Scientists shocked to find fairy circles in Australia

A large fairy circle with a hardened top-soil layer that prevents the growth of grass. (Photo: Dr. Stephan Getzin)

A large fairy circle with a hardened top-soil layer that prevents the growth of grass. (Photo: Dr. Stephan Getzin)

The fairy circles of Namibia—believed to be unique in the natural world—have long been “one of nature’s greatest mysteries,” according to a recently published study. Then they turned up thousands of miles away in Australia.

“I couldn’t believe what I was seeing,” researcher Stephan Getzin tells the New York Times. Fairy circles are grassless circles—often large enough to park a minivan in—arranged in a honeycomb pattern with about 30 feet of space in between each, Smithsonian Magazine reports. Explanations for their existence in Namibia ranged from underground gas to dragons, but scientists have largely settled on two causes: termites or “self-organization.” Getzin, who wrote a paper on the Namibian fairy circles in 2014, argues for the self-organization of plants to take advantage of scarce water as the cause of fairy circles. “Such phenomena are explained with lots of theory and formulas and math,” Getzin tells the Times.

His paper got the attention of an environmental manager in Australia, who sent images of similar circles in the Australian outback. “We couldn’t believe it—the Namibia fairy circles are supposed to be the only ones in the world,” Getzin tellsSmithsonian Magazine.

Getzin believes the Australian fairy circles, which don’t sync up with local termite activity, strengthen the self-organization theory. But there’s still no proof. Luckily, it now appears there are likely even more fairy circles out there to study.

“It’s a matter of searching,” Getzin says. (A crop circle baffled California before someone mowed it.)

This article originally appeared on Newser: ‘One of Nature’s Greatest Mysteries’ Appears in Australia

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Can you outrun a supervolcano? Maybe, study finds

Kodachrome slides, held by geologist Greg Valentine of the University of Buffalo, show images of geologic formations associated with the supereruption of the Silver Creek caldera.

Kodachrome slides, held by geologist Greg Valentine of the University of Buffalo, show images of geologic formations associated with the supereruption of the Silver Creek caldera. (Douglas Levere)

Can you outrun a supervolcano? New evidence from an ancient eruption suggests the answer is a surprising yes.

“I wouldn’t recommend anyone try to outrun a volcano, but there’s a few of us that could,” said Greg Valentine, a volcanologist at the University at Buffalo in New York.

By analyzing rocks trapped in volcanic ash, Valentine and his colleagues discovered the lethal ash flow spread at street speeds — about 10 to 45 mph. It might be hard to sustain this pace on foot, but it’s certainly possible by car. [Big Blasts: History’s 10 Most Destructive Volcanoes]

The findings were published March 7 in the journal Nature Communications.

“It’s really interesting how you can have such a violent eruption producing such slow-moving flows,” said Valentine, co-author of the new study. “They still devastate a huge area, but they’re slow and concentrated and dense,” he told Live Science. His collaborators include Olivier Roche, of Blaise Pascal University in France and David Buesch, of the U.S. Geological Survey.

Of course, the safest way to deal with any rumbling volcano is to get as far away as possible. Lots of distance can prevent the most common cause of death associated with volcanoes: being trapped and suffocated by a torrent of ash, rocks and superhot gas that explode out at speeds of up to 300 mph. These “pyroclastic flows” are the real volcanic killer, not lava. A pyroclastic flow wiped out the Roman town of Pompeii, and in 1902, Mount Pelée on Martinique unleashed a pyroclastic flow that killed some 29,000 people. [Preserved Pompeii: Photos Reveal City of Ash]

You should still evacuate

Volcanologists try to account for such hazards when planning for future disasters. But it’s hard to know what will happen when a supervolcano the size of Yellowstone blows its top. The last supereruption on Earth was 74,000 years ago, in Toba, Indonesia. Looking at the rocky remains of past supereruptions can reveal how and why supervolcanoes erupt.

When a supervolcano blew in Arizona 18.8 million years ago, the ash spread more than 100 miles. This single layer, called the Peach Springs Tuff, is more than 450 feet thick in the area close to the volcano and 10 feet thick at its edge, 100 miles away. (A tuff is a volcanic rock made of solidified ash.)

The researchers measured rocks at the bottom of the tuff in Arizona that were carried in the flow. They matched unique rock types back to their source, and found that many of the rocks, whether fist-size or boulders, were carried no farther than a football field.

Accounting for the size and position of these rocks helped the researchers build a model of how fast and thick the ash flow was as it traveled. It turns out that only a dense, slow-moving pyroclastic flow could suck up the rocks from the surface and trundle them along. A fast, relatively thin flow would have to reach impossible speeds — up to 1,454 mph — to carry the rocks, the researchers found.

“I think it’s plausible but speculative,” said Calvin Miller, a volcanologist at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee, who was not involved in the study. “It will be interesting to see how the [scientific] community responds to it. Even if they’re right for the Peach Springs Tuff, this is just part of a continuum of eruption styles,” Miller told Live Science.

The origins of the Peach Springs Tuff can be spotted in southwestern Arizona’s Black Mountains, near the town of Oatman. The eruption left behind a very large crater called a caldera, though it has been mostly obliterated by erosion and faulting.

The caldera, called Silver Creek, spewed magma for several days, releasing a volume of about 1,000 times the Mississippi River’s daily flow at New Orleans, Valentine said. “If you think about 1,000 Mississippi Rivers coming out of the ground, you can see how [the ash] would have spread out across a huge area,” he said.

However, one expert on the Peach Springs Tuff doesn’t buy the scenario. Charles Ferguson, a research geologist with the Arizona Geological Survey, said there are outcrops that suggest the ash moved quickly and energetically, like a typical pyroclastic flow.

“I think their hypothesis is more problematic than explanatory,” Ferguson told Live Science.

Southwestern supervolcanoes

The Peach Springs Tuff covers parts of Arizona, Nevada and California, from Barstow, California, to Peach Springs, Arizona. Geologists use the creamy white and pink rock as a unique marker in the region.

The western United States suffered at least 100 of these huge eruptions starting about 40 million years ago (a consequence of shifting tectonic plates). It’s not clear whether every one of these supervolcanic blasts sent out slowly moving ash flows, but Valentine said he sees similar evidence in other areas.

The powerful Peach Springs eruption ejected 72 cubic miles of pulverized rock into the air. For comparison, the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens in Washington blasted out 0.24 cubic miles of material. And the 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines spewed 2.4 cubic miles of material.

Any supereruption will likely come with a fair amount of warning, similar to the bulge that foreshadowed the Mount St. Helens eruption. The new findings suggest that people living near a supervolcano might have a few hours to evacuate once the disaster starts, the researchers said.

Copyright 2016 LiveScience, a Purch company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

What caused this weird crack to appear in Michigan?

A long crack that popped up in a Michigan forest on Oct. 4, 2010, uprooted trees and caused others to tilt.

A long crack that popped up in a Michigan forest on Oct. 4, 2010, uprooted trees and caused others to tilt. (Michigan Tech College of Engineering)

A strange and sudden buckling of the earth in Michigan five years ago is now being explained as a limestone bulge, researchers reported Feb. 9.

The upheaved rock and soil was discovered after a deep boom thundered through the forest near Birch Creek on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, north of Menominee. The sound shook nearby homes with the strength of a magnitude-1 earthquake on Oct. 4, 2010, at about 8:30 a.m. Central time, residents said at the time. The next day, locals discovered a long crack atop a narrow ridge.

The crack was 360 feet long and about 5 feet deep; and the ridge was nearly 7 feet high and about 30 feet wide at its largest point. Tilted trees leaned away from the crack at about 14 degrees on either side — proof the ridge was new. Torn roots stretched for their former companions, now stranded on the other side of the crack. [See Photos of the Weird Crack and Uprooted Trees]

“It was interesting to see that the crack seemed to ignore the roots,” said senior study author Wayne Pennington, dean of the College of Engineering at Michigan Technology University in Houghton. “The forces were stronger than the roots.”

Based on a seismic study, the most likely explanation for the ridge is a pop-up in the upper layers of limestone beneath the clay soil, Pennington and his co-authors, all MTU students, concluded in a study published in the journal Seismological Research Letters.

If I had a hammer

Even though the researchers can’t say for sure what caused the pop-up, they now have a better picture of what happened underground.

The teams surveyed the underground rock by creating sound waves with a sledgehammer. The researchers slammed a sledgehammer into a metal ball sitting on the ground, and tracked how the waves passed through the soil and rock layers below. The analysis revealed a sharp buckle in the limestone below the crack.

That picture suggested the bedrock limestone violently heaved upward when the pop-up appeared, displacing the overlying clay layer. The clay soil is about 5 feet deep along the ridge. The crack resulted from the stretching of the surface clay as it bent upward, much as a crack forms in the top of a loaf of bread as the dough rises.

The survey confirms there is no earthquake fault underlying the ridge. Besides, it would take a tremendous earthquake to move the rock and soil several vertical feet, Pennington said.

Pop goes the bedrock

Pop-ups are common in quarries in eastern North America, where rock removal releases pent-up strain in the underlying rocks. Pop-ups also appear after glaciers retreat; however, the last glaciers retreated from Menominee 11,000 years ago, and there is no quarrying in the area.

Rocks in the area are squeezed by plate tectonics, the researchers said. The Midwest is under pressure from squeezing coming from the West Coast and the East Coast.

Yet the region is not experiencing increased stress that would result in future larger earthquakes, Pennington added. The pop-up appeared in the uppermost bedrock, whereas large earthquakes strike miles deep. There have been two moderate earthquakes in Michigan since 2010, which were in different areas and unrelated to the crack, the scientists said.

One final clue was the loss, to lightning, of a giant white pine tree in the week before the crack appeared. “The timing is remarkable, and it leads us to be suspicious, but the tree weighed less than a fully loaded dump truck,” Pennington told Live Science.

“The earth is still full of surprises,” Pennington said. “It’s just a little surprise, but it’s still interesting and we’re always learning more.”

Rare weather event produces spontaneous snowballs in Idaho

NOW PLAYINGRare natural phenomenon forms ‘snow rollers’ in Idaho

Thousands of snowballs rolled in a flat central Idaho field look like the work of hundreds of ambitious kids — except there are no human tracks.

A rare weather event caused the spontaneous snowballs at the Nature Conservancy’s Silver Creek Preserve and surrounding fields near the tiny town of Picabo.

Preserve manager Sunny Healey spotted the cylindrical shapes up to 18 inches high on Jan. 30 following an overnight windstorm. They created long lines in the snow as they moved.

“You could see the tracks that they made, and I thought that was really curious,” Healey said. “I had to stop a couple times. Then, along Highway 20, there were thousands of them.”

So-called snow rollers are so rare and fleeting that the precise weather conditions needed to form them are not defined, said Jay Breidenbach, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service. Snow rollers up to 18 inches are especially rare.

“Those are some pretty big rollers,” Breidenbach said. “I’ve seen some small rollers, but never that big.”

In general, it takes an unusual combination of a couple of inches of snow with the right water density and temperatures near freezing, followed by strong winds, he said.

“It can’t be real dry snow or it would blow into drifts,” Breidenbach said.

Rollers require some type of firmer base, such as a frozen layer of earlier snow, for the new powder to start rolling on. Plus, the wind must be strong and steady but not with powerful gusts that could damage the formations.

“It would probably blow them apart because they are fragile,” Breidenbach said.

It snowed on Jan. 29, with the snow becoming wetter toward evening, Healey said. She lives at the preserve and said winds woke her up.

In her five years working at the preserve, she had never seen such an event, but a local rancher in his 70s told her he’s spotted them twice in previous decades.

“We know basically how they form and why they form, but we don’t know the exact details,” Breidenbach said. “It would be interesting to go there with some weather instruments to watch them form.”

Scientists solve 50-year-old mystery of Alaska tsunami

FILE - In this March 29, 1964 file photo, a photographer looks over wreckage as smoke rises in the background from burning oil storage tanks at Valdez, Alaska. On Monday, Feb. 1. 2016, federal scientists say they've pinpointed the cause of tsunami waves following the 1964 Great Alaska Earthquake, the second-largest ever recorded, at magnitude 9.2. (AP Photo/File)

FILE – In this March 29, 1964 file photo, a photographer looks over wreckage as smoke rises in the background from burning oil storage tanks at Valdez, Alaska. On Monday, Feb. 1. 2016, federal scientists say they’ve pinpointed the cause of tsunami waves following the 1964 Great Alaska Earthquake, the second-largest ever recorded, at magnitude 9.2. (AP Photo/File)

For 50 years, scientists struggled to understand what sparked a devastating tsunami that leveled a remote village in Alaska following the 1964 Great Alaska Earthquake.

But thanks to detailed seafloor images, they have solved the mystery. Scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey now believe a series of underwater landslides as deep as 1,150 feet were responsible for the massive waves that swept through the village of Chenega in Prince William Sound in 1964, destroying all but two buildings and killing 23 people.

Nine people died in Anchorage, Alaska’s largest city, from the 9.2 magnitude quake, the second largest in recorded history, according to the Associated Press. The earthquake caused a trans-ocean tsunami that brought waves to the Alaskan towns of at devastated Valdez, Seward and Whittier and down the West Coast. Four campers on a beach died at Newport, Oregon. A dozen died in the Northern California community of Crescent City.

“It is exciting to see the technology evolve so we can now get high-resolution images of the seafloor that we could not back then and to pinpoint the most likely source for the waves. After 50 years, this new work confirms our original inference that it was probably landslide-generated waves that devastated Chenega so many years ago, but we had no adequate submarine data to define either the size or location of the landslide sources,” USGS geologist emeritus George Plafker who, with colleague Larry Mayo, was one of the first responders and wrote some of the early geological field reports on surface effects of the Chenega waves in 1965, said in a statement.

Scientists had long suspected landslides were to blame for what has become known as the Chenega tsunami. But at the time of the disaster, they didn’t have the technology to prove it.

“A bathymetric survey at the time, which only imaged relatively shallow seafloor, down to 180 meters (330 feet) deep, did not reveal evidence of a landslide in nearby Dangerous Passage or the other waterways around Chenega,” said Daniel Brothers, USGS geophysicist and lead author of the study in the journal Earth and Planetary Science Letters that describes the latest research done with colleagues from Boise State University and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

“Alternate explanations involving seafloor movement during the earthquake did not fit the timing and severity of the Chenega tsunami as described by eyewitnesses,” he said.

Unraveling the mystery started with Brothers mapping a large submarine landslide complex in nearby Dangerous Passage, mostly in water deeper than what had been studied in 1964.

The scientists used multibeam sonar technology to collect high-resolution bathymetric (seafloor depth) data, and a single-channel seismic-reflection system to collect sub-bottom profiles (cross-sectional views of sedimentary layers and other features beneath the seafloor).

As a result, the researchers were able to calculate the time it would take for a tsunami triggered by a large landslide in the mapped areas to reach the village of Chenega and found a good fit with eyewitness reports: a tsunami wave triggered in the areas where they found landslide evidence would take three to four minutes to reach the village, consistent with the arrival time of the most destructive waves.

The bathymetric data disclosed three sedimentary, bowl-like basins located at progressively deeper levels toward open waters of Prince William Sound. Originally carved by descending glaciers when sea level was lower, the basins over time filled with sediment washed off the land as sea levels rose and the glaciers retreated after the last ice age.

“The intermediate basin filled up with sediment, setting the stage for this instability, and the trigger that occurred when this earthquake struck,” Brothers told the AP.

Researchers said the findings underscore the tsunami threat posed by submarine landslides in fjords around the world, often where communities and ports are located.

European village gets ‘biblical’ amounts of rain for more than two straight months

wales town 112

(Google Street View)

So much rain has drenched a village in Wales that if Noah were there, he’d need two arks, a local official said.

It’s rained in the village of Eglwyswrw every day since late-October, for roughly 80 days straight, Metro reported Tuesday.

“It is grinding people down both physically and psychologically,” the official, John Davies, told Wales Online. He said all the sheep are tough, but they’ve had no chance to dry out.

The rainy stretch is said to be Britain’s longest in 92 years.

Fortunately, there hasn’t been much flooding. The village sits 423 feet above sea level, The Sun reports.

Still, it’s made life miserable and hurt business for farmers and construction workers. And then there’s the umbrella salesman.

“I sell wellington boots and umbrellas but it rains so much here everyone’s already got them,” Brian Llewellyn told Wales Online.

Click for more from The Sun.

Originally available here

Temperatures spike almost 50 degrees in North Pole

Arctic sea ice reached its fourth-lowest extent on record on Sept. 11, 2015.

Arctic sea ice reached its fourth-lowest extent on record on Sept. 11, 2015. (Dan Pisut, NSIDC, NOAA

There has been a heat wave of sorts in the North Pole this week that might even have Santa trading in his sleigh for swim trunks.

Temperatures were as much as 50 degrees above average on Wednesday– almost reaching 32 degrees Fahrenheit in portions of the Arctic Circle that average 20 below zero at this time of year.

Meteorologists and experts at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration blame the strange weather on winter cyclones over the Atlantic near Iceland that pushed warm air far up from the south. Another storm in the Arctic north of Greenland – helped by low-pressure system that also produced blizzards in New Mexico, tornadoes in Texas and flooding in Missouri – was also to blame.

“A series of cyclones lined up over the Arctic and North Pole to Iceland (where Cyclone Frank crossed),” Ryan Maue, a meteorologist for WeatherBell a private weather forecasting company based in NYC, told by email.

Related: Arctic sea ice shrinks to historic low

“The combined flow at all levels of atmosphere was directed from the Atlantic over the Arctic and into Siberia,” he said. “Thus, warmer and moister marine air from Atlantic traveled over the Pole and raised temps to near or at freezing for a few hours.  However, the warm advection event was short lived and temps are closer to normal well below 0.”

James Overland, an Arctic climate researcher at NOAA’s research lab in Seattle, said it was the two storms together that really caused the freak weather.

“If you think of those two storm centers as kind of a dumbbell with the winds blowing around them, it brought all that warm air up from the Atlantic to near the North Pole,” he told “One of the buoys shows slightly above freezing on Wednesday.”

Storms like this are typical in the Arctic for this time of year but such temperature swings are more unusual – about once in five years. Forecasters were careful not to single out any one cause for the strange weather such as El Nino or climate change, suggesting it’s a combination of factors that caused the temperature spike.

Related: In Alaska, Obama to ask for action against climate change in state dependent on oil

“I would say its rare event,” Overland said, adding that “in a lot of these extreme events that we see recently, there tends to be more than one factor contributing so they make it worse than if it was just one factor.”

“We tend to see more extreme events in the Arctic,” he said. “The Arctic was the warmest this last year as it’s ever been. There is so much random chaos in the weather that you can never say one event was caused by that. But the fact we are seeing more extreme events is a long-term change.”

The briefly balmy conditions alone are unlikely to cause any lasting damage in the Arctic. But scientists say it is only exemplifies the challenges facing a region that has been seeing record losses of ice including in 2015, due to rising temperatures around the globe.

Related: 2015 on pace to be hottest year after November proves to be scorcher

Last month, NOAA reported that November Arctic sea ice was 360,000 square miles or 8.3 percent below the 1981-2010 average. This was the sixth smallest November extent since records began in 1979, according to analysis by the National Snow and Ice Data Center using data from NOAA and NASA.

“It is cold and dark in the Arctic so it will revert to its colder temperatures,” Overland said. “But every warm air moving into the Arctic keeps it from getting really cold like it used to. It has a minor, long-term effect, thinner ice and warmer temperatures overall.”


Originally available here

El Nino Is Looking Scarily Like 1997’s El Nino


By Jenn Gidman,  Newser Staff
Posted Dec 31, 2015 9:10 AM CST

(NEWSER) – The El Nino weather system of 1997-98 was so bad that descriptions of it sound like something out of a Ben Affleck disaster movie: Australia turned into a slow cooker, California and Peru were pummeled with rain, and there were rampant fires in Indonesia; around 23,000 people perished from the combined effects around the world, per NBC News. Now NASA is warning that this year’s El Nino could be just as bad, if not worse, with a Dec. 27 satellite image of sea surface heights indicating there could be severe droughts, floods, and other weather events that could cause humanitarian emergencies, NBC reports.

“The El Nino weather system could leave tens of millions of people facing hunger, water shortages, and disease next year if early action isn’t taken to prepare vulnerable people from its effects,” Oxfam says in a press release. The worst of what the Smithsonian calls a “menacingly familiar” system is expected to start affecting the US in early 2016, NASA says, with a Weather Channel producer telling NBC the system could produce a “wetter and stormier California,” as well as extreme weather on the East Coast. (It’s even worse than we originally thought.)

These images provided by NASA satellites compare warm Pacific Ocean temperatures from the strong El Nino that brought North America large amounts of rainfall in 1997, right, and the current El Nino.
These images provided by NASA satellites compare warm Pacific Ocean temperatures from the strong El Nino that brought North America large amounts of rainfall in 1997, right, and the current El Nino.   (NASA via AP)

Alaska Had Biggest Landslide in Decades— and No One Saw


By Luke Roney,  Newser Staff
Posted Dec 26, 2015 6:26 AM CST

(NEWSER) – If millions of tons of rock slide down an Alaskan mountain and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? Regardless, it certainly creates enough of a ruckus to get picked up by a sophisticated seismic monitoring network, Alaska Dispatch News reports. The Oct. 17 Icy Bay landslide into Taan Fiord, which took about a minute, was North America’s biggest since the 1980 collapse of Mount St. Helens, according to ADN. It caused a local tsunami (up to 100 feet high) that could have been dangerous if people had actually been around. Alaska’s southeast is the “world’s hotspot for these huge rockslides,” geology and geophysics professor Colin Stark told a meeting of the American Geophysical Union earlier this month.

Scientists discovered the slide, which had a magnitude of 4.9, via its “seismic signature,” ABC News reports. Themonitoring network includes hundreds of seismographs and atmospheric sensors. “We’re reading the data … in a way that lets us detect the landslides and figure out where they are,” Stark says. Also in October, there was a 45 million ton slide at Mount Steele in the Yukon; and in February 2014, 68 million tons of debris tumbled down Alaska’s Mount La Perouse, ADN reports. Scientists say fragile rock from developing mountains and retreating glaciers in the region result in a faster erosion rate and more slides, per ABC. Some are concerned that the retreating Columbia Glacier along Alaska’s south coast may cause a destructive slide closer to towns. (After ground ice gave way, a Canadian lake fell off a cliff.)

Taan Fiord after the Oct. 17 landslide
Taan Fiord after the Oct. 17 landslide   (Facebook )

A Canadian Lake Has Fallen Off a Cliff


By Arden Dier,  Newser Staff
Posted Dec 20, 2015 8:03 AM CST



(NEWSER) – In June, Canadian officials warned that a nameless lake in the Northwest Territories was about to fall off a cliff. It did. On July 15, a section of ground ice that’s been around since the last ice age gave way, sending roughly half of the lake’s 1 million cubic feet of water—the equivalent of a dozen Olympic-sized swimming pools—cascading into a valley below in a five-story waterfall that lasted two hours. “Water rushed over the slump debris and down a narrow valley before emptying into a larger lake” about 3 miles downstream, leaving the nearby community of Fort McPherson unscathed, according to the Northwest Territories Geological Survey. A time-lapse video shows the collapse along with an ooze of mud and water.

The 1.5-hectare lake had been resting on the cliff held by icy headwalls, preserved by permafrost for millennia. However, wind and rain exposed the headwalls over time, causing them to melt, per the Canadian Press. “It was one of those things that you can get out of the way of but you can’t stop,” an official says. Though only half the lake drained, the government says the rest might still collapse as newly exposed permafrost starts to melt. While these so-called thaw slumps—basically the Arctic’s version of landslides—have been occurring for millennia, they “are more abundant and much larger than they were in the recent past,” thanks to warming temperatures and increased rainfall, per the NTGS. (Here’s why glacial lakes are vanishing.)

After: Run-off from the nameless lake after it fell off a cliff.
After: Run-off from the nameless lake after it fell off a cliff.   (Michael Pisaric/Brock University)