Ancient grains making a modern-day comeback


Ancient grains like farro are part of a growing industry for alternative foods.iStock

Man first cultivated grain roughly 10,000 years ago, letting him diversify his Quest for Fire diet of animal parts, seeds and berries. Now those selfsame “ancient grains” are staging a comeback.

Ancient grains like farro, freekah and kamut are early strains of wheat. Chia, quinoa and amaranth are technically seeds, but they’re generally called “grains” and are popping up in everything from pizza to pasta to cookies to chips.

“Americans will spend $1.5 trillion dollars on food this year.”- Harry Balzer, chief food industry analyst for the NPD Group

Harry Balzer, chief food industry analyst for the NPD Group, a consumer marketing research firm, says ancient grains are all about the money. “Americans will spend $1.5 trillion dollars on food this year,” he says, and ancient grains are one way industries can “grow that market to get their share.”

Recipe: Creamy Farro with Honey-Roasted Grapes

A few millennia before Christ, Egyptians created a slice of that market when they added yeast to wheat and invented leavened bread. Legend has it that after he conquered Egypt, Julius Caesar called the wheat “pharaoh’s wheat” (thus the name “farro”), and it became part of his soldiers’ rations. The Romans prized farro bread so highly that the bakers were free men, while all other artisans were slaves.

Grains flourished for millennia until the Atkins and Paleo diets turned the staff of life into a buzz-kill. Celiac disease, GMO issues, bestsellers like Wheat Belly: Lose the Wheat, Lose the Weight (Rodale), even gluten-free dog food added to grains’ hero-to-zero free-fall. Wheat became the new chaff.

Recipe: Wheat Berry Fools with Grand Marnier Figs

But high-protein diets are notoriously hard to maintain, because people crave carbs. So now people are looking for new ones.

Nutrient-dense, genetically unmodified, low- and no-gluten ancient grains may satisfy that craving. They’re high in protein and fiber, and they contain healthy fats, magnesium, potassium, calcium and folate. Amaranth, chia and quinoa are complete proteins. Amaranth even has vitamin C.

Judith Finlayson, author of The Complete Whole Grains Cookbook, says ancient grains could generate a new trend in “nutrient-counting.”

“We’ve done ourselves a great disservice by focusing on calories at the expense of nutrition,” she says, noting that the “right” calorie count can still leave you nutritionally deficient.

Finlayson’s books, Maria Baez Kijac’s Cooking with Ancient Grains (Adams Media) and Maria Speck’s Ancient Grains for Modern Meals (Ten Speed Press) and her upcoming Simply Ancient Grains are all well-researched resources.

Although gluten-intolerant, Finlayson is still pro-wheat, calling it a tremendously healthy grain “that historically provided a lot of nutrients to people who needed them.”

She’s become a big fan of millet, which you may know as bird food. (If you’ve seen a bird feeder, you’ve seen millet.) Ancient Romans ate it, and the Ethiopian bread staple injera is made from a millet variety called teff.

Millet is high in nutrition, and growing it requires fewer water and soil nutrients than other cereals.

Kijac, a food historian, focuses on the gluten-free “superfoods” of the Aztecs and Mayans: quinoa, amaranth, chia and kaniwa. She sees their growing popularity as “the rediscovery of an arc of food that almost disappeared.”

She thinks chia will overtake quinoa in popularity because it requires little or no cooking and is extremely high in fiber. Kijac’s words to the wise: “Start cautiously and in small amounts.”

Bob’s Red Mill “Grains of Discovery” line sells most “ancient grains,” has hard-to-find kaniwa. Amazon has oddly named Job’s Tears.

Despite the hoopla, ancient grains are still off-radar. “Less than 2 percent of Americans will eat quinoa this week,” Balzer says, while “44 percent will eat cake.”

But Americans’ affection for new experiences could change that metric.

Since ancient grains are anchored to existing products like bread, cereal and mixes, they’re an easy sell, Balzer says. Tasting a “new” version of something you already know provides an experience “that’s unlikely to make you starve or die,” he says. That’s a solid low-risk, high-reward return.

Though ancient grains are expensive – a 16-ounce bag of quinoa sells for about $9 – they’ll seem cost-effective if people see them  as a high-protein substitute for meat, Balzer says.

So ancient grains could last for a few more millennia, or they could be gone faster than you can say “rice cakes.” Time will tell.

Zombie fungus makes ‘sniper’s alley’ around ant colonies


After a zombie fungus kills a carpenter ant, it grows a stalk from the insect’s corpse that will sprinkle spores on new hosts.Penn State

A fungus that turns worker ants into zombie henchmen has a surprisingly clever strategy to recruit new hosts.

The parasite doesn’t attack the nest directly. Rather, the fungus leads ants to their deaths along the outskirts of the colony, creating a “sniper’s alley” where the corpses can discreetly spread deadly fungal spores, new research shows.

The parasitic fungus in question, Ophiocordyceps camponoti-rufipedis, is named for the species of carpenter ant that it inhabits, Camponotusrufipes. Under the influence of the fungus, a zombie carpenter ant is led away from its home and forced to climb plants in the understory of the rainforest canopy. After the ant latches onto the underside of a leaf and dies, the fungus sprouts a long stalk from the ant’s cadaver with spores that rain down on the forest floor and infect new ants from the colony that are out on foraging trips. [Mind Control: Gallery of Zombie Ants]

It’s easier for the fungus to attack outside the colony, because ants are social animals and band together to limit the spread of a disease. In the new study, published Aug. 18 in the journal PLOS ONE, scientists working at a research station in Brazil put infected ant corpses inside of several nests. They found that the fungus stalk was not able to grow properly on any of the ant corpses. What’s more, healthy ants removed most of corpses from the nests after several days.

“Ants are remarkably adept at cleaning the interior of the nest to prevent diseases,” study researcher David Hughes of Penn State University said in a statement. “But we also found that this fungal parasite can’t grow to the stage suitable for transmission inside the nest whether ants are present or not. This may be because the physical space and microclimate inside the nest don’t allow the fungus to complete its development.”

Hughes and colleagues also recorded the exact locations of fungus-infected ant corpses in relation to the ants’ foraging trails around four different nests. (Carpenter ants in this area don’t just stick to the forest floor; they often use twigs and branches to make bridges while looking for food.) The researchers plotted the data on 3D maps and found that the dead, spore-spreading ants were essentially positioned at the colony’s doorstep.

“What the zombie fungi essentially do is create a sniper’s alley through which their future hosts must pass,” Hughes explained in the statement. “The parasite doesn’t need to evolve mechanisms to overcome the effective social immunity that occurs inside the nest. At the same time, it ensures a constant supply of susceptible hosts.”

The researchers said they found an average of 14.5 fungus-infected ant cadavers per month per colony. While none of the colonies in the study collapsed as a result of the zombie invasion, none of the colonies were able to entirely get rid of the fungus, either. Because they remain a constant threat, parasitic infections could be viewed as a “chronic disease” for carpenter ants that can be controlled but not cured, the researchers wrote.

Surf’s up in the Arctic: Record-high waves seen in 2012


An Arctic storm captured by satellite in natural light on Aug. 6, 2012.NASA

Record-high waves hit Alaska’s Beaufort Sea in September 2012, when Arctic sea ice shrank to an extreme summer low, a new study reports.

The study authors blame shrinking Arctic sea ice for the house-size swells, and predict that waves will grow larger as the Arctic ice pack melts further in future decades.

“We have long known that waves are the combined results of winds, time and distance,” said lead study author Jim Thomson, an oceanographer with the University of Washington’s Applied Physics Laboratory in Seattle.”In the Arctic Ocean, those distances are changing dramatically, and we are now observing the result,” Thomson told Live Science in an email interview. [See Stunning Photos of Monster Waves]

Wave size rises with the amount of open water over which the wind blows, called fetch. On Sept. 18, 2012, high winds roared across more than 620 miles of ice-free ocean in the Arctic, kicking up huge swells. A sensor anchored offshore of northern Alaska that day measured waves more than 16 feet high, Thomson and co-author W. Erick Rogers, of the Naval Research Laboratory, reported June 2 in the journalGeophysical Research Letters.

The Arctic ice pack grows bigger in the winter and partially melts in the summer. By tracking the ice with satellites, scientists have discovered that the amount of ice that persists through the summer melt season is getting smaller and thinner each year. Arctic ice used to retreat about 100 miles from Alaska’s northern coast in the summer. Now, it is often more than 620 miles from shore by September, when the ice pack reaches its minimum extent, Thomson said.

In 2012, the Arctic ice pack set a new record low for its summer melt season, shrinking to 1.32 million square miles, according to the National Snow and Ice Data Center.

Two large storms as powerful as the tropical cyclones that menace the Atlantic Coast, stirred up the ice in late summer 2012 one in August and one in September. Even though the August Arctic cyclone was intense, the September storm spawned bigger waves, because there was more fetch (open water distance), Thomson said.

Huge waves were once rare in the Arctic Ocean, because swells couldn’t build to fearsome size due to the extensive ice pack. Now, even though a house-size wave wouldn’t make a Southwest Alaska fisherman bat an eye, researchers are concerned that the growing swells threaten the Arctic’s expanding shipping trade. The powerful waves could also batter villages along the Arctic coastline that were once protected by ice lingering near-shore.

Researchers are also examining whether more open water might create a feedback loop, with waves breaking ice and speeding up summer melting. Thomson is part of a group who is deploying dozens of sensors offshore of Alaska this summer to study what happens when waves interact with ice.

“The waves are a potentially new process that can push and pull and crash to break up the ice,” Thomson said. “There are several competing theories for what happens when the waves approach and get in to the ice.”

The Tree of 40 Fruit is exactly as awesome as it sounds


The Tree of 40 Fruits is edible contemporary art.Sam Van Aken

Award-winning contemporary artist and Syracuse University art professor Sam Van Aken grew up on a family farm in Reading, Pennsylvania, but he spent his college years and much of his early career focused on art rather than agriculture.

While Van Aken says that his work has always been “inspired by nature and our relationship to nature,” it wasn’t until recently that the artist’s farming background became such a clear and significant influence, first in 2008 when he grafted vegetables together to create strange plants for his Eden exhibition, and then shortly after that when he started to work on the hybridized fruit trees that would become the Tree of 40 Fruit.

Each tree begins as a slightly odd-looking specimen resembling some kind of science experiment, and for much of the year, looks like just any other tree. In spring, the trees bloom to reveal an incredibly striking and thought-provoking example of what can happen when nature inspires art. Then, over the course of several months, Van Aken’s trees produce an incredible harvest of plums, peaches, apricots, nectarines, and almonds, including many you’ve likely never seen before.

Thus far, Van Aken has created and placed 16 trees in museums, community centers, and private art collections around the country, including in Newton, Massachusetts; Pound Ridge, New York; Short Hills, New Jersey; Bentonville, Arkansas; and San Jose, California.

Using a unique process he calls “sculpture through grafting,” Van Aken creates trees that grow and support more than 40 varieties of stone fruit, including many heirloom, antique, and native varieties.

On the heels of Van Aken’s TEDxManhattan talk, we spoke with him about the Tree of 40 Fruit, how he developed and executed the concept, his plans for the future, and what happens to all that fruit.

Epicurious: What is the Tree of 40 Fruit and what inspired the project?

Sam Van Aken: At the time this project began I was doing a series of radio hoaxes where I hijacked commercial radio station frequencies and played my own commercials and songs. In addition to becoming acquainted with FCC regulations I also discovered that the term “hoax” comes from “hocus pocus,” which in turn comes from the Latin “hoc est enim corpus miem,” meaning “this is my body” and it’s what the Catholic priest says over the bread during [the] Eucharist, transforming it into the body of Christ. This process is known as transubstantiation and [it] led me to wonder how I could transubstantiate a thing. How could the appearance of a thing remain the same while the reality changed? And so, I transubstantiated a fruit tree. Through the majority of the year it is a normal-looking fruit tree until spring when it blossoms in different tones [of] pink, white, and crimson, and late in summer it bears [more than] 40 different types of fruit.

Epi: What is the goal of the Tree of 40 Fruit and what do you hope to communicate?

SVA: First and foremost I see the tree as an artwork. Like the hoaxes I was doing, I want the tree to interrupt and transform the everyday. When the tree unexpectedly blossoms in different colors, or you see these different types of fruit hanging from its branches, it not only changes the way you look at it, but it changes the way you perceive [things] in general.

As the project evolved, it took on more goals. In trying to find different varieties of stone fruit to create the Tree of 40 Fruit, I realized that for various reasons, including industrialization and the creation of enormous monocultures, we are losing diversity in food production and that heirloom, antique, and native varieties that were less commercially viable were disappearing. I saw this as an opportunity to, in some way, preserve these varieties. In addition to maintaining these varieties in my nursery, I graft them to the Tree of 40 Fruit. Additionally, when I place a Tree of 40 Fruit, I go to local farmers and growers to collect stone fruit varieties and graft them to the trees. In this way they become an archive of the agricultural history of where they are located as well as a means to preserve antique and native varieties.

Epi: You’ve described your artistic process as “sculpting by way of grafting.” Could you explain what that means?

SVA: I currently work with over 250 varieties of stone fruit and developed a timeline of when they blossom in relationship to each other. By grafting these different varieties onto the tree in a certain order I can essentially sculpt how the tree is to blossom.

Epi: Why did you choose to work with stone fruits?

SVA: Stone fruits have [a] greater diversity among the species, and are the most inter-compatible. Although it gets tricky when you start to graft cherries, for the most part one can easily graft between plums, peaches, apricots, nectarines, and even almonds.

Epi: Where and how did you acquire all the different fruit varieties?

SVA: My primary source for most of these varieties was the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva, New York. When I began the project there was an orchard at the Experiment Station with hundreds of different plum and apricot varieties. They planned to tear this orchard out, so I picked up the lease until I could graft all of these varieties onto the trees in my nursery.

Epi: How long does it take to create one of your trees?

SVA: Depending on when the tree is planted it takes about five years to develop each tree and graft 40 varieties to it.

Learn more about Sam Van Aken’s revolutionary new project.

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Radar images show human footprint claims more of Earth Becky Oskin


Radar image of human development in Europe.German Aerospace Center (DLR)

A new global survey of human development finds people have settled more of the Earth than previously estimated, according to researchers with the German Remote Sensing Data Center.

“The number and proportion of human settlements in many areas in the world has been significantly underestimated so far,” said Thomas Esch, a scientist with the Remote Sensing Data Center, which is part of the German Aerospace Center.

The survey, called Global Urban Footprints, involved building a giant database of radar imagery from two German satellites: TerraSAR-X and TanDEM-X. This part of the project produced a map of the planet from some 180,000 radar images. [Human Footprints: Tracking Development From Space]

Esch said earlier estimates had human settlements covering between 1 to 3 percent of Earth’s surface. But the new radar data, which can pick up more detail than previous studies, found a greater percentage of developed land.

“Even if we are merely talking about a few percentage points, they are of substantial practical relevance if we consider the immense ecological, economic and social impact of settlements, above all the urban conurbations,” he said.

Because the project is in its in early stages, the team hasn’t put hard numbers onhow much of the planet humans have covered. Those numbers will come in the second phase of the project, Esch told Live Science.

Researchers calibrated the radar map to automatically highlight urban structures, such as houses and roads, and remove natural features that may resemble infrastructure, like trees and big rocks.

With the images reduced to three colors black for urban areas, white for land surface and grey for water many cities look like paint splatters, or the Rorschach inkblots used as psychological tests.

“These patterns show amazing forms and differences, and it is fascinating to understand that they finally reflect the result of human-nature interaction over the centuries,” Esch said in an email interview.

The radar patterns show the influence of nature and cultural history, such as farm towns gridded west of Minneapolis, and villages fanned along the Nile River delta north of Cairo. Other cities spread out like sea stars, such as Germany’s capital, Berlin.

In the second phase of the project, the researchers will analyze the data to explore the impact of human development and settlements in both urban and rural landscapes, Esch said. “Urbanization and sprawl of man-made structures have reached a critical dimension,” he said.

Beach bummer: toxic slime will hit Lake Erie again


Satellite image of a toxic algae bloom in Lake Erie in 2011, one of the worst blooms in recent years.MERIS/ESA, processed by NOAA/NOS/NCCOS

Slimy green mats of toxic algae will again threaten the western shores of Lake Erie later this summer, according to an algae forecast released today July 10.

The predicted Lake Erie algal bloom will be smaller than in the past three years, but still above the average for the past 12 years, according to the National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration (NOAA) forecast. The algae are also expected to collect on certain shorelines instead of spreading out evenly across the lake, NOAA said in a statement. In previous years, the toxic algae have clung to the western third of the lake, in Ohio and southern Ontario.

This year’s forecast calls for some 24,250 tons (22,000 metric tons) of blue-green algae to overtake Lake Erie’s waters, while the average since 2004 is 15,430 tons (14,000 metric tons). [Photos of the Great Lakes: North America’s ‘Third Coast’]

This is the third year the agency has forecast the amount of toxic slime that would choke Lake Erie during the late summer. The forecast is based on models of fertilizer runoff and satellite tracking of precipitation and snowmelt.

The noxious blooms occur when fertilizer runoff feeds the runaway growth of cyanobacteria, or blue-green algae. The algae are harmful to marine life and to humans. Decaying cyanobacteria suck up oxygen, creating dead zones. Some kinds of algae also emit toxins that damage or irritate the nerves, skin, liver and kidneys of humans and other animals. Lake Erie is the drinking water source for millions of people in the United States and Canada.

The lake suffered from severe algal blooms in the 1960s, but the thick mats disappeared after a water quality agreement was signed in 1972. The toxic algal blooms returned with a vengeance in 2000, due to changes in when and how farmers apply agricultural fertilizer, according to studies by researchers at the University of Michigan and other institutions. Scientists also think climate change is a factor, with Lake Erie’s waters becoming warmer and more hospitable to algae.

“The reemergence of harmful algal blooms in Lake Erie is an ecological and economic setback for communities along the coast,” U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio) said in the statement.

Isolated Amazon tribe makes contact with scientists



A never-before-contacted tribe in Brazil’s Amazon voluntarily emerged from the forest and approached scientists, according to an announcement from the country’s Indian affairs department (FUNAI).

Science Now reported that on June 29, the group of Brazilian scientists had made the first official contact with an isolated tribe in 18 years.

It wasn’t an accident that the scientists were in the area, the Science Now article said. “The event — Brazil’s first official contact with an isolated tribe since 1996 — was not entirely unexpected. Since early June, fearful villagers in the region had radioed Brazilian authorities at least twice about a group of some 35 tribal strangers who were raiding their crops and trying to make off with machetes and other tools,” it said.

FUNAI quickly sent experts to the Upper Envira River region in case the indigenous tribe wanted to make contact.

According to Science Now, there are at least 70 isolated tribes in the Brazilian Amazon, and many more in the broader rainforest. Most have already made some sort of contact with the outside world, mainly through rubber harvesters and mahogany loggers.

In fact, FUNAI officials think that this indigenous tribe — whose language is still unknown — fled mahogany loggers working illegally on protected lands in Peru, some 186 miles away from where they emerged. The loggers could have driven off the animals the tribe hunted, leaving them no choice but to migrate.

Whatever the reason they chose to emerge from the forest on June 29, the most important thing to do now, experts said, is to protect the tribe’s members from contracting dangerous diseases they’re not protected from, like the flu and whooping cough. The elderly and very young are most at risk.

Between 1983 and 1985, over half of another isolated population in the Peruvian Amazon died from illnesses they contracted from loggers, Science Now said.

How extinct undersea volcanoes trigger rare ‘tsunami earthquakes’


Tsunamis, like the one that stuck Aceh, Indonesia, can cause serious flooding and submerge entire villages.United States Navy

How unusual slow earthquakes can spawn powerful tsunamis is a long-standing mystery that researchers may have finally solved.

Called “tsunami earthquakes,” these slow quakes are capable of creating huge waves that can cause serious damage to coastal cities. Tsunami earthquakes are not like typical earthquakes. They happen slowly and don’t generate the same kind of violent shaking as typical earthquakes the tell-tale sign that it’s time to evacuate.

Scientists first discovered tsunami earthquakes 35 years ago and they happen so rarely there has been little opportunity to study them since. Now, a new study suggests that tsunami earthquakes happen when two sections of Earth’s crust, called tectonic plates, get hung up on extinct volcanoes on the ocean floor, called seamounts. The seamounts act like tread on a tire and make tectonic plates stick. [The 10 Biggest Earthquakes in History]

The research team realized these extinct volcanoes sometimes get squashed in subduction zones. A subduction zone is where one tectonic plate is sliding under the other plate.

The researchers propose that two tsunamis that struck New Zealand in 1947 were caused by tsunami earthquakes that struck in a zone near two sunken volcanoes off the country’s northern coast. The earthquake happened when the Pacific tectonic plate slid under the New Zealand tectonic plate, releasing a massive buildup of energy. However, the actual rupture of tsunami earthquakes is slow compared with regular earthquakes. The rupture happens at 335 to 670 mph. In regular earthquakes that rupturing can happen two or three times faster. The slow rupture allows time for huge waves to swell.

Bell and the team estimate the tsunamis might have reached 43 feet. Since the New Zealand tsunami earthquake, scientists think there have been nine other tsunami earthquakes. In 1992, a magnitude-7.2 earthquake off the coast of Nicaragua created a wave 26 feet tall that killed 170 people. In 2006, an earthquake off the coast of Indonesia with the same magnitude created a wave 23 feet tall that drowned 637 people.

Researchers arrived at this conclusion by studying eyewitness accounts from the earthquakes. Witnesses did not report any violent shaking associated with regular earthquakes. Instead they reported feeling the ground “rolling” and feelings of seasickness. After analyzing data originally collected for oil and gas deposit searches, the researchers were able to locate two extinct volcanoes off the coast that likely caused the tsunamis.

By understanding the geologic causes of tsunami earthquakes, scientists hope to pinpoint the areas most at risk for the mysterious slow earthquakes. The scientists hope the new research will help raise awareness among people living in coastal regions who are at risk for tsunami earthquakes.

“These tsunami earthquakes create very little ground shaking, but they shake the ground gently for a long time,” lead researcher Rebecca Bell from Imperial College London, told Live Science. “The best warning for residents living close by is that if they feel a very prolonged earthquake, even if the shaking is gentle, they should evacuate to high ground. New tsunami warning signs in New Zealand now use the tag line ‘Long, strong, gone’.”

Despite a network of seismometers (instruments that measure ground motion, which is then used to measure earthquake size) across the globe that allows geologists to detect very low magnitude underwater quakes, scientists are unsure which quakes have the potential to generate tsunami waves. For now, the researchers think teaching people living in tsunami-risk areas to watch for prolonged shaking will be the most effective way to keep people safe.

The new study was published on May 5 in the journal Earth and Planetary Science Letters.

Hidden volcanoes melt Antarctic glaciers from below, study finds


The edge of the Thwaites glacier, shown here in an image taken during Operation Icebridge, a NASA-led study of Antarctic and Greenland glaciers. The blue along the glacier front is dense, compressed ice.NASA photograph by Jim Yungel

Antarctica is a land of ice. But dive below the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, and you’ll find fire as well, in the form of subglacial volcanoes.

Now, a new study finds that these subglacial volcanoes and other geothermal “hotspots” are contributing to the melting of Thwaites Glacier, a major river of icethat flows into Antarctica’s Pine Island Bay. Areas of the glacier that sit near geologic features thought to be volcanic are melting faster than regions farther away from hotspots, said Dustin Schroeder, the study’s lead author and a geophysicist at the University of Texas at Austin.

This melting could significantly affect ice loss in the West Antarctic, an area that is losing ice quickly.

“It’s not just the fact that there is melting water, and that water is coming out,” Schroeder told Live Science. “It’s how that affects the flow and stability of the ice.”

[Images: See an Antarctic Glacier Carve an Iceberg]

Antarctic heat

Researchers have long known that volcanoes lurk under the ice of West Antarctica. This is a seismically active region, where East and West Antarctica are rifting apart. In 2013, a team of scientists even found a new volcano beneath the West Antarctic Ice Sheet.

West Antarctica is also hemorrhaging ice due to climate change, and recent studies have suggested there is no way to reverse the retreat of West Antarctic glaciers. However, the timing of this retreat is still in question, Schroeder said it could take hundreds of years, or thousands. It’s important to understand which, given that meltwater from the West Antarctic Ice Sheet contributes directly to sea level rise.

Scientists use computer models to try to predict the future of the ice sheet, but their lack of understanding of subglacial geothermal energy has been a glaring gap in these models. Measuring geothermal activity under the ice sheet is so difficult that researchers usually just enter one, uniform estimate for the contributions of geothermal heat to melting, Schroeder said.

Of course, volcanism isn’t uniform. Geothermal hotspots no doubt influence melting more in some areas than in others.

“It’s the most complex thermal environment you might imagine,” study co-author Don Blankenship, a geophysicist at UT Austin, said in a statement. “And then, you plop the most critical dynamically unstable ice sheet on planet Earth in the middle of this thing, and then you try to model it. It’s virtually impossible.”

Hotspots melting

To unravel the complexity, the researchers built on a previous study they published in 2013 that mapped out the system of channels that flows beneath the Thwaites Glacier, a fast-flowing glacier that scientists say is vulnerable to global warming.

Using radar data from satellites in orbit, the researchers were able to figure out where these subglacial streams were too full to be explained by flow from upstream. The swollen streams revealed spots of unusually high melt, Schroeder said. Next, the researchers checked out the subglacial geology in the region and found that fast-melting spots were disproportionately clustered near confirmed West Antarctic volcanoes, suspected volcanoes or other presumed hotspots.

“There’s a pattern of hotspots,” Schroeder said. “One of them is next to Mount Takahe, which is a volcano that actually sticks out of the ice sheet.”

The minimum average heat flow beneath Thwaites Glacier is 114 milliwatts per square meter (or per about 10 square feet) with some areas giving off 200 milliwatts per square meter or more, the researchers report Monday in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. (A milliwatt is one-thousandth of a watt.) In comparison, Schroeder said, the average heat flow of the rest of the continents is 65 milliwatts per square meter.

“It’s pretty hot by continental standards,” he said.

The extra melt caused by subglacial volcanoes could lubricate the ice sheet from beneath, hastening its flow toward the sea, Schroeder said. To understand how much the volcanic melt contributes to this flow and what that means for the future of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet glaciologists and climate scientists will have to include the new, finer-grained findings in their models. Schroeder and his colleagues also plan to expand their study to other glaciers in the region.

“Anywhere in the West Antarctic Ice Sheet is going to be a candidate for high melt areas,” he said. “And we have radar data covering much of it.”

The world’s most elusive sea route: Cruise to traverse The Northwest Passage

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    Polar Bears in Bellot Strait between Gulf of Bothia and Beaufort sea.ABERCROMBIE & KENT

If you’ve got lots of adventurous spirit and the big bucks to support it, here’s a once-in-a-lifetime voyage you’ll never forget:

The luxury and adventure travel company Abercrombie and Kent is offering a cruise through the Northwest Passage.

Hershel Island is “a rare spot where you might see moose, grizzly and black bears and polar bears, all in the same locale.”- Bob Simpson, Abercrombie & Kent’s polar expedition specialist

This French luxury ship Le Boreal will sail once, and only once, for 23 days in August 2015 from Greenland, through the Canadian Arctic Archipelago, above Alaska, through the Bering Strait and on to the northeastern shore of Russia.

It’s the least-sailed major sea route in the world, and it offers ample opportunities for wildlife sightings, including polar bears and exotic species of whales.

But let’s get one thing clear: This isn’t for the faint of heart.

This voyage runs north of the Arctic Circle, known for its freezing winds, and there are no developed ports until you reach Russia. If you get soaked in 32-degree seawater in 30-mile-per-hour winds on a Zodiac that won’t return to the cruise ship for hours, you may find yourself wishing you’d picked a cruise to the Bahamas.

Bob Simpson, Abercrombie & Kent’s polar expedition specialist for 16 years, said being prepared for everything makes all the difference.

“First of all,” he said, “Le Boreal is a beautiful ship, especially for an expedition, that we chose for its amenities but also because its sister ship, Le Soleal, crossed the Passage in 2012, proving its qualification.”

“We insisted on having the same captain for our charter, Etienne Garcia,” he added.

Wild life is a big draw

The itinerary begins with a charter flight from Montreal to Greenland. After boarding the ship, passengers will visit five Greenland ports in seven days on Baffin Bay, one of the most active glacial regions in the world.

“We then cross Baffin Bay to enter the Northwest Passage through Lancaster Sound, teeming with deep-water cod that draw several species of whales,” Simpson said. “One is the narwhal, known for its twisted, unicorn-like tusk.” It is believed that Norsemen sold these tusks as unicorn horns for centuries.

Hershel Island is “a rare spot where you might see moose, grizzly and black bears and polar bears, all in the same locale,” Simpson said. Then it’s on to Point Barrow, known for its all-white beluga whales.

But there’s another all-white animal that everyone wants to see.

“Polar bears are always at the top of most people’s lists,” Simpson said. “The Soleal had a few sightings, so we asked Captain Garcia to adjust the itinerary and hopefully we will see more.”

Simpson said there’s flexibility in the schedule, so they’ll maneuver the ship to try to get the best views. But he noted that wildlife sightings can never be guaranteed.

The Elusive Northwest Passage History

The challenge of crossing the Northwest Passage has attracted explorers and adventure-seekers for decades.

In 1906, Roald Amundsen completed the first passage by boat, but it took him three years. It wasn’t until 1944 that Henry Larsen, sailing from Halifax to Vancouver, completed the first passage by boat in a single season. It still took him 86 days.

Why is the Passage so elusive? There are over 36,000 islands in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago, and ice patterns change the passable route every year. The short two-month window when the polar ice clears adds to the challenge. “When charting this cruise, it is vital to have a Plan A and a Plan B and a Plan C,” Simpson said.

The most populated stops on the cruise will be remote Inuit villages where natives still survive by hunting.

“Gjoa-Haven, where Amundsen spent two full years, is still the region’s largest village at just over 1,000 people,” Simpson said.

The cruise will cover rare ground for a leisure vessel. Many cruises end near Banks Island, part of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago, and miss the Smoking Hills of Cape Bathurst, where veins of carbon-rich shale in the sea cliffs have been self-igniting for centuries.

Emmy-award winning filmmaker Sprague Theobald will be on board the ship as guest historian and lecturer. In 2008, he made an 8,500-mile crossing in his own 57-foot boat with a small crew, including his children. He wrote a book, The Other Side of The Ice: One Family’s Treacherous Journey Negotiating the Northwest Passage, about that voyage, which was made into a film.

The Right Cruise for the Right People

If you’re considering this voyage, then consider this: All planned landings and excursions from the ship are made in rubber pontoon Zodiac boats that are fully exposed to the elements, so head-to-toe waterproof clothing is mandatory. It’s also worth noting that a medical emergency could require an airlift to a hospital in Canada.

But you won’t be roughing it aboard the Le Boreal, which has 132 comfortable staterooms, two gourmet dining rooms and a state-of-the-art media center. In addition to Theobald, there will be a team of highly experienced scientists and naturalists to guide passengers on excursions, give lectures and answer questions all day.

The cruise sails Aug. 20, 2015, and starts at $27,995 per person, depending on the stateroom category.

For extensive details, go to Abercrombie and Kent.


Paul Motter is the editor of, an online cruise guide. Follow him on Twitter @cruisemates.