Julia Whitty

Julia Whitty

Environmental Correspondent

Julia is an award-winning author of fiction and nonfiction (Deep Blue Home, The Fragile Edge, A Tortoise for the Queen of Tonga), and a former documentary filmmaker. She also blogs at Deep Blue Home.

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Julia is a writer and former documentary filmmaker and the author of The Fragile Edge: Diving & Other Adventures in the South Pacific, winner of a PEN USA Literary Award, the John Burroughs Medal, the Kiriyama Prize, the Northern California Books Awards, and finalist for the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, and Deep Blue Home: An Intimate Ecology of Our Wild Ocean. Her short story collection A Tortoise for the Queen of Tonga won an O. Henry and was a finalist for the PEN Hemingway Award. She also blogs at Deep Blue Home.

Twister Whispers

| Thu Mar. 8, 2012 4:20 PM EST

A monster EF4 tornado with winds of 180 mp/h (290 km/h) that caused extreme damage in Harrisburg, Illinois, on leap day happened to travel across an array of seismographs recently deployed for studying earthquakes.

The scientists working with the OIINK array (named for its coverage of parts of the Ozarks, Illinois, Indiana and Kentucky) thought their instruments had been destroyed by the twister. Instead, the seismographs recorded the tornado.

Or rather not the tornado itself, as their preliminary investigation suggests, but the passage of the large atmospheric pressure transient pushing ahead of the thunderstorm that spawned the tornado... one of an anomalous number of tornadoes so far this winter. Some of which may add up 2012's first billion-dollar disaster in the US .

 Location of seismographs in eastern Missouri and southern Illinois and the path of the tornado that struck Harrisburg IL on 29 Feb 2012: Courtesy of Indiana University
Location of seismographs in eastern Missouri and southern Illinois and the path of the tornado that struck Harrisburg IL on 29 Feb 2012: Courtesy of Indiana University University

In the image above you can see the seismic stations sets against the ground path of the 29 Feb Harrisburg tornado. These stations are part of the NSF's EarthScope program planned to cover the entire US with a grid for detecting and better understanding and eventually maybe predicting earthquakes. Seems they might come in handy for tornadoes too.

I wrote about the EarthScope program here after Japan's 9.0 quake last year.

 

 

This animation shows  EarthScope stations lighting up in response to ground shaking following a 21 February 2008 earthquake in Wells, NV. From the video's YouTube page:

Each circle represents a seismometer and the colors change to reflect variations in the signal amplitude crossing the array. The ground motion begins near the source and then expands outward like a the waves from a pebble dropped in a pond. The circular wavefronts are distorted by the simple map projection used in the animation. The initial waves travel at about 8km/s, the larger amplitude waves that follow are moving at about 2.5km/s.

The amazing EarthScope array has been dubbed the upside-down telescope for its view into the dynamics of interior Earth. 

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The Roar of Japan's 9.0 Quake

| Tue Mar. 6, 2012 6:29 PM EST

 

 

This sound is terrifying even a year later. It's the voice of Japan's 9.0 temblor and its aftershocks. Zhigang Peng at Georgia Tech’s School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences converted the quake's seismic waves into sped-up audio files that we can hear. 

The clip above was taken near the coastline of Japan between the nuclear reactor at Fukushima Daiichi and Tokyo. The initial blast is the 9.0 mainshock. Following that you can hear aftershocks, popping sounds, as the earth's plates slip into new positions. 

 

 

Here's Peng's recording of the 2011 Japanese earthquake taken from seismic measurements thousands of miles away in California. The quake created subtle movements deep in the San Andreas Fault known as distant triggering.

You can hear the initial noise, which sounds like thunder and corresponds with the Japanese mainshock. Afterwards a continuous high-pitch sound, like rain turning on and off, reflects continuing tremor activity at the fault, as heard from afar in California.

Vacuum Before Entering Antarctica

| Mon Mar. 5, 2012 5:52 PM EST
Tourists in Antarctica.

Invasive species are considered one of the biggest threats to Antarctica—especially as the frozen continent melts and becomes fertile ground for species moving down from the north.

Now a new paper in PNAS quantifies for the first time just how many plant seeds came into Antarctica in 2007-2008 from tourists, scientists, and research-station crews.

The researchers arrived at these finding by vacuuming the clothes, boots, packs, and camera bags of more than 850 scientists, tourists, support personnel, and ships' crew. Here's what they found:

  • Each visitor carried an average of 9.5 seeds.
  • A total of 71,000 seeds were imported into Antarctica that year (calculated).

They also found that while many more tourists than scientists visit Antarctica annually (tourists: ∼33,054; science and crew: ∼7,085), yet more scientists and crews carried seeds:

  • 20% of tourists carried seeds
  • 40% of science crews carried seeds 

What can be done about it? Syd Perkins at Science Now writes of a few simple fixes:

Tourists can clean their equipment thoroughly, including vacuuming their gear bags and emptying the pockets of their outerwear, especially if they've recently visited arctic or alpine environments where they could have inadvertently picked up seeds of cold-adapted plants. Also, scientists can pay attention to where cargo destined for Antarctica is stored, especially if it's been stored outdoors. [Much equipment spends half the year in the Antarctic and the other half in the Arctic.] 

Maybe a clean-room shakedown at Antarctic launching ports to apprehend alien stowaways?

Unprecedented Ocean Acidification Underway

| Fri Mar. 2, 2012 4:20 PM EST

Coral reefs are at risk from an acidifying ocean.

A new and alarming paper in the prestigious journal Science reports today that the world's oceans may be acidifying faster now than at any time during the four major extinctions of the last 300 million years, when natural pulses of carbon sent global temperatures soaring as much as 6 degrees C (10.8 degrees F)

The study is the first of its kind to survey the geologic record for evidence of ocean acidification over such a huge time frame. 

In the past century, due to fossil fuel emissions, atmospheric CO2 has risen about 30 percent. The oceans have sequestered about a third of that, making them ~30 percent more acidic, as pH has fallen from 8.2 to 8.1.

Estimated change in annual mean sea surface pH between the pre-industrial period (1700s) and the present day (1990s). : Plumbago via Wikimedia Commons.Estimated change in annual mean sea surface pH between the pre-industrial period (1700s) and the present day (1990s): Plumbago via Wikimedia Commons.

When pH dropped to 7.8 in coral reefs off Papua New Guinea, diversity declined ~40 percent. When pH drops below 7.8, clownfish larvae in the lab lose their ability to smell predators or find their way home.

That amounts to a gargantuan change in chemistry, which has reduced carbonate ion concentrations in seawater by ~16 percent.

Carbonate ions are needed for marine life to make their shelters—their reefs and shells.

Which means that rising acidity threatens the survival of entire ecosystems from phytoplankton to coral reefs, and from Antarctic systems reliant on sea urchins to many human food webs dependent on everything from oysters to salmon. 

The Science paper authors reviewed hundreds of paleoceanographic studies and found evidence of only one period in the past 300 million years when the oceans changed at even close to the rate they're changing today.

That was the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum 56 million years ago, when rapid extinctions in the sea and on the land changed Earth's menagerie of life forever.

Cinnamon clownfish (Amphiprion melanopus): Nick Hobgood via Wikimedia Commons.Cinnamon clownfish (Amphiprion melanopus): Nick Hobgood via Wikimedia Commons.

From the paper:

Ocean acidification may have severe consequences for marine ecosystems... We review events exhibiting evidence for elevated atmospheric CO2, global warming, and ocean acidification over the past ~300 million years of Earth’s history, some with contemporaneous extinction or evolutionary turnover among marine calcifiers. Although similarities exist, no past event perfectly parallels future projections in terms of disrupting the balance of ocean carbonate chemistry—a consequence of the unprecedented rapidity of CO2 release currently taking place.

The paper:

 

 

Wild Parrots Crash the 'Burbs

| Tue Feb. 28, 2012 6:46 PM EST

Feral parrots in San Francisco.

San Francisco's famed wild—actually, feral—Telegraph Hill parrots are fleeing the overcrowded flighways of the city for the gentler skies of suburbia, reports the Santa Rosa Press Democrat.

Approximately 100 of the conures have been seen about 10 miles south on the slopes of San Bruno Mountain in Brisbane feeding on juniper and hawthorn berries. 

Or maybe it's the reverse of a fascinating study of wild crows in Seattle a few years back, which found that young suburban-raised birds moved into the city when they reached sexual maturity, joining large flocks of single birds looking for mates.

Maybe San Francisco's mated birds are looking for a quieter 'hood to raise the kids. 

 

 

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