GeoLog

Natural Hazards

Imaggeo on Mondays: Artists’ Paint Pots

Many artists draw inspiration from nature and it’s not surprising when faced with landscapes which are as beautiful as the one featured in this week’s Imaggeo on Mondays post. Josep Miquel Ubalde Bauló writes about the origin of the colourful mud pots and bobby-socks trees!

Artists' Paintpots in Yellowstone National Park Credit: Josep Miquel Ubalde Bauló (distributed via imaggeo.egu.eu)

Artists’ Paintpots in Yellowstone National Park. Credit: Josep Miquel Ubalde Bauló (distributed via imaggeo.egu.eu)

This picture corresponds to The Artist Paint Pots, found in in Yellowstone, the first National Park of the world. Yellowstone is one of the most geologically dynamic areas on Earth. A huge underlying magma body releases enormous amounts of heat , which feed more than 10000 hydrothermal features (geysers, hot springs, mudpots, fumaroles), approximately half of all those found in the world.

The Artist Paint Pots is a small geothermal area, which was named after the pastel multicoloured mud pots. Much of the water in these mud pots is near boiling (85 ºC), meaning it is is difficult for life to thrive in them . Only some cyanobacteria and algae can live under these extreme conditions, and they are responsible for the beautiful colours in the mud pots.

The mud pots are acidic thermal features with a limited water supply. For their formation they require sulphite-reducing bacteria, which use hydrogen sulphide for energy, giving sulphuric acid as a waste product. The acidic water slowly dissolves the surrounding rocks, forming fine particles of silica and clay. This viscous clay-water mixture creates a muddy area, with the hot mud boiling and gas bubbling at the surface. The paint pots are coloured mud pots, which range from pink to bright red to purple, due to the iron oxides, potassium, and magnesium in the soil. The reason for the colours in the mud pots is a lack of sulphur. When sulphur is present, it reacts with iron oxides forming pyrite, which is grey.

In this area you can observe some groups of standing-dead trees. Whilst some of them burned in the fires of 1988 (during an unusually dry summer), others have been killed by the runoff from nearby thermal features, which flooded the area around the trees. Minerals in the water plugged the base of the trees and killed them, leaving their bases white. Those trees are known as bobby-socks trees.

By Josep Miquel Ubalde Bauló, Soil Scientist, Miguel Torres Winery

If you pre-register for the 2015 General Assembly (Vienna, 12 – 17 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/.

GeoEd: A risky business

In this month’s GeoEd post, Sam Illingworth explores the pitfalls of being a scientist in the public eye. Following the recent acquittal of 6 geoscientists on manslaughter charges after ‘failing’ to predict the 2009 L’Aquila earthquake, is it time we thought about improving how risk is communicated to the wider public?

At the beginning of November of this year, six Italian scientists were acquitted of manslaughter; an appeals court in L’Aquila (a medieval Italian city on the edge of the Aterno river) overturning the 2012 guilty verdicts that were originally cast against the researchers.

In their initial trial, the scientists were convicted of multiple manslaughter charges, by failing to predict the devastating earthquake, which struck at 03:32 CEST on 6 April 2009, and which was responsible for the deaths of 309 people. It has taken the past two years to acquit these six scientists, and the initial ramifications of the convictions were far reaching, with other researchers from across the globe wondering if a precedent had now been set, regarding liability for the conveyance of information.

Aerial view of the city of L'Aquila east-centre (Photo Credit: Public Domain, via Wikipedia.org)

Aerial view of the city of L’Aquila east-centre (Photo Credit: Public Domain, via Wikipedia.org)

Sadly, scientists are far from unaccustomed with judicial proceedings, from Galileo vs. the Catholic Church, to more recent examples of scientists being sued by a gym regarding injury rate statistics, or NASA being sued for trespassing on MARS. However, the recent allegations against the L’Aquila six (actually there were seven experts in total; more on this later), calls into question the fundamental belief system of accountability. If a building surveyor were to tell you that the foundations of your house were sound, yet you were later to find evidence of subsidence you would expect compensation from the surveyor. So why not also from the scientists, after all are they not too experts in their own field?

Well, for one thing, finding evidence for subsidence is far more of a precise art than trying to predict earthquakes. On the one hand you are looking for something that already exists, and on the other you are searching for something that may or may not be. In addition to this, surveyors are usually protected by professional indemnity insurance.

Are scientists adequately protected (Photo Credit: Sandstein via Wikimedia Commons)

Are scientists adequately protected (Photo Credit: Sandstein via Wikimedia Commons)

However, in the case of scientists communicating risk, is not being able to accurately predict an earthquake or a volcanic eruption really professional negligence, or is it simply to be expected given the impossibility of fully accurate predictions?

What is potentially worrying to scientists is that the line between professional negligence and unforeseen circumstance would appear to be very blurred indeed. Although, in some instances the distinction is far more clear-cut, for example the behaviour of the seventh member of the panel of experts in the L’Aquila case, Bernardo De Bernardinis. The then deputy director of the Civil Protection agency had, prior to the earthquake, advised locals to “sit back and enjoy a nice glass of Montepulciano” wine. Bernandinis was not acquitted, although his prison sentence was cut, from six to two years.

Although many might view Bernandinis as being guilty of nothing more than pompous over confidence, it is important to remember that as scientists we still have a role to inform the public as to the seriousness of any potential dangers, even if we are not ultimately to be held accountable for our inability to predict them. In other words, failing to predict a natural hazard (or other such incident) should not be seen as professional negligence, but failing to adequately inform the general public of the consequences of any potential threats, probably should be.

Of course, communicating risk goes well beyond natural disasters, and is something that many of us do when we talk about the effects of both current and predicted climate change. In these situations, scientists also regularly put themselves in the firing line, although this time often with regards to the media and pressure groups with an anti-climate change agenda.

One of the most well known examples of this was when a Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI) analyst made the following, frankly horrific statement, about Penn State University climate researcher Michael Mann:

“Mann could be said to be the Jerry Sandusky of climate science, except that instead of molesting children, he has molested and tortured data in the service of politicized science.”

Dr Michael Mann: fighting the fakers (Photo Credit: Reason4Reason via Wikimedia Commons)

Dr Michael Mann: fighting the fakers (Photo Credit: Reason4Reason via Wikimedia Commons)

Dr Mann has subsequently sued the CEI, but such legal proceedings are both incredibly expensive and time consuming, and often represent a completely alien world to many scientists who are simply just doing their job.

In the US, scientists working for government or federal labs are now offered free legal counsel and support by the organization Protecting Our Employees Who Protect Our Environment (PEER). In addition to this, some scientific professions are now requiring their researchers to have professional indemnity insurance, for example in the UK, legislation was recently introduced that requires all health care scientists to have a professional indemnity arrangement in place, as a condition of their registration with the health & care professions council.

According to Jeff Ruch, the director of PEER, threatening scientists for their science “is a bully strategy,” and “bullies don’t like to be pushed back at.” Whilst the work of PEER and their contemporaries is admirable, is this a position that scientists should ever be finding themselves in? And is there anything that they could be doing to avoid such potential pitfalls?

In some cases, these pitfalls could be avoided by a more careful consideration of how to communicate risk, by explaining to the general public that there are many uncertainties associated with the calculations and predictions that are being made. However, I think that this is something that many scientists are already reasonably adept at, and if scientists are guilty of anything it is sometimes of being overcautious with their predictions, or of waiting to comment until they are absolutely 99.9% sure (with the obligatory 0.1% margin of error).

Media and science communication training can help scientists prepare for how to deliver their research and advice in potentially alien and hostile arenas, but there will always be instances where people have a set agenda to follow at any cost.

There may well be a public perception that scientists failing to predict natural disasters, or underdetermining a certain problem, are like the proverbial bad workmen who blame their tools. However, in trying to communicate risk I think that it might well be a case of “don’t shoot the messenger,” even if it turns out that they have no message to convey.

By Sam Illingworth, Lecturer, Manchester Metropolitan University

 

Imaggeo on Mondays: Lusi from the sky with drones

Lusi from the sky with drones. Credit: Giovanni Romeo, Adriano Mazzini and Giuseppe Di Stefano. (distributed via imaggeo.egu.eu)

Lusi from the sky with drones. Credit: Giovanni Romeo, Adriano Mazzini and Giuseppe Di Stefano. (distributed via imaggeo.egu.eu)

The picture shows a spectacular aerial view of a sunset over the Lusi mud eruption in East Java, Indonesia. Here thousands of cubic meters of mud, are spewed out every day from a 100 m sized central crater. Since the initial eruption of the volcano in 2006, following a 6.3 M earthquake, a surface of about 7 km2 has been covered by boiling mud, which has buried more than 12 villages and resulted in the displacement of 40,000 people.

Monitoring Lusi is part of multidisciplinary project called Lusi Lab, which focuses on the study of the behaviour of this incredible mud eruption. Many unsolved questions remain: What lies beneath Lusi? Research focuses on trying to ascertain what triggers the mud eruptions. One key question is whether Lusi is truly a mud volcano, or is it connected to a hydrothermal system linked to the nearby Arjuno Welirang volcanic complex? Lusi erupts mud, water, gas and clasts in pulses and scientists do not fully understand how the intermittent activity is linked to the seismic activity of the neighbouring volcanic complex. For the purposes of hazard and risk management, much speculation has focused on how long is the activity at Lusi is likely to last.

In an attempt to shed light on some of these questions the Lusi Lab team continually collect water and gas samples from the volcano, as well as assessing the seismic activity in the region ( including the neighbouring volcanic arc) through the deployment of a network of seismometers. This data gathering effort is further supported by a UAV prototype: The Lusi drone (assembled and equipped by INGV, Rome). The drone is able to access extreme environments and can provide photogrammetric and thermal images, gas and mud sampling and contact temperature measurements. A permanently installed Gopro Hero3 camera provides a continuous recording over the mud flows during flights, including this week’s Imaggeo on Mondays image.  Gas and water samples collected from the crater site revealed that Lusi is part of a Sedimentary Hosted Geothermal System (SHGT) that connects Lusi with the neighbouring Arjuno Welirang volcanic complex that can be seen in the background of the picture. The eruption site is continuously fed by new surges of geothermal fluids released from the volcano in particular after frequent seismic events occurring in the subduction zone in southern Java.

By Laura Roberts Artal and Giovanni Romeo 

To learn more about Lusi take a look at this paper:

Mazzini, A., Etiope, G., and Svensen, H. (2012), A new hydrothermal scenario for the 2006 Lusi eruption, Indonesia. Insights from gas geochemistry: Earth and Planetary Science Letters, 317-318. 0, 305-318.

If you pre-register for the 2015 General Assembly (Vienna, 12 – 17 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: Stone Flower

In a true feat of endurance, self-discovery and resilience, Solmaz Mohadjer and Josy Strunden, geology students at the University of Tübingen (Germany), cycled 800 km in the Pamir Mountains as part of a trip to raise awareness about autism in Tajikistan. ““We cycled through one of the most tectonically active regions on the planet, passing by mountain communities that welcomed us warmly as well as ancient fortresses, hermit caves, Buddhist stupas, hot springs, and geologic wonders such as the Stone Flower” describes Solmaz.

Stone Flower. (Credit: Solmaz Mohadjer, via imaggeo.egu.eu)

Stone Flower. (Credit: Solmaz Mohadjer, via imaggeo.egu.eu)

Central Asia is home to the mighty Himalayas, Tian Shan, Karakoram, Kunlun and Hindu Kush mountain ranges. Where these all meet you find the less well known, but no less impressive, Pamir Mountains. The range includes some peaks in excess of 6000m which combined with high undulating grasslands of the eastern portion of the mountains (which in the local language are known as pamirs) means this region has been known as the “Roof of the World” since Victorian times. The precise extent of the mountains is highly debated but the bulk of the range spans the territories of Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Kyrgyzstan.

Much like the Tibet orogen, the Pamir Mountains result from the collision of the Indian and Eurasian Plates 40 to 50 million years ago, during the Eocene, leading to the closing of the Tethys Sea. Similarly to the Tibetan peaks, the Pamir Mountains are characterised by a thick crust (up to 65 km) with an extensive plateau. The high peaks of the Pamirs are the result of up to 2100 km of shortening which is ongoing today as India continues to travel northwards pushing into the Eurasian plate.

Geologically the Pamir Mountains can be divided into three broad zones (or belts) which mainly encompass gneisses of a variety of ages. The southern zone is dominated by ancient Precambrian (more than 540 million years old) metamorphic rocks including marbles and quartzites. Younger limestones, sandstones and shales of Jurassic, Triassic, and Permian ages (about 300 to 145 million years ago) form the central zone. The northern most Pamirs are the most geologically complex and the deformation history is the hardest to unravel given that the force of the collision between the two tectonic plates thrusts old rocks up and over younger ones forming structures known as overthrusts.

This disharmonic fold in our Imaggeo on Mondays photograph, found in the complex northern Pamirs, is the result of the intense squeezing of the rocks as the two tectonic plates converge. It is formed of three layers of rocks with very different properties: a soft layer of limestone and marl is sandwiched between slightly tougher sandstones and conglomerates. This means the rocks do not bend uniformly when squeezed and so form the beautiful structure in the stone flower.

The ongoing movement of the plates means this area is seismically active, registering in excess of 2500 earthquakes a year. Whilst the earthquakes themselves remain the primary hazard in the region, rockfalls triggered by the seismic activity and mudflows, as well asflash floods resulting from severe storms also create a major natural hazard. Solmaz is attempting to quantify and better understand the hazards associated with high mountains, in particular earthquakes and rockfalls, so it is not surprising that she has a keen interest in this part of the world. In addition, she is passionate about educating local communities about regional geohazards and helping them increase their resilience to the adverse effects they can potentially have on everyday life.

Image on left (alluvial fan and Hindu Kush) was taken somewhere along the Wakhan Corridor (Credit: Solmaz Mohadjer, via imaggeo.egu.eu). The image on the right  was taken in a villages called “Yakhshwol” in the Wakhan Corridor (Credit: Solmaz Mohadjer).

Image on left (alluvial fan and Hindu Kush) was taken somewhere along the Wakhan Corridor (Credit: Solmaz Mohadjer, via imaggeo.egu.eu). The image on the right was taken in a villages called “Yakhshwol” in the Wakhan Corridor (Credit: Solmaz Mohadjer).

 

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