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Bringing Research to Light

February 18, 2011

The Research Staff of the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences includes experts in a wide variety of scientific disciplines who conduct exciting research investigations, maintain and expand the Museum’s natural science Research Collections, and participate in the Museum’s public education and outreach mission.  Check this blog often to learn about all of the great science happening at the Museum!

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New Paleontology Cabinetry Installation Completed!

September 11, 2017

Written by Jacob VanVeldhuizen, Paleontology Collections Technician

Picture of newly installled white cabinets.

Installed row of new cabinets.

It is with great pleasure that I say we have finally finished installing the new cabinetry in the paleontology collection. It took us six months and eight days to remove approximately 350 old specimen cabinets and install 142 new specimen cabinets in their place. Both the removal and installation process ended up being simpler and took a lot less time than expected.

Picture of a newly installed cabinet without a center divider. Inside the cabinet are boxes containing fossils

Larger cabinet without center divider.

The old specimen cabinets were removed by having someone push a cabinet from a row onto the forks of a forklift. The forklift then lowered the cabinet and set it on the ground where a separate group of people maneuvered the cabinet into a holding area. The old cabinets then remained in this holding area until a museum looking for cabinets came and got them or were taken to State surplus to be sold. Once a row of cabinets was removed, the old wooden base was chopped up and thrown out. The area was then swept and vacuumed.

Picture of a larger cabinet with center divider. Inside the cabinet are boxes containing fossil clams.

Larger cabinet with center divider.

After cleaning the area, a row of new specimen cabinets was installed. First, we had to install the larger cabinets, which were easy to move around with a pallet jack as they came with a metal pallet base. These pallet bases also meant that we didn’t have to install our own separate base for the new cabinetry to sit on.

Photo of three summer interns using an orange pallet jack to install a new large cabinet (left side of image).

Summer interns Elizabeth Altier, Mark Reyes and Chilea Dickson installing one of the larger cabinets.

The trickiest part of installing the larger cabinets was making sure that the row they were creating was straight. This required a lot of measuring, line drawing, eyeballing, and rearranging before the row was finally set. Next, we had to install the smaller cabinets on top of the larger cabinets. This involved using a group of people on the ground to push the cabinet on to the forks of a forklift.

Picture of a woman sitting on a yellow and black forklift giving a "thumbs up." On the front of the forklift is a smaller cabinet. e

Lilly Ridley from Facilities using a forklift to help us install one of the smaller cabinets.

The forklift then lifted the cabinet to the top of the row where a separate group of people caught and maneuvered the cabinet into place. The smaller cabinet was then secured to the larger cabinet using a series of self-tapping screws. Overall, it took about a day and a half to remove and install a row cabinetry.

Photo of the team installing one of the smaller cabinets on top of a larger cabinet. A man in a blue shirt is using a yellow and black forklift to lift a white cabinet onto other white cabinets.

The team installing one of the smaller cabinets on top of a row of larger cabinets.

After a row of new cabinets was installed, the fossils then needed to be transferred to their new homes. This was by far the most time consuming and arduous task of the cabinetry installation process. The transferring of fossils required moving nearly 147,000 specimen’s drawer by drawer. Some of these drawers were packed with numerous small fossils, each in their own individual box, while others had large and extremely heavy ones. Once a row was filled with transferred fossils, we moved on to the next row and repeated the process.

Photo of a man in a green shirt pushing a cart full of Pliocene whale ear bones (foreground), next to woman in overalls leaning against white cabinets.

Summer interns, Elizabeth Altier and Mark Reyes, moving a drawer full of Pliocene whale ear bones to new cabinetry.

Next Up: Rehousing. Now begins the task of rehousing the fossils using archival materials and boxes. This task will also help us look for and treat fossils in the collection that are suffering from Byne’s and pyrite disease, a subject for a future blog post.

Trish and I couldn’t have completed this new cabinetry installation without the help from these fine folks: Elizabeth Altier, Khai Button, Chilea Dickson, Madison Dillard, Mark Reyes, Lilly Ridley, Dick Webb, Michael Burch, Janet Edgerton, Jeremy Jones, Aaron Giterman, Lindsay Zanno, Lisa Herzog, Haviv Avrahami, David Button, Jason Bourke, and Jens Kosch. Thank you for all your help!

Lastly, if you or someone you know would like some old specimen cabinets let us know. We have approximately 98 cabinets left up for grabs. Email myself or Trish if you are interested.

This project, the Paleontology summer interns and the Paleontology Collections Technician are fund by a National Science Foundation: Collections in Support of Biological Research (NSF:CSBR) Grant to the Paleontology Unit at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences.

 

Solar Eclipse 2017, Great Cosmic Connection

August 31, 2017

It seems safe to say that nothing brings a nation together like a total solar eclipse. For the many months leading up to August 21, 2017, people across the United States geared up for what was for many a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to witness a total solar eclipse. For the first time in 99 years a total solar eclipse would cross the entire Continental US, giving Americans the rare chance to unite under a cosmic event.

We are lucky planetary voyagers on Earth, residents on, as far as we know, the only planet in our Solar System that, due to perfect geometry in the Sun-Earth-Moon, experiences a total eclipse of the Sun, enabling the Sun’s atmosphere — the solar corona — to glow outward from the disk of the Moon.

Like many others around the country, this was my first total solar eclipse, viewed from Sylva, North Carolina, a small mountainous town in Western NC, just within the 70-mile-wide swath of totality crossing from Oregon to South Carolina. Two multimedia staff facilitated our live-streaming of the event from the Southwestern Community College campus, enabling us to bring the experience of totality back to our Daily Planet Theater in Raleigh. (Raleigh experienced ~93% totality.)

Museum livestream set-up on the Southwestern Community College campus (Photo: Matt Zeher)

Museum livestream set-up on the Southwestern Community College campus (Photo: Matt Zeher)

The excitement leading up to the eclipse, the enormous generation of public interest and engagement made possible by social media and online news sites, was likely more than for any other celestial event, and a rare moment when astronomy and the cosmos can connect millions of eager people. Even as a scientist, I too marveled at the Moon’s on-schedule — to the second! — arrival at the edge of the Sun, precisely the time and place predicted by meticulous calculations of  astronomers throughout history.

Our team came equipped with multiple cameras and AV equipment, and a Hydrogen-Alpha solar telescope, through which all but the wavelengths for hydrogen are filtered, rendering the Sun a gleaming orange ball. With a good eye (and some magnification), solar prominences can be seen looking like “fuzz” along the edges of the Sun.

The Sun seen through our H-alpha solar telescope prior to the eclipse on Aug. 21, 2017. Solar prominences can be seen at ~11:00. The photo was taken with a Sony alpha-6000 against the eye piece. (Photo: R. Smith)

The Sun, seen through our H-alpha solar telescope prior to the eclipse on Aug. 21, 2017. Solar prominences can be seen at ~11:00 in the image above. The photo was taken with a Sony alpha-6000 against the eyepiece. (Photo: R. Smith)

As the Moon changed from a thin to an ever-larger black crescent creeping across the Sun’s surface, approaching inevitable totality, excitement was palpable in the gathered crowd.

partial_before2

Beginning of the eclipse at ~1:06 pm ET, as seen through a white-light filter. Sunspots are faintly visible along the midline of the Sun, and some clouds are seen darkening the solar surface. The photo was taken with a Sony alpha-6000 against the telescope eyepiece. (Photo: R. Smith)

In spite of the beautiful views of the encroaching eclipse through telescopes, approaching totality was evident in other, equally spectacular observations. Unusual crescents on the pavement and other surfaces, projected through the leaves of trees (nature’s pinhole cameras) appeared all around us. Some forward-thinking folks brought their own pinholes by way of colanders, cardboard boxes, or other contraptions, expanding the number of miniature eclipses — windows to our solar system — that surrounded our feet.

The partial eclipse projected onto the street through spaces in the leaves. (Photo: R. Smith)

The partial eclipse projected onto the street through spaces in the leaves. (Photo: R. Smith)

One of the most memorable observations was the dimming of the light to an eerie level, not quite like the light during twilight or dawn, but strange and unearthly. As the sky dimmed, the temperature started dropping (as much as 10 degrees or more!), and the shadows remained strangely sharp, unlike what one experiences with clouds or coming dusk. Crickets started chirping, and anecdotes of odd animal behavior were later reported by numerous observers across the country; a nearby friend reported that her little mules took naps during maximum eclipse, and local deer stood quietly in nearby fields. I wondered, what were my animals doing at 93% totality?

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I wonder, what did Giovanni, one of my little donkeys waiting back at home, think during the solar eclipse?

Strange dimming of the sky and surroundings just before totality in Sylva, NC. (Photo: R. Smith)

Strange dimming of the sky and surroundings just before totality in Sylva, NC. (Photo: R. Smith)

During those final seconds before totality, all looked skyward with eclipse glasses on, waiting for the view to grow dark, that long awaited moment when we could remove our safety measures and peek with our unaided eyes at the Sun itself. Clouds seemed to hover nearby but didn’t encroach on the view from where we stood, giving way to arguably the most spectacular natural phenomenon I have ever personally witnessed. The sky was a dark blue/black and the Sun hovered like a jewel, its atmosphere — the solar corona — streaming magnificently outward. It was like peeking beyond our own protected planet to something cosmic and awesome, a connection to the universe beyond.

No regrets remain for taking a few seconds from looking up to snap this view of the total eclipse, taken with a Sony alpha-6000. (Photo: R. Smith)

No regrets remain for taking a few seconds from looking up to snap this view of the total eclipse, taken with a Sony alpha-6000. (Photo: R. Smith)

Equally striking was the sense of planetary connectedness that extended beyond just the personal viewing of an amazing cosmic event. The sharing of images and experiences across the nation just after the eclipse, and continuing to now more than a week past the event, seemed particularly unusual in its single shared viewpoint: the total solar eclipse was spectacular, and even those who experienced the partial eclipse could feel part of a larger community of onlookers. There were no discernible alternate sides to the singular sentiment that this was a phenomenon not to be forgotten.

View of the total solar eclipse from Sylva, NC. The solar corona shines outward from the eclipsed disk of the Sun, and the pink of solar prominences from the Sun's chromosphere are visible (Photo: Matt Zeher)

View of the total solar eclipse from Sylva, NC. The solar corona shines outward from the eclipsed disk of the Sun, and the pink of solar prominences from the Sun’s chromosphere are visible (Photo: Matt Zeher)

Like no other natural phenomenon I can recall, this total solar eclipse connected us to our star, our solar system, our environment, our communities, and (this time) to a uniquely American experience. At ~ 2 minutes in length, we are further reminded of the dynamic nature of the planets, how they are not static orbs hanging fixed in space but rather move in specified orbits about the Sun, with moons that in turn orbit their home planets. We are rarely able to witness this directly, simply by looking up, but rather do so by more indirect connections to the cosmos, such as day-to-night regularity, seasons, and the occasional meteor or comet passing by.

During the total eclipse, we see the entirety of the Moon and Sun passing each other, cosmic travelers themselves. As the eclipse passes, dropping a seemingly alien veil on our planet for a moment, we are reminded that the comfortable habitability of Earth is the lucky result of being in the perfect spot in space, and it is fleeting.

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The Museum’s live stream of the total solar eclipse can be seen anytime by visiting our livestream link.

Radical Re-Boxing!

August 10, 2017

Written by Chilea Dickson

This summer I had the wonderful opportunity to be an intern for the Paleontology Unit at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, a program funded by an National Science Foundation: Collections in Support of Biological Research (NSF: CSBR) grant. Throughout this phenomenal period of time, we re-boxed plenty of fossils.

Photo of many fossil mollusks in non-archival boxes

Multiple fossil mollusks in their original non-archival boxes

Why do we re-box fossils?

Re-boxing is done to help better preserve fossils. It consists of a few steps. First, the fossil was carefully removed from the original box. Next, the box was checked with a pH marker; a small mark is made on the inside of the box. If the mark was purple then the box was archival, and the fossil could remain in the original box.

Photo of a mollusk fossil in a non-archival box with a pH testing pen beside it.

A small fossil in its original non-archival box with the pH testing pen beside it.

However, if the mark turned brown, then the box was not archival. In this case, the specimen needed to be re-housed into an archival box. Archival, meaning that the boxes are acid-free. It’s good to be in an acid-free box because otherwise acids from the box could react with the specimens causing them to deteriorate. Some fossils were boxed together with the same catalog number on one label. But, some fossils were housed together with many labels with many different numbers which were paper clipped together and put in the same box.

Photo of many mollusk fossils in a blue non-archival box with many labels paperclipped together.

This is a non-archival box which contained several fossils with several labels. These specimens needed to be separated and individually re-boxed.

These fossils needed to be separated into different archival boxes. One time I had to separate a box of many fossils into 83 different boxes! This task was tedious (to say the least) and took about two hours! But, it was very rewarding when I finished!

Photo of several small mollusks separated into individual box by catalog number and re-housed into archival boxes.

All of these specimens were originally in one box. Here they are individually separated by catalog number. Look at all the boxes! They fill almost an entire drawer!

The extremely interesting thing about this process was that I got to not only view, but also handle hundreds of fossils, which if it had not been for this unique experience I never would have seen! Actually being “behind the scenes” of the museum, how amazing is that!

Photo of a woman's hand, a label and a fossil mollusk.

This shows me matching up the catalog number with the label prior to putting the fossil into a new archival box.

It truly puts into perspective how extraordinary this world is and how there are so many amazing things out there already known and so many more waiting to be discovered! You never know what you may find or encounter!

Photo of several small mollusk specimens with individual labels in multiple archival boxes.

The result of separating several small mollusk specimens which were originally in one box with multiple labels!

“Breath-Taking” Brachiopods

July 13, 2017

Written by Chilea Dickson, Paleontology Summer Intern

As a biology major at Shaw University, I was very eager to participate in the NSF funded Paleontology internship at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences. Coinciding with my study of living organisms, I was able to step beyond the “grave” to see the history of the living through paleontology, which is the study of fossils. Paleontology has always been a fascination of mine, however, I have not had any exposure to it. But this was my opportunity! The first day of my internship, I was introduced to brachiopods (which I had never even heard of before!)

Photo of a brachiopod

Looks like a clam right?! Wrong! It’s a beautiful brachiopod!

What is a brachiopod?

Photo of a brachiopod

Look at the very intricate design of this fascinating creature!

Brachiopods are the only members of the phylum Brachiopoda and are a clade of protostomes, meaning the mouth develops before the anus in the embryonic state. Brachiopods look similar to clams, but their anatomy is quite different. Brachiopods have hard shells, with two unequally sized valves. The larger valve is the pedicle valve and the smaller is the brachial valve.

Photo of a brachiopod showing the two unequally-sized valves.

Notice how the pedicle valve overlaps the brachial valve.

Their shells are hinged at the back end, while the front area can be opened for feeding, or it can remain closed, for protection. Brachiopods have a fleshy stalk at their back end called a “pedicle” which is used to attach to a substrate.

Photo of an extant brachiopod showing a fleshy stalk (upper center) known as a pedicle.

An extant brachiopod. The lovely structure that looks similar to a tail is actually the pedicle. This specimen is part of the NCSM’s Non-Molluscan Invertebrate Collection.

These marine organisms were abundant in the Paleozoic era (about 251-542 million years ago). Brachiopods, though less common, are still around today. But think about how long these animals have been around and what they might have lived through. Wow! Brachiopods bring a whole new meaning to “survival of the fittest!”

Photo of two Paleozoic brachiopods

Brachiopods were around before dinosaurs!!!

Chilea Dickson’s internship is funded by a National Science Foundation Collections in Support of Biological Research  (NSF/CSBR) grant to the Paleontology Unit at the North Carolina  Museum of Natural Sciences.

Cabinets and Cameras

July 11, 2017

Written by Mark Reyes, Paleontology Summer Intern

As an Environmental Science major at North Carolina Central University, what better way to start my future professional career than by getting a head start as an intern at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences. Over the course of two months, I’ve had the opportunity to work alongside some of the best paleontologists in the state. Every week, for three days, two other interns and I would move drawers and boxes of various fossil bones, shells, rocks, and even dinosaur poop from old cabinets and into new cabinets. Sometimes cabinets also had to be moved. Usually this process involved a lot of strenuous muscle activity similar to a day at the gym doing crossfit.

Image of three people moving specimens. Two women are standing on ladder (left and center), one man is sitting on top of the cabinets

Moving drawers and specimens often included going up on ladders to reach top cabinets that either needed to be filled or emptied. Chilea Dixon (left), Elizabeth Altier (middle), and Jacob Van Veldhuizen, Paleontology Collections Technician (top right).

My internship wasn’t just about reboxing, or moving never-ending drawers of unorganized fish vertebrae (enough for pescatarians to go vegan), we also had the opportunity of photographing fossils from collections and turning them into 3D models for the museum’s website at the Natural Research Center (NRC), just a bridge away from the “old’ part of the museum (NEC).

Photo of a drawer full of fossil fish vertebrae in boxes

Drawer after drawer of Tetradontidae Osteichthyes (fish) vertebrae had to be moved and/or re-boxed. Most of them were unorganized or had multiple specimen cards with their assigned fossil in a single box. These fossils had to be re-boxed individually which would take up an enormous amount of time.

One of the tasks assigned to us paleontology interns was to turn fossil photos into a virtual 3D models. Taking pictures involved making sure to get just the right amount of light and that the image is focused on the fossil. Sometimes this wasn’t easy, especially for small tooth specimens. Teeth are hard to capture because they are small and because they reflect a lot of light. Because of this we had to change the backdrop to a baby blue color and we had to cover the tooth with baby powder. This proved much more successful than using a black backdrop.  Taking photos of these fossils required what looks like a miniature makeshift photo studio placed in front of a camera where the fossil is turned multiple times to get all angles. After making sure each angle of the specimen has been captured, the next step was to transfer photos to the computer where the process of editing and 3D modeling takes place.

Image of a man with beard (right), using a computer to make a 3D model of a fossil plant.

Resident graduate student, Khai Button at the Paleontology Lab at the Natural Research Center (NRC) working on a 3D model of a plant fossil (Annularia) using PhotoScan Pro.

Using Photoscan Pro (the computer programs that creates the models) was not easy, but eventually through much trial and error (enough to drive my supervisor nuts!) most of the 3D models turned out well. The process involved masking and editing pictures from “chunks”, (different angles of the specimen) and applying markers to create a polished virtual version of the fossil. 2D images will then be downloaded onto the museum’s website. Pictures and information of specific fossils can be accessed here by using key information such as a specimen number and/or other information such as genus.

In June we had a new shipment of cabinets come in. We used pallet jacks to transfer full and half cabinets from one floor to another. In the weeks following, we moved several cabinets, drawers, and fossil specimens around while splitting other responsibilities such as photo taking and re-boxing each week.Somewhere along the way we ran out of small boxes, and it didn’t make sense to transfer a small, individual fossils into a large box that would take up too much space in a drawer. After these small boxes ran out, we had to eventually halt re-boxing. However, this did not prevent our supervisors from finding things to keep us occupied.

Image of two fossil clam shells in a white archival box with label

A specimen of Raeta plicatella in its archival box. Specimens such as this had to be transferred into customized boxes. By marking the boxes with a pH indicator box we can determine whether these boxes are acid-free. A purple mark indicates an archival box while a brown mark indicates a non-archival box.

As I am writing this blog, my fellow interns and me are now filling our time by attending staff meetings and museum-related tours. The museum hosted a series of lecture meetings throughout the summer. The primary focus of these weekly meetings was to find better ways to communicate science to the general public. Open to interns and the staff, such meetings included how to talk to the media and how to communicate science to elected officials and policy makers. The museum also hosted a geology tour around downtown Raleigh and a dinosaur tour over at the NRC.

Although museum-related activities were fun and oftentimes very insightful, our supervisors were not necessarily paying us (well, some of us) for this time outside of collections and the paleontology lab. So new tasks such as identifying specimens and cleaning shells of Byne’s disease have been added to our list of duties. Taking pictures however, is still one our main priorities.

Image of three people working in a lab, cleaning and labeling fossil clams.

Mark (right), Elizabeth (left) and Chilea (background) diligently dealing with Byne’s Disease

Reflecting back on this whole internship experience, I can’t help but be thankful for the opportunity that was given to me. It was quite nostalgic to be surrounded by fossil specimens of every kind and to be around paleontologists and specialists of other scientific backgrounds.

As an environmental science major at NCCU, and an aspiring ornithologist, I deeply appreciate the work of scientists, more so than before I started my internship. I learned through cabinets and cameras, that the scientists I’ve come across here at the museum were once annoying students and interns too.

Photo of a man holding a sign that says "Paleontology North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences) standing next to a skull of a dinosaur

I am a senior at NCCU getting my degree in Environmental GeoScience. I plan to stretch my academic career to become an ornithologist someday. Thank you to the Natural Science Museum and the amazing crew at the Paleontology department. I still often wonder why you guys hired a short Filipino kid with little muscle strength to move heavy cabinets around. It was still worth it. 🙂

Mark Reyes’ Internship is funded through a National Science Foundation Collections in Support of Biological Research (NSF/CSBR) grant to the Paleontology Unit at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences.

Things to do when your kid likes rocks.

July 1, 2017

You’ve just entered that stage of parenthood where your offspring is developing strong interests in scientific topics. And that topic is rocks and minerals. What to do? There aren’t any shots for it. I know.

It’s a good thing to encourage. Geology is the perfect gateway into the physical sciences. College students take geology to avoid biology, chemistry, and physics, only to discover that geology is all of those and more. The science of geology is very interdisciplinary, so it has a lot of polymath types who have a wide range of interests. If your child is good at more than one thing, the Earth Sciences are probably a good match. Even better, the geosciences require good three-dimensional visualization skills. So does Art. If you have a young artist with a liking for the sciences, Geology is right where they would fit in best.

There are lots of family outings in North Carolina for the whole family. We have a terrific State Parks system that covers the whole state. Best of all, there are books on the geology of the parks to help. Kevin Stewart and Mary-Russell Roberson put together Exploring the Geology of the Carolinas: A Field Guide to Favorite Places from Chimney Rock to Charleston. Kevin Stewart, is a professor at UNC, and the science is well explained. Free guidebooks  are available to download as pdf files from the Carolina Geological Society. There’s a good chance that an area near you is covered. CGS meets once a year for a field trip and banquet, and the membership is open to anyone.

If you would rather go collecting minerals, there are a lot of clubs in the state just for that purpose. If you are local to Raleigh and Wake County, there is the Tarheel Gem and Mineral Club. North Carolina’s other big cities have gem and mineral clubs as well, Winston-Salem and Forsythe County, Greensboro, and Charlotte. Kids will need to have an adult with them out on a collecting trip. In addition to meetings with speakers and trips for collecting, the gem and mineral clubs usually have a yearly show.

Gem and minerals shows are always an event. Most have minerals specimens and fossils for sale, as well as beads and jewelry. The next big one is in Franklin, NC at the end of this month (July, 2017). The following week is the Spruce Pine, NC show. The Tar Heel Gem and Mineral Club holds a big show the first weekend in April. If you keep an eye on the schedule, there are other shows at the North Carolina State Fairgrounds a couple of times a year.

And did I forget to mention museums? The Schiele Museum in Gastonia is opening a new and updated Earth Science exhibit hall . You can watch for updates at their main page (click here).  On the Blue Ridge Parkway is the Museum of North Carolina Minerals near Spruce Pine, always a fun stop. The local Chamber of Commerce has information there to help you find the commercial gem panning operations, too. The Colburn Earth Science Museum in Asheville has a new location, new exhibits, and a new name, the Asheville Museum of Science. Their wonderful mineral exhibits are still there, in the Colburn Hall of Minerals.

And, of course, the oldest of these is the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences. Come see us first.

Next blog: gifts and prezzies for your geologist-in-the-making.

Bogoslof Volcano

June 19, 2017

You may (or may not) have noticed that I have been absent from the R&C blogs for quite some time. What can I say? I had cancer surgery in December of 2014, which caused it to snow and delay my escape departure from the hospital. Back surgery for a major broken disc took place barely a year later, which also caused it to snow. I tore a rotator cuff the day of back surgery. That was repaired about 8 weeks later, well into the springtime to prevent further snowing. Then a second rotator cuff surgery about three months later, when the original repair popped loose. Sometime about August of 2016, I realized that I had been taking pain killers for more of 2016 than I had been without them. Any blog I might have written would have been pretty random.

One symptom of rotator cuff tears is that it keeps you awake. Pain is bigger at night. That’s when I started reading Twitter. Late at night, 140 characters are just about right for reading material. If you’re full of pain killers and muscle relaxers. And if you can only use your left hand because your good hand is in a sling.

Much of my Twitter feed is geologist friends, and scientific societies like the American Geophysical Union and the Geological Society of America . The ones I follow most closely are from the United States Geological Survey- the volcano observatories and the seismic alert network. Yes, kids, that’s entertainment to me, perhaps more of an anti-social media than social media. Other people follow actors and actresses, or comedians, or political figures, but I’d rather know what’s shaking and blowing up.

My Twitter feed has been full of the eruption of Bogoslof volcano, a 6,000 foot tall edifice, of which only 200-300 ft. peeks out above sea level. It was named by Russians when it surfaced during an eruption in 1796. There’s lots of Russian names scattered through the Aleutian Islands because they were first explored by Vitus Bering, a Danish cartographer serving Tsar Peter I. The Bering Sea and Bering Straits were his greatest hits.

Geologists are interested because the Aleutians are an island arc, explosive volcanoes that form over a subduction zone. During tectonic collisions, island arcs are jammed onto the edges of continents. It’s one way the continents get bigger.

NC map2

Volcanic island arc rocks of the Carolina Terrane are shown in blue-green. Pink shows granite about 300 million years old, and dark brown shows Triassic Basins. Dark blue is the edge of North America, and gray is terranes that may or may not be North America.

North Carolina’s own Carolina Terrane is one example. It collided with North America about 450 million years ago. It’s of interest to geologists and everyone else as the real estate where most of North Carolina’s gold is found.

At iris.edu, you can use the 3D seismic viewer  to look at the downgoing oceanic slab north of the trench. To find Bogoslof, first find the Okmok Caldera (classic volcanic mountain with circlular hole on top) on northern Umnak Island. Bogoslof is north of that. On the next island east, Unalaska, you can follow the outlet of the Makushin Bay west to Bogoslof. It works best if you pick a high number of earthquakes, press “Apply”, then push the “3D view” button. With the mouse, you can “grab” the S (for South) and flip it up and rotate it.

Aleutian earthquakes

Looking below the surface at the earthquakes shown above. Light blue line is, again, the deep trench. Away from the trench, earthquakes accompany the oceanic crust as it dives back into the mantle. The islands in white are volcanoes above this subduction zone. Graphic created with the 3D Seismic Viewer, Iris.edu.

Earthquakes mark the top of the slab. As it descends, it releases water that causes melting, and the melt migrates to the surface as magma. The slab in this area is very steep, so the line of volcanic islands is fairly narrow.  Volcanoes are basically a pipeline to return water and carbon dioxide to the surface.

The excitement started on 16 December of 2016, although when they looked back, unrest started earlier in the month. Since then, there have been more than 40 explosive eruptions.  One big burp of sulfur dioxide gas was followed by satellite from Alaska to Nebraska.

Bogoslof volcano is fun because it’s so far away from anything that it’s only monitored remotely. It has to be monitored, because it can blow ash high enough that the cloud can disrupt airline traffic. Ash clogs the jet engines, then melts in place so that the engine is dead. Volcanic gasses tend to be very acidic, which isn’t exactly the cure for engine trouble. Finally, all the windshields get sandblasted. So the Alaska Volcano Observatory (AVO) pulls out all the stops. Seismic, satellite, infrared, infrasound, lightning detection, and a few pictures taken from Alaska Airlines flights or Coast Guard boats. Much of this is available online, so you can track as the island is blown up and rebuilt on a weekly or daily basis.

May eruption Bogoslof Island

Remote sensing of a Bogoslof eruption. Seismic shaking and infrasound (low frequency, below human hearing) of the May 8 eruption. Seismic data shows what happens below the ground, and infrasound what happens above. Lightning is the result of ash particles rubbing together. Graphic courtesy of Alaska Volcano Observatory, credit John Lyons.

It easy to remember that the Year Without Summer, 1816, was the result of the eruption of island arc volcano Mount Tambora. Volcanic aerosols lowered global temperatures enough to cause worldwide famine and crop failures. Farmers in North Carolina suffered poor crops, but farther north and at higher elevations, there were no crops. I suppose I watch volcanic eruptions for the same reason people watch weather forecasts.

Volcanic eruptions are good for the spirit, too. They remind me that the Earth is alive, living on a time scale much different from the regimented days and weeks of human time. The Earth’s clock creeps and jerks erratically, but there is always lots of time. Plenty of time. That’s a good thing to remember. There’s always something going on, especially when you’re stuck in bed, flat on your back.