Amazing Nature Almanac – WIF Science

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Strange and Beautiful

Natural Phenomena

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Nature is amazing. There is no doubt about that. People have marveled at nature’s beauty since they came into existence. Not knowing what was happening, these people of old came up with some truly magnificent stories, trying to give a sense to the world around them. Today we are blessed with more knowledge about the world, but nevertheless this doesn’t diminish the magic taking place before our very eyes. If anything, it only makes nature more interesting.

 And while we no longer believe the “sky to be falling” every time it’s raining, or that Thor is smiting his hammer with every lightning strike, there are some natural phenomena out there we common folk still don’t understand. Here are 10 such natural occurrences, explained by our most prized of storytellers: scientists.

10. Snow Rollers

snow roller

No, these weren’t made by gnomes during the night, but rather by a series of meteorological events, in a particular order. Snow rollers aren’t a common sight, but when they do happen, and you stumble upon some of them, be sure that a fairly unlikely series of events took place the night before. First and foremost there needs to be two separate layers of snow already present: a first, icy or crusty layer of snow underneath, and a wetter one above. This way, the wet layer has something on which to roll over. Then you need some wind, strong enough to scoop out balls of snow and push them forward, similar to a tumbleweed, but not so strong as to blow it apart.

They will also form in relatively sloped areas, but this is not absolutely necessary. Just imagine yourself making a snowman, and the process is more or less the same. The biggest differences are that one is made by a person, the other by the elements. Also, snow rollers are more often cylindrical in shape, rather than a sphere, and they can vary in size from that of an average snowball, to that of a car. Nevertheless, the many meteorological conditions which need to take place in that exact order, at the exact time, make these snow rollers a very rare phenomenon to behold, and they usually make headlines in the newspapers the following day.

9. Mammatus Clouds

mammatus

Looking very ominous, mammatus clouds are sometimes the harbingers of an imminent and powerful thunderstorm. But more often than not, they form just after the storm has passed. Also known as mammatocumulus, they translate to “mammary cloud” due to their appearance as pouches, usually hanging beneath a larger, anvil cloud. As updraft pushes precipitation enriched air to the top of one such anvil cloud, the air begins to spread out, and the heavier precipitation, usually water particles and ice fall back to the bottom, forming these mammatus clouds. As the air falls back down to the ground, it heats up, evaporating the precipitation within it. The more precipitation there is the further down they will sink.

These clouds usually span over an area of several hundred miles in all directions and last for about 10-15 minutes at a time. While they usually form underneath an anvil cloud, they also appear on occasion under altocumulus, altostratus, stratocumulus, cirrus clouds, as well as volcanic ash clouds. Whatever the case, they look amazing and ominous at the same time, especially when sunlight is reflected off of them.

8. Ice Flowers

ice-flower

This natural phenomenon in particular is as beautiful as it is rare, and only takes places in late autumn or early winter, before the ground freezes over. As the air goes below freezing point, the sap within some plant stems, plants like theFrostweed (Verbesina virginica), begins to freeze and expand, pushing through the plant itself and forming an amazing thin sheet of ice, similar to a flower petal. Certain conditions need to take place for this beautiful phenomenon to appear. As the ground is still unfrozen, water keeps on going up the stem and through the microscopic cracks, the sap escapes and transforms into ice, adding to the ever longer sheet.

In some instances, this phenomenon can happen to wood as well. Wood which hasn’t yet dried completely and is kept in freezing conditions can sometimes present these Ice Flowers. More often than not however, the wood cracks from the pressure within, generating these wonderful patterns which curl and fold into gorgeous frozen petioles, giving this phenomenon both its name and appearance.

7. Columnar Basalt

columnar-basalt

This type of rock formation occurs, as it name suggests, in basalt, which is a lava flow rock. These formations can be found all over eastern Washington state, Devils Tower in Wyoming, Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland, or the Los Organos on the northern part of La Gomera Island in the Canaries, and many other places around the world. Based on their name, you can clearly see what kind of stories people used to give these, back in the day. Nevertheless, there are columnar basalt formations found even on Mars. The way these form, is similar to how the ground cracks during a severe drought. As the water evaporates, or goes into the water bed below, the ground above contracts and cracks. The same thing applies here, as the lava flow progressively cools over a period of maybe longer than 100 years. The cracks form perpendicular to the original flow direction.

The difference in thickness of these columns depends on the speed at which they cool. While there are cases of a lava beds contracting as a whole, it is more likely for them to crack. The faster they cool, the thinner the columns will be. And while hexagons are most common, polygons with three to twelve or more sides can be observed. Their length, which can be greater than 50 feet, is based on how thick the original lava flow was.

6. Fallstreak Hole

fallstreak-hole

This particular cloud formation looks as if someone took an enormous cookie cutter and made a hole in what, otherwise, looks like an enormous flat cloud covering the sky. In fact, some people call them Holepunch clouds. Another particular aspect here is that a streak of cloud usually hangs underneath that hole. What’s happening up there is quite interesting, to say the least. For starters, we need to know that air at higher altitudes is much cooler that the temperature at the ground level. In fact, temperatures can go well below freezing point.

But despite this, water vapor and tiny water droplets “refuse” to freeze and remain in a “supercool” state. Water usually begins to freeze due to the impurities inside it: salt, dust particles, all sorts of other minerals, and so on. Cold, distilled water can also begin to freeze instantaneously if a piece of ice is added to it, in a process known as “ice nucleation.” Since water vapor is quite pure, water stays in liquid form even under freezing temperatures. Here, a piece of ice falls from higher altitudes and comes in contact with the water inside this cloud. This in turn sets out a chain reaction, freezing the droplets around, and making them fall to the ground – thus, the cloud streak below the hole. If a plane happens to pass through a cloud at a shallow angle, it can also cause it to freeze and form a cigar-shaped Fallstreak hole.

5. Brinicles

Brinicles are a fairly rare sight to see, not because they rarely happen, but because they take place underwater. In fact, they were only discovered in the 1960s. When seawater freezes, it releases its salt, creating super-salty brine. This percolates through cracks in the ice, into the water below. This brine then sinks because it’s much denser than the surrounding water. That is also the reason you can float in salty water, far better than in a fresh water lake. Nevertheless, this brine is also much colder, and the seawater around freezes on contact. Over time, this creates somewhat of an inverted cone, or funnel if you will, which goes ever deeper towards the bottom. This stalactite is what’s known as a brinicle.

Since brinicles appear in shallower waters, closer to the coast, in a course of some 12 hours it’s able to reach the bottom, trapping everything in ice. Creatures usually living on the ocean floor, like starfish and sea urchins, move far too slow and they get trapped in this newly formed ice, which then spreads along the bottom. Not surprisingly, brinicles are more commonly known as “The Ice Fingers of Death.”

4. Volcanic Lightning

Also known as a dirty thunderstorm, volcanic lightning is a weather phenomenon related to the production of lightning in a volcanic plume. What causes them was somewhat hard to figure out, and is still not yet fully understood. While during a thunderstorm, lightning is caused by colliding ice crystals, which generate enough electricity to cause a lightning bolt, ash clouds are far more difficult and a lot moredangerous to study. At first glance, it would seem counter intuitive to attribute ice as the main culprit behind a “dirty thunderstorm”. Some new scientific studies and better equipment, however, have begun to show us what’s really happening during one such volcanic inferno.

Once an eruption begins, large quantities of positively charged particles are blown into the air, which in contact with the negatively charged air particles around make for an electric discharge. These lightning bolts occur in and around the plume, which is ejected by the volcano itself. At first this theory was mostly based on speculation, but thanks to the very high frequency (VHF) radio emissions technology, scientists were able to get a better look inside one such dense volcanic plume and figure out what’s actually happening. But this is not all when it comes to lightning and volcanoes together.

Another study has tracked the location of lightning strikes some 60 miles from the eruption, and at near-stratospheric heights of about 12 miles above the ground. This seems to be caused somewhat in the same way as in a usual thunderstorm. As the ash cloud is blown by the wind, it thins out, and ice begins to form at its extremities, resulting in further lightning strikes. These studies, while not that surprising, can help a great deal in aviation as they can inform on the way to properly respond to a volcano eruption and the usual flight paths of commercial airliners passing above.

3. Sailing Stones

sailing-stones

Death Valley in California is notorious for its scorching heat during the day and extreme cold during the night. Among the many mysteries and legends linked to this place, none is more fascinating than the “sailing stones” phenomenon taking place within the Racetrack Playa, an exceptionally flat and level scenic dry lake. Some weighing around 700 pounds, the stones which dot the lake bed seem to be moving across the desert floor when nobody’s watching, leaving long trails behind them. This has puzzled scientists for decades now, but now geologists Richard and Jim Norris, believe they have found the answer. Though the phenomenon itself was under scrutiny since the 1940s, only recently did the two geologists actually capture these sailing stones on film. They set up a weather station in the area and fitted stones with GPS trackers. Two years into the project, the stones began to move.

What actually happened was that it rained the day before, and during the night a thin layer of ice had formed over a few inches of liquid water. As day came, the ice began to break apart and, pushed by the breeze, these ice sheets simply dragged the stones with them, scraping a trail on the bottom. By the end of the day, when all the ice had melted, some of the stones moved more than 200 feet. However, the conditions for this phenomenon to take place are hard to come by, and Norris compared the chances of actually stumbling upon it with winning the lottery. This also explains why this seemingly simple occurrence has intrigued people for so long.

2. Penitentes

penitentes

Penitentes are narrow ice formations, commonly found at high altitudes of over 13,000 feet, with low humidity, especially in the Andes Mountains of South America. What’s curious about them is that they usually point towards the sun, ranging from a few inches to six or even 16 feet in height. Their name comes from their resemblance to people kneeling, as when doing penance. More precisely, they resemble the brothers of the Procession of Penance in Spain, who wear hats with very tall, narrow, and white sharp tips (just like the KKK).

Anyway, the existence of these Penitentes was known about as early as the 1800s and were originally believed to have been formed by the wind. But in fact these jagged snow structures are the result of dimples in the original snow sheet. These in turn result in ever larger ablations, through a process known as “sublimation” – where ice and snow melts and vaporizes without turning into liquid water first. This happens more easily at high altitudes due to the reduced pressure of the atmosphere, together with the lower temperatures of the air and the more powerful rays of the sun above. The Penitentes are what remains behind, thanks to their angle towards the sun.

1. Light Pillars

light-pillar

This stunningly beautiful light show usually makes an appearance in cold, arctic regions and can be described as optical phenomenon in which columns of light seem to emanate below or above a light source, in a vertical orientation. This light source can be of natural origins, like the sun or moon, in which case these light columns are called Sun or Lunar Pillars, respectively. Or, they can occur due to the presence of artificial lights as well. These light pillars form when the two astral bodies are close to the horizon and tend to take on the color of the body emanating that light in the first place.

The effect itself is created by the reflection of that light onto the many ice particles suspended in the air or clouds. Because of this, light pillars fall in the category of halos – optical phenomenon produced by light interacting with ice crystals. The reason for why they appear vertical and not as a circle, is because the ice crystals which reflect them consist mostly of flat, hexagonal plates, which tend to orient themselves more or less horizontally as they fall through the air. Together they act as a giant mirror, reflecting the light either up or down. Thanks to the slight turbulences in the air, these ice crystals somewhat change their horizontal orientation, elongating the light column even further. The larger the crystals, the more pronounced this effect becomes. In some rare cases, column-shaped crystalscan cause light pillars as well.


Amazing Nature Almanac

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Turtle Shells, Knuckles, Aliens and Appendix – WIF Science

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Questions Science Took

Forever to Answer

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The scientific method is all about getting to the bottom of questions large and small. It will be an invaluable tool for as long as there are questions to be answered. That’ll be until such time as science gives us a quantum computer that can compute the Universe. And then, said computer will still be an end result of the scientific method.

That said, it can sometimes work very… very… slowly. From the mundane to the fantastic to the extraterrestrial, here are 10 questions scientists banged their heads against for a very long time until the answers came.

10. What Causes Volcanic Lightning

volcanic lightning

A long-observed quality of violent volcanic eruptions are the crackling electrical displays associated with their ash plumes. While awesome to look at (from a safe distance), the phenomenon has long puzzled scientists in that it is obviously a separate one from regular, earth-bound lightning, and had no apparent cause.

 The answer, according to University of Munich researchers, lies within the ash itself. Specifically, tiny particles of rising ash that are electrified by magma. Particularly in the violent lower regions of the ash plume, where the turbulence generates complex charge distributions, this eventually leads to an electrostatic discharge. One which often propagates upwards, instead of downwards like regular lightning, due to the rising ash.

The answer to this question isn’t just useful for satisfying curiosity. The study also unexpectedly showed a correlation between the frequency of the lightning and the total volume of ash that the eruption will generate. Observing the phenomenon could therefore lead to accurate predictions about the sizes of each ash cloud. That, in turn, could result in better evacuation planning and air quality alerts.

9. Why Turtles Have Shells

turtle

The question of what caused turtles to evolve their shells would seem to have a simple answer. Turtles are notoriously slow, making them easy pickings for predators. A hard protective shell is an obvious evolutionary advantage. But examination of the turtle’s evolutionary process shows this to be false. Turtles are slow because of their wide, flat ribs, a feature distinct from almost all other animals, and which is necessary to support their shells. That is, turtles are slow because they have shells. So why have them at all?

Well, for protection, yes. But not from predators; from the harsh South African desert environment in which turtles evolved. Specifically, the turtle’s shell began as a means of digging underground, creating caves to escape the heat and aridity.

 Though long suspected, final confirmation of this theory did not arrive until an 8-year old South African boy stumbled upon a well-preserved, only partially shelled “proto-turtle” fossil while working the family farm. Fortunately, the family took the specimen to a local museum and enabled researchers to put this burning, slowly ambulating question to rest.

8. Why Jet Lag is Directional

jet lag

Frequent fliers know that when traveling from West to East, the effects of jet lag are much more pronounced than when traveling from East to West. This was long suspected to be all in the head of the traveler, or perhaps due to public consensus that this is just how jet lag works. But it was recently found that the effect is real, and there is a reason for it. It has to do with your Circadian rhythm, and its role in how long it takes your brain to “sync up” after a time zone shift.

Simply put, the body’s natural clock is generally set to be slightly longer than 24 hours, and it varies for each individual.  This being the case, the body is naturally geared toward adjusting to longer days rather than shorter. Certain cells in the brain control this rhythm, but these cells are themselves controlled by variations in sunlight.

When days are lengthened and sunlight is prolonged, there is still a “signal” (sunlight) feeding information to these cells. But they become confused in the absence of sunlight, or when days are shortened. This throws off the body’s internal clock. Since traveling from West to East has the effect of shortening the day, our internal rhythm is thrown more severely out of whack in this scenario – our natural inclination toward longer days being a contributing factor.

7. Why Knuckles Pop

knuckles

You may have heard that the popping sound when cracking your knuckles is the result of bubbles in the joint fluid, which collapse when the joint is moved a certain way. You may have even taken this as fact for a very long while. But it turns out that this whole time, that was pure speculation. In an experiment that we honestly can’t believe it took somebody so long to perform, University of Alberta Canada researcher Greg Kawchuk got somebody who is really, really adept at cracking his knuckles, stuck his hand in an MRI machine, and got to the bottom of the whole thing.

Rather, the subject came to him. Jerome Fryer is a “champion knuckle cracker” who also happens to be a chiropractor. He came to Kawchuk with his theory: the sound results from the sudden formation of a cavity inside the joint fluid. Not its collapse, but the actual formation of the cavity: “It’s a little bit like forming a vacuum… as the joint surfaces suddenly separate, there is no more fluid available to fill the increasing joint volume, so a cavity is created, and that event is what’s associated with the sound.”

You may have also heard that cracking your knuckles causes arthritis, which is almost certainly untrue. However, this new study could disprove that notion once and for all. It could also lead to better early treatment and diagnosing of joint problems.

6. The Function of the Appendix

appendix

For centuries, the appendix has been thought a vestigial organ. An evolutionary leftover, with no purpose other than occasionally to serve as a ticking time bomb which will kill us if not removed immediately. While it’s true that we can function perfectly normally without one, research has uncovered the hidden purpose of the appendix. It’s a sort of reserve barracks for the additional platoons of good bacteria needed to fight particularly nasty infections.

The discovery was made by examining the appendices of koala bears, which have comparatively long and large ones. They’re needed to aid in the processing of their diets, which consist of practically nothing but Eucalyptus leaves. It’s speculated that if koala’s diets were to change, over thousands of years, their appendices would shrink as ours have.

Duke University Medical Center professor Bill Parker, who participated in the research, stressed that this by no means implies that we should now try to hang on to our appendix at any cost. “It’s very important for people to understand that if their appendix gets inflamed, just because it has a function it does not mean they should try to keep it in,” he says.

5. Whether Memories Can Be Inherited

memory

Epigenetics is the study of how genes can be altered by environment, writing changes into our DNA which can then be passed on. For example, it has been shown that things like dietary habits or exposure to environmental toxins can result in having offspring which inherit certain food or chemical sensitivities. What was not known until recently was whether experiences can have the same effect. For instance, if a traumatic childhood on the part of a parent can result in changes to a child’s DNA.

A Tel Aviv University research team recently not only confirmed that this is the case, but revealed the exact mechanism that serves as an on/off switch for inherited environmental influences. It was previously known that small RNA molecules are somehow key in facilitating inherited DNA modifications. In measuring epigenetic responses in worms, researchers were able to isolate an enzyme that essentially tells the small RNA molecules to keep replicating. This determines over how many generations the epigenetic response persists.

It was further discovered that by manipulating this “switch” that epigenetic responses – like passing down a fear response learned by a prior generation – could be prolonged or terminated at the researchers’ will. The implication, of course, is that a similar switch in humans could be manipulated to proactively help those predisposed not only to physical conditions, but emotional and mental conditions as well.

4. Why Subatomic Particles Bind

subatomic

In particle physics, the quark is the tiniest, most elementary of all particles. If quarks are composed of anything smaller, we don’t know about it yet. They in turn make up protons and neutrons, which are bound together by… force. Up until recently, nobody was sure exactly what that force was. But we now have a pretty good idea. It’s yet another kind of particle.

 Scientifically known as meson f0(1710) but referred to as the gluon (yes, really), the particle acts as the glue which binds all other particles together. They are similar to photons (particles of light) in that they have no mass of their own. Yet, similar to how photons are responsible for electromagnetic force, gluons are responsible for strong nuclear force. The key difference: photons aren’t subject to their own force, while gluons are. Meaning that they’re able to bind together.

Existing for too short a period of time to be examined directly, gluons were discovered and can be examined by their detected rate of decay. More specifically, groups of bound gluons – called “glueballs”- are basically what’s holding the entire Universe together.

3. The Nature of Gravity

gravity

Albert Einstein’s Theories of Special and General Relativity have held up better than perhaps any other incredibly significant scientific theories. Their applications have led to the development of semiconductors, to name just one thing. Without those, you wouldn’t be reading this. But even the soundest theories, backed by reams of research and decades of practical applications, can have their holes. For relativity, that hole was gravity.

 Einstein’s theories assumed that, like light, sound, and practically everything else, gravity is expressed as a wave or frequency. This was, in fact, the last major prediction of relativity to be fulfilled. This has generally been held to be true for decades, but wasn’t confirmed until recently, and in rather spectacular fashion.

Using extremely sensitive instruments, scientists recorded the distant sound of two black holes colliding. The faint, rising tone represented the energy of the collision – 50 times the power output of all stars in the Universe combined – conveyed by gravitational waves to the measuring device. This tone may soon become a hallowed recording in the annals of science, as it all but completes Einstein’s vision. Using this new discovery, astronomers will be able to construct instruments that can “hear” deeper into space than ever before. That black hole collision that was measured? It was two billion light years away.

2. Why There Are Men

men

Humans have evolved to become very efficient organisms. However, our method of reproduction does not seem to suit us in that regard, strictly speaking. While we may find it enjoyable, sexual reproduction pales in comparison to asexual reproduction, exhibited by many animal species, in terms of efficiency. If humans have followed their most advantageous evolutionary course, there should be only one human sex (female) which would reproduce all on its own. So, why are there men?

Researchers may have found the answer in a study involving flour beetles. The study had two parts. In one, 90 males and 10 females were put together and observed. In the other, just one male and one female were paired up. After 50 generations (!), it was found that sexual selection seemed to play a significant role in producing healthy offspring.

This is likely because having a choice of mate can act as a means to filter out harmful genetic mutations. That’s according to lead researcher Matt Gage of the University of East Anglia. This suggests that not only would asexual reproduction not have been more efficient for us, but that if we did not reproduce sexually we probably would have gone extinct.

 1. Whether There Have Ever Been Aliens

alien

Answering the question of whether we’re alone in the Universe is one of the holy grails of science. Almost as compelling is the question of whether extraterrestrial life hasever existed. We have no frame of reference as to how long a civilization might potentially last. Or, where on the cosmic timeline one might have existed. And we haven’t found any physical evidence. However, extremely strong circumstantial evidence has recently become available which all but answers the question definitively.

And, the answer is yes. In 1961, astronomer Frank Drake identified seven factors (expressed in the form of an equation) which identify the odds of contact with an alien civilization. They include the number of stars born each year, percentage of planets upon which life evolves, and so on, with the final factor being the average lifetime of a civilization. Most of these factors being unknown variables, there was no way to effectively use the equation to arrive at any kind of solution.

 However, in the intervening years, knowledge of the number of planets has increased exponentially. That’s allowed figures to be plugged into Drake’s equation and shed some light on the issue. In a recent paper, astronomers Adam Frank and Woodruff Sullivan ran the numbers to arrive at a startling conclusion: “unless the probability for evolving a civilization on a habitable-zone planet is less than one in ten billion trillion, then we are not the first.” Frank also stated, in a New York Times op-ed, “In previous discussions of the Drake equation, a probability for civilizations to form of one in 10 billion per planet was considered highly pessimistic. According to our finding, even if you grant that level of pessimism, a trillion civilizations still would have appeared over the course of cosmic history.”

Volcanic Lightning, Knuckles,

Aliens and Appendixes

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– WIF Science