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Ask Dr. Universe: How come some rocks are easy to break and some are hard?

Dear Natalie,

If you draw with a pencil, you can tell how soft the graphite inside is. Pieces of graphite break off to leave the pencil mark. But can you imagine drawing with a diamond? Diamonds and graphite are both what you might call rocks. How come they’re so different?

Catherine 'Katie' Cooper.

To find out, I talked to my friend Katie Cooper, a geologist and associate professor in the Washington State University School of the Environment. Geologists often study how different types of rocks and minerals form—and that’s the secret to whether they’re easy or hard to break.

Rocks are made of minerals, and minerals are made of elements, which are substances made of a single type of atom. You can get to know the Earth’s elements by looking at a Periodic Table.

Some minerals are made of a single element, like diamond and graphite, which are both made of carbon. Others are a mix, like limestone, which is made of calcium and carbon.

Geological forces such as pressure, temperature and time determine how elements form a rock or mineral, Cooper said.

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Ask Dr. Universe


Fires, wildlife interactions, changed habitats: As more people move into wildland urban interface, the consequences grow

Out past the urban centers of Seattle, Tacoma and Spokane and toward the rural areas of central and Eastern Washington is an area of land not quite uninhabited and not quite bustling — the wildland urban interface. It’s the area where undeveloped land meets developed land, where buildings meet forests and fields.

As more workers find opportunities to do their jobs from home and rural areas receive access to high-speed internet, more people are moving out of city centers and into these areas, sometimes bringing with them a number of unintended consequences.

Wildfire risks, run-ins with wildlife and dwindling resources are some of the effects that could come from more people moving into undeveloped areas.

Mark Billings.

Most of the people moving into these areas have never lived in rural areas before, said Mark Billings, professor at Washington State University’s School of the Environment. Many of them don’t know how to live on that landscape and keep themselves safe.

“There’s probably a percentage of people moving into the (wildland urban interface) that shouldn’t be,” Billings said.

Wildfire danger is increasing due to climate change and more than 100 years of fire suppression, Billings said. At the same time, the number of people living in harm’s way is rising.

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The Columbian
Yahoo! News
Fox Weather

Fragile Pakistan ravaged by floods

Pakistan this spring began experiencing record-breaking, drought-intensifying heat, which scientists concluded had been 30 times as likely to occur because of human-caused global warming. Now, much of the country is underwater.

More than 1,100 people have died so far, and more than one million homes have been damaged or destroyed. After nearly three months of incessant rain, much of Pakistan’s farmland is now underwater, raising the spectre of food shortages in what is likely to be the most destructive monsoon season in the country’s recent history.

While scientists can’t yet say how much the current rainfall and flooding may have been worsened by climate change, researchers agree that in South Asia and elsewhere, global warming is increasing the likelihood of severe rain.

When it falls in an area also grappling with drought, it can be particularly damaging by causing sharp swings between far too little water and far too much, too quickly.

Deepti Singh.

“If that rainfall was distributed over the season, maybe it wouldn’t be that bad,” said Deepti Singh, a climate scientist at Washington State University Vancouver.

Instead, strong cloudbursts are ruining crops and washing away infrastructure, with huge consequences for vulnerable societies, she said.

“Our systems are just not designed to manage that.”

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The Telegraph
New York Times

Virtual Ecology experience opens up nature learning opportunities

Restrictions at the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic weren’t fun, but some positives appeared out of that isolation. At Washington State University, one lasting benefit is the Virtual Ecology experience for students and, thanks to social media, the public.

Prior to 2020, students enrolled in WSU’s Natural Resource Ecology course made field trips to Kamiak Butte County Park, 20 minutes north of Pullman, as part of a semester-long project. As lovely as spending class time off-campus in nature is, it’s also a challenge for students who don’t drive. During the pandemic, in-person field trips became impossible.

William Schlosser.

Enter the Virtual Ecology project, where School of the Environment instructor William Schlosser, affectionately known as “Dr. Bill,” worked with undergraduate and graduate students as well as the Whitman County Parks & Recreation Department to set up several camera traps throughout Kamiak Butte.

“Exploring the park online simplifies everything,” Schlosser said. “Students learn better now compared to when we did only live field trips. It’s impossible for a single teacher to be with all 100 students roaming the park.”

Schlosser, along with teaching assistants and former students, goes to Kamiak regularly to collect camera trap recordings, fly drones, monitor and repair equipment, and make necessary adjustments.

For the fall 2022 semester, the SOE 300 class field trip includes virtual data collection and analysis, followed by a one-day physical park visit for groups of 20 students. This hybrid approach lets students experience the best of both worlds.

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WSU Insider

New leaders in arts and sciences bring wealth of experience to posts

Three academic units in the College of Arts and Sciences are welcoming new leadership this fall.

Allyson Beall King.
Clifford Berkman.
Keri McCarthy.

In the School of Music, Professor Keri McCarthy succeeds Dean Luethi as director, and in the Department of Chemistry, Professor Cliff Berkman succeeds Kirk Peterson as chair.

In the School of the Environment—which is part of both CAS and the College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences—Allyson Beall King, associate professor, career track, succeeds Kent Keller as director.

“Drs. McCarthy, Berkman, and King bring a wealth of knowledge and experience to their new roles,” said Todd Butler, CAS dean. Their respective terms began Aug. 16.

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WSU Insider