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EARTH Magazine February 2019

Each month, EARTH Magazine brings the latest news and information about the science of the Earth, energy, and the environment in a colorful and approachable format ideal for all. All EARTH stories come straight from the actual published science and tells the real story behind the headlines.

United States
American Geological Institute
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from the editor

Change is inevitable. Sometimes it’s gradual; sometimes it looks like punctuated equilibrium. When scientific paradigms experience a fundamental change, angst usually follows. I recall my graduate advisor regaling us with stories from geology conference sessions around the time plate tectonics was becoming widely, though still not fully, accepted — sessions that apparently included shoe throwing on more than one occasion. More recent shifts, such as the renaming of the Tertiary in 2003, the question of what caused the Younger Dryas, the removal of Pluto from the list of planets, and the many tussles over what caused the end-Cretaceous extinctions — was it the impact, the Deccan Traps eruptions, or both? — have engendered plenty of pointed discussion at meetings. I haven’t actually seen shoe throwing myself, but I have heard…

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faster flood forecasting to improve responses

In August 2017, Hurricane Harvey battered the Houston area with torrential rains for days, triggering widespread catastrophic flooding that displaced tens of thousands of people from their homes and caused an estimated $125 billion in damage. In the storm’s aftermath, much attention was focused on how forecasts had captured Harvey’s behavior and impacts, and on how well — and how far in advance — emergency planners had conveyed those forecasts to the public. A key goal of weather forecasters is to spend less time generating forecasts so that more time is available to inform decision-makers and the public about how a potentially risky situation is unfolding. Recently, we examined the skill and efficiency of the standard Weather Research and Forecasting (WRF) model, a high-resolution numerical model employed by researchers and flood…

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deep drilling reveals how impact crater’s hidden ring formed

When the 15-kilometer-wide Chicxulub meteorite slammed into what is now Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula 66 million years ago, it was moving at more than 20 kilometers per second. The impact blasted a hole 200 kilometers wide and more than 30 kilometers deep in Earth’s surface. The forces involved in such impacts are colossal — many orders of magnitude greater than the largest human-made explosions — and scientists have traditionally relied on models to explain what happens in the moments after impact. But in a new study looking at shocked rocks retrieved from the depths of the buried Chicxulub Crater, scientists have determined how the crater’s “peak ring” formed in mere minutes. When a large meteorite hits Earth, the cratering process occurs in a series of stages. A transient crater first forms, lasting…

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mediterranean heritage sites threatened by rising seas

The Mediterranean region has been a cultural center for centuries, giving rise to numerous locales designated as UNESCO World Heritage sites. A new study looking at the effects of rising sea levels on treasures like the Venetian Lagoon, the Old City of Dubrovnik and the ruins of Carthage indicates that most UNESCO sites on the Mediterranean Sea are at risk of storm surge and coastal erosion as well as inundation in the coming decades. To evaluate the risk to the 49 UNESCO sites in low-lying coastal regions around the Mediterranean, a team led by Lena Reimann of Kiel University in Germany gathered data on the types of heritage sites, whether their locations are urban or rural, and their distance from the coastline. “Using this database and model simulations of flooding, taking…

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mighty mekong cut by monsoon, not tectonics

The rivers draining the Tibetan Plateau are some of the largest, longest and most deeply incised waterways in the world. For decades, most geologists assumed that these river canyons were cut as the plateau was uplifted following the initial collision of the Indian subcontinent with Asia. However, recent studies have found that the plateau was already elevated by 40 million years ago — roughly 20 million years before the deep canyons formed. In a new study, researchers have identified a different force driving the Mekong’s incision: intensification of the Asian monsoon starting about 17 million years ago. The Mekong River originates on the Tibetan Plateau and is the longest river system in Southeast Asia, flowing through China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. In some places, the canyon cut by the…

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archaeologists hit pay dirt in medieval latrines

Archaeologists digging in Lübeck, Germany, unearthed an unusual source of information about past dietary habits in the city: parasite eggs recovered from 700-year-old latrines. Researchers excavated fecal samples dating from the 12th through the 17th centuries from latrines in eight medieval houses in the city, which was a busy Baltic Sea trading port in the Middle Ages. Using microscopic techniques and analyses of preserved DNA, they identified parasitic worms in the samples. While they found high counts of roundworm eggs in samples spanning the roughly 500-year period studied, there was a notable shift in the presence of eggs from different types of tapeworms, the team reported in Proceedings of the Royal Society B. In samples from before about 1300,eggs from Diphyllobothrium latum were prevalent, suggesting that the people of Lübeck were eating…