Today’s “Planet Earth Report” –Earth’s Clues to Life on Mars, Where Oldest Humans Thrive, Why We Believe in Conspiracy Theories




December 14, 2017: Today's links to headline stories from around the world on the threats, opportunities, and dangers facing our fragile planet –along with an occasional dash of humor, popular culture, and an intriguing conspiracy theory or two. Coverage includes Mystery Object Hints at Undiscovered Planets, Prehistoric Monster Penguins, Photo Tour of Earth's Erupting Volcanoes.


This Inhospitable Volcanic Region of Ethiopia Gives Us Clues About Life On Mars



The Danakil Depression, including the Dallol volcanic area is one of the most remote, inhospitable and poorly studied areas in the world. They are both found in the Afar Region of Ethiopia and are part of the East African Rift System – an active tectonic plate boundary that’s splitting apart plates at a rate of 7 mm per year. The combination of this area’s geology and environment make it a uniquely extreme place to do research. In collaboration with the Europlanet research team, I am investigating the geological and biological aspects of the Danakil Depression.




Our aim is to study microbes, specifically extremophiles – organisms that thrive in extreme environments. They can live in hot springs, acidic fields, salty lakes and polar ice caps – conditions that would kill humans, animals, and plants. Their existence suggests that life can develop mechanisms to withstand physical and chemical conditions like those on the planet Mars.

There’s no other natural environment like it. What we have found at the site is a combination of extreme physico-chemical parameters. Toxic gases saturate the air, the pH is extremely acidic and saline and metal concentrations are very high.

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The Days of the Arctic being “Reliably Frozen" are Over




The Arctic’s report card is in, and it’s getting a failing grade in freezing.
“Arctic shows no sign of returning to reliably frozen region of recent past decades,” the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) stated in its 2017 report card on the health of the region, published Tuesday (Dec 13). The agency, which has published the peer-reviewed report annually for the past 12 years, this year included input from 85 scientists from 12 countries. They found that the current pace of loss for Arctic sea ice is unprecedented in the past 1,500 years.



That matters: One of the most important measures of climate change in the Arctic is how much “old ice”—thick, stable ice that manages to stay frozen over the summer months for at least four consecutive years—is left there. “As sea ice ages, it adds volume, expels salt, and is toughened up by jostling and collisions,” NOAA wrote. “These characteristics make it better able to withstand warm weather and pounding from storm waves; its loss makes for a more fragile ice pack.”

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2017: The Year in Volcanic Activity




While this has been a relatively average year for the world's active volcanoes, the activity that did take place was spectacular. Out of an estimated 1,500 active volcanoes, 50 or so erupt every year, spewing steam, ash, toxic gases, and lava. In 2017, erupting volcanoes included Shiveluch in Russia, Villarrica in Chile, Mount Sinabung and Mount Agung in Indonesia, Turrialba in Costa Rica, Piton de la Fournaise on Réunion Island, Kilauea on Hawaii, Popocatepetl and Volcán de Colima in Mexico, Bogoslof Volcano in Alaska, Manaro Voui in Vanuatu, Mount Etna in Sicily, and more. Collected below are scenes from the wide variety of volcanic activity on Earth over the past year.


An eruption of ash shown above rises from Shiveluch volcano on Russia's Kamchatka Peninsula, at sunrise on December 5, 2017

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Italy's Oldest Humans Drink and Smoke a Lot But Will Probably Outlive You –Long life isn't only about physical health


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The Cilento region of southern Italy is home to a unique group of people. In the rural villages of the area, between the mountains and the Mediterranean Sea, lives a particularly remarkable group. They spend their days outdoors, eating fish, smoking cigarettes, and drinking wine. A good many of them are overweight. Despite lifestyles that might seem unhealthy on the surface, an astounding number of them live to be quite old — many over the age of 90.

But it isn’t just good genes and that world-famous Mediterranean diet that account for their extraordinary health and longevity, a team of international researchers report in the journal International Psychogeriatrics on Tuesday.

In the study, the researchers from Italy, Switzerland, and the United States highlight a handful of psychological traits that play a significant role in the ability of these people to maintain their mental health into old age. Even though they have worse physical health than their younger neighbors, these elderly Italians score significantly higher on measures of mental health.

The elderly citizens of Cilento display higher levels of mental well-being than their younger neighbors.
“Exceptional longevity was characterized by a balance between acceptance of and grit to overcome adversities along with a positive attitude and close ties to family, religion, and land, providing purpose in life,” the researchers write.

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Why Do So Many People Believe in Conspiracy Theories




William of Occam would have hated conspiracy theories. A 14th-century philosopher and Franciscan friar, William is celebrated for developing the “law of parsimony,” better known today as “Occam’s razor.” According to the razor principle, the simplest explanation for an event is almost always the best; shave away any extraneous assumptions, and what you’ve got left is usually the truth.

That’s not exactly the way conspiracy theorists think. Either Barack Obama was actually born in Hawaii, or an international plot unfolded over multiple decades to conceal his Kenyan birthplace and install him in the presidency. Either vaccines are safe and effective, or every major hospital and health organization in the world is covering up the fact that they actually cause autism. Never mind the razor — conspiracy theories are nothing but extraneous assumptions.



The question is, Why do so many people believe in them? Why do even the most preposterous theories — the Nazis survived but they fled to the moon; the world is secretly being run by a reptilian elite — have fiercely loyal adherents? There are nearly as many explanations for conspiracy theories as there are theories themselves, but some patterns do appear again and again.

“Conspiracy theories are for losers,” says Joseph Uscinski, associate professor of political science at the University of Miami and co-author of the 2014 book American Conspiracy Theories. Uscinski stresses that he uses the term literally, not pejoratively. “People who have lost an election, money or influence look for something to explain that loss.”

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The Downside of Net Neutrality –Its principles are out of touch with today's wireless world



“Treating everyone and everything in the same manner,” sounds fair and seems like the right thing to do—except when you’re talking about wireless networks. Here many different types of services are competing for the same limited amount of bandwidth to reach their respective audiences. When we apply net neutrality principles of the 2015 regulatory framework to wireless networks, such proposed equal treatment of all network traffic could have the unintended effect of interfering with the quality of our communications (voice and video calls) as well as our enjoyment of high-definition videos and other streaming content.

That’s because the forced equal treatment of services would increase network congestion—something that threatens the quality of even simple voice calls, not to mention the introduction and growth of amazing new services such as hologram videos, virtual reality and augmented reality.

Such arguments are not new but bear exploring once again as the Federal Communications Commission is expected to vote on December 14 to scale back the net neutrality regulations adopted in 2015. Given the resistance many are expressing to this decision, it is important to analyze the implications of the blanket application of the network neutrality framework—and to wireless networks in particular.

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Oddball Object Tumbling among the Stars Could Hint at Undiscovered Alien Planets




The solar system’s first-observed interstellar emissary hints at undiscovered populations of exoplanets and violent origins

Our solar system’s first-known visitor from another star, the recently discovered object called ‘Oumuamua, could be a bonanza for researchers. With only a brief window of time to observe the cigar-shaped wanderer before it zooms beyond the reach of our best telescopes, astronomers have crammed in observations with the hopes of learning more about this interstellar interloper. Not only is the fast-moving object intriguing in its own right; it may also provide insights about how planetary systems evolve.




‘Oumuamua caught the eyes of astronomers on October 19 this year. Calculations revealed the space rock was traveling at 26 kilometers per second relative to the sun, a rapid clip that along with its extremely elongated orbital trajectory suggested it came from outside the solar system. Telescopes swiftly targeted the object, with most researchers expecting to see a cometary tail trailing from an icy visitor as it approached the sun. But to their surprise, ‘Oumuamua showed none. Instead, it looked more like an asteroid.

“It does not a resemble a comet—it had no tail whatsoever," says Karen Meech, who studies comets at the University of Hawai’i at Mnoa. Meech used NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope and other observatories to examine the mysteriously inert space tourist.

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This Ancient Penguin Known as 'Monster Bird' Could Have Whooped Your Ass
–This is not your typical Antarctic sweetheart





Penguins today are not that big. Even big penguins aren’t that big — about four feet tall, at best. But that wasn’t the case tens of millions of years ago, says a team of scientists who recently dug up some terrifying bird remains in New Zealand.

Their find, which they describe in a Nature Communications paper published Tuesday, indicates that in the early Cenozoic Era, shortly after the Cretaceous–Tertiary extinction that killed off the dinosaurs, the ocean around New Zealand was home to a penguin far larger than any that exists today.

The penguin species is dubbed Kumimanu biceae, which means “monster bird” in the Maori language. This extinct bird deserved its name, seeing as it measured over five and a half feet from beak to tail and tipped the scales at over 200 pounds. This fossil specimen, as big as an adult human, is one of the largest ever identified.

The Kumimanu biceae penguin weighed over 200 pounds. Needless to say, it could probably fuck you up.
A team of paleontologists, led by Gerald Mayr, Ph.D., a curator at the Senckenberg Research Institute and Natural History Museum in Frankfurt, Germany, used stratigraphy — the process of comparing a new specimen to familiar fossils nearby to guess its age — to conclude that this giant penguin is between 60 and 55 million years old.




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