Rogue waves may not be so rogue after all, according to new research.

Rogue waves may not be so “rogue” after all, according to new research. Photo: Shutterstock

Rogue waves are unexpected waves that suddenly appear and can pose serious threats to even the largest ships and offshore platforms. They’ve been known to reach as high as 49 feet above the normal water level, and can be as much as 300 feet wide and travel as quickly as 40 miles an hour.

In 2007, a rogue wave in the North Sea was recorded—perhaps the largest ever noted—and it gave us a lot of data about such waves.

Rogue waves can, and have, caused loss of life and serious damage in the past. Luckily, they aren’t that common, or so we thought.

It seems like rogue waves aren’t that rogue after all. It turns out that they can occur twice a day during storms, and tend to happen on their own once every three weeks or so. The findings also showed that the steeper the waves are, the less frequent their occurrence.

From this data, scientists will hopefully be inspired to do further research that about how rogue waves form and how to predict and avoid them. It also gives researchers and engineers more information that will allow them to construct ships and platforms that have a greater chance to survive rogue waves.

“Rogue waves are known to have caused loss of life as well as damage to ships and offshore structures,” said Mark Donelan of the University of Miami, one of the study’s authors. “Our results, while representing the worst-case rogue wave forecast, are new knowledge important for the design and safe operations for ships and platforms at sea.”

These changes could save lives and reduce costs associated with loss of property, but would also have a benefit for the environment, as the more capable a ship or platform is of surviving rogue waves, the less chance there is of potentially dangerous cargo being dumped into the ocean.

By working with scientists at an eye clinic, researchers came up with a way to image live corals.

Technology used at the eye clinic can be used to image live corals. Photo: Shutterstock

It’s easy to forget that corals are animals, mostly because they don’t move. But they’re also pretty hard to study while they are alive. Until recently, attempts to image coral faltered because the opaque coral tissue is composed of multiple cell layers. Furthermore, visible light can stimulate photosynthesis and UV light can harm corals.

An international team of researchers has developed a new method to image living corals though, and it could have a huge impact on how we study the creatures. They used optical coherence tomography (OCT), which uses near-infrared radiation to penetrate deeper into tissue and reveals microscopic structures with different reflective properties. It works somewhat like ultrasound, and up until now was used primarily to study the human eye and monitor tissue damage there.

What the researchers have been able to do so far has taught us a lot about coral, and there is the potential to learn a great deal more. Corals are complex creatures that form the basis of coral reefs, which are of significant ecological importance. Coral reefs are home to a huge diversity of species, and each one is essentially unique, even when it shares traits with other coral reefs. But they are also incredibly fragile ecosystems, susceptible to global climate change, ocean acidification, pollution, overfishing, and other perils. One growing problem, bleaching, is dealing significant damage to reefs around the world, and isn’t likely to go away without some major changes on our part.

But with the discovery that OCT technology can be used to image and study corals, researchers might be able to do something more about that problem, and many others. As scientists learn more about corals, like how they react to stress, they can develop better systems to protect them, and figure out exactly what steps are needed in order to prevent further damage to coral reefs.

“OCT is a powerful technique for studying the dynamic structure of living corals and their behavioral response to environmental stress,” said research leader Professor Michael Kühl at the University of Copenhagen. “It now enables many novel applications in coral science as well as in other areas of marine biology. Our study also illustrates the importance of interdisciplinary approaches in science. Who would have thought that a technique used in the eye clinic would be useful for coral research?”

Snowpack will melt earlier, but more slowly, as a result of warming climate.

Snowpack will melt earlier, but more slowly, as a result of warming climate. Photo: Shutterstock

Rising global temperatures will most likely result in mountain snowpack melting earlier in the year, but at a slower rate. While that may seem confusing at first, the mechanism is pretty easy to explain. Typically, most snowpack doesn’t start melting until the summer, when the sun in strongest in that region, and then it melts quickly.

But “when snowmelt shifts earlier in the year, the snow is no longer melting under the high sun angles of late spring and early summer,” said study lead author Keith Musselman. “The Sun just isn’t providing enough energy at that time of year to drive high snowmelt rates.”

But rising temperatures will mean less snowfall generally, so there will be less snow—and that snow will be melting more slowly over a longer period. That means less danger of flashfloods in certain areas, but it can also have a number of negative impacts. For one, slower melting means less water ends up in streams because it gets soaked up by plants instead. This, in turn, means that the streams have less water, which can impact whole ecosystems, as well as urban water supplies that rely on seasonal snowmelt

“We found a decrease in the total volume of meltwater—which makes sense given that we expect there to be less snow overall in the future,” Musselman said. “But even with this decrease, we found an increase in the amount of water produced at low melt rates and, on the flip side, a decrease in the amount of water produced at high melt rates.”

The impacts could reach far beyond the immediate area affected. Reductions in melt rates could mean fewer spring floods—which would be great for infrastructure, but not so good for the ecosystems that depend on those annual floods. The meltwater will likely be warmer, which could affect trout and other fish species.

These are some significant and problematic implications, though how exactly we can deal with such problems remains to be seen. Obviously, this is another piece of evidence in favor of working to combat global climate change.

The Vatican

The Vatican was the site of a recent conference on global extinction and creating a sustainable world. Photo: Shutterstock

As it stands, one in five species on the planet (20 percent) face extinction, but by the year 2100, that number is expected to rise to as much as 50 percent. And, of course, this is almost entirely due to human action.

“Rich western countries are now siphoning up the planet’s resources and destroying its ecosystems at an unprecedented rate,” said biologist Paul Ehrlich of Stanford University. “We want to build highways across the Serengeti to get more rare earth minerals for our cellphones. We grab all the fish from the sea, wreck the coral reefs, and put carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. We have triggered a major extinction event. The question is: how do we stop it?”

This is why the Vatican, of all places, held a conference on biological extinction. While the Catholic Church has long been seen as an enemy to science, on ecological issues at least, those days are gone.

The conference brought together ecologists, economists, and biologists, natural and social scientists, as well as academics from the humanities. The idea behind the conference was to find ways to prevent the increase in endangered species, and find ways to roll back the pains of climate change, among other things.

Another problem the conference addressed was sustainably supporting the world’s growing population, and finding ways to slow that growth down. The UN expects that, by 2100, the Earth’s population will have grown form its current 7.2 billion to 11.2 billion. Even today, based on our current resource use, we would need another half an Earth to sustainably support those 7.2 billion people. If everyone lived the wasteful way we do in the United States, we’d need five more full Earths’ worth of resources.

“We are wrecking our planet’s life support systems. We have the capacity to stop that,” said Ehrlich. “The trouble is that the danger does not seem obvious to most people, and that is something we must put right.”

The thing is, these problems are our fault, and it is within our power to solve them. But we need to actually work toward that goal. We need to address difficult questions, and find ways to make those problems resonate with everyone, and not just the people studying them. Getting people to care and to support steps toward healing the world is the first step.

A vegan diet may not necessarily be the best use of our agricultural lands.

Photo: Shutterstock

Among vegans, it’s common to hear the idea that eating vegan is better for everyone, including the planet itself. Discussions of greenhouse gas created by grazing animals are commonly a part of this. But according to a study published in Elementa, a purely vegan diet wouldn’t be the best way to make use of existing agricultural lands. Going vegan would feed fewer people and would result in having to convert more land over to agriculture.

The study is premised on the idea that there are three main kinds of agricultural land use. Grazing land is used to raise animals, perennial cropland for raising foods like grain and hay to feed animals and which are harvested multiple times per year, and cultivated cropland for raising foods such as vegetables and fruits. But vegan diets would eliminate the use of perennial cropland, which would waste a significant amount of land that could be used for growing food (directly or indirectly). It’s important to remember that these kinds of land are not all suited to one another. Grazing land tends to be bad for growing crops, for example.

This is also compared not to current land use based on diets, but on projections of land use, which included 10 different diets, including the “current diet” of Americans. Vegan diet-based land use would feed more people than the current model, but it wouldn’t feed as many people as either egg and dairy-friendly vegetarian (ovolacto vegetarian), dairy-friendly vegetarian (lacto vegetarian), or two different omnivorous models would. Less meat and more vegetables makes land use more efficient, but totally removing animals is not the most efficient.

While none of this means that vegan diets are meaningless, or that people who follow them are bad or a threat the world’s ecology, it does mean that veganism can’t save the world. But philosophical veganism isn’t usually about the environment anyway, it’s about animal rights, so whether this argument convinces any vegans remains to be seen.

Ultimately, though, the researchers write, “the findings of this study support the idea that dietary change towards plant-based diets has significant potential to reduce the agricultural land requirements of U.S. consumers and increase the carrying capacity of U.S. agricultural resources…Diet composition matters.”

A new species of land snail has been named after a Dungeons & Dragons character.

An underground river in the Chapada Diamantina cave in Brazil. Photo: Shutterstock

Scientists who study invertebrates for long enough tend to discover new species, because there tends to be a pretty diverse collection of such creatures in any given environment. This is especially true of cave systems in places like Brazil, which tend to be poorly studied. And when teams discover a new species, they get to name it.

Often, species will be named after the person who discovered them, or in homage to Greek and Roman gods, since those mythologies are pretty popular. But a team that discovered a small (only 2mm long!) species of land snail in Brazil has decided to name it after a different kind of deity—one from the geek staple Dungeons & Dragons.

The species is Gastrocopta sharae, named after Shar, a goddess of darkness, caverns, and secrets. “It’s a fitting name for a tiny snail that lives hidden in the dark recesses of a cavern,” the study’s authors said.

This is actually the second time this team has named a snail after a goddess from Dungeons & Dragons. In 2014, they found a tiny snail that lives in deep ocean waters, and named it Halystina umberlee, after Umberlee, a goddess of the ocean connected with the perils of the sea.

Tropical snails in general are still not well understood, but they are one of the most threatened animal groups. Not only that, but cave-dwelling invertebrates don’t receive a lot of attention from researchers, and cave-dwelling snails are even less known.

Unfortunately, the new species is threatened by human activity. “Caverns are known to have very fragile ecosystems and several lack proper protection, so works like ours are an important step for conservation efforts,” the researchers said.

People may think of caves as empty and dank, but they can contain a vast array of different flora and fauna, all of which deserve protection as much as any better known species.

Polar bear walking near water

Climate change is affecting endangered animals even more than we might think. Image: Shutterstock

Often, when we talk about climate change, we talk about the future, about how it’s going to affect the world. But more and more, we’re realizing that it already is affecting the world, that it is no longer a “future threat” but a very real, very current problem. And part of that problem is climate change.

There are currently 873 species of mammals and 1,272 species of birds listed as threatened, but of those, only 7% of mammals and 4% of birds are considered “threatened by climate change and severe weather.” However, a recent study by researchers from the University of Queensland and the Wildlife Conservation Society has found that as much as half of those mammals and a quarter of the birds “have already responded negatively to climate change.” This means that those species, such as the mountain gorilla, will have an even greater chance of being negatively affected by future changes.

The problem is that we aren’t seeing enough studies of animals, already classified as threatened or not, that take climate change into effect.

Climate change’s effect on animals isn’t anything new to us, even if previous studies have been few and far between. Back in 2014, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was already warning us that many animals were migrating further north or south toward the water in an effort to survive catastrophic changes to their natural habitats. Only the truly flexible species will be able to make it through as habitats shift and temperatures fluctuate.

Still, these studies might not be all doom and gloom. While the threats posed to these species are very real (and likely to get worse), knowing that these problems exist allows us to start addressing them. And knowing that climate change is already negatively affecting at least some species might make it easier to motivate people to care about climate change as something that’s happening right now…something we have a chance to deter, if not stop entirely.