Archive for the ‘Image of the Week’ Category

The above satellite image shows Hurricane Alex in the southwestern Gulf of Mexico on 30 June 2010. The category 2 storm began life as a tropical wave off the coast of Africa earlier this month. It entered the Caribbean Sea on 20 June and later strengthened to a tropical storm. Alex made landfall on 27 June just north of Belize City, crossed the Yucatan Peninsula, and entered the Gulf of Mexico. Quickly attaining hurricane strength over open waters, the storm’s rapid movement led American government and BP officials to scale back or postpone clean up efforts for the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster. They cancelled flights to drop chemical dispersants and held skimmer boats in port, prompting widespread protests that this temporary cessation of clean up and containment efforts would allow even more oil to wash ashore on previously clean beaches. Some scientists, however, have hoped that Alex’s arrival in the Gulf will help scatter oil into smaller droplets, making it easier food for oil-consuming microbes.

Alex has kept some distance from the Deepwater Horizon well itself, so efforts to drill two relief wells can continue. BP has also been able to keep the temporary cap (which is drawing approximately half of the oil escaping from the well) in place for now. Two vessels are collecting oil from the cap despite 7 foot waves. However, initial uncertainty over Hurricane Alex’s course prompted BP to delay by a week the deployment of a third vessel, which could help increase the oil capture rate from the well.

But now, meteorologists have a good idea where Hurricane Alex is heading. The storm has turned west, barreling toward the coast. It will make landfall in the Mexican State of Tamaulipas later this evening.

Two days before Alex (then a tropical storm) made its initial landfall in Belize, press stories began to stoke fears that the storm would rage across the Gulf of Mexico, scattering oil and forcing BP to remove its temporary cap from the Deepwater Horizon well. After arriving in Portland for my conference, I read a few of those stories and then went to my favorite Lebanese restaurant for some late lunch. The tables in this establishment have maps on them, and here’s the table where I sat.

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Oil-rich waves crash ashore near Orange Beach, Alabama. Nearly sixty days after the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded, oil is still gushing from the rig’s unsealed well. Even BP’s attempts to capture some of the oil by diverting it up to ships on the surface hit a snag earlier today when one of those ships was struck by lightning. I’m not kidding.

President Barack Obama will make his first Oval Office address to the nation tonight at 8:00PM Eastern Time. He will speak about the federal government’s response to the disaster, recovery efforts, and his comprehensive energy reform proposal. In the meantime, the Gulf of Mexico continues to collect oil from the Deepwater Horizon well, sending oil and dead wildlife to the shores of Louisiana, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, and Texas.

Image provided courtesy of Dave Martin and the Associated Press.

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You are looking at a picture of the world’s oldest known leather shoe. It was found in an Armenian cave in 2008, and an international team of archeologists recently published their analysis of this object in the journal PLoS One.

Scientists have debated as to when humans decided to cover their feet. Most hypothesize that we have been shoed for tens of thousands of years. However, the reasons behind our ancestors’ abandonment of bare feet are hotly debated. As for this specimen, it is not the oldest known shoe. But, it is the oldest known shoe that is not made from plant material.

The shoe itself is made of leather, most likely cowhide. Both the shoe and the grass loosely stuffed in it date to approximately 3627–3377 B.C.E. “B.C.E.” stands for “before common era,” a newer term synonymous with “B.C.” (“Before Christ”). The shoe fits a human right foot. Based on the dimensions, archeologists assume the shoe fit a woman (American size 7). The grass haphazardly stuffed inside the shoe may have indicated that it was inserted to preserve the shoe shape for storage. Leather laces closed the shoe firmly around the wearer’s foot.

The shoe discovery, while newsworthy, is merely the tip of the iceberg. The cave in which the shoe was found is called Areni-1. It has been inhabited by human groups from these ancient times up through the medieval period. However, there are distinct portions of the cave that date from the Chalcolithic (“Copper”) Age, including the areas where this shoe was found. The Copper Age encompasses the 4th millennium B.C.E., during which this shoe was manufactured. Other items in this cave date from the same time period, including dried fruits, a possible winemaking apparatus, obsidian stone tools, animal remains, and several ritualistic jars (including one vessel which contained a teenage human skull). All in all, it seems Areni-1 was a cave of some importance to a population of Copper Age humans. It served as living quarters and sites of rituals.

Areni-1 is a rare window to the past: a glimpse at how our ancestors survived and thrived, and laid the ground for a more prosperous future for their descendants. And the search of this extensive archeological treasure is not complete. More clues to our past may be hidden in the caves depths! After all, shoes work best in pairs, and the left partner of this shoe remains missing.

Image provided courtesy of Boris Gasparian and the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnology in Yerevan, Armenia.

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Tropical Storm Agatha pounded Central America over the past few days. The storm is blamed for 180 deaths, and caused widespread flooding.

An hour after a clothing factory in Guatemala City closed on Saturday, the building’s security guard left the empty factory to tend to his flooded house. Shortly after he left, the entire factory disappeared into the sinkhole pictured above. The sinkhole also claimed an intersection, and sent nearby residents fleeing for fear that the ground would soon disappear beneath their feet.

The sinkhole is 66 feet in diameter, and at least 100 feet deep. It’s sudden appearance, coupled with the it’s “perfect” circular shape have made some geologists hypothesize that a previously unknown cave formation is to blame. However, in 2007 a similar sinkhole consumed several homes and killed three people a mere three miles from this new formation. That sinkhole was ultimately blamed on heavy rains coupled with the city’s flawed drainage system. Geologists will certainly take the city’s drainage system into account as they investigate the causes of this new sinkhole.

In the meantime, law enforcement officers are keeping curious onlookers away from the sinkhole, as geologists prepare to descend the Earth’s newest opening and see what’s going on. Tread lightly.

Image provided courtesy of Paulo Raquec and the Guatemalan government.

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A northern gannet, covered in thick brown oil, lies dead on a beach in Grand Isle, Louisiana. Northern gannets are usually white.

Over a month after the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded and sank in the Gulf of Mexico, oil continues to gush from its open well. This week, scientists and government officials announced that oil has fouled Louisiana marshlands and coastal habitats along the massive Mississippi River delta. The extent of the destruction and magnitude of the loss of won’t be known for some time. However, the bodies continue to mount, and many are questioning whether such complex marshlands can ever recover from such a catastrophe. Since a picture is worth a thousand words, take a look at the image below of Louisiana’s irreplaceable coastal marshes, now coated in thick brown oil.

In the meantime, the federal government has admitted that it does not have enough equipment and experts to take over BP’s failed attempts to stop the flow of oil from the untapped well or contain the spill. Thus, for now, BP remains in charge of the spill itself, while states along the Gulf of Mexico try in vain to protect precious miles of shoreline.

First image provided courtesy of Sean Gardner and Reuters. Second image provided courtesy of Gerald Herbert and the Associated Press.

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The image above shows Mount Saint Helens in Washington State as it appeared on 17 May 1980, thirty years and one day ago. A day after this photograph was taken, Mount Saint Helens erupted. The north face of the mountain exploded outward with the force of about 500 atomic bombs, killing 57 people and eradicating over 200 square miles of forest. It was the largest landslide in recorded history, and the Mount Saint Helens ash cloud circled the globe. Coming back from a helicopter survey of the destruction after the eruption, Washington State Governor Dixy Lee Ray could only say, “I feel like I’ve just come back from the moon.”

In 1982, President Ronald Reagan established the Mount Saint Helens National Volcanic Monument to preserve the eruption site. The centerpiece is Johnston Ridge, where a small visitor center was constructed. Johnston Ridge looks literally into the collapsed north face of the volcano. It is named for volcanologist Dr. David A. Johnston, who died in the blast and had made his observation post on that ridge.

In the years since the 1980 eruption, slowly but surely, life has returning to the volcano’s surroundings. Microbes, plants, and animals have once again made homes in the area the volcano devastated a mere three decades ago.

Below, for comparison, is an image of what Mount Saint Helens looked like four months after the volcano erupted, in September of 1980. It is taken from roughly the same position as the pre-eruption image above.

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This image shows a fossil specimen of Archaeopteryx, one of the first birds. Archaeopteryx (“ancient wing”) thrived 145-150 million years ago during the time of the dinosaurs. In fact, all living birds are dinosaur descendants! This particular Archaeopteryx specimen is on display in a Berlin museum.

Several Archaeopteryx fossil specimens (including the specimen pictured above) famously show brilliant impressions of the proto-bird’s elaborate feathers. However, new research has shown that at least one specimen contains more than just impressions of the feathers. There are small chemical traces of the feathers themselves. The specimen in question was discovered in Germany in 2005, and later donated to the Wyoming Dinosaur Center in Thermopolis, Wyoming. Thus, it is often called the “Thermopolis” specimen.

Scientists borrowed the Thermopolis specimen and bombarded it with x-rays at the Stanford Linear Accelerator in California. The x-ray data provided new data on the fossil’s chemical composition, and revealed those unexpected chemical traces of the specimen’s feathers and bone. The findings, published recently in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, has revealed many more bird-like characteristics of Archaeopteryx. Scientists announced that Archaeopteryx and modern birds both have similar bone chemistry, and likely similar nutritional needs. Owners of pet birds, for example, might know that copper and zinc are essential minerals in pet bird diets. Archaeopteryx may have had similar nutritional needs.

These new findings are as amazing as they are tragic. Traditionally, fossils weren’t thought to contain chemical traces of the original organism. Thus, curators preparing fossil specimens for display typically didn’t treat fossils to preserve these chemical signatures. Thus, for many other Archaeopteryx specimens that have been studied and put on display, handlers and curators have likely inadvertently swept away these chemical traces. It was only by luck that a few portions of the Thermopolis specimen of Archaeopteryx had not been handled too roughly.

This new look at Archaeopteryx fossils is breathing new live into paleontology — but from a chemical perspective. Expect chemical analyses of other fossil specimens in the future. Some even speculate that the right fossil sample may even preserve another mystery about this early bird: the color of its feathers. Stay tuned.

Image provided courtesy of H. Raab.

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A dead sea turtle washed ashore near Pass Christian, Mississippi. Since the devastating oil spill over a week ago, dead sea turtles have washed ashore in several U.S. states along the Gulf of Mexico. The number of corpses is much larger than normal.

Earlier this week, 25 sea turtle corpses washed up Mississippi beaches alone. Initial examination of the bodies did not reveal oil on the turtles. However, scientists caution that oil could have doomed the sea turtles in a number of other ways. For example, ingesting oil or fish contaminated with oil could damage the lungs, liver, and red blood cells. Oil exposure could also cause pneumonia or immune system distress. Tissue samples from the turtle corpses are being tested to look for evidence of some of these effects.

Some of the dead turtles include Kemp’s Ridley Sea Turtle, an endangered species. Oil continues to leak from the well of the former Deepwater Horizon oil rig to the tune of about 5,000 barrels per day.

Image provided courtesy of the New York Times and Michael Appleton.

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This true-color image shows southwestern Australia as it appeared on 18 August 2002. A significant chunk of the coastal region is green, a sign that ample seasonal rainfall has done its job. However, to the north and east, hot and dry conditions persist, as a reminder that much of the Australian landscape is dominated by the arid and semi-arid “Outback.”

Australia is the driest inhabited continent, and it is getting drier. The patches of temperate and sub-tropical areas along the coast (including the pictured bit of southwestern Australia) are getting warmer, but receiving less rainfall. Much of southeast Australia (including most of the major urban centers) has been wracked by a decades-long drought. The Murray-Darling river system in the southeast, the only major river system on the continent, is drying up quickly, depriving the country’s limited agricultural land of much-needed irrigation. Cities like Western Australia’s Perth (with a 2009 population of 1,659,000) have seen water demand spike as reservoirs drop. Already, the country has three desalination plants operating to provide water for coastal cities, with three more under construction and at least one more planned. These desalination plants will likely increase Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions, already the highest per capita in the world.

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In 2007, a reindeer herder and his two sons found this remarkably well-preserved baby woolly mammoth frozen solid in the Yamal-Nenets Autonomous Okrug (District) in northern Russia. The herder named her (for it is indeed a she) Lyuba, after his wife. The International Mammoth Committee, a consortium of scientists dedicated to the preservation and study of mammoth remains, has safeguarded and studied Lyuba ever since. Usually quartered at the Shemanovsky Yamal-Nenets Museum and Exhibition Centre in Salekhard, Russia, she is beginning a tour across the United States. Her first stop is Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History.

Scientists report that Lyuba lived a tragically short life. Yet, the unique circumstances of her death have permitted us to learn a great deal about her mammoth kin, who roamed the planet as recently as ten millennia ago. Some 42,000 years ago, when Lyuba was just one month old and still nursing on her mother’s milk, fell into a muddy river bank. Struggling in vain to free herself, she sank and suffocated in the muck. Her remains froze in the permafrost, slowing decay and preserving soft tissue, skin, hair, and even stomach contents.

In short, Lyuba (pronounced Lee-OO-bah) is a rare and Earth-shattering find. As far as mammoth remains go, we’re used to finding skeletons, occasionally clumps of hair or tissue, or one or two mummified remains. A whole frozen animal can (and in this case, has) revealed a lot. CAT and MRI scans of her soft tissues have shown us how her innards are arranged. Stomach contents revealed that she’d still been nursing when she died. Hair and skin samples have even given molecular biologists like me something to drool over: a rare specimen of intact mammoth DNA!

Lyuba’s tour of the United States will hopefully draw attention to the problems faced by the International Mammoth Committee. Most woolly mammoth specimens (skeletal or otherwise) that have been recovered frozen and relatively well-preserved in permafrost. However, as Siberian permafrost melts for good, no one knows how many undiscovered mammoth specimens there are that will begin to thaw and decay. The International Mammoth Committee is racing against time to unearth mammoth remains and preserve them for study. Otherwise, we’ll only have a handful of samples like Lyuba to help us understand these elephant relatives that roamed the northern latitudes with our ancestors.

If you find yourself in Chicago up through 6 September 2010, head on over to the Field Museum and see Lyuba for yourself. The exhibit will also go to Boston, Jersey City, Saint Louis, Denver, San Diego, and Anchorage.

Image of Lyuba, a one-month old female woolly mammoth (Mammuthus primigenius) preserved by Siberian permafrost, is provided courtesy of the International Mammoth Committee and Francis Latreille.

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