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This guest post was contributed by a scientist, student or a professional in the Earth, planetary or space sciences. The EGU blogs welcome guest contributions, so if you've got a great idea for a post or fancy trying your hand at science communication, please contact the blog editor or the EGU Communications Officer Laura Roberts Artal to pitch your idea.

Mars Rocks – introducing a citizen science project

Mars Rocks – introducing a citizen science project

GeoLog followers will remember our previous report on Citizen Geoscience: the exciting possibilities it presents for the acquisition of data, whilst cautioning against the exploitation of volunteered labour. This blog presents a Citizen Science platform that goes beyond data collection to analysis, specifically for geological changes in remote sensing imagery of Mars. Jessica Wardlaw, a Postdoctoral Research Associate in Web GIS, at the Nottingham Geospatial Institute, introduces ‘iMars’ and explains 1) its scientific mission and 2) why imagery analysis is especially suitable for a crowd sourcing approach, so that you might consider where and how to apply it to your project.

Imagine, just for a moment, that the Mars Geological Survey invited you to an interview for the position of Scientist in Charge. Why and how would you reconstruct the geological past for a remote planet such as Mars? Where would you start? Earth is the “Goldilocks” planet, not only for human habitation but for geologists too, who can sample and test rock to understand the evolution of the Earth’s surface on which to base well-established theories such as plate tectonics. To understand the geological past and processes of remote planets, however, requires different approaches.

Planetary scientists investigate the climate and atmosphere, and the geological terrain, of planets to further understanding of our own place in the solar system. Mars provides a scintillating snapshot of early Earth; whilst some scientists contend that plate tectonics has historically happened on Mars, 70% of its surface dates from the moment it formed and provides a platform from which to view Earth in its infancy. In fact, despite our limited knowledge of Mars, it has already informed our understanding of Earth, inspiring James Lovelock’s Gaia theory. Imminent missions to the red planet are also already exploiting geological information to inform landing sites and routes of roving vehicles on Mars. The more information scientists have, the more likely missions are to land in suitable locations to successfully pursue scientific goals, such as understanding the ability of the Martian environment to support life and water, both now and in the past, which could further theories on the origins of the solar system, life on Earth, and Earth’s destiny.

Many will remember this summer for the astonishing images that arrived from Pluto, but 50 years ago, almost to the day, people celebrated the first successful fly-by mission to Mars. Mariner 4 took 21 images from a distance 6,000 miles, which, after the initial excitement, disappointingly revealed that Mars had a Moon-like cratered surface, and led to a long-held misconception of a dead, red planet. It was in 1976 that two Viking landers touched down on the red soil for the first time, paving the way for further Martian missions, with the first mission of the European Space Agency’s ExoMars programme launching next year.

The first Mars photograph and our first close-up of another planet. A representation of digital data radioed by the Mariner 4 spacecraft on 15th July 1965. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Dan Goods)

The first Mars photograph and our first close-up of another planet. A representation of digital data radioed by the Mariner 4 spacecraft on 15th July 1965. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Dan Goods)

Scientists analyse the size and density of craters from meteorite impacts to age the surface. The theory goes that smaller meteorites collide with a planet much more frequently than larger ones, and older surfaces have more craters because they have been exposed for longer. Advances in imaging technology since then now provide scientists with greater granularity than ever before and glimpses of other geologic features, recognisable from the surface of the Earth; sand dunes, dust devils, debris avalanches, gullies, canyons all appear and tell us about the planet’s climatic processes. The Planet Four website is just one example.

The images taken of Mars over the last forty years reveal changes on the surface that indicate invaluable information that help us to understand the climate and geology of the planet. Changes are visible in imagery over a variety of timescales, from rapidly-moving dust devils (much bigger that the one that once trapped me in Death Valley), seasonal fluctuations of the polar ice caps and recurring slope lineae (recently reported to indicate contemporary water activity) polar ice caps and the snail-slow shaping of sand dunes.

Three images of the same location taken at different times over one Martian year show how the seasonal fluctuation of the polar cap of condensed carbon dioxide (dry ice), between its solid and gaseous state, destabilises a Martian dune at high altitude to cause sand avalanches and ripple changes. (Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona)

Three images of the same location taken at different times over one Martian year show how the seasonal fluctuation of the polar cap of condensed carbon dioxide (dry ice), between its solid and gaseous state, destabilises a Martian dune at high altitude to cause sand avalanches and ripple changes. (Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona)

The quality and coverage of these images, however, varies greatly due to atmospheric conditions and tilt of the camera amongst other reasons. To create a consistent album of imagery, that we can confidently compare and use to identify geological changes in the images, requires considerable computational work. Images from across as much of the Martian surface as possible must be processed to remove those of poor quality and correct for different coordinate systems (co-registration) and terrain (ortho-rectification).

The iMars project is applying the latest Big Data mining techniques to over 400,000 images, so that they can be used to compute and classify changes in geological features. On a Citizen Science platform, Mars in Motion, volunteers will define the nature and scale of changes in surface features from ortho-rectified and co-registered images to a much greater detail. Human performance is inherently variable in ways we cannot fully control, either, in the same way that we can control the performance of an algorithm. Although we are investigating this too, this would require another blog post! For now I will describe the reasons why we are using a crowd-sourcing approach for this project so that you might consider how you could apply it to your research.

First of all, humans have evolved over millions of years to identify subtle variations in visual patterns to a more sophisticated level than computers currently can. Computers can execute repetitive tasks and store an infinite amount of information with far less impact on their performance than humans; the human mind, however, has proved to be too flexible and creative for computers to fully replicate, with the success of Citizen Science projects such as Galaxy Zoo, which has so far resulted in 48 academic publications. The slow seasonal shift of sand dunes on Mars, for example, would require a computer algorithm of inordinate intelligence to identify, as previous attempts to automatically detect impact craters, valley networks and sand dunes in images of Mars have found. Recent research has resulted in some very sophisticated algorithms for image analysis, but detection of changes in such a range of geological features over the range of spatial and temporal scales that we are looking to do is computationally complex and expensive. Without sending somebody to Mars, how do we know whether the computer is correct? Machine learning algorithms can only calculate what you ask them to, so are ill-equipped to make the sort of serendipitous discoveries of the unknown required in the detection of change. Volunteers in the Mars in Motion project will seek differences (Figure 4), rather than similarities, between the images and it is inherently challenging to program a computer to find something that you don’t even know to look for.

Mars in Motion: Spot the difference...on the surface of Mars!

Mars in Motion: Spot the difference…on the surface of Mars!

Secondly, we have so much data that scientists could not possibly do all of this themselves! In many areas of science and humanities, but especially in Earth and Planetary observation, Big Data capture is growing at an astronomical rate, far faster than resources and techniques for its analysis can keep up so that we are increasingly unable to handle it. This is where geoscientists have started to join the trend for recruiting volunteers to analyse imagery with some success; through large crowd-sourcing image analysis projects, like TomNod, citizens continually contribute interpretation of images for social and scientific purposes. The number of volunteers, however, is finite and the increase in data places more and more demand upon their time. Researchers using the Citizen Science approach must now carefully consider how their projects can utilise volunteers’ time effectively, efficiently and ethically.

Third and finally, a crowd-sourcing approach exposes the public to improvements in imaging technology and brings the dynamic nature of the Martian surface to life. This can only improve the chances of space exploration receiving further funding and entering classrooms through the way it combines many areas of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. Serendipitously, the engagement of the public also increases the number of pairs of eyes that analyse the images and, as such, the confidence with which scientists can use their classifications. As we collect more and more data, image analysis will necessarily require collaboration between humans and computers, as well as between volunteers and researchers, to manage it.

I hope this post gives you an insight into how we are applying the Citizen Science to consider how it might help your research too. There is actually no better time to try setting up a Citizen Science project with the launch of the Zooniverse project builder, which makes it easier than ever before to build your own project.

By Jessica Wardlaw, researcher at the University of Nottingham

The research leading to these results has received funding from the European Union Seventh Framework Programme (FP7/2007-2013) under the iMars grant agreement no. 607379.

Visit www.i-mars.eu and follow @JessWardlaw for updates on iMars and Mars in Motion.

Crusing the Mediterranean: a first-hand account of a month at sea – Part 2

Crusing the Mediterranean: a first-hand account of a month at sea – Part 2

This week we feature the second instalment in this series, which follows the adventures of Simona Aracri, a PhD student at University of Southampton, and her colleagues. as they spent a month aboard a research vessel, cruising the Mediterranean Sea. Simona and the team of scientists aboard the boat documented their experiences via a blog. This time we discover that chemists are always kept busy on a ship and learn more about mega heatwaves! For more details on the research cruise and its aims, why not revisit the first chapter of the series?

10th August 2015 – Motion on the ocean and age-old rivalries

Having spent 4 days of non-stop sampling from depth profiles between Tunisia and Sicily, and Sicily and Sardinia, I for one was incredibly pleased when the ship held position off Sardinia last night to ride out some bad weather. Hitting your bunk for 12 hours sleep when you haven’t been in it for more than 1 hour at a time for 3 nights is an amazing feeling.

Choppy seas kept us just off Sardinia until an hour ago. As the weather has now improved again we are cruising to our first station in a transect from Sardinia to Menorca. So what do we do while we await our next sampling station? Well that depends on which ‘we’ you mean.

Carbon pump filtration lab. All the spaces available on board where used! Credit: Sara Durante

Carbon pump filtration lab. All the spaces available on board where used! Credit: Sara Durante

The chemists, busy as ever, are working on our instruments. Some of our instruments must be calibrated very regularly to keep the quality of data high. Keeping delicate instruments free from saltwater corrosion is also an ongoing battle in a ‘wet’ laboratory. A 6 hour break as we cruise to our first station is therefore a perfect time to clean and calibrate our instruments so that they are working perfectly when we arrive. Our students onboard can also catch up on the chemical titrations they are running. Every oxygen sample we take for manual measurement has to be titrated in the laboratory, so after 4 days of solid sample collection there is inevitably a big backlog of these titrations to run.

The marine biologists (who outnumber the chemists about 3:1), well I am not sure where they are or what they are doing… Maybe, to quote Rutherford, they are busy stamp collecting…Maybe they are in their bunks dreaming of being ‘promoted’ to marine chemists… Maybe they should blog themselves so you can find out…

Mark Hopwood, post-doc at GEOMAR, Germany (@Markinthelab and @OceanCertain)

11th August 2015 – The legacy of the mega heatwave
Night time SST in the Western Mediterranean on 22nd July 2015. Data courtesy of CMEMS.

Night time SST in the Western Mediterranean on 22nd July 2015. Data courtesy of CMEMS.

Under the influence of warm air masses from the south, July 2015 was one of the hottest on record in southern Europe. Long-lasting periods of multiple heat events and temperature extremes represent a class of extreme weather events also known as Mega Heatwaves. Such events are predicted to increase in frequency in the Mediterranean region, a hot spot for climate change. What are the consequences of these events on the biological pump are yet to be elucidated. Our scientific crew on-board the R/V Minerva Uno is now sampling the response of the upper ocean of the western Mediterranean Sea to the recent mega heatwave, still ongoing although now weakened. Hopefully, the stunning work carried out will help sheding light on the role of environmental stressors associated to these meteorological conditions, such as excessive radiation and heating and increased stratification, on the functionality of the marine ecosystem. This, while the Mediterranean Sea is experiencing tropical-like temperatures, for several days close to or above 30°C in many spots. As the summer goes by approaching the cold season, the gentle, boiling and still Mediterranean Sea soon will become pure fuel, feeding remarkably different classes of extreme weather: flash floods, severe cyclogeneses and Mediterranean hurricanes.

Jacopo Chiggiato, Scientist at CNR-ISMAR

13th August 2015 – An alien from the deep
Phronima sp. The little night treasure collected with the Neuston net. Credit: Anna Schroeder

Phronima sp. The little night treasure collected with the Neuston net. Credit: Anna Schroeder

Accompanied with the sunset colours, zooplanktonists start the work. While the folks is in the labs, filtering more and more liters of water, we are so excited waiting what is coming from the sea, stolen from the deep blue. Our aim is to study the contribution of the zooplankton branch to the carbon flux in a pelagic environment and how the climate change can affect these fluxes and the zooplankton community of the Western Mediterranean Sea.

We perform several “net-casts” in the upper 500 m of the water column. We investigate the variety and abundance of the zooplankton community with classical methods (microscope analysis) and with innovative methods (metagenomics). We study trophic relations through the analysis of stable isotopes of carbon and nitrogen. We analyse the respiration rate of the entire community.

Here we are, curious to see what our net is bringing to us…

Marco Pansera, post-doc at CNR-ISMAR, and Anna Schroeder, master student at University of Hamburg.

16th August 2015 – The ocean is not enough

Not yet the end, but almost. Bad weather seems to have given us a break, the sea is sweetly pitching and rolling our ship, after a whole night that filled the dark sky with flashes, illuminating yellow-blue clouds. This morning everyone is finally sleeping, we finished tonight the sampling for this leg.

CFC sampling. Dissolved gases in the sea are very volatile, therefore the CFC sampling is the first one to happen when the rosette arrives on board. Credit: Sara Durante

CFC sampling. Dissolved gases in the sea are very volatile, therefore the CFC sampling is the first one to happen when the rosette arrives on board. Credit: Sara Durante

White ones, red ones, yellow ones, colour codes help us to understand who samples what, and where in the water column: red stations are “just cast”, yellow station are biogeochemical ones, very few amounts of water for each depth, but a lot of parameters to sample, to study the behaviour of the carbon pump or the age of the deep waters…from CFCs to oxygen, from pH to nutrients and so on. You cannot be in a hurry, you have to wait your turn, CFCs and oxygen first, so…did you finish with this bottle? May I sample? The most complex ones are the white ones, the biological stations. Everyone needs water at every different depth, it seems that all the water in the sea is not enough for everyone! So close one more bottle for me please, and I will let you have my leftover water!

Around the rosette just serene people enjoying their work, everyone with a kind word or a smile for who is following in “milking” Niskin bottles. After the CTD rosette, the net. After the net, another CTD rosette. AS the sunset goes by entering the twilight, happy birthday to someone, goodnight to someone else, and good job for everybody!

Sara Durante, Ph.D. student at Parthenope University

By Simona Aracri, PhD student at University of Southampton and colleague aboard the R/V Minerva Uno

Cruising the Mediterranean: a first-hand account of a month at sea – Part 1

Cruising the Mediterranean: a first-hand account of a month at sea – Part 1

Simona Aracri, a PhD student at University of Southampton, spent a month aboard the research vessel, R/V Minerva Uno, cruising the Mediterranean Sea. Simona and the team of scientists aboard the boat documented their experiences via blog. Over the coming weeks we’ll feature a few of the posts the team shared over the one month voyage: you can expect to find out what life aboard a large research vessel is like, what scientists do when studying the ocean depths and how the whole team has been enriched by the experience. Before we get stuck into the diary entires, a little background on the research aims of the cruise.

The cruise in the Western Mediterranean is part of the EU project OCEAN-CERTAIN – “Ocean Food-web Patrol – Climate Effects: Reducing Targeted Uncertainties with an Interactive Network”. The OCEAN-CERTAIN project has 11 partners from 8 European countries, as well as Chile and Australia. The Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) is the project coordinator. OCEAN-CERTAIN is investigating the impact of climatic and non-climatic stressors (e.g., ocean acidification, warming of the surface layer and associated increased stratification) on the functionality of the marine food web and the connected biologically-driven sequestration of carbon from the atmosphere to the deep sea (“biological pump”). This will be done by utilising existing ecosystem models employing existing data, in addition to mesocosm ( an experimental tool that brings a small part of the natural environment under controlled conditions), lab-scale experiments and field studies. OCEAN-CERTAIN will also show how potential climate-driven physical, chemical and biological changes may affect relevant economic activities and human welfare and help to identify adaptation pathways.

The cruise lasted 4 weeks crossing all seas in the Western Mediterranean, with the exception if the Alboran Sea due to severe weather, under the supervisor of the co-chief scientists Jacopo Chiggiato and Katrin Schroeder and the chief technician on-board Mireno Borghini from CNR-ISMAR, Italy.

5th August 2015 – The modern Captain’s log
Naples Port and patron saint Gennaro waving during the departure. Three times a year saint Gennaro's blood, kept in sealed ampules, is liquified in front of the gathered faithful in Naples Cathedral.  Image Credit: Simona Aracri.

Naples port and patron saint Gennaro waving during the departure. Three times a year saint Gennaro’s blood, kept in sealed ampules, is liquified in front of the gathered faithful in Naples Cathedral.
Image Credit: Simona Aracri.

Bon voyage guagliune!
With a fantastic weather forecast, clear blue waters and the ship packed to capacity with scientists and their equipment, the R/V Minerva Uno sailed this morning from Napoli heading for her first station in the Mediterranean Sea.

Our scientific complement, representing institutions from 4 countries (Italy, Germany, UK and Turkey), were up late last night preparing the ship’s laboratory space. Today might be a relaxing day and the fine Italian cuisine, coffee and wine onboard may sound like a little holiday, but the cruise program will be punishing for the next two weeks. Round-the-clock work starts at 23:00 tonight with an eat-sleep-sample-repeat routine between stations. Therefore everyone was keen to get set up yesterday and to get one final ‘normal’ night of sleep.

The overarching theme of our cruise, and of the EU funded project Ocean Certain as a whole, is to investigate how climate change will affect the ocean’s biological carbon pump. We know that with increasing average global temperatures, climate change is making seawater in the Mediterranean warmer and saltier. But, we do not yet know exactly what consequences this will have for marine ecosystems. Changes to the physical properties of the water column in the Mediterranean have direct implications both for fisheries and for the role of the Ocean as a CO2 sink. The sensitivity of the Mediterranean to climate change because of its relatively shallow depth and enclosed nature, combined with its importance to the economies of surrounding countries is why it is one of 3 geographical areas selected for intensive study by the Ocean Certain project. The results of this cruise will be complemented by an east Mediterranean cruise, plus a mesocosm (MesoMed) and multistressor experiments in Crete early next year (2016).

We are now busy refining plans for the next two weeks as we steadily work our way around the western Mediterranean to Menorca where some scientists will swap for the next leg and the ship will replenish supplies. At each of more than 100 stations we will deploy instruments and collect seawater samples. Most chemical and biological measurements won’t be made on-ship due to the delicate nature of the instruments required and the shear length of time it will take to process so many samples, so frozen or preserved samples will be shipped back to our respective institutions. Some chemical parameters including dissolved O2, H2O2 and alkalinity will however be quantified onboard.

Best regards from the Mediterranean!

Mark Hopwood (@Markinthelab and @OceanCertain)

By Simona Aracri, PhD student at University of Southampton and Mark Hopwood, post-doc at GEOMAR, Germany

Life after geoscience

Life after geoscience

After spending 13 years (give or take) at school you are faced with a tough decision: what to study at University (if anything at all, the academic path may well not be for you)? You sift through a bunch of university prospectuses and try to plan your future. Of course, lots of things can change, prior to, during and after you finish your studies. Nevertheless, there is no harm in starting to plan early, while at the same time being open to new opportunities and avenues as and when they come your way. In this post, Sam Illingworth, Lecturer of Science Communication at Manchester Metropolitan University, explores some career choices open to those who chose to study the geosciences at undergraduate level.

It’s that time of year again when undergraduate students are either returning to University, or starting their courses for the very first time. All across Europe there will be tens of thousands of young geoscientists asking themselves the same nagging question: have I made the right choice here?

For many of us, our experiences at University help to shape us into being our future selves. We make strong friendships, experience the highs and lows of living away from home or in a big city for the first time, and we ultimately get our first taste of independent learning. For some this is enough to convince them that they have found their calling, that following on from their undergraduate degree they want to specialise further by taking an additional postgraduate qualification. But for others, this is simply a step too far; they enjoyed their learning experience but now they want to go and put this into practice. So what exactly can you do with a geosciences degree?

A quick job search for the word ‘geosciences’ on a careers website revealed a rather long list of opportunities, which included the following:

  • Exploration geophysicist
  • Software developer
  • Reservoir geologist
  • Mine engineer
  • Earthquake catastrophe model developer
  • Geoscientist

Whilst some of these jobs are fairly specialised (e.g. reservoir geologist), other such as ‘geoscientist’ are more general positions, which are looking to utilise the specialist skillsets that you have developed during your undergraduate training. And let’s face it, if you enjoyed learning about geosciences at university, some of these jobs sound extremely interesting; who wouldn’t want to tell people that they were an earthquake catastrophe model developer?

A map of deviations in gravity from a perfectly smooth, idealized Earth.  The gravity model is created with data from NASA's GRACE mission. (Image Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Texas Center for Space Research)

A map of deviations in gravity from a perfectly smooth, idealized Earth. The gravity model is created with data from NASA’s GRACE mission. (Image Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Texas Center for Space Research)

According to the UK Commission for Employment and Skills and the Office for National Statistics, the skills shortages in the science and engineering sector are about twice what they are in other areas. In addition to this, people working in this sector tend to earn significantly more than the national salary, and whilst these statistics are for the UK, it is a similar story across most of Europe. What this means is that whilst your degree will not guarantee you a job, you are more likely to be employed than people from other non-scientific backgrounds, and that when you do find a job, the chances are that you will be earning a reasonably healthy salary.

But what if you want to move on, and despite enjoying the course at the time, upon graduating you never want to see another rock, look at another planet, or hear the word fluvial ever again; what hope for you then? Well, the good news is that the key skills that you acquired during your geoscience training are still extremely valuable across a variety of different sectors; you just need to think about how to market yourself effectively. Most workforces will value your analytical and problem solving skills, whilst your practical and fieldwork experience demonstrate that you have effective research and planning skills. Similarly group work exercises demonstrate that you have excellent interaction and liaison skills, whilst your dissertation is a perfect exemplar of good time management, organisation and communication.

Asking yourself if you made the right decision in choosing to study geosciences at university is a perfectly natural question, but if you enjoy the course material and the learning experience then stick at it, as no matter what you decide to do in the future your degree will open a lot of doors, as well as quite a few windows, and a couple of mine shafts to boot.

By Sam Illingworth, Lecturer in Science Communication, Manchester Metropolitan University.

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