Floating Seafloor

A vast community of ice anemones (Edwardsiella andrillae) living on the underside of the Ross Ice Shelf. Photo: Frank Rack

Glowing ice anemones (Edwardsiella andrillae) living on the underside of the Ross Ice Shelf.
Photo: Frank Rack

In 2010, a research team for the Antarctic Geological Drilling Program (ANDRILL) was working off the Ross Ice Shelf, deploying a remote-controlled submersible robot beneath the ice to investigate south pole water currents. A deep hole (850 ft / 259 m) was drilled in the ice, the robot plopped into the water below, and then it happened.

Where the researchers expected to be looking at open water and currents, they found an entirely unexplored ecosystem attached to the underside of the ice.

Anemones, marine worms, amphipods, and a previously unknown creatures simply dubbed ‘the eggroll’. Anemones, which are usually known for burrowing into sand, are not known for living on ice. The entire underside of the ice shelf was inhabited as if it were an upside-down sea floor.

The engineering project had become a different creature itself, a voyage of evolutionary exploration.

It’s an excellent reminder that sometimes the best way to discover the unexpected is to go in search of something else.

Close-up of ice anemones (Edwardsiella andrillae) living on the underside Photo: Frank Rack

Close-up of ice anemones (Edwardsiella andrillae) living on the underside
Photo: Frank Rack

Original study: Daly M, Rack F, Zook R (2013) Edwardsiella andrillae, a New Species of Sea Anemone from Antarctic Ice. PLoS ONE 8(12): e83476. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0083476

Pruina Indulgence

It’s not that the only thing in life is hoarfrost and fog. I know that. It’s just that hoarfrost and and fog are a big part of my own life right now.

If Wikipedia is to be trusted, hoarfrost is one of many types of frost, and the name “hoar comes from an Old English adjective for showing signs of old age, and is used in this context in reference to the frost which makes trees and bushes look like white hair.”

Maybe.13120005I went on a run yesterday, my first in a couple of weeks. Between being down with a tenacious cold, and the danger of running on country roads in thick fog, I’ve been keeping close to home.13120013The sun deigned to show itself at our altitude yesterday, if only for a couple of hours, and I ventured out, wrapped in numerous layers of hi-tech running gear in bright, visible colors (just in case the fog should suddenly ascend).

The fog line on the other side of the field, obscuring the view of Lake Geneva.

The fog line on the other side of the frost-coated field, obscuring the view of Lake Geneva.

I hadn’t brought my camera because I meant to actually run. But it ended up being less of a run and more of a stroll of wonder, smartphone out and at the ready.13120015Firstly, because the sunshine was so unaccustomed after almost two weeks of a thick grey blanket.

Secondly because it remained cold enough for the hoarfrost to stay intact.

Again, Wikipedia: Hoarfrost (also known as ‘pruina’) is composed of ice crystals “that form on cold clear nights when heat is lost into the open sky causing objects to become colder than the surrounding air.”13120030The moment has passed, the fog has returned, but for a short time yesterday, every aspect was one of stunning clarity.

Happy Birthday, Rorschach

rorschach-test-1024x967Above is a Rorschach inkblot, used for decades in psychological assessment exercises as a means of examining personality characteristics and emotional function.

Hermann Rorschach, the Swiss psychiatrist who was born on this day in 1884 and who invented the inkblot test, originally intended it as a tool for diagnosing schizophrenia.

Below are projected images of the Earth, should all ice caps melt in the long term. Reaction to them could be used, much like the inkblot test, to determine certain functions.

Do they make the viewer want to do something about rising global temperatures, do they inspire resignation, or are they dismissed as a pointless exercise?

Antarctica The light-blue outline represent the present day shorelines. Source: National Geographic

The light-blue outlines represent the present day shorelines.
Source: National Geographic

Asia Existing cities indicated. Source: National Geographic

Existing cities indicated.
Source: National Geographic

Drinking, Water and Sand

I’ve been looking at some recent and major water discoveries, here and elsewhere, and for me, they are all part of the same story.

When we talk about life, we talk about water.

Red Water

Pockets of water ice on the southern pole of Mars. Credit: ESA

Pockets of water ice on the southern pole of Mars.
Credit: ESA

The fine dust of the Martian planet surface, gathered, cooked and analyzed by Curiosity, has revealed itself to be “acting like a bit of a sponge and absorbing water from the atmosphere,” according to Laurie Leshin. Leshin is the lead author of a study showing that surface soil on Mars appears to contain approximately 1 liter (2 pints) of water in every 0.03 cubic meter (1 cubic foot). The Sample Analysis at Mars instrument (SAM) aboard the spunky NASA rover, taken together with information from other robotic explorers previously sent to the planet, indicate that this soil is probably distributed across the planet in similar composition.

But before you put on your space boots and prepare for lift-off, it should be noted that the soil also seems to contain a fair amount of toxic substances such as perchlorate as well, a challenge that would have be overcome before humans could consider any form of manned mission or colonization.

More on Martian water, from the ice caps to why there is no visible surface water, here.

On a related note, to get an idea of what can live in one cubic foot on Earth, about one large shovelful of soil, it’s worth having a look at the fascinating A World in One Cubic Foot by David Liittschwager.

Deep Water


Lake Turkana, Kenya
Photo: Piotr Gatlik

Two deep underground aquifiers have been discovered beneath the Turkana and Lotikipi basins in northern Kenya using radar, satellite technology, and verified through UNESCO supported test drilling. Together, they are estimated to contain up to 250 billion cubic liters of water. The area, home to mainly nomadic people, has been subject to extreme water scarcity and drought, while Ethiopian dam projects on the other side of the border could potentially reduce the levels of Lake Turkana itself.

“This newly found wealth of water opens a door to a more prosperous future for the people of Turkana and the nation as a whole. We must now work to further explore these resources responsibly and safeguard them for future generations,” Judi Wakhungu, cabinet secretary in the Kenyan ministry of environment, water and natural resources said at the start of a water security conference in Nairobi.

Lake Turkana is located in the Kenyan Rift Valley and is the largest desert and alkaline lake in the world. Large numbers of primate fossils have been found in the area, and the lake is widely regarded by anthropologists to be the origin of the human race.

In other news, large oil reserves have been found in the same area.

Less Water

The water supply stress index (WaSSI) model considers regional trends in both water supply and demand.
Credit: K. Averyt et al via IOP Science

On the other side of the water discovery coin, there’s the United States, where most people might assume that access to clean, fresh water is a given in a country with a long history of water distribution. But according to a report by the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES) at the University of Colorado-Boulder, one in ten watersheds in North America are ‘stressed’, i.e. “demands for freshwater sources outstrip natural supplies”. The pressure on watersheds is likely to increase with the impact of climate change, according to CIRES.

“We hope research like this helps us understand challenges we might face in building a more resilient future,” said co-author James Meldrum.

Cerumen Core Archives

Blue whale
Credit: Denis Scott via NPR

A group of researchers recently published the interesting approach of examining a large plug of ear wax (cerumen) taken from a male blue whale (Balaenoptera musculus) that had been hit by ship.

By analyzing the waxy layers built up over the whale’s life, which they compare to growth rings in trees, they came up with a lifetime profile of the chemicals to which the whale had been exposed, as well as a profile of its maturation process and stress levels. This particular earplug was 25.4 cm (10 inch) long, a lot of wax to examine.

Caption and credit: PNAS/Trumble et al

Caption and credit: PNAS/Trumble et. al.

The team is encouraging the examination of archived ear wax plugs, some dating back to samples harvested from various whales in the 1950s, to create a multi-generational database that could be used to assess human impact on both the whales themselves, and on the marine environments where they live.

For me, the earplugs less resemble the growth rings on trees, and are more like the core samples taken to research glacial ice, or sediment or rock, for insight into historical composition. Except that with the whale’s waxy earplug, the core sample has been created naturally.

Gold core samples.

Gold core samples.

Humans have always liked to gather things, all manner of things. A bit like the proverbial magpie, but our interest isn’t limited to shiny objects.

I suppose what surprises me most about this story isn’t the innovative approach to marine research – it’s the fact that there are entire archives of whale ear wax plugs to which the new method can be applied.

Whale ear bones.

Whale ear bones.


PNAS paperBlue whale earplug reveals lifetime contaminant exposure and hormone profiles by S.J. Trumble, E.M. Robinson, M. Berman-Kowalewski, C.W. Potter & S. Usenko

GuardianExpress article – Blue Whale Ear Wax Shows Beast’s Hormone Profile by James Fenner

Following Green

606x341_237086_groenland-sous-les-glaces-un-immensSome scientists are predicting that climate change will make Greenland, legendary for its otherworldly vistas, a place as green and verdant as Sweden or parts of Alaska. As species – both flora and fauna – migrate from their customary habitats, we will likely see the spread of more diversity, rather than less, into areas that were previously inhospitable or ice-covered.

There are very few species of tree  indigenous to Greenland, but commercial tree plantations have already been attempted in southern areas of the country, and I imagine given the value of commercial timber, this activity could increase.

If the ‘greening of Greenland’ process develops as predicted, it could offer a unique opportunity to see how plant and animal life colonize a region.

However, I could also envision a different kind of colonisation, the kind that didn’t take place earlier.

Ilulissat Icefjord, Greenland

Ilulissat Icefjord, Greenland

The ever-growing interest in land and mineral claims by surrounding countries to exploit resources exposed by retreating glaciers is well-known. As land becomes viable and interesting for increased habitation, might this expand to other land claims, coming up against the traditional shared land ownership of the various indigenous groups?


If climate change prompts plant migration away from the middle latitudes and towards the poles (especially the North Pole), might we not see more people wanting to follow the green?

Kuannersuit Glacier, Disko, Greenland Photo: Panoramio

Kuannersuit Glacier, Disko, Greenland
Photo: Panoramio


The Guardian articleClimate change could turn Greenland green by 2100

AFP article (2008) – Stop stealing our land, Inuits say, as Arctic resources race heats up


Briny Abundance

One hallmark of economic growth is abundance of availability, or at least, the demand for availability. This is as true of consumer goods and better jobs as it is for food and better housing.

It’s also true for fresh water.

The demand for water grew six-fold during the 20th century. Some predictions chart a rise in demand of 40% over the next 20 years alone due to population and economic growth. This comes as fresh water supplies are decreasing.

I talked yesterday about the ongoing push to privatize water resources – ownership of water itself, as well as the delivery infrastructure.

The infographic below, which was produced by desalination company Energy Recovery for World Water Day, looks at water use, and the possible solution (already a reality in many Middle Eastern countries) of using desalination to meet water needs.

The infographic touches very briefly on major challenges for ‘desal’: The high energy cost of treating saltwater (mostly fossil-fuel based technology is used at this point, which might explain the popularity of the process in the Middle East) and the environmental impact (one major problem is the polluting waste outflow of concentrated brine that can be lethal to marine environments).

One other concern I might add is that if (or more likely: when) desalination becomes an indispensable method for obtaining fresh water, then fresh water will be less seen as a natural resource that should be a human right – it will be a processed product subject to market value.

Maybe one of the future hallmarks of economic abundance will be the ability to turn brine to fresh water. For the moment, reducing our water footprint may be the best approach.

Teardrop Revival

A moss (Aulacomnium turgidum), one of seven plants frozen under Teardrop Glacier roughly 400 years ago and induced to grow new stems and shoots in a lab.  Image: Catherine La Farge via Smithsonian Magazine

A moss (Aulacomnium turgidum), one of seven plants frozen under Teardrop Glacier roughly 400 years ago and induced to grow new stems and shoots in a lab.
Image: Catherine La Farge via Smithsonian Magazine

Last year I pulled from our garage a small, disused windowbox containing only black soil and decaying plant bits. Intending to clean and replant the box, I left it on a ledge under the open sky. It rained, and a few days later, I found the tiniest tinge of green where none had been before. Within a couple of weeks, I had a windowbox of expanding and aptly named ‘liveforever’ plants (Sempervivum), which thrive to this day.

I was surprised by the re-emergence of small plants that had been dormant for over two years. Imagine the surprise of the researchers who found plants emerging and spreading from underneath a 400-year-old glacier.

Ellesmere Island’s Teardrop Glacier, which formed during the Little Ice Age of the mid-16th century, covered the island’s vegetation until very recently. The retreat of the glacier exposed the remains of that vegetation, blackened clumps of frozen mosses, liverworts and lichens, non-vascular plants generally known as bryophytes.

When researchers discovered green sprouts shooting up from some of the clumps, they had the plants tested. The results showed that the plants were not related to the existing, surrounding vegetation, and radiocarbon dating of the blackened, frozen parts of the plants put their age at between 400 and 615 years old.

Discolored mosses and lichens revealed by the melting of Teardrop Glacier.  Image: Catherine La Farge via Smithsonian Magazine

Discolored mosses and lichens revealed by the melting of Teardrop Glacier.
Image: Catherine La Farge via Smithsonian Magazine

From a Smithsonian Magazine article: “The discovery could substantially change our understanding of the way ecosystems regenerate after glacial retreat—a pretty important topic, given what’s currently happening to wide swaths of the Arctic given current melting trends.

If glaciers serve as reservoirs of plant species that can potentially regenerate, it means that the ecosystems that sprout in the glaciers’ wake are more likely to be made up of these original plant types rather than the quickly-growing, newly arrived colonizing species scientists had previously assumed would dominate such environments.”

As climate change gets underway in earnest, and retreating glaciers expose life which has been in frozen suspension for hundreds or thousands of years, I wonder what other life is still waiting to burst forth and how our own expectations will be tested.

Teardrop Glacier, Sverdrup Pass, central Ellesmere Island, Nunavut. Note: Little Ice Age trimline ~ 200 m beyond the ice margin. Measured ice retreat has rapidly accelerated since 2004 exposing pristine LIA plant communities composed of bryophytes and vascular plants From: Arctic Workshop 2013 Abstract

Teardrop Glacier, Sverdrup Pass, central Ellesmere Island, Nunavut. Note: Little Ice Age trimline ~ 200 m beyond the ice margin. Measured ice retreat has rapidly accelerated since 2004 exposing pristine LIA plant communities composed of bryophytes and vascular plants
From: Arctic Workshop 2013 Abstract

Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) studyRegeneration of Little Ice Age bryophytes emerging from a polar glacier with implications of totipotency in extreme environments by C. La Farge, K.H. Williams, J.H. England
Smithsonian Magazine articlePlants Frozen Under a Glacier for 400 Years Can Come Back to Life

Ancient Flow

Rouffignac Cave Mammoth drawing (copper etching) Via: Elfshot Gallery

Rouffignac Cave Mammoth drawing (copper etching)
Via: Elfshot Gallery

Revive & Restore, the de-extinction project of the Long Now Foundation, has proposed the passenger pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius) as the initial animal to be brought back from the evolutionary beyond.

Some might think that the recent discovery of a fossilised woolly mammoth (Mammuthus primigenius) in Siberia could be an alternate choice. After all, its blood is still liquid after an possible 10,000 – 15,000 years spent in the permafrost, permanently frozen soil.

There is speculation that woolly mammoth blood might have cryoprotective features that helped the animal survive long winters by protecting cells or tissues from freezing. The blood samples have remained liquid at temperatures as low as -17 °C (1.4 °F).

Most animal blood, including that of humans, freezes at around -0.5 to -3 °C (31.1  – 26.6 °F). There are fish species in the Arctic that have been studied for the proteins that prevent their blood from freezing down to temperatures of -6 °C (23.1 °F).*

Woolly mammoths, then, would have exceeded these lower limits by a wide margin.

It’s one thing to find a fossil of unexpected extinct life (the giant Arctic camel, for example), it’s quite another to find blood and tissue of a long-extinct animal. Other samples of woolly mammoth tissue have been found before – this latest is the most intact thus far.

Still, this discovery means that cloning a mammoth is only a slightly less remote impossibility than before because of the likely degradation of the blood cells and DNA.

Another revelation with receding glaciers and permafrost: the revival of plant ecosystems that were dormant under centuries of ice. I’ll write about this tomorrow.

Broken Ice
Photo: Seagirl via Photobucket

*According a Wired.com article: “The research was funded by Volkswagen, who no doubt want to find better ways of anti-freezing their cars. The natural proteins found in the fish perform far better than man-made antifreezes, which bond directly with water molecules to lower the freezing point. The proteins don’t need to bond. Their mere presence is enough to slow freezing.”


LiveScience articleDespite Mammoth Blood Discovery, Cloning Still Unlikely by Tia Ghose

Scarcity of Choice

Only about 2.5% of the world's water is fresh water. Only a small percentage of that (0.3%) is available for human use.Source: zmescience.com

Only about 2.5% of the world’s water is fresh water. Only a small percentage of that (0.3%) is available for human use.
Source: zmescience.com

When I was a teenager, my family spent a couple of years living ‘off-grid’. It was called ‘getting back to the land’. To me it looked a lot like an extended camping trip, but with small houses instead of tents. My main chore was to get water. There was a well on a neighbor’s property, and we’d been given permission to draw from it. So every day, at least twice, I would carry large jugs from our house in the woods, across the small road that divided our land from our neighbor’s, and fill the jugs at the well. I’d bring them back, then filter and boil the water for drinking, for washing, for dishes. I could carry around 3 gallons (11 l) per well trip, and each trip took me 10-15 minutes. Add to this the filtering and boiling, and it was a substantial daily task to get the same amount of water that most people use brushing their teeth with the water running, or two flushes of a low-volume toilet (we had a compost-outhouse, no flush toilets). Every water-related activity – from drinking a glass of water to cooking dinner to washing my hands or brushing my teeth – was directly associated with another trip to the well. I could easily quantify an activity in water-work time.

Then, after we moved into a more traditional house, there was an impressive but blessedly short-lived drought that lasted for a little under two years. We rationed water almost as much as we had when I was still hauling it by hand.

Thus purely by chance, I developed a deep appreciation for ready access to fresh water, and also, a sense that it was scarce.

I was lucky that its scarcity at that time was, for us, a matter of choice.

Water Footprint ChoicesFrom: Good Transparency

Water Footprint Choices
From: Good Transparency


World Water Day – website

UN WWD – International Year of Water Cooperation

Global Water Volume – United States Geological Survey illustration