In this week's landscape reads, we get to see just how screwed we are in the drought, visit a 2 billion-year-old nuclear reactor (all natural!), investigate mysterious fires in North Korea, and tour tornado shelters that look like real-life hobbit holes.

Africa's 2 Billion-Year-Old Natural Nuclear Reactor

In 1972, nuclear scientists investigating uranium mines in Gabon made an incredible discovery: a naturally occurring nuclear reactor. The concentration of uranium-235 was somehow so high here, it had set off a self-sustaining nuclear reaction. The mine became a boon to science. Containing nuclear waste has always been part guesswork, but here scientists could actually study what happens to nuclear waste billions of years later. [ArXiv via The Physics ArXiv Blog]


The Hidden Connection Between Fracking and Plastic Bags

If you're not convinced that fracking is profoundly affecting our lives, just take a look at your shopping cart. Cheap gas from the fracking boom has entirely revitalized the once struggling U.S. plastic industry. Ethylene extracted from the ethane in natural gas becomes the polyethylene you find in everything from diapers to plastic bags to milk jugs. "I can't help but wonder, too," writes Susan Freinkel, "what it will mean for the palpable texture of our daily lives—how it will affect the types of things that pass through our hands everyday." [OnEarth]


The Tornado Houses of Mississippi

After a terrifying week of tornadoes, Paige Williams reflects on the storm houses she grew up among in northeastern Mississippi: "The newer shelters are prefabricated subterranean pods, accessed by a flat hatch in the land; others resemble a raised, mutant keyhole (just another thing to mow around). The old storm houses are the best ones to look at: a cave scooped out of the earth and fortified by timbers, with a little wooden hobbit door; or a redbrick dome with a rusty stovepipe, and moss taking over the mortar." [New Yorker]


NASA's Satellite Found Mysterious Fires Burning in North Korea

Aside from carefully calibrated tours, our only glimpses of North Korea come from space. A NASA satellite has recently found a spate of fires using thermal imaging techniques. This could be one of our true peeks at how agriculture in North Korea actually works. Without the benefits modern industrial agriculture, suggests NASA, these fires could be how farmers are fertilizing their crops. [Vox]


Top image: Satellite images show how much the snowpack has shrunk in the West's devastating drought. The left image was captured in January 2013, and the right exactly on year later. NOAA via The Washington Post