Tag Archives: Planetary science

Soil in the Forecast

For several days in late September 2015, heavy rains soaked the earth surrounding the district of El Cambray II in Guatemala. On the first night of the following month, steep slopes, long held in place by thick, tropical tree roots, suddenly gave way, burying hundreds of homes in mud up to 15 meters deep. At least 280 people died.

Officials had warned residents for years that the area was at risk, but a mixture of poverty and mistrust leads some of the poorest people in Central America and beyond to build and live on marginal land. Still, residents of El Cambray II might have been willing to temporarily evacuate, if they had received a credible and precise warning. And if such warnings were available worldwide, they could help reduce the 3,000 deaths attributed to landslides every year. Continue reading

A Sooty North Pole Ahead

Where there’s oil, there’s a way. This summer the federal government showed that it is willing to approve drilling operations in U.S. waters off Alaska. In addition to legislation, other barriers to Arctic development are disappearing: summers at the North Pole could be ice-free as soon as 2020, reducing the need for ice-breaking vessels and opening the way for faster and cheaper trading routes. An increase in shipping across the top of the world, however, could have “significant regional impacts by accelerating ice melt,” according to a recent government report by the Canadian Northwest Territories. And that aggravated melting could raise global sea levels. Continue reading

Russian claim heats up battle to control Arctic sea floor

A long-simmering struggle over who owns the Arctic sea floor intensified last week, as Russia submitted an updated territorial claim—together with new seafloor maps and samples to support it. Russia’s claim to an additional 1.2 million square kilometers of seabed near the North Pole sets up a potential clash with other Arctic nations. Denmark has asserted ownership of part of the area claimed by Russia, and Canada is also expected to file an overlapping claim.

The competing submissions represent “a battle of the countries’ ambitions” to control the Arctic, and an effort to capture “the North Pole brand,” says geophysicist Nina Lebedeva-Ivanova of the University of Oslo. And they are sure to fuel technical debates, because the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which entered into force in 1994, links territorial claims to the fine points of under sea geology.

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