Thursday, June 27, 2013

Another view of Colorado wildfires

wildfire complex in Colorado, the West Fork Complex ( It turned out that just after we shared that post…NASA decided to taunt us by saying “we have a much better image”. 

I’m not sure what it is about images from the Space Station, but somehow the combination of photography and the angle makes them seem incredibly real and vibrant. Here therefore is another look at the wildfires burning in Colorado taken from the International Space Station on June 19.

You can clearly see the enormous pyroclumulus cloud formed from the West Fork Complex fire spreading out over the southern part of this image. A smaller cloud from a fire burning to the north is also visible.

A pyrocumulus cloud is a type of cloud associated with events like fires and volcanic eruptions. The cloud itself is formed when the heat given off by the fire forces the air above the hotspot to rise up into the atmosphere, carrying particulate matter such as ash with it. The clouds from this fire have been large and continuous enough to negatively impact air quality across the Eastern U.S. for the last several weeks.


This picture looks rather ordinary, just a hole in the ground with a couple of rocks. However, if you look into the story of how this hole was formed, you find an Earth story from the Ice Age, around 20,000 years ago.

This is a pothole in the Glacier Gardens (Gletschergarten), Lucerne, Switzerland. During the Ice Age, this area was covered by the Reuss glacier. The potholes found throughout the park were created by the strong force of the water as the glaciers melted. The water initially melted on the surface, then seeped through cracks and fissures. The flowing water below the glacier was under intense pressure. As it gained speed, vortices formed and carved large potholes into the sandstone below. The largest pothole in the park is about 9.5 meters deep and 8 meters across.

Josef Wilhelm Amrein-Troller discovered the area in 1872 while digging for a wine cellar. After finding some small potholes, he consulted two geologists who recognized the evidence for Ice Age glaciation. They encouraged Josef to stop blasting the area and preserve the site. Careful excavation began, and a park was opened in 1873.

The sandstone in the park is filled fossils of palm trees and clam shells. Around 20 million years ago, the climate of the Lucerne area was subtropical, with sandy beaches and tropical trees.


Image of a 4-meter-deep pothole, Gletschergarten, Switzerland. Credit Roland Zh
Wikimedia Commons


Taking a page from Col. Chris Hadfield’s interaction with social media whilst aboard the International Space Station, European Space Agency astronaut Luca Parmitano is using Twitter to share photographs he takes from the ISS. Parmitano is aboard the ISS for six months, with five other astronauts. 

Parmitano was born in Paternò, Italy and considers Catania his hometown. He arrived at the ISS on May 29, 2013, as part of the Volare mission; volare means "to fly" in Italian.

Parmitano captures his images from 400 km high, looking out of the Station’s Cupola while orbiting at 28,800 km/h. He tweeted this image on June 22 with the comment: “The sky is simply perfect. La semplice perfezione del cielo.” Earth’s curvature can clearly be seen in this image.

All of Parmitano’s photos are available here: You can follow him on Twitter here and Facebook here
Image copyright: ESA

Atmospheric aerosols may act to slow climate change

Aerosols are are tiny dust or liquid particles suspended in the atmosphere and air that can be both natural and man-made. Ranging from the ash of a volcano to the particles spewed by burning fossil fuels, numerous scientific studies have discovered that these aerosols actually slow global warming, contrary to prior belief.

It is important to distinguish between aerosols and the commonly referred to greenhouse gases, like carbon dioxide and methane. Greenhouse gases act as a sort of gaseous, one-way passage blanket that envelops the earth. Meanwhile, the liquid and solid aerosols suspended in the air act as both mirrors and "seeds for cloud formation", affecting global warming both directly and indirectly.

Aerosols can reflect and shoot the sun's radiation rays away from the Earth, and can also gather water in the atmosphere to create clouds. The bigger these clouds are in quantity and size (thickness), more light rays are scattered and less heat is absorbed by the earth.

Studies in and/or by Nature Geoscience, the UK Met Office, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and other organizations have all asserted this as a very likely to be true observation.

"No question about it, they have a cooling effect" says Stephen Schwartz, an environmental senior scientist at the Brookhaven National Laboratory.

The brief explanation is this: Hurricanes are formed by the raw energy absorbed and released by the ocean. When a higher quantity of aerosols act to reflect much of the sun's rays, there is less heat by the ocean to be absorbed. Nevertheless, it is far too common to think that the number of hurricanes fluctuates based on climate change. Aerosols are simply predicted to decrease the intensity of these already heightened-intensity hurricanes.

This is not to say, however, that aerosols are 100% beneficial to the welfare of the human race by the diminishment of the hurricane's destructive power. During the last 2 to 3 decades, significant improvements in human health have been seen by the clean up and decrease in hazardous industrial aerosols.

For this reason, it is a difficult decision for me to label the presence or absence of aerosols as "better" than one another. This is because studies and observations are quite qualitative on both sides. For example, it is difficult to determine the quantifiable amount of human life loss due to human induced aerosol pollution. At the same time, environmental scientists maintain that while this relationship is a step forward, aerosols reducing global warming is a "perplexing variable" because of the lack of quantifiable data.

Nevertheless, this new discovery truly is a breakthrough. Further studies can hopefully uncover details and quantifiable aspects of this observation in the hopes of bettering planet Earth.

Image Credit: Colorado State University


Wednesday, June 26, 2013


Arenal Volcano in Costa Rica is a 1,657 meter-tall stratovolcano that has shown decreased activity since October 2010. However, in the past, this volcano was quite active. On July 27, 1968, Arenal erupted after a 400 to 500 year dormant period. Prior to the explosion, Arenal was known as Arenal Peak, since it was thought to be a mountain. In the months leading up to the 1968 explosion, the people living in the region surrounding the volcano noticed some warning signs, including ground movement, especially the night before the explosion. People who climbed Arenal noticed that the rocks making up the volcano were hot for some time. Fumaroles, or vents from which hot steam escapes, were noted on the volcano as well. However, at the time, there was no elaborate warning system set up, nor were there volcano experts in the area. As a result, residents who lived near Arenal were not necessarily aware of the impending danger.

Arenal exploded from its western side at approximately 7:30 in the morning. When the eruption occurred, farming communities that were located near the slopes of the volcano were destroyed. The three small villages of Tabacón, Pueblo Nuevo, and San Luís were decimated when 15 square kilometers surrounding the volcano were buried with rocks, ash, and lava over 232 square kilometers of land. Unfortunately, 87 people lost their lives during this destruction that lasted several days. Rocks weighing several tons were thrown more than a kilometer away from the volcano at a rate of 600 meters per second at the height of the eruption.

The town of La Fortuna (translated to mean “The Fortune”) was spared from the devastation, but people were still evacuated from the small village. As a result, La Fortuna was deserted for many months after the 1968 eruption. Some people eventually returned to the town, but many residents did not. When I was in La Fortuna, I noticed that Arenal looms not too far off in the distance, and it is plain to see why people were hesitant to return. However, La Fortuna has now become a tourist destination specifically due to its proximity to the volcano.

Because of this fateful tragedy in 1968, residents who want to live near the volcano do not build their homes very close to the site. I visited Arenal in July 2012, and I was not able to hike past a certain point as a safety precaution. Even though the eruption ended in tragedy for the community, the volcano has brought in millions of tourists to this region of Costa Rica. As a result, tourism is vital to this area.

Photo of Arenal as seen from La Fortuna courtesy of the Central Intelligence Agency’s World Factbook. (


For more information on Arenal, please see:

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Metro in the Desert: Utah’s Zion Subway Tunnel

For those daring enough to venture nine miles through deep canyon and desert landscape, here is a must-see. The Zion Subway, located in Zion National Park, is nestled in the desert-ridden terrain of southwest Utah. The tunnel is named after its similar appearance to urban subway tunnels; however there is no direct correlation between the two. The Zion Subway tunnel has been carved from the Left Fork of North Creek where churning water sculpts the tunnel between two peaks called North and South Guardian Angels. In order to reach this majestic and incredibly unique landscape, hikers must first trek through 14.5 km-15.28 km (9-9.5 miles) of trails, canyons, and small river beds, but the payoff is most definitely worth the adventure.

Within the hollowed out sandstone, rivers and pools of water are met with little sunlight; conditions that allow algae to flourish and turn the water into its greenish/turquoise hue. Careful to be too lured in by the algae though, as it also coats much of the surrounding sediment, making for a slippery obstacle to dance around while hiking. Other wildlife within the tunnel includes an abundant population of dragonflies, frogs, lizards, and some species of birds. In fact, the surrounding Zion National Park is home to more than 270 species of birds, including the infamous roadrunner.

As beautiful as the Zion Subway may be, caution must be taken when hiking through, as conditions in the tunnel are known to escalate quickly. Danger from flash-floods, extreme heat, and hypothermia does put adventurists at risk but shouldn’t deter everyone from venturing into the Zion Subway tunnel. Although the hike may require extensive preparation and training, the payoff of visiting one of the desert’s best kept secrets is well worth while.

Photo Credit:
Christian Bothner, National Geographic


Laacher See

This placid seeming lake in the state of Rhineland-Palatinate in western Germany was once the site of an enormous eruption that spewed ash all over west and central Europe, reaching the British Isles and northern Spain. On a summer day, families will be picnicking by and people sailing on its blue waters, with little thought of the violent events that occurred nearly 13,000 years ago. The large Plinian eruption is estimated to have had a volcanic explosivity index of 6/8 (same as Mt. Pinatubo in 1991), leaving a 2Km caldera behind.

Known as maars, these bowl shaped craters form when groundwater meets rising lava, resulting in an explosion. The tuff rings from surge deposits are clearly visible at the crater's rim, now covered in forest. The eruption occurred in early summer, and the initial ash plume is thought to have risen up to 35Km high. Phreato-magmatic explosions then created pyroclastic flows and surges, that filled all the valleys with tephra within a 10Km radius, and probably wiped out most life within a circle of 50Km. They estimate around 6.5 cubic kilometres of lava were erupted. The resultant deposits are used as marker beds to correlate stratigraphy by geologists and archaeologists throughout west-central Europe.

The deposits also dammed the nearby Rhine, creating a 140 square Km lake. When the dam broke a huge flood surged downstream, leaving evidence of its passing as far north as Bonn. The phonolitic (high alkali/medium-high silica) lava had a high sulphur content, which cooled the atmosphere for several years afterwards, so the next few summers would have been pretty miserable. Among the deposits are ejecta of rare intrusive carbonatite lavas, the youngest plutonic carbonatites worldwide, attesting to some pretty complex geochemistry churning down below. Human culture was set back, as the local communities disappeared, and were replaced some years later by less advanced ones (in terms of tool quality and the like, not necessarily culture).

It is the only caldera in central Europe, as the magma chamber underneath collapsed after emptying. Located on the Rhine Graben (a downfaulted block resulting from extensional tectonics), the magma is probably related in some complex way to the collision of Africa and Europe, that also built the Alps and Pyrenees. Part of the East Eifel volcanic field, these sporadic eruptions have been ongoing for several million years, and their timing seems to correlate with the cyclic accumulation and melting of ice sheets.

The field is still active, lava is gently bubbling down below, as thermal anomalies under the lake and degassing of CO2 into the region's lakes (including Laachersee) and rivers testify. Some rare minerals were formed by this volcanism, and Hauyne was first identified in these German volcanic fields. While still active, there are no current signs of imminent eruption, and the British newspaper the Daily Mail was forced to retract a story last year that a super-eruption that would devastate Europe was imminent.

A Benedictine monastery lies on its shores (visible at the lower left of the photo), and the tuff was quarried for centuries as building stones and to make querns for grinding corn.


Fuji-San awarded world heritage status

Japan's highest peak (3776m), central to its legends and culture and famously depicted in paintings by Hokusai was awarded UNESCO world heritage status today. Dormant since 1708, this perfect stratovolcano sits 100Km from Tokyo and overlies several of its ancestors. The current edifice is about 10,000 years old, has a complex geology and is located at a triple plate junction between the Okhotsk, Amur and Philippine plates.

Image credit: Alpsdake

FEMA Flood map budget slashed

From Hurricane Katrina to Hurricane Sandy, the U.S. has seen some incredible disasters due to flooding over the last decade. Of course, as shown in this somewhat-ironic photo from a flood earlier this year in Indiana, flooding doesn’t just occur during massive hurricanes, it occurs regularly throughout the country and the world.

In the United States, flood damages are insured by a program run by the U.S. government, the National Flood Insurance Program. This program was established by law in 1968. Prior to that, flood insurance was provided by some homeowner’s insurance policies, but it was difficult for insurers to appropriately assess the risk of floods in many areas since they didn’t have high-quality maps of flood-prone areas. After taking losses on those policies, most insurance policies stopped covering flood damage.

When those policies stopped covering flood damage, floods still happened and people’s homes were still destroyed. If insurers weren’t covering the damage, the government could either step in and do something or leave people whose insurance didn’t cover the damage out on the street. This situation gave rise to The Flood Insurance Act of 1968 and the Flood Disaster Prevention Act of 1973, which established the National Flood Insurance Program and then made participation mandatory for property in special flood hazard areas.

Thus, today, it’s the government who provides flood insurance in the U.S. However, the flood insurance program right now is in dire fiscal straits; after hurricanes Katrina and Sandy, the program is more than $20 billion in debt and is not taking in enough money to cover the growing losses.

A major cause of this problem is underestimating the risks of flood damage. It should be clear that accurate maps of flood zones are absolutely necessary to run a flood insurance program. That’s why the private insurers got out of the business in the first place; they didn’t have the money to make accurate assessments of flood risks across the entire country.

The U.S. government has the resources to map these areas. The zones required to buy flood insurance and the premiums required for various structure types can be based on national data if the areas are well mapped. In some places, that is the case, but across much of the country it isn’t, and that problem is getting worse

FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the agency tasked with preparing for and responding to disasters, is in the process of updating maps of flood-prone areas around the country. For example, flood maps for areas in New York were just released a couple days ago. FEMA was in the process of updating flood maps for areas in New York and New Jersey last year just as Sandy hit; more complete documents are slowly coming out now.

In many areas, the flood maps are hopelessly out of date. Some places haven’t been updated since the 1970’s. Re-mapping these areas is the only way that the flood insurance program will be able to set premiums, and it’s the only way people will be able to construct houses with appropriate levels of flood defenses. Basically, if these areas aren’t re-mapped, then the U.S. taxpayer will continue to be on the hook for costs from floods that weren’t understood. The taxpayers can basically choose; map the areas and let the maps guide building, or pay much larger settlements to rebuild areas that were destroyed by flooding.

Right now, the U.S. government is choosing the latter; paying much larger amounts of money to rebuild. FEMA’s flood mapping budget has been slashed the last 2 years; Congress authorized FEMA to spend $400 million a year to update their flood maps in 2012, a level of money which could complete the mapping nationwide in 5 to 10 years and which is small compared to the Flood Insurance Program’s losses on Hurricane Sandy alone. In 2011, the government was spending ~$200 million a year on this mapping project, so that money would have helped complete it more rapidly.

Despite being told to spend more money on the mapping program, the funding to do so has evaporated. FEMA’s flood-mapping budget in 2012 was slashed back to $99 million and is continuing to fall. Thanks to sequestration, an automatic series of budget-cuts enacted by Congress impacting every federal agency, the budget for 2014 only includes ~$84 million in flood-mapping funds.

That rate of funding will allow the government to complete its new flood assessments in about 40 years. Of course, in 40 years, land use changes and sea level rise will make many of these new assessments out of date as well, just as they are now.

This program is going to be paid for whether the taxpayer wants to or not. Either the U.S. is going to update these maps to allow for appropriate building and insurance premium payments, or the taxpayer will pay larger claims when flood damage happens. The taxpayer is on the hook either way.

Worse, the lack of updated maps is harming the rebuilding from Hurricane Sandy. Property owners in flood-prone areas need to know what the assessment of flood-risk is in order to determine the level they can build at. Does a rebuild house need to be raised above the water level? Can property safely be built on a site or is flooding too likely? The results of the new mappings in New York and New Jersey are slowly becoming available, but with the budget cuts, it will be months, possibly years before those maps are finalized, and until then, rebuilding may just have to wait.

Image Credit: FOX 59 Indiana, Flood from earlier this year:

Flood Maps for Rockland County, New York released:

FEMA statement from 2012 on impact of budget cuts on mapping program:

State of Flood Insurance Program and FEMA funding, press report, used specifically to get current budget numbers:

FEMA Records on 1968 and 1973 Flood Insurance Acts:

Tatun volcanoes, Taipei

The capital of Taiwan, Taipei, sits close to the convergence of three tectonic plates - the Eurasian, Phillipine Sea and South China Sea plates. The Eurasian and Phillipine Sea plates are rapidly colliding at more than 8 cm per year. The high and narrow mountain range that runs north to south along Taiwan (a landmark of Formosa - the beautiful island) is one consequence. Volcanism is another.

The Tatun volcanoes shown here are located within the Taipei metropolitan area, 15km north of the capital and west of Keelung. Known to have been active through the Pleistocene epoch of the Quaternary, they have long been assumed to be extinct, but recent studies suggest they may simply be dormant, with hot springs, fumaroles, and swarm-type seismicity all suggestive of magma still present beneath. Although forming beautiful mountains, more than 1000m above the nearby sea level, these volcanoes may pose a yet-unrecognised threat to the nearby population of more than 6.7 million people. In view of the potential volcanic threat, some have also raised questions about the suitability of the area as host for the two nuclear power stations sited close by.

Image: Tatun volcanoes, credit: James Ko Chun Huang, Dept. of Earth Sciences, NCKU, Tainan Taiwan

Mantle degassing in the Rockies

As you bathe in Colorado's hot springs, your legs may be being tickled by bubbles containing mantle gas, seeping through the whole thickness of the continent to the surface. Their presence far from plate boundaries, where most of the interaction between mantle and surface occurs, has been a surprise to tectonicists. 

These mantle gases are found mixed with groundwater, and their rise through the crust is linked to basement penetrating faults, providing a direct connection for mantle and crustal fluids to mix. The fluids then emerge as hot springs or travertine marble terraces, generally linked with the same extensional tectonics that produced the faults. Mantle contributions were found to increase with seismic activity, and lower again afterwards. The team has named them xenowhiffs, foreign gases in groundwater, after the mantle xenoliths brought up in volcanic eruptions.

The results came from measuring the ratios of helium and carbon dioxide across 25 hot springs and a variety of travertine deposits throughout the Rockies. Helium has two main isotopes, called He3 (light) and He4 (heavy). The heavy isotope is created by radioactive decay of metals like uranium, that are mostly concentrated in the crust. The lighter one is a relic of the Earth's formation. Most of the crust's light helium has been lost to space during post Archaean crustal reworking, so the only He3 left on Earth is believed to lie in deep mantle reservoirs. A high proportion of He3 relative to He4 if held to indicate mantle contributions, whether found in lavas, volcanic gases or groundwater. These results were then compared with seismic tomographic maps of earthquake wave speeds under the western USA to compare mantle gases with magma reservoirs. Low wave speeds tend to indicate the presence of magma.

Over a quarter of the helium in the groundwater, and a whopping three quarters of the CO2 was found to come from a mantle source, transported by fluids that had moved though more than 50Km of continental crust. Due to the complex tectonic history, ascribing exact sources for these gases is hard. Some may come from the recent extension related magmatism in the basin and range province, some may be due to the subduction of the Farallon plate and the Laramide Orogeny, which hydrated the mantle, lowering its melting point, resulting in magma that is visible on seismic tomograms. This mountain building event also heated and thinned the continental keel. Another possible contribution may be the consequences of part of the subducting Farallon slab breaking off and sinking into the deeper mantle as its minerals pass through the eclogite pressure transition and metamorphose to denser forms.

The pervasive presence of mantle gases in groundwater throughout the western USA has several implications. Carbon sequestration plans may not mitigate atmospheric CO2 as efficiently as we hope, because if mantle gases can pass through the whole thickness of the continent via faults and seepage, and the whole west is seismically active, then no formation may be truly safe from leakage events if used to store man made CO2. The ratios suggest that the mantle gases are taking less than three million years to pass through the crust. The relative contributions of fault and seepage based transport will have to be estimated, though with careful assessment procedures sequestration should work, since gases have been injected into reservoirs with favourable geometry without signs of significant leakage. It must also be emphasised that the amount of CO2 degassing from the mantle is minute relative to anthropogenic emissions, so like volcanoes, this process cannot be blamed for climate change.

A second problem is related to contamination of water resources, since these mantle gases bring dissolved metals such as arsenic and uranium with them, that then end up in the groundwater. Some of the springs had higher levels of arsenic than permitted for human or agricultural use. As the easily mined aquifers of the west, the Oglala in particular, become depleted, people are going to be seeking water elsewhere, and the risk that this metal rich water will be used is high. This will either require costly separation of the metals, or accepting the type of serious health problems that plague Bangladesh, ever since NGO's dug wells into an arsenic bearing aquifer back in the 70's and 80's.

Tectonically, these results imply that the entire mantle beneath the western USA is degassing heterogeneously. Similar results have been found near the San Andreas fault and other places in California and Nevada. By contrast, springs above the thick craton of the Canadian Shield show no similar geochemical connection between mantle and surface. This type of research offers vital clues to the nature of the complex interactions between asthenosphere, mantle and crust, in a tectonically complex area of extension, accreted terranes and recent orogenies.

Image credit for Pinkerton Hot Spring: E.R. Pape, via state geothermal data project.

Original paper, paywall access:

Iridescence over Canyonlands

This photo was taken at Canyonlands National Park in the U.S. and shows a beautiful iridescent color spectrum formed from the light of the setting sun.

The sunlight is hitting tiny droplets of water in the clouds (20 μm or so in diameter) and being split apart into this pattern. The amount each ray of light is deflected depends on the wavelength (color) of the light, creating the horizontal pattern moving away from the sun.

The photo was created by combining two exposures; one with f/13 and 1/4000 second exposure, the other with f/5 and 1/2000 second exposure.

Photo credit: Earth Science picture of the day, reproduced here with permission from photographer Alissa Pajer

Night Sky over Patagonia

Photographer Max Seigal hiked for several hours to achieve this stunning shot of the night sky over Patagonia, Argentina. I'm sure you'll agree the long hike was worth it!

Image; Max Seiga

Help NASA create a global cloud atlas with their new CloudSpotter app

Smartphone users worldwide are being asked to help NASA develop a world cloud atlas, and assist in calibrating their Clouds and Earth's Radiant Energy System instrument. This app is used to take photos of clouds and identify their type, and the results are coordinated via the Cloud Appreciation Society. The instrument is installed on three satellites, and measures the amount of heat/light our planet reflects back into space. A major factor affecting this process is cloud cover and type. This knowledge is vital in the context of understanding the role clouds play in Earth system dynamics, and particularly in providing baseline data for future climate change studies.

Schools have been assisting NASA with this calibration process since 1997, but now anyone with a smartphone and the app can help ensure that the results from the satellite are tallied with the level of cloud cover below. NASA plans to use the CAS database to find photos taken when one of the satellites was above, and using the information given by the photographer such as variety and density of cloud to calibrate CERES. They hope to find trends in satellite mis-identification of clouds to gain a clearer understanding, and also to gradually develop a global cloud atlas.

Image credit: NOAA.

App page:

Night Dwellers

Never assume that what you can’t see isn’t there. Human beings by nature can only witness a fraction of what is out there, limited by our own biology and chemistry. Even the nearest stars (excluding our Sun) seem to disappear after sunrise but that doesn’t question their existence in whole now does it? At dusk, the stars reemerge, as they have done so for hundreds, thousands, millions, even billions of years, claiming their presence in the cosmos. And just as the stars have deemed themselves as night dwellers, at least from a human’s perspective, other bodies above us have also made reputations of shining at night; in this case, polar mesospheric clouds.

These clouds, also referred to as Noctilucent Clouds, exist approximately 80-85 km (≈50-53 miles) above the Earth’s surface near the coldest part of the atmosphere, the mesosphere. They become visible when tiny water particles (about 1/10,000 mm in diameter) in the upper atmosphere freeze into ice and reflect the sunlight. Polar Mesospheric clouds oftentimes appear in bluish hues because the stratospheric ozone layer absorbs most of the red light.

The formula for the development of these clouds in simple: low temperatures, water vapor, and a surface/nuclei for the water crystal to grow on. Once these criteria have been met, science takes over and with enough frozen water vapor and light the noctilucent clouds come to life. Next time you step outside and bear witness to these magnificent blankets that hover the horizon, thank the sun and the conditions of Earth’s upper atmosphere. Without either, the presence and existence of polar mesospheric clouds would be in question.

Photo Credit:



June 23 will have the biggest brightest full moon of the year.


The moon’s orbit about Earth is elliptical, so its distance from the Earth changes with its position in orbit. The closest approach in its orbit to Earth is called its “perigee” point; the moon orbits Earth once every 28 days, so there are about 13 times a year when the moon is at its perigee. The difference between the visual appearance of the size of the moon is about 13% between its perigee and apogee, when its orbit places it at its furthest point from Earth. But due to that elliptical orbit, the perigee point varies just a bit from month to month, and this year, the full moon of June (which rhymes with spoon) will be the closest perigee for the year.

AND – added benefit, this perigee corresponds to a full moon. Perigees are not tied into the phases of the moon: there could be a perigee when the moon is waxing, waning, half-full or simply there, hiding behind a cloud. This year, the perigee coincides with a full moon, all the better for werewolves!

The Supermoon phenomenon seems to have been hyped over the internet, and many will want to go outdoors and see something really wonderful, akin to the photo with this post. However, the size of the moon will only be about 1% larger than the smallest full moon of the year, and this is not enough to make out simply by looking at the moon and trying to remember what it looked like last month. Will this lunar proximity of the moon influence tides? Yes, but then, it always does at perigee.

If you see the moon on the horizon, it also might look bigger than you remember it because of something called the “moon illusion.” There are two reasons given for the moon illusion: one is that your brain “sees” the moon as larger when it’s compared to foreground objects; the other is the magnification of the moon by a phenomena called “atmosphere lensing” that, because the light passing through hotter or colder or vapor-bearing air masses. The photo with this post by Chris Kotsiopoulos (that’s the Temple of Poseidon at Sounion in the foreground) proves that the moon always looks bigger here in Greece.

You, too, could try taking a photo of the Supermoon, but it probably won’t look very super. The “secret” for taking a huge moon photo has nothing to do with waiting for the occurrence of a Supermoon, but the camera lens used to take it. For a huge moon, the lens should be huge, 200 mm or more. And the tripod must be steady, and the atmosphere clear, and and and… from personal experience, good luck!

The moon is always wonderful to look at. Whether “super” or not. Particularly when full on a summer evening in June. And I hope you do go this evening to look at it together with your “significant other” and enjoy it tremendously!

Sorry for being late in post;

Photo used by permission (thank you, Chris) of Chris Kotsiopoulos at

Further Supermoon sources:

Downtown Calgary evacuated as downpours hit the Canadian province of Alberta

The Himalayas are not the only place experiencing flooding this week, as floodwater peaked today in Calgary, prompting the evacuation of 75,000 people from the downtown area over the last couple of days. Torrential rain (10Cm) yesterday already closed the Trans-Canada highway and cut off the ski towns of Banff and Canmore, where this image was taken. More rain is expected, with another 10Cm due over the next two days. Water had reached the 10th row of the hockey arena, and schools and businesses were closed. Plans are being enacted to move the animals from the zoo to the holding cells at a courthouse. Calgary is now a ghost town, with many roads closed and most people staying in their homes (barring those evacuated).

No deaths have been reported so far, but one person is missing after their mobile home was swept away. Over a dozen towns have declared states of emergency. Downstream communities are now bracing for the shock.

John Gibson/Getty Images

We’re Living in a Bubble of Bacteria

Most would agree that the most impressive characteristic of our planet is its unlimited ability to sustain an abundance of life. From the remote landscape of Desert Valley in California, to the extreme temperatures of deep-sea vents, life refuses to bow down to the elements and forces of our planet Earth. It seems like life takes advantage of almost every different environment and terrain that our planet has to offer. And just when we think that life cannot get much more adaptable, a new study has found an abundance of bacteria living 10 km (≈6.2 mi) up in our atmosphere.

NASA researchers carried out the study by filtering the air that passes through a plane engine. When the team examined the samples under a microscope, much to their surprise, 20% of what they had suspected to be dust in the atmosphere was live bacteria. The significance of this bacteria is so far unknown, however microbiologists and ecologists suspect that the bacteria may be partially responsible for transferring of some diseases and influencing weather patterns. Ann Womack, a microbial ecologist at the University of Oregon, says that with proper engineering, we could even use the bacteria to help fight climate change by influencing them to breakdown greenhouse gasses into less harmful gasses.

If nothing else, the existence of live bacteria 10 km up in the atmosphere begs the question; what else is up there? Or even, what else lies beyond our atmosphere. At 10 km up, oxygen is almost nonexistent, temperatures are well below freezing, and UV radiation is constantly bombarding the atmosphere so life seems nearly impossible. Yet once again, life found a way.

Surely this study will inspire more research in the near future but until then, we are left wondering why’s, how’s, and what ifs. And when’s. When will the first headline come out to say, “Life found beyond Earth’s atmosphere,” will that day ever come? One thing is for sure; our planet’s atmosphere just got a whole lot more interesting.

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Early monsoon rains flood Himalayan foothills

The earliest monsoon on record has flooded parts of Uttarakhand state in northern India, causing over 150 confirmed deaths. Thousands have been stranded by dozens of rain triggered landslides, and the rains have washed away roads and over 20 bridges. The annual pilgrimage to the source of Ganga at Gangotri was disrupted, as the whole valley has now been cut off by a landslide, with an estimated 12,000 people stranded. The nearby town of Kerdarnath was also reportedly struck by a two storey high wave of water, mud and ice, after part of an overlying glacier failed amidst torrential rains, and is apparently strewn with bodies. Overall, an estimated 65,000 people have been cut off and an unknown number killed in the state.

The areas of Rishikesh (of Beatles guru fame) and Haridwar (home to one of Hinduism's 5 main 'popes' and one of four sites for the Khumba Mela) have also been badly affected. Since many remote areas are cut off, the death toll is likely to rise steeply (probably into the thousands), and the many roads that have been washed away make rescue work difficult. Authorities announced that 8 villages in one district seem to have been entirely washed away. The Indian air force and army are doing their best to rescue those stranded, using army lorries and helicopters.

Deforestation and illegal sand mining are thought to have made the floods worse, but nearly 30 Cm of rain fell on the headwaters of the Ganges last Sunday, and more monsoon downpours are on the way. The rains arrived a full month earlier than usual, at a time when people felt safe to travel or go on the annual pilgrimage, which culminated amidst disaster on Tuesday. Residents of the mountains are used to such events, but the scale is unprecedented and the timing means that no one had completed their usual preparations for the rainy season. Delhi has also seen floods, and many stranded tourists had to be rescued from the Manali area in Himachal Pradesh.

Image credit: AP.

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