Wednesday Whatzits: Auckland's volcanic hazards, how to smell like Iceland, Kasatochi's climate impact and new books

Bright sunny Wednesday here in Ohio made all the better upon hearing that the miners trapped in the Chilean mine have started to make their way – one by one – to the surface. It truly was an amazing feat of engineering to rescue these men.


Some news for today:

Volcanic hazards for Auckland: It seems like the airing of the NZ TV3 drama “Eruption” about a fictional eruption of the Auckland Volcanic Field under New Zealand’s largest city, there has been more news on the potential volcanic hazards that threaten it. A study run by GNS Science and the University of Auckland found 29 new ash layers under the city – all between 400 and 80,000 years old. There are currently 9 seismic instruments around Auckland to help detect the first signs of any new eruptive activity in the volcanic field.

Kasatochi, sea life and carbon dioxide I’ve only scratched the surface of the many articles I’ve seen about a recent study by Roberta Hamme and her colleagues that details the plankton bloom related to the 2008 Kasatochi eruption in Alaska. The long-and-short of the study in Geophysical Research Letters was that the ash from the Kasatochi eruption (iron rich) helped trigged a plankton bloom in the ocean’s of the Pacific. The researchers monitoring how this bloom of photosynthetic life – which takes in carbon dioxide – would change worldwide CO2 levels. This is because one proposed method to sequester CO2 out of the atmosphere is to artificially produce their planktonic blooms and let the plankton absorb the carbon dioxide. However, Hamme found that even with the amount of material released by the volcanic eruption – far more than human’s could seed right now – that the plankton made very little dent in global atmospheric CO2. Well, looks like its back to the “ice cube in the ocean every now and then” plan.

Eau d’ Eyjafjallajökull: Nothing says “romantic evening” than the right perfume and what could be, um, more right than a perfume based on a eruption that closed the skies of Europe. I mean, you could think of yourself as Helen of Troy, but instead you have the odor that grounded a thousand planes. OK, well, that doesn’t sound too flattering, does it? Anyway, a company in Iceland is now marketing a perfume – called EFJ Eyjafjallajökull - made from glacier water from Eyjafjallajökull and it even comes with a piece of the volcano as a memento. Remember folks, Christmas is around the corner!

New Books: Finally, I happened to be browsing around the books on Amazon (mostly the volcano and baseball books) and found two potential gems that come out in early 2011. The first is the third edition of “Volcanoes of the World” by Lee Siebert, Tom Simkin and Paul Kimberly. This is the first new edition of the book in over 15 years and will have over 500 pages of volcanic information for us to devour. The second is for all of you interested at looking at igneous rocks in the field – it is called “The Field Description of Igneous Rocks” (shocking) and it is by Dougal Jerram and Nick Petford (two well known igneous petrologists) – and based on the description, sounds like a great place to start if you want to be able to read and interpret igneous rocks in the field.

Top left: Rangitoto Island in the Auckland Volcanic Field.

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Why birds fly south for the winter—and more about bird migration

What do we see from watching birds move across the country?

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  • A total of eight billion birds migrate across the U.S. in the fall.
  • The birds who migrate to the tropics fair better than the birds who winter in the U.S.
  • Conservationists can arguably use these numbers to encourage the development of better habitats in the U.S., especially if temperatures begin to vary in the south.


The migration of birds — and we didn't even used to know that birds migrated; we assumed they hibernated; the modern understanding of bird migration was established when a white stork landed in a German village with an arrow from Central Africa through its neck in 1822 — draws us in the direction of having an understanding of the world. A bird is here and then travels somewhere else. Where does it go? It's a variation on the poetic refrain from The Catcher in the Rye. Where do the ducks go? How many are out there? What might it encounter along the way?

While there is a yearly bird count conducted every Christmas by amateur bird watchers across the country done in conjunction with The Audubon Society, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology recently released the results of a study that actually go some way towards answering heretofore abstract questions: every fall, as per cloud computing and 143 weather radar stations, four billion birds migrate into the United States from Canada and four billion more head south to the tropics.

In other words: the birds who went three to four times further than the birds staying in the U.S. faired better than the birds who stayed in the U.S. Why?

Part of the answer could be very well be what you might hear from a conservationist — only with numbers to back it up: the U.S. isn't built for birds. As Ken Rosenberg, the other co-author of the study, notes: "Birds wintering in the U.S. may have more habitat disturbances and more buildings to crash into, and they might not be adapted for that."

The other option is that birds lay more offspring in the U.S. than those who fly south for the winter.

What does observing eight billion birds mean in practice? To give myself a counterpoint to those numbers, I drove out to the Joppa Flats Education Center in Northern Massachusetts. The Center is a building that sits at the entrance to the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge and overlooks the Merrimack River, which is what I climbed the stairs up to the observation deck to see.

Once there, I paused. I took a breath. I listened. I looked out into the distance. Tiny flecks Of Bonaparte's Gulls drew small white lines across the length of the river and the wave of the grass toward a nearby city. What appeared to be flecks of double-crested cormorants made their way to the sea. A telescope downstairs enabled me to watch small gull-like birds make their way along the edges of the river, quietly pecking away at food just beneath the surface of the water. This was the experience of watching maybe half a dozen birds over fifteen-to-twenty minutes, which only served to drive home the scale of birds studied.

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Scientists sequence the genome of this threatened species

If you want to know what makes a Canadian lynx a Canadian lynx a team of DNA sequencers has figured that out.

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  • A team at UMass Amherst recently sequenced the genome of the Canadian lynx.
  • It's part of a project intending to sequence the genome of every vertebrate in the world.
  • Conservationists interested in the Canadian lynx have a new tool to work with.

If you want to know what makes a Canadian lynx a Canadian lynx, I can now—as of this month—point you directly to the DNA of a Canadian lynx, and say, "That's what makes a lynx a lynx." The genome was sequenced by a team at UMass Amherst, and it's one of 15 animals whose genomes have been sequenced by the Vertebrate Genomes Project, whose stated goal is to sequence the genome of all 66,000 vertebrate species in the world.

Sequencing the genome of a particular species of an animal is important in terms of preserving genetic diversity. Future generations don't necessarily have to worry about our memory of the Canadian Lynx warping the way hearsay warped perception a long time ago.

elephant by Guillaume le Clerc

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13th-century fantastical depiction of an elephant.

It is easy to see how one can look at 66,000 genomic sequences stored away as being the analogous equivalent of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. It is a potential tool for future conservationists.

But what are the practicalities of sequencing the genome of a lynx beyond engaging with broad bioethical questions? As the animal's habitat shrinks and Earth warms, the Canadian lynx is demonstrating less genetic diversity. Cross-breeding with bobcats in some portions of the lynx's habitat also represents a challenge to the lynx's genetic makeup. The two themselves are also linked: warming climates could drive Canadian lynxes to cross-breed with bobcats.

John Organ, chief of the U.S. Geological Survey's Cooperative Fish and Wildlife units, said to MassLive that the results of the sequencing "can help us look at land conservation strategies to help maintain lynx on the landscape."

What does DNA have to do with land conservation strategies? Consider the fact that the food found in a landscape, the toxins found in a landscape, or the exposure to drugs can have an impact on genetic activity. That potential change can be transmitted down the generative line. If you know exactly how a lynx's DNA is impacted by something, then the environment they occupy can be fine-tuned to meet the needs of the lynx and any other creature that happens to inhabit that particular portion of the earth.

Given that the Trump administration is considering withdrawing protection for the Canadian lynx, a move that caught scientists by surprise, it is worth having as much information on hand as possible for those who have an interest in preserving the health of this creature—all the way down to the building blocks of a lynx's life.