A Subtle Reminder: Earth Hour, Tonight, 8:30pm

©Jason Zuckerman
©Jason Zuckerman

To raise awareness about global climate change, at 8:30pm local time wherever you are in the world (I realise as I post this, half of the world has already passed this time, sorry), switch your lights off for one hour. Communities the world over are doing this to save energy, but primarily to bring awareness to the damage we are causing to the environment by our insatiable desire to use unnecessary lighting and electrical hardware.

For more information about Earth Hour, check out Mang’s Bat Cave »

For more artwork by Jason Zuckerman, check out Jay Zuck’s Sketch of the Day »

I can think of many thrilling things you could be doing during this hour of darkness, if you have any suggestions, feel free to leave them in the comment box below… keep it clean… or not, it’s up to you.

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Not Just a Satellite: NASA’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory Fails (Update)

The fairing of the Taurus XL rocket upper stage failed to separate correctly, in this morning's OCO launch (Vandenberg Air Force Base/NASA)
The fairing of the Taurus XL rocket upper stage failed to separate correctly in this morning's OCO launch (Vandenberg Air Force Base/NASA)

In the early hours of this morning at 1:55am PST, a carbon dioxide monitoring mission was launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. NASA’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO) was being carried into a 700 km polar orbit by a Taurus XL rocket. Unfortunately, 12 minutes and 30 seconds into the flight, the rocket upper stage suffered an anomaly, and the fairing failed to separate. Although it appears the rocket attained the desired altitude The vehicle did not attain the desired altitude and the $270 million satellite was doomed, trapped inside the the nose cone. The upper stage fairing was protecting the OCO as it ascended through the atmosphere; once in space it should have separated, peeled off and dropped away. That didn’t happen.
Continue reading “Not Just a Satellite: NASA’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory Fails (Update)”

Satellite Imagery of Lake Eerie Ice Floe Break

MODIS images of Lake Eerie on Feb. 6th (left) and Feb. 8th (right). Thinning and breakage of ice floe is evident (MODIS/NASA)
MODIS images of Lake Eerie on Feb. 6th (left) and Feb. 8th (right). Arrow indicates the area of Crane Creek State Park, where the rescue was mounted. Thinning and breakage of ice floe is evident (MODIS/NASA)

On Saturday (February 7th), more than 130 fishermen were stranded off the Lake Eerie shoreline. Eerie is the fourth largest of the five Great Lakes, sandwiched between the Canadian province of Ontario and by the US States of Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New York. It is a freshwater lake, a very popular fishing destination. During winter, large areas of the lake freeze over, tempting fishermen to venture further from the coastline onto the ice floe.

However, over the weekend, tragedy struck when a large chunk of ice thinned and drifted from the Ohio coastline (along Crane Creek State Park‎). The ice floe broke away, carrying 135 fishermen into the lake. One 65 year old man fell into the freezing waters and died of a heart attack. The remaining 134 men had to be airlifted from the ice by the emergency services, some were stranded for several hours. For the full details of the rescue, read the Associated Press article.

A satellite image of Lake Eerie during summer (Google)
A satellite image of Lake Eerie during summer (Google)

Local officials warned fishermen of the risks with venturing too far into the frozen lake, but it would appear the temptation was too great to find the best fishing spot. According to news sources, the ice was up to 2 feet thick, giving the illusion of safety. However, temperatures were rising and an offshore wind of 35 mph cracked the ice, isolating the fishermen.

Having just explored the MODIS website for satellite imagery of the UK snow cover, I was contacted by David Gamey (at Mang’s Bat Page) wondering whether I had found any satellite imagery of the event. After a short investigation, sure enough the MODIS archives were up to date, showing the frozen Lake Eerie clearly.

Comparing two images (top), one from February 6th (the day before the ice floe breakage) and one from February 8th (the day after), it is clear there is significant thinning of the ice. In the Feb. 6th image, it is hard to see the lake at all, the ice blends very well with the surrounding land. On Feb. 8th, the blue of the lake water is highlighted signifying ice thinning and breakage.

It is striking how illustrative the MODIS photos are, providing valuable information about everything from snow cover to forest fires. This one example how a comparison between two dates of lake ice cover can be so valuable. I’ll be keeping a close eye on this Earth observing mission

Sources: MODIS/NASA, ABC News via David Gamey (at Mang’s Bat Page)

Satellite View of UK Snow Storms

Snow cover over east England up to the Scottish border on February 4th (Terra MODIS/NASA)
Snow cover over east England up to the Scottish border on February 4th. Left: A visible light view. Right: Visible/infrared wavelengths, the snow cover is in red (Terra MODIS/NASA)

UPDATE: This post is from the snowstorm in February 2009, for the satellite view of the UK in the grips of record low temperatures in January 2010 go to “UK Snow: Where Did My Hometown Go?

In case you were wondering what the recent snow storms in the UK looked like from space, NASA has released imagery from their Terra satellite for our viewing pleasure. The Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) instrument captured images down to a resolution of 250 metres/pixel, showing the detail in the snow cover and urban areas.

The MODIS on NASA’s Terra satellite captured this view of snow in England on February 4, 2009. The snow stretches from the English Channel north under a bank of clouds near the Scottish border. The winter storm that brought the snow in the first days of February blanketed southeast England with the heaviest snow the region had seen in 18 years, said BBC News. As much as 20 centimeters (8 inches) of snow fell on London. The poor weather closed transportation, schools, and businesses throughout southeastern England, reported BBC News.MODIS website

I know for a fact this huge amount of snow caused all sorts of inconvenience for the entire country, but I would have liked to have been in my hometown of Bristol (in the south-west–bottom-left–of the image above, under all that cloud cover) to experience a good old fashioned British winter. According to my mum, her street wasn’t lined in snow men, it was filled with snow giants, an entire town of them! Oh well, I’ll just have to admire the scene from space…

Source: MODIS/NASA

Mars Gets Hit By Cosmic Buckshot

Bolide breakup and impact on the surface of Mars (HiRISE/NASA)
Bolide breakup and impact on the surface of Mars (HiRISE/NASA)

Earth has been hit numerous times in recent months by some large chunks of space rock. One of the larger meteoroids to enter the atmosphere was the November fireball over Saskatchewan, Canada. In this case, an estimated 10 tonne meteorite slammed into the atmosphere, creating a bright bolide (fireball), exploding into fragments. Fortunately, eyewitnesses were able to pinpoint the location of possible debris. Sure enough, after an extensive search in the rural area of Canada, meteorite fragments were found.

However, these fragments did not impact the ground at the hyper-velocities that the original fireball was travelling at, the Earth’s thick atmosphere created an efficient barrier, through air resistance, breaking up the bolide. In this case, an energetic explosion was observed for miles around. Fragments from the fireball then fell at a maximum speed of terminal velocity, bouncing off the ground. Some fragments sat proudly on top of frozen ponds – the debris final kinetic energy was so low that little damage would have been done even if the small rocks scattered over a populated area (unless, of course, someone got hit on the head – they would have had a very bad day).

OK, so we’re well protected from most bits of junk space can throw at us. Most meteoroids, from the size of a grain of sand to the size of a small bus, will burn-up, break-up or explode high in the atmosphere, scattering bits on the ground. But what about Mars? What if Mars gets hit by a sufficiently-sized meteoroid?

Even if the meteoroid does break apart, unfortunately the atmosphere is too thin to slow the debris sufficiently. A lack of air resistance makes for more impressive impact craters. Watch your heads future Mars colonists, you could be faced with a shotgun blast from space
Continue reading “Mars Gets Hit By Cosmic Buckshot”

Chile Chaitén Volcano Still Erupting, Town Empty

The continuing activity at the Chaiten volcano, Chile (NASA)
The continuing activity at the Chaiten volcano, Chile (NASA)

In May 2008, a dormant volcano in Chile awoke from its 9,000 year sleep. The Chaitén volcano blasted smoke and ash high into the atmosphere, causing the local population to flee from the nearby town, under the ominous clouds of lightning-inducing hot ash and steam. Eight months after the eruption shook the region, the small town in the southwest remains deserted and polluted.

Using the Advanced Spaceborne Thermal Emission and Reflection Radiometer (ASTER) on NASA’s Terra satellite, a new view above the volcano have become available, showing the destruction in the wake of this regional natural disaster…
Continue reading “Chile Chaitén Volcano Still Erupting, Town Empty”

The Anatomy of a Los Angeles Earthquake… on Twitter

The July earthquake in LA caused chaos in the shampoo & conditioner isles...
The July earthquake in LA caused chaos in the shampoo & conditioner aisles...

Sitting at my desk at 7:42pm (Friday), doing some research on the web (read: procrastinating), I felt something odd. It was as if somebody walked behind my chair, shunting me forward slightly. I turned, and of course no one was there. Slightly confused, I heard my wife shout from the living room, “Did you feel that?” Then I knew I wasn’t dreaming, there had been an earthquake.

That wasn’t my first experience of a quake, back in July 2008, Woodland Hills felt a seismic wave from the magnitude 5.4 earthquake epicentre near Downtown LA. That’s the only way I can describe it, a rolling wave. We were outside at the time, and I was amazed to see the water in the pool slosh over the sides. Now that was my first quake, and I found it pretty exhilarating (as I ran inside to get my video camera to take an eyewitness account of any other tremors, but there were no more to follow).

Today’s was a short and pretty wimpy magnitude 3.4, just a tiny burst of energy. However, interested to find out more, I turned to one of the best breaking news resources out there, Twitter
Continue reading “The Anatomy of a Los Angeles Earthquake… on Twitter”

Fireball Over Sweden

Just when we thought it was getting quiet, a fireball exploded over Scandinavia last night. What’s more, there is outstanding video footage of the event over the skies of Sweden (above). There are a huge number of sightings from Sweden, Denmark and Holland which is good, there’s a better chance of finding any debris that way (in fact, if you saw something, contact the International Meteor Organization).

The fireball occured on January 17th at 19:09 UT. It was a spectacular sight. Duration: 3 or 4 seconds, colours: yellow to green, fragmentation yes, brightness -10 or maybe brighter. I’m a meteor observer active since 1978 and I have observed almost 60 000 meteors since that time.” – Koen Miskotte, Ermelo, Netherlands.

For more, check out Phil Plait’s Bad Astronomy article and SpaceWeather.com
Continue reading “Fireball Over Sweden”

Visualizing the Yellowstone Earthquake Swarms

The hot spring, Sapphire Pool at the Biscuit Geyser Basin in Yellowstone National Park (Getty)
The hot spring, Sapphire Pool at the Biscuit Geyser Basin in Yellowstone National Park (Getty)

Since December 26th, hundreds of small earthquakes have shimmied Yellowstone National Park.

Earthquake swarms are a collection of small earthquakes over a short space of time. These aren’t aftershocks of one primary, larger quake, they are quakes in their own right. Yellowstone National Park, located mainly in the state of Wyoming (stretching into Montana and Idaho), plays host to the Yellowstone Caldera, a volcanic hotspot where molten mantle rock bubbles to the surface. This activity creates hot springs and is the energy source of many geysers.

The last Yellowstone “supereruption” occurred 640,000 years ago, but there have been many smaller eruptions and lava flows since then; the most recent being 70,000 years ago.

Any earthquake in the largest volcanic system in North America will therefore cause excitement and a little concern, and these recent earthquake swarms are an oddity. Yellowstone is no stranger to earthquake swarms, but the recent frequency of events are unusual scientists say.

In an effort to track the swarms, I’ve stumbled across an interesting article where a numerical modelling package has been used to locate and simulate the earthquake swarm breakouts…
Continue reading “Visualizing the Yellowstone Earthquake Swarms”

Climate Change, More Human Than We Thought

The Aztecs caused it too! (Getty)
The Aztecs, affected atmospheric carbon levels? (Getty)

Global warming anyone? I ask as I don’t want to upset anybody. Forget it, I’m going to talk about it anyway.

Climate change is an important subject worthy of debate. But for a debate to develop into something constructive, all sides need to have some scientific merit. Clearly, if we listen to Leo DiCaprio, Al Gore and the world’s carbon-cutting politicians, we might be led to believe we are damaging the environment… hell, we might even be warming the whole planet through carbon emissions! So, strip the Hollywood glamour and political spin from the debate, does the global warming debate have any science linking human activity with increased global temperatures?

In a new study, focusing on Central and South America, scientists have uncovered possibly one of the earliest recorded cases of human-induced climate change, possibly amplifying (or even triggering) the Little Ice Age in Europe throughout the 16th century and beyond…
Continue reading “Climate Change, More Human Than We Thought”