Ultimate Science Vacations – Science at Sea Takes an Up Close Look at Alaska

For the third time, the Steve Spangler team and award-winning naturalists explored the inside passage of Alaska. The group, along with teachers and science enthusiasts boarded a Holland America cruise ship earlier this week for a special Science at Sea excursion.

Science at Sea -  Cruising in Glacier Bay, Alaska

Alaska is known for its spectacular scenery, glaciers, mountains, untamed wilderness and vast wildlife populations. Science abounds in the largest U.S. state. Cut Alaska in half, and each half is still larger than Texas.

The state not only boasts the biggest land size, but also holds the smallest population of the 50 states. Only 650,000 people call Alaska home. Twice as many tourists visit every year.

Google Maps
Courtesy: Google Maps

Alaska contains more coastline, more lakes, more streams and rivers, more National Parks, more wildlife refuges, more natural resources, more forests, more glaciers and more wildlife than any other state in America. Seventeen of North America’s twenty highest mountains, including the tallest, Denali at over 20,000 feet, are found in Alaska. It is also home to the largest National Forest and largest National Park in the 50 states.

Alaska has more earthquakes, more volcanoes, more glaciers, more mountains than anyplace in North America. – John Scheerens, naturalist.

The crew cruised the famous Inside Passage of the the Pacific Northwest Coast or southeast Alaska for one week. They viewed spectacular, rugged, high mountains cloaked in lush temperate rainforests, enormous ice fields and glaciers, scenic 1,000-foot deep fjords, and a plethora of marine mammals and sea birds. Alaska also has a rich human history and social sciences story anchored by Native peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast that have lived in the area for over 8,000 years, and also includes the great Gold Rush of 98 and World War II.

Some of our guests for Science at Sea 2013
Some of our guests for Science at Sea 2013

The tour included visits to some of Alaska’s most popular towns and cities. Juneau, Alaska’s capital city, enjoys perhaps the most scenic setting of any state capital in America; Sitka, a most charming village on Alaska’s outer coast once known as the Paris of the Pacific, ancient home of the Kiksadi people and seat of government and administration for Russian America; spectacular Glacier Bay National Park, home to half the tidewater glaciers in North America; Ketchikan, the salmon capital of the world known as Alaska’s First City; and Victoria, a lovely small city on the southern coast of Vancouver Island and provincial capital of British Columbia. Native traders, fur trappers, gold seekers, and sightseers have all marveled at the magnificence of the Inside Passage.

Global Warming is at work in Alaska and you can witness it firsthand. Glaciers and the sea ice are melting at a rapid pace, so fast, that some glaciers are in danger of becoming extinct. New shipping routes have opened in the Arctic making it easier to travel between Norway and Asia, specifically. The wildlife is also suffering. Polar bears are drowning while swimming and looking for food.

Glacial Ice Melting in the Arctic - Global Warming

Alaska is full of geography and geology lessons as well. When asked where the most northern and western extremes of America are found, Alaska is an easy answer. The eastern part of the 50 states is also found in Alaska. The state’s Aleutian Islands cross the dateline so the eastern extreme of the U.S. is also in Alaska.

The Aleutians were the first parts of Alaska settled by Europeans. Two of the larger islands, Dutch Harbor and Kodiak are two of the largest seafood producing communities in the world.

Geology dictates the natural environment of Alaska. Particularly the southeastern part is one of the most geologically active places on earth. There are more earthquakes, more volcanoes, more glaciers, more mountains than anyplace in North America.

Plate tectonics is also a huge part of the Alaskan geology. The North American Plate is riding over the top of the Pacific Plate in a process called subduction under Alaska. The Pacific Plate is moving north and counterclockwise against the western moving North American Plate causing a shearing action. The subduction causes Alaska’s massive mountain features and volcanic activity. The mountains are grow taller at a rate of about an inch or more a year. The shearing action creates earthquakes along the coastline.

Can you spot the kayaker?
Can you spot the kayaker?

Glaciers are also an incredibly important part of Alaska’s past and present. They are responsible for thousands of islets, fjords and waterways. A large part of our tour included visits to the largest and most spectacular glaciers.

Finally, Alaska has abundant wildlife on land and in the water. Long daylight hours in the summer encourages a lot of vegetation growth on land and algae or plankton in the water. Marine life teems in the oceans, mammals large and small thrive in the forests and tundra and millions of birds nest along shorelines and in forested areas.

A whale breaching in Alaska - Science at Sea from Steve Spangler Science

Scheerens adds “Alaska offers some of the finest habitat and food resources on the planet to support some of the largest wildlife populations anywhere in the world.”

Many thanks to our naturalist John Scheerens for the research and information included in this article and for all of his knowledge, insights and enthusiasm about the great state of Alaska.

John is considered the teacher of teachers in Alaska serving as the training consultant for most of the major tour companies throughout Alaska. John has been featured on ABC’s Good Morning America, ESPN’s Outdoor Adventure Series, and Outdoor Channels Pathfinder’s Series, and his educational tours have received the highest praise among his peers. We cannot think of the better tour leader for our Science at Sea experience.

 

The Science Behind Fireworks – How Do They Produce the Brilliant Colors and Designs?

By Blog Editor Susan Wells

** This article is strictly for the entertainment and information of our readers. Leave the display fireworks creation, development and launching to the professionals. It is a violation of federal, state and local laws to make or use fireworks without the required permits. 

Fireworks are as much a part of the Fourth of July as hot dogs, watermelon and red, white and blue. How do they get those brilliant colors, sparkling trails and heart shapes? There’s a science to creating the perfect firework display.

 

The Science of Fireworks. What makes the patterns, designs and colors? A fireworks decoder included. | Steve Spangler Science

Before we dive into the science behind fireworks, let’s start with a little history. The Chinese invented fireworks somewhere around 960 and 1279 AD. They shot off fireworks to ward off evil spirits and used them during celebrations, like the Emperor’s birthdays and Chinese holidays.

Fireworks were first used to celebrate independence in the United States on July 8, 1776. They were used in England to celebrate the birthdays of kings and queens. The fireworks were fired in America to celebrate the “death” of royalty and their power over the U.S. Fireworks were used to celebrate our independence each July 4th but not in an official way until July 4 was declared a federal holiday in 1941. Currently, fireworks are almost synonymous with Independence Day.

Designing and building the ultimate firework display or just a firecracker requires a strong knowledge of chemistry and physics.

Colors – Different metal elements and metal compounds create each color.  When you watch a display this year, try to name each element in it. Blue-greens and vivid violet-blues are the most dangerous and difficult to create. They are unstable and extremely dangerous.

Effects – the use of different elements also creates special effects.

What’s Inside of a Firework? 

  • Black Powder – the propellant. It is an old formula made from potassium nitrate, sulfur and charcoal. When it is ignited, the nitrate oxidizes the sulfur and charcoal which results in hot gasses.
  • Mortar (container) – the outer cylinder chamber made of plastic or metal. It can be a short, steel pipe with a lifting charge of black powder in the bottom or surrounding stars.
  • Stars – the pyrotechnic compounds that explode and create the colors and effects. They are spheres, cubes or cylinders about the size of a pea to a tennis ball.
  • Shell – a hollow sphere made of pasted paper and string. The shell is cut in half and packed with stars.
  • Bursting Charge – inside the middle of the shell to ignite the firework. The charge ignites the outsides of the stars, which burn with showers of sparks.
  • Fuse – allows a time delay for the explosion.

How Do They Create Multi-Explosions, Effects and Colors in One Firework?

Multi-break shells create multiple stages for the firework. Stars of different  colors and compounds are used to make different effects. The shells are filled with other shells or have multiple sections that are ignited with individual fuses. After the first section bursts, the next fuse is ignited and bursts the second, which then ignites the third fuse and so on.

The Science Behind Fireworks - How do they create the brilliant colors and patterns? | Steve Spangler Science

How Are Patterns Created? 

When the firework explodes, the stars are thrown out into a pattern. If they are packed into the shell in a star pattern or happy face pattern, they maintain that shape in the sky as they are thrown from the shell. Popular Mechanics has an interactive slideshow with pictures of shells with layouts of stars and charges that displays how some of the most complex designs are created.

Are The Booming Sounds from Fireworks All About the Ignition? 

Actually no, some fireworks contain sound charges that use perchlorate.

References – HowStuffWorks, eHow Fireworks, eHow Fireworks History, Popular MechanicsAnatomy of a Firework from PBS,

 

Outdoor Summer Science Fun – Sick Science! Bubble Snakes

We love bubbles at Steve Spangler Science. We’ve made frozen bubbles, smoky bubbles, giant bubbles, bouncing bubbles and fire bubbles to name a few. This time, we make colorful, snaking bubbles that come out of a homemade bubble blower.

Bubbles usually only come as individual spheres of soap and water. To blow the perfect bubble takes patience and a little bubble-science. Sometimes, if you’re lucky, you can get a whole bunch of bubbles in one cluster… but it always seems random. We’ve found a spectacular way to create colorful rainbow snakes made of bubbles. Make red, white and blue bubbles for Fourth of July.

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Take a Science Vacation – Summer Learning in Yellowstone National Park

By Blog Editor Susan Wells

My family and I visited Yellowstone last week. The girls and I had never been, but my husband had spent a few summers in the Youth Conservation Corps back in his youthful days. I knew Yellowstone was full of geothermal features and a lot of wildlife, but I wasn’t prepared for just how much science abounds in the park. If you are looking for an unplugged, family learning vacation, head to Northwestern Wyoming and Yellowstone.

Yellowstone was the first national park established in 1872.

As we drove into the park on a hot Friday evening, it was quiet. Just the forest and the setting sun. Until we reached the center of the park and the edge of the caldera. Steam was rising into the air from vents along the road. Even more steam was rising from the edge of the lake. The edge of the lake!! I felt like a kid as I was surrounded by geology. Living geology. The stuff I read about in school – geysers, vents, mud volcanoes, hot springs and fumaroles. Even after reading about Yellowstone, I wasn’t prepared to be this excited.

I grew up in Colorado – visited the hot springs, hiked and camped in the mountains, seen elk and deer. I thought I had already experienced the majority of natural wonder and magic in the mountains of Colorado. I’ve also visited Volcanoes National Park and Haleakala crater in Hawaii. I’ve seen lava flows and volcanic cones. I’d I had no idea what I was missing (besides Old Faithful).

Yellowstone holds half of the earth’s geothermal features in its more than 3,400 square miles. You can walk, hike and even just drive up to many of the 300 geysers and 10,000 thermal features. As the mud bubbles and the steam blows over the crusted earth, you know you are standing on top of a live volcano.

If you are planning a trip to Yellowstone, prepare for a lot of science.

Junior Ranger and Science Badge

Young scientist badge at Yellowstone National Park

The Junior Ranger program is free for children ages 5 to 12 visiting the park. Stop at any Yellowstone visitor center and request a 12-page activity guide. Based on age, children will need to complete a required number of pages inside the guide as well as attend a ranger talk, hiking on a park trail and completing activities. Although at least a day or two to complete the packet. Return the packet to the visitor center to receive your badge.

Yellowstone also offers a Science badge at the Canyon and Old Faithful areas. (My advice is to do the Old Faithful badge – it involves the geysers and geothermal features.) Children ages 5 and up purchase a booklet at the Canyon Vistor Education Center or Old Faithful Visitor Center for $5. Learn more about the science of Yellowstone by completing the booklet. The rangers will also check out a Young Scientist Toolkit that includes a thermometer, stopwatch and other gear needed to complete the assignment. This activity will take around three hours to complete as you explore the geyser basin near Old Faithful. Young Scientists will earn a badge or keychain.

Geothermal and Hydrothermal Features

Yellowstone has a diverse collection of geysers, hot springs (which can reach temperatures of 400 degrees +), mudpots (bubbling and boiling “muddles”), fumaroles (steam vents), hot spring terraces, and lava flows. Park rangers, visitor centers and maps will direct you to these features. I also tried several apps while we were there. The best one was from Chimani. They offered a driving tour which described several of the best features and areas.

Don’t miss Old Faithful…a spectacular earth science show that will excite. This isn’t the fountains at the Bellagio. Our planet puts on this show. After watching it erupt (about every 90 minutes) take a walk around the other geothermal features in the area. Hot springs and smaller geysers are gorgeous and just as spectacular. You can also hike up to a nearby hillside and watch Old Faithful erupt from a different angle. There are so many features close together, you can spend an entire day in the Old Faithful area.

Just up the road from Old Faithful is the Midway Basin. This area offers several parking areas, walkways and hikes to waterfalls and more hot springs. Don’t miss the Grand Prismatic. This hot spring is about 200 meters across and is the biggest of its kind. Just don’t wear a hat on a windy day. The pools are full of hats, even just a few feet off the path, lost forever.

And one more thing – keep in mind these are natural features, not wishing wells or trash cans. Morning Glory Pool – one of the most beautiful springs in the park, gets plugged up from people throwing trash, coins and other items into the hole. As the hole clogs, the water temperature changes and many of the microorganisms in the pool are killed. The organisms are what create the beautiful colors. Treat the living earth with respect.

Microbiology and Microorganisms

My 8-year-old budding microbiologist found a book in the National Park gift store on all of the tiny creatures living in Yellowstone. Algae, and bacterial mats live in the springs and the rock, giving Yellowstone its color. There are unseen, fragile forests of bacteria that stretch out from the hot springs in brown ribbons. Astronomers study these tiny life forms in Yellowstone in hopes of gaining knowledge on potential life on other planets. If these micro-animals can live where nothing else can on earth, they may also hold the key to life across the universe.

Flora and Fauna 

The park abounds with wildlife. Bison are everywhere – walking down the roads, in front of cabin ice machines (it’s a long story), in open meadows and anywhere they want to visit. We saw bison hoof prints in the mud volcanoes and along the dangerous and unsteady land near the hot springs. Even with all the bison in plain sight everywhere, you realize that this is still a small percentage of how many roamed the west before they were almost wiped out.

Deer, elk, moose, big horn sheep, fox, black bears, grizzly bears, and wolves are the most searched for animals in the park. You may spot one in the back trails or alongside the road. It all depends on luck. The Yellowstone website has a map and checklist of the best places to spot certain animals.

Wildlife watchers hang out on overlooks in Hayden Park, watching for anything that moves. We observed some wolves across the meadows nipping at a bison, testing it for weakness. There is nothing like watching wildlife behave like the wildlife you see on nature shows right before your eyes.

There are more than 1,350 species of plants and wildflowers in the park. We apparently weren’t there in wildflower season, but wouldn’t have had any idea. A huge variety of plants and flowers were everywhere.

Even More Geology

The park has diverse geological features. The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone was formed from erosion. There are also glacial deposits, rhyolite lava flows, faults and my favorite, hoodoos. Hoodoos are tall, skinny spires of rock that protrude from the bottom of basins. Look closely at the rocks in the canyon – they contain a variety of different iron compounds. Exposure to the elements causes the rocks to change color or oxidize. The canyon wall is rusting.

Wildfire Science

Yellowstone’s landscape has been shaped by fire. There is still a lot of evidence from recent and past fires, including the 1988 fires, in the park. We looked closely at the landscape and tried to make educated guesses on how long ago fires had burned in a specific section. Some areas had few blacked trees standing, while most had fallen to the forest floor, and small to medium sized trees growing. Other areas barely had new grass on the forest floor with most of the burned trees still standing. For more on Yellowstone wildland fires, the 1988 fires and how fires are a part of the ecology, visit the Yellowstone website.

Even if you aren’t headed to Yellowstone in the near future, you can take a virtual tour and learn more about what the park has to offer through its Kids Online website.

What are your favorite places to explore in Yellowstone? Where do you take a science vacation?

The Science Behind Worms

By Blog Editor Susan Wells

As I was digging in my backyard this weekend, planting the last of my flowers and vegetables, I came across several worms. As the dry, bright sunlight hit my squirmy little friends, they wriggled and writhed to immediately get back to their underground world. In all my digging, I accidentally sliced one in half. This made me start to ponder more about worms. We all know they are good for the earth and possess incredible healing powers, but what is the science behind these creatures of the dirt world?

There are over 3,000 known species of earthworms in the world. They are everywhere there is soil.

Experts believe native worm species were wiped out when glaciers covered the earth. Most of today’s earthworms originated from Europe by traveling in the rootstocks of plants.

Worms make soil and are natural soil tillers. They can eat their weight in dirt each day. One acre of soil may contain up to one million worms. Those worms can produce around 700 pounds of castings each day. The castings contain nitrogen and other nutrients essential for plant growth. Worm compost improves soil structure and drainage while increasing nutrients. They also till the soil by mixing layers and producing tunnels. This helps air and water reach plant roots. They are also a food source for many different types of animals and birds.

They get nutrition from decaying roots and leaves in the soil. Animal poop and decomposing animal remains are also nutritious food for worms.

The anatomy of a worm does not include eyes or teeth. Worms can sense light, especially at their front end. They will move away from light into the dark depths of the earth to stay moist. They are unable to breathe if their skin dries out. Worms exposed to light for about an hour will become paralyzed and unable to burrow back into the damp darkness.

No teeth means food is softened by moisture and microorganisms inside the worm’s body. Food is broken down further in the worm’s gizzard. Hard particles and muscles grind the food.

Earthworms breathe through their skin, so if they dry out, oxygen can no longer travel into their body.

Setae, tiny feeler-bristles on the bottoms of worms, help them move through the soil. These bristles also help the worms grip the soil when a hungry robin is above trying to yank them out for dinner.

The middle band or collar is the clitellum. It forms an egg and secretes mucus to form a cocoon. Only adults have clitellum. Their head is usually extended as the worm travels and is the end closest to the clitellum.

Worms can travel both forward and backwards.

They reproduce by joining their clitella (the swollen area near the head) and exchanging sperm. Worms are hermaphrodites, having both male and female organs. After mating, each worm will form an egg in its clitellum. After 7 to 10 days, the egg is released into the castings. After 14 to 21 days, one to five baby worms hatch from each egg. They will be mature in about 60 to 90 days.

Worms can live up to four years. When they die, their bodies are recycled by other worms. They survive winters by hibernating below the frost line and hibernating. Eggs can survive a winter inside a cocoon. Worms survive dry seasons by hibernating deep in the soil until wetter conditions return. They enter a reduced metabolic state called estivation, a form of hibernation.

According to worm experts Dr. Dennis Linden and Cindy Hale, worms do not surface during rains to avoid drowning, but instead to move over land. Wet conditions give worms an opportunity to quickly move to new places without drying out. We had an unusually wet few days this spring in Denver. I arrived home to see my driveway covered in worms. Not realizing these were the migrating, thrill-seeker worms, I grabbed a piece of cardboard and scooped all of the worms back into the grass. The sun came out a few minutes later and I considered myself a worm savior. I can only hope I dropped them into a new and exciting plot of grass that opened up some exploration. Worms on pavement  can get disoriented and lose their way back to dirt. When their body dries out, they cannot breathe and die.

I’ve always rejoiced in knowing my sliced worms will regenerate when I accidentally hit them with the shovel. But this is incorrect. They can heal quickly. The head portion of a halved worm may grow a new tail if that segment contains all of the vital organs. The tail end will not regenerate. I will now bow my head and say a little something in memory of my sacrificed worm.

Before digging, you can perform a little worm CSI by looking closely at the soil. Worms will leave small piles or pellets of soil on the surface. If you dig in and find wet, slick tunnels, you may have uncovered a burrow.

Worms are essential to the health of the earth. One way to improve the soil in your garden and promote a healthy earth is to compost. In April, we shared some tips and tricks to composting in your backyard. One worm bin containing 2,000 red worms can produce 7 pounds of castings in a month.

Red worms are the best for compost bins because they are natural surface feeders that do not burrow like nightcrawlers. Red worms also do not mind being confined. They can be purchased from worm farms by the pound.

Commercial and hobby farmers are recognizing the benefits of having a worm farm. Vermicompost encourages plants to grow stronger and helps them become more resistant to disease and insects.

Worms are not the only essential living organisms in a compost bin. Billions of microorganisms live in the worm bin. They get into the bin from the skin of the worm and soil added. Food waste brings in additional microorganisms. Fungal and bacterial spores from the air also descend on the bin. Some people believe garbage in landfills also decomposes like that in a compost bin. Landfills are lacking air and moisture and most importantly, worms. They cannot live in those conditions. Therefore, garbage in landfills takes much longer to decompose.

 

 

Thanks to Compost.Cornell.Edu, NYTimes.com, Learner.org