On a Small Island in Indonesia: The Last Dragons on Earth

Halfway across the Earth, nestled deep within the Indonesian archipelago, lie two small, tropical islands unlike any others on the planet. From the United States, it takes at least three planes, a boat, and a couple of days to get there. By the time you dock at the main pier on one of these islands, you realize that you’ve stepped foot into an entirely different world. There is no technology – no cell service, no internet, no cars; not even paved roads. It’s just you, a guide, and the wilderness around you. Continue reading “On a Small Island in Indonesia: The Last Dragons on Earth”

Piping Plovers: Conservation in Action

You may have heard that some little birds, the Piping Plovers, are making big waves at Montrose Beach this summer in Chicago, as well as other beaches around the country. Piping Plovers are federally endangered in the Great Lakes region, with only about 80 nesting pairs. A Jersey Shore concert series was canceled this year to protect a nest that was found in the area, and just the other day, they cancelled the summer music fest Mamby, which was scheduled to happen at Montrose Beach in late August. Why all the fuss over one species of shorebird?  Continue reading “Piping Plovers: Conservation in Action”

Liquid Rocks and Where to Find Them

Summer in Illinois can feel unbearably hot, but how hot is that exactly?  At 80ºF, Illinoisans can be found enjoying the sunshine and the reprieve from our winters.  At 100ºF, Chicagoans complain incessantly as cautionary heat warnings show up on billboards.  But what about, 200ºF?  Or 1000ºF?  These are the real extreme temperatures, and they are so hot that they literally melt rocks.  Believe it or not, parts of our very own planet heat up to these temperatures.  Continue reading “Liquid Rocks and Where to Find Them”

Be a Superhero with Biomimicry

Have you ever wanted to build a suit that gives you superhuman capabilities?  What would you do if you could store energy in the fabric of your clothes or had gloves with extra sticky fingertips that could help you climb buildings?  What if you had special silverware that told you the ingredients in a suspicious looking meal, or nail polish that changed color based on the presence of an air contaminant?   Continue reading “Be a Superhero with Biomimicry”

Why Chicago Set Records with Another Polar Vortex

For those of us here in Illinois, the end of January this year was mind-blowingly frigid. Wind chills dipped as low as minus 50-60 degrees Fahrenheit in parts of the upper Midwest, and in Chicago it was not much warmer than that. In fact, temperatures that week were substantially colder in the states along the Great Lakes than in the world’s northernmost permanent settlements on the island of Spitsbergen in Norway, where daylight will be returning this month for the first time since October. Whenever temperatures get lower than normal here in the US, there are many people (our president included) who question the existence of climate change. Continue reading “Why Chicago Set Records with Another Polar Vortex”

Gasping for Air in the Colorado Rockies

Last year, my friends and I went hiking in the awe-inspiring mountains in Denver, Colorado.  The five of us are all active people, but certainly not elite athletes. As we left the car and glanced out at the beginning of the trail, I thought, “That’s barely a mild incline; this will be easy.”  We grabbed our water bottles and set out for the first peak. But scarcely halfway to the first resting point, I began to gasp for air. I willed my quadriceps to keep pushing up the trail, but each step left me weary and feeling weak.  “How could I possible be this out of shape?” I wondered.  After training as a ballet dancer for 20+ years, I had considered myself reasonably physically fit, but this mountain was showing me otherwise.   Continue reading “Gasping for Air in the Colorado Rockies”

Never Mind the Ducks: Don’t Feed the Microbes!

You may have noticed signs that say “Don’t feed the ducks!” when walking in local parks with ponds or lakes.  While you may be tempted to feed the cute wild animals, you generally understand why you shouldn’t.  One of the problems with feeding wild animals is that they become dependent on humans for their food.  Another problem is that they can overpopulate places that humans frequent, like your local duck pond.  It’s easy to resist throwing some crackers out for ducks or squirrels, but have you ever thought about how your daily actions might be feeding organisms so small you can’t even see them, leading to toxic algal blooms? Continue reading “Never Mind the Ducks: Don’t Feed the Microbes!”

Living the Good Life in Uninhabitable Surroundings: How Microbes Adapt to Extreme Environments

Our planet is home to a diverse array of habitats. These can range from cozy, nutrient-rich, temperature-controlled havens to deadly, gruesome battlegrounds where only the fittest survive. Each habitat, no matter how extreme, serves as home to millions of microbes. For instance, the microbes in our bodies are only happy at a balmy 98.6 °F. They live a cozy life, feasting on food scraps and dead cells in and on our bodies. However, not all microbes live in such luxury. Continue reading “Living the Good Life in Uninhabitable Surroundings: How Microbes Adapt to Extreme Environments”

Did Climate Change Fuel Hurricanes Florence and Michael?

At 7:15 AM ET on Friday, September 14, Hurricane Florence made landfall along the coast of North Carolina as a Category 1 storm. Although, by this point, it had weakened from its peak intensity as a Category 4 hurricane, Florence still inundated communities in the region with torrential rains and a sizeable storm surge before dissipating over the east coast within a few days. Despite its monopoly over the airwaves in September, however, Florence was only one of four storms in the Atlantic at the time of landfall (the other three being tropical storms Helene, Isaac, and Joyce). Meanwhile, Tropical Storm Olivia (which was a Category 4 storm at peak intensity) had just dumped copious quantities of rain over Hawaii, and Typhoon Mangkhut in the west Pacific was still threatening populations in southeast Asia. This month, Hurricane Michael made landfall over the Florida panhandle with wind speeds only 2 mph shy of a Category 5 rating, making it the most powerful hurricane to hit the US since Andrew in 1992. How could so many terrible storms develop in such a short time span? To figure that out, we first need to learn about what hurricanes are and how they form. Here’s an overview: Continue reading “Did Climate Change Fuel Hurricanes Florence and Michael?”

Tardigrades: The Animals That Defy Nature

Picture an animal that can live anywhere: hot springs to solid ice, mountaintops to the deepest sea levels, spanning a temperature range of -458 °F to 302 °F. Imagine that this animal can survive in outer space, live through global mass extinctions, and persist for 30 years without food or water. Sounds like science fiction? Well, these animals are real, and they’re known as tardigrades. Continue reading “Tardigrades: The Animals That Defy Nature”

Finding Balance and Harmony in a Diverse Ecosystem

Front and center in the news today is the fact that climate change and various human activities are posing a hazard to the health of major ecosystems across our planet, threatening the survival of life on our planet as we know it.  But what makes a healthy ecosystem, and what does it mean for life when ecosystems undergo major changes, such as deforestation in rainforests caused by industry or a sudden decline of coral reefs due to the rise in ocean temperatures?  How far does the damage reach?  To understand these catastrophic events, we must take a step back and first consider ecosystems in more theoretical, less extreme terms. Continue reading “Finding Balance and Harmony in a Diverse Ecosystem”

Eating Bugs: A Diet That’s Hard to Swallow

According to a common piece of folklore, you swallowed eight spiders in your sleep last year. Urban legend or not, the very thought of spiders crawling into your mouth while you slumber likely triggers many unpleasant sensations, from mild discomfort to outright repulsion. After all, insects and spiders are gross critters that belong outside in the dirt, not inside our home. And certainly, not inside our mouths while we sleep.

…but who says they can’t also be food? Continue reading “Eating Bugs: A Diet That’s Hard to Swallow”

What Draws Us to Science?

What draws us to science?  Oftentimes science gives us a glimpse of the vast workings of the natural world, showing us the enormity of the system in which we live and, if we peek inside, all the spinning cogs and gears that work together and allow that system to exist at all.  Those insights make our hearts skip a beat and our hair stand on end with excitement and awe. It feels profound, and we are humbled by the thought that, even if just for a moment, we have grasped an idea that is so much bigger than ourselves. The humility grows more once we realize that our lives here on Earth are minuscule compared to the vast complexity of the universe.   Continue reading “What Draws Us to Science?”

BEEing like a Magnet

The human body is able to obtain information about our environment in unique ways. Our eyes convert photons of reflected light into electrical and chemical signals that our brain processes into images of the world around us. Our noses are full of specialized cells that detect millions (or even trillions!) of different scents floating around in our environment: aromatic flowers, the putrescent stench of skunk, and tart citrus fruits all activate neural signaling. Our ears are specialized for detecting the compression of molecules in the air, from the deep, low frequency rumbles of 20 Hz to the piercing screams of 20,000 Hz.

The human body is able to detect photons of light, airborne chemicals, and sound waves. But there is one ever-present force to which our bodies are seemingly agnostic: magnetism. Continue reading “BEEing like a Magnet”

Why Do We Get Cold Weather When the Climate Should be Warming?

While it’s widely understood that our planet’s climate is warming, there is a lot of confusion about how this influences our weather from year to year. If you kept up with the news at all between June and November of 2017 and 2018 (the time frame that defines the Atlantic hurricane season), you may remember seeing one headline after another with updates on the latest major storm to wreak havoc on the coastal communities of the southeast and Puerto Rico. Perhaps you even saw some heated discussions about whether or not these storms had proven the existence of climate change (click here for the latest evidence). With the cold snaps in the winter of 2018 and the polar vortex of 2019, though, many have publicly questioned why cold weather doesn’t disprove climate change. Despite the confusion in the media, the scientific consensus is clear – the global climate is warming, and the cold weather is part of it. Continue reading “Why Do We Get Cold Weather When the Climate Should be Warming?”

Will Global Warming Stop the Snow?

I bet you’ve heard it before, maybe in the news, from your uncle, or maybe from a skeptical friend. How can climate change be happening if we are getting so much snow? The reasoning seems sensible – as temperatures go up, the amount of snow should go down, kind of like a seesaw. After all, we don’t have snow in summer because it is too warm – precipitation falls as rain. But we are experiencing climate change, temperatures are going up, and in the Great Lakes we are getting more snow. How can that be possible? Continue reading “Will Global Warming Stop the Snow?”