That's Odd, I Swear There Used To Be A Volcano There
In what has been described as "the loudest thing on Earth since Krakatoa", a volcano on the uninhabited island of Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha'apai in Tonga literally exploded this week, erasing both itself and pretty much the entire island from the face of the Earth.
Events like this are very rare - the speculation is that this one was caused by seawater getting into one of the underground magma chambers. It's the only one that's happened with modern technology around, too, allowing some rather amazing satellite views of the explosion as well as monitoring of the pressure wave as it travelled around the world.
Unfortunately, the effect on the people of Tonga is still being established, as the explosion ruptured their only undersea internet cable and satellite communication was spotty. Some relief teams have finally made it there after a lot of work to clear some of the runways of ash, but it seems that whole swathes of buildings may be destroyed. My best wishes to all the people of Tonga and those helping them.
What Could Possibly Go Wrong With Unearthing An Old Antarctic Base?
In what is definitely not a setup for a sequel to 1982's The Thing, an old Polish research base in Antarctica is being re-activated after lying dormant since 1979.
The base is located in the Bunger Oasis, an area of Antarctica that is often compared to Mars, and the team had to get an icebreaker most of the way before going the last stretch by helicopter.
They're there to set up automated monitoring equipment, which should be running year-round and sending data back to Poland without the need for staff there. The team will be leaving in February, though since there's an Australian base only seven kilometres away, they can always ask them to go and turn things off and on again if it gets stuck.
Why Not Just Blow Up The Dam?
An unused dam in Norway has been blown up this week in an effort to restore the river it was on to its natural state, and help improve fish migrations and spawning in the region.
Dams, while obviously useful for hydroelectric power or river control, have a lot of negative environmental effects - the most obvious being the flooding upstream and preventing fish from migrating past it to their spawning grounds. Thus, when a dam is past its useful life? It's probably a good idea to remove it.
The choice of demolition equipment here was dynamite followed by a giant excavator to pull out the debris. It's not exactly easy to remove a dam, but it's happening more and more in Europe with campaigns to restore waterways to their natural state once the dams have reached the end of their usefulness.
Memes and Doomsday Glaciers
The internet's favourite submersible, Boaty McBoatface, is heading out with a fleet of its friends to explore the Doomsday (Thwaites) Glacier we talked about in the last issue.
It will be measuring temperature, salinity, currents, turbulence, and a whole host of other factors while some of the rest of its fleet do mapping and collect samples for lab analysis.
The findings from the mission will obviously help us understand just how quickly this rather ominously-named glacier is deteriorating, but let's be real, the only reason anyone is writing about this is because of the vessel's name.
Plane Crash Then Train Crash
In a rather awful set of coincidences, a pilot in Los Angeles managed to crash a light aircraft on approach to an airport and ended up on an active train line, and then ended up being pulled from the wreck by police mere seconds before a train came and crashed into the wreckage of the plane.
The bodycam video from one of the officers is chilling - the gap is far too close for comfort. My hat is off to them here, for saving the pilot from a far worse fate at the risk of their own lives; he is apparently recovering well in hospital.
For some reason the trains were not stopped when the crash was reported; I'm sure the NTSB are going to have a literal field day on this one. It's not often you get both an aviation and a train incident in the same place.
Why Exactly Are We Stopping? Nobody Knows.
There was a lot of mystery in the skies above the US West Coast this week as, seemingly out of nowhere, a full ground stop of all aircraft was ordered, and several that were already airborne were told to land. The last time this happened at scale was 9/11, so obviously everyone was concerned.
It's weird, then, that it's not quite clear why it happened. A North Korean missile test did occur at about the same time, but NORAD say they didn't order a ground stop nationally, and the FAA just released a cryptic statement saying they did it, but not why.
There's lots of speculation, but it's not very useful without any actual confirmation, which it seems just isn't coming. My theory? Someone pressed the wrong button somewhere and had a very big "oops" moment.
Laser Crows (No, Sadly Not Like That)
The city of Sunnyvale, in Silicon Valley, California, has a crow problem. Thousands of the clever corvids are milling around downtown, leaving a lot of bird droppings everywhere and generally causing a nuisance to residents.
Their solution? Lasers. And not some fancy Silicon Valley bird tracking system, no, it's just giving residents and businesses cheap $20 laser pointers to scare the birds away, as well as adding some boomboxes playing sounds of ravens in distress.
I'm not entirely convinced it'll work - ravens are clever birds, and I wouldn't put it past them to take revenge, and besides, there's a chance the lasers will damage the birds' eyesight. We'll see, I guess - it might save the city from pressure-washing the sidewalks every few weeks, or it might end up with even more bird droppings landing in diners' meals.
Planet-Scale Tampering Might Be Risky, Apparently
As climate change becomes inevitable and at least a few degrees of future heating get "locked in", research is partially turning to the world of geoengineering - that is, planet-scale engineering, designed to directly undo the effects of global warming rather than merely trying to reduce carbon emissions.
Nobody really wants to do it of course, but it's often considered an inevitability as it seems people just aren't going to reduce emissions. Now, though, as it becomes quite a likely thing, some of the potential approaches are getting more attention - including what's probably the leading contender, global dimming.
The plan would be to pump sulfur compounds into the upper atmosphere where they reflect a small percentage of the Sun's rays, cooling the Earth. Having had a look at the plan, though, several scientists are rather concerned with how it would change weather patterns - including potentially eliminating monsoons in various regions (not a good thing), and how it would cause a rapid re-increase back to higher temperatures if we stopped.
Still, though, I think we're going to end up having to do some kind of geoengineering in the near future, if not only to stop over a billion people who live next to sea level from going homeless. I do think, though, just blindly dimming the whole planet maybe isn't it.
No New Nuclear Today
A lot of interesting things are possible with small next-generation nuclear reactor designs, and they're primed to replace fossil fuels as baseload generators in renewables mixes, or as reliable power sources in remote locations. It's nice, then, that the US' Nuclear Regulatory Commission has a process in place to accept designs for new, modern reactors and approve them.
Except... it seems no reactor that's been submitted to that process since 1975 has been built and brought online yet, and the only microreactor design in the pipeline, that of startup Oklo, got denied for apparently no reason this week with no real feedback from the NRC.
Look, nuclear has some natural dangers, but the modern reactor designs are safer than many fossil fuel plants out there, especially once you include coal plant emissions. It would be nice if some of them, yknow, got approved. I await the NRC saying exactly what these new reactors need to do to get the thumbs-up.
The Plight Of The Small American Town
It's a pattern common across America - infrastructure slowly getting worse, towns crumbling as their tax revenues don't let them maintain existing infrastructure, let alone build new.
So, why is that? Well, this wonderfully deep and insightful article from someone involved in the town of Galesburg, Illinois, goes into stark and direct detail about why, with reasoning that is maybe common to anyone who has heard of the Strong Towns movement but much more rooted in direct reality.
Roads cost money. Low-density suburbs have a lot of roads. Property tax in the US is hilariously low and done by the value of the property on the land, not by the cost of the utilities and infrastructure the land demands from the city. These, and more, are linked to the fall of Galesburg, and there's not a whole ton of solutions in sight... including raising taxes, which in the US is maybe the most unimaginable thing of all.
But Was It An Aviation-Grade Sausage?
Some heartwarming drone news this week, as a SAR team in the UK managed to save a dog from drowning using a sausage attached to a multirotor drone.
The dog in question, Millie, was stranded on mud flats in an area that would be flooded with the incoming tide, with no escape route, and rescuers were not able to reach her. After examining the tools they had to hand, though, a combination of a drone, some string, and a freshly-cooked sausage from a local resident proved to be the solution.
Using the sausage, they guided Millie to higher ground where she was safe from the tide and could be reached by rescuers. The team claimed they did the takeoff weight calculations for the sausage before using it - not sure I would have - but either way, congratulations to them and Millie for a good rescue.