Vol. 1 / No. 45 — Possible Megadroughts, More on Volcanoes, and Sad News for Space Geckoes


Dust Bowl, 1936. Photo: Arthur Rothstein (public domain)
Dust Bowl, 1936. Photo: Arthur Rothstein (public domain)

As concerns about the ongoing drought in the US southwest continue to grow, a new study in the Journal of Climate Science is adding fuel to the fire, raising the spectre of so-called “dust bowl”-era megadroughts. The new study, led by Dr. Toby Ault of Cornell University, adds a new source of data to the climate models for the region, and determines that the overall risk is higher than previously believed. By taking into account historical large-scale rainfall data (“paleoclimate” data), derived from tree rings, etc., and overlaying atop the year-to-year climate models, they found that the risk of a decade-long drought went from 50% to 80-90% in the next hundred years, while the risk of a 35-year event rose to 20-50%. Even the risk of “an unprecedented 50-year megadrought” was 5-10% when the worst-case climate change models were applied. Nevertheless Dr. Ault remains hopeful:

“Some of our best evidence of droughts comes from tree rings,” he points out. “That means some trees grew during dry periods. A megadrought doesn’t spell death and destruction for all creatures. Less water does not mean no water.”

Still, if the risk assessments are accurate, it might be worth investing in new technologies to provide water to the region. And maybe finding something to replace all those almonds you eat.

Sad News for Space Geckos

Sad news for space geckos. Photo: Flickr user Santhan Naidoo, CC BY 2.0
Sad news for space geckos. Photo: Flickr user Santhan Naidoo, CC BY 2.0

If you remember the story of the lost-and-found Russian Proton-M4 satellite from July of this year, then this news may bring you a bit of sadness: the Russian geckos sent into space to get it on have all died. Before you ask, we’re still not sure why they died — the geckos were chosen specifically because previous experiments had shown that geckos were more tolerant to microgravity than most species — and we don’t even know if they had a lot of sex. What we do know is that it wasn’t a (totally) crazy thing to study. Check out this post by Sarah Zhang over at Gizmodo for an explanation of the scientific aims of the study (it totally wan’t just to make “Russian space-sex geckos” a real thing).

Bárðarbunga: the Saga Continues

With two (or three) active, lava-spilling fissures over a kilometre long each at Holuhraun, a massive plume of SO2 painting the sunsets red, and a massive subsidence in the glacier over Bárðarbunga’s caldera, Iceland’s latest eruption still seems to be ramping up. And before you think “hey, that’s Iceland, it won’t effect me,” or even “I don’t fly anywhere,” remember that the 1783 eruption of the Icelandic volcano Laki (which seems now to be part of the same system of volcanoes as Bárðarbunga, Grimsvötn, and Askja) caused global climate change because of the outpouring of sulfur dioxide. Whatever happens, it’s going to be something to watch for. As always you can get the best info from Rei at Daily Kos.

And in other volcano news, on the other side of the planet a pair of vacationers caught the explosion of Mount Tavurvur on camera this week. Check out the shockwave.

Keurig “DRM” “Hacked”

In the world of hilariously bad ideas, last spring notorious coffee-pod-machine manufacturer Green Mountain Coffee (makers of the Keurig brand) decided they were going to take their toys home and not let anyone else play with them. As it turns out, however, creating a coffee maker that will only make your brand of coffee is, well, not easy. The Keurig “K2.0” machine hasn’t even shipped yet, but already a competing coffee manufacturer is claiming that its pods will work just fine in the new machines. Ars Technica is reporting that, while they’re not entirely sure whether Mother Parkers’ claims are the result of a deal with Green Mountain, or evidence of a clever “hack,” it’s looking more like the latter, because the report comes without announcement of any deal. This is probably a good thing for Green Mountain in the long run, because nobody will buy a Keurig if it only produces their coffee (sorry, guys).

Great News for India’s MOM

No, it’s not a “yo mama” joke: India’s Mars Orbiter Mission is less than a month out from the Red Planet, and it’s reportedly doing just fine. The orbiter is due to enter into Martian orbit on September 24th after ten months in interplanetary space. Current reports suggest all is progressing as expected, though we won’t know until the day of whether the make-or-break rocket firing has gone as expected. If successful, the mission will make India’s ISRO only the fourth organization to successfully reach Mars, after NASA, Roscosmos, and ESA. Japan and China have both attempted, but not managed, the feat.


In a first-ever demonstration of the technology, a pair of researchers 5,000 miles apart were able to communicate directly from one’s brain to the other’s. The process seems to have been as follows: the sender thinks of something specific, like moving an arm or a leg, in a binary sequence that represents a series of letters, in this case the words “ciao” and “hola”. This is picked up by an EEG, e-mailed to another lab, and transmitted to the brain of a receiver in the form of non-invasively induced flashes in the periphery of the vision, which are then manually decoded into the words. It’s not much more than the brain-to-brain equivalent of Captain Christopher Pike’s “yes or no” machine, but it’s still the beginning of a very interesting idea.

A Dyson Robot Vacuum

Move over, Roomba: Dyson’s finally come to tackle you on your own turf. The makers of the luxury, stylish, and rather effective vacuum cleaners Dyson has finally released a robotic vaccum cleaner, the 360 Eye. A little taller and a lot more powerful, it’s definitely more of both robot and vacuum: its cameras allow it to create a 3D map of the room it’s working in, so that it knows where it is, and where it has yet to go; it has tank treads to carry it over mats and rugs and other obstacles; and it has vacuum technology similar to Dyson’s handheld devices, suggesting that it really sucks (and that’s a good thing). It’s coming to Japan first, and then maybe to my living room, if the cat ever gets used to it.

Best of the Rest

It’s been a busy week on the interwebs. Here’s some of what happened. Boeing’s built a laser truck that can take out missiles and drones; Sony’s made a series of pro lenses for your smartphone; the Responsive Images Community Group has convinced browsers to start incorporating the “<picture>” tag; NASA’s making a traffic control system for drones; “hackers” have made a “skype” that’s not controlled by microsoft (or, really anyone); and the Guardian has written an article telling us about the Center for the Study of Existential Risk — a bunch of exceptionally bright individuals trying to predict and prevent worst-case scenarios for humanity.

That’s all for now; have a great week.