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Dr. Universe: How do earthquakes happen?

We’ve had a lot of earthquakes on our planet this year. Maybe you’ve learned about them from the news or felt one shaking up your own neighborhood. Earthquakes can happen in a few different ways.

Sean Long.First, it is important to know a bit about the Earth’s outer layer, or crust. The crust is made of seven big pieces called “plates.” They are about 60 miles thick and sort of float on the molten rock beneath them. That’s what I found out from my friend Sean Long, a geology professor at Washington State University who knows a lot about earthquakes.

These massive plates move very, very slowly—about one or two inches a year. But when plates slip over or under each other, collide or break away, an earthquake happens. Usually, they last just a few seconds but really big quakes can often last anywhere from 10 to 30 seconds.

After a big earthquake, we often feel a bunch of small earthquakes, or aftershocks. They happen as the crust adjusts to its new location, or settles into its new spot on the Earth’s surface. If one of the plates is under the ocean, sometimes an earthquake will trigger a wave called a tsunami. Depending on the earthquake strength, the wave can be massive or even just a few centimeters high.

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Dr. Universe

After a Long Boom, an Uncertain Future for Big Dam Projects

The rise of wind and solar power, coupled with the increasing social, environmental and financial costs of hydropower projects, could spell the end of an era of big dams. But even anti-dam activists say it’s too early to declare the demise of large-scale hydro.

The International Hydropower Association (IHA)—which represents dam planners, builders, and owners in more than 100 countries—touts dams as a clean technology, but that’s not quite true: Many reservoirs emit substantial amounts of methane, a potent greenhouse gas released by decomposing vegetation and other organic matter that collect in oxygen-poor reservoirs.

John Harrison.
John Harrison

A 2016 study in BioScience found that methane emissions from reservoirs constitute 1.3 percent all of global human-caused greenhouse gas emissions, and the highest-emitting reservoirs rival coal-fired power plants⁠. It is commonly assumed that methane emissions occur chiefly in shallow, tropical reservoirs, as if it’s a problem for only a small number of dam projects. But according to John Harrison, a professor at Washington State University’s School of the Environment and one of the study’s authors, “There is strong and growing evidence⁠ that temperate reservoirs can produce methane at rates comparable to those reported from tropical reservoirs.”

Even so, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which sets standards for measuring nations’ greenhouse gas emissions, doesn’t include reservoir emissions in its calculations; the IPCC is considering changing that policy next year. Growing understanding of the factors causing reservoir-generated methane could at least guide decisions about siting dams, avoiding places certain to produce high emissions.

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Yale Environment 360

A new way to curb global warming hides beneath the Earth’s surface

Marc Kramer, an associate professor of environmental chemistry at Washington State University Vancouver, has discovered that one-fourth of carbon within the Earth’s soil is bound to minerals about six feet below the surface. This revelation could lead to new ways to deal with the influx of carbon due to global warming.

Marc Kramer.
Kramer

Kramer, who made this discovery with help from his colleague Oliver Chadwick, a soil scientist at the University of California Santa Barbara, explained via his study, published in the journal Nature Climate Change, that water dissolves organic carbon and pulls in deep into the soil. There, the carbon is physically and chemically bound to certain minerals.

Kramer estimates that 600 billion metric tons (known as gigatons) of carbon is currently underneath the Earth’s surface — that amount is more than twice the carbon added into the atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution. Most of this carbon is underneath the world’s wettest forests, which unfortunately, won’t absorb as much carbon as atmospheric temperatures continue to rise.

This “major breakthrough” discovery, as Kramer called it, is a starting point for the process of moving atmospheric carbon underground as climate change and global warming progresses. However, there is still major work to be done.

“We know less about the soils on Earth than we do about the surface of Mars. Before we can start thinking about storing carbon in the ground, we need to actually understand how it gets there and how likely it is to stick around,” Kramer said. “This finding highlights a major breakthrough in our understanding.”

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Ecologists ask: Should we be more transparent with data?

Computational reproducibility—the ability to accurately reproduce outcomes from data sets using the same code and software—will be an increasingly important factor in future scientific studies according to a new paper released in the Ecological Society of America’s journal Ecological Applications.

Stephanie Hampton.
Stephanie Hampton
Stephen Steve Powers.
Stephen Powers

Authors Stephen M. Powers and Stephanie E. Hampton, researchers in environmental science at Washington State University, highlight the importance of adapting to, providing, and using data sets that are open to and usable by the public and investigators in ecology and other field research.

“Increasingly, peers and the public want more transparency,” Powers explains.

Ecologists, finding themselves in an inherently field-oriented science, have long faced the challenge that it is impossible to perfectly repeat observational studies of the natural world—weather conditions vary, populations change over time, and many other conditions in field work are not reproducible. The paper argues that ecologists should focus more on data sharing and transparency in the future in order to increase scientific reproducibility.

An investigator may spend considerable time, effort, and cost attempting to generate results of someone else’s study from scratch. When both data and code used to obtain statistics and results are published, the investigator saves on these efforts, and can even improve or modify the original author’s computer code. Essentially, sharing this information means less time is wasted for reviewers, editors, and authors alike.

It’s not only scientists that benefit from reproducibility and transparency; “In natural resource management and similar policy issues, high transparency is essential to maintain public trust,” says Hampton, who is also director for the Division of Environmental Biology (DEB) at the National Science Foundation (NSF). Being open about data and code from the beginning of a project can help scientists minimize post-publication work to share or clarify the products or to answer questions about contentious results from outside audiences.

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Grant supports improving cider industry—‘Apple to Glass’

A new group, led by WSU researchers, will work with orchardists and cider makers to develop the best apples for cider.

Hard apple cider is growing in popularity around the country, and craft ciders from small cideries are the fastest growing segment of that market.

Equipped with a grant from the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture, a new group, led by Washington State University researchers, will work with orchardists and cider makers to develop the best apples to make the tasty libation.

The $500,000 grant, called “Apple to Glass: Improving orchard profitability through developing regional craft ciders” covers three years of funding.

Marcia Ostrom.
Ostrom

“We want to make sure our orchards and cider makers benefit from this new market,” said Marica Ostrom, a professor in WSU’s School of the Environment and the Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources. “We’re aiming to help family-scale orchards and cideries, with the idea being to provide benefits to both groups.”

WSU scientists will work with colleagues in Michigan, Vermont and Wisconsin on the grant. They will conduct needs assessments with orchardists to find out what barriers exist for producing cider apples. They also will host focus groups with cider makers to see what they’re looking for when selecting cider apples.

In addition, researchers will conduct research with consumers to try and understand how to communicate cider features produced in a particular place, much like the concept of “terroir” in wines.

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