By Victoria Jaggard, SCIENCE Executive Editor
It’s been less than the average human lifetime since the scientific community widely embraced the notion of plate tectonics. This beautiful theory, cemented in 1977, says that Earth’s crust is broken into multiple chunks that are constantly colliding, diving under each other, or spreading apart. This theory explains millions of years of geologic turmoil—and, more immediately, the actions of today’s earthquakes and volcanoes.
Thanks to plate tectonics, we know why the Philippines (pictured above, on Sunday) is no stranger to volcanic activity, seated as it is on the so-called “ring of fire” around the Pacific. Along this border, tectonic plates are sliding, generating prodigious amounts of magma, giving rise to some of the most active volcanoes.
The ongoing eruption of Taal Volcano is just the latest in a string of historical outbursts from this well-known peak (below is a Nat Geo image of a steaming Taal just before a 1911 eruption that killed 1,300-plus people). But science is still trying to untangle the knot that is eruption forecasts. As writer Robin George Andrews explains, every eruption is unique, and looking at how big events from the past played out can only tell us so much. What’s clear is that even a mild reawakening of this tectonic giant creates hazards for the millions of people living in the volcano’s shadow.
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Today in a minute
Tearing up Alaska: A Canadian company wants to mine copper and gold, building 80 miles of roads and a natural gas pipeline through pristine wilderness to a new port. Alaskans have said the plan would endanger the world’s largest sockeye salmon fishery, which employs 14,000 people. Under the plan, two ferry terminals would be built, and mineral concentrate would be carried to tankers offshore. Opponents fear accidents like spills of oil or toxic metals in the earthquake-prone region, Nat Geo’s Douglas Main reports. The plan is currently under U.S. review.
Clean drinking water: That may be threatened in Australia after the latest massive wildfires and three years of drought. At issue: the ash and other contaminants washing into rivers, dams, and eventually the sea, writes John Pickrell for Nat Geo. Also threatened by those polluted water supplies: aquatic wildlife like the iconic platypus.
Another Big Bang theory: It’s only been a few years since scientists detected the first gravitational waves, and these ripples in space-time are already creating cosmic mysteries. One such event, at first thought to have been caused by the collision of two neutron stars, is so odd that astronomers are entertaining a more unusual theory: A merger of primordial black holes, spawned shortly after the big bang, may have created the rogue wave, Scientific American reports.
Science thwarted: A particular set of mice that have developed a human-like immune system have been key to studies of HIV, cancer, and sickle cell. But these mice got their usefulness from transplants of fetal tissue from elective abortions. With new restrictions on fetal tissue research, the U.S. National Institutes of Health cannot pay for these studies, the Washington Post reports.
Your Instagram photo of the day
After opium: Early morning fog drapes over the landscape of Doi Suthep-Pui National Park in northern Thailand. Opium production was the major crop here years ago, but spurred by a Thai government project, farmers now grow many alternatives, including rice, coffee, and mangoes.
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This week in the night sky
Mars meets its rival: Look toward the southeast right before dawn Saturday and notice two bright orange-colored stars burning together in the sky. The slightly brighter of the two is actually the planet Mars, and the other was named by the ancient Greeks as Antares—the rival of Mars. The red planet is currently 17 light-minutes away and is about a third of Earth’s size, while Antares is 604 light-years away and is so large that if it replaced our sun, it would extend to the orbit of Mars. Check the same celestial real estate Monday for the waning crescent moon to join Mars and Antares in the constellation Scorpius, the scorpion.—Andrew Fazekas
The big takeaway
Skyscrapers of wood? In Finland, a 12-story student housing complex (above) has been built of wood. By next year, American builders will be able to go 18 stories high with carbon-sucking wooden skyscrapers (the tallest all-wood U.S. building is eight stories high, in Portland, Oregon). Architects and builders champion high-density wood as eco-friendly and safer, Saul Elbein reports for Nat Geo. In Europe, makers of the wood products cull forests strategically. They understand that this wood boom will depend upon the steady, controlled growth of trees—and that it could be threatened by climate changes and mass deforestation.
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The last glimpse
Science, truth, and love: “Science is nothing more than a never-ending search for truth. What could be more profoundly sacred than that?” That's Cosmos co-writer Ann Druyan (pictured here in 1980 with her soon-to-be husband Carl Sagan) in the National Geographic 2020 Almanac. Of her professional and personal relationship with Sagan, which extended to NASA’s Voyager expeditions, Druyan wrote in July: “Our families, our work, our hearts and minds and days and nights were blissful in their oneness, for the next two decades, until his death.”
From Ann Druyan: Dear Voyagers: How your billion-year journey carries true love