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Geomorphology

Imaggeo on Mondays: Coastal erosion

Imaggeo on Mondays: Coastal erosion

Coastlines take a battering from stormy seas, gales, windy conditions and every-day wave action. The combined effect of these processes shapes coastal landscapes across the globe.

In calm weather, constructive waves deposit materials eroded elsewhere and transported along the coast line via longshore-drift, onto beaches, thus building them up. Terrestrial material, brought to beaches by rivers and the wind, also contribute.  In stormy weather, waves become destructive, eroding material away from beaches and sea cliffs.

In some areas, the removal of material far exceeds the quantity of sediments being supplied to sandy stretches, leading to coastal erosion. It is a dynamic process, with the consequences depending largely on the geomorphology of the coast.

Striking images of receding coastlines, where households once far away from a cliff edge, tumble into the sea after a storm surge, are an all too familiar consequence of the power of coastal erosion.

In sandy beaches where dunes are common, coastal erosion can be managed by the addition of vegetation. In these settings, it is not only the force of the sea which drives erosion, but also wind, as the fine, loose sand grains are easily picked-up by the breeze, especially in blustery weather.

Grasses, such as the ones pictured in this week’s featured imaggeo image, work by slowing down wind speeds across the face of the dunes and trapping and stabilising wind-blown sands. The grasses don’t directly prevent erosion, but they do allow greater accumulation of sands over short periods of time, when compared to vegetation-free dunes.

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/.

Imaggeo on Mondays: Glacier de la Pilatte

Imaggeo on Mondays: Glacier de la Pilatte

The relentless retreat of glaciers, globally, is widely studied and reported. The causes for the loss of these precious landforms are complex and the dynamics which govern them difficult to unravel. So are the consequences and impacts of reduced glacial extent atop the world’s high peaks, as Alexis Merlaud, explains in this week’s edition of Imaggeo on Mondays.

This picture was taken on 20 August 2009 at the Pilatte Hutt (44.87° N, 6.33° E,  2572 m.a.s.l.), located in the massif des Ecrins in the French Alps. It shows the Pilatte Glacier, which  was recently described as being 2.64km2 wide and 2.6 km long.

As most of the glaciers in the world, the Pilatte Glacier has been retreating over the last decades as can be seen from the two pictures in figure 1, taken respectively in 1921 and 2003, and from quantitative measurements since the 19th century. The glacier has lost 1.8 km since the end of the Little Ice Age (1850).

Figure 1: Retreat of the Pilatte Glacier over the last decades (pictures adapted from Bonet et al, 2005, time series from Reynaud and Vincent, 2000).

Figure 1: Retreat of the Pilatte Glacier over the last decades (pictures adapted from Bonet et al, 2005, time series from Reynaud and Vincent, 2000).

Two climatic variables affect glacier extents in opposite directions: the amount of winter precipitations (which accumulates snow converting to ice on the glacier) and the summer temperatures (which determines the melting altitude and thus the glacier ablation area – the zone where ice is lost from the glacier, commonly via melting).

The initial retreat of the Alpine glaciers in the 19th century can’t be explained by summer temperatures which remained stable until the 20th century. It has thus been explained by a reduction in snowfall . On the other hand, a recent study suggests that industrial black carbon could have triggered the end of the little ice age in Europe, by reducing the glaciers’albedo. But the globally observed glacier retreat from the 20th century is attributed to the increasing summer temperatures.

Figure 2: Global mean temperature series (Oerlemans, 2005, supporting online material)

Figure 2: Global mean temperature series (Oerlemans, 2005, supporting online material)

Understanding the relationship between glacier dynamics and climate enables to use glacier extents  as proxies to reconstruct global temperature time series, as was done by Oerlemans (2005). Using 169 glacier across the globe, this study provided independent evidences on the timing and magnitude of the warming, that are useful to corroborate other time series obtained through other proxies (such as tree rings) or by direct temperature measurements (see Figure. 2), all showing a temperature increase by around 0.5K across the 20th century.

Glaciers continued to retreat in the 20th century, at an accelerating rate. In the 2015 foreword of the Bulletin of the World Glacier Monitoring Service, its director Michael Zemp writes: “The record ice loss of  the 20thcentury, observed in 1998, was exceeded in 2003, 2006, 2011, 2013, and probably again in 2014 (based on the ‘reference’ glacier sample)”. Using climate models, it appears now possible to distinguish an increasing anthropogenic signature in this phenomenon.

Figure 3: Average glacier retreat worldwide from 1980 in mm of water equivalent (mm.w.e), a unit representing the average thickness of a glacier (WGMS website)

Figure 3: Average glacier retreat worldwide from 1980 in mm of water equivalent (mm.w.e), a unit representing the average thickness of a glacier (WGMS website)

One of the many problems caused by glaciers depletion is the impact on water supplies: glaciers are huge reservoirs of fresh water and their vanishings affect drinking water stock and irrigation for the neighboring population. In the Alps, the idea of replacing the glaciers by dams is already studied. This solution would probably be more difficult to implement in other parts of the world, such as in nothern Pakistan, an area covered with over 5000 glaciers, whose melting is already problematic, causing in particular severe floods.

 

By Alexis Merlaud, Belgian Institute for Space Aeronomy, Brussels, Belgium

References

Bonet, R., Arnaud, F., Bodin, X., Bouche, M., Boulangeat, I., Bourdeau, P., … Thuiller, W. (2015). Indicators of climate: Ecrins National Park participates in long-term monitoring to help determine the effects of climate change. Eco.mont (Journal on Protected Mountain Areas Research), 8(1), 44–52. http://doi.org/10.1553/eco.mont-8-1s44

Ravanel, L., Dubois, L., Fabre, S., Duvillard, P.-A., & Deline, P. (2015). The destabilization of the Pilatte hut (2577 m a.s.l. – Ecrins massif, France), a paraglacial process? EGU General Assembly 2015, Held 12-17 April, 2015 in Vienna, Austria.  id.8720, 17.

Reynaud, L., Vincent, C., & Vincent, C. (2000). Relevés de fluctuations sur quelques glaciers des Alpes Françaises. La Houille Blanche, (5), 79–86. http://doi.org/10.1051/lhb/2000052

Pointer, T. H., Flanner, M. G., Kaser, G., Marzeion, B., VanCuren, R. A., & Abdalati, W. (2013). End of the Little Ice Age in the Alps forced by industrial black carbon. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 110(38), 15216–21. http://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1302570110

Vincent, C., Le Meur, E., Six, D., & Funk, M. (2005). Solving the paradox of the end of the Little Ice Age in the Alps. Geophysical Research Letters, 32(9), L09706. http://doi.org/10.1029/2005GL022552

Oerlemans, J. (2005). Extracting a climate signal from 169 glacier records. Science (New York, N.Y.), 308(5722), 675–7. http://doi.org/10.1126/science.1107046

Farinotti, D., Pistocchi, A., Huss, M., al, A. A. et, Barnett T P, A. J. C. and L. D. P., Bavay M, L. M. J. T. and L. H., … Zemp M, H. W. H. M. and P. F. (2016). From dwindling ice to headwater lakes: could dams replace glaciers in the European Alps? Environmental Research Letters, 11(5), 054022. http://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/11/5/054022

Marzeion, B., Cogley, J. G., Richter, K., Parkes, D., Gregory, J. M., White, N. J., … Adams, W. (2014). Glaciers. Attribution of global glacier mass loss to anthropogenic and natural causes. Science (New York, N.Y.), 345(6199), 919–21. http://doi.org/10.1126/science.1254702

WGMS (2008): Global Glacier Changes: facts and figures. Zemp, M., Roer, I., Kääb, A., Hoelzle, M., Paul, F. and Haeberli, W. (eds.), UNEP, World Glacier Monitoring Service, Zurich, Switzerland: 88 pp

 

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/

Imaggeo on Mondays: Rock glaciers

Imaggeo on Mondays: Rock glaciers

Picture a glacier and you probably imagine a vast, dense mass of slow moving ice; the likes of which you’d expect to see atop the planet’s high peaks and at high latitudes. Now, what if not all glaciers look like that?

Take some ice, mix in some rock, snow and maybe a little mud and the result is a rock glacier. Unlike ice glaciers (the ones we are most familiar with), rock glaciers have very little ice at the surface. Instead, the ice is locked in between the other components, or forms a solid, central structure. Looking at the rock glacier on the flanks of the Heart Peaks shield volcano in northwestern British Columbia (pictured above) you’d be forgiven for thinking this isn’t a glacier at all!

Rock glaciers move down slopes, slowly; typically at speeds which range from a few millimetres per year, up to a few meters. The movement is driven by gravity and usually due to gliding at the base of the glacier, or sometimes due to internal deformation of the ice.

How do the impressive landforms come about? The jury is still out, with the merits of a number of explanations still being debated. Some argue that they are due to geomorphic processes that result from seasonal thawing of snow in areas of permafrost; while others suggest the explanation is simpler: as a glacier wastes, it leaves behind an increasing amount of rock debris as the ice melts. It may be that rock glaciers are the result of a landslide covered glacier melting, or the mixing of a glacier with a landslide it encounters in its way down-slope…

Whatever the exact cause of the rock glacier on the flank of Hearts Peak, it remains a particularly striking example of the landform, given its unusual pink(ish) colour. The dormant volcano is characterised by steep-sided lava domes which are composed of porphyitic rhyolites  and, to a lesser extent, trachytic rocks, which give rise to the unusual colouring of this rock glacier.

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/.

Geosciences Column: The World’s soils are under threat

Geosciences Column: The World’s soils are under threat

An increasing global population means that we are more dependant than ever on soils.

Soils are crucial to securing our future supplies of water, food, as well as aiding adaptation to climate change and sustaining the planet’s biosphere; yet with the decrease in human labour dedicated to working the land, never have we been more out of touch with the vital importance of this natural resource.

Now, the first-ever comprehensive State of the World’s Soil Resources Report (SWRS), compiled by the Intergovernmental Technical Panel on Soils (ITPS), aims to shine a light on this essential non-renewable resource. The report outlines the current state of soils, globally, and what the major threats facing it are. These and other key findings of the report are summarised in a recent paper of the EGU’s open access Soil Journal.

The current outlook

Overall, the report deemed that the world’s soils are in fair to very poor condition, with regional variations.  The future doesn’t look bright: current projections indicate that the present situation will worsen unless governments, organisations and individuals come together to take concerted action.

Many of the drivers which contribute to soil changes are associated with population growth and the need to provide resources for the industrialisation and food security of growing societies. Climate change presents a significant challenge too, with factors such as increasing temperatures resulting in higher evaporation rates from soils and therefore affecting groundwater recharge rates, coming into play.

The three main threats to soils

Soil condition is threatened by a number of factors including compaction (which reduces large pore spaces between soil grains and restricts the flow of air and water into and through the soil), acidification, contamination, sealing (which results from the covering of soil through building of houses, roads and other urban development), waterlogging, salinization and losses of soil organic carbon (SOC).

Global assessment of the four main threats to soil by FAO regions. Taken from Montanarella, L., et al. 2016.

Global assessment of the four main threats to soil by FAO regions. Taken from Montanarella, L., et al. 2016.

Chief among the threats to soils is erosion, where topsoil is removed from the land surface by wind, water and tillage. Increasing rates of soil erosion affect water quality, particularly in developed regions, while crop yields suffer the most in developing regions. Estimating the rates of soil erosion is difficult (especially when it comes to wind driven erosion), but scientists do know that topsoil is being lost much faster than it is being generate. This means soil should be considered a non-renewable resource. When it comes to agricultural practices in particular, soils should be managed in such a way that soil erosion rates are reduced to near zero-values, ensuring long-term sustainability.

Eutrophication in lake Slotsø, Kolding, Denmark. Credit: Alevtina Evgrafova (distributed via imaggeo.egu.eu)

Eutrophication in lake Slotsø, Kolding, Denmark. Credit: Alevtina Evgrafova (distributed via imaggeo.egu.eu)

Soils contain nutrients, such as nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), potassium (K), calcium (Ca), magnesium (Mg) and sulphur (S), crucial for growing crops and pastures for raising cattle. While nutrient balance in soils has a natural variability, farming practices accelerate changes in soil nutrient content. Over-use of soils rapidly depletes the land-cover of nutrients and result in lower food production yields. This imbalance is often remedied by the addition of nutrients; in particular N and P. Excessive use of these practices, however, can lead to negative environmental effects, such as eutrophication (which increases the frequency and severity of algal blooms) and contamination of water resources. The findings of the report advocate for the overall reduction of use of fertilisers, with the exception of tropical and semi-tropical soils in regions where food security is a problem.

Carbon (C) is a fundamental building block of life on Earth and the carbon cycle balances the amount of C which ultimately enters the atmosphere, helping to stabilise the planets temperature. Soils play a significant role in helping to preserve this balance. Soil organic carbon (SOC) acts as a sink for atmospheric C, but converting forest land to crop land saw a decrease of 25-30% in SOC stocks for temperate regions, with higher losses recorded for the tropics. Future climate change will further affect SOC stocks through increased temperatures and fluctuating rainfall, ultimately contributing to risks of soil erosion and desertification and reducing their ability to regulate carbon dioxide emissions. It is vitally important that governments work towards stabilising, or better still, improving existing SOC stocks as a means of combating global warming.

Preserving a valuable resource

The case is clear: soils are a vital part of life on Earth. It is estimated that worsening soil condition will affect those already most vulnerable, in areas affected by water scarcity, civil strife and food insecurity.

Bed planting in northern Ethiopia. Credit: Elise Monsieurs (distributed via imaggeo.egu.eu)

Bed planting in northern Ethiopia. Credit: Elise Monsieurs (distributed via imaggeo.egu.eu)

Initiatives such as the 2015 International Year of Soil and the production of the SWRS report are fundamental to raise awareness of the challenges facing soil resources, but more needs to be done:

      1. Sustainable soil management practices, which minimise soil degradation and replenish soil productivity in regions where it has been lost, must be adopted to ensure a healthy, global, supply of food.
      2. Individual nations should make a dedicated effort to establish appropriate SOC-improving strategies, thus aiding adaptation to climate change.
      3. Manging the use of fertilisers, in particular N and P, should be improved.
      4. There is a dearth of current data, with many of the studies referenced in the SWRS report dating from the 1980s and 1990s. For accurate future projections and the development and evaluation of tools to tackle the major threats facing soils, more up-to-date knowledge about the state of soil condition is required.

Soils, globally, are under threat and their future is uncertain. The authors of report argue that “the global community is presently ill-prepared and ill-equipped to mount an appropriate response” to the problem. However, adoption and implementation of the report findings might (by policy-makers and individuals alike) just turn the tide and ensure soils remain “humanity’s silent ally”.

By Laura Roberts Artal, EGU Communications Officer

References

Montanarella, L., Pennock, D. J., McKenzie, N., Badraoui, M., Chude, V., Baptista, I., Mamo, T., Yemefack, M., Singh Aulakh, M., Yagi, K., Young Hong, S., Vijarnsorn, P., Zhang, G.-L., Arrouays, D., Black, H., Krasilnikov, P., Sobocká, J., Alegre, J., Henriquez, C. R., de Lourdes Mendonça-Santos, M., Taboada, M., Espinosa-Victoria, D., AlShankiti, A., AlaviPanah, S. K., Elsheikh, E. A. E. M., Hempel, J., Camps Arbestain, M., Nachtergaele, F., and Vargas, R.: World’s soils are under threat, SOIL, 2, 79-82, doi:10.5194/soil-2-79-2016, 2016.

Status of the World’s Soil Resources, 2015, Food and Agricultire Organization (FAO) of the United Nations.

Soils are endangered, but degradation can be rolled back, 2015, FAO News Article.

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