image title

ASU researchers find microbial heat islands in the desert

January 20, 2016

Deserts are often thought of as barren places that are left exposed to the extremes of heat and cold and where not much is afoot. But that view is being altered as new research reveals the intricate ecological dynamics of deserts as they change in response to the elements.

New research from Arizona State University shows how microbes can significantly warm the desert surface by darkening it, much in the same way that dark clothes will make the wearer feel warmer in sunlight. These desert-darkening organisms make a living basking in the sun and form a mantle that covers the landscape.

Such mantles, called biological soil crusts or biocrusts, provide important ecosystem services, such as fighting erosion, preventing dust storms or fertilizing the ground with carbon and nitrogen.

The new ASU research shows how the biocrust microorganisms, in an effort to protect themselves from harmful ultraviolet rays in the strong desert sun, produce and lay down so much sunscreen as to noticeably darken the soil, changing the reflectivity of the desert surface as they spread across the land. 

An aerial shot of the desert, with the soil on one side darker than the other.

A biocrust turns a dark
color (left) in the desert
outside Chandler, Arizona.
These crusts can raise
the temperature of the
desert floor by as much as
18 degrees Fahrenheit.

Photo by Ferran

The research is outlined in the article “Bacteria increase arid-land soil surface temperature through the production of sunscreens,” published in the Jan. 20 online issue of Nature Communications. It was written by Estelle Couradeau, a Marie Curie postdoctoral fellow at Arizona State University, and Ferran Garcia-Pichel, an ASU professor and dean of natural sciences in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. It is part of a long-term institutional collaboration with Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, whose fellow scientists Trent Northen, Ulas Karaoz, Hsiaon Chiem Lin, Ulisses Nunes da Rocha and Eoin Brodie are co-authors of the paper.

“We have found that the presence of sunscreen-bearing crusts can actually raise local surface temperature by as much as 10 degrees Celsius (18 degrees Fahrenheit). Because globally they cover some 20 percent of Earth’s continents, biocrusts, their microbes and sunscreens must be important players in global heat budgets,” said Couradeau, the lead author of the paper. “We estimate that there must be some 15 million metric tons of this one microbial sunscreen compound, called scytonemin, warming desert soils worldwide.”

Couradeau spent the past three years studying biocrusts in the laboratory of Garcia-Pichel.

“An increase of 18 degrees Fahrenheit is not without consequence, and we can show that the darkening of the crust brings about important modifications in the soil microbiome, the community of microorganisms in the soil, allowing warm-loving types to do better,” Garcia-Pichel said.

“This warming effect is likely to speed up soil chemical and biological reactions, and can make a big difference between being frozen or not when it gets cold,” he explained. “On the other hand, it may put local organisms at increased risk when it is already quite hot.”

Couradeau and Garcia-Pichel said that although biocrusts have been overlooked in the past, they are now getting much closer scrutiny from scientists.

“Biocrusts, while cryptic, deserve more consideration from us,” Couradeau said. “We need to include them in our climate models and speak about them in the classroom.”

image title

Innovation Day introduces next wave of journalism

Cronkite School showcases the future of journalism tools.
Wanna fly a drone? Try being a journalist.
January 20, 2016

Cronkite School showcases storytelling possibilities, like sending drones into volcanoes or creating 3-D videos

The Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication’s First Amendment Forum was a hive of digital activity Wednesday evening.

Telepresence robots syncing people from outside the room roamed the space, people were enjoying virtual-reality experiences through their smartphones and attendees were downloading new apps.

But the room wasn’t filled with software developers gathered at a tech expo; rather they were journalism students who saw the future and embraced it.

“Journalism today is about the power of the visual image and experiencing the world around you,” said Scotty Bara, a 21-year-old junior at the Cronkite School, who was holding up a small juice-glass-size 360-degree camera up into the light to check its capability and range. “It’s a stepping-stone for storytelling, and these experiences are going to shape the way we view news.”

Just as the digital era radically changed news content with the rise of high-speed Internet and mobile technology, the Cronkite School used its first-ever Innovation Day to demonstrate how the next wave of technology will impact the future of news coverage.

Retha Hill, who heads up Cronkite’s New Media Innovation Lab and who is the former executive producer for special products at, headed up the first wave of digital products for the newspaper industry in the mid-1990s. On Wednesday she introduced students to Vrse, a specialized and focused production studio that supports virtual-reality spherical filmmaking from a variety of sources, including the New York Times, Vice News, “Saturday Night Live” and the United Nations. Picture a video story that allows the user to look all around, including up, down and behind, to fully explore a story.

Hill said Cronkite is developing an app similar to Vrse that will use a variety of emerging technologies, including a 360-degree camera, still photography, Google maps and virtual reality.

“Five years from now people will turn their entertainment rooms, that were once filled with large-screen TVs and electronics, into immersive media rooms where they can have virtual experiences and say, ‘Take me to Tahiti!’ ” Hill said. 

Geoffrey Bruce, chief exploration software architect in ASU’s School of Earth and Space Exploration, wasn’t transporting students to Tahiti, but he was taking them on virtual fields trips to the Grand Canyon, Panama and Australia by way of his DJI drone and 4k camera. Bruce said his school is using the technology to teach geology students by taking them to hard-to-reach places. He also sees the possibilities in journalism.

“Let’s say a volcano erupts and you want to cover a story without putting anyone in danger,” Bruce said. “This drone is the best and most efficient way to do that.”

Nic Lindh, institution technology analyst for Cronkite, told students about new apps for reporters such as Bubbli, which gives smartphones 360-degree capability; Seene, which allows for tablets to have 3-D images; and TouchCast, which gives broadcasts pop-up graphics.

“The whole idea behind these apps is to put editing tools in their pockets with an eye to speed and quality,” Lindh said. “These new capabilities lead to all kinds of possibilities.

Hill said new technology combined with the fearless attitude of today’s students and adaptability translates into compelling news content and better employment opportunities.

“Students are either comfortable with technology right away or they’ll say, ‘Take me out of my comfort zone and make me learn this.’ My job is to make them feel safe about using it,” Hill said. “Students who master these technologies will be the first in the newsroom to have a job — and that’s been one of my biggest selling points.”