Discover the most talked about and latest scientific content & concepts.

Concept: Earth


Several mammalian species spontaneously align their body axis with respect to the Earth’s magnetic field (MF) lines in diverse behavioral contexts. Magnetic alignment is a suitable paradigm to scan for the occurrence of magnetosensitivity across animal taxa with the heuristic potential to contribute to the understanding of the mechanism of magnetoreception and identify further functions of magnetosensation apart from navigation. With this in mind we searched for signs of magnetic alignment in dogs. We measured the direction of the body axis in 70 dogs of 37 breeds during defecation (1,893 observations) and urination (5,582 observations) over a two-year period. After complete sampling, we sorted the data according to the geomagnetic conditions prevailing during the respective sampling periods. Relative declination and intensity changes of the MF during the respective dog walks were calculated from daily magnetograms. Directional preferences of dogs under different MF conditions were analyzed and tested by means of circular statistics.

Concepts: Magnetic field, Earth's magnetic field, Magnet, Earth, Dynamo theory, Magnetism, Solar wind, Magnetosphere


As multiple spacefaring nations contemplate extended manned missions to Mars and the Moon, health risks could be elevated as travel goes beyond the Earth’s protective magnetosphere into the more intense deep space radiation environment. The primary purpose of this study was to determine whether mortality rates due to cardiovascular disease (CVD), cancer, accidents and all other causes of death differ in (1) astronauts who never flew orbital missions in space, (2) astronauts who flew only in low Earth orbit (LEO), and (3) Apollo lunar astronauts, the only humans to have traveled beyond Earth’s magnetosphere. Results show there were no differences in CVD mortality rate between non-flight (9%) and LEO (11%) astronauts. However, the CVD mortality rate among Apollo lunar astronauts (43%) was 4-5 times higher than in non-flight and LEO astronauts. To test a possible mechanistic basis for these findings, a secondary purpose was to determine the long-term effects of simulated weightlessness and space-relevant total-body irradiation on vascular responsiveness in mice. The results demonstrate that space-relevant irradiation induces a sustained vascular endothelial cell dysfunction. Such impairment is known to lead to occlusive artery disease, and may be an important risk factor for CVD among astronauts exposed to deep space radiation.

Concepts: Mortality rate, Atherosclerosis, Earth's magnetic field, Earth, Blood vessel, Moon, Endothelium, Human spaceflight


The economic and ecological costs of wildfire in the United States have risen substantially in recent decades. Although climate change has likely enabled a portion of the increase in wildfire activity, the direct role of people in increasing wildfire activity has been largely overlooked. We evaluate over 1.5 million government records of wildfires that had to be extinguished or managed by state or federal agencies from 1992 to 2012, and examined geographic and seasonal extents of human-ignited wildfires relative to lightning-ignited wildfires. Humans have vastly expanded the spatial and seasonal “fire niche” in the coterminous United States, accounting for 84% of all wildfires and 44% of total area burned. During the 21-y time period, the human-caused fire season was three times longer than the lightning-caused fire season and added an average of 40,000 wildfires per year across the United States. Human-started wildfires disproportionally occurred where fuel moisture was higher than lightning-started fires, thereby helping expand the geographic and seasonal niche of wildfire. Human-started wildfires were dominant (>80% of ignitions) in over 5.1 million km(2), the vast majority of the United States, whereas lightning-started fires were dominant in only 0.7 million km(2), primarily in sparsely populated areas of the mountainous western United States. Ignitions caused by human activities are a substantial driver of overall fire risk to ecosystems and economies. Actions to raise awareness and increase management in regions prone to human-started wildfires should be a focus of United States policy to reduce fire risk and associated hazards.

Concepts: Earth, United States, Climate, Poverty in the United States, U.S. state, Native Americans in the United States, Economy of the United States, Yellowstone National Park


“Climate dice,” describing the chance of unusually warm or cool seasons, have become more and more “loaded” in the past 30 y, coincident with rapid global warming. The distribution of seasonal mean temperature anomalies has shifted toward higher temperatures and the range of anomalies has increased. An important change is the emergence of a category of summertime extremely hot outliers, more than three standard deviations (3σ) warmer than the climatology of the 1951-1980 base period. This hot extreme, which covered much less than 1% of Earth’s surface during the base period, now typically covers about 10% of the land area. It follows that we can state, with a high degree of confidence, that extreme anomalies such as those in Texas and Oklahoma in 2011 and Moscow in 2010 were a consequence of global warming because their likelihood in the absence of global warming was exceedingly small. We discuss practical implications of this substantial, growing, climate change.

Concepts: Earth, Median, Climate, Weather, Climate change, Normal distribution, Standard deviation, Global warming


Establishing the age of the Moon is critical to understanding solar system evolution and the formation of rocky planets, including Earth. However, despite its importance, the age of the Moon has never been accurately determined. We present uranium-lead dating of Apollo 14 zircon fragments that yield highly precise, concordant ages, demonstrating that they are robust against postcrystallization isotopic disturbances. Hafnium isotopic analyses of the same fragments show extremely low initial (176)Hf/(177)Hf ratios corrected for cosmic ray exposure that are near the solar system initial value. Our data indicate differentiation of the lunar crust by 4.51 billion years, indicating the formation of the Moon within the first ~60 million years after the birth of the solar system.

Concepts: Earth, Sun, Solar System, Moon, Dwarf planet, Venus, Io, Impact crater


Evidence of life on Earth is manifestly preserved in the rock record. However, the microfossil record only extends to ∼3.5 billion years (Ga), the chemofossil record arguably to ∼3.8 Ga, and the rock record to 4.0 Ga. Detrital zircons from Jack Hills, Western Australia range in age up to nearly 4.4 Ga. From a population of over 10,000 Jack Hills zircons, we identified one >3.8-Ga zircon that contains primary graphite inclusions. Here, we report carbon isotopic measurements on these inclusions in a concordant, 4.10 ± 0.01-Ga zircon. We interpret these inclusions as primary due to their enclosure in a crack-free host as shown by transmission X-ray microscopy and their crystal habit. Their δ(13)CPDB of -24 ± 5‰ is consistent with a biogenic origin and may be evidence that a terrestrial biosphere had emerged by 4.1 Ga, or ∼300 My earlier than has been previously proposed.

Concepts: Crystal, Earth, Carbon, X-ray microscope, Jack Hills, Zircon, Biosphere


Accurate quantification of the millennial-scale mass balance of the Greenland ice sheet (GrIS) and its contribution to global sea-level rise remain challenging because of sparse in situ observations in key regions. Glacial isostatic adjustment (GIA) is the ongoing response of the solid Earth to ice and ocean load changes occurring since the Last Glacial Maximum (LGM; ~21 thousand years ago) and may be used to constrain the GrIS deglaciation history. We use data from the Greenland Global Positioning System network to directly measure GIA and estimate basin-wide mass changes since the LGM. Unpredicted, large GIA uplift rates of +12 mm/year are found in southeast Greenland. These rates are due to low upper mantle viscosity in the region, from when Greenland passed over the Iceland hot spot about 40 million years ago. This region of concentrated soft rheology has a profound influence on reconstructing the deglaciation history of Greenland. We reevaluate the evolution of the GrIS since LGM and obtain a loss of 1.5-m sea-level equivalent from the northwest and southeast. These same sectors are dominating modern mass loss. We suggest that the present destabilization of these marine-based sectors may increase sea level for centuries to come. Our new deglaciation history and GIA uplift estimates suggest that studies that use the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment satellite mission to infer present-day changes in the GrIS may have erroneously corrected for GIA and underestimated the mass loss by about 20 gigatons/year.

Concepts: Earth, Sea level, Ice sheet, Greenland ice sheet, Ice age, Last glacial period, Glaciology, Post-glacial rebound


Ants can navigate over long distances between their nest and food sites using visual cues [1, 2]. Recent studies show that this capacity is undiminished when walking backward while dragging a heavy food item [3-5]. This challenges the idea that ants use egocentric visual memories of the scene for guidance [1, 2, 6]. Can ants use their visual memories of the terrestrial cues when going backward? Our results suggest that ants do not adjust their direction of travel based on the perceived scene while going backward. Instead, they maintain a straight direction using their celestial compass. This direction can be dictated by their path integrator [5] but can also be set using terrestrial visual cues after a forward peek. If the food item is too heavy to enable body rotations, ants moving backward drop their food on occasion, rotate and walk a few steps forward, return to the food, and drag it backward in a now-corrected direction defined by terrestrial cues. Furthermore, we show that ants can maintain their direction of travel independently of their body orientation. It thus appears that egocentric retinal alignment is required for visual scene recognition, but ants can translate this acquired directional information into a holonomic frame of reference, which enables them to decouple their travel direction from their body orientation and hence navigate backward. This reveals substantial flexibility and communication between different types of navigational information: from terrestrial to celestial cues and from egocentric to holonomic directional memories.

Concepts: Earth, Navigation, Classical mechanics, Rotation, Walking, Rigid body, Frame of reference, Drag-and-drop


Modeling results incorporating several distinct urban expansion futures for the United States in 2100 show that, in the absence of any adaptive urban design, megapolitan expansion, alone and separate from greenhouse gas-induced forcing, can be expected to raise near-surface temperatures 1-2 °C not just at the scale of individual cities but over large regional swaths of the country. This warming is a significant fraction of the 21st century greenhouse gas-induced climate change simulated by global climate models. Using a suite of regional climate simulations, we assessed the efficacy of commonly proposed urban adaptation strategies, such as green, cool roof, and hybrid approaches, to ameliorate the warming. Our results quantify how judicious choices in urban planning and design cannot only counteract the climatological impacts of the urban expansion itself but also, can, in fact, even offset a significant percentage of future greenhouse warming over large scales. Our results also reveal tradeoffs among different adaptation options for some regions, showing the need for geographically appropriate strategies rather than one size fits all solutions.

Concepts: Earth, Climate, Weather, Climate change, 21st century, Global warming, Climate model, Global climate model


California is currently in the midst of a record-setting drought. The drought began in 2012 and now includes the lowest calendar-year and 12-mo precipitation, the highest annual temperature, and the most extreme drought indicators on record. The extremely warm and dry conditions have led to acute water shortages, groundwater overdraft, critically low streamflow, and enhanced wildfire risk. Analyzing historical climate observations from California, we find that precipitation deficits in California were more than twice as likely to yield drought years if they occurred when conditions were warm. We find that although there has not been a substantial change in the probability of either negative or moderately negative precipitation anomalies in recent decades, the occurrence of drought years has been greater in the past two decades than in the preceding century. In addition, the probability that precipitation deficits co-occur with warm conditions and the probability that precipitation deficits produce drought have both increased. Climate model experiments with and without anthropogenic forcings reveal that human activities have increased the probability that dry precipitation years are also warm. Further, a large ensemble of climate model realizations reveals that additional global warming over the next few decades is very likely to create ∼100% probability that any annual-scale dry period is also extremely warm. We therefore conclude that anthropogenic warming is increasing the probability of co-occurring warm-dry conditions like those that have created the acute human and ecosystem impacts associated with the “exceptional” 2012-2014 drought in California.

Concepts: Earth, Precipitation, Climate, Climate change, Meteorology, Global warming, Extreme weather, Drought