Phytoplankton Blooms

This image, from the NASA SeaWiFS project, shows the striking green colors produced by phytoplankton.

You probably already know that a hurricane has an eye, but did you know that hurricanes might actually display a preference for certain colors? New research from the U.S. Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory in Princeton, New Jersey suggests that hurricanes may be more likely to travel over green areas of the ocean than over more clear, blue areas. The ongoing study is attempting to improve hurricane forecasting models by looking at variables like ocean color which are not usually considered in tracking programs.

The study looked specifically at storms in the northern Pacific Ocean, where the predominant surface water color is green due to blooms of tiny plants called phytoplankton. These plants absorb sunlight, which increases the water temperature in that area. Increased surface temperature means increased “fuel” for hurricanes, which gain strength over warm water and lose strength over cooler water or land.  The researchers used a computer program to model what would happen to hurricane paths if the phytoplankton were reduced in number, thus changing the water color. As the water became clearer, the number of hurricanes traveling over that region of water was reduced by two-thirds.

These results suggest that if phytoplankton populations decrease, fewer hurricanes may travel north to highly populated areas like Japan or the East Coast of the United States. Several studies have suggested that in fact this may already be happening, as global warming has made some areas of the ocean less hospitable to phytoplankton. However, other studies have suggested that global warming is actually increasing phytoplankton populations, so more research is needed in this area. And of course, while it would be great to not have to worry about hurricanes outside of the tropics, removing phytoplankton could have a severely negative effect on marine environments that rely on the plants for energy.

The researchers are now planning to move their study into the real world by looking at actual hurricane paths and satellite imagery of real-time ocean colors to see if their preliminary results match up with real storm paths. In the meantime, if you’d like to learn more about hurricanes and other types of storms, visit Morehead Planetarium and Science Center to see Science 360: Predicting Severe Weather when it comes back on our Fall schedule September 4.

Casey Rawson is the Science Content Developer for Science 360.

Oil Spill

Oil is clearly visible on the water surface in this satellite image of the Gulf of Mexico (from NASA). But how much oil might be collecting below the water surface?

It’s a familiar refrain for many children learning math in school: “Why do we need to know this stuff?” Dr. Richard McLaughlin, a mathematics professor at UNC Chapel Hill, answered that question at the July Current Science Forum. Speaking to a sizeable crowd, Dr. McLaughlin showed how a team of researchers at UNC are using math to tackle important questions related to a topic which has captured international attention since April: the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

One of those questions centers on the issue of underwater plumes: we can see the oil slick on the water surface, but is it possible that there is an even greater amount of oil underwater? Dr. McLaughlin and Dr. Roberto Camassa, also at UNC, are using the science of fluid dynamics to shed some light on this. The Gulf of Mexico, like most large bodies of water, does not have a uniform density, Dr. McLaughlin explained. The oil shooting out from the damaged pipe is hot, and coming out at high pressure. Using a water tank, Dr. McLaughlin demonstrated how such conditions may create a cloud of oil trapped beneath the surface of the gulf.

Next Dr. McLaughlin showed how his team is taking a simple mathematical idea – the parabolic formula – and using it to estimate how many barrels of oil are escaping from the leak each day. The team is using the BP Spill Cameras to fit a parabolic curve onto the leak, then applying mathematical formulas to obtain a flow rate. Using this method, they estimated the flow rate to be around 70-80,000 barrels per day – a number that is far higher than BP’s initial estimates and similar to the latest government-released figures.

If you missed the forum, you can still watch the water tank demonstration and an interview that Dr. McLaughlin and Dr. Camassa gave on a KBZK newscast - both are available on YouTube. Stay tuned to the Morehead Planetarium and Science Center homepage for information about upcoming Current Science Forum events.

Casey Rawson is the Science Content Developer for Science 360.

Higgs Boson

Scientists created this simulated image to show how the Higgs Boson would likely appear on visual detectors at the LHC. But one scientist thinks that listening to the data is a better method to detect the Higgs particle.

If you are familiar with the Large Hadron Collider or “LHC,” a huge physics experiment underway in Europe, you may be aware that one of the project’s aims is to find the elusive Higgs Boson, also known as the “God Particle.” The Higgs Boson is thought to be the reason that everything else has mass, but no one has ever actually observed the elusive particle. The LHC hopes to do just that by colliding protons in a giant underground racetrack and observing the particles that are created as a result of the collisions.

One issue that has come up with the LHC’s strategy is how to recognize a particle that has never been seen before and about which very little is known. Scientists are currently evaluating the collision data by looking at images of particle tracks on computer screens. But one scientist, Dr. Lily Asquith, believes there is a better way to identify the short-lived particles – by listening to them.

Dr. Asquith has developed a way to convert the data produced at the LHC into sound. Based on what scientists theorize about the Higgs, she has simulated the sounds that would be produced by a Higgs particle if one were created. The idea is that human ears are better at distinguishing sounds than the eyes are at distinguishing visual patterns. The sounds that Dr. Asquith has created using LHC data sound almost like bizarre, slightly-scary musical numbers – appropriate, perhaps, for a horror film. You can hear them here or download them here.

On a related note (pardon the pun), there is someone else trying to make sweet science music: one Higgs Boson (the person, not the particle), an English composer who writes “music inspired by the edges of science.”

To find out much more about the LHC and particle physics, come to Morehead Planetarium and Science Center to see the free Science 360 show “Why Antimatter Matters,” now showing Tuesday – Sunday on the Science Stage (formerly the NASA Digital Theater).

Casey Rawson is the Science Content Developer for Science 360.

Rubber Tree

Rubber, which comes from the sap of trees, is a huge industry in North America. But the ancient Mayans were masters of the material long before Charles Goodyear came onto the scene.

Rubber is a common ingredient in a wide variety of consumer products, from tires to pet toys to shoes. But rubber as we know it has been around only since 1839, when Charles Goodyear invented the “vulcanization” process that takes raw rubber (which is naturally sticky and brittle) and heats it with sulfur to strengthen its chemical structure. As inventions go, vulcanization was a biggie, leading eventually to the use of around 10 billion pounds of rubber each year in North America alone! Yet, research has shown that our culture came very late to the rubber game.

Scientists at MIT have now proven – after 14 years of research – that the ancient Mayans had mastered their own rubber-production process as early as 3600 years ago. The Mayans mixed sap from the Panama rubber tree with sulfur-containing juice from the morning glory vine in varying ratios to produce strong rubber for balls, sandals, adhesives, statues, and even rubber bands. By the 16th century, the Mayan rubber industry was producing 16,000 rubber balls per year (in addition to a wide variety of other rubber products). Much of this rubber was produced on the outskirts of the Mayan civilization and sent in to the capital city as tax payments.

So, in addition to astronomy, art, and mathematics, we can now add “chemical engineering” to the long list of Mayan accomplishments. Just so we’re clear, though: one thing the Mayans did NOT do was predict the end of the world in 2012.

Speaking of 2012, don’t miss your last chance to see Science 360: The Truth Behind 2012 before it comes off the Morehead schedule for the summer. The show’s final dates are Saturday and Sunday, June 5-6 and Saturday and Sunday, June 12-13. Visit the Morehead Planetarium and Science Center homepage for times.

Casey Rawson is the Science Content Developer for Science 360.

F5 Tornado

Scientists working on the VORTEX2 project this month are combing the Great Plains in search of tornadoes. When completed in June, VORTEX2 will be the largest-ever study of tornadoes. Image by Justin Hobson.

Lightning flashes overhead, hail pounds mercilessly into the ground, and high winds threaten to bring down trees. Suddenly, a funnel cloud begins to snake down from the dark clouds above, kicking up dust and growing in size as it reaches the ground. If you are like most people, seeing something like this would probably make you want to run for cover. But for more than 100 scientists working with the VORTEX2 project, running for cover isn’t an option. Being up close and personal with tornadoes is their job, and over the course of the next month they will be patrolling the Great Plains region of the United States searching for these killer storms.

VORTEX stands for “Verification of the Origins of Rotation in Tornadoes Experiment.” As the name suggests, the project is attempting to discover exactly how, when, where, and why tornadoes form. Currently, weather forecasters can predict tornadoes with an average lead time of only 13 minutes, and 70% of tornado alerts turn out to be false alarms. VORTEX2, which runs from May 1 to June 15 of this year, will be the largest-ever tornado study, and the scientists involved hope to deploy an unprecedented array of cutting-edge technology into and around these storms.

The original VORTEX project took place in 1994 and 1995 and helped to inspire the 1996 film Twister. Data from that project helped to significantly improve tornado forecasting. The VORTEX2 project will build on the knowledge gained from its predecessor by using more advanced data collection tools and by extending the study period by two weeks. You can follow VORTEX2’s daily progress at the project website or blog.

If you are interested in learning more about tornadoes and other severe weather events, stay tuned to the Morehead website for information about a new live show that will debut on June 15 (the last day of the VORTEX2 project): “Science 360: Predicting Severe Weather.”

Casey Rawson is the Science Content Developer for Science 360.


Are mechanical exoskeletons science fiction, or is the U.S. military actually researching these and other projects designed to create Super Soldiers? April's Current Science Forum explored this question. Image by John B. Carnett (click image for original article).

Pop quiz: Which of these projects is currently being pursued by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA)?

A) A mechanical exoskeleton that will endow an average person with superhuman strength
B) Nanotechnology that can be injected into humans and used to heal wounds or regrow organs
C) Robotic prosthetics that respond to brain signals and are covered in realistic-looking “skin”
D) Pills that can take away a person’s need for sleep or remove emotions such as fear and guilt

If you can’t choose an answer because all of these sound like something out of the latest Iron Man film, you will probably be surprised to find out that this is a trick question: all of these projects are being investigated by DARPA scientists. Some of them have already moved into the prototype testing stage – check out the Raytheon Sarcos Exoskeleton or the Boston Dynamics “Army Mule” on YouTube.

At Morehead’s most recent Current Science Forum, the audience members were treated to a discussion of these and other DARPA research projects by David DeBatto, a retired U.S. Army Counterintelligence special agent. The forum explored questions such as:

  • Is the government actually interested in developing “Super Soldiers,” and if so, why?
  • What are some of the projects that DARPA is currently pursuing?
  • What are the ethical implications of this type of research?
  • What practical applications might this research have for civilians?

If you missed this month’s event, don’t despair! May’s Current Science Forum will explore an equally interesting topic: Are designer babies on the way? Join us on Thursday, May 6 at 7:00 pm to explore this question with Patricia Devers, an assistant professor and certified genetic counselor here at UNC.

Casey Rawson is the Science Content Developer for Science 360.


The Mars Express orbiter will skim the surface of Phobos at a distance of just 50 km on March 3, 2010. For comparison, this image of Phobos, taken by NASA, was captured at a distance of 9,670 km.

Mars has two moons: Phobos and Deimos, named for the minor Greek deities Fear and Panic (what could go better with a planet named after a god of war?). On March 3, Mars Express – a Mars orbiter operated by the European Space Agency (ESA) – will set a record for the closest-ever flyby of Phobos when it skims over the moon at a distance of only 50 km (about 30 miles). ESA scientists hope that by venturing so close to the rather lumpy moon, Mars Express can gather data that will help answer lingering questions about Phobos.

Earlier Mars Express flybys have determined the mass and volume of Phobos, using a variety of instruments. Surprisingly, the data suggest that parts of Phobos may actually be hollow. The March 3 flyby should help to either confirm or negate this idea.

Another goal of the flyby is to determine the internal chemical composition of Phobos, in the hopes that such information may help scientists determine the origin of this moon. There are three current theories about Phobos: one, that it is a captured asteroid; two, that it formed at the same time and from the same basic materials as Mars; and three, that it was formed from debris shot into Mars’s orbit by a large meteorite strike.

The Mars Express orbiter is only one of many experiments designed to discover more about our planetary neighbor. If you would like to know more about past, present, and future Mars exploration, come see the live show Mission to Mars, one of two Science 360 shows on MPSC’s spring schedule.

Casey Rawson is the Science Content Developer for Science 360. In case you're wondering, Deimos has also been explored at close range: in 1977, the NASA Viking Orbiter II flew over this moon's surface at a distance of only 30 km.

Earth's Magnetic Field

Earth's magnetic field protects us from solar radiation, as shown in this image (an artist's conception from NASA). Is it possible that this protective shield might disappear on December 21, 2012?

So far, we’ve debunked four end-of-the-world claims in our 2012 blog series (see them all here). But those who are predicting a 2012 doomsday seem to have taken a “more is more” approach in terms of their ideas about just what will bring about an apocalypse on December 21, 2012 – one website lists 22 possible causes! One pervasive claim on 2012 sites is the idea that Earth will undergo a magnetic pole reversal on 12/21/2012, leaving us completely unprotected from fatal levels of solar radiation.

First, let’s examine the facts behind this claim:

  1. The Earth’s magnetic field has been declining in strength over the past century or so.
  2. Earth’s magnetic field does protect us from solar radiation.

Unfortunately for the 2012 crowd, that is where the facts end. While Earth’s magnetic field strength has been declining recently, it is still well above average. A graph of field strength over time shows many fluctuations – the current decline is nothing unique. While there’s no way to prove that we aren’t heading for a reversal, there is also no definitive proof that we are.

Secondly, the protection from solar radiation afforded by our magnetic field would not disappear during a reversal. While the magnetic field strength does decrease during this process, it does not fall to zero – and even a weak field can stop many solar rays. Those that do get through a weakened magnetic field would then have to deal with our atmosphere, which is as effective at stopping solar radiation as a 13-foot-thick wall of concrete! The greatest risk during a reversal would be to satellites and astronauts orbiting the Earth at high elevations, where our atmosphere is too thin to provide much protection. If previous magnetic reversals coincided with damaging levels of solar radiation here at ground level, we would see evidence of it in the fossil record – and we simply don’t.

If these arguments haven’t convinced you, then here’s one more: magnetic reversals take thousands of years to complete, not a single day! So rest easy – and don’t be afraid to step into the sun on 12/21/2012.

To find out more about the 2012 claims, plan to attend our Science 360 show “The Truth Behind 2012” when it opens on February 6.

Casey Rawson is the Science Content Developer for Science 360. Her favorite 2012 possibility is #21; the phrase "catastrophic pinball machine" conjures up some great images.

Mars HiRISE Image

Think you're seeing trees on the Martian surface? Guess again - it's an optical illusion. The "trees" are actually dark streaks on the sand caused by evaporating gases. This image is one of thousands in the HiRISE collection.

When someone says the word “Mars,” what image comes to your mind? Most likely, you picture a dusty, cratered, rust-colored wasteland. But thanks to the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE), you can see our planetary neighbor like never before. The HiRISE camera, part of the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, is operated by NASA and the University of Arizona and is currently the most powerful camera on any NASA spacecraft. The beautiful images it has sent back to Earth highlight the fact that while parts of Mars may seem familiar to us, other features of the Red Planet are bizarre and mysterious.

Unlike Mars rovers, which are designed to investigate only a tiny portion of Mars’s land area, the HiRISE camera orbits the entire planet and can be directed to take images of any interesting area. It has taken thousands of detailed images, all of them available to view online. Now, with the release of the HiWish public suggestion tool, you can help determine future target areas for the camera. After registering for the program, you can browse large-scale areas of the Martian surface and send in your suggestion for where HiRISE should take its next close-up image. The site also allows you to track your suggestions and receive notifications when your images are taken.

If you’re interested in finding out more about the Red Planet, plan to attend our Science 360 show “Mission to Mars,” which returns to the MPSC schedule on February 6, 2010.

Casey Rawson is the Science Content Developer for Science 360.

Massive Terrestrial Impact

A huge asteroid like the one in this image (an artistic rendering from NASA) would likely wipe out all life on Earth. But should we be worrying about this happening in 2012?

As if Mayan “doomsday prophecies,” Sun-damaging planetary alignments, and fatal alignments with the galactic center were not enough, 2012 apocalypse proponents are also stating that on December 21, 2012, Earth will be hit by a huge asteroid that will cause mass extinction and global chaos.

As with the other 2012-doomsday scenarios, the asteroid strike claim has a good deal of scientific evidence against it. Of course, asteroids have hit our planet before – scientists believe a huge one (several miles wide) was probably responsible for the extinction of the dinosaurs – and it is virtually guaranteed that Earth will be hit again at some point in the future. But precisely because of that high probability, scientists around the globe are searching the skies for what they call “Near-Earth Objects” (NEOs) that may one day strike Earth.

NASA, in conjunction with several other astronomical organizations around the globe, has been cataloging NEOs since 1998. These organizations search the sky for asteroids and comets that are in Earth’s celestial neighborhood. When one is found, advanced computer programs model the object’s future path, taking into account the object’s size and speed as well as the influences of gravity from the Sun, Earth, and other planets and moons in our solar system. As the object comes closer, we can gather more information about it and further refine this model.

But why are scientists spending so much time searching for NEOs – it’s not like we could stop them from hitting Earth, right? It may sound like something out of a big-budget blockbuster, but astronomers actually do think that we would have a chance of deflecting a comet or asteroid headed for Earth – if we discovered it well enough in advance. Proposed methods for NEO deflection include solar sails, “gravity tractors,” and rockets – but NOT nuclear weapons as seen in Hollywood, which would only break the object apart and send deadly mini-asteroids our way. Russia has recently announced preliminary plans to deflect the asteroid Apophis (which technically has a chance of hitting us in 2036, albeit a very small chance).

So, could an asteroid strike the Earth on December 21, 2012? Sure – but a strike is no more likely on this particular date than on any other. Scientists in the NEO discovery program have not found any large object that is likely to even pass close to Earth on this date, or on any other in the near future. Even if they did, it is likely that we could deflect such an object before it intercepts Earth’s orbit.

To find out more about the 2012 claims, stay tuned to the MPSC blog and plan to attend our Science 360 show “The Truth Behind 2012” when it opens in early February.

Casey Rawson is the Science Content Developer for Science 360. She prefers "Deep Impact" over "Armageddon," if only for the escaping-a-tidal-wave-on-a-moped scene.

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