Blue Marble - March 2011

Animation: 300-Plus Aftershocks

| Tue Mar. 15, 2011 7:44 PM EDT

 

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State Dept. Grants More Time to Consider Keystone XL Pipeline

| Tue Mar. 15, 2011 6:07 PM EDT

The State Department announced Tuesday evening that it plans to issue a supplemental draft environmental impact statement on the proposed 1,661-mile pipeline that would carry oil from Alberta's tar sands to refineries in Texas.

The State Department said it would issue a supplemental evaluation of the potential impact of TransCanada's Keystone XL pipeline. The proposed pipeline would cross the Ogallala Aquifer, which provides the ground water used to irrigate a third of the country's crops, as well as 70 rivers and streams. Last July, the Environmental Protection Agency flagged the pipeline for more review, citing concerns about air pollution, public safety, and potential spills.

From the release:

The public will have 45 days to comment on the Supplemental Draft EIS after the anticipated mid-April comment period begins. Following issuance of a Final EIS, the State Department will solicit public comment and host a public meeting in Washington, D.C., before it makes a determination under Executive Order 13337 on whether issuance of this permit is in the U.S. national interest.
The U.S. Department of State expects to make a decision on whether to grant or deny the permit before the end of 2011.

Science of the Quake

| Tue Mar. 15, 2011 2:15 PM EDT
Map of the Sendai Earthquake 2011 and aftershocks.

New Scientist notes that the seismic impact of Japan's 11 March earthquake and tsunami advanced the flow of an enormous Antarctic glacier by about half a meter/1.6 feet. The observations were made by Jake Walter at UC Santa Cruz, and colleagues, who monitor the movements of the Whillans ice stream via a network of seismometers and continuously-operating GPS field stations on the glacier.

The Whillans is one of about a half-dozen large, fast-moving glaciers pouring from the West Antarctic Ice Sheet into the Ross Ice Shelf. A 2008 paper in Nature described the Whillans' normal—albeit surprising—movement: advancing 0.5 meter/1.6 feet feet over a 10-minute interval, then holding still for 12 hours, then advancing another 0.5 meters. Each lurch, twice a day, sets off seismic waves equivalent to a magnitude 7 earthquake—big enough to register at seismographs in Australia, 6,400 kilometers/3,976 miles away.

Now Walter and team find that jolts from distant earthquakes can force a half-meter slip on top of the normal daily slips. These "stick-slip speed-ups" are sudden—of about 30-minutes duration, and fast—propagating at speeds of 100-300 meters-per-second/328-984 feet-per-second. They observed a similar slip in the Whillans after Chile's 8.8 quake last year. Their findings appear in a new paper in the Journal of Geophysical Research.

 

West Antarctic ice streams are lettered A-E. Red: fast-moving ice streams. Blue: slower tributaries. Green: slow-moving stable areas. Black lines: watersheds. Credit: NASA, via Wikimedia Commons. West Antarctic ice streams are lettered A-E. Red: fast-moving ice streams. Blue: slower tributaries. Green: slow-moving stable areas. Black lines: watersheds. Credit: NASA, via Wikimedia Commons.

 

Also in New Scientist, a discussion of the health effects of elevated radiation levels, noting that nuclear-core meltdowns create many radioactive elements, including iodine-131, two isotopes of cesium, and possibly strontium, tellurium, and rubidium.

Iodine is actively taken up by the thyroid gland to make hormones. If iodine-131, which emits beta particles, is taken up, this can damage DNA and cause thyroid cancer... Vast amounts of caesium-137 were distributed across 40 per cent of Europe's surface after Chernobyl. Environmental levels remain elevated in wildlife, with restrictions still in place on eating some sheep farmed in the UK, and game and mushrooms from elsewhere.

Japan and its neighbors are monitoring air, food, and probably water just now to see which way the winds are blowing. Towards populated areas—Tokyo, the Koreas, China—would be horrible. The ocean seems a kinder alternative.

But what effects might radioactive elements have in the ocean?

Let's look at what we know about mercury. I reported here in 2009 on a study in Global Biogeochemical Cycles showing how mercury from fossil-fuel-burning and waste-burning plants in Asia falls into the Pacific Ocean near the Asian coastline and is then carried by large ocean currents east towards North America. Along the way it's ingested into the foodweb, eventually working its way up to tuna. Some 40 percent of Americans' exposure to mercury comes from eating tuna hunted in the Pacific Ocean.

So, just as with European sheep, caribou, and mushrooms, the fish of the Pacific are at risk in the event of a full meltdown at any of Japan's imperiled reactors. I would venture to guess that many more people depend on food from the Pacific Ocean than from sheep and mushrooms in Europe.

 

Tuna at japanese fish market. Credit: User:Fisherman, via Wikimedia Commons.Tuna at Japanese fish market. Credit: User:Fisherman, via Wikimedia Commons.

 

Finally, the amount of tsunami debris washed out to sea is enormous, and will likely travel ocean currents for some time, proving hazardous to shipping—far afield and far into the future.

On the plus side, these rafts of flotsam will also become highly-prized floating habitats for marine life to shelter under or within—particularly the larval life forms of so many fish and invertebrates. The ocean loves a reef, even a moveable reef.

 

nglish: Japanese tsunami debris on the open ocean, March 2011. Credit: US Navy, via Wikimedia Commons.Japanese tsunami debris on the open ocean, March 2011. Credit: US Navy, via Wikimedia Commons.

 

The papers:

  • Jacob I. Walter, et al. Transient slip events from near-field seismic and geodetic data on a glacier fault, Whillans Ice Plain, West Antarctica. 2011. J. Geophys. Res. DOI:10.1029/2010JF00175
  • Douglas A. Wiens, et al. Simultaneous teleseismic and geodetic observations of the stick–slip motion of an Antarctic ice stream. 2008. Nature. DOI: 10.1038/nature06990
  • Elsie M. Sunderland, et al. Mercury sources, distribution, and bioavailability in the North Pacific Ocean: Insights from data and models. 2009. Global Biog. Cycles. DOI:10.1029/2008GB003425

 

Science of the Quake

| Mon Mar. 14, 2011 6:40 PM EDT

Developments in the wake of Japan's triple disasters: earthquake, tsunami, nuclear.

The US Geological Survey upgraded Japan's 11 March earthquake today to 9.0 from 8.9.

Based on Japan's huge network of 1,200 GPS monitoring stations, the quake shifted the country's coastline some 4 meters / 13 feet to the east, and knocked Earth of its axis by 16.5 centimeters / 6.5 inches, shortening Earth's days by about 1.8 millionths of a second.

The BBC reports that geographical shift will require that GPS-based driving maps be updated, and nautical charts, too, since water depths have been changed. Furthermore, much of the flooded coastline appears to have subsided permanently—or as permanently as anything ever is on this restless planet—and will not be dry land again anytime in the near future.

 

Credit: NASA Earth Observatory image created by Jesse Allen, using data provided courtesy of NASA/GSFC/METI/ERSDAC/JAROS, and U.S./Japan ASTER Science Team.Credit: NASA Earth Observatory image created by Jesse Allen, using data provided courtesy of NASA/GSFC/METI/ERSDAC/JAROS, and U.S./Japan ASTER Science Team.

 

Here are before and after images of the the city of Ishinomaki in Miyagi Prefecture near the quake's epicenter. The "after" shot, above, was taken three days after the quake. Water still inundated the city. The "before" shot was from August 2008. Both are false color images: water is dark blue; vegetated land is red; dirt is tan; buildings are silver.

You can see how much of the vegetation in the agricultural fields has been stripped away. This is sure to have an impact on Japan's food production, perhaps for a while, since saltwater inundation is tough on farmlands. If people in the area depend on aquifers for fresh water, those could be affected by saltwater flooding too.

You can also see the extensive flooding around the Matsushima Air Base in the lower left corner of the image. It's not at all clear, at this point, just what pollution or toxins may have been unleashed from the air base and nearby industries.

 Credit: US Navy, via Wikimedia Commons.Credit: US Navy, via Wikimedia Commons.

 

Meanwhile much of Japan's chemical industry is still nonoperational due to power shortages. More worrisome is that fate of chemical plants in the tsunami zone. According to Chemical & Engineering News, there aren't many chemical manufacturing plants in this hardest hit region of northeastern Japan. But there are some. The effects on them of fires, earthquakes, tsunamis, and continued flooding remains largely unknown and/or undisclosed:

A raging fire at the Cosmo Energy refinery in Chiba that began March 11 touched off an overnight fire at the neighboring Chisso polyethylene and polypropylene plant. Chisso says that none of its workers were injured and that damage to the facility is relatively light. Polysilicon producer Tokuyama has a subsidiary... located in [an area] devastated by the tsunami. Tokuyama says it is assessing damage to the subsidiary and to its facilities elsewhere in Japan. Chemical manufacturer Tosoh says its staff in the Tohoku area is safe, including the staff of a plant in the town of Ishinomaki, which was largely destroyed by the tsunami. This facility was flooded and Tosoh says the extent of the damage is unclear.

 

Credit: NASA/GSFC/LaRC/JPL, MISR Team.Credit: NASA/GSFC/LaRC/JPL, MISR Team. 

In the images above you can see fires at several oil refineries and industrial complexes, including facilities in the Port of Sendai and a petrochemical facility in Shiogama, where a large explosion was reported. On the left is a natural-color image showing a large brown smoke plume extending about 85 kilometers / 53 miles southeast from the coastline. The image on the right was used to confirm that the brown plume was actually something in the air and not something on the ground/water. Here's an explanation of the technology used to ascertain that information from far away:

[T]he right-hand image is a stereoscopic "anaglyph" created from data in MISR’s [Multi-angle Imaging SpectroRadiometer aboard NASA’s Terra spacecraft] red spectral band, and generated by displaying the 46-degree backward view in red and 60-degree backward view in cyan. The separation between the red and cyan images is known as stereo parallax, and is related to the height of the observed features above the surface. Viewing the anaglyph with red-cyan glasses (red filter over the left eye) gives a perception of height. No separation is visible for the coastline, which is at sea level, but the clouds and plume are distinctly elevated. The height of the plume is estimated to be about 2 kilometers (1.2 miles), at a similar altitude as the nearby clouds.

 Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Plant. Credit: Japan Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport. AirPhoto, via Wikimedia Commons.Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. Credit: Japan Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport, AirPhoto, via Wikimedia Commons.

 

As for efforts to avert disaster at Japan's imperiled nuclear power plants, the New York Times reports near chaos among those running the show:

"They're basically in a full-scale panic" among Japanese power industry managers, said a senior nuclear industry executive. "They're in total disarray, they don't know what to do."

Most alarming of all is what's happening at the Fukushima Daiichi's reactor number 3 that exploded yesterday. In the current catalogue of bad possibilities, this one is the Mother of all Bad Possibilities, since the reactor uses a mixed oxide fuel, known as MOX, made with reprocessed plutonium and uranium oxides. If any of that gets out, the situation gets much worse faster, since inhaling plutonium is lethal, even tiny bits of it.

What Would Happen if an 8.9 Quake Hit the US?

| Fri Mar. 11, 2011 4:37 PM EST
The explosion of a gas tank by an earthquake on March 11, 2011 in Sendai, Japan.

A few days ago, driven by equal parts neuroses and scientific curiosity, I downloaded an app on my phone that tells me about recent earthquakes around the world. Over the past few days, I've noticed a bunch of small quakes off the eastern coast of Japan's Honshu island, exactly where the devastating 8.9 quake struck early Friday morning, killing thousands. I began to wonder: If I knew about the smaller quakes, then certainly seismologists must have, so why didn't anyone warn Japan? According to Morgan Moschetti, a research geophysicist at the United States Geological Survey, clusters of small earthquakes are extremely common, and "rarely do they have any predictive value." In this case, the earlier small quakes were what's known as foreshocks, previews to a larger event. But there's no way to distinguish a foreshock from a self-contained cluster. Here are some answers to a few other earthquake questions:

What would an 8.9 quake be like in the US?

Moschetti says that an 8.9 quake is only possible in subduction zones, areas where one plate is underneath another plate. The only US subduction zones are in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska. Seismologists didn't discover the subduction zone in the Pacific Northwest until about 20 years ago; cities in that region have been scrambling to improve their infrastructure ever since. The city of Sendai is relatively close to the fault where it happened, while Seattle and other Northwest cities are further away from the fault, but an earthquake in the region could still cause a large tsunami. The subduction zone in Alaska has been known about for longer; of course, Alaska is much less densely populated than Japan, so a quake there wouldn't be as deadly. A 9.2 quake in 1964 killed 131 people in south-central part of the state.

California isn't in a subduction zone, but it's still very seismically active. Because there have been several devastating quakes in the state inthe past century, California is a little further along in its seismic retrofitting than the Pacific Northwest. Still, a major earthquake could (and probably would) cause significant damage, especially in cities.

What if a quake like this hit in a poor country?

The 2010 earthquake in Haiti was a 7.0 on the Richter scale. At 8.9, Friday's Japan quake had roughly 1,000 times the energy of the Haiti quake. "Haiti's a great example of the kind of destruction that quakes can cause in the developing world," says Moschetti. "And imagine a quake that was 1,000 times more powerful than that one."

Could climate change cause earthquakes?

Over at Grist, Christopher Mims explains that melting ice and rising oceans, and even small weather changes could indeed cause seismic activitiy, but the USGS doesn’t have an official position on climate change's potential to cause earthquakes, and Moschetti was not willing to comment.

Did the GOP budget cuts target tsunami warning centers?

Why yes, reports Suzy Khimm, to the tune of $27 million less for USGS.

Did the moon have anything to do with the earthquake in Japan?

Nope, although some seismologists believe the moon's gravitational pull can cause tides that stress tectonic plates. But it's not thought to be a sginificant cause of seismic activity.

What are the differences between the Japan quake and the cluster of small quakes in Arkansas?

The USGS doesn't know a lot about the tectonics in the part of Arkansas where the quakes have been ocurring, but they're sure that the area is not as earthquake-prone as the Pacific rim. "You don’t have two plates moving relative to each other in that area," says Moschetti. He didn't comment on whether the Arkansas quakes were related to natural gas drilling, but two gas companies stopped fracking in the area this week, since it's possible (even likely) that the drilling activities contributed to the quakes.

Are US nuclear plants prepared for an earthquake?

Several nuclear plants in Japan shut down today, and one reported that it had lost some of its cooling water, forcing a precautionary evacuation of the surrounding area. Moschetti says that in the US, all nuclear plants have to go through a seismic permitting process to show that they are prepared for whatever size of earthquake is likely in their area, "but there's always a chance that an earthquake will happen where don’t expect it."

Why’d the tsunami hit Santa Cruz, California, but not Indonesia?

The direction in which a tsunami travels has to do with the geometry of the fault. In this case, the fault was oriented southwest-northeast, so the energy that caused the tsunami moved to the southeast.

Any tips for choosing where you live based on earthquake safety?

If your building or house is older than a few decades, ask your landlord or real estate agent if it has been seismically retrofitted. If you're in earthquake-prone area, it's better to live over bedrock, not sediment, since "sediment can amplify waves of motion in earthquake," says Moschetti. Geological composition varies by neighborhood; the USGS' National Seismic Hazard Mapping Project can, in some cases, help you determine whether your area is particularly vulnerable. First floor dwellings are generally safer than upper floors.

I heard people in Santa Cruz were surfing on the tsunami. Is that safe?
No.

Japanese Quakes, Tsunamis Map 1900-2011

| Fri Mar. 11, 2011 3:00 PM EST

This map shows the details of Japan's 8.9 source earthquake, 11 March 2011, embedded in a map of large quakes and tsunamis between 1900 and 2004.

 

This map shows the details of Japan's 8.9 source earthquake, embedded in a map of its historically larger quakes and tsunamis.

Image courtesy of NOAA's West Coast and Alaska Tsunami Warning Center.

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Un-greening the Capitol

| Fri Mar. 11, 2011 11:39 AM EST

I have a new piece up this morning highlighting the House GOP's all-out assault on the Environmental Protection Agency. That's just the beginning, though. Congressional Republicans have also declared war on the compostable cups and cutlery that were introduced as part of the Green the Capitol initiative that Democrats rolled out when they were in the majority.

It's basically the GOP's environmental agenda in a nutshell: irrational rejection of anything remotely smelling of green. I made my first visit to the House cafeteria yesterday since they brought back the Styrofoam. It's telling, really:

The office of Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) took a look at the GOP's program and estimated that it will actually cost $50 million over the next 10 years to un-green the Capitol. That's because reverting back to the Capitol's environmentally unfriendly ways means ending programs like composting and single-stream recycling, double-sided printing, reducing water use, and managing computer power more efficiently—all of which save money in the long run.

Oh, and not to mention jacking up health care costs if any Hill staffers should get cancer, since the EPA considers styrene "a suspected carcinogen." What was it the Republicans were saying about runaway spending again?

Eco-News Roundup: Friday March 11

| Fri Mar. 11, 2011 8:52 AM EST

Stories about health and the environment from our other blogs. 

Hook and Sinker: Tailhook mentality still prevalent in the military, report says.

Major Pain: New bill looks to outlaw abortion past 20 weeks based on fetal pain.

Recurring Condition: Medicare scammer in office, now fighting anti-drug fraud database.

Fiscal Pain: Billionaire David Koch laments fed budget cuts that'll hurt his bottom line.

Oz. of Prevention: The cost of a premature delivery-preventing drug is going up a hundred-fold.

Limited Resource: Oil may be disappearing faster than we'd expected. 

All About Oil: Wall Street doesn't want laws limiting oil price speculation. Obviously.

 

 

 

Tsunami Travel and Energy Maps

| Fri Mar. 11, 2011 6:30 AM EST

This is all happening in realtime as I post, but here goes.

 

Forecast map for tsunami travel times generated by Japan's 8.9 earthquake of 11 March 2011.Forecast map for tsunami travel times generated by Japan's 8.9 earthquake of 11 March 2011.

 

Warning and advisory map via NOAA's West Coast and Alaska Tsunami Warning Center.Warning and advisory map via NOAA's West Coast and Alaska Tsunami Warning Center.

 

Tsunami energy map. Via NOAA's West Coast and Alaska Tsunami Warning Center.

 Tsunami energy map. Via NOAA's West Coast and Alaska Tsunami Warning Center. Centimeters to inches conversions here.

Unspiking the Penis

| Wed Mar. 9, 2011 7:53 PM EST

A new article published in Nature finds that human boners used to have bumps. Lead author Cory McLean of Stanford was studying chimp and human DNA when he came across sequences that had been deleted during human evolution, one of which made human penises naturally rougher and tougher than they are today.

I talked to McLean by phone about his remarkable discovery and why the bumps went away. As McLean explained it, humans (like mice and chimps) have an androgen receptor gene that's necessary to develop penis bumps (penile spines, in scientific terms). Humans, at some point along the evolutionary road, lost the DNA needed to activate that receptor, and thus, do not have "spines" on our penises anymore.

So what exactly does a "penile spine" look like? "Depending on the species, some [spines] are bigger and spikier than other," McLean said. Human penile spines, if they existed, would probably be similar to chimps', which have a polka dot-esque distribution and are made of keratin, the same tough-yet-yielding substance that makes up our hair and nails.

The first time I heard "penile spines" I thought "ouch". But then, when McLean told me they were made out of keratin, I thought, hmmm, maybe the bumps increased female pleasure rather than diminished it. Think of ribbed condoms or bump-laden vibrators. I asked McLean what he thought the bumps were actually used for. "That's been the topic of research from a number of labs," McLean said, skillfully evading a personal answer to the question. "Some experiments have showed correlation between spines and promiscuity of species: species that are more monogamous, like humans, don't have spines." McLean cautioned that, as always, correlation doesn't mean causation. That said: "What's also been shown is that larger spines are correlated with faster copulation time, and so one idea is that by losing the spines, you have a kind of decrease in sensation for the male, intercourse takes longer, and that's been associated with increased bonding or intimacy."

Larger spines are correlated with faster copulation time

Makes you wonder if early human females preferred males who were more bonded to them, meaning they were more likely to stick around when the baby came, and thus mated more often with smoother-penised males. Or maybe early females just enjoyed the longer roll in the hay and kept mating with the males who took longer to orgasm. Those are my personal, non-scientific theories, but one theory that has actual research behind it is that as humans became more monogamous, males had a reduced need to scoop competitor's semen out of vaginas, and thus their bumpy penises morphed into the streamlined versions we have today. Either that, or the bumps were replaced by an even superior sperm-displacer: the coronal ridge.

These theories are all very interesting, but I can't help but wonder: if the penis was bumpy some eons ago, what was the clitoris like? As a woman, it's a little annoying to be able to read these cool articles about the evolution of the penis but see little written about the clitoris. Even more frustrating is to see science authors use the penis as the default genitals, even referring to the clitoris as "penis-like." (As we all start out as female, the penis should be described as "clitoris-like" rather than the other way around.) C'mon scientists, get to work! I want to be able to drop the phrase "clitoral spines" into dinner-party conversation.