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26 February 2016

[email protected]: Setting geoscience on fire

The popular science storytelling event [email protected] returned to the 2015 American Geophysical Union (AGU) Fall Meeting in San Francisco, CA last December. Sponsored by the NASA Applied Sciences Program and held in partnership with the Federation of Earth Science Information Partners (ESIP) and AGU’s Earth and Space Science Informatics (ESSI) Focus Group, the event featured 13 scientists sharing ideas and stories that made the audience laugh, cry and better understand our world.


13 January 2016

Underwater volcanoes may have sent carbon dioxide to the atmosphere at the end of the last ice age

During the last glacial period, Earth’s land and sea stored carbon as both dissolved carbon dioxide and biomass. But as the ice receded, water warmed and organisms decayed, that carbon surged into the atmosphere. Most of the released gas came from the atmosphere originally, but in a new study, a data anomaly hints that a small percentage of it came from volcanoes erupting on the ocean floor.


31 December 2015

Himalayan glacial lake threatens to flood Buddhist holy city

Himalayan lakes, like South Lhonak, are becoming more and more common as glaciers retreat due to warming temperatures, according to Anil V. Kulkarni, a glaciologist at the Divecha Center for Climate Change at the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore. Kulkarni wants to understand how quickly the lakes are growing and how dangerous they are. He studies South Lhonak Lake because it’s large and growing, which suggests that it is unstable, he said.


30 December 2015

Appliance upgrades that save the most water, energy and cost

A new analysis helps consumers choose which appliances to swap for more efficient models and save money in the process, with some surprising results. Best buys include the furnace and water heater, rather than the more visible clothes dryer and refrigerator, the researchers found.


Scientists develop new tools to anticipate coastal pollution in Maine

Scientists from the University of Maine, University of New Hampshire, and College of the Atlantic have now designed a new way to predict fine-scale watershed contamination along Maine’s coast. Their work will inform watershed management throughout the state and ultimately other coastal areas, said Sean Smith, a watershed geomorphologist at the University of Maine who presented the project at the 2015 American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting.


29 December 2015

In Antarctica, melting ice drives unusual phytoplankton growth

In most of the Southern Ocean, phytoplankton – the base of the marine food web – grow poorly because they’re starved for iron. But in the Amundsen Sea on the west coast of Antarctica, phytoplankton abound in summer. A new study now shows the reason behind the sea’s startling productivity: meltwater from an abutting ice shelf flows into the sea, buoys iron to the surface and jumpstarts phytoplankton growth.


Seesawing sea surface height corresponds with global temperatures, study finds

Patterns of sea level changes in the Pacific may be a better way to monitor global temperatures than measuring ocean temperatures at the sea surface, new research finds. Those changes in sea level can explain observed global temperature trends and even predict how much temperatures will change during the current El Niño event, according to the researchers.


28 December 2015

Storm runoff could help replenish dwindling California aquifers

Depleted groundwater supplies in the parched state of California have left many communities scrambling to secure water for the future. Now, researchers have a plan to recharge groundwater aquifers in Santa Cruz and Monterey counties with runoff captured from rainstorms. Using models that carefully characterize the region, they produced maps highlighting the best sites for stormwater capture in their own backyards.


Parts of Sierra Nevada Mountains more susceptible to drought than previously thought, study finds

Particular areas in California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains have a high capacity to store water but are more susceptible to droughts than previously thought, new research finds. In the new study, scientists studied the relationship between groundwater and stream flow in 10 strategically chosen locations throughout the Sierra Nevada in eastern California. They reported that high groundwater storage areas are losing the most water during the current drought.


23 December 2015

Chemical changes in groundwater precede earthquakes in Iceland, study finds

Northern Iceland is a geothermally active land where heat from deep below the crust melts snow and wreaths the land in steam. Now, new research shows that the tumultuous groundwater beneath northern Iceland’s mist may hold the key to predicting future earthquakes in the region. In a new study presented at the 2015 American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting, researchers found that concentrations of dissolved minerals in groundwater sharply increased before two major earthquakes in northern Iceland, possibly offering a strategy for earthquake prediction.


Large asteroid hit would make the world burn, go dark

Sixty-six million years ago, an asteroid crashed into Earth. Its impact, scientists believe, caused global catastrophic fires, transformed the climate, and caused the extinction of the dinosaurs. A new study shows that if a similar asteroid were to strike Earth today, the soot from fires alone would severely alter the climate and imperil life.


22 December 2015

Ancient solar storms may explain how Mars morphed into a cold, barren desert

In March of this year, the sun hurled a giant magnetic solar storm into Mars. The solar wind, full of charged particles, slammed into the red planet’s atmosphere, bouncing or “sputtering” the oxygen into deep space.

Researchers now think the same process could have evaporated Mar’s water several billion years ago, according to a new study presented at the 2015 American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting and recently published in AGU’s publication Geophysical Research Letters.


21 December 2015

Climate change and bark beetles spell doom for Rocky Mountain spruce forests

The combination of climate change and spruce bark beetles could drastically alter Rocky Mountain spruce and pine tree populations over the next three centuries, according to a new study. Using an improved model of forest growth, death, and regeneration, a group of scientists predicts that spruce populations will decline and lodgepole pines will take their place.

According to new research presented at the 2015 American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting, the demographics of a forested region can be dramatically affected by insect outbreaks and fires over time. In addition, different kinds of trees have different tolerance to drought, strong winds and temperature changes. “These act to create competition between individual species and even between trees,” said Adrianna Foster, an environmental scientist at the University of Virginia and lead author of the new study.


18 December 2015

A natural experiment: City in pristine Amazon shows pollution alters ecosystem

Human-made pollutants are changing cloud patterns over the Amazon, altering ecosystems in the process.

Sometimes, the best experiments come ready-made from nature. The Brazilian city of Manaus has a population of almost 2 million people and sits in the heart of an otherwise pristine stretch of Amazonian rainforest, near the place where the Negro and Solimões tributaries fuse to form the Amazon River. New research using the area as a testing ground shows that Manaus city pollutants meddle with the Amazon’s cloud cover, rain and ecosystem, according to scientists who presented the finding at the 2015 American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting.


Policy changes in Mongolian capital could improve health, decreasing lives lost to air pollution

Exposure to dangerous contaminants in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia could increase by 10 percent or more by 2024, exacerbating health problems in one of the most polluted cities in the world, a new study finds.

Residents of Ulaanbaatar, the most populous city in Mongolia, rely heavily on coal to survive frigid winters in a valley where air pollution is easily trapped. Air pollution in Ulaanbaatar caused an estimated 1,250 premature deaths in 2014, according to Drew Hill, a graduate student in environmental health at the University of California, Berkeley. Hill was part of a research team that presented an air pollution and health report to the Mongolian Ministry of the Environment and Green Development in the summer of 2014.


Rainforests not so rainy: Cutting trees cuts rainfall

Deforestation threatens to upset the delicate water balance within the Amazon rainforest by altering not just ground cover but patterns of rainfall overhead, according to a new study.

Previous research has shown that during the dry season, areas of the Amazon cleared for cattle grazing get more rainfall than the surrounding forest. But most of this research was conducted in the 1980s, when the Amazon was deforested in small patches only a few kilometers wide, said Jaya Khanna, a researcher at Princeton University and lead author of the new study. Khanna’s is the first long-term study of the effects of deforestation on precipitation in the Amazon. Her results, presented at the 2015 American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting, show that rainfall patterns in cleared areas today are vastly different from those in the 1980s.


17 December 2015

Music of the Earth

Stanford University’s Miles Traer, once again, is cartooning from the AGU Fall Meeting in San Francisco.


Beware the Icebergs of Pluto

Stanford University’s Miles Traer, once again, is cartooning from the AGU Fall Meeting in San Francisco.


Tiny fuel spills at gas stations can contaminate soil

The oil or gas leaks that grab headlines tend to be big events such as the Deepwater Horizon spill in 2010, but smaller-scale spills can be a problem, too, new research finds. Even a few drops dribbled from the nozzle of a gas station fuel pump can penetrate concrete and contaminate soil and groundwater below, according to researchers at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland.

In the past, regulators and researchers assumed that most spilled fuel would evaporate into the atmosphere, said Markus Hilpert, a hydrologist at Johns Hopkins University. The possibility that small fuel droplets might seep through the concrete pad under a gas station to the soil and water below was largely ignored, he said.


Harbor seals hang out on glacier ice

Harbor seals are the most widespread pinniped species in the world. They range as far south as Baja California in Mexico, and as far north as Artic Canada and Greenland. In the colder areas of that vast distribution, they sometimes make themselves at home on floating chunks of ice below tidewater glaciers.

Glaciers are constantly on the move, flowing slowly downhill under the force of their own weight. When that path leads them into the ocean, they’re called tidewater glaciers. During the summer, harbor seals, up to several thousand at a time, congregate in Alaska’s tidewater glacier fjords.