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Earth Sciences

Spring 2015

Voices of the wilderness

 

I. BREATH

They saw in the water many of the serpent-kind,
wondrous sea-dragons exploring the waters,
such nicors as lie on the headlands,
who, in the mornings, often accomplish
sorrowful deeds on the sail-road,
serpents and wild-beasts.

 
So concludes the epic poem Beowulf. Speaking Old English, storytellers composed Beowulf extemporaneously and shared passages from person to person for thousands of years until they were written down sometime between the eighth and the eleventh centuries. Beowulf is very much a poem about animals, so it’s appropriate to translate its last word, “wilde-or,” as “wild-beasts,” though the … » More …

Mapmaker Mystery photoillustration
Winter 2014

Mapmaker mystery

The Palouse, in its way, is a perfect place. A land of soft, rolling hills framed by rivers, mountains, forests, and desert, this agricultural hinterland feels all four seasons fully, and in all likelihood grows enough food to feed its inhabitants and visitors with ease. It’s home to scholars and farmers, and its story begins in the ice ages and continues today with an unrelenting flow of research from two major universities.

Despite such beauty and bounty, the Palouse has not received the artistic consideration that has Yosemite or Hudson Valley. I’ve never seen anything like that, at least until a day last winter when … » More …

Winter 2014

The scrambled natural world of global warming, a travelogue

Jesse A. Logan ’77 PhD is hiking up a mountainside in Yellowstone National Park and walking back in time. He starts at 8,600 feet above sea level, in a forest thick with the scent of fir and lodgepole pine, and with almost every spry step, the scenery changes. There’s an understory of grouse whortleberry, then accents of mountain bluebells and higher still, the whitebark pine, one of the oldest organisms of the Interior West.

Finally, the vegetation gives way to large swatches of scree. Logan’s 70-year-old legs have gone up 2,000 feet and back more than 10,000 years, from the lush vegetation of the twenty-first … » More …

Cori Kane
Winter 2014

Diving deep in a unique tropical paradise

Cori Kane calls it “underwater skydiving.” She’ll be out in the middle of the North Pacific, more than 1,000 miles from Honolulu and most anything else that might be called civilization. Flopping out of a perfectly good boat, she will rocket down nearly 300 feet in just a few minutes, encountering a strange and largely unexplored layer of ocean that’s less familiar to science than the deep sea. It’s the ecosystem of the mesophotic reefs, which lie at a depth often called the “Twilight Zone.”

“When you jump in, it’s like you’re transported to this other world,” says Kane. “There are fish everywhere. There are … » More …

Orbiting Carbon Observatory
Fall 2014

Mission accomplished

It was 2 a.m. on February 24, 2009, and six years of George Mount’s work had just launched toward space.

Mount, then a physicist in the WSU Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, had been part of a team led by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory to develop the Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO), a sophisticated instrument to measure carbon dioxide from space.

It looked like a picture-perfect launch. The researchers had boarded buses from the launch site and were riding back to their hotel when they learned the news: The rocket carrying their satellite had failed to reach orbit. Instead, the … » More …

Salmon
Summer 2014

Salmon

Back in 1991, the Snake River sockeye was the first of nearly two dozen salmon populations listed as threatened or endangered. To fishermen, scientists, and wildlife managers it seemed that salmon might soon vanish from the waters and traditions of the Pacific Northwest.

Today, many runs are coming back, while more vibrant populations in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska have continued bringing a steady stream of salmon to our plates through the summer, into the fall, and thanks to flash freezing, the winter. Salmon remain a major part of the region’s culture and cuisine, as five Washington State University faculty and alumni can attest in … » More …

Spring 2014

A true story fraught with peril

As disaster-obsessed scientists go, geologists must be near the top of the list. They deal with time scales spanning billions of years, so a set of catastrophes occurring 10 million years ago is like yesterday. Something in the last century comes close to being, well, now. 

And they see catastrophe all over the place.

Take the roadcut near the Old Moscow Road. It’s a modest pile of crumbling rock, but John Wolff and Rick Conrey can see in its surrounding rock a thick blanket of hot lava inundating southeast Washington.

“It covers an area that goes from here to Spokane to The Dalles, buried at … » More …