To the uninitiated, they look like chipped rocks.
To Julio Mercader of the University of Calgary, they look like two-million-year-old messages from the dawn of human technology.
“It is really the beginnings of technological dependence,” said Mercader, lead author of a paper published Thursday in the journal Nature.
“The tools are from an early phase of that period that is marking a new relationship between humans and the environment.”
The paper presents the combined work of 29 scientists from three continents. They analyzed a few dozen stone tools found at Oldupai Gorge, an African site considered by many to be where humans first appeared. Dating back two million years, the hand axes, quartz flakes and rock cores are among the oldest tools ever found.
They are so old they predate Homo sapiens. They may have been the work of Homo habilis (“handy man”), whose remains have been found nearby.
Any artifacts of that antiquity are precious. Mercader said what makes these especially valuable is that researchers from a wide variety of disciplines have been able to place them in an environmental context that shows just how adaptable humans have been since the start.
The tools span a time period of about 235,000 years. “It maybe sounds like a lot,” said Mercader, “but in human evolution it is not a lot.”
Over that time, the site’s environment changed rapidly and often. It was a woodland, a lakeshore, a grassland, a meadow.
Those unimaginably ancient humans were at home in them all.
“No matter the change in the environment, the moment there is a disruption, a drastic change in the local ecology, humans move in right away,” Mercader said.
“There was a huge volcanic eruption that really blanketed the landscape with a solid mass of molten rock. The moment that cools down and there are new plants and animals coming in, humans are doing the same.
“What it shows is the huge versatility and flexibility of behaviour that allows early humans to exploit whatever environment that happens to be in their proximity. This has deep roots.”
The tools themselves are made from rocks that were found immediately adjacent or nearby. The makers seem to have carried around preferred stone cores they could use to knap a fresh flake when needed.
The tools didn’t change much over time, said Mercader.
“The technology is kept flexible enough and general enough so that no matter what, you can still exploit the environment. It’s like a Swiss Army knife.”
The discoveries are the result of years of work in the area.
Researchers — trained to know the difference between a tool and a naturally chipped rock — first walk the landscape, looking for exposed bits of fossil bone. Lots of bone fossils suggest other artifacts may be nearby and a test dig ensues.
“If we like what we see, we open more space.
Mercader said the research is a textbook example of how scientists from different disciplines can collaborate to shed light on the far distant past.
“Working together with geoscientists and chemists and paleoecologists and paleogeographers, there is a lot we can infer from stone tools and the context in which they are found.”
And there’s nothing quite like holding in your hand a stone that some ancient toolmaker also held, Mercader said.
“That is the excitement that makes you want to become an archeologist.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 7, 2021.
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From extension cords to a homemade barge, two Edmonton buddies try everything to extract a petrified stump – CBC.ca
Inside the Paleontology Museum at the University of Alberta, past the giant fish skull at the entrance, you’ll find a relic from the time of the dinosaurs.
The 65 to 75 million-year-old petrified tree stump is the latest addition to the museum, and is a point of pride in this small room in the basement of the university’s Earth Sciences building.
But what impresses museum curator Lisa Budney most is the discoverers of the stump, Mike Lees and Jeff Penney, who went on a costly, arduous, month-long adventure to retrieve it.
“Their willingness to go the extra mile is exceptional,” said Budney. “But also their willingness and acceptance of going through the proper channels in order to make sure they’re collecting things properly.”
“That makes them great citizen scientists.”
The two friends stumbled on the rare find in the middle of Edmonton during a canoe ride down the North Saskatchewan River in October 2019.
The experts were excited, but didn’t have the resources to collect it.
If these hockey dads didn’t move it, it was likely to wash away down the river by the following spring.
“I don’t think I would have ever forgotten if I just left it there and let it go downriver,” Penney said.
Once the two men made it their mission to extract the fossilized tree, they refused to be stumped.
Excitement over find
The day of the discovery, Lees asked Penney to join him for an after-work paddle.
An hour down the river, and a few drinks later, Penney needed to pull over for a pee break.
The spot they chose is on a narrow muddy bank along the river. A steep cliff about 30 metres tall separates it from any walking trails.
Lees liked this place because he would often find shells or fish skeletons here. A minute after they pulled over, he realized he was standing on top of something.
“I was really excited at the time,” Lees said. “You could tell that there was a difference between what was on the outside of the tree and the inside of the tree. It looked like bark, but it was stone bark.”
They sensed this could be a major discovery, so they sent pictures of it to the University of Alberta.
Based on its fossilization and location, scientists were able to estimate the age of the stump: the tree was a conifer from the cretaceous period.
A paleontologist at the Royal Tyrrell Museum in Drumheller, Alta., called Penney to tell him the news.
“I was thinking it’s like two million years old. He goes, ‘Jeff, it’s estimated it’s probably around 65 million years old. It’s a tree stump with the roots and the bark,'” Penney recalled.
Even though the tree had barely moved from its original place for millions of years, the area around the river is continuously changing in small ways.
By spring 2020, a large section of the muddy bank where the stump stood was largely washed away, which is why Lees and Penney feared it might have been lost if they didn’t move it before winter.
The university couldn’t secure any funds to collect the stump without a clear research objective, but Budney, the curator they consulted with, was eager to put it on display at the museum.
“I’ve never seen anything this big come out of our river valley since I’ve been working here,” she said.
No stone unturned
After hours of paperwork and e-mails between researchers at the university, paleontologists in Drumheller and Alberta Environment and Parks, they received permission from the province to move it, if they wanted to.
To make sure the stump was still retrievable, Penney and Lees did some reconnaissance work.
They found a path through the woods that led to the top of the cliff over the stump, which was faster than taking a canoe.
On a sunny fall day, the two of them rappelled down the 30-metre bank, using extension cords from Penney’s truck. The stump was still there — as glorious as when they found it.
On the first attempt to remove it, they borrowed a hunting boat. But even with several men to lift the stump, it was too heavy. They also worried the weight of the stump could sink the back of the boat.
Lees even called Edmonton Fire Rescue Services, but ultimately, they weren’t able to help either.
Then, Lees and Penney recruited some friends to build their own barge. They took a half-dozen 50-gallon plastic drums and strapped them to a deck they built over a few hours. But they worried that the barge would not be sturdy enough either.
“We were using our best creative ideas to make it work, but it just wasn’t happening,” Penney said.
By this time, it was November, and they were brushing snow off the stump. They realized they needed to bring in professionals.
Penney called a company that did on-the-water and underwater repairs.
“Usually when we’re picking something up, it’s a man-made problem, someone’s dropped a truck, people go out and sink boats,” said Bill Stark, a marine operations manager at Northern Underwater Systems. “It’s not someone who lost a rock.”
“Once they explained what they had and the situation, it became more intriguing,” he said.
Penney spent his own money to pay Stark and his crew to remove the rock.
When the conditions were perfect, right before the river froze over, they loaded it onto an industrial boat and brought it to the museum.
A day later and the river would have been filled with too much ice for the boat to travel on.
A place in history
At around 800 pounds, there are very few petrified trees from this era that are this large and well-preserved, on display anywhere in the world, according to Budney.
University paleobotanist Eva Koppelhus was able to take samples from the core of the tree and find evidence of pre-historic ferns growing on its base.
“It’s a great find because it’s often that people find just smaller pieces of wood, but this was a stump and it looked like it was nearly in situ,” she said.
It’s a signpost of a time back when this wintry city was a hot muggy swampland along a seaway.
The stump still sits on the pallets it was dragged in on since it’s too heavy to move without a lift.
Lees and Penney have both brought their kids to see it in person.
“I’ll be satisfied for a long time knowing that people are going to be able to appreciate this thing long beyond my life,” Lees said.
About the producer
Ariel Fournier is an associate producer at CBC Edmonton. She’s produced radio documentaries about a 70-year-old wrestler with a flashy hat, adult adoption and the lasting influence of autotune.
This documentary was edited by Julia Pagel.
NASA Pulls Plug On InSight Lander’s Mars Mole – Forbes
NASA has pulled the plug on its InSight lander’s Mars mole, more than two years after the lander touched down at Elysium Planitia. The German-built Mars mole heat probe could simply never penetrate the hard exterior surface of its landing site in order to make the kind of measurements necessary to give planetary scientists the first real clues as to the makeup of the Martian interior.
For nearly two years, the InSight, short for Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy, and Heat Transport’s mole probe has been attempting to burrow into the Martian surface to take the planet’s internal temperature, says NASA. But the soil’s unexpected tendency to clump deprived the spike-like mole of the friction it needs to hammer itself to a sufficient depth, the team notes.
Part of the spacecraft’s Heat Flow and Physical Properties Package (HP3), the mole was intended to be a self-hammering probe that would burrow down to almost 16 feet (five meters) below Mars’ surface. This would have enabled planetary scientists to better understand whether Mars’ interior is radically different from Earth or our own Moon.
“We’ve given it everything we’ve got, but Mars and our heroic mole remain incompatible,” HP3’s principal investigator, Tilman Spohn of DLR said in a statement. “Fortunately, we’ve learned a lot that will benefit future missions that attempt to dig into the subsurface.”
The mole itself is a 16-inch-long spike designed to drag with it a ribbonlike tether that extends from the spacecraft, says NASA. The idea was that Temperature sensors are embedded along the tether to measure the planet’s interior heat.
But InSight landed in an area with an unusually thick duricrust, or a layer of cemented soil, NASA reports. Rather than being loose and sandlike, as expected, the dirt granules stick together, says the agency.
Unfortunately, to work properly, the mole needs friction from the soil in order to travel downward. Without it, says NASA, recoil from its self-hammering action causes it to simply bounce in place. Paradoxically, it’s loose soil, not this cement-like duricrust that InSight has encountered at its landing site, that would ideally provide the needed friction as it falls around the mole.
The landing site at Elysium Planitia, a broad, equatorial volcanic plain, was selected in part because it has so few visible rocks, implying few large subsurface rocks. Designed to measure heat flowing from the planet once the mole has dug at least 10 feet deep, the mole is strong enough to nudge small rocks out of its way, says NASA.
But after repeated attempts to aid the mole in its actions over a two year period using the spacecraft’s robotic arm in ways that it was never intended, the team realized that they were in a no-win situation.
Meanwhile, the rest of InSight’s instruments are functioning and taking data. In fact, NASA says that the mission intends to employ the robotic arm in burying the tether that conveys data and power between the lander and InSight’s seismometer, which has recorded more than 480 marsquakes. Burying it will help reduce temperature changes that have created cracking and popping sounds in seismic data, the team notes.
The InSight mission itself has been recently extended to late next year. Along with hunting for marsquakes, the lander hosts a radio experiment that is collecting data to reveal whether the planet’s core is liquid or solid, says NASA. And InSight’s weather sensors are capable of providing some of the most detailed meteorological data ever collected on Mars, says the agency. Together with weather instruments aboard NASA’s Curiosity rover and the Perseverance rover, which lands on Feb. 18th, the team says that the three spacecraft will create the first meteorological network on another planet.
Could the problem simply be an ordinary rock?
“We don’t know for sure, because we can’t see underground,” Spohn said in a statement. “[But] there’s also the possibility that we’ve hit a rock.”
Earth's magnetic field controls space weather, shields us from solar wind: new study – UCalgary News
Researchers in the Faculty of Science have made an important contribution to new findings about Earth’s magnetic field and its role in shielding our planet from solar wind, the continuous stream of charged particles emanated by the sun.
In the discovery, published in Nature Communications, a team of Alberta-based scientists found that electromagnetic energy originating in the solar wind shows a clear preference to head toward Earth’s northern polar regions rather than their southern counterparts.
The new findings suggest that, in addition to acting as a shield from incoming solar particles, the magnetic field also actively controls how the energy is distributed and channeled into Earth’s atmosphere.
International research collaboration helps yield new discovery
Using information from the European Space Agency’s (ESA)’s Swarm satellite constellation, researchers in the University of Alberta’s Department of Physics analyzed data from electric field instruments (EFIs) designed and operated at the University of Calgary by a team led by Dr. David Knudsen, PhD, and Dr. Johnathan Burchill, PhD, both in the Department of Physics and Astronomy. Lead author Dr. Ivan Pakhotin at the University of Alberta and co-authors at both universities discovered the “surprising” imbalance in how Earth’s magnetic field responds to space weather driven by the sun.
The high-calibre international partnership between the two universities and the ESA reflects the research excellence in space science in Alberta. The University of Calgary has been Canada’s most prolific university-based provider of space instrumentation, with more than 20 instruments developed and launched into space over the university’s 50-plus-year history, according to Knudsen.
While the terms “North Pole” and “South Pole” conjure images of polar bears and penguins, they refer to the north and south poles of our planet’s magnetic field, and loosely line up with Earth’s rotational axis. Earth’s magnetic field is visible in action when the aurora borealis — or northern lights — appear in the northern night skies, the result of its interaction with charged atomic particles from the sun.
While the dancing ribbons of light are a beautiful sight, they’re representative of a constant bombardment of charged particles in the solar wind, and can have significant impacts on some of our most important systems like communication networks and navigation systems (like GPS and satellites). In severe cases, solar storms can cause communication and electrical systems and even satellites to fail.
“Because the south magnetic pole is further away from Earth’s spin axis than the north magnetic pole, an asymmetry is imposed on how much energy makes its way down toward Earth in the north and south,” explains Pakhotin, the paper’s lead author and postdoctoral fellow in UAlberta’s Department of Physics.
While researchers aren’t yet sure what the effects of this asymmetry might be, the findings suggest that it could also point to an asymmetry between the aurora australis in the south and the aurora borealis in the north. Further, they suggest that the dynamics of upper atmospheric chemistry may vary between the hemispheres, particularly when geomagnetic activity is strong.
UCalgary contribution to Swarm satellite constellation essential to new findings
Knudsen and Burchill specialize in near-Earth space research, and have extensive experience in the development of space instrumentation. Knudsen serves as lead scientist for the EFIs on the Swarm satellites; Burchill has responsible for their operation since launch in 2013.
Each EFI contains two sensors known as thermal ion imagers. Initially developed at UCalgary with support from ESA and the Canadian Space Agency, and built by Ontario-based COM DEV Canada (now Honeywell), the thermal ion imagers use the same technology used in digital cameras — CCD detector technology — to detect charged particles. The sensors then produce precision measurements of ionospheric winds and temperatures. “This information is used to calculate the electric field, an important counterpart to the magnetic field,” Knudsen explains.
Understanding Earth’s electric and magnetic field environment helps scientists design better electrical grids and early warning systems when solar disturbances like mass coronal ejections or solar storms occur and affect Earth. However, the primary motivation of this research is to understand the fundamental behaviour of the charged-particle gases (plasmas) surrounding Earth, and the causes and consequences of the northern and southern lights, key aspects of which remain unexplained.
Swarm’s three satellites return information about how the magnetic field protects Earth from the dangerous particles in solar wind, along with how the field is generated and how the position of Earth’s magnetic north changes over time.
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