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The Geophysical Explorations Continue

March 1, 2011

I'm a bit of a hoarder....

I’ve always been captivated by science.

In my teens, I watched Daily Planet (a daily science news television show) after school nearly every day at my one of my friend’s houses. I read a lot of science magazines – my first subscription was Discover. I took every science class offered in highschool, and went to university for chemistry.

Half way through my undergraduate years, I started to lose interest as my education got ever more focused on methods and niche topics, training me to be a working scientist. The depth and specialization of modern science is incredibly important, but the narrow scope just wasn’t for me. I wanted to know everything (or almost everything), about everything.

My guidance counsellor at the University of Guelph suggested that a career in science journalism would better fit my style; forever learning, thinking, and questioning on a broad number of topics. She pulled some strings (thanks Linda!) and let me build a choose-your-own adventure degree: Honours Physical Science with a minor in Philosophy. I could take whatever science courses I wanted as long as they fell under the banner of physical science. My goal was to get the basics in every field, so that I could walk in to nearly any lab in the world and at least have a grasp of the basics.

Obviously my education wasn’t as far reaching as I’d planned (I still know next to nothing about psychology, for instance, and am happy to leave that to minds more suited), but I got a pretty good primer in ecology, chemistry, toxicology,  meteorology, hydrology, energy issues… and on it goes.

Whether my plan really worked out has yet to be determined, but I’m incredibly happy with my choice. Every day I get to learn about something completely new, and totally different from the day before. The stories I worked on this month are a testament to the quest for diversity that led me to switch programs.

As with the last time I did this, almost all of the stories were written for the American Geophysical Union and are either summaries/teasers for interesting studies selected by the journal editors, or Q&As with the authors of scientific books:

Ice is pushed away from the hull of the Coast Guard Cutter Healy Aug. 12, 2009.

Arctic ice. Photo Credit: Patrick Kelley, U.S. Coast Guard

No tipping point for Arctic Ocean ice, study says – One of the many fears for those concerned with our persistently warming world is the threat of hitting a tipping point, a drastic shift in the behaviour of one part of the climate. One of the more prevalent concerns is about the loss of Arctic sea ice, especially with talk of impending ice-free Arctic summers. This new study says that even if we do see a complete melt, the various feedback systems will cause the ice to recover within two years. (Also, I think this marks my second appearance on Watts Up With That…)

Using microearthquakes to evaluate potential carbon sequestration sites – With the world starting to try to do something about increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations, one of the proposed solutions is to pump it underground as a liquid and store it for thousands of years. This tactic has the benefit of being pretty well understood technically, and it’s not too politically sensitive. One of the barriers, however, is finding good storage sites that you know won’t leak. These researchers came up with a really clever tactic to use triggered microearthquakes – essentially really weak, low frequency earthquakes – to find fractures in the rock in three-dimensions. I really need to thank Matthew Garcia and Brian Romans, among others, for putting up with all my stupid questions while I worked through this study.

Political bias in water quality monitoring – Science is a pure, unfiltered intellectual pursuit, focused on nothing more than the acquisition of knowledge, right? Well… no. These folks tracked the development of the European water quality monitoring network to identify the influence of social, political and economic factors. Did you know that being an original member of the European Union is related to lower water quality monitoring standards? Now you do.

New model shows how tiny features influence large-scale flow through an aquifer – This study isn’t flashy, but it tries to deal with one of my absolute favourite scientific problems: scale issues in modelling. The researchers came up with a way to use large-scale observations to predict small-scale changes within an aquifer, which ultimately controlled the large-scale movement of a pollutant. This scale gap is common in every field, and it’s really cool to see someone find a work-around. Tracking the movement of pollutants through aquifers is really important, as any junk that gets down there could stick around for a long, long time, ruining an otherwise great source of freshwater. (Oh, and I have a thing for aquifers, no idea why.)

Norwegian mountains. NB: May not be the actual mountains in the study. Photo credit: Jesper Hauge

Improving estimates of water volume in mountain snowfall – Again with the scale issues. See? I told you. They’re everywhere. Here, the researchers want to use satellite images to spot where snow had fallen in a Norwegian mountain range to sort out how much water was locked up, and where it would go when it finally melted in the spring. This information can make a huge difference for flood preparations. Unfortunately, mountains are big, satellites are usually either high-resolution or cover a wide area, and the topography of the mountain can change significantly over a small area. They got around it by using a combined satellite-modelling approach. It will be really interesting if we can start applying this technique to other regions.

Trees are good, deforestation is bad. Extra bad, apparently. Photo Credit: Luc B

Changing atmospheric chemistry with the swing of an axe – Most animals give off pheromones, smelly chemical signals that they use to mark territory, warn of predators, or let others know it’s sexy time. Plants, too, give off gases for a variety of reasons, and some of these can be pumped out in big enough quantities that they might start to change the climate. Cutting down trees not only stops them from munching on carbon dioxide, it also prevents them from emitting a whole range of gases. These researchers think that deforestation and land use change will lead to increased ground-level ozone (bad), and increases in nitric oxide emissions (also bad).

In addition to the journal summaries, two book Q&As came out this month – both are unfortunately hidden behind a paywall:

Surface Ocean – Lower Atmosphere Processes – An interview with Corinne Le Quéré: “We know more about the impact of iron fertilization to stimulate growth of phytoplankton than any other geoengineering option proposed so far… What we don’t know is what happens after that; how much of that biomass is then eaten by zooplankton, how much of the biomass and carbon sinks to depth, what are the changes in the ecosystem, how much DMS is produced. All of these secondary reactions are very, very poorly known… There is a lot of talk about geoengineering, but the scientific knowledge is not ready to support the technical geoengineering implementation.”

NOAA Ocean Explorer: Expedition to the Deep Slope 2006

Tubeworms on a hydrothermal vent on the East Pacific Rise. Photo Credit: NOAA

Diversity of Hydrothermal Systems on Slow Spreading Ocean Ridges – An interview with Peter Rona: “There is a lot of thermal and chemical energy produced at seafloor vents… Right now, there are no efficient ways to transport the energy from hydrothermal vents out in the ocean back to land, although the heat could be harnessed for in situ uses at or close to the hydrothermal systems on ocean ridges. We’re now at a stage when we’re developing more seafloor observatories, so energy from hydrothermal vents could facilitate that development. Chemical energy at hydrothermal vents fuels chemosynthesis in vent ecosystems on and beneath the seafloor. Development of that energy is open to the imagination.”

2 Comments leave one →
  1. March 1, 2011 12:06 pm

    Awesome, love this series!

    • March 1, 2011 12:24 pm

      Thanks Brian! I’m glad someone is interested in the actual science writing I do ;)

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