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.

The seventh video in our Science 360: The Truth Behind 2012 series focuses on solar eruptions. Some people think a massive solar eruption will engulf our planet in radiation, wiping out all life on Earth. Are scientists worried? Watch and find out…

Jay Heinz is Morehead's Digital Production Manager.

Festival coordinator, Julie Rhodes, sharing exciting news with the rest of the planning team.

As you can imagine, things are pretty hectic around here as we count down to the start of the NC Science Festival.   It’s LESS THAN ONE MONTH AWAY!  And, while it’s hectic, it’s also so much fun.  I’ve done things (have tea with a Nobel Laureate; call Adam & Jamie to invite them to NC) and said things (“Can you park your NASCAR car here?” and “Do you mind if we chunk pumpkins through the center of campus?”) that I NEVER would have had the opportunity to say and do without the Festival.  So, thanks to everyone for enriching my life over these last few months.

And, that’s the whole point of the Festival – to enrich YOUR life by getting you involved in science, technology, math and engineering.  We are putting finishing touches on many things – including schedules and maps – so you’ll know when and where to show up for some awesome science action!  Take a look at the Festival schedule to see what I mean.  There are over 300 events taking place across the state between Sept. 11-26.

We want to invite you to attend as many events as possible during the Festival.  And we would love to see you in Chapel Hill on Sat., Sept. 25 for the UNC Science Expo.  There are literally hundreds of cool things taking place this day – demos, lab tours, talks, performances.  You name it – we’ve probably got it!

I look forward to hearing about your science adventures in September!


Denise Young is Morehead’s director of education and planning and co-founder of the NC Science Festival. She proposes skipping the rest of August so we can get on with the Festival!

If you have watched the early evening sky over the past weeks, you may have noticed Venus, Mars, and Saturn engaging in a slow planet dance.

On August 12 and 13, the Moon joins the party. Look for this striking sight soon after sunset in the same direction the Sun went down. You will likely see the crescent Moon and super bright Venus first. As the sky darkens further, notice Mars and Saturn near Venus. (Mercury will be lower, dimmer, and much harder to spot.)

If you’d like to see these celestial objects through a telescope, join Morehead for our skywatching session this Thursday, August 12, from 9 to 11 p.m. Weather permitting, we’ll be at Jordan Lake, Ebenezer Church Recreation Area. Come near the beginning of the session to view the Moon and planet trio. Then stick around for a chance to see some Perseid meteors.

If the skywatching session is canceled, we will post a message around 4 p.m. at the Morehead Web site — please check before you head out to Jordan Lake.

Amy Sayle hopes to spot a few Perseid meteors from Jordan Lake during Paddling Under the Stars. Although the paddle is sold out, the skywatching session is free and open to all.

Less than a month to go before the North Carolina Science Festival kicks off on September 11. We’ve been working hard getting everything ready and just finished up a commercial that’s going to be airing on WRAL and TimeWarner Cable for the next few weeks. It features some employees and friends of Morehead that you might know and was totally produced in-house. Enjoy.

Jay Heinz is Morehead's Digital Production Manager.

03 Aug 2010

There’s a popular vampire drama on cable TV that’s built around the concept of synthetic blood. Interesting concept … if you’re a TV vampire. But there’s no such thing in real life, right?

Wrong. Researchers are developing synthetic blood as part of a new wave of nanotechnology-based strategies against disease.

Dr. Joseph DeSImoneHow are these new technologies going to affect the way we treat cancer and other diseases?

Come learn some of the possibilities when Dr. Joseph DeSimone speaks at Morehead’s Current Science Forum on Thursday, Aug. 5, at 7 p.m. It’s a free program.

If you search for "synthetic blood," Google currently lists 62,900 results.

The fourth video in our Science 360: The Truth Behind 2012 series focuses on the galactic center alignment. Some people think that the Earth, our Solar System and the center of the Milky Way Galaxy will align and the resulting gravitational forces from the black hole in the center of the galaxy will destroy the Earth. Once again, this 2012-doomsday scenario has a lot of scientific evidence against it. Check it out and find out why it won’t happen and even if it did, it wouldn’t be a big deal.

The Truth Behind 2012: Galactic Center Alignment

Jay Heinz is Morehead's Digital Production Manager.

15 Jul 2010

We’ve been recruiting museums, parks and other sites all around North Carolina to host activities during the first-ever North Carolina Science Festival, scheduled Sept. 11-26.

So far, the schedule is pretty impressive. We’re aiming for 100 unique activities and events, and we’re getting close.

But we may have just scored the biggest event possible for this year. Adam and Jamie, the hosts of the Discovery Channel’s popular MythBusters TV show, are coming to do a special program at UNC. And people are thrilled.

From the moment we posted the news on our website, Facebook page and Twitter feed, the excitement became building. It’s going to be a big event, so big that it’ll be in the Smith Center (aka basketball heaven, most years) on UNC’s campus.

Tickets are limited. In fact, since the stage set-up is in the middle of the floor, rather than at the end, we’ll only have access to fewer than one-half of the seats. We don’t know if it will sell out, but as a safeguard in case it does, we’ve set up a way for Morehead members to buy tickets early through a special presale opportunity.

If you’re already a Morehead member, you’ll get information about the presale through e-mail (be sure the membership office has your e-mail address!). If you aren’t a member yet, this could be a really good time to join. And you’ll get to enjoy all of the other membership benefits (free admission to fulldome planetarium shows, gift shop discounts and more) throughout the year.

So join. Come see Adam and Jamie. And check out all of the other cool activities during the NC Science Festival. It just keeps getting more amazing!

What myths have you busted lately? (Keep it family-friendly, please!)

The third video in our Science 360: The Truth Behind 2012 series focuses on the planetary alignment. Some people think that the planets of our Solar System will align and the resulting gravitational forces will damage our Sun. Once again, this 2012-doomsday scenario has a lot of scientific evidence against it. Check it out and find out why the planets won’t be aligning and, even if they did, it wouldn’t cause a disaster.

The Truth Behind 2012: Planetary Alignment

Jay Heinz is Morehead's Digital Production Manager.

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.

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