It Was a Wild, Weird Year to Live on Planet Earth

Posted in SCIENCE, GEOLOGY,HEALTH, INVIRONMENT, TECHNOLOGY,ANTHROPOLOGY, ARCHAEOLOGY, with tags , on January 2, 2016 by 2eyeswatching

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It Was a Wild, Weird Year to Live on Planet Earth

Yesterday 2:30pm

It Was a Wild, Weird Year to Live on Planet Earth

The year 2015 will go down as many things, but normal isn’t one of them. We saw record-smashing temperatures, exceptional droughts, deadly heat waves and massive wildfires. Add in earthquakes, landslides, and a brewing El Niño and we’re convinced our planet is trying to kill us.

Hottest, Hottest, Hottest

It Was a Wild, Weird Year to Live on Planet Earth1

The East Coast sweltered while the West Coast froze this summer. Image Credit: WSI via @MJVentrice

May was the hottest May on record. June was the hottest June on record. July was the hottest July on record. August was the hottest August on record.September was the hottest September on record. October was the hottest October on record. November was the hottest November on record.

As for December? It’s going out in a blaze of chaotic glory. Those living on the East Coast enjoyed July-like weather this Christmas, while the North Pole experienced July-like weather yesterday.

Even if December did turn out to be abnormally cold—hah!—there’s still very, very good chance it’ll be the hottest year on record by a wide margin.

Five Hundred Year Drought

It Was a Wild, Weird Year to Live on Planet Earth

Peaks in the Sierra Nevada normally covered by snow are almost bare in this April, 2015 photo Image Credit: Rich Pedroncelli / AP

As California entered its fourth year of exceptional drought, the science started to catch up and put our thirsty predicament in context. According to a newNature Climate Change study, California’s drought is officially the worst in 500 years, maybe a millennia. While it would have been a bad drought whether or not humans were messing with the atmosphere, anthropogenic climate change hasmade the situation worse, according to another scientific paper published this summer. And while El Niño will bring some much-needed water to parched regions, the extra rain is unlikely to end the drought.

It Was a Wild, Weird Year to Live on Planet Earth

Over half the United States was in drought by September 10, 2015. Image credit: Dennis Mersereau

By September, California had plenty of company—over half the country was in drought. The west, the southern plains, and the east coast were all short on precipitation. Really, only the central and northern interior avoided being left high and dry.

Heat Waves Galore

It Was a Wild, Weird Year to Live on Planet Earth

Air conditioners and power generator in Baghdad, Iraq. Image credit: AP Photo/ Khalid Mohammed

Global average temperatures may sound a bit abstract, but this year’s record-smashing heat waves were as visceral as they come. A late May heat wave in India claimed over 2,500 lives, with temperatures in New Delhi hovering around 113 ºF for days on end. In July, the Middle East roasted as a “heat dome” descended across a vast region from Dubai to Beirut. Factoring in humidity, the air in Bandar Mahshahr felt like 165 ºF. According to a scientific paper published this year, deadly heat waves like this could render parts of the Persian Gulf unfit for human habitation by the end of the century.

The northern hemisphere has finally cooled off—sort of—but now, southern Australia is in the midst of the worst heat wave on record.

Exceptional Storms

While heat records were being shattered, exceptionally warm oceans fed into killer storm systems. This year we saw rare floods, unprecedented storm clusters, and record-breaking winds.

It Was a Wild, Weird Year to Live on Planet Earth2

Flooding in Sullivan’s Island, South Carolina on October 3, 2015. Image credit: AP Photo/Mic Smith

South Carolina dodged a hurricane only to get drenched by an atmospheric river dumping on the state. Some locations reported over 2 feet (0.6 meters) of rain in days. Widespread flooding hit the state with evacuations and water rescues.

It Was a Wild, Weird Year to Live on Planet Earth

Typhoon Kilo, Hurricane Jimena, Tropical Storm Ignacio, and tropical depression 14E invade the warm Pacific Ocean. Image credit: NASA

Storm season kicked off with a bang with a record-breaking number of severe storms marching across the Pacific. Scientists were left slightly stunned that they’d previously been impressed any time they found two storms in the basin at a time.

It Was a Wild, Weird Year to Live on Planet Earth

Satellite image of Hurricane Patricia and its 200 mph winds. Image credit: NASA

We also got the single most furious tropical storm in history. Hurricane Patricia built up to the strongest tropical storm ever recorded in just a few days. Thankfully it managed to make landfall on a patch of Mexican coast with a low population density. The storm killed several people and destroyed hundreds of buildings, but it could’ve been much worse if the winds had blown in a slightly different direction.

It Was a Wild, Weird Year to Live on Planet Earth

Cyclone Chapala advancing on Yemen in October. Image credit: Google Earth/SSEC

And then things got really weird. Yemen was smacked by a hurricane. Then it got hit by another. If it wasn’t strange enough to have hurricanes in a desert,Yemen had more hurricanes in a week than Florida did in the past decade. This can’t be good.

It Was a Wild, Weird Year to Live on Planet Earth

The hot, weird storm sitting above the North Atlantic. Image credit:

And then there’s the mega-weird storm that tracked across the United States this past week week, bringing blizzards, deadly tornadoes and flooding to New Mexico, Texas, and the Midwest. As Storm Frank churned northward, it brought heavy rain to the the UK and abnormally hot air to the Arctic—so hot, in fact, that temperatures rose above the freezing point at the north pole yesterday.

Meanwhile, other El Niño-fueled storms have brought the worst flooding in fifty years to parts of Paraguay, Uruguay, Argentina and Brazil this month. Overall, the winter of the Godzilla Chris Farley climate-aggravated Niño has met andexceeded our expectations for weirdness, and it’s still just getting started.

Trashed Food

It Was a Wild, Weird Year to Live on Planet Earth

Algae bloom across the west coast this summer. Image Credit: NOAA

Adding insult to injury, El Niño is indirectly trashing our crops. Along with droughts, fires, and storms, the warm oceans fostered a massive algae bloom, stretching all the way from Alaska to Mexico. One of the blooming algae species excretes domoic acid, a naturally-occurring toxin. It worked its way up the food chain into crabs and fish, resulting in seafood bans. Grr!


It Was a Wild, Weird Year to Live on Planet Earth

The awful combined power of extended drought, slope-stripping fires, and severe rains wrecked havoc on California with flows of thick, sludgy mud. The worse part? We’re probably going to get even more landslides as storms keep pounding soil too dry to absorb it.

On the far side of the ocean, severe rain triggered one of the largest landslides in history. Hundreds millions of tons of rock and dirt slid down the hills of China, but thankfully in a region so isolated that no one was killed. Even more impressively, due to thick seasonal cloud cover we didn’t even spot it until November!


It Was a Wild, Weird Year to Live on Planet Earth

Smoke trails from Paradise Fire, which consumed over 1,200 acres of Olympic National forest this summer. Image Credit: Olympic National Park

The world went up in flames this summer, thanks to a combination of tinder- dry conditions and high temperatures. By the beginning of July, there werehundreds of fires actively burning across the state of Alaska, and plumes of smoke were wafting thousands of miles south into the Midwest. In Washington state, one of the wettest rainforests on Earth burned. Half a world away, Indonesia was also in the midst of a devastating fire season. By mid October, the island nation had seen nearly 100,000 forest fires, which were collectively emitting more carbon than the entire US economy.

We also learned that epic fire seasons like those of 2015 are going to become more normal in our hotter, drier future.

Intense Earthquakes

The one aspect of 2015 that was fairly normal was its earthquakes. The planet was shocked with the usual assortment of mild, moderate, and massive earthquakes, so the only real question was who’d be unlucky enough to get hit.

It Was a Wild, Weird Year to Live on Planet Earth

The Chilean megaquake was followed by days of aftershocks, and shifted the coast by several feet. Image credit: NASA/Joshua Stevens

Chile lost the role of the dice with this year’s megaquake. A magnitude 8.3 earthquake struck the country in September, accompanied by a local tsunami. Luckily, the country has doubled-down on improving infrastructure, enforcing building codes, and encouraging personal preparedness in recent years. Despitemoving the ground by up to several feet, the catastrophe resulted in only a handful of deaths and minimal damage.

It Was a Wild, Weird Year to Live on Planet Earth

A magnitude 7.8 earthquake causes severe damage in the Kathmandu Valley of Nepal on April 25, 2015. Image credit: AP Photo/ Niranjan Shrestha

While smaller, Nepal’s earthquake emphasized the dangers of poor building construction. The magnitude 7.8 earthquake in April produced substantial shaking, and even shrunk Everest. But the true catastrophe came from widespread building collapse as entire villages were flattened by the earthquake. We still don’t have a final confirmed fatality count for the catastrophe, and probably never will.

It Might be Weirder in 2016

It Was a Wild, Weird Year to Live on Planet Earth

A rare winter flood in Pacific, Missouri on December 30, 2015. Image credit: AP Photo/Jeff Roberson

El Niño hasn’t hit disaster status yet, but it’s the looming catastrophe that will shape 2016. After months of will-it-or-won’t-it, the weather phenomenaamplified to match the worst El Niño on record. For the year ahead, we can look forward toa conveyer belt of storms drenching the west coast and even weirder weathereverywhere else.

Top art: Severe weather in Illinois [left, credit: AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast], rubble from Nepal earthquake [middle, credit: AP Photo / Manish Swarup], and Lake Oroville [right, credit: California Department of Water Resources]

Follow the authors at @MikaMcKinnon and @themadstone. Want yet more geoscience goodness? Check out@EarthAndSpace!

Africa’s new breed of solar energy entrepreneurs


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Africa’s new breed of solar energy entrepreneurs

The Origins of Religion: How Supernatural Beliefs Evolved


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The Origins of Religion: How Supernatural Beliefs Evolved

Many Catholics reveled in the pope’s whirlwind visit to the East Coast of the United States last month. But as the devout return to life as usual, nonreligious Americans may be left scratching their heads, wondering what all the fuss was about.

The vast majority of the U.S. population does not belong to the Catholic Church, and a growing percentage of Americans are not affiliated with any organized religion at all, according to a recent survey by the Pew Research Centers. So the question then becomes, what role does religion play in today’s American society? Perhaps oddly, that question can be answered by a group of people not usually associated with religion: scientists.

Despite the popular belief that science and religion (or science and the supernatural, more generally) don’t quite go hand in hand, scientists have quite a lot to say about this topic — specifically, why such beliefs even exist in the first place.

Chart of survey results.

Who Are American Catholics?
22 Percent of All Americans are Catholic (source: PRRI’s 2014 American Values Atlas)
59 Percent are White Non Hispanics
34 Percent Identify as Hispanic
7 Percent Identify as Mixed-Race or Other
But age makes a difference:
79 percent of older Americans (those over 65) are White Non-Hispanics, versus 40 percent of 18-29 year olds who are White Non Hispanics
Younger Catholics are also on the cusp of being majority Hispanic, with 49 percent of the 18-29 age group identifying as Hispanic.
Church loyalty:
About 52 percent of people who are raised Catholic leave the church, either for a spell or permanently. Of those, only 11 percent call themselves “reverts,” meaning they return to the church.
What do they believe on sexuality? In large part, they disagree with the Catholic Church’s teachings on sexuality.
66 percent believe using contraception is not a sin
54 percent believe living with a romantic partner prior to marriage is not a sin
35 percent believe it is a sin to remarry after a divorce without getting an annulment
44 percent believe it is a sin to engage in homosexual behavior
76 percent believe the church should allow parishioners to use birth control
66 percent believe cohabiting Catholics should be allowed to receive communion
62 percent believe Catholics should be able to remarry without receiving an annulment in order to receive communion
46 percent believe the church should recognize the marriages of gay and lesbian couples:
What do they believe on environment and social justice?
62 percent believe that working to help the poor and needy is essential to what it means to be Catholic
41 percent say they consider it sinful to buy luxuries without also donating to the poor
Only 23 percent say it is a sin to use electricity, gasoline and other forms of energy without concern for their impact on the environment.
Only 29 percent see working to address climate change as essential to what it means to be Catholic to them.

The ‘god faculty’

There are many theories as to how religious thought originated. But two of the most widely cited ideas have to do with how early humans interacted with their natural environment, said Kelly James Clark, a senior research fellow at the Kaufman Interfaith Institute at Grand Valley State University in Michigan.

Picture this: You’re a human being living many thousands of years ago. You’re out on the plains of the Serengeti, sitting around, waiting for an antelope to walk by so you can kill it for dinner. All of a sudden, you see the grasses in front of you rustling. What do you do? Do you stop and think about what might be causing the rustling (the wind or a lion, for example), or do you immediately take some kind of action?

“On the plains of the Serengeti, it would be better to not sit around and reflect. People who took their time got selected out,” Clark told Live Science. Humans who survived to procreate were those who had developed what evolutionary scientists call a hypersensitive agency-detecting device, or HADD, he said.

In short, HADD is the mechanism that lets humans perceive that many things have “agency,” or the ability to act of their own accord. This understanding of how the world worked facilitated the rapid decision-making process that humans had to go through when they heard a rustling in the grass. (Lions act of their own accord. Better run.)

But in addition to helping humans make rational decisions, HADD may have planted the seeds for religious thought. In addition to attributing agency to lions, for example, humans started attributing agency to things that really didn’t have agency at all. [5 Ways Our Caveman Instincts Get the Best of Us]

“You might think that raindrops aren’t agents,” Clark said. “They can’t act of their own accord. They just fall. And clouds just form; they’re not things that can act. But what human beings have done is to think that clouds are agents. They think [clouds] can act,” Clark said of early humans.

And then humans took things to a whole new level. They started attributing meaning to the actions of things that weren’t really acting of their own accord. For example, they thought raindrops were “acting for a purpose,” Clark said.

Acting for a purpose is the basis for what evolutionary scientists call the Theory of Mind (ToM) — another idea that’s often cited in discussions about the origins of religion. By attributing intention or purpose to the actions of beings that did have agency, like other people, humans stopped simply reacting as quickly as possible to the world around them — they started anticipating what other beings’ actions might be and planning their own actions accordingly. (Being able to sort of get into the mind of another purposeful being is what Theory of Mind is all about.)

ToM was very helpful to early humans. It enabled them to discern other people’s positive and negative intentions (e.g., “Does that person want to mate with me or kill me and steal my food?”), thereby increasing their own chances of survival.

But when people started attributing purpose to the actions of nonactors, like raindrops, ToM took a turn toward the supernatural. [Infographic: Americans’ Beliefs in Paranormal Phenomena]

“The roaring threat of a thunderstorm or the devastation of a flood is widely seen across cultures as the product of a dangerous personal agent in the sky or river, respectively,” said Allen Kerkeslager, an associate professor in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia.”Likewise, the movements of the sun, moon and stars are widely explained as the movements of personal agents with extraordinary powers,”Kerkeslager told Live Science in an email.

This tendency to explain the natural world through the existence ofbeings with supernatural powers — things like gods, ancestral spirits, goblins and fairies — formed the basis for religious beliefs, according to many cognitive scientists. Collectively, some scientists refer to HADD and ToM as the “god faculty,” Clark said.

In fact, human beings haven’t evolved past this way of thinking and making decisions, he added.

“Now, we understand better that the things we thought were agents aren’t agents,” Clark said. “You can be educated out of some of these beliefs, but you can’t be educated out of these cognitive faculties. We all have a hyperactive agency-detecting device. We all have a theory of mind.”

For the good of the group

But not everyone agrees that religious thinking is just a byproduct of evolution — in other words, something that came about as a result of nonreligious, cognitive faculties. Some scientists see religion as more of an adaptation — a trait that stuck around because the people who possessed it were better able to survive and pass on their genes.

Robin Dunbar is an evolutionary psychologist and anthropologist at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom whose work focuses mostly on the behavior of primates, including nonhuman primates like baboons. Dunbar thinks religion may have evolved as what he calls a “group-level adaptation.” Religion is a “kind of glue that holds society together,” Dunbar wrote in “How Many Friends Does One Person Need?: Dunbar’s Number and Other Evolutionary Quirks” (Harvard University Press, 2010).

Humans may have developed religion as a way to promote cooperation in social groups, Dunbar said. He noted that primates tend to live in groups because doing so benefits them in certain ways. For instance, hunting in groups is more effective than hunting alone. But living in groups also has drawbacks. Namely, some individuals take advantage of the system. Dunbar calls these people “freeriders.”

“Freeriding is disruptive because it loads the costs of the social contract onto some individuals, while others get away with paying significantly less,” Dunbar wrote in a New Scientist article, “The Origin of Religion as a Small-Scale Phenomenon.” As a result, those who have been exploited become less willing to support the social contract. In the absence of sufficient benefit to outweigh these costs, individuals will leave in order to be in smaller groups that incur fewer costs.”

But if the group can figure out a way to get everyone to behave in an unselfish way, individual members of the group are less likely to storm off, and the group is more likely to remain cohesive.

Religion may have naturally sprung up from this need to keep everybody on the same page, Dunbar said. Humans’ predisposition to attribute intention to just about everything (e.g., volcanic eruptions, lunar eclipses, thunderstorms) isn’t necessarily the reason religion came about, but it helps to explain why religions typically involve supernatural elements that describe such phenomena.

Follow Elizabeth Palermo @techEpalermo. Follow Live Science@livescience,Facebook & Google+. Original article on Live Science..


The Alaskan Arctic Oil Drilling Controversy Explained (Infographic)

Posted in SCIENCE, GEOLOGY,HEALTH, INVIRONMENT, TECHNOLOGY,ANTHROPOLOGY, ARCHAEOLOGY, with tags on September 28, 2015 by 2eyeswatching

Post 4835

The Alaskan Arctic Oil Drilling Controversy Explained (Infographic)

New Satellite Images Show Just How Parched the Ground Is

Posted in SCIENCE, GEOLOGY,HEALTH, INVIRONMENT, TECHNOLOGY,ANTHROPOLOGY, ARCHAEOLOGY, with tags on September 21, 2015 by 2eyeswatching

Post 4822

Maddie Stone

New Satellite Images Show Just How Parched the Ground Is

New Satellite Images Show Just How Parched the Ground Is

It’s been a hot, thirsty, fire-ridden summer out West. But to really understand the severity of the drought, we need to look beneath the parched vegetation and deep into the ground. Spoilers: It’s looking awfully dry down there.

That’s according to NASA’s latest series of soil and groundwater moisture maps, which pull together data from the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment(GRACE) satellites, in addition to ground-based measurements. The maps show how water content in mid September 2015 compares with averages for Septembers between 1948 and 2012, with warmer colors indicating drier-than-average conditions.

The first two maps look at the moisture content in the top two centimeters (0.8) inches of the soil and the “root zone” — defined as the top meter of soil — respectively. These maps highlight the abnormally dry conditions that gripped much of the Pacific Northwest this summer. In case that wasn’t clear enough from the fact that we’ve seen numerous ground fires flare up across some of the wettest rainforests on the planet.

New Satellite Images Show Just How Parched the Ground Is

Surface soil moisture, via NASA Earth Observatory

New Satellite Images Show Just How Parched the Ground Is

Root zone moisture, via NASA Earth Observatory

Meanwhile, a third map offers us the longer-term view, showing depleted ground water reservoirs across the entire western US and much of the East Coast. These trends aren’t all that surprising, either: They mirror another recent report which found that we’re draining major aquifers across the world faster than they’re being replenished.

New Satellite Images Show Just How Parched the Ground Is

Ground water storage, via NASA Earth Observatory

It’s a small wonder that farmers out west are drilling as many wells as they can to extract the remaining ground water before it’s gone. Unfortunately, this “grab it while it’s still there” mentality is only escalating the problem. In the end, none of us get to beat water scarcity — we’re going to have to adjust.

[NASA Earth Observatory]

Follow the author @themadstone

Amazing Images: The Best Science Photos of the Week

Posted in SCIENCE, GEOLOGY,HEALTH, INVIRONMENT, TECHNOLOGY,ANTHROPOLOGY, ARCHAEOLOGY,, Uncategorized with tags on August 14, 2015 by 2eyeswatching

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Amazing Images: The Best Science Photos of the Week


Chain of Underwater Volcanoes Discovered During Lobster Hunt


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Chain of Underwater Volcanoes Discovered During Lobster Hunt

During a recent marine excursion, researchers searching for lobster larva unexpectedly discovered a geologic wonder: a 50-million-year-old cluster of extinct volcanoes submerged in the water off eastern Australia.

The four volcanoes are located about 155 miles (250 kilometers) off the coast of Sydney, the researchers found during the mission, which lasted from June 3 to 18. The scientists immediately recognized them as calderas, a cauldronlike structure that forms after a volcano erupts and collapses into itself, creating a crater. The largest extinct volcano measures about 1 mile (1.5 km) across and towers about 0.4 miles (700 meters) above the seafloor, the researchers said.

The cluster is a large one, measuring about 12 miles (20 km) long and 4 miles (6 km) wide, they added. [Axial Seamount: Images of an Erupting Undersea Volcano]

The discovery will help geoscientists learn more about the geological forces that shaped the region, said Richard Arculus, a professor of marine geology at the Australian National University and an expert on volcanoes.

“They tell us part of the story of how New Zealand and Australia separated around 40 [million to] 80 million years ago, and they’ll now help scientists target future exploration of the seafloor to unlock the secrets of the Earth’s crust,” Arculus said in a statement.

The volcano cluster, which sits about 3 miles (4.9 km) underwater, went unnoticed until now because researchers didn’t have adequate tools to measure and map the deep seafloor, Arculus said.

The sonar on the old research vessel run by Marine National Facility (MNF), a research group funded by the Australian government, only had the ability to map the seafloor to about 1.9 miles (3 km) underwater, he said. A new 308-foot-long (94 m) vessel, named the Investigator, has a greater scope.

“On board the new MNF vessel, Investigator, we have sonar that can map the seafloor to any depth, so all of Australia’s vast ocean territory is now within reach, and that is enormously exciting,” Arculus said.

During the Investigator’s latest mission, researchers were looking for the nursery grounds of lobster larvae while simultaneously carrying out a routine mapping of the seafloor.

“The voyage was enormously successful,” Iain Suthers, a professor of marine biology at the University of New South Wales, said in the statement. “Not only did we discover a cluster of volcanoes on Sydney’s doorstep, we were amazed to find that an eddy off Sydney was a hotspot for lobster larvae at a time of the year when we were not expecting them.”

During the mission, the Investigator’s crew sent data to a team at the University of New South Wales, who analyzed the information and sent back their results, which included satellite imagery. This allowed the marine crew to chase eddies created by the marine creatures they were tracking.

“This is the first time we’ve been able to respond directly to the changing dynamics of the ocean and, for a biological oceanographer like me, it doesn’t get more thrilling,” Suthers said.

The research team found juvenile fish popular among fishermen, such as bream and tailor, about 93 miles (150 km) offshore.

“We had thought that once they were swept out to sea, that was [the] end of them,” Suthers said. “But, in fact, these eddies are nursery grounds along the east coast of Australia.”

Follow Laura Geggel on Twitter @LauraGeggel. Follow Live Science@livescience,Facebook & Google+. Original article on Live Science.