Best Earth Images of the Week – July 13, 2012

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Best Earth Images of the Week – July 13, 2012

OurAmazingPlanet Staff – Jul 13, 2012 07:47 PM ET
Encouraging and adorable
Encouraging and adorable
Credit: Panthera/Snow Leopard TrustA picture of hope for the next generation of snow leopards in Mongolia’s South Gobi.
Surprising Sight
Surprising Sight
Credit: National Park ServiceA hidden camera caught a rare picture of a large black bear roaming near the South Rim of the Grand Canyon last month. The picture was recently released by park officials.

It’s highly uncommon to see bears around this area because there are only a few natural water sources and it offers only marginal habitat, said Greg Holm, wildlife program manager at Grand Canyon National Park.

Worldwide Wildfires
Worldwide Wildfires
Credit: NASA image courtesy Jeff Schmaltz, LANCE MODIS Rapid ResponseWildfires aren’t just raging across the U.S. West, they’re also burning, largely uncontrolled, in the boreal forests of Siberia, as shown in this NASA satellite photo.

As of yesterday (July 11), more than 97 square miles (250 square kilometers) of forests were burning, according to the Russian Federal Forestry Agency.

[Full Story: Satellite Photo Shows Siberia Ablaze]

Drawn in
Drawn in
Credit: Photograph courtesy of the DC3 team and NASA Langley Research Center’s James Crawford.NASA scientists on a recent research flight got an eyeful when their plane encountered a massive supercell thunderstorm gobbling up smoke from wildfires ―a phenomenon rarely glimpsed up close, and one that scientists are eager to study.

On June 22, one of the researchers aboard a DC-8 aircraft snapped images of curtains of thick, gray smoke being lofted high into the atmosphere and sucked up through soaring, anvil-shaped clouds that are the signature of large thunderstorms.

[Full Story: Dramatic Photos Show Wildfire Smoke Sucked Up by Storm]

Triple Threat
Triple Threat
Credit: NOAA/NASAThe Pacific Ocean is churning with activity, as can be seen in a new satellite image that shows three storm systems trailing one another across the ocean basin.

Tropical Storm Daniel is moving west toward Hawaii, followed by Hurricane Emilia. Just off the coast of Mexico, another possible tempest, known as System 98E, is brewing. As of this morning (July 11), the U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami gives this system an 80 percent chance of becoming a tropical cyclone (the blanket term for tropical storms and hurricanes) in the next 48 hours.

[Full Story: Satellite Sees 3 Storms Swirling Across Pacific Ocean]

Sprites and elves
Sprites and elves
Credit: NASA Earth ObservatoryNear the edge of space, sprites and elves dance, but there’s nothing mythical about them.

Sprites and elves are reddish, ultrafast bursts of electricity that are born near the edge of space, about 50 miles (80 kilometers) up in the atmosphere. Sprites are jellyfish-shaped, starting as balls of light that stream downward, whereas elves take the shape of ring-like halos.

One sprite was captured with a digital camera by Expedition 31 astronauts aboard the International Space Station as it traveled over Myanmar on April 30.

[Full Story: Astronaut Photo Captures Elusive, Strange Lightning]

Wafting Wildfire Smoke
Wafting Wildfire Smoke
Credit: NASA Earth ObservatoryAn astronaut aboard the International Space Station snapped this photo showing ghostly wildfire smoke wafting in the darkness near the neighboring cities of Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, and El Paso, Texas.

The smoke likely comes from the Whitewater-Baldy fire, the largest in New Mexico’s history, which has chewed through 465 square miles (1,205 square kilometers) of forests near Glenwood, N.M., since it was ignited by lightning on May 16, according to the U.S. Forest Service. The fire is about 225 miles (362 km) to the northeast of El Paso, and is now 87 percent contained.

[Full Story: Astronaut Photo Shows Wildfire Smoke at Night]


Newfound Monkey Flower Reveals Evolution in Action

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Newfound Monkey Flower Reveals Evolution in Action

Douglas Main, OurAmazingPlanet Staff Writer – Jul 16, 2012 10:15 AM ET
The newly evolved monkey flower.
CREDIT: Mario Vallejo-Marin

A new species of monkey flower has been found in Scotland, the product of a tryst between two foreign flowers. But this is no ordinary love child. While almost all such hybrids are sterile — just as mules are sterile hybrids of donkeys and horses — a rare genetic duplication allowed this species to become fertile.

It’s rare to discover a newly evolved species, said researcher Mario Vallejo-Marin, who found the handsome yellow flower while on a walk through southern Scotland with his family last summer.

While many new species of plants are thought to arise this way, it has only been witnessed amongst wild plants a handful of times in history, said Vallejo-Marin, a scientist at the University of Stirling. Hybrid flowers typically have an odd number of chromosomes, or enormous packets of DNA, making them unable to reproduce. But this flower somehow duplicated its entire genome.

Vallejo-Marin said he doesn’t know exactly what “series of unlikely events” led to this new species, but he said he intends to study it in more detail. Insights could help explain how these new hybrids regain fertility, which could also shed light on the evolution of plants such as wheat, tobacco and cotton, which are thought to have evolved this way long ago.

“It provides an opportunity to study speciation as it happens —most species originated thousands of years ago,” and so studying their evolution is harder, Vallejo-Marin told OurAmazingPlanet.

The new species — Mimulus peregrinus, or “the wanderer” — is unique because it has a different-size genome than any other monkey flower and cannot reproduce with any other variety, according to the study describing the find, published in the June edition of the journal PhytoKeys.

The “parents” of the new species were spirited to Scotland from the western United States and South America’s Andes Mountains in the 1800s. The new species arose 140 years ago at the most, but more likely came about in the last few decades, Vallejo-Marin said.

Monkey flowers are named for the shape of their attractive blooms, which with some imagination, resemble the face of an ape. “If you ask me, it doesn’t look like that, but the name stuck,” Vallejo-Marin said.

The ancestors of the new plant were sought after as botanical curiosities in the 1800s and were quickly adopted by Victorian gardeners. Soon after their arrival, they escaped the confines of British gardens and can now be found growing in the wild, along the banks of rivers and streams.

Explained: Why We Wear Pants

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Explained: Why We Wear Pants

By: Life’s Little Mysteries Staff
Date: 16 July 2012 Time: 04:04 PM ET
1860s photo of a Japanese samurai (in pants).
CREDIT: Public domain 

Certain bodily processes take two or three fewer steps to perform in a tunic than in pants. So why all the pants?

According to University of Connecticut evolutionary biologist Peter Turchin, pants owe their several thousand years of worldwide fashionableness to horses — or, more precisely, to the extreme awkwardness of riding a horse in a robe. “Historically there is a very strong correlation between horse-riding and pants,” he wrote in a recent article for the Social Evolution Forum.

Turchin points to examples of this correlation ranging from Japan, where the traditional dress is the kimono but where samurais wore baggy trousers, to North America, where Plains Indians donned kilts until Europeans brought horses to the continent. Roman soldiers mounted steeds (and adopted pants) in the first century A.D. after getting trounced repeatedly by Hannibal and his trouser-clad cavalrymen.

A few centuries earlier in pre-unified China, switching from robes to pants became a matter of state survival in the face of invasion by pants-wearing nomadic horsemen from Central Asia. Soldiers in many of the Chinese states greatly resisted this “barbarian” legwear, and either galloped uncomfortably in robes or left off horses altogether. It cost them everything. “Pants won in China by the process of cultural group selection,” Turchin wrote. “Those states that did not adopt cavalry (and pants), or adopted them too slowly, lost to the states that did so early.” [Top 10 Inventions that Changed the World]

Pants-wearing became an everyday affair in Europe during the eighth century, after the fall of the Roman Empire, “when the continent fell under the rule of warriors who fought from horseback — the knights,” Turchin explained. “So wearing pants became associated with high-status men and gradually spread to other males.”

The connection between pants and horse-riding also explains why women stuck to skirts until recently — except, of course, for the female Amazon warriors. They wore pants.

Does New Tree Ring Study Put the Chill on Global Warming?

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Does New Tree Ring Study Put the Chill on Global Warming?


By: Natalie Wolchover, Life’s Little Mysteries Staff Writer
Date: 16 July 2012 Time: 12:53 PM ET
The density and width of tree rings shows how warm it was during each year’s growing season, and trees thereby serve as a record of long-term climate trends.

A new analysis of 2,000 years of tree ring data has quickly made climate change deniers’ list of greatest hits to the theory of manmade global warming.

The tree rings “prove [the] climate was WARMER in Roman and Medieval times than it is now,” the British newspaper the Daily Mail reported last week, “and [the] world has been cooling for 2,000 years.”

That and other articles suggest the current global warming trend is a mere blip when viewed in the context of natural temperature oscillations etched into tree rings over the past two millennia. The Star-Ledger, a New Jersey newspaper, mused that the findings lock in “one piece of an extremely complex puzzle that has been oversimplified by the Al Gores of the world.”

However, the study actually does none of the above. “Our study doesn’t go against anthropogenic global warming in any way,” said Robert Wilson, a paleoclimatologist at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland and a co-author of the study, which appeared July 8 in the journal Nature Climate Change. The tree rings do help fill in a piece of Earth’s complicated climate puzzle, he said. However, it is climate change skeptics who seem to have misconstrued the bigger picture. [Incompetent People Too Ignorant to Know It]

So, what exactly did the study find? Instead of using the width of trees’ rings as a gauge of annual temperatures, as most past analyses of tree rings have done, Wilson and his fellow researchers tracked the density of northern Scandinavian trees’ rings marking each year back to 138 B.C. They showed that density measurements give a slightly different reading of historic temperature fluctuations than ring width measurements, and according to their way of reckoning, the Roman and medieval warm periods reached higher temperatures than previously estimated.

That’s significant because “if we can improve our estimates for the medieval period, then that will help us understanding the dynamics in this climate system, and help us understand the current warming,” Wilson told Life’s Little Mysteries.

But it’s old news that Northern Europe experienced a natural warm period 2,000 years ago and during the 11th century. Not much is known about the Roman period, but the medieval warm spell primarily resulted from a decrease in volcanic activity and an increase in solar activity, Wilson said. Volcanic ash in the atmosphere tends to block the sun, decreasing Earth’s surface temperature.

The current warming, on the other hand, has nothing to do with volcanoes. “None of this changes the fact that the current warming can’t be modeled based on natural forces alone,” he said. “Anthropogenic [greenhouse gas] emissions are the predominant forces in the late 20th century and early 21st century period.”

That Scandinavia may have been slightly warmer in the 11th century than today also doesn’t change the fact that the world, as a whole, is warmer now. “This data is spatially specific. You would expect to see this trend in northern Scandinavia, but not in the Alps,” Wilson said. “Almost all models show that the current global warming is probably warmer overall than that warming.”

Finally, according to Gavin Schmidt, a NASA climate scientist, the tree rings show what mounds of other data have shown as well: For the past few millennia, Earth’s northern latitudes had been cooling down overall. “Similarly, we expect that over the same period the tropics should have warmed slightly,” Schmidt said in an email. These trends resulted from shifts in the Earth’s orbit on thousand-year-long time-scales.

But Wilson, Schmidt and the vast majority of climate scientists agree: human-caused warming of the entire globe now overwhelms those subtle, regional heat redistributions. World temperatures are now pushing in only one direction: up.