Monday, April 29, 2013


Asteroids have been making quite a few headlines as of late. Recently, we had NASA announcing its intentions to capture and asteroid robotically and bring it back for study by a manned expedition. The ten-year, $2.6 billion project would partner with private companies to capture a 500-ton, near-Earth asteroid that would be bagged, brought back, and placed in a gravitational parking lot known as the Earth-Moon lagrangian point (L2). There, a manned outpost could study it and set up a mining station to harvest its resources, especially its trapped water. Considering that it currently costs $10,000 per pound to haul water into orbit, mining it from an asteroid could save a billion dollars at current launch prices. Add to that the ability to use water to create rocket fuel by splitting it into its elemental components hydrogen and oxygen, it's no surprise that water is also called "space gold".
   On February 15, 2013, a meteor exploded over Russia’s Ural mountains in the Chelyabinsk region, injuring about a thousand people, as the shockwave blew out windows and rocked buildings. On that same day, there was a close flyby of asteroid 2012 DA14, which passed within about 27,000 km of Earth which is closer than the orbits of television and weather satellites that surround our planet. The two events were unrelated. 
Ceres, the largest asteroid
and also a dwarf planet.
   In the weeks after these events, there’s been a renewed call for creating an asteroid detection system. As it stands now, all anyone could do if we discovered a large asteroid headed toward New York City or some other large metropolitan area is “pray,” according to NASA chief Charles Bolden. We only know the whereabouts of about 10% of the estimated 10,000 city-killer asteroids. The Chelyabinsk asteroid is the largest to hit Earth since the 1908 Tunguska asteroid exploded over Siberia, leveling 80 million trees over an area of around 2,100 sq km.
   The asteroid belt lies between the orbits of Jupiter and Mars. Even though there are asteroids in other parts of the solar system, most are found here. About half the mass of the belt is contained in the four biggest asteroids: Ceres, Vesta, Pallas and Hygiea. These have average diameters of more than 400 km, while Ceres, which is also a dwarf planet, has a diameter of about 950 km. The remaining asteroids are thinly distributed and range all the way down in size to dust particles.
Vesta as imaged by the Dawn spacecraft.
   Asteroids are rocky. Because they come from the inner solar system, any ice would have been baked off by the sun long ago. Their orbits are fairly predictable, so with good observations, we can track down the big ones and determine if they’re threats.
   There are more objects beyond Neptune. The Kuiper Belt extends more than 100 times farther from the Sun than Earth. Beyond that is the Oort Cloud which extends 10,000 times farther from the Sun than Earth. These collections of small, icy bodies are remnants from the formation of the solar system. When their orbits are disturbed by other objects they can move into the inner solar system, becoming comets. As they come close to the sun that ice evaporates and creates the comet’s tail. They are less dense than asteroids, and tend to be moving faster by the time they reach the inner solar system. Some comets, like Halley’s comet which returns every 76 years, have predictable, periodic orbits.
   Knowing where an object comes from is a good indicator as to whether it is an asteroid or a comet. It’s not all black-and-white—objects from the outer solar system might be rocky and some asteroids do have some ice. But overall this is good way of thinking about them.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

The Wave

The Wave, Arizona

This incredible formation of Navajo Sandstone is stunning in its beauty. Formed during the Jurassic period about 190 million years ago, sand dunes compacted and hardened, with erosion forming the wavelike shapes in the structure over time. Everywhere you look, there are stunningly beautiful formations for hikers and photographer to enjoy. These famous undulating forms can only be reached by a rugged, pathless hike.
Characteristics of treads and risers cut 
into Navajo Sandstone at The Wave.
   The Wave is located near the Arizona/Utah border on the slopes of the Coyote Buttes. It consists of two intersecting troughs that have eroded into the sandstone. The troughs that make this formation have dimensions of about 19 x 36 meters and 2 x 16 meters. At first, infrequent runoff eroded these troughs along joints within the sandstone. After their formation, the drainage basin which fed water to these troughs shrank to the point where it no longer contributes to the erosion. Now the troughs are mostly eroded by wind which cuts characteristic erosional treads and risers into the sandstone along their steep walls. These treads and risers are oriented relative to the prevailing wind direction as it funnels through the troughs.
Cross-bedded Navajo Sandstone at The Wave.
   The Wave exposes large sets of cross-bedded sandstone which represent periodic changes in the prevailing winds during the Jurassic as huge sand dunes migrated across the desert. The thin ridges and ribs seen in The Wave are the result of the different erosion rates within the Navajo Sandstone. The sandstone is soft and fragile, so hikers needs to walk carefully to avoid damaging the small ridges.
   In places, The Wave exposes deformed layers within the Navajo Sandstone, created before the sand was turned to stone. This deformation likely represents dinosaur tracks and the fossil burrows of desert-dwelling insects.
The Wave is located near the Utah/Arizona border
between Kanab and Lake Powell.
   The Wave is located within the Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness and is administered by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), part of the U.S. Department of the Interior. From Interstate I-15, it's about a 2-1/2 hour drive, passing through Kanab, Utah towards Lake Powell. If you want to visit The Wave, you will need to get a day-use permit. The BLM limits access to the North Coyote Buttes Wilderness to just twenty permits per day—ten in advance through an on-line lottery and ten by walk-in lottery at 9:00 am the day before one's intended hike, held at the visitor center in Kanab.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Salar de Uyuni

During the rainy season, Salar de Uyuni
becomes the world's largest mirror.

Salar de Uyuni is the world's largest salt flat at 10,600 square kilometers—about 100 times larger than the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah. It is located in the Andes in southwest Bolivia at an elevation of 3,656 meters, making it the highest salt flats in the world. The salt flat was formed as a result of transformations between several prehistoric lakes. It is covered by a few meters of salt crust, which is extraordinarily flat. The crust serves as a source of salt and covers a pool of brine, which is exceptionally rich in lithium, of which it contains 50-70% of the world's reserves. 
Salar de Uyuni traditional salt harvest: salt is
scraped into small mounds to evaporate the water
for easier transportation.
   The salt flat is the remains of an ancient lake from about 40,000 years ago. Because it is surrounded by mountains, there is no drainage outlet and the salt collects on the lake bed as the water evaporates. The salt is scraped away from the surface by locals and piled up into mounds. This helps the water evaporate more quickly so the salt can be transported away. Salar de Uyuni contains about 10 billion tons of salt, and each year 25,000 tons are harvested by a cooperative of miners that share in the profits.
   The large area, clear skies and the exceptional flatness of the surface make Salar de Uyuni an ideal place to use to calibrate satellite altimeters. It is the major transportation route across the Bolivian Altiplano and is a major breeding ground for several species of pink flamingos. Salar de Uyuni is a climate transition zone, for towering clouds that form in the eastern part of the salt flat during the summer cannot penetrate beyond its drier western edges, near the Chilean border and the Atacama Desert.
   During the rainy season the water creates the world's largest mirror which must be seen to be believed. You can see the sky and clouds under your feet and feel like you're walking on them. Even though it is quite remote, many photographers and tourists take amazing photos at Salar de Uyuni.
   There is currently a political battle going on over the lithium resource that Salar de Uyuni hold. The Bolivian government is not willing to simply export the raw materials needed for the ubiquitous lithium-ion batteries used for electric vehicles, iPhones and other consumer electronics—they want to manufacture locally as well as protect the salt flats from damage. Bolivia is aiming to become the Saudi Arabia of lithium production and they are being courted by conglomerates such as Mitsubishi and Sumitomo who believe that the next wave of automobile batteries must come from Salar de Uyuni. Meanwhile, due to political uncertainty and poor relations with the Bolivian government, the U.S. is sitting on the sidelines.

Monday, April 1, 2013

The Passenger Pigeon

Martha, the last passenger pigeon before her death
in 1914 at the Cincinnati Zoo.

How the most abundant bird in North America went extinct is a story of mass slaughter on a scale even greater than that of the bison. It has been nearly a century since we lost the passenger pigeon, and it remains an example of nature's abundance and humanity's ability to exhaust it.
   Early Europeans in North America often commented on the vast numbers of blue and orange, long-tailed, graceful and fast pigeons in the country. One of the first Virginia settlers wrote "There are wild pigeons in winter beyond number or imagination, myself have seen three or four hours together flocks in the air, so thick that they shadowed the sky from us."
   As late as 1854, a New York resident wrote that "There would be days and days when the air was alive with them, hardly a break occurring in the flocks for half a day at a time. Flocks stretched as far as a person could see, one tier above another." Other reports describe flocks a mile wide flying overhead for four or five hours at a time during their migration to their breeding areas. The flocks were packed so thickly that 30 or 40 birds could be brought down with one shot and many were killed simply by hitting them with sticks as they flew over hilltops.
   Passenger pigeons bred in large colonies, with up to 100 nests in a single tree. Branches broke and whole trees collapsed by the sheer weight of roosting birds. Nesting colonies could cover many hundred of square kilometers of forest. Nests were made of small twigs loosely packed. Usually, one egg was laid and tended to by both parents up until about two weeks after it hatched. Then the chick would be abandoned, still unable to fly. The whole flock would leave, and the chicks would drop to the ground. After a few days, the chicks would begin to fly and take care of themselves.
   The best guess to the peak number of passenger pigeons in North America is about 5 billion individuals, or about the same amount as the total number of birds found today in the U.S. One reason the passenger pigeon existed in such large numbers was the lack of natural predators apart from eagles and hawks. They were, however, surprisingly vulnerable to humans. Their habit of nesting in vast colonies and migrating in huge flocks made them very easy to attack. The birds fed mainly on acorns, chestnuts and beech nuts in the woodlands of North America, so as these forests were steadily harvested, the passenger pigeon was left with shrinking habitat and food supplies. The Indians captured the pigeons in large nets and by the 1630s the settlers of New England were doing the same. The young squabs were considered a great delicacy and they were hunted for their feathers as well.

   For the first 200 years after the Europeans arrived, the number of pigeons did not decline much, but after 1830 the practice of using live pigeons for trap shooting began. One resident in Dubuque, Iowa, netted as many as 1,500 birds in one morning and sold them alive for ten cents each for trapshooting. The crippled birds were killed and sold by the barrel, which went for a dollar on the market in Chicago. About 250,000 a year were being killed this way by the 1870s.

   The population had been reduced by the 1850s but was still several billion strong. The real onslaught began with the onset of large-scale commercial hunting carried out by well-organized trappers and shippers in order to supply cities on the east coast with a cheap source of meat. It began once railways linked the Great Lakes area with New York in the early 1850s. With the coming of the telegraph, the locations of flocks could be determined, and the birds were relentlessly hunted. By 1855 300,000 pigeons a year were being sent to New York alone. The worst of the mass slaughter took place during the 1860s and 1870s. The scale of the operation was incredible, yet perfectly legal and very profitable. In 1869, Van Buren County, Michigan, sent 7,500,000 birds to the east. But by 1880, numbers had been severely reduced, and a total of "only" 500,000 birds were shipped east from Michigan.
   The last nesting birds were reported in the Great Lakes region in the 1890s and by 1900, they were all gone. Some remained in captivity, but it was just a matter of time. The last passenger pigeon, named Martha, died at the Cincinnati Zoo on September 1, 1914. Who could have dreamed that in such short order a species that was once the most numerous bird on Earth would be gone forever? John James Audubon wrote this about the passenger pigeon: "When an individual is seen gliding through the woods and close to the observer, it passes like a thought, and on trying to see it again, the eye searches in vain; the bird is gone." How many more species will some day only exist as stuffed specimens in museums?