Thursday, February 21, 2008

Nevada Earthquake Rattles Utah

Did you feel it? At 7:16 am on Thursday, February 21, an earthquake struck just outside of Wells, Nevada. The quake measured 6.0 on the Richter Scale, and was felt for hundreds of miles around. Here in Salt Lake City, 152 miles away from the epicenter of the quake, people reported feeling some mild shaking. "I woke up because I thought my cats had jumped on to my bed, but when I looked there was no one there. It turns out I was feeling the earthquake," said Salt Lake City resident and UMNH educator Shelli Campbell.

In Wells, however, the quake's impact was much worse. According to news reports, almost every building in town was damaged in some way. Luckily, no one was hurt and only three minor injuries were reported.

What about you? Did you feel anything? If so, the US Geological Survey wants to know! Fill out a report about your experience, and leave us a comment below!

This map shows the center of the quake (star). The colored lines show how intense the quake felt to people in each circled area on the Modified Mercalli Intensity Scale.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Scientist in the Spotlight: The Secrets of Snow

We had a great time this past Friday as Tim Garrett of the University of Utah meteorology department hosted the kick-off event to our Scientist in the Spotlight Series. We made ice crystals and paper snowflakes, looked at real flakes under the microscope, and explored sundogs, all here at the Museum. Check out photos of the event and instructions on fun things to do at home!

Don't miss our next event!
March 7, from 2-4 pm
Our Feathered Friends
It’s birds galore! Join Wayne Martinson of the National Audubon Society to learn about Utah’s best bird habitats.

Have a topic you'd like to explore with a scientist? Let us know! Leave a comment below!

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Head in the Clouds

Have you ever spent a lazy afternoon watching the clouds go by? University of Utah meteorologist Tim Garrett spends lots of time observing clouds, but for him it’s not a relaxing pastime; it’s his job. “I want to understand how clouds work,” he says. “They appear and disappear, they’re constantly evolving. Why?” Garrett hopes to uncover some simple principles that guide the behavior of these “ephemeral beasts.”

Garrett’s interest in the nature of clouds isn’t purely academic. Understanding the details of how clouds work is important to scientists trying to predict the future effects of climate change. As the Earth warms, clouds might act like a blanket, trapping heat in the atmosphere just like greenhouse gases do, and making the problem worse.

Or instead, clouds might act like a shield, reflecting sunlight back into space and slowing the effects of global warming. It all depends on how the clouds themselves react to a changing climate: different kinds of clouds have different effects on the atmosphere. Nobody knows which ones will dominate. But a better understanding of how clouds work might help predict what will happen in the future.

Garrett's work unraveling the mysteries of clouds takes a lot of different forms. He's done research on how pollution affects snowfall and sea-ice melting in the Arctic, on the size of ice crystals in cirrus clouds, and on the motions in clouds. He relies on data collected by satellites, airplanes, and ground-based weather stations to draw his conclusions, but he swears that one of the best sources of information is something everyone has access to: the sky outside. "I just look at the sky and there's huge amounts of information there," he says. "I look at a cloud and think, 'How much light would this reflect? What can I see through the cloud? What does the sun look like?' The most sophisticated instrument ever developed is the human eye. If you're patient, and keep your eye on the sky, you can learn a lot."

What can you notice about clouds? Check out these videos of clouds evolving, or go look at the sky outside!

Watch timelapse videos of clouds evolving!

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Danger Underground? Coal Mining in Utah

You may have seen the news headlines this summer: six coal miners and three rescue workers were killed when part of the Crandall Canyon Mine, in central Utah, collapsed. (You may even have seen our blog entry about it.) Across the US, around 30 of the more than 79,000 coal miners are killed in accidents at work each year.

If mining can be dangerous, why do we still do it? What makes it risky? How do miners stay safe?

Why do we mine coal? One word: power. Burning coal generates almost 90% of Utah’s electricity. Despite talk about clean, renewable sources of energy, the fact remains that coal is plentiful, cheap, and constant. In the short term, at least, coal is here to stay.

Where’s the risk? Extracting coal in Utah is like scraping the frosting from inside a complex layer cake that’s been smashed, stretched, sat on, and buried. Staying safe means ensuring the tunnels through the coal don’t collapse while people are still using them. But coal is the weakest layer, and the forces on it from the surrounding rock can be uneven and unpredictable. Also, the coal is buried deep, as far as 3,000 feet below the mountainous surface.

To stay safe, miners leave big pillars of coal supporting the roof above their heads. When they finish a section, they collapse the roof to relieve some of the pressure. Sophisticated machines do much of the dirty work, meaning fewer people in harm’s way. Still, it’s a difficult business. “These miners are going places that nobody’s been since the dinosaurs lived on Earth,” says Dave Tabet, of the Utah Geological Survey. “Like astronauts, they accept an inherent risk.”

A typical Utah coal mine. After extracting coal from an area, miners let small sections of roof collapse behind them to relieve pressure from the surrounding rock layers.

Want to know more? Follow the links below for more information about coal mining, Crandall Canyon, and mining in Utah.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Saving Sego Lilies

It takes seven years for a sego lily to grow from a seed to a flower, but if something happens to its home, it can be gone in an instant. That’s why a team of staff has made it their job to save the lilies living at the site where the new Utah Museum of Natural History will be built.

Why go to all that trouble for some plants? Because we’re causing trouble for them. A new building will disrupt the communities that live at the site, but we’re doing all we can to help preserve and protect the small slice of Utah landscape we’re affecting.

In June 2007, volunteers fanned out across the 17 acre plot in the Salt Lake City foothills, where the Museum will one day move, searching for signs of sego lilies – Utah’s official state flower. Each time the salvage team spotted the thin, grass-like leaves of a lily, they dug deep around the plant to retrieve the bulb, buried 6 or 7 inches in the dirt. They moved the plants into pots, and the pots into an outdoor “gated community” at the University of Utah Biology Research Garden. There the lilies will snuggle until 2010, when the new Museum is built and it’s safe to return them to their home in the foothills.

Saving the sego lilies is just one part of the Museum’s effort to take care of the land; staff has also collected seed from plants and rescued tarantulas and other invertebrates that live on the site. Architects are designing the new building to be as friendly as possible to the environment. We know we’ll never be able to eliminate our impact on this piece of the planet, but we hope that, by doing our best to respect and preserve the creatures that live there, we can be proud to one day call it our home too.

To read more about the environmental impact the new Museum will have on the site, check out our official Environmental Impact Statement.

Click below to explore a map of where the new UMNH building will be.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Still Life: BYU's Rhino and the Museum Specimen Controversy

What belongs in a museum? And how far should museums go to get those things?

These are questions that Utahans have been asking themselves this week, as controversy rages over a rhinoceros soon to be on display at the Monte L. Bean Life Science Museum at Brigham Young University in Provo. According to the Salt Lake Tribune:

"Bean officials recruited museum benefactor Fred Morris of Draper last year to hunt a rhino at South Africa's Mkuze National Park. The park sells the rights to hunt excess rhinos to finance its conservation efforts, officials said....The Bean's plan is to mount the rhino skin on an artificial form as part of an ongoing taxidermy exhibit at the museum through January and later add the mount to a waterhole diorama. In that exhibit, the rhino would join an elephant that was also obtained by a modern hunter."
Angry words have been flying ever since news of the rhino's hunt hit the public. "If the private university wants stuffed animals in its museum, it should display Teddy bears," said one commentator. "It's education and conservation in its most lifeless form," railed another.

Representatives from the Bean Museum argue that the rhino was killed legally and in line with good management practices.
"Our only intent has been to use it as an educational mechanism for promoting public appreciation of the conservation of these magnificent animals," a Museum spokesman told the Tribune.

So what is the place of dead animals in museum displays? As one of the angry commentators pointed out, the Utah Museum of Natural History has "a collection of moldering mule deer, a spray of birds from Farmington Bay and a scene of Boulder Mountain carnivores, including a bear and bobcat" on display in our Biology Hall. We also have many more specimens that we use in teaching and for research. Are these valuable? Ethical? [author's note: our mule deer aren't moldering, by the way.]

One major difference between UMNH's specimens and the BYU rhino is that most of those on display here were killed or donated more than 30 years ago. We are still adding animals to our collection, but only for research and education purposes, and as UMNH Director Sarah George told the Tribune, "We focus on Utah."

Still, some people are uncomfortable with the idea of displaying dead animals at all. Here at UMNH, we've made the decision that it's worth it. The unique opportunity for observing a real specimen that you might not otherwise see can be a valuable experience. And as for the rhino? You'll have to decide that for yourself.

Tell us your opinion on displaying animal specimens. What kind of experiences have you had with them?

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Uncovering Utah's Deep Sea Mysteries

500 million years ago, there were jellyfish living in western Utah. Hard to believe, isn't it? To start with, western Utah is terrible jellyfish habitat - there are no oceans for hundreds of miles! If you went there today, you'd have a hard time finding anything that swims at all, much less a deep-water, ocean-loving creature like a jellyfish. On top of that, 500 million years is a very long time - how do we know what was there?

These are some good questions, and luckily there are good answers. We know that jellyfish were there because two geologists from the University of Utah found them. Or, to be precise, they found fossilized traces of the creatures' remains. Researchers Richard D. Jarrard and Susan Halgedahl spent time cracking open rocks at the fossil site west of Delta, where other ancient animal traces had been seen before. They were pretty excited by what they found - the remains of four different species of ancient jellyfish.

"It's hard to imagine anything more difficult to create a fossil from than a jellyfish that's less than half an inch in size...They just don't have any hard parts at all," Jarrard told the Deseret Morning News. Most of the time, their soft bodies decay and become part of the environment around them, even in areas where the conditions are right for preserving fossil traces of harder material like bones or shells. But not this time.

Why not? And how were there jellyfish in western Utah at all? While today it's a desert - dry as a bone - for hundreds of millions of years, starting around 570 million B.C., western Utah was under the ocean. California and Nevada weren't around, and the west coast of North America ran right through our now-desert state. In the deep water over the present-day fossil site, the jellyfish swam, ate, bred, and died. And for a while during those hundreds of millions of watery years, the guck at the bottom of the western Utah ocean was just right for a jelly to float down and leave its mark. That ocean bottom became the Marjum formation of sedimentary rock, where the jellyfish fossils were found.

After finding the fossils, Jarred and Halgedahl sent them to experts at the University of Kansas, who determined that the fossils are related to modern jellyfish, are much older than any jellyfish fossils ever found before, and are also surprisingly sophisticated. That's exciting for scientists trying to work out the mystery of how life started on Earth, giving them important clues to life in the oceans way far back in time. Hurray for the jellies!

What might the landscape where you live have looked like 500 million years ago? How could you know?