Methane release from permafrost

As global mean temperature increases due to an increase in atmospheric greenhouse gases, the extreme northern latitudes are heating disproportionately fast.  The warming conditions at high northern latitudes is melting permafrost soil.  Permafrost soil has a relatively high proportion of organic materials because decomposition is normally slow to act upon the soil (it is normally frozen!).  But with warmer temperatures, decomposition rates are increasing and decomposition gases (most of which are themselves greenhouse gases) are being released.  In the video below, decomposition gases have been trapped below a tightly knit mat of vegetation, giving the ground a “liquid” appearance.

Criminal Behavior in the Automotive Industry

In 2003 the state of Massachusetts sued the United States federal government for failing to regulate carbon dioxide emissions under the authority of the clean air act.  The clean air act allows that any substance emitted into the atmosphere by humans, that can cause harm to humans, must be regulated by the EPA.  The central issue therefore is whether carbon dioxide is dangerous to humans.  The Bush administration fought the suit to the US Supreme Court, which found in 2007 that if the EPA finds that carbon dioxide is dangerous to humans, then the EPA has the power to enforce regulations on carbon dioxide.  Shortly after that verdict the EPA found that carbon dioxide was dangerous to humans because of its contribution to global warming and climate change.  As a first step toward regulating carbon dioxide emissions, the Bush administration focused on emissions from vehicles.

What no one anticipated was the maleficence of automotive corporations to manipulate test results rather than actually apply new technology to the vehicles they produce to bring emissions down (i.e. increase fuel efficiency).  Volkswagen criminally altered their vehicles to deceive regulators and consumers (Volkswagen).  Mitsubishi falsified their fuel efficiency calculations to match industry standards (Mitsubishi). Ford, Kia, and Hyundai have all recently been caught lying to consumers about the fuel efficiency of the vehicles.  These issues with the automotive industry suggest that regulating carbon emissions in the future (e.g. regulating power plants) will be wrought with challenges and criminal behavior at the corporate level.  This IS criminal behavior, and criminal behavior should be dealt with through the courts, not via corporate fines (Hyundai and Kia fined) .  The responsible parties that willingly defraud the public trust should be prosecuted.

Orographic Lift

When an air mass encounters a large terrestrial mass (i.e. a mountain) the air is forced to a higher altitude and cooled.  As the air cools humidity increases and clouds form.  If there is sufficient moisture in the air, this process may result in precipitation on the side of the mountain facing the wind (leading to the orographic effect).  The video below is a time-lapse of Mt. Fuji.  As the day goes on, air temperature increases, gradually dissipating the clouds.  Note that the clouds progressively dissipate toward the point where the orographic lift is occurring.

Marine Iguana

One of the many endemic species of the Galapagos Islands is the marine iguana (Amblyrhynchus cristatus).  This fascinating reptile looks downright creepy in the video below; a terrestrial alien venturing into the littoral zone (not unlike the humans in the video!).  The ancestors of these iguanas are thought to have emigrated from the mainland of South America in the fairly recent geologic past and speciated into marine and terrestrial species while on the Galapagos archipelago.  There are 6 recognized sub-species of A. cristatus, all of which exhibit diving and grazing behaviors such as seen in the video below.

Humpbacks at Play

Humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) are highly social whales in an intraspecific context, but also in an interspecific context.  The stunning video below (where at times it’s hard to tell whether the whales are underwater or flying!!) highlights their propensity for what scientists consider to be play.  Dolphins, themselves known for their play behaviors, often get into the act.  It’s even been reported that humpbacks in Hawaiian waters (where this video was shot) will pick-up bottle-nose dolphins (Tursiops sp.) and lift them out of the water.  The dolphins don’t seem to mind, and in fact appear to be initiating the interaction by positioning their body for the lift.  When there are no dolphins to be had, humpbacks have been observed to play with other objects, such as seaweed.


Fun with Methanogenesis

Methane is a natural byproduct of microbial decomposition.  In lakes, methane accumulates in sediments, especially in the absence of strong disturbance or mixing at the water-sediment interface.  Strong disturbance (e.g. fall turnover or poking the sediment with a long stick) may result in dramatic release of the trapped methane… especially in the presence of a flame, as you can see below.  Do not try this at home.


Stunning Flock of Birds

This video is described online as a “sandpiper murmuration”.  Murmuration is a colloquial term that is normally applied to flocks of starlings, not sandpipers.  Regardless of the semantics, this is certainly a beautiful video of a flock of birds.  Hidden in their movements the observer can clearly see the confusion effect.  The confusion effect is the phenomenon whereby a predator becomes confused by a group of rapidly moving prey, making it harder for the predator to pick out an individual to attack.

Many species possess a countershaded color pattern characterized by dark color on the dorsal surface and light color (or a lack of pigment) on the ventral surface.  In organisms that form defensive groups, this color pattern is often an adaptive trait because it accentuates the confusion effect.  You can clearly see the birds using their light colored feathers to ‘belly-flash’ would-be predators.  Try it for yourself.  How long can you watch a single bird before becoming confused?


South Carolina Flood: Ant Rafts

The historic flooding in South Carolina this week has brought an interesting ant adaptation into the news.  Fire ants (Solenopsis sp.) prefer to nest in moist low-lying areas… so what do they do when those moist area floods?  Well, they take advantage of the surface tension of water and form rafts. The video below clearly shows that the ants are not only preserving the lives of adults by forming a raft, but are taking along the whole colony.  The second video shows just how buoyant these rafts are.

“Shade Balls” deployed to fight evaporation in CA

Drastic times call for drastic measures.  With Southern California experiencing a record drought, state and local governments are partnering with water suppliers to come up with alternatives to conserve water.  Personally, I think relocating to not-a-desert might be a better long-term solution to water scarcity in Southern California, but that’s just me.

One of the implemented measures to stem the water crisis is to dramatically deploy millions of “Shade Balls” into drinking-water reservoirs in order to shade/cool the water, reduce evaporation, and to help control secondary chemical reactions caused by storing chlorinated water.  The balls are plastic and partially filled with water in order to reduce their profile and keep wind from pushing them around too much.  They have been used in industrial applications since at least 2008, so here’s to hoping they are safe for drinking-water applications.  More information about the “conservation balls” can be found at the link below, but please note that the rosy assessment provided in the link is from a trade-publication.