How the Fort McMurray Blaze Grew Into a Monster Firestorm

Flames engulf trees along a highway near Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada, on May 6, 2016. Image credit: Cole Burston/AFP/Getty Images

Fort McMurray is burning. A wildfire began just south of the Canadian city on May 1, quickly growing into an inferno that crews couldn’t contain. Local officials ordered the entire city of 80,000 evacuated as the fire grew.

While most drivers attempted to evacuate Fort McMurray—many were stranded for days on the area's only highway—others waited for clearance to take firefighting supplies into the town on May 05, 2016. Image credit: Scott Olson/Getty Images 

This was no small task, given that Fort McMurray is in far northeastern Alberta, hundreds of miles away from Edmonton, the nearest large city. Officials aren’t yet sure what caused the fire, but weather certainly played a large role in letting it become a firestorm that by today, May 6, has burned an estimated 245,000 acres—10 times as much as just two days ago. 

The climate of this part of interior Canada exposes residents to huge variations in weather conditions throughout the year. The region typically sees a brutally cold and snowy winter followed by a quick spring and a warm summer. Fires are a natural and healthy part of life in forested areas, but sometimes abnormal weather can exacerbate (or even cause) these burns and turn them into raging infernos.

Home foundations are all that remain in a residential neighborhood destroyed by a wildfire on May 6, 2016 in Fort McMurray. Image credit: Scott Olson/Getty Images

A confluence of two different weather patterns allowed the Fort McMurray fire to grow into a monster. The first is the long-term weather patterns influenced by El Niño, an unusual uptick in sea surface temperatures in the eastern Pacific Ocean near the equator. The abnormally warm water during an El Niño alters global weather patterns, and we would expect western Canada to be abnormally warm and dry during what is typically a cold and snowy winter. Temperatures in Fort McMurray have been warmer than normal in recent months, and the relative lack of rain and snow in this region of Canada this winter has left the ground and vegetation dry. Officials declared the start of wildfire season in Alberta one month early due to the growing drought.

A weather model image showing surface temperature anomalies (°F) across North America on Wednesday, May 4, 2016. Image credit: Pivotal Weather

In addition to the long-term conditions, the weather over the past week allowed the fire to grow from a nuisance to a disaster of extreme proportions. A large ridge of high pressure in the upper levels of the atmosphere has covered most of central North America in recent days, allowing very warm weather to stretch deep into Canada. Temperatures climbed into the 80s and 90s well into Alberta at the height of the early-season heat wave. Moist air did not accompany the heat wave, so not only did it get very warm but it was also very dry. The lack of humidity helped dry out any vegetation that was already parched, and it set up a situation where even a small fire could quickly intensify. Gusty winds helped the flames spread at an unmanageable pace.

Charred trees are seen along a highway near Fort McMurray on May 6, 2016. Image credit: Cole Burston/AFP/Getty Images

Once the fire grew large enough, it began to generate its own favorable conditions sort of like a microclimate in the immediate area around the blaze. The heat of the fire caused local temperatures to soar, making the air drier and causing air to rise rapidly. This dried out the surroundings even more and created gusty winds that fed and spread the flames. This vicious cycle, usually present in all large wildfires, continues until weather conditions improve or the fire encounters unfavorable terrain to burn, then it starts to die down with the help of nearby fire crews.

On Wednesday, local officials said that the blaze had destroyed at least 1600 homes and businesses, and the toll has likely risen since then.

Penn Vet Working Dog Center
Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
New Program Trains Dogs to Sniff Out Art Smugglers
Penn Vet Working Dog Center
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

Soon, the dogs you see sniffing out contraband at airports may not be searching for drugs or smuggled Spanish ham. They might be looking for stolen treasures.

K-9 Artifact Finders, a new collaboration between New Hampshire-based cultural heritage law firm Red Arch and the University of Pennsylvania, is training dogs to root out stolen antiquities looted from archaeological sites and museums. The dogs would be stopping them at borders before the items can be sold elsewhere on the black market.

The illegal antiquities trade nets more than $3 billion per year around the world, and trafficking hits countries dealing with ongoing conflict, like Syria and Iraq today, particularly hard. By one estimate, around half a million artifacts were stolen from museums and archaeological sites throughout Iraq between 2003 and 2005 alone. (Famously, the craft-supply chain Hobby Lobby was fined $3 million in 2017 for buying thousands of ancient artifacts looted from Iraq.) In Syria, the Islamic State has been known to loot and sell ancient artifacts including statues, jewelry, and art to fund its operations.

But the problem spans across the world. Between 2007 and 2016, U.S. Customs and Border Control discovered more than 7800 cultural artifacts in the U.S. looted from 30 different countries.

A yellow Lab sniffs a metal cage designed to train dogs on scent detection.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

K-9 Artifact Finders is the brainchild of Rick St. Hilaire, the executive director of Red Arch. His non-profit firm researches cultural heritage property law and preservation policy, including studying archaeological site looting and antiquities trafficking. Back in 2015, St. Hilaire was reading an article about a working dog trained to sniff out electronics that was able to find USB drives, SD cards, and other data storage devices. He wondered, if dogs could be trained to identify the scents of inorganic materials that make up electronics, could they be trained to sniff out ancient pottery?

To find out, St. Hilaire tells Mental Floss, he contacted the Penn Vet Working Dog Center, a research and training center for detection dogs. In December 2017, Red Arch, the Working Dog Center, and the Penn Museum (which is providing the artifacts to train the dogs) launched K-9 Artifact Finders, and in late January 2018, the five dogs selected for the project began their training, starting with learning the distinct smell of ancient pottery.

“Our theory is, it is a porous material that’s going to have a lot more odor than, say, a metal,” says Cindy Otto, the executive director of the Penn Vet Working Dog Center and the project’s principal investigator.

As you might imagine, museum curators may not be keen on exposing fragile ancient materials to four Labrador retrievers and a German shepherd, and the Working Dog Center didn’t want to take any risks with the Penn Museum’s priceless artifacts. So instead of letting the dogs have free rein to sniff the materials themselves, the project is using cotton balls. The researchers seal the artifacts (broken shards of Syrian pottery) in airtight bags with a cotton ball for 72 hours, then ask the dogs to find the cotton balls in the lab. They’re being trained to disregard the smell of the cotton ball itself, the smell of the bag it was stored in, and ideally, the smell of modern-day pottery, eventually being able to zero in on the smell that distinguishes ancient pottery specifically.

A dog looks out over the metal "pinhweel" training mechanism.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

“The dogs are responding well,” Otto tells Mental Floss, explaining that the training program is at the stage of "exposing them to the odor and having them recognize it.”

The dogs involved in the project were chosen for their calm-but-curious demeanors and sensitive noses (one also works as a drug-detection dog when she’s not training on pottery). They had to be motivated enough to want to hunt down the cotton balls, but not aggressive or easily distracted.

Right now, the dogs train three days a week, and will continue to work on their pottery-detection skills for the first stage of the project, which the researchers expect will last for the next nine months. Depending on how the first phase of the training goes, the researchers hope to be able to then take the dogs out into the field to see if they can find the odor of ancient pottery in real-life situations, like in suitcases, rather than in a laboratory setting. Eventually, they also hope to train the dogs on other types of objects, and perhaps even pinpoint the chemical signatures that make artifacts smell distinct.

Pottery-sniffing dogs won’t be showing up at airport customs or on shipping docks soon, but one day, they could be as common as drug-sniffing canines. If dogs can detect low blood sugar or find a tiny USB drive hidden in a house, surely they can figure out if you’re smuggling a sculpture made thousands of years ago in your suitcase.

New Cancer-Fighting Nanobots Can Track Down Tumors and Cut Off Their Blood Supply

Scientists have developed a new way to cut off the blood flow to cancerous tumors, causing them to eventually shrivel up and die. As Business Insider reports, the new treatment uses a design inspired by origami to infiltrate crucial blood vessels while leaving the rest of the body unharmed.

A team of molecular chemists from Arizona State University and the Chinese Academy of Sciences describe their method in the journal Nature Biotechnology. First, they constructed robots that are 1000 times smaller than a human hair from strands of DNA. These tiny devices contain enzymes called thrombin that encourage blood clotting, and they're rolled up tightly enough to keep the substance contained.

Next, researchers injected the robots into the bloodstreams of mice and small pigs sick with different types of cancer. The DNA sought the tumor in the body while leaving healthy cells alone. The robot knew when it reached the tumor and responded by unfurling and releasing the thrombin into the blood vessel that fed it. A clot started to form, eventually blocking off the tumor's blood supply and causing the cancerous tissues to die.

The treatment has been tested on dozen of animals with breast, lung, skin, and ovarian cancers. In mice, the average life expectancy doubled, and in three of the skin cancer cases tumors regressed completely.

Researchers are optimistic about the therapy's effectiveness on cancers throughout the body. There's not much variation between the blood vessels that supply tumors, whether they're in an ovary in or a prostate. So if triggering a blood clot causes one type of tumor to waste away, the same method holds promise for other cancers.

But before the scientists think too far ahead, they'll need to test the treatments on human patients. Nanobots have been an appealing cancer-fighting option to researchers for years. If effective, the machines can target cancer at the microscopic level without causing harm to healthy cells. But if something goes wrong, the bots could end up attacking the wrong tissue and leave the patient worse off. Study co-author Hao Yan believes this latest method may be the one that gets it right. He said in a statement, "I think we are much closer to real, practical medical applications of the technology."

[h/t Business Insider]


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