This story, published on April 13, 2005, won the Associated Press Managing Editors first place award for science writing in 2005.
A prospector stumbled on another kind of gold on BLM land decades ago a site containing hundreds of dinosaur bones
By Sue Vorenberg
Rod Peterson wasn't looking for dinosaur bones as a prospector back in the 1950s. He was looking for uranium ore.
But when Peterson went to an area suspected of being rich in the atomic era's version of gold, he didn't find much of the radioactive substance. Instead he found what would become the biggest dinosaur bone site in New Mexico - the Peterson Quarry.
The quarry, on an isolated patch of Bureau of Land Management property west of Albuquerque, has become a major dinosaur center for the state, supplying a number of key fossils and scientific information to the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science. To protect the site, the bureau and the Petersons won't reveal its precise location.
"Back then, the Atomic Energy Agency did all these flyovers and encouraged prospectors to go out and look for uranium in the boonies," said Peterson, 77. "I went out there with my Geiger counter, and in a pretty remote area that wasn't particularly hot, I stumbled across all these exposed dinosaur bones." Peterson didn't think all that much of it at the time. Roaming the state as a prospector, he had seen lots of fossilized animal bones. But as the years rolled on, he started bringing his son, Ron, to the site on hiking trips. As they explored more, they realized they had a major find on their hands, the two said.
Still, that didn't lead to much of a reception.
When the Petersons told scientists around the state in the mid-1960s they had found a major bone bed, they were met with a sort of casual indifference, they said.
Bones of Jurassic plant eaters are a staple of the site and pretty common throughout the Southwest. So when the two started telling people about their finds, the reaction was, "Yeah, it's a Jurassic dinosaur bone; big deal," said Ron Peterson, 58.
"We couldn't get anyone interested," he said. "We told the University of New Mexico about it, and they didn't care, and until the mid-'80s there was no natural history museum here. So we just kept hiking out there and hoping eventually somebody would care."
That changed after the museum opened in 1986. The Petersons brought a visitor to the area, hoping he'd be interested. That visitor, Dave Gilette, was the first paleontology curator at the museum.
They showed him three exposed backbone vertebrae from a plant-eating dinosaur, and he told them he thought the site merited more than just passing interest, Ron Peterson said.
Gilette soon moved on to another job, but he passed the tip to his successor, Spencer Lucas, who decided to check out the place for himself.
"They were collecting small bones out of this little arroyo," said Adrian Hunt, museum director, who was a doctoral student of Lucas at the time. "Spencer and I went out there and saw part of a skull of a camarasaurus, and skulls are very rare. We wanted to collect it, but we didn't have a permit. We got one and came back the next year, but it had washed away."
Bones from the skull or possibly two skulls were sticking out of a small waterfall and were likely destroyed during monsoon season, Rod Peterson said.
"It was sad that we lost those," he said. "But this whole area is probably underlaid with bones. The more we dig, the more we find. I think there's probably a lot more interesting stuff still under the soil."
After the museum finished its permit, the road was clear for volunteers to start digging bones, and in the past 15 years they have found hundreds from a variety of dinosaurs, said Ron Peterson, who has supervised all the digs.
"When we're digging in the quarry, we never know what we're going to find," he said. "It's kind of like Christmas when you find a new fossil."
The biggest present at the quarry was discovered in 1993 bones from a saurophaganax, a rare meat-eating dinosaur that looks a bit like a T. rex or allosaurus.
"It's the biggest, newest, most remarkable specimen from the quarry so far," said Andy Heckert, the museum's geoscience collections manager. "It's only the second saurophaganax ever found. People have misconceptions that we have lots of these things, but we don't. Finding them is a really big deal."
The other saurophaganax sample was found in Oklahoma near the New Mexico border, Heckert said.
"We found this large limb bone out there first, and we brought Spencer out," Ron Peterson said. "He identified it right away as a theropod a meat eater and we were all very excited."
Saurophaganax, nicknamed Snax by museum staff, is a central part of the museum's Jurassic Hall. Visitors can see him attacking another New Mexico Jurassic giant seismosaurus a plant eater found at another site in the state, Lucas said.
Volunteers also found a rare Jurassic turtle called the glyptops preserved at the quarry. It, too, is on display at the museum in the entry hall. And they have found scattered remains of other camarasaurus and diplodocus plant-eating dinosaurs, and a few scattered teeth from other unidentified dinosaurs, Lucas said.
"People are going to be digging out there for the next 50 years at least," Lucas said. "The site has already had a significant impact on the museum and given us lots of fossils to put on display.
"I think there's a lot more out there. There could be mammals; there could be crocodiles. We even have a tooth from another meat-eating dinosaur that we haven't found yet."
The Petersons have been visiting the site about once a month since the museum got its permit from the BLM, but they refuse to take all the credit for finds there. It's groups of volunteers from the museum that get that honor, they say.
"It wasn't just me or my dad," Ron Peterson said. "Our crew finds most everything there volunteers that are out there digging."
The BLM joined forces with the museum in 1993 and has helped it collect samples from across the state, including the Peterson Quarry. As part of that, it removed a large amount of topsoil from one area at the quarry so volunteers could get easier access to the bones, said Pat Hester, the agency's regional paleontologist.
"We want to fix it so they can work for another 50 years if they want to," Hester said. "We've helped them backhoe off some of the topsoil and divert drainage from damaging the fossils. My goal is to make this a real natural research area."
Walking through the site, Ron Peterson can pick out several samples that have yet to be uncovered. Their black outlines are easy to spot on the walls of the arroyo that runs through the quarry.
One a thin black outline in an area that will be hard to excavate without BLM's help is probably a stegosaurus, Lucas said.
"The Peterson Quarry is really a pivotal element in all our Jurassic dinosaur exhibits," Lucas said. "It's a very important site found by somebody who's not a professional paleontologist. "It just shows that the public can really make an important contribution to this science."
This story, published on January 24, 2009, looks at the Santa Fe Complex, a facility that merges complexity theory, science and art.
By Sue Vorenberg
In some ways, you can think of the Santa Fe Complex as an ant farm.
On any given day, some of the ants -- well, people, with their varied specialties in computers, arts or science -- will group together and find interesting ways to make the anthill larger or more efficient.
Other times, individuals ants will forage for their own sustenance, completing daily work with their ears open for calls for help from their comrades.
But if you look at it from afar, a bigger organism emerges, one that's an example of complexity theory in action, said Don Bagley, one of its founders.
"Complex systems generally mean that there are many actors working in an environment -- like an ant colony or beehive with queens, workers, drones and whatnot, " Bagley said. "The colony itself is an organism, but everyone within it operates with their own task in mind. And in a way, that's something we're creating with people here."
The Complex, at 632 Agua Fría St., opened in June in some ways as an experiment using complexity to grow the economic and creative forces in Santa Fe.
The facility is part livingroom and part cybercafe, with a little office space thrown in for good measure. The goal is to bring people from a vast array of backgrounds together to form projects, and perhaps even spur some new start-up companies for the City Different.
"We're trying to make a hive to give people from a lot of different backgrounds a place to work together -- and make a whole that's greater than the sum of its parts, " Bagley said.
The city of Santa Fe supported the idea at start-up, providing $29,000 in match funds to help the ball get rolling. The matching funds were donated by users of the site, Bagley said.
"We've found huge popular support in Santa Fe, and it's continuously growing, " Bagley added proudly.
In December, the city gave a grant of $165,000 a year over three years to keep the site going, which has been a godsend in the poor economy, Bagley added.
"It gives us the revenue we need to cover our basic operating expenses, but so far, nobody's getting a salary, " he said.
Still, if the site grows some new businesses, it could certainly pay off for Santa Fe.
And the complex is working on educational programs and internships for local high-school students that could help train new workers that technology companies are looking for, Bagley said.
The idea of making such a strange site grew out of the dot-com sector. Many Santa Fe technologists work out of their own homes, and the thought was to give them a place to go, get together and spawn new ideas, Bagley said.
"We call it a project space, " Bagley said. "A project could become a business that goes to the Santa Fe (Business) Incubator. But as a project space we try to create a community of people who can work together in different situations."
People from all walks of the City Different are welcome to join, he added.
It costs $100 a month for a "laptop member" to hang out in the main room and use the Complex's wireless network. For $400 a month, users get their own desk in a more private studio. And when projects grow, there's space for that as well, in another building. The complex asks for a 20 percent donation from projects that grow through use of that space, all as a means to support the nonprofit.
On a Wednesday afternoon in January, a group casually came together in the corner. Bagley looked over, noting the informal meeting had brought together a computer programmer, an expert in printer interfaces and a psychologist, among others.
At other times, dancers and artists have descended on the facility.
And sometimes, new creations are spawned by the complex's eclectic members.
In the back of the main site, a Wii video game remote, a Web camera and a video projector hang from the ceiling, attached to a computer and hovering over a sandbox.
While the device appears a bit Rube Goldberg-esque, it's actually a clever little invention that could help the city's emergency planners during fire season, Bagley said.
The projector and computer beam an image onto the sandbox, and people can gather around the sandbox and turn it into a topographic map of the city by dragging and smoothing the sand.
In case of a fire, you could literally light a lighter in part of the sandbox -- at an origin point -- program the wind speed and other factors into the computer, and watch where the fire will go, Bagley said.
"What this does is move the computer out of the central focus, and lets you take a hands-on approach to managing the data, " Bagley said. "One thing I think about computers is that we're too focused on what's under the hood, and we need to get away from that."
The device cost about $1,500 and could be used for a variety of other purposes, he added.
While the Santa Fe Complex is still a fairly young facility, it's something that scientists at the more well-known Santa Fe Institute find fascinating.
Chris Wood, vice president of SFI and a board member for the complex, said he's curious to see what will evolve from the site.
"The opportunity to translate the creative ideas that arise in Santa Fe arts and science is an important opportunity for the city, " Wood said. "What the Complex is trying to do is take many of the lessons learned from basic complexity science and apply them in the world -- through the world of business or economy or other areas."
Eventually, he could see somebody from SFI doing a study on the Complex and how members work through it creating complex systems, he said.
"In our view, they're quite complementary to us, " Wood said. "I could certainly see somebody interested in organizational development make a good study out of them."
This story, published April 25, 2008, looks at an innovative program designed to get junior high school kids interested in science
By Sue Vorenberg
The Santa Fe New Mexican
LOS ALAMOS -- Throngs of Santa Fe middle schoolers poured through the Bradbury Science Museum looking a bit like water trying to overtop a large, complicated dam.
They trickled into corners, playing with interactive exhibits about computers, physics and the history of Los Alamos National Laboratory, then crowded around Gordon McDonough, museum educator, to watch a demonstration about radiation.
Only slowly, watching the 80-or-so kids from the Growing Up Thinking Scientifically program as they pondered the scientific coolness of everything around them, did it become apparent that this was no ordinary group on a field trip.
"How many pits will the lab make a year?" one asked McDonough, referring to the explosive cores of nuclear bombs made by Los Alamos.
"Why does the lab make those here?" another asked.
McDonough, drawn into an in-depth conversation with the 6th-to-8th graders about how the Department of Energy is transforming the nuclear weapons complex, smiled in amusement as he answered.
"This is Santa Fe, and Santa Fe kids just have a very different outlook, " McDonough later said, adding that he grew up in Santa Fe. "There were some very interesting questions also about accidents that happen here. I explained we're not unlike any other place that employs lots of people, and accidents sometimes happen because of that."
The trip to Los Alamos on Monday was a culmination of the GUTS program, founded last year as a way to expose Santa Fe kids to science, computers and critical thinking.
Kids in the program meet after school and study a range of topics, such as how epidemics spread, how ecosystems work and the complex planning involved in evacuating a town or building during an emergency, said Nick Bennett, a part-time science teacher and computer consultant who volunteers for the program, which is in part sponsored by the Santa Fe Institute.
"The kids will, through various kinds of explorations, learn to see the world in a different way, " Bennett said. "We go on field trips, we make computer models, we also do projects and make presentations."
The groups are organized around school semesters, with an intensified summer program that runs from June 9-20.
One goal is to make the program a feeder for the Adventures in Supercomputing Challenge, a yearlong program for high-school kids, who make teams and work on projects that use a supercomputer, Bennett said.
Those teams -- which presented their final projects on Monday and Tuesday -- compete for scholarships and prizes, and many former participants even end up working at the national laboratories or going on to other prominent scientific jobs.
"That's the direction we want to take these kids in, " Bennett said.
And that's the direction a majority of the kids already appear to be heading.
Mercedes Downing, a 14-year-old 8th grader at Capshaw Middle School, said she feels lucky to have been in GUTS. She's getting excited about the Supercomputing Challenge next year, and even has her next project figured out -- it will be a detailed ecosystem model, she said.
"This year in GUTS I learned how to incorporate ecosystems with computer programming, and I'm getting much better at programming, " she said. "For the Supercomputing Challenge next year I want to improve on that, looking at toxic waste. The model will look at how if toxic waste has been introduced in the environment, how does the environment change,
how does it affect different species and how does it affect the food cycle."
Another 14-year-old 8th grader at Capshaw, Jeff Sward, said he might do the Supercomputing Challenge next year, but added that really what he's most interested in is learning how nuclear power plants work.
"I kinda joined GUTS because it was an extra science thing, and my science classes weren't challenging me enough, " he said. "This program does. And I want to do more next year. I'd like to get more into nuclear power and other aspects of science."
After they graduate from Santa Fe High School, the two said they'd like to go on to some sort of careers in science.
In the meantime, though, they said they hope more people in the community will help GUTS, so it can help other kids like them.
"This is a very important program that teaches us things we really need to know, " Mercedes said. "We are the future and this helps us. I'd also like to say to anybody who reads this article -- if you could donate money, that would be awesome."
Those interested in the program for their kids or as volunteers should call the Santa Fe Institute at 984-8800.
Contact Sue Vorenberg at 986-3072 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
GUTS AT A GLANCE
WHAT: Growing Up Thinking Scientifically, a program sponsored in part by the Santa Fe Institute. Kids study a range of topics such as how epidemics spread, how ecosystems work and the complex planning involved in evacuating a town or building during an emergency
WHO: For middle-school students
WHEN: Kids in the program meet after school
WHAT THEY SAY: "I kinda joined GUTS because it was an extra science thing, and my science classes weren't challenging me enough. This program does." Jeff Sward, 14, Capshaw Middle School
FOR MORE INFORMATION: Call 984-8800
This story, published Feb. 1, 2007, looks at a study on how the smell of food could be related to weight gain
Just a whiff of food may reduce life span
By Sue Vorenberg
The smell of beef brisket simmering in green chile sauce, pizza baking in a brick oven or cheese burgers frying on an open grill could be shortening your life span.
Granted, it’s a long way from fruit flies to human biology, but a study published today in the journal Science Express indicates that even the smell of food can reduce the life span of creatures on reduced calorie diets.
“It’s weird,” said Wayne Van Voorhies, a researcher at New Mexico State University who worked on the project. “It’s unexpected.”
Since the 1930s, scientists have been gathering evidence that reducing the amount of food a creature eats can extend its life span by 30 percent or more, he said.
“That’s been the one method that seems to work along a wide array of organisms for extending life span,” Van Voorhies said. “That’s from fruit flies to mice to monkeys.”
In those studies, scientists figured out how much a creature wanted to eat naturally, then reduced its intake by about 40 percent, he said.
In the new study, researchers at NMSU, Baylor College of Medicine and the University of Houston took fruit flies on restricted diets and exposed them to the smell of food — in the form of a not-so-succulent sounding yeast paste.
Surprisingly, just smelling the paste shortened their expanded life spans, even though they didn’t eat that food, Van Voorhies said.
“So the fly senses its environment, and, if it senses the food, it abolishes most of that benefit in longevity,” Van Voorhies said.
The smells didn’t completely undo the benefits, but they did greatly reduce them, said Baylor graduate student Sergiy Libert, who is the lead author on the study.
Fruit flies generally live about 60 days. Those on the restricted diet that didn’t smell food lived longer than 80 days, Libert said.
“But if they smelled the food, the life span goes back to about 70 days, which is still some benefit,” Libert said. Scientists also tested the reaction on a species of fruit fly that had no sense of smell. Those flies had the full benefit of their restricted diet.
The hypothesis for why reduced calorie diets make creatures live longer is that when cells process food, they release toxic byproducts called oxidants, Van Voorhies explained.
Those oxidants can take their toll on the body, perhaps reducing life span. So decreasing the amount of food the body has to process may create less oxidants and extend the life span, he said.
“What they would like to do by using animal studies in the lab is understand what the mechanism is for why caloric restriction increases longevity,” Van Voorhies said. “Then you have a pill so you can sort of have your cake and eat it.”
Why the sense of smell would change that is still a bit of a mystery, Van Voorhies and Libert agreed. “By providing them the smell of each food, even though they can’t eat it, their metabolism might change and assume there’s lots of food,” Libert said. “They just can’t get ahold of it.”
The smell of food might also trigger some sort of cellular reaction — similar to dogs salivating at the smell of food — that produces oxidants, Van Voorhies said.
“It’s not clear what’s going on,” Van Voorhies said. “What this really is an intriguing observation that needs to be followed up on.”
The next step, Libert said, will be to investigate how the smell of food affects mice on reduced calorie diets. That work hasn’t yet started, he said.
So how does any of this transfer into advice for longer-lived humans?
“Half the population of the United States is overweight, so they’d be better off eating a normal amount of food rather than a restricted diet,” Van Voorhies said. “Don’t eat too much and get some exercise. That is not going to hurt anyone.”
Cutting your calorie intake back by 40 percent isn’t really a great idea — it’s hard to do and it’s just not fun, he said. It’s also too early to worry about the life-span-reducing consequences of smelling your co-workers’ lasagna cooking in the company microwave, Van Voorhies said.
“It doesn’t mean if you walk around with your nose plugged up you’ll live any longer,” he said. “I wouldn’t worry about it.”
This story, published Sept. 26, 2006, looks at Los Alamos' study of dark energy
Los Alamos National Laboratory is working on a mission to study the enigmatic force that is dark energy
By Sue Vorenberg
“Stuff” isn’t a very scientific word, but its use grows common when scientists try to describe dark energy — an unseen force pushing all the bodies in the universe apart at ever-faster speeds.
Considering dark energy could one day tear the entire universe apart, the scientific community would like to understand that “stuff” better, said Tom Vestrand, a scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory.
Last month, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration selected the lab to be part of a team competing to develop a mission that would study the enigmatic force.
“We can’t see this mysterious stuff — that’s why we call it dark energy,” Vestrand said. “There’s all kinds of thoughts about it, but nobody really understands what it is.”
The team’s proposal, called Destiny, will vie against two other groups. NASA is expected to select a winner in late 2008, with the earliest launch date in 2013, said Tod Lauer, an associate astronomer at the National Optical Astronomy Observatory in Tucson.
Should Destiny win, NASA would supply its $600 million budget.
“The thing we need to do is get a history of how the universe expanded very, very precisely, and what dark energy had to do with that,” said Lauer, who is leading the Destiny team. “Destiny will give precise measurements as to how that happened.”
Scientists first realized something was wrong with their models of the universe in 1998, Vestrand said.
Computer models at that time predicted a slow, steady expansion of the universe spreading out from a central point, as part of the big-bang theory.
But observations of ancient supernovae — which were further away than they were supposed to be — suggested the objects in the universe were moving apart at a much faster rate, Vestrand said.
“There was something wrong with the models,” he said. “From the observations, there was something that caused the galaxies to move apart faster than it would without this negative pressure.”
The explanation? Dark matter, which is different than dark energy, Vestrand explained.
Dark matter holds things together, while dark energy pushes them apart.
“We know dark matter is there because if you look at galaxies and calculate how much gravity you need to keep them together, you can only account for a fraction of that through visible things,” Vestrand said.
Dark matter has been studied for decades. But to understand dark energy, scientists need to look at more supernovae and see how fast they are all moving away from one another, he said.
Destiny will look at about 3,000 of them with a Hummer-sized telescope and camera, trying to gather more data on the enigmatic dark energy, Vestrand said.
So far, the dark “stuff” has altered models of the universe and drawn a very strange picture of its evolution.
In the first 6 billion or 7 billion years, galaxies expanded away from one another slowly because gravity pulled things together and tried to keep them in place, Vestrand said.
But about 5 billion years ago, galaxies got far enough apart that gravity couldn’t hang on as well, he said.
And then the mysterious “stuff” took over and gave all the galaxies an extra shove away from one another, like a dad pushing his kid on his first bike.
Never-ending expansion doesn’t bode well for the continued existence of life. While it won’t happen for billions of years, the continued expansion could mean that everything will get extremely cold, as stars burn out and everything — eventually even planets — drifts away from everything else, Vestrand said.
“The idea is the universe will stop in a big rip, where everything starts to tear itself apart,” Vestrand said. “In this idea, everything, including galaxies, solar systems and planets will separate and pull apart.”
So how much longer does the universe have? That’s something the mission will hopefully teach scientists, Vestrand said.
“About 96 percent of the universe is made up of stuff we don’t understand,” Vestrand said. “What this mission will tell us is we’ll really be able to measure this dark energy and tell things about it with high precision.”
This story, published Aug. 5, 2006, profiles the study of lightning by young scientists at Lagmuir Laboratory near Socorro, N.M.
Under their professor’s tutelage, young scientists from New Mexico Tech try to glean lightning’s secrets
By Sue Vorenberg
SOCORRO — The sky rumbles somewhere beneath the dense waves of fog passing over South Baldy Peak in the Magdalena Mountains south of Albuquerque.
There’s no flash, and the noise isn’t very loud, but it’s enough to make Will Walden-Newman, a 22-year-old graduate student at New Mexico Tech, run excitedly back and forth from inside a protective hangar to check instruments dotting the landscape outside.
“Will believes in lightning,” says Richard Sonnenfeld, his professor, with an amused twinkle in his eye.
Sonnenfeld, also a scientist at Langmuir Laboratory, pays Walden-Newman a dollar every time he correctly predicts a lightning storm. Today will be another payday, Walden-Newman thinks.
“I like this job — it’s exciting,” Walden-Newman says. “I’ve been able to learn a lot.”
The lab, operated by Tech, is one of a handful in the country that studies lightning. Research at the 50-year-old institution has led to strategies to protect people and buildings from lightning strikes, Sonnenfeld said.
The work also helps scientists better understand the dynamics of thunderstorms, tornadoes and hail. “Lightning, tornadoes and hail all work together — so if we can understand more about one of those processes, we can understand more about the others,” Sonnenfeld said.
Before the monsoons hit in early July, Sonnenfeld was worried the drought would give him little data to study this year. Recent rainfall changed that: July alone (3.55 inches) was the wettest in Albuquerque since record-keeping began in 1931.
Now, 2006 is looking like a scientific bounty, he said. The threat of getting hit doesn’t bother the young scientist or the three other Tech students working with him in the hangar, which Tech got as surplus Army equipment. They walk outside on high ground as ominous clouds pass by.
“You get to run outside when it’s dangerous,” says Jayson Barr, a 20-year-old junior. “I might be afraid of getting hit if I heard a loud bang, but of course, by then it would be too late.”
Gone in a flash
Almost every rainy day in July and August, Sonnenfeld and his students ride a rusty old university truck to the mountaintop west of Socorro, hoping to fish secrets of lightning out of the sky. If they find a good storm, they launch a balloon with a 6-pound capsule that holds a computer, sensors, a transmitter and other instruments.
The capsule — attached to a balloon and parachute by fishing wire — takes data about charged particles inside the cloud, the air temperature and pressure, and a host of other things the group will analyze during the nonstormy rest of the year.
To figure out which cloud might be a candidate for lightning, scientists at Langmuir use several instruments on the ground and a bit of eyeballing. As Walden-Newman notices a black cloud approaching, he and Barr check an instrument to see the changing electrical charge on the ground. The more that charge alternates between positive and negative, the more likely a lightning strike will follow, Barr explains.
Barr gets excited as rain starts to thump on the roof of the metal hangar, and the instrument begins to cycle wildly between positive and negative charges. They rush to get the balloon ready.
And then there was light
The basic processes of lightning are understood, but there are mysteries about the inner workings of lightning and the thunderstorms that hold them.
“We still don’t really know how it starts,” Sonnenfeld said.
The most common explanation is that particles of ice inside a cloud develop different electrical charges as they hit one another, perhaps because some of the ice turns to water in the collision, he said.
Then, wind beneath the cloud — especially next to mountains — separates the charges, polarizing the cloud into negative at the bottom and positive at the top.
“You’re basically building up a battery,” Sonnenfeld said. As the process continues, positive charges develop on the ground and rise through taller objects like trees and telephone poles — or a person’s head — moving toward the charged cloud.
The negative part of the cloud then sends out an invisible electric hand toward the ground called a stepped leader, which seeks out the closest positive charge coming up from the ground.
When it finds it — zap! — a series of lightning strokes moves through the channel and removes some of the cloud’s charge.
Why lightning starts from any particular part of the cloud remains unknown, Sonnenfeld said.
Also, nobody knows details about how the series of strokes moves through the initial leader channel. That’s what Sonnenfeld and his students are trying to find out with their balloon launches.
Running in the rain
As loud drops rattle the metal hangar, Walden-Newman and Barr wander back and forth in the rain making sure the balloon is properly filled and the instruments are ready to go.
Last time, lightning struck the ground close to where they worked. This time, it seems wetter, and unfortunately a bit calmer, Walden-Newman said. “When a storm’s active, you have to go out,” Walden-Newman says. “We can go out, and there’s lightning all around us and it’s kind of scary.”
One time, a bolt hit only a few feet away from where he was working. It didn’t hurt him, Walden-Newman said.
“From what I’ve seen, it can strike close, but it has to be really strong to hurt you,” he said. “The chances are really low.” Barr says he knows how to avoid getting hit by lightning.
“We try to take every precaution we can,” he says. “The ideal place to be is in a car or a metal building like this hangar. You don’t want to stand under trees. Really, you just need to get inside.”
He notes that electricity follows along the surface of metal objects. So if the hangar was struck, the insides would be OK as the charge moved into the ground.
When a storm’s brewing, Barr says he’s more concerned about the equipment. “I’m mostly thinking, ‘Don’t drop the device; don’t drop the device,’ ” Barr said.
A close call
The storm continues to pass overhead, and the shifting charges on the ground signify lightning is striking somewhere near the hangar — although the clouds are too dense to see it.
The instruments are set, everyone is excited, but then the deadweight hits.
The balloon isn’t full enough. It needs a lot more helium to carry the cylinder into the sky. As students struggle to fill it, Sonnenfeld shakes his head.
The storm is passing, dying down. Rather than waste a perfectly good instrument package, he decides to call off the launch and wait for a better storm.
“Maybe tomorrow,” Sonnenfeld says, as the energy slowly deflates from the team of young scientists.
That doesn’t stop Walden-Newman from walking up to Sonnenfeld with a smile on his face.
“It was a thunderstorm,” he informs his professor.
After a moment’s puzzled expression, Sonnenfeld smiles back.
“That’s right,” he says. “You win your dollar.”
This story, published April 13, 2006, details what would happen if a magma body between Albuquerque and Socorro turned into a volcano
State’s volcanoes remain active subjects of study
By Sue Vorenberg
First, the ground all around Albuquerque would shake — not as badly as some of the big California earthquakes but noticeable by New Mexico standards.
Then the rotten-egg smell of sulfur would fill the air and add to the Duke City’s smog problem. Finally, magma would make its way slowly but steadily out of the ground, forming ropelike lava flows radiating out of the landscape between Socorro and Albuquerque.
This is not utter fantasy. It’s the most likely scenario New Mexico scientists say they’d bet on as the state’s next volcanic eruption. “It wouldn’t take a lot,” said Larry Crumpler, research curator of volcanology and space science at the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science.
The event — the eruption of a known magma body hiding about 12 miles beneath the topsoil between Socorro and Albuquerque — could happen tomorrow or 5,000 years from now.
But people should know New Mexico is no stranger to volcanoes. In fact, the state is home to every type of volcano known in the world, Crumpler said.
“If you look at the statistics, just the number of eruptions, there’s an eruption every 3,000 to 5,000 years,” Crumpler said. “Since the last one was 3,000 years ago, well....”
Crumpler trailed off and shrugged as he looked around at a room full of guests at the museum Wednesday night waiting to see a private screening of “Sleeping Monsters, Sacred Fires: Volcanoes of New Mexico.”
It’s a new “Colores” documentary about the state’s volcanic diversity that will air for the first time on KNME-Channel 5.
Crumpler, a technical adviser for the film, was quick to pick an eruption of the magma body as the favorite scenario among local volcanologists, who enjoy predicting when and where New Mexico’s next volcano will erupt.
The other likely and somewhat similar site would be in the El Malpais-Carrizozo area south of Albuquerque, which is where the last volcanic eruptions covered parts the state with lava flows both 3,000 and 5,000 years ago.
“There were people here in New Mexico then that probably witnessed those eruptions,” said Jayne Aubele, a volcanologist and senior educator at the museum, who also worked on the film.
“The volcanism is part of what makes New Mexico beautiful and the land of geo-enchantment,” Aubele added.
Joe Aragon, a member of Acoma Pueblo who teaches science and math at Laguna-Acoma High School and appears in the documentary, said his people have long passed down a story of what happened to make those lava flows near his home.
The story starts with an unkind spirit who killed people and took their property because he was an expert gambler, Aragon said.
Twin warrior spirits decided to fight him by learning his gambling tricks and using them against him, Aragon continued.
“He gambled away all of his power to hurt the people,” Aragon said. “In the end he lost his eyes, and lost the right to do what he was doing.”
However, the unkind spirit was still mad, so he boiled pine sap to throw at the people of Acoma Pueblo, Aragon said.
“But because he was blind, he spilled it,” forming the lava flows, Aragon said.
Acoma, Zuni, Navajo and other tribes all consider those lava flows sacred. They are dotted with ruins of shrines, Aragon said. New Mexico’s volcanic history goes back much further than that, however. And some of its eruptions were far more impressive, Crumpler said. “Probably the most famous type right now is the supervolcano,” Crumpler said, the Valles Caldera near Los Alamos.
The caldera formed 1.2 million years ago with a blast that was about 250 times that of the Mt. Saint Helens explosion in 1980. “That was the super part of it,” Crumpler said. “That generated all the ash that makes the Bandelier Cliffs.”
The last eruption there happened between 40,000 and 50,000 years ago and was much smaller than the big blast.
That’s not to say a big blast couldn’t happen again, but we would probably have quite a bit of warning, Crumpler said.
“It currently is in a stage where the eruptions wouldn’t be as catastrophic as the eruptions that created it,” Crumpler said.
Supervolcanoes tend to explode somewhere on the globe every 100,000 to 200,000 years, Crumpler added.
New Mexico also has an example of a Mount St. Helens-type volcano in Mount Taylor.
The second-largest young volcano in the state, it erupted about 2 million years ago, Crumpler said.
The state also has a much bigger volcano than even the Valles Caldera, but it hasn’t erupted in the past 40 million years or so. That’s a field of volcanoes in the Mogollon Mountains near Silver City.
“It’s a cluster of very old Valles Calderas, and they’re chopped up with faults,” Crumpler said.
Yet another type of volcano in the state is a cinder cone – like the Albuquerque volcanoes. Those are formed by magma that radiates out in flows, Aubele said.
There’s another version of those, much more rare, that dot the southern parts of the state called Maar volcanoes. Like inverted volcanoes, they appear as big indentations, and are formed when magma hits ground water and causes a steam explosion, Crumpler explained.
Most of the volcanoes in the state are here because of the Rio Grande rift. It’s a place where the continent started thinning and spreading apart 20 million years ago. If anything erupts in the near future in New Mexico, it will probably be a relatively mellow, flowtype volcano rather than a catastrophic explosion, scientists say.
But that’s nothing to be too concerned about, Crumpler added. “If it’s a nice little fire fountain, I’d probably run toward it and take pictures,” Crumpler said. “If it’s more violent, you’ll probably know about it beforehand because there will be lots of earthquakes.”