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Spooky Science

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Our favorite interpretation of the Monster Mash. (Credit: Scott Horvath, USGS) Equipped with¬†maps,¬†water¬†and¬†sunscreen,¬†Kate¬†Scharer¬†was¬†studying the¬†active¬†Simi-Santa Rosa Fault just outside of Los Angeles this¬†past¬†summer.¬†While¬†looking for the best place to park the field truck for the day, she opened her phone to check a map application¬†when a shocking chill went up her spine.¬†¬†She realized she was just uphill from the¬†two-story mock Tudor house that featured prominently in the film, The Poltergeist.¬† Although she doesn‚Äôt recall being attacked by the undead, she does recall¬†the shock.¬†‚ÄĚThe hair on my arms stood up. Poltergeist is the first and last horror movie I‚Äôve seen!,‚Ä̬†Scharer, a USGS research geologist,¬†said.¬†¬† Scharer¬†isn‚Äôt¬†alone in being spooked while in the field.¬†USGS researchers frequently brave potentially haunted field sites and study spooky-looking creatures. Here‚Äôs a list of 13, right in time for Halloween.¬† 1. A¬†jolted cemetery¬†¬† In 2011, the¬†most widely felt earthquake¬†in the United States¬†rattled the Washington, D.C. area. The Washington Monument cracked,¬†pious¬†statues¬†fell off the Washington¬†National¬†Cathedral¬†and¬†tombstones moved in the Congressional Cemetery. From John Philip Sousa to¬†J. Edgar Hoover, the cemetery is the final resting place for many famous (and infamous) people.¬†To study future rattles in the area, the USGS installed a portable seismometer in the cemetery¬†as part of the¬†DC-SHAKE deployment in¬†2014.¬†So far, the¬†buried¬†seismometer has yet to capture the rumbles from a zombie disco party.¬†¬† 2. A creepy cave¬† As you descend the many stairs into the gaping dark cavity of Mammoth Cave National Park, you might wonder, will I make it out alive? Fortunately for scientists doing research at the cave in Kentucky, the answer has been yes. The underground labyrinth of caves is the world‚Äôs longest system, with over 405 miles (651 km) mapped. The¬†caves formed 10 million years ago¬†when groundwater began to dissolve the region‚Äôs limestone and carve out openings. The groundwater also left behind minerals that then turned into¬†speleothems¬†like stalactites, which creepily hang in jagged protrusions from the ceiling and stalagmites, which rise from the floor.¬† Historic Entrance to Mammoth Cave National Park 3. A¬†morbid trench¬† If you‚Äôre ever in New Zealand and keen to explore¬†something a bit gory, be sure to add Dead Horse Gully to your list.¬†‚ÄúThere was supposedly a dead horse many moons ago, but we never observed the dead horse itself,‚Ä̬†Alex¬†Hatem, a USGS research geologist,¬†said.¬†Hatem was at the site to look for evidence of¬†movement along¬†the Clarence fault¬†over the past 10,000 years¬†to try to figure out the recurrence of past earthquakes.¬†She did not report seeing evidence¬†of¬†any horse ghosts.¬† 4. A skeleton in the deep sea¬† With a name seemingly fit for a magical spell, aragonite actually describes the calcium carbonate that makes up a coral‚Äôs skeleton. The USGS, in tandem with the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration and other organizations,¬†are exploring deep-sea corals, among other creatures, to better understand how they react to climate change. As the ocean absorbs more and more atmospheric carbon dioxide, sea water becomes more acidic, limiting the supply of carbonate. Without carbonate, corals and other shelled organisms have a harder time building and maintaining their structure, leaving them to haunt the seafloor in skeletal form.¬†¬† 5. A¬†witch‚Äôs eye view¬† Humans can‚Äôt fly like witches, vampires and ghosts can, so we rely on¬†imagery¬†to see¬†landmarks¬†like¬†cemeteries¬†from¬†high¬†above.¬†Horror¬†movie¬†Night of the Living Dead was released¬†in 1968, launching¬†its filming site,¬†Evans City Cemetery¬†in Pennsylvania,¬†into infamy.¬†In 1969, the USGS captured¬†aerial¬†images¬†of¬†the¬†iconic¬†cemetery, which are archived among¬†other historical images on¬†the¬†USGS EarthExplorer.¬†Today,¬†USGS¬†and NASA¬†scientists¬†operate¬†Landsat¬†satellites¬†for the most haunting¬†aerial¬†views.¬†¬† This image shows the infamous Evans City Cemetery¬†in Pennsylvania from above. (Credit: USGS) 6. A shaky Halloween¬† At 5:07 in the morning¬†local time¬†on October 31, 1895, an estimated¬†magnitude-6.8 earthquake¬†rumbled through Charleston, Missouri.¬†People felt tremors as far away as Pittsburg, New Orleans and Topeka!¬†Despite¬†its widespread impact and fairly strong shaking,¬†the earthquake¬†caused no deaths and few injuries.¬†It¬†was¬†the strongest¬†quake¬†to hit the central states since 1812. Because of that,¬†all 12,000 telephone switches on the main Chicago exchange¬†lit¬†up¬†simultaneously, creating a chaotic (and bright) scene for the telephone company operators.¬† 7. A¬†new¬†life for dead snakes¬† They‚Äôre not exactly¬†mummies,¬†and not exactly zombies,¬†but they‚Äôre decades¬†old,¬†desiccated,¬†diseased¬†and...dead.¬†A¬†recent USGS study¬†of museum snake specimens shows that¬†snake fungal disease, a skin infection threatening many important, living¬†snake populations, existed in the U.S.¬†over 50 years earlier than previously thought.¬†Caused by¬†a¬†freaky¬†fungus, snake fungal disease can lead to skin lesions, scabs and crusty scales, which can be deadly for some snakes.¬†While the disease doesn‚Äôt affect humans,¬†it‚Äôs a particular horror for¬†species like the¬†eastern massasauga rattlesnake,¬†eastern indigo snake¬†and¬†Louisiana pinesnake,¬†all of which are¬†listed as¬†threatened¬†under the Endangered Species Act.¬†The discovery¬†can help inform management decisions to better protect living snake populations before they¬†join their ancestors in the dark corridors of a¬†museum.¬†¬† This rat snake is a preserved museum specimen with snake fungal disease that was collected¬†in Tennessee¬†in 1973. (Credit: Jeff Lorch, USGS) 8. A gauge near a morbid mystery Lizzie Borden has a reputation. A rather morbid reputation. On August 4, 1892, her father and stepmother, Andrew and Abby Borden, were¬†violently¬†murdered. Although Lizzie was acquitted of the murder in June 1893, the killer‚Äôs identity is still unknown and the mystery continues to baffle and intrigue many. The (now called)¬†Lizzie¬†Borden House in Fall River, Massachusetts, sits a few blocks away from a¬†USGS rain gauge, which monitors how much rain falls on and near that spooky house. The gauge is part of the¬†USGS New England Water Science Center‚Äôs network of water monitoring throughout the region.¬† 9. A¬†sign of¬†things¬†from¬†the grave?¬† The USGS sampled groundwater downhill of Mt. Hope Cemetery in Michigan. (Credit: Angela Brennan and Julia Prokopec, USGS) The scene:¬†Mt. Hope Cemetery in Lansing, Michigan, a¬†picturesque plot of¬†towering trees, its weathered¬†headstones¬†situated solemnly beneath the shadows of leafless limbs.¬†Could tiny things be moving beyond the grave?¬†A team of brave USGS scientists¬†wondered¬†if materials associated with decomposition and burial processes could affect groundwater quality¬†downhill of¬†the cemetery.¬†They measured the amount of materials in the water that could be associated with burial, such as formaldehyde, pharmaceuticals,¬†personal care products and bacteria that can be released through natural human decay.¬†Formaldehyde and pharmaceuticals were not detected, but nutrient concentrations were elevated¬†and¬†trace metals like arsenic, manganese and aluminum were present¬†in some water samples.¬†Concentrations of bacteria like E. coli were¬†also¬†elevated and bacterial pathogens were present in several samples.¬†The study did not raise the dead, but¬†it did raise¬†more questions¬†and¬†revealed¬†that¬†further¬†research is¬†needed to determine how greatly cemeteries might affect groundwater. But don‚Äôt all good ghost stories need a little mystery?¬† Mt. Hope Cemetery in Lansing, Michigan (Credit: Angela Brennan and Julia Prokopec, USGS. Public domain.) 10. A bat¬†battles one disease and avoids another¬† Whether they‚Äôre hanging upside down in a dark abandoned mine or swooping suddenly from the sky, bats have a reputation for spooking those who seek them.¬†Instead of terror, though, they should inspire sympathy. Over six million¬†bats have died from¬†white-nose¬†syndrome,¬†a fatal fungal disease,¬†since¬†2006.¬†On the bright side, big brown bats, a bat species common in North America,¬†are resistant to infection with the coronavirus that causes COVID-19,¬†according to¬†USGS researchers.¬†The researchers collected big brown bats from peoples‚Äô¬†homes in Waushara County in Wisconsin, took them into a lab at the National Wildlife Health¬†Center in Madison and exposed them to the virus. None of the bats were infected, although the verdict is still out on whether any¬†of them¬†are able to transform into vampires.¬†¬† 11. A¬†swampy science¬†¬† Would a swamp by any other name be as spooky as the Great Dismal Swamp?¬†Spanning¬†112,000 acres across¬†North Carolina and Virginia,¬†it‚Äôs¬†the largest intact remnant of a habitat that once covered more than one million acres.¬†USGS scientists¬†work in the¬†Great Dismal Swamp¬†to collect long tubes of mud to better understand natural conditions before centuries of ditching, draining and harvesting in the area.¬†Their work helps land managers as they determine how to restore and manage the system.¬†¬† Scientists are collecting core samples from the Great Dismal Swamp in Virginia to understand natural conditions¬†before centuries of ditching, draining and harvesting. (Credit: Debra Willard, USGS) 12. A¬†mystery at the park¬† During the winter of 1849, a group of pioneers lost their way in a vast, forbidding valley. When they finally made it out, one of the men turned back¬†and said, ‚Äúgoodbye, Death Valley,‚ÄĚ according to legend.¬†Today, many USGS scientists say ‚Äúhello, Death Valley‚ÄĚ as they visit the¬†now national park¬†to¬†research its faults, ecosystems and geology.¬†The park was also the site of a mysterious phenomenon:¬†rocks seemingly moving of their own¬†volition¬†and leaving a trail in their wake.¬†In 2014,¬†scientists discovered that the movement¬†was a result of a rare combination of frozen water and wind rather than anything supernatural. Still, the sneaky rocks are spooky to see.¬†¬† A sliding rock and trail on the south end of Racetrack Playa. 13. A ghoulish gorge¬† If you‚Äôre looking for something¬†magical¬†to do while at Olympic National Park, look no further than¬†visiting¬†Goblin Gates, a narrow gorge on the Elwha River in Washington State.¬†Its jagged weathered rocks¬†and rushing water are¬†a magical site, and despite its name, no goblins have been sighted guarding¬†the¬†entrance to the gorge with a series of riddles.¬†The USGS¬†runs a¬†water monitoring streamgage¬†on the river to measure the water‚Äôs height and flow.¬†Researchers use the¬†streamgage, among other tools, to¬†contribute to the Elwha River Restoration Project, which is coordinated by the National Park Service.¬†¬† Additional reading:¬† In the Field with Kate Scharer North American Bat Monitoring Program Trick or Treat? The Frightening Threats to Bats fullscreen

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