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GeoSciences Column: Catch of the day – what seabirds can tell us about the marine environment

GeoSciences Column: Catch of the day – what seabirds can tell us about the marine environment

Off the coast of Germany, a male northern gannet (for ease, we’ll call him Pete) soars above the cold waters of the North Sea. He’s on the hunt for a shoal of fish. Some 40km due south east, Pete’s mate and chick await, patiently, for him to return to the nest with a belly full of food.

Glints of silver just below the waves; the fish have arrived.

Pete readies himself.

Body rigid, wings tucked in close – but not so close that he can’t steer himself – he dives toward the water at a break-neck speed, hitting almost 100 km per hour. Just as he is about to hit the water, Pete folds his wings, tight, against his body. He pierces the water; straight as an arrow, fast as a bullet, and makes his catch.

The first of the day.

He’ll continue fishing for the next 8 to 10 hours.

As he does so, a tiny logger weighing no more than 48 g, will continually track Pete’s position and with every dive, the temperature of the sea water.

Why equip birds with sensors?

The physical properties of the oceans, such as water temperature, play an important role in determining where organisms are found in the vastness of the oceans. Life tends to concentrate in regions where there are temperature changes, be that as waters get deeper or across large horizontal distances.

Sea surface temperatures also reveal vital information about the global climate system, as they help scientists understand how the oceans are connected to the atmosphere. The data are used in weather forecasts and simulations of how the Earth’s atmosphere changes over time.

By mounting light-weight loggers on diving mammals (it needn’t be only birds, seals and penguins are good candidates too), scientists can learn a lot from the animal’s behaviour, while at the same time collecting data about the physical properties of the oceans.

That is why a German research team, led by Stefan Garthe of the Research & Technology Centre (FTZ) at Kiel University, has been tagging and monitoring the behaviour of a colony of northern gannets breeding on the German island of Heligoland. As a top marine predator, changes in the foraging behaviour of gannets can indicate changes in food resources, often linked to variations in the marine environment.

Flying northern gannets with a Bird Solar GPS logger attached to the tail feathers. Photo: K. Borkenhagen. From Garthe S., et al. 2017.

Their work is part of a larger project called The Coastal Observing System for Northern and Arctic Seas, or COSYNA for short, which aims to better understand the complex interdisciplinary processes of northern seas and the Arctic coasts in a changing environment.

The German Bight

The waters of the northern seas and Arctic coasts are governed by a large range of natural processes and variables, such as wind, sea surface temperature and tides. In addition, the North Sea in particular, is heavily used for human activities: from shipping, to tourism, through to exploitation (and exploration) of food resources, energy and raw materials – making it of huge economic value and importance.

But it is precisely this heavy human activity which is contributing to change and disruptions in the region. Scientists know that the biochemistry, food webs, ecosystems and species of the North Sea are being altered. However, the causes of the change aren’t well quantified or understood and their consequences poorly defined. This means mitigating and adapting to the changes is proving hard for scientists and policy-makers alike.

Where progress and nature collide

In an area so heavily influenced by anthropogenic activities, it’s not unlikely that observed changes to the properties of the waters of the North Sea and the German Bight (where Heligoland is located) are driven, to some extent, by human actions.

Since 2008, 12 offshore wind farms have become operational in the German Bight and a further five are under construction; 15 more have been given building consent too. However, what impact (if any) wind farms have on seabirds is a hotly debated topic. Their effect on the hydrodynamics, biogeochemistry and biology of the North Sea is also poorly understood.

To unravel some of these questions, Garthe and his team tracked the movements of three individual gannets near existing wind farms in the North Sea. To find out their exact position, a GPS (mounted on the bird’s tail) was used and the flight tracks plotted on a map which also displayed the wind farms of the German Bight.

Overlap of flight patterns for the three northern gannets shown with the locations of wind farms in the German Bight. From Garthe S., et al. 2017.

Their results, published in the EGU’s open access journal Ocean Science, show that all three birds largely avoided the three wind farms just north of Heligoland. Though they visited sporadically, more often than not, the gannets flew around wind farms which also happened to be further away from their breeding grounds.

The team will now use the data acquired, which is of a much higher resolution than what has been available before, to understand how wind farms in the North Sea are affecting long-term seabird behaviour.

By Laura Roberts Artal, EGU Communications Officer.

References and further reading

Garthe, S., Peschko, V., Kubetzki, U., and Corman, A.-M.: Seabirds as samplers of the marine environment – a case study of northern gannets, Ocean Sci., 13, 337-347, https://doi.org/10.5194/os-13-337-2017, 2017.

Baschek, B., Schroeder, F., Brix, H., Riethmüller, R., Badewien, T. H., Breitbach, G., Brügge, B., Colijn, F., Doerffer, R., Eschenbach, C., Friedrich, J., Fischer, P., Garthe, S., Horstmann, J., Krasemann, H., Metfies, K., Merckelbach, L., Ohle, N., Petersen, W., Pröfrock, D., Röttgers, R., Schlüter, M., Schulz, J., Schulz-Stellenfleth, J., Stanev, E., Staneva, J., Winter, C., Wirtz, K., Wollschläger, J., Zielinski, O., and Ziemer, F.: The Coastal Observing System for Northern and Arctic Seas (COSYNA), Ocean Sci., 13, 379-410, https://doi.org/10.5194/os-13-379-2017, 2017.

Why do scientists measure sea surface temperature? (NOAA)

Scientists are putting seals to work to gather ocean current data (PRI)

Daunt, F., Peters, G., Scott, B., Grémillet, D., and Wanless, S.: Rapid-response recorders reveal interplay between marine physics and seabird behaviour, Mar. Ecol.-Prog. Ser., 255, 283–288, 2003.

Grémillet, D., Lewis, S., Drapeau, L., van der Lingen, C. D.,Huggett, J. A., Coetzee, J. C., Verheye, H. M., Daunt, F.,Wanless, S., and Ryan, P. G.: Spatial match–mismatch in the Benguela upwelling zone: should we expect chlorophyll and sea-surface temperature to predict marine predator distributions?, J. Appl. Ecol., 45, 610–621, 2008.

Wilson, R. P., Grémillet, D., Syder, J., Kierspel, M. A. M., Garthe, S., Weimerskirch, H., Schäfer-Neth, C., Scolaro, J. A., Bost, C.- A., Plötz, J., and Nel, D.: Remote-sensing systems and seabirds: their use, abuse and potential for measuring marine environmental variables, Mar. Ecol.-Prog. Ser., 228, 241–261, 2002.

GeoSciences Column: When could humans last walk, on land, between Asia & America?

GeoSciences Column: When could humans last walk, on land, between Asia & America?

Though now submerged under 53 m of ocean waters, there once was a land bridge which connected North America with Asia, allowing the passage of species, including early humans, between the two continents. A new study, published in the EGU’s open access journal Climate of the Past, explores when the land bridge was last inundated, cutting off the link between the two landmasses.

The Bering Strait, a narrow passage of water, connects the Arctic Ocean with the Pacific Ocean. Located slightly south of the Arctic Circle, the shallow, navigable, 85 km wide waterway is all that separates the U.S.A and Russia. There is strong evidence to suggest that, not so long ago, it was possible to walk between the two*.

The Paleolithic people of the Americas. Evidence suggests big-animal hunters crossed the Bering Strait from Eurasia into North America over a land and ice bridge (Beringia). Image: The American Indian by Clark Wissler (1917). Distributed via Wikipedia.

In fact, though the subject of a heated, ongoing debate, this route is thought to be one of the ones taken by some of the very first human colonisers of the Americas, some 16, 500 years ago.

Finding out exactly when the Bering Strait last flooded is important, not only because it ends the last period when animals and humans could cross between North America and northeast Asia, but because an open strait affects the two oceans it connects. It plays a role in how waters move around in the Arctic Ocean, as well as how masses of water with different properties (oxygen and/or salt concentrations and temperatures, for example) arrange themselves. The implications are significant: currently, the heat transported to Arctic waters (from the Pacific) via the Bering Strait determines the extend of Arctic sea ice.

As a result, a closed strait has global climatic implications, which adds to the importance of knowing when the strait last flooded.

The new study uses geophysical data which allowed the team of authors to create a 3D image of the Herald Canyon (within the Bering Strait). They combined this map with data acquired from cylindrical sections of sediment drilled from the ocean floor to build a picture of how the environments in the region of the Bering Strait changed towards the end of the last glaciation (at the start of a time known as the Holocene, approximately 11,700 years ago, when the last ‘ice age’ ended).

At depths between 412 and 400 cm in the cores, the sediment experiences changes in physical and chemical properties which, the researchers argue, represent the time when Pacific water began to enter the Arctic Ocean via the Bearing strait. Radiocarbon dating puts the age of this transition at approximately 11, 000 years ago.

Above this transition in the core, the scientist identified high concentrations of biogenic silica (which comes from the skeletons of marine creatures such as diatoms – a type of algae – and sponges); a characteristic signature of Pacific waters. Elevated concentrations of a carbon isotope called delta carbon thirteen (δ 13Corg), are further evidence that marine waters were present at that time, as they indicate larger contributions from phytoplankton.

The sediments below the transition consist of sandy clayey silts, which the team interpret as deposited near to the shore with the input of terrestrial materials. Above the transition, the sediments become olive-grey in colour and are exclusively made up of silt. Combined with the evidence from the chemical data, the team argue, these sediments were deposited in an exclusively marine environment, likely influenced by Pacific waters.

Combining geophysical data with information gathered from sediment cores allowed the researchers to establish when the Bering Strait closed. This image is a 3-D view of the bathymetry of Herald Canyon and the chirp sonar profiles acquired along crossing transects. Locations of the coring sites are shown by black bars. Figure taken from M. Jakobsson et al. 2017.

The timing of the sudden flooding of the Bering Strait and the submergence of the land bridge which connected North America with northeast Asia, coincides with a period of time characterised by Meltwater pulse 1B, when sea levels were rising rapidly as a result of meltwater input to the oceans from the collapse of continental ice sheets at the end of the last glaciation.

The reestablishment of the Pacific-Arctic water connection, say the researchers, would have had a big impact on the circulation of water in the Arctic Ocean, sea ice, ecology and potentially the Earth’s climate during the early Holocene. Know that we are more certain about when the Bering Strait reflooded, scientist can work towards quantifying these impacts in more detail.

By Laura Roberts Artal, EGU Communications Officer

 

*Authors’s note: In fact, during the winter months, when sea ice covers the strait, it is still possible to cross from Russia to the U.S.A (and vice versa) on foot. Eight people have accomplished the feat throughout the 20th Century. Links to some recent attempts can be found at the end of this post.

References and resources:

Jakobsson, M., Pearce, C., Cronin, T. M., Backman, J., Anderson, L. G., Barrientos, N., Björk, G., Coxall, H., de Boer, A., Mayer, L. A., Mörth, C.-M., Nilsson, J., Rattray, J. E., Stranne, C., Semiletov, I., and O’Regan, M.: Post-glacial flooding of the Bering Land Bridge dated to 11 cal ka BP based on new geophysical and sediment records, Clim. Past, 13, 991-1005, https://doi.org/10.5194/cp-13-991-2017, 2017.

Barton, C. M., Clark, G. A., Yesner, D. R., and Pearson, G. A.: The Settlement of the American Continents: A Multidisciplinay Approach to Human Biogeography, The University of Arizona Press, Tuscon, 2004.

Goebel, T., Waters, M. R., and Rourke, D. H.: The Late Pleistocene Dispersal of Modern Humans in the Americas, Science, 319,1497–1502, https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1153569, 2008

Epic explorer crossed frozen sea (BBC): http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/england/humber/4872348.stm

Korean team crossed Bering Strait (The Korean Herald): http://www.koreaherald.com/view.php?ud=20120301000341

GeoSciences Column: Is smoke on your mind? Using social media to assess smoke exposure from wildfires

GeoSciences Column: Is smoke on your mind? Using social media to assess smoke exposure from wildfires

Wildfires have been raging across the globe this summer. Six U.S. States, including California and Nevada, are currently battling fierce flames spurred on by high temperatures and dry conditions. Up to 10,000 people have been evacuated in Canada, where wildfires have swept through British Columbia. Closer to home, 700 tourists were rescued by boat from fires in Sicily, while last month, over 60 people lost their lives in one of the worst forest fires in Portugal’s history.

The impacts of this natural hazard are far reaching: destruction of pristine landscapes, costly infrastructure damage and threat to human life, to name but a few. Perhaps less talked about, but no less serious, are the negative effects exposure to wildfire smoke can have on human health.

Using social media posts which mention smoke, haze and air quality on Facebook, a team of researchers have assessed human exposure to smoke from wildfires during the summer of 2015 in the western US. The findings, published recently in the EGU’s open access journal Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics, are particularly useful in areas where direct ground measurements of particulate matter (solid and liquid particles suspended in air, like ash, for example) aren’t available.

Particulate matter, or PM as it is also known, contributes significantly to air quality – or lack thereof, to be more precise.  In the U.S, the Environment Protection Agency has set quality standards which limit the concentrations of pollutants in air; forcing industry to reduce harmful emissions.

However, controlling the concentrations of PM in air is much harder because it is often produced by natural means, such as wildfires and prescribed burns (as well as agricultural burns). A 2011 inventory found that up to 20% of PM emissions in the U.S. could be attributed to wildfires alone.

Research assumes that all PM (natural and man-made) affects human health equally. The question of how detrimental smoke from wildfires is to human health is, therefore, a difficult one to answer.

To shed some light on the problem, researchers first need to establish who has been exposed to smoke from natural fires. Usually, they rely on site (ground) measurements and satellite data, but these aren’t always reliable. For instance, site monitors are few and far between in the western US; while satellite data doesn’t provide surface-level concentrations on its own.

To overcome these challenges, the authors of the Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics paper, used Facebook data to determine population-level exposure.

Fires during the summer of 2015 in Canada, as well as Idaho, Washington and Oregon, caused poor air quality conditions in the U.S Midwest. The generated smoke plume was obvious in satellite images. The team used this period as a case study to test their idea.

Facebook was mined for posts which contained the words ‘smoke’,’smoky’, ‘smokey’, ‘haze’, ‘hazey’ or ‘air quality’. The results were then plotted onto a map. To ensure the study was balanced, multiple posts by a single person and those which referenced cigarette smoke or smoke not related to natural causes were filtered out. In addition, towns with small populations were weighted so that those with higher populations didn’t skew the results.

The social media results were then compared to smoke measurements acquired by more traditional means: ground station and satellite data.

Example datasets from 29 June 2015. (a) Population – weighted, (b) average surface concentrations of particulate matter, (c) gridded HMS smoke product – satellite data, (d) gridded, unfiltered MODIS Aqua and MODIS Terra satellite data (white signifies no vaild observation), and (e) computer simulated average surface particulate matter. Image and caption (modified) from B.Ford et al., 2017.

The smoke plume ‘mapped out’ by the Facebook results correlates well with the plume observed by the satellites. The ‘Facebook plume’ doesn’t extend as far south (into Arkansas and Missouri) as the plume seen in the satellite image, but neither does the plume mapped out by the ground-level data.

Satellites will detect smoke plumes even when they have lifted off the surface and into the atmosphere. The absence of poor air quality measurements in the ground and Facebook data, likely indicates that the smoke plume had lifted by the time it reached Arkansas and Missouri.

The finding highlights, not only that the Facebook data can give meaningful information about the extend and location of smoke plume caused by wildfires, but that is has potential to more accurately reveal the air quality at the Earth’s surface than satellite data.

The relationship between the Facebook data and the amount of exposure to particular matter is complex and more difficult to establish. More research into how the two are linked will mean the researchers can quantify the health response associated with wildfire smoke. The findings will be useful for policy and decision-makers when it comes to limiting exposure in the future and have the added bonus of providing a cheap way to improve the predictions, without having to invest in expanding the ground monitor network.

By Laura Roberts, EGU Communications Officer

References

Ford, B., Burke, M., Lassman, W., Pfister, G., and Pierce, J. R.: Status update: is smoke on your mind? Using social media to assess smoke exposure, Atmos. Chem. Phys., 17, 7541-7554, https://doi.org/10.5194/acp-17-7541-2017, 2017.

GeoSciences Column: Can seismic signals help understand landslides and rockfalls?

GeoSciences Column: Can seismic signals help understand landslides and rockfalls?

From the top of a small gully in the French Alps, a 472 kg block is launched into the chasm. Every detail of it’s trajectory down the slope is scrutinised by two cameras and a network of seismometers. They zealously record every bounce, scrape and tumble – precious data in the quest to better understand landslides.

What makes landslides tick?

In 2016, fatalities caused by landslides tipped 2,250 people. The United States Geological Survey (USGS) estimates that between 25 and 50 people are killed, annually, by landslides in the United States alone. Quantifying the economic losses caused by landslides is no easy task, but the costs are known to be of economic significance.

It is paramount that the mechanisms which govern landslides are better understood in hopes that the knowledge will lead to improved risk management in the future.

But landslides and rockfalls are rarely observed in real-time. Deciphering an event, when all you have left behind is a pile of debris, is no easy task. The next best thing (if not better than!) to witnessing a landslide (from a safe distance) is having a permanent record of its movement as it travels down a slope.

Although traditionally used to study earthquakes, 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. For some year’s now they have been an invaluable tool in detecting mass movements (an all-encompassing term for the movement of bed rock, rock debris, soil, or mud down a slope) across the globe.

More recently, processing recorded seismic signals triggered by large catastrophic events has not only allowed to identify when and where they occurred, but also their force, how quickly they travel, gain speed and their direction of movement.

This approach gives only a limited amount of data for scientists to work with. After all, large, catastrophic, mass movements represent only a fraction of the landslide and rockfall events that occur worldwide. To gain a fuller understanding of landslide processes, information about the smaller events is needed too.

So, what if scientists could use a seismic signal which is generated by all mass movements, independent of their size?

The high-frequency seismic signal

A high-frequency seismic signal is generated as the individual particles, which combined make up a landslide or rockfall, bounce and tumble against the underlying layer of rock. Would it be possible to, retrospectively, find out information about the size and speed at which individual particles traveled from this seismic signal alone?

This very question is what took a team of scientists up into the valleys of the French Alps.

At a place where erosion carves gullies into lime-rich muds, the researchers set-up two video cameras and network of seismometers. They then launched a total of 28 blocks, of weights ranging from 76 to 472 kg, down a 200 m long gully and used the data acquired to reconstruct the precise trajectory of each block.

The impacts of each block on the underlying geology, as seen on camera, were plotted on a 3D representation of the terrain’s surface. From the time of impact, block flight time and trajectory, the team were able to find out the velocity at which the blocks travelled and the energy they carried.

View from (a) the first and (b) the second video cameras deployed at the bottom of the slope. The ground control points are indicated by blue points. (c) Trajectory reconstruction for block 4 on the DEM, built from lidar acquisition, superimposed on an orthophoto
of the Rioux-Bourdoux slopes. Each point indicates the position of an impact and the colour gradient represents the chronology of these impacts (blue for the first impact and red for the last one). K2 is a three-component short-period seismometer and K1, K3 and K3 are vertical-only seismometers. CMG1 is a broad-band seismometer. From Hibert, C. et al., 2017. (Click to enlarge)

As each block impacted the ground, it generated a high-frequency seismic signal, which was recorded by the seismometers. The signals were processed to see if information about the (now known) properties of the blocks could be recovered.

Following a detailed analysis, the team of scientists, who recently published their results in the EGU’s open access journal Earth Surface Dynamics, found a correlation between the amplitude (the height of the wave from it’s resting position), as well as the energy of the seismic signals and the mass and velocities of the blocks before impact. This suggests that indeed, these high-frequency seismic signal can be used to find out details about rockfall and landslide dynamics.

But much work is left to be done.

There is no doubt that the type of substrate on which the particles/blocks bounce upon play a large part in governing the dynamics of mass movements. In the case of the French Alps experiment, the underlying geology of lime-rich muds was very soft and absorbed some of the energy of the impacts. Other experiments (which didn’t use single blocks), performed in hard volcanic and metamorphic rocks, found energy absorption was lessened. To really get to the bottom of how much of a role the substrate plays, single-block, controlled release experiments, like the one described in the paper, should be performed on a variety of rock types.

At the same time, while this experiment certainly highlights a link between seismic signals and individual blocks, rockfalls and landslides are made up of hundreds of thousands of particles, all of which interact with one another as they cascade down a slope. How do these complex interactions influence the seismic signals?

By Laura Roberts Artal, EGU Communications Officer

References and resources:

Hibert, C., Malet, J.-P., Bourrier, F., Provost, F., Berger, F., Bornemann, P., Tardif, P., and Mermin, E.: Single-block rockfall dynamics inferred from seismic signal analysis, Earth Surf. Dynam., 5, 283-292, doi:10.5194/esurf-5-283-2017, 2017.

USGS FAQs: How many deaths result from landslides each year?

The human cost of landslides in 2016 by David Petley, published, 30 January 2017 in The Landslide Blog, AGU Blogosphere.

[Paywalled] Klose M., Highland L., Damm B., Terhorst B.: Industrialized Countries: Challenges, Concepts, and Case Study. In: Sassa K., Canuti P., Yin Y. (eds) Landslide Science for a Safer Geoenvironment. Springer, Cham, (2014)