Tag Archive for COE

NASA Funds Study of Gilmore’s Venus Mission Concept

Martha Gilmore

Martha Gilmore, the George I. Seney Professor of Geology, professor of earth and environmental sciences, believes we have a lot to learn from studying Venus—yet the United States has not sent a mission to the Earth-sized planet since the early 1990s. That’s why Gilmore has proposed a major flagship mission concept study to assess whether Venus was ever a habitable planet by looking at its rocks and atmosphere.

In October, NASA agreed to fund the planetary mission concept on Venus submitted by Gilmore, a planetary geologist, and colleagues at several other institutions, who come from varied disciplines. Gilmore, who is the principal investigator, said NASA received 54 proposals and selected 10 to feed into the next Planetary Decadal Survey. Theirs was the only proposal on Venus to receive funding.

In 2020, the National Academy of Science will convene a panel of scientists and engineers to determine the scientific priorities for Planetary Science over the period 2023–2032. This Planetary Decadal Survey is conducted every 10 years and is tasked with recommending a portfolio of missions to NASA. The mission concepts that were funded will be developed for consideration by the Decadal Survey. In the coming months, Gilmore will be meeting and communicating regularly with her science team and conducting mission design runs at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland. Final reports are due to the Decadal Survey in June 2020, and will describe mission architecture, cost, and how the mission will address the scientific priorities of the Decadal Survey and NASA.

Gilmore’s expertise is on the surface morphology and composition of Venus, Mars, and Earth, and her PhD focused on Venus during the United States’ Magellan mission. She explained that all three planets are rocky, and there is evidence that they all had oceans early in solar system history. Scientists believe that Mars’s ocean dried up first—within about one billion years—and that Venus’s ocean may have lasted for two or three billion years.

“Thus, for most of solar system history, there were two Earth-sized planets with oceans,” said Gilmore. “Was Venus habitable like the Earth and if so, what changed?”

“Bomb Cyclone” Strikes Campus on Oct. 17, Causing Extremely Low Pressure, High Winds

weather station

The Wesleyan University Weather Station measures wind speed, barometric pressure, air temperature, relative humidity, and solar irradiance.

On Oct. 17, the Wesleyan Weather Station recorded a dramatic drop in atmospheric (barometric) pressure—a drop so severe it compared to one from Hurricane Sandy in November 2012.

Between 2 a.m. on Oct. 16 and 2 a.m. on Oct. 17, the pressure dropped from 1020 to 980 millibars, resulting in what meteorologists refer to as bombogenesis or a “bomb cyclone.” Bomb cyclones are defined by a drop of more than 24 millibars of pressure over less than 24 hours, and here, the pressure dropped 40 millibars.

During Hurricane Sandy the pressure also dropped to 980 millibars.

“We’ve looked through the last three years of data collected by the Wesleyan Weather Station, and no other event over that time period is more dramatic than this one,” said Dana Royer, professor of earth and environmental sciences. “This clearly shows that the bomb cyclone this month was indeed unusual.”

In Hartford, Conn., the pressure minimum (~980 millibars, similar to the pressure the Wesleyan Weather Station recorded) tied the all-time record for the month of October.

The bomb cyclone also affected wind speed. Between 1 and 2 a.m. on Oct. 17, wind rapidly increased from 0 to 34 mph and fluctuated between 5 and 25 mph over the next 24 hours.

The Wesleyan Weather Station was established with a Teaching Innovation Grant from President Michael Roth and Johan “Joop” Varekamp, the Harold T. Stearns Professor of Earth Science. The station and weather “dashboard” is maintained by Joel LaBella, facilities manager for the Earth and Environmental Sciences Department.

bomb cyclone

The Wesleyan Weather Station recorded the dramatic drop in atmospheric pressure on Oct. 17. This graph shows the average air pressure from the last 30 days.

bomb cyclone

During the bomb cyclone, the Wesleyan Weather Station recorded the drastic fall in atmospheric pressure and the rapid rise in wind speed.

Author Translated by Winston Awarded Nobel Prize in Literature

Krishna Winston, the Marcus L. Taft Professor of German Language and Literature is coordinator of the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship Program.

Krishna Winston, the Marcus L. Taft Professor of German Language and Literature, Emerita.

For the second time, an author whose work Krishna Winston, the Marcus L. Taft Professor of German Language and Literature, Emerita, translated, has won the Nobel Prize in Literature.

The 2019 Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded to Austrian author Peter Handke on October 10 “for an influential work that with linguistic ingenuity has explored the periphery and the specificity of human experience,” according to the Nobel committee. Handke has become “one of the most influential writers in Europe after the Second World War,” the committee said.

Winston, who specializes in literary translation, began translating Handke after his long-time English translator, Ralph Manheim, died. She has published many translations of Handke’s works, including Essay on the Jukebox (1994), My Year in the No-Man’s-Bay (1998), On a Dark Night I Left My Silent House (2000), Crossing the Sierra de Gredos (2007), Don Juan: His Own Story (2010), The Moravian Night (2016), and The Great Fall (2018). She is currently working on several new translations of Handke’s work.

O’Connell in The Conversation: How Deep is the Ocean?

Wesleyan faculty frequently publish articles based on their scholarship in The Conversation US, a nonprofit news organization with the tagline “Academic rigor, journalistic flair.” Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences Suzanne O’Connell has written a new article for The Conversation’s “Curious Kids” series answering the question “How deep is the ocean?” The article is based on her research studying the sea floor.

Curious Kids: How deep is the ocean?

The remotely operated vehicle Deep Discoverer captures images of a newly discovered hydrothermal vent field in the western Pacific. NOAA

The remotely operated vehicle Deep Discoverer captures images of a newly discovered hydrothermal vent field in the western Pacific. (NOAA)

Explorers started making navigation charts showing how wide the ocean was more than 500 years ago. But it’s much harder to calculate how deep it is.

If you wanted to measure the depth of a pool or lake, you could tie a weight to a string, lower it to the bottom, then pull it up and measure the wet part of the string. In the ocean you would need a rope thousands of feet long.

In 1872 the HMS Challenger, a British Navy ship, set sail to learn about the ocean, including its depth. It carried 181 miles (291 kilometers) of rope.

During their four-year voyage, the Challenger crew collected samples of rocks, mud and animals from many different areas of the ocean. They also found one of the deepest zones, in the western Pacific, the Mariana Trench, which stretches for 1,580 miles (2,540 kilometers).

Pie-Eating Contest, Benefit Bake Sale, Live Music at 2019 Pumpkin Fest

On Oct. 5, hundreds of Wesleyan and local community members celebrated the early fall season at the 16th annual Pumpkin Fest at Long Lane Farm.

Participants were treated to farm tours, crafts, a pie-eating contest, free veggie burgers and cider, prizes, and a baked goods sale benefiting New Horizons Domestic Violence Shelter. Lopii, Iris Olympia, Barry Chernoff, Emcee Elvee, Rebecca Roff, and Skye Hawthorne provided live music throughout the event.

Representatives from Wesleyan’s Office of Sustainability, WesDivest, Bread Salvage, Wesleyan Climate Action Group, the Wesleyan Resource Center, WildWes, Natural History Museum, Sunrise, Outing Club, Wesleyan Refugee Project, Uslac, Veg Out, Real Food Challenge, and the Wesleyan North End Action Team provided information booths at the festival.

The event was cosponsored by Long Lane Farm, the College of the Environment, the Green Fund, and Wesleyan Bon Appétit.

View photos of the event below and on this College of the Environment coexist blog post. (Photos below by Nick Sng ’23 and Simon Duan ’23)

pumpkin fest

What’s the Buzz About Pollinators? Class Visits Local Apiary to Find Out

bees

Drew Burnett, kneeling, at right, gave Wesleyan students a tour of a local apiary, where they learned about the centrality of honeybees to our industrialized agricultural system. The students are pictured holding Drew’s Honeybees lip balm.

Students in a Sustainable Agriculture and Food Systems class recently stepped out of the classroom … and into beekeeping suits. The buzzworthy hands-on experience was part of a field trip to an apiary in Norwich, Conn.

“The course explores strategies to create a sustainable agriculture and food system,” said Rosemary Ostfeld ’10, visiting assistant professor of environmental studies, who teaches the class. Her students have already been gaining an understanding of some of the key environmental impacts associated with our agricultural system, and read Rachel Carson’s seminal Silent Spring. The purpose of the field trip on Sept. 18 “was to learn more about pollinators—specifically honeybees—and some of the reasons their populations have been declining in recent years,” Ostfeld said.

Hosting the students were beekeeper Drew Burnett and his assistant Curtis Witt. Burnett is the founder of Drew’s Honeybees, a honeybee-centric, all-natural, USDA organic skincare company. Drew’s Honeybees donates 20 percent of its profits to the State of Connecticut’s Agricultural Experiment Station to fund pioneering research into the causes of and solutions to Colony Collapse Disorder.

Wesleyan Community Participates in Global Climate Strikes (with Photo Gallery)

climate justice

Students participated in the Global Climate Strike on Sept. 20.

On Sept. 20, members of the Wesleyan community—including students, faculty, staff, and Middletown community leaders—joined millions of young people around the world by participating in the Global Climate Strike. Taking place in more than 150 countries, the Global Climate Strike (held Sept. 20-27) amplifies a chorus of concern about the catastrophic dangers of climate change.

The on-campus strike included speeches by students, faculty, and a community member, and concluded with a march around campus. Boldly displaying handcrafted signs, students paraded around campus chanting, “No coal, no oil, keep the carbon in the soil,” and “Hey, hey, ho, ho, fossil fuels have got to go.”

The strike concluded with a march around campus and candlelight vigil. The event kicked off a week’s worth of activities centered around the threat of climate change.

O’Connell Works with International Scientists to Collect Sediment Cores from Scotia Sea

JOIDES

The JOIDES Resolution at the pier in Punta Arenas, Chile. (Credit: Thomas Ronge & IODP)

Suzanne O'Connell

Suzanne O’Connell

As campus was winding down for spring break last semester, Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences Suzanne O’Connell was packing her bags for a two-month expedition in the Scotia Sea, just north of the Antarctic Peninsula, to drill for marine sediment miles below the ocean waves.

On her ninth expedition since 1980, O’Connell was one of 30 international scientists working 12 hours a day, seven days a week, navigating “Iceberg Alley” aboard the JOIDES Resolution research vessel. It is the only ship in the world with coring tools powerful enough to extract both soft sediment and hard rock from the ocean floor.

At five carefully selected sites the ship stopped, and—provided the vicinity was iceberg-free—scientists lowered coring equipment through an opening in the floor of the ship to drill 0.5 to 2.5 miles down through the water and into the ocean sediment. After two hours, the equipment (which uses an action similar to that of coring an apple), would bring back the 31-foot-long core. Back on board, the cores were cut into 1.5-meter segments and then split lengthwise to reveal a layer cake of preserved mineral and organic sediment, each layer representing a snapshot of the ocean floor from a moment in geologic history.

Poulos Studies Endangered Grass on Texas-Mexico Border

Pictured third from right, Helen Poulos, adjunct assistant professor of environmental studies, gathers with the “Fescue Rescue” team at Maderas del Carmen Protected Area in Mexico. There, the scientists are studying Guadalupe fescue, an endangered grass species.

field sites in the Sierra del Carmens, Coahila Mexico

Helen Poulos, adjunct assistant professor of environmental studies, works at a field site in the Sierra del Carmens, Coahuila Mexico. In September 2017, the U.S. government determined that Festuca ligulata needed protected species status and designated it a critical habitat under the Endangered Species Act of 1973.

The rare Guadalupe fescue once thrived in abundance atop mountains spanning the Texas-Mexico border, however, the desert-growing perennial grass is now so endangered, it only flourishes in two locations on Earth.

The rapid population decline is leaving scientists puzzled.

“Developing an effective recovery plan is essential for protecting Guadalupe fescue, however, the lack of basic information about this species’ ecology is a serious barrier to that goal,” explained Helen Poulos, adjunct assistant professor of environmental studies. “Urgent action is needed to stabilize the two extant populations.”

This summer, under Poulos’s leadership, Wesleyan received a National Park Service Grant to study Festuca ligulata through the Southwest Borderlands Resource Protection Program. She joined a bi-national team of scientists known as “Fescue Rescue” to research the two isolated fescue populations in Texas’s Big Bend National Park and the Maderas del Carmen Protected Area in Coahuila, Mexico.

Said Poulos, a plant ecologist who has worked at desert borderland sites for more than a decade, “The Guadalupe fescue has become so endangered that this has become a significant national and international conservation concern.”

Backed by the NPS grant, the Fescue Rescue team will conduct onsite visits from October to mid-November 2019 during Guadalupe fescue seed maturation. Seeds will be collected during this time and transported to labs at Sul Ross State University in Texas and Universidad Autónoma Antonio Narro in Mexico. At these locations, scientists will germinate the seeds and grow their own fescue refugial populations for multiple research purposes.

“Together, they’ll provide a springboard for future plant population genetics, enrichment planting, and adaptive management research on both sides of the border,” Poulos said. “Such information is vital for elaborating site-specific management plans for the species on both U.S. and Mexican soils.”

They’ll study environmental variables, inventory seed production, identify key factors that promote reproductive viability, and ultimately establish refugial populations on both sides of the border.

Although virtually nothing is known about the environmental influences on the growth and reproduction of Guadalupe fescue, Poulos believes the fescue’s population decline is a result of multiple factors.

“Environmental factors that have likely negatively influenced the fescue populations include a recent shift to a hotter and drier climate, the genetic and demographic consequences of small population sizes and isolation, trampling by humans and pack animals, trail runoff, competition from invasive species, and fungal infection of seeds,” she said.

In addition, naturally occurring wildfires, which play an important role in rejuvenating ecosystems, are rare due to livestock grazing in the early 1900s and subsequent direct fire suppression continuing to the present. The remaining plants in the two disjunct populations are likely highly inbred and lack genetic diversity. This can threaten the capacity of populations to resist pathogens and parasites, adapt to changing environmental conditions, and colonize new habitats.

Poulos hopes to deliver her final reports to the National Park Service by summer 2020.

Undergraduates Share Summer Research

poster session

Ben Sullivan ’20 presents his poster titled “Tracking New York Times Coverage of Every Senator First Elected in the 1990s” during the Summer Program for Research in the Sciences Poster Session on July 25. His advisor is Logan Dancey, associate professor of government.

The Summe Program for Research in the Sciences culminated with a research poster session in the lobby of Exley Science Center, with more than 100 students participating.

The program, held May 29 to July 26, was open to frosh, sophomores and juniors currently enrolled at Wesleyan. Wesleyan science faculty members served as mentors for student research in their laboratories. In addition to the closing poster session, the students participated in weekly seminars and workshops, a symposium, and various social events. After the poster session, students displayed their posters in the hallways outside the introductory biology laboratories.

Yang ’21 Participates in NSF-Sponsored Workshop on Antarctic History

Donglai Yang ’21 worked at the University of Arizona this summer on a project titled “Cenozoic detrital record offshore Dronning Maud Land.” His workshop concluded on July 8.

For two weeks this summer, Donglai Yang ’21 used isotope dating of rocks, minerals, and sediments from the Weddell Sea near Antarctica to determine the age of a section of Earth’s southernmost continent.

Yang, an earth and environmental sciences and physics double major, was selected as one of 10 undergraduate and graduate students from around the world to participate in the National Science Foundation–sponsored Antarctichron/Chronothon 2019 workshop held June 24 to July 8 at the University of Arizona.

The workshop introduced participants to geo- and thermochronology through some applications to the geology of Antarctica. Students learned to analyze and interpret their own samples and data in the context of their own research projects.

Yang’s study focused on the “Cenozoic detrital record offshore Dronning Maud Land,” a Norwegian territory that makes up approximately 1/6 of Antarctica. He specifically studied rock and sediment fragments that broke away from a landmass.

“These sediments were deposited around 30 million years ago, but the minerals within that layer of sediments have diverse ages,” he said. “Those minerals are scraped directly from the Antarctic bedrock by glaciers so their ages bear complicated terrestrial thermal history.”

During the workshop, Yang participated in informal lectures and discussions and learned the fundamentals of radioisotopic dating, laboratory techniques, analytical instrumentation, basics of thermochronologic modeling, and the geology of Antarctica. Core samples were provided by the International Ocean Discovery Program sediment core repository and the fellowship also was supported by Wesleyan’s College of the Environment.

Yang’s advisor, Suzanne O’Connell, professor of earth and environmental sciences, initially introduced Yang to the concept of radiometric dating in geosciences.

“I was fascinated at once,” he said. “Its current applications have far transcended its use since its advent when, about a hundred years ago, scientists finally managed to fathom the absolute age of the Earth.”

Now with a much-expanded understanding of the kinetics in multiple decay systems, questions that arise from almost every single field in earth and environmental sciences become resolvable to varying extents, Yang explained. “On top of this, our sedimentology lab reckons it a valuable opportunity to bring in some new techniques as we have rarely dealt with unstable isotopes in minerals before.”

After Yang graduates from Wesleyan, he plans on attending graduate school, conducting research in geophysics or geochemistry.

College of the Environment Supports 32 Student Researchers this Summer

This summer the College of the Environment is funding 32 research opportunities here on campus, from coast to coast, and worldwide, from Connecticut and California to Costa Rica and Ghana.

That’s more than $135K for undergrad research, regardless of major or class year.

Students are studying forest fragmentation in Connecticut; volcanic lake ecosystems in Oregon; Lingzhi mushroom’s influence on Chinese medicine; effects of mercury pollution on Eastern Blacknose Dace snakes; solar cell materials; and much more.