Skip To Content
NSF Logo Search GraphicGuide To Programs GraphicImage Library GraphicSite Map GraphicHelp GraphicPrivacy Policy Graphic
OLPA Header Graphic

News Tip


April 1, 2002

For more information on these science news and feature story tips, contact the public information officer listed at (703) 292-8070. Editor: Josh Chamot

Researchers Attempt to Identify When, Where Volcanoes will Erupt

Researchers funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and affiliated with the State University of New York (SUNY) at Buffalo are developing technology that may identify not only where and when a volcano will come to life, but the path its destructive lava flows will follow.  Combining mathematical modeling, geologic simulations, geographic information science, scientific computing and virtual reality, the researchers will provide accurate information on geologic dangers to scientists, civil-defense authorities, and citizens who live in the shadow of a volcano.

The scientists will use detailed satellite data of volcanoes to develop realistic, three-dimensional models and simulations of geophysical mass flows.  They will integrate simulation results, remote sensing data, and geographic information system data (such as population centers, transportation networks, and utility lines) to organize and present information in a range of formats for scientists, policy-makers, and – ultimately – citizens.

"At a time when more people than ever before are living close to active volcanoes, advanced technologies for estimating and mitigating risks from volcanic activity hold enormous promise for safeguarding human lives," said Michael Sheridan, a geologist at SUNY-Buffalo.

"The purpose of this grant is to take advantage of technology so that this kind of tragedy does not happen again," he said. While the initial focus is on Mexican volcanoes, research results will be transferable to volcanoes around the globe, Sheridan said.  [Cheryl Dybas]

Top of Page

Nanomagnets: Huge Potential for Compact Information Storage

Chemists are developing tiny magnets based on single molecules that could potentially increase digital-information storage densities 10,000 times – to 30 terabits per square centimeter. Single-molecule magnets containing manganese show particular promise.

In research supported by NSF, George Christou of the University of Florida and his collaborators developed a technique for controlling the quantum properties that previously presented an obstacle to using these nanoscale magnets.

In a typical digital magnetic recording device, the direction of alignment of the magnetic field represents one bit of information (for a computer, 0 or 1).  When the recording domain is shrunk to the nanoscale, magnets display a quantum property in which their magnetization "tunnels" through an alignment barrier, causing a change in alignment and loss of the stored information.

Christou's group has found a way to pair two of the single- molecule magnets in a fashion that suppresses this quantum property.  The quantum tunneling can be switched back on by applying a magnetic field of an appropriate strength.  Their technique offers a way to fine-tune the properties of these nanoscale magnets and removes a major hurdle to their use in high tech devices.  The researchers report their findings in the March 28 issue of Nature[Amber Jones]

Top of Page

Plant Stems and Leaves are Created in Equal Proportion to Roots

Biologists can now estimate how much of a plant's biomass is underground just by looking at its stems and leaves.  Researchers have discovered that the mass of a plant's above ground parts is proportional to the mass of its roots in a mathematically predictable way, regardless of species or habitat.

Researchers supported by NSF and affiliated with Cornell University and the University of Arizona have analyzed data for a vast array of plants – from weeds to bushes to trees – in order to derive mass-proportional relationships among major plant parts.  The evidence now provides environmental researchers with clues to how much carbon is stored in plants below as well as above ground.

"Global climate modelers now can reasonably estimate how much carbon is sequestered in plants on a worldwide basis," says Karl Niklas, a plant biologist at Cornell.  He and colleague Brian Enquist of the University of Arizona call their conclusions "global allocation rules" for patterns of biomass partitioning in seed plants.

The scientists wanted to know if there were observable, universal patterns of biomass storage across all plant species in different habitats, and they wanted to know if such patterns could be predicted.

"Yes and yes," says Niklas.  "These patterns can be found in any terrestrial plant, whether bamboo, palm trees, pine trees, or bushes.  The same pattern can be found across the whole spectrum of plants on land."  [Cheryl Dybas]

Top of Page

Mass. Town to Combine Civic Planning with Technology Development

The future of the historic mill town of Lowell, Mass., will be the subject of an innovative research project in April, when a broad range of local residents join researchers in a community wide experiment combining civic planning and technology assessment.  The town will be testing a new method for assessing the potential environmental, economic, and civic impacts of technological choices on a community.

Supported by NSF and the Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities, the city of Lowell and the University of Massachusetts at Lowell are collaborating with the Loka Institute, a non-profit organization in Amherst, Mass. concerned with the social repercussions of science and technology.

About 60 people, from bankers to neighborhood leaders, will spend two days (April 9 and April 30) analyzing what life in Lowell could be like 20 years from now, based on various scenarios of technological choices the city could make in the next few years to provide adequate transportation, housing, energy, water, and waste management. The group will then generate its own vision and action-plan for how best to promote a vibrant civic life and strong democratic values, while also supporting a healthy economy and environmental sustainability.  The participants will present their recommendations at a press conference May 1.

This new method of technology assessment – called a "scenario workshop" – brings together representatives of a whole community to be part of the deliberations.  Developed originally in Denmark and used extensively in Europe, this method has never before been tried in this country. One unique aspect of the Lowell workshop: its focus on how technologies interact with issues of democracy and civic life.  [Bill Harms]

Top of Page

Researchers Capture Image of Unusual Blue Jet Lightning

Deep in the tropical jungle of Puerto Rico lies the NSF's Arecibo Observatory, where for the first time a team of researchers has captured video evidence from the ground of a lightning phenomenon known as a blue jet.  The discovery is the first ground-based evidence linking the ionosphere with cloud tops in blue jet events.

According to Victor Pasko of Penn State, an electrical engineer working at Arecibo, "Pilots and others reported observations of red sprites and blue jets long before the first one was captured on video, and numerous undocumented reports of similar phenomena have appeared in scientific literature for over a century."

Blue jets develop at cloud tops at 12 to about 26 miles.  They appear blue to the naked eye, last for up to several hundreds of milliseconds and are cone-shaped.

According to Sunanda Basu, program director in NSF's atmospheric sciences division, which funded the research, the video is the first ground-based evidence of a direct electrical discharge from a thundercloud top to the lower edge of Earth's ionosphere.  The electrical contact may represent an important component of the global electrical circuit, says Basu.

The event was recorded using a monochrome low-light video system, but the researchers all agree that the phenomena was seen visually as blue in color.  The top of the jet appears to look much more like a red sprite than a blue jet, with hot spots and a fuzzy diffused appearance.  Scientists do not yet know if this is a new phenomenon.  [Cheryl Dybas]

Top of Page



National Science Foundation
Office of Legislative and Public Affairs
4201 Wilson Boulevard
Arlington, Virginia 22230, USA
Tel: 703-292-8070
FIRS: 800-877-8339 | TDD: 703-292-5090

NSF Logo Graphic