Tag Archives: island

The last mammoths lived on a remote island in the Arctic

The last woolly mammoths lived on Wrangel Island in the Arctic Ocean, a new study reports.

Exhibit at the Royal BC Museum in Victoria (Canada).

An international team of researchers with members from the Universities of Helsinki, the University of Tübingen, and the Russian Academy of Sciences reports that the wooly mammoths likely went extinct due to a combination of habitat isolation and extreme weather events — as well as the spread of ancient humans.

Within a very short timeframe some 4,000 years old, the last population of these animals — which lived on Wrangel Island — went extinct, they add.

Last of the mammoths

“It’s easy to imagine that the population, perhaps already weakened by genetic deterioration and drinking water quality issues could have succumbed after something like an extreme weather event,” says professor Hervé Bocherens from the Senckenberg Center for Human Evolution and Palaeoenvironment at the University of Tübingen, a co-author of the study.

Mammoths enjoyed great success during the last ice age, from around 100,000 to 15,000 years ago. The species ranged from Spain to Alaska and fared quite comfortably during that time. Around 15,000 years ago, however, temperatures started picking up, and the mammoths’ natural range started to shrink. The Wrangel Island population, the team notes, was cut off by rising sea levels from their mainland counterparts and would live in isolation for the next 7,000 years.

The team examined carbon, nitrogen, sulfur, and strontium isotopes from a large set of mammoth bones and teeth dug up from Northern Siberia, Alaska, the Yukon, and Wrangel Island. These specimens ranged in age from 40,000 to 4,000 years ago. The researchers aimed to document possible changes in the mammoths’ diets over this time (which would be ‘recorded’ in their bones as different isotope ratios) as proxies for the environmental disturbances the species was exposed to.

The results showed that the carbon and nitrogen isotope ratios in the collagen of Wrangel Island mammoths did not shift as the climate warmed up some 10,000 years ago. The values remained unchanged until the mammoths disappeared, seemingly from the midst of stable, favorable living conditions.

Such results show a stark contrast with those obtained from wooly mammoth bones in the Ukrainian-Russian plains, who died out 15,000 years ago. It’s also different from the mammoths of St. Paul Island in Alaska, who disappeared 5,600 years ago. In both cases, the last representatives of these populations (that we’ve found) show markedly-different isotope compositions, suggesting changes in their environment shortly before they became locally extinct.

Earlier research had shown that mammoths on Wrangel Island suffered certain mutations that affected their fat metabolism. In the present study, the team reports finding a different ratio of carbon isotopes in their bones compared to Siberian mammoths, likely due to a difference in the fat and carbohydrates in the diets of the two groups.

The bones of Wrangel Island mammoths also showed higher levels of sulfur and strontium, likely due to increased weathering of bedrock in the area close to the mammoths’ extinction. These elements likely found their way into rivers and streams, affecting the quality of the animals’ drinking water.

All in all, the mammoths of the island disappeared suddenly, but perhaps, not dramatically. The team says short-term events like extreme weather is what likely did them in in the end. A simple icing event can cover the ground in a thick enough layer of ice to prevent the animals from finding food — which is enough to cause a dramatic drop in numbers. Another possible reason is the spread of humans in the area, with the earliest evidence of their presence on the island preceding the last mammoth fossils by just a few hundred years. The chance of finding evidence that humans hunted Wrangel Island mammoths is very small, the team explains, yet a human contribution to the extinction cannot be ruled out.

The study shows just how fragile a small population of large mammals is to environmental shifts and human activity. The team says their findings can help preserve species by aiming conservation efforts at the populations that are not isolated from one another.

The paper “Thriving or surviving? The isotopic record of the Wrangel Island woolly mammoth population” has been published in the journal Quaternary Science Reviews.

More green spaces can help some cities keep cool

Researchers looking into how to help keep our cities cool say that more green spaces can help, although not everywhere.

Image credits Khusen Rustamov.

The urban heat island effect is a phenomenon through which the temperature in a city is noticeably higher than in the surrounding rural area. Which is, obviously, very irritating.

In a bid to find out how to control the effect, an international team of researchers looked at the role of precipitation and population size have on city temperatures compared with the surrounding countryside. All in all, they report that more green spaces can help bring city temperatures down, but not everywhere.

Plant some plants

“We already know that plants create a more pleasant environment in a city, but we wanted to quantify how many green spaces are actually needed to produce a significant cooling effect,” says Gabriele Manoli, former postdoc with the Chair of Hydrology and Water Resources Management at ETH Zurich and lead author of the study.

When urban heat island effects compound with the sort of heatwaves that hit most of Europe this summer, it can pose a very real and deadly threat to the elderly, sick, and other vulnerable groups.

The team looked at urban heat islands across the globe and at the different heat-reduction strategies they employ. The effectiveness of these strategies depends heavily on regional climate, they explain.

Manoli and his team — with members from ETH Zurich, Princeton University and Duke University — studied data from around 30,000 cities worldwide and their surrounding environments. The factors they analyzed include average summer temperatures, population size, and average annual rainfall.

The larger the city, the more dramatic its urban heat island, the authors explain — but also more rainfall in the region. As a rule of thumb, more rain means more plant growth, meaning that areas surrounding large cities are much cooler than them. This effect is the strongest when annual rainfall averages around 1500 millimeters (as in Tokyo), but does not increase further with more rain.

Cities in very dry regions (like Phoenix, Arizona) can, through carefully-targeted planting efforts, bring their average temperatures below that of the surrounding countryside. Those surrounded by tropical forests on the other hand (such as Singapore) would need far more green spaces to reduce temperatures — but the authors warn that this would also increase humidity.

Therefore, cities located in tropical zones should look to other cooling methods, such as increased wind circulation, more use of shade, and new heat-dispersing materials.

One of the main takeaways from the study, Manoli explains, is a preliminary classification of cities to help guide planners on possible approaches to mitigate the urban heat island effect.

“There is no single solution,” Manoli says. “It all depends on the surrounding environment and regional climate characteristics.”

“Even so, searching for solutions to reduce temperatures in specific cities will require additional analysis and in-depth understanding of the microclimate. Such information, however, is based on data and models available to city planners and decision-makers only in a handful of cities, such as Zurich, Singapore or London.”

The team is now working to determine which types of plant are most useful for reducing the heat island effect.

The paper “Magnitude of urban heat islands largely explained by climate and population” has been published in the journal Nature.

Kea parrot.

Human-driven extinction cost New Zealand 50 million years’ worth of bird evolution

The arrival of humans definitely wasn’t the most fortunate thing to ever happen to New Zealand.

Kea parrot.

Kea parrot, an endangered species that’s native to New Zealand.
Image via Pixabay.

New research shows that half of the island’s bird species have gone extinct since humans arrived. The team estimates it would take approximately 50 million years to recover the same number of bird species.

Gone with the dodo

“The conservation decisions we make today will have repercussions for millions of years to come,” says Luis Valente of Museum für Naturkunde in Berlin and the paper’s lead author.

“Some people believe that if you leave nature alone it will quickly recuperate, but the reality is that, at least in New Zealand, nature would need several million years to recover from human actions — and perhaps will never really recover.”

While the number of lost or threatened bird species often has been quantified, the team explains, the broad-scale evolutionary consequences of human impact on island biodiversity rarely have been measured.

Valente says that the biodiversity levels observed today are the result of millions of years of evolutionary time, and that extinctions caused by humans erase this history. So, for their new study, the team developed a new method to estimate how long it would take for a particular closed ecosystem (i.e. island) to regain the species it lost to human activity.

New Zealand happened to be an ideal case to apply and demonstrate this new method, spawning the present study.

“The anthropogenic wave of extinction in New Zealand is very well documented, due to decades of paleontological and archaeological research,” Valente says.

“Also, previous studies have produced dozens of DNA sequences for extinct New Zealand birds, which were essential to build datasets needed to apply our method.”

The team used computer models to simulate a range of human-induced extinction scenarios and see how the ecosystem fared following these.  All in all, they report that it would take approximately 50 million years to recover the number of species lost since humans first arrived in New Zealand.

If all species currently under threat are allowed to go extinct, they add, it would require about 10 million years of evolutionary time to return to the numbers of species today. However, not all is lost.

“The conservation initiatives currently being undertaken in New Zealand are highly innovative and appear to be efficient and may yet prevent millions of years of evolution from further being lost,” Valente says.

In the future, the team plans to estimate evolutionary return times for several other islands worldwide and see if any risk losing more evolutionary time. They also want to find out which anthropogenic factors play the most significant role in determining those losses.

The paper “Deep Macroevolutionary Impact of Humans on New Zealand’s Unique Avifauna” has been published in the journal Current Biology.

Four years ago this island didn’t exist. Now it’s full of vegetation and “mystery mud”

In 2015, a new island formed due to an eruption of an underwater volcano. Now, one NASA scientist has visited it.

The three-year-old volcanic island (center) as seen from the SEA drone. The island remains officially unnamed, but it is generally referred to as Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai. Credit: Sea Education Association / SEA Semester / NASA.

“There’s no map of the new land,” said Dan Slayback of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

Nestled between two other volcanic islands, the newly formed landmass was mostly known from satellite. Even so, it taught geologists quite a bit about how islands can form — but there’s only so much you can learn from satellite. Right off the bat, it was clear that the island was full of surprises.

First off, it wasn’t the flat landscape the team was expecting.

“Immediately I kind of noticed it wasn’t quite as flat as it seems from satellite,” Slayback comments. “It’s pretty flat, but there’s still some gradients and the gravels have formed some cool patterns from the wave action.”

The surprises just kept on coming. The team came across something no one was expecting: mud. How this mud came to be on a volcanic island is anyone’s guess at this point.

“there’s clay washing out of the cone. In the satellite images, you see this light-colored material. It’s mud, this light-colored clay mud. It’s very sticky. So even though we’d seen it we didn’t really know what it was, and I’m still a little baffled of where it’s coming from. Because it’s not ash.”

Vegetation taking root on the flat isthmus of Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai. The volcanic cone is in the background. Credit: Dan Slayback / NASA.

As they were walking across the island, they also noticed the vegetation, as well as the fauna. The first animal they saw was a barn owl — which, while unexpected, isn’t all that surprising, as barn owls are found all over the world. How the owl got there, however, remains a mystery.

They also came across hundreds of nesting sooty terns that had taken shelter in the deep gullies etched into the cliffs surrounding the crater lake.

Slayback also took samples of rocks — like any respectable Earth scientist would. He harvested several small samples (with Tongan permission) for mineral analysis back at Goddard’s Non Destructive Evaluation Lab.

But perhaps even more importantly, he took exact measurements of the island’s position and elevation.

“The point is to try to take the satellite imagery and tie it to a known reference point, particularly the vertical elevation. The software that generates Digital Elevation Models (a 3D map) from stereo imagery is using a geoid model, and it’s not great in remote places like this. So if you were standing there with your GPS and you’re looking at the ocean at sea level and it’s telling you you’re at four meters elevation, you’re like, But I’m not! I’m at sea level,” he said. So he wanted to find a reasonable adjustment to the geoid model for local mean sea level.

The cliffs of the crater lake are etched with erosion gullies, which are getting bigger. Image credits: Dan Slayback / NASA.

So he used two GPS systems: one which was fixed, as a reference, and one which was mobile. With this, he was able to take 150 measurements, obtaining a precision of under 10 centimeters.

He found that the island is quickly eroding, making for an excellent time-lapse geological study.

“It really surprised me how valuable it was to be there in person for some of this. It just really makes it obvious to you what is going on with the landscape,” Dan said. One feature that was eye-opening in person was the deep erosional gullies that run down the side of the volcanic cone. “The island is eroding by rainfall much more quickly than I’d imagined. We were focused on the erosion on the south coast where the waves are crashing down, which is going on. It’s just that the whole island is going down, too. It’s another aspect that’s made very clear when you’re standing in front of these huge erosion gullies. Okay, this wasn’t here three years ago, and now it’s two meters deep.”

The data is currently being processed and analyzed, and Slayback hopes to return next year to find out even more answers about the island.

Chaotic cities are cooler than orderly ones, researchers report

A new paper reports that street and building layout plays a major role in a city’s urban heat island effect, which makes them hotter than their surroundings.


Cities with an orderly pattern have a much greater urban heat island effect than those with a more disorderly pattern.
Image credits Pellenq et al., 2018, Physical Rev. Letters.

If you’re an American living in a big city, you’re probably used to all the streets and buildings being laid out in an orderly grid. If you happen to be European, not so much — our cities still sport the chaotic, sprawling road networks set down ages ago. While it can make navigation a pain, the latter can also help keep cities cool, according to new research led by MIT and National Center for Scientific Research senior research scientist Roland Pellenq.

The findings suggest that cities laid out in precise grids, like New York or Chicago, experience a far greater buildup of heat relative to their surroundings than those arranged more chaotically, like London or Boston.

The Hot Grid

The heat island effect is a product of the fact that building materials, like concrete, absorb heat during the day and radiate it out at night. Natural areas also trap some heat, but it’s a tiny amount compared to cities — mostly because plants use up incoming sunlight during photosynthesis. Heat island effects can make cities over 5° Celsius (10° Fahrenheit) warmer than surroundings, in areas that get a lot of sunlight. It can cause health issues for city dwellers and causes energy use to spike during hot weather. So, a better understanding of the effect can improve quality of life for residents and presents (several) economic advantages to boot.

To explore the heat island effect, the team adapted mathematical models that were developed to analyze the atomic structures in materials, developing a new and straightforward method to study the relationship between a city’s design and its heat-island effect. Such systems describe how individual atoms in a material are influenced by other atoms, and the team reduced the simulation to much simpler, statistical descriptions of how far away buildings are from each other. Then, they applied them to patterns of buildings in 47 cities, from the U.S. and also from other countries.

Each city was thus ascribed a ‘local order parameter,’ ranging between 0 (total disorder) and 1 (perfectly ordered structure, which is generally a description of how orderly atoms in a material are — typically, this parameter is obtained by bombarding a sample with neutrons. For this paper, however, Pellenq and his team used Google maps to pinpoint the location of each building. The cities included in the paper varied from 0.5 to 0.9 on their local order parameter.

Temperature data was recorded for each city by two stations — one within the city proper, and another outside but still close — which were used to determine the heat island effect in each case.

The team reports that the heat island effect seems to result from the interactions between buildings that radiate and re-radiate heat. This heat can be trapped by other buildings that face them directly, the team reports, meaning the city has a very hard time cooling off. They estimated that in the state of Florida alone, urban heat island effects lead to some $400 million in excess costs for air conditioning per year.

So, understanding how it works and planning around the effect might have significant benefits, especially for countries such as China that are rapidly building new cities, or areas of rapid urban expansion. In hot locations, cities could be designed to minimize the extra heating, while colder places might benefit from amplifying the effect.

“This gives a strategy for urban planners,” says Pellenq.

“If you’re planning a new section of Phoenix, you don’t want to build on a grid, since it’s already a very hot place. But somewhere in Canada, a mayor may say no, we’ll choose to use the grid, to keep the city warmer.”

Other important findings of the study are that research on construction materials can offer a way forward in regards to heat management and heat interactions between buildings.

The paper “Role of city texture in urban heat islands at nighttime” has been published in the journal Physical Review Letters.

Credit: British Antarctic Survey.

What Greenland’s landscape looks like without any ice

The most detailed map of Greenland’s topography was released this week by a team of British and American researchers. An accompanying video simulates what the massive island would look like if it were free of ice. Speaking of which, the new findings suggest that Greenland’s ice sheet has the potential to contribute more to global sea level rise than believed.

Credit: British Antarctic Survey.

Credit: British Antarctic Survey.

Greenland’s ice sheet is immense. Covering more than 660,000 square miles, thicker than a mile, and measuring a volume of 684,000 cubic miles, it would drown anything lower than 25 feet (~7.5 meters) above sea level were it to melt.

The new map carted by researchers at the British Antarctic Survey (BAS), the University of Bristol, and the University of California at Irvine (UCI), now offers a glimpse of what the island’s topography looks like under that huge blanket of ice.

We can see streams on top of valleys carved by water that used to flow well before the ice sheet even existed. The valley system creates perfect lubricating conditions for meltwater to run off and discharge into the ocean. What’s more, Greenland’s topography could foster the creation of more channels in the future, further speeding up the run-off.

Already, Greenland lost 269 billion tons of ice each year since 2002. According to an earlier study, meltwater sourced from Greenland’s ice sheet accounted for 25 percent of the global sea level rise in 2014.

This refined view also shows that Greenland’s ice sheet is thicker than previously thought, in some places by up to 100 meters.

“This new compilation of the 3-D landscape beneath the Greenland Ice Sheet provides the first seamless transition between the landmass and its adjoining seabed, and this gives scientists a bird’s eye view of the fringes of Greenland which are experiencing the most changes,” said BAS cartographer Peter Fretwell, who was involved in producing the printed map.

“What’s also surprising is that there is more ice and the bed is deeper in some places than previous maps suggest, so this means the total contribution from the ice sheet to global sea level rise would be 7.42 meters if it were to melt completely, slightly higher than previously calculated,” he added.

To make this detailed map, scientists employed data collected by different instruments operated by over 30 institutions worldwide. This includes data collected by satellites, airborne and ground-based radar, as well as seabed mapping from ships. A printed 1:3,500,000 scale version was presented this week at the American Geophysical Union meeting in New Orleans. A summy of the paper has been published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.

“This map will improve our understanding of the ice-ocean interactions and how the ice sheet will evolve in a changing climate,” said glaciologist professor Jonathan Bamber at the University of Bristol who had a NERC-funded project to develop the printed map and data set.

Another study published on Wednesday in Science Advances found that in 2003, the ice sheet over Greenland suddenly began melting at a much faster rate. For instance, ice sheet run-off into the Tasersiaq catchment, which spans more than 2,500 square miles, increased by 80 percent compared to the average runoff rate in the decades prior. This suggests that global warming, though increasing gradually, can set off sharp, massive shifts in ice melt.

The crater lake from the summit rim at the center of Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai. Credit: NASA.

A newly formed island in the Pacific might resemble Martian volcanoes

The crater lake from the summit rim at the center of Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai. Credit: NASA.

The crater lake from the summit rim at the center of Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai. Credit: NASA.

In the last days of 2014, something incredible happened — a whole new island was born, right before our eyes. For weeks, an underwater volcano that had been spewing ash and lava into the Pacific settled into a brand new island, rising 120 meters (400 feet) above the ocean’s surface. Geologists reckoned it wouldn’t be more than a couple of months before the island would succumb to erosion. Today, three years later, it’s still there. Scientists now estimate a far longer lifespan for the island of Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai, as it was unofficially christened, which could live on for six to 30 years. What’s more, its formation could lend valuable clues as to how similar underwater volcanoes erupted on Mars during its wet past, billions of years ago.

Baby islands and ancient alien volcanoes

Most islands on Earth were formed by underwater volcano eruptions. The story of a volcanic island starts inside the planet. Earth has an inner core made of solid metal. It is thought to be as hot as the surface of the sun! A liquid outer core, also made of metals, surrounds the inner core. It is liquid because it is under less pressure than the inner core. Around the outer core is the Earth’s mantle. It’s made of hot rock called magma which is mostly solid,  but can flow like hot plastic. The last layer of the Earth, the crust, is where we live. It is the thin, outside layer of the Earth. The crust is made of pieces that fit together, like a jigsaw puzzle, called tectonic plates. Forces caused by Earth’s heat sometimes push them tighter against each other. Sometimes forces pull them apart. And sometimes there are weak spots in the crust. When plates pull apart or there is a weak spot, the mantle’s hot, flowing magma oozes out.

That’s how you get a volcano and these can be found all over Earth. Many of them are on land, but most volcanoes are actually found under the surface of the oceans. If an underwater volcano keeps erupting, it can rise above the ocean’s surface. An island is formed. Iceland formed millions of years ago from underwater volcanic eruptions, for instance.

Satellite-derived elevations of the island in April 2015 (left) and September 2017 (right). Credit: NASA.

Satellite-derived elevations of the island in April 2015 (left) and September 2017 (right). Credit: NASA.

A map showing a large scale view of the South Pacific with the Kingdom of Tonga highlighted in purple. (Main map) Hunga Tonga and Hunga Ha’apai lie on the rim of a submarine caldera located 65 km N of a wharf in the harbor at Nuku’alofa, Tongatapu island (the main island of the archipelago). Credit: USGS.

A map showing a large scale view of the South Pacific with the Kingdom of Tonga highlighted in purple. (Main map) Hunga Tonga and Hunga Ha’apai lie on the rim of a submarine caldera located 65 km N of a wharf in the harbor at Nuku’alofa, Tongatapu island (the main island of the archipelago). Credit: USGS.

Hunga Tonga Hunga Ha’apai rises about a mile above the deep ocean floor, making the water around the island shallow. At the recent American Geophysical Union, scientists at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center said that perhaps similar features existed around the Martian volcanoes. As such, Hunga Tonga Hunga Ha’apai might prove to be a perfect geological test tube that could help us understand better the water environment on early Mars.

“We see things that remind us of this kind of volcano at similar scales on Mars,” said Dr. Garvin, the chief scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. “And literally, there are thousands of them, in multiple regions.”

Since the new Tongan island formed, researchers have been closely studying satellite imagery, allowing them to generate detailed maps of the shifting topography. Such islands are usually short-lived, quickly succumbing to eroding waves. Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai was initially oval but then its southern shore eroded rapidly, creating a direct corridor for the Pacific Ocean to break into the lake at the center of the tiny island. It looked like the island was about to vanish. But then a sandbar formed which yet again sealed the lake, stabilizing the landscape.

Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai got lucky. When conditions are just right, warm water can cement volcanic ash into rock, and this may be what happened on the island. It’s only the third island in the last 150 years that has survived for more than a few months. According to their most recent study, Garvin and colleagues estimate the island could last for decades.

What the researchers plan on doing next is to connect time-lapse photography of the island with the erosional cycle at different depths. This way, they’ll have a sequence to look for on Mars. If the next rover catches a glimpse of some of these features on Mars, scientists could then infer how deep the water was there and for how long to do the same erosional work.




Surtsey Island.

Researchers will drill into one of Earth’s youngest islands to understand how land forms

 One of the world’s youngest islands will be drilled in an effort to understand how land forms on Earth.

Surtsey Island.

Surtsey island, as seen in 2001.
Image credits ICDP.

The tiny island of Surtsey wasn’t even there 50 years ago. This 1.3 square kilometer island was formed off Iceland’s southwestern coast somewhere between 1963 and 1967 by a series of volcanic eruptions. And next month, a team of scientists will drill two holes into the depths of this young land. Supported in part by the International Continental Scientific Drilling Program, this will be the most detailed look at newly-formed land, which researchers hope will help them understand how molten rock, cold seawater, and the underground biosphere interact.

Why here

Being so new, Surtsey could probably boast some of the wildest, most untouched environments currently on the planet. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage site, earmarked for scientific observation — mainly regarding the biogeographic evolution of new land as it’s being colonized by plants and wildlife.

One particular point of interest is to see how hydrothermal minerals fit into the island’s rocks. These are believed to be at the root of Surtsey’s resilience against the North Atlantic Ocean’s waves and could help engineers design stronger blends of concrete. Another is to see how underground flora feeds on the minerals contained in rocks and hot fluids — helping us understand the role of the deep crustal biosphere in the environments we see topside.

The first of the drill holes will run parallel to an 181-meter deep hole drilled in 1979, which the scientists will use to see how microbes on the island evolved over time. This has been monitored since it was first drilled and is now likely teeming with micro-organisms indigenous to Surtsey. The team plans to place five incubation chambers in the new hole, at different depths, let them stay for a year, then checking them for microbes that have moved in.

The landscape on Surtsey (Wikipedia).

A second drill will be set at an angle and will investigate the hot fluids percolating (flowing) through the volcanic cracks and craters that formed Surtsey. Information gleaned here will help geologists reconstruct the sub surface volcano system that built Surtsey. In the initial contact between seawater and hot magma, hydrothermal vents formed in the rock. It made them less porous and helped reinforce Surtsey’s shores against erosion. This places it in stark contrast to other volcanic islands, which get ground down by the waves pretty rapidly after formation. Getting a better idea of how these minerals evolved over time could help engineers create better, more resilient types of concrete.

If all goes according to plan, both holes will pass through the original 1960s ocean floor, at about 190m below sea level.

Iceland’s Coast Guard will start shuttling in the required 60 tonnes of equipment and supplies drillers will need on Surtsey, which they estimate will take around 100 helicopter flights. In accordance with UNESCO regulations, all waste will be removed from the island, including the sterilized seawater to be used as drilling fluid. Drilling will be performed 24 hours a day to keep the operation as short as possible, and only 12 people will be allowed on the island at a time. The rest of the team will stay on the neighboring island of Heimæy.

The blunt-toothed giant hutia (amblyrhiza inundata). Credit: Dan Bruce

Islands shrink large animals and make smaller animals bigger

The blunt-toothed giant hutia (amblyrhiza inundata). Credit: Dan Bruce

The blunt-toothed giant hutia (amblyrhiza inundata). Credit: Dan Bruce

In 1964 a young biologist named J. Bristol Foster published a paper in which he suggested  that large mammals tended to evolve to smaller sizes after colonizing islands, and smaller mammals tended to grow larger. This generalization became known as the “island rule,” or “Foster’s rule”, but in the intervening 50 years this matter has remained a subject of debate.

Now, a group from Aarhus University, Denmark, says they’ve put the subject at rest. The researchers analyzed the size of living and extinct mammals from the last 130,000 years, or around the time humans began expanding and colonizing islands. They found the island rule is not a myth, but an evolutionary reality.

Whether big or small, both tactics come with innate advantages and disadvantages. Big creatures have a wider food choice and tend to dominate other species. You won’t ever see a mouse at the top of the food chain. Smaller creatures, on the other hand, require fewer resources, have generally shorter breeding cycles, and can adapt far quicker — all considerations very important in an island setting where ecosystems are limited.

The Key deer in the Florida Keys looks like a normal white-tailed deer, just a whole lot tinier. It often cited as an example for Foster's rule. Credit: Pinterest

The Key deer in the Florida Keys looks like a normal white-tailed deer, just a whole lot tinier. It often cited as an example for Foster’s rule. Credit: Pinterest

Some of the most famous examples cited for Foster’s rule  include the giant tortoises of the Seychelles islands, Indonesia’s Komodo dragons, and the boas of the Belizean Snake Cayes. As far as extinct species go, a prime example includes the blunt-toothed Giant Hutia, a type of guinea pig that was the size of a black bear and lived on the Caribbean islands of Anguilla and Saint Martin.

Critics of Foster’s rule, however, challenged the theory suggesting that a couple of examples don’t really make a pattern. Many used bats as a counter example, which have the same size for hundreds of thousands of years.

Søren Faurby, a post doc from the Institute of Bioscience at Aarhus University, Denmark, and one of the lead authors of the new paper, says including bats in this sort of discussion is foolish. Being flying animals, bats and other species like it, aren’t subjected to the same limitations of an island ecosystem as terrestrial creatures.

Faurby also argues that past papers refuting Foster’s rule fail to take into account extinct species or the influence of man — namely, man-made extinctions.

“The study shows that it can be difficult to understand the world if we don’t account for man-made extinctions. The island rule illustrates this–that our own influence on the environment affects our ability to understand evolutionary patterns,” says Faurby.

“Islands have suffered massive human-driven losses of species, and we found that the support for the island rule was substantially stronger when the many late Quaternary extinct species were also considered (particularly the tendency for dwarfing in large taxa). The decisive support for the island rule in this study confirms that evolution plays out in a markedly different way on islands and that human impact may obscure even fundamental evolutionary patterns,” the researchers wrote in the paper published in the journal The American Naturalist.

Skeleton and model of the Dodo, which was driven extinct by humans but is also a prime example of insular gigantism. Credit: Wikipedia

Skeleton and model of the Dodo, which was driven extinct by humans but is also a prime example of insular gigantism. Credit: Wikipedia

It’s important to note that while island ecosystems can cause certain species to shrink or become bigger, the most important contribution this sort of environment has is it fosters the evolution of unique species. This also means island species are among the most vulnerable to human activities and extinction.  It’s up to you and me to help protect all of the amazing kinds of life we have on Planet Earth. We need to make sure things like the extinction of the Dodo — another example of insular gigantism — never happen again.


A new island was just made in the Pacific Ocean by an underwater volcano

An underwater volcano that’s been spewing ash and lava for the past month just created a new island off the Tonga archipelago. The volcano, called Hunga Tonga, has since stopped erupting and the island might not be long lived. Mostly made of ash and formed around the crater of the volcano, the half-mile long island is expected to erode away in just a couple of months. What makes this remarkable news, however, is that we don’t get the chance to see this kind of wild geology in action on a day to day basis.


Image: Pleiades © CNES 2015

In fact, most islands today are made from underwater volcano eruptions. The story of a volcanic island starts inside the Earth. Earth has a solid inner core. It’s made of solid metal. It is thought to be as hot as the surface of the sun! A liquid outer core surrounds the inner core. The outer core is made of metals, too. It is liquid because it is under less pressure than the inner core. Around the outer core is the Earth’s mantle. It’s made of hot rock called magma. It’s mostly solid, but it can flow like hot plastic. We live on the crust. It is the thin, outside layer of the Earth. The crust is in pieces like a jigsaw puzzle. They are called tectonic plates. The plates fit together. Forces caused by Earth’s heat sometimes push them tighter against each other. Sometimes forces pull them apart. Sometimes there are weak spots in the crust. When plates pull apart or there is a weak spot, the mantle’s hot, flowing magma oozes out.

The Tonga archipelago before the new island was formed. Pleiades © CNES 2015

Pleiades © CNES 2015

Volcanoes are found all over Earth. Many of them are on land, but a lot more volcanoes are found under Earth’s oceans. If an underwater volcano keeps erupting, it can rise above the ocean’s surface. An island is formed. For instance, the country of Iceland formed millions of years ago from underwater volcanic eruptions. The last permanent island made by an underwater volcano near Japan. The new island is close to Nishinoshima, another uninhabited island in the Ogasawara chain of islands, which is also known as Bonin Islands. The Japan archipelago, which consists of several thousands of islands, is part of a seismically active region in the Pacific Ocean known as “Ring of Fire.”

GeoPicture of the week: a mystery spot [FOUND]

I recently received this picture in an email from one of you guys, and while I think this picture is just mind blowing, I didn’t receive any information about where this is located or how it was formed. If you have any tips you can drop, that would be really great! If not… just enjoy this beauty!

EDIT: Many thanks to Yowan for tipping us on the name and location of this stunning sight. According to Twisted Sifter:

Litla Dimun is a small island between the islands of Suouroy and Stora Dimun in the Faroe Islands. It is the smallest of the main 18 islands, being less than 100 hectares (250 acres) in area, and is the only one uninhabited. The island can be seen from the villages Hvalba and Sandvik.

The southern third of the island is sheer cliff, with the rest rising to the mountain of Slaettirnir, which reaches 414 metres (1,358 ft). The island is only inhabited by feral sheep and seabirds. Getting ashore is difficult and can only be performed in perfect weather. The cliffs can be climbed with the aid of ropes placed by the owners of the sheep

The best single handed invasion attempt ever

Well, it is the best, or the worst attempt ever actually, depends on your point of view. First, a little bit on the background: the attacking force was composed of an unemployed French nuclear physicist, André “mad scientist” Gardes. The defending team was a small island south of Britain named Sark, with a population of about 600 people, no cars and only one police officer. Gardes saw this as a perfect opportunity to get his own island.

The small and peaceful island of Sark


So, armed with a semiautomatic weapon, the nuclear physicist set on his quest to literally conquer his own island; but sadly for him, he mad a few “small” mistakes: first of all, he publicly announced the day he was going to take over the island. Even more, he put up flyers advertising his act.

So on the morning of the invasion day, Day 0, the entire police force from the island gathered to stop the man; the entire police force had just gotten back from his vacation – the single constable found Gardes sitting on a bench and loading his weapon. The constable complimented him on his weapon, then tricked him to show it to him and take out the magazine, then punched him in the face and arrested him.

I have no idea what happened to him next, especially since Sark doesn’t have a jail, and information is extremely scarce on this subject, but this is hands down one of the funniest things I’ve ever read. My hat is off to you mister Gardes, nuclear physics is in good hands.

Edit: I stand corrected, Sark does have a prison ! Thanks to our good readers for taking the time to correct me !

Just in case you didn’t know, there’s a garbage island twice as big as France in the Pacific Ocean

I was surprised to talk to a bunch of people today and find out they didn’t know about this, so I figured this is definitely something worth knowing. Here’s the deal.


There’s a whole lot of garbage floating around; a whole lot ! Some are above the surface, some are below. What happens is they get sucked in by oceanic currents, and tangle up with other garbage (mostly plastic). But you shouldn’t think only about bottles and such; most of the times, the plastic particles are hard to see even from a boat, but that doesn’t make them any less dangerous – on the contrary. It’s been proved that albatross and other sea creatures ingest way more plastic this way. The total amount of ‘plastic soup’ is hard to quantify, varying from twice the size of Texas (or France) to twice the size of the USA. It’s also expanding – fast. Stretching from Hawaii to Japan the biggest such patch is estimated to weigh around 100 million tons, according to American oceanographer Charles Moore, who also explains:

“The original idea that people had was that it was an island of plastic garbage that you could almost walk on. It is not quite like that. It is almost like a plastic soup. It is endless for an area that is maybe twice the size as continental United States.”


There’s also a missconception that it has well defined borders, like an island. There’s just a gradient of particle density, with most particles being as big as 1-3 mm. According to wikipedia, 80% is a result of terrestrial pollution, and the 20% left comes from ships. As you probably guessed, any effort towards cleaning the area is not going to happen any time soon, as it would require massive efforts and collaborations, and an estimated (very rough) cost of 10 billion dollars. No nation has made a step forward in taking responsability, and I can’t see anyone doing this in the near future.

“At this point, cleaning it up isn’t an option. It’s just going to get bigger as our reliance on plastics continues. … The long-term solution is to stop producing as much plastic products at home and change our consumption habits.”, said Chris Parry, public education program manager with the California Coastal Commission in San Francisco.

The effects are hard to estimate, varying from extremely harmful to catastrophic. Without even taking into consideration the long term effects and what will happen when it becomes even bigger (which quite frankly, won’t take that long if things continue to move the way they have), the short and medium term effects are devastating. Marine animals and birds ingest plastic which just doesn’t go away from their stomach. Eventually, it starts filling it up, and if it’s not toxic, and kills them, it fills their stomach and basically causes the animals to starve to death – a quite painful and tragic death. It can be harmful even for humans because we too eat the animals which ingest the plastic.


In case you’re wondering, no, I don’t think there’s anything you can do to help clean the patch up (even if you wanted to). But you can limit it’s ever growing size, as well as the size of land garbage. Just do the basic stuff:

– Limit your use of plastic whenever possible. Take your canvas bags to the supermarket or just don’t take plastic bags whenever possible.

– Throw your garbage where it should belong; don’t leave it on the beach or on the street or whatever.

– Tell other people. Make it spread. Many people don’t care about this at all; but many do, and they just need a small push to act. Be that push !

120 million crabs hit the streets

Image by Lilolebob.

Every year, around this time of year, more than 100 million determined crabs take to the streets in a massive attempt to get to their spawning grounds as soon as possible; as a result, they literally flood the streets in Christmas island, covering the streets and forcing rangers to divert traffic and use some quite creative methods of protecting the crustaceans.

Photo by Ian Usher.

However, despite the absolutely huge number of crabs, there have been no reports of violence, from any one of the islands 1200 inhabitants. “It is difficult to see crabs in the houses,” one local resident told BBC Brasil. However, the efforts local rangers have been sustaining are nothing short of laudable; they constructed plastic bridges and fences to keep them from more populated areas and even help them across difficult areas (I don’t know, but I’m guessing difficult urbanized obstacles).

At 135 square km and located 370 km off of Indonesia, this Australian territory is often called the “Galapagos of the Indian Ocean” for its diversity of both plant and animal life. It’s also home to 14 different species of crabs, including the coconut crab, the largest invertebrate in the world. The efforts I mentioned earlier are even more impressive taking into account the 1.5 million people who come to see the amazing wildlife display each year.


Everything you wanted to know about Easter Island but were too afraid to ask


Easter Island (Rapa Nui in the native Easter Island language) is situated in the southeastern Pacific Ocean – it’s an overseas territory of Chile. It’s the most isolated inhabitated area, and it’s famous for the monumental statues, called moai (pronounced MOE-eye) which have fascinated and baffled people for many, many years; and still, no good explanation stands. As you can see from below, there are three Rano (freshwater crater lakes), at Rano Kau, Rano Raraku and Rano Aroi, but no rivers or streams.


Photo by wikipedia


easter island

Photo by momentito

It’s history is just fascinating! It’s really rich and impressive, but still highly controversial. 1200 years ago a double-hulled canoe filled with seafarers from a distant culture landed upon its shores. During the centuries that followed, a remarkable society developed in isolation on the island, thriving and fluorishing. Here, the theories start to diverge, and no two are alike. What’s known for sure, is that they endured famines, epidemics, civil war, slave raids and colonialism which made their whole society crumble to dust – more than once! Yet, they managed to leave a cultural legacy that surpassed everything you could expect.

Moai (statues) and other carvings

easter island

Photo by glider king

These statues are the most important reason for the island’s fame. Due to the fact that the island was a volcanic one, they had several types of rocks to build from (Basalt, Obsidian, and more important – Tuff from Rano Raraku, which was used for most of the Moai). These impressive monolithic human figures were carved mostly between 1250 and 1500 AD, are some of the most incredible ancient relics ever discovered. The Moai are the ‘living faces’ and lavish representations of ancestors who had been deified. But how were hundreds of these giants that weighed 10-80 tons (one unfinished Moai had the weight of 270 tons) created and more interesting, moved across the island? Also, what would be the point of building them? Nobody has been able to come up with a satisfying answer to these questions.

easter island

Photo by GothPhil

Another mystery concerns the colonization and creation of the culture. Orthodox archaeologists believe that Easter Island was initially settled sometime around 318 AD by a small group of Polynesians lost on the open sea, but other scholars believe it may have once been part of far larger island and that the original discovery and use of the site may be many thousands of years earlier in time.
Another point of interest is represented by Ahu. Ahu are stone platforms on which some of the moai were erected, varying greatly in layout.


Photo by vtveen. Moai on an Aru


easter island

Photo by wikipedia

As if these mysteries weren’t enough, there’s more! Rongorongo is the Easter Island’s script, and it is among few (if not the only one!) that was created out of nothing, without outside influence. Of the hundreds of wooden tablets and staffs reportedly having Rongorongo writing carved on them, only 26 survive, and scientists haven’t been able to decipher it. Also, several wood carvings, including Moko-Miro, a man with a lizard head, Rei Miro, a gorget or breast ornament of crescent shape with a head at one or both tips, and many others fill the island’s puzzle, but still, no “solution” seems in reach.


So, they left behind an amazing culture, and some interesting facts. But what’s by far the most interesting is still a mystery. The people of Easter Island called themselves the Rapa Nui. Where did they come from and why did they disappear? We’ve learned so much about them and yet, every answer brings more questions. Were those people actually able to build and move statues weighing tens of tons? Are we speaking about a very ancient and evolved civilization, something that would resemble Atlantis? Did … aliens have something to do with that? No matter how ludacris it could seem, it could be possible. After all, nobody’s been able to explain it.

easter island

Photo by Guillermo Salinas