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The Desert of Maine

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Wikimedia Commons

Ahhh . . . Maine! Land of lakes and lighthouses, lobster and blueberries, pine trees and sand dunes.

Wait, sand dunes?

A miniature desert blankets 40 acres of land just a stone’s throw west of Freeport, Maine. An uncanny contrast with the state’s sweeping trees, the dunes (dubbed the “Desert of Maine”) are a geological curiosity—and Mother Nature’s way of reminding us that if you don’t take care of her, she’ll come after you.

About 10,000 years ago, glaciers lurched through what is today southern Maine, grinding soil and rock into glacial silt. As the millennia flew by, topsoil accumulated and caked over the mica-heavy silt, priming the area into first-class farmland. That’s what lured William Tuttle there: In 1797, he bought 300 acres to start up his family farm. Like most Maine-ahs back then, he was clueless about what lurked beneath.

Tuttle was a fine farmer. His descendants, though, were not. They failed to rotate the crops and their sheep overgrazed (the same bad habits that sparked the Dust Bowl). When the farm’s topsoil started to erode, a tiny patch of sand—no bigger than a basketball—appeared. It grew, and it spread so much that it gobbled up the family’s farmland. The Desert of Maine was born, and it swallowed so much that some buildings are now buried under eight feet of silt.

After a fire forced the Tuttles to call it quits, Henry Goldrup bought the land in 1919. Living the cliché that one man’s trash is another man’s treasure, Goldrup made bank by transforming the desert into a tourist trap, which it remains today. Although it’s technically not a desert (it rains too much) and the wavy hills of sand are really silt, the Tuttles seemingly farmed up their own patch of Death Valley in the Pine Tree State.

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The Roomba's Creator Invented an Underwater Vacuum That Sucks Up Invasive Lionfish
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Invasive fish can be a major issue for waterways, since they can devastate native species and take a toll on environmental diversity. The red shiner, for instance, is a hardy fish that can survive basically anywhere, and in the process, outcompete and kill native fish species. Invasive species can travel far and wide, hopping across continents with human help (whether on purpose or by accident).

Colin Angle, who co-founded iRobot, the company that invented the Roomba, has an answer. It’s kind of like a robot vacuum, but for invasive fish, according to Fast Company. The Guardian, developed by Angle’s nonprofit Robots in Service of the Environment, is an underwater robot designed to stun lionfish, suck them up, and bring them to the surface.

Lionfish, native to the Indo-Pacific, are considered an invasive species in the Atlantic and the Caribbean, where they have few predators and huge appetites for both crustaceans and other fish. The fish can eat up to 20 other fish in half an hour, lay up to 40,000 eggs every few days, and live up to 30 years, making them a formidable foe for environmentalists. They may have been introduced in the mid-1980s by personal aquarium owners in Florida releasing pets that got too big for their tanks.

As part of the effort to rid Atlantic waterways of lionfish, the U.S. government has tried to encourage people to catch and eat them. If other species can be overfished, couldn’t lionfish?

The Guardian isn’t the only robot with a mission to eradicate invasive fish. Queensland University of Technology’s COTSbot is designed to kill crown of thorns starfish in the Great Barrier Reef. Unlike COTSbot, though, The Guardian isn’t autonomous. Someone above the water has to control it remotely, directing it toward fish to suck up using a camera feed.

That’s by design, though. The idea is that like the Roomba, the Guardian will be affordable enough for fishermen to use so they can hunt the fish and sell them in restaurants. (One unit currently costs about $1000.) The Guardian's ability to reach depths of up to 400 feet will aid fishermen in waters and reefs that can't be easily accessed.

Each Guardian can bring up about 10 live lionfish at a time. And while one robot cannot eradicate lionfish from the ocean alone, a huge number of them could make a dent.

The Guardian is currently in testing in Bermuda.

[h/t Fast Company]

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Climate Change Could Resurrect the Dust Bowl
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The billowing dust storms we know from black-and-white photos of the Great Depression could become a reality for future generations, scientists warn. As Gizmodo reports, climate change is grooming the southwest and central Great Plains for a new version of the Dust Bowl that plagued the region in the 1930s.

After gathering 12 years of satellite data (2003–2015), researchers at Princeton University and NOAA's Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory predict that dust clouds will increase in parts of the U.S. in the latter half of this century. As they lay out in their study in Scientific Reports, prolonged drought and barren landscapes caused by deforestation are set to create the perfect conditions for the same type of storms that drove people from the Great Plains nine decades ago. At its worst, this phenomenon could be deadly; when they're not breathing in dust, residents in the affected areas could be exposed to dangerous pathogens and chemicals carried by air currents.

Dust storms occur when winds stir up dirt particles into dark, massive clouds. During the so-called Dirty Thirties, soil loosened by over-tilling was a major contributor to the dust that enveloped land. Even with more sustainable farming practices, dry summers could create the same arid, dusty landscapes required for a repeat of the Dust Bowl.

While there's still much research to be done on the subject, the study authors hope their findings will get people thinking about how to prepare for the consequences. "Our specific projections may provide an early warning on erosion control, and help improve risk management and resource planning," co-author Bing Pu said in a Princeton University press statement.

That seems like an improvement over ideas for fighting the Dust Bowl that were proposed in the 1930s, which included paving over the Great Plains and bombing the sky. Fortunately, we still have a few decades to come up with better strategies this time around.

[h/t Gizmodo]

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