SPECIAL REPORT: Study Shows Weakened Magnetic Field Has No Effect on Avian Compass

Reporting their results in the New Journal of Physics, scientists have taken a step forward in unraveling the inner workings of the avian compass – a puzzle that has captivated researchers for decades. The team, led by a group at Oxford University, is exploring the possibilities of a weakened Earth’s magnetic field would have on living organisms.

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Magnetic sensing is a type of sensory perception that has long been studied. Over the past 50 years, scientific studies have shown a wide variety of living organisms have the ability to perceive magnetic fields and can use information from the Earth’s magnetic field in orientation behavior. Examples abound: salmon, sea turtles, spotted newts, lobsters, honeybees, and perhaps us humans, most of which can perceive and utilize geomagnetic field information.

The avian magnetic compass is a complex entity with many surprising properties. The basis for the magnetic sense is located in the eye of the creature, and furthermore, it is light-dependent. The most accepted theory is living organisms or themselves via magnetically sensitive chemical reactions, which take place in proteins known as cryptochromes present in the eyes retina.

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Scientific studies have confirmed that humans do in fact have both magnetite and cryptochromes hardwired as part of our biological makeup. Using an ultrasensitive superconducting magnetometer in a clean-lab environment, scientists have detected the presence of ferromagnetic material in a variety of tissues from the human brain. Magnetic particle extracts from solubilized brain tissues examined with high-resolution transmission electron microscopy, electron diffraction, and elemental analyses identify minerals in the magnetite-maghemite family.

Now the question is, does the weakening Earth’s magnetic field have an effect on living organisms? “The principle that chemical transformations can respond to very weak magnetic fields, known as the radical pair mechanism, is unquestionably genuine,” said Peter Hore, a biophysical chemist at Oxford University, who is heading up the study. “What is not yet proven is whether this mechanism lies at the heart of avian magneto-reception (The ability to perceive magnetic fields).”

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According to Hore, probably the most serious stumbling block is whether the spin coherence in the radicals (the short-lived chemical intermediates responsible for the magnetic field effect) could last long enough to allow a magnetic field as weak as the Earth’s to alter the photochemistry of a cryptochrome.

To find out more, the team has built a computational model focusing on the internal magnetic interactions within and between the radicals involved in the process. The simulations allow the scientists to examine the modulation of these interactions caused by thermal fluctuations in the positions of the radicals in their binding sites in the cryptochrome.

Examining the data, the group observes the effect of a weakening Earth magnetic field is sufficient to change the proportion of radical pairs that proceed along two competing chemical reaction pathways. “The effect happens in such a way that the yield of the signaling state of  protein should depend on the direction of the magnetic field with respect to the cryptochrome molecule,” Hore adds. “Furthermore, our results show the loss of coherence caused by certain sorts of internal magnetic interactions and molecular dynamics could actually enhance, rather than degrade, the sensitivity of a cryptochrome-based magnetic compass sensor.”

Device applications
Thinking further ahead, the researchers highlight that their findings could benefit the development of low-cost and more environmentally-friendly electronic devices. “Certain organic semiconductors (OLEDs, for example) exhibit magneto-electro-luminescence or magneto-conductance, the mechanism of which shares essentially identical physics with radical pairs,” said Hore. “I believe there is scope for the design and construction of electronically addressable devices, based on principles learnt from studies of the avian compass, for determining the presence, intensity and direction of weak magnetic fields using cheap, non-toxic organic materials.”

 

JUST IN: New Zealand Scientists Discover Magma Buildup Not Seen in 400,000 Years

Could this be signs of a 400,000 year cycle along the Taupo Caldera Zone? Scientists say they’ve discovered a magma buildup near a New Zealand town that explains a spate of recent earthquakes and could signal the beginnings of a resurgent volcano.

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Geophysicist Ian Hamling said that since 1950, enough magma to fill 80,000 Olympic-size swimming pools has squeezed up beneath the surface near the coastal town of Matata, about 200 kilometers (120 miles) southeast of Auckland.

A paper published Saturday in the online journal ‘Science Advances’ outlines the findings. Hamling, the paper’s lead author, said that while other parts of New Zealand have active volcanoes, there have been none near Matata for at least 400,000 years. This is a very unusual occurrence to discover magma buildup in an area with no volcanoes anywhere on Earth.

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Using GPS data and satellite images, the scientists say they discovered an area of land about 400 square kilometers (154 square miles) has risen by 40 centimeters (16 inches) since 1950. A period of quick uplift between 2004 and 2011 likely triggered thousands of small earthquakes. Scientists had previously thought tectonic shifts caused the quakes.

The magma remained about 10 kilometers (6 miles) below the surface, deep enough that he did not expect a volcano to develop within his lifetime. Geophysicists are aware a volcano could develop over hundreds or thousands of years, or the magma could eventually cool and harden.

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Matata is home to about 650 people. Researchers hoped further study would allow scientists to develop a warning system for earthquakes in the area. The quakes are likely triggered by magma stressing and breaking rock.

Modern equipment has allowed the team to accurately measure tiny horizontal and vertical changes in the coastal land. Just over half of the area studied is offshore, however, scientists needed to rely on inferences from what happened on land to gauge the changes underwater.

Victoria Miller, a volcanologist with Geoscience Australia, who was not involved in the research, said the location was of interest because it was outside of an active volcanic area. “The scientific analysis seems robust and notes the limitations of modeling an offshore source,” states Miller.

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JUST IN: New Study Suggest Supervolcanoes Connected via Batholithic Flows

A new study by University of Wyoming researchers shows isotopic variations across the batholith indicate the magma formed by melting of multiple rock sources that rose through multiple conduits that appear to connect several supervolcanoes such as the Yellowstone caldera. Geophysical monitoring of the ground above active supervolcanoes shows that it rises and falls as magma moves beneath the surface of the Earth.

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Silica-rich magmas – like those in the Yellowstone region and along the western margin of North and South America – can erupt violently and explosively, throwing vast quantities of ash into the air, followed by slower flows of glassy, viscous magma. But, what do the subterranean magma chambers look like, and where does the magma originate? Those questions cannot be answered directly at modern, active volcanoes.

This study was funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), and its findings are outlined in a paper published in the June issue of American Mineralogist, the journal of the Mineralogical Society of America. University of Wyoming researchers suggests they can go back into the past to study the solidified magma chambers where erosion has removed the overlying rock, exposing granite underpinnings.

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“Every geology student is taught that the present is the key to the past,” says Carol Frost, director of the NSF’s Division of Earth Sciences, and a professor in the Department of Geology and Geophysics. “In this study, we used the record from the past to understand what is happening in modern magma chambers.”

One such large granite body, the 2.62 billion-year-old Wyoming batholith, extends more than 125 miles across central Wyoming. UW master’s degree student Davin Bagdonas, traversed  Granite Mountain, also Shirley and Laramie mountains to examine the body, finding remarkable uniformity, with similar biotite granite throughout.

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This homogeneity indicates the crystallizing magma was generally well-mixed. However, more subtle isotopic variations across the batholith show the magma formed by melting of multiple rock sources that rose through multiple conduits, and homogenization is yet to be determined.

“Study of the products of supervolcanoes and their possible batholithic counterparts at depth are a vibrant, controversial area of research,” says Brad Singer, professor in the Department of Geoscience at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He says research by Frost and her colleagues’ offers an  innovative perspective gleaned from the ancient Wyoming batholith, suggesting that it is the frozen portion of a vast magma system that could have fed supervolcanoes like those which erupted in northern Chile-southern Bolivia during the last 10 million years.

Andean supervolcanos

“The possibility of such a connection, while intriguing, does raise questions.” The high silica and potassium contents of the Wyoming granites differ from the bulk magma compositions erupted by these huge Andean supervolcanos. “This paper will certainly provoke a deeper look into how ancient Archean granites can be used to leverage understanding of the ‘volcanic-plutonic connection’ at supervolcanoes.”

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BREAKING NEWS: Magnetic Field Shifts Much Faster Than Expected

It was back in January 2014, when NASA’s Balloon Array for Radiation-belt Relativistic Electron Losses (BARREL)’s payload of thallium-activated sodium iodide, NaI(Tl) a crystalline material widely used for the detection of gamma-rays in scintillation detectors, saw something never seen before. During a moderate solar storm in which magnetic solar material collides with Earth’s magnetic field, BARREL mapped for the first time how the storm caused Earth’s magnetic field to shift and move.

earth's magnetic field lines

The fields’ configuration shifted much faster than expected – ‘on the order of minutes’ rather than hours or days. The results took researchers by such surprise causing them to check and re-check instruments and hypothesized outcomes. As a result, their findings were not published until last week on May 12 2016.

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During the solar storm, three BARREL balloons were flying through parts of Earth’s magnetic field that directly connect a region of Antarctica to Earth’s north magnetic pole. One BARREL balloon was on a magnetic field line with one end on Earth and one end connected to the Sun’s magnetic field. And two balloons switched back and forth between closed and open field lines throughout the solar storm, providing a map of how the boundary between open and closed field lines moved.

“It is very difficult to model the open-closed boundary,” said Alexa Halford, a space scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “This will help with our simulations of how magnetic fields change around Earth, because we’re able to state exactly where we saw this boundary.”

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We live in the path of the Sun’s outflow of charged particles, called the solar wind. Solar wind particles are accelerated to high speeds by explosions on the Sun or pushed along by plasma – clouds of solar material. Much of this magnetic field loops up and out into space, but then connects back to Earth at the north magnetic pole, near the Arctic Circle.

A portion of Earth’s magnetic field is open as it connects to the Sun’s magnetic field. This open magnetic field gives charged particles from the Sun a path into Earth’s atmosphere. Once particles are stuck to an open field line, they exceedingly accelerate down into the upper atmosphere. The boundary between these open and closed regions of Earth’s magnetic field is anything but constant. Due to various causes – such as incoming clouds of charged particles, the closed magnetic field lines can realign into open field lines and vice versa, changing the location of the boundary between open and closed magnetic field lines.

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Scientists have known the open-closed boundary moves, but it is hard to pinpoint exactly how, when, and how quickly it changes – and that is where BARREL comes in. The six BARREL balloons flying during the January 2014 solar storm were able to map these changes, and they found something surprising – the open-closed boundary moves rapidly changing location within minutes.

It is possible, but unlikely, that complex dynamics in the magnetosphere gave the appearance that the BARREL balloons were dancing along this open-closed boundary. If a very fast magnetic wave was sending radiation belt electrons down into the atmosphere in short stuttering bursts, it could appear that the balloons were switching between open and closed magnetic field lines.

However, the particle counts measured by the two balloons on the open-closed boundary matched up to those observed by the other BARREL balloons hovering on closed or open field lines only. This observation strengths the case that BARREL’s balloons were actually crossing the boundary between solar and terrestrial magnetic field.

JUST IN: Study Affirms Jet Stream and Ocean Currents Cause of Sea Ice Differences at Earth’s Poles

Why has the sea ice cover surrounding Antarctica been increasing slightly, in sharp contrast to the drastic loss of sea ice occurring in the Arctic Ocean? A new NASA-led study finds the geology of Antarctica and the Southern Ocean is responsible. A team led by Son Nghiem of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California, used satellite radar, sea surface temperature, landform and bathymetry (ocean depth) data to study the physical processes and properties affecting Antarctic sea ice.

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They found that two persistent geological factors, the topography of Antarctica and the depth of the ocean surrounding it are influencing winds and ocean currents, respectively, to drive the formation and evolution of Antarctica’s sea ice cover and help sustain it.

Equation:
Sunspots → Solar Flares (charged particles) → Magnetic Field Shift → Shifting Ocean and Jet Stream Currents → Extreme Weather and Human Disruption (mitch battros 1998).

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“Our study provides strong evidence that the behavior of Antarctic sea ice is entirely consistent with the geophysical characteristics found in the southern polar region, which differ sharply from those present in the Arctic,” said Nghiem. Antarctic sea ice cover is dominated by first-year (seasonal) sea ice. Each year, the sea ice reaches its maximum extent around the frozen continent in September and retreats to about 17 percent of that extent in February. Since the late 1970s, its extent has been relatively stable, increasing just slightly; however, regional differences are observed.

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Over the years, scientists have floated various hypotheses to explain the behavior of Antarctic sea ice, particularly in light of observed global temperature increases. Examples are: “changes in the ozone hole involved?” – “Could fresh meltwater from Antarctic ice shelves be making the ocean surface less salty” – “Are increases in the strength of Antarctic winds causing the ice to thicken.” Unfortunately, a definitive answer has remained elusive.

Nghiem and his team came up with a novel approach. They analyzed radar data from NASA’s QuikScat satellite from 1999 to 2009 to trace the paths of Antarctic sea ice movements and map its different types. They focused on the 2008 growth season, a year of exceptional seasonal variability in Antarctic sea ice coverage.

To address the question of how the Southern Ocean maintains this great sea ice shield, the team combined sea surface temperature data from multiple satellites with a recently available bathymetric chart of the depth of the world’s oceans. They found the temperature line corresponds with the southern Antarctic Circumpolar Current front, a boundary that separates the circulation of cold and warm waters around Antarctica. The team theorized that the location of this front follows the underwater bathymetry.

QuikScat satellite

When they plotted the bathymetric data against the ocean temperatures, the pieces fit together like a jigsaw puzzle. Pronounced seafloor features strongly guide the ocean current and correspond closely with observed regional Antarctic sea ice patterns.

Study results are published in the journal Remote Sensing of Environment. Other participating institutions include the Joint Institute for Regional Earth System Science and Engineering at UCLA; the Applied Physics Laboratory at the University of Washington in Seattle; and the U.S. National/Naval Ice Center, NOAA Satellite Operations Facility in Suitland, Maryland. Additional funding was provided by the National Science Foundation.

NASA uses the vantage point of space to increase our understanding of our home planet, improve lives and safeguard our future. NASA develops new ways to observe and study Earth’s interconnected natural systems with long-term data records. The agency freely shares this unique knowledge and works with institutions around the world to gain new insights into how our planet is changing.

Record High Temperatures…Or Are They? Let’s Blame El Nino

Thanks to a combination of global warming and an El Nino, the planet shattered monthly heat records for an unprecedented 12th straight month, as April smashed the old record by half a degree, according to federal scientists.

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And exactly what is El Nino? Science calls it the Southern Pacific Oscillation (ENSO). In English it simply means “shifting ocean and jet currents.” And what is the cause of this shifting? It is “charged particles” coming from above and below. This is to say from solar winds, and various plasma burst from celestial orbs.

Equation:
Sunspots → Solar Flares (charged particles) → Magnetic Field Shift → Shifting Ocean and Jet Stream Currents → Extreme Weather and Human Disruption (mitch battros 1998).

highest Temperatures by State3

ENLARGE

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s monthly climate calculation said Earth’s average temperature in April was 56.7 degrees (13.7 degrees Celsius). That’s 2 degrees (1. 1 degrees Celsius) warmer than the 20th century average and well past the old record set in 2010. The Southern Hemisphere led the way, with Africa, South America and Asia all having their warmest Aprils on record, NOAA climate scientist Ahira Sanchez-Lugo said. NASA was among other organizations that said April was the hottest on record.

The last month that wasn’t record hot was April 2015. The last month Earth wasn’t hotter than the 20th-century average was December 1984, and the last time Earth set a monthly cold record was almost a hundred years ago, in December 1916, according to NOAA records.

At NOAA’s climate monitoring headquarters in Asheville, North Carolina, “we are feeling like broken records stating the same thing” each month, Sanchez-Lugo said.

And more heat meant record low snow for the Northern Hemisphere in April, according to NOAA and the Rutgers Global Snow Lab. Snow coverage in April was 890,000 square miles below the 30-year average.

Sanchez-Lugo and other scientists say ever-increasing man-made global warming is pushing temperatures higher, and the weather oscillation El Nino—a warming of parts of the Pacific Ocean that changes weather worldwide—makes it even hotter.

The current El Nino, which is fading, is one of the strongest on records and is about as strong as the 1997-1998 El Nino. But 2016 so far is 0.81 degrees (0.45 degrees Celsius) warmer than 1998 so “you can definitely see that climate change has an impact,” Sanchez-Lugo said.

Given that each month this year has been record hot, it is not surprising that the average of the first four months of 2016 were 2.05 degrees (1.14 degrees Celsius) higher than the 20th-century average and beat last year’s record by 0.54 degrees (0.3 degrees Celsius).

Last year was the hottest year by far, beating out 2014, which also was a record. But 2016’s start “is unprecedented basically” and in general half a degree warmer than 2015, Sanchez-Lugo said.

Even though El Nino is fading and its cooler flip side La Nina is forecast to take hold later this year, Sanchez-Lugo predicted that 2016 will end up the hottest year on record for the third straight year. That’s because there’s a lag time for those changes to show up in global temperatures and because 2016 has started off so much hotter than 2015, she said.

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Clues to Ancient Giant Asteroid Found in Australia

Scientists have found evidence of a huge asteroid that struck the Earth early in its life with an impact larger than anything humans have experienced. Tiny glass beads called spherules, found in north-western Australia were formed from vaporized material from the asteroid impact, said Dr Andrew Glikson from The Australian National University (ANU).

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“The impact would have triggered earthquakes orders of magnitude greater than terrestrial earthquakes, it would have caused huge tsunamis and would have made cliffs crumble,” said Dr Glikson, from the ANU Planetary Institute.

The asteroid is the second oldest known to have hit the Earth and one of the largest.

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Dr Glikson said the asteroid would have been 20 to 30 kilometers across and would have created a crater hundreds of kilometers wide.

About 3.8 to 3.9 billion years ago the moon was struck by numerous asteroids, which formed the craters, called mare, that are still visible from Earth

“Exactly where this asteroid struck the earth remains a mystery,” Dr Glikson said.

“Any craters from this time on Earth’s surface have been obliterated by volcanic activity and tectonic movements.”

Dr Glikson and Dr Arthur Hickman from Geological Survey of Western Australia found the glass beads in a drill core from Marble Bar, in north-western Australia, in some of the oldest known sediments on Earth.

The sediment layer, which was originally on the ocean floor, was preserved between two volcanic layers, which enabled very precise dating of its origin.

Dr Glikson has been searching for evidence of ancient impacts for more than 20 years and immediately suspected the glass beads originated from an asteroid strike.

Subsequent testing found the levels of elements such as platinum, nickel and chromium matched those in asteroids. There may have been many more similar impacts, for which the evidence has not been found, said Dr Glikson.

“This is just the tip of the iceberg. We’ve only found evidence for 17 impacts older than 2.5 billion years, but there could have been hundreds”

“Asteroid strikes this big result in major tectonic shifts and extensive magma flows. They could have significantly affected the way the Earth evolved.”