Picture of the Day – Happy Labor Day!

September 1, 2014 Picture of the Day: Happy Labor Day everyone! We hope you get a chance to visit America’s public lands on this holiday weekend. (Photo from Isle Royale National Park by Adam Jewell).

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Picture of the Day – St. Mary Lake Sunset.

August 31, 2014 Picture of the Day: St. Mary Lake — St. Mary Lake sits within the St. Mary Valley—”the eastern gateway to Glacier National Park. Prairies, mountains, and forests all converge in the valley to create a diverse and rich habitat for plants and animals. The open meadows surrounded by dense forests can afford some great opportunities for wildlife viewing.” (Photo: Kim Keating, USGS).

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NASA Telescope Witnesses Asteriod Smashup.

August 30, 2014 - NASA’s Spitzer Telescope Witnesses Asteroid Smashup: NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope has spotted an eruption of dust around a young star, possibly the result of a smashup between large asteroids. This type of collision can eventually lead to the formation of planets.

Scientists had been regularly tracking the star, called NGC 2547-ID8, when it surged with a huge amount of fresh dust between August 2012 and January 2013.

“We think two big asteroids crashed into each other, creating a huge cloud of grains the size of very fine sand, which are now smashing themselves into smithereens and slowly leaking away from the star,” said lead author and graduate student Huan Meng of the University of Arizona, Tucson.

While dusty aftermaths of suspected asteroid collisions have been observed by Spitzer before, this is the first time scientists have collected data before and after a planetary system smashup. The viewing offers a glimpse into the violent process of making rocky planets like ours.

Rocky planets begin life as dusty material circling around young stars. The material clumps together to form asteroids that ram into each other. Although the asteroids often are destroyed, some grow over time and transform into proto-planets. After about 100 million years, the objects mature into full-grown, terrestrial planets. Our moon is thought to have formed from a giant impact between proto-Earth and a Mars-size object.

In the new study, Spitzer set its heat-seeking infrared eyes on the dusty star NGC 2547-ID8, which is about 35 million years old and lies 1,200 light-years away in the Vela constellation. Previous observations had already recorded variations in the amount of dust around the star, hinting at possible ongoing asteroid collisions. In hope of witnessing an even larger impact, which is a key step in the birth of a terrestrial planet, the astronomers turned to Spitzer to observe the star regularly. Beginning in May 2012, the telescope began watching the star, sometimes daily.

A dramatic change in the star came during a time when Spitzer had to point away from NGC 2547-ID8 because our sun was in the way. When Spitzer started observing the star again five months later, the team was shocked by the data they received.

“We not only witnessed what appears to be the wreckage of a huge smashup, but have been able to track how it is changing — the signal is fading as the cloud destroys itself by grinding its grains down so they escape from the star,” said Kate Su of the University of Arizona and co-author on the study. “Spitzer is the best telescope for monitoring stars regularly and precisely for small changes in infrared light over months and even years.”

A very thick cloud of dusty debris now orbits the star in the zone where rocky planets form. As the scientists observe the star system, the infrared signal from this cloud varies based on what is visible from Earth. For example, when the elongated cloud is facing us, more of its surface area is exposed and the signal is greater. When the head or the tail of the cloud is in view, less infrared light is observed. By studying the infrared oscillations, the team is gathering first-of-its-kind data on the detailed process and outcome of collisions that create rocky planets like Earth.

“We are watching rocky planet formation happen right in front of us,” said George Rieke, a University of Arizona co-author of the new study. “This is a unique chance to study this process in near real-time.”

The team is continuing to keep an eye on the star with Spitzer. They will see how long the elevated dust levels persist, which will help them calculate how often such events happen around this and other stars. And they might see another smashup while Spitzer looks on.

The results of this study are posted online Thursday in the journal Science.

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Two Major Volcanic Eruptions – In Iceland and PNG (Papua New Guinea).

August 29, 2014 Major Volcanic Eruption in PNG AND Iceland: A MAJOR volcanic eruption in Papua New Guinea this morning could disrupt flights to and from Australia. The Volcanic Ash Advisory Centre in Darwin is monitoring the ash cloud from Tavurcur on PNG’s East Britain Island, which is slowly drifting southwest. Senior meteorologist Ian Shepherd said they were watching the cloud closely and providing advice to airlines.

“The volcanic eruption reached the top of the atmosphere at 50,000 feet which is the same height as which planes travel,” said Mr. Shepherd. “It’s too early to say at this point if the ash cloud will reach Australia but it was a significant eruption.”

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More on the Icelandic Volcanic Eruption Here

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Major Volcanic Eruption in PNG!

August 29, 2014 Major Volcanic Eruption in PNG: A MAJOR volcanic eruption in Papua New Guinea this morning could disrupt flights to and from Australia. The Volcanic Ash Advisory Centre in Darwin is monitoring the ash cloud from Tavurcur on PNG’s East Britain Island, which is slowly drifting southwest. Senior meteorologist Ian Shepherd said they were watching the cloud closely and providing advice to airlines.

“The volcanic eruption reached the top of the atmosphere at 50,000 feet which is the same height as which planes travel,” said Mr. Shepherd. “It’s too early to say at this point if the ash cloud will reach Australia but it was a significant eruption.”

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Picture of the Day – Moose in the Mist!

August 29, 2014 Picture of the Day: Moose in the mist. There was a heavy fog in the river valley this morning in Seedskadee National Wildlife Refuge in Wyoming. This large Bull Moose was spotted eating his breakfast of Pacific willow leaves and branches near Headquarters. (Photo: Tom Koerner).

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Picture of the Day – That is How to Relax!

August 28, 2014 Picture of the Day: Great Smoky Mountains National Park contains some of the largest tracts of wilderness in the East and is a critical sanctuary for a wide variety of animals. Protected in the park are some 65 species of mammals, over 200 varieties of birds, 67 native fish species, and more than 80 types of reptiles and amphibians.

The symbol of the Smokies, the American Black Bear, is perhaps the most famous resident of the park. Great Smoky Mountains National Park provides the largest protected bear habitat in the East. Though populations are variable, biologists estimate approximately 1,500 bears live in the park, a density of approximately two bears per square mile. (Photo: Charlie Choc).

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Picture of the Day – Eagletail Mountains Wilderness Area.

August 27, 2014 Picture of the Day: The 97,880-acre Eagletail Mountains Wilderness is about 65 miles west of Phoenix, Arizona, in Maricopa, Yuma, and LaPaz counties.

The wilderness includes 15 miles of the Eagletail Mountains ridgeline and Courthouse Rock to the north, Cemetary Ridge to the south, and a large desert plain area between the two ridgelines. Several different rock strata are visible in most places, with natural arches, high spires, monoliths, jagged sawtooth ridges and numerous washes six to eight miles long.

Recreation such as extended horseback riding and backpacking trips, sightseeing, photography, rock climbing and day hiking are enhanced by the topographic diversity, scenic character, size, as well as the botanical, wildlife, and cultural values of the area. Additional information is available on our Ben Avery Trail page. (Photo: Bob Wick ).

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Picture of the Day – Tuolumne Meadows Wilderness Center.

August 26, 2014 Picture of the Day: Happy 98th birthday to the National Park Service! We’re celebrating this week by highlighting some of the amazing wilderness managed by the National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (all bureaus within the Department of the Interior). Each day this week, we will post a photo of wilderness managed by the Department. Whichever photo gets the more shares and likes will be featured next week on the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Wilderness Act, which has protected millions of acres of America’s stunning lands.

Our first photo comes from the Tuolumne Meadows Wilderness Center within Yosemite National Park. (Photo: Sean Goebel).

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A Jolt in Northern California!

August 25, 2014 A Jolt in Northern California: Early Sunday morning, Franz Oehler’s house blew apart.

“My girlfriend and I were thrown straight in the air, and the windows exploded,” said Mr. Oehler, a 44-year-old creative director, whose home is nestled among some of the country’s most celebrated vineyards.

A magnitude-6.0 earthquake hit the Napa Valley at 3:20 a.m. Sunday — the strongest temblor in the San Francisco Bay Area in a quarter-century — destroying both opulent and modest homes, rupturing dozens of water and gas mains and causing injuries, mostly minor, to more than 100 people.

Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency, and directed state resources toward a recovery effort in Napa.

At least 120 people had been treated at the emergency room at Queen of the Valley Medical Center in Napa, said Vanessa deGier, a hospital spokeswoman. Most of the injuries were minor lacerations or abrasions caused by falling debris. But three patients were in critical condition, including a child who had been crushed by a falling fireplace. No deaths had been confirmed as of Sunday evening.

The shaking was felt as far off as Salinas, almost 120 miles away, and the United States Geological Survey estimated that economic losses could be up to $1 billion.

Despite the widespread damage, scientists said California was fortunate to escape greater devastation from the earthquake, which exposed gaps in the state’s preparedness. The historic 1906 San Francisco earthquake was about 500 times larger than Sunday’s temblor.

“It is truly small — small compared to what California has experienced in its recorded history,” said Ross S. Stein, a geophysicist at the United States Geological Survey.

“We owe wine country in part to earthquakes,” which created the Napa Valley terrain that is so suitable to vineyards, he said. “We all want to enjoy the fruits of the quakes, so we all have to prepare for the downside, too.”

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