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David Goggins
Former Navy Seal
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Bryan Cranston
Actor
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Liv Boeree
International Poker Champion
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Amaryllis Fox
Former CIA Clandestine Operative
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Chris Hadfield
Retired Canadian Astronaut & Author
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Giant whale sharks have teeth on their eyeballs

The ocean's largest shark relies on vision more than previously believed.

Photo by Koichi Kamoshida/Getty Images
  • Japanese researchers discovered that the whale shark has "tiny teeth"—dermal denticles—protecting its eyes from abrasion.
  • They also found the shark is able to retract its eyeball into the eye socket.
  • Their research confirms that this giant fish relies on vision more than previously believed.
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New algorithm computes how to find those lost at sea

Researchers devise an effective new predictive tool for maritime first-responders.

Image source: PHOTO JUNCTION/Shutterstock/Big Think
  • Predicting the locations of objects and people lost at sea is devilishly difficult.
  • MIT and other institutions have developed a new algorithm that identifies floating "traps" that can attract floating craft and people.
  • The new TRAPS system has just completed a successful first round of testing.

When the first pieces of Malaysian Air Flight 370 finally turned up in July 2015, they were found on Réunion Island off the eastern coast of Africa in the Indian Ocean, thousands of miles from the best-guess location of where the plane went down. Experts weren't especially surprised at the drift, given the complexities of the ocean.

Finding a missing craft or person at sea in a hurry is a nightmare for first responders, and the math involved in tracking survivors — and debris — is anything but simple, given the sea's ever-changing mix of wind, weather, and wave conditions.

Researchers at MIT, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH), the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), and Virginia Tech recently announced the first successful trials of their new "TRAPS" system, a system they hope will provide faster, more accurate insights into the floating locations of missing objects and people by identifying the watery "traps" into which they're likely to be attracted. The team's TRAPS research is published in the journal Nature Communications.

According to Thomas Peacock, professor of mechanical engineering at MIT, "This new tool we've provided can be run on various models to see where these traps are predicted to be, and thus the most likely locations for a stranded vessel or missing person." He adds that, "This method uses data in a way that it hasn't been used before, so it provides first responders with a new perspective."

A Eulerian approach

Image source: MIT

The TRAPS acronym stands for "TRansient Attracting Profiles." It's an algorithm based on a Eulerian mathematical system developed by lead study author Mattia Serra and corresponding author George Haller of ETH Zurich. It's designed to discover hidden attracting fluidic structures in an onrush of changing data.

The traps the researchers seek are regions of water that temporarily converge and pull in objects or people. "The key thing is," says Peacock, "the traps may not have any signature in the ocean current field. If you do this processing for the traps, they might pop up in very different places from where you're seeing the ocean current projecting where you might go. So you have to do this other level of processing to pull out these structures. They're not immediately visible."

The new algorithm crunches through data representing the most reliable available wave-velocity snapshots at the last-known position of the missing item, and rapidly computes the location nearby traps in which a search is likely to be productive. As velocity data is continually updated, so is TRAPS.

Comparing the new Eulerian algorithm with previous Langrangrian predictive methods, Serra says, "We can think of these 'traps' as moving magnets, attracting a set of coins thrown on a table. The Lagrangian trajectories of coins are very uncertain, yet the strongest Eulerian magnets predict the coin positions over short times."

At sea

Image source: MIT

Theory is one thing, and functioning out on the real, maddeningly complex ocean is another. "As with any new theoretical technique, it is important to test how well it works in the real ocean," says Wood Hole's Irina Rypina.

The study authors were pleased — and surprised — at how well TRAPS worked. Haller says, "We were a bit skeptical whether a mathematical theory like this would work out on a ship, in real time. We were all pleasantly surprised to see how well it repeatedly did."

The researchers tested TRAPS off Martha's vineyard in the Atlantic Ocean in 2017 and 2018. WHOI sea-going experts assisted as they attempted to track the trajectories of a range of floating objects — buoys and mannequins among them — set into the water at various locations.

One challenge is that different objects may behave in their own ways in the ocean. "These objects tend to travel differently relative to the ocean because different shapes feel the wind and currents differently," according to Peacock.

"Even so," says Peacock, "the traps are so strongly attracting and robust to uncertainties that they should overcome these differences and pull everything onto them."

In their experiments, the researchers tracked freely floating objects for hours via GPS as a way to verify the TRAPS system's predictions. "With the GPS trackers, we could see where everything was going, in real-time," says Peacock. Watching the objects move via GPS, the researchers, "saw that, in the end, they converged on these [predicted] traps."

Anchors aweigh

The researchers now have sufficient faith in TRAPS that they plan on sharing it soon with the U.S. Coast Guard. Says Peacock:

"People like Coast Guard are constantly running simulations and models of what the ocean currents are doing at any particular time and they're updating them with the best data that inform that model. Using this method, they can have knowledge right now of where the traps currently are, with the data they have available. So if there's an accident in the last hour, they can immediately look and see where the sea traps are. That's important for when there's a limited time window in which they have to respond, in hopes of a successful outcome."

Chemistry for kids: Make a DIY bubble snake!

A fun and completely safe experiment for the family to try during quarantine.

  • Most of us are staying home to help flatten the curve of COVID-19, but that doesn't mean there isn't learning and fun to be had.
  • It's important to take a break from screen time. Kate the Chemist, professor, science entertainer, and author of "The Big Book of Experiments," has just the activity: Creating a bubble snake using common household ingredients including dish soap, food coloring, rubber bands, a towel, and a small plastic bottle.
  • In this step-by-step tutorial, Kate walks us through the simple process of building the apparatus and combining materials to bring the fun snakes to life.

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A landslide is imminent and so is its tsunami

An open letter predicts that a massive wall of rock is about to plunge into Barry Arm Fjord in Alaska.

Image source: Christian Zimmerman/USGS/Big Think
  • A remote area visited by tourists and cruises, and home to fishing villages, is about to be visited by a devastating tsunami.
  • A wall of rock exposed by a receding glacier is about crash into the waters below.
  • Glaciers hold such areas together — and when they're gone, bad stuff can be left behind.

The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.

Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .

"It could happen anytime, but the risk just goes way up as this glacier recedes," says hydrologist Anna Liljedahl of Woods Hole, one of the signatories to the letter.

The Barry Arm Fjord

Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach

Image source: Matt Zimmerman

The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.

Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest

Image source: whrc.org

There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.

The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.

"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."

Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.

What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord

Moving slowly at first...

Image source: whrc.org

"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."

The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.

Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.

Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.

While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.

Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."

How do you prepare for something like this?

Image source: whrc.org

The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:

"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."

In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.

Is poop-filled drinking water what killed ancient giant sloths?

Researchers think they know how a group of ancient sloths, who died thousands of years ago in Ecuador, met their untimely end.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons
  • Evidence collected from an ancient boneyard in Ecuador suggests that a group of 22 ancient giant sloths died in a wallow of their own feces.
  • Other mammals, such as a deer, a horse, an elephant-like creature called a gomphothere, and another species of ground sloth were identified at the site.
  • The fate of the sloths parallels that of modern hippos who can become lethally poisoned in times of drought when the feces to water ratio shifts in their watering holes.
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