Heavenly Particles Made Visible

9780760352649This is among the more unusual book reviews in a while, thanks to the Science section of the New York Times, and William J. Broad. We appreciate a radically new perspective every now and then:


Varieties of space dust, barely the width of a human hair. These photomicrographs were made with a special camera setup that magnifies the dust grains nearly 3,000 times. CreditJan Braly Kihle/Jon Larsen

After decades of failures and misunderstandings, scientists have solved a cosmic riddle — what happens to the tons of dust particles that hit the Earth every day but seldom if ever get discovered in the places that humans know best, like buildings and parking lots, sidewalks and park benches.

The answer? Nothing. Look harder. The tiny flecks are everywhere.

An international team found that rooftops and other cityscapes readily collect the extraterrestrial dust in ways that can ease its identification, contrary to science authorities who long pooh-poohed the idea as little more than an urban myth Continue reading

Lost & Found, Continental Edition


Mauritius sits on part of an ancient continent. Keystone USA-ZUMA/REX/Shutterstock

Long-lost continent found submerged deep under Indian Ocean

An ancient continent that was once sandwiched between India and Madagascar now lies scattered on the bottom of the Indian Ocean.

The first clues to the continent’s existence came when some parts of the Indian Ocean were found to have stronger gravitational fields than others, indicating thicker crusts. One theory was that chunks of land had sunk and become attached to the ocean crust below.  Continue reading

Spanish Speleological Speculation


Raul Perez Lopez peers into the darkness of CJ-3, a cave that’s mysteriously losing its oxygen. (Credit: Antonio Marcos Nuez)

Discover Magazine’s blog has a post by Anna Bitong, who offers a few clues to help us understand what is happening in the deep recesses of a cave in Spain:

…A sign at the entrance warns visitors not to enter. Continue reading

Walden Pond’s Enduring Lessons


Kevin Hooyman

When a professor does years of research and teaching on a topic related to this particular pond, and then takes the additional effort to share his observations in cogent form as an op-ed, we believe it is worth at least 5-10 minutes of reading time:

What the Muck of Walden Pond Tells Us About Our Planet


In 1845, Henry David Thoreau repaired to a cabin in the woods beside Walden Pond “to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach.” During the last two years, my students and I have come to that same pond to see what we could learn from the sediments beneath it. Continue reading

National Park of the Week: Canaima National Park, Venezuela

Photo by Brad Wilson

Best known for its characteristic flat-topped mountain formations known as “tepuis,” Canaima National Park is a geologic marvel that astounds the most experienced geologists and intrepid travelers alike. Between the table-top mountains, grassy savannah blankets the valleys and the perimeters of the tepuis, which cover about 65% of the park. The park is the sixth largest park in the world, measuring  three million (yes, million) hectares, and is located in Venezuela close to the border between Brazil and Guyana.

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National Park of the Week: Göreme National Park & Rock Sites of Cappadocia, Turkey

Image from 4gress.com

Image from 4gress.com

Found in a remarkable landscape entirely sculpted by erosion, Göreme National Park in Turkey is characterized by a rocky landscape honeycombed with networks of ancient underground settlements and outstanding examples of Byzantine art. Located on the central Anatolia plateau, the unique rock structures of Göreme not only create a distinctive terrain of mountain ridges, valleys and pinnacles known as “fairy chimneys” or hoodoos, but also reveal one of the most striking and largest cave-dwellings complexes in the world.

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Santorini’s Rich History Is Getting Richer


Credit James Rajotte for The New York Times

Some of La Paz Group’s senior contributors have recollections of Santorini going back three decades, and the history of the place is both geological and cultural; the complexity of that history is still being revealed:

An Ancient Tsunami That Ended a Civilization Gets Another Look


In the 17th century B.C., Santorini was a small volcanic island in the Aegean Sea, home to Akrotiri, a Late Bronze Age outpost of Minoan civilization, which preceded ancient Greece. Then the volcano erupted, burying Akrotiri in ash and obliterating much of Santorini, turning it into a few smaller islands. Continue reading

Anthropocene Closer to Becoming Officially Declared

One candidate to be considered as evidence of the Anthropocene is plastic pollution. Photograph: Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP/Getty Images

We’ve covered the science and evidence behind the idea of our new geological epoch – one influenced by human activity – several times over the years, quoting various sources like The New Yorker, the New York Times, and The Economist.  Now, the Working Group on the Anthropocene has presented their official recommendation to the International Geological Congress that the Anthropocene be declared a new epoch starting around 1950, based on world-wide evidence such as radioactive elements from nuclear bomb explosions, plastic pollution, and even domesticated chicken bones. Damian Carrington reports:

The current epoch, the Holocene, is the 12,000 years of stable climate since the last ice age during which all human civilisation developed. But the striking acceleration since the mid-20th century of carbon dioxide emissions and sea level rise, the global mass extinction of species, and the transformation of land by deforestation and development mark the end of that slice of geological time, the experts argue. The Earth is so profoundly changed that the Holocene must give way to the Anthropocene.

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Isthmus of Panama Younger than We Thought

Split by the Isthmus of Panama: Species of butterfly fish, sand dollar and cone snail that today live on the Pacific and Caribbean coasts of Central America are very closely related. Genetic sequencing shows that only 4 to 3 million years ago, each pair was a single species, demonstrating that marine connections between the oceans must have existed until that time. (Image by Coppard et al., via The Smithsonian)

It’s probably not something you’ve given much thought to, unless perhaps you’ve visited Central America in the past and experienced first-hand the incredible biodiversity displayed in such a small area. Part of the reason why this little strip of land has so many different species of animals and plants is that it connects two very large continents that used to be separate, but it also has given birth to new aquatic species via evolution, as you can see from the image above. Previous thought on the topic had been that the Isthmus of Panama rose from the ocean roughly between 23 and 15 million years ago, but a very large and very interdisciplinary team of researchers – mostly with some link to the Smithsonian Institution, which has its Tropical Research Institute in Panama City – have reaffirmed that the enormously important geological change occurred around 3 million years ago.

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Understanding Coal


From the current issue of Economist, a bit of readable geological science to help make sense of the splashier headlines:

The origin of coal

The rock that rocked the world

More than any other substance, coal created modern society. But what created coal?

FOR 60m years of Earth’s history, a period known to geologists as the Carboniferous, dead plants seemed unwilling to rot. When trees expired and fell to the ground, much of which was swampy in those days, instead of being consumed by agents of decay they remained more or less intact. In due course, more trees fell on them. And more, and yet more. The buried wood, pressed by layers of overburden and heated from below by the Earth’s interior, gradually lost its volatile components and was transformed into a substance closer and closer to pure carbon. Continue reading

Anthropocene Perspective

Tourists visit the the Mendenhall Glacier, in Alaska. Geologists are considering whether humans’ impact on the planet has been significant enough to merit the naming of a new epoch. CREDIT PHOTOGRAPH BY MATTHEW RYAN WILLIAMS/THE NEW YORK TIMES/REDUX

Tourists visit the the Mendenhall Glacier, in Alaska. Geologists are considering whether humans’ impact on the planet has been significant enough to merit the naming of a new epoch. CREDIT PHOTOGRAPH BY MATTHEW RYAN WILLIAMS/THE NEW YORK TIMES/REDUX

Thanks to, Michelle Nijhuis in general, for her science writing and environmental journalism–making these topics simultaneously fun and fascinating, if also sometimes depressing; and to the New Yorker for making space for this note in which she briefly explains the naming of the epoch we live in:

The duties of the Anthropocene Working Group—a thirty-nine-member branch of a subcommission of a commission of the International Union of Geological Sciences—are both tedious and heady. As the group’s chairman, Jan Zalasiewicz, whom Elizabeth Kolbert wrote about, in 2013, says wryly, “People do not understand the very slow geological time scale on which we work.” Yet the A.W.G.’s forthcoming recommendations may bring an end to the only epoch that any of us have ever known—the Holocene, which began after the last ice age, about twelve thousand years ago, and lasts to this day. The group’s members are pondering whether the human imprint on this planet is large and clear enough to warrant the christening of a new epoch, one named for us: the Anthropocene. If it is, they and their fellow-geologists must decide when the old epoch ends and the new begins.

In a paper published today in the journal Nature, Continue reading

Understanding Climate Change Through Craters

The jury is no longer out on how climate change has been influenced by man, since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution and especially in the last 70 years. But the jury has not even convened yet on many phenomena in the natural world, including some geological oddities. Thanks to National Geographic‘s news service for this story from the far reaches of Siberia:

New Theory Behind Dozens of Craters Found in Siberia

Scientists narrow down the cause and think it is related to warming.

When a massive and mysterious hole was discovered in Siberia last July (see pictures), social media users pointed to everything from a meteorite to a stray missile to aliens to the Bermuda Triangle as possible causes. But the most plausible explanation seemed to be the explosive release of melting methane hydrate—an ice-like material frozen in the Arctic ground—thanks to global warming.


A Russian scientist prepares to descend into a mystery crater in Siberia in November. More holes have since been found. PHOTOGRAPH BY VLADIMIR PUSHKAREV, THE SIBERIAN TIMES

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Geothermal Engineering, Radical Solutions


Photo by Janne Morem/Flickr. Could global warming be overcome by releasing light-reflecting chemicals into the atmosphere? With safety and efficacy at the forefront of debate, David Keith discusses the moral and political quandaries surrounding the science of geoengineering.

We have mentioned geothermal engineering on and related topics on than one occasion, but there is a more radical branch of engineering the thermal options at our disposal, with special regard to the climate change “solutions” debate. Thanks to Harvard Gazette for this informative interview on the topic:

Climate engineering: In from the cold

Keith says new reports will likely boost deeper look at geoengineering concepts

When the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) released a pair of reports this month on geoengineering, which involves deliberately intervening in the climate system to counter global warming, discussion of the controversial topic moved into the mainstream science community. The reports concluded that geoengineering is no silver bullet, and that further research is needed. Continue reading

Geology And The Natural History Of The Environment’s Future

Here is the second installment in a series on natural/environmental history from the perspective of what is referred to here as human impact and the geology of the future. The author requires you to work, but it is important work, worthy of the effort to focus the lens of history for the sake of our decisions about the future:

The Geological Society of London, known to its members as the Geol Soc (pronounced “gee-ahl sock”), was founded in 1807, over dinner in a Covent Garden tavern. Geology was at that point a brand-new science, a circumstance reflected in the society’s goals, which were to stimulate “zeal” for the discipline and to induce participants “to adopt one nomenclature.” There followed long, often spirited debates on matters such as where to fix the borders of the Devonian period. “Though I don’t much care for geology,” one visitor to the society’s early meetings noted, “I do like to see the fellows fight.” Continue reading

Encased in Ash

Encased in Ash – Body Mold from Pompeii

In 79AD, Mt. Vesuvius erupted with disastrous consequences for the residents of nearby Pompeii, Herculaneum, and other cities in the Campania region. Flows of boiling mud and rock rushed down the slopes, clouds of noxious fumes billowed upwards in the wind, and thousands of tons of rock and ash rained down upon the countryside. Pliny the Younger saw the eruption and likened it to a pinus, a pine tree. This may baffle some American readers, who may be accustomed to see pine trees that taper from a wide base to a narrow point Continue reading

Icelandic Hell-broth

Krafla, Iceland. Photo © Land & Colors

In the Middle Ages, Iceland’s Mount Hekla was commonly thought of as a mouth of Hell, from whence one could hear the cries of the damned and even see their spirits haunting the peak — if the raging flames of hellfire weren’t blocking your view, that is. A few hundred years later, describing imagery as infernal or unearthly was still popular in travel accounts, as we saw in the case Reverend Sabine Baring-Gould’s thoughts on Námarskarð. Given the image above and those from the mud pits in the linked post, it really isn’t too surprising, especially after you consider that to reach these chthonic scenes the travelers had been riding ponies over a “tortuous and wretched” landscape of lava.

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Iceland’s Fearful Agencies at Work

Námarskarð mud pits, Iceland © Navis Photography

Over the summer, several people have asked me, after I tell them what I’m researching, whether the books I’m looking at are actually enjoyable to read or just another dry primary source, as dreary and monotonous as many travelers found Iceland’s vistas during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. As with most things, the answer depends (largely on the book and certain chapters of each book), but for the most part I’ve flipped through hundreds of pages of travel literature with pleasure, not only because I know I’m being productive despite the beautiful day two floors above me outside Cornell’s Olin Library, but also because I find the Victorian British style of these authors–most of the works I’ve read so far were published between 1850 and 1880–quite engaging and fun to read.

Consider, for example, the following excerpts from Sabine Baring-Gould’s description of Námarskarð, an area full of hot mud springs in northern Iceland, in his 1863 book,  Continue reading

Exploring Iceland

The head of Skorradalsvatn. Collodion print ca. 1900 by Frederick W. Howell. Bequest of Daniel Willard Fiske; compilation by Halldór Hermannsson at the Fiske Icelandic Collection of Cornell University.

Þórsmörk. Head of Krossárdalur. Collodion print ca. 1900 by Frederick W. Howell. Bequest of Daniel Willard Fiske; compilation by Halldór Hermannsson at the Fiske Icelandic Collection of Cornell University.

It was mentioned a week or two ago that Iceland is in the air. For me, Iceland is on my mind, in my laptop, hidden throughout the Cornell libraries, and scattered about my room. After a couple essays for an environmental history course last year and some preliminary research for finding an honors thesis topic in the history major, I discovered that, thanks primarily to Cornell University’s first librarian, we have one of the largest collections of Icelandic material in the world. Since one of my projects for the environmental history class had shown me that Iceland was an interesting place to examine more closely, I did some more research and found the topic of European travel there during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries engaging enough to choose as an honors thesis subject.

One of the places in Europe with the most spaces left blank by cartographers through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Iceland’s inner regions were not fully mapped until 1901. Continue reading

Dispatch From Everest

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India Ink has a story about a group of young Indians collaborating in the upper reaches of the region’s mountains, at a time when many are celebrating the six decades-old historic accomplishment in the same region:

KHUMBU GLACIER —It was nearly 60 years ago this month that Tenzing Norgay, the Sherpa guide, and Sir Edmund Hillary from New Zealand scaled the highest peak in the world, Mount Everest. Continue reading

Wadi Feynan’s Copper Mines: Part I (History)

Wadi Feynan was one of the first places in the world where copper was mined and smelted by humans, which when
paired with one of the first Neolithic settlements in the world, makes Feynan an extremely important area in terms of prehistoric human development. Few places in the world can boast this sort of historical wealth – and visitors to Feynan can journey into the past with or without a guide. From the first bit of ore extracted to the collapse of the Roman Empire to the 20th century, copper mining has been a major aspect of human settlement in these valleys. Innumerable shafts have been opened, collapsed, reopened, and abandoned using a wide range of methods and technologies. Today, guests at Feynan Ecolodge have the chance to venture into the past by walking or biking to these historic sites nestled in the rocky foothills of the Dana Biosphere Reserve – and learn about their historical significance. Continue reading