The cicadas across our region have been relentless, sparking a social media frenzy and keeping nature reporters in the D.C. area busy. Now they’ve made their way onto weather maps, too. They, along with other insects, can be seen on Doppler radars ordinarily used to track storms.
Over the weekend, plots from D.C.-area weather radars appeared extra cluttered, the radar showing shades usually associated with light rain or snow. That prompted the National Weather Service to tweet about an unusual “biological” signal appearing on their Sterling, Va.-based radar.
“You may have noticed a lot of fuzziness … on our radar recently,” they wrote. “Our guess? It’s probably the cicadas.”
After deliberating among ourselves and reaching out to entomologists, we mostly concur. Our hunch is that multiple types of insects are contributing to the noisy radar signals — cicadas at low levels and mayflies or termites higher aloft.
You may have noticed a lot of fuzziness (low reflectivity values) on our radar recently. The Hydrometeor Classification algorithm shows much of it to be Biological in nature. Our guess? It’s probably the #cicadas. pic.twitter.com/i990mEBJnl
Weather radars work by transmitting a sweeping beam of pulsed, microwave energy through a large volume of the atmosphere, listening for “echoes” that result when energy is bounced back to the radar by “targets.” These targets aren’t always meteorological.
The radars are fine-tuned to focus on hydrometeors, or raindrops, snowflakes and hailstones. But a large enough concentration of non-meteorological scatterers lofted in the air — including bugs, tree seeds and even tornadic debris — can light up the radar map, as well.
That’s what weather watchers began noticing over the weekend, when the radar maps went extra fuzzy-looking across the greater Washington area and points north and west.
The signatures appeared like patches of drizzle where the radar beam sweeps within a mile of the surface, but it was sunny and no rain or storm clouds were in the area.
However, the noise has extended higher than cicadas can fly — up to about 6,000 feet in elevation — causing some reason for skepticism.
Daniel Gruner, an entomologist at the University of Maryland, did not initially believe the radar returns were from cicadas. Gruner sent CWG an email stating, “For today’s [radar] images, I am skeptical these signatures are cicadas for multiple reasons. Cicadas are not strong long-distance fliers, they do not migrate, and their biology is tethered to the trees.”
Cicadas are big, heavy and clunky bugs.
They usually prefer buzzing about near tree crowns. In the fuzzy radar images, the fuzziness extends more than 100 miles from the radar. At such long distances, the radar beam is several thousand feet above the surface (the beam follows a relatively straight path through the atmosphere, but Earth’s surface curves away from it, making the beam gain height with range).
That’s where we can turn to more sensitive, high-resolution radars for help. There are several in the region, like the terminal Doppler radar at Joint Base Andrews in Prince George’s County.
It revealed a dense spattering of objects within 300 feet of the ground and then a more diffuse but still present assortment of creatures through about 6,000 feet of elevation.
That 300-foot mark more likely represents the upper cutoff of where the seemingly endless cicadas are swarming. They are probably responsible for the near-radar signals below that, with other insects contributing to what’s being seen upward of a mile aloft.
Upon learning that radar can detect insects as low as the tops of trees, Gruner came around to the idea that radar was indeed showing the cicadas. “If the radar can pick up the returns essentially at canopy level, then that changes the whole equation,” he wrote in a follow-up email.
In the image below, notice how the green and yellow shades are visible only near the radar, where the beam is low and within a few hundred feet of the surface. That’s probably the result of cicadas.
We also noticed that the densest low-level signal roughly corresponded with where cicadas have been sighted. Radar returns abruptly cut off near the Prince William-Fairfax county line, where the Brood X cutoff is.
Beyond that, radar is still detecting insects at elevation up to several thousand feet, raising questions as to what the cause there might be.
How do we know all the targets are insects? Their shapes.By examining the ratio of horizontal- and vertical-polarized components of the radar beam, as well as the amount of backscattered energy bounced back to the radar, the rough shapes and sizes of targets can be determined.
Raindrops, hailstones and snowflakes are shaped differently than the jagged cross-sections of winged creatures like cicadas. Biological targets have “low correlations,” meaning their shapes are unorthodox. All the blue on the below map corresponds to such low-correlation objects:
So what’s going on in the range high above where the cicadas are found?
Our entomologist colleagues point to mayflies and termites, which have been spotted across the area in recent weeks. You may have noticed dead collections of these tiny winged critters on your car hood, as several of us at Capital Weather Gang did this past weekend.
It’s also possible that cicadas, termites and mayflies alike have been carried a bit higher than they’d otherwise fly by convective rolls, or weak overturning circulations that form in the heat of the day. Alternating strips of rising and sinking air a mile or two wide make up these “convective rolls.”
Ordinarily they are invisible, but when tracers like insects are caught up in the converging winds and suspended aloft, they help reveal the structure of such features in the lower atmosphere. That’s what makes the filament-like strands orient parallel to the low-level wind visible on radar.
This is not the first time insects or other wildlife has been spotted on weather radars. Swarms of various insects have been showing up on radar since its inception, as have dispersing flocks of birds, bats and even butterflies. Rocket launches and explosions, aircraft incidents, and wildfires have, too.
The bottom line is that multiple species of insects are probably at play in creating bright, fuzzy, clear-air patterns in the returns of nearby weather radars. It’s likely low-flying cicadas close to the radar and other critters more distant.
What have you, our readers, been seeing in terms of different insect emergences? We look forward to your comments in the blog, as we meteorologists have been “bugged” by this fuzzy radar problem!
Vast stretches of Earth’s northern latitudes are on fire right now. Hot weather has engulfed a huge portion of the Arctic, from Alaska to Greenland to Siberia. That’s helped create conditions ripe for wildfires, including some truly massive ones burning in remote parts of the region that are being seen by satellites.
Pierre Markuse, a satellite imagery processing guru, has documented some of the blazes attacking the forests and peatlands of the Arctic. The imagery reveals the delicate landscapes with braided rivers, towering mountains, and vast swaths of forest, all under a thick blanket of smoke.
In Alaska, those images show some of the damage wrought by wildfires that have burned more than 1.6 million acres of land this year. Huge fires have sent smoke streaming cities earlier this month, riding on the back of Anchorage’s first 90 degree day ever recorded. The image below show some of the more remote fires in Alaska as well as the Swan Lake Fire, which was responsible for the smoke swallowing Anchorage in late June and earlier this month.
Intense hot conditions have also fanned flames in Siberia. The remote nature of many of the fires there means they’re burning out of control, often, through swaths of peatland that’s normally frozen or soggy. But as Thomas Smith, a fire expert at London School of Economics, noted on Twitter, there are ample signs the peat dried out due to the heat and is ablaze. That’s worrisome since peat is rich in carbon, and fires can release it into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide. Peat fires can also burn underground into the winter and reignite in spring.
The images below show fires in Batagay in central Siberia and the region’s Lena River.
Then there’s the weird fire that sparked up in Greenland last week. A landscape known more for its ice, this is the second time in the past three years a wildfire has ignited in western Greenland. There are very few historical precedents for these types of blazes, and though they’re not on the scale of what’s happening in Siberia and Alaska, they’re yet another symptom of an Arctic transitioning into a more volatile state as the planet warms.
All told, northern fires released as much carbon dioxide in June as the entire country of Sweden does in a year, according to data crunched by the European Union’s Copernicus program. The agency said the wildfire activity is “unprecedented” amidst what was, incidentally, the hottest June ever recorded for the planet with the Arctic particularly sweltering. All that carbon dioxide released by fires represents one of the scarier feedback loops of climate change as hot weather ensures more fires, which releases carbon dioxide and makes climate change worse. The boreal forest that rings the northern portion of the world is witnessing a period of wildfire activity unseen in at least 10,000 years, and this summer is another worrying datapoint.
Like most children, Margaret Howe Lovatt grew up with stories of talking animals. “There was this book that my mother gave to me called Miss Kelly,” she remembers with a twinkle in her eye. “It was a story about a cat who could talk and understand humans and it just stuck with me that maybe there is this possibility.”
Unlike most children, Lovatt didn’t leave these tales of talking animals behind her as she grew up. In her early 20s, living on the Caribbean island of St Thomas, they took on a new significance. During Christmas 1963, her brother-in-law mentioned a secret laboratory at the eastern end of the island where they were working with dolphins. She decided to pay the lab a visit early the following year. “I was curious,” Lovatt recalls. “I drove out there, down a muddy hill, and at the bottom was a cliff with a big white building.”
Lovatt was met by a tall man with tousled hair, wearing an open shirt and smoking a cigarette. His name was Gregory Bateson, a great intellectual of the 20th century and the director of the lab. “Why did you come here?” he asked Lovatt.
“Well, I heard you had dolphins,” she replied, “and I thought I’d come and see if there was anything I could do or any way I could help…” Unused to unannounced visitors and impressed by her bravado, Bateson invited her to meet the animals and asked her to watch them for a while and write down what she saw. Despite her lack of scientific training, Lovatt turned out to be an intuitive observer of animal behaviour and Bateson told her she could come back whenever she wanted.
“There were three dolphins,” remembers Lovatt. “Peter, Pamela and Sissy. Sissy was the biggest. Pushy, loud, she sort of ran the show. Pamela was very shy and fearful. And Peter was a young guy. He was sexually coming of age and a bit naughty.”
The lab’s upper floors overhung a sea pool that housed the animals. It was cleaned by the tide through openings at each end. The facility had been designed to bring humans and dolphins into closer proximity and was the brainchild of an American neuroscientist, Dr John Lilly. Here, Lilly hoped to commune with the creatures, nurturing their ability to make human-like sounds through their blow holes.
Lilly had been interested in connecting with cetaceans since coming face to face with a beached pilot whale on the coast near his home in Massachusetts in 1949. The young medic couldn’t quite believe the size of the animal’s brain – and began to imagine just how intelligent the creature must have been, explains Graham Burnett, professor of the history of science at Princeton and author of The Sounding of the Whale. “You are talking about a time in science when everybody’s thinking about a correlation between brain size and what the brain can do. And in this period, researchers were like: ‘Whoa… big brain huh… cool!'”
At every opportunity in the years that followed, John Lilly and his first wife, Mary, would charter sailboats and cruise the Caribbean, looking for other big-brained marine mammals to observe. It was on just such a trip in the late 1950s that the Lillys came across Marine Studios in Miami – the first place to keep the bottlenose dolphin in captivity.
Up until this time, fishermen on America’s east coast, who were in direct competition with dolphins for fish, had considered the animals vermin. “They were know as ‘herring hogs’ in most of the seafaring towns in the US,” says Burnett. But here, in the tanks of Marine Studios, the dolphins’ playful nature was endearingly on show and their ability to learn tricks quickly made it hard to dislike them.
Here, for the first time, Lilly had the chance to study the brains of live dolphins, mapping their cerebral cortex using fine probes, which he’d first developed for his work on the brains of rhesus monkeys. Unable to sedate dolphins, as they stop breathing under anaesthetic, the brain-mapping work wasn’t easy for either animals or scientists, and the research didn’t always end well for the marine mammals. But on one occasion in 1957, the research would take a different course which would change his and Mary’s lives for ever.
Now aged 97, Mary still remembers the day very clearly. “I came in at the top of the operating theatre and heard John talking and the dolphin would go: ‘Wuh… wuh… wuh’ like John, and then Alice, his assistant, would reply in a high tone of voice and the dolphin would imitate her voice. I went down to where they were operating and told them that this was going on and they were quite startled.”
Perhaps, John reasoned, this behaviour indicated an ambition on the dolphins’ part to communicate with the humans around them. If so, here were exciting new opportunities for interspecies communication. Lilly published his theory in a book in 1961 called Man and Dolphin. The idea of talking dolphins, eager to tell us something, captured the public’s imagination and the book became a bestseller.
Man and Dolphin extrapolated Mary Lilly’s initial observations of dolphins mimicking human voices, right through to teaching them to speak English and on ultimately to a Cetacean Chair at the United Nations, where all marine mammals would have an enlightening input into world affairs, widening our perspectives on everything from science to history, economics and current affairs.
Lilly’s theory had special significance for another group of scientists – astronomers. “I’d read his book and was very impressed,” says Frank Drake, who had just completed the first experiment to detect signals from extraterrestrial civilisations using a radio telescope at Green Bank in West Virginia. “It was a very exciting book because it had these new ideas about creatures as intelligent and sophisticated as us and yet living in a far different milieu.” He immediately saw parallels with Lilly’s work, “because we [both] wanted to understand as much as we could about the challenges of communicating with other intelligent species.” This interest helped Lilly win financial backing from Nasa and other government agencies, and Lilly opened his new lab in the Caribbean in 1963, with the aim of nurturing closer relationships between man and dolphin.
A few months LATER, in early 1964, Lovatt arrived. Through her naturally empathetic nature she quickly connected with the three animals and, eager to embrace John Lilly’s vision for building an interspecies communication bridge, she threw herself into his work, spending as much time as possible with the dolphins and carrying out a programme of daily lessons to encourage them to make human-like sounds. While the lab’s director, Gregory Bateson, concentrated on animal-to-animal communication, Lovatt was left alone to pursue Lilly’s dream to teach the dolphins to speak English. But even at a state-of-the-art facility like the Dolphin House, barriers remained. “Every night we would all get in our cars and pull the garage door down and drive away,” remembers Lovatt. “And I thought: ‘Well there’s this big brain floating around all night.’ It amazed me that everybody kept leaving and I just thought it was wrong.”
Lovatt reasoned that if she could live with a dolphin around the clock, nurturing its interest in making human-like sounds, like a mother teaching a child to speak, they’d have more success. “Maybe it was because I was living so close to the lab. It just seemed so simple. Why let the water get in the way?” she says. “So I said to John Lilly: ‘I want to plaster everything and fill this place with water. I want to live here.'”
The radical nature of Lovatt’s idea appealed to Lilly and he went for it. She began completely waterproofing the upper floors of the lab, so that she could actually flood the indoor rooms and an outdoor balcony with a couple of feet of water. This would allow a dolphin to live comfortably in the building with her for three months.
Lovatt selected the young male dolphin called Peter for her live-in experiment. “I chose to work with Peter because he had not had any human-like sound training and the other two had,” she explains. Lovatt would attempt to live in isolation with him six days a week, sleeping on a makeshift bed on the elevator platform in the middle of the room and doing her paperwork on a desk suspended from the ceiling and hanging over the water. On the seventh day Peter would return to the sea pool downstairs to spend time with the two female dolphins at the lab – Pamela and Sissy.
By the summer of 1965, Lovatt’s domestic dolphinarium was ready for use. Lying in bed, surrounded by water that first night and listening to the pumps gurgling away, she remembers questioning what she was doing. “Human people were out there having dinner or whatever and here I am. There’s moonlight reflecting on the water, this fin and this bright eye looking at you and I thought: ‘Wow, why am I here?’ But then you get back into it and it never occurred to me not to do it. What I was doing there was trying to find out what Peter was doing there and what we could do together. That was the whole point and nobody had done that.”
Audio recordings of Lovatt’s progress, meticulously archived on quarter-inch tapes at the time, capture the energy that Lovatt brought to the experiment – doggedly documenting Peter’s progress with her twice-daily lessons and repeatedly encouraging him to greet her with the phrase ‘Hello Margaret’. “‘M’ was very difficult,” she remembers. “My name. Hello ‘M’argaret. I worked on the ‘M’ sound and he eventually rolled over to bubble it through the water. That ‘M’, he worked on so hard.”
For Lovatt, though, it often wasn’t these formal speech lessons that were the most productive. It was just being together which taught her the most about what made Peter tick. “When we had nothing to do was when we did the most,” she reflects. “He was very, very interested in my anatomy. If I was sitting here and my legs were in the water, he would come up and look at the back of my knee for a long time. He wanted to know how that thing worked and I was so charmed by it.”
Carl Sagan, one of the young astronomers at Green Bank, paid a visit to report back on progress to Frank Drake. “We thought that it was important to have the dolphins teach us ‘Dolphinese’, if there is such a thing,” recalls Drake. “For example we suggested two dolphins in each tank not able to see each other – and he should teach one dolphin a procedure to obtain food – and then see if it could tell the other dolphin how to do the same thing in its tank. That was really the prime experiment to be done, but Lilly never seemed able to do it.”
Instead, he encouraged Lovatt to press on with teaching Peter English. But there was something getting in the way of the lessons. “Dolphins get sexual urges,” says the vet Andy Williamson, who looked after the animals’ health at Dolphin House. “I’m sure Peter had plenty of thoughts along those lines.”
“Peter liked to be with me,” explains Lovatt. “He would rub himself on my knee, or my foot, or my hand. And at first I would put him downstairs with the girls,” she says. But transporting Peter downstairs proved so disruptive to the lessons that, faced with his frequent arousals, it just seemed easier for Lovatt to relieve his urges herself manually.
“I allowed that,” she says. “I wasn’t uncomfortable with it, as long as it wasn’t rough. It would just become part of what was going on, like an itch – just get rid of it, scratch it and move on. And that’s how it seemed to work out. It wasn’t private. People could observe it.”
For Lovatt it was a precious thing, which was always carried out with great respect. “Peter was right there and he knew that I was right there,” she continues. “It wasn’t sexual on my part. Sensuous perhaps. It seemed to me that it made the bond closer. Not because of the sexual activity, but because of the lack of having to keep breaking. And that’s really all it was. I was there to get to know Peter. That was part of Peter.”
Innocent as they were, Lovatt’s sexual encounters with Peter would ultimately overshadow the whole experiment when a story about them appeared in Hustler magazine in the late 1970s. “I’d never even heard of Hustler,” says Lovatt. “I think there were two magazine stores on the island at the time. And I went to one and looked and I found this story with my name and Peter, and a drawing.”
Lovatt bought up all the copies she could find, but the story was out there and continues to circulate to this day on the web. “It’s a bit uncomfortable,” she acknowledges. “The worst experiment in the world, I’ve read somewhere, was me and Peter. That’s fine, I don’t mind. But that was not the point of it, nor the result of it. So I just ignore it.”
Something else began to interrupt the study. Lilly had been researching the mind-altering powers of the drug LSD since the early 1960s. The wife of Ivan Tors, the producer of the dolphin movie Flipper, had first introduced him to it at a party in Hollywood. “John and Ivan Tors were really good friends,” says Ric O’Barry of the Dolphin Project (an organisation that aims to stop dolphin slaughter and exploitation around the world) and a friend of Lilly’s at the time. “Ivan was financing some of the work on St Thomas. I saw John go from a scientist with a white coat to a full blown hippy,” he remembers.
For the actor Jeff Bridges, who was introduced to Lilly by his father Lloyd, Lilly’s self-experimentation with LSD was just part of who he was. “John Lilly was above all an explorer of the brain and the mind, and all those drugs that expand our consciousness,” reflects Bridges. “There weren’t too many people with his expertise and his scientific background doing that kind of work.”
In the 1960s a small selection of neuroscientists like John Lilly were licensed to research LSD by the American government, convinced that the drug had medicinal qualities that could be used to treat mental-health patients. As part of this research, the drug was sometimes injected into animals and Lilly had been using it on his dolphins since 1964, curious about the effect it would have on them.
Much to Lilly’s annoyance, nothing happened. Despite his various attempts to get the dolphins to respond to the drug, it didn’t seem to have any effect on them, remembers Lovatt. “Different species react to different pharmaceuticals in different ways,” explains the vet, Andy Williamson. “A tranquilliser made for horses might induce a state of excitement in a dog. Playing with pharmaceuticals is a tricky business to say the least.”
Injecting the dolphins with LSD was not something Lovatt was in favour of and she insisted that the drug was not given to Peter, which Lilly agreed to. But it was his lab, and they were his animals, she recalls. And as a young woman in her 20s she felt powerless to stop him giving LSD to the other two dolphins.
While Lilly’s experimentation with the drug continued, Lovatt persevered with Peter’s vocalisation lessons and grew steadily closer to him. “That relationship of having to be together sort of turned into really enjoying being together, and wanting to be together, and missing him when he wasn’t there,” she reflects. “I did have a very close encounter with – I can’t even say a dolphin again – with Peter.”
By autumn 1966, Lilly’s interest in the speaking-dolphin experiment was dwindling. “It didn’t have the zing to it that LSD did at that time,” recalls Lovatt of Lilly’s attitude towards her progress with Peter. “And in the end the zing won.”
Lilly’s cavalier attitude to the dolphins’ welfare would eventually be his downfall, driving away the lab’s director, Gregory Bateson, and eventually causing the funding to be cut. Just as Lovatt and Peter’s six-month live-in experiment was concluding, it was announced that the lab would be closed.
Without funding, the fate of the dolphins was in question. “I couldn’t keep Peter,” says Lovatt, wistfully. “If he’d been a cat or a dog, then maybe. But not a dolphin.” Lovatt’s new job soon became the decommissioning of the lab and she prepared to ship the dolphins away to Lilly’s other lab, in a disused bank building in Miami. It was a far cry from the relative freedom and comfortable surroundings of Dolphin House.
At the Miami lab, held captive in smaller tanks with little or no sunlight, Peter quickly deteriorated, and after a few weeks Lovatt received news.
“I got that phone call from John Lilly,” she recalls. “John called me himself to tell me. He said Peter had committed suicide.”
Ric O’Barry corroborates the use of this word. “Dolphins are not automatic air-breathers like we are,” he explains. “Every breath is a conscious effort. If life becomes too unbearable, the dolphins just take a breath and they sink to the bottom. They don’t take the next breath.” Andy Williamson puts Peter’s death down to a broken heart, brought on by a separation from Lovatt that he didn’t understand. “Margaret could rationalise it, but when she left, could Peter? Here’s the love of his life gone.”
“I wasn’t terribly unhappy about it,” explains Lovatt, 50 years on. “I was more unhappy about him being in those conditions [at the Miami lab] than not being at all. Nobody was going to bother Peter, he wasn’t going to hurt, he wasn’t going to be unhappy, he was just gone. And that was OK. Odd, but that’s how it was.”
In the decades which followed, John Lilly continued to study dolphin-human communications, exploring other ways of trying to talk to them – some of it bizarrely mystical, employing telepathy, and some of it more scientific, using musical tones. No one else ever tried to teach dolphins to speak English again.
Instead, research has shifted to better understanding other species’ own languages. At the Seti (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute, founded by Frank Drake to continue his work on life beyond Earth, Drake’s colleague Laurance Doyle has attempted to quantify the complexity of animal language here on our home planet.
“There is still this prejudice that humans have a language which is far and away above any other species’ qualitatively,” says Doyle. “But by looking at the complexity of the relationship of dolphin signals to each other, we’ve discovered that they definitely have a very high communication intelligence. I think Lilly’s big insight was how intelligent dolphins really are.”
Margaret Howe Lovatt stayed on the island, marrying the photographer who’d captured pictures of the experiment. Together they moved back into Dolphin House, eventually converting it into a family home where they brought up three daughters. “It was a good place,” she remembers. “There was good feeling in that building all the time.”
In the years that followed the house has fallen into disrepair, but the ambition of what went on there is still remembered. “Over the years I have received letters from people who are working with dolphins themselves,” she recalls. “They often say things like: ‘When I was seven I read about you living with a dolphin, and that’s what started it all for me.'”
Peter is their “Miss Kelly”, she explains, remembering her own childhood book about talking animals. “Miss Kelly inspired me. And in turn the idea of my living with a dolphin inspired others. That’s fun. I like that.”
Christopher Riley is the producer and director of The Girl Who Talked to Dolphins, which will premiere at the Sheffield International Documentary Festival on 11 June, and is on BBC4 on 17 June at 9pm
At first glance, the hagfish—a sinuous, tubular animal with pink-grey skin and a paddle-shaped tail—looks very much like an eel. Naturalists can tell the two apart because hagfish, unlike other fish, lack backbones (and, also, jaws). For everyone else, there’s an even easier method. “Look at the hand holding the fish,” the marine biologist Andrew Thaler once noted. “Is it completely covered in slime? Then, it’s a hagfish.”
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Hagfish produce slime the way humans produce opinions—readily, swiftly, defensively, and prodigiously. They slime when attacked or simply when stressed. On July 14, 2017, a truck full of hagfishoverturned on an Oregon highway. The animals were destined for South Korea, where they are eaten as a delicacy, but instead, they were strewn across a stretch of Highway 101, covering the road (and at least one unfortunate car) in slime.
Typically, a hagfish will release less than a teaspoon of gunk from the 100 or so slime glands that line its flanks. And in less than half a second, that little amount will expand by 10,000 times—enough to fill a sizable bucket. Reach in, and every move of your hand will drag the water with it. “It doesn’t feel like much at first, as if a spider has built a web underwater,” says Douglas Fudge of Chapman University. But try to lift your hand out, and it’s as if the bucket’s contents are now attached to you.
The slime looks revolting, but it’s also one of nature’s more wondrous substances, unlike anything else that’s been concocted by either evolution or engineers. Fudge, who has been studying its properties for two decades, says that when people first touch it, they are invariably surprised. “It looks like a bunch of mucus that someone just sneezed out of their nose,” he says. “That’s not at all what it’s like.”
For a start, it’s not sticky. If there wasn’t so damn much of it, you’d be able to wipe it off your skin with ease. The hagfish themselves scrape the slime off their skin by tying a knot in their bodies and sliding it from head to tail.
The slime also “has a very strange sensation of not quite being there,” says Fudge. It consists of two main components—mucus and protein threads. The threads spread out and entangle one another, creating a fast-expanding net that traps both mucus and water. Astonishingly, to create a liter of slime, a hagfish has to release only 40 milligrams of mucus and protein—1,000 times less dry material than human saliva contains. That’s why the slime, though strong and elastic enough to coat a hand, feels so incorporeal.
Indeed, it’s one of the softest materials ever measured. “Jell-O is between 10,000 and 100,000 times stiffer than hagfish slime,” says Randy Ewoldt from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, who had to invent new methods for assessing the substance’s properties after conventional instruments failed to cope with its nature. “When you see it in a bucket, it almost still looks like water. Only when you stick your hand in and pick it up do you find that it’s a coherent thing.”
The proteins threads that give the slime cohesion are incredible in their own right. Each is one-100th the width of a human hair, but can stretch for four to six inches. And within the slime glands, each thread is coiled like a ball of yarnwithin its own tiny cell—a feat akin to stuffing a kilometer of Christmas lights into a shoebox without a single knot or tangle. No one knows how the hagfish achieves this miracle of packaging, but Fudge just got a grant to test one idea. He thinks that the thread cells use their nuclei—the DNA-containing structures at their core—like a spindle, turning them to wind the growing protein threads into a single continuous loop.
Once these cells are expelled from the slime glands, they rupture, releasing the threads within them. Ewoldt’s colleague Gaurav Chaudhury found that despite their length, the threads can fully unspool in a fraction of a second. The pull of flowing water is enough to unwind them. But the process is even quicker if the loose end snags on a surface, like another thread, or a predator’s mouth.
Being extremely soft, the slime is very good at filling crevices, and scientists had long assumed that hagfish use it to clog the gills of would-be predators. That hypothesis was only confirmed in 2011, when Vincent Zintzen from the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa finally captured footage of hagfish sliming conger eels, wreckfish, and more. Even a shark was forced to retreat, visibly gagging on the cloud of slime in its jaws.
“We were blown away by those videos,” Fudge says, “but when we really looked carefully, we noticed that the slime is released after the hagfish is bitten.” So how does the animal survive that initial attack? His colleague Sarah Boggett showed that the answer lies in their skin. It’s exceptionally loose, and attaches to the rest of the body at only a few places. It’s also very flaccid: You could inject a hagfish with an extra 40 percent of its body volume without stretching the skin. The animal is effectively wearing a set of extremely loose pajamas, Fudge says. If a shark bites down, “the body sort of squishes out of the way.”
More commonly, these creatures burrow into dead or dying animals, in search of flesh to scavenge. They can’t bite; instead, they rasp away at carcasses with a plate of toothy cartilage in their mouths. The same traveling knots they use to de-slime themselves also help them eat. They grab into a cadaver, then move a knot from tail to head, using the leverage to yank out mouthfuls of meat. They can also eat by simply sitting inside a corpse, and absorbing nutrients directly through their skin and gills. The entire hagfish is effectively a large gut, and even that is understating matters: Their skin is actually more efficient at absorbing nutrients than their own intestines.
Hagfish are so thoroughly odd that biologists have struggled to clearly work out how they’re related to other fish, and to the other backboned vertebrates. Based on their simple anatomy, many researchers billed the creatures as primitive precursors to vertebrates—an intermediate form that existed before the evolution of jaws and spinal columns.
But a new fossil called Tethymyxine complicates that story. Hailing from a Lebanese quarry, and purchased by researchers at a fossil show in Tucson, Arizona, the Cretaceous-age creature is clearly a hagfish. It has a raspy cartilage plate in its mouth, slime glands dotting its flanks, and even chemicals within those glands that match the composition of modern slime. By comparing Tethymyxine to other hagfish, Tetsuto Miyashita from the University of Chicago concluded that these creatures (along with another group of jawless fish, the lampreys) are not precursors to vertebrates, but actual vertebrates themselves.
Such work is always contentious, but it fits with the results of genetic studies. If it’s right, then hagfish aren’t primitive evolutionary throwbacks at all. Instead, they represent a lineage of vertebrates that diverged from all the others about 550 million years ago, and lost several traits such as complex eyes, taste buds, scales, and perhaps even bones. Maybe those losses were adaptations to a life spent infiltrating carcasses in the dark, deep ocean, much like their flaccid, nutrient-absorbing skins are. “Hagfishes might look primitive; they’re actually very specialized,” Miyashita adds.
Their signature slime might have also evolved as a result of that lifestyle, as a way of fending off predators that were competing for cadavers. “Everything about hagfish is weird,” says Fudge, “but it all kind of fits.”
Sudan was at the front of my mind for much of my life. He had a different character from other rhinos – he was so very gentle – and he was like a member of my family.
Sudan was born in the wild in Sudan in 1973, captured when he was two and taken to Dvůr Králové zoo in what is now the Czech Republic. The zoo was the only place to breed northern white rhinos successfully in captivity, and Sudan fathered a daughter, Najin. In 2000, Najin had a daughter, Fatu.
Together with Suni, another male northern white rhino, this family was returned to Africa in 2009. I have been among the team caring for them at Ol Pejeta Conservancy since.
When they came home, the rhinos were so excited. They had been in small pens and now they roamed a 700-acre enclosure, under 24-hour guard. They shared their enclosure with southern white rhinos, a subspecies that still survives in reasonable numbers in the wild. In 2014, Suni died, leaving Sudan as the last male northern white rhino. Even as he aged, Sudan showed plenty of interest in mating with female southern white rhinos. A male rhino has to fight a female first and win that fight before he is allowed to mate. Unfortunately Sudan was overpowered by the females; we had to send him away for his own safety.
As Sudan, Najin and Fatu were brought up in a zoo, they knew their names. Rhinos have a good sense of hearing and smell, and they would come towards us when we called. Caress his ears, and Sudan relaxed. If he needed medical attention, we didn’t have to sedate him; we could just stroke the tips of his ears.
While rhinos can live to 60 in captivity, their life expectancy in the wild is in their 40s. Unfortunately Sudan developed an infection in his hind leg and then suffered from sores. He received medication, but by the end he was struggling to get up and wasn’t able to walk outside. He was in a lot of pain. Eventually, the vets had to put him to sleep. He was 45.
We really cried, all the keepers. We held a memorial service for him, which helped. He was a great ambassador for all rhinos, not just his own kind.
I’m still working hard to ensure the two remaining northern white rhinos are content and in good condition for the rest of their lives. They continue to help raise awareness of rhino conservation. If there was no poaching, there would still be good wild populations of northern white rhinos. We are trying to tell everyone that rhino horn does not possess any medicinal value.
This may not be the end of Sudan’s story. Semen was collected from him, and from other captive males, before they died. Scientists now plan to harvest eggs from our two remaining females, create more than one embryo and implant them in surrogate female southern white rhinos. In Berlin, scientists have managed to create an embryo using northern white rhino semen and southern white rhino eggs. Using IVF to try to save rhinos has never been done before. I keep my fingers crossed. I still hope we can save these magnificent creatures.
As told to Patrick Barkham
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It is unsettling, and maybe emblematic of many American lives today, to perch safely but uneasily on the edge of catastrophe. Rainfall in eastern North Carolina passed thirty inches during Hurricane Florence, cutting off the coastal city of Wilmington from road access, and this week the state’s rivers are swelling as they return the water to the Atlantic. The Neuse River is menacing Goldsboro, home of the Reverend William Barber’s congregation, and the Cape Fear River is swamping Fayetteville, near Fort Bragg. The storm has killed at least thirty-two people. It left my neighborhood in Durham, a hundred and forty miles inland, damp and ruffled by breezes. Warm humidity streaked the outside of air-conditioned windows with condensed water, and people stayed indoors watching weather updates.
But we prepared here—overprepared, even. The city of Durham shuttered its non-emergency offices last Thursday afternoon, and public schools closed throughout the Research Triangle. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Duke, where I teach, shut down classes for nearly a week and urged students to evacuate. Big-box stores were stripped of water, batteries, and other emergency supplies, and gas stations were empty. At home, we stockpiled jugs of water, dried fruit and canned beans, candles.
Disaster planning requires an accounting of everyday dependencies. How far can we drive if there is no gas for sale? Without electricity, how many hours of light do we have? If the stores aren’t restocked, when will we run out of food? Once our phones aren’t working, how many phone numbers do we actually know? How many of the people we know live within walking distance? As we pull the plug on one vital system after another, tasks that seemed straightforward—making a cup of coffee, or washing clothes—turn out to be a note in a technological symphony.
A recent study by the geologist Jan Zalasiewicz and twenty-four co-authors estimated the total weight of human infrastructure—buildings, roads, vehicles, intensely cultivated cropland—at thirty trillion tons, roughly three thousand tons for every human being. In 2013, Peter Haff, a Duke University earth scientist, reckoned that without this infrastructure, which he calls “the technosphere,” human population “would quickly decline toward its Stone Age base of no more than ten million.” You can relax that pessimism by an order of magnitude and still conclude that most of us would not survive outside our artificial habitat. We would be what Shakespeare’s King Lear calls “unaccommodated man”: a “poor, bare, forked animal.”
A “natural disaster,” then, is at least half non-natural, the product of a natural event and the infrastructure that it floods, shakes, or ignites. In North Carolina, much of that infrastructure is agricultural: over the past thirty years, the eastern part of the state has become the slaughterhouse of the East Coast. At least nine million pigs live here, mostly in “confined animal feeding operations” that contain thousands of animals apiece. Operators cure pig feces in open-air “lagoons” near the crowded barns where the animals spend their short lives. Poultry farms, which use the same model, are also widespread. In September of 1999, Hurricane Floyd’s floodwaters drowned a million chickens and turkeys and a hundred thousand hogs in eastern North Carolina, and sent a hundred and twenty million gallons of their waste into the region’s rivers. State officials marshalled incinerators to burn the corpses, and contamination persisted in waterways until the spring.
After that catastrophe, the hog industry got more careful about where it located facilities, and state lawmakers toughened environmental standards for new operations. But climate change has increased the vulnerability of North Carolina’s low-lying eastern plain, expanding the size and water mass of hurricanes by as much as fifty per cent, with ocean levels creeping up. Meanwhile, a Republican-dominated state legislature cut taxes and took other measures that blocked the development of a more resilient infrastructure. A 2012 statute initially forbade state planners to take climate change into account, out of fear of burdening developers in storm-prone areas; the legislature only softened it when the Republican governor’s office made clear that it would not make life harder for coastal builders.
Florence, now headed north along the Appalachian Mountains, dropped well over thirty inches of water, compared with Floyd’s twenty-four inches. On Monday afternoon, North Carolina Secretary of Environmental Quality Michael Regan reported that his office knew of one waste lagoon that had been breached, five that had spilled over their dams, and two that had been inundated by nearby bodies of water, blending their waste with the flow. The state is not yet able to send inspectors into the flooded areas, and waters are still rising. Around the time that Regan spoke, the Waterkeeper Alliance, an environmental group, sent small planes over the flooded area. One staffer’s Facebook post described “a disaster. Many many hog and poultry facilities under water. Many dead animals.” On Tuesday, the North Carolina Pork Council counted twenty-six damaged lagoons, and Sanderson Farms, a poultry integrator, reported that 1.7 million birds had died in its contractors’ barns.
The contamination that follows the flood will fall unequally on North Carolinians. The pork industry is rich and politically influential, and in the past two years the state legislature has changed state law to protect hog operations from suits by neighbors whose health and property are damaged by pollution. This is nothing new. The modern environmental-justice movement was born in Afton, North Carolina, in a fight over the state’s decision to dump contaminated soil near a poor, historically African-American community. Wilmington and other down-east towns carry the burdens of Superfund sites and coal-ash ponds, which hold the toxic by-products of coal-fired electricity. A coal-ash landfill near Wilmington has already been breached by floodwaters, though no one is sure how much toxic material has escaped.
As usual, many people have been extraordinarily good to one another. In Durham, during the long period of waiting and a spate of flash foods as the storm left the region, neighbors checked in on one another, young people showed up to stay with the elderly, and trays of cookies and empanadas went from door to door. Down east, volunteers are getting to flooded houses in their personal boats, pulling people out of danger. When attention to the hurricane fades, much of what gets rebuilt will continue to be dangerously vulnerable to a warming world, and will share out its dangers unequally. On Monday evening, a double rainbow appeared over Durham’s gentrified downtown, while the Neuse and Cape Fear rivers surged toward their peaks.
Backing away from attempts at censorship, the National Park Service on Friday released a report charting the risks to national parks from sea level rise and storms.
Drafts of the report obtained earlier this year by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting showed park service officials had deleted every mention of humans causing climate change. But the long-delayed report, published Friday without fanfare on the agency’s website, restored those references.
The scientific report is designed to help 118 coastal parks plan for protecting natural resources and historic treasures from the changing climate.
Maria Caffrey, the study’s lead scientist, said she was “extremely happy” that it was released intact.
“The fight probably destroyed my career with the (National Park Service) but it will be worth it if we can uphold the truth and ensure that scientific integrity of other scientists won’t be challenged so easily in the future,” said Caffrey, a University of Colorado research assistant who had worked on the report for five years.
The Reveal story, published in April, prompted some Democrats in Congress to seek an investigation of scientific integrity at the park service to see whether Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke or President Donald Trump’s other political appointees are censoring science. Zinke said at a House sub-committee hearing that he had been unaware of the changes, which Reveal uncovered shortly after he told Congress that he would never change a scientific report. The Interior Department’s office of inspector general has launched an initial review, according to Nancy DiPaolo, the office’s director of external affairs.
The controversy reflects a broader challenge faced by scientists who work for and with the federal government today because of the Trump administration’s attitude toward science, particularly related to climate change.
When Caffrey resisted the editing of the report, she said National Park Service officials warned her that it would not be released if she refused to accept the deletions or that it might be released in an edited form without her name on it.
“It’s different kinds of bullying and pressure from different people,” Caffrey said. “After awhile it starts to build up, and it becomes an absolute mountain.”
Earlier drafts showed that a park service official crossed out the word “anthropogenic,” the term for people’s impact on nature, in five places. Three references to “human activities” causing climate change also were removed.
But after Reveal disclosed the attempts at censorship, park service officials agreed to restore Caffrey’s original text. The context about the human role in climate change is important to the findings because it more clearly estimates the extent of the threat under various scenarios: Many parks face more severe flooding if greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase.
Jeffrey Olson, a spokesman for the park service, characterized the editing as a disagreement among authors. Asked why the references were restored, Olson said in an email, “Discussions between authors over report language resulted in agreement over the use of several terms, including climate change and anthropogenic climate change.”
The report was originally drafted in the summer of 2016. Olson said “ongoing deliberation among report authors” contributed to the delay, as well as “multiple rounds of internal and external review to ensure the accuracy and usability of the final product.”
Olson declined to be interviewed, as did the other authors of the report, which was published by the parks service with no news releases or social media promotion.
According to the findings, the fate of coastal parks depends on choices people make about reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The report estimates sea level rise under four different climate change scenarios. The report also estimates how much flooding 79 parks would face from storm surges.
Parks in North Carolina’s Outer Banks face the greatest sea level rise of any national parks. If greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise, the sea level near Wright Brothers National Memorial is projected to rise 2.7 feet by 2100. But if there is a substantial reduction in greenhouse gases, the increase would be 1.7 feet, according to the report.
“The park may be almost completely flooded if a Category 2 or higher hurricane strikes on top of inundation from sea level rise,” the report says.
Large areas of nearby parks, such as Cape Hatteras and Cape Lookout seashores, are projected to be underwater by 2100 if greenhouse gas emissions keep rising, even without storms. The same plight faces other parks, particularly on the East Coast, including Padre Island National Sea Shore in Texas and Fire Island in New York. Several Civil War forts also face significant flooding.
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A plume of ash rises from Kilauea on Thursday. (USGS/Reuters)
On Monday, a lava lake vanished from the top of Kilauea volcano on the island of Hawaii. The flow of liquid rock that normally fills Puu Oo crater, on the volcano’s eastern flank, had been abruptly turned off.
Days later, a crack opened in the ground at a subdivision more than 10 miles away, spewing splatters of red-hot, molten rock. Clouds of steam rose into the sky and the acrid odor of sulfur dioxide filled the air.
The episode, which prompted the evacuation of several hundred residents late Thursday, is the latest in an ongoing eruption that dates back more than three decades. Lava has been spilling out of Puu Oo crater since 1983, making Kilauea the world’s longest continuously erupting volcano.
Kilauea is also the youngest of Hawaii’s aboveground volcanoes, which have formed over the course of the past 5 million years as the Pacific plate drifts over a hot spot in Earth’s mantle. It features two main craters — one at the summit, Halemaumau, and Puu Oo, on the eastern flank. In recent years, eruptions have alternated between the two.
Like many Hawaiian volcanoes, Kilauea is made of basalt, a type of lava that flows very easily. Rather than building up into a steep, towering peak like Krakatau in Indonesia or Mount St. Helens in Washington state, the fluid rock at Kilauea creates a broad, shallow dome known as a shield volcano.
Shield volcanoes “are really voluminous, the largest volcanoes on Earth, but because they have those long, low-angle slopes, they’re not very dramatic,” said Tari Mattox, a geologist who worked at the Hawaii Volcano Observatory for six years. “People are surprised when they go to Hawaii and they say, ‘Where’s the volcano?’ And I tell them, ‘You’re standing on it!’ ”
This fluid lava makes for effusive — rather than explosive — eruptions. Indeed, the volcano’s name means “spewing” or “much spreading,” according to Hawaii magazine.
Rocks moving upward through the mantle beneath Hawaii begin to melt about 50 miles beneath the surface. That magma is less dense than the surrounding rock, so it continues to rise until it “ponds” in a reservoir that’s roughly three miles wide and one to four miles beneath the summit. As pressure builds in the magma chamber, the magma seeks out weak spots in the surrounding rock, squeezing through the earth until it reaches a vent to the surface.
Since the current eruption began in 1983, the U.S. Geological Survey has documented 61 eruptive episodes at multiple vents along the East Rift Zone, one of Kilauea’s weak spots. The flows have submerged houses and roads under rivers of molten rock, and surging “fountains” of lava have occasionally sent rock fragments raining down on the landscape. According to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, the current eruption of Kilauea produces as much as 650,000 cubic yards of new rock every day — enough to resurface a two-lane road 20 miles long. The eruption has added about 500 acres of new land to Hawaii’s Big Island.
In 1990, a natural tunnel formed by flowing lava broke, sending it streaming into the community of Kalapana. By the end of the year, a church, a store and 100 homes were buried beneath more than 50 feet of lava, according to the USGS.
Deadly explosive eruptions are rarer. Deposits from Kilauea’s past suggest that violent explosions can occur when water comes in contact with molten rock, flashing into steam. In 1790, a group of warriors was caught in one of these eruptions. From 80 to perhaps hundreds of people were killed; thousands of their footprints are now preserved in ash that hardened into rock.
Several people have died on the volcano in recent years. In February, a tour guide collapsed while viewing an active lava flow, Hawaii News Now reported. Authorities said he may have inhaled toxic steam that formed when recent rain reacted with sulfur gases in the molten rock.
Kilauea is one of the most closely observed volcanoes in the world, Mattox said. Some five dozen seismic monitoring stations dot its surface, listening for the rumblings of magma breaking through rock. Tiltmeters and GPS stations on the ground and radar satellites in the sky are used to monitor the mountain’s movements — rising magma can cause the volcano to swell like a balloon. As gases dissolved in the molten rock are released into the air, they’re detected by on-site and space-borne instruments.
“Volcanoes give us warning when they’re about to do something,” Mattox said. The emptying of the Puu Oo crater’s lava lake, the surge in seismic activity along the East Rift Zone, and weeks of uplift around the crater all signaled that something was bubbling under the surface.
But it was unusual that the new fissures opened up so far from the main vent at Puu Oo.
Sally Sennert, a USGS volcanologist embedded at the Smithsonian’s Global Volcanism Program, said there may have been a blockage in the magma’s usual path to the surface, diverting the molten rock in a different direction along the East Rift Zone. “Magma is going to look for the easiest way out,” she said.
Sennert, who writes the agency’s weekly volcanic activity report and has been monitoring the situation at Kilauea, compared predictions about volcanic activity to tornado forecasting. “Scientists can look at changes in seismicity and deformation, and they can tell that something might happen. But they can’t tell the exact pathway of the magma or how long it’s going to last,” she said.
The Hawaii Volcano Observatory had issued “watch” alerts for Kilauea since at least April 24. The alert level indicated that the volcano exhibited heightened unrest and increased potential for eruption. On Thursday, the alert level was changed to “warning,” meaning a hazardous eruption is underway.
According to the most recent alert from the observatory, “the opening phases of fissure eruptions are dynamic and uncertain.”
The alert said, “It is not possible at this time to say when and where new vents may occur.”
Less than a week ago, Leilani Estates was the picture of serenity on Hawaii’s Big Island, a subdivision in the island’s eastern Puna district filled with wooden homes nestled in tropical plant-filled lots.
The latest eruption of the island’s most active volcano changed everything.
Shortly after Kilauea erupted Thursday, the ground split open on the east side of Leilani Estates, exposing an angry red beneath the lush landscape. From the widening gash, molten rock burbled and splashed, then shot dozens of feet in the air.
The Hawaii County Civil Defense Agency called it “active volcanic fountaining.” Some residents insisted it was Pele, the Hawaiian volcano goddess, coming to reclaim her land. Residents were ordered to flee amid threats of fires and “extremely high levels of dangerous” sulfur dioxide gas.
Soon, another such fissure had formed a few streets to the west. Then another, and another. From the vents, hot steam — and noxious gases — rose, before magma broke through and splattered into the air.
As of Sunday night, at least 10 such fissure vents were reported in the neighborhood — including two that had opened anew late Saturday night — and at least 26 homes had been destroyed, according to the county civil defense agency.
Lava from a robust fissure eruption on Kilauea’s east rift zone consumes a home, then threatens another, near Pahoa, Hawaii, on May 6, 2018. (Bruce Omori/Paradise Helicopters/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)
The fissures are forming along a northeast-southwest line in the rift zone, and not all of the older fissures are actively spewing lava, said Wendy Stovall, a volcanologist with the USGS.
“As the eruption progresses, there will become a preferred pathway for the magma to go through,” Stovall said. “Some of the outer vents along this fissure line will start to close up and congeal because the lava is going to essentially harden.”
Once that happens, lava fountains from the remaining open vents can shoot even higher — reaching up to 1,000 feet, Stovall said.
A new fissure erupted near fissures 2 and 7, beginning with small lava spattering at about 8:44 p.m. on Saturday. By 9 p.m., lava fountains as high as about 230 feet were erupting from the fissure. (U.S. Geological Survey)
Meanwhile, over the past few days some photographers have followed the fissures, posting dramatic photos and videos of lava spattering into the air or oozing across roads. Officials have urged everyone to leave Leilani Estates, where a mandatory evacuation order remains in force.
“Being in Hawaii and being around lava, you get used to the way it behaves and so you kind of become comfortable around it,” Stovall said. “[The lava flows] are mesmerizing to see. I understand why people want to see them but it’s not advisable. It’s a dangerous situation.”
The county civil defense agency put it more bluntly in an advisory Sunday: “Please, the residents of Leilani need your help by staying out of the area. This is not the time for sightseeing.”
The agency announced Sunday that certain Leilani Estates residents might be able to return briefly to their homes to retrieve pets, medicine or important items left behind — but would need to leave immediately afterward because of “the very unstable conditions of air quality and of the roads.”
“This is a very fast-moving situation,” Hawaii County Mayor Harry Kim told Hawaii News Now. “This is unfortunately not the end.”
When Kilauea erupted Thursday, it sent fountains of lava gushing out of the ground and billowing clouds of steam and volcanic ash into the sky on the eastern side of the island.
Three days later, some residents there continue to suffer through a triple whammy of threats. From below, lava has spewed forth from an increasing number of fissures that have opened up in the ground, oozing toward homes.
And in the air, noxious fumes from the volcano are what some officials say could be the greatest threat to public health in the wake of its eruption.
After the eruption Thursday, the island shook at regular intervals, but especially about midday Friday: A 5.6-magnitude quake hit south of the volcano about 11:30 a.m., followed about an hour later by a 6.9-magnitude temblor, according to the Geological Survey.
The latter was felt as far away as Oahu and struck in nearly the same place as a deadly 7.4-magnitude earthquake in 1975, according to the Geological Survey.
“I think the whole island felt it,” said Cori Chong, who was in her bedroom with her foster dog, Monty, when the earthquake struck, frightening both of them. Even though Chong lives on the Hamakua coast, about an hour north of the earthquake’s epicenter, the shaking in her home was so violent that it caused furniture to move and glass to shatter.
David Burlingame, who lives about two miles west of Leilani Estates, told The Washington Post that he and a friend ran outside when the earthquake hit “and watched my house just shake back and forth.”
“Everybody is kind of on edge,” Burlingame said Saturday of both the potential for additional earthquakes and the unpredictability of the lava flows. “The worst part is kind of waiting to see, because you really never can tell what can happen.”
The earthquakes also prompted the rare closure of Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park after they damaged some of the park’s trails, craters and roads. The first earthquake triggered a cliff to collapse into the ocean, and fissures began to appear in the ground at a popular overlook near the Jaggar Museum.
Park officials said they canceled hikes Friday and evacuated about 2,600 visitors, along with all nonemergency employees.
“Safety is our main priority at Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park, and it is currently not safe to be here,” Park Superintendent Cindy Orlando said in a statement. “We will monitor the situation closely, and reopen when it is safe to do so.”
The county civil defense agency reported that the threat of a tsunami was low after the earthquakes, although officials warned that residents were not in the clear.
“Everything is still elevated,” Civil Defense Agency Administrator Talmadge Magno said, according to Hawaii News Now. “It kind of gets you nervous.”
Thursday’s eruption prompted the County of Hawaii’s managing director, Wil Okabe, to issue a state of emergency declaration. Gov. David Ige (D) also issued an emergency proclamation and activated Hawaii’s National Guard to help with evacuations.
Lava from a fissure slowly advances to the northeast on Hookapu Street after the eruption of Hawaii’s Kilauea volcano on Saturday in the Leilani Estates subdivision near Pahoa, Hawaii. (U.S. Geological Survey/Getty Images)
Jordan Sonner, a Big Island Realtor, was on another part of the island taking pictures for an upcoming listing Thursday when she “got the call that there was lava in Leilani” and rushed back to her home just outside Leilani Estates.
“To describe it in a single word: chaos,” Sonner said of the evacuation in an interview with The Post on Saturday. “My immediate threat was not the lava. It was the sulfur dioxide gas.”
It took Sonner about an hour and a half to reach her home, grab important documents and her pets — four dogs and a chinchilla — and scramble back out, she said. She’s now staying with a friend in Mountain View, about 20 miles northwest of Leilani Estates, and expects it could be a long while before it’s safe for residents to return.
“It’s so hard to tell what is going to happen because it’s just so early. This volcano being a shield volcano, the way that it erupts, it just erupts slowly,” Sonner said. “We kind of just have to sit and wait to see what direction the lava is going to flow in and what other fissures are going to open up. This is far from over.”
When asked whether she was afraid she would lose her home, Sonner paused before describing the uniqueness of the community there.
“The way I kind of look at it is, the land doesn’t really belong to us. It belongs to Pele,” Sonner said, referring to the Hawaiian volcano goddess. “We get to live on it while we can, and if she wants it back, she’ll take it. I have good insurance.”
As of Friday afternoon, at least a few hundred people had evacuated their homes in Leilani Estates and nearby Lanipuna Gardens, taking refuge at local churches, Red Cross shelters, and with family and friends in other parts of Hawaii, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) told CNN’s Jake Tapper.
Gabbard warned that, in some ways, the threat from the sulfur dioxide gas could be more dangerous than the lava flows, which had stopped in places after the eruption. If conditions worsened, even first responders would not be able to go into the affected neighborhoods to help trapped residents, she added.
“Sulfur dioxide gas can be so toxic and thick in some areas that it can be fatal, especially to those who have respiratory illnesses,” Gabbard said. “The wind can push [the gas] in different directions, so that’s a very serious concern given the high levels, and, you know, people don’t necessarily have the kinds of protective gas masks that they would need if they were right in the thick of this gas.”
A fissure produces steam from a street after the eruption of Hawaii’s Kilauea volcano Friday. (U.S. Geological Survey/Getty Images)
Kilauea is the youngest and most active volcano on Hawaii Island, according to the USGS. The eruption from the volcano came hours after a 5.0-magnitude earthquake jolted the island Thursday morning. As The Post’s Sarah Kaplan reported, Kilauea is made of basalt, a fluid lava that makes for effusive — rather than explosive — eruptions:
Rather than building up into a steep, towering peak like Krakatau in Indonesia or Mount St. Helens in Washington state, the fluid rock at Kilauea creates a broad, shallow dome known as a shield volcano.
Shield volcanoes “are really voluminous, the largest volcanoes on Earth, but because they have those long, low-angle slopes, they’re not very dramatic,” said Tari Mattox, a geologist who worked at the Hawaii Volcano Observatory for six years. “People are surprised when they go to Hawaii and they say, ‘Where’s the volcano?’ And I tell them, ‘You’re standing on it!’ ”
… Rocks moving upward through the mantle beneath Hawaii begin to melt about 50 miles beneath the surface. That magma is less dense than the surrounding rock, so it continues to rise until it “ponds” in a reservoir that’s roughly three miles wide and one to four miles beneath the summit. As pressure builds in the magma chamber, the magma seeks out weak spots in the surrounding rock, squeezing through the earth until it reaches a vent to the surface.
Geologists said the seismic activities around Puna most closely resemble the events that precipitated a 1955 eruption, according to Hawaii News Now. That eruption lasted about three months and left almost 4,000 acres of land covered in lava, the news site reported.
More recently in 2014, lava again threatened the Puna district, specifically the town of Pahoa and its surrounding area, The Post reported. During that event, lava flowed as quickly as 20 yards per hour, and up to 60 structures were at risk.
Lindsey Bever, Allyson Chiu and Gene Park contributed to this report.
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is greater than we ever thought. And by greater, I mean worse.
According to research published last month, it’s “increasing exponentially and at a faster rate than in surrounding waters.” The slurry of trash and seawater loosely held together by Pacific currents spans 617,762 square miles, roughly twice the size of Texas. So yes, this garbage patch could mess with Texas and probably win.
The growing patch of garbage is chock full of all sort of things, chief among them plastic. An estimated 1.8 trillion pieces of it weigh in at 80,000 tons, according to the Ocean Cleanup Foundation. Of that, 46 percent comes from discarded fishing nets alone.
But what ends up in the patch doesn’t stay there. The foundation also notes that sea turtles living in the region have a diet that consists of up to 74 percent plastic (no, that’s not missing a decimal). Other animals also consume plastic as it breaks down into smaller pieces. Those animals in turn get eaten by bigger animals. And because plastic is forever, it eventually works it way up the food chain and can even end up on our plates. Basically, we’re eating the plastic we don’t dispose of properly so think of that next time you go to grab a straw or ask for a plastic bag.