March 17, 2014

Mercury has shrunk almost nine miles in diameter.     Photo: Courtesy of NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington

Mercury Is Shrinking

Almost 9 miles narrower

The solar system’s smallest planet is getting even smaller.

Mercury has shrunk almost nine miles in diameter over the past four billion years, according to a report published Sunday. The reason? The planet is cooling, making its single tectonic plate contract and warp the surface into rocky ridges.

"It is Mercury's version of a mountain belt," Paul Byrne, a planetary geologist and lead author of the study, told National Geographic. "It would be a very dramatic landscape." 

All of the planets in the solar system are getting colder, and Mercury is no exception, despite its proximity to the sun. But the process has taken a harder toll on the small planet, forming cliffs as tall as Mount St. Helens and ridges longer than twice the length of Florida.

The findings come from the Messenger spacecraft, which has circled Mercury since 2011. Now that the ship has successfully mapped the planet’s entire surface, earthbound scientists have a detailed map of the alien landscape.

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The quake's epicenter was just northwest of Los Angeles.     Photo: Courtesy of Google Maps

Tremor Shakes Los Angeles

LAPD: "We are well aware of it."

Last week, Northern California "dodged a bullet" when a magnitude 6.9 earthquake struck off the Eureka coast. This morning, Southern California took its turn. A magnitude 4.4 quake originated in the San Fernando Valley, about six miles north-northwest of the westside L.A. neighborhood Westwood.

Occurring at 6:25 a.m., the earthquake was the largest to strike Los Angeles in years and shook many area residents awake. In a press conference, USGS seismologist Robert Graves noted that six aftershocks, including a magnitude 2.7 tremor, followed the quake but that the probability of the quake foreshadowing a more serious episode was only about 5 percent. Scientists have predicted for years that the next "megaquake" to shake the West Coast could strike Los Angeles.

Because Southern California hasn't seen this type of moderate earthquake in a while, it continued the trend of major metropolitan areas overreacting to moderate tremors. The LAPD tweeted a request asking residents to stop calling 911 about the quake, saying, "We are well aware of it. Lines need to be kept open for emergencies." Local news anchors on KTLA reacted when the quake shook their studio during their broadcast.

Celebrities also took to Twitter to share their thoughts, forever answering the question of how American luminaries like Kim Kardashian and Ryan Seacrest would respond to a natural disaster:

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Nepal officials have again proposed installing ladders on Everest's Hillary Step.     Photo: blyjak/Thinkstock

More Ladders on Everest

Hillary Step too crowded

Nepal’s tourism ministry proposed installing ladders on Everest’s Hillary Step for a second time early Monday morning. The government body already announced that additional ropes would be fixed on congested ice walls, including the Hillary Step, for the upcoming season in an effort to ease major traffic jams on the world’s tallest mountain.

The Hillary Step is a 40-foot section of rock wall that climbers have to complete before reaching the summit. It's been a controversial bottleneck for years as both ascending and decending climbers have to pass through just before or after their summit bids. During the peak climbing months of April to June, climbers are often halted at the Hillary Step due to crowds, a dangerous and frustrating delay.

Large numbers have swarmed the mountain in recent years. In 2013, more than 650 people reached the summit and nearly 200 more tried. For the 2014 season, soldiers will be stationed at base camp, a response to the high-profile brawl at base camp last year involving Ueli Steck, which was sparked by a delay on the mountain. Also, as of April 1, climbers will be required to haul eight kilograms of trash off the mountain to fight decades of debris buildup.

Officials have not decided on a timeline for the Hillary Step ladder proposal. Transporting and installing the ladders will be a challenge.

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An illegal haul of rhino horns.     Photo: Stockbyte/Getty Images

Warren Buffett's Son Aids Anti-Poaching

Gives $24 million to save rhinos

While Warren Buffett is offering $1 billion to whoever can correctly forecast all of the matchups in the NCAA March Madness basketball tournament, his son, Howard Buffett, is endeavoring to curb Africa's rhino-poaching epidemic.

The son of the billionaire investor and Berkshire Hathaway Inc. chairman donated $24 million to South Africa's national parks service on Friday to fund a high-tech campaign against rhino poaching. This year, 172 rhinos have already been poached, according to South Africa's Department of Environmental Affairs.

"South Africa remains the principal source of rhino horn for the illicit trade," according to a report from the International Union for Conservation of Nature. The report estimates that 3,226 horns were taken from rhinos poached in Africa from 2009 to September 2012, which excludes last year's massive hike in rhino poaching.

"This is very much like our drug war on our U.S./Mexican border," Howard Buffett told reporters, referring to how illegal hunters from Mozambique infiltrate Kruger National Park (KNP) in South Africa.

The money will fund a 30-month campaign in Kruger National Park and provide rangers with a helicopter, an aerostat balloon, and land vehicles equipped with sensors to track down poachers.

In parts of Asia, rhino horns are worth more per ounce than gold. Believed to be a cure-all for everything from cancer to hangovers, one kilogram (2.2 pounds) of rhino horn can fetch between $65,000 to $100,000 in Vietnam.

Edna Molewa, South Africa's Minister of Water and Environmental Affairs, told Reuters that "fighting and winning the battle in South Africa is fighting and winning the battle in the world."

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What did you call me?!     Photo: Getty Images

Little Baby Everest?

Nature names for tykes on the rise

Your kids’ kids are gonna have some earthy names, say the baby-naming experts at Nameberry.com. We’re talking names like Everest, Nile, and Beach.

Though vintage-style monikers are currently popular—Beatrice and Clementine, for example—place names and ethnic-sounding names will be on the rise in the near future, Pam Satran, author of several baby-naming books and the woman behind Nameberry, told ABC News.

"Just like fashion forecasters are looking at what's in style now and predict what will be coming up in 10 or 20 years, we do the same," Satran said. "We look at origins of names, the sounds that are attracting people, and pop culture influences."

Who knows? Maybe it’ll be the norm to name the kids after mountains in the future. Although Everest is not popular now, Newberry says it's part of a new style wave that "parents in search of more avant-garde names will want to have their eyes on." After all, "the snow-capped Everest would surely stand out in a classroom yet has an acceptable name-like feel."

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