Imaggeo on Mondays: The odd ‘living’ rocks

Imaggeo on Mondays: The odd ‘living’ rocks

Microbialites – structures which result from the interaction between microbes and sediments – have existed in the rock record since 3700 Ma ago until the present day. The presence of microbes in environments where mineral precipitation is prevalent, usually derives in the development of such chemical sedimentary structures. This can take place in marine, non-marine, and subterranean environments. The most common type of microbialites may be referred to as stromatolites.

The stromatolites shown here formed ~72 Ma ago in an intra-arc basin – a basin, located between two chains of volcanoes formed above subducting plates, where sediments deposit –  within the Tarahumara Formation, which was emplaced during the Laramide orogeny (some 70 to 80 million years ago) in Northwestern Mexico (Sonora).

The locality has been named the Huepac Chert because of the presence of thin and thick chert – a very fine grained rock made of silicon dioxide – horizons. The chert is black and it contains a great variety of fossils, including pollen grains, fungal spores, green algae, cyanobacteria, diatoms, arthropod remains, fruits, palm roots, aquatic plants (e.g. Haloragaceae), and numerous achritarchs.

Preliminary studies of the Fe2O3/TiO2 and MnO/TiO2 ratios in the chert suggest that hydrothermal activity was frequent and that it promoted the deposition of the majority of the chert where important organisms are beautifully preserved.  Iron-rich laminae, instraclasts, and evaporation processes may be inferred for the topmost sediments covering the stromatolites, suggesting that the water level fluctuated while these structures were forming.

There is still much work to do regarding the paleoenvironments where those Cretaceous stromatolites developed. These Upper Cretaceous successions are rare in Sonora, and biostratigraphic correlations can be made only with one locality to the South (Cerro El Obispo), but no other localities with similar lithology and fossil content have been reported.

By Hugo Beraldi, researcher at the Institute of Geology of the National Autonomous University of Mexico

Imaggeo is the EGU’s online open access geosciences image repository. All geoscientists (and others) can submit their photographs and videos to this repository and, since it is open access, these images can be used for free by scientists for their presentations or publications, by educators and the general public, and some images can even be used freely for commercial purposes. Photographers also retain full rights of use, as Imaggeo images are licensed and distributed by the EGU under a Creative Commons licence. Submit your photos at

Celebrating Earth Science Week!

Celebrating Earth Science Week!

For those not so familiar with the Earth sciences, geosciences and all its subdisciplines might be shrouded in mystery:  boring, unfathomable, out of reach and with little relevance to everyday life. Nothing could be further from the truth!

Earth Science Week, an international annual celebration founded by the American Geosciences Institute in 1998, aims to change the public’s perception of the geosciences.  Since 2011, the London Geological Society also hosts a range of events and activities to raise awareness and better understanding of the Earth sciences.

In 2016, Earth Science Week takes place between 8 and16 October. For the first time, the EGU will run events to mark the special date, all of which we invite you to take part in!

Earth Science Week Photo Competition

From Wednesday 5th to Friday 14th October submit an original photo on any broad theme related to the Earth, planetary and space sciences to our open access image repository, Imaggeo.

For your image to be included in the competition be sure to include the tag #EarthSciWeek when prompted during the upload.

Upon the submission period closing, all entered images will be published to the EGU’s Facebook page. The photograph with most likes, as chosen by the public, will be crowned the competition winner.

The winner will get one free book of their choice from the EGU library and a pack of EGU goodies! We’ll also feature the top five most popular entries on our Instagram.

I’m a geoscientist – Ask me Anything: Live Twitter Q&As

Have you always wanted to know how glaciers move and carve out unbelievable landscapes? How about which emissions cause the most pollution? What are the benefits of publishing in an open access journal vs. a pay-walled publication? If politicians make all the decisions, how can we get them to take scientists more seriously?

If you’ve ever asked yourself these questions, stay tuned or, better still, take part in our daily Earth Science Week live #EGUchat with an EGU member on Twitter. Starting on Monday, every lunchtime, you’ll have the opportunity to put your questions to a range of scientists and EGU experts and discuss a variety of subjects.

Our very own Sarah Connors (@connors SL), the EGU’s Policy Fellow, will kick off a week, of what we hope will be fruitful discussions, by taking questions on all things science policy. Come Tuesday Emma Smith (@emma_c_smith) and Nanna Karlsson (@icymatters), Cryosphere Division Blog editors, will team up to shed light on the processes which operate in the iciest places on the planet.

Wednesday brings editor of the EGU’s open access journal Earth Surface Dynamics (ESurf) and Professor of Physical Geography at the University of Hull, Tom Coulthard (@Tom_Coulthard), who will shed light on the processes which shape our planet and the trials and tribulations of getting published.

If you are interested in natural hazards, how we mitigate, manage them and how they impact on our daily lives, then tune in to the chat on Thursday, where Giorgio Boni (@EguNHpresident), President of the Natural Hazards Division will be answering all your questions!

For the final chat of the week, we bring you Michelle Cain (@civiltalker), an atmospheric scientist and former Atmospheric Division Early Career Scientist Representative. Michelle will be taking questions on gaseous emissions and topics related to the Earth’s atmosphere.

Joining the conversation couldn’t be easier! To put your questions to our experts follow the hashtag #EGUchat on Twitter. Not on twitter or aren’t available during the chats? Not to worry, send us your questions in the comments below or via Twitter, Facebook or Instagram: we’ll ask the experts on your behalf.earth_sci_week_ama_twitter-01


Imaggeo on Mondays: The invaluable role of soil dwellers

Imaggeo on Mondays: The invaluable role of soil dwellers

That soils are vital to secure our future supplies of water, food, as well as aiding adaptation to climate change and sustaining the planet’s biosphere is a subject we’ve featured on the blog as recently as the summer. That’s because never have humans been more out of touch with the vital importance of this natural resource.

Inhabiting among soil particles thrives an even less familiar, but equally important, ecosystem: rhizosphere microbes. Despite their tiny size these microorganisms play an important role in large-scale soil processes. This is particularly true in forested areas where there are strong interactions between plants (including trees, which we’ll focus on in this post), rhizosphere microbes and soil.

Let’s zoom in to the rhizosphere: the area which intimately surrounds plat roots and is home to soil microbes and minerals. It is also a hotbed of biogeochemical of activity. Minerals are weathered and plant and animal residues are transformed into soil organic matter (SOM), all that happening in a small, temporally transient zone of steep geochemical gradients.

The processes involved are complex and more and more, below-ground microbial communities face major challenges brought about by climate change. Higher temperatures and altered precipitation patterns mean the ecosystems are under threat from increased droughts and wild fire activity.

The problem is that scientists don’t fully understand how soil microbiomes are affected by these disturbances. How are their function and dynamics affected by the changing environment?

Let’s zoom out and head to the Central Cascades, USA; land of peaks as high as 4,392 m (Mt. Rainier), glacial-carved lakes and mountain valleys. Most of the range’s lower and middle elevations are covered with temperate coniferous forest (those made up of trees which produce cones and needles). In forests, it’s the rhizosphere microbes, fungi and soils which control mineral weathering and the processes which dictate the formation of SOM. This makes the forests of the Central Cascades the perfect laboratory to try and unravel some of the questions surrounding how soil microbiomes might be affected by a changing climate.

To answer this difficult question, electron microscopy is being used as a research tool for imaging and analyses of processes in environmental microbiology and biogeochemistry. Today’s imaggeo on Monday’s image was acquired by helium ion microscopy (Orion, Zeiss) at the Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, WA. The image shows a few members of a diverse microbial community in ponderosa pine forest soil ecosystem in the Washington State portion of Central Cascades, USA.

By Laura Roberts, EGU Communications Officer and Alice C. Dohnalkova, senior research scientist at the Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

Imaggeo is the EGU’s online open access geosciences image repository. All geoscientists (and others) can submit their photographs and videos to this repository and, since it is open access, these images can be used for free by scientists for their presentations or publications, by educators and the general public, and some images can even be used freely for commercial purposes. Photographers also retain full rights of use, as Imaggeo images are licensed and distributed by the EGU under a Creative Commons licence. Submit your photos at

GeoTalk: Investigating the transport of plastic pollution in the oceans

GeoTalk: Investigating the transport of plastic pollution in the oceans

Geotalk is a regular feature highlighting early career researchers and their work. In this interview we speak to Erik van Sebille, an oceanographer at the Grantham Institute at Imperial Collage London, and winner of the 2016 OS Outstanding Young Scientist Award. As an expert in understanding how oceans transport all kinds of materials, from water and heat through to plastics, Erik has gained detailed knowledge about how water masses move, particularly how they travel from one ocean basin to the next. He has applied his knowledge to understanding problems with societal impacts, such as what dynamics govern drifting debris that collects in garbage patches and the pathways of the Fukushima radioactive plume. 

First, could you introduce yourself and tell us a little more about your career path so far?

I am a physicist by training, with an PhD in Physical Oceanography from Utrecht University in the Netherlands. After finishing my PhD in 2009, I did a two-year postdoc at the University of Miami. In 2011, I became a Fellow and lecturer at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia. And then in early 2015 I came back to Europe, as a lecturer at Imperial College London. So I’ve been moving around a bit, living and working in three different continents in the past 5 years. It’s been a fantastic journey and I’m really happy to have lived in such beautiful and fun places.

During EGU 2016, you received the Outstanding Young Scientist Award from the Ocean Sciences Division. You presented your recent work on modelling the global distribution of floating plastic pollution in the oceans. How big a problem does plastic pollution present to our oceans and why should people care?

It’s shocking how much plastic there is in the ocean. Quite literally these days, it’s hard to go to a place in the ocean and not find tiny pieces of plastic. In nearly every surface trawl, sediment sample, or biopsy we take, we find plastic.

However, while we find  plastic everywhere, we have no idea what its global extent is. There are really only two numbers that are known with some confidence in the global ocean plastic budget: the total amount of plastic floating at the surface today is in the order hundreds of thousands of tonnes. And the total amount of plastic going into the ocean in a single year is in the order of 10 million metric tonnes. So the flux is 2 orders of magnitude larger than the stock. In other words, more than 99% of the plastic in the ocean is not at the surface!

How, exactly, do you go about building the  models which help you investigate where the plastic in the ocean waters is?

My research tries to find out where all this plastic is, by tracking it virtually in high-resolution Ocean General Circulation Models such as NEMO.  NEMO is a large European computer simulation that replicates the movement of ocean water around the globe. Within this oceanic flow field, we’re literally tracking billions of virtual plastic particles, from their sources on land as they are carried around by the ocean currents.

The difficult bit is to make the virtual particles behave like plastic. In order to realistically simulate the pathways and fate of the plastic, we need to simulate fragmentation (how plastics break up), ingestion (animals who eat plastic), biofouling (how algae grow on the plastic), beaching (how plastic particles end up on coastlines) and a dozen other processes that happen to plastic in the real ocean. That’s what my team and I are working on!

Then, once we can track the plastic within models with reasonable accuracy, we can start asking important questions like: Where are ecosystems most at risk? Whose plastic ends up where? And where can we best clean up the plastic?

Erik, along with colleague David Fuchs, created Plastic A page which models the journey of plastics in the oceans. The research used to create the page is described in this IOP paper:;

Erik, along with colleague David Fuchs, created Plastic A page which models the journey of plastics in the oceans. The research used to create the simulation is described in this IOP paper.

So, are you at a stage where you can reliably track particles of plastic in your simulation? And if so, what can you tell us about the distribution of plastic across the world’s oceans?

No, we’re not nearly there yet. We’re just beginning with this exciting project, which was awarded a large European Research Council Grant this year. Ask me again in five years 😉

The outlook isn’t positive, so, how can we go about mitigating the problem?

The situation is pretty dire, indeed. Global plastic production has increased exponentially over the last decades, and there is no reason to think that exponential growth will slow. So the main aim should be to prevent plastic from going into the ocean in the first place.

Last May, I was invited to the UK Parliament to give oral evidence to a Select Committee about my thoughts on a country-wide ban on microbeads used in cosmetics (an issue which has been in the news recently). Such a ban is now supported by the UK Government, which is fantastic news. But microbeads from cosmetics represent only 0.1% of all plastic entering the ocean from the UK. There is really much more work to do. We need better filtering of plastic particles and fibres in sewage treatment plants. We need much better recycling techniques. We need innovative new plastics that are less harmful.

And we need a better understanding of how the plastic in the ocean interacts with marine life, from charismatic megafauna down to phytoplankton and microbes. In particular, I call on EGU’s ocean biogeochemistry community to take up the challenge of understanding the interactions between plastic particulates and biofouling. There’s such an enormous knowledge gap there, and we need all the help we can get.

Given your experience advising the UK government on a matter as significant as plastic pollution in the oceans, how important do you think it is for early career scientists to play a role in advising policy-makers when it comes to environmental issues?

Meet Erik! Credit: Erik van Sebille

Meet Erik! Credit: Erik van Sebille

I think it is extremely important to make sure that your research gets out to the people who can use it to make decisions. Politicians and other stakeholders are always keen to hear about the latest science; they don’t have time and expertise to read through all of the scientific literature so it is partly up to us scientists to point them to the latest findings. It doesn’t matter whether you are an early career researcher or a seasoned senior professor, if you are funded by public money then you have a duty to give results back to society.

For the past twelve months the EGU has been working on developing its science for policy programme. ‘Science for policy’ involves applying scientific knowledge to the decision-making process to strengthen the resulting policies. If like Erik, this is an area you are interested in, or one where your research findings could make a difference, why not visit our policy pages on the website? They include  a range of resources aimed at informing scientists about the world of science policy and initiatives to help you get involved.

Erik, thank you for talking to us today. Our final question of the interview is, perhaps a little simplistic given the scale of the problem, but is there anything everyone could be doing at home to minimise the amount of plastic that makes its way to the oceans?

I think it starts with awareness. Be aware what you do with your used plastics. Don’t just chuck it out. And discuss the issue with your family and friends. I think that a great deal of progress can be made simply by being more careful how we discard our plastic waste.


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