The final frontier is right in front of us

We have explored (by conservative estimates) less than 5% of the undersea world, yet have found extraordinary things, like the greatest mountain range on the planet in the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. This stretches an amazing 50,000 miles and has thousands of peaks higher than the Alps and valleys deeper, wider and larger than the Grand Canyon.

We have also found – in this measly 5% – massive undersea rivers, undersea lakes (of brine) and undersea waterfalls, all of which dwarf their land-based equivalents.

Undersea waterfalls occur where the undersea rivers drop from the continental shelf into the ocean basin and the biggest waterfall in the world – by a massive margin – is found beneath the Denmark Strait between Greenland and Iceland where the cold arctic waters spill over into the Atlantic basin. These waters drop an astonishing 11,500 feet, which is three times as high as the highest land-based waterfall – Venezuela’s Angel Falls.

But it’s not just in height that this waterfall is a record breaker…it also carries at least 5 million cubic metres of water a second, which may be hard to visualise but when I tell you that Niagara comes in at a measly 2,400 cubic metres a second, you can get some sense of the extraordinary scale of this monster…

As far as land-based waterfalls are concerned, the biggest was the Guaira Falls on the border of Brazil and Paraguay (which ironically has itself now become an underwater waterfall, drowned by the artificial lake created by the Itaipu Dam). However, it still can’t compete with the whopper in the Denmark Strait, which is estimated to carry about 350 times as much water as the Guaira Falls.

You just have to ask yourself – if all this is in the 5% we have even vaguely explored, what else is out there, just waiting to be discovered?

 

Is this a knife I see before me?

Whenever we eat out, we don’t think twice about sitting down, surrounded by people wielding knives…..This is a huge demonstration of trust in the general decency and benevolence of strangers….at least it would be, except the knives you find on a dining table, with the possible exception of steak knives, are remarkable only for their complete impracticality and uselessness in terms of cutting anything.

In earlier times, when every knife was a potentially deadly weapon, societies developed a variety of safety measures…..In the east, knives stayed sharp and stayed firmly in the kitchen, in the hands of experts. Food was brought to the table already cut into bite-sized pieces and chopsticks and spoons were the only acceptable dining table utensils for civilized people…..only a barbarian would eat with a knife…..

In the west, we carried on having our own personal knives which we used to cut pieces from large chunks of meat or bread, but we minimised the dangers from other diners by creating a whole etiquette about hospitality and the sacred safety of guests.

This difference between the east and the west – between the use of knives and the avoidance of knives in public dining – has had a major impact on our facial physiology. 99% of us have an overbite – an upper jaw that overlaps the lower jaw – and we consider this to be ‘normal’ and attractive. Actually it is a very recent adaptation to eating bite-sized pieces of food and the faces of people who developed chopsticks changed earlier than those of the knife-wielders.

As recently as 300 years ago, it was still common in the west to pick up and bite into a large piece of meat or bread and use your knife to cut off the excess, which was then returned to the common platter. Using our jaws to hold the food meant our teeth met edge to edge and because we did it from the moment we teethed, our front teeth (incisors) were kept from growing longer and stayed the same size as their neighbouring teeth. Our smile would look odd by today’s standard, with all our teeth on show.

In the east, where people’s food was already bite-sized before it came to the table and so could be put directly into the mouth, the over-bite appeared hundreds of years earlier than in the west. Westerners only developed an over-bite once they started using a fork to hold their food steady while they cut pieces off, rather than using their mouths…..this was also the point when they developed knives specifically for dining – knives with blunt, rounded edges that clearly differentiated them from weapons.

Another ice sheet’s days are numbered

The collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet has begun – the good news it that it will take a couple of centuries, the bad news is that eventually it will lead to sea level rises of 10-13 feet (3-4 metres).

Bearing in mind that almost every major city in the world, as well as the majority of our agricultural land, is only a few feet about sea level – two hundred years may only just be long enough to prepare for a drastically different world.

The key to the stability of this huge sheet is the Thwaites Glacier and researchers expect it to disappear in a few centuries. It contains enough ice to raise sea levels by a couple of feet, but it is its role as the lynchpin to the whole sheet that is particularly worrying.

Once the glacier has gone, the rest of the sheet will follow – worst case scenario in about another 200 hundred years – and that will raise sea levels by another 3 metres or so. At best, it may take over 1,000 years for the whole Sheet to collapse but it seems that, whatever the time frame may be, the collapse itself is inevitable as none of the computer models have found any stabilizing mechanism to slow it down or reverse it…..

Waterworld here we come….

What do you call a magnetic star?

A magnetar, of course! And very special it is too….

When a massive star collapses under its own gravity during a supernova explosion, it becomes either a neutron star or a black hole.

Magnetars are an exotic form of neutron star and also happen to be the strongest magnets known in the universe, may millions of times more powerful that anything we have been able to create on earth. Like all neutron stars, magnetars are tiny and phenomenally dense, with a teaspoon’s worth weighing in at around a billion tonnes.

They have been a bit of a conundrum to scientists since they were first discovered about 35 years ago as they seem to be born out of the explosive deaths of stars so massive (about 40 times as massive as our sun) that they ought to have become black holes. Instead they turn into this very strange type of neutron star with an extremely powerful magnetic field.

Now scientists believe they have found the reason why – they think magnetars are formed through the interactions of two very massive stars orbiting each other in a tight binary system. The story seems to be that when the more massive of the two stars begins to run out of fuel, its outer layers transfer to its closely orbiting companion (which will become the magnetar). This sudden arrival of a load of extra mass causes the star to rotate more quickly and by spinning faster it in turn throws a load of mass off, much of which is lost but some finds its way back to its original star.

This cosmic pass-the-parcel results in the soon-to-be magnetar spinning much faster than before  but with a sufficiently low mass to avoid imploding completely into a black hole….instead it stays the size and mass of a neutron star but with the added factor of being highly magnetic.

 

We could all be powered by rhubarb

A new sort of battery could fundamentally transform the way electricity is stored on the grid, making power from renewable energy sources such as wind and sun far more economical and reliable.

 

Essentially (to keep to layman’s terms) this is a metal-free battery that relies on the electro-chemistry of naturally abundant, inexpensive, small organic (carbon-based) molecules called quinones. These are similar to the molecules that store energy in plants and animals.

Basically there are two sorts of battery around today. The solid-electrode sort, like those found in cars, are ill-suited to storing intermittent renewable energy sources. The other sort, called flow batteries, can store larger amounts of energy at a lower cost but up to now have relied on expensive, high-maintenance chemicals, making them too expensive to be practical for energy storage.

The new type of flow battery, using quinones, perform as well as standard flow batteries but are less expensive. Quniones are abundant in green plants and the one used in this research is almost identical to one found in rhubarb.

 

This type of flow battery would work with a large storage tank and, for individual homes, a tank the size of a home heating oil tank could store a day’s worth of sunshine from solar panels, powering the home through the night without having to burn any fossil fuels.

This technology would benefit not only the consuming developed world but just as importantly the hoping-to-consume developing world as 20% of the earth’s population has no access to a power distribution network.

Multi-tasking is uniquely human

Our brains are significantly different from those of our nearest relatives, according to researchers at Oxford University.

The area that seems to be unique to us is involved in some of the most advanced planning and decision-making processes that we think of as essentially human.

As far as we know, no other creature can plan into the future, be as flexible in approach as us or learn from others in the way we do.

The ventrolateral frontal cortex is the area of the brain involved in many of the highest aspects of cognition and language and is only present in humans and other primates. The researchers divided this part of the brain into 12 distinct areas, each of which had its own connections to the rest of the brain. In 11 of the 12, there were significant similarities between humans and macaque monkeys but the twelfth – the lateral frontal pole prefrontal cortex – only exists in us.

This is the bit that has been identified with strategic planning, decision-making and multi-tasking.

Even more interestingly, the auditory parts of our brain were found to be very well connected to this apparently unique bit of brain, suggesting it may be critical for our ability to understand and generate speech.

The awakening Arctic Ocean becomes a carbon sink

Over the last 30 years, the massive plates of sea ice in the Arctic Ocean have shrunk to the point where, in 2007, scientists were seeing almost 50% less summer ice than had been there in 1980.

This has drastically altered the Arctic eco-system as the sun is now able to penetrate far more surface water than before, causing dramatic blooms of phytoplankton where previously there had been very little.

When these tiny organisms die, a proportion of the carbon in their bodies sinks to the deep ocean, creating a reservoir of carbon. This ocean has always been a bit of a carbon sink, but climate change has increased the amount of carbon being taken in by about 1 megaton each year.

However, there is also a down-side as a few arctic regions where the water is warmest, such as the Barents Sea near Greenland, are less able to store carbon and instead emit carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

Earth has even more water than you think

Calling our planet ‘Earth’ seems to be less and less appropriate – not only is its surface mainly liquid but now it seems there are also vast quantities of water hidden miles below our feet.

Ringwoodite may sound like an unpleasant disease but actually it’s a very rare mineral that until now had only been found in meteorites. It is a form of the mineral peridot and was believed to exist in massive amounts deep underground – 400 to 700 kilometres beneath the surface, in the transition zone between the upper and lower mantles.

Naturally, scientists haven’t been able to do any fieldwork at such massive depths, but now a diamond scientist has discovered the first terrestrial sample of this water-rich gem, indicating that there must be vast quantities of water deep within the earth.

Ringwoodite contains a significant amount of water – about 1.5% of its weight – which shows there are at least local wet spots deep in the earth and it may be that the transition zone contains as much water as all the surface oceans put together.

Apparently the fact that we are such a soggy planet has implications for the study of plate tectonics and vulcanism as it affects how rocks melt, cool and move below the crust.

There really are more fish in the sea

Mesopelagic fish live in the twilight zone of the ocean, between 200 and1,000 metres down and are the most numerous vertebrates in the biosphere.

 

 

          Coral reef ecosystems may pack in more life per square metre than the rest of the ocean, but the sheer volume of water in the mesopelagic  or ‘middle of the sea’ regions means the fish there vastly outweigh all the rest put together.

 

 

Stocks of mesopelagic fish have been estimated at 1,000 million tons but scientists have just calculated a figure ten times higher. This has significant implications for our understanding of carbon fluxes in the ocean and the operation of what, up until now, we have thought of as ‘ocean deserts’.

Mesopelagic fish rise up from the depths at night to feed and sink back down at dawn to avoid predators. This behaviour has a massive effect on the movement of organic matter in the ocean, which is the engine driving the biological pump that removes CO2 from the atmosphere. Instead of this CO2-laden organic matter slowly sinking from the surface of the ocean, it is rapidly transported some 500-700 metres deep and released as faeces.

These fish also act as a link between plankton and top predators and have a key role in reducing oxygen from the depths of the open ocean.

Salmon use Earth’s magnetic field

This week a group of scientists have confirmed the connection, first suggested last year, that ocean salmon use the earth’s magnetic field to navigate.

Experimenters found that juvenile Chinook salmon are programmed to know where to go and how to navigate long before they even reach the ocean. Scientists believe the salmon must be very sensitive because the earth’s magnetic field is relatively weak, so it wouldn’t take much to interfere with their ability to navigate.

Many structures contain electrical wires or reinforcing iron that have the potential to affect the orientation of fish at an early stage of their life cycle. Of course, there are also natural disruptions to the magnetic field, such as chunks of iron in the earth’s crust but salmon will have had thousands of years to get used to those.

Juvenile salmon are at their most vulnerable when they first enter the ocean as they have to adapt to a saltwater environment, find food, avoid predation and begin their journey. If something affects their ability to navigate, they could head off in the wrong direction, end up in a barren part of the ocean and starve.