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NASA Finds New, Frightening Way Glaciers Are Melting in Greenland

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NASA Finds New, Frightening Way Glaciers Are Melting in Greenland
Rink Glacier in western Greenland, with a meltwater lake visible center. NASA/OIB

Scientists have had their eyes on Greenland as its iconic glaciers have begun disappearing due to a warming climate. But, what they didn't expect to see was a whole new type of melting.


The Rink Glacier, the largest glacier on the west coast of Greenland, was exhibiting some strange melting behaviors during the hot summers of 2010 and 2012 that can only be described as a "warmed freezer pop sliding out of its plastic casing." This kind of mass melt lasted four months between June and September in 2012 with a loss of 6.7 gigatons of mass.

The mass moved 2.5 miles every month for the first three months, then 7.5 miles all at once in September. That's actually pretty speedy considering the Rink Glacier usually melts at a speed of one to two miles a year. But, still, it was slow enough that NASA had to use aerial GPS data to measure the movement.

"You could literally be standing there and you would not see any indication of the wave," said Eric Larour of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and coauthor of the research. "You would not see cracks or other unique surface features."

The animation shows the mass melt in the summer of 2012. NASA/JPL-Caltech

There was also a similar melting pattern in the summer of 2010, but scientists didn't recognize it on first glance and had to go back and quantify it with the data from that period. Sure enough, there was a wave in 2010 as well, smaller than the one in 2012, but it moved at the same speed.

NASA scientists aren't quite sure why this is happening but they suspect it has something to do with surface melting. During these two summers, there was more standing water due to melting than ever before. In fact, in 2012, more than 95 percent of the surface snow and ice was melting, creating giant lakes on top of the Rink Glacier. The water had to flow somewhere, so it might have carved channels through the ice, weakening the infrastructure of the glacier. This lubricated the ice mass, allowing it to slide out of its pocket, slowly, over the course of the summer.

"Intense melting such as we saw in 2010 and 2012 is without precedent, but it represents the kind of behavior that we might expect in the future in a warming climate," said coauthor Erik Ivins of JPL. "We're seeing an evolving system."

Understanding how and why the ice melts is essential to understanding how climate change is affecting the glaciers over time. This ultimately helps scientists calculate sea level rise and changes to the global carbon cycle.

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A net-casting ogre-faced spider. CBG Photography Group, Centre for Biodiversity Genomics / CC BY-SA 3.0

Just in time for Halloween, scientists at Cornell University have published some frightening research, especially if you're an insect!

The ghoulishly named ogre-faced spider can "hear" with its legs and use that ability to catch insects flying behind it, the study published in Current Biology Thursday concluded.

"Spiders are sensitive to airborne sound," Cornell professor emeritus Dr. Charles Walcott, who was not involved with the study, told the Cornell Chronicle. "That's the big message really."

The net-casting, ogre-faced spider (Deinopis spinosa) has a unique hunting strategy, as study coauthor Cornell University postdoctoral researcher Jay Stafstrom explained in a video.

They hunt only at night using a special kind of web: an A-shaped frame made from non-sticky silk that supports a fuzzy rectangle that they hold with their front forelegs and use to trap prey.

They do this in two ways. In a maneuver called a "forward strike," they pounce down on prey moving beneath them on the ground. This is enabled by their large eyes — the biggest of any spider. These eyes give them 2,000 times the night vision that we have, Science explained.

But the spiders can also perform a move called the "backward strike," Stafstrom explained, in which they reach their legs behind them and catch insects flying through the air.

"So here comes a flying bug and somehow the spider gets information on the sound direction and its distance. The spiders time the 200-millisecond leap if the fly is within its capture zone – much like an over-the-shoulder catch. The spider gets its prey. They're accurate," coauthor Ronald Hoy, the D & D Joslovitz Merksamer Professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior in the College of Arts and Sciences, told the Cornell Chronicle.

What the researchers wanted to understand was how the spiders could tell what was moving behind them when they have no ears.

It isn't a question of peripheral vision. In a 2016 study, the same team blindfolded the spiders and sent them out to hunt, Science explained. This prevented the spiders from making their forward strikes, but they were still able to catch prey using the backwards strike. The researchers thought the spiders were "hearing" their prey with the sensors on the tips of their legs. All spiders have these sensors, but scientists had previously thought they were only able to detect vibrations through surfaces, not sounds in the air.

To test how well the ogre-faced spiders could actually hear, the researchers conducted a two-part experiment.

First, they inserted electrodes into removed spider legs and into the brains of intact spiders. They put the spiders and the legs into a vibration-proof booth and played sounds from two meters (approximately 6.5 feet) away. The spiders and the legs responded to sounds from 100 hertz to 10,000 hertz.

Next, they played the five sounds that had triggered the biggest response to 25 spiders in the wild and 51 spiders in the lab. More than half the spiders did the "backward strike" move when they heard sounds that have a lower frequency similar to insect wing beats. When the higher frequency sounds were played, the spiders did not move. This suggests the higher frequencies may mimic the sounds of predators like birds.

University of Cincinnati spider behavioral ecologist George Uetz told Science that the results were a "surprise" that indicated science has much to learn about spiders as a whole. Because all spiders have these receptors on their legs, it is possible that all spiders can hear. This theory was first put forward by Walcott 60 years ago, but was dismissed at the time, according to the Cornell Chronicle. But studies of other spiders have turned up further evidence since. A 2016 study found that a kind of jumping spider can pick up sonic vibrations in the air.

"We don't know diddly about spiders," Uetz told Science. "They are much more complex than people ever thought they were."

Learning more provides scientists with an opportunity to study their sensory abilities in order to improve technology like bio-sensors, directional microphones and visual processing algorithms, Stafstrom told CNN.

Hoy agreed.

"The point is any understudied, underappreciated group has fascinating lives, even a yucky spider, and we can learn something from it," he told CNN.

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