The Wave of the Future?

A monster sea wave might have whacked North America’s East Coast in prehistoric times. Could it happen again?

You’ve just a heart-stopping ride on the Tidal Wave, the beachfront roller coaster in Ocean City, Md. You’re feeling washed out but elated. Suddenly, a 30-foot wall of water crashes over the boardwalk, toppling the roller coaster like toothpicks and sending people flying. What is this? Another coastal thrill ride?

No, it’s a tsunami (soo-NAH-mee), a monster wave caused by a violent geologic disturbance, such as an earthquake, underwater landslide, volcanic eruption, or even an asteroid impact. Tsunamis almost always happen in the Pacific Ocean. But new scientific evidence suggests that a killer wave could one day swamp the Atlantic coast of the United States.

WHAT A CREEP

A team of scientists investigating the seafloor off Virginia and North Carolina has found evidence that the continental shelf might be weakening there. A continental shelf is a gently sloping area of seabed between the edge of a continent and the deep ocean. Last summer, the scientists discovered several large blowout features, or craters, where gas from beneath the seafloor had escaped.

Some of the craters are “quite large,” said team leader Neal Driscoll of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts. The four largest craters are, on average, 50 meters (164 feet) deep, 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) long, and 1 kilometer (0.6 miles) wide. A crater that size could easily swallow New York City’s Central Park!

Driscoll’s team is still trying to find out where the gas came from and how it escaped through the seafloor. Team member Jeffrey Weissel, senior scientist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, explained that gas is always moving up through the layers of sediment on the ocean bottom. Those layers of sediment usually block gas from reaching the seafloor. However, in several places along the mid-Atlantic coast, the gas somehow penetrated all the layers and blew through the seafloor.

Creeping might have caused that gas to blow. Creeping is the sliding of layered sediments down a continental slope, like a carpet sliding down stairs. As the layers creep down a slope, they stretch and deform, opening avenues for underground gas to escape. “That’s why these [blowout] features are so close to the shelf edge,” Weissel explained.

COASTAL TERRORS

Weissel worries that the gas blowouts could be weakening the edge of the continental shelf. If the shelf were to cave, it could set off an underwater landslide large enough to trigger a tsunami.

A boat cruising directly above such a landslide probably wouldn’t detect the wake of the resulting tsunami amid normal wind waves and swell. That’s because as a tsunami moves from its source to the closest coast, its length can be as much as 100 miles and its height just a few feet. Only when a tsunami nears land does it become monstrous. In shallow water, it bunches up and gains height. Coming ashore, it pummels unsuspecting coastal areas with devastating force.

Tsunamis often catch coast dwellers by surprise. Moving at speeds of up to 965 kilometers (600 miles) per hour, they frequently arrive before people know they’re coming.

ATLANTIC MONSTER

Most of the areas that have felt the punch of a tsunami are located in and along the Pacific Ocean. Surrounding the Pacific is a band of volcanoes, mountain chains, and earthquake zones. This Ring of Fire is the most geologically active area on the planet.

On average, two destructive tsunamis occur every year in the Pacific Ocean. Alaska, Hawaii, California, Oregon, and Washington are the states most vulnerable to the monster waves. However, other states might be vulnerable too. There are indications that a tsunami may have hit the East Coast of the United States at least once–and one might strike again.

Along the southern end of the region where Weissel, Driscoll, and their team found the seafloor dotted with craters, they also uncovered features of a past underwater landslide. That landslide likely happened 20,000 years ago, at the peak of the last Ice Age, and could have spawned a tsunami that walloped the East Coast of the United States.

“A big landslide, the size of the one that occurred [during] the last Ice Age, could affect a large amount of the East Coast from Cape Hatteras, N.C., to Long Island, N.Y.,” Weissel said.

The possibility of such a wave striking again is rare, but real, both Weissel and Driscoll stressed. Their team plans to continue mapping the seafloor and keeping a watchful eye on areas vulnerable to underwater landslides. If a tsunami ever does hit the eastern seaboard, the last place you’ll want to be is on the Tidal Wave coaster.

A young Canadian is trying to save a mysterious native bear from disappearing

If you ever happen to meet Simon Jackson, be prepared for a passionate lesson on a mysterious white animal that lives only in the Canadian province of British Columbia. The 18-year-old B.C. native is on a crusade to save that animal, known locally as the spirit bear.

The dual threats of logging and hunting in the old-growth forests where the unusual white bear lives have made its future uncertain. Jackson’s nonprofit organization, The Spirit Bear Youth Coalition, and several environmental groups are urging the B.C. government to create a sanctuary, or place of refuge, for the bears.

“I was really struck by this incredible creature,” Jackson said. “And I wanted other people to have a chance to see it. It’s the panda of Canada–equally as beautiful and equally as rare.”

BEAR FACTS

As many as 400 spirit bears roam the forests of coastal British Columbia. Though rare, the spirit bear is not an endangered species. In fact, it’s not a species at all. It belongs to a subspecies, or group within a species that has unique characteristics. The spirit bear is a white-colored Kermode bear, a subspecies of black bear that lives in the rain-soaked forests of coastal B.C. The smaller skull size of the Kermode bear qualifies it as a subspecies.

Most Kermode bears are black, but on a cluster of small coastal islands, one in every ten is white. Scientists are still trying to figure out the genetic, or hereditary, process that makes a normally black Kermode bear white. (See “White Wonder.”)

FAIR GAME

Of all the black bears living in North America, only a few populations are protected from hunters. White Kermode bears are one such group. Black Kermode bears are fair game, however, and that’s a concern to conservationists, who worry that black Kermodes might carry the gene (or genes) for white fur. Genes are units of heredity that hold the instructions for every cell in the body.

Conservationists are also worried about logging in the spirit bear’s habitat. Consumer pressure has forced logging companies to verbally agree not to cut trees in those forests. No legal agreement exists, however. Environmental groups fear that the spirit bear’s habitat is still in danger.

PROTECTION NEEDED

Though the chainsaws are idle, Wayne McCrory, a biologist with the Valhalla Wilderness Society, is fervently trying to persuade government officials that more protection is needed. McCrory has proposed that 250,000 hectares (620,000 acres) of island and mainland old-growth forest be deemed a sanctuary for spirit bears and other threatened wildlife.

According to McCrory and Jackson, logging even a fraction of that land could deplete the habitat of salmon, which is a crucial food source for bears. Logging could also reduce bear denning sites and expose white spirit bear cubs to predators such as grizzly bears. In time, spirit bears could vanish from the British Columbia coast.

“This is their last intact habitat,” Jackson said. “If spirit bears disappear, we can never get them back.”

WHITE WONDER

The Tsimshian Indians of British Columbia call the spirit bear mokgm’ol–“the white bear put on the planet to remind people of a time when ice covered the land.” What do scientists say about the origins of the white bear?

Most scientists agree that the spirit bear is not an albino bear. Albinism is an inherited condition characterized by the absence of a certain pigment (coloring agent) in the eyes, skin, hair, scales, or feathers. That pigment is called melanin.

Albino animals rarely survive in the wild because their white coloration stands out, making them more vulnerable to predators. A shortage of melanin also causes albinos to have vision and hearing problems.

Because white bear cubs are frequently sighted with black parents and siblings on the B.C. coast, most scientists favor the idea that spirit bears get their white fur through a phenomenon called recessive inheritance. Black bears inherit one allele, or gene for a specific trait, in this case fur color, from each parent. The allele for black fur is a dominant allele. The allele for white fur is a recessive allele. When a bear inherits two dominant alleles, or a dominant and a recessive allele for fur color, the bear will be black. Only when a bear inherits two recessive alleles for fur color will it be white.

A spirit bear is thought to be a black Kermode bear that has inherited a recessive allele for fur color from both its father and its mother.

The Batman Of Belize

As I stood under a thatched roof in the middle of a Central American rain forest, zoologist Bruce Miller approached from the evening shadows with something wriggling in his cupped hands. “This,” he said, “is the smallest bat in Belize–a black-eared yellow bat.”

Miller gently stretched the bat’s wing so I could see that it had a wrist, a thumb, and four long, needle like fingers. The fur of this flying mammal was incredibly soft. I once thought bats were scary, but this one was cute.

I was in Central America for a few days last spring to learn about the pioneering research Miller and his wife, Carolyn, are doing. The Millers first landed in Belize more than 14 years ago intending to study nothing but birds. Gradually, their interests expanded to include mammals. Now Carolyn spends her mornings scouring the ground for the tracks of jaguars, and Bruce spends his nights combing the sky for bats.

DETECTING BATS

On most nights, Miller doesn’t see or hold the bats he studies. Instead, he waves a small yellow and white box, called an Anabat detector, above his head. The Anabat detector functions as an electronic ear, picking up inaudible bat sounds.

Bats use echolocation to navigate. They produce high-frequency sounds that echo off surrounding objects. The echoes enable the bats to detect trees in their path or the tiny insects they eat.

When the Anabat is plugged into a laptop computer equipped with special software, bat voices become squiggles, dots, and lines on the laptop’s screen. Each distinctive pattern and shape, known as a vocal signature, represents the unique sound waves emitted by a particular species of bat.

LEAF-NOSED BATS

Some bats found in Belize, called leaf-nosed bats, don’t echolocate; they find their way with old-fashioned eyesight. Bat researchers have been studying leaf-nosed bats for more than 30 years. Like birds, leaf-nosed bats are easily caught in invisible nylon nets.

Until recently, not much was known about the other families of bats in Belize. “These bats use echolocation, allowing them to `see’ nets like a big wall in their path and say, `I don’t want to go there,'” Miller told me.

FACES AND VOICES

Imagine the excitement when Miller received his first Anabat detector five years ago. “We turned the Anabat on and immediately `heard’ bats,” Miller said. “Then we hooked it up to the computer and saw five or six different shapes of signals.”

Then came the work of deciphering the signals. “Initially everything was an unknown” Miller said. “We started naming [the species] Unknown 1. Unknown 2, Unknown 3….” To match faces to the signals, the Millers had to catch some bats and fly them in their “sound lab”–their kitchen.

“We just let them fly laps around the kitchen and made recordings with the Anabat.” said Miller. “After we had enough, we opened the sliding door, and on their next lap, they went right out.”

So far, Miller has identified the vocal signatures of 28 of the 33 echolocating bat species known to live in Belize. “Everywhere we go, we find species of bats we just never knew were there before,” he said. By storing the data on his computer, Miller is well on the way to his next goal: developing regional bat project to determine which habitats are crucial for the bats’ survival.

“If we lose the bats, we’re going to lose the tropical forest.” he said. “In the tropics, the birds are the day crew, and the bats are the night crew.” Everything that birds do during the day–from pollinating plants to transferring seeds to eating insects that gobble plants–the bats do at night. “It keeps the tropical system going,” he added.

BAT MYTHS

Though bats are key players in the maintenance of the tropical forest, many species are on the decline. “A lot of people assume all bats are [bloodsucking] vampire bats and that they’re bad.” Miller said. “So people kill them.”

In reality, only three species of vampire bat exist. Two are extremely rare and only feed on birds. The third wasn’t common until humans began converting forests to fields populated by cows. Sucking blood from wild animals that move around a lot is difficult for vampire bats and keeps their numbers low. But with cows and other domestic animals, the vampire bats can just fly right up to an easy 20-minute meal. As a result, their numbers have swelled.

Labeled as pests, vampire bats are often burned out of their caves. But caves are like apartment buildings: All kinds of bats, not just vampire bats, reside in them. When caves are burned. everything in them, including other bats, are killed.

“Bats perform a really valuable role,” said Miller. “But because it’s in the dark, it’s like `out of sight, out of mind.’ The average person just doesn’t know about them.”

Wreckless Driving

Check out the futuristic vehicles you’ll soon be driving: cars that don’t crash.

Are you counting the years, months, or even days until you finally take control of a car? Sorry to tell you this, but you might never get that chance. Control is being taken out of drivers’ hands and transferred to cars instead.

Automakers are designing cars that they hope will make drivers less accident-prone. Such smart cars will come loaded with the latest in what design engineers call “accident-avoidance technology,” that will have more computing capacity than the first spaceships had.

How will smart cars work? Put yourself in the driver’s seat:

FENDER-BENDER ENDER

You’re tooling down the parkway when some jerk suddenly cuts in front of you. At that point, your Adaptive Cruise Control, developed by Delphi Automotive Systems, kicks in. Radar in the car’s front grill has been measuring the distance between your car and the other vehicles on the road by sending out radio or light waves that are reflected by the surrounding traffic.

Sensing that the car that just cut you off is dangerously close, your car’s cruise control system wires a message to the brakes that says, “Widen the gap!” Even if your foot is pressing on the accelerator (gas pedal), the car automatically slows down until there’s a safe distance between you and the other car.

SPIN DOCTOR

Zooming over the blacktop one winter’s day, your car hits a patch of ice and starts to spill. That’s when Delphi’s Traxxar stability system takes over to give the car more grip and less slip. The Traxxar system compares the car’s intended direction with the path the car is actually taking.

Intended direction is determined partly by a sensor that measures the turning rate of the steering wheel. Actual path is determined by sensors that monitor how hard the car is cornering, plus wheel speed and position. Traxxar then applies selective braking to one or more of the wheels to put the car back on track.

NIGHT SIGHT

You’re motoring down a country road one night–a time when more than half of all fatal car crashes happen. Several hundred meters ahead, a deer is about to cross the road. You can’t see the deer yet, but your car can. It’s equipped with Night Vision, a thermal-imaging system adapted by defense contractor Raytheon Company from a military device that detects enemy targets in the dark.

A camera mounted behind the car’s front grill senses the infrared (heat) energy given off by the deer. Night Vision translates that information into a bright white video image of the deer that is projected onto the lower part of your windshield to warn you that the deer is near.

ALARMING INVENTIONS

Late one evening, you doze off behind the wheel. Your car drifts toward a ditch. A sleep monitor, programmed to detect dangerous, jerky steering and careless swerving, senses that the car is cruising for a bruising. A loud alarm jolts you awake in time for you to regain control.

Alarms also sound whenever sensors in your car’s rear bumper detect that the car is backing into another object. The sensors, developed by Delphi, produce ultrasonic (high-frequency) sound waves that trigger an alarm whenever they bounce off objects closer than 6 meters (20 feet) to the rear of the car. The closer the car backs toward the object, the louder and faster the alarm sounds.

Still more alarms go off whenever sensors embedded in the car’s side view mirrors detect a car in your blind spot. The blind spot is an area that rear view mirrors miss. Alarms–and flashing lights–let you know that the car in your blind spot makes lane-hopping a hazard.

DAMAGE CONTROL

Alas, even the smartest smart cars won’t be geniuses. Some accidents will inevitably happen. In those events, sensing technology will “know” from the pitch (slope) of the car that it’s about to roll. In an instant, “side curtain” air bags will inflate so that the passengers aren’t thrown out of the vehicle. Infrared and ultrasonic sensors will scan the weight, size, posture, seat position, and seat belt use of each car occupant, then tighten belts and release head and body air bags. Outside air bags on the roof and the bumpers will also inflate, cushioning the impact of the crash.

At that point, the car will use telematics, a combination of cellular and satellite communications, to broadcast details of the crash. It will signal for an ambulance and transmit a video of the car’s interior to prepare the paramedics. Even after a collision, the car will still be in control.

MINDSTRETCH

How might smart cars worsen people’s driving skills and habits, making the highways more dangerous? How might that be prevented?

Taught by an Angel

A science teacher donated a kidney to an ailing student.

Fifteen-year-old Michael Carter knows precisely who his “angel” is. It’s his science teacher.

Michael, a student who lives in Fayetteville, N.C., was playing on his school’s football field one day wearing a pair of loose-fitting pants. His science teacher, Jane Smith, was watching as Michael kept hiking up his pants so he could run more easily. “I assumed he couldn’t run because his pants were so baggy,” Smith explained.

When she quizzed Michael about the pants, he told her that he had a severe kidney problem and that loose pants were more comfortable. Then Michael told her that he needed a new kidney.

Smith’s response was simple, immediate, and lifesaving. She said, “I have two. Do you want one?”

A few months later, doctors gave Michael one of Smith’s kidneys. So far, Michael’s new kidney is working great and he feels healthier than ever.

FILTERS OF LIFE

Michael was born with renal dysplasia (REE-nuhl dis-PLAY-shuh), a rare condition in which the kidneys don’t develop normally. One of Michael’s kidneys was severely stunted and the other was barely functional. Many people with renal dysplasia end up needing a new kidney to survive.

The kidneys, located beneath the lower rib cage in the back, are each about the size of a computer mouse. The job of the kidneys is to remove wastes from the bloodstream. During a typical 24-hour period, the kidneys filter about 150 liters (160 quarts) of blood. They remove nitrogen, phosphorus, and other waste products produced by the normal workings of body cells.

Michael’s kidneys couldn’t perform those functions as well as normal kidneys can. Eventually, waste products began building up in his bloodstream. If enough wastes had built up, they would have poisoned Michael’s brain and other organs and could have killed him. So, at age 13, Michael began dialysis.

Dialysis is a treatment in which blood is removed from the body, sent through a mechanical filtering system, and then returned to the body. Michael required dialysis three times a week, with each session lasting about four hours. “Every day I would get on my knees and pray that someday I would get a [new] kidney,” said Michael.

A TEACHER’S KIDNEY

Michael’s teacher, Jane Smith, answered his prayers. Smith is one of a growing number of kidney donors who are relatives or friends of patients–or even complete strangers.

It wasn’t always that way. A few years ago, nearly all donated kidneys came from people who had died. Doctors would remove the organs from someone who had died and who had given permission while alive to donate the organs. The organ would then be packed in ice and transported to a patient who needed the organ to survive. Surgeons would then transplant, or transfer, the new organ into the patient.

Today, a growing number of kidneys used for organ transplants come from living donors. Recent advances in surgery have enabled surgeons to remove an entire kidney through a tiny incision in the side of the body. Those advances make it easier and safer for someone to donate a kidney while still alive. Altogether, living donors now account for 40 percent of all kidneys used for transplants.

ORGAN REJECTION

Whether a kidney comes from a living person or from someone who has died, the person receiving the organ stands a high risk of organ rejection. That occurs when the body of the recipient (the person who receives a donated organ) builds defenses against the new organ.

The body’s immune, or infection-fighting, system searches constantly for foreign invaders, such as bacteria and viruses. If it doesn’t recognize something, it sends out chemical messages for special immune cells to attack the intruder. If a recipient’s immune system doesn’t recognize a transplanted kidney, the resulting attack can eventually destroy the implanted organ.

Recently developed drugs called immunosuppressants, however, help block that reaction. Preventing organ rejection allows the organ to remain in the patient’s body longer without problems.

BACK TO NORMAL

Doctors expect that the immunosuppressants and other drugs Michael now takes will help his new kidney stay healthy for many years. With proper care, a transplanted kidney can function for more than 30 years.

No matter how long Michael’s kidney lasts, the transplant immediately changed his life. “He can go outside, he can play sports,” said Mark Johnson, director of the team that transplanted Michael’s kidney. “All of a sudden, he’s a normal kid again.”

Michael’s teacher is also feeling great since she gave up a kidney. Doctors say her remaining kidney should be able to perform all the filtering functions her body needs to stay healthy.

Does she regret giving up a kidney? Not a bit. “It was one of those moments in your life,” said Smith, “that you knew it was the right thing to do and that it was going to happen.”

Michael and his mother say they’re extremely grateful to Smith for her generosity. “I’ve always said that everyone has a guardian angel,” said Michael’s mother. “Ms. Smith is our guardian angel.”

How a Kidney Works

  1. Blood flows into kidney through the renal artery.
  2. Blood is cleansed by filtering units, called nephrons, located throughout the kidney.
  3. Cleansed blood leaves kidney through the renal vein.
  4. Waste products leave kidney as urine.
  5. Urine flows from the ureter into the bladder.

Ready to RUMBLE!

More than 100,000 people live within range of the deadliest volcano in the United States.

Early last July, on a ridge halfway up Washington’s Mount Rainier, I carried my skis to some patches of snow left over from the winter. A chilly mist swirled as I paused to look around me. Every now and then, the mist parted like a curtain to reveal the huge white mountain above.

I’ve seen the volcano a thousand times. Mount Rainier (elevation 4,392 meters or 14,410 feet) is so tall that it looms over Seattle, where I live, 112 kilometers (70 miles) to the northwest. Each time I see it, Rainier amazes me once again with its awesome beauty and enormous size.

Now, it scares me, too. Mount Rainier, say geologists, is the most dangerous volcano in the United States.

SPEEDING FLOODS

For a long time, nobody thought Mount Rainier was a big threat. Most people thought it was dormant, or in a quiet period geologically. They were wrong.

Recently, geologists have learned a lot more about Mount Rainier. And the news is not good. Careful study of ash layers on Rainier has revealed that the volcano has erupted far more frequently and recently than previously thought. And geologists have found the remnants of ancient lahars that once buried valleys where people now live. Lahars are speeding floods of volcanic ash, mud, and water from landslides and melted snow and ice. Lahars are most often triggered by volcanic eruptions.

Mount Rainier is relatively young as mountains go–only about half a million years old. It formed as an eastward-moving piece of Earth’s crust, called the Juan de Fuca plate, began to descend slowly under the Pacific Northwest landmass. As the plate descended, it heated up, and some of it melted into magma, or molten rock. That magma worked its way to the surface, where it burst out as Mount Rainier and the dozens of other volcanoes in Washington, Oregon, and California. The Juan de Fuca plate is still moving under those states, and as long as it keeps doing that, there’s the threat of volcanic eruptions.

WAKE-UP CALL?

So what will happen next? Will Rainier someday spew a glowing cloud of poisonous ash and fumes? Will sizzling avalanches of lava roll across forests, homes, and towns? Will lahars race down, sweeping away everything in their path? All those things have happened at other volcanic sites in the world.

In 1980, Mount St. Helens, a volcano about 80 kilometers (50 miles) south of Mount Rainier, exploded. The eruption was much bigger than geologists had expected. And lahars caused some of the worst damage.

Mount St. Helens was a real wake-up call. Afterward, everyone living near Mount Rainier, including me, started looking at the mountain differently.

LAHAR THREAT

Because of what scientists now know about Mount Rainier and what happened at Mount St. Helens, the lahars worry us most. “You aren’t going to get charred bodies from Mount Rainier,” explained geologist Tom Sisson. “But you’ll get houses crushed by lahars.”

Lahars worry us for several reasons. Mount Rainier has 25 glaciers–more than any other mountain in the United States outside of Alaska–that could melt into lahars. And unlike lava flows, lahars can travel fast and far. More than 100,000 people live directly in the way of potential Rainier lahars.

To make matters worse, lahars don’t need an eruption to happen. Lahars can be–and geologists say have been–triggered by earthquakes or landslides on Mount Rainier.

The past activity of the volcano, the number of glaciers on it, the large human population living in its shadow–all those factors make Mount Rainier the most dangerous volcano in the United States. “No doubt about it,” Bill Lokey, an emergency planner, told me. “Mount Rainier could produce the largest, most deadly disaster in the history of the United States.”

Now everybody wonders: How soon? A massive eruption and lahar on Mount Rainier–far bigger than the recent ones on Mount St. Helens–occurred about 5,600 years ago. Only 1,100 years ago, another lahar buried a whole forest not far from where Seattle now stands. And just 600 years ago, a third Rainier lahar mowed down 1.8-meter-(6-foot-) thick trees and filled valleys two stories deep with debris. Geologically speaking, that’s practically yesterday. Geologists say the next lahar could happen at any time–with or without an eruption.

UNDER THE VOLCANO

One sunny day a few weeks after my July ski trip, I returned to Mount Rainier to hike. I trekked past a glacier and then up through a beautiful old-growth forest. Finally, I came to a high mountain meadow, where a rainbow of wildflowers bloomed. The mountain towered above me, as incredible as ever. Among all the wonderful scenery, I thought about something Bill Lokey had said to me: “We live here by geological consent.”

Lost in the Outback

The Olympic Games in Sydney are turning the world’s eyes on a continent that seems strange and mysterious to many people. Even to native Australians, the land holds stunning surprises. Only recently did they learn about the existence of one of the most amazing landscapes in the world: the Bungle Bungle Range.

The Bungle Bungles is a place where thousands of colorful rock formations shaped like beehives and striped like tigers rise in tiers. The result is a mountain range that looks like no other.

Somehow, this place managed to remain a literal blank spot on the Australian map until the 1980s. Before that, only a group of local Aborigines and a small number of other Australians knew about it.

REMOTE SECRET

To see the Bungle Bungles for myself, I joined a safari outfit on a journey to Purnululu National Park, deep in the Aussie Outback. It began in Kununurra, a town about 250 kilometers (155 miles) by road north of the Bungles.

My trip to the Bungles showed me why they had escaped widespread notice for so long. The Bungles are surrounded by many square kilometers of rugged country, which discouraged exploration. Even people who got close could have easily missed the beehives because the rolling landscape hides them from view. “You could be 10 miles away and not really know what was in there,” said Robert Young, a senior research fellow in the School of Geosciences at the University of Wollongong.

On my visit, we camped beside Picaninny Creek, a stream that emerges from the southern end of the massif(mountain mass). After setting up my tent, I gazed out at the vista I had come many bumpy miles in a four-wheel-drive vehicle to see: a seemingly endless expanse of beehive-shaped formations carved out of sandstone. Most astounding to me were the horizontal layers of orange and black that looked for all the world like tiger stripes.

DISSOLVED CEMENT

According to Young, the rock of the Bungle Bungles began forming 400 million years ago. Streams and rivers laid down layers of sand in a growing pile that eventually might have reached several thousand feet thick. The enormous pressure from all that material slowly turned the sand into sandstone. And there it lay for many millions of years, buried by even newer rock layers deposited on top.

Later, erosion gradually stripped away the overlying rock, exposing the sandstone about 20 million years ago. Streams then began cutting into the rock–the start of the process that would create the “beehives.”

Why did the sandstone erode into such unusual shapes? To find out, Young used an electron microscope to peer between the tiny quartz grains in the sandstone. Quartz is a tough, crystalline mineral made of silicon dioxide (Si[O.sub.2]). In sandstone, the quartz grains that form most of the rock are held together by a kind of cement. In the case of the Bungle Bungles sandstone, that cement consists of a compound called silica. Like quartz itself, the silica cement is also made from Si[O.sub.2].

Examining the Bungles’ quartz grains, Young determined that rainwater seeping into the rock had slowly dissolved most of the silica cement between the quartz grains. At that point, only the tightly interlocking shapes of the quartz grains themselves held the rock together.

The lack of cement makes the rock very friable; it crumbles easily under foot. But the interlocking grains make the rock strong in compression, which means that it can maintain tall vertical cliffs without falling down. The result is rock that can be carved easily by streams but that stands up in tall towers and beehives and in long, thin ridges.

BANDS OF ALGAE

There’s more to the mystique of the Bungle Bungle Range than the shape of its rock formations. Equally alluring is the orange-and-black tiger striping.

The colors, it turns out, are only skin deep; the actual sandstone is a cream color. The coating is silica cement that has leached out of the rock to form a hard veneer. Small amounts of clay and iron in the silica veneer give the beehives their orange color.

The dark tiger stripes come from algae, simple plants that live in the water or in moist places on land. The algae snuggle into tiny holes and crevices within the coarsest bands of the Bungle Bungles sandstone.

As I gazed at the striped formations during a hike into Picaninny Gorge, I wasn’t thinking of geological details. I was simply overwhelmed by the grandeur of this Outback wilderness. And as I walked up the canyon, my amazement only increased. The beehive formations gave way to cliffs, and the canyon snaked in broad S-curves as it penetrated deeper into the Bungle Bungle Range. The environment seemed to capture the essence of Australia: isolated, empty, breathtakingly luminous, and wondrously strange.

MIND GAMES

Sports are as much a mental game as a physical one. Here’s what scientists know about one key skill–reorienting.

Have you got what it takes to become an Olympic contender? Take this simple test. Hold out a hand. Position the tips of your thumb and middle finger so that a half-inch space exists between them. Then ask a friend to hold the end of a ruler so that the 1-inch mark hangs between the two fingertips. Have your friend drop the ruler without warning. Catch the ruler as fast as you can between your two fingertips. Note the number on the ruler where you caught it. Now switch roles and note where your friend catches the ruler. The person with the lower number has the faster reaction time.

Was yours the faster time? Then you must have more of what makes a great athlete, right? Wrong! Scientific studies have shown that great athletes don’t react more quickly than anyone else does. Muhammad Ali, the champion boxer and Olympic gold medalist who bragged that he could “float like a butterfly and sting like a bee,” had only an average reaction time.

Athletic success, it seems, is determined by something other than last reflexes. That “something” is the ability to act–and not act–on what you see, according to new studies.

LOOKING VERSUS SEEING

Imagine yourself dribbling a basketball down a court. What do you see before you? On the left stands the power forward, posted up close to the basket. Directly ahead, the shooting guard is spotting up on the perimeter. To the right, another forward is keeping an opponent out of the paint. Behind that forward, another teammate is moving toward the basket for a rebound. And so on.

All that visual information strikes your retinas–the layers of tiny, light-sensitive cells at the back of each eye–at the same time. From there, the information travels via the optic nerve to the brain.

So much visual data coming at you all at once might be too much to handle, except that the brain does an expert job at editing. It focuses on just one piece of information in your entire field of view at any one time. That act of focusing is what psychologists called attention.

Human attention is so focused that the mind is unaware of many things that the eyes happen to be looking at. In one lab experiment, subjects followed the movements of bouncing balls on a video screen. When the subjects were asked later if they had seen a gorilla moving around the screen, most said no. Their attention to the bouncing balls made them totally “blind” to the gorilla. That “blindness” is called change blindness, according to James Enns, a professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia.

Change blindness is the cause of many car accidents, said Enns. Numerous reports have described drivers plowing into pedestrians or even trains right in front of them. “The drivers looked, but they didn’t see,” said Enns. “Their attention had been focused on something in their field of view other than what they were looking straight at.”

ELITE VERSUS AVERAGE

So what does visual attention have to do with sports? To find out, Enns tested young hockey players who had different playing skills. What Enns found was that the elite players were much better than the average players at reorienting. They could switch their visual attention from one thing to another more quickly and with greater accuracy.

“Hockey players need to monitor a whole bunch of different things on the ice,” said Enns. “The highly skilled players were the ones who were better at responding–or not responding–to all the different things happening in their environment.”

Superior visual attention might have been what National Hockey League goalie Mike Liut was referring to when he was interviewed once about hockey megastar Wayne Gretzky. “I’d see him come down the ice and immediately start thinking, ‘What don’t I see that Wayne’s seeing right now?'” said Liut.

CLOSED VERSUS OPEN

Not every sport requires superior reorienting, says Enns. Such ability is necessary only for what Enns calls open-skill sports–those in which the athlete has a wide field of visual information. Volleyball, soccer, basketball, and tennis are some open-skill sports.

Enns labels sports that don’t have a wide field of visual information closed-skill sports. Swimming and sprinting are two examples. The best closed-skill athletes are those who can focus their attention on one location in space and block out all other distractions that might otherwise slow them down.

NATURE VERSUS NURTURE

Enns doesn’t know whether the best open-skill athletes are born with a superior ability to reorient or whether that ability comes with practice. “All we know at the moment is that there is a link between their sports skills and their skill at reorienting,” he said.

WHAT DO YOU SEE?

Examine these two photographs.

  • How are they different?
  • How long does it take you to find the difference?
  • Why is this a test of visual attention?
  • Why might some people take longer to find the difference than others?

The Real Dopes?

In their quest for success, many athletes are abusing science by taking banned drugs.

During the 1997 Tour de France bike race, officials tapped French cyclist Erwan Mentheour (at right) for a random drug test. Just before the race, Mentheour had taken erythropoietin (EPO), a performance-enhancing drug banned in the 2,400-mile race.

One side effect of EPO is that it thickens the blood. So Mentheour’s trainer and doctor tried thinning his blood before the test. They injected him with sugar. Then they bled him. Mentheour still tested positive and was thrown off the racing circuit.

Within two weeks, Mentheour was allowed back on his bike. He claimed his blood had been out of whack because he had had diarrhea and had lost a lot of water. The truth, he later confessed, was that he’d been taking EPO and other banned performance-enhancing drugs. “That was part of the job,” he said.

Mentheour is far from alone. Many other athletes have confessed to, or been caught, taking forbidden drugs. All of them had put science to dark purposes: winning at all costs.

PITUITARY POWER

Probably the most popular performance-enhancing drug at the moment is human growth hormone (hGH), which is also banned in most sports. The drug hGH is a synthetic form of a hormone made naturally by the pituitary, a pea-sized gland attached to the base of the brain. Natural human growth hormone has a profound effect on every cell in the body. It helps young people grow tall and strong. It slows down the aging process in older people. Some doctors call it the “fountain of youth.”

Scientists developed hGH in the 1980s to treat dwarfism, a form of stunted growth. In 1996, the U.S. government also approved hGH for use in adult patients suffering from human growth hormone deficiencies, usually caused by pituitary diseases or infections. To their surprise, the patients found themselves developing bigger, stronger muscles.

That news prompted many athletes to get hold of hGH on the black market and start taking it. Among Olympic athletes, hGH use became so widespread that Charles Yesalis, a professor at Penn State University, called the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta the “growth hormone Games.”

BIG BONES

According to Yesalis, hGH helps athletes train harder and longer and recover faster after training. However, the side effects can range from severe bloating to excessive bone growth in the face, hands, and feet. “There are rumors about bodybuilders who have used hGH and grown one or two shoe sizes,” said Yesalis.

The long-term effects of hGH are still unknown. But Lyle Alzado, a former lineman for the Los Angeles Raiders football team, believed that the brain cancer that eventually killed him was caused by his use of hGH and steroids, another banned drug.

Although hGH is banned in most sports, no approved test for it exists. Testing for hGH is difficult because it so closely resembles natural human growth hormone. Strenuous exercise also increases natural human growth hormone production, and people vary widely in their natural hormone levels.

Scientists are working on a blood test that identifies the presence of hGH in the body. However, until that test proves reliable enough to stand up in court, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) will not begin testing at the Olympics.

EPO DEATHS

Another popular performance enhancing drug is synthetic EPO, the drug cyclist Erwan Mentheour was caught taking. Natural EPO is a hormone produced by the kidneys when oxygen levels in the body’s tissues drop. EPO commands the body to make more red blood cells, which carry oxygen to the body’s cells.

Synthetic EPO was developed in the late 1980s to fight anemia, a condition marked by extreme paleness and fatigue and caused by a low red blood cell count. Shortly after, endurance athletes discovered that synthetic EPO could help them turn in superhuman performances. The extra red blood cells carry extra oxygen, boosting athletes’ endurance.

The side effects of EPO include muscle tremors, oily skin, acne, and skin flushed by the heart’s effort to pump blood made thick from too many red cells. Extreme side effects include high blood pressure, heart attacks, and strokes. Since 1987, EPO abuse has reportedly killed about 20 cyclists.

One test for EPO, called a hematocrit test, already exists–the same test that busted Mentheour in 1997. The IOC won’t use the hematocrit test because it doesn’t actually detect EPO. It only reveals how many red cells are in the blood.

Last month, however, the IOC announced that it would administer two new tests that detect synthetic EPO in urine and blood samples. Many applauded the decision. Yesalis and other critics said, however, that the use of other banned substances has grown worse since the Atlanta Games. The new EPO tests won’t stop this month’s competition from being the “most-doped Games,” said Yesalis.

At least, the Sydney Games won’t be known as the “hGH-EPO Games.”

Master Gland

The pituitary gland, pictured at right, is the most important gland in the body. It releases at least nine hormones. Some of those hormones have direct effects on the human body. Others prompt different glands to release hormones of their own.

Ride like The Wind

U.S. cyclist Erin Hartwell, 31, was riding the fastest bike ever tested in a wind tunnel when he captured a silver medal at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. That bike was the ultra-aerodynamic Superbike II. Aerodynamics is the study of objects moving in air.

“In cycling, aerodynamics is everything,” said Sam Callan, manager of sports science for the U.S. cycling team. “If you can go 1 percent faster, it can be the difference between a gold medal and no medal.”

Yet even riding Superbike II, the team won only a few medals. The 1996 Olympics taught the U.S. team an important lesson: Bikes alone do not win medals.

Shortly after the ’96 Olympics, the world governing body of cycling set new regulations for bike construction. Those regulations took the Superbike II out of competition.

“The Olympics wants the best athletes to win, not the richest country or the country with the best technology,” said Steve Morrissey, team operations and equipment manager for the U.S. cycling team.

What made the Superbike II so different? First, the frame of a regular racing bike, from its handlebars to its wheels, is made of tubular parts. But the parts of the 16-pound Superbike II were shaped like airplane wings to reduce drag, or air resistance.

Second, the Superbike II’s handlebars were custom-made to suit each athlete’s riding position. The front wheel was smaller than the back wheel, enabling riders to sit low. In that position, the riders could save energy by taking advantage of the wind-blocking effect of the racer in front of them. Cyclists call that effect drafting.

Now that the Olympic regulations governing bike construction are stiffer, the emphasis has shifted to the “engine”–the athlete–and not the machine. If bikes can’t be made more aerodynamic, cyclists can be. Cyclists can wear one-piece skin suits made of fabrics that keep air flowing around the suits instead of through them, to reduce drag. Cyclists can also reduce drag by learning to ride like Alpine skiers, with their arms low and their backs flat.

“But they can’t [lie] out on a bicycle like Superman flying through the air,” Morrissey said. “There are rules against that.”