Earth ChangesS

Monkey Wrench

Crows use multitools, but do they plan ahead?

Tool-toting New Caledonian crows may be smart, but are they schemers?

The cunning birds can sculpt twigs into hooks and wield multiple tools in succession to obtain an otherwise unreachable snack. This kind of behaviour has prompted some scientists to conclude that the birds plan their actions ahead of time to achieve a goal.

However, new experiments led by Joanna Wimpenny and Alex Kacelnik at the University of Oxford cast doubt on that conclusion.

Bizarro Earth

Shaking the Earth: How Water Helps Tectonic Plates Slide in New Zealand

New Zealand is the site of one of the world's youngest subduction zones, where the Pacific Plate of Earth's crust dives beneath the Australian Plate. Now, a University of Utah study shows how water deep underground helps the subduction zone mature and paves the way for it to generate powerful earthquakes.

The study in the Aug. 6 issue of the journal Nature "expands our understanding of the sources of earthquake failure," says Phil Wannamaker, the study's main author and a geophysicist at the University of Utah's Energy and Geoscience Institute.

"It hasn't been on people's minds that fluid-generating processes way out of sight reach up and cause damage right under our feet," he adds.

Understanding how one of Earth's moving tectonic plates can dive or subduct beneath another to create earthquake-generating faults is important because subduction and faulting "are major processes all over the world," especially in the "Ring of Fire" around the Pacific Ocean, Wannamaker says.

Cloud Lightning

Lightning Kills 10, Injures 12 in Eastern India

© Wiki
Ten people were killed and 12 injured when lightning struck a house during a funeral ceremony in western India, the Calcutta Telegraph said on Wednesday.

The tragedy occurred on Tuesday evening in the courtyard of a house as some 35 people sat down to eat in Atkulla village, around 135 km (83 miles) from Kolkata (Calcutta).

An eyewitness, Subodh Pramanik, was cited by the paper as saying: "I saw an electric flash roll across the courtyard and I froze."

Health officials said that the force of the single bolt killed eight people instantly. "One died in hospital. Two of the injured have suffered 80% burns and their condition is critical," Dilip Kumar Jha told the paper.


Tiny Bird, Tiny Genome

Study finds hummingbirds have pared-down DNA

© Chris C. WittSmall genomes and flight appear to go hand in hand, and black-chinned hummingbirds (above) have the smallest genome of surveyed birds, reports a new study
Flying with excess baggage is a drag, but hummingbirds have mastered efficient packing. The tiny hoverers have less DNA in their cells than any other previously studied birds, reptiles or mammals, researchers report online August 5 in Proceedings of the Royal Society B. Among hummingbird species, however, genome size doesn't vary along with body size, suggesting that birds' DNA was pared down before the diversification of today's hummers.

Scientists have long noted the link between small genome size and high metabolic rates - a notion first put forth in 1970 by Polish scientist Henryk Szarski. Bats and birds have the smallest genomes of backboned creatures, and flightless birds tend to have bigger genomes than fliers. The genome, or full book of genetic instructions, is typically present in every cell. So lugging around a smaller genome means you can have smaller cells, the thinking goes. Smaller cells mean a larger surface-to-volume ratio and more efficient gas exchange, all the better to fly with. (The metabolic rate of hummingbirds is thought to approach the theoretical maximum.)


Canada on alert as British Columbia fires burn

© Associated Press
Much of British Columbia in western Canada remains on high alert as high temperatures and winds continue to stoke widespread forest fires.

Some 5,300 people have fled the latest fires as thousands of firefighters try to tackle the flames. Some 800 extra personnel have been brought in from other parts of Canada to help exhausted fire crews. Since April, more than 2,000 fires have burned 63,000 hectares (155,700 acres) in British Columbia, officials say.


US: July 2009 one of the coldest in record books

Houghton, Michigan - Despite being fairly far north, July is usually a pretty warm month in the Upper Peninsula. This year, however, is an exception.

Steve Fleegel, meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Negaunee Township, said this July set a record for cool daytime temperatures in the western U.P. and much of the Midwest.

"Our July is going to go down as the second coldest July on record," he said.

The record for the coldest July was in 1992, Fleegel said, and the third coldest was in 1924.

Fleegel said the average daytime high for July at Houghton County Memorial Airport is 65 degrees, but this July the average high was 59.7 degrees.

Since June 1, Fleegel said at HCMA the coldest daytime high temperature was 47 degrees on June 8. On June 1, 9 and 30, the high was 53 degrees. Also since June 1, the warmest daytime high was 90 degrees on May 20. June 23 and July 9 had highs of 81 degrees.

Evil Rays

US: Eighth month below normal temps

It's been a cold July here and also below normal temperatures for several months.

The average temperature this month was 64 degrees, which was 4.5 degrees below average for the month of July, said Jim Tarasenko, research specialist with the North Central Research Extension Center south of Minot.

This is also the eighth straight month of below normal temperatures for Minot, Tarasenko said.

"There were only seven other July averages on record that were lower than this July. The record low monthly average temperature for a July is 59.7 degrees," he said.

Tarasenko said the only day this summer which has been 90 degrees or above was on July 24. "It was 90 degrees for a high temperature on that day," he said.

"Also, this was the eighth coolest July since we started record keeping," Tarasenko said.

Bizarro Earth

US: Outbreak of Fungus Threatens Tomato Crop

Tomato blight
© Meg McGrath/CornellGreen tomatoes affected by the spores of highly contagious fungus, called late blight.

A highly contagious fungus that destroys tomato plants has quickly spread to nearly every state in the Northeast and the mid-Atlantic, and the weather over the next week may determine whether the outbreak abates or whether tomato crops are ruined, according to federal and state agriculture officials.

The spores of the fungus, called late blight, are often present in the soil, and small outbreaks are not uncommon in August and September. But the cool, wet weather in June and the aggressively infectious nature of the pathogen have combined to produce what Martin A. Draper, a senior plant pathologist at the United States Department of Agriculture, described as an "explosive" rate of infection.

William Fry, a professor of plant pathology at Cornell, said, "I've never seen this on such a wide scale."

Comment: Related Story:

US: The Irish Potato Famine Fungus Is Attacking Northeast Gardens And Farms Now


Big Apple's Cold Summer - It and Many Other Cities Ranking Among Coldest Ever

NYC skyline
© Bob Jagendorf

Many cities in the east and central reported the coldest July on record and some cities a top 5 coolest June and July period. Here is one of the latter - New York City's Central Park.

With an average daily temperature of 72.7...3.8 degrees below normal... This is the sixth coolest July on record at Central Park.

Daily average temperatures have been at or below normal every day but two this month (the 28th and 30th)...for 46 of 48 days dating back to June 13th...and for 54 of the 60 days since June 1st.

Central Park has had only one day reach above 85 degrees so far this summer (86 on July 17th). This is the fewest number of days above 85 on record at Central Park since records began being taken in 1869. The old record was 7 in 1996.

Central Park has yet to reach 90 degrees this summer...for only the second time on record. The only other year not to have at least one 90 degree day in June or July was 1996.

For the months of June and July...the average temperature in 2009 is 70.1 degrees, making this the third coolest June and July on record in 151 years at Central Park. See story NWS here and New York Times here.


Falkland Islands: Antarctic air flow brings record snow fall

Although the Falklands can expect cold weather at this time of year, heavy snow which fell over the past week was a record for recent years.

Weatherman Justin Chamberlain said the Islands had been under the influence of a highly unstable convective south/southwest air flow originating in Antarctica, keeping air temperatures below freezing. At times the wind was strong or gale force, leading to blizzard conditions and snowdrifts.

The duration of the Antarctic showery feed was unusual, he said, due in part to an area of high pressure covering much of South America, which blocked the usual mobile westerly flow.