Why Send Antarctica More Ice? Because, Science.

A weekly roundup of the best in science journalism, doodled.

June 03, 2015

What do you put inside a freezer in Antarctica? Ice, dummy.

A seed bank in the Arctic Circle that aims to preserve the genetic resources for food in the event of a global agriculture crisis has been all over the news lately. But I’m here to discuss another massive freezer—one in the Southern Hemisphere. Scientists are scrambling to ship ice cores taken from melting glaciers around the world to Antarctica for storage.

Air bubbles that get trapped in ice can tell us about the atmospheric conditions on earth when that ice froze. So ice provides records of what gases and particles were in the air over hundreds of thousands of years. Scientists from the French National Center for Scientific Research want to make sure that this frozen database is available for future generations. Ice in the Antarctic is melting, but not as fast as elsewhere on the globe, so it’s a safe storage spot (for now).

Because of its proximity to human civilization, mountain glacier ice tends to be dirtier than that of the poles or remote places like Greenland. But very little has been collected and studied. So researchers are hiking into the Alps, Andes, Rockies, and Himalayas to take samples. By comparing this ice with less polluted polar ice, they may be able to get a better sense of which effects of climate change are human-made and which, if any, are natural. 

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For giraffes, size matters—scientist just aren’t sure why.

Giraffes are weird, with superlong necks, which most scientists have thought are an adaptation for munching on leaves of tall trees. But scientists are in a hot debate right now about whether their necks are perhaps more the product of sexual selection. This evolutionary process selects for traits that help individuals attract mates but don’t necessarily make the most sense for survival. Peacock feathers are an example of this—that colorful plumage doesn’t do a whole lot of good finding food or avoiding predators, but, boy, do the babes go for it!

A male giraffe uses his neck and head like a wrecking ball when battling for a mate, so a longer neck would be advantageous. If the winner gets the girl, it presumably means more long-necked males are reproducing and passing their long-neck genes to future generations.

Whether for sex or food, giraffes are pretty hush-hush on why longer is better. As the quietest of all large mammals, they don’t talk much despite their 18-inch-long tongues. Like I said, giraffes are weird.

Check out David P. Barash’s piece in Nautilus to learn more. 

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A mystery disease is quickly killing off an endangered antelope.

More than 120,000 saigas, a critically endangered species of antelope found in Central Asia, have died in the last three weeks. 

Scientists are freaking out for two main reasons. First, there are so few of these animals to begin with. After the fall of the Soviet Union, poachers killed more than 95 percent of saigas for their horns. Second, whatever is killing them now has a 100 percent mortality rate. Apparently, if one member of a herd catches it, the whole group dies. That scale of die-off is unheard of. The Royal Veterinary College’s wildlife-disease experts are trying to get to the bottom of it, looking at recent changes in the ecology of the steppe and pollution as possible culprits. 

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Being wowed by nature can make you a better person.

Think about how it feels when you gaze out over the ocean at sunset, reach the end of a long hike uphill and see an incredible view, or experience a major national treasure like the Grand Canyon for the first time. Would you say you’re in awe? Scientists define this emotion as a “response to perceptually vast stimuli that defy one’s accustomed frame of reference…” (a.k.a. seeing a really big amazing thing and getting your mind blown).

Researchers at the University of California, Irvine have a new idea about what awe does for us humans. Based on results from five experiments, they think it may make us feel small in a big world, which then makes us more generous to our fellow humans. 

In one experiment, the researchers showed nature videos to a group, while another group watched a guy installing a kitchen counter. Afterward, participants played the Dictator Game, during which they were told they had some cash they could give away if they wanted to. Players who reported being awed by the nature videos were more philanthropic. 

In another experiment, called “Awe and Prosocial Behavior Amid a Grove of Towering Trees,” some participants stood and looked up at the tallest grove of trees in North America, while others looked at a tall building. The researchers then had them all draw circles to represent themselves and others. The group who gazed at trees drew smaller circles for themselves, which suggests a reduced sense of entitlement. So, the next time your kid asks for a car for Christmas, tell him or her to go gaze at a tree.

Moral of the story: Get out in nature. Your friends will thank you. 


onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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