GeoLog

Cryospheric Sciences

Imaggeo on Mondays: Concord at midnight

Imaggeo on Mondays: Concord at midnight

The high peaks of the Alps are always awe inspiring, but this midnight shot, captured by Alessandro Lechmann, a PhD student at the Institute of Geological Sciences at the University of Bern, further enhance their fragile beauty. With a warming climate threatening snow availability to even the highest peaks, it has never been more important to appreciate the importance of the glaciers which drape the mountain slopes.

This photograph shows a view from the Jungfraujoch (a saddle in the Bernese Alps, connecting the two four-thousander peaks Jungfrau and Mönch, at an elevation of 3,466 metres above sea level) towards the south-east down the Jungfraufirn (an arm of the Great Altesch Glacier).

Originating amidst three of the most famous mountains of the Swiss Alps (Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau), this glacier flows southwards towards the Concordiaplatz, where it merges with the Ewigschneefäld and the Great Aletschfirn into the Great Aletsch Glacier. Even today, despite reports of receding glaciers in the Alps, it forms the largest and longest Alpine glacier.

In the countries surrounding the Alps, glacial landforms dominate the landscape. From drumlins, moraines (accumulations of glacial debris) and overdeepenings in the foreland to U-shaped valleys (Lauterbrunnen is a marvellous example) and cirques in mountainous regions. Although retreating at rates not seen previously, these glaciers carved the face of central Europe during the last glacial-interglacial cycles.

The building of the railway to the Jungfraujoch research station started in 1896 and was completed in 1912; an impressive feat considering the limited technology before the First World War. Perched precariously 3500 m above sea level, the research station (known for its prominent sphinx observatory), has contributed significantly   to the understanding of the atmospheric sciences, glaciology and cosmic ray physics.

The ridge which the Jungfraujoch is built on, marks the northern margin of the exposed crystalline core of the Alpine orogeny. Interestingly, this mountain ridge, in addition to being a geological boundary, is also a major watershed. Rain that falls north, flows via the Aare into the Rhine, which eventually discharges into the North Sea. Precipitation on the southern flank and melt water from the Jungfraufirn, on the other hand, joins the Rhone in the Valais valley, that ends up in the Mediterranean Sea. This highlights the importance of Alpine glaciers as a water stores which continue to provide water throughout the year.

By Alessandro Lechmann PhD student at the Institute of Geological Sciences at the University of Bern

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 http://imaggeo.egu.eu/upload/.

February GeoRoundUp: the best of the Earth sciences from around the web

Comparing the TRAPPIST-1 planets

Drawing inspiration from popular stories on our social media channels, as well as  unique and quirky research news, this monthly column aims to bring you the best of the Earth and planetary sciences from around the web.

Major story

Undoubtedly the story of the month is the discovery of a star system of seven Earth-sized planets just 40 light-years away from our own. What makes the finding so exciting is that three of the planets lie in the habitable zone. All could have oceans and atmospheres, making them good candidates to search for extraterrestrial life.

The seven Earth-sized worlds orbit the ultra-cool dwarf star, TRAPPIST-1, which has been known to astronomers for some time. As the planets passed in front of TRAPPIST-1, the star’s light output dipped. Using a combination of ground and spaced based telescopes, the changes in the light output were used to detect the planets and gather information about their size, composition and orbit, explains the press release by the European Southern Observatory.

This simple GIF by New Scientist illustrates the principle of how the remarkable planets were found (while at the same time highlighting the fact there is a mind-blowing number of exoplanets scattered throughout space!).

The ultra-cool dwarf star and its planetary system has an even cooler website, which comes complete with great posters, videos, short stories, poems and graphic novels; as well as a detailed timeline of all the years of work which took place behind the scenes and culminated in the announcement made earlier this month.

Our top pick for a science poem honouring the discovery is In Search of New Life by Sam Illingworth, a lecturer at Manchester Metropolitan University.  You can also find an audio version of the poem here.

Far into space, amongst the darkest Sea

New planets sit like marbles in a row.

We turn our eyes to find out what might be

And search for patterns in their ether’s flow;

Then try to see what else might lie below.

And as we probe how life’s rich web was spun,

Do they look back towards our distant sun?

 

What you might have missed

The discovery of a previously unknown continent below New Zealand and New Caledonia dominated headlines towards the middle of the month.

Dr. Mortimer, of GNS Science and lead author of the study, argues that “being more than 1 million square kilometers in area, and bounded by well-defined geologic and geographic limits, Zealandia [the name given to the newly discovered continent] is, by our definition, large enough to be termed a continent.”

But without an official authority which designates the existence of continents, it will be for the broader scientific community to recognise Zealandia as one. And the jury is still out, as Alex Witze finds in this Nature News & Comment article:

“Claiming that Zealandia is a continent is a bit like stamp collecting,” says Peter Cawood, a geologist at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia. “So what?”

While the (potentially) new Antipodean continent dominated headlines, you might have missed the discovery of another lost continent. Deep under the waters of the Indian Ocean, sandwiched between Madagascar and India, lie the scattered pieces of an ancient, drowned, microcontient called Mauritia. The authors of the study, published earlier this month in Nature Communications, dated zircons of up to 3 billion years old from Mauritanian volcanic rocks. Considering Mauritania is much younger, the researchers argue the zircons must have come from another, already existing continent.

Meanwhile, in the southern-most reaches of our planet, a huge iceberg is set to breakaway from the Larsen C Ice Shelf, on the northeastern coast of the Antarctic Peninsula. A large crack in the ice was spotted in natural-colour satellite imagery captured by NASA back in August 2016. Int January 2017 alone, the crack grew by more than 10 km in length and now stretches 175 km over the ice.

British Antarctic Survey (BAS) scientists recently captured footage of the huge crack. The video highlights what the calving of such a large iceberg might mean for the Larsen C ice shelf, while this Nature News and Comment story highlights how far glaciology has come since similar calving events in the 90s and 00s. Scientists now have a much better understanding of what might happen in the weeks and months to come.

Five links we liked

The EGU story

After long-awaited snowfall in January, parts of the Alps are now covered with fresh powder and happy skiers. But the Swiss side of the iconic mountain range had the driest December since record-keeping began over 150 years ago, and 2016 was the third year in a row with scarce snow over the Christmas period. A study published this month in The Cryosphere, a journal of the European Geosciences Union, shows bare Alpine slopes could be a much more common sight in the future.

The new research, by scientists based at the Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research (SLF) and at the CRYOS Laboratory at the École Polytechnique Fédérale in Switzerland, shows that the Alps could lose as much as 70% of snow cover by the end of the century. However, if humans manage to keep global warming below 2°C, the snow-cover reduction would be limited to 30% by 2100.

And don’t forget! To stay abreast of all the EGU’s events and activities, from highlighting papers published in our open access journals to providing news relating to EGU’s scientific divisions and meetings, including the General Assembly, subscribe to receive our monthly newsletter.

Announcing the winner of the EGU Best Blog Post of 2016 Competition

Announcing the winner of the EGU Best Blog Post of 2016 Competition

There is no doubt that 2016 was packed full of exciting, insightful and informative blog posts. An impressive 360 posts were published across the EGU’s official blog, GeoLog, as well as the network and division blogs!

In December, to celebrate the excellent display of science writing across the network and division blogs, we launched the EGU Blogs competition. From a list of posts selected by our blog editors, we invited you, the EGU Blogs readers, to vote for your favourite post of 2016. After a little over three weeks of voting, the winners are finally in!

Without further ado, we’d like to extend a big congratulations to the Cryosphere Blog, who take this year’s crown, with a 58% share of the votes, for their post following the journey of a snowflake! From the water vapour in a cloud to the snowman in your garden, find out what leads to the complex structure you can see on in the image below!

Snowflakes viewed with a low temperature scanning electron microscope (SEM). [ Image Credit : Agricultural Research Service, United States Department of Agriculture via Wikimedia]

All the posts entered into the competition are worthy of a read too, so head over to the poll and click on the post titles to learn about a variety of topics: from the fate of Fukushima Iodine-129 in rain and groundwater, to exploring whether letters of recommendation are the key to the leaky pipeline in academia and how common soft sediment structures like slumps and flames form.

If the start of a new year, with its inevitable resolutions, along with the range and breadth of posts across the EGU Blogs have inspired you to try your hand at a little science writing then remember all the EGU Blogs welcome (and encourage!) guest posts.  Indeed, it is the variety of guest posts, in addition to regular features, which makes the blogs a great read! If you would like to contribute to any of the network, divison blogs or GeoLog, please send a short paragraph detailing your idea to the EGU Communications Officer, Laura Roberts at networking@egu.eu.

 

Imaggeo on Mondays: the remotest place on Earth?

Imaggeo on Mondays: the remotest place on Earth?

Perhaps a bold claim, but at over 4,000 km away from Australia and 4,200 km from South Africa, Heard Island is unquestionably hard to reach.

The faraway and little know place is part of a group of volcanic islands known as HIMI (comprised of the Heard Island and McDonald Islands), located in the southwest Indian Ocean. Shrouded in persistent bad weather and surrounded by the vast ocean, Heard Island, the largest of the group, was first sighted by the merchant vessel Oriental in 1853.

Its late discovery and inaccessibility mean Heard Island is largely undisturbed by human activity (some research, surveillance, fishing and shipping take place on the island and it’s surrounding waters). It boasts a rich fauna and flora: seals, invertebrates, birds and seals call it home, as do hardy species of vegetation which grow low to the ground to avoid the fierce winds which batter the island.

Geologically speaking the islands are pretty unique too. They are the surface exposure of the second largest submarine plateau in the world, the Kerguelen Plateau. Limestones deposited some 45–50 million years ago began the process which saw the emergence of the islands from the ocean floor. Ancient volcanic activity followed, accumulating volcanic materials,  such as pillow lavas and volcanic sediments, up to 350m thick. For the last million years (or less) Heard Island has been dominated by volcanism, giving rise to the 2745m tall Big Ben and 700m tall Mt. Dixon. Eruptions and volcanic events have been observed on the island since 1947. Much of the recent volcanism in the region has centered around McDonald island, which has grown 40 km in area and 100 m in height since the 1980s.   

As the group of islands provides a remarkable setting, where geological processes and evolution (given that large populations of marine birds and mammals numbering in the millions, but low species diversity) can be observed in in real time, UNESCO declared HIMI a World Heritage Site back in 1997.

If you pre-register for the 2017 General Assembly (Vienna, 22 – 28 April), you can take part in our annual photo competition! From 1 February up until 1 March, every participant pre-registered for the General Assembly can submit up three original photos and one moving image related to the Earth, planetary, and space sciences in competition for free registration to next year’s General Assembly!  These can include fantastic field photos, a stunning shot of your favourite thin section, what you’ve captured out on holiday or under the electron microscope – if it’s geoscientific, it fits the bill. Find out more about how to take part at http://imaggeo.egu.eu/photo-contest/information/.

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