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Detecting Quakes With Smartphones, How Waterfalls Grow, And More

Detecting Quakes With Smartphones, How Waterfalls Grow, And More

A view from the 2012 fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union


Earth and planetary science covers such a wide range of topics, which is why the fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union was so interesting.

Thursday, December 13, 2012 - 19:45

Chris Gorski, Editor

(Inside Science) -- Earth and planetary science covers such a wide range of topics, from the exploration of space, to the history of the Earth's climate, to the effect of animals on the landscape. That's part of why the fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union, held last week in San Francisco, was so interesting.

The meeting featured over 22,000 abstracts -- thousands of posters, talks and other presentations for each of the meeting's five days. For the first four days, I feverishly gathered as much info as I could, but only encountered a tiny fraction of the event's offerings. I majored in geology in college, so I must admit an affinity for these subject areas. 

More related stories from the meeting will appear in Inside Science News Service in the coming weeks. What follows below is a summary of some of the meeting's most exciting and interesting research.

Detecting Earthquakes Using Smartphone Data: Qingkai Kong from the University of California, Berkeley, discussed the exciting, but complicated practice of detecting seismic activity using data from smartphones. His project used the smartphone's accelerometer -- the same kind of sensor phones use to detect motion and make sure the screen is properly oriented for viewing. Kong discussed the complicated process needed to remove all the noise embedded in the sensor data, so that their efforts can separate the motion due to earthquakes from motion associated with other causes, such as riding the bus or walking. At this point, his efforts have generated the ability to record earthquakes that occurred within 10 kilometers of a phone's location and were larger than magnitude 5.

The Future of The Environment: I attended a session on Wednesday that featured an unprintable title, along with many members of the media (and scientists, too, of course). Here's a description of several media accounts of the session and its content. Perhaps the most interesting thing said in the same session came from the previous speaker, Peter Haff, from Duke University, who discussed several scenarios -- more than one was pretty pessimistic if you enjoy the outdoors -- that the future of the natural world might follow. He called technology a universal acid. "It dissolves everything it comes into contact with, including nature," he said in his talk.

Waterfalls That Grow: In some places geological processes actually build land on top of water features, said Norihiro Izumi from Hokkaido University. This includes Yellowstone National Park and a hot springs in Turkey. The talk discussed the beautiful Plitvice Lakes in Croatia, where limestone has grown to build a series of natural terraces. Izumi described his mathematical model for the evolution of this feature. He explained that moss and the bacteria in its roots work together to grow and secrete limestone in areas of fast flowing shallow water. New moss grows atop its fossilized predecessors, moving horizontally and vertically, with the result being today's linked chain of 17 lakes separated by waterfalls.

After seeing those presentations and many more as part of a week full of listening, interviewing and writing, it was off to the airport and back to Inside Science HQ. 

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Chris Gorski

Chris Gorski is an Editor for Inside Science and runs the Sports beat. Follow him on twitter at @c_gorski.