An Earth Flag for When We Claim Other Planets

When Americans landed on the moon, they planted a U.S. flag. (As well as, um, some other stuff.) The flags from multiple U.S. missions are still standing, although their stars and stripes have faded to white. As we gear up to send humans to Mars in the 2030s, designer Oskar Pernefeldt began wondering what flag members of the first manned Mars missions might plant when they arrive. 

As part of his graduation project at Beckmans College of Design in Sweden, Pernefeldt designed a new flag that would convey the international nature of space travel. Astronauts, he writes, “are more than just representatives of their own countries. They are representatives of planet Earth.”  

The flag is blue to represent the importance of water to life on Earth. Seven rings (standing in for the seven continents) interlock to form a flower, suggesting the interconnection of the world, regardless of territory or nationality.  

With endeavors like the International Space Station helping to forge cooperation between multiple countries in the pursuit of scientific knowledge, space exploration is more internationally collaborative than it was in the days of the U.S.-Soviet space race. (After all, the U.S. currently needs Russian cooperation to even get its astronauts up to the ISS). Pernefeldt suggests that the flag might also be used in Antarctica, where several countries have made territorial claims but an international treaty prohibits claims of sovereignty.

Now that we have a flag, it's time to go out and start claiming some interplanetary territory—before the aliens do.

[h/t: Wired UK]

All images courtesy Oskar Pernefeldt, The International Flag of Planet Earth

Rachael Herman, Louisiana State University, © Stony Brook University
Poop Visible From Space Helped Scientists Find a Remote 'Supercolony' of Penguins
Rachael Herman, Louisiana State University, © Stony Brook University
Rachael Herman, Louisiana State University, © Stony Brook University

Penguin poop visible from space just helped scientists discover a previously unknown, massive colony of Adélie penguins on a chain of remote Antarctic islands, according to a new study published in Scientific Reports.

In 2014, Stony Brook University's Heather Lynch and NASA's Mathew Schwaller identified guano stains in satellite images of the Danger Islands, a rocky archipelago off the Antarctic Peninsula. The visible guano marks signaled that a large population of penguins was living there. When the scientists launched an expedition to the islands to learn more, and counted birds by hand and with a camera-equipped drone, they discovered a "supercolony" of more than 1.5 million Adélies.

"Until recently, the Danger Islands weren't known to be an important penguin habitat," Lynch said in a press release. By this count, the islands are actually home to the largest population of the species on the Antarctic Peninsula.

The Danger Islands were discovered by British explorer James Clark Ross in 1842, and got their name from the fact that they are often hidden under ice. Ross and his crew almost crashed their ships on them—"appearing among heavy fragments of ice, they were almost completely concealed until the ship was nearly upon them," as the USGS's Geographic Names Information System explains. They're still hard to access and dangerous to visit because of the thick ice that surrounds them. And that makes them perfect for penguins.

Aerial shot from a quadcopter of penguin populations on Heroina Island.
Thomas Sayre McChord, Hanumant Singh, Northeastern University, © Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

Penguins depend on sea ice for survival, and in places where sea ice is disappearing, their populations are declining. The western Antarctic Peninsula has seen huge declines in Adélie penguin populations as the ice has melted—up to 80 percent in some colonies since 1981, by one estimate. But because of the geographic variation in how climate change has affected temperatures, the population decline hasn't been the same everywhere, and other colonies have even grown. This new discovery tracks with Lynch's previous research, which has found that the impact of climate change on Antarctic penguins will be highly variable depending on the location.

“Just because a huge colony was just found doesn't mean that colonies in areas where sea ice isn't great aren't declining," University of Minnesota ecologist Michelle LaRue wrote in an email to Mental Floss. “If the sea ice conditions at the Danger Islands colony all of a sudden saw similar trends in sea ice decline, I would still expect that colony to decline, too." LaRue has worked with Lynch to study penguin populations before, but wasn't involved with this latest study.

The paper also shows how useful the combination of satellite, ground observation, and drones can be in counting penguins in remote areas. The drone was able to capture images like the one above every second as it flew over the island, creating 2D and 3D views of the whole area. This made their overall population count more accurate, which will aid researchers in tracking changes in the colony as time goes on.

King Penguin Populations Could Shrink By 70 Percent in 80 Years, Thanks to Climate Change

King penguins have evolved to live where few animals can. But now, warming waters are posing a threat to the species' survival. As an international team of researchers reports in the journal Nature Climate Change [PDF], rising global temperatures could eradicate 70 percent of the King penguin population by 2100.

Most of the 3.2 million King penguins alive today are settled in the ring of ocean between 45° and 55° south known as the Antarctic Polar Front. This region is a sweet spot for these penguins: It's where cold Antarctic waters collide with and slip beneath the warmer waters from higher latitudes, creating the perfect temperatures and salinity to support marine life. King penguins make camp on the islands dotting this belt and hunt for krill and fish in the surrounding sea.

But that abundant food source won't remain in the penguins' neighborhood for much longer. The study authors report that human-caused climate change is pushing the Antarctic Polar Front further south, creating a gap between the islands the penguins call home and the life-supporting waters they depend on for survival.

King penguins accomplish some incredible things to get a meal. Like other penguins, the couples will take turns caring for their young, with one parent waiting on land without food for several days and the other swimming hundreds of miles roundtrip gathering nourishment for the whole family. But as the Antarctic Polar Front drifts away from established penguin colonies, penguins will have to swim farther for their food, and parents and offspring will have to wait longer to eat, with many eventually starving to death.

By 2100 the islands with the biggest King penguin populations will have become uninhabitable, spurring the deaths of 1.1 million breeding pairs, about 70 percent of the species, unless they move elsewhere.

In order to survive, the threatened birds must find new islands that are ice-free with smooth sand or pebble beaches and that hover at temperatures around 32°F year-round, all while staying close to their migrating food source. Such habitats aren't be impossible to find, and King penguins have adapted in the face of dramatic climate shifts in the past. But unless swift action is taken towards fighting climate change, penguin numbers are on track to take a massive hit in the coming decades.


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