Thousands Flee As Philippines’ Mayon Volcano Spews Ash

Thousands in the Philippines have evacuated areas near Mayon Volcano, with this number expected to rise if the threat of eruptions increases. The status for the Mayon area has been raised to level three.

More than 4,000 people in the Philippines have fled their homes near Mayon Volcano, 330 kilometers (205 miles) south of Manila, as it spewed ash and steam for the second day straight on Sunday.

According to the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology (Phivolcs), at least two steam eruptions were recorded before noon (local time) on Sunday. By evening, the institute had raised the alert level at the mountain to three.

The organization said it had been expecting an eruption since the volcano began acting abnormally last year. It urged residents to stay away from a 7-kilometer danger zone around Mayon’s crater.

Mayon Volcano is the most active in the Philippines. Its deadliest eruption came in 1814, when 1,200 people were killed and a town was buried in volcanic mud. Another eruption in 1993 killed 79 people. Its last deadly eruption came in May 2013, when it killed five hikers and injured seven others.

Sunday’s eruption “propelled a greyish steam and ash plume approximately 2,500 meters high,” Philvolcs said.

Volcano raised to level two

Early Sunday, Philvocs raised the alert status of the area around Mayon to level two, “meaning the current unrest is probably of magmatic origin, which could lead to more phreatic eruptions or eventually to hazardous magmatic eruptions.”

It was later raised to level three, which means the situation is considered “critical.” Level four indicates an eruption is imminent, while level five signals that an eruption is underway.

A phreatic eruption is a steam eruption that occurs when groundwater is heated by magma. The extremely high temperature of the magma causes almost instantaneous evaporation of water to steam, which results in an explosion of steam, water, ash, rock and volcanic bombs.

The 2,472-meter (8110-feet) volcano has erupted about 50 times since 1616.

Strong Earthquake in Southern Peru Leaves One Dead, Scores Injured

A strong magnitude-7.1 earthquake struck the coast of southern Peru on Sunday morning, killing one person, injuring scores and causing homes and roads to collapse.

The quake hit offshore at 4:18 a.m. local time (0918 GMT) at a depth of around 36 km (22.4 miles), the U.S. Geological Survey said. The epicenter was in the Pacific Ocean 40 km from the town of Acari.

Arequipa Governor Yamila Osorio said on Twitter that a 55-year-old man died in the town of Yauca after being crushed by rocks. Jorge Chavez, chief of Peru’s Civil Defense Institute, told local radio station RPP that 65 people were injured.

Several municipalities lost electricity, and many roads and adobe houses collapsed, Osorio said. Many residents of Lomas, a coastal town, were evacuated after feeling an aftershock.

President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski traveled to the towns of Chala and Acari, two of the areas most affected by the quake, to assess the damages and coordinate the response. He said some 100 houses had collapsed.

“We are going to send everything that is needed, such as tents for people whose homes were destroyed,” Kuczynski told reporters in Chala.

Earthquakes are common in Peru, but many homes are built with precarious materials that cannot withstand the tremors.

In 2007 an earthquake killed hundreds in the region of Ica.

Prime Minister Mercedes Araoz said at a news conference in Lima that the government would declare a state of emergency in the affected zones to allow for faster reconstruction of roads and homes. Devastating floods last year resulted in $8 billion in rebuilding costs.

Peruvian maritime authorities said the quake did not produce a tsunami on the coast. In the morning, officials said a second person had died and that 17 people were missing in a mine, but later withdrew the reports.

Peru is the world’s No. 2 copper producer, although many mines in the south are located far inland from the quake’s epicenter. A Southern Copper Corp representative said there were no reports of damage at its Cuajone and Toquepala mines.

Jesus Revilla, a union leader at the Cerro Verde copper mine in Arequipa, said there were no reports that operations had been affected.

The quake was also felt in northern Chile, Peru’s southern neighbor, but authorities said there was no tsunami risk.

Faint Galactic Glow: Intriguing Organic Molecule Benzonitrile In Interstellar Space

Astronomers using the Green Bank Telescope have made the first definitive interstellar detection of benzonitrile, an intriguing organic molecule that helps to chemically link simple carbon-based molecules and truly massive ones known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. This discovery is a vital clue in a 30-year-old mystery: identifying the source of a faint infrared glow that permeates the Milky Way and other galaxies.

Astronomers had a mystery on their hands. No matter where they looked, from inside the Milky Way to distant galaxies, they observed a puzzling glow of infrared light. This faint cosmic light, which presents itself as a series of spikes in the infrared spectrum, had no easily identifiable source. It seemed unrelated to any recognizable cosmic feature, like giant interstellar clouds, star-forming regions, or supernova remnants. It was ubiquitous and a bit baffling.

The likely culprit, scientists eventually deduced, was the intrinsic infrared emission from a class of organic molecules known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), which, scientists would later discover, are amazingly plentiful; nearly 10 percent of all the carbon in the universe is tied up in PAHs.

Even though, as a group, PAHs seemed to be the answer to this mystery, none of the hundreds of PAH molecules known to exist had ever been conclusively detected in interstellar space.

New data from the National Science Foundation’s Green Bank Telescope (GBT) show, for the first time, the convincing radio fingerprints of a close cousin and chemical precursor to PAHs, the molecule benzonitrile (C?H?CN). This detection may finally provide the “smoking gun” that PAHs are indeed spread throughout interstellar space and account for the mysterious infrared light astronomers had been observing.

The results of this study are presented today at the 231st meeting of the American Astronomical Society (AAS) in Washington, D.C., and published in the journal Science.

The science team, led by chemist Brett McGuire at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) in Charlottesville, Virginia, detected this molecule’s telltale radio signature coming from a nearby star-forming nebula known as the Taurus Molecular Cloud 1 (TCM-1), which is about 430 light-years from Earth.

“These new radio observations have given us more insights than infrared observations can provide,” said McGuire. “Though we haven’t yet observed polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons directly, we understand their chemistry quite well. We can now follow the chemical breadcrumbs from simple molecules like benzonitrile to these larger PAHs.”

Though benzonitrile is one of the simplest so-called aromatic molecules, it is in fact the largest molecule ever seen by radio astronomy. It also is the first 6-atom aromatic ring (a hexagonal array of carbon atoms bristling with hydrogen atoms) molecule ever detected with a radio telescope.

While aromatic rings are commonplace in molecules seen here on Earth (they are found in everything from food to medicine), this is the first such ring molecule ever seen in space with radio astronomy. Its unique structure enabled the scientists to tease out its distinctive radio signature, which is the “gold standard” when confirming the presence of molecules in space.

As molecules tumble in the near vacuum of interstellar space, they give off a distinctive signature, a series of telltale spikes that appear in the radio spectrum. Larger and more complex molecules have a correspondingly more-complex signature, making them harder to detect. PAHs and other aromatic molecules are even more difficult to detect because they typically form with very symmetrical structures.

To produce a clear radio fingerprint, molecules must be somewhat asymmetrical. Molecules with more uniform structures, like many PAHs, can have very weak signatures or no signature at all..

Benzonitrile’s lopsided chemical arrangement allowed McGuire and his team to identify nine distinct spikes in the radio spectrum that correspond to the molecule. They also could observe the additional effects of nitrogen atom nuclei on the radio signature.

“The evidence that the GBT allowed us to amass for this detection is incredible,” said McGuire. “As we look for yet larger and more interesting molecules, we will need the sensitivity of the GBT, which has unique capabilities as a cosmic molecule detector.”

The Green Bank Observatory is a facility of the National Science Foundation, operated under a cooperative agreement by Associated Universities, Inc.

The National Radio Astronomy Observatory is a facility of the National Science Foundation, operated under a cooperative agreement by Associated Universities, Inc.

Jet Stream Changes Since 1960s Linked To More Extreme Weather

Increased fluctuations in the path of the North Atlantic jet stream since the 1960s coincide with more extreme weather events in Europe such as heat waves, droughts, wildfires and flooding, reports a University of Arizona-led team.

The research is the first reconstruction of historical changes in the North Atlantic jet stream prior to the 20th century. By studying tree rings from trees in the British Isles and the northeastern Mediterranean, the team teased out those regions’ late summer weather going back almost 300 years—to 1725.

“We find that the position of the North Atlantic Jet in summer has been a strong driver of climate extremes in Europe for the last 300 years,” Trouet said.

Having a 290-year record of the position of the jet stream let Trouet and her colleagues determine that swings between northern and southern positions of the jet became more frequent in the second half of the 20th century, she said.

“Since 1960 we get more years when the jet is in an extreme position.” Trouet said, adding that the increase is unprecedented.

When the North Atlantic Jet is in the extreme northern position, the British Isles and western Europe have a summer heat wave while southeastern Europe has heavy rains and flooding, she said.

When the jet is in the extreme southern position, the situation flips: Western Europe has heavy rains and flooding while southeastern Europe has extreme high temperatures, drought and wildfires.

“Heat waves, droughts and floods affect people,” Trouet said. “The heat waves and drought that are related to such jet stream extremes happen on top of already increasing temperatures and global warming—it’s a double whammy.”

Extreme summer weather events in the American Midwest are also associated with extreme northward or southward movements of the jet stream, the authors write.

“We studied the summer position of the North Atlantic jet. What we’re experiencing now in North America is part of the same jet stream system,” Trouet said.

This winter’s extreme cold and snow in the North American Northeast and extreme warmth and dryness in California and the American Southwest are related to the winter position of the North Pacific Jet, she said.

The paper, “Recent enhanced high-summer North Atlantic Jet variability emerges from three-century context,” by Trouet and her co-authors Flurin Babst of the Swiss Federal Research Institute WSL in Birmensdorf and Matthew Meko of the UA is scheduled for publication in Nature Communications on Jan. 12. The U.S. National Science Foundation and the Swiss National Science Foundation funded the research.

“I remember quite vividly when I got the idea,” Trouet said. “I was sitting in my mom’s house in Belgium.”

While visiting her family in Belgium during the very rainy summer of 2012, Trouet looked at the newspaper weather map that showed heavy rain in northwestern Europe and extreme heat and drought in the northeastern Mediterranean.

“I had seen the exact same map in my tree-ring data,” she said. The tree rings showed that hot temperatures in the Mediterranean occurred the same years that it was cool in the British Isles—and vice versa.

The part of an annual tree ring that forms in the latter part of the growing season is called latewood. The density of the latewood in a particular tree ring reflects the August temperature that year.

Other investigators had measured the annual latewood density for trees from the British Isles and the northeastern Mediterranean for rings formed from 1978 back to 1725.

Because August temperatures in those two regions reflect the summer position of the North Atlantic jet stream, Trouet and her colleagues used those tree-ring readings to determine the historical position of the jet stream from 1725 to 1978. For the position of the jet stream from 1979 to 2015, the researchers relied on data from meteorological observations.

“There’s a debate about whether the increased variability of the jet stream is linked to man-made global warming and the faster warming of the Arctic compared to the tropics,” Trouet said.

“Part of the reason for the debate is that the data sets used to study this are quite short—1979 to present. If you want to see if this variability is unprecedented, you need to go farther back in time—and that’s where our study comes in.”

With the discovery of much older trees in the Balkans and in the British Isles, Trouet hopes to reconstruct the path of the North Atlantic jet stream as much as 1,000 years into the past. She is also interested in reconstructing the path of the North Pacific jet stream, which influences the climate and weather over North America.

Black Hole Spin Cranks-Up Radio Volume

Statistical analysis of supermassive black holes suggests that the spin of the black hole may play a role in the generation of powerful high-speed jets blasting radio waves and other radiation across the universe.

Black holes absorb light and all other forms of radiation, making them impossible to detect directly. But the effects of black holes, in particular accretion disks where matter is shredded and superheated as it spirals down into the black hole, can release enormous amounts of energy. The accretion disks around supermassive black holes (black holes with masses millions of times that of the sun) are some of the brightest objects in the universe. These objects are called “quasi-stellar radio sources” or “quasars,” but actually this is a misnomer; only about 10% of quasars emit strong radio waves. We now know that “radio loud” quasars occur when a fraction of the matter in the accretion disk avoids the final fate of falling into the black hole and comes blasting back out into space in high-speed jets emitted from the poles of the black hole. But we still don’t understand why jets form some times and not other times.

A team led by Dr. Andreas Schulze at the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan investigated the possibility that the spin of the supermassive black hole might play a role in determining if the high-speed jets form. Because black holes cannot be observed directly, Schulze’s team instead measured emissions from oxygen ions [O III] around the black hole and accretion disk to determine the radiative efficiency; i.e. how much energy matter releases as it falls into the black hole. From the radiative efficiency they were able to calculate the spin of the black hole at the center.

By analyzing nearly 8000 quasars from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, Schulze’s team found that on average the O III oxygen emissions are 1.5 times stronger in radio loud quasars than in radio quiet quasars. This implies that spin is an important factor in the generation of jets.

Schulze cautions, “Our approach, like others, relies on a number of key assumptions. Our results certainly don’t mean that spin must be the only factor for differentiation between radio-loud and radio-quiet quasars. The results do suggest, however, that we shouldn’t count spin out of the game. It might be determining the loudness of these distant accreting monsters.”

New Publication Challenge The Theory Of Stellar Evolution

This week, Nature published an article that could challenge the theory of stellar evolution.

“I think that, over the coming months, stellar astrophysicists will have to redo their calculations,” said Gilles Fontaine, a physics professor at Université de Montréal and one of the authors of the article, titled “A large oxygen-dominated core from the seismic cartography of a pulsating white dwarf.”

Its lead author is Noemi Giammichele, who completed her doctorate in 2016 under the joint supervision of Fontaine and his colleague Pierre Bergeron, both of whom co-authored the article along with six other researchers. The piece reports on a study of data collected by the Kepler Space Telescope.

“We were able to map the interior of a pulsating white dwarf star with precision, as if we’d sliced it into cross-sections to study its composition,” said Giammichele, now a post-doctoral fellow at Université de Toulouse, in France. The map showed the star’s vibrations sometimes reach all the way to its centre.

White dwarfs “are the core remnants of nearly 97% of the stars in the Universe,” explained Robert Lamontagne, head of media relations at UdeM’s Centre for Research in Astrophysics. “As stars slowly die, inexorably cooling down in the form of white dwarfs, they experience periods of instability in which they vibrate. These deep vibrations – or starquakes – are the key to seeing right into the very interior of these stellar remnants.”

From a distance of 1,375 light-years from Earth, white dwarf KIC08626021 emits light that is barely visible by telescopes on Earth. The Kepler, however, can focus on it over an extended period, resulting in significantly more detailed images. Because the Montreal researchers were able to access the space telescope, the authors were able to take a close look at this small star – about the size of the Earth – and its vibrations.

Nearly 300 experts worldwide specialize in studying white dwarfs. Giammichele’s initial goal was to verify a theory on this final stage of a star’s life cycle. The theory proved correct, but the team’s observations led to a number of surprising discoveries.

A bigger core

When examining the star, located at the edges of the Cygnus and Lyra constellations, the researchers discovered that its carbon and oxygen core was twice as big as the theory predicted. “This is a major discovery that will force us to re-evaluate our view of how stars die,” said Fontaine. “That said, more work must be done to confirm whether this observation holds true for other stars. It may just be an anomaly.”

“We must try to reproduce these results with other celestial bodies before we can make any conclusions,” Giammichele agreed. Although KIC08626021 was the first pulsating white dwarf identified by the Kepler telescope, approximately 60 more have since been discovered, she added. “I have enough data to spend the next 20 years analyzing them one by one.”

Ground-breaking method

The new article is Fontaine’s fourth in Nature, one of the world’s top scientific magazines, and its publication closes a circle in his career. In 1978, the professor glimpsed the potential for determining the internal structure of a pulsating white dwarf through a solid understanding of the theory of stellar evolution. “But there was still a long way to go,” he recalled. “First, we had no access to high-quality images because terrestrial telescopes gave us very imprecise images of these bodies. Then we had to create the analytical tools, the software, etc. And last but not least, we had to find the right person to pursue this lead.”

Fontaine praised his former student, who developed an innovative approach to achieve her goals. As a graduate of Polytechnique Montréal with a master’s in mechanical engineering, Giammichele applied methods used for calculating the aerodynamics of airplane wings to astrophysics. “I believe this approach is what allowed us to move forward,” said Fontaine, adding that five of the other co-authors studied under him as well.

For her part, Giammichele is pleased that one of the five articles comprising her doctoral thesis will now reach a broader audience. “What I want to do now, in terms of my career, is keep doing research,” she said. “That’s what I like most: figuring out how to solve problems.”

Steep Slopes On Mars Reveal Structure Of Buried Ice

Researchers using NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) have found eight sites where thick deposits of ice beneath Mars’ surface are exposed in faces of eroding slopes.

These eight scarps, with slopes as steep as 55 degrees, reveal new information about the internal layered structure of previously detected underground ice sheets in Mars’ middle latitudes.

The ice was likely deposited as snow long ago. The deposits are exposed in cross section as relatively pure water ice, capped by a layer one to two yards (or meters) thick of ice-cemented rock and dust. They hold clues about Mars’ climate history. They also may make frozen water more accessible than previously thought to future robotic or human exploration missions.

Researchers who located and studied the scarp sites with the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera on MRO reported the findings today in the journal Science. The sites are in both northern and southern hemispheres of Mars, at latitudes from about 55 to 58 degrees, equivalent on Earth to Scotland or the tip of South America.

“There is shallow ground ice under roughly a third of the Martian surface, which records the recent history of Mars,” said the study’s lead author, Colin Dundas of the U.S. Geological Survey’s Astrogeology Science Center in Flagstaff, Arizona. “What we’ve seen here are cross-sections through the ice that give us a 3-D view with more detail than ever before.”

Windows into underground ice

The scarps directly expose bright glimpses into vast underground ice previously detected with spectrometers on NASA’s Mars Odyssey (MRO) orbiter, with ground-penetrating radar instruments on MRO and on the European Space Agency’s Mars Express orbiter, and with observations of fresh impact craters that uncover subsurface ice. NASA sent the Phoenix lander to Mars in response to the Odyssey findings; in 2008, the Phoenix mission confirmed and analyzed the buried water ice at 68 degrees north latitude, about one-third of the way to the pole from the northernmost of the eight scarp sites.

The discovery reported today gives us surprising windows where we can see right into these thick underground sheets of ice,” said Shane Byrne of the University of Arizona Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, Tucson, a co-author on today’s report. “It’s like having one of those ant farms where you can see through the glass on the side to learn about what’s usually hidden beneath the ground.”

Scientists have not determined how these particular scarps initially form. However, once the buried ice becomes exposed to Mars’ atmosphere, a scarp likely grows wider and taller as it “retreats,” due to sublimation of the ice directly from solid form into water vapor. At some of them, the exposed deposit of water ice is more than 100 yards, or meter, thick. Examination of some of the scarps with MRO’s Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars (CRISM) confirmed that the bright material is frozen water. A check of the surface temperature using Odyssey’s Thermal Emission Imaging System (THEMIS) camera helped researchers determine they’re not seeing just thin frost covering the ground.

Researchers previously used MRO’s Shallow Radar (SHARAD) to map extensive underground water-ice sheets in middle latitudes of Mars and estimate that the top of the ice is less than about 10 yards beneath the ground surface. How much less? The radar method did not have sufficient resolution to say. The new ice-scarp studies confirm indications from fresh-crater and neutron-spectrometer observations that a layer rich in water ice begins within just one or two yards of the surface in some areas.

Astronauts’ access to Martian water

The new study not only suggests that underground water ice lies under a thin covering over wide areas, it also identifies eight sites where ice is directly accessible, at latitudes with less hostile conditions than at Mars’ polar ice caps. “Astronauts could essentially just go there with a bucket and a shovel and get all the water they need,” Byrne said.

The exposed ice has scientific value apart from its potential resource value because it preserves evidence about long-term patterns in Mars’ climate. The tilt of Mars’ axis of rotation varies much more than Earth’s, over rhythms of millions of years. Today the two planets’ tilts are about the same. When Mars tilts more, climate conditions may favor buildup of middle-latitude ice. Dundas and co-authors say that banding and color variations apparent in some of the scarps suggest layers “possibly deposited with changes in the proportion of ice and dust under varying climate conditions.”

This research benefited from coordinated use of multiple instruments on Mars orbiters, plus the longevities at Mars now exceeding 11 years for MRO and 16 years for Odyssey. Orbital observations will continue, but future missions to the surface could seek additional information.

“If you had a mission at one of these sites, sampling the layers going down the scarp, you could get a detailed climate history of Mars,” suggested MRO Deputy Project Scientist Leslie Tamppari of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California. “It’s part of the whole story of what happens to water on Mars over time: Where does it go? When does ice accumulate? When does it recede?”