Nine big stories you may have missed this summer

From mega-eruptions to Martian lakes, plenty of science emerged while you were on vacation


At around 8:45 p.m. on May 5, a new fissure from Kilauea began sputtering lava in this residential neighborhood. Within 15 minutes, fountains of molten rock were spewing up to heights of 70 meters (230 feet).

U.S. Geological Survey

Maybe you spent the summer at camp or at the beach. Perhaps you were just at home playing video games. If so, you might not have kept up with the latest happenings in science. We understand. Everyone needs to disconnect now and again. It’s even healthy. But some of what you missed was important, if not downright cool.

A volcano in Hawaii continued to erupt

Kilauea, a volcano on the big island of Hawaii, began spewing clouds and ash on May 3. Soon, lava engulfed whole neighborhoods, forcing people to leave their homes. And then the lava didn’t stop. This event has offered a rare opportunity to watch an eruption in real time. It’s also provided a lesson in volcanic vocabulary, introducing people to phenomena ranging from vog (volcanic fog) to a lavanado (a lava whirlwind).

There’s probably water on Mars

Scientists announced this summer that they had found what they think is a large lake of liquid water on the Red Planet. It’s hidden deep beneath thick layers of ice near Mars’ south pole. It’s also so cold that that to stay liquid it must be really salty. Researchers are excited that such a lake could be a reservoir for salt-adapted microbes.

High-speed cameras and other technologies have uncovered the ways that plants get around — and fast. Science News/YouTube

Plants are speedier than you might expect

Plants are just stuck to the ground and don’t really move, right? Hardly. Many can move quite rapidly. The Venus flytrap snaps its jaws to capture prey in an instant. And the explosive sandbox tree flings seeds the length of a swimming pool. Finding such plants isn’t all that hard. You just have to look.

‘Thirdhand’ smoke

People can be exposed to secondhand smoke by being near a smoker. But that smoke can stick to surfaces as “thirdhand” smoke. And this can linger. A new study finds that people can be exposed to such smoke even in places where no one has ever smoked. This is a worry because the chemicals in that smoke can react with others in the air to form cancer-causing compounds.

Electric fields let spiders know when to take flight

Before ballooning into the breeze, spiders stand on their tiptoes (as here) and let out silk threads. New research suggests electric fields might help spiders decide when to fly.

Many spiders drift high above Earth’s surface, carried by a parachute made of silk strands. Some of these ballooning spiders can even cross oceans. To take off, they need gentle air currents. But how do they know when it’s the right time to take flight? Electrical currents in the air may cue the spiders for takeoff, new research suggests.

A spacecraft took off and headed to the sun

At 3:31 am EDT on August 12, a rocket carrying the Parker Solar Probe left Earth. Thus began this spacecraft’s epic journey to the sun. The probe will whip around our star two dozen times over the next seven years. During the journey, it will make closeup observations of the solar wind and the sun’s outer atmosphere, known as the corona.

Wildfires cause major air pollution in the U.S. northwest

This summer, wildfires blazed across the western United States, from Montana to California. Those fires spewed plenty of lung-clogging pollution. In fact, for many impacted western states, air pollution on days with the most extreme smoke is now worse than it was 30 years ago.

Some bacteria can eat antibiotics

Antibiotics are the chemicals designed to kill bacteria. But a new study found that some bacteria like to nosh on those drugs. That’s not necessarily bad. Someday, researchers might be able to harness those microbes to clean up medicines that have polluted the environment.

Researchers recorded narwhals for the first time

What does a narwhal sound like? With the help from some native Greenland hunters, scientists tagged six of the skittish cetaceans with recorders. Those devices picked up a rich array of sounds, including clicks, whistles and trumpets.

Several whales socialize with each other at a depth of 65 meters (210 feet), using clicks, whistles and trumpet sounds.

A female narwhal communicates using pulselike sounds as she swims near the surface of the ocean.

Audio: S. Blackwell

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