Science Doesn’t Sleep (9.2.08)

Touchdown! The Tigers Win the Game!
He’s excited because he’s getting smarter.
Creative Commons License
photo credit: foundphotoslj

So here’s what went down after you logged off.

Crew aboard the International Space Station had a bit of excitement over the long weekend (on top of the presumably high levels created by living in space) – as they had to fire the station’s thrusters in a “debris avoidance maneuver.” This is a fancy way of saying they were about to be hit with space trash.

Not really a “team player?” No worries – even watching sports improves brain function.

The Rodney Dangerfield of the solar system: Astronomer Heidi Hammel wants you to know why the Icy Giants deserve more respect.

Even geniuses make mistakes: Einstein made at least 23 of them.

He was only 18 when he died, but King Tut may already have been a father – of twins.

Rap + Physics = awesome. A rap video about the science behind CERN’s Large Hadron Collider has been viewed over 600,000 times. It’s no dramatic hamster – but for a video about science, that’s pretty solid.

Meltdown: The Houston Chronicle weighed in on climate change today – what are your thoughts?

Live From the Poles: North Lake and the Journey Home

Our guest blogger today is Chris Linder, a Research Associate at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts. He is the project manager and field photographer for the National Science Foundation-sponsored Live from the Poles project. He’s been sending us weekly updates about their progress.

On July 21, scouts, summer campers and Ecoteens had a chance to get their most pressing climate questions answered from Ian Joughin, the leader of the Greenland Glacier Expedition that Chris has been writing about here through a live satellite link to the campsite in Greenland; later that night, adults got their turn. You can listen in, below.


The team is now back from the Greenland; here’s Chris’ last post on what they learned.

North Lake and the Journey Home

It has been a whirlwind since my last post—a hectic final week on the Greenland ice sheet studying two glacial lakes, a helicopter transfer back to the town of Ilulissat, and a long series of flights taking us home. Warm socks and down jackets are now a thing of the past—I’m typing this dispatch in 87-degree heat in Seattle (I know that’s not really hot for Texans, but it’s quite a tough adjustment for me after a month of subfreezing temperatures!)

A final aerial survey just before we left showed
that the lakes were beginning to form ice on the
surface again. As winter returns to the ice, the
lakes will freeze solid and remain frozen
until the next summer. © Chris Linder, WHOI

Our final week on the ice was dedicated to exploring two nearby lakes, one of which had recently drained (dubbed “North Lake”) and another that was partially full of water when we arrived (dubbed “North North Lake”).

North Lake made the news earlier this year when Dr. Sarah Das (Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution) and Dr. Ian Joughin (University of Washington Applied Physics Lab/Polar Science Center) published a pair of papers in the journal Science about the spectacular draining event that they captured with their instrumentation in July 2006. That summer, a giant hole called a moulin opened up in the lake bed and drained the entire water volume (which is a lot; this lake is several kilometers long!) in an hour and a half. This year, the lake was already empty when we arrived (in fact, we had already heard from colleagues that it drained on July 10, the day we arrived at South Lake camp), so the research team had the freedom to explore the empty lake basin on foot.

The dimpled surface on these tilted blocks shows
that these were part of the former lake bed. The
cracking of the ice sheet surface caused them to break
free and float to the surface as the lake drained.
© Chris Linder, WHOI

Our visits to the North Lake basin revealed a bizarre landscape of car-sized blocks, canyons, rivers and waterfalls. The variation in the landscape on the ice sheet, particularly in the drained lake beds, is staggering. I expected it to be, well, flat, and white.

What we saw was quite different—towering blocks of pushed-up ice, rivers of freezing melt water carving their way through 60-foot deep canyons, gaping bottomless cracks and holes. The color of the ice ranges from opaque white to clear to bluebird blue. To my glaciologist companions, the landscape was also an open book. The blocks indicate where major cracks occurred (the blocks are pieces of the ice sheet that are broken loose during the cracking), and the rivers lead us to the crevasses (cracks) or holes (moulins) where the water was still pouring through the ice sheet to the bedrock. If you put your ear to the cracks, you can hear the water echoing in the depths.


Moulins, or holes in the ice sheet,
can be an otherworldly blue.
© Chris Linder, WHOI

It will still be some time before the final picture of the 2008 lake draining can be told. The scientists had only a brief amount of time to examine their instruments and prepare them for another year of data collecting before we had to pack up and fly out. In the coming months, scientists will be examining the data their instruments collected over the previous year. Dr. Mark Behn, a scientist from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution’s Geology and Geophysics department (and resident “icequakes” expert), had this comment about the data he did look at:

“Even with a 10 minute look, I can see that the quality of the data is good, which tells me the instruments are working. We can also see the timing of large cracking events that drain the lakes, which stand out as dramatic spikes on the record.”

Be sure to check the Polar Discovery website to read dispatches about our other adventures at North Lake, including the release of a harmless tracer dye into a moulin and the investigation of “North North Lake.” 

Thank you to everyone who came in to the museum on July 21 to talk with moderator Twila Moon and Dr. Ian Joughin live from the ice. Stay tuned for future Live from the Poles expeditions on the Polar Discovery website. Until then, best wishes and thanks again for reading,

Chris

Interested in learning more about Chris, his team and their journey to Greenland?
Learn about the purpose of this trip.
Travel to Greenland with him.
Read what they did their first week.

Paul’s Fourth of July Picnic Piñata

A Smörgåsbord of Alternative Energy Treats à la Carte Sure to Set Off Some Fireworks!

Algae
Creative Commons License photo credit: Sarah Camp

Independence Day is here, and it’s time to fire up the grill with a few tasty bites from the overflowing pantry of alternative energy. For an appetizer, dig into some ocean algae that may one day soon be a superior producer of biofuels, at least according to researchers from Kansas State University. Well, don’t actually eat them, because they are probably not too tasty, and that’s good news, because using algae to make fuel could leave more corn (that would otherwise be used for biofuels) on the market for much-needed food supplies.

Another way to use tiny living things to make energy for us is to let microbes turn hard-to-reach oil into easier-to-extract natural gas. That is the goal of a group of Canadian and British scientists. If their research goes well, injecting microorganisms into wells formerly deemed depleted could renew production. And when will this exciting development get those gasoline prices below $4 a gallon again? Well, let’s see, the original biological process took tens of millions of years, so….

previous ms
Creative Commons License photo credit: atomic0x

What better way to have fun in the sun on Independence Day than with a solar powered car. A group of students from Iowa State University are planning to compete in 2,400-mile race from Texas to Canada in a $400,000 sun-powered vehicle that looks like a souped-up ping-pong table-but hey, that’s a zero emissions ping-pong table that can cruise at over 30 miles per hour. More (solar) power to them!

You may one day declare your independence from less efficient chemical batteries to power your stuff as fuel cells become more efficient. Researchers in Germany are working with carbon nanotubes to make components for fuels cells that are ten times lighter and weight far less than conventional amorphous carbon structures used now. Even more impressive, these tiny-only several atoms thick-tubes boast 1000 times the electrical conductivity of their conventional counterparts.

For something a little more practical for you, the average American celebrating the quintessential summer holiday, you can get your very own fuel-cell-powered car and its solar-powered hydrogen production plant (which makes fresh fuel for the fuel cell)-and the whole package is only $99.99! Well, the model car is only about six inches long, but the science is real-and very cool. You’re sure to be the hit of the picnic.

PICT1015
Creative Commons License photo credit: s2art

As the warm July breezes whisk away your paper plates and blow that BBQ smoke right back in your face, rather than complain about the weather, celebrate the fact that Texas has the fastest-growing wind power industry in the USA. An ultra-clean, and only somewhat noisy, wind turbine-or a whole farm of them-may soon be coming to a desolate hilltop near you. The question is, “What’s the next big thing in Texas energy?” and the answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind. Big time oilman T. Boone Pickens is betting $10 billion on that.

Another hot topic (aren’t they all?) for this hot month is geothermal energy-producing steam with the natural heat from the earth’s interior. I just got back from Iceland, where that clean and renewable source provides 90% of home heating energy-and allows for really long hot showers. Here in the US, we could supply the electrical needs for over 260 million Americans if we tapped in to only 5% of the geothermal potential available in our own underground. There are plenty of challenges to make this work, but you can bet that as hydrocarbon prices soar, those obstacles won’t seem quite so big.

As that sweet smelling smoke from the wieners and burgers on the grill wafts into the upper atmosphere, don’t overlook the contribution that it adds to your carbon footprint, and how that footprint contributes to global warming and climate change. Scientists are realizing just how hard it is for individuals to influence those numbers significantly-even the austere lifestyle of a Buddhist monk produces about 1/3 the carbon emissions of a typical energy-hungry American. So do we just give up? Of course not-we need to think more about alternatives already mentioned here-and walk more. The person who comes up with the carbon-free barbecue that still delivers that smoky flavor might be up for a Nobel Prize, at least in my book.

When you finally get back to the crib, your belly full of beef (or veggie burgers) and your eyes glazed from too many red, white and blue exploding chrysanthemums and Catherine wheels, you can settle back into your chair and read up on more energy topics the old-fashioned way-by the cozy glow of a zero-emissions gravity-powered lamp. Now, that’s a down-to-earth solution!

Happy Fourth of July!

Cold ice & warm socks

Our guest blogger today is Chris Linder, a Research Associate at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts. He is the project manager and field photographer for the National Science Foundation-sponsored Live from the Poles project. From July 8-25, Chris will be posting daily updates about a research team studying glaciers in Greenland to the Polar Discovery website. In addition, he will be making live phone calls from the ice to museums across the US, including HMNS. Check the full schedule here.

My name is Chris Linder; I’m a photographer and researcher from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) in Massachusetts. From July 8-25, I’ll be writing Beyond Bones posts once a week from a research campsite on top of an ice sheet in Greenland.

The researchers, from WHOI and the University of Washington, are studying the lakes that form on top of the ice sheet in summer. In previous years, measurements have shown that these lakes, which can be up to mile long, drain very suddenly and completely in a few hours. The water flows through a massive crack, called a crevasse, straight down (roughly a mile) to the bedrock. The amount of water flowing per second is greater than Niagara Falls.

 A Glacial Lake

Once the water gets to the bedrock, it acts as a lubricating layer, allowing the glacier to move more quickly. Using a suite of long-term monitoring instruments, we are hoping to learn exactly how quickly, and the effect that these slip-slide events are having on the overall speed of Greenland’s glaciers. To see an animation of how this process works, click here

Why should we care what happens in Greenland? When glacier ice oozes off the land and into the ocean, it adds to the volume of ocean water, and causes the sea level to rise. Since 38% of the world’s population lives within 60 miles of the coast, you can see how a slowly disappearing coastline affects billions of people worldwide. With the knowledge of how the lakes are affecting glacial motion, scientists who create climate change models will be able to more accurately determine the future impact of global warming on our coastlines.

P1100898
Creative Commons License photo credit: al_green

In addition to these blog entries, I hope you’ll visit our expedition website  to see daily photo essays about what the researchers are discovering about Greenland’s glaciers and life in the ice camp.

Me on the ice

So what am I doing now? In these last few days before I get on the long series of flights to Greenland, my task is to sort, fold, organize, squish, and pack roughly 200 pounds worth of photography and camping equipment into hard cases and waterproof duffel bags. Part of the problem is trying to imagine what I need to be wearing in subfreezing temperatures – when the current temperature is 80 degrees. Just 20 minutes ago, in fact, I realized that I hadn’t packed a single pair of socks!

I hope you tune in later this month when I post another entry to Beyond Bones—from the ice. Or, come to the museum on July 21st, when I’ll be calling the museum to answer questions from the public live over a satellite phone (6:30pm in the Burke Baker Planetarium).

-Chris