Science Stuff May 2015

Extreme weather

Sydney storm

Sydney storm

How can we predict extreme weather events like the Sydney storm in Australia last week?

The wild storm that hit Sydney was the result of a weather system called an east coast low.

East coast lows are intense low pressure systems that form off the eastern coast of Australia. They can bring intense winds, flooding events, severe thunderstorms and unusual inland snowfalls. They can cause damage to coastal infrastructure and wreck or beach ships.

The problem is that these systems are hard to predict. They can form very rapidly and they will often form at night.

Lloyds Register Foundation funded research to help predict these extreme events by looking at ocean temperatures.

They supported researchers to study these events, including the east coast low that brought the massive coal ship, the Pasha Bulker, to ground at Newcastle in 2007.

Chris Chambers works on the project, and says ocean eddies are large features in the ocean that contain huge amounts of warm water. “They rotate and move gradually southward down the coast bringing warm water in huge pockets to the regions just offshore. Each of these pockets provides an enormous source of heat and water vapour to the atmosphere.”

“Next to one of these warm eddies there might be a cold eddy. This means that the ocean temperatures might change very quickly over a short distance. This also has an effect on the atmosphere and can strongly affect the rainfall.”

Researchers are now working on improved models of ocean eddies. Simulations of these eddies might tell us when to expect an east coast low.

Name Pluto

Pluto

The New Horizons spacecraft has begun sending back images of the much loved dwarf planet. As it gets closer, we will see features on Pluto’s surface for the first time. Craters, canyons, mountains will appear in New Horizons’ images. But what shall we call them?

A crowd-sourced naming campaign held by NASA and SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) let people vote on a long list of possible names.

Space archaeologist Dr Alice Gorman from Flinders University says, “It’s a wonderful way to get people involved in space exploration.” She believes that “it’s kind of opening it up and making the solar system more democratic.”

As Pluto is the Roman god of the underworld, so the themes for its names are exploration and the underworld.

Alice says there are some good options to choose from including a Yolngu word, Baralku. “It’s the name of the island of the dead in Yolngu culture, which is in northern Australia in Arnhem Land” she says.

“I’m impressed with the more than 40 000 thoughtful submissions,” said Mark Showalter from the SETI Institute, which is hosting the naming website, www.ourpluto.org. “Every day brings new lessons in the world’s history, literature and mythology. Participation has come from nearly every country on Earth, so this really is a worldwide campaign.”

On 14 July, New Horizons will pass Pluto at a speed of around 50 000 kilometres per hour. It will take thousands of images and then beam them back to Earth. At a distance of around 6 billion kilometres from Earth, it will take approximately 4.5 hours for data to get back home.

Scats track quokka cuisine

Quokka

Even though it has the cutest smile in the marsupial world, quokkas still need a good supply of food, water and rest spots to survive.

The biggest population of these adorable marsupials live on Rottnest Island off the coast of Perth in Western Australia.

To help these furry friends, researchers from Western Australian have mapped the plants they like to eat and the places they like to sleep on the island.

“The Rottnest Island population is resource limited,” says researcher Patricia Fleming. “It is likely that loss of a key plant species will alter the carrying capacity of the island.”

Quokkas eat grass, leaves, seeds and roots. To find out the exact plants they eat, researchers collected quokka poo from 210 places on the island and took it back to the lab to dry out and be studied.

After a close look, they found that the quokka diet has changed since it was last studied, 50 years ago. Fire, human influences and the quokkas themselves have all changed the plants that grow on the island.

Patricia also found out where quokkas like to rest – they prefer dense, abundant shrubs for shelter. These comfy spots are especially important at the end of summer when the cold nights arrive – a tough time of the year for a quokka.

This information will help land managers make sure Rottnest Island remains home for quokkas by planting what they like to eat and protecting the places they like to rest.

Scientists revive Brontosaurus

Brontosaurus

The history of the Brontosaurus is long and colourful. Over 100 years ago, there was a race to discover new dinosaurs, known as ‘the bone wars’. Paleontologist O.C. Marsh found many new dinosaurs during this time – in 1877 he described the Apatosaurus and in 1879, the Brontosaurus was greeted as a newly found dinosaur.

Several years later, Marsh’s evidence was revised. Scientists compared both dinosaurs to a new skeleton. They came to the conclusion that all three dinosaurs were the same species. Since Apatosaurus was named first, the name Brontosaurus was relegated to the dustbin.

For 100 years, scientists thought Apatosaurus and Brontosaurus were the same dinosaur. But recently, old information regarding the Brontosaurus has been formally re-assessed.

The researchers studied the evolutionary relationship of different dinosaurs using their remaining fossil bones. They found conclusive evidence that Brontosaurus is distinct from Apatosaurus and can now be reinstated as its own unique genus.

Science is a constantly changing subject, not just a dusty pile of old facts. The Brontosaurus’ resurrection is an example of how new research can change previously accepted science.

Biggest ever asteroid impact found in Australia

asteroid_impact

Deep underground in the centre of Australia is evidence of the biggest asteroid impact in the Earth’s history

It wasn’t just a single impact, but a twin strike from a meteorite that may have split into two as it plummeted towards Earth.

Researchers unexpectedly found signs of the collisions in the middle of Australia, at the tripoint where South Australia, Queensland and the Northern Territory meet. They were drilling almost two kilometres into the Earth’s surface, investigating the geothermal energy in the area.

The drill core they pulled out contained traces of rocks that had turned to glass, a sign of the extreme temperature and pressure caused by a major impact.

The exact date of the event remains unclear. The surrounding rocks are 300 to 600 million years old.

The researcher who found the craters, Andrew Glikson, says it’s all very much a mystery. “We can’t find an extinction event that matches these collisions. I have a suspicion the impacts could be older than 300 million years,” he says.

“There are two huge deep domes in the crust, formed by the Earth’s crust rebounding after the huge impacts, and bringing up rock from the mantle below,” says Andrew.

The two impact zones total more than 400 kilometres across, in the Warburton Basin in Central Australia. “The two asteroids must each have been over 10 kilometres across,” says Andrew.

Robots explore underwater volcano

Pumicerock

When mysterious lumps of pumice stone washed up on beaches in Tasmania, Australia, Rebecca Carey knew that they must be coming from an underwater volcano.

Rebecca is a Tasmanian volcanologist (someone who studies volcanos), and she had been tracking the travelling pumice for more than a year. She knew these large chunks of floating solidified magma were coming from a huge underwater volcanic eruption around 1000 kilometres north of Auckland.

The eruption was first noticed by a plane passenger who saw large rafts of pumice floating on the water.

Rebecca is now travelling to the volcano that produced the pumice, aboard US ship Roger Revelle, to find out more about its eruption. Researchers are keen to take a closer look as we know little about deep underwater volcanic magma eruptions.

“We are interested in how those pumice particles are transported once they leave the vent,” says Rebecca.

Rebecca says the team will use two robots to find out more about the Havre volcanic eruption. One is an autonomous underwater vehicle, called Sentry. The other is a remotely operated vehicle, called Jason.

Sentry is equipped with sonar, cameras, and chemical and magnetic sensors. It will float around, mapping the site and keeping itself out of trouble.

Jason will allow scientists on the ship to access the seafloor remotely. Scientists will pilot Jason down to the ocean bed to collect samples of rock, sediment and marine life.

While the scientists are learning about volcanos, they want you to follow the exploration, and ask questions along the way.

“We have a website which will report our activities and findings in real time, by posting photos of everyday life on the ship and videos of the footage the robots recover.” says Rebecca. “School children are encouraged to follow our voyage online and they will be able to ask the scientists questions.”

Space weather on Friday the 13th

Weeather_space

A minor geomagnetic storm was forecast for around midday (Australia time) Friday the 13 of March. The storm is a result of three solar flares from the Sun that occurred earlier this week.

The coronal mass ejections from these solar flares may strike a glancing blow to the Earth this Friday, according to scientists from the Space Weather Prediction Center at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in the United States.

Coronal mass ejections are bursts of gas and magnetic fields that are released from the Sun. It takes a coronal mass ejection, on average, 98 hours to reach the Earth.

We don’t feel the effect of a solar flare here on the Earth’s surface because we are protected by the atmosphere and the Earth’s magnetic field. But intense solar flares can disturb high altitude satellites, including geostationary communications satellites and the GPS constellation.

Will these solar flares disrupt our technology and leave us without our Friday night plan? Probably not, as the solar flares observed this week were a tenth of the size of the most intense flares.

They may, however, produce a strong aurora near the North and South Poles. So if you are anywhere near the poles, Friday night could be a good time to turn your head towards the sky.

CSIRO NEWS – Science Stuff

TurtleMarin Debris Data Research
By 2050, 95 per cent of seabirds will have plastic in their gut. That is just one finding from our national marine debris research project, the largest sample of marine debris data ever collected anywhere in the world.
We surveyed the entire Australian coast at 100 km intervals, with help from school groups and citizen scientists. We found that our shorelines are littered with debris. About three-quarters of it is plastic and, although there are some large items, 95 per cent of the items are just a few centimetres across, or smaller.In Australian waters, you can expect to find anything from a few thousand to more than 40,000 pieces of plastic per square kilometre. Our research shows that the vast majority of this rubbish comes from the land, with large concentrations near our cities, rather than from litter dropped at sea.

Getting Indigenous students into science and maths
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students are around two-and-a-half years behind their peers in scientific and mathematical literacy, and this gap has remained the same over ten years. In an attempt to close this gap, we’ve partnered with BHP Billiton Foundation to deliver a new education project for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students that aims to increase their participation and achievement in these subjects. The $28.8 million, five-year project will focus on tailored learning and will support students from primary school through to tertiary education through six key elements.
Gates Foundation funds food in Africa
We have received a $14.5 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to improve the productivity and incomes of smallholder farmers across Sub-Saharan Africa. This five year humanitarian project will develop tools to generate self-reproducing hybrid cowpea and sorghum crops to help millions of farmers become more self sufficient with higher yielding crops.

What are our attitudes to mining?
It’s no secret that mining is important to Australia, but that doesn’t necessarily make it popular with society at large. We wanted to have a better understanding of what Australians think about mining, so in 2013/14 we conducted an online survey of 5,121 Australians. We’ve gone beyond basic descriptions of attitudes towards the extractive industries, and looked at the relationship between mining and society in a more constructive and sophisticated way.

Smartphone app a life saver for heart attack patients
Patients recovering from heart attacks are almost 30 per cent more likely to take part in rehab at home using a new smartphone app compared to those who have to travel to an outpatient clinic or centre. What’s more, a clinical trial has shown that those who used the online delivery model were 40 per cent more likely to adhere to the rules of the program and almost 70 per cent more likely to see it through to completion. The results of our clinical trial were so positive that next-gen version of the platform is being offered in a number of Queensland hospitals.

Seven things you didn’t know about Ned Kelly
Only we could come up with a book about the science of Ned Kelly.
To celebrate the release of Ned Kelly: Under the Microscope, from CSIRO Publishing, we thought we’d share a few of the most surprising facts about this national icon:

  • Ned Kelly was illiterate
  • A film about Ned Kelly was the world’s first feature film
  • If you have a Ned Kelly tattoo you are more likely to die violently

Lost bushwalker saved by flying robots

Flying robot enthusiasts can breathe a deep sigh of relief, because Outback Joe has finally been saved after spending eight years lost in the bush.
Sixteen teams from around the world competed in the search and rescue mission to save our beloved Akubra-clad mannequin pal as part of the yearly Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) Challenge.

Three wins at EurekasImageJ=1.48p

They call them the Oscars of the science world, without the acceptance speech tears. The Australian Museum Eureka Awards were held earlier this month and we’re very proud of our award winners.
Congratulations to the three CSIRO winners – the Hendra Virus Research Team, the WUE Initiative Team and Mark Talbot, for his stunning photographs of plant cell tissue (pictured here).

Nobel Pbodyinspacerize for Body in Space.
It’s three in the morning. Nature calls. You stagger from your bed, squinting in the darkness as you blindly weave your way past a bookshelf, around the glass cabinet, and down the corridor into the smallest room in the house. Not only do the scientists John O’Keefe, May-Britt Moser and Edvard Moser understand how your brain managed this – they earned themselves a Nobel Prize in the process.
Knowing precisely where your body sits in an environment is a neat trick that has less to do with your eyes than you might think. In 1971, John found that nerve cells in the hippocampus region of a rat’s brain fired up when the rat moved through a specific spot in a room. Moving the rat to other spots made other, similar nerve cells work harder. John realised these so-called place cells worked like a tiny map.
Nearly 35 years later, May-Britt and Edvard found another type of nerve cell in a strip of tissue connecting the hippocampus to other parts of the brain. Described as grid cells (due to the pattern of their activation), these nerves seemed to act like a coordinate system.
Together, these cells provide you with a mental map and a coordinate system that tells the rest of your brain where your body is in relation to its surroundings. This way you’re able to move around even while you’re unable to see, hear, or smell anything.
For their research, John, May-Britt and Edvard were awarded the 2014 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.
Many neurological conditions, such as Alzheimer’s disease, can dramatically affect the hippocampus region. Knowing more about these cells and how they work can provide new insights and possibly new treatments for those who suffer spatial memory los

fish_blindThe Blind Fish
Getting out of bed some days feels like too much effort. If only night lasted all day, just like it does for the blind Mexican cavefish. Like the fish, you just might save some energy by living in an endless night.
The Mexican tetra (Astyanax mexicanus) is a species of fish found in the southern United States and parts of Mexico. It takes two forms, or ‘morphs’ – one with good vision and one that develops without eyes. While the sighted morph swims in streams exposed to sunlight, the blind morph can be found underground in lightless caves, finding its way by detecting changes in the surrounding water pressure.
A world without sunlight is also a world without the predictable rhythm of night and day. Many living things – from humans to flowers, and even a number of microscopic organisms – have chemical processes that roughly match the 24 hour patterns of night and day. These processes help prepare you with a boost of energy during the times of day you need it most.
Called a circadian rhythm, this body clock doesn’t rely on you checking your watch or even seeing the Sun. It is kept in check by periods of light and dark. If you’ve ever had jet lag, you’ve experienced your circadian rhythm telling you to sleep or eat at odd times of the day.
Yet the Mexican cavefish lives in darkness, so does it even have a circadian rhythm? To find out, Swedish biologists compared the blind morph with the sighted morph, and found that the blind morph does not have this internal body clock. It also uses less energy than the sighted morph, by not having to prepare for daylight.
Next time you oversleep, you’ve got a new excuse. Tell your teacher you’ve become a blind Mexican cavefish and lost your body clock!

Bacteria under Antarctic Ice
There’s life under ice. Scientists found an entire community of bacteria living 800 metres under the surface of glaciers in Antarctica. These bacteria rely on each other to survive in the dark, isolated, subzero lake.
At the south-eastern edge of the Ross Ice Shelf, under the ice of glaciers, lies the liquid water of Lake Whillans. The thick layer of ice keeps the freshwater lake isolated from the world above, stopping nutrients from flowing down into it. How could anything survive there?
Recently, almost 4000 species of bacteria were found in Lake Whillans. The bacteria seem to survive by getting nutrients from the bedrock. The weight of the ice crushes the rocks, and the minerals in the rocks react with oxygen in the water. This reaction makes the rocks a source of energy for the bacteria.
The bacteria living in Lake Whillans also carefully recycle all the nutrients they can. The ecosystem of bacteria relies on rescuing nitrogen, another important nutrient, from dead bacterial cells.
When studying Lake Whillans, scientists had to be careful not to contaminate the lake with bacteria from above ground. If samples from the lake were contaminated, the researchers wouldn’t know if bacteria actually came from the lake, or if they were just carried on the equipment.
Introducing new bacteria into Lake Whillans could also be dangerous for the bacteria living beneath the ice. After being isolated for so long, the ecosystem could be disrupted by visitors. To break into the lake, researchers melted a hole in the ice using hot water. The hot water was kept super clean by filtering it, blasting it with ultraviolet radiation, heating it, and disinfecting it with hydrogen peroxide.
The ecosystem of bacteria in Lake Whillans shows how life can survive in harsh conditions. Perhaps single-celled life could also live beneath sheets of ice on Mars, feasting on the rocks.

Investigator.
Australia’s new Marine National Facility research vessel, Investigator, arrived on Tuesday to its home port of Hobart. The ship will soon take scientists and high-tech equipment to the watery parts of the world; to measure the weather, take samples from the sea floor and study marine life.
The ocean is a vast area to explore, and a lot about ocean life and geology is still a mystery. So what better place to have a science laboratory than out in the salt spray and rolling waves? The Investigator can carry 60 people and supplies for two months at sea. Oceanographers, marine scientists and geoscientists will be able to use the vessel to answer all sorts of questions.
To help scientists improve weather forecasting, Investigator has a heavy hat. “The weather radar on top of the mast weighs as much as a Toyota Corolla, and must be kept level as the ship pitches and rolls,” says CSIRO’s Brian Griffiths, part of the team that helped to design the ship. The device can record the height of clouds and tell if they are carrying rain, hail or snow.
The ship can also capture history by taking core samples – extracting mud and sand from the seabed using a long steel tube. “It’s like sucking up a milkshake through a straw and putting your finger over the top to keep it in,” explains Brian.
Within this muddy material is a record of the climate from about the last 800 000 years. “We can examine different species of diatoms [algae] and learn how ocean circulation patterns have reacted to changing climates like ice ages,” says Brian. “It’s similar to looking at [growth] rings in trees.”
After years of designing and building Investigator, it is now in Tasmania and getting ready for research.

Penguins_juvenilePenguins team up
Little penguins spend their days finding food at sea. With the help of location-tracking devices, researchers have found out that the smallest species of penguin tends to travel the sea in groups, and may dive at the same time while hunting fish.
 
Little penguins, also known as fairy penguins or blue penguins, are found in southern Australia, New Zealand and the Chatham Islands. Often they live on islands safe from foxes and feral cats. The penguins spend their day hunting for fish and crustaceans at sea, and come back to land as the Sun sets, to sleep in burrows.
It is difficult to observe bird behaviour at sea, so to work out how penguins find food, Maud Berlincourt from Deakin University turned to technology. A very small and light location-tracking device that also measures depth allowed her to collect data on the penguins at sea. The device was put on the back of the birds like a little backpack, and black waterproof tape kept it attached to their slick feathers.
Each penguin swam around with their backpack for a day, and then Maud collected it again at night. “We are monitoring a breeding colony on the eastern coast of Victoria at London Bridge. Those penguins are already sitting on eggs and some of them have chicks right now,” says Maud. “It’s a lot of work. I have spent many days and nights in the field waiting for the birds to come back with their devices.”
Maud collected data over 22 days, and with only a few penguins each day wearing the device. She found that they went to sea to hunt for about 15 hours during the day, and travelled around 40 kilometres. That’s at least an eight hour hike for us people.
Between 30 and 50 little penguins would leave each day to find food, and only about four would be wearing the device. Even though Maud was only tracking a few penguins at a time, she found them hanging out together quite a lot. On average, about 85% of tracked penguins would spend at least some time walking, swimming or diving near other tracked penguins. Almost half of the time, penguins swimming together would also dive at the same time.
These results suggest that little penguins look for food in groups, and might cooperate as they hunt fish. Does a penguin always look for food with the same feathered friends? More research is needed to find out.

3Dprint_blood vessel3D Bio-printing blood vessels
3D printers can create toys, bicycle parts and models of dinosaur bones. Bio-printers are 3D printers with a difference. They can actually print structures containing living cells, the same kind of cells that make up the human body!
Wouldn’t it be amazing if you could have a new liver or kidney printed for you, if yours was damaged by an accident or disease? It’s a big dream, but scientists are working on the problem now.
One big obstacle to bio-printing a whole organ, like a liver, is that it needs a big network of blood vessels to keep the cells alive. Blood provides cells with life-giving oxygen and nutrients, and also removes waste. Most cells are just a hair’s width from a supply of blood. Blood vessels need to reach everywhere – it’s a big challenge.
Luiz Bertassoni from the University of Sydney is part of the team that has bio-printed blood vessels. The team used two different materials, which were fluid enough to print and then could be made solid. “One material can be solidified with low temperature, it’s a material from seaweed called agarose,” he says. “The other is a jelly-like material (from gelatine), which was solidified by light. Using a combination of both was one of the tricks we had to use to create these vascular networks.”
To create the blood vessels, Luiz used a 3D printer to make a network of agarose. Once the agarose was solid, the structure was covered with a gelatine-like material containing living cells. “Then we removed the agarose structure that we printed, and ended up with little channels left behind,” he says. When endothelial cells – the kind that form blood vessels – were put in the channels, they organised themselves to cover the channel without clogging it. A fluid, such as blood, could pass through this bio-printed blood vessel.
“We’re excited about getting one step closer to creating fully-functional organs, but we’re still a number of years away from that,” says Luiz. “We hope that sometime soon we will be able to create functional organs that could be implanted in patients.”

Gold Test for Diabetes
Researchers have made a cheap and rapid new test to diagnose type 1 diabetes using a gold-studded glass chip.
Each day, around 280 Australians are diagnosed with diabetes. There are many different types of diabetes, and they are all connected by insulin. Insulin is a hormone made by the pancreas, an organ located behind your stomach. It controls how much sugar gets from your blood into the muscles and other cells of the body. Both insulin and sugar are needed to give your cells energy, so diabetes can be very dangerous.
Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disease, which means the body is attacking itself. The immune system creates antibodies that target cells in the pancreas, causing damage that stops it making insulin. On the other hand, in type 2 diabetes the body does not attack itself with antibodies, but either the pancreas is damaged by another way, or the muscles and other cells have stopped responding to insulin.
When someone has diabetes, it is not always easy for doctors to know whether it is type 1 or type 2. The test is to look at their blood for the pancreas-targeting antibodies found in type 1 diabetes. This test is quite slow and expensive. Faster and cheaper tests just weren’t sensitive enough to detect antibodies. To overcome this problem, a team from Stanford University in the USA used nanotechnology
By placing tiny islands of gold on a glass surface, the team made an amplifier. The fast, cheap tests were now 100 times more sensitive, good enough to detect the antibodies found in type 1 diabetes. Placing just a drop of blood on the gold-studded glass chip would allow a doctor to quickly see if antibodies are there. After trying it out, they found the new nanotech-amplified test was as sensitive as the slower test currently used.

Diabetes

Australia’s largest Aboriginal ochre mine
Celebrating National Aborigines and Islanders Day Observance Committee (NAIDOC) week with a shared research project between the Wajarri people and the University of Western Australia!
Australia’s largest Aboriginal ochre mine is Wilgie Mia. In Wajarri Yamatji country far north of Perth, it is an incredibly important cultural heritage site. Red, yellow and green ochres from the mine have been traded across the country for many thousands of years.
It’s said that ochre from Wilgie Mia was traded across Western Australia into the Kimberley, the Pilbara, down to the south coast and into neighbouring states. Red and yellow ochres are still an important part of Indigenous Australian cultures today.
This week, three young Wajarri men are visiting the University of Western Australia to work alongside archeologist Vicky Winton. Together, they are studying samples from several new sites near Wilgie Mia.
“We’ll be going down to the stores and floating some of the samples,” says Vicky. “That’s a technique that involves putting excavated sediments into water.” Lighter material, such as burnt or charred wood, separates from rocks and makes it easier to sort.
Even after it has been burnt, charred wood can reveal interesting things. Using a technique developed in Europe, the team previously identified the species of tree burnt in fires long ago. Archeological samples can be compared to modern charcoal, taken from partially burnt trees that have been carefully identified. Brendan Hamlett, a Wajarri Traditional Owner who worked on an earlier trip to the University, was surprised to find Mulga trees had been burnt the past. Today, the Wajarri people mainly use Miniritchie and Gidgee trees, he says.
High-end technology can be used to study rich cultural treasures. Recently, a super computer from the University of Western Australia stitched photos of cave shelters into 3D models. Having a digital record of the sites makes it easier to spot any damage that might occur in the future.
By sharing knowledge, everyone benefits. Training the next generation is a priority for the Wajarri Traditional Owners, says Brendan. “This is the first time I’ve made maps with a computer. It’s unreal to use this technology to draw parts of my country.”