How to live until you’re 10,000: Turn into a tree

National Geographic How old can something living be? Humans aren’t too good, coming in at about 75 years in the developed world. Tortoises often live until they’re 150, but 150’s nothing compared to some trees. A few Bristlecone pines in California date back a massive 5000 years, but they may no longer be the oldest living thing in the world.

A new tree found in Sweden has been alive for a staggering 10,000 years according to scientists, meaning it started growing just after the end of the last Ice Age

 It doesn’t look like the most impressive of trees – OK , I have to admit it looks pretty pathetic since it’s supposed to have been growing for so long. (I thought maybe National Geographic had put the wrong picture up until I read the article. 🙂 )

But this tree has a special trick: the trunk lasts for ‘only’ about half a century, and when the trunk dies a new shoot springs up from the roots. This means that what we actually see of the tree isn’t that old, but its roots have been radiocarbon-dated back thousands of years. (I hope I don’t get any comments from my older readers who wish they were a tree – the trees’ method of looking young is so much more effective than all these beauty creams.)

National Geographic The good news is that this tree could mean our planet won’t suffer quite as much from climate change. Because it started growing so soon after the last Ice Age, it’s started scientists thinking that maybe trees can migrate faster than we thought, so maybe there won’t be as many dead trees because of global warming.

I always like good news – it’s great to hear that maybe our forests won’t die as soon as we thought they might. But that’s not an excuse for us to forget about the environment – after all, it simply means that the trees will take longer to die out.

And there’s some bad news for this little tree too unless we stop churning out extra carbon: it will soon be swamped by thousands of other trees that will migrate north because of our pollution, and it will probably die. Just think about that next time you get in your car.

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NASA’s twins that could save our world

Wikipedia Imagine a billion tonnes of scorching hot gas and radiation being hurled toward you – it’s not the sort of thing you come across every day.

This is actually something our Sun does on a regular basis, although fortunately for us our atmosphere stops anything too dangerous getting in and hurting us.

But satellites, as well as any astronauts in space, feel the full force of a Coronal Mass Ejection (CME) – as these massive bursts from the Sun are known – and they can be really dangerous.

That’s why NASA decided to launch the Stereo mission, two twin satellites that give us unprecedented views of CME’s – something that would be vital if a CME was ever to come toward us. (Click here for two interesting videos from Stereo)

And it’s not just about damage prevention – we’re learning loads about the Sun too like new footage from Stereo showing just how powerful solar bursts can be as they rip the tail off a comet. The Stereo probes are telling us loads of things we didn’t know about our parent star.

BBC NewsSo why are there two probes in Stereo – wouldn’t just one have been cheaper? The whole point of Stereo is to give us a 3D view of the Sun – just like having two eyes a small distance apart helps our brains give depth to our vision, the two Stereo probes can give us a three-dimensional view of our Sun because one follows a path slightly in front of Earth’s orbit, and its twin trails on behind.

What would happen if one of these CME’s flew straight into our planet? Something not many people realize is that the effects on our lives could actually be huge. For a start many satellites would be knocked out, meaning no television, GPS, weather forecasting and more for a few days. And then there’s cell phones, the internet, and anything else that needs satellites to work.

Wikipedia The good news is that thanks to Stereo, we will be given a few hours’ warning if a CME is heading toward our planet, giving operators vital time to shut down any satellites in the path of the Solar blast, as well as making sure any astronauts are safely inside radiation-proof areas.

The wonderful Stereo probes are yet another example of why scientific research isn’t just about proving some professor’s theory or doing some irrelevant calculations – it really could save our lives. Of course, until the day when a CME is headed our way, it’s always fascinating  to discover more about our amazing Universe.

Interested? Read about how radiation could prevent humans from ever going to Mars.

The frog without lungs – but why?

All frogs have lungs, right, because otherwise they couldn’t breathe. Well that’s what we used to think – until now. Scientists have discovered a frog that doesn’t need lungs – instead it breathes through its skin, like fish do.

But wait a minute… since frogs are amphibians and spend a lot of their lives in water, why would they have lungs anyway? In fact, all frogs can breathe through their skin, but most frogs also have lungs so that they can cope with being out of water for long periods of time. That’s what makes this new frog species so unique – it has got rid of its lungs and gone to gills-only, as if it was evolving back into a fish again.

Why would it want to do that? This particular frog lives in fast-flowing, cold waters (on the Indonesian island of Borneo). Fast cool water contains more oxygen than still warm water, so it can get more oxygen directly from the water than most frogs can.

Also, it has a lower metabolic rate than other frogs, meaning it doesn’t need as much oxygen anyway.

Borneo

However, scientists are still puzzled as to why the frog would want to get rid of its lungs entirely. After all, frogs’ noisy mating sounds require lungs, so surely any species that lost its lungs would not be a successful breeder – at least that’s what we used to think until this species was discovered.

Maybe the new species survived fine staying in water all the time, and having lungs was a waste of energy – we really don’t know. One theory is that the loss of lungs enabled the frog to become flatter, and get a bigger surface area. Bigger surface area means more space for air to enter through the skin.

Scientists hope to carry out much more research into this new species, although environmental factors like mining and climate change could make it extinct before we have a chance to discover all its secrets. And what a tragedy it would be to lose this intriguing creature before we even got to know it properly.

Replica Solar System discovered 5,000 light years away

BBC News

Back in ancient times most people thought that our planet was at the center of the Universe. Then we thought it was the Sun, and not too long after we realized that we’re actually just a tiny part of one of billions of galaxies in a Universe filled with trillions of other stars. Just over a decade ago one of the last things that we thought might be unique about our Solar System was disproved – the first ever planet outside our Solar System (an ‘exoplanet’ for short) was discovered around another Sun.

Wikipedia Now our uniqueness has been eroded away a little bit more – a British team of astronomers has discovered what looks a bit like a replica of our own Solar System, orbiting around a star 5000 light-years away.

OK, it’s not an exact replica, but the resemblance is quite striking. Two giant gassy planets (like Jupiter and Saturn in our own Solar System) have the same mass ratio to their sun as Jupiter and Saturn have to our own Sun. And the size of their orbit is proportionally the same as the orbits of Jupiter and Saturn. (The star in the newly discovered system is only about half the size of our Sun, hence the reason why all the figures are given as ratios). The orbital period of the giants is about the same too.

So what about a copy of Earth and the other inner, rocky planets? Well, the scientists didn’t actually discover a new Earth, but they say that the existence of an Earth-like planet is quite likely because there is plenty of empty space in between the gas giants and the star.

Wikipedia Unfortunately there’s not much chance of us discovering any more planets in this system – at least not yet, anyway. Current techniques simply aren’t powerful enough to see such small objects so far away.

But wait a minute… if the system’s so far away, how could we detect that the giant gas planets were there? They’re pretty tiny too, surely, compared to the size of their sun?

They used a clever trick called ‘gravitational lensing’, which involves the effect first predicted by Einstein that if you put a heavy object (like a star) in front of another object (like another star further away), the star in front will bend the light from the star behind because gravity bends light. This enables us to see faraway objects much bigger than we would usually be able to see them. (Click here to read more about gravitational lensing, and how it enabled the Hubble Space Telescope to see a galaxy 13 billion light years away.)

Since we don’t know for definite that there’s a replica Earth in this system, should we really be getting so excited? I think the answer should definitely be yes – in the decade since we first discovered extrasolar planets, 300 planets outside our Solar System have been discovered. The more variation among these planets, the more chance of eventually finding ET. And that would be seriously cool.

Click here for NASA’s excellent exoplanet website: PlanetQuest.

Fish can count – but only up to 4

Wikipedia One, two, three, four… hmm, what comes next? I’d hope you know, but a 1-year-old child might struggle. Monkeys generally can’t get past 4 either, and neither can fish – as scientists have now discovered.

How can we really know that fish can’t count past 4? The method the scientists used was actually quite ingenious. They gave a lone female mosquitofish the option of joining two different shoals of fish, and found that it always preferred being in the larger shoal (more fish means increased safety from predators).

So, for example, it would always join a shoal with four fish in rather than one with three or two. Telegraph (telegraph.co.uk)And if there was a shoal with three fish in and a shoal with two, it  would always go to the shoal with three of its fishy friends. But as soon as the shoals began getting bigger than four, the mosquitofish couldn’t figure out which shoal was best, and it just picked randomly.

By repeating this test several times, the scientists established with quite a large degree of certainty that mosquitofish can count, but only up to 4. (By the way, mosquitofish get their name from their habit of eating larval and developing mosquitos.)

The mosquitofish is native to the Gulf of Mexico

They also discovered that when the fish was given the option of two shoals with a 2:1 ratio of fish in them, the mosquitofish would always join the larger one. So fish can do multiplication too? I doubt it – surely it’s just common sense once the differences between shoals become so great. But you never know what might happen now we’re in the age of genetic engineering…

Isn’t it great to know that while we have some scientists working on curing AIDS and saving our environment, others prefer to find out how good fish are at counting. What was the point of this experiment? I’m not entirely sure, but then again there’s nothing wrong with a bit of fun. And now you can pretend you’re a genius next time your kids watch Finding Nemo.

Scientists realize that sea levels will rise 30% more than they expected

Penguins cling to an iceberg while meltwater gushes around them | Image: National Geographic You can debate the causes all you like, but the evidence that our planet is warming up is unequivocal. One of the big effects of a warming Earth will be rising sea levels – due to melting ice caps and the fact that as water warms up, it expands. As if sea level rises weren’t bad enough already, new research suggests that scientists greatly underestimated the amount they would rise – by 30% or more. Oops.

So how did they make such a big miscalculation? it’s all down to something you wouldn’t really think about normally – dams and reservoirs. Over the last century a huge amount of water that would normally be in the sea has been trapped on land by tens of thousands of dams and reservoirs.

In fact, the total amount comes to some 2600 cubic miles – imagine a box a mile wide, a mile long and a mile high- then imagine 2599 more. It’s a massive amount.

China's massive Three Gorges Dam | Image: National Geographic All this water trapped on land means that the recorded sea level rise over the last few decades has been less than what it should have been. But wait a minute… surely it’s good if sea levels won’t rise as much, isn’t it? Erm, I’m afraid not. The problem is that construction of dams and reservoirs has been scaled back a lot in recent years, meaning that any sea level rise from now on will actually make the sea level rise a lot more than scientists predicted.

Most of us don’t need to panic – yet. But by as soon as 2100 major cities like New York and London could be permanently flooded unless we do something about it. I don’t want to sound like a scaremonger, but this really is an issue of life and death for millions of people and billions of animals around the world. You’d have to be pretty foolish to say that global warming isn’t at least partly caused by us humans. Do something great with your life – try to save the world.

Mega-tsunami imminent in the Mediterranean – 100 years and counting

The 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, which killed over 200,000 people | Image: Wikipedia It’s not every day that you have the same experience as the people who lived on the Mediterranean island of Crete in AD 365: All of a sudden, the ground below them rose a massive 30 feet (10 meters) in a burst of tectonic activity. Even with all our knowledge how the planet works, I’d still be pretty confused if that happened to me tomorrow.

But the huge uplift wasn’t all that happened: a massive tsunami was unleashed that went on to kill tens of thousands of people across the region, as well as destroying the ancient Egyptian city of Alexandria. It ravaged huge areas from Greece down to Libya, and managed to carry ships up to two miles inland.

Map of the Mediterranean island of Crete

Scary? It almost sounds like a Greek myth. But the worrying thing is that new research suggests that a similar tsunami occurs every 800 years – after the 365 tsunami, another one took place in around 1300, meaning that the Mediterranean is due for another wave of destruction anytime in the next century.

Millions of people live around the area that would be affected, meaning that if a tsunami was to strike it would cause unimaginable devastation. It could well be worse than the tragic 2004 south-east Asian tsunami that killed over 200,000 people.

But wait a minute… how can scientists tell that Crete rose 30 feet in AD 365, and that another tsunami is due soon? They know about Crete because there is a line of animal and plant remains running along Crete at a height of around 30 feet, like the line in a bath where water has been up to. And they know another tsunami is imminent because they have carefully analyzed the miniscule movements of the tectonic plates over recent years, as well as looking back at records of the 365 tsunami.

Should we be worried, or is this just a scare story? Some scientists argue that the 365 tsunami was just a one-off event… I’m personally more convinced by the 800 year cycle story – you’ll have to decide for yourself.

Related: Did you know that Italy is currently on a collision course with Croatia – click here