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Planet Earth

Four steps to make your lawn a wildlife haven – from green desert to miniature rainforest

If you could ask British insects about the habitats they prefer, they’d probably tell you that you can’t improve on grassland that’s rich with wildflowers. For farmers, though, grassland is said to be “improved” if it has been treated with fertiliser and sown with fast growing grasses.

“Unimproved” grasslands are those that have not had their productivity improved for agriculture. They’re semi-natural habitats, because if mowing or grazing stopped, they’d quickly turn to scrub and then woodland. These unimproved grasslands are extremely rich in the number of species they can support, sometimes having well over 40 species of flowering plant in a single square metre.

But since World War II, 97% of unimproved grassland habitats have vanished from the UK. This has contributed to the loss of pollinating insects – and the distribution of one third of species has shrunk since 1980.

Left – Grassland in Transylvania, where agricultural ‘improvement’ has been limited. Right – Potwell Dykes, Nottinghamshire – how much of the UK’s lost grassland would have looked.
Adam Bates

If you’re lucky enough to have a garden, your lawn can be thought of as a small patch of artificial grassland, which will usually have only a few species of turf grass. Most suburbs and villages still have around a quarter to a third of their area covered by grass.

Unfortunately, lawns are largely featureless and offer little refuge for small creatures like bugs and other invertebrates. Regular mowing also prevents plants from flowering and producing seeds, which is why carefully maintained lawns are mostly barren.

A traditionally managed lawn. There are few plant species and little structure for bugs to exploit. Spiders, for instance, have nothing to anchor their webs to.
Adam Bates

But lawns can be made into important wildlife habitat by changing how they’re managed. This is an idea that’s gaining traction – campaigns such as “Say No to the Mow” have made an “unkempt” garden more socially acceptable. For anyone wanting to create a wildlife lawn in their garden, there are four important steps to follow.


Adam Bates

1. Cut higher

The first step is simple. By raising the height that the mower blade cuts the grass to its highest setting – usually about 4 cm off the ground – you can provide more variety in the lawn’s structure and more refuge for other plant and invertebrate species.

2. Include mowing gaps

Fox-and-cubs (Hieracium aurantiacum) help feed leafcutter bees.
Jörg Hempel/Wikipedia, CC BY-SA

By mowing less often you can allow plants time to flower and provide a food source for bees and other pollinators. Leaving gaps between mowing in spring gives time for species like the cowslip to flower – a plant which has declined markedly in the UK but which butterflies like the Duke of Burgundy depend on for laying their eggs.

Summer gaps can allow species like cat’s ear and fox-and-cubs time to flower, providing an important source of food for species of leafcutter bee. Deciding how long to wait between mowing isn’t an exact science, but can be judged by seeing whether or not the plants in your lawn have had a chance to flower.

3. No fertilisers or herbicides

“Weed and feeds” are used on lawns in a one-bottle mix of herbicide – used to kill non-grass species that we’d usually consider weeds – and fertiliser, to add nutrients to the soil. Herbicides reduce biodiversity by killing other species, but it may surprise you to learn that fertilisers are no friend to biodiversity either.

When gardening or farming, usually the more fertility in the soil the better, because this promotes greater productivity. In other words, more grass, greener grass, more flowers and larger flowers. The selective actions of the gardener or farmer to promote the target species, whether prized rose or crop, means that only the target species benefits.

Without this selectivity, more fertility in your lawn only favours the one or two turf species that are best able to take up nutrients and outcompete other species. So, more fertility means fewer plant species, despite the more luxuriant green colour.

4. Remove the clippings

Removing the grass clippings after you’ve mowed the lawn also reduces the fertility in your lawn, preventing it from becoming dominated by one or two competitive turf species. Removing and composting grass clippings will gradually remove nutrients from the soil, lowering the fertility with each cut.

Beyond these four steps for improving the value of your lawn to wildlife, there are other things that can be done by the more committed gardener. Leaving small areas of the lawn deliberately uncut – such as strips at the sides or patches in the corners – can help small wildflower meadows to form. Cutting these at the end of summer will prevent them overgrowing into rank grassland with few species.

Wildlife value can also be added by spreading some locally-sourced wildflower seed on your lawn. If you’re gathering seeds from elsewhere, make sure to ask permission and don’t take too much.

A single suburban wildflower lawn – multiple plant species that can flower and seed, and high structural diversity.
Adam Bates

Enjoying your wildflower lawn

Wildflower lawns can have a variety of other surprising benefits, not least helping to slow global warming. Some studies have shown that lawns are actually sources of carbon dioxide due to the amount of energy needed to power the mower and manufacture “weed and feeds”. Reducing how often you mow, not applying “weed and feeds” and even using a manual lawn mower can change your lawn from a carbon source to a carbon sink.

Having taller vegetation in your lawn shades the ground, thereby reducing evaporation from the soil and reducing the need for sprinklers and hosepipes. Less mowing means less work to do and more time for you to enjoy watching the bees gathering nectar and pollen from your wildflower lawn.

Wildflower lawns, with spikes of colourful flowers and attendant bees, at least to my eyes, are far prettier than a carpet of grass, whether it’s stripy or not. Grass – especially when not in flower – is the most aesthetically boring part of a grassland. The species that have traditionally been disregarded as “weeds” are far more interesting.

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Planet Earth

Giant mountains discovered inside the Earth

Studying the boundary between the Earth’s core and mantle, geophysicists have found that it is not as smooth as previously thought. Surfaces separating the inner layers also have a complex relief. It turns out that our planet is not at all like a set of spheres nested into each other, as is customary to portray it.

Reading the waves. Earth’s crust

The deep bowels of geophysics are judged by seismic waves generated by earthquakes. There are longitudinal P-waves – when elastic mechanical vibrations occur along the propagation direction and transverse S-waves – the vibrations in them are perpendicular.At the boundary of layers with different densities, the wave velocity changes dramatically. In the transition from a solid crust to a more plastic upper mantle, it increases. This border is called the surface of Mokhorovichich. The lower mantle is harder than the upper. The outer core, in which transverse seismic waves do not propagate, is liquid, and the inner core is again solid, but slightly plastic.

While the network of seismographs was rare, the sections between the inner shells with a certain degree of conventionality were depicted as spheres. As the data accumulated, it became clear that each of these boundaries is a complex surface with its relief and internal “mountains” even higher than on the Earth’s surface, and the “troughs” are deeper. From the top of Everest to the bottom of the Mariana Trench about 20 kilometers, and, for example, the differences of the border of Mokhorovichich, dividing the crust and upper mantle, reach 40 kilometers. And all this at a depth of five to 70 kilometers.

This was proved by scientists from China and the United States . They analyzed the results of observations of hundreds of seismic stations obtained from the same events: the earthquakes in Bolivia of 1994 and the Sea of ​​Okhotsk in 2008 and 2012, as well as archival records of seismographs of the National Center for Information on Earthquakes of the US Geological Survey.

The authors of the study found that for the boundary between the upper and lower mantle, located at a depth of about 660-670 kilometers, the data of the various stations almost completely coincide. That is, she has a stable relief, which she even managed to map. Signal processing of the Bolivian earthquake made it possible to literally create a “topographic map” of the surface of the lower mantle for an entire region in Southeast Asia .

The most dynamic area. Mantle and core

When talking about the dynamics of the Earth, they usually mean large-scale surface processes associated with the movement of lithospheric plates. In the zones of mid-ocean ridges and rifts, the lithosphere moves apart, and in subduction zones on the outskirts of the continents, oceanic plates sink under the continental.

But no less dynamic processes and surface movements occur inside the Earth – only their reflection. First of all, we are talking about mantle convection, which arises due to the temperature difference in the bowels and on the surface of the planet. 

Upward flows of convection cells stretch the lithosphere, downward flows drag it into the mantle. Moreover, in the upper parts of the cells, the substance flows in a horizontal plane and these flows cause lithospheric plates to move.The most dynamic region of the Earth is located on the border of the core and mantle, at a depth of about 2900 kilometers.

It is believed that its heterogeneity affects many geological processes, in particular, the oscillation of the axis of rotation of the Earth and the characteristics of the geomagnetic field. In addition, convection itself is a consequence of what happens in the D ”layer at the boundary with the core.On its surface, scientists discovered arrays of unusually dense, hot rocks – zones of abnormally low seismic wave velocities (ULVZ – Ultra-low velocity zones). They stretch for hundreds of kilometers, and their “height” – tens of kilometers.Above them are hot spots with volcanoes: Hawaiian, Marquesas, Galapagos Islands and the Samoa archipelago in the Pacific Ocean, Canary Islands and Azores , Iceland in the Atlantic, Kerguelen archipelago in the Indian, Afar volcanism zone in the Great African Rift.

Using the new machine learning algorithm, American scientists at Johns Hopkins University and the University of Maryland at College Park together with their Israeli colleagues from Tel Aviv University performed a parallel analysis of seven thousand seismograms covering hundreds of earthquakes from 1990 to 2018, and for the first time compiled a detailed section map the core and mantle of the Pacific region, on which all ULVZ zones were applied.It turned out that ULVZ are only separate protrusions within the larger, low-shear-velocity provinces (LLSVP) provinces, which are also called superplumes. Their branches penetrate up into the mantle for thousands of kilometers. Now scientists distinguish two such provinces – African and Pacific.

Superplumes (provinces with a low shear rate) at the boundary of the core and mantle look like they look from the North (a) and South (b) poles. The center shows the core of the Earth with the projection onto it of the contours of the continents; outer contour - conditional border of the lower mantle
© Sanne Cottaar, Vedran Lekic / Geophysical Journal International, 2016Superplumes (provinces with a low shear rate) at the boundary of the core and mantle look like they look from the North (a) and South (b) poles. The center shows the core of the Earth with the projection onto it of the contours of the continents; outer contour – conditional border of the lower mantle

The circulation of matter in the mantle

Australian scientists from the University of Curtin suggested that the periods when all the land of the Earth united into single supercontinents – Pangea, Rodinia, Colombia and others, coincided with activity in the deep LLSVP provinces. They built a dynamic model linking the evolution of superplumes to the assembly and decay of supercontinent. According to this model, LLSVP arrays are formed from lithospheric plates, which, as it turned out, sinking, does not dissolve in the mantle, as previously thought, but descend to the very boundary of the core. Here they melt, and giant drops of preheated matter – mantle plumes – coming off from LLSVP, float to the surface, giving rise to a new geodynamic cycle. The lithosphere rises above the plumes, forming a dome, and then cracks and diverges.

Inside the core

Researchers from the US and China have analyzed how seismic waves passing through the boundary between the outer and inner core change. For this, we used signals from doublets – repeated earthquakes with the same epicenter.

It turned out that these changes have a certain periodicity, which can be explained by two mechanisms: either the inner core rotates by about 0.05-0.1 degrees per year, or high “mountains” and deep “canyons” appear on its surface. So, a dynamically changing relief can also be at the deepest boundary between the earth’s shells.

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Planet Earth

The Earth’s magnetic field has been quiet lately. Until now!

The Earth’s magnetic field has been quiet lately. Very quiet. The sun is in a deep minimum of activity, which may be the deepest solar minimum in a century. 

Geomagnetic storms simply do not exist. But on June 23, something unusual was recorded. The Earth’s magnetic field swung back and forth by about 1/3 of a degree.

“That’s why I was so surprised on June 23 when my instruments detected a magnetic anomaly,” said Stuart Green, who works with a research-class magnetometer in his home in Preston, UK. 

“For more than 30 minutes, the local magnetic field oscillated like a sine wave.”

Green quickly checked the solar wind data from the NOAA DSCOVR satellite. 

“There was nothing – no surge in solar wind speed or other factors that could explain this disturbance,” he says.

He was not the only one to notice this. In the Lofoten Islands of Norway, Rob Stams found a similar anomaly on his magnetometer. 

“It was amazing,” says Stams. “Our magnetic field swung back and forth by about 1/3 of a degree.” I also discovered ground currents with the same 10 minute period.”

Space physicists call this phenomenon “pulsation.” Imagine that you are blowing on a piece of paper, making it flutter from your breath. Solar wind can have a similar effect on magnetic fields. During the extreme silence of the solar minimum, such waves can be “heard” like a pin falling in a quiet room.

The Earth’s magnetic field was so quiet on June 23 that this ripple was heard all over the world. The INTERMAGNET global network of magnetic observatories recorded wave activity simultaneously from Hawaii to China and the Arctic Circle and even in Antarctica.

PC waves are classified into 5 types depending on their period. The 10-minute wave June 23 falls into the Pc5 category. Slow Pc5 waves were associated with the loss of particles from Van Allen’s radiation belts. Energy electrons beat these waves down into the Earth’s atmosphere, where they scatter.

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Planet Earth

A rare deep-sea fish caught in the net near the island of Imizu, Japan

When Taku Suganuma pulled his fishing net off the coast of Imizu, he caught a catch he had never seen before. The strange fish had an unusual head and a silver body one meter long.

Suganuma, 24, caught fish on a Shintokumaru fishing boat, which sailed from Imizu when the squid fishing season was drawing to a close.

At first, he thought it was the Lowseil river fish, which is often caught on the net this season. However, a younger colleague, who knows about the species of fish, said that it could be a deep-sea North Pacific cuttlefish, aka a unicorn.

Suganuma decided to give the fish to the Wozu aquarium because of its rarity. North Pacific cuttlefish was delivered to a fishing vessel in Toyama Bay off the coast of Imizu.

According to records stored in the aquarium, North Pacific cuttlefish fish have not been seen in Toyama Prefecture for more than 30 years since one of them was found ashore at the mouth of the Katakaigawa River in Ouza in 1988. However, eight of the unicorns were either caught or hit the net from February to April last year.

The North Pacific cuttlefish is characterized by a red dorsal fin and releases black ink from its anus in response to danger.

It is believed that the fish lives in the intermediate layer at depths of 200 to 1000 meters from the coast, but details about its life remain unknown, because it is rarely caught.

Samples usually die quickly due to differences in water temperature and other factors when they are brought to the surface. Only one of the eight fish taken to the aquarium survived for about an hour.

It released a large amount of ink several times as it sailed in a large tank containing 16 tons of sea water, instantly limiting visibility to only 10 centimeters in advance.

Tomoharu Kimura, the owner of the aquarium, said the white flesh of the fish crunches like a flounder when served as sashimi, while it has a soft and simple taste.

A close look at the contents of its stomach gave a hint of life and the ecosystem of the North Pacific cuttlefish fish, as well as a threat to marine life: plastic waste.

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