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Scientists create most detailed map of Antarctica ever

Chances are you make it through most days without sparing a thought for Antarctica. At just over 5.4 million square miles, it’s a massive chunk of land that is nearly twice the size of Australia and dwarfs the continental United States. It’s also covered in ice, which makes it a lot less appealing as a potential vacation destination.

Still, it’s of great interest to scientists and researchers, and a new mapping effort has yielded the most stunning, high-resolution glimpse of the continent ever.

The new map, named the Reference Elevation Model of Antartica (or REMA for short), was created by researchers at Ohio State University led by professor Ian Howat. His desire to create the incredibly detailed map was the simple fact that, up until now, maps of Antarctica were just plain bad.

“Up until now, we’ve had a better map of Mars than we’ve had of Antarctica,” Howat, a professor of Earth sciences and director of the Byrd Polar and Climate Research Center, said in a statement. “Now it is the best-mapped continent.”

To construct the map, Howat and his team had to sift through an immense amount of data that was constantly being gathered by satellites cruising over the continent. To aid in piecing together the various high-resolution images, the researchers built a tool that matched the images up, overlapping edges and aligning it to be as accurate as possible.

The end result is a map that is not only incredibly sharp, but also extremely large in terms of file size. The full map’s size actually tops 150 terabytes. Yes, you read that correctly. Assuming the smartphone in your pocket holds around 64 GB of data, you’d need over 2,300 of them to hold the amount of data in this one map image. Yikes.

But why bother to create such a detailed map of a place that is essentially just a big block of ice? Antartica is a great indicator of the health of the climate, and by measuring changes in the ice in the region scientists can learn a lot about where the planet is heading.

“At this resolution, you can see almost everything,” Howat explains. “We can actually see variations in the snow in some places. We will be able to measure changes in the surface of the continent over time. We will see changes in snow cover, changes in the motion of ice, we will be able to monitor river discharge, flooding and volcanoes. We will be able to see the thinning of glaciers.”

A massive ancient volcano wiped out roughly 90 percent of all life on Earth just 250 million years ago

It might be hard to imagine today, but life on Earth hasn’t always had an go of things. The volcano that is thought to have wiped out the dinosaurs dramatically hindered the ability for many animals to survive, and it’s largely considered to be the most catastrophic thing life on Earth has ever had to endure.

It wasn’t.

The dinosaur-killing space rock that struck the Gulf of Mexico just shy of 66 million years ago wiped out roughly 75% of life on Earth, but something else happened even further back in Earth’s timeline that was even more dire and dramatic. An incredibly catastrophic event dating back some 250 million years snuffed out a whopping 90% of Earth’s life. It’s known among scientists as the “Great Dying,” and a new study suggests that a massive volcano in what is now Siberia was the trigger that started Earth’s largest mass extinction event.

Researchers knew a colossal volcano erupted in around the same time as the Great Dying, but determining whether the two were connected and to what extent was the subject of debate. This new work, which was published in Nature Geoscience, used samples from Earth’s crust to detect how the ancient eruption may have affected the Earth.

What they discovered was that a wealth of chemical elements was present in the geological record of Earth around the time of the eruption. After, however, the chemicals are nowhere to be found, suggesting that a massive chemicals including chlorine and iodine was shot into the upper reaches of Earth’s atmosphere. That would have spelled doom for just about anything living on Earth at the time.

“We concluded that the large reservoir of halogens that was stored in the Siberian lithosphere was sent into the Earth’s atmosphere during the volcanic explosion, effectively destroying the ozone layer at the time and contributing to the mass extinction,” Michael Broadley of the Centre for Petrographic and Geochemical Research explains.

Without a stable atmosphere to protect the Earth’s surface from the ravages of the Sun, life was rapidly snuffed out. The few life forms that were able to sustain themselves until the atmosphere could rebuild itself were the lucky ones, and managed to pass on their DNA. Every living thing we see on Earth today is ultimately a descendent of the species that found a way to survive.

This gorgeous NASA map shows Earth’s incredible aerosol clouds

When you step outside in the morning and take a nice deep breath you might feel refreshed and energized. Of course, if you’re in the middle of a major city all you might smell is car exhaust and sewer fumes, and a new image released by NASA shows that whatever is hiding in “a breath of fresh air” can vary wildly from place to place.

The image, which was captured and pieced together by a number of NASA satellites, shows just how massive the clouds of tiny particles that cover our planet really are. It’s a map of aerosols — no, not exactly the kind that makes your spray-on deodorant possible, but sort of.

“If you have ever watched smoke billowing from a wildfire, ash erupting from a volcano or dust blowing in the wind, you have seen aerosols,” NASA explains in a new blog post. “Satellites like NASA’s Earth-observing satellites, Terra, Aqua, Aura and Suomi NPP, “see” them as well, though they offer a completely different perspective from hundreds of kilometers above Earth’s surface. A version of a NASA model called the Goddard Earth Observing System Forward Processing (GEOS FP) offers a similarly expansive view of the mishmash of particles that dance and swirl through the atmosphere.”

These tiny particles are made up of all different kinds of material. The wispy blue swirls over the ocean are salty sea spray kicked up by winds, while the bright red brush strokes are black carbon leftovers carried aloft by wildfires or created by vehicles or industrial factories. The purple areas are what NASA’s instruments have determined to be “dust.”

Much of the material you see in this image flies high above our heads, and while those directly below the clouds might not end up breathing it in — at least not immediately — these particles have to come down somewhere. Weather patterns can push clouds like these much closer to the ground, affecting air quality and causing problems for those with respiratory illnesses.

Archaeologists discover fossil of ancient turtle species that never grew a shell

When it comes to animals with iconic features, the turtle is high on the list. Deer have horns, kangaroos have pouches, humans have existential dread, and turtles have shells… right? Apparently that wasn’t always the case, as a new set of fossils from China reveals that some ancient turtles never bothered to grow a shell at all.

In a new paper published in Nature, researchers describe the discovery of an early turtle species called Eorhynchochelys sinensis. Nicknamed the “dawn beak turtle,” the animals lived around 228 million years ago, and they were massive in size. Measuring over six feet long, it would have been an intimidating sight, and its hardened beak and flat body match what we think of a turtle. Everything matches up, except for the shell.

Scientists believe that the creature loved the water, where it like went scavenging for food, but it never developed the hard outer covering that most modern turtles share. This is particularly curious because the animals body, which was large, flat and soft, would have seriously benefited from a hard covering.

“This creature was over six feet long, it had a strange disc-like body and a long tail, and the anterior part of its jaws developed into this strange beak,” co-author Olivier Rieppel of Chicago’s Field Museum notes“It probably lived in shallow water and dug in the mud for food.”

Interestingly, other early fossils of different turtle species had shells but no beaked jaws. The dawn beak turtle had a beak but no shell, but modern turtles have all of the above. This strongly hints that the evolution of the species we see on Earth today is likely far more complicated than anyone realizes.

“This impressively large fossil is a very exciting discovery giving us another piece in the puzzle of turtle evolution,” Nick Fraser, lead author of the new work, explains. “It shows that early turtle evolution was not a straightforward, step-by-step accumulation of unique traits but was a much more complex series of events that we are only just beginning to unravel.”

Study says Earth’s magnetic field has shifted rapidly in the past, and if it happens again it could be catastrophic

One of the big reasons that life thrives on Earth is that it’s protected from some of the more harsh phenomenon of space by something that we can’t even see. It’s the magnetic field that our planet generates, and it does a whole lot more than tell your compass which way you’re facing.

A new study suggests that our planet’s poles could indeed shift, and shift much more rapidly than previously thought. In a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers say that they have found evidence that Earth’s poles have shifted quickly in the past, and if that were to happen again it could cause global calamity.

The study, which was conducted by scientists in China, Australia, and Taiwan, focuses on findings from an unexpected place: a cave. Stalagmites from an underground cavern in China were found to hold a rather precise record of the magnetic changes that took place on Earth over a 16,000 year period starting around 107,000 years in the past.

The scientists believe that the data they gathered reveals that Earth’s magnetic field shifted over the course of only a couple hundred years. This polarity flip is much faster than scientists had guessed. Previous estimates suggested that it would take several thousands of years for the poles to change. This is bad news for technology-dependent species… which is pretty much just us.

When the poles shift, the magnetic field of the Earth weakens significantly. Scientists theorize that the strength of the magnetic field could dip by as much as 90 percent, which would have an incredible impact on the electronics and power grids we depend on every day.

Today, even with the Earth’s magnetic field at full strength, solar weather can pose a threat to sensitive systems. Solar flares and coronal mass ejections can fry communication equipment and cause costly damage. If the Earth’s protective field were to weaken by 90%, the researchers say we could see damage that tallies in the trillions of dollars, not to mention a significant impact to modern life.

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