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

September 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 and what you might have missed

This month has been an onslaught of  Earth and space science news; the majority focusing on natural hazards. Hurricanes, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions have been dominating headlines, but here we also highlight some other natural disasters which have attracted far fewer reports. Quickly recap on an action-packed month with our overview, complete with links:


Thought the Atlantic hurricane season is far from over, 2017 has already shattered records: since 1st June 13 storms have been named, of which seven have gone onto become hurricanes and two registered as a category 5 storm on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale. In September, Hurricanes Irma, Katia and Jose batter Caribbean islands, Mexico and the Southern U.S.; hot on the heels of the hugely destructive Hurricane Harvey which made landfall in Texas and Louisiana at the end of August. Images captured by NASA’s Operational Land Imager (OLI) on the Landsat 8 satellite show the scale of the damage caused by Hurricane Irma; while photos reveal the dire situation unfolding in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria.  OCHA, the United Nations Office for the coordinate of Human Affairs, released an infographic showing the impact the 2017 hurricane season has had on Caribbean islands (correct of 22nd September).


At the same time, two powerful earthquakes shook Mexico in the space of 12 days causing chaos, building collapse and hundreds of fatalities.

Rumbling volcanoes

In the meantime, all eyes on the Indonesian island of Bali have been on Mount Agung which has already forced the evacuation of almost 100,000 people as the volcano threatens to erupt for the first time in 54 years. Unprecedented seismic activity around the volcano has been increasing, though no eruptive activity has been recorded yet.

Further south, the government of Vanuatu, a South Pacific Ocean nation, declared a state of emergency and ordered the evacuation of all 11,000 residents of Ambae island, as activity of its volcano, Manaro, increased. The New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) sent an aircraft to fly over the volcano on Tuesday and discovered plumes of smoke, ash and volcanic rocks erupting from the crater.

Map of volcanic hazards for Ambae in Vanuatu. Credit: Vanatu Meteorology & Geo-hazard Department (vmgd).

The rainy season floods

The summer months mark the onset of the rainy season in regions of Sub-Saharan Africa which experience a savanna climate. Across the Arabian Sea, including the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia, also sees the onset of the monsoon.

Since June, widespread flooding brought on by heavy rainfall has left 56 dead and more than 185,000 homeless in Niger, one of the world’s poorest countries. But the crisis is not restricted to Niger, throughout the summer floods (and associated land and mudslides) in Africa are thought to have claimed 25 times more lives than Hurricane Harvey did.

Meanwhile Mumbai struggled when the heaviest rainfall since 2005 was recorded on 29th August, with most of Northern India experiencing widespread flooding. So far, the UN estimates that 1,200 people have lost their lives across Nepal, India and Bangladesh as a result of the rains. The Red Cross estimates that at least 41 million people have been affected by the flooding and causing the onset of a humanitarian crisis.

Record breaking temperatures and fires

Australia’s record-breaking spring heat (Birdsville, in Queensland’s outback, broke a weather record as temperatures hit 42.5C and Sydney recorded its hottest ever September day) combined with an unusually dry winter means the country is bracing itself for a particularly destructive bushfire season. Already fires rage, uncontrolled (at the time of writing), in New South Wales.

The western United States and Canada suffered one of its worst wildfire seasons to date. Earlier this month, NASA released a satellite image which showed much of the region covered in smoke. High-altitude aerosols from those fires were swept up by prevailing winds and carried across the east of the continent. By 7th September the particles were detected over Ireland, the U.K and northern France, including Paris.

Europe’s forest fire has been hugely devastating too. Much of the Mediterranean and the region North of the Black Sea continues to be in high danger of forest fires following a dry and hot summer. Fires are active in the Iberian Peninsula, Greece, and Germany (among others). Over 2,000 hectares were recently scorched by wildfires in the central mountainous area of Tejeda in Gran Canaria.

Links we liked

  • This month saw the end of NASA’s Cassini spacecraft and ESA’s Huygens probe’s spectacular journey to Saturn. After two decades of science, the mission ended on 15th September as the spacecraft crashed into the giant planet.
  • The last day of August marks the end of the Greenland snow melt season, so September was busy for scientists evaluating how the Greenland ice sheet fared in 2017.
  • “Few disciplines in today’s world play such a significant role in how society operates and what we can do to protect our future,” writes Erik Klemetti (Assoc. Prof. at Denison University), in his post on why college students should study geology.
  • The BBC launched The Prequel to its much anticipated Blue Planet II, a natural history progamme about the Earth’s oceans. Narrated by Sir Sir David Attenborough, the series will featured music by Hans Zimmer and Radiohead. The trailer is a true feast for the eyes. Don’t miss it!

The EGU story

Is it an earthquake, a nuclear test or a hurricane? How seismometers help us understand the world we live in.

Although traditionally used to study earthquakes, like the M 8.1 earthquake in Mexico,  seismometers have now become so sophisticated they are able to detect the slightest ground movements; whether they come from deep within the bowels of the planet or are triggered by events at the surface. But how, exactly, do earthquake scientists decipher the signals picked up by seismometers across the world? And more importantly, how do they know whether they are caused by an earthquake, nuclear test or a hurricane?

To find out we asked Neil Wilkins (a PhD student at the University of Bristol) and Stephen Hicks (a seismologist at the University of Southampton) to share some insights with our readers earlier on this month.

Imaggeo on Mondays: Isolated atoll

Imaggeo on Mondays: Isolated atoll

Covering a total area of 298 km², the idylic natural atolls and reefs of the Maldives stretch across the Indian Ocean. The tropical nation is famous for it’s crystal clear waters and picture perfect white sand beaches, but how did the 26 ring-shaped atolls and over 1000 coral islands form?

Coral reefs commonly form immediately around an island, creating a fringe which projects seawards from the shore. If the island is of volcaninc origin and slowly subsides below sea level, while the coral continues to grow growing outwards and upwards, an atoll is formed. They are usually roughly circular in shape and have a central lagoon. If the coral reef grows high enough, it will emerge from the sea waters and start to form a  tiny island.

“I took this photo while flying over the Maldives, south of Malè, from a small seaplane,” describes Favaro, who took this stunning aerial image of an atoll above the Indian Ocean.

Pictured, goes on to explain Favaro,

“[is] part of the ring-shaped coral reef bounding the atoll. On the right side of the image there is the lagoon and on the left side the open ocean. The coral reef is interrupted twice by ‘Kandu’ (water passages in Dhivehi [the language spoken in the Maldives]), which are the places where water flows in and out of the atoll when the tides changes”.

Two small harbours and antennas suggest the two small islands are occupied by local people, not by a resort or hotels.

“What always strikes me is how they can live so isolated, in a place which doesn’t offer basic resources, such as drinkable water,” says Favaro.

Fresh water is scarce in this archipelago nation. Rainwater harvesting is unreliable; poor rainfall means depleted collection tanks and groundwater tables. The problem is being exacerbated by climate change which is altering the monsoon cycle and rainfall patters over the Indian Ocean. As a result, the country relies heavily on desalination plants (and imported bottled water) to sustain the nation and the 1 million tourists who visit annually.

This animation shows the dynamic process of how a coral atoll forms. Corals (represented in tan and purple) begin to settle and grow around an oceanic island forming a fringing reef. It can take as long as 10,000 years for a fringing reef to form. Over the next 100,000 years, if conditions are favorable, the reef will continue to expand. As the reef expands, the interior island usually begins to subside and the fringing reef turns into a barrier reef. When the island completely subsides beneath the water leaving a ring of growing coral with an open lagoon in its center, it is called an atoll. The process of atoll formation may take as long as 30,000,000 years to occur. Caption and figure credit: National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

References and further reading

How Do Coral Reefs Form? An educational resource by NOAA

Amazing atolls of the Maldives – a feature on NASA’s Earth Observatory.


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: 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?

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.

Mexico earthquakes: What we know so far

Mexico earthquakes: What we know so far

On Friday 8 September 2017 at 04:49 am UTC, a magnitude 8.1 earthquake hit off the coast of Mexico, 87 km SW of Pijijiapan. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, the epicentre was at 15.07 N, 93.72 W at a depth of about 69.7 km. Yesterday, another strong (magnitude 7.1) earthquake hit central Mexico, 55 km SSW of the city of Puebla and 120 km south of Mexico City.

Despite the lower magnitude, yesterday’s earthquake, which struck at a depth of 51 km, has caused widespread destruction. At the time of writing, official estimates put the death toll at 217 (according to Mexico’s National Coordinator for Civil Protection, Luis Felipe Puente), with shaking causing damage to and the collapse of hundreds of buildings in Mexico City and surrounding areas.

“The M 7.1 earthquake was much closer to Mexico City, a city build on a dried lake bed; this caused presumably (needs to be confirmed by data) much higher shaking in the densely populated capital then the larger, but farther M 8.1 event,” explains Martin Mai, President of the EGU’s Seismology Division.

“Both earthquakes were intraplate normal faulting events, not occurring on the interface between the subducting and overriding plates but rather inside the subducting plate,” adds Vala Hjorleifsdottir, a researcher at the National Autonomous University of Mexico.

These intraplate earthquakes generate relatively strong and rapid shaking, compared to their counterparts breaking the plate interface.  Furthermore, as the waves are generated deeper in the Earth, they do not travel through shallower material that damp them as they travel, and they are still strong when they arrive to the City of Mexico and neighbouring areas.  For these reasons, combined with their proximity to populated areas, these events can be more destructive than expected by their magnitude.

The U.S. Geological Survey estimated that significant causalities are likely in the region. Given the mix of vulnerable and earthquake resistant structures, the economic loss is also expected to be high. For more information visit impact pages of the event on the USGS website.

Six days after the latest earthquake, rescue workers are still search for victims among the rubble. This visual of Mexico City gives an impression of the scale of the devastation in the country’s capital city.

“Mexico City [is] built on a dried-out lake bed, or on ‘landfill’ of unconsolidated sediments.  The interaction between the incoming seismic waves and the sediments cause the waves to amplify and the duration of shaking to increase.  Both of these factors are devastating to buildings,” explains Hjorleifsdottir.

As to whether the two earthquakes are linked, scientists are fairly certain that the normal mechanisms which are known to trigger an earthquake after another didn’t come into play for the M 8.1 and the later M 7.1. At more than 600 km between the two quakes, they occurred, too far from one another. In addition, if shaking from an early earthquake is going to trigger a second, it is expected to happen shortly after the initial tremor, not 12 days later.

However, there are other mechanisms, which are less well understood, for example the triggering of earthquakes in hydrothermal areas and volcanoes, over large distances, for a period after large events.

“We believe this has to do with the behaviour of fluids in these areas, that promote the occurrence of earthquakes in these regions.  More research is needed to tell whether any of these other methods caused triggering of the second event,” says Hjorleifsdottir. Mai also adds: “It could be that stress changes caused by the M 8.1 event brought the fault (system) on which the M 7.1 earthquake happened closer to failure; but this requires detailed quantitative analysis”.

Editor’s note: Last updated 02.10.2017. This post will be update as more information about the earthquake becomes available.

With thanks to Martin Mai (EGU Seismology Division President), Vala Hjorleifsdottir, Paco Sánchez and Marco Calo (National Autonomous University of Mexico).

Further reading and resources:

U.S. Geological Survey overview of 19.09.2017 M 7.1 earthquake (includes interactive, shake and regional information maps)

U.S. Geological Survey overview of 08/09.2017 M 8.1 earthquake (includes interactive, shake and regional information maps, as well as finite fault results and moment tensor information)

Temblor blog post on M 7.1 earthquake

Temblor blog post on M 8.1 earthquake

Did Mexico dodge a bullet in last week’s M=8.1 earthquake? (Temblor blog post on dynamics of 8th September quake)

European-Mediterranean Seismological Centre information about yesterday’s earthquake

SSN (Mexico) page about yesterday’s earthquake (in Spanish)

GFZ GEOFON Global Seismic Network event page for yesterday’s earthquake

Mexico City, Before and After the Earthquake (New York Times visualisation)

Are Mexico’s two major earthquakes related, and what could happen next? (Temblor blog)

Shocked and shaken to the ground: An eyewitness report from Mexico City (Temblor blog)

Mexican Earthquakes: Chain Reaction or Coincidence? (Temblor blog)