Category Archives: Earth & Environment

The hurricane hounds of central Pennsylvania

hurricane from ISS
Courtesy of NASA/ISS

Whenever a hurricane threatens the U.S. or our close neighbors, we look to the National Hurricane Center for predictions of where it will go and how strong it will be, predictions based on techniques and models developed by experts in places like Miami, New Orleans, Charleston, and State College.

Wait, what? Hurricane experts in State College?

Continue reading The hurricane hounds of central Pennsylvania

A (woolly) mammoth find

Environmental changes and a lack of fresh water may have wiped out the last bastion of woolly mammoths living on St. Paul Island in Alaska. And an international team of scientists was able to date this extinction with a precision that has not been seen before.

“It’s amazing that everything turned out so precisely with dating of extinction at 5,600 plus or minus 100 years,” Russell Graham, a professor of geosciences at Penn State and the study’s lead author said. The study was released in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences yesterday (August 1).

The changing climate caused sea levels to rise, and in turn the mammoths had less access to fresh water. In a New York Times article today, Graham pointed out that “this study has profound implications for both island and low-lying populations today.”

You can read the full article about Graham and his colleagues’ findings on Penn State News.

Members of the news media interested in talking to Graham should contact A’ndrea Messer at 814-865-9481 or

Featured image by Charles Robert Knight (in the public domain)

Probing Question: How can we save coral reefs?

Penn State biologist Todd LaJeunesse studies coral reefs, a crucial ecosystem in decline worldwide. In this Probing Question video, LaJeunesse touches on what people can do to reverse this trend and allow the reefs to recover.

Probing Questions videos showcase our faculty as they share their views on the question of the day, ranging from scientific advances to social trends and pop culture. We invite you to follow along! Please email series producer Melissa Beattie-Moss at with ideas, comments, and questions.

Computer program identifies leaves better, faster than humanly possible

In the video above, Penn State geoscientist Peter Wilf describes a computer program he and colleagues developed that learns, and can classify modern and fossil leaves over 70 percent of the time and place them in the appropriate biological family. By comparison, he says, it can take a carefully trained human two hours to classify just one leaf.

The software actually taught itself botany, learning from a large number of already classified leaves, but developed its own methods for classifying a leaf.  It creates heat maps that place a red marked square onto the image grid to signify features of the leaf that are critical for identification. The problem is, often trained humans can’t figure out exactly why that particular feature is important.

Wilf and collaborators spent nine years refining the program. He hopes eventually to use it to create a more accurate picture of plant evolution.

Members of the news media interested in talking to Wilf should contact Patty Craig at 814-863-4663 or

Optical illusions and the view from space

Take a good look at the photo below. Shot from a satellite, it shows a section of the Grand Canyon, with the dark ribbon of the Colorado River winding through it. Notice anything “off” about the image? Especially in the upper portion and in the area of the big hairpin turn at lower right?

nanedivallis_comp copy
Google Earth image courtesy Sonny Harman

Continue reading Optical illusions and the view from space