Friday, 27 June 2014

Sketchy Fact #46: Stale Clams

In 2006 a clam from the species Arctica islandica was collected and killed for climate change research of the coast of Ireland. Researchers studying the clam felt surprised and probably a little guilty when they discovered the clam was 507 years old. The oldest complex animal ever found.

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

The Little Ice Age: How One Person Can Seriously Screw Up Planetary Climate

If you’re the kind of person who spends a lot of time exploring the Sketchy Science archive, you may have noticed a glaring omission in the topics of articles we have covered. Although we talk about issues of sustainability every now and then (geothermal, solar power, etc.) we have never written an article explicitly about human caused climate change. That is largely because every other science writer around has pretty much beaten that topic to death. The science is obvious to the point of being uninteresting. Everyone knows we are causing the planet to warm and should do something about it. Our job at Sketchy Science is to share weird and cool stuff you might never have heard of, not to tell you what you already know. With that in mind, did you know that some scientists believe that before we got started warming the planet, we may have accidentally dropped it into a mini ice age?

Before we get into the meat of the theory, we should add a disclaimer. This is just a hypothesis. It is supported by evidence and it makes intuitive sense, but the ideas are relatively new and are not widely agreed upon. However, it is a hypothesis that is just too cool to ignore (no pun intended).

You may have already heard of the Little Ice Age but in case you haven’t, it was a period from around the year 1500 to the mid 1800’s where the Earth gave humanity a bit of the cold shoulder. Following the blissfully balmy medieval warming period, the Little Ice Age was an increasingly frustrating time to be alive. Glaciers were growing, crops were freezing, and many people suffered through long, harsh winters following by short, cool summers. In a world where your options for indoor heat ranged from wood burning stoves to coal ovens, the Little Ice Age was a bummer.

Scientists have long wondered about the cause of this glitch in what has otherwise been a fairly agreeable 20,000 year stretch in Earth’s climatic history. Theories have ranged from a drop in solar activity to increased volcanic eruptions cooling off the atmosphere. What people didn’t begin to expect until around 2008 was that we might be able to point the finger at one person. He was an Italian megalomaniac whose genocidal tendencies have earned people in the United States a paid day off work. He is widely regarded as a deeply disagreeable human being who enslaved nations in search of gold. His name was Christopher Columbus.

So how could the no-quite discoverer of the Americas cause the global climate to cool? Well, when he moored his ship in the Caribbean way back in 1492, Columbus ushered in a period of unprecedented ecological change all over the planet. One of the most impactful and most well-known consequences of Columbus’ voyages to the new world was the introduction of European diseases like small pox, measles and a host of other deadly infections to Native American populations with no resistance to them. The outcome, as you probably know, was that within a few centuries over 95% of the indigenous people in North America were dead.

Before all this happened, people in the Americas were pretty busy manipulating the landscapes they called home. Of the many changes they wrought on their land, the one that relates to our topic today was their practice of burning large forested areas to create agricultural land and grasslands on which to hunt large game. As genocide and disease wiped out their populations, the people of the Americas could no longer keep up with the widespread burning program and it is believed that over the same period that so many people were dying off, an area in North America the size of California grew forests where there were no forests before.

Trees are really great things. They are nice to look at, provide us with shade on hot summer days, and they make a great place to build a fort to fall out of and break your arm. They also pull carbon dioxide out of the air and release oxygen. In 2014, this is nothing but good news; in the 1600’s, not so much. Ice cores from Antarctica which trap air bubbles from years gone by have shown that following the arrival of Columbus in the Caribbean, the level of CO­­ in the atmosphere fell by 6 to 10 parts per million. That might not seem like much, but it adds up to about 17 billion metric tons of climate-warming gas locked up in trees instead of in the atmosphere.

Climate modelling computers have demonstrated that removing that amount of carbon from the air could explain most of the cooling of the little ice age. So next time you read about the disappearance of glaciers and sea levels rising, remember the man responsible for putting all that ice there in the first place. Then shake your head in disgust both at one of history’s greatest monsters (aside from Jimmy Carter) and at the modern world for messing things up in the total opposite direction.

Friday, 20 June 2014

Sketchy Fact #45: Where's Squido?

No one knows for sure how many giant squid exist in the world’s oceans, but they make up a major part of the sperm whale’s diet and their population is thought to be between 200,000 and 1.5 million. Just because something is giant, doesn’t mean it isn’t great at hiding.

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

The Truth About Bigfoot: Gigantopithecus and Other Fun on the Scientific Fringes

This week our regular illustrator has flown the coop to do science things at technology conferences, but his busy schedule is your gain! We hope you enjoy the fine work of guest artist and cuteness enthusiast, Marianne Gregory as we explore the fanciful science that people often use to defend the existence of one of natures most elusive creatures...

As someone who lives in Vancouver and spends much of his time outdoors in the Pacific Northwest, I have a responsibly cautious interest in the things that might kill me. Grizzly bears, mountain lions, wolves, or even a crazed moose could cross my path and do me great harm. There is however one beast that is as frightening for the mystery around it as for the damage it could inflict. I am of course referring to the Northwest’s most revered and least understood animal: the North American Sasquatch.

As much fun as it would be to continue with the tongue-in-cheek premise that Sasquatch is a real thing, this is a science blog that aims to spread factual information. With that in mind, I have to stop  where we are and say that there is no scientific evidence that Bigfoot is real or that any large ape has ever lived in North America. As much as I love the deep, dark Canadian wilderness, it is conspicuously deficient in primates. However, one of the fun things about science is that you are occasionally given permission to explore a wacky theory. You just have to lead off with “Wouldn’t it be cool if…”

So wouldn’t it be cool if it turned out that there were giant apes living in the temperate rainforests that blanket the landscapes of Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia? A far as ridiculously improbable discoveries go, it would not be without precedent. A favourite example of all science writers in this vain is the coelacanth. A very large, very hard to misidentify fish that was thought to have gone extinct 65 million year ago only to turn up in an African fishing net in 1938. Sometimes we have even spent decades looking for something that we know exists and still haven't been able to find it. For example, we’ve known for a very long time that giant squid are both really big (up to 30 feet long) and very abundant, but the first time we saw one alive was in January 2013.

Of course, the obvious rebuttal to those examples is that the creatures had to exist before we could conceivably find them. Even if something is extinct, at least we know it is possible. Well, as any halfway legitimate Bigfoot lover will tell you, Sasquatch exists in the fossil record a lot more recently than coelacanths do. When we humans were still not quite modern, we shared the south-Asian forests with an ape that stood as much as ten feet tall and weighed over half a ton (1000 pounds). Its name was Gigantopithecus and evidence of its existence dates up to as recently as 300,000 years ago. In evolutionary time, these red haired, bamboo munching beasts have only just left the party.

All that would have needed to happen for the Sasquatch legends to be true is for a couple Gigantopithecuses to have survived in the Asian jungle until the last ice age 20,000 or so years ago. They could have wandered up the coast and over the Berring land bridge into North America, following mammoths, giant sloths, and even the first humans to find their way into the Americas. Even with civilization encroaching on the wilderness like it does today, there are places where a large animal could be hiding out. Some people might call it unscientific to spend time thinking about something you have no evidence for, but one of the greatest things about science is that it lives on curiosity. It encourages us to explore the unknown. Without the people who have the courage to be considered wack-jobs, a lot of cool discoveries would never get made.
If nothing else, we can at least call one of the most impressive animals to ever have lived by a better name. Gigantopithecus doesn't exactly roll of the tongue like sasquatch does.

Friday, 13 June 2014

Sketchy Fact #44: Jamaican Me Crazy

The largest iceberg ever recorded broke off of Antarctica in the year 2000. It covered 4,250 square miles of ocean, about as much as Jamaica.

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

Climate or Climb It? How changing weather builds mountains

It is easy to think of mountains as permanent features of a landscape. Don’t do it. That is what they want you to do. Let your guard down for one second and those craggy jerks will be on you like white on rice. Mountains change and they do it constantly. We all know about plate tectonics and how ancient sea floors are now some of the loftiest places on the planet. But did you know that climate can also shape mountains?

Recent research from the University of California at Berkley has revealed that California’s already substantial Sierra Nevada Mountains have risen 10 millimeters in the past 7 years. You might expect that this is due to things like earthquakes and tectonics plates crashing into each other, but that is only partly the case. The researchers have also suggested that California’s ongoing and increasingly severe drought has been causing the peaks to shoot upward.

The thing about the Earth’s crust is that it’s a lot more like a mattress than it seems. Put some weight on it and it will dent pretty easily. Take the weight off and watch it spring back up (if you have a few decades to spare). Much of North America’s crust is still rebounding upward in response to the removal of the weight of glaciers from the last ice age, a process called isostatic rebound. In California, glaciers are generally hard to come by, even during an ice age. The uplifting there is the result of water loss in the soil.

It may not seem like it it, but water is massively heavy stuff. It is even heavier than ice, which is why the "rocks" in your scotch float. A one meter by one meter by one meter cube of water weighs a ton. That means the bed of an average pickup truck could hold several thousand pounds of water. Imagine how much the rain water that falls on a mountain range in a year weighs and you can begin to understand why a long running drought might cause mountains to rise.

As water fluctuates and the Earth’s crust reacts, we can get into some pretty hairy situations. A growing body of research is providing evidence that changing rainfall and ice-melt patterns associated with climate change might even cause volcanoes to become more active (Capra, 2006; Deeming et al., 2010). Your classic stratovolcano is just a mountain with a lot of internal pressure. As the amount of ice or water on the overlying mountain changes, the magma chamber underneath can become unstable. When enough weight has been removed the effect is like taking the cap off a shaken up bottle of coke.

Even if the magma chamber doesn’t blow its top, melting ice can destabilize the soil in a slope and cause landslides. The massive landslide in Washington State on March 22, 2014 that killed 41 people came after a period of intense rain that weakened the slope which eventually failed.

Mountains are pretty uncool in that way. They can sit there for millions of years looking all rock-solid and majestic. They watch and wait as we build towns at their bases so we can enjoy the view, going about their natural processes of erosion and uplift at a pace that the human eye just can’t observe. Then one day, either because it has rained too much or not rained enough they are capable of kicking things into overdrive. The lesson in all of this? It’s okay to make friends with a mountain. You can even hang out from time to time. But don’t for a second think you can trust them. They’re more lively than they seem.


Capra, L. (2006). Abrupt climatic changes as triggering mechanisms of massive volcanic collapses RID C-2371-2011. Journal of Volcanology and Geothermal Research, 155(3-4), 329-333. doi:10.1016/j.jvolgeores.2006.04.009

Deeming, K. R., McGuire, B., & Harrop, P. (2010). Climate forcing of volcano lateral collapse: Evidence from Mount Etna, Sicily. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A-Mathematical Physical and Engineering Sciences, 368(1919), 2559-2577. doi:10.1098/rsta.2010.0054

Friday, 6 June 2014

Sketchy Fact #43: Elderly Disparity

According to the World Health Organization, the average life expectancy for a Japanese woman hit 87 years old in 2012. In Sierra Leone it rose to 46.

Wednesday, 4 June 2014

The Five Coolest Discoveries since the Birth of Sketchy Science

It may be hard to believe, but it's true. The blue and white marble that we call home has flung itself through one whole rotation of the sun since that bright June day in 2013 when a couple of science-loving fools first set out to explain the secrets of the universe. Sketchy Science is one year old. 

A year is a long time in the world of the internet. Fads come and go, nobodies become household names, science blogs add colour and detail to their sketches. A year is also a long time in the fast moving world of science. That is why for Sketchy Science’s first birthday we have decided to meander our way down memory lane to countdown the 5 coolest discoveries that have happened since we published our first article. If nothing else, it will prove that we have barely scratched the surface of all the cool stuff that is out there to learn about.

1 – Humanity Goes Interstellar
It took a remarkable 36 years from the moment in 1977 when someone at NASA pressed the “Go” button, but in August of 2013 the Voyager 1 spacecraft broke free of the solar system. At the time when the announcement finally came, the little-spaceship-that-could was 18.8 billion kilometers (11.7 billion miles) from Earth and finally free of the heliosphere (the limit of the Sun’s gravity). This marked the first time that anything created by humans has left the gravitational bubble that contains 8 planets, thousands of asteroids, and every single human being who has ever lived or died. It was a big moment in the lives of us apes and it is certainly worth taking a moment to reflect on. Bon voyage Voyager 1. We'll keep the porch light on for you.

2 – Seeing Like a Cyborg
In June 2013, at around the same time that we were putting together our first, rough little article explaining how lightning works, a group of Australian designers were unveiling the world’s first bionic eye. The way it works is a pair of glasses containing a camera send image data to an implant in a blind person’s brain. The implant stimulates the neurons that would typically be responsible for vision and over time those cells learn to respond to certain shapes, allowing someone with a visual disability to be able to see at least a basic outline of the world around them. There is certainly a long way to go before the technology is mastered or perfected, but the Australian invention is expected to be able to help 85% of people who are classified as legally blind.

3 – The Biome in your Belly
If you are a frequent visitor to our humble little corner of the internet, you may remember our article about how the bacteria that live throughout your body play a critical role in your overall health. The truth is, until very recently, scientists had no idea how important each person’s individual bacterial cocktail was. It was only in December 2013 when the journal Science published an article explaining how the micro-ecosystem inside each person is thought to be strongly linked with issues like malnutrition and even cancer. Next time you reach for a bar of anti-bacterial soap or are about to take a swig of antibacterial mouthwash, remember that the bacteria you are trying to kill might be helping keep you alive.

4 – DNA Surgery
Another breakthrough that made it just in time for the holidays was Genetic Micro-surgery. Basically how it works is scientists have begun to understand that a protein called Cas9 is used by bacteria as a weapon to break apart the DNA of viruses that try to harm them. In 2012, researchers discovered that they could use the same Cas9 protein as the world’s smallest scalpel to cut up pieces of our own DNA. That may not sound like such a great idea, but if you have a genetic disorder like cystic fibrosis or hemophilia and your doctor could send a protein into your cells to cut out the genes that are causing you harm, you might be keen to try it out. In 2013 the method took huge leaps forward with more than a dozen teams publishing papers on how they’ve used it to manipulate genes in everything from mice to human cells.

 5 – Our Not-So-Lonely Planet
Finally, as data continues to be processed from the now-defunct Kepler Space Telescope, we are getting closer and closer to proving that we aren’t alone in the Universe. In November 2013 astronomers announced that our galaxy alone is home to 8.8 billion stars with Earth sized planets orbiting in their habitable zones. Obviously they haven’t sat down and counted every single one, but based on the data they’ve collected so far they are confident with the estimation. Assuming 1% of those stars have planets that contain water, and 1% of those watery planets have life, you’re looking at a galaxy with 880,000 life-hosting planets. Getting to them is a whole other issue, though.

So there they are, the 5 (arguably) coolest scientific breakthroughs that have happened in a brief span of time that we have been around trying to explain things. It’s a real shame we couldn’t make the list 100 items long, but no one has time for that. The great thing about science is that discoveries of that caliber will continue to pour in. We are alive at a very exciting time, and we at Sketchy Science would just like to thank anyone reading this blog for allowing us to try and explain some of the reasons why that is true.