Monthly Archives: March 2020

Ancient Mars had 2 reservoirs of water deep underground, study claims

Scientists have discovered that two unique reservoirs of ancient water once flowed deep beneath the surface of Mars.

It’s hard to believe, but at one time the dry and dusty Red Planet was wet and lush.

“A lot of people have been trying to figure out Mars’ water history,” University of Arizona planetary scientist Jessica Barnes said in a statement. “Like, where did water come from? How long was it in the crust [surface] of Mars? Where did Mars’ interior water come from? What can water tell us about how Mars formed and evolved?”

Barnes and her colleagues examined the isotopes of hydrogen locked inside Mars rocks. Isotopes are variants of an element with different numbers of neutrons. They studied samples they knew were originated from the planet’s crust: the Black Beauty and Allan Hills meteorites.

A recent impact crater on Mars. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona)

A recent impact crater on Mars. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona) (NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona)

Two geochemically different types of Martian volcanic rocks — enriched shergottites and depleted shergottites — contain water with different hydrogen isotope ratios, the researchers found.

Their analysis, which was published today in Nature Geoscience, showed that Mars likely received water from at least two vastly different sources early in its history.

The variability the researchers found seems to imply that Mars, unlike Earth and the moon, never had an ocean of magma completely encompassing the planet.

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Scientists discover extraterrestrial superconductivity in meteorites

Scientists at UC San Diego and the Brookhaven Laboratory in New York have discovered superconductivity in meteorites.

After analyzing 15 pieces of comets and asteroids the researchers found two meteorites with superconductive grains, dubbed “Mundrabilla” and “GRA 95205.” This is the first time that extraterrestrial superconductive grains have been identified.

A paper on the research is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Meteorites have a wide range of “material phases” from the oldest states of the solar system, researchers say. In a statement, naturally occurring superconductive materials are described by UC San Diego researcher James Wampler as unusual, but significant because they could be superconducting in extraterrestrial environments.

Superconductive grains were found in this piece of the Mundrabilla meteorite, which scientists say is the first identification of extraterrestrial superconductive grains.

Superconductive grains were found in this piece of the Mundrabilla meteorite, which scientists say is the first identification of extraterrestrial superconductive grains. (Image courtesy of James Wampler)

In the paper, scientists characterize the meteorites’ material phases as alloys of lead, tin and indium, which is the softest non-alkali metal. The research was undertaken by UC San Diego researchers Mark Thiemens, Ivan Schuller and the paper’s first author Wampler, along with Brookhaven Lab’s Shaobo Cheng and Yimei Zhu

The findings could boost our knowledge of a number of astronomical environments, according to the researchers. Superconducting particles in cold environments could affect planet formation, shape and origin of magnetic fields, dynamo effects, motion of charged particles, they say.

A small chunk of an asteroid or comet is also known as a meteoroid. When it enters Earth’s atmosphere, it becomes a meteor or fireball or shooting star. The pieces of rock that hit the ground, valuable to collectors, are meteorites.

In 2017 a meteor made headlines when it flashed across the sky in Michigan. The blazing fireball sent meteorite hunters scrambling to find fragments of the rare space rock.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

Follow James Rogers on Twitter @jamesjrogers

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Ice age ‘house’ made from bones of more than 60 mammoths mystifies archaeologists

Archaeologists found bones belonging to mammoths, reindeer, horses, bears, wolves, red foxes and Arctic foxes at the site.

Archaeologists found bones belonging to mammoths, reindeer, horses, bears, wolves, red foxes and Arctic foxes at the site.
(Image: © Alex Pryor)

Archaeologists in Russia have found a large circle made out of the stuff of horror movies: the bones of mammoths and other ice age creatures that lived more than 20,000 years ago, a new study finds.

Among the remains are the bones of more than five dozen mammoths, as well as bones from reindeer, horses, bears, wolves, red foxes and Arctic foxes, the study researchers said.

“It is made up of thousands of bones that come from at least 60 different woolly mammoths,” study lead researcher Alexander Pryor, a lecturer of prehistoric archaeology at the University of Exeter in England, told Live Science. “All parts of the mammoth bodies are represented, from very large bones like skulls and leg bones to smaller bones like vertebrae.”

There are about 70 other ice age “bone circles” at about 25 sites in Ukraine and Russia already known to archaeologists, but the newly discovered one is the oldest on record, Pryor said. It was found by study co-researcher Alexander Dudin, the director of the Kostenki Museum-Preserve in Voronezh, Russia, who was doing survey work in 2015 at the archaeological site of Kostenki 11, about 350 miles (560 kilometers) south of Moscow.

The bone circle measures about 36 feet (11 meters) in diameter. It’s difficult to say what this and other bone-made structures would have looked like during the last ice age, Pryor said, “but at Kostenki 11, we can imagine a ring of mammoth bones piled up on top of each other. Some of the bones were still in articulation [joined together], indicating that at least some of the bones still had flesh on them when they were added to the pile.”

He added that, “beyond this, some have speculated about wooden poles used to support a roof made of animal hides, but there is no evidence for this yet at Kostenki 11.”

The bones used to construct the structure were likely scavenged, Pryor said. There is some evidence that during the ice age people hunted mammoths, as evidenced by the discovery of a javelin embedded in a 25,000-year-old mammoth rib in Poland, but this may have been an exception, not the norm, Pryor said.

Archaeologists excavate the incredible bone structure made during the last ice age.

Archaeologists excavate the incredible bone structure made during the last ice age. (Image credit: Alex Pryor)

During the last ice age, humans arranged these bones in a circle.

During the last ice age, humans arranged these bones in a circle. (Image credit: Alex Pryor)

A view of the sheer amount of bones at the site.

A view of the sheer amount of bones at the site. (Image credit: Alex Pryor)

A bird's-eye view of the site.

A bird’s-eye view of the site. (Image credit: Alex Pryor)

Notice the mammoth tooth just above this researcher's arm.

Notice the mammoth tooth just above this researcher’s arm. (Image credit: Alex Pryor)

This structure may have served as a house, a storage facility for meat or even a place for rituals. (Image credit: Alex Pryor)

Extreme cold

The last ice age swept northern Europe between 75,000 and 18,000 years ago, but it reached its most bone-chilling temperatures during a period lasting from about 23,000 to 18,000 years ago, when the circle at Kostenki 11 was built.

During this time, the summers were short and cool, while the winters were long and cold, reaching temperatures as low as minus 4 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 20 degrees Celsius). These freezing temperatures prompted many human groups to head south, where prey and other resources were more abundant. Eventually, the community that built this bone circle left, too, even though there was a river nearby that could have provided them with fresh water, Pryor said.

That community didn’t leave behind many clues about how it used this structure. Maybe it was a dwelling, archaeologists have suggested. But Pryor and his colleagues have another idea; perhaps these boney buildings were used for rituals or even for food storage, given that each mammoth had a “mammoth” amount of meat on it, he said.
It’s unlikely that it was a dwelling because there’s less evidence of human activity there than would be expected of a full-blown abode, he said. Moreover, this sort of house wouldn’t have been safe. “The fact that some of the bones are still articulated means that they would have still been smelly,” because they would have had meat on them, Pryor said. “They would have been attractive to wolves and foxes and other scavengers.”

An analysis of tiny debris found within the bone circle and three pits located outside of it revealed burned pieces of charcoal and bone. These findings indicate that, despite the bitter cold, there were trees nearby that could be burned, Pryor said. In addition, it shows that these people were burning bone, which produces a brighter fire with less heat compared with a wood fire, he said.

“This is a story about our human ancestors innovating to survive the coldest point of the last ice age and using all resources and materials that they had,” Pryor said. “It would have been a challenging place to live, but they were making a success out of it.”

The suggestion that the bone structure was used for storage and the pits around it as trash cans “are not Earth-shattering revelations, [but] they do provide useful insights into the lives of the people who once occupied the site,” said E. James Dixon, an emeritus professor of anthropology at the University of New Mexico who was not involved in the study.

The last ice age is a “fascinating time period in Eurasian archeology,” Dixon told Live Science in an email, and the study “clearly demonstrates that modern humans were adapted to higher latitudes at the very height of the last ice age.”

The study was published online March 17 in the journal Antiquity.

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Long-lost Maya capital discovered in backyard in Mexico

Archaeologists have discovered the capital of a long-lost Maya kingdom in the backyard of a cattle rancher in Mexico.

Experts from Brandeis University and Brown University were part of an international team that excavated the site, dubbed Lacanja Tzeltal, in Chiapas in southeastern Mexico. The site, which was settled in 750 B.C.E and occupied for 1,000 years, was the capital of the ancient kingdom of Sak Tz’i’, according to Brandeis University.

The discovery came about in unusual circumstances. In 2014, Whittaker Schroder, a graduate student of archaeology at the University of Pennsylvania, was waved down by a carnita seller on a highway in Chiapas. He told Schroder, who was researching archaeological sites in the area for a dissertation topic, that his friend had uncovered an ancient stone tablet. When Schroder and Harvard graduate student Jeffrey Dobereiner visited the friend, a cattle rancher, he showed them the tablet and they were able to verify its authenticity.

Schroder informed Charles Golden, an associate professor of archaeology at Brandeis University, and Brown University Bioarchaeologist Andrew Scherer. It took a number of years to gain permission to excavate the site, which is in the cattle rancher’s backyard. Archaeological work began in June 2018, with researchers having to carefully fence off the site from the rancher’s cows.

Schroder (left) and Scherer (right) excavate in the ancient city's ballcourt.

Schroder (left) and Scherer (right) excavate in the ancient city’s ballcourt. (Charles Golden)

Although not as large as the well-known ancient cities of Chichen Itza or Palenque, the Sak Tz’i’ capital contains the remains of a 45-foot high pyramid and nearby buildings that were once the homes of the city’s elite and religious sites. A 1.5-acre “Monuments Plaza,” which served as the city’s ceremonial center, was also found, along with the remains of ancient fortifications and dozens of sculptures. An ancient ballcourt was also uncovered.

The research is described in the Journal of Field Archaeology.

The archaeologists, with the permission of the Mexican government and the local community, are planning to return to excavate the site in June. The next stage of their research will also include LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) surveys of the area. LiDAR uses a laser to measure distances to the Earth’s surface and can prove extremely valuable to study what is hidden in areas with thick vegetation.

A map of the excavation site.

A map of the excavation site. (Courtesy of Charles Golden)

The find is the latest in a series of fascinating Maya discoveries.

Last year, experts discovered a unique ancient tool in southern Belize that was used by Maya salt workers more than 1,000 years ago.

In 2018, an ancient mask depicting a 7th-century Maya king was discovered in southern Mexico.

A drawing of a tablet found at the site (left) and a 3D-model of the tablet (left).

A drawing of a tablet found at the site (left) and a 3D-model of the tablet (left).

Also in 2018, archaeologists harnessed sophisticated technology to reveal lost cities and thousands of ancient structures deep in the Guatemalan jungle, confirming that the Maya civilization was much larger than previously thought.

LiveScience reports that hundreds of Maya artifacts that may have been used in ritual animal sacrifices have also been discovered at the bottom of a Guatemalan lake.

From its heart in what is now Guatemala, the Maya empire reached the peak of its power in the 6th century A.D., according to History.com, although most of the civilization’s cities were abandoned around 900 A.D.

The Associated Press contributed to this article. Follow James Rogers on Twitter @jamesjrogers

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Scottish storms unearth 1,500-year-old Viking-era cemetery

Powerful storms on the Orkney Islands in the far north of Scotland recently exposed ancient human bones in a Pictish and Viking cemetery dating to almost 1,500 years ago. Volunteers are piling sandbags and clay to protect the remains and limit the damage to the ancient Newark Bay cemetery on Orkney’s largest island.

The cemetery traces its origins to the middle of the sixth century, when the Orkney Islands were inhabited by native Pictish people, akin to the Picts who inhabited most of what is now Scotland.

“Every time we have a storm with a bit of a south-easterly [wind], it really gets in there and actively erodes what is just soft sandstone,” Higgins told Live Science.

About 250 skeletons were removed from the cemetery about 50 years ago, but it’s not known exactly how far the graveyard extends back from the beach, he said. Hundreds of Pictish and Norse bodies are thought to be buried there still, Higgins added.

The Orkney Islands have been inhabited for thousands of years and have many of the best-preserved archaeological sites in Europe. That includes the prehistoric village of Skara Brae and the standing stones of the Ring of Brodgar, a ceremonial site that includes 13 burial mounds and dates to 3,000 B.C., according to the government agency Historic Environment Scotland (HES).

The ancient cemetery at Newark Bay was excavated in the 1960s and 1970s by the famed British archaeologist Don Brothwell, who preserved the skeletons for future study, Higgins said. Brothwell’s methods were current at the time, but they were very different from modern archaeological techniques, and “the archive isn’t quite the way we’d have it nowadays,” Higgins added. Volunteers now hope to preserve the bones until the remains can be examined by scientists over the next three years, in HES-funded studies.

But a more immediate concern is the vulnerability of the remaining graves to flooding and damage from Orkney storms, which batter the sandstone cliff with enormous waves and storm surges, representatives of the Archaeology Institute said in a statement.

“The local residents and the landowner have been quite concerned about what’s left of the cemetery being eroded by the sea,” Higgins said.

Exposed bones are typically either covered with clay to protect them or removed from the sandstone cliff after their positions are carefully recorded, so it is rare for bones to end up on the beach, he said

It’s not known yet if the exposed bones are those of Picts or Vikings; no burial objects or traces of funeral clothing remain, and bodies in the cemetery were buried four or five layers deep.

Cultural transition

Historians say the first Norse immigrants to the Orkney Islands settled there in the late eighth century, fleeing an emerging new monarchy in Norway. They used the Orkney Islands to launch their own voyages and Viking raids, and eventually, all Orkney was dominated by the Norse, The Scotsman reported. The islands became a Norwegian earldom late in the ninth century, and they remain the region of the British Isles that is most influenced by Norse culture.

Related: Photos: Viking settlement discovered at L’Anse aux Meadows

The relationship between the Picts and the Norse on the Orkney Islands is hotly debated among scholars: Did the Norse take over by force, or were they settlers who traded and intermarried with the Picts? The ancient cemetery at Newark Bay may help to answer that question, Higgins said.

“The Orkney Islands were Pictish, and then they became Norse,” he said. “We’re not really clear how that transition happened, whether it was an invasion or people lived together. This is one of the few opportunities we’ve got to investigate that.”

Excavations at the site had unearthed a carved Pictish stone and the buried remains of a medieval Christian chapel. However, some of the graves could be pre-Christian, Higgins said.

Part of the scientific work on the remains would involve testing genetic material from the ancient bones, which might show that some people living on Orkney today are descended from people who lived on the islands over 1,000 years ago.

“We’re fairly confident that we’re going to find that some local residents are related to people in the cemetery,” Higgins said.

Originally published on Live Science

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How does hand sanitizer work?

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Hand sanitizer works to kill germs, but not as well as soap and water and only if it has at least 60% alcohol in it.
(Image: © Shutterstock)

Hand sanitizers provide a convenient and effective way to clean your hands if soap and water aren’t available and your hands aren’t covered in visible dirt or grease. According to a 2019 ruling by the FDA, a product can be marketed as a hand sanitizer if it contains ethyl alcohol (also called ethanol), isopropyl alcohol (isopropanol) or benzalkonium chloride as the active ingredient.

The FDA hasn’t made a decision on whether to categorize those three ingredients as “generally recognized as safe” because the agency doesn’t think there is enough research to say. But they’re also not pulling the products from shelves. Ingredients other than those three have shown little to no evidence of being effective at killing germs and have not won the FDA’s approval.

How does hand sanitizer work?

The key ingredient in most hand sanitizers is alcohol. Chemically speaking, alcohols are organic molecules made of carbonoxygen and hydrogen. Ethanol is the chemical in alcoholic drinks and is the chemical most people are thinking of when they say alcohol. Propanol and isopropanol (isopropyl alcohol) are two other alcohols that are common in disinfectants because they’re highly soluble in water, just like ethanol.

Alcohols destroy disease-causing agents, or pathogens, by breaking apart proteins, splitting cells into pieces or messing with a cell’s metabolism, according to a 2014 review published in the journal Clinical Microbiology Reviews. Solutions with as little as 30% alcohol have some pathogen-killing ability, and the effectiveness increases with increasing alcohol concentration. Studies have shown that alcohol kills a more broad variety of bacteria and viruses when the concentration exceeds 60%, and it works faster as the concentration increases. But the effectiveness of alcohol seems to top out at about a 90-95% concentration.

Another strength of alcohol is that the bacteria it kills don’t develop a resistance to it, so alcohol doesn’t lose effectiveness with continued use.

According to the 2014 review, ethanol is so powerful that a few studies have found that in high concentrations, it’s better at getting rid of three species of disease-causing bacteria — Escherichia coliSerratia marcescens and Staphylococcus saprophyticus — compared with washing hands with regular or antibacterial soap.

Related: Hand sanitizer sold out? Here’s how to make your own.

But alcohol doesn’t work for all germs, such as norovirus; Clostridium difficile, which can cause life-threatening diarrhea; or Cryptosporidium, a parasite that causes a diarrheal disease called cryptosporidiosis, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says. Hand sanitizers also don’t remove harmful chemicals like pesticides or heavy metals, nor does hand sanitizer work well on especially dirty or greasy hands. So, soap and water still win the contest overall.

There are a few small-scale studies demonstrating that an alcohol-free hand sanitizer containing benzalkonium chloride as the active ingredient, at a concentration of 0.13%, is just as effective and even more effective than alcohol at getting rid of bacteria. The alcohol-free hand sanitizer that was tested was called HandClens, and the scientists who conducted the research on it worked for the now-closed laboratory that developed the product. That doesn’t mean benzalkonium chloride isn’t effective, but there doesn’t seem to be independent research to suggest that it’s better than alcohol. Plus, benzalkonium chloride might be harmful for some individuals, especially at higher concentrations, according to the Hazardous Substances Database.

According to the CDC, hand sanitizer without alcohol may not kill as many germs and may only reduce the growth of germs rather than killing them outright. The CDC recommends hand sanitizers with at least 60% alcohol in them for maximum effectiveness.

Does hand sanitizer expire?

Hand sanitizer doesn’t really expire. There will likely be an expiration date on the bottle because hand sanitizers are regulated by the FDA, which requires certain things to be on the packaging, including an expiration date. The expiration date is supposed to be the last date at which the product contains the ingredients in the amount specified on the label. Whether the manufacturer has tested how long the product meets the label claim or they just came up with an arbitrary date to determine the expiration date is mostly unknown to consumers. (Manufacturers are supposed to conduct testing, but not all do.)

Alcohol is a shelf-stable chemical according to its safety data sheet from chemical-supplier Sigma Aldrich. This means that if alcohol is kept in a sealed container at room temperature it will remain at the same concentration for a very, very long time.

However, alcohol evaporates easily because of its relatively low boiling point, and over time, as the bottle is opened and closed, some alcohol may escape and the concentration of alcohol in your hand sanitizer might start to decrease. Still, if you keep the bottle closed and at room temperature, you’re likely to have an effective product for as long you need it.

Is hand sanitizer bad for you or toxic?

Alcohols are considered safe for use as an antiseptic and generally have no toxic effect on the skin, although repeated use may cause dryness or mild irritation, according to the Hazardous Substances Database. Several studies have shown that repeated use of hand sanitizer is less irritating than repeated hand washing with soap. But damaged skin is more susceptible to irritation from alcohol.

And let’s be honest, would you rather have some mild skin irritation, or distribute and contract an illness?

Additional resources: 

  • Read more about why hand sanitizer is a good alternative to soap and water, according to the FDA.
  • Here’s more info on what the FDA considers hand sanitizers to be.
  • And here are the guidelines from the CDC on hand washing and hand sanitizer use.

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Bizarre ‘ice volcanoes’ erupt on Lake Michigan beach

A so-called ice volcano erupting on Oval Beach in Michigan

A so-called ice volcano erupting on Oval Beach in Michigan
(Image: © National Weather Service of Grand Rapids)

Ice volcanoes spewed great plumes of water on the shores of Lake Michigan last weekend, and the National Weather Service (NWS) caught the odd phenomenon in action.

During a stroll on Oval Beach on the lake’s eastern shore, located in the state of Michigan, an employee of the NWS Grand Rapids snapped a few photos of water bursting from mounds in the frigid ground. “You never know what you’ll find at the lake until you go out there,” the employee tweeted. “Today it was volcanoes.”

Despite their nickname, ice volcanoes aren’t really volcanoes at all. The cone-like mounds form at the edges of lakes, where thin sheets of ice form, and water shoots through holes in the ice, Tom Niziol, a contributor for Weather Underground’s Category 6 blog, explained in a Facebook post. Water sloshes beneath the ice sheet and builds up enough pressure to force spurts of water to the surface. If the air above is cold enough, the released water freezes over the surrounding ground, forming a mini volcano of sorts.

“[Ice volcanoes] can be very dangerous to climb on however because they are hollow and built over that hole in the ice,” Niziol said. “Don’t ever go venturing out onto them.”

Frozen volcanoes formed along the shores of Lake Erie a few years ago, Niziol added. Although not unheard of, ice volcanoes remain a relatively rare phenomenon.

“It’s almost a ‘Goldilocks’ situation where you need just the right conditions over a period of time to get these [formations] to develop,” Matt Benz, a meteorologist for AccuWeather, said in a news report. Ice volcanoes typically form near large bodies of water where below-freezing temperatures allow an ice shelf to form over the water’s surface along the coastline, he said. Simultaneously, waves beneath the shelf must be powerful enough to crack the ice and push water out. For this reason, ice volcanoes tend to form along shorelines where winds churn up waves consistently, Benz said.

On Feb. 16, when the Oval Beach volcanoes were spotted, the wind was almost due west, which would have been “ideal for pushing waves right into the shoreline at this location,” Benz added. Due to their enormous size, the Great Lakes may be more likely to form ice volcanoes along their shores than smaller lakes whose water completely freezes over in winter, before much ice can build up along their beaches, he said.

So if you want to see an ice volcano in person, the Great Lakes may be your best bet — but be wary where you step!

So-called ice volcanoes erupting on Oval Beach in Michigan

So-called ice volcanoes erupting on Oval Beach in Michigan (Image credit: National Weather Service of Grand Rapids)

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