December freelance writings: From Iceland to Mars, simultaneous wildfires, and white Christmases

In case you missed them, here’s a few pieces I’ve recently written and published for Hakai magazine and Inside Science. Thanks as usual to my excellent editors. I’m only posting brief excerpts here, so if you’re interested, please check out the whole thing using the links below.

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The Search for Life on Mars Begins in Iceland

NASA is sending a rover to Mars in 2020 to look for signs of life. To know which signs to look for, scientists are studying geothermal sites in coastal Iceland.

Photo courtesy: Sarah Black

On a misty day near Reykjavik, on Iceland’s west coast, Bethany Ehlmann hiked along the edge of the fjord Hvalfjörður. Nestled between the steep cliffs and vertical veins of lava, she found what she was searching for: a rock with signs that showed water once flowed here.

The marks in the rock were subtle—little more than speckles and banding—but they suggested much more than the presence of an ancient trickle of water. They were earthly clues that would help Ehlmann, a planetary scientist and geologist at the California Institute of Technology, better understand the conditions in which life may have arisen on Earth. And, potentially, on Mars.

Before Mars became the frigid, inhospitable desert it is today, scientists think it looked a lot like coastal Iceland. Modern Iceland’s iron-rich rocks, glaciers, volcanoes, and hot springs reflect conditions on Mars more than three billion years ago. This makes Iceland a great trial ground for upcoming missions to Mars, including that of the Mars 2020 rover. Set to launch in 2020, this mission will, among other things, search for evidence of extraterrestrial life…

[Read the entire piece in Hakai magazine, published on 12 December.]


Simultaneous Blazes, Like California’s Camp and Woolsey Fires, Have Become the New Normal

It’s now more common to see multiple giant wildfires burning at once, straining firefighting resources, scientists say.

Just a few weeks ago, two large wildfires caused massive destruction and at least 91 deaths in California, the Woolsey fire near Los Angeles and the Camp fire that engulfed the town of Paradise in the north. Residents and firefighters struggled to stop both fires, yet they can expect more like them to come.

Simultaneous large fires are becoming more common throughout the continental United States, according to new research presented by Alison Cullen today at the Society for Risk Analysis conference in New Orleans. The trend puts a strain on resources and will put more people living in wildland areas in danger.

“The reason we care about simultaneity is because when you have multiple fires at once, there’s so much demand and competition for the personnel who are going to fight fires or try to manage them and where they and their equipment will be sent,” said Cullen, an environmental policy scientist at the University of Washington in Seattle…

[Read the entire piece in Inside Science, published on 3 December.]


What Are the Chances of a White Christmas?

The probability of a snowy Christmas in any location depends on lots of factors — including the effects of climate change.

Many Americans have fond memories of spying a blanket of snow out the window on Christmas morning. But now even those living in or near the mountains could find their chances of a snowy holiday dropping.

Some regions in the United States get snow pretty frequently, of course, while others do not. It’s possible to map out the odds that the residents of a place will experience a white Christmas, and those chances tend to be highest in Alaska and in the mountainous areas of the Western U.S., like in or near the Cascades, Rockies and Sierra Nevada, according to an analysis of daily meteorological data by Imke Durre and Michael Squires at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Asheville, North Carolina.

“These are places you associate with snow drifts,” Durre said. “But in New England and upstate New York, the probabilities are high but not 100 percent.” While those Northeastern regions might not be blessed with the study’s minimum standard of a 1-inch covering of snow in late December, she argues, they get more solid snow cover as winter goes on…

[Read the entire piece in Inside Science, published on 20 December.]

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