Red, purple and green streamers of the aurora borealis dazzled viewers in North America on Friday and were seen much farther south than normal, with people in California, Arizona and Texas reporting they could see it, according to AccuWeather, Inc. Typically, the spectacular display is only visible in northern locales like Alaska, North Dakota, Canada and Iceland.
Why I Hunt for Sidewalk Fossils
These oft-overlooked records invite us to imagine what has been and what might be.
A paleontologist once told me that city sidewalks hold snapshots. If I trained my gaze toward my feet, he said, I would find evidence of all kinds of commutes: traces of hopping birds, the soles of humans’ shoes, restless leaves that fell and sank into wet concrete at just the right moment. I might see a smattering of little paw prints zigging, zagging, doubling back, evidence of important rodent business that didn’t often overlap with mine.
These marks are too recent to pass muster with scientific sticklers, but in all respects except age, they are fossils. There are many ways to make one. Some form when a creature is entombed in sediment: Water percolates through, flush with minerals, and over time the mixture infiltrates the bones, where it settles and forms stone. Other fossils are casts, made, for instance, when a shell dissolves and leaves behind a mold that eventually fills with sediment, which hardens into rock. But not all fossils involve remains; some catalog movements. These are the kind that stipple our sidewalks — nascent trace fossils, records of fleeting contact.
Throughout the pandemic, I turned to nature to track time and step outside myself. I photographed the sweetgum tree outside my Brooklyn window, noting when it leafed into a bushy chlorophylled curtain or when it dropped fruit that fell to the ground like unshattered ornaments. Most afternoons of that first lonely spring, I roamed a cemetery. When magnolia blossoms smudged the scene pink, I stood under the canopies until wind splashed the petals against my shoulders.
I was lucky, of course, to be simply scared and lonely — not dead, not intubated, not choosing between peril and paycheck. But time was slippery, and I felt stuck in my own brain, a foggy, trembling ecosystem I had no interest in studying. By early 2022, I was cocooned in my partner’s Morningside Heights apartment. On weekend mornings, we shuffled around the neighborhood, and each volunteered to notice something new: a startling mushroom, the pale bellies of pigeons waterfalling down a facade before flocking skyward. I became fixated on sidewalk fossils. Fossil-finding outings were a relief — an invitation to crouch, touch, lose myself in evidence of skittering and scrabbling, tethering myself to a past and a future.
Once I started noticing these impressions, it was fun to imagine myself as a paleontologist of the urban present.
Because sidewalk fossils are essentially the same color as the surrounding concrete, they’re most visible when light rakes across them; a fossil that’s elusive at noon might announce itself at dawn or dusk. So I timed a second daily walk for the hour when the light fled. Late afternoons introduced me to tiny forked footprints that marked the scene of, perhaps, an avian skirmish. There were others: a dog’s paws, three-quarters of a shoe. Though ichnologists, who study trace fossils, might discount leaves, I marveled at those too: most of a London plane and a ginkgo, with its corrugated fan. Across from a closed-up snack cart, I knelt until the cold concrete prickled my knees. I wriggled out of my mitten and traced a leaf’s sharp, diagonal veins, its saw-toothed sides.
When scientists encounter a fossil, they often try to puzzle out an explanation of how it got there. Maybe an animal was stranded or washed off its feet or chased by predators. Once I started noticing these impressions, it was fun to imagine myself as a paleontologist of the urban present. A bonanza of bird feet made me wonder if someone had sprinkled seeds or dropped a bagel. How long ago? What kind? When a leaf didn’t seem to match any of the nearby trees, I wondered if it was an interloper, blown in from blocks away or if it testified to an ecological eviction — a tree yanked out and replaced with another species or swapped for sidewalk. The fossils fastened my attention to something tangible but also invited it to wander and to think about city streets as collages of past and present, about how our nonhuman neighbors are architects, too. How we all shed traces of ourselves, whether we know it or not.
Of course, there is more significant proof of the past. Mammoths sometimes turn up in farmers’ fields, their tusks curved like scythes abandoned in the dirt. Parades of dinosaur footprints still march along the banks or beds of some prehistoric rivers and seas. Those are awesome, showy and obvious. I line up to see them; I happily gawk. But it was a tiny thrill to encounter evidence of the past that was subtle and recent, proof that others were out there. The sidewalk fossils felt intimate — the paleontological equivalent of a raft of letters secreted away beneath a floorboard.
Only they’re not actually rare. When sidewalks are repaired, birds and other animals ignore attempts to keep them pristine. Leaves do whatever the wind demands. These fossils are easy to find, and we’re lucky to have them. When I was lingering in the worst parts of my brain, sidewalk fossils dislodged me. Unlike the many fossils that represent stillness, the moment when an animal died and the place it remained unless humans carved it free, sidewalk fossils are often peeks into lives that continued. The birds flew somewhere; the dogs, I hope, went on to wag over many sticks and smells. As the sun sank and I trudged home, the fossils — these little flukes, these interesting accidents — were reminders of small, exhilarating life.
Jessica Leigh Hester is a science journalist whose first book is “Sewer” (Bloomsbury Academic, 2022).
Solar Storm That Caused Dazzling Auroral Display Could Linger
A coronal mass ejection, an explosion of magnetic fields and plasma from the sun’s atmosphere, hit Earth early Friday with more force than initially forecast. These events can disrupt Earth’s magnetic field causing auroral displays, as well as disrupting satellites, communication and electric grids.
Read more: A Swedish Resort Lets You See the Northern Lights From Your Room
The US Space Weather Prediction Center had originally expected a G2 level storm Friday on its five-step scale, the event measured in at G4, one of the strongest triggered on Earth since 2017.
The impacts from the coronal mass ejection have trailed off, but energy coming from what scientists call a “coronal hole” will continue at least through Saturday and that could mean the aurora could be seen by viewers across Europe, Asia and North America through Sunday, the UK Met Office said on its website.
There are currently eight sunspot clusters visible on the side of the sun facing Earth, however another coronal mass ejection blasting toward us isn’t forecast, the UK Met Office said.
An airplane-sized asteroid will pass between the Earth and moon’s orbits Saturday
An asteroid dubbed “city killer” for its size will pass harmlessly between the moon and the Earth Saturday evening.
The asteroid 2023 DZ2 will pass at a distance of over 100,000 miles, less than half the distance between the Earth and the moon. It’s about 160 feet long — about the size of an airliner. An asteroid that size could cause significant damage if it hit a populated area, hence its nickname.
“While close approaches are a regular occurrence, one by an asteroid of this size (140-310 ft) happens only about once per decade, providing a unique opportunity for science,” NASA Asteroid Watch tweeted.
Astronomers from the International Asteroid Warning Network, established about 10 years ago to coordinate international responses to potential near-Earth object impact threats, will be monitoring and learning from this asteroid.
NASA Asteroid Watch called the opportunity “good practice” in case “a potential asteroid threat were ever discovered.”
Near-Earth objects are asteroids or comets that pass close to the Earth’s orbit, and they generally come from objects that are affected by other planets’ gravity, moving them into orbits that push them close to Earth, according to the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs.
The European Space Agency maintains a risk list of 1,460 objects, which catalogs every object with a non-zero chance of hitting Earth over the next 100 years. Asteroid 2023 DZ2, which is in orbit around the sun, is not on the risk list.
Large asteroid to zoom between Earth and Moon
On Saturday, the 2023DZ2 will come within a third of the distance from the Earth to the Moon.
A large asteroid will safely zoom between Earth and the Moon on Saturday, a once-in-a-decade event that will be used as a training exercise for planetary defence efforts, according to the European Space Agency.
The asteroid, named 2023 DZ2, is estimated to be 40 to 70 metres (130 to 230 feet) wide, roughly the size of the Parthenon, and big enough to wipe out a large city if it hit our planet.
At 19:49 GMT on Saturday, it will come within a third of the distance from the Earth to the Moon, said Richard Moissl, the head of the ESA’s planetary defence office.
Though that is “very close”, there is nothing to worry about, he told AFP news agency.
Small asteroids fly past every day, but one of this size coming so close to Earth only happens about once every 10 years, he added.
The asteroid will pass 175,000km (109,000 miles) from Earth at a speed of 28,000 kilometres per hour (17,400 miles per hour). The Moon is roughly 385,000km (239,228 miles) away.
An observatory in La Palma, one of Spain’s Canary Islands, first spotted the asteroid on February 27.
Last week, the United Nations-endorsed International Asteroid Warning Network decided it would take advantage of the close look, carrying out a “rapid characterisation” of 2023 DZ2, Moissl said. That means astronomers around the world will analyse the asteroid with a range of instruments such as spectrometers and radars.
The goal is to find out just how much we can learn about such an asteroid in only a week, Moissl said. It will also serve as training for how the network “would react to a threat” possibly heading our way in the future, he added.
The asteroid will again swing past Earth in 2026, but poses no threat of impact for at least the next 100 years – which is how far out its trajectory has been calculated.
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