Thursday Throwdown: Taal rumbles, real time Yellowstone, Ambrym's lava lake and more!

Try #3 on this post (let’s not get into it):

Taal and Mayon rumble: PHIVOLCS reports that two of the more hazardous volcanoes in the Philippines are experiencing increased seismicity: Taal and Mayon. Some of you may remember earlier this year when the alert status at Taal was raised due to fears that the caldera system might be reawakening. During September, Taal has had ~10 earthquakes/day, but over the last few days, that has increased to ~17 earthquakes/day. However, there is has been no changes in the thermal or fumarolic activity at the volcano, so PHIVOLCS does not think a change in alert status is warranted. No details were provided about the increased seismicity at Mayon, but the volcano did have a significant eruption at the end of 2009.

Real-time hot spring data for Yellowstone coming soon: The USGS announced today that a network of hot spring monitoring devices will soon stream real-time temperatures on some of the multitude of hot springs of the caldera. The first will be the hot springs of the Norris Geyser Basin that will go live in the next few weeks. Looks like you will all have something else to watch now, eh?

New GVP Report: Today saw a shiny new Weekly Volcanic Activity Report from our friends at the Smithsonian/USGS Global Volcanism Program. Lots of news in it from Indonesia, in particular. As I mentioned earlier this week, there were signs of increasing unrest at Karangetang. Well, I guess it was more than signs as the latest report mentions lava flows and strombolian activity at the volcano for much of September. This comes at the same time as increasing seismicity at Merapi and a lowering of the alert status at Sinabung from 4 to 3.

Shameless self-promotion: I’m not very good about calling attention to myself most of the time, but if you’re interested what I think about blogging and the future of geoblogging and citizen science, check out the post I wrote for the American Geophysical Union’s Plainspoken Scientist blog. I get into the Eyjafjallajokull eruption, how blogging fits into academics and talking science with the public.

The volcanoes of Buffalo: I know that when I mention volcanoes, the first thing that pops into your mind is upstate New York … OK, well, probably not. However, in the future, it very well might. The University of Buffalo is starting a new volcanic research station as part of the Center of Geohazard Studies. You can check out an interview with the director, Dr. Greg Valentine, where he talks about what sort of work will be done at the station and why they need 700 acres to house it.

Descending into Ambrym’s lava lake: Finally, you should definitely check out the video posted by James Reynolds about the active lava lake (well, really “boiling lava cauldron”) at Vanuatu’s Marum Crater on Ambrym volcano. James mentions that “the plan was to abseil into the pit to document the lava lake up close (myself and the expedition leader are documentary cameramen.) Unfortunately the 900m of rope and technical climbing equipment we had was still not sufficient to get to the bottom.” Yup, James and his colleagues did things that I always tell my students not to do in an actively-erupting volcano, but hey, for footage like that, someone is bound to do it, right?

Top left: A shot of spatter from one of the vents of Ambrym volcano. Click on the link to see the original version.

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Why "nuclear pasta" is the strongest material in the universe

Through computationally intensive computer simulations, researchers have discovered that "nuclear pasta," found in the crusts of neutron stars, is the strongest material in the universe.

Accretion disk surrounding a neutron star. Credit: NASA
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  • The strongest material in the universe may be the whimsically named "nuclear pasta."
  • You can find this substance in the crust of neutron stars.
  • This amazing material is super-dense, and is 10 billion times harder to break than steel.

Superman is known as the "Man of Steel" for his strength and indestructibility. But the discovery of a new material that's 10 billion times harder to break than steel begs the question—is it time for a new superhero known as "Nuclear Pasta"? That's the name of the substance that a team of researchers thinks is the strongest known material in the universe.

Unlike humans, when stars reach a certain age, they do not just wither and die, but they explode, collapsing into a mass of neurons. The resulting space entity, known as a neutron star, is incredibly dense. So much so that previous research showed that the surface of a such a star would feature amazingly strong material. The new research, which involved the largest-ever computer simulations of a neutron star's crust, proposes that "nuclear pasta," the material just under the surface, is actually stronger.

The competition between forces from protons and neutrons inside a neutron star create super-dense shapes that look like long cylinders or flat planes, referred to as "spaghetti" and "lasagna," respectively. That's also where we get the overall name of nuclear pasta.

Caplan & Horowitz/arXiv

Diagrams illustrating the different types of so-called nuclear pasta.

The researchers' computer simulations needed 2 million hours of processor time before completion, which would be, according to a press release from McGill University, "the equivalent of 250 years on a laptop with a single good GPU." Fortunately, the researchers had access to a supercomputer, although it still took a couple of years. The scientists' simulations consisted of stretching and deforming the nuclear pasta to see how it behaved and what it would take to break it.

While they were able to discover just how strong nuclear pasta seems to be, no one is holding their breath that we'll be sending out missions to mine this substance any time soon. Instead, the discovery has other significant applications.

One of the study's co-authors, Matthew Caplan, a postdoctoral research fellow at McGill University, said the neutron stars would be "a hundred trillion times denser than anything on earth." Understanding what's inside them would be valuable for astronomers because now only the outer layer of such starts can be observed.

"A lot of interesting physics is going on here under extreme conditions and so understanding the physical properties of a neutron star is a way for scientists to test their theories and models," Caplan added. "With this result, many problems need to be revisited. How large a mountain can you build on a neutron star before the crust breaks and it collapses? What will it look like? And most importantly, how can astronomers observe it?"

Another possibility worth studying is that, due to its instability, nuclear pasta might generate gravitational waves. It may be possible to observe them at some point here on Earth by utilizing very sensitive equipment.

The team of scientists also included A. S. Schneider from California Institute of Technology and C. J. Horowitz from Indiana University.

Check out the study "The elasticity of nuclear pasta," published in Physical Review Letters.

How a huge, underwater wall could save melting Antarctic glaciers

Scientists think constructing a miles-long wall along an ice shelf in Antarctica could help protect the world's largest glacier from melting.

Image: NASA
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  • Rising ocean levels are a serious threat to coastal regions around the globe.
  • Scientists have proposed large-scale geoengineering projects that would prevent ice shelves from melting.
  • The most successful solution proposed would be a miles-long, incredibly tall underwater wall at the edge of the ice shelves.

The world's oceans will rise significantly over the next century if the massive ice shelves connected to Antarctica begin to fail as a result of global warming.

To prevent or hold off such a catastrophe, a team of scientists recently proposed a radical plan: build underwater walls that would either support the ice or protect it from warm waters.

In a paper published in The Cryosphere, Michael Wolovick and John Moore from Princeton and the Beijing Normal University, respectively, outlined several "targeted geoengineering" solutions that could help prevent the melting of western Antarctica's Florida-sized Thwaites Glacier, whose melting waters are projected to be the largest source of sea-level rise in the foreseeable future.

An "unthinkable" engineering project

"If [glacial geoengineering] works there then we would expect it to work on less challenging glaciers as well," the authors wrote in the study.

One approach involves using sand or gravel to build artificial mounds on the seafloor that would help support the glacier and hopefully allow it to regrow. In another strategy, an underwater wall would be built to prevent warm waters from eating away at the glacier's base.

The most effective design, according to the team's computer simulations, would be a miles-long and very tall wall, or "artificial sill," that serves as a "continuous barrier" across the length of the glacier, providing it both physical support and protection from warm waters. Although the study authors suggested this option is currently beyond any engineering feat humans have attempted, it was shown to be the most effective solution in preventing the glacier from collapsing.

Source: Wolovick et al.

An example of the proposed geoengineering project. By blocking off the warm water that would otherwise eat away at the glacier's base, further sea level rise might be preventable.

But other, more feasible options could also be effective. For example, building a smaller wall that blocks about 50% of warm water from reaching the glacier would have about a 70% chance of preventing a runaway collapse, while constructing a series of isolated, 1,000-foot-tall columns on the seafloor as supports had about a 30% chance of success.

Still, the authors note that the frigid waters of the Antarctica present unprecedently challenging conditions for such an ambitious geoengineering project. They were also sure to caution that their encouraging results shouldn't be seen as reasons to neglect other measures that would cut global emissions or otherwise combat climate change.

"There are dishonest elements of society that will try to use our research to argue against the necessity of emissions' reductions. Our research does not in any way support that interpretation," they wrote.

"The more carbon we emit, the less likely it becomes that the ice sheets will survive in the long term at anything close to their present volume."

A 2015 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine illustrates the potentially devastating effects of ice-shelf melting in western Antarctica.

"As the oceans and atmosphere warm, melting of ice shelves in key areas around the edges of the Antarctic ice sheet could trigger a runaway collapse process known as Marine Ice Sheet Instability. If this were to occur, the collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) could potentially contribute 2 to 4 meters (6.5 to 13 feet) of global sea level rise within just a few centuries."