Category Archives: nature

Solving the Mystery of the Carolina Bays

The origin of the Carolina Bays presents a formidable puzzle for geologists and astronomers.  The elliptical bays with sandy rims look like they were made by huge impacts, but they do not have the characteristic markers associated with extraterrestrial impacts.  The dates of the terrain on which the bays are found span millennia, forcing scientists to conclude that the bays must have been made by the action of wind and water over the last 140,000 years.  A new geometrical survey has found that the Carolina Bays are perfect ellipses with similar width-to-length ratios as the Nebraska rainwater basins.  This book starts from the premise that if the Carolina Bays are conic sections, they must have originated from oblique conical cavities that were transformed by geological processes to their current form.  Mathematical analysis following this line of reasoning provides clues supporting the idea that the Earth was hit during the ice age by an extraterrestrial object.  The impact may have triggered the Younger Dryas cold event and caused the extinction of the North American megafauna and the Clovis culture.  The Carolina Bays are the remodeled remains of oblique conical craters formed on viscous ground by secondary impacts of glacier ice boulders ejected from the primary impact site.

Could methane be stored as a clathrate on Mars?

The first definitive detection of methane gas on Mars was reported in 2009[1]. The atmosphere of Mars is highly oxidized, consisting mainly of carbon dioxide gas (95%). With a photochemical lifetime of only 400 years, methane should not be present unless it was released on an ongoing basis. On Earth, about 95% of the methane is produced by biological organisms and the rest is produced by geochemistry. The presence of methane on Mars demonstrates that Mars is an active planet which is actively releasing trace gases that provide a window into its internal processes.

The release of methane on Mars suggests that Mars might now harbor an active microbial life below the surface, but it is also possible that the release of methane is driven by chemical reactions of hot rock with water and carbon dioxide deep underground. The seasonal release of methane suggests thermal control of the release mechanism.

A possibility that thus far has not been considered is that methane can be trapped within the crystal structure of water to form methane clathrate which on the Earth is found in permafrost and at the bottom of the ocean. The phase diagram of methane clathrate[2] shows that it may be possible that methane clathrate would be stable in the Martian environment with an atmospheric pressure of 600 Pa and temperatures averaging 218 K at the surface. Underground, the pressure would be higher making the formation of methane clathrate more likely.

Although scientists are very eager to find some kind of life on Mars, the seasonal variation of atmospheric methane could just be due to the decomposition and regeneration of methane clathrate, or some other physical or chemical process. Let us not forget that Titan, one of Saturn’s moons, has lakes of liquid methane on its surface. Jumping to the conclusion that the presence of methane indicates life is not good science. Proof of life will have to come from biology, and not necessarily from chemistry.

Learn about Earth’s atmosphere

[1] Mumma, MJ; Villanueva, GL; Novak, RE; Hewagama, T; Bonev, BP; DiSanti, MA; Mandell, AM; Smith, MD, Strong release of methane on Mars in northern summer 2003, Science, Volume: 323, Issue: 5917, Page: 1041-1045, Year: FEB 20 2009

[2] Laura A. Stern, Stephen H. Kirby, William B. Durham, Peculiarities of Methane Clathrate Hydrate Formation and Solid-State Deformation, Including Possible Superheating of Water Ice, Science, 27 September 1996, Vol. 273 no. 5283 pp. 1843-1848
DOI: 10.1126/science.273.5283.1843

Neandertals among us

Neandertals lived in Europe and Asia from about 250,000 to 30,000 years ago.  They had bigger brains than modern humans, but they never advanced technically beyond the stone age.  Not too many years ago, archeologists and paleoanthropologists thought that modern humans had outcompeted the Neandertals and caused their demise.

Advances in analysis of ancient DNA and genetic testing have revealed that the Neandertals did not just disappear.  They mated with modern humans when they met in Europe thousands of years ago and produced offspring with genes from both species.  Modern humans of non-African origin have up to 3% Neandertal DNA.  The people with the greatest concentration of Neandertal DNA are found in the region of Tuscany, Italy.

The story of human evolution is becoming clearer with the use of genetic testing.  A tiny bone found in Denisova Cave in the Altai Mountains of Siberia provided DNA of previously unknown people which were different from Neandertals and modern humans.  It turned out that these Denisovan people actually contributed 3% to 5% of their DNA to modern Melanesians and Australian Aborigines.  The importance of the tiny bone would not have been recognized without genetic testing of its DNA.

Learn more about Human Evolution

Carolina Bays formed from slow-speed glacier ice impacts

According to a recent theory, during an ice age, 12,900 years ago, a meteorite or comet struck the massive glaciers that covered the Great Lakes region.  The catastrophe caused the extinction of the saber tooth tigers and other large animals that lived in North America at that time.  Thus far, no meteorite fragments from such an impact have been found.  The formation of the Carolina Bays has been claimed to be one consequence of the extraterrestrial impact.  A meteorite strike on the Laurentide ice sheet would have sent enormous ice boulders from the glaciers, many as big as two football fields, all the way from central Michigan to the Carolinas and Georgia.  The impacts of the huge chunks of ice formed shallow craters that became the Carolina Bays.

A new impact model solves the mystery of why almost all the Carolina Bays are perfect ellipses by interpreting them as conic sections.  The oblique impacts created tilted conical cavities which at the intersection with the level surface of the Earth are conic sections that appear as elliptical craters.  The ice boulders had velocities of 3 to 3.6 kilometers per second, which is much slower than the 17 kilometers per second for asteroids or 50 kilometers per second for comets.  Impacts at the slower speeds would create shallow oval craters. The craters would be deeper at the terminal end due to the inclined incidence of the impact. The craters would also have raised rims, particularly at the terminal end of the ellipse.  When the glacier ice impactors melted, the melt water created pools in the depressions.  Most of the oval pools eventually filled by silting and viscous relaxation of the ground to produce the Carolina Bays.

Geologists have refused to accept Carolina Bays as impact sites because the target zones do not exhibit signs of shock metamorphism created by high velocity impacts and no meteorite fragments or chemical elements from meteorites have been found.  The new impact model states that the slow speed of the glacier ice impacts would not produce shock metamorphism, and because the glacier ice is of terrestrial origin, there would be no traces of meteorites or sidereal chemical elements. However, the model predicts the location where it might be possible to find stones that were originally embedded in the glacier ice.

Read more about the Carolina Bays

Scientific Research in Washington DC

Andrew Carnegie founded the Carnegie Institution of Washington as an organization for scientific discovery in 1902.  The organization changed its name in 2007 to the Carnegie Institution for Science to reflect the fact that scientists work not only in Washington, but in six scientific departments on the West and East Coasts of the United States.  The Geophysical Laboratory and the Department of Terrestrial Magnetism are both located on a beautiful campus at 5241 Broad Branch Road, NW in Washington, D.C.

The Department of Terrestrial Magnetism was founded in 1904 to map the geomagnetic field of the Earth. This goal was accomplished by 1929, and the focus of the department’s research shifted toward understanding the Earth and its place in the universe.  Today, the department has an interdisciplinary team of geophysicists, geochemists, astronomers, astrophysicists, cosmochemists and planetary scientists.

Dr. Linda Elkins-Tanton is the director of the Department of Terrestrial Magnetism. Dr. Elkins-Tanton conducts research on the evolution of terrestrial planets, and the relationships between Earth and life on Earth.  One of Dr. Elkins-Tanton’s latest projects analyzed the relationships between large volcanic provinces and global extinction events, focusing on the gaseous emissions of sulfur, chlorine, and fluorine from the Siberian flood basalts and their possible contribution to the end-Permian extinction 251 million years ago.  In the above photograph, Dr. Elkins-Tanton introduces a lecture on the use of pressure to make novel materials by Dr. Timothy A. Strobel of the Geophysical Laboratory.

Dr. Strobel answers questions after his presentation

The Geophysical Laboratory was founded in 1905 to examine the physics and chemistry of Earth’s deep interior. The laboratory is a world-renowned center for the study of rock compositions. The laboratory’s research in high-pressure and high-temperature physics has produced many scientific publications in both Earth and material sciences.

Dr. Russell J. Hemley is the director of the Geophysical Laboratory.  His research program has expanded to include high-pressure experimental and theoretical studies in condensed matter physics, Earth and planetary science, and materials science.

The Geophysical Laboratory and the Department of Terrestrial Magnetism host a series of Neighborhood Lectures at 5251 Broad Branch Road, NW, Washington, DC 20015.  The lectures are open to the public and provide information about the research programs.  Light refreshments are served after the lectures.  Click this link for more information about the Carnegie Institution for Science.

Learn about the Timeline of the Earth

Skeptics doubt global warming

A NASA report stating that it was “unprecedented” that melting was taking place on 97 percent of Greenland’s ice cover was criticized by people who doubt that global warming is actually occurring. The critics point out that the current melting may be part of a regular planetary cycle that recurs approximately every 150 years, with the last one happening in 1889. Furthermore, they say that the current fires in the west coast and the drought in the central and southern part of the U.S. are just variations within the normal range of weather patterns and are not the result of global warming.

Is global warming real, or is it an exaggeration? If it is real, and if it is caused by the carbon dioxide emissions from burning fossil fuels, there is something that we can do about it by switching to alternate sources of energy. If we don’t do anything about global warming, there are serious consequences. Two major things will happen: 1) as the ice in Greenland and Antarctica melt, the sea level will rise by several feet flooding coastal communities around the world, and 2) the shrinking glaciers and snow cover in the mountains will decrease the flow of fresh water in the rivers thus reducing our crop yields and our food supply.

Some scientists have predicted that there will be a mass extinction event in about 200 years if nothing is done about the rate at which we are putting carbon dioxide into the air. Basically, we are killing ourselves and many other fragile life forms with our pollution. After humans are gone, other life forms will inherit the Earth.

The following video shows a huge newly discovered rift in Antarctica that will create a giant glacier when the ice finally breaks. You may hear about this in the news soon.

Global warming brings early cherry blossoms

Carpet of cherry blossomsThe USDA published a new Plant Hardiness Zone Map based on the average annual minimum winter temperatures.  Growers and gardeners use the map as a guide to determine which plants are most likely to thrive at a location. When the new guide came out, it was evident that the hardiness zones had shifted further to the north.  This is a clear indication that the plants feel that the weather is warmer.  Some lettuce plants that sprouted in the fall in Washington, DC survived the winter without freezing.  Washington’s famous cherry trees reached peak bloom two weeks earlier than usual, and the Cherry Blossom Festival had to be held earlier.  By the end of March, which is the usual time of the festival, the flowers were gone and the ground and the cars were covered with cherry blossom petals.
Car covered with cherry blossoms
The release of the new hardiness map did not mention global warming because this is a political hot topic in the United States.  If global warming is accepted as a fact, there are economic implications.  For example, carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases will have to be controlled by reducing the combustion of fossil fuels.  This would reduce the profits for energy producers, car manufacturers, and many other industries.  To maintain the current business models, it is better to deny global warming and continue burning fossil fuels.  There is another reason why manufacturers would like to keep the status quo.  If the cost of fossil fuels is raised to try to reduce their use, new alternative fuel technologies and green power sources will be developed to compete with existing industries.  This is bad for the businesses that profit from the consumption of fossil fuels.  They will be like the buggy whip manufacturers that eventually went out of business when internal combustion vehicles replaced horse-drawn carriages and became the main mode of personal transportation at the beginning of the twentieth century.

Global warming poses a real threat to our ecosystems, including the risk of mass extinctions.  The winters with little snow, tornadoes before springtime, rising sea levels, and early blooming of trees are all signs of warmer weather.  The rise in temperatures is correlated with the increase of atmospheric carbon dioxide which started with the industrial revolution.  It is getting harder and harder to deny the impact that our industrialization is having on our planet.

Geologic history of the Earth and global warming

Spectacular Sunrise improves your mood

There is something magical about a pretty sunrise.  It sets the mood for a wonderful day regardless of the problems that you have to face.  The small picture above gives but a tiny glimpse of the beauty of the day.  You get a different perspective when you actually see the beautiful colors of the sunrise across the whole horizon and you smell the crisp, fresh air.  All your senses wake up.  The progression of the colors as the sun relentlessly approaches the horizon is breathtaking.  First you see the purples and dark reds.  A few moments later, the reds turn to hues of orange that progress to yellow.  When the sun finally peeks over the horizon, the whole sky is aflame with light.  It is good to be alive to enjoy the beauty of nature.

See more pictures taken from the top of the penthouse.

World Geography Scrambled

A New World Map
Australia has the shape of a dog’s head. Africa looks like a human skull with a horn in the forehead and Lake Victoria forms an eye. Italy is shaped like a boot, and the other boot is New Zealand, but it is broken. Are there enough geographical pieces to create a human figure?

The new world map has a man with two boots accompanied by a dog. The biggest problem was to find a torso for the body parts. It was not an easy task, but by turning Eurasia on its side, we can pretend that it is a torso. In this new map, Russia corresponds to the back, and the Bering Strait is the neck. Spain ends up as a pubic appendage, India takes the place of a breast, and the Arabian peninsula is a hip. It is not a pretty map, but there are not enough well-shaped pieces to work with.

Just like the ancient astronomers were able to imagine celestial figures for the groupings of stars that we call constellations, this new map adds an imaginary dog’s body to Australia’s dog head, and the human figure gets a hat. America is not on the map, but you can imagine it as a beautiful young woman who has lost her dog and has not come into the picture yet.

The shapes of the continents are determined by the level of the ocean. Fifteen thousand years ago, a large volume of water which is in the ocean today existed as thick ice sheets that covered the continents. The sea level was 130 meters lower than today and this created a Bering land bridge between Alaska and Siberia that allowed human migration from Asia to America. Melting of the ice deposits on Greenland and Antarctica by global warming will change the shapes of our continents in the future.

Learn more about the geological history of the world

The search for extraterrestrial life

Many years of robotic exploration of Mars have not produced evidence of life on the Red Planet.  During the next twenty years, NASA will conduct several missions to try to determine whether life ever arose on Mars.  NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory mission Curiosity rover, will launch in late 2011 and land on Mars in August 2012.  The search will focus on places where there may be liquid water at sources of geothermal energy.  There is great expectation that there may be Martian microbial life, but it would really be surprising to find multicellular organisms.  Some scientists think that life on Earth may have had its start from microorganisms that traveled on rocks ejected from Mars after meteorite impacts.  If life is found on Mars, DNA analysis will be used to identify similarities to Earth organisms.

The search for intelligent life has been a dream of science fiction.  The Star Trek television series started each episode with the prologue “Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.”

Establishing a technologically advanced society has a great number of special requirements.  We have been able to achieve this because we live in an oxygen atmosphere where we can make fire that makes it possible to smelt metals.  Our manual dexterity enables us to manipulate objects easily and to build tools.  Had we been relegated to the realm of the sea with flippers instead of hands with opposable thumbs, even with all our brain power we would not have been able to build the technology to send a probe to another world.  The Neanderthals who preceded us were able to use fire for cooking and for warmth, but in the 250,000 years that they were on Earth they did not advance beyond the stone age.  Modern humans have existed for about 60,000 years, and civilizations were only established 10,000 years ago.  In the last 250 years, our industrialization has managed to pollute the atmosphere to the point that we may trigger a global warming event within a couple of hundred years and cause the extinction of many species, perhaps even our own.

Learn more about the evolution of life on Earth