A coronal mass ejection hits Earth’s atmosphere like a cannonball. The cloud of solar matter, created during storms on the sun, will fizzle through the thinnest parts of Earth’s protective magnetic field and send waves of light dancing across the polar night skies. It can disrupt communications and fry electrical grids. And if our planet’s protection was just a bit weaker, and more of that explosive solar matter reached the surface, the consequences for life could be devastating. But it also may have helped make life on Earth possible. That’s according to a new study in the journal Nature Geoscience, theorizing that extremely powerful and frequent coronal mass ejections from a stormy young sun could have warmed our infant planet, helping make conditions suitable for life about 4 billion years ago. “It shows how even harmful things in moderation can be helpful, especially in the very early stage,” said Dimitar Sasselov, an astronomer at Harvard University who was not involved in the study.

Tiny sparrow could be extinct in 50 years

The saltmarsh sparrow is disappearing from its home on the East Coast and could be headed for extinction in as little as 50 years, say scientists whose work could help protect the little birds. The sparrows, which weigh about half an ounce, live in coastal areas from Maine to Virginia during the breeding season and migrate farther south in the winter. Researchers with a group of universities have been tracking them for several years and reported this week that eight out of every 10 of the birds has disappeared in the past 15 years. The birds still number in the tens of thousands. But University of Maine professor Brian Olsen, one of the researchers studying the sparrow, said their population has dropped about 9 percent annually since 1998.

Reptile gives look at post-apocalypse life

A newly discovered marine reptile is giving scientists a glimpse into the wondrous feats of nature in the face of adversity. Sclerocormus parviceps lived about 247 million years ago — in the aftermath of the most devastating mass extinction we know of, often referred to as “The Great Dying.” While most ichthyosaurs have long, narrow snouts; parviceps has a nose so short that its name means “small skull.” Ichthyosaurs generally have plenty of conical teeth; parviceps was toothless, seemingly sucking up its food with a syringe-like proboscis. And while most of its relatives have triangular, fish-tail-like fins, the new species sported a long, whip-like tail that took up about half of its 5-foot-long body. Researchers don’t have many fossils from this period, so it’s likely that there are other oddball ichthyosaurs they haven’t discovered yet.

News services