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6 Other Major Discoveries by the U.S. Geological Survey

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Yesterday, the U.S. Geological Survey registered a 4.9 tremor in North Korea that originated roughly one kilometer underground, suggesting the test of a nuclear bomb. Detecting nuclear tests is one of a wide range of missions for the USGS. The Survey was founded in 1879 in part to take full measure of the Louisiana Purchase and lands conquered during the Mexican-American war. Today it charts and measures not only the lands and resources of the United States, but also the Moon and Mars and beyond. Here are a few things discovered by the U.S. Geological Survey.

1. The Moon’s Face

In 1892, Grove Karl Gilbert, Chief Geologist of the U.S. Geological Survey, tested samples at what is now Barringer Crater in Arizona, and reported that the crater was the result of volcanic activity. (His report is famous for its meticulous scientific methodology—Gilbert himself believed the crater had celestial origins, but deferred to the science.) The findings were wrong, but they got him thinking about the craters on the Moon. He believed that they were caused by impacts by meteoroids. From the naval observatory in Washington, he studied the surface of the Moon for eighteen nights over the course of three months. (Senator Edward Wolcott of Colorado didn’t care for such tomfoolery, complaining during a Congressional session, “So useless has the Survey become that one of its most distinguished members has no better way to employ his time than to sit up all night gaping at the Moon.”) In a paper titled The Moon’s Face, Gilbert presented the first scientific arguments for impact origins of craters on Moon. (Previously, volcanoes were widely believed to be responsible for the Moon’s features, and guesses that impacts might be responsible for the craters had no scientific backing.) His research was fifty years ahead of its time, and a milestone in lunar geoscience.

2. One trillion dollars in Afghanistan

Afghanistan has seen decades of war, tyrannical rulers, Mad Max frontiers, and a grim future. There is hope, though. In 2006, a U.S. Geological Survey study found evidence of $1,000,000,000,000 in lithium, gold, niobium, and other valuable metals. (The Pentagon would call Afghanistan the “Saudi Arabia of Lithium.”) The discovery was made after a USGS team arrived to help with the reconstruction effort. They came across old charts from the Afghan Geological Service created by Soviet miners during the occupation. The USGS proceeded to conduct aerial surveys with equipment designed to measure gravity and magnetic fluctuations. They surveyed seventy-percent of the country and were astonished with their findings. In 2007, they returned, this time with scanning devices capable of rendering three-dimensional portraits of the country’s mineral deposits. It is the most comprehensive geologic study of Afghanistan ever recorded, and is a measure of hope in an often-hopeless land.

3. An explanation for life on inhospitable worlds

Most life on Earth requires oxygen to breathe and carbon to eat. The best guess, then, has been that life on other planets would require the same setup. In 2002, Nature published the findings of Frank Chapelle of the U.S. Geological Survey. He discovered a community of microscopic organisms called Archaea located beneath a hot spring in Idaho. Unlike your average dog or monkey, Archaea survive on hydrogen and carbon dioxide. The microbes had long been found in sparse numbers, but Chapelle’s massive, exclusive community of Archaea in such inhospitable conditions give scientists reason to believe that such organisms might exist on Mars or Europa.

4. Rising sea levels on the east coast

When we think of melting ice caps, we tend to think of water everywhere rising at once and at the same rate. That's not exactly what happens. Because of currents, regional oceanographic temperatures, and land movements, water rises in some places faster than others. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, each year since 1990, the global sea level has risen 0.6 to 1.0 millimeter globally. On the east coast of the United States, however, the rise has been 2.0 to 3.7 millimeters annually. The upshot is that if something doesn’t change, by 2100, the sea level on the coast will rise 8 to 11.4 inches above the already significant global increase of two to three feet. This will make flooding, already a serious concern for New York and Boston, significantly worse.

5. A landing spot for Curiosity

Taking up where Grove Carl Gilbert left off, the U.S. Geological Survey’s Astrogeology Research Program maps celestial objects and studies their features. The program also develops sensors and scanning techniques to beam images back to Earth for processing. The USGS mapped and selected the landing site on Mars for the Curiosity rover, and USGS scientists analyze collected data and help plan each day’s mission.

6. Earthquakes, everywhere, all the time

According to the U.S. Geological Survey, in the past week there were 375 detected earthquakes. It is estimated that each year there are several million earthquakes, though not all are felt, and many occur in remote areas. Although it seems like the number of earthquakes is on the rise, the USGS reports that the number of earthquakes magnitude 7.0 and up remains constant. The number just seems worse because geologists have become much more skilled at detecting them.

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12 Solid Facts About New Hampshire's Old Man of the Mountain
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On May 3, 2003, the craggy rock face known as New Hampshire's Old Man of the Mountain tumbled to the ground in spectacular fashion. For a landmark that had been in the state's DNA for generations, its collapse was like a death in the family to some. The day after it fell, people left flowers at the base of Cannon Mountain in Franconia Notch State Park as a sort of funeral tribute, and plans were immediately launched to create a longer-lasting memorial. So what was so great about the Old Man of the Mountain, pre- and post-crumble? Read on for the stone-cold facts.

1. THANKS TO NATHANIEL HAWTHORNE, THE OLD MAN WAS ALSO KNOWN AS “THE GREAT STONE FACE.”

Although not explicitly named, it’s widely believed Hawthorne based his 1850 short story "The Great Stone Face"—which was set in an anonymous state that happens to look like New Hampshire—on the Old Man. At that time, the mountainous figure was already a tourist draw to the Granite State. Hawthorne described it as an “enormous giant, or a Titan,” with a “broad arch of the forehead,” a long-bridged nose, and having “vast lips.” Eventually Hawthorne’s nickname stuck, along with other loving titles like “Old Man” and “the Profile.”

2. THE "FACE" WAS ACTUALLY A SERIES OF LEDGES.

These granite cliff ledges, 40 feet tall and 25 feet wide, when viewed from the north at certain angles looked like a jagged face. Hawthorne corroborated this, writing in “The Great Stone Face”: “If the spectator approached too near, he lost the outline of the gigantic visage, and could discern only a heap of ponderous and gigantic rocks ... Retracing his steps, however, the wondrous features would again be seen; and the farther he withdrew from them, the more like a human face, with all its original divinity intact, did they appear."

3. HE COULD HAVE BEEN 12,000 YEARS OLD.

An 1856 postcard of The Old Man of the Mountain
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

The Old Man was first discovered and recorded in 1805 by road surveyors Francis Whitcomb and Luke Brooks, which put the landmark at nearly 200 years old by the time it fell. But it likely first formed when water inside cracks in the granite bedrock froze and thawed following the retreat of glaciers about 12,000 years ago. (This freezing and thawing process was what hastened its eventual collapse.) According to geologist Brian Fowler in a research report by the Old Man of the Mountain Legacy Fund, the lower ledge—or chin—of the Old Man is assumed to have fallen first. Once that support was gone, the rest of the rock fell in formation.

4. CANNON MOUNTAIN WAS SO NAMED BECAUSE IT LOOKS LIKE ANTIQUE ARTILLERY.

The Old Man jutted from a cliff in Cannon Mountain in New Hampshire’s White Mountains, within Franconia Notch State Park. Originally named Profile Mountain, it took on a new name since its granite dome resembles a cannon from select vantage points. There are even three sub-peaks, nicknamed “The Cannon Balls.”

5. SOME OF THE STRONGEST SURFACE WINDS EVER IN THE U.S. WERE RECORDED ON TOP OF CANNON MOUNTAIN.

The gusts measured 199.5 mph on April 2, 1973. While impressive, they were likely even higher since 199.5 mph was the limit of what the researchers' instruments could record at the time. The highest surface wind gust in the U.S. still belongs in-state, though, with New Hampshire's Mount Washington recording 231 mph winds in 1934.

6. A SERIES OF TURNBUCKLES AND IRON TIES WERE PLACED WITHIN ITS FACE TO KEEP IT TOGETHER.

By 1916, as it became clear the Old Man might not live forever, the first efforts to protect the rock formation were made. By the 1920s, a crack in the Old Man’s "forehead" was clearly noticeable, and residents who were worried about its safety used chains, turnbuckles, and iron ties to keep the crack from separating. Many of those metal rods used to hold the Old Man together were still attached to the mountain years later.

7. THE STATE EVENTUALLY SPENT A SMALL FORTUNE TRYING TO SAVE IT.


Julius Hall, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

In 1957, the New Hampshire state legislature passed a $25,000 appropriation for the necessary repairs to slow the Old Man's deterioration. These steps included quick-drying cement and steel rods meant to fill in and fortify cracks. The rocky Band-Aids were maintained every summer.

8. THE CARETAKERS’ MAINTENANCE ROUTINES WERE METICULOUS.

One longtime caretaker, Niels Nielsen, took great pains to keep the Old Man clean since 1965. Nielsen would spray bleach on the rock face and in its cracks, then carefully remove moss and lichen in an effort to prevent cracks from spreading further. He would even clean out the Old Man’s ear with a garden hoe. When Nielsen retired, he passed the job on to his son, David. The face continued to be groomed until its collapse.

9. NIELS NIELSEN SAW THE OLD MAN AS A GIFT FROM GOD.

According to Yankee Magazine, Nielsen was rather enchanted by the rock formation. “I had sailed around the world as a merchant seaman, yet I had never seen anything like the Old Man," he said. "I don’t believe anyone can be up there and not feel the presence of God."

10. BUT EVEN NIELSEN KNEW IT MIGHT FALL SOME DAY.

Nielsen was asked by Yankee what would happen if the Old Man ever fell. “The Lord put him here, and the Lord will take him down," Nielsen replied. Research concluded its collapse was natural—that the freezing-thawing process and subsequent erosion over time caused its downfall.

11. YOU CAN STILL "SEE" THE OLD MAN.


Rob Gallagher, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

The image of the Old Man has lived on as a state emblem since 1945, appearing on highway signs, on the back of drivers licenses, and on the reverse of the state quarter. But residents weren’t done with honoring the now-deceased rock face. At Old Man of the Mountain Profile Plaza and Historic Site in Franconia, special viewfinders and steel “profilers” at vantage points near Profile Lake offer a glimpse of what the formation used to look like.

12. THERE’S EVEN AN OLD MAN OF THE MOUNTAIN FLOWER.

Old-Man-of-the-Mountain, or tetraneuris grandiflora, is found in the Intermountain Regions and Rocky Mountains in states like Wyoming, Montana, Utah, Colorado, and Idaho. It’s sometimes called an alpine sunflower and got its common name from the wooly hairs that cover its leaves.

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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
Take a Closer Look at the $17 Billion 'Holy Grail of Shipwrecks'

Feast your eyes on these new images of the treasure among the wreckage of the Spanish ship San José, often called the "holy grail of shipwrecks." When it sank on June 8, 1708, it was carrying gold, silver, jewels, and other precious cargo worth roughly $17 billion today. Now, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) is revealing the major role it played in the 2015 expedition to find the San José.

The three-masted, 62-gun Spanish galleon exploded and sank at the hands of the British during the War of the Spanish Succession. It was carrying its riches to the Colombian city of Cartegena to finance the war. Archaeologists had been trying to find the San José for decades before it was finally located on November 27, 2015, during an expedition organized by Colombia, Maritime Archaeology Consultants (MAC), and WHOI. The multibillion-dollar treasure, which still sits nearly 2000 feet below the surface of the ocean near Cartegena, is just now being revealed.

WHOI's autonomous underwater vehicle REMUS 6000 was responsible for finding the elusive wreck. REMUS has been with the project since the beginning: The machine created the first side-scan sonar images of the site. After that, REMUS journeyed to a point 30 feet above the site and captured high-resolution photos of the ship's distinctive bronze cannons, which are engraved with dolphins. REMUS's documentation of this defining feature allowed scientists to positively identify the wreck as the fabled San José. (Thanks to whoever had the idea to put dolphins on the cannon in the first place.)

WHOI also released REMUS's photos of the wreckage, which show details of the horde, including ceramics and those famous cannons. "This constitutes one of the greatest—if not the biggest, as some say—discoveries of submerged patrimony in the history of mankind,” Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos said back when the treasure was discovered.

The San José's treasure is the subject of a legal battle for ownership between Colombia and U.S. salvage company Sea Search Armada, which helped look for the wreck. In 2011, four years before the San José was even found, the court ruled that the booty belongs to Colombia, but the dispute is ongoing. Because of the legal drama, the exact location of the wreck remains a government secret.

Below, check out the newly released pictures for a closer look at cannons, teacups, and other ceramics.

cannons from the San Jose
Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

pots from the San Jose
Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

teacups from the San Jose
Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

REMUS 6000
REMUS 6000
Mike Purcell, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution


A mosaic of images taken by the REMUS 6000 depicts the whole site.
A mosaic of images taken by the REMUS 6000 depicts the whole site.
Jeff Kaeli, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

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