Sunday, 14 May 2017

Magnitude 5.4 Earthquake in western Xinjiang Province, China, kills at least eight.

The United States Geological Survey recorded a Magnitude 5.4 Earthquake at a depth of 10.0 km in the Pamir Mountains of western Xinjiang Province, China, close to the borders with Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan, slightly before 6.00 am local time on Thursday 11 May 2017 (slightly before 9.00 pm on Wednesday 10 May, GMT). At least eight people are known to have died following this event, with another eleven injured and over 3000 houses destroyed.

Damage following the 10 May 2017 Xinjiang Earthquake. Xinhua.

The Pamir Mountains lie to the north of the boundary between the Indian and Eurasian tectonic plates, which runs through northern Afghanistan. The Indian Plate is moving northward relative to the Eurasian Plate, causing folding and uplift along this boundary, which has led to the formation of the Hindu Kush Mountains of Afghanistan, The Pamirs in Tajikistan, the Himalayas and the other mountain ranges of Central Asia., and which makes the nations in this boundary zone prone to Earthquakes.
 The approximate location of the 10 May 2017 Xinjiang Earthquake. USGS.

Witness accounts of Earthquakes can help geologists to understand these events, and the structures that cause them. The international non-profit organisation Earthquake Report is interested in hearing from people who may have felt this event; if you felt this quake then you can report it to Earthquake Report here.

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Zuul crurivastator: A new and exceptionally well preserved Ankylosaur from the Late Cretaceous Judith River Formation of northern Montana.

The Ankylosaurids were large armoured Dinosaurs from the Cretaceous of Europe, Asia and North America. Their bodies were encased in heavy armour forming an effective shell and they had large bony clubs on the ends of their tails. They are believed to have been entirely herbivorous, and had beak-like mouths, occasionally with residual teeth. Despite the extensive armour of the Ankylosaurids, which gives them excellent preservational potential, complete skeletons of these Dinosaurs are rare, hampering our understanding of the group.

In a paper published in the journal Royal Society Open Science on 10 May 2017, Victoria Arbour and David Evans of the Department of Palaeobiology at the Royal Ontario Museum and the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Toronto, describe a new and exceptionally well preserved Ankylosaurid Dinosaur from the Late Cretaceous Judith River Formation of Hill County in Montana.

The Judith River Formation was laid down between 75 and 80 million years ago on what was then a coastal plain on the Bear Paw Sea coast of the island of Laramida, and is now northern Montana. It is roughly equivalent in age to the Oldman and Dinosaur Park formations of southern Alberta and the Two Medicine Formation of Montana. These strata have been excavated for Dinosaur remains since the early nineteenth century, though the majority of material produced from the Judith River Formation has been fragmentary in nature.

The new Dinosaur is named Zuul crurivastator, where 'Zuul' refers to 'Zuul the Gatekeeper' a monster in the 1984 film Ghostbusters, and 'crurivastator' means 'destroyer of shins' in Latin, in reference to the large tail-club of the specimen. The species is described from a single specimen located during the excavation of a Tyraosaurus specimen by a commercial fossil extraction company and later acquired by the Royal Ontario Museum. The specimen comprises two blocks recovered from the overturned above the Tyranosaurus specimen (i.e. material that was removed because it was above that specimen), one containing the head and torso and the other the tail.. The specimen had been exposed prior to discovery and was partially eroded away, nevertheless it appears to be fairly complete (it has not yet been completely extracted from the rock matrix) with an almost complete skull and some soft tissue preservation.

Well-preserved skull and jaws of Zuul crurivastator showing quality of preservation. Arbour & Evans (2017).

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Saturday, 13 May 2017

Asteroid 2017 JV1 passes the Earth.

Asteroid 2017 JV1 passed by the Earth at a distance of  899 400 km (2.33 times the average distance between the Earth and the Moon, 0.60% of the average distance between the Earth and the Sun), slightly before 9.10 pm GMT on Monday 8 May 2017. There was no danger of the asteroid hitting us, though had it done so it would have presented no threat. 2017 JV1 has an estimated equivalent diameter of 11-34 m (i.e. it is estimated that a spherical object with the same volume would be 11-34 m in diameter), and an object of this size would be expected to explode in an airburst (an explosion caused by superheating from friction with the Earth's atmosphere, which is greater than that caused by simply falling, due to the orbital momentum of the asteroid) in the atmosphere between 30 and 15 km above the ground, with only fragmentary material reaching the Earth's surface.

 The calculated orbit of 2017 JV1. Minor Planet Center.

2017 JV1 was discovered on 3 May 2017 (five days before its closest approach to the Earth) by the University of Arizona's Mt. Lemmon Survey at the Steward Observatory on Mount Lemmon in the Catalina Mountains north of Tucson. The designation 2017 JV1 implies that the asteroid was the 46th object (object V1) discovered in the first half of May 2017 (period 2017 J). 

2017 JV1 has a 853 day orbital period and an eccentric orbit tilted at an angle of 10.8° to the plane of the Solar System, which takes it from 0.94 AU from the Sun (i.e. 94% of he average distance at which the Earth orbits the Sun) to 2.58 AU from the Sun (i.e. 258% of the average distance at which the Earth orbits the Sun, considerably over twice the distance at which the planet Mars orbits the Sun). It is therefore classed as an Apollo Group Asteroid (an asteroid that is on average further from the Sun than the Earth, but which does get closer). This means that close encounters between the asteroid and Earth are common, with the last having occurred in April 2003.

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Neopalpa donaldtrumpi: A new species of Twirler Moth from California and Baja California.

The Gnorimoschemini are a group of Twirler Moths, Gelechiidae, are found across much of North America. They are small Moths, with narrow, fringed wings, the larvae of which feed internally on their host plants, sometimes forming galls; many species being considered to be agricultural pests. The genus Neopalpa is known from a single species, Neopalpa neonata, which was originally described from Santa Catalina Island off the coast of California, but has since been found on the North American mainland, as far east as Arizona and south to Baja California Sur.

In a paper published in the journal ZooKeys on 17 January 2017, Vazrick Nazari from Ottawa, Canada, describes a new species of Neopalpa from southern California in the US and Baja California Norte in Mexico.

The new species is named Neopalpa donaldtrumpi, in honour of the 45th President of the United States, who was sworn in on 20 January 2017, in reference to a distinctive pattern of enlarged yellow-white scales on the front of the head, which resembles Mr Trump’s hairstyle. Males of this species reached 3.0-4.6 mm in length, with the single known female measuring 4.3 mm. The moth’s are distinguished from the other species in the genus by the orange-yellow colour of the forewings and the absence of an enlarged bilobed vinculum (penis-like structure) on the male genetalia. 

Neopalpa donaldtrumpi, from Imperial County in Mexico. Left: lateral aspect, right: frontal aspect. Scale bar 1 mm. Nazari (2017).

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Thursday, 11 May 2017

Section of beach closed off following cliff collapse at Barton-on-Sea, England.

A section of beach at Barton-on-Sea in Hampshire on the southern English coast has been closed to the public after a section of cliff collapsed onto it on Tuesday 9 May 2017. A section of cliff about one meter wide and twenty meters long at the Barton-on-Sea Golf Club is understood to have given way at about 5.30 pm British Summertime, and the beach has been closed after geologists from New Forest District Council raised concerns that further landslips were likely. Despite the warnings, a number of people have been sighted at the base of the cliffs since the warning was put into place, almost certainly looking for fossils which are commonly exposed on the cliffs following such events.

The scene of the 9 May 2017 Barton-on-Sea landslip. New Forest District Council.

Landslips are often associated with wet weather, as high levels of rainfall can cause soft sediments to become waterlogged and lose cohesion, but in this case the reverse is thought ot be the case; a long period of dry weather has caused the sandstone to dry out and become friable. Rainfall is predicted for the area in the next week, though this is not thought likely to solve the problem; adding water to the now losened sediments is likely to result in further cliff collapses.

Barton-on-Sea is noted for its numerous fossils, particularly Shark's teeth and Gastropods, and is considered to be a good fossil-hunting site for all the family, due to the ease of finding fossils on the foreshore. The fossils come from the Late Eocene Barton Formation (about 36 million years old), which outcrops on the cliffs, allowing fossils to fall to the beach below. The location is a designated Site of Special Scientific Interest, which means fossils may be collected from the beach, but hammering or other excavation work on the cliffs is strictly forbidden. This means that, asat many other fossil-producing cliffs, landslips are of particular interest to fossil collectors, as this is the time when new material becomes available.

A fossil Gastropod from Barton-on-Sea. UK Fossils Network.

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Wednesday, 10 May 2017

Magnitude 5.4 Earthquake off the northeast coast of Guam.

The United States Geological Survey recorded a Magnitude 5.4 Earthquake at a depth of 125 km about 2 km off the northwest coast of the island of Guam, a US possession in the Mariana Islands, slightly after 5.50 am local time on Wednesday 10 May 2017, local time (slightly after 7.50 pm on Tuesday 9 May, GMT). There are no reports of any casualties this event, though people have reported feeling the event across much of the northern part of the island.

The approximate location of the 23 April 2017 Guam Earthquake. USGS.

The volcanic Mariana Islands are located on the eastern margin of the Philippine Plate, close to its margin with the Pacific Plate. The Pacific Plate is being subducted beneath the Philippine Plate along the Mariana Trench. This is not a smooth process, an the plates constantly stick together then break apart again as the pressure builds up, resulting in Earthquakes.

Simplified diagram of the subduction of the Pacific Plate beneath the Philippine plate, and how this fuels the volcanos of the Mariana Islands. NOAA Ocean Explorer.

Witness accounts of quakes can help geologists to understand these events and the rock structures that cause them. If you felt this quake (or if you were in the area but did not, which is also useful information) you can report it to the USGS here.

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Comet C/2015 ER61 (PANSTARRS) reaches perihelion.

Comet C/2015 ER61 (PANSTARRS) will reach its perihelion (the closest point on its orbit to the Sun) on Wednesday 10 January 2017, when it will be approximately 1.04 AU from the Sun (i.e. 104% of the distance between the Earth and the Sun, slightly outside the Earth;s orbit), though it will not be particularly close to us, being about 90° ahead of us on the Earth's orbit. The comet will be in the constellation of Pisces seen from the Earth, though it will not be naked eye visible.

Composite image of Comet C/2015 ER61 (PANSTARRS) composed from nine 60-second exposure images of the object taken with the TENEGRA III Telescope at he Tenegra Observatory in Arizona on 7 April 2017. Gianluca Masi/Virtual Telescope/Michael Swartze/Tenegra Observatory.

C/2015 ER61 (PANSTARRS) was discovered on 15 March 2015 by the University of Hawaii's PANSTARRS telescope. The name C/2015 ER61 (PANSTARRS) implies that it is a non-periodic comet (C/) (all comets are, strictly speaking, periodic since they all orbit the Sun, but those with periods longer than 200 years are considered to be non-periodic), that it was the 1542nd comet (comet R61) discovered in the first half of March 2015 (period 2015 E), and that it was  discovered by the PANSTARRS telescope.

The calculated orbit of C/2015 ER61 (PANSTARRS) . The Sky Live/3D Solar System Simulator.

C/2015 ER61 (PANSTARRS) has a 7591 year period and a highly eccentric orbit tilted at an angle of 6.35° to the plain of the Solar System, that brings it to 1.04 AU from the Sun at perihelion and to 2456 AU (2456 times as far from the Sun as the Earth) at aphelion. This is 253 times as far from the Sun as the planet Neptune, and 152 times as far from the Sun as the outer edge of the Kuiper Belt, but still only touching the inner boundary of the Oort Cloud.

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