Volcanic explosions shut down this national park. It’s about to reopen — without any lava.

A collapsed road inside Hawaii Volcanoes National Park in August 2018.
A collapsed road inside Hawaii Volcanoes National Park in August 2018.
Image: Janice Wei/AP/REX/Shutterstock

For the last decade, a cauldron stewed inside Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. 

A giant lake of churning lava, over 500 feet across and hundreds of feet deep, drew visitors from around the planet to the lake’s eerie red glow, visible at night as the sun set beyond Hawaii’s Big Island. Just in April, the burgeoning lava lake overflowed its banks and spilled onto the floor of the volcano’s summit.

But four months later, the scorching lake is gone. Following an onslaught of volcanic quaking and explosions this summer, it drained, completely. 

“For the past 10 years we’ve been spoiled. You could walk 20 yards and see the largest lava lake on the planet,” Ben Hayes, the park’s Chief of Interpretation and Education, said in an interview. “Instead, there’s a massive, colossal hole.”

The famous national park shuttered in May after violent quakes, falling boulders, and explosions of ash from the crater rendered the area exceedingly dangerous. It’s the longest the park has been closed in its 102-year-long history, said Hayes. 

Now, on September 22, the park is set to reopen

The draining lava lake in May 2018.

The draining lava lake in May 2018.

Image: usgs

The explosions have stopped. But it will be a vastly different place. A land famous for orange molten rock will be dry. 

“There’s not going to be any lava,” Bobby Camara, who spent three decades working as a ranger at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, and has since retired nearby, said in an interview. 

All the noticeable quakes have stopped, too. It’s as if Hawaii’s youngest volcano, Kilauea, has gone to sleep.

“Nothing. Nothing. There is nothing — everything stopped,” said Camara.

Still, Hayes is expecting some 10,000 visitors on September 22, double the daily average, and continued heavy visitation after that. The steaming, volcanically-ravaged park is an island destination, and for good reason. 

Yet without lava, the park’s programming, like its ranger talks and presentations, will have to focus on the recent dramatic alteration of the land. After all, it’s not just the lava lake that’s gone. The greater Halema‘uma‘u Crater at the volcano’s summit — which once held the lava lake — has collapsed down by some 1,300 feet. 

“It’s like you’re looking into the Grand Canyon now,” said Hayes. 

“The amount of change is unprecedented in the 102 years there’s been a national park,” he added. “We’ve had 80,000 earthquakes over the last four months.”

A return of lava?

The lava isn’t just gone from Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. It’s also stopped flowing about 24 miles east, where for three months, Fissure 8, the site of Hawaii’s newest volcanic cone, intensely gushed lava before cooling off in early August.

A lava river from Fissure 8 flowing to the ocean.

A lava river from Fissure 8 flowing to the ocean.

Image: usgs

This could be a simple pause. Or it could be something greater. It could be the end to an immensely active period in Kilauea’s life, wherein both the lava lake vanished and the volcano’s summit collapsed.

“None of us dreamt that we’d see anything like this in our lives,” said Camara, who has seen quite a bit in his day, including Kilauea coming alive with fountaining lava in the early 1980s. 

But what comes next is unknown. 

“It’s too soon to tell whether this is a pause or an end to the recent phase of activity,” Ingrid Johanson a research geophysicist at the U.S. Geological Survey’s Hawaiian Volcano Observatory, said over email.

The lava lake in 2012 inside Halema‘uma‘u Crater.

The lava lake in 2012 inside Halema‘uma‘u Crater.

Image: usgs

It’s hard to say because the goings on inside Kilauea’s plumbing system — the underground labyrinths and channels that carry the lava — can only be known through indirect means, like measuring how the ground swells, or sinks.

What is known quite well, however, is that for the three dramatic months spanning May through early August, immense amounts of lava flowed from Kilauea’s summit area, precisely where the lava lake was once located, to the area around Fissure 8.

As for the halt of flowing lava, one possibility, said Johanson, is that the lava reservoir beneath the park may have lost so much lava, it simply “depressurized,” a bit like an air mattress deflating. In this case, there’s just not presently enough pressure to force any more lava out. 

Early morning incandescent glow from the lava lake in 2009.

Early morning incandescent glow from the lava lake in 2009.

Image: usgs

Or, there could be an obstruction, like a collapsed mass of rock, blocking the flow of lava underground.

Either way, Kilauea’s summit area in the park has the next hand to play, and Johanson is watching to see what happens next. 

Remembering the violence

When the park reopens on September 22, Camara hopes people can appreciate what happened there. The natural violence was extreme. 

The Earth rumbled, shook, collapsed, and blew masses of lava and ominous clouds of ash into the sky. 

“It was so overwhelming and stupefying that I believe it requires a different level of respect by everyone,” Camara said.

Park geologists assess earthquake damage along a trail.

Park geologists assess earthquake damage along a trail.

Image: nps

The quaking in the park was so sustained, and ultimately damaging, that much of the park will still remain closed even when some parts reopen.

“In some cases the trails are gone,” said Hayes. 

Of 150 miles of trail, the park has only been able to safely inspect about 29 miles. 

One of the two major park overlooks, outside the Jagger Museum, is off-limits — to everyone. Structural engineers and geomorphologists (who assess movement of the landscape) found that the hundreds of feet of rock that once stabilized the area had collapsed away, into the crater below.

“That’s all gone,” said Hayes.

In the end, however, Hayes recognizes that our present experience in Kilauea is fleeting. These changes may be dramatic for the park, and those seeking to glimpse red-hot flowing rock oozing from the Earth, or brewing in a lake.

Quakes wreaked havoc on some park roads.

Quakes wreaked havoc on some park roads.

Image: J. Michael Johnson/NPS

But in the long term, this is normal, expected volcano behavior. 

“Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is a wild place and Kilauea is constantly being shaped by uncontrollable natural forces,” said Hayes. “This is routine — and it will continue.”

Although much of the park is closed, there’s still plenty of volcanically-devastated terrain to see. The main visitor center will be open. You can walk to an overlook of the heavily-altered summit area, or drive through the lava-blanketed land along Chain of Craters Road. Visitors can also get out on the trails not imperiled by falling boulders.

But come night, the dark world of the park is no longer lit aflame by a molten cauldron. The orange-red incandescent brilliance is gone, vanished deep into the Earth, whence it came.

“Now the glow is absent,” said Camara. “There’s nothing there.”

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AI can identify objects based on verbal descriptions


Christine Daniloff/MIT

Modern speech recognition is clunky and often requires massive amounts of annotations and transcriptions to help understand what you’re referencing. There might, however, be a more natural way: teaching the algorithms to recognize things much like you would a child. Scientists have devised a machine learning system that can identify objects in a scene based on their description. Point out a blue shirt in an image, for example, and it can highlight the clothing without any transcriptions involved.

The team started with an existing approach where two neural networks process the images and audio spectrograms, learning to match an audio caption with images containing a given object. However, they modified the image-handling neural network so that it would split the image into a grid of cells, while the audio network cuts up the spectrogram into short (1-2 second) snippets. After pairing the right image and caption, the training process scores the AI system based on how well the audio segments match objects in the cell grids. Effectively, it’s like telling children what they’re looking at by pointing at objects and naming them.

There are a number of potential uses, but the researchers are most enamored with the potential for translation. Rather than asking a bilingual annotator to make the connections, you could have people speaking different languages describe the same thing — the system could assume that one description is a translation of the other. That could make speech recognition viable for many more languages than just the roughly 100 that have enough transcriptions for the old-fashioned method.

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Climate Change Is Making Our Hurricane Scale Obsolete

Photo: AP

One of the things you can count on in the wake of a hurricane making landfall is people clamoring for a new classification system. Like clockwork, that’s what’s happening with Florence. And frankly, the discussion has never been more urgent thanks to climate change.

After rapidly intensifying into a Category 4 beast, Florence slowly decayed until it landed in the Carolinas as a Category 1 storm. It was degraded further over the course of the weekend to a tropical storm and then a depression. All of these changes were based on one factor: How strong the maximum winds were.

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The idea that our sole way of defining hurricanes is by winds is supremely misguided. Some meteorologists hate it. Many people are confused by it. For storms that take a major human toll, it seems especially wrong-footed given that water is responsible for 90 percent of all deaths according to 2016 research. It’s like if Madden ratings where only based on a player’s ability to run (sorry Tom Brady).

And with a storm like Florence, it’s easy to see why we need a new scale. The winds did a small portion of the damage while historic rainfall has created a flooding crisis that’s still unfolding. Storm surge—which was driven by Florence’s huge wind field and not just peak winds—further damaged the coast. Some people ignored evacuation orders because the storm was continually downgraded until landfall. Our current ranking system is literally putting people in danger.

But that’s not even the worst part. Climate change is clearly intensifying the rainfall and surge associated with storms, making the Saffir Simpson scale even more out of synch with the hazards people living in hurricane zones face.

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The heaviest downpours are getting heavier thanks to climate change for a simple reason: A warmer atmosphere can hold more water. When that water falls out, look out below. The heavy rains from Florence and Harvey as well as what we saw recently with Lane in Hawaii exemplify that trend. In Harvey’s case, it was second-most costly hurricane on record with much of that rain falling over one of the largest cities in the U.S. Research published earlier this year indicates that hurricanes will get wetter still.

Then there’s the storm surge part. Thanks again to climate change, oceans are rising. Seas have climbed about a foot since record keeping began. That gives storm surge a huge lift to inundate areas further inland.

The costliest hurricane in U.S. history was Katrina (a Category 3 at landfall), which did most of its damage from storm surge. Ditto for Hurricane Sandy (Category 1) and Hurricane Irma (Category 3 at landfall in Florida), which are also among the five most destructive hurricanes. Like Florence, those storms has massive wind fields that also allowed them to stir up more of the ocean. And also like Florence, they got a lift from sea level rise. Sandy’s surge wouldn’t have done nearly as much damage to New York’s subway system, for example, if it weren’t for the extra sea level rise boost. Future storm surge will only be worse and it won’t take a Sandy-level storm to inundate New York.

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In fact, the only hurricane on the top five list that did beaucoup damage from wind is Maria. That speaks to a lot of things, notably the bad shape Puerto Rico’s grid was in and how slow the federal response was. That points to how we need to improve how and where we build, but it doesn’t alter the changing calculus of climate change and its influence on the storms themselves.

Now look, the Saffir Simpson scale has a great back story. It came into existence in 1971 owing to the efforts of Herbert Saffir, a wind engineer, and Bob Simpson, the head of the National Hurricane Center. Their goal was the give the public a better sense of the risks hurricanes pose. And the scale originally focused on the impact of winds on cheap buildings like mobile homes. You could argue there’s a little bias since Saffir was a wind guy, but to be fair this was also progressive thinking given that it’s inevitably the poor that suffer the most from storms.

But with climate change set to make poor people’s lives even worse (to say nothing of the rest of us as well), Saffir’s namesake scale needs to be redrawn. And we should do it soon so people get out of harm’s way before the pig shit hits the fan.

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How bad was Florence? Here's a boat motoring down the interstate

A North Carolina Highway Patrol drone captured this image of the I-40 on September 17, 2018.
A North Carolina Highway Patrol drone captured this image of the I-40 on September 17, 2018.
Image: North Carolina Highway Patrol

While flying a drone over the completely flooded four-lane Interstate 40 on Monday, the North Carolina Highway Patrol spotted an unusual sight: A motorized boat leaving a large wake over the highway. 

The storm formerly known as Florence — which hit North Carolina as a Hurricane last Friday and then proceeded to drop historic rainfall over much of the state — has brought catastrophic and deadly flooding to inland cities and coastal communities alike. 

Florence has demolished rainfall records. 

Previously, North Carolina’s rainfall record from a storm was 24 inches, set by Hurricane Floyd nearly twenty years ago. On Monday, the National Weather Service reported that nearly 36 inches fell on Elizabethtown, North Carolina. At least 11 other areas also broke the old record.

State Highway Patrol Sgt. Michael Baker said via phone that the drone operations will continue over the highway as the agency works to identify flooded and troubled areas.

Baker was unsure, however, whether this particular boat was part of state reconnaissance efforts, or simply someone taking a bizarre boating trip down a U.S. highway. 

Aside from the boat on the freeway, the Highway Patrol drone also spotted completely submerged vehicles and vast swathes of brown water inundating land well beyond the highway. 

In cities well inland, like Fayetteville, North Carolina, the floodwaters are continuing to rise, even as the main remnants of the storm moved over the Mid-Atlantic states and into New England on Tuesday. 

A hurricane that makes landfall is never good, but even worse is a slow-moving storm. 

Atmospheric scientists found these tropical storms have slowed considerably since the 1950s, which gives the tempests ample time to flood major U.S. transportation arteries — and transform them into brown rivers. 

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Primate Relationships Are Messier Than We Thought, New Research Suggests

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When it comes to figuring out which individual among a group of primates is the most dominant, some scientists simply look for the one that’s being the most assertive or aggressive. New research suggests this approach grossly underestimates the social complexity of nonhuman primates, and that there’s more to social…

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Everything we know about SpaceX's first moon passenger, Yusaku Maezawa

Yusaka Maezawa, the Japanese billionaire which will fly to the moon with SpaceX.
Yusaka Maezawa, the Japanese billionaire which will fly to the moon with SpaceX.
Image: Mario Tama/Getty Images

SpaceX revealed the first passenger its signed up to fly to the moon on Monday for one very expensive art project.

The Elon Musk-founded company will send 42-year-old Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa into deep space, but he doesn’t want to take the trip all on his own. The entrepreneur hopes to bring along “six to eight artists” who will capture the experience on a four to five day mission in 2023.

If all goes according to plan, Maezawa will be the first non-American to orbit the moon. 

Here’s what we know about him and his larger-than-life lunar ambitions: 

Who is Yusaku Maezawa?

A skateboarder and former drummer in a hardcore band called Switch Style, Maezawa is now the 18th richest person in Japan with a net worth of $2.9 billion according to Forbes. 

He is the founder of Start Today, a mail-order CD and record business he founded in 1998, which expanded into the online fashion business with Zozotown in 2004. Last year, the site boasted 7.2 million customers.

Maezawa is not shy when it comes to spending his riches, as evidenced when he made headlines for shelling out a record $110.5 million for Jean-Michel Basquiat’s 1982 painting of a skull last year. At another auction in 2016, he spent $81 million in one night.

His love for Basquiat was something he echoed in the press conference, when he wore a t-shirt featuring a painting by the artist, and also spoke of his work. Basquiat died in 1988.

“One day, when I was staring at his painting, I thought, what if Basquiat had gone to space, and had seen the moon up close, or saw Earth in full view. What wonderful masterpiece could he have created?” he said.

Why does he want to go to the moon?

Maezawa said his interest in the moon started as a child.

“Ever since I was a kid, I have loved the moon,” he said. “Just staring at the moon filled my imagination. It’s always there and has always continued to inspire humanity.”

But he doesn’t want to go alone either. He’s taking along artists representing Earth who will contribute to a project called #DearMoon.

He will first reach out to artists that he loves to see if they’d like to go, but it’ll be open to painters, sculptors, film directors, architects, fashion designers, and others.

“I love art. And I’m very much looking forward to seeing what different artists getting together could bring to life,” he said.

According to the project schedule on DearMoon’s website, selection of the artists will begin this year, with training and preparation to take place before planned liftoff in 2023.

“He is the bravest person and the most willing to do so, and he was the best adventurer I think,” Musk said of Maezawa.

“He stepped forward to do it. To be clear, we are honored that he would choose us. This is not us choosing him… He is a very brave person to do this.”

Image: screenshot

Maezawa has made a down payment on the trip, but declined to reveal how much he spent in total. 

Musk said the money spent on the trip will help to fund the BFR’s development, with the goal of one day opening up space travel to the average person.

The artists would be travelling for free, and an exhibition will take place on Earth sometime after the trip finishes.

As for Musk, he’s not sure when he’ll go to space, even though Maezawa extended the invitation to him.

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Elon Musk reveals the first passenger SpaceX will send around the moon

“I choose to go to the moon — with artists.” SpaceX founder Elon Musk and Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa.
Image: Chris Carlson/AP/REX/Shutterstock

SpaceX has announced the identity of its first passenger to fly on its forthcoming BFR spacecraft, headed around the moon in 2023.

Yusaku Maezawa, the 42-year-old billionaire founder of Japan’s colossal online fashion mall, Zozotown, will fly around the moon on a mission that will take four or five days in total, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk announced on Monday.

And who does he want with him? Artists.

Musk revealed Maezawa’s identity at a press conference from SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, California.

The 42-year-old Japanese billionaire posted cryptic messages on his Instagram and Twitter accounts minutes before SpaceX’s announcement. 

Maezawa founded Japan’s largest online fashion mall, Zozotown, and custom-fit clothing label Zozo, and his net worth is reported to be $2.9 billion. His mail-order music album business, Start Today, was his real breakthrough, though, and is now listed on the Tokyo Stock Exchange.

He will become the first non-American to orbit the moon.

“Finally I can tell you that I choose to go to the moon,” said Maezawa. “At the same time, I did not want to have such a fantastic experience by myself .. I want to share this experience with as many people as possible.

“I choose to go to the moon with artists.”

That’s right, six to eight artists “that represent Earth,” will be invited by Maezawa to join him on his mission to the moon. It’s a project he’s called “Dear Moon.” These artists will be asked to “see the moon up close and the Earth in full view, and create works that reflect their experience.”

“Ever since I was a kid, I have loved the moon,” he said. “Just staring at the moon, it filled my imagination.

“What if Basquiat had gone to space? What wonderful masterpiece would he have created? What if Picasso had gone to the moon, or Andy Warhol, or Michael Jackson, or John Lennon, or Coco Chanel?”

A render of BFR, shown during SpaceX's press conference.

A render of BFR, shown during SpaceX’s press conference.

Image: mashable screenshot/spacex

Maezawa referred to Earth’s longtime love affair with the moon, Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata,” and Van Gogh “Starry Night,” and other works of art that have been inspired by the moon, “our planet’s constant partner.”

He has not decided which artists to invite, but will be reaching out to painters, sculptors, film directors, architects, fashion designers and others.

Maezawa declined to say how much he’s paying for the flight, but Musk said it’ll be free for the artists. Going forward, Musk and Maezawa will figure out details like training, but “nothing’s written in stone.”

The company signed Maezawa to fly on its BFR launch vehicle on Thursday, in what would be “an important step toward enabling access for everyday people who dream of traveling to space.”

The BFR is SpaceX’s next generation spacecraft and launch vehicle system, set to be used along with the company’s current suite of hardware like the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy.

Raptor engine a-go-go.

Raptor engine a-go-go.

Image: mashable screenshot/spacex

Announced last year, the BFR ship will sit 118 metres long — previously announced as 106 metres (347 feet) long — and Musk has said the ship will contain up to 40 cabins which will have enough space for 100 people. 

Musk gave some more detail about the BFR on Monday. It’ll be 1100 cubic metres in total, and the payload will be similar to that of Falcon 9, about 100 metric tonnes (to the surface of Mars). 

It’ll have forward actuated fins, and rear actuated fins, and it’ll be powered by SpaceX’s Raptor thrust engine.

Musk described it on Monday as an “interplanetary transport system that’s capable of getting people anywhere in the solar system.” He also mentioned that SpaceX spends less than five percent of its budget on the BFR, but it could increase.

“Quite a small portion of SpaceX’s resources are currently spent on BFR. That will change significantly in years to come,” he said.

You can watch the whole announcement here:

So, artists, who wants to go to the moon? 

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