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Adventure : Science

Overturning the Record for the World's Hottest Temperature

For almost a century, the world's hottest temperature was believed to be a 136-degree Fahrenheit measurement recorded in El Azizia, Libya, on September 13, 1922. This month, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) threw that record out. They gave their reasons in a study published in the September issue of the Bulletin of the American Meterological Society. The story of how the extreme temperature was refuted involves a two-year quest by a blogger, an investigation by the head of the Libyan National Meteorological Center who disappeared for six months during the country's revolution, and the amazing recovery of handwritten temperature records from a destroyed building.

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Expedition Watch: Exploring Undersea Volcanoes

Fiery_blast_hires (1)West Mata eruption. Photo: NSF/NOAA

In 2009, scientists on a cruise in the Western Pacific sent a remotely operated vehicle 4,000 feet below the ocean surface and discovered a two-mile high volcano called West Mata erupting 2,200-degree Fahrenheit lava in bursts scattered over the area of a football field. It “looked like the 4th of July, underwater,” said Dr. Robert Embley of NOAA’s Pacific Marine Environmental Lab.

Now, scientists want to share that phenomenon live. NOAA is leading a cruise to survey a wider swath of the region known as the Northeast Lau Basin to try to find additional volcanic activity and varied signs of life. They will do all this using the Quest 4000, a remotely operated vehicle that can dive 12,000 feet below the surface and map geology, sample chemicals, and collect biological specimens. All of those things are great for gathering data, but for pure entertainment value, what really matters is the video camera that will livestream the action. The Northeast Lau Basin is one of the most volcanically active places on the planet. It is the rare undersea location where ocean plates both separate and come together, a phenomenon that offers a smorgasboard of steaming, spouting, and erupting spots.

Subduction zone at the Northeast Lau Basin. Photo: GNS Science

The ocean floor is made up of giant slabs of rock called tectonic plates. The plates have beginnings and ends. The beginnings are long-lined volcanic regions called mid-ocean ridges where the earth's crust thins and lava rises up through an opening. As more lava comes up, it pushes out to either side of the ridge, spreads, and hardens. The plates of rock move out from these mid-ocean ridges until they meet another plate. The ends usually occur at volcanic regions called subduction zones, where one plate moves beneath another plate on its way into the earth's mantle. (The ends may also occur at faults, areas where the plates move past each other side by side.)

Primarily, volcanic activity at the Northeast Lau Basin results from a subduction zone. The west-moving Pacific Plate moves under the Indo-Australian Plate. The friction from the rock going down into the mantle creates heat. Some of the rock melts into magma that rises up into pools. When the pools get large and hot enough, they rise up through the earth's crust to form erupting volcanos. There are hundreds of such volcanos in the Lau Basin. For some reason, the Indo-Australian Plate also pulls apart west of the volcanoes, creating something called a backarc, a thin layer of crust where there is an increase in volcanic and hydrothermal activity. It is a lesser version of a mid-ocean ridge. Scientists know the thinning is caused from stresses between the two plates, but on this cruise they are working to understand more about why it is happening.

We've included a bit more on the expedition below so you read more about the science—and included links so you can watch live narrated videos of lava, ash, and gas hitting cold water.

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Pika: The Alpine Poster Child for Climate Change

Pika_flickr_wildxplorerA pika in its talus home. Photo: Karunakar Rayker

By Mary Ellen Hannibal

When Chris Ray got started studying pika, she could not have anticipated that these small rabbit relatives would one day become a poster child for climate change, which the species has, partly through the efforts of the Center for Biological Diversity to get them on the Endangered Species List. Because pika live mostly in alpine environments, are sensitive to temperature, and are poor dispersers, they are perhaps particularly vulnerable to increasing temperatures. In late August 2011 I joined Ray, a research associate at the University of Colorado, Boulder, at Emerald Lake in Hyalite Canyon, near Bozeman, Montana, where she has studied pika every year for the past 21 years.

Pika live in talus slopes, which are gullies of rock making gray stripes down the otherwise evergreen-covered rises around the canyon. Ray is gone from her tent at the campsite before 6:30 each morning, carrying equipment to the slopes, leaving her husband and her four-year-old son asleep. By 7:30 I head off with two young research assistants to join her. We call in to Ray and she gives us GPS points for her location. The first morning I go with them, it takes us a full hour to reach her. The rocks are piled up on each other and unsteady. The angle is steep. I'm rather obsessed with the distinct possibility of breaking my leg, and exhausted when we reach our destination, before the day's work, which Ray will continue without break until six or seven p.m., has even begun.

Ray collects data about pika presence and absence at 100 control points in a study area that is overall two kilometers by three kilometers. She also tracks temperature throughout the year using “iButton” data loggers dispersed around the talus. Using four different ear positions and five colors of tags, Ray ear-tags pika annually—this summer she tagged 45—thus recognizing their individuality, by which she can keep track of their mortality. To date she has tagged and tracked 625 unique pika; she has observed some individuals as many as nine years in a row.

Pika are saucy little bunnies, and they spend all summer "making hay while the sun shines," because they don't hibernate. One of the main things they do is cache "haypiles" in the rocks. That means they race around with flowers in their mouths much of the time. These little bunnies take the Goldilocks syndrome very far, with finely tuned sensitivity to hot and cold. While other animals have natural thermoregulatory responses to temperature fluctuations, the pika have to deal with these behaviorally. They don't hibernate, so they need a very insulating fur coat, which is good in winter, but in the summer it becomes a problem. To help deal with the winter chill, the resting body temperature of a pika is near its lethal maximum, which is what makes them intolerant to summer heat. Pika have to be out working hard all summer to collect enough food to last them all winter, and during the hottest part of summer days they take refuge in the spaces under the rocks in the talus.

While many have written the end story for pika by pointing upward and finding nowhere for them to go as the climate warms, Ray has in the back of her mind another idea. She wonders if what makes pika so sensitive and evidently vulnerable will wind up being their salvation. “Pikas are so good at finding the microclimate they need that they may avoid climate change altogether,” she says. Although that depends on a fairly stable mountain ecosystem.

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Yosemite Notifies 230,000 About Hantavirus

Yosemite National Park confirmed on Thursday that a ninth person had contracted hantavirus, according to Reuters. The park visitor, from California, has recovered. The notice came a day after the park notified roughly 230,000 people about the outbreak by email, according to the Los Angeles Times.

The park had previously notified roughly 30,000 people who had slept in locations where the infections had occurred, according to Reuters. Eight people were infected while staying in the tent cabins at Curry Village. One person was infected in multiple High Sierras Camps in the backcountry. Three of the nine people died as a result of contracting the virus. Yosemite officials said they had no evidence to suggest that anyone staying in other locations has been exposed to the virus, but they wanted to send out information as a precaution.

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Exploring Caving Accidents, Deaths, and Rescues in the United States

Shutterstock_83655898Entering the cave. Photo: Rechitan Soran/Shutterstock

Not long before Thanksgiving in 2009, 26-year-old University of Virginia medical student John Jones, his wife Emily, and their 13-month-old daughter flew home to Utah. Emily was pregnant, and the couple had plans to share that news with friends and family over the holiday. On Tuesday, November 24, John took off with a crew of 10 other people to navigate the recesses of Nutty Putty Cave, about 80 miles south of Salt Lake City. The group had received permission to enter the cave from Timpanogos Grotto, a local chapter of the National Speleological Society that weighed applications based on experience. Nutty Putty is a beginner’s cave, but there are narrow, dangerous sections where people have required rescue in the past.

Jones got stuck in one such section, an 18-by-10-inch, L-shaped bend roughly 150 feet below the surface known as “Bob’s Push.” The 6-foot, 190-pound Jones was pinched between rocks with his head below his feet. Search and Rescue personnel arrived and went to work. The team was able to raise the caver from his initial position using ropes, but an anchor in the cave ceiling broke, causing Jones to slip back into place. More than 100 rescue workers arrived over a roughly 28-hour period to help. As time wore on, Jones got on a radio and told his family jokes while they waited above, even though the upside down position made it very difficult for him to breathe and caused circulation problems. After roughly a day of being trapped, he lost consciousness. Hours later, on Wednesday night, he died.

The incident had at least two major effects in the world of caving. The first was local. Officials closed Nutty Putty Cave to future expeditions. The second began at the University of Virginia Medical School. Doctors looking for numbers on caving deaths and accidents found little in the way of scientific studies, so they decided to write their own paper. “That had us all thinking about caving safety,” says study co-author Dr. Nathan Charlton. “There is very little hard data out there regarding the epidemiology of injuries and fatalities in caves. We thought it would be important information for our area as there are a lot of caves in the region.”

Charlton and colleagues gathered the National Speleological Society’s annual American Caving Accidents publications from 1980 to 2008 and started going through them. The numbers were not definitive, as the organization relies on rescue groups, law enforcement, and local grottoes to file volunteer reports. The numbers did represent the best dataset available, and Charlton and his team analyzed them. The resulting study, “The Epidemiology of Caving Accidents in the United States,” was published in the September issue of Wilderness and Environmental Medicine. It is the most comprehensive look at caving deaths, injuries, and rescues to date. Here is what Fletcher and his colleagues found, by the numbers.

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