Vol. 1 / No. 43 – Icelandic Eruptions, Plankton in Space, and How Diabetes Happens

Iceland's Vatnajökull glacier. Somewhere under this vast expanse of ice, a volcano is brewing. Photo: Flickr user mcxurxo, CC BY 2.0
Iceland’s Vatnajökull glacier. Somewhere under this vast expanse of ice, a volcano is brewing. Photo: Flickr user mcxurxo, CC BY 2.0


The big news in vulcanology this week (i.e. volcanology, not to be confused with this) is the near-eruption (and possibly now ongoing definitely still almost eruption) of Iceland’s Bárðarbunga (bOWr-tharr-bUNG-uh) volcano. Peculiarly enough, the US democratic political watchdog community Daily Kos has been providing some of the most detailed updates all week, surprising given then impact the eruption of the much smaller volcano Eyjafjallajökull (EY-ya-fYAT-la-YO-ku’ll) had on the world in 2010. Here’s a particularly evocative description from Wednesday:

Picture the flow rate of a large (150-200 m³/s) river – say, 3x the rate of the Thames at London, or 1/3rd the rate of the Hudson at New York City. Now picture it comprised of an explosive variety of very gassy magma, 5-10 kilometers underground. Now picture that it has nowhere to go, yet it’s still flowing at that rate via plowing through solid rock by creating an earthquake every two minutes. And picture that it’s doing this before having any sort of pressure release to help the process along. On a rift system that’s caused regular eruptions that have released so much gas and altered the climate so much that they’ve frozen the Mississippi River at New Orleans and the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in Iraq.

As of noon EDT on August 24, the threat level is set to orange, meaning that there’s no ongoing eruption but that one is imminent, and scientists are studying the data and trying to figure out exactly what kind of eruption it’ll be. Though likely of small comfort to those in Iceland, who are facing the threat of quakes, ash-clouds, lava, and floods from rapidly melting glaciers, there’s at least one thing positive about this particular event: the science. As Carl at Volcano Cafe points out, this is the first evidence we’ve seen of interactions between what are known as “radial fissure swarms.” The long and short of it is this: each volcano has it’s own set of cracks in the Earth that radiate out like the spokes of a wheel, and magma travels through them at different times for different reasons. They’ve always been thought to be separate, but in tracking this latest event, scientists have seen magma move from Bárðarbunga’s fissure swarm and into the fissure swarm of the neighbouring volcano Grimsvötn (grims-vUHt’n). The image below from the Met Office shows the event more clearly — the magma moves down and to the right from Bárðarbunga, and then does a 90° turn. That line it starts following, if you trace it back, seems to be radiating out not from Bárðarbunga (or the neighbouring Kverkfjöll) but rather all the way from Grimsvötn.

Photo: Icelandic Met Office
Photo: Icelandic Met Office

In Carl’s words:

I can’t stress strongly enough how surprised I am about this. It is the single biggest surprise in my volcanic days. It is surprises like this that makes life truly worth living.

You can get more on the situation from the Icelandic Met Office, as well as from Rei at Daily Kos.

Oh and did I mention the as-yet-fairly-uninteresting live video feed? You’re welcome.

Plankton in space? Photo: ISS: NASA, Plankton: Prof. Gordon T. Taylor
Plankton in space? Photo: ISS: NASA, Plankton: Prof. Gordon T. Taylor

Plankton In Space

In other news, ITAR-TASS (the Information Telegraph Agency of Russia) is reporting that Russian Cosmonauts aboard the ISS have discovered plankton on the surface of one of the station’s windows. Though currently unconfirmed by NASA (spokesman Dan Huot told Space.com Wednesday “I don’t know where all the sea plankton talk is coming from.”), if true it could be an interesting finding, especially so if the Russian theory that it was “uplifted” 420km to the surface of the station by “air currents” holds true. We’ll expect to hear more about this in the coming weeks.

How Diabetes Happens

New research being reported this week by the University of Manchester suggests that the mechanism by which both type 1 and 2 diabetes progress may be the same. The findings, published in this month’s Journal of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB), suggest that a toxic “clumping” of the hormone amylin seems to be the proximate cause of the cell death in the pancreas that leads to insufficient insulin production typical of both types of diabetes. While the cause of this “clumping” that renders the otherwise very helpful amylin toxic is yet to be discovered, knowing the mechanism by which diabetes occurs may well lead to new, more effective treatments for both varieties of the disease. Science Daily has more on the story.

The Power of the Sun

Three stories made the news this week about companies harvesting solar power. First, a team of researchers at Michigan State University has produced a transparent, colourless glass panel that harvests wavelengths humans can’t see (or, as in the case of UV light, don’t want to) and rebroadcasts it sideways in infrared wavelengths to be harvested — just another step toward buildings that invisibly power themselves in the daytime. Second, a team of engineers and researchers from MIT have figured out a process to turn old toxic lead-acid batteries into the materials for making solar cells, a wonderful combination of recycling and finding a new source of low-cost materials for capturing solar power. And finally, a company named Algae Systems has a plant in Alabama that reportedly uses the sun to grow algae, in the process producing biodiesel, cleaning municipal waste water, and (to top it all off) generating carbon credits for sale to polluters. Sounds like a great way to use the sun to me.

SpaceX News

And there are two pieces of interesting SpaceX news this week: on the one hand, if you read that TechCrunch report that Elon Musk’s rocketry company was raising another $200million in capital on a $10billion valuation, you might want to revisit the story:  “SpaceX is not currently raising any funding nor has any external valuation of the magnitude you reported been done.” Meanwhile the latest VOTL (vertical take-off and landing) test of the company’s Falcon 9 reusable rocket didn’t go as planned: an error occurred mid-flight, and the flight was “terminated” (i.e. deliberately blown up) to prevent any dangerous situations on the ground. A brief video of the explosion and a small news article can be found here at Florida Today. While they’re tidying that up, go to Space.com to check out a great little infographic of the company’s Dragon V2 — their entry in NASA’s CCtCap (Commercial Crew transportation Capability) bidding process.

(Re)Engineering Life

Finally, this week there’s a great “long read” over at Harvard Magazine about the last decade or so of work in the field of Synthetic Biology, touching on everything from Dr. James Collins’s bacterial on/off switch to Dr. J. Craig Venter’s “mycoplasma laboratorium” to the iGEM competition that drives so much of the innovation in the field. It’s a great primer if you don’t know much about the field, and a good catch-up if you don’t know everything. Check it out.

The Best of the Rest

Here are some other things in the news this week that are probably worth your notice. This week we saw some GIFs that will help you understand complicated things; 3D-printable designs from a competition to shape the future of Mars exploration; the beginning of a trial to give old people young blood, not-quite-vampire-style; a study suggesting that spaceflight may not be good for your immune system; and an old (but still good) TED talk by Dr. Ben Goldacre about the problems with trials in the pharmaceutical industry these days.

I’ll leave you with a trailer for an upcoming AI/robot flick starring (of all people) Antonio Banderas entitled “Automata.” It looks like it might be pretty good.

That’s all for now. Have a great week.