Blue Marble - March 2012

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.

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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?

Virginia Supreme Court Ends Cuccinelli's Case Against Climate Scientist

| Fri Mar. 2, 2012 7:05 PM EST

Blue Marble readers are no stranger to the story of Pennsylvania State University climate scientist Michael Mann, who has been the subject of a number of right-wing attacks over the years. (See this feature or this video for starters.) For the past few years, Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli has been on a quest to sift through Mann's email and documents from his time at the University of Virginia to find evidence that he has been making climate change up.

But on Friday, the Virginia Supreme Court ruled that Cuccinelli does not have the authority to force UVA to turn over Mannn's documents. He had attempted to use the "Fraud Against Taxpayers Act" to demand the documents in his efforts to find something to show that Mann had indeed committed some act of "fraud" in his climate change research. Cuccinelli, of course, has made it clear he's no fan of the conclusion that the earth is warming and it's caused by human activity.

Mann sent Mother Jones a comment via email shortly after the Supreme Court issued its decision:

I'm pleased that this particular episode is over. Its sad, though, that so much money and resources had to be wasted on Cuccinelli's witch hunt against me and the University of Virginia, when it could have been invested, for example, in measures to protect Virginia's coast line from the damaging effects of sea level rise it is already seeing.
One would have hoped that the fact alone that the Inspector General of the National Science Foundation last year looked into the allegations by Cuccinelli and other climate change deniers against me, and found that there was absolutely no basis to them, would have ended the attacks against me. But as I describe in my just published book The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars, they are part of something much larger—a coordinated assault against the scientific community by powerful vested interests who simply want to stick their heads in the sand and deny the problem of human-caused climate change, rather than engage in the good faith debate about what to do about it.

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:

 

 

Barnes & Noble, National Geographic's Illegal Logging Ties

| Fri Mar. 2, 2012 7:00 AM EST
A cleared Indonesian rainforest.

Here's something to consider before you reach for your next book at Barnes & Noble: Its pages may come from Asia Pulp and Paper—a leading Indonesian company that's come under scrutiny for its dodgy environmental practices. APP claims that illegal logs are not part of its wood supply. That's not true, according to a yearlong investigation of the company by Greenpeace, the results of which were published yesterday.

APP, it turns out, has been violating Indonesian and international laws protecting the country's rainforests, in particular the ramin tree species. Ramin trees exist primarily in the country's Sumatra region, and are key to the survival of the endangered Sumatran tiger. The trees are protected under the United Nations CITES treaty (Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species).

In the past, APP's questionable sourcing practices have led companies from Mont Blanc to Mattel to cut off ties with the supplier. But the Greenpeace investigation found that APP's paper still ends up in products you'll find on shelves at Barnes & Noble bookstores, in Xerox products, and—more surprisingly—in the pages of National Geographic. (The magazine has since issued a statement to Greenpeace pledging to stop doing business with APP). You can browse through other companies using APP products here (PDF).

Texas Farmer Takes On TransCanada

| Thu Mar. 1, 2012 7:00 AM EST
Red'Arc Farm in Direct, Texas

The debate over the Keystone XL pipeline has moved from the White House to a farm in Texas. Third-generation farmer Julia Trigg Crawford is engaged in a court battle over whether TransCanada, the company that wants to build the massive pipeline from Canada to Texas, has a right to declare eminent domain on a portion of her family's farm.

Earlier this week, TransCanada announced that it intends to move forward with the portion of the Keystone XL pipeline that extends from Oklahoma down to Texas. This 485-mile-long portion of the pipeline doesn't cross international borders, which means it won't need approval from the State Department or President Obama. But it does cross right through Red'Arc Farm, which Crawford and her family own.

The farm is in Direct, Texas, a small town about 20 miles northwest of Paris (city notable for it's own 65-foot-tall replica of the Eiffel Tower, complete with a cowboy hat on top). Along with her father, sister, and brother, Crawford, 53, tends to her soybeans, wheat, corn, orchards, and cattle on this 600-acre property where the Red River and Bois d'Arc Creek meet. Her grandfather bought the land in 1948, and Crawford currently lives in the farmhouse.

Back in 2008, the family got notice that TransCanada was interested in running a pipeline through a 30-acre pasture area. Crawford says they were first offered $7,000 for use of the land, though the figure later increased to $20,000. The Crawfords weren't entirely opposed to having a pipeline run through the farm since there are several others running through the county. "Pipelines are not foreign here," Crawford says. But then an initial archeological assessment of the property conducted by a firm the company hired found that the portion of the pasture the company was first interested in was full of artifacts left by the Caddo, a local American Indian tribe. That was not a big surprise to Crawford. "I pick up pieces of pottery all the time when I walk the dogs," she says. She keeps the bits of pottery and arrowheads she finds in a large jar.

So the company proposed an alternate route through another corner of the same pasture, hoping to avoid the archeological site. But according to the next inspection the archeological firm undertook, there were no artifacts in this new corner. That the second dig turned up nothing made Crawford suspicious, and she decided to get an independent survey of the site—which again turned up quite a few artifacts. She hoped that the reports would force TransCanada to pick a new route, but she says the company insisted on going right through the pasture. "They said if you don't sign the easement we have the right to condemn the land and take it through eminent domain," she said.

She had other concerns about the pipeline, like the repercussions of a spill or the impact building the line might have on her ability to use the pasture. She says she tried to talk to the local contact person for the company and asked for concessions like thicker pipe metal, deeper burial, and assurance that her family would be compensated if the pipeline spilled into the creek they use for irrigation. The company didn't offer any concessions, she says, and instead took the Crawfords to court last fall to claim eminent domain on the property. (The company has taken a similar tack with landowners in Nebraska as well.)