curators in Stockholm offered Gennari a magnifying glass and a handwriting decoder photocopy and wished him luck.
"Suddenly, in leafing through a series of folios," he says, "I realized why very few Swedes and not a single English language historian had done large scale, archival level work on the reign of Charles X."
He couldn’t easily read the documents for the key words he was searching for, he only had a month in the country and he could see his research plans crumbling before his eyes. And photocopying the vast numbers of documents was out of the question both because of the cost and the weight. But Mr. Gennari had brought one personal piece of equipment with him that turned out to be the key to the whole affair. He had his digital camera.
An off-hand remark to one of the staff at the Riksarkivet revealed that they not only allowed non-flash photography of their collections, but they even had a camera stand setup for the occasional photographing of maps and images that could not be photocopied.
So, Mr. Gennari set about photographing 2,500 documents, producing some 25,000 images in total, which would have been the equivalent of $15,000 worth of photocopying. If he’d used a film camera, almost 700 rolls of film (about $4,000) would have been required with the attendant costs of converting those to photo CDs adding $30,000 to the total costs.
However, with the images safely stored on a handful of recordable DVDs Gennari was able to import the whole collection into Google’s free Picasa image library software for cataloguing and study on his return to the US.
"Digital photography and computer technology allowed me to capture, transport, and manipulate a previously inconceivable amount of document at a tremendous cost saving," he says, "Additionally, my need for frequent return trips and long, expensive, stays in a foreign country to continue my research has been eliminated. I have a lifetime worth of research documents at my fingers whenever I wish to conduct the research; 24 hours a day, 365 days a year."
"Digital photography allows for the collection of large amounts of archival documents in a short period of time," explains Mr. Gennari. But the intrepid researcher does have one very important piece of advice for all those who would follow in his footsteps: Take several sets of spare rechargeable batteries for your camera!
There’s no question, that the digital revolution is changing the language. Twitter used to be something birds did, Spam was something we all eat, and google referred exclusively to eyes (as in googly-eyes)! And the term ‘cement overcoat’ had a very specific meaning that conjures up visions of swarthy men dressed in fedoras, pinstriped suits and machine guns. Now thanks to researchers in England ‘cement overcoat’ may develop quite a different meaning.
NOT ‘SWIMMING WITH THE FISHES’
Engineers at the University of Leeds are working on a new type of body armor made from cement. The new vests combine super-strong cement with recycled carbon fiber to make a material tough enough to withstand most bullets.
The chief researcher says that using cement instead of aluminum will significantly reduce the costs of body armor production. At least for people like security guards, reporters and aid workers who are worried about the odd pot shot being taken at them.
He says that much of the body armor sold today is over-engineered for the threats faced by the people who wear it. The cement-based armor would not only create a whole new market but it would also reduce the demand for the high-end armor so that people like soldiers, who really need it, can get it.
Currently available advanced body armor is made from alumina plates – the raw material used to make aluminum – which is heated to 1600 degrees Celsius for up to two weeks in a process called ‘sintering’ in order to make them ultra hard.
Soldiers serving in Iraq and Afghanistan have faced shortages of enhanced combat body armor (ECBA) as production has struggled to keep up with soaring global demand.
Cement vests are just one of a range of novel uses for the 2000 year old material that the researchers are investigating in a three year project called ‘Cementing the Future’. Other ideas include cement based pump-less fridges, a new type of catalytic converter, and improved bone replacements.
Dr Philip Purnell with recycled carbon fibre. (Credit: Image courtesy of University of Leeds)
Does give a whole new meaning to ‘cement overcoat’, doesn’t it?
There’s also news about the other material mentioned in the last item. It’s no secret that I’m a Trekkie who’s been out of the closet for a long time. Although this particular form of entertainment may have passed you by, there’s no question that Star Trek, both the TV series in its multiple manifestations and the movies have had a great impact on the general public.
Star Trek has also had a great impact on science. It seems that if you grow up believing that something is possible, in later life, you work to make it possible. Dr. McCoy’s medical tricorder already has working prototypes and though we’re
still a long way from the transporter and warp drive, the science of Star Trek is a very real and viable thing.
One of the iconic materials casually mentioned by Mr. Scott in the movie Star Trek IV was ‘transparent aluminum’. He was quite surprised that it hadn’t been invented yet. Well, perhaps at the time the movie was released it hadn’t been, but read on.
ONE STEP CLOSER
Scientists at the University of Oxford in England have created a transparent form of aluminum by bombarding the metal with the world’s most powerful soft X-ray laser. ‘Transparent aluminum’ previously only existed in science fiction but the real material is an exotic new state of matter with implications for planetary science and nuclear fusion.
New states of matter don’t come along every day. Traditionally there are four: the three you’re familiar with; solid, liquid and gas and plasma, the most abundant state of matter in the universe because that’s what stars are made from.
The Oxford researchers report that a short pulse from the x-ray laser removed a core electron from every aluminum atom in a sample without disrupting the metal’s crystalline structure. This turned the aluminum nearly invisible to extreme ultraviolet radiation.
”What we have created is a completely new state of matter nobody has seen before,’ said Professor Justin Wark of Oxford University’s Department of Physics, one of the authors of the paper. ‘Transparent aluminum is just the start. The physical properties of the matter we are creating are relevant to the conditions inside large planets, and we also hope that by studying it we can gain a greater understanding of what is going on during the creation of ‘miniature stars’ created by high-power laser implosions, which may one day allow the power of nuclear fusion to be harnessed here on Earth.’
The discovery was made possible with the development of the FLASH laser in Hamburg, Germany. The FLASH laser produces a stream of radiation that’s ten billion times more powerful than any other laser. It produces extremely brief pulses of soft X-ray light, each of which is more powerful than the output of a power plant that provides electricity to a whole city. Although the transparency lasted for an extremely brief time, it demonstrates that exotic states of matter can be created using very high power X-ray sources.
Experimental set-up at the FLASH laser used to discover the new state of matter. (Credit: Image courtesy of University of Oxford)
We certainly do live in an amazing age!
Welcome to The Deep science and technology column where we cover topics from the deep sea to deep space and beyond.
After looking over some recent columns, I discovered that it’s been a while since I dipped into the Weather/Global Warming file and I’ve recently stumbled across some news that’s having an interesting effect on our own weather. More on that later.
It’s summer in North America and that means that the North Pole has been in perpetual daylight since last June. I’ve done articles about the opening of the Northwest Passage and the rising ocean level. Of course, the melting ice in the North Pole hasn’t been considered the problem that it presents at the South Pole because the ice at the North Pole is already in the water and shouldn’t contribute much to the rise in sea level. Recent research says that may not be true.
A GREEN LAND MELTS
The island of Greenland has probably the most inappropriate name for any location on Earth. Whiteland would have been a MUCH better name. But that’s all changing. The Greenland ice sheet is melting faster than expected, according to a new study led by a University of Alaska Fairbanks researcher.
The study conducted by Dr. Sebastian Mernild and colleagues from the United States, United Kingdom and Denmark, shows that the Greenland ice sheet may be responsible for nearly 25 percent of the global sea level rise over the past 13 years. Their study also shows that seas now are rising by more than an inch every four years. This is more than 50 percent faster than the average for the 20th century.
They discovered two things. First, it’s not snowing as much over Greenland in the winter to replace the snow that’s lost, and second that melting, evaporation and calving of icebergs from Greenland’s flanks has increased. Since 1995, the ice sheet has lost 100 cubic MILES of ice each year. To wrap your mind around that, just imagine an ice cube 10 miles on each side.
Researchers have kept a close eye on Greenland as one of the major indicators of climate change. Major glacier calving events in 2000 and 2007, sent up to 44 square miles of ice into the sea at a time. Researchers are studying these major events as well as the less dramatic ongoing melting of the ice sheet through runoff and surface processes.
Ice melt from a warming Arctic has two major effects on the ocean. First, increased water contributes to global sea-level rise, which in turn affects coastlines across the globe. Second, fresh water from melting ice changes the salinity of the world’s oceans, which can affect ocean ecosystems and deep water mixing.
Researchers are also afraid that the sudden influx of cold water into the northern Atlantic from Greenland and elsewhere in the Arctic could stop the Gulf Stream in its tracks causing profound climate change on the eastern coast of North America and in Europe.
Greenland could, indeed, become a ‘green land’ but at the risk of profound climate change for many of the world’s inhabitants.
Melting water from a glacier in Greenland runs into the ocean. (Credit: Photo by Sebastian Mernild)
Although the events of the previous story are unlikely to affect us directly here on Guam, except for that pesky sea level rise in the World Ocean, the events described in the following story are already affecting us here.
FIRE IN THE SKY
Have you noticed all the thunderbumpers lately? Does it seem to you that there’s a lot more thunder and lightning this year than there’s been for a while? While the weather reminiscences of older folks are usually laughed at, in this case, they’re probably right.
When I first came to Guam, more years ago than I care to remember, I taught first graders in Merizo. In the autumn of that long-ago year (OK, it was 1980), there was a lovely thunderstorm with lots of lightning. My six-year olds were absolutely terrified. When I began to question them, they told me they had NEVER heard noises like that or seen flashes of light like that in the sky.
I figured this was just a bid for attention from the kids, but when I talked to the teachers and other adults at the school, they assured me that the kids weren’t just playing up. The thunderstorm was extremely unusual and in fact, the kids were young enough that they might never have heard thunder or seen lightning.
Then I did a little research. In order to create the charge differences that cause thunderstorms with lightning, you must have particulate matter in the air. Summer thunderstorms are common over continents because there’s a lot of dust in the air. They’re much less common in winter (although I have seen a lightning snowstorm, surely one of the most bizarre of weather spectacles) and much less common over the open ocean because typically, there’s no dust in the air to cause the charge differences.
Windblown salt can cause the charge differences, which explains why thunderstorms were not completely unknown here, but I can say from personal experience that thunderstorms have certainly increased in frequency over the last 30 years. So . . . what changed? Read on!
Let’s take a little trip to China, home to most of the world’s human population. We’ll stop at the thriving metropolis of Shenzen and visit two large brown buildings owned by a private company. They’re the Longgang trash incinerators. They can be smelled a mile away and pour out so much dark smoke and hazardous chemicals that hundreds of local residents recently staged an all-day sit-in, demanding that the incinerators be cleaner and that a planned third incinerator not be built nearby.
If you think Guam has a landfill problem, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet. China has now surpassed the United States as the world’s largest producer of household garbage and unlike our local legislators, China has embarked on a vast program to build incinerators as landfills run out of space. But the incinerators have become a growing source of toxic emissions, like dioxin and mercury, that don’t do a human body good.
But here’s the kicker. The pollutants emitted by the incinerators in China, particularly the long-lasting substances like dioxin and mercury, are dangerous not only in China. A growing body of atmospheric research based on satellite observations shows that air currents waft them out of China, across the Pacific (and over us) and beyond.
Chinese incinerators can be less polluting. At the other end of Shenzhen from Longgang, no smoke is visible from the towering smokestack of the Baoan incinerator, built by a company owned by the municipal government. Government tests show that it emits virtually no dioxin and other pollutants. Unfortunately, the Baoan incinerator cost 10 times as much as the Longgang incinerators to run.
The difference between the Baoan and Longgang incinerators lies at the center of a growing controversy in China. Incinerators are being built to wildly different standards across the country. For years, Chinese government regulators have discussed the need to impose tighter limits on emissions. But they have done nothing because of a bureaucratic turf war. (Hmmmm, does this sound familiar? Just how many sessions of the Guam legislature have done nothing about the dump?)
The Chinese government is struggling to cope with the rapidly rising mountains of trash generated as the world’s most populated country has raced from poverty to rampant consumerism. Beijing officials warned in June that all of the city’s landfills would run out of space within five years so the rush to build i
ncinerators is on.
The governments of several cities with especially affluent, well-educated citizens, including Beijing and Shanghai, are setting pollution standards as strict as Europe’s but incinerators in China’s interior are being built with virtually no pollution standards at all.
Recent scientific studies have estimated that a sixth of the mercury now falling on North American lakes comes from Asia, particularly China, mainly from coal-fired plants and smelters but also from incinerators. Pollution from incinerators also tends to be high in toxic metals like cadmium. Incinerators play the most important role in emissions of dioxin but little research has been done on dioxin crossing the Pacific. Analyses of similar chemicals have shown that they can travel very long distances.
Chinese agencies agree that tighter standards on dioxin emissions are needed. They just disagree on whether the environment ministry should have the power to stop incinerator projects that do not meet tighter standards. The planning agency wants to retain the power to decide which projects go ahead but other government officials oppose the idea. (Are you aware the Chinese invented bureaucracy?)
Yan Jianhua, the director of the solid waste treatment expert group in Zhejiang province, a center of incinerator equipment manufacturing in China, defended the industry’s record on dioxin, saying that households that burn their trash outdoors emit far more dioxin.
“Open burning is a bigger problem according to our research,” Professor Yan said, adding that what China really needs is better trash collection so that garbage can be disposed of more reliably.
Critics and admirers of incinerators alike call for more recycling and reduced use of packaging as ways to reduce the daily volume of municipal garbage. Even when not recycled, sorted trash is easier for incinerators to burn cleanly, because the temperature in the furnace can be adjusted more precisely to minimize the formation of dioxin.
Yet the Chinese public has shown little enthusiasm for recycling. As Mr. Zhong, the engineer at the Baoan incinerator, put it, “No one really cares.”
Hmmmm. That sounds sort of familiar, too, doesn’t it? Are you doing any recycling at all?
Yet, the Chinese failure to recycle is helping keep your children up at night and scaring your dog because there is absolutely no question that the increase of thunderstorms over your personal island is fueled by the dirty smokestacks in China. And the toxins coming out of those smokestacks could have a much longer effect on you and your children and your dog that the immediate trauma of bright lights and boomy noises.
The ocean level is rising because of melting half a world away and our weather is changing because of the activities of people who live thousands of miles away. It really is true that Earth is a global community and all of us must suffer the consequences of the fact that there are too many of us and “No one really cares”.
Cruise on over to the Deep Website at www.thedeepradioshow.com to learn more about our global ecosystem and many other topics. Enjoy!
A worker shovels trash at the Baoan incinerator in Shenzhen, which also generates power.
I’ve peered into all the files and found that the animal file is bulging again. So off we go for another adventure in the animal kingdom but with an alien twist! For starters, have a look at the lovely fellow in the picture.
Okay, you say that could be an alien but it looks more like a fish, with a funny looking mouth and crossed eyes. But you’d be wrong. It’s a fish all right, with a funny looking mouth, but those aren’t crossed eyes. That’s the fish’s nose and his eyes are quite possible the strangest eyes in the animal kingdom.
LOOKING DOWN THE TUBES
That lovely fellow is Macropinna microstoma (which directly translates from the Latin as “big foot, small mouth”) also known as the barreleye fish because it has tubular eyes and a transparent head. Ever since barreleyes were described in 1939, marine biologists have known that its tubular eyes are very good at collecting light.
Barreleyes typically live near the depth where sunlight from the surface fades to complete blackness. They use their ultra-sensitive tubular eyes to search for the faint silhouettes of prey overhead. Although tubular eyes are very good at collecting light, they have a very narrow field of view. Most marine biologists believed that the fishes’ eyes were fixed in their heads, allowing them to only look upward. This would make it impossible for the fishes to see what was directly in front of them, and very difficult for them to capture prey with their small, pointed mouths.
New research shows that these unusual eyes can rotate within a transparent shield that covers the fish’s head. This allows the barreleye to peer up at potential prey or focus forward to see what it’s eating.
The researchers used video from remotely operated vehicles to study barreleyes in deep water just offshore of Central California. At depths of 2,000 to 2,600 feet, the ROV cameras typically showed these fish hanging motionless in the water, their eyes glowing a vivid green in the ROV’s bright lights. The ROV video also revealed a previously undescribed feature of these fish–the eyes are surrounded by a transparent, fluid-filled shield that covers the top of the fish’s head.
Most existing descriptions and illustrations of this fish don’t show the fluid-filled shield, because the fragile structure is destroyed when the fish are brought up from the deep in nets. The researchers brought their nets up slowly and were able to bring a live barreleye to the surface. They placed it in a shipboard aquarium, where it survived for several hours. Within this controlled environment, the researchers were able to confirm what they had seen in the ROV video–the fish rotated its tubular eyes as it turned its body from a horizontal to a vertical position.
In addition to their amazing "headgear," barreleyes have a variety of other interesting adaptations to deep-sea life. Their large, flat fins allow them to remain nearly motionless in the water, and to maneuver very precisely. Their small mouths suggest that they can be very precise and selective in capturing small prey.
The scientists have now developed a working hypothesis about how this animal makes a living. Most of the time, the fish hangs motionless in the water, with its body in a horizontal position and its eyes looking upward. The green pigments in its eyes may filter out sunlight coming directly from the sea surface, helping the barreleye spot the bioluminescent glow of jellies or other animals directly overhead. When it spots prey (such as a drifting jellyfish), the fish rotates its eyes forward and swims upward, in feeding mode.
The bizarre physiological adaptations of the barreleyes have puzzled oceanographers for generations. The use of modern underwater robots allows scientists to observe such animals in their native environment, and more fully understand how their physical adaptations help them survive.
A fish with tubular eyes certainly looks and sounds a bit alien, but now we’ll move on to two stories about possible real aliens!
FLOATING IN THE AIR
Indian scientists have discovered three new species of ultra-violet resistant bacteria in the upper stratosphere. These bacteria species are not found on Earth and have no known close Earth relatives.
The experiment was conducted using a very large balloon carrying a 1,000 pound scientific payload soaked in 100 pounds of liquid neon, flown from the National Balloon Facility in Hyderabad, India. The payload consisted of a cryosampler containing sixteen evacuated and sterilized stainless steel probes. Throughout the flight, the probes remained immersed in liquid neon to create a cryopump effect. These cylinders, after collecting air samples from different heights ranging from 12 to 24 miles were parachuted down and safely retrieved.
In all, 12 bacterial and six fungal colonies were found. The fungi and six of the bacteria specimens were known Earth species, but the other three bacteria samples were totally new species. All three newly identified species had significantly higher UV resistance compared to their nearest Earth relatives.
One of the new species has been named as Janibacter hoylei, after the distinguished astrophysicist Fred Hoyle, the second as Bacillus isronensis recognising the contribution of ISRO in the balloon experiments which led to its discovery and the third as Bacillus aryabhata after India’s celebrated ancient astronomer Aryabhata and also the first satellite of ISRO.
This was the second such experiment conducted by ISRO, the first one being in 2001. Even though the first experiment also yielded positive results, it was decided to repeat the experiment by exercising extra care to ensure that it was totally free from any terrestrial contamination.
Because of the precautions taken in the most recent experiment to prevent contamination, the researchers are confident that these new species came from the stratosphere. While the present study does not conclusively establish the extra-terrestrial origin of microorganisms, it does provide positive encouragement to continue the work in our quest to explore the origin of life.
The balloon carrying the scientific instrumentation that India launched into the stratosphere, where new UV-resistant bacteria were discovered. (Credit: Image courtesy of Indian Space Research Organization)
Hold on there Beany-Boy!! Are these people actually implying that these three new bacteria species came from outer space? That they are ALIEN in nature? Read on!
FROZEN IN THE ICE
So the alien crashed in his spaceship 120,000 years ago and was trapped beneath the ice. Sounds like a science-fiction story I should write, but although there’s no spaceship, the story just may be true.
A novel bacterium — trapped more than a mile under glacial ice in Greenland for over 120,000 years — may hold clues as to what life forms might exist on other planets. A team of scientists from Pennsylvania State University report finding the novel microbe, which they have called Herminiimonas glaciei. The team showed great patience in coaxing the dormant microbe back
to life; first incubating their samples at 2˚C for seven months and then at 5˚C for a further four and a half months, after which colonies of very small purple-brown bacteria were seen.
H. glaciei is small even by bacterial standards – it is 10 to 50 times smaller than E. coli. Its small size probably helped it to survive in the liquid veins among ice crystals and the thin liquid film on their surfaces. Small cell size is considered to be advantageous for more efficient nutrient uptake, protection against predators and occupation of micro-niches and it has been shown that very small bacteria dominate many soil and marine environments.
Most life on our planet has always consisted of microorganisms, so it is reasonable to consider that this might be true on other planets as well. Studying microorganisms living under extreme conditions on Earth may provide insight into what sorts of life forms could survive elsewhere in the solar system.
The extremely cold environments are the best analogues of possible extraterrestrial habitats such as those that exist on Mars and the moons of Jupiter and Saturn. The exceptionally low temperatures can preserve cells and nucleic acids for millions of years. H. glaciei is one of just a handful of officially described ultra-small species and the only one so far from the Greenland ice sheet. Studying these bacteria can provide insights into how cells can survive and even grow under extremely harsh conditions, like temperatures down to -30˚F, little oxygen, low nutrients, high pressure and limited space.
H. glaciei isn’t a pathogen and isn’t harmful to humans, but it’s so small it can pass through a 0.2 micron filter, which is the filter pore size commonly used in sterilization of fluids in laboratories and hospitals. If there are other ultra-small bacteria that are pathogens, then they could be present in solutions presumed to be sterile. In a clear solution very tiny cells might grow but not create the density sufficient to make the solution cloudy.
Several years ago, a bacterial-like fossil was found in a meteorite from Mars that landed in Antarctica. The major objection to saying that it was, in fact a fossil bacterium, was that it was very small; much smaller than ‘standard’ bacteria. H. glaciei may tell us that there are indeed, aliens among us!
Trapped more than three kilometers under glacial ice in Greenland for over 120,000 years, a dormant bacterium — Herminiimonas glaciei — has been coaxed back to life by researchers. (Credit: Image courtesy of Society for General Microbiology)
Alien-looking fish and possible REAL aliens (although not the sort the conspiracy theorists dream of!).
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.