Tuesday, 30 April 2013

The Eta Aquarid Meteors.

The Eta Aquarid Meteor Shower will be at a peak on Monday 6 May 2013, with up to 55 meteors per hour at it's peak, radiating from the constellation of Aquarius. This does not spend long above the horizon in the northern hemisphere at this time of year, but potentially could produce good shows before dawn on the 4-6 May, with longer displays in the southern hemisphere.

The radiant point of the Eta Aquarid Meteors. Astronomy Central.

The meteor shower is caused by the Earth passing through the trail of Halley's Comet, where it encounters thousands of tiny dust particles shed from the comet as its icy surface is melted (strictly sublimated) by the heat of the Sun. Halley's Comet only visits the inner Solar System every 75 years (most recently in 1986 and next in 2061), but the trail of particles shed by it forms a constant flow, which the Earth crosses twice each year; in May when it causes the Eta Aquarid Meteor Shower and in October when it causes the Orionids.

Diagram showing the orbit and current path of Halley's Comet relative to the rest of the Solar System. Image created using the JPL Small-Body Database Browser.

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Magnitude 5.9 Earthquake in the Azores.

On Tuesday 30 April, slightly after 6.25 am local time (which is GMT), the United States Geological Survey recorded a Magnitude 5.9 Earthquake at a depth of 10 km in the Azores, roughly 20 km southeast of São Miguel Island. This is a large Earthquake, and is likely to have been felt across much of the archipelago, though it was probably far enough offshore to avoid any serious damage or injuries.

The location of the 30 April 2013 Earthquake. Google Maps.

The Azores are a group of volcanic islands belonging to Portugal, strung out along the boundary between the African and European plates to the east of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. This is currently an area of expansion, with the two plates moving apart along this part of the boundary and new seafloor being created by the upwelling of magma from the mantle and its extrusion as a new area of crustal material, the Azores Microplate. This is not a smooth process, and can lead to occasional Earthquakes.

The location of the Azores relative to the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. (Martins et al. 2008)

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Monday, 29 April 2013

Earthquake in Shropshire.

On Monday 29 April 2013, slightly after 6.30 pm British Summertime (slightly after 5.30 pm GMT), the British Geological Survey recorded a Magnitude 1.0 Earthquake at a depth of 3 km in northern Shropshire, roughly 10 km northwest of Telford or 15 km northeast of Shrewsbury. This is a fairly small quake, and is highly unlikely to have caused any damage or injuries; given its fairly rural location it is quite likely that nobody felt it at all.

The location of the 29 April 2013 Earthquake. Google Maps.

The precise cause of Earthquakes in the UK can be hard to determine; most are probably the result of a combination of more than one source of tectonic stress. Britain is being pushed to the east by the expansion of the Atlantic Ocean and to the north by the impact of Africa into Europe from the south. If is also affected by lesser areas of tectonic expansion beneath the North Sea, Rhine Valley and Bay of Biscay. Finally their is post-glacial uplift; much of the north of the UK was covered by a thick layer of snow and ice until about 10 000 years ago, pushing the rocks of the British lithosphere down into the underlying mantle. This ice is now gone, and the rocks are slowly springing back into position, causing the occasional Earthquake in the process. This is particularly true in the north and west of the country, with the west coast of Scotland being the most Earthquake-prone part of Britain.

Witness reports can be useful to geologists trying to understand Earthquakes and the structures that cause them. If you felt this quake (or if you were in the area but did not, which is also useful information) then you can report it to the British Geological Survey here.

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Sunday, 28 April 2013

Two new species of Milkvine from Venezuela and Brazil.

Milkvines of the genus Malalea are found across southern parts of North America, Central America and northern South America. They are perennial twining vines, who get their common name from the milky latex they produce. They are members of the Dogbane family.

In a paper published in the journal PhytoKeys on 26 September 2012 Alexander Krings of the Herbarium  at the Department of Plant Biology at North Carolina State University and Gilberto Morillo of the Facultad de Ciencias Forestales y Ambientales at the Universidad de Los Andes in Venezuela describe two new species of Milkvine from South America.

The first new species is named Matelea brevistipitata, referring to the short stipe of the flowers. It is a slender woody vine with spear-shaped leaves, producing peduncles of 3-5 greenish-white flowers. The species found in Amazonas and Bolívar states in southern Venezuela, and probably in neighbouring areas of Brazil. 

Specimen of Matelea brevistipitata. Krings & Morillo (2012).

The second new species is given the name Matelea trichopedicellata, referring to the flower stems, which are very hairy. It is a woody vine with elliptical leaves and peduncles of one or two flowers. The species is described from a single specimen, found near Igarapé Cajazeirinha in Pará State Brazil.

Specimen of Matelea trichopedicellata. Krings & Morillo (2012).

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New species of Onion from Kyrgyzstan.

Plants in the genus Allium are found throughout temperate regions of the northern hemisphere, with a few species from Africa and South America. The genus includes a number of important food plants, including Onions, Garlic, Leeks, Chives and Shallots. The number of species in the genus is disputed, but there are probably around 750 valid described forms.

In a paper published in the journal Phytokeys on 2 April 2013, Alexander Sennikov of the Botanical Museum at the Finnish Museum of Natural History and Georgy Lazkov of the Institute of Biology and Soil Science at the Kyrgyz Academy of Sciences, describe a new species of Allium from the Kara-Köl River valley in the Babash-Ata Mountain Range of southwest Kyrgyzstan.

The new species is named Allium formosum, meaning the Beautiful Onion. It is a 30 cm high plant producing 7-8 mm diameter bulbs and white flowers. Its closest relative is thought to be Allium spathulatum, another species known only from Kyrgyzstan, which was discovered in 1998.

Allium formosum. Sennikov & Lazkov (2013).

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Saturday, 27 April 2013

Three children killed by landslip in Kenya.

Three children, reportedly all girls, have been killed by a landslip in Magina Village, Kenya, to the north of Niarobi. The event took place around midnight between 26 and 27 April 2013 local time (around 9.00 pm on Friday 26 April, GMT) sweeping away a home in which a father and five of his children were sleeping. Two of the children and the father reportedly survived the incident. The area has been plagued by a number of such events, which have made a large number of people homeless as well as blocking several roads.

The landslip at Magina Village and the remains of the house. Citizen News.

Central Kenya has been badly affected by flooding in recent weeks, with around 10 000 people being made homeless and over 2000 acres of crops destroyed according to the Kenya Red Cross. Six people have already lost their lives as a result of the flooding. The heavy rains have triggered a number of landslides, with more being predicted. Kiambu County, where Magina Village is located, has a traditionally agricultural economy, but is becoming more urbanized as a result of population spread from Niarobi. Landslides have always been a problem during the rainy season in the area, but the rising population is putting more people in their way.

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Los Angeles shaken by Earthquake.

Los Angeles was shaken by a Magnitude 3.2 Earthquake at a depth of 12.8 km, slightly to the north of Los Angeles International Airport, slightly after 7.50 pm on Friday 26 April 2013 local time (slightly after 2.50 am on Saturday 27 April, GMT), according to the United States Geological Survey. The quake is not reported to have caused any damage or injuries, but was reportedly felt across much of the city.

The location of the 26 April Earthquake. Google Maps.

Los Angeles is located to the south of the San Andreas Fault, which separates the Pacific and North American Plates. The Pacific Plate, upon which Los Angeles sits, is moving northwest relative to the North American Plate. This is not a smooth process, with the plates constantly sticking together then breaking apart as the pressure builds up, causing Earthquakes in the process. Most of these quakes are are essentially harmless, Los Angeles is well prepared for such events and the majority of its buildings are built to be quake-resistant, but occasionally larger quakes do cause damage and casualties.

Witness reports can be useful to geologists studying Earthquakes and the processes that cause them. If you felt this quake (or were in the area and did not, which is also useful information) then you can report it to the United States Geological Survey here.

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At least three people killed by landslide in Guizhou Province, China.

At least three people have been killed when a landslide struck Mawo Village in Bijie Prefecture, Guizhou Province in southwest China, at about 12.50 pm local time (4.50 am GMT) on Saturday 27 April 2013. A further five people are missing, with rescue attempts ongoing. This is the latest in a string of such events in the province, which have taken at least nine lives this month.

Ongoing rescue attempts in Mawo Village. Xinhua.

Guizhou Province is largely comprised of blocky limestone hills, uplifted by the collision between India and Asia during the Tertiary period. The area has a monsoonal climate, with heavy seasonal rains which start in April, reach a peak in July and August, and tapir out in October. Historically the hills were covered by subtropical broadleaved forest, but, despite the area being considered to be a high conservation priority with a number of highly protected species and internationally recognised reserves, the province has been hit heavily by deforestation, making it vulnerable to landslide events as soils are washed of the underlying limestone karst.

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Plains Midstream Canada charged over April 2011 Alberta oil spill.

The Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development Board has filed charges against oil company Plains Midstream Canada over the April 2011 oil spill in Alberta State, days before the end of a legal statute which prevents such charges being brought once two years have passed expired. The incident was the second largest such event in the State's history, releasing 4.5 million litres of light crude from the Rainbow Pipeline which contaminated eight acres of bogland and beaver ponds. If the court upholds the charges the company could face Can$1.5 million in fines (~US$1.46 million).

Cleanup operation on the Peace River in Alberta in April 2011. Global Possibilities.

The leak occurred when a sleeve placed over a corroded section of the 45-year-old pipeline failed, due to a weld failure. Papers obtained by environmental group Greenpeace using Canada's freedom of information legislation revealed that inspectors from the Environment and Sustainable Resource Development Board found that the weld had not been properly inspected before the pipeline was reburied, and that correct procedures were not followed during this process, leading to poorly compacted soil around the pipeline, placing additional stress upon the weld.

The papers further reveal that the inspectors recommended a public enquiry into the spill, but that this was blocked by senior managers. Environmental groups in Alberta have accused authorities of being too close to the industry, claiming that several more spills have occurred in the state since the Rainbow Pipeline spill, which a public enquiry might have helped to prevent, and that ministers had worked with oil executives to draw up environmental regulations favorable to the industry. Newspapers in Alberta are claiming that the charges were only brought against Plains Mainstream Canada in response to the Greenpeace report, though the Environmental and Sustainable Resource Development Board Deny this.

The Rainbow Pipeline carries around 187 000 barrels of light crude per day, between a terminal at Zama in the north and the city of Edmonton to the south.

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Friday, 26 April 2013

Magnitude 4.2 Earthquake in Mozambique.

On Friday 26 April 2013, slightly before 2.00 pm local time (slightly before 12.00 noon, GMT) the United States Geological Survey recorded a Magnitude 4.2 Earthquake at a depth of 9.9 km, roughly 100 km south of Chimoio and 142 km west of Biera. This is a moderately large quake, and while it is not reported to have caused any damage or injuries, it was felt in Chimoio.

The location of the 26 April 2013 Earthquake. Google Maps.

While not automatically associated with Earthquake activity, Mozambique does sufferer several moderate-sized quakes in a typical year. This is due to its location at the southern end of the Great Rift Valley, which is slowly splitting the African Plate in two allow a line from the Red Sea through Ethiopia, and which includes the great lakes and volcanoes of east-central Africa. This has the potential to open into a new ocean over the next few tens of millions of years, splitting Africa into two new, smaller, continents; Nubia to the west and Somalia to the east.

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A new species of Jawfish from the coast of Kerala State, India.

Jawfish (Opistognathidae) are small members of the Perch Order that dwell on shallow tropical reefs. They are small elongate fish resembling Blennies. Jawfish dwell in burrows on sandy substrates, emerging to feed on plankton and other small prey, and defending the burrow by spitting sand at interloping fish. They are mouthbrooders, with the eggs and fry being kept safe in the mouth of their father.

In a paper published in the journal Zootaxa on 23 October 2012, William Smith-Vaniz of the Florida Museum of Natural History at the University of Florida and K.K. Bineesh and K. V. Akhilesh of the Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute in Cochin describe a new species of Jawfish from a single specimen caught by a trawler of the Kerala coast.

The new species is placed in the widespread genus Opistognathus, and given the specific name pardus, meaning Leopard, due to a distinctive pattern of spots on its head. The only known specimen is a 10 cm male fish caught at a depth of between 110 and 220 m off the coast of Quilon in southern Kerala. It is pinkish with a distinctive pattern on its head and sulphur-yellow fins.

The only known specimen of Opistognathus pardus, the Leopard Jawfish. Smith-Vaniz et al. (2012).

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Connecticut house struck by meteorite.

Larry Beck of Wolcott, Connecticut, was disturbed by a loud crashing noise at 10.30 pm local time on Friday 19 April 2013 (2.30 am on Saturday 20 April GMT), which was accompanied by the appearance of a crack in the ceiling of his kitchen. When he investigated the next morning he found a hole in his roof and a chunk of rock on the floor of his attic. He was persuaded by a friend to take this to the Peabody Museum in New Haven, where Mineralogy Collections Manager Stefan Nicolescu confirmed the rock to be a meteorite.

The Wolcott Meteorite. 7 News.

Nicolescu described the meteorite as an ordinary chondrite, with a thin black fusion crust from its passage through the atmosphere. Ordinary Chondrites (or Stoney Chondrites) are the most abundant form of meteorite, forming roughly 87% of all known specimens. They contain a mixture of iron, iron oxides and silicates, this one appeared to be have a fairly high iron content, and was able to attract a magnet (again, this is quite common). Nicolescu also suggests that due to the time when this meteorite fell that there is a good chance that it is part of the Lyrid Meteor Shower, which would also imply that it is originally a chunk of Comet C/1861 G1 Thatcher (named after the astronomer A. E. Thatcher, not the politician).

Stefan Nicolescu demonstrating the magnetic properties of the Wolcott Meteorite. Melanie Brigockas/Yale.

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Thursday, 25 April 2013

A least 12 fatalities after a Magnitude 5.6 Earthquake in eastern Afghanistan.

A Magnitude 5.6 Earthquake at a depth of 62 km struck Afghanistan's Laghman Province slightly after 1.55 pm local time (slightly after 9.25 am GMT) on Wednesday 24 April 2013, according to the United States Geological Survey. The quake occurred 95 km east of Kabul and 24 km northwest of Jalalabad, and was felt across much of Afghanistan, Pakistan and northern India, where it was reportedly felt as far east as New Delhi. The worst damage appears to have occurred in Nangarhar and Konar Provinces, with the Afghan Red Crescent reporting twelve deaths in Nangarhar.

The location of the 24 April Earthquake. Google Maps.

Eastern Afghanistan lies close to the boundary between the Indian and Eurasian tectonic plates, which runs through northern Afghanistan. The Indian Plate is moving northward relative to the Eurasian Plate, causing folding and uplift along this boundary, which has led to the formation of the Hindu Kush Mountains of Afghanistan, the Himalayas and the other mountain ranges of Central Asia., and which makes the nations in this boundary zone prone to Earthquakes.

Afghanistan is one of the poorest nations on Earth and has suffered decades of war. This means that few (if any) buildings in the country are protected against the effects of Earthquakes, with many buildings in the area made of mud brick, a building material considered particularly hazardous during quakes, as the bricks have a tendency to liquify, trapping and suffocating people inside. The poor state of the transport network within the country and low numbers of medical staff mean that people injured in quakes are more likely to die as a result of their injuries than in more developed nations, adding to the death toll during such events.

Survivors searching through the rubble of a house following the 24 April quake. Reuters.

Tuesday, 23 April 2013

Two new species of Gesneriad from Thailand.

The Gesneriads are a diverse group of tropical and sub-tropical flowering plants, mostly herbaceous in nature, but with a few woody members growing up to small-tree sized. They are found throughout the tropics, but are probably most diverse in Southeast Asia and Indonesia. There are over 3000 described species.

In a paper published in the Thai Forest Bulletin in November 2012, David Middleton of the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh and Pramote Triboun of the Bangkok Herbarium describe a new species of Gesneriad from Phangnga and Ranong Provinces in Thailand.

The plants are placed in a new genus, Somrania, named in honour of Somran Suddee of the Forest Herbarium Bangkok.

The first new plant is given the specific name albiflora, meaning white-petalled. Somrania albiflora is a  small herbaceous flowering plant, reaching 20 cm in height, covered in dense hairs with white bell-shaped flowers. It was found growing on limestone cliffs in Ngao Waterfall National Park in Ranong Province, close to the border with Myanmar.

Line drawing of Somrania albiflora. Scale bar is 1 cm. Middleton & Triboun 2012.

Photograph of Somrania albifloraMiddleton & Triboun 2012.

The second plant is given the specific name lineata, or 'lined'; the flowers are white with orange-brown lines on their inner surface. Somrania lineata is similar to Somrania albiflora but less densely hairy and with lines on the inner surface of its petals. It was found growing on limestone rocks in Sra Nang Manohra Waterfall Forest Park in Phangnga Province, Thailand.

Somrania lineataMiddleton & Triboun 2012.

The conservation status of these plants is unclear; both are known from single locations with high tourist numbers and corresponding disturbance, but may also be found elsewhere. It is quite likely that Somrania albiflora grows in Myanmar as well as in Thailand.

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Wednesday, 17 April 2013

The Lyrid Meteors.

The Lyrid Meteors will be at peak visibility between 21 and 22 April  this year, though this is close to a full moon (which occurs on the 25th), so the display will not be good. The meteors, which appear to radiate from the constellation of Lyra, have been visible since the 16th, and will continue till 26 April. At its peak the Lyrid Meteor shower typically produces about 20 meteors per hour, though higher rates have been recorded.

The origin point of the Lyrid Meteors. SpaceWeather.com.

The Lyrid Meteors are comprised of debris from the comet C/1861 G1 Thatcher (named after the astronomer A. E. Thatcher, not the politician). This is a long-period comet that spends most of its time in the Oort Cloud, only visiting the inner Solar System once every 415 years, the last occasion being in 1861. When the comet visits the inner Solar System it is heated by the Sun, melting the ices that make up its surface and releasing a trail of dust, which continues to follow the path of the comet. The Earth passes through this trail in April each year, creating a light show as the dust particles burn in the upper atmosphere.

The orbit and current position of C/1861 G1 Thatcher. Image created using the JPL Small-Body Database Browser.

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Tuesday, 16 April 2013

Magnitude 7.8 Earthquake in southeast Iran; high level of casualties expected.

Slightly before 4.45 pm local time (10.45 am GMT) on Tuesday 16 April 2013, the southeast of Iran was hit by a Magnitude 7.8 Earthquake at a depth of 82 km, close to the border with Pakistan and roughly 86 km east of the city of Khash, according to the United States Geological Survey. This is a remote area with a sparse population, but this is a severe quake and will have been felt over a wide area, so the level of casualties is expected to be high; at the time of writing 81 fatalities have been reported. The quake was felt as far away as New Deli, 1500 km to the east.

The location of the April 16 Earthquake. Google Maps.

Iran is situated on the southern margin of the Eurasian Plate. Immediately to the south lies the Arabian Plate, which is being pushed northward by the impact of Africa from the south. This has created a zone of faulting and fold mountains along the southwest coast of the country, known as the Zagros Thrust Belt, while to the northeast of this the geology is dominated by three large tectonic blocks, the Central Iran, Lut and Helmand, which move separately in response to pressure from the south, stretching and compressing the rock layers close to the surface and creating frequent Earthquakes, some of which can be very large.

The geological stresses on, and tectonic units of, Iran. Mahdavifar et al. (2002).

The population of Iran is particularly at risk from Earthquakes as, unlike other Earthquake-prone nations, very few buildings in the country are quake-resistant. The majority of residential buildings in Iran are made of mud-brick, a building material particularly vulnerable to Earthquakes as the bricks often liquify, trapping people inside and quickly asphyxiating them with dust. This is particularly dangerous at night when the majority of people are inside sleeping, but it is to be hoped that this quake, which occurred in the late afternoon has caused less casualties than some historic nighttime quakes.

Survivors of the quake searching for lost relatives. One India.

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Monday, 15 April 2013

Oil spill in Bayelsa State, Nigeria.

A major spill has been reported in the Nembe Kingdom area of Bayelsa State, Nigeria, with oil covering mangrove swamps, rivers and commercial waterways. The spillage appears to have originated near to the Shell-owned Well 62, early on the morning of Friday 12 April 2013, and has affected members of the Ewelesuo Community, who report they are having difficultly in gaining access to fresh water and that local fisheries have been severely impacted.

Shell Oil facility on Nembe Creek, Nigeria. Pius Utomi Ekpei/AFP/Getty Images.

Shell has stopped production on the Nembe Creek this month, while security forces carry out a clamp-down on illegal 'bunkering operations' which siphon oil from pipelines for sale on the black market. Shell claims to lose a considerable proportion of its total production in this way in the Niger Delta , and the activity clearly has an impact on the local environment (though Shell has been accused of using the existence of the oil bunkerers as a way of covering for its own environmental misdemeanors). The oil is siphoned off by cutting into the pipelines, which criss-cross the countryside, then crudely distilling the crude in oil drums to produce a low-quality diesel sold across much of Nigeria.

Security forces have shut down a number of such operations in the area this week, and claim the spill came from a new operation, which had apparently gone wrong, saying they found a small camp with cutting equipment as well as cooking utensils, sleeping mats etc.

An illegal refinery on Nembe Creek that was raided by authorities on 22 March. Pius Utomi Ekpei/AFP/Getty Images.

Oil bunkering is a highly risky activity, the oil is highly toxic and both cutting into pipelines and the distillation process frequently result in deadly explosions. In addition the authorities are prone to (often draconian) clampdowns on the activities of oil bunkerers, and are threatening to re-introduce the death penalty for those involved in the activity.

However the sale of black-market fuel provides a means of gaining hard cash in an area that has seen little benefit from the presence of the oil companies, and where the oil is often seen as a resource that should belong to the local people, not foreign oil companies or the (fairly remote) government of Nigeria. The environmental problems caused by both legal and illegal oil operations in the Delta strongly impact upon the local economy, which is based upon small scale farming and fishing, leaving many people with no legitimate source of income, which combined with a rapidly growing population and therefore increased demand for food, makes the black market oil industry more attractive than it might otherwise seem.

A charred body near to a damaged pipeline that exploded near Ilado Village in Lagos State in May 2006, killing an estimated 200 people. Sunday Alambe/AP.

The clampdown comes following a decision by a court in Holland in January that Shell is responsible for the security of its pipelines in the Niger Delta, and that it can be held responsible for damage to the property of third parties.

The clampdown has not gone unopposed in the area. On Friday 5 April a launch carrying 15 police officers was attacked by unknown gunmen, killing 13. Responsibility for the attack has been claimed by the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), a militant group that has carried out a number of attacks on oil companies and security forces in the Delta region since 2006, though authorities have denied this, blaming the incident on criminals instead.

Relatives of the police officers attacked in Bayelsa State waiting for news. Naij.

MEND has also issued a statement to the effect that it has blown up an oil well on Nembe Creek, though both the Nigerian authorities and Shell deny this, as do some former members of the group that have taken part in an amnesty and ceasefire. The statement claims the attacks were in retaliation for the imprisonment of Henry Okah in South Africa, for a bombing in Abuja in 2010. The group has also threatened to attack Muslim targets in Nigeria in retaliation to the activities of the militant Islamic group Boko Haram in the north of the country.

It is unclear to what extent these threats are likely to be followed up. The group has a history of violence, but has in theory been taking part in a ceasefire since 2009, with members receiving government funds as part of the amnesty deal, though there are internal divisions within the organization, and there have apparently been disputes over the distribution of amnesty money. An upsurge in activity combined with an attempt to widen the cause to include religious as well as territorial and economic issues may represent an attempt by one faction within the group to gain control.

See also Nigeria threatens Shell with US$11.5 billion in fines and compensation payments over the Bonga Oil SpillDutch court fines Shell over pollution in ther Niger DeltaPipeline explosion in Ogun State, southwest NigeriaOil barge explosion in Port of Lagos and Amnesty International reports on the 2012 Bodo Oil Spill.

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Sunday, 14 April 2013

A new species of Azhdarchid Pterosaur from the Late Cretaceous of Transylvania.

Azhdarchid Pterosaurs were large Pterosaurs widespread in the Late Cretaceous, but known from earlier deposits only from fragmentary, tentatively assigned remains. The groups includes some of the largest Pterosaurs known, and therefore (arguably) some of the largest ever flying organisms. The Azhdarchids had exceptionally long beaks, necks and limbs, which has led to the sugestion that they may have had a lifestyle similar to that of modern storks or cranes. Azhdarchids fall into two distict size groups, with very large animals and smaller ones that were roughly human-sized, with wing-spans of about 3 m.

In a paper published in the journal PLoS One on 30 January 2013, Mátyás Vremir of the Department of Natural Sciences of the Transylvanian Museum Society, Alexander Kellner of the Laboratory of Systematics and Taphonomy of Fossil Vertebrates at the Department of Geology and Paleontology at the Museu Nacional and Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro, Darren Naish of Ocean and Earth Sciences at the University of Southampton and Gareth Dyke also of Ocean and Earth Sciences and the Institute of Life Sciences at the University of Southampton, describe the discovery of a new Azhdarchid Pterosaur from the Late Cretaceous Transylvanian Basin in Romania.

The new Pterosaur is named Eurazhdarcho langendorfensis, meaning European Azhdarcho from Langendorf; where Azhdarcho is the name of a Pterosaur from Central Asia to which the new specimen bears a strong resemblence, and Langendorf is an old German name for Lancrăm, the village where the specimen was found. 

The location where the new Pterosaur was discovered. Vremir et al. (2013).

Eurazhdarcho langendorfensis is described from three anterior cervical vertebrae, a right wing metacarpal IV, an incomplete right metacarpal III, the proximal half of the first right wing phalanx, part of the distal diaphysis of the second smaller wing phalanx, a distal manual phalanx and several other fragmentary bones. The skeleton shows signs of port-mortem predation, possibly by a smal Crocodylomorph. Such fragmentary skeletons are usual in Pterosaurs, which had thin, hollow bones that reduced both their bodywheight and their preservational potential.

Sketch map showing the arangement of the bones of Eurazhdarcho langendorfensis as they were when discovered.  Vremir et al. (2013).

Cervical vertebrae three (top) and four (bottom) of  Eurazhdarcho langendorfensis in lateral view. Scale bars are 10 mm. Vremir et al. (2013).

 Reconstruction of Eurazhdarcho langendorfensis based upon the available material. Scale bar is 500 mm Vremir et al. (2013).

Euraazhdarcho langendorfensis appears to have been one of the smaller morph Azhdarchid Pterosaurs. The giant Azhdarchid Hatzegopteryx thambema, which had an estimated wingspan of 12 m, making it a contender for the largest flying creature ever, is also known from the Late Cretaceous of Transylvania. Vremir et al. note that there are a number of locations around the world have produced two species of Azhdarchid Pterosaur, one large and one small, which they sugest is a sign of ecological partitioning.

Map of the world in the Late Cretaceous, showing locations where different size-morph Azhdarchid Pterosaurs have been found. Vremir et al. (2013).

See also A new Pterosaur from the Early Cretaceous Jiufotang Formation of Liaoning Province in northwest China, New species of Rhamphorhynchid Pterosaur from the Late Jurassic Solnhofen Limestone, A new species of Tapejarid Pterodactyl from the Early Cretaceous Las Hoyas Lagerstätte of eastern Spain, Skull shape and diet in an Ornithocheiroid Pterodactyl and A new Pterosaur from the Early Cretaceous of Brazil.

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Saturday, 13 April 2013

Magnitude 6.0 Earthquake in southern Japan.

Slightly after 5.30 am local time on Saturday 13 April 2013 (slightly after 8.30 pm on Friday 12 April, GMT), a Magnitude 6.0 Earthquake at a depth of 10 km hit the Japanese island of Awaji, which lies between the larger islands of Shikoku and Honshu, according to the Japan Meteorological Agency. This is a major Earthquake with the potential to cause a great deal of damage, though Japan is well prepared for such events, with almost all buildings having a degree of Earthquake-proofing, and the population taking part in regular Earthquake drills. At the time of writing 23 people have reported minor injuries as a result of this event as well as minor structural damage to some buildings.

The location of the 13 April Earthquake. Google Maps.

Damage to a shrine wall at Sumoto on Awaji Island. Kyodo/Reuters.

Japan has a complex tectonic situation, with parts of the country on four different tectonic plates. The south of the country lies on the Eurasian Plate to the south of which the Philippine Plate is being subducted along the Nankai Trough at a rate of about 43 mm per year, passing under southern Japan as it does so. This is not a smooth process; the two plates continually stick together, then break apart as the pressure builds up, causing Earthquakes in the process.

The movement of the tectonic plates beneath Japan. Volcano Lovers.

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Friday, 12 April 2013

The BMC Ecology Image Competition.

Scientific journals are the mainstay of academic communication within the sciences, the place where new ideas are put forward in papers for which the authors, rather than the editors, take responsibility. They are not, on the whole, noted for either competitions or artistic content. All such rules have exceptions however, and this year the editors of the journal BMC Ecology decided to hold an Ecology Image Competition, which would be open only to scientists working in the field, with the aim of determining how the scientists' deeper knowledge would enable them to communicate more about the subject. The results of this experiment were presented in a paper published in the journal on 22 March 2013.

The wining picture in the competition was by Moritz Muschick of the University of Sheffield, and shows a Stick Insect Timema poppensis on a leaf of it's host tree Sequoia sempervirens. The Insect is well camouflaged, demonstrating coevolution between the animal and the plant; it is in the Insect's interest to look as much like the plant as possible, since an Insect that can be seen by predators is likely to be eaten by predators, but against the interest of the plant, which would be better off if the Insect is eaten, since the Insect eats its leaves. It also suggests that the Stick Insects are at significant risk from predators with eyesight not dissimilar to our own.

Moritz Muschick's image of a Stick Insect on a Redwood leaf. BMC Ecology (2013).

The runner-up prize went to Benjamin Blonder of the University of Arizona for a picture of a subalpine meadow in Colorado, which shows a variety of plants, implying strong niche partitioning within the meadow.

Benjamin Blonder's image of a subalpine meadow in Colorado. BMC Ecology (2013).

There were also several section prizes awarded, relating to the editorial sections within the journal. The first of these was the Behavioural and Physiological Ecology Section, which was awarded to Laëtitia Kernaléguen of Deakin University for an image of two blood-covered male Southerm Elephant Seals (Mirounga leonina) fighting over a harem of (unseen) females.

Laëtitia Kernaléguen's image of two fighting Elephant Seals. BMC Ecology (2013).

The Community, Population and Macroecology pize was won by Michael Siva-Jothy of the University of Sheffield for an image of a carnivorous Polistine Wasp hovering over a Scarce Swallowtail Butterfly as it fed from a Scabius flower.

Michael Siva-Jothy's image of a Polistine Wasp hovering over a Swallowtail Butterfly. BMC Ecology (2013).

The Conservation Ecology and Biodiversity Research prize went to Hara Woltz of Columbia University for an image of a Galápagos Tortoise (Chelonoidis nigra) on a road on Santa Cruz Island.

Hara Woltz's image of a Galápagos Tortoise on Santa Cruz Island. BMC Ecology (2013).

The Landscape Ecology and Ecosystems prize went to Yulin Jia of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Dale Bumpers National Rice Research Center for an image of ancient rice paddies in Yuanyang, China.

Yulin Jia's image of an ancient Chinese paddy field. BMC Ecology (2013).

The Theoretical Ecology and Models prize went to the only non-photographic image to win a prize, a graphical representation by Chaitanya Gokhale of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology showing an evolutionary game theory model in which multiple players maintain biodiversity.

Chaitanya Gokhale's diagrammatic representation of a game theory model. BMC Ecology (2013).

Finally there is an Editor's Pick award for an image showing the work of a field ecologist working in the field. This went to Raf Aerts of the University of Leuven and the University of Utah showing a field notebook in the Peruvian Rainforest.

Raf Aeart's image of a field ecologist's notebook. BMC Ecology (2013).

The competition sets out to showcase imagery by ecologists, to show the insights they bring to the subject, and in this it does not seem to have been particularly successful. The photographs are good, but not exceptionally so, and it is doubtful that any insight is present that would be absent in the work of a professional photographer. Documentary photography is a competitive field with few paid positions, and simply taking pictures of pretty animals, plants or buildings is not enough to succeed; rather a great deal of research is undertaken before the camera is even picked up. None of the images in this competition appears to be beyond the scope of such research, and most do not stray far beyond general knowledge (it is doubtful that there are many professional photographers who would be at a loss to explain why Stick Insects are camouflaged). The sole non-photographic image is hard to interpret without reading the paper from which it was taken.

This is not to denigrate the images, nor the knowledge of the scientists who produced them, but the competition seems to have underestimated the skills of professional photographers, who research their subjects thoroughly and can often put more information into an image that an expert on the subject matter with only limited photographic skills. (Disclaimer: my partner is a documentary photographer).

See also Geological Society of London to host a public meeting on Shale Gas extractionWallace Archive goes onlineJohn Snow's Cholera MapMapping Africa's groundwater resources and Geology Today to hold online Minerals and Fossils Event.

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Thursday, 11 April 2013

Eruption on Mount Karangetang.

On 9 April 2013 the Darwin Volcanic Ash Advisory Centre in Australia reported a 4.3 km ash plume rising from Mount Karangetang, a volcano on Siau Island, one of the Sangihe Islands roughly 130 km north of Sulawesi and 260 km south of Mindanao in the Philippines. The plume drifted about 45 km to the northwest of the island. Karangetang, which is one of Indonesia's most active volcanoes, has been fairly quiet since December 2012, but began a new phase of volcanic activity on 4 April this year, with lava-flows on the flanks of the volcano and ash avalanches reaching as far as 2 km from the summit.

Lava flows on Karangetang on 4 April 2013. ROMY/European Pressphoto Agency/National Geographic.

Karangatang is a 1784 m high stratovolcano (cone-shaped volcano) on the northern end of Siua Island. It has erupted 41 times since written records began on the island in 1675. The island is quite densely populated with around 22 000 permanent residents, and the volcano frequently causes problems for the islanders, having most recently caused fatalities in August 2010.

The Sangihe Island Arc is a chain of volcanic islands running between the northern tip of Sulawesi and the southern tip of Mindanao. The chain marks the boundary between the Molucca Plate to the east and the Sangihe Plate to the west, with the Molucca Plate being subducted beneath the Sangihe Plate. As the Molucca Plate sinks into the Earth it is heated by the friction and the heat of the planet's interior, causing it to partially melt. Some of the melted material then rises through the overlying Sangihe Plate as magma, fueling the volcanoes of the Sangihe Arc.

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Earthquake in Herefordshire.

On Wednesday 10 April 2013 slightly before 1.00 pm British Summertime (slightly before 2.00 pm GMT) the British Geological Survey recorded a Magnitude 1.0 Earthquake at a depth of 2 km, roughly 5 km northeast of Leominster in Herefordshire. This is a small Earthquake, and is highly unlikely to have caused any damage or injuries; it is quite possible that nobody felt it at all.

The location of the 10 April Earthquake. Google Maps.

The cause of individual Earthquakes in the UK is hard to determine, with most probably being the result of more than one source of tectonic stress. Britain is being pushed to the north by the impact of Africa into Europe from the south and to the east by the expansion of the Atlantic Ocean. There are also lesser areas of spreading beneath the North Sea, Rhine Valley and Bay of Biscay, all of which exert some stress on British rocks. Finally there is glacial rebound; until about 10 000 years ago much of the north of the UK was covered by a thick layer of glacial ice. This pushed the rocks of the British lithosphere down into the underlying mantle. This ice is now gone, and the rocks are slowly springing back into their original position, causing the occasional Earthquake on the process.

Witness reports of Earthquakes can help geologists to understand these events and the geological structures that cause them. If you felt this quake (or were in the vicinity but did not, which is also useful information) then you can report it to the British Geological Survey here.

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Chilean court suspends work at the Pascua-Lama Gold Mine over entironmental concerns.

An Appeals Court in the Chilean city of Copiapo has ordered all work to cease at the Pascua-Lama Gold Mine, citing environmental concerns raised by the Diaguita Indigenous Community and Chile's Environmental Evaluation Service, who were concerned that waste from the mine was reaching glaciers which the community depend upon for their water. The company had previously been fined for monitor glaciers in the region. The mine straddles the border between Chile and Argentina, where environmental concerns have also been raised in a campaign co-ordinated by environmental group Greenpeace. At the time of writing mine owners, Toronto-based Barrick Gold, have obtained an injunction against enforcement of a law passed by the Argentinian Congress in 2010, which aimed to curb mining close to glaciers in order to protect the countries water supplies, and excavation work continues on the Argentinian side of the border. However the Argentinian Supreme Court has demanded a national water-resource survey mapping glaciers and peri-glacial areas, and it is unclear what the mine's long term prospects are if the company becomes involved in confrontations with authorities on both sides of the border.

The position of the Pascua-Lama Gold Mine in relation to the Chile/Argentina Border and glaciers in the area. Jeanine Lee/Monteal Gazette.

The Pascua-Lama Mine is planned to be the world's highest open-pit mine, at an altitude of 4500 m, with estimated reserves of 17.9 million ounces of gold, as well as significant amounts of silver and copper. 75% of the reserves are on the Chilean side of the border, and 25% in Argentina. Barrick have predicted that it should be a low cost mine to operate, however despite work having began in 2006 the mine is yet to produce a single ounce of gold, with current operations still concentrating on removing the overburden (layers of rock on top of the desired beds in an open-pit mine). The project originally had a projected cost of US$1.5 billion, but this has now risen to over US$8 billion after a string of setbacks. This latest problem has affected Barrick's share value badly, with the company suffering an 8.4% drop in value on Wednesday.

Gold (and other heavy metal) mines can have significant environmental impacts as the deposits are never very concentrated, requiring the removal and processing of large amounts of rock. This is typically achieved by pulverising the rock and treating it with chemicals in settling pools, which require stringent controls to prevent pollution of the local environment. Historically this has led to a temptation for companies to try to circumnavigate (or ignore) environmental regulations in less developed nations, thereby maximizing profits. That Barrick have managed to run into problems with environmental regulators in both Chile ans Argentina while still at the overburden-removal stage of the Pascua-Lama project suggests that environmental remediation costs may not have been factored into the original projections for the project, which bodes poorly for the long-term prospects of the mine.

Overburden-removal operations at the Pascua-Lama Mine. Reuters/Barrick Gold.

Chile is one of South America's most prosperous nations, but there is still widespread poverty and the economy is heavily dependent on the export of raw materials, i.e. mining, fishing, farming and forestry. This has led successive Chilean governments to welcome investment in these sectors, sometimes to the detriment of environmental and human-rights concerns. This has led to a rising awareness of these issues in the country, with rising public demands for better protection of the environment and better pay and protection for the workforce.

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