Wednesday, December 21, 2016

The Everlasting Lightning Storm on the Catatumbo River

Over the mouth of the Catatumbo River in Zulia, Venezuela, where it pours into Lake Maracaibo, one of the most spectacular natural weather phenomena occurs nightly for roughly one-third of the year. This phenomenon is a barrage of lightning storms that crackle across the sky. It is known locally as Ralampago del Catatumbo. The lightning is accompanied by storm clouds and rain. There is a rumor that the lightning is silent. However, those who have gotten close to it can attest that it sounds like any other lightning storm. It is just visible from so far off, it is possible to see it and not hear it.

The Catatumbo Lightning typically begins at night or in the evening. The lightning tends to strike in the clouds. However, like all lightning, it is unpredictable. It can flash at average rates of up to five times per minute and can continue for up to ten hours. Even happening once a year, this lightning would be quite a show. The lightning is so bright that sailors can see it for miles, thus it is nicknamed "the Lighthouse of Maracaibo."

As far as history can tell us, the Catatumbo Lightning is not a new phenomenon. The first known mention of it was in 1597, though it could have been happening for much longer. The story goes that when Sir Francis Drake attempted to launch a surprise attack in the area, he was unsuccessful because the Catatumbo Lightning lit up the night sky, revealing his invading force to the locals.

There are several hypotheses to explain the Catatumbo Lightning. They include uranium in local bedrock; trapped wind, heat and moisture and the way the aforementioned things circulate in the area; methane and oil deposits are even culprits. Some speculate that it could be any combination of these things as well. In reality, we simply do not know. We do know that the lake is on the edge of the Atlantic, there are flat swamps in the area and the mountains do a good job of trapping the elements near the opening of the Catatumbo River. The trapping of moisture and heat seems to make sense, given that the Catatumbo Lightning slows down or stops during droughts. This shows us that, at the very least, moisture plays some role in creating these massive storms.

Seeing the Catatumbo Lightning is an adventure for outsiders. There is no resort at the edge of the lake from which you can view the lightning while sipping a cocktail. We are talking about the kind of place where you need mosquito netting, a poncho and probably a boat. You may find yourself in a village where toilets do not flush into pipes or where houses are on stilts. This is only for the truly adventurous. If that does not sound appealing, there are plenty of videos of the Ralampago del Catatumbo.


The Catatumbo Everlasting Lightning Storm, retrieved 7/27/11,

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

The 7 Tallest Volcanoes On Earth

Mount Saint Helens 1985
At this time, there are more than 1,500 volcanoes on the surface of the Earth. This number does not include the volcanoes that exist under the ocean, of which there are potentially thousands. The largest of these 1,500 volcanoes pose a major threat to those who live in their shadows. Some of them even have the ability to threaten lives thousands of miles away. Here is a list of some of the largest volcanoes on Earth by height. Some of them are not a major threat, despite their size. Others have killed thousands in the past and could readily do so again in the future.

Mount Vesuvius

Height: Roughly 4,000 feet

Type: Stratovolcano

Status: Active

Year of Last Eruption: 1944

Mount Vesuvius is located on the west coast of Italy, on the Tyrrhenian Sea. This is the very same volcano that was responsible for the destruction of the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum in 79 A.D. Mount Vesuvius is the shortest of the volcanoes on this list. However, the height of this volcano has little bearing on how deadly it can be. Today there are millions of people living within range of this volcano. A particularly large eruption could have terrible consequences.

Mount Pelee

Height: Roughly 4,582 feet

Type: Compound Volcano

Status: Dormant

Year of Last Eruption: 1929-1932

Mount Pelee is located on the island of Martinique in the West Indies. This volcano became famous after an eruption in 1902 that destroyed the town of St. Pierre. An estimated 29,000 people were killed.

Mount Pinatubo

Height: Roughly 4,872 feet

Type: Stratovolcano

Status: Active

Year of Last Eruption: A secondary eruption occurred in 1994.

Mount Pinatubo is located in the Philippines. The largest eruption that has happened there in recent history occurred in 1991. This eruption was unique in that scientists had been able to predict it and many people had been evacuated. Nonetheless, 847 people died and 23 went missing as a result of the massive eruption.

Mount St. Helens

Height: 8 Roughly 8,364 feet

Type: Stratovolcano

Status: Active

Year of Last Eruption: 2004-2008

Mount St. Helens is located in the Cascade Mountains in Washington State. It is the most famous volcano in the U.S.A. because of its eruption in 1980. The eruption caused the north face of this once picturesque mountain to collapse. It destroyed nearly 1,314 miles of forest and killed hundreds of large animals. Fifty-seven people were killed in all, despite warnings of an imminent eruption.

Mount Tambora

Height: Roughly 9,354 feet

Type: Stratovolcano

Status: Active

Year of Last Eruption: 1967

Mount Tambora is located on the island of Sumbawa in Indonesia. Mount Tambora had the largest eruption in recorded history in 1816. That year became known as the year without summer all over the world. The eruption killed an estimated 80,000 people. The people of New England, nearly 10,000 miles away, were hit pretty hard by weather changes caused by the eruption. They recorded frost every month of that year and it even snowed in June.

Mount Etna

Height: Roughly 10,925 feet

Type: Stratovolcano

Status: Active

Year of Last Eruption: 2008

Mount Etna is located on the island of Sicily, Italy. It is the most active and tallest of all the volcanoes in Europe. Mount Etna has erupted more than 200 times since 1500 BC. This includes a series of eruptions that lasted thirteen years between 1972 and 1992. Eruptions from the volcano have threatened to destroy the town of Catania several times. Attempts have been made twice to divert the flow of lava away from the town. Both efforts failed.

Mauna Loa

Height: Roughly 13,000 feet above sea level, Roughly 56,000 feet from base to summit

Type: Shield Volcano

Status: Active

Year of Last Eruption: 1984

Mauna Loa is located on the island of Hawaii. Its name means Long Mountain in the language of the natives. It is not only the tallest volcano on Earth, but it is also the tallest mountain from base to summit. The volcano takes up roughly half of the island. Mauna Loa has erupted 33 times since 1843.

These volcanoes are some of the largest in terms of elevation. There are other, larger volcanoes on Earth that are considered larger due to volume and potential for disaster. For example, the megavolcano that resides under Yellowstone Park has the potential to affect weather the world over and to kill millions. The volcanoes listed here are big and dangerous, but they are not the only volcanoes on the planet that are a threat to mankind.


Ball, Jessica, Mount Etna-Italy, retrieved 7/15/09,

Mauna Loa; Earth’s Largest Volcano, retrieved 7/15/09,

Ball, Jessica, Mount Vesuvius-Italy, retrieved 7/15/09,

Tambora, retrieved 7/15/09,

Pinatubo Volcano “The Sleeping Giant Awakens”, retrieved 7/15/09,

Discover Mount-Pelee, one of the deadliest volcano ever, retrieved 7/15/09,,com_frontpage/itemid,1l/lang;en/

Friday, October 28, 2016

The Events Leading Up To The 1902 Eruption of Mount Pelee

Photo of the eruption
Mt. Pelee is a stratovolcano located on the island of Martinique in the Caribbean. In 1902, the volcano erupted and virtually destroyed the growing city of St. Pierre. It was the deadliest eruption of the 20th century. An interesting thing about this eruption is the number of events that occurred leading up to it and the apparent complacency of the people that lived in St. Pierre.

In January of 1902, Mt. Pelee began to develop new fumaroles and there was increased fumarole activity on the mountain. Apparently, this had happened in the past and the volcano had not erupted in living memory, so it was not seen as a problem. Other ominous signs came from the mountain, over time, such as the spitting of ash and rumbling coming from the mountain. Still, the people of St. Pierre ignored the mountain. Some residents even continued taking excursions up the mountain.

The volcano started showing what would now be considered sure signs of a pending eruption on April 23, 1902. Small explosions began occurring near the top of the mountain. These explosions caused wildlife to flee. Countless fire ants and centipedes descended upon the local sugar mill. They bit people and animals alike and caused a great deal of turmoil. The most terrifying thing was the procession of thousands of venomous snakes that slithered through the St. Pierre. An estimated 50 people and 200 animals died as a result of bites from these panicked snakes.

The once dry Etang Sec crater of Mt. Pelee began to fill with scalding water. Visitors to the mountain said that they heard the sound of a bubbling cauldron coming from inside the crater. On May 5, the rim of the crater crumbled and the heated water poured into the Blanche River. A lahar formed when the water from the Etang Sec joined with pyroclastic debris. The lahar moved at an estimated rate of 62 miles an hour. When it reached the ocean, it caused a large wave to flood portions of the St. Pierre waterfront. Between 23 and 150 people were killed that day.

When people became nervous and decided to try and leave St. Pierre, the government wouldn’t let them. Barriers were set up on a road leading out of the city and residents were forced to return. They were told that St. Pierre was the safest place to be during the heightened activity from Mt. Pelee. This misinformation was also published in newspapers. The result was a stream of people actually entering St. Pierre in the time before the eminent eruption. By the time Mt. Pelee erupted, on May 8, 1902, the estimated population of St. Pierre was 28,000 or more.

The events that occurred before the 1902 eruption of Mt. Pelee would have led to the evacuation of all people near the volcano today. However, in 1902, volcanology was a relatively new science and many people mistakenly thought that the volcano was harmless. It was anything but. It erupted so forcefully that every person in St. Pierre, except two very lucky men, died as a result of the blast, the hot gas cloud or the pyroclastic flows.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

The Devastation of the Okeechobee Hurricane

The aftermath in West Palm Beach
The Okeechobee Hurricane or, in Puerto Rico, Hurricane San Felipe Segundo, occurred in September of 1928. The hurricane made landfall in the Leeward Islands, Guadeloupe, Puerto Rico, the Bahamas and the state of Florida. The Okeechobee Hurricane was at different times a category three, four and five hurricane as it made its destructive path through these locations. The damage caused by this hurricane was at the time estimated to be one hundred million dollars. By today’s standards that would be equal to one billion dollars. A total of 4,078 people or more perished as a direct result of the storm.

The Okeechobee Hurricane was first spotted 900 miles east of Guadeloupe on September 10, 1928. Two days later, on September 12, the hurricane struck the island chain as a category three. The storm caused around 1,200 deaths in Guadeloupe and major property damage. The hurricane then hit the Leeward Islands causing 45 deaths. The damage to crops and property was devastating.

The very next day, the hurricane was at a category five when it made landfall in Puerto Rico. Winds were reported around 160 miles an hour on the island. Around 36 hours before the storm hit, the residents were warned of the danger. They were able to prepare, so loss of life was comparably low with only 300 fatalities. Hurricane Okeechobee was responsible for 50 million dollars (500 million dollars today) worth of damage in Puerto Rico. Several hundred thousand people on the island lost their homes.

The hurricane then moved across the Bahamas as a category four. In the Bahamas, residents were also prepared. There was not a single fatality on the island. Though, 18 people went missing when their sailboat was lost at sea. They are presumed dead.

On September 16, Hurricane Okeechobee made landfall in the state of Florida as a category four. The results were devastating. The eye of the storm passed over Palm Beach County and went straight for Lake Okeechobee. Most of the damage sustained on the Florida coast was in the area of Palm Beach, but loss of life in the area was minimal. There were only 26 fatalities. The population near Lake Okeechobee would not be nearly as lucky.

When the hurricane finally hit Lake Okeechobee winds were around 140 miles per hour. As the winds blew southward across the lake, a storm surge overflowed a dike on its southern edge. This resulted in floods covering hundreds of square miles of farming land and communities. A smaller flood on the northern part of the lake occurred a little later, when the dikes there crumbled.

Many of the bodies of the deceased were lost as floodwaters poured into the Everglades. The floodwaters remained for some weeks, so it was very difficult for relief workers to recover and bury the dead. Eventually mass graves were dug for the bodies, but after a few days even that was not enough. The bodies began to decay in the Florida sun, so survivors were forced to burn the dead.

All told, 2,500 people or more were killed in Florida that fateful day. Around 1,100 of them were buried in one grave in the Port Mayaca Cemetery. The hurricane caused 25 million dollars(250 million dollars today) worth of property damage in Florida.

After leaving Lake Okeechobee, the hurricane moved northeast over Florida and into Georgia and the Carolinas causing only minimal damage in these places. In the aftermath of the hurricane, it became apparent to authorities that flood control on Lake Okeechobee needed to be brought up to par. Building codes were also changed in the hopes that future hurricanes would not cause such extensive damage.


Doup, Liz, 1928-Okeechobee, Sun-Sentinel, September 11, 1988

Wikipedia, Okeechobee Hurricane, retrieved 6/5/06,

Sunday, October 2, 2016

The 1925 Tri-State Tornado

Aftermath in Griffin, Indiana
The 1925 Tri-State Tornado was the single most deadly tornado in United States history. This massive cyclone ripped through parts of southeastern Missouri, southern Illinois and southwestern Indiana. Today, most experts believe that the Tri-State Tornado was a five on the Fujita Scale, with winds between 261 and 318 miles per hour. It traveled a total of 219 miles, giving it the longest recorded tornado track in the entire world.

The Tri-State Tornado started off in the Ozark Mountains near Ellington, Missouri at 1:01 p.m. on March 18, 1925. At the time, weather forecasters were not allowed to mention tornados in their warnings, and really forecasting a tornado was impossible. Even in recent years, tornados are unpredictable. However, today we are at least allowed to hear speculations of a forming tornado and decide if we want to take shelter. In 1925, this wasn’t an option. So, as the tornado was forming in the Ozarks and getting ready to race across three states at average speeds of between 56 and 73 miles per hour, people were complacently going about their day.

Fourteen minutes after the Tri-State Tornado formed, it was in Annapolis, Missouri. It destroyed 90% of the town and killed several citizens. It then moved across the farmlands of southeastern Missouri and across the Mississippi River. It did the most damage in Illinois. It hit town after town, destroying homes, businesses and vehicles, uprooting trees and killing citizens. The tornado killed 243 people in Murphysboro alone. It is estimated that the tornado averaged 3/4 of a mile wide, but was up to a mile wide at times.

After wreaking havoc in Illinois, the Tri-State Tornado moved into Indiana. It broke up twelve minutes after destroying a quarter of the town of Princeton, Indiana. In its wake were utterly devastated towns. Schools were destroyed with children still inside them. Houses filled with their occupants were moved across the land. Rescue workers dug through rubble to search for survivors for days in some places. There were fires, power outages and shattered families.

The Tri-State Tornado claimed an astounding 695 lives. More than two thousand people were injured by the storm and roughly fifteen thousand homes were destroyed. Since the time of the Tri-State Tornado, the ban on using the word tornado in weather forecasting has been lifted. Awareness of these dangerous storms has increased exponentially. Therefore, people are able to prepare for them. Nonetheless, it is very difficult and, at times, impossible to predict a tornado. Another tornado of this magnitude in the area could still be disastrous.

Monday, September 26, 2016

The Alnwick Poison Gardens

Alnwick Gardens
Photo by xlibber

The Alnwick Gardens are a group of public gardens attached to Alnwick Castle in Northumberland. The castle itself is the second largest in Great Britain. One of the gardens that helps make up the Alnwick Gardens is the Alnwick Poison Garden. This garden boasts some of the world's most dangerous plants, hence the name.

The history of the Alnwick Gardens goes back to 1750. The modern gardens were designed after a long period of neglect. The current Duchess of Northumberland decided to revamp the gardens when she became mistress of Alnwick Castle. The project began around 2000, but she did not begin the Poison Garden until five years later. The Duchess wanted a garden that was filled with narcotic, poisonous and deadly plants. The initial design included some medicinal plants, but she had them removed to maintain the concept of the Poison Garden.

The Duchess of Northumberland had father and son garden designers Jacques and Peter Wirtz design the modern Alnwick Gardens. Besides the Poison Garden, there is the Rose Garden, the Tree House, the Serpent Garden, the Ornamental Garden, the Bamboo Labyrinth and more. The Poison Garden has arguably the most socially significant purpose of all the Alnwick Gardens. Guests who visit the Alnwick Poison Garden are led by guides who teach them about the plants and about drug abuse prevention. The drug abuse prevention message stems from the plants that reside in the Poison Garden.

The plants that grow in the Alnwick Poison Garden could be used to make an array of illegal narcotics. There are poppies, which are used to make opium. There is Atropa belladonna, also known as deadly nightshade, which is famous for its use as a poison. Belladonna is also a hallucinogenic. Cocoa also grows in the Poison Garden. Cocoa sounds like a lovely plant, but it is actually used to make cocaine. Strychnos nux-vomica is another deadly plant, which is used to make strychnine. Also included are hemlock, cannabis and more.

The Poison Garden at Alnwick Gardens is on around the clock surveillance for the safety of the public and would-be thieves. Some of the plants are even kept in specially fenced areas to avoid accidental poisoning or theft of the plants for use in making narcotics. The message at the Poison Garden is anti-drug, so it is of the utmost importance that the plants there be used to educate the public, not harm people.


Alnwick Garden, retrieved 12/2/10

Monday, September 12, 2016

See a Night Sky Underground at New Zealand's Glowworm Caves

Intricate sign at the caves
Photo by A.Aruninta

The Glowworm Caves, or the Waitomo Caves, are amazing natural wonders located in Waitomo on North Island in New Zealand. There is a series of them with millions of glowing larvae, pupae and bugs populating their ceilings. Visitors liken the effect of these glowing creatures to that of a particularly starry night sky. In some spots, you can see glowing dots on strands that hang from above, almost like icicle Christmas lights.

The little bugs, larvae and pupae that are responsible for the decor of the Glowworm Caves are known Arachnocampa luminosa, New Zealand fungus gnats or, less commonly, glowing spider bugs. These bugs go through four basic life stages. They begin as eggs, which hatch to become larvae (during which time they molt four times), which in turn pupate. Then comes the adult. New Zealand fungus gnats begin glowing when they reach the larval stage of their development.

Arachnocampa luminosa larvae spend their days hiding in cracks and crevices in the Glowworm Caves. At night, they come out and hide in little silk tunnels they have constructed. These silk tunnels are for catching prey. They are also used as a dwelling of sorts during the pupal stage of their development. New Zealand fungus gnats spend about three weeks as eggs, six to twelve months as larvae and about twelve days as pupae. Adults come out of the pupal stage unable to eat. They have no mouths. They will only survive long enough to procreate. For the male Arachnocampa luminosa, this will be between three and five days. The female will only survive one or two days. After laying her eggs, she will sometimes stop glowing, always dying shortly thereafter.

There is no shortage of New Zealand fungus gnats in New Zealand. However, the Glowworm Caves are the most popular places to view these bioluminescent bugs. The darkness of the caves makes them a perfect place to witness the glow of the Arachnocampa luminosa.

There are literally hundreds of guided tours available for visitors to the Glowworm Caves. The caves may be entered on foot or via the Waitomo River in a raft or canoe.


New Zealand Fungus Gnat (NZ Glowworm), retrieved 9/12/16

Sunday, August 28, 2016

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch

The amount of waste in the world’s oceans has been surging in the past century, and the problem continues to get worse. It is at the point where there are areas of the ocean where trash outnumbers sea life (including plankton). These areas of the ocean are known as trash swills. There are a number of them on Earth, and each of Earth’s oceans contains at least one. The greatest of all of these trash swills is commonly known as the ‘Great Pacific Garbage Patch.’ It is also known as the ‘Plastic Continent.’

The ‘Great Pacific Garbage Patch’ is located in the Pacific Ocean between Hawaii and California. It is roughly 1,000 miles off of the coast of California. Trash from Japan, the United States, Mexico and various other countries are caught in the ocean’s currents and eventually wind up in the North Pacific Subtropical Convergence Zone. Some of this trash breaks into pieces, eventually comes free and floats away, sinks to the ocean floor or floats on or below the surface.

It is difficult to determine the size of this mass of plastic and trash for various reasons. Firstly, the ‘Great Pacific Garbage Patch’ does not stay still. The collection of plastic and trash is also amorphous, so getting a precise measurement would take some doing. There is also the fact that not all of the trash is on the surface. To get a correct measurement of its size, one would have to measure its depth as well, which is no simple task. Estimates regarding the size of the ‘Great Pacific Garbage Patch’ have ranged from the size of Texas to one and a half times the size of the United States.

Eighty percent of the ‘Great Pacific Garbage Patch’ is recyclable plastic material. It’s no wonder some people have taken to calling it the ‘Plastic Continent.’ There is also no feasible way of removing it and recycling it. The ‘Great Pacific Garbage Patch’ is getting larger with no end in sight. And this is only the tip of the iceberg of the world’s plastic problem. Just imagine how much of it is sitting around on this planet, not being recycled and endangering wildlife. When you take into account the fact that plastic has only been mass-produced for the past sixty years or so, it is easy to imagine that our oceans may be literally clogged with plastic in the foreseeable future.

The amount of plastic compared to the amount of sea life in the ‘Great Pacific Garbage Patch’ is 6:1. Researchers have been discovering all kinds of sea life, including marine birds, with pieces of plastic from the swill in their stomachs. Some accounts have made it seem as if researchers would be hard pressed to find an animal in that area without some plastic in its stomach. The plastic breaks down into smaller pieces and begins to look like food to the animals. They can also become entangled in or otherwise inhibited by the debris. This can be a major problem if it stops the animal from being able to move or eat.

At this time, attempts are being made to study the ‘Great Pacific Garbage Patch.’ However, nothing is being done about it and there may be nothing that can be done about it. No country is going to claim responsibility for the waste and end up footing a bill that could probably reach the billions. There is also the question of how all of that floating trash could possibly be collected and where would we put it? It has been estimated that the ‘Great Pacific Garbage Patch’ contains roughly 3.5 million tons of trash.

Update: Research into the impact of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and how to clean it up is currently ongoing. There is no doubt that the task will be monumental.


Randille, Michelle, Great Pacific Garbage Patch, retrieved 12/16/09,

Think Beyond Plastic, Garbage Patch, retrieved 12/16/09,

De-mystifying the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” or “Trash Vortex,” retrieved 12/16/09,

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Yellowstone's Morning Glory Pool

The pool has barely retained its blue color.
Photo by Miguel Hermoso Cuesta

Yellowstone National Park is home to some of the most amazing natural sights in the world, not least of which is the Morning Glory Pool. The Morning Glory Pool is a hot spring that attracts quite a few visitors. It is known for its vibrant color.  However, much of that has diminished over the past decades. Nonetheless, the pool is still stunning to behold. The change in the pool’s color is also very interesting in that it gives us a first hand look at the effect that pollution can have on the world that surrounds us.

The Morning Glory Pool is located on the northern edge of the Upper Geyser Basin. It was named in 1883 for its magnificently deep blue color that nearly matched the flower for which it was named.

This pool is roughly 23 feet by 26 feet and is about 23 feet deep. Currently, the temperature of the water in the Morning Glory Pool is around 171.6 degrees Fahrenheit. The water is clear enough that you can see the way that the sides taper down into its depths. Viewed from some angles, this gives the illusion that the pool is in fact running down into the center. This also makes the pool seem as if it has a “stem,” which makes its name that much more appropriate.

Unfortunately, the pool has changed color over the years because of the acts of uncaring or unwitting visitors. Tons (yes, tons) of trash have been thrown into the pool, effectively blocking the vents that keep the pool so hot. Thermophilic bacteria that need high temperatures to survive cause the blue color of the pool.

When the vents became blocked by trash, the temperature in the pool started to drop, thus killing some of these bacteria. The drop in temperature also made it possible for other bacteria to thrive in the Morning Glory Pool. These new bacteria are red, yellow and orange and are changing the pool’s color from the outside in. As the pool gets cooler, the new bacteria move closer to its center. Given enough time, the entire pool could change if the vents do not get opened back up.

An old road used to go directly by the Morning Glory Pool, so there were many more visitors to it in the past. Today that road is gone. Visitors must walk or bicycle for 1.5 miles both ways to get to the pool; a three-mile trip total. This means fewer visitors and fewer opportunities to steal pieces of the edge of the pool or throw trash into its depths.

Because the Morning Glory Pool is a geyser it is hoped that it will one day blow the trash loose and thus remove the blockage from its thermal vents. However, whether it will do so or not is uncertain, especially with the amount of trash that is in it. For now, we can only hope that some effort on our part or some natural occurrence will return the pool to its original, magnificent state.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Salton Sea: A Former Paradise Abandoned

Abandoned buildings at Salton Sea
The Salton Sea is a semi-man-made lake in California, which sits directly on the San Andreas fault. It is home to numerous bird and fish species, some of which are endangered. Because it is an important stop along the Pacific Flyway, it is critical that it is safe for the birds that flock there.

Unfortunately, there have been several major die-offs for both the birds and the fish of the Salton Sea. And there is much controversy surrounding the cause of these die-offs.

The Salton Sea lies in a natural basin called the Salton Basin or the Salton Trough. This basin is very close to the Colorado River and it is easy for water in the area to drain into the basin because it is so far below sea level. The Salton Basin has been filled with water off and on as far back as 700 A.D. It was most recently filled in 1905.

In 1905 an irrigation canal headworks on the Colorado River broke and the river began pouring into the Salton Basin. Unfortunately, the town of Salton and some Native American land were submerged by the in-flowing water. Luckily, the area was not highly developed and all escaped what could have been a major disaster. Engineers were unable to fix the break immediately and so the Colorado River continued to pour into the Salton Basin for more than a year. Thus, the Salton Sea, as we know it today, was born. It is currently around 45 miles long and 20 miles wide.

The area of the Salton Sea has natural salt deposits and the Colorado River is relatively salty itself. Therefore, when the river poured into the basin and dissolved some of the natural salt, the Salton Basin became a salt lake. In fact, it is currently 25% saltier than ocean water because some of the water that flows in today is also salty. Because it is roughly 227 feet below sea level, no water flows out of the Salton Sea, only in. The lake is able to maintain its water level because of evaporation, but the salt doesn’t evaporate. So, what we are left with is a lake that constantly collects more and more salt, but does not dispose of it.

The Salton Sea is fed by the New River, the White River, the Alamo River and numerous agricultural drain offs and creeks. Therefore, not only water comes into the Salton Sea; fish do as well. There are many species of fish in the Salton Sea and it has become a very popular fishing spot for both humans and birds. In little more than one hundred years, the Salton Sea has developed an ecosystem that is critical to the survival of several endangered species. The problem is that it may not be a safe place for these animals.

A number of large-scale die-offs of fish and birds have occurred on the Salton Sea over the years. Some people believe that contaminants are coming into the Salton Sea from the drain offs and rivers and that they are causing the die-offs. Others believe that it is the excess of naturally occurring salt, nutrients and Selenium. One thing is agreed upon by both groups–something is killing these animals and something has to be done about it. Various organizations are looking into the problem and researching possible solutions.

The Salton Sea is a wonderful part of the California landscape and it is rather unique. It would be a horrible thing to lose all of the animals that grace the lake and only be left with what would essentially be a giant bowl of salt water and animal bones. Fortunately, we live in a time where it may be possible to stop the Salton Sea from “dying,” though we haven’t been able to stop things such as this before. However, with some elbow grease and awareness, a biological travesty can be avoided. Thankfully, we have that choice.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Hurricane Safety Tips

ISS Photo of Cyclone Katarina
An average of five or six hurricanes occur every year in the Atlantic and just one of these storms can leave a path of destruction through several states. States on the Atlantic coast are the most susceptible to hurricane damage. Therefore, if you live on the Atlantic coast, even in the northern states, it is important to be prepared for hurricanes.

Keep a First-Aid Kit 

Whether you plan to stay at home or to evacuate, you should keep a first-aid kit with you. (Pack it in the trunk of your car ahead of time, if you know you plan to leave in the event of a hurricane.) Even the smallest wounds should be cared for in an emergency to prevent infection. The last thing you want is a small scrape turning into a medical emergency when medical aid may not be easy to obtain.

The bare essentials for a first aid kit:
  • Bandages of all sizes
  • Medical tape
  • Scissors
  • Tweezers
  • Antibacterial ointment
  • Antiseptic
  • Gauze
  • Hand sanitizer
  • Ace bandage
  • Over the counter pain reliever/fever reducer 


Keep a Hurricane Kit

A hurricane safety kit should include items that will keep you warm, protected from the sun, fed, watered and clothed for a minimum of three days. If you are evacuating in the event of a hurricane, you may want to keep this kit packed up and ready to be placed in your car at a moment's notice. If you plan to stay home, keep the kit in waterproof containers in your home. You never know if you will be forced out of your home by damage during a hurricane. You want to have those essentials ready and dry.

A hurricane kit should include, at minimum:

  • A change of socks and underwear for each person
  • Sunblock
  • Flashlights, small battery-operated radio and extra batteries (packed in watertight plastic)
  • A necklace whistle (for drawing the attention of rescue workers)
  • At least one blanket per person (Pillows are a luxury. Only pack them if you have the room or you can carry them.)
  • One towel per person packed in watertight plastic
  • Waterproof strike anywhere matches
  • Baby wipes (helps keep you sanitary when shower facilities are scarce)
  • Enough water for at least three days (one gallon per day, per person)

Meal replacement bars, trail mix, peanut butter and crackers, canned meat, beef jerky, canned vegetables, canned fruit and anything else that keeps for long without refrigeration. Be sure to bring plastic eating utensils, plates and cups.

Be Ready When a Hurricane Warning is Issued

You want to have your kits ready long before a warning is issued. This way, you miss the rush to the grocery stores. In addition, you want to make sure your gas tank is full in case you have to leave. If you have a shelter, hotel or other safe place out of the area in mind, leave as soon as possible so you beat the evacuation traffic. You cannot do this if you are not prepared before the warning. Make sure to gather all of the family's essential medications when a hurricane is expected as well. You can bring them with you to the shelter.

If You're Staying Home, Make Sure Your Home is Safe

It is possible to be injured inside your home during a hurricane, even if your home is sturdy. There are a few things you can do to make sure you are as safe as possible inside your house during a hurricane, if you decide to stay. Of course, in the event of a strong hurricane, your best choice is to evacuate.

Board up your windows and doors. This is to prevent breaking windows and doors from flying through your house and hurting you. Make sure all of the things you need and you are in areas of the house that are as far from trees as possible. Shut off the gas lines in your house in case something breaks.

It is important to remember that no matter how much you prepare, a strong enough hurricane can render your preparation useless. Therefore, your safest option is to evacuate while evacuation is still possible. Even if you do evacuate, do not forget your kit.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Rabbits Are Destroying Natural Habitats in Australia

Wild rabbit
Courtesy of John Loo
Australia has been home to one of the world's most destructive invasive species for more than a century–rabbits. Rabbits can annihilate plant species while causing soil erosion that drives native species out of their habitats. They eat a lot and reproduce prolifically, making them a major problem for Australia.

In 1859, 24 European rabbits were released into the wild in Australia for sport hunting. In only 67 years, their numbers increased to an estimated 10 billion. Rabbits propagate their species quite aggressively. Female rabbits can birth up to five litters, each containing 4-7 offspring annually. This means that it would take a single breeding pair of rabbits 1.5 years to increase the population by 182 rabbits. The consequences of this hyper-breeding is seen everywhere there are rabbits.

Rabbits are burrowing mammals. When their population gets out of control, this burrowing behavior damages the soil and causes soil erosion. They also have a habit of stealing burrows from other burrowing mammals, when they don't have enough to support their population. They are not only stealing the homes of these creatures, but they are making the land incapable of supporting these creatures in the future.

Another aspect of local eco-systems that rabbits destroy is the food supply, which is actually another cause of soil erosion. Studies show that it takes only two rabbits on one hectare of land to keep the plants on that land from growing. They are solely responsible for the near destruction of Hibiscus insutaris, a local plant. Rabbits are also guilty of a habit called ringbark. They use their teeth to remove the bark of trees in a ring around them. This effectively kills the tree. They also eat the little saplings, which keeps the trees from coming back. Other animals find it difficult to compete with the rabbits for food. Roughly 1/8 of all of the mammal species in Australia have been eradicated as a result of rabbit infestation.

All of this destruction is costing the Australian government hundreds of millions of dollars a year. Because of this and the destruction of native species, several attempts have been made to wipe out the rabbit population in Australia. (Animal lovers will not like their methods, but there is no denying that something needs to be done before more animals are made extinct because of this invasive species.) In 1950, the rabbits were given the myxomatosis virus in an attempt to reduce the population. It worked. Nearly 100% of all rabbits in Australia were killed. However, some of the rabbits became immune to the virus and the population became problematic again within a few decades. In the mid to late 90s the method was tried again with a new virus. This virus kills millions of the rabbits annually, but this is still not enough.

There are currently hundreds of millions of rabbits in Australia. This may not be as bad as the billions that once were, but if efforts to reduce the population cease for even a few years, billions of rabbits would appear again. It is a constant job to keep these rabbits in check and there is no end is sight.


Invasive Animals CRC, Rabbits, retrieved 3/15/10,

The Effects of Rabbits on the Australian Environment,

Animal Planet, Weird True and Freaky, Outback Rabbit Invasion

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Antarctica's Blood Red Waterfall

Blood falls

Blood Falls is a natural feature of the Taylor Glacier in Antarctica. It is located in the McMurdo Dry Valleys at the edge of the glacier. It pours out of glacier and into Lake Bonney. Its waters are the color of blood, which is odd when you consider its surroundings. There is nothing else in the area that matches its color. The glaciers and lakes are your typical blues and whites and the valleys are brown where the wind has swept away the snow.

Scientists, researchers and explorers have been pondering the possible causes of the coloration of Blood Falls for some time now. Early on, they thought that the color might come from algae. However, algae have never been known to survive below a glacier, and Blood Falls’ source is beneath the Taylor Glacier. Then there is the fact that the water is very salty. In other words, it is seawater. What is blood red seawater doing pouring out of a glacier in Antarctica?

Barry Lyons of Ohio State University and a team of scientists did a decade long study of Blood Falls. At the study's conclusion, Barry’s answer to the mystery of Blood Falls was that part of Taylor Valley was once covered with a saltwater lake that had come in from Ross Sea. The iron in the water had settled to the bottom of the lake and was later picked up by the Taylor Glacier. Now the salty, iron-rich water is pouring out of the edge of the glacier. This next theory is based on basically the same principle, but it goes even further with the addition of something that may be even more interesting than the falls themselves.

In early 2009, Jill Mukucki from Dartmouth’s Department of Earth Studies released a paper regarding her research, and that of her colleagues, on Blood Falls. In this paper, Jill basically agrees with Barry Lyons about the source of the salt water beneath Taylor Glacier. However, the paper’s explanation of the color is largely different. Jill and her colleagues discovered microbes that live roughly 1,300 feet inside of the glacier. These microbes supposedly feed on the iron in the seawater under Taylor Glacier. By feeding on the iron, they help to break it down, which gives Blood Falls its red coloring.

These microbes may have had ancestors that were ocean life. They have apparently adapted to the lack of light (and many other things) within the glacier. They have utilized the only real resource in Taylor Glacier–the iron–and turned it into food. This is the first indication scientists have ever seen that life can exist beneath a glacier.


(Note: article has been updated. These are the original sources from 2010.)

Blood Falls, Antarctica’s Dry Valleys, retrieved 1/17/10,

Unusual Antarctic Microbes Live Life on a Previously Unsuspected Edge, retrieved 1/17/10,

Inmar, Mason, April 16, 2009, Glacier “Bleeds” Proof of Million Year Old Life Forms, retrieved 1/17/10,

Monday, April 25, 2016

How Gas Build-Up at Lake Nyos Killed More Than 1,000 People

One of the CO2 vents at Lake Nyos
Lake Nyos is a crater lake in northwestern Cameroon. It is one of only three lakes in the world known to be capable of causing a very unique sort of natural disaster. Lake Monoun, which is 60 miles to the southeast of Nyos and Lake Kivi on the Congo/Rwanda border are the other two, but neither of them has been as deadly as Lake Nyos. On August 26, 1986, 1,700 people in the vicinity of the lake died mysteriously. Animals in the area were also found dead. There were no signs of trauma or disease. It appeared as if these people just fell down where they stood and died. Some were even still asleep in their beds.

After the disaster, scientists turned to Lake Nyos for answers. It was noticed that the normally deep blue lake had turned a reddish brown color. This color lead scientists to suspect that the iron at the bottom of the lake had somehow made its way to the top, where it oxidized and temporarily changed that lake’s color. When the lake was studied, abnormal amounts of carbon dioxide were found at the bottom of the lake. This would lead them to the answer that they were looking for.

Two years before the Lake Nyos Disaster, a similar event had occurred at Lake Monoun. Thirty-seven people had lost their lives when they suffocated on CO2 that suddenly escaped from the lake. Apparently the same thing had happened at Nyos, but on a much larger scale.

There is an extremely large amount of carbon dioxide at the bottom of Lake Nyos because the lake does not naturally “turn over” frequently, the way most lakes do. The carbon dioxide enters the lake naturally and because the lake is very deep, the upper waters of the lake hold down the carbon dioxide. The waters are also unusually calm, and the lack of movement keeps the carbon dioxide at the bottom of the lake as well. When something does naturally occur to cause some of the lake’s water to turn over, the result is a massive release of the built up gas.

On the day of the Lake Nyos disaster, something occurred (scientists aren’t sure exactly what, but several good theories exist) that made the CO2 rise rapidly out of the lake, causing the lake to bubble tremendously and spray water into the air. Because CO2 is heavier than air, it didn’t disperse. It sank down into the valleys surrounding the lake in a cloud that is estimated to have been roughly 328 ft. tall. The cloud moved through the area at speeds between 12.42 and 31.06 miles per hour. The average running speed for a human is roughly 12 miles per hour. It is unlikely that anyone would have been able to outrun it, even if they had noticed that something invisible and deadly was moving toward them.

The cloud killed nearly every human and animal within a 15-mile radius of the lake. Because the carbon dioxide was in concentrations higher than 10%, it caused everything in the area that breathes to become asphyxiated. There were very few survivors. Some people that were high enough above the lake survived, others simply woke up two days later, after the cloud had dispersed. Some people, who were lucky enough to be inside their homes with the doors and windows closed, survived as well.

The carbon dioxide in Lake Nyos began building up again immediately after the disaster. It was soon realized that another disaster would be inevitable if nothing was done to prevent it. So, scientists developed a pump with a long pipe going to the bottom of the lake, which brings the gas to the surface. The pipe then empties out above the water line with a harmless spray of water and gas. At this time, there are not enough pumps on the lake to prevent another disaster. However, efforts are being made to install more pumps and ensure that nothing like the tragedy that occurred on August 26, 1986, will ever happen again.


The Lake Nyos Disaster, retrieved 11/24/09,

Fink, Micah, Volcanic Killers, Degassing Lake Nyos, retrieved 11/24/09,

Lake Nyos (1986), retrieved 11//24/09,

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

The Moeraki Boulders of Koekohe Beach

Moeraki Boulders
The Moeraki Boulders
Moeraki Boulders are just one of the many naturally occurring oddities that are found on Koekohe Beach and surrounding areas in New Zealand. Some have likened the appearance of these boulders to the bowling balls of giants, who have long since abandoned their game. In a way, they do look like bowling balls because some of them are nearly perfectly spherical. This sort of boulder occurs naturally elsewhere, but the number of them in the area and the beauty of the surrounding New Zealand landscape seems to draw people to the Moeraki Boulders in particular.

Roughly 56 million years ago (during the Paleocene Epoch), small bits of wood, fossils and bones on the bottom of the ancient sea floor began to accumulate layers in what is now New Zealand. Over time, these small formations grew larger and larger in much the same way an oyster's pearl grows in size. The large, round stones that resulted from this process are known as septarian concretions. They eventually became trapped in the stunning sheer cliffs that grace the coast of Kohekohe Beach between Moeraki and Hampden, New Zealand.

When erosion began to take its toll on the cliffs, the ancient Moeraki Boulders were freed. Today, they are scattered across the landscape like errant marbles. Some are not spherical, but are oval instead. These Moeraki Boulders look like dinosaur eggs–really big ones, at that. Some of them have cracked open and revealed their softer, eroded interior. Some of these are big enough for a man to sit in, giving the appearance that he has just been hatched from the ancient stone. The biggest of the Moeraki Boulders is close to nine feet in diameter and weighs several tons.

The surfaces of the Moeraki Boulders are cracked, causing them to look like turtle shells. The reason for this cracking is yet unknown to science. We do know that the interiors of the boulders are weaker than the exteriors, yet the exteriors are cracked. Some of the boulders are much smaller than others. The cracked surface makes them look like large turtles half-buried in the sand.

An 1848 drawing by W.B.D. Mantell shows the Koekohe Beach with more of the Moeraki Boulders than are currently there, so we know they are slowly vanishing. However, more are still trapped in the cliffs, as evidenced by those that are only half-exposed today. There is no telling how many of them are still waiting to be revealed.


De Hek, Danny, retrieved 10/28/10,

Facts about Moeraki Boulders, retrieved 10/28/10, moeraki-boulders-facts.php

Evans, RJ, The Mysterious Moeraki Boulders,

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Interesting Facts About Iceland's Volcanoes

Fire spewing out of Eyjafjallajokull
during the 2010 eruptions
Courtesy of Ulrich Latzenhofer
Iceland and its volcanoes have been in the news a lot in the past few years. The Eyjafjallajokull volcano in Iceland was been very active in March and April of 2010. The ash spewing forth from this volcano resulted in the grounding of flights as far away as England, due to the danger it presents to airplanes. Prior to this tantrum, the Eyjafjallajokull volcano had not erupted for nearly 200 years. All of this attention serves to remind us that Iceland is a land of many volcanoes, some of which can have global consequences should they erupt. With that in mind, here are a few facts about Iceland's volcanoes that can give us an idea of what goes on there in the "land of fire and ice."

Hawaii gets a lot of attention for its volcanoes. This is because it was formed by volcanoes. Evidence of their activity is present everywhere there. Nonetheless, there are only two active volcanoes in the State of Hawaii. Iceland has between 20 and 30 active volcanoes. That is more active volcanoes than any other place on Earth.

The most active volcano in Iceland is Hekla. Hekla has an elevation of 4,892 feet. It is a stratovolcano that is located in southern Iceland. Hekla has erupted roughly once every ten years for the past fifty years. A Hekla eruption can come on with little to no warning and can last for weeks or months. Hekla was less active in the past fifty years. However, for some time, there was hardly a century that passed without at least one eruption from Hekla.

Iceland was formed from volcanic activity, like Hawaii. The American and Eurasian tectonic plate boundary goes through Iceland. The two plates pull apart, making it easy for lava to push through the gap. This is how Iceland was formed and why it has so many active volcanoes today.

In the past 500 years, nearly one-third of the Earth's lava output has spewed forth in Iceland. Furthermore, 83% of the world's sub glacial eruptions have occurred in Iceland. To put that into perspective, the area of Iceland is 39,707 square miles of land. The entire Earth has roughly 57,393,000 square miles of land area. Iceland is sure pumping out a lot of lava for such a small portion of the Earth.

From the above, you can clearly see why Iceland is called the "land of ice and fire." Of course, given its position on this Earth, there is a lot of ice in Iceland. However, residents can warm up by taking a dip in the large number of the geothermal spas there. Despite the scary number of active volcanoes, Iceland is easily one of the most beautiful and interesting places on Earth.


Volcanology Highlights, retrieved 4/16/10,

Volcanoes in Iceland, retrieved 4/16/10,

Seach, John, Hekla Volcano, retrieved 4/16/10,