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Planet Earth

Science Tuesday examines three of the most mind-blowing recent developments in Earth science and physics

Dormant volcanoes still simmering

It might be time to rethink that plan to move to Hawaii. A new study in the March 3 Nature journal suggests that even when volcanoes are not erupting, the magma inside them is still reheating at a far faster rate than previously thought.

Traditional science says that because magma reservoirs within volcanoes are so deep and vast, it can take thousands of years for them to reheat to the point of a new eruption. But Alain Burgisser and a team of researchers at France’s Orléans Institute of Earth Sciences have found that in the process of newly molten magma in the chamber mixing with more viscous magma, a dormant volcano could reawake in a period of just a few months.

The researchers say this finding could lead to new monitoring techniques that would allow seismographers to better predict the intervals between eruptions and predict new eruptions.

According to The Daily Mail, this announcement comes in the nick of time, as scientists are currently looking into the possibility of an eruption in the Yellowstone Caldera in Wyoming’s Yellowstone National Park. This supervolcano has erupted infrequently over the course of its life, but each eruption, including three super eruptions in the past 2.1 million years, was so massive that it created the caldera that exists today, after the enormity of the repeated blasts collapsed the ground into a huge well.

The Caldera’s last eruption had a force 2,500 times that of Mount St. Helens. The Daily Mail reported that if the Caldera were to erupt again soon, the fumes and ash from the blast would render two-thirds of the United States uninhabitable.

And just this week, reports say that Hawaii’s hyperactive Kilauea volcano, located on the island of Kauai, has begun to erupt again, spewing lava and fumes after its crater collapsed Saturday.

Animal life may be on brink of mass extinction

Book that trip to the rainforest now, because the planet’s biodiversity may be about to take a hit.

A study published March 3 in the scientific journal Nature suggests that Earth’s species may soon undergo a wipeout on a scale that has not been seen since the mass extinction of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago.

A mass extinction, according to the study, occurs when Earth loses 75 percent of its species in a time span that is considered geologically short. This can range from hundreds of thousands of years to a few million.

The study reported that the extinction could begin in the next 300 to 2,000 years.

Though a mass extinction may appear to occur on a hugely long timeline, the scientists say that their estimates for the projected losses in this period are still significant. The projected losses are also higher than in any previous extinction, even considering the number of new species still discovered daily.

According to Discover, the researchers estimated the rate of mammal extinction will be 80 species out of more than 5,000 total in the last 500 years. Relative to the sluggish speed of typical geological development, the scientists say that this is a startling figure. And ScienceNOW reported that if all currently endangered or threatened species were to die out in the next 100 years, then the three-quarter loss would be reached in the next 334 years.

The scientists have taken their findings as a rallying cry for increased conservation efforts. Lead researcher Anthony Barnosky told MSNBC that most of the driving factors behind the coming extinction are “caused by us.”

“Look outside of your window,” Barnosky told ScienceNOW. “Imagine taking away three-quarters of the living things you see and ask yourself if you want to live in that world.”

Time could end within our planet’s lifespan

The good news is that new research does not suggest that time could end in 2012. The bad news is that it suggests time could end just 3.7 billion years later than that.

A 2010 paper submitted to the research collection arXiv by scientists at the University of California-Berkeley suggests that there is a 50 percent chance time will end in the next 3.7 billion years, taking all of us with it in the manner of a black hole.

The possibility of time being finite is a solution to a problem that is inherent in eternal time, known as the measure problem. The gist, according to PhysOrg.com, is this: in eternal time and in an eternally expanding universe, all possible events occur an infinite number of times. Even if something seems completely unlikely in our limited context – winning the lottery, for example – it is technically infinitely reoccurring on a long enough timeline.

This poses a serious contradiction to the science of probability, which most scientists take to be a necessary feature of reality. Though we can view our short-term probabilities on a comparably short-term scale, if only to make them functional, science in an eternal timeline cannot actually know why these probabilities work.

In order to solve the measure problem, the Berkeley researchers have proposed that time may not actually be eternal, meaning that the integrity of probabilities is safe. And according to Technology Review, the most conservative estimates for a possible end of time are within the lifetime of the Earth and Sun.

According to PhysOrg.com, the theory is a purely logical conclusion based on three assumptions: first, the fairly common agreement that the universe is eternally inflating; second, that “the definition of probability is based on the relative frequency of an event”; and third, that in an infinite universe, science could only determine probabilities by limiting its source material to “a finite subset of the infinite multiverse.”

This last assumption is still in debate, but if time should end up ending, don’t be too afraid – if you happen to be around in three-odd billion years, you won’t explicitly experience the possible end of time in a conscious way. The study states that “the observer will necessarily run into the cutoff before observing the demise of any other system,” according to PhysOrg.com, which compared the scenario to crossing a black hole’s threshold.

One Comment

  1. Thanks for reporting on the present mass extinction. However, it’s important to point out that the mass extinction is most definitely happening now, with 50 to 100 species becoming extinct today and every day. The authors estimate that *within* 300 years we’ll have lost 75% of species, which is their definition of a mass extinction.

    It should also be pointed out that present conservation efforts are only scratching the surface of this crisis. Our food, our health and our lives depend on biodiversity and we all need to become aware of what’s going on around us in the natural world. In fact, the Core Curriculum is running its second annual Ecolympics from April 1 to 15 to raise awareness about this problem. The Ecolympics are a challenge for us all to become aware of our footprint on the environment and reduce its impact. We’re having individual challenge events, film nights, nature walks and a vegetarian cooking class. We will also have some awesome eco-prizes. We encourage broad participation from the entire BU community — and beyond. Check out our blog at http://ecolympics.blogspot.com/ and our main
    page here: http://www.bu.edu/core/ecolympics/

    We’re all Competing for Team Earth.
    Sustainably yours,
    Daniel Hudon
    Natural Science Lecturer,
    CAS Core Curriculum.