Tag Archives: Science

I Forecast a Dismal Year for Forecasters

Wouldn’t it be great if journalists in the United States would grill our politicians and bureacrats like this!   This interview reminded me of a Monty Python skit on steroids.  Despite the pathetic John Hirst in this video, Great Britain has contributed mightily to the world of meterology and travel. 

English clockmaker John Harrison (1693-1776) invented the marine chronometer, a long-sought and critically-needed key piece in solving the problem of accurately establishing the East-West position, or longitude, of a ship at sea, thus revolutionizing and making long distance sea travel more safe, according to Wikipedia.  Read the fascinating book about this by Dava Sobel, link below. 

Vice-Admiral Robert Fitzroy of the Royal Navy(1805 – 1865) the captain of  the HMS Beagle during Charles Darwin’s famous voyage, was a pioneering meteorologist who made accurate weather forecasting a reality, according to Wikipedia.  Wikipedia isn’t always reliable, but I think we’re safe here.

Dava Sobel’s website.

Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time (Paperback)

I found the viedo above, thanks to a commenter on the meteorology blog “Watts Up With That?” which you can find in my blogroll.

Also, a site I recently discovered about journalism is “Big Journalism.”  I’ve added it to my blogroll. Check it out.

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Filed under History, Humor, Politics, Science, Travel

Scientists Discover Origin of a Cancer in Tasmanian Devils

This Tasmanian Devil looks menacing, but he's just yawning. Devils can get peevish, though, particularly at meal time when they have to share. Devils have the strongest jaws per size of any mammal and can completely devour their meals, bones, fur and all. They are stellar members of the clean plate club!

Above is a photograph I took of a Tasmanian Devil in January 2009 at the Tasmanian Devil Conservation Park in Tasmania.  Links to my previous posts on the Tassie Devil are at the bottom.  (I’m just wild about the devils!)

The Tasmanian devil, a fox-sized marsupial, was listed in Australia as an endangered species in May 2009 because of a contagious cancer that has wiped out more than half of the wild population.  New research shows  that the cancers are caused by infectious tumors, rather than viruses as previously thought.  One scientist described the tumors, which are passed from devil to devil through bites, as a parasite.  The new finding will help scientists to devise vaccines that could save the Tasmanian devils and also shed light on the nature of infectious cancers in humans.

Two young Tasmanian devils.

Devils do not exist in the wild outside Tasmania, although zoos and wildlife parks on mainland Australia as well as on Tasmania are breeding captive populations as a strategy against total extinction.  The Tasmanian Devil is the largest carnivorous marsupial now that the Tasmanian Tiger is extinct.

For details on this study, here is a New York Times Article: Scientists Discover Origin of a Cancer in Tasmanian Devils

My previous posts about and photographs of the Tasmanian Devil:

I’m a Friend of the Tasmanian Devil.

More Deviltry.

 

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Filed under Animals, Australia, Health, Life, Natural History, Nature, Photography, Science, Travel

Monarch Butterflies in Space

KU Professor to help send monarchs into space

By RON SYLVESTER

The Wichita Eagle

(published in Kansas City Star on Nov. 16, 2009)

LAWRENCE, Kan. – (By Ron Sylvester) Chip Taylor is used to people giving him strange looks.

As director of Monarch Watch and professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Kansas, Taylor has placed radio tags on butterflies and tracked them across pastures and plains.

Sending monarchs to space is not that far-out an idea to him.

Three of Taylor’s monarch caterpillars are set to blast off to the International Space Station on Monday aboard the space shuttle Atlantis.

Why send butterflies to space?

To study the effects of gravity.

And yes, the thought of sending butterflies to space has drawn some quizzical looks.

But Taylor is used to that in his field.

“We got strange looks last summer when I was working with National Geographic and we radio tagged a butterfly,” Taylor said. “We have to go knock on somebody’s door and say ‘Can we go look for our radio-tagged butterfly? We think it landed in your pasture.’ I mean, you talk about having strange looks.”

Studying insects helps us learn how the world around us works, Taylor said, and how it affects our lives.

“The nature of what we do is to find out what life is all about,” Taylor said. “When you’re doing that sort of thing you’re up close and personal with all these insects, and that’s something people aren’t comfortable with.”

About 600 individuals and schools will be able to watch the caterpillars develop as they orbit in the space station, about 220 miles outside the earth’s atmosphere.

The schools will receive their own caterpillars in a small rearing station similar to that in the space station.

Students will watch those in their classrooms develop and compare them to how the caterpillars grow in space. Researchers hope they’ll turn into butterflies sometime after Thanksgiving.

The object, Taylor said, is to see how gravity, or the near-zero gravity in the space station, affects the insects. These will be the first of their species to travel in space.

“It is so gravity oriented,” Taylor said. “None of the insects they’ve taken up into space have had a particularly strong gravity orientation. The monarchs do. They’re going to be in a nearly weightless environment. It could pose all sorts of different problems for them.”

That will tell scientists more about movement and how life functions, said Steve Hawley, Kansas professor of physics and astronomy and an astronaut on five shuttle missions.

“The more we learn about how physiology works in space whether it’s human physiology or insect physiology or plant physiology the more we’ll be able to use that information on the ground to understand fundamentally how biological systems work,” Hawley said in a statement from the university.

Monarch Watch is working on the project with the BioServe Space Technologies program at the University of Colorado.

Stefanie Countryman, business development manager with BioServe, said their program created habitat and stringent requirements for the butterflies in space.

But they had no food.

Taylor and his Kansas program developed an artificial food for the caterpillars. That’s how they’ll eat in space.

Since April, Taylor has been perfecting the artificial diet.

“That’s what’s making this all possible,” Taylor said.

A study guide being sent to the schools explains that monarch caterpillars walk with 16 legs and spin silk to attach themselves to surfaces.

“What will happen when they lose their grip?” the guide asks, referring to the force of gravity on liftoff or the weightlessness of space.

How the caterpillars are able to react could teach astronauts how to move better in space, the study guide says.

“You win if they succeed, you win if they fail, because you learn something,” Taylor said. “You learn what their limitations are when they fail. You learn how they adjust if they succeed.”

People will be able to follow the experiment through photos, videos and other information at the program’s Web site: http://www.monarchwatch.org/space.

Information from: The Wichita Eagle, http://www.kansas.com

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Filed under Biology, Butterflies, Entomology, Insects, Life, Natural History, Nature, Science, Technology, University of Kansas

Butterfly School at Monarch Watch Fall 2009 Open House

Chip Taylor, right, director of Monarch Watch, shows how to hold a monarch butterfly for tagging.

Chip Taylor, right, director of Monarch Watch, shows how to hold a Monarch butterfly for tagging.

One of the highlights of the annual fall open house at Monarch Watch is Butterfly School, in which Chip Taylor, founder and director of Monarch Watch, demonstrates how to catch, hold, tag and release a Monarch butterfly before it begins its migration to its winter home in Mexico.

CHip Taylor shows the students in "Butterfly School" where to place the tag on the butterfly's wing.

Chip Taylor shows the students in "Butterfly School" where to place the tag on the butterfly's wing.

The weather for this fall’s event (Sept. 12) was warm and sunny, so the butterflies were very active but with the right technique (wait until they stop to refuel on a flower, don’t chase them!) they were easily captured in a net so that a small tag could be placed on a wing to help to track the butterfly’s migration patterns.  Monarch Watch is on the west campus of the University of Kansas in Lawrence.

Soon these tagged Monarchs will be joining hundreds of millions of other Monarchs in one of nature’s greatest natural wonders.  

In North America the Monarchs migrate south starting in August until the first frost. A northward migration takes place in the spring. The Monarch is the only butterfly that migrates both north and south, although no single individual makes the entire round trip.  The Monarchs tagged east of the Rocky Mountains spend the winter in Mexico and start to breed on their trip back home as soon as they encounter milkweed along the route.  This is why it’s so important for people to plant milkweed in their gardens to help the Monarchs along the way. Find out about starting a Monarch Butterfly Waystation by visiting Monarch Watch’s website.  Because of development and agriculture, milkweed is being destroyed in the areas Monarchs have used in the past. Drought and cold weather also reduces the amount of milkweed available.

Chip Taylor shows how to sneak up on a butterfly to catch it with a net. Captured butterflies are tagged so that when they are found, the data on the tag can tell researchers about the butterfly's migration.

Chip Taylor shows how to sneak up on a butterfly to catch it with a net. Captured butterflies are tagged before being released so that when they are found, the data on the tag can tell researchers about the butterfly's migration.

The tagging students were preparing for the  Jayhawk Audubon Society and Monarch Watch annual tagging event for the public at the Baker University Wetlands along 31st Street between Haskell and Louisiana in Lawrence, Kansas. The annual tagging event is open to everyone, with instructions given at the site.  The 2009 event is scheduled for 7:30 AM until 11:30 AM on Saturday, September 19, 2009.  More information can be found by clicking on the Monarch Watch website in my blogroll at the right.

In 2001, 325 participants tagged nearly 3000 of the estimated 20,000 Monarchs present, and at least 85 of those tagged were recovered at the winter roost sites in Mexico, according to Monarch Watch.  Almost as many were tagged in 2008.  You can view all of the recoveries tagged at these events by searching for Lawrence-tagged Monarchs on the Monarch Watch searchable recovery database on its website.  Click on this to find out more about the tagging process and why it’s done.

Getting ready to release a buttterfly

A group gathers in Monarch Watch's biohouse to hear about how to tag Monarch butterflies.

Every year, up to hundreds of thousands of Monarchs stop on their way south to refuel on the nectar from the ocean of yellow Bidens flowers at the wetlands, which is an amazing sight.

Monarch Watch is dedicated to the education about, conservation of and research about Monarch butterflies.  It works closely with schools and with researchers.  Research into Monarch migration is providing extensive information about genetics, for example.

Taylor and others went to the wintering site in Mexico in March 2009.  Here’s part of what Taylor had to say about a new Disney film, taken from the Monarch Watch blog.  It’s very exciting.  “While I enjoyed the entire trip, and this agreeable bunch, I had a side adventure: I spent 4 extraordinary days working with a film crew funded by Disney at El Rosario. It was total monarch immersion, all day every day, from 6AM to 7PM. The film crew was the largest I’ve worked with and there were three cameras going most of the time. The footage will be spectacular and like no other on monarchs to date.Disney has commissioned a series of nature films, and this film about pollination and pollinators is scheduled for theaters in 2010-2011. The working title for the film is “Naked Beauty” – but the bets are the title will be changed in time to something like “Nature’s Beauty: A love story that feeds the world”. The film’s message is important and timely. Nature’s beauty, as represented by numerous pollinators and the fruits, nuts, berries, and seeds that are the products of their efforts, will be skillfully and dramatically presented through the masterful direction and loving eye of the film’s director, Louie Schwartzberg.”

A Monarch butterfly is a beautiful hair ornament -- but just for a few minutes.

A Monarch butterfly is a beautiful hair ornament -- but just for a few minutes. Photo by Evan Jorn.

I’ve posted several other articles about Monarch Watch and butterflies, which you can find through my search button.  The Monarch Watch site has many articles on the butterfly’s biology, reproductive needs and the The Top Ten Butterfly Facts.  You can also find out how you can raise your own Monarchs.

Wikipedia has links, charts and photographs about the Monarch Butterfly.  Monarchs have spread widely and can even be found in New Zealand.  There’s a white version in Hawaii.

Monarch butterflies harden their wings on CHip Taylor's beard.

Newly emerged Monarch butterflies harden their wings on Chip Taylor's beard.

 

Children received a free Monarch pupa so that they could raise a butterfly at home.

Children received a free Monarch pupa so that they could raise a butterfly at home.

 

Monarch Watch provides information about other pollinators, such as honey bees.  Visitors to Monarch Watch's fall 2009 open house watched honey bees at work in this hive.

Monarch Watch provides information about other pollinators, such as honey bees. Visitors to Monarch Watch's fall 2009 open house watched honey bees at work in this hive.

 

Children and their parents found plenty of fun and educational activities to do at the fall 2009 Monarch Watch open house.

Children and their parents found plenty of fun and educational activities to do at the fall 2009 Monarch Watch open house.

 

Chip Taylor discusses research into Monarch butterfly migration, which provides insights in a lot of areas of science, including genetics.

Chip Taylor discusses research into Monarch butterfly migration, which provides insights in a lot of areas of science, including genetics.

 

Monarch Watch raises Monarchs for educationa and research.

Monarch Watch raises Monarch butterflies for education and research.

 

Monarch butterflies are fascinating creatures scientifically, but it doesn't hurt that they are also gorgeous and like to visit beautiful flowers on a lovely late summer afternoon.

Monarch butterflies are fascinating creatures scientifically, but it doesn't hurt that they are also gorgeous and like to visit beautiful flowers on a lovely late summer afternoon.

 

A male Monarch butterfly shows of its beautiful wings while perched on a scarlet milkweed in front of the Monarch Watch headquarters in Foley Hall at the University of Kansas.

A male Monarch butterfly shows off its beautiful wings while perched on a scarlet milkweed in front of the Monarch Watch headquarters in Foley Hall at the University of Kansas.

 

People gets close to Monarch caterpillars at the Monarch watch fall 2009 open house.

People get close to Monarch caterpillars at the Monarch Watch fall 2009 open house.

 

A Monarch caterpillar feeds on a South African Milkweed.  There are more than 140 known species of milkweed, which is the only kind of plant Monarch caterpillars eat.

A Monarch caterpillar feeds on a South African Milkweed. There are more than 140 known species of milkweed, which is the only kind of plant Monarch caterpillars eat.

A Monarch butterfly finds nectar in the blossom of a scarlet milkweed, a tropical species.  I planted four kinds of milkweed, but the Monarchs by far preferred my scarlet milkweed.

A Monarch butterfly finds nectar in the blossom of a scarlet milkweed, a tropical species. I planted four kinds of milkweed, but the Monarchs by far preferred my scarlet milkweed. The other milkweeds in my garden are perennials, but I'll need to replace my scarlet milkweed next spring. I could save the seeds or, more likely, just buy a new one at the Monarch Watch spring open house. This butterfly is one of the many that greeted visitors to the Monarch Watch fall 2009 open house.

Chip Taylor shows the tagging students what the tag says. Monarch watch pays for the retrieval of dead Monarch bearing these tags, most of which are found in Mexico near where they spend the winter.

Chip Taylor shows the tagging students what the tag says. Monarch Watch pays for the retrieval of dead Monarch bearing these tags, most of which are found in Mexico near where they spend the winter.

 

A newly emerged Monarch butterfly hardens its wings before taking its first flight.  The process takes a few hours.

A newly emerged Monarch butterfly hardens its wings before taking its first flight. The process takes a few hours. In the leaf above, you can see the hole made by a caterpillar when it hatched from its egg and ate its first milkweed meal.

 

Children could get a little exercise playing tossing games while learning about butterlies at the Monarch watch open house.

Children could get a little exercise playing tossing games while learning about butterflies at the Monarch Watch open house.

 

Here's where the cycle begins -- the butterfly mating cage at Monarch Watch.

Here's where the cycle begins -- the butterfly mating cage at Monarch Watch.

 

The pollination garden at Foley Hall, the home to Monarch Watch at the University of Kansas.

The pollination garden at Foley Hall, the home to Monarch Watch at the University of Kansas.

 

Here is a Monarch butterfly just minutes from emerging from its chrysalis.

Here is a Monarch butterfly just minutes from emerging from its chrysalis.

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Filed under Animals, Biology, Butterflies, Conservation, Entomology, Gardening, Insects, Kansas, Life, Natural History, Nature, New Zealand, Personal, Science, University of Kansas

Saving Bees

These honey bees are finding nectar on wildflowers in a park.  Bess find fewer places to find food as more areas are developed and mowed.  These wildflowers were mowed a few days later, leaving no flowers for the bees.

These honey bees are foraging for nectar on wildflowers in a park. Bees are finding fewer flowers for food as more areas are developed and mowed. These wildflowers were mowed a few days later, leaving no flowers for the bees.

My garden is a hang-out for bees of all kinds — honey bees, native bees, carpenter bees.  I love watching them going about their business and am glad to help out keeping them fed.  Bees are important pollinators.  Pollination is essential for most of our food crops. 

The honey bee population has dropped dramatically in recent years, and scientists are trying to find the causes.   They’ve discovered a number of reasons.  Below is a link to a New York Times article with comments about the bee situation from entomologists and beekeepers.   (There haven’t been many butterflies this year in the Midwest, which I’ll write about later. )

Room for Debate: Saving Bees: What We Know Now. – Lessons from the battle against colony collapse disorder, which is still decimating hives. Also check out Monarch Watch and Pollinator Partnership in my blogroll.

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Filed under Agriculture, Biology, Entomology, Environment, Gardening, Insects, Life, Nature, Science

Assassin in the Garden

A Wheel Bug hangs out on a bronze fennel, which is the home of one of his favorite meals, the soft bodies of Black Swallowtail Caterpillars.

A Wheel Bug, an assassin bug, hangs out on a bronze fennel, which is the home of one of his favorite meals -- Black Swallowtail Caterpillars. This is a young Wheel Bug, which hasn't yet formed the characteristic wheel protrusion on its back.

Every day, I watch the progress of the Black Swallowtail (BST) caterpillars on my huge bronze fennel plant, which is home to a lot of other insects, including this character (see photo) who seemed to be hanging out and doing nothing while sitting on a fennel flower.  Very suspicious.  I thought he was up to no good.  He gave me this look that said:  “Hey, Lady, Don’t look at me.  I’m just minding my own business.”  Yes, exactly. What was his business?  What did he eat?  He wasn’t sipping flower nectar like the bees and wasps and occasional butterfly.  I confess after a couple of days, I gave the fennel a shake and this bug tumbled to the earth.  The next day I saw him slowly making his way back to the top.  I don’t know how much I should interfere to protect “my” BST caterpillars. Was this a “good” bug or a “bad” bug?

I emailed Monarch Watch at the University of Kansas about this bug.  Jim Lovett replied: “Looks like an immature wheel bug to me (Order: Hemiptera; Family: Reduviidae)…if you’re not familiar with this bug be sure to check out some images of the adult. It’s a neat little critter that always captures people’s attention – “little” of course is relative; adults wheel bugs can be 1.5 inches long. They use that piercing/sucking beak to puncture their prey (and can inflict a painful “bite” on us humans if mishandled). FYI – all hemipterans (the “true bugs”) have piercing/sucking mouthparts.”

I asked whether this bug would eat a BST caterpillar.

 Jim’s answer:  “Yes, it would. It is a common predator on caterpillars (and other soft-bodied insects) of all sorts.”

Here’s a link Jim suggested: Wheel Bug.  The Wheel Bug is the largest member of the Assassin Bug family and is related to stink bugs.  Mean and smelly!  But useful, too, because they eat a lot of damaging caterpillars.

 The next day, the Wheel Bug disappeared and so did a few of my smaller BST caterpillars.  I hope Mr. Wheely didn’t eat my caterpillars! 

To learn more about butterflies and caterpillars, click on Monarch Watch.   My most recent post on raising BST and Monarch caterpillars is here:  Survivor — Caterpillar Version.

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Filed under Animals, Biology, Butterflies, Entomology, Environment, Gardening, Humor, Insects, Kansas, Kansas City, Life, Natural History, Nature, Photography, Science, University of Kansas

Monarch Watch Spring 2009 Open House

My friend Deb buys some tropical milkweed at the Monarch Watch Spring Open House.  Monarch Watch Director Chip Taylor, at left in the yellow hat, and many volunteers were busy as the crowds snapped up the annuals and perennials.   The sale is a fund-raiser for Monarch Watch and also ios a good way for people to introduce plants for pollinators in their gardens.
My friend Deb buys some tropical milkweed at the Monarch Watch Spring Open House at the University of Kansas on May 9. Monarch Watch Director Chip Taylor, at left in the yellow hat, and many volunteers were busy as the crowd snapped up the pollinator-pleasing annuals and perennials. The sale is a fund-raiser for Monarch Watch and also is a great way for people to introduce plants for pollinators in their gardens.

 It’s estimated that 80 percent of the world’s food crops needs to be pollinated.  Habitat for pollinators is shrinking every year, while the demand for food increases.   Monarch Watch at the University of Kansas in Lawrence is dedicated to promoting education about the biology and conservation of the Monarch butterfly and other pollinators.  It works with children of all ages, involving schools, nature centers and other ogranizations.  For more information, click on Monarch Watch and Pollinator Partnership on my blogroll.  If you buy products from Amazon.com, you can also benefit Monarch Watch by clicking on the amazon portal on the Monarch Watch website to buy.  There won’t be an additional cost to you.

 The following are photographs from the open house on May 9, except the last one which was taken in my backyard.

These Monarch Butterfly Chrysalides look like jade beans, trimmed with a thin stripe of gold leaf.  They'll be placed in containers when it's time for the butterflies to emerge.

These Monarch Butterfly chrysalides look like jade beads, trimmed with a thin stripe of gold leaf. They'll be placed in containers when it's time for the butterflies to emerge. The butterflies are then released, where hopefully they'll find food and habitat. Because of increasing development and changing farming practices, habitat and food sources for Monarchs are rapidly decreasing.

Children have a good time at the open house, where there are plenty of fun science-related activities....and cookies, too!

Children have a good time at the open house, where there are plenty of fun science-related activities....and cookies, too! Monarch Watch promotes education about and conservation of pollinating insects and other pollinating animals.

Visitors choose their Monarch Butterfly caterpillars, which you could buy when you bought a milkweed plant.  There were dozens of caterpillars munching away on milkweed in the white tub.

Visitors choose their Monarch Butterfly caterpillars, available for sale when you bought a milkweed plant. There were dozens of caterpillars munching away on milkweed in the white tub.

 

These Monarch caterpillars await adoption.  People who bought milkweed plants could also buy caterpillars to take home to live in on the newly purchased milkweed plants in their gardens.

These Monarch caterpillars await adoption. People who bought milkweed plants could also buy caterpillars to take home to live on the newly purchased milkweed plants in their gardens.

Monarch Butterflies are busy in the mating enclosure.

Monarch Butterflies are busy in the mating enclosure.

 Monarch Butterfly drops by to say hello to a young visitor.

A Monarch Butterfly says hello to a young visitor.

 

Thie honey bee dropped by the open house to visit some chive blossoms in the pollination garden.

This honey bee dropped by the open house to visit some chive blossoms in the pollination garden.

MonarchButterflies weren't the only stars of the open house.  Here are some silkworms.

Monarch Butterflies weren't the only stars of the open house. Here are some silkworms.

 

Honey Bees thrive in a hive at Monarch Watch headquarters, which promotes education adn conservation of all pollinating insects and other animals.

Honey bees thrive in a hive at Monarch Watch headquarters, which is on the west campus of the University of Kansas.

 

The Monarch Watch open house offered a wide range of annual and perennial nectar and food plants for butterflies and caterpillars.

The Monarch Watch open house offered a wide range of annual and perennial nectar and food plants for butterflies and caterpillars.

 

Not just caterpillars turn into butterflies.

Not just caterpillars turn into butterflies.

 

The Monarch Watch pollination garden is planted to attract and feed butterflies, bees and other pollinators, but it attracted me, too.  Isn't it lucky that plants for pollinators are also beautiful!

The Monarch Watch pollination garden is planted to attract and feed butterflies, bees and other pollinators, but it attracted me, too. Isn't it lucky that plants for pollinators are also beautiful!

 

Here's "Reggie," the Monarch caterpillar I bought, at home on a milkweed in my garden.

Here's "Reggie," the Monarch caterpillar I bought, at home on a milkweed in my garden.

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Filed under Animals, Butterflies, Conservation, Education, Environment, Food, Gardening, Insects, Kansas, Life, Natural History, Nature, Personal, Photography, Science, University of Kansas

What a Relief!

new-madrid-fault

New Madrid Fault.

 

 

I don’t have the shakes any more!  Today’s Kansas City Star reports that the New Madrid Seismic Zone in the boot heel (southeast) area of Missouri may be quieting down, which is very good news.  A series of earthquakes in the New Madrid seismic zone from 1811-1817 could be felt as far away as Quebec.  One of the earthquakes woke people as far away as Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and Norfolk Virginia.  The few people in Kansas City at that time were tossed around in their bedrolls like popping corn.

So many cable television channels are devoting lots of airtime to possible disaster stories — asteroids, mega volcanoes, gamma ray bursts, magnetic pole flipping, climate change, you name it, it’s coming at us.  The news of real events isn’t comforting, either, with earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes, floods and fires.  It’s good that we can relax a little about one possible catastrophe.

At the bottom is an explanation from the U.S. Geological Survey of the New Madrid Fault and the earthquakes it has unleashed. You can also read a lot more about the New Madrid Seismic Zone on Wikipedia by clicking here: New Madrid Fault.

Comparison: the 1895 Charleston, Missouri, earthquake in the New Madrid seismic zone with the 1994 Northridge, California, earthquake. Red indicates area of structural damage, yellow indicates area where shaking was felt.

Comparison: the 1895 Charleston, Missouri, earthquake in the New Madrid seismic zone with the 1994 Northridge, California, earthquake. Red indicates area of structural damage, yellow indicates area where shaking was felt.

 The New Madrid Fault Poses Little Threat, Scientists say

(Kansas City Star, April 13, 2009)

The New Madrid fault zone that unleashed a series of violent earthquakes in the early 19th century may be quieting down, two scientists say.

The fault line, which stretches into southeast Missouri, shows no signs of building up the stresses needed for the quakes many seismologists expect to someday rock the region again, the scientists say.

The researchers from Purdue and Northwestern universities said that may mean the little-understood New Madrid Seismic Zone is shutting down or that seismic activity is shifting to adjacent faults in the country’s midsection.

Other scientists call those conclusions premature.

 U.S. Geological Report on the New Madrid Earthquakes 1811-1812 

Shortly after 2 o’clock on the morning of December 16, 1811, the Mississippi River valley was convulsed by an earthquake so severe that it awakened people in cities as distant at Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and Norfolk, Virginia. This shock inaugurated what must have been the most frightening sequence of earthquakes ever to occur in the United States. Intermittent strong shaking continued through March 1812 and aftershocks strong enough to be felt occurred through the year 1817. The initial earthquake of December 16 was followed by two other principal shocks, one on January 23, 1812, and the other on February 7, 1812. Judging from newspaper accounts of damage to buildings, the February 7 earthquake was the biggest of the three.

In the Mississippi and Ohio River valleys the earthquakes did much more than merely awaken sleepers. The scene was one of devastation in an area which is now the southeast part of Missouri, the northeast part of Arkansas, the southwest part of Kentucky, and the northwest part of Tennessee. Reelfoot Lake, in the northwest corner of Tennessee, stands today as evidence of the might of these great earthquakes. Stumps of trees killed by the sudden submergence of the ground can still be seen in Reelfoot Lake.

Uplift of over 3 meters was reported at one locality several hundred kilometers to the southwest of the epicentral zone where a lake formed by the St. Francis River had its water replaced by sand. Numerous dead fish were found in the former lake bottom. Large fissures, so wide that they could not be crossed on horseback, were formed in the soft alluvial ground. The earthquake made previously rich prairie land unfit for farming because of deep fissures, land subsidence which converted good fields to swamps, and numerous sand blows which covered the ground with sand and mud. The heavy damage inflicted on the land by these earthquakes led Congress to pass in 1815 the first disaster relief act providing the landowners of ravaged ground with an equal amount of land in unaffected regions.

Some of the most dramatic effects of the earthquakes occurred along rivers. Entire islands disappeared, banks caved into the rivers, and fissures opened and closed in the river beds. Water spouting from these fissures produced large waves in the river. New sections of river channel were formed and old channels cut off. Many boats were capsized and an unknown number of people were drowned. There are some graphic eyewitness descriptions in contemporary newspapers made by the boatmen caught on the Mississippi River near Little Prairie, not far from the present-day town of Caruthersville, Missouri.

Although the total number of deaths resulting from the earthquakes is unknown, the toll probably was not large because the area was sparsely populated and because the log cabin type construction that was prevalent at that time withstood the shaking very well. Masonry and stone structures did not fare so well, however, and damage to them was reported at distances of 250 kilometers and more. Chimneys were thrown down in Louisville, Kentucky, about 400 kilometers from the epicentral area, and were damaged at distances of 600 kilometers.

Although it is impossible to know the precise epicentral coordinates of the earthquakes, contemporary accounts of the events suggest that the epicenter of the December 16 shock was close to the southern limit of the area of sand blows. The epicenter of the February 7 shock was closer to the northern limit of the sand blows, near the town of New Madrid, Missouri. There is not sufficient information about the second main shock on January 23 to know its epicenter. Thus the common practice of calling the entire earthquake sequence the “New Madrid earthquakes” is somewhat misleading. From what is known about the present seismicity of the area, it can be inferred that their focal depths were probably between 5 and 20 kilometers. The fault plane — or planes — on which the Earth rupture occurred are inferred to have had a NNE – SSW strike direction, more or less parallel to the Mississippi River.

The felt areas of the three largest earthquakes were extremely large. They extended south to the gulf coast, southeast to the Atlantic coast, and northeast to Quebec, Canada. The western boundary cannot be established owing to a lack of population. However, it can be estimated that the area of intensity V or greater effects was approximately 2½ million square kilometers. This can be contrasted with the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, for which the area of intensity V or greater effects was about 150,000 square kilometers. The large difference in felt areas between the Mississippi Valley and San Francisco earthquakes, which had approximately the same magnitude and focal depth, can be explained by differences in attenuation of earthquake waves traveling through the Earth’s outer crust. The crust in the Western United States tends to “soak up” earthquake energy, whereas in the central and eastern regions of the country the seismic energy experiences a much lower rate of absorption. Quantitative studies of recent earthquakes confirm this explanation.

Invariably the three questions that are asked when one describes the 1811-12 earthquakes are (1) could such earthquakes occur again, (2) if so, when will they happen, and (3) what would be the effect of such an earthquake if it were to occur now?

The answer to whether such earthquakes can happen again is yes. Field studies by M. L. Fuller of the United States Geological Survey published in 1912, provided topographic and geological evidence of large magnitude earthquakes predating the 1811-12 sequence. This evidence included ground cracks as large as any caused by the 1811-12 earthquakes in which trees fully 200 years old grew from the bottoms and slopes. Indications of more recent faults and of sandstone dikes filling old earthquake cracks were also found by Fuller. Futhermore, studies of the seismicity since 1812 show that the region is behaving in a manner more or less typical of active seismic zones.

The second question — when will another great earthquake happen — is much more difficult to answer. Extrapolation of magnitude and intensity recurrence curves is presently the only method of prediction available, but this is full of difficulties because the earthquake record covers far too brief a period of time and because earthquakes do not follow an exact cyclical pattern. Although extrapolations of recurrence curves for the region indicate return periods — depending on the investigator — of anywhere between about 400 to 1,000 years for an earthquake the size of the December 16, 1811 event, there is a possibility that such an earthquake might occur as soon as next year or as late as several thousand years hence.

It is easier to speculate on the effects that an earthquake the size of the 1811-12 series would have if it were to occur today than it is to predict when it will happen. In the epicentral area, a repeat of the kind of surficial damage experienced in 1811-12 can expected. However, this would result in a much greater loss of life and property today because of the much larger number of people and man-made structures in the region than were there 162 years ago. Even more awesome is the size of the area that would be affected. The dispersion of the surface waves, combined with their low attenuation, would result in a large amplitude, long duration sinusoidal type of motion with periods in the same range as the natural periods of tall buildings. Although damage to buildings located outside of the immediate earthquake zone would be mostly nonstructural in character, the monetary amount should be expected to be very large. The emotional and psychological effects of a large earthquake in the central part of the country would probably also be considerable, particularly if the earthquake had a long aftershock pattern as the 1811-12 sequence did.

Perhaps the greatest danger of all arises from the sense of complacency, or perhaps total ignorance, about the potential threat of a large earthquake. The frequency of occurrence of earthquakes the size of those that took place in 1811-12 is very low; however, continuing minor to moderate seismic activity in the central Mississippi Valley area is an indication that a large magnitude tremor can someday be expected there again.

Earthquake Information Bulletin, Volume 6, Number 2, March – April 1974, by Otto W. Nuttli.

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Research Update in the Fight Against ALS

alsalogo

 
    New Gene Mutation Discovery By ALS Association Consortium
 is Major Breakthrough in Lou Gehrig’s Disease Research, a report from The ALS Association’s National Office  Feb. 26, 2009 
In one of the most significant breakthroughs in the recent history of ALS research, a consortium of scientists organized and funded by The ALS Association has discovered a new gene, ALS6 (Fused in Sarcoma), responsible for about 5 percent of the cases of inherited ALS.The discovery will provide important clues to the causes of inherited ALS, which accounts for 10 percent of all cases, and sporadic ALS, which occurs in individuals with no family history of the disease and accounts for the other 90 percent of cases diagnosed.

“This is a momentous discovery in furthering our understanding of ALS,” said Lucie Bruijn, Ph.D., senior vice president of Research and Development at The ALS Association. “A new gene provides a new piece of the puzzle we can use to shed light on why ALS develops, and where to focus our efforts on creating new treatments and finding a cure.”The results of this groundbreaking research are published in the Friday, February 27 issue of the prestigious journal Science. The project was led by Tom Kwiatkowski M.D., Ph.D., at Massachusetts General Hospital, and Robert Brown, M.D., of the University of Massachusetts School of Medicine, and ALS Association-funded researchers Caroline Vance, Ph.D., and Christopher Shaw, M.D., of Kings College in London.The project was supported by a consortium of leading ALS researchers from around the world, formed as part of The Association’s Gene Identification Project. Their success reflects an unprecedented effort to accelerate the search for genetic mutations linked to all forms of ALS.

Dr. Brown noted, “We are particularly delighted because our trans-Atlantic consortium has pursued the chromosome 16 gene for more than six years. The ALS Association has been an all-important partner in this search. This discovery should lead to new cell and animal models of ALS, which will accelerate drug development.” “Global partnerships between investigators and funding agencies, such as the Motor Neuron Disease Association in the United Kingdom, are crucial to making these kinds of breakthroughs,” Dr. Bruijn commented. “This finding has opened up a whole new avenue of research and has the potential to uncover a common mechanism for most forms of ALS.”

The gene mutations were first identified by Dr. Kwiatkowski and were immediately confirmed by Dr. Vance, who also demonstrated abnormal accumulations of the mutant protein in cells cultured in the laboratory and the motor neurons of people carrying FUS mutations.

The gene, called FUS (“fused in sarcoma”), normally carries out multiple functions within motor neurons. These include regulating how gene messages (called messenger RNAs) are created, modified, and transported in order to build proteins. Some of these same functions also are performed by another gene called TARDPB encoding the protein TDP43, and mutations in the TDP-43 gene were recently linked to ALS as well.

“The fact that these two genes help perform the same function suggests that problems in this function may be critical in the development of ALS,” Dr. Bruijn said. “More research into exactly how these two genes work could ultimately lead to new treatments that are effective in slowing or stopping the progression of ALS and extending the lives of people with the disease.”

The mutations in the ALS6 gene were identified by detailed genetic sequencing in several families with an inherited form of ALS (familial ALS). Normally, the ALS6 protein works in the cell’s nucleus, but the mutations caused it to instead cluster outside the nucleus. Further work will be needed to determine precisely how this leads to ALS. With the gene in hand, scientists will be able to create cell and animal models containing the mutated gene, to examine in detail how the mutation operates and how it causes ALS.

“This suggests there may be a common mechanism underlying motor neuron degeneration,” according to Dr. Shaw. Motor neurons are nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord that control muscles. Motor neurons degenerate in ALS.

This is the second ALS-causing gene to be discovered in the past 12 months. SOD1, discovered in 1993, accounts for 20 percent of inherited cases of the disease. Mutations in the TARDP gene account for another four to five percent. The only well-defined causes of ALS are genetic. In both inherited and sporadic ALS, the disease symptoms and pathology are the same.

The possibility that ALS may be caused by several factors is the rationale for The Association’s policy of funding multiple genetic projects around the world and encouraging these leading geneticists to work together and share information to help locate disease-linked genes for faster, more accurate scientific results. By funding research on a global level, The Association helps put together “genetic pieces” of the ALS puzzle.

“Through our support of research such as this study, The ALS Association is committed to finding the causes of ALS, and using that knowledge to develop a cure as rapidly as possible,” Dr. Bruijn said. “We will build on the discovery of this new gene to carry that effort forward.”

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NASA Astronomy Picture of the Day

Orion's Belt, a photo by Martin Mutti.

Orion's Belt, a photograph by Martin Mutti.

So many people (ok, five…)  told me they liked the photograph at the top of my “Starry, Starry Night” post (that photograph is from flickr.com) that I’m posting a NASA website (see below) that archives a photograph each day of an astronomy feature.  I chose Orion’s Belt to illustrate this post, because it’s my favorite constellation — probably because it’s easy to identify.  Also,  the night sky here in Kansas in the winter, when Orion appears, is usually clear.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              
The NASA Astronomy Picture of the Day website explains the photograph above:  Alnitak, Alnilam and Mintaka are the bright bluish stars from east to west (left to right) along the diagonal in this gorgeous cosmic vista taken by Martin Mutti. Otherwise known as the Belt of Orion,  these three blue supergiant stars are hotter and much more massive than the Sun. They lie about 1,500 light-years away, born of Orion’s well-studied interstellar clouds. In fact, clouds of gas and dust adrift in  this region have intriguing and some surprisingly familiar shapes, including the dark  Horsehead Nebula and Flame Nebula near Alnitak at the lower left. The famous Orion Nebula itself lies off the bottom of this star field that covers about 4.5×3.5 degrees on the sky.  Mutti took this image in January 2009 with a digital camera attached to a small telescope in Switzerland.  It better matches  human color perception than a more detailed composite taken more than 15 years ago.

NASA Astronomy Picture of the Day Archive.

“Starry, Starry Night.”

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