Mount Etna Erupts! Italian Volcano Spews Ash And Lava

Mount Etna, the famous Sicilian volcano, turned on the fireworks Wednesday (Jan. 12) as it shot lava hundreds of feet into the air.

Volcanic tremors at Mount Etna, on the Italian island, were detected around 21:00 GMT (4 p.m. EST) on Jan. 11. The tremors peaked the next morning and lava began erupting at the Southeast Crater, about 4,500 feet (1,375 meters) high. The crater pit overflowed with lava and ash plumes spewed into the air, which forced a local airport to halt service. The ash plumes had stopped by about 3:30 p.m. local time today (Jan. 13), according to the Italian Institute of Vocanology (INGV), citing surveillance cameras observing Etna.

But more eruptions could be on the way, scientists said.

"This eruption is very similar to more than 200 episodes of lava fountaining at the summit craters of Mount Etna — including 66 from the Southeast Crater in the year 2000," said Boris Behncke, a volcanologist and expert on Mount Etna. "The same vent that erupted last night already produced nearly identical — though longer-lasting — episodes in September and November 2007 and most recently on May 10, 2008."

Etna is the largest active volcano in Europe and one of the world's most well-known. While 2010 was an exceptionally calm year for Etna, it is nearly constantly active and there is rarely a full year that passes without some eruptive activity on Etna, Behncke told OurAmazingPlanet.

"We expected Etna to return to activity in this period," Behncke said. "There had been lots of premonitory signals."

Two episodes of much weaker activity at the same vent that erupted last night — one on Dec. 23 2010, and the next on Jan. 2 and 3 of 2011 — suggested that a larger eruption was on the way.

"We expected further episodes at similar intervals, and also thought they would get stronger with time," Behncke said. "Things did accelerate maybe a tiny little bit faster than we had imagined, but the evolution was very logical, and again, very similar to many events in the past."

Etna's lava fountaining may go on for weeks or even months, similar to past episodes such as the series of 66 lava fountains during 2000, which lasted seven months, Behncke said.

At a height of 10,900 feet (3,328 meters), Etna looms over the city of Catania. As active as the volcano is, it's not a pressing danger to locals, and no damage or injuries were reported or expected from yesterday's eruption. Etna's most violent eruption was in 1669, when 15,000 people were killed.

The eruption is what's called a strombolian explosion, named after the nearby volcano of the same name that has been erupting for hundreds of years. Bursting gas bubbles within the magma drive these explosions, which eject lava tens to hundreds of meters into the air from a single crater. These episodes happen every few minutes, rhythmically or irregularly. The lava fragments — volcanic bombs — are rounded as they fly through the air.

The ancient Greeks believed Mount Etna to be the home of Vulcan, the god of fire. To them, Mount Etna erupting merely meant Vulcan was forging weapons for Mars, the god of war.

Reach OurAmazingPlanet staff writer Brett Israel at Follow him on Twitter @btisrael.

Drug Helps Obese People Drop Weight And Keep It Off

The diabetes drug liraglutide can help obese people who don't have diabetes lose weight and keep it off, new findings confirm.

Researchers found that 63 percent of study participants given liraglutide for 56 weeks lost at least 5 percent of their body weight — the amount experts agree is needed to make a difference in obesity-related health problems — whereas just 27 percent of the placebo group lost that much.

"It is a very effective drug. It seems to be as good as any of the others on the market, so it adds another possibility for doctors to treat patients who are having trouble either losing weight or maintaining weight loss once they get the weight off," said Dr. Xavier Pi-Sunyer,  a professor of medicine at Columbia University Medical Center in New York City, and first author of the new study published today (July 1) in the New England Journal of Medicine. The company Novo Nordisk, the maker of liraglutide, funded the research.

Liraglutide has been available in the United States for treating people with diabetes since 2010. The drug mimics a naturally occurring hormone called glucagon-like peptide-1, which is released in the human intestine and reduces hunger, increases satiety and slows the rate at which the stomach empties its contents into the small intestine. The Food and Drug Administration approved liraglutide (at a higher dose than is used for diabetes) for treating obesity in December 2014.

In the new study, Pi-Sunyer and his colleagues randomly assigned 3,731 men and women with a body mass index of at least 30, or a BMI of at least 27 if they also had high cholesterol or high blood pressure, to receive a 3.0-milligram dose of liraglutide daily, or a placebo shot. Study participants also received counseling on ways to change their lifestyle to promote weight loss. About 2,500 patients in the study were given liraglutide, and about 1,200 were given the placebo injections.

After 56 weeks, the participants on liraglutide lost an average of 18.5 pounds, compared with 6.4 pounds for the people on the placebo. Among the patients on liraglutide, 33 percent lost at least 10 percent of their body weight, whereas just 11 percent of the placebo group lost that much. [7 Biggest Diet Myths]

The most common side effects of the drug were nausea and diarrhea. Patients on the medication were also at increased risk of gallbladder-related problems, which, the authors noted, could have been due to their above-average weight loss.

Starting patients at a lower dose and then increasing it gradually helps reduce gastrointestinal side effects, Pi-Sunyer said. For most patients, the nausea went away after they had been on the drug for four to six weeks, he added.

Drawbacks to the medication include its high cost — about $1,000 for a month of treatment — and the fact that it must be given by injection. Currently, most insurers don't cover liraglutide for treating obesity. Also, Pi-Sunyer said, patients will probably have to be on the drug indefinitely to maintain weight loss.

Nevertheless, "every tool we discover for obesity is good news," said Dr. Elias Siraj, a professor of medicine at Temple University School of Medicine in Philadelphia, who was not involved in the new study but co-authored an editorial accompanying it in the journal. "The reason is, we are in the midst of a huge global obesity epidemic, and there's no question it has not been easy to manage obesity."

Many of the people in the study who lost weight on liraglutide remained obese, Siraj said, although this doesn't mean they didn't benefit from losing weight. "Previous studies have shown if you lose more than 5 percent of your body weight, it may not make a difference in how you look from outside, but it does make a difference in terms of metabolic parameters and cardiovascular risk factors," he said.

The patients who will likely benefit the most from liraglutide are those with diabetes, high blood pressure, cholesterol and other obesity-related problems, he added. "You can't make a blanket recommendation that everyone should be on it," he said. "Cost is going to be an issue initially, but hopefully down the road the cost will get better."

The increased risk of gallstones and other problems associated with liraglutide should be investigated further, Siraj said. "There is always room for caution until we have long-term data."

"While there's room for options, we also have to note that this is not a cure," he told Live Science. "Fundamentally, obesity is a disease of lifestyle — diet and exercise — and therefore lifestyle modification has to be the core, no matter what you do. Medications alone are not going to do it."

Follow Live Science @livescience, Facebook & Google+. Original article on Live Science.

Ice Mission Accomplished: Antarctic Survey Wraps Up

After weeks of flying hours-long missions over the barren icescape of Antarctica, NASA's IceBridge campaign has come to a close for the season, and scientists hope it yields a better picture of the changes happening on the southernmost continent.

Operation IceBridge began in 2009 using specialized instruments aboard aircraft to collect data about the thickness of Arctic and Antarctic ice on both sea and land and how fast glaciers are moving, to better understand potential impacts from the poles on global sea-level rise. The Antarctic campaign is conducted in Northern Hemisphere autumn (the Southern Hemisphere's spring), while the Arctic campaign flies in the Northern Hemisphere spring.

The 2011 Antarctic mission began in October with IceBridge's Gulfstream V and DC-8 planes taking off from their base in Punta Arenas, Chile, and flying particular paths over the Antarctic ice. The flights, which typically last 10-to-11 hours, take the same routes year-to-year to better observe the changes happening there.

The early flights focused on sea ice, before too much of it melted with the warming temperatures of the austral spring. IceBridge sea-ice flights are designed to help scientists understand why sea ice in the Southern Hemisphere is not thinning to the same extent seen in the Arctic. [Images: IceBridge in Action Over Antarctica]

On Nov. 9, the team made its longest flight of the mission to date, a 12.5-hour flight on the DC-8 to the Thwaites Glacier and eastern Byrd Land, including overflights of ice-core-sample locations. This flight also reached the most southerly point of any of the IceBridge flights, with a latitude just short of 80 degrees south.

"Upon reaching the Amundsen Sea, the weather was not at all promising, but after a short time, it cleared up and conditions remained favorable for the rest of the day," Pilot-in-Command Troy Asher of NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center said in a statement. "The research area was like Kansas in Antarctica, flat for as far as the eye could see in all directions."

After a delayed takeoff to allow weather over the target area to clear, the team was back in the air Nov. 11 for a low-level return flight over the Thwaites Glacier. As a bonus, it also flew a now-famous crack that recently broke across the Pine Island Glacier to get data with its topographic mapper.

Sunlight glistens across the water and the ragged edge of the Pine Island Glacier ice shelf during a low-level pass by NASA's DC-8 flying laboratory during an IceBridge mission flight Nov. 11.
Sunlight glistens across the water and the ragged edge of the Pine Island Glacier ice shelf during a low-level pass by NASA’s DC-8 flying laboratory during an IceBridge mission flight Nov. 11.

Credit: NASA

"The view was spectacular of both the rift and glacier edge under sunny skies," said NASA Dryden Mission Manager Chris Miller, who noted that the glacier rift should create a calving iceberg anytime between a few weeks from now and a few months.

Earlier in the mission, the team also flew over Pine Island Glacier to take new measurements over areas where a drilling mission will be on the ground in a few weeks to take up-close measurements and drill cores of ice from the glacier to better understand its movements and potential to melt. Pine Island Glacier is the fastest-moving glacier in western Antarctica, gliding at a clip of about 2.5 miles (4 km) per year.

An 11.2-hour flight Nov. 13 took the IceBridge team over the Crosson Ice Shelf, with some of the data-collection flight tracks extending over the Thwaites and Dotson ice shelves and over Mt. Murphy in between.

Jagged rocks and precipitous snow banks were just outside as NASA's DC-8 flying laboratory crested a mountain range during a low-level science flight over the Antarctic Peninsula Nov. 16.
Jagged rocks and precipitous snow banks were just outside as NASA’s DC-8 flying laboratory crested a mountain range during a low-level science flight over the Antarctic Peninsula Nov. 16.

Credit: NASA/Chris Miller

On Monday, Nov. 14, the IceBridge science team had a rare opportunity to collect data over glaciers on the east side of the northern Antarctic Peninsula that normally are enshrouded by clouds.

After a final weekend of data-collection flights, the DC-8 and the IceBridge team are scheduled to return home Nov. 22 to the airborne science laboratory's base at the Dryden Aircraft Operations Facility in Palmdale, Calif. The Gulfstream returned to the United States earlier this month.

This story was provided by OurAmazingPlanet , a sister site to LiveScience.

The Fascinating History Of Urine Tests

To a doctor, urine can provide much information. One way for doctors to find out what’s going on inside the body is to examine what flows out of it. So don’t be surprised the next time a doctor asks for a urine sample for a seemingly non-urinary complaint.

In fact, be a little proud. When you hand over that little cup, you’re participating in a medical tradition more than 6,000 years in the making.

Ancient Babylonian and Sumerian physicians first inscribed their evaluations of urine into clay tablets as early as 4,000 B.C.

Later, in ancient Greece, Hippocrates, often called the father of Western medicine, expanded on urine’s importance: “No other organ system or organ of the human body provides so much information by its excretion as does the urinary system,” he wrote.

By the late middle ages, the study of urine had solidified into the practice known as uroscopy. Medieval doctors associated nearly every known disease with urinary characteristics , and some would diagnose patients without even meeting them just by examining a bottle of their urine.

Uroscopy was commonplace, and it shows up in Shakespeare’s writings. In Henry IV, when Falstaff asks “What says the doctor to my water?” He’s not just asking about his urinary health; because urine was so central to medicine at that time, he was effectively asking for the results of his entire checkup.

Although many uroscopy tests done in those times have been discredited, certain tests are still done today because they accurately indicate health problems, said Eric Wallen, a professor of urology at the University of North Carolina. “Malodorous urine is accurately classified as infected, red urine still notable for the presence of blood, [and] brown urine for bilirubin or blood products,” Wallen said.

“But it would be a rare physician today who [only] utilized this form of analysis,” Wallen said, and it would be especially rare to find one still “tasting the urine to diagnose diabetes .”

Follow MyHealthNewsDaily on Twitter @MyHealth_MHND. Like us on Facebook.

Better Sleep May Help Improve Schizophrenia

Sleep problems and schizophrenia may have common roots, raising hopes that the devastating mental disorder could be improved by helping patients overcome insomnia.

In a new study monitoring the sleep and circadian rhythms of people with schizophrenia, researchers found many more sleep problems in the schizophrenia patients versus mentally healthy controls. Combined with other research linking a schizophrenia-related gene with sleep-wake cycles in mice, the findings suggest that sleep and schizophrenia are more closely intertwined than ever realized, study researcher Russell Foster told LiveScience.

"We've been thinking of sleep disruption as one of the genetic, developmental and environmental contributors to the development of these appalling conditions," said Foster, who is a circadian and visual neuroscientist at the University of Oxford. 

Sleep and schizophrenia

Clinicians have long recognized that schizophrenia and disturbed sleep go hand-in-hand — about 80 percent of schizophrenia patients have sleep problems, Foster said. But these problems have usually been dismissed as a medication side effect or as the result of social isolation and unemployment in people with the disorder. [10 Stigmatized Health Disorders]

"That didn't make too much sense to me," Foster said.

Many mental disorders come with a side of sleep problems, including depression and bipolar disorder, Foster and his colleagues realized. And intriguingly, genes linked to circadian rhythm — the neural and biological system that attunes our sleep-wake cycles to dark and light — may play a role in some of these disorders. A gene called SNAP25, for example, is known to be important in the circadian system. SNAP25 abnormalities have also been linked to schizophrenia.

Studying sleep

In order to take a systematic look at the circadian rhythms of people with schizophrenia, Foster and his colleagues recruited 20 people with the disease and instructed them to wear movement-detecting wristwatches for six weeks. The amount of motion detected can be analyzed to determine whether the person is asleep or awake, given the vastly different movement patterns between the two states.

The patients also filled out questionnaires and kept daily diaries of their sleep and activities. All of the patients were taking medication to control their symptoms, and they had all been stable on that medication for at least three months. Finally, the patients gave 48 hours work of urine samples to be tested for melatonin, a hormone that regulates sleep (melatonin makes a person sleepy).

For comparison, the researchers asked another 21 mentally healthy but unemployed adults to wear the same watches and keep the same records as the people with schizophrenia. Unemployed people were chosen because the patients with schizophrenia were all unemployed, and employment can alter sleep patterns by forcing people to get up with an alarm clock.

The insomnia of schizophrenia

A comparison between the two groups revealed that while unemployed people keep fairly regular sleep hours, every person with schizophrenia in the sample had a sleep problem.

"What became very clear is that they are massively and completely disrupted," Foster said.

This disruption did not follow a common pattern. Some people with schizophrenia went to bed late and got up late, with their melatonin release patterns delayed by several hours compared with healthy counterparts. Others would get up later and later every day, their circadian rhythms "drifting" through time. The most severely affected showed no normal 24-hour sleep-wake pattern at all. They'd alternate sleep and activity throughout the day and night. [Are You Getting Enough Sleep? (Infographic)]

The results weren't the result of unemployment, because the unemployed-but-healthy group did not show them. Nor could they be linked to any specific medication or dosage level, Foster said.

These results, published in the April issue of the British Journal of Psychiatry, mesh with another recent study by Foster's team, this one published in January in the journal Current Biology. In that study, the researchers examined the sleep-wake behaviors of mice with a SNAP25 gene mutation mimicking schizophrenia.

"Quite amazingly those mice show a [sleep] pattern which is just like the patients with schizophrenia," Foster said.

In mice, the problem arises in broken communication between the cells in the brain that set the body's "clock" and the neurons that then go on to match the body's physiology to that clock. If the same is true of humans with schizophrenia, Foster said, it's possible that by easing sleep troubles, you could also decrease schizophrenia symptoms. This could be done with light therapy, melatonin treatment or even cognitive-behavioral therapy, a kind of talk therapy that helps patients change behaviors such as when and how they fall asleep.

"We want to look at individuals with full-blown conditions, bipolar, psychosis, schizophrenia, to try to develop therapies which will stabilize sleep-wake," Foster said. "And at the same time look precisely at the impact we're having on their physiology."

You can follow LiveScience senior writer Stephanie Pappas on Twitter @sipappas. Follow LiveScience for the latest in science news and discoveries on Twitter @livescience and on Facebook.

Few Friends Or Many: Which Is Best?

Whether one has a small, cozy group of friends or a larger, more boisterous gaggle may depend on individual personalities and circumstances, but new research suggests when deciding which type is best, socioeconomic conditions are key.

"In the age of Facebook, many Americans seem to opt for a broad, shallow networking strategy," write Shigehiro Oishi of the University of Virginia and Selin Kesebir of the London Business School last week in the journal Psychological Science. "Yet, cross-cultural research has shown that having many friends is not always viewed positively outside the United States." (For instance, in Ghana, they noted, an individual who claimed to have more than 50 friends was considered "naïve" and "foolish.")

The researchers suspected social and financial conditions may be at play. For instance, Americans' preference for large social networks may stem from our high mobility; the researchers cite a 2001 study showing roughly half of Americans move their residence in any five-year period. By spreading the love among many friends, we'd minimize the loss from any single friend moving away. In addition, when times are prosperous, having a large group of friends is less likely to weigh one down, since people are less likely to need as much help in good financial times, the researchers note.

"But when times aren't as flush, having more friends might incur huge costs in terms of both time and resources," the duo writes.

To look at the benefits one might receive from friendship circles under various socioeconomic conditions, the researchers created a computer model that simulated individuals who had different numbers and types of friends and the investment needed for each. Their results suggested a small social network with deep ties between pals was beneficial in less mobile societies with unstable economies. Having a broad, shallower network (weaker ties between friends) appeared advantageous in situations where friends were likely to move away, regardless of economics.

Would this pattern hold up in real life? To find out, Oishi and Kesebir recruited 247 individuals with an average age of 31 in an online survey who were asked to list the initials of one very close friend, one close friend and one distant friend. Then, they were asked to distribute 60 points, which represented their time, energy and money, among these friend types. The researchers also looked at census data to figure out how frequently people moved around and for family income in each ZIP code studied.

In areas with less mobility and relatively low income, participants were happier (as measured by three variables on subjective well-being) when they had fewer, yet closer friends compared with a broad social network with weaker ties. [7 Things That Will Make You Happy]

And those Americans in the study living in other socioeconomic conditions — high mobility and rich, low mobility and rich, and high mobility and poor — were happier if they had a broad, shallow social network than if they stuck to a few close friends.

Oishi and Kesebir argue that these two studies provide clear evidence for the role of socioeconomic factors — such as residential mobility and economic security — in determining the most adaptive networking strategy.

"As residential mobility decreases and economic recession deepens in the United States, the optimal social-networking strategy might shift from the broad but shallow to the narrow but deep, even in a nation known best for the strength of weak ties," the researchers write.

Follow LiveScience on Twitter @livescience. We're also on Facebook & Google+.

Old Nasa Computers, Tapes Found In Dead Man's Basement

Two huge, Apollo-era NASA computers and more than 300 data-recording tapes were found in the Pittsburgh basement of a dead engineer in late 2015, according to media reports.

In November 2015, a scrap dealer was invited to clean out the basement of the recently deceased IBM engineer, who did some work for NASA at the height of the Space Race, Ars Technica reported. The dealer found about 325 magnetic data tapes and the two giant computers, both of which were marked "NASA Property." 

The scrap dealer contacted NASA to inform the agency of the find, and NASA's Office of the Inspector General (OIG) performed an investigation. Ars Technica obtained the OIG's report via a Freedom of Information Act request.

"Please tell NASA these items were not stolen," the engineer's heir told the scrap dealer, according to the OIG report. "They belonged to IBM Allegheny Center, Pittsburgh, PA 15212. During the 1968-1972 time frame, IBM was getting rid of the items, so [the engineer] asked if he could have them and was told he could have them."

The relevant names have been redacted in the OIG report.

NASA officials told the deceased engineer's family that the agency did not need the computers back. After further investigation, an agency archivist determined that 93 of the tapes contained data from Pioneer 10 or Pioneer 11, flyby missions to Jupiter and Saturn that launched in the early 1970s.

A few of the other tapes recorded data from the Pioneer 8, Pioneer 9, Helios 1 and Intelsat IV missions, but most of the recordings — about 215 of them — could not be identified. The archivist recommended that all the tapes — which were moldy and in generally poor condition — be destroyed, because they didn't contain anything of historical significance.

You can read the NASA OIG report here and the full story at Ars Technica here

Follow Mike Wall on Twitter @michaeldwall and Google+. Follow us @Spacedotcom, Facebook or Google+. Originally published on

Ufo Video Over South Korea: Fact Or Faked?

An airplane passenger videoed a mysterious oval white object flying over Seoul, South Korea, April 7. The video has been lighting up the Internet since, and of course many people are offering extraterrestrial explanations.

As is de rigueur these days, the UFO clip was uploaded to YouTube, where it has been viewed millions of times. Some comments say it's clearly an extraterrestrial spacecraft; others insist it's a fake. Still others say it's neither but instead is a real object — such as a plastic bag in the wind, a parachute seen from above, or a drop of water on the window — that simply looks strange from that angle.

Aside from the anonymity of the cameraman, the video raises some red flags about its authenticity. For one thing, the video is not complete; it has been purposely edited to leave some information out. We know this because it begins in progress, with the UFO already well in frame, in the lower right-hand corner. The video camera didn't suddenly turn on to capture that scene; there must be at least some video that was recorded the first few seconds of the camera being turned on or the cameraman pointing the camera out the window. This type of selective editing is common among UFO hoax videos.

There's also the fact that the cameraman waits almost seven seconds before he mentions the UFO to his companion. It's clearly present, and it would be hard to keep your reaction to yourself if you were watching while you were videotaping.

Perhaps most strange, even though he clearly spots the UFO, the cameraman makes no effort to follow the object after it zooms up and out of frame; instead he videotapes more or less the same area of sky for the remaining 10 seconds of the clip. [Video of UFOs Swarming Over Las Vegas Is for the Birds]

While these internal clues suggest something's not right with the video, the question remains: Was it a real object? Some of the most popular explanations don't fit the facts. A plastic bag, for example, would be unlikely to reach that altitude (and would not appear that large), and a parachute could not move as seen in the video.

The best earthly explanation for the UFO is that it's a droplet of water on the outside of the window being pushed up by airflow coming from under the fuselage. This would explain why the UFO is out of focus: because it's close to the lens. It would not, however, explain why the UFO appears to maintain a constant shape. Droplets of water, especially when subjected to high pressure, tend to deform and leave droplet trails as they move across a smooth surface. This one does not.

Then there's the fact that the light and shadow pattern on the blurry white object doesn't change as it moves. It's almost as if the UFO intentionally maintained exactly the same angle toward the camera the whole time — not impossible, but highly suspicious.

Absent a terrestrial explanation, we turned to Derek Serra, a Hollywood visual effects artist who has analyzed previous UFO videos. Serra said he finds several elements in this South Korean UFO video that "scream fake," including that "the motion blur was done by an amateur," he told Life's Little Mysteries. "When the camera zooms in a bit, and when the UFO flies off screen, you can seen 'ghosting' of the image. Actual motion blur of real, three-dimensional objects creates a smooth gradient, not a stuttered ghosting like we see in this video. It is something we make sure we do right when working on shots for TV and film."

Though all signs point to a hoax, it's possible that alien spacecraft technology is so advanced that the spacecraft have the sneaky ability to appear on our cameras looking exactly like faked video images.

This story was provided by Life's Little Mysteries, a sister site to LiveScience. Follow Life's Little Mysteries on Twitter @llmysteries, then join us on Facebook.

Unlikely Cousins: Whales And Hippos

If the idea of whales being mammals has always seemed a bit wild, then you’ll probably be surprised to learn that the giant aquatic beasts are pretty closely related to the hippopotamus.

Scientists have been wrangling over these relations for centuries.

One theory had been that hippos were related to pigs. Yet mounting evidence suggested they are closer to whales. A new study concludes that a four-footed semi-aquatic mammal that thrived for some 40 million years was a common ancestor to both whales and hippos.

“The problem with hippos is, if you look at the general shape of the animal it could be related to horses, as the ancient Greeks thought, or pigs, as modern scientists thought, while molecular phylogeny shows a close relationship with whales,” said Jean-Renaud Boisserie, a post-doctoral fellow at the University of California, Berkeley. “But cetaceans – whales, porpoises and dolphins – don’t look anything like hippos.”

To complicate matters, there is a 40-million-year gap between fossils of early cetaceans and early hippos.

Boisserie and colleagues in France say they’ve filled in the gap with fossils of a “water-loving animal” that evolved into two groups, early cetaceans and a group of four-legged animals called anthracotheres. The pig-like anthracotheres, which developed at least 37 distinct genera, died out less than 2.5 million years ago, leaving only one line: the hippopotamus.

The analysis puts whales within a large group of cloven-hoofed mammals called Artiodactyla. That makes them relatives of cows, pigs, sheep, antelopes, camels and giraffes, too.

The idea of whales and hippos being related has gained steam in recent years. Boisserie’s team analyzed new and previous hippo, whale and anthracothere fossils to pin down anthracotheres as the missing link between hippos and cetaceans, they say.

“Our study is the most complete to date, including lots of different taxa and a lot of new characteristics,” Boisserie said. But leaving the case not quite shut, he added: “Our results are very robust and a good alternative to our findings is still to be formulated.”

Tsunami Hits Japan After Massive 8.9 Earthquake

Update 5:00 p.m. EST:

Much of the harbor in Crescent City, California, has been destroyed, and one person is feared dead, according to the Los Angeles Times. In Chile, officials have upgraded a tsunami warning to an alert and ordered coastal residents to evacuate, CNN Chile reported.

Related Coverage

Update 3:05 p.m. EST:

The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released a video showing how the tsunami has spread. Crescent City, California, has been hit hard, with reports of waves up to 6 feet (1.8 meters) tall.

Update 2:42 p.m. EST:

A magnitude 6.2 earthquake has struck off the west coast of Honshu, but it's not clear yet if it's related to the 8.9 magnitude quake. There have been about 100 aftershocks of magnitude 5 or greater since the mainshock, according to the USGS. At a press conference, scientists said the entire island of Honshu moved eastward by 8 feet (2.3 m).

Update 1:10 p.m. EST:

In Hawaii, the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center hase lifted the evacuation order. Waves have reached northern California, with heights of 2.5 feet (0.7 meters) at Point Arena, 1.6 feet (0.5 m) at San Francisco and 2.4 feet (0.7 m) at Monterey.

Update 11:55 a.m. EST:

In Hawaii, the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center is reporting waves of 4.6 feet (1.5 meters) in Hilo, Big Island, 5.7 feet (1.7 m) in Kahului, Maui, and 2.3 feet (0.7 m) in Honolulu. Australia, Mexico, Central and South America are also under a tsunami warning

Update 11:30 a.m. EST:

The latest death toll is now at 137, with 531 reported missing, according to the Kyodo News Agency, citing police. Additionally, 200 to 300 bodies have been found in coastal Sendai, CNN reported. In the United States, tsunami waves are being reported near the California-Oregon border, in Port Orford, Oregon, and Crescent City, California.

Update 10:40 a.m. EST:

Japan's Kyodo News Service, citing Japan's defense forces, said 60,000 to 70,000 people were being evacuated to shelters in the Sendai area. In Hawaii, waves up to 7 feet (2 meters) high hit near Maui. The waves are rolling in every 15 minutes. No major damage has been reported in the two hours since the first waves hit.

Below is our original news story, which remains as originally posted:

Editor's Note: This story was updated at 9:25 a.m. EST.

An 8.9-magnitude earthquake struck northern Japan today (March 11), triggering tsunamis across the area that reportedly swept cars, buildings and other debris well inland.

The epicenter of the March 11 earthquake occurred near the east coast of Honshu, Japan.
The epicenter of the March 11 earthquake occurred near the east coast of Honshu, Japan.

Credit: USGS

The epicenter of the earthquake was 231 miles (373 kilometers) northeast of Tokyo and 80 miles (130 km) east of Sendai, Honshu, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

A tsunami is a series of waves where the first one may not be the largest; wave heights can't be predicted and can change as the water hits the coast, according to the USGS.

The March 11 earthquake was preceded by a series of large foreshocks over the last two days — the first of which was a 7.2-magnitude quake on March 9 about 25 miles (40 km) from the March 11 earthquake. Today's temblor occurred as a result of thrust-faulting on or near the subduction zone, where Earth's Pacific plate thrusts underneath Japan at the Japan Trench.  

The Japan Meteorological Society has forecast more major tsunamis in the area, with some expected to reach more than 30 feet (10 m) off the coast of Hokkaido, Japan's second largest island. A tsunami was also generated off the coast of Hawaii, one that could cause damage along the coastlines of all islands in the state of Hawaii, according to the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center. Tsunami warnings are in effect across Hawaii as well.

A Tsunami Warning is also in effect for:

  • Coastal areas of California and Oregon from Point Concepcion, Calif., to the Oregon-Washington border.
  • Coastal areas of Alaska from Amchitka Pass, Alaska (125 miles west of Adak) to Attu, Alaska.

(A Tsunami Warning is the highest tsunami alert and means a tsunami is imminent. All coastal residents in the warning area who are near the beach or in low-lying regions should move immediately inland to higher ground and away from all harbors and inlets including those sheltered directly from the sea.)

A Tsunami Advisory is in effect for:

  • Coastal areas of California from the California-Mexico border to Point Concepcion, Calif.
  • Coastal areas of Washington, British Columbia and Alaska from the Oregon-Washington border to Amchitka Pass, Alaska.

(A Tsunami Advisory is the third highest tsunami alert and means that a tsunami capable of producing strong currents or waves dangerous to people near water is expected.)

As for why some earthquakes trigger tsunamis and others don't, scientists say several factors come into play, including the strength of the quake (below 7.5- or 7.0-magnitude quakes don't typically cause tsnamis), the direction of the temblor's motion and the topography of the seafloor, according to the USGS.