Category Archives: In the news

It’s a plastic world

By Biance

Following previous blog posts about plastic in our world, this is a new video everyone should see and share.

We are living in a world where everything is wrapped in plastic, quite often unnecessarily in tons of plastic.

I remember when we bought some cutlery and discovered at home that every single fork, every single spoon and every single knife was packed into it’s own private plastic bag just to be wrapped once more into a larger bag to bundle all forks, all spoons and all knifes to pack them once again in a plastic bag. It was not just a total waste of plastic it was also very annoying to unpack.

Maybe I shouldn’t have unpacked it, maybe I should’ve just give it back and try a different company but hey, who knows how often I would’ve need to return the new cutlery until I find a company that doesn’t use that much plastic?


A lot of plastic

Unfortunately, these days, because we have it and we can do it, companies just use it, everywhere and for everything. They don’t care about the environment as long customers buy their products. And that is where we can change things. It might seem like nothing, it might seem like there won’t be any change if we, as an individual person, act ecologically but if we all start thinking about the way we live and start to take care of our environment it is not just one single person but many of us and that can make a difference!

And yes, I should have given the cutlery back and try a different company! But at least I kept the plastic wrap somewhere at home in a corner so I can reuse it should I ever need some wrapping paper, whether it’s for cutlery or something else but this way I’ll not have to buy any more plastic for quite a while!

Betting on climate change will not get you money

By Tanja

Over the course of the past few weeks I have been reading quite a lot about climate all over the news. El Nino and La Nina events have been mentioned on a few occasions. I was always fascinated by these events, even as a kid, when I hadn’t the slightest clue as to what they were (but they do sound cool right?). Later on, as education slowly crept on me, I learned exactly what they were and how they impact the world.

But did I really understand how they ACTUALLY IMPACT the world?

Of course not!

I was born, raised and gained my masters-level education in Croatia, a country that doesn’t directly feel the impacts of either. My Oceanography and Dynamic-Meteorology teachers have put quite an effort to demonstrate the devastating and/or benevolent impacts of El Nino and La Nina events – depending on the part of the world. I had to derive some fearsome equations and was awarded with pictures of drought or floods all over the world, of people moving countries etc. For me personally, this probably meant that the price of some imported fish or seed was going up.

Right now, I live and study in Australia. And it seems, that an El Nino event will come crashing down on my head (and many other heads). And it will finally manifest itself to me in all its power. Probably some prices will go up too.

El Nino is a part of a natural cycle known as El Nino Southern Oscillation (ENSO) that manifests itself in prolonged periods of warming (El Nino) or cooling (La Nina) over the central and eastern Pacific Ocean.

In neutral mode we have the trade winds blowing from east to west across the Pacific, pushing warmer surface waters towards the western Pacific and causing convection in that area. The Central Pacific is kept relatively cool. The thermocline is deeper in the west than in the east. This means, that the ocean temperature gradient is not very steep in the west, which in turn means the water is warmer there.

During the El Nino conditions the trade winds are weakened or even reversed which allows this body of warm water to float further east and cause convection elsewhere. This also levels out the thermocline a bit. Now – without further ado – this means drought in Australia. It means rain and possible floods in Kiribati and Peru.


Neutral and El Nino Systems over the Pacific Ocean
Source: Australian Bureau of Meteorology

To me this means – seriously, even warmer summers? And a drought? In a country where water is already an expensive commodity?

Wonderful. I am affected now. Probably some prices will go up to!

Since this is a natural cycle it might prompt some people, like say …

… the government …

…. to deny climate changes. And the current prime minister here is adamant in trying to convince this nation that there is no such thing as man induced climate change.

Now let’s take a look at Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology brief explanation as to what might cause the El Nino conditions:

“An El Niño occurs when sea surface temperatures in the central and eastern tropical Pacific Ocean become substantially warmer than average, and this causes a shift in atmospheric circulation.”

Brilliant, I have established something similar above. So we have a natural occurring phenomenon here, but it is interesting to see that this phenomenon has gained a substantial power over the last few decades (see for example here, Pages 8 and 9). Now I won’t go into proving and showing that some aspects of climate change are man induced, others have done so, repeatedly (as in – many times). But on the low chance of Tony Abbot reading this – yes, climate changes have occurred naturally during the geological past of this planet. But not on the scale we are observing now. Climate change may not be something new on the face of this planet, but we – humans – are empowering it. Making it bigger, faster, stronger. The upcoming El Nino may be another record-breaking one, because the ocean is just a tad warmer, thanks to us. And it is affecting me and millions of other people directly.

And just to top it off, a scientist is offering a 10000$ reward to anyone who can use scientific methods to prove that man-made climate change is NOT real.

Tony Abbot should jump on that boat. He should actually hope that this boat wouldn’t be turned back too. I think proving something like that would be an ultimate win-win situation – someone would get the reward AND go down in history. While everyone else would be able to happily exhale in relief, knowing that it is not us messing up this planet, it is completely natural. We could happily live our lives, knowing that there really is NOTHING we can do to prevent this. And just imagine what the 10000$ would do to the budget! Probably some prices would go down too.

A Brief History of the Moon

By Thomas

Most of my posts here on the blog are related to the Moon, which stems from the fact that my PhD project is on lunar samples. I therefore could devote a big deal of my time in the last two years to read about, what a lot of people, much smarter than me, found out about the Moon.

That means, when I write about some new and/or interesting piece of research about the Moon, I do that on the rag rug of information, that I have mentally stitched together in my head. I try to provide the necessary information, why the topic I`m writing about is “new” or “interesting” (and I hope I succeed at least from time to time).

One of the most vital pieces of information normally needed, is the time or respectively the timeframe of the topic in question. A while ago, I came across the Video “Evolution of the Moon” from NASA that provides a nice summary of key events in lunar history. I think it can provide a nice Guideline through Lunar History, and allow you to place the topics I`m writing about in a broader context.

Source: NASA

The video starts after the formation of the Moon through the Giant Impact of a planet called Theia, about 4.5 Billion years ago. At that time the Moon was likely covered in a Magma Ocean. When this Magma Ocean cooled the Crust of the Moon formed on top.

The oldest feature we can identify on the Crust is the South Pole-Aitken basin, formed by a big impactor slamming into the Young Lunar Crust on the southern farside, that might have even had big effects on the nearside of the Moon. The video states that the impact happened “~4.3 billion years ago”.

You can mentally format the “~” in a bold font and underline it – twice.

The age of this basin could be 4.4 billion years or 4.0 billion years for all we know. It`s actual age could tell us a lot about the next important time frame:

The “Basin Formation/Heavy Bombardment” somewhere between ~4.1-3.8 billion years ago.

This “Late Heavy Bombardment”1 might have been caused by impactors that were the leftovers of the planet formation in the Early Solar System, which randomly hit the Moon over a long timeframe of a few hundred million years.

Or they swept in a wave (or several waves) through the Inner Solar System, caused by migration of the Big Planets in the Outer Solar System. In this case the impactors would hit in a much shorter timeframe (million to tens of million of years), the so-called “Lunar Cataclysm”.

The impacts of the Late Heavy Bombardment formed large basins, that subsequently were flooded by lava, rising up from the still hot Interior of the Moon. The result of this “Mare Volcanism” are the dark areas we still see on the Moons surface today.

Over the next 3.8 billion years the Moon was (and still is) constantly bombarded by meteorites, forming numerous smaller craters. The youngest ones can be identified by the rays that extend from them. These rays are formed from ejected material. The ray systems of older craters were destroyed through the following bombardment.

Of course, the events were not as distinct as in the video. Small Meteorites bombarded the Moon from the Beginning, but they had a minor effect during the time of the big impacts. Volcanism occured as soon as the Crust had formed. The video shows the dominant force acting at the timeframe in question – and it does a very good job at that.

1 “Late” because it happened after the formation of the Lunar Crust.

The Teeny-Tiny Trace of a Giant Impact

By Thomas

The Moon formed in a Giant Impact of a planet called Theia with Earth (Figure 1). You can find a nice simulation of this event at the end of this post or watch the orginal here. In a post a few weeks back I mentioned that there are some problems with the details of this theory and that I would write about that soon.

The Giant Impact

Figure 1: The Giant Impact
Source: National Geographic

As a paper published last week in Science [1] is exactly about that topic, I thought it is time to follow up on this promise. The mentioned paper shows that technology has developed far enough to allow science to tackle the problems lurking within the Giant Impact Theory. Responses in the media (e.g. here, or for german speakers here) about the paper seem to focus on the fact that the paper supports/confirms the Giant Impact Theory.

Yes, the results are in agreement with the theory and therefor support/confirm it!

But to focus on this, implies that the main question we are facing, when it comes to the Moons origin, is:

Was there a giant impact?

Of course one is allowed to ask this question. However, in science this question is only taken seriously if you`ll offer an alternative hypothesis, that works equally well or better in hindsight of the known facts. When it comes to the origin of the Moon, all other origin hypotheses have already been discarded for various reasons and to my knowledge there are no rival hypotheses to the giant impact left.1 The Giant Impact is a fact, and was one before this paper!2

The question is not: Did it happen?

The question is: How did it happen?

The Giant Impact Theory came a long way since it was first proposed in 1975 [2]. It solved a lot of problems regarding chemical similarities and differences between Earth and Moon. But in recent years it got stuck in a bottleneck.

What had happened?

Measurements of the elements oxygen, chromium, titanium, tungsten and silicon had shown that the ratios between the isotopes of those elements were the same in the Earth and the Moon. [3]

Why was that a problem?

Those ratios are fundamentally different in other rocky bodies in our solar system like the asteroids and – more important – Mars. Therefor it is likely that Theia and the Proto-Earth (the Earth before the Giant Impact) differed in these isotopic signatures as well. If that was the case, the standard model of the Giant Impact would predict that those ratios would be different in the Earth and the Moon (Figure 2).


Figure 2: Different Models of the Giant Impact.
Source: Science

Different changes in the model were proposed to achieve the similarity in isotopic ratios, but all of them require very special conditions, such as a fast spinning Proto-Earth or Theia being the same size as Earth (Figure 2) or complex processes following the impact [3-5].

Or maybe Theia didn`t had a similar isotopic signature to the Proto-Earth? For that line of thinking we would have to revise what we assume about the distribution of isotopic signatures in the solar system. That would be a great and enlightening thing to do, but would require samples from a rocky planet other than Mars – preferentially our twin planet Venus. [3]

So what`s the great news?

Actually, the great news are small – very small. That best describes the differences between the isotopic signatures of Earth and Moon rocks which now were uncovered.

But didn`t I said above that there were no such differences?

Indeed, but I should have added “within error”. The error is used to describe the area of uncertainty around a measured result. For example, I know I`m 185 cm tall. But I have never measured that very accurately, so it could easily be that I`m actually 1 cm taller or smaller. The 1 cm is the error on the measurement of my height. If I now meet a person who has measured his or her height (equally lax) to be 185 cm, we would have to conclude that we are equally tall (within error), even though he or she might be 186 cm and I only 184 cm. How can we find out? We have to measure more precise, let’s say with a mm-scaled tape.

In a nutshell, that is what the new study did – measured more precise. They found that when you compare 1 million oxygen atoms on Earth to 1 million oxygen atoms on the Moon, you`ll find that 123 of those atoms are different isotopes4.

This means a great relief, for some reasons:

a.) It means there is a difference in those isotopic signatures and we don`t have to invoke very special conditions5 for the Giant Impact.

b.) It promises that we`ll find similar differences in the other isotope systems apart from oxygen.6

c.) When we know how the Earth and the Moon differ, we can infer more on the nature of Theia, the Proto-Earth and the details of the impact.7

And that is much more, than just to confirm that there was a Giant Impact!


A simulation showing the Giant Impact.
Source: Nature

1 That doesn`t mean someone might come up with a new one in the future.

2 Imagine the media would title every article about new advances in evolutionary biology with “Evolution Confirmed!” – Technically true, but still missing the point.

3 If we`re including the error: 9-15

4 Don`t worry about the isotopes. It basically is like two boxes filled with 1 million red and blue balls, where one box has 12 more of the blue balls. Even finding that out, would be hard. Now imagine that on an atomic scale, where you can`t “see” the atoms and where the difference between the balls is the equivalent of blue and very-slightly-darker blue.

5 Special conditions are often a sign that there`s something wrong with your theory.

6 Oxygen isotopes were the first to indicate the similarity-problem [6], it`s good that they make up by showing a way out.

7 In the presented paper, the authors speculate on the basis of their data, that Theia might have had a enstatite chondrite composition, which is material we find in the asteroid belt. But we have to see what the future (and other isotopic systems) will bring.


1. Herwartz, D., et al., Identification of the giant impactor Theia in lunar rocks. Science, 2014. 344(6188): p. 1146-1150.
2. Hartman, W.K. and R.D. Davis, Satellite-Sized Planetesimals and Lunar Origin. Icarus, 1975. 24: p. 504-515.
3. Canup, R., Lunar conspiracies. Nature, Vol. 504, 2013(7478): p. 27.
4. Elkins-Tanton, L.T., Planetary science: Occam’s origin of the Moon. Nature Geoscience, 2013. 6(12): p. 996-998 (2013).
5. Clery, D., Impact Theory Gets Whacked. Science, 2013. 342(6155): p. 183-185.
6. Wiechert, U., et al., Oxygen isotopes and the moon-forming giant impact. Science, 2001. 294(5541): p. 345-348.

Mama Grizzly

By Kate Holland

An image often associated with the melting of the Arctic ice cap, is that of a polar bear standing on thin ice, exemplified in Figure 1.


Figure 1: Special Report Global Warming.
From: Time

The melting of sea ice is forcing polar bears to spend more time inland. Venturing far from their normal habitat they are interacting and interbreeding with grizzly bears, resulting in grolar bears, pizzly bears or more fancifully known as polizzly bears (pictured in Figure 2).

Technically, the naming of hybrids should depend on the sex of the parents, where the father provides the first half of the species name and the mother provides the latter half. For example, a pizzly bear has a polar bear father and a mama grizzly. But I can imagine it would be far more difficult to determine the paternity/maternity of a hybrid species outside a zoo.


Figure 2: A Grolar Bear – or is it a Pizzly?
From: The Guardian

The first wild grolar was encountered back in 2006, as a hunting prize. The hunter was able to avoid jail time –-and a fine – when DNA testing by Wildlife Genetics International in British Columbia confirmed the beast was a hybrid of a polar and grizzly bear (the hunters $45,000 permit was only for bagging polar bears). Since then a number of these hybrid bears have been sighted in northern Canada.

Some might argue that interbreeding is a good solution for polar bears faced with climate change. While hybridization is not necessarily a bad thing, it’s the short time periods over which it occurs, that causes a significant drop in genetic diversity. This is damaging to both species and will more quickly push them to extinction.

Interbreeding could also be a potential risk for survival, as obviously, each bear has evolved to live in quite different ecosystems. The grizzly bear is not designed for long swims, but what if a pizzly still has a taste for seals?

Then there is the rest of the ecosystem to worry about – how does the grizzly bear ecosystem deal with a grolar bear? Will it hunt all year round or hibernate? Will the grolar bear be a super predator in its habitat and cause extinctions down the food web? Such an interesting animal could also become the target of hunting (or worse – cheesy horror movies [Polizzlynado anyone?]) as it is not yet protected by conservation laws. In order to protect both, the polar bears and the ecosystems, some out-there ‘conservationists’, have suggested moving the bears to the Antarctic.

Turn back the bears!

Perhaps such issues for many species, both old and new, wouldn’t be such a problem if WE reduced our impacts on the environment – but that’s a discussion for another day.


Plastic all around us

By Magda.

On this blog we have covered the topic of the marine garbage patch on several occasions (for example here, here and here) as well as how important recycling of plastic waste is. So far, most research was focussed on the influence of plastic on the marine environment, but recently several articles have drawn attention to micro-particles of plastic in lakes.

The first study to focus on this issue was conducted on the great lakes and found large amounts of micro-plastic within the lake (up to 466,000 particles/km2). The researchers attributed many of the perfectly spherical particles to the use of cosmetic products containing micro beads. Due to the small size these particles cannot be filtered and eventually will end up in our water ways.


Clitellate worm (B,C) Fluorescent image of the mid-body showing fluorescent microplastic particles (white arrows) in the digestive tract. From Imhof et al., Contamination of beach sediments of a subalpine lake with microplastic particles, Current biology, 2013

And they are harmful – not only to the environment, as shown by another study conducted on Lake Garda, which found plastic in the digestion system of worms and other freshwater species, which is a starting point to introduce plastic into the food cycle and thus plastic will end up on our plates as well.

Unfortunatly micro-plastic will also form due to degradation of bigger plastic particles.

And, it doesn’t even stop there:

Micro-plastic is small and light enough to get transported by wind and has been detected in several products that we consume, including milk, honey and drinking water (found by a Swiss consumer affairs TV report). And most likely this list will get a lot longer, following more studies on this topic.

Many manufactures of cosmetic products using micro-beads (used in many toothpastes and body/facial scrub,…) have agreed to not use micro-plastic in their products from 2015. However, this will not solve the problem completely, since micro-particles of plastic are also formed by degradation of larger items.

The Amazon rainforest tipping point

By Biance

Last night I watched an interesting documentary on the Amazon rainforest dealing with the consequences of a changing climate. The documentary is part of the 6-prt TV climate series ‘Tipping points’ and investigates how the rainforest manages to deal with our shifting climate.


Parts of the forest show first signs of changes, with big trees dying and fewer growing as these trees need a lot of water to stay healthy. While the death of such huge trees causes a fair bit of destruction, new trees emerge in the gaps. However, these are smaller trees that need less water and grow less high. Together with deforestation, fires and more frequent draughts it is a first step towards an ecological tipping point where our rainforests could turn into savannahs.

Often rainforests are described as our lungs, as they remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and produce oxygen and keep our atmosphere in balance by doing so. Recently NASA found that the Amazon inhales more CO2 than it emits and the forest therefore reduces global warming. However, when dying the forests releases CO2 into the atmosphere, which is estimated to be 1.9 billion tons each year.

Deforestation and fires to clear forest for farmland has already changed the regional climate drastically in terms of rainfall patterns and distribution.
Furthermore, the climatic phenomenon of the El Nino Southern Oscillation is associated with dry conditions in Brazil and the northern Amazon and its frequency increased in the past years and is expected to further increase in the future.

This is a drastic change for nature and for humans as we rely on these forests to somehow keep our atmosphere in balance.
The rainforest stores an equivalent of about 15 years of human-caused emissions in its soil and biomass and a massive die-back could greatly accelerate climate change. About 2 billion tons of CO2 are taken out of the air each year by the rainforests photosynthesis, however, during draughts in 2005 and 2010 this process reversed with 3 billion tons of CO2 emitted by the Amazon. This caused a net 5 billion ton increase in CO2 to the atmosphere.
Our changing climate, fires and more frequent draughts in change with sudden floods are pushing the Amazon to a tipping point and we are closer than you would think, with large areas dying or being already dead. If we loose the rainforest, the climate will change drastically and nature will never be the same, as we know it now.