Hot, Humid and Green at the South Pole

Posted June 8th, 2016 at 11:16 am (UTC-5)
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On a good week, the greenhouse can produce upwards of 10 pounds of fresh produce—enough for two to three fresh salads a week for the entire station. (Refael W. Klein)

On a good week, the greenhouse can produce upwards of 10 pounds of fresh produce—enough for two to three fresh salads a week for the entire station. (Refael W. Klein)

The temperature has increased—thank goodness.  Negative 100F (-73C) tends to lose its novelty after a few days—especially when you have to walk through it on your way to and from work.  There are only so many times someone can tell you, “wow, it’s still minus 100F” over burnt morning coffee, over-steeped afternoon tea, or a 10 pm night-cap of cheap cognac, before the exciting climatic phenomena sloughs off its diamond-encrusted aura, and your frost-nipped ear is no longer a badge of honor, just a painful reminder of warmer climates.

Negative 60, more or less, is what it has been all week.  Warm for winter at the South Pole.  It seems odd to apply the word “warm” to a temperature 92 degrees Fahrenheit below freezing, but a 40 degree, positive temperature swing is hard not to notice–refreshingly pleasant, like an Indian summer New Year after a White Christmas.

Of course, minus 60F (-51C) is by no means warm, even for us ice-hardened Antarctic explorers.  Like I said, it’s really just the massive temperature change in the last 48 hours that has lent me the illusion of sweat building up beneath my green, polypropylene shirt during my afternoon walk to the Atmospheric Research Observatory.  In another day, when minus 60 is the new normal and my body’s metabolism has dropped from warp-speed to mach-3, I’ll be as cold as ever.  When all is said in done, minus 60 is as unnatural as minus 100, and like a Yakuza crime boss or an ounce of fresh ground nutmeg, it will kill you or make you extremely uncomfortable if you don’t treat it with respect.

Humid, warm, and smelling of earth, the greenhouse is a great place to kick back, relax and enjoy an out-of-date issue of your favorite magazine. (Refael W. Klein)

Humid, warm, and smelling of earth, the greenhouse is a great place to kick back, relax and enjoy an out-of-date issue of your favorite magazine. (Refael W. Klein)

When my patience wears thin with the cold, the darkness and the dry air, (in other words, winter at the South Pole) and I’m tired of not being able to feel my nose or toes or fingers, I escape to the station’s most perfect sanctuary, the greenhouse, with a good book or some degenerate gonzo journalism.

The name “greenhouse” is a bit of a misnomer, a South Pole colloquialism, if you will.  In reality, it’s a completely enclosed hydroponics facility, not the light-filled glass building that probably comes to mind.  As the story goes, the greenhouse was never part of the original Amundsen-Scott station design.  The space it occupies was an accessory lab/storage room.  As chance would have it, one of the first National Science Foundation (NSF) research grants at the new, elevated South Pole Station was given to a university group interested in a proof of concept for a hydroponic food system they had designed for theoretical deployment to outer space.

To the joy of those living at the South Pole that winter, the hydroponics facility worked superbly.  “Greenhouse salads” were enjoyed on a weekly basis, and fresh herbs—basil, cilantro, dill—were given to the kitchen each week to be incorporated into sauces and soups.

Tim Ager, a greenhouse volunteer, spends a late evening mixing nutrients for the hydroponics system. (Refael W. Klein)

Tim Ager, a greenhouse volunteer, spends a late evening mixing nutrients for the hydroponics system. (Refael W. Klein)

Morale was the highest it had been in seasons, and when the university was done testing its system, the NSF worked with the research group to keep the greenhouse in place (I suppose it was cheaper to keep it here than fly it back to the United States!) and to train station volunteers in its operation.

Today, the greenhouse is humid and verdant.  Tall cucumber vines and tomato plants climb towards the ceiling, where full spectrum sodium-lights shine down with enough intensity to give one a sunburn.   A green couch has been placed in an anteroom that is used for seed propagation and equipment storage, and a coffee table has been improvised out of an old, metal shipping trunk—probably one of the original ones used to send down supplies when the greenhouse project began.

The smell of foliage and humidity are instantly soothing—like seeing land after months adrift on a raft in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.  It only takes a few moments of exposure to this artificial environment before you lose yourself.  The icecap–something foreign and forgotten—melts away, and it’s easier to imagine you’re sitting in the National Botanic Garden reading a book, rather than in the middle of a barren, frozen continent.  Or, perhaps it’s just the additional oxygen playing tricks on my mind.

Refael Klein
Refael Klein is a Lieutenant Junior Grade in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Commissioned Officer Corps (NOAA Corps). He's contributing to Science World during his year-long assignment working and living in the South Pole.

Did our Sun Snatch Planet 9 from Another Solar System?

Posted June 3rd, 2016 at 4:00 pm (UTC-5)
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Planet 9 captured by Sun from another star system (Lund University)

Planet 9 captured by Sun from another star system (Lund University)

Is it possible that the new-found theoretical Planet 9 is actually an exoplanet, a planet from another solar system?

According to astronomers at Sweden’s Lund University, it’s “highly likely” that Planet 9 was actually “snatched” from another solar system by our young sun some 4.5 billion years ago, or within 100 million years after its formation.

In January, astronomers Konstantin Batygin and Mike Brown from the California Institute of Technology – Caltech – got the science community buzzing when they revealed evidence of a big planet wildly and broadly circling the Sun in the outskirts of the solar system.

Researcher Alexander Mustill (Lund University)

Researcher Alexander Mustill (Lund University)

Findings related to its discovery are based on factors such as the gravitational behavior of a group of objects that are mostly orbiting beyond the Kuiper belt.

While Batygin and Brown have been searching the skies to directly image Planet 9, so far it hasn’t been seen.

The Swedish researchers have conducted a new computer model based study that has been published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society Letters.

Scientists have long thought that stars are formed in tight clusters.

Since they tend to be close to each other while in their cluster, the astronomers figured this is a perfect opportunity for one star to ‘steal’ a planet or planets from another as they brush by each other.

This led them to realize that Planet 9 was probably taken by our sun as it passed close to another star inside its cluster.

So if Planet 9 was stolen from another star system does its system still exist?

“Probably yes,” says Alexander Mustill, an astronomer at Lund University and the study’s lead author.

“The system would have about the same age as our own, since it would have formed in the same star cluster, so the star would still be burning its nuclear fuel like the Sun, said Mustill in an email to VOA’s Science World.

“There is a chance though that the original star was more massive than the Sun. If that were the case, it wouldn’t live as long, and it could now be a “dead” white dwarf,” he said.

Mustill said that the name and location of Planet 9’s original home solar system, unfortunately, is pretty much impossible to determine, since our Sun and the other star have been traveling through the Milky Way for many billions of years. He says that star orbits cannot be traced back so long ago.

Other scientists are studying the skies to look for so called “solar siblings” of stars that might have formed in the same cluster as the Sun.

This artistic rendering shows the distant view from Planet Nine back towards the sun. (Caltech/R. Hurt (IPAC))

This artistic rendering shows the distant view from Planet Nine back towards the sun. (Caltech/R. Hurt (IPAC))

According to Mustill, in order to determine whether or not a star was born in the same star cluster as the Sun, scientists need to find similarities in the abundances of trace elements in the Sun and in other stars.

While getting an exact identification is impossible, Mustill says that some scientists contend that star cluster M67 may have been the original home of the Sun. If so, it could have also been the original home of Planet 9 and its host star.

Since it’s also possible Planet 9’s original star may have already died, Mustill says that perhaps some of the events that led to our Sun’s capture of the planet may have impacted the system’s remaining planets.

“Stealing another planet from its star is easier if the planet is already quite far away from its star, in our model a few hundred times the distance between the Earth and the Sun,” said Mustill.

So how did Planet 9 develop the wide orbit around our sun theorized by Batygin, Brown and others?

“In our paper we argue that this could have happened as a result of ‘planet – planet scattering’, where planets in a system kick each other around due to their gravitational forces,” explained Mustill.

He says that because of this, it’s possible the star system’s other planets – Planet 9’s siblings – may have been either kicked into interstellar space, smashed into each other or into their star.

“So Planet 9’s original system could well have ended up more chaotic and less ordered than our own,” said Mustill.

Lund University interview with Alexander Mustill

Rick Pantaleo
Rick Pantaleo maintains the Science World blog and writes stories for VOA’s web and radio on a variety of science, technology and health topics. He also occasionally appears on various VOA programs to talk about the latest scientific news. Rick joined VOA in 1992 after a 20 year career in commercial broadcasting.

At South Pole, a Fine Line Between Frostbite & Asphyxiation

Posted June 1st, 2016 at 2:03 pm (UTC-5)
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At the South Pole, ultra-cold temperatures mean ultra-clear night skies, and ample opportunity to capture images of Auroras. (Photo by Hamish Wright)

At the South Pole, ultra-cold temperatures mean ultra-clear night skies, and ample opportunity to capture images of Auroras. (Photo by Hamish Wright)

Today it hit minus 100F (minus 73 Celsius) — a 30-degree drop from where temperatures were last night. The wind has picked up as well and, if you factor that into the equation, it’s a bone-chilling minus 140F (minus 95 Celsius).

SOUTH POLE JOURNAL
Refael Klein blogs about his year
working and living at the South Pole. Read his earlier posts here.

In 2012, a record low of minus 117F (minus 82 Celsius)was reached at the South Pole, so I guess in the scheme of things, it isn’t that unbearably frigid outside. At least that’s what I’m telling myself as I zip up my 1000-fill, red goose down jacket, open the station’s 3-inch thick refrigerator doors, and step outside into the dark, flat, frozen wasteland that has been my home for the past 7 months.

The truth of the matter, and what you will hear from most people who have spent any meaningful time in Antarctica’s interior, is that the “real” temperature doesn’t matter, it’s the wind or lack thereof that makes one day feel cold and another “warm”. A calm day at minus 90 (minus 67 Celsius) feels no different than a calm day at minus 60 (minus 51 Celsius), and a windy 40 below zero (minus 40 Celsius) can be nauseously uncomfortable.

My walk to work this morning was on the nauseously uncomfortable side of the temperature spectrum. The first 100 yards weren’t too bad. The wind was on my side and thick, green Auroras stretched from one horizon to the other, oscillating in and out across the sky like a sidewinder in pursuit of prey.

At 100 yards from the station, the flag line to the Atmospheric Research Observatory (ARO) dog legs to the right. It’s not a big turn, maybe 15 degrees, but it’s enough to move the wind from a point or two on your side to head on. This is when it begins to get cold. Whatever warmth you brought with you from the station has long since disappeared, and the heat your body generates as it struggles forward is stripped away before it can do you any good. You get colder and colder, and all you can do about it is walk faster, get to your destination quicker.

The South Pole sauna is popular among those trying to remember what it means to be warm. When the heater is on full blast, temperatures can reach as high as 230F. (Photo by Refael Klein)

The South Pole sauna is popular among those trying to remember what it means to be warm. When the heater is on full blast, temperatures can reach as high as 230F. (Photo by Refael Klein)

Of course, what suffers the worst are your extremities, especially your face. There are only so many neck gators and balaclavas you can wear before you diminish your ability to breathe, and at 10,000 feet, you need to be able to breathe as deeply as you can. It’s a fine line between a frost-bitten nose and asphyxiation — a fine line I don’t always get right.

A numb nose and frozen fingers aren’t the worst part of the cold. It’s when your numb nose and frozen fingers begin to warm up that things become painful. Blood slowly makes its way back into frigid tissue, expanding shut capillaries, and warming up hibernating nerve cells. All in all, it feels like dipping an open wound into a bucket of high-proof alcoholic moonshine and then rubbing it in a bowl of coarse kosher salt—it hurts like hell!

Eventually though, you do warm up. Your nose stops shouting expletives at you, and enough dexterity returns to your fingers so you can unzip the zipper on your jacket and take it off. It’s a 170F temperature change between the outside world and inside ARO. Like walking into a sauna: you strip off your clothes, find a seat and sip on some water until you adjust to the heat.

Back at the main station, we actually have a real sauna. It’s what I’m looking forward to as I don layer after layer of fleece and begin to make my way back for lunch through the unholy cold: a 10-foot-by-10-foot hardwood box with an electric heater covered in river rocks. Humid air and so much heat that sometimes you have to cool off by stepping outside. A little bit of bliss. An unexpected extravagance at the bottom of the world.

More South Pole Diaries
At South Pole, a Fine Line Between Frostbite & Asphyxiation
Watching Climate Change in Action at South Pole

In South Pole Darkness, Radiant Moon Shines Like Sun
Shimmering Auroras Offset South Pole Boredom

Refael Klein
Refael Klein is a Lieutenant Junior Grade in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Commissioned Officer Corps (NOAA Corps). He's contributing to Science World during his year-long assignment working and living in the South Pole.

Stranded During Winter, South Polers Forced to Make What They Need

Posted May 24th, 2016 at 7:52 pm (UTC-5)
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Hard at work, the author gingerly drills pilot holes into a piece of plywood that will serve as the stool's cross member. His toes are crossed--hopefully the wood wont split.

Hard at work, the author gingerly drills pilot holes into a piece of plywood that will serve as the stool’s cross member. His toes are crossed–hopefully the wood won’t split.

The moon has set and the South Pole is awash in darkness. It has been cloudy and windy for the past few days, and the blowing snow has formed new drifts across what was once a well-worn footpath paralleling the bamboo flag line between the main station and the Atmospheric Research Observatory (ARO). Even with my eyes adjusted to the lack of light, I can only see an arms-length in front of me. My boots, covered in snow, are invisible—completely swallowed by the landscape.

Every now and then, I hit a soft patch of snow or some sort of wind-carved snow structure that protrudes from the otherwise flat ice cap at ankle height. I am a zombie walking to work, tripping and falling over myself, sometimes hitting the ground, and lurching forward with an outstretched hand, trying my best to protect my face from a cold, hard impact.

A face full of snow is no way to begin a morning. Neither is hopping out of bed, blurry eyed and un-caffeinated, and twisting your ankle—which unfortunately has been happening to me more regularly then I’d like.

My bed at the South Pole is much like your average bed—a twin mattress resting on a bedframe with an integrated headboard. It is pushed against the far wall of my room, under my window, which is currently blocked out by a piece of cardboard painted with an underwater motif. Unlike your average bed, however, my standard issue South Pole bunk sits at just over belly-button height. Getting into it is like climbing out of the deep end of the pool without a ladder, and getting out of it, when your eyes are crusted with sleep and your bladder is controlling your actions more than your brain, is about as difficult as doing a pike off a 30 meter diving board after a week-long, tequila-fueled bender in Tijuana.

This week, after several pitifully ungraceful dismounts from my rack, I decided to take matters into my own hands and build a step stool.

The carpenter shop at the South Pole is popular among hobbyist wood workers. While the shop doesn't have every fine wood working tool you need--it has enough to get the job done.

The carpenter shop at the South Pole is popular among hobbyist wood workers. While the shop doesn’t have every fine wood working tool you need–it has enough to get the job done.

I’m by no means a gifted carpenter—about as apt with a hammer as a blind pig is at finding acorns—so I decided it was in my best interest to enlist the help of one of our more skilled tradesmen. Darren Lukkari is a professional contractor from the upper peninsula of Michigan and my spirit guide into the world of fine furniture design and construction.

It was two in the afternoon when we met in the carpenter’s shop, a well-lit, 25-foot-by-25-foot room which smells of sawdust and stain. Darren had taken the liberty of going through the wood scrap pile before I arrived, and had found some choice pieces of plywood to use for our project.

Working with Darren was like working alongside the high school shop teacher you always wanted. He was patient and focused, and good at explaining how to not cut your fingers off on the table saw: “Just don’t touch the blade.” He has a rather dry sense of humor.

For three hours, we chopped, routed, skill-sawed and sanded. I learned how to make wood putty by mixing sawdust and glue, and how to drill plywood without splitting it. By the time the stain was done drying on our hand-built step stool, I was comfortable using a half-dozen new tools that I had never handled before.

A new foot stool in use--the author enjoys the smooth, sanded, stained finish with his bare feet

A new foot stool in use–the author enjoys the smooth, sanded, stained finish with his bare feet

My stepstool sits at the base of my bed. A day after its construction, it still smells strongly of stain—not an unpleasant smell in the otherwise odorless world of Antarctica. It is the new most useful object in my world, and like all great things, you don’t know how you could have lived life so long without it.

More South Pole Diaries
Watching Climate Change in Action at South Pole
In South Pole Darkness, Radiant Moon Shines Like Sun
Shimmering Auroras Offset South Pole Boredom
South Pole Station Gears Up for Busy ‘Nightlife’

Greeting 6 Months of Darkness with Sumptuous Feast

Refael Klein
Refael Klein is a Lieutenant Junior Grade in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Commissioned Officer Corps (NOAA Corps). He's contributing to Science World during his year-long assignment working and living in the South Pole.

Mars Makes Closest Approach to Earth in More Than a Decade

Posted May 23rd, 2016 at 4:15 pm (UTC-5)
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In 2016, Mars will appear brightest from May 18-June 3. Its closest approach to Earth is May 30. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

In 2016, Mars will appear brightest from May 18-June 3. Its closest approach to Earth is May 30. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Do you want to get a good look at Mars?  Well now is the time to catch the Red Planet as it makes its closest approach to Earth in the past eleven years.

Every 26 months in an event called an opposition by astronomers – Mars and the Sun happen to be on opposite sides of the Earth.  The latest opposition took place on 5/22/16.

An illustration of the relative 'tilt' in the orbits of Earth and Mars and alignment of the Sun, Earth and Mars during opposition. (NASA)

An illustration of the relative ’tilt’ in the orbits of Earth and Mars and alignment of the Sun, Earth and Mars during opposition. (NASA)

According to NASA, Mars started to appear at its brightest on May 18th and will continue until June 3rd.

The people who operate the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope took advantage of this special arrangement and captured a new image of the Red Planet on May 12th.

This image, captured by the Hubble Space Telescope, shows Mars, as it was observed On 5/12/16, before opposition in 2016 (NASA, ESA, the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA), J. Bell (ASU), and M. Wolff (Space Science Institute)

This image, captured by the Hubble Space Telescope, shows Mars, as it was observed On 5/12/16, before opposition in 2016 (NASA, ESA, the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA), J. Bell (ASU), and M. Wolff (Space Science Institute)

May 30th is when the two planets are at its closest point since early April 2014.

That’s when Mars will be about 75 million km from Earth.

Since the planet’s orbits are affected by different factors, the distance between planets during opposition may vary.

Mars reaches its highest point around 0400 UTC 5/30/16 -- about 35 degrees above the southern horizon, or one third of the distance between the horizon and overhead. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Mars reaches its highest point around 0400 UTC 5/30/16 — about 35 degrees above the southern horizon, or one third of the distance between the horizon and overhead. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

In August, 2003 Mars was even closer at almost 56 million km from Earth.  This was the Red Planet’s, closest approach in 60,000 years.

If you miss this close approach of Mars, you’ll have to wait until July of 2018.

Rick Pantaleo
Rick Pantaleo maintains the Science World blog and writes stories for VOA’s web and radio on a variety of science, technology and health topics. He also occasionally appears on various VOA programs to talk about the latest scientific news. Rick joined VOA in 1992 after a 20 year career in commercial broadcasting.

Antarctic Glacier Melt Could Raise Global Sea Level by Nearly 3 Meters

Posted May 20th, 2016 at 4:15 pm (UTC-5)
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Totten Glacier (Esmee van Wijk/Australian Antarctic Division)

Totten Glacier (Esmee van Wijk/Australian Antarctic Division)

An international group of scientists say if climate change continues at its current rate, Antarctica’s Totten Glacier might become so unstable that it could eventually release enough water to produce an almost 3 meter rise in the global sea-level sometime in the next several hundred years.

A year ago, this same group of scientists from Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand and the United States found warm water flowing beneath a segment of the glacier, which is causing more melting than had been expected.

Studying the advance and withdrawal history of the largest glacier in the East Antarctic Ice Sheet led the researchers to their findings, recently published in the journal, Nature.

They found unfettered climate change could, within the next century, push the giant glacier into a period of an irreversible and rapid retreat.

The calving front of the Totten Glacier ice shelf (Tas van Ommen/Australian Antarctic Division)

The calving front of the Totten Glacier ice shelf (Tas van Ommen/Australian Antarctic Division)

Although the Eastern Antarctic Ice Sheet is considered to be more stable than the smaller western ice sheet, the study finds the Totten Glacier isn’t doing as well and is currently losing a tremendous amount of ice.

If it moves back another 100 to 150 kilometers from its current location, the researchers say the front of the glacier will wind up resting on some unstable geology.

This is something, they say, could set it on a path of a much more rapid retreat, moving the glacier up to 300 kilometers further inland, in the coming centuries, than its current coastal front.

Once it moves onto the region where the underlying geology is unstable, the scientists say the glacier’s melting at that point will be unstoppable – at least until it continues to move back onto more stable ground – and will discharge a great quantity of water that would raise global sea-levels by up to 2.9 meters.

“The evidence coming together is painting a picture of East Antarctica being much more vulnerable to a warming environment than we thought,” said the study’s co-author Martin Siegert, Co-Director of the Grantham Institute at Imperial College London. “This is something we should worry about. Totten Glacier is losing ice now, and the warm ocean water that is causing this loss has the potential to also push the glacier back to an unstable place.”

The researchers point out that since the East Antarctic Ice Sheet is the largest ice mass on Earth, any small changes to it will in turn have a significant global impact.

Rick Pantaleo
Rick Pantaleo maintains the Science World blog and writes stories for VOA’s web and radio on a variety of science, technology and health topics. He also occasionally appears on various VOA programs to talk about the latest scientific news. Rick joined VOA in 1992 after a 20 year career in commercial broadcasting.

Scientists Find Traces of Early Earth in Volcanic Rock

Posted May 13th, 2016 at 3:50 pm (UTC-5)
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One of the two locations on Earth where scientists found chemical signatures of early Earth's mantle is Baffin Island off the coast of northern Canada. (Don Francis of McGill University)

One of the two locations on Earth where scientists found chemical signatures of early Earth’s mantle is Baffin Island off the coast of northern Canada. (Don Francis of McGill University)

According to most scientists, Earth was formed between 4.5 and 4.6 billion years ago after gravity forced gas and dust left over from the creation of the Sun accreted into an object called a planetesimal.

Over time, the planetesimal continued to gather more and more material and eventually became a planet.

Scientists say heat produced by this formation process caused our early planet to melt.

Illustration of an early and hotter Earth (Creative Commons)

Illustration of an early and hotter Earth (Creative Commons)

The heat separated Earth’s material into layers with heavy matter such as iron sinking down to the center of planet to form its core.

Lighter and less dense material such as silicates floated above the core, subsequently forming what would become the Earth’s mantle and crust.

As the planet evolved, the mantle continued this process of melting and separating with heavier remnants sinking downwards and lighter material rising toward the top to form the Earth’s crust.

It’s thought this process, over the years, changed the chemical composition of the mantle to a point where any of the original ancient mantle material dating back to the core’s formation may have completely disappeared.

Now a consortium of US and Canadian research institutions say they have found two ‘birthmarks’ of silicate material from Earth’s mantle that may have formed when our planet was a mere 50 million years old.

Writing in the journal Science, the researchers say they’ve found clear signatures of this unique silicate material in comparatively young rocks from two locations that are a long distance from each other.

Schematic cross section of the Earth’s interior. (Northwestern University)

Schematic cross section of the Earth’s interior. (Northwestern University)

One of the samples of the ancient material came from Baffin Island, which is located off the coast of northern Canada, while the other was found in the Ontong-Java Plateau just north of the Solomon Islands in the Pacific Ocean.

The volcanic rock containing the primitive mantle signatures are known as flood basalts and were created about 60 to 120 million years ago by massive lava eruptions.

What led the researchers to detect the primordial mantle material in the volcanic rock was a profusion of an isotope of tungsten called tungsten-182.

Scientists say this tungsten isotope is created when an isotope of the element hafnium (hafnium-182) undergoes radioactive decay – changes in its elemental composition as it gives off radiation.

According to the researchers, the radioactive decay of hafnium-182 into tungsten-182 takes place so quickly – about 9 million years – that differences in the amounts of tungsten-182 compared to other tungsten isotopes can only be due to processes that took place very early in the history of our Solar System.

Rick Pantaleo
Rick Pantaleo maintains the Science World blog and writes stories for VOA’s web and radio on a variety of science, technology and health topics. He also occasionally appears on various VOA programs to talk about the latest scientific news. Rick joined VOA in 1992 after a 20 year career in commercial broadcasting.

Watching Climate Change in Action at South Pole

Posted May 13th, 2016 at 11:57 am (UTC-5)
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Multiple laboratories around the world work with NOAA to collect air samples. Above, Refael Klein collects an air sample for the Scripps Institute of Oceanography. (Photo by Daren Lukkari)

Multiple laboratories around the world work with NOAA to collect air samples. Above, Refael Klein collects an air sample for the Scripps Institute of Oceanography. (Photo by Daren Lukkari)

The Global Monitoring Division (GMD) specializes in making long-term, continuous measurements of trace gases in the atmosphere which affect the Earth’s climate. GMD operates six baseline observatories that stretch from the Arctic Circle to the South Pole. These facilities act as the backbone of our data collection efforts.

Many of the data sets from our baseline observatories date back decades. If you are a climate modeler interested in seeing what stratospheric ozone levels were like in the 1990s, or a congressman interested in seeing the effects of environmental legislation on the abundance of CFCs, we can supply you with a trove of data, by-the-minute or by-the-hour averages, in some instances. Our data collection is free and open to the public, both foreign and domestic, so if you have a hankering to see what aerosol abundances were like on the West Coast of the United States last year, check out our website.

noaa graphOne of our longest measurement series, and perhaps the best-known, is our carbon dioxide (CO2) data set. At the South Pole, we have been measuring CO2 levels for the better half of a century — more or less since Amundsen-Scott Station first opened in 1957.

The first carbon dioxide measurements made at the South Pole were taken using glass flasks, a physical air sample that was then sent back to laboratories in the United States for analysis. We still use the same method and, over the course of my year on the “ice”, I will take over 1,000 air samples for research facilities all over the world.

Though the flasks are a critical component of our data collection, we only fill them a few times a month; the rest of the time, we take continuous CO2 measurements using an instrument called a LICOR CO2 analyzer.

To understand how the LICOR works, it helps to have a basic understanding of how CO2 behaves in our atmosphere, particularly when it comes to trapping heat energy that radiates off the Earth.

CO2 is one of many compounds (including water vapor and methane) that is considered a greenhouse gas. When energy is emitted by the sun, (in the form of light, some visible some not), and strikes the Earth, some is reflected back into outer space, and some is absorbed by the planet. The total amount of energy that is absorbed keeps the planet warm and at a livable temperature, and is re-radiated upwards at various wavelengths. This isn’t just true for the planet, it’s true for anything that has any temperature: you, me, a brick wall, a cloud — they all give off energy, all the time. It’s how thermal-imaging goggles work and why a hot pizza left on a counter cools down, it gives off energy in the form of heat.

The heat energy that leaves Earth, leaves it in a spectrum of different wavelengths. As it turns out, the most common wavelengths of energy the Earth emits are those that are absorbed by CO2 and other greenhouse gases. When CO2 absorbs the energy bouncing off the planet, it heats up and re-radiates energy in all directions, including back towards the ground. In effect, CO2 acts like the panes of glass in a greenhouse, letting high energy sunlight pass through, to warm the plants and environment inside, and trapping the heat that tries to escape.

 During the summer months air sample are sent back to their corresponding research groups, and new, empty flasks arrive at ARO. Transit, to and from Antarctica can be tough on the equipment, and the occasional flask is cracked.

During the summer months, air samples are sent back to their corresponding research groups, and new, empty flasks arrive at ARO. Transit to and from Antarctica can be tough on the equipment and the occasional flask is cracked.

The LICOR CO2 analyzer takes advantage of CO2’s ability to absorb energy at specific wavelengths to measure its relative abundance in the atmosphere. Outside air, which contains CO2, is pumped into the instrument at a specific rate.

As the air sample moves through the instrument, a light that emits energy at a wavelength that CO2 absorbs, is shined on the sample. Based on the amount of light absorbed, we can calculate the amount of CO2 present.

As one would imagine, global CO2 levels have been increasing dramatically over the last century. CO2 is a product of combustion, meaning anytime you drive a car, burn coal, or cook over natural gas — activities that have increased dramatically since the industrial revolution — you’re adding greenhouse gasses to the atmosphere and, in turn, helping warm the planet. In fact, thanks to the ever-increasing anthropogenic production of greenhouse gasses, over the past 100 years, the Earth’s temperature has increased by about 1.2F (0.7C). That’s about 10 times faster than the warming that occurred after the last Ice Age.

I check the data the LICOR is producing every day, sometimes multiple times a day. The values we get have increased steadily since I first arrived at the South Pole in November, and currently sit just below 400 parts per million — meaning that for every 1 million air molecules, about 400 are CO2.

As the CO2 levels tick up, you can almost follow the trends in industry and popular culture. From the most remote place on the planet, I can watch oil prices fluctuate and see what cars are the most popular. From the South Pole, I can observe 7 billion people in motion, turning on lights, watching TV, and cracking open a beer.

I can watch the climate change, 1-part-per-million CO2 at a time.

More South Pole Diaries
In South Pole Darkness, Radiant Moon Shines Like Sun
Shimmering Auroras Offset South Pole Boredom
South Pole Station Gears Up for Busy ‘Nightlife’

Greeting 6 Months of Darkness with Sumptuous Feast

Bracing for the Sun to Set for 6 Long Months

Refael Klein
Refael Klein is a Lieutenant Junior Grade in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Commissioned Officer Corps (NOAA Corps). He's contributing to Science World during his year-long assignment working and living in the South Pole.

Black Hole Mass Measured; Ice Sheets on Mars; Saliva Diagnoses Disease

Posted May 6th, 2016 at 4:00 pm (UTC-5)
2 comments

Combined image of NGC 1332 shows the central disk of gas surrounding the supermassive black hole at the center of the galaxy. (UC Irvine) ALMA (NRAO/ESO/NAOJ), NASA/ESA Hubble; Carnegie-Irvine Galaxy Survey)

Combined image of NGC 1332 shows the central disk of gas surrounding the supermassive black hole at the center of the galaxy. (UC Irvine) ALMA (NRAO/ESO/NAOJ), NASA/ESA Hubble; Carnegie-Irvine Galaxy Survey)

Astronomers Precisely Measure Black Hole Mass

A group of astronomers have been able to determine the precise mass of a distant black hole in the center of an enormous elliptical galaxy 73 million light years away.

The galaxy is called NGC 1332 and is located in the direction of the southern constellation Eridanus.

To measure the exact mass of the black hole, the scientists said that they had to accurately gauge the orbital speed of the cold, dense clouds of interstellar gas and dust that circles the supermassive black hole.

Since this orbiting cloud doesn’t produce visible light, but does shine at other wavelengths, the researchers made their observations with the Atacama Large Millimeter-submillimeter Array or ALMA radio telescope in Chile.

Data from the ALMA observations of the orbiting gas cloud allowed the astronomers to calculate that the black hole’s mass is 660 million times greater than that of the Sun. Details of the group’s findings have been outlined in a recent edition of Astrophysical Journal Letters.

This graphic illustrates where Mars mineral-mapping from orbit has detected minerals that can indicate where a volcano erupted beneath an ice sheet. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/JHUAPL/ASU)

This graphic illustrates where Mars mineral-mapping from orbit has detected minerals that can indicate where a volcano erupted beneath an ice sheet. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/JHUAPL/ASU)

Evidence of Subglacial Volcanism Found on Mars

Scientists say they have found fresh evidence that volcanoes once erupted billions of years ago beneath an ice sheet on Mars that is far from any ice sheet on the Red Planet today.

Using data from NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, the researchers say their findings indicate that ice was widespread on the planet during its early history.

They say their findings also provides proof that Mars once had an environment that combined heat and moisture, two elements that could have provided conditions for microbial life.

The researchers tapped into data from the orbiter’s Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars or CRISM that examined the chemical makeup of the Martian surface in a region called “Sisyphi Montes.”

The data revealed minerals like those that have been produced by Earth’s subglacial volcanoes, such as zeolites, sulfates and clays.

(Pereru via Creative Commons/Wikimedia)

(Pereru via Creative Commons/Wikimedia)

Using Your Spit to Diagnose Disease

To see how healthy you are or to properly diagnose a disease, doctors often run a few tests that can include uncomfortable measures such as getting jabbed with a needle for a blood test.

Scientists have been working on diagnostic procedures that aren’t as bothersome as those used today.

Urine testing is a popular, common and somewhat successful non-invasive method that’s used to diagnose some diseases or conditions.

The problem with urine testing is that factors such as diet and environment can actually change the sample’s basic metabolic signatures.

Now, researchers writing in the American Chemical Society’s Journal of Proteome Research, suggests that our saliva may contain biomarkers that could be used as a way of detecting disease.

But, unlike urine testing, the study suggests that saliva might also provide health change indicators that could be less affected by diet and the environment.

These dark, narrow, 100 meter-long streaks called recurring slope lineae flowing downhill on Mars are inferred to have been formed by contemporary flowing water. Recently, planetary scientists detected hydrated salts on these slopes at Hale crater, corroborating their original hypothesis that the streaks are indeed formed by liquid water. (NASA/JPL/University of Arizona)

These dark, narrow, 100 meter-long streaks called recurring slope lineae flowing downhill on Mars are inferred to have been formed by contemporary flowing water. (NASA/JPL/University of Arizona)

Boiling Water on Mars Alters Its Landscape

Back in late September 2015, NASA excited the science community when NASA confirmed evidence of liquid water flowing on present-day Mars.

Now, a new France-based study suggests that not only does liquid water exist on Mars, it boils quite violently as soon as it reaches the surface.

The liquid water on Mars was found to emerge only during the warmest time of day during the Red Planet’s summer months.

Water at sea level here on Earth boils at 100°C. But atmospheric pressure also affects water’s boiling point.

Since the atmosphere of Mars is so thin, it has only 0.6% of Earth’s mean sea level air pressure, which means that water on Mars can boil at a temperature as low as 0°C.

And, according to the scientists who conducted the study, the fiercely boiling water also creates an explosive flow that can blast dirt, dust and other sediment off the ground, in a process that could make significant changes to the Martian landscape.

Rick Pantaleo
Rick Pantaleo maintains the Science World blog and writes stories for VOA’s web and radio on a variety of science, technology and health topics. He also occasionally appears on various VOA programs to talk about the latest scientific news. Rick joined VOA in 1992 after a 20 year career in commercial broadcasting.

In South Pole Darkness, Radiant Moon Shines Like the Sun

Posted May 3rd, 2016 at 9:43 am (UTC-5)
2 comments

After weeks of darkness at the South Pole, a full moon seems nearly as bright as the sun. Details you couldn't see before, like vehicle tracks, become visible again. (Photo by Kyle Obrock)

After weeks of darkness at the South Pole, a full moon seems nearly as bright as the sun. Details you couldn’t see before, like vehicle tracks become visible again. (Photo by Kyle Obrock)

Everything is illuminated. The moon has risen. It is full or near full, and sits 30 degrees above the polar plateau — circling the horizon each day as our sun once did.

SOUTH POLE JOURNAL
Refael Klein blogs about his year
working and living at the South Pole. Read his earlier posts here.

A softly bright glow washes over the landscape and each inconsistency in the ice and snow, every building, vehicle and person, casts a long grey shadow. Colors are muted, like in old low-exposure Polaroid photos, and details you could only feel a few days ago, like footprints and soft snow, you can now see.

Things appear bigger than they are. Perhaps it’s because they have been obscured so long in darkness that I have forgotten their relative size. When all there was was starlight and blackness, all I could measure and feel was myself. Walking to work in blinders — heavy boots, heavy coat, fogged goggles — I was the largest thing I could perceive. My outstretched arms touched each horizon and only the crunch, crunch, crunch of snow kept me apprised of my feet and reminded me that I wasn’t floating in an inkwell.

Steep snow drifts form alongside buildings and other "artificial structures" throughout the year. Above, Refael Klein climbs over one on his way to work -- a challenge made more difficult by the darkness. (Photo: Darren Lukkari)

Steep snow drifts form alongside buildings and other “artificial structures” throughout the year. Above, Refael Klein climbs over one on his way to work — a challenge made more difficult by the darkness. (Photo: Darren Lukkari)

Now I can taste, hear and see my whole self and, as a consequence, I feel much smaller.  Amundsen-Scott Station dominates the landscape. At 600 feet long (182 meters), it’s a skyscraper lying on its side. Moonlight bounces off of its surfaces and sections of the station glow candle-fire yellow.

The Atmospheric Research Observatory (ARO) is the same way — massive and casting a shadow that has no end.

The environment is ripe with tension, like a poorly-lit city parking lot at one in the morning, littered with cigarette butts and broken bottles. Was that a bird I saw or just a cloud moving across the sky? Is that whistle the wind blowing across the hood of my jacket, or is someone walking behind me?

You hear more and see more when the moon first comes out; it’s your senses in overdrive, tuning into a new world.

Up until a few days ago, the moon was nowhere to be seen. The sky was covered in clouds and the winds whipped snow across the plateau in big bales of smoke. Temperatures dropped to minus 90 Fahrenheit (minus 67 Celsius) and my daily walk to work was a battle.

Stepping outside with every inch of skin covered, I’d trip and fall over myself as I tried to kick steps up a steep, recently-formed snow bank that separated the east entrance of the main station from the bamboo flag line that ran out to ARO.

The flag line running between ARO and the main building stretches over a quarter mile (.4 kilometer). When the winds pick up and visibility is low, it can be hard to see the 20 feet between each marker. (Photo: Darren Lukkari)

The flag line running between ARO and the main building stretches over a quarter mile (.4 kilometer). When the winds pick up and visibility is low, it can be hard to see the 20 feet between each marker. (Photo: Darren Lukkari)

At the South Pole, every scientific outbuilding has a flag line that runs between it and one of the two primary entrances to the main station.

The flags are simple affairs, 5-foot (1.5 meter) bamboo poles sunk several inches into the snow, with a colored rectangular pennant — usually red — attached to the top. The flags are spaced about 20 feet (6 meters) apart, just wide enough to let our largest snowplow run between them without knocking them down.

On the worst days, when walking outside feels like walking through television static, the flags can be hard to see, even at 20 feet.

On days like these, when all you can glimpse through your fogged goggles are dark amorphous blobs, and since it’s too cold to take them off even for a second, you can’t navigate by sight. You have to  navigate by sound and follow the slap, slap, slap of the flags against the wind.

From flag to flag, you hone your hearing. You cancel out the sound of blowing snow and tune into the low pitch of beating fabric. And, when you can’t hear the flags, you stand still for a moment, hold your breath, and listen more intently.

 

More South Pole Diaries
Shimmering Sights While Battling South Pole Boredom
South Pole Station Gears Up for Busy ‘Nightlife’

Greeting 6 Months of Darkness with Sumptuous Feast

Bracing for the Sun to Set for 6 Long Months

Isolated and Alone, South Pole Workers Face Unexpected Emergencies

Refael Klein
Refael Klein is a Lieutenant Junior Grade in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Commissioned Officer Corps (NOAA Corps). He's contributing to Science World during his year-long assignment working and living in the South Pole.