Whole blocks of ground were buckled and lifted upwards, in places by up to 8m.
Subsequent investigations have found that at least 12 separate faults broke during the quake, including some that had not previously been mapped.
Writing up its findings in the journal Science, an international team says the Kaikoura event, as it has become known, should prompt a rethink about how earthquakes are expected to behave in high-risk regions such as New Zealand.
“What we saw was a scenario that would never have been included in our seismic hazard models,” said Dr Ian Hamling from the country’s geophysics research agency, GNS Science.
At issue was the way the quake was able to rupture so far along its path, to produce such a big magnitude.
Starting in South Island’s North Canterbury region, the crustal failure moved eastwards and northwards along the coast to Marlborough Province, before then petering out offshore. In the process, the quake managed to straddle two major fault networks.
The behaviour challenged some long-accepted ideas. One of these is the notion that ruptures cannot jump large separations between individual fault segments.
Five km is considered something of a limit. But in the Kaikoura event, substantially larger step-overs were recorded.
“There were also in this case some faults we didn’t know about, even though New Zealand has one of the best fault maps in the world; and so some of these big jumps were facilitated by motion on faults we didn’t know were there. But in many cases, there are genuine gaps of 15-20km.”
The team believes the exceptional nature of the Kaikoura event raises questions about how the risk of future quakes is assessed. Some of the assumptions that go into building seismic models now need to be revisited, the group argues.
Also astonishing was the scale of “surface expression”. Giant fissures opened in the ground, highways were broken by metres-long offsets, beaches rose up from the sea, and railway lines were lifted high into the air.
One of the most photographed areas was the countryside around the Papatea fault.
“You can call it bonkers; it’s certainly a real puzzle,” said Dr Hamling. “It’s a block of material of about 50 sq km that’s been thrust up out of the ground by about 8m and then pushed south by 4-5m.
“To try to model it in the traditional way is almost impossible; it’s very hard to explain how you can get this thing to pop up in the manner that it has.”
To understand the complexity of the Kaikoura quake, the scientists used a range of techniques, including mapping with satellite interferometry.
This works by finding the difference in “before” and “after” radar images of the Earth taken from orbit. It allows even quite subtle ground movements to be detected, including in those areas where the surface itself has not been ripped apart.
The team was able to call on two different systems – the Sentinel-1 spacecraft operated by Europe, and the Alos platform owned by the Japanese.
“Alos’s longer radar wavelengths allow us to see through the vegetation; we can see the tree trunks rather than the leaves and they’re much more stable for making deformation maps,” explained Prof Wright.
“However, with Sentinel’s shorter wavelengths you get much more detail, which allows us to narrow down exactly where the deformation has occurred.”
Jonathan.Amos-INTERNET@bbc.co.uk and follow me on Twitter: @BBCAmos
After two decades of development and “heartbreak”, scientists are on the verge of sending missions to explore the ocean world of Europa. Could this be our best shot at finding life elsewhere in the Solar System?
Orbiting the giant planet Jupiter is an icy world, just a little smaller than Earth’s moon.
From a distance, Europa appears to be etched with a nexus of dark streaks, like the product of a toddler’s chaotic scribbling.
Close up, these are revealed to be long linear cracks in the ice, extending in some cases for thousands of kilometres. Many are filled with an unknown contaminant that scientists dub the “brown gunk”. Elsewhere, the surface is tortured and irregular, as if massive slabs of ice have drifted, spun and flipped over in slush.
Jupiter’s immense gravity helps generate tidal forces that repeatedly stretch and relax the moon. But the stresses that created Europa’s smashed up terrain are best explained by the ice shell floating on an ocean of liquid water.
“The fact that there’s liquid water underneath the surface which we know from previous missions, in particular from the magnetometer observations made by the Galileo spacecraft as it flew past [in the 1990s], makes it one of the most exciting potential targets to look for life,” says Prof Andrew Coates of UCL’s Mullard Space Science Laboratory in Surrey, UK.
Europa’s briny deep might extend 80-170km into the moon’s interior, meaning it could be holding twice as much liquid water as there is in all of Earth’s oceans.
And while water is one vital prerequisite for life, Europa’s ocean might have others – such as a source of chemical energy for microbes. What’s more, the ocean may communicate with the surface through a number of means, including warm blobs of ice from below rising up through the ice shell. So studying the surface could provide clues to what’s going on in the ocean.
The first is a flyby mission called Europa Clipper that would likely launch in 2022. The second is a lander mission that would follow a few years later.
Dr Robert Pappalardo, from Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, is Clipper’s project scientist.
“We’re really trying to get at Europa’s potential habitability, the ingredients for life: water, and whether there’s chemical energy for life,” he tells me. “We do that by trying to understand the ocean and the ice shell, the composition and the geology. And mixed into those is the level of current activity at Europa.”
Clipper carries a payload of nine instruments, including a camera that will image most of the surface; spectrometers to understand its composition; ice-penetrating radar to map the ice shell in three dimensions and find water beneath the ice shell; and a magnetometer to characterise the ocean.
However, since the Galileo spacecraft provided evidence for an ocean in the 1990s, we’ve learned that Europa isn’t one of a kind.
“One of the most amazing and significant discoveries of the past decade or so in planetary exploration is that you can’t swing a dead cat in the outer Solar System without hitting an ocean world,” says Clipper’s programme scientist Curt Niebur, from Nasa headquarters in Washington DC.
At Saturn’s moon Enceladus, for example, ice from a subsurface ocean gushes into space through fissures at the south pole.
The saturnian satellite could also get a dedicated mission in the 2020s, but Dr Niebur believes Europa stands out: “Europa is much larger than Enceladus and has more of everything: more geological activity, more water, more space for that water, more heat, more raw ingredients and more stability in its environment.”
But there’s something else that marks the moon out: its neighbourhood. Europa’s orbital path takes it deep into Jupiter’s powerful magnetic field, which traps and speeds up particles.
The resulting belts of intense radiation fry spacecraft electronics, limiting the durations of missions to months or even weeks. That said, this radiation also drives reactions on Europa’s surface, yielding chemicals called oxidants. On Earth, biology exploits the chemical reactions between oxidants and compounds known as reductants to supply the energy needed for life.
However, the oxidants made on the surface are only useful to Europan microbes if they can get down into the ocean. Fortunately, the process of convection that pushes warm blobs of ice upwards might also drive surface material down. Once in the ocean, oxidants could react with reductants made by seawater reacting with the rocky ocean floor.
“You need both poles of the battery,” explains Robert Pappalardo.
For scientists like Dr Pappalardo, the impending missions are the realisation of a two-decades-long dream. Since the first Europa mission concepts were drawn up in the late 1990s, one promising proposal after another has been thwarted.
During the noughties, the US and Europe even pooled resources on a mission that would have sent separate spacecraft to Europa and Jupiter’s larger ice moon Ganymede. But the plan was cancelled amid budget cuts, with the European part evolving into the Juice mission.
“I don’t think there’s been a Europa mission over the past 18 years that I have not either had my fingers in or has not passed under my eye,” says Curt Niebur.
“It’s been a long road. The road to launch is always a rocky one, and it’s always full of heartbreak. We’ve experienced that more than most on Europa.”
Exploring Europa is costly – though no more so than other Nasa “flagship” missions such as Cassini or the Curiosity rover.
There are inherent engineering challenges, such as operating within Jupiter’s radiation belts. Spacecraft instruments need to be shielded with materials such as titanium metal but, says Dr Pappalardo, “you can only shield them so much because they have to be able to see Europa”.
So to keep Clipper safe, Nasa is going to stray from the rulebook somewhat. “The assumption always was: Galileo flew past Europa, so the next mission has to be an orbiter. That’s just how we do business,” says Dr Niebur. But rather than orbit Europa, Clipper will instead reduce its exposure to mission-shortening radiation by orbiting Jupiter, and make at least 45 close flybys of the icy moon over three-and-a-half years.
“We realised we could avoid those technical challenges of orbiting Europa, make the mission much more achievable and still get the science we want if we fly past it a lot,” says Clipper’s program scientist.
The strength of sunlight near Europa is about a 30th of what it is at Earth. But Nasa decided it could power Clipper with solar panels rather than the radioactive generators some other outer planet missions have used. “All those years of study forced us to burn away our pre-conceptions and get us to really focus on reality, not on our wish-list… to focus on the best science,” says Curt Niebur.
In 2011, following the cancellation of the US-European mission, a National Research Council report restated the importance of exploring the icy moon. Even so, Nasa remained wary because of the cost.
But the support on Capitol Hill has been pivotal. A Europa venture has bipartisan backing, and in Republican Congressman John Culberson – the chair of the House Appropriations Subcommittee, which has jurisdiction over Nasa’s budget – the mission has had a unique champion.
The 60-year-old Texan lawmaker has been entranced by Europa ever since observing it through the Celestron 8 telescope he bought himself as a high school graduation present. Over the last four years, the subcommittee he chairs has channelled money to scientists working on Europa, even when the space agency’s chief wasn’t asking for it.
Generous investment means that much more of the technical work has been completed on Clipper than is normal for a mission at its stage (phase B) in the Nasa project cycle. The lander is at an earlier stage of development, called pre-phase A, but a report on the mission’s science value was discussed at a workshop here at the LPSC.
The lander has received no funding in the President’s 2018 budget request for Nasa. But Dr Jim Green, director of planetary science at the agency, tells me: “That mission in particular is tremendously exciting, because it tells us the science we have to do from the surface of a moon that’s really hard to get to.
“We still have quite the process to go through, do the due diligence, understanding the kind of measurements we need to make. Then we’ll work with the administration in the future at the right time to see if, budgetarily, we can move forward with it.”
Some innovative Europa lander concepts have been proposed over the last two decades, reflecting the scientific bounty to be had by touching down. Dr Geraint Jones of the Mullard Space Science Laboratory has worked on one concept called a penetrator.
“They haven’t been flown in space before, but it’s a really promising technology,” he explains. A projectile deployed from a satellite hits the surface “really hard, at about 300m/second, about 700 miles an hour”, exposing pristine ice for analysis by onboard instruments, which could be designed to withstand the impact.
By contrast, Nasa’s forthcoming lander would put down softly with the help of the Sky Crane technology used to drop the Curiosity rover safely on Mars in 2012. During the touchdown, it will use an autonomous landing system to detect and avoid surface hazards in real time.
Clipper will provide the reconnaissance for a landing site. “I like to think of it as finding that right oasis, where there might be water close to the surface. Maybe it’s warm and maybe it has organic materials,” says Bob Pappalardo.
The craft would be equipped with a sensitive instrument payload and a counter-rotating saw to help get at fresher samples below the radiation-processed surface ice.
“The lander is all about hitting the freshest, most pristine sample possible. One way to do that is to dig deep, another way is going to where there is some kind of eruption on the surface – like a plume – that’s dropping very fresh material onto the surface,” says Curt Niebur.
In recent years, the Hubble telescope has made tentative observations of plumes of water-ice erupting from beneath Europa, much as they do on Enceladus. But there’s no point in the lander going to the site of a decades-old eruption, it would need to visit the location of a much more recent plume.
So scientists need to understand what’s controlling these geysers: for example, Clipper will determine whether the plumes are correlated with any hot spots on the surface.
Earth’s seas are teeming with life, so it can be hard for us to contemplate the prospect of a sterile, 100km-plus deep ocean on Europa. But the scientific threshold for detecting life is set very high. So will we be able to recognise alien life if it’s there?
“The goal of the lander mission is not simply to detect life [to our satisfaction], but to convince everyone else that we have done so,” Dr Niebur explains. “It does no good for us to invest in this mission if all we create is scientific controversy.”
Thus, the lander’s science definition team came up with two ways to address this. First, any detection of life has to be based on multiple, independent lines of evidence from direct measurements.
“There’s no silver bullet; you don’t do one measurement and say: ‘aha, eureka we’ve found it’. You look at the sum total,” says Dr Niebur. Second, the scientists have come up with a framework to interpret those results, some of which might be positive, while others negative: “It creates a decision tree that marches through all the different variables. Following all these different paths, the end result is: yes, we’ve found life, or no we haven’t,” he says.
At the lander workshop here at the LPSC, Nasa’s Kevin Hand described the process as “biosignature bingo”. Now, the team will have to see if the scientific community is persuaded.
Curt Niebur explains: “I want to have that discussion now, today, years before we launch so that we can all be focused on analysing the data once we land.”
The British-led effort to break the World Land Speed Record is going to slip again – to 2018.
The Bloodhound Super-Sonic Car was supposed to go racing later this year, to try to raise the current mark of 763mph (1,228km/h) to over 800mph.
But what are described as “short-term cash flow problems” have put a dent in the schedule.
The upside, says the team, is that it provides additional time to eke more power from the car’s rocket.
Engineers want some extra thrust margin just in case the final build of the vehicle turns out to be heavier than expected.
“It’s frustrating, I know; and the team are disappointed but we’re resilient and we’re going to make this happen,” Bloodhound director Richard Noble told BBC News.
“The money is coming in but it doesn’t always match our planning and fit with the times when we need it.”
In the meantime, the project’s education programme, which delivers STEM activities to schools, continues apace. Nearly 100,000 children have participated in the last year, developing their knowledge of maths and physics by constructing and running mini rocket cars.
Bloodhound has signed some big sponsorship deals recently, notably with the Chinese auto manufacturer Geely. This cleared all debts.
Mr Noble said he was also in the process of inking two more – one with a major IT company, and another with a leading fashion brand.
But the time it takes for deals to be agreed, for contracts to be signed, and for money then to flow sometimes leaves Bloodhound cash-short, he explained.
“I’m reasonably happy now that we’ll be able to make our budget this year, which is great – and that means we will be on the desert, running the car, probably in mid-summer 2018.”
The car itself is all but finished. It was put on static display in October 2015, and then stripped down for a final re-assembly, with fluids, and checks.
The plan now is for Bloodhound to do its slow-speed testing (about 200mph) on the runway at Newquay Aerohub in late summer/autumn this year.
A specific date has yet to be announced but it will follow the completion of some “tie down” investigations, in which the car is held in place while its EJ200 Eurofighter jet engine is taken up to speed.
The jet is what will get the car rolling for its assault on the land speed record when it eventually gets to the race track on Hakskeen Pan in Northern Cape, South Africa. But it is the grunt from a rocket that will push the vehicle through the sound barrier and up to 800mph.
Bloodhound’s partner on this is the Norwegian aerospace and defence company Nammo.
It is providing in the first instance what is termed a monopropellant rocket. Monopropellants work by pumping High Test Peroxide over a catalyst. This decomposes the liquid to produce super-hot steam that is then vented through a nozzle.
Nammo has been testing rockets that have produced 30 kilonewtons of thrust. But Bloodhound’s engineers would like to get closer to the rockets’ expected monopropellant thrust ceiling of 40-45kN.
This would yield some margin in performance if the final assembly of the car turns out to be significantly heavier than the anticipated 7.5 to 7.75 tonnes.
“The car’s weight has fluctuated between 200 and 500 kilos from where we thought we were going to be. It’s something of a moving feast; we’re weighing the car as we’re building it,” said chief engineer Mark Chapman.
“But if the figures turned out to be pessimistic, we’d look pretty stupid if we turned up at Hakskeen Pan and could only do 680mph. So, the thought was: let’s be sure we can get to the speeds we want.
“Nammo are confident they can deliver a 45kN motor. They’ll test that motor later this year and then we’ll test it in-car next year.”
The Bloodhound project was launched in 2008. Back then, the thought was a new record bid would be made in 2011. But the scale of this land speed attempt has dwarfed all previous efforts.
Richard Noble was the director for the Thrust SSC car when it set the current world record in 1997. He says just £2.48m in cash was spent to achieve its supersonic mark.
In contrast, the cash spend on Bloodhound is likely to be in the region of £60m. On top of this are a whole host of in-kind contributions, which include the loan of EJ200 engines from the Ministry of Defence and the consultancy work that comes with them from Rolls-Royce.
The companies and scientific institutions involved all speak of a “Bloodhound effect”.
The two universities – Swansea and the West of England – who helped to design the car say there has been a big rise in the numbers applying to take their aerospace and engineering courses.
Likewise, engineering firms such as Castle in Glasgow, which has made the aluminium wheels for Bloodhound, say they have found it much easier to attract apprentice applications – a boost it attributes directly to the Bloodhound association.
Jonathan.Amos-INTERNET@bbc.co.uk and follow me on Twitter: @BBCAmos
The crater made by the asteroid that killed off the dinosaurs is revealing clues to the origins of life on Earth.
Scientists have drilled into the 200km-wide Chicxulub crater now buried under the Gulf of Mexico.
They say its rocks show evidence of having been home to a large “hydrothermal system”, where hot fluids flowed through cracks and fissures.
Similar systems, generated by impacts on the early Earth, could have helped kickstart the first lifeforms.
The hydrothermal system at Chicxulub may have been active for two million years or more, the scientists say.
Dr David Kring, from the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston, is one of the researchers who discovered and reported the crater’s location.
“The impact generated a very large subsurface hydrothermal system,” he told BBC News.
“That’s exciting because we are using Chicxulub as a proxy for other, large impact events very early in Earth’s history when we think these kinds of systems might have been crucibles for pre-biotic chemistry and the habitats for the evolution of the earliest life on our planet.”
About 829m of Chicxulub core material was drilled between May and June 2016. Since then, team-members have been hard at work examining rocks from the crater which was punched in the crust by a 15km-wide space object some 66 million years ago.
The drilling project targeted an area called the peak ring, which contains the rocks that moved the greatest distance in the impact.
At a briefing here at the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference (LPSC) in Texas, Prof Sonia Tikoo, who studies palaeomagnetism, said the cores had given scientists a lower bound for how long this hydrothermal system lasted.
The direction of Earth’s magnetic field flips every few hundred thousand years. When the Chicxulub extinction event occurred it had the reverse polarity to today.
“One thing that was very intriguing was that there were several samples in the breccia melt sequence that had what’s now the normal polarity – the same direction as what we have today,” the Rutgers University, New Jersey, scientist said.
“Three hundred thousand years [after the impact] the Earth’s magnetic field crosses over and assumes the ‘normal’ polarity – it has the opposite direction [to that which existed at the time of the imapct]. These rocks must have acquired their magnetisation during one of these normal polarity times that came later. Since the first of these happened 300,000 years later – that provides a lower bound constraint for the hydrothermal system, telling us how long hot fluids were going through the crater.”
The whole system may at first have been too hot for even the most heat-tolerant microorganisms. However, as time went on, the peak ring would have cooled down, allowing tiny lifeforms to exploit the chemicals dissolved in the hot fluids for fuel.
Chicxulub Crater – The impact that changed life on Earth
A 15km-wide object dug a hole in the crust 100km across and 30km deep
This bowl then collapsed, leaving a crater 200km across and a few km deep
Its central zone rebounded and relaxed, producing an inner “peak ring”
Today, much of the crater is offshore, buried under 600m of sediments
On land, it is covered by limestone deposits, but its outline is visible
It is evident in an arc of famous sinkholes referred to as cenotes
“With regard to the hydrothermal system, we’ve been able to deduce the mineralogy that the hot water fluids produced,” said Prof Tikoo.
“We’re starting to track, in time, the thermal evolution: how hot the waters got and we’ve been able to watch how they cool down.
“Eventually, they get cool enough to support thermophilic and hyperthermophilic organisms – the same type of biota that live at volcanic hot springs. These would have lived within the fractures and the veins of this subsurface impact crater.
“We don’t know how diverse this population will be. Is it two species that persists for millions of years? Or will we see an explosion of life so that we suddenly see 15 or 30 or 50 species?”
The asteroid impact killed off 75% of species on Earth, including the dinosaurs.
Debris thrown into the atmosphere probably saw the skies darken and the global climate cool. It may also have triggered raging wildfires. But why this environmental cataclysm killed off some groups such as the dinosaurs, while allowing birds and mammals, for example, to survive remains unclear.
“The differential survival of animals on the planet – we don’t know why birds survived and why turtles and some types of reptiles survived,” pondered Prof Tikoo. “But based on this borehole, we are going to get some limits on important parameters like energy, like trajectory – and all of that is data that will carry us towards those answers.”
The project to drill into Chicxulub Crater was conducted by the European Consortium for Ocean Research Drilling (ECORD) as part of the International Ocean Discovery Program (IODP). The expedition was also supported by the International Continental Scientific Drilling Program (ICDP).
The first dinosaurs may have originated in the Northern Hemisphere, possibly in an area that is now Britain.
This is one of the conclusions of the first detailed re-evaluation of the relationships between dinosaurs for 130 years.
It shows that the current theory of how dinosaurs evolved and where they came from may well be wrong.
This major shake-up of dinosaur theory is published in this weeks’s edition of the journal Nature.
The reassessment shows that the meat eating beasts, such as Tyrannosaurus rex and Velociraptor, have been wrongly classified in the dinosaur family tree.
One of the implications is that dinosaurs first emerged 15 million years earlier than previously believed.
And the fossil evidence suggests that this origin may have occurred further north than current thinking suggests – possibly in an area that is now the UK, according to the new study’s lead author, Matthew Baron of Cambridge University.
“The northern continents certainly played a much bigger role in dinosaur evolution than we previously thought and dinosaurs may have originated in the UK,” he told BBC News.
The previous version of the dinosaur family tree was developed 130 years ago by Harry Govier Seeley, a palaeontologist also working at Kings College, London.
By comparing the size, shapes and arrangements of fossilised bones of different species of dinosaurs and how they changed over time, he devised a theory of how they were related and how they evolved.
He concluded that there were two main groups of dinosaurs: those whose hip bones were like those of modern-day birds, which Seeley called Ornithischia, and those whose hip bones were more reptile-like, which he named Saurischia.
The bird-hipped group were all exclusively plant-eaters and included familiar creatures such as Stegosaurus and Triceratops.
The lizard-hipped group had two branches: the plant-eaters, such as Brontosaurus, and the meat-eaters, such as T. rex.
This organisation has been unchallenged until now.
In redrawing the relationships, researchers studied many more bones and included more species, quite a few of which have been discovered only in the past 30 years.
The team’s analysis suggests that Seeley got it wrong.
The new approach argues for the meat-eaters, a group known as theropods, to be moved into the same classification as the bird-hipped dinosaurs.
Cambridge’s Prof David Norman, who supervised the study, said it represented a major departure from past thinking.
“All the major textbooks covering the topic of the evolution of the vertebrates will now need to be re-written if this suggestion survives academic scrutiny and becomes accepted more widely,” he explained.
“It seems that the dinosaur family tree is being shaken quite firmly. It will be interesting to see what drops from its branches in years to come.”
The reason that the Northern Hemisphere, and the UK in particular, has become more likely to be the place for the emergence of the first dinosaurs is the fact that two crucial fossils were found in Scotland and England.
For decades they were dismissed as unimportant species, but following the redrawing of the dinosaur tree they are now placed close to its base.
The Scottish and English finds suggest that it is now more likely that the first dinosaurs emerged 245 million years ago in the northern part of the planet on a land mass called Laurasia, rather than 230 million years ago on a more southerly unit called Gondwana.
Matthew Baron said the results came as a “shock”.
“A British scientist, Sir Richard Owen, gave the word dinosaur to the world. Now we may be looking at the possibility that the very earliest dinosaurs were roaming an area that has become Britain and the group itself could have originated on these shores.”
The researchers involved cautioned, though, that the fossil record for early dinosaurs is so sparse that it would be difficult to make any firm claims at this stage for their origins. But the team hopes that its findings will spur palaeontologists to search for more fossil evidence to back up the new ideas.
A challenge to one of main theories of dinosaur evolution is bound to be controversial.
Prof Hans Sues of the Smithsonian Museum in Washington DC, US, said that the findings had to be tested and corroborated.
“I am sceptical as none of the other recent analyses obtained similar results – but I keep an open mind,” he told BBC News.
Prof Paul Barrett of London’s Natural History Museum, who was involved in the study and came up with the idea of testing Seeley’s old theory, said that the new family tree seemed more logical than the previous one.
“Now we have our evolutionary tree, we can use it as a foundation to understand how dinosaur features evolved over time, and it is already beginning to help us explain some questions that have puzzled us,” he added.
Among those questions is the fact that birds are thought to have evolved from meat-eating dinosaurs. But under the old scheme, they were not in the bird-hipped group.
The new tree fits more neatly with the observation that many meat-eating species and bird-hipped dinosaurs had feathers. The fact that previously they were in separate groups led some to speculate that all dinosaurs, including the long-necked sauropods were feathered. But there has been no fossil evidence for this, and it is a suggestion that never really took hold.
The latest work also indicates that dinosaurs evolved into meat-eaters on two separate occasions during their evolution and it even implies that the very first dinosaur was omnivorous and therefore ate both plants and meat.
There was, however, one potentially disastrous consequence of the new scheme.
It could have meant that the long-necked dinosaurs such Brontosaurus and Diplodocus would not strictly speaking be classed as dinosaurs. But anxious not to be known as the people who expelled the Natural History Museum’s emblematic Dippy the Diplodocus skeleton from the status of dinosaur, Matt Baron and his fellow researchers carefully reworded the definition.
“I didn’t want to make Dippy not a dinosaur. That would have created a lot of upset. They are a very well known group and everyone has recognised them to be dinosaurs. To be truthful, I didn’t want to be chased out of every conference I went to for the rest of my career.”
Mr Baron’s new family tree has similarities to ideas developed by the biologist Thomas Henry Huxley in 1870. He believed, correctly as it turns out, that birds descended from meat-eating dinosaurs and he included them then with the bird-hipped dinosaurs in a group he named Ornithoscelida, or bird-limbed.
At the time Huxley’s ideas were roundly dismissed and eclipsed by Seeley’s.
As an acknowledgement of Huxley’s contribution, the team has revived the name of Ornithoscelida for his new combined group.
As well as being a remarkable piece of research in itself, the work is a vignette of the scientific process itself – how challenging old, well-established ideas with a fresh eye is always worthwhile and can often bring new insights.
“We’ve proved Huxley right,” said Mr Baron. “We didn’t pay any attention to any of the dogma of the past 130 years. We tried to incorporate no prior assumption and so we have pulled apart the tree and reassembled it and have come up with solutions to questions that have been troubling scientists for a very long time.”
Twelve “new” types of cloud – including the rare, wave-like asperitas cloud – have been recognised for the first time by the International Cloud Atlas.
The atlas, which dates back to the 19th Century, is the global reference book for observing and identifying clouds.
Last revised in 1987, its new fully-digital edition includes the asperitas after campaigns by citizen scientists.
Other new entries include the roll-like volutus, and contrails, clouds formed from the vapour trail of aeroplanes.
Since its first publication in 1896, the International Cloud Atlas has become an important reference tool for people working in meteorological services, aviation and shipping.
The first edition contained 28 coloured photographs and set out detailed standards for classifying clouds. The last full edition was published in 1975 with a revision in 1987, which quickly became a collector’s item.
These clouds were first recorded over Iowa in the US in 2006, but soon a torrent of similar images from around the world began to pour in to the Cloud Appreciation Society, a citizen science body.
They began to lobby the WMO for official recognition of the cloud type. But the fact that it has now been officially included came as something of a surprise.
“Back in 2008, I thought the chances of this becoming official were really minimal,” said Gavin Pretor-Pinney, president of the society.
“At first the WMO were saying they had no plans to do a new edition, but over time I think they began to realise there is an interest among the public in clouds and there is a need for that interest to be an informed one, there’s a need for this authoritative work.”
Asperitas becomes the first addition of a new recognisable term since 1953. In addition several other supplementary features of clouds have also been added including cavum, cauda (known as a tail cloud), fluctus and murus (known as a wall cloud).
In terms of the way the WMO classifies clouds, they have also added one new “species” – the volutus, or roll-cloud, a low horizontal tube-shaped cloud mass that appears to roll about a horizontal axis.
A key element in the evolution of the atlas has been the impact of technology. People all over the world are able to capture and exchange images on their smart phones of fleeting cloud formations.
“People don’t have to be an official weather observer, they don’t have to be schooled in the finer points of the International Cloud Atlas, they just go ‘that’s amazing’ and take a picture and send it to us, and being in the centre of that network we can spot a pattern,” said Gavin Pretor-Pinney.
The atlas also includes a recognition of the processes that can lead to cloud formation, so the clouds that arise from wildfires are now classified as flammagenitus.
Similarly patches of cloud that are formed over forests and over waterfalls are classified, but also one of the most widely seen features in the sky, contrails formed from the exhausts of airplanes, are given greater recognition.
“In the modern day you will look up to the sky and see clouds made by airplanes. Once they are made they can linger for days,” said BBC meteorologist John Hammond.
“It’s one example of how crucial knowledge of cloud physics is – it’s not just an aesthetic, our knowledge of clouds is still fairly limited.”
The new atlas also recognises some weather features that not everyone might agree can be seen as clouds. These include rainbows, halos, snow devils and hailstones.
“There is a blurred edge between what is a cloud and what is a sheet of hail falling from the sky,” said John Hammond.
“There are grey areas around the edge of this. All types of optical effects can be defined as clouds, be they halos or snow devils or rainbows, but I’m a little bit old-fashioned and I struggle with the inclusion of rainbows as clouds.”
Hammond believes that there will be many new entries in the future as long as the public remains engaged in the subject and he believes the opening up of the atlas via a web portal is a very good thing towards that end.
Gavin Pretor-Pinney from the Cloud Appreciation Society agrees that opening up the atlas is a huge positive.
“The value of the atlas is that it draws our attention to the sky and by learning the name of the formations, that is the way we pay attention to and value what we see around us.
“By giving a language to the forms of our atmosphere we are helping people to value our atmosphere and to pay attention our impact on it.”
Sea otters may have been using stone tools for thousands or even millions of years, according to scientists.
It appears otters learned how to use tools long before other marine mammals.
Sea otters are often seen floating on their backs, using rocks to break open shellfish for food.
A genetic study of more than 100 wild sea otters living off the Californian coast suggests their ancestors living millions of years ago showed this behaviour.
Dolphins in Australia have been seen to use sponges to protect their noses when scouting for fish on the sea floor.
However, this seems to be a relatively new invention, happening less than 200 years ago.
Dr Katherine Ralls of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Washington, US, said they were surprised to find sea otters using tools were not from the same family group, suggesting the behaviour originated in the ancestors of modern sea otters.
“It’s older in sea otters,” she told BBC News. “They’re very smart; they’ll use rocks as anvils and as hammers.”
Unlike dolphins, using tools seems to be innate in all young sea otters, said the researchers.
“Orphaned otter pups raised in captivity exhibit rudimentary pounding behaviour without training or previous experience, and wild pups develop tool-use behaviour before weaning regardless of their mother’s diet type,” they wrote in the Royal Society journal Biology Letters.
The sea otter is found along the coasts of the Pacific Ocean in North America and Asia.
They were once hunted for their fur almost to extinction.
Early in the 20th Century only 1,000 to 2,000 animals remained. Sea otters are now protected by law.
The researchers plan to study fossil remains of sea otters to confirm when the behaviour emerged.
They think depressions in the chests of some modern otters – thought to be from holding rocks on their chests – might be present in fossil specimens.
Tool use has been observed in a range of animals, including crows and primates.
“Sea otters provide a fascinating opportunity to investigate how genetic predispositions, learning, and environmental conditions contribute to a species’ capacity to use foraging tools,” said Dr Christian Rutz, an evolutionary ecologist at the University of St Andrews, who studies tool use in Hawaiian crows and New Caledonian crows.
“It is particularly exciting that otter pups express rudimentary tool behaviour in captivity without any demonstration or training. We have seen similar developmental patterns in our experiments with young crows.”
Twenty-sixteen saw a “dramatic” decline in the number of coal-fired power stations in pre-construction globally.
The authors of a new study say there was a 48% fall in planned coal units, with a 62% drop in construction starts.
The report, from several green campaign groups, claims changing policies and economic conditions in China and India were behind the decline.
However, the coal industry argues the fuel will remain essential to economic growth in Asia for decades to come.
Between 2006 and 2016, India and China together accounted for 85% of the coal plants built around the world.
But according to the Boom and Bust 2017 report, put together by Greenpeace, the Sierra Club and CoalSwarm, there has been a huge swing away from coal in these two countries in just 12 months.
The main causes of the decline are the imposition of restrictive measures by China’s central government – with the equivalent of 600 coal-fired units being put on hold until at least 2020.
The Indian go-slow was prompted, according to the authors, by the reluctance of banks to provide funds. Work at 13 locations is currently not going ahead.
However, there have also been significant retirements of coal plants in Europe and the US over the past two years, with roughly 120 large units being taken out of commission.
“This has been a messy year, and an unusual one,” said Ted Nace, director of CoalSwarm.
“It’s not normal to see construction frozen at scores of locations, but central authorities in China and bankers in India have come to recognize overbuilding of coal plants as a major waste of resources.
“However abrupt, the shift from fossil fuels to clean sources in the power sector is a positive one for health, climate security, and jobs. And by all indications, the shift is unstoppable.”
The study comes as other groups analyse the potential for investments in coal to become stranded assets if governments continue to restrict CO2 emissions. The International Energy Agency (IEA) says that hundreds of billions of dollars could be at risk.
“The decline in new coal plants in Asian countries is truly dramatic, and shows how a perfect storm of factors is simply making coal a bad investment,” said Paul Massara, now of North Star Solar but a former CEO of RWE npower.
“Growing awareness of the air pollution problems coal causes, the impact of policies to tackle climate change, and the rapid growth and cost-competitiveness of renewable sources of energy, along with emerging battery technologies, are making new coal plants redundant before they are even built,” he said.
However, the World Coal Association vehemently disagrees. It says the complexity of large infrastructure projects means that until they break ground, it’s no surprise if they don’t go ahead.
“Yes, China, is reducing the number of coal-stations but not because it’s transitioning away from coal. Instead, the new dynamics is a signal of a more developed economy,” said Benjamin Sporton.
“Contrary to the picture being portrayed by certain quarters, China’s climate pledge suggests that coal will continue to be central to its energy solutions, albeit through efficiencies including the use of new coal technologies.
“In India’s case, it’s simply not true that renewables are displacing coal. The International Energy Agency has said that India’s coal demand will see the biggest growth over next five years with an annual average growth rate of 5% by 2021.
“For these countries, excluding coal from the energy mix is not an option; it is essential for economic growth and critical in securing energy access.”
According to the authors of the study, the slowdown brings the possibility of keeping global warming under 2 degrees C since pre-industrial times “within feasible reach.”
However, the study says that much more progress needs to be made to reduce the number of coal-fired plants under development in Vietnam, Indonesia, Turkey, Japan and elsewhere.
The launch of a French rocket from a space centre in French Guiana has been delayed after workers erected barricades as part of a labour dispute.
The Ariana 5 rocket was due to take a South Korean satellite and a Brazilian satellite into orbit later on Tuesday.
But the booster could not be rolled to the launch pad because of the protest at the Guiana Space Center over what workers for energy company EDF said were “deplorable working conditions”.
The launch has been moved to Wednesday.
Workers used tyres and wooden pallets to erect barricades at the facility in French Guiana.
Satellite launch company Arianespace said in a statement that “due to a social movement, it was not possible to carry out today’s [Monday's] scheduled transfer of the launch vehicle from the Spaceport’s Final Assembly Building to the launch zone.”
It said that the launch vehicle, as well as the satellites had been “placed in a stand-by mode and are being maintained in fully safe conditions”.
The two satellites, owned by Brazil and South Korea respectively, aim to improve internet access to remote communities in Brazil and provide a range of video and data services over East and Southeast Asia.
It is not the first time industrial action has delayed a launch at the Kourou Space Centre.
In 2011, another Ariana 5 rocket launch had to be moved back when workers demanded extra pay for working on Sundays.