GeoLog

General Assembly

GeoTalk: The anomaly in the Earth’s magnetic field which has geophysicists abuzz

GeoTalk: The anomaly in the Earth’s magnetic field which has geophysicists abuzz

Geotalk is a regular feature highlighting early career researchers and their work. In this interview we speak to Jay Shah, a PhD student at Imperial College London, who is investigating the South Atlantic Anomaly, a patch over the South Atlantic where the Earth’s magnetic field is weaker than elsewhere on the globe. He presented some of his recent findings at the 2017 General Assembly.

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

I’m currently coming to the end of my PhD at Imperial College London. For my PhD, I’ve been working with the Natural Magnetism Group at Imperial and the Meteorites group at the Natural History Museum, London to study the origin of magnetism in meteorites, and how meteoritic magnetism can help us understand early Solar System conditions and formation processes.

Before my PhD I studied geology and geophysics, also at Imperial, which is when I studied the rocks that I spoke about at the 2017 EGU General Assembly.

What attracted you to the Earth’s magnetic field?

Jay operates the Vibrating Sample Magnetometer at the lab at Imperial. Credit: Christopher Dean/Jay Shah

My initial interest in magnetism, the ‘initial spark’ if you like, was during my undergraduate, when the topic was introduced in standard courses during my degree.

The field seemed quite magical: palaeomagnetists [scientists who study the Earth’s magnetic field history] are often known as palaeomagicians. But it’s through rigorous application of physics to geology that palaeomagicians can look back at the history of the Earth’s magnetic field recorded by rocks around the world. I was attracted to the important role palaeomagnetism has played in major geological discoveries such as plate tectonics and sea-floor spreading.

Then, during my undergraduate I had the opportunity to do some research alongside my degree, via the ‘Undergraduate Research Opportunities Programme’ at Imperial. It was certainly one of the bonuses of studying at a world-class research university where professors are always looking for keen students to help move projects forward.

I was involved in a project which focused on glacial tillites [a type of rock formed from glacial deposits] from Greenland to look into inclination shallowing; which is a feature of the way magnetism is recorded in rocks that can lead to inaccurate calculation of palaeolatitutdes [the past latitude of a place some time in the past]. Accurate interpretation of the direction of the Earth’s magnetic field recorded by rocks is essential to reconstructing the positions of continents throughout time.

This was my first taste of palaeomagnetism and opened the doors to the world of research.

So, then you moved onto a MSci where one of your study areas is Tristan da Cunha, a volcanic island in the South Atlantic. The location of the island means that you’ve dedicated some time to studying the South Atlantic Anomaly (SAA). So, what is it and why is it important?

The SAA is a present day feature of the magnetic field and has existed for the past 400 years, at least, based on observations. It is a region in the South Atlantic Ocean where the magnetic field is weaker than it is expected to be at that latitude.

The Earth’s magnetic field protects the planet and satellites orbiting around Earth from charged particles floating around in space, like the ones that cause aurorae. The field in the SAA is so weak that space agencies have to put special measures in place when their spacecraft orbit over the region to account for the increased exposure to radiation. The Hubble telescope, for example, doesn’t take any measurements when it passes through the SAA and the International Space Station has extra shielding added to protect the equipment and astronauts.

If you picture the Earth’s magnetic field:  it radiates from the poles towards the Earth’s equator, like butterfly wings extending out of the planet. In that model, which is what palaeomagnetic theory is based on, it is totally unexpected to have a large area of weakness.

Earth’s magnetic field connects the North Pole (orange lines) with the South Pole (blue lines) in this NASA-created image, a still capture from a 4-minute excerpt of “Dynamic Earth: Exploring Earth’s Climate Engine,” a fulldome, high-resolution movie. Credit: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

We also know that the Earth’s magnetic field reverses (flips its polarity), on average, every 450,000 years. However, it has been almost twice as long since we have had a flip, which means we are ‘overdue’ a reversal. People like to look for signs that the field will reverse soon; could it be that the SAA is a feature of an impending (in geological time!) reversal? So, it becomes important to understand the SAA in that respect too.

So, how do you approach this problem? If the SAA is something you can’t see, simply measure, how do you go about studying it?

Palaeomagnetists can look to the rock record to understand the history of the Earth magnetic field.

Volcanic rocks best capture Earth’s magnetic field because they contain high percentages of iron bearing minerals, which align themselves with the Earth’s magnetic field as the lavas cool down after being erupted. They provide a record of the direction and the strength of the magnetic field at the time they were erupted.

In particular, I’ve been studying lavas from Tristan da Cunha (a hotspot island) in the Atlantic Ocean similar in latitude to South Africa and Brazil. There are about 300 people living on the island, which is still volcanically active. The last eruption on the island was in 1961. In 2004 there was a sub-marine eruption 24 km offshore.

Jürgen Matzka (GFZ Potsdam) collected hundreds and hundreds of rock cores from Tristan da Cunha on sampling campaigns back in 2004 and 2006.

We recently established the age of the lavas we sampled as having erupted some 46 to 90 thousand years ago. Now that we know the rock ages, we can look at the Earth’s magnetic field during this time window.

Why is this time window important?

These lavas erupted are within the region of the present day SAA, so we can look to see whether any similar anomalies to the Earth’s magnetic field existed in this time window.

So, what did you do next?

When Jurgen looked at the samples, he too was trying to find something out about the SAA, but the samples reviled nothing.

Initial analyses of these rocks focused on the direction of the magnetic field recorded by the rocks. The directional data can be used to trace back past locations of the Earth’s magnetic poles.

Then, during my master’s research dissertation I had the opportunity to experiment on the rocks from Tristan da Cunha with the focus on palaeointensity [the ancient intensity of the Earth’s magnetic field recorded by the rocks]. We found that they have the same weak signature we observe today in the SAA but in this really old time window.

The rocks from Tristan da Cunha, 46 to 90 thousand years ago, recorded a weaker magnetic field strength compared to the strength of the magnetic field of the time recorded by other rocks around the world.

Some of the lavas sampled on Tristan da Cunha. Credit: Jürgen Matzka

What does this discovery tell us about the SAA?

I mentioned at the start of the interview that, as far as we thought, the anomaly didn’t extend back more than 400 years ago – it’s supposed to be a recent feature of the field. Our findings suggest that the anomaly is a persistent feature of the magnetic field. Which is important, because researchers who simulate how the Earth’s magnetic field behaved in the past don’t see the SAA in simulations of the older magnetic field.

It may be that the simulations are poorly constrained. There are far fewer studies (and samples) of the Earth’s magnetic directions and strengths from the Southern Hemisphere. This inevitably leads to a sampling bias, meaning that the computer models don’t have enough data to ‘see’ the feature in the past.

However, we are pretty certain that the SAA isn’t as young as the simulations indicate. You can also extract information about the ancient magnetic field from archaeological samples. As clay pots are fired they too have the ability to record the strength and direction of the magnetic field at the time. Data recorded in archaeological samples from southern Africa, dating back to 1250 to 1600 AD also suggest the SAA existed at the time.

Does the fact that the SAA is older than was thought mean it can’t used be to indicate a reversal?

It could still be related to a future reversal – our findings certainly don’t rule that out.

However, they may be more likely to shed some light on how reversals occur, rather than when they will occur.

It’s been suggested that the weak magnetic anomaly may be a result of the Earth’s composition and structure at the boundary between the Earth’s core and the mantle (approximately 3000 km deep, sandwiched between the core and the Earth’s outermost layer known as the crust). Below southern Africa there is something called a large low shear velocity province (LLSVP), which causes the magnetic flux to effectively ‘flow backwards’.

These reversed flux patches are the likely cause of the weak magnetic field strength observed at the surface, and could well indicate an initiating reversal. However, the strength of the Earth’s magnetic field on average at present is stronger than what we’ve seen in the past prior to field reversals.

The important thing is the lack of data in the southern hemisphere. Sampling bias is pervasive throughout science, and it’s been seen here to limit our understanding of past field behaviour. We need more data from around the world to be able to understand past field behaviour and to constrain models as well as possible.

Sampling bias is pervasive throughout science, and it’s been seen here to limit our understanding of past field behaviour. This image highlights the problem (black dots = a sampling location). Modified from an image in the supporting materials of Shah, J., et al. 2016. Credit: Jay Shah.

You are coming towards the end of your PhD – what’s next?

So I moved far away from Tristan da Cunha for my PhD and have been looking at the magnetism recorded by meteorites originating from the early Solar System. I’d certainly like to pursue further research opportunities working with skills I’ve gained during my PhD. I want to continue working in the magical world of magnetism, that’s for sure! But who knows?

Something you said at the start of the interview struck me and is a light-hearted way to round-off our chat. You said that palaeomagnetism are often referred to as ‘paleaomagicians’ by others in the Earth sciences, why is that so?

Over the history of the geosciences, palaeomagntists have contributed to shedding light on big discoveries using data that not very many people work with. It’s not a big field within the geosciences, so it’s shrouded in a bit of mystery. Plus, it’s a bit of a departure from traditional geology, as it draws so heavily from physics. And finally, it’s not as well established as some of the other subdisciplines within geology and geophysics, it’s a pretty young science.  At least, that’s why I think so, anyway!

Interview by Laura Roberts Artal, EGU Communications Officer

References and further reading

Shah, J., Koppers, A.A., Leitner, M., Leonhardt, R., Muxworthy, A.R., Heunemann, C., Bachtadse, V., Ashley, J.A. and Matzka, J.: Palaeomagnetic evidence for the persistence or recurrence of geomagnetic main field anomalies in the South AtlanticEarth and Planetary Science Letters441, pp.113-124, doi: 10.1016/j.epsl.2016.02.039, 2016.

Shah, J., Koppers, A.A., Leitner, M., Leonhardt, R., Muxworthy, A.R., Heunemann, C., Bachtadse, V., Ashley, J.A. and Matzka, J.: Paleomagnetic evidence for the persistence or recurrence of the South Atlantic geomagnetic Anomaly. Geophysical Research Abstracts, Vol. 19, EGU2017-7555-3, 2017, EGU General Assembly 2017.

Educators: apply now to take part in the 2018 GIFT workshop!

Educators: apply now to take part in the 2018 GIFT workshop!

The General Assembly is not only for researchers but for teachers and educators with an interest in the geosciences also. Every year the Geosciences Information For Teachers (GIFT) is organised by the EGU Committee on Education to bring first class science closer to primary and high school teachers.

The topic of the 2018 edition of GIFT is ‘Major events that shaped the Earth’. This year’s workshop will be taking place on 9–11 April 2018 at the EGU General Assembly in Vienna, Austria.

Teachers from Europe and around the world can apply to participate in the 2018 edition of GIFT, and to receive a travel and accommodation stipend to attend the workshop, by November 15. Application information is available for download in PDF format, a document which also includes the preliminary programme of the workshop.

Not sure what to expect? More information about GIFT workshops can be found in the GIFT section of the EGU website. You can also take a look at a blog post about the 2015 workshop and also learn what the workshop is like from a teacher’s perspective here. You might also find videos of the 2017 workshop useful too.

 

Academia is not the only route: exploring alternative career options for Earth scientists

Academia is not the only route: exploring alternative career options for Earth scientists

With more PhD and postdoc positions than there are tenured posts, landing a permanent job in academia is increasingly challenging. For some, years of funding and position uncertainty, coupled with having to relocate regularly is an unwelcome prospect. A changing job market also means that aspiring to the traditional, linear career path might be an unrealistic expectation. Skills acquired by those striving for an academic career (analytical skills, time and project management, persistence – writing a thesis requires it by the bucketload!) are highly valued in other job sectors too.

During a short course at the 2017 General Assembly, a panel of current and former geoscientists discussed their experiences in jobs both inside and outside academia.  They offered tips for how to pursue their careers paths and what skills served them best to get there.

In this blog post we profile each of their jobs and offer some of the highlights from the advice given during the session at the conference.


During the panel discussion Victoria stressed the importance of building a strong professional network, both inside and out of academia.

Victoria O’Connor (Technical Director at Petrotechnical Data Systems)

Victoria gained an undergraduate master degree in geology from the University of Liverpool in 2007. Since then, her career has focused around the oil industry, but has seen twists and turns, which have relied heavily on her building a varied skill set.

For almost six years after graduation, Victoria worked at Rock Deformation Research Ltd (RDR),  a spin out company from the University of Leeds, which was eventually acquired by Schlumberger. She held various roles throughout her time there, eventually becoming Vice President. The role relied heavily on her technical expertise as a structural geologist, as well as people management and organisational skills. In 2013, she moved to The Netherlands to work the Petrel technology team at Shell, where she managed various geoscience software development projects.

Her experience eventually enabled her to set up her own geoscience consulting company which was acquired by the PDS Group, through which she now manages the Geoscience products and services division, leading a 40 strong team of geoscientists and scientific software developers, developing cutting edge technologies for the oil and gas industry in collaboration with various academic institutions. In addition she also holds a visiting researcher position at the University of Leeds where she provides teaching and consultancy support. In addition, she also edits the European region AAPG newsletter.

During the panel discussion, Victoria stressed the importance of building relationships and developing a network of contacts. The benefits of building a strong professional network, both inside and out of academia are far reaching: job opportunities, joint collaborations, career development prospects. In her current role, she is developing technology with academic partners she first met over ten years ago at the University of Leeds.


getting on the career To get on the career ladder make sure you have a well written cover letter and CV, says Philip.

Philip Ball (Strategic Planning and Optimization Team & Geological Specialist [Rifted Margins] at Saudi Aramco)

Philip’s career certainly falls in the windy road category, rather than the linear path. It has involved a number of switches between industry and academic positions which have taken him all over the globe. His positions have always had an oil industry focus. He has lived through a number of market slumps, resulting in redundancies and an uncertain career path at times.

During the panel discussion Philip, highlighted adaptability and flexibility (skills certainly gained during research years) as a key to his success. Landing his first position was partly down to his willingness to be flexible.  In addition to being proactive, publishing, attending conferences and meetings, maintaining a network, never giving up is also critical. For example, he applied three times to Statoil between 2013 and 2015 before he managed to get an interview.

Before progressing onto a PhD, Philip enjoyed a short stint at the British Geological Survey and was a geologist for Arco British Ltd. Since gaining his PhD from Royal Holloway, University of London in 2005, Philip has held a number of positions at oil companies, including StatOil, ConocoPhillips, ONGC Videsh and Saudi Aramco.

His top tips, for getting on the career ladder is to make sure you have a well written cover letter and CV. This is critical whether applying for a student travel grant, research position or a position outside of the academic realm. Also do your research and do not expect chances to come to you. Use and visit the job boards online regularly to find positions in geoscience or other fields.


A career in the publications industry is a popular choice among researchers, like Xenia.

Xenia van Edig (Business Development at Copernicus.org)

Researchers are necessarily familiar with the world of academic publication (for more tips on how journal editors work take a look at this post we published recently), so it is hardly surprising this ends up being the chosen career of many former scientists.

Xenia Van Edig is one such example. Following an undergraduate in geography and PhD  in agricultural sciences at Georg-August-Universität-Göttingen, Xenia took a sidestep into the world of scientific coordination and management before starting her role at Copernicus (publishers of open access journals – including all the EGU publications – and conference organisers).

Project management was a skill set Xenia developed throughout her time as a junior researcher. It has been a pillar stone of her career outside of academia too.


Robert is an example of how a a hobby can become a new career direction.

Robert McSweeney (Science Editor at Carbon Brief)

Robert holds an MEng in mechanical engineering and an MSc in climate change. He worked for eight years as an environmental scientist for Atkins, a global design, engineering and project management firm.

For the past three years he’s been working as a science writer for Carbon Brief  – a website covering the latest developments in climate science, climate policy and energy policy – where he is now science editor. The role relies heavily on Robert’s communications skills, which scientists hone throughout their research career in the form of presentations at conference and to peers.

Robert highlighted how a hobby – in this case, writing – can become a new career direction. He also emphasised that scientists have a lot of opportunities to get involved with communicating their research, and commenting on others’, through blogs, Twitter, and developing extra materials to publish with new papers.


You don’t necessarily have to stick within your original field of expertise

Steven Gibbons (Senior Research Geophysicist at NORSAR)

Perhaps the best hybrid career for a researcher is to be able to continue to investigate, but not necessarily in an academic setting. It’s a nice compromise for those seeking a little more stability than life at traditional research institution might offer. But the notion shouldn’t be viewed with rose tinted glasses either: being an industry/foundation based scientists might mean less independence when it comes to selecting research topics and, often, securing funding is still an important part of the equation.

Nevertheless, it is can be a rewarding career which gives insights into a more commercial mindset and which draws on skills gain throughout academic research years, as Steven Gibbons described during the short course in April.

Crucially, his career trajectory highlights that you don’t necessarily have to stick within your original field of expertise. Steven has a PhD in core geodynamics and the Earth’s magnetic field, but now works as a geophysicist within the programme for Array Seismology and Test-Ban-Treaty Verification at NORSAR.

Steven has an undergraduate and PhD from the University of Leeds and has been working for NORSAR since 2002.


The EGU’s 2018 General Assembly, takes place in Vienna from 8 to 13 April, 2018. For more news about the upcoming General Assembly, you can also follow the offical hashtag, #EGU18, on our social media channels.

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

August 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 Stories

On August 25th Hurricane Harvey made landfall along the southern coast of the U.S.A, bringing record breaking rainfall, widespread flooding and a natural disaster on a scale not seen in the country for a long time. In fact, it’s the first time since 2005 a major hurricane has threatened mainland U.S.A. – a record long period.

But Harvey’s story began long before it brought destruction to Texas and Louisiana.

On August 17th,the National Space Agency (NASA) satellite’s first spotted a tropical depression forming off the coast of the Lesser Antilles. From there the storm moved into the eastern Caribbean and was upgraded to Tropical Storm Harvey where it already started dropping very heavy rainfall. By August 21st, it had fragmented into disorganised thunderstorms and was spotted near Honduras, where heavy local rainfall and gusty winds were predicted.

Over the next few days the remnants of the storm travelled westwards towards Nicaragua, Honduras, Belize and the Yucatan Peninsula. Forecasters predicted that, owing to warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico and favorable vertical wind shear, there was a high chance the system could reform once it moved into the Bay of Campeche (in the southern area of the Gulf of Mexico) on August 23rd. By August 24th data acquired with NASA satellites showed Harvey had began to intensify and reorganise. Heavy rainfall was found in the system.

Harvey continued to strengthen as it traveled across the Gulf of Mexico and weather warnings were issued for the central coast of Texas. Citizens were told to expect life-threatening storm surges and freshwater flooding. On August 25th, Harvey was upgraded to a devastating Category 4 hurricane, when sustained wind speeds topped 215 kph.

Since making landfall on Friday and stalling over Texas (Louisiana is also affected) – despite being downgraded to a tropical storm as it weakened – it has broken records of it’s own. “No hurricane, typhoon, or tropical storm, in all of recorded history, has dropped as much water on a single major city as Hurricane Harvey is in the process of doing right now in Houston (Texas)”, reports Forbes. In fact, the National Weather Service had to update the colour charts on their graphics in order to effectively map it. This visualisation maps Harvey’s destructive path through Texas.

A snaptshot from the tweet by the official Twitter account for NOAA’s National Weather Service.

So far the death toll is reported to be between 15 to 23 people, with the Houston Police Chief saying 30,000 people are expected to need temporary shelter and 2,000 people in the city had to be rescued by emergency services (figures correct at time of writing).

Many factors contributed toward making Hurricane Harvey so destructive. “The steering currents that would normally lift it out of that region aren’t there,” J. Marshall Shepherd, director of the atmospheric sciences program at the University of Georgia, told the New York Times. The storm surge has blocked much of the drainage which would take rainfall away from inland areas. And while it isn’t possible to say climate change caused the hurricane, “it has contributed to making it worse”, says Michael E Mann. The director of the Earth System Science Center at Pennsylvania State University argues that rising sea levels and ocean water temperatures in the region (brought about by climate change) contributed to greater rainfall and flooding.

A man carries his cattle on his shoulder as he moves to safer ground at Topa village in Saptari. Credit: The Guardian.

While all eyes are on Houston, India, Bangladesh and Nepal are also suffering the consequences of devastating flooding brought about a strong monsoon. The United Nations estimates that 41 million people are affected by the disaster across the three countires. Over 1200 people are reported dead. Authorities are stuggling with the scale of the humanitarian crisis: “Their most urgent concern is to accessing safe water and sanitation facilities,” the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said earlier this week, citing national authorities. And its not only people at risk. Indian authorities reported large swathes of a famous wildlife reserve park have been destroyed. In Mumbai, the downpour caused a building to collapse killing 12 people and up to 25 more are feared trapped.Photo galleries give a sense of the scale of the disaster.

Districts affected by flooding. Credit: Guardian graphic | Source: ReliefWeb. Data as of 29 August 2017

What you might have missed

In fact, it’s highly unlikely you missed the coverage of this month’s total solar eclipse over much of Northern America. But on account of it being the second biggest story this month, we felt it couldn’t be left out of the round-up. We particularly like this photo gallery which boasts some spectacular images of the astronomical event.

This composite image, made from seven frames, shows the International Space Station, with a crew of six onboard, as it transits the Sun at roughly five miles per second during a partial solar eclipse, Monday, Aug. 21, 2017 near Banner, Wyoming. Credit: (NASA/Joel Kowsky)

Since the end of July, wildfires have been raging in southwest Greenland. While small scale fires are not unheard of on the island otherwise known for its thick ice cap and deep fjords, the fires this month are estimated to extend over 1,200 hectares. What started the fires remains unknown, as do the fuel sources and the long-term impacts of the burn.

The U.S.A’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration highlighted that the fires are a source of sooty “black carbon”. As the ash falls on the pristine white ice sheet, it turns the surface black, which can make it melt faster. Greenland police recently reported that unexpected rain haf all but extinguished the massive fires; though the situation continues to be monitored, as smouldering patches run the risk of reigniting the flames.

 

 

 

Links we liked

The EGU story

Do you enjoy the EGU’s annual General Assembly but wish you could play a more active role in shaping the scientific programme? Now is your chance! Help shape the scientific programme of EGU 2018.

From today, until 8 Sep 2017, you can suggest:

  • Sessions (with conveners and description), or;
  • Modifications to the existing skeleton programme sessions
  • NEW! Suggestions for Short courses (SC) will also take place during this period
  • From now until 18 January 2018, propose Townhall and splinter meetings

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.

 

Follow

Get every new post on this blog delivered to your Inbox.

Join other followers: