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A Walk In the Forest

SI Center for Learning and Digital Access
Interactive animation. Use scientific tools and methodologies to determine forest makeup, monitor health, and conserve biodiversity in a fictional Virginia forest. Characters assist the user and encourage inquiry. Narration optional.

Mars Climate Change Patterns Seen in Ice Caps

Smithsonian Magazine

Greg Laden is guest-blogging this week while Sarah is on vacation. You can find his regular blog at and Quiche Moraine.

You may know that much of the climate change on earth over the last two million years--the coming and going of ice ages--is caused by the "orbital geometry" of the planet. The amount of planetary tilt and the time of year the tilt occurs change over time. When the Northern Hemisphere is less tilted towards the sun on June 21st, and at the same time the Earth is as far from the sun in its elliptical orbit as it ever gets, ice age conditions prevail. This makes ice ages on Earth pretty regular, cyclic, events.

You also may know that a big chunk of Earth's water is frozen into the ice caps.

You also may know that the history of Earth climate is preserved, in part, in changes in the ice in those ice caps.

Well, same for Mars!

Previously developed climate models suggested that the last 300,000 years of Martian history experienced low-level swings in climate, while the prior 600,000 years experienced more severe swings, owing to differences in the tilt of the planet. Most of the water we know about on Mars is in the Martian polar caps. And now, we can see, using radar, evidence of climate change reflected in that ice. From NASA:

New, three-dimensional imaging of Martian north-polar ice layers by a radar instrument on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter is consistent with theoretical models of Martian climate swings during the past few million years.
Alignment of the layering patterns with the modeled climate cycles provides insight about how the layers accumulated. These ice-rich, layered deposits cover an area one-third larger than Texas and form a stack up to 2 kilometers (1.2 miles) thick atop a basal deposit with additional ice.
"Contrast in electrical properties between layers is what provides the reflectivity we observe with the radar," said Nathaniel Putzig..., a member of the science team for the Shallow Radar instrument on the orbiter. "The pattern of reflectivity tells us about the pattern of material variations within the layers."

Essentially, the radar detects different amounts and/or kinds of dirt, and the ice is dirty in different ways. These vastly different climate periods (of more vs. less severe oscillation in climate change) probably leave behind different amounts of dirt in the ice. The radar can penetrate the ice and "see" these differences, with one period having more dirt than another.

There are two distinct models for how the dirt gets concentrated in the ice enough to be distinguished by the radar. One is that ice evaporates away more during some periods than others, leaving behind more dirt when the ice disappears, like the dirty snow during the late winter in northern cities. The other model simply has more dust in the atmosphere, and thus more dust falling on the ice, during certain periods. The present study supports the later model (more dust = dirtier ice). The radar reflectivity signal observed in this study is probably too coarse to link specific features of the signals with specific Martian "ice ages" so far.

"The radar has been giving us spectacular results," said Jeffrey Plaut of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., a co-author of the paper. "We have mapped continuous underground layers in three dimensions across a vast area."

Read more about this study.

The other images are different views of the polar cap using the radar images, and are explained in great detail on NASA's site.

Gold Particles in Eucalyptus Trees Can Reveal Deposits Deep Underground

Smithsonian Magazine

New research shows that eucalyptus trees can absorb gold particles in their roots and transport them up to their leaves, a finding that could be a boon for mining companies. Photo by Mel Lintern

If you traveled to the town of Kalgoorlie, in Western Australia, then headed about 25 miles north, you’d eventually reach a grove of large eucalyptus trees, some more than 30 feet tall, scattered across a dusty, arid landscape. Examining the dirt at your feet would reveal no trace of the gold deposits that lie roughly 100 feet underground, due to the thick layers of clay and rock that sit atop the precious metal.

But, scientists recently learned, if you peered closely enough at the eucalyptus trees—specifically, using X-rays to detect nanoparticles—you’d find that there’s gold in them thar leaves. As detailed in a study published today in Nature Communications, a group of researchers from Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation has shown that plants can absorb gold particles deep underground and bring it upward through their tissues—a finding that could help mineral exploration companies  mine for gold.

A diagram of the eucalyptus trees’ placement at the Western Australia site (numbers in tree reflect gold concentrations  in parts per billion). Image via Nature Communications / Lintern et. al.

“In Australia, we’re faced with this problem of trying to explore through thick layers of sediments and weathered rock to reach valued minerals,” says Melvyn Lintern, an Earth scientist and lead author of the study. “At the same time, we’d previously heard from mining engineers that, in some places, they’d found eucalyptus roots going down to 30 meters or deeper in the mines.” With this observation in mind, and the knowledge that plants can absorb and transport minerals from the surrounding soil and bedrock all the way up to their leaves, Lintern and his colleagues were struck with an idea: Why not test eucalyptus leaves to see if they could indicate underground gold deposits?

To do so, they visited two Australian sites with known gold deposits deep underground (as revealed by exploratory drilling) that were covered by thick layers of rock and on top of which grew tall eucalyptus trees. When they tested leaves that grew on or had fallen from the large trees in both areas, they indeed found minute traces of gold—up to 80 parts per billion, compared with the 2 parts per billion they found in leaves that had grown 650 feet away from the underground deposit.

Other researchers had detected gold particles in plants and leaf litter before, but it was unclear whether they’d been transported all the way from underground deposits. “We were concerned that the gold might have been occurring as dust particles on the outside of these leaves, so it was important for us to locate the gold within the plant,” says Lintern.

His team did so by analyzing the leaves in even further detail (using a specialized X-ray microprobe located at the Australian Synchrotron research facility) and confirmed that the gold particles were located within the plant’s vascular tissue, indicating that they were moving naturally within the leaves. They also conduced greenhouse experiments and found that eucalyptus saplings, grown in soil laced with similar levels of gold, absorbed it and transported detectable levels into their leaves. These separate streams of evidence, they say, shows that the wild eucalyptus trees were indeed sucking up gold from deep underground.

“The eucalyptus acts like a hydraulic pump,” using its roots to suck ground water upward, crucial in an arid environment, Lintern says. “The plants, of course, are searching for water, not gold, but it just so happens that there’s gold dissolved in it.”

The fact that the gold has been found in the leaves, in fact, might be evidence that the eucalyptus is actively trying to get rid of it—after all, it’s a toxic heavy metal—by transporting it to its extremities. Additionally, the gold particles in the leaves were often found located near calcium oxalate crystals, theorized to be part of the removal pathway for toxic chemicals.

Lintern’s group plans to conduct further research into which plants are capable of transporting gold particles in this way and what environmental factors affect the rate of uptake. Mining companies in Canada, he mentions, have already toyed with the idea of using plants as mineral indicators, so this first scientific evidence for the process is likely to accelerate adoption of the method.

“Essentially, we’re tapping into a natural process,” Lintern says. In an age when most of the readily accessible gold near the planet’s surface has been mined, it makes sense to harness the natural mineral exploration plants are already engaging in when they drive their roots deep into the ground. Doing so might even reduce the number of exploratory mines we’re forced to drill—and consequently, lead to less environmental destruction of these plants’ habitats as a result of mining.

New Study Reveals How One Person’s ‘Smellscape’ Can Differ From Another’s

Smithsonian Magazine

If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, then scent, as revealed by a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, is in not only a smeller’s nose, but their DNA.

As Heather Murphy reports for The New York Times, researchers from the Monell Chemical Senses Center have discovered that slight differences in humans’ genetic code have an outsized impact on how individuals perceive the intensity and pleasantness of certain scents.

Someone particularly attuned to the compound 2-ethylfenchol, for example, might find the soil-like smell of beets so overwhelming that eating the vegetable holds the same appeal as feasting on a chunk of dirt. But to a less sensitive individual, the same beets would smell no more offensive than a bottle of water.

Overall, Murphy notes, the scientists found that variations in perceptions of beet’s earthiness, the lily of the valley’s sweetness, whiskey’s smokiness and dozens of other scents can all be traced back to a single genetic mutation.

According to UPI’s Brooks Hays, human noses contain around 400 olfactory receptors, or specialized sensory proteins mainly linked with smell but believed to be capable of performing other less-understood functions. A single odor molecule can activate multiple olfactory receptors; at the same time, various kinds of molecules can activate a single receptor.

The process is understandably complex: “We still know very little about how olfactory receptors translate information from an odor molecule into the perception of an odor's quality, intensity, and pleasantness,” senior author Joel Mainland, an olfactory neurobiologist, says in a press release. “By examining how variation in an olfactory receptor gene changes odor perception, we can begin to understand the function of each receptor. This in turn will help us learn how the receptors work together so that we can decipher the olfactory code and digitize olfaction."

To better understand the minutiae of so-called “smellscapes,” a team led by Casey Trimmer, a geneticist formerly affiliated with Monell but now employed by the flavor and fragrance company Firmenich, recruited 332 volunteers. As’s Kay Vandette notes, these participants were asked to rate the strength and pleasantness of nearly 70 scents, many of which were components of common food flavorings and additives. According to GenomeWeb, the researchers also conducted tests of subjects’ detection limits (a single drop of lily of the valley, for instance, proves potent for some, but others cannot detect the sweet scent at all), overall olfactory acuity, and sensitivity to various concentrations of a specific odor.

By comparing participants’ ratings to their DNA, Trimmer and her colleagues were able to identify individuals with functioning versus malfunctioning receptors and gauge how these mutations affected scent perception. Surprisingly, the team found that a variation in just one receptor was strong enough to influence sensitivity to odors. Previously, Mainland explains in the statement, most scientists thought “that losing one receptor wouldn’t make a difference in how we perceive … odor,” as most scents activate multiple receptors.

Androstenone, a compound found in men’s sweat, offers a key example of the new study’s premise: Alternately perceived as “very disgusting and intense,” in the words of Rockefeller University neuroscientist Leslie B. Vosshall, neutral and vaguely vanilla-esque, or like nothing at all, androstenone was expected to be an outlier, tracing its odor differences to a single receptor.

“But here,” Trimmer tells The New York Times’ Murphy, “we show that this phenomenon is not uncommon.”

In an interview with Murphy, Rachel Herz, a Brown University neuroscientist who studies the psychology of smell and was not involved in the research, describes the study as “great and important.” Still, she points out that scent perception goes far beyond genetics.

Citing an experiment in which she presented volunteers with the same chemical combination, first identified as vomit and then as Parmesan cheese—participants couldn’t believe the two were the same, as one smelled disgusting and the other delicious—Herz concludes, “There’s also an ability to create odor illusions and flip people’s perception of an odor.”

Ask Smithsonian: What’s the Point of Earwax?

Smithsonian Magazine

Earwax is often regarded as dirty, or gross—something to be removed with a Q-tip.

But that’s just wrong. Over the decades, countless doctors—and friends and family in the know—have reminded us why it is a bad idea to clean out our ear canals. Still, many of us aren’t hearing the message.

Earwax—also known as cerumen—is made up of secretions from both sebaceous glands and sweat glands mixed with sloughed-off cells from the outer part of the ear canal. Sometimes it gathers hair or dirt. Cerumen is the body’s way of keeping the ear canal clean and lubricated. Its acidic nature also seems to give it some antibacterial properties, says Seth Schwartz, an otolaryngologist and director for the Listen for Life Center at the Virginia Mason Health System in Seattle.

Earwax production and migration—facilitated by talking or chewing or otherwise moving the jaw—is a constant cycle. Where we get into trouble is when we push that mix back into the ear—whether it’s with a Q-tip, a paper clip, a finger or a pen.

Some 12 million Americans visit their doctor each year with complaints about earwax. The most common reason is for impaction, a buildup of wax that’s often due to our own fussing. The wax mass can block the ear canal and press up against the eardrum, which can cause pain, dizziness and hearing loss. The elderly are particularly vulnerable, mainly because their skin is dryer, and muscles have atrophied, which means the wax can’t move out of the ear as easily, says Schwartz. Eight million people a year have medical procedures to remove wax blockage.

Accumulation of cerumen is such a common problem that Schwartz and a group of colleagues are updating a 2008 guideline on diagnosis and treatment that the American Academy of Otolaryngology—Head and Neck Surgery will release in early in 2017.

Why are people so obsessed with removing earwax? Maybe because of the feeling of obstruction, says Schwartz, but “probably part of it is the meticulousness of humans.” He often sees abrasions in his patients’ ears—sometimes even caused by Q-tips, since the ear skin is so delicate.

Everyone produces earwax, and some are prone to produce more. Just like some people perspire profusely while others merely glisten, it is not clear why. Some people are prone to obstruction, especially those with very dry skin or lots of hair in the outer ear, Schwartz says. Those who wear hearing aids tend to have more wax accumulation because the devices block cerumen’s natural migration. People who wear noise-blocking ear muffs on the job or who use phone headsets or earbuds for lengthy periods are also at risk for impaction—not because they produce more wax but because, as with hearing aids, the devices can block cerumen’s exit, Schwartz says.

Earwax comes in either a “wet” form that’s greasy and yellow, or a “dry,” white, flaky form. Race can influence the type of wax produced. Caucasians and African Americans have wet wax, while Asians tend more towards the dry type.

The dry wax also lends itself to obstruction, says Schwartz. That has made for some interesting cultural differences, he says, noting that it’s common in China for restaurant employees to offer  to clean your ears while you dine.

Another method of wax clearing—using a lit, hollow candle shoved into the ear—has unclear origins, but both otolaryngologists and the Food and Drug Administration warn against the method, saying that it is neither safe nor effective.

Far from a nuisance, earwax holds the potential to be an indicator of health, according to a 2014 report by researchers at the Monell Chemical Senses Center. Testing the earwax of healthy Asians and Caucasians yielded some interesting findings, including that Caucasians had higher concentrations of the chemicals detected by odor testing. The scientists said they aim to dig deeper, pointing out that it’s already been shown that at least two odor-producing diseases (maple syrup urine disease and alkaptonuria) can be identified in earwax before they can be detected in blood or urine.

Schwartz says he’s not familiar with the Monell studies, but says he does know that one way to harm your health is to stick something in your ear.

How Three Amateur Jewel Thieves Made Off With New York’s Most Precious Gems

Smithsonian Magazine

On the night of October 29, 1964, two self-styled Miami beach boys crept onto the grounds of New York City’s American Museum of Natural History while a lookout drove a white Cadillac around the museum’s block of Manhattan. The beach boys were talented, brazen and sure-footed. After scaling a fence to the museum’s courtyard, they scrambled up a fire escape to secure a rope to a pillar just above the fourth-floor windows of the J.P. Morgan Hall of Gems and Minerals.  Clinging to the rope, one of them swung to an open window and used his feet to lower the sash. They were in.

Allan Dale Kuhn and Jack Roland Murphy used a glasscutter and duct tape to breach three display cases, and then a squeegee to gather 24 gems. Their haul included the milky-blue Star of India (the world's biggest sapphire, weighing 563.35 carats); the orchid-red DeLong Star Ruby (100.32 carats, and considered the world’s most perfect), and the purplish-blue Midnight Star (the largest black sapphire, at 116 carats).  Fearing they’d tripped a silent alarm, the pair retraced their steps to the street and caught separate getaway cabs.  “For us, it wasn’t anything,” recalled Murphy, who was better known as Murf the Surf. “We just swung in there and took the stuff.”


The mid-1960s were salad days for jewel thievery. In 1963, when a U.S. gem heist occurred on average every 32 seconds, crooks stole $41 million worth of insured precious and semiprecious stones Cash aside, diamonds were the anonymous currency of a thriving seller’s market. An estimated 3.5 million diamonds of one-third of a carat or more were being sold annually in the United States—but that was well short of demand. Abroad, jet-set Europeans, Arabs and Asians knew that jewels held their value in uncertain times. To grease the gears of this emerging global economy, many seemingly legitimate jewel merchants did double-duty as fences. They asked no untidy questions; routinely melted down precious-metal settings into salable ingots; cut conspicuous gems (or “went going on the break”) to erase their identity, and then blithely intermixed stolen and honest merchandise.

The best jewel thieves were aristocrats atop a three-tiered class structure.  At its bottom was an army of lowly criminals who committed perhaps 80 percent of all jewel thefts, but did so in crude, often clueless ways. Sandwiched between were about 4,000 skilled professionals who, like the aristocrats, left unwanted items untouched and promptly disposed of their booty. Kuhn, Murphy and their Cadillac-driving lookout, Roger Frederick Clark, probably aspired to this middle class. But they were young—Kuhn was 26, Murphy 27 and Clark 29—and they liked living large. They courted betrayal.


James A. Oliver, the director of the American Museum of Natural History, was having a tooth pulled when the heist was first discovered. That afternoon, answering press questions about his institution’s more painful and costly extractions, Oliver conceded that security was “not good.” Other officials elaborated: Batteries in the display-case burglar alarm had been dead for months—a surprise to geology curator Brian H. Mason, who routinely deactivated the system to access the gems. The tops of all the gem hall’s 19 exterior windows were left open two inches overnight for ventilation, and none had burglar alarms. After years when nothing untoward happened, even the precaution of locking a security guard into the gem room overnight had lapsed. 

Museum bookkeepers valued the stolen jewels at $410,000 (about $3 million today.) Historically speaking they were priceless, but because premiums were prohibitive, none were insured. Even as burglary detectives from New York’s 20th Squad dusted for prints (they found none), museum executives shuttered the barn. The J.P. Morgan Hall of Gems and Minerals was immediately closed to visitors and “Know Your Precious Gems,” a popular adult-education course, was postponed indefinitely.

The Star of India. (©AMNH/C. Chesek)


Authorities believed they were pursuing amateurs who had taken big and prominently displayed stones while ignoring more easily disposable clear gems.  Going on the break with these famous nuggets would involve considerable waste and, therefore, little recompense from fences.

Not so, according to Maurice Nadjari, then the assistant district attorney in charge of the case. “They knew what they wanted and took it,” Nadjari said in a recent phone interview. Kuhn, Nadjari said, planned to pass the biggest gems to an airline-pilot friend for quick conveyance to the Far East and resale to wealthy—and anonymous—foreign collectors.

Kuhn and Murphy were men of accomplishment—Kuhn a skin-diving expert, Murphy a violin virtuoso—but the gem-heisting was wanting for discretion. A vice and gambling plainclothesman named James Walsh heard from an informant who’d attended a party thrown by Kuhn, Clark and Murphy at the Cambridge House Hotel on West 86th Street—a short walk from the Natural History Museum. “I think I got something for you,” the source confided. “There are three guys upstairs in this place…spending money like wild. You’d think they were making it with a machine.”

After obtaining a search warrant, detectives went up to Room 1803, a $525-a-month suite of three rooms, and found marijuana, a floor plan of the Natural History Museum and books about precious stones. Their search was interrupted when a disheveled Roger Clark walked in.  Under questioning, Clark, according to Nadjari’s account, promptly caved and revealed that Murphy and Kuhn had flown to Florida. FBI agents soon arrested them for extradition to New York. Although the crime was nearly solved, the drama had just begun.

(L-R) Jack Murphy and Allan Kuhn, suspects in jewel robbery at The Museum of Natural History, at a hearing. (Lynn Pelham//Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)


The authorities held their suspects, but not for long.  The presiding New York judge considered Nadjari’s case shaky and set low bail. After posting bond, the suspects flew south, but not before Murf the Surf emerged as the trio’s photogenic and quotable front man. Interviewed at the Miami office of Kuhn’s attorney, a cigar-puffing Murf expressed annoyance over the whole affair. “I was supposed to be on my way to Hawaii to surf. Now all this inconvenience has fouled things up.” Kuhn sat quietly nearby. 

Things were going well for the rogues. On December 1, a Miami court dismissed federal charges. Nineteen-year-old New York stenographer Janet Florkiewicz, a key material witness who had purportedly carried the jewels when they fled to Miami, was no longer cooperating.  All of Nadjari’s efforts to hike the defendants’ bail failed.

But on December 13, Murphy’s longtime girlfriend, Bonnie Lou Sutera, 22, despondent after hearing that Murphy had a new love, was found dead in a suburban Miami apartment—an apparent suicide.  On January 2, Murphy and Clark were arrested for a Miami burglary, but only after leading police on a mile-long chase in a car registered to Sutera.

Murphy and Clark were arraigned on the burglary charge but soon made the $1,000 bail, in time to fly to a New York hearing—and a waiting trap. Searching files on unsolved jewelry thefts, police struck pay dirt. As soon as the hearing on the Natural History Museum theft adjourned, Kuhn, Murphy and Clark were charged with the January 4, 1964, jewel robbery and pistol-whipping of the actress Eva Gabor. With bail raised to $100,000, Kuhn, Murphy and Clark were suddenly willing to negotiate.


Maurice Nadjari faced a dilemma. His suspects were under lock and key, but he needed their help in recovering the loot. But he dared not ask the judge to ease their incarceration. Kuhn was spirited from his jail cell for negotiations with Nadjari and three New York plainclothes detectives. Kuhn said he could recover all the gems—if only he could go to Miami alone. “There’s no damn way you’re going anywhere alone,” Nadjari assured him.  But lured by the prospect of a quick recovery, and convinced that Kuhn’s custody wouldn’t be jeopardized if the three officers went along, Nadjari gambled on a secret trip to Miami.

The mission became a nightmare. Spotting a local TV newsman as they waited to board a Miami flight on January 5, Nadjari grabbed one cop’s fedora, shoved it onto Kuhn’s head and pulled the brim down to his ears. Press evasion continued in Miami. But at Kuhn’s insistence (and the cops’ encouragement), Nadjari agreed to rent a red Cadillac convertible. Just steps ahead of reporters and photographers, the men moved between perhaps a dozen hotels as Kuhn phoned and took calls from his contacts. A compulsive TV watcher, Kuhn offered elaborate excuses for the delay, along with hints of bribes if his custodians would just “look the other way.” At one point, Nadjari phoned his boss, District Attorney Frank S. Hogan. “If you get the jewels, come back,” Hogan advised him. “If you don’t, go to Argentina.”

Finally, a phone call delivered directions to the key for a locker at the Northeast Miami Trailways bus terminal. Detective Richard Maline returned with two water-logged suede pouches (a clue that the gems had been stowed underwater.) Inside were just nine gems: the Star of India, the Midnight Star, five emeralds and two aquamarines—but neither the DeLong Ruby nor other lesser gems. With the clock ticking, Nadjari cut his losses. Abandoning the red Caddie in favor of a furtive ride to the airport with a local bail bondsman, Nadjari, the detectives and Kuhn caught an 8:15 A.M. flight. Before buckling in, Nadjari slid the sodden, jewel-laden pouches into an airsickness bag.


On April 6, 1965, two months after pleading guilty to the Natural History Museum heist, Allan Kuhn, Jack Murphy and Roger Clark were each sentenced to three-year terms at New York’s Rikers Island Correctional Facility. (The Eva Gabor case was eventually dropped after she refused to testify.) A few days after the sentencing, the Star of India went back on exhibit, this time secured in a thick glass display case stationed on the museum’s main floor. Each night the case pivoted out of sight into a black two-ton safe.

That September, the DeLong Star Ruby was recovered—rather, it was ransomed for $25,000 by the insurance millionaire John D. MacArthur (the same man who would establish the foundation that funds the fellowships known as “genius grants”). Though the New York DA’s office played no part, the recovery bore the earmarks of Nadjari’s scavenger hunt: MacArthur, after negotiating privately with a Florida fence, found the stone in a telephone booth near Palm Beach. (Eventually Duncan Pearson, 34, a Miami friend of the Rikers convicts, was convicted of hiding the gem.) With the DeLong’s return, 10 of the 24 most valuable gems were back in museum custody.  The rest were never found.


In the years since, interest in Roger Frederick Clark and Allan Dale Kuhn has faded—although Kuhn got a 1975 writer’s credit for Live a Little, Steal a Lot, a film about the Museum of Natural History caper. In 1967, Murphy and Kuhn were arrested for a string of Los Angeles jewelry burglaries, but they were never tried. Murf the Surf’s criminal career  then took a much darker turn. In 1968 he was charged with conspiracy and assault in connection with a botched armed robbery of Miami Beach socialite Olive Wofford . The next year he was convicted of first-degree murder in the “Whiskey Creek” case: the bludgeoning deaths of two California secretaries—accomplices in a securities theft—whose bodies found in a creek north of Miami.

Murphy was ultimately sentenced to two life terms plus 20 years (one term for the Whiskey Creek Murder conviction, the balance for the Wofford robbery conviction)  but won parole in 1986, emerging—he said—a changed man, dedicated to ministering to prison convicts. In 2012, he asked the state of Florida to grant clemency and restore his civil rights. Governor Rick Scott, who did not know about Murphy until the case came up, was apparently willing to grant clemency. But Murphy failed to garner the two additional cabinet votes required.


Today the Star of India, the DeLong Star Ruby and the Midnight Star are displayed in the Natural History Museum’s first-floor Morgan Hall of Minerals. (The former fourth-floor J.P. Morgan Hall of Gems and Minerals has long since been partitioned into staff offices—though its heavy metal gate and at least some of the original windows are still in place.) According to physical-sciences curator George E. Harlow, the three storied gems are the collection’s most popular pieces. But the current display offers no hint of past notoriety, and the room’s ambience was subdued. It’s as if the gems had escaped their tabloid days and settled into the long arc of geology.

What Geology Has to Say About Building a 1,000-Mile Border Wall

Smithsonian Magazine

Last month, President Donald Trump took steps to make good on a campaign promise to turn the United States’ existing border fence into a "big, beautiful" wall. On January 25, the White House issued an Executive Order announcing the creation of a “secure, contiguous, and impassable physical barrier … to prevent illegal immigration, drug and human trafficking, and acts of terrorism.” Now the U.S. Customs and Border Protection—the office tasked with enforcing border regulations—is scrambling to make that order a concrete reality.

Today’s fence consists of roughly 650 miles of disparate segments, made out of a combination of steel posts and rails, metal sheeting, chain link, concrete vehicle barriers and wire mesh. To replace that fence with what has been described as a 20- to 50-foot concrete structure that will traverse 1,000 of the some 2,000 miles of the U.S.’s border with Mexico will be no easy feat. Besides dealing with a proposed Mexican lawsuit and navigating the private ownership of much of Texas’ lands, there is another concern few have addressed in detail: geology.

Compared to building a marble palace or high-steepled church, erecting a wall may seem relatively straightforward. It isn’t. (Just ask the Chinese, whose Great Wall took 2,000 years to build and failed to keep out invaders.) Though most wall designs are fairly simple, builders must adapt to a wide range of terrains, explains Gary Clendenin, a senior hydrogeologist at ICF. The southern U.S. border alone contains desert, wetlands, grasslands, rivers, mountains and forests—all of which create vastly different problems for builders.

“The length of this thing presents challenges that just aren’t typically undertaken in a construction project,” says Clendenin.

Can these hurdles be overcome? asked two scientists, a geophysicist and a hydrogeologist, which geologic factors the wall’s builders should take into account first if they are to execute this ambitious project.

Some 650 miles of disparate segments of fence stand along the almost 2,000-mile border between the U.S. and Mexico. Many segments, like the one pictured above, still allow some communication across the border. (Brian Auer / Alamy Stock Photo)

Surveying the Situation

The Tower of Pisa was never meant to lean. Built between 1173 and 1370, the off-kilter structure was positioned atop roughly 30 feet of fine river sediments underlain by a layer of ancient marine clay. But as builders assembled the tons of marble, the river sediments didn’t compact evenly. So by 1178, when they had finished work on the third story, the tower had already acquired its characteristic tilt.

The Italian government has since spent millions of dollars to make sure this beloved landmark doesn't topple over. Such structural failures serve as a reminder that, while our ancestors did manage to successfully erect many impressive feats, “they don’t necessarily stay upright,” in the words of field geophysicist Mika McKinnon. To circumvent such problems today, modern builders have added a crucial step to the construction process: surveying. Though time-consuming, this step is critical to ensure that the resulting structure can remain standing on terra firma for years to come.

Before a single brick is laid, teams of scientists assemble on scene to investigate a litany of details, from bedrock depth to soil chemistry. In the case of the border wall, they would have to traverse the entire length of the proposed path, working in segments to evaluate the region, collect data, develop plans. (This necessity makes the process of erecting walls—especially ones spanning thousands of miles—more challenging than building, say, a 95-story skyscraper.)

“Quite frankly, that would take years to do,” says Clendenin, who specializes in linear projects like railways and roads. McKinnon agrees. One project she worked on, a three-mile stretch of pipeline, is now on year five of field surveys.

Yet Trump’s order appears to allow a mere six months for all surveying and planning efforts. Within its long list of required steps, his executive order states:

“Produce a comprehensive study of the security of the southern border, to be completed within 180 days of this order, that shall include the current state of southern border security, all geophysical and topographical aspects of the southern border, the availability of Federal and State resources necessary to achieve complete operational control of the southern border, and a strategy to obtain and maintain complete operational control of the southern border.”

When contacted by, the Customs and Border Protection agency declined to comment on the current timeline for the wall, saying in an email that "it would be speculative to address the questions that you're asking at this point.” But according to scientists spoke to, it isn’t going up anytime soon.

Getting to Bedrock

The prehistoric city of Petra stands as a prime example of ancient geologic foresight. Around the 4th century BC, Petra’s inhabitants carved the basis for this once-bustling trading city directly into the rugged pink and tan sandstone cliffs between the Red Sea and the Dead sea. Though winds and rain threatened to erode the structure top down, its firm rooting in bedrock—the solid rock that lies beneath the earth’s loose layers—has kept this structure standing tall for thousands of years.    

Such grounding in bedrock is a key feature when building a megastructure, says McKinnon. For something as extensive as a 1,000-mile wall that stands upwards of 20 feet tall, builders will need to anchor the whole thing beneath the surface to the underlying rock if they want it to stay upright.

The problem is, getting to bedrock can be a doozy. Great swaths of the border feature a hefty layer of loose sediments—dirt, soils, sand—laying atop the bedrock. In some regions the bedrock is hundreds if not thousands of feet down. “Some places the bedrock will be too deep—you'll never be able to reach the bedrock in an affordable fashion,” says McKinnon.

“That's okay if you want to [build] a tiny house because you just have it floating on its foundation,” she adds.

But if you’re building a megastructure, “you have a problem,” she says. 

The border fence that runs through the Algodones Sand Dunes in California is of special construction to accommodate the ever-changing dune environment. The narrow, 15-foot-tall posts "float" above the sand and can be moved vertically as the dunes shift. (United States Border Patrol, Department of Homeland Security)

That’s not to say that building on sand is impossible. But to safely erect such structures, geophysicists today conduct extensive seismic surveys to image what lies beneath. To create these pictures, they install rows of spike-like geophones, which are 3D microphones that detect minute vibrations of the ground, converting them into an electric signal. Then they make a large noise, often by triggering an explosion or using a heavy weight to thump the ground. The geophones record the scattering and reflection of vibrations to image underground structures, and tease out problems that may lay under the surface.

McKinnon experienced one of these problems firsthand, during the construction of a hydroelectric dam that was meant to be built across a valley that spanned about a mile. The team did all the proper surveys of the region, and discovered that beneath their riverbed lay a second channel buried in dirt. “If we hadn't found it and we tried to build our dam across, then the water would have just eroded that old channel underneath and we would have had a river under our dam,” she says.

There are two options for overcoming such problems with sediment: compact the sediment and add a deeper foundation. For a wall roughly 20 feet tall, the foundation should extend six to eight feet beneath the surface, Clendenin says. All of these steps are expensive and time-consuming. But skimp on any of them, and "you get your Leaning-Tower-of-Pisa situation," says McKinnon.

Of course, many modern regions don’t have the economic resources to do such surveys and construction of deep foundations. The cities of Campania, Italy, are built atop loose sediments that are prone to sliding—a situation worsened by local clearcutting of the vegetation and unregulated construction that commonly lacks adequate foundations. These factors leave them vulnerable to the whims of their region’s geology: In 1998, when a mudslide rippled through the city, the houses crumpled under the weight and movement of the sludge, leaving at least 95 dead.


Dirt Drama

“Something there is that doesn't love a wall / That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,” begins Robert Frost’s poem "Mending Wall." Frost may not have been a geological surveyor, but he got one thing right: When it comes to building walls, soil swelling is a major headache. That’s why, after surveyors finish assessing the kind of rock and earth they’ll be building over, they start studying the dirt.

Sediments, particularly in clay-rich materials, can take on water, swelling like a sponge in a bowl of water. The resulting cycles of swelling and shrinking during wet and dry periods can crack the very foundation of structures. And these types of soils are common in many states where the border wall will be built, including Texas and parts of New Mexico. In fact, about half of American homes are built on soils that expand significantly, and nearly half of those suffer damage yearly because of the soil, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers.

Dirt can also eat up the wall’s support system. Soils that are naturally acidic or have high chloride levels can rapidly degrade iron-rich metals, says McKinnon. These soils could “corrode any, say, nice big metal rebar that you're putting in there to stabilize your foundation,” she says. Other soils have a high amount of sulfates, a compound found in the common mineral gypsum that breaks down both metals and concrete. Sulfate-rich soils are common in what’s known as the Trans-Pecos soils along the border in the southwestern arm of Texas.

Upkeep of such a lengthy structure is challenging. And even if such a wall can be erected, the size of budget necessary to keep it standing remains unclear. (Kevin Foy / Alamy Stock Photo)

“You're going to encounter hundreds, if not thousands, of different types of soils along [such a lengthy] linear pathway,” says Clendenin. (In fact, there are over 1,300 kinds of soil in Texas alone.) And many of those soils aren’t going to be the right type to build on top of. At that point, would-be wall-builders have two options: Spend more time and money excavating the existing soils and replacing them with better dirt—or avoid the region altogether.

One thing they can’t always avoid, though, are regions at risk of earthquakes and floods. Rivers run along a sizeable portion of the U.S.-Mexico border, which can create a very real danger of flood. Building adjacent to rivers can also present unexpected legal issues: A 1970 treaty necessitates that the fence be set back from the Rio Grande river, which delineates the Texas-Mexico border. Because of this, the current fence crosscuts Texas landowner’s property and has gaps to allow landowners to pass.

Earthquakes are also relatively common in the western U.S. Depending on the build, some of these tremblors could cause cracks or breaks in the wall, says McKinnon. One example is the magnitude 7.2 quake that struck in 2010 near the California-Mexico Border, according to Austin Elliott, a postdoctoral student at the University of Oxford whose research is focused on the history of earthquakes. “If there had been a wall at El Centinela [a mountain in northern Mexico] it would have been offset,” Elliott writes on Twitter.

Even if all the proper surveys are completed and the boxes checked, success isn’t guaranteed. “There are just so many things that have to be done before you even shovel out the first scoop of dirt,” says Clendenin.

Despite all of our modern surveying tools and careful planning, the earth will still surprise you, adds McKinnon. “This part that you thought was boring and simple and easy to predict is actually totally complicated,” she says. “Look at any major excavation for a subway system, any major bridge construction, any large tower complex; all of them had intense surveys beforehand, extensive design phases, and still had to modify while building.”

After the announcement of Trump’s Executive Order, McKinnon took to Twitter to leave a foreboding reminder of the consequences of underestimating the Earth. “Earth doesn’t forgive sloppy,” she wrote. She added in an interview: “Ignore geology at your peril.”

Even an Isolated Amazonian Tribe’s Microbes Are Antibiotic Resistant

Smithsonian Magazine

Without effective antibiotics, illnesses that are easily treatable today could once again become killers. Recently, antibiotic resistance has cropped up and created 'superbugs' that don’t fall to doctors' best medicines. At fault is the overuse of antibiotics — by doctors who prescribe them when they aren’t needed and by farmers hoping to both prevent healthy animals from getting sick, and to make them grow faster.  

In general, these causes are associated with an industrialized, modern lifestyle, so you might expect that some places, far removed from modern medicine and farming, would be protected from the coming swarm of antibiotic resistant bacteria. But, as Ann Gibbons reported for Science, researchers recently found that the bacteria in the guts of a group of Yanomani, Amazonian hunter-gatherers who have long been isolated from modern medicine and diet, had antibiotic-resistant genes. 

The Yanomami live deep in the Amazon rainforest on the boarder between Venezuela and Brazil and while their presence was first noted in the mid 1700s, the group remained isolated from the outside world until the 1950s. In 2008, an army helicopter noted a previously uncontacted Yanomami tribe, and, Gibbons writes, researchers immediately requested permission to study them, "before they were exposed to Western medicines and diets and would, therefore, lose diverse microbes." A medical expedition visited a village in 2009, treating some children with respiratory infections and also collecting bacteria from the mouths, skin and feces of 34 people in the village, reports Gibbons

The new research revealed that the Yanomami gut and skin bacteria has higher diversity than other populations, the scientists report in Science Advances. Also, a look at bacterial genes showed that the Yanomani gut microbes had 60 unique genes that can fight against antibiotics, including a half-dozen genes that would help the bacteria resist synthetic antibiotics. Gibbons writes:

The medical team’s interviews with these Yanomami villagers found they were never given drugs or exposed to food or water with antibiotics. Instead, [microbiologist Gautam Dantas, of Washington University in St. Louis] suggests that the Yanomami gut bacteria have evolved an armory of methods to fight a wide range of toxins that threaten them—just as our ancestors and other primates have done to fight dangerous microbes. For example, the Yanomami bacteria may already have encountered toxins that occur naturally in their environment that are similar in molecular structure to modern antibiotics, but have yet to be discovered by scientists. Or, gut bacteria in humans have evolved a generalized mechanism for detecting certain features shared by all antibiotics—including the synthetic ones designed by scientists—and so can mount a defense against new threats.

The finding emphasizes the difficulty researchers and physicians will face in combating the growing danger of antibiotic resistance. It shows that “antibiotic resistance is ancient, diverse, and astonishingly widespread in nature—including within our own bodies,” anthropologist Christina Warinner of the University of Oklahoma in Norman, who wasn’t involved in the study, told Gibbons. “Such findings and their implications explain why antibiotic resistance was so quick to develop after the introduction of therapeutic antibiotics, and why we today should be very concerned about the proper use and management of antibiotics in both clinical and agricultural contexts.”

Research on the Yanomami hasn't been without controversy. A 2000, a book by journalist Patrick Tierney accused researchers of gathering blood samples from the tribe without proper consent. Tribal members felt as though they hadn't consented to the way the blood was being used, including the fact that samples twould be preserved indefinitely — a practice that runs counter to the Yanomami traditions of treating bodily remains after death.

Before this work, researchers already knew that antibiotic resistance didn't necessarily require contact with antibiotics or industrial famrs. Past work has found viruses with genes for antibiotic resistance in 14th century fossilized human poo, long before doctors started using antibiotics in medicine. After all, competition between microbes is how antibiotics and its counter — antibiotic resistance — evolved. When antibiotics show up in soil and even insect wings, antibiotic resistance will turn up too. Still, figuring out how such resistant bugs move into the human gut, where they can effect human health, is important. 

Has the FBI Ever Been Divorced From Politics?

Smithsonian Magazine

In May 1924, a 29-year-old J. Edgar Hoover was called into Harlan Fiske Stone’s office.

President Calvin Coolidge had appointed Stone as the U.S. Attorney General just a month earlier. He would only serve in the role for a year. But during his short tenure, Stone fundamentally changed the United States when he plucked this particular “young man” to become the acting director of the Bureau of Investigations.

Hoover didn’t immediately accept his offer. Instead, as the story goes, the then-assistant director of the Bureau of Investigation told the U.S. attorney general told Stone he had several conditions.

“The Bureau must be divorced from politics and not be a catch-all for political hacks. Appointments must be based on merit. Second, promotions will be made on proven ability and the Bureau will be responsible only to the Attorney General,” Hoover said.

Stone responded, “I wouldn’t give it to you under any other conditions.”

Hoover’s 48-year reign created the modern bureau (renamed the Federal Bureau of Investigation in 1935). Contrary to his words, the FBI has never truly been divorced from politics.

The agency’s origins can be traced to 1908, when Attorney General Charles Bonaparte (the grandnephew of Napoleon Bonaparte) appealed to Congress for dedicated funding to conduct investigations. “He had no squad of investigators to call his own except for one or two special agents and other investigators who carried out specific assignments on his behalf,” the FBI history section notes. To get around this, Bonaparte had been borrowing Secret Service Division members and Pinkerton Detective agents to conduct investigators, but they were expensive and ultimately didn’t report to him.

Congress had little sympathy for the Attorney General. Fearing a federal secret police, Congress banned Secret Service operatives from being loaned to other federal departments. Ironically, this forced Bonaparte’s hand. He wrote to Roosevelt asking to be granted his own special investigation force, and the fledgling bureau was created that summer.

In its early days, the agency (christened the Bureau of Investigation by Bonaparte’s successor, Attorney General George Wickersham) struggled to find its footing. “It was not yet strong enough to withstand the sometimes corrupting influence of patronage politics on hiring, promotions, and transfers,” as the FBI’s website puts it.  

But wartime legislation greatly expanded its powers. During World War I, the Bureau was put in charge of enforcing the Espionage and Sedition Acts, which prohibited interference with military operations and restricted free speech during the war. Targeted arrests from these acts showed early examples of potential political abuses.

"Bureau investigations targeted radical activists, not necessarily because their actions suggested a willingness to act as German agents, but because of their political dissent, whether during the prewar period opposing United States involvement in the war or after April 1917, opposing the administration's mobilization and conscription policies,” wrote historian Athan Theoharis  in an encyclopedia of the United States in the First World War.  

After the war, the growing “Red Scare” led to more political bungling. Anarchist bombing attacks in 1919 and 1920 produced the “Palmer Raids,” ordered by General A. Mitchell Palmer and overseen by Hoover. "[P]olitics, inexperience, and overreaction got the better of Attorney General Palmer and his department," writes The FBI: A Centennial History, 1908-2008 on the controversial and poorly handled events, which heavily infringed upon civil liberties.

By the 1920s, the bureau “had a growing reputation for politicized investigations,” writes the FBI. The Teapot Dome scandal, which rocked the Harding Administration, revealed that bureau agents had been assigned to gather dirt on opposition politicians.

In an attempt to clean house, President Calvin Coolidge ousted Attorney General Harry Daughterty, and tapped Stone for the job, who soon called for the resignation of the sitting chief of the Bureau. Stone’s statement to the press addressing the change in leadership harkens back to Congress’ early fears.

“The enormous expansion of Federal legislation, both civil and criminal, in recent years, has made a Bureau of Investigation a necessary instrument of law enforcement,” it reads. “But it is important that its activities be strictly limited to the performance of those functions for which it was created and that its agents themselves be not above the law or beyond its reach.”  

Later that day, Stone tapped Hoover as the new acting head. He looked to Hoover as someone who could reset things. “Everybody says he’s too young, but maybe that’s his asset,” he once said to a colleague. ”I believe he would set up a group of young men as investigators and infuse them with a will to operate independent of congressional and political pressure.”

Despite what Stone believed, by 1933 the Washington bureau chief for Collier’s magazine, Ray Tucker, commented that Hoover used the bureau as his own “personal and political machine.” The FBI had grown from 441 agents when Hoover took over to almost 5,000 by the end of World War II.

 “The more awesome Mr. Hoover's power grew, the more plainly he would state, for the record, that there was nothing ‘political’ about it, that the F.B.I was simply a ‘fact-finding agency’ that ‘never makes recommendations or draws conclusions,’” writes Christopher Lydon in The New York Times.

But Hoover’s record speaks for itself. Theoharis explains in From the Secret Files of J. Edgar Hoover that the FBI wasn’t fully accountable to the attorney general during Hoover’s tenure. FBI assistant director William Sullivan recalled how the bureau essentially blackmailed politicians.

“The moment [Hoover] would get something on a Senator he would send one of those errand boys up and advise the Senator that we’re in the course of an investigation and by chance happened to come up with this—we realized you’d want to know… Well Jesus, what does that tell the Senator? From that time on, the Senator’s right in his pocket.”

Hoover’s independence was challenged briefly by Attorneys General Nicholas Katzenbach and Ramsey Clark, Theoharis notes, but Nixon’s administration allowed Hoover to work almost unchecked. “The consequence of this secrecy was the forging of an independent, virtually autonomous agency with its own political agenda, capable of influencing public opinion and national politics,” writes Theoharis.

Congressman J. Swagar Sherley, who opposed Bonaparte forming a “small permanent detective force” in the Department of Justice back in 1909, would have agreed. As Sherley said on Congressional Record, “In my reading of history I recall no instance where a government perished because of the absence of a secret-service force, but many there are that perished as a result of the spy system. If Anglo-Saxon civilization stands for anything, it is for a government where the humblest citizen is safeguarded against the secret activities of the executive of the government.”

Wyoming Paleontology Dispatch #7: The Excitement—and Dread—of Coring

Smithsonian Magazine

The golden morning light still casts long shadows on the badlands when we arrive at the drill site at 6:30 on July 14. The rig’s motor is burbling and rumbling in the quiet morning. The driller, Ben, and his assistant, Cody, are moving quickly and surely as they prepare to lower the drill bit onto the big blue X where I marked the spot for the first core. Since we first began planning to drill these cores, I have thought about this moment with a combination of dread and excitement. Dread because I have never been involved in coring before and am completely reliant on the expertise of the drilling team—a far cry from the low-tech activity of my yearly fossil collecting. Excitement because we are about to take samples of rocks from hundreds of feet underground, unweathered rocks that may preserve chemical and microscopic fossils we have never before detected.

Doug and Anders call out to me: “Do you want to come see the ground-breaking?” I’m over to the rig like a shot. Ben moves some controls on the drilling rig, the pipe starts to rotate, then advances, then begins to cut through the surface dirt and pebbles. Ben drills down about five feet in just a few moments, halts, then pulls the core catcher and liner back to the surface. He swings the section of pipe containing the core out onto a sawhorse-like contraption, where Cody extracts the clear Lexan liner. It contains our first section of core—mostly just near-surface dirt of no scientific interest—but this is just the start. Over the next hours Ben and Cody repeat the process over and over again: drilling down about five feet at a time, then halting, dropping the overshot down the inside of the drill pipe so that it latches onto the assembly that contains the liner and the core, then pulling this assembly to the surface and removing the cylinder of rock in its liner. At first it seems so slow, but then I remember that we on the science team have a lot to do!

With each core section we have to find out from Ben how far down he has drilled, which he reports to us in feet and tenths of feet. (American drillers work in American units!) Cody hands over the latest section of core in its liner, and one of us picks up the 25-pound tube of rock and takes it back to the worktable we have set up, where we label the liner with a Sharpie, mark the “up” direction, cut the liner to fit the core section precisely, cap the ends of the liner (red for bottom, blue for top), tape the caps on, measure the length of the core section (in centimeters since we are scientists), weigh it, record a brief description of the type of rock we see through the liner, then drill holes through the plastic liner to drain the water we have used to lubricate the drilling. Then we have to clean the sediment off of the core catcher and return it to Cody. I know we must look ridiculous as we rush around, getting in one another’s way, perhaps like inexperienced wait-staff in a very busy restaurant. Within 20 minutes the cores are coming out of the hole faster than we greenhorns can deal with them, and Anders and Doug have to provide reinforcements and steadying words. Fortunately it doesn’t go at this pace all day. The deeper the hole gets, the longer it takes to retrieve each segment, so we have slightly longer periods during which to process each core.

The day heats up in its customary way, breaking 100 by 2 p.m. But we are used to the heat. We do experience problems, though. Sometimes Ben will drill down five feet, but recover only three feet of core in the liner. His expression lets me know he doesn’t like this. Perhaps the last two feet of core he drilled are still at the bottom of the hole? He sends the drill back down and drills another two feet, but comes up with four feet of core—the bottom two feet from the previous run, plus two feet from this run. But it isn’t always this simple—sometimes even after several runs we still haven’t recovered quite as much core as the length we drilled down. And the situation is made more confusing because we are constantly converting back and forth between metric and American measuring units. And it is 100 degrees. And we have now been working as fast as we can for eight hours. And we still have four hours to go. Finally I realize that I need to pause long enough to get a good drink of water—I’m inured to the heat, but I’m not used to the frantic pace and I have forgotten the first rule of badlands work, which is to stay hydrated.

Image by Scott Wing. Ben Goody, left, and Cody Halliday coring. They used the poultry and livestock bedding to keep drilling water from escaping into the porous sand. (original image)

Image by Scott Wing. The products of our first day of coring. Drying in the hot Wyoming sun are segments of cores in their Lexan liners. (original image)

Image by Scott Wing. A detailed view of the bottom of a segment of core. (original image)

As the heat of the day passes and the light lengthens again, we realize that we have finally established a rhythm of work. Each of us has a “specialty,” we stay out of one another’s way, and we get the cores processed about as fast as Ben and Cody are producing them. The work may be repetitive, and there isn’t the possibility of the dramatic fossil find that I get with my normal collecting, but there is a huge satisfaction in seeing the growing pile of Lexan tubes, each containing a core section. By the end of our shift, at 7 in the evening, we are down well over 100 feet, more than a quarter of our target depth. Ben and Cody are replaced by A.J. and Brandon, the night-shift drillers. Elizabeth, Aaron and Brady arrive to take over for the evening science shift. Anders is pulling a superhuman double shift—he has been here all day and will continue until 7 a.m. tomorrow. Doug and Guy and Allie and Johan and I are almost reluctant to leave—we have this process down now, and feel pretty good about the system we have refined. But it doesn’t take long for us to convince ourselves it is time for dinner and bed.

We have had a long day, recovered a lot of core and are confident that every section is properly labeled, oriented, described and measured. Even more important, we have seen rocks that have a lovely dark brown color, indicating they preserve a lot of organic material, material that may include the chemical fossils we are looking for. But we will have to wait for the lab analyses later this year to know for sure.

Back in Greybull, we have a quick, late dinner at Lisa’s Restaurant, and then head to bed. We will be up at 6 in order to get breakfast and be ready to relieve the night shift at 6:45 tomorrow morning.

Over the next three days our crew drills two holes, each 450 feet deep, and recovers essentially 100 percent of the rocks that we have drilled through. These are the first cores ever obtained of a terrestrial environment during the PETM. We have cored the same time interval at two sites quite close together so that we can increase the amount of rock from each stratigraphic level. We want a large volume of samples because we don’t know what the concentration of molecular fossils will be, and because we want to be able to preserve part of the cores as an archive that future scientists can work on. Who knows if there will ever again be funding to undertake this sort of coring operation. It has taken a total of four days of 24-hour work, and we are proud of our efforts and a little giddy with exhaustion.

And what does one do with 900 feet of core, divided into about 200 segments and weighing thousands of pounds altogether? No problem, apparently, because Tom Churchill arrives shortly after we are done, having driven the two hours from Powell in his barley truck. We all load the cores in the back, and Tom heads back to Powell where the cores will be unloaded into his shed and stored on racks built for beehives. Once again, it’s the Churchills to the rescue of the paleontologists.

« Dispatch #6 | Dispatch #8 »

Scott Wing is a research scientist and curator in the Smithsonian Institution’s Department of Paleobiology.

The Daring Escape From the Eastern State Penitentiary

Smithsonian Magazine

“How 12 convicts escaped by tunnel from Eastern Penitentiary,” Diagram of the Tunnel published in the Philadelphia Inquirer, April 3, 1945 (image: Philadelphia Inquirer via Easter State Penitentiary)

Eastern State Penitentiary opened its gates in 1829. It was devised by The Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons, an organization of powerful Philadelphia residents that counted Benjamin Franklin among its members and whose ambition was to “build a true penitentiary, a prison designed to create genuine regret and penitence in the criminal’s heart.” With its hub-and-spoke design of long blocks containing individual prison cells, ESP could be considered the first modern prison. There are many, many stories told about the prisoners that have been incarcerated here over its nearly 150 years of operation–some inspiring, some horrible, some about Al Capone–but none of them have captivated the public more than the 1945 “Willie Sutton” tunnel escape.

Photo of Willie Sutton’s in 1934; a photo taken mere minutes after his escape in 1945; Sutton’s post-escape mug shot; the wanted poster issued after Sutton’s escape from Holmesburg. At the time he was one of the FBI’s ten most wanted fugitives (image: Eastern State Penitentiary)

The most famous escape in the history of Eastern State Penitentiary was the work of 12 men – they were like the Dirty Dozen, but less well adjusted. The most infamous among them was Willie Sutton aka “Slick Willie” aka Willie “The Actor” aka “The Gentleman Bandit” aka “The Babe Ruth of bank robbers,” who was sentenced to Eastern State Penitentiary in 1934 for the brazen machine gun robbery of the Corn Exchange Bank in Philadelphia. Those nicknames alone tell you everything you need to know about Willie Sutton. He was, by all accounts (especially his own), exactly what you want a old-timey bank robber to be: charming, devious, a master of disguise, and of course, an accomplished escape artist, who in 11 years at ESP, made at least five escape attempts. Sutton’s outspoken nature and braggadocio landed him a few stories in Life magazine and even a book deal. In his 1953 autobiography Where the Money Was, Sutton takes full credit as the mastermind behind the tunnel operation.

Clarence Klinedinst in the center (image: Temple University Archives via Eastern State Penitentiary)

Though the personable Sutton may have been critical in managing the mercurial tempers of his fellow escapees, the truth is that the escape was planned and largely executed by Clarence “Kliney” Klinedinst, a plasterer, stone mason, burglar, and forger who looked a little like a young Frank Sinatra and had a reputation as a first-rate prison scavenger. “If you gave Kliney two weeks, he could get you Ava Gardner,” said Sutton. And If you give Kliney a year, he could get you out of prison.

The entry to the escape tunnel, excavated by a team of archaeologists and researches in 2005.

Working in two-man teams of 30 minute shifts, the tunnel crew, using spoons and flattened cans as shovels and picks, slowly dug a 31-inch opening through the wall of cell 68, then dug twelve feet straight down into the ground, and another 100 feet out beyond the walls of the prison. They removed dirt by concealing it in their pockets and scattering it in the yard a la The Great Escape. Also like The Great Escape, the ESP tunnel was shored up with scaffolding, illuminated, and even ventilated. At about the halfway point, it linked up with the prison’s brick sewer system and the crew created an operable connection between the two pipelines to deposit their waste while ensuring that noxious fumes were kept out of the tunnel. It was an impressive work of subversive, subterranean engineering, the likes of which can only emerge from desperation. As a testament to either clever design or the ineptitude of the guards, the tunnel escaped inspection several times thanks to a false panel Kliney treated to match the plaster walls of the cell and concealed by a metal waste basket.

After months of painfully slow labor, the tunnel was ready. On the morning (yes, the morning) of April 3, 1945, the dirtier dozen made their escape, sneaking off to cell 68 on their way to breakfast.

Two of the escapees, including Sutton (at left), are returned to Eastern after mere minutes of freedom. (image: Eastern State Penitentiary)

Like most designers, Kliney and co. found that the work far outweighed the reward. After all that designing, carving, digging, and building, Kliney made it a whole three hours before getting caught. But that was better than Sutton, who was free for only about three minutes. By the end of the day, half the escapees were returned to prison while the rest were caught within a couple months. Sutton recalls the escape attempt in Where the Money Was:

“One by one the men lowered themselves to the tunnel, and on hands and knees crept the hundred and twenty feet to its end. The remaining two feet of earth were scraped away and men rumbled from the hole to scurry in all directions. I leaped from the hole, began to run, and came face to face with two policemen. They stood for a moment, paralyzed with amazement. I was soaking wet and my face was covered with mud.

“Put up your hands or I’ll shoot.” One of them recovered more quickly than the other.

“Go ahead, shoot,” I snarled at them, and at that moment I honestly hoped he would. Then I wheeled and began to run. He emptied his gun at me, but I wasn’t hit….None of the bullets hit me, but they did make me swerve, and in swerving I tripped, fell, and they had me.”

The first few escapees to be captured, Sutton among them, were put in the Klondikes – illegal, completely dark, solitary confinement cells secretly built by guards in the mechanical space below one of the cell blocks. These spaces are miserable, tiny holes that aren’t big enough to stand up or wide enough to lie down. Sutton was eventually transferred to the “escape proof” Holmesburg Prison, from which he promptly escaped and managed to avoid the law for six years. Police eventually caught up with him in Brooklyn after a witness saw him on the subway and recognized his mug from the wanted poster.

The map of the 1945 tunnel made by guard Cecil Ingling. In his larger-than-life account of the escape, Sutton claimed the tunnel went 30-feet down. “I knew that the prison wall itself extended 25 feet beneath the surface of the ground and that it was fourteen feet thick at the base.” Clearly, that wasn’t the case. (image: Eastern State Penitentiary)

As for the tunnel, after it was analyzed and mapped, guards filled it with ash and covered it with cement. Though it may have been erased from the prison, its legend likely inspired inmates until Eastern State Penitentiary was closed in 1971. And despite the failure of the escapees, the tunnel has continued to intrigue the public.

Archaeologists use ground-penetrating radar and an auger to detect the remains of the 1945 tunnel on the occasion of its 60th anniversary. (images: Digging in the City of Brotherly Love)

The location of the tunnel was lost until 2005, when the Eastern State Penitentiary, now a non-profit dedicated to preserving the landmarked prison, completed an archaeological survey to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the escape. To find the tunnel, the prison escape preservationists created a search grid over the prison grounds near the entrance, the location of which was known from old photos. Using ground penetrating radar, the team was able to create vertical sections though the site in increments corresponding to the suspected width of the tunnel. After a couple failed attempts, the archaeologists detected a section of the tunnel that hadn’t collapsed and hadn’t been filled-in by the guards. The following year, a robotic rover was sent through the tunnels, documenting its scaffolding and lighting systems. While no major discoveries were made, curiosity was sated and the public’s imagination was newly ignited  by  stories of the prison and its inmates.

There’s something undeniably romantic about prison escapes – perhaps due to the prevalence of films where the escapee is the hero and/or the pure ingenuity involved in a prison escape. The best escape films –A Man Escaped, La Grande Illusion, Escape from Alcatraz, The Great Escape, to name just a few–show us every step of the elaborate plan as the rag tag team of diggers, scavengers, and ersatz engineers steal, forge, design, and dig their way to freedom. Without fail, the David vs. Goliath narrative has us rooting for the underdog every step of the way, even when the David is a bank robber.

A Jamestown Skeleton is Unearthed, but Only Time—and Science—will Reveal His True Identity

Smithsonian Magazine

Dead men tell no tales—but a skeleton in a church gravesite has given Jamestown Rediscovery archaeologists quite the story.

This week, Rediscovery scientists uncovered new evidence, including a skull and teeth, of a skeleton that may belong to Sir George Yeardley in the remains of a church in Jamestown, Virginia. Yeardley, the colonial governor who presided over the first representative assembly in the Western hemisphere, was also one of America’s first slaveholders.

This assembly, which took place in 1619, was a momentous first step in ushering in a new age of colonial rule, though it would be decades before modern democracy would be established in the region. Still, many scholars hail Yeardley for his role in championing the participation of citizens in their own government. Yeardley died at Jamestown in 1627 at the age of 39, and was likely honored with a grand commemoration at the time of his passing.

Since 1994, scientists have been excavating Jamestown, the site of the first permanent English settlement in North America, where three ships first docked in April of 1607. A project originally pioneered by archaeologist Bill Kelso, Jamestown Rediscovery has already unearthed two million artifacts, painting an increasingly intricate portrait of this cornerstone of American history—but the discovery of this early American may be their most groundbreaking yet.

According to David Givens, director of archaeology at Jamestown Rediscovery, Yeardley’s identity is far from definitive and confirmation awaits further analyses, including DNA sequencing. "We believe this person to be Sir George Yeardley, “ says Givens. “Now we’re going to let science tell us if we’re right or wrong."

Ground-penetrating radar (top) reveals a high-resolution image of a skeleton to archaeologists before they broke ground to capture an actual photo (bottom). (David Givens)

The skeleton in question appears to be of the right age, and is largely intact, enabling estimates of several of the body’s original features. Additionally, the specimen was unearthed from a grave positioned in a place reserved for only those of high status: in the central aisle, intersecting with what colonists referred to as the “quire” (choir) of what was once the town’s second church, a wooden structure erected in 1617. Additionally, a large tombstone commemorating a knighthood—another mark of prestige bequeathed on Yeardley—once occupied the same church that now bears Yeardley’s supposed remains, and was believed to have sealed his grave. The grave appears to be aligned with the church’s foundations and is devoid of any deconstruction rubble, tentatively indicating that it was dug before the church was dismantled in 1639, 12 years after Yeardley’s death.

Notably, this is the first time that high-frequency ground-penetrating radar has been used in the identification of archaeological skeletal remains. The technique pulses radar deep into the soil and sends back signals of remains beneath the surface, enabling researchers to visualize the evidence without disturbing the artifacts. Such a precaution not only gives a complete picture of a pristinely preserved specimen, but also informs the excavation strategy.

“When we’re digging an archaeological site, we’re going in blind,” explains Peter Leach, an archaeologist at Geophysical Survey Systems, Inc. who collaborated on the project. “Excavation is destructive. . . so being able to look through the soil is powerful.”

Typically, only lower-frequency pulses have been used at previous sites, as these tend to penetrate deeper into the earth. However, the further down the signals go, the poorer the resolution is. High-frequency versions, which have, up until this point, been used almost exclusively to detect rebar and wiring in slabs of concrete during deconstruction and remodeling, were considered impractical for archeological purposes: they had the precision, but not the depth.

But Leach was willing to take that gamble. In the hunt for a gravesite, shallow treasure was a given—and the perfect opportunity to see if high-frequency ground-penetrating radar could visualize bones. Leach encouraged Givens to stop digging just above the lid of a coffin, then give Leach a call.

And hit pay dirt they did.

“The radar was so detailed that when we dug [the skeleton] up, it was like, ‘That’s exactly what we were seeing,” says Givens.

Excavation revealed well-preserved arms, legs and ribs, and even a large number of teeth. For a while, the head was MIA—but then the scientists remembered an orphan skull that had been mysteriously unearthed from a nearby grave the previous year. Perhaps it belonged to their mystery man, and had simply been dislodged by a second burial. They’d be able to potentially confirm a match with DNA analysis—but in the meantime, there was a faster, albeit messier way to tell: they had a jaw bone and a handful of loose teeth—did the keys fit the lock?

They did. This confirmation was—literally—the crowning jewel on their find. They had a head—one that could be scanned to generate a 3D reconstruction of the body’s original face. But the vast majority of the work is yet to come: archaeology is arduous and delicate, far more than a group of researchers playing around in dirt.

“We’re trying to reconstruct a jigsaw puzzle, but sometimes someone comes in and kicks the table,” says Leach.

A skeleton is revealed in the excavation of a prestigious church burial at Jamestown, Virginia. (Smithsonian Channel)

Doug Owsley, lead forensic anthropologist at Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, will head the analysis of the skeletal remains back in Washington, D.C. Since 1996, Owsley has been “reading” human remains at Jamestown—over half of his 40-year career in physical anthropology. “We’re studying this whole process of becoming American through a record written in the bones,” he says.

For him, the excavation goes far beyond what first meets the eye: Owsley notes that each skeleton emerges with a personal history that dictates sex, age, health, lifestyle, ancestry and more. The teeth alone are a wellspring of information: cavities betray grain or sugar consumption, while abscesses shed light on painful illnesses.

Advances in chemical testing will also enable the researchers to learn the skeleton’s diet and travel history. Radiocarbon dating, for instance, can approximately bracket when the body was buried. The bones in our bodies have different regenerative capacities: teeth, for instance, stop growing in early childhood, and make a good snapshot of what you were eating and drinking in youth. Femurs, on the other hand, might reveal the last ten or 15 years of growth; ribs, the last two to five. And so, by pulling samples from all over this skeleton’s body, archaeologists can reconstruct an incredibly accurate life history.

Nitrogen in the bones, for instance, could reveal how much meat was in this man’s diet, which might hint at his social status (Yeardley, while not born noble, quickly rose to prominence in Jamestown). Similarly, different species of oxygen molecules can be matched to country-specific rainwater. If the bones are Yeardley’s, one might expect a layering of oxygen flavors: one for his early years in England, overlaid by a stripe indicative of the Americas. Finally, different types of carbon molecules exist in plants native to either England or the Americas: Corn, a true American classic, would not be expected to appear in the teeth—which preserve only our earliest eating habits—of a native Englishman, but would rear its head in the legs and ribs if he traveled to America.

But the lynchpin of this investigation is perhaps the most elusive puzzle piece of all. Over the next six to eight months, geneticist and archaeologist Turi King of the University of Leicester will do some excavating of her own—but this time, entirely above ground. Her laboratory has already played an instrumental role in identifying the remains of Richard III, and many of the same techniques will be deployed anew in the search for Yeardley.

To confirm his identity, King will need to carefully extract DNA from bits of bone, which involves crushing samples to liberate the necessary molecules. She’ll then compare the fragments she isolates to DNA from known living descendants of Yeardley—but not just any relative will do. King is searching for mitochondrial DNA or Y chromosomes in all-female or all-male lineages, respectively, from Yeardley’s line. These genetic traits are passed through only one sex or the other, putting tough constraints on her search. And while sampling DNA from a living person in modern times has become a breeze, “ancient DNA is a different kettle of fish,” King says. “It tends to be very damaged.” And as her team works, King must take every precaution against contaminating the 400-year-old skeleton’s DNA—a costly mistake that could be as simple as breathing on or brushing up against the samples.

The team hopes to have definitive findings by mid-2019, when they will be profiled by the Smithsonian Channel as a part of its series “American Hidden Stories.” Next year also marks the 400th anniversary of Yeardley’s two legacies as an assembly leader and as a slaveholder. The clash of these two hallmarks of American history further illuminate a period of immense sociopolitical turmoil: in its early years, Jamestown survived several sieges by the region’s natives, an abandonment by leadership, and famines that drove its residents to occasional cannibalism.

Jamestown Rediscovery weds a team of dizzying expertise from around the world, assembling support from the Skeletal Biology Program at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History; specialists in ground penetrating radar from Geophysical Survey Systems, Inc.; King’s lab at the University of Leicester; dental specialists Joshua Cohen of Virginia Commonwealth University and Martin Levin of the University of Pennsylvania; and many others.

“One of the things that excites me the most, as an archaeologist, is to work with a team of world class archaeologists, and to experience the camaraderie and collaborations,” says Leach. “It’s really a dream come true.”

In the months ahead, the team will continue to gather evidence for (or perhaps against) the identification of Sir George Yeardley in these remains. But regardless of the skeleton’s identity, this particular investigation is only a piece of the culmination of decades of work in the nation’s first settlement. Yeardley or not Yeardley, this individual will weave a thread to the ever-growing tapestry of Jamestown’s colorful history—and far more remains to be discovered.

“And if it’s not [Yeardley],” says Givens, “then who got such a prominent burial in the church?”

Mysterious Martian "Cauliflower" May Be the Latest Hint of Alien Life

Smithsonian Magazine

The hunt for signs of life on Mars has been on for decades, and so far scientists have found only barren dirt and rocks. Now a pair of astronomers thinks that strangely shaped minerals inside a Martian crater could be the clue everyone has been waiting for.

In 2008, scientists announced that NASA’s Spirit rover had discovered deposits of a mineral called opaline silica inside Mars's Gusev crater. That on its own is not as noteworthy as the silica’s shape: Its outer layers are covered in tiny nodules that look like heads of cauliflower sprouting from the red dirt.

No one knows for sure how those shapes—affectionately called “micro-digitate silica protrusions”—formed. But based on recent discoveries in a Chilean desert, Steven Ruff and Jack Farmer, both of Arizona State University in Tempe, think the silica might have been sculpted by microbes. At a meeting of the American Geophysical Union in December, they made the case that these weird minerals might be our best targets for identifying evidence of past life on Mars.

If the logic holds, the silica cauliflower could go down in history as arguably the biggest discovery ever in astronomy. But biology is hard to prove, especially from millions of miles away, and Ruff and Farmer aren’t claiming victory yet. All they’re saying is that maybe these enigmatic growths are mineral greetings from ancient aliens, and someone should investigate.

Spirit found the silica protrusions near the “Home Plate” region of Gusev crater, where geologists think hot springs or geysers once scorched the red planet's surface. To understand what that long-dormant landscape used to be like, we have to look closer to home: hydrothermal regions of modern Earth that resemble Mars in its ancient past.

To that end, Ruff has twice in the past year trekked to Chile’s Atacama Desert, a high plateau west of the Andes cited as the driest non-polar place on Earth. Scientists often compare this desert to Mars, and not just poetically. It’s actually like Mars. The soil is similar, as is the extreme desert climate.

In this part of the Atacama, it rains less than 100 millimeters per year, and temperatures swing from -13°F to 113°F. With an average elevation of 13,000 feet above sea level, lots of ultraviolet radiation makes it through the thin atmosphere to the ground, akin to the punishing radiation that reaches the surface of Mars.

Just as we interpret others’ behavior and emotions by peering into our own psychology, scientists look around our planet to help them interpret Mars, find its most habitable spots and look for signs of life. While the Atacama does have breathable oxygen and evolutionarily clever foxes (which Mars does not), its environment mimics Mars’s pretty well and makes a good standin for what the red planet may have been like when it was warmer and wetter.

So when geologists see something in the Atacama or another Mars analog that matches a feature on the red planet, they reasonably conclude that the two could have formed the same way. It’s not a perfect method, but it’s the best we’ve got.

“I don't think there is any way around using modern Earth analogs to test where Martian microbes may be found,” says Kurt Konhauser of the University of Alberta, who is the editor-in-chief of the journal Geobiology.

To understand Home Plate, it makes sense that Ruff turned to El Tatio, a region in the Atacama that is home to more than 80 geysers. While most other earthly animals wouldn’t last long here, many microbes do just fine, and fossil evidence suggests they also thrived in the distant past. By inference, Mars’s Home Plate might have once made a nice microbial home.

But the comparison goes further: When Ruff peered closely at El Tatio’s silica formations, he saw shapes remarkably similar to those that Spirit had seen on Mars. Fraternal cauliflower twins also exist in Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming and the Taupo Volcanic Zone in New Zealand. In both of those places, the silica bears the fossilized fingerprints of microbial life.

Since microbes sculpted the silica features in Wyoming and New Zealand, it's possible they also helped make the formations at El Tatio. And if microbes were involved with the cauliflower at El Tatio, maybe they made it grow on Mars, too.

Image by Ben Pipe Photography/Corbis. Caption: Steam swirls across the landscape at El Tatio in the Atacama Desert in Chile, one of the geyser-rich regions that may resemble early Mars. (original image)

Image by Francesco Paroni Sterbini, via Flickr CC BY-ND 2.0. Minerals color the mud around an El Tatio geyser in this 2006 picture taken by Flickr user Francesco Paroni Sterbini. On their expeditions to El Tatio, Ruff and Farmer found silica formations around geysers that look a lot like the ones spotted on Mars. (original image)

Image by George Steinmetz/Corbis. Champagne Pool in New Zealand's Taupo Volcanic Zone was created by a geothermal eruption several hundred years ago. Recent research found that small silica formations at the pool are filled with preserved microbial life. (original image)

Image by Frank Krahmer/Masterfile/Corbis. Minerals sprout from Champagne Pool in New Zealand. (original image)

Image by Michael Yamashita/Corbis. Opal Pool in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, another geyser field that serves as an analog for early Mars. (original image)

Image by Roger Ressmeyer/CORBIS. A closeup image shows stromatolites growing in the runoff from Yellowstone's Sapphire Pool. These formations are created by microbial life. (original image)

But making a logical leap from one region on Earth to another—from New Zealand to Chile, for example—isn’t trivial or always correct. And it’s even more tenuous to then hop to a whole other planet where, so far, scientists have seen no signs of life. After all, history doesn’t favor life-friendly interpretations of data from Mars.

The Viking 1 lander, which set foot on the red planet in 1976, performed the first life-seeking experiments there. Three of them came up empty. One, called the Labeled Release experiment, found that something in the soil absorbed the nutrient solution that scientists fed it and then released an excretory plume of carbon dioxide, as if it were metabolizing the nutrients. But the team couldn’t replicate those results, and after much excitement, the researchers had to declare the experiment inconclusive.

Twenty years later, a Mars meteorite found in Antarctica in 1984 caused a similar kerfuffle. NASA scientist David McKay published a paper in 1996 suggesting that the space rock might hold the fossils of once-living things, creating a media uproar. But other scientists soon demonstrated that the “bacteria-shaped objects” and biology-friendly molecules could have formed abiotically, or without the help of life.

Similarly, the carbon dioxide that Viking detected could have been a geochemical, not a biological, reaction. According to Konhauser, most potential biosignatures could also come about non-biologically. Scientists would have to rule out all those non-living possibilities before they could say for sure that we’re not alone.

That lesson definitely applies to the Martian cauliflower.

“Having worked on modern hot springs, I have seen all forms of structures that look biological but are not,” Konhauser says. Silica can come from non-biological processes and water, geography, wind or other environmental factors can then shape it into complex structures. “Because it looks biological doesn’t mean it is,” he says.

Image by NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona. Snapped by a Mars orbiter, this image shows layers of rock in a large canyon system called Valles Marineris, including outcrops of opaline silica. On the ground, the rover Spirit also found this mineral in Gusev crater. (original image)

Image by NASA/JPL-Caltech. An artist's rendering of a Mars Exploration Rover. The rover Spirit landed inside Gusev crater in January 2004. (original image)

Image by NASA/JPL-Caltech. The northern edge of "Home Plate" in Gusev crater, as seen in a panorama stitched together from images captured by the Mars rover Spirit in 2009. (original image)

Image by NASA/JPL-Caltech. Spirit got a closer look at silica formations in Gusev crater on the 1,160th day of its mission on Mars. (original image)

Image by NASA/JPL-Caltech. An artist's concept of the Mars 2020 rover, which is based on the Curiosity rover now exploring Mars's Gale crater. (original image)

For the moment, Ruff and Farmer are calling attention to the Martian cauliflower because they believe it's worth further study. For instance, research teams can take hard looks at the various processes that could have spawned the formations on Mars and help to rule out non-biological alternatives.

“Only when something that we have identified as a potential biosignature is proven to have been produced only by life, and not by any abiotic means, can we make the claim that definitive evidence for life has been found,” says Sherry Cady of the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, who is a member of the NASA Astrobiology Institute.

She agrees that the silica growths at Home Plate look like those near hot springs on Earth. But she would like to examine the evidence up close—and not just in portraits. “I would certainly like to see some of those samples brought back,” she says.

While Spirit stopped its scientific roving in 2010, NASA’s Mars 2020 rover, due to launch in a few years, is supposed to collect samples for eventual return to Earth. And the most recent meeting to narrow down landing-site choices for the rover kept Gusev crater on the list of candidates. Maybe the rover should pick some of that cauliflower and potentially turn Home Plate into a home run.

While they wait for additional data from Mars, Ruff and Farmer will do more digging on Earth. They plan to investigate El Tatio to see if its silica does, in fact, show the handiwork of living beings. If they find positive results, they will have made their chain of logic one loop smaller, perhaps bringing us closer to finding out whether any single-celled cousins once squirmed around on the red planet.

Ancient DNA Sheds New Light on the Biblical Philistines

Smithsonian Magazine

Sometime in the 12th century B.C., a family in the ancient port city of Ashkelon, in what is today Israel, mourned the loss of a child. But they didn’t go to the city’s cemetery. Instead, they dug a small pit in the dirt floor of their home and buried the infant right in the place where they lived.

That child’s DNA is now helping scholars trace the origins of the Philistines, a long-standing, somewhat contentious mystery. In accounts from the Hebrew Bible, the Philistines appear mostly as villainous enemies of the Israelites. They sent Delilah to cut the hair of the Israelite leader Samson and thus stripped him of his power. Goliath, the giant slain by David, was a Philistine. The Philistines’ reputation as a hostile, war-mongering, hedonistic tribe became so pervasive that “philistine” is still sometimes lobbed as an insult for an uncultured or crass person.

But who were the Philistines, exactly? In the Bible, ancient cities like Ashkelon, Ashdod and Ekron were mentioned as Philistine strongholds. In the 19th and 20th centuries, scholars finally started to piece together a distinct archaeological record of Philistine culture. Excavations revealed that these cities saw the emergence of new architecture and artifacts at the beginning of the Iron Age, around 1200 B.C., signaling the arrival of the Philistines. Pottery found at Philistine archaeological sites, for example, appeared to have been made locally, but looked strikingly like wares created by Aegean cultures such as the Mycenaeans, who built their civilization in what is now mainland Greece. And the Bible mentions “Caphtor,” or Crete, as the origin place of the Philistines.

Historians also know that, around the time these changes occur in the archaeological record, civilizations in the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean were collapsing. The Philistines are written about in Egyptian hieroglyphs, where they are referred to as the Peleset, among the tribes of “Sea Peoples” said to have battled against Pharaoh Ramses III around 1180 B.C. Meanwhile, other scholars have suggested that the Philistines were in fact a local tribe, or one that came from present-day Turkey or Syria.

Reconstruction of a Philistine house from the 12th Century B.C. (Artist Balage Balogh / Courtesy Leon Levy Expedition to Ashkelon)

Now, researchers have extracted DNA from the remains of 10 individuals, including four infants, who were buried at Ashkelon during the Bronze Age and Iron Age. The results, which were published today in the journal Science Advances, suggest the Philistines indeed migrated to the Middle East from southern Europe.

“This is an excellent example of a case where advances in science have helped us answer a question that has been long debated by archaeologists and ancient historians,” says Eric Cline, a professor at George Washington University and director of the Capitol Archaeology Institute, who was not involved in the study.

The new study stems from a discovery in 2013 of a cemetery with more than 200 burials contemporary with the Philistine settlement at Ashkelon just outside the ancient city walls. The cemetery, which was used during the late Iron Age, between the 11th and 8th centuries B.C., was the first Philistine burial ground ever found. The archaeologists documented burial practices that were distinct from the Philistines' Canaanite predecessors and their Egyptian neighbors. For example, in several cases, little jugs of perfume were tucked near the head of the deceased. Finding Philistine human remains also meant there might be potential to find Philistine DNA.

“We knew of the revolution in paleogenetics, and the way people were able to gather from a single individual hundreds of thousands of data points,” says Daniel Master, the director of the excavations and a professor of archaeology at Wheaton College in Illinois.

Getting DNA from the newly discovered human remains at Ashkelon, however, proved tricky. The southern Levant does not have a favorable climate for the preservation of DNA, which can break down when it’s too warm or humid, says Michal Feldman, who studies archaeogenetics at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Germany, and is the lead author of the new report. Nonetheless, the researchers were able to sequence the whole genome of three individuals from the cemetery.

An infant burial at the Philistine cemetery at Ashkelon. (Ilan Sztulman / Courtesy Leon Levy Expedition to Ashkelon)

To establish a baseline for the local genetic profile, the researchers also sequenced genomes from the remains of three Canaanites who had been buried in Ashkelon during the Bronze Age, before the alleged arrival of the Philistines. The team was also able to extract DNA from the remains of four infants who had previously been found in Philistine houses during excavations between 1997 and 2013. These children were buried in the Iron Age, in the 12th or 11th century, shortly after the Philistines supposed arrival in the region.

The results showed that the four Iron Age infants all had some genetic signatures matching those seen in Iron Age populations from Greece, Spain and Sardinia. “There was some gene flow coming in that was not there before,” Feldman says.

The researchers interpreted these results as evidence that migration indeed occurred at the end of the Bronze Age or during the early Iron Age. If that’s true, the infants may have been the grandchildren or great-grandchildren of the first Philistines to arrive in Canaan.

Intriguingly, their DNA already had a mixture of southern European and local signatures, suggesting that within a few generations the Philistines were marrying into the local population. In fact, the European signatures were not detectable at all in the individuals buried a few centuries later in the Philistine cemetery. Genetically, by then the Philistines looked like Canaanites. That fact in itself offers additional information about Philistine culture. “When they came, they did not have any kind of taboo or prohibition against marrying into other groups around them,” Master says. Nor, it would seem, did other groups categorically have that taboo about them, either. "One of the things that I think it shows is that the world was really complicated, whether we’re talking about genetics or identity or language or culture, and things are changing all the time," he adds.

Excavation of the Philistine cemetery at Ashkelon. (Melissa Aja / Courtesy Leon Levy Expedition to Ashkelon)

Cline cautions that it’s always best to be careful about connecting new genetic data to cultures and historic events, and the researchers recognize that if they had only looked at the DNA from the Philistine cemetery, they might have come up with a totally different story about the identity of the Philistines.

“Our history appears to be full of these transient pulses of genetic mixing that disappear without a trace,” says Marc Haber, a geneticist at the U.K.’s Wellcome Sanger Institute, who was not involved in the study. Haber has previously found evidence of “pulses” of gene flows from Europe to the Near East during the Middle Ages, which disappeared centuries later. “Ancient DNA has the power to look deep into the past and give us information on events that we knew little or nothing about.”

The findings are a good reminder, Feldman says, that a person’s culture or ethnicity is not the same as their DNA. “In this situation, you have foreign people coming in with a slightly different genetic makeup, and their influence, genetically, is very short. It doesn’t leave a long-lasting impact, but culturally they made an impact that lasted for many years.”

Five Reasons Why You Should Probably Stop Using Antibacterial Soap

Smithsonian Magazine

A few weeks ago, the FDA announced a bold new position on antibacterial soap: Manufacturers have to show that it's both safe and more effective than simply washing with conventional soap and water, or they have to take it off the shelves in the next few years.

About 75 percent of liquid antibacterial soaps and 30 percent of bars use a chemical called triclosan as an active ingredient. The drug, which was originally used strictly in hospital settings, was adopted by manufacturers of soaps and other home products during the 1990s, eventually ballooning into an industry that's worth an estimated $1 billion. Apart from soap, we've begun putting the chemical in wipes, hand gelscutting boards, mattress pads and all sorts of home items as we try our best to eradicate any trace of bacteria from our environment.

But triclosan's use in home over-the-counter products was never fully evaluated by the FDA—incredibly, the agency was ordered to produce a set of guidelines for the use of triclosan in home products way back in 1972, but only published its final draft on December 16 of last year. Their report, the product of decades of research, notes that the costs of antibacterial soaps likely outweigh the benefits, and forces manufacturers to prove otherwise.

Bottom line: Manufacturers have until 2016 to do so, or pull their products from the shelves. But we're here to tell you that you probably shouldn't wait that long to stop using antibacterial soaps. Here's our rundown of five reasons why that's the case:

1. Antibacterial soaps are no more effective than conventional soap and water. As mentioned in the announcement, 42 years of FDA research—along with countless independent studies—have produced no evidence that triclosan provides any health benefits as compared to old-fashioned soap.

"I suspect there are a lot of consumers who assume that by using an antibacterial soap product, they are protecting themselves from illness, protecting their families," Sandra Kweder, deputy director of the FDA's drug center, told the AP. "But we don't have any evidence that that is really the case over simple soap and water."

Manufacturers say they do have evidence of triclosan's superior efficacy, but the disagreement stems from the use of different sorts of testing methods. Tests that strictly measure the number of bacteria on a person's hands after use do show that soaps with triclosan kill slightly more bacteria than conventional ones.

But the FDA wants data that show that this translates into an actual clinical benefit, such as reduced infection rates. So far, analyses of the health benefits don't show any evidence that triclosan can reduce the transmission of respiratory or gastrointestinal infections. This might be due to the fact that antibacterial soaps specifically target bacteria, but not the viruses that cause the majority of seasonal colds and flus.

2. Antibacterial soaps have the potential to create antibiotic-resistant bacteria. The reason that the FDA is making manufacturers prove these products' efficacy is because of a range of possible health risks associated with triclosan, and bacterial resistance is first on the list.

Heavy use of antibiotics can cause resistance, which results from a small subset of a bacteria population with a random mutation that allows it to survive exposure to the chemical. If that chemical is used frequently enough, it'll kill other bacteria, but allow this resistant subset to proliferate. If this happens on a broad enough scale, it can essentially render that chemical useless against the strain of bacteria.

This is currently a huge problem in medicine—the World Health Organization calls it a "threat to global health security." Some bacteria species (most notably, MRSA) have even acquired resistance to several different drugs, complicating efforts to control and treat infections as they spread. Health officials say that further research is needed before we can say that triclosan is fueling resistance, but several studies have hinted at the possibility.

(Via nebarnix)

3. The soaps could act as endocrine disruptors.  A number of studies have found that, in rats, frogs and other animals, triclosan appears to interfere with the body's regulation of thyroid hormone, perhaps because it chemically resembles the hormone closely enough that it can bind to its receptor sites. If this is the case in humans, too, there are worries that it could lead to problems such as infertility, artificially-advanced early puberty, obesity and cancer.

These same effects haven't yet been found in humans, but the FDA calls the animal studies "a concern"—and notes that, given the minimal benefits of long-term triclosan use, it's likely not worth the risk. 

4. The soaps might lead to other health problems, too. There's evidence that children with prolonged exposure to triclosan have a higher chance of developing allergies, including peanut allergies and hay fever. Scientists speculate that this could be a result of reduced exposure to bacteria, which could be necessary for proper immune system functioning and development.

Another study found evidence that triclosan interfered with muscle contractions in human cells, as well as muscle activity in live mice and minnows. This is especially concerning given other findings that the chemical can penetrate the skin and enter the bloodstream more easily than originally thought. A 2008 survey, for instance, found triclosan in the urine of 75 percent of people tested.

5. Antibacterial soaps are bad for the environment. When we use a lot of triclosan in soap, that means a lot of triclosan gets flushed down the drain. Research has shown that small quantities of the chemical can persist after treatment at sewage plants, and as a result, USGS surveys have frequently detected it in streams and other bodies of water. Once in the environment, triclosan can disrupt algae's ability to perform photosynthesis.

The chemical is also fat-soluble—meaning that it builds up in fatty tissues—so scientists are concerned that it can biomagnify, appearing at greater levels in the tissues of animals higher up the food chain, as the triclosan of all the plants and animals below them is concentrated. Evidence of this possibility was turned up in 2009, when surveys of bottlenose dolphins off the coast of South Carolina and Florida found concerning levels of the chemical in their blood.

What Should You Do?

If you're planning on giving up antibacterial soap—like Johnson & Johnson, Kaiser Permanente and several other companies have recently done—you have a couple options.

One is a non-antibiotic hand sanitizer, like Purell, which don't contain any triclosan and simply kill both bacteria and viruses with good old-fashioned alcohol. Because the effectiveness of hand-washing depends on how long you wash for, a quick squirt of sanitizer might be more effective when time is limited.

Outside of hospitals, though, the CDC recommends the time-tested advice you probably heard as a child: wash your hands with conventional soap and water. That's because while alcohol from hand sanitizer kills bacteria, it doesn't actually remove dirt or anything else you may have touched. But a simple hand wash should do the trick. The water doesn't need to be hot, and you're best off scrubbing for about 30 seconds to get properly clean.

Archaeologists Are Unearthing the Stories of the Past Faster Than Ever Before

Smithsonian Magazine

In 1924, a 3-year-old child’s skull found in South Africa forever changed how people think about human origins.

The Taung Child, our first encounter with an ancient group of proto-humans or hominins called australopithecines, was a turning point in the study of human evolution. This discovery shifted the focus of human origins research from Europe and Asia onto Africa, setting the stage for the last century of research on the continent and into its “Cradles of Humankind.”

Few people back then would’ve been able to predict what scientists know about evolution today, and now the pace of discovery is faster than ever. Even since the turn of the 21st century, human origins textbooks have been rewritten over and over again. Just 20 years ago, no one could have imagined what scientists know two decades later about humanity’s deep past, let alone how much knowledge could be extracted from a thimble of dirt, a scrape of dental plaque or satellites in space.

Human fossils are outgrowing the family tree

In Africa, there are now several fossil candidates for the earliest hominin dated to between 5 and 7 million years ago, when we know humans likely split off from other Great Apes based on differences in our DNA.

Although discovered in the 1990s, publication of the 4.4 million year old skeleton nicknamed “Ardi” in 2009 changed scientists’ views on how hominins began walking.

Rounding out our new relatives are a few australopithecines, including Australopithecus deryiremeda and Australopithecus sediba, as well as a potentially late-surviving species of early Homo that reignited debate about when humans first began burying their dead.

Fossils like that of Australopithecus sediba, discovered in South Africa by a 9-year-old boy, are reshaping the human family tree. (Photo by Brett Eloff. Courtesy Prof Berger and Wits University, CC BY-SA)

Perspectives on our own species have also changed. Archaeologists previously thought Homo sapiens evolved in Africa around 200,000 years ago, but the story has become more complicated. Fossils discovered in Morocco have pushed that date back to 300,000 years ago, consistent with ancient DNA evidence. This raises doubts that our species emerged in any single place.

This century has also brought unexpected discoveries from Europe and Asia. From enigmatic “hobbits” on the Indonesian island of Flores to the Denisovans in Siberia, our ancestors may have encountered a variety of other hominins when they spread out of Africa. Just this year, researchers reported a new species from the Philippines.

Anthropologists are realizing that our Homo sapiens ancestors had much more contact with other human species than previously thought. Today, human evolution looks less like Darwin’s tree and more like a muddy, braided stream.

The rise of biomolecular archaeology means new opportunities for interdisciplinary collaboration among field- and lab-based scientists. (Christina Warinner, CC BY-ND)

Ancient DNA reveals old relationships

Many recent discoveries have been made possible by the new science of ancient DNA.

Since scientists fully sequenced the first ancient human genome in 2010, data from thousands of individuals have shed new insights on our species’ origins and early history.

One shocking discovery is that although our lineages split up to 800,000 years ago, modern humans and Neanderthals mated a number of times during the last Ice Age. This is why many people today possess some Neanderthal DNA.

The 2010 excavation in the East Gallery of Denisova Cave, where the ancient hominin species known as the Denisovans were discovered. (Bence Viola. Dept. of Anthropology, University of Toronto, CC BY-ND)

Ancient DNA is how researchers first identified the mysterious Denisovans, who interbred with us and Neanderthals. And while most studies are still conducted on bones and teeth, it is now possible to extract ancient DNA from other sources like cave dirt and 6,000-year-old chewing gum.

Genetic methods are also reconstructing individual and family relationships, and connecting ancient individuals to living peoples to end decadeslong debates.

The applications go far beyond humans. Paleogenomics is yielding surprising discoveries about plants and animals from ancient seeds and skeletons hidden in the backrooms of museums.

Natural history museums hold a wealth of information, some of which can only be tapped through new biomolecular methods. Scientists analyze modern and fossil animal skeletons to ask questions about the past using ancient proteins. (Mary Prendergast at National Museums of Kenya, CC BY-ND)

Biomolecules are making the invisible visible

DNA is not the only molecule revolutionizing studies of the past.

Paleoproteomics, the study of ancient proteins, can determine the species of a fossil and recently linked a 9-foot tall, 1,300-pound extinct ape that lived nearly 2 million years ago to today’s orangutans.

Dental calculus – the hardened plaque that your dentist scrapes off your teeth – is particularly informative, revealing everything from who was drinking milk 6,000 years ago to the surprising diversity of plants, some likely medicinal, in Neanderthal diets. Calculus can help scientists understand ancient diseases and how the human gut microbiome has changed over time. Researchers even find cultural clues – bright blue lapis lazuli trapped in a medieval nun’s calculus led historians to reconsider who penned illuminated manuscripts.

Scientists unexpectedly found lazurite pigment in calcified plaque clinging to a 11th- to 12th-century woman’s tooth, challenging the assumption that male monks were the primary makers of medieval manuscripts. (Christina Warinner, CC BY-ND)

Lipid residues trapped in pottery have revealed the origins of milk consumption in the Sahara and showed that oddly shaped pots found throughout Bronze and Iron Age Europe were ancient baby bottles.

Researchers use collagen-based “barcodes” of different animal species to answer questions ranging from when Asian rats arrived as castaways on Africa-bound ships to what animals were used to produce medieval parchment or even to detect microbes left by a monk’s kiss on a page.

Big data is revealing big patterns

While biomolecules help researchers zoom into microscopic detail, other approaches let them zoom out. Archaeologists have used aerial photography since the 1930s, but widely available satellite imagery now enables researchers to discover new sites and monitor existing ones at risk. Drones flying over sites help investigate how and why they were made and combat looting.

Archaeologists increasingly use technology to understand how sites fit into their environment and to document sites at risk. Here, a drone captured a tell (a mound indicating build-up of ancient settlements) in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. (Jason Ur, CC BY-ND)

Originally developed for space applications, scientists now use LIDAR – a remote sensing technique that uses lasers to measure distance – to map 3D surfaces and visualize landscapes here on Earth. As a result, ancient cities are emerging from dense vegetation in places like Mexico, Cambodia and South Africa.

Technologies that can peer underground from the surface, such as Ground Penetrating Radar, are also revolutionizing the field – for example, revealing previously unknown structures at Stonehenge. More and more, archaeologists are able to do their work without even digging a hole.

Geophysical survey methods enable archaeologists to detect buried features without digging large holes, maximizing knowledge while minimizing destruction. (Mary Prendergast and Thomas Fitton, CC BY-ND)

Teams of archaeologists are combining big datasets in new ways to understand large-scale processes. In 2019, over 250 archaeologists pooled their findings to show that humans have altered the planet for thousands of years, for example, with a 2,000-year-old irrigation system in China. This echoes other studies that challenge the idea that the Anthropocene, the current period defined by human influences on the planet, only began in the 20th century.

New connections are raising new possibilities

These advances bring researchers together in exciting new ways. Over 140 new Nazca Lines, ancient images carved into a Peruvian desert, were discovered using artificial intelligence to sift through drone and satellite imagery. With the wealth of high-resolution satellite imagery online, teams are also turning to crowdsourcing to find new archaeological sites.

Although new partnerships among archaeologists and scientific specialists are not always tension-free, there is growing consensus that studying the past means reaching across fields.

The Open Science movement aims to makes this work accessible to all. Scientists including archaeologists are sharing data more freely within and beyond the academy. Public archaeology programs, community digs and digital museum collections are becoming common. You can even print your own copy of famous fossils from freely available 3D scans, or an archaeological coloring book in more than 30 languages.

Archaeologists are increasingly reaching out to communities to share their findings, for example at this school presentation in Tanzania. ( Agness Gidna, CC BY-ND)

Efforts to make archaeology and museums more equitable and engage indigenous research partners are gaining momentum as archaeologists consider whose past is being revealed. Telling the human story requires a community of voices to do things right.

Studying the past to change our present

As new methods enable profound insight into humanity’s shared history, a challenge is to ensure that these insights are relevant and beneficial in the present and future.

In a year marked by youth-led climate strikes and heightened awareness of a planet in crisis, it may seem counterproductive to look back in time.

Yet in so doing, archaeologists are providing empirical support for climate change and revealing how ancient peoples coped with challenging environments.

As one example, studies show that while industrial meat production has serious environmental costs, transhumance – a traditional practice of seasonally moving livestock, now recognized by UNESCO as intangible cultural heritage – is not only light on the land today, but helped promote biodiversity and healthy landscapes in the past.

Archaeologists today are contributing their methods, data and perspectives toward a vision for a less damaged, more just planet. While it’s difficult to predict exactly what the next century holds in terms of archaeological discoveries, a new focus on “usable pasts” points in a positive direction.

The Fake British Radio Show That Helped Defeat the Nazis

Smithsonian Magazine

“Hier ist Gustav Siegfried Eins.” This is Gustav Siegfried Eins. “Es spricht der Chef.” The Chief is speaking.

It was just before five in the evening on May 23, 1941, and the Chief's radio career had begun.

What the Chief said over the next six minutes or so was something that Nazi troops listening to their shortwave radios had never heard before. Using foulmouthed language, graphically pornographic descriptions, and extremist rhetoric, this new voice described incident after incident of incompetence and corruption infecting the Nazi cause.

Criticism of Nazi officials was rarely, if ever, uttered in public. Normally, tightly controlled German radio stations broadcast only approved news, German folk music and classical music. But here, on broadcast bands policed by the government, was a self-proclaimed, devoted Nazi and old guard Prussian military veteran spewing hatred for Nazi leaders. Night after night, starting at 4:48 P.M. and repeating hourly, the Chief delivered his sulfurous on-air denunciations. He skewered their repeated failure to live up to Hitler’s world-conquering ideals.

His profanity-laced tirades lambasted Nazi officials’ buffoonery, sexual perversity and malfeasance, condemning their indifference to the German people’s deprivations while lauding “the devotion to duty shown by our brave troops freezing to death in Russia.” The Chief’s reports of corruption and immorality were mixed in with news about the war and life on the homefront.

In his first broadcast, the Chief blasted Rudolf Hess, previously Hitler’s deputy führer and closest confidante. “As soon as there is a crisis,” he snarled between barnyard epithets, anti-Semitic and anti-British rants, referring to Hess' recent unexplained solo flight to Scotland, “Hess packs himself a white flag and flies off to throw himself and us on the mercy of that flat-footed bastard of a drunken old cigar-smoking Jew, Churchill!”

At the conclusion of his broadcast, the Chief soberly read off a long numeric series – apparently a coded message – addressed to “Gustav Siegfried Achtzehn,” itself flagged as code for G.S. 18, just like the Chief’s name, Gustav Siegfried Eins, was interpreted as G.S. 1. Nazi security office codebreakers went to work and broke the cipher. Each night after that, the broadcast ended with a numeric sign-off. Once decoded, they typically read off locations, such as the Odeon Cinema, the River Street tram stop, the Eastern food market, and other vaguely identified place names, presumably for secret meetings – though none was decoded with enough precision to pinpoint a specific place for the Gestapo to investigate. Clearly, a dark cabal of disaffected Nazis extremists, likely drawn from the German military, now conspired against the state.

But none of it was real.

Not the Chief’s presumed backstory, not his name, the juicy monologues, the coded messages, none of it. As the enraged Nazis vowed to block his broadcasts – which eventually would number 700 in total – and track him down, they were chasing a ghost.

In reality, the Chief was voiced by a 39-year-old German exile named Peter Seckelmann. A journalist and writer of detective stories before the war, the Berlin native had fled Nazi Germany to England in 1938. As the Chief, his radio voice seemed to embody the harsh and sarcastic tones of an enraged Prussian military officer – and he knew enough of both barracks curses and Germany under Hitler to hit the right notes as he railed against the Nazi Party leaders’ shortcomings. The Chief was just one part of a grander counterintelligence scheme put on by the British government.

Seckelmann and a team of other native German speakers concocted the nightly script with the help of reports from German prisoner of war interrogations, British intelligence, real radio broadcasts and newspapers, resistance operatives, and bomber after-mission debriefings. As the Gestapo scoured Germany hoping to capture the Chief, whom they presumed operated out of a mobile transmitter, Seckelmann sat in a recording studio in England. He broadcasted from a top-secret room within a brick house known as “The Rookery” in Aspley Guise. Like the codebreaking activities at nearby Bletchley Park, evidence of the propaganda campaign remained classified for 50 years after the war.

Gustav Siegfried Eins—German phonetic code for letters that in this case meant nothing, but seemed to mean something—was just one example of the chicanery cooked up and disseminated against the Nazis throughout the war by the British Political Warfare Executive (PWE). Even now, few people know about the PWE’s “black propaganda,” or clandestine deception, because scant evidence of its handiwork remains. Only a single recording of the Chief is believed to exist – though American intelligence monitored, translated and transcribed many of the broadcasts.  

Throughout the 1930s, Germany’s propaganda ministry had tightly controlled internal access to information and disseminated both positive news about fascism and outright lies about conditions within occupied lands far and wide. The British joined the propaganda fight, launching their own black propaganda campaign as soon as the war began. It quickly became another brutal front in the struggle for survival. As Germany massed its forces for invasion of England in 1940, the British Special Operations Executive and the BBC’s European Service broadcast dire warnings to German soldiers about the awful fate facing them, warning of a nonexistent oil slick laid out on the English Channel waiting to be torched should they approach the coast.

In August 1941, Prime Minister Winston Churchill consolidated previously disparate black propaganda operations under the 37-year-old English journalist, Denis Sefton Delmer, a German-language newscaster for the multilingual BBC European Service who knew Hitler personally and the German people intimately – and fiercely opposed Nazism.

Known to his friends as “Tom,” the pudgy, affable, six-foot-tall Delmer enjoyed a good joke. He had been tasked by Churchill with deploying what Delmer called “psychological judo,” turning the enemy’s own strength against him. Delmer was born in Berlin, where his Australian father was a university professor, and remained there into his teen years. Once back in England for boarding school and university, he struggled to rid himself of his German accent. Delmer returned to Germany in the pre-war years as a reporter for a London newspaper. There, he met a number of Nazi Party officials, including Ernst Röhm, a party cofounder and chief of its notoriously violent brown-shirted paramilitary wing. He could easily have been a model for Seckelmann’s Chief.

Through Röhm, Delmer came to know Hitler, who once referred to Delmer as his “favorite” foreign journalist. He accompanied the then-presidential candidate on his personal airplane during his 1932 campaign and walked with Hitler through the burned out ruins of the Reichstag following the massive February 27, 1933, fire. Amid the rubble, Hitler told him, “You are now witnessing the beginning of a great new epoch in German history, Herr Delmer. This fire is the beginning.”

Delmer eventually returned to England. When British forces were pushed off the Continent at Dunkirk in 1940, he replied on air, without permission from the government, to the peace terms – effectively an ultimatum – Hitler had offered the British. “Herr Hitler,” he said, speaking as if they were face-to-face, “you have on occasion in the past consulted me as to the mood of the British public. So permit me to render your Excellency this little service once again. Let me tell you what we here in Britain think of this appeal of yours to what you are pleased to call our reason and common sense. Herr Führer and Reichskanzler [Chancellor], we hurl it right back at you, right in your evil-smelling teeth.”

Once in charge of the PWE, Delmer created multiple “German” radio stations that broadcasted to both Germany and German occupation troops. Among them were stations aimed at German Catholics, soldiers manning Atlantic defenses, beacons aimed at U-boats at sea, and even a fake Radio Berlin on a signal near the real station it impersonated. All sought to break up the German resolve to fight and turn German against German through their mix of truth and believable lie. Even the master of German propaganda Joseph Goebbels admired the effort that went into the PWE radio broadcasts, and their effectiveness. “The station does a very clever job of propaganda,” he wrote in late November 1943, “and from what is put on the air one can gather that the English know exactly what they have destroyed [with their bombing campaign] and what not.”

Delmer was a reporter and radio man by trade and knew that the biggest challenge was simply to attract listeners. He decided that aiming low was the surest way to gain what today would be called “market share.” He called it “propaganda by pornography.”

He learned from the masters: He wrote after the war that, having witnessed Hitler’s success in using Nazi propaganda and fake news about Jews to forge his audience and popular support, “I decided to use radio-pornography to catch [listeners’] attention. My ‘Chef’ (Hitler was always called ‘Der Chef’ by those in his inner circle so I decided to call my veteran hero ‘Der Chef’) became a kind of radio Streicher, except that the victims of his pornographic tirades were Nazis, not Jews.” He recalled, “I took an enormous amount of trouble over the Chef's erotica and devoted many hours of patient research to finding ever new forms sexual depravity to attribute to our victims in the Hitler machine.” He contended, “The recipe was an instant success.”

Each station carried a studied mix of what Delmer later called “cover, cover, dirt, cover, dirt,” an irresistible mixture of pornography, anti-Nazi diatribes, and factual reports about the war and life on the homefront. Delmer delighted at the thought of “leather coated Gestapo thugs” chasing the Chief and his traitorous co-conspirators around Europe in vain.

Delmer's PWE was a veritable fake news mill. Teams of artists, printers, and writers also published fake German newspapers and printed up thousands of illustrated leaflets full of believable, yet mostly false, “news,” as well as pornographic illustrations, forged leave passes for soldiers, and other documents designed to crack apart German unity. News reports “informed” the German public about deaths of specific soldiers, officials swapping increasingly worthless German Reichsmark currency for Swiss francs, stores hording scarce goods, Nazi officials sleeping with the wives of soldiers at the front, troop mutinies, and spreading disease at home. Leaflets dropped over occupied territories included tales of sabotaged German hand grenades that exploded when their pins were pulled, mess hall food with human debris in it, the wounded receiving transfusions with venereal disease-infected Polish and Russian blood, and lethal injections being given to badly wounded soldiers to free up beds for the men who could return to the fight.

Wherever there was war, the PWE was part of the fight. In the Middle East, Arabs in lands sympathetic to Hitler received leaflets that warned of German soldiers killing and butchering children for meat in occupied sections of North Africa.

To succeed at the PWE, staff had to have artistic talent, journalistic professionalism, and a tough stomach. Also critical to the fight were the bombers who ran dangerous missions to airdrop the propaganda, and real resistance operatives on the ground who risked their lives to distribute and post the documents.

Why invest so much personnel and money in massive black propaganda operations? Delmer and his betters in the British government believed that it worked, that their efforts confused and demoralized German troops and their anxious families at home, and undermined their will to fight. It also sapped Germany’s fighting resources, tying them up in attempts to block radio broadcasts, trash newspapers and leaflets, track down supposed clandestine cells, and squelch rumors. The Chief’s nightly show was successful enough that it fooled American embassy officials in Berlin before the United States’ entry into the war, who told Franklin D. Roosevelt about its existence as evidence of growing friction between the Nazi Party and the army. Roosevelt enjoyed engaging in wartime deceptions and, upon learning the truth about the fakery, supposedly laughed at how he had been taken in.

While the true benefits of such psychological weaponry were probably impossible to measure, the PWE issued a secret wartime assessment of the penetration and reception of the broadcasts, based on interrogations of prisoners of war. These showed an “ever-widening audience that the station has gained among members of the German armed forces.” German troops tuned in nightly to hear how far the Chief’s scorn for Nazi Party leaders would go, to spice up their grim lives in occupied lands with erotic gossip, and to get news they couldn’t find anywhere else. The PWE report found evidence of listeners in places as far-flung as Berlin, Vienna, and North Africa; even “U-boat crews taken prisoner in the Atlantic admit having heard it.” Though German citizens were forbidden from listening to unauthorized radio stations, on pain of death if discovered, civilians hungering for news of the war, too, tuned into the Chief or heard gossip about broadcasts.

German authorities attempted to jam broadcasts and threatened anyone discovered listening to G.S.1 and other illegal broadcasts. Legitimate German radio stations denounced it as fake and tried to disprove the Chief’s claims. Despite these efforts, the PWE analysis found, “it seems to be widely believed that G.S.1 is a station operating inside Germany or German-occupied Europe. Even a man who was employed by the Reich Radio believed that G.S.1 was a mobile station operating from a German army vehicle.”

Not everyone agreed that the PWE’s psychological operations were worth the costs. The commander of the Royal Air Force Bomber Command, Sir Arthur Harris, hated seeing his precious airplanes tied up with dangerous drops, which, he insisted after the war, did nothing but serve Europe’s need for toilet paper.

Nonetheless, all of the warring powers pursued black propaganda. Well experienced in the dark arts of psychological warfare, Germany used the enormous international shortwave radio network it had built prior to the war to air the rantings of “Lord Haw Haw,” British fascist William Brooke Joyce, who tried to convince his former countrymen that war against the Nazis was futile. Mildred Gillars, an American nicknamed “Axis Sally,” former National Geographic journalist Douglas Chandler, under the pseudonym of “Paul Revere,” and renowned poet Ezra Pound all put their words to work for the Nazis. (In the Pacific war theater, several English-speaking Japanese women collectively known as “Tokyo Rose” were equally notorious for their attempts to sap the fighting spirit of American troops.) American listeners at home were also a target. German English language Radio D.E.B.U.N.K. broadcast from Bremen, but claimed to be "the Voice of All Free America" transmitting from somewhere in the Midwest.

As the invasion of Normandy approached in 1944, the PWE ramped up its deception efforts. Two new “gray” radio stations, Soldatensender Calais and Kurzwellensender Atlantik (Soldiers’ Station Calais and Shortwave Station Atlantic), aimed broadcasts at German coastal defenders. The station lured listeners with a dusk-to-dawn mix of real news—much of it not available to German soldiers—sports reports from Germany, popular German dance music, and long forbidden American jazz and swing. Interspersed throughout was the “dirt”: plausible reports about invasion preparations intended to convince German intelligence officers that the assault would cover a far more expansive area than it actually did.

American air forces also dropped an average of 250,000 copies of Nachrichten für die Truppe (News for the Troops), a newspaper written for the German troops in the West, each night before and after the invasion. After D-Day, prisoner interrogations showed that over 50 percent had listened to the stations. Many trusted News for the Troops more than their own national news sources.

Delmer continued his feverish black propaganda campaign through the war, using his trademark mix of fact and lie, over the airwaves and in print, moving his transmitters and aiming his broadcasts at new audiences as Allied forces advanced. After the war, he returned to journalism, even reporting again from Germany. He also wrote several books, including two memoirs. One, Black Boomerang, focused on his time running PWE black propaganda operations. He also lectured on psychological warfare, even advising American intelligence on the subject.

As for the Chief, his radio career ended abruptly. Perhaps fearing that German listeners were becoming increasingly indifferent about the erotic lures being broadcast, Delmer determined that, in a realistic finale, he should sacrifice the Chief’s “life” for the anti-Nazi cause. For his last hurrah, the PWE staged a Gestapo raid on G.S.1’s 700th episode, November 11, 1943. “I've finally caught you, you pig!” yelled a voice, followed by a hail of machine gun bullets, “killing” the Chief. The station seemed to have gone dark—but a PWE staffer, apparently unaware of the Chief’s demise, rebroadcasted the shootout a second time and perhaps spoiled the ruse. No matter. Delmer and his PWE staff would cook up plenty of other “news” before the war ended, lying through their teeth – with just the right amount of truth – for the sake of victory.

What Should Be Done With Yachak, the Cattle-Killing Bear of the Andes

Smithsonian Magazine

On November 12, 2009, in the remote northern highlands of Ecuador not far south of Colombia, a pair of grazing bulls lost their footing on a steep, muddy slope. They slipped down the sheer face of a deep Andean ravine and landed dead in the small stream gully below.  

Some days later, a large spectacled bear picked up the smell of ripe flesh. The animal, a male, followed the scent trail down from its high cloud forest habitat and spent several days feasting on the carcasses—treasure troves of protein and fat for an animal that lives mostly on vegetables, fruits and tubers. The event, seemingly just another day in the high Andes, where bears and cattle have crossed paths for centuries, would spiral into one of the most problematic sagas now affecting relations between local indigenous communities and the endangered spectacled bear.

“That was the first time he ate beef,” says Andres Laguna, a Quito-based biologist with the Andean Bear Foundation who has been studying and resolving matters of bear-human conflict for several years. “Then, a few weeks later, he killed his first cow.”

The male bear, Laguna says, quickly gained an irresistible taste for flesh and embarked on what has become an unstoppable and possibly unprecedented rampage of killings. The animal, which Laguna has nicknamed “Yachak”—the indigenous Quechua word for “wise man”—has now killed about 250 head of livestock in the northern provinces of Carchi and Imambura since his first taste of domesticated flesh. Months at a time do go by when the bear vanishes, but other times Yachak kills wantonly. In one week in 2012, for instance, he killed seven head of cattle.

Many local ranchers would be perfectly glad to see Yachak dead, and unknown individuals have broken federal law in attempts to kill him. But Yachak, believed to be more than 15 years old, remains alive while, instead, about a dozen innocent bears have lost their lives to the bullets. Laguna says several bears have been shot from treetops while peacefully eating bromeliads, colorful epiphytic plants like jesters’ hats with starchy bulb-like hearts. Amid such lawless unrest, it’s clear that Yachak has compromised relations between conservationists and the people who live on the fringe of Ecuador’s dwindling bear habitat—and the conflict brings forth the question that wildlife managers in many places have to ask at times: Would the species be better off without this individual?

In Montana, grizzly bears—a threatened species—are regularly culled from the population when they become habitual sheep or cattle killers. Mike Madel, a Montana bear conflict management biologist in the region known as the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem, calls killing bears “the worst part of my job.” 

But, he says, it’s essential.

“It’s so much better in the long run for social acceptance of the bears to remove the problem bear from the population,” Madel explains. “You just have to weigh the negative social influence that one or two bears that are killing cattle can have on an area. Just one bear, if you let it keep killing livestock, can cause dissention and cause people to start talking negatively. It can really drag down an entire recovery program.”

In the late 1980s, when the grizzly population of northwestern Montana was crawling back from its historical low of about 350 in the 1970s, two grizzlies—a male and female living side by side for the short mating season—began killing cattle together. When the pair separated, they still wanted beef.

“All of a sudden, we had two bears killing livestock,” remembers Madel, a 30-year veteran in his field. The female was relocated and successfully turned back onto a natural diet. The male, however, after a relocation effort, traversed the 150 miles back to the cattle country where he’d been trapped. Nicknamed the “Falls Creek Male,” the bear resumed killing—and did so for years. By 2001, this individual grizzly had killed more than 60 cows, Madel says, and incurred costs on ranchers topping $70,000. Other sources inflated that figure to as high as $200,000.

The ranchers of the region had been supportive of the grizzly population—even happy, Madel says, to see it rebounding.

“But after a while, they were irate,” he says. “This bear was really setting back the conservation effort.” 

In 2001, the bear was finally trapped and euthanized. The animal’s advanced age and poor health—including severely worn teeth—made the decision to put it down an easy one, Madel says.

But the bear situation is very different in Ecuador. Here, the population of spectacled bears is not rebounding, nor is it holding steady. Rather, it is shrinking, recoiling from the expanding human population and the cattle herds that encroach further and further into the high country every year. Just 3,000 spectacled bears remain in all of Ecuador, and perhaps just 18,000 throughout their range, from the southern Panama isthmus to Argentina. Leading bear experts worry that the species might be extinct in 30 years.

Image by Alastair Bland. Researchers examine the carcass of a cow killed by Yachak in the Ecuadorian highlands in late January. The chewed end of the leg bone is just one sign that a large animal has been scavenging on the carcass. (original image)

Image by Alastair Bland. Andres Laguna, of the Andean Bear Foundation, with a bromeliad, a starchy-bulbed epiphyte that makes up a great portion of the spectacled bear's natural diet. (original image)

Image by Alastair Bland. The village of Mariano Acosta, northeast of Quito, is home to livestock-herding farmers whose animals have been grazing higher and higher in the mountains each year. As a result, conflicts with bears are on the rise. (original image)

Image by Alastair Bland. Andres Laguna, left, and Manuel Rosero, right, of the Imambura province's Ministry of the Environment, talk with local rancher Asencio Farinango about strategies for avoiding bear-livestock conflicts. The rainbow-colored flag behind Farinango is the unofficial banner of the Andean Quechua people (original image)

Image by Alastair Bland. Laguna, along with Rosero and Carlos Racine, of the Semilla Ambiental Foundation in Quito, search a muddy mountain trail for recent bear tracks. (original image)

Image by Courtesy of Andres Laguna. Caught in the act by a motion-sensing infrared camera, Yachak, nicknamed by local researchers, feeds on a cow carcass--just one of the 250-plus livestock head the old male has killed in about three years. (original image)

Image by Courtesy of Mike Madel. Montana bear management technician Lori Roberts measures the voltage of an electric fence surrounding a western Montana bee yard--a bear defense system that Mike Madel calls "100-percent effective" in protecting property from grizzlies. (original image)

Image by Courtesy of Mike Madel. Madel kneels by a tranquilized female grizzly in 2009. Fitted with a GPS collar, the animal was released and watched remotely for several months by researchers before the bear--a mother with three cubs--was killed in a surprise encounter with a pheasant hunter. (original image)

Only several dozen spectacled bears may live in the mountainous bear country on the north slope of the 18,996-foot Volcán Cayambe, and Yachak, one of just two breeding males in this population, according to Laguna, is too valuable to his kind to kill.

“From the conservationist point of view, it is not acceptable to lose this bear,” Laguna says. He even wonders if eliminating Yachak from the population would make space for younger males to move into the region and begin causing similar problems. 

Almost every weekend, Laguna makes a four-hour trip from Quito to the bear country near the border, either to retrieve the memory cards from a pair of motion-detecting cameras or to locate newly reported bear kills and place his cameras on nearby trunks. Laguna’s cameras have identified 36 individual bears in the region, each with distinctive facial markings like goggles.

Laguna’s fieldwork also involves working with local ranchers, hearing their complaints and listening to their bear-related tribulations. These meetings often take place informally by the side of the road, with sweeping views of Andean valleys and high treeless tundra leading up to the slopes of Cayambe. It is precisely these highlands into which cattle herds have been expanding in recent years as more and more local farmers switch from producing sugarcane and avocados to raising animals for milk and cheese. As this shift occurs, conflicts with bears will only increase, Laguna predicts, whether or not Yachak is removed from the population. Laguna fears that, unless peace is attained between bears and ranchers, the spectacled bear will be gone from these mountains within ten years. 

Laguna, often accompanied by several colleagues, has frequently explained to ranchers that their actions—edging their cattle into the cloud forest—are ultimately causing the strife between them and the bears. Laguna says deadly incidents between spectacled bears and livestock are almost always the result of poor herd management—not a propensity of the bears to kill.

The Andean Bear Foundation has urged farmers to keep their animals to the pasturelands surrounding their villages. Also on the table is an idea to develop an ecotourism economy in these mountains, based, chiefly, on the opportunity for visitors to pay to see a spectacled bear.

“But we have no facilities, no infrastructure, for tourism” says Asencio Farinango one afternoon in late January, during a stand-around discussion in a field beside the Quechua man’s home. Farinango is a rancher. He is also the unofficial mayor of the rural communities surrounding the central village of Mariano Acosta, set in a valley of sugarcane and fruit trees and flanked by steep mountain slopes. In this area, about 15 families have been affected by rogue bears. Farinango himself has only lost livestock to pumas (they were alpacas), but he relays to Laguna the frustration of those whose cows have been killed.

What Farinango says is true: There is no money to be made at the current time from tourists. The area is only accessible via a network of dirt and cobblestone roads so bumpy that area residents hitchhiking between village and home could nearly be tossed from the bed of a pickup truck. There are no lodges here, or even campgrounds—and there has been no publicity or advertising. Moreover, the likelihood of seeing a wild spectacled bear is miniscule. Laguna has visited these mountains almost every weekend for three years since he joined the Andean Bear Foundation; only ten times has he glimpsed a free-moving animal.

Farinango says ranchers nearby who have lost cattle to bears have asked local officials for assistance or reimbursement. The government, Farinango says, “is unconcerned and hasn’t responded.” Yachak, meanwhile, has killed nearly $150,000 worth of animals,

Laguna believes the most favorable option for ending Yachak’s killing bender is to catch him—if possible—fit him with a GPS collar, and keep him under constant surveillance. Six other bears known to occasionally kill livestock will, hopefully, be similarly tracked. This strategy, though laborious and cumbersome, should allow hired guards with dogs to respond when problem bears are detected approaching cattle and harry them back into the woods. By watching the bears’ movements—or lack thereof—they also hope to see that the protected animals are not killed by local vigilantes.

But Yachak has so far proven too sly to enter a baited box trap or place his foot in a cable snare—both methods that Laguna and many other researchers have employed to capture, then tag and release, bears. This isn’t surprising to Madel, who says old male grizzlies can be extremely difficult to capture. Even if a problem bear is trapped, and a radio collar secured around its neck, such animals can be very resistant to reconditioning back to a natural diet. Then, there is the possibility that the bear will manage to remove its collar. The Falls Creek Male did exactly this in the late 1980s after its first capture, Madel says, and thereby paved the way for years and years of unseen attacks on cattle herds.

Madel is firm in his opinion that, if Yachak is captured, he should be euthanized. Madel says he would feel differently if Yachak was a female. Dominant males, he explains, are quickly replaced by subordinates when the older animals die. Female bears, quite literally, carry with them the future of their species.   

“If they’re killing [livestock] animals, we give females three chances before we euthanize them,” Madel says. Toward males, state trappers are less patient. “We give them one chance, or no chance.” 

On February 4, in his most violent outing to date, Yachak kills four cows and injures two others, bumping up his appalling tab by several thousand dollars. It’s a devastating loss for a country family that earns only several hundred dollars per month, largely from milk sales—and Yachak, it appears, is now killing for sport.    

Another daunting problem has also arisen—something Madel says he has never heard of among grizzlies but which Laguna has verified through his motion-triggered cameras and from information provided by witnesses: A resident female bear has taught her cub to kill. Together, the pair took several cows during the young bear’s upbringing. Now, the adolescent male, 20 months old, has left his mother’s care and gone into the future not only with a taste for beef but also the skills to get it. Laguna says he believes keeping the cattle herds out of the high country would be the surest, fastest fix to the matter.     

The Story of the First Mass Murder in U.S. History

Smithsonian Magazine

On Labor Day, 1949, Howard Unruh decided to go to the movies. He left his Camden, New Jersey, apartment and headed to the Family Theatre in downtown Philadelphia. On the bill that night was a double feature, the double-crossing gangster movie I Cheated the Law and The Lady Gambles, in which Barbara Stanwyck plays a poker-and-dice-game addict. Unruh, however, wasn’t interested in the pictures. He was supposed to meet a man with whom he’d been having a weeks-long affair.

Unfortunately for Unruh, 28 years old at the time, traffic held him up and by the time he reached theater, a well-known gay pick up spot on Market St., his date was gone. Unruh sat in the dark until 2:20 a.m., bitterly stewing through multiple on-screen loops of the movies. At 3 a.m., he arrived home in New Jersey to find that the newly constructed fence at the rear end of his backyard—one he’d erected to quell an ongoing feud with the Cohens who lived next door and owned the drugstore below the apartment he shared with his mother—had been tampered with. The gate was missing.

It was the final straw. For a couple of years, Unruh had been contemplating killing several of his Cramer Hill neighbors over petty squabbles, perceived slights and name-calling, all which fed into his psychosis. Unruh thought the world was out to get him, so he decided to enact revenge on his little corner of it. He went into his apartment, uncased his German Luger P08, a 9mm pistol he’d purchased at a sporting goods store in Philadelphia for $37.50, and secured it with two clips and 33 loose cartridges. Unable to sleep, he made yet another mental list of his intended targets, a group of local shopkeepers one would find in a 1950s children’s book: the druggist, shoemaker, tailor and restaurant owner. Eventually, Unruh dozed off.

In a few hours, on the morning of Tuesday, September 6, Unruh would embark upon his “Walk of Death,” murdering 13 people and wounding three others in a 20-minute rampage before being hauled off by police after a dangerous firefight. A somewhat forgotten man outside of criminology circles and local old-timers, Unruh was an early chapter in the tragically-all-too-familiar American story of an angry man with a gun, inflicting carnage.


There have been killers since Cain murdered Abel, and Unruh certainly wasn’t the first American to take the lives of multiple victims. The FBI defines a “mass murder” as four or more victims in a single incident (usually in one spot). Serial killers and spree killers fall into their own category, and there’s also a new crowdsourced "mass shooting" tracking system that counts the number of people shot, as opposed to killed, but it’s not an official set of data. What is known is that the United States, with five percent of the world’s population, was home to nearly one-third of the world’s mass shooters from 1966-2012. Before that, mass gun murders like Unruh’s were too rare to be considered a threat.

“There have been notorious killers since America was founded, but you didn’t have the mass shooting phenomenon before Unruh’s time because people didn’t have access to semi-automatic weaponry,” says Harold Schechter, a true crime novelist who has written about infamous murderers going back to the 19th-century.

While the terminology is a bit fungible, Unruh is generally regarded as the first of the “lone wolf” type of modern mass murderers, the template for the school and workplace shooters who have dominated the coverage of the more than 1,000 victims since 2013. Unruh was a distinctive personality type, one that has also come to define those who have followed in his bloody footsteps.

“Unruh really matches the mass murder profile. He had a rigid temperament, an inability to accept frustration or people not treating him as well as he wanted, and a feeling of isolation, all things people accept and move on from,” says Katherine Ramsland, a professor of forensic psychology and the director of the master of arts in criminal justice at DeSales University, as well as the author of some 60 nonfiction books including Inside the Mind of Mass Murderers: Why They Kill. “He had a free-floating anger, held grudges, owned weapons he knew how to use, and decided somebody was going to pay. It’s a typical recipe for internal combustion.”

Unruh learned how to use weaponry in World War II, serving in the 342nd Armored Field Artillery and taking part in the relief of Bastogne in the Battle of the Bulge. He occasionally served as a tank gunner and received commendations, although he never rose above the rank of private first class. His commanders said he followed orders well. However, while in combat, he kept meticulous notes of every German he killed. He would mark down the day, hour, and place, and when circumstances allowed, describe the corpses in disturbing bloody detail. After the killings, Unruh’s younger brother, Jim, would tell reporters that he wasn’t the same after the service and that he “never acted like his old self,” but Howard was honorably discharged with no record of mental illness.

Image by AP Photo/PX. Prosecuting attorney Mitchell Cohen questions Unruh in the hospital. Unruh suffered a bullet wound to the hip while barricaded in his apartment. (original image)

Image by AP Photo. Cohen points to a drawing of the neighborhood where Unruh killed 13 passersby. Looking on are Camden city detectives and eye witnesses to the shootings. (original image)

Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS. Unruh sits with hands shackled in Camden City Hall after questioning by detectives. (original image)

Image by Patrick Sauer. Unruh lived on this corner in Camden, New Jersey. (original image)

Back in Camden, Unruh decorated his apartment with war collectibles. His peeling walls were adorned with pistols and bayonets, while machetes and ashtrays crafted out of German shells laid about the room. In the basement, he set up a target range and practiced shooting, even though a low ceiling meant he could only fire from a kneeling or lying position. One gun he shot was a prized Nazi Luger he brought back as a souvenir.

Prior to joining the army in 1942, Unruh had lived a normal, if unremarkable, life. He was born on January 20, 1921 to Sam and Freda (sometimes referred to as Rita) Unruh. They separated when Howard was a boy. He and Jim were raised in Camden by their mother, who worked as a packer at the Evanston Soap Company. The October 1949 psychiatric report that formally declared Unruh insane, noted that Unruh had a “rather prolonged period of toilet training” and “did not walk or talk until 16 months old,” but otherwise he was basically an average unassuming kid. He was pious, regularly read the Bible and attended services at St. Paul’s Evangelical Lutheran Church. Howard was shy, kept to himself for the most part, consumed with his two favorite hobbies, stamp collecting and building model trains. He wasn’t a drinker or a smoker, even as an adult. The yearbook from Woodrow Wilson High noted his ambition was to work for the government and fellow students called him “How.”

Between high school and World War II, Unruh worked a series of blue-collar jobs, which he picked up for a spell after returning from Europe. He worked for a printing outfit, the Acorn Company, and then operated a metal stamping press at Budd Manufacturing, but neither job lasted a year. His one stab at a career came when he enrolled in pharmacy school at Temple University, but he dropped out after a few months. By December of 1948, he was unemployed and living full-time with his mother back in Cramer Hill. He ventured out in his neighborhood, but didn’t have any friends he called upon. A psychiatrist would later write, “After WWII, after [Unruh] returned home, he did not work nor did he any life goals or directions, had difficulty adjusting or solving problems and was, ‘angry at the world.’”

Unruh’s rage festered. In his mind, everyday ordinary happenings became acts of aggression that demanded retribution. And so, he began to keep thorough lists of his grievances and slights, both real and imagined. In the 1949 commitment report, Unruh claimed Mr. Cohen short-changed him five times while Mrs. Cohen told him to turn down his music—the dulcet sounds  of Brahms and Wagner—even though their son Charles was free to aggravate him with his trumpet. Other neighbors on Unruh’s list included: The man and woman who lived below him and threw trash on his back lot, the barber who put dirt in a vacant yard that backed up the drainage and flooded his cellar, the shoemaker who buried trash close to his property, and a mystery boy named “Sorg,” who tapped his electricity to light up the Christmas trees he was selling on the street.

Unruh’s paranoia about what was being said of him around Cramer Hill fueled his persecution complex, he was certain everyone was insulting him. He felt that a number of people knew he was a homosexual and were talking about it, said Mr. Cohen called him a “queer,” said the tailor (and son) was spreading a story that “he saw me go down on somebody in an alley one time,” and was fearful local teenagers who frequently harassed him had seen him at the Family Theatre.

Unruh was a gay man; he was up front with the psychiatrists who interviewed him following the massacre. From 1944-46, he’d had a girlfriend, seemingly the only one of his life, but broke it off after telling her he was “schizo” and would never marry her. He told the psychiatrists that she meant nothing to him and that they’d never had sex. Following their break-up, he’d been with a lot of men and said he’d once contracted gonorrhea. After dropping out of Temple in 1948, he kept his room in a Philadelphia lodging house for nearly a year saying that “his interest in religion declined when his sexual relations with male friends increased.” Ann Mitchell, an African-American maid who cleaned the rooms, told detectives investigating the massacre that she’d seen him going to and from his room with other men at all times of the day and added he would write “nigger” in the dust on the writing desk after returning from weekends in Camden. The report noted, “As {Mitchell} disliked him, she paid little attention to him and she never suspected him of anything.” Unruh paid his $30 a month on time from September 28, 1948, until August 28, 1949, and then never returned.

The sad irony is that the one aspect of Unruh that people did “suspect,” being a homosexual, was accurate, but he couldn’t live as an open gay man in an era when it wasn’t just societally unacceptable, it was illegal. What most Cramer Hill people didn’t suspect, even while finding him rather strange, was that he was a powder keg. In Seymour Shubin’s article, “Camden’s One-Man Massacre,” which took up the entirety of the December 1949 issue of Tragedy-of-the-Month, tailor Tom Zegrino described a pre-shooting Unruh as “awfully polite. The kind of guy who wouldn’t hurt a flea.” His wife of less than a month Helga, who would be one of Unruh’s last victims added, “I think he’s a nice fellow. He seems devoted to his mother, too. That’s something I like.”


Sometime around 8 a.m. on September 6, just hours after returning from Philadelphia, Unruh was awakened by his mother, who prepared him a breakfast of fried eggs and milk. After eating, Unruh went into the basement and retrieved a wrench, which he raised over her in a threatening manner. “What do you want to do that for, Howard?,” she asked him. Freda would later say her son appeared to be transfixed. She repeated her question over and over before running out of the house to a neighbor, fearing her son had reached the tipping point. (A short while later, after hearing gunfire and putting it all together, Freda fainted.)

Unruh immediately collected his Luger and ammo, a six-inch knife, and a tear gas pen with six shells, and cut through the backyard to the 3200 block of River Road. Dressed in a brown tropical-worsted suit, white shirt, striped bow tie, and Army boots, the lanky 6-foot, 164-pound Unruh shot at a bread deliveryman in his truck, but missed. He then walked into the shoemaker’s store and, without saying a word, shot John Pilarchik, the 27-year-old cobbler who was on his list, in the chest. Pilarchik fell to the floor. Still alive, Unruh fired another round into Pilarchik’s head. A young boy crouched in fear behind the counter.

Unruh walked back out to the street and entered the barbershop next door. Clark Hoover, 33, was cutting the hair of Orris Smith, 6, who sat atop a white carousel-style horse as his mother, Catherine, looked on. The barber tried to protect the child, but Unruh killed the boy with a bullet to the head. A second shot ended Hoover’s life. Unruh ignored Catherine, 42, who carried Orris into the street screaming until a neighbor threw them both in the car and sped away to the hospital. The next day, the horrific scene was described by Camden Courier-Post columnist Charley Humes:

“…People were peering through a big plate glass window, looking at a ‘hobby horse’ in a barber shop that is closed.”

At the base of the standard which held the wooden horse in place was another blotch of blood…the blood of another little boy ‘just past six’ who was having his hair cut in preparation for his first trip to school the next day…”

Back on River Road, Unruh shot at a boy in a window, but missed. He then fired into a tavern across the street owned by Frank Engel. In a 1974 Courier-Post retrospective, Engel said Unruh had never come inside the bar, but that he’d seen him “walk down the street, walking straight like he had a poker in his back and the kids on the corner would make some remarks about him.” Nobody was hit as Engel ran upstairs and grabbed his .38 caliber Luger. Meanwhile, Unruh reloaded and headed into the drugstore to confront his primary targets, the Cohens.

An insurance man, James Hutton, 45, was coming out of the drugstore to see what the commotion was all about. He came face-to-face with Unruh, but didn’t move quickly enough when the killer said excuse me. Realizing his time free of police was growing short, Unruh shot Hutton, saying, “I fired on him once, then stepped over him and went into the store.” He saw Maurice, 40, and his wife Rose, 38, running up the stairs into their apartment. Rose hid in a closet (and put son Charles, 12, in a separate one), but Unruh shot three times through the door before opening it and firing once more into her face. Walking across the apartment, he spotted Maurice’s mother Minnie, 63, trying to call the cops, and shot her multiple times. He followed Maurice onto a porch roof and shot him in the back, sending him to the pavement below.

Maurice Cohen was dead on the sidewalk, but Unruh continued his rampage. Back out on River Road, he killed four motorists who found themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time. He leaned into a car driven by Alvin Day, 24, a television repairman and World War II vet who slowed down at the corner where Hutton’s body lay, and fired. Following Day’s murder, accounts vary, but most likely Unruh next walked out into the street to a car stopped at a red light and fired into the windshield. He instantly killed the driver Helen Wilson, 37, and her mother Emma Matlack, 68, and wounded Helen’s son, John Wilson, 9, with a bullet through the neck. He returned to the same side of the street with the goal of claiming his final two victims.

Unruh entered the tailor shop, looking for Tom Zegrino, but only found Helga, 28. She was on her knees begging for her life when Unruh shot her at close range. Next door, Thomas Hamilton, less than two weeks shy of his third birthday, was playing with the curtain near his playpen and looked out the window. Unruh said he mistook the moving shadows for one of the people he believed was dumping trash in his yard and shot through the window, striking Hamilton with a bullet to the head.

On his final stop after darting back into the alleyway, Unruh broke into a home behind his apartment lot and wounded a mother and son, Madeline Harrie, 36, and Armand, 16, before running out of ammo and retreating to his apartment. By now, sirens were wailing.

In 20 minutes, Howard Unruh had killed 12 and severely wounded four. (The toll would rise to thirteen; John Wilson, the 9-year-old car passenger, later died at the hospital.)  His Cramer Hill neighborhood was rattled, to the point where a detective on the scene would say, years later, that the mailman dropped his full bag on the sidewalk, quit his job, and never came back.

Unruh returned to his apartment as a crowd of authorities and neighborhood civilians gathered. In 1949, mass shootings were basically unheard of, so there was no official police protocol. As neighbors milled about, more than 50 officers surrounded the two-story stucco building, and began blasting away at the apartment with machine guns, shotguns, and pistols, even though some in the crowd, estimated to be a thousand people, were in the line of fire.

(How haphazard was police work back then? The magazine Weird N.J. discovered what became of Unruh’s Luger. Detective Ron Conley, following typical 1940s procedure, secured it in his locker. Upon retiring, he brought it home. It was recovered in the early 90s, returned to the Camden County Prosecutor’s Office, and marked as evidence.)

During the onslaught, Philip W. Buxton, an enterprising assistant city editor at The Camden Evening Courier, looked up Unruh’s number in the phone book, rang it up, and to his surprise, had the shooter on the line. Buxton chatted with Unruh for a few minutes as the bullets poured into the apartment, shattering window panes.  He asked how many people he’d killed, to which Unruh replied, “I don't know yet, I haven't counted them. But it looks like a pretty good score.” Buxton followed-up asking why he was killing people. Unruh said he didn’t know, but he had to go because “a couple of friends are coming to get me.”

In the chaos, a couple of policemen climbed onto the roof—the same one Maurice Cohen plunged from—and lobbed a tear gas canister into Unruh’s apartment. The first was a dud, but the second was stingingly effective. Five minutes later Unruh called out that he was surrendering. He shouted he was leaving his gun on a desk and walked out the back door with his hands held high. He was patted down and cuffed as gawkers screamed for the mass murderer to be lynched right then and there. One furious cop demand to know, “What’s the matter with you? You a psycho?”

Unruh flatly replied, “I am no psycho. I have a good mind.”


For the next couple of hours, Unruh would be grilled in a Camden detective’s office.

He took full responsibility for the killings and supplied details in a detached clinical manner. During the interrogation, District Attorney Mitchell Cohen (no relation to the druggist) noticed a pool of blood under Unruh’s chair. At one point late in the rampage, Unruh was shot in the buttock or upper leg by Frank Engel, who had taken aim from his upstairs window. Unruh was rushed to Cooper Hospital, the same one as his victims, but surgeons were unable to remove the bullet. Less than 24 hours after his arrest, he was transferred to the Vroom Building for the criminally insane at Trenton Psychiatric Hospital, voluntarily. He would remain on the grounds for the next 60 years as Case No. 47,077. Unruh would never stand trial for the “Walk of Death.”

Starting on September 7, a team of psychiatrists examined Unruh for weeks, trying to get an understanding of why he did what he did. Many of their findings weren’t released until 2012, at the request of the Philadelphia Inquirer. He cold-bloodedly explained everything, listing the neighbors who had wronged him, and describing each murder with little emotion. He claimed to feel sorrow for the children he’d killed, but the doctor’s notes indicate he didn’t seem remorseful. Unruh went so far as to say that “murder is sin, and I should get the chair.”

The full accuracy of Unruh’s statements is unknowable because on more than occasion, psychiatrists administered truth serum, a.k.a. narcosynthesis, which was then considered useful. Scientists discredited it in the 1950s because patients often melded fact and fantasy together. (In 1963, the Supreme Court ruled truth serum confessions unconstitutional in Townsend v. Sain.) It’s impossible to know the veracity of the reports from Unruh’s sessions, such as the one where he told a doctor that he’d been in bed with Freda, fondled his mother’s breasts, and that “their privates touched.” However, a psychiatrist notes in a “Personal History” summation that Unruh’s brother James said “once the patient had made advances to him when they were sleeping together, which he, James, had vigorously resisted.”

On Oct. 20, 1949, a Camden County judge signed a final order of commitment based on a diagnosis of “dementia praecox, mixed type, with pronounced catatonic and paranoid coloring.” In standard parlance, he was declared a paranoid schizophrenic. Unruh was considered too mentally ill to stand trial, although the murder indictment remained if ever he were “cured.” (So the missing Luger could have been vital evidence in a trial.) Ramsland believes Unruh’s initial diagnosis was wrong, and that today, he would have been found legally sane.

“He wouldn’t have been diagnosed with schizophrenia because he didn’t have any actual symptoms of schizophrenia, they just didn’t know what else to do in those days,” she says. “Back then, paranoid schizophrenia was kind of a trash-can diagnosis. You could put anything in there, but the criteria have tightened up since. Unruh didn’t have command hallucinations or anything like that. The standard is, are you so floridly psychotic that you don’t know what you’re doing is wrong? You can be psychotic and still get convicted. I suspect Unruh had a personality disorder, but it’s clear he knew what he was doing was wrong and that there were legal consequences. I always found it so odd that they just locked him away and forgot about him.  Thirteen people were killed, are you kidding?”

Unruh’s father Sam was ordered to pay $15 a month for Howard’s upkeep in Trenton. And basically, for the next six decades, Unruh vanished. Occasionally, something would come up like in 1964, Unruh wrote a petition to have his indictment dismissed on the grounds he was insane at the time of the shootings. He withdrew it, probably upon understanding that it would only be useful as a defense in a trial, which he did not want. Freda visited him until her death in 1985, but after that, Unruh didn’t talk much. Over the years, he did take an art class, and in the 1970s had an unrequited crush on a much younger inmate, but for the most part, he kept up with his stamp collection and was known to mop the floors while muttering to himself.

In 1991, a psychiatrist said Unruh had one friendship inside, but actually it was “a person who just keeps talking all the time. Mr Unruh is a good listener.” In 1993, Unruh was transferred to a less restrictive geriatric unit, where he would live out his days. He died on October 19, 2009 at the age of 88.


Technically, Unruh wasn’t the first mass shooter. There had been at least two, including one less that a year before in nearby Chester, Pennsylvania. Melvin Collins, 30, opened fire from a boardinghouse, killing eight before taking his own life, but his story was quickly forgotten. He doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page. Part of the reason Unruh is known as the “father of mass murderer” is that he didn’t follow the typical script. He, somewhat miraculously considering the firepower aimed his way, lived.

“Mass murder is typically a suicidal act in which apocalyptic violence is used to enact extreme vengeance, and it almost always ends in the perpetrator’s death,” says Schechter. “Unruh was the rare exception and he became the public face of a serious horrifying crime.”

Unruh didn’t lack for publicity. It was covered extensively by local newspapers and his homicidal terror was brilliantly re-created by famed New York Times writer Meyer Berger who left Manhattan at 11 a.m., interviewed at least 20 people in Camden by himself, and filed 4,000 words an hour before deadline. For his masterwork, Berger won the 1950 Pulitzer Prize for Local Reporting. (He sent the $1,000 prize money to Freda Unruh.) The piece remains a staple of journalism scholarship today.

Unruh’s “Walk of Death” is certainly infamous and well known in criminology circles, so it’s a bit curious that he’s fallen off the radar as a public figure. There were periodic articles published about Unruh throughout his long life, especially when Charles Cohen, the boy who hid in the closet, came out publicly after 32 years to denounce the prisoner’s request to be moved to a less-restrictive setting. In 1999, Cohen, 62, told the Philadelphia Inquirer that he was haunted by the morning, that other mass killings like Columbine brought back the pain, and that he was waiting for the call that Unruh had died. “I’ll make my final statement, spit on his grave, and go on with my life,” he said. Cohen passed away one month before Unruh.

Unruh’s massacre was a watershed crime, but it’s been usurped by other deadlier shooters of the television and internet age. A Google news search of “Howard Unruh” and “Umpqua” turned up no results, while an October 4 New York Times article about profiling mass killers said, “The episode…that some academics view as having ‘introduced the nation to the idea of mass murder in a public space’ happened in 1966, when Charles Whitman climbed a tower at the University of Texas at Austin and killed 16 people.”

Schechter says another reason Unruh isn’t as renowned is because the “Walk of Death” was seen as a stand-alone atrocity of a “crazy.” Mass murder wasn’t a regular occurrence and Unruh didn’t spark copycats—Whitman was years later—so it didn’t tap into common fears of the post-World War II generation. “Unruh’s killings were seen as a weird aberration and not something the culture was obsessed by, so he didn’t immediately enter into a larger American mythology,” says Schechter.


One place where Unruh hasn’t been forgotten is the Cramer Hill neighborhood where he destroyed so many lives. River Road is still working-class, dotted with Mexican shops these days, but the layout is generally the same. The barbershop was torn down, but the buildings that housed the tailor, cobbler, and drugstore are all intact. The block looks the same. There are no plaques, memorials, or markers of any kind. 

In late September, a 76-year-old Vietnam War veteran working as a school crossing guard on River Road, told me that when he moved to East Camden in 1977, many people who lived through that awful day were still around. He said even now, neighbors knows the legend of the “Walk of Death.” He pointed to Unruh’s apartment, which has reportedly remained empty since he was arrested. The outer wall of the apartment building was re-stuccoed and painted gray at some point, but plenty of indentations remain, presumably from the hailstorm of bullets. The crossing guard took me into Unruh’s backyard, the rear entrances boarded shut with cheap padlocks. By all appearances, the residential part of the building was shuttered and abandoned after Unruh killed 13 people in Cramer Hill. The back lot was overgrown with weeds and tall grass, but someone beautified it a bit by planting tomatoes and corn. The ears were growing on the other side of a chain-link fence.

The gate, however, was missing. 

From Gunpowder to Teeth Whitener: The Science Behind Historic Uses of Urine

Smithsonian Magazine

About the only use modern humans have for their urine is in health screenings. But preindustrial workers built entire industries based on the scientific properties of pee. Photo by Turbotorque via Wikimedia Commons

The saying goes that one person’s waste is another’s treasure. For those scientists who study urine the saying is quite literal–pee is a treasure-trove of scientific potential. It can now be used as a source of electric power. Urine-eating bacteria can create a strong enough current to power a cell phone. Medicines derived from urine can help treat infertility and fight symptoms of menopause. Stem cells harvested from urine have been reprogrammed into neurons and even used to grow human teeth.

For modern scientists, the golden liquid can be, well, liquid gold. But a quick look back in history shows that urine has always been important to scientific and industrial advancement, so much so that the ancient Romans not only sold pee collected from public urinals, but those who traded in urine had to pay a tax. So what about pee did preindustrial humans find so valuable? Here are a few examples:

Urine-soaked leather makes it soft: Prior to the ability to synthesize chemicals in the lab, urine was a quick and rich source of urea, a nitrogen-based organic compound. When stored for long periods of time, urea decays into ammonia. Ammonia in water acts as a caustic but weak base. Its high pH breaks down organic material, making urine the perfect substance for ancients to use in softening and tanning animal hides. Soaking animal skins in urine also made it easier for leather workers to remove hair and bits of flesh from the skin.

The cleansing power of pee: If you’ve investigated the ingredients in your household cleaners, you may have noticed a prevalent ingredient: ammonia. As a base, ammonia is a useful cleanser because dirt and grease–which are slightly acidic–get neutralized by the ammonia. Even though early Europeans knew about soap, many launderers preferred to use urine for its ammonia to get tough stains out of cloth. In fact, in ancient Rome, vessels for collecting urine were commonplace on streets–passers-by would relieve themselves into them and when the vats were full their contents were taken to a fullonica (a laundry), diluted with water and poured over dirty clothes. A worker would stand in the tub of urine and stomp on the clothes, similar to modern washing machine’s agitator.

Even after making soap became more prevalent, urine–known as chamber lye for the chamber pots it was collected in–was often used as a soaking treatment for tough stains.

Urine not only made your whites cleaner, but your colors brighter: Natural dyes from seeds, leaves, flowers, lichens, roots, bark and berries can leach out of a cloth if it or the dyebath aren’t treated with mordant, which helps to bind the dye to the cloth. It works like this: molecules of dye called chromophores get wrapped inside a more complex molecule or a group of molecules; this shell housing the dye then binds to the cloth. The central nugget of dye is then visible but is protected from bleeding away by the molecules surrounding it. Stale urine–or more precisely the ammonia in it–is a good mordant. Molecules of ammonia can form a web around chromophores, helping to develop the color of dyes as well as to bind it to cloth.

Specific chamberpots dedicated to urine helped families collect their pee for use as mordants. Urine was so important to the textile industry of 16th century England that casks of it–an estimated amount equivalent to the urine stream of 1000 people for an entire year–were shipped from across the country to Yorkshire, where it was mixed with alum to form an even stronger mordant than urine alone.

Gunpowder kegs at a California fort. Now that’s a lot of pee! Photo by Flickr user chad_k

Pee makes things go boom: Had enough with cleansing, tanning, and dyeing? Then why not use your pee to make gunpowder! Gunpowder recipes call for charcoal and sulfur in small quantities, both of which for aren’t too hard to find. But the main ingredient–potassium nitrate, also called saltpeter–was only synthesized on a large-scale in the early 20th century. Prior to that, makers of gunpowder took advantage of the nitrogen naturally found in pee to make the key ingredient for ballistic firepower.

As detailed in the manual Instructions for the Manufacture of Saltpetre, written by physician and geologist Joseph LeConte in 1862, a person hoping to make gunpowder quickly would need  “a good supply of thoroughly rotted manure of the richest kind” which is then mixed with ash, leaves and straw in a pit. “The heap is watered every week with the richest kinds of liquid manure, such as urine, dung-water, water of privies, cess-pools, drains, &c. The quantity of liquid should be such as to keep the heap always moist, but not wet,” he wrote. The mixture is stirred every week, and after a several months no more pee is added. Then “As the heap ripens, the nitre is brought to the surface by evaporation, and appears as a whitish efflorescence, detectible by the taste.”

Different regions of the world had their own recipes for gunpowder, but the scientific principle at work is the same: Ammonia from stagnant pee reacts with oxygen to form nitrates. These nitrates–negatively charged nitrogen-bearing ions–then search for positively charged metal ions in the pee-poo-ash slurry to bind with. Thanks to the ash, potassium ions are in abundance, and voila! After a little filtering, you’ve made potassium nitrate.

Urine gives you a whiter smile: Urine was a key ingredient in many early medicines and folk remedies of dubious effectiveness. But one use–and those who’ve tried it say it works–is as a type of mouthwash. While “urine-soaked grin” isn’t the insult of choice these days, a verse by Roman poet Catullus reads:

Egnatius, because he has snow-white teeth, smiles all the time. If you’re a defendant in court, when the counsel draws tears, he smiles: if you’re in grief at the pyre of pious sons, the lone lorn mother weeping, he smiles. Whatever it is, wherever it is, whatever he’s doing, he smiles: he’s got a disease, neither polite, I would say, nor charming. So a reminder to you, from me, good Egnatius. If you were a Sabine or Tiburtine or a fat Umbrian, or plump Etruscan, or dark toothy Lanuvian, or from north of the Po, and I’ll mention my own Veronese too, or whoever else clean their teeth religiously, I’d still not want you to smile all the time: there’s nothing more foolish than foolishly smiling. Now you’re Spanish: in the country of Spain what each man pisses, he’s used to brushing his teeth and red gums with, every morning, so the fact that your teeth are so polished just shows you’re the more full of piss.

The poem not only reveals that Catullus wasn’t a fan of Egnatius, but that Romans used urine to clean and whiten their teeth, transforming morning breath into a different smell entirely. The active ingredient? You guessed it: ammonia, which lifted stains away.

But perhaps one of the most critical uses of urine in history was its role in making the above home remedies obsolete. Urea, the nitrogen bearing compound in urine, was the first organic substance created from inorganic starting materials. In 1828, German chemist Friedrich Wöhler mixed silver cyanate with ammonium chloride and obtained a white crystalline material that his tests proved was identical to urea. His finding disproved a hypothesis of many leading scientists and thinkers of the time, which held that living organisms were made up of substances entirely different than inanimate objects like rocks or glass. In a note to a colleague, Wöhler wrote, “I can no longer, so to speak, hold my chemical water and must tell you that I can make urea without needing a kidney, whether of man or dog; the ammonium salt of cyanic acid is urea.”

Wöhler’s discovery showed that not only could organic chemicals be transformed and produced in the lab, but that humans were part of nature, rather than separate from it. In doing so, he began the field of organic chemistry. Organic chemistry has given us modern medicines, materials such as plastic and nylon, compounds including synthetic ammonia and potassium nitrate…and, of course, a way to clean our clothes or fire a gun without using our own (or someone else’s) pee.

How NASA's Opportunity Rover Made Mars Part of Earth

Smithsonian Magazine

On Tuesday night, engineers at the Space Flight Operations Facility of Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, sent their final commands to the rover Opportunity on Mars. With no signal received in reply from the dormant rover, NASA formally announced the end of the mission today.

“I declare the Opportunity mission as complete, and with it, the Mars Exploration Rover mission as complete,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of NASA. “I have to tell you, this is an emotional time.”

The rover lost contact with Earth on June 10, 2018. A Mars-wide dust storm darkened the otherwise apricot skies of the fourth planet from the sun, starving the rover’s solar panels of needed sunlight. The agency maintained a vigil in hope that once the storm subsided, the rover might reawaken. During the intervening months, NASA blasted a fusillade of commands at the rover—835 in all—in case some signal might be received and operations resumed. After eight months of silence, the agency made the decision to pronounce the time of death and bid the robot farewell.

Opportunity is one-half of a two-rover mission called Mars Exploration Rovers (MER). The rovers landed separately on Mars in January 2004. Opportunity landed in Meridiani Planum near the Martian equator. Spirit, its twin, landed halfway around the planet, at the crater Gusev. The rovers primary missions were to last 90 Mars days, or sols (about 24 hours and 40 minutes). Two thousand sols later, Spirit was still sending science back to Earth, losing contact at last in 2010. Opportunity survived on Mars for over 15 years.

Today there are eight spacecraft from the world’s space agencies on or orbiting Mars, with a handful set to launch next year including NASA’s Mars 2020 rover. A frontier subdued by robotic explorers, Mars bears little resemblance to the planet we knew in 2000, when the MER mission was conceived. At the time, a single spacecraft circled the red planet: the lonely Mars Global Surveyor. NASA’s two previous, high-profile missions to Mars had both failed. Mars Polar Lander crashed into the planet, and Mars Climate Orbiter vanished, either burned up in the Martian atmosphere or deflected off into space.

NASA engineers installing solar panels on the Opportunity rover, February 10, 2003. (NASA/JPL)

MER came in the aftermath of failed mission proposals by Ray Arvidson, a professor at Washington University in St. Louis; Larry Soderblom of the U.S. Geological Survey; and Steve Squyres, a professor at Cornell University. Each of the three had been beaten by David Paige of University of California, Los Angeles, whose ill-fated Mars Polar Lander was selected for flight by NASA.

“During a Geological Society of America meeting, I stopped Steve in the hall,” says Arvidson. “I said, ‘I’m a pretty sore loser. How about you?’ And that was the start.” Arvidson, Squyres and Soderblom merged their various teams and set about writing a joint proposal to get a rover on the Martian surface.

“Before Spirit and Opportunity, there was a feeling of longing to get onto the surface so that we could understand what the orbital data were telling us,” Arvidson says. “Seeing Mars from four hundred kilometers above the surface is different than looking at the rock textures and cross bedding and particle sizes and details of mineralogy and picking apart the rocks. That’s how we do geology on Earth. It would be very difficult to understand Earth the way we do just from orbital data—maybe impossible.”

It took five tries to land a mission proposal, evolving finally into a single Mars Exploration Rover. Squyres, the principal investigator of the mission, eventually convinced Dan Goldin, then-administrator of NASA, to send two rovers in case one failed.

On July 7, 2003, NASA launched its second Mars Exploration Rover, Opportunity, aboard a Delta II launch vehicle. (NASA)

The two robotic explorers were built by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), which had previously landed the Mars Pathfinder spacecraft and its companion rover, Sojourner, in 1997. Pathfinder, which lasted 85 days, was wildly successful in the public imagination. Its little Sojourner rover traveled a whopping one hundred meters—which was one hundred meters farther than anything had ever roved on Mars before. The mission came in at $150 million dollars, and “faster, better, cheaper” became the agency mantra. After the failures of Mars Polar Lander and Mars Climate Orbiter, engineers grimly added to the mantra: “…pick two.”

MER would become an $820 million mission for both rovers—construction through prime mission—which was an unbelievable bargain, particularly considering the unexpected longevity of the spacecraft. (For comparison, Vikings 1 and 2, launched in 1975, were multi-billion-dollar landers when adjusted for inflation.)

In summer of 2003, with celestial mechanics favorable and skies over Cape Canaveral clear, the two spacecraft left Earth for their new home on another world.

Wheels on the Ground

“When I was in high school, these rovers landed,” says Heather Justice, the lead rover driver for Opportunity at JPL. “That was the first big NASA thing that I saw that really got me thinking about working in space or robotics. And I remember thinking at that time, maybe someday I’ll do something like that. I didn’t think it was going to be that mission. They were only supposed to last 90 days!”

Each rover landed using supersonic parachutes to slow down and then airbags which burst outward from all sides before the spacecraft collided with the planet. The rovers hit Mars as the world’s least-destructive meteorites, bouncing and bounding across the planet’s surface like a couple of dice in some giant's game. Opportunity eventually settled in Eagle crater on Meridiani Planum.

NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity gained this view of its own heat shield during the rover's 325th martian day (December 22, 2004). The main structure from the successfully used shield is to the far left. Additional fragments of the heat shield lie in the upper center of the image. The heat shield's impact mark is visible just above and to the right of the foreground shadow of Opportunity's camera mast. This view is a mosaic of three images taken with the rover's navigation camera. (NASA/JPL)

“There was no guarantee of success in these landings,” says Wendy Calvin, a member of the MER science team who joined the project a year before the spacecraft launched. “We had just come off these two horrific failures and there was a real sense that this could be another one. We have demonstrated our engineering so successfully, so many times since then that people forget that in 2004, we were on tenterhooks wondering how it was all going to go. No one anticipated that the landings would be so spectacularly successful as they were.”

Before the mission, she explains, planetary scientists had certain ideas about Mars, how it operated as a planet, and how it looked from the surface. “The first images down from the Opportunity landing site were really amazing because it was such a different looking planet,” she says. “I gave talks to the general public before the landing and said not to be surprised if it looked like the Sojourner landing site or the Viking landing site. But the Opportunity landing site was really, really different. And that was really cool.”

The science team chose to land at Meridiani because Mars Global Surveyor found spectral evidence of crystalline hematite at that location. “There was a lot of debate at the time of what was the cause of that,” Calvin says. “Was it rock-water interaction? Was it volcanic? I don’t think we understood Mars’s history and water cycle at all. There was so much more detail in the geologic history than we anticipated before the mission.”

Hematite is an iron oxide, commonly mined on Earth as an ore. Because the mineral forms from water interactions on this planet, the hope was that there might once have been water at Meridiani. In the early 2000s, some scientists expected to find big chunks of hematite on the surface. What waited there was a bit more unusual: tiny grayish spherules measured in millimeters and embedded in the sandstone distributed across the surface. Scientists dubbed them blueberries, thanks to their blue hue in false-color images, and they—not boulders—were the source of hematite detected from orbit. The deposits were likely created by water flowing through sandstone and then revealed by weathering. It was a (metaphorical) geologic gold mine, the evidence suggesting overwhelmingly that this place was once warm and wet.

The small spherules on the Martian surface in this close-up image are near Fram Crater, visited by NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity during April 2004. These are examples of the mineral concretions nicknamed "blueberries." Opportunity's investigation of the hematite-rich concretions during the rover's three-month prime mission in early 2004 provided evidence of a watery ancient environment. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell/USGS)

“From orbit, it’s a plain!” Arvidson says. “We had no idea what the environment deposition was. It takes getting down there and looking at rocks at the grain scale, and looking for laminations and mud cracks and all the rest that you just can’t do from orbit. Particularly ... following the water and getting at habitability, you can’t do that in a complete way from orbital data.”

“To me,” Calvin says, “the two big discoveries are that the hematite signature discovered from orbit is in these spherules, and that we found, with Spirit, places that were basically volcanic vents with nearly pure silica.” The latter find, involving hot water interacting with rock, would have been conducive to habitability—a possible life-supporting ecosystem on Mars millions and millions of years ago, the shadow of which remains today as scars and subtle clues embedded in the rock.

Going the Distance

The silica was discovered by accident, a serendipitous side effect of a faulty wheel on the rover Spirit. The wheel jammed, and as the other five wheels dragged it along, an odd, white trench was carved in the Martian dirt. Both rovers had problems with the same wheel, either in rotation or in steering, according to Bill Nelson, the engineering manager for the MER project. “On Spirit, the right front wheel wouldn’t turn, but it would steer. On Opportunity, it would turn but it wouldn’t steer. So we submitted a NASA Lessons Learned that said that we should start leaving off the bad sixth wheel and only make five-wheeled rovers in the future.”

After the report was reviewed, Nelson says, “we soon discovered that NASA has no measurable sense of humor.”

A self-portrait of NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Spirit shows the solar panels still gleaming in the Martian sunlight and carrying only a thin veneer of dust two years after the rover landed and began exploring the red planet. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell)

But, according to the chief engineer, even the wheels on the rover have provided valuable insight in the discipline of terramechanics, a key to driving on other planets. “That’s a somewhat esoteric area of mechanical engineering where you study the interaction between wheels and the terrain and how things become embedded or dislodged, or how they move around and slip and so forth. Between our modeling and experience we have made real contributions there.”

Opportunity casts a long shadow over all subsequent Mars rovers, setting a gold standard of JPL engineering. Customized versions of its mobility software are used on the rovers Curiosity and upcoming Mars 2020. Fifteen years of meticulous measurements of Martian dust and its effects will be invaluable for future missions. And then there’s the rover’s durability.

“We have set the off-world record for distance,” Nelson says. “We’ve gone over 45 kilometers. Almost two years ago, we were the winners of the first Mars marathon, and I expect we will hold that record for quite some time to come. I honestly don’t think Curiosity has much hope of traveling nearly as far as we have, and it’s not really clear that Mars 2020 will, either.”

The distance traveled has been a scientific multiplier. “This was a rover that lasted a long time,” says John Callas, the MER project manager at JPL. “NASA had a requirement that to get to full mission success, you had to go at least 600 meters. So we designed this rovering system to go a kilometer—and we were totally over the moon to have that kind of capability at Mars. We never imagined we would be able to go over 45 kilometers. We’ve driven so far.

This scene from the panoramic camera (Pancam) on NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity looks back toward part of the west rim of Endeavour Crater that the rover drove along, heading southward, during the summer of 2014. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell Univ./Arizona State Univ.)

Eagle Crater, where Opportunity landed, is geologically in the Hesperian Period—the middle period of Mars history, roughly concurrent with the Archean Eon on Earth. In 2011, the Opportunity rover reached the Endeavor crater, which is Noachian Period rock, where the oldest geology on Mars can be studied. The last eight years have been like a bonus mission, practically a third vehicle in the MER fleet. “In a sense,” says Callas, “by driving this rover so far, we were able to drive back in time and study much older geology.”

One of the greatest contributions of this mission, Callas says, is an intangible. Every day, scientists and engineers wake up and go to work on Mars. Every day, something new is learned and Mars becomes a little more part of our world. “Until January 2004, we had these occasional visits to Mars. The Viking landers in the seventies. Pathfinder in 1997. We attempted to return in 1999 with Polar Lander. With MER, not only did we visit the surface of Mars, but we stayed there. Every day, new information about the surface of the Mars is coming in from some surface asset. We have entered the era of sustained, daily exploration of the surface of Mars.”

Fifteen years of operation with no service station in sight would be an astonishing, successful stretch for any vehicle, let alone one rolling in the inhospitable climes of Mars. The tawny, frozen, dead world that greeted Opportunity has been wholly changed in the eyes of the earthbound. What once was the inert moon, but red, is now a planet where water once flowed freely and in abundance. The question is no longer: Was Mars wet? The rover Opportunity enabled scientists to ask instead: Did something swim in those waters, and how do we find it?

As the Arctic Erodes, Archaeologists Are Racing to Protect Ancient Treasures

Smithsonian Magazine

A headless body, stretched out along the beach, appears through the smudged window of our ATV as we sail across the sand. There’s a windy lawlessness up here along the Chukchi Sea; I’m reassured by the rifle lashed to the lead ATV in the caravan. The archaeologist at the helm passes the decaying creature without pause. Anne Jensen has seen many headless walruses before—this one was likely already dead when it washed ashore and was relieved of its tusks. Jensen’s not worried about poachers; the rifle is for polar bears—the Arctic’s fiercest of predators. And Jensen seems entirely capable of staying calm and slamming a bullet into one.

We’re just south of Barrow, Alaska, heading to an archaeological site at a place called Walakpa Bay. It’s a grassy coastline that’s been occupied by semi-nomadic native Alaskans for at least 4,000 years. Their story, told in material remains, is scattered across the landscape we traverse at 60 kilometers per hour, past flocks of ducks and eroding bluffs. Most archaeologists mine the soil to better understand how the animals, landscape, and climate of the past may have shaped a culture. For three decades, Jensen has tried to find and tell the stories locked in frozen dirt here on Alaska’s North Slope, the home of the Iñupiat, as they are known today. But as much as Jensen wishes she could do just that, her most important work on this thawing, eroding land is simply trying to protect what’s left of Walakpa, and other vanishing sites, from a warming climate.

At the world’s edge, the Arctic coastline is on the front lines of climate change. As the length of time ice stays fastened to it has plummeted, the shoreline here has eroded faster than almost anywhere else in the world. Two years ago, villagers alerted Jensen to a storm that had wiped out about half of the Walakpa site. The rest could be erased soon, she says, when the storms whip up again. “It’s like a library’s on fire,” says Jensen, equal parts bitterness and Midwestern matter-of-factness. Jensen is the kind of person who would find the notion of books burning for any reason deeply unjust.

Saving Walakpa properly would require months of encampment, dedicated freezers, and soil engineers. There’s no money for all that. “But you gotta try,” she says. “We need to get this data now.” She’s known up here on Alaska’s North Slope for her thoroughness and respect for local traditions—and perhaps above all, her tenacity. Exhibit number one: this five-day mini excursion, a Hail Mary dig to document and preserve a few artifacts on a shoestring budget. The North Slope Borough government has chipped in a few support staff; an archaeologist from Maryland, a local anthropologist, and a PhD candidate from Ohio have volunteered their time; Jensen gave frequent-flier miles to a geoarchaeologist from Idaho to round out the five-scientist crew. She paid out of her pocket for quick and easy field meals—ramen cups.

Two days before leaving, Jensen rummaged through excavation equipment in a dusty garage. Tendrils of her dark hair, sometimes corralled in a ski cap, fell on the beige overalls she often wears. (They reflect the industrial culture that many Iñupiaq have embraced here on the North Slope.) “Okay, so we packed the toilet paper already,” she said. Though she’s tightly focused out in the field, here her small black eyes roved across shovels and buckets. Much of the gear was purchased a few years ago, back when the grant money flowed. Her phone frequently vibrated. (Her chronically ill daughter and a client—a telecom firm—were apparently competing with the remains of hundreds of generations of native Alaskans for her attention.) “Bungee cords are always good,” she said, and we tossed some into a plastic tub.

A sign on her office door quotes US president Teddy Roosevelt: “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.” Jensen has made a steady career on the edge of civilization with limited resources, studying archaeological sites before the sea devours them. Over the centuries, Walakpa’s inhabitants have, even more so, exemplified Roosevelt’s credo. They’ve learned the rhythms of the whales and the ice and the birds, and they’ve mastered the art of adaptation to a challenging life at sea and on the tundra. But as our ATV thrums along the hard sand and waves relentlessly crash against the shoreline, I wonder to myself: what does saving Walakpa even mean?

Archaeologist Anne Jensen has worked in the Arctic—racing to save valuable archaeological sites before they disappear forever—for over 30 years. (Joe Van Os)

Raised in Ballston Spa, New York, Jensen first came to Barrow in 1983 with her husband, Glenn Sheehan, an archaeologist who no longer works in the field. The richness of high-latitude sites, she hoped, would yield novel archaeological data. An average dig in the lower 48, she likes to say, might yield “a banker’s box full of stone tools.” Permafrost sites, by contrast, allow scientists to “actually see what [inhabitants] were eating.” Alaska’s frozen soils preserve organic materials that provide a wealth of ecological and environmental data. Jensen has built her career in hopes of making new kinds of conclusions about the climate, animals, and hunting behaviors of indigenous peoples that once settled Alaska. Just by living, day-to-day, season-to-season, the ancient tribes Jensen studies “were doing environmental sampling back then for us, going back three, four thousand years.” The DNA she collects hints at population dynamics and migratory patterns. Stable isotopes from bones can provide clues to animals’ diets and their positions in the food web. “If we excavate one of these sites we could fill a 20-foot [six-meter] shipping container full of artifacts and samples. Which we’ve done, by the way,” she says.

Jensen and Sheehan have made a comfy home in Hut 170 on the rusty, old Naval Arctic Research Laboratory campus, known as NARL. New Yorker magazines and coffee-table books on archaeology abound, and outside Jensen tends buttercups and willow in what she calls North America’s “northernmost garden.” But what matters most to her is proximity to world-famous archaeological sites. Birnirk—a National Historic Landmark first excavated in 1936, with some of the first evidence of ancient northern Alaskans—is only a 10-minute drive away. Several kilometers farther up the beach lies Nuvuk, the deserted spit of land at one of the most northern tips of North America, where some of Barrow’s oldest Iñupiaq residents remember growing up. And Walakpa, to the south, may be the most important site in the region, says Dennis Stanford, an archaeologist at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC, whose excavations in the late 1960s and graduate dissertation on Walakpa published in 1976 put the site on the scientific map.

So it’s a heady place for Jensen to serve as de facto town archaeologist. Jensen is an archaeological contractor, her employer a science firm in Barrow that provides research studies and logistics to the local government and visiting scientists. Hers is an almost daily task of evaluating threats to artifacts—and human remains. The ancestors of Barrow’s residents, many in unmarked graves, are found everywhere in the region. That makes archaeology part of the social fiber. And Jensen has become the keeper of this thawing legacy. In 2005, a few dozen archaeologists and volunteers were finishing up a dig at Point Franklin, a coastal site south of Walakpa, when a massive search and rescue helicopter landed on the beach. “People dropped their shovels and their jaws,” recalls Sheehan. “There’s an emergency; we need an archaeologist!” a helicopter crew member called to Jensen. Twenty minutes away, in a village called Wainwright, holes for pilings were about to be drilled in an area where residents thought the unmarked grave of their stillborn child lay. Jensen examined the site for a few hours and declared it free of burials. Jensen knows from deep experience that Iñupiaq oral knowledge is often dead right. “I’d be upset too if someone told me that, but we were glad to allay their concerns,” she says.

(Illustration by Mark Garrison)

Indigenous Alaskans have coped with eroding coasts for centuries or more. In 1852, locals told British captain Rochfort Maguire that erosion forced their grandparents to move Nuvuk more than two kilometers inland. So the community was concerned, though not entirely surprised, when in the 1990s human remains began to poke out of a bluff along the Nuvuk beach. The disintegrating coastline was claiming a graveyard that was once far inland. “The wishes of the community were to see [the bones] reinterred near where they were originally buried,” says Jana Harcharek, Director of Iñupiaq Education for the North Slope. Following careful procedures specified by village elders, a team of volunteers and students, led by Jensen since 1997, reinterred the bones. The team has subsequently found and reburied dozens more. “Anne has always been very consultative—she consults with elders and community members about how to proceed. She’s helped the community tremendously,” adds Harcharek.

While Jensen’s efforts at Nuvuk fostered goodwill, the site also proved scientifically valuable. Archaeologists had written off the site as “contact era”—too young to yield important data. Jensen’s work, however, revealed arrowheads of an early culture known as Ipiutak that existed in Alaska until roughly 400 CE. “We were completely surprised,” says Jensen during an afternoon visit to the windswept, empty site. By luck, she’d dug deeper than previous archaeologists—they hadn’t had exposed human remains to clue them in—and warming permafrost had helped, too. She called a bulldozer in to carefully remove top layers, subsequently allowing volunteers to reveal buried wooden Ipiutak structures that had tantalizing detail. But when Jensen applied to the US National Science Foundation to mount a full excavation, her grant application was—like most applications on the first try—denied. “I didn’t bother reapplying because by the time we would have reapplied and gotten funded the land wasn’t going to be there,” she says, pointing at the waves. The soil containing the wooden structures is now tens of meters out to sea.

Jensen nurtures her ties to the Iñupiaq community, and their knowledge has in turn informed her archaeology. She brings her staff, for example, to the early summer Nalukatuq celebrations, in which whaling crews share meat and throw each other in the air with sealskin blankets. That “may not sound like archaeology, but whaling has been the organizing focus of this culture since before most of the sites I work on were formed,” she wrote on her blog. “I really don’t see how one can expect to interpret these sites without a pretty good understanding of what whaling actually entails.” In 2012, she published a paper showing that modern whalers keep their whaling gear outside of their homes; it was an effort to challenge researchers who she felt focused too much on the interior of excavated dwellings, leading to inaccurate conclusions about Eskimo culture.

But a debate over which parts of a site to excavate is meaningless if the site disappears entirely. In 2013, after a summer storm slammed the coast, hunters reported seeing wooden structures protruding from a bluff at Walakpa. For Jensen, the site has special scientific value. Unlike other sites, such as Nuvuk where the occupation record includes gaps, archaeologists believe indigenous people continuously hunted, fished, and camped at Walakpa for millennia. That makes comparisons of flora, fauna, and human culture particularly telling. Its cultural significance is deep too, says Harcharek. “People continue to use it today. It’s a very important waterfowl hunting site in the spring and a regular camping spot.” (Ualiqpaa, as the site is called in the modern Iñupiaq language, means “western settlement entrance.”) Some of the last elders to live at Walakpa remembered complaining about the smell of ancient sea mammal oil in the sod houses. (Many in Barrow call the place Monument; a modest-sized concrete monument there commemorates American humorist Will Rogers and aviator Wiley Post who died when the airplane they were flying for a “happy-go-lucky aerial tour” crashed on the site in 1935.)

What had been a mostly stable site was suddenly at mortal risk. Jensen and a team of volunteers worked in the cold to rescue artifacts as the Arctic Ocean lapped right up to their screening buckets. A ground squirrel had burrowed under the excavation area, destabilizing it further; a polar bear wandered 200 meters in the distance. But the crew’s perseverance paid off. The midden they were excavating yielded clay pottery and tools made of baleen, bone, ivory, and myriad other animal parts.

But the following fall, after a storm, Jensen was crestfallen to find the area of Walakpa she had excavated completely gone. In a damage report she wrote following the storm, she mentioned that the exposed soil allowed looters to steal an ice pick, a bucket made of baleen, and possibly a couple of human skulls. Erosion, however, was the main enemy. “We need to find funds for a field season next year if we do not want to risk losing precious cultural heritage,” she wrote. The rest of Walakpa could disappear at any moment, but at least one archeologist in Northern Alaska wasn’t yet willing to concede defeat.

Archaeologist Anne Jensen has the difficult task of evaluating threats to artifacts as the Arctic coastline erodes, taking valuable clues to the past with it. (Joe Van Os)

Funds for a field season have not been found. It is next year. Precious cultural heritage has been lost.

There will be no respite from the waves at Walakpa. There is no strong barrier in place to fully protect Barrow, population 4,400, let alone one to defend this tiny patch of beach that’s known only to the world as the place a pair of Yankees perished eight decades ago.

In lieu of an extended excavation, Jensen has arranged a four-day, five-scientist crew. And in the days before the dig her attention is, as ever, divided. She flies to Kotzebue, 500 kilometers to the south, to do a survey for the telecom company. Then a series of canceled flights keeps her stuck in Fairbanks for a day, her luggage lost by the airline. The dig gets rescheduled and rescheduled again. On the morning of the trip, the packing of the ATVs drags on, with delays for Jensen to send work emails and to collect blood-pressure medication for a member of the team. At Hut 170, she’s fussing over her toiletries. She’s almost out the door when Sheehan says, “And a kiss for your husband?” She stops, smiles, and they share a brief kiss. Outside we all board our vehicles. “Finally,” she declares, “we’re off.”

We arrive at Walakpa after about an hour, in the early afternoon. At the ocean’s edge, the land abruptly ends, forming a high bluff above the sand below. The bluff is cleaved down the middle; from the water, it looks like a 25-meter-wide club sandwich that’s been torn in half. Just last year the bluff, encrusted with artifacts, extended farther out toward the sea by about the length of a small school bus. All that’s there now is salty air.

As the crew unpacks the gear, Jensen lies on her stomach to peer down into the crack, assessing the soil layers that descend to about twice her height and stretch back 4,000 years in time. She lists the dangers to her team: tumbling into the crack, “half a ton of sod falling on you,” “impalement” on stakes, getting crushed by soil. “Nobody goes into the crack,” she declares. Too bad, says geomorphologist Owen Mason, who sees “good wood” of ancient houses in there. Standing in a safe area, Jensen examines the exposed strata. Top layers, still deeper than the researchers went in 1968, could shed light on the most recent occupations. The lower layers could offer clues about when the Paleo-Eskimos first began hunting here. And organic material throughout the strata could shed light on the plants and animals that constituted their world.

With just five days to work, the archaeological team must make a series of painful decisions. “Ideally you’d like to excavate by hand every last inch of everything,” Jensen admits. A full excavation, painstakingly sifting and sorting each level of the soil, is too time consuming, so Jensen opts to bag a bulk sample from each layer and to screen the rest. The team takes what’s called a column sample, digging straight down along the face of the exposed layers. It allows Jensen to preserve the relative position and stratigraphy of the soil and artifacts from each layer. The team debates how wide to make the column: wider means more chance to find items. But Jensen, informed by experience, knows the risks of ambition when time is short. “I’d rather have a narrow, but full, column sample,” she tells her colleagues. (The column sample also comes at a price: it exposes more layers to thawing and erosion.) They “straighten” the bluff face to remove a dangerous overhang, without screening or storing it. “I feel bad doing it, but there’s only so much time,” mutters Jensen.

The delays mount: while Mason carefully records the kinds of layers in the sample—sand, gravel, midden, and marine mammal fat chilled to the consistency of peanut butter—Jensen has to help the field assistants put up a tent, only to discover key metal pieces are missing. And then a local hunter comes by and stops to chat with Jensen. Finally, the scientists select the site for Column Sample 1, or CS1, which measures about the height of an average doorway and about 75 centimeters wide and deep. Excavation reveals wood chips, modified animal bones, and stone flakes. As they excavate, they map the objects’ positions. They document and put the bulk samples into bags that they’ll lug back to Barrow for future analysis. Jensen will later package and mail a quarter of each sample to Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio, for the PhD candidate, Laura Crawford, to study. By 2 a.m., the sun has dimmed, though is still up. The team members work until their ability to delineate soil layers dims, too, and then collapse in their tents.

It’s after dinner the next day when Crawford discovers calamity: CS1’s face has collapsed, ruining their work. Later, she says her thoughts ran along the lines of: “Oh shit. What do we do now.” (She was also relieved no one was working at the time. “It could have been disastrous,” she adds.)

“We have to move more quickly,” Jensen tells the others, and then she administers more triage. The team abandons two test layers, just outside the site, that they had been excavating to provide soil comparisons. They begin a new column, CS2—only two-thirds the size of the first—next to CS1, and they dig it with a shovel, not a trowel, taking fewer bulk samples than planned. “Salvage archaeology,” Crawford says.

As the others rush to continue the dig, Jensen commutes back to town on an ATV twice during the week—she’s needed for other work. (“My day job, what are you going to do,” she says.) Before leaving, the group stakes heavy black fabric over the exposed layers to try to protect them from erosion and thawing. “If we don’t get a bad storm, it will be okay. If we do, hasta la pasta,” Jensen says to Mason. Sure enough, after a storm a month later, the half of the “sandwich” facing the ocean is washed away.

The group has long gone its separate ways, back to Idaho and Ohio and Hut 170. Labeled with black marker, the Walakpa bags sit in freezer storage back at NARL. One day soon these bags will be all that’s left of Monument, of Walakpa, of Ualiqpaa. “I’m glad we got the column samples when we did,” Jensen tells me by phone. Do I detect a hint of pride in her voice? Saving Walakpa, it seems, is less about land and more about human determination and dignity. Do what you can, I think to myself, with what you have, where you are.

Reporting for this article was supported by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. Read more coastal science stories at

A Daring Journey Into the Big Unknown of America's Largest National Park

Smithsonian Magazine

With a trekking pole in one hand and an ice ax in the other, I am naked except for the rigid mountaineering boots on my feet. With all my clothes in my backpack, I cross three braids of the glacier-fed Chitina River in Alaska, stopping to partially recover from the cold on the gravel bars in between. But I know the last ford is going to be the trickiest.

Heavy brown water is pouring through the valley in dozens of plaited streams. The torrents are so forceful there is a roar in the air—water gouging its way through old moraines and rolling boulders along the bottom of the riverbeds. In some places a strand of the flood may be only ten feet wide and one foot deep; in others it is too deep to ford. I consider hiking upstream a few miles and scouting a different crossing. But that will take too long. The bush pilot is arriving in an hour. Besides, I know this route; I crossed here at 5 this morning. It has been a hot day in southeast Alaska, though, and meltwater has been gushing off the glaciers all afternoon.

I step into the water, facing upstream, the toes of my boots pointing into the current like salmon. I shuffle sideways with small steps. I’m hoping the streambed won’t drop and the water won’t rise. Then it does. When the river reaches my waist, I realize I’m in trouble. My trekking pole can’t penetrate the surging current. I’m only 15 feet from the far bank when the freezing water rises to my chest and sweeps me away. I flounder desperately, weighed down by my pack, trying to swim. The pole is ripped out of my hand and I’m frantically clawing and being rushed downstream. In a weird moment of clarity I realize I could drown, and what an absurd death it would be. I don’t know how I keep hold of the ice ax, but I manage to swing it wildly as my head is going under. The pick sinks into the sandy bank and I drag myself out of the river on my hands and knees, coughing up gritty brown water.

I’d come here to Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve to experience its spectacular environment, a vast mountainous terrain dominated by glaciers and riven with furious meltwater. I’d heard that the whole landscape was being profoundly altered by warming temperatures and accelerated melting, but I thought the signs would be more subtle. I didn’t expect to be knocked off my feet and nearly drowned by climate change.

Ecological anxieties aside, there is no other place like Wrangell-St. Elias. The largest national park in the United States, it encompasses 13.2 million acres, an area larger than Yosemite and Yellowstone and all of Switzerland combined. It is remote and not much visited. While Yellowstone gets four million visitors a year, Wrangell-St. Elias last year saw just 70,000, not enough to fill the University of Nebraska football stadium. The wildness is unparalleled. There are some 3,000 glaciers in the park covering more than 7,000 square miles. The Bering Glacier is the nation’s largest. The Malaspina Glacier, the largest piedmont glacier in North America, is larger than Rhode Island. The Bagley Icefield is the largest sheet of ice in the Northern Hemisphere outside the pole.

A huge wilderness park of mountains and glaciers in Alaska (Map by LaTigre)

It’s an astonishing world of ice many thousands of years old, and nobody knows it better than the residents of McCarthy, the fabled bush town deep inside the park. McCarthy is at the end of a road, but you can’t get there by car. After a seven-hour drive from Anchorage, the last 64 miles on shock-destroying washboard, you arrive at a parking lot on the west side of the Kennicott River. The river is deep, fast and about 100 feet wide. Twenty years ago you crossed the river by sitting in a basket and pulling yourself along a mining cable suspended over the raging water. When the cable became too old and sketchy, McCarthy’s 250 or so summer residents, revealing their independent spirit and Alaskan pride, voted against building an automobile bridge. Instead, they erected a footbridge (which is just wide enough for an all-terrain vehicle).

McCarthy has one short main street, all mud, bounded on both ends by bars-cum-restaurants, the Potato and the Golden Saloon. At 61 degrees north latitude, just 5 degrees south of the Arctic Circle, the summer sun in McCarthy hardly sets—it just swirls continuously around the 360-degree horizon, dropping behind the pines between 2 and 4 a.m. Nobody sleeps in the summer. I saw children playing the fiddle at 1 a.m. in the Golden Saloon. People were wandering the one muddy street in broad daylight at 4 in the morning. There was a sign for ATVs nailed to a tree on the main street that read, Slow Please, Free Range Kids and Dogs.

Not long after I arrived, in early July, Kelly Glascott, a lanky, easygoing 24-year-old who works for St. Elias Alpine Guides, invited me to go ice climbing on the Root Glacier with his clients. After a shuttle ride and an hour walk over the rounded white hills of the glacier, we reached a steep wave of ice. The clients all learned the basic crampon and ice-ax techniques and eventually scratched their way up the face. Afterward, Glascott said he had something special to show me. We hiked for 20 minutes before coming upon a giant hole in the glacier, a moulin (pronounced moo-lan, French for “mill”).

“We call it the LeBron Moulin,” Glascott, said, making it rhyme.

A moulin is a nearly vertical shaft formed by meltwater running in a small clear river atop the glacier, disappearing into a crevasse and burrowing a hole straight down to the bottom. The warmer the summer, the more water in the supraglacial rivers, and the bigger the moulins.

“There are moulins all over the glacier every year,” Glascott said.

The mouth of the LeBron Moulin is circular, 20 feet in diameter, with a waterfall on one side. As I peered down into the shaft, Glascott asked me if I’d like to drop into it.

Rigging up several ice screws, he lowered me 200 feet into the hole, so deep I was getting soaked by the ice water pouring down from above. I was in the throat of the beast and felt as if I was about to be swallowed. If we’d had enough rope, I could have been lowered hundreds of feet more, to the glacier’s bedrock bottom. Swinging tools, kicking my crampons, I climbed up and out of the ribbed gullet of blue ice.

Ice climbing inside moulins is a rare and beautiful experience anywhere in the world—in decades of climbing, I’d only done it once before, in Iceland—but it’s a common activity for St. Elias guides, which is what attracts many of them, like Glascott, who is from New York’s Adirondacks.

“I’ve never been anywhere where people have such a deliberate lifestyle,” Glascott said as we ambled back off the glacier. “Everybody in McCarthy chose to be here. The guides, the bush pilots, the park personnel, the other locals—we all love this place.”

People who live here are not your ordinary Americans. They have no fear of bears or moose or moulins, but are terrified of 9-to-5 in a cubicle. They’re free-range humans, eccentric, anarchic, do-it-yourselfers. They gaily refer to themselves as end-of-the-roaders.

Mark Vail—60, bushy white beard, sunburn-red face, wool beret—came here in 1977, caught 35 pounds of king salmon dip-netting, and decided this was the place for him. In 1983, he bought five acres of mosquito-thick spruce sight unseen. “But then I needed to make a grubstake, so I worked as a cook up on the North Slope, base camps and remote lodges.” Vail built his dry cabin—no running water—in 1987 and began living off the land. “Was a challenge to grow anything with only 26 frost-free days a year. Luckily, one fall I canned six cases of moose meat. I lived on less than $2,500 a year for 20 years,” he boasts.

Today Vail barters garden produce such as kale, lettuce, mustard, broccoli, cauliflower and zucchini with the Potato for food. He also works as a naturalist, and told me he’d seen the park change dramatically in the past quarter-century.

“Bottom line, the glacial rivers are growing and the glaciers are retreating and diminishing,” Vail said. “The Kennicott Glacier has retreated over half a mile since I first came here. Ablation has shrunk the height of the glacier by hundreds of feet in the last century.”

That change was made manifest to me when I climbed up inside the historic 14-story copper mill in the nearby town of Kennecott. In century-old photographs, the Kennicott Glacier looms over the great wooden mill structure like an enormous whale. Today, from the mill you look down onto a shriveled glacier blanketed by stony debris.

Image by Nathaniel Wilder. Mark Vail, who has stayed in his cabin in Mc­Car­thy since 1987. “I lived on less than $2,500 a year for 20 years,” he says. (original image)

Image by Nathaniel Wilder. Glaciologist Michael Loso at the Kennicott Glacier (original image)

Image by Nathaniel Wilder. Townspeople parading for the Fourth of July (original image)

Image by Nathaniel Wilder. Guide Sarah Ebright, who winters in Montana (original image)

Image by Nathaniel Wilder. Backpackers head out for a four-day trek in the preserve section of the park. (original image)

Image by Nathaniel Wilder. A moose-hunting cabin awaits occupants in the park’s preserve, where sport-hunting is allowed. (original image)

Image by Nathaniel Wilder. Geophysicists and bush pilots Jack Holt and Chris Larsen stand on Larsen’s land in McCarthy. (original image)

Image by Nathaniel Wilder. Wrangell Mt. Air bush pilot Bill McKinney chats with the author, Mark Jenkins, on a glacial silt strip he uses for landing close to Iceberg Lake. (original image)


The Klondike Gold Rush of 1898 drew prospectors deep into the Wrangell-St.Elias region. But it would be copper, not gold, that panned out. In 1899, Chief Nicolai, of the Chitina Indians, agreed to show these white intruders an outcropping of copper-rich ore in exchange for food. A year later, a prospector by the name of “Tarantula” Jack Smith staked a claim to a steep valley above the Kennicott Glacier, saying, “I’ve got a mountain of copper up there. There’s so much of the stuff sticking out of the ground that it looks like a green sheep pasture in Ireland.” The size of the deposit was so immense, Smith declared it a “bonanza,” a name that stuck.

Construction of a railroad that would connect the Bonanza Mine (and the nearby Jumbo Mine) with the southern coast of Alaska began in 1906. It was a colossal undertaking, exemplary of the industrial vigor and expansionist vision of the early 20th century. “Give me enough dynamite and snoose and I’ll build a road to hell,” bragged Big Mike Heney, the head of the project. Employing over 6,000 men, after five years and $23.5 million (roughly $580 million in today’s money), Heney had carved a 196-mile railway through the mountains from the Alaskan port town of Cordova north to what was now called the Kennecott Mines (a sincere but misspelled tribute to the Smithsonian Institution naturalist Robert Kennicott, who died on an expedition to Alaska in 1866). Everything to build the Bonanza Mine, which is nearly 4,000 feet above Kennecott, was shipped from Seattle to Valdez and later Cordova, then hauled in by horse sleds and by railroad. A thick steel cable almost three miles long supported the trams filled with ore.

The mines, owned by titans of American industry Daniel Guggenheim and J.P. Morgan, paid off handsomely. A single train in 1915 carried out $345,050 worth of copper ore ($8.5 million today). Over the next two decades the Kennecott Mines, one of the richest deposits ever discovered at the time, produced 4.5 million tons of copper ore, worth $200 million (about $3.5 billion today). Among other things, the extracted copper produced wiring that helped electrify all of the lower 48. But the bonanza didn’t last. The price of copper dropped precipitously in the 1930s, and operations at the mine ceased in 1938. Kennecott suddenly became a ghost town.

Kennecott, which sits in the middle of Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve, was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1986. The National Park Service began stabilizing and restoring the significant buildings in 1998. The general store, the post office and the recreation hall have all been refurbished. The mine opening itself has been dynamited shut, but the immense wooden structures still stick out from the mountainside. The towering 14-story barn-red mill building is one of the tallest wooden structures in North America, and guiding companies provide tours of it. You can still almost feel the sweat and blood of man and beast that was required to build this mine.

At its zenith, 600 miners lived in this company town, eventually digging 70 miles of tunnels in the mountain above the mill. Paid $4.50 a day in 1910, with $1.25 taken out for room and board, most of the miners were from Scandinavia. Kennecott was “dry,” and the miners were not allowed to bring their families to the mining camp. Not surprisingly, another clapboard frontier town sprang up at the turnaround station five miles down the tracks—McCarthy. It had saloons, pool halls and an active red-light district.

Kennecott miners “lived without seeing the outside air from the first of November to the end of March,” recalled William Douglass, who grew up there. They were “captives of the company.” (Frederick C. Mears Papers / UAF - 1984-75-426 / Archives / University of Alaska Fairbanks)

McCarthy is still the place to go for a meal and a drink and some music, or to run into a world-class glaciologist who will tell harrowing stories of the fate of an overheated planet.


I met Michael Loso on the planked outdoor patio of the Potato. He was playing clawhammer banjo in a ragtag band and folks were dancing wildly, swinging each other in circles. A 49-year-old glaciologist, Loso is the park’s official physical scientist. A slight, scruffy-bearded former mountaineer, he told me the ominous story of Iceberg Lake, a feature 50 air miles southwest of McCarthy that is no longer there.

Iceberg Lake was on the edge of a western tributary of the Tana Glacier, but in 1999 the lake suddenly vanished. Dammed on its southern end by ice, the water, with persistently warming temperatures, had bored a hole under the ice and escaped through tunnels to emerge ten miles away and empty into the Tana River.

The sudden drainage of a glacier-dammed lake is not uncommon. “Some lakes in Wrangell-St. Elias regularly drain,” Loso said. Hidden Creek Lake, for instance, near McCarthy, drains every summer, pouring millions of gallons through channels in the Kennicott Glacier. The water gushes out the terminus of the Kennicott, causing the Kennicott River to flood, an event called a jokulhlaup—an Icelandic word for a glacial-lake outburst flood. “The Hidden Creek jokulhlaup is so reliable,” said Loso, “it has become one of the biggest parties in McCarthy.”

In summer, warming ice melt bores under the glacier that dams Hidden Creek Lake, draining the lake and stranding icebergs on the rocks. (Nathaniel Wilder)

But the disappearance of Iceberg Lake was different, and unexpected. It left an immense trench in the ground, the ghost of a lake, and it never filled up again. The roughly six-square-mile mudhole turned out to be a glaciological gold mine. The mud, in scientific terms, was laminated lacustrine sediment. Each layer represented one year of accumulation: coarse sands and silts, caused by high runoff during the summer months, sandwiched over fine-grained clay that settled during the long winter months when the lake was covered in ice. The mud laminations, called varves, look like tree rings. Using radiocarbon dating, Loso and his colleagues determined that Iceberg Lake existed continuously for over 1,500 years, from at least A.D. 442 to 1998.

“In the fifth century the planet was colder than it is today,” Loso said, “hence the summer melt was minimal and the varves were correspondingly thin.”

The varves were thicker during warmer periods, for instance from A.D. 1000 to 1250, which is called the Medieval Warming Period by climatologists. Between 1500 and 1850, during the little ice age, the varves were again thinner—less heat means less runoff and thus less lacustrine deposition.

“The varves at Iceberg Lake tell us a very important story,” Loso said. “They’re an archival record that proves there was no catastrophic lake drainage, no jokulhlaup, even during the Medieval Warming Period.” In a scientific paper about the disappearance of Iceberg Lake, Loso was even more emphatic: “Twentieth-century warming is more intense, and accompanied by more extensive glacier retreat, than the Medieval Warming Period or any other time in the last 1,500 years.”

Loso scratched his grizzled face. “When Iceberg Lake vanished, it was a big shock. It was a threshold event, not incremental, but sudden. That’s nature at a tipping point.”


I ran into Spencer Williamson—small, wiry, horn-rimmed glasses—in the Golden Saloon late one Thursday night. The place was packed. Williamson and a buddy were hosting an open-mike jam session. Williamson was pounding the cajón, a box drum from Peru, Loso was working the banjo in a blur of fingers, a couple of youths were ripping fiddles. Patt Garrett, 72, another end-of-the-roader—she sold everything she had in Anchorage to get a lopsided cabin on main street McCarthy—was being twirled around by a tall, bearded Irishman in pink tights and a tutu.

Image by Nathaniel Wilder. The Bagley Icefield is 127 miles long, six miles wide and 3,000 feet thick—so vast that early explorers didn’t realize it joined the even larger Bering Glacier. (original image)

Image by Nathaniel Wilder. At 127 miles long and six miles wide, Bagley Ice Field is the largest nonpolar ice field in the world and covers most of the St. Elias Mountains. (original image)

Image by Nathaniel Wilder. Mount St. Elias at center juts from the Bagley Icefield. The 18,000-foot peak is the second-highest in North America after 20,310-foot Denali. (original image)

Image by Nathaniel Wilder. Peaks of the Chugash Mountains in the southern portion of the park protrude from the Bagley Ice Field; a melt pond on Root Glacier. (original image)

“If you really want to see what’s happening to glaciers,” Loso had told me, “go pack-rafting with Spencer.”

During a break in the music, Williamson, an ebullient, hard-core kayaker, volunteered to take me boating first thing in the morning. Since it was already morning, we were soon walking through the woods with our inflated pack rafts bouncing on our heads.

“I’d guess there are more pack rafts per person in Mc-Carthy than any place in America,” Williamson said.

Weighing only about eight pounds, these ultralight, one-person rafts have completely changed the way adventurers explore all across Alaska, but particularly in Wrangell-St. Elias. Because there are few roads and hundreds of rivers, climbers and backpackers were once confined to small, discrete areas, hemmed in by enormous, unfordable waterways.

Today you can be dropped off with a pack raft, paddle across a river, deflate your boat, load it into your pack, cross a mountain range, climb a peak, then raft another river all the way out.

We dipped our Alpacka rafts into the cold blue Kennicott Glacier Lake. Wearing dry suits, we stretched our spray skirts over the coamings, dug in our kayak paddles and glided away from the forest.

“See that black wall of ice?” Williamson said, pointing his dripping paddle to the far side of the lake, “That’s where we’re going.”

We slid over the water, stroking in unison, moving surprisingly quickly. When I noted how easy this was compared with trying to traverse along the shore, Williamson laughed.

“You got it! Bushwhacking in Alaska is a special kind of misery. With a pack raft, you can just float across a lake or down a river rather than fighting the bushes and the bears.”

Williamson, 26, a guide for Kennicott Wilderness Guides, works May through September. He migrates south in the winter. This snowbird lifestyle is the standard in McCarthy. Mark Vail is one of only a few dozen hearty souls who actually winter over. The other 250 residents—some 50 of whom are guides—abscond from fall to spring, escaping to Anchorage or Arizona or Mexico or Thailand. But they return to tiny McCarthy every summer, like the rufous hummingbird that flies back from Latin America to the same Alaskan flower.

We glided right up beneath the black wall of ice. This was the toe of a 27-mile-long glacier. The big toe, as it turned out. We paddled around the peninsula up into a narrow channel. It was like a slot canyon in ice. Rocks melting off the surface of the glacier plunged 50 feet, splashing like little bombs all around us. Past this channel we paddled through a series of icebergs, moving deeper into the glacier until we entered the final cul-de-sac.

“We couldn’t go this deep just three days ago,” said Williamson excitedly. “The icebergs that blocked our way before have already melted! That’s how fast the ice is vanishing.”

Image by Nathaniel Wilder. Alaska’s Wrangell-St. Elias has four mountain ranges, 12 volcanoes, 3,000 glaciers and one town, which requires a seven-hour drive over some hard roads to reach. (original image)

Image by Nathaniel Wilder. Detail of one of the lobes (or fingers of ice) of the Tana Glacier near Iceberg Lake in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve. (original image)

Image by Nathaniel Wilder. Many of the park’s 70,000 annual visitors go there for the opportunity to ice-climb on glaciers like the accessible Root Glacier. (original image)

Image by Nathaniel Wilder. Iceberg Lake had been a glacially dammed lake. When the dam broke in 1998, the lake vanished, leaving behind a six-square-mile mudhole. (original image)

Image by Nathaniel Wilder. The Erie Mine tram clings to a slope above Root Glacier with the Stairway Icefall in the distance. The tram brought miners up and ore down. (original image)

He spotted a hole in the headwall and we paddled over to it, passed through a thin curtain of ceaseless dripping, and entered a low-ceilinged, blue ice cave. I reached up and touched the scalloped ceiling with my bare hands. It felt like cold, wet glass. This ice is thousands of years old. It fell as snow high on 16,390-foot Mount Blackburn, was compressed into ice by the weight of the snow that fell on top of it, and then began slowly bulldozing its way downhill.

We sat quietly in our boats inside the dark ice cave and stared out at the bright world through the line of dripping glacier water. The glacier was melting right before our eyes.

Williamson said, “We are seeing geological time sped up so fast it can be witnessed in human time.”


Wrangell-St. Elias is not like any park in the lower 48 because it is not static. El Capitan in Yosemite will be El Cap for a thousand years. The big ditch of the Grand Canyon won’t look a bit different in A.D. 3000. Barring some tectonic catastrophe, Yellowstone will be burbling along for centuries. But Wrangell-St. Elias, because it is a landscape of moving, melting glaciers, is morphing every minute. It will be a different park ten years from now.

According to a recent scientific report, between 1962 and 2006, glaciers melting in Alaska lost more than 440 cubic miles of water—nearly four times the volume of Lake Erie. “Ice shelves breaking off in Antarctica get a lot of press,” says Robert Anderson, a geologist at the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research at the University of Colorado, “but these melting Alaskan glaciers matter.” Anderson has been studying glaciers in Wrangell-St. Elias for two decades. “What is rarely recognized is that surface glaciers, like those in Alaska, are probably contributing almost 50 percent of the water to sea-level rise.” NASA reports that the current sea-level rise is 3.4 millimeters a year, and increasing.

“One of the most startling, and devastating, consequences of this rapid melting of the ice was the Icy Bay landslide,” says Anderson.

The Tyndall Glacier, on the southern coast of Alaska, has been retreating so quickly that it is leaving behind steep, unsupported walls of rock and dirt. On October 17, 2015, the largest landslide in North America in 38 years crashed down in the Taan Fjord. The landslide was so enormous it was detected by seismologists at Columbia University in New York. Over 200 million tons of rock slid into the Taan Fjord in about 60 seconds. This, in turn, created a tsunami that was initially 630 feet high and roared down the fjord, obliterating virtually everything in its path even as it diminished to some 50 feet after ten miles.

“Alder trees 500 feet up the hillsides were ripped away,” Anderson says. “Glacial ice is buttressing the mountainsides in Alaska, and when this ice retreats, there is a good chance for catastrophic landslides.” In other ranges, such as the Alps and the Himalaya, he says, the melting of “ground ice,” which sort of glues rock masses to mountainsides, can release enormous landslides into populated valleys, with devastating consequences.

“For most humans, climate change is an abstraction,” Loso says when I meet him in his office, which is down a long, dark, heavily beamed mine building in Kennecott. “It’s moving so slowly as to be basically imperceptible. But not here! Here glaciers tell the story. They’re like the world’s giant, centuries-old thermometers.”


Before leaving Wrangell-St. Elias, on my last night in McCarthy, I am in the Potato, typing up notes, when someone runs in shouting, “The river’s rising!”

This can portend only one event: the Hidden Creek Lake jokulhlaup. Dammed by a wall of ice ten miles up the Kennicott Glacier, Hidden Creek Lake has once again bored beneath the glacier and is draining.

The whole town goes out to the walking bridge. Sure enough, the river is raging, a full five feet higher than just a few hours earlier. It’s a party, a celebration, like Christmas or Halloween. The bridge is packed with revelers hooting and toasting this most dynamic of glacial events. A guide named Paige Bedwell gives me a hug and hands me a beer. “Happy Jokulhlaup!”