From Enviromental Science

Fossil Fuels Kill

Turns out that fossil fuels are dangerous even when we are not around to burn them:

FOSSIL fuels have a new crime to live down. A frenzy of hydrocarbon burning at the end of the Permian period may have led to the most devastating mass extinction Earth has ever seen, as explosive encounters between magma and coal released more carbon dioxide in the course of a few years than in all of human history.

Around 250 million years ago, the so-called “Great Dying” saw 70 per cent of species wiped out on land and 95 per cent in the oceans. A clue to what may have triggered this disaster lies in solidified magma from this time, which is widespread in an area of Siberia where coal is also abundant.

“You’re basically going to have something like a fire fountain every few kilometres or so over this vast moonscape that’s erupting, with flares going high into the air and columns of smoke and fly ash,” says Sleep. The ground would be “covered with coal tar and coal fragments and pieces of basalt”, he adds.

Dust injected into the stratosphere would cause drastic cooling. That would quickly switch to warming as the dust settled out of the atmosphere, leaving nothing to counteract the greenhouse effect of the increased CO2. The climate might have swung between heating and cooling as new eruptions injected yet more dust into the stratosphere. “The climate is just going to go completely unstable,” says Sleep, who presented the idea last month at a meeting of the Geological Society of America in Portland, Oregon. (New Scientist via Bruce Sterling’s Twitter)

100 Year Old Aftershocks?

Great now we get to be freaked out not only by recent earthquakes, but also by earthquakes from 100s of years ago. Thanks a lot science.

Large earthquakes are often followed by aftershocks, the result of changes in the surrounding crust brought about by the initial shock. Aftershocks are most common immediately after the main quake. As time passes and the fault recovers, they become increasingly rare. This pattern of decay in seismic activity is described by Omori’s Law but Stein and Liu found that the pace of the decay is a matter of location.

At the boundaries between tectonic plates, any changes wreaked by a big quake are completely overwhelmed by the movements of the plates themselves. At around a centimetre per year, they are regular geological Ferraris. They  soon “reload” the fault, dampen the aftershocks, and return the status quo within 10 years. In the middle of continents, faults move at less than a millimetre every year. In this slow lane, things can take a century or more to return to normal after a big quake, and aftershocks stick around for that duration.

Stein and Liu’s study could help scientists to more accurately predict the risk of future earthquakes, especially in unexpected areas. If they’re right, then it would be positively misleading to base such assessments on small quakes that could sometimes be aftershocks of historical events. In the longer term, Stein and Liu predict that such approaches will “overestimate the hazard in some places and lead to surprises elsewhere”. The disastrous earthquake that hit China’s Sichuan province in May 2008 highlights the catastrophic impact that unexpected mid-continent quakes can have. (Not Rocket Science)

The Zombies are Here

Scientific American has a slideshow up of various different viruses, parasites, and fungii that turn poor innocent, and sometimes cute, animals into brainless zombies.

From the article:

Crickets can’t swim, but the harrowing hairworm (Spinochordodes tellinii) doesn’t care about that detail. After growing inside of a cricket’s body and feasting on its insides, the hairworm will inexplicably compel the cricket to throw itself into a body of water, where the ruthless body snatcher can emerge and enter the aquatic phase of its life cycle. “It was amazing to see hundreds of crickets at night totally under the control of the parasite inside and jumping into the water,” says Frederic Thomas