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

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

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

While the March headlines might not have been dominated by a particular story, the state of the Earth’s climate has definitely been the overarching theme of the month.

Ahead of World Meteorological Day (celebrate on the 23rd March) the World Meteorological Organization released its annual report on the State of Global Climate. Compiled from a broad range of sources, the report reiterates the findings of the US government agencies NASA and NOAA, who earlier this year declared that 2016 was the warmest year on record.

Not only were temperatures a remarkable 1.1 °C above the pre-industrial period and 0.06 °C above the previous record set in 2015, global sea ice extent dropped more than 4 million square kilometres below average in November. Boosted by a strong El Niño event global sea levels reached record highs too.

The report comes in the wake of US President Trump’s ‘blueprint’ budget for 2018, where he sets out his spending priorities for the year ahead. Nature put together a piece that highlights what US science would stand to lose if the budget is approved. NASA would experience a 0.8% cut from current levels, largely focused on Earth science missions, and future NOAA satellite programmes are also under threat. Worst hit by the cuts would be the Environment Protection Agency (EPA), with a proposed 31% cut in funding, which would “gut EPA programs tackling climate change and pollution”, according to The Guardian.

But the signals are clear: after the record warming in 2016, temperatures have continued to rise in 2017, affecting ecosystems around the world. An example are the corals of the Great Barrier Reef,  which have suffered from widespread bleaching – a situation where they expel their symbiotic algae, meaning they turn white and can die – for the third consecutive year. A new study on mass bleaching of corals was discouraging news: the only long-term solution to the problem is halting global warming. Improving water quality or enforcing fishing controls provides little relief.

But it’s not all bad news when it comes to the global climate and the Earth’s environment. Despite being a record-breaking year in terms of temperatures, 2016 was also the year that saw a dramatic drop in the amount of new coal fueled power plants being built. With cities worldwide battling poor air quality and pollution, this is certainly encouraging news.

What you might have missed

Earlier this month a BBC News crew experienced the fickle nature of volcanoes first hand. The team were visiting Mt. Etna (Sicily) to film a report on volcano monitoring, and  arrived on the Italian island to discover Europe’s most active volcano had just started to erupt again.

Etna’s slow-moving lava is not usually considered dangerous. “But about 20 minutes after arriving, a burst of white steam emerged from the lava – it didn’t make much of a noise or look especially threatening – but the guides started asking people to move. Then, moments later, there was an explosion,” writes Rebecca Morelle, one of the reporters on the team. As they ran down the mountain to safety, the team and tourists, were “pelted with deadly, hot debris.” Read the full account of their ordeal and watch a spectacular video here.

It has also been a big month for palaeontology. Up until now the shape of a dinosaur’s hip determined were along the dinosaur family tree it was placed. Lizard-hipped dinosaurs fell into one group (Saurischia), while those with a more bird-like hip configuration are known as Ornithischia. Now, a team of researchers have proposed a radically new classification system. They found that 21 other anatomical features divide the dinosaurs differently. The new tree puts theropods together with Ornithischian, indicating they probably share a common ancestor. The new theory might face an uphill struggle to debunk the long-lasting consensus on the history of dinosaurs, but many in the field agree that given the thoroughness of the study it is certainly an idea worth considering.

Scientists from the Museum and Cambridge University have proposed radical changes to the dinosaur family tree. Credit: Natural History Museum.

And while we are on the subject of dinosaurs, this brilliant interactive map of every fossil found on Earth (created by @PaleoDB) is a great resource!

Way out in space, the bounty of insights from the Rosetta mission continues. From September 2014, the mission scientists have kept a watchful eye on a 70 m-long, 1 m-wide fracture on the prominent cliff-edge subsequently named Aswan, in the Seth region of the comet, on its large lobe. A few days later, new images of the area revealed that the crack had disappeared and been replaced by a new cliff face, at the bottom of which were many new meter-sized boulders. The discovery allowed the scientists to make the link between the newly created cliff face and outbursts of dust and gas.

You might think the use of infographics to visualise data is a relatively new thing, but you’d be mistaken. This collection of 1800s educational diagrams, of scientific discoveries, from the moon’s surface to the longest rivers, is simply stunning and incredibly effective.

Emslie and Reynolds compare mountains and volcanoes, including mountains in the Alps and Andes. Featured in Geological Diagrams. Courtesy David Rumsey Historical Map Collection

Links we liked

  • Something for the weekend? Why not try your hand at baking a scientifically accurate (sort of!) cake planet?
  • New research suggests that by the middle of the century, more than half of humanity will live in water-stressed areas. Badly managed resources play a crucial role in water shortages globally
  • For a lighthearted, yet very informative, take on mass extinctions this story in The Atlantic is not to be missed
  • A German coal-mine, which has provided power for the country’s industry sector for the past half century, will get a new lease on life when it’s turned into a into a pumped-hydro-storage station, acting like a giant battery that stores solar and wind energy

The EGU story

This time of year, EGU’s biggest story is our annual General Assembly, starting only a few weeks from now. This month, we published the meeting programme, which includes some 1000 sessions and over 17,500 abstracts! On the blog, we published guides on how-to make the best of your oral, poster or PICO presentation at the General Assembly, revealed the finalists of the Communicate Your Science Video Competition, and provided tips on making the most of your time in Vienna without breaking the bank. We look forward to seeing you all in the Austrian capital in the last week of April!

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.

Imaggeo on Mondays: harnessing Earth’s inner heat

Imaggeo on Mondays: harnessing Earth’s inner heat

Iceland, the land of ice and fire, is well known for its volcanicity. Most famously, it is home to Eyjafjallajökull: the volcano which caused wide spread mayhem across European airspace when it erupted in 2010.

But not all the local volcanic activity is unwelcome. High temperature geothermal areas are a byproduct of the volcanic setting and the energy released can be used to power homes and infrastructure. Indeed, geothermal power facilities currently generate 25% of the country’s total electricity production.

“I took the photograph during a three hour walk in the Krafla area, a few kilometres away from Myvatn Lake in Northern Iceland,” explains Chiara Arrighi, a PhD student at the University of Florence in Italy, who took today’s featured image while on a two week holiday on the island.

There are 20 high-temperature areas containing steam fields with underground temperatures reaching 250°C within 1,000 m depth dotted across the country. Krafla, a caldera of about 10 km in diameter, and the wider Myvatn area is one of them. The volcano has a long history of eruptions, which drives the intrusion of magma at (geologically) shallow depths which in turn heats groundwater trapped deep underground, generating the steam field. Only a few hundred meters from the shooting location a power station of 60 MW capacity exploits high- and low-pressure steam from 18 boreholes.

Fumaroles and mud pots, like the one photographed by Chiara, are the surface expression of the geothermal activity. The discoloration of the rocks in the immediate vicinity of the bubbling mire is due to the acidic nature of the water in the pool. The steam is rich in hydrogen sulphide, which oxidises to sulphur and/or sulphuric acid as it mixes with oxygen when it reaches the surface. It deposits around the vents of fumaroles and as sulphuric acid in the stagnant waters, leading to alteration of the surrounding bedrock and soil.

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/.

Imaggeo on Mondays: America’s dead sea

Imaggeo on Mondays: America’s dead sea

On the blog today, Jennifer Ziesch, a researcher at the Leibniz Institute for Applied Geophysics, takes us on a tour of the Great Salt Lake, located in the north of Salt Lake City (Utah). Did you know it is one of the largest salt water lakes in the world?

The large salt lake and Salt Lake City, named after the lake, lie on a flat plain about 1300 m above sea level. The salt lake is bordered to the east by the beautiful high Uinta Mountains (3700 – 4100 m) – part of the Rocky Mountains – and to the west by a huge salt desert, which developed towards the end of the last Ice Age due to dehydration. A semi-arid climate characterizes the landscape of the lake and surrounding area.

Like the Dead Sea, the Great Salt Lake is shrinking rapidly. In the middle of the 19th Century, the lake was almost twice as large as it is today. Mankind diverts the inflow of freshwater from the rivers for agriculture and industry. Local people have reported problems with saline groundwater.

The Great Salt Lake is becoming more salty (up to 27%). How high the salinity is shown in the close-up of a footprint. Salt crystals are formed in their full beauty.

Salt precipitation after a walk near the Great Salt Lake. Credit: Jennifer Ziesch (distributed via imaggeo.egu.eu)

The economy uses the salt and other minerals for fertilisers and wintering products. Unfortunately, the ecosystem is becoming more and more fragile: bird species, crabs and other creatures are losing their habitat.

By Jennifer Ziesch, geoscientist at the Leibniz Institute for Applied Geophysics.

Editor’s note: This text was modified on 14/02/2017 with the addition of an extra photograph to show salt precipitation in the lake. 

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/.

Geosciences Column: Africa’s vulnerability to climate change

Climate change is set to hit the nations of the Global South the hardest.

Ravaged by armed conflicts, a deep struggle with poverty, poor governance and horizontal inequality, some parts of Africa and other Global South regions are arguably the most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. Largely reliant on natural resources for sustenance, current and future changes in temperatures, precipitation and the intensity of some natural hazards threaten the food security, public health and agricultural output of low-income nations.

Climate change increases heat waves across Africa

Among other impacts, climate change boosts the likelihood of periods of prolonged and/or abnormally hot weather (heat waves). A new study, by researchers in Italy, reveals that in the future all African capital cities are expected to face more exceptionally hot days than the rest of the world.

The new research, published in the EGU open access journal Natural Hazards and Earth System Sciences, has found that extreme heat waves affected only about 37% of the African continent between 1981 to 2005 while in the last decade, the land area affected grew to about 60%. The frequency of heat waves also increased, from an average of 12.3 per year from 1981 to 2005 to 24.5 per year from 2006 to 2015.

By merging information about the duration and the intensity of the recorded heat waves, the authors of the study were able to quantify the heat waves using a single numerical index which they called the Heat Wave Magnitude daily (HWMId). The new measure allowed the team to compare heatwaves from different locations and times.

Geographically plotting the HWMId values for daily maximum temperatures over five-year periods from 1981 to 2015, clearly showed there has been an increase, not only in the number of heat waves and their distribution across the continent, but also an escalation in their intensity (see the figure below). The trend is particularly noticeable since 1996 and peaks between 2011 and 2015.

Heat Wave Magnitude Index daily of maximum temperature (HWMIdtx) for 5-year periods of Global Surface Summary of the Day (GSOD) gauge network records from 1981 to 2015. The bottom-right panes show the spatial distribution of the GSOD station employed in this study. From G. Ceccherini et al. 2016 (click to enlarge).

The figure also highlights that densely populated areas, particularly Northern and Southern Africa, as well as Madagascar, are most at risk.

The rise in occurrences of extreme temperature events will put pressure on already stretched local infrastructure. With the elderly and children most at risk from heat waves, the health care needs of the local population will increase, as will the demand for electricity for cooling. Therefore, further studies of this nature are required, to quantify the implications of African heat waves on health, crops and local economies and assist government officials in making informed decisions about climate change adaptation policies.

Lessons learned from climate adaptation strategies

In the face of weather extremes across Africa including heat waves, droughts and floods, it is just as important to carefully assess the suitability of climate change adaptation policies, argues another recently published study in the EGU open access journal Earth System Dynamics.

Take Malawi, for instance, a severely poor nation: over 74% of the population live on less than a dollar ($) a day and 90% depend on rain-fed subsistence farming to survive. According to Malawi government figures, one-third of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) comes from agriculture, forestry and fishing.  As a result, the country – and its population – is vulnerable to weather extremes, such as variability in the rainy season, prolonged dry spells and rise in the number of abnormally hot days.

A 2006 Action Aid report states that “increased droughts and floods may be exacerbating poverty levels, leaving many rural farmers trapped in a cycle of poverty and vulnerability. The situation in Malawi illustrates the drastic increases in hunger and food insecurity being caused by global warming worldwide.”

The Lake Chilwa Basin Climate Adaptation Programme (LCBCCAP) aims to enhance the resilience of rural communities surrounding Lake Chilwa to the impacts of droughts, floods and temperature extremes. The lake is a closed drainage lake (meaning it relies on rainfall to be replenished) in the south eastern corner of Malawi.

Perceptions of how climate change affects residents of the Lake Chilwa Basin. From H. Jørstad and C. Webersik, 2016 (click to enlarge).

The authors of the Earth System Dynamics study interviewed a group of 18 women (part of the LCBCCAP programme), back in early 2012, to understand how they perceived they were affected by climate change and whether the adaptation tools provided by the programme would meet their long-term needs.

The women agreed unanimously: climate in the Lake Chilwa Basin was changing. They reported that rainy seasons had become shorter and more unreliable, leading to droughts and dry spells. One of the women mentioned raising temperatures and fewer trees, due to overexploitation.

All those interviewed were part of the women fish-processing group, an initiative which sought to provide an alternative income for the women as traditional agricultural activities became unreliable due to erratic rainfall and prolonged dry seasons.

While the women’s new occupation did provide economic relief, the study authors highlight that the group’s new source of income was just as dependant on natural resources as agriculture.

Throughout the interviews, the women of the fish-processing group expressed concerns that the they thought Lake Chilwa might dry up completely by 2013.

“Yes, the lake will dry up and I will not have a business,” says Tadala, one of the women interviewed in the study. While another local woman said “Yes, lower water levels in the lake is threatening my business.”

Lake Chilwa has a long history of drying up: in the last century it has dried up nine times.  If the lake dried up completely, the women of the fish-processing group would be out of business for 2 to 4 years. Even small drops in the water level affect the abundance of fish stocks.

Lake Chilwa has a history of drying up. These Landsat images show the net reduction of lake area between October 1990 and November 2013. show changes to the extensive wetlands (bright green) that surround Lake Chilwa. These wetlands are internationally recognized as an important seasonal hosting location for migratory birds from the Northern Hemisphere. Credit: USGS

The interviews were carried out in early 2012. The previous two years had seen very limited rainfall. Not enough to sustain the lake, but the situation, at the time of the interviews wasn’t critical. However, throughout the summer of 2012 the lake water levels started falling rapidly prompting the relocation of large groups of lakeshore residents. Those dependant on fishing to support their families were most affected.

The women fish-processing group is a good demonstration of how local communities can adopt low-cost measures to adjust to climate change. At the same time, it highlights the need to assess climate adaptation strategies to take into consideration whether they too are dependent on climate-sensitive natural resources. The new research argues that diversifying people’s livelihoods might provide better long-term coping mechanisms.

By Laura Roberts Artal, EGU Communications Officer

References and resources

Ceccherini, G., Russo, S., Ameztoy, I., Marchese, A. F., and Carmona-Moreno, C.: Heat waves in Africa 1981–2015, observations and reanalysis, Nat. Hazards Earth Syst. Sci., 17, 115-125, doi:10.5194/nhess-17-115-2017, 2017

Jørstad, H. and Webersik, C.: Vulnerability to climate change and adaptation strategies of local communities in Malawi: experiences of women fish-processing groups in the Lake Chilwa Basin, Earth Syst. Dynam., 7, 977-989, doi:10.5194/esd-7-977-2016, 2016.

ActionAid: Climate change and smallholder farmers in Malawi: Understanding poor people’s experience in climate change adaptation, ActionAid International, 2006.

NASA: The consequences of climate change

United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA): Understanding the Link Between Climate Change and Extreme Weather

National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA): Heat wave, a major summer killer

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