Science News Roundup: 3/7/12

This science news update is going back in time, with new information about the lessons we can learn from the end of the last Ice Age and the unexpected ramifications of climate change, how some trees survived the Ice Age in Scandinavia, and a look at some really big penguins. Plus, the best science YouTube videos of the week: Neil deGrasse Tyson tells us the most astounding fact about the universe and time-lapse photography shows us the phases of the moon like you’ve never seen them before.

(The Guardian) A growing body of evidence shows that climate change can cause increased tectonic activity, leading to more earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. It seems strange to think that warmer air temperatures can affect what goes on miles beneath the earth’s surface, but ample evidence from the end of the last Ice Age shows what happens in times of rapid global warming. The most recent Ice Age glaciers retreated between 20,000 and 5,000 years ago, returning enough water to the oceans to raise the sea level by 130m (the length of nearly one and a half football fields) to what we see today. The continental shelves rebounded upwards after being freed from the extra weight of the ice, the ocean crust sagged under the extra weight, and this caused new faults and volcanoes to form around the edges of the continents. There isn’t enough ice left trapped in glaciers today to cause a change of this magnitude, but even the 10m increase in sea level that would likely occur if Greenland’s ice cap melted would be enough to cause significant strain on the earth’s crust. It’s important to note that it’s impossible to say that any particular event (like the earthquake that caused the devastating tsunami in Japan) was caused directly by global climate change, but it’s likely that these events will occur with greater frequency.

(BBC) Speaking of the last Ice Age, it turns out that some Scandinavian trees actually survived the onslaught of glaciers. Previously it was believed that the region’s trees originated from unglaciated areas in southern and eastern Europe whose descendants creeped northward as the ice retreated, but modern DNA analysis confirms that there are two distinct populations of spruce trees with different origins. Scientists speculate that small groups of conifers survived on high mountain peaks called nunatuks that protruded from the ice and/or in temperate areas near the coast.

artist's impression of prehistoric penguins
March of the big-ass penguins

(BBC) Headlines touting five foot tall prehistoric penguins have been slightly exaggerated – they were “only” 4’2″ on average. But still! The Kairuku penguins were one of five species that lived in New Zealand about 25 million years ago. Based on the length of the flippers, researchers originally thought the birds could be nearly 6′ tall, but after completing the skeletal reconstruction they discovered that they just have a different body shape and proportions than modern penguins or other extinct species. While these are not the biggest penguins ever found (that distinction falls to two extinct species found in Peru that really were about 5′ tall), they were slightly taller than the largest penguins still alive today, Antartica’s Emperor Penguins.

Recently our beloved Neil DeGrasse Tyson was asked, “What is the most astounding fact you can share with us about the Universe?” If you haven’t already seen the video set to his answer, you’re in for a treat!

If you ever need to know the exact phase of the moon at any given date and time, check out the new applet from NASA’s Goddard Science Visualization Studio. It’s been made into an awesome video with music and servicey captions by astronomer Phil Plait (learn more about the project on his Bad Astronomy blog, which is a treasure trove of cool science and breathtaking pictures and videos).

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[E] Hillary

Hillary is a giant nerd and former Mathlete. She once read large swaths of "Why Evolution is True" and a geology book aloud to her infant daughter, in the hopes of a) instilling a love of science in her from a very young age and b) boring her to sleep. After escaping the wilds of Waco, Texas and spending the next decade in NYC, she currently lives in upstate New York, where she misses being able to get decent pizza and Chinese takeout delivered to her house. She lost on Jeopardy.

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