Earth Still Needs Exploring, Too

A newly-observed snailfish species from the Marianas Trench currently holds the record for the deepest-observed surviving marine animal.The modern era sometimes tends toward a headline culture, a tendency to skip the detail in order to receive as much of the information spectrum as possible. Consider the bland headline for Rebecca Morelle of BBC News, “New Record for deepest fish”. In and of itself, certainly that might be a reason to check in, but it is also true that few of us are rushing to check the sumsα.

But Morelle’s article is written in that classic Beeb voice, with shorter sentences and paragraphs for comprehensibility, and scrolling through one finds astounding bits and pieces—

Until this expedition, the deepest fish had been found in the Japan Trench, also in the Pacific Ocean. A 17-strong shoal of pink, gelatinous snailfish (Pseudoliparis amblystomopsis) were recorded 7,700m down.

Dr Alan Jamieson, from Oceanlab at the University of Aberdeen, said: “After we found these, we started seeing them in other deep trenches. Each trench has its own snailfish species.

—including some that probably deserve their own headline:

During the voyage, researchers also studied the geology of the Mariana Trench by grabbing rocks and returning them to the surface.

Prof Patricia Fryer, from the University of Hawaii, told the American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting in San Francisco that a sample collected from an earlier expedition suggested that a previously undiscovered tectonic plate lies at the bottom of the trench.

“The rock we picked up – it turns out this thing is 100 million years younger than the Pacific Plate,” she told BBC News.

“It means that the plate that’s being subducted beneath the Challenger Deep (the lowest point of the trench) is 100 million years or more younger than the Pacific Plate.”

We are nowhere near finished exploring this wonderful, mysterious planet. Fascination abounds.

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α Rachel Feltman of The Washington Post posted more precise numbers; 8,143 meters for the new species, compared to 7,703 for the previous record holder, a difference Morelle describes as “beating the previous depth record by nearly 500m”. As far as headlines are concerned, Feltman wins hands down: “Ghostly new fish discovered at record-breaking depths”.

Morelle, Rebecca. “New record for deepest fish”. BBC News. 18 December 2014.

Feltman, Rachel. “Ghostly new fish discovered at record-breaking depths”. The Washington Post. 19 December 2014.

Photosynthesize This

via JPL
So there is this joke we have, about how being the one government agency that routinely does its job … never mind. At any rate, NASA would have you know:

Data from satellite sensors show that during the Northern Hemisphere’s growing season, the Midwest region of the United States boasts more photosynthetic activity than any other spot on Earth, according to NASA and university scientists.

Healthy plants convert light to energy via photosynthesis, but chlorophyll also emits a fraction of absorbed light as a fluorescent glow that is invisible to the naked eye. The magnitude of the glow is an excellent indicator of the amount of photosynthesis, or gross productivity, of plants in a given region.

Research in 2013, led by Joanna Joiner of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., demonstrated that fluorescence from plants could be teased out from existing data from satellites that were designed and built for other purposes. The new research, led by Luis Guanter of the Freie Universität Berlin, used the data for the first time to estimate photosynthesis from agriculture. Results were published March 25 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

According to co-author Christian Frankenberg of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., “The paper shows that fluorescence is a much better proxy for agricultural productivity than anything we’ve had before. This can go a long way regarding monitoring—and maybe even predicting—regional crop yields.”

Guanter, Joiner and Frankenberg launched their collaboration at a 2012 workshop, hosted by the Keck Institute for Space Studies at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena, to explore measurements of photosynthesis from space. The team noticed that on an annual basis, the tropics are the most active in photosynthesis. But during the Northern Hemisphere’s growing season, the U.S. Corn Belt “really stands out,” Frankenberg said. “Areas all over the world are not as productive as this area.”

You are allowed to be impressed. It really is cool, after all.
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Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “Satellite Shows High Productivity from U.S. Corn Belt”. March 31, 2014.

(Tip o’the hat to S.L.)

The Persistence of Life

Perhaps at first glance it looks like evidence of an extraterrestrial invasion, a field of Teletubby egg sacs spread across the rocky plain. It is, in fact, la llareta (Azorella compacta, neé A. yareta), apparently a relative of parsley. The dense-growing evergreen perennial flowering shrub is found in South America. What makes llareta fascinating is not that the flowers are hermaphroditic, nor even that the species’ adaptations over the years make it unsuitable for growth in shade. Rather, it is that these organisms live for thousands of years. Some llareta in the Atacama are known to have survived over two millennia.

And if that isn’t enough to blow your mind, Katherine Brooks brings the news about a new book by Rachel Sussman, The Oldest Living Things In the World:

Photograph by Rachel Sussman.For nearly a decade, photographer Rachel Sussman has been traveling the globe in search of the world’s oldest living things. From the Mojave Desert to the Australian Outback to Greenland’s icy expanses, she captures portraits of life forms so relentless they’ve managed to survive eons of planetary change. An 80,000-year-old colony of aspen trees in Utah and a 43,600-year-old self-propagating shrub in Tasmania rank amongst Sussman’s unlikely subjects, just two of the many plants, fungi and invertebrates catalogued by her lens.

Gathered together in a book published this Spring, and aptly titled “The Oldest Living Things in the World,” the collection of age-old organisms serves as a stunning visual history of Earth’s extreme inhabitants. The collision of art and science is hardly just a visual feast of the past, it’s also a reminder of what the future might leave behind, as climate change and human endeavors threaten the existence of these millennia-old characters.

Sussman worked with biologists to complete the research for the project (not to mention science writer Carl Zimmer has provided the foreword and Hans Ulrich Obrist the essays for the new tome), and the photographer has worked tirelessly to bring awareness to the fragile nature of stromatolites, moss and other overlooked living things. Her 2010 TedTalk educated the world on 2,000-year-old brain coral off the coast of Tobago, while an article posted to Brain Pickings lamented the death of a 3,500 year old Cypress tree.

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Image credit: Rachel Sussman via Huffington Post.

Updates

The upside of being lazy is that you’re not doing anything unpleasant. The downside is that the unpleasantness stacks up at the far end. No, wait, that’s not right. But, you know, sometimes the art of playing catch-up … er … right. Enough about me.

There is plenty going on around the solar system.

First up, Yellowknife Bay, Mars, where our friendly neighborhood robotic space laboratory is still recovering from a memory glitch that forced Curiosity to switch over to its redundant B-side computer:

Pasadena? We Have an Uh-OhNASA’s Mars rover Curiosity continues to move forward with assessment and recovery from a memory glitch that affected the rover’s A-side computer. Curiosity has two computers that are redundant of one another. The rover is currently operating using the B-side computer, which is operating as expected.

Over the weekend, Curiosity’s mission operations team continued testing and assessing the A-side computer’s memory.

“These tests have provided us with a great deal of information about the rover’s A-side memory,” said Jim Erickson, deputy project manager for the Mars Science Laboratory/Curiosity mission at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. “We have been able to store new data in many of the memory locations previously affected and believe more runs will demonstrate more memory is available.”

Two software patches, targeting onboard memory allocation and vehicle safing procedures, are likely to be uplinked later this week. After the software patches are installed, the mission team will reassess when to resume full mission operations.

Meanwhile, somewhere near Saturn, faithful Cassini continues to dazzle as the data returns from the fourth and final Rhea flyby of the Solstice mission:

Rhea: Portrait of a LadyCassini flew by Rhea at an altitude of 620 miles (997 kilometers) on March 9, 2013. This flyby was designed primarily for the radio science sub-system to measure Rhea’s gravity field. During closest approach and while the radio science sub-system was measuring the icy satellite’s gravity field, the imaging team rode along and captured 12 images of Rhea’s rough and icy surface. Outbound from Rhea, Cassini’s cameras captured a set of global images from a distance of about 167,000 miles (269,000 kilometers).

Data from Cassini’s cosmic dust analyzer were also collected to try to detect any dusty debris flying off the surface from tiny meteoroid bombardments. These data will help scientists understand the rate at which “foreign” objects are raining into the Saturn system.

Cassini will visit Titan (T-90) at a range of 870 miles (1,400 km) on April 5, 2013.

In more earthly realms, Matt McGrath continues his coverage for BBC of the CITES meeting in Bangkok, Thailand:

BBC-HammerheadHuntThree types of critically endangered but commercially valuable shark have been given added protection at the Cites meeting in Bangkok.

The body, which regulates trade in flora and fauna, voted by a two-thirds majority to upgrade the sharks’ status ….

…. The decisions can still be overturned by a vote on the final day of this meeting later this week.

The oceanic whitetip, three varieties of hammerheads and the porbeagle are all said to be seriously threatened by overfishing.

And maybe a bonus Cassini note, because I so adore the photo:

Cassini - PIA14651The ghostly spokes in Saturn’s B ring continue to put on a show for the Cassini spacecraft cameras in this recent image. The spokes, believed to be a seasonal phenomenon, are expected to disappear as Saturn nears its northern hemisphere summer. Scientists continue to monitor the spokes to better understand their origin and evolution.

The small moon Atlas also appears here barely visible in between the A ring and the F ring, which is the thin ring located furthest from Saturn, as the fainter dot close to the A ring. Atlas is closer to the bottom of the image. A bright star also appears in the gap between the two rings, and there are six other stars visible (one through the C ring, near the planet).

Good News, Bad News

The good news is that people are talking.

Unfortunately, that’s it.

The bad news is that the discussion needs to take place at all. BBC’s Matt McGrath explains:

BBC logoNew plans to protect elephants, rhinos and other species will be discussed at a critical meeting that begins in Bangkok on Sunday.

Delegates will review the convention on the international trade in endangered species (CITES).

Around 35,000 animals and plants are at present protected by the treaty.

But with a global “extinction crisis” facing many species, this year’s meeting is being described as the most critical in its history.

Naturally, one of the foremost controversies is the idea of secret ballots versus transparancy. “CITES ought to be a transparent body,” said Mark Jones of Humane Society International, “but secret ballots have become easier to implement at the behest of certain parties who don’t want their vote to be known.” Sounds about right.

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