Ocean

The Arctic is a final garbage dump for ocean plastic

Arctic expedition
A recent expedition to the Arctic found that some areas of the seemingly pristine waters, particularly around Greenland and in the Barents Sea, are littered with copious amounts of plastic debris.

HIDDEN HEAP

The Arctic Ocean is a final resting place for plastic debris dumped into the North Atlantic Ocean, new research suggests.

A 2013 circumpolar expedition discovered hundreds of tons of plastic debris, from fishing lines to plastic films, ecologist Andrés Cózar of the University of Cádiz in Spain and colleagues report April 19 in Science Advances. While many areas remain relatively unpolluted, the density of plastic trash in the…

More than one ocean motion determines tsunami size

2011 tsunami visualized
OCEAN MOTION The 2011 tsunami that devastated Japan (forecast shown) was fueled by both the horizontal and vertical motion of the seafloor, new research suggests. Darker colors represent higher waves. Black triangles mark tsunami-measuring buoys.

Earthquake-powered shifts along the seafloor that push water forward, not just up, could help supersize tsunamis.

By combining laboratory experiments, computer simulations and real-world observations, researchers discovered that the horizontal movement of sloped seafloor during an underwater earthquake can give tsunamis a critical boost. Scientists previously assumed that vertical movement alone contributed most of a tsunami’s energy.

More than half of the energy for the unexpectedly large tsunami that devastated Japan in 2011 (SN Online: 6/16/11) originated from the horizontal movement of the seafloor, the researchers estimate. Accounting for this lateral motion could explain why some earthquakes generate large tsunamis while others don’t, the researchers report in a paper to be published in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Oceans.

“For the last 30 years, we’ve been moving in the wrong direction to do a good job predicting tsunamis,” says study coauthor Tony Song, an oceanographer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. “This new theory will lead to a better predictive approach than we have now.”

The largest tsunamis form following earthquakes that occur along tectonic boundaries where an oceanic plate sinks below a continental plate. That movement isn’t always smooth; sections of the two plates can stick together. As the bottom oceanic plate sinks, it bends the top continental plate downward like a weighed-down diving board. Eventually, the pent-up stress becomes too much and the plates abruptly unstick, causing the overlying plate to snap upward and triggering an earthquake. That upward…

Food for microbes found on Enceladus

Enceladus’ plume
FINDING FOOD A deep dive into Enceladus’ plume, shown here in an artist’s illustration, reveals that the moon harbors molecular hydrogen. On Earth, the gas serves as a food source for some microbes, suggesting life could exist on Enceladus, too.

Saturn’s icy moon Enceladus packs snacks suitable for microbial life.

Data from the Cassini spacecraft show that the vaporous plume shooting out of the moon’s southern pole contains molecular hydrogen. It is probably generated when water in the moon’s subterranean ocean reacts with rock in its core, researchers report in the April 14 Science. Such reactions at hydrothermal vents and in other extreme environments on Earth produce high abundances of hydrogen, which some microbes use for food. There’s enough hydrogen on Enceladus to sustain microbial life, the team suggests.

“We are not saying Enceladus has life, but the discovery does move the moon higher on the list of potentially habitable places in the solar system,” says study coauthor J. Hunter Waite of the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio.

Enceladus became a good target for finding life beyond Earth when researchers found a global ocean under the moon’s icy exterior and hints of hydrothermal activity (SN: 10/17/15, p. 8; SN: 4/18/15, p. 10)….