I felt the earth. move. under my feet

I was writing in my office at school when, around 1:51 yesterday, the building and my desk with the built in bookshelf started shaking.  Hard.  Back and forth for thirty seconds.   My mind went just blank, and when I gathered my wits, right at the time it was over, I realized, Earthquake!

I have never experienced one of those and have always been kind of paranoid about it, mildly worried whenever I set foot in California.  I had heard from my California friends that they went through them all the time, that they were usually just mild ripples.  This was no mild ripple!  It was a hard long shake.  It turned out to have been 5.9 on the Richter scale, no less, with an epicenter of around 100 miles away from us in central Virginia.   We are close to Washington, D.C., where I’m told people downtown rushed into the street and the Pentagon and White House were evacuated.  The quake was felt for hundreds of miles, including in Philadelphia, Boston, and New York, where JFK airport was shut down.  And yet there seems to be no damage to speak of and no one hurt.  (If you hear reports otherwise, please report them in a comment.)

Some of you readers must have felt it too.  If you did, please report and give your location.  Let’s see if we can calculate how far this thing reached.

Photo of Earthquake Devastation in D.C.

From Bright Young Things

Via FamousDC.com

HT:  Necessary Roughness

Where’s the methane?

One of the major greenhouse global warming gases is methane.  Scientists have discovered that there is not nearly as much methane in the atmosphere as their computer models predicted there should be. 

Scientists say that there has been a mysterious decline in the growth of methane in the atmosphere in the last decades of the 20th Century.

Researchers writing in the journal Nature have come up with two widely differing theories as to the cause.

One suggests the decline was caused by greater commercial use of natural gas, the other that increased use in Asia of artificial fertiliser was responsible.

Both studies agree that human activities are the key element.

And there are suggestions that methane levels are now on the rise again.

Methane is regarded as one of the most potent greenhouse gases, trapping over 20 times more atmospheric heat than carbon dioxide.

Since the start of the industrial revolution, levels of methane in the atmosphere have more than doubled from a wide variety of sources, including energy production, the burning of forests, and increased numbers of cattle and sheep.

But between 1980 and the turn of the millennium, the growth rate reduced substantially, leaving scientists puzzled as to the cause.

Now, two teams of researchers have arrived at two very different conclusions for the decline. The first study was led by Dr Murat Aydin from the University of California, Irvine.

“We went after ethane – it’s another hydrocarbon similar to methane, it has common sources, but is easier to trace. We determined what ethane did during the second half of the 20th century using ancient air that we collected at polar ice sheets.

“We think the trend we see in methane is best explained by dramatic changes in emissions linked to fossil fuel production and use which seem to have declined in the 1980s and 1990s.

via BBC News – New theories over methane puzzle.

The big question, then, is what this does to the global warming scare.

Pollution cures global warming

Climate scientists–the established ones, not the renegades–have found that global surface temperatures did not rise from 1998 to 2008, despite heightened carbon emissions, and they have been trying to figure out why.  Now they are saying the temperature drop is anthropogenic, the result (like they had been saying of global warming) of pollution, just a different kind:

Smoke belching from Asia’s rapidly growing economies is largely responsible for a halt in global warming in the decade after 1998 because of sulphur’s cooling effect, even though greenhouse gas emissions soared, a U.S. study said on Monday.

The paper raised the prospect of more rapid, pent-up climate change when emerging economies eventually crack down on pollution.

World temperatures did not rise from 1998 to 2008, while manmade emissions of carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuel grew by nearly a third, various data show.

The researchers from Boston and Harvard Universities and Finland’s University of Turku said pollution, and specifically sulphur emissions, from coal-fueled growth in Asia was responsible for the cooling effect.

Sulphur allows water drops or aerosols to form, creating hazy clouds which reflect sunlight back into space.

“Anthropogenic activities that warm and cool the planet largely cancel after 1998, which allows natural variables to play a more significant role,” the paper said.

Natural cooling effects included a declining solar cycle after 2002, meaning the sun’s output fell.

The study said that the halt in warming had fueled doubts about anthropogenic climate change, where scientists say manmade greenhouse gas emissions are heating the Earth.

“It has been unclear why global surface temperatures did not rise between 1998 and 2008,” said the study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States.

via Asia pollution blamed for halt in warming: study | Reuters.

Good thing it exactly balanced out!  Otherwise we’d be causing a new ice age that would also destroy civilization as we know it.

Public vs. Private tourist spots

My wife had a meeting in Lynchburg, Virginia, last week, so I tagged along.  While she was busy, I explored.  I went to Appomattox Court House to see where the Civil War ended.  (Did you know that Appomattox Court House is not the name of the building where Lee and Grant met to sign the terms of surrender?  Rather, Appomattox Court House is the name of the TOWN.  Not to be confused with Appomattox, Virginia, which is nearby.   Appomattox Court House was a little town that doesn’t exist any more, but the National Park Service has rebuilt part of it, restoring about half of the original buildings.  You can go to the Court House, but it’s now the Visitors’ Center.  The site of the surrender is the McLean House, which was owned by a prominent local merchant.   Most of the population had fled the war, but Grant’s adjutant, looking for a place to hold the meeting, did not want to break into someone’s home without permission.  Fortunately, Mr. McClean was still around and offered his home.   The site today is very moving, portrayed as the place where the nation came together again.  The film and exhibits put a lot of emphasis on how Grant and his army honored Lee and the defeated Confederates, refusing to vaunt over them and how both armies put on elaborate rituals of mutual respect.

Then I went to Red Hill, which was Patrick Henry’s home.  He had a nice spread, on the top of a beautiful hill, but his house was tiny, just a simple square whitewashed dwelling, far different from the palatial Mt. Vernon of George Washington and the sophisticated Monticello of Thomas Jefferson.  The obligatory movie had some fascinating clips of Henry’s speeches.  He really could turn a phrase, and his eloquence is moving even today.  Red Hill is run by a privately endowed foundation.  It is quite nice and well-preserved, out in the middle of nowhere, and I was the only visitor at the time.

Later, on our way back home, we stopped at Natural Bridge, a huge stone archway some 200 feet tall.  Perhaps Virginia’s oldest tourist attraction, George Washington as a young surveyor supposedly carved “G.W.” in the stone, initials that go way back and that are currently marked with a white rectangle.  Then we drove home by way of the Blue Ridge Parkway, which turned into Skyline Drive at Shenandoah National Park, 105 miles of a 35 mph speedlimit, winding roads of sublime vistas.

Here is my topic for discussion:  Conservatives generally prefer privatization to the government running things.  But when it comes to National Parks and other National Monuments (such as Appomattox Court House and Shenandoah National Park), they tend to be better presented than commercially-run attractions.   The Natural Bridge was magnificent, but you had to go through a souvenir shop to get to the path through the woods, and it was accompanied by a wax museum, an Indian village, a toy museum, a butterfly exhibit, and a hotel.   Don’t get me wrong:  the attraction is worth going to, with well-kept paths and helpful staff.  But there sure was a lot of commercialism.  The National Park service, in contrast, made everything accessible, but it was also kept relatively pristine, with a helpful ranger to tell you all about it.  I suppose the Patrick Henry site shows another option:  It is private but not commercial, with the foundation being devoted to preservation rather than turning a profit, so it doesn’t matter that much whether anyone comes to see it or not.  Still, could we agree that certain historical and natural sites are best thought of as public goods, like roads and the military, and so the legitimate business of the federal government?  Or do you think the principle of private ownership should extend even to what are now national parks and monuments, with the inevitable commercialization simply the price we have to pay?

Microbes that control your mind

A mash-up of weird biology and invasion of the body-snatchers:

Last month, three insect and plant disease researchers in the University of California system reported a discovery about the tomato spotted wilt virus. As its name suggests, this virus infects and damages tomato plants. It’s harmless to people.

To jump from plant to plant, the virus relies on insects known as thrips. A thrip feeds by sticking its oral probe into a plant’s cells and sucking out the contents. If a cell happens to contain the virus, the thrip sucks it up, too.

Scientists already knew that virus-infected tomato plants are more appealing to thrips than uninfected plants. The California researchers discovered something else: Once a thrip consumes the virus, its behavior changes. It spends more time feeding, and it licks more plant cells in the process, coating the next tomato plant with the virus.

The virus’s goal (if viruses had goals) isn’t to mess with the thrip. It only manipulates the insect to get to the next plant. By doing so, the virus is taking away some measure of the thrip’s self-determination. It’s like a fleeing bank robber who commandeers and then abandons a bystander’s vehicle. Car theft wasn’t the criminal’s objective, but the bystander is still deprived.

Scientists have also discovered infections that alter behavior in mammals, including humans. For example, the deadly hantavirus, a distant relative of the tomato spotted wilt virus, causes infected rats to become more aggressive. Rabies, meanwhile, renders its victims crazed and unable to swallow. So rabid bats and canines are more likely to bite and spread the saliva-transmitted virus. In fact, rabies may have provided inspiration for legends of vampires and werewolves. Rabies-infected people don’t tend to bite, but they may foam at the mouth and act belligerently in the infection’s terminal stages.

Not all microbes are so obvious about influencing our behavior. If the effect is subtle, it could be hard to tell whether a behavior is coming from the person or from the thing inside them. Cold viruses, for instance, were recently found to make people friendlier, especially during the period before symptoms appear but when the soon-to-be-sick person is highly infectious to others. Evolutionarily, that helps the virus survive, because a gregarious host is a host who’s likely to spread the illness. Advanced syphilis has been reported to sometimes trigger behavioral changes including an exaggerated desire for sex.

The freakiest of the behavior-warping microbes may be Toxoplasma gondii , the parasite that causes toxoplasmosis. It can live in cats, rodents, people, livestock and other warm-blooded animals, but it reproduces only inside the feline intestinal tract. So the parasite manipulates infected rats, making them attracted to the scent of cat urine when normally they would be repulsed and terrified by it, and causing them to run toward cats instead of away from them. End of rodent. New beginning for parasite.

In some countries, up to about three-quarters of the human population carries toxoplasmosis, which can be acquired by touching cat feces or contaminated soil or by consuming undercooked meat. Normally, only pregnant women and immune-suppressed people get sick. Others develop lifelong “latent” infections, which are symptom-free. Or so it was once thought.

Research in recent years has identified several personality traits that appear to be associated with latent toxoplasmosis. Infected men are more willing to disregard social norms, for example, and are more jealous and dogmatic. Infected women are more conscientious, warm, easygoing and attentive to others. Both sexes, when infected, are more apprehensive and insecure.

One prominent researcher speculated that toxoplasmosis indirectly kills a million drivers and pedestrians a year worldwide.

Another researcher summed up the personality patterns by saying that infected men are alley cats — in other words, loners and scrappy fighters — and infected women are sex kittens. A third scientist has hypothesized that the high prevalence of toxoplasmosis in certain countries, including France and Brazil, may influence cultural stereotypes about those nations.

via The bacteria (or virus or parasite) made me do it – The Washington Post.

 

 


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